Eight people come to terms with an oncoming disaster.
This short story is the first in a series of non-travel fiction narratives, published on the blog about monthly.
He let the phone ring just twice before hanging up, convinced there was no response on the other end. Each beep had felt like a minute in itself. He counted seconds like days now, watching his life rush towards its end in time with the flashing numbers on the stopwatch.
But it had not been minutes or days yet, it had just been a few seconds, and although what he wanted to say would never fit in the span of remaining time, he would have to do his best. He collected the last tatters of his frayed nerves, took a deep breath and dialled again. His hands shook so badly he could barely touch the screen.
On the other end, a voice finally picked up, sweet as spring like it had been since the day they had met forty-five years ago.
‘Vladimir, honey.’ She had a smile in that voice. He could see it now if he just closed his eyes. He did. ‘I just dropped the kids off at the daycare. What is it?’
He told her.
‘- but sanctioning Chinese trade has already affected our prospects in Europe so much that a deal with this new united Irish regime might –‘
The older woman instinctively quieted in the middle of her sentence when a thundering knock shook the door. The woman behind the massive mahogany desk gave the stranger permission to enter, and the Chief of Security stepped in, with a single white sheet of paper in his hand.
‘Mrs. President, I’m afraid I have some bad news.’
As he handed her the printout, she could see his eyes were huge and vacant, as if staring into an unknown abyss that he knew he wouldn’t rise back from.
She read the few lines hastily and then read them again. She looked up, for the first time in her memory at loss for words. The office around her had suddenly become bigger, disproportionate. She felt like her heels couldn’t touch the carpet anymore, and if she’d looked down, she might have seen her suit’s sleeves stretching over her infantile hands. Suddenly she had transformed into a toddler, confused and ignorant and just wanting to cry out for her mother.
But she was a fully grown woman in charge of a nation, and her mother had been dead for years.
‘Is this a prank?’
‘Are you fucking real? This is real?’
‘I’m afraid so, Ma’am.’
‘And there is nothing we can do to prevent it?’
‘It has already happened, Ma’am.’
She paused to take in a ragged breath.
‘Broadcast this everywhere,’ she said. Then she lay her head on her hands and cried.
‘Now this, this is not only one of my personal favourites but also one of the greatest pieces of music ever written by man. When it was first released, they thought it was too long and too weird to get any air time… They should see what it has now become, now it is the number one karaoke song for any group of four sufficiently inebriated young men, ha ha… But here it is. This is for you, driving through the night trying to stay awake, to lonely souls listening alone, to night staff at empty restaurants. You are welcome to sing along and if your customers complain, send them to me.’
‘Uh, I’m sorry to interrupt such a masterful piece of music but I have just received an emergency announcement that… Uh, well, I guess I will just read it to you. It will sound incredible but it’s not a joke. I don’t think it’s a joke. I just turned on the TV here in the studio and it is the only thing on any channel. I think it’s real. So, uh, here it comes.
‘The sun has exploded and the impact is expected to hit the Earth in a little less than six minutes.’
That is… that is all.
I… I want to thank you all for tuning in on the midnight radio. It has been an honour being in your ears. Hold your loved ones close. See you on the other side.
Now, for the last time in human history, ladies and gentlemen: Bohemian Rhapsody.’
The young woman was suddenly distracted from her book by a ping of her mobile phone. She set War and Peace aside and stared at her phone like seeing a ghost. No one had her number and even so, she had taken out the SIM card earlier that day. In a way, it was almost like receiving a message on the other side: she herself had been officially dead for years, unbeknownst to any of the people she had once called friends and family, ever since that festival in Bangkok when she had slipped into the night and disappeared. She was virtually a ghost.
She picked up the phone and saw an unfamiliar notification. A bright red exclamation point surrounded by a red circle. Maybe an earthquake closing in, she thought, remembering the stories she’d heard, and then in her mind added cheekily: or another Godzilla attack…
But before she could read the message, there came more beeps, a cacophony of chimes and sounds and snippets of songs, and everyone in the restaurant picked up their phones to see the same alert flash on the screen. She watched their faces fall and she thought she had never seen anything as terrifying, and she leaned her head against the window to look at the street below where thousands of lives intersected at once at the junction of the road, but now the crowd had stopped moving, everyone glued to their phones, and for a heartbeat the entire world seemed to be quietly holding its breath.
Then the screams started.
In the dim darkness of the room, only a single ray of light escaped between the heavy curtains, and it drew an angelic finger over the new lovers, drawing a golden line from the crown of curly hair to the nape of her neck and down the spine, where pearls of sweat glistened suddenly like crystals, and her skin was soft and lovely and full of desire as Marjory let her hands slide on her, on her back and neck and those heavenly curls, following the beam of light like an arrowhead.
Her lover kissed her stomach softly and put out a tip of a pink tongue, trailing it from her nave to the valley between her breasts, and she came up just long enough to plant a kiss on Marjory’s willing lips. She sighed and brought her head back, and the ray of sunlight beamed right into her eye, making the grey glisten golden and blinding her from anything except for this love she had waited for so long.
A rattle broke through her cloud of ecstasy. her phone was vibrating on the nightstand. She leaned back and waited for it to stop but it never did. The girl between her legs looked at her quizzically.
‘Maybe you should get that?’
Marjory reached for the phone reluctantly. The screen was flooded with messages from all the different apps: messages of love, fear, question, confessions and absolutions.
Her lover was crouched on the floor cradling her own phone, sobbing into her hands so violently her whole body shook and Marjory was scared she might literally fall into pieces. She clambered down and held her, her own tears mixing on that soft, lovely skin, kissing them away just to make way for new ones. The girl clung to her, her black nails leaving red marks on Marjory’s arms and shoulders, and they embraced each other in a vacuum of time that felt never-ending.
For a moment Marjory wondered if she should ask the girl’s name.
The wheels barely made contact as he spun the wheel and took the next corner with violent determination. A bin went flying – ‘FUCK!’ he cursed when it hit the side of the Audi where it would surely leave a mark. He dialled again but the phone slipped out of his unsteady hands – fuck, another car on the way, it honked as it blew past him and the sound stayed ringing in his ears as he dodged the next asshole that almost crashed into him. But he was on the wrong lane, he suddenly realised, and he jerked right so fast that the seatbelt strained against his chest and pulled his tie. He felt like he was choking so he tried to get rid of the tie but it wouldn’t come off. Phone, phone, where was that goddamned piece of shit phone? Something crunched under his shoe as he stepped on the gas and sent the car lurching to an even greater speed. Maybe it didn’t matter, surely everyone was hanging on the lines now, they were all talking to someone and he had no chance to get through, but home was so close, just up the street and through the highway and exit the second ramp and over the bridge and left –
– the barrier came from nowhere and the impact threw him against the wheel and before the Airbag even came on, he felt his ribs crushing and he saw the water below, hundreds of metres it seemed, down down below the bridge and hard as cement.
She stood in front of the gallery of her life’s work and hated everything she saw.
The strokes of the paint brush that had once seemed so genuine to her now just looked clumsy, too heavy for the canvas. The stencils were like skeletons, pictures drawn by a child that knew nothing except for what was in her own head and who thought she was so fucking brilliant for whatever it was she had there.
She knew she was not eternal but she also knew she would be alive as long as people knew her name, and the first time her painting had hung in a public gallery, she had felt immortal. All this she had created, not for herself but the children she’d leave behind, and their children and their children, like a Renaissance master, they’d study her in art schools and pretentious little freshmen would wear her style and quote her in their essays and they would hang these works in the capitals of the world where everyone would see them.
But there would be no one left to see them.
She started to laugh, and when she felt the sobs come in like a tidal wave, she pushed them back and started to scream, and she screamed louder and louder as she took to her life’s work and started ripping each artwork apart, until their pieces gathered in her feet like shrapnel.
Old Sue Reeve glanced up when she heard the dog start barking. The pup was running around the farmyard in circles, howling and yipping at seemingly nothing. The horses stood in position at the fence like statues. There was something solemn about their stance, like they’d stand in salute.
Sue walked out of the house to see the world. The sky was cast in peculiar shades of orange and red, the clouds almost deep purple over the sharp mountaintops in the distance. The lake behind the shack had never been that calm. Reflecting of the still glacial water, the fiery landscape doubled, and Sue found herself standing in the crease of the sky and earth, burning red and yellow and mauve above her head and below her feet.
At last, the dog had quieted, and it lay quivering on the ground. Sue kneeled down to gently pet its head.
‘There, girl’, she said softly and smiled. ‘Isn’t the sky beautiful today?’