Published: February 23, 2013
“IN THE END”
A TALE OF DESPAIR
Like virtually everyone else on the planet, Nicole had watched it unfold. She'd stayed up until three in the morning, unable to sleep until the outcome was certain. She could still remember it like she was there. She had been sitting on the couch in the living room, her little brother on one side, her mother on the other side, her father on the edge of his seat in the reclining chair nearby, all eight eyes glued to the monochrome images flashing on the television set. They were hazy and hard to make out, shot from the makeshift reconnaissance satellite that had been put into orbit around the inbound meteorite. They said it was nearly half the size of the moon, that nothing would survive its impact with Earth. Even the planet's very crust would be vaporized. The United States, Russia, and China had all attempted to deflect it with nuclear missiles, but all solo efforts came up short.
This was why the nations of the world had attempted one last desperate defense. And Nicole had watched as the rocket-propelled spaceship slowly ventured into view, the satellite’s camera automatically zooming in slightly in an attempt to track it. Twenty-seven people had been on board. The plan was to land on the meteorite and drill a borehole as deep into its interior as they could, placing and setting off the largest bomb in the history of humanity. It was a suicide mission. And even with their brave sacrifice much of the scattered debris would likely still hit the Earth and cause untold damage and devastation, but enough of it was predicted to be redirected or burned up in the atmosphere to avoid complete annihilation.
And then, as Nicole watched, the mission came to an abrupt and devastating end. Her heart had skipped a beat when she saw it, holding her hand over her mouth to stifle a gasp. It was hard to make it out in the pixelated blur on the screen, yet it was so unmistakable. An explosion on the surface of the meteorite where the spaceship has just been. For a long time there was nothing but silence. The world might have as well stopped spinning.
Finally they had cut to the news anchor, herself clearly shaken. Nicole could remember her words so vividly. “We've just received word from the White House,” she'd said. “They have confirmed that the explosion you just saw was a result of the spaceship colliding with the meteorite.” The man beside her, the NASA scientist they'd been interviewing all that night while waiting for the ship's final approach, took off his glasses and wiped at the tears in his eyes.
She could still remember how it felt when the realization set in. A shiver had gone down her spine, and then her whole body stiffened. Her little brother meanwhile had turned to jelly, a tearful heap on the floor, their mother crawling down beside to try and comfort him. And her father, his gaze unwavering, still taking it all end.
And that was it. It was all over. No more solutions, no more second chances. The end of the world was back on schedule.
A week had passed since that day, and now the end was really upon them. The last day of humanity. “Zero day” they'd come to call it. At eleven forty-two that evening the meteorite was going to crash somewhere off the coast of South America and the world was going to end. She walked along the neighborhood sidewalk, autumn leaves still dangling from trees, glancing up every now and then at the tiny star-like light in the sky that, even now in the middle of the afternoon, shone bright enough to be seen in daylight.
“Seventeen years,” she murmured. “What a gyp.” At least she'd gotten that many. Her little brother's thirteenth birthday was two days ago. He didn't ask for anything, he didn't want anything. All he'd done was lock himself up in his room. She felt bad for him. In her short life Nicole had gotten to drive, had gotten a part-time job that gave her spending money she could use on whatever she wanted, even gone through two boyfriends. Her little brother hadn't even had his first kiss yet.
She passed by the Methodist church on the corner, the parking lot filled to capacity and then some, cars spilling over and partially blockading the street. So many had chosen to spend their final hours there. But not her. She crossed the street and continued down the block until she came to the book store. She stepped inside, the shelves half-empty, and breathed in the enlightening smell of fresh paper. The bell above the door rang as she stepped inside.
“Everything's free today,” an employee called from behind the counter, his feet kicked up on another chair and an open book in his hand. “Just don't tear the pages out. Show a little respect for the people who actually want to read before it all goes to pot.”
Like this young man, many people had still gone to work. Despite the looting, most of society was still hanging on by a thread, especially in smaller towns like this. Some people were still going to work. A few restaurants and shops were still open. Many simply couldn't comprehend doing anything else, clinging to that one last shred of normalcy.
There were only a few other people in the shop, most of them engaged in whatever they'd come across, trying to learn the ending to one last novel before their own. Nicole slid past them to the manga section, running her fingers across the tomes that remained until finding one she was interested in and sliding it out. She sat down cross-legged on the floor, leaning her back against the shelf behind her, and opened the book to begin reading.
“I didn't know you were into manga.”
Nicole looked up to see a young man standing above her, his shirt unbuttoned and untucked, revealing the undershirt beneath. His mouth was curved into a slight smile, and in one hand a finger held his place in a paperback copy of Dune.
She returned his smile. “I didn't know you were into science-fiction,” she said in reply.
He shrugged. “I'm not really.” He held the book up so that she could see the cover more clearly. “The guy at the counter said this is something everyone ought to read before they die.”
“Of course he would. He also goes to midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show to throw toast at the screen.”
The boy chuckled, warming Nicole's heart. He had such a cute laugh. She patted the floor beside her. “You wanna join me, Andrew?” she asked.
He nodded and took the spot next to her, letting his legs sprawl out across the aisle. Both opened their respective books back up and began to read, their eyes flickering back and forth as they scanned each line and page in turn. After several minutes had passed, she shifted her weight and leaned over to rest against his shoulder. She was worried at first that he would recoil or push her back--he was a new student at school and they'd only started hanging out in the past few weeks, after all--but he didn't seem to mind and so she turned her attention back to her book.
When she finally finished her book and looked out the store's front windows she could see the sky was fading to shades of faint yellow and orange as the sun neared the horizon for one last time. She tapped Andrew on the shoulder, and he set his book in his lap, turning his head to look at her.
“It's getting late,” she said. “The looting will probably be really bad tonight. We should go home before it gets dark.”
He nodded and stood, walking to return his book to the section where he'd found it. Nicole was less worried about such things and just set her manga volume down on the nearest shelf. “Goodbye,” the man behind the desk called to her for the last time as she walked out, his voice bittersweet. Andrew followed after her and jogged to catch up as she made her way across the parking lot to the sidewalk.
“Hey Andrew, do you think it's going to hurt?” she asked as he began setting his pace to match hers. “When it hits, I mean. Will we see a shock wave coming, or as soon it crashes into the Earth is it all just going to be over?”
“I don't know,” said Andrew. “I think it will be quick.”
“I heard a lot of people committed suicide after the space mission failed,” said Nicole, her voice growing tense. She was beginning to shake. She'd already shed all the tears she could muster days ago, but the pressure of the situation still weighed on her. She was running out of time. It was no longer a countdown of days to live, it was only a few hours. Not long from now it would be just minutes.
“You okay?” Andrew asked.
“I'm scared,” she admitted. “Andrew, I don't want to die. What about you? How can you be so brave?”
She thought she could see the muscles of his arm flutter beneath his skin at her words. “Brave?” he said. “I'm not brave. I'm terrified. My stomach hurts so much it feels like I'm going to throw up.”
Her brow tilted up. “You could fool me,” she said in a whisper. She stepped in closer as they walked, until their arms brushed against each other. “You can put your arm around me if you want.”
“You can put your arm around me if you want to,” she repeated.
His face flushed a slight hue of red. “W-why?”
She clicked his tongue. “You can be so dense sometimes. I want you to comfort me.”
“Oh,” he stuttered. “You mean, like this?” Slowly he reached over, putting his hand on her far shoulder. Feeling the warmth of his arm resting nervously on her back, she pressed closer into his side.
“Yeah, like that,” she said. She cleared her throat before continuing, committing herself to what she wanted to say before she had time to actually think about it and back out. “I know this is really sudden, but do you want to be my boyfriend? We're all about to die, so it doesn't really matter, but you're kinda cute, and really nice, and I wish I could have gotten to know you even better.” He stopped walking suddenly, and she was afraid that she might have offended him. “Sorry,” she apologized. “I shouldn't have asked something like that at a time like this.”
His breathing became punctuated and inconsistent. “It's not that,” he said. “It's just...” His voice trailed off, his mind trying to put thought into words. “Please don't make this any harder than it already is.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Harder for you?”
His hand slipped from her shoulder and he stepped back, motioning defensively. “I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that. I mean, you're fun to be around, and you were really nice to me when I first moved here, and...” He sighed, looking at her face as she tried to make sense of his rejection. “Never mind,” he gave in. “Sure, we can be a couple.”
“Are you sure?” Nicole asked. “Why are you crying?” She reached over to brush a tear from his cheek as it rolled across his skin.
“I'm not,” he denied, turning and beginning to walk again.
She went after him, taking his hand in her own. He accepted it, but no longer looked her in the eye, his head turned to one side and ignoring where he was going.
“So, where are you going to be when it hits?” she asked him. “I'm heading home. My family is going to be together when we die. One more big meal tonight. Everyone gets their favorite foods. And then we just wait for it to happen, I guess.” She looked down at the cracks in the pavement as she walked. “My little brother wouldn't stop crying yesterday. I hope he can cheer up a little tonight, even if just for a little bit. I don't want him to have to die so heartbroken. Are you going to be with your family?”
He did not answer at first. “No.” It was all he said, hoping she would move on to another subject.
“You ought to be,” she said.
“Then you should work it out,” she lectured. “You shouldn't die with a grudge between you and your parents.”
He shook his head. “It's not like that. I don't even know who my parents are.”
Her eyes opened wide, and then she looked away. “I'm sorry, I just assumed that you meant there were problems at home. I didn't know you were an orphan.”
“Not an orphan,” said Andrew, “but something like it I suppose.” He let out a long exhale that bordered on a sigh. “Hey, you want to go to the park real quick? Just for a minute.”
She shrugged. “I guess. As long as we're not there too long. My parents will worry about me if I don't get back soon.”
They took a detour at the next street, walking two blocks to a sizable neighborhood park, one with a small playground and half a crumbling basketball court, but little else besides trees. There was nobody else there. After walking a bit down the jogging path the two teenagers took a seat on a wooden bench.
“It feels so lonely here,” said Nicole. “There's usually a lot of people around at this time.” She leaned against Andrew and closed her eyes.
The sun continued to descend, and the lamp above them flickered to life. The point of light that was the meteorite, meanwhile, was growing ever brighter, a chilling reminder of the fate soon to come.
“Actually,” Andrew spoke up suddenly, “I'm glad you wanted me to be your boyfriend. Nobody has ever really liked me before, especially not like this.”
“Really?” she asked, her eyes still closed. “I would have thought you were really popular at your old school.”
“Not exactly,” he said. He paused, biting his bottom lip. “And where I come from, you don't get to pick someone you like to be with. Somebody like me doesn't get to be with anyone at all.”
Nicole opened one eye. “What do you mean by that?”
Andrew looked up into the sky, his gaze fixed on the meteorite. “I don't want to talk about it.” He clicked his tongue. “Hey, Nicole, do you believe in aliens? Do you think maybe there's other life out there, watching us? Do you think that maybe they'll feel sorry for us and come to stop the meteorite at the last minute?”
Nicole laughed. “Of course not. That's stupid.” She saw his hands form into fists and she sat up. “Sorry, I didn't mean it like that. I didn't think you were being serious.”
“Of course they won't save us,” Andrew spoke, as if she hadn't said anything at all. “They've probably known about the meteorite's collision course for years now. But they think they're too important, that they're so much better than us. They don't care what happens to this planet.” He was practically shouting at the heavens now. “In fact, I bet they even sent a scout down, just to see how humans would react to their deaths. We're just guinea pigs to them after all, even if we look almost exactly alike. And I bet that scout didn't care either. He's probably some smug kid that was lucky to even get a measly job like that, and thought he was better than all the stink-ridden humans around him even though his own kind treated him like dirt.” He clenched his teeth, looking down and lowering the sound of his voice to a mutter. “I hope he's miserable now. I hope by complete accident he found some human that he likes and has to leave her behind to die.” He was crying now. “Serves him right.”
Nicole scooted back and gave him a look. “You okay?” she asked. A lot of people had snapped thinking about their impending doom.
He sniffled and wiped his face on his arm. “Yeah, just upset. I think I read too much science-fiction today.”
“It's getting late,” said Nicole, seeing how dark it had become. “I should go home.”
Andrew leaned forward, bracing himself with his arms clinging to the rim of the bench. “Before you go, can we...” He hesitated. “Can we kiss?”
She looked at him with a warm smile. “It's the end of the world. Why not?”
He half-closed his eyes and slowly leaned toward her as she leaned into him until their lips met. It was quick and awkward, the boy fumbling and soon pulling away, his face flustered and flushed. “Sorry,” he apologized. “That wasn't very good, was it?”
She held a finger to her lips. “The first time you kissed a girl, huh?”
He nodded and leaned back.
“Actually I think it's sort of adorable,” Nicole chuckled. “You're almost an adult and haven't had your first kiss yet. I'm flattered you wanted it to be with me.” She sighed and stood. “Well, I guess this is goodbye then. Forever.”
Andrew pushed himself to his feet. “Thank you.”
“And to you,” Nicole replied. “It was only for a few minutes, but you're the best boyfriend I've ever had.”
Andrew shook his head. “No, I meant thank you for everything. For being my friend, for hanging out with me, for laughing at my jokes, and for being interested in all the stupid things I had to say. I didn't understand anything about this world until I met you. And then I knew that I was wrong.”
Nicole tilted her head. “Wrong? About what?”
Andrew looked up at the meteor, brighter than any of the stars that now began to twinkle in the night sky, now beginning to take on the visible form of an orb. “Don't worry. You'll find someone way better than me.”
Nicole lowered her brow. “You mean in the afterlife?”
“No. In this life.” At first it looked to Nicole as if he were standing on the balls of his feet, but then she realized that he was ascending. He rose slightly until his feet no longer touched the ground.
Nicole stepped back, her eyes wide. “How are you doing that?” Had she lost her mind too, like so many others? She gasped. “No, it can't be! You're the scout!” She ran forward, snatching his arm and tugging him back down. “I don't know who or what your really are but please, don't leave me here! Take me with you! My brother too! Don't run away without saving at least save some of us.”
His eyes began to glisten in the light of the street lamp. “I am,” he said. He looked back up at the sky. “I'm going to save everyone. I made my mind up this morning. I don't care what the others think, I don't care that I was told not to interfere. Even if they try to stop me, I'll do it! I'll throw that stupid rock into the sun!”
“You can do that?” she stuttered in disbelief, and then gave way to laughter. “Of course you can! You can fly! You can do anything!” She let go of his arm and clasped her hands together. “Thank you! Thank you so much!” Tears of joy filled her eyes. Even if this was a hallucination she didn't care. It was the last ray of hope in the entire world, and she would cling to it to her dying breath. “I know you'll be a hero to the whole human race and that you'll be famous and won't care about someone like me anymore, but if you could come back just one more time--”
“You don't understand,” Andrew interrupted. “I'm not a god. I'm not all-powerful.” He rose higher in the air, out of her reach, before continuing. “I guess it seems amazing to a human that I can fly like this, and it's true I have powers you've probably only ever dreamed of, but you don't understand how big this thing is. It's a one way trip for me, just like those astronauts before. I won't have the strength to make it back.”
She shook her head. “No, that's not true. I know you can do it. You can save the whole world and come back to Earth! Everyone will be grateful!”
He reached around his neck, slipping the slender necklace he wore up over his head. “I don't actually own very much, except for my clothes, but you can have this. It's the only thing that has value to me, besides you. It's cheap, I know, but I really liked it.” He hovered over her, flipping forward and reaching down to lower it to her. She jumped trying to grab his hand again, but he pulled up and all she managed to do was take the necklace in her hand. He was right, it was just a cheap little metal trinket on a string that he'd probably picked up at some corner store to try and fit in with humans.
“Goodbye,” he said, his cheeks moist and his nose running. He turned and began to fly away. “If I don't leave now I won't make it in time.”
“No, wait!” she shouted. “Come back down!” She ran after him. “Andrew, don't go yet!” She chased him out of the park and down the block until he began to accelerate and finally disappeared from view. People probably thought she was crazy, running and screaming at the sky, but she didn't care. She didn't know how, but she was sure there had to be some way for him to save the world without sacrificing himself.
Before long she had to stop and catch her breath, huddled over with her hands on her knees. It was over. There was nothing more she could do. She took a deep breath and stood, rubbing her forehead. “What's wrong with me?” she asked herself aloud. “I've totally lost it.” She gave up and turned for home. It was late when she got back.
“Where have you been?” her mother called in tears when she walked in the door. “We thought something had happened to you!” The woman ran across the room, squeezing her daughter in a tight embrace.
The meal that night was somber. Nicole's father had his backyard-grilled hamburger, her brother his cheap microwaved pizza, her mother the spaghetti and homemade meat sauce recipe passed down through the family, and Nicole herself had a heaping plate of teriyaki chicken with rice. She couldn't remember food ever tasting this good.
They sat in the living room together afterward, all of them shaking in anticipation, but forcing themselves to talk about other things: days at school, memories of family vacations, their father recounting the stories of each of his beloved children's births. And all the while the clock inched ever closer to eleven forty-two.
“Now?” Nicole's brother asked in a fearful voice, looking at the television.
Their father nodded. “Now.”
With thirty minutes left to live they turned the television on, joining the rest of the world to watch the meteorite's final approach, to await the demise of their entire race. But the end never came. Humanity watched in awe and disbelief as the meteorite burst upon approach, the vast majority of its mass being thrust out into space. Tsunamis would ravage the coast from the many pieces that did fall to Earth, thin clouds of debris covered the skies for days, and the moon was permanently scared from the shards that crashed into it, but somehow Earth had survived. The prevailing theory was that members of the drill team had somehow survived the crash landing and managed to pull their mission off at the last minute, but even that seemed flimsy given the evidence and the trajectory of the debris.
That day, and the many to follow, when the whole world was celebrating and cheering, as society began to piece itself together, nobody could figure out why Nicole was crying as she clung to the cheap little pendant hanging around her neck. Nobody could understand. Even if she'd tried to explain it, nobody would believe her.