The day the world ended
a short story
Averages fifteen minutes to read
The moving walkway was packed, and not a single person was walking. The crowd stared at the sky, the walls, the ground, and each other. Not a soul spoke.
A speaker crackled overhead. The sound of a microphone sliding across a gritty surface raised the hairs on my arm while elevator muzak filled the air. Copacabana began playing too low, then way too loud. Then at a bearable level, bearable aside from the fact that it was still Copacabana.
I leaned on the handrail and tried to hop a little to see where we were going. A tall brunette woman with a long skirt, oversized sunglasses, and an even larger floppy hat shot me an annoyed look. I bumped into the bag she had over her shoulder that, on closer inspection, contained a small dog. The word sorry appeared in my mind as something I should say. But, my brain couldn't reconcile what say meant.
Outside of the people mover, the walls were white, the floor was glossy white, and the sky was composed of layers of variations of white that floated into each other, interlocking, fading, and reappearing.
Up ahead was a food court, or more accurately, a food court under construction. Several steel grated gates covered the openings of the coming fast-food distribution shops. Only one sign lit up the area. White letters on a blue background exclaimed 'Cinnabon' above one of the closed gates. A freestanding signpost within arm's reach of the walkway said, 'Cinnabon Coming Soon! Please take a flyer to read the nutritional information on our products.' I reached out to take one as it passed by. It was a folded piece of paper that was blank on both sides.
The woman in front of me shot another withering look. I offered her the flyer. She rolled her eyes–I think, and turned back around. This time she threw an arm around her dog carrier. How many people try to steal your dog? I thought.
I wanted a Cinnabon, but I felt unsure of why I wanted one. What was a Cinnabon anyway? I turned back around to see if I could take another look at the sign, but it was too far away. All that was in view outside the walkway were the white flyers people had picked up, not read, and dropped.
We passed under a banner that was as blank as the flyers. All heads turned upwards to look at it anyway. A man with an ill-fitting mismatched suit and thinning hair tapped me on the shoulder and motioned to the blank sign. He shrugged, and I did the same.
Another banner appeared ahead and crept towards us. People nervously shifted as it became clear that this one had something to say. Like a wave in reverse, the people ahead of me resumed their staring straight ahead when they could read the words.
'Ad space here!' The headline proclaimed. 'Replace this line with real copy.' The second line continued.
I watched the sign pass until it was directly overhead, which caused me to stumble backward, and I ended up on the moving ground. One of the faces looking down on me had a green beanie hat on its head and a matching smock and pants. He reached to help me up with hands that wore bloody rubber gloves. I jerked my hand back, and he wrinkled his brow in response. Something passed across his face, and he stripped off the gloves. Two arms hooked me underneath my armpits and helped me to my feet. I turned to face the helper, whose head was encased in a red helmet with a black face shield. The matching leather outfit was covered with advertising for motor oil, tires, and beef jerky. A hand snapped the visor open revealing azure blue eyes hovering under long dark lashes. I nodded a thank you and started to turn away against the protest emerging in my brain like a bobber rising to the surface. Still lacking the ability to speak, and oddly not worrying about that, I patted her; I think they're a her, gloved hand in gratitude. As I did, I bowed my head for some dumb reason; always too much, I thought. Her red outfit was tucked into muddy black boots. My eyes returned to hers, and I saw hers narrow in a smile. I think that was a smile.
The crowd shuffled to the left of the track, again straining to take in something. Two tall, slender figures were cloaked entirely in white outside the walkway. They stood next to a planter filled with plants that were also completely white, except for the places where the two figures were applying colored paint. One focused on the green while the other highlighted the blooms and berries with the long wand of the paint scepter. They paused a moment in their work to watch us, then delivered a long slow bow, their thick hoods not revealing a single feature underneath.
We kept moving.
I think I fell asleep, or I blinked for a long time. When I woke, nothing had changed - we were still moving.
It hadn't occurred to me before, and I felt silly when I thought of it. Where am I, and where am I going? Feeling triumphant for having that thought, I tried to look it into others' heads, to force it into them. No one met my gaze, though, or even flinched.
The belt of the walkway groaned and bumped as it reached a new track to switch its payload. 'Do you know the way to San Jose' crackled over the speaker.
Once again, the crowd lurched to the left to take in a new sight. A tall thin machine was churning out washcloths into a hopper. Above this was a sign that said, 'Please enjoy a hot towelette.'
Almost everyone grabbed one, and the machine reacted to the increased demand by depositing them faster. After refreshing our faces and necks, the travelers tossed spent towels onto the ground outside the track. The whirring of a wheeled, box-shaped robot flew along the edge of the moving walkway and collected the discarded items from the ground before disappearing into the white horizon.
All heads returned to the front as the endless layers of moving wire wore on.
A baby cried.
The steel conveyor belt kept churning.
I looked down at my feet and began taking an inventory: cheap heavy black shoes and blue jeans with nothing in the pockets except a green plastic stopper from Starbucks. I examined it, and for a moment, I had no idea what the thing was. After fretting about not recognizing it, I patted the shirt pocket of the untucked black button-down I wore. Found no prizes there. I sighed and put a hand to my mouth. Then I pulled on my lip. I began moving my jaw with my hand, and the businessman shot me a questioning look. Reaching into my mouth, I touched my tongue and teeth. Eventually, the exam made me gag and cough.
Cough, I thought.
I turned to the motorcycle woman, pointed to my mouth, and thought cough.
She tilted her head at me, then reached for her mouth, which was covered by her red helmet's black face shield. Carefully, she pushed upward on the mask until the sound of a button releasing its grip startled us. She continued pushing until the helmet fell off of her head, bounced on the handrail of the people mover, and fell outside of it onto the motionless white floor. It rocked back and forth and became a source of entertainment for all until it was out of sight.
All eyes turned to the motorcycle woman who sprouted a long brunette ponytail and an expression of bemusement. I mimed opening and closing my mouth with my right hand to see if she would try it. My brain wouldn't let go of the idea that moving your mouth was important. She met my gaze at first; then, her eyes widened as she looked over my shoulder. I turned around and reflexively grabbed the black handrail.
The white ground ahead gave way to a steep dropoff into black nothingness. In front of the jagged edge were white caution cones. The walls and the sky were gone there too. They almost matched the pitch black color of the void we approached. I jumped up, trying to get a look ahead. The people mover passed directly over the hole, uninterrupted as it plodded along.
Many people began to grab the handrails and crouch down at the same time in an attempt to save themselves from falling into nothingness. But it wasn't necessary. As we approached the edge, there was a freestanding metal sign in front of the white cones. It said, 'Pardon our mess.' There was a crude cartoon of a janitor with a mop and bucket.
We swept over the edge, and nothingness crept all around us. Everyone shuffled in place to look back to where we came from, where the white was slowly vanishing. Then it was only darkness; I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. For the moment, the clack-clack of the belt was the only sign of life. Suddenly I felt a groping hand touching me frantically. It felt my arm and slid down to clasp my hand. It was the motorcycle woman; her leather gloved hand squeezed my palm.
We stood that way for what seemed like an eternity. My legs started to feel tired? I let them bend at the knees. That felt pretty good, so I slid down to the floor with my back resting against the wall of the people mover. The woman holding my hand resisted at first. After a moment, she seemed to work out what I was doing and followed suit.
We continued into the inky void.
There was a rustling of bodies and feet. Although I couldn't see anything, I guessed that others had come to understand what sit meant. Yeah, sitting. That's what we were doing, and it felt terrific.
A piercing shriek tore through the darkness around us. A cold breeze tore down the track by thumping and flapping wings? Whatever it was passed overhead twice more. On its last trip, molten red eyes illuminated the path in a blood-red glow for a moment, and then it was gone. The woman holding my hand scooted closer to me, and I to her.
The quiet resumed.
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I’d got to work late again and almost jumped out of the car before it stopped moving. I slammed it into park and yanked out the keys, and dashed around the back where Kevin had the door propped as he stood smoking a cigarette.
“Better hurry, buddy,” he said while kicking the door open for me.
“Thanks, man. He in today?”
“Not now, off at a meeting, but said he’d be back later.”
“Thanks,” I said as I grabbed my green apron from the hook and walked to the time clock to punch in. I ran my finger down the cards to mine, ‘Sullens, Kyle.’ I slipped it out and pushed it into the machine. It thunked an inky impression of my arrival, and thunked, and thunked… a brilliant bright light washed over me…
I woke to the sound of the belt changing tracks again. Kyle, I’m Kyle. And I was sleeping, that’s what that was. I was asleep, and I had a dream.
A tiny pinprick of light up ahead was enough to define the figures of those around me. Most of them were still sitting. The light grew in intensity, and the faint sound of music grew as well.
We approached another ragged edge–on the other side of this one was more white on white on white. A sign at the edge said, ‘Sorry for the inconvenience,’ above a disgruntled smiley face icon. The song, ‘Back to Life’ by Soul II Soul, crackled overhead as the travelers looked into one another’s faces to reorient themselves.
The beautiful woman with the dog was gone, as was the businessman. I looked ahead and behind me to see if they had moved, moved? You can move, Kyle, I thought.
In place of the woman was a tiny, hunched-over Asian man leaning on a walker and facing forward. The surgeon had moved to where the businessman was standing, and behind him was a teenager holding three or four dog leashes, free of any actual dogs.
I got the motorcycle woman’s attention and asked her with my eyes and upturned hands what had happened. She shrugged, eyes pained, patted my arm, and looked up. I also looked up, and it dawned on me what she meant. A wave of understanding washed over me. When it finished, fear inserted itself into the proper location. I shuddered at what might have happened to the businessman, the beauty, and her dog.
We continued squeaking along the track through the opaque landscape.
A new sound presented itself–a repetitive thud that vibrated through the steel grating of the floor.
From behind me, pushing their way through the crowd, were several people. The first was tall, very tall, and dressed in high-top sneakers, shorts, and a tank top. He made a continuous parting motion with his hands, willing us out of the way. Behind him, a roundish woman with a circle of curly hair and a shirt with an airbrushed wolf followed him closely with a hand on his back. A couple of others were so close on her heels that I didn’t get a good look at them. The last person passing by was a deeply tanned middle-aged man with flip-flops and surfing shorts. He pointed to his mouth as he trailed the group and made a sound with it. A sound with his mouth, I thought.
“Oook ook, unk. Ook ook, mnrgh!” he said.
The new group continued pushing past us, their thudding footsteps and ‘Ook ook’ sounds fading as we watched the crowd far ahead parting for them.
The motorcycle woman got my attention and motioned to her open mouth. After noticeably straining for several seconds, a high-pitched squeak came out. Her eyes immediately brightened, and she clapped her hands. For a moment, we were transfixed by the sound of hands clapping. Getting an up-close demonstration of sound-making inspired me to try. I took a deep breath and blew out silent air. Frustrated, I tried it several more times, faster and faster. I finally heard myself say “hungh” before passing out.
When I regained consciousness, the old man looked down at me, scowling while the motorcycle woman knelt next to me, patting my cheek. My head throbbed; I must have banged it against the handrail or the ground. I sat up quickly, rubbing it, and said, “Fuck. What happened?”
All heads and eyeballs locked on me.
I clapped a hand over my mouth. The woman nodded encouragement. I tried–strained to make another sound.
“Mmm, …pppa, pi… pizza, pizza, pizza!”
The group began clapping, and I stood on shaky legs. I smiled at my adoring new fans and wondered what the sound I made meant to them. I had no idea.
The people mover suddenly bucked, throwing us all momentarily off-balance, and it groaned as if reacting to recapturing our collective weight. Silently a fleet of signs descended from the sky and hovered above us. They all said the same thing next to a timer that counted down at different intervals, depending on where you were on the track.
‘Approaching the Bay 2:15’
I strained to look ahead but couldn’t make out our destination. Turning to the motorcycle woman, I said, “Pizza… pizza.”
She replied with a high-pitched squeak, and we all shuffled forward, trying to catch a glimpse of anything. The surgeon pressed into my back and the dog walker into his. The width of the belt began to change, getting narrower and narrower until it was only wide enough for one person. The old man stayed before me; the motorcycle woman squeezed in behind.
‘Arriving at the Bay 1:00.’
A noticeable sound rose from the travelers in front of us. It sounded like many people saying ‘Pizza’ at the same time.
‘Welcome to the Bay; you may speak now :30’
“You may speak now,” the woman behind me said.
I twisted quickly to face her. “Hey, how’d you do that?”
She smiled. “I don’t know,” she felt her mouth and neck for clues.
I felt parts of my brain that had been dormant or resting begin to take hold. Like watching the lights turned on in a shop.
“Speak. That’s what we’re doing. I mean, speaking. The sign said we could speak now. How…? How does the sign…?”
“Speaking is fun,” the motorcycle woman said, “I really don’t care what Kim Kardashian is naming her baby.”
“I don’t know what that means, but it sounds wonderful!” I patted her on the shoulder.
A much larger sign crawled into view. It had a list of names and locations that changed at the same pace as the belt’s forward momentum.
Janet Boyer - London, England
Francoise Duplas - Paris, France
Can Nguyen - Saigon, Vietnam
Kathleen Durwitz - Trenton, New Jersey
Blake O’Reilly - Indianapolis, Indiana
Names at the top glowed brightly for a second before disappearing as the list moved up, and a new person appeared at the bottom.
“Name board,” I said.
“Yes, yes, name board,” the woman said.
“Place, places too. See?” the dog walker chimed in.
“Oh yes, I know places, too. Yes, those are places.” I said.
A handful of people in front of us pointed at the sign as they passed underneath it. Murmurs of “Hey, that’s me” and “I know that name” drifted back to us. As we got closer, I saw a name appear close to the bottom that meant something to me. I couldn’t look away from it.
Damien Gelby - Daytona, Florida
Colin O’Shea - Cork, Ireland
Tadahiro Shinzo - Yokohama, Japan
Kyle Sullens - San Diego, California
Sophia Leclair - Fort Worth, Texas
I pointed with my mouth hanging open. “Kyle, Kyle is me. I am a Kyle. Kyle!” I began to jump up and down.
The motorcycle woman had tears streaming down her face. I looked at the sign again. “Sophia? Are you a Sophia?” She pointed to her chest. A banner imprinted into the leather said ‘Leclair Racing.’ Above her heart, in white script letters, ‘Sophia’ was spelled against the red leather.
A new sign declared, ‘Welcome to The Bay! You may think now.’
One of the tall hooded figures stood by the side of the people mover, handing out medals affixed to white ribbon. Some travelers took them in hand while others let them be placed around their necks. When my turn came, I allowed the award-giving creature to place it over me and reached to take hold of his hood to unmask him. It pulled away and shook its head from side to side in a disagreeable fashion. I shrugged and looked down to examine the medal. It was gold and said, ‘Congratulations’ on one side.
We passed through a vaulted white archway where gates that would protect it were rolled back, and a phalanx of white–helmeted, hooded soldiers guarded either side. A simple, naked white flag hovered above the gate.
I turned to Sophia as we passed under the gate. “Congratulations for what?”
“Beats me,” she said. “What the fuck is this place? Why are we here? How come I feel like I’ve been unable to say or think anything for a while?”
“I don’t know any more than you,” I said. “Except that now I remember my name is Kyle. And, I remember waking up in bed–in my apartment. There was a news story on every channel about missiles and war. A siren blared so loud that I clapped my hands over my ears, then I’m on this fucking stupid people mover.”
The end of the walkway was within sight as I finished my rant. A sea of people gathered around in an enormous white hallway with buttressed arches. The air hummed with hundreds, maybe thousands of individual conversations. I took my final steps from the moving walkway onto stable ground. It took me a few moments to remember how to walk again and to lose the sensation of constant automatic movement.
“Good luck, Kyle,” Sophia said as she blended and was absorbed by the crowd.
I froze in place but was quickly encouraged to move forward with an icy hand placed on the small of my back by one of the tall white-robed sentinels. The ground rumbled underfoot and began to rise–taking me and a large number of fellow travelers into the air. A sign that said ‘Orientation Presentation’ descended as we ascended. We continued higher until the lights dimmed, and a video presentation began. The video was silent, with no music or narration. What it did show were missiles. Missiles taking off. Missiles hitting targets and exploding into fireballs. Devastation. Cities leveled in an instant. Arrogant leaders thumped their fists on podiums in rallying cries while others openly wept. People ran and screamed in city streets, on farmlands, and on islands. Humans tried to hide with their families in vain, as the tempest closed on them without regard. Hurricanes of fire swept life from the ground like a hand knocking chess pieces from a board. Oceans dried up, revealing gasping marine life that stared at the unforgiving sky. The last sequence of images showed a mother sitting on the front steps of her small dusty home surrounded by acres of corn. She clutched a baby to her chest, sang to the child, and rocked it back and forth. She never broke eye contact with the child to witness the fireball, but the final frame focused on her quickly drying tears.
It was quiet for several moments after the video stopped. I understood what I’d seen, and it shook me to the core. That was our world–broken beyond repair. I’d never see my family, friends, or dog again.
The medals around our necks began to feel warm and glow. The same thing was happening to everyone standing. I lifted the award with both hands and examined it again. It still said ‘Congratulations’ on one side, but the opposite side, the side that had been blank, now pulsed with a glowing red, then green. It kept repeating this over and over.
Some of those standing near me saw their medals turn to a solid red or green and stay that way, locked into a color. A young woman wearing a hijab standing next to me jumped a little when her medal settled on green. A distant memory of Christmas lights that decorated our house when I was a child skittered across the surface of my mind like a stone sent hopping across the water.
My medal turned a solid red.
The wall where the video had played now divided itself into two. The left side was bright green, and the right side was the same color red as the medallion on my chest. The grinding sound of gates rolling these sections apart accompanied the reveal of a doorway in each of them.
Several white-hooded, faceless, tall guards began encouraging those in front to do what was obvious, select the matching exit.
“Whaddaya reckon, partner? Heaven or hell?” said a slim man with a sweat-stained cowboy hat perched on his head at an angle. Spurs on his boots jingled as he tried to get a better look at his fate.
“Beats me. I’ve been an atheist my whole life. Maybe I was dead wrong. Hah. No pun intended, and now I get eternal payback–because that makes total sense. Is that how God works?” I held up my red medal.
“Don’t know the deity all that well, but I’ve been to church every Sunday for years and years. A habit, you know.” The cowboy tapped on his green medal.
I sighed and shrugged. The thought of being eternally dammed because I couldn’t believe in God made dying in a fireball on Earth start to sound appealing. The crowd continued to shuffle forward without argument or protest into the two doors. The cowboy tipped his hat and broke left as I went right. The hallway I entered was two persons wide and glossy white on all sides. I caught the tail-end of an announcement that played on a loop.
A smooth, silky, robotic female voice said, “…luck next time.”
We shuffled along the brightly lit corridor, and the audio began again. The words appeared on the wall in multiple languages.
“Congratulations. You have the distinct honor of having made it to the end of the simulation. Not only did you make it to the end, a notable achievement in its own right, but your run-through is the longest we’ve recorded thus far, coming in just shy of 4.7 billion ‘years,’ as you call them. Please know that the information we’ve gathered from you during this time will be invaluable in improving the next run-through.”
4.7 billion years was written in heavy, bold, capital letters and flashed slowly like a high score in an arcade video game.
The medal began to feel warm again, and I had the odd sensation of being drained into it. I tried to remove the ribbon around my neck, but the medal wouldn’t move, almost pinned there.
“You can’t know how grateful we are for your participation.” The voice chuckled. “I mean that literally, you can’t know. From all of us here at The Bay, we wish you better luck next time.”
The hallway began to angle down slightly. A person bumped into me from behind. And, in turn, I did the same to a man in front of me. The angle grew steeper still, and we all fell, sliding forward down a chute that was a hallway moments ago. I could see the mouths of those around me screaming; indeed, I was one of them, but the sound of roaring machinery drowned out our protests.
Ahead, a black dot quickly grew in size, and I watched with horror as people disappeared through it–swallowed up like a penny in a black hole. I shot through the hole. Medals were sucked into the air in a glittering shower and consumed by a giant shiny white hovering orb. I tumbled through the blackness, drawn towards I knew not what, unable to scream or even be afraid.
The last thing I saw was the red leather suit and the ‘Leclair’ patch. She saw me, and we reached for each other–fingertips touching, our last grasp, our last grip.
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