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In the End the World Will Break Your Heart

Kurt Hunt was formed in the swamps and abandoned gravel pits of post-industrial Michigan. His short fiction has been published or is forthcoming at Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, PodCastle, PseudoPod, IGMS, and more. He is also a co-author of Archipelago, a collaborative serial fantasy adventure.

On the second-to-last day before the end of the world, I went to work. I sat through four conference calls, only one of which required me to speak, and took a nap in a bathroom stall. I hated myself that day, and when I got home Alex was pissed off that I left laundry to mildew in the washer and Sam was whining about climbing trees--"why can't I, I'm eight!"--and I might have hated them a little bit too.
Such a waste, that hate. I see that now.
On the day before the end of the world--the day we learned of the accident; the day we first heard the word "ecophagy"--we panicked and did nonsensical things. Sam locked the doors and started carrying a wiffle bat everywhere, "to protect you." What about mom, I asked, but he just rolled his eyes. "That's my boy!" said Alex, somehow smiling while filling containers with clean water and gathering batteries. I went outside--birds clamored; sirens sang out in rounds--and paced and paced and left voicemails for people I'd never see again. My brother, to apologize for tipping Dad off about his pot seeds when I was nine. My boss, to let her know I wasn't coming in. My mom, whose dementia had long ago ferried her from us.
Once the adrenaline spat us out we watched hour after hour of live TV, allowing the sounds and images to slowly chip away at our disbelief. The feed switched every few minutes, automated, I guessed, by some conscientious tech on his way out the door. There were no graphics or announcers or explanations. Only raw video; sounds, unedited. An occasional satellite view showed the grey spreading like a cataract.
We watched some African city succumb--maybe Lagos? Alex asked, and the question hit me like a fist because all I could think was that it had probably been around for hundreds or thousands of years but this was the first time I'd ever seen it or really even thought about it. It looked crowded. But that thought led to thinking about the people, which led to imagining....
I hit the power button and jumped off the couch. "Let's play 20 questions," I said. "Sam, go first."
"Okay. Um. I'm thinking of an animal!"
The answer turned out to be "zebra." Once we guessed it, Sam asked if the thing on the news meant all the zebras were dead.
Alex held Sam on her lap, squeezing him as if he were in danger of floating away. And she said maybe not yet, but they probably would be soon. She believes in honesty, even hard truths. But she cried for him while she said it.
Sam looked at me for reassurance, but I was thin on fatherly wisdom even on the best days, so I changed the subject. "Do you know... when I met your mom, she couldn't look me in the eye?" Alex laughed her raucous laugh and called me a liar, and reminded me that she had approached me when she worked at the movie theater because she thought I'd been injured but it turned out I was just sobbing at the ending of Titanic. Sam listened for a while, then wriggled off Alex's lap and said he was going to go use the neighbor's trampoline because sitting around and talking was a waste of his time. Alex and I stayed together on the couch, fingers interlocked, but even as we recited trivial reassurances I felt everything just... dissipate.
Peace woke me, heart pounding, in the middle of the night. The power had failed and taken all the buzzing background noise with it. It took several minutes of lying in the dark, petting Alex's hair and feeling my pulse throb, before I realized it wasn't just the refrigerator or the sounds from the TV....
The sirens had stopped.
The birds were silent.
Today, the world ends.
We asked Sam: if you could do anything today, anything at all, what would it be?
So here we are at the nature preserve, surrounded by good climbing trees. Only a ten-minute drive from home, but the things we passed....
Now Alex and I sit together on the overlook. Our feet dangle over the gorge, sometimes playfully hooking together as we watch the horizon blanch to a single grey hue. Like a storm front it sweeps over the distant cluster of skyscrapers and across the river into the suburbs.
"I thought we'd grow old together," I say.
"Aw." She leans her head against my shoulder. "That's really cliche. Besides, we'd have just sat around watching the weather. Just like this." The wind picks up a sudden acetic odor. A voice in the distance shouts incomprehensible, angry syllables. "Well... not just like this."
"Here goes nothing!" Sam says, something he picked up from a movie, as he sprints to the base of a maple growing at the edge of the drop-off and climbs. Alex is crying. Me too. We both want nothing more than to hold him close, to be all together in this moment. But he's fearless up there, and joyful, and it's where he wants to be so we're content to hold each other and watch.
From twenty feet up he waves at us and shouts I love you. We shout back and smile despite everything. Then he stands on a branch, slowly releasing his grip on the rough bark of the trunk, and takes a step.
For a moment, just a moment as he raises his arms for balance, something in the angle of his shoulders hints at manhood, but it's gone even before I recognize it. Instead, we see his smile, broad and unrestrained, and we watch him walk, and I ignore the way my heart lurches every time he sticks out too far or slips a little. It is beautiful and it is terrible because we know he will never fall.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 28th, 2018

Author Comments

A thing I love about flash fiction is it allows me to tell a big story through a small lens. From a glimpse of one family, the reader can extrapolate and speculate--what about other families? what about the cities I love, or the ones I've never had the chance to visit?--until the experience of reading is far bigger than what's on the page. A good flash story, like a good life, opens a window from the individual to the universal.

- Kurt Hunt
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