Not The End of the World
The day the world ended we sat on the couch. Mum and Dad played a card game, something they remembered from when they were young, while Jodie forgot the world had ended and tried to microwave a bag of popcorn. Eventually she abandoned the corn and ate her way through five packs of Doritos instead. I just stared at our flatscreen, imagining it was a black hole preparing to swallow me up.
Later, as the daylight started to fail and Dad scoured the house for candles, I tried my Motorola one last time. The battery light was blinking in the red, but the signal had vanished. When it finally shut itself down with a catchy three-chord jingle they stared at me, as if I’d cursed the world out loud.
“It’s dead now,” I said, holding its blank face up for them to see. “Battery died.”
I still put it in my pocket, though. Just in case.
Before bed I wolfed down a can of cold beans, Dad having forgotten to build a fire in the backyard before the dark set in. I undressed by candlelight, using a thick, red Christmas candle that Mum passed to me shortly after sundown. In its flickering light everything looked strange and new, a weak signal from another planet. I blew it out and stared at the dark.
* * *
The next morning me and Mum stayed home, while Dad ventured out for information. Jodie moped around the house, complaining that she couldn’t take a hot bath, then she finally went next door to annoy our neighbour Caroline. She was twelve, only three years younger than me, but she could be such a baby.
When he returned late that first afternoon Dad told us the news he’d gathered. There wasn’t much to tell. Power was out everywhere, although the school and a few offices had working generators. The internet had vanished, along with phone lines and satellite signals. In an instant the world had fallen silent. The good news was that we still had almost a full tank of gas in the Subaru, and half a tank in the Prius. The bad news was that the pumps had stopped pumping at the local Shell, and no one could work out how to tap into their reservoir without a power source. Dad said we’d keep the cars for emergencies. He didn’t say exactly what those emergencies might be.
On the first day we still saw planes in the sky, then those disappeared too. Jodie said Caroline had heard that a big passenger plane had crashed north of Seattle, near the coast. Dad told her off for scaremongering. She pretended to cry for a while. I didn’t know if she was crying for the dead passengers or the fact that her curling tongs wouldn’t work.
* * *
We held onto the hope of reconnection for two days. By then we’d eaten our way through half the canned goods. Jodie had demolished everything in the chip cupboard. I told her that her ass was looking fatter already and she threw her pink DS at my shoulder. By the time Mum pulled us apart we were both almost in tears. While I sat out my punishment in my room I tried to imagine what the final level of Gears Of War V would look like. Already my memory of it was starting to fade, and I lost interest halfway through. I guess we’ll never know.
Once we’d figured out that the world wasn’t rebooting any time soon the grown-ups tried to spring into action. Dad built a fire on the concrete patio out back, but the wood was so damp that it failed to light. He tried again the following evening, but it had rained overnight, and his failure was even more complete. After five minutes spent kicking it apart it wasn’t mentioned again. Mum dedicated her time to rationing our food supplies, only to find that she’d forgotten about the loss of power to the freezer. We only noticed when it began to leak molten mint-chip ice cream onto the kitchen floor. Dad and I spent an hour ferrying the spoiled mess into the backyard, where he covered it with a blue tarp and did his best to ignore it. That night I heard raccoons scrabbling and squabbling on the concrete, their scuffling the only noise in the unnatural silence. The next morning there were rotting scraps of fish and breakfast burritos strewn across the yard.
We didn’t go out there again.
* * *
It was Mum who first suggested that I should get out of the house, after I’d spent a week staring vacantly at our collection of blank screens.
“This isn’t natural, Chris,” she said, her hands searching for loose tea lights in the kitchen drawers. “Why don’t you go find your friends? Ethan and Jacob must be just as bored as you.”
I put my Motorola in my pocket before I left the house, although I couldn’t say why. It just felt better with it pressed against my leg.
Jacob lived four blocks down, in a big house his parents had bought for a steal when the market crashed. I knew this because they told us whenever they got the chance, as if it was their greatest achievement. I bet they felt pretty stupid now they had twice as much space to heat. Despite his butt-munch parents Jacob was a solid friend, though, and we’d sometimes spend hours on Gears together. I found him sitting on their sprawling front porch, staring at the blackness of his iPhone.
“It’s dead, dude,” I said. “Get over it.”
There were two good things about being friends with Jacob. The first was his huge house, which allowed us to disappear for hours without being disturbed. We’d once played Gears for over ten hours before his Mum found us and pulled the plug, knocking off five bosses and heaps of points along the way. Jacob was lucky enough to be an only child, so the interruptions to our playing time were minimal.
The other thing was that hanging out with him cast me in a better light. Jacob was the weirdest looking guy in our year. Not exactly ugly – he was actually fitter than me, and could pin me to the floor with one arm – but put together wrong, as if his parents had assembled him from the parts of several other kids. I’d known him since we were five, and he’d always had a lopsided grin, and a tuft of red hair that stood up at the back of his head like an off-centre crest. His arms were too big for his body, his legs too short. His chest was broad, but so flat that it looked almost concave. If it hadn’t been for his recklessness and his physical strength he’d have been hounded out of the schoolyard; as it was, he was treated as a tolerable abnormality. I knew that I was too chubby to be considered good looking, but next to Jacob I felt like a movie star.
Jacob tossed his phone into the air, catching it and sliding it slickly into his pocket, a move that I used to envy before the world ended. Now it looked like a hollow victory. He stood and patted his pocket, then shrugged.
“So where’s the action at? I’ve been waiting on you for days. Things are dead here.”
I hadn’t given much thought to a plan, so I improvised. If the hours on Gears had taught me anything, it was that you had to think on your feet. “Figured we’d check out the old power station. See if it’s unplugged, like they say. Might be good for a recon mission at least.”
Jacob nodded. “We can swing by Ethan’s too. If he’s been staring at the same blank screens as us then he’ll be going insane by now. You know how his Mum is. She’ll have him locked in the basement already.”
We both grinned, and I followed Jacob into the street. Ethan’s Mum used to be a model. She was still unbelievably hot, but she’d had some kind of breakdown after he was born, and everyone knew she was screwy. Once, she’d confiscated his Xbox for a whole week after she caught him jerking off over a copy of TV Weekly. Who knew what she’d do now a real crisis had struck.
It took us a while to realize that the roads were quieter than normal, although neither of us said anything. I could tell that Jacob was spooked too. Our neighbourhood was always secluded, but that day hardly anything was moving, only a hot, gritty wind that rattled cans and empty soda bottles against the curb as we passed. Occasionally a crow would swoop overhead, its shadow grazing the sidewalk. The few cars had a thin film of dust covering them, as if they’d been left standing in a demolition site for a week, and some had their doors or windows broken. One was a black, gutted shell. Sometimes a curtain would twitch as someone watched us from the houses, but otherwise we didn’t see a soul. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought we were missing something monumental on TV.
Ethan and his Mum lived around the corner from the Safeway. As it came into view we could see a flock of birds circling the lot like unruly schoolchildren. We could hear them too, a cacophony of wails and croaks that split the silence. They looked like crows mostly, the smaller birds being bullied away to the fringes by their larger cousins. Even from a distance we could see that the store’s doors were jammed open, the sun sparkling on broken glass on the ground.
“Let’s investigate,” Jacob said, that lopsided grin lighting up like a warning flare. “Better late to the party than never.”
The parking lot was dotted with abandoned carts, many of them lying on their sides. As we drew closer we could see what the birds were cawing over. One of the carts was upside down, boxes of crackers and burst, rotting chip bags strewn across the ground. The crows were swarming over it, desperately trying to push their dark beaks between the bars, one occasionally managing to pull a small crumb of bounty free from its cage. Mostly they fought, screeching at each other and flapping their wings in undisguised aggression. While we watched, a sparrow ran the gauntlet and hopped swiftly between the bars, emerging with a sodden cracker jammed in its beak. He managed four hops before one of the crows stole it.
Our approach startled the mongrel flock, and all but two of the crows retreated to the roof, watching us with curiosity and a territorial animosity. I considered turning the cart over for them, but I knew Jacob would laugh at me. Instead I kicked a loose stone at one of the braver crows and watched him flee.
“Dude, we got here way too late.” Jacob was a few steps in front of me, and he could already see through the open doors. “They’ve turned this place over. You’d have more luck plucking a crow.”
I could see the chaos inside, the floor carpeted with trampled boxes and other, unidentifiable debris. Hints of movement in the shadows suggested that rats had already moved in. Jacob took another step, then covered his face with his arm. I could hear muffled gagging.
“What the hell is that smell?”
“It’s the freezers.” I recognized the smell from our backyard, the slowly receding pile beneath Dad’s tarp. “The food went bad after the power failed. I guess no one thought to clear it out.”
“It smells like something died in there. Let’s clear out.”
I nodded my agreement, but I paused before turning to follow Jacob across the lot. At the front of the store was a display stand for Dream Racer Ultra. It looked untouched, as if it had been dropped into the middle of the wreckage that morning. I’d been saving my allowance for it for three weeks before the world ended, but now it looked kind of pathetic, sitting among the rats and the rotting food. It would have been easy to take one, but I left them as they were.
As we reached the edge of the parking lot Jacob stopped, and pulled his iPhone from his pocket. He smiled that twisted grin.
“Check this out. The new Crow Killer App. It’s gonna be the next big thing.”
He slung his hand back like he was standing on the pitcher’s mound, then hurled his phone at the birds, scattering them to the safety of the roof. When it landed on the asphalt the phone shattered into what looked like a hundred shards of plastic and glass. We watched the largest part bounce twice, three times, before it came to rest against the bars of the upturned cart.
Jacob shrugged. “I guess they need to work on that.”
As we scuffed our feet through the long grass at the Cali Avenue end of the lot I felt the lifeless bulk of my phone pressing against my thigh. It felt even heavier since the lights went out, as if more than just the power had died. I wanted to throw it away, just like Jacob had done. Instead I let my fingers brush against the slick plastic of the screen.
“Do you really think Ethan’s Mum will have flipped out?” It was all I could think to say. “She might have chained him to his bed by now, or anything.”
Jacob grinned and ruffled his wayward crest. “Dude, I bet she ate him. I could totally see her as a zombie cannibal. She’s probably gnawing on his leg right now.”
I did my best to look disgusted, but my laughter spilled over before I could contain it. Before long we were both rolling around in the grass, struggling to suck in air. For a while it felt like things used to be.
When we arrived at Ethan’s we were both still out of breath, our hair and clothes tangled with shreds of crushed grass, our eyes manic. Jacob joked that they’d probably think we were homeless looters come to steal their last can of hot dogs, and we nearly collapsed into giggles again. Then I saw the smashed windows, and it only took Jacob a second to register that something was wrong. The lower frames barely had any glass left at all, and one of the upstairs windows was cracked through, a hole the size of a fist splintering out into an alarming web of fissures. The downstairs curtains fluttered lazily through the gaps.
We stood silent for a few seconds, neither of us sure what to say. There was a new tightness in my chest, nothing to do with the wild laughter only minutes earlier. Beyond the cracked panes we could see nothing but darkness.
“Holy crap,” Jacob muttered, barely breaking the silence. “What the hell?”
I was too stunned to reply. My whole body was suddenly numbed from the feet up. My first thought was that Ethan would have texted if he needed help, but then I felt so stupid that it made me dizzy. Not knowing what had happened only made it worse. The shattered glass screamed of violence and chaos.
It took us several minutes to gather enough courage to step gingerly across the lawn, peering hopelessly through the broken windows. Jacob went first, as always, although even his bravado was cooling in the face of this shocking desolation. He trod so lightly that he barely disturbed the shards of glass. Only the occasional tinkling marked his passing. I hung back, happy to let him take the lead. I found it hard to look at the house, staring instead at the uneven pebbles of broken glass glinting beneath my feet. A thousand unwanted jewels.
“It’s almost empty,” Jacob called out once he was close enough to see. “I don’t think it was looters, though. It looks kinda neat. I think they cleared out of here, moved on. My uncle did the same thing a couple days ago. Headed for the coast, I think.”
It was good to hear him say it, but my heart still thudded in my ribcage. I thought of that sparrow again, the upturned shopping cart. Small enough to just hop between the bars.
“I’m gonna check the door. They might have left a note. You coming?”
I nodded, not quite settled enough to speak. We had joked about Ethan when he wasn’t there, and even sometimes to his face, calling him a Mummy’s Boy, saying she was the hottest MILF on the block – but now he was gone there was suddenly a hole in the centre of town. If we’d discovered an empty pit where his house had once stood I wouldn’t have been more shocked. It felt even worse than the two hours I’d spent staring at my lifeless Xbox, wondering how to get the Gears of War disc out of the tray.
Part of me had expected the door to be hanging from its hinges, like they always do in the zombie games, but it was locked shut. Jacob tried forcing it with his shoulder, but he just bounced off it and landed on his ass. Neither of us laughed. He sat there for a while, staring at the door, his fingers fiddling with a nugget of glass that had found its way onto his leg. I knew he wouldn’t like being beaten, especially when I was here as a witness. There didn’t seem to be any other option, though. Sometimes life just throws one roadblock too many in your way.
When Jacob finally jumped up off the grass I thought he’d been bitten, but then I saw his eyebrows. He always raised one brow when a thought struck him like that, as if he was a cartoon character having a brainwave, or a mad genius. Ethan used to call it his Little Einstein look, which was funny, because Jacob really sucked at science.
“Ethan won’t have left without his comics. The dude loved that collection. We just need to get round back to the tree, then we’ll know for sure.”
Ethan had been collecting DC Comics since he could read, and last year his Mum had the two-foot-high stack valued by a professional collector. Ethan told us the guy said the collection was priceless, but my Mum heard from Ethan’s Mum that the actual figure was closer to a thousand dollars. Jacob was right, Ethan wouldn’t have gone anywhere without that collection. He kept it in a lockbox he’d bought specially from Walmart, which he’d padlocked to one of the planks in the floor of the treehouse outside his bedroom window. He used to climb in there sometimes at night and read them by torchlight. If you’ve ever seen the Simpsons Halloween episodes, the ‘Treehouse of Horror’, then that was Ethan. He would have taken the comics with him, even if he’d had to padlock them to his wrist.
Jacob was already marching around the side of the house. The gate was locked, but we’d climbed over it before, and it didn’t tax either of us too much to do it again. Jacob muttered under his breath when he snagged his pants leg on the spikes, but otherwise we both reached the other side in one piece. While we caught our breath I saw him checking his pants for holes.
Ethan’s backyard looked just as it always did, although something wasn’t quite right. There was an eerie strangeness mixed with the familiarity, as if we’d slipped through a wormhole into another dimension, where everyone looked the same but had three legs, or drove their cars with their feet. It took me a moment to realize that it was the silence. Usually you could hear the traffic from the road, Ethan’s Mum shouting at him from her bedroom upstairs, the neighbours mowing their lawn. Today there wasn’t even the coarse cawing of the crows.
I could see Jacob was still inspecting his pants, so I walked to the base of the tree. It was a sycamore I think, like the ones Mrs Jason had pointed out to us on the field trip last summer. I thought I remembered Ethan’s Mum calling it a sycamore, anyway. It wasn’t much taller than the house, but the lower branches were still six or seven feet off the ground, and I realized that it was easier to access the treehouse from Ethan’s room than it was from the ground. I guess he’d built it like that.
“Hey,” I called across to Jacob. “Give me a hand up. I think I can reach the branches if you’ll bump me.”
We’d done it before at Stanley Park, but it took three attempts to hoist me up into Ethan’s tree, Jacob still fretting over the small rip he’d managed to locate in his pants. The first time we fell so short that I smacked my cheek against the craggy bark of its trunk, scraping over it as I fell inexpertly to the floor. The stinging was a sensation at least, and I felt unusually alive as Jacob held out his cupped hands again. The second and third times I treated the tree’s landscapes with care.
When I finally managed to wrap one hand around the lowermost branch Jacob gave me a push, then my arms were curled securely around it and I was able to pull myself up. The ground already looked a long way down, so I concentrated on the treehouse instead. It looked in better shape than their actual house, the solid cedar planks unmoved by the end of the world. I took a deep breath, inhaling the smell of bonfires and barbecues, the planks’ lively, resinous buzz. We used to lie on those boards, Ethan and I, reading comics and breathing in their scent. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d done that. Before Ethan got his Xbox, I guess.
Jacob had apparently recovered from his wardrobe troubles and was calling from below for me to shift my ass, so I reached up for the doorway and hauled myself inside. The treehouse was empty, but that was to be expected. Ethan had said that decoration was for girls, and that real men used to live out in the woods, armed with nothing but their wits and a sharp knife. I’m guessing they didn’t read Aquaman. I took the fact that the lockbox was missing as a good sign. The padlock and chain were gone too, and I hoped that Ethan had taken them with him. Chained to the back seat of his Mum’s Subaru, most likely.
It was only as I turned to head back outside that I noticed the thin tube of paper poking up between the floorboards. Less than an inch was peeking through, and I had to bend down close to tweeze it out; a sheet from one our schoolbooks, torn in half and curled tight. I should have shown it to Jacob, but I found the edge with my nail and unfurled it like a miniature medieval scroll.
The writing inside was small and neat. My eyes scanned it until I found Ethan’s name at the bottom, then they returned to the top.
Hey whoever reads this (I’m guessing it’s you Chris, maybe Jake too, you dudes should so not be in my treehouse but I’m glad you are!)
Anyway, we’re gone. There was this crazy guy outside the other day, trying to steal our food and shit, and Mum kinda freaked after. I wanted to see you first, but she said you’d have your own troubles. Plus gas was low, or something. We’re heading for one of the cities on the coast, although she doesn’t know where yet. Typical Mum, right?
I’ve taken the comics, so don’t bother trying to find them (I know what you were thinking, I’d be thinking the same!). In fact there’s nothing worth anything left in the house. I don’t know when I’ll see you again, but if you leave your homes too then leave me a note (like this one). I WILL find it. I guess the apocalypse is upon us, but I know you dudes will be fine. Jacob was born for this.
Well, catch you later, and all that gay stuff. See you on the other side.
(Oh, and if things start working again – EMAIL ME!)
Ethan J. Wiley
I stared at it for a moment, processing. Then I rolled it up and slipped it into the waistband of my jeans. The folds of my shirt hid it from view. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t want to share it with Jacob. He’d say it was babyish, or just like that girl Ethan, or one of the hundreds of other putdowns he fired out on a daily basis. But this scrap of paper felt oddly personal, as if it was a beacon of hope rather than a message of farewell. Ethan had never written me anything before, not even a birthday card. This was something new.
Jacob had gone AWOL by the time I stooped back outside into the daylight, so I manoeuvred myself onto the lowest branch and dropped down to the yard. My feet numbed briefly from the shock, but it was a good kind of numb, like when your best friend tackles you to the floor. I wiggled my toes until they tingled back into life.
I found Jacob down the side of the house, trying to break the lock on the gate with a fistful of rock from the flowerbed. It was the clanging that gave him away, cutting through the stillness like a chainsaw. As he swung he asked what I’d found, and I said that Ethan was gone, along with his comics, and that I didn’t think he’d be coming back. Everyone was heading for the coast, it seemed. Best leave this ghost town to the crows.
Once we were back out in the street Jacob wanted to walk home to get his pants sown up, and I didn’t object. For once, spending the day with my family didn’t feel like the worst thing. We never made it to the power station that day, or any of the days after. I can only imagine what it was like, that vast dead engine, the alien symmetry of wires and metal. The flocks of dark birds circling.
Dad and I built a new fire in the front yard that night, and we managed to get it lit at the second attempt. The beans tasted better warm, we all agreed. Even my sister.
* * *
It was a few days later that Mum told us to pack a bag each. I left my DS, but folded the Gears of War poster from my wall and stowed it on top of my clothes. Who knew, maybe it would be an antique someday. I wasn’t sure what to do with Ethan’s letter, but then I found a book on one of the shelves and slipped it between the pages. I vaguely remembered Dad handing it to me when he was trying to encourage me to read. It kept the note protected at least. Who knew, I might even read it now my DS had died.
Jodie tried to take two bags, her school backpack and the wheelie case we used for vacations, but I didn’t complain too much. She was a girl after all. I guess she needed more things. Us men, we just needed our wits and a sharp knife.
Before we left I helped Dad siphon the gas from the Prius, and we loaded the cans into the trunk. As I climbed into the back of the car I could smell the fuel on my hands, the heady scent of the past. We had a tank and a half. I could tell Mum and Dad were silently hoping it would be enough.
* * *
It took two days to reach the coast. Some neighbourhoods were worse than ours, the streets cluttered with abandoned cars and torn couch cushions, the wilderness already starting to creep back in. Others were silent, dead, as if everyone had disappeared overnight. The nights were worst, lightless and utterly black. Hours spent huddled under our coats on the back seat, trying not to listen to the silence outside. Hoping desperately for another dawn.
Things began to improve as we neared the sea. Other families had made the same plans, and we gradually became part of something larger, a convoy, a steady stream of refugees fleeing the lifeless interior. The lack of trouble was surprising, everyone keeping to themselves as we wound our way slowly seaward. There’s nothing to puncture your bravado like the end of the world.
The gas ran out towards the end of the second afternoon, but we were close enough to walk the rest of the way, the crows overhead already conceding to screaming packs of gulls. After two days in the car the smell of the ocean hit us like a tonic. Some of the other families had done the same, abandoning their cars by the road, and we walked together over the dunes, our feet sinking softly into the sand as we sought a purchase. I carried Jodie’s backpack for a while. Dad looked at me like I’d just figured something important out, and I could see his pride swell like the surf.
When we reached the water we all stood and stared at the horizon. There were hundreds of us, gathered on the sand at the edge of the world, staring at the sea. Hoping for a ship to appear, or something to change. Maybe we just needed something to do. Instead it washed on endlessly, the relentless churn of life. At least the seagulls looked prettier than the crows.
It was Dad who turned away first, heading back to the dunes to set up camp for the night. Mum followed, dragging Jodie’s case behind her across the beach, a trail for us to follow in the sand. Jodie and I stayed a moment longer.
Eventually I remembered my Motorola in my pocket, and I took it out. Its blank face had troubled me earlier, but now it just seemed dull and pointless. A battered old telescope in the land of the blind. I held it up for Jodie to see, and she blinked in confusion.
“Look at this,” I said, bending my elbow and curling my body like a spring. “It’s the new Stone Skimming app. It’s going to be the next big thing.”
Then I hurled the phone out into the water, as far as I could reach, surprisingly even myself with the force I put behind it. The phone may have bounced once, on the surface. We couldn’t really see. There were no ripples, and barely even a sound. Just the waves, and more waves, and the screaming of the gulls. Then we turned around and followed Mum and Dad across the sand.
Dan Coxon is a writer and editor from London. His anthology Being Dad won a Saboteur Award for Best Anthology in 2016, while his most recent anthology, This Dreaming Isle (Unsung Stories, 2018), was shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson Awards and the British Fantasy Awards. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Guardian, Salon, Unthology, Open Pen, Confingo, The Lonely Crowd, Popshot and many other places. His story ‘Goya in the Deaf Man’s House’ was shortlisted for the Bath Short Story Award 2019. He works as a freelance editor and proofreader at Momus Editorial, and occasionally publishes The Shadow Booth, a journal of weird and eerie fiction. Green Fingers, his mini-collection of uncanny horticultural horror, will be published by Black Shuck Books at the end of April. This story first appeared in The Portland Review in the summer of 2013.
Copyright, Dan Coxon, 2020