In the 8 minutes after the sun exploded, Jeff contemplated what would become of his life..
|"The Government advises that all families who have purchased apartments within the military-regulated bunkers make preparations and leave within the hour. It is estimated that the explosion will occur at approximately 3:19 p.m."
Jeff rounded up the girls from their bedrooms and made them don their thickest coats. He helped them into their backpacks, securing them tightly. Megan was annoyed at the disturbance, a scowl marring her pale features. Alice was simply excited for the adventure that was coming, too young to understand.
"Jessie," he called up the stairs to his wife. "It's time."
Within minutes she was downstairs beside them, pack on with a fake smile pasted across her face. As usual, her make-up was immaculate. "I'm ready," she chirped.
Jeff wondered where she thought they were going; it was the end of a world not a two week cruise. He sighed as he turned to the door, wondering how long he'd be able to stick it out.
Even though they knew the drill and he knew they could make it across town in twenty minutes, Jeff felt a pang deep in his stomach as he closed the front door to their home. Out of habit he locked it and mentally wished his house goodbye as they began to head West along the boulevard.
In the dark recesses of the dirtiest bar in town, Stan ordered himself another shot of whiskey as the latest news broke across the screen. He took a sip of the bourbon, feeling the bitter aftertaste burn the back of his throat.
Life is good.
He thought about the bunkers that everyone talked about. They were for people who had money; those who lived affluent lives. It all ran down to the green stuff and he didn't have much of that to go around, but as he sipped his fifth whiskey of the day he realised he didn't much care.
Stan was a sixty year old man who had had a good life. He had married well and lived a happy life with his wife, Rita, until she passed away from cancer two years ago. He knew she was blessed, happy in the knowledge that she was spared the atrocity of Doomsday. They'd never had any kids and he was content with that. He could barely deal with the situation as it was without having to console someone else.
The news showed footage of people making their way to the bunkers, most of them still arrogant and arriving in style in brand-new cars or even being chauffeured. Some chose to walk, perhaps those who were a little more aware of the congestion problems that would arise.
He watched a family of four as they trooped towards the gateway to the bunker, each with their own backpacks, the man leading his women. The two young daughters looked distressed. The wife shone with brilliance even in the light of the disaster. Stan shook his head and took another sip.
Jeff felt a wave of relief as he saw the guard-patrolled gate that led down into the depths of the earth. He hailed across to them, breaking stride and holding out the documentation. The first guard took it with a curt nod and rifled through the papers, checking their identity. He was doing his job just fine.
"Thank you Mr. Abbott, you can all proceed." The man remained stony faced. Jeff had to wonder if the man's employment allowed him and his family to be stowed safely. He doubted it. Yet he still remained loyal to his country, his duty. Jeff briefly wondered what it might be like to know he was going to die, before tossing the thought aside. He led Jessie and his two daughters into the bunker. He descended slowly, feeling the earth growing colder and colder with each flight they traversed. The whole staircase was grey and concrete, a bland place to be. Boring, he thought.
"I thought you said it was nice down here," Jessie complained in hushed tones, grimacing. She doesn't look happy anymore.
"Just wait till we get to our apartment," Jeff reassured her, pressing on. He could only hope he was right.
The girls were silent behind them, each carrying the burden of their worldy possessions on their backs. He wished they didn't have to see such times, but was glad he was a prominent enough figure to be able to offer them security.
"The bunkers organised by the Government are currently being filled up now. All those who have plots in these lovely spacious apartments will have the luxury of witnessing Doomsday through the special cameras set up in satellites," the beautiful woman reading the news smiled.
Christ, does she not know the world is ending? He wondered why so many people were still smiling.
"Previous news reports have documented the scientific fashion in which the explosion will occur and now, for the last time, I will briefly recap. The sun will explode at approximately 3:19 this afternoon. The heat that it throws off will engulf the entire earth causing anything on the surface to perish. Below ground, those staying in the military bunkers will be able to watch the explosion as it occurs and document the destruction while being able to rest assured of their safety. This is Kacie Letterman signing off." A curt nod followed by a huge grin.
Stan knew she had an apartment down below. That's why the bitch is happy.
Despite feeling aggrieved at the world, he knew he had no desire to try and live on. Even if he'd had the means, he knew he wouldn't have gone below ground. Living in the earth without fresh air, in such close confines with other people, that wasn't natural.
"Want another?" the barman asked Stan right on cue.
"Sure buddy, thanks."
The bartender poured him another. Money had long since lost it's meaning, especially for those people who were staying on the surface.
They reached the apartment in record time, finding it with ease using the map that had been provided. They were on level five, a spacious three bedroom apartment that had set him back over twenty-five million. As he stepped inside he smiled. It was worth it.
The place was plushly decorated and didn't seem much different to their own home. Many of their belongings were already there, the important things had been shipped in the prior weeks. A perk, he thought. The Government had thought about everything. At least for those with money.
They dropped their backpacks to take a rest. Jessie was immediately in the small kitchen, asking them if they wanted anything. Megan threw Jessie a look and slumped onto the sofa, Alice copying. Jessie, unperturbed, continued her mission.
Ah, dutiful housewife, he thought to himself as she began to butter some bread. He watched as she worked. They'd been together two years, married for much of it. In the beginning, things had been great. She came in and became a mother to the girls who hated her, despite that obvious fact. She was the perfect woman; she cooked, cleaned and was as glamorous as they came. The only thing was, he knew she was only with him for his money. Right up until he'd earned his fortune he was a single parent, struggling on and looking after the two girls who mattered most in his life. Only when he became an overnight superstar did the women start flocking. He'd picked the best of the best, but it still wasn't love.
Megan and Alice had never taken to her despite the woman's best efforts. He supposed Jessie always tried too hard, with them as well as him. He had been drawn in by it all but soon came to realise it was all an act. A charade that aided her getting into his life and bound her to him. He often wondered what frame of mind he had been in when he proposed.
The next couple of hours were spent in dull confinement. Jeff ached to be outside once more in the fresh air. He was already beginning to feel claustrophobic with Jessie fussing around him and the girls in blacker moods than ever.
Did I make the right choice?
Wobbling as he slid down off his stool, Stan made his way to the bathroom. It reeked of the stale stench of urine and hastily smoked weed from a long time passed. As he unzipped and relieved himself, he realised how woozy his head was. He wasn't surprised after the amount of whiskey he'd already consumed. He was spinning as he stood. Using one hand, he steadied himself against the wall, the hot train of his piss hitting the urinal with a loud splash. He smiled to himself as finally, the stream stopped and he zipped up again.
Stumbling back into the bar he flopped onto his seat, relieved that he didn't hit the ground. The barman smiled at him and poured another shot without a word. The barman's eyes were blurry and bloodshot, his long disheveled hair framed his face. Stan knew he was the weed culprit.
"Cheers." He picked up the glass and chugged the amber liquid down. His head spun.
"Jeff, you want anything? A snack or anything, it'll be starting soon."
"For God sake Jessie, no!" he yelled, voice reverberating on the hollow walls. Irritated with her need to ogle the end of the world, treating it like a T.V. show, Jeff shook his head. The two girls sniggered. What have I done?
Without another word Jessie turned and busied herself, pretending not to be hurt.
It was reaching three o'clock. Glancing over to the main wall he saw the huge TV mounted there. It had to be at least 80". He flicked it on with a brief apprehension bubbling in his stomach and then settled down into what would be his chair.
A man sat in a grey room behind a temporary desk. He smoothed his dark hair back and flashed a dazzling smile. "For those of you who have just joined us, we're just having a brief recap before the explosion occurs. I'm Daniel Weathercrop, reporting from inside the bunker in London."
A series of flashing images ran across the screen, scientific demonstrations, quotes. Jeff was sick of hearing about it. In less than twenty minutes the explosion would occur and lights out would begin.
"This is quite exciting," Jessie intoned as she took a perch on the side of his chair. He could smell her perfume wafting up his nose. A sudden wave of nausea hit him.
"Ten minutes to go and this is Thelma Wordsmith signing off." The brunette woman on the TV screen disappeared, and then it went black. There was no sound, no images. Nothing. The end of television as they knew it.
"Bunch of crap anyway," the bartender insisted, throwing his dirty rag at the glass. It fell to the floor where it lay amidst a pool of stale beer.
"Yeah, television was crap for a long time." Stan nodded, his head moving compulsively.
"And ya know what else?" The long-haired man leaned forward conspiratorially.
"What?" Stan leaned forward. He could smell the other man's breath; stale and smoky.
"You ask me, the people in them bunkers... suckers. All of 'em. Who'd want to live like that?" He threw his hands in the air.
"That's what I thought."
"What's your name?"
"I'm Stan." The two men shook hands, best friends and allies in the first and only situation they would ever face together. "Say, what're you doing working at a time like this? Shouldn't you be with your family?"
"Well... sure. I would if I had any. I lost 'em a long time ago."
"Only had my parents and they died in a crash–"
"Sorry man," Stan slurred.
"Don't," Greg shook his head, "Least they didn't have to see this."
"I'm with ya on that one."
"Besides, this place is like my second home. Here, have another, man." Greg poured out two glasses. The men chinked and then downed the sweet whiskey. Stan shook his head, his jowls shaking.
"Th... that's good." Stan could hear his own slurred words, hardly comprehensible in his brain. This is the way it should be.
Daniel was still on the screen, his mop of hair sitting high on top of his head, gelled up in short spikes. His deep blue suit was immaculate. Beside him, a small timer was counting down to the Doomsday moment.
"We're almost there folks. Send a prayer for those not fortune enough to be in the bunkers with you." Daniel threw on his best sympathetic look. Jeff thought it looked cheap.
"Just one minute to go folks."
Jeff felt his stomach swoop.
"H... long's left... G... Greg?" Stan stuttered. His felt his own breath, hot and steamy on his hand.
"Minute." Greg lit up behind the bar, inhaling the smoke with satisfaction. He passed the smoke over to Stan. He took a drag, feeling the hit of smoke sting the back of his throat, the taste lingering long after it was gone.
"Let's count down!" Someone in the back of the bar yelled.
He doesn't sound as drunk as me. Shame for him.
Greg took another drag, puffing out the smoke like a steam train. He glanced at his watch through tiny eyes. It took him a while to focus, watching the hand moving. Then his voice rung out in the bar; the countdown to Doomsday.
The whole bar joined in the chorus. Stan's stomach lurched.
The noise mounted, the voices of everyone ringing in tension. Overwhelmed, Stan felt the panic rise.
Greg grabbed him by the arm and held on tight.
Chairs scraped across the floor behind him. He glanced at Greg, found a smile in his eyes. Is this it? Should I be somewhere else?
More hands grabbed at him, grasping for one last shred of humanity.
He didn't repel at the touch of strangers. No this is my place, right here.
I'm glad Rita's not here to see this.
I wonder where she is.
I miss her so much. Maybe I'll see her again, soon.
A huge roar erupted in the dingy bar. It filled his ears and numbed his senses.
Goodbye cruel world.
A huge orange flame filled the screen as the sun exploded. A huge cacophony shook the bunkers, even that far down in the earth. Megan and Alice clutched each other with fierce desperation. Jessie cried where she had fallen to the floor, tears streaking her make-up. Standing up, Jeff stumbled across the room, stretching his arms around both daughters.
"It's going to be okay," he whispered, pulling them both close. His eyes never left the screen.
The orange flames licked the camera, blackened it. The sound of crackling rose in a crescendo as the bunker continued to shake. Then, it was over.
"That's it folks," Daniel was back, providing a voice over to the end of the world. "NASA has sent a final report: the sun has exploded. It will take eight minutes before anybody on earth will be able to see, with their naked eyes, that it has gone."
The fire began to die down, the fierce orange flames becoming a glowing ember, hot ashes. The glowing sun reminded him of a coal fire. He thought back to his parents, his grandparents. He remembered many times sitting before the coal fire in his grandfather's old Victorian house, watching the flames lick the black coal, the ash floating. He felt somewhat comforted.
He could hear Alice sniffing beside him, her face wet with tears. He pecked her on the forehead. I love you.
The embers were still glowing, hot and dazzling. Who knew the end of the world would be so pretty?
They began to sizzle out, the orange dimming until it was a dull glow beneath the blackened surface of the sun. It faded gradually, until finally, it was completely gone. The screen went black.
A surreal feeling swept over Jeff. The sun's life had ended and there he was, sitting with his family in a base underground, surrounded by artificial light. Around him, everything was silent. Nobody moved or spoke. So this is what the end of the world feels like: silent.
The realisation hit Jeff. The end of the world. He glanced at the three women around him. Megan and Alice were silent, dumbfounded. He wondered if the realisation had sunk in for them. Jessie looked shell-shocked, her eyes dull and glazed, expression dropping in a painful grimace. The rest of his life spent underground with his two daughters and a wife he hated. What sort of life is this?
Thanks for the mention in the Short Stories Newsletter 16th October 2013 Jay (away for a while)