by Ian Williams
I’ve always hated days like today. I’m looking through my windscreen to a cloud covered sky and I know there’s light just above those puffs of grey and white. I know the rain is on its way, maybe only minutes away too. Worse still, I know that beyond that dullness resides the most beautiful of blue skies, but it’s just out of my reach.
Today of all days, I need that tingling sensation of sunlight against my skin, to feel the sweat dripping down my face as I wind down my side window. I want that warm embrace just one more time before everything comes to an end. I want to go out happy and with a smile on my face. I don’t want to greet the end of the world with tears in my eyes.
There’s barely a day left until a dark mass of rock and ice the size of North America smashes into the Earth. They thought we had a chance of avoiding it at first, but they were wrong. They being the scientists; you know, the ones who were supposed to get us out of this mess. They always did in the movies.
For my last day on this planet I have a plan, though. I’m going home. I want to see my family and their smiles, to hear their laughter again as the fireball covers the planet’s surface. The only problem with that idea is that mine is a family divided, torn asunder by a row that escalated far more than it should have. I need to heal that rift while I still can.
There may have only been the four of us—my parents and an older brother—but we were strong together. Until a huge argument five years ago, I’d always thought our bond was an unbreakable one. I was wrong.
It’s taken the end of the world for me to finally forgive and forget what happened the last time I was home. The five years I’ve been gone has softened the bad feelings a little. I’m now willing to look past that dark time, so that we can be together again during this one. In my mind, it will be a bittersweet farewell to life and the world that nurtured us for billions of years. Or another chance for the argument to resurface.
Beside me, my wife Sally shifts her position in the passenger seat. She’s been my rock for the five years I’ve spent sulking away from home. It was her idea to make a plan for the end, not mine. I could never be that mature by myself. She’s been sleeping for the past two hours, while I drove these empty roads in silence. I’ve held her hand for all that time, wondering if I’m in her dream or not. I’m hoping I am.
Her own family has shrunk over the last two years and are too spread out to meet up now. There’s no flights in or out of the country to get her to them anyway. Not that we were ever going to split up.
The car has been chugging along, making use of what little fuel it has remaining, and only occasionally complaining. I filled it up before we left and have watched the needle dropping slowly ever since. I know we’ll get to my old home with petrol to spare, but the threat of it giving out has kept me on edge for hours. I can’t bare the idea of meeting the end of the world while stuck by the side of the road.
I turned off the empty motorway just over half-an-hour ago, and I’ve hardly seen another soul along the way. The daily grind has ground to a halt; no work, no time off, no holidays. Everything we once did has come to an end and it seems Sally and I are the only ones going anywhere anymore. I’d give anything now to hear the honking of horns again, or the screeching of brakes from the impatient driver. I’ll never moan about the whiff of fumes from cars in heavy traffic ever again either.
A fully loaded four-by-four overtakes us just as I suspect every road on the planet is now devoid of cars. I look at the passengers as the car speeds by and find myself suddenly squeezing the steering wheel until my fingers turn red. There’s an entire family in there, with ashen faces and drawn out expressions. It reminds me that the same disaster is soon to unfairly claim them too, every family in fact.
Sally moves again and I have to hold back my growing fury at the coming end. I put on my brave face and smile at her as she awakens. Her eyes are yet to open fully, still I can see the deep chocolaty brown of her irises. They dazzle me like the flash of sunlight I sorely miss. Suddenly I’m consoled and can see why I’m there with her. I love her more than she could ever know.
“Hey you,” I say in my softest voice.
“Hey.” She yawns and stretches like a lioness. “Are we nearly there?”
The four-by-four doesn’t stick to the speed limit as it races off into the distance. It ignores the turning I want and continues on.
“We’ll be there in a few minutes.” I pull her hand up to my face and kiss it gently. It feels good to be normal every once in a while. We could ignore it all if not for the very obvious changes going on around us. It’s like someone has pressed the pause button on civilisation.
The next mile or so goes by in silence, apart from the occasionally burst of noise from the car radio as it picks up a distant signal. We’re comfortable this way. But as countryside gives way to my small home town, I’m less at ease. I’ve built a new life, with someone new, and going back hasn’t been on my mind for some time.
“What’s wrong?” Sally says, seeing my face turn another shade and my eyes darting about the scenery.
I let the moment end before I answer. “Nothing. It’s just, I didn’t say goodbye properly before I left.”
“Then now’s the time to do it right. That’s why we’re here.” She sits up and searches outside the car for something.
We drive by the school I hated, see the shop I worked at for three years as a teenager, and the tree I crashed my first car into. My whole life comes back to me in one forced series of memories, but as a flash of emotions rather than images. It’s too much to filter through.
“There,” Sally says, pointing out the window.
“Jason, stop the car.”
I slam on the brakes, expecting to see another car in front of me. Except the road is as empty as the rest we’ve seen today. Sally then leaps out. She leaves the door hanging open and walks over to the bus stop a few metres ahead of the car.
With the engine left running, I join her. I’m slightly confused by her reaction. “What are we doing here?”
“Isn’t this where you waited for the bus you took to work each morning?”
“I guess. So what?”
“Then you should wish it farewell. You’ll never see it again after today. You should say goodbye to everything you can, before time runs out.” She takes a seat and holds out her hand to me, to draw me closer.
“This is stupid,” I tell her, even though I know she’s right.
“Just sit for a minute, appreciate being home again.”
I do as I’m told and sit beside her, my hands in her lap, and for a short while we find quiet. There’s no hissing from the missing radio stations or emergency messages on repeat as we wait. The collection of the world’s greatest songs we’d listened to along the way no longer ring in my ears either. We just sit there and listen to the hum of the car’s engine as it again threatens to stall.
While in our tiny microcosm of peace and tranquillity, I’m able to see the bigger picture. It’s hard to comprehend how something as big as the Earth could be destroyed. What has always been there for us will be wiped from existence in one move of the solar pieces. One random fucking occurrence is to be the downfall of everything. Is it fate that put us in the path of destruction? If it is, then fate can kiss my arse. I never believed in it anyway.
Sally goes to speak when a noise interrupts her. A scream echoes down a nearby alleyway, one full of urgency. We then see a woman running down the road, away from an approaching mob of hoodies we hadn’t noticed were coming. That’s our cue to leave.
“Come on.” I walk Sally back to the passenger side of the car and close the door behind her. Since the announcement that all chances of averting the end had failed, she’d become surprisingly calm. I’m the only one who seems to worry still.
We’ve seen similar gatherings of people in the weeks leading up to today, so I know we need to get going. Most of them were out to cause trouble, to put up one last fight against an enemy they couldn’t yet see with the naked eye. Inner cities had suffered the worst of them. Those yet to accept their fate were intending to go out in a blaze of selfish glory.
I expect the same of the group heading our way. As I enter the car I hear the sound of glass smashing and the raging of yet another fire; the streets are going to burn tonight, regardless of what they do. But what I don’t hear is looting. Their aim is destruction rather than theft. After all, why steal what you’ll never get to use?
“Let’s get to my parents’,” I say, my foot pressing down hard on the accelerator pedal. The mob becomes a haze of dark coloured bodies after that. We leave them to act out one last time, in a cloud of tyre smoke.
My childhood home is a semi-detached house down a small cul-de-sac. It’s the same as every other house around it, except for one feature; a proud green door, painted that colour by my Dad during one of his dalliances with home improvements. It’s a nice touch that always sticks in my memory.
There’s a space on the driveway that I quickly pull into. The very second the engine cuts out and I see how dangerously low on petrol we are, I hear the front door to my house open and hurried footsteps coming toward us. I don’t even get the chance to prepare Sally for what’s ahead of us before she’s hoisted from the passenger side by my Mum.
I exit the car and find Dad standing in the open doorway, a deep and sorrowful frown upon his face. He knows the same pain I do, a burden we both try to hide from those around us. I see the same suppressed despair in his eyes that I’ve struggled with for weeks too. The weight of the end of the world is resting on our shoulders.
It probably says a lot about the men in my family that we can be so broken and yet together at the same time. We’re conflicted when happy, and guilty when sad, like someone tilting the scales the wrong way and breaking the balance.
Mum, on the other hand, has always had a knack for ignoring the bad and focusing only on the good. She’s an optimist at heart, something she needed to be with three opinionated men surrounding her.
“I’m so happy to see you both,” my mum says, still with Sally in her arms. “I’m preparing a giant meal for us all. Today we celebrate having the family back together again.” She walks Sally into the house after that.
The smile on my mum’s face, the way she’s so cheerful and pleased we’re there, has me confused enough to stand in the street with my mouth hanging. It’s either incredible that she’s able to see past the terrible disaster ahead of us all, or she’s in complete denial. Whichever it is, I’m a little envious.
“Hey Dad.” I keep eye contact to a minimum. We’ve only spoken a few times since I left.
“How have you been, Son?”
“Good, thanks. Is Mum okay?”
He turns to look into the house, to where Sally and Mum are already working in the kitchen, and I can see it written on his face; he’s more than aware of the odd behaviour. He doesn’t answer my question, though.
“Seen anyone on your way here?” he asks.
“A few people, yeah. Are the neighbours all gone?”
“Mostly. When the government sent out news of their emergency centres, this place became pretty quiet. I think a good few thousand left town.”
“Why didn’t you and Mum go too?”
“You know us, we could never leave this town.”
I try to ignore the paranoid side of me that hears a criticism in that sentence. It’s my own guilt that makes me see insults where none was intended.
He continues, “Besides, it’s pointless keeping the power going if we’re only here for a little while longer.” His voice falters as he swallows hard. “We’ve got our old wind-up radio going in the kitchen. Did you hear the last update?”
I had, around two hours into the drive there. “Yeah. The Lazarus launch went ahead.”
There was hope for humanity’s survival in the form of a mission to Mars. For once, the planet had come together. Wealth had been combined and an enormous building project had ensued, which resulted in the creation of the Lazarus. I’d only seen one picture of the ship before the internet went down finally. It was huge and capable of carrying two hundred people to safety.
“That’s something at least. Come on, let’s have a drink.” Dad doesn’t wait for me to follow. He disappears into the lounge, leaving me to take another peek at the sky; still no sunshine.
There’s laughter coming from the kitchen a moment later. It’s my mum. I decide to leave her and Sally to it for now and head into the lounge instead.
“Here you go, Son,” Dad says as he hands me a full glass. “Seems silly now, doesn’t it?” He takes a large sip and half empties his glass in one go.
“Well, we spent thousands of years learning, building, growing … and all so it could be taken away again, like some cruel joke.” He doesn’t give me a chance to reply. “I can’t help wonder whether we could have done more to stop this from happening. Maybe if we’d tried harder, we might have found a way.”
“They did try, Dad.”
“But there must have been something else they could’ve tried, something they hadn’t considered before. I bet someone out there has the answer, and we just didn’t listen.”
I don’t like the way the conversation is going, so I down my drink in one and place the glass on the table. “So, what’s going on with Mum? Does she understand what’s happening?”
Dad stares at the wall for a few seconds, then appears to snap out of it and turns to me. “News like that doesn’t get through to your mum anymore, Jason. I don’t know why, maybe she’s somehow able to tune it out. I’ve tried to talk to her, to tell her that today is our last day, but … well, see for yourself.”
Stepping back, I look into the kitchen and instantly see what he means. Mum is now chatting freely with Sally, like nothing out of the ordinary is going on at all. Even Sally seems a little unnerved by the jovial tone.
On the kitchen table is the camping stove I bought for a trip I was supposed to take with my brother. Mum’s giant dinner appears to consist of tinned vegetables and soups, all in one pot. Supplies have dwindled over the past few weeks and there’s not much left to eat. There’s just about enough for the four of us, which reminds me…
“Is Andy coming?”
Dad finishes his drink and pours another. “Your brother should be here in time to eat.”
I’m scared to ask, in case it’s bad, but I have to know how Andy has been. “Is he all right?”
“You mean since you left five years ago? He’s about as good as can be.”
“Does he still use?”
“We’ve done our best to prevent that, but Andy’s a grown man. When you moved away he fell hard, so hard I feared we’d lose him. Now, thankfully, he’s been clean for six months.”
I didn’t expect to get a detailed account of how things had been without me there. I haven’t spoken a word to my brother in the time I’ve been away. There was too much anger there before. With everything that’s going on now I’m determined to make amends, even if I have to take the blame for it all myself.
“Does he know I’m here?” I say, while we both watch the activity in the kitchen.
“We told him yesterday. What happened between you two, and irrelevant of who was to blame, I don’t want it coming up today, Jason. We’re here for your mother. If we’d dealt with this earlier then we’d be together already. But this is the situation we’re in. So just put it behind you and let’s have a nice dinner together.”
“A nice dinner? You can’t expect us to ignore what’s going on here. There’s an asteroid the size of North America hurtling towards us that’ll destroy the planet in less than six hours. There’s nothing ordinary about that.”
“You don’t think I know that?” Dad puts down his glass, still full of whiskey, and lowers his head. “No one on Earth knows how to deal with this; there’s no guidelines to follow, no pamphlets to read. We all deal in our own ways, and your mother’s is to pretend it’s not happening at all. Who are we to say she’s wrong?”
It’s a good point. I’ve been so consumed by my own despair that I’ve forgotten that others are going through it too. Sally has often told me to step out of my own head, to consider how those around me are feeling. But so overwhelming is my grief at times that I find it hard to keep my head above it. I despise that selfish side of myself.
Twenty minutes go by while Dad and I polish off three full glasses of whiskey each. Then Sally is ushered into the lounge by Mum, their hands entwined as though trying to stay warm. There’s flour on my Mum’s chin that tells me she’s well and truly in her own world. Without power, there’s no way she’ll be able to bake anything.
“You’ve definitely got a keeper here,” Mum says as she joins my hands with Sally’s. “You’d better marry her soon.”
Before I can say anything in reply, Sally bursts into tears and runs out the house. She leaves a tense silence in her wake, one I have no idea how to end, one that seems to last forever.
For the first time, I see the real struggle facing us as a family. This house was never silent during my many years living here. It was always a loud and joyful household. Now I have no idea what to say to them. Have I been away too long?
“Did I say something wrong?” Mum says.
“Why don’t we go back into the kitchen and leave Jason and Sally to talk for a bit.” Dad puts his arm around Mum’s shoulder and turns her toward the boiling pot on the camping stove.
I give a thankful smile to Dad before heading outside, where I find Sally sitting on the curb and smoking. She’d given up cigarettes a year ago. I didn’t even see her buy a pack today.
“I’m sorry, Jas,” she says, through a fierce drag. “Your mum just caught me off guard.”
“Got a spare one?”
She offers the pack to me. “You don’t smoke.”
“Hardly something to worry about now, is it?” I light the cigarette, take in a deep breath and then gag. The taste of tar on my tongue makes me feel sick. “Disgusting.”
“Yeah, you’re right there,” she says between a puff and a sniff. “I feel silly, getting upset like that. Especially with what’s going on. It’s just, she reminded me of what we’ll never have.”
“What do you mean?”
“A life. We’ve been together four years now and there’s still so much I want to do. I wanted to get married, have children and grow old with you. Now that can’t ever happen…” Tears again begin to run down her cheeks. I catch one on my thumb and wipe it away. “It’s not fair.”
“You got that right.” I draw her close for a hug and rest my chin on the top of her head. “We would have made amazing parents too. I would have been the fun dad; playing video games with them, teaching them how to ride a bike, that sort of thing. You would have taught them everything else.”
A small laugh escapes Sally’s mouth that keeps me from caving in altogether. I do my best to hide it behind another drag on the cigarette, but the sensation is too much to keep me from coughing again.
“How do you smoke these things?”
“You get used to it.” She leans away from me and arches her head up to the grey sky. “Will we see it coming, the asteroid I mean?”
“I doubt it. It’s probably travelling too fast.” I wish I’d paid more attention during the government’s emergency updates, but they were too depressing. “Even if we could, I don’t think I’d want to.”
“I definitely don’t want to. I’m hoping it’ll be instant, when the end comes.”
We’ve had similarly eerie conversations about death a lot recently, like most families I expect. It’s become a subject we can’t avoid any longer. But I still find the calm way in which we discuss our own demise these days a bit unnerving. We’re both yet to hit thirty, we should be talking about which car to buy together or where we’d like to raise our children. We shouldn’t be choosing where we die.
I’m suddenly eager to get back to our plan, to find some form of peace. “How about I show you something?”
“What?” Sally flicks the remains of her cigarette into the middle of the road. I try to copy but mine falls short of the range she manages.
“Come on.” I take her hand and help her to her feet. We then go back inside and I lead her upstairs, to where my old room is waiting for us to explore. A step halfway up the staircase gives out a loud creak that makes us tiptoe the rest of the way. I’ve snuck woman into my room before, but not for a long time. I’m glad I get to see that cheeky smile on Sally’s face again, the one that tells me we’re being a little naughty.
But when I walk into my boyhood bedroom I’m struck by how different it looks. In the time I’ve been away, Dad has turned it into a mini study. The only evidence that I’d ever lived there is in the photos of me and Andy adorning the new desk and shelving units. My things are sitting in a pile of boxes in the corner of the room.
Sally goes straight to the photos and picks up the nearest. “Is this you?”
“Yep, that’s me.” I let her study my younger self in the image, while I dig through one of the boxes. I hit treasure immediately and find my old sticker collection. “I’d forgotten all about these.”
“What’s going on there?” Sally says as she wanders over to the far wall, where another selection of photos catches her attention. But it’s the one in the middle that she’s most interested in.
I arch my head to the side and see the picture she’s referring to. It’s an image of me and Andy standing either side of Dad’s old motorcycle, taken sometime after my fifteenth birthday. The memory wades through the fuzziness in my head and I can see it clearly now. Dad took the photo that day, I can remember his huge smile peeking out from behind the camera.
“Oh, you mean Bonnie.” I join Sally by the wall of pictures and carefully take the photo down to look over.
“The bike was called Bonnie?”
“Well, that’s what we called her. She was a 1971 Triumph Bonneville, which we shortened to Bonnie. She sat in Dad’s shed for years, just gathering dust and rusting away. I was obsessed with that bike. I was certain I could get her running again, maybe better than she ever did before. Dad agreed to let me try after I begged him for three weeks straight.”
“You did it by yourself?”
“No, I had help. Dad and Andy would lend me a hand every so often. But that was around the time Andy fell in with a new group of friends. So, more and more, I was working alone. I must have spent an entire summer just cleaning her up. It took a good few years after that until she was working again. That’s when Dad handed me the keys and said I could keep her.”
“What happened to it?”
I put down the photo and look out the window as I answer. “Andy sold her behind my back, to some drug dealer in town. He was getting into some heavy problems, running with the wrong kind of people and causing shitloads of trouble. I didn’t realise how bad his drug habit was until I got home one day and saw Bonnie was missing.”
“Oh my god, that’s terrible. How could he do such a thing?”
“I thought the same thing at the time. All I saw was an enormous betrayal. I couldn’t see what he was going through, what led him to act so badly. So I confronted him.”
“Is that the row that made you leave home?”
A nod is all I can manage as I remember how nasty I’d gotten towards Andy about it all. Brothers should never raise fists at one another, no matter how bad things are. I was just so angry at the time. When Andy couldn’t explain himself and instead stood with his hands in his pockets, I snapped.
“It wasn’t much of a row, really. I hit Andy, he hit me back and we’ve never spoken since. He’d become a different person. But I should have paid more attention to what was going on with him. He wasn’t eating, was hardly sleeping and said nothing to anyone.
“That’s what heroin does, it changes a person, makes them exist for a single purpose; to find that next hit. It never entered Andy’s head that the bike meant so much to me, and Dad. That one act broke this family in half. Bonnie was a link to the past, to my parents’ past. I had so many plans for it.”
“You had every right to be angry with your Brother. But today’s when you let it go. You and Andy need to make up today, before you run out of time. Do it for your mum, do it for me too.”
Seeing Bonnie in that photo has reignited a lot of the same feelings I struggled with five years earlier. I realise I hadn’t gotten over it before, I’d just learnt to ignore it. Time was supposed to have healed this wound, not patched over it so it could be opened again later. For a second, I hope Andy doesn’t arrive, so I can pretend I’ve grown as a person.
A call from downstairs breaks my concentration. It’s Dad, telling us that dinner is ready.
“Be right there,” I yell back instinctively, like I still live there.
“Your brother is cutting it a bit fine, isn’t he?” Sally leads the way down the stairs ahead of me. She’s right, though, Andy should be here by now. I begin to feel a little guilty about wishing he wouldn’t turn up, now that it looks like I may actually get my wish.
In the kitchen, the table has been made and the cutlery neatly set out for us all. There’s five spaces, even though Andy has shown no sign of attending so far. I sit beside Sally and watch as Mum and Dad go through the serving process. Dad hands Mum a plate, she scoops the broth out of the pot in the centre of the table, and hands it back again.
What’s put in front of me is steaming hot, but of little substance. It’s mainly watery soup with some bits floating in it; I think they’re vegetables. I grab a bread roll from the basket next to the pot and devoir it in three bites. There’s no butter, but I’m too hungry to care.
“Jason, aren’t you forgetting something?” Mum says, with a disapproving shake of her head. “Everyone gets their food before you begin eating. Now, hand me Andy’s plate please.” She rolls her eyes for Sally’s enjoyment.
It’s obvious Dad has figured out what Sally and I have too. If Andy was coming, he would be there already. The deeply furrowed brows on Dad’s face makes it clear he’s aware of this, but he won’t say anything to disappoint Mum. Unfortunately, there’s no way around it. Sooner or later she’s got to address the issue of Andy’s empty seat. Even she can’t ignore that.
For now, none of us want to be the one to say it. After five years away, I see that Andy hasn’t change one bit in reality. He’s happy to ruin our last day together, just to get back at me. Or is he just too ashamed to face me?
We eat in silence, all while Andy’s plate of food goes cold. I stare at that plate as I dip my bread in my soup, thinking of all the bad things I want to say to Andy for not showing up. Mum occasionally sends a look to the empty chair too, as if he might appear out of thin air.
“So, Sally,” Mum says between slurps. “What do you do for work?”
“I’m a … was, a librarian.”
“Oh, are you not anymore?”
I let my spoon drop into my bowl and sit back, with an exasperated look to Dad. He quickly looks away. “No one’s working anymore, Mum. There’s other things to worry about right now. You know what’s happening, right?”
“Jason, that’s enough,” Dad says, before pushing his bowl away.
“But Dad, this is idiotic. We didn’t come here to pretend nothing’s going on. That chunk of space rock heading for us doesn’t care if we’re ready to die or not.”
Mum claps her hands together to distract us. “Right, who’s ready for a cuppa?”
“Mum, listen to me…” I can’t help it now, I want her to acknowledge the situation. “You can’t ignore this.”
“Oh, stop going on about it,” Mum finally answers. She glares directly at me. “Nothing is going to happen. You always do this. They’ve said things like this before and it always turns out they were wrong. I’m sure they’ll realise their mistake soon enough. And when that happens, I’ll expect an apology.”
“No, Mum, they haven’t got it wrong.”
“Dammit, Jason,” Dad interrupts me to say, but he’s stopped by Mum’s hand on his shoulder.
“I don’t want you talking like this when your brother arrives,” she says, which angers me even more.
“For crying out loud. He’s not coming.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Of course he’s not, he’s Andy. He’s probably holed up in some crack den somewhere.”
“No! You shut up, don’t say that. If you hadn’t left in the first place then things would never have gotten so bad.”
“Me? You can’t blame me for that.” I’m boiling over with emotion now. There’s a stinging feeling at the back of my eyes and a hesitation to my breathing. I can’t believe she’s putting the blame on me, like I set out to cause them harm. She doesn’t even see Andy’s addiction as a factor at all.
There’s nothing more I can say in response, I’m literally lost for words. An entire dictionary of nouns and verbs has vanished from my head, seemingly emptied on the floor around me. My only reply is to leave the table and head out into the street.
I slam the front door, find the nearest car and kick ten shades of shit out of its passenger side door. I don’t stop kicking until I feel bruising on my big toe. I could fight off the damn asteroid myself, I’m so ready to unleash. I have to stop my outburst once the metal of the door can’t cave in any more.
Exhausted and in some mild pain, I lean my palms on the car’s bonnet and shut my eyes. I concentrate on my breathing alone. I’m not distracted by the front door to my house opening and knowing that it’s Sally come to check on me. She no doubt assured my parents that she could calm me down. I’m not a violent person, so this is completely out of character for me.
“Hey, hey, calm down, Jas,” Sally says, her hand on my chest. “It’s going to be okay.”
“What? How can you say that? We’re all fucked! We don’t deserve this.”
“No, we don’t. But some things just can’t be changed. So change what you can in the time you have left. We came here so you could make up with your family.”
“Yeah, and that’s been going really well so far, hasn’t it? We should go and get drunk, and forget we ever bothered coming here today.”
“Fine, if that’s what you’d rather do. But tell me, is that any different to what your mum’s doing? Everyone needs to face the problem, not turn around and run. Now, I agree that didn’t go as well as we’d hoped. So let’s try again some other way.”
“Meaning what, exactly?”
Sally takes my hands in hers and pulls me away from the car. She then stares deep into my eyes. “What’s really upsetting you is Andy not being here, right?”
“You mean apart from the whole death-by-asteroid issue? Yeah, I guess you could say that. We did come here to bring the family back together again.”
“Then let’s do that. Let’s find Andy. Where could he be?”
I’m stunned by the suggestion. It sounds insane, and yet exactly what I need. “You’re actually serious, aren’t you?”
“Absolutely. How long do we have?”
“Just over three hours.”
“Good. So, where could he be?”
“What about Mum and Dad?”
“I told them I’d take you for a little walk, to help get your head together.”
My hometown isn’t a big place. I can list every shop there is on one hand, even after five years away. There aren’t that many places Andy could be hiding. His friends from school all live quite close by, I can remember most of them. It’s been years since he stopped seeing them, though, so I try again. Only one address comes to mind, but I’m hoping to god that he’s not there.
“There’s a small flat around the corner; he might be there,” I say, leading the way at a brisk pace.
Over my shoulder, I reply, “His dealer’s.”
Sally quickly catches up with me and hooks an arm around mine. “You think he’s gone back to his old habit?”
“I’ll be pissed if he has. But I can’t think of anywhere else he might be.”
We reach the end of the street and turn right onto the main road. There’s no activity as far as the eye can see; no lights in the houses, no cars driving by, not even the street lights are on to guide the way. It’s like the world has already ended.
Then we see something up ahead, toward the end of the road. As we draw closer we find ourselves suddenly surrounded. There’s a roundabout at this spot, but I can’t see it now for all the people there. The area has become the epicentre for a gathering, all holding candles and looking to a giant wooden board in the middle.
When a space opens, Sally breaks away from me and pushes her way through the group. They let us through, to see what’s going on at the front. Without saying a word to anyone, I’m automatically drawn into the middle, whether I want to go or not. I stay close to Sally so I don’t lose her suddenly.
Someone then hands me a candle and a piece of paper. I’ve no idea what I’m supposed to be doing. But Sally seems to understand, so I copy her every move. She takes a pen from a large pot at the front and begins to write on the paper. It’s then that I look up to the board in front of us.
There’s messages and photos spread across almost every part of the wooden surface. It takes me a few seconds to realise, these aren’t the faces and words for those already lost, they’re final goodbyes from those still here. People much more capable of dealing with their grief than me have left messages of hope and thanks for the life they’ve lived.
The sentiment is an alien one to me. I’m not even close to being ready to accept this. I want to fight with all I’ve got left, even if that eventually proves pointless. I wish I was like Sally, I wish I could write anything but a ‘fuck you’ to the end, but I’m still too angry.
Sally finishes her note and finds a suitable place to stick it on the board. She then lights her candle and makes a small space for it amongst the many others there. It’s a calm affair for those attending. No one has said a word since we arrived. That alone makes me want to leave.
I soon feel overwhelmed and have to abandon Sally in the centre. Each smile I see only makes it worse too. How can these people be okay with this?
On my own, I stand still and gaze up to the evening sky as a swarm of obscenities escapes my mouth. I’m furious at the sky again for not brightening up for our last day. Did I do something to upset the weather? I don’t see it as too much to ask for one more sunny day.
“Jason, what’s wrong?” Sally says from behind me.
“Nothing. Can we go now?”
“Sure … okay.”
The flat is only one more road away now. I just want to find Andy and get back home without stopping again. It should have been a nice thing to find so many people together and supporting one another. Instead it’s made me eager to get away.
Down one last road and we’re finally at the right place. It’s dark there too, but a dim light on the second floor fills me with dread. There’s people there.
“Maybe you should wait down here?” I say, knowing full well Sally won’t listen.
As expected, she walks straight past me and pushes the front door open. There’s a staircase inside, one in complete darkness. I take the lead and creep up the stairs.
“Andy?” My voice is far too quiet for anyone to hear.
The door to each fat is open, but they’re empty inside. I step past the busted entrances, taking a peek at the mess beyond. Either someone has had a quick go at finding any remaining valuables or those leaving did so in a hurry. It seems odd that anyone would be in a rush now.
I turn a corner and spot the light I’d seen outside. It’s coming from the flat at the end of the corridor. Sally stays behind me as we take small steps toward it. I’m ready to fight if needed. For all I know there’s a room full of people who don’t want to be interrupted. I tell myself to be ready.
But when I enter the dimly lit room I find only one person awake inside, sitting on a dirty mattress strewn across the floor. It’s Andy. In his hand is a syringe, which he’s turning over between his fingers. There’s three other people lying around him, their faces sunken and their eyes showing only the whites.
“Hey,” I say, suddenly not sure of what to do. “Andy, it’s me, it’s Jason.”
Andy’s hair is matted and full of grease, and far too long. Strands hang down over his eyes while he stares at the needle in his hand. It seems to take ages for him to even notice me there. When he finally acknowledges he has company, his face tightens.
“Jason?” he replies. “What are you doing here?”
“We came to get you. I really didn’t want to find you here, Bro. Why don’t we go home?” I approach slowly, stepping closer like I’m sneaking up on a wild animal. I don’t want to spook him, in case he jabs himself. The pointed escape route he appears to be contemplating fills me with fear.
“Go away, Jas.”
“Andy. Look, Mum and Dad want us all together.”
“Why? What’s the point? We’ll all be dead soon anyway. I’ve been sitting here for hours, trying to decide if I should take one last hit instead. So, please, leave me alone.”
I step over one of the comatose bodies and hold my hands out toward Andy’s shoulder. “You don’t want to go out that way, do you? Wouldn’t you rather go out surrounded by your family?”
“I honestly don’t know. I’ve never been the person Mum and Dad wanted. I’ve let them down too any times before, so why change now?”
Sally speaks from the doorway, with a soft voice. “Andy, you don’t know me, but I’ve heard all about you. I’d like to get to know you a little more, while we still can.”
“You wouldn’t like what you’d hear. I’m not a decent person. I’m selfish, always have been. I put the people I love through hell, and all so I could get high.”
“It wasn’t you, Andy, I see that now,” I say, feeling myself losing that rage I’d had stored inside for so long. “The drugs made you do those things.”
“I keep telling myself that, but it doesn’t make it any less painful to remember. I didn’t even apologise for those things. Like Dad’s bike. I sold it for drug money, without a single thought of how shitty that was. I pushed you away completely too.”
“That doesn’t matter anymore, Andy. What is important is that we get over it today.”
Andy turns and faces me. “If the world wasn’t about to die, would you have come home at all?”
The question puts me in an uncomfortable position. Do I lie and say I had planned on coming back, or tell him the truth? There’s a strict time limit on this conversation, so I avoid answering his question. “You want to say sorry for selling Bonnie? Then go ahead, now’s the time. There won’t be another chance after this… Well?”
“Go easy on him, Jas,” Sally says.
“We don’t have time for this.” I make a move for the syringe in Andy’s hand, snatching it away from him in one move. He puts up a feeble fight to regain it. His body is weak and cold to the touch.
“Fuck off, Jas. Give it back,” he yells. The noise barely registers with those around us, who are too out of it to know what’s going on.
“No way.” I hold it high above my head, keeping it out of reach as Andy stands up. We shove each other a couple of times, but I’m much stronger than he is. Ten years ago, he would have knocked me down easily. “You’re coming back with us, if I have to drag you there myself.”
“Please, Jason, just give me the damn needle.”
“I didn’t come here to watch you do something stupid. I came back to see my family together again. So what if I probably wouldn’t have come back for a while longer if not for that damn asteroid. I’m here now and I want to set things right. I need to set things right.”
“But you hate me. Isn’t that why you left town?”
“What the hell are you talking about? I don’t hate you. I hated this town, I hated seeing you slowly killing yourself. I needed to get away, to clear my head. But I should have come home sooner. I should have helped you, Mum and Dad through your addiction. Instead, I ran away. If I could go back and change how I acted, I would. I just want things back to how they were before.”
Andy slumps back down onto the mattress and hangs his head. “Me too. I wish I could have fought against it. I don’t even know who I was during that time. It’s taken me a year to kick the habit and I’m still waiting for the old me to resurface. Now the world’s about to end, I’ll never get the chance to find the real me again. I just wish there was time to make it up to Dad, for stealing his bike.”
“Wait, maybe that’s it.” Sally steps forward and places a hand on Andy’s arm.
“What’s it?” I ask.
“Bonnie. That’s how you set things right again.”
“She’s right.” I can feel a sense of excitement building as I think it over. It’s perfect, I decide there and then. The balance can be restored in one reckless act, one I hope Andy is up for. “Andy, who did you sell her to? Wasn’t it your old dealer in town?”
“Yeah, so what?”
“So, let’s get her back.”
It’s almost as though I can see the thought process going on in Andy’s head as he sits there staring at the sleeping woman a few feet away from him. He’s no longer paying any attention to the syringe I’m still holding. I take the chance to rid myself of it and launch it across the room. Andy reacts when it hits the far wall behind him. For a moment, I’m worried he’ll run over and retrieve it.
“I know where he lives,” Andy finally says. “But he won’t be happy if we take Bonnie from him.”
“Who gives a shit! He’ll be dead soon, just like the rest of us. At least we’ll have the whole family back together again. So, what do you say?”
“Okay, I’m in.”
We leave the flat and head out into the night. It’s a short walk to the house Andy says Bonnie is being held at. I feel like I’m leading a rescue mission deep into enemy territory as we decide on a plan.
“If we see her there, we just take her and run,” I say.
Andy tries to keep up with me as we talk. “What if someone spots us?”
“Then I’ll hold them back. Chances are no one will be there anyway.”
“Let’s hope you’re right,” Sally adds.
When we get to the right place we all huddle down behind a bush out the front. It looks deserted, just like most other streets in town. Everyone else is taking their final few hours to find a way of accepting their fate. We, on the other hand, are settling one last score before it all ends.
“Anyone see her?” Andy asks.
I peek over the top of the bush and see a shadowy outline on the front steps. It’s been a while since I saw the bike and yet I recognise the wheels instantly. Bonnie is a little battered, but she’s still intact. Now’s the time to get her back.
Without warning the others first, I stand and launch myself over the waste-high hedge. My landing is unsteady and I’m pretty sure I’ve pulled a muscle in my calf, except the adrenaline has dulled the pain a little. So I go on, sneaking across the grass toward the front steps.
“Jason, someone’s coming,” I hear Sally say from the hiding place.
As my left foot touches the lowest step, the front door swings open and a large man with thick steel-toe-capped boots and a black t-shirt stands there looking at me. I’ve seen that ugly face a few times before and know straight away that we’ve found the right place. Andy’s drug dealer friend was never far from Andy’s side during those bad times. A puff of smoke flows out the house behind him.
“Who the fuck are you?” the guy says. He doesn’t remember me at all.
I don’t even bother to answer him back. Instead, I take my chance to surprise him and bundle him to the ground. We land in a heap and I elbow him in the face before he can say anything else. I then scramble back to my feet and head over to Bonnie. From behind me, I hear the guy rolling around on the ground, trying to find his footing.
Bonnie’s tyres cause her to bounce down the steps and I race her back across the lawn to the front gate, which is hanging at an awkward angle. There, I run straight into Andy, who is whooping and cheering. He grabs the bike’s handle bars and pushes her along the road with me.
“Fine, take it. I don’t need that piece of shit anymore anyway.” The guy continues to shout at us as we speed around the corner with our old bike.
For a short while I feel like I’m a spotty teen again, out causing mayhem. I’m laughing so hard I’m finding it hard to breath properly because of the excitement. Andy’s the same. We share a few looks from either side of the bike, with Sally pushing from the rear. Behind the lines on his face making him look twenty years older, I can see the boy I’d grown up with is still there somewhere.
But only a few streets later and that boyish enthusiasm is already fading, replaced by a very adult realisation. We’ve experienced our last few laughs together. All that’s left is to see it through to the end. Life as we know it is coming to a close and we’re almost out of time.
“We should’ve done this a long time ago,” I say as we turn the corner and enter our road.
Andy sighs. “I’ve missed you, Bro.”
That one sentence helps me come to realise something; I’m not angry anymore, about any of it. We’ve got Bonnie back and the family too, there’s nothing left to be done. In some way, I’ve found contentment. I may be about to see the end of the world, but I’ll see it with the right people, the people I care the most for.
Sally heads straight inside the house and leaves Andy and I to prepare the bike for presentation. We rub off the loose grease with our sleeves and kick off any lingering mud on the wheels. Then it’s ready.
The instant Dad spots Bonnie there he staggers back in shock. When he sees that Andy is with us too, he’s about ready to fall to the ground. But after the surprise has passed, he goes back inside the house to get Mum.
Mum’s reaction is more audible. “You found Dad’s bike,” she yells. “Andy and Jason, my two boys, back together again too. I’ve been hoping for this day for years. Come on, everyone inside. I want a picture of us all, to hang on my wall.”
“I think that’s a great idea,” Dad answers. He can’t take his eyes off his old bike now. “Wait here.” He darts back into the house once again, but this time returns with his old camera. He winds on the roll of film and lines up a shot of us all.
“No, Dad,” Andy interrupts. “You’ve got to be in it too.”
“Oh yes, of course.” Dad sets up the camera on the boot of my car, balancing it at roughly the correct height to capture the moment. He then positions himself in the middle of us all, with Bonnie in the front. “Smile,” he says.
With one click of the camera’s shutter our family is brought irrevocably together again, the moment solidified and given substance on a single roll of film that will never be developed. It’s a picture that no one will ever see either. But we don’t care. All that matters is that we’re smiling.
I take Sally’s hand and look at her. She returns the look. “You were right,” I tell her.
“About what?” She replies.
“About this. I’m glad we came here for our last day. My family might not be perfect, but at least we’re not fighting anymore.”
She leans her head on my shoulder and squeezes my hand gently.
As we all stand and chat freely around Dad’s old bike, I can’t help but feel happy. When the time finally comes, in just over an hour’s time, and the world descends into a fiery hell, I’ll be ready for it. I’ll be able to say that I’d done my best in life and been as good a person as I could manage. I’m no longer a slave to the grief the whole planet is suffering from. I can accept it finally.
Now I just need to help Mum, Dad and Andy to accept it too. Sally has taught me the importance of reaching this stage and I want to share it with them. It’s the least I could do to make up for leaving them when they needed me the most.