The following piece of flash fiction originally appeared as a writing lesson in point of view on Eat Sleep Write, and I wrote it as an exercise in the depiction of fear as an emotion. It seems emblematic of the feelings many have at the close of this year, especially as we peer toward the future and see dim prospects. Yet, despite what you might gather from the text of this story, I am an optimist. I do believe, short of a world-swallowing Shadow, humankind will be OK in the end.
Last Day at the Observatory
Twenty minutes left to live. The icy wind cuts deep, but not as deep as the Shadow. Shadow of death–mine, everyone’s. When it was farther off, 6 hours away at the edge of the horizon, it reminded me of the shadow the earth casts on its own atmosphere at dusk, a gray wash arcing above the edge of all things. Now it’s as black as pitch, a wall stretching from sea to sky, north to south, limitless and inexorable, blotting out the stars.
Inside, my back presses against the door. Warm air blows down from the ceiling vents but can’t push the cold from my blood. I’ve spent my life studying celestial anomalies and in 20 minutes one is going to kill me. My heart is a trapped wren, flitting and flapping, held prisoner by ribs, stuck in the clutches of lungs that insist on doing their job. I’m still breathing, even if my ears hear those breaths as sobs. I came to the top of this mountain to see the beginning of time, not the end of it.
The Shadow is behind this door. It’s coming, 15 minutes away. Knees weak, chest tight, I slide to the floor, creep into the control room, anxious for a place to hide. Sam’s red high tops sprawl out from behind the second monitor. On one shoe, the shoelaces hang loose, snarled in a knot, aglets dangling. Sloppy dresser, Sam. Not a sloppy death, though: asphyxiation with a plastic bag. That was tidy. Leave it to Sam to MacGyver his way out of this.
The second monitor beeps with fresh data, like it’s been doing every 30 seconds since we lost Tonga 18 hours ago. Almost 18 hours. It must be aliens, we said in emails and phone calls that spider-webbed from observatories and military bases all over the world. It started at midnight on New Year’s Day at the International Dateline, for god’s sake. The Australians, the Japanese, the Chinese and Russians sent probes and then teams into the dark. They learned nothing, equipment and men swallowed by the void. There was that Aussie reporter who tried to stay ahead of the leading edge. Poor dumb woman didn’t realize how fast the world turns, but what a panic after her live feed blipped out. Riots in Hong Kong and Shanghai, Mumbai on fire, the crush of bodies seeking a last blessing in Mecca. Back on the Mainland people were loading up their semi automatics, some barricading themselves behind steel doors, others squealing through town in pickups, howling and shooting. More riots in New York and Atlanta, Chicago, Houston. Everyone without a gun rubbing shoulders with neighbors packed into every last church and temple and mosque in America. I wish I’d gotten through to Mom but never heard anything but that damn woman telling me the lines were busy and to try again later. An hour before sunset, the phone lady went silent. God, last time I talked to Mom was two months ago. I’d meant to call on Christmas. Damn the time difference.
Three minutes to midnight. My last three minutes hiding under my desk, whimpering. I could go outside and face the void. That would be heroic. My cheeks dry, my breath quiet, I’m shivering. It’s cold up on this mountain, but not inside. Power’s still on. I think the wren caged in my chest has hoarded all the blood for herself. Shit, the damn thing beeped again. Two and a half minutes. How’s that song go? “Daisy, daisy, dah dah dah dah da dum.” Crap, I could never remember that stupid song. What if Sam had stuck it out? Would I have–god no, last man on earth–uck, no. I hate being alone, though. I wish I’d gotten through to Mom.
There’s another beep. Down to 1 minute. If I’m wrong about God? Hell, if I end up in Hell, at least I’ll get to find out what the hell this thing is that’s going to kill me. A little snort flares my nostrils, and my lips curl up. Ears prick as the last beep sounds, and silence cuts it off.