The Day After The End of the World (a short story by EE)
I submitted this story to three magazines and got three rejections. I still think it's one of my best pieces of writing. I thought my readers deserved to see it. So, here it is. Enjoy. xo, EE.
She’d been putting it off for months. She still didn’t want to look.
Instead, she sat by the window for a long time—and hour at least—watching the late afternoon light shift and change, disappearing for a moment behind the scattered clouds and then slipping out again. Every time the sun reappeared, the gingko trees on the opposite side of the street startled awake, flaring yellows and ochres.
Last year at this time she’d painted the trees. The light had mesmerized her then, too—albeit for different reasons. Last year she was looking at it with an artist’s eye. Today, as she held up that painting against the window and compared it to this year’s colors—she was looking for something else. There. There it was. Something was different. The leaning tree was leaning more and another tree was still fully dressed in greens. The gingko trees which, last year, had all turned in a synchrony of brilliance, now seemed to be turning at varying rates.
She’d lived in this apartment for ten years. For a decade she’d watched those trees turn in tandem. She considered for a moment whether climate change was to blame. Probably. But she hoped it was something else: a sign of impending doom. She felt a faint thrill of hope. She walked to the kitchen and checked the calendar hanging on her fridge. It had only been a week. It felt like a year.
She tried not to look at the angry “X” slashing across last week. But beneath it, she could still see the word “RAPTURE” written in confident all-caps. The End of the World was supposed to happen last Tuesday. The only thing that’d happened was a Past Due notice landing her mailbox. She was late on rent. Late on utilities. Late on everything. Of course she was; why pay bills when the world was ending? Why check that lump in her breast?
“You know,” her old neighbor, Mr. Baker, had said to her last week when he spotted her huffing down the hallway with a bag of trash. “If you look for signs that the world is ending, you’ll find them.”
She’d shot him a dirty look.
“It doesn’t mean the world is actually ending, though,” he called after her. “I thought you’d be glad to hear this!”
She didn’t reply, just continued down the hall to the trash chute. The fact that she still was taking out the trash when she was supposed to be in Heaven was extremely frustrating. Not to mention highly inconvenient now that she was jobless, broke and basically friendless. She tossed her trash down the chute, thinking it was just like how she’d tossed away her life savings to Brother Samuel.
But today she felt a little better, even if it was only because of the gingko trees and the matter of their belated turning. Once again she felt something almost akin to hope.
The gingko trees were definitely telling her something. Perhaps they were telling her that Brother Samuel had simply gotten the date wrong; that if he could just see her gingko trees, he’d realize his prediction was only a few days off, or maybe a few weeks. A couple of years. It was an understandable mistake given the billions of years of Earth history. Anyone could make a mistake like that. There was no need to run off and leave everyone hanging. She needed to tell him this. She needed to encourage him.
Instinctively she reached for her phone and pulled up her text messages before she remembered he was gone. Brother Samuel had simply disappeared. Like the sun behind a fog bank. Just poof! Gone. And with him, all her money.
Nobody seemed to know where he’d gone or when (if) he’d be back. His sad, little tribe of followers met last Thursday night at a coffee shop once it was clear the world wasn’t ending. The stock market, in fact, was up. Way up. The unemployment numbers were down. Way down.
Since their church building was locked and the only person with a key was Brother Samuel, they shuffled around the coffee shop like refugees, unsure whether to sit or stand.
“The radio says this might be the end of the Recession,” someone finally said, by way of breaking the ice.
“Is there a refund for the world not ending?” another guy half-joked and everyone half-laughed. It was a painful joke. They’d all been secretly hoping the same thing.
“My daughter who hasn’t talked to me in five years called,” said an old woman. “I let her go to to the answering machine. I couldn’t bear to hear her say, ‘I told you so.’”
“I need to go to the dentist,” someone else said. “I put it off because who needs a new crown when you’re about to get an entirely new body?”
She could relate. Months ago she’d put off seeing a doctor about the odd lump in her left breast. And now, a week after the world didn’t end, she finally forced herself look at her breasts in the mirror. Slowly, she unfastened her bra.
The lump was misshapen like a smashed golf ball and pulled her nipple sideways. She touched it gingerly. It was hard and unmoving. She turned away from the mirror quickly and buttoned up her shirt.
She allowed herself the smallest of gin martinis with a bright twist of lemon. As she took her first sip she felt a sting of guilt—Brother Samuel strictly forbade alcohol. The hell with it. He was gone, everything was ruined, why not have a drink?
She settled herself, feet up against the windowsill. She sipped her drink and watched the blanched light slowly die, the street lights blinking on pre-emptively when the sun dipped behind a tall building. The thought came to her that she wanted someone in her life who would call and say: “I told you so.” How nice to have someone who would do that—a daughter who had not called for five years, sure, but a daughter who called eventually. A person who cared.
But she didn’t have anyone like that. All her friends—more like acquaintances, really—were just other people in Brother Samuel’s church and after the world didn’t end, none of them felt like talking to each other. None of Brother Samuel’s followers had become particularly close during those two years leading up to the big day. He was far too brilliant a light. They couldn’t look away from him.
They were a ragtag band of mostly college-aged misfits. Some still attended school. Others worked entry level jobs. She went to a community college part-time and worked in a small tourist shop near Disneyland selling souvenirs and postcards with Mickey Mouse saying Wish You Were Here! But she was fired for telling tourists The End of the World was nigh. There wasn’t much commonality between Brother Samuel’s followers except all of them seemed to crave a deeper meaning to life, a purpose bigger than themselves. Or, in her case, an excuse not to get that lump checked. That was eighteen months ago. A lifetime ago.
In hindsight she could see how annoying/alarming she must have sounded to her family and non-church friends; how she’d yammered on and on about the end of the world: sell all you have and give it to this dude named Brother Samuel. No, I promise this isn’t a cult.
It was dark when she stood up and went back to the kitchen to make another martini. She felt warm, weightless and filled with a kind of glowing radiance. She hummed a little as she poured the gin. This wasn’t so bad, the world not ending. Maybe she could find a way to enjoy life again—but then she remembered the lump. Might as well make light of that, too. She decided to name the lump Herbert. A friendly sort of name for an unfriendly sort of thing.
“To Herbert!” she said, raising her glass.
The dark apartment offered no response but the streetlights seemed to be winking at her through the fluttering leaves of the gingko trees across the street. She winked back. All in good cheer. One for all and all for whatever.
Maybe just one more drink. One for my baby and one for the road, she hummed as she fixed herself the martini. She threw it back, quickly. It burned her throat and made her eyes water but she didn’t care.
Let it burn. Let it light her up like the noonday sun.