Star short story contest 2014: Third place
The Apocalypse will not happen all at once. It may very well unfold slowly, over time
The world can end in so many ways.
Gamma rays are my greatest hope for us, really. It would be blessedly quick. Not entirely clean, of course, but nothing that annihilates sentient life on a planet ever could be. If you really think about it, gamma rays are the brain aneurysm of doomsday scenarios. Instantaneous death. Painless, probably. We’d be dry roasted like trussed-up turkeys in a nanosecond.
“Min.” There is a note of warning in David’s voice. “Perhaps we should talk about something else.”
Stuart and Camelia are here. We are sitting in the dining room. Rich, dark mahogany. Candlelight. The nicest room in our house. We never use it.
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“Gamma rays, you say?” Stuart’s eyebrow is raised. “What about the Rapture? That would be something to behold, eh? All of those naked, righteous souls floating like hot air balloons to meet Jesus. Quite the elegant mass exit!”
We are eating cashew chicken and jasmine rice with chopsticks. It is the closest approximation of Chinese cooking that I can muster. More North America’s notion of Chinese cuisine, really, but I’m Vietnamese, so what do I care? Whenever we entertain colleagues, I know that David wants me to play up the role of Young Asian Wife, even though I’m not specifically young anymore. He says that my whipping up a pot roast and scalloped potatoes tends to make WASP wives squirm in their seats.
“This is delicious, dear” Camelia says. She is wearing a maroon pantsuit, a string of black pearls and smells of L’Air Du Temps. “Very exotic.”
The sweetly compliant Young Asian Wife smiles and thanks her while emptying her glass of Pouilly-Fuisse.
“Atomic bombs, now there’s a whole other thing,” booms Stuart. There are beads of sweat on his brow. “War. Escalation. Radiation. Some loony toon in North Korea or somewhere in the Middle East pushes his red button and it’s all over. Kaboom! Done.” Stuart makes the motion of washing his hands of a situation. “So long, Charlie!”
“We visited the Middle East once,” says Camelia. “Dreadful place!”
“It’s not the bomb that’s going to do us in,” I say. “It’s going to be the honeybees.”
“More jasmine rice, Stuart?” David wipes his mouth with a napkin. Stuart waves David off and looks at me, head cocked.
“Colony collapse disorder. The bees die and there goes our food supply. That’s what will bring about the end of our civilization.” I gesture to our table. “Cashews require pollination. Green peppers, too.”
“The bees will be just fine,” laughs David, embedding his elbow in the general area of Stuart’s ribs, sheathed as they are in a dense, fleshy parabola. “They’re nothing but pests, so they’ll stick around forever. Like cockroaches. There will be honeybees buzzing about long after we’re all dead. But go ahead and sign another online petition.” To no one in particular. “My wife, the activist! Can you believe it?”
“I saw another dead bee in the rose garden today,” offers Camelia.
“I don’t see why people are frothed up about the extinction of some bloody insect or another,” Stuart starts up like a diesel lawnmower. “We can pollinate crops ourselves. With technology. Hell, even by hand! Saw it on TV once. All of these Chinese on ladders, dipping feathers or paintbrushes or some-such into apple blossoms. One at a time. Agriculture — science — will find a way.”
I pour myself another glass of wine.
“Did you know,” David tells them, “that we own five different can openers?”
“Five of them!” Camelia gasps in wonderment “What on earth for?”
“To be fair,” I feel my cheeks starting get hot. “The electric one was a present from David’s sister in-law.”
“And the other four?” Stuart’s eyebrow seems to hover in mid-air.
“The other four don’t require electricity.” My voice is staccato, quavery. I calmly gather up the dishes. “We’ll need multiples down the road, because what if one breaks? What if two break? What if the pollinators all die and there aren’t any hosts food sources left and all we have are cans but no can openers? We’d have to survive on whatever had been canned the year before. Peaches and lentils and beets.”
“Oh my!” That was Stuart.
“David doesn’t like me to talk about it.” I glide into the kitchen and place the dishes in the sink. I open a drawer and turn the faucet to full blast, hoping it’s enough to mute out the sound of the cap popping off my bottle of Lorazepam. “He thinks it makes me seem crazy. But it’s better to be prepared. Better to look silly than starve.”
“You should see the storage room under out stairs,” I hear David tell them. “Bottled water everywhere.”
“It’s this global warming I’m most concerned about,” Camelia says as I take my seat next to her. “Melting ice caps. All of this coastal flooding . . .” She is gently shaking her bourbon glass so that the cubes within repeatedly clack against themselves. An Orff ensemble in miniature. I wonder if she’d ever been beautiful.
“You’re worried about global warming after these wretched winters we’ve been having?” Stuart shakes his head.
“Ridiculous,” agrees David.
“Absurd!” says Stuart.
David pours more wine. “Dessert, anyone. Min makes a wonderful khanom krok . . .”
“London will look so beautiful under water, don’t you think?” I say dreamily. “Big Ben as the centrepiece of a new Atlantis . . . “
“Har!” is Stuart’s one-note response.
“Perhaps a pandemic will get us first,” I absently sip at my wine. “That, or an asteroid no one ever saw coming. A super-volcano that blots out the sun!”
“Honey, you’re being morbid.”
“I’m being realistic!”
“You’re being morbid and dramatic and you actually sound like an insane person. Can we please change the subject.”
It’s a command, not a question. Stuart and David go on to talk about stocks and dividends and the gold standard. Camelia and I regard one another benignly. My wine-drunk mind flits about lazily, like a honeybee, from one flower to the next.
I think about dead fish washing up on shorelines. Dead birds falling from the sky. Ominous harbingers of a system much bigger than ourselves. There’s something sexy about the ending of things. Like how a highway car crash or neighbourhood fire can be bizarrely exciting.
There’s something in my chest, a feather in my ribcage. It tickles and I giggle. Now it’s on my chest and I have to get it off. I have to get it off of me because I’ve kept it in for so long now and I will otherwise jump out of my skin.
“Did you know,” I laugh, “that David can’t get me pregnant?”
And suddenly, I have their full attention.
“Oh, he’s tried and tried, you know! Poor dear! I know it’s not me, because . . . well, let’s just say that I know. Good at stocks, bad at storks, aren’t you, darling? And did you know that he’s too proud to even talk to his doctor about it?”
“Min.” David’s eyes are saucer wide.
“Maybe we should try feathers, David. Or, I know! Let’s try paintbrushes!”
I laugh harder, looking from David to Stuart, Stuart to Camelia, Camelia to David.
Dinner is over.
He didn’t leave a note explaining himself, but then again, he didn’t have to.
I touch each of these four walls, one at a time, hoping that the cool hardness will give me clues. Hoping that, in this quiet and empty dining room, he left a vibration of what he was thinking, of where he was going. Had he hesitated, even for a moment, before closing the door behind him? These walls reveal nothing. They don’t tell me whether or not he is ever coming back, but I already know the answer.
The Apocalypse will not happen all at once. It may very well unfold slowly, over time. Floodwaters slowly rising molasses-slow until there is nowhere left to migrate. And we won’t even notice that there is no air left to breathe, that’s how slowly it will all unfold. Our way of life dwindling until there is nothing left of it. Just nothing left at all.
The world can end in so many ways.