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The Way the World Ends

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends

He couldn’t remember the next line or even whether it was a song or a poem. He trudged through the thick brush, the shortcut from Sarah’s house to his. Normally now, on his way home, he would be thinking about Sarah, her teasing ways, her softness, her warmth. He would consider how lucky he was to be chosen by such a popular girl, especially during his senior year. To be the one privy to her thoughts, her fears, not to mention her body. He and Sarah did have fun together. He allowed himself a smirk at that thought, since only owls and bats and small rodents were out on this dark night to notice.

But lately, when he was with her, he felt different. It was almost like, when he was with Sarah, things didn’t make sense to him, like he didn’t remember anything he had ever learned in any class or anywhere else, like nothing else mattered. The words and images that he used to help himself feel connected with the world somehow didn’t matter as much. He would wonder briefly if it could be the power of the physical—some British poet probably said that. Perhaps he should try, at least try, to dwell less on that and more on some other aspect of Sarah—personality or looks or sense of humor, all of which she had. He was sure she wasn’t like this with anyone else. College in a few months would try to separate them, but it wouldn’t. They were connected. He could feel it in his gut.

This is the way the world ends

Those words kept coming to him and he didn’t know why. It was disturbing. The night itself was disturbing enough, warm, stifling in fact, with a closeness that made it hard to breathe. Only a few stars glimmered. No moon. The only light was from the development of new homes on the left of the tiny forest area that remained what his parents called “forever wild.”

That was a laugh. Especially after that movie tonight, the one he and Sarah missed the end of because her parents had left to go buy something or other. Once her parents were gone, their mutual need to touch and feel quickly grew stronger than their desire to watch television. The movie still on in the background was about a worldwide disaster. They both knew that already. And of course, there was a young couple that found love during the first hour—a forever love, he snorted to himself, that probably didn’t make it to the end of the film.

He was surprised that he remembered even that much because sometimes when he and Sarah were together on the couch in her basement, he couldn’t even remember his name. She would whisper it sometimes. Joey, she would breathe against his neck and he would think, Oh yeah, Joey.

He stumbled, stubbed his toe on a rock and lurched into a bush that grabbed his baseball cap. It was gone in a second, somewhere out of sight in this darkness. Shit. He felt for it, trying to imagine the science of finding it. Was physics involved—an equal and opposite reaction? Had the earth’s gravitational pull sucked in into the dirt path? Was he stepping on it?

Sarah had given him that hat. It was gleaming white with the word “Trojan” on it. He should be able to see the white in all this blackness. He fumbled more, reaching high, reaching low in the bush, the branches scraping his arms and hands. Nothing. He dropped to his knees, gently patting the ground. Still nothing.

He wasn’t giving up. He stood, wondering where next to try, wishing for some light. He looked up at the dark midnight sky, thinking astronomy, looking at what he thought was the constellation Cassiopeia. He wished upon her brightest star, willing a celestial event, not of a disaster magnitude, not enough to destroy a forever love, just enough to satisfy his selfish need for his favorite hat.

Brightness unbelievable lit the thicket and all the houses. He could see his hands and feet and glimpsed his hat, buried deep in the bush. More than that, as he looked back over his shoulder, he saw a ball of fire from the heavens, a meteor maybe, coursing downward, flames translating into light. Its head and long tail cascaded toward earth, toward him, toward his hat.

For a moment he thought it was over. The hairs all over his body stood on alert. He felt electrically charged, capable of great strength and will. He threw his arms over his head to shield his face. He knew he should grab for the hat now that he could see for a few seconds, but he feared missing the end of the flaming scene. Whatever happened now he would remember forever.

It must have landed miles away with an earth-wrenching crash that by the time it reached Joe’s ears was no louder than the thud of several car doors closing. But the brightness that remained was huge, red and yellow and orange like the cover of the CD with the Armageddon movie’s soundtrack on it. He waited for the litany of other natural disasters that the movies had convinced him would happen—the flood, the bugs, the earthquake. But all was deadly silent. Only the sky stayed loud with color for a few minutes longer. Then all was dark.

He was alive. He touched his arms and legs to make sure. He reached where he remembered his hat to be. Yes. He grabbed it and put it on. When he tried to walk, his legs were weak. He sat down with a thump on the dirt path, just for a moment. He wondered if anyone else had glimpsed the event his selfish wish had created. He felt drained like after the first time he and Sarah had been together, relived the sound of the meteor’s thud, not unlike her parents’ car door that first time when they came home unexpectedly.

He closed his eyes, replaying the loud colors that had swirled briefly at his command, that had emblazoned themselves in his memory.

After a few minutes, he felt stronger, energized like he had felt in school when he answered questions correctly in class. With the colors still in his head, he stood, face toward the heavens, absorbing the darkness, searching for Cassiopeia’s star. He felt calmed by a fading vision of Sarah’s face, her smooth cheek rubbing against his, her soft whimper of completeness enveloping him.

He breathed deeply, feeling brilliant, confident, as words and images poured into his head. He could remember science and history and psychology and English—even English. And he remembered the next line, maybe the last line of what he now knew to be a poem. He’d have to find out who wrote it. Eliot somebody.

“Not with a bang but a whimper,” he said out loud, to the rodents, to the bats, to the owls, to the forever wild. “Not with a bang but a whimper,” he repeated in a whisper to Sarah, her face disappearing, replaced by vivid colors and words and words and more words.

Copyright © 2002 Kathy Johncox

Kathy Johncox is a fiction writer with a collection of short stories and a novel looming over her shoulder as works in progress. She was an army brat and traveled extensively in the U.S. and Europe for her first 20 years. She has thought of herself as a writer since ninth grade when her English teacher told her she wrote like John Updike. Armed with that thought, she majored in English in college, took periodic creative writing classes and seminars and now writes fiction morning, noon and night, fitting it in between working in marketing communications at a local university. She has published op-ed pieces in a local daily newspaper, and her stories have been published in Lake Affect Magazine and Buffalo Spree Magazine. Her novel is in revision and her short story collection is searching for an agent.