I needed a break from my brain and writing guru/author/force of nature Chuck Wendig, whom I’ve informally adopted as my occasional assignment editor when not actually working, provided it with his flash fiction challenge of Feb. 20, 2014: “Take a random song (use iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, etc. to accomplish this). (…) That random song’s title is now the title of your short flash fiction.” I opened iTunes and the first title I saw was “Until the End of the World,” so… here goes. [Terrible Minds]
Until the End of the World
Julie sat on her big white towel and Tom ran toward the surf, kicking up sand. It was 11 a.m., 78 degrees fahrenheit, and the sky was clear. Tom stopped as his big feet splashed in the foam and turned. Julie shaded her eyes with her hand, watching him. She smiled. Tom smiled back, turned and ran into the ocean.
Tom plunged into the waves and swam slow with a steady stroke. He thought about the morning, running together before sunrise. Julie had worn her silly five-finger shoes, Tom his tattered New Balance. The sun was rising, gold with a crimson edge, as they entered the state park’s main trail and cruised toward the summit. Once there they paused, skins silvered with sweat. He kissed her forehead. She looked up, eyes bright: “Let’s go. Race.” And they were off. They didn’t talk much when they ran. The act itself was a conversation.
Tom loved Julie, but he hadn’t told her yet.
When Tom returned to shore, they were still the only people on the beach. He scanned the slope up to the state highway, the trail they’d walked, carrying a basket, bag, and towels. Wind stirred the Monterey Pines.
Julie said, “There’s no 3G.” She held out her iPhone for him to see.
Tom sat on his towel. “Huh,” he said, “there should be.”
“It’s okay,” she said. He wasn’t sure she meant it.
Julie opened the sunblock. “Want some?”
Tom smiled. “Yeah, but what if someone comes along?”
She smiled and said, “Pervert.”
Julie rubbed sunblock between his shoulder blades. Tom said, “Did you notice those shooting stars before we ran this morning?”
“I did,” she said, “Something to do with that comet?”
“Yeah. The Big One!” he said, laughing.
“I wish my phone worked here,” said Julie.
They ate turkey wraps and whole grain chips and drank white wine from clear plastic cups. Julie talked about her job. She was a teacher but wanted to make a change. “To what?” asked Tom.
“Stripping,” she said.
Their laughter startled birds gathered nearby in a conspiratorial klatsch. In an angry storm of white feathers, they flew out to sea.
Julie said, “It’s time for a change.”
Tom finished his wine in one gulp.
Later, well past noon, they lay drying on their towels. They’d gone into the water together and goofed around, shoving each other into breaking waves, and it was fun.
Julie sat up on her elbows and said, “I’m going to the parking area, see if I can get reception.”
Tom rubbed his neck. He wondered if he had a sunburn after all. He looked at the swelling sea. The wind was steady and strong. He watched sea birds struggling, high above the shoreline. He was uneasy. He didn’t know why.
He said, “Let’s go.”
On the drive back, Julie turned on the radio. The first station was static. “Weird,” she said. She pushed “seek.”
The digital readout cycled. It stopped on a man speaking Spanish. “Do you understand this?” She asked Tom.
The announcer tense and speaking too fast to understand. Tom heard “emergencia” and “presidente de los Estados Unidos.”
He turned off the radio.
“Why’d you do that?”
“We’re almost there. Whatever’s up, it’ll be all over TV. Check your phone again.”
“Weird,” she said, “still nothing. I always get good reception on the highway.”
She sat back. From the corner of his eye he could see her rubbing her thumb and forefinger together. He wanted to grab her hand and hold it tight, but he didn’t.
Once inside, they stood in Tom’s living room as he clicked through every channel. Nothing but blue screens or color bars. Some were old-fashioned snow. Tom picked up his old clamshell cell and called his Dad. “We’re sorry,” said a recorded voice, “your call could not be completed as dialed.”
Tom looked at Julie. “Nothing’s getting through,” she said, laying her phone on the sofa.
Tom checked his laptop. His internet connection was down.
Julie said, “We should walk around, ask people what’s up. This is weird.”
Tom took a bottle of Dewar’s from a shelf above his refrigerator. He poured two shots. “This is what we should do. I kind of need to.”
They drank until the sun was a fading and pale red flood of light across the ocean outside Tom’s wide living room window. Then they made sandwiches. They remained silent as they ate, standing at his kitchen counter.
Julie said, “What’s going on? What could it be?”
“I have no idea,” he said, “Terrorist attack? On communications?”
“Seems like it’s more,” she said.
A volley of shots ripped the twilight outside. Julie yelped and dropped her shot glass and Tom pulled her into the living room. “What the fuck?” he said. He glanced at the window and two shadows ran past. He led Julie into his bedroom.
They heard more shots in the distance, then yelling. Sirens wailed, grew closer. He was holding her close and could feel her heart thumping. “This never happens here,” he said. His voice was hoarse. He was dizzy from the scotch and adrenaline.
She looked up at Tom and opened her mouth as if to speak, but kissed him instead. It was a greedy kiss, hungry, and he almost stopped her. Then he couldn’t. Then he didn’t want to.
In his unmade bed they rolled in low blue light from the window. It was like crashing into a wave again, searching for peace in the roaring silence of the green blue below. They slid, grabbed and turned, and it was desperate and hard and necessary. The light of day went out of the room, pale fingerprints fading from sun reddened skin.
More shots shattered the newborn night outside. Sirens blared and reds and blues flashed by. Tom and Julie were several kinds of drunk and deaf to them.
Then they lay, stuck together, breathing hard. “I need to know what’s going on,” she said, “are we going to die?”
“I don’t know,” Tom said, “I don’t know. I’m scared.”
“I am too,” she said. “This is so strange, so…” her voice faded.
“I love you,” said Tom.
The scotch and stress and adrenaline had taken a toll. She was asleep.
Tom woke at 3 a.m.
His head hurt. And what a strange dream yesterday had been. He was certain now, as his head throbbed and he felt Julie breathe beside him, that there were explanations for everything. Sometimes the world went crazy, sure. Sometimes it just felt that way.
Tom put on his running gear in the dark. He touched Julie’s face but let her sleep. He wanted to see what had happened outside by himself.
As his feet hit the pavement, it occurred to him that he must still be pretty drunk. He wasn’t sure it mattered.
The shops and boutiques a block north of his place were in disarray. Someone had firebombed the old Sea Dog Men’s Clothing shop. Tom kept running north, toward the state park trails. He saw more destruction. A police cruiser crashed through a small health food store. A garbage truck on its side off the highway.
Tom kept running.
He’d run two miles or so when a flaming tongue of fire split the starless sky above and with a great roaring hiss arced out over the ocean. He stopped and watched it go, a warm flush of fear rising in his gut.
Tom turned and ran as fast as he could. He had to wake Julie. He had to tell her he loved her and make sure she heard it. That was probably all he’d have time to do.
False dawn bloomed to the west. Soon, there would be thunder.
Self-conscious note: the key to flash fiction is to do it, get it done, get it up–that’s my understanding, anyway. I think I went pretty literal with this song title inspiration and if I had it to do over again, might do something way less obvious. I’m going to leave this as a permanent blog post but will also copy the story to private files to give myself room to tinker with it later. I say this now so if I do that and publish it in another form anyone who bothered to look would say, ‘oh, he said he might do that.’ Also, Chuck’s challenge said 1000 words and I blew it there, the story proper is 1291. Lastly: if I think one good thing about this story (I’m at a ‘HATE IT’ stage as I write this note) it’s that if nothing else, it matches the mood of the song–linked in the note at the beginning–whose title inspired it.