Ten days left
I grind my boot into the pavement, trying to scratch off a piece of gum, listening to Ellie ramble on about the likelihood of surviving—well, just about anything. She goes on and on with the statistics on surviving certain situations. The lowest is, of course, a nuclear attack. Unfortunately, as she constantly points out, this is the one we’re going to face.
The attack happened at 12:33 p.m. yesterday, followed by a message from congress.
I think it was the first time that congress apologized for anything. Apparently, they had fired a missile onto the wrong base (or rather, a missile on the command of Mr. “I Have a Bigger Button Than You”) and the country (you can probably guess) declared war. The frightening thing is, they’re giving the U.S. ten days to prepare for it. Not really prepare for it, just ten days until they fire a nuclear weapon at a “heavily populated city.” It’s probably New York, and we’re all scared shitless. This has never happened in U.S. history—I know that battles in wars don’t start immediately after being declared, but never before has a country with a lot of military power given the country at a possible disadvantage time to prepare itself. And, quite frankly, we’re at a full disadvantage. This will be the first war waged on the U.S. with a stale, wrinkly, disgusting cheeto in the presidenc—
“Pen, are you listening?”
“No, Ellie. I’m not going to lie to you—you’re going on and on about the fact that we’re going to die, so I’ve been trying to think of kittens the whole time. Kittens are much better than the impending death of all we love.”
Ellie blinks for a few moments, and then begins walking away.
“Wait—wait, I was kidding.” I’m not. Ellie was always a downer, but never this much. I got used to it, found it endearing, even, that someone so smart and seemingly optimistic would know about so much bad shit and still be able to reiterate it all so cheerfully, as if it rolled off her tongue like one would talk about their favorite hobbies or shows.
“If you’re not going to take nuclear war seriously, then why do I even bring up the concept with you?” She takes out a pack of cigarettes. She said she wanted to try one before they become currency of a post-apocalyptic world.
“Because everyone else we know is trying to scratch everything off of their bucket list before the ten days are up?”
She struggles for several moments with the lighter—she’s always been one to live by the most cautious of rules.
“Need some help with that?” I try to reach for the lighter, remembering almost burning my thumb off when I had to light my cousin’s candles at her birthday party three months ago, which was the last time I touched a lighter.
“No, I’m alright.” She keeps doing it wrong, and I want to help her because this is somewhat embarrassing but all the same it’s pretty funny. She’s never so much as cut a class before, but she told me that tomorrow she’s going to try to cut her AP Latin class because, “Mr. Richards gave me a B on my last test because I wrote, in Latin, that Claire stole a watch from Mr. Durbin and sold it on the black market in exchange for Wiccan charms. We were supposed to come up with sentences out of the ordinary that followed the typical Latin sentence structure. He thought I was joking and showed it to Durbin. Durbin didn’t find it to be funny, but I wasn’t trying to be. He had been looking for that watch for three months, and I thought it would be useful for him to know the true fate of his belongings.”
“Then why’d you get a B if it was correctly formatted?”
“Oh, it was because the other sentence included a link to said watch on a Wiccan website, and apparently URLs aren’t a part of proper Latin sentence structure.”
“Maybe you can get Claire to help you with lighting your cigarette?” I suggest, hearing the click of the lighter and Ellie swearing under her breath every second she can’t seem to get it right. She never swore.
“Whatever,” she says, throwing the box and lighter out in the nearest garbage can, saying, “let’s go get matching tattoos instead, I’ve always wanted to do that.” She says it as if she’s serious, but I know that she doesn’t have that much of a daredevilish bone in her body. All the same, she did just try to smoke a cigarette with a lighter she barely knew how to work. And, to give her credit, she had to bribe an 80-year-old man with diabetes (who didn’t want to take his insulin) to get the cigarettes for her in exchange for enough money for a lifetime’s supply of chocolate.
It really is the end of the world, isn’t it?
Nine days left
I walk into homeroom the next day, and everyone is hotly debating why we were given ten days. The teacher, Ms. Albertson, is biting her nails at her desk, staring at her laptop, as if she’s hoping it’s all a cruel joke. Everyone is hoping that it’s just a cruel joke played on us by cruel people, one that would be the true revenge enacted by the world against America.
There are speculations flying left and right, not just during homeroom, but throughout the day.
“America deserves it,” someone says. “I mean, after all the country as a whole has done—”
“But what about all the innocent people—”
“Innocent? What really is—”
“I don’t think you—”
It’s all just noise—at least to me, it is. Everyone is trying to provide themselves with an answer that they hope will fix the problem. Even finding out the answer won’t fix it. It’s not like they’ll listen to us—they ignored us the last time we all banded together. It’s not a riddle—it’s real life. Holy shit, it’s real life.
Some of the teachers are making bets about which of their least favorite faculty members or students will go first. I could have sworn that I heard my name in one of the bets this morning.
Lunch is one of the only things that’s the same—it is bland and tasteless, as usual. Ellie, having successfully cut AP Latin, sits next to me, guiltily eating her pudding.
“I can’t believe I forgot about Elaine,” she keeps saying, staring into the dark, chocolate abyss. Ellie’s full name is Elaine Gother. There was another Elaine Gother in the school who also went by Ellie. They were in the same AP Latin class, and every day they had a ritual of picking which Ellie sat in the two assigned seats they had. “I wasn’t there to fight over a desk with her.”
“What’s one day?” I ask, trying to decipher if the food on my plate is mashed sweet potatoes or…mashed carrots? Pumpkin? Whatever.
“She saw me in the hallway. I paced for the entire period—I was afraid the whole time—and when the bell rang, she looked me in the eye with fierce disappointment. She said, ‘It’s the end of the world and I get the bigger desk. What a hollow victory to behold.’ She said it in Latin, of course. ”
“Ellie, listen to me,” I say as I push away the plate in front of me. I pull out a piece of paper and write out a single sentence. She tries to look over and see what I’m writing, but I shield it with my arm.
“What I’m about to show you is of the utmost importance. Think you can handle it?”
“Ellie! I need you to be absolutely sure that you can handle this information. Not even the FBI knows this information!” Yes, I have always been this melodramatic.
“Penelope, just show me what the paper says.”
I move my arm. I wrote, Death was inevitable in the first place.
“The FBI knows this already,” she says, rolling her eyes.
“Yeah, and they’ve jumped ship,” Gordon says. “They’re frightened because no foreign power can reach any representative from the country who decided to kill us.” Gordon is Ellie’s boyfriend. He matches her in intelligence and reluctance to live a little bit.
“What about our allies? Are they going to help us?”
“Help us do what?”
“If we flee?”
“Canada is the most scared country currently. Part of it could get impacted if a nuclear blast hits a certain part of America. In fact, even if it doesn’t, if the U.S. goes, a lot of the economy goes, but still, there’s—”
There’s a sudden hush across the lunchroom. Everyone has gotten the same notification on their phones.
It’s been made official that New York will be hit in nine days.
The hush quickly turns into terrified screaming.
Ellie tries to yell over the screaming. “There are nuclear weapon protocols, war protocols—even car rental protocols—but nothing to be done about this?”
“That’s because no one ever does it. There’s always been, ‘If you do A, we’ll do B,’ or, ‘If you don’t do this, we won’t be afraid to do that,’ with nukes. Never, ‘Because you did this, it’s time for you to go.’” Gordon starts pacing, just like his girlfriend. Ellie starts pacing with him. What a couple.
“You forgot every war ever, genius.” I snag a fry off of an empty table. “A lot of wars were started for no good reason. It doesn’t surprise me that something similar has happened.” Someone brought a huge bag of fries to share before the world ends. Neat. “I, quite frankly, have accepted the inevitability of my own death, so it might as well be when everyone else bites the dust as well.”
The two of them look at me in horror.
“Kidding, this sucks.” I frown and take three more fries.
Hollow victories feel much better when you’re about to lose everything.
They also feel much more hollow.
Eight days left
People keep trying to escape the city and country. Someone told me that their family also owns their own space company, so if need be, they can get the necessary training to escape to the moon. I call bullshit.
We’re on DEFCON 1.
So many people are leaving, but my family can’t, and neither can Ellie’s, Gordon’s, Ms. Albertson’s—so many people have to stay. Some people are just moving states, but it’s almost pointless.
Everything has become pointless.
Seven days left
They canceled school. Not just for today, but for good.
Ellie is halfway through her bucket list. She ate dirt and bugs, she went skinny dipping, she punched a tree, she got stitches (actually on her list), she got drunk and had an awful hangover, and so many more things that sound like it could have taken years, but that was just a couple of hours yesterday.
“Where do you think we’re going to be when it hits?” I ask, crunching some leaves beneath my feet. New York has become a less and less dense city. All of the people who are left are ones who can’t afford to leave on such short notice, ones who are stuck until their flight later on in the week, the homeless, those who just don’t care if they live or die, and me.
I don’t tell her that my family is leaving tomorrow. I’m not leaving with them. They’re moving to Canada. They all have their passports. Mine expired last month. Even now, with everyone fleeing, other countries have a strict “you need documents to get in” policy. Everyone is preparing to live and be free and happy. I have to die in seven days.
“We should go out in an epic way—dancing in a club and wearing ball gowns—” Ellie gets up and begins to walk around, each step adding another dimension of exaggeration to her already energetic self. She keeps pacing even though she’s still hungover. That’s Ellie.
“Ellie—” I hadn’t expected her to go into so much detail already.
“And we should get drunk and sing our hearts out—”
“Ellie—” I sigh, realizing how much she’s thought it through. How my vision is much more bleak than hers. It has always been.
I met Ellie on the first day of freshman year, when we were both bright-eyed and bushy-tailed kids with high hopes and dreams. She stayed that way. I grew depressed. Throughout the whole ordeal I still had her there to remind me that life is worth living because one day I hoped to be as hopeful and happy as Ellie.
“And we’d have strippers dance all around us—”
“What about Gordon?”
“He’d be a stripper, too. And—and—”
“Ellie, take a breath,” Gordon says, handing her a bottle of water. He had left to get us coffee.
“I wanted coffee,” Ellie says, frowning.
“I know. I just thought it would be better to have water first.” He gestures to the tray he holds of two coffees.
“Wait, where’s Pen’s coffee?” Ellie asks after chugging her bottle down.
“Right here,” he takes out both my and Ellie’s coffees.
“Didn’t want any. What’d I miss? Apparently I’m a stripper now?” He quirks his eyebrows up in confusion.
“Ellie was just saying how she wants it all to happen before the end of the world.”
“With the club and stripping and drinking?”
Gordon sighs. “No matter what, I’m not wearing fishnets. Those make my legs look terrible.”
I take the train home a good three hours later. We spent the afternoon talking about what we think comes after death, what we think dying will feel like, and how we would have wanted to go.
Halfway through my train ride, the the train pulls into a stop ever so slowly. “Ladies and gentlemen, the train service has been discontinued indefinitely due to…unforeseen circumstances. Please exit the train in an orderly fashion, and make your way to the platform above.” Everyone gets off the train, and, in no way an orderly fashion, goes up to the street. The buses have stopped mid-ride, and the cars stopped as a result. Everyone is walking around the city, wondering what the hell is happening. I’m ten blocks from my house. I can walk home and it won’t be a problem. The woman next to where I’m standing is in a wheelchair, around 23 years old. She tells me, “I live 40 blocks away, and my boyfriend can’t pick me up because he’s stuck in traffic.”
“How far away?”
“He’s coming from our house.”
I speak to five other people while they wait for their rides to arrive before they resolve to just walk the distance. All of them treat this as if it were just another New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority incident on any Wednesday. It’s not, but the woman in the wheelchair is leaving with her boyfriend to go to Russia to stay with her parents tomorrow. There’s a couple who was going to visit Namibia anyway but moved the trip closer due to the same “unforeseen circumstances” that the MTA used to stop its service.
I’ve never trusted the MTA, and although it’s a major inconvenience, I’m glad that I no longer have to deal with them on a daily basis.
I walk home in silence, my hands in my coat pockets. I don’t want to listen to my music. My head feels so jumbled.
At first I made jokes to cope with the fact that everything I know is ending and everyone I love is going to die if they don’t get out. The fading sunlight hits my face and I almost start to cry. I can feel everything welling up inside and I can’t let it out. I want to, but I can’t. It’s the end of my world and I can’t do anything about it.
I always joke about how Ellie and Gordon are the ones who don’t know how to live a little. At the very least, they know how to accept things the way they are. I can’t. I was never good at accepting that I can’t save everyone, and now I’m faced with the awful reality that I can’t even save myself. It would be one thing, too, if I didn’t actually mean that the world was ending. If I meant it in the way that adults on television say that all teens exaggerate things and make miniscule things mountains. I honestly never thought the end of the world would evoke an existential crisis for myself. Go figure.
Six days left
The city is becoming a ghost town. Almost no one is here. I’ve lost my appetite.
My parents and five siblings left this morning. I’m the oldest of all six kids. They wouldn’t stop crying. I haven’t stopped crying. I think I don’t want to die. Too late for that, isn’t it?
I’m sitting in the park, my coat slightly unzipped, and a homeless man is rooting in the garbage for something. I make the joke in my head that he’s looking for a will to live. I immediately realize how unfunny it is—the suicide rates have gone up since people realize that they’re going to die at any moment.
My city is dying.
Ellie isn’t going to meet me today. She and Gordon wanted to have a day to themselves.
The evacuation teams aren’t doing so well. The government gave up—so many politicians jumped ship, so there weren’t enough to help get everyone out of the country, and some countries have begun to close their borders. I feel like some smirked as they did it, getting revenge on the America that hurt its people.
I see some of my former classmates sitting in the park, smoking weed and singing songs from the late 60’s about the Vietnam war that they, in their smoke-filled haze, find relevant to today’s dilemma. I almost want to join them, but, to be honest, I don’t want to spend one of the last days I have high and wandering like a lost child. Most stores are closed. In fact, the only ones that are open are those that belong to people who can’t leave.
I spend the day wandering the tunnels. No trains are running through them since they were all taken to the lots and shut down. People spend time down there getting high, drunk, or wandering around just like I do. I like seeing the city from down there. The third rails aren’t on, so I can wander safely through the broken glass and needles that litter the ground. And the people that lie still on the ground. So many bodies.
A lot of people weren’t able to leave. There are a lot more homeless people than the city cares to admit. There are a lot more poor people than the city cares to admit. There are a lot more people with more problems than the city cares to admit. Even before the government jumped ship, there were a lot more problems with the city than people cared to admit. It’s sad that nothing will fixed now.
Five days left
Ellie’s dead. Gordon says that she had wanted to try heroin. That’s enough said, I guess. I didn’t want to believe him, but then I saw.
I used to stay over at her house when we were younger, and she would always fall asleep before I did. She looked then like she looks now—calm, but this calmness has more of a permanence that will stay for an eternity even after all is said and done. I never thought that five days before the end of the world my best friend would die of a heroin overdose.
I never thought any of this would happen in the first place. It was all too much for me.
Ellie is on the train tracks, next to a couple of other dead people who I don’t know if they accidentally or purposefully died of drug overdoses.
Gordon and I walk away from the tracks, but I keep looking back.
I stop. “Should we bury her?”
Gordon stops and looks at me, as pale as ever. I think he wants to ask, “Where?” and, “How?” and, “Why?” all at once, but he doesn’t say a word. I don’t know the answer to any of these questions.
“We can’t just leave her.” My voice breaks. “What about her broth—”
“Albert won’t want to see her like this.” Gordon avoids looking back down. I don’t think he wants to start crying either.
We bring Albert down to the tracks anyway. It wasn’t hard to find him—he was sitting on a park bench trying to make friends with the squirrels. He is 23 and was a trying to become veterinarian before this whole ordeal. I say trying because he didn’t have enough money to go to college. He was saving up for Ellie. Now, he wouldn’t need to.
Albert Gother stands here, staring. His eyes slowly fill with tears. His hand goes to cover his mouth as he begins sobbing.
Their parents died in a car accident when Ellie was 5 and he was 11. They got tossed around from relative to relative until Albert turned 18 and their family collectively decided he was old enough to take care of his sister on his own. Ellie was his world.
“We gotta bury her,” he says, sobbing and on the ground, hugging Ellie to him.
“You!” Albert pointed at Gordon, his eyes red and sad. “You let her do this to herself!”
He isn’t wrong. Gordon knows this. He says nothing.
“And you—” He points to me as if to say I was an accomplice, too.
“I didn’t know she was going to try heroin. I would have stopped her if I knew,” I protested.
Gordon still didn’t have anything to say.
It was just the three of us and the bluish corpse of my best friend lying still on the train tracks. The blast would give them a proper burial.
Or at least that’s what I told myself as we walked away from the train tracks.
Four days left
Gordon’s gone missing. He’s probably not actually missing, it’s just that it’s too big a city to find someone in without a cellphone. He knows where to find us.
Albert is getting himself drunk, which is ironic. He’s singing old folk songs, just like the high kids in the park. He’s just more off key.
He keeps singing that Country Joe McDonald song, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag.” It’s clear that Ellie was the more musically inclined one in their family.
“We’re all gonna die, Penelope,” is all he says to me that’s not in song.
We’re sitting on a couch in someone’s house. From the looks of it, whoever owned the place seemed to be happy. The fridge’s contents have been emptied, either by the owners or looters. The windows are broken. That was definitely looters.
I wonder if they made it out alive.
“Albert?” I start slowly, hesitating in asking the question I want to ask. “What do you think death feels like?”
“Well, I, not being able to actually go to medical school,” he begins, each word being slightly muddled in a drunken sentence, “used to watch animal euthanasia videos on YouTube—”
“Oh my G—”
“—and also cremation videos—”
“—of both people and animals—”
“The f*ck is wrong with you?” I stand up and turn to face him.
“You’re surprised now? You’re disturbed now?” He takes another swig of his…whatever it is. I don’t know alcohol…well. “Do you know how many people we saw on that train track or on the sidewalk or in a ditch? For all we f*cking know we won’t get killed.”
It was confirmed we would be. Yesterday, there were reports of weapon tests off the West Coast.
Albert continues on in his very drunken haze.
“Honestly, right now, animal euthanasia videos sound much more soothing than whatever we’re facing.” He curls up into a ball on the couch. “Much more soothing,” he repeats, taking another swig. He falls asleep not too long after.
I can’t sleep, so I wander around the house.
The family was pretty well off, considering the nice house and assuming it explains why the house is empty. They had three kids, all seeming to be under the age of 16. They had a cat, once, long before the frightening scare of now. The cat died three months ago—the urn is sitting next to a plaque that was probably for the urn of someone’s Grandmother Margaret.
The bed in the middle of the master bedroom is broken; the mattress is gone and the frame is cut in half. Two of the five windows are broken, and the paint on the wall has what looks like dried blood spattered on parts of it. There is a mystery here that I will never have the joy of solving. I wanted to be a detective when I grew up. When it still mattered. When everything still mattered.
I wander around the now darkened house in the now dark, abandoned neighborhood in the now sullen, dark, abandoned city.
There is one bed still left intact—it is in a hidden room behind a bookcase. Once again, a mystery I will never have the joy of solving.
The room is covered in dust, and there is a sheet thrown over the bed, as if its habitant(s) knew that it wouldn’t be used in awhile since they left it. There are no windows in this room, but the lights still work, as if they operate on a circuit independent of both the house and the electric company.
The bed is comfortable and the sheets are relatively clean. I turn out my light and mystery, and fall asleep alone, hoping even now that it’s all a cruel joke.
Three days left
Albert comes in and sunlight creeps through as I hear the creak of the bookcase-door.
I tell him to let me sleep one more day away. He says nothing. I hear a soft thud. I look down and see him leaning against the bed frame, pulling the dusty sheet closer to him to cover him. I soon hear his soft snoring.
I’ve been having the same dream for the past several days, and when I close my eyes, everything’s the same.
I’m standing in the middle of Times Square, the hustle-and-bustle is back, and the skies are clear and the people are happy. At least, their mouths are. I can only see their mouths; the rest of their faces are a blur. All of a sudden, the sky darkens, and their mouths morph into horrified, horrible contortions. The rain falls as tiny missiles, and people get buried in piles of them, everyone around me until I do as well. And then I always wake up.
Except, this time, it’s not the dream that jolts me awake.
Two days left
There is a pair of eyes looking down at me.
“Get up,” a gruff voice says, kicking me. I quickly sit up and look around. There is a full room of light, both from the mystery lamp and the bookcase-door being wide open. The eyes and voice belong to a woman in her early thirties. She has matted hair and a smell coming from her, one worse than the one I or Albert have from not bathing in a couple of days. She seems to have been homeless before the world began to end.
“Can’t I just sleep one more day away?” I ask, no longer frightened by her presence. She pulls out a knife. My wave of fear comes back over me again.
“No, you’ve gotta get up. There are people outside who want to take people to someplace good. Someplace clean. They said that if I help them gather up people I can get extra food. Get up. I want extra food. California’s gone.”
“What?” Albert asks, groggily. He’s on the end of the bed, curled up like a puppy.
“New York has had the ten days. Haven’t you heard anything?”
New York had ten, California had nine. I didn’t know about the nine. Instead of putting out any declaration of war like they should have, the government took their money and orange man and fled.
“Get up, get up!” The homeless woman shoves Albert onto the floor.
We walk out of the house, myself wary of the van that sits in the front of the house. The only van. The rest of the street is empty and abandoned. All other vehicles, the two that are still there, have broken windows. This lone white van has dirt smudges as well as a metallic smell that reminds me more of blood than any actual car metal.
We look at the homeless woman. She has a different look in her eye, as if she needs us to get into the van for something else to happen.
“Get in.” She says, reaching for her knife. “Get in, now.”
I tackle her before she fully gets the knife out. I wrench it from her hands and point it back towards her while pinning her down.
“Who’s in the van?” Albert asks, bottle, although empty, still in his hand.
A man jumps out of the van and runs towards him. Albert sighs, breaks the bottle over the mailbox, half broken, and stabs the man in the stomach with the busted end. The man screeches, but the wails quickly fade as he sinks down into the ground.
He sighs like he has done this before. Well, there were the few days between when the end of the world was announced and when he was with me for an entire day.
The homeless woman screeches at me and tries to claw at my face.
I don’t know if I have any morals anymore. I don’t know what I’m living for. I guess it’s no surprise to me that I don’t feel anything when the knife glides smoothly across her—
Even though I did it I still don’t want to admit it.
One day left
The world is ending on a tuesday. A Monday would have made more sense, but I guess this is how New York crumbles. Like a cookie.
The van has a small amount of gas in it, but even if it didn’t we still wouldn’t have been able to get far in the span of a day. I don’t know how long we have left. The roof of that family’s house had a sundial, and I checked it an hour ago, when it appeared to be approximately 8:00 in the morning.
I think that, when it’s all said and done, it will be a swift end. Very quick is how I’d like to go. With any luck, Albert and I will be very close to where they decide to drop it. Albert is sitting next to me, all drunk and asleep. He told me to wake him up right before it hits so he can properly (yet drunkenly) say goodbye.
I don’t have many thoughts. I thought there would be so much I wanted to say, but the past ten days have gone by in a sort of weird haze. I don’t know what I want my last words to be. Not that anyone could record them. But I want to come up with something.
“I’ve always hated the MTA and the trains,” I mumble to an asleep Albert. Like a true New Yorker, my last words are filled with the disdain that all New Yorkers feel for the MTA. It’s never been fully functional, and the company always wanted more money than it deserved for crappy service. For years, the people of New York have had to complain on and on about them.
I mean, I’ve alwa