Short story #2
It was a wet November night when the story broke.
A thin gasp rang out across every house in every town. The world inhaled, held its breath in unison. Exhaled. Then, silence.
It’d been spotted.
Seven years since The Great Rain started. And now, today, the end had been written. A full stop added.
Sarah watched through a rain-streaked window as a great ship hurtled across the sky above. It shined like a shooting star, burning up the last of a world’s wishes.
In Green Town, Illinois,—as in all corners of the planet—rain seeped down into the foundations of every building. Sarah felt soaked through, though she hadn’t left the house in years.
She tried to lock eyes with her mother, Jessica. Both of them trembled. They could only manage to stare around the other’s gaze, eyes scanning the room like searchlights, unable to cross beams. A voice echoed: a news reporter, rolling on in the background, solemn and grave.
Their eyes shimmered, focussing and refocussing, wandering and blinking. Tension entered the room. Tension that reverberated on the walls, burrowing into their stomachs, tension lurking between the furniture and inside the cupboards.
“So soon?” Sarah whispered.
“So soon”, her mother echoed, still battling to meet Sarah’s eyes. She narrowed her gaze slightly, shifting her weight to one foot.
“Then we must leave? Right now.”
Her mother sighed.
“No, we won’t leave now. Everyone will be doing the same, thinking the same. The roads will be full. People will be unpredictable.”
“…And what difference would it make? Where would we go? It’s all the same planet, dear.”
Sarah assented with a half-nod and a blink.
In the end, it wasn’t a threat that was going to end the world. It wasn’t genocide. It wasn’t even, really, a struggle.
There weren’t any aliens coming. No nuclear fallout.
It was an agreement.
Suddenly, a HVAC filtration system began to croak. It filled the front room with the low humming of machinery and the taste of recycled air. The rain outside had been picking up more than usual. It crashed against the roof, knocking on the windows, hammering the doors. The house cowered, battered like a hopeless ship in a sea of endless, violent waves. And in the wheelhouse of that storm, stood Sarah and her mother. The HVAC, reporter, and rain traded performances, each playing a part in some discordant orchestra.
“I’d like to go outside, just one last time. I’d like to do that more than anything.”
“I know, dear. Me too”.
The last ship out of Washington had just left Earth. That meant the agreement had been made: nothing could be saved. Not one bit of it.
Sarah paced. They finally managed to catch each other’s gaze, and a mother watched the end of the world crawl across her daughter’s face. Jessica wondered what Sarah could see in her own eyes. She tried to think of some words.
“We humans have a capacity for destroying beautiful things, don’t we? Creating them, yes, that too. Just look at you dear—I know, I know, but I’m going to say it, let me say it…”
“I’ve been to the Himalayas, I’ve seen the tallest mountains. I’ve travelled down the ancient route of the Silk Road, watching rolling, luscious steppes unfurl in every direction I could see. And Shanghai’s skyline… even deserts! Yes, the grandest deserts. And everything tropical islands have to offer, those too…” She broke off, coughed.
“…I’ve seen all that I wanted to see. But you, you’re the most beautiful thing I’ve seen—no, no, don’t laugh at me, Sarah… And at the end of it all, I’m truly happy for that. I want you to see what I’ve seen, and what I see now. But now you can’t. And I’m sorry.” Her voice broke off again, leaving Sarah space to respond.
Sarah left it.
“No, mainly, humans are good at destroying. We were given this Earth and now it has been agreed that it cannot be saved. We had the greatest garden of all, and it’s been poisoned. Well, at least now we know—once and for all. It’s over.”
Now it was Sarah’s turn to narrow her eyes.
“But it didn’t have to be this way,” Sarah spat, “this was all a choice! We kept funnelling and funnelling, everything going toward expansion until there was nothing left that grew. Imagine! We traded all things that grew for…. for this… death! And we did it willingly! And we were all too damn busy to see it—to truly see it enough to do something.”
“In the end, we barely even tried, did we?”
Jessica smiled, giving a weak laugh. “So, I see there’s still time for politics at the end of the world.”
“They’re one and the same!” Sarah exclaimed, “One and the same: politics, the end of the world—they are the symptom and the disease! The horse and the cart! Whatever metaphor you want, use it. But you know we should’ve done more. We all knew.”
“I suppose you’re right. And yet, we didn’t. Will blame save us now?”
“It won’t save us. But blame that turned into action could have saved us. And that’s what stings—more than anything, more than this rain, more than the pain that comes when I breathe now.”
Her mother could not respond.
“I’m sorry, mum. You have a beautiful soul. But beautiful souls could never save the world. Not alone.”
Of course, the scientists had created all kinds of technologies, trying to convert the acid into this or that, trying to shield people from the worst. Ecology suddenly seemed so important, after The Great Rain. Engineers tried, too—they developed suits that could filter out the harmful effects of acid in The Rain. But there just weren’t enough resources to make one for everyone. Not left, anyway. The suits went to the upper brass, to the highest bidders.
Everyone had been inside for years now. Some ventured out briefly, but it only sped up what was happening to them. It only sped up death.
Many had died, of course. The numbers went uncounted. Or, at least, unreleased. Bodies piled up in houses, with no recovery system in place. The last attempts at a government distributed stockpiled food, primarily to prevent wide-scale insurrection. But collecting the bodies, what good would it do? Who would it help? Not the dead, not the living.
People with better HVACs and technologies fared better than those without. Everyone was dying, though, just at different rates.
Why hadn’t people stormed the capital? Demanded a place on the last ships? Who knows. Apathy, maybe? A fear of going outside, partly. Hope, perhaps. Yes, hope—dumb, blind hope that things would get better, and an iron-willed commitment to simply surviving, day by day. A mixture of all those things.
Something came over Sarah, striking her like lightning. Her face lit up.
“If it’s going to happen anyway, if it’s all ending, then I’ve decided: I’m going outside again.“
“Sarah…” Her mother trailed, a dark fear washing over her.
“I’m sorry mum. You had your whole life—and I can never resent you for that. But now, at the end of mine—of ours—I wish to be outside once last time. I want to make a choice, rather than have them made for me.”
Jessica didn’t respond, but instead stared down at her feet. Then, a half-smile formed at the corner of her lips, and she raised one hand toward her daughter. Sarah took her mother’s trembling hand. Sarah noticed that her own hands, for the first time since the news broke, were completely still.
“Then there is nothing I can do. I won’t deny you the choice. But if you’re going, then I am too.”
Mother and daughter, hand-in-hand, stepped toward the door. It was discoloured at the edges and cracked. The HVAC was screaming now—rattling and shrieking with the angst of a stovetop kettle boiling. The rain was knocking on the other side of the door, pounding, waiting to meet them.
They placed their conjoined hands on the handle, and looked at each other. They smiled, but Sarah saw a tear roll down her mother’s cheek. She squeezed her palm.
The lock turned, the latch groaned. The door creaked opened.
They stepped outside. A pungent odour filled the air, like a thousand matches had been lit within the sky.
But Sarah felt exhilarated. How amazing it was to breathe something that was new, and different! Even if she knew what it was doing to her, she felt thrilled.
They stood in a great field in front of their house. Instead of grass, there was ash. Great craters of ash that marked the Earth’s face. The Earth frowned, embarrassed, as Sarah and Jessica walked upon it, tracing the pockmarks and scars on its skin with each step.
Her mother kept trying to speak, but then got caught on her words, tripping over them, and remaining quiet. She smiled between each attempt to talk, her upturned lips moving like broken, silent punctuation.
The air was heavy. The rain did not sting. Not at first. But it was suffused with sulfur, so poisoned that no organic matter could stand it for too long.
Their noses ran and their eyes began to burn. Still, Sarah felt calm. Nothing could hurt them now, could it? She and her mother were in a bubble, insulated by the knowledge that came with the world’s ending. What pain could it bring that hadn’t already been prescribed? The Great Rain could try with all its might, could use whatever tricks it liked, but it couldn’t stop them holding each other close—it couldn’t stop them smiling. Sarah decided, there and then, she would die with a smile. She didn’t know what it meant to die smiling, but it felt important. She began to cry, too, softly.
Their breathing became laboured, more and more laboured.
“Even like this, rain is so beautiful. You know, I’d forgotten, since that first Great Rain began…”
“…I’d forgotten, but the rain really is beautiful.”
“Yeah, I always said so,” Jessica replied, “especially rain in places where it didn’t belong, you know? Remember, like when it would fall out of nowhere on a hot day. Your clothes would feel cold, yet you felt warm. Wasn’t that strange?”
“Or, when rain would fall in a frenzy—when you were at the coast and watched it meet the sea, falling and splitting like crystal glaciers blurring into the great azure ocean… You couldn’t see where rain stopped and sea started… Or, remember, when the rain would swiftly assail business-people in big cities without warning, and they’d run for shelter, furious that the sky has disturbed their precious schedule!”
The pair chuckled.
Now, The Rain fell like knives. It fell thickly, grey, and heavy. Rain like shivering ranks of teardrops—millions of them, pouring down the earth’s scarred, blanched face.
“I wish I’d seen more of the rain in that light.”
The air got heavier and their throats narrowed.
Then, something happened.
In the distance, a huge plume of burning hatred erupted. It filled the sky, overpowering greyness with bright, orange light. It was a flame, an explosion, coming to incinerate everything that was left. Every buried mistake and lingering fear alight.
“Hah, so they actually did it” thought Sarah, “the double-whammy. They’ve saved us the agony of waiting. The quick finish, the full stop, rather than ellipses. They’ve decided how we’ll meet our end, so we don’t have to. We’ll meet it in flames.”
She kept thinking while she watched a great flame rise in the distance, and her thoughts led her down a strange and lurid path…
Like machinery whirring, a deeply-embedded carousel began to play from Sarah’s mind. Click. She saw her life in a great motion picture of flashing images and emotions. Her face couldn’t even react to the speed of computation playing in the mind’s eye. All she could do was squeeze her mother’s hand tighter and feel the gasp before oblivion.
She felt the same squeeze back from her mother, and she knew. They didn’t speak, but they knew. Sarah couldn’t look at her mother. No, they wouldn’t watch the end of the world on each other’s faces. They had to stare it straight on. And they knew.
Sarah saw everything in miniature. The carousel kept playing. That time she first rode a bike without needing her father to hold her. Click. When he would carry her from the car to her bed when she fell asleep after a long journey. Click. How she used to laugh and laugh at high school with her friends, when they joked and talked freely of an open future. There was a world they could fill, when they had options; now, there was only one future to accept.
So, she accepted. She slipped further into memories, memories of before she knew what the world had in store. Another click. Carefree days at university floated by, before she dropped out, before her mother called her home after the first Great Rain fell. These memories passed by, as flashing clouds floating through her head. She couldn’t grasp them, or slow them, just as you can’t hold a cloud between your fingers or direct their course. Then, all at once, every cloud flew by, fell away, vanished into rain. The clicking stopped.
The flame inches closer.
“Was that really me?” She asked herself, thinking, “Am I really this person now, dying… or am I that person before, living?”
“Where will I go now? Is there anything coming next, or I have I really seen it all? Is that everything I’ll ever feel?”
She never had time to work it out. Milliseconds were passing by slowly, but the relativity of time has its limits.
Then, the last unit of time passed.
The great flame arrived. One final squeeze of a palm. It sliced through her thoughts, through her mother’s thoughts, through every thought—it burnt them up like millions of pages of discarded manuscript. Flashing white, burning white.
Everything that was Sarah, everything that was her mother—as it existed within themselves, as it existed in the physical world around them, and as it existed in memory—all perished with the last blink, final flame.
There were no more seconds left for thoughts or life to fill. Everything extinguished.
It was all wiped. The Earth was a blank, charred slate.
Throughout those last moments, neither of them had made a sound. But Sarah and her mother had never let go. Never.
Above, the last ship carrying the final earthmen watched as orange light enveloped the great blue and grey-specced earth, consuming it, swallowing the surface whole.
“Farewell,” one man uttered.
“The body grew ill, and now it dies. Requiem, postremo.”
He turned to his crew of twelve, speaking slowly: “It’s done. We did what we could, and now we have done what we must. We saved them from a slow, long agony. But now, we need a new body.”
“Set the course for Mars.”
“We need to try again.”
Just your classic end of the world narrative. Practising those short stories, just like Ray Bradbury prescribed. Can you tell I’ve been reading him again, too? The Illustrated Man, this time. Beautiful, if a little darker in tone that Dandelion Wine. More prosaic that The Martian Chronicles. But a lovely read.
Realised my first story didn’t have much of a plot or dialogue. It was more of an idea in the form of a story. I’ve tried to work on that this time. And use less adverbs.
I’m trying to move away from being overly descriptive and instead relying on speech, body language, and context to inform the tone. And I’m trying to apply those principles of copywriting where they seem appropriate—like how each line should, ideally, make you want to read the next. Or as how Bukowski says, “each line must be full of a delicious juice, a flavour, full of power” (and yeh, I know Bukowski was a bastard).
But I’ve learnt that creative writing is hard, especially when you’re used to meandering, to writing leisurely.
It’s hard. But I’m navigating it, slowly! We’ll get there.