This time the sun was going to go supernova, turning everyone on the planet into toast. Last time it was a giant meteor. The time before that it was a pandemic, a virulent form of influenza that killed every man, woman, and child on Earth in the space of 72 hours. Before that it was some lunatic in Moscow or Pyongyang or Washington, D.C. who pushed the big red button, causing mushroom clouds to spring up all over in retaliation, like pimples on the face of a high school freshman.
It got confusing, keeping up with all the ways the world ended, but the main thing was it always started back up again, none the worse for wear, so nobody minded anymore. People can get used to anything if it happens often enough. The first sharp little tooth erupting through a baby’s tender gums, the first stabbing menstrual cramps, the first newlywed fight, all feel like… well, like the end of the world, but after a while it becomes the same old, same old.
So it was when the world went toes up.
In Chugwater, New Jersey, some of the locals were gathered in the Sunnyside Diner. The Sunnyside had good coffee and hash browns and it had become a popular place to go and wait out the coming apocalypse. Members of the One True Holiness Church still went up on the hill outside of town, where they prayed and sang hymns, but they no longer gave away all their possessions. They’d been disappointed the first two or three times the world ended and none of them had been Raptured up into Heaven.
A rag-tag band of elderly hippies who lived in a collection of ramshackle trailers and yurts and geodesic domes on the outskirts of town were gathered out there, beating on drums, smoking marijuana and singing Grateful Dead songs, but that’s generally what they did every day. The only concession they made to the occasion of the world ending was a banner they’d worked on for weeks, depicting the solar system with a yin and yang symbol in the middle, bordered with a chain of daisies. The banner was painted in fluorescent colors on a series of sewn-together bedsheets that the hippies had hung across the entrance to their encampment. Written on it in puffy, nineteen-sixties-style lettering were the words YOU SAY GOODBYE, WE SAY HELLO. MOTHER EARTH IS ETERNAL!
“Seems to me the last time the world ended I was thirty pounds lighter,” Sandra Pascrelli said to Vern Hooper at the Sunnyside as she topped up his ceramic mug of coffee.
“Seems to me I was married to Jennifer Lawrence the last time, but that can’t be right. What would a big Hollywood star like Jennifer Lawrence be doing in Chugwater?” Vern replied.
“Maybe she was on location for a movie, met Vern and they fell in love.”
That was Amira Patel, the local real estate agent. She’d teetered into the diner on high heels and seated herself on one of the red vinyl-topped stools at the counter. She looked over the top of her glasses and perused the day’s specials written on the chalkboard above the pass-through window. “I’ll have an egg white omelette with feta cheese and sun-dried tomato, and a Sprite,” she told Sandra, who went over to the window and called out the order to the cook.
“It’ll be ready in a jiffy, you got time to finish before the end comes,” Sandra told Amira. She filled a plastic cup with ice and added Sprite before setting it down on the counter in front of her.
“The boys are playing soccer at the high school field. I let them go ahead. No sense making them change their clothes and come over here. They’ll be fine. If the rain holds off we’re going to make burgers on the grill, after,” Amira said, referring to her teenage sons, Sanjay and Kyle.
Vern leaned over and addressed Amira. “So, what are your people’s thoughts on the world ending?”
“You know, the Indians, the Hindus and the Sikhs and the Muslims and so on. You people got any idea about why it keeps on happening?”
Amira shook her head. “No. We’re just as clueless as the rest of you. It doesn’t seem to cause any harm, so I say why not just roll with it?”
“That’s a good attitude,” Sandra said, placing the omelette on the paper mat in front of her.
Vern pursed his lips and adjusted his Harley-Davidson baseball cap. “I read this article online that said consciousness exists outside of the physical body. It said it’s possible we could go on thinking after we die. Maybe that’s what happens when the world ends, we’re dead but we don’t know it.”
“Ooh, that’s creepy,” Sandra said, rubbing her arms. “Gives me goosebumps to think about being dead and not realizing it.”
The cook stuck his head though the pass-through window. He wore a white paper cap and had a scrap of toilet paper with a dot of blood in the middle stuck to his chin where he’d cut himself shaving. “It’s almost time. They’re starting the countdown on the radio,” he said.
Amira nervously smoothed her glossy black hair. Sandra closed her eyes. Vern clenched his fists. “Hang on,” he said. “Here it comes.”
“That wasn’t so bad,” Sandra said, opening her eyes after a moment, or an eternity. “We’re all here, safe and sound.”
“Whew, it always makes me nervous,” Amira said, fanning herself with her hand.
Vern laughed, relieved. “Glad that’s over. Well, gotta get back to work. See you later.”
And out the door he went, into the autumn sunshine.