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05 June 2008 @ 09:32 pm
The last one standing  
Crit welcome if anyone's still doing that. With thanks to my mama for the dream she had that inspired this story.




Science classes -- no, science symposia -- were forming where there used to be garden clubs and knitting circles. The knitters still came but about half of them didn't see the point of pulling out the yarn; the other half knitted as if to save their lives.

"How did this happen?" they all asked: scientists, garden club luminaries, magazine editors, househusbands, dreadlocked knitters with patched messenger bags. "We don't understand."

The ones with the science degrees tried to explain, and so did the ones with the astrology magazines in their attic. "A gravitational flux," said the first group. "The trine of all trines," said the second. "In fact, the ninetrime."

"The ninetrimesnine," murmured Paul, the husband of the editor Hollie. She poked him with the square end of a knitting needle. "It was a band, or something," he said apologetically.

"There's a shift in the strings," said the scientists. "Like yarn. Someone's pulled it ... all the way through."

Hollie looked at the scarf she was making. Did she want to ruin it by pulling a strand of yarn ... all the way through? Through the other side, cinching the fabric in progress irreparably, sending some stitches fetching up against other stitches in a way to make the individual tiny threads stiffen and crackle as if to say "No! This isn't right."

It wasn't as though she was going to wear the scarf anyway, even if she did finish it pristinely. The end of the world was coming, with all its models and its meetings. Hollie listened to the technical books closing and the garden club women chirping, trying to get closer to their birds, and the astrologers and health-food-store hippie types concerned but excited ... strangely anticipatory, because of all the people there, they wanted most to know what was going to happen.

Everyone knew, of course, the bare facts. Something had caused the planets to shift off their orbits and line up in some kind of wire-hanger-diorama configuration like you would make in a third-grade astronomy section. When the kid takes the project to school he swings it in his hand as if the coat hanger contained just his windbreaker. The foam ball planets, painted but still pocked with white, swing toward each other, away, hitting into each other with a soft "pff" and then bounce off again. The kid runs to homeroom, the project stuffed carefully under his desk till the period just before lunch.

In the sky, the real sky, the planets were doing just that now -- all but the swinging, that hadn't started yet and the scientists and government weren't sure if it would. But the lineup was dangerous enough -- suddenly the planets stood like the Usual Suspects on a crime chart, instead of in the soft spinning bowls of air we always liked to picture them in. These planets had gone bad -- or something had made them -- and the upshot really was, well, the end of all things.

As for timing, it was hard to say. Hollie and Paul had had to turn off the news when this first started. "Too much information," they looked at each other and said. Hollie had, at first, tried to go on about her life with the knitting and the reading and the calling relatives on the phone every Sunday. She knew while she was out Paul was sneaking CNN and god knows what sites online. She wanted to bawl him out for it but if they only did have another (how long? Five days? Five years? Five minutes?) together, she figured Paul could handle it by information-gathering and she herself could handle it with domesticity. Although when the planets crashed into each other in the last great smoky gong call of the universe, her garden wouldn't be there to see it, she still knelt every day in the rocks and sand, trying to take back basil from oxalis, smelling the murdered onion weed at the end of her rake and filling the compost bin up. She called Paul from where he was upstairs with the computer to stomp it down. And neither did he say, "You're wasting your time."

The astrologers had another thought. They started spreading that it was going to go down this next Tuesday at 3:14 a.m. "Too cute," Paul muttered, always thinking of math. Hollie didn't see how it mattered about the minute, but they twittered, Paul furrowed, and Hollie wondered what she'd be doing at 3 a.m. Tuesday.

It was only two days away. The shots from the TV seemed to show the big cities ramping up as if for New Year's, while the towns diminished and hunkered. Christians were quoted in the paper saying they couldn't wait for the rapture. Berekeley professors were quoted saying this was going to be the biggest party in the history of the universe. A Midwestern Black truck driver said he was going to keep on his route. No, he wouldn't leave his home and go home and see his wife and kids. The thing was too up in the air to go changing everything. Hollie turned off the television for the fifth time that day seeing that Paul had wandered off. She went down and watered the green fuzz of lettuce that had just started coming up.

On Monday she couldn't find him for awhile. She had just spent too many hours on the telephone and her ear had that cabbage feeling to it. She sat outside and didn't think too hard about where her husband had gone, instead thinking that this was either the last or second-to-last time she'd talked to her dad, whose hearing was entirely gone and whose crappy cell phone connection out of North Texas didn't help much either. They had mostly yelled, "I love you" to each other and "Take care of yourself," and "I LOVE YOU" again, even louder. That was the way it'd been with them for the past six or seven years. Her mother was gone and her dad didn't think, often, to put his new wife on the phone.

Hollie had talked to her best friend from college, Mariely. She was living in Arkansas and she had baby twins. Mariely was worried and happy: worried because of her babies, but happy because they would all be in Heaven soon -- her, her husband, her babies, the babies they would have, Mariely's sister Cris who died when she was 18, the guy she and Cris had both dated who'd played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof ... and all their Puerto Rican grandparents and great-grandparents, and ...

"Boy, I wish I knew I was going to heaven," Hollie had cut in, like she always had when Mariely started blissing out. "You will, though, honey," Mariely said. "You're too good not to." "I'm not a believer," Hollie would interrupt, and Mariely in her turn would interrupt, "Doesn't matter. God doesn't look at what you say you do. God looks at what you do."

Hollie had never made it through one of these friendly debates with the certainty she'd be going to join Mariely's family tree in heaven, but it never seemed to irritate her, either. Same this time. Only this time, it might be the last time they ever talked about it, or anything else. Unless they saw each other in heaven, of course.

She was poking around in the fridge wondering if it was a good idea to cook the sirloins she'd been saving for the next weekend. Was it OK to light the grill, and would Paul be in the mood to barbecue? If not, they might as well just have twice-baked potatoes. Hollie trying to cook meat with Paul around was just too wasteful. He had the touch.

Paul's head appeared out of the bottom of the hallway; he'd been in the cellar. "Hi," said Hollie, "do you want these steaks for dinner, or ...?"

"Come look at the cellar first," Paul said. She knew he'd heard him but that he didn't have an answer, and when he didn't have an answer he didn't just make one up, he would wait till he had something to say and if he never did, then she never would get an answer. She checked to make sure she'd closed the freezer door and headed down the storm stairs.

"Wow ... wow," she said, at a loss. She hadn't seen the cellar in a few years, not since she went down there to try to ferret out the source of a dead-animal smell (it turned out to be under the foundation). It wasn't anything special now, but there was an old sofa that she didn't remember anyone's moving down there, a bookcase, a rocking chair with a moldy doll in it, and a cooler. She opened the cooler and it was full of champagne and Fat Tire and some Coke. She looked at Paul. "When did you do all this?"

"Last few days," he said. "If we had to wait it out, I figured it might as well be, you know, the Hilton." He grinned at her. She laughed through her confusion; what was there to wait out? It wasn't like a tornado where you could just ... Well, actually, who knew what it would be like? Maybe underground was the place to be. She felt a flash of gratitude toward Paul for his foresight. That's why I married this guy, she thought. He uses his damn brain.

She sat down on the sofa, which seemed to dampen the butt of her jeans, but said nothing. "So ... you want to wait it out down here?"

"Seems better than anything else we could do."

"I don't know," said Hollie, surprising herself. "We could go out on the roof and watch."

"Are you fucki--" Paul cut himself off. Shaking his head, laughing. "Sure, we could, why not. Put a little neon on our shirts just to make sure they know the right house to hit." He reached over for Hollie. "You are such a damn goofball sometimes."

Hollie shrugged away. "What? It might be our only chance to see a lot of stuff."

"Stuff? The world blowing up underneath us?"

"Could see through the rings of Saturn. Right up close. And on Venus, all that purple cloud stuff."

Paul was looking actually concerned now. "That's about the most foolhardy thing I ever heard. Sit right outside! Why do you think they make shelters?"

Hollie stood up, tired of all this, suddenly. Very gently, she said, "If you think a tornado cellar is going to help anyone survive this impact, you're going to need to do a little more research before ... tonight."

She kissed him on top of the head and went upstairs, leaving him sitting on the moldy sofa.

An hour later Paul had steaks on the grill and Hollie had champagne in a cooler on ice. He would concede to eating the best food in the house but there was no way, he said, he was going to be watching any cosmic laser light show from outside. He was going to be in the cellar. With the crank radio on. With the Readers Digest books that had been sitting down there since 1988. With Hollie, he hoped.

She slid yellow and red peppers, pink onions, around the steaks on the barbecue. Hiding in a storm cellar seemed not only hopelessly inconsequential, but also claustrophobic. Hollie was the one who had insisted their first car together be a convertible because she felt cooped up in regular cars and trucks. Paul was a convert now and they'd never had anything but convertibles since. She always had to sleep with a window open. None of these things fell into the neurotic category -- like Paul's penchant for working in tight messy spaces with door closed didn't. It was just the way they were. But now -- she choked back a laugh, flipping a plump piece of eggplant -- it was like it was life and death.

"You really won't come up there with me, huh," she said. "Think about how romantic it'd be. With the champagne, the fireflies, moonlight, or whatever light there was ..."

"Certain death hurtling toward you at light speed! Probably feel like a damn earthquake. We'd fall off the stupid roof. Come on, Hollie, I don't want to die alone."

"You won't," she replied quickly, "the whole world's going together. 'And we'll all go together when we go ... every Hottentot and every Eskimo ...'"

Paul suddenly looked misty. "I'll miss your stupid Tom Lehrer songs," he said. Hollie smiled sadly. "Yeah."

After dinner they made a batch of box brownies, and ate half of them. They took the pan upstairs, to their room with the blue-patterned curtains Hollie had made in her freshman year of college. They made her feel homey and well-travelled at the same time. They were blowing out the window now since it was even too hot to put in the temporary screens.

They ate more brownies and then made love. "The last time, the last time, the last time" echoed in Hollie's heartbeat as she was sure it did in Paul's. She cried in his shoulder after she came. "I'm happy we had all these times," she snuffled, wiping her face on his pillowcase, still clenched around him with her legs. "You were the best person I ever could have found."

"Stop it, you're gonna make me cry," he said. Petted her hair. "We got lucky. Lucky I get to spend all this time with you -- even this time."

"Should we try to sleep?" Hollie disentangled herself, pulled on her t-shirt, reached for the pan of brownies. She offered one to Paul. "It's like only ten."

"I was going to watch some news maybe?"

She was silent for a moment trying to decide whether that was a battle to fight. Hell, not now, she decided. "Just not around me." Paul put the rest of his brownie into her mouth. She decided to go out into the garden.

The fireflies were in force and the smells of apple blossom overran the rose scent, which always seemed stronger at midmorning. Ten at night belonged to the fruit trees -- her pear, the neighbors' lemon and fig -- and to the honeysuckle. She remembered summer camp in Colorado, sneaking out of her tent in the middle of the night, starving, eating honeysuckle blossoms until a camper or a counselor came out to use the bathroom and she had to get back into her tent. She sat in her lawn chair and remembered the smells of growing up. Pine in the summer, miller moths every May chasing her screaming out of the shower, rotting crisp leaves every fall and then fresh white snow a few weeks later. It always snowed by Halloween.

She saw silhouetted thorny roses that ought to be pruned, but didn't get up, instead just watched the sky and the blurry stars. How could it all change? She saw the glow of Paul's computer, her husband hoping against hope he'd find a way to save it -- to save this world they had made for themselves -- this world that had been made so long ago. The rocks were still there under her feet.

All the malls, the art, the cars, the photographs, all the plastic widgets that you never see unless you take apart a Speak and Spell ... the shells, the redwoods, the beloved pets and their sweaters, the books full of sports statistics, the dial phones, the dust in the road, the piles of tax returns dating back to 1977 -- never to be argued about again, not after tonight.

Hollie wasn't afraid. No doubt she wouldn't see Mariely in heaven, or even Paul. And if there was no world to return to she didn't have a hope of coming back either as a tapeworm or a king. And it wasn't that she felt she'd lived so well this time that if there was a reward, she'd be getting it. There was no dread or relief: only a sense of wonder and finality, like flailing wildly at a tennis ball and actually getting it over the net ... and you've won the game ... and you go home to celebrate.

Paul's computer light was off, but the kitchen light was on. She walked into their house and took a deep breath. If this was going to be their last fight, she ought to at least make an effort.

The kitchen was sweltering. Paul had his head stuck in the freezer, trying to figure out if the Starbucks ice cream they had bought a month ago was still there. Hollie put a beer on the back of his neck and he jumped.

"Go on down," he said, "as soon as I find this ice cream I'll be down too. I made it a little nicer."

"I'm not going down there, honey," she said. "It's ... it would make me sick. I can't die down there in a hole."

"But maybe you won't!"

"But I will." She stroked his sweaty back outside his t-shirt with the beer can. "I want to be with you. I want to be where I can breathe."

"I can make it better down there ... I can get rid of some shit, that couch ..." He was getting mad at himself now for failure to anticipate -- he always did this.

"Paul, listen to me." Reluctantly because of the heat he pulled his face out of the freezer. "This is our ... this is my last chance to see something amazing. All the planets, coming for us. Lined up like Christmas lights. The stuff we've read about but never thought we'd see. For a second we'll know what it's like."

"But--"

"And we won't survive it. Here or there. Nobody will. This is the end ... but I don't want to be underground ... I want to be standing up, in the air of my town, looking down at my garden, and then up at the sky. In the middle of it."

Paul stood for a long time, the vapors coming out of the freezer and condensing on the hot wood cupboards. "Right in the middle of it. That's not ... something I'd usually expect you to say."

"This isn't a very usual time," Hollie said, trying to crack a smile. "Anyway, I love you. I always wanted to take you to the most fabulous show there ever would be. This seems like about the best I can get."

He closed the freezer door without the ice cream. "I guess we ate it all," he said. She knew his voice was hiding ultimate fear -- death and pain -- but she knew he wouldn't hurt.

They climbed on their ladder up to the roof, laid out picnic blankets and the champagne and some crackers with truffle oil. Ice cream would have melted anyway. Hollie wished she had some sushi, but you can't plan for it all. Paul wished he had some pot. They passed the next hour getting tipsy and reminiscing about their college days smoking up before breakfast and then again before second period. Paul said he used to go to astronomy lab stoned, and Hollie said she went with Kahlua in her coffee, and that might explain the difference in what they were about to see. They deliberately didn't look at a clock.

The stars wheeling around them could have told them what time it was, except nothing was expected to rise in the right spot. Their breathing got faster every time something seemed to change -- a shift in wind, a crackle of chipmunk from below. They saw lights in some other windows, looked for anyone on the sidewalks, heard some teenage voices and crunching of skateboard wheels into the ground. Hollie wondered if they believed, or if they even knew.

At 3 a.m. the Aurora Borealis came out -- or what Hollie imagined it would look like. Separate flashes of light across the sky, illuminating a field or a water tower. Paul grabbed her hand and his champagne glass. "Easy," she murmured to him. She stroked his forehead. "Just watch it."

They were all eyes. Mars, which Hollie could recognize when it was closest to them, was the size of a shirt button -- a red one on a drive-in uniform. She blinked at it, and it got bigger. She wondered what they were seeing in New Mexico, on the Ligurian coast, from the house she grew up in in Denver. She wondered if anyone else were up on their roof with their true love.

The last thing they saw was like -- like a video game arcade, Hollie said, chiding herself for the metaphor. Christmas lights, then -- high-octane bulbs strung across the sky, in all different sizes. When Saturn came she tried to trace her eyes along one of the rings from underneath it. She saw Paul through the Venus haze. The earth tilted with impact and she slid into his arms; he was shouting but the whizzing of tree branches and electricity was louder. Keeping her eyes wide open she kissed him goodbye. Then she stood up, pulling him to his feet while their roof listed violently sideways. They held hands through the fireworks, saluting the cosmos. Then the lights went out.
 
 
 
Polite Punk: Commenttamiam on June 6th, 2008 05:22 pm (UTC)
Wow. That was kind of a roller coaster ride at the end. I liked it and the ending very much. At the beginning, I thought for a moment that it was too long, but nothing specific on a first read through. Thanks for the story.
in vita veritasreveritas on June 9th, 2008 09:18 pm (UTC)
thank you for reading! i think i intended to add more of that community in throughout the story, but then it wound up just being about the couple. which might work better, but then it might also have more depth to name some of the astrologers, etc. i'm not sure if they just end up being caricatures.