narrated by Bob Eccles
One hour to go. One hour until the machines went insane. One hour until the end.
Three pills sat in my hand: one yellow, one blue and one pink. The smiley faces on them laughed at the human imperfection that had brought us here.
Outside, the city glowed. Groups of revellers swung champagne bottles and sang, pulling chinstraps on their plastic hats and blowing whistles. Screams floated in from the darker parts of town. The celebrations were turning wild, the countdown to the end bringing out long suppressed desires. A group of teenagers chased a girl into a nearby park, her long silver earrings shining under the streetlights. From my bedroom window I watched the snowflakes erase their footprints.
My phone jumped to life and clambered crab-like across my study desk, five letters – LAURA – flashing with the phone’s vibrations.
‘Hello.’ My voice was cold, emotionless and hard.
‘I thought it was too late.’
‘I tried to leave it until the last minute. Now we’ve finished high school I want to get in as much life as possible.’ I swallowed and tried to make my voice sound confident. ‘I was hoping it wouldn’t happen. I have to get everything done quickly now.’
‘Do you have to do it?’ Laura’s voice shook.
‘Would you want to go through what they are telling us?’
‘But the news guys could be-’
‘Laura, they say the impact will be at midnight exactly. We don’t have much time.’
‘And you think this will be more painless?’
‘I’m doing this for you. It’s better if we all go together.’
‘Promise you’ll wait for me.’
‘You’re gonna have to hurry then.’
‘I love you.’
‘You know where I’ll be.’
I broke our connection. The voices outside grew louder. The smiley faces in my palm grinned at me with wide toothless arcs. I had fifty-eight minutes and one more person had to die.
Taxis slalomed around crowds of drunken students. The wind burned my lips and stung my eyes. I could feel the three smiley-faces laughing from my jeans pocket. They cackled at my burning muscles and rasping lungs as I ran towards the glowing lights at the end of the block.
Yellow machines lined the side of the road. Faceless drivers clambered out of them and waved towards me.
I turned and slipped, my legs flying up into the frosty air and crashing down on the hard icy road. A rolling squeal, and gravel bit into my face. The silver teeth of one of the yellow machines came sliding towards me, stopping at the last moment, my breath fogging the white number plate.
‘Holy hell!’ A smoker’s voice called out from above. A hand grabbed at my shoulder as I climbed to my feet. ‘Wait a second!’
I tried to wrestle free from the man’s grip. He pulled me close enough that I could smell the beer on his breath.
‘Please, please it’s my son.’ He began to shake. Tears welled in his eyes. ‘Stupid kid said he wanted to party and left.’ The man fell back against the car and wept. ‘I just wanna say goodbye.’
‘No time,’ I mumbled and turned my back on him. I limped on towards the glowing light at the end of the road. The small device on my wrist beeped twice. It told me I had forty minutes left to live.
The glowing entrance was filled with metal walkers and used oxygen tanks. Spiritual notes and yoga advertisements hung off the open glass door. I entered and slid past the secretary behind the front desk. She had her long red nose buried in a book of crossword puzzles, earphones blasting away. Some people chose to spend their last few hours partying and letting it all hang out; some just chose to ignore it.
The elevator took me to the third floor. They called it the Christmas tree level because of the forest of life support machines and other blinking medical devices. The only sound was the rhythmic beating of heart monitors. Nobody wanted to work tonight. The news stories had shown thousands leaving their workplaces and simply roaming the city in search of some kind of comfort. Clean-cut citizens overdosed on stolen drugs on each street corner, employees hunting down their bosses with rifles, nervous fathers boarding up their windows and telling their families to hide in the cellar while gangs raided the neighbouring houses.
I made my way down the corridor by the light of a row of dialysis machines. Tired, worn-out bodies croaked from each room. My feet squeaked on the linoleum floor. The air was thick with the smell of cabbage soup.
In room 14 a bedside lamp lit the outline of a long nose and furry eyebrows. Two salmon-coloured lips moved slightly.
‘Grandpa,’ I called. Speech seemed obscene in this place – too organic, too fleshy. The life-support machines and dialysis units seemed to glow red at this human intrusion.
‘Grandpa, wake up.’
The hawk-like nose rose and twitched nervously.
‘It’s me, Grandpa,’ I said, shuffling across the room until I reached the metal railings of a hospital bed. ‘Your grandson.’ Up close, I could make out his sunken features. He leaned away from me, his lips quivering in confusion.
‘I got no-’
‘Shhh,’ I whispered, rubbing the old man’s arms. I pulled him up into a sitting position.
‘We gotta get out of here, Grandpa. It’s almost too late.’
‘No time for questions,’ I said, squeezing his shoulders. ‘This is the best way to do it.’
Footsteps echoed down the corridor. I put my fingers across my lips.
The footsteps grew louder.
I bent down and picked up a bedpan. A dozen thoughts flew through my head. I could run now and hope I was fast enough.
The footsteps grew louder.
I could rush the person and bash them over the head with the bedpan.
The footsteps grew louder.
I could hide in the darkness and pray.
The footsteps stopped.
I held my breath and felt the old man’s skin tighten.
A loud squeak. The footsteps began once more. I licked my lips.
The footsteps grew fainter.
‘Well done, Grandpa.’
‘I’m not your-’ I grabbed his mouth. The footsteps grew fainter still.
‘Still have to be quiet.’ I reached into my jeans and pulled out one of the smiley faces, the blue one.
‘You see this?’ I said, holding the pill before the old man’s yellow eyes. ‘This is gonna make it all stop. No more countdown, no more pain. No more Christmas lights,’ I said, tapping the blinking machine linked to his veins.
The old man whimpered and pulled away. I felt his shoulder crack beneath my grip.
‘Now, now,’ I said, pulling him towards me. ‘No need to be scared. Just swallow and sleep forever. It’s all the same to the people out there anyway, Grandpa. They just want to keep us here with the lights turned out. They wanna shut us down.’
I swept my hand across the bedside table. Jars crashed to the floor and I winced. I touched cold glass. I ran my fingers over its round base and raised it towards the lamp. A jar of flat water reflected the light, a sodden shred of bread circling at the bottom.
‘Enough to do the job,’ I said. ‘Then it’s all over before they can get us.’
The old man grabbed at the table. A foot shot out of the bed, knocking charts and pens to the floor. I seized the old man’s head and opened his mouth.
‘Safe now, Grandpa,’ I said, placing the pill upon his tongue. His neck bulged as he tried to move his head away. I held him tight and poured the water into his mouth. He coughed and gurgled. A wiry arm banged the bedside table, sending it clattering into the dialysis machine.
‘Quiet now, Grandpa,’ I said, holding his mouth and pinching his nose shut. ‘We don’t want the people back.’
‘Hmpf.’ He struggled beneath my hands, but I held fast. The dialysis machine blipped beside me. A bead of sweat rolled down the old man’s forehead. A heart monitor skipped and chirped. His body thrust up against me. The machines shrieked and I pulled the plug. The smiley face did its job. I watched the old man’s eyes flicker and then slide beneath heavy eyelids.
‘Goodnight, Grandpa,’ I whispered and sat him back into a comfortable position. ‘You were the only family I had, so I put it off as long as I could. I know you would want it this way.’
A clock chimed in the hallway, breaking the monotonous beeping from the machines in the other rooms. I had fifteen minutes left to live.
The city was beginning to devour itself. People were tearing down street signs and breaking storefront windows. Old men lay sprawled on the pavement, wine bottles smashed to pieces on the concrete beside them. Groups of half-naked bodies writhed over one another in the middle of the street, frantic people trying to find pleasure before the coming apocalyptic climax. The madness was suffocating. The feeling of millions of people tearing themselves to pieces closed in on me from every side.
I ran. I ran until the crowds blurred into a pink mass. I ran until my stomach twisted and my ankles tore. I ran until the burning cars and spluttering lights were one long orange tunnel of fire. I ran until the black and grey steel towers turned to blue grass and shadowed benches peeked out of tree groves.
I stopped and looked for her in our hidden spot by the lake. The whole area was deserted except for a lone duck doing circles at the water’s edge. He fluttered his wings and looked up at me.
The concrete benches were covered in graffiti and white from the mass of pigeons that lived in the park. It was the park where I had met her. Where we had hugged and held hands. Where we had kissed and held each other and forgotten the outside world. Where it was only one pair together in a drop of green, in a steel city that clawed at a harbour.
Now the park, absent of children’s games and fathers’ Frisbees and chatting mothers holding empty prams, appeared dark and imposing. The trees seemed ancient and cold. The grass, once a carpet of soft nature, was now dew-tipped blades in the night.
A faint light began to fill the sky. I looked to my wrist. Five minutes to go.
‘I’m here,’ a voice called out from the bushes behind me.
Laura stood under the lamppost that had served as our meeting point for so long. The light threw a cone of white on her. She held herself, shivering, her pale skin shining next to the red curls that fell to her waist.
‘Thank God,’ I said and took her in my arms. She trembled and dug her fingers into my back.
‘You came out in only this?’ I said, pinching her T-shirt.
‘I didn’t have much time to dress.’
‘You knew it would end like this. A few more minutes and everything goes crazy.’
She stepped back and took my hands in hers. She squeezed my fingers.
‘I sat there and told myself not to come. Not to bother. It’s so much easier to just go to sleep and hope we wake up in a new world.’
‘That’s what it will be, Laura.’
‘I just don’t want it to be painful.’
‘At least this way we will be together,’ I said, locking her fingers between mine. ‘It’s better to be together. This world never wanted us, never listened. Now we have each other. We beat them. We win.’
She bent forward and kissed me. Her tears warm against my cold cheeks.
‘I love you,’ I whispered.
She nestled her head beneath my chin and held my hands against her chest.
‘I’ll be with you soon,’ I said, pulling one of the pills from my pocket. I didn’t look at the smiley-face. I couldn’t stand that artificial grin, mocking and laughing.
I kissed her lips and watched her swallow. She held me close. I felt her tighten and seize. I tasted her skin, her scent, her sweat. I held her closer. Her fingernails dug into my back. She gasped. Her body stiffened and then relaxed and was gone. I laid her down upon the concrete bench and sat beside her. Her red hair hung down to the grass beneath us.
One minute now and the last pill is sitting in my hand. The sky is glowing.
50 seconds. I place one last kiss on the red-haired girl beside me. It seems like the right thing to do. Maybe we should have gone at the same time, but I like to be in control. She would understand.
30 seconds. I hear screaming and singing from the streets, everyone trying so hard to ignore the hell that awaits them in . . .
10 seconds. I hold the pill before my eyes. The face is still smiling, still that arrogant happiness. I place it upon my tongue. The taste is plastic, lifeless.
The trees blur. An almighty ripping sound fills the air. Yellow light floods the park and a ball of blue flame scorches above. Screams carry over from the city outside. Cars blast their horns and the sound of breaking glass and panic echoes all around. Roaring sounds of terror.
I close my eyes and try to ignore the light above me. The blue comet burns overhead and continues on a direct course, never faltering or dipping towards the Earth. It passes and the city turns silent. I watch the comet burning away and feel my stomach drop. I shudder as I feel the pill begin to take hold. It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Sorrow, mind-numbing sorrow pulling all my strength down out of my body. Spiralling, soul-destroying guilt and regret. The thoughts go by so quickly. What a waste. What have I done? They said it wouldn’t miss. What have I done?
I feel everything begin to slow and darken. I strain to keep my eyes on the red hair beside me. At least we are together. The world couldn’t take her away from me. I taste Laura’s curls on my lips. I will never be alone again. I can still feel her beside me. That feeling is cold, grows colder, grows numb.
BIO: Matthew Leroy was born in 1982 in Sydney, Australia. He currently lives with his family in Vienna, teaches English, and is writing his first novel.