The hills were just beginning to glow with the rising sun. The winds were uncharacteristically brisk and cold for the time of year. Cars passed by on the street as they always did, but dragged along behind them an eerie aura that cloaked them swiftly into silence again as they drove on, minding their missions of unknown import.
Through it all, the smell of donuts caught Annie’s nose. She smiled. It was nearly breakfast time, and this was as good a morning as any for a donut breakfast. Besides, Billy was waiting for her at the donut shop.
Billy didn’t even eat donuts. He never really explained himself about these things. Some days Annie wondered if he was in love with her. He was always calling and begging for her company at the oddest of times, but if it was love, you know, romantic love, he certainly never let it show. All the same, it was his idea to meet at the donut shop this morning.
Her phone buzzed in her boot. It was probably just Billy being impatient, she thought, but she stopped and bent over to answer it.
“I’m on my frikkin way, Billy,” she barked when the caller ID was his.
“Whatever,” Billy said. “I thought we agreed by 6:00. I’m here… and um… nope that’s lookin like an empty seat.”
“It’s 5:58, loser! Get a grip on yourself!” Annie was annoyed. It was a little early to be out of bed on a Saturday.
“And… you’re not here,” Billy said calmly. “Anyway, I can’t just go gripping myself in public, they’ll bounce me, and then what’s the point?”
Annie made a face as if Billy could see it through the phone. “I’ll be there in a couple of minutes,” she said.
“A couple of…”
Annie pushed End Call. Billy had been going on the last few days about how the world was going to end. He was convinced it was going to be right at sunrise. Sunrise on this day to be exact. Billy figured it was going to be precisely at 6:00 a.m., and the two of them should watch the world end together from the donut shop window over coffee. The world was going to end today? For a second, the thought really scared Annie. She started singing…
♪ It’s the end of the world as we know it… ♫
The song cheered her up instantly. She did feel fine, in spite of the time. It was hard to stay too irritated at Billy for long anyway. He had a way of being adorable, even when he itched like a bad rash. Annie checked the feeling in her heart. If Billy was maybe even halfway cute, and if we wasn’t so frikkin weird… okay, well those were some pretty big ifs.
The donut shop was just ahead now and the smell of the cinnamon and hot shortening in the air was tantalizing. Screw Billy! It was maple old-fashioned time! If she had to get up at 5:00 on a Saturday and walk eight blocks to a donut shop, half-dressed and half-awake, it might as well be worth it!
She stopped to watch the glow of the sun shoot out across the horizon. A beautiful white teased all the darkness of the lingering dawn into color. Daytime began to erupt about her as the glow spread. Annie’s face drew into a frown. The light was spreading too fast, and faster and faster. In only a moment, it was blinding and she shielded her eyes from the radiant attack of what could not possibly be a sunrise. She pulled her arm tightly across her face.
It didn’t help. No matter how hard she squeezed her eyes, images began to appear and then it was as if her eyes had become empowered with Superman’s x-ray vision. She could see the outlines of the buildings, the donut shop just up ahead, the cars in the street, all as if they were ghostly orange-on-blue images. Even through her arm, the images grew brighter and brighter and finally they were too much. Annie cried out and threw herself on the ground, huddled into the corner between the sidewalk and the store she was passing.
After a moment, darkness engulfed her. Her thoughts were jumbled and she lay like that just thinking. A nuclear bomb maybe? No it wasn’t anything like the way she imagined. There was no heat, no pain, no… no anything, just light. And she was still there. Was she? Timidly she pulled her arm away from her face and lifted her eyes.
The hills were still glowing with the rising sun. The winds that caressed her cheek were still decidedly cold. Cars were on the street, but they no longer passed. They sat. The eerie aura they had been dragging behind them now choked out all the sounds of the whole city, and the remaining silence surrounded her like an ominous wall of reproach.
She pulled her phone from her boot again and looked at it. 6:02, it said. She glanced at the corner of the screen. The bars were there… but no sense in calling Billy. She hurried the last half a block to the donut shop.
The “Open” sign glowed in the window. The smell of her maple old-fashioned teased as strongly as before, but she paused before she pushed open the door. Something was horribly wrong. The door swung open as it had a hundred times before. She stepped through and looked around the shop.
Billy was always making jokes, and lots of stupid ones. Annie’s mind was racing. The shock of the moment allowed her to convince herself that this was just another twisted example of his humor. She turned to their usual table by the window. It was empty. The whole donut shop was empty. There was no Billy. There were no customers at all. Lou’s friendly face wasn’t smiling behind the counter and there were no sounds coming from the back. She was alone, completely and utterly alone.
Annie stared at her empty seat. She knew only a couple of minutes ago Billy was complaining that she wasn’t occupying it. Now his voice on the phone seemed like a distant dream. She turned around and walked to the counter.
“Hello?” she called out, and then more loudly, “Hello? Is anyone here?”
The silence was just too freaky. Annie started back toward the door of the donut shop and then she stopped. She looked up at the ceiling as if there was something up there that would spell this all out. She wasn’t looking for anything in particular. She turned back around and walked back to the counter, looked quickly around again to make sure no one was watching. Then she reached around behind the glass case and grabbed a maple old-fashioned.
Letting the maple icing melt on her tongue, Annie tried Billy’s number as she wandered back toward the door. She half expected to hear her ringtone from under a table or in the back room, but there was no sound. She didn’t wait for his voicemail when he didn’t answer.
Annie pushed the door open and stared out in wonder. She really was alone. Billy said the world was going to end at 6:00. It was 6:04 now and she was alone. Should she have taken Billy’s prognostication more seriously? All of the sudden she remembered the moments just before it had happened…
♪ It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine. ♫
“I really do feel fine,” she thought. Only she didn’t really anymore. “Maybe it’s just a dream and I’m going to wake up. Who gets up this early on their frikkin Saturday anyway?” She stepped back out onto the street and allowed the door to close behind her.
Her heart was beginning to race. The air had a strange odor that left a sweet sugary taste in her sinuses and in the back of her throat. A silver Mercedes was stopped in the street in front of her. There was no one inside. She walked around behind it and up to the driver’s window. The transmission was still in drive, the keys were still hanging in the ignition, but the car just sat there, as dead as the calm that engulfed the city.
A Volkswagen Beetle directly across the street was in the same condition. “Red one,” she said aloud as she peeked through the window. She checked a few more cars, all the same. Keys in the ignition. All still in gear. As if everyone had all stopped, shut off their cars, and then vanished into thin air at the same time.
The sun was up now and it should have been a beautiful morning. A bright blue, almost cloudless sky was filled with the promise of a perfect day. The macabre absence of the chirping of birds made it a promise impossible to believe.
“Hello?” Annie yelled. Even an echo would have been welcome company.
Annie took another bite of her donut. What if this really was the end of the world? She stared at the half-eaten delight clutched in her fingers, suddenly precious in the threat of its impending extinction. Suddenly she laughed out loud. “I guess I’ll find out how long Twinkies really last!” she giggled.
The end of the world. This wasn’t what Billy had said though. Jesus was coming, you know, the Rapture and stuff. Millions left behind would die. Annie looked around. “The only one Jesus didn’t take?” she thought. It didn’t seem likely. And she felt quite alive. “Maybe I’m the only one he did take.” She took a deep breath and puffed her chest up and then stared dubiously down at the result.
This didn’t seem like anything you would label as a holocaust. There was no destruction at all. Certainly there was no wailing or gnashing of teeth, unless it was in some secret, hidden place. There was nothing but… peace. The finality of the word carried a greater force than any tsunami or earthquake. Annie shuddered at the thought. There was finally world peace.
“Why would you pick me?” she asked no one. “God’s Chosen One, the Donut Thief!” She laughed out loud at her thoughts. She was the first post-holocaust looter! Her laughter drowned in the thick silence. Why was she the only one? Instinctively, she felt she couldn’t be. There had to be others.
She surveyed the street, a parking lot of suddenly free cars. A voice in her head told her trying to drive one was a bad idea. If there were other survivors out there, what would they do with this whole world to themselves? “I bet they’d go straight out and steal a donut!” She laughed again. “Wow. This is going to make one hell of a diary entry!”
Annie’s thoughts finally rested on the one that had been nagging at the back of her mind since she first pushed open the donut shop door. Her body began to shake uncontrollably, and tears forced their way down her cheeks. Jessi! It was only 16 miles to her house. But even if Jessi was still alive, would she even be there? “She’d be out looking for me,” Annie answered her thought. It was suddenly 16 miles to the moon.
Heart pounding furiously now, she pulled her phone out and stared at it again. It seemed superfluous in the face of its own extinction. Her thumb found Jessi’s number and pushed it, but with the same result as Billy’s. “Hey, congratulations!” Jessi’s recording answered. “You won a free entry in the maybe I’ll call back lottery. Place your ticket…” Annie laughed. Jessi must have just changed it again. “Hey, Jess, it’s Flower. I’m okay if you get this. I’m coming to look for you so park your ass okay?”
Tortured anguish ripped her heart in half as she pushed the End Call. She collapsed in a pool of tears in the middle of the street. She couldn’t bear the thought that she would never see Jessi again, never hear her voice. Tears upon tears pushed their way forth on a determined drive to marry their salt with a sea of sorrow…
The darkest raincloud runs out of rain drops. Eventually, Annie couldn’t help thinking how pathetic she looked to whoever wasn’t watching. She stood up and began the walk toward Jessi’s again. Her thoughts became a treacherous wasteland of horror stories and philosophical nightmares. She began pretending she was writing in her diary to keep her imagination at bey, and then she stopped…
Blumenfeld’s Pianos stretched its broad panes along the sidewalk in front of her. Only a moment of hesitation slowed her before she dashed inside and across to the back of the store. The most beautiful, black Steinway & Sons full concert grand sat there on an elevated floor. It had been there as long as she could remember, but only famous pianists were ever allowed to play it.
Annie had tried to touch it once when she was 6 and Daddy was buying the piano she’d grown up playing. The proprietor had kicked them out of the store. There was no proprietor now. She pulled the bench out and settled onto it, throwing her imaginary coattails over the back of the bench before she sat. Delicately like paintbrushes, she drew her fingers across the keys, up and down, so perfect, so smooth, so magical.
Then she burst out laughing. After all these years, she couldn’t push the keys down. She had no idea what to play, and the only song in her head just didn’t sound like it belonged on a Steinway.
♪ It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine! ♫
© 2011 Anne Schilde
Like I need to mention that I don’t have any copy rights for R.E.M.’s awesome song!