SHORT STORY: The End – Tom Gumbert

Tom Gumbert lives along the Ohio River with his wife Andrea, in an area that was once an active part of the Underground Railroad. Operations Manager by day, and all-round daydreamer, he has been writing for a decade. Concerned about the state of the world, he is becoming an activist.

His short stories have appeared in online and print publications including Sediments Literary-Arts, Black Heart Magazine, Meat For Tea: A Valley Review, Rathalla Review, L’Ephemere Review, Yellow Chair Review, and Five2One Magazines: Sideshow. He co-authored the anthology ‘Nine Lives’, which was published by All Things That Matter Press in March 2014.


Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The End

Three days, fourteen hours, six minutes and twenty-two seconds ago and I was about to have sex for the first time. Ever. It was my sixteenth birthday. And now we’re going to die. All of us. The entire planet. Extinction.

The bearer of the news, for me, was my mom, an astrophysicist with Interplanetary Corp., a company that provides asteroid mining surveys. Her frantic call, minutes after informing the White House and hours before the rest of the world was informed, was delivered in sob choked, super intense whispers that directly violated the Federal non-disclosure order.

The first thing I did after the call was send Tyler home, which was no easy feat. I wanted it every bit as much as he did—maybe more, because no one wants to die a virgin—and in the face of impending death, I needed to feel alive and loved.

But I insisted he go home to his family, because when the strongest, most fierce creature on the planet calls home and starts freaking out on the voice recorder, well, let’s just say the mood is killed.

Killed. Which makes me wonder why I’m doing this—using what precious little time remains, recording the events. No future generation will find this. The knowledge of what transpired will never be passed down. It’s pointless. I know this, yet I can’t stop myself. Maybe I’m holding out hope, that in spite of the overwhelming evidence, in less than forty-eight hours—I can’t say it. I can barely think it.

She arrived screeching to a stop mere millimeters from the garage door, leaving the car running as she sprinted into the house. We met at the door, her momentum knocking me backwards, dislodging my eyeglasses and pinning me to the refrigerator. Her hands wrapped around me and she held me so tight I honestly thought she might break some of my ribs. Sobbing, she kissed my face and told me that she loved me and was sorry. That’s my mom, apologizing for things that are not her fault and that she has no control over—like when my father died of cancer.

We sat on the couch, hands intertwined, watching the President address the nation. It was the most surreal speech ever, like something out of one of the sci-fi end of the world movies about doomsday asteroids. Only this time, there is no team of maverick astronauts to save the day, no strategically deployed nuclear weapon that would save humankind versus destroy it. The reality: a rogue asteroid will impact the moon, having a catastrophic effect on Earth. It is going to happen and it will happen soon. Too soon to prevent, or prepare or do anything except make peace with God and each other. When she finished, I went to the bathroom and threw up. And then I cried for like twelve hours.

That was two days ago. Since then things have been, well, in-sane. Conspiracy theorists lost their frigging – oh hell, I can say it – their fucking minds. ‘This is just fake news to get people to abandon wealth and property so that they (the government) can seize it.’ Blah blah vomit vomit. Idiots.

The next day, the world’s best scientists confirmed the findings, explaining via the media in terms that even conspiracy theorists could understand. A large, previously undetected asteroid travelling almost twice as fast as a normal asteroid, is on a collision course with the moon. Big deal, right? It hits the moon instead of the earth. Great job moon. Nice block. Except—no. Maybe a normal speed asteroid on a solid moon would push the moon a bit closer to the earth making for some rad surfing, but guess what? There’s a newly discovered moon fault. Apparently one that makes San Andreas look micro. Well, shit.

Why wasn’t the fault discovered long before? Two words – Dark Side. So now this Aroldis Chapman fastball of an asteroid is barrelling down on a fractured moon and, according to scientist, is going to split that bitch apart.

I wanted to believe that a split moon, or even a shattered moon would be no big deal. I mean, in school we were taught that if the moon didn’t exist, we would have calm oceans. I can live with that. Yeah, except that the moon isn’t going to disappear per se. Chunks of it, massive chunks, the size of states like Montana and Alaska, are going to come crashing into us. Mass destruction, goodbye planet. I think I’m going to puke.

That day and for about the next twenty-four hours, people lost their minds. ‘Why didn’t we know about this, why weren’t we prepared?’ The simple answer: we can’t see everywhere all the time. It was rogue. An astrological anomaly. The perfect storm of doomsday scenarios. Yeah! #sarcasm.

Then there was internet buzz about technology. All over Twitter it was like, ‘Hey, isn’t there an earth-like planet just a couple of light years away? Maybe we can just hop in some astro-ark and ta-da! Hello new earth!’ Sorry tech geeks, but you weren’t fast enough in developing interstellar travel. No wormholes, no teleportation. Nowhere to run to baby, nowhere to hide.

No hope. Let that sink in. Most people came to that realization within the last few hours. Some sooner, some still haven’t gotten there. Let me tell you, that’s a grim fucking reality. Last week I was celebrating my sweet sixteenth , about to do the nasty for the first time ever, thinking about prom and then senior year and then college, career, marriage, etc. – you know, LIFE. Life that I took for granted—that almost everyone in the world took for granted.

Once I reached hopelessness, accepting that there would be no heroics, no Hollywood ending, my cavalier attitude disappeared. Every night since the news, I’ve cried myself to sleep thinking how unfair it was that my generation was going to be the last. Apparently, most others felt something similar, because pretty much everyone stopped going to work or school, stopped getting out of pajamas or sweats or whatever, stopped worrying, stopped fighting, pretty much stopped everything. At least for a few hours.

Then, some people decided to complete as many things on their bucket lists as possible, in the remaining time, which severely limited their options. Others checked out, taking matters into their own hands.

Others, and let me tell you, most of my friends are in this category, decided to have one epic Game Over party. Their choice was to go out with a bang – you can take that however you want, and you would be right.

The remainder typically decided to gather family, lock themselves away from the world and await the inevitable. That would be us. No bucket list acts, no epic hedonistic parties, just me and mom, huddled together in our boarded-up house, safe from world, but not from the moon. Waiting.

Today is the day and I feel sick. It’s not the day the world ends, that’s tomorrow. It’s the day of the almighty collision to end all collisions. Here in the USA Midwest, that event will occur just after dusk. Part of me wants to sleep through it. Truth be told, part of me wants to sleep forever. The emotional toll of the last few days has been exhausting. But forever sleep will happen in approximately twenty-four hours, so…

The other part of me clings to hope that somehow my mom and all the smartest people on the planet are wrong and that we will go on living. That I will go living. It blows knowing that I took precious life for granted. I should have Carpe-d the fuck out of the Diem.

Regret. 7.4 billion people on the planet and probably 7.3 billion are wallowing in regret today. Woulda-coulda-shoulda. I wonder what people are regretting. I know Mom regrets not being able to detect the asteroid much sooner—maybe give the world a fighting chance. Fighting. Yeah, how many world leaders, terrorists, warlords and despots regret the blood on their hands? In twenty-four hours will they be standing before a God to account for their lives? Or is it more of a base feeling that we squandered an opportunity to be collectively and individually better had we chosen, to help each other rather than— 

Hell, I don’t know what I’m saying. I’m sixteen years old, for Christ’s sake. I haven’t finished growing up. That’s my regret, that I don’t have a future.

I thought I knew Tyler’s regret, but I was wrong. I thought his regret would not just be that we didn’t have sex, but that he couldn’t spend his last hours with the girl he’d professed his undying love to. So I called him and guess what? He’s partying. Sure, he asked me to come but when I said that I couldn’t, that I needed to be here for my mom, he was all like – ‘whatevs, your loss,’ and I could hear a girl (was it Megan? That bitch!) calling for him. Apparently for him it’s, if you can’t be with the one you love, fuck the one you’re with. I thought I was all cried out, but I admit, he made me cry, for like an hour. Guys suck.

I hear Mom in the kitchen and I go to her. She’s slumped over the table, cradling a cup of coffee, her eyes bloodshot, bags so big you could put a week’s groceries in them. ‘Are you okay?’ I ask. She doesn’t look up or speak, but she gives a slight nod. ‘Are you sure? Cause you look like sh—you look exhausted.’

She looks up, gives me the saddest smile ever, and holds her hand out to me. I take her hand and the chair next to her, tears spilling down my cheeks. Sadness is a contagious disease and we keep infecting each other. She apologizes for having failed to protect me, to protect the planet, and it’s ridiculous, but I love her even more for saying it.

We spend the next several hours playing Scrabble and every card game we collectively know. Mom pulls most of the food out of the refrigerator and sets it in the middle of the kitchen table and we graze, dipping dill pickles in sour cream and mixing orange juice and milk. We eat all the candy, all the ice cream, just because.

The sun is close to setting and Mom goes to her room and shuts the door. I climb the stairs to the attic and push at the window but it doesn’t budge. Several minutes later, aching and panting, I conclude that it was painted shut. I stand, and giving my best karate yell, twist my hips and kick at the bottom of the window with all my might. I watch in amazement as it breaks free from the house and crashes to the lawn. Holy shit.

The climb from the window to the roof is dangerous as fuck. It’s steep and my ability to grip anything that could keep me from falling is as precarious as a Taylor Swift relationship. (Are any of those your regret, sweet Taylor?) My palms are sweaty, which doesn’t help, but ultimately I’m able to pull myself to the roof where I lay back, gasping, my body trembling from my near-death experience. The irony makes me laugh, followed immediately by the thought of watching my final sunset, which makes me cry. It’s the most beautiful sight ever.

From my vantage point I can see several houses along my street and people are congregating on porches. A few, like me, are on rooftops. The moon is full and maybe it’s my imagination, but it looks so close. I’m not sure what I expect, but the process is agonizingly slow. The impact on the dark side isn’t visible to us on earth. What is visible are the dark lines, appearing and spreading over the surface like craquelure on a painting of the Old Man in the Moon. It takes a few hours before I can see separation between the pieces and I’m filled with awe, and dread, and, and – I don’t have the words.

The darkness fades as the sun begins its ascent and I give my full attention to it, savoring earth’s final sunrise. As morning reveals my surroundings, I notice that my neighbors are no longer on roofs and porches. It’s quiet and I am alone. And this is the most terrified I have been in my life.

I want to climb back inside the house but I know that I can’t contort my body enough to climb back inside the attic window. Tears sting my eyes at the realization that I am going to die alone.

Suddenly I hear a banging on the side of the house. I scoot on my butt toward the sound and I’m startled when my mom’s face pokes above the roofline.

‘Help me,’ she says holding her hand out to me. I take her hand, and become her anchor as she wriggles her torso from the ladder onto the roof. It’s strenuous for both of us but she manages to pull her legs over the roofline and finally, we are together.

‘I didn’t know we had a ladder,’ I pant.

‘We don’t. I took the neighbor’s,’ she said as we lean back against the gabled roof and catch our breath. ‘Here’, she says, reaching into the pocket of her hoodie and removing a can of soda and a donut wrapped in a napkin. I rest my head on her shoulder and we sit in silence, sharing our last meal.

The sun hasn’t quite reached its apex when the shadow appears. It starts small, like a cloud passing by, only it doesn’t pass. It grows, continuously and massively. I clutch Mom’s hand as we watch the sky become darker until at last, we can make out the outline of the moon chunk, the sun illuminating the edges, like an eclipse. Only it isn’t the sun illuminating the edges, it’s the atmosphere as the mass heats up. It won’t be long now, and I feel the urine soaking through the crotch of my jeans.

Unlike the moon impact, which was silent to us on earth, the chunk entering the atmosphere shrieks. Faintly at first but increasing in decibel each minute. It’s totally dark now, except for the glowering mass, and Mom turns to look at me, tears streaming out wide eyes and she mouths, I love you. The noise is so loud, it feels like an airliner flying too low. I cover my ears and look up. Oh, my God! Oh, my—

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