At 5:37am EST, the sirens went off. The sound, low and baritone, pierced through the quiet of the early morning stillness like alarms from the 1950s, heralding doom by air raid.
The sound came from everywhere: refrigerators, bedposts, dashboard hula girls. Some people woke up screaming as their very pajamas emitted the eerie call.
The alarm lasted for roughly ten minutes, waking those who were sleeping, terrifying those already up, regardless of how remote. Even in the distant sands of the Sahara, saddles and stones emitted the strange warning. There was really no choice but to pay attention to it.
When the sirens finally stopped, people scrambled to make sense of it. But television broadcasts couldn’t be resumed, phone lines were jammed, and browsers could no longer find a connection to the internet.
Then, the music started.
It was nondescript; the kind of music played in supermarkets, or inside an elevator. The kind of music companies played when they put you on hold. It could be assumed whomever had chosen the soundtrack had meant to keep people calm, but it had exactly the opposite effect. Mass panic erupted in the streets as people tried to find a way to turn off the music that had one, universal message to express:
It was closing time on Earth.
When the voice came, everyone stopped everything.
“Attention Lifers, Earth will be closing in thirty minutes. Repeat, Earth will be closing in thirty minutes.”
John Smith, a forty-year-old salesman from Tennessee, set his cellphone down, too stunned by the voice emitting from his cigarette to notice that he placed the mobile in a giant mound of McDonald’s ketchup (exactly five foils’ worth).
He stared at the burning end of the cigarette, and then attempted to put it out on his slacks as the message was repeated in French, Spanish, and something that sounded Chinese, or Arabic. His efforts were mute, however, as the moment the cigarette was destroyed, the voice simply persisted through his car’s air-conditioning vents instead.
“It is suggested that all Lifers now take a moment to read the handbook being passed out. We request that all inhabitants proceed in an orderly fashion to the designated exit signs as soon as possible. There is no need to panic. Repeat, there is no need to panic.”
As the calm, feminine, yet slightly robotic voice spoke, John couldn’t help but feel anxiety. It couldn’t be real. Earth? Closing?
Figures rushed through his mind. Small snippets from magazines, and images that had been posted too many times by friends on his various social media channels. Earth was over 4 billion years old. Five Ice Ages, over 9 billion people living now. Climate Change. It was all banal, but he could hardly help thinking about it.
Outside, a man ran by his car, arms raised high, a wide smile corroded by mania on his face.
Rapture! Rapture! the man screamed. Was it God? John didn’t know. He’d never really thought about the End Days being filled with modern conveniences, like an intercom. He wondered if it was possible to get in touch with the person on the other side––maybe find some answers.
He leaned forward, tapped his air-conditioning vents.
His phone began vibrating, taking itself, and the ketchup boat, into the passenger seat. If he hadn’t of still been buckled in, John was sure he would have stumbled out of his car from the scare.
“Dammit! I mean––” Well, if it was God, he didn’t want to start cursing now. “––Oh, come here!” With his digits fumbling in the gelatinous red goop, his phone almost didn’t register the swipe of his finger. “Hello?”
“John, it’s me.” Stacy. His wife.
“Honey. Where are you?” He had to marvel at how calm his voice sounded.
“Home.” There was a pause, and he heard her tears. “John, what’s going on? I thought it was just a joke… but the lights. The lights are scaring me, John.”
“Don’t you see them?”
He lifted his eyes, then, and almost dropped the phone. All around him were great, wide, neon lights, breaking the monotony of the sky with billboard-level flashiness. ‘EXIT’ glowed with bright flourescents on the side of each rotating box. Every now and then, he thought he saw a small light, like an elevator, zip up between the X and the I, before disappearing. Were people already leaving?
“John? John, are you still there?”
“Yeah. Yeah Stacy, I’m still here. Are the boys with you?”
“Yes. John. Please come home. I want you here.”
“Right. I’m coming.” He twisted his keys in the ignition. The car didn’t start. It didn’t even give the guttural cry of an engine trying to obey. “The car…”
“What about the car?”
“It won’t start. It––” He watched, as the casing for the airbag fell off the steering wheel. In the deflated bed of the airbag, there was a small, cream-colored book, no more than fifteen pages. Gold filigree imprinted the title on a soft crepe cover. It read, Passing Over: The Handbook.
“What do you mean the car won’t start, John?” Panic edged into Stacy’s voice. “They’re saying we only have thirty minutes. You have to be here!” John’s chest tightened. He could hear Stacy trying not to crumble. The beg of a woman who had always been strong for their family.
“I’ll walk. Stacy, I’ll walk. I’ll try to get there in time.” There was a beep from his mobile. He checked the screen. An empty battery icon flashed at him. “Stacy, my battery is about to die. Listen. I’ll be there. I love you.”
His wife’s voice cut off.
When John had bought his Oxfords two years prior, he had never imagined needing to walk a long distance in them. With every ill-fated step he made down the highway with all of the other stranded motorists, the hard heel of his shoe dug into the back of his foot, making him wince. He was clenching Passing Over in one hand, the cover bent back so he could read it as he walked.
Dear Denizens of Earth,
As you are likely aware, Earth is closing. We would like to take a moment to thank you all for your patronage and support through the years. Having serviced over 100 billion Lifers since our inception, we can only humbly offer our apologies, and hope that you will understand. The decision was difficult, and made after careful and repeat deliberations among our head officers.
We have decided to present this guide to the remaining populace as a means to expedite and simplify the process of passing over. Please be aware that due to the nature of certain technologies, internet, phone, and cable services will likely be interrupted. It is not advised that time is wasted attempting to regain long-distance communications.
We recommend proceeding to your nearest exit sign as soon as possible, to avoid large crowds.
Thank you for your cooperation.
His watch wasn’t working anymore, but John already knew he wouldn’t be able to make it home in time. The voice, now relayed to him via a button on his suit jacket, relished in informing him every couple minutes just how little time he had left.
“Attention Lifers, Earth will be closing in twelve minutes. Repeat, Earth will be closing in twelve minutes. Please proceed to your nearest exit sign.”
His eyes burned and his throat swallowed sand, but he chalked it up to pollen allergies; the smells of the road messing with his sinuses. Trembles took over as he turned the page.
Step 1: Leave all belongings behind and proceed to the marked exit signs.
If you are with friends or family, you may go together. For those separated from their group, please do not attempt to rendezvous; continue to make your way to the designated exit.
It seemed like many had taken the step quite literally. John had to step over discarded jeans and underwear, bras and wigs as he shuffled his feet down the tarmac. It hadn’t been hard for him to leave the car behind, or the bundle of papers his boss wanted by Thursday. They didn’t seem all that important now. But some seemed to be having a harder time. A thin woman in a nightgown was making her way towards the exits, tripping over photos, a couple of custom mugs, and a bunch of shoes she was endeavoring to carry. John had to wonder where she thought she was taking all of that stuff.
He briefly thought about his high school ring, and his sons’ birth certificates, before putting them out of mind. Those things weren’t important.
He had to get to Stacy. The boys. That was what was important. He’d have to risk exceeding the arbitrary time limit imposed by… whomever was speaking. After all, he’d promised her. What if Stacy waited for him, and he never came? No, if he couldn’t go with them, then he simply wouldn’t go.
But damned if those shoes weren’t giving him blisters. He bent briefly; untied them; kicked them off his feet. It was oddly freeing.
He did something, then, that he hadn’t done since high school.
The sun was high enough now that the skies were blue. Clouds obscured the floating exit markers as they drifted by, oblivious to the announcer’s call of imminent death. The rate of threaded lights between the earth and the signs kept increasing, until the pathways looked like giant strands of blinking Christmas lights.
John was bent over his knees, wheezing with an intensity that would make the most stout of doctors wince. Sweat lined his pits, his jacket discarded sometime before.
The broadcasts were continuous now. Five minutes left. Four. Three.
He’d not even gotten to the exit ramp that would lead him home, and now it was too late. He wasn’t above crying anymore. He didn’t even care to continue. Rubber legs carried him to the shoulder, where he collapsed into the cool grass, sobbing.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
He’d been a decent man. He’d loved his wife; did the best he could by his kids. Sure, he hadn’t recycled as much as he should have; he probably could have taken better care of his body. Maybe he should have tipped the guy in the coffee shop by his work a little more. He regretted not speaking his mind when he should have; not asking for that raise. Teasing freckled Flora in middle school. Leaving the toilet seat up and the toilet paper roll empty. Not being as honest as he could have been during sales.
He regretted all the passive aggressive things he’d said about drivers who’d cut him off in the past. Not asking his father more about his life when he’d still been alive. Not taking more of an interest in Stacy’s knitting. Not squeezing her to him every day, to remind himself as much as her how much she meant to him.
In the midst of his wallowing, time ran out. The exit signs turned off. The announcer disappeared. Everything was oddly still. Quiet. And then, with the flicker of a basement bulb, the sun went out. Just like that.
John didn’t know when it had happened, but he was also completely alone. He was sure he hadn’t been the only person walking this road… but now, nary a whisper in any direction. Was this it?
His eyes turned and showered their contempt to the small book in his hand. He raised it, readying to tear it in two, but something stayed his hand.
“It’s all I have left,” he said as he realized it, just to hear some sound, some manner of comfort. The impenetrable loneliness was all he met.
He must have walked for hours. His feet throbbed, his thighs ached, and his shoulders sagged under the weight of invisible rocks. He’d not seen another living thing for the rest of the trip.
His house loomed ahead; but he only knew it because his eyes had finally adjusted to the dark. The quiet hummed in his ears like the gentle plug water makes after a dive. He bore a few moments of intense pain on his blisters to rush up to the house and throw open the door.
No movement. Nothing. The layout of the furniture was all the same. The old, familiar smell of stale Cheerios and milk lingered in the air. This was his house.
“Please! Stacy, boys! Answer!”
John scrambled to the dining room table, feeling for a note, a Post-It, anything to alert him to their location. He finally found a note on the refrigerator, under a wooden magnet his eldest had made at camp a couple years prior.
We had to go. Time running out. I love you, John.
He could only stare.
A lifetime of knowing her, of feeling connected on the most intrinsic levels… and he’d been wrong. She hadn’t waited. At the end of the world, they’d gone without him. His romanticism, his sentimentality, had cost him. The weight of the realization hit him slowly, thickly; like burnt molasses.
Had he ever really known her? Or had Stacy always been the sum of his assumptions, a projection only of what he wanted to see?
He probably could have debated it forever, but the grumbles of machines sounded out in the distance. John ran to the door, throwing it open.
Machines he couldn’t understand, didn’t recognize, were moving down the streets. A man with a clipboard and a hard hat was walking up his driveway. It took John a moment to realize that the man was glowing with an internal luminescence.
The man paused when he saw John. “What are you doing here?”
“This is my house.”
“Didn’t you get the memo?” The man tipped his head. John frowned.
“I was trying to get back to my family first…”
“No, no, no,” the man sighed, “They told you not to. You were supposed to head to the signs.”
John felt a bubble of anger building; a bubble that had been growing since the first announcement, “You didn’t exactly give us a lot of time.” That was exactly it. There were ways these things were done. Thirty-five years in sales had taught him that much.
The man paused; an uncertain look crossed his features, “Well, no…”
John seized the uncertainty. This was power. “Exactly! You expect everyone to just shove off in thirty minutes without any warning?”
“We were closing…”
“I didn’t see any hours posted anywhere.”
“I guess not, but––“
“How can you expect us to know when to leave if you never told us?”
“Sir, do you still have your manual? I’m sure we can find a fix… get you to an emergency exit…”
“No. You know what? No. I’m not leaving. This is a breach of contract.”
“I’m sorry, Sir, what?”
“This is a breach of contract. You can’t just evict everyone. I don’t care what your higher-ups said. We were living here. We had lives.” John tossed the Passing Over handbook over at the man for effect, “I demand restitution. And if you can’t give it to me, I want to talk to someone who can.”
The man in the hardhat paused. “Let me get my manager.”
“You do that.” John did his best to stand tall and disgruntled. The disgruntled wasn’t so hard, but with all of the blisters and general dirt from his impromptu hike, tall was a hard sell.
As the man turned away, heading back to the machines, John thought about the day his boys were born. He thought about the contract of life––terms of cancellation always unclear, restrictions applied, results varied––but always given with the understanding that life, in essence, was your own. It could be taken by another human being, destroyed in accidents or through willful tampering—sometimes it left the factory defective… but it was always yours. And when it wasn’t, it was your wife’s. Your family’s. Your friend’s. Your neighbor’s.
It wasn’t something that the guy in the hard hat’s “boss” was allowed to dictate on a whim.
And though John had been hated, and sneered at, condemned for his profession; though he had needed to smile through clenched teeth at more than a few clients in his day, John knew, in that moment, that he had the only skill required to set things right. To keep his promise to Stacy.
It’d be a hard sell, but he was going to do it. He’d keep his blistered, shoeless foot in the door until someone finally listened to what he had to say.
By Alex Hurst: http://www.alex-hurst.com