20151209

Joshua Baird



Expiry


Any other day, any other day, any other day.
      Look in the mirror and repeat it.
      No looking around the room. No fidgeting.
      Today is just like any other day.
      As the clouds part and the sky swallows the earth, we’ll stare dead ahead and pretend not to notice.

*

Twelve hours before the end of the world, Abigail, in her blue school dress and ponytailed blonde hair, sits flat on the chair, her chest barely coming up past the top of the breakfast table. She tucks her legs under her and sits up higher. She dangles her spoon in the bowl, pushing the corn flakes around in the milk, clanging the metal against porcelain each time she accidentally taps the spoon against the inside of the bowl.
      ‘Eat your cereal,’ I tell her.
      ‘I don’t want to go to school,’ she replies.
      ‘You have to, Abby. You know the rules.’
      Abigail’s gaze doesn’t move from her breakfast swimming around in the bowl, chased by the spoon. I pour the last drops of milk into my own bowl and sit down at the table across from her.
      ‘What’s the point of learning if it’s the end of the world tonight?’ she says, finally looking up at me. ‘What’s the point of being smart?’
      Her pale blue eyes pierce mine.
      ‘It’s not about being smart,’ I tell her. ‘We have to pretend, just like everyone else is pretending. We have to act like everything is okay, and that today is just like any other day.’
      She lets the words process before chasing the corn flakes with her spoon again.
      ‘That’s stupid,’ she says.
      ‘Just smile and eat your cereal,’ I instruct her.
      She pokes her tongue out at me and pushes the bowl away, crossing her arms on the table and resting her chin on them.
      ‘Good girl,’ I say.

*

7:58pm, September 9th, 2015.
      This is the exact time that the sky will open up like a giant mouth and swallow Earth. By 7:59pm, we’ll be gone.
      Trying to remember when I learnt the date of the world’s end is like trying to remember when I learnt that the world is round, or that gravity pulls things back to the earth. It was a fact that had become intrinsic to the human condition; a belief that was etched into my brain, growing with me until any contradicting belief seemed impossible. It was all just part of life and knowledge: that everything we’ve ever done is in a lead-up to 7:58pm on the 9th of September, and at 7:59pm, there will be no one around to remember it all.

*

Eleven hours before the end of the world, Abigail points out the driver’s side window.
      ‘What are they doing, Daddy?’
      Men in orange vests stand in a park, some holding signs. One of the men is higher than the rest, standing on a podium and talking into a megaphone. Below, the huddle of other men moves in waves, thrusting their synchronized signs and fists into the air, yelling at the request of the man with the megaphone.
      ‘It’s a protest,’ I tell Abigail. ‘Where people get together and ask for something they want.’
      ‘What do they want?’
      ‘More money.’
      I saw it on the news this morning. The newsreader said the workers went on strike for a pay rise, but I know the truth. I know what’s going on deep inside each of the worker’s minds. They know they’ll never get the money they cry out for. It’s all part of the act. It’s a stage play; a group of actors in a show of determined ignorance, shouting through invisible masks, turning today into just any other day.
      This is their protest against fear.
      Their protest against the end of the world.
      ‘What will they do with the money?’ Abigail asks, screwing up her nose. ‘They won’t get much time to spend it.’
      ‘Maybe they’ll buy something nice for their families as a goodbye present.’
      Abigail’s expression softens. It’s the first thing that has made sense to her today.
      I drive slowly into the school carpark, joining the herd of other cars with kids spilling out of them.
      ‘Now remember, Abigail,’ I say, parking the car and turning to face her, ‘the world is going to end tonight.’
      And with her straightest poker face, she says ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
      I smile and kiss her on the cheek.
      ‘Good girl,’ I smile as she opens the door and drags her schoolbag out of the car.

*

I’ve thought a lot about where I want to be when everything ends.
      I want to be lying on my back in the ocean, letting myself flow up and down with each wave. I want Abigail to be floating beside me, her hand in mine. I want to be facing the sky with my eyes open, feeling the planet spin beneath me. I want to watch the clouds part. I want to hear the rumble. I want to watch the sky as it slowly opens up into a giant black hole, pulling the water towards it. And as the waves get bigger, I want to float over the top of them, the water bringing me closer and closer to the sky. I want Abigail to be with me; not scared, not crying, but enjoying the waves, enjoying the thrill of the final moments.
      Instead, I’ll be sitting on my couch, watching television just like I would on any other Wednesday night.
      Millions of people will be sitting on their couch like me. Many will be at work. Many will sleep through the whole thing. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the guy who spends his last seconds on Earth sitting on the toilet with his pants around his ankles. We’ve all thought about where we want to be, but we’ll follow our usual routine, pushing the end of the world to the back of our minds.
      I’ll be a statue placed in front of a television, and with a bit of luck, Abigail will be under my arm, and I’ll squeeze her a little bit tighter in the moment before oblivion.

*

Two hours before the end of the world, Abigail trails behind me in the supermarket, running her hand along the shelves, stopping to look at certain things then running to catch up to me.
Stopping at the dairy section, I ask her which her favorite milk carton is.
      ‘That one,’ she says, pointing to a red and white carton with a smaller, smiling version of itself on the print. I pick the carton up and read the expiry date: ‘9/10/15’. Tomorrow. In a moment of forgetfulness, I think about putting the carton back and grabbing another one.
      I grab Abigail’s hand and lead her to the cash register where a smiling attendant awaits me. The girl wears her dark brown hair down, and her smile reveals metal braces on her bottom teeth.
      I read her nametag.
      Caitlin.
      ‘Hi, how are you?’ she asks cheerily.
      ‘I’m good, thanks,’ I reply, putting the milk carton on the counter for her to scan.
      As she grabs the carton, her eyes flick past the expiry date.
      ‘Did you know this expires tomorrow?’ she says. ‘Do you want to grab another one?’
      I chuckle, but she doesn’t.
      ‘What’s the point?’ I ask.
      She blinks.
      I know I should leave the conversation alone, get a different carton, and let Caitlin live in her denial, but I look at her smile and I realize that ignoring things won’t make them any less real. That smile will perish with the rest of the world.
      I had spent my whole life acting, and I’d made it so close to the fall of the curtain.
      ‘We won’t be around to drink it tomorrow, anyway,’ I tell her.
      She smiles and asks ‘Why’s that, sir?’ as if I’m telling a joke and I’m about to deliver the punch-line.
      ‘Come on. We can say it now. We can stop pretending.’
      The customers in the queue behind me pretend not to listen. Some of them are so desperate to avoid facing the truth that they’re moving away from me, moving into different queues, yet they look over to watch what I do next.
      I look down at Abigail. She’s squeezing my hand, looking back up at me with those pale blue eyes. Her bottom lip is trembling.
      I look back up at Caitlin. She’s still waiting for the punch line.
      ‘We’re going to die tonight.’ As the words spill out of my mouth, they take my breath with them. I imagine this is how people feel during confession. This is the weight lifting off my shoulders. ‘Don’t be scared. We can say this now. We’re going to die. Say it, Caitlin. The world ends tonight.’
      Caitlin’s smile has disappeared.
      In her straightest poker face, she says ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
      Abigail’s starting to cry. She’s tugging my hand, trying to pull me towards the door but she’s not strong enough. I stand rooted to the ground, the counter separating me from Caitlin. People in the supermarket stand and stare from a safe distance.
      ‘Wouldn’t you rather be somewhere else, doing something worthwhile?’ I aim the question at the audience around me, their eyes averting mine as I look at each one of them. ‘Wouldn’t you rather be at a beach somewhere or having amazing sex or, I don’t know, skydiving or something?’
      I turn back to Caitlin.
      ‘Instead, you’ll be stuck here behind a register doing one of the things you’ve hated most about your life up until now. You’ll die in a supermarket.’
      A dark-haired man, a little taller than me, places his hand on my shoulder. His nametag reads ‘PAUL’. Under that, it says ‘Manager’.
      ‘Excuse me, sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave,’ he says as he puts his hand on the middle of my back, guiding me towards the automatic door. My feet move under me as I’m softly pushed out of the store. The door opens for Abigail as she wipes tears out of her eyes and drags me along by the hand.
      ‘It’s all over soon, Paul,’ I say quietly as I reach the footpath outside. ‘Surely there are more important things you could be doing.’
      ‘If you say so, buddy,’ he replies.
      The door closes between us, and Paul turns to Caitlin, probably asking if she’s okay. She’ll go back to her job, asking customers how their days are and packing bags until the building gets sucked into the sky with the rest of the world.
      I should be going home to sit on the couch in my living room. I should be spending my last minutes watching television, following the usual routine, pretending.
      Abigail looks up at me, her eyes now puffy and wet.
      ‘Dad, let’s go home,’ she says.
      I imagine the ocean moving under me, the waves lifting me closer and closer to the sky.

*

My father used to test me. If he said something like ‘When’s the world going to end?’ I’d have to reply with something convincing like ‘How am I supposed to know?’ If he asked how old I thought I’d be before I die I’d say something like ninety, instead of working it out and saying thirty-four. He told me to stop looking around the room when I said it. He told me to stop fidgeting because I looked like a liar.
      I remember, once, he told me why I had to pretend.
      ‘You see it in the movies,’ he said. ‘In the final moments, people will reveal their true selves, their inner demons. There will be chaos, torture, rape, murder. People’s darkest desires will come spilling out and they won’t give a damn about the consequences because they won’t matter anymore. There will be a global riot. The peaceful people of the world won’t join hands and sing “Kumbaya”, because they’ll be too afraid to go outside.’
      In the picture his words painted, dark clouds swelled overhead as the streets cracked and split apart. There was fire and blood, and people dropped to their knees on the concrete, sobbing into their hands.
      ‘So we have to pretend,’ my father said. ‘Don’t talk about it to your friends. Don’t talk about it outside this house. We have to ignore the end of the world, right up to the very end. We have to go on living our normal lives. The end of the world will be just like any other day.’

*

I take Abigail to get her bathing suit from home and, twenty-one minutes before the end of the world, we arrive at the beach. Small waves wash up on the sand, bringing a cool breeze with it. Abigail, in her bathers, clutches her bare arms and shivers. I take her hand and lead her into the freezing water that slowly crawls up from our ankles to our thighs. I know Abigail can’t stand the cold but she doesn’t say anything.
      We lie on our backs in the ocean, feeling the water move under us. I clutch Abigail’s hand so we don’t drift apart. Every few seconds she splashes around, trying to get her legs back up to the surface and float flat on her back.
      ‘Dad, I can’t do it,’ she says in frustration.
      ‘Just relax,’ I tell her. ‘Hold your breath, it makes it easier.’
      Two minutes before the end of the world, grey clouds pass over us, revealing the stars behind them. Specks of white paint flung across the night sky. One of the stars is brighter than the others, and somehow it makes me think of my mother. I only remember her face from the pictures in our house. Pictures of her smiling, of her with my father, of her holding me when I was a baby. I remember when my father and I would sit at the dinner table. He always made dinner for her, even after she passed. Every night, a full plate would be placed on the table before an empty chair. My father’s gaze would fall on a picture of my mother that stood on a cabinet shelf in the corner of the room. He’d sit there for minutes at a time, chewing his food absent-mindedly, staring through the picture. At the end, my father would scoop my mother’s food into the rubbish bin.
      I remember he used to circle September 9th in red marker on the calendar every year. He called it the ‘End Anniversary’, and he’d tell me how many years it would be before the end of the world. Every year, on September 9th, we visited my mother’s grave, then we went home and watched videos of my mother and father when they were younger. I was in some of the videos as a baby. My parents would be cradling me or playing with me, making me laugh. Some of the videos brought tears to my father’s eyes, but he’d always be smiling.
      After my father died when I was seventeen, I picked up his habit of drawing a red circle around September 9th on the calendar.
      Abigail points at the sky. I follow the trail that leads from the end of her finger up to one of the stars. It shines just as bright as the first one.
      ‘Is that Mum?’ she asks.
      It seems to twinkle in confirmation.
      ‘Yeah, that’s her alright,’ I tell her.
      Abigail lets her hand fall back to the water with a soft splash.
      ‘When’s the world supposed to end?’ she asks.
      ‘It should have ended three minutes ago,’ I tell her.
      The ocean ebbs calmly underneath us as we drift across its surface. The sky sits still except for the clouds that float across it.
      ‘Do you remember your grandpa?’ I ask Abigail.
      Sort of.’ Above the water flowing around my head, I hear her tiny voice. ‘He used to grab my hand really hard when he held it. And talk loud. He was crazy.’
      We float in the water, watching the clouds float in the sky.
      ‘He was a little crazy, wasn’t he,’ I say.
      I feel the waves beneath us, lifting us higher, but only for a second before letting us fall again.





Joshua Baird lives in regional Victoria, Australia, and is currently completing his PhD in Creative Writing. He writes stories that explore the psychologies of madness and masculinity, and aspires to be a novelist and a university lecturer.
 
 
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