The End of the World

by Francesca Leung
It is exactly noon. Outside, it's hot and dry, the kind of day that would fry a pair of sunny side up eggs on the pavement. Inside, in the souvenir shop at The End of the World, the air conditioner is blasting frigid air and Harold wonders if that's the reason for the absurdly high admission tickets.

Who wears sweaters in August, in Saskatchewan?

Harold doesn't. He's wearing a t-shirt, white and plain, and a pair of jeans--a big difference from his usual suit-and-tie combination at work. It's uncomfortable, and he scratches his belly consciously, expecting someone at any point to point a finger at him and shout, "Imposter!" No one does.

"Harold, dear!" Lisa calls his name in a sing-song voice.

He doesn't say anything, only turns around and sees her waltzing over to him through stands of personalised mugs and bumper stickers.

"Look what I found!" She holds out a tiny bottle, eyes shining. "In the bargain bin, Harry. Only a dollar fifty!"

Harold plucks the bottle from her fingers, peering at it. The label is worn and threatening to fall off, but nevertheless proclaims in bold, black lettering: "Black Hole in a Bottle. Instructions on reverse."

"Will you buy it for me?" Lisa flashes her winning smile.

Harold frowns. "Don't you have the money?" It's a useless trinket, anyway; one of those impossibly cheap jobs that's probably just a black sparkle gel on the inside.

"Oh, I don't know where I left my wallet," Lisa is saying. "Maybe it's in the hotel." She giggles. "Please, Harry? We want some souvenirs of this trip, after all. And it's only a dollar fifty."

She rarely calls him Harry; it's only when she really wants something that she does. She hasn't called him Harry in nearly five years. "All right," he accedes. After all, it's only a dollar fifty, and if buying it would make her happy--well, wasn't that why they were there, at the end of the world?

Lisa grins.

*

Harold is an accountant. When he tells people that he works for Air Canada, they wonder if he's a pilot, or a flight attendant, and he hates telling them that he is, in fact, an accountant. It's something of a disappointment for them.

Lisa works at Sears, a cashier in the women's department. She doesn't talk much about her job, so Harold assumes it's nothing particularly interesting.

When he first met her family, it was a dinner affair, and Lisa's entire family was present. Her little sister had been delighted that Lisa was marrying an Air Canada employee: "You and Harry can travel the world together!"

To which Harold replied, "Actually, I'm an accountant."

Lisa glared at him, while her little sister blinked several times before bursting into tears.

Harold doesn't tell anyone he works at Air Canada anymore.

*

They're eating dinner, at home. It's usually a silent affair, or one filled with small talk. Life-altering issues were not discussed over dinner. At least, not usually.

"Let's go on vacation," Lisa says suddenly.

Harold blinks, his fork stopping halfway to his mouth. They haven't been out of the city since their honeymoon five years ago.

"I already bought us a package," she enthuses. "We're going to Hill Mound, Saskatchewan. A place called The End of the World."

How fitting, he thinks, and bites down on his fish fillet. There's too much lemon in it, but he doesn't mind.

"Airfare, hotel expenses, ticket fees--it's all included. Here," she says, and pushes a sheet of paper towards him. "That's our itinerary."

"When are we going?" he ventures, and eyes the itinerary's header. It proclaims PHP in bold, purple letters, and around it are cartoon faces of happy people.

"Next Friday," she says happily.

*

They were married in a small chapel. Lisa thought it was romantic; Harold thought it was cheaper than the cathedral down the road. They didn't need the space, either; neither of them had very large extended families.

It was a short ceremony. After the vows were said, there really wasn't much else to do. They'd booked a restaurant a few blocks away--with their own private room, even. Not that it mattered. Everyone ate, gave their congratulations as was their due, and then left. There weren't even any speeches. Harold preferred that; speaking in front of a lot of people gave him chills and sweats.

Harold remembers the day: June 21. It was an unusually cold day for June. He wonders if Lisa remembers. They don't celebrate their anniversary. It's just any old day.

*

Friday nights are quiet. Sometimes they'll rent a movie and spend a couple hours in front of the TV, but lately Lisa has been coming home late. She says there's been problems at work and shit has hit the fan. Harold wonders how much shit hit the fan, because it's nearly eleven and she still hasn't returned.

Harold shifts his weight, feels the bed creak underneath him, and looks up at the ceiling. It's smooth and a sort of greyish colour (it must have been white at one point, but he's never seen it). Sometimes he imagines that the neighbours upstairs are disturbing the peace of the apartment, being rowdy and drunk and having too much of a good time than is absolutely necessary. Then he sees fine, spidery cracks in the ceiling, and wondered what would happen if the entire ceiling fell in.

Man dies from collapsing roof in downtown apartment. Upstairs neighbours blamed for death.

If Lisa was still out when the roof collapsed, she'd get all his stuff--car, insurance, debts. The laptop in his briefcase would be totalled, so there was nothing to be gained from that. Shame; he's just bought a new mouse and it's a beautiful thing, with extraneous buttons and a curve that fits his hand perfectly.

When he eventually drifts off to sleep, he's still thinking up shorter variations on the headline. He doesn't even so much as twitch when Lisa finally gets home.

The roof doesn't collapse that night, or the next.

*

Harold really isn't sure what to do anymore. Lisa comes home late most nights now, and she gets flustered and nervous and fidgety when he asks about it, so he doesn't; he feels bad about putting her on the spot.

But there's a limit to how much he can take.

Today is Thursday. Lisa usually has Thursdays off, so he wonders why she isn't home. Thursdays are spaghetti nights, and Lisa loves spaghetti.

He serves sloppily splotched spaghetti, taking his time. He even washes all the dishes before he pours a glass of grape juice and sits down, alone, at the table. Something tells him that she won't come home tonight.

Harold thinks of picking up the phone and dialling her cell phone, but the very thought petrifies him; he's never called her number. It's stuck on the fridge, but only for theoretical reference purposes. It was never intended to be used. Still, Harold thinks that this is an emergency--it warrants the use of that slip of paper.

It takes him an additional ten minutes before he finally has enough courage to pick up the phone. He forces himself to press the buttons, hearing each beep too loudly above the buzz of the refrigerator.

"Hi, this is Lisa Cole. Please leave a message."

Harold ends the call. His back feels like it's coated in a layer of cold sweat, but he's almost glad that she didn't pick up. He wouldn't have known what to say to her. Come to think of it, he doesn't know what to do now.

He doesn't feel like eating, so he leaves the spaghetti on the table and takes out his trusty laptop: silver, sleek, and beautiful. Routine things--checking his e-mail for new mail (it's mostly junk), checking his online newsgroups for updates (it's mostly spam), checking the forecast for the next few days (it's mostly cloudy)--assure him that the world isn't ending. He gets lost in the mundanity of thoughtless habits and the decision of what to do about Lisa and her recent behaviour is transferred to the back of his mind.

On his newsgroup site, he sees a new link.

"Don't know what to do? Seeking advice or want to help others? We're here to help: People Helping People."

*

When Harold met Lisa, it wasn't exactly love at first sight. He'd been in his fourth year of university, trying to study for a philosophy exam. It had been one of his electives, something he'd instantly regretted after the first lecture; hence his anxiety over the final exam. It pushed him to do something he'd swore he'd never do: drink coffee.

Lisa saw him poring over a required reading of Jean-Paul Sartre in a downtown Starbucks, and suddenly Harold found himself attached to an attractive young woman who seemed to stalk him everywhere. One day she suggested they go see a movie together and from then on she declared they were going out.

"I think I should marry you," she announced one day, about a year after they had first met.

Harold looked at her, startled. "Why?" It sounded rude and uncaring, and he always looks back on that day thinking he should have phrased his words differently. Still...

"Because I love you, you dolt," Lisa told him, and smiled. "And you love me. Don't you, Harry?" She flung her arms around him and sighed into his ear.

It didn't seem like such a bad idea, actually.

*

Lisa comes home late one night, and Harold's still up, in the kitchen, his hands warming a cup of coffee. She doesn't notice him at first; she's too wrapped up in yanking off her strappy heels and her hair keeps getting into her face.

When she looks up and finds him staring at her, she blurts out, "What are you doing here?"

Harold blinks. It's not exactly the welcome he's been waiting for, but he supposes it'll do for now. "Waiting for you?" he offers feebly.

She flashes a smile, perfect white teeth glimmering in the half light. "You're sweet, Harold," and walks over, bending down to kiss his cheek.

He doesn't move. "Where have you been?" She's got a fancy dress on, the kind that Harold supposes people wear to cocktail parties. Definitely not department store attire.

"Out," she says vaguely, waving a hand. "Mmm. Got any more coffee?"

He shakes his head, and she looks disappointed.

"Well, it's late, anyway. I'll be up all night if I drink some now." She giggles girlishly. "I'm off to bed, Harry. Don't stay up too late."

And then she's gone before Harold has a moment to think about what she said. His fist clenches and a thousand thoughts race through his mind: why didn't I talk to her about it? why didn't I say anything? why am I such a coward?

He hears the shower running, but he doesn't move, mechanically sipping his coffee.

He changes his mind and abandons his coffee, leaving it to sit on the table, and runs up the stairs, taking two steps at a time. It leaves him breathless at the top and he pauses for a moment to catch his breath, wheezing. Then, quietly, he slips into the master bedroom and searches for her purse.

He isn't even sure what he's looking for.

Rummaging through it--his heart is throbbing in his temples and he expects Lisa to come out of the bathroom at any moment, even though the water is still running--he finds a wallet-sized photograph on her keychain, of a man whose face he cannot see in the dark.

*

Remind her of happier times you've had, so she'll remember the reason why she loves you. Were there any vacations you've had recently? Any souvenirs you brought back? Don't confront her if you don't want an argument. Just drop her hints that you're still around and you still love her.

Blindly, he fumbles around in the closet. Lisa's still in the shower, and from experience he knows she won't be out any time soon. There's no time like the present.

Where is it?

At the back of the closet he finds a small bag, plain and white and plastic. The receipt's still there, crumpled and forgotten. Inside is a tiny bottle, its contents blacker than the dark of the closet around him.

He tears off the label and stumbles out of the closet, scrambling to turn on the light. He flips it over and squints his eyes to read the tiny type.

"Grasp lid and twist."

Harold raises his eyebrows, and, for the first time since their trip to The End of the World, feels like laughing.

But there's nothing on the bottle that indicates what it is. He'd always thought it was something else--you know, like alien goop is really green gel, that kind of thing--but there's nothing on the label, nothing on the bottle. The idea that it could be a real black hole occurs to him, but that's absurd; you can't put a black hole in a bottle without sucking the bottle in.

Unless the bottle is made of some super cosmological technology that makes it indestructible to the incredible vacuum inside. In which case, if he opened it, it would start sucking things in. How much? The house, for certain; what about the town? the planet? the universe?

Universe imploded due to stupidity of species homo sapiens sapiens, of planet Earth.

Nah; that was impossible.

He opens the bottle, hears a hissing noise, and suddenly things are very, very black.
Francesca Leung enjoys reading webcomics, is a fan of Queen, and finds knitting to be rather therapeutic.

© 2010, Francesca Leung