You are reading Fiddleblack #5
In June of 2012, six months before the Mayan’s predicted cataclysm, the Sawyers had flown to Disney World, where Jason and their fourteen year old son Dylan rode every roller coaster and Gwen lounged with Logan, tallying tourists sporting mouse ears from the safety of a bench. Aboard the monorail, they’d heard the Spanish translation of “please stand clear of the doors” so often they’d adopted it as a general greeting, a vacation shorthand for good morning and good night. Por favor mantengase alejado de las puertas!
In October, ten inches of freakish powder cloaked their Pennsylvania town. They’d all gone sledding, the boys armored in their hard plastic helmets, Jason boyishly scarlet-cheeked and handsome. Gwen had thought the helmets absurd at first. Her storm trooper sons wobbled, top heavy, up the hill. But then she researched sledding accidents and traumatic brain injury online. Cracked skulls and concussions. She was horror-struck that she’d ever sent her children careening about with their fragile heads uncovered.
All told, they were incredibly lucky.
The weather warmed again and most days followed a soothing routine, with Gwen dropping her boys off at school and ferrying them home again in the afternoon. Logan was busily tackling letters and numbers in full day kindergarten. Gwen was supposed to return to work, but Jason had been promoted and they could afford to have Gwen watching over the boys, for a bit more. She waited in the car, history text book chapters keeping her company in the passenger seat. Finally Logan and Dylan raced toward her, their skinny legs pumping, their jackets flapping behind them like capes.
“Lay it on me. What did we learn today?” Gwen asked as they jostled and climbed into the car.
“The Mayans.” Dylan flung his backpack onto the floor with a thud and slid into the passenger seat. He rolled her papers into a telescope.
“Great.” Gwen pictured an evening full of books and binders. She looked both ways across the exit, once, then again. “Buckle your seat belt.”
“The Mayan calendar is a circle and it should have kept going forever, but it stops in 2012,” Dylan chattered, aiming his paper tube at Gwen. He intoned with the appropriate gravitas. “Because it’s the apocalypse. The end of the world.”
“Will everybody die?” Logan asked, eyes bouncing from Gwen and Dylan, clutching his dinosaur bookbag in his lap.
“No,” Gwen responded reflexively.
“Yes,” Dylan laughed. “That’s exactly what’ll happen. On 12, 21, 12.”
Gwen turned up the radio. The pulsating bass and keyboard power chords were familiar. Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, “Good Vibrations.” “Listen, it’s a song from when Mommy was younger.”
“I don’t want everybody to die,” Logan insisted. He kicked the seat. “Not right before Christmas.”
“What else happened today?” Gwen asked.
“Nothing,” Dylan replied. He turned back to Logan. “It’s gonna be an earthquake, or a meteor that burns everyone up.”
The song ended and the DJ burst on. “We’re busy playing the countdown to end all countdowns, the final countdown, the apocalyptic countdown of not just the top songs of the week, not just the top songs of the year, but the 1,000 biggest hits of all time, ready to hit number one just when the clock strikes midnight on December 21! Go out with a bang!”
Gwen tweaked the volume dial. She eyed Dylan. “People have been talking about the Mayan calendar for a long time. They’re talking about it now especially because it’s finally 2012. But the world isn’t going to end. Scientists don’t see an asteroid, the plates of the earth aren’t shifting, the ice caps are still there.” She paused. She pulled the car into the development. The old man who lived alone on the corner tugged some indeterminate bulk down his driveway. Gwen waved; she didn’t know his name. He lifted a leathery hand.
“Maybe they just quit the calendar, like Dylan quit soccer,” Logan mused.
“Yep, that’s probably what happened,” Gwen answered, ignoring the sore spot. She’d wanted him to keep playing through the winter in an indoor league; he’d wanted to start hockey. Gwen hadn’t mailed the league payment yet, hoping still to talk Dylan out of it. “Now stop talking about it.”
The car had barely stopped before the boys leapt free, hitting the pavement squarely with their sneakered feet. Gwen trailed behind.
A square of paper drifted from Dylan’s backpack and, fluttering like a crisp leaf, landed on the driveway. Gwen clasped it between two fingers. A specimen. A sealed note. Dylan. A girl’s flowing cursive.
Gwen shouldn’t, wouldn’t read it.
But she kept it in her pocket anyway.
Their neighborhood was nestled under a canopy of old trees. The Sawyers’ split level perched on top of a steep hill that grew treacherous in bad weather. Their acre lot nudged up against woods on two sides; Jason had installed motion detection lights a few years ago to deter deer. After ten years, Gwen still hadn’t learned any of the neighbors’ names. They waved wordlessly while hauling away recycling bins.
Gwen shoved her hands in her pockets. The thin paper tickled her fingertips, flitting like a moth around a porch light.
“Can I ride bikes?” Logan asked, waiting for her at the front door.
She mussed his hair. “Do some homework first.”
Dylan and Logan headed inside to eat their snack, organic celery sticks spread with natural peanut butter. At the kitchen counter, Dylan frowned. He plucked a bug off his pant leg. “Stink bug!”
“Don’t squish it.” Gwen hurried over. The gray, square-bodied insects had invaded the past spring, squeezing through windows and doors, crawling over counter tops, skittering along the edge of the shower. The abnormal weather was the culprit. “That’s what makes it smell.”
Dylan pinched the bug between his fingers and shoved it under Logan’s nose. “It’s gonna make you smell forever!”
Gwen delicately swept the bug from her son’s finger and into her palm. She opened the front door and flicked it into the bushes. Then she locked the door behind her.
The crying wasn’t very loud, but it jolted Gwen awake nonetheless. Gwen vaulted from her bed in her t-shirt and sweats and scrambled to her younger boy’s room. But when she pushed into Logan’s bedroom, his chest rose and fell as steadily as sea foam in a tidal pool. His thumb dangled lazily from his mouth. Dylan was the one weeping.
Her eldest son was bare-chested in his boxer shorts, his legs swung over the side of the bed. His skinny arms cast shadowy branches on the wall. His walls were edged with the border of jovial monkeys she’d hung while pregnant with him. Near the light switch he’d tacked a grainy picture of Tupac, printed off the Internet.
Gwen folded her arms over her chest, hovering in the doorway. “Sweetie, what’s wrong?”
“I don’t want the world to end, either,” Dylan sniffled. His hunched shoulders shook.
“The world is not going to end,” Gwen said firmly. She sat next to Dylan on the bed, wrapping an arm around him.
“You don’t know! How would you know?” Dylan wiped his nose. His body was feverishly warm.
“She knows,” Jason said from the doorway. He offered a glass of water. “If the world was going to end, someone would have told her. They’d have put her on the planning committee.”
Dylan wormed out of Gwen’s embrace and gulped the water. “I just want to go back to sleep.”
“Is something else bothering you?” Gwen thought of the note. Perhaps there’d been trouble with a girl, and this was a manifestation of Dylan’s heartbreak.
“No,” Dylan sniffled.
“Let’s go back to bed,” Jason suggested. He yawned. “We’re gonna be tired tomorrow.”
When Gwen checked on Dylan an hour later, he was snoring softly. Jason quickly sunk into slumber while Gwen thrashed and kicked the night away. A buzzing, a faint flapping, awoke her again and again. The early morning’s watery light revealed a stink bug flitting through the air in nervous circles, hovering near the window before alighting with quivering legs on the sill.
Gwen rinsed soggy Wheaties from the boys’ cereal bowls. She vacuumed and folded a load of whites. She Half Mooned and Downward Dogged through half an hour of Wii yoga, and gyrated along to Dance Dance Revolution for another three quarters. She showered and marked up two chapters of a history textbook.
At the kitchen table, Gwen sipped a Vitamin Water and skimmed through chapter three. When she spotted the word “Mayan,” a bolded “term to know,” she abandoned the pages.
Gwen strode to the hall closet and fished the note out of her coat pocket. She held it up to the light, but she couldn’t see through the tightly folded layers of paper.
Around her the house sighed. Wind whistled through the backyard’s looming oaks.
She tucked the note into her pocket. She retreated to the den, logged on to the computer the boys used for school and Googled “2012 disaster.”
A red stop sign flared. Blocked content. Gwen disarmed program with her password.
On December 21, 2011, the Earth will experience instant pole reversals, causing severe tectonic shifts and the end of human life. Solar flares will result in earthquakes, tidal waves, massive flooding, and the reformation of land masses.
Gwen snapped off the computer without shutting it down. The monitor flashed. She sat back and closed her eyes. Blue and white sparks danced on her eyelids.
She’d read the note and she’d laugh off her worries. Jason would tease her. A list of Xbox games, of homework assignments, of hockey equipment.
Gwen hurriedly unfolded the paper.
At the dance.
She read it again.
She read it one more time, and then refolded it, following the existing furrows. Then she dropped it on the floor in Dylan’s room, next to his ratty sneakers, where her son would think he’d left it himself.
She began to prepare, secretly. An extra six pack of bottled water at the grocery store. Batteries. Jars of peanut butter and cans of vegetables. Shampoo. Vitamins.
At the grocery story, someone jammed a pamphlet between her windshield wipers. Are You Ready? Counselor Jodie Forrester specializes in “end of the world” counseling. Meet that goal! Have that important conversation! Fix that relationship! Don’t waste another minute!
She hid her supply stash in the suitcases they’d brought to Disney World, tucked into a corner of the basement.
Gwen took the boys shopping that Saturday. Their mission was to get Logan’s picture snapped with the mall Santa and choose gifts for Jason and the grandparents. On the way to the mall they drove by a newly erected billboard: The End is Near. Prepare. No graphic. Just black letters bludgeoning a white background. Unattributed. The boys’ heads swiveled toward it as Gwen drove by, like their chins were on a string.
“What are you going to ask Santa for, Logan?” Gwen asked.
Logan wrenched his gaze away. “Nothing. What did that say?”
“The end of the world!” Dylan croaked dramatically. His voice cracked.
“Nothing?” Gwen glanced in her rear view mirror.
“There is no Santa,” Logan replied matter-of-factly. His tongue was a lurid, juice-stained red. “Dylan told me.”
“Dylan! Jesus!” Gwen braked as a Volvo swung into her lane. She glared at her son, then scowled back at the highway.
“He asked me,” Dylan protested. “Do you want me to lie?”
“That’s not a bad lie,” Gwen argued. “It would have kept Christmas fun for your brother.”
“I can’t believe you just told me to lie.” Dylan shrugged. “We still get presents.”
“Maybe not,” Gwen bluffed. “Your behavior lately has been pretty poor.”
“Mom, you’re going to ruin our last Christmas on earth.” Dylan grinned. In the light of day, he was again cavalier about the end of times. Gwen bit back a reminder about the previous night’s tears.
She turned on the oldies station, which played constant Christmas music. The Pointer Sisters wailed through “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” “We won’t go then. I’m not waiting in line for you to see Santa if it’s just a joke. Grandma and Grandpa are going to be very disappointed.”
“I doubt it,” Dylan muttered. “Who wants a picture of Logan and an old man?”
“That’s it!” Gwen screamed. Her anger rocketed from spark to inferno. She signaled and took the next exit. The boys were silent the whole way home.
The trio stomped into the house.
“I’m not taking them!” Gwen yelled to Jason.
He had been on the phone. He shut it. Gwen didn’t hear a goodbye. “Jesus! You startled me.”
“I’ve had it,” she said. Dylan rolled his eyes and flopped on the couch. Logan cowered next to his father.
She shopped alone.
Gwen read the note again.
At the dance.
By the time Gwen was Dylan’s age, she’d already smoked a few cigarettes, guzzled peppermint Schnapps until she’d thrown up in a girlfriend’s hedge, and been willingly pawed by two boys. Her parents had thought she was still playing with Barbies. And Jason, though he rarely imbibed more than a few Saturday afternoon beers now, had been a full-fledged pothead by the tenth grade.
She’d seen breathless reports on the news about those parties they threw now, where they traded jelly bracelets for blow jobs, hand jobs, and who knew what other jobs. Rainbows of regret tattooing the wrists of teenage girls everywhere.
She shrugged into her jacket and went for a walk.
The entire neighborhood lay exposed through the bare trees at the top of the hill. The deserted street unwound before her, black tape unspooled from a cassette.
One of the neighbors had adorned their lawn with a massive inflatable Santa Claus. His belly ballooned; rosy spots stained his cheeks. His arm flopped in the wind. Gwen stopped herself from waving back.
She had to get a hold of Dylan’s phone.
She wondered if, with all the hoopla about the end of the world, they’d still set out the luminaries this year. The luminaries were her favorite part of Christmas. No shopping, no wrapping, no cooking. Just simple candles in white paper bags and a warm glow embracing the street. Every year, she deposited her five dollars in the mailbox outside 1516. Four houses down from her, and she’d never seen them. Her luminaries would appear on the porch within a few days, and in recent years Dylan had helped her arrange the bags while Jason lit the candles. They’d eat dinner, and by the time they’d finished the street would be illuminated.
The old man was outside.
His possessions were strewn about the lawn. A couch. A small television, dust clinging to its screen. A stationary bike, the wind its only rider, its pedals creaking softly. The old man slouched on the porch in his plaid button down and worn jeans like a sparsely stuffed scarecrow.
“Garage sale?” Gwen asked in greeting. She hovered at the edge of the grass. She was the only customer.
“You could call it that,” he answered. He contemplated the gray sky. “Think it’ll snow again?”
Gwen laughed stiffly. “God, I hope not. We’ve already had enough snow for me.”
She wandered around the yard, politely perusing the relics. An old brass floor lamp. A cardboard box of cumbersome hardback books. Thin blankets and a yellowing painting of a mountain landscape. Salt and pepper shakers shaped like red-breasted robins.
The old man rose stiffly and followed her at a respectful few feet. Gwen tried to think of a question she might ask about the yellow dishes painted with blue flowers, or the ceramic fawn figurine, its ear chipped.
A boat was parked on the driveway, its deck stacked high with more of the old man’s things. A torn leather chair, stuffing peeking out of its cushion, a navy suit coat draped over the back. Gwen didn’t know enough about boats to name this variety, but it didn’t have sails, so she assumed a motor was hidden somewhere.
“Some say that’s the only way to survive it,” the old man declared. His skin seemed loose, his cheeks hollow. “Take to the water. Prepare for a flood.” He paused. “It’s for sale.”
“Does it work?” She circled around. She rested a tentative hand on its side. Rough. Remnants of salt? She purposefully ignored the man’s comment about survival. A family couldn’t live on this vessel, with its small deck and God knew what beneath it.
“You bet. She’s solid. Reliable,” the man assured her. He laid his mottled palm on the side, too. “Took her fishing last summer, in fact.”
“With your family?” Gwen asked. When she turned, the man was closer than she had thought. His teeth were yellowed knobs.
He shook his head. “Alone.” He paused. “Peaceful out there, on the water.”
“How much would you want for it?” Not that she would buy it.
The old man stared up the hill. Finally, he said, “Two hundred dollars.”
Gwen laughed. She followed his gaze. Her house was shielded by the trees. “Isn’t that much too low?”
“Don’t haggle much, do you?” He raised his patchy eyebrows. “Can’t take money with you. Money, or any of this junk. I’m just looking for enough for a plane ticket to Montana.”
“Montana,” Gwen repeated. She tried to smile. “Well, I hope you get there.”
“Me, too,” the old man said. “Me, too.”
She told herself she was cleaning her son’s room, armed with a gray, holey sock and a canister of Pledge. The vacuum stood sentinel in the doorway, its cord stretched to the hallway outlet.
An Incredible Hulk action figure glared at her from the top of his bookshelf, his green muscles bulging as he guarded Dylan’s Harry Potter volumes. Gwen turned the plastic mutant around so that he snarled at the wall, then sprayed Pledge and swiped her sock across the shelf.
She couldn’t shield herself from Tupac’s stare.
She sucked up the flimsy cobwebs in the corners of the ceiling. She Q-tipped the corners of the windowsills. She changed the sheets and re-made the bed, fluffing the pillows.
She could tear down the monkey border.
Gwen opened the top drawer of Dylan’s desk. She and Jason had bought it thinking Dylan would do his homework here, but of course he studied in front of the blaring television. Some stubby pencils. Dog-eared comic books. A deck of cards. A grimy rubber band ball. Gooey Halloween candy. Another square of folded paper. This time Gwen didn’t hesitate. She snatched up the loose leaf and peeled it open. She flipped it over twice.
She slammed the drawer shut. The Incredible Hulk rocked on his flat plastic feet, then nose-dived off the shelf.
No one is sure what caused the end of Mayan civilization. Some believe that a peasant revolt occurred, leaving the noblemen and priests without the tools and knowledge they needed to farm.
“We’ve done a drill at school every day this week,” Dylan announced. He ticked them off on his fingers. “Fire drills, intruder drills, lock down drills, tornado drills.”
“Is there time to squeeze in a ‘what do I need to know for college’ drill?” Jason asked. His open laptop hummed in front of him.
Gwen tapped her red pen against the coffee table. There was something she didn’t like about that last sentence, but she couldn’t quite name it. She read it again.
“Look!” Dylan pointed. He had supposedly been soldiering through his math homework, but now he scrambled to the television and cranked up the volume. Skinny bars marched across the screen.
Great Valley, Montana. Crowds were gathered atop some sort of mountain, milling around amongst small tents and campfires.
Montana. Gwen pushed aside her textbook pages.
“Members of the Great Valley Blessed Day Church have sold their possessions, quit their jobs, and gathered here to wait for December 21, when they believe God will deliver them from a coming apocalypse,” the anchor intoned. Her blonde hair wafted in a light breeze. A gold-flecked mountain range rose behind her. “They spend their days singing songs, dancing and playing soccer.”
“Those people are idiots.” Jason rolled his eyes. He turned to Logan, whose mouth hung agape. “Those people are going to feel pretty silly when they’re standing up on that mountain and the world doesn’t end.”
“Will they be mad?” Logan wrinkled his nose. Onscreen, the faithful milled around a few open-flapped tents. “Or happy?”
“They’ll be embarrassed numbskulls,” Jason answered. He faced his older son. “Can we change the channel now?”
Dylan laughed. “They’ll be really, really mad. ‘We didn’t die! Maybe next time!’”
“Meanwhile, Walt Disney World theme parks are reporting record numbers through the holiday season. Many hotels within the park are already at full capacity. On December 21, the parks’ fireworks shows will go on as scheduled,” the reporter concluded. “Up next, continued coverage of the unspeakable tragedy that has rocked Hartford, Connecticut. A home invasion ended in the brutal slayings of—” Jason changed the channel, settling on a Seinfeld rerun. The studio audience’s laughter rang too loudly; Jason slid the volume back down.
“I bet Disney jacked up their rates,” he muttered. Jason said cheerfully to Dylan, “Hey, I’ll bet you fifty bucks the world doesn’t end.”
“Deal.” They shook heartily.
Dylan glanced at Gwen. “I need a ride to the dance on Friday.”
“There’s a dance?” Gwen strained to keep her tone nonchalant. She squinted down at her papers. No one is sure what caused the end of the Mayan civilization.
Dylan nodded. He stuffed his homework into his backpack. “An end of the world dance.”
Jason sang, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine!” He looked at Gwen. “That’s great. That’ll be fun.”
“I don’t know about a ride.” Gwen shrugged. End of the world dance. A tribal ritual. A rain dance. “We have so much going on.”
“That’s great. It starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aero-plane,” Jason continued his song. He spoke next. “I never remember the next part.”
“Lenny Bruce is not afraid,” Gwen supplied. “Dylan, I need more information about this dance before I can say yes or no.”
“Who’s Lenny Bruce?” Logan asked.
“I’ll ask someone else. Forget it,” Dylan mumbled. He slung his bag over his shoulder and stomped off.
Jason raised his eyebrows. Kramer slid into Jerry’s apartment, his hair skimming the doorway.
“What? I’m right,” Gwen snapped. “Of course he wants a ride, not that he told me what time the thing starts or ends.” She sighed. “Whose brilliant idea was this, in the midst of all this weirdness?”
If she rewrote the ending of the Mayan civilization, would the bored fifth graders staring blearily at their books even notice? The Mayans, those pillars of Mesoamerica, lived happily for centuries with their maize and human sacrifices, mingling seamlessly amongst and eventually forming strong political ties with the Spanish conquistadors.
“Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I decline,” Jason sang. He bent down, sailed his lips lightly over her forehead, and left the room, taking his computer with him.
Gwen bought the boat. The old man hitched it to his truck and docked the vessel in the Sawyers’ driveway. She tried to write him a check for the two hundred dollars, but he waved her off.
“Cash,” he insisted, and so Gwen drove to the closest gas station and withdrew the money, giving her another opportunity to think about what she was doing and yet she did it anyway.
After the brisk transaction, Gwen suddenly didn’t want her neighbor to go. Before the old man pulled away, Gwen asked, “Have you heard anything about the luminaries, by chance?”
His brow furrowed. Gwen added, “Are we doing them this year?”
“I don’t believe I know,” he replied. “I don’t know that I’ll be here either way.”
Several times before picking up the boys, Gwen jettisoned her work, came back outside and assessed her purchase. She circled around the boat, running her hands over its bumpy sides. A briny, rotten smell emanated from the ovoid bulge at the boat’s front. She considered what she’d tell Jason.
It wasn’t the expense. The money was there. But now that her temporary insanity was anchored in the driveway, she was mortified.
On December 22, she would know exactly how those members of the Blessed Day Church felt.
She picked her sons up from school and listened distractedly to the details of Logan’s day. Dylan slouched beside her, engrossed in his phone. She didn’t warn them, and when they drove within sight of the house, both boys gaped.
“Is it a Christmas present?” Logan asked.
“Better not be,” Dylan grumbled. He asked, “Where’s Dad gonna park?”
Gwen only answered Logan. “No, buddy.”
Logan clambered on to the deck. Gwen told him he could do his homework there and Logan spread out his dittos and books, calling out for a pencil and a Capri Sun. Maybe Jason could haul it out back, and refurbish it as a nautical playhouse.
Dylan lingered on the porch, texting intently, his thumbs moving silently.
“Wanna climb aboard with your brother?” Gwen asked.
Dylan didn’t glance up from his phone. “Uh, no.”
He went inside and let the screen door slam shut.
Gwen brought out her work, too, and for a while, despite the stack of pages in her lap, she simply sat on the porch and watched her boy.
Logan was still playing scholar/sailor when Jason came home. He yelled and waved to his father. “Ahoy, matey!”
Jason cradled his phone against his shoulder. He kept talking, but he scowled.
He turned off the engine, his lips still moving in a conversation Gwen couldn’t understand. He left the car door hanging open like a gaping mouth. “What is that?” Jason mouthed. He didn’t come any closer. He said, “I’m going to have to call you back.”
Gwen set aside her chapters and approached tentatively. “Once the world doesn’t end, we can take it out. This summer.”
Such a lie. She didn’t even know if the motor ran.
Jason pocketed his phone and pointed at Logan. “Get out of that thing.”
“Mom told me I could!” Logan whined. He kicked his feet. Red droplets of Capri Sun spattered his homework. The boat creaked.
“I’m telling you to get out!”
“He’s fine in there,” Gwen protested.
He whirled toward her. “Someone has to be an adult.” He called again, “Get down and go to your room.”
Logan javelined his pencil into the grass.
“Why did you do this?” Jason moaned.
“I got a good deal. From the man down the street.” She nudged her thumb in her neighbor’s general direction.
“I hope you can get a refund,” Jason continued. “How much did you spend?”
“Not as much as you think,” Gwen said. “And we can afford it.”
“Can we?” Jason snorted. “Would you even know?” He stalked around the boat, taking it in. “This thing is a piece of shit!”
“You know, I don’t appreciate that! That we! You agreed with me that I could stay at home. And now you’re lording it over me,” Gwen shouted.
“I didn’t agree to you blowing our money!” The thud of his shoe hitting the boat’s side echoed hollowly. Logan jumped at the sound. “It’s got rust all over it!”
“It does not,” Gwen said, but even from where she was standing, she could see it now. Flecks of orange and red, like paint flicked from a brush. She groaned. “I’ll take it back, okay? I’ll take it back tomorrow.”
Jason huffed. “What if he won’t take it back? This isn’t Target.”
“I’ll get it hauled away.” Gwen tugged at her hair. She should get rid of it. And yet. “Towed.”
“No!” Logan wailed.
“Logan, this thing is dangerous. Get off it and go in!” Jason pointed.
Jason stalked to the vessel and yanked Logan’s arm. Logan screeched as Jason grabbed him around the waist and wrenched him over the side. Jason stomped into the house, Logan thrown over his shoulder. Logan pounded his fists on Jason’s back.
She noticed the boat’s name then, emblazoned on its side in confident black letters. She would have christened the vessel Sunny Days or Escape or Serenity.
The boat was named Solitude.
Gwen was afraid to calculate how little sleep she was getting. House noises had kept her tossing and turning since they’d gone to bed: the ice maker dumping cubes into its tray, the wind rustling the dry leaves. She refused to consult the clock.
“Should we get my mother?” Gwen asked. She thought of the old man, kicking a soccer ball around Montana. “Is it wrong for her to be alone?”
“I don’t know. My parents called from Florida. They want to stay.” Jason rolled over. He’d only slid into bed a few minutes ago, long after Gwen had tried to turn in. “Is there room on the ark?”
Jason’s bare shoulder blades pointed at her, sharp as his voice. They’d had a civil but chilly meal. She’d allowed Dylan to text through the whole hour, Jason to hunch over his laptop, and Logan to leave forkfuls of broccoli heaped on his plate.
“I’m just saying let’s not bring her here if we’re not prepared to take care of her. For God knows how long.” Jason lifted his head off the pillow. Gwen knew he was checking the time.
Gwen asked, “What should we do on the 21st?”
Jason rolled back over. “Dylan wants to go to the dance. Let’s let Logan run wild. Drink Mountain Dew. Set off firecrackers.”
“I don’t know,” Gwen sighed. “Maybe we shouldn’t do anything. Stick to our routine and keep everything normal. So they don’t worry.”
“You want to do homework and wait for the world to end?”
“You want to toast the end of the world with Mountain Dew?” Gwen countered. In the dark, the outlines of her husband’s nose, his lips, his jaw blurred. “It’s not funny, you know.”
“I’m not laughing. Let me know when you’re ready to start loading the animals on to the SS Minnow.” He paused. “Two by two.”
Gwen tried to match her inhales and exhales to her husband’s rhythmic breathing. She said, “You know, we could go back to Disney. For the end of the world. Even though the prices are murder.”
Forget about her bottled water, her vitamins, her boat. They’d envelope their boys in the warmth of the Magic Kingdom. They’d wear t-shirts in December and grease themselves with sunscreen. They’d gawk at the Santa parade along the green potted plants of Main Street. On the morning that the world was to end, they’d be eating a buffet breakfast with Mickey and Minnie, squirting sugary syrup on stacks of golden waffles.
Por favor mantengase alejado de las puertas!
“You need to calm down.” Jason rolled again. “That’s ridiculous.”
“I am calm,” Gwen replied. Her eyes were pinned open.
Buzzing again. The stink bug was zipping around the room, crashing into the walls. Its wings crackled faintly, like a light bulb burning out.
“Do you hear that?” Gwen asked.
“Yes,” Jason yawned. “Go to sleep.”
Eventually, she did.
People did die at Disney world. More than you’d expect. Gwen Googled it the next day, once the boys were at school. The list of injuries and fatalities seemed long at first, stretching over more than one web page. But as Gwen read further, her face close to the screen, she learned that most of these were due to preexisting conditions. Heart defects, asthma, diabetes.
The monorail had crashed only once.
On December 20, Gwen dragged the suitcases from the attic. She recovered her supplies from the basement and stuffed them in some grocery bags in the garage. Then she carefully stacked her boys’ t-shirts and jeans, sneakers, socks, underwear. A bulky hooded sweatshirt for each. She loaded toiletry bags with shampoo, toothbrushes and soap. Tylenol. She packed vitamins and word search books last inked in Florida, their pages mottled with pool water. She packed batteries. She packed their sledding helmets.
She climbed gingerly up the ladder and swung herself leg by leg aboard the boat. White paint peeled from the wood in ragged curlicues. Desiccated insect sunbathers, brittle as corn husks, flecked what Gwen had dubbed the starboard bow. A rusted handle protruded from the deck like an algae-coated fin. She tugged and unearthed the boat’s dusty internal labyrinth. Sweeping away sticky cobwebs, Gwen peered into the dim, pungent caverns.
Room enough for her supplies, and Jason wouldn’t look here.
Gwen heard Dylan before he rounded the corner. He ricocheted around the house, feet heavy, elbows pin-balling off doors, cabinets, couches. Gwen pretended not to notice him until he skidded to a stop before her.
“Here.” A crumpled flyer, its corners munched off, strays bits of tape left behind. “I tore it off the wall.”
Hand drawn stick figures, their limbs bent jubilantly, dancing as a chunky asteroid hurtled past a window. End of the World Dance! Crouched beneath, in much smaller print: parent chaperones wanted.
“I’ll chaperone,” she said.
“What? No!” Dylan snatched at the paper, frantic as a pet dog snapping at a treed squirrel. Gwen held it just out of his reach.
“No one else’s parents are!”
“You’re allowed to go,” Gwen said, each word carefully measured, “if I chaperone.”
“Oh my God!” Dylan fumed. “I just wanted you to see that it was like, a real thing. I didn’t want you to come!”
“I don’t want to fight,” she said, “but why can’t I come? I won’t talk to you. I’ll just stand in the corner. In the dark.”
She clutched the flyer. “If you want to go, then I’m going to chaperone.”
Dylan groaned. “I’m not talking to you.”
“We’re strangers,” Gwen promised. She paused. “Do you need clothes?”
“Don’t ask me anything else,” he said. Gwen surrendered the paper, and Dylan stomped off to his room.
December 21, 2011 came as they all knew it would.
Dylan had pleaded for a day off, but Gwen had insisted her sons go to school. Now, in the dim late afternoon light, the boys sat in the kitchen. Logan picked at his after school snack, trail mix with dried fruit. Dylan popped in his ear buds and scrolled through his I Pod menu. Bass thudded distantly. Gwen bet it was Tupac.
“Mom?” Logan had dropped “Mommy” shortly after Dylan. He sipped his juice box, then continued. “Can I play football next year?”
“The world’s ending,” Dylan boomed, rounding his hands into a megaphone. “Hello? There won’t be any football.”
Gwen swatted at him. “Stop that. What about soccer?” she suggested. “You could be like those guys who bounce the ball off their heads.”
“The teachers gave homework,” Dylan snorted loudly. “Can you believe that?”
“If you want to talk, take out your headphones,” Gwen sighed, resting her head in her hands. “I can’t wait for this day to end. So that everything can get back to normal.”
“I love it,” Dylan smiled. “It’s like Halloween times 100.”
“But Halloween is fake,” Logan frowned.
“So is this,” Gwen said quickly. “I can’t wait until Dylan gets proven wrong and then Logan and I can laugh at him. And the Mayans. We’re going to tease you until 2013.”
“Like the people in Montana are gonna get teased,” Logan agreed, slurping his Capri Sun.
“Like the people in Montana.” Gwen wondered if the old man was already there.
“We’ll see about that,” Dylan said ominously and left the room.
Gwen had kept the TV off all day, busying herself with her history textbook instead. She’d made it up to the Revolutionary War, or “the fight for independence,” as the writers were fond of calling it. Now Dylan was flipping through the blaring channels.
“I Pod or TV?” Gwen called. “Which is it?”
“Crowds have gathered at the world’s holiest sites, awaiting whatever will happen tonight.” The reporter disappeared and footage of prostrate crowds in Jerusalem filled the screen. Dylan watched with his headphones crammed in his ears.
Her phone’s buzz sent Gwen running into the kitchen.
“Traffic is awful,” Jason announced. The connection crackled with static. “There’s something going on in the city.”
“Did something happen? We’ve had the TV off.”
Jason sighed. “Bomb threats. End of the world threats. They’re saying 95 is closing.” He paused. “Maybe I should turn back. Spend the night at the office and come home in the morning.”
Gwen stayed where she was and looked out the window. Individual snowflakes pirouetted through the dark sky, like shy dancers against a velvet curtain.
“It’s snowing,” she declared. “Just started.”
“Do you mind if I turn back?”
“I want you to stay safe,” she said. “Do what you need to do.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow. Love you.”
She swallowed. “Love you.”
Dylan emerged shortly. He wore a bright green polo, jeans and too much cologne. Shiny rivulets of gel flowed through his hair. He stood on the stairs, taller than Gwen. She gathered her keys and they all climbed into the car without a word, Logan still munching his trail mix. The street was dark. Gwen gave the boat a wide berth.
“Do you have a date to this dance?” she asked. Her car’s headlights swept over barren lawns, the spindly trees, the blow-up Santa.
He shrugged. “Sort of.”
“Should we have gotten a corsage?”
“No,” Dylan replied with apparent horror.
They drove in silence until Gwen snapped on the radio. Christmas carols. The Pointer Sisters warbling through their jubilant verses again. She regretted, now, not forcing the boys to get their picture taken with Santa. Even if each of them knew it was all for show.
She pulled up beside the school. The curb was busy with kids being dropped off. Some were obvious couples, holding hands and hurriedly making their way to the doors, two by two.
“Dylan.” Gwen swallowed. “Please be careful.”
He shrugged, eying her quizzically. “Okay.” He paused. His hand rested on the door handle. “I don’t really think the world’s gonna end, Mom. I was just being stupid.”
“I know. It won’t.” She forced herself to smile. “I’ll see you at nine o’clock.”
“You aren’t gonna stay?”
She shook her head.
She didn’t watch him go inside. She peered inside the cafeteria’s windows as she drove by, slowing to a crawl. A giant poster of the earth, split like a grapefruit by a jagged black crack down its center, proclaimed the gathering’s theme. It’s the End of the World as We Know It! And We Feel Fine! Kids milled around a few tables spread with bowls of pretzels and plastic cups of Coke. Gwen couldn’t pick out her son. A carload of girls were dropped off, spilling from a van in a burst of laughter. They rushed into the building, a cluster of tossed hair and lip gloss. Skirts without tights, in this chilly weather.
Gwen drove away. Flurries spattered her windshield, and she turned the wipers on high, as though she could beat the weather back. Irving Berlin was crooning “The Christmas Song.” Gwen listened to the only line she knew—’chestnuts roasting on an open fire’—then turned off the radio.
“Lenny Bruce is not afraid,” she sang, her voice trembling. “Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn. World serves its own needs. Dummy, serve your own needs.”
She might have made that last part up.
Logan warbled along to the chorus. “It’s the end of the world as we know it! And I feel fine!”
The old man’s house was dark. An arm chair and a tattered umbrella still hulked outside.
The neighborhood was aflame.
The houses, the trees: flames were licking at it all. Her boat, the Solitude, rose above the fire like a Norse warship. She could see it all now. The beams of her house blackening and crumbling. The roof falling in with a burst of gray smoke. Her children screaming.
She wasn’t wiping away snow from her windshield. The grayish particles were ash.
The old man had been right. Her own son had been right. It had come after all.
And the Gwen laughed out loud.
Tears had blurred her vision. They had lit the luminaries after all, and the gray smoke was merely the sky, pregnant and heavy with more snow.
Jennifer Fenn lives, writes and teaches in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. Her writing has been appeared in The Writing Disorder, Venus Zine, Education Week, and Bitch. She is also an avid runner and pursuing an MFA at Rosemont College.