Literary Journal – Fall 2016

The day the world was supposed to end

By Joel Mendez

Oak Ridge, Tennessee – May 15, 2020

It was still. Nothing happened. He closed his eyes and for the first two minutes meditating while he clenched his fist waiting for the end. He was the only one anxiously waiting for the end. Others waited atop of the bomb shelter for the end to arrive.

A half-naked couple lay asleep on a mattress near him, with half a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue clutched between the couple.  He stayed still as the minutes became an hour. He opened his eyes.  He was alive, as disappointment and shame filled him.

He sat with his hand on his knees still in the bunker for hours. The commotion from above eventually became white noise. His clenched fist eventually became tired and opened, and he dropped a crumpled photograph of a smiling brunette in a new year’s hat in a world far different from where he sat in the bomb shelter.  The brunette’s name was Rebecca; he called her Becks. Three months ago, she kissed him on his forehead and told him she could never wait for the end. She left him to face the end of the world alone.

Frantic voices from above turned into cheers of joy and excitement.  He could hear the voices of men and women returning inside the bomb shelter.  The half-naked couple was awoken from the commotion, quickly getting fully dressed and joined others with the Johnny Walker Blue in hand.

He never left the bomb shelter as hours became days and eventually weeks. He barely ate and slept throughout the day.  He was left alone not because others ignored him but because they believe he was grieving.  He didn’t choose to grieve.   To his dissatisfaction, the world didn’t come to an end when he closed his eyes in the bunker.

The reports came from visitors from different towns confirming that the asteroid never hit any part of the United States and was hopeful it never touched any other part of the earth. Communication was limited to handheld radios and regional stations providing the countdown of the end of the world. The visitors came from Nashville to Kentucky celebrating living another day they never counted on. There were rumors of the federal government opening and providing explanations (what remained of the federal government). Many were skeptical of the government at this point. The government was irrelevant, and this new society formed at the start from mobs motivated by fear, finding anarchy as an ideology and finally organized into small and large militias. States didn’t divide America in borders, but the country lived out a determined end in survival zones.

Three years ago in the fall of 2017, the world started to change. It started with reports from the academic, community, and then for months; it went quiet. Everything went quiet. The tensions in the Middle East became a tolerance almost resembling peace. The President of the United States visited the Russian Prime Minster in Moscow with no mention of usual polemic issues of military buildup, regional influences or reduction of nukes. Then there was a global pact to increase global research for climate change. The global agreement not only included the industrial nations but smaller developing nations. It marked the largest initiative of world leaders to fight climate change. Outside of this initiative, world leaders, and their governments were relatively quiet as if they all accepted a cease-fire of political and military tension.

Within six months of the climate change initiative, the internet caught up with the truth. Every world leader had denied the real reason of their global pact. The public saw their leaders increase funding for science research in the name of climate change while privately leaders also increased their military. This military build-up was in the direction of not their enemies but their people.

The truth behind the global research eventually came to light. The truth of an asteroid to end the world, and there was nothing anyone could do to save it. After the initial shock and outrage of the global lie, the public was almost pleasantly surprised leaders could keep this a secret for so long. Many columnists wrote articles praising global leaders in working together to attempt to save the world. The great technologist and business leaders were angered. The world leaders either manipulated them into providing resources or shut them out as they tried to save the world in secret. The backlash was short because time did not afford them to dwell on blame. The lack of time also made it impossible for these savvy business and technology giants to use their talent, money, and resources to change the outcome. What the private sector confirmed is that even with more time; they would have needed more time. They confirmed the end of the world would come by one of the millions of asteroid in space set to explode on earth.

The world grieved as any person would grieve. It was a collective grief with similar cycles. First, it was a sense of shock, and then depression where world peace continued, which started a global conversation about religion, the meaning of life, God, and love. The world moved to acceptance. If the conversation of the meaning of life was the crossroads to where to go next, acceptance provided the bridge. Large groups of people either radically abandoned or accepted faith, community, social norms, family, life, and death. The last stage of this grief was apathy. The last eight months before the asteroid would hit, the world was socially and emotionally disengaged. The weapons protecting the governments from their people couldn’t hold. Anarchy took over, and the people indulged in pleasures, pain, and risk. The ones with means were called the listers, as checking off their bucket list. They cruised through the seas traveling all over the world taking part in the best of food, sex, entertainment and the wonders of the world. They consumed as much of the pleasures of the world for the last time.

A minority of individuals, mostly affluent, committed themselves to helping the many who didn’t have the means to survive in the chaos. They were nicknamed the Teresas as in Mother Teresa. Everyone else transitioned from their normal life to survival mode in different ways. For a majority, it was living to the end, no matter what. The fear of dying by any other means other than an asteroid motivated them. It was a sense of duty to live out until the arrival of the asteroid. Some embraced death earlier and committed suicide. They were called the “Hangers,” although not all of them committed suicide by strangulation.

It was supposed to end, and he was ready to go. He had helped others prepare for the end and the new life that followed. Rebecca, Becks, ended her life taking an assortment of pills in the middle of the night. He woke up next to her. That morning he performed the funeral service and buried for his bride. He never shed tears, telling himself he would see her again and he took solace in knowing the exact date. The date had come and gone. He wanted to grieve but was left empty.

“Shepard” as a tall blonde man with a bushy mustache called out to him. It was Steve.  Steve approached him. “Shepard, what are you doing here? You have been down here too long.” He put his arms on his shoulders. “I know you wish Rebecca could be here at this moment. You need to know your faith was a great strength for us to live each day. Hell, I am not even any type of a believer, but a hell of a lot closer since I met you.” They looked at each other, Steve’s face expressing joy and hope, while his friend was full of doubt and confusion.

“Shepard, freshen up and come up. We thought it would be a good idea if you would do a service or say some words. Nothing big…maybe just a prayer. “ Steve looked into his eyes “You know it’s a miracle that we’re alive.” Shepard nodded his head in agreement and grabbed a towel and his shaving kit. Steve smiled encouraged by his friend’s willingness to finally come up and see the world that still existed.

They called him Shepard. Once a nickname of pride he started to resent the name given by his fellow camp dwellers. Gerald Anderson was his name. It was always Gerald. Gerald named after his grandfather and coming from a lineage of pastors and missionaries. He was a church planter in the days were the end of days was a mystery. He met Becks in Seminary and married her after graduating with a Masters in Theology. He pursued his spiritual calling which was in his DNA. He was a man assured of his plan, beliefs, and God. Becks introduced him to personal doubt and challenged him to see the struggle others faced in just believing in themselves much less in God. If Gerald was a man with answers, Becks had many questions. Her questions didn’t diminish her faith and brought Gerald’s preaching back from a deeply structured theology to a simple faith of belief.

The new normal and Gerald’s hope was in the afterlife. As the days got closer to the end, Gerald felt more joy and was bolder in helping others see a future of a new beginning. Helping others cope of the impending end became his new mission.

Then it went dark. The internet, phone lines, and all other basic systems were left abandoned. There was no point to maintain these systems. The militias filled the vacuum of the community, communication and a semblance of organization. Gerald had taken pride in the name of Shepard when he and Becks had helped bring peace to the community through their faith. The community grew to be part of the greater Oak Ridge of Tennessee Legion. Legions created new communities, replaced the government and provided the new normal to await death.

Gerald combed his hair as he looked at himself in the mirror. After a good clean shave, he could see his boyish face where the blond hair covered his ears. He never really got a chance to cut his hair, even though there were amateur barbers at the camp. His natural frame was tall, thin but not very muscular. He had gained more muscle and tone living as a camp dweller at the end of days. He didn’t notice his physical changes and stared at the mirror but wasn’t looking at himself.

On his nightstand laid a small New King James Bible. It was given to him by Becks for his six-month missionary trip to Costa Rica many years ago. There were no inscriptions or words from Becks in the jacket of the Bible. She had highlighted a verse. He discovered the verse months later, near the end of his mission trip traveling on a three-hour bus ride to visit a small church on the coast. The verse stained the page in a yellow highlighter that blotted it out the words on the back of the page. Gerald held his bible close and meditated. He realized while the world grieved and fell apart, he never did because he still had a calling that gave him purpose. He invested his time in comforting the people at the camp and guiding them to a new world to come. He believed his wife sacrificed herself to show others heaven was to come. The world never ended, but it did change. It disappeared to the one he was ready to leave and to a very unfamiliar one waiting above the bunker. This world didn’t need a Shepard.

Gerald grabbed his bible placing it in his backpack as he zipped it closed. He started to make his way upstairs back to the world that still existed. He ascended as the light of the day peered through the cracks of the bunker walls. It was the first time in since going down to the bunker sunlight would beam at his face. He paused before opening the door of the bunker, preparing his eyes to see sunlight and his mind to reunite with the rest of the camp. The door opened for him, and the bright light made shadows of the man near the door and the others waiting. His pale blue eyes fought the light and eventually adjusted. He found himself surrounded by the members of one of the larger militias of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. They were waiting for him.

Steve approached him and led him to the front of the group. Gerald was the last one to make it up from the bunker after the asteroid missed earth. The faces in the crowd varied in the expression of joy, laughter, and serenity. There was no fear or sadness among them. He felt out of place.

In front of him was a small card table with a small bible next to a box of Ritz crackers and bottle of Crystal Head vodka. The vodka bottle’s shape was a glass skeleton.  The skeleton bottle faced the Bible directly with a plate of crackers in between them. The Bible was the one he carried around the camp. The Bible Becks had given him weighed heavy in his backpack. This one was larger although showed the scars of many personal and group Bible studies. It was the ESV version, keeping in step with his Presbyterian tradition. The cover was maroon with his name etched in the gold cursive script. It was given to him by his father as part of the tradition of the Anderson holy men.

He stared at Steve, confused by the set-up and hoping for him to clarify. On cue, Steve put his hand on Gerald’s shoulder and faced the camp dwellers. “This is a great day for us. We thought we were facing the end. But now are given a second chance. Hell, I thought I would not see another beautiful sunshine” Steve announced in his Tennessee accent. Steve hesitated to gather his thoughts; a loud shout came from the back of the crowd “Fuck Yeah! Alive and Well!” as everyone broke into laughter.  Even Gerald chuckled of the exuberance from the shout from the man with the Don’t Tread On Me baseball hat.

Steve continued, “There are some that couldn’t make it to this day.” Gerald looked down and tried not to make eye contact. Steve realized his words revisited grief for everyone but secretly it was Gerald’s lost they grieved most. “There has been one man who has kept our spirits up in the midst of an end we thought final, and we can’t celebrate a new day without him.” Steve looked at Gerald as the large group clapped and shouted for Gerald. As the clapping grew quiet, the man with the Don’t Tread on Me baseball hat intervened once again “Fuck Yeah! Alive and Well.” The group recognized the man was drunk.

Steve shook Gerald’s hand and followed it with a hug. As they pulled away from their embrace, Gerald leaned over to Steve’s ear and whispered: “what do you want me to do and what is this on the table?” “We are going to break bread, isn’t this in the Bible,” Steve responded as if had served communion on a weekly basis. Gerald approached the small coffee table with the Bible, the Ritz crackers, and the glass skeleton vodka bottle and realized they had set-up communion. Steve stood next to him and looked at the crowd.

“We gathered what we could. It was harder to find the crackers than the booze” as Steve explained.  Gerald smiled as he held the vodka bottle. The held the skeleton bottle, looking right into the eyes of the glass skeleton. Steve rolled his eyes “Yeah, I know all the wine was gone, and this is the best we could do.” Gerald shot back, “I am sure there was a Johnny Walker Blue somewhere” as he glanced over at the drunken couple he shared the bunker to wait for the asteroid. Today they were sober. The young lady embarrassed wearing a sunflower dress and leather boots and the young man next to her with a Nirvana shirt, faded blue jeans, a cowboy hat with mischievous grin.

Gerald wasn’t sure he could perform communion because it was intended for believers. He didn’t believe this was their intention. He picked up the skeleton bottle. “Well, let’s pass the bottle and we can toast this day” as Gerald handed the bottle to Steve. A middle-aged couple came up and poured Gerald and Steve a shot glass and handed them a cracker. The shot glasses were a set of Tennessee souvenirs that were picked up at an abandoned rest stop store. Gerald was given a Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey shot glass, while Steve held one with a picture of a banjo with “Country Music Capital” below the picture. The vodka, shot glasses and crackers quickly got shuffled around.

Gerald didn’t know where to start. He opened his small backpack and brought out the small Bible given to him by Becks, leaving his own personal Bible on the table. His fingers searched for Beck’s favorite verse and he started there. “

If Rebecca were here, she would read you her favorite passage.” Although Gerald looked down to read the highlighted verse, he knew it verbatim “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” There was a pause, and the group was silent. Gerald regained the confidence of his calling.

“I want you to know any hope and strength that you received from me came from my faith and the faith Rebecca had in me. I was helping you prepare for the end, and now we live. To be honest, I find it hard to grieve or find joy. The night before Rebecca passed, she told me not to let anything get in the way to help others through this difficult time. She emphasized not to let anything get in the way. If only she could have…” He searched for words that weren’t there. He stared into the crowds hoping they would provide the words. He gave up, “let’s pray.”

Gerald prayed, held the shot glass up and consumed the shot quickly into his body. As he put the shot glass back on the table, there was a collection of gulps from the vodka shots, with cheers as he walked away from the group. He could hear music starting to play and the celebration of survival. Gerald didn’t look back as he made his way out of the camp. In the celebration the gate was unmanned.

Steve ran out shouting and signaling for him. Gerald turned around and waited for him. “So Shepard, where are you going? You kinda left quickly. You ok?” “I have to go. There is no place for me here. I have to go.”

“What? At least stay a little longer. You don’t know what’s out there. We have a team to exploring the area and checking to see if the government is around to provide an update.”

Is this about Rebecca?”

“Steve, I can’t stay here.  It is about everything. I have been in worse places in the world than here. I will survive.”

Gerald turned around and started to walk out the main gate. “Shepard.” Gerald turned back to Steve. “Thank you,” Steve understood these were the only words Gerald would accept. “You’re Welcome. I am not a Shepard anymore.”

Joel Mendez, is a Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. State Department. A world traveler living in Europe, South America and Afghanistan. He is currently working on his novel in the Sci-Fi genre.