A Short Story
By Z Zoccolante
*Simultaneously, across the world, everyone hears a voice in their head. “In two hours, the server will be shutting down for the final time. Thank you for playing human.”*
Villa was on her lunch when she heard the message in her head. Her hand holding the peanut butter and jelly sandwich that she had every day froze in mid-air. As her head swiveled round the room she watched the nurses stare at each other. She’d pocketed the medicine in her check that morning but hearing voices was not her M.O. Toad had been right. They said he was schizophrenic, here for the last ten years. His real name was Billy but the way he sat by the pond outside, staring into it like a wishing well, had earned him the nickname Toad. And he’d predicted that today would be the day the world ended.
There was that poem he quoted as he paced through the hallways, the one about the world not ending in a bang but in a whisper. He’d corner me in the back hallway my first week here and pushed his fat white fingers into my arm until they left tiny purple bruises. But I didn’t move or try to fight him because there was something strange in his eyes, a desperation born of being able to see something that others couldn’t acknowledge. I could feel it in my bones as his eyes bore into me like a crying child and spittle cracked against the corners of his lip. “It’s all going to end,” he whispered frantically, “Friday. Friday. Friday.” His eye were like babies, blue orbs of worlds swirling in chaos.
The nurses came running, pulled him away from me leaving my upper arms with imprints in purple. “Don’t listen to a thing he says. It’s all urgency and nonsense,” the nurse reminded me pulling me under her arm like a bird with a broken wing who’d just fallen from a great height. “Here let’s get you checked out,” she said escorting me along the hall where I went willingly even though I didn’t want to her know that I was a bird, that I was a crow, and that I’d believed every word that he said.
The problem with institutions is that everyone thinks you don’t have marbles in your head but have they ever thought about other dimensions, that the woman talking to the empty window sill might be having a conversation with someone on another plane. Who am I to say she’s not? If you listen it’s a full-on conversation – Explanations, greetings, metaphors, analogies.
But let’s stay on point. Toad. Toad told me that today was the day the world was ending. No one believed him but I did. It was that feeling you have that you know people are lying, but I knew he was telling the truth.
How do you prepare for the end of the world? No one expects you to answer that because no one fathoms down the line that humans won’t exist. We think we are all powerful here until we are not. Surprise, surprise.
The nurses are conferring among each other, coffee cups rattling on the desk, eyes averting ours. Cell phones come out. Old lady Jane began to pound her head against the wall. Someone should attend to that but the nurses are busy slowly rolling into frenzy. The doctors come out. Everyone in white coats are behind the glass walls. Everyone in the dining room begins to grow restless.
Toad tries to stop old lady Jane by putting his hand on the wall. She keeps smashing her head into his hand. Trays fall to the floor. A few people begin pounding the windows. Some of the nurses begin to yell things, “Quiet down,” and, “Who heard that message?” The thought of her asking that to this group makes me chuckle. A few others join along. The dining room is full of laughter and the pounding of windows and old lady Jane who has now resolved herself to singing It’s the End of the World as We know it by R. E. M, that I have no idea how she even knows the lyrics to.
Behind the glass wall it looks as though people have called their families, confirmed the message. The TV clicks on as an urgent report, from a woman who looks quite proud of herself, announces that all known parties around the globe have been reporting hearing the same message. In a few moments, there will be mass chaos and hysteria. If you only had two hours left what would you do? Who would you call? Can the brain even fathom 2 hours in this game of playing human, whatever that means.
Toad told me what the message would say, when I sat next to him at the pond pretending to be a frog, so I’ve had one month to ponder the unfathomable possibilities and no one to talk to. All phones begin to blare loudly on cue and that is my exit.
And I’m mostly right, the workers here ditch their places grabbing their keys as the swarm of patients gather up to the glass. At the end of the world manners don’t matter, responsibilities don’t matter, jobs don’t matter, people you see every day don’t matter. People are trying to get away, get home to the people they call home. The phones are blaring and voices are starting to escalate and I slip easily through the back hallway. There is nothing here for me. No one is calling for me on the phone. No one will search for me as their last goodbye.
Damn. I round the corner and realize James the young attendant is holding position at the back entrance. The place, I assume is on lockdown, but he’s conflicted shifting from one foot to the next, used to taking orders. My pants make a swishing noise as I beeline towards him and he puts his hand to his side. James, sweet James, who knows me. Who I used to sneak popsicles and we’d sit in silence with our backs against opposite sides of the hallway at 4 a.m. to 4:30 at shift change when the cameras had a blind spot, until we’d talk. His favorite was creamsicle. When he was little he didn’t have enough food so everything I brought him touched his heart like a gift.
He was the only one I was honest to. He’s the only one who knows my true story.
My pants sashay down the hallway. His eyes flash when he sees me. I keep walking. “Did you hear it,” I ask. He nods but doesn’t remove his hand from his belt where the keys lie and the device that shocks us out cold. “You can’t leave,” he whispers and at first I think he’s saying it to me until I realize his brain hasn’t caught up with his job description and the futility of it now. I stop in front of him. If he pulls the device it’s over – but we’ve shared conversation and popsicles so I think I can trust him. “Two hours,” I whisper, “None of this matters anymore.”
His hand drops to his side defeated like he’d just slayed a dragon and collapsed into himself. My hands reach to the sides of his face as I lean in and kiss him pressing my lips against his and even in his daze he responds. The things we share can be simple, little, but as profound as constellations. When our lips part I rub my thumb against his check. “Go home,” I whisper, “at least call.”
“And you,” he asks as he swings the key into the lock. I knew that he knew me. I pause as the door opens, look into his eyes. In another timeline, maybe I would have stayed with him, maybe we would have built a better life together, but. A smile crests my lips, “I’ll be fine.” He touches my hair between his fingers, a last goodbye, and then the sound of the door clicks and I am on the other side.
Perhaps some might say, if they were to write about it which they will, that it was a such a sad thing that the end came at night. But the chill of the outside air and the field before me says otherwise. When I write about this later I’ll write about James and how he tasted like oranges even if it was my mind playing tricks on me. I’ll write about how I could feel the wind through the clothes that were no thicker than white sheets, and the tall grass that tickled my hands as I ran my palms along them.
I’ll write about the silence in the middle of nowhere and all the noise of chaos over the hill far, far away. The stars above like pinpricks of constellations. I’ll remember Toad when he told me that south had the prettiest view of the big dipper and that he wasn’t afraid of everything going black. He whispered, “It only takes a minute to reboot into our true form again. Everyone will panic for nothing.”
But everyone panics because that’s what we do. Humans are fragile creatures. I’ve known this for some time because I remember the last time I played human. It was a strange adventure. I don’t remember exactly how it ended before but I remember there was chaos and panic, tears, and all sorts of noise.
I remember things unplugging, like a fuse. In a second everything goes black and I remember it felt like electricity had shot everywhere in every cell and somehow I was exploding. And I thought that I would feel frantic, trapped, terrified, but instead the scariest part was that it felt like home, like, peace, like I was born to do this over and over again.
So I find the spot that I think is the middle of the field and hollow myself out an egg like shape of grass pressing it down into the earth so that when I lie in it only the stars are visible through the orb. And I listen to my breath, and I hold my hands up like puppets, and I think about James and the taste of orange lingering on my lips and all the people I might have called but didn’t.
Because it doesn’t really matter. I’ll see them soon.
And time ticks down. And I can tell because the cells in my body begin to vibrate and shift and then I know it’s 5 – this is such a strange, beautiful place – 4, 3, 2, 1.
And simultaneously everything goes black.
*This story was created from the three sentence prompt at the beginning found at reddit/WritingPrompts.