(A story inspired by a strange thought I had one day, sitting behind someone on the bus.)
High up on the cliffs, looking out across the broad expanse of blue ocean, for just a moment Steve felt at peace. It was fleeting. It had only been a couple of weeks since everything in the world had gone wrong. So much had changed. So much was uncertain. Now, here, viewing the timeless majesty of something apart from himself and his problems, something greater, his own insignificance somehow was a comfort. No matter what might happen, something would carry on.
Soft footsteps in the gravel, and she was there, looking out beside him. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” She took his hand. It was a bit of a cliché, but it was also more than that.
He smiled. “Yes.” Then his smile faded as the wind blew his hair. He felt its motion, and with what he realized had become an annoying habit, he reached up and touched the back of his head.
The images returned in force.
The first person he saw pop that morning not long ago was in the supermarket. There were very few wandering the aisles so early, but sure enough, he turned the corner, and there was a woman coming down where he was heading up. As they drew close, he forced a smile and a nod, but she suddenly stopped, her eyes growing wide and vague.
Then the back of her head exploded, splashing red and other colors that Steve had never seen before all over the neatly stacked rows of pasta boxes and wholegrain rice. He remembered crying out involuntarily as her body crumpled to the ground, where she lay face down, the back of her head and all its contents gone.
The situation would have been inexplicable and horrific and taken all morning to deal with once the police arrived had the police actually arrived. It turns out they were too busy dealing with all the others.
When the checkout boy had come running to see what was happening, he too suddenly stopped mid-sentence: “What the hell happ-” Then his head went the same way, with that unique, sickening sound.
Steve had seen so many movies – a bullet to the brain, a red explosion – that his first thought was there must be a sniper. Later, when he realized the full extent of what was happening, he wished it had been that pedestrian.
There had been that woman who suddenly leaned out of a window above, crying in anguish, “My baby! Not my baby! Someone help, please…” She held a form draped in a bloody blanket. Somehow, that was the worse memory of all.
“You seem lost,” Carol said, eyeing him. The wind teasing her hair caressed his cheek, and for a moment, they were connected. “Good thoughts, I hope?” She forced a smile, but it didn’t last. “Sorry. I guess that’s a bit unreasonable these days.”
“No,” he said, giving her hand a squeeze. “We’ll have good thoughts again.”
She looked at him and shook her head, then turned away again without saying anything.
It wasn’t a sniper. It wasn’t a disease. It wasn’t anything anyone could understand. Strange faces on the evening news told the story. Over half the human population dead. Bodies lying in the streets. Car crashes. Airplanes falling from the sky. Old people, young, businessmen, children. Scientists around the world, the ones who were left, banded together to try to work out what was happening, with no success. People were simply, for no reason that anyone could work out, “popping.” The numbers had reduced to a trickle since then, but they hadn’t stopped. Some doubted they ever would.
She finally spoke. “How can we carry on? How can we live not knowing if we’ll be alive tomorrow or the day after or an hour from now? I could die before…” She caught her breath. “…before I finish this sentence. You could…” Words no longer sufficed. She turned and flung her arms around him. “I don’t want to lose you. And I don’t want to die. At least not like that.”
He tried the argument he had used on himself. “We could have died in an instant before. A stroke or heart attack or a car drives up on the sidewalk and runs us over. Every day could be our last.”
“But this is different.”
“Because now I believe it.”
So did he – every second of every minute of every freaking hour, wondering if his brain was about to decide it needed a change of scenery. His hand would now reach for the back of his head, though it was a futile gesture.
He no longer tried to argue. “When I thought about death before, it always seemed there’d be some kind of warning. Someone was diagnosed with something or something like that. People wasted way. But there was time to know and start to adjust, even if for only a few days. Now it’s just so… sudden.” He gazed back out over the water, wanting to escape beneath its surface. “And random.”
“I don’t know if you know, but I don’t want to sleep at night, knowing you might not…” Her gaze was deep, her eyes shining. “Then I do sleep, because I can’t fight it forever, and then I wake up with a start, and I’m sick looking beside me until I see you and see you’re ok.”
“At least we sleep facing each other now.” He smiled, wanting it to be a joke. But it wasn’t. “Come on.” He turned.
“Just somewhere.” What he really wanted was to walk toward the water and just keep walking. Out over the edge. The cliff was high enough, the rocks solid enough. Constant thoughts of death made him not want to die. Ironically, this new uncertainty made it almost impossible to live. He wasn’t sure yet which would win. He couldn’t think about tomorrow. Tomorrow meant nothing. If everyone else was like that, the human race was doomed.
They strolled along the cliff, arm in arm, not wanting to break the connection. They hadn’t gone far before they saw the body, with the splotch of red nearby. It hadn’t been there long.
They kept walking.
Cresting a slight ridge, they came across a group of people standing in a semicircle, facing someone leading them in prayer. They held rosary beads in their hand and intoned Hail Marys. The sound of multiple voices speaking in unison had a soothing, mesmerizing effect.
Then it came: that unique, sickening sound. That pop. The one leading them fell to the ground, her strings cut. The rest didn’t even pause. Their prayer was their focus, and they didn’t waver.
Steve wondered what they thought of all this. Some had said it was God calling people to Himself. Some said it was the rapture, just in another form than what people had expected. They even had a name for it: “the rupture.” He had never cared for that, for multiple reasons. One was there was no rhyme or reason to any of it. More than that, he just couldn’t believe God would use such a horrible method on His faithful.
Not that he had any better explanation.
Soon, neither wanted to walk any more, and they made their way back to their bikes. It would be an easier ride going home. Downhill all the way. They would pull their bikes into the garage beside their car, which they would most likely never drive again. It was too irresponsible. Sure, people had had strokes before while driving or heart attacks or some other sudden trauma where they veered into other cars or people walking along minding their own business. Death could come at any time. Any day could be your last, any minute.
But this was different.