The End of the World as We Know It by Dale Bailey

Dale Bailey is the author of three novels, The Fallen, House of Bones, and Sleeping Policemen (with Jack Slay, Jr.). He’s published more than 20 pieces of short fiction — mostly in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction — a selection of which has been collected in The Resurrection Man’s Legacy and Other Stories.

This story, which was a finalist for the Nebula Award, grew out of Bailey’s attempt to understand our rather morbid fascination with the genre and the prospect of our own extinction. “The End of the World as We Know It” is about the lone survivor of an apocalypse attempting to grapple with the emotional dimension of his loss. But more than that, it’s an end-of-the-world story about how end-of-the-world stories actually work.

One thing Bailey realized in writing the story is that the world is ending for someone every minute of every day. He says, “We don’t need the destruction of entire cities to know what it’s like to survive a catastrophe. Whenever we lose someone we love deeply we experience the end of the world as we know it. The central idea of the story is not merely that the apocalypse is coming, but that it’s coming for you. And there’s nothing you can do to avoid it.”

This excerpt appears here courtesy of the author.

The End of the World as We Know It
Dale Bailey

Between 1347 and 1450 AD, bubonic plague overran Europe, killing some 75 million people. The plague, dubbed the Black Death because of the black pustules that erupted on the skin of the afflicted, was caused by a bacterium now known as Yersinia pestis. The Europeans of the day, lacking access to microscopes or knowledge of disease vectors, attributed their misfortune to an angry God. Flagellants roamed the land, hoping to appease His wrath. “They died by the hundreds, both day and night,” Agnolo di Tura tells us. “I buried my five children with my own hands…so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.”

Today, the population of Europe is about 729 million.

#

Evenings, Wyndham likes to sit on the porch, drinking. He likes gin, but he’ll drink anything. He’s not particular. Lately, he’s been watching it get dark–really watching it, I mean, not just sitting there–and so far he’s concluded that the cliché is wrong. Night doesn’t fall. It’s more complex than that.

Not that he’s entirely confident in the accuracy of his observations.

It’s high summer just now, and Wyndham often begins drinking at two or three, so by the time the sun sets, around nine, he’s usually pretty drunk. Still, it seems to him that, if anything, night rises, gathering first in inky pools under the trees, as if it has leached up from underground reservoirs, and then spreading, out toward the borders of the yard and up toward the yet-lighted sky. It’s only toward the end that anything falls–the blackness of deep space, he supposes, unscrolling from high above the earth. The two planes of darkness meet somewhere in the middle, and that’s night for you.

That’s his current theory, anyway.

It isn’t his porch, incidentally, but then it isn’t his gin either–except in the sense that, in so far as Wyndham can tell anyway, everything now belongs to him.

#

End-of-the-world stories usually come in one of two varieties.

In the first, the world ends with a natural disaster, either unprecedented or on an unprecedented scale. Floods lead all other contenders–God himself, we’re told, is fond of that one–though plagues have their advocates. A renewed ice age is also popular. Ditto drought.

In the second variety, irresponsible human beings bring it on themselves. Mad scientists and corrupt bureaucrats, usually. An exchange of ICBMs is the typical route, although the scenario has dated in the present geo-political environment.

Feel free to mix and match:

Genetically engineered flu virus, anyone? Melting polar ice caps?

#

On the day the world ended, Wyndham didn’t even realize it was the end of the world–not right away, anyway. For him, at that point in his life, pretty much every day seemed like the end of the world. This was not a consequence of a chemical imbalance, either. It was a consequence of working for UPS, where, on the day the world ended Wyndham had been employed for sixteen years, first as a loader, then in sorting, and finally in the coveted position of driver, the brown uniform and everything. By this time the company had gone public and he also owned some shares. The money was good–very good, in fact. Not only that, he liked his job.

Still, the beginning of every goddamn day started off feeling like a cataclysm. You try getting up at 4:00 AM every morning and see how you feel.

This was his routine:

At 4:00 AM, the alarm went off–an old-fashioned alarm, he wound it up every night. (He couldn’t tolerate the radio before he drank his coffee.) He always turned it off right away, not wanting to wake his wife. He showered in the spare bathroom (again, not wanting to wake his wife; her name was Ann), poured coffee into his thermos, and ate something he probably shouldn’t–a bagel, a Pop Tart–while he stood over the sink. By then, it would be 4:20, 4:25 if he was running late.

Then he would do something paradoxical: He would go back to his bedroom and wake up the wife he’d spent the last twenty minutes trying not to disturb.

“Have a good day,” Wyndham always said.

His wife always did the same thing, too. She would screw her face into her pillow and smile. “Ummm,” she would say, and it was usually such a cozy, loving, early-morning cuddling kind of “ummm” that it almost made getting up at 4 in the goddamn morning worth it.

#

Wyndham heard about the World Trade Center–not the end of the world, though to Wyndham it sure as hell felt that way–from one of his customers.

The customer–her name was Monica–was one of Wyndham’s regulars: a Home Shopping Network fiend, this woman. She was big, too. The kind of woman of whom people say “She has a nice personality” or “She has such a pretty face.” She did have a nice personality, too–at least Wyndham thought she did. So he was concerned when she opened the door in tears.

“What’s wrong?” he said.

Monica shook her head, at a loss for words. She waved him inside. Wyndham, in violation of about fifty UPS regulations, stepped in after her. The house smelled of sausage and floral air freshener. There was Home Shopping Network shit everywhere. I mean, everywhere.

Wyndham hardly noticed.

His gaze was fixed on the television. It was showing an airliner flying into the World Trade Center. He stood there and watched it from three or four different angles before he noticed the Home Shopping Network logo in the lower right-hand corner of the screen.

That was when he concluded that it must be the end of the world. He couldn’t imagine the Home Shopping Network preempting regularly scheduled programming for anything less.

#

The Muslim extremists who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center, into the Pentagon, and into the unyielding earth of an otherwise unremarkable field in Pennsylvania, were secure, we are told, in the knowledge of their imminent translation into paradise.

There were nineteen of them.

Every one of them had a name.

#

Wyndham’s wife was something of a reader. She liked to read in bed. Before she went to sleep she always marked her spot using a bookmark Wyndham had given her for her birthday one year: It was a cardboard bookmark with a yarn ribbon at the top, and a picture of a rainbow arching high over white-capped mountains. Smile, the bookmark said. God loves you.

Wyndham wasn’t much of a reader, but if he’d picked up his wife’s book the day the world ended he would have found the first few pages interesting. In the opening chapter, God raptures all true Christians to Heaven. This includes true Christians who are driving cars and trains and airplanes, resulting in uncounted lost lives as well as significant damages to personal property. If Wyndham had read the book, he’d have thought of a bumper sticker he sometimes saw from high in his UPS truck. Warning, the bumper sticker read, In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned. Whenever he saw that bumper sticker, Wyndham imagined cars crashing, planes falling from the sky, patients abandoned on the operating table–pretty much the scenario of his wife’s book, in fact.

Wyndham went to church every Sunday, but he couldn’t help wondering what would happen to the untold millions of people who weren’t true Christians–whether by choice or by the geographical fluke of having been born in some place like Indonesia. What if they were crossing the street in front of one of those cars, he wondered, or watering lawns those planes would soon plow into?

[END EXCERPT]