The end of the world happened slowly. There was no fire and brimstone or plagues of locusts like in the movies. One day, scientists reported that the sun was dying. “Nothing to be concerned about,” said the representatives in firmly pressed suits, peering out at the world through the gaggle of TV cameras.
Nola watched the reports, her hand resting absent-mindedly on her stomach, with a detached indifference, often changing the channel before the end of each update. She stopped watching altogether when an astronomy specialist revealed to the public that the Earth was in the trajectory of a field of asteroids, or meteoroids. She didn’t remember. All Nola remembered was the grimness of the expert’s face, the tight line of his mouth. How he cast his eyes downward.
Her life progressed just the same as it had before the announcement of Earth’s impending destruction. Each day, she showed up to the insurance office with a thermos of coffee in one hand and a stale bagel in the other. More often than not, she walked into the middle of a conversation being batted back and forth between her coworkers.
“Crazy what they’re saying on TV, huh?”
“Yeah, but you know how the media is, always inciting panic. It’s just a bunch of fear mongering. I think the networks get off on it, personally.”
“I don’t think there’s anything to worry about, really. From what I’ve read, a bunch of scientists and engineers and whatever are working on figuring something out.”
It was the height of summer, but the sun was pale and cold, like an old light bulb flickering as it’s about to go out. Nola sat on her porch and watched the old star sink again beneath the horizon, wondering if it would come back up again in the morning.
The door of the neighboring apartment opened.
“How’s it going?” Mark asked. He sat down in the flimsy chair next to Nola. It creaked beneath his weight.
“Not bad. Same old, same old.”
“Not bad? You’re quite cavalier about the world ending.”
In spite of herself, Nola felt her mouth twitch into a half-smile.
“I think apathetic is a better word.”
“Yeah, that too.”
Nola watched the pallid moon ascend into the sky, half masked by wisps of dark clouds. As the sun went out, the moon went out, too. Husband and Wife in the sky.
“Not a bad night out,” Mark said, “considering.”
Nola said nothing, just continued to stare up into the sky. Dim stars struggled to twinkle in the black chasm above.
“Reminds me of the night we first kissed,” Mark continued. “Don’t you think?”
She took a sip of her tea, growing cold, and shrugged.
“I don’t remember what the weather was like. That was a long time ago.”
“Only a few years.”
“Time is relative,” she said. Nola glanced quickly at Mark before letting her gaze trail back up to the blackness stretched out above them.
Mark and Nola sat silently for a time, each staring at the thing they found most enchanting in that last day of existence.
The air between them grew heavy. Mark cleared his throat.
“I just wanted to tell you that I don’t blame you,” he said. His voice was thin and reedy as if it was taking all he had in him just to push the words out. “I know you blame yourself, though. But it wasn’t your fault that we lost it.”
“Her,” Nola tried to reply, but it came out as a wisp of breath.
“Her,” she said louder. Nola’s hand drew itself toward her stomach, but she caught herself before it got there and let it fall back into her lap. She shook her head. “At least, it felt like a her.”
“Her, then,” Mark echoed.
Nola shook her head again as if trying to shake out everything in her mind.
“Ah, well, I suppose it doesn’t matter now anyway.” She gestured dismissively at the sky.
After a few long moments, Mark cleared his throat again.
“Say, why don’t we take a walk? We could go over to the soccer fields. They aren’t that far away.”
“I should be heading to bed soon. I have work in the morning.”
Mark looked at her sadly.
“No, you don’t, Nola.”
Nola looked into her cup. She tipped her head back and drained the last of her cold tea, the soggy bag sliding forward to touch her lips.
“No, I suppose not,” she said.
Nola stood up, the cheap lawn chair sighing with relief as its burden was lifted.
“I guess a walk would be nice,” Nola said. “Lead the way.”
Mark smiled and stood up. He walked, with long strides, out into the parking lot that extended behind the apartment complex.
The breeze felt cold without the usual residual heat from the sun, but Nola didn’t say anything. Mark tried to fill the gaping silence with lively chatter. Nola kept her eyes on the dimming stars, mute.
When they arrived at the soccer fields, Nola kicked off her slip-on shoes and waded out into the soft, perfectly manicured grass. She imagined the groundskeepers spending their last day mowing and spraying the fields, redoing the boundaries and goal lines with stark white paint. Everything was perfect for the end of the world.
Mark followed Nola as she walked out toward the center of the nearest field, her bare feet wet and freezing cold from the evening dew. She lowered herself onto the grass and stretched out on her back, her arms and legs slightly outstretched as if in the midst of making a snow angel.
“Relaxation pose is what this is called,” she said. “I’m taking a yoga class. Or, rather, I took a yoga class.”
Nola looked up at Mark, his face cast in shadow. She couldn’t read his expression.
“You can join me if you want,” she said before turning her gaze upward into the void and letting it gaze back into her. Mark lay down next to her and spread out his arms and legs in the same fashion. The side of his arm grazed Nola’s hand. She didn’t pull away.
“Are you scared?” Mark asked.
“Not really. I mean, it’s going to happen, anyway, right? Why worry about it.”
Nola closed her eyes and felt the breeze creep across her skin. The delicate hairs prickled and rose. She turned her head slightly and looked at Mark.
“Are you scared?”
“Yeah, I think so,” he said. “I don’t feel good about it, anyway.”
Mark gnawed on his lower lip, his jaw working in a slow and circular motion.
“I’m afraid of not existing.”
“I imagine it’s the same as what it was like before you were born.”
Mark shook his head slightly. The back of his head was growing damp from the dewy ground.
“That’s not really what I mean, I guess. I suppose I’m afraid of nonexistence. Like, everything we’ve ever known being gone, as if we were never here in the first place.”
“I see what you mean,” she said, even though she didn’t.
“And I’m afraid of everything I never got to do. All the places I’ve never gone and the books I haven’t read and the things I haven’t said and the people I haven’t met.”
Mark sighed, his chest slowing deflating. Nola watched his rib cage shrink as his lungs let out the air.
“It feels like everything was a waste,” he finished.
“Maybe it was,” Nola said, her voice diminishing into a whisper. “And maybe that’s okay.”
They listened to the sounds of each other’s breathing and their own blood pulsing in their ears, the gentle mechanics of life.
Nola broke the silence, soft and low.
“You’ll always have existed, Mark, even when everything is gone. You existed, and I existed. We existed.”
She placed her hand on her stomach.
The night began to flicker as the space junk littered the atmosphere. Mark reached over and grasped Nola’s hand over her stomach, squeezing it almost hard enough to break the bones. She didn’t wince.
“I still love you, Nola.”
Nola let Mark crush her hand as she stared upward, unblinking.
Mark’s voice broke when he asked her, “Do you still love me?”
She breathed in as hard as she could, inhaling the sweetness of the world around her: the crisp air and the cold dirt beneath her head and the blades of grass tickling her ears. Nola breathed and breathed, trying to exist harder and more than she ever had in her whole life.
“I don’t love you,” she finally answered. “But it’s close.”
Nola and Mark watched the sky collapse around them.
Jen Corrigan is a graduate student and instructor at the University of Northern Iowa, and fiction editor for 3Elements Review. Formerly she worked as an editorial intern at the North American Review and served as a jury member for Mash Stories. Her prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Heather, Apocrypha and Abstractions, The Gambler, Change Seven Magazine, Hypertext Magazine, The Tishman Review, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere.