It was a quiet morning on the 43 commuter when he realized the end of the world was near.
Corey got on the bus at 8th & J, M-F, 6:12 a.m. A simple string of data, like the lines of code he wrote for the Department of Social Services. He appreciated that, the symbolic precision of the spacetime coordinates. It was spare and dispassionate, just like the dewy morning air or the muted predawn light.
On the early commuter the riders are as bland as those lexical symbols, sullen or sleepy or some combination of the two. Corey is generally aloof too, but he nods to the regulars as he makes his way to his usual seat. He doesn’t speak to them, doesn’t even know their given names, but in his head he has names for all of them: Lakers Jacket, Gallon of Water, Bible-Reading Leather Cap, Patchouli Purple Scarf, Red Red Bike Helmet. They incline their heads too, ritual satisfied.
And then one morning Lakers Jacket and Bible-Reading Leather Cap aren’t there. No explanation, no rhyme to it, just two empty blue seats. Corey has a momentary hollow feeling in his chest as the bus rolls past dry farmland on the way to the capital. It’s then that he has his realization:
This is the way the world ends–when it can’t afford to pay the supporting cast.
What do you do at the end of the world? Corey thinks it over in his cubicle all morning and decides that there’s no reason it can’t end with a bang after all. He thinks about the women in the office and wonders if he could get Swiss Miss. Probably; she stands just a bit too close to him when they talk in the break room and he thinks he remembers her flirting with him at the holiday party.
He asks her to dinner during their lunch break. He asks her back to his apartment during dinner. Everything unfolds like a script, all the way to the point where she’s wearing nothing but those two blonde braids and (plot twist) a belly button ring. They fuck with all the sound and fury of three-score barrels of gunpowder in the middle of his king-sized bed.
In the morning Corey comes back from the bathroom and finds the bed empty. Actually, the entire apartment is empty. Swiss Miss is gone, but the door is still locked and chained from the inside. Corey picks her discarded clothes off the floor and holds them doubtfully for a moment before he puts them in the drawer with his t-shirts. Then, curious, he rifles through her purse until he finds her driver’s license.
Magda Kucharcyk. Hmm, he thinks, looking at the blue eyes and candy apple cheeks in the photo. Polish name. Apparently she wasn’t Swiss after all.
Big Thermos doesn’t get on at the Wildwood stop. The bus wheezes up to the curb and the doors clack open as usual, but Big Thermos isn’t there. No one is there. The driver idles the bus for an incredible minute and then mumbles something incoherent and drives on. No one else seems to notice anything amiss, but Corey can’t stop smiling for the rest of the ride.
Corey is leaning back in his chair with his feet up on the desk when Stuffed Shirt struts and frets his way up the row to his cubicle. Corey torques at the waist and neck so as to look up at his boss while shifting his posture as little as possible. His boss looks agitated.
Like the rest of the dramatis personae, Stuffed Shirt seems not to know that the world is coming to an end. He is talking about quarterly reports and recertifications like the office isn’t half empty. Corey yawns and closes his eyes and listens to the sounds of the suddenly cavernous office instead. Ventilation system, photocopier, keyboards–everything has a little whisper of an echo in it now, like a gymnasium an hour after the game or a church with no one in it.
After a few minutes Corey notices that Stuffed Shirt isn’t talking anymore. He stands up and looks over the cubicle dividers, but he doesn’t see him anywhere.
Corey thinks that perhaps tomorrow he will move into the corner office.
Today the bus is empty when it arrives at 8th & J at 6:12 a.m. There isn’t even a driver. Corey swipes his monthly pass anyway and then sits in the driver’s seat. He pulls the lever to close the doors and the bus lurches away from the curb, the gas pedal depressing on its own. Corey adjusts the seat and the mirrors but really, apart from honking the horn, there isn’t anything for him to do. He stands up and leads the empty bus in an a cappella rendition of ‘The Wheels on the Bus.’ The bus merges flawlessly onto the highway, a tumid river of mostly empty cars, moving between the dawning and the day.
Corey is about to step into the revolving door when he hears the voice behind him: “Hey! Hey, Briefcase and Jeans! You dropped something!”
The horror! The horror! Corey feels his face blanch, feels the hollowness return to his chest. He turns, slowly, and stares at the kid. College-aged, big backpack, shaggy hair, friendly grin–the sort you’d expect to be hiking across Europe, not striding down State Street. Probably doesn’t even know about the end of the world, but it’s clear he’s the instrument of Corey’s fate.
The paper blows away before he can tell what it is, not that it matters anyway. The revolving door is already turning, turning, even though no one is going through, even though no one at all has gone through this morning. The only thing left to do, Corey thinks, is to step into that whispering door.
He already knows he won’t come out the other side.
Nicholas Diehl (he/his) was born in Detroit, attended Michigan State University (B.A. in mathematics and history) and UC Davis (Ph.D. in philosophy), and teaches philosophy at Sacramento City College. He has published essays on narration, satire, and the relationship of narrative to philosophical practice in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. An extremely photogenic corgi lives in his house.