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Good Night Moon, Good Night Air, Good Night Noises Everywhere

The world is ending, and only Sam remembers why.
"The moon's gone," he announces to the darkness of his bedroom. That white eye winked out three months ago and never reopened. The shadows don't believe him. That's fine--no one else does, either.
The sheets peel away like a shed skin. A brownout has killed the AC, not for the first time, maybe for the last. There are more and more lasts every day now. It's 1 AM and ninety degrees. The temperature will only climb after dawn. Many people have gone nocturnal to escape the scorching sun, and Sam is one of them. It's not as if he has a job to go to anymore. He dresses and leaves the house and walks down the street. Only starlight rains down on his shoulders.
Without its younger cousin to stabilize it, the Earth's seasonal variations swing wildly from extreme to extreme. If Sam's town survives the withering heat, it'll only be to endure half a year's ice age at the far end of the year. Drought and destruction, oceans gone still, rafts of dead creatures silently floating. The experts are stumped; no one can explain how things have gone so quickly and so horribly wrong. No one except Sam. He kicks a pebble down the empty street and it skitters to rest in a cracked driveway.
A few neighbors are out in their yards working the midnight shift. Certain crops still grow here, tropical plants sown into gardens that once grew spinach and snow peas. Sam wonders what they'll do when the Earth swings back into frozen darkness. Faces turn to him when he passes, then turn away. No one wants to hear about the moon, about how things were supposed to be, not tonight. Not at all. He picks viciously at his cuticles as he walks, a new bad habit. He doesn't stop until he tears a raw piece of skin away from the pale half-circle of his ring fingernail.
He doesn't know why he's the only one at the eye of this storm. Some poorly constructed genie's wish? An episode of mass hysteria from which he alone has been granted a hall pass? An explanation would make him feel better, he thinks. Or a listening ear.
The bar on Main Street is mostly empty. Two men play darts by lantern light, as if their world isn't trembling on the precipice's edge. The bartender tears her attention away from the radio to get Sam a pour of the rotgut moonshine she distills--she tells him she's listening for news from down south, where a bad earthquake struck last week. She has family down there. He tries to explain that the moon used to help keep the Earth's inner workings in check, but she deposits his drink in front of him and moves off before he can finish. The liquor tastes like the bathtub it was made in, but it's drinkable.
Sam wants to talk, but there's no one around except the darts players and the bartender, who has turned up her radio. He leaves money on the bar--money is a polite fiction no one seems ready to part with--and goes. There hasn't been much rioting or looting, and only a few apocalyptic cults have sprung up here and there. People are resigned to their post-lunar fate, and certainly no one is concerned about open container laws now.
His feet carry him west on Main Street and across Seventh. His girlfriend--his ex-girlfriend--rests in her yard with her dog's head in her lap. He can't believe she's kept the damn thing; food is getting scarcer. But she loves that stupid dog. Both of their eyes are closed, and only a flutter of eyelashes betrays her: she's not really asleep. Sam offers a greeting, but she asks him to leave. She doesn't want to talk about imaginary celestial objects tonight. The dog sighs; she scratches behind his close-shaved ears. When Sam turns to go, she tells his back that she hopes he finds some kind of peace. But, she says as he drifts out of her orbit, she doesn't know if peace is what he's looking for.
Sam continues up Seventh, out of town, toward the dead apple orchard on the hill. Withered branches reach over his head, toward the sparkling sky. He feels closer to the heavens up here, as if he could reach up and pull free an answer, shake the moon out of its hiding place. He climbs a favorite tree to get just a little higher.
"Beautiful night," a voice says. There's someone here, a man leaning against a nearby tree. The orchard owner, Sam thinks. It's true, the stars shine like diamonds, and Sam says so. If he stares upward long enough, he thinks he could see all the way to the beginning of the universe. Maybe its ending, too.
He lowers his gaze to the treetops, which look almost alive again in their dressing of silvery starlight. He tells the orchard-keeper that when he was a boy, he planted apple seeds in his backyard, so that he'd have an orchard too. Nothing had ever come up, though. What kinds of things are growing in that empty orchard now: cassava or cowpeas or millet?
The orchard-keeper chuckles. "Well, apples don't breed true. You grow a tree from seed, and you can eat what you get, but you won't like it. Used to try to explain that to everyone who bought a bushel, but I gave up at some point. More important to keep them coming back than to be right."
Silence stretches out. Sam bites a piece of skin away from a ragged fingernail. "Beautiful night," the man says again, and yes, the stars are in their glory without any competition in the sky. Sam opens his mouth to say exactly that, then forces the words back down his throat. They slide into his belly and rest there, as cold as moonlight and as poisonous as apple seeds.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 13th, 2017

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