art by Melissa Mead
Ten Speeds at the End of the World
by Guinevere Robin Rowell
They announced the end of the world on Friday afternoon. Of course the apocalypse couldn't come on a Monday.
Tara and Luke were carpooling home together, which was lucky. The commuting traffic was always ugly but at the news everyone seemed to try to get on the road, going somewhere. Stopped in the shiny sea of cars, flat and still on the highway, they called their families on their cell phones.
Tara tossed her cell phone onto the dashboard in frustration.
"Did you get through to your mom?" Luke asked.
"No," she said. "Everything's busy."
He nodded and looked back to the road, to the same license plate they'd been parked behind for the better part of an hour. He'd cut the ignition a while ago. "D'ya want to get out and walk?"
"What exit are we at?" she glanced around, pushing long brown hair back from her face.
"Four miles to ours."
"Then another two," she said. She looked back out at the traffic and said, smiling a little, "Well, I've wasted enough of my life in traffic on this highway on less auspicious occasions."
"You're taking this well," he said.
"No sense in crying over a spilled planet," she said. "We've known this was probably coming for a while. Mom knows I love her, even if we don't get to talk."
He reached over to squeeze her hand. "I'm glad we're together."
"Me too," she said. "Even if we're together on foot."
"What else are we going to do with ourselves, anyway?" he said. "I don't think I can watch TV tonight."
"Too bad," she said. "We have a bunch of shows recorded."
They walked down the shoulder until the emergency vehicle came up behind them, startling them with shrilling sirens. Then, for safety's sake, they walked on the uneven strip of grass, swinging their joined hands between them. There was no future to speak of, but talking about the past was enough. The hot summer night fell and blanketed them as they walked, the air still hot even as the sky turned dark. They hadn't been able to see the stars at night for a long time now.
When they finally arrived back at their house, their clothes and bodies were damp with sweat, but they made love just inside the doorway anyway, because there was little time left for it. The electricity was still on and that seemed almost anticlimactic. They showered, made dinner, made love again, slept. In the morning the world hadn't come apart yet. They watched the news as Luke made pancakes, and when they had the gist of it, Tara turned a movie on instead.
"Let's go for a bike ride," Tara said halfway through. "The house feels stuffy to me."
They had to ride on the sidewalks. They guessed, for a while, at where people were trying to go, or where they'd been trying to go before they abandoned their cars. After a while the game chilled them into silence.
They switched to single-file, Tara in the lead, when they saw a figure ahead, bulkier than a single person. As they cycled closer the figure resolved itself into a woman, a young woman, who stopped and knelt on the sidewalk, clutching a bundle to her side.
Tara paused, balancing with the toes of her sneakers just touching the sidewalk. "Are you okay?" she asked. She glanced back over her shoulder at Luke, as if to ask if it were okay, as if he'd ever say no.
"No," the woman said, and Luke dropped his bike and came up besides Tara, kneeling down himself. Tara saw that the bundle the woman clutched to her chest was wrapped in a child's blanket, covered in colorful images, and then saw the little face. "She fell," the woman said, her face crumpled, "She fell down the stairs and the ambulance won't come, they said they can't get to everyone, especially not with the roads blocked. But they just won't come. It's the end of the world and no one cares. But I have to try."
There was blood on the blanket and the child's face was slack.
"We could take her," Tara said, looking to Luke. "We could take her to the hospital on the bikes. We could balance her."
"I want to be with her," the woman said. "She's all I have."
"You should be with your baby," Tara agreed. "But…" she looked at Luke again.
"One of us could go," Luke said. "She could take the other bike."
"Please," the woman said.
Somehow the woman's hand had found its way to Tara's sleeve.
"We'll be apart then," she said. "Luke, there isn't much time left."
"I know," he said. "We'll be apart. I understand if we can't do it." To the woman, he said, "I'm sorry." His eyes lingered on the child.
"No," Tara said. "That's not what I'm saying. Do you remember the reading at our wedding?"
"The Shel Silverstein poem?"
"No, the thing about love not being about gazing at each other but about looking outwards together."
"Or not together."
"We're always together," she said.
"I love you," he said.
"I love you too. I'll walk back home," she said. "So you'll know where to find me if the world doesn't end."
They kissed, a deeper kiss than the one they'd shared on their wedding night. Then she helped him get back on his bike, take the bundle on his handlebars. She held the bike up for the woman, who was crying when she said thank you, thank you.
But Tara just looked at her husband's face, one last time, before the end of the world.
This story was first published on Wednesday, September 21st, 2011