The world was going to end at 11:36 that night. It would be very anticlimactic; the universe, due to some comical flaw in its construction, was simply going to collapse on itself at the speed of light. An international team of scientists had calculated it down to the minute a few months earlier so that everyone would have time to prepare. And people did their best to get ready, in all the sentimental ways that they thought were unique but really weren’t: writing letters, going on pilgrimages, making peace with estranged kin, sleeping with exes.
But Wilma, the failed actress who was now the youngest bus driver in her school district — not to mention the only woman — refused to take part in any of these activities. While taking her middle-school passengers to the last classes of their unfairly shortened lives, she told herself that she didn’t need to do all of those things because she had lived every day as if it had been her last, with plenty of disappointment but no regrets. It was only after she dropped off the kids that she admitted that she was fooling herself, and that now it was too late to make things right. When the world ended that night, somewhere in the middle of Jay Leno’s monologue, she would be alone, and she deserved it.
And so the world got ready without her. The government mandated that the television stations only showed things that made people happy or sentimental. So M*A*S*H*, I Love Lucy and The Simpsons came back to the airwaves those last few days, twenty-four seven. The folks at ESPN considered replaying Super Bowl III, the game in which Joe Namath guaranteed victory, but the government vetoed it on the grounds that Baltimore fans wouldn’t like it.
Meanwhile, preparing for the end became a huge industry. Books, videos and movies appeared, all of which Wilma assumed were being peddled by the same assholes who had sold Y2K kits a few years earlier. Oprah, of course, had a special episode about coping with The End. Tee shirts asked, “Where will you be?” Churches claimed that God’s kingdom was at hand, brothels advertised their product openly, and both earned record profits. There was the eventual backlash against all the hype, and many people declared that they would simply carry on as if nothing was going to happen. Either way, people seemed to be very accepting of the situation. The President declared the relative calm to be a sign that the human race, despite its failings, had truly achieved enlightenment as its end approached, and that we should all be proud.
This cheerful march toward Armageddon was made all the more ironic for Wilma because, right before it was announced, when she was at her most miser- able over her breakup with her fiancé, Gary, she had read what seemed at the time to be the most depressing newspaper article ever. A stray, late season hurricane — coincidentally named Wilma — traveled up the coast and soaked the Northeast. In the aftermath, it was reported that a local cemetery had been flooded so badly that the coffins had floated out of the muck and had collected in a ghoulish mountain of corpses. The bewildered groundskeeper, a little Asian guy whose leathery hand held a nearly dead cigarette, had said it looked to him like the end of the world. It was so sad to Wilma. She couldn’t stop imagining her own corpse emerging from the mud, with the hair and fingernails still inexplicably growing. There would be no one to put her body back into the ground, no one to arrange the flowers. It was as if news like this had sought her out to remind her that humiliations would follow her even into the afterlife. But then the real apocalypse was unveiled the next day, and Wilma won- dered if anyone would care enough to help the poor man put his Humpty dumpty back together again. She supposed that people had more important things to do now that the clock was ticking.
While everyone left behind the groundskeepers and bus drivers of the world to seek their destinies, Wilma concluded that people accepted The End because, deep down, it was what they had been hoping for all along, not for true love or picket fences or a 401K. People now realized that they had always been imprisoned in their lives, no matter what degrees they earned or money they made, and now they could finally rest. Wilma had come to this conclusion long before she took the bus driver job, long before she hastily shaved her head and quit her theatre program, long before Gary began fucking Susan.
Movies: I used to eat sushi and watch movies with my roommate at Temple. We would splice the word sushi into the titles of the movies, so there was Sushiblanca, Sushifellas, The Sushishank Redemption. We used to think that this was original, but it probably wasn’t.
Television: All day, every waking minute. Reality shows that my smart friends are embarrassed to admit they watch; sitting in my shorts on a hot afternoon and watching Poltergeist II: The Other Sushi in español, not feeling ashamed of it, because things are on their way out anyway, as I’ve known long before The End went prime time.
Status: Single (thanks, Gary)
Here for: Nothing
Hometown: Baltimore, MD
Occupation: School bus driver
Degree: M.A., Theatre
Graduated?: dropped out, graduated — same thing!
Latest Blog Entry: May 19, 2:37 PM
If you’re reading this, you should have something better to do on the Last day. Haven’t you heard the question: “Where will you be?” Looks like you’re sitting on your ass. Then again, so am I. Welcome to the end of the world.
I have nothing better to do either, as I just worked my last day, dropping the kids off at school. Some of them have been told by their parents that they’re going to wake up tomorrow and that all of this hysteria will pass. The rest of them are smart enough to know that going to school is a waste of time, that this silliness about continuing with normalcy as if things were normal is bullshit concocted by the government to keep people from rioting or fucking in the streets. None of the kids said goodbye to me today, but they never have, so I didn’t sweat it.
For some idiotic reason, my pit-stained boss asked me to return the bus after work. He wanted to have some kind of office party, but I don’t see the point, and he’s probably sipping coffee and eating stale doughnuts by himself right now. He never liked me anyway — he knew that I took the job because I dropped out of college. He was under the mistaken impression that I still held out hope of going back to school and being an actress. Little did he know that that dream was long gone, and that I’d be stuck in this job until the Apocalypse.
So I went back to the apartment and watched TV for a little bit, but that wasn’t working out. All the stations are playing that schmaltzy crap when I’m in the mood for soul-crushing reality shows — or Gilligan’s Island. I figured that since I had a vehicle for the day, I might as well drive around. But, with nowhere new to go, I ended up parked behind the school. There’s a spot in the parking lot where I can steal wireless with my laptop, my last remaining item from my parents’ house. Good thing I’m a woman, because a man who hung out here would probably get arrested.
But now I don’t know what I’m up to for the rest of the day. If you’re reading this, send me a photo. We can pretend that we’ll go on a date, and then get married, if we only had the time.
If not, I might have to drive the bus over a cliff.
I have the cliff picked out and everything. Just try me.
She passed by two church revivals, a traffic jam of abandoned cars, a woman having sex with (or getting raped by) two men in the back of a pickup, and a cop smoking a cigarette and chatting with two teenagers as they looted Playstations from an electronics store. Apparently, not everyone had embraced the idea of carrying on as if there would still be a tomorrow.
No matter how much she tried to fight it, she couldn’t help but wonder what Gary and Susan were up to. Susan, a transplant from the West Coast, was probably trying to talk him into splurging on some fancy restaurant or something. Perhaps Gary was trying to muster the courage to ditch her, and play a final game of basketball with his little brother in his parents’ driveway. That scenario made Wilma smile, as she first met Gary in an intramural game at Temple, in which she elbowed him in his stubbled chin by accident. They had been the only two sporty students in the theatre department and, once they started dating, they often made fun of their awkward colleagues. None of those nerds could run the pick-and-roll. Susan was just a joke then, a shallow bimbo with a trust fund, someone that Gary and Wilma giggled about in bed. Susan could only name one of the members of the men’s basketball team, and that was only because, in her words, he had “nice eyes.” Gary seemed to enjoy Wilma’s viciousness in judging other people -- even though, later, he told her that that was what drove him away.
The “roommate” with whom Wilma watched movies like Gone with the Sushi was in fact Gary. He had come up with the spliced titles. Watching TV was merely a diversion back then. She had other things to do — a life, one would say. But when Susan appeared at the auditions for The Tempest, wearing her low-cut black shirt that screamed “Fuck off, I’m getting the part of Miranda,” Wilma could see what was coming next, almost like moves in a chess game. Susan got the part of Miranda, Gary was Fernando, and Wilma was one of the faceless extras, doomed to watch from the shadows all the shared glances and awkward fumbling of hands between the two leads. Susan’s laughter angered Wilma the most. It was a semi-concealed snicker as she scrunched her freckled nose. Even worse, Gary couldn’t hide the fact that he enjoyed hearing it.
The director, a guy named Bob who had interviewed Wilma when she first applied to the program, let Wilma know that he noticed the drama; he had seen it among the students virtually every semester since he took over the theatre department fifteen years before. He was a silly man with soft little hands that he clapped when making a point, and he had been Wilma’s father figure since her arrival, letting her baby-sit his two sons every now and then. His favorite line when things were going wrong was, “No big whoop — it’s not the end of the world.”
Guys had always left her for the prettier ones, and she wanted to just accept that. So, when Gary told her that they had to talk, Wilma already knew what was coming. She even offered to leave the apartment, provided that Susan would take over her half of the lease. Gary seemed to resent her generosity, which Wilma in turn found irresistible. It felt even better to leave the voice-mail messages from Gary unanswered when he called to ask why she had dropped out of the program.
Even though she couldn’t face Bob, leaving school made sense now that she had accepted that she was never really that good at the only thing she was ever good at. When news of The End came around, just a few weeks after Wilma had found a job driving the bus, it felt like a vindication of her decision to drop off the face of the earth. Watching the news that night, she saw images of people crying in the streets, hugging each other, cowering in the face of the future, while the cheerful news anchors spoke as if things would work out, right after this commercial break. Gary and Susan wouldn’t get to enjoy each other’s company for very long. Wilma took pleasure in thinking like that, until she remembered that there was a time when she never would have.
Latest Blog Entry: May 19, 5:22 p.m.
As I type this at the local library, where I parked the school bus after getting bored with driving around, I am tempted to tell you that you are living vicariously through the wrong person! Go search the people who graduated from your high school, or who like your favorite sports team, or who enjoy using butt plugs or something. Or, better yet, get out of the house and find something useful to do. And when you find it, let me know — I need some ideas, fast. T-minus six hours :-(
I have no one wondering where I am. No friends. I got drunk at the last party held by my classmates and puked all over the shower curtain while Gary and Susan made out on a pile of coats and purses. Meanwhile, my parents are in Baltimore. I left a goodbye on their voicemail — too tacky? Well, probably, but I think I did them a favor. I spared them the tedium of lecturing me again about the waste of a career I’ve chosen. I also spared myself the temptation of telling them that I now drive a school bus. So everyone’s happy, I think.
My only victory of the day, which occurred just a few moments ago, was my decision to not pursue Gary tonight. I still indulged in fantasies of finding him and then refusing to accept his apology for leaving me. (There is still a part of me that’s holding out hope that he’s reading my blog right now, however. Hey, I’m a weak human being. Give me a break.)
The librarian — and she looks every bit the part — just told everyone in the computer room that the library closes in twenty minutes, so we should wrap up. I asked why — not to be a smartass, I just didn’t see the point in kicking us out when there wasn’t going to be a tomorrow. Hell, we could re-create Fahrenheit 451 in here and it wouldn’t matter (don’t worry, I didn’t say that out loud). She looked like she didn’t understand the question, so I asked it again. Then she ran out of the room crying.
The other folks in the room glared at me like I was the biggest asshole in the world, and who I am to tell them they’re wrong? There’s a fat guy in a tracksuit who’s still looking at me over his shoulder. What? Turn around, fatass. Okay, he finally did.
I guess I’ve been expecting my life to be like this for so long that I ended up wanting it to be this way. Some people are just good at wrecking things, at separating themselves from everyone else. My life is one self-fulfilling prophecy after another. Why can’t I be so damn self-aware when I do something good? I know (believe?) that I’ve done something worthwhile in this life — why can’t I sit back and reflect on that, and how it defines who I am and all that, instead of wallowing in moments like making the librarian cry?
. . . Okay, that’s it—I know a quarry out on Route 1, right outside the city. I could bust through the gate, ramp this fucker right into the crater. Maybe there’ll be an explosion, Hollywood-style. Bye bye, Wilma.
Only you can stop me.
Wilma sat shaking at the keyboard for a while, past closing time. It turned out that the librarian who had given her twenty minutes fell into the “let’s-pretend-every- thing-is-going-to-be-okay” camp, whereas the other librarians did not. So Wilma was free to sit in the wooden grade-school chair and relive all of her mistakes for as long as she wanted.
And after she moved past Gary, and giving up on the theatre program, and severing her ties with her family because they never seemed to approve of anything, she moved on to the future — or what was left of it. driving the bus into the quarry was starting to sound good. She hadn’t contemplated suicide since she was fourteen. Back then, it was just a fantasized escape from high school, something she hoped was normal. Now it was something real. Thanks to all the tee shirts asking where she would be at The End, death had become a tangible thing, a boring given; it was no scarier than talking about next Wednesday.
Maybe suicide would be her only concrete triumph in this sea of failure. If only there was a way to make Gary and Susan know about it. They shouldn’t be able to escape feeling guilty just because the world was coming to an end. But still — wouldn’t it hurt to be in a crashing bus? And what if she didn’t die right away? What if she only broke her back and then spent the rest of the day sitting in the bottom of the quarry, imagining Gary and Susan until the end of time? Maybe she could just connect a hose from the tailpipe to the driver window, seal up the bus, and go to sleep. Was there a hose around here? The library had a little garden in front, so there had to be a hose somewhere.
She was breathless, both horrified and exhilarated at the thought of doing herself in before 11:36. Standing up, she realized that she wasn’t ready to go through with it yet, so she sat down again. Instead of relaxing her, it only brought more frustration. She had never been offered such a clear-cut choice in her life, and she was still failing to decide. Pathetic. She punched the table, making the keyboard chatter and the monitor shake. No one in the library said anything to her.
Shaking her head, staring at nothing in particular, she caught sight of a small change on her computer screen. It was the change she had trained herself to look for ever since she started this stupid, self-indulgent blog, but which almost never came.
Under her latest entry, there was a link waiting to be opened: 1 comment.
Clutching the mouse with her sweaty hand, Wilma moved the arrow over the words and clicked. A new window opened to reveal this: “The end is the beginning is the end is the beginning is the end is the beginning. Hey, Wilma. Don’t go out before The End. We have the answer to the Apocalypse.”
There was an address out in the suburbs underneath, then that phrase “the end is the beginning is the end” repeated indefinitely for as far as she was willing to scroll down.
Wilma didn’t like the way her name appeared to be simply plugged in there, like some form letter. But this was what she had been asking for. The idea of dying alone in the bottom of the quarry popped in her head one more time, and then she pushed it away.
The streets were crazier now that the sun was beginning to set. There were no cops anywhere, and the store where she had seen kids looting video games was now on fire. A brigade of streaking college students — co-ed, mind you — ran along the side of the bus for a few blocks, slapping the door and screaming in voices that were either threatening or celebratory. Wilma couldn’t tell. An old man wearing what must have been his soldier’s uniform in World War II or Korea walked down the street in front of some overturned cars and shot a rifle into the air. Wilma watched as he got into a shouting match with some kids wearing black bandanas over their faces. She looked away, but what came into her view now was a vendor’s hot dog stand, flipped over so that the wieners were spilt on the ground. A pair of feet stuck out from behind the stand, and two guys wearing football jerseys reached inside to pick out some soft pretzels. They caught Wilma staring at them and shrugged their shoulders, as if to say, What are you gonna do about it? Then Wilma heard gunshots and screaming coming from the direction of the old man. She floored the gas pedal. Funny how protective she was just minutes after considering driving off a cliff.
Soon she left behind the fires and the makeshift roadblocks, one of which she had to plow through with the bus. The address was about a mile into delaware County, not too far from the quarry, on a street that ran along the stone wall of a cemetery. It took Wilma a few passes before she realized that the address was in the graveyard itself.
She pulled the bus into the gate. There was darkness at first, but soon more fires became visible, illuminating the trees and making the tombstones glow. There were people here and there: a couple holding hands, a man barbecuing in front of a mausoleum, a pair of kilted men playing bagpipes in front of a grave that read, “McCullough.” One of them waved to Wilma as she drove by.
She felt as if she had been here before, even though she knew that was impossible.
The road led to a main thoroughfare, lined on either side by torches and marked in a giant pink arrow, drawn in chalk, wider than her bus. People were everywhere now, wandering among fields of old tombstones, many with the names worn away. There were small ones for dead babies, tall obelisks for important men, statues of angels with broken noses, rows of generic stones for poor families that just said “Mother” or “Brother.” They were all chipped and cracked, and had turned green over the course of a hundred or more Pennsylvania winters. It was a godforsaken part of the cemetery, with dead trees leaning toward the brown grass.
Wilma cut the engine and watched as the people walked among the headstones with clipboards, recording the names. A construction truck with a giant digging arm scooped up dirt in front of the crooked tombstones. Soon after that, a group of five people carried a mud-caked casket over to a hole and gently lowered it in. The truck then pushed the soil over it, and the “pallbearers” placed flowers on the mound. Wilma could see the scene being repeated all around. There were flowers in every direction, their bright colors seeming to glow amidst the desiccated grass. People took the flowers from the back of a dump truck that was brimming with daisies and roses and other blossoms; the local florists had probably thrown them out after Mother’s day. The people rested the flowers, a few at a time, at each freshly filled grave. They were so delicate about it, and even seemed to be praying or whispering something to each of the dead people as they passed.
Wilma opened the door and heard music. As she stepped out of the bus, she saw that a makeshift band was playing something she had heard before — it took her a moment to realize it was the end of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” Following the applause, the band began playing some rap song — “Baby Got Back” — before breaking down in laughter and trying something more manageable by the Beatles. There was laughter everywhere, in fact. The tall shadows cast against the faded tombstones were not threatening, but instead danced in the orange light, calling to her.
And then her eyes caught sight of what at first looked like a pile of concrete slabs. But they were coffins, she realized, the same ones that had been dislodged dur- ing Hurricane Wilma. Just like the photo from the newspaper a few months before, the caskets had gathered at the tree line beyond the tombstones. The evergreens had stopped them from sliding completely away. People were carrying the coffins back to the graveyard for reburial.
A man stepped toward her, a short Asian guy of indeterminable age, wearing a black tee shirt and jeans with holes at the knees. His bare feet were stained green by the grass and a cigarette wiggled in his lips. He smiled as he approached, and his glasses reflected the torches and small fires nearby.
Wilma wasn’t surprised when he said her name.
Latest Blog Entry: May 19, 10:42 p.m.
The end is the beginning is the end is the beginning is the end. I still haven’t figured out what that means, but I guess it sounds cool.
Liu, the stranger (yet not a stranger — more about that later) who invited me here, put me right to work. He’s been at the cemetery for years, and was given an insurmountable task that, he now realizes, he was never expected to finish: creating a map of the old section of the graveyard, complete with a catalog of names of the dead, some of which cannot be found except by matching up the burial plots with ancient records. Then the hurricane destroyed everything, making his job even more complex.
When The End was announced, Liu started recruiting people from the Internet to help. And people came. Liu knew just who to look for: those who had no one to see tonight, those who felt they had a debt to pay to people who no longer wanted them around, those who could not answer the tee shirt’s question, “Where will you be?” The bodies at the cemetery comprised the only family Liu had known for a long time, so there was no question about his plans for the last day.
These dead folks that we are helping are just grateful, he tells us. They’re grateful with no baggage attached. No Gary/Susan bullshit here. This is the only purely good act we could hope for. Sure, a few people turned right around when they found out why Liu had brought them here. For good reason, I guess. But there are some good reasons to stay as well, which is what I did.
I guess, in all this time, I’ve been lamenting the fact that no one cared about me, and had forgotten how good it felt to care for others, even if they’re strangers . . . and dead. Oh, god, that sounds like a Hallmark card — except for the dead strangers part — but I can’t bring myself to delete it, so just pretend you didn’t see it if you’re too cool for crap like that.
No matter. Now, with our work done, this graveyard is a garden, and the dead are at rest again, and so are we. The menacing trees are feeding the bonfires, and flowers are covering the dry grass. We sit among the flames, recline against the stems and petals, watch the smoke rise against a backdrop of stars. I get the feeling that most of us haven’t seen anything so beautiful in a long time, or if we had, we didn’t know it, or didn’t care.
Somehow, I’m still getting a signal out here, and I’m hoping that my computer’s battery lasts until The End. Liu says it will. I’ve already figured out that he’s the pervert who’s been posting comments on my blog over the last few months, and he tells me that, yes, it was him. Oh, well — his fascination with “the pissed off actress-turned bus driver” is what brought me here, so I can’t complain. He also says that I shouldn’t have shaved my head, because the photo in my blog profile is much nicer. I tell him I’ll have to let it grow back then. Oh, wait, we might not have time for that. He laughs at this.
I can’t say that it’s all perfect. Gary and Susan crept into my head a few times while I was cataloging names and placing flowers, and there was even a little sadness when we were finished, and we knew that there was so little time left. There has never been enough time. But I feel good at the moment, so good that I only have two things left to ask for: first, that those people who are stuck at home can read this and, at least for a moment, not feel alone anymore. And second, that we all keep this feeling for at least the next hour. That way, as the fires die down and the flowers grow cool to the touch, we’ll still be wishing at the last moment that there will be a tomorrow.
Robert Repino earned his MFA in creative writing from Emerson College after serving in the Peace Corps. His fiction has appeared in Night Train, Hobart, Juked, Word Riot, The Furnace Review, The Coachella Review, Ghoti, JMWW and the anthology Brevity and Echo.
“We Have the Answer to the Apocalypse” first appeared in Therapy! (TLR, Fall 2009)