The world would end at 6:09 p.m., but Meg’s final batch of chocolate chip cookies would be done in three minutes. She had kept the dough in the fridge all night, chilling it to perfection, and began to bake before the sun even rose. It’s not as though sleep had a point.
Will couldn’t grasp the concept of cookies for breakfast. “First we eat our meal and then we have treats,” he said, his thin brows drawn down in concern.
“That’s how it usually is, but — ”
“First we eat our meal and then we have treats, or we get in trouble,” Will said. He ate most of a bowl of cereal before reaching for a cookie. His remaining marshmallow bits and milk congealed in a rainbow puddle.
When he was done, a brown smear of chocolate traced his lips. “And now we go to school.”
Meg glanced at the clock. “Yes, we usually would, but there’s no school today. We get to play at home instead.” The oven buzzed.
Will bounded from his chair, his socked feet padding on the laminate. He stood in front of the wall calendar and pointed at the date. “Not a weekend. Not holiday.” He pressed a hand against his forehead. “Not sick. School day.”
Meg set the cookies on the stove top and took care to turn off the oven. She followed him to the door, her steps dragging. Arguing with him would only lead to a tantrum, and that could last for well over an hour. That’s not how they needed to waste their final day.
“Okay,” she said. “We’ll go to the playground at school.” Will shoved his feet into his shoes without undoing the Velcro.
The crisp fall morning chilled her nose. Will’s feet crunched across the fallen leaves as his arms outstretched like wings. His backpack seemed bigger than his body, as if it would swallow him whole. With dread in her gut, Meg glanced up. The sky appeared normal. Deep blue, with feathery cirrus clouds drifting high. The news had said they wouldn’t see anything here. The impact would be in the Indian Ocean, not far off Sri Lanka.
Eerie quiet filled the street. Cars cluttered driveways. Will noticed none of that, all his focus on following the line along the right edge of the sidewalk. At the intersection, he came to a stop.
“We look right and then we look left and then we look behind,” he said. The fast grind of tires on the street made Meg dive forward and press a hand against Will’s shoulder. A van rolled by without bothering to stop. “And now we have no cars!”
They crossed, Meg glaring at the van’s red taillights.
The school’s chain link gate dangled open. Not a single car in the parking lot. A frown distorted Will’s face. “We have no friends today.”
“No. It’s all yours, little guy. Go play.”
He tossed his backpack at his class’s line up pole, and then ran for the slide. The empty swings squawked like crows as they swayed back and forth. Will squealed as he went down the slide and sent up a spray of sand at the bottom. “Still no friends! We are first in line!” he shouted, running to the ladder again.
Meg crossed her arms, warming her fingers in her armpits. How could he possibly comprehend the end of the world? This was the boy who had memorized the first fifty pages of the dictionary and could regurgitate the contents verbatim, but couldn’t use a proper pronoun. He laughed again, sliding down with a whoop. White sand speckled his pants to the knees.
His pants reminded her of the laundry load she’d put in the dryer just an hour before, of how she needed to fold it once they got home. By all accounts, tomorrow humanity would be extinct, and yet she felt the overwhelming need to get the towels put away.
“We climbed to the top!” Will said, his arms straight up as he slid. He hit the sand and leaped up, pirouetting in space, and landed in a crouch. His little hips swayed side to side as he danced to his mother.
“No bell,” he said, looking around. A chocolate mustache still framed his upper lip. “No friends.” He glanced up at Meg. “Mommy sad? Sad we have no bell?”
She wiped the tears from her cheeks. “Yes, Mommy is sad that there’s no bell.”
Will bounced in place. “We keep playing? Do swings?”
“We can stay as long as you want, Will.”
His eyes bugged out. “Forever-ever?”
Meg laughed so hard her stomach ached. He had quoted a line from one of his favorite TV shows. “Yes, forever-ever.”
He ran for the swings and threw himself onto the black seat belly-first. His fingers combed furrows in the glittering sand. “Forever-ever, forever-ever,” he sang in a high-pitched voice, giggling at some private joke.
Meg sat at the base of the slide, elbows against her thighs, her chin resting in her hands. Ten hours until they would die, and here was her piece of heaven.
Beth Cato resides in Arizona with her husband and son. She’s an associate member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, with work appearing in The Pedestal Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and the MOUNTAIN MAGIC anthology from Woodland Press. Her stories can be found in several volumes of Chicken Soup for the Soul. For information on her latest projects, please visit http://www.bethcato.com.