A DANCE TO END OUR FINAL DAY • by Beth Cato

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.


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Every Day Fiction

  • fishlovesca

    Within the last month or two, EDF published another “Armageddon” story from the POV of a young man who chose to spend his last moments at his parents’ gravesite. Here we have a young mother whose focus is on the routine of her day, with an interesting variation in the special needs child, who can not be made aware of their impending doom, and whose short life has always consisted of living in the moment. Both stories naturally provoke one into thinking about how one would spend their last hours in such circumstances. While in itself the story is not objectionable, I don’t think I would have chosen to publish this story today.

    No star rating, all due respect to the author.

  • Kip

    I enjoyed the story. Every day is someone’s Armageddon, and Beth gave us a new twist on an old theme, so I give this fellow Arizonan four stars.

  • Sarah

    #1: “special needs” ?!!!!??

    Here was the culmination of the greatest potential possible in humanity (a child with a photographic memory who is also possessed by the unfailable sense of doing “what’s right”.. he is a superhero in the making), but we know that he has no chance to help humanity.. except his mother. In this craziest of all days he gives her the grounding that she needs.

  • I thought this was excellent. The child’s voice, especially, is great and really pulled me in.

  • Love this. The characterization of both parent and child was well-done and I enjoyed the nicely balanced emotion here – it’s effective without tipping over into sentimentality.

  • JenM

    A different kind of Mother’s day story, but I liked it a lot. Meg seems like a great mother, letting Will do whatever he wants on his last day even though he can’t fully understand that he should just play and have fun.

  • Brenda Blakey

    That’s a five-forever-ever. Thanks EDF and Mrs. Cato.

    ~Brenda

  • Two plot things: 1 – The MC must have been a fatalist at heart, otherwise she would have taken her child and headed for the hills like the rest of the people in her city. I think most moms would do everything they could to save their child…no matter the slim odds. 2 – Taking the child to the playground was poetic, but again, I’d wonder about the lowest members of society running amok in the streets looking for their last thrills. Seems like a dangerous position to put the child in. At least she should could have “strapped up”.

    Set those aside, and I think the story is beautiful. Served with just the right amount of sentiment without syrup.

    Well done. Four stars….

    P.S. Happy Mother’s Day to all out there. You are the best of the best and we (your guys and your children) know it.

  • Five stars! Exactly right for Mother’s Day, well beyond Hallmark Greetings, this story goes right to the core of being a mother, ambivalence and love and longing all neatly linked. This story brought tears to my eyes by the end at the sharp contrast between mother and child, both knowing and innocent in their own ways.

  • 5 stars from me. This is a wonderful story about a brave mother who doesn’t give into fear. She accepts the inevitable and decides to give her so a beautiful almost normal-extraordinary day. Both mother and son grant each other the kind of simple glory in life we should all take in each day of our lives.

  • Excellent story.

  • Love the voice here, Beth. And that first line is one of the best I’ve read in a long time.

  • kathy k

    Wonderful insight and expression of feelings. I gave it a five.

  • “The world ends today” is like a jazz riff. Every SF writer has a right to try their hand at it, to see where they can take it. Offhand, I can recall such stories by Harlan Ellison and Allen Steele. Ms. Cato’s own take was nice.

    I was a little leery about the idea of a special needs child (apparently autistic?) being used, because it’s not something that should be casually exploited. But I feel Ms. Cato did NOT exploit it; I think she portrayed it sensitively, and with humanity.

    I do agree with Seattle Jim that there would be some dangerous characters running around. The story could have made do with just a few lines like “She heard gunfire in the distance at sporadic intervals” or “The school was at the edge of the city, far away from the orgies of sex and violence that were known to be taking place downtown today” — something like that.

    All in all, nice riff on the classic theme.

  • End-of-the-world stories fascinate me, because I think most of us have thought about how we might spend out last days or hours, I also think we might be surprised at how we would feel and what we would do if truly faced with the end. This one hits all the right notes for me, a mom, because I know my child is the one I would want to be with. The fact that she knows but he doesn’t, and can’t, adds extra poignancy. Nice job.

  • I liked it.

  • Steve Ramey

    I was leery of this at first, but it grew around me and held me tight and made me want to hug that child and that Mom who kept her priorities right. Very nice work here.

  • I liked this a lot. And I agree with Madeline (#12) – that is a fantastic first line.

    Five stars to Beth, Happy Mother’s Day to the mothers out there, and Happy Sunday to everyone else. 🙂

  • Gretchen Bassier

    Very touching story. Sweet in its simplicity, and not overdone at all. Good use of “show” instead of “tell.” Great job.

  • Reid Carter

    Another commenter mentioned the last Armageddon story, but I have to say that, while I enjoyed the last piece, tying these two together just because of the pre-apocalyptic plot is missing a bit of the point. Both stories are touching, but this one skillfully and quickly creates Will’s character as both tragic and joyful.
    I was not as struck by the “how would I spend my last hours” theme as I was by the emotional contact that was built between myself and both of the characters. The approaching apocalypse only added to that feeling. Amazing job, Mrs. Cato, and thank you for sharing.

  • I found this a fascinating and compelling story. While the backstory of ‘impending end of the world’ is certainly heavy and depressing, I still think this captured the true spirit of Mother’s Day:

    We have a mother who, in spite of all odds and adversity, is doing her best to make a normal life for her child (even when she knows that life might only last a few more hours). She is putting her son first in all that she is doing, and is there, for him, at every step.

    What more powerful message of the demands, burden, devotion, and overwhelming love of motherhood would anyone want?

    I might share some of the quibbles about the story mentioned about the story (sure is awful quiet for a city facing impending doom, don’cha think?), but the ultimate message of the story rings clear and powerful in my ears, just the same.

    Well done.

  • Sarah

    I’d like to hear from the author as to whether this was actually a special needs child. I read it as the boy is an exceptionally gifted child, and that he’s simply young (I’m thinking 6.. first grade), and that is the reason for his lack of proper pronouns.

  • Sarah

    Oh, and as for being afraid of what.. getting shot? .. what would it matter anyway, they’ll be gone one way or the other. To spend one’s last day holed up in fear seems silly.

  • Hi, I’m the author! Sarah, a special needs child can be gifted, too. This story is based on a “what if” scenario involving my own son, who is autistic. He has noticeable speech and social delays, and an uncanny knack for memorization. It makes for an interesting challenge to balance everything (i.e. he can do multiplication in kindergarten, but can’t use the bathroom there by himself).

  • My only note is that the bells would have sounded, as normal. All schools have them on automatic timers, and nobody would have gone there to shut them off, so the conversation about them NOT ringing took me out of the story a bit.

    Otherwise, a beautiful, poignant story.

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  • Sarah

    Thank you Beth, for the clarification. I do know that autism is a spectrum and that many do have special “gifts”. I admit the only child with autism I’ve really known was a little boy who was completely non-social/non-vocal. I guess this is why I didn’t recognise the child in the story as being autistic.

    Even so, my first comment still applies. The boy is/could be a super hero!

  • Sugaboo

    Beautiful story! By the way it was written, I could tell that the author is someone who loves a person with Autism and understands the idiosyncrasies that make up our little puzzle pieces!!!

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  • I loved this story and its characters, and I think the voices will stay with me for a long time. There are so many excellent details I could mention, but the bit about the towels really struck me; it isn’t just autistic children who cling to routine for a sense of self and safety, is it?