ON THE LAST AFTERNOON • by Alex Shvartsman

“So what do we do now?” she asked after they had been sitting silently in front of the TV for a long time, trying to process what they had just heard. On the screen, the president’s speech kept running in a loop.

The President kept it brief. He explained about the huge solar flare that was building up within the sun even as he spoke. How the sun was going to microwave the Earth. How there was no bunker or cave deep enough for anybody to hide. How all life on the planet was estimated to end at 5:47 P.M, Eastern Standard Time. He urged the citizens to accept their fate with dignity, and come to peace with whatever higher power they believed in.

Neither of them said anything as they watched the recording play over and over again. At some point her hand found his and held on tight. Finally she broke the silence and asked her question.

What do you do with your last few hours on Earth? Which friends and family do you reach out to — waste precious minutes to connect with them one last time? Paul had no good answer. Finally he told her what he wanted to do, and it triggered the fight.

She accused him of being selfish. How dare he squander the time they had left like this? He shouted back. Old arguments and past sins rehashed, the fight escalated. In the middle of the argument Paul realized that he was very certain of what his next action would be, and no amount of further bickering was going to change it. He slammed the door shut behind him. As he waited for the elevator, he could still hear her screaming.

Paul got into his car and drove toward the bridge. There were surprisingly few vehicles on the road, and fewer pedestrians. Most people seemed to have chosen to spend their last few hours at home. A handful of stores were open — some employees or proprietors found enough comfort in their routine to come to work. They had hardly any patrons. As Paul drove down Brooklyn streets he saw only two kinds of establishments packed and spilling crowds onto the sidewalks — churches and bars.

Near the Verrazano Bridge the traffic increased significantly. Paul got within just a few blocks of the onramp before the traffic came to a dead stop. He pulled up to the curb, managing a small pang of pleasure at so blatantly disregarding the parking regulations. He got out and walked.

Paul thought back to last year, when the two of them attempted to run in the NYC Marathon. The run started at the Staten Island end of the bridge. Like so many other amateurs they made it across into Brooklyn, but not very much further than that. He vaguely remembered that the bridge was nearly three miles long.

He did not run this time, but walked briskly past the now abandoned cars blocking off all lanes. It took almost an hour to get across, then a bit longer to reach an edge of the city-bound jam. He looked around and settled on the black Honda with a tall red-headed man in his forties chewing his lip and squeezing the steering wheel impatiently, as though he believed the cars in front of him would begin moving again any moment now. Paul tapped lightly on the driver side.

“There is no way to drive across,” Paul said. “You will have to walk.”

“My family is in Queens,” replied the man. “I can’t walk all the way there.” The redhead was squeezing the steering wheel so hard that his knuckles turned white.

“We can trade cars,” Paul said offering up his keys. “My silver Ford XLT is parked just off the corner of 4th Avenue and Shore Road. You have to really hurry if you hope to make it all the way to Queens.”

The redhead looked at him for a few moments, got out of the car and accepted the keys. He nodded thanks and without another word sprinted toward the bridge. Paul turned the Honda around and drove in the opposite direction. Twenty minutes later he pulled up to the gates of the Silver Mount Cemetery.

Paul stood in front of a pair of humble markers. His parents weren’t much for fanfare, in life or in death. He imagined the cemetery would be as packed as the churches he passed on the way, but there were only a handful of solitary figures about. He saw mostly older people, probably mourning their significant others who already passed on. He stood there for a long time, but in his thoughts he kept returning to Brooklyn, and to his girlfriend. He never did find out what she wanted to do with this afternoon.

He and his parents were very close, but they were long gone now. He should have been there for the one person alive who loved him. Paul looked at his watch and saw that there were just a few minutes left. He thought back to the Honda owner running across the bridge. He desperately wanted to believe that the man had made it, even though he knew that wasn’t possible given the time left.

Paul tried calling his girlfriend, but all circuits were busy. Just like New Years, he thought. The trick then was to text. Usually texts could make it through the clogged networks. He typed and sent out a brief message.

“I love you. Please forgive me.”

Just about a minute left. Perhaps enough time for her to respond. Phone in hand, he sat down on the grass by the grave markers and waited.


Alex Shvartsman is a writer and game designer. His adventures so far have included traveling to over 30 countries, playing a card game for a living, and building a successful business. Alex resides in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and son. His published fiction is linked at https://sites.google.com/site/alexshvartsmanbibliography/.


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Every Day Fiction

  • Victoria Silverwolf

    I enjoyed this very well-written, very calm look at the end of the world. It’s interesting to compare this with Ray Bradbury’s story “The Last Night of the World.”

  • A solid story. Made me wonder what I’d do.

  • Sheila Cornelius

    This would be better for me if I’d known at the start how long he had to go and there had been a count-down. Spending the last few hours in a traffic jam didn’t seem very productive.

    I also wondered about ‘microwaved’ -how would that happen so precisely?

    Hard to feel sorry, too, for a man who had abandoned his girl-friend so readily to visit people already dead.

    Sheila

  • DeborahB

    Nice complete circle. I really liked it. 5 stars

  • Very well-written, and thought provoking. I just had a hard time imagining leaving someone you loved to meet their end alone whilst you went off to visit a man-made memorial to people long gone. And who you might be reunited with fairly soon anyway! 🙁

    Enjoyed the read though.

  • This is a though provoking piece, thou I agree with Sheila that it would have been more compelling to know where he was going to get a sense of time slipping away. Made me think about what I’d do if I only had a few hours left to live.

    I’m a little stuck on this line about the marathon: “Like so many other amateurs they made it across into Brooklyn, but not very much further than that.” Last year 45,350 runners started the marathon and only 200 of those didn’t cross the finish line, one of them being the marathon world record holder. Of the starters, maybe 100 of them were professional runners. So it would seem that most amateurs did make it further than Brooklyn last year.

  • Nice thought provoking speculative piece, I agree with Sandra and Jeff above. Well done.

    Microwave activity is usually a precursor to major sun flare but, my understanding not the dangerous part. Quote from from Nasa:

    “On Jan. 20, 2005, though, there were no humans walking around on the moon. And it’s a good thing.

    On that day, a giant sunspot named “NOAA 720” exploded. The blast sparked an X-class solar flare, the most powerful kind, and hurled a billion-ton cloud of electrified gas (a coronal mass ejection, or CME) into space. Solar protons accelerated to nearly light speed by the explosion reached the Earth-moon system minutes after the flare; it was the beginning of a days-long “proton storm.” ”

    Proton storms cause all kinds of problems. They interfere with ham radio communications. They zap satellites, causing short circuits and computer reboots. Worst of all, they can penetrate the skin of space suits and make astronauts feel sick.

  • Great story, Alex. I wouldn’t change a word, personally. It worked wonderfully for me just as it is.

  • Thanks so much for the comments, everyone!

    @Jeff: Great catch on the marathon statistics. One of my beta readers is an avid runner (who just qualified for Boston) and he missed that part. I suppose the MC could have been one of the 200 🙂

  • I liked the less-nihilistic, more thoughtful route this went. Nice work.

  • I didn’t believe the marathon detail either, and I wasn’t too convinced that someone would leave a lover to go sit in a cemetery. That apart, the impact of the story was one of those head-debates about how people might behave in the face of absolute certain eradication. How many would go for total wish-fulfillment, and how many for the more moral ‘ought to’ option? Then there are the permanently entitled who would be trashing the place because they paid their damn taxes, didn’t they?! Nice work, Nick; thank you.

  • J Howard

    I liked the writing style in this piece–crisp, straightforward, unfettered, and somehow appropriate for an end-of-the-world tale. This type of story always gets me (and many others, apparently) thinking about what I’d do if I knew when I was going to die. In that regard, the struggle that this couple endured sounded pretty realistic to me. That the MC took a hike, leaving his girlfriend behind, and then regretted it later seemed quite plausible, given their circumstances.

    I’ll admit that at first I was a little let down by the ending. After that buildup, I guess I was hoping for something more dramatic in our protagonist’s actions…you know, like standing on the railing of the bridge, mooning all the stranded motorists, and then falling to his death in The Narrows below. (There’s a story in there somewhere, I’m sure!) But then I realized his impulsive decision to visit his parents’ graves was probably more reflective of what someone in his position might do. Illogical, perhaps, but still very human.

    And that’s what made this story so enjoyable. It reeks of what John Updike once termed “the mystery of the commonplace”; kudos for giving us a well-scripted and thought-provoking trip to Armageddon, Alex.

    Nicely done! Thanks for sharing.

  • ajcap

    Very enjoyable read. I wouldn’t change a word of it. Five stars.

  • Wow, I’d really say that I feel this is one of the best stories I have read on this site. Great job. I know that some people questioned his choice to leave his girlfriend to go to his parent’s graves, but it seemed very ‘real’ to me.

  • Armageddon stories always gives one pause. What would I do? Right? This one did the same for me, and I believe the one thing you wouldn’t do is what the MC did: leave the “one person alive who loved him.”

    That aside, I loved the way the story was told, I couldn’t imagine it being done much better. Four, shooting toward five, stars….

  • Daniel

    He went to the graves of his parents because his relationship with his girlfriend was comparatively meaningless and shallow. His relationship with the folks was meaningful and powerful, and he wanted to spend the last minute with their memory, rather than with the noise of the pleasant contrivance he’d been living. (After all, they couldn’t finish a marathon together – why would they finish something far more important?)

    Despite “playing house” they were never a family.

    Where your treasure is, there your heart will be. He put his “money” where his heart was.

  • Joy

    Well done!!! Very thought provoking.

  • Kit

    I liked the writing in this story – it felt very suspenseful and I was completely involved waiting to see where Paul was heading. But I just didn’t really understand his motivation for visiting his parents’ graves, especially since he seemed to have a change of heart at the end. I guess his meeting with the red-haired stranger made him re-think his choice.

  • A heart-wrenching piece, Alex. I really enjoyed the little details like his thrill at disobeying parking laws, and his regret when he realized where he really should be.

    The bit about full churches and bars is good, and I think pretty darn accurate!

    Enjoyed it!

  • Five stars. Loved this.

  • ajcap

    How many think, like I do, that the reason for their argument was because he wanted to spend their last hours together having sex?

    and how many agree with the girlfriend, that it would be time squandered?

    Venus and Mars.

  • Yury V

    This is one of the most touching stories I’ve read, seems very realistic. Alex, you’ve got mad skillz!

  • Paul Friesen

    @ ajap a.) yes b.) no

  • Alya S

    Very touching story. Defiitely pulled on some heart strings. Nicely done, Alex 🙂

  • Karen Anderson

    Awesome story Alex! I wouldn’t change anything. I like the way it ended and will definitely share it with my son! Karen

  • Thoughtful story – I was very caught up in what would occur – what was he going to do. Nice prose & satisfactory ending.

  • A very haunting, poignant piece; nice work, Alex.

  • Sarah

    #21: I agree.

    As for those who don’t understand his going to the graveyard, he had nowhere else TO go!