He filled his seat at the table as though poured into it. Sprawled out in front of him was a book of crosswords.
At 8:45 every morning he sat at his place and pondered over a crossword while the coffee she had poured him went cold.
He had done a crossword every day, in that exact spot, for as long as she could remember. Good days and bad days; busy riotous mornings as the rest of them had rushed around him preparing rucksacks and packing lunches and stifling tantrums; quiet contemplative days wracked with worry and soaked in tears. And before she left mum had said that after the dust has all settled, once millions of years have passed and the earth is no longer poison, and the world is made anew, explorers will chance upon the ruins of this house and see their father still sat there, and he will say to them, without looking up: ‘four letters, light blue?’.
It had at various stages seemed rude, inconvenient, stubborn, comforting, enraging, and on and on, but today it just felt absurd.
He gesticulated meekly with a grubby black biro, furrowed his creased brow and pursed his lips, as if willing the answer to 14-across from his mouth through sheer force of will. Shelly watched him, a reluctant smile threatening to break out across her face.
‘Ten letters,’ he said in his own voice, and then, in the voice he used to read out the crossword clues which he seemed to think was the voice of some puzzle-master that had long ago compiled this great big book of crosswords, he said, ‘children’s book series, involuntary reaction to the cold’.
On the television, a newsreader whose tone was polished and full-bodied reiterated the severity of the situation. Missiles about to be launched from somewhere, casualties somewhere else expected to be in the millions, retaliatory strikes expected. It had been the same for weeks, the only difference today was that somewhere else was now here. It had been inevitable, she thought, not just since the first warhead had been fired, but since the first stick had been sharpened, since the dawning of malice, the alpha of violence.
When her mother left, she’d taken little Herb and she’d begged Shelly to come too, but she couldn’t. The thought of leaving him here to face the sky falling in on his own had been to much for her. She couldn’t shake the thought that dying alone somehow meant you’d never been alive. In her mind she held an image of his changing, from flesh and bone and sinew to dust, and it weighed so heavily on her that it had fixed her in place, her feet unable to follow her mother as she’d dragged little Herb, crying, crying, crying, out the door.
The newsreader wore a white rose on his lapel and he said the first strike was expected within the next five minutes. He said that ground-to-air anti-missile technology would be deployed, but the chance of successfully preventing all of the strikes was “negligible”.
If he was listening to the news, if we was aware at all of what was coming, he did not show it. Shelly thought it was his quiet form of protest, a refusal to be cowed by an end so all-consuming that no offering of fear could assuage or avert it, so why bother.
The newsreader’s voice changed slightly as he announced that there was no more script on his teleprompter. Shelly stared hard at the newsreader, into his eyes, wondered how many other people were sharing in this final moment. Would they all somehow be connected, all their consciousnesses somehow pulled at the moment of yawning infinity into the depths of the newsreader’s pupils which flickered, carrying within them the depths of the universe and all matter, or perhaps just reflecting the glare of the studio lighting?
The kitchen was bitter and draughty; she had not bothered to get a fire going this morning. He had hardly noticed. Damp lingered in the air. She felt herself shivering, aching with hunger, decided it wasn’t all so bad, really.
A minute crept by, then another. The newsreader was staring blankly back, seemingly whispering a silent prayer. Then she heard the low rumbling.
She looked down at her arm, saw the hairs sticking up on end, almost laughed.
“Goosebumps,” she said, to herself as much as to him, but he nodded appreciatively all the same and went to scribble down his answer.
“G-o-o-s-e-b-u-m-p-s,” he mumbled to himself methodically, then looked up at her and smiled, as he scratched out each letter carefully within its respective box, the word stretching out to the end of time.
Ethan J. Shone is a journalist and writer from Leeds, who currently lives in Edinburgh.