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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