There was only one hour till the end of the world. She had her black and blue, flowered suitcase on the bed, half filled with clothes falling out of it. A red top that dipped low and was silky to the touch draped over the side along with her favorite pair of black shorts. Jen didn’t know why she had tried to pack; in the end, she wouldn’t need clothes. It was hard figuring out what to do with only an hour left. Sweat beaded on her forehead and trickled down the side of her face. She wiped it away. This was the last time she would get to be in her room. The walls were white, cleared of any posters or pictures. She didn’t want them up after she was gone. Her bed was a wreck, black comforter thrown aside, favorite pillow propped against her suitcase and her stuffed bear waiting for her in the tangled white sheets.
The rest of the room was clean. She had picked up. She needed something to do after all, to keep her hands and her mind busy. She didn’t want to think. The shelves on the walls were cleared. She put all her trinkets in big brown boxes. The bookshelves were empty as well. She loved to read. So of course her books were tucked safe into boxes, neatly stacked against the wall. It looked like she was moving. Jen bit her lip and went to the window where her purple curtains had been drawn to the side.
The window was open and letting in hot air. Her shirt was stuck to her back, damp with sweat. It was hot out. Outside, people rushed about. Cars sped dangerously and people took their things and ran from their homes. A red pick-up truck flew up the street, not bothering to stop at the stop sign at the corner. It crossed the intersection, almost ramming into a black sedan that had come from the side. Its horn blared as it came to a shrieking halt, missing the red truck by a few inches. The truck didn’t stop, it kept hauling away, its bed filled with furniture.
People in the apartments across the street were shouting, tossing down bags from the second story so they could pile them in the car. A mother shooed her child into the car.
“Come on, mijo,” she said, voice carrying from across the way.
Whole families were moving out. It didn’t make sense to her. No matter where they went, they wouldn’t escape. She saw more people rush down the street, this time walking, a man and a little girl. The man was tall, dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, holding the little girl’s hand. They walked quickly, her little ponytails bobbing. She looked up at him. Jen could tell she didn’t quite know what was happening and why her father seemed so worried. She continued to watch till the girl’s little light up shoes disappeared from view. She thought of her dad. Then she shook her head. She didn’t want to think of her dad. He hadn’t called to say goodbye. He was probably with his other family, cradling another daughter, holding a different wife and waiting for the end without her.
She could have been with her family. That’s where her mother had gone. She packed a bag, grabbed a can of coke, her pipe, a small baggie of weed, and said her goodbyes. Her mother left only a bottle of whiskey behind. She tried convincing her to ride over to their cousin’s house where their family would gather.
“I’m not dying with them,” she said to no one.
They didn’t like her. She had went to college, never messed around with guys or got pregnant, she got her own place and made her mother proud. She had never been to jail or arrested. And they hated her for it. She wouldn’t join them. Not then and definitely not now. Only her mom had believed in her. She was sad to see her go, but she wanted to remain in the comfort of her home. Her last kiss goodbye made her mother cry. But she didn’t. What was the point in crying now? Jen moved from the window and crossed the room. The bedroom door was open. On the floor, lounging in the hallway, was her cat, Imhotep. His green eyes were starling in his black face. He didn’t seem to care about what was happening. Or perhaps he did and decided he had a few lives to spare.
The lazy cat made Jen smile. She walked out into the hall and kneeled, running a hand down his silky, black fur. He was all she had left. She stood and looked at the door to her right. Inside was the bathroom. One finger flicked on the light as she entered and went to the sink. She looked like her father. Or so she was told. Dark skin, sharp chin and high cheek bones. Her lips pulled into a frown at the thought. Her slender fingers went to the faucet and turned the knob. Cool water ran. She cupped her hands and put them under the running water, gathering a handful before splashing her face.
Long lashes blinked water from her eyes. She wiped her mouth and flicked the light off before exiting. The front room beckoned her. The kitchenette was off to the side, pans hanging from a rack. The living room was next to it, blinds closed so the sun filtered in, dying the room gold. Her white, leather couch sat in the middle of the room, facing the t.v. Jen went to the couch and sat. The cushions were hot. She hated hot leather, but the sofa was a gift, or rather second hand waste her cousin didn’t want and her mom insisted on her taking. She looked around in the silence and licked her lips. There was less than an hour left. She grabbed the remote and turned the television on.
Every station was the news. She turned to channel eight.
“120 and still rising, people,” said the anchor.
The woman on TV was wearing her best suit, navy blue. Her blonde hair was short and neat looking. Jen guessed she wanted to look her best before the end. Jen didn’t care. She threw on a tank top and shorts and didn’t bother with the dark curls on her head. The news anchor beside the woman was a taller man with brown hair, cropped short against his head.
“We’re breaking world records all over the place, Kate. On the coast 120, inland 140,” he said.
“It’ll only get hotter, George,” Kate said. “If you’ve just tuned in, station eight has decided to keep you posted, up until the very last minute. We thank the few brave souls here willing to stay.”
Jen let out a warm breath. She wiped her forehead, wet with sweat. Her head ached dully from the heat.
“Working with us is astronomer Dr. Cynthia Raju in Mauna Kea observatory,” Kate said. “Dr. Raju, can you explain what is happening for our viewers again?”
The screen split in half after a second, and an Indian woman appeared. She sat calmly even though behind her, people rushed about, answering phones and typing away at computers.
“Good afternoon, Kate, George.” The woman’s dark eyes had even darker circles under them. “We’ve been working all day to discover what the end result will be after the solar flare hits.”
“I understand your station had predicted this a few months ago?” asked George.
The astronomer hesitated, then pursed her lips, “Yes, but we hadn’t imagined anything of this scale.”
“Dr. Raju, can you explain, in laymen’s terms, what this flare is and what threat it’s posing?” came Kate’s voice.
“A solar flare is a massive release of energy, mostly radiation, from our sun. Usually these don’t affect us much. They can affect the solar space around the sun and sometimes knock out Satellites if accompanied by a coronal mass ejection. Right now, the sun is heating up and preparing to release a kind of super flare.”
“This is no ordinary flare of course,” George the anchor said.
“Right. It is twenty times greater at a third of the sun’s power…” She went quiet, then sighed. “When the flare hits, it’ll be strong enough to burn our atmosphere and us with it. This is why, as we’ve stated before, shelters won’t help.”
“And going underground?” asked Kate.
“There will still be the threat of radiation and no atmosphere.”
“Yet there are those trying. We’ve got word the president—“
A knock on her door startled her. Jen looked up at her closed door. The knock came again, steady and calm. Her neighbors in the apartment had all gone to be with their families, so she couldn’t imagine it would be one of them. She grabbed the remote and the t.v. blinked out. She stood, thighs wet against the leather and went to the door, opening it.
The man standing there was a bit over six feet, dark skinned and balding. The thickest hair on his head was the scruff of his beard, greying with age. His eyes were old, but knowing. Jen stood there for a second before opening the screen door, pursing her lips.
The man looked tired.
“Jen,” he said.
After a second she stepped aside, holding the door open for him. His bald head was shiny with sweat. He wore the same white Jazz Fest shirt he wore when he fixed things. Jen watched him walk to the couch.
“Got a drink?” he asked.
Jen bit her lower lip, not quite sure how to feel. She just looked at him, the man she hadn’t seen for years, the man who raised her as a child. She couldn’t turn him away. Not yet.
With a nod, she went to grab the last bottle of whiskey from the cabinet that sat against the far wall. She picked two of the shiniest glasses and brought them with her to the couch. Her father didn’t say a word, he only watched her as she set the cups down, opened the bottle and filled the cups. Jen set the bottle down and handed a cup to her father before lifting her own.
“Cheers,” he said.
“Cheers,” she repeated.
They both drank. The dark whiskey felt like fire flooding down her throat and made her cough. She sat her glass down, nose crinkled. Her father looked at her and chuckled.
“I may just be the luckiest man on Earth. One last drink with my baby girl.”
Jen felt her lips tug into a frown. She didn’t know if he noticed or not.
“Let’s go another round,” he said.
Jen poured them both another cup, she know she needed it. They drank and she winced. The room felt hotter.
“You didn’t call…,” she finally said.
He didn’t look at her, just at the empty glass. She remembered he loved to have a pack of beer whenever a baseball game came on. Back then, she tried hard to like baseball.
“I wanted to surprise you,” he said.
Jen looked at the clock. “With barely an hour to go?”
Her father licked his lips and finally looked at her. Sweat ran down the side of his bald head. His eyes reflected her own, only darker. After a moment he gave a weak smile.
“I realized I only had one chance left. One last moment to see my only child’s face.”
Jen rolled her eyes. “After all these years, rarely visiting, awkward phone calls…are you sure this is where you want to be? Don’t you have other people to love?”
He looked at her. She could see the weight in his eyes, the sorrow. Her heart fell. Why did she have to feel guilty? It wasn’t her that left. Anger rose in her chest, hot enough to make her forget the growing heat.
“Why did you leave?” she asked. “I begged you…I begged you not to.”
He sat his glass down, eyes serious. “I couldn’t stay in that house anymore. Sometimes two people just…drift apart.”
The silence hung thick. Jen clutched her glass and looked down. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know people fell out of love. It was not trying to make it work. Leaving and not keeping in touch.
“Fine. But, why did you leave me?”
He paused, legs shifting. “I didn’t want to leave you.”
“But you did.” He took his clothes and his beer and left her mother crying at the doorstep.
Silence. They both waited for the other to speak in the stifling heat. Jen bit her lower lip. This time the heat bubbled up from within her.
“You left me there crying for you to come back. You could have taken me with you.”
He was the one who took her hiking, he was the one who taught her which plants were edible, what roads to take, why it rain and why it never snowed where they lived. He read her stories at bedtime, and taught her how to fight off bullies. Her gave her ice cream in the summer, and made coco in the winter. He laughed at her silly jokes, and patted her on the back when she’d ace a test. Her childhood ended when he walked out the door.
Her father looked at her. She could see true regret in his eyes. It felt like a knife in her heart. She still loved her old man.
“I know I disappointed you as a father. Not a day went by that I didn’t think of you. I tried to call as much as I could, and see you when I didn’t have to work. But…I was ashamed. I know I did wrong by you. And I wasn’t man enough to make it right. I pretended everything was fine while you suffered.”
Jen felt her eyes stinging.
“I failed you. But I can’t let things end like that between us, Jen. I had to come here today,” he said. “I needed to tell you in person, that I love you, sweety. I know you’re disappointed in me, but I never stopped loving you.”
“Dad,” she said, shaking her head. “I wasn’t disappointed. I was hopeful.”
She remembered all the times he sat out on the porch and watched the clouds with her, taught her the different kinds of birds in the neighborhood. She wiped her forehead. It felt hot. She reached for the bottle of whiskey again and heard it.
The sirens began to blare. Loud horns that signaled the end. They reminded her of the horns that would play if there was a tsunami or a flood. Jen stopped in her tracks, taking her hand back and looking at her dad. Her heart began to race. They were out of time. She realized this would be the last time they would drink like this, talk together and smile. Her stomach turned to ice.
“I’m scared,” she whispered.
He nodded. “Me too, baby.”
He opened his arms and looked as he always did when she needed a hug; strong and fearless. She went to him, tucking herself against his body and feeling him fold his arms around her, hunching over her. His arms were strong despite his age. The apartment began to shake, the ground rumbled. It felt like an earthquake slowly building. She wished that was all it was. She rested her head against her dad’s chest and suddenly felt like the small, little girl he had left behind all those years ago. And then it hit.
The walls shook and the windows shattered, smashing inwards. The roar of flames drowned out her sob. She didn’t think it would be so loud and chaotic. Burning air filled the room. Inhaling felt like breathing fire. Her lungs and throat burned as if she had eaten coals hot off the grill. Concrete began to be eaten away. She could hear chunks of the walls tearing, metal whining and groaning as they began to give.
She wished she had sweated more now. She wished the walls had given sooner, that she couldn’t listen to the world melting around them. The liquid on her skin was gone, evaporated. She could smell burning flesh. The smell of her father. She opened her eyes. They dried instantly and ached. She squinted at her dad and saw his clothes melted to his scorched flesh. He was shielding her with his body. His one last effort to make up for everything. His eyes remained closed, melted shut.
Flesh peeled away from their faces. She could see his muscles, taunt and lean. He used to be a runner. There was no blood; that had dried on contact with the heated winds and crusted upon his flesh. He had his eyes closed. Her lips were beyond chapped. She knew her hair had already burned away.
Soon the last wall would give. She felt her dry eyes ache. Her voice was hoarse and but a whimper, lost to the roaring of the storm.
“I love you too.”