Richard cursed softly at the state of the parking lot. Piles of rubble and broken bottles covered the asphalt. Shards of glass glittered menacingly, concealing the lot striping. In no mood for punctured tires, he inched his beaten gray SUV around the edge of the lot. By some miracle, a bare spot remained near the curb. He stepped out, massaging his cramped legs, and didn’t bother to glance at the object that loomed overhead.
The dollar store’s windows had been smashed, leaving holes big enough to step through. Richard, eyeing the jagged edges, went for the door. His shoulders slumped with relief as he looked upon racks of laundry detergent, party hats, and off-brand mustard. Perhaps the vandals hadn’t found much worth taking. In any case, it was best not to linger. He hurried down the aisles.
The dairy aisle was as bare as the last time he’d seen it, though its layer of dust had grown thicker. He strode through to the next aisle. There he found a jar of sour cherries, wedged and forgotten between leaking ketchup bottles. Nearby sat a dusty box of chocolates; he hesitated for a moment, then grabbed that too. From a shelf of pie tins he selected one made of heavy red ceramic. Its edges were chipped, but the rest of it would shine with a good wash.
Shopping basket in hand, he headed for the exit.
“Find everything you need?”
“Aah!” Richard grappled for the pistol at his belt. In his haste he dropped the shopping basket. The pie tin clanged as it hit the ground.
The speaker raised her hands in alarm. It was the store’s usual cashier, an elderly woman who Richard had never seen without her antique tobacco pipe and thick red lipstick. Today she was wearing a stained white bathrobe that perfectly matched the dingy walls.
“Settle down now,” she said hastily. “It’s just me here, see? Unarmed and no danger to anyone.”
Richard’s heart was still hammering in his chest, but he lowered the gun. The basket felt heavier as he picked it up and stumbled to the register.
“Sorry,” he said, face burning. “I, uh, wasn’t expecting to see anyone here today.”
“Can’t blame you, considering the occasion.” The woman gave him a weak smile. “I wouldn’t have expected to be here myself, but when I woke up this morning I didn’t feel like going anywhere else. Suppose that’s what working the same job for fifty years will do to a person.”
He fiddled with his wedding ring as she began bagging the groceries. A small TV was set on the floor a few feet away. It had been set to mute, but Richard recognized the recording that played. A cluster of military drones was taking off. Each one bore an American flag and carried a missile. Richard shivered, watching the cloud of machines rise into the sky.
“Feels like it was ages ago, doesn’t it?” the cashier sighed. “I’ve still got the newspaper clipping. Joint US-China mission to obliterate the asteroid! Most expensive partnership ever between two rival countries! I swear those were the only headlines being printed anywhere.”
“I remember that,” Richard agreed. “I’m sure they’ve got quite a few more stories to write about now, though.”
“Oh, I doubt it. I haven’t gotten an issue delivered since. They probably shut down the paper the moment all those cameras showed the thing coming out unscathed. If there’s no good news to deliver, why bother?”
Richard nodded along, remembering the first day that the local news channel had played static instead of the usual broadcast. It was best not to think too much about it. Worrying would get him nowhere.
She pushed the last grocery bag towards him. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“That’ll be it.” Richard hesitated. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d stood at a check-out queue. Feeling foolish, he reached for his wallet, but the woman waved him off.
“Don’t worry about it, love. I’m just here to help people find what they need, if we have it.”
He drove home. The object in the sky was bigger now and clearer around the edges. It looked pale and lumpy, like a second, misshapen moon. Almost pretty, as long as you didn’t know what it was.
Richard tapped the brakes at the sight of movement in the intersection ahead. A woman was standing barefoot on the asphalt, head bowed over the baby in her arms. Her tattered, dirty dress flapped in the wind. For a moment, he had a bizarre vision of a ghost escaping from a haunted mansion only to find itself in broad daylight.
He fixed his eyes on the road, but an oily, queasy feeling began to coil in his stomach. His gaze drifted back to the infant. It looked around six months old, being around two feet long with a full head of hair. Its cheeks were thinner than he’d ever seen on children that age, though, and its fine blond hair was matted and dirty.
Where was the father, he wondered? His grip on the steering wheel tightened, the nausea growing stronger. Wasn’t there anyone asking after them?
He found himself pulling over and proffering the chocolates through a window. The woman’s expression stayed vacant as she stuffed the box underneath her arm. She continued limping down the side of the road. Richard sat paralyzed in the air-conditioned car. For a moment he imagined calling after her, offering to drive. But she didn’t look back, and he was forced to drive on.
Battered shells of cars lined the road, victims of collisions or simply being abandoned to the elements. Sometimes another vehicle would swerve around them, tearing a cloud of dust down the other side of the narrow two-lane road. Richard just kept his distance. There weren’t many traffic patrols left to enforce anything.
A small mob of people milled around his neighborhood as he pulled in. Richard didn’t recognize any of their faces, or their heavy canvas jackets. He stared in confusion. They weren’t carrying any bags with them, so they couldn’t have been beggars. A neighboring street militia, perhaps?
Then he saw the clubs they carried, and his blood ran cold.
One woman looked in Richard’s direction, and a thrill of terror flooded his chest. His mind raced as his hand flew to the pistol at his side. There were perhaps seven or eight in total wandering down the sidewalk. Would they decide to target him? He had the protection of his SUV, after all. Behind them, the street forked off to the side. He could make a break for it, maybe, if he was willing to plow straight through them –
The woman looked away and Richard sagged in his seat. His hands felt like jelly on the steering wheel as he passed.
At last, he reached his house. Its faded white paint and seedy lawn had never felt more welcoming. He clutched the grocery bag to his chest and hurried in. In the kitchen, he spread his loot with the other baking supplies already on the counter. A framed photograph hung on the wall. It had a card taped to the glass.
Congratulations, it read. Wishing little Mary a lifetime of happiness.
Richard flipped the card over to double-check the recipe scribbled there, then got to work. The salt and sugar went into the flour, cut with butter until pea-sized clumps formed. He removed his wedding band before kneading water into the dough, which he formed into disks to rest in the fridge as he made the filling.
Rough shouts broke out in the street. They were followed by shrieks of pain, a revving car engine, and a gunshot. Richard closed the curtains a little too hard, rattling the windowpane.
Sugar, salt, and cornstarch mixed with lemon juice, vanilla extract, and half the jar of sour cherries. He looked back at the picture on the wall. It showed a dinner table set for two, with a generous spread of succulent roast beef, baked potatoes, and gleaming buttered corn laid on the tablecloth. In the center was a perfect cherry pie, baked golden brown in its red ceramic pan. Richard washed his own pan and pressed a circle of dough into it. In went the filling, followed by a lattice of strips cut from the rest of the dough. He followed the pattern on the pie in the photo as he folded the bottom crust and crimped its edges to seal it closed. When he was done, he glanced out the window. The shape outside had grown even larger, drifting in like a stormcloud.
A window shattered somewhere in the distance. He washed his hands and put the ring back on.
The next step was to put the milk glaze on the crust. On a whim, Richard wandered to the fridge. He opened the door to see a single jug sitting on the top shelf.
It was funny, really, that at one point milk had seemed nearly as plentiful as water, that stores had sold more brands of milks and cheeses and yogurts than he could ever hope to try in his lifetime. A scar still throbbed on his neck, a reminder of his last trip to the grocery store before he’d started carrying a gun.
He closed the fridge, not bothering to look in the jug. After all, it was empty and had been for a week. It was just a curio now. A reminder of when people still manufactured things. If he wanted milk, he’d need to borrow it from someone.
No further noises came from outside, but he still went to retrieve his shotgun from the closet. It rested reassuringly on his shoulder as he cracked the front door open. The street was clear, but the house across from him had had its windows smashed in. A dark red puddle glistened on the doorstep.
Richard’s head spun. That was Mrs. Proust’s house, wasn’t it? She’d knitted him a pair of socks once, after he’d found her chihuahua stuck under his fence. Why couldn’t he remember her face? The memory of the dog was clear as day, its tiny jaws snapping at his muddy fingers…
The pie. He needed milk. Richard slammed the door. He went to the backyard and crossed to the McHenrys’ side, where Ralph McHenry was digging furiously. Ralph was a head taller than Richard, with limbs as thick as tree trunks. Sweat dripped off his bald scalp as he worked, knee-deep in dirt.
“Hey, Ralph. Can I talk to you for a second?”
The big man eyed him. “What do you want?”
“I was hoping to borrow some milk.” Richard held out his measuring cup.
“Milk is hard to come by these days, Rich. I’ve got my own family to take care of. Don’t know if we have much to spare.”
Richard shook the cup meaningfully.
“Only need a little to finish my cherry pie. Just a tablespoon or two and I’ll be out of your hair.”
Ralph gripped his shovel tighter, but seemed to decide the trouble wasn’t worth it. He turned towards his cellar. “Julia!”
Steel beams had been cut and fitted over the cellar doors. There was a grunt as the doors swung open, and a girl with mousy brown hair poked her head out. “What’s up?”
“Fetch the milk carton, would you? Rich needs to borrow some.”
“Sure thing,” Julia said, and went back underground. The doors fell shut again, scattering a small cloud of dust. The entirety of the McHenrys’ backyard had been dug up, transformed into a barren field that had baked hard and brown under the sun. Next to Ralph was a pile of bricks and a small wooden structure resembling a teepee frame.
“Nice little project you’ve got there,” Richard said, nodding at it. “What have you been up to?”
“Been digging a well,” Ralph grunted. He jerked his head towards the cellar. “We’re stocked up on bottled water in the bunker, but it’ll only last three months. Gonna need access to the groundwater after that.”
“You built a bunker? That must’ve been quite the undertaking.”
“Can’t be too careful these days. You heard the mob down the street, didn’t you?” Ralph gestured at the brick pile. “Got a good deal on cinder blocks right after they first found the meteor. Wife wasn’t happy, but it’ll be the best purchase we’ve ever made. Ain’t no meteor getting us now, not with all the fortifications I added.”
Richard nodded politely. He didn’t say anything about what he thought the meteor’s impact would do to the tiny well, or ask where the McHenrys would go once their supplies ran out.
Julia reappeared at her father’s side with a battered carton.
“Here’s the milk,” she said. She poured some into Richard’s cup. The McHenry’s family cat, an elderly calico, made its way over to wind between her legs. Julia shooed it away as she headed back to the cellar.
With a start, Richard realized that she’d never spoken directly to him before. It seemed like it was only yesterday that Julia had been a squat, stubborn toddler ripping up parts of his lawn. Now she reached his shoulder, with a heart-shaped face like her mother’s. Something ached in his throat, and his vision grew blurry.
“She’s really grown up, hasn’t she?”
He jumped at Ralph’s voice. His neighbor was looking wistfully at the cellar. Richard’s face burned hot against the breeze. He coughed and Ralph jumped, remembering he was there.
“Your daughter’s got a good head on her shoulders,” Richard said, staring resolutely at the ground. “Calm in an emergency. That’ll keep you grounded when you most need it.”
Now it was Ralph’s turn to look uncomfortable. He fidgeted with the shovel handle.
“Aye, I’m lucky to have the family that I do.”
They stood in torturous silence for a few more seconds. Something sad pulled at the corner of Ralph’s smile. The sight brought a bitter taste to Richard’s mouth. God, how he hated it.
His neighbor planted the shovel into the earth and squinted at the meteor in the sky. Richard followed his gaze. It was now twice as big as it had been that morning.
“Well, I’ve got to get back to work,” said Ralph finally. “You take care, Rich.”
Richard had been clenching his fists. His knuckles ached as he forced them open.
“Stay safe,” he muttered, as if they were talking about a snowstorm or a downed tree. Then he stalked off, ducking behind the fence.
He didn’t relax until he was back in his kitchen and hidden away from sight. Richard collapsed against the wall, panting, and glanced at the clock on the oven. Only a few hours to go now. He needed to focus.
Using the milk, Richard painted a glistening layer on the lattice crust, then sprinkled it with decorative sugar. He studied the pie in the photo and added or dusted off the colorful crystals until the two matched. Finally, he slid the pan into the oven.
As it baked, he shaved and used the last of his hair wax to straighten his limp curls. His suit didn’t take long to find, hanging in the back of his scant closet. Once the pie had finished baking, Richard wrapped it in foil. After a moment’s thought, he pulled the photograph from its frame and pocketed it. Then he got into the car and set off.
This time, no cyclists, wanderers, or even wildlife passed by on the road. The world he drove through now was distant and cold, his only companions the empty wreckages littering the asphalt and the pale arc of the meteor in the sky.
He arrived at a beige apartment building with dirty brick walls and paint peeling off the doors. Behind some of the windows, dark shapes danced. Clouded panes rattled as loud music blasted from somewhere. Others were deathly still, their inhabitants having already moved on.
Richard took a deep breath and slumped in his seat. His reflection stared back at him from the rear-view mirror, pale and stiff in a rumpled old suit, and he grit his teeth. This was no way to face the end of the world, like a dog with its tail between its legs.
Still, the pie tin slipped in his sweaty fingers.
He left the car and walked down the rows of apartments to unit seventy-two. A withered bouquet of dried lilies was nailed to the door. Its petals fluttered in the breeze. He swallowed, staring at the faded gilt numbers. Then he knocked.
Nothing happened, but there was an odd stillness. Someone on the other side was holding their breath. He knocked again and waited.
Darkness fell over the neighborhood. The meteor was close enough now that every bump and crater stood out on its rocky surface. Richard stayed where he was, engulfed in its shadow, and knocked once more. The trembling of his hand rattled against the wood. This time, the door was flung open.
The woman in the doorway wore a torn white T-shirt and jeans with her hair tied in a sloppy bun. Her clothing belied the look in her eyes, which were gray and hard as steel. She wore no makeup, but her skin shone bronze in the afternoon. Her beautiful features were twisted with fury.
“What do you want?” Margaret snarled. She had a shotgun, and it was aimed at his chest.
The rest of the world dropped away. They were a young couple in love again, standing on the steps of their old apartment as they had the night he’d proposed. Time slowed to a crawl as he unwrapped the pie, letting its fresh-baked scent waft in the air.
“It’s been a while since you left,” he said. “I was thinking of you today.”
Margaret’s eyes widened. She lowered the gun and Richard had to stop himself from reaching out, grabbing those slender wrists and pulling her in. There was a time when it had been her hands guiding his along the crust, showing him how to shape the dough and seal the strips in. He could still see her thin fingers brushing the last coat of milk on, like an artist adding glaze to pottery.
She stiffened as her gaze darted back to the meteor in the sky. “I can’t.”
“Just a few minutes?”
“This really isn’t the time. I’m not interested.”
Blood pounded hot in Richard’s ears. He wavered on the doorstep and fought to keep the smile on his face. “Marge, you’re the love of my life. I just want to make things right between us.”
“Please, just go home,” said Margaret, voice quavering. She reached for the door.
“No no, wait!” Richard fumbled for the photo. “I’m trying, Marge, I really am. Look, I recreated the pie exactly from the night you said yes. Down to the last detail.”
“That’s not-I don’t want you throwing insane amounts of effort into these over-the-top gestures, okay? I never asked for them. It doesn’t help.”
Golden rays fell over the neighborhood as the sun began to set. Lengthening shadows shrouded Margaret’s face in darkness. She loomed before him in the dying light, arbiter and witness to his crimes.
A wild desperation clawed at the edges of Richard’s heart. It raged through his veins like a wild animal, twisting like a living thing of its own. He gripped the pie pan so tightly that the chipped ceramic edges drew blood as they bit into his skin.
“Then what do you want? Tell me. Whatever it is, I’ll get it for you. I’ll make it with my own hands. Just tell me what to do!”
“Leave me alone.” Margaret’s voice cracked. “I can’t even look at you without thinking about her, about what you did. It hurts too much, having all those memories come back. Go away, and spend the rest of today with someone who’ll miss you.”
The door began to swing shut again. Before he knew it he’d thrown himself at her, blocking it with his body.
“No! Marge, give me another chance! I’ll do anything you want, I’d kill myself for you, just don’t shut me out again, please, please-”
“Can’t you take a goddamn hint?” Margaret shoved him hard, and he landed painfully on the sidewalk. She was sobbing, tears streaming down her swollen face. “It doesn’t matter!” she screamed. “How could you have left our daughter alone in the store that day?”
Richard staggered to his feet, knees scraped from where they’d fallen on the concrete. He opened his mouth to speak, but only wheezing croaks came out.
The pie had landed a few feet away. Margaret stood for a second, panting, then picked it up.
“Forget it. I don’t have the energy for this.” She hurled it at him. It smashed against his chest and dripped down his shirt as she slammed the door.
His ribs ached from the impact of the ceramic, but he barely noticed. The pie’s innards continued to dribble, landing on the ground in a gory scarlet puddle. Images flashed through his head: wheeling little Mary into the grocery store, then in a moment of carelessness realizing he’d left his wallet in the car. The empty spot where the stroller had been once he returned. The frantic calls to the police, late-night arguments that shook the house. Above all was the grief, the crushing sense of loss that had never really stopped.
Mechanically, he forced his limbs to move, picking up the ruined tin and lurching to his car. He collapsed in the front seat and stared at the sky. The sun was starting to set now, but it was dwarfed by the meteor, the entirety of the heavens consumed by the cratered surface. There was a pale blue sheen to it, a serene barrier against the fiery light of the sunset.
From the apartment complex, screams of terror and excitement rose up, blending and cresting to a glorious crescendo. Richard realized, with dim surprise, that he couldn’t find it in himself to care. After all, his greatest fear had already come to pass.
Even at the end of the world, he was completely and utterly alone.
Laughter bubbled out of his mouth in dry, heaving rasps that wracked his body. The useless pie tin tumbled to the floor of the car. Richard buried his face in his hands and bent over, sobbing.
Blinding light raced across the sky. A thunderous roar filled the world as it became an unyielding flare of white.
He didn’t move, not even when the heat burned the flesh from his bones.
Rina Song is a writer and alternative rock lover based out of California. When not writing, she has a day job involving computers. She hopes to one day receive her own call to a heroic quest of epic proportions, and perhaps write a novel about it afterwards. Her writing has previously been published in Spank the Carp and Mythaxis Magazine.