15 November 2013
It had to be today.
Through wind swept plumes of cloud, a burning red sun loomed. Its light shone golden upon the faces of the many that stared at it, some looking through heavy tinted glasses and others through binoculars. On a nearby dune, an electronic telescope connected to a strange instrument took constant readings.
Would today be the day? Fraser didn’t know. He tried to tell himself he didn’t care, but as he looked to his left and saw his wife, a tear rolling down her cheek, and then to his right, where his daughter knelt playing in the sand, he burned with the most awful anger. Yet before it could give way to unbridled fury, a sadness washed over him and stole with it all his strength. It had to be today.
Still he gazed upon his daughter, transfixed, unwilling to speak even a word for fear that the dams of his heart would burst and with it flow a torrent of truth that would drain the light from her eyes. He turned away, staring once more at the sun, and gripped his wife’s hand a little tighter. Within moments she sank to her knees, his small unrehearsed show of affection enough to crumble her resolve. A single tear gave way to a dozen more and Fraser could do nothing but stoop down and hold her, all the while gritting his teeth so hard he thought he might never speak again. He scrunched his eyes shut and chose to remember simpler times…
Fraser had met his wife Bala only four years earlier, at a house party where the average age was about 6 years younger than either of them had expected. Bala had given up on merriment and was on her way out when Fraser came bursting in through the front door. She’d never seen anyone so drunk before, he swayed wildly and spoke with the strangest lisp.
“Uhm, I was just leavi…” She made a move for the door but he side-stepped in front of her.
“NO! You can’t go, it’s so early. Come on, it will be fun.” His left hand held an open container of drink which he was barely managing to keep from spilling, he moved in to touch Bala on the shoulder and she recoiled.
“You’re so drunk, I don’t even know you”, she said, annoyed. But he was quite attractive, for a blubbering idiot.
“I may be drunk, but I’m not nearly drunk enough, here, look at this!” He pulled the sides of his mouth apart and opened wide, the stability of his drink reliant almost solely on a wet pinky finger.
“Holy fuck!”, Bala exclaimed, both horrified at the sight of this stranger’s mouth, but also a little fascinated. Two gaping holes sewn shut were all that remained of his wisdom teeth.
“See I’m not just some drunk guy, I’m a man in pain.”
“And you handle it so modestly.” Bala nodded at his drink.
“Well, any excuse for a party. My name’s Fraser”, he downed the unknown liquid in less than two seconds, winced at the pain and held out his alcohol-soaked hand in front of Bala in preparation for a formal greeting.
“This is a huge mistake”, she thought to herself, but the words she spoke as her hand met his were quite different, “Hi, my name’s Bala… it looks like you need another drink.”
From that moment on their night was alive with conversation, laughter and dancing, only coming to a close once the light of the rising, angry sun signalled revelry’s end. They parted with a kiss, which failed spectacularly due to the pain Fraser was in, and a promise. To see each other again.
One year (and seven months pregnant) later Bala joked that they had over-delivered on that promise. Fraser chuckled and pressed his hand gently against her belly. They played out their futures together in their minds and sank warmly in the glow of their thoughts. Bala leaned in against Fraser on the sofa as they watched a repeat of their favourite comedy show. Eventually the late hour weighed heavily on their eyelids and they drifted to sleep, only to be awoken in the early hours by a news bulletin that interrupted the scheduled programming.
That night Fraser and Bala, along with the rest of the world, found out what had been successfully suppressed for years. “Five years”, the broadcast had said. Just five years before the wretched heart of their solar system undid the work of a thousand aeons with fervent callousness.
Fraser and Bala sat upright and with their eyes locked on the screen, its bright flickering painting the dark room with a cool blue hue. It stung the back of their eyes as they watched the broadcast, repeated over and over again, unable to move or speak. They awoke hours later in their bed with no recollection of how they got there, their memories engorged with the news in the same way a nightmare lingers intensely into waking thought.
In the weeks that followed it became clear that society would not self destruct. There were no riots, there was no chaos and no perceptible increase in crime. Instead the most bizarre and haunting placidity befell the lives of almost everyone. On the outside nothing really changed, people still went about their business, working, eating, raising families but now it was without zeal. People simply stopped trying to do anything beyond meet the daily requirements for survival. It was the reaction of a world that collectively realised, both suddenly and starkly, that there was no hope. With no foot on the accelerator, society was destined to coast to a complete stop.
It happened so slowly that only Fraser really noticed the life being stolen from Bala over the course of the five years that followed. He wanted to be unwavering for his young family, he couldn’t bear the thought of becoming a burden to his wife. Holly, their shy and unassuming daughter was now an inquisitive four year old but the world’s collective denial had protected her from the truth. Then the news came that they had tried to numb themselves to so completely. “Any day now”, the reports had said. A meagre crawl gave way to the inevitable stop.
There was no longer any point in clinging to vestiges of normality. It was in solemn whispers that they made the decision, they would make their way to the ocean every day without fail, for as long as it took. Little Holly could play in the sand while the sound of the waves and the salty air filled their senses. They would stare down their oppressor in some last, sublimely human defiance at the inevitable.
“We can’t tell her anything, she’s too young to understand.” His wife said one sleepless night, just days after the baleful reports came in.
“I know, Bala, but she’ll surely find out. At the very least she’ll sense it.”
“I can’t bear it, Fray.” Bala stared into the distance, a haunting resolve in her tired eyes, “The thought of this dread swallowing her up, we need to do whatever it takes. I want her last days to…”, at this admission she blinked, cracked and sobbed heavily, burying her head in Fraser’s lap.
“I know”, he said and he stroked her hair. “I know.”
At that moment Holly had bundled in to their bedroom trailing her ragged orange blanket behind her, “Mummy!”, there was concern in her voice but Bala’s sobbing only intensified at the sudden appearance of their daughter. Holly turned, looking up to her father, “Daddy, what’s wrong with mummy?”
“Nothing, baby, daddy upset mummy, but she’ll be OK. I promise.”
Lie number one.
The waves still crashed lightly but Fraser slowly became aware of voices from the other congregations on the beach. With his head in the nape of Bala’s neck and his eyes closed he listened closely and heard a few words scattered from all directions, “I love you”, “I’m sorry I couldn’t save us”, “It will all be over soon, my love”. He heard the quiet sobbing of the hopeless and the manic weeping of those whose anger and sadness had fused so hurtfully. But mostly he heard the ocean and the sound of Holly’s fingers scraping through wet sand.
Fraser opened his eyes and looked around, there were fewer people on the beach than before. Many were turning their backs to the sun and walking away, some with families in tow, others alone. One man walking close by caught Fraser’s eye, the man shook his head and mouthed “Not today”.
The rage gripped Fraser’s chest and he let out a tearing scream through gritted teeth. Somewhere in that moment, as the air escaped his lungs, he decided. He would not carry on. Day in and day out Fraser and Bala stared knowingly into the precipice beyond the vacuum of space, while Holly played in the sand, oblivious. He wouldn’t do it again and he wouldn’t do it to his family. They should all face their end on his terms.
It was at that moment that he came to a realisation – today would be the last time they’d see the ocean.
Bala had been startled by Fraser’s cry and quickly moved in to comfort him, Holly followed suit and hugged him as the last ounce of breath was pushed from his lungs. The sun was at his back, his wife to his right and his daughter to his left and they both clung to him tightly. He breathed the salty air in deeply and focused on the sound of the waves, the water was lapping more gently now. Rising from the sand he turned to Bala, “I’m sorry”. She nodded, her hazel eyes locked on his. He turned to Holly who looked up to him expectantly, “Time to go home Holly.”
“Ok daddy”, she replied deflated. “Will we back tomorrow?”
He shook imperceptibly and his heart thumped wildly in his chest as he spoke the words.
Lie number two hundred and forty eight.