Looking Up

At 2 pm, on a sear­ing hot Sun­day in July, Kealan stood on the junc­ture of 59th and 5th and took refuge under the thick branch­es of a Muse­um Mile tree as the sun cooked the leaves above. 

He took a last swig of his cof­fee and dis­posed of the cup in a trash­can. Next, he checked his shoelaces were tied tight, thumbed at his Fit­bit, and, keep­ing to the shade, walked into Cen­tral Park.

A long paint­ed black brush­stroke that weaved through a thick­ness of green and blue, the serene Loop stretched on. He inhaled and enjoyed the aro­ma. Damn, it smelled good here. Like a spray of hon­ey: sug­ar and sweet, mask­ing the scent of the city. Kealan would walk six miles (6.2, pre­cise­ly, he knew). The same trip he made every day, or as near as he could man­age. Coun­ter­clock­wise, past jog­gers and cyclists and elec­tron­ic scoot­ers and tourists. His foot­falls mea­sured the sec­onds to the steady beat of elec­tron­i­ca beat­ing through his head­phones, pro­pelling him onward and through.

Kealan merged into the foot­path that ran along the length of the road on his left. This was a busy time of day- legions of the super-fit con­gre­gat­ing in the city’s heart. Crowds of run­ners dart­ed past him and ahead, attired sim­i­lar­ly in head­phones and sneak­ers, strik­ing their toes against the tar­mac. A young woman snaked past him now, her long black hair bob­bing behind her, a cell phone strapped to her arm. She fol­lowed two men and anoth­er woman, with oth­er jog­gers sure to fol­low. They each wore iden­ti­cal t‑shirts, iden­ti­fy­ing them as marathon­ers in train­ing. He willed them luck. Cyclists over­took them and raced, lapped by couri­ers on e‑bikes dart­ing to deliv­er to some hun­gry New York­er elsewhere. 

He thought of his route. From his East­side entrance, he’d march upwards past the ducks and water foun­tains of Jacque­line Kennedy Reser­voir. By the third mile, his legs would feel the effort, which would be work. By the fourth, Kealan would walk down­hill around the death-bend snake that laced the North Woods by Harlem Meer.  More than one cyclist had met their end there, he knew, their skin still graz­ing lengths of the road where they fell.  He’d pro­ceed with cau­tion here. He’d promised Syd­ney he’d be care­ful. Then back down, past Tav­ern on the Green (which remind­ed him to check reser­va­tions for the fol­low­ing week­end, he’d promised Syd). By now, those all-nat­ur­al endor­phins made the remain­der of this jour­ney effort­less, even enjoy­able. Pro­pelled on by what­ev­er equiv­a­lent to a runner’s high reward­ed the long-walk­er. Then he’d go beyond Lit­er­ary Avenue and its jazz bands and tourists. The Boathouse restau­rant and its oasis. The young lovers on Kayaks who ped­aled away the after­noon (again, he’d check for Syd. A reser­va­tion here less like­ly this time of year, but he’d promised nonetheless). 

 Even­tu­al­ly, the park would deposit him back where he start­ed. His mus­cles aching, sweat soak­ing his clothes, and sun­screen sim­mer­ing on his skin. A blis­ter or two on his new­ly cal­loused feet. 

If he kept up the pace, the route would take him two hours. Anoth­er twen­ty min­utes addi­tion­al if he broke away for anoth­er cof­fee on Colum­bus. But he’d have enough left in his reserves for more should he choose to walk fur­ther. His sta­mi­na was improv­ing, too. This was so much bet­ter than coke. 

He reached behind his sun­glass­es and swiped away rivulets of lotion that mat­ted his eye­lids. Reach­ing behind his ears, he pushed the frames’ met­al legs down­wards, slot­ting them snug­ly into place before his sweat could loosen their grip against his skin. Through his lens­es, he saw the pat­tered shad­ows tree branch­es made, shim­mer­ing on the sur­face below.

Kealan was near­ing his third month of these near-dai­ly excur­sions, and now he was approach­ing his nineti­eth day of new health and res­o­lu­tion. And he felt great. And Syd asked him if they could cel­e­brate his new­found will and extra sta­mi­na. Things were look­ing up, he knew. He would out­pace the dev­il yet.

Not that I have any right to, he thought, the idea intrud­ing into his mind like a wasp sting. Not real­ly. Not yet. Because she didn’t just want to cel­e­brate his new com­mit­ment to fit­ness, did she? She’d asked for his sobri­ety. She hoped to reaf­firm his direc­tion, that until recent­ly, had tak­en acute right-angled turns up whichev­er nos­tril was least like­ly to bleed from his brain. Hell, he sus­pect­ed she even want­ed to mark the occa­sion to con­vince her­self he’d made it: one month rec­on­ciled, 30 days of promis­es kept.

Rec­on­ciled, but not yet mend­ed. Back from the brink of obliv­ion, at least.

After they split, they exchanged spo­radic texts. 

“You don’t even know what you looked like,” she wrote. “Your skin was red. Your eyes were blood­shot and bulging. Your fuck­ing nose was run­ning, Kealan. It wasn’t even 9 am, and you were grind­ing your teeth at me already.”

Yeah, he’d bro­ken her heart, he knew. He must have because his own had cleaved in two. And she’d been right. He’d been high all night. He didn’t try to argue. Instead, he resigned him­self to the demise of their rela­tion­ship and agreed. Kealan hadn’t just been high. He’d been wast­ed. But then: 

“Kick it, and we’ll talk. Entire­ly. No more coke ever again. I can’t go through this again. I don’t want to find you ODd on fen­tanyl or meth or what­ev­er else gets mixed. But I don’t want to hear from you for a few weeks, even if you do. And I don’t know where we’ll go from there. I love you, but I can’t watch this anymore.”

Had he been that bad? Was this right? Was she over­re­act­ing? Should he tell her that just the week pri­or, he’d gone with­out with ease? He’d been about to say so, his fin­ger hov­er­ing over “send,” when he real­ized she’d see this for the bar­gain­ing it was.

“Don’t do it for me. This needs to be for you.”

And that, too, was fair. What was unfair was plac­ing the respon­si­bil­i­ty on her in the first place. She shouldn’t have to break Kealan apart to put him back togeth­er again.

“I know she shouldn’t,” he said out loud as a woman jogged by. He shud­dered as she frowned and swerved by him to avoid his mut­ter­ings. He shook off his embar­rass­ment and quick­ened his pace. Things were look­ing up, he knew, oh yes, they were. He had Syd­ney back now, and all he had to do to sus­tain this was to keep walk­ing on. Every day. Or as near to dai­ly as his burn­ing calves would allow. 

He had replaced one addic­tion with anoth­er, this much he knew. The exer­cise bowl­ing the pins of his old crav­ings away. At first, he didn’t miss the cocaine at all. Hell, he didn’t even miss Syd­ney; those ear­ly emp­ty days instead sprin­kled with relief. That had changed by the end of the first week as he real­ized their text mes­sages were not return­ing, their easy con­ver­sa­tion dust, their in-jokes absent and for­got­ten for good. Replaced by the slow sink­ing quick­sand of bore­dom and dai­ly morn­ing break­downs in the show­er, over­whelm­ing him with dread and pain as the last of his con­fi­dence bled down the sink and away.

So he start­ed walk­ing: one foot in front of the oth­er, heed­less of his des­ti­na­tion. As he per­sist­ed, he learned to ignore the chaf­ing of his nip­ples against his t‑shirt and the cramps in his feet. Two miles a day, then four, until he’d walked the entire route. After this accom­plish­ment, he bought a new pair of avi­a­tors to cel­e­brate (so much bet­ter than coke)- the same black sun­glass­es he wore now, his polar­ized lens­es twin­kling in the sunlight.

More­over, he real­ized he was even enjoy­ing the walk by then, too. He was becom­ing irri­ta­ble when he didn’t get his steps in. Guilt at the lost oppor­tu­ni­ty to lis­ten to the steady drone of the crick­ets in between blasts of audio­book or music. Alone with his rever­ie. Unhap­py thoughts intrud­ing with less fre­quen­cy, replaced instead nos­tal­gic thoughts of lazy (coked out) week­ends with Syd­ney and their sex and sit­coms and (cocaine fueled) con­certs in the villages.

Stop think­ing about coke, he com­mand­ed to himself.

A bald, mus­cu­lar man skat­ed by on rollerblades. The man leaned for­ward, his face upturned, and nod­ded to Kealan as he wheeled past. His hands were clasp­ing some­thing behind his back that Kealan knew to be a water bot­tle, the same con­tain­er the man clutched every day as he sped.

There was a pact here among the peo­ple of the loop, Kealan knew. An unspo­ken agree­ment between the famil­iar faces he encoun­tered, a silent under­stand­ing between Olympian strangers who glanced at each oth­er with encour­ag­ing ges­tures. Kealan had become one of them, and the feel­ing made him grin. Things were look­ing up, oh yes. 

He noticed anoth­er of these assumed kin as he con­tin­ued. A blond woman, rail thin, stood alone and unmov­ing like a totem pole plant­ed out­side the safe­ty of the foot­path. Kealan quick­ened his pace to pass her rather than risk trail­ing in her wake at an uncom­fort­ably close dis­tance. She held her head up, stretched high on her neck. Her face tilt­ed towards the sun, ten­dons thin and taught on her throat. Over­tak­ing her, he saw her eyes were open wide as she gaw­ped into the emp­ty sky. She wasn’t wear­ing sun­glass­es. She didn’t blink.

At first, he thought she was star­ing direct­ly into the sun. But this wasn’t exact­ly right: instead, she looked at an emp­ty sky overhead.

Tempt­ed to cau­tion her back into the foot­path (the day busy, the cyclists reck­less), he moved clos­er. Her lips were mov­ing, mut­ter­ing some litany offered to vast open space. The woman was painful­ly skinny. 

He walked on. 

Still, with a small mea­sure of con­cern, Kealan called back behind him: “Get some shades! You’ll burn your eyes in this heat.” The woman offered no response. Instead, she con­tin­ued to stare above her as she mumbled.

By the time Kealan had walked anoth­er thou­sand feet, the sting­ing in his eyes had become intol­er­a­ble as his thick appli­ca­tion of sun­screen melt­ed down his skin. He tried to blink the cream away, let­ting his tears run along his cheek, wash­ing away the burn. But this blurred his vision, so he reached to his nose, lift­ed the glass­es, and ran his index fin­ger along his eyelid.

As he wiped, an absur­di­ty crawled up in his mind with­out con­text or sense and took root. An insect-like set of chat­ter­ing non­sense buzzing in his head. The idea grew like mold from his sub­con­scious and became rigid as it sub­sumed him like he’d plunged into an aban­doned well. His thoughts slipped against its damp, moss-cov­ered depths and tried to climb free as cold back­ward-bent legs crawled over his exposed skin (his skin?), into the holes of his nose and mouth (his mouth?), while he drowned at the bot­tom below in deep, dank water. 

Kealan felt a vibra­tion against his leg. His sun­glass­es fell back onto the bridge of his nose.

Syd­ney.

The feel­ing col­lapsed as he became aware of her tug at his atten­tion. He checked Sydney’s text.

“Kealan still goes out and walks like 6 miles a day in this heat. I just can’t!”

What had hap­pened to him just now? At best, his head was hazy. At worst he felt like he was stoned on cheap weed. As if his thoughts had been rent up from his mind and released to float away. He’d tak­en care to hydrate before he took his cof­fee- was he stroking out in the heat?

“Was that meant for me?” he texted back. In the cor­ner of his ancient cell­phone, he saw his bat­tery dimin­ish to ten per­cent. A blink lat­er, and it read nine. It wouldn’t live long.

“Hah, no, for my sis­ter. Because you’re crazy. She’s telling me how her dogs are cop­ing in the heat.”

 Per­haps he had been push­ing him­self too hard recently? 

“I’ll be home soon,” he replied.

Kealan walked on, resolv­ing to drink until he quenched at the next water foun­tain he reached. He knew the loca­tion of each.

His slope was start­ing to ascend, and as he climbed, his unease made way for uncan­ny fear. A crowd of three had gath­ered around a fig­ure famil­iar to him, who’d col­lapsed on the ground by a cross­walk that intro­duced the next turn. One of the skater’s arms bent back­ward at the elbow, and a hip lay flat, bent at an impos­si­ble right angle to the oth­er. The man was unmov­ing. His hel­met remained fas­tened to his head, his skull pro­tect­ed from the blow, at least. But his face was a gash of blood; his cheek degloved against the sur­face of the road below. 

Two of the three had stood their bicy­cles hor­i­zon­tal­ly between the park and the acci­dent, slow­ing incom­ing rid­ers who took care to avoid them.

“What hap­pened?” Kee­lan asked the third: a young long-haired man whose obe­di­ent dog stayed heeled on its leash.

“I don’t know. Some­body didn’t obey the rules and knocked him clean off his skates. It’s a hit and run.”

A crowd was begin­ning to gath­er now. Spec­ta­tors rum­maged for their phones to dial emer­gency ser­vices (rather than video the scene, he hoped).

“Has some­one called an ambu­lance already?” Kealan asked the younger man.

“Yeah, we all did.”

There wasn’t very much Kealan could do. That much was clear. The hero of this scene’s sto­ry would iden­ti­fy them­selves, orga­nize the onlooker’s response, and give the appro­pri­ate state­ments to the police with­out him. But he had terms with the vic­tim: two strangers who passed each oth­er dur­ing their rou­tines. Kealan paced toward him and knelt to con­fer with a woman crouched by the skater’s head. She stretched her hand out and placed her fin­gers on his bro­ken shoulder.

“He alive, yeah?”

“I’d say so,” she replied, “I mean, look at his eyes.”

And this was strange because while he lay shat­tered on the ground, the skater’s lips were mov­ing. He was mum­bling some­thing sound­less­ly- a pat­tern too mea­sured to be ran­dom but silent all the same, not quite form­ing words. His eyes weren’t just open, either, Kealan saw. They were peer­ing from the cor­ner of his eye­lids and up, bulging as far as they could toward the sky.  Past every­one around him and beyond, at some­thing high above them.

“What is he look­ing at?” Kee­lan asked the woman. 

“I…” she began to reply before lift­ing her hands to ges­ture her bewil­der­ment. Through their sun­glass­es, Kealan and the woman fol­lowed the injured man’s gaze. The sun’s per­sis­tent glare met them in return.

Behind them, Kee­lan became aware of a com­mo­tion through the tree line. A group of women stood on tram­po­lines. He’d seen them before, half leap­ing, half danc­ing to the club-friend­ly hip-hop broad­cast by their instructor’s stereo as they burned the after­noon away. Their work­out had tak­en a pause, and sev­er­al women were dis­mount­ing their boards and approach­ing one of their num­ber who stood rigid and unmov­ing beside them. Two oth­er women, spec­ta­tors of the group, were still, too, heads tilt­ed back, peer­ing into the sky.

Some­thing is hap­pen­ing, Kealan thought. Some­thing ter­ri­ble, and it’s start­ing right now.

Kealan broke away from the group and turned back the way he came. He was two miles from home, and it would take forty min­utes to return to Syd. Know­ing his fear was like­ly just an alto­geth­er pre­dictable con­se­quence of a pro­tract­ed with­draw­al, at the very least, he could check the local news to catch up on the skater later.

A young woman was clutch­ing at the sleeve of her partner’s t‑shirt.

“Paul, Paul, what is it?” she plead­ed. The man’s legs had tak­en root on the asphalt, his shad­ow frozen behind him. Like the work­out group and the crash vic­tim, he stared at the sky. His eyes were wide, his mouth lolling, lips twitch­ing and imbecilic.

“What’s wrong with him?” he asked the woman as she tugged at the man.

“I don’t know, he just stopped mov­ing, and now he won’t…”

The woman trailed off mid-sen­tence. She, too, had lift­ed her head to fol­low her part­ner above the sky­line. Then she was gone, her mouth work­ing in that same mind­less motion as the oth­ers. Look­ing back at Paul, Kealan saw a dark wet stain swell in his shorts. He was wet­ting him­self, urine pool­ing into his sneakers.

Let me tell you a sto­ry, Syd­ney, Kealan began to think.

Kealan left them there to drink in the open sky agog. He walked back down through the turn­ing to the long straight that ran past the reser­voir, looped down­hill, coil­ing around the boathouse restau­rant and home. A broad view of his future struck out along the next thou­sand feet. A straight shot along East Dri­ve where the foot­path belonged to the run­ners and police lay their speed traps after dark.

He saw peo­ple. Nine fig­ures alto­geth­er, pro­pelling them­selves on as before. A rush of tour-de-France enthu­si­asts rode through them, a blur of motion in the heat’s haze. But were all the run­ners mov­ing? No, some of the run­ners, three, stood still. Kealan felt bizarre frus­tra­tion that they’d stopped despite his con­cern. The man clos­est to Kealan leaned over, adjust­ed his footwear, and began to hop before break­ing away into a run. The oth­ers were too far away to see in any real detail.

He made his way onto a sep­a­rate foot­path to his left, under branch­es thick enough to block the sun, and merged into the shade. Dot­ted length­wise, park bench­es adorned with gold-plat­ed ded­i­ca­tions memo­ri­al­ized lovers of years past and present. Ten thou­sand dol­lars each, these mis­sives cost, he knew, and what a love­ly sur­prise that might be for Syd­ney to re-affirm their togeth­er­ness after his col­lapse. “Syd­ney and Kealan- 2018 — 20??” he’d print. “Things are look­ing up, oh yes.”

A memen­to to mark the time we had togeth­er, he thought. Because the world is end­ing, Syd. Not with a bang, bare­ly even a whim­per. It’s not cli­mate change or nuclear war or pesti­lence or plague. The sky isn’t on fire. Go look out the win­dow and see for yourself.

When he reached the third batch of bench­es, he found the fam­i­ly. A boy, a girl, and their young moth­er sat vacant, made emp­ty by what­ev­er had delet­ed their minds. The boy held an ice cream cone. Vanil­la and rain­bow-col­ored sprin­kles smeared his lips. The rest melt­ed along his arm, drip­ping onto his leg and down, form­ing a cur­dled pud­dle below his hang­ing legs. Stand­ing in front and fac­ing him, his sister’s thin hair hung over her face like a spider’s silk as she lol­ly­gagged upwards into the leaves. Their moth­er sat pinned upright against the back of the bench. In her hand, she held a leash. Hid­ing behind her legs, the family’s furtive dog cowered.

“Is there any­thing the mat­ter?” Peter asked the woman. He waved his hand in front of her eyes. No response. He snapped his fin­gers, once, twice. She gazed wit­less­ly above her, as did her chil­dren beside her.

They weren’t pale, like Kealan. South American?

“Estas Bien?”

Again, no response. The woman’s mouth twitched at the corners. 

“Ça va?”

His lin­guis­tic skill exhaust­ed, he fished his phone from his pock­et. After look­ing around to make sure nobody was peer­ing his way (becom­ing aware that near­by, more human grave­stones were root­ed to the ground like stone now), he took a pho­to­graph of the group. The bat­tery indi­ca­tor on his phone mocked him at five percent.

He mes­saged Syd­ney the image. “Don’t go out­side. I’m on my way home.” The phone sound­ed a ping as the texts deliv­ered, and his bat­tery showed four. “It’s like they’re stuck. They don’t move. There was an acci­dent too.”

A smell was com­ing from the woman now. 

“My bat­tery is about to die. I know this doesn’t make much sense but see what you can find on TV, and I’ll be home soon.”

What­ev­er the woman had eat­en for lunch that day was vacat­ing her bow­els, he real­ized. The stench was imme­di­ate and sick­en­ing, wors­ened in the heat. He was inhal­ing her shit. What was wrong with these people?

The Hud­son isn’t ris­ing from the shal­lows of the bay to lev­el Gotham. Those aren’t the bells of doom­say­ers you’re hear­ing ring­ing from the shores of Coney Island. Cthul­hu doesn’t come. And those tow­ers so high bil­lion­aires could reach the sky if their ele­va­tors didn’t break down- they can stroke the heav­ens all they like. It turns out the gods don’t give a shit.

He thought of the skater’s cracked teeth. He was com­ing up to the thin blond woman again. She swayed upright as if hooked by an invis­i­ble puppeteer. 

“What’s wrong with her?” 

Kealan turned around. A famil­iar run­ner- the woman from the crash, pant­ed and frowned through her sun­glass­es. Had she been sprint­ing? He hadn’t heard her footsteps.

“I don’t know,” Kealan said.

“I saw you at the accident.”

“Yeah. Did the ambu­lance arrive?” Kealan asked.

“No. I just came from there. I saw you and tried to catch up with you. But you stopped, and I thought it was hap­pen­ing to you too.”

A cry, loud and shrill, came from the walls of the city. The sound was answered by a loud crack of met­al col­lid­ing with con­crete, then became the sus­tained drone of a car’s horn.

The jog­ger flinched, her shoul­ders rais­ing to swal­low her neck, and they both looked toward the street as a rail of smoke start­ed to bil­low overhead.

“Oh, Jesus. What the hell is wrong with every­one?” Kealan asked.

“I don’t know, but it’s not just them. Back there, it’s all of them. They’re all frozen, just like her.”

“All of them?”

“One by one. At first, I thought they’d been elec­tro­cut­ed. But it’s more like they’ve been switched off or reboot­ed. I don’t know if you’re sup­posed to touch some­one if they’re in shock, but I tried shak­ing someone.”

Kealan looked behind them, past the fam­i­ly, past the thin woman. In the straight of road ahead, nobody was mov­ing anymore.

“She just keeled over. She just kept look­ing at the sky, and she keeled right over.”

Kealan looked back to the stat­uesque woman beside them. Her eyes had rolled into their sock­ets, giv­ing her sunken face an ancient, dead look. He reached for­ward and, as if wor­ried she’d spring to life at his touch, applied the gen­tlest pres­sure on her shoul­der. She fell back­ward and hit the ground with a hol­low clunk. Her eyes fell with her, remain­ing locked on some­thing Kealan couldn’t see.

“Just like that,” the run­ner said.

“But why not us? Why hasn’t it hap­pened to us?

“Hon­est­ly, I was hop­ing you’d know,” she said. Of course, she knew as much as he did. And damn it, why hadn’t Syd­ney replied yet? End of the world, Syd. Blink, and you’ll miss it. His head was swim­ming. He raised his hand to his tem­ples and tried to rub away the headache form­ing in the cen­ter of his skull.

“I need to call my hus­band, but this part of the park is a dead zone,” the woman said, dove­tail­ing into his thoughts. And this would have been cor­rect had they still been stand­ing on the S‑bend, cradling the bro­ken skater with the crowd of onlook­ers, who, accord­ing to this new acquain­tance, were now all mind­less and gaw­ping at the sky. But his mes­sages to Syd­ney had got­ten through, at least, Kealan real­ized. He hadn’t seen his texts turn tell­tale green from blue.

“No, it’s clear­er where we are now. Can you check the news?” Kealan asked. She start­ed tap­ping her fin­ger­nails on her screen. 

“Oh god­damn it, these lens­es,” she said as she pulled her sun­glass­es from her head. She’d been cry­ing, he saw. “The glass­es are too much if I try to make it more like before.”

“What?” Kealan asked her. Because that hadn’t made sense: some con­fu­sion of apha­sia had just turned her vocab­u­lary into soup. He couldn’t make out the rest of her words, as there weren’t any, not any­more. A flash of scared under­stand­ing lit her eyes, and then this, too, was tak­en from her. She lift­ed her head upwards and stared as a real­iza­tion of Kealan’s own began to coa­lesce with­in him.

It’s the sun­glass­es. It hap­pened as she pulled off her sunglasses.

Except that wasn’t right either, not entire­ly. Because of the peo­ple he’d seen, hadn’t they been wear­ing sun­glass­es, too?

The moth­er on the bench. The man and woman by the scene. Both of them, he was sure. The fall­en woman and the skater? If not them, then what was it? He looked at the woman, just evap­o­rat­ed, and saw she still held her lens­es close to her face. He could now see the tiny let­ter “p” engraved in the cor­ner of her frames.

Then he knew what it was. The odd thing that had pulled him from that awful feel­ing, the feel­ing that sub­merged him when he lift­ed his own glass­es to rub the sun­screen from his eyes. The feel­ing that emp­tied Kealan out and tried to drown what remained of him in its mire.

Both of their sun­glass­es were polarized.

He didn’t know the ‘why’ of it. But some­how, the glare-reduc­ing chem­i­cal fil­ter paint­ed onto the lens­es of his Avi­a­tors had saved him. As had this woman’s pair shield­ed her until she took them off and unrav­eled away.

One per­cent remained left on his phone’s bat­tery. He typed to Syd­ney, his thumb shak­ing: “FIND YOUR SUNGLASSES AND DON’T TAKE THEM OFF FOR ANYTHING.” 

He tapped send. Then the phone was bro­ken met­al. The sun reflect­ed off its cracked black glass.

From her slack­ened grip, he took the woman’s sun­glass­es and hung them on the neck of his t‑shirt. He’d give these to Syd­ney because he couldn’t remem­ber if her glass­es were polar­ized like these.

At least we’ll look fash­ion­able as the world ends, in our cab­in in the woodsOr our con­clave or the safe­ty of our uncle’s farm or wher­ev­er we decide to ride this out, if we sur­vive that long. Fret­ting if our new neigh­bors agree on the best way to plant corn over a weath­ered copy of the Farm­ers Almanac. Barbed wire cir­cling the perime­ter. Town-hall meet­ings sched­uled to dis­cuss next week’s raid.

It mad­dened him that he couldn’t remem­ber. He’d know soon enough. As he hur­ried home to the hor­ror he dread­ed await­ed him there, Kealan came upon pock­ets of car­nage, like stills edit­ed togeth­er from dif­fer­ent films curat­ed from the same theme. Each scene encap­su­lat­ing a fur­ther tragedy. 

A kayak had lay cap­sized in the lake. Its oar trailed the upturned hull. Two peo­ple bobbed, drowned in the water behind it. Kealan had tak­en Syd on one of these rides last sum­mer. She’d thrown up on the lake, made sick by the current.

He found a police car embed­ded in a tree. Smoke rose from its bon­net in thin grey wisps, and a small ani­mal lay crushed under the back wheel. Kealan thought it might be a rac­coon. The cop’s head merged with the steer­ing wheel, and blood wet his uni­form. His eyes were closed: a mer­cy. Through the smashed dri­ver win­dow, he lift­ed the radio receiv­er and clicked. Sta­t­ic drift­ed in reply. A fire began to crack­le from the bon­net, so Kealan has­tened away. He made it one hun­dred feet, and the car ignit­ed behind him.

He fol­lowed a dent­ed mess of vehi­cles to his home street. The cars lay crushed togeth­er in their col­li­sion like some mul­ti-head­ed hydra cast in iron. Almost home now- things were look­ing up, oh yes, they were.

He didn’t need to unlock his apart­ment door. Hear­ing him in the hall­way out­side, Syd­ney had already opened it. She stood shak­ing in the entrance and stam­mered his name. Her sun­glass­es were tight against her face, and she pulled him inside. 

“What’s hap­pen­ing?” she cried as he drew her into him. “What’s hap­pen­ing? What’s hap­pen­ing? What’s happening?” 

Behind her on the tele­vi­sion, a news­cast­er sat with his expres­sion focused else­where. The channel’s text chy­ron rotat­ed below, the head­line miss­ing, vacant space burn­ing onto the screen in its absence. 

Through the steady white noise of the apartment’s air con­di­tion­er, Kealan described to Syd­ney the thin woman, the acci­dent, and the fam­i­ly. She lis­tened with care and didn’t inter­rupt or ques­tion him. Then Syd­ney dis­en­tan­gled her fin­gers from his, walked to the win­dow, and peered through the blinds at the smol­der­ing cars on the street under­neath them.

“Do you believe any of that?” he asked her. At first, she didn’t reply. Then she dug between the couch cush­ions and found the television’s remote.

“Yes. Yes, I do,” she said. She brought the reporter back on the screen. “When I found your text, I did as you asked. This was the first news chan­nel I found. Look at him. He’s drool­ing. Then I start­ed flick­ing between them.”

Syd­ney rotat­ed through the local news sta­tions. On the next chan­nel, the reporter sat still. On the third, a woman lay slumped back in her chair. Syd­ney paused on the fourth, on a map depict­ing their scream­ing hot sum­mer, the weath­er reporter miss­ing from the screen.

“Can you change the chan­nel back a cou­ple of times?” Kealan asked. The words “EAST COAST COOKS. Heat­wave enters fourth week,” blinked into view and scrolled by.

“Look at the head­lines,“ Kealan said. “There’s noth­ing about this, so it hap­pened fast, and they didn’t real­ize. Every­thing just stopped.”

“Are they dead?” she asked.

“No. I don’t think so.”

After a beat, Syd­ney switched to a dif­fer­ent chan­nel: “So then I went inter­na­tion­al. Irish news, look.”

The end of the world had inter­rupt­ed some talk­ing head round­table dis­cus­sion. Suit­ed men and women gaw­ped past each oth­er and up.

“Oh, Christ.”

“BBC knows something’s up.”

She switched to the UK. A famous test card appeared: a child draw­ing on her chalk­board, look­ing back at the cam­era, smil­ing into yesterday.

“So what­ev­er is hap­pen­ing is every­where,” she said, “and I can’t find any­thing online. Social media, Insta­gram. The last post on my feed was maybe an hour ago.” 

Syd­ney was begin­ning to sob. She pushed her sun­glass­es firm­ly onto the bridge of her nose. Her words became a flood. “The updates just stopped, and I tried tex­ting my sis­ter, and she stopped reply­ing, and I tried tex­ting friends, and nobody’s there any­more, and I think we’re alone.”

“Please keep your glass­es on,” Kealan said. 

They found a roll of black duct tape among a detri­tus of home essen­tials, hid­den at the bot­tom of their hall­way clos­et. String and scis­sors in the kitchen drawer.

“What if we close our eyes when we take them off?” asked Syd­ney. “They’re going to itch.”

“Are you will­ing to risk it?”

“No. Not yet, at least.”

Kealan tore off inch­es of tape at a time, then cut the mate­r­i­al into thin, black strips. As Syd­ney held them in place, he stuck the tape around the rims of her lens­es. Next, he pressed the tape direct­ly onto her skin, stick­ing them into place. He let no gaps remain to let in the light through any­thing oth­er than the lens­es. Then he took the string and tied each end to the legs of her frames.

“This should keep them secure for now if we don’t sweat. We’ll work a gap into the seal so we can use a straw or some­thing to scratch,” he said.

“Okay,” she said, “maybe we can find gog­gles that work the same way.”

“Yes. Good idea.”

Next, he repeat­ed the work on him­self, using the hall­way mir­ror to guide him. The only light he could see fil­tered through the lenses.

“Let’s leave the self­ies for anoth­er day,” he said. Syd­ney gig­gled and kissed him.

Their sleep was fit­ful, but the lens­es remained intact through the night. When the morn­ing came, a bark­ing star­tled them awake: someone’s dog dis­mayed at their owner’s inat­ten­tion. Kealan and Syd­ney then took turns replac­ing the tape on each other’s frames, mak­ing sure they were attached, firm and safe. When it was light, they ven­tured out­side. For their idea, Kealan took the extra pair of sun­glass­es he’d lift­ed from the woman in the park.

“Let’s find some­where with lots of peo­ple,” Syd­ney said.

“Times Square?” Kealan offered, and she agreed.

As they made their way toward mid­town, they debat­ed the cause of their apocalypse.

“Cli­mate change? That would be my first guess,” Kealan said. “I mean, we know it’s been get­ting hot­ter. Maybe their brains have boiled.”

“It’s been hot for weeks.”

“Maybe some type of radi­a­tion? Com­ing from the sun?”

“But it’s only peo­ple. Did you notice? There were birds last night, did you hear them? This morn­ing there was that dog. And I bet you if you retraced your steps in the park, you’d find more dogs, and they’d be fine. If it were glob­al warm­ing, it wouldn’t just be us.”

Kealan thought of the scared ani­mal he’d found under the park bench, cow­er­ing in the cor­ner. “We can go look lat­er,” he said.

“This feels like it’s tar­get­ed. This is some­thing we’re not see­ing,” Syd­ney concluded.

When they reached 45th Street, they faced a sea of peo­ple. Every­one looked sky­wards as a con­gre­ga­tion in prayer. Some­one in the thick crowd had fall­en and tak­en dozens to the ground like dominos. 

“How long can peo­ple sur­vive like this?” Syd­ney asked. Kealan sus­pect­ed she already knew but answered all the same. 

“Three days.”

They reached a clear­ing among the crowd and found a woman stand­ing alone. Syd­ney eyed her head to toe as if apprais­ing her choice of sum­mer wear. 

“What are they all look­ing at?” she asked. With her point­ed fin­ger, she traced the woman’s stare upwards to the sky. “They’re all look­ing at some­thing up there. It isn’t ran­dom,” she said.

“Let’s ask her.” Kealan took the spare sun­glass­es and unfold­ed the legs. “Are you ready, Syd?” 

Syd­ney nod­ded, so he slid the legs of the glass­es through the woman’s sweat-stained hair until they rest­ed behind her ears. Then he low­ered them so they cov­ered her eyes, obscur­ing her view of what­ev­er lay claim to her above.

The woman start­ed scream­ing.  Her pupils dart­ed back and forth in her head, see­ing Kealan, then Syd­ney, the Kealan again. As she cried, the sound rose from some pit deep inside her, and she lift­ed her hands to claw at the air between them. On her third scream, some­thing tore in her throat, and her voice became a wheeze. She screamed all the same.

Syd­ney swiped her hand at the woman’s tor­tured face. Her fin­ger­tips clipped the glass­es. They dis­ap­peared through the air, lost to the fall­en crowd.

The woman stopped scream­ing an instant lat­er. Her head snapped back like a flower on a bro­ken plant stem, caught in the wind. Then she fell, face for­ward, and didn’t move again. 

They left the dead woman with the rest and returned home. That night, Kealan held Syd­ney close to him as he skimmed thin sleep.

“Are we the only peo­ple left?” Syd­ney asked.

“There’ll be others.”

“But if it’s the glass­es? Real­ly the glass­es? Then that leaves blind peo­ple and peo­ple with ones like these.”

Kealan was sink­ing away. If they didn’t take them off, he thought.

“Can we try and find my sis­ter tomorrow?”

Yes.”

Kealan had been relaps­ing in his dream. Now awake, he could smell ozone burn and thick­en the air. Behind the bed’s head­board, the win­dow vibrat­ed in its frame. He kneeled, peer­ing into the night, and saw a tear of yel­low light­ning sep­a­rate the stars above Man­hat­tan. It left a zigzag crack like a dag­ger tak­en to bleed the sky. An impos­si­ble col­or swirled in the wound, made indis­tinct by the lens­es still taped to his face.

His thoughts were becom­ing fuzzy as he looked. Like his mind slipped against a sur­face area that stretched out­ward and away.

From deep with­in the sky’s crack came a flash of white, and some­thing large and thin blinked through. Red lights flick­ered on its black sur­face. Then it fell free towards the earth. There was anoth­er white flash, then anoth­er, and the night was full of falling craft.

Kealan reached out to touch his sleep­ing love beside him. I think I can fin­ish that sto­ry now, Syd, the one about the end of the world.

What’s scarier than short horror fiction?

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Iain Maguire (he/him) is a short sto­ry writer born and raised in Scot­land, cur­rent­ly liv­ing in New York. In the evening, he is often found tak­ing long walks in Cen­tral Park in between cof­fee refills and book­store deep-dives. By day he is a soft­ware engi­neer and tech­ni­cal instruc­tor. As an avid fan of hor­ror movies and lit­er­a­ture, he endeav­ors to incor­po­rate ele­ments of his own expe­ri­ences into his writ­ing. He lives with his part­ner Kit­ty, their cat Priscil­la, and an ever grow­ing col­lec­tion of books. He is cur­rent­ly work­ing on his first novel.

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