This piece was written as a presentation for a writer’s conference. It was read in the midst of a long line of flash fiction, sort of like a poetry reading, and mostly for the benefit of hearing one’s own voice. I had a sneaking suspicion that the majority of stories to be read would focus on the intricacies of everyday life—things I try to get away from when I pick up a book in the first place. I was pleasantly surprised in that more than a few of the stories read that day were not anywhere as mundane as I expected, although a fair few still were.
I wrote this hoping by the time my turn came around the audience would be interested in something a little different than the pining for a lost love or the realization that we all have to grow up at some point. For the record, I still disagree with that last point in my head, if nowhere else.
by Sam Best
Where were you when the world ended?
I was sitting in a booth at Meg’s Diner enjoying a late breakfast with my good friend Tommy Wagner. We asked for a booth next to one of the windows so we could look across the bay at San Francisco. I had on my nice grey suit (the one my parents bought me for my thirtieth birthday) because I had a job interview that afternoon. Tommy was unemployed but got himself injured in the war so he was handed free meals at every restaurant. He was wearing jeans and a plain white t-shirt, same as always.
I don’t know why I remember all the details, but I do.
The special that morning was fried eggs over toast with bacon on the side; my favorite. I ordered the eggs over-hard since I like to make a sandwich with everything on my plate. I used to be a scrambled eggs guy all the way, but dating a chef will change a lot about your eating habits. Her name was Maria, but that was years ago.
Now, of course, nobody eats eggs.
Tommy was going on about some guy in the war that used to buy cigarettes but never smoked them. The guy said he didn’t have anything better to spend his money on, so why not cigarettes? He always kept one tucked behind his left ear for good luck. When the guy lost that ear (along with most of his left arm) and got a free ticket home, he told everyone how his luck finally paid off.
The waitress brought our food and I thought I might try talking to Tommy for a while about the state of things; politics and all that. I could get him pretty fired up if I pushed the right buttons and he could argue for hours about any subject in the world. It was fun listening to him rant about the government. Turns out most vets feel pretty strongly about every policy coming out of Washington. Maybe he thought he earned more rights to free speech since he was over there for so long. I think I was probably the only one who recognized Tommy’s extra rights, so I usually let him talk until he ran out of breath.
He was starting in about all the crazy business they were doing across the bay (Tommy lived over there, in case I forgot to tell you) with cutting healthcare benefits for him and all his war buddies. I was digging into my egg and bacon sandwich pretty good and had a mouth full of food when suddenly the whole diner goes quiet.
Usually you can hear some noise in the background; silverware clinking and all that. But not then. We’d been sucked into a vacuum and nobody was even breathing. Someone said something that I can’t quite remember—probably about Jesus—and then I looked across the bay right as the city disappeared in a single flash of light.
I really hate how beautiful it was—the guilt at not finding it instantly repulsive burrows through me to this day—but there really is no other way to describe that initial, brilliant explosion of orange-red light.
For a second, nothing happened. The light hung in the air like an infinite photo flash; plateauing at its brightest point and stretching into infinity. Finally it started to fade, and the noise hit us like a wall of concrete.
All the windows in the diner shattered. Anyone who had their mouths open to scream gagged on tiny shards of glass. I turned away just in time, but Tommy caught a lot of it in the face. I tried to help him dig the glass out of his eyes later, but there was just too much of it.
After the concussion wave passed us, I stood up and walked outside. Everyone everywhere was screaming and running around like it would make a difference.
I looked across the bay at San Francisco.
A huge cloud of burning charcoal smoke curled up into the sky from the heart of the city. A giant crater scooped out more than half of all I could see. The great red bridge groaned loudly before twisting halfway across and falling into the bay and the hundred or so cars trapped in the confusion went down with it.
I watched the glowing, lava-laced cloud roil higher into the sky and wondered how the hell I was going to make my interview. When I looked down at my suit and tie I never felt so stupid in my whole life.
Sometime after that I started running. It was pointless to take a car as the roads were jammed from here to infinity with shouting, honking, cursing evacuees. Word eventually came over the radio that it wasn’t just San Francisco but that every state in the country had been hit multiple times.
I remember laughing.
Not because I thought it was funny, in case you’re wondering. I laughed because all I had left was a stupid suit and a stupid tie and the world was collapsing around me.
Off in the distance, more orange-red lights blossomed out of the earth as I looked on.
© Sam Best