A Short Story
James stretched his arms and rubbed his heavy eyes as he awoke from his slumber. He looked out the bus window and saw that it was nearly pitch black outside as light raindrops sprinkled upon the glass. The tired young man checked his watch and noted that it was three in the morning. After wiping his face and letting out a yawn, he picked up his large, black backpack, placing it on his lap and opening it up to make sure everything was still in place while looking around the bus.
The bus itself was empty save for himself and the driver. The bus was a modern motor coach with soft seats, vents overhead, an overhead luggage and overhead lights. At first glance it seemed clean but when James looked closer, he could see crumbs and wrappers from various snacks as well as an empty water bottle on the seat across from him. He looked over to the seat in front of him and saw that the older African-American man he was talking to earlier had apparently gotten off while he was asleep.
James still instinctively checked his belongings, despite the bus's vacancy. He had only spent two years traveling, but within that time he had already taught himself to make sure everything he had was still there when he woke up. Inside the backpack, he found everything in its rightful place. Zipping back up his bag, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet, opening it up to see that he had not lost any of his IDs or the $750. Sighing and sliding his wallet back into his pocket, he looked up at the bus driver.
He was a short, old man with grey hair wearing an appropriate bus driver-looking jacket. He wasn’t really paying attention to James as he was focused on driving and occasionally talking into his radio. James took his backpack and carefully made his way to the front seats, making sure that he didn’t accidentally fall face first into the aisle. Upon reaching the front, he called to the old man.
“Excuse me, when and where is the next stop?” he shouted to the driver, attempting to talk over the roar of the bus’s engine and the splashes of the tires as they drove through puddles.
It took a couple moments and a second call before the old man heard him. “We’re coming up on Gaudium in about a half hour,” he replied without looking at James.
“Gaudium? Can you tell me anything about it?” James asked.
“Well from what I hear, it’s a nice beachside town with friendly locals. Never heard of anyone who went there and complained about it. Sometimes they get tourists looking for beach resorts or the like, but for the most part, it’s quiet,” the driver replied.
“I see, know of any jobs in town or anything of the sort?” James wondered, hoping he could find some quick work before he moved on to the next town.
“Not really, I mostly just drive people to or through it, never really stayed there myself,” he responded simply.
James sighed and nodded before sitting back and taking out one of his granola bars. He unwrapped the foil concealing it before taking a bite and staring out into the rain-soaked darkness.
Just as the driver had stated earlier, the bus arrived at its stop half an hour later. James picked up his backpack and stepped off the bus, walking into the cold mist of water droplets.
“Have a nice day,” the driver said in a tired tone.
“You too,” James replied in a slightly sarcastic tone before the doors shut and the bus drove off in the opposite direction.
James stood in the cool, light shower of rain for a couple of moments before he looked around the dimly lit street near the bus stop. To his left was a long stretch of street lights that seemed to go on forever and to his right was a street leading to a neon sign in the distance. The sign was hard to make out at the moment due to the distance and the rain. James shrugged and started walking towards the neon sign, hoping that it was a motel so he would have a place to rest until the sun came up.
As he walked down the street towards the neon blur in the distance, James’s mind began to drift to the past to pass the time. He recalled his childhood and all the little adventures he had with his friends back in Vermont. He remembered how much fun tennis was in high school and that one time his friends accidentally left him at a gas station without his phone or his shoes.
But then the recent memories returned which caused him to look down at his feet. He began to recall his graduation from Castleton University and getting his Bachelor’s in ecology. Unfortunately, for reasons he’d rather not admit, he didn’t have a job waiting for him. He spent much of his time sending out application after application but many of them went without answer or were met with either denials or interviews that went nowhere. Eventually, he began to look at his degree with bitterness and disappointment. After that, he soon began to consider just living on welfare and praying that he would find a job, no matter what it was.
But then one day, he had a revelation. While sitting out on a bench in the middle of a park, a bolt of inspiration struck him. He wasn’t going to sit around and let his life slowly waste away. He was going to travel, he was going to go out and see the country, if not the world. So James packed up his essentials, sold off what he couldn’t carry and began to travel the country, going from state to state, meeting new people, experiencing new things, and making some cash with quick, temporary work. It might not have been the life he dreamed of, but at least he was free now.
James was brought back to reality when he heard the distant crash of thunder and quickly looked up. He could see that he was almost two thirds of the way to what he thought to be a motel but what struck him was what was beyond it. Out in the distance, a sliver of moonlight pierced through the dark clouds and created a faded, distorted rainbow.
Upon reaching the neon sign, which was placed in front of two story building, James noted that the vibrant colors read, “Gaudium Motel.” He smiled brightly as he rushed through the door and into the building, shaking himself slightly dry and checking his backpack once more to make sure nothing had been ruined by the light sprinkles of rain before approaching the front desk.
The desk clerk watched a tall, slightly tan, bald man with a short beard wearing a brown leather jacket, a pair of jeans, and a black backpack approach him. The tall stranger's clothes were slightly soaked from the weather outside, but despite the man's appearance, it was the least of the desk clerk's concerns.
Behind the desk, James saw a man of about average height with a light complexion, a clean shaven face, and red hair. The man was wearing a typical clerk's uniform and a little pin that said “Jim”.
“Welcome to the Gaudium Motel, the best and only motel for miles,” Jim said in a cheery tone and a smile plastered across his face.
“Thanks, so could I get a room for the night?” James asked before rubbing his eyes and silently groaning a little.
“Why yes, yes you can. You’ll find that all of our rooms are available so you can pick whichever one you’d like,” Jim replied in the same cheery tone.
“Uh, alright, I guess I’ll take the second one on the first floor,” he started to pull out his wallet “How much will that be?” he wondered.
Jim laughed in a way that was clearly fake, “It’s absolutely free, after all, today’s the end of the world,” he said.
James jumped a bit at Jim's sudden laughter before raising an eyebrow. “The end of the world, eh? What makes you so sure?” James questioned while thinking about maybe catching the next bus out of there.
“Why the Demiurge told us. He told us that today the world will end and once the sun comes up, we will begin the Grand Ceremony. You should join us; it’s going to be a lot of fun!” Jim cheered as though he were a child excited for Christmas.
“Um so when’s the next bus come?” James asked bluntly though that didn’t seem to affect Jim’s mood.
“Not until tomorrow at the same time, any other buses that try to come around are turned away or destroyed,” Jim explained nonchalantly.
“What do you mean by ‘destroyed’?” James asked, backing up a little.
“Nothing you need to worry about, just sign in and I’ll give you your room key,” Jim said as he continued to smile.
James gave a deep sigh before looking at the door and then back at Jim who was still smiling. James wanted to leave this place and push it to the back of his mind but he didn’t want to find out what was destroying those buses. So he compromised.
“Alright, I’ll take the room,” he said begrudgingly.
“Wonderful! Just sign in the registry and I’ll give you the key. You’ll get a wake up call at eight so that you don't miss the preparation,” Jim said before getting out the registry book.
“I think I’ll skip on the wakeup call,” James said before signing the registry for Room 2 with “James Patera”.
“Oh, but I insist,” Jim replied, his smile turning into a grin before handing James the key.
“Right,” James grumbled while he left the front building.
“Have a nice day!” Jim called.
James only had to walk a few steps to reach his room and upon opening it, he found it wasn’t as bad as most motels he stayed at. The room was clean with the usual motel furnishings as well as a very clean looking bed and a window next to the door. James walked into the room and searched it for anything out of the ordinary but found nothing. Afterwards, he set his backpack down, locked his door, and pushed the dresser in front of it.
“Not gonna die to a cheerful weirdo tonight,” he mumbled before he took out his journal and wrote a new entry.
After finishing the entry, he put his journal away and set his backpack beneath the bed, closing the curtains before crawling into the bed and making an attempt to fall asleep. However, sleep rarely came despite his heavy eyes. Sure he would occasionally blink in and out of consciousness but it was never enough. His mind continued to wander and wonder. Why was the clerk so cheerful? Why is there no one else at this motel? And what was the Grand Ceremony? These questions would haunt him as he tossed and turned.
At one point during his turning, he heard footsteps moving just outside his room before stopping at the door. The doorknob jiggled a little before James heard someone trying to force the door open. After about a minute, the person at the door stopped and walked a little more forward. James saw a silhouette through the curtains standing there, seemingly facing him. James tensed up and shivered at little.
James watched the silhouette stand there, unmoving for two hours before it left. Now James was actively resisting sleep, trying to stay awake so he could see if the silhouette would return. But eventually, he fell unconscious for a longer time than his previous attempts.
James was awakened by the ringing of the phone and the beams of light from the sun coming through a crack in the curtains. He groaned as he got out of bed, still tired from the rough night. He walked over to the phone and answered it.
“Hello?” he said in dull tone.
“Good Morning, Mr. Patera, this is your wake up call to the end of the world. The end of the world isn’t for another sixteen hours, but that gives you plenty of time to enjoy our town before it goes away. Have a nice day!” Jim said joyfully.
“Yeah sure…hey wait a minute were you standing by the window last night?” James asked but Jim hung up before he could finish.
“Son of a bitch,” James grumbled before hanging up and doing his daily routine of showering and brushing his teeth.
Once his hygiene was taken care of, he picked up his backpack and moved the dresser out of the way. He found the door was unlocked and the chain lock had some scratches on it which sent a little shiver down his spine. James carefully opened the door and made sure no one was outside before he left, closing the door behind him.
James walked on the street for several minutes before coming upon Gaudium’s shopping district. Each side of the road was lined with shops, none of which he recognized by name so he thought they might’ve been independent stores. James soon found out that it was rather difficult to maneuver through the sidewalks as they quickly became crowded with people going in and out of the stores. He then noticed that every store had signs on their windows reading things like “End of the World Sale”, “100% Off”, and “Everything Must Go!” written on them. However, despite the panic James assumed such sales would cause, all the people were entering and exiting the store in a calm and orderly fashion.
Curious, he walked up to a woman about to enter the store and tapped her on her shoulder. The woman had short, brunette hair, looked to be in her early 30’s and wore a conservative blue sundress.
“Excuse me, miss, do you know why all of these stores are having these sales?” James asked.
The woman turned around, showing him that she was wearing the same smile as Jim from earlier “Why it’s because it’s the end of the world, of course. These stores can’t just leave their inventory lying around with no one to buy them, so they’re just giving them away,” she said in the same joyful tone.
“But what about making a profit? Don’t the stores need to pay their employees?” James questioned.
“You don’t need money when there’s nothing to buy,” she replied.
“I see…so you can just go in and take what you want?” James asked.
“As long as someone else hasn’t taken it,” she responded with a giggle.
“So I take it nobody's hiring anymore?” James said somberly.
“You shouldn’t have to work when there’s nothing to work towards,” the woman replied.
“Alright, I guess I’ll go stock up, then,” James said before walking up to a store called “Philip’s Foods” and managed to squeeze past the crowd entering.
“Have a nice day!” the woman called.
Inside, the store was almost completely packed with people going up and down the aisles and through the registers. James almost felt suffocated from all the people constantly moving and picking up items as they went along. Although he did manage to navigate the stream and was lucky enough to pick up four cans of beans, another water bottle, and a pack of batteries for his flashlight. Most of the shelves seemed to be nearly empty by the time he started joining the stream of people exiting the store.
While making his way to the exit, James began noticing something about the people around. Despite their varying ages and ethnicities, all the people around him were smiling and wearing the same clothes. All the women were wearing the exact same dress as the woman he just spoke to except they were all different colors. Meanwhile, all the men were wearing plaid dress shirts and jeans of varying color and vibrancy. It also seemed as though nobody was stopping to talk to anyone else. The more he noticed these similarities, the more restrictive the crowd began to feel. Why does everyone look the same? Has anyone noticed how different he looks? What would happen if they did? James trembled a little and hoped no one would notice that he looked different from everyone else. He feared that if somebody noticed, they might point at him and start screeching before everyone attacked.
James tried to push those thoughts to the back of his mind and simply concentrated on getting out of the store. He hoped that no one would point him out and that he could at least get out unmolested. Despite his fears, however, he managed to make it out of the store without making a scene.
Upon exiting the store, James walked down the street full of people as he contemplated what store he might search next. Just as he was deciding which store to go to next, the man in front of him, who looked to be in his late 60’s, fell to the ground, convulsing while his eyes twitched and foam began to form at his mouth.
“Oh my God! I think he’s having a stroke!” James shouted though everyone around him seemed to ignore the old man.
James grabbed a young man from the people passing around the two of them “You, call 911! This man is having a stroke!” he cried in his panic.
The smiling young man glanced at the old man before looking back to James “Why should I?” he asked calmly.
“Because he’s dying! He needs help!” James pleaded, the old man’s condition worsening as his convulsions grew more violent.
“So? He’s old, he’s lived long enough. Besides, it’s the end of the world, who cares?” the young man said happily.
“Alright, then where’s the hospital? I’ll take him there myself!” James yelled.
“I don’t think I should tell you. It’d be a waste of your time,” the young man said matter-of-factually.
James let out a frustrated groan before he tried to reach down and help the old man up. But the young man grabbed his arm and pulled him back before putting him into a half-nelson.
“Sir, you need to calm down and let it happen. Someone will be around to claim his body eventually,” the young man said confidently while people walked around them, ignoring their plight.
“Let me go you bastard!” James shouted while he struggled against the young man’s grip. As he resisted, the old man continued to tremble and convulse until finally, he stopped moving altogether.
“There, he’s dead now, you can go,” the young man released James. “Have a nice day!” he said before walking away.
James simply stood there, looking at the dead old man lying there while everyone around seemed ignorant that anything had happened. He felt his body tensing up and his fist clenching, almost ready to punch the next person who looked at him. At the same time, a lump came up in his throat and he just wanted to sit there in front of the corpse. Instead, he took off in a random direction, his clouded mind hoping he would find some way out.
James ran for what felt like an eternity, passing by more shops, warehouses, and a park, until finally he ran out of breath when he reached the residential area. Feeling his stomach growl, he sat down, took out a granola bar and ate it while he rested near a house. He wanted to get out of this crazy town but he didn’t know how he would get out. He was also feeling a little stupid for running deeper into town as opposed to running back to the motel. Suddenly, James felt a hand on his shoulder.
“Hello there, stranger,” a deep but kind voice greeted.
“Uh hi,” James said before turning to see a large, toned man with a five o’clock shadow and short black hair.
“My name is Adam, what brings you here?” he asked, wearing the same smile as everyone else.
“Um James and I was visiting when I…” James trailed off as he thought about the old man again.
“Well, you came to the right place at the right time. It’s the end of the world and this is the place to be to celebrate it. Why don’t you join me and my family? We’re having a barbecue!” he invited.
James hesitated to answer after what he saw but he was hungry and it’s not like he had much else to do “Sure…why not?” he said in weakly cheerful tone.
“Great! Follow me!” Adam said as he led James to the back of the house.
Beyond the gate, Adam’s family was sitting at a picnic table eating burgers and steaks while a grill sizzled with meat. The smell of the meat was odd to James as he didn’t quite recognize it but it still made his mouth water a bit. Adam led James to the grill and started flipping the patties and steak.
“So what would you like? Burger? Steak? Both?” Adam offered.
“I’ll take both,” James licked his lips. “So I assume that’s your family?” he asked, pointing at the family at the table.
Adam nodded “Yep that’s my wife, Jenny,” he pointed to the blonde woman in the red dress “And those are our kids, Rodney and Jane,” he said pointing to the little boy and girl.
“They look very lovely,” James complimented though secretly he thought everyone was starting to look similar in this town despite their differences.
“Thanks James! Here,” Adam said before giving James a burger and a slice of steak.
James took a bite of the burger and made a pleasing hum. “This is pretty good,” James said.
“Yeah, I make a mean burger, just wait until you try the steak,” Adam said before chuckling.
“Although you know, this smells kind of funny, are you using something other than beef?” James wondered.
“Yes, it’s made from our dog, Rocky,” Adam said gladly before pointing to something near the fence.
James’ eyes widened as he saw a large dog completely skinned and with most of its meat stripped away. It’s bones still had bits of flesh on them and much of the organs were piled in front of its ribcage save for its eyes which remained in its skull. He could already see flies starting to swarm it while everyone else, including the kids, didn’t seem to notice or care.
“Y-You killed your dog and now…we’re eating it?” James asked, his voice trembling.
“Yep!” Adam said before flipping a burger.
“Don’t worry Mister. We gave him lots of sleeping pills so he wouldn’t feel anything,” Jane said while taking another bite of the burger.
“B-But why?” James wondered as he started feeling very sick and his vision began blurring a little.
“Well, we thought it would be cruel to leave Rocky here alone when the world ended so we decided to put him out of his misery. And we’re eating him because we didn’t want to waste the meat,” Jenny replied.
“Th-That’s…That’s…” James tried to protest but his body finally caved. He ended vomiting onto the ground before he collapsed and passed out.
James woke up to the thick smell of smoke. Immediately, he could see that it was nighttime and he could feel the pavement beneath him. He then quickly stood up and saw that the house in front of him was on fire with a trail of gasoline leading from the driveway. James turned and saw Adam’s family standing there, smiling as they watched their house burn.
“What the hell happened?!” James shouted.
“Oh, hey there, James! You were out for a while and we didn’t want you to die in the fire so we brought you out here,” Adam explained.
“Thanks but why is your house on fire?!” James yelled.
“Because we must let go of all of our possessions so that we don’t miss anything when the world ends,” Rodney said as his mother stroked his hair.
Before James could further question the family, he scanned the area and saw that all the houses in the neighborhood were on fire. All of the families were standing out in front, gazing at the infernos they started and watching them with smiles on their faces. James coughed a little from the smoke and back away a little.
Adam chuckled as he turned to James. “Heat a bit too much for ya?” he joked, his family laughing.
“Why don’t you join us for the Grand Ceremony?” Jenny offered.
“What are you going to do? Drink poisoned Kool Aid?” James snarled.
She giggled “No silly! We’re going to watch the world end,” Jenny replied before she and Adam walked up and grabbed his arms.
“We insist,” Adam said with a grin while James futilely struggled, the family dragging him off towards the beach.
Eventually, James and the family arrived at the beach with what appeared to be everyone in town. James had given up the struggle halfway through and simply followed and watched. At the front of the crowd was a man in a black tuxedo with a sash which read “Mayor”. The man looked old but not incredibly regal and was bald yet had a thick, white beard. He too was smiling and everyone seemed to be completely focused on him. The tides of the sea faintly crashed over the shore in the background as the Moon hung full in the sky.
“Friends, we are gathered here today to commence with the Grand ceremony!” the crowd cheered, startling James “Today, the world shall end; all that we’ve ever known or loved shall be abolished! This planet shall be wiped clean and a new people shall arise from the ashes! They will be stronger than us! Smarter than us! And above all, not human!” The crowd cheered once more “Today, the Demiurge who has slept for eons shall awaken and bring a joyful end to the world as we know it! Let the Grand Ceremony…begin!” the Mayor called to the audience as they cheered ecstatically.
Once the cheering died down, James watched as everyone’s eyes widened and their smiles grew into grins before they opened their mouths. After a moment of silence everyone save for James looked up into the sky before a technicolor rainbow slime began shooting out of their eyes, ears, mouth, and nose, all of it focused on a point in the sky. James stood there in awe and fear while the ball of rainbow-colored ooze quickly grew in size. In a couple of hours, it grew from the size of a beach ball to the size of a truck to the size of a five story building. Soon, the jets of slime coming from everyone weaned and dissipated, leaving the ball of bright rainbow slime hovering in the air and blocking out the moon. After another couple of seconds, the ball formed several limbs across its body with each limb growing three more appendages. Meanwhile, several eyes opened across the sphere’s body, each one either completely red or blue. The creature then made a noise which sounded like a thousand children laughing hysterically before it flew off towards the mainland.
James watched the brightly colored creature fly off into the distance before he looked around. All of the townspeople were now completely white and emaciated, their clothes barely hanging onto their still bodies. None of them moved as they stared into the night sky with their hollow, black voids where their eyes used to be and their empty, toothless grin.
James fell to the ground and shook, he wanted to scream until his lungs gave, he wanted to vomit until his stomach came up his throat, he wanted to get up and run away, but instead he began to laugh. At first it was a small chuckle which grew into a giggle before becoming a full blown laughing fit. He didn’t know why or how but he couldn’t stop himself from laughing. He laughed and laughed as he lay there with the hollow smiling figures and he never stopped laughing.