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General

Throughout history, an untold number of people have predicted the end of the world. Big names too. Hippolytus of Rome predicted the world would end in the year 500CE. Christopher Columbus figured it would happen around 1656. Charles Manson tried his best to bring it about himself in 1969. Perhaps most famously, in the sixteenth century Nostradamus, the man known by his contemporaries as the much more ordinary Michele de Nostredame, in his famous quatrain X.72 made a very distant but specific prediction: the world would end in July, 1999. Invariably, the dates predicted by these and other prophets came and went while the world spun ceaselessly on. Shamefully, these prophets would occasionally return, blaming some error in the ledger and saying that they’d recalculated and found the true date of Armageddon. ‘Bollocks,’ people would say. ‘You’ve just fudged the numbers.’ Suffice it to say, people grew tired of the whole charade. Cry wolf too many times and people are prone to stop believing in wolves. That’s what’s so unfortunate about what happened to Albert Barnes, who by sheer dumb luck actually got it right. Nobody believed him.

*****

Albert woke as he did most every morning, with an urgent sense of panic at the sound of his bedside alarm clock blaring. It was one of those old-fashioned alarms, with the two bells on top and the hammer in the middle that throttled between them. His fiancée had given it to him as a gift, after he’d mentioned he’d always wanted one like that. Back when she cared about things like that. The alarm made a hell of a racket, and if he didn’t shut it off quickly it was bound to rattle itself off the edge of his dresser and smash onto the floor, likely sending tiny components flying to all corners of the room. Then his fiancée would wake up and start going on about how unappreciative he was. As a result, he’d developed the ability, or perhaps the affliction, to jolt awake the instant the alarm began to ring. Today he was able to shut the alarm off in time, his heart beating an anxious rhythm. He glanced at the pillow beside him and saw Lauren stir, but didn’t wake. He sat up, dangled his feet off the side of the bed and rubbed sleep out of his eyes. As he stretched his hands up and yawned he thought, with an unusual volume and clarity for such an early hour: The world will end on November 22, 2041. As if that were some ordinary and obvious thing. I have ten fingers and ten toes, today is Wednesday, and the world will end on November 22, 2041.

Albert got out of bed and turned on the shower. Must have been the leftover of a dream, he thought as he waited for the water to warm. As he showered he mulled over it lazily, feeling it slowly slip through his fingers, and by the time he’d finished his shower he’d forgotten it entirely. Already he was occupied with thinking of the various meetings he had scheduled that day at work. He dressed quickly, having prepared his clothes the night before, and returned to the bedroom to give a kiss on the forehead of a still-sleeping Lauren. 

“Have a good day at work,” he said.

“I’m sleeping,” she grumbled, pulling her pillow over her ears. 

He grabbed his lunch from the refrigerator on his way out the door, and walked briskly to the bus station. Lauren used his car during the week. As usual, Albert arrived precisely as the bus did, and barely needed to break his stride to board and take his seat near the front.

“Thought I was going to miss you,” he told the driver as the bus began to move. “Had some crazy dreams last night.”

The bus driver gave a tight-lipped smile, and only nodded as he pulled out into traffic.

That day, work was busy. Albert had recently been hired as a broker at Western Insurance, and was finding himself somewhat in over his head. Sure, he’d always had a knack for the mathematical parts of insurance, and he’d excelled in school for that reason. It was the people side of things proving difficult. Albert was never great with customers. He was always over-sharing details of his personal life. If a customer came in for insurance on a boat, suddenly Al was talking about how much he missed fishing with his aunt and uncle when he was a child. A customer came in for life insurance, now Al is crying about how his mother had passed away so young. It slowed him down and he noticed the looks he got from several of his coworkers. This particular Wednesday was no different. And yet, as he struggled his way through another work day, he found occasional moments of quiet, and in those moments the same thought would emerge. The world will end on November 22, 2041. It came through unrequested, like the lyric of a song caught in his ear. Inevitably the moment would pass and the thought would go along with it, only to come back later feeling all the more familiar.

“Must have had the strangest dream last night,” he told Roger, the Assistant Manager on duty when they bumped into one another at the vending machine in the foyer.

“Something apocalyptic I guess. The only thing I can remember is that the world will apparently end on November 22, 2041.

Weirdly specific, eh?” He laughed as he walked back to his desk, not paying attention to whether Roger found it as funny as he did.

On the bus ride home he mulled the thought over some more. Maybe it stuck out only because he kept thinking about it. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, it’d just gained enough momentum that now it was rolling all on its own. By the time he made it home the idea had this curious weight to it, and during dinner he brought it up with Lauren.

“The world is what?” She said.

“Going to end. Apparently. According to my dream. Funny isn’t it?”

“I wouldn’t call it funny. That’s only like 20 years away. What about when we have kids, Al? You think it’s funny that they’re going to die as children?”

“No, of course I don’t think…”

“You’ve got a sick sense of humour sometimes, Al. Don’t make jokes like that anymore.”

They finished the rest of their meal in silence.

*****

In the morning the alarm rang, Albert jolted awake, and the same thought came through with equal clarity. In the shower, Albert scrubbed hard at his head with shampooed fingers, hoping to clean away whatever dirt kept bringing that date back. It didn’t work, and the date followed him again on the bus that morning.

When Albert arrived at work there was a note on his desk, asking him to report to the manager’s office. Inside, the manager Lisa sat at her desk while Robert leaned against the far wall.

“Morning Lisa. Robert. I saw your message.”

“Take a seat Albert.” Lisa said, gesturing to the seat across from her desk. “Robert was just telling me about a concerning conversation he had with you yesterday afternoon. Apparently you told him the world will end soon?”

“Oh yeah, that,” Al said, taking a seat. “Actually I had the same thing this morning too. It was just a joke though, what I said yesterday. I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Customers heard you, Albert.” Lisa sighed, looking at Al across the desk. “You understand that we sell insurance here, right? We deal with what happens when life goes badly, when people feel like their world is ending. Jokes like that are unacceptable here.”

“I understand. I’m sorry. I think it’s just stress. My fiancée and I are going through a bit of a rough patch right now…”

Lisa shook her head in exasperation, and in his peripheral vision Albert could see Roger begin to smirk.

“Look, Albert, we’ve been reviewing your numbers and you are by far the slowest of the new brokers. I just don’t think you’re a good fit for the offices here. Your probationary period doesn’t end for another month, and I’m sorry but we’re going to have to let you go. Please pack up your things.”

Albert wanted to protest. Wanted to explain that he didn’t deserve to be fired over a comment about a dream. Wanted to say that he was going through a really hard time, and that this was just going to make it harder. But his mouth was what had gotten him into this mess, so instead Albert wordlessly left the office, packed his things in a box he found by the printer, and left. 

When Lauren came home and saw his box of things on the kitchen table, she knew what it meant without having to be told. Albert sat in the kitchen chair and waited for what would come next. As expected, she started unloading on him. 

“So what happened…” he began.

“Don’t even start.” She said, tossing an accusatory gesture at the box. “Classic Al. Finally things were starting to look up for us, for once. And you have to go and open your mouth and throw it all away.”

She ranted at him for some time, jumping to different grievances she evidently had against him as she paced around the room, as if his mistakes were items she was grabbing from a grocery store shelf and she had a long list. Albert opened his mouth a few times to begin to interject, to offer explanation or a defense but each time closed it without speaking. Finally, Lauren threw her hands in the air.

“I’m done. We’re done.” She took off her ring, dropped it into his box of things, and walked out the door.

Albert stared at the box on the table in front of him. What has happened to my life? 

The world will end on November 22, 2041 was his response.

Silently, Albert got up from the table and walked to the bedroom, picked his alarm clock off of the bedside table, and smashed it on the ground.

*****

After the events of that day, Lauren came back only to grab her things, and Western Insurance wouldn’t even respond to his calls. Now that he needed to pay for all of the rent, he couldn’t afford to wait for another insurance company to take a chance on him. Beyond this, he didn’t feel like he had any marketable skills. In a hasted panic, he downloaded a rideshare app on his phone, and began driving. 

Because he could set his own hours, he would drive twelve, sometimes fourteen hours a day. The thought, the one that started everything, stayed with him, but he made a careful point not to tell it to anyone. He locked it away deep inside himself, as he knew he couldn’t share it with anyone. Over time he shared less of everything, though. As it turned out, people weren’t much interested in a talkative driver, and his silent rides gave him the highest reviews. And so, as the years progressed, Albert retreated into himself, and where he was once so talkative he became resolutely mute. He was now a man of smiles, waves, and nods.

During this time, the thought never left him, not fully at least. It receded at times, hiding in some forgotten place for months at a time, but it always came back, rising like a long favourite ditty from his youth. It had a familiarity to it, a certain rhythm that felt baked into his soul, but alone in his soul it remained.

Finally, on a chilly November morning, Albert awoke on the day he’d been warned about a million times to the sounding of his alarm. After Lauren left, he’d unearthed his old alarm clock - the one he’d had as a kid. He found that he actually enjoyed the sound it made. Albert let the alarm continue to ring as he lay in bed and conjured up the thought. The world will end on November 22, 2041. It was still there. I thought it would have been updated to say “today”, or something, he thought. Determined not to be ruled by the thought, he got out of bed as usual, showered, and went to work.

His first few clients of the day went as usual. Quiet rides, with just the sound of inoffensive morning radio filling the car. Between songs Albert would listen to the DJ for any apocalyptic news, but of course there was none. In all these years, there had been nothing to indicate that there should be.

After lunch, his next client was being picked up from the airport. When he parked, a woman about his age waved at him and scurried towards his car, pulling her scarf against the cold wind. This was Mona, the app told him. Albert helped her load her suitcase into the trunk, and opened the back door to let her in. As they pulled away from the airport, the woman began unbundling herself, setting her scarf and gloves on the empty seat beside her.

“Cold out there, isn’t it?” She said, rubbing her hands together.

“Very cold,” Albert said. His voice felt raspy, and sounded unwelcoming to his ear. Unused. He peeked into the rearview mirror and saw her gazing out the window.

“Glad to be home.” She met his eyes in the rearview. “Do you enjoy being a driver?”

“Sure, yeah I like it enough.” He said. “It’s quiet.”

“Ooh,” she winced. “I couldn’t handle that. Just sitting in silence with strangers all day? Too awkward.”

She leaned forward in her seat. “So what made you become a driver?”

And just like that, Albert felt something inside him break. Some dam, reinforced with sticks and silence of the last twenty years broke, and words came tumbling out. He told her what it was like to be a driver. How his fiancée had left him decades ago, although he didn’t say why. How he’d been unlucky in love ever since. How he’d gone to school to become an insurance broker. Finally unstoppered, his life poured out of him, until he was certain she knew more about him than anyone else in the world. 

She talked too, and he listened. Little things, like the names of the fish waiting for her at home. As they drove, she told him bigger things too, and he listened as she talked about how a job that required as much travel as hers didn’t leave much time for relationships. Albert’s decades of driving in the city took over and he entered a sort of autopilot, immersing himself fully in the conversation. So engrossed was he, that he was startled when she suddenly pointed out the window. 

“This is me,” she said.  It was a stout house, with a quaint little porch and paint peeling off the walls. Albert parked, exited the car, and took her luggage out of the trunk.

“Thank you,” he said, realizing that with how much he’d talked he knew little about this woman. “I needed that.”

She stood on the walkway leading to her front door and turned to face him. As he handed her the luggage, he saw over her shoulder a small light in the sky. At first he thought it was a star, but it was too early, too bright, for the stars to be out already. And was it getting larger?

“No, thank you!” She said. “Best cab ride I’ve ever had. Listen, I’ve got another trip next Monday. I’ll make sure to request you pick me up and take me to the airport.”

She grabbed the handle of her luggage.

“Well Albert, this has been great. It is a bit odd. I’ve just met you, but I feel like I know everything about you. I hope we see each other again soon.” She turned and began to walk up the path towards her house.

“Wait,” Albert called out. In his chest he felt his heart beat a muffled alarm.

Mona stopped and turned to face him, as in the sky behind her the object was most certainly growing larger now, and beginning to glow a bright orange.

“What is it, Albert?”

“I haven’t told you everything,” he said, as he turned the key in a lock very deep inside himself, and let his heart ring.

August 20, 2020 21:17

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2 comments

Kate Le Roux
23:28 Aug 21, 2020

What a great ending. As always, so easy and such a pleasure to read your writing. Your dialogue is great. This prompt was a nice challenge - I chose it too.

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Kevin Leonard
00:43 Aug 22, 2020

Thank you! I really appreciate your kind comments. This was a very difficult prompt. The entire time I was writing it, I was debating between this prompt and the one that concludes with a character saying "can you keep a secret?" In the end, I felt him referring to it as just a "secret" cheapened the ending, so I went this way. I will head over to your story then, and see how you handled it!

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