Elise woke up fully by the third alarm. Interrupting the cheerful chimes, she rolled out of bed, picked up her water bottle, unplugged her cellphone, and staggered her way out of the bedroom. Draining the lukewarm water, she opened her apps in order, skimmed all the notifications, mentally prioritized which she was going to check first, then headed for the bathroom.
By the time her legs went numb from sitting on the toilet, she had cleaned up her morning emails and finished her water. She went to the kitchen, dropped off the water bottle by the sink, grabbed a coffee mug, and slapped a single-serve pod into the coffee maker, all the while swiping away unnecessary alerts.
She took the coffee to the bathroom, started up the shower and, while waiting for it to heat up, started interacting, responding to messages left overnight, greeting people in her favorite chat servers, and composing drafts for posting later in the day. She finished her coffee, set her phone aside, and stepped into the shower.
Elise had a very normal morning. From the moment she picked up her phone at 7:00 AM to when she set it in the car’s cupholder at 8:00 AM, every second of her routine went off without a hitch. She remembered her keys, her charger, her meds and vitamins, decided to put off shaving her legs for another day: all very normal decisions.
Normal ended when she came to a slow stop at a red light and turned on her blinker. For a moment, she considered picking up her phone and changing the song. It didn’t really feel like a soft rock kind of morning. She glanced at her phone. Eh, let it play.
Without completely understanding why, she released the brake and pressed evenly on the accelerator, ignoring the glaring red arrow. She took her left, slid comfortably into the nearest lane, and continued on her way. Behind her, the intersection heaved, shuddered, and collapsed into itself, crumbling with a deep, angry roar.
She was a block away before she finally glanced up at the rearview mirror and registered what had happened. She stared, pulling over to stare more, long and hard at the plume of grey-brown dust that bloomed above. The thunderous music cut off suddenly when she climbed out of the car, slammed the door, and stood, mouth agape.
“Hell of a thing.”
She looked at the man on the sidewalk. Woman. Maybe both. The temp outside was already touching mid-80s Fahrenheit, and this person was wearing a full tan suit, complete with vest, duster jacket, and fashionable trilby.
“What happened?” Her mouth moved before her brain told it to.
“Oh, I’m sure it’s just a sinkhole. Happens all the time.” They shrugged slightly, a jerky, casual gesture that didn’t quite fit their projected style. “What do you think happened?”
“I think the world is ending.” Again, her mouth just did its own thing.
“For someone, or a lot of someones, it just did.” They adjusted their glasses as the scream of sirens began to inch ever closer. “You’re not wrong.”
She watched the cloud of dust hang in the air, growing instead of dissipating. There was no wind to catch and drag it away, so it continued to blossom.
“Did you shave your legs this morning?”
Their question caught her higher brain off-guard, but her mouth seemed to be just fine doing its job without guidance. “No, why would I? I wear pants whenever I go anywhere.”
“Perfect. Seems like I might have gotten it right this time.”
Finally, her mouth didn’t seem to have anything constructive to add. She looked back to the scene and the red-blue glows that strobed within the cloud.
“Am I dead?” She pushed the words past her lips.
“No, Elise, you’re not dead. You’re very much alive, and you’re going to stay that way.” The person crossed the little strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street. They kicked at her car’s tire with a men’s dress shoe. “You’re the first person to be this lucky.”
“What’s your name?” She had to force those words, too, like her mouth didn’t want to cooperate.
“Oh. I forgot again, sorry. Howard.” They extended their hand, and she shook it out of social politeness. Despite the heat, Howard’s hand was dry and cool.
“I have to get to work.” She released the hand, still reeling from the sight of what had been the intersection. A lot of people had arrived by this point, and the din of voices, yells, sirens, and cries was getting thunderous.
“Oh, no, that’s not necessary. The world really is ending.” Howard reached up as if to pat her shoulder reassuringly, then stopped just before. “I keep forgetting, you don’t like being touched.”
Thoughts started clicking again, but slowly. By now, she should have been walking through the door at work, clocking in, grabbing her name tag and work mug. She should have been checking her morning messages and getting ready for the sales meeting.
But she wasn’t, she was standing on the side of a road that should have been bustling with cars, talking to an extremely out-of-place person about a catastrophic accident that just seemed to keep growing.
“Don’t like…oh. Right.” Elise’s mind seemed to be lagging behind everything else. “So the world really is ending.”
“Mhm. You knew it when it started.” Howard shoved those cool, dry hands back into the pockets of his pants, ignoring the duster. “And I think you know what’s going to happen next.”
“We’re leaving. You and I are going to leave, and we aren’t coming back.”
“That’s right, Elise. Now don’t you wish you’d shaved your legs?”
“They won’t care where we’re going.”
Howard raised an eyebrow. “You’re right. There’s no one to care. Are you okay with this?”
She shrugged slightly. “I’ll shave them when I feel like it.”
Howard laughed. “I meant, are you okay with us leaving?”
For a moment, Elise was grateful that her brain was so far behind, struggling to catch up. Her mouth seemed to sense the distraction and took care of the rest for her. “Yes, of course. Can I grab my purse?”
“Definitely. Did you forget anything at home?”
She reached into the car and grabbed her bag. Phone, wallet, e-reader, Bluetooth speaker, Bluetooth earbuds. Chargers. Notebook. Pens. Battery. Makeup bag. Three different types of chapstick. That would last her until she could get more. Extra pair of underwear. Cup. Panty liners. “I think I’ve got everything I need.”
“You’ll be able to download whatever you want once we get there. All the infrastructure is in place.” He gestured to her phone as she checked the time. They would be starting the sales meeting without her. “Whatever you’re missing, you can just pick it up out of the stores we’ve built.”
“All right then. Should I lock my car?”
“You don’t need to. They find it with the door open, just like that.”
“Will I be reported missing?”
Howard nodded. “Your husband will notify the police, and your little sister will make the drive down from Oregon to help make posters and all that.”
“I’m the only one that survives, then.”
Howard nodded again. “Your husband survives the next one.”
“Oh, good.” She sighed in relief, and sensed that her higher functions were about to catch up. “I think it’s time to go.”
“Excellent.” They stepped back up onto the sidewalk and headed away from the collapse, even as the ground rumbled again. The dust cloud grew darker and over the trees, she caught sight of more plumes rising into the cloudless sky. “Now, I know you don’t like touching, but I do need to take your hand again for this next step.”
“Oh, that’s all right. Do what you need to.” She offered her hand. Howard’s hand was still cool and dry as it closed around her wrist in a firm grip.
“Don’t hold your breath.”
She nodded and they stepped into the blinding white light, leaving the world behind as it crumbled into itself, one patch of tired old earth at a time.
They were still on the sidewalk a moment later, walking towards her car. Howard released her wrist and let out a long sigh.
“Here we are.”
“I have to go to work now?” Her mouth, once again, was running off on its own.
“No, well, you can go if you want, but no one else is here yet. There’s really no reason to.” Howard pulled off the trilby and wiped the sweat away. “You’re one of the first.”
“Oh.” Elise paused. “But I can if I want?”
Howard laughed, pulling off the glasses to wipe them clean of dust and sweat. “Of course you can. You can run up and down the aisles naked if you want, hairy legs and all. Eventually we’ll gather everyone together again, but you might be a little lonely until then.”
“How long until my husband survives?” There was no dust in the sky, no sirens piercing the cool morning air. She checked her phone. 68 Fahrenheit. No new notifications. No network service, but the wifi signal was perfect.
“I give it a week, at most. I’ll bring him to you myself, don’t worry.”
“All right. Thank you, Howard.” She smiled, realizing that her brain really wouldn’t ever catch up at this point. She had left it behind. Perhaps she’d go to work and make herself a cup of office coffee.
“Everything should be the same. If you notice anything different, or need something, just give me a ring, all right?”
She glanced at her phone again. Her music was paused and she was looking at a contact screen for ‘Howard.’ The picture boasted a cheerful smile but were missing the glasses. “Do you need my number?”
“Oh, no, I’ve had your number for quite a while.” He held up his phone, and it looked exactly like hers. Her number glowed from the screen, along with one of her wedding pictures as the contact image. “You’ll be okay.”
“You will, too, Howard. Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome, Elise.”
She walked up to her car, slid into the driver’s seat, and pulled the door shut. She took a moment to re-pair her phone with the car’s Bluetooth. She took all the time she needed. There was no one else on the road anyway. Howard waved when she started the car. She waved back in the rearview mirror, then, after using her turn signal, pulled out onto the empty road. When she glanced back again, Howard was gone.
Elise changed the song to something a little more fitting and drove the empty streets, blaring power ballads as she went.
“Routine” was written by Sadie Hickman on July 28th, 2018 and the author reserves all rights under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.