Wine And Cheese
Harold was running late. He had seen a matinee with his housemate, done a large pile of laundry, and finally gone down to the burrito place for some dinner. By the time he was home and ready to go to his boss' six o'clock wine and cheese party, it was past seven. He hurried to his car and drove off, sweating slightly.
Parking was worse than he thought it would be--he ended up blocking a fire hydrant three blocks from his destination. He walked briskly, casting nervous glances from side to side. His boss had mentioned that he had heard gunfire in this neighborhood. Harold clenched his jaw and quickened his pace. Almost at the front door, he realized that he'd forgotten to set the Club on his steering wheel. After a few moments' hesitation, he decided that he was too late already, so he trudged up the front steps and rang the bell.
"Hi!" His boss' wife, Paula, opened the door. Her eyes were red and she held a long-stemmed glass in her hand. "You must be one of Freddy's friends from work," she said, laughing a little.
"Uh, yes. My name is Harold. Sorry I'm late." He motioned vaguely with his hands.
"Oh!" She clapped her free hand on his shoulder and pulled him into the house. "So you're Harry! Freddy's told me about you. Please come in and have some wine." She pushed him toward the living room and shut the front door with her foot. Harold guessed she was drunk.
He walked into the living room and looked around. There were a handful of people he didn't recognize, but all the rest were from work. His boss, Fred Wasserman, ambled out of the kitchen. "Harry! So you decided to show up?" Harold had never seen Fred in anything but a suit and tie: jeans and a Grateful Dead T-shirt made him look like a regular guy. "Here, let me take your coat."
Harold shrugged out of his leather jacket, which he had anxiously bought with his Christmas bonus. Fred took it and said, "The wine's in the kitchen," then disappeared into the hallway.
At least it hadn't rained. It had been overcast and cold for the three days that Fred and Paula had been hiking, but, as they kept telling each other, at least it hadn't rained. They'd been looking forward to this vacation for a month and they were determined to have a good time. They marched on through the forest.
Around the time they were beginning to think seriously about dinner, they found a pleasant clearing and decided to regard it as a sign from God to set up camp. They pitched their tent and had dinner; by the time they were done it was very dark, very cold, and the clouds were starting to disperse overhead. The wind was methodically seeping its way through their layers of clothing. They huddled together next to their small, faithful campfire.
"Well, we might freeze to death, but at least we'll be able to see the stars," Fred said.
Paula smiled slightly, leaned a little more into him, and looked up at the sky. The clouds had thinned out enough to let a few stars peek through.
They weren't sure how long it took them to notice how bright the ambient light was, especially with only a crescent moon. For a while they were enjoying the beauty of nature, trying to ignore the cold. Then suddenly they realized they were staring at a bright point of light in the sky, just above the trees. They watched in silence for several moments; the light didn't move or change intensity. They looked at each other, confused, then they both laughed because they knew they were going to ask each other the same question.
Paula looked back up, and Fred became enraptured by her face. The intense starlight illuminated her skin, her eyes and her lips in a way he had never seen before. Her face seemed amazingly soft and natural, as if the whole time he'd known her she'd been covered with a coat of makeup and only now had taken it off.
"You know what?" she said. "I think it's that nova."
He stared at her. "What?"
"That nova." She motioned to the light overhead. "It must be that supernova."
"Oh. Yeah. Hey, Paula, will you marry me?"
It was her turn to stare. "What?"
"Will you marry me?"
"Fred..." She started to smile.
"Yeah. Yeah, I will."
Nodding to his co-workers, who politely nodded back, Harold crossed the living room to the kitchen. Plenty of wine still available: although half a dozen empty bottles lay in the recycling bin, several reds and whites were lined up on the counter, waiting to be uncorked.
"Hello, Harold. Want some wine?"
Harold lifted his eyes from a particularly delicious-looking Merlot and tried to be social. There were four people in the kitchen, only one of whom he knew.
"Hi, John." John was the Accounts Payable manager. They didn't talk much in the office, partly because their cubicles were on different floors, but also because of their twenty-year age difference and the disparaging comments John made when they'd both tried to get a date with an attractive temp. Harold looked away. "That Merlot looks pretty interesting. Do we just help ourselves?"
"Glasses and corkscrew are on the counter." John looked around at the three others: a good-looking, dark-haired woman in her mid-twenties standing next to him and an older couple. "Anyone else want some?" asked John. "This'll be your best chance to meet Harry, tech support extraordinaire."
Harold frowned and picked up the corkscrew.
The man in the older couple cleared his throat. "I think I could use a refill." He placed his empty glass on the counter. "My name's Vic, and this lovely lady is my wife, Abby. We live next door."
Abby nodded. "How do you do?"
The cork came out with a wet, resonant pop and Harold said, "I'm doing all right." He poured himself a glass, then one for Vic. He held up the opened bottle for the dark-haired woman at John's side. "How about you?"
She shook her head, holding up a glass of white. "No, thanks. I'm still working on this. But I do think it's time I got some more cheese. If you'll excuse me..." She smiled and walked out of the kitchen. Both John and Harold watched her leave.
Harold tilted his head toward the door and asked, "Who's your friend, John?"
"Her name's Jennifer. She's a friend of Paula's." John smiled. "It's always nice to meet Paula's friends." He raised his eyebrows and nodded.
Harold nodded back and took a sip of Merlot. He looked appraisingly at the glass. "Good wine."
"Yes," said Abby. "Fred and Paula have such good taste. Such nice friends. I'm so glad they moved in here. Some of the others who came by..." Her smile faded away as she shook her in disapproval.
"How long have they been living here?" Harold asked.
"Oh," Vic said, "At least four months now."
"Closer to five," Abby added. "I'm so glad they moved in. This neighborhood needs more people like them. These last few years..." She shook her head again. "It's gone downhill, really."
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence, then Abby laughed. "Gee, I didn't mean to get so melancholy!" She put her hand to her forehead. "Whew! Too much wine for me." She laughed again.
"A regular lush, eh?" John said. He picked up his wine glass. "I think I'll get a few finger foods." He bowed slightly and gestured with the glass before heading out of the kitchen.
Abby sighed. "Such nice people," she said, nodding and smiling.
John entered through the front door of the corporate office, briefcase in hand, and smiled up at the clock that read 11:00. He felt excited, happy. His feet barely moved; he floated across the empty reception area toward the long line of cubicles. The handle of his briefcase throbbed in his hand.
Halfway to the end of the hall, to the bright, glowing windows of his manager's private office, he looked into a cube and saw a ten-year-old boy sitting in front of a monitor, tapping deliberately at a keyboard. It didn't seem the least bit odd that it was his old friend from fifth grade, Michael Buckler, aged not a day.
"Hi, Michael!" John said.
Michael glanced at John. "You're late. Fred wants to see you."
John's heart started beating faster. "Good. I want to see him."
The ten-year-old nodded. "Lunch afterward?"
John looked at his watch: 12:00. "Sure." He turned and continued down the hall, which now stretched out to infinity before him. The more he walked the further away Fred's office seemed to be.
He stopped, hunkered down, and opened his throbbing briefcase. In it was a life-like rubber mask of his face. He gingerly picked it up and fitted it completely over his head. Smoothing out the wrinkles, he stood up and, after taking a few steps, reached the door to Fred's office.
Fred sat behind his desk, arms folded severely across his chest, crushing his tie. The light from his black, halogen lamp cast sharp shadows against his face.
John tossed his briefcase onto Fred's credenza. Fred's mouth dropped and his arms began unfolding.
"Fred," John said intently, "I quit."
Fred's hands fiercely gripped the edge of the desk. "You--you--" The sound of splintering wood filled the office. "You--"
The sudden buzzing of the alarm clock cut through the quiet bedroom, jarring John awake. He lay motionless on the bed for a moment, breathing quickly, then shut off the alarm.
He felt different somehow. He turned his head and saw a note on his wife's pillow. His entire body seemed to sink down into the bed, break through the bottom, crash through floor, and bury itself somewhere deep in the cold dirt below their house.
He stared at the note, licked his lips, blinked. Then he struggled out of bed and took a shower. The note was still there when he trudged back into the room. Sighing, he picked it up: his eyes danced over the words, glanced away, came back again, until he finished reading.
John stood in the bedroom for a long time, not aware he was crying, and then dressed for work.
He wandered into the backyard and sat on a stone bench. Everything outside appeared sharper, harsher, as if the sun were more intense that morning. He looked up and saw a of light shining away, right above the horizon, a little behind the morning sun. He stared at it, transfixed, as it climbed into the sky. His mind stalled and hours passed until it kicked back into gear.
As he left his house, he blinked at the afterimage of the light that had seared itself into his eyes. When he arrived at work the accounting supervisor shook his head and glanced at the clock in the reception area that read 11:00. "Isn't it nuts, John? One little supernova and traffic's screwed up completely. I didn't get here until 10:30 myself. Absolutely nuts."
John nodded and headed off to his cubicle.
Five minutes of anecdotes about the neighborhood from Vic and Abby were more than Harold could handle. Fortunately, Fred, leading an entourage of three Human Resources people and their significant others, came into the kitchen to get some wine. When the HR group asked Harold if he was having a wonderful time, Harold assured them that he was. As they refilled their glasses, he excused himself and exited the kitchen.
The kitchen's earlier escapees, Jennifer and John, were standing by the snack table with Paula, Grace, Michelle, and Tony. Grace was the company's system administrator. Michelle was the receptionist and Tony was her fiancé. Harold took a sip of wine and walked toward them.
"You were born in '68?" John was saying to Jennifer. "Let's see... in 1968 I was living in L.A. and, yeah, that's when I saw the Doors in concert. Amazing show. I think I can safely say it was the best concert I've ever seen."
"The Doors?" Harold said. "Isn't that the band with the dead singer?"
John looked at him and paused. "Why, yes, Harold. I'm surprised you've heard of them, considering you hadn't even been born when Jim Morrison was alive." There were a few chuckles.
"Yeah, well, I saw the movie, by Oliver Stone. Wasn't very good."
Paula reached out and touched Jennifer's arm. "Hey, I want to talk to you." She turned to John and said, "Excuse us." She smiled at Harold, and the two of them walked away.
"Shucks," said Grace. "Just when it was starting to get interesting."
John frowned and picked up his empty wine glass. Clearing his throat, he retreated to the kitchen.
Grace took a bite of cheese-topped cracker and looked over at Harold. "I didn't know you and John were such good friends. The two of you've been talking up a storm since you came in."
"Yeah," Harold said. "It's a very well-kept secret. In fact, not even John or I know about it." Harold surveyed the food. There were several varieties of cheese as well as an assortment of crackers, breads, and pita wedges. He noticed that Grace was not holding a glass. "You're not drinking?" he asked.
She shrugged. "Never on Sundays."
Michelle laughed and said, "Don't worry. That means more for us." She lifted up her glass and took a sip.
Tony smiled sheepishly.
"There you go," Grace said. "Anyway, why'd it take you so long to get here? I was the first one to show up, you know. I had to hang out with Fred and Paula all alone for half an hour before anyone else showed up." She ate the rest of her cracker. "So where were you?"
"I had some errands to run. Nothing too exciting."
"Errands never are."
The doorbell rang and Paula got up to answer. Jennifer stayed in her chair and stared out the window. John re-emerged from the kitchen, looked around, and seated himself on a couch near Jennifer. Harold sighed and sipped at his wine.
Grace looked back and forth between Harold and John, then smiled innocently. "Is round three about to begin?" she asked.
Harold squinted. "I'm glad someone's enjoying this. I guess." He drank some more wine.
The phone rang, but Jennifer was in no mood to answer it. She'd been out with a few friends earlier, but she couldn't stop thinking about her father. It had became too much of an effort to keep up her facade, so she'd excused herself and gone home.
The phone let out a second ring.
It's amazing my friends still put up with me, she thought. This happens every time I go out. They must be sick of it.
There was a third ring and the answering machine took the call. "Hi. Can't answer the phone just now, so leave a message. Thanks." Beep.
"Hi, Jen. It's your brother, David. It's about nine right now. Just calling to see how you're doing. Hope you're out having fun." A pause. "Well, guess I'll call--"
Jennifer picked up the phone. "Hi--"
Feedback burst from the answering machine speaker. Growling, she slapped the machine's buttons. It beeped a few times and stopped howling. "Sorry about that."
"Sorry about what? The noise, or that you're screening your calls?"
"Hey, at least I answered, okay?"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," David said. "You're in a bad mood, aren't you?" He paused. "About Dad?"
Jennifer sighed. "I don't know how you do it. I can't get over it."
Four months before, their father had checked into Kaiser for an appendectomy. The operation went well, but the next day while he was asleep he developed an aneurysm, which burst. There was a half hour of confusion until a doctor arrived--by then, their father had died.
Lawyers were still gathering information for a malpractice suit. Their father had been a partner in a Los Angeles law firm and lived in Beverly Hills, and while neither of them would have to worry about money for a long while, settling the estate was immensely complicated. David inherited all of the house because Jennifer felt she couldn't set foot in it again.
"Jesus, Jen," David said. "It's not something I got over. It's--I don't know--it's just something I accepted, I guess. I don't think I'll ever get over it, but I have to keep living my own life, you know? Otherwise I'll just go nuts."
Jennifer realized she was winding the phone cord around her finger, and she shook it loose. "David, I feel like everything's changed. The whole world's changed--my world has changed. Nothing seems real anymore. There's nothing... solid. Everything's hollow, just trying to hide the... the pain of reality."
"Wow," David said. "Heavy."
Jennifer smiled a little. "See?"
"Jen, I hope you don't get offended when I say this, but you have to get out more, be around people. Sitting in your apartment alone all the time, not answering the phone, isn't good for you. I've been worried about you."
"Please, David, don't. You don't have to worry. I'll be okay. It's just taking a while."
"What about going back to school? You mentioned a college up there with a masters program--what happened to that?"
"Oh, it's still there. I haven't gotten around to filling out the forms." Jennifer sighed. "I don't know."
Through the open window, she suddenly heard car horns and shouts, the indecipherable noise of many people talking at once.
"Hey, Dave, something's going on outside. I'll call you back in ten, fifteen minutes, okay?"
"Huh? Well, okay."
"Bye." She hung up the phone, went to the window, and looked out. Cars were stopped, some with their doors open and the drivers and passengers standing in the street, others honking and flashing their high beams. People were staring at the sky, pointing west toward the ocean, and shouting.
She left the window and went downstairs, out onto the sidewalk. A brilliant point of light shone in the sky, not far from the moon. It was painful to look at directly. People kept glancing at it, then back at everyone else, at completely baffled but happy faces.
People talked excitedly, asked each other questions, laughed. Traffic was stopped--there were groups wandering in the street, half the cars were parked. Eventually, those who were honking gave up and got out of their cars to look up at what was causing the commotion.
Jennifer realized she was smiling, maybe because everyone else was smiling. A warm feeling slowly started to grow inside her.
The word "nova" began to be heard as soon as everyone realized it wasn't a plane or a UFO, and soon everyone was saying it, laughing, pointing at the sky, smiling. There was a shout and someone began to spray champagne over part of the crowd.
The warm glow spread all the way through her, and Jennifer felt her whole body tingling with something she hadn't felt in a long time. She stayed outside on the sidewalk well past midnight, talking to passers-by. even after the star disappeared below the horizon.
As Harold sauntered over to join Jennifer and John, Fred came out of the kitchen and headed over to the hallway to meet the new arrivals.
"Tim! Sarah! Glad you could make it. Here, let me take your coats. The wine's in the kitchen," he said as he disappeared into the hallway.
Harold sat down on the hardwood floor and put his back against the couch. Tim and Sarah nodded at Harold, who politely nodded back, and exchanged greetings with John. "So," Tim said to John, "I hope all this wine won't give you a hangover, make you late for our meeting tomorrow morning."
John laughed. "I thought that was the general idea here. Hangover excuses for everybody."
Harold leaned forward and said to Jennifer, "So, hey, how do you know Paula?"
Jennifer turned, surprised. "Through school. We're in the same program."
"And that is...?"
John joined in with, "Which university?"
"Oh, it's a small private college. You probably haven't heard of it. They have a very progressive curriculum."
Paula came back over and sat in a chair next to Jennifer.
"What does that mean?" John asked, smiling. "You don't have to study?"
"No." Jennifer didn't smile back. "They take a more holistic approach to education. They look at interactions between what we study and the real world, to make sure nothing we do screws up the community, unlike most of academia, which stomps around studying things and then leaves them in a shambles."
"Yeah!" Paula said. "That's telling him, Jen."
Jennifer grinned. "Hey," she said, glancing at Paula, "I'm on a roll."
Paula reached over and patted her on the knee, then said to John and Harold, "Enough about us. Hey, Harry, say something about yourself. What did you major in?"
Harold scratched his head. "Okay. I was a bio major, graduated last June."
"So, naturally," John said, "you pursued a career in tech support."
"Well, I took some computer classes, and biology wasn't something I saw myself doing for the rest of my life, you know? Besides, I'd just graduated and needed to pay rent." He shrugged. "Either that or get evicted."
"Ah," John said. He looked at Jennifer. "Is it safe for me to assume, then, that you're a part-time student? You have a regular job, to keep from, ah... "--he glanced at Harold--"getting evicted?"
"No, I'm full-time. I take on temp jobs and get financial aid."
"From the school?" John asked with a wry smile. "Or from the parents?"
"A little from both." She pursed her lips and looked at Paula. "Have you been talking about me?"
"No," said Paula, and hiccuped. "No, of course not."
Grace walked up and sat on the couch between John and Harold. "Hi, guys," Grace said. "What have I missed?"
Jennifer grabbed her glass and said, "Maybe I should get some more wine."
"Nonsense," Paula said. "You and I have been drinking the house dry, and, look, Grace hasn't even had any yet. What's wrong, Grace? Don't you like our wine selection?"
"Oh, sure," Grace said quickly. "Sure I do. It's fine--I just don't feel like drinking, is all."
"No?" said Paula, giggling a little. "Why? Is the memory of your last hangover still too recent?"
Grace smiled, nodded. "You could say that." She tilted her head to the side. "It was about a year ago, When the supernova first appeared. Almost a month before had I started working with these two bozos." She stuck her thumbs out to her sides, pointing at John and Harold. "It was at a silly supernova party, and, yeah, I drank a little bit too much."
"That long ago, huh? Wow. Must have been some hangover."
"Yeah," Grace said, nodding. "It was."
Noise. So many loud things going on at once it overwhelmed her.
Grace stood in the doorway of the system administrator's house in the heart of Silicon Valley. A banner reading "Welcome To The End Of The World!" hung on the opposite wall. People stumbled in one door and out another, laughing and spilling drinks.
She walked into the living room, sorting through the noise. They Might Be Giants blasted from the stereo, on top of which five of their compact disks were propped in front of a "Now Playing..." sign. Four televisions, their volumes up to compete with the stereo, played taped episodes of Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Blake's 7. Groups were clustered around the sets, quoting lines and cheering each other on. A blender in the kitchen grated away at full force. More people gathered around the pool table and amused themselves by making fun of drunk players, the billiard balls snapping as they hit each other, ricocheting.
The blender stopped and Greg--the owner of the house and the party's host--walked into the living room holding a pitcher in one had and a stack of plastic cups in the other. "Hey!" he shouted, spotting her. "Grace!" He held out the stack of cups: she took the top one and he filled it from the pitcher. "Drink up, for tomorrow we die!"
"What am I drinking?"
"Margarita!" In the kitchen, the blender started up again. "Oh, hey, you can put your coat on my bed. It's down the hall, last door on the right. The door on the left's the bathroom." He strode away, topping off other peoples' cups.
Sipping her drink, she found his room right where he said it was. There was already a huge pile of jackets on the bed, so she draped her coat over a chair. She gulped some more or her margarita and went back to the party.
In the kitchen, some guy dressed in black with a ponytail reigned over the blender, filling it with ice, mix, and tequila, whipping it all up, then pouring the result into the emptied pitchers which were constantly returned and picked up by peripatetic party guests. It struck her as an alcoholic ballet, and she felt it was only proper when one of the pitcher-carriers refilled her cup.
Grace turned around and saw an overweight man with a bushy beard standing next to the snack table. He wore a plaid flannel shirt and seemed to be in his late twenties. He held a over-flowing plastic cup and was swaying a little on his feet.
"My name's Phil. Whaddya think of the party?" Phil's eyes were caught in a cycle of staring at the snacks, her breasts, then finally glancing up at her face before starting over again. Grace decided to consider it amusing.
"Pretty good." Grace washed down some salsa with her margarita. She could feel a slight buzz coming on. "It certainly is loud, isn't it?"
"Yeah!" Phil said with a quick laugh. More of his drink sloshed out of his cup.
Shouts rang out from the living room. "Outside! A toast! To the supernova!" Hordes of people streamed in from the living room and out the back door, sweeping Grace and Phil along with them. "A toast!"
Grace lost Phil in the crowd. There must have been fifty or sixty people outside, milling around in the back yard. About a dozen carried pitchers, and they made sure everyone's cup was full.
"Okay, listen up!" It was Greg making the toast. He climbed up on a picnic table and lifted up his cup towards the supernova, just visible between the clouds, beneath the gibbous moon. Everyone followed suit. "Praised are you, O supernova, tireless bringer of light! We raise our glasses in honor of the alien civilizations you have wiped out and the wonderful excuse for a party you give us. To the end of the world!" People shouted, cheered, howled. Greg lowered the cup to his lips, drained it, and everyone else followed suit.
Grace smiled and stared into her empty cup. The buzz was going pretty strong.
The man standing next to her, she noticed, was the margarita master himself, ponytail and all. He had pale skin, thin lips, and a pitcher in his left hand. He swished it around, said, "Not much left," and poured the last of its contents into her cup and his own.
"I had an interesting thought," he said. "The earth and the sun have been around for five billion years, give or take a few, right? So, if there's an apocalyptic nuclear disaster or something similar that completely wipes out everything on the planet, then whatever sort of life evolves after that--say, giant sentient cockroaches--it'll probably take about the same amount of time for them to get to our current level of technology as it has for us."
"Yeah," said Grace, blinking. "So?"
"So, about five billion years from now, they'd be doing what we're doing. They'd know that the sun was ten billion years old and that at any moment it would be going giant, thereby wiping them out. There'd be no way around it." He drained his cup. "Pretty wild, huh?"
"Yeah. That's funny," she said. "I wonder what their worldview would be like."
Ponytail shrugged. "Hey, wanna go play pool? Looks like the table's open."
Over the next couple of hours, Grace played eight ball and hung out by the pool table, drinking constantly--her cup was never empty for long. She kept trying to put it someplace out of the way and lose it, but it invariably made its way back to her hand, full.
She suddenly realized that her eyes were closed, and she opened them to find herself leaning against a wall in the dining room. How long she'd been like that, she didn't know. She laughed and looked around. It seemed like even more people had arrived at the party, but she may have only been seeing double. She didn't know. She didn't care. She thought it was funny.
Greg was in the living room, talking to someone holding a pitcher. She clumsily grabbed a cup that she hoped was hers and deliberately made her way towards Greg, step by step.
Greg and the pitcher-bearer watched her as she staggered over to them, then as she raised her hand and wiped the sweat off her forehead. When she came nearer, Greg said, "Hey, Grace, you doing okay?"
"Oh yeah," she mumbled. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just fine. Who's your friend with the pitcher?"
"This is Bill." Greg grinned at him. "Bill, this is Grace."
She draped her arm on his shoulder, letting him support her weight, and held out her cup. "Hiya, Bill," she said. "Fill 'er up, please."
Bill obliged as Greg said, "Uh, Grace, maybe you've had enough..."
"Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no. No, I haven't even started, yet." She took a healthy swallow and smiled.
Bill cleared his throat. "Well, I was just telling Greg how ironic it would be if the Big One hit tomorrow, what with this end-of-the-world party going on tonight."
"Oh, yeah," Grace said. "What's-his-name, he was talking about that. Something about cockroaches."
Bill frowned. "Uh, cockroaches?"
"No, Grace," said Greg. "No cockroaches here. We're talking earthquakes."
"Yeah," said Bill. He looked at Grace, who was still hanging onto his shoulder. "Were you here back in '89, for the Loma Prieta quake?"
"No. East Coast. Missed all the fun." She drank some more of her margarita.
A couple of other guys joined the conversation. "I was here during the earthquake," said one. "I'd just moved here a month before to start a job at Amdahl. Great way to be introduced to California, huh? Funny thing was everybody else in my apartment complex had stuff break or pipes burst or something, but nothing happened to me--a few CDs fell over on the shelf, that was it."
Grace stopped smiling. Her stomach didn't feel well at all. She stood up straight, taking her arm off Bill, and inhaled deeply, trying to get everything to settle down.
"I was in a little conference room," said another guy, "up on the ninth floor of our building. I was in a meeting with this woman, see, and everything starting shaking. We looked at each other as if to say `Oh, God, this is it!' and I thought, `This is who they'll find me with, when they dig my body out of the rubble.' I wondered what my wife would think." He laughed. "Crazy, what can go through your mind during a disaster, huh?"
Grace closed her eyes and continued drawing deep breaths. She could sense she was fighting a losing battle, so she opened her eyes, mumbled something and headed off to the bathroom as quickly and carefully as she could. She thought, down the hall, last door on the... right? Or the left?
She stumbled along the hallway, one hand on the wall to keep herself from falling, the other on her mouth. The door on the right was open, and she staggered through it and saw she was in the bedroom. She tried to turn around, but the room was spinning, the ceiling falling forward and down, the floor slipping behind her. The best she could do was stand still and run her hands through her hair.
Her nausea overcame the last of her resolve. She tipped forward, onto the bed, onto the hundreds of jackets, and lost the battle.
She then rolled off and landed on the floor. The last thing she saw before passing out was Greg standing in the doorway, looking on in horror.
The next morning, she barely managed to get to her car and drive home. On Monday, she showed up to work just long enough to turn in her letter of resignation.
Their host Fred joined the growing group on the couch and chairs. "Hello! What's going on here?"
"Oh, Fred, you missed it!" Paula said gleefully. "I got Grace to admit she's still recovering from a hangover she had during the supernova!" Grace looked away.
"Is that so?" Fred said, turning to Grace. She nodded. "Hmm," he continued. "You know, that was when I proposed to Paula, when it appeared. We were out in the woods, camping. It was all very romantic."
Paula laughed. "Oh yeah. There we were, freezing our asses off, and all filthy and smelly after three days of hiking. Very romantic."
"Well, I meant the supernova."
"Yeah, yeah. That was. And then, to sustain the romance, we hurried back to the car and drove to Las Vegas, so we could get married."
Fred frowned, and Paula reached over and squeezed his hand. "Oh, come on, Fred, that's my favorite part of the story!"
John cleared his throat. "Jennifer, did you do anything interesting during the supernova?"
Tim and Sarah walked over to the group. "Trading supernova stories, eh?" Tim asked, smiling. He motioned politely with his wine glass for Jennifer to begin.
She sighed. "Nothing exciting happened to me. It was during one of those directionless phases, you know? I didn't know what I wanted to do. Then, bang!, there was the supernova and I decided to go back to school. And now here I am." She looked around at everyone. "Quid pro quo, John."
He furrowed his brow and cleared his throat again. "Oh, there's not much to say. I had a very boring supernova experience."
"Oh, come now, John," Tim said. "I remember you showed up late for work that morning. You must have something to tell."
John shifted on the couch, glanced at Tim. "Not really. I'd gone to sleep early and didn't even see the damned thing the night before. I woke up and tried to go to work, but the traffic was miserable. There must have been something in those supernova rays that made people drive slowly and bump into each other."
"That's it?" Tim asked, a little smile on his face.
"What about you, Harold?" Paula asked. "Tell us your supernova story."
"Yeah. It's got to be better than John's, at least."
"Okay, okay. Let's see... It was toward the end of Spring Semester, and I was busy writing final papers and cramming for exams and all. The night before my last final, though, my roommate dragged me up into the hills to celebrate his finishing his finals, and he promptly disappeared into the bushes with his girlfriend, leaving me all alone with nothing to do but stare at the supernova. That's my clearest memory of it. Needless to say, I didn't do very well on my final the next morning."
Paula laughed. "That has to be one of the best supernova stories I've heard."
Harold smiled. "Really."
The metallic crunch and the hiss of the escaping carbon dioxide made Harold's mouth water. He took a few gulps of Coke and stared back down at the textbook, at the same page he'd been staring at for twenty minutes. His last final of the semester was the next morning and all he wanted was for it and the academic year to be over.
He wasn't completely ready for the exam. Math had always been his weakest subject, and there were several key chapters he needed to review. Plus, he'd been averaging three hours of sleep each the past three days and he desperately wanted to catch at least five hours that night. He rubbed his eyes, took another sip of Coke, and turned the page.
The dorm room door banged open and Harold's roommate, Mike, bounded in.
"A-ha! Yes! I'm done!!" Mike tossed his backpack on the floor, jumped up in the air, let out a another whoop and collapsed on his bed. "I'm done, Harry! Summer, here I come!"
"That's great, Mike. Tomorrow afternoon I'll be just as happy as you." He stretched his arms out, arching his back, and then downed some more Coke.
"Oh yeah, you've still got one more to go." Mike swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up. "But, man, you've been studying your ass off-- you've got nothing to worry about, you'll do fine. Listen, Christine's coming over with her roommate--you met her, didn't you? Jill?"
"They're coming over here? Mike, I need to study."
"No, wait, I'm gonna drive us all up to the lookout so we can get a good view of the nova, you know, and rejoice about the end of finals!"
"Ah. Sure." Harold hunched over his book. "Sounds like a plan."
"Yeah. And, you know, I want you to come along, Harold."
"No, I'm staying right here. I really have to do some more studying."
Harold looked up, exasperated. "Tomorrow night. I'll do it tomorrow night, okay?"
"Tomorrow night? I'm not gonna be here! I'm jetting after lunch. Come on, man! You gotta come along. Really, you've studied more than enough for the test. And Jill's gonna be coming along, too. You've met her, right? She's a total babe. It'll be just me and Christine and you and Jill."
Harold ran his hand through his hair. "I really should study."
"Hey, I swear, it'll only be for a half hour, forty-five minutes tops. We'll go up there, bask in the supernova--every day you wait, you know, it just fades away that much more! It'll be hella romantic, man. Then I'll bring you back, you can do your last little bit of studying, and tomorrow you'll ace the exam. I tell you, this is exactly what you need."
There was a knock at the door.
"That's them, man. You in or out?" Mike skipped over and opened the door. "Christine! Hey! Time to party!" He gave her a big hug.
Harold looked up from his desk. Rolling her eyes, Jill stepped around them and into the room. She had long black hair and had on jeans and a jacket. Harold did remember her.
"Hey, Harold." Jill sat down on Mike's bed. "Still studying?"
"Um, yeah. I've got my last final tomorrow morning." Harold paused, looked over at Jill, then closed his book. "But I'm getting pretty burned out. I think maybe I should take a little break."
The next thing he knew, Harold was in the back seat of Mike's car with Jill, heading up the windy, hillside roads to Lookout Point. Fifteen minutes later they parked in a clearing and everyone piled out.
"It's kinda chilly," Christine said, rubbing her arms.
"I've got a sweatshirt somewhere in the trunk." Mike went around to the back of the car. "You two go on ahead. We'll catch up."
Harold and Jill walked up the road, around a bend, and then they were at Lookout Point. There was another group of people off to one side but they were keeping pretty quiet. The two of them headed further from the road and sat down on a rocky outcropping.
The lights of the city stretched out before them, twinkling in the rising heat. Strings of white and yellow outlined the streets and clusters of rectangles where houses and buildings squatted; splashes of red, blue, green and yellow shown from store signs and traffic lights. The full moon was rising in the east and seemed larger than it should be. At the west horizon was the supernova, an intensely bright pinprick of light.
Harold took a deep breath. "It's beautiful out," he said.
"Yeah. Aren't you glad you came?"
"Definitely." He sat there for a moment, stargazing. "I read that the supernova is about eight hundred light years away. So, it took that light eight hundred years to get here." He laughed a little. "Spending a few minutes appreciating it is the least I can do."
Jill hugged her knees. "We'll always remember it."
They sat a moment, and Harold gestured up at the sky. "You know, that supernova is ours. It belongs to our generation. It's something we'll tell our kids about."
"The Summer Recess Supernova?"
"Exactly. And I can tell, you know, I can tell that this is going to be our most memorable summer."
"I hope so. My boyfriend and I going to take a trip together. There'll definitely be some serious celebrating going on."
Harold's hand clenched into a fist. "Oh?"
"Yeah. I wish he were here now, you know? But he's got two finals tomorrow, so he's in the library, studying."
Harold's fist unclenched. "Oh." He stared out at the supernova.
Jill looked back at the road. "Hmm... I guess Mike and Christine are taking their time getting here, huh?"
"Guess so." Harold lowered his gaze to the city lights and sighed. "Man, I knew this would happen."
The party wound down quickly. People wandered back and forth between the kitchen and the living room, emptying the last of the wine bottles into their glasses and polishing off the remaining edibles. Vic and Abby had already left, as had the Human Resource group.
Harold was standing by the snack table, wondering if he should have one last bite of brie, when he heard, "Bye, Harold. Nice meeting you." He looked around and saw Jennifer, smiling, wave at him as she disappeared into the hallway. "Bye," he said, walking after her.
He reached the hall as she was buttoning up her coat. "Hey," he said. "Need a ride?"
She shook her head. "No, thanks. I drove." She finished fiddling with her coat and picked up her purse. "I got a great parking spot, right out in front."
"Lucky you. I had to park blocks away."
She started towards the door. "Well, hey, be careful. See ya." She walked out the door.
Harold sighed and walked back into the living room, where he found John hovering over the snack table, eating the last of the brie.
"Get her phone number?" John asked.
"Yeah," he lied. "I did." Harold looked past John and found the party's host. "Hey, Fred, thanks for having me over. It was fun."
"Good! Glad you had a good time."
Harold went back to the hallway, donned his jacket, and headed outside. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and stared down at the sidewalk as he walked to his car. Why do I bother going to things? Swapping nova stories... Jeez. At least Jennifer was there. Could've been worse, I guess. Fred could have pulled out an acoustic guitar and played folk songs all night.
Three blocks. He reached the fire hydrant and stopped. His mouth dropped open and he blinked a few times as he stared at the empty asphalt. Fire hydrant, curb, empty asphalt. No car. His car was gone.
Harold let out a strangled cry and looked around. He ran his hands through his hair. Oh, man, he thought despairingly, not tonight! Why would this have to happen to me? Tonight?
He kicked the hydrant and winced as pain shot up through his leg. After a few moments, he turned back towards Fred's house, intending to call the police. A taxi came down the street; Harold stopped, swallowed and flagged it down. He gave the driver directions and went home, the whole time staring out the window at an empty space in the sky, expecting another supernova.
Next...InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 4, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1994 Robert Hurvitz.