Every day the end of the world grew a little closer. Some mornings, standing at the upper window shaking out the blankets, Jill could see it in the distance, a sharp line where the world ended. Once, they’d had to drive out there in the old lorry, when Jack had wanted a picnic or Polly to conduct one of her experiments. But now it wasn’t even a particularly long walk.
Polly said it would probably reach the house before another year was through, but Jack disagreed. Jill thought it was probably because Jack didn’t want to admit it, not because he really thought that Polly was wrong. In any case she didn’t need Polly’s prognostications to see for herself that the house had only months left – and she wasn’t even a scientist.
Their names weren’t really Jack, Jill and Polly, of course. They didn’t know any longer what their names really were. It had been so long since they’d used them that they’d forgotten. They’d all fallen into such routines that they almost had no other identity apart from them. Jack minded the store and tinkered with the car and generator. Jill cooked, cleaned, and pottered around in the “garden”, scratching what growth she could from the dun-brown dirt. And Polly sat with her machinery and her test tubes and her furnaces and retorts in the laboratory, doing whatever she did all day.
One day they’d chosen the names from nursery rhymes, because they seemed to fit fairly well. But by now even they couldn’t quite remember how they thought the names had fit.
The store hadn’t been doing so well any longer, not since the end of the world had started getting close enough to see. Once upon a time they’d had customers crowding in, desert sprites and cuchuchillas, spiny molochmen and even the odd dune troll from out in the wastes. But now days would go by without a single visitor, and if a sandwalker or a mirage mangler stopped in, he or she would keep glancing nervously over his or her shoulder, as though the world was being bitten away in huge chunks and any minute the wall and shelves would vanish into the void.
Jill remembered well the first time she’d gone out to the end of the world and looked out into the void. It had been a literal void. The flat eroded desert ran up to the edge of the world and then just...stopped. There was nothing beyond.
“The sky ends there too,” Jack had pointed out. And, indeed, the metallic, burnt-out blue haze of the desert sky had just...stopped. At the end of the world there was nothing.
“What do you suppose is beyond the edge?” Jill had asked. “Do you think we might take a look?”
Polly had arched an eyebrow at her. “Before you do,” she’d said, “let’s check.” She’d picked up a pebble and tossed it across the boundary. It had reached the edge, hung in mid air for a few seconds as though frozen, and vanished.
“The earth at the edge is vanishing also,” Polly had said, kneeling and peering at the boundary. She’d whipped out some kind of complicated apparatus with scoped and lenses and moved it around the ground, reading off scopes. “We’ll have to keep measuring to see if it’s speeding up or disappearing at a constant rate.”
“Or if it’ll slow down and stop,” Jack said, but even then he’d had no certainty in his voice.
That had been then, and after that the world had kept disappearing. Sometimes it went a little faster, sometimes a little slower, but it kept vanishing into the void, day after day. Sometimes Jill lay awake at night in her narrow bed, imagining that it would come up and eat them all while they were sleeping.
One morning, she found a rock vampire crouching outside the door. The vampire blinked at her with its great pale eyes. When she half-heartedly raised her broomstick to threaten it, it raised itself on its claws and waddled away a few paces.
“What do you want?” she asked. “This is a human house. No rock vampires allowed here, unless it’s as a customer – and I’ve never known your kind to buy anything.”
The vampire cranked open its misshapen maw. “Sssssssshelter,” it hissed. “All I want isssss ssssssshelter for the day. I’ll go in the night.”
That was the first one. Each day after that she found more creatures, some of them outside, and a few of the smaller ones inside. None of them ever did any harm. Even the Thorn Tiger she found one dawn lying across the door did no more than raise an eyelid at her when she stepped over it. They stayed around for a day or two, gratefully ate and drank anything she could give them, and then went on their way.
“Do you think it’ll ever stop?” Jill asked Polly, visiting the lab so Jack wouldn’t overhear and scoff. “Or will it keep going on and on till there’s nothing left?”
Polly looked up from her work. “Yes, isn’t that wonderful?” she’d said. “The greatest scientific mystery of the age!” But nobody ever came from the cities to have a look, not even from the big universities that Polly said existed. Jill wasn’t quite certain that even the cities existed, let alone the universities. As far as she knew, they might be the only people in the world.
“What will we do when the end of the world reaches the house?” Jill worried every day, but she worried to herself. Jack refused to admit it would ever happen, and Polly thought it was the most fascinating thing. And each day, Jill, despite her worries, also carried on as usual, cooking meals by habit, cleaning the dust from the shelves, and scratching at the ground to plant crops that would be eaten by the end of the world long before they could sprout. It was as though she was in a cage she couldn’t break out of, and only she could even see the bars.
Then one night Jill was lying in bed when it happened. The end of the world was so close now that no longer did any fugitive creatures seek shelter for the day or the night – they’d fled already. The last customer they’d seen was a fortnight earlier, a gangling stilt-stalker who’d eyed them strangely and asked why they hadn’t left yet. And though by now the end of the world was almost at the end of the garden, Jack still acted as though it would stop of its own accord, and Polly still concentrated on studying it with her instruments, as though it wasn’t anything to worry about.
That night, Jill was lying in her narrow bed, trying to sleep, when she saw a light glowing and flickering through the window. It was a faint, greenish-blue light, so faint that at first she thought she was imagining it. Then she got out of bed and went to the window.
It loomed over the end of the world, a flickering haze that twitched and rippled. She stood for hours looking at it, but it never changed. When the night finally began to end, it faded, too, and by then it was too late to go to bed.
“Yes,” Polly said over breakfast. “I know what it is. That will be the light from the photons annihilating themselves as they reach the end of the world.” She went into a ten-minute dissertation on the physics of what was happening. “Interesting, isn’t it?”
Jill didn’t quite understand Polly’s long words, but interesting wasn’t the word she’d have chosen. And that night the flickering glow was back as soon as darkness fell. She could almost see it right through her closed eyelids, and repeating to herself that she was just imagining it didn’t help.
“We can’t stay here,” she said to Jack and Polly the next morning. “Surely even you two understand that?”
Jack looked as though he would have liked to argue, but Jill pointed out through the window. “Look there,” she said. “You can’t even see the sky any longer, and the stone spike beyond the garden is gone, too. By this time next month it’ll take the house.”
“Yes,” Polly agreed reluctantly. “I suppose it’s time to go.”
So they loaded up the old lorry with everything they could load into it, including all of Polly’s equipment, which she refused to leave behind, and the remaining stock of the shop, since, as Jack said, they would have to start over somewhere else, wouldn’t they? So in the end it was, of course, Jill who had to leave almost everything of her own behind. Not that she would miss most of it, she thought, as the house, and the end of the world beyond it, finally began to recede into the distance. She’d hardly been noticing the existence of most of it anyway. It had receded into the general background, like the desert before the world began to end.
Jill sat in the cab of the lorry between Jack, who was driving, and Polly, and stared out at the desert. It had been so long since she’d come this way that she’d forgotten the stubby little hills they passed, the names of the villages of the molochmen, or the burrows of the desert sprites. But it didn’t matter anyway. The molochmen’s villages lay empty, the desert sprites’ burrows were beginning to fall in one themselves, and, as for the stubby little hills, they, too, would be gone soon enough.
They drove for hours, and more hours after that, until the end of the world had fallen so far behind it was as though they’d imagined it all. But the villages, the burrows, and even a town of the sandwalkers they passed through, with its lopsided towers and houses built out of piled stone, were empty, and they never saw a living thing except vegetation not yet so withered as to drift away on the wind.
“There’s nobody left,” Jill said. “Nothing living at all. I’ll bet if Polly checked the soil with her microscopes, she’d find that there aren’t even any bugs or bacteria any longer.”
Neither Polly nor Jack said anything to that.
When Jack grew tired, Polly drove, and after that Jill took the wheel, while the other two napped. By that time the night had come, and the headlights formed a dim lane of yellow down which she drove into the desert. Her eyes became weary of looking out into the headlight glow, and after a while she turned off the lights, just for a minute. After all, it wasn’t as though there was anyone else using the road, and it wasn’t as though it was anything but straight as a line laid out across the eroded rock of the desert floor.
And then she eased the truck to a stop and switched off the engine.
Beside her, Polly stirred sleepily. “Why have you stopped?”
“Look,” Jill said quietly, pointing through the windscreen.
They looked. Out in the distance, where the sky should meet the horizon, was a faint, flickering curtain of blue and green.
“It’s on both sides, too,” Jill said quietly. “It’s on all sides. The world is ending from all directions at once.”
Neither of the others said anything.
Jack, Jill and Polly stood by the old lorry and watched the end of the world close in from all sides.
Long ago, they’d decided to stop running. There was nowhere to run to. And, increasingly, as the world shrank, as the flickering glow ruled the night as the void walled off the day, they crowded to each other, not moving or speaking, just watching as the world closed in.
Standing, leaning against Polly’s shoulder, with Jack on her other side, not really sleeping and not really awake, Jill dreamed. In the dream they were on an island, in the middle of a silent sea. But they weren’t alone. A gigantic figure in a robe of flickering green and blue waded in the sea round and round the island, chopping away at it with an axe the colour of the desert. Little by little the island shrank, until the sea lapped at their toes, until they pressed as close to each other as they could in order not to fall in...and still the figure in the robe went on cutting.
“What should we do?” Polly said, and her words seemed to come inside Jill’s head, not in her ears.
“We must stay together,” Jill said. “Whatever happens, we must stay together.”
“Stay together,” she mumbled aloud, opening her eyes. For a moment she didn’t understand what she was seeing, for there was literally nothing before her eyes. Then she looked down at herself, and, very, very far below, she saw her feet, and beside them, a tiny box on wheels. It was the lorry.
Slowly, very slowly, she turned. All around there was nothing but the void, and, below her, the tiny, vanishing spot on which the lorry, now the size of an ant, still dwindled.
“Polly?” she asked. “Jack?” And then she added a third name. “Jill?”
There was no reply. Polly was gone, and so was Jack, and Jill was gone, too. There was only she, whoever she was. And there was the last scrap of world.
Slowly, slowly, she bent, took up the last dot of world in her hands, and held it up to her eyes. And she breathed on it, breathed on it with Polly’s knowledge, and Jack’s optimism, and, at last, with whatever it was that Jill had. She breathed on it, held it to her breast, and, when it was ready, her hands began to knead and shape.
Half-dreaming, unsure of who she was, or if she had ever been, she began moulding a new world.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016