FIRST DATE AT THE END OF THE WORLD

If he had to give the date a numerical rating, he’d probably backtrack and say it was on a five point scale if pressed. She was cool, way cooler than he thought conceivably possible, and he was just so not. Cool, that is.

I mean don’t get me wrong, dude could be cool. Dude could be stop-stop-I’m-actually-going-to-pee funny. It’s just that when he saw that smile, that radiance… Let’s just say he reverted to questions of employment and (groan) small talk about the weather.

And so when the meal (and his time) was up, and he could see this wonderful person slipping away, he dropped the L word. Actually started shaking his head before he finished saying it, he knew how bad of an idea it was. But he said it, and it hung there in the air like some delicate bubble that she finally popped with a nervous laugh and an insistence that she really had to go.

It was about that time that the sky started falling.

What at first looked like basketball-sized hailstones revealed themselves to be meteorites as they crashed apocalyptically into the ground and sent up molten blacktop from the parking lot they were standing in.

It was 9 p.m. but it might as well have been a.m. for the blinding light that dominated the sky. Locusts appeared out of nowhere and skated through the air. Dude could almost swear he heard “O Fortuna” being chanted in the distance.

And so naturally he literally swept his date off of her feet and tried his hand at heroically escaping danger. Only he tripped on a nearby meteorite crater and faceplanted with her in his arms.

“I know how to run, you know!” she offered up as she dusted herself off.

“Sorry. I was trying to be cool.”

“Well don’t. Try staying alive instead.”

And she bolted, leaving him behind and in tow as what appeared to be the living dead started sprouting out of front lawns across the street.

Cars careened out of the way of boiling lava lakes that had just opened up in the center of the street nearby and went over curbs, downed light poles and tumbled end over end like some bad action movie as the two sprinted, our dude huffing and puffing to keep up.

He somehow had the presence of mind to produce his keys and direct her over to his car, which car had narrowly avoided having its engine crumpled by a felled light pole. But he stopped outside of the car, frozen.

“What is it?!”

“Nothing, I– I can’t figure out if you want me to open your door for you or not.”

“Just get in!”

And get in he did, the two of them almost yelling louder than the carnage outside as he sped crazily away.

The car turned a curb into a speed bump as he swerved onto the main road and avoided both the lava lakes and what he was now absolutely sure was in fact the living dead.

“Does today line up with any ancient prophecies you’re aware of?”

“Seems like it’s lined up with all of them. Just keep driving!”

Something about being in the driver’s seat gave him the courage he was wanting at dinner. Not to mention the fact that his audience was fairly captive. So:

“Sorry for making an ass out of myself with the whole love thing. That was weird, right?”

“I’d say so.”

“It’s safe to say that I don’t love you, don’t worry. I mean, that’s not to say I wouldn’t in the future. You seem fairly lovable. It’s just that–”

“I get it.”

He deftly swerved around a crack in the street that went miles deep and opened his door on a zombie who had clung to the car. She seemed impressed.

“If we make it through all this, I’ll make it up to you. Would roses be too cliche…? Anyway, there’ll be no love stuff and no shitty small talk. Pinky swear.”

“Amused” would best describe her smile.

“I’ll think about it.”

But she wouldn’t have time to think about it, as the road ahead was blocked by mangled cars and behind them scores of ghouls were making a Thriller-esque approach. And just to complete the image, our dude connected his iPod and started up the song.

“What are you doing?”

“I don’t know, but whatever I do it’ll be cooler this way.”

He scanned all directions, but there was no way out. In the rearview, he could’ve sworn he saw the zombies shuffle in time to the beat, but he had no time to revel in that fact.

It was then that an opportune meteorite flattened the front of a nearby car up ahead, almost giving it the appearance of a rickety ramp. It didn’t look like his car had any chance of clearing it, but he looked her way anyway. He wasn’t met with disapproval, so he gunned it. Used every iota of concentration to make the jump. Closed his eyes like Luke taking out the Death Star. And when his eyes opened again they were airborne, their car clear of the blockade and about to touch down.

She gave him directions to her house as the chaos began to die down, as the calm after the storm finally arrived. He pulled up in front of her place, her whole block littered with apocalyptic aftermath. Both were out of breath.

“So… What do you say? Same time next week?”

She surveyed the wreckage of the world for a while, finally smiled.

“Sure.”

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EXPIRATION DATE

He was out in the crisp, thin air of the Smokies when he found the universe’s expiration date.

It was just hovering there, kind of floating if you will, a tag the same as the kind you might get a government warning against removing from your average mattress.

He’d been hiking so long in an off-limits thicket of Clingman’s Dome with barely enough oxygen to sate his lungs’ appetite that he figured he must be hallucinating.

But when he pulled and tugged, and yes even hung in midair from this floating tag, he was convinced.

It was a simple tag, efficient. All it had on it was:

PRODUCT: UNIVERSE

And below that, a “BEST BY” date that corresponded to two weeks in the future.

Naturally, he figured that should the tag be removed, whoever was in charge of throwing away the universe wouldn’t know just when it had expired, so he pulled on the tag some more. Bit at it, ripped at it, even hacked at it with his pocket knife, but nothing worked. That tag was stubborn.

And so he went home. Didn’t tell a soul what he’d seen for fear of ridicule. Kept it to himself and sat and worried over it till it got so he was always sweating. Every second of every minute of every hour of every day he was thinking about that expiration date. There was no escaping it. It wasn’t an expiration date for him, or the Smokies, or even the world itself, but for the whole universe. If the whole universe was about to be tossed in the trash, then what way out was there? And why did he have to be the one with the privileged information?

He stewed like that for a whole week, till his head was always hot from thinking, till his eyes were black from lack of sleep, till he knew that he couldn’t live like this anymore, for the last week of his and everyone else’s life.

So he went outside.

He sat in his rickety old chair on his rickety old porch and he watched. He listened. He heard his heart pumping just as fast as it could, watched the goldfinch across the street build her nest as the morning dew evaporated on his lawn. Saw the nearby willows sway in the breeze, pockets of light shining through and dancing in the field over chipmunks whose default setting was scurry. Watched the petals of a daisy dip way down low and threaten to graze a nearby anthill as a chubby honeybee plied its trade.

He saw things, and he heard things, and he felt them in his bones. He breathed and watched and waited and didn’t have a care in his soul for what was going to happen.

Another week went by after that, with his heart and soul lifted and fluttering on the breeze. And try as he might, he couldn’t locate the Great Garbage Can they’d all be thrown away into. Everything carried on just the same as before.

So he hiked back to Clingman’s Dome and pushed on through those thickets. Checked his compass and the angle of the sun both, but try as he might he couldn’t find that tag again. Here was the clearing where he’d found it, all the nearby landmarks the same, but it was gone. Removed. Maybe never there in the first place.

But that deep calm of his didn’t go with it. No, it stayed and hasn’t left once. Probably never will.

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