Shauna O’Meara is an Aurealis and Norma K Hemming Award nominated writer from Australia. Her stories have been published in Cosmos Magazine, Interzone, Dimension 6, Everything Change and several Australian anthologies. You can find her on Twitter at @OMearaShauna.
Heart Emoji at the End of the World
by Shauna O’Meara
They don’t tell you how fast the end can arrive when you commission the bunker. How a twenty-story office building can implode in thundering seconds. How you might not even make it out of the supplies basement, much less ascend the emergency stairwell to level three to collect your bag, keys and the office goldfish on route to Employee-only Parking.
The floors have mercifully stopped falling. All that remains is the settling into place, the final death-throes of View Global shuddering through the basement and into my ribcage. All around me, on me, is rubble. Fine, glassy grit through to concrete rocks.
“Help,” I wheeze. Chalk burns my mouth, clots my spit. My legs hurt.
Dusty sheets scrape beneath my arms: the paper I was fetching for the copier. Saved by office supplies.
That’s another thing they don’t warn you: the end can come while you are doing something so ordinary you may think it can’t possibly be The Moment.
Sure, “tensions had escalated” but there’d been no sign attack was imminent: just the standard blustering of leaders, withdrawal of ambassadors, and war machines parading before the twenty-four hour news-cycle.
I had assumed we’d have plenty of warning with all those cameras watching; that there would be time to get affairs in order, farewell work, farewell neighbors, and give the plants a last good-luck watering before moving to shelter. I’d assumed I’d see the world end from a place of safety, my eyes welling at the news stations winking out one by one with the great cities. I had assumed I would make it.
“Ahh!” My legs are compressed by jagged weight. My reaching hand touches twisted metal and wiring. There is a cut on my scalp: an achy patch of stickiness in my hair.
The building quiets to its last pops, opening space for other sounds. Someone moans off to my right. Female. In pain.
“Hello?” I call.
My phone is in my jeans. I dig it out. Say a prayer.
The screen is cracked but working. The artificial light renders ghostly drifting palls of dust, a rubble-strewn cavity made apical by an oblique slab of ceiling. There is a spreading stain on the floor: water seeping in from somewhere.
The woman is hidden beyond a contortion of pipes and shattered concrete. Maybe she is under it.
“I can’t see you. Say something.”
I shine the phone on my legs. Struts, wires, and a great slab of concrete like the door Indiana Jones groped under for his hat. I try to elbow forward, but pain lances my thigh, pins me in place like a moth. “Ooow!”
Crushing fear. “Help! I’m trapped!”
My only answer is a whimper from beyond the debris. But the woman makes no other attempt to communicate, just a long moan that hangs in the air, chilling me to the core.
The building falls silent. The dust drifts, indifferent.
I dial 911.
Everyone is dialing 911. I can’t even leave a message. Is anyone there to leave a message with?
So I try Daniel. It seems the right thing to do. How bizarre that something as trivial as courtesy should be important now.
A man with polished hair and a tigershark smile had met us in the showroom, his arm swinging back like a gate to welcome us onto the floor: come right this way, we have so many bunkers; what do you good folks have in mind? A real-estate agent of sorts with the fire-and-brimstone urgency of a doomsday prepper, his clothes had walked a weird line between salesman and weekend militia.
Within ten minutes, the model we’d had in mind walking through the sliding glass doors had been discarded because of course we wanted the extra lead-reinforcement that was—wouldn’t you know it?—currently on special, and look, Tash honey, we can have a freezer; it won’t all be living on cans.
There had been so much to consider. Did we want a silo configuration for strength or a box for space or—best of both worlds, folks—the patented honeycomb? Did we want an extra room? Were we having a child while we were away? A straight-faced question, as if we were off on honeymoon. Generator options. Closed sewage systems. Food preservation. What about off-grid renewable power?—great for depopulated wastelands, but a dead give-away to roaming bandits, so what do you folks want to do?
This last question had demanded we bet on the way things would end. But we’d been promised so many ends in recent months, from biological attack to foreign invasion to all-out nuclear war, it was hard to decide.
Ultimately, we’d opted for concealment. No visible power. So no freezer. With extra storage space for cans and candles.
Lying in the dark, I realize the biggest bet we had made that day was not how the world would end, but that we would still be together.
The phone connects on the third try. Signal jagged and warped: just building interference or the whale-song of bent phone towers and burnt out satellite dishes?
“Ta-zzz. Tash?-zz.” Fritzing sounds. The phone cuts.
No, no, no, no.
My breathing quickens, shaky panting echoing and amplified throughout the space. I have a sudden notion that oxygen is no longer the indefatigable resource I once knew. That I am a cave-diver too far from the surface, gauge plunging toward zero.
I wrestle my fear until my panting subdues. My leg throbs in time with my heart.
My phone buzzes in my hand: Tash?
Text. Beautiful text.
Yes! Thank God! My phone has a single bar. It cycles on sending for what seems like minutes.
“Come on. Come on,” I beg the screen. The phone transmits: Message sent 2:34pm. I exhale a ragged breath.
Where are you? I’m headed to the bunker. Confirmation the damage is widespread.
He’ll be driving from his studio in the outer valley. He will pass the city on his way to the mountain and see that View Global is gone, a blade of steel and glass missing from the skyline. Maybe there’s no skyline at all.
View. I’m under the building.
There is no reply. I shake the phone; wave it around for better reception. “No! Don’t cut off!”
In the blue phone-light, the cavern closes in. Is the air thinner? It seems thinner. The stain has crossed the floor, tamping the dust into thick, grey sludge. Thread by wicking thread, the water explores my clothing, pushes its chill into the space around my heart. I shiver as the woman I can’t see groans again.
I am going to die down here.
I try 911 a second time. Futile. I howl for help.
Buzzing in my hand: There are roadblocks city-bound. No one is getting in.
Or out. He doesn’t have to say it. No one is entering to find me and I won’t be getting out.
A warm tear meanders down my cheek. That’s why I texted. To tell you not to hold the bunker open for me.
As I watch the sending function cycle and finally transmit, my words strike me as being like that part of the relationship, the really shitty bit near the end, where you don’t care anymore. Where you say things like don’t wait up for me. And dinner’s in the freezer.
When we had embarked on our trial separation, I had brought up the matter of our belongings: splitting the cars, furniture and mementos. The discussion had descended into accusation and tears and so we had let the subject drop until if and when there was ever a divorce.
I guess it’s odd, then, that amidst talk of mitosing our union, our sharing of the bunker was never in question. Were we just not that selfish? Did neither of us hate the other enough to cast them out into nuclear winter?
Or did a part of us hope that, should we ever have need of the bunker, all the little annoyances would have burned away with the fires of the world, stripping us back to the bare, human essentials? One of those had to be love, right?
Did we think the end of the world would bring us closer? Like those people who have a baby to mend a marriage.
I’d still be annoyed if someone left the toilet seat up in a bunker. Does that make me intolerant or just consistent?
I don’t know what to say, Tash. Tell me what to say?
Daniel in two sentences. Start with what you see.
He sends me a picture taken through the windscreen of our old Jag. The glass is badly cracked: a six-point, frame-to-frame asterisk that would not in normal circumstances be allowed on a road. The dark green hood is dusted with debris and pitted all over, as if with hail. The state of the car spikes me with painful nostalgia: remembered road trips, and sunsets at the lookout; the immaculate finish and sun-flash chrome turning heads wherever we went.
Beyond the hood are four lanes of bumper-to-bumper scorched and damaged cars, most with windows broken or spidered, their panels dented. Too few of the vehicles have belongings packed inside and there is only one with stuff strapped to the roof: these people were caught off guard too.
Fir trees angle every which way across the road, mangy with singed and hanging branches, their tops decapitated. The sky is a jaundiced smear, snaked with grey smoke and contrails.
Damn. Can you see the city from there?
Only where it was.
Jesus. What does that even mean? My hands jitter as I type: SHOW ME.
There is a long pause while he takes the picture, debates whether to take the picture, waits for the picture to upload, to send; I don’t know.
The delay is enough to make me doubt. Do I really want to see what’s above me? Will I be able to tell it’s hopeless from a still? Probably not. I had thought our wedding photos looked lovely so I guess I lack the eye.
Daniel sends a photo taken obliquely through the driver’s window. Ruined shopfronts and folded billboards stand in the foreground and, beyond them, a billowing thunderhead of smoke, miles wide and high and so solid it could almost be a landmark. No skyscrapers are visible. There is not a single helicopter or blue-and-red emergency light in the image.
No one is coming.
Panic scrambles free. My throat tightens like a drawstring; sobbing stricken notes as I gulp for air. The sound reaches the woman. Her distress harmonizes with mine.
I’m so scared, Dan. What do I do?
The water is pooling, taking on reflections now. My clothes are sodden. I’ve never been so cold in my life.
Is your GPS on so people can find you?
I imagine a sea of red dots—a city of transmitting phones—on some monitor somewhere. A Herculean task to pair live phone with live person.
But I turn on my GPS with shaking hands, add my dot.
The woman is still moaning: desolate sounds. Her voice is thicker now, like it is too near the water, like it is filling with syrup. My skin lifts with gooseflesh.
Why did we break up, Daniel? The text is away before I even comprehend what I’ve written.
You’re asking this now?
There is a crack and a crash as something above finds new equilibrium. Dust trickles from the ceiling, alights on the water like gnats.
There is no rule book for this moment. What to ask. What to say. Do I ask what movies he’s bummed about missing? Is one of the great tragedies of the end of the world not finding out what happens in One To Rule? Do the undead win? Is Greyston on the throne? It might be. It took up enough of our lives that small stuff. Whole conversations at work. Arguments on Twitter. Season predictions. Maybe such things were the big stuff all along and we just never realized.
I don’t think I have time left for small talk, Daniel.
But I don’t want to argue. Not now.
Does it have to be an argument? Please.
Why? How will that help anything?
Because it’s ordinary. I just want an ordinary conversation. To take my mind off things. Because I think you’ll tell me the truth this time. Don’t you want closure?
I wonder if he will answer.
The woman subsides to whimpers. Water bubbles faintly with each cry and the part of me terrified by the sound wants to say, “Please stop.” But that would be intruding and I don’t want to be that person who shushes instead of comforts. “Are you okay?”
No reply. Not from her or the phone.
I bellow again for help, even though it’s futile. I try to slither forward, sideways, backward, but get only pain.
Please don’t leave me, Daniel. In the text is an echo of my barefooted self standing on a timber veranda in the early morning chill, watching him pack the Jag. Only I hadn’t said the words aloud back then. I had just let him leave. A part of me had been glad.
They don’t tell you how fast the end can arrive when you commission the bunker. They don’t tell you that about a lot of things.
That’s as true for marriage as it is for apocalypses.
There is 18% charge remaining. I check my apps to ensure nothing is draining power in the background. I haven’t much bbbattery. Please say something.
The cold makes my thumb jitter on the b. He will notice. He will fret more. I correct my spelling before pressing send.
We used to have silent dinners. Texting work, other people, Facebook, Twitter: anything to have a meal together without conversing across the table.
How fitting that our phones are all that link us now.
It’s an accusation he’s flung before, undefined as monkey-poo. A vague buzzword. It might hold truth, but not the whole truth.
Okay. And? I need more than that.
What do you want me to say? We had different definitions of that so we fell apart.
I was committed!
You were THERE, Tash. It’s not the same thing. Now can we drop it? I don’t want to end on who did what and when. It’s not important.
It is. Look, pretend I’m not on the other end. Please don’t pretend I’m not on the other end. Pretend it’s your diary and everything is going up in nuclear fire and no one will ever read it.
This is not the time for joking.
It’s the last and only time for it.
My back burns with immobility, my thighs with compression. My feet are numb blocks that could be anywhere; I half expect them to bob past like icebergs. The water ripples in languid circles as I try to shift position.
You were always somewhere else, even when you were beside me.
We both had our lives, Dan. So I was absent-minded.
It was more than that, Tash. You didn’t want ties. Not to me or anyone.
But we got married! This line checkmates his argument, but I don’t press send. I can’t. My finger stalls above the button.
We got married. Nothing is more committed than that, surely. So why can’t I use it as my argument?
The sunken copier papers fan out around me. Fine debris has settled on their white faces with the obscure shadowiness of photographs emerging from developer brine. In my mind they solidify into wedding photos. Daniel beaming with all his teeth and… me… photograph-perfect, dying inside.
I had walked the aisle like someone beginning a life sentence. Not so much a joyous union as an inevitable one. Our parents had expected it. He had expected it. All our friends had expected it. Not in a pushy way—I could have said no—just a natural, lazy progression of dating and being thought of as Daniel-and-Tash and liking each other enough to make it a regular and exclusive thing.
I hadn’t wanted a house. Rentals were easier dissolved. No kids either: kids were not. When I think about it, the few choices I had fought for in our marriage had been in the expectation of it ending. Even when things seemed good.
Man, I was even working as a temp when the ceiling fell in.
My phone chimes: Tash? Are you okay? I’m sorry. It’s not your fault. We were just two different people.
Different people: one who never watched The News; one who convinced us to walk into a showroom and commission a bunker. Because people like me have a special knack for changing winds. We seek them out.
It was my idea to buy the bunker together. That was a commitment. Practically a home.
I almost hear his bitter laugh. You do realize people buy bunkers for times when there are no other options? I didn’t want to be your last option, Tash.
My phone bleeps a battery warning. The water is lapping about my elbows. The shivers are coming in waves now. My jaw chatters; my throat emits involuntary grunts of cold.
The other woman has fallen silent.
My last option? Was that how I saw him? Somehow it had never felt like that at the time. I had loved him, but amidst all the mind-clutter and other stuff I had parked him like an old Jag and expected him to be there when I needed.
I really was awful, wasn’t I?
He actually adds the ellipsis and I hear him saying my name in that quietly exasperated way of his. Tash… you’re being unreasonable. Tash… I asked you to pay the gas. Tash… I was talking to you; okay, so what did I just say?
A memory surfaces: us picking out bunker décor, flicking through endless webpages for items we could bear to be surrounded by, things we might die surrounded by. Adornments for a tomb: daisy-patterned coffee cups and a kanji-daubed teapot in place of mummified cats, and hearts in jars.
“Oh Tash…” he’d said. “What’s the point of curtains?”
“You chose the carpet. I choose the curtains. That’s how it’s done.”
“But there are no windows in a bunker, my darling.”
A minor argument, but more informative than we’d realized at the time. A sign I was going through the motions of what was expected in a marriage without fully engaging.
Marriage: carpet plus curtains. Check. Move on.
Something is buzzing distantly. On. Off. Burrrr. Silence. Burrrr. Silence. Electrical shorting?
The new sound occupies the void left by the woman. I call to her. “Hey, are y-you still there? Say s-s-something.”
Groan. Cry. Let me know you are still alive.
The air is thinner; it’s not my imagination. My breathing digs deeper now, works hard to draw enough oxygen. Like breathing syrup…
Tash? Are you still there?
You weren’t a last option, you know. I’m sorry I made you feel like that.
Another battery warning. The phone-light dims, throwing the space into shadow: curtains drawing to block out the sun.
Carpet and curtains. Floors and windows. Daniel and Tash. Sinking roots and flying free.
Do you remember how I wanted drapes for the bunker even though there were no windows? The ice is in my marrow; aching my bones. I take ages typing now, ages to remove the shiver-induced duplicates and misspellings.
You made me draw squares and hung curtains over them.
Yes. Do you see?
You needed the hope of windows, even if they didn’t exist?
My eyes well. I didn’t want to forget freedom. It was never a lack of love.
There is a long pause. I held tight because I feared you’d walk. I thought you no longer wanted me.
I needed independence, Dan. But I wouldn’t have left. And I hadn’t. He had been the one to walk in the end, to suggest the trial-separation to clear our heads. I just hadn’t fought him on it.
I did love you, Daniel. I still do. In my wild, untetherable way.
I love you too.
The burring is closer. The ceiling shivers. Pebbles plink into the water, sending out circles that cross and cross again, cobalt arcs in the phone-light.
Someone is shooting, Tash. There might be breaks okay. Nine little words, so matter-of-fact in text—
OMG stay safe! A dumb thing to say, really. The world is ending and I am still writing OMG like it is high-school: OMG, did you see Gary’s girlfriend?
The delay is long. Long enough for the ceiling to press down, for the air to turn from syrup to molasses, for water to creep up my ribcage. Now when I shift, the waves are wider; they slosh softly as they touch the walls. The staccato burr from above continues; the hourglass-trickle and plink of dust and pebbles. I cry for help over and over, but my voice is reedy and faint even to my own ears.
Another 911 attempt sucks away more charge. I should rest the battery, but am too scared to turn the phone off in case it dies.
My shivers are full-body quakes now. Drowsiness is setting in. I wriggle in the water, making my back scream: Stay awake!
The phone chimes again, bringing me a new photo. He’s closer to the city now. The tower of black is thinning, twisted spars materializing from the gloom. One was once View Global but I can’t guess which.
There are red and blue lights in the smoke.
I am so fixated on the rescue lights I nearly miss the people in the foreground. Two adults and a young child, shell-shocked and filthy, hand-in-hand-in-hand as they race along the sidewalk: the kind of family Daniel had always wanted.
An idea I’d never entertained.
God, I had denied his nature as much as he’d denied mine.
It’s getting bad out here, Tash. Tanks and roadblocks. I don’t know if we are going to make it through.
A word with atomic weight, the power to destroy worlds.
There’s someone in the car with you. Failure to mention such an important detail makes the omission female. He doesn’t have a lady boss, a secretary, someone he might have run from the workplace with, bellowed “get in my car” to.
There is a pause. And I know in that way women do.
You were the one who wanted a trial separation instead of a divorce. The one who wouldn’t sign the papers. Who wouldn’t split things. Wouldn’t open the window for me.
And he accuses me of not committing to things.
We were having a late lunch.
So he’d been caught off guard in an ordinary moment too.
Were you at Candelos?
No. Jamie Sumner’s. I wouldn’t take anyone else to Candelos. That was our place.
I wonder if Candelos is still standing. If anyone will ever eat there again. Ever order the salmon fettucine marinara.
My phone warns me again, the light dims more. Critical now.
I’m not surprised he found someone else.
It was the same with our old cat. When she had died, he had wanted to visit the shelter right away, not because he didn’t care about her passing, but because he could not see life without a cat.
I had told him I wasn’t ready to replace her memory. But in retrospect, I hadn’t wanted the hassle. Another tether. Something living I might have to stay for or wrestle for custody over.
Are you there? There’s been a gap from my end. True to form, he’s fretting in the void, filling in the blanks.
You should have signed the divorce papers. That would have been the decent thing to do before taking up with someone else.
We have only been serious a month. I was going to tell you but this happened.
You’re going to use the apocalypse as an excuse?
It’s so ludicrous, I actually start giggling.
I want a ppphoto. This time, I leave the typos in to show him my suffering.
The photo will chew power, maybe even the last of it. But I need to know who she is, who he chose to replace his old cat.
Is she prettier than me? The thought flickers through my mind, natural and idiotic.
Is it weird that such a thought should still be the first one? Like we are still living normal lives, like I might bump into her at brunch; as if we won’t soon be living in darkness, guided by voice and touch and the intermittent light of candles-for-special-occasions?
Shouldn’t the question now be, is she warmer than me? Is she softer than me? Is her voice sexier than mine? Do her lips say the right things?
Is she the kind of girl who will take care of you as you deserve, Daniel? The kind of girl you can set me free for?
I don’t have one.
Just takke one, Danniel.
I flinch as she enters my phone, turning my subterranean prison yellow-grey with her face, the fire and contrails and damaged vehicles beyond her. She is dirt-smudged, with a cut across one cheek. She is trying to smile in that awkward way people do when they are being polite in inappropriate circumstances. As a woman, she is probably wondering why he would do this to an ex, even one who asked for it, and there is apology in the grimace she directs toward the camera.
I like her, despite myself. She looks like someone who will appreciate his carpet and laugh and shake her head at the curtains I picked. A woman looking to grow roots instead of wings.
We might have gotten along over cocktails, conspired in restaurant bathrooms: Daniel loves it when you touch him here. I might have gone to their wedding.
The battery is running on fumes. An exclamation point pronounces impending darkness.
The burring is getting nearer. Taking form. Jackhammers. Someone is coming.
But they are a long way off. And I am so very cold.
They don’t tell you how fast the end can arrive when you commission the bunker. That’s as true for marriage as it is for apocalypses.
But you do have a choice over how you will meet that end.
I’m hhappy for yyyyou, Daniel.
And because he won’t know if I’m being sarcastic, I add a heart emoji. A heart emoji at the end of the world because, even now, I wouldn’t want him to take the wrong idea to the grave.
Hey, what’s up with your typing? Are you okay?
Just ccold. Love you forever, Dani—
It’s almost pretty, the dying moment of my phone; the last of the light. A vivid cycling of blue pixels and a decrescendo of notes. A digital uh oh, far too whimsical for this space.
The trickle and slop of water. Leaching-cold.
So sleepy. Nowhere to lay my head but the water.
The jackhammers really are a long way off, distant as circling helicopters. It’s almost worse to hear the digging, to feel the gentle patter of ceiling in my hair, to have come so close to rescue.
I don’t think they will get here in time.
But who knows? Maybe they will break through a wall, find a crooked stair, find the cavern, find me, and set me free—
Maybe Daniel and his new love will reach the bunker. Will find the cans I arranged alphabetically, the box of Hershey’s I hid amongst the essentials as a surprise for him.
I wish them happiness.
But the new woman’s grimace is seared into my mind, the fire and smoke framing her golden hair. Maybe they only make it another few miles. Maybe there is a downed bridge, a roadblock, another explosion, a hail of bullets. Maybe mine is the better end.
Maybe no one will hide in the bunker. Maybe it will be found and cleaned out in some future peacetime, long after the Hershey’s have passed their use-by date.
Maybe one day there will be a sign out the front: For sale or lease, one living space, formerly a bunker. Imagine the life you might have.
Copyright 2018 by Shauna O’Meara