Pre-Apocalypse

The song cut out as the radio started blaring a test of the emergency broadcast system beginning with its usual discordant WEEEEEEEEHHHHHH. Mack cut it off and left it. They were almost to the parking lot of the trailhead, anyway.

Next to him, in the passenger seat, Lois shifted. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her reach out, like she was going to turn the radio back on, but instead let her hand drop. He tried to settle his stomach.

Can’t even be in silence for five minutes anymore?

He smoothed his shirt under the seatbelt like he wanted to smooth his nerves. It would be okay. After this afternoon, everything would be peaches and cream again.

“Ta-da!” he said with a little drama as they pulled into the little parking lot. Lois squinted at it, and Mack swallowed. “It’s the place where we had our first date.”

“Yeah, I know,” she said. “I figured it out on the way. Not a lot of things to do in this direction.”

Mack busied himself with parking to hide the embarrassment. Maybe Lois thought she had been a little harsh. She patted his arm and gave him a wan smile.

“It was a good idea, Mack,” she said. “Hopefully the trails are as nice as we remember.”

They got ready in silence, lacing up their boots and spraying down with sunblock and bug spray and loading their packs with water and trail mix. It was a six-mile loop, mostly uphill, that would bring them to a stunning view of the rolling foothills and the city below. The first time they had come here they had been fresh out of college, unsure of themselves or each other, and then that view. That view had told Mack everything he needed to know. It was stupid, but it was the loudest thought he had ever had.

If a view like this exists, everything can be okay.

With nods to each other when they were ready, Mack shut the trunk and hit the lock button on the fob until the car beeped, and then they were cutting across the lot and starting the trail.

It was a beautiful day. Late spring, cool and breezy in the trees, and they made good time. With Lois walking in front of him it was easy to think everything was still as good as the first time. He couldn’t see her face, so he could imagine it was pleasant or at least neutral. Not dark with some worry she wouldn’t share. Not distant, like instead of being here with him she was orbiting some mysterious planet. Certainly not the looks she gave him when he thought he couldn’t see. The ones that he must have been seeing wrong from the corner of his eye, twisted with disgust.

He’d tried to talk to her. Tried to get her to open up. But once they were talking it was all dimples and smiles.

“Nothing’s wrong, silly bear,” she’d say, and kiss him lightly on the cheek. “Everything is the same, you’re just worrying over nothing.”

Belief had been easy at first. Lois was the love of his life, and if he lost her…he couldn’t even imagine it. Mack wanted to believe.

It had been harder and harder.

Today was the day, he had decided. Up at the top of the trail, looking over that miraculous view, they were going to come to the truth.

Either everything was fine, or it wasn’t.

A couple coming the other way pulled him out of his reverie. They were coming down the trail so fast the man in front practically shoved Lois out of the way. Mack stepped to the side quick and threw out a hand to catch her as they hustled past.

“Hey, what the hell, man?”

The woman slid on the dirt, hitting her bottom and almost losing her grip on the battery radio she was holding. The man paused only long enough to pull her back up. He glanced at Mack with an inscrutable look, and then they were hustling again.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“I’m fine.” She ignored his hand and brushed off the back of her shorts. “Fucking tourists, think they own the place.”

Mack took one last look down the trail, but the offending couple was already gone.

“We’re not far now.”

The last quarter mile was steep, the only sounds their huffing and wheezing. And then they were at the crest, standing on top of it. Below them was the view, as amazing as he remembered it. Rolling hills relaxing into a never-ending prairie, and right there at the switch was the city. He could imagine holding the whole city in his hands, all the noise and the people and the cars nothing more than specks.

Toss those specks to the wind.

“I know why you brought me up here.” Lois’ voice was a sword in his back.

Staring at him, one hand on her hip, it was clear she was waiting. From where she stood, so far back, she could barely see the view.

“It’s one of my favorite places.”

“It’s where we had our first date.”

“That’s one of the reasons why,” Mack said. He pulled his pack in front of him and his arm down the bag when Lois held up her hands.

“Don’t.”

They stared at each other for a few seconds, her hands up and his in his bag and neither moving except to blink.

“I thought we were doing okay?” Mack said.

“You know we’re not.”

“But that’s not what you say. Every time I ask…‘what’s wrong?’ or ‘What are you thinking about?’ Or ‘Why the look?’ You always say, ‘nothings wrong. Thinking about nothing. What look?’”

Lois swallowed hard. Sweat was beading around her hairline, dripping down her face near her ears. He began to pull his arm out of the bag again and Lois flinched.

“I…I didn’t know how to say it. You…you never stopped.”

“Never stopped what?”

“Loving me.”

Mack’s throat made a click. “And you did?”

Carefully, as though if she moved too fast she’d break something, Lois nodded.

“Is there someone else?”

No. No one else.”

“You just fell out of love.”

“I’m sorr-”

“And strung me along for…months, at least. Right?”

She wiped at the tears springing in her eyes. Mack felt drier than the desert. He pulled his arm out of the bag, his hand clutching the ring box he’d hidden at the bottom.

If a view like this exists, everything can be okay.

He’d wanted the truth. One direction or the other, he’d just wanted to know. And now he did. It was over. It had been over, he supposed, but now he knew for sure.

Mack turned to toss the ring box down the mountain.

The brightest light he’d ever seen exploded over the city.

Frozen, one arm behind him ready to throw, he watched as the light resolved into fire and smoke where the city had once been.

“What…what…WHAT…” Lois was screaming.

But Mack couldn’t move, his eyes glued to what had been his city, and the rising mushroom cloud above it.


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