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Friday, December 21, 2012

"Eight Minutes"

One minute.
The elevator doors opened, allowing the man inside to make his way towards the interview. “This is the big day,” Ben thought to himself as he adjusted his tie. It hadn’t been an easy journey, but by the end of the day he was going to be somebody. He’d finally be a man making a real salary, the kind of person who could support a family one day.
When Ben was younger, his mother had always told him that everything he wanted would happen as long as he was willing to work for it. He did everything perfect in those business classes. He took all those internships, doing a company’s grunt work without complaint. In his free time he’d fantasize about the dream, looking into what else he could do to make it happen. As he navigated the halls, Ben came across a door with a familiar set of numbers on its front.
“Room 1288. This is the place,” Ben said quietly. He took a deep breath, then exhaled, letting serenity course through his body. He’d be fine, he told himself. This was the last step of the journey. He just needed to do the interview, and the job was his. With a calm confidence, he opened the door and stepped in.

“Come on, come on, pick up, pick up…” Geoff chanted anxiously. A week, Stephanie told him. She wouldn’t be able to talk for a week. It had been a month since then. Why couldn’t he still reach her? She couldn’t have been angry at him. He’d done nothing wrong. Was she in trouble? Maybe she got in a car accident or something. Geoff’s stomach churned uneasily. He hoped she was OK. He just needed to reach her…
“Hi, this is Stephanie!” said the recording cheerfully. “I’m sorry I can’t make it to the phone, but if you leave me a message, I’ll get back to you.” Geoff hung up and put the phone away. He tucked in the covers of his bed, looking at the familiar surroundings of his room. Looks like he wouldn’t be talking to her today either. He checked the time. Three in the afternoon.
“I should be outside,” Geoff thought. If he couldn’t talk to Stephanie, he should at least do something. But what else was there? The town felt more barren every day. People kept moving to livelier places, businesses kept closing down. What was it about the place that made people want to leave, Geoff wondered? It wasn’t him, was it? The only light left in the godforsaken place was Stephanie, and he had no idea what came of her either.
Geoff turned in his bed, trying to lay comfortably. His eyelids began to grow heavy. For lack of any better options, he decided, he might as well just sleep.

Ninety-three million miles away, the Sun had gone nova.

Two minutes.
            Tiffany walked towards Mrs. Basil’s classroom, staring at the ground the whole time. Her grip around the straps of her backpack tightened. Don’t look up, she told herself. If she couldn’t see them, maybe they couldn’t see her either. Just keep heading for the classroom, and you’ll be fine. Maybe they’re not even around.
            “Where do you think you’re going?” asked a familiar voice. Tiffany looked up to see Josh, surrounded by two more of the older kids.
            “I…I’m just going to class,” Tiffany answered faintly.
            “Why? So you can go cry to the teacher some more?” Josh and his friends stepped closer towards Tiffany, forming a circle around her.
            “Please leave me alone!” she shrieked. “Come on, guys. I never did nothin’ to you, did I?”
            “That’s a nice backpack…” said Josh, rubbing his fingers against the case.
            “Well it’s mine!” Tiffany retorted. “You can’t have it!”
            “Oh, yeah?” Josh replied, wrestling the backpack off of Tiffany’s shoulders.
            “Hey, cut it out!” yelled Tiffany, struggling fruitlessly to resist. “Stop it!” Soon the backpack was in Josh’s hands.
            “Keep away!” he yelled, tossing it to one of his friends. Tiffany ran back and forth, trying to retrieve her backpack, though as soon as she reached one of the bullies it had already been tossed to another.
            “Come on, guys! I mean it!” she screamed. “This isn’t funny! Give it back!”
            “You really want it back, huh?” asked Josh. “Then you can have it!” He threw the backpack forcefully at Tiffany, knocking her back as she caught it. The bullies walked off laughing, leaving the girl on the floor, quietly groaning in pain.

            “Ben…Paulsen? Is that right?” asked the interviewer. He stared at the young man in front of him with a very quiet form of impatience.
            “Yes, sir! It is!” Ben answered cheerfully.
            “It says here you’re good with computers?”
            “Very good, sir. If you needed a spreadsheet, I’d have it done for you in a snap!” He gave a weak chuckle to himself. The interviewer curled his lips into a small smile of his own. “I’m also…I’m really good with people too, sir.” Ben added. “I’m very sociable, I get along well with others. So in, you know…a cooperative working environment I’d do really well.”
            “What else can you do?” asked the interviewer. The smile vanished from Ben’s face.
            “E…excuse me, sir?”
            “Plenty of people know how to work a computer. And getting along with others is expected. It’s the bare minimum. What can you offer me that the other schmucks lining up to work here can’t?”
            “What…else can I do?” Ben repeated.
            “Yeah, that’s right.”
            “Well…” Ben smiled again, this time a little more crooked than before. “Well, this job’s always been sort of a dream of mine, and I’ve been working towards it for a very long time…”
            “That’s nice, but what do you have to show for it?” interrupted the interviewer. “If you’re so special, what can you do?”

            The Sun’s brilliant, all-consuming flames shot out in all directions, moving through the cosmos at unfathomable speeds.

Three minutes.
            “Father?” asked the assistant, stepping into the priest’s office. “Father, they’ve started singing already. The mass has begun. We need you!” Father Walker paid no heed to his assistant, staring at his desk, lost in thought.
            “I don’t know, son,” said the priest. “Am I really needed after all?”
            “It’s the funeral, isn’t it? You’re still thinking about yesterday.”
            “I tried to save the boy, you know,” Walker said with a heavy sigh. “He came to me asking for help. Me, of all people. I could do it, I said to myself. Giving other people hope is my job. I could stop the lad’s troubles. But in the end, he still did it, and I’m the one who’s got tell the boy’s parents it’ll be OK.”
            “You did what you could, Father. Nobody’s judging you.” Walker looked at the door leading out of his office, straining to hear the choir singing its hymns outside.
            “I’d beg to differ,” said the priest, donning his robes. “I suppose I’d better get out there, though.”
            “Have you prepared a sermon already, Father?”
            “Of course I have. I know just what I need to say.”

            Tiffany ran into the bathroom as fast as she could, locked one of the stalls, and sat on the toilet, bringing her legs up to the seat so nobody could see her feet. Every day it was the same. People were mean to her at school, then people would be mean to her at home.
            Her father told her it was her fault when bad things happened. She’d always have done something wrong herself, and whatever she got was a punishment. She must have done a lot to be punished as much as she had. Tiffany began to sniffle.
            Were her grades too bad? Did she not brush her teeth well enough in the morning? Tiffany puzzled as hard as she could, trying to figure out what she did wrong. There must have been something if she was getting punished so much. It wouldn’t happen without a reason. She was sure of that.
            Her thoughts shifted to how she’d see Josh again before the day was over. After that she’d go home. Mom and Dad would probably be fighting again. She never knew what they were saying, but it was always so loud. Then she’d go to bed, and the same thing would happen again.
            Tiffany put her face into her hands and started to cry, loudly and without shame. As she heard her own sobs echo through the bathroom, she quickly closed her mouth, struggling to stay as quiet as she could. She shouldn’t make too much noise, she decided. She could be punished for that.

            The planet Mercury was consumed by the light.

Four minutes.
            The phone rang. Geoff was roused from his slumber as quickly as he had entered it. Groggily, he reached his hand towards the phone. “Stephanie,” read the screen. His eyes widening, Geoff answered.
            “Hello, Stephanie?” he said, still not fully awake.
            “Hi, Geoff,” greeted the voice on the other line.
            “Steph, there you are!” his voice began to perk up. “I was starting to worry about you! How have you been?”
            “I’ve been fine,” she answered apathetically. “But there’s something I need to talk to you about.”
            “Of course, anything. What is it?” The phone stayed silent before Stephanie continued.
            “I think it’s better if we stopped talking.” Geoff stared at the wall in disbelief.
            “What? Why? Did…did I do something wrong?”
            “It’s not that, it’s just…every time I talk to you it’s draining. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and…what do I get out of talking with you? I listen to all this shit you have to say, but when have you ever been willing to do something for me?”
            “I…I like talking with you, though.”
            “I’m really, sorry, Geoff, but I think it’d be better for both of us if we stopped.”
            “But Stephanie, wait!” the man demanded. “You don’t know what it’s like, you know…being me. I’ve never really had a lot, you know. Talking with you is all that’s really kept me going. If you’re not in my life anymore…what am I supposed to do?”
            “Good-bye, Geoff.” The phone hung up. Geoff slowly put the phone down, his mouth agape in shock.

            “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” the priest’s assistant read to the crowd. “And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.”
            Father Walker looked out at the crowd. Most of them were listening attentively. Some of them, mostly children, were looking away in disinterest. Even the boy’s family was there. Yesterday he saw them in tears, and yet somehow they managed to stay so composed.
            All of them were there to listen to him. The priest allowed himself a small smile. Most people didn’t have the benefit of an audience. People cared about what he had to say. Even the boy cared. Society had placed a value on his words, a luxury only a select few were allowed.
            "And the Lord said 'I will destroy man, whom I have created, from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them,’” the assistant finished. “And now, I believe Father Walker has prepared a sermon for us.” The assistant walked away from the podium, letting the priest take his place. The minister looked out towards the crowd and cleared his throat.

Five minutes.
“Well, Mr. Paulsen, we…uh, certainly appreciate you coming over.” The interviewer stuck out his hand. Ben shook it heartily, still sporting his eager smile.
            “Thank you for making the time for me! So, uh…what do…you know, what do you think?” The interviewer got up from his chair.
            “There are a lot of things we have to look over before we can make a real decision,” he said gruffly, making his way to the door. “We’ll call you when we’re ready.” He opened the door and gestured towards it.
            “Uh, OK…” Ben said nervously. “Well do…do you have any idea of how long it’ll take for me to hear back?”
            “There is none,” answered the interviewer. He gestured to the door.
            “Excuse me?”
            “There’s no time you’ll expect to hear back. We’ll do it when we’re ready, OK? You can leave now.”
            “All right, then,” said Ben sheepishly, steeping out of the door. “Have a great day!”
            “Bye,” said the interviewer, slamming the door shut. Ben looked out at the hallway. No set time, he thought to himself. It could take weeks for him to hear back. Months, even. Ben slowly walked forward.
            Maybe they’d never call back, he thought to himself. What if all of that was just something they said to shut him up? Ben shook his head. No, no. He couldn’t think of that. Always assume the best. Everything he wanted would happen if he was willing to work for it. He’d get the job. It’d all go as planned. Everything would be fine.

            “Tiffany, you’re late,” said Mrs. Basil, the whole class turning to face the student walking through the door. “Do you have a tardy slip?”
            “No,” answered Tiffany hoarsely, trying to avoid the gaze of the other students. The teacher looked at her with concern.
            “Class, why don’t you take a minute to review your homework?” asked Mrs. Basil. “I’ll be right back.” The teacher stepped out of the classroom, taking Tiffany with her, and shut the door.
            “Are you all right?” she asked, kneeling down to the young girl’s level.
            “Y…yes, I’m fine…” Mrs. Basil looked carefully at Tiffany’s face, the area around her eyes so red and puffy.
            “Were you crying?”
            “No,” Tiffany answered firmly. Mrs. Basil reached into her pocket and pulled out a handkerchief, offering it to the student.
            “You don’t need to lie to me, Tiffany.”
            “Please don’t punish me!” she begged fervently.
            “Why would I punish you? Just tell me what happened.” Tiffany took the handkerchief and brushed it against her face.
            “W…well, Josh and his friends have been picking on me…”
            “You mean bullying?” asked the teacher. “Oh, you should’ve told someone about this sooner. I’ll take care of this, don’t worry. I’ll tell the principal about what Josh was doing, maybe even call your parents so they know…”
            “No! Please don’t call my parents!” Mrs. Basil gave a deep sigh.
            “Look, sweetie, let me worry about this, OK? Just go inside and try to pay attention to the class. I promise, afterwards Josh won’t bother you anymore.”

Six minutes.
            Geoff laid in his bed despondently. She knew it’d hurt him, he thought to himself. She knew it would hurt and she didn’t care. There was one thing left that he cared about in this town, and now that was gone too. His arms started to shake involuntarily. Overcome with fury, he grabbed one of the pillows on his bed and threw it at the bookshelf opposite him. Several books fell out, upset by the force of the throw. Returning underneath the covers, Geoff hugged the remaining pillow tightly.
            Stephanie was all he had left. Talking to her was the only thing that made it worth waking up the next day. Without her, he was just a man alone in an empty town where nobody knew who he was. There was nothing to look forward to anymore. He turned in his bed uneasily.
            He couldn’t be angry, though, Geoff told himself. He knew who to blame. It was him who pushed away Stephanie. He was the reason why he was stuck where he was. He wasn’t sure just what he did to end up here, but he was always told he brought everything upon himself. Taking in a deep breath, Geoff let the tears slowly stream down his face.
            He hated himself. He wished that he’d die.

            Ben stepped out of the elevator, back on the ground floor. In his head he replayed the interview again and again, every last word still freshly burnt into his mind. Something must have gone wrong, he told himself. If he was good enough they would’ve said something. They would’ve at least told him when he could hear back.
            Ben walked out of the building, stepping towards his car. It wasn’t right. He did everything he was supposed to. He wasn’t a slacker. He worked towards his goal. He gave it all, and he still ended up a mediocrity. Ben turned around, looking up at the colossal building, at all the offices up top that would never be his. What kind of world is this, he thought to himself? How could someone work their ass off and get nothing to show for it?
            Ben pulled his car keys out of his pocket, preparing to unlock the door. Before he could put his thumb on the button, though, he stopped. The man was completely frozen, save for the furrowing of his brow.
            “FUCK!” he screamed at the top of his lungs, stopping his feet. “Fuck!” He looked up at the building again. That was his dream. He’d spent his life slaving away towards it, and the men up there shot him down as soon as they had the chance.
            Ben hated them. He wished that they’d die.

            The planet Venus was taken by the flames.

Seven minutes.
            “Yesterday,” began Father Walker, keeping his gaze focused on the crowd before him. “I faced the difficult task of helping a family bury their son. This boy…things had been hard for him, and I suppose things reached the point where the world was too much for him to bear.” The priest paused, swallowing his saliva and thinking over his next words carefully. Not once did he look away from the crowd.
            “Perhaps if things had gone a little differently, that boy would still be here with us. Maybe if his peers had been better to him, or if the world had stopped trying to pile on more troubles. Or if…if the person he turned to for help did more for him.” He looked at the boy’s parents, their faces betraying no emotion at the sermon.
            “But none of that happened. Everyone causing him so much grief…they didn’t care how much they were pushing him. They had their own lives to go about. We’re all so occupied with our day-to-day affairs that we forget about the bigger picture.” He raised his arm into the air, the excitement in his voice growing.
            “God is watching all of us. And one day, he will judge all of us. Only he knows when that day will come, but it will. All of us need to look inside ourselves and ask what we’ve done with our lives. Will we have any regret when the day of our reckoning comes?”

            “Now, class, today we’ll be learning about the speed of light,” Mrs. Basil said to her students. She spoke slowly, emphasizing each word to make sure the children could understand her. “Now, the speed of light is very fast. Does anybody know how fast it goes?” A few hands shot up in the class. “Yes, Greg?”
            “A hundred miles?”
            “No, faster than that. Sue?”
            “A thousand miles!”
            “Not quite. What about you, Tiffany?” The teacher looked at the student up front, her head laying apathetically on her desk. “How fast do you think the speed of light is?” Tiffany continued staring off at the wall, refusing to say a word. Mrs. Basil gave a quick frown before reaching for a marker.
            “Well, students, the speed of light is actually around 186,000 miles per second!” She wrote the number on the board, drawing a few lines underneath for good measure. “That’s really fast, but light still has to travel. It can’t go somewhere instantly. Like in outer space!” The teacher drew a large circle on one side of the board. At the other end, she drew a much smaller circle.
            “Now, let’s say this is the Sun and this is the Earth,” explained the teacher, labeling the circles with her marker. “They’re really, really far away! Millions of miles, even! It takes the Sun’s light time before it can reach the Earth. Because of that, we never really see the Sun as it is right now. If anything happened to the Sun, nobody on Earth would know about it until after…”

Eight minutes.
            The raging nova continued onward, devouring the planet in its path. Billions upon billions of screams were heard at once, the world’s last noises unheard by the cosmos. Still in his bed, Geoff managed a brief smile before the light took him, knowing that for one brief moment the world was as it should be.
            Ben looked up at the building once more. For the faintest moment, he could hear the agony of the men up top, crying as their own flesh seared off of their bones. Ben had no time to feel any satisfaction, as the same fate soon met him.
            Father Walker ignored the heat, continuing his sermon. Whatever was happening, he knew these people needed hope. They needed him. The priest talked on until the light had finally taken him, and the whole church with it.
            Mrs. Basil pushed Tiffany down to the floor, trying to shield her from the flames with her own body. She looked down at the student, staring at the fear in her eyes.
            “It’ll all be OK, Tiffany,” she said uneasily, looking at the flames around her. “It’ll all be…”
            The planet Earth was taken by the light. The brilliant flames kept moving, their journey still having only just begun.

1 comment:

  1. Well-written, sir! What is especially haunting about this story is how utterly unexpected the end is.