Midnight Sunrise: A Short Story Set At The End of the World
So, this was it.
I heard her showering in the hotel bathroom. The hollow echo of water followed the steam, up and out of the open doorway and into the bedroom. I laid back on the bed with a scratchy towel wrapped around my waist and my feet still flat on the floor.
My eyes were closed as I listened to the bursting staccato rhythm of water drops on ceramic. I imagined cascades of water trailing off of her elbows and whipping the tiles. She might have been washing her hair.
The late afternoon sun shown through the window and through my closed eyes, leaving the redrawn memories of the day sketched in orangey-red on the back of my eyelids. A smattering of panoramic views on all sides of swaths of green and white mountains along with the whitish azure of the lake below our sailboat. We’d had a picnic of brie, bread, and booze on the lake. If we’d had enough to drink, one of us might’ve forgotten how to sail back to shore. But it didn’t matter, neither of us really knew how to sail anyway. We just pointed the boat in a direction and hoped, much like we always did.
I hadn’t had very many thoughts over the past month. There seemed to be very little point. But I remember her looking up over my shoulder, while we drifted, at what I presumed to be more mountains and grassy valleys and saying, “In this place, the impressionists were more realists, and the realists more impressionists.”
Having not entertained any abstract thinking the past few weeks, all I could reply with was, “Hunh?”
“Look,” she said as she gingerly guided my gaze, with a hand on the back of my head, towards the valley stretching off to the side, “looks like paint strokes more than anything doesn’t it?”
“I suppose so.” I was concentrating now as I always did when her fingers were laced through my hair. She was right. The mountains looked like they were carved out of oil paints with a brush rather than carved from rock by rivers and wind. “What made you think of that?”
“I’d always wanted to be in a painting.” She smiled at me.
She did. Every time she wandered into a museum I’d either get a poke in the ribs or a text message about stepping out of this world and into the one inside the frame on the wall. She was always so logical and I loved it when she succumbed to a bit of fantasy. Fantasy was my sandbox and I appreciated having a playmate if only for a few fleeting minutes.
The steam and sounds from the hotel bathroom subsided and I opened one eye to find her standing nearby wrapped in a scratchy towel all of her own. She’d tucked it neatly under one armpit and had draped a wad of wet black hair over her shoulder.
“You’re next!” she said. Then whipped her towel off and over my face.
I heard the news four weeks ago. I took it the same as everyone else, at first.
One morning, she came down the stairs of our apartment and unfurled, in one swift motion, an old atlas made of cloth with frayed edges. I’d been eating a breakfast of home-fries and bacon while adding some coffee stain rings to my latest manuscript. The corner of the map dropped into my mound of ketchup at the side of the plate.
She pulled the Monopoly box off the nearby shelf, flipped it open, and placed a pewter sailboat piece over central Europe. My eyes followed from the pewter piece up her arm to find smile and that piercing look she gave me when she was excited. It had the unflappable confidence of childlike desire. I couldn’t deprive her of anything when she gave me that look. I could only smile and nod. So, that’s what I did.
She reached out and dropped another Monopoly piece into my hand. It was a surfboard. She remembered how much I missed the ocean while we were living here in the city. She’d often fall asleep with her head in my lap as I watched old surf movies to quench my thirst for fiberglass and sea spray on my face.
I manipulated the minuscule figure up to balance on the end of my thumb then flicked it up into the air like a quarter. It tumbled over and over before bouncing twice across the Pacific ocean and settling right next to a small group of tropical islands.
Shrugging, I looked up and smiled at her. She kissed my forehead and ran a hand across my chest as she went upstairs to pack…
Luckily, passion sometimes overcomes despair, and there were a few airline pilots working simply because they couldn’t stand being anywhere else but up in the sky. One such man flew us out to the mountains of central Europe and had just shot us out over the Pacific in his old employer’s private jet. The inside was all red carpet, velour cushions, and crystal fixtures. But it had a comfy enough bed, and I slept any fears of air travel away with the rhythm of her snoring next to me.
After dropping us on the tarmac at a little island resort, the pilot took off without refueling. Time was running out for everyone and pilot probably knew that very well. I could understand his reluctance to bother with refueling. We only had a handful of hours left anyway, and I guess he figured he would see how far he could get over the glassy blue water before it was over.
“Over here!” She shouted.
Off to the side of the tarmac ran a beach that hooked around like a sandy saber into the tropical water. Scattered along the tree line were a half dozen bungalows of hardwood and palm fronds. Each one had a pair of comfy looking driftwood lounge chairs placed out front under red and white striped umbrellas.
“Why don’t you make yourself comfortable while I paddle out for a couple before it gets dark?” I said.
“I don’t think that it’s gonna get dark tonight. They said something about the friction with the atmosphere?” She said.
“Might be pretty.”
“Yeah. Is it weird that I’m sorta – looking forward to seeing it?”
“Nah, I’m a little curious too. Should be one hell of a show.”
Probably would be. We would see in few hours.
She trotted off down the beach to one nearest bungalow, pulled up the umbrella obscuring the sunshine, and tossed it off into the jungle as if it had insulted her by simply daring to cast a penumbra over her lounge chair. She settled onto one of the lounge chairs and waved lazily over to me as she stripped down to whatever she was wearing under her clothes.
She was gorgeous and normally I would have stood transfixed as she disrobed, but I was too preoccupied unpacking the only bag we brought to dally with such fleeting physical fantasies. I didn’t have much longer to get in what would probably my last surfing session.
The only bag we brought was a padded metallic silver surfboard bag. Even though we were headed all the way across the Pacific, there wasn’t much point in bringing a change of clothes. All I really needed was that 10-foot plank of fiberglass that would provide me with the satisfaction that I so craved.
Hefting the board under one arm, I trotted over to where she was reclining by the bungalow and laid the board in the sand. I kicked off my shirt and shoes, kissed her, and sprinted off down the beach with the board. Looking up at the waning afternoon light, I knew that the end of the day would be coming soon. Each good ride requires a quota of four short ones and a wipeout. I wanted at least one good ride.
The sunset bathed the crashing waves in orange and yellow light. There was some red mixed up in it as well. That was new. Amongst the fiery waves I paddled, ducking under the soupy foam, I let the broken ones roll over my back. I let three waves pass before turning around to paddle furiously, digging my cupped hands deep into the ocean and clawing my way forward to match the speed of the oncoming wave. It rolled under my feet, tipping the board forward and I felt its power. It toyed with me, then finally grasped the board under my torso. I stood up and angling myself, I cut across the side of the wave. As I glided along, I glanced up to see the sun dip below the horizon, but the red glow stayed in the sky. Everything looked like all the other colors of the spectrum had been dialed down to only leave the reds.
I’d been lucky and caught a good wave on my first try. It was shapely and let me rock back and forth across its face as it rolled lazily to shore where I hopped off and glanced up the beach at the pair of recliners. She was laying there patiently watching my every move as she always did when I was out surfing. She’d never asked to learn but always seemed to be fascinated with what I was doing out there in the ocean.
I looked over my shoulder at the crimson tide rolling in and figured that I’d go out on top. I had one good ride and that was enough. I’d fulfilled my part of the deal and it was time to lay down and relax.
I loved my surfboard in a way that was probably unhealthy when it came to caring for a inanimate object. It was one of the few prized possessions I’d kept with me for my whole life. It was that board and a beat up black classical guitar that followed me for years. I don’t think I could have rid myself of them if I wanted to, or tried. They would have simply followed along somehow like an abandoned pet that knew the way back home. I loved them for their loyalty and for how much they were a part of me and showed it by caring for them unconditionally.
But, I left the board by the sea with the tiny shore break lapping against it.
Walking up towards my beach chair, I waved at her. She waved back frantically and pointed up over my shoulder to the sky. It was changing colors like the aurora borealis but the magnetic greens and blues were replaced by purples, yellows, oranges, and reds. It all seemed to be coming from a central point in the sky and emanating out of an enormous ethereal fireball. It was more light and show than substance.
I laid down on the lounge chair next to her. It evidently wasn’t close enough, so she shimmied it right up against mine and looked up at me when she was finished with an approving flicker of eyelashes. I must have been smiling like an idiot.
“What?” she asked.
“You look funny when you do that.” I said.
“Glad it’s only when I do that. You, on the other hand, look funny all the time.”
“It’s a talent. I’ve worked hard at it.”
“You still need a bit of work young grasshopper, you have not mastered the funny look yet.” She said with a grin and tucked her head under my armpit.
We laid there without saying a word and watching that false second sun in the sky grow larger. I knew that it wouldn’t stop expanding until the light engulfed everything. She knew it too. I think everyone did whether they wanted to or not.
A bit of wind started to thread its way through the jungle, rustling the palm fronds and leaves with a hiss. With each lap on the shore, the ocean rose higher and higher much more quickly than it usually did. I wondered if it would reach us before the light in the sky did.
I looked down at the face in the crook of my shoulder. Her eyes were closed, but I saw them moving under the lids like a kid under his blanket after lights out. Both would be reading stories, one from a book, the other from her memory. I wondered what she was drawing on the backs of her eyelids. She might have dipped her imaginary paintbrush in her well of memories and was recalling something long forgotten. Maybe she was trying to relive our sailboat picnic. I wanted to know, but I figured it best to leave her to her thoughts.
Her eyes shot open and looked directly into mine. I quickly looked away, a bit embarrassed of my curiosity.
“Regrets,” She said, “that’s what I was thinking about.”
“I…ummm,” I said.
“I know you didn’t ask, but I wanted to tell you.”
“Did you find any?”
“Only one. You have any?”
I thought for a moment that took longer than I wanted it to.
“Nah, not a one. Not anything that matters all that much. What was your one?”
“You.” She burrowed deeper into my shoulder so I knew that she was lying. “Are you content?”
I looked at the wrinkles in the skin of my shoulder, little crevasses leading down to her face and amber colored eyes. They reflected to red and yellow light that surrounded us and and engulfed us. I thought I saw a tiny reflection of the orb in the sky. It must have been midnight, but it was brighter than any day I’d ever seen.
“I’d like to think so. Doesn’t much matter now does it?” I said.
“No, but it would be nice if we were.”
“I’d definitely say so.”
We simply watched the midnight sunrise grow larger and larger in the sky until everything was white.