When Soma was six the fireflies used to get tangled in her hair, clouds would shape themselves into castles for her to rule, and lemonade tasted sweeter. Her mouth would get numb from eating too much ice cream and she would laugh until her chest squeezed into her ribcage. When Soma was six the world spun easier around its axis. And now it groaned, inching away on its final turn.
“Shouldn’t you be packing too?” Henry asked. He was rummaging through a box of photo albums and scrapbooks, ripping out the photos he deemed most precious and shoving them into the thin, outer compartment of his bag.
“I don’t know what to bring,” Soma admitted.
Henry gave Soma a look of exasperation. “Don’t you have anything special you want to keep? We’re never coming back Soma—you understand that right?”
Soma shrugged. All her belongings suddenly felt so tangible, as if they’d never been hers in the first place. Stuffed animals, worn from countless runs in the washing machine, comics she’d bought with Eid money, books that had been lovingly annotated with bright yellow highlighter and sticky notes with scrawled writing. At eighteen, Soma decided, she owned nothing.
Henry, pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “Okay let’s go to your house later—I’ll pack for you. I mean for God’s sake you need, like, clothes at least.”
Soma nodded, leaning back on Henry’s bed so her head hit the back wall. The golden summer dripped hazily through his window, illuminating Henry as he examined two of his favourite childhood action figures, one in each hand—deciding which one he would save, and which he’d leave to burn.
In all honesty, Soma knew what she wanted to bring. She wanted to bottle up the summer, to pick the leaves off the great, old maple tree at her elementary school that was once the tallest thing in the world. She wanted to fill her bag up with dirt from the forest behind Henry’s house, squeeze Earth down to the size of his toy soldiers (burn pile) and put it all in her pocket. Pictures, clothes, actions figures—everything manmade could be created again. To Soma, it was the nectar of a honeysuckle petal that was the most precious.
They’d gotten about a five-year notice, so no one was really panicking anymore. Initially the news outlets had overflowed with faces of outrage or sorrow or a mix of both. There were people who’d refused to believe it and people who claimed they’d called it. Some began making state of the art bunkers, bellowing into the news reporter’s mic that “they’d go down with the ship,” while others had begun packing their valuables immediately.
Soma couldn’t blame anyone, how exactly should you react when you’re told the world will end and you have five years to ponder on it? She’d been thirteen, all clumsy and drunk on newborn teenage angst when the re-run of some episode of a bland sitcom show she’d been watching was interrupted by BREAKING NEWS and then the countdown had begun. For some reason she couldn’t even remember what the newscaster had said, only his grim face and the sound of her mother dropping her glass onto the floor.
Later as she helped pick up the tiny shards, glittering in the space between the tiles, she’d started laughing. Good riddance, she’d thought. Thirteen, so full of nihilism and punk that she had yet to feel sympathy for the Earth. And when she’d cut her hand on a jagged piece of glass and watched the blood bubble up, it had just felt fitting.
The anguish died out after a few months. Sure there were still a few crazies that refused to accept it and would rally, claiming that the scientists were lying to you, but for the most part humanity had come to a collective agreement that this was real and thus they had to do what humanity did best: survive.
Even though it had been the latest news for most of the population, it seemed like it had been known knowledge for scientists, governments and corporations, as preparations for life after Earth were already well underway. Suddenly commercial time slots were filled with different Spaceship companies boasting their living arrangements, scientists relating projections and plans, and government officials offering vague reassurances. Mailboxes had begun to fill with flyers that advertised space compounds that would “provide the most Earth-like living experience,” or ones which could promise the best “galactic views.”
Soma had watched her parents spend hours going over these papers, calculating the costs and phoning the helplines until they’d at last finalized a compound and the boarding date that cemented the unavoidable future.
In the meantime, regular life went on, parallel to the end. Her parents continued to go to work and she continued to go to school along with the rest of her classmates. She’d had tests and presentations, she had birthday parties and off time to watch movies in the theatre and skateboard around empty parking lots with Henry. All the while, the groaning grew louder and louder until it became white noise.
Conversations at school would sometimes switch to the topic of Earth’s inevitable doom but that too had become a new normal. “And you know I have an uncle who works for the government, yeah?” Maxwell Davidson began boasting for what felt like the hundredth time that month. “So we’ve got this huge ship for our whole family all to ourselves! I’ve already seen it man—it’s crazy, and I’m pretty sure we get to leave a year early!”
It was pretty hard to avoid the topic of everyone’s After Earth plans, it was just as common as asking what university you had been planning to go to. Most people were all set, like Maxwell and his private family ship or like Soma and Henry’s families who’d chosen the same “Suburban Living Spaceship!” Everyone talked about visiting each other. No one knew if it was plausible but that didn’t stop them from setting a date anyways. Soma understood there was comfort in having something solid to look forward to.
“Annie!” Maxwell called, trying to get the attention of Annie Wright, sitting in the back, eyes glued to the window. She turned slowly to him, face blank and emotionless. “You haven’t told us where you’re going yet?”
Soma silently watched Annie’s face break into a smile. There was something haunting about the way her mouth turned, almost mechanically. It felt like the smile had been chiseled by a sculptor, hollow and cold like stone—something only to be looked upon in awe, the absence of real emotion.
“We haven’t decided yet,” she said. The class talk of space travels stopped after that. Everyone knew that Annie would see the end.
Annie’s smile continued to haunt Soma to the point that she began to sympathize with those that had already sealed themselves in their doomsday bunkers. It would be a much more heroic end if society decided to burn together, holding hands until the very last moment, all feeling the same warmth at once.
When she admitted this to Henry as they walked back from school, during the second last winter on Earth (the last cold winter), he’d given her the most peculiar look.
“You’re joking right? You wanna be fossil fuel for the next Earth species?”
She huffed, cold air turning cloudy from her breath, slightly upset he brushed off her feelings so fast. “Maybe! It’s a fitting end going full circle! Like parallel structure or whatever? Or parabolic motion? Whichever!”
“Now you’re just spewing out terms you learned in class today.”
“So what? Anyways, what good does learning do now? What am I gonna use it for up in deep space? What does Shakespeare know about the apocalypse, huh? What did Joseph Stalin know about the end of—”
“Soma,” he said, cold air measuring the space between them, stealing the warmth from their skin.
Soma realized how much she would miss winter, so overcome with sadness as she looked at the stray snowflakes venturing in a slow motion to the ground, the cold air muffling the noise around her, and the strings of Christmas lights flickering around houses with the same festivity as every year before. The sound of Henry sniffing pulled her out of her trance. He was crying.
“Aren’t you scared?” He asked. “Henry—”
“Of dying? Aren’t you scared?”
It was a coward’s escape to run away to space, but then again, Henry was right. Soma was scared of dying, too.
Henry had managed to pack Soma’s suitcase to the brim. Random articles of clothing had been thrown in, five of her favourite books, a poster she’d bought at a museum seven years ago, her journals (“For the future Earth museum!”), and a couple other items to soften regrets.
Then they’d gathered all the fruit they’d bought at the supermarket the day before, one of every kind they’d found, and packed them up in an overflowing white plastic bag that was stretched to its limit, ready to split open and spill its content like a cornucopia at any moment. Nevertheless, they carried it to the football field of their high school and climbed the hill until they found “their spot,” hidden in the grass and honeysuckles.
Soma made a grab for the mangoes while Henry was already two bites into a watermelon slice. They ate in silence, making their way through the fruit feast while watching the moon, shining brightly against the dark sky.
“I think we bought too much,” Soma said, eyeing the still half-full bag.
It had been Henry’s idea to buy the fruit and he wasn’t shy on arguing his stance. “This is our last chance! So many groups have already headed out, they already have to deal with space fruit, soon we’ll have to deal with space-grown fruit! Who knows what that’ll taste like?” He pulled two apples out of the produce bag. “We have to eat Earth-grown fruit on Earth one last time.”
“Space is never gonna be this far away, ever again,” Henry lamented, growing quieter and pulling grapes off their stems. Soma held out her hand and he rolled a few onto her palm.
“It’ll be weird not having to appreciate it at a distance,” Soma began to say but Henry was fixated on a spot behind her shoulder.
“That’s Annie, isn’t it?”
Soma looked behind her and sure enough she could make out Annie’s shape, sitting alone in the grass. Without having to discuss it, she and Henry gathered the fruit and went over.
“What are you doing here?” Henry asked as they fell into the grass beside her, putting the bags of fruit between them.
“The same as you probably,” she answered, reaching into the bag and coming out with a banana.
“Are you sad?” Soma couldn’t help but ask even though Henry shot her a warning look.
“Are you?” Annie asked.
“Yes,” Soma answered truthfully, even if it felt like the wrong thing to say, given Annie’s situation.
“Space will be so cold,” she said, peeling the banana, “that’s what I say to comfort myself, that at least I’ll know the full warmth of the Sun.” She smiled at Soma, but this time it felt real, “maybe it’ll be nice like I don’t know, hm, a hot tub?”
Soma and Henry glanced up at each other for a split second, both feeling a mix of surprise and confusion before Annie burst out giggling and soon enough they were too. And Soma amidst the absurd laughter and the pitying light of the moon, thought back to the blood dripping onto the broken glass, the colourful space adverts that slowly became regular town decor, and the cheerful Christmas lights that coloured the white snow in softness. So she dug her hands in the dirt, gripping at the grass like it was her last lifeline, not quite sure if this was a funeral or not.
“I thought I’d be buried here,” Soma announced, still giddy and breathless. She laid down in the grass.
“I was planning on being cremated,” Henry thumped down beside her.
“I guess I’ll get a bit of both,” Annie said, then took a bite out of her banana, swallowed and added, “But really, where will they put the dead bodies in space?”
“Throw them out into the atmosphere probably,” Henry said, “and explode.”
They let the silence envelop their space, eyes on the night sky and hands in the dirt. If someone told Soma that the whole thing was cancelled, that actually tomorrow she would go back to school and there would be never ending days of fruit and grass and laughter she would believe them if not for the fact that the Earth’s final groans were reaching their peak so even she could no longer dismiss them as white noise.
What to do at the end of the world but sit and sympathize with the Earth’s cries?
What to do but comfort those who are dying and wish for a pleasant end?
What to do except let Henry peel the skin off a clementine for her and accept a slice with an open palm?