Waiting for the End of the World to Come
Dash got through the door of the diner only seconds before the rain hit, a torrential downpour that smeared the windows opaque and turned the streetlights in the parking lot into blobs of orange. Lightning flickered across the sky and Dash felt the following boom of thunder all the way down to his bones. He moved away from the door, half-afraid it would shatter behind him, and walked up to the counter, leaning on it to try and figure out where the staff were. The only other person he could see was a fellow customer, a young man with fire-red hair and the greenest eyes Dash had ever seen, drinking a milkshake with his booted feet up on one of the tables.
“Hello?” Dash boosted himself up a little, trying to look into the kitchen. “Anybody home?”
“Don’t bother,” the redhead said. “Nobody here but you and me.”
“Sorry?” Dash settled back on flat feet and looked over at the stranger. “Where’d they go?”
The redhead shrugged, stirring the dregs of his milkshake with his straw. “Home, maybe. That’s where I’d be if I wasn’t here, waiting for the end of the world.”
Dash laughed, but the sound was uncertain. Unease crawled up his back, raising his skin in goosebumps. “The end of the world?”
“Yep.” The redhead swung his long legs off the table and stood up. Dash was tall himself but the stranger had a good 4 inches on him, if not the same breadth of shoulder. “I’m Soren, by the way.”
“Dash.” He winced a little, thinking he should have used a fake name. “What do you mean, the end of the world?”
“Ragnarok, the Apocalypse, Armageddon. The world’s ending.” Thunder cracked on the last word and Soren grinned. “I like a storm with a sense of dramatic timing.”
Dash managed half a smile, sliding a hand into the pocket of his jeans, where he kept his knife. Ten years on the road, crisscrossing the country for jobs, had made him cautious around even the most pleasant stranger, let alone an obvious madman with the smile of a shark. Part of him wondered if the diner staff were lying dead in the kitchen. “Okay. Why are you here? Why aren’t you at home?”
“The end of the world needs a witness.” Soren shrugged. “Or two.”
“Yeah, okay.” Dash rubbed at his arm with his free hand. The day had been so hot when he’d woken up that morning that he’d pulled on a tank top instead of his usual T-shirt, but the storm had cleared most of the heat and the A/C in the diner was strong. “I just came in for some dinner and if nobody’s here, I guess I’m not going to get it.”
“You could just help yourself. It’s not like anyone’s going to care.”
Soren flashed a white grin and lightning flashed as though in response. “Adorable. What do you want, a cheeseburger?” He hopped the counter in one graceful movement and slapped the cash register, which spit out its drawer. “Give me the money and I’ll cook you something.”
Dash glanced outside, where the storm still raged, then carefully released the knife to pull out a crumpled handful of bills. “I like bacon on my cheeseburger. And crispy fries on the side.”
“Coming right up.” Soren took the bills, the touch of his fingers transferring the sting of static electricity. He dropped the money in the till and pushed the drawer back in before heading into the kitchen, and after glancing at the storm again, Dash followed.
“You can cook, right?” he started, then stopped in his tracks when Soren simply pointed at the grill and it flared into life. “Jesus.”
“Wrong mythology.” Soren went to the fridge and took out a stack of homemade burgers, tossing all of them on the grill. Outside the diner, thunder boomed and the lights dimmed for a heartbeat before brightening to full strength again. “Grab the bacon, would you?”
Not sure what else he could do, Dash walked numbly to the big fridge as Soren started the fries and found the bacon, handing it to Soren along with a package of cheese slices. He wasn’t entirely sure that he wasn’t dreaming the entire encounter; he’d pulled over to nap for a few hours before setting out to search for dinner. It wouldn’t have been the first time he’d had a dream he didn’t even realize was a dream until he woke up.
“You’re not dreaming,” Soren said, flipping the burgers. “Why is that always the first thing humans think?”
“It’s easier than believing.” Dash leaned against the counter, trying not to flinch at another window-shaking crack of thunder. “Hell of a storm out there.”
“Literally.” Soren shook the basket of fries and closed the deep fryer. “I already know everything about you, but indulge me and tell me about yourself.”
“You’re kind of an arrogant dick, aren’t you?” Dash patted his pocket absently, reassured by the solid weight of his knife. It might not do much against a man who could conjure fire, but if Soren attacked him he planned to go down fighting.
“Yes. Got anything better to do?”
Dash shrugged. “My name’s Dash, I’m 27, a Libra, and I spend most of my life in cheap motels and greasy diners.”
“Out of choice?”
“Choice and the fact that I haven’t yet won the lottery. I’m a private courier, mostly, and nobody wants to pay for me to stay at the Hilton. What do you do?”
“Witness the end of the world.” Soren took plates from a nearby cupboard and began assembling the burgers. “You can add your own rabbit food and any other toppings you want.”
“Who are you, really?” Dash asked as he put his dinner together. His stomach growled despite the nervousness that quickened his heartbeat and brought up a cold sweat on his back. He was a little proud of himself for keeping his voice calm, as though this was any regular conversation. “Is Soren your real name?”
“Is Dash yours? It’s the name I go by.” Soren took a big bite from one of the burgers and added with his mouth full, “No, I’m not a demon. Or an angel. Get more creative.”
Dash felt his cheeks go red and didn’t answer, picking up his plate to take it into the dining room. He paused at one of the tables to watch the storm howl outside and nearly dropped his plate when lightning arced down out of the roiling black sky to strike one of the tall lights. The light exploded in a shower of sparks and fire splashed the ground, only to be extinguished by the driving rain. Above Dash the diner’s lights flared and went out, leaving him in a darkness so complete he thought for a moment that the lightning strike had blinded him.
“Hey.” The plate was taken from him with another snap of static, and he caught the gleam of green eyes, glowing faintly in the darkness like foxfire. “One second.”
Dash heard the sound of someone snapping their fingers and a small orange flame appeared in the darkness, hovering over Soren’s palm and casting a dim glow over his fine features. Soren put the plate down on the table and picked up a glass, letting the flame slide into it and turning the glass over on the table. He did the same with two more glasses, creating a circle of flickering orange light around the table. The rest of the diner seemed to recede to a great distance, even when the lightning flashed, and Dash was glad to sit down, carefully inching one of the glasses closer to his plate. Soren took the seat across from him, idly playing with another flame, letting it run over his long fingers.
“What am I doing here?” Dash asked quietly, picking up a fry to nibble on.
“Getting dinner, I thought.” Soren closed his hand around the flame, extinguishing it, and leaned back in his chair. The flickering firelight laid strange shadows on his neck and bare forearms, making him look as though he had pale snake-like tattoos covered with runes Dash didn’t quite recognize. His eyes shone with clear but dim green light.
“So it’s just chance? I happened to stumble into the one place where there’s a... witness to the end of the world?”
“This isn’t your usual route.”
Dash hesitated. “No. I just felt like something different. A different route, different scenery.”
“We all make decisions. Every day they shape our lives. Maybe you were just meant to be here.”
“You should try selling that to whoever makes those motivational posters.” Dash picked up his burger and finished it in a few big bites. “So you didn’t... call me here somehow.”
“No. However you ended up here, I’m not behind it.” Soren looked towards the window, watching the lightning play through the clouds. The wind had gradually risen until it screamed around the diner, rattling the windows and catching at the door, almost pulling it open.
Dash listened to the wind and the thunder as he finished his meal, taking advantage over the silence from Soren. When he glanced around he saw nothing but their little island of candlelight and the diner’s big plate-glass windows, showing the storm outside. In the next flash of lightning he saw a great black horse rearing in the clouds, its hooves striking sparks as it came down. Dash blinked and the horse disappeared, leaving only towering clouds lit from within by increasingly violent lightning. The hairs rose on the back of his neck and he reached up to smooth them down, trying to keep his fingers from trembling.
“You’re scared?” Soren asked. “Even you?”
“What do you mean, even me? Of course I’m scared.” Dash gestured to the window. “Apparently the world’s ending.”
“The world ends every day. You yourself ended it for a few people, Kaspar Jadu.”
Dash felt his hands clench spasmodically into fists. “My name is Dash.”
Soren snapped another flame into life, moving it across his knuckles. “Dash is the nickname you got when you were ten and nobody could catch you on the playground. When you were 12, you started shoplifting from neighbourhood stores. At 13 you joined a gang. How old were you when you first killed someone?”
“I...” Dash met Soren’s gaze, the steady green of his eyes. Outside thunder boomed. “15. Almost 16, maybe 2 weeks away. It was more an accident than anything else. I didn’t... want to.” A chill that had nothing to do with the dropping temperature ran up his spine. “Am I... Is this judgement?”
“Do you need to be judged?”
Dash snorted. “I’ve been judging myself for ten years. I guess it’s up to you if I need to be judged more.”
Soren flashed his white grin. “Say you’re really sorry and you’re good with me.” He nodded to the window, where frost had started to creep in from the corners of the glass. “Coming to the climax now. Anything else you want to confess?”
“You can confess it for me, I’m sure.” Dash rubbed at his arms, watching a streamer of white curl out on his breath. “The end of the world is cold?”
“This time.” Soren got to his feet and wrapped his fingers around Dash’s wrist, pulling him up. Dash felt a stinging sensation, stronger than static electricity, run up his arm but before he could see if he was injured, Soren draped an arm over his shoulders and drew him to the window.
The ground outside rocked and split open with a crack that Dash felt deep inside, though the floor of the diner didn’t move. He saw another crack open under the nose of his car—the only vehicle in the lot—and the car tipped forward, disappearing into the earth. Frost sparkled on the window and Dash shivered, feeling the cold sink into his muscles until the only warmth left was Soren’s arm around him. He leaned in against Soren, shivering, and squinted in a sudden flash of bright light.
The light split the clouds into two but Dash couldn’t see what, if anything was beyond it; the light was too brilliant and frost had begun to bead on his eyelashes. Involuntary shivers ran through his body, locking his muscles and making his teeth chatter painfully hard. Pressure built inside his head until he wanted to scream, but all he could do was turn and press his face against Soren’s shoulder, too cold to think straight, almost too cold to breathe. He grabbed hold of Soren’s shirt, tangling stiff fingers in the fabric, as the world tore itself apart outside the diner’s window.
“Good night,” Soren murmured in his ear, and he opened his eyes in his car, parked on the side of the road under the starry sky.
Dash licked sweat off his upper lip and pushed himself up from his reclined positions, stretching stiff muscles. His head felt thick and stuffy, and he’d soaked the back of his shirt through with sweat. Rubbing a hand over his face, he squinted out through the windshield at the stars, then checked his watch to find it was almost 10 o’clock. When he closed his eyes he could still see the inside of the diner, lit by that brilliant light, turning Soren into little more than a shadow. He wasn’t sure if he wanted it to have been a dream or not; Soren had been fascinating and frightening, but the thought of the world ending just made him feel sick.
His stomach growled and he sighed, assuming that was as good a confirmation as any that he’d dreamed it all. He reached forward to switch the car on and flinched when something stung at the delicate underside of his wrist. Shaking his fingers out, he hit the interior light and looked down at his arm.
Winding around his forearm, from elbow to wrist, was a pale runed tattoo.