(published in Arctic Tusk, 2017 – literary magazine, Nashville, Tennessee)
This is a short story I wrote last night. I’m currently in love with it and wanted to share.
I hope you like it.
The Unusual Conclusion of Planetary’s End
Eric looked over at his wife. She’d just emitted one of those GASP things she does when she’s read something on the internet and is shocked by it. He waited while she frantically typed on her phone and then shoved her finger over the screen in an upwards motion multiple times – scrolling through something, apparently verifying what she’d read. She clapped her hand over her mouth, and just as he leaned forward, about to ask what was wrong, she violently burst into tears.
“Oh wow!” Eric said. “Lynette?” She was rocking back and forth now, hands pressed over her eyeballs like she could press the image away of what she’d seen. He got up and swiftly took two steps to get across the room. “Lynette?” He sat beside her, catching her as she fell into his chest and weeped in big, heavy sobs. “Good heavens, baby, what did you read?”
Lynette was crying too hard to answer. Eric reached across his hysterical wife and grabbed a few kleenex, shoving them into her hand. She honked her nose, continued crying, and he handed her more kleenex.
This continued for about three more rounds.
Finally, Lynette’s crying subdued slightly and she lifted her head from Eric’s chest. She tried to speak and started crying again.
Eric put his left hand on Lynette’s shoulder and awkwardly propped pillows behind her with his right hand. He released her shoulder and she dropped the short distance into the fluffy fake-fur throw pillows. She sniffed heavily.
Eric waited patiently.
She calmed a bit.
“The president?” he asked gently. Lynette shook her head. The political climate currently had everyone in a tailspin, as the loudmouthed narcissist with zero political experience became president recently after a close and nasty election. Lynette had been furious, and spent many a day becoming more furious as the country’s leader signed executive order after executive order pandering to hate groups and special interests, rolling back everything his predecessor had done just because he could, and golfing. Lots and lots of golfing.
So it wasn’t the president. “Someone do something bad to something fuzzy?” Eric tried again. Lynnette was a huge animal lover. She shook her head again.
“Someone do something bad to a human?” Eric was running out of ideas.
Lynette opened her mouth. “Do – you,” she stopped. Her voice was shaky from the hard crying, and she was still upset. She tried again, “Do you know,” and she stopped. Their cat made an entrance into the room. He meowed to announce his arrival, and jumped in Lynette’s lap. She scratched the fluffy grey kitty behind the ears.
Eric coaxed. “That’s ok. Take your time.”
Lynette took a deep breath. “Do you know the movie Planetary’s End?” she gasped out.
Eric had learned to hang in there with his wife when she said something nonsensical. Usually by the time she’d told the whole detail-filled story, and finally worked her way around to an ending – or the point of whatever it was she was talking about, it all made sense. He put his hand on her knee. “Yes, I know the movie,” he nodded.
She took a deep breath, trying not to cry again. “Have you seen it?” she looked at Eric with a watery gaze.
“No,” Eric said gently.
This was obviously the wrong answer, as Lynette started crying again. Eric remained patient. The kitty jumped off Lynette’s lap when she started crying, so Eric placed his head in her lap. She smiled through her tears. He meowed. She scratched him behind the ear like she’d just been doing to the fuzzy feline. She giggled as she cried.
“Only you could make me laugh while I’m crying,” she choked out – big tears running down her cheeks. Eric batted at her hair. She giggled again.
“So what about Planetary’s End has you so upset?” Eric asked.
“I can’t tell you unless you’ve seen the movie,” she said sadly.
Eric stopped cat-playing with her hair. “Oh-kay,” he said carefully.
“It’s just . . .” she paused. “Well . . .” she frowned furiously. “I – uh,” she inhaled and exhaled heavily.
He sat up and brushed the strand of hair he’d been playing with out of her face and behind her ear. “You can tell me.”
“Do you ever want to watch the movie?” she asked.
“Well, yeah, one day – I heard it was a good one.”
Eric and Lynette were both sci-fi fans, and between the two of them they had seen a great number of movies about aliens, robots, time travel, etc. Planetary’s End had been released years ago, before Eric and Lynette had even met.
“We have to watch it,” she demanded.
“Now?” Eric looked at the clock. “Baby, it’s 11:30 at night.”
“WE HAVE TO WATCH IT.” Lynette was trying not to cry again.
Eric looked bewildered and sympathetic at the same time. Lynette smiled at the combination of expressions on her husband’s face.
“Ok, look,” she said – trying her best to collect herself. She threw the kleenex in her hand on the floor to join the other pile of kleenex, and sat up straight. She crossed her legs and folded her hands in her lap. “When 9-11 happened, and the towers fell,” she began, “we were all terrified.”
Eric nodded. “I remember.”
“You were at work, and I was home sick,” Lynette continued.
“. . . and you were watching on the news at home and I was at work in the break room when the towers actually fell. I remember,” Eric said.
She nodded. “That week – that month – hell, many many months after that, we were all very scared, remember?”
“Yes, of course I do.”
“Everyone was scared of more attacks. There was talk of anthrax, and more bombings, and terror level colors, and it was horrible and I was so frightened,” Lynette looked down at her hands. He waited for her to center herself.
“My friend Dorothy at work – remember her? Daisy tattoo on her wrist?” Lynette looked at Eric, waiting a response. He nodded. “Dorothy,” Lynette said. “Dorothy had a little girl. And Dorothy and I were talking at work several days – oh, I don’t know – a week maybe after the towers fell.” Eric nodded again, wondering what this had to do with a sci-fi movie, but hanging in there for the payoff.
“Dorothy told me that her daughter was scared to go to sleep at night,” Lynette said sadly. “That every night she had to walk the house with her daughter and check every window – to make sure it was closed. So the gas couldn’t get in.”
Eric looked confused.
“There was all the talk about anthrax,” Lynette said. “And the little girl knew it was harmful and you breathed it, so she though it was a gas.”
“Ah,” Eric said.
“So I went home that night after work and you were already asleep,” Lynette continued. “And I laid down, thinking of Dorothy’s little girl, and anthrax, and war, and I looked over at our window and wondered if I should close it.” She paused, collecting herself. “And I was so scared,” she said solemnly. “I couldn’t even think about going to sleep. I didn’t know how I was going to go to sleep. What if they dropped anthrax in the night? What if they bombed us in the night? What if that was the last time I was going to ever go to sleep and I’d never wake up?”
The fuzzy grey kitty jumped in Lynette’s lap again. She smiled at him. “Hi, Truman,” she said. “Good timing.” She met Eric’s kind gaze. “So I’m having all these horrible thoughts, and laying there in bed with you asleep, and Truman jumped in bed.”
“Awwwww,” Eric said. “He would’ve been a just a little fluff-ball then.” Truman purred.
“Yup,” Lynette said, stroking the Maine Coon’s thick fur. “He was adorable. He curled up next to me, and started purring. I rolled on my side and wrapped my arms around him, cuddling him like a teddy bear.” She rubbed the kitty under the chin and he purred loudly. “You rolled over just then and wrapped your arms around me,” she said to Eric. “You didn’t wake up, just rolled over to hold me in your sleep. It was so sweet and so comforting.”
“I’m a sweet and comforting guy,” Eric teased.
Lynette kissed him on the cheek. “So I’m laying there in a Truman/Eric sandwich. Being held by someone I adored, and holding someone I adored. It was very soothing. And then I thought of Planetary’s End.”
“You thought of a movie about the end of the world?” Eric looked confused.
“I thought you hadn’t seen it.”
“I haven’t, but I know what it’s about.”
“Well, it’s more than that,” she said. “The ending is brilliant. It’s very sad, and it’ll rip your heart out, but it’s brilliant. And I liked it. And that ending gave me comfort that night. It helped me through that night, and many nights after that.”
“Ok,” Eric said. “I get it.” Lynette loved movies and books, and some television if it had interesting characters. She had grown up an only child, and buried herself in fictional universes. Other people had brothers and sisters or kids on their street to play with – she had fictional characters. Kids were playing cops and robbers and house, and hide and seek, and she was reenacting scenes from Star Wars from her swing set and inventing new characters to meet along the yellow brick road. Her imagination was one of the things Eric loved about her.
“I love that you understand me,” she sniffed. “Most guys would make fun of a girl for something like that.”
“No, I get it,” Eric said. “You projected an emotional response you got from an experience other characters went through in a movie onto real-life and it helped you cope with your fear.”
“I also love that you’re a therapist for a living,” she kissed him on the lips this time.
“Studying to be a therapist,” Eric corrected. “Not through grad school yet.” He put his hand on his wife’s arm and petted her, then petted Truman. “So you want me to watch this movie?” She nodded. “So you can tell me what the scene was that you liked that helped you sleep after 9-11?” She nodded. “So what made you cry just now?” he asked.
“I WAS WRONG!!!!” she wailed, suddenly bursting into tears again.
Eric leaned backwards, not expecting the outburst. “What?” he asked, very confused.
“I GOT THE ENDING OF THE STORY WROOOOOONG!!!”
Eric handed her more kleenex and waited for round two of crying to end. Truman had leaped to his lap, so he petted and played with the kitty until Lynette pulled herself together.
A few minutes later, the pile of kleenex on the floor was bigger and Lynette was calmer. “Sorry,” she sighed.
“Think nothing of it.”
“I was wrong.”
“I got that part,” Eric said.
“I was reading that blog I like, about movies and entertainment,” she said. “And there was one of those list-style blogs, you know? The blog was titled 12 Famous Movie Details That Everyone Got Wrong. Well – I got it wrong. The ending is different than I thought it was. And my scenario that gave me so much comfort when I was so scared . . .” she broke off and started crying again. Eric had never seen her so upset, and they’d been married 15 years.
“Can’t you just amend your thought about the ending to fit this new information?” Eric suggested.
“But why not?”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
“I can’t tell you without spoiling the movie!” she cried. “It’s like all these years I thought Darth Vader was Luke’s father, but I just learned he wasn’t!”
“Well that would be quite a shock,” Eric mused.
“Planetary’s End . . . That wonderful scene that – that – was so beautifully written and made so much sense and gave me so much comfort . . . I was just so scared . . . . I couldn’t sleep . . . and it helped me sleep . . . and I was wrong,” she said quietly.
“See – I hadn’t thought of that movie in years. I hadn’t thought about that night in years. Until this week.”
Realization settled in to Eric’s face, but he said nothing, letting Lynette finish.
“Our idiot president bombed someone this week – whatever country that was – the one that we’ve avoiding bombing because it’ll probably start world war three because so many countries are on so many different sides,” she said. “And I found myself once again laying in bed, worrying that I wouldn’t wake up. Worrying that I would die from war in the middle of the night. Worrying that human civilization is so stupid we’re going to wipe ourselves from the face of the planet . . .”
Eric handed her the cat, and she took Truman and cuddled him.
“I laid there, angry that we have a president that could make me scared again. Scared that so many people hate us. And suddenly Truman jumped in bed with me. And you rolled over, and snuggled against me. And I found myself in a Truman/Eric sandwich, and I remembered that night. 9-11. Anthrax. Planetary’s End . . .” She broke off, tears rolling down her cheeks. “And I pulled that memory out of my brain and used it to comfort me and fall asleep – just like I did 15 . . . 16 years ago. And I did it again last night. And tonight – after all this time, I discover I was wrong . . . how am I ever going to get to sleep . . . I’m so sad . . .” the poor girl was crying again.
Eric put his fingers under Lynette’s chin and gently raised her face upwards close to his. In a soft voice he promised, “Baby . . . tomorrow night we’ll get a pizza, and some soda, and those little cinnamon things with icing that the pizza place has that you like,” Lynette smiled at him, eyes closed. “And we’ll rent ‘Planetary’s End’ and I’ll cry – and you’ll cry, because the ending’s sad, and then . . .” she had stopped crying, and opened her eyes. “Then you can finish your story.”
Lynette threw her arms around Eric, hugging Truman along with her husband because he was in between them. “Oh, thank you thank you thank you!”
“Can we get pineapple on the pizza?”
“Well aware. Pineapple on my half then.”
“Your half it is.” Eric kissed his wife. “You’re insane.”
“You love me.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Credits roll across the screen. Piano music is playing softly. Eric’s eyes are red, and Lynette has been crying for the last ten minutes of the movie.
“Do you hate me?” Lynette asked.
“No,” Eric said, sniffing loudly.
“Was it a good movie?” she asked.
“OH yes!” Eric said. “I especially liked the scene where the kid broke into the factory, and all he found were empty boxes. Really personified what was going on in the city itself, and foreshadowed the abandoned amusement park scene.”
“Right??!” Lynette enthusiastically agreed. “And that little boy was a fantastic actor. I really hate that he’s not acting as an adult. He was so talented.”
“Agreed!” Eric said. “I think I read that he’s teaching somewhere.”
“Yeah,” Lynette answered. “I heard that too.”
There was a lull. Piano music continued over the credits. Eric looked at his wife expectantly. Truman walked through the room and meowed.
Lynette laughed at Truman. “Ok. Here it is. So you know the end of the movie – not the VERY end, but the part that starts 2000 years in the future?”
“The aliens come down and they’ve found this abandoned planet – all humanity is gone, wiped off the face of the earth. And they find this abandoned planet and start digging it up and researching it?”
Eric looks like he’s about to say something, but he refrains.
Lynette’s voice raises. “You knew it! You knew they weren’t aliens!”
Eric looks sheepish.
Lynette wails, “I thought they were aliens! And apparently a lot of people did too! They were all blue and wispy and looked like aliens! And I’m laying there, waiting for anthrax to come through the window and kill me, and I thought of that scene. About aliens finding our planet in the future. And I thought . . .” she was crying again. “I thought if I died that night . . . if I was killed by poison or bombs or whatever . . . if I died that very night . . . if humanity was wiped out by our own fucking stupidity . . .”
Truman jumped up next to her and laid down in a pile of grey fluff.
She petted his furry back, and it calmed her down a bit. “If I died that night, I thought that aliens could come to this planet in 2000 years . . .” she looked at her husband for a glint of amusement or belittlement. There was none. “In 2000 years, alien archeologists would find me, holding my sweet cat, and this fabulous man holding me, and they would know . . . I . . . died . . . happy.” She had tears running down her cheeks. “They would know I died happy, and that thought gave me peace . . . and I could go to sleep.”
She looked again at Eric, who was looking at her with love and kindness.
“And it doesn’t work anymore,” she continued sadly. “Because they weren’t aliens at all. They were robots. They were artificial intelligence from THIS planet that had evolved to super-intelligent robots. And we don’t have any AI on the planet at the moment that’s anywhere near as evolved as they were in the movie when humanity was wiped out. So there won’t be any robot evolution. And I wouldn’t be found by robots. And there weren’t any alien archeologists in the movie. And my whole scenario in my head – was wrong. I was wrong. And I’m wrong now. And I don’t know how I’m going to get to sleep at night unless we stop bombing people and there’s not a threat of war and . . .”
She stopped. Eric was giving her that look he gave before he was about to say something important. He held up a finger, and started searching for something on his phone. Lynette waited quietly, knowing that he was good at thinking outside the box, and he might actually come up with a solution. He handed her a recent article from NASA. She looked confused.
Eric clarified, drawing out his idea because he liked waiting for the payoff to an idea as much as Lynette liked waiting for the payoff to a story. “You remember this article?”
“Of course,” Lynette said, handing him back his phone. “This was last month. NASA released that they’d found several planets surrounding a nearby star, and there’s a very good possibility some of them could support life. What does that have to do with robots?”
“Nothing,” Eric said. “However-”
Lynette interrupted him, giggling. “Remember, Twitter exploded with new planet names, and someone suggested, ‘Far From Our Idiot President One,’ ‘Far From Our Idiot President Two,’ ‘Far From Our Idiot President Three,’”
Eric ignored her and continued. “HOWEVER. . .” Lynette straightened and assumed her best rapt-attention posture. “However, they’ve found planets that could sustain life.”
“You believe in aliens.”
She nodded again. “There are many scientists who believe there’s no way we’re the only sentient beings in the universe. That with the trillions of stars and billions upon billions of planets, the question isn’t IF there’s life out there – it’s WHAT KIND, and how or when they’ll reach us or we’ll reach them. So yes, I think that’s a great line of thinking. There has to be something out there – we just haven’t found them yet.”
Eric waited as if he expected Lynette to reach his conclusion herself. She slumped back against the couch. “I don’t see where you’re going with this,” she said softly.
“If you believe in aliens,” he started. The credits on the screen ended. The piano music stopped. The living room was quiet except for Truman’s soft purring. “If you believe in aliens,” Eric started again, “then what’s to say, there wouldn’t be alien archeologists? Your scenario works.” Her eyes brightened a little, as realization set in. He continued, “There is a total possibility aliens are out there, and they’ll find the earth in 2000 years – or maybe even sooner. And if they find us wiped out, they find us wiped out. Maybe they won’t. I’d like to think humanity is smarter than that. We made it through the Cuban Missile Crisis. We made it through the Cold War. We’ve made it through many idiot presidents. We’ll make it through President Idiot. And you’re a really creative person who came up with a really creative way to comfort yourself-”
“Even though I got the movie wrong,” she sighed, but looked pensive.
“Someone wrote a blog about it.” Eric said. “Sounds like a lot of people got the movie wrong.”
“You didn’t.” Lynette stuck her tongue out.
“I’m awesome,” Eric said.
“You are,” Lynette agreed, taking him by the hand and leading him to the bedroom.
That night, Eric laid there in the dark, listening to Lynette breathe deeply. Truman lay curled in her arms, like a soft grey teddy bear. Eric rolled over, pressing his body against this woman he loved as much tonight as he did when he first met her. More, actually. He’d seen his friends get married and divorced. He never liked the idea of getting married. Then one day, there she was – and they just fit. They always fit. Just like they fit now physically. He buried his face in her hair, smelling the sweet tea tree oil scent of her shampoo. “Tomorrow,” he whispered, “I’m going to make you french toast. And we’ll spend the day wrapped in a blanket watching slightly more cheerful sci-fi movies than Planetary’s End.”
“I like french toast,” she murmured sleepy.
“I love you,” he said.
“I love french toast,” she giggled. “I mean you.”
2237.0155.0004 – Or Month 4, Year 4017 in Earth’s Time Calendar
Daily log entry
We’ve uncovered a home found deep in a forest on the outskirts of a large city. The city name is still undiscovered, and as the entire area is badly damaged, we may never know what these people called it. The home appears to be one of several homes in the area, but this was the only one that survived relatively intact. There is a possibility it was covered with large amounts of the sturdy, tall vegetation these people used for decorating. Other buildings with this vegetation have also been found in good shape.
*Note to self – search past logs for vegetation name.
Inside the home we found partitions for different parts of daily life: preparing food, eating food, cleaning themselves, relaxation, work, and sleeping. Most exciting to this excavation has been the discovery of the occupants inside the home. The remains of three life forms were found inside the sleeping chamber, a male human, female human, and a male feline.
I have been at this planet for a year now, studying its fascinating inhabitants. There is still debate if it was conflict that destroyed this civilization, or some sort of natural disaster. There is clear evidence of both. Which one came first, we may never know, but it is a sad end to what was once a thriving planet.
Usually when I enter a war zone, the bodies left behind tell a horrible tale. This scene we have uncovered is calm and serene. Most likely, they were unaware of the disaster that struck, as they are in a relaxed position, snuggled together in peaceful slumber. While I will never know their names, or really anything about these two people and their pet, I can write with a good amount of certainty that these three beings died happy.