When fire began to fall from the sky and the stars started going out one by one, Burnhardt’s car was in the shop for new brake pads, or maybe the muffler—he’d been through a lot of cars and it was hard to keep track sometimes—so he was stuck at home. He wanted to make something for breakfast but all the dishes in the apartment were dirty and there was nothing left to do but wash them, unless he wanted to go down to the thrift shop and buy more. Every flat surface was covered with stacks of mismatched plates and bowls, and coffee mugs bristling with dirty forks and spoons. So Burnhardt opened the hot water tap to fill the sink, squeezed in a bit of soap, then reached over and turned on the radio.
He would have watched TV instead, but his roommate Denny had taken the innards out of their old console set a while back and replaced them with a small aquarium he’d picked up at Goodwill. A couple of pale fish slumped along behind the dirty glass, not quite belly-up, but it wasn’t much for entertainment. So it was radio or nothing. That’s how Burnhardt found out about the end of the world—the DJs were in the middle of an argument about it. The first DJ thought it should be ‘Apocalypse’ instead of ‘apocalypse’ but the second DJ said that when you capitalized the ‘a’ it meant you were talking about the Book of Revelation from the Bible, not the actual event itself. That was the only time you capitalized it, he said.
Unless it’s the beginning of a sentence, the first DJ said.
Sure, the second DJ said. But can you give me a sentence that starts with “apocalypse”? he asked, and the first DJ couldn’t think of one.
Burnhardt thought that if they announced a prize for it he would call in and say Apocalypse is a ten-letter word and they would have to give him the money or the free concert tickets or whatever. But they started talking about John of Patmos and the Seven Seals of God instead, and the angel trumpets that would herald the Day of Judgement.
That took him back to Sunday school: seven seals, seven trumpets. He had pictured trained seals when he first heard about it, spinning balls on their noses and honking horns while balancing on red platforms that looked like oversized Turkish hats. But the Sunday school teacher told him no, they weren’t those kind of seals. Burnhardt thought that was too bad. Up until then he had pictured the apocalypse as a circus or something.
No, his Sunday school teacher had said. She seemed angry about it for some reason. It’s not a circus. It’s the end of the world. Fire. Agony. The forces of hell unleashed. Death and damnation for sinners. Weeping and gnashing of teeth. A few of the kids in the class had started crying. Burnhardt thought a circus would have been better.
After a while, the DJs’ discussion of John of Patmos’s apocalyptic vision was suddenly displaced by a loud enthusiastic voice telling Burnhardt how he could stay warm this winter with a propane heater from Sunbeam. Burnhardt switched the radio off. He knew what to watch for. Seven trumpets, angel trumpets. Weeping and gnashing of teeth. He thought about calling Denny to let him know what they were in for, but the landline wasn’t working anymore, and Burnhardt didn’t believe in cell phones.
You don’t believe in anything, Karen had said once, back when they were still together. That’s your problem.
And maybe it was. If he had a cell phone he could call someone right now. Maybe Karen. Although how that would go would be anyone’s guess. He went back to doing the dishes.
It wasn’t just the phone. He hadn’t opened any of his mail, either—not since Karen went off to Laramie and started sending back his letters unopened, with RETURN TO SENDER!!! written on them. After that he stopped paying attention to things for a while. But the mail kept coming and there was a pile of bills and credit card offers somewhere. For a while he had planned to sign up for every credit card he was offered so he could max them all out on cash advances and move to a small village somewhere on the west coast of Mexico where he would live the life of a disillusioned expatriate. He would buy a surfboard and a fly rod and a bike with a handlebar basket and fat tires and live on the beach until his money ran out. Then one day Karen would show up. Probably in a bikini.
I’ve been looking for you, she’d say.
I know, he would say.
Once Burnhardt had called Karen to tell her about Mexico and a man had answered. Burnhardt had quietly hung up, and then picked up the handset again and smashed it against the tabletop several times until something broke loose inside. Since then, there had been no calls. He picked up the phone just in case Denny had fixed it without telling him, but there was no dial tone, just a rattling noise from the receiver.
Burnhardt was drying the plates when the first trumpet sounded, a long low roar that reminded him of a video he had seen on YouTube: Six Hours of the Amazing Shofar. It hadn’t been much of a video—mainly just a series of photos showing people blowing long curly rams-horn trumpets, with captions that said things like “The Powerful Sound of the Shofar is Healing, and causes Confusion in the enemy’s camp.” But this wasn’t YouTube—it was for real.
Burnhardt turned to the window as the trumpet’s low roar faded away to silence. Fire had begun to fall from the sky. He dropped the dishcloth and went outside to watch the world coming to an end. Ashes and embers drifted downward like the first fat snowflakes of winter, flaring briefly into flame as they hit the pavement. Other than that, things didn’t seem much different. Cars were driving the streets, pulling into gas stations. People were going in and out of shops. They looked maybe a little more harried than usual, but it was hard to tell.
His stomach rumbled and Burnhardt thought about the Subway down the block. He wanted a meatball sandwich—provolone cheese, black olives, tomatoes, and jalapeños, a little oregano—but he didn’t think he had enough money. When he had tried to cash in the points from an old Subway card that he had found in the street a while back, the cashier told him they didn’t use those cards anymore. And besides, she said, you don’t even have enough stickers on your card for a six-incher.
And so it goes, Burnhardt thought. The world was ending and he couldn’t even get a sandwich. No breakfast, either. Even if the dishes hadn’t all been dirty, he didn’t think there was any food left in the apartment. He wondered what he wanted to do before it was all over.
Over. He rolled the word around in his mouth, not quite saying it out loud but just feeling it, savoring the astonished roundness of the initial O, the pressure of his teeth on his lip as he shaped the silent V, marveling at how well the word fit into his life, how completely it seemed to define him. He wished he had gone to Mexico when he had first thought of the idea. Too late now. He thought that he might go to Laramie instead, but his car was in the shop. He decided to walk down to Willy’s East Side Garage to see if it was ready.
He waited a while at the counter before Willy appeared.
Which one is yours? Honda Civic, right? Willy asked.
Willy flipped through a box of index cards. A couple of other people came in—one of them wanted an oil change and the other one wondered if his new tires were installed yet. They were complaining about the crowds, the smoky and sulfurous air, the way the apocalypse was making even the simplest errands feel like major undertakings. Groceries. Car repair. The post office. The hardware store.
Willy mumbled something to signal his disinterest, then turned back to Burnhardt. Hold on a minute, he said, pulling another card from the file box. He turned and shouted instructions to three men in dirty blue coveralls hanging around the garage, all thick-fingered greasy hands, dirty faces, uncombed hair and unruly mustaches. They started moving around the car that was up on the hoist. One of them stuck his head under the car and then stood up and waved Willy over. Willy went over and looked.
The oil change guy and the guy with the new tires sat down and started looking through old People magazines. Willy disappeared behind the garage with one of the mechanics. After a while, Willy came back in and walked over to where Burnhardt was waiting.
Not done with her yet. Try back next week, he said.
I need it today, Burnhardt told him.
Sorry, Willy said. He shrugged.
Burnhardt thought about it for a minute and watched the fire falling in wavery sheets from the sky onto the streets and that’s when he heard the second trumpet—a low strident moaning that echoed across the city and seemed to shake the sky. He thought about Karen in Laramie and how she was probably wishing he were there with her now, how scared she must be, how she would be hoping for a chance at least to say goodbye and tell him that she wished everything had turned out differently between them. I know, he would say. Then he would kiss her gently on the forehead. They would hold hands and watch the fires burning themselves out as the world wound down around them.
How about a loaner? he asked Willy.
Burnhardt, Willy said. The way he said it reminded Burnhardt he still owed Willy money from last time.
C’mon, Willy, Burnhardt said. I’ll take whatever you got.
Look, man, Willy said, I gotta go. Check back next week, best I can do. Then he disappeared into the garage and left Burnhardt standing alone in front of the counter.
He wandered out into the street and started going through his pockets. He found three dollars and twenty-seven cents and a blank American Express traveler’s check worth twenty dollars left over from a trip to Moab with Karen. He found the Subway card, too. And two matchbooks from the Smokin’ Tuna Saloon in Key West. He wondered if there was anything back in the apartment that he might pawn. Something of Denny’s, maybe.
By this time the city was burning, but they were small fires mostly and it was all a lot quieter than Burnhardt had expected. Traffic seemed to be winding down. A few people were hurrying around here and there. Burnhardt wondered where they were going. He couldn’t think of any reason to hurry. He couldn’t even think of anywhere to go.
He counted the money in his pocket again. It was the same as before, three dollars and twenty-seven cents. He started walking along Business 80. At the KFC he went in and spent a dollar seventy-nine on a Coke that he took outside with him. He thought with the end of the world upon them that people might have stopped charging money for small simple things like Cokes. He should have known better.
He was walking along through the smoke, drinking his Coke and thinking about Karen, when he remembered the pile of overdue library books back at his apartment. If his total fine went over ten dollars they wouldn’t let him check out any more books. It seemed petty to cut him off that way, given the circumstances, but he had learned never to underestimate bureaucracy’s enthusiasm for persecution. It seemed to be an iron law of social organization. He searched his pockets again and this time found only a dollar forty-eight and his traveler’s check. He wished he hadn’t bought the Coke.
The thing is, he wouldn’t have minded paying overdue fines except Denny had told him once that the money didn’t even go to the library, it went into the general municipal fund instead, where it could be used for roads or schools or other unrelated infrastructure. It seemed dishonest. For a while he’d thought about going to a city council meeting to complain about it but in the end he decided that he didn’t want to legitimize the mayor’s authority by appearing before him as a supplicant. When he explained all this to Karen she just rolled her eyes. A few days later she left for Laramie.
He finished his Coke and kept walking. He would go back to his apartment and get the books and return them to the library, he decided. It would be nice to have a loose end that he could tie up without anyone else having to be involved. Like Karen. What if he went all the way to Laramie to tell her about Mexico and she wasn’t interested? She could be funny that way. She might even call the cops again. He turned around and headed back to his apartment.
In front of the Holiday gas station, or what had been the gas station before the fires had reached it, exploding the pumps and leaving a charred ruin in its place, an old man walked by with a Repent! sign made from a sheet of cardboard stapled to a stick. He waved it at Burnhardt without much enthusiasm.
Burnhardt had seen the old man around town now and then, but the sign was new. He wondered what he was supposed to repent for, and what it would get him if he did. The old man just stared at him.
How’s it going? Burnhardt finally asked.
Fuckin’ apocalypse, the old man said, and shrugged. You got a light?
Burnhardt dug around in his pockets, found one of the matchbooks, and gave it to him.
Got any cigarettes? the old man said.
Sorry, Burnhardt said. No.
Shit, the old man said, and wandered off, the sign slung over his shoulder.
Burnhardt didn’t see anyone else after that. When he got back to his apartment Denny still wasn’t there, so he gathered all the library books together from behind his bed and on the couch and under the pizza boxes and stuffed them into plastic bags from Safeway.
Next he opened the refrigerator and found some ham that looked like it might not be too old but there was no bread for sandwiches anyway, so he put it back. He threw a few clean t-shirts in a backpack and grabbed his toothbrush. From the kitchen he took two cans of olives and a box of dog biscuits. It was all the food there was and the dog had run off some time ago anyway so he felt like it was probably ok. They weren’t that bad, actually.
The damn dog saw it all coming, Burnhardt thought. That’s why it took off. Not that it had been that great of a dog anyway—some kind of Irish Setter mix, maybe, something reddish-brown and shaggy, with bad breath and fur matted into spongy clumps. It had been old and feeble, staggering around the apartment drooling on everything. It wasn’t even his dog, really. It had just showed up on his doorstep. When he opened the door, the dog had walked in and looked around disapprovingly for a few moments. Then it slowly collapsed at the foot of the couch with a loud sigh and put its head on its paws and stared at Burnhardt. He didn’t have the heart to make it leave.
Karen used to bring the dog treats. Its teeth were bad and it could barely chew the dog biscuits she brought, but it would try. Then it would sit on the floor surrounded by the slobbery crumbs it hadn’t managed to swallow and stare at Burnhardt until he gave up and petted it. It would roll onto its back and moan as Burnhardt scratched its belly. Karen would smile at Burnhardt. The dog’s tail would thump a couple of times. But now the dog was gone and Karen was gone and Burnhardt was alone except for Denny. And Denny wasn’t around either. Burnhardt sat down to write a note for him.
Denny, he wrote. I am
Then he stopped. After a little while he crossed the words out and started again. Denny, it’s me—Burnhardt. But he stopped again because he didn’t like how the first words looked, crossed off on the page. It looked too much like an ending. He tore the page off the pad and crumpled it up. Best to start over on a new sheet.
Where are you? he wrote. Then he decided that was a stupid thing to write because if Denny was going to read the note he’d have to be standing right here holding it. Burnhardt would’ve crumpled that sheet up too, but it was the last one. He had gotten the pad of paper from his dentist—it was shaped like a giant tooth—but Burnhardt hadn’t been to the dentist in a year and a half and now he was out of paper except for this last piece. He wasn’t sure what to do. All that was left after this sheet was the tooth-shaped cardboard backing that the paper had been stuck to. He tried writing on the cardboard but the pen he was using wouldn’t write smoothly on the rough surface and it made his handwriting look lumpy and amateurish.
Finally he went back and scribbled a blob of ink over the question mark so it would look like a mistake and went on with going? Then he stopped and looked at it. Where are you (ink blotch) going? the note said.
Outside he heard the trumpet again. He decided not to worry about it.
He finished the note: I’m hitchhiking to Laramie. It felt good to have a plan. He was pretty sure he would be able to find Karen and when he did he would tell her about Mexico, how nice it all would have been. Maybe they would go out and buy tequila and mix up a few pitchers of margaritas and go up on the roof and watch everything wind down. That would be nice. It wouldn’t be Mexico, but it would be something. He signed the note Burnhardt and left it on the middle of the table. Then he added P.S., I took the dog biscuits.
On the way to the library, Burnhardt stopped by Pizza King to pick up his check. Fat Bob would probably be managing the lunch shift, and he disapproved of Burnhardt on principle. Principle, and unfounded suspicion: Pizza King paid drivers an extra fifty cents per hour to put a magnetic Pizza King sign on their cars and Bob was always accusing Burnhardt of claiming the extra money without displaying the sign. Which was true, but Burnhardt found his presumption of guilt offensive. Burnhardt had tried to explain this to Karen more than once, but he was never able to make her understand.
Pizza King was busy, the rush for the lunch buffet even worse than usual. Small fires were spreading across the parking lot on a hot ashy wind, and the sky overhead was starting to take on a rumbling darkness. In back where the delivery drivers parked there were a couple of beat-up cars with Pizza King signs stuck to their roofs.
Fat Bob was sitting in the tiny office behind the counter, wedged into a cheap office chair that shifted sharply from side to side on uneven legs. His body spilled out over the arms of the chair, wobbling as the chair moved, and Burnhardt found it difficult to look away. Employees hurried around them shouting and baking pizzas and elbowing past Burnhardt in the narrow space behind the counter, but Bob ignored it all. He stared almost thoughtfully at Burnhardt.
Long time no see, Burnhardt, he said finally.
Burnhardt had never liked working for Bob, but Karen had never been sympathetic. If it’s so bad, then quit, she’d say. Get a real job like everyone else.
She seemed to think he had something against work. But that wasn’t true—Burnhardt didn’t have anything against work; he just didn’t want to be the one doing it. He refused to surrender meekly to the puritanical work ethic foisted on society in the guise of morality so that undeserving plutocrats could profit from the labor they had shamed everyone else into taking on. Once Karen had a chance to see what Mexico was like, she would understand. Burnhardt was sure of that.
I just came by for my check, Bob, he said. He wished he had set the bags of books down outside. The thin plastic handles were cutting into his fingers.
Bob shook his head, his jowls wagging limply. The sight reminded Burnhardt of the dog again, how it used to climb painfully to its feet and move across the kitchen in small jerks and starts. Sometimes its feet would slip on the linoleum and it would collapse with a thud, and stare at Burnhardt until he helped it back up. Then its tail would thump a couple of times and it would try again. Sometimes just watching it would make Karen cry.
Burnhardt, Bob was saying. When is the last time you bothered to show up for work?
Yeah, Burnhardt said. Listen. My car’s been in the shop and everything.
Burnhardt, Bob said. Burnhardt. Did you even bother to call in?
Oh, Burnhardt said. Yeah, my phone . . .
Bob said something else then but Burnhardt didn’t really hear him. The smell of fresh pizza and breadsticks reminded him that he had never gotten around to eating breakfast. When he and Denny were working the same shift they would sometimes make up a ham and pineapple pizza that hadn’t been ordered and then eat it themselves when nobody showed up to pay for it. Sometimes they would make another one to take home. That’s what they’d done the night Karen left.
Subversion, Burnhardt had explained as he laid the Pizza King box on the table and opened it.
Got to be the change you want to see in the world, Denny said, and grabbed a piece of pizza.
Or you could, I don’t know, just fucking pay for your food for once, Karen said. Like everyone else does. Then she’d gone out, got in her car, and driven away to Laramie and stopped answering her phone.
Even one call? Bob was saying. That was the thing about Bob, he just kept talking, even when it was obvious that no one was listening. It had been a bad idea to come in, Burnhardt decided.
Bob was wrapping things up, pointing toward the door now. Some of us have work to do, he said.
Burnhardt said, Yeah, whatever. I think you have my last check, though?
Bob folded his arms across his chest. Burnhardt, he said, you’ve worked a grand total of—what? Six hours in the last two weeks? That doesn’t even cover the cost of the Pizza King sign you still have. You bring the sign back, I’ll give you your check.
Burnhardt went out the back door to where the delivery drivers were parked, set the books down, took the Pizza King sign off a battered Corolla and brought it inside.
Here, he said, and handed the sign to Bob.
The check came to twenty-eight dollars and forty-six cents. There was a bank next door to the library and Burnhardt went in, wondering if twenty-eight dollars—forty-eight, counting the traveler’s check—would be enough to get him to Laramie. There were long lines at every window and he had to stand around quite a while. A TV bolted to the wall blared news: riots, earthquakes, plagues, floods, wars, entire cities destroyed by fire. Looting and rioting. While he was standing there listening, Burnhardt watched the other people in line. The lady behind him kept fidgeting. She wore some kind of pantsuit and too much makeup and she kept looking at her watch and rolling her eyes and tapping her foot. Can you believe this? she said every once in a while, but everyone pretended she was talking to someone else. Burnhardt thought it was too bad she would never get to Mexico and see what it was like just to live on the beach, because if anyone needed it, she did. He was getting tired just watching her, so he turned and looked out the big glass windows of the lobby instead.
Off in the distance he heard the trumpet again—was it the fifth time? Looking out the windows Burnhardt saw that fire and blood and hail were coming down all mixed together, and the sky was even darker. Lightning flashed jaggedly through a field of bulbous purple clouds that hung over the city like an angry fist raised for smiting. There were a few overturned cars in the street now, and small groups of people wandering around holding torches and singing hymns, but it was still pretty quiet for the most part. Off in the distance another trumpet sounded. Six, thought Burnhardt. Not much time left.
Finally he got to a teller, the cute one at the far left window. Her name tag said Bev. He wondered if Karen would be jealous if she saw them together. Or regretful, maybe. Because you never realize what you have until it’s gone—or until someone else has it. When Bev counted out his cash and handed it to him, their hands touched briefly, a moment of sudden shocking intimacy. Burnhardt almost started to tell her about Mexico, how you could just live on the beach there until all the money ran out. How if you were paying attention you could see there was a leisure class at both ends of the social spectrum. How the Protestant work ethic that had become so deeply rooted in American culture was not an ethic at all but only a lie that allowed the idle rich to feed off those who were stupid enough to let them. She looked like someone who might understand that. But she was already turning to the next customer and saying, How can I help you today? with a fake smile that made her teeth look too big.
It’s better this way, Burnhardt thought as he walked out. Stick to the plan. He’d find Karen. They had history, and that’s all you were left with when the stars came crashing down. History. She would be glad to see him this time. They would mix up some margaritas and talk and remember and maybe hold hands. She would probably want to kiss him. He would let her. He would tell her all about Mexico, all the plans he had wanted them to share. She would be sad that it was too late now, and he would be sad too, but it would be good to be sad together as the world ended.
I’m glad you came, she would say. He would smile.
Afterwards maybe they would be walking down the street holding hands and he would stop at one of those vending machines that sell fake tattoos and plastic jewelry and he would buy her a ring with a butterfly or a diamond on it. It would be too small and he would have to bend it open to fit her finger. Neither of them would say anything but they would know what it was supposed to mean. She would look at him and she wouldn’t cry but she almost would. They wouldn’t talk about the restraining order or any of that.
So Burnhardt just went outside to count his money—Bev had cashed both checks for him. With what he had left from buying the Coke at KFC it came to forty-nine dollars and ninety-four cents. He felt better knowing that he had almost fifty dollars.
One last stop, Burnhardt thought. He went into the library and jammed all of the books into the book return slot at the front desk. One of the library ladies came over and stared at him while he was doing it. She made a big deal out of taking the books one by one and restacking them neatly on the front counter. Burnhardt dropped the empty bags on the counter, smiled at her, and walked out.
Out at the edge of town, a tall hooded figure in a dark robe stood in the swirling wind at the top of the entrance ramp to I-80 watching the city burn and the stars drop from the sky to land out on the empty plains in explosions that sent huge geysers of dust shooting into the darkness. There was something oddly frail, almost skeletal, about the figure, as if under the robe there was nothing but a bundle of sticks. As Burnhardt crossed the street and started up the on-ramp, the figure lifted a long rams-horn trumpet.
Wait, Burnhardt started to say.
The figure shook its head slowly at Burnhardt, and the ram’s horn bleated its last long ugly roar. The echoes faded slowly to cold silence, and a billowing darkness settled over the starless sky like a dusty blanket tossed down carelessly from somewhere overhead. The robed figure lowered the trumpet and walked out into the darkness, out where the fires were burning down and the winds were sweeping brimstone and ashes across the plains like the broom of God, leaving Burnhardt standing alone beside I-80.
Burnhardt waited a while after that, but nothing happened. Except for the wind it was quiet. He slid the pack off his shoulder and let it drop at the top of the on-ramp, then sat down beside the highway. Leaning back against the guardrail, he closed his eyes. He thought again about Mexico, about how things might have been. He wondered what Karen was doing, if she was thinking about him. She probably was, he decided.
After a while Burnhardt felt himself drifting toward sleep. He didn’t fight it. There didn’t seem to be anything else left to do. But then a faint noise, a tentative scrabbling, caught his attention. Burnhardt opened his eyes, turned his head.
Below him, at the foot of the ramp, an odd lurching shape made its way slowly through the smoky darkness. The damn dog, Burnhardt realized. It staggered toward Burnhardt, struggling up the steep ramp with its head hanging, its breath coming in gasps and wheezes, nails scrabbling on the crumbling pavement.
Burnhardt climbed to his feet and pulled open his backpack. The dog biscuits had spilled out of the box and into his clean t-shirts, crumbs and broken bits everywhere. He found one that was mostly intact and held it in his outstretched hand.
Here, boy, he said, and patted his leg. Come here. The dog’s tail thumped weakly against the guardrail. Burnhardt moved to the dog and it slobbered the biscuit from his hand. Around them the air was thick with ash, the darkness nearly complete. The dog didn’t seem to notice. It finished chewing and looked up at Burnhardt expectantly.
Yeah, Burnhardt said. Okay.
He picked up his pack, slung it over his shoulder, and started walking slowly down I-80 toward Laramie. The dog staggered along beside him. It wasn’t much, but they were moving. That was something. Even someone who didn’t believe in anything could believe that.