A Good Day for the End of the World
It was a good day for the end of the world.
The wind blew appropriately ominously, whipping the dust and leaves into small-scale hurricanes and rolling small stones over the cliff face in what poets of later years – if, of course, there had been later years – would have called foreshadowing. The sea was dark grey and choppy, and the sky brooded with all the intensity of a sky that, sensing that the end is nigh, is damn well going to put on a good show before it goes.
The three friends sat at a table in the warmly-lit bar high above the sea. The fourth, much to Alice's chagrin, was late. The tall woman drummed her fingers on the table, trying to take deep breaths through gritted teeth. She had taken a course in positive thinking and couldn't say she'd found it at all helpful. It wasn't really her thing, she supposed. It just didn't mesh with her image.
"Where is he?" she snapped at last as a couple at a nearby table, picking up on the tension in the air, broke into a loud argument.
"He'll come," said Katie, in a voice of perfect calm.
"He'd better," said Alice.
"Like it even matters." This from Brandon, or at least, from the general direction of the long fringe that covered so much of his face that whether he had a face at all was a matter for debate. He wiped a perpetually-runny nose on his sleeve.
Alice rolled her eyes, resisting – to her credit, she thought – the urge to throw a breadstick at the sullen youth.
"Oh, it matters," Katie said.
"Whatever," muttered Brandon, with sparkling originality. Alice's temper rose to the extent that a brawl broke out at the bar, but just as she opened her mouth to tell Brandon precisely what she thought of him, his family, and the horse he rode in on, Regis waddled in.
"So sorry I'm late," he said, waving an expansive hand expansively. "I had to pick up a snack. These places never cater for the, uh, specialised palate."
He sounded, as always, as though he were speaking through a mouthful of marbles and several decades of expensive elocution lessons. He would have described his voice as "plummy". Brandon would have described it as "the sort of voice that makes you want to punch someone in the face". Alice had often been tempted to do just that.
Katie nodded to him with supreme condescension, an impressive feat for a girl whose feet couldn't touch the floor. Regis nodded to her deferentially, draping himself over a stool.
"Did I miss anything?" he asked, dragging the basket of breadsticks closer and helping himself to three at once.
"Just, like, the end of the world," said the fringe.
"Hasn't happened yet," Regis pointed out, glancing out of the window into the gathering dusk.
"At least the weather's all nice and apocalyptic," commented the woman sitting beside Katie. The nanny went wherever Katie went. It was just one of those things the others had come to accept.
Katie sipped her orange juice. She shouldn't even have been in the bar, really, but she had a certain gravitas that tended to make adults get chills down their spines and forget why it was she shouldn't be allowed to do whatever she wanted. It also tended to make them want to pack a bag and run for the hills. The barman was keeping well away from their little table, industriously polishing glasses at the far end of the bar with a cloth so grubby that the already grimy glassware was becoming steadily filthier. The nanny looked at the wilted flowers in the middle of the table and clucked her tongue.
"Now there's a pity," she said, leaning in and trying to rearrange them into some semblance of life. The head fell off a daisy.
"Occupational hazard, eh?" said Regis, elbowing Brandon conspiratorially and pointing at the vase.
"Whatever," said the boy, putting in earphones and turning up the volume of his music to a level that jet engines would envy.
All things considered, it was probably lucky they didn't get together often. The brawl had turned into a rather messy fight involving bits of stools and broken bottles, but the companions ignored it. It was the sort of thing that happened when they were around.
"Is this thing of yours going to go on late?" asked the nanny, giving up her attempt to revive the late flowers.
Katie looked thoughtful. "No," she said eventually, the finality in her tone belying her age.
The nanny nodded approvingly. "Good," she said. "We don't want you up too late, my sweet. Early to bed, early to rise, makes a body healthy, wealthy and wise, my Harold always used to say."
Alice rolled her eyes, her patience for the old woman reaching its end. It had not been a long journey.
"Any chance of getting some proper food here?" Regis asked, casting about for a menu. The breadsticks had been reduced to crumbs.
"It's a bar, Regis, not a gourmet restaurant," snapped Alice, with a glare that would have frozen lava. "I doubt it."
Ignoring her, Regis snapped his fingers imperiously, and the barman shuffled over.
"Yes?" he said in the voice of a man led to the gallows, polishing a glass with such fury that it seemed certain it would shatter at any second.
"What do you have in the way of victuals?" Regis asked.
"We don't really - "
"Good, we'll have one of everything then."
"But we don't – "
"Excellent. Thank you."
The barman staggered away, dazed by this encounter, and went off to find some "everything". He shivered, feeling the eyes of the little girl upon him, and was suddenly seized by the urge to pack a bag and head for somewhere nice and sunny, maybe in the tropics, but this desire was tempered by the overwhelming feeling that this would do him no good at all. He hastily went into what passed for a kitchen to chivvy the staff into providing something that would pass for food.
"Not long now," commented Katie, swinging her feet. Her blonde pigtails bobbed as she did so. It would have been cute if it hadn't been so earth-shatteringly - indeed, world-endingly - disturbing. The others nodded.
"About time, too," muttered Alice, ramming a toothpick into the tabletop. Behind her, someone was stabbed, and gurgled rather messily. The bar certainly had become rather noisier since they had come in. In addition to the fight – and the numerous other debates, arguments and altercations that had broken out – there was a fair amount of coughing and sneezing from the patrons who had not been chased out by the fight, and theirs was not the only table with wilted flowers. Brandon didn't take out his headphones, but glanced towards the darkening sky, and nodded, before returning to his fashionably morose slump.
"Let's play cards," Katie said.
"Is this going to be one of those battle-for-my-soul games?" Regis asked, a hint of nervousness in his voice. "Because I've never enjoyed those."
Katie shook her head. "Just cards," she said. "I like cards."
"Whatever passes the time," sighed Alice. "I can't stand this place much longer."
Brandon nodded, by some miracle apparently still able to hear the conversation over the persistent crashing of his music.
"Let's play Mao," said Katie.
"I hate that game," grumbled Brandon.
"Yes, but you, my dear boy, appear to hate everything and everyone, so forgive us if we don't take your esteemed opinion into account," said Regis, with well-practised condescension.
"Whatever," said Brandon. It would not qualify for entry into any compendium of memorable repartee, but, as the world was ending anyway, it didn't really matter.
"Mao it is," sighed Alice. "I can never remember the bloody rules."
"That's the point, isn't it?" said Regis.
"Something like that," said Katie.
"All right, all right," Alice said, pulling a ribbon from a pocket in the depths of her coat and tying her long, dark hair out of her eyes.
Katie shuffled a deck of cards with expert skill, and dealt. "Ladies and gentlemen," she began, in that voice, so unnaturally sombre for a little girl in a pink-and-white dress, "we are now playing five card Mao. The only rule I am allowed to tell you is that I am not allowed to tell you any other rules. The game has set rules: it is your aim to figure out what they are. Play will begin with me and proceed widdershins."
"Two of wands," Katie said, placing the card on the table.
"Three of wands," said Regis.
"Three of cups," said Brandon.
Katie shook her head and sweetly gave him a card. "Talking," she admonished.
"But you – "
"Talking," she repeated, giving him another card.
"Whatever," said Brandon, sullenly accepting his lot.
Alice played the four of cups and wished Katie a nice day. Katie responded by bowing politely and collecting an extra card. It was a complicated game, and only Katie really enjoyed or understood it, but, as they tended to play whatever Katie chose, it was what they played.
By this time, flowers had begun to disintegrate. Small, writhing things were chewing through what remained of the stems. Alice tried not to look at them. The stabbing victim was being carried out by his friends, who were still bickering. Alice smiled at the irony. Soon, they would have far greater things to worry about. Or, indeed, nothing to worry about at all.
Regis played the Tower, and stuck his tongue out at Brandon accordingly. Brandon just rolled his eyes and carried on playing, collecting penalty cards until he performed the dance that accompanied the Fool.
The barman appeared with a tray. He had gone to great lengths find "one of everything", and had come up with a menu comprising beer-soaked breadsticks à la peanuts, peanut-encrusted breadsticks in beer sauce, and wine-glazed peanuts sprinkled with bread. Regis accepted the offering with a nod, and helped himself to a handful of the closest dish as the game continued.
A bird fluttered onto the window ledge and promptly died. No one seemed to notice. The few remaining patrons continued to cough and bicker, although with the removal of the stabbee, the number of outright fights had, at least, been reduced by one.
Katie played Death. By some twist of fate, she always did. The others stared at the card.
"Point of order," said Katie. They all put down their cards. "It's time," she said. "We shall have to finish this game another time."
She collected the cards and, fastidiously securing them with a ribbon, gave them to her nanny to pack away. She slid off her stool, and the others followed suit.
"Good day for it," commented Regis, licking his great fingers.
"Yes," agreed Katie.
The sky had obligingly darkened further. The dying rays of light struggled into the bar, unaware of their impending fate, as fat drops of rain began to fall.
In the end there was a storm, and they saw that it was good.
"Don't forget to wear your jacket," the nanny said to Katie, holding up the garment for the little girl. "You'll catch your – well, it's very cold, anyhow."
Katie allowed herself to be helped into the jacket, and then, with a nod to the barman, the party stepped out onto the blustery clifftop, where waited three horses, and a pony that was somehow more eerie than adorable despite the ribbons in its mane.
"Now, don't you stay out too late," cautioned the nanny, as the four companions mounted their horses. "You three look after her, hear?"
"We'll do our best," said Alice, stroking a soothing hand over her mount's broad neck as the horse reared, nostrils flaring.
"Good," said the nanny contentedly, and stood waving from the clifftop as the four horsemen rose gently into the air and galloped into the chill wind. Their evening was only just beginning.
A/N: Written for the May Writing Challenge Contest of the Review Game Forum. The prompt can be found at http:// yayeveryday .com/post/9040. Please read, review and vote for your favourite story in this month's WCC!