As soon as her husband went into the sitting room, Meera slipped out of the back door. Today of all days, he had come back early, complained he was unwell, shouted, slapped her once and finally gone, grumbling, to watch TV before his dinner at 10 PM.
She had no chance to change out of her red dressing gown and fluffy bedroom slippers. They were awkward to run in but she ran as hard as she could down the uneven pavements.
It was dark, the streets were empty. She had never been out this late alone. She slowed to a walk but kept going.
When at last she reached the building a man from her group was ahead of her. His shirt was torn and there was blood on his arm.
“Are you all right?” Meera asked.
He peered into the night. “The police are looking for me.”
She said nothing. Well, now it didn’t matter, did it?
“And you?” he said. “Why are you dressed like that?”
“I escaped,” she said. “My husband would have beaten me. He will be livid when he finds out that I didn’t even make dinner.”
“Why did you take it? Why didn’t you just leave?”
“I just couldn’t. Why are the police after you?”
“I killed a man,” he said.
They laughed at that and went up the stairs together.
It was heady and intoxicating, the idea that nothing mattered anymore. She felt free and giddy.
The room was full. The end of the world party was in full swing.
Someone had hung up balloons and huge portraits of their leader. Music played — old film songs. The chipped wood table was full of creamy pastries, rich sweets, ice creams and huge bowls of fried snacks. Those who were always on a diet had heaped plates.
“I can’t believe it’s here at last,” they kept saying, taking another large helping.
By midnight they had danced, sung hymns and eaten to bursting. Then the broadcast began.
Meera sat on the floor, against the wall, sipped her drink and felt a great satisfaction. She blessed the day she had met their leader. Come to me, he had said, follow me and I will make all your problems go away. You will find the peace you seek, without effort, without pain.
She had not believed him then, but her faith had grown and now she was here, and all her problems were over. She was at peace, just as he had promised.
She watched him on screen, smiling, assured. He gave them an inspirational speech on how to pass over with dignity and claim their just reward in the next world. Then he wished them a good after life and the broadcast ended.
They settled down to talk.
There was a special confessional air about the room. Turn by turn, they spilled it all. The transgressions, the indiscretions, evasions, the crimes, the lies and the fears. Each sad story evoked wild and hilarious laughter. Everything was funny tonight, everything, even murder. In a few hours it would all be over.
At three AM, precisely, the world would end.
Their leader had said it and he was never wrong. They were the few, the chosen ones, who would join him for a heavenly life, after this world was destroyed.
“I wonder what will happen.”
“Maybe it will just go poof.”
“What does it matter so long as it’s quick and we don’t suffer?”
“Yes, we will not suffer.”
“It will be beautiful, it will.”
They all nodded. Of course, it would be beautiful. They had no fear of death or of the world’s ending. They had seen the paintings and knew how beautiful death really was. They were ready, even eager for it.
“It’s been a hard life.” someone said.
“Hasn’t it? All I had was heartbreak and bills. If the world did not end I’d spend the rest of my years drowning in debt.” He laughed.
“Life has been nothing but misery,” another woman said, “I gave everything away. My mansion, my properties, my investments. I cut out all my relatives and created a trust fund even I cannot break. All I have is the clothes I am wearing. But who cares? Now I will be saved.”
And I won’t have to go home again, Meera thought. He will never beat me again. The thought drenched her in relief. That harsh world seemed so far away. She settled back in a state of dreamy, well fed pleasure.
After a while they all fell silent and turned their faces to the clock. They watched it as if watching a mesmerising movie. Minutes ticked away. The hands moved with agonising slowness but still the hours passed. Midnight vanished into the past, so did one and two am.
At five minutes to three, the wait became overwhelming.
The tick of the clock and rasping of their breath sounded like thunder.
Meera’s hands were shaking, her heart thudding.
Slowly, slowly the last seconds dripped away.
“Cheers!” someone shouted, beginning to clap. They all burst into wild applause.
They waited for the thunder.
A missile strike, an asteroid, an earthquake, a bomb or just plain, clean, unvarnished death.
They watched the slow movement of the minute hand.
It just kept on going.
Outside a car passed and somewhere a door slammed. The world was still alive.
Meera felt faint. She saw that everyone’s face was white, unbelieving.
“Perhaps the time was wrong,” someone ventured.
“Yes, yes, yes, that must be it.”
They kept watching the clock, in silence, until dawn light silvered the windows.
Then they stared at each other, a terrible realisation on all their faces.
Their worst fear had come true. The world had not been destroyed. They would not be saved.
The sun had risen and life would go on, just as usual.
Truly, their world had ended.
Rohini Gupta is a writer who lives by the sea in Mumbai, India. Rohini says: “I have published nonfiction and poetry books and am now writing fiction. Flash fiction is keeping me happy while writing longer stories.” Rohini’s blog is at wordskies.wordpress.com.
This story is sponsored by
Jesse Pohlman — author of the Physics Incarnate series, blending sci-fi and suspense as past secrets catch up with physics professor Emmett Eisenberg.