Earl and Paula at the End of the World

by Ryan Goodwin

They say pure white is the combination of all the colors of the color spectrum and that blackness is the absence of color, but they also say the entire universe sprang out of nothingness and that thought was too philosophical, or maybe just too plain stupid for Paula to wrap her mind around, so when the blackness first appeared in the distance she had no conceptual idea of what it really was. She only knew that it was indeed black, a deeper black than she’d ever seen, a blackness that spread fear through her body, aching like arthritis between every tired joint and withered ligament, planting itself somewhere deep in the collected knowledge of all human experience imprinted on her mind at birth. Earl thought it was the end days, Armageddon. The universe was regressing upon itself. Everything would go, including them. At first it was just the tree line that disappeared, out across the pasture beneath the hill where Earl’s great uncle’s cabin sat, the cabin where they’d planned to spend what was left of their lives, not that they’d hoped it would end soon, but they didn’t know where else to go or what else to do; there were no children, no grandchildren, no friends or siblings, at least none that remembered who they were or could collect what was left of their minds long enough to satisfy Paula’s desperate need for almost constant conversation. They’d been there less than a week when it happened, and once it had, once the idea of it really settled in her mind, Paula thought she’d heard the blackness, nothingness, whatever it was, coming in the silence of the cabin, but she’d been told once that sound can’t travel through a vacuum, and she thought she just might have imagined hearing it, just might have wanted to have heard it coming, to know, somehow, somewhere inside her, even if she couldn’t pinpoint where, that it was all coming to an end, not just life, but everything, all of it, the whole of existence, and it all happened so fast. One morning Earl went outside to feed the stray cats that hung around the front porch, mostly because he wouldn’t stop feeding them, and he was standing on the top step, sipping whiskey from his favorite glass — Earl was an alcoholic, always had been — and licking the watery tuna residue from his fingers when Paula heard him gasp and the glass shatter at his feet, and when she went out to check on him, he was just standing there, gaze locked on the blackness, his eyes disbelieving. She tried to comfort him at first, but it was impossible to look away, because the world was finite now, there was only so much of it, a square mile or two and then nothing, and that changed things, really changed things. After a couple days, when the ancient landline couldn’t find a dial tone and the static of the radio was just too damned eerie to listen to, they resigned to sitting on the porch in their matching rocking chairs to watch the world end, Earl sipping whiskey and questioning god and the validity of afterlife, Paula chain smoking cigarettes and verbally contemplating darkness and the perception of time, and, if Paula were to be frank, the whole thing was a little boring after a while. Every day the blackness crept a little closer and soon their conversations devolved into a litany of repetitive bickering; Paula would say there’s no such thing as nothingness and Earl would take a long sip, as if she was what drove him to drink and not his inability to process emotions any better than when he was a child or the growing absence of compassion for anything outside of his own warped perception of how the world had mistreated him. He’d tell her that there was nothingness, that they were all that was left and nothing at all existed outside of them; they were life and the darkness was death, and he was sorry, but that’s just how it was now, and she’d say she didn’t feel like waiting any longer, why not just meet the darkness half way, but Earl wasn’t ready for that. He ran out of whiskey about the time the blackness crept up to the foot of the hill and took to smoking stale cigars and calling out for the stray cats every few minutes or so, but they never showed up and Paula didn’t have the heart to make him understand that they were gone, that everything was gone and that they too would be gone soon. She just sat next to him and tried not to say anything to make him cry again, but soon, the darkness was just too overwhelming, too vast, and it called to her. One day, Earl fell asleep in his chair, and Paula thought it was as good a time as any, so she kissed him once on the forehead and descended the short steps, feeling what was left of the grass between her toes. She paused, just inches from the dark, when she thought she felt a breeze, but she couldn’t really know because it had been so long since she’d really felt anything, and the sensation was gone before she could decide if it had ever really been there. She looked back at Earl, asleep in the rocking chair she’d bought at an estate sale, and briefly considered mounting the steps and sitting next to him, but she’d spent her whole life with Earl and there are just some things you have to do alone.