(Fiction from the 2017 edition of Signet Literary Magazine)
It had gotten darker. The time between rising from the sweat of my mattress and arriving back home from La Rose, the most unnecessary perfume shop in Amsterdam, kept its stage lit in the same gray. The shadow of the sun tripped over the clouds into a shade of purple every morning, and although all of us noticed, all of us saw, none of us knew why.
One month it had been without a streak of blue in the sky. I thought the street lamps might’ve gone out by now.
We kept it silent in our conversations. In the crevice of every “how are you,” there was an “I’m afraid that we’re going to die;” every wave to a stranger was a prayer to every god we could think of. The ones we thought existed and the ones we thought didn’t. It felt that with every prayer, they seemed to exist less and less.
When the last morning came, I was swallowing the last quarter of a bottle of Jack Daniels. The news was the only thing speaking to me in a one sided conversation. I held my Zoloft in one hand, the bottle in the other. I’d start with one, I thought, for good measure. The first pill went down easy, a little sandy on my throat, but still fine. Staring into the canister, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to swallow them all at once. I’d never been great at taking pills, but the chemical reaction of the whiskey was supposed to do half the job.
I had the container tipped against my lips when breaking news erupted across the television screen. Two scientists were standing next to the Doomsday Clock. It was midnight.
The next thing I heard was a scream from the apartment next to mine, a thud on the ceiling above me, and then footsteps running down the hall outside. I dropped the pills.
“–An environmental, global crisis–” The news anchor fizzed into my eardrum.
A window shattered somewhere nearby. “World officials have made a unanimous decision to euthanize the population at 3:00 AM tonight. If action is not taken, the earth will gradually be destroyed within the next three months due to environmental disasters.”
The TV blared blue light into the living room, flashing between images of the leaders of the UN, all arguing for the detonation of the world’s military arms. The announcements were made from their offices. Safe and sound where the press couldn’t sling a mic at their skulls. No, no press conference for this. This had to be done quietly like a handkerchief of chloroform over our noses.
More screaming echoed out the plaster in the walls. It sounded like children this time. I clicked the volume up to high.
My keys hung a few inches from the door, waiting for me to unhook them and cycle down to La Rose for my shift. But, I wasn’t sure what the rules were about work and the end of the world. I wasn’t sure there were any, but what else was I to do?
I slung a tweed coat over my shoulders, the kind that’s just warm and just itchy enough to make you question why you own it.
“Father!” was what I was stopped by as I opened my door. Lucille, a middle-aged mother two doors down stood wringing her hands into her ill-fitting burgundy cardigan.
I touched my collar instinctively. I always did when they called me that. They still did it even though I’d taken a short-term depression leave. It’s funny how God can abandon you right about the same time your serotonin does.
“Did you see the news?” she asked. Her lipstick melted into the corners of her mouth and grazed beyond the blushed line of her lips. It bothered me so much I nearly wiped it on my jacket sleeve.
“I saw it.”
“And?” She pressed. “Is it the end, Father? The second coming?”
I thought of the seminary, when they first taught us about the end. Adrian, my roommate, was sitting beside me in the class, tapping his nails against the crucifix resting in the indent of his chest. He scribbled a note over Revelations: 5, shoved the bible at me. That’s how I want to go, it said, taken out by Jesus himself.
“Yes,” I replied, my mouth moving almost automatically. “As the bible said, it would come like a thief in the night. And here it is.”
“Can you–” Her hands trembled. “Can you give me a final blessing? To forgive my sins before I go?”
I looked at her then, really looked at her. Where her skirt hit the lower part of her knee, her skin turned a shade between purple and yellow, then blended out into her milky calves stained with angry veins. She hadn’t worn any shoes, just two wool socks accordioned on her ankles. The short end of a rosary hung out of her breast pocket like she’d been ready to see me. I remembered when I first met her in the corridor a month ago, and she made her messy-haired son, Thomas, kiss the ring on my hand. She’d had a smile that wrinkled her cheeks into her ears. I was the young priest, she’d said, the one everyone was talking about.
I heard some more screams then. Wailing, it sounded like this time. Like someone was ripping from the inside out.
“No,” I told her. “I’d prefer not to.” I stuffed my hands in my pockets and turned on my heel.
“Wait!” she called after me. “You’re still a priest. You can still do it. Father, please! I won’t go to heaven. I’m not in a state of grace.”
I’d reached the steel garage door, heavier than myself. Shouts were coming from what sounded like the balconies now. Screeching tires, cracking, and a weighty thud that could be nothing but a human body.
“What,” I said. “What could you have possibly done, Lucille? Did you cheat on your husband? Burn down a building? What was it, Lucille? Why do you not think you’re in a state of grace? Did you not spend enough time on your knees in front of your husband or in front of a cross? Was that it? Spend too much time living and not enough time serving?” Her jaw had fallen loose, the bottom row of her teeth peeking out over her lip. “You’re going to die, Lucille. And I’m going to die. I’m sure there are several people in this very building who have died in the last few minutes. There will not be a beautiful rapture with blinding light and Christ himself judging you in your last minutes. We’re going to close our eyes tonight at 3:00 AM, and that will be all.”
My face must’ve been frightening because she stopped herself immediately. “My name,” I said, “is Kresten.”
There were bodies in the canals. They floated down the water and got caught in the gaps between parked boats, bobbing on their stomachs. The people who were still alive were running. I was one of the few on a bicycle. Something about the end of the world got people up on their feet.
The flower shops had hidden their tulips, and every window down the street had already been boarded up. When I arrived at La Rose, the open stage of windows was a row of timber, just like all the other shops. I took to the back entrance.
The vomit was the first thing I smelled, before the perfume, and before I stepped into a pile of shattered glass. It penetrated through my nose until I could taste it in the back of my throat, and I thought I might vomit myself. My stomach shifted. I began to regret drinking whiskey so early.
Colette, the owner, my boss, lay draped over an office chair, her jet black hair glued to her cheek with saliva. Her eyes didn’t quite close. Between her two rows of eyelashes, I could see a strip of cloudy white.
“Colette?” I said, still standing in my same place.
She didn’t move. In her limp hand, crusted over in orange vomit, an open perfume bottle barely held on. The smell.
I couldn’t take the smell anymore. My brain felt as though it was being lifted out of my skull. I shuffled to the chair, pushed two fingers against her neck, waited. Nothing.
She’d never liked me. From my first day, she’d been watching my every move, as though I’d steal perfume under her nose. She’d hired me because she was desperate: thirty with a failing business– no one in Amsterdam really loved perfumed that specifically– and two kids living in France under her mother’s care. I worked under minimum wage because I’d figured my hours weren’t worth more than a few euros each.
Her face had already gone so pale. I didn’t know what to do, so I left her there in her office. As I entered the main area of the shop, a rapping came from the glass. Someone trying to break in, I thought. I nearly left before I heard a voice call out.
“Kresten!” it said. “Kresten, are you there?”
It was Adrian’s voice, unmistakably his. He’d been the only one who’d continued to speak to me after I’d taken my short leave from the priesthood.
“Damn it,” I heard him curse outside.
“Wait,” I called out. “I’m here. Come around the back. I’ll let you in.”
He didn’t reply. I just heard the scuffing of his shoes on the pavement outside as he ran from the front of the store to the back. On a faulty step, I stumbled and knocked my elbow into one of the perfumes, sending it crashing onto the floor. The smell rose with a violence, and I stopped. The entire store looked so vulnerable now, just glass with colored vials like poison. It felt like the scab you’d want to rip off, the dry skin you can’t help but peel. Colette was dead in her office. I’d be dead by 3:00 AM. I decided I’d do it.
Every day for the month I’d worked there, I walked among the aisles with elbows tucked into my sides. My body had been a hazard. But now, I tipped the bottles like dominoes, let my fingers graze over the pumps ever so slightly until they’d crash in a cacophony of shattered glass. I started knocking them over in swoops, my arms wide out, my fingertips extended. I had to step on the white wet sand left behind to make my way back to the office to let Adrian in. But, by the time I got there, he was already standing inside, silent, staring at Colette.
“What happened?” he mumbled.
“I think she drank a few bottles of perfume,” I said.
He wore his full priest’s attire, black shirt, black pants, black shoes, white collar, and a black peacoat for Amsterdam’s early spring. His thick Spanish hair stood in a mound of waves on his head, gelled with just a few strands purposely out of place. He’d always woken up an hour before me in the seminary, blowdrying his hair, plucking his eyebrows, pressing his clothes. Leave it to Adrian to be perfectly groomed on the last day on earth.
“I looked for you at your apartment,” he said. “But you weren’t there.”
“I thought I’d come to work.”
He cracked a smile, still staring at Colette. “You thought-” he scoffed. “You thought you’d have work today?”
I snorted a short laugh under my breath before Adrian started holding his belly from the laughter. The small hook on the bridge of his nose folded into the wrinkles on his brow. He clenched his teeth, the laughter escaping out the perfectly straight rows.
“Y-y-you,” his speech vibrated with his laugh. “Idi-o-o-ot-ahahaha”
He calmed down to a sigh and finally looked away from Colette. “I thought you might’ve killed yourself like the others.”
“No,” I said. “I’ll wait for 3:00 AM like everyone else.”
“You’re the first person I thought would kill himself.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
He flicked his head back, gesturing at me. “Come here.”
I took two steps with same foot, tripping and shuffling on my way to him. He wrapped his arms around my neck, dug his chin into my shoulder and took a deep inhale, and I felt as though I might disappear into his chest, swallowed up by his breath and his arms.
“I’m saying mass at the cathedral,” he said against my hair. “Come with me.”
“Are you giving the last rites to people?” I asked.
“No. You don’t actually believe in that bullshit, do you?”
We both laughed, rib cages clashing against each other. No, when you could wake up in the morning and be dead by 3:00 AM, you couldn’t believe in anything.
Adrian had kissed me the night before we graduated from the seminary. We’d been the last ones in the church after evening prayer, positioned on a kneeler before the great man himself. The candles reflected stain-glass on our faces, Mary’s robe glinting over Adrian’s shirt. I remember noticing that before he shoved me, and the back of my head hit the marble floor.
My vision bleached itself blank for a second. My head swam with the smell of incense. I made the mistake of closing my eyes.
I felt his shadow over me, heard his breathing. Then he did it, and I didn’t tell him to stop. It felt as though the eyes of every saint in stain glass were watching us, watching Adrian’s stubble scratch against mine, his honey colored hands pinning me by the shoulders. It was the first time I’d experienced spirituality– or a concussion, who knows. God spoke to me, like the other priests always said he would, and he said, I’ve never cared about you, and I’ll never care about any of you. And it was more like love than rosaries or mass or waking up under the watch of a crucifix every morning.
“Welcome.” Adrian’s booming voice awoke me from my reverie.
I was sitting in the front row, packed on either side by people too afraid to die. I had gotten so skinny over the last month that I felt my bones would bruise from sitting on the diamond-hard pew.
“I know you’re frightened,” he began. “You probably think that God has abandoned us, yes? That we’re on our own, susceptible to the will of the government, yes?” He raised his eyebrows. “Yes?”
“Yes,” the crowd chanted back. I heard a few sobs.
“Well, you’re right,” he said, fiddling with one of the gold candleholders at the altar. “Really, you are. Now I can say this mass and we can pretend like we’re all going to ‘heaven’” He made the air quotes and everything. God, the man was shameless. “Or we can all live in the truth for about an hour, and we can try to deal with the time we have until 3:00 AM. I won’t have to be a storyteller anymore. We’ll just talk about what’s happening, not what we’re pretending will happen.” He seated himself on the steps and leaned his elbows atop his knees. “So what will it be, then?”
I thought they might’ve rioted. I thought they might have called him a liar, a con, a blasphemer. But, I heard a woman’s voice from the pew behind me pipe up just loud enough to echo over the ceiling.
“Let’s pretend,” she said. “I want to pretend.”
“Pretend,” a man said from the other aisle.
Soon they were all agreeing, either making grunts of approval, or just nodding. Adrian stood up. His face had changed. He looked like a man who’d lost his soul.
“Fine,” he said. “That’s just fine. In the name of the Father…”
The mass went on like it always did, but this time more than ever it felt like a waste. We played along with the call and response, we stood and kneeled and sat and stuffed little circles of wheat in our mouths. It was sad. I don’t know what else to call it. Mass has always been sad. I think that’s why my profession drove me into a depression. I think that’s why I’d nearly swallowed those pills this morning.
As we filed into our seats after communion, the time when Adrian should have been putting away the eucharist, he had his back to the congregation, facing the tabernacle. He was still.
After a few moments, he spoke.
“I’m not going to bless the end of this mass, or the end of this world, or the end of any of your lives,” he said. “But, I want you all to go away with this:
“I’ve always hated you. Every one of you. And this?” He gestured around him to the cold stone walls, the life-sized statues of saints and every plaster iris-less eye. “I’ve never believed in any of this. You’ve been receiving your eucharist from an atheist. A homosexual atheist–”
“Adrian,” I said. My voice was quiet, only a crack in my throat, but everyone heard. The congregation turned to me and so did Adrian. “Don’t”
He winced, the beginnings of wrinkles around his eyes creasing deep. With a shake of his head he turned back. “And Kresten,” he continued. “He and I were put here practically as prostitutes for you. They said they needed young, good-looking priests to attract more people to the church. Did it work? When you were fantasizing about Kresten’s pretty blue eyes, did it make you put more money in the basket?”
“Adrian,” I repeated. “Please.”
“No,” he spat, his voice turning ragged, his eyes reddening. “This whole thing was a sham. Do you know what it feels like to have lived your whole life supporting a lie? Well, you must since you’re all sitting here. Just-” He took a breath, holding two fingers to the space between his eyebrows. “You could’ve been telling your family you loved them. You could’ve been trying every thing you’ve never done before. You could’ve eaten an entire jar of fucking peanut butter and it would’ve been more constructive than this, but you decided to sit here for the same reason you’re always here: because you’re scared.”
No one had moved. I heard people crying, but no one had moved. The woman next to me held her face in her palms. Her perfume smelt like a funeral parlor. Fitting. I imagined us all in caskets, shaking our own hands, passing eulogies between one another.
“It’s an hour closer to 3:00 AM now. You’ve wasted my time and yours and you all know it. Now leave before you waste any more. And don’t you dare spend the few hours you have left praying to that-” He threw his arm back at the life sized cross. “He’s dead. He’s been dead. And what good do you think you’ll be once you’re dead too? Think that you’re going to be able to stop global catastrophes? Go.”
They didn’t waste a moment. I supposed they didn’t have the energy to defy him. A bit of scuffling, jacket swishing, and whispering and they were out the door.
As soon as the cathedral fell into a cold silence, Adrian let out a screech that sounded like it had torn apart his insides to produce the sound. It was followed by an ear piercing crash as the eucharistic arrangement on the altar fell at Adrian’s hand, wine spilling, turning the cement between the marble red with Christ’s blood. He fell to his knees in that kind of crying that makes you shiver more than shed tears.
The pew groaned underneath me as I threw my weight onto my knees. I went to Adrian, slow, measured, with incessantly tripping feet. He folded into himself like a dark moth, swathed in black on black on black.
“I don’t want to die,” he said, shaking his head to an unsteady rhythm. “I don’t. I really really really don’t. I can’t. Tell me I won’t. Tell me I won’t die.”
“Don’t lie to me, you asshole.”
“No-” He looked up then, with bloodshot whiskey brown eyes darting to the ceiling and back to whichever area in space took his focus. “They could be lying. It could only be the Netherlands, yes? Or maybe just Europe. If they cut us off of world news, we’d never know. Or it could be an attack that they can’t prevent, and they’re preparing us for it. It could be-” He paused. “Kresten, we need to get out of here.”
“There isn’t any time,” I said, because there really wasn’t. Not to drive out anyway. And we certainly couldn’t fly out.
“But, we can’t just sit here and die,” he said, just loud enough for the church to echo his sentence back at us.
At that, his face fell into a slackness I had never seen him wear before. I sat beside him, let the cold from the marble rise up my bones. Oh, we most certainly could just sit here and die. It was the only thing we could possibly do.
Image published in Signet 2017: A Sinking City, by Margaret Nelson