tagFirst TimeThe End of the World

The End of the World

byMichael_Butterfield©

Author's note:

I feel rather proud of myself for managing to keep this story under the traditional forty-thousand-word lower limit for a novel -- if only by a little. As always, I've taken the time to lay the groundwork for the characters and story, and I hope you'll find the payoff worth it.

MB

"Good morning, Montana!" the obnoxious Johnny Temple bellows from my back porch. He's loud enough that I can hear him clearly from over two hundred feet away, but at least there's no danger that he's going to bother my neighbors.

"It's gonna be a warm one today," Johnny continues, with the big-city accent that tells local FM radio listeners like me that he's not from around here. "We'll have clear skies and highs in the mid-seventies."

Indeed, it's unusually warm for mid-morning in these northern climes, considering how it's the last day of March.

I listen to the rest of the weather report with one ear as I wrangle the thick electrical wires at the top of a six-foot high steel post. I finished bolting the mounting frames to all five of these posts last night, and the indoor equipment is set-up and tested. Now the only tasks remaining on my little solar power installation are this final bit of wiring and some heavy lifting.

As I solder the wires, the radio shifts from the weather to world news. There are reports about the latest skirmishes along the Sino-Russian border, US incursions into waters illegally claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea, and a renewed push by Ukrainian forces (aided by American advisors) to remove Putin's troops from parts of their beleaguered country.

Then there's a short audio clip of a national security expert who opines that we're closer to a nuclear exchange than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. That's worrisome I suppose, but the world got through that predicament and half a dozen others just fine. Thankfully, the news soon moves on to the entertainment report.

I'm soldering the last couple of wires on the last post when the radio abruptly goes silent. I glance down, and sure enough, the little green LED on my iron is off too. The power has gone out yet again, but for once, it's not at the worst possible moment. I quickly solder the last connection while the iron's still hot, snap on the plastic protector, and seal up the junction box. Done!

But the lack of power is going to complicate my plan to call in the extra muscle necessary to lift the ten big photovoltaic panels onto these mounts. I don't have a land line, and the nearest cell coverage is several miles away. My phone runs through the wi-fi, which links up via my satellite dish. What all that means is that when the power goes out, I have no phone.

Normally, I'd fire up my portable generator, but the old Generac finally seized up last week. I'll be happy when I'm making my own power and I can tell the utility company what to do with their crappy lines.

As exasperated as I am, I still pause before climbing down off the stepladder, taking a long moment to gaze out across the prairie. My construction site is on the lower, south-facing slope of a bluff, so considering how flat the rest of the land is around here, I've got a pretty good view. That is, if you like looking at seemingly endless grasslands and grazing cattle -- which, as it so happens, I do.

Other than my house and barn, the only feature of particular interest is the little two-acre patch about a mile distant, sporting a tall chain link fence topped with razor wire. I'd bet they've got power there. A place like that could never be without electricity under any circumstances.

The radio booms back to life just as I reach the back porch, nearly scaring the bejesus out of me. At least the power's back on. For now.

I've already got the ten big solar panels loaded in the back of my pickup, kindly placed there by the guys that delivered them. Now I carefully drive them up to the construction site. They're too heavy for me to handle alone, but with a helper I should be able to get them onto their mounts.

I walk back down to the house and snag my egg basket, then go visit the girls. As I open the hen house door, most of the chickens scatter, but Charlotte limps right up to me, her gimp foot giving her an almost-comical gait. I pick her up and cuddle her, which for some reason she loves, tucking her head under my arm. I'm between dogs, which means Charlotte is about as close to a pet as I have now.

Frank the rooster, my inveterate alarm clock, watches me suspiciously. There's no actual need for me to keep a rooster, but the hens seem to appreciate it. He's a cocky little shit, always strutting around and crowing like he owns the place. He's not too brave around me, though.

After a minute, I put Charlotte down and begin gathering eggs. Not a bad haul today. Forty-two brown eggs and fifteen white ones from my seventy-one (at best count) hens. When the count starts to drop, older hens start to end up in the stew pot and younger ones arrive from the hatchery. My little friend notwithstanding, I'm running a ranch here, not a petting zoo.

The next job is housekeeping. Not my favorite, but the last thing I need is to let anyone think I'm in over my head, living mostly alone in a home big enough for eight. I move quickly and efficiently, neatening up a little here, cleaning a little there, and swiftly handwashing my breakfast dishes.

I never let the house get very messy in the first place, so the only trouble spot is my sister's bedroom, which, as always, looks like a bomb has gone off. Crystal left yesterday and won't be back for a week, so I deal with her mess by the simple expedient of kicking the pile further into her room so that I can close the door.

With the cleaning done, I pull out my phone and dial my next-door neighbors. My call reaches out 22,300 miles into space and back, then rings their phone two miles away.

"You've reached the Edwards residence," an older male voice answers, very formally. "We can't come to the phone right now, so please leave a message."

It's unusual for both of them to be out of the house at the same time, but not unprecedented. I wait for the beep.

"Hi Mister Edwards," I say, being formal myself. They've never been able to convince me to call them Walter and Cathy. "This is Lana. I was hoping I could get your help today on the last stage of my project. It should only take an hour or so. I'll be home all day, so you can call or just drop by anytime. Thanks!"

We do this on a semi-regular basis. I get the indispensable help I need, and the Edwards' get fresh vegetables from my extensive garden, baked goods, homemade casseroles or jerky, depending on the season. Sometimes I'll invite the two of them over for dinner with all the fixings. I'm a mighty fine cook, if I might say so myself. Other times I go over there and help Cathy with canning, quilting, cleaning or just to hang out. Today, I've got a big tin of freshly-baked Tollhouse cookies (from scratch, mind you, not that plastic tube dreck), which are Walter's absolute favorite.

With the house clean, the only thing still dirty is me. I strip down and turn on the water, but before I step into the shower, I perform a daily ritual. I slide the bathroom window open and grab a penny from the little crystal bowl on the vanity. I make my usual wish, then take careful aim and give the shiny coin a gentle toss.

Even from this second-floor window, I've been running about a sixty percent success rate, and today's effort will improve that. Not only does my shot make it into the old wishing well, it lands with a clank in the empty metal bucket, which I figure makes it even more auspicious.

My good aim notwithstanding, I remind myself just how stupid my wish is, and how I wouldn't really want it to come true, even if it could -- which it can't. All the same, I'll probably wish it again tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that...

My wish is especially strong today, and I know the reason -- I'm going to be seeing Mr. Edwards. It's not that I have any lust for my happily married, middle-aged neighbor. It's because whenever I think of Walter or Cathy, my mind inevitably shifts to the memory of their son.

It's been five years, but I can still recall every detail.

Greg Edwards was two years ahead of me when I started high school. I had immediately fallen in love with him. And why not? He was tall, broad-shouldered, self-assured and exquisitely handsome. His eyes were a sparkling blue and his curly blond hair was absolutely adorable. Unfortunately for me, I was a debate club geek, while Greg had been our school's starting quarterback since halfway through his freshman season.

Being his next-door neighbor didn't help me either. On the few occasions that our families got together, Crystal made it clear to me that I'd best stay away from him while she made her play, since she was more his age. I think he may have been amused by her attempts, but it meant that I was all but unnoticed by him.

Greg had been hailed by the local paper as being perhaps the best athlete our county had produced in the last twenty years. I went to all the football games, just so I could watch him. While the rest of the players looked like the amateurs they were, even my unpracticed eye could see that Greg was playing on a totally different level.

I was nearly mesmerized. I loved his sure movements, the sound of his deep, booming voice before each play, and especially his cute butt in those tight pants. I couldn't get him out of my mind, but he never showed any sign that he even knew I existed, so I worshipped him from afar.

It would most certainly have stayed that way except that, during the next school year, I found myself in a second-semester chemistry class with him. During our first lecture period, the teacher announced that he would be assigning lab partners by last name, rather than allowing us to choose for ourselves. The class groaned, but imagine my excitement to find that, since "Edwards" was next to "Erickson" on the roll sheet, I'd been paired off with Greg. I couldn't believe my luck, but at the same time, the prospect of interacting with my crush was almost enough to make me lose bladder control.

As excited as I was, though, I knew my chances of ever being Greg's girlfriend were miniscule. I wasn't even attracting interest among average boys, due to my gawky height (five feet eleven), braces, big nose, and near complete lack of curves, so landing a senior hunk like him was a ludicrous thought. Worse, Greg had been dating the head cheerleader all year. Courtney had big blond hair, blue eyes, a cute little button nose, ample boobs, a curvy butt, and a BMW convertible. Greg and Courtney being together was a total cliché, but that was the reality I was dealing with.

At our first lab, I already had the worksheet and some of the supplies pulled together at our assigned work station when Greg walked in. I saw him look around for a moment before he spotted me and headed over. I was happy that he could at least match my face to my name. He looked a bit pensive, though.

"Uh, Lana," he said as he walked up, "I'm really sorry you're my lab partner."

He must have seen the way my face fell.

"No, wait," he quickly added, "I said that wrong. What I meant is that I'm sorry you got stuck with me. I got a D when I took Chem two years ago, and now if I don't pass, I won't graduate. I'm terrible at this stuff and I don't know how much help I'm going to be to you."

I was momentarily surprised that a guy like Greg would even care about slowing me down, but reassured by his explanation, I could again bask in being so close to him and having his complete attention. I found it novel, and wonderful, that I had to look up several inches to meet his eyes.

"Uh," I croaked, then had to clear my throat, "I'm pretty good at science. I'm sure I can help you through the labs -- and classwork too if you want." I was an excellent student. Enough so that I'd skipped the fifth grade.

"Oh, you don't have to do that," he said.

From two feet away, I noticed that his scent was delightful. An earthy combination of something subtle but deliciously musky, mixed with the gentle aroma of clean, masculine man. I found it almost intoxicating, but then mentally slapped myself for getting so distracted.

"I don't mind at all, Greg," I said, savoring the taste of his name on my lips. "And the better you understand the classwork, the more help you'll be in the lab, right?"

"Well, you might be biting off more than you can chew, but I'd sure appreciate any help you'd be willing to give me."

"Not a problem. Now, let me show you what we're doing."

Unfortunately, Greg had been truthful about being terrible at chemistry. To his credit, he had read the textbook chapter and reviewed the lab instructions, but he just didn't get it. I had to explain each step of the process and why we were doing it, which was time consuming, but then, when we started working with the materials, I discovered something that almost made up for it.

Greg was good when he was working with things. Whether powdering substances with the mortar and pestle without spillage, quickly filling test tubes exactly to the line, or lighting the balky Bunsen burner, magic happened under his big, strong hands. I idly wondered what they would feel like on my body. I imagined them on my waist, sliding up, higher and higher, until he was cupping my breasts...

"Lana," he said, "still with me?" His knowing smile made me fear that he'd guessed exactly what I'd been daydreaming.

I must have blushed crimson, but I made a quick recovery. "Yeah. Let's move on to Step 7."

As time went by, I was fastidious about being friendly, but not flirty, with Greg. I took absolutely no liberties despite my heady status as his lab partner. I didn't seek him out outside of class, try to sit with him at lunch, or drop by his locker to chat, and he treated me the same way. You wouldn't have known by the way we passed in the halls that I worshipped the very ground he walked on.

My patience was rewarded, however, just a week before midterms, when Greg called me at home. Sure, it was just to ask a chemistry question as he studied for the exam, but he'd called. Then, to my glee, as soon as I'd answered his question, we began to talk about non-chemistry related stuff. A couple of minutes of that from him would have just been considered polite after he'd asked a favor of me, but we quickly fell into the easiest conversation I'd ever had with a boy -- or anyone, for that matter.

We chatted for a few minutes about our different classes and teachers, but then he started in on something a little more personal. "I've gotta tell you, Lana," he said, "my life is total insanity right now. I've got big name college coaches and recruiters calling me day and night, trying to talk me into playing for their schools next fall. I've got no idea what to do or what choices to make."

I was amazed that he was sharing something like that with me, and I hoped I wouldn't screw up my response to it. "Are there any particular places you really want to go?"

"Well, I've talked a few times with Coach Zublonsky's scouts, but I haven't gotten an offer yet."

"The famous 'Coach Z?'" Even I had heard of him.

"Yeah, playing for him has always been my dream, but I'm getting a ton of pressure to choose now. My folks have been pretty decent about it, but my friends, coaches, teammates and stuff are all up in my face to get on with it and make a decision."

It was really none of my business, but he was obviously lost with what to do. "Greg, who makes the final decision?"

"That would be me, I guess."

"And who has to live with that decision?"

"Again, that's me."

"Then screw 'em," I said, somewhat shocked at my own boldness. "You've got to do what's best for you."

"But what if I lose out on something good by holding out for the best?"

"Sometimes you've got to take some risks to get what you really want." This coming from a girl who hadn't yet been trusted with a single important decision in her young life.

"I suppose that's true," he said thoughtfully. "So, what about you, Lana? I've been working alongside you for weeks, but I hardly know anything about you."

I didn't know if he was asking just to be polite, but he'd just shared his troubles with me, so I figured I'd take him at face value, at least to start.

I told him about how my dad had met and married my mom while he served in the US Air Force in Italy. About how, until a couple of years before, we had lived in exotic places all over the world as my dad got moved to a different base every year or two. Then, about how my uncle had died in a horse riding accident and my dad had moved us back to the family ranch to look after his aging parents.

Greg still sounded interested, so I told him about the death of my grandfather, just a couple of months after we'd arrived. I'd hardly gotten a chance to know him before the massive coronary had taken him away from us.

Greg seemed genuinely moved by that and shared the story of his older brother's death from leukemia ten years before. It was a good thing we were on the phone and not in person, because I'd have hated to have him see the tears streaming down my face.

"I heard your dad leased out your grazing land to Old Man Wilson a couple of years ago," Greg said, probably to move the conversation onto something a bit lighter.

"Yeah, after Grandpa died, my dad didn't see the need to keep ranching. He grew up on this land, but he never liked running cattle. Now he works as a civilian contractor at the Air Force base. My mom has adapted okay, but my sister hates living on the plains. She can't stop talking about how she's going to be long gone as soon as she graduates."

"That's pretty common around here," he said. "How do you like ranch life? It's gotta be different than Florida, Germany, Japan, or Turkey."

I was impressed that he'd remembered the locations I'd mentioned. "Yeah, but it's home."

"After just two years?"

"Well, I may not have grown up here, but it feels like I did. My grandma has been working hard to teach me everything she knows about running a good ranch house, and I've found that this kind of life just suits me."

There was a bit of a pause. "I suppose I've enjoyed growing up here too," he said. "My dad has taught me everything he knows about running a ranch, and all modesty aside, I'm good at it, but I honestly don't know that it's what I want to do for the rest of my life. There are so many things to see and do in this world, and I've hardly been anywhere. I want to get out and try some stuff before I make any decisions."

That clenched at my heartstrings. I had been fantasizing about a future with him. But in this fantasy, we were here, in the ranchlands of Montana. Would I be willing to leave home and live somewhere else, just to be with Greg?

I caught myself then. I was a plain, skinny, little nothing of a girl. I was never going anywhere with Greg. I did my best to pack that ridiculous fantasy away.

"I think your plan is eminently sensible," I said.

He chuckled. "I like the big words you use, Lana. You're so smart."

'Smart' was nice, but at that moment, I would have traded it to have a hot body like Courtney's. Then maybe I'd have had a shot at Greg.

"Hey, you're doing pretty well yourself," I said. "You've gotten A's and B's on all of your Chemistry quizzes."

"That's strictly because of your tutoring."

"But it hasn't taken much of that. I've only worked with you in lab class after we turn in our results early."

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byMichael_Butterfield© 15 comments/ 13923 views/ 20 favorites

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