View of the End of the World from the Holiday Inn Express-Salina
When the end of the world arrived, it missed the Holiday Inn Express-Salina, KS. Around us, the earth burned and blackened, but the hotel was untouched, all of us guests and the staffers on the early morning shift staring out the windows as distant plumes of smoke covered the horizon.
On that first day, we still had electricity and the simple click of a lamp switch was enough to make the end seem unreal. Out by I-70, some of the streetlights were still on, glass bowls of light glowing in the clouds of ash. By sundown, they had gone out and the lights inside were flickering. Bob Reynolds from Room 307, who was fifty-six now but had been an Eagle Scout, had the manager unlock all the rooms, and they began filling the bathtubs with water.
The next day, four men from the kitchen staff set out walking to the north, east, south, and west. Some of the guests offered to go, but we had only been passing through this flat stretch of plains on our way to somewhere else. We would have gotten lost and didn’t know what to look for, they told us, and so it was left to the few locals to search for those other places like ours – pockets of survival, ravaged but present, holding some piece of ground in the new world.
Each day, the men would shift their paths one degree like the second hand on a watch and set out again. On the seventh day, Alvers, who had been following the highway west and ticking his way north, did not come back. There was talk of a search party, but in the end, the men just stopped going out at all.
In those first days, even after the electricity had gone, the internet was still in the air: a rogue signal carrying pulses of all the knowledge our world had accumulated. We searched it out. We made our calls to numbers that did not ring and listened to the silence that sounded like eternity. We sent emails out but nothing came back except automated advertisements for things that no longer existed. A survey asking about our last visit to Starbucks. Half off kitchenware at Bed Bath and Beyond. An Amazon.com reminder of the Jefferson Airplane compilation CD in our shopping carts.
We stopped checking to conserve power, and one by one, the phones went dark.
Evelyn Meyer, Room 156, was the last one with battery life. When it started to run low, we gathered around it to find as many answers we could about the old world. We shouted out all the small things we wished we had known, Evelyn tapping the questions into Google with her thumbs.
We learned that Christmas trees were first used in a corner of Germany that eventually became a corner of France. We learned that Antarctica was discovered in 1820 by a Russian explorer, and that it would be another 75 yeas before humans set foot there, that for the whole of a lifetime there was a place we knew but did not touch.
We tried to find the name of the poet who wrote Beowulf, only to discover no one had known that in the first place, and we thought of how much we’d already lost and forgotten, a thousand worlds before this one.
It occurred to us later that we could have been more practical. We could have learned where the nearest power plant was located, or farming methods and which crops would take to dried and scorched soil, or how to dress a wound.
But in those days, we were still dreaming of the old world, and so we chased it while we could.
There are, we know, worse places to spend the apocalypse. Our roof has held up, and we have our beds and travel toothbrushes. We have ivory soap, each bar individually wrapped, and when we open them, the plastic crackles like only something brand new can. Some nights, we build fires in the hearth and pretend the blackout is only a passing thunderstorm.
Even so, it’s hard not to feel the grip of the old world. At night, when we’re alone in the quiet pitch-dark of our rooms, with their broken lamps and blank televisions and bathtubs a quarter full of drinking water, we sometimes fall asleep reciting the facts of our ruined past like prayers:
We know that Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day.
That the rituals of Japanese tea ceremonies changed twice a year with the seasons. That once, there were seasons.
That a spilled glass of red wine could be cleaned up by sprinkling table salt over the stain and then simply brushing it away.
That it took sunlight eight minutes to reach the earth, so the warmth we felt on our skins at any moment was already part of the past.
That the astronauts first landed on the moon in the summer, when children were out of school and must have watched that grainy broadcast late into the night, faces shining in the black and white glow of ancient TV sets. We think about how miraculous it would have seemed, to see humanity reach that bright rock far beyond the earth. It must have felt like the future had already arrived, and that everything still to come would be magical.
Kara Oakleaf’s work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Nimrod, the Tahoma Literary Review, Postcard Poems and Prose, and elsewhere. She received her M.F.A. from George Mason University, where she now teaches and directs the Fall for the Book literary festival.
(Next: Cleveland, 2009 by Kat Gonso)
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