When I emerged from the basement, the clock in the living room was frozen at 12:05 but there was no way to know if it had stopped a few minutes after noon or a few minutes after midnight. The power was out. On the tabletop, the computer monitor had melted over the keyboard. In the kitchen, the refrigerator was leaking and the door was dripping. I turned on the taps but there was no running water. Looking through the shattered window above the sink, the blood-orange sun sent its rays threateningly. Holding my knapsack tight, the one I had packed with a few provisions for the inevitable chaos, I unzipped it and, from the fridge, filled it with the few pieces of fruit that had not gone moldy and a half-empty bottle of warm juice and some cookies. Some of the meat in the freezer was starting to liquify. I zipped the knapsack back up and put my arms through the straps so it was secure on my back and walked outside into a blazing silent heat where a hair-dryer wind hit me in the face.
Everything in view seemed somewhat singed. The colours of the abandoned cars were muted and no longer vibrant. Some tires were flat, some windows were cracked. The leaves of the trees and the tips of the blades of grass had browned.
I began to walk through the heat and the desolation down the road towards nothing in particular. It was, I guess, either a walk of exploration or a walk of bewilderment. On the street, I noticed a softness in my steps and, when I looked down behind me, I saw my footprints in the asphalt that had softened in the heat. There were no other people anywhere. I didn't know how I could be the only one. Breathing was difficult and the air smelled of sulphur. From a pocket in my knapsack I found my small knife and cut a strip of cloth off the bottom of my t-shirt and tied it over my mouth and nose. It helped a little.
I walked by the town church. Its stained-glass windows over and around the front doors depicting angels and the Last Supper and Jesus speaking had blown out completely. There were only holes now. Looking up, I saw that the steeple was brown and singed like most everything else. There might have been a small plume of smoke rising but I couldn't be sure because of the sun's near-blinding glare.
On my right was a small patch of grass that I crossed. There was a little playground. Its sand had been baked hard into dirt. A small thin cat lay on its side in the dirt, its paws half-buried half-trapped in the ground. I bent down to see that it was still breathing, not comprehending how it could have survived, and it looked up at me with big confused imploring eyes. With my knife, I cut another strip from my shirt, then removed a bottle of water from my knapsack and poured some over the cloth. I put the dampened cloth under the mouth of the cat and it weakly lapped up some of the moisture. I trickled a few drops on its paws which helped to loosen them slightly, then pulled at them lightly until they were freed from the dirt. When the cat stood shakily, it moved towards the cloth and licked a bit more water. I gave it a small piece of cookie too. I shifted my homemade mask away from my mouth and took a sip of water, from the bottle not the cloth. I removed a pear from my knapsack. It was soft and tasteless and its juice dripped down my chin and through my fingers and into the palm of my hand. When I finished, I threw the core onto the dirt. Then I stood up to go and the cat watched me. When I began to walk, it followed.
"I can't take care of you much, cat," I said.
It meowed softly in response.
"Things are ugly now," I continued.
It meowed again.
We left the playground and crossed the grass back to the street.
"See that church, cat?" I asked. "Didn't help much, did it?" We crossed the street and walked in. It was a bit cooler inside. There was no longer a hot wind but a lighter cross-breeze still blew, entering through cracks and holes in the windows above the platform and flowing across the sanctuary to exit at the exposed doorway at the front. The wooden pews weren't overly damaged. Some of the hymnals lay on the floor and scattered pages rustled. Rays of sun shone through cracks in the ceiling and created little pockets of heat.
"We can keep this place in mind, cat," I said. "It might be a good place to rest." I walked up the centre aisle and climbed the few steps to the podium. The cat followed but stopped on the bottom step and laid down and started licking its front paws. I turned around to face the empty sanctuary and placed my hands on the dais like a preacher and grinned. "Hey cat, watch this," I said. The cat didn't look up but, honestly, I didn't expect it would. I'm not a lunatic.
"Dearly beloved," I opened with a mock-priest grin, glancing from side to side at the empty space and pulling the protective strip of cloth away from my mouth. "Many of you have spent weeks and months and years coming to this place, listening to the holy words and trusting they would help you when the situation got tough. So let me ask, how did it all work out for you?" I laughed and looked down at the cat and it was staring at me. "Thank you for coming today, cat," I laughed. "You are a loyal parishioner. But the rest of you," I waved my hand towards one side of the sanctuary and then at the centre and then at the other side, "be honest with me, how are your beliefs holding up now?" A piece of glass fell from an upper window and landed with a smash behind me. "Oh, well, a divine answer maybe!" I bent down and picked up a shard and threw it as hard as I could across the room and it hit the back wall and shattered. I laughed. "I'm the only minister that matters now! Thank you for coming today," I concluded to the empty room. "Will you join me in saying amen?" I put a hand to my ear to listen for the non-response. "Bless you, everyone. Amen." I began to laugh hysterically and barely managed to speak the final line of my sermon. "I trust," I laughed, "you will enjoy your apocalyptic day."
I stepped back from the dais and bowed deeply, then descended the steps and ran to the side entrance of the front pew where, from under the seat, I picked up a hymnal. "Hey cat, watch this!" I began to tear pages from the hymnal and toss them in the air. When I reached the centre aisle, I dropped the book to the floor and kicked it. Then I crossed the aisle, picked up another hymnal and ripped out some more pages and threw them in the air gleefully. I went manically from aisle to aisle past every pew spreading paper destruction with a feeling of complete happiness and abandon until I was back outside in the heat where I dropped down on the top step and had a drink of water and slowed my rapid breathing. After a few minutes, the cat joined me. I poured a few drops of water into the palm of my hand and it lapped them up, seemingly feeling as content as I.
"Come on, cat," I said standing up. "Let's see what else we can find." I positioned the strip of cloth over my mouth and nose and walked to the road. The cat followed. Rubbish blew in the street.
The grocery store was close and we entered through the non-working automatic doors that were stuck in a half-opened position. Some carts lay on their sides and several of the stacks of baskets had fallen over. There was a hole in the ceiling. We walked to the produce department where fruit and vegetables littered the floor. I picked up a cantaloupe and, using a shot-put technique, launched it into the air. It bounced off the remnants of an apple display and I raised both my hands above my head in mock celebration.
"See that, cat? Just like the Olympics!" We wandered through the department and I selected a couple peaches and apples and a bunch of carrots and some celery and stuffed them all in my knapsack. I lowered the cloth strip that covered my mouth and took a handful of cherries and ate several at a time and spit out the stones. I gave some blueberries to the cat which it ate quickly. Whether cats were supposed to eat blueberries or not, I didn't know. The cat seemed to like them though.
On a post next to the bakery, where melted cakes and pies puddled in the non-functioning refrigeration, I noticed the store phone. I picked it up and there was no dial tone but I held it to my ear anyway and pretended to engage the intercom.
"Attention all shoppers," I yelled to no one. "Today is the sale of the century! Everything is free!" I dropped the phone and it dangled above the floor and swung like a pendulum. I ran to the cereal aisle with the cat trotting behind. Boxes were scattered everywhere and cereal crunched beneath my feet. Jogging down the aisle, I knocked as many boxes as I could off the shelves, then stopped, opened one of them and ripped open the plastic insert and scattered the flakes of cereal into the air around me. "Attention shoppers," I cried out. "Cereal sale, aisle one! Take as much as you can carry!" I looked down at the cat. It was playing with some bran buds.
We walked up and down most of the aisles, ripping open bags of flour and boxes of macaroni and sacks of rice and pouring warm spoiled milk on the floor and mixing it with tubs of inedible yoghurt and smashed eggs. The cat licked at the puddles of milk.
"It's spoiled, cat. You're gonna get sick," I warned, but it didn't listen and only stopped when I walked away and it decided to follow me back to the front of the store. Some of the registers, the ones that hadn't been knocked over, were stuck in the open position and I started to manically grab handfuls of cash. "We're rich, cat!" I exclaimed. But then I stopped with the realization that cash no longer mattered. I put a few bills in my knapsack, just as souvenirs, and then left the store. The wind seemed even hotter than before. "Cat," I yelled, "come on." It emerged through the stuck-open doors and, I think, squinted in the sun, then followed me as we continued down the road. We walked right down the middle. There were no more rules.
The road descended a small hill and at the bottom it circled to the right in front of the town's courthouse. The cat and I climbed the steps and entered. A century-building made of stone, it was fairly well intact but its windows were gone and the glass doors were severely cracked. We walked through the foyer and into a large chamber.
"This is where the judges used to make their decisions, cat," I explained. "Let's see what we can do." I wandered over to the table on the left and stood and addressed the bench. "Your Honour," I began, "my client," I said, pointing at the cat who had jumped up onto a chair to watch the proceedings, "my client did not do anything wrong. My client never meant to harm anyone. It was a natural response when my client bit the face of the defendant. My client was antagonized." I looked at the cat and nodded. It licked its paws but in an innocent way. I turned and walked to the table on the right.
"Your Honour," I countered, "as an esteemed defense attorney, I must say that my client has suffered extreme misery and duress as a result of the accused's behaviour. Even if it was as a result of antagonism, the accused did indeed bite my client's face, an action which, in my mind, was overly unnecessary. For this it must pay the consequences." I left the table and ran up to the judge's bench and put on a mock pomposity.
"You both present excellent arguments," I summarized in character with a deeper voice. "But the defendant must pay, I agree. The defendant is guilty as charged, guilty of face-biting." I smashed my fist like a gavel. "Death to the defendant! Case dismissed!" I looked at the cat as it rested comfortably on the chair and watched me. I think it was impressed by my multi-role performance.
I left the bench and approached the cat and sat down on the chair beside and opened my knapsack and took out an apple and a carrot and took a bite of each. I offered the apple, tasteless as it was, to the cat and it licked it casually. We rested for a few minutes. Part of the glass ceiling above us was broken. Rays of sun beamed through and I could hear the wind. When I finished eating, I threw the apple core and the bottom nub of the carrot towards the bench and laughed and stood.
"That was fun, cat," I announced. "I always wanted to be a judge." The cat purred in response. We left the chamber. For a little while, I explored the building, wandering through offices, ripping apart books, smashing some furniture and acting generally in an anarchic fashion. Sometimes the cat cowered at the noise but mostly it seemed not to care much. "All the rules are gone, cat," I said.
We made our way back to the courthouse foyer and walked outside and continued to follow the circle of the road until we reached the government building. It was, I guessed by the position of the sun, late afternoon. I climbed the marble steps and sat down and the cat followed. We each had some more water. I ate another piece of tasteless fruit and the cat licked and bit at a carrot.
"This is where all the problems began, cat," I said pointing at the building behind me. "This and all the other government buildings." The cat looked at me with questioning eyes. It seemed to be interested in politics. "No one could agree on anything with anyone. They all just argued and argued and their hatred grew." The cat licked its paw. "Eventually they couldn't even talk to each other. So they readied their armies and spread propaganda and issued threats hoping the other side would back down. But no one flinched. And now it's now and apparently it's only me and you." I scratched under the cat's chin and it purred.
Unexpectedly, an immense and deafening boom shook the ground and an ominous cloud developed in the near distance. I shielded my eyes and stared as it ballooned and spread across the sky.
"I guess I was wrong, cat," I said. "Seems we're not completely alone after all. I guess it's the final push." The cat looked at me. A stronger smell of sulphur reached my face and burned my skin and permeated through my cloth mask. I tried to breathe shallow but it didn't stop the developing pain in my lungs. The cat rubbed at its nose and eyes.
I started to feel dizzy and nauseous. "We don't have much time, cat." My speech slurred. "It was a pleasure spending time with you," I said patting its head. "I hope you enjoyed our nihilistic day. It sure was fun."
The cat meowed softly and stopped moving.
Chris Klassen lives and writes in Toronto, Canada. After graduating from the University of Toronto and living for a year in France and England, he returned home and worked the majority of his career in print media. He is now living a semi-retired life. His stories have been published in numerous journals including Across the Margin, Fleas on the Dog, Vagabond City, Dark Winter,Ghost City Review, The Raven Review, The Coachella Review, Sortes, and Toasted Cheese, among others. Chris recommends Haven on the Queensway, a non-profit food and clothing bank.