* Winner of the 2021 Story of the Year Award *
All in all, the end of the world turned out to be a little disappointing. Elodie had expected something more dramatic. Spectacular explosions, perhaps, followed by a tunnel of light. She hadn’t even experienced her life flashing by in a wonderful montage of images. No, things just sort of … ended.
Now she floated around in a vast, dark space. At least, something was floating around. She didn’t appear to have a body, so it must be her conscience. Her awareness, so to speak. Because she was definitely aware. It was rather interesting.
A small spark flared up nearby, hot and intense for a moment and then dying down to a pulsing glow. Elodie tried to speak, but the words came out as thoughts.
“Hello?” the glowing spot echoed.
Elodie felt a bit silly. But then the spot “talked” again. “Are you someone? Someone real I mean, not a reflection of myself?” The spot’s “voice” was uncertain, flustered. And English. Definitely English in tone, despite being just a bunch of projected thoughts.
“Yes,” she replied. “I’m, um, me. Elodie.” Brilliant. Communication beyond the grave and she’d replied with I’m, um, me. But perhaps the spot wouldn’t mind.
The spot didn’t mind.
“Oh. Hello, Elodie. I’m Michael. Not, you know, the archangel.” The spot laughed nervously. “Michael, from Willesden Green. That’s, uh, in London. I’m an accountant. Was an accountant. I suppose we’re dead?”
“Yes, I think we must be,” answered Elodie thoughtfully. “I mean, I’m pretty sure it was the end of the world and all that.”
“That’s what I thought. Not very exciting was it?” He sounded disappointed.
“No, I suppose it wasn’t.”
“What do you think happens now? Do we just float around forever with all these people?”
“What people?” Elodie looked around, surprised. Glowing specks of light had appeared all around them, and more showed up every moment. Soon they were surrounded by a thousand, a hundred thousand, perhaps millions of spots. The low buzz of multiple conversations spilled into the black space.
“Michael?” Elodie called out in sudden panic. The nearest spot flared and moved closer.
“I’m here,” came the accountant’s voice, reassuring in the familiarity of their brief encounter.
Elodie fell silent as they pulsed together side by side. Michael was silent too, but he moved even closer until his glow brushed hers and she felt a sudden rush of knowledge, of long days working to put himself through night school, Sundays at the pub with his mates, a break-up with someone named Sylvia.
She knew he was seeing her the same way, glimpsing the dusty bookstore in Brighton where she had worked, the pounding beat of the local clubs, getting lost in the music and then returning to her small, empty flat.
“Oh!” she gasped, pulling apart.
“Terribly sorry.” Michael sounded flustered again. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
“No, it’s okay.” She drew near again, letting her glow brush his. “Do you think this is some sort of heavenly limbo? Are we going to move on from here? Or will we stay put for all eternity?”
“I hope not,” Michael said, pulse-laughing. “It’s getting a little crowded what with the whole world here and all.”
Just then a light flashed, bigger and brighter than the others. “Attention all citizens of the planet formerly known as Earth.” The bright light’s “voice” was sharp and bossy, and Elodie nudged Michael’s glow.
“Bureaucrat,” she hissed. “Want to bet? Afterlife civil servant.”
“Pay attention!” the voice insisted. “This is important. Now, you may have noticed your planet has been destroyed. We apologize for that, but it happens, you know. System glitches and all that. Still, I may have an opening for new planetary existence. For the moment, please remain calm and enjoy your rest.” The bright light winked out and immediately voices rose all around them, squeaky with fear or loud with protest.
Elodie bumped into another spot. The immediate wash of recognition told her this was Meredith, who used to run a coffee shop just outside Boston in America. She apologized, but Meredith didn’t mind at all.
“So many of us here, things are bound to get tight. And we’re connecting, see? Forming something new.”
“Like a new life form?” asked Elodie, fascinated, as thin lines emerged, linking them together.
“Maybe,” answered Meredith. She didn’t sound entirely sure.
They soon gathered a few more glowing spots, their trio swelling to ten, eighteen, twenty. Soon, Elodie lost track of how many souls had attached themselves to her, but she could still feel Michael’s steady presence as the multiple consciousnesses braided themselves into something she finally recognized: a strand of DNA.
The bossy light came back. “Very well, I think I’ve found a solution for your predicament. I have a brand-new planet all ready for colonization. What’s that? Speak up! No, it’s not Mars. Why in heaven’s name would I send you to Mars? Do you want to go to Mars? No, I thought not. Please don’t interrupt again.”
The light pulsed once or twice, as though going over its notes or something. Elodie was sure it would have prepared a nice PowerPoint presentation for them if it could. “Right. Well, as I was saying, this is a nice place, but there’s nothing there, so you’ll have your work cut out for you. It won’t be easy at first, but I’m sure at least some of you will make it. So, you have a choice. All those for rebirth, follow me. Those who would rather not may remain here. It’s perfectly comfortable.”
Bossy light sped away. Meredith addressed their intertwined group. “I’m up for it. Anyone else?”
They all agreed that rebirth sounded better than limbo. The group followed the light, which became brighter and brighter as thousands of other DNA groupings joined it. Ahead lay the tunnel that Elodie had been expecting. She reached out with her mind, touching Michael, but the tunnel was already sucking them in, and her thoughts were fading. Just before she lost herself completely, she called out, “Michael?”
“You’ll stay with me?”
“We’re one now,” he promised. “Nothing will ever break us apart!”
Then he was gone, and so was she. Nothing was left but the light, the glorious all-encompassing light.