They announce the end of the world on a Saturday in April through a news article that quotes a whistleblower from the White House. In eight days, a solar flare is going to detach itself from the sun and hurtle towards the earth and burn it to particles. They’ve known for a week, and they weren’t going to say anything.
Henry reads the story in his bedroom as the sun is going down, its dying gasps throwing creamy light over everything: psychology books for exams he will never take, empty coffee cups that are piling up because he hasn’t had the chance to recycle them, a copy of The Road that he borrowed from a friend and never started, a calendar full of appointments that will never happen. He tries to react but feels nothing but hollow. He scans the page again and almost laughs.
Someone at CNN typed out the words “approximately 197 hours until the solar flare makes contact,” with the same formality with which one might report a political scandal. His limbs are heavy, as though someone has cut him open, poured in cement, and sewn him shut again.
He is still reading the two-paragraph article—according to the whistleblower, experts were consulted experts by world leaders on ways to prevent it… say nothing can be done… his phone buzzes beside him on the desk. He blinks and answers his mother.
“Baby,” she whispers.
“Hey,” Henry says, and finds his throat is very dry.
“I don’t even know what to say,” she says. “Oh, Henry. Oh, baby, I’m so sorry.”
His laptop is still open, and texts from his friends are popping up in the corner so fast he can’t even read the names, a blur of black and green. He closes his eyes.
“Come home, Hen,” she says. “Please, babe, your dad and I want you home.”
“Yeah,” Henry says vaguely. “Yeah, of course.”
So he spends the next few hours saying dazed, splintered goodbyes to his friends and staring blankly at his room, wondering what to pack, then deciding on only his laptop, his wallet, the stuffed lion he has slept with since he was a baby, and his favorite pair of jeans and hoodie.
The doorbell rings several times. When he shakes himself out of a trance and gets downstairs, Leo Harper is there.
“Hi,” Henry says. He wonders if one of his housemates knows Leo, if this is a frantic goodbye.
“Hi,” Leo says. He is paler than usual, dark curls stuffed in a purple cap to look less disheveled, wearing the same shaky, hollow look Henry has seen on every single person he has encountered in the last few hours. “You driving back to Hudson, by any chance?”
“Um,” Henry says, “leaving in less than an hour, I think.”
“Can I get a ride?”
Leo is a junior too, but he’s a theater major and his classes have never overlapped with Henry’s psychology ones. They lived in the same hall freshman year and drunkenly made out once at a party, but their relationship has been limited to nods in the dining hall since then.
Henry likes Leo. Their respective upstate New York towns are about fifteen minutes away from each other and at said party, they had laughed over going to college with children of millionaires and growing up in shitholes, or at least that had been Leo’s opinion. Henry, drunk and crushing, had nodded and agreed. Right now, though, the already inevitable awkwardness of a thirty-hour car ride with someone Henry doesn’t really know has been accentuated by the fact that the world is fucking ending, and Henry stares at the empty highway instead of trying to talk, thinking about how desperately he misses his family, how much he wants to be home already.
“Thanks for the ride,” Leo says eventually, picking at his nail polish. Leo is the kind of person who walks into a room and announces himself, who is constantly surrounded by other friends who are always laughing, and who, apparently, who can’t tolerate silence.
“Yeah, it’s no problem. Did you see what plane tickets were going for?” The few airlines still running had jacked the prices up hundreds of thousands of dollars, more money than Henry’s family could scrape together even if they emptied their bank account.
“Yeah.” Leo drums his knuckles against the dashboard. “Fucking unbelievable. The world’s gonna end and the airlines want to make money. Jesus.”
Henry hums in agreement. “Jerky?” he offers a moment later, realizing self-consciously that they’ve been in the car for over an hour and he hasn’t offered Leo any of the snacks he’d brought, admittedly all from his room and starting to go stale.
“No thanks. I’m a vegan.”
Henry watches him for a moment, amused. “The world’s ending, you know.”
“The world already ended for that cow,” Leo says, but it’s pleasant. Henry snorts.
In front of them, the minivan that is going double the speed limit wavers, then slows down. On the back of it are four stick figure bumper stickers, a mom and dad and two little girls, but only a middle-aged man is driving. Henry wonders where home is for him and eases up on the gas. Leo picks up his phone.
“Fucking politicians,” Leo scoffs. “They weren’t gonna fucking tell us. Can you imagine thinking you deserve to decide if everyone knows the world is going to end?” When Henry just nods, Leo goes on, “I mean, Christ, the president saying ‘We’re looking into lots of options for avoiding this.’ While scientists are right fucking there saying it’s useless.”
“Maybe it’s better to not know,” Henry muses. “I mean, people would’ve gone insane if they knew. They already are.” There are reports everywhere of people jumping off bridges and setting cars on fire and smashing windows of abandoned storefronts. Henry read them with a kind of morbid, disconnected fascination, the way he had always been watching apocalypse movie trailers, something that had once been so far from his own reality that it hardly phased him.
“Think of all the people who would’ve gone on a business trip and died without saying goodbye to their families,” Leo says sharply. “Think of us, studying for finals, not knowing the world was gonna fucking implode.”
In front of them, the minivan hangs right and leaves the highway.
“Yeah. I guess you’re right,” Henry relents. He is, probably, and Henry doesn’t feel like arguing.
They keep talking, because there’s nothing else to do. “You must love your family, to be going home to them,” Leo says, propping his feet on the dashboard.
“I do,” Henry says, with a sheepish smile. “My older sister lives close to home, so she’ll be there, too, and, uh, I actually really love my parents.” He doesn’t tell Leo that ever since they announced the solar flare he has felt like a child again, has been hollowed out with craving to fall into his parents’ arms and eat his mother’s blonde brownies and fall asleep in a bed under Star Wars and Captain America and Harry Potter posters that he had taped up before realizing his adoration for them went beyond typical superhero admiration. “You?”
Leo glances to the side; Henry turns his head to see why and catches a brief glimpse of a deer and her fawns, tentative on the side of the highway. “I don’t get along with my parents, but, uh, maybe we’ll all reconcile this week. I’m going for my little sister. She’s a sophomore in high school. We’re best friends.” He laughs humorlessly. “She’s a big theater person, too. Worse than me.” Leo pauses. When he starts talking again, his voice is thick. “I bought her tickets to come to the city and see some shows with me this summer. It was gonna be her birthday present.”
“I’m sorry,” Henry says.
“It’s not your fault.”
“I know,” Henry says, “but it’s fucked.”
“Yeah,” Leo swallows again, then reaches forward and fumbles with the radio, Springsteen singing I’m on Fire.
“Is that a little tasteless?” Henry says.
Leo bursts out laughing, and then Henry starts to laugh too, breathlessly and without abandon, and eventually, he needs to pull over to gather his breath so he can start driving towards the end of the world again.
In front of them, thick gray clouds fog the sky like a shield against the sun. The sun breaks through the horizon in a white band, bright light, the pale color of disease. In the flat, grim glare, Henry notices, Leo’s eyelashes cast sloping shadows down his cheeks. The trees, silhouetted against the light, already look blackened and burnt.
They get hungry after six hours or so and pull off the road until they find a Target far enough from the highway that it hasn’t been completely picked apart. Inside, it is desperately empty. A few other people walk through, their faces gaunt and shocked, pulling meaningless items off the shelves, sixty packs of bottled water and paper towels, bath robes and—this one making Henry laugh bitterly—fire extinguishers. Henry turns to Leo, for once, rendered silent, still except for a slight quiver in his chin.
“Let’s just get some snacks,” Leo says, shaking his head quickly. They walk on. In the frozen foods aisle, a mother pushes her daughter in a stroller. The kid is four or five years old and is shrieking with delight, pointing at ice creams that she wants as her mom retrieves them for her, no idea what’s coming, just thrilled to suddenly be getting whatever she wants. Henry gives the mother a sad smile, which she returns.
They gather random and pointless foods off the shelves, a jar of pickles, a can of honey-glazed peanuts, a couple of San Pelligrinos. There’s really no reason for them to linger, but they don’t quite feel like they can leave without surveying the whole place.
“Hang on,” Leo says, and darts into an aisle a few yards ahead. When he returns, his arms are full of cat treats and toys. “Anything else you need?”
“The complete set of Nicholas Sparks novels,” Henry suggests, grabbing it off of an empty shelf. Leo laughs. “This off brand Nerf gun.”
“A flat screen, might as well take it, I can finally afford one.”
They’re walking faster now, almost running, cart clanging against the linoleum. They’re laughing. This could almost be an adventure, friends on a road trip to sleep under stars and live off of chips, a couple shopping for furnishings for their new apartment.
“Race you,” Leo says, and breaks into a spring down the empty lane.
“Asshole, I have a cart!”
Henry takes off behind him. At the end of the aisle, Leo stops, breathless, and Henry laughs and catches up to him. Leo rakes a hand through his curls and grins, and Henry thinks of that party sophomore year, of being drunk enough that the room was spinning and looking at this guy and believing if he didn’t kiss him the world would end.
Cocking his head, Henry plucks a plastic sunflower off of the rack and extends it, sheepishly enough that the gesture could be laughed off as a joke if Leo’s heart isn’t also ricocheting out of his chest. Leo takes it from him and tucks it behind his own ear.
Henry shifts his weight forward a little. Leo swallows and steps towards him, and when they kiss, it is nothing like it had been half-conscious at the Ultimate Frisbee house, it is soft and nervous and exhausted, it is comforting.
They both laugh again when they pull apart, and Henry takes Leo’s hand. No cashiers are present, but Leo drops a ten at the empty cashier booth. It makes Henry lean in and kiss him again. When they get outside, the sky has deepened into a dazzling orange, the color of the quivering center of an egg.
They roll the windows down and drive another four hours. Leo keeps the flower tucked behind his ear, fabric petals caught in the wind. Henry thinks he’d like to spend his remaining five days on Earth kissing him. They hold hands sometimes. They sing along to songs Leo selects, pop music that was popular when they were in middle school, and trade stories about that time in their life.
They stop at an empty gas station and refill their tank alone. Henry is comforted by the sun’s absence, by the night’s endless dark dome and the chilled air, too vivid and real to be blasted apart by light and heat.
They head into the store for snacks and the restroom. Henry had expected it to be empty and picked over, but an older man sits behind the counter, drinking a from a mug of gray coffee and watching a program with lots of shooting on his small TV.
“Still gotta pay,” he snaps to them, the second they enter. Henry considers the guy’s American flag shirt and the fact that they are somewhere in rural Ohio and lets go of Leo’s hand.
“Sure,” Henry says, catching Leo’s eyes for a faint smirk.
They take a couple of boxes of crackers and cigarettes and a few seltzers, handing the guy a twenty and waving off the change even when he says, “You know, this is all deep state bullshit, the world isn’t goddamn ending.” And, when neither of them engage: “Mark my words, everyone will feel like a damned fool for falling for it.” When he takes the bill, Henry notices the absence of a wedding ring.
“Jesus,” Leo says, when they are outside again. “I guess we all handle things differently, but, my god.”
“Let’s wait here, a bit,” Henry says, laughing weakly. “I’m exhausted. Just a half hour.” Leo nods, resting his head on Henry’s shoulder, sending sparks thrumming through him.
“Cigarette?” Leo offers.
Henry takes it. “Don’t you have a voice to preserve?”
Leo huffs out a bitter laugh and scuffs his shoe over the cement.
Henry lights the cigarette and doesn’t say anything. The flame twirls on top of the lighter, and Henry extinguishes it with a flick of his thumb. He does it again and again, until Leo places his hand on top of Henry’s and stops him.
“I can’t stop thinking about the animals,” Leo says. “I know there are kids and babies and pregnant women and couples who were gonna get married and people who just got their dream job and people who just met the love of their life and people who can’t get back to their families and it’s fucking awful. But I just—I can’t stop thinking about the animals who have no idea what’s coming.” He swallows hard. “I’m gonna hug my cat for so long. I’m gonna cook her a salmon dinner and let her drink all the milk she wants.”
Henry chokes out a laugh. He is beginning the unstoppable and incandescent process of falling in love, which is tragic because he will never be able to complete it. He kisses Leo’s forehead, dark curls tickling his chin. Lit up inside and then burnt. The unfairness of it is almost crippling. “Yeah,” he agrees, and finds his voice is choked.
They stand there next to one another, leaning against the car and smoking and watching the sky turn itself orange again, warm creamsicle light that makes even this ugly spot off of the highway, bare roads and empty gas stations, look beautiful. The sun’s apology, he supposes, for propelling itself towards Earth.
Henry has never liked smoking before, and he doesn’t now, not even without the threat of lung cancer. He tosses it aside after a few drags and watches it extinguish itself on the ground, the cement untouched by the flame even though in five days, it will be melted to atoms.
“These are fucking disgusting,” Leo says, abandoning his. Henry hums in agreement, then leans in and kisses him. Leo tastes like smoke and like the Orangina he drank in the car and like something unplaceable but excruciatingly right. Leo’s soft hands come up to cup Henry’s chin, soft for being so frantic, and they find themselves pushing the backseats down clumsily.
“Wait,” Leo says breathlessly. “What if our friend comes out?”
“And leaves his store to be burgled by all the gullible people falling for the apocalypse?” When Leo kisses him again, they are both laughing so hard their teeth click together.
Later, they lie together in the back of the car, their bodies curled like apostrophes closing in dialogue. Henry traces the rose tattoo over Leo’s ribs until Leo takes his hand and stills it against his chest. The air is a little cold, but neither of them want to dress or to move, so they stay put.
They smile at each other so sadly that Leo kisses Henry again, softer this time. Lazy, like they have all the time in the world.
“You’d think,” Leo says, “that it’d be less fucking freezing, considering the sun is getting close and all that.”
Henry smiles weakly, then rubs his hands up Leo’s arms. He has a birthmark on his wrist, a tiny scar close to his shoulder. “Not sure that’s how it works.”
“Apparently.” They are quiet again. A dog barks somewhere far away. “Do you think it will hurt?” Henry whispers.
Leo tightens his hold on Henry’s hand. “No,” he whispers back, “it’ll be quick.” Henry doesn’t believe him. He is comforted all the same.
Henry’s mom has texted him When can we expect you? We miss you. He stares at the message for a full minute. Beside him, Leo has fallen asleep. He stirs and tucks himself closer to Henry.
The drive should have taken a day and a half, but with so few cars on the road and no cops enforcing the speed limit, they only have another nine hours or so. Henry imagines, for a moment, not answering her, laying here with Leo until flames wash over them, or driving down some unknown highway far away from Albany, stopping for junk food and sex, clinging to each other when it comes. He thinks of photos he had seen in elementary school of Pompeii after it was excavated, where bodies had hardened to clay still wrapped around each other. Taking so much comfort in someone that even as the world burned, their presence would keep the devastation at bay.
Outside of the car, ancient stillness. Occasionally, a car will tear past, speeding laws forgotten, throwing a band of white light over them for a few seconds before disappearing down the highway.
He texts his mother: traffic is brutal. still another few hours. not sure how many.
* * *
They stay seventy-two minutes longer than they said they would, just lying there. Eventually, they dress in silence and crawl out of the back of the car. The sky is pale, dull morning light stretching over them, the sun a faint milk stain somewhere above them, kept briefly at bay.
Before they start driving, Henry wraps his arms around Leo and they hold onto one another. Their closeness feels so huge Henry thinks, for a moment, it could stop the world from ending.
When they start driving again, Leo begins to cry. Henry reaches over and grips his hand so tightly for so long his own fingers seize up. The sun bounces off the glass, a bright white razor that blinds him.
* * *
“You could come see me,” Henry says softly, when he pulls up in front of Leo’s house, their hair greasy and hands numb and lips chapped and swollen. “Before, you know.”
Leo kisses him, both hands light on the side of Henry’s face. “I’ll try,” he whispers. “Thank you, Hen.”
Don’t go, Henry imagines saying, the words sharp and uncomfortable in his throat. Come home with me, or we can keep driving. If Leo said yes, would he really do it? Henry takes him in, his limp curls tucked back into the beanie, circles under coffee-colored eyes, smelling faintly of sex and smoke and sweat, and can’t come up with the answer.
“No problem,” Henry says instead, and wills tears back. Leo’s eyes glisten too. Henry thinks he must be burning inside, all of him reduced to leaping particles of light.
“Bye, Henry,” Leo says thickly. He looks like he might say something else, but he kisses him again, brief and hard, then gets out of the car. Henry’s breath throttles him.
Henry watches Leo slump towards his front door and get let in by his sister, who throws her arms around him and clings to him, and he waits until they are inside to drive home. Four days to go. The sun glitters against the horizon, waiting.
Adeline Lovell grew up in Brooklyn, New York. She’s a sophomore at Smith College, where she is majoring in English with a focus in creative writing, as well as the Study of Women and Gender. “Burning” is her first published piece.