Fiction: The Final 5 Hours
By Claire Westbrook
It was 4:37PM and Peter Bryant had five hours left to live.
Everyone had received the announcement just over an hour ago. He had been at work, absentmindedly playing solitaire on his computer when the signal had cut out and a loud, red message had begun blaring on the screen:
There are 6 hours remaining. Stay safe.
At first there was silence; a deafeningly loud silence that seemed to engulf the entire planet in its clutches. And then there was chaos. Shouts and screams had erupted from the bland cubicles around him, and papers flew through the office in everyone’s panicked attempt to escape to who-knows-where, as if running around in circles would take them away from this living hell. No one had really known what the cryptic message meant, but to him it seemed obvious. The world had been on the verge of dying for years now, everything had just recently started to seem more real.
It began with the plants. A few months ago, a group of environmentalists had discovered an entire forest in Eastern Taiwan that had just... wilted. They had initially thought it was the result of a drought, but soon the mysterious phenomenon had spread to every continent, including countries where it always seemed to rain. No one had known what to do. Plants stopped growing which meant crops weren’t being harvested. People who relied on their gardens for food were starving. Yet a lot of people paid no mind. If it didn’t affect them personally then it wasn’t important.
Then came the weather. The cruel, unforgivable weather that had destroyed homes, families, and lives. It began with a constant rainfall; flooded streets became the norm, and people had even started using canoes and kayaks to get around. The tornadoes were slightly more unusual as the worst the city had ever seen was five inches of snow. But people seemed to finally realize that this was a lot more serious than they had originally thought once half of Buckingham Palace had crumpled during one of the tornadoes’ wicked rampages.
When it seemed like it couldn’t get any worse, humanity had reached the worst disaster of all: the disease. It wasn’t one of those apocalyptic diseases where zombies start roaming the streets all because of a small cough, no, this disease shut each of your organs down one by one in the most painful and grueling process imaginable. It took out hundreds of thousands of people per day for one whole week until suddenly it was over and everyone who remained was fine. At least that’s what people had thought.
It was 5:51PM and Peter Bryant had three hours and forty-six minutes left to live. He leaned against the grimy wall of the station, a faint rumble of an incoming train interrupting the estranged silence around him. A light breeze drifted through the tunnels, causing small goosebumps to appear sharply on his skin. His eyes landed on the arrival screen: Your train will arrive in 3 minutes. He impatiently watched the minutes on the clock tick by before checking his phone again. 6:15PM. No new messages. He hastily scrolled through his contact list and redialed the number he had been attempting to reach since the message was first released.
It rang once. He anxiously tapped his foot against the concrete floor.
It rang twice. He bit his lip in frustration.
Three times. Please. Please pick up.
Four times. He held his breath. There was a beat of silence, and then:
“Your call has been forwarded to an automatic voice—”
“Shit! Shit! Answer the phone, dammit!”
He glanced back at the arrival screen, but the time hadn’t changed: Your train will arrive in three minutes. He looked frantically around the station, searching for some type of answer, and his eyes found only an elderly woman with a cane grasped tightly in her fragile fists.
“Excuse me,” he muttered as he made his way over to her. Despite his quiet volume, his voice still rang throughout the open space. “Do you know by any chance if the tube will be here soon?”
She slowly turned her head to look at him. “Pardon me?”
“The tube,” he repeated, “Do you know if it’s coming soon?”
She stared at him for a few seconds until: “Do you reckon this whole thing is real?”
“I — what?”
“Frankly I think this is all a test created by the government.”
He didn’t know what to say to that. His eyes swept over her face. He noticed that her mouth sagged at the edges, giving off the impression that she was always upset.
“Uh... What do you mean?”
“I mean, look around you.” She gestured to the near empty station with a wrinkled hand. The few other people waiting paid them no mind. “We only have a few hours left, and you really think there are still people trying to do their jobs? Why would someone waste their final hours on this earth, just to drive people around?”
Peter shrugged and checked the arrival board once more: Your train will arrive in 1 minute. “Maybe they have nothing else to live for.”
She watched him, her aged eyes dancing between his. “Maybe so. What about you? Do you have anything to live for?”
It was 7:54PM and Peter Bryant had one hour and forty-three minutes left to live. He was seated on an uncomfortable fabric seat, his phone held tightly in his hand as the train bounced and ricocheted off the tracks. He anxiously played with his fingers as he examined the near empty cart around him. Near the door sat two young adults, their postures rigid, tension coursing through their muscles. The elderly woman had disappeared when the tube had arrived, leaving Peter alone with these two strangers. The tube stopped at another station and opened its doors. No one came in and no one left. He checked his phone again: no new messages.
“Ethan, I need to tell you something.”
Peter’s attention was immediately brought to the two adults, one of which had just spoken.
The man, who Peter assumed was Ethan, turned his head to look at the woman next to him. “What is it?”
The woman hesitated, Peter could just barely make out her facial features, all of which were twisted into worry. She checked her phone. “We have one hour and thirty-six minutes left, so I figured I might as well just say it.”
“Say what? You’re worrying me, Fiona—”
“I love you, Ethan. I’ve fancied you for a while but now... I love you.”
Peter watched as Ethan’s body immediately tensed. His head was turned away from him, so he was unable to distinguish whether or not he was happy with the revelation.
Fiona started talking again, “It’s okay if you don’t feel the same way, but I figured I should tell you before all of this is over—”
Ethan leaned in and whispered something in her ear which shut her up. A large grin made its way over her face, and she leaned against his shoulder in content.
Peter looked away, not wanting to interfere on their moment. He was glad that someone was making the most of their final hours. The train stopped again, repeating the same process as the stop before.
A shrill ring cut violently through the still atmosphere around him. The two strangers’ heads turned to stare at him. He stared back at them in bewilderment before becoming vaguely aware that the disruption was coming from his phone. His screen flashed obnoxiously at him with each chirp:
Incoming call from Alice.
His heart thumped in his chest, and he leaped up from his seat, immediately answering the call.
“Alice? Alice, are you okay?”
A small voice answered him, “What’s going on? What’s happening?”
“Alice listen to me, stay at home. Don’t go outside, just stay at home and wait for me—”
Her voice was laced with panic, “But what does this mean? I don’t understand.”
His sweaty palm gripped a pole to his left. “Just stay at home, I’ll be there soon.”
“Okay,” there was a beat of silence and then, “Dad?”
His throat tightened, “Yes, Alice?”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“Please come home quickly.”
It was 9:05PM and Peter Bryant had thirty-two minutes left to live. A warm breeze brushed through his hair as he sprinted through the tunnels of the station. He leaped up the stairs taking two steps at a time before making a sharp left towards the exit. He didn’t wait for the automatic doors to fully open as he stepped out onto the empty street and rapidly made his way in the direction of his neighbourhood. The atmosphere around him was eerie; buildings that usually stood so proudly were now crumpled to the ground from the earlier storms, small saplings that had once lined the road were now jagged stumps surrounded by dead leaves. The shells of previously loved vehicles littered the streets as he swerved around debris scattered along the road. He reminisced about driving down this exact road with Alice, who had been clad in her blue leotard and tutu in the backseat as they made their way to her very first dance recital.
He checked his phone again. 9:11PM. He ran faster. He took a right, familiar shops blurring in his peripheral. Pizza places, clothing stores, coffee shops, libraries: all places that he had visited on multiple occasions sat there empty, their souls leaking out of shattered windows. He didn’t dwell on it. He kept running.
It was 9:18PM. The sky twinkled innocently, as if humanity wasn’t going to reach its end in the next 20 minutes. There were nine more blocks until he would arrive at his house. He thought of Alice; what was she doing at this very second? Was she at the window, scanning the street for his familiar figure? Was she huddled in bed; hands clasped over her ears in hopes to forget that any of this was happening? The thought of her waiting there, terrified and alone caused him to pick up pace.
It was 9:26PM. Panic gripped his heart with an iron fist and began to squeeze, causing it to bleed onto the pavement underneath him. There were 6 more blocks.
9:31PM. The moisture on his brow was dripping into his face and stinging his eyes. He had a stitch in his chest, but he refused to stop. Two more blocks. He was almost there. He passed the rickety iron fences which used to enclose schoolyards. He remembered picking up an excited Alice after her first day of school a few years ago. She hadn’t been to school in months; there was no need for it anymore.
It was 9:35PM. One more block. The silhouettes of dead trees against the inky sky pushed him forward even further, their scraggly branches cheering him on as he ran his final lap.
9:36PM. He turned onto his street. The familiar red door that he had been living behind for years came into view. He tripped over a curb in his panic, his body slamming into the bumpy concrete. His elbow violently grazed the rough surface, but he scrambled back to his sore feet. He needed to get to her.
He leaped onto his driveway.
“Alice! Alice, I’m here!”
The nine-year-old opened the door and jogged down the front steps.
He ignored his throbbing elbow and ran faster. Alice’s long brown hair floated through the air behind her as she struggled to reach him.
He reached out towards her, his fingers just barely grazing her arm when suddenly—
It was 9:37PM and the world was bathed in darkness.
Claire Westbrook is a 20 year old writer and student from Toronto, Canada. She dabbles in flash fiction, poetry, and is currently writing her first novel.