Genre: Comedy Fiction
Type of Short Story: Short Story
“Yeah, somebody told me that once actually, I think. I just don’t get how it would happen” Charlie looked down into her cappuccino as she spoke, slowly turning her silver spoon in a clockwise direction, propping her chin up with her thin fingertips. Her white gold ring dug into the bone of her jaw, but she relished the discomfort.
“It’s quite simple. I mean, if you can use your imagination a little bit. Just picture, for a moment, the universe in an impossible size, say, the size of this hair tie” Aldous slipped his hair tie from his dreadlocks, allowing them to spill out over his shoulders. Charlie always did have a thing for that type; rugged and disheveled, reeking of cigarettes and chaos. Exactly the type of guy her mum would have hated her spending time with. Aldous was still speaking, but she had completely tuned out, far too lost in her thoughts to care about his words. She just nodded her head at every upward inflection, as she did in many a social situation, always sneaking off into her own head rather than meaningfully engaging. Charlie never really liked to be told things.
“…And since the big bang, the universe has just been stretching and stretching, growing into expansive nothingness. Eventually, it’s not going to be able to stretch anymore right? Like a hair tie; if you pull it tightly enough…” Aldous exerted further force on the elastic he had been slowly stretching as he spoke, and it snapped, morphing from the circular object it had once been into a useless, slack piece of string.
“…It’ll snap,” He concluded after a lengthy pause, still looking directly at Charlie as he spoke. She smiled coyly, having tuned in for the last few sentences of his lecture, but still largely unsure of the overall content. Aldous felt like he was playing his cards right as he mistook her expression for genuine interest and adoration. In reality, Charlie was worlds away.
“What are you going to tie your hair back with now?” She asked softly, as she lifted a napkin from the table and begun gradually ripping it into little shreds. Her mother used to fly into a state of panic whenever Charlie picked something up, worried that her daughter would break whatever object it may be. Her mother’s worry was not misplaced, as Charlie usually did destroy the things she fiddled with. It wasn’t because she was a destructive person per se, she just liked to play.
“It’s okay, I don’t need to have it tied back. You know, sometimes it’s nice to just let things flow.” Said Aldous, as he placed his hand over Charlie’s, disturbing her dismantling of the napkin. She instinctively felt herself pull away from his touch, even though she had consciously tried to keep her hand under his. Oftentimes, our body makes decisions for us, regardless of the objections of our minds . The flesh on his palm felt cold and rough against hers. She resented it.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that. Stupid,” He muttered, clearly flummoxed.
“No, it’s fine! It’s not you. It’s just, uh…” Charlie racked her brain for an excuse, with her date’s stare lingering on her as he waited for her to finish her thought. Charlie fumbled with her words as she said, “Uh, I’ve got like… um… it’s like a condition. Not like aids or anything. Like a skin condition. Like… yeah, sometimes I get rashes and stuff you know? And um, people can like… get them on their skin from rubbing against mine. So I was just trying to… save you. Uh..?” Her hands shaking slightly, Charlie poured a glass of water from the converted wine bottle that adorned the table, and drank it in a quick succession of gulps, before pouring herself another one and consuming it in the same manner. Aldous’ eyes tracked her movements, perplexed. He chuckled.
“It’s all good. I wouldn’t want to get your rash, thanks for helping me avoid that situation. You’re a lifesaver. A real hero actually,” Charlie forced a sudden grin, bearing her teeth for a split second, before she hurriedly changed the subject, desperate to get him talking again so that she wouldn’t have to.
“You’re welcome, yeah. So um, what were you saying about the universe? It’s like a hair tie right? Stretch, stretch, snap?” Aldous cleared his throat and raised his mug to his lips, quickly drinking what remained of his vanilla latte, which had begun to grow cold over the course of the fractured conversation. He winced slightly at the lukewarm nature of the beverage before continuing.
“Yeah. More or less. The theory is called The Big Rip. Basically, scientists don’t have much of an idea regarding the ultimate fate of the universe, so this theory is just one of many. I think it’s really lovely. It’s so very unfathomable, but just picture all of the matter in our enormous universe; from the stars, to the galaxies, to the atoms, all the way to the particles and the subatomic particles that make up all that is and ever will be. And now picture all of that being progressively torn apart by it’s own expansion. If the expanding universe is dominated by phantom energy, then it's expanding at an ever-increasing rate. Eventually, the speed at which everything is stretching will surpass the speed of light; and when that happens, interaction between the fundamental forces becomes impossible. Gravitational forces, electromagnetic forces, every power in the universe won’t be able to do its job anymore. And when all of these interactions have become utterly impossible, there will be a final singularity – The Big Rip – in which all distances diverge to infinite values, and that would be the end,” Charlie actually managed to listen to everything that Aldous had said. She knew she was making progress when she could get through someone’s entire verbal tirade without drifting off. She nodded her head and attempted to pull a face that was interested, curious and fascinated at the same time. No easy feat.
“So what, would it like, all happen at once? Everything just tears apart? Me, and the turtles, and the atoms in this coffee cup, and all of the stars and galaxies, all at once?” Aldous laughed in response, pouring himself a glass of water as he did so.
“No, not quite. Lets say, hypothetically, the universe is going to completely end in twenty two billion years from this second. So, about one and a half billion years from now, the stretching of the universe will cause all of the galaxies to separate from one another, that’s step one. Step two would occur maybe sixty million years from the end, and that would be the point when gravity becomes too weak to hold the Milky Way and other individual galaxies together – all the planets and solar systems would start to drift from one another, much like the way the galaxies drifted. About three months before the end, each solar system would become completely gravitationally unbound. And then, in the last minutes, the stars and the planets would be torn apart. A split second before the very end of everything, each atom would tear apart. But hopefully a couple of atoms would be able to survive the carnage, and then collide with one another to create the universe again. Like an infinite loop of creation and destruction. It’s all quite beautiful to me. Maybe I’m crazy,” In that moment, Charlie attempted to appreciate the beauty of the universe being torn to pieces under the weight of itself. But this was a concept that she perceived as fairly horrific. Then again, she liked to tear things apart herself. By now, the napkin she had been casually ripping to shreds was not even a shadow of it’s former self; it had become a tattered mess that embellished the corner of the wooden table which held it up. As her eyes darted to the chaos she had created from such a simple object, Charlie could suddenly see the end of the universe.
She was traversing space as the very fabric of existence tore around her. As she floated, she watched millions of clusters of galaxies, like reflections of the sun on the water rippling, as they began to separate and spread into the eternal blackness of all that is. Charlie witnessed each galaxy explode, billions of colored lights, bundles of stars so fine they looked like smoke reflecting purple cellophane placed over a lamp. They emancipated themselves and flowed outward and into one another, new shapes forming as the old disintegrated, everything being and then ceasing to be right before her eyes. She shrunk, feeling her entire being deteriorate to the size of an atom, and now she was within the invisible realm, watching the tiny vibrating particles around her tear away from one another in electric bursts, their energies pulsing in an attempt to salvage their own physical integrity, only to be violently torn apart themselves. The weight of the pull of the universe from either side destroyed them, leaving them severed and tattered…
“Are you alright Charlie?” She felt the rough skin of Aldous’ palm bearing down on her hand again, and was shocked back to reality. She had gone as pale as a sheet of paper, her knuckles whitening as she gripped her fists tightly, gazing off absently into the distance. A bead of sweat slipped from her forehead, oozing down through the fine hairs of her eyebrows, and slipping along her cheeks. She shook her head, confused, and forced herself to say something, anything at all, to alleviate the awkward nature of her momentary departure, and Aldous’ concerned stare. She fell over her words, making them up as she went and praying that she formed some kind of coherent sentence,
“I’m fine. I think it’s that damn skin infection. It’s messing with my brain or something maybe. I dunno,” She quickly downed a glass water, starting to panic.
“Did you know my mum is selling my childhood home? Like, the house I grew up in? It’s so crazy. Somebody is buying my dogs grave!” Her eyes widened at the realisation, and she wore a grieved expression. The gravity of it all, the universe, the date, the social expectation, her dog, became too much for her – it tore her apart, ripped her limb from limb. She was a separating atom. She was lost.
“They’re selling my dogs grave! My dogs bones are there and someone is buying them!” She shouted, smacking her fist down with an audible bang, gaining the attention of other patrons, who’s eyes darted toward the table. A hush came over the cafe. Aldous looked embarrassed, hiding his face behind his hand as he tilted his head downward. He spoke softly in an attempt to subdue the situation.
“Wow, okay. Calm down. Is that what’s bothering you? Is that why you’ve been so strange and standoffish towards me?” Charlie burst into laughter again, her hand visibly shaking as she poured another glass of water.
“Nothing’s bothering me! Look at this smile!" Forcing a grin from ear to ear, she continued to ramble.
“I promise I’m not being strange or standoffish on person… I mean on purpose. You’re nice. You’re very aesthetically pleasing, and you’re conventionally attractive and obviously pretty smart what with all of your space talk… it’s just that I need to go to the bathroom, that’s all. Would you excuse me? Great.” Bewildered, Aldous muttered something incoherent as Charlie rose from her chair, knocking her knees against the table, causing a rattle of the cutlery, crockery and cups that littered its surface. She grabbed her hand bag that was hung over the back of her chair, and pottered away from the table, patrons peering eyes still fixated on her, but hers looking straight ahead, ignoring the rabble of judgmental faces.
She pushed open the bathroom door with great determination, and once she was inside she leaned against it, closing her eyes and breathing deeply, letting the air fill her lungs in increments, slowly leading to her heart rate decreasing as calm normality embraced her again. It was quiet in the bathroom; the hushed chatter of the café becoming a distant rumble, her breath and a single consistent drip from the chrome faucet above the sink the only sounds in her immediate vicinity. Charlie knew she had to leave, as there was no way she could bear the grim nature of facing Aldous again, attempting to brush over her previous behaviour. It was better for her, like in many situations she encountered, to simply cut her losses, and trust in the truth that more opportunities would rear their heads for her in the future.
She noticed an open window above the hand dryer. Swinging her bag over her shoulder, Charlie mounted the sink with her left foot, placing her right hand on the dryer for support and hoisting herself up. She stood on the sink with both feet now, and luckily it took her weight. Gripping onto the bottom of the window frame, she pushed herself up until she sat on the sill, her legs dangling outward, the air causing the fine hairs on her shins to dance. Charlie let herself drop, her feet hitting the ground with a thud, the Newtonian shock wave of the force resonating up her legs.
Meanwhile, Aldous sat in patient silence, his hands folded on the table in front of him, staring vacantly out the window of the café, watching the cars whizz past and the wandering people filter in and out of his line of sight. He waited for Charlie to return from the bathroom, still feeling as though he could salvage the situation. He attempted to run over ways of rectifying it in his mind, whizzing through possibilities and outcomes. His trail of thought was interrupted as a man in his early thirties with five o’clock shadow, tired eyes, a short mess of hair on top of his head, and a large brown trench coat draped over his shoulders approached the table.
Aldous looked up at the newcomer with curiosity, and the man held out a single hand to him. In his hand was a lemon, slightly browned in spots and looking as though it had been pulled from a tree recently, its green stem still intact, a single leaf clinging to it for desperate life, wilting but determined. Scrawled on the rough surface of the citrus fruit in maroon lipstick were the words “when life gives you lemons…”
The man cleared his throat.
“Um, so some girl in the street gave me five bucks to give this to you?”
Aldous reached out his hand and retrieved the lemon, his eyes lingering on the words splayed on the object. As the man in the coat walked away, he vacantly responded,
Aldous never heard from Charlie again. He didn’t even like lemons.
Funnily enough, neither did she.