The Million-Year Experiment ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
The struggle now is over. Everything else will be easy. Hidden away in my room I have food for five days. When it’s gone, I’ll be gone too. I could probably go on longer than five days, but I don’t want to go on. I’m tired and I’m sick. I’ll be ready to go in five days. And I have no more fear. There’s comfort in knowing exactly when and how I will die.
I have my euthanasia pill that people from the hospital were passing out on street corners. I’ve had it for three months. I could have taken the pill right away—it was entirely up to me—but I still had hope back then that something—I don’t know what—would happen and somebody would emerge as a savior and come up with a way to save the few of us remaining. Of course, it didn’t happen. It was never going to happen. Go ahead and take the pill. And may God have mercy on your soul.
Speaking of God, He has decided in His infinite wisdom to end the human species on earth, after about a million years. When you think that the Earth is billions of years old, a million years is really nothing. Now God has decided it’s time to extinguish the humans, make them extinct, and try something else. Something better and wiser, let us hope. I can’t say I blame Him.
So, those of us still remaining have the unique distinction of being the last humans on Earth. After the countless billions who have lived and died, it all comes down to us. Close the door and turn off the lights. Nothing more to be said. All of human history has been written in books, but there’ll be nobody around to read it anymore. No more Mozart or Beethoven, no more Mona Lisa, no more Shakespeare, no more Leonardo Da Vinci or Michelangelo, no more Agatha Christie, Tennessee Williams or Charles Dickens. No more Superman, Chevrolets or lemon meringue pies. I could go on and on, but I won’t.
I get up from the bed and walk over to the window and look out. I’m on the fifth floor of this old building. The building still stands, while a lot of other buildings have been burned or torn apart. I still have the glass in my window because it’s up too high to be broken easily by somebody on the street. A lot of people seem to have this instinct to destroy, if only because they can.
I don’t pay rent anymore because there’s nobody to pay it to and nobody to care. Money doesn’t mean anything anymore. Most of the people in the building are already gone. There are so few people left that when I hear somebody on the stairs, it scares me because I think somebody knows I have a little bit of food and water left and have followed me home to kill me for it. That doesn’t scare me as much as it makes me mad.
I’ve been collecting rainwater on my little balcony at the back of the building in a washtub. Luckily there has been quite a lot of rain lately. I use this water mostly for bathing. Yes, I still like to keep myself clean, whereas most people have given up on this pursuit entirely. I just can’t stand being filthy, but what does it matter now? Just let everything go, they say. It’s only for a little while longer.
The government—what’s left of it—has been handing out drinking water at distribution sites around the city. The last time I picked up drinking water was a couple of weeks ago at a place about six blocks from my building. I’m not sure if they have any water left, but I leave my building and begin the walk over there.
I don’t have a gun or a weapon, but I have what used to be called a Billy club. If anybody tries to mess with me or bother me, I can at least hit them in the head to deter them. If I hit them hard enough, I might kill them. I’ve never killed anybody, but I can see myself doing it under the right circumstances.
I only go out during daylight hours. After dark, roving gangs go around killing strangers they come across, just because they can and there’s nobody to stop them. Nobody will come to your aid if you find yourself in trouble. You either run or you fight them, in which case you’ll lose because you’ll be outnumbered. Some of the gangs are made up of children ten years old or younger: vicious killers who will laugh at you while you’re bleeding to death or writhing on the ground in pain. What kind of a world has the world become?
There are bricks and debris in the road. You can hardly tell where the road is. There are no sidewalks anymore. Glass storefronts are smashed in. People have done this looking for food, of which there is none. If we could eat bricks and glass and old boards, we’d have all the food we could ever need.
I climb over one pile of bricks, to the top, and down the other side. Then I do it again with the next pile over. My shoes are practically worn out, but so is everything else. My feet hurt. I’m moving so slow I’m hardly moving at all. I meet a few other people, but they are intent on their own business, as I am intent on mine, and pay no attention to me.
I meet an old man who comes toward me with his hand out. He wants me to give him something that I am sure not to have. I raise my club up over my head and let him know I will smack him with it if I have to. He recoils with a hurt look and I feel sorry for him. If I had anything to give that would help him, I’d gladly give it, but I’m just as bad off as he is.
Finally I come to the place where people were giving out water before, but there’s nobody there. The makeshift stand they were using as a little shelter has been broken up for firewood. All that’s left is a hand-lettered sign: No Water! Go to Steeple Church on Carolina Street at Top of Hill.
I’ve lived in the neighborhood for seven years, so I know where the steeple church is. It’s about six blocks farther on. If I go there, that means I’ll be twelve blocks from my building. I don’t know what time it is. My legs feel weak. I’m not sure if I can make it twelve more blocks, and, if I do, I’m not sure I can get back home before dark. But does it really matter, anyway? I’m going to die, everybody’s going to die, and I don’t mean die eventually but in a very short time, a matter of hours or days. How could it possibly matter in what manner I die? All I ask is that my death be quick, and I believe it will be. God will grant me that one final grace, I’m sure.
I rest for a while and then I trudge on in the direction of the steeple church. I don’t see anybody else. I could be the only person left alive. I wield my club in case anybody is watching me without my knowing it.
When I get to the steeple church, the doors are open, but I don’t see anybody. I hear faint organ music coming from inside. It’s not church music; it isn’t anything I recognize. I like the way it sounds. It sounds welcoming.
The church is cavernous; after the sunlight it seems dark; it takes time for my eyes to adjust. I stand at the back for a couple of minutes and then I walk down the aisle and take a seat. Several people turn and look at me. I look at the floor.
There are about thirty people in the church, some together but mostly by themselves. Some are here, I think, seeking solace, while others just want a place where they can come in off the street and sit down. One woman, I see, holds a tiny baby. She’s too old to have a baby that young, so she must be the grandmother.
The organ music stops and the man doing the playing gets up and walks slowly to the altar at the front of the church. He is gaunt and dressed all in black. He looks out over the small crowd and then looks away, as if deciding what to say.
Finally he speaks: “I won’t see any of you again after today. I’m going away tonight. When anybody asks me how I feel, I tell them the peace of the Lord is upon me. I hope the peace of the Lord is upon you also, now and forever.”
“Amen!” an old woman shouts at the front of the church, lifting her arms. “The peace of the Lord be upon you!” Now and forever!”
“We have come now to an end,” the man in black says quietly. “The dark days are behind us. Our suffering is over. The only message of hope I have for you is for the next life. You have only to ask God for the forgiveness you seek. You have nothing to gain but eternal life.”
“Eternal life!” the old woman screams, and then she stands up and moves down the rows, but, instead of passing the collection plate, she begins handing out little bottles of water to everybody in the church.
“Peace be with you, Brother!” she says with every bottle. “Peace be with you, Sister!”
The man in black disappears at the back of the church behind the altar. I take the bottle from the old woman and when I stand up to leave the church, I pitch forward onto the floor, hitting my head on the back of the pew in front of me. I’m aware of people lifting me off the floor and placing me in a reclining position on the pew, and then I lose consciousness. It feels like being dead.
When I wake up, all the people have left. The church is dark except for some lighted candles on the other side of the nave. I sit quietly for a couple of minutes with my head in my hands, trying to summon the strength to walk the twelve blocks home.
I must have been unconscious longer than I thought, because when I open the door to leave the church, it’s completely dark outside and the street is deserted. There are no streetlights anymore, so when I say dark, I mean as dark as a night can be, with no moon and low-flying clouds in the sky, a smell of rain in the air.
The night feels momentous to me, significant in some way. My skin prickles. I feel a chill, even though it’s a warm night. My hands are shaking. I drink half the bottle of water, replace the lid and carry the bottle in my hand. The water has somehow revived me. I believe now I can make it all the way home.
I walk three or four blocks away from the church. I don’t see those who attack me in the dark. They come up behind me. I don’t know how many there are, but it feels like five or six. They pull me backwards off my feet. They hit me with their fists, in the face and the stomach, and when that’s not enough they begin kicking me. They steal my shoes and the half-bottle of water I’m carrying. They scream a high-pitched animal scream, or maybe it’s something I don’t hear but only believe I hear.
For the second time in a few hours, I’m unconscious. It’s funny, because I don’t remember ever being unconscious in my life before, not even when I was sick with pneumonia or when I had surgery for appendicitis. I lay on the sidewalk like a dead man; maybe my assailants, when they leave me, believe I am dead.
But I wake up again—this time to a brilliantly blue sky with a few fleecy clouds. There are beautiful birds wheeling in the sky. They have spotted me. They call to me. They fly down to me. Before I know what’s happening, they pick me up in their gentle claws and bear me skyward. I feel nothing now except the most exquisite joy.
Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp