Friday, December 9, 2011
In the brief moment that was left, the corridor formed by the trees and the buildings was filled with lovely amber sunlight. That beauty was poor consolation, though, for it was obvious what was happening. The fiery orb of the sun plunged toward the horizon, a luminous ship doomed to break upon the shoals, and the sky burned cobalt blue under the weight of its inexorable fate. I could feel its bitterness, its longing, its sheer sorrow as it mourned the passing of that sinking sphere.
Across the way, the magnolia trees reached their waxen fingers into the sky in a futile effort to catch hold of the fleeting sunlight. I didn't have the heart to tell them how pointless that gesture was. Trees have never been the brightest of creatures, though, and if these could spent their last moments believing there was still some shred of hope then I was happy to let them. Still, it was hard ignore the weeping. The tears were mostly silent, rolling down bare branches and on an elegiac wind, but I heard them nonetheless as I walked past pillars and monuments that were already ruins.
The bulb in a nearby lamp post suddenly burst and I caught my breath. I heard a rumbling behind me and turned to see a significant crack wind its way down the side of the brick science building from which I'd just emerged. I cast my gaze towards the west, to the point where an entire world would perish, and knew there wasn't much time. It had already begun.
I blinked the moisture from my eyes as I strode down the groaning avenue, aware all the while that I was witnessing the last lights of a lost era. It was so cold. Standing on the threshold of destruction, I was struck with the absurd idea that I should have brought a jacket. Then, though, the scene changed.
The air around me warmed, the trees erupted in shining green, the ground bloomed emerald blades, and the skyline shrank as half its buildings simply melted away. I was walking a winding concrete path towards a group of redbrick structures oriented in a circle around a vibrant green plain. I recognized this place. I'd been here before.
On the steps in front of me sat a young--I was surprised by just how young--boy watching wistfully after a blue SUV that left a trail of brown dust in its wake as it pulled away. I wondered. The boy didn't hear me as I approached, nor did he turn when I came to a stop directly behind him. A gentle breeze blew a tendril of his long blonde hair.
I placed my hand on his shoulder.
He turned his teenage face towards me and I was momentarily cowed by just how unfamiliar it looked. In purely physical terms there were depressingly few differences between us, but his flushed cheeks and dark green eyes held an artlessness to them that had long passed from me. His innocence, his naivete, shone off him.
"You--you're me!" he exclaimed in shock.
"Yes," I said, surveying the flourishing scene around me. "I am you. I'm you from the future. Move over."
He eyed my ponytail, nearly a foot longer than his, and nodded.
"That makes sense."
He made room and I sat down beside him, unnoticed by the throngs of young people milling about.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. He seemed astonished by my presence
"I'm not sure," I said. "Maybe completing something."
Even in such an outrageous situation, he managed to look irritated.
"Well, when are you from?"
"December 9, 2011."
His forehead wrinkled with the weight of mental labor.
"So, that would make you...like, twenty-two?"
"Twenty-three," I corrected, happy to be disabused of any illusions that my math skills had once been of a higher quality. "Gosh, you're dumb."
"Well, you don't look twenty-three," he said.
"Well you don't look eighteen," I shot back. "Which I'm guessing you are, by the way. What date is it here?"
"August 24, 2006."
The period of my life that I'd later term the Black Times, my own dark age, would begin the following day. The SUV I'd caught a glimpse of had been exactly what I'd thought: my parents riding away after they dropped me off at Major University the weekend before classes started. I could vividly recall how my eighteen-year-old heart had sunk when I watched them leave, how I'd despaired, perched on the same steps where I now sat.
"What?" he asked. "What?"
He ran a finger through his thick hair, which at this point was nearing its longest. In about two months' time, I knew, he'd cut all of it off in a failed attempt to distance himself from his own truth. Hair would hardly be the only casualty of that effort.
"It's nothing," I said. "At least, nothing I can talk about."
He looked out at the other students.
"Well that's pretty frustrating," he said. "I'd assume that the best part of being visited by your future self is getting to learn all kinds of cool stuff about what happens to you. Aren't you going to point me towards my wife or tell me to which stocks to buy or something?"
"Put everything you have in BP."
He started patting his pockets for a pen and I waved my hands in the air.
"Don't you dare write that down," I admonished. "I was joking. Seriously, forget I said that."
I shook my head and laughed again as his hands settled at his sides.
After several moments of silence I looked up at a sky filled with much more life than the one I'd left behind.
"I come from a world that's dying," I explained at last. "A world on the edge of passing away. I know that, before the day is up, I will see it fall."
In the Freshman Circle, in his home, everything was warm and blooming. It was not yet midday.
"Your sun is rising," I continued. "Mine is about to set. And everything else will set with it."
"That sounds terribly sad."
"It's not, though," I said. "When my world goes, it will yield to a brighter one. Which means, of course, that your world will yield to a brighter one. Because we are from the same world, just different ends. Your first day. My last."
I scratched my head.
"You'll be ready, anyway, when the time comes," I said. "The people you knew are mostly gone. There are new buildings now, ones I don't know. They stand alongside the older ones that I recognize."
"So..." he began. "Is that what you came to tell me? That you're old?"
"I guess it has something to do with what I said earlier," I went on. "Maybe it's about completing something."
He thought about it.
"The way you whistled, when I told you the date," he said. "That means something, doesn't it? I know it does. You don't have to tell me. But you know something's coming."
I looked into his face with a sudden surge of yearning. I knew that his placid visage was soon to be blackened. By the time it was over, he'd be a blackened boy. He'd never stop carrying that with him, even when, eventually, he was brightened.
"I can tell I'm different," he said. "I've always known. I don't know what it is, but I'm just...different. And I think it's going to be really hard."
I, who'd confronted the sexual and emotional truths of his "difference" in a way he was not yet prepared to, understood the horrible weight that his deviance--and the denial of it--would carry.
"It will be bad," I said. "The worst thing ever. I'd tell you to make yourself ready, but there's absolutely nothing you can do to prepare for it. It will tear you apart like nothing ever has. You'll never be the same."
"That's not a bad thing," I comforted. "It really isn't. It will seem like it, but it's not."
"I guess I'll just have to pray," he answered. "I know Jesus will help me."
I suddenly remembered an occasion from eight months in his past and six years in mine. It was 2005 and I was Christmas shopping with my mother. I picked out a toy for Pie, who then was only two years old, and my mother insisted that I let her pay for it.
"Well, okay," I answered, then added with total earnestness, "But you have to let me put my name on the card."
It would be nearly two years before I understood why she'd starting laughing. I asked her at the time but she just hugged me and said, "You're funny, BB."
Back on the steps I appraised my eighteen-year-old self with new appreciation. I'd forgotten how extraordinarily childlike I was at that age, how disarmingly innocent and untouched by the world. The boy in front of me was just that: a boy. I doubt any part of him believed that there was a problem he couldn't resolve through Jesus. His faith in prayer was absolute. It seemed wrong to inform him that, in the worst moments, prayer would do nothing.
"Do pray," I encouraged. "For a while it will be all you have."
"How long?" he asked.
"Years," I answered. "More than two years."
He paled a bit at that.
"You'll come close to not making it," I said. "A few times, you won't even want to make it. But if you keep pushing through, eventually it will lift. And then you will see things so beautiful, so wonderful, that you'll thank God for every minute of pain you had to wait through."
"Your last day here will be spent in warmth," I told him. "With two beautiful boys. You'll have come so far then."
His eyes went wide.
I covered my mouth, not believing what I'd just let slip.
"Oh, BB," I said. "I'm so sorry but...yes. I know you don't want it to be true. It is, though. It is."
His eyes filled with tears.
"I won't remember this," he declared. "I can't. I just can't handle it."
"I know you can't," I said. "And I know you won't. To tell you the truth, I've been wondering why I had no memories of this. It seems like the kind of thing that would stand out. I guess I blocked it. But if there's one thing you do remember, even on a subconscious level, it should be this: hang on. These next few years will eventually lead you to a great place. It's just going to take time."
I saw a familiar face staring at us from the crowd and pointed at the young woman it belonged to.
"And one day," I told my younger self, directing his gaze toward the blonde girl. "You'll meet her."
He saw her for just an instant before she melted into the mass of short-sleeved co-eds.
"Who is she?" he asked. He stood as if to search for her. "Where did she go?"
I took his arm and pulled him back down.
"Don't try to find her," I said. "She'll come to you. Trust me."
He put his head in his hands and then it was my turn to rise.
"Remember that," I told him. "When you erase all of this from your mind, just remember to hang on. It would be so horrible if you hadn't."
I looked back down the winding path and at its end saw trees too barren to belong to August.
"I have to go now," I said. "It's my time. But remember what I said."
I touched his shoulder once more and headed off down the road from which I'd come. I didn't turn to look back at him. I knew he wouldn't look at me, either.
The blonde woman appeared beside me as the air grew colder and the trees began to shed their leaves.
"You did a good job back there," Good said. "You did exactly what you should have."
"Thanks," I said.
I turned into the warm air, into the laughter and the sunshine, into the smiling young faces of people I'd since seen grow older.
"And thanks for this, for letting me see this one more time. It was nice."
"You're welcome," she said.
We paused at the boundary between times, where the air lingered at the median of hot and frigid.
"Are you ready?" she asked.
She smiled and took my hand as, together, we walked down the avenue and into another epoch. I felt her strength and support as I approached my world, but when I finally emerged into the dim light of a mortally wounded sun she was gone. I was on my own.
Well, not quite.
Jorge the Statue was there, staring bravely into the retreating sun.
"Oh, Jorge," I said. He nodded his copper face at me in acknowledgement. I so admired his courage; not everyone had stayed. Across campus, the other statuary had largely abandoned their posts and were heading for wherever they imagined safety might be. As spoke with Jorge I saw a group of terra cotta children running across the quad carrying the great ceramic book that documented our athletic victories, while trailing behind them was a twisted modern art sculpture attempting to awkwardly roll away.
Bringing up the rear was a gaggle of papier mache horses trailing manes clipped from the classifieds section.
"You're so brave, Jorge," I said.
He smiled, gave me a firm salute, and stared at the collapsing sky as if daring it strike him. Now I knew, for the first time, why Jorge had been built facing the west: he'd always known this day would come.
I sighed and continued down the school's main plaza. The sunlight was so thin now, so weak. The ailing sun dipped partially behind a clump of trees and the whole row of metal lamps on either side of me groaned and shattered, their ruined bulbs raining glass upon the walkway.
I reached the Clock Tower, the center of this world, and turned to watch a civilization die.
As the coal-black trees swallowed another portion of the sun, the whole sprawling campus reverberated with a horrible scream. The spirits of the school, of paintings and sonnets and theorems and treatises and students long gone, were crying out, running in panic through doors and along corridors as the force of the sun's horrible descent pulled on them.
All their efforts were for naught, though. They were living in the illumination of embers. They were doomed.
Across from me, a tree shrieked and split in two, its pieces flying into the sky with those of a hundred others that had also broken and been rent from the ground. It was starting to pick up.
The parking deck across the street from Jorge collapsed like a plate of sodden pancakes and slid, one rubble floor after another, into the growing blackness metastasizing in the pit where the sun was succumbing.
The western wall of the library blew open in a great shower of red bricks, its millions of volumes spilling into the air and flying torn and tattered over the roofs of crumbling structures. The library itself, ancient and weathered, could bear only so much, and after a few moments of this unholy assault it crumpled in a massive heap of soot, metal and mortar.
I gasped and seized the base of the Clock Tower in time to see a group of painted benches go soaring into the melee.
Behind me the Freshman Circle, the primordial gateway through which countless generations, including my own, had been inducted, burned bright red and ground into the earth, its pulverized ash making a billowing scarlet cloud that floated across campus.
The Student Village was next. Its pillared brick residences, clinging to the edge of the horizon, detached fully intact from the ground and flew in a cacophony of grinding brick and snapping steel into the maelstrom. In Old Dorm, where I'd met some of the best friends I'd ever had, the hallways turned into deadly funnels of flying glass and enamel as windows burst and sinks flew free from their moorings.
I hadn't cried until then, but seeing that hallowed place so desecrated pushed me over the edge.
"Good," I called out
"Hang on, BB," a voice whispered back. "It'll be over soon."
She was right. Only a few slivers of sunlight remained, and with them was going the greatest of all our bulwarks.
The Central Hall moaned like a harpooned whale and shook to its foundations.
The great central staircase went first, collapsing in a sudden swooping rush. The Hall continued to shake, though.
Its famed soaring balconies had hosted presidents, dignitaries, firebrands, and pop stars; had housed one of the greatest repositories of knowledge in the world; and had witnessed the mundane joys and travails of thousands of students. Now they folded in on themselves and cascaded in a wave of spectacular destruction through the cavernous atrium. Tens of thousands of volumes were dumped in a living landfill with backpacks, computers, works of art, and fast food wrappers, the good with the bad, the great with the meaningless. All of it went together.
The white summit of the building wavered and then, like the rest of the the Hall, fell with a mighty roar.
Jorge looked back at me, then back at the ruined edifice to which he'd been sentinel for decades, and at last turned his steely eyes into the blackness that flowed over the horizon.
With a great bellow he leapt forward from his pedestal and followed the Hall's crushed remains as they flew into the vortex of dying light.
I didn't call after him. There would have been no point.
The air around me was a chaotic whirlwind of airborne stone and steel, its gales filled with the detritus of a million memories all hurtling to oblivion. Every building, every structure, every bicycle and comic book and blade of grass and disintegrating brick was rushing through the sky. Nothing was untouched. Even the metal beneath my hand sagged and screamed as if it had been lacerated.
I jumped back as the Clock Tower twisted and plunged onto the liquefying tarmac with a great shattering clang. I shuddered at the sight of its still hands frozen in eternal ruin. They had no time left to tell. And then, like everything else, they, too, were sucked into the furious sky.
That crumpled green sphere was the last thing to go. It disappeared over the edge of being with the final piteous ray of light and all at once the chorus of misery that had resounded over all creation was silenced. The sun had set on the expired age. In its wake, there was nothing left. Within a moment no hint existed of the just-murdered world. Instead there was black, endless, enveloping, formless black. It wasn't anything in particular. It was just nothing.
I stood alone in it, in the dense quiet, and realized I was no longer afraid. This wasn't, as I'd feared, the graveyard of a dead world. Instead it was the empty foundation of a world that hadn't been built yet.
I gazed up into a sky waiting to be filled. In the distance I could see a single star.