David leaned against the wooden rail that lined the small back deck of the house. His ungloved hands clasped one another over the side of the rail in an attempt to ward off the sting of the still winter air. Better out here than inside, he thought to himself as he began disinterestedly surveying the nightscape before him.
The moon cast a silver glow on the earth below, illuminating it for David’s viewing even without the aid of street lights. The house itself was only a few miles from the center of town, but even this short distance was great enough that a stranger would be unaware that a small city was just a few streets away. Standing on the backside of the house, David could see nothing – not even the neighboring houses – except for trees and a horse pasture beyond them. The trees were barren, having long since lost their leaves in the unseasonably cool autumn. There were no horses out to pasture – none visible, anyway – and the grasses had yellowed with winter’s onset.
Behind him, David could hear the monotonous bass line of the music – was it music? They called it music. As far as he was concerned, the cacophony of sounds being blasted over an electric amplifier within the house was anything but music.
There was no point to it – any of it. The music, the drunkenness, and the gratuitous vulgarity of the scene behind him were better suited to some bygone tribe of savage barbarians. They sought enjoyment in writhing their bodies like a bunch of Neanderthals around a fire, forgoing any sense of control or direction in their movements. Perhaps there was no other kind of “dancing,” as they called it, that could complement the “music” so well, which itself conveyed nothing but wild, undirected, and thus purposeless energy.
David never understood the allure of such behavior. While the supposed future doctors, lawyers, engineers, politicians, businessmen, and other professionals inside the house – his classmates – intentionally poisoned themselves on a routine basis, David never drank. He had tried some wine overseas at one point, but he disliked both taste and effect. Accordingly, he never consumed alcohol again, though he never begrudged another man for doing so. If a man wanted to share a drink with friends and loved ones in celebration of life, David actually encouraged it, and mocked any notion that a man should abstain from drink due to religious prohibitions. “If the Lord had intended drinking alcohol to be a sin,” he once chided his own preacher, “why then did He turn water to wine at a wedding? Just for the pleasure of making the wedding party go thirsty?” But the kind drinking going on behind him was not for the sake of enjoying life; it was for avoiding it.
In the distance, the steady hum of a plane’s engine tweaked David’s ear. He looked above the treetops in search of the passing aircraft, scanning the skies for the lights that most certainly dotted its wings, tail, and fuselage. Seeing none, he shrugged and contented himself with just listening as it made its way across the sky, obscured from his view. David had always possessed a particular fascination with aircraft. They were more than mere vessels to transport man from one location to the next. To him, aircraft captured the very essence of the triumphant spirit of man, a being who, having no gills or fins, traverses oceans on ships the size of skyscrapers; a being who, without wings, soars through the skies in crafts constructed from hundreds of thousands of pounds of metal; a being who, without limit, shot himself into the heavens and observed the earth from above.
David smiled at his own thoughts and looked up at the moon as the whirr of the plane’s engine quietly receded into the night. He took a moment to admire the sight, but not for its beauty or the vast emptiness between himself and the rock hurtling through space above him. Rather, he admired man’s capacity to cross that emptiness, and to plant his footprint on an alien planet. By its very existence, the expanse between the earth and moon dared man to cross it. Man accepted that challenge, and won.
A loud crash erupted from within the house, followed immediately by the drunken laughter of the partygoers. Somewhere inside, David imagined a pre-medical student, soaked in his own beer, being helped to his feet by a snickering pre-law student, too inebriated to register that the smashed lamp on the floor was his.
Across the room, a young woman who aspired to become a diplomat returned to making out with the future engineer in whose lap she sat. The young man eagerly returned her sloppily-planted kisses, anticipating the now inevitable conclusion of the night: retreating to his bedroom with a girl whose name he did not know and did not care to know.
She cared as little for his affection as he did for hers. He was merely one of many who had been in the same situation before. To her, all men were scum, and sleeping with them indiscriminately was but an expression of her sexual freedom over them. Her ability as a woman to move from one man to another without even the pretense of moral reservation or emotional attachment was a mark of her self-esteem – the self-inflicted scars on her wrists were another.
Elsewhere in the house, a physics major and a chemistry student began the fifth round of racing one another in bouncing a quarter off the tabletop and into their shot glasses before drinking.
A young woman with the ambition to become a psychologist flailed her arms wildly to the music after taking some pills procured from an English student who yearned to someday be a writer.
Others danced just as mindlessly alongside her without the aid of narcotics.
Many exchanged gossip of the most trivial sort: who was sleeping with whom, who had been arrested, where whatshisname or whatshername from high school was now, and so on.
Most simply milled about aimlessly, with neither direction nor the desire to acquire one.
David inhaled deeply, filling every inch of his chest with the cold December air. “Come on, David,” they had said, “why do you have to always be so uptight? Live a little!” He exhaled, forming a small cloud of steam from his nose as he did so.
I’m the only one at this party who even wants to live, he thought. He leisurely took another full breath of air, wholly appreciating the chilling sensation in his lungs and the feeling of his lifeblood rewarming them. More than anyone else inside, he was alive. He knew life’s true value, and he intended to exploit it for everything it was worth.
His classmates had used the date as an excuse for the night’s recreation, not that they needed one. It was not exceptional for them to drink themselves to a stupor. Indeed, it was the norm. It was unusual, however, that David should accompany them.
For years, tonight’s date had been the center of entirely unjustified attention. It would have otherwise been no different from the other three hundred sixty-five days of the year, and it had not been to this point, were it not for some mystic prophecy from over a millennium ago. The people that produced it had long since vanished from the earth’s face, their temples and monuments – consecrated with the blood of human sacrifice to appease their savage gods – consumed by the jungle. Though they could track the course of the moon, stars, and other celestial bodies through the night sky, they could not prevent the inevitable collapse of their own society. In devoting the best minds among them to studying astrology in the service of their gods, they sealed their own fate. Divining the will of the gods by predicting eclipses and planetary alignments could not rescue them from whatever famine, drought, or pestilence that wiped them from history.
But their prophecy remained, even if no modern scholar could honestly claim that he understood its meaning. David had always attributed this to the simple fact that the prophecy had no meaning, and never did even on the day it was muttered by some ancient priest in a hallucinogenic trance. That the earth was marked for a cataclysmic transformation, or even its destruction, on this day by some superstitious primitive because the stars indicated such, as some self-proclaimed experts on the subject had asserted, meant nothing to him.
Very few actually believed the world would end on this day; those that did had likely already given away all their possessions or were currently huddling in the well-stocked “doomsday” shelters constructed beneath their houses. To many others, the prophecy was significant only insofar as it served as a proxy for an actual end-of-the-world scenario. What if man only had one more day to live? How would he live it? That was the cause for the occasion – to act as if there were no tomorrow, even though there was.
And so they were acting. Though their behavior tonight was no different than it had been so many nights before, David’s classmates were carrying on exactly as they would were the world actually set to end that night.
At a university that taught them that their minds were impotent, David’s classmates intentionally dulled their cognition with drugs and alcohol. In a culture that told them that love was but a manufactured illusion, they sought companionship in the same manner as animals and for the same mechanical purpose. In a society that dictated that pride was a sin, they sought to demonstrate how very lowly they thought of themselves. In a nation that declared that someone else was responsible for their achievements, they sought success only as a chore and took no pleasure in it once attained. In a world that proclaimed that the whole purpose of their existence was to live for others, they were destroying their own lives. Though none would admit it, the poor sots within the house harbored a secret desire in their breasts that the prophecy would be true, that the world would end, that they would perish in fire and brimstone, and that they would no longer have to endure the terrifying world beyond the front door – a world that, they were told, they could not and need not understand, and that despised anyone who tried.
The muffled beating of the music suddenly increased in volume. Both the music and the mindless chatter going on behind David could, for some reason, be heard with absolute clarity. And then, just as quickly as the sound had grown louder, it dampened again to its original level as the back door of the house closed with a soft thud. David peered over his shoulder to identify the intruder. It was Emma, blowing warm air into her hands as she vigorously rubbed them together, trying to acclimate to the near-freezing weather.
“What are you doing out here?” she inquired as she made her way to the end of the deck to join him. He did not break his gaze from her as she walked, calmly examining the way she moved until she reached the rail and leaned on it herself, looking out through the trees at the horse pasture. Being a head taller than Emma, he watched as the moon shone on the smooth brown hair adorning her head and accented the gentle profile of her face.
“I was beginning to think you had decided not to come,” he responded, disregarding her previous question. He kept his face turned toward her as his forearms rested on the rail. She continued to observe the landscape while she answered.
“Almost,” she said. “I’m not really the partying type.” Though she had finished, David added nothing, patiently waiting for her to continue. The corner of her mouth contracted into a contemptuous little smirk, reflecting her tone of mild agitation. “Michelle just insisted that I had to come, but she’s already upstairs with some random boy she just met tonight, not that I’m surprised.”
“So why did you?” David was not prying, just sincerely curious. Of everyone who was expected to be at the party, Emma was the only one to whom David was willing to devote his attention – she was the only one who deserved any.
With her inspection of the view complete, Emma sighed and lowered her head. The annoyed look on her face relaxed into a genuine smile beneath the elegant waves of her long hair. She turned her head to meet David’s eyes. “You never answered my question,” she prodded. “Why are you out here in the cold?”
“There was nothing to do inside,” he stated matter-of-factly.
“Alright, so what is there to do outside?”
“Out here I can think.”
“Why there’s nothing to do inside.” Emma laughed and the pair exchanged smiles. After a pause, David took a moment to admire the young woman standing in front of him, and Emma, in turn, let herself be admired. His eyes unhurriedly studied each and every feature of her face while hers, bright green even in the dim light of the moon, stared inquisitively back. David’s gaze traced the outline of her form, falling from the softness of her cheek to the graceful curve of her neck. Below her winter coat, a light gray skirt revealed the greater portion of her legs in defiance of the cold. When his eyes finally returned to hers, he knew that she had been silently scrutinizing him as well.
“It’s like you haven’t changed at all,” she said quietly. David raised an eyebrow, indicating he wished for further clarification. “I mean, you look older,” she explained, “but you haven’t changed. It’s like you’re the exact same person you were three years ago.”
David chuckled. “Well that’s because I am.”
“Oh, you know what I mean!” she said, pushing him lightly on his chest. “It’s just… difficult to explain.”
“I do,” he nodded. “I know what you mean.” And truly he did, because she did not appear to have changed either, except he could identify what it was that both had maintained through the years while others had lost it: it was their youth, the excited optimism with which they greeted the world, confronted its challenges, and reaped its rewards. It was the love of life and a zealous enthusiasm for living that she saw in him and he saw in her, the same love of and fascination with the world that had since been squelched in so many others, including their classmates inside. He knew that this is what had not changed in either his face or hers. This is what Emma saw in the relaxed countenance of his expression, even if she could not fully recognize it.
David, however, had noticed it in her early on, as far back as high school. He had always admired Emma’s demeanor – the potential she displayed in everything that she did, her acknowledgment of that potential, and her thirst to actualize it. In time, David understood that his attraction to her was more than friendly admiration; it was love, in the sincerest sense. With that knowledge in hand, he pursued a relationship with her and won it – he jealously guarding the spark that he saw in her, and she striving to comprehend the same spark that she saw in him.
The two separated on reasonable terms when they arrived at college. With the increasing strain induced by her academic courses, Emma thought it unfair to ask David to continue a relationship with a girl who did not have the time to act very much like a girlfriend. David did not protest. Though he loved her dearly, he could not and would not ask her to sacrifice her collegiate studies on his behalf.
Years had passed since then. They had only seen each other sporadically over the same period, and tonight was the first occasion the two had been alone together since their last date. Both were the same. The university had not extinguished their sparks.
Emma was the first to break the silence. “David, explain something to me, and be honest.”
“I know you don’t like the people inside…”
“I don’t,” he admitted. He had only a feeling of utmost contempt for each of them.
“… and I know you don’t enjoy this kind of party…”
“Right.” Again, she was correct. David detested these sorts of gatherings, and almost never attended them.
“… so why are you here?”
David released a single laugh and, gesturing upward to the sky above the pasture, exclaimed, “It’s the end of the world, isn’t it?”
This puzzled Emma. She knew David was too intelligent to give in to such hype. “I know you don’t believe that.”
“Do they?” he asked, jerking his head lightly toward the house.
Emma turned halfway around. Through the window, she could see several of the party guests heading toward the television in the den. It was close to midnight, and the countdown for “surviving the apocalypse” was likely to begin soon.
She turned back to David. “Well, I certainly hope not.”
He grinned, knowing she found their behavior as contemptible as he did. “Alright – then why are they throwing this party?”
It was Emma’s turn to wait quietly for David to continue. She was naturally pondering his question, but she was well aware that she did not have the answer for which he was looking.
“Because tonight,” he went on, “is not about whether the world will actually end. It’s about how people would spend their last day on earth if they knew there was no tomorrow. This is how they want to spend their last night alive.” He pointed back at the house, and then lowered his hand. “And this is how I want to spend mine.”
Emma was now more confused than she had been before. “Attending a party you don’t want to be at with people you don’t want to be around?” she asked, her tone imploring him to provide further assistance.
“TEN!!” The countdown to midnight was underway. “NINE!!”
David smiled and lowered his face, shaking his head as he did so. Then he lifted his head and, placing his right hand on her shoulder, looked her squarely in the eyes. “SIX!!”
“With you,” he said, moving his hand from her shoulder to the nape of her neck, recalling the feeling of her hair and skin on his fingertips. “I want to spend it with you.”
“THREE!!” Emma blushed, not knowing how to respond. She smiled and laughed nervously, embarrassed that she had not understood him the first time.
“ONE!!” David pulled her close and brought his lips to hers. Emma offered no resistance, returning his kiss as soon as she was able to register what has happening. She slowly wrapped her arms around his neck, and he encircled her waist with his own. The two continued exchanging kisses while those in the house traded drunken cheers about having survived the end of the world with a few “Happy New Years!” sprinkled throughout from those too drunk to remember why they were drinking in the first place.
At length, they ceased kissing. Emma rested her head on David’s chest, and he leaned his cheek against her head. For a time, they did nothing but stand there, holding each other in the early hours of the morning while a thin white frost crept over the ground. Eventually, Emma found the words that expressed the thoughts filling her head. She did not speak them aloud, because she knew that there was no need. She knew that David already perfectly understood life’s brevity and value. She knew that were he sure of the world’s impending destruction, David was one of the few men on the face of the earth who could be proud of a life well-lived. She also knew – clearly, for the first time in her life – how deeply she loved him for that fact, for his sense of life, and for his unassailable integrity to his sense of life. Emma tightened her grip, lightly increasing the pressure of her arms on David’s body in fear of letting him go as she had done but a few years before. She was not concerned about David, who she knew would continue life as fully as he had done all his days on this earth. Rather, she worried about betraying herself and the sanctity of her own life by forgoing intimacy with the one soul she had ever encountered that embodied all that she found venerable and virtuous in man. As David’s arms responded to her invitation by pressing her body nearer to his, her fears evaporated, and she resolved simply to not let them come to pass.
David pulled his head back to look down at the girl in his arms. She did the same to look up at him. He kissed her once more, returned his head to hers, and held her tightly.
In the distance, the frozen air of a new winter day reverberated with the gentle sound of a passing plane.