From the author: They find themselves at the End of Time. They want a picnic. And meaning. Before they step through.
When they reached the End of Time Monica demanded a picnic.
"A picnic," said Alan.
"A picnic," repeated Monica.
"With what food?"
She rummaged in her bag. "Two chocolate bars, and a single serving box of cornflakes."
"That isn't a picnic," said Alan, suddenly shivering, but not from cold.
The End of Time was an utterly barren place, not cold, not hot, not moist, not dry, just, just – empty, was the only word that came to Alan's mind. It stretched around them, for endless empty miles, light brown sand dunes and deadened grass, with only a tall iron gate in the center of this nothingness to mark the end. It was, in his opinion, a terrible place for a picnic.
"It's all in the arrangements," Monica said, and knelt. From her bag, she drew out an old towel, and spread it in front of her knees, and then carefully placed the box of cornflakes in front of her, placing one chocolate bar on each side of the box at an exact equal distance. "Come on. Picnic."
"Or we could just go in."
"Picnic first," Monica announced.
The gate should have had an aura of dread, of power, or of happiness, or light, or – it should have had an aura. In all the stories, all the movies, all the books he had seen or read, final gates had a – something – about them. This gate was just – tall. And it was a gate, most certainly: two dark grey pillars stretching up endlessly before them, joined by wrought iron gates, closed against visitors. The gates were utterly plain, barren of any decorative pattern that he could see; the pillars, at a distance, had seemed to have lines and patterns to them, but when he walked up to look at them closely, he could see that they were utterly unmarked, utterly ordinary, utterly plain. Except that this was the End of Time. And except – caught by something, he looked closer.
He could not tell if the pillars were made of stone, or wood, or plastic, or some other substance. He reached out a hand towards them. Almost, he sensed, he could feel a buzzing sensation, as if he were touching something filled with static electricity. He hesitated, and then suddenly touched the pillars. Nothing. Only a slick surface, as smooth as highly polished rock, although warmer and slightly softer than rock. Petrified wood, perhaps, although as soon as he thought that, he knew he was wrong. His fingers glided over the surface. Some ordinary extraordinary substance. He looked at the gates between the pillars. Those, he sensed, were pure cold iron. He found himself shivering again. He could not tell what had caught his eye, but despite the utter plainness of the gates and the columns, he thought something seemed wrong with them.
"Picnic," repeated Monica.
"I can't believe that we've reached here, and your main thought is to eat."
She looked at the gates. "I can't believe that we should go through them without eating."
"Is that what we're going to be doing? Going through them?"
"Why else are we here?" she asked. She opened the box of cornflakes. "Come on. Eat."
He stepped away from the gates and sat down across from her, staring at the cornflakes and the chocolate bar. "Why are we here?" he asked.
She took a bite of chocolate. "Go on, eat," she urged. When he did not reach for the food, she sighed. "You might as well ask how we got here."
He opened his mouth to ask that, and found his mind flinching away from the question and its answer. They had walked to the End of Time, he knew—he remembered that; but he could not remember why, or how they had started the trip, only that it had been a long, rocky path.
"Is it what you expected, at the end?"
Monica stared at the gate. "The difference between us," she said, finally, "is that I never really expected anything. Anything at all. Not – not back there, not on the way, not here."
"I expected –"
"Meaning. It’s what you always expected. No, not expected. Wanted."
"And you didn't?"
"I don't think so," she said. "Although here, at the end – I can't be sure."
He finally reached down and opened the chocolate bar, taking a bite. "I don't think I expected meaning," he said, while the chocolate was still melting in his mouth. "I think I expected an utter end. And not a beginning."
Monica looked at the gate. "That might be what this is, you know. An utter end."
"Then why does it have an entrance?"
They both stared at the pillars and the gate between them. Monica reached out a hand and touched the gate, and snatched her hand back quickly. "Ouch," she cried out. "It burns."
"It's hot?" asked Alan, surprised.
"No," she said, clutching her hand to her chest. "No. It’s so cold that it burns." She pushed her hand out briefly to show him, and he saw the brilliant red markings crossing her palm. He remembered, not entirely irrelevantly, that they had no medical supplies at hand.
"That should go away in time," he said.
She looked at him. "In time," she repeated.
"Yes." A memory came back to him. "Like the time I burned my foot when the water in the bathtub was too hot, remember? It seemed to take forever, but it just took time."
"But we don't have any time," she said. "This is the end."
They both turned and stared at the gate.
"In which case we don’t have any time for a picnic," he said.
"Or we have endless time for a picnic," she answered.
"This is how you want to spend the end of time?" he asked. "On cornflakes and chocolate and not healing?"
"It's what we have," she said. "I won't have time to heal. I wouldn't even at the other side of this, the beginning."
"Picnic," he said.
"Picnic," she agreed.
So they sat down again by the cloth again and ate the cornflakes and the chocolate bars, slowly, lingering, although Monica's face flinched every time her burns touched the food, or indeed anything else.
"We're ready, I think," Alan said.
"Any time," Monica said.
"Well, this is any time."
"And ending time."
"We've said that."
They stared at the pillars and the iron gates hanging between them.
"We could walk around them," said Alan.
"And waste the picnic?" asked Monica.
"Point," said Alan.
He took a step towards the gates.
"Anything else that you want to do?" he asked.
Monica thought. "Maybe," she said. "Maybe not."
"Anything else that you wish you'd done?" he asked.
Her eyes in the endless light were luminous and utterly unreadable. "I've reached the End of Time," she said. "What more could I wish to have done?"
"I don't know," he said.
He tried, for a moment, to think of his own life, of the twisted path that had led him to these gates, of the things he and done and not done. But the barren landscape around him washed out those thoughts, washed out his mind, and he found he could think of nothing but Time.
"Right," he said, and reached out to take her hand. She flinched as he grabbed it. They stepped forward, staring at the iron gates. He breathed deeply. "We're ready," he said, and placed his other hand on the gates.
The pain shocked him, but he pressed forward, only half noticing that Monica, too, was pushing the gates with her free hand, gritting her teeth against the pain. With both their hands against the iron, the gates gave a horrible creaking sound that echoed through the barrenness. And then they were open, and they could not see the other side.
"Really ready?" he said.
"Yes," she said.
And with that, they stepped through, leaving time behind them.
This story originally appeared in Desolate Places, Hadley Rille Books.