One week prior, Lois had been taking her lunch break when the news was announced that a team of marine biologists had discovered the literal edge of the world. The break room television, which was never on, displayed the newscaster. He was visibly shaken, the headline flashing across the bottom of the screen.
Everyone wanted to know what was over the edge. There was plenty of speculation, anything from empty space to the depths of hell itself. Evangelists preached that Jesus’ return was nigh. Most scientists agreed it was simply the extreme shifting of tectonic plates, though they were divided as to whether the cause was related to climate change or not. Several governments attempted to declare and cordon off portions of the edge for their respective country while others denied its existence completely. Even the International Space Station was no longer broadcasting its live feeds.
The discovery changed nothing for Lois, however, at least, not significantly. Life was more or less the same as it had always been. She was still a single mother who lived in a small town and worked in a manufacturing facility, far from the edge. That day had been like any other, waking up ahead of the sun, getting her children ready and out the door fast enough to beat the interstate traffic. The night before, she’d set out their clothes, prepared their breakfasts, and loaded the coffee maker for the morning. It was supposed to afford her an extra twenty minutes of sleep, but her son, Ezra, woke before his normal time, meaning she did as well. The earth could have turned into a rhombus. She wasn’t losing any more sleep than before.
“How do you know the edge is even real?” Mike, the janitor where Lois worked, leaned on his mop. “Or what if the government knew about it the whole time and was just lying to us?”
“I guess you don’t,” said Lois, taking a bite of her sandwich.
“Why keep it a secret?” Eddie wondered aloud from the other side of the breakroom.
“The question isn’t why keep it.” Mike replied. “The question is, why let the secret out now?”
Lois chewed slowly, considering his point. If it indeed was a well-kept secret, there was certainly some reason for its revelation. What did it have to do with her, though? She had a car payment to make and summer clothes to buy for the kids.
The earth could have turned into a rhombus. She wasn’t losing any more sleep than before.
Her cousin Beth called her that evening, as did her mother and her brother Simon.
“What do you think it is?” Beth asked.
“What do you mean? It’s the edge,” she answered.
“I know, but what is it? I wish I could go see. Can you imagine being at the world’s edge, looking over?”
“No, not really.”
“Have you made things right with God?”
“I’m not dying, Mama.”
“No, but the times are getting more and more queer.”
“First of all, please try using a word other than queer. Secondly, nothing is any crazier now than it was before. In fifty years, it’ll be just another fact of life. The earth has an edge.”
“The earth isn’t supposed to have an edge, Lois. This is a sign from God. The Lord is coming soon. Even the Reverend Gillis says so. There was an emergency meeting called at the church last night, and he said that God told him to get his flock ready.”
“A lot of people have been believing a lot of things for a long time. The world just keeps on spinning.”
“For all you know, the earth hasn’t been spinning at all. You’ve got to face the facts, Sis. You need to start stocking up on canned goods, rice, distilled water. Batteries. Gasoline. Have you ever seen Mad Max?”
“No, Simon, and I doubt I ever will.”
“What makes you think society is going to remain intact forever?”
“You need to invest in a gun. I have a few extra with some rounds that you can have.”
“A few extra? How many do you have?”
“Lois, I’ve been preparing for this day for a long time. I have as many as I need.”
“Well, I don’t need a gun, much less a few of them.”
“Do you think they might open it up as a vacation destination?” asked Beth. “Can you imagine getting married at the world’s end? That’s more romantic than Niagara Falls.”
“I can’t imagine getting married at all. If I did get married again, I wouldn’t oppose doing it there so I could immediately jump off.” Lois chuckled to herself.
“Lois Mariah Hart, this is not a joking matter.”
“You start joking about the will of God, and you won’t be laughing very long. You remember what happened to all the people who laughed at Noah when he was building the ark.”
“God drowned them.”
“You bet he did, and don’t you forget it. You need to start praying, Lois. Pray for your soul. And if not for yourself, then for Ezra and Harmony. They shouldn’t suffer because their mother’s an atheist.”
“For the last time, Mama, I’m not an atheist. And if you recall, when I was growing up, your church was the bar at the end of the street.”
“And look at what happened. My son is a maniac and my daughter is a heathen.” She sighed. “I don’t deny I made plenty of mistakes, but God forgave me of those sins, Lois. They don’t matter anymore.”
“If that were true, then I wouldn’t be a heathen, and Simon wouldn’t be a maniac.”
“I’m not a maniac,” Simon insisted. “Why does she always say that?”
“Maybe because you have a thousand square foot bunker behind your house.”
“I’m a maniac because I’m prepared? You know something, Lois, the earth and nature and the order of things hasn’t changed just because there’s civilization and technology. The world is still the same as it always has been, and we’re at the same risk of extinction as any other species.”
“But it isn’t the same, though, is it? At least, not for everyone else.”
“You live on this planet, too, Sis.”
“I know where I live, and where I live doesn’t have an edge.”
The following day, there were numerous accounts from multiple sources that hundreds of people had been seen jumping off the edge of the world. Evidential footage played over and over on the break room television. Trying to disregard the whole thing, Lois began eating her lunches with her back to the screen.
“Mom,” said Ezra from the back seat, “why do people want to die?”
“People don’t want to die. Why are you asking me that?” Lois asked, feigning ignorance.
“But people are trying die.”
“I don’t know… people.”
“The ones who keep jumping off the edge,” Harmony interjected. “They’re trying to die, right?”
“Who told you that?” The two children shrugged. “I swear to god, why can’t people just leave kids—” Lois silenced herself when she saw them in the rearview listening to her. “Don’t worry about that, guys. Okay? Some things are hard to understand sometimes, but you can’t spend your time thinking about it.”
She’d not wanted them to know about what had been happening. Life was already volatile enough without the thought of human beings jumping off the edge of the earth into oblivion. And why? She couldn’t even tell. The general consensus was that they either were fed up with the world or that they thought maybe whatever was in the unknown depths was something better. Heaven perhaps. But heaven is in the sky, isn’t it?
“Hey, Eddie. Where’s Mary Beth and Tony? I can’t keep taking these extra shifts.”
“I don’t know,” said Eddie. “It’s unusual for sure. One more no-call no-show and they’re out. All this in the news about people disappearing… makes you wonder.”
“Disappearing?” asked Lois, who had begun taking her lunch outside. “What are you talking about?”
“It started with those people jumping off the edge. Now, folks are disappearing left and right without a trace. I think they’ve estimated almost ten million people worldwide.”
“That can’t be possible,” she said with little conviction.
“You know, I feel like that statement doesn’t apply to much anymore.”
Lois caught her mind wandering, likely due to her exhaustion, and realized that she accidentally misaligned the printing lasers by half a centimeter, doubling the smiley faces on what she assumed were lollipop wrappers. How many containers had been botched? Lois had no way to know, and perhaps, if this were a few weeks ago, she would have reported it.
Several days later, Lois watched from her bedroom window as a military Humvee patrolled her neighborhood. She couldn’t understand the call for martial law. People had been disappearing, people she knew, but she still had a job to go to. Bills still had to be paid. She needed her children to have an education. What would she do if the schools closed down like they said they would?
…they thought maybe whatever was in the unknown depths was something better. Heaven perhaps. But heaven is in the sky, isn’t it?
Lois’ sister and mother hadn’t called in some time, and Simon wasn’t answering his phone. She wondered if perhaps he was hiding out in his bunker. Or, perhaps he’d been arrested by the National Guard. What if he’d disappeared, too? That night she slept with her children in her bed. The darkness was thicker than ever outside, pierced by the spotlights of passing military patrols. Every so often, gunshots rang out, a dog barked, a cry silenced.
Lois had decided to take her brother’s advice and bought perishable goods, though she was unable to get any substantial amount. Still, they were having filling meals, rice and beans, nuts, canned fruits and vegetables, and powdered milk. She had been fortunate as a child that her mother took the time to teach her how to cook, and not simply from a recipe. Ezra asked how long they would have to go without cheese, and Lois, with all the confidence she could display, assured him that everything would be back to normal within the next week or two.
When three weeks had gone by without any improvements, however, Lois realized she would need to start rationing their food. It was difficult having to limit her children from consuming what would have otherwise been a hearty meal. The boredom didn’t help their hunger either. Schools were closed, and with the count of almost half a billion people over the edge, daycares were overflowing. Lois began giving Harmony and Ezra lessons, lessons about the earth and how to make things grow, lessons on grammar and language, about how to work more complex mathematics. One evening, after lighting the candles to conserve electricity as ordered, she explored the back of an old storage closet to find her old guitar. It was out of tune and dusted. However, once she had the strings tuned enough, she began teaching them the song her father sang to her at night, the only song she knew how to play.
Won’t you let me come ‘round
Come ‘round to the harbor
Where the ships have all moored
For the night
I will sing you a song
A song under the arbor
Of the water, the waves,
And the tide.
“Do you have your identification?” the soldier asked. Without hesitating, Lois presented her driver’s license. “Alright, ma’am. Just take your ticket and basket and go wait in the holding block. They’ll call you shortly.”
Lois entered a fenced in area at the entrance of the grocery store. Apparently, with the population in crisis, there were no workers to farm, none to package goods, fewer to ship and deliver them. Just as equally, however, with the population in crisis, there were fewer people to share rations with. Lois was flushed with joy a few minutes later when she saw a row of chicken breasts. Altogether, she took home the meat, five boxes of stuffing, five cans of mixed vegetables, two boxes of instant mashed potatoes, a small tomato that had been growing in someone’s garden, and an emergency kit handed out to each household.
“Tonight, we’ll have a feast,” she thought.
The smell of the meat cooking that evening made their stomachs grumble and their mouths salivate like never before. As they ate, they laughed and talked as in times not so long ago, but so far removed. Lois hadn’t forgotten, however, and once she was sure her children were asleep, she cried quietly to herself, realizing that such times would be scarce. This was now the way of things. This was life. How did it change so quickly?
Money was worth no more than kindling for a fire. Food and medical supplies had become the new currency. Pharmacies and warehouses had been raided before being placed under government control. Helicopters droned by regularly. She no longer heard the gunshots because they had become as commonplace as a singing bird or chirping cricket. Except, she could hear the absence of the birds and the silence in the evenings without crickets.
“Stop it!” she thought to herself. “Stop it! This isn’t the end of the world!”
“Identification.” Lois presented her license again to the soldier. “Where is your stamp?”
“You need a certification stamp to enter.”
“How do I get that?”
“You have to go to your district’s assigned station.”
“Where is that?”
“What district are you?”
“I don’t know. I live on Newton Road.”
“You’re going to need to tell me more than that, ma’am. I’m not from here so I don’t know where Newton Road is. Didn’t your district leader give you a map?”
“My district leader?”
“Yes. He should have given you a pamphlet with all the information you need.”
“No one told me anything about this. I didn’t even know that there were districts.. I just need to get food. My children need to eat.”
“Can’t do that without a stamp, ma’am.”
“Please, I don’t know where to go.”
“I’m going to need you to leave the premises ma’am. You know what you need to get in.”
No, no, no, no! She didn’t know. How was she supposed to know? Lois’s mind was reeling, the heat of exhausted fury hotter than its ignition, and she was at her end. What was she supposed to do? Her mind collapsed into hysteria, and two minutes later, she was thrown to the sidewalk. The guard snatched her license from her hand and punched a single hole into its center.
“Your license has been revoked, and you are no longer permitted on these premises. Do you understand me?”
“What?! No! How am I supposed to feed my children? What am I supposed to do?” Lois’ was on her knees, hands limp, her eyes swollen with tears.
“I don’t know, ma’am,” he shrugged. “Use your emergency kit.”
Lois sat there for nearly two hours, silent, expressionless. As far away as the edge was and as much as she’d tried to ignore it, it had somehow reached her, and now she too was falling into her own oblivion. There was no end in sight, as she had tried to convince herself. There was no more normal. Living had become one’s work, one’s chore, one’s burden. Living was a curse. Living was what people meant when they said ‘go to hell’.
She no longer heard the gunshots because they had become as commonplace as a singing bird or chirping cricket.
That night with empty bellies, she held her children in their bed. Ezra and Harmony had cried themselves to sleep. She no longer had the ability to cry, even if she’d wanted. Outside, a storm had begun, the winds howling increasingly louder around their home. What was she supposed to do?
The emergency kit. Why had the guard said to use the emergency kit? At the moment, she’d thought he was being facetious. Now, however, her mind could not rest for curiosity.
Lois slipped out from the bed and walked quietly to the kitchen. She had put it somewhere, she knew. It hadn’t seemed important at the time. After a minute of searching in the dark, she found the black plastic bag with a perforated end to tear open. She ripped it off and emptied the contents on the table, holding the candle near to get a better look. It seemed an average emergency kit. There was a tourniquet, a flare, two packs of pain relievers, a stitching needle and thread, iodine packets, gauze, wraps, band aids, and antiseptic cream. Lois stared at the pile, disappointed.
As she sat back, however, the flickering glow of the candle cast a light on the pain relievers. What had seemed to be two packets was actually one, and another of something completely different. A familiar, double-printed face smiled up at her. They stared into each other’s empty eyes for several minutes, and slowly, Lois began to find comfort in the smile. She tore open the packet and poured the contents into her hand. Four capsules, unmarked, red and white 1,000mg each. 1,000 mg of what? It didn’t matter. The smiley face was enough.
Lois watched her children sleeping for a long time as the rain poured outside. She loved them, didn’t she? Yes. Of course, she did. They were her everything, her reason for existence. But what of their existence? How many more nights must they cry themselves to sleep as they slowly starve to death? Without a word, she took a single glass of water and broke the capsule, pouring the contents in. It mixed without a trace, and she did the same with the remaining three.
“Ezra, Harmony,” Lois said, rubbing their arms comfortingly. “I got you some water. Here.” Bleary eyes, Harmony took the water first, drank, handed it to Ezra who drank then returned the rest to Lois. Looking over them for a long moment as they returned to sleep, she finished the water.
Lois returned to the kitchen, washed the glass, and went back to bed.