“Unfortunately, you have not been accepted,” she said. The young man frowned. He lowered his eyes, as if refusing to face reality, which was another day in the same old town, barely surviving on his wage. He wanted out of this dead end, out of the country. He had been told that with his qualification, it would be easy to find a better job elsewhere. It proved more difficult than he could ever imagine. Short story by Mileva Anastasiadou.
“You should not lose all hope” she said, staring at him smiling. “You can always try again.”
His one ticket to a better life remained unavailable, but the young man was determined never to lose hope. After all, when hope is gone, ashes and dust remain. Hope is as crucial to existence, as oxygen to life. On his way back home, on the bus, he took a nap and dreamt of blood red poppies
In the beginning, there was the prophecy. Nobody believed in it, except for a few that saw the forthcoming truth in it, and that is the reason the prophecy had remained vivid for many years. According to the prophecy, there would come a year when the poppies would blossom everywhere, even in places where they had never been seen before. The year of the poppy would also denote the end of the world.
The prophecy was not clear as to how the world would end. On the contrary, the possibilities were endless, so that anyone could make their own assumptions. Some believed that there would be a big war leading humankind to its inevitable end. Some others considered it more probable that the earth would collide with a huge meteorite. The Christians saw the year of the poppy as the closest to Revelation day and activists imagined a huge ecological disaster that would not allow the continuity of life on the planet. Lately, the economic crisis allowed new perspectives on the subject. There appeared new prophets that connected the end of the existing political system to the end of the world.
“People with no imagination,” commented the young man on the bus, who still thought a better world possible, perhaps thanks to his young age. The elderly sitting next to him nodded in condescension, exchanging conspirational glances. That evening, on his way back from work, he noticed a poppy on the pavement. Many times in the past had he taken the same road, always on foot. There had never been a poppy there before; he was certain about that. But he was young and his testimony could not be taken seriously. Some older people might be able to have memories of poppies at that exact place, many years before he was born. The young man was reminded of the prophecy fοr a while, smiled, and moved on.
The course of humanity had been predetermined since the very moment that the poppies became unusually abundant, yet even then, only a few eccentrics were already convinced that this was the dawning of a new era for the planet. In any case, it was barely by the end of winter that the news were all about a strange and rare phenomenon; poppies were to be found everywhere, growing rapidly in number. Whole meadows of red as blood poppies appeared out of nowhere, in places they had never grown before.
A few days before Easter, there came the disease. The actual diagnosis happened much later, but it was around that time that a sharp increase in suicides was mentioned by the media. Since the first cases took place in countries that languished economically, the fact was initially attributed to financial problems of the deceased. There were long debates on television with specialists wondering; either the political system was killing its people, or some people who had acted recklessly, could not deal with the consequences of their own actions. Depending on the ideological point of view, every specialist was willing to offer the corresponding explanation.
On the day of Easter, the young man was on the bus once again, sitting beside an old man. This time, he was heading out of town, to celebrate the day with his folks. The fact that he was slightly afraid, at the start, that this would be the year of the poppy as the prophecy had implied, could not be denied, so the idea that he would not have enough time to live all he had ever dreamed of crossed his mind as a feather flying around, taken by a mild summer breeze. When people began talking about the possibility that the prophecy was about to be fulfilled, in schools, coffee shops, at the market, the fear subsided. All seemed under control, as long as people kept talking about the subject. In front of real danger, silence always prevails.
A loud, abrupt sound interrupted his daydreaming. For just a few seconds, nothing mattered any more. Neither the year of the poppy, nor his unfulfilled dreams. Time stopped and the young man was certain that the bus lost its way, hit a wall, another car or a tree; it did not matter at the moment. He was sure he was dying, not because of the prophecy, but due to a senseless accident that might not even be mentioned on the evening news. Another random death confirming another statistic. No, he did not want to die that way. At least not yet.
Blood flowed on his face, his hands felt sticky, his clothes were bloody as well. Strangely enough though, he felt no pain. He remembered reading about it, that the pain disappears moments before death. It took him some time to realize what had just happened. He was not the one dying, it was the man beside him that got killed. The old man with the ordinary face, sitting next to him, had blown his brains out, so to say, as he did not aim at the brain, but at the heart. The young man felt relieved for a moment, a feeling that quickly was followed by terror.
At the start, in an effort to disorientate the public opinion and distract people’s minds from the economic crisis and its consequences, there were some doctors who declared that thanks to antidepressants’ high efficacy, depressed patients managed to survive and reproduce, causing the gene to become more and more common and prominent in the community. Among them, there were some radicals that even supported their clear opposition to any kind of rescue efforts, so that the gene might disappear once and for all. Under the pretext of the economic crisis, which did not allow wasting resources on efforts with no tangible long-term effects, some considered best for humankind to sacrifice some vulnerable members for the common good and future prosperity. This particular view was not welcomed by many humanists and intellectuals who strongly supported their opinion on the subject; treatment of all disease is actually a prolongation of time anyway.
“It is our duty to fight for life regardless of cost or final result” said the most optimistic among them.
In the middle of summer, when suicides had grown tremendously in number, the official diagnosis was presented. Some scientists tentatively attributed the disease to a virus, based on the fact that there were already many viruses causing behavioral disorders. Some others however, still insisted that the cause was to be found in the expanding economic crisis. People, accustomed to a satisfactory standard of living, were obliged to abruptly change their habits. Entrapped in despair, the only detectable way out was through their own hands. Things got worse, when suicide attempts began multiplying in places where peace and prosperity still existed and the epidemic transformed into a pandemic.
Some pessimistic scientists accepted the defeat of science altogether and surrendered. Many resorted to religion and prayers. In a desperate attempt to avoid the fulfillment of the prophecy, some of them almost approached madness, proposing unorthodox methods, losing all scientific objectivity, as they even suggested massive voluntary movements over poppies’ eradication. Thousands of citizens went on the streets and manically eradicated all poppies found. The poppies then lost some battles, but it was more than certain that they would win the war.
A few days after his mother’s suicide, the young man received a call from the neighbors. His father had a stroke.
“It is pretty strange to watch humans retreat to themselves when sick, as if the body is some kind of shell or cocoon, in order to heal their wounds, focusing all their strength and effort on one and only target” thought the young man moments before his father passed away. He kept on holding his hand up to the last minute, trying to encourage and animate him. He had been advised to, but even if he had not, he would still have done the same thing. He needed to believe that his father was fighting for his life. When he finally passed away, he could not be sure whether his father had fought at all, or surrendered himself to an alternative form of suicide, to avoid inflicting more pain on his son.
“The next generation will recognize you as a hero, as someone who did not commit suicide as all others did, but fought for his life with all of his might” he said to himself, while giving his father a tender farewell kiss.
“If there is a next generation,” he heard a voice inside him completing his thought and could not be sure whether it was coming from his own mind or not.
“Nothing is in vain” he kept repeating as a mantra, trying to convince himself, but deep down inside, he knew. The “disease” had finally hit him.
Most victims of the disease left notes behind, with this simple explanation:
“It is all in vain.” As if they woke up one day and suddenly realized the futility of all existence. Scientists began to wonder about the pattern, making speculations on what made those people face futility so suddenly. As the first efforts to isolate a single responsible virus proved fruitless, most of them started to doubt the assumption that this was a disease at all. Thousands of self help books got published in a month. The titles were many, all similar to each other. The demand was growing in proportion to the supply. Desperate people spent fortunes and all of their time on buying and reading books, in a last attempt to avoid the inevitable and regain the lost meaning.
In the meantime, things out there got worse, faster than anyone could ever predict. Even for those who accepted from the beginning the fact that this would be the year of the poppy, as described by the prophecy, the pace was so fast and so painfully slow at the same time, that they wished a meteorite had hit the planet instead.
He decided to make a last effort to defy the inner voice, which he did not recognize as his own, though it felt more and more familiar, as it kept shouting inside his head that all is futile. He visited a specialist.
“It takes up all my energy just to wear this white coat.”
“If you feel this way, doc…” said the young man reluctantly.
“It does not matter any more, does it?”
The young man had expected more of the doctor than this question. He had expected an answer instead. He should have known though. Everybody seemed to be running for their life. Nobody bothered to help each other. Until it was too late and nobody longer cared. He left in despair. He did not even turn around when he heard the familiar abrupt sound, the bang behind the door. He did not even shudder. Nobody could help the doctor, or himself.
“We have reached the maximum of our capabilities. Our finite existence restricts any desire for more achievements and discoveries. After all, we cannot make time, can we?”
These were the last words of a young scientist before blowing his brains out, on one of the last live tv shows, just before television stopped transmitting for good, since there were no presenters, producers, sound engineers, or directors.
A young girl stepped closer.
“Are we the last persons on earth?”
The girl shrugged. She did not care. There was no way for them to know, but they were indeed the last humans on the planet, doomed to carry the weight of humankind on their shoulders.
“All I want, before I die, is to fall in love,” she told him.
They kissed and made love with the amount of passion that always accompanies the first, as well as the last time. Many people consider love, instead of life, as the opposite of death. It certainly seems as the opposite of despair anyway. For a while, for a very short while indeed, they felt like nothing else mattered. For a moment, as long as a powerful feeling lasts, even the universe itself wondered. Even the wheel of time stopped spinning. Even the poppies almost withered. Even the prophecy almost gained consciousness and decided to cancel itself. This wonderful, almost completely forgotten feeling of hope did not last long, though. Not even love managed to overcome the overwhelming, unbeatable sense of futility.
“Narcissistic love may have seemed enough of a meaning in the past, but this time, it is not enough to create hope, as universal love and solidarity would have managed to do,” the young man thought to himself, when a last spark of intuition hit him, as he stood on the cliff, facing the relic of the old world. “If we did not even try to save each other, we deserve extinction”.
It was too late. The long lost meaning of life, dismissed by humans long ago, in their quest for domination, finally took its revenge.
They stood ecstatic for a while, watching a building collapse in flames from a distance. There were no firemen to run and extinguish the fire, or people running around in panic. Entropy in its great splendor, undisturbed, finally emerged as the big winner, as all transformed into chaos, without any resistance whatsoever. It was not certainly the ecstasy that follows the destruction of the old that makes room for the new, or the ecstasy of hope, or the remains of it.
It was the ecstasy of despair, the exaltation that precedes the final end.
The poppies would still blossom. The birds would still fly. Cats, dogs, foxes, horses, and the rest of the animals would undertake the continuity of life, or what was left of it. Someday, they might even solve the mystery of life, the greatest riddle of all, which humans, despite their great achievements, left unsolved.
The prophecy had not lied though. The world was coming to its end indeed. For human beings, humankind is the world, after all.
Embraced, they jumped into the void.
And that was the end of the world as we know it.
[Translated by the author herself into English]
[Mileva Anastasiadou is a neurologist, living and working in Athens, Greece. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in many journals and anthologies, such as the Molotov Cocktail, Foliate Oak, Maudlin house, Menacing Hedge, Midnight Circus, AntipodeanSF, Big Echo:Critical SF, Jellyfish Review and others. She has published two books in Greek and a chapbook in English (Once Upon a Dystopia by Cosmic Teapot Publications). ‘The End of the World’ is a traslation of her Greek short story “The Year of the Poppy”]