We'd been on edge since the spring, when the trees had never regained their leaves, when the birds had never returned from wherever they'd gone. We'd felt it, in the slow slide into the heat of summer, when a too-warm wind blew dust and litter down the deserted streets, and we saw feathers in it, the grey and white and purple of pigeons. Something was wrong. We didn't see bird corpses, but we didn't have to. We knew. We looked at the blue of the sky, edging into an unsettling indigo, and we suspected the worst.
"Three months," said a frazzled-looking man on the news, identified as being Dr. So-and-so, some bigshot from Yale or Harvard or another of the Ivies. "Maybe more, maybe less -- but if the recent patterns hold, we're looking at three months."
He went on to talk about the theories, as to why, and I didn't pay attention. I switched the TV off.
My mother had died of cancer that spring, when the leaves never came out. I'd been told her diagnosis -- "four to six months" -- and the window they gave us on the news sounded too familiar.
Four to six months, they'd said, and so we'd discussed the end, parceling our time out according to that four month timeline -- except she'd died not four weeks after we first heard the c-word, after what we'd thought was the stomach flu had turned into something worse.
Three months, the news said, and I didn't parcel out my time at all.
"What do you think?" Jessie asked me, when they finally admitted on the news, something is wrong. She was my roommate, and former coworker, both of us servers at the Waffle House on Cassady. "Is this it?"
I thought about cancer, about dying by degrees without realizing it, and I shrugged. "Why would they lie to us? You've seen the trees."
"Yeah," Jessie started. "But..."
Jess was an optimist.
I was not.
"No buts," I said. "It's the end. They can't even tell us how much time we've got."
"Three months," she said, defiant, and I wanted to believe her. "What are you going to do with your time?"
"I don't know." I'd quit serving, when Mom got sick. She'd never liked that I did it in the first place. I'd been meaning to go back to school, with the money I'd get from selling her house, the little of her life insurance policy that hadn't gone toward paying off bills or settling debts. I'd been wrangling all the details of that, trying to figure out when the estate would be settled, when we'd know how much was left. A year, they'd said, before everything would be taken care of -- a year, even though she'd had a will; even though there hadn't been much to settle up.
I was living off my savings. I had enough, I thought, to last me another six months, if I was careful.
Suddenly, being careful wasn't an issue anymore.
"You should find a job," said Jessie. "I know Blair would take you back, if..."
If I wanted to go back to serving.
If I was ready to face my regulars again, those that had asked after Mom, who had known she had gotten sick, who must have known...
"I don't think so."
"Okay," Jessie said. "But you should do something. You can't just sit around the apartment all day. I mean..."
She paused, and I knew, or could guess, what the pause meant: it's the end of the world, isn't it? Shouldn't you be trying to make the best of it?
"Yeah," I said. "I -- yeah. I'll start volunteering or something."
"Gotta make the best of it, don't we?" she asked, and smiled, a little too wide. "I've gotta go -- my shift starts in twenty minutes, and if I'm not careful, I'll miss my bus."
I laughed, startling her. "I'd bet everything else is closed."
"Good," she said brightly. "More tips for me! I'll see you later -- let me know if they announce anything I should be aware of."
"Will do," I said as she walked out, though I knew: I wouldn't be turning the television back on.
Our upstairs neighbors moved out, when the news broke, going back to their parents' houses in Fairfield.
"Guess they didn't want to be alone," Jessie said, when I told her about it, a couple of days later. "I can't blame them. Still, though..."
I could hear the hesitation in her voice. She'd kept her job, staying at the Waffle House when the rest of the crew began, slowly, to quit, citing better things to do, a desire not to waste the time they had left.
Jessie had no family. She'd been an only child. Both of her parents had died when she was in high school -- her dad sophomore year, and her mom senior year. She'd never met her grandparents. She'd skipped straight from childhood to adulthood before she'd been awarded a high school diploma, working as a server instead and finishing her GED, starting at community college. Waffle House was just temporary -- Jessie was saving everything she had to go back to school and become a veterinarian. If most people had told me that, I would have laughed and told them, "good luck" -- but Jess made it seem like it was doable, somehow, if only because she held no illusions about what the future had in store for her.
"I'm going to be a rural vet," she said, when I asked. "So -- lots of livestock. Not many pets -- mostly cows and the like."
I knew, because we'd talked about it, that she had close to ten thousand dollars in savings -- scraped together from tips, tax returns, the side hustling she'd done. She'd applied to transfer to OSU in the fall, when her associates would be finished, into their animal science program. She'd gotten the news that she had been accepted, was looking forward to the transfer student orientation, when we found out about the three month rule.
She'd been talking about quitting Waffle House, finding work somewhere else, or taking out loans for the remainder of her expenses.
She wasn't talking about quitting now.
"Are you thinking about leaving?" she asked me.
"Where would I go?" I said.
When Mom had first gotten sick, we'd talked a lot about how we wanted to spend our time.
"We should go on one last trip," she said, and so we'd pulled out the guidebooks, thought about all the places we wanted to go, but never had the time to visit.
Hospice and the end were always in the backs of our minds, but we didn't dwell on those. We had them planned out. I knew where she wanted to go (Mount Carmel, because she'd liked the nurses), what she wanted done afterward (cremation with a scattering ceremony on the anniversary of her passing), who was named in the will (just me), what I could expect (my uncle, her only brother, would be executor), what her finances looked like, who was owed what and what debts there were to be settled (less than $500 on a Visa that she intended to pay off before the end arrived).
We'd had all the hard conversations, in that first week at the hospital. Mom had always been someone who was on top of things; who planned carefully and made sure that all the Is were dotted and all her Ts were crossed. All the difficult things were done.
We were supposed to have fun.
"The Bahamas are supposed to be nice right now," she offered. "Or we could go on a Caribbean cruise..."
She'd opted for no treatment. Her symptoms were mild, managed with painkillers and anti-nausea meds.
"A cruise is doable," I'd said. "Or we could think about going out to the Grand Canyon, or Yosemite. You've always wanted to see the west."
"That's true," she said. "Do you think that your uncle Nathaniel would want to come...?"
"If he can escape from Jennifer long enough to, yeah."
"One last trip," said Mom. "Just the three of us. It'll be so good to see him again."
The name of a resort in Yosemite, with potential dates and room rates, was written on a pad on the kitchen table, the day I came over to see her and found her slumped in the bathroom, unresponsive, just two weeks after her diagnosis.
We never did make that trip.
A week passed, two weeks. Jessie kept going to work.
"Someone has to," she said, reasonably. "We're still getting customers -- more than ever before."
The lights in our apartment stayed on, and the water kept running. When we went to the grocery store, there were still items on the shelves -- bread in the bakery, eggs and milk in the cold case, meat in the meat department.
There wasn't much in the way of produce, but there hadn't been, over the last few months -- not since we'd noticed all the plants dying.
Some people stocked up on bottled water, dehydrated food, MREs -- thinking, maybe, that things would get bad, as we got closer to the end. Kroger began hanging cards on the automatic entry door: "CASES OF WATER LIMITED TO 5/PERSON/DAY", "POWDERED MILK TEMPORARILY OUT OF STOCK" -- but otherwise, there were few changes.
People were still doing their jobs. You'd hear about panic on the news, but it was always limited to small pockets. Someone had become hysterical and robbed a Steak and Shake; five people, somewhere else, had all committed suicide together, leaving a note that they signed in blue ballpoint: "we are so sorry, but there is no point to delaying the inevitable."
I wanted to give in to despair, but my world had already ended.
I didn't think Jessie was capable of giving in, or anyway, if she was worried, she didn't say anything.
"Just another setback," she said, when I brought it up. "Anyway..."
Anyway, there's nothing we can do, her tone said. All I can keep doing is sticking to routine and pretending it's not the end of the world.
I recognized that tone. I'd used it a lot, in the weeks after Mom died.
We passed the four week mark, and I stopped holding a breath I didn't know I'd kept in.
"Two more months," said Jessie. "Give or take a few days."
She was still working, out at the Waffle House. They weren't 24 hour anymore, and they closed on Sundays, thanks to a lack of staff, but they were still being supplied, somehow.
"Sometimes Blair sends me down to Kroger to get eggs and flour," Jessie admitted, when I prompted her. "They're nice about it, though, and he always gives me money out of the till to do it."
"Are you getting paid?" I asked, suddenly struck by the thought that she might not have been.
"Of course," she said. "None of my checks have bounced yet, and I'm getting all my tips."
"And you're still saving up for school?"
I don't know what prompted me to ask that. It wasn't fair.
Jess bit her lip, her usual stress response. She looked about twelve when she did it.
"No," she admitted, in a small voice. "I don't know that there is much to save for, now."
"You're starting at the end of September," I said, and my voice cracked on the 'September'. "Shouldn't you be putting more money away, before you quit? You don't want to have to take out loans."
It was mid-July.
The first day of school was supposed to be September 25th.
"I don't know that I will be going to school after all," said Jessie.
It was a conversation we could have had, in the before -- talking about the merits of working another year, squirreling away everything she could.
"You should," I offered. "We have to keep busy, right?"
"Right," she said, uncertain.
Our landlord didn't collect our rent, at the beginning of August. The money languished in our accounts.
We'd find out later that he had left the state, going God-knows-where, intent on spending his last days on a beach somewhere, perhaps down in Florida, but we didn't know that then.
"I think we should spend it," said Jessie uncertainly, after another two weeks had gone by without the check being deposited or the landlord picking up his phone. "I mean..."
"What do you want to spend it on?"
"I don't know," she said, exhaustion evident in her voice. "A trip somewhere? I've never been..."
I froze, remembering the conversations with my mother.
"I've never been to Canada," she finished. "You know -- Niagara Falls isn't that far away. We could..."
"If you can get away from Waffle House long enough," I said.
She rubbed the back of her neck, gave me a sheepish look. "We're closed Mondays now, too," she mumbled. "Ted quit, so it's just Blair and Maria and me. He works the line while she and I wait tables, and she helps out back there if we're slammed, but our customers are mostly slowing down."
I took a deep breath. "What time do you get off Saturday?"
"Two," she said. "Unless Blair asks me to work a double, but I don't think he will. Saturdays aren't very busy these days."
"I'll pick you up at work," I said. "Make sure you have..."
I nearly said, your passport, then I realized she likely didn't have one. She'd never been out of the country -- she'd never felt a need to go anywhere outside of Ohio.
"I have a passport card," she said, as though reading my mind. "Not that -- I heard, they're not checking anymore at the border."
"Right," I said. "Okay. Great. We'll go. We'll stay in a five-star hotel -- there's got to be something up there -- and, um..."
"That's going to cost more than our rent," pointed out Jessie.
"I can afford it," I said. "I've got a credit card."
"Do they still work?"
I shrugged. "Guess we'll find out."
Jess balked, at the last minute.
"What are we doing?" she asked, as she pulled open the door of my car in the restaurant parking lot. "It's a five and a half hour drive, we -- "
"Chill," I said, and put the playlist we'd made together on the stereo. "It's the end of the fucking world, okay? This is it. You might as well do something enjoyable."
She buckled her seatbelt and squeezed her eyes shut. "Fuck," she said, one of the few times I'd ever heard her swear. "Guess we're off."
I thought about softening, about saying, if you don't want to..., but I couldn't bring myself to let up. I hadn't left the apartment for longer than it took to go to Kroger in over a month. I hadn't wanted to. I'd quit my job and broken up with my boyfriend when my mom died. I didn't want either back -- I didn't miss either of them -- but I missed the stability, the normality.
I should have leaned into the end of the world, maybe, before I lost my chance, but I couldn't bring myself to.
Now everyone knows how I felt, I'd thought, when we'd heard we had three months. Maybe we'll only get three weeks.
But we hadn't, and my own private grief hadn't abated.
We drove to Canada in silence. We didn't talk to each other at all, not as we slid across the abandoned border (no one bothered to check our car, our documents), nor as we checked into the hotel, found dinner nearby. We talked to the clerk at the hotel desk, to the server at the restaurant we ended up in -- but not to each other.
Jess broke the silence first, as we both laid awake in our separate beds, in the dimly-lit hotel room.
"Thanks," she said. "For driving, I mean."
"And for arranging the hotel and everything."
She hesitated a moment, before pressing on: "Blair told me...he's going to call me Monday night and let me know, but he doesn't think that the restaurant is going to stay open. We just don't have enough staff."
I could hear the uncertainty in her voice, the fear of the future.
"There's only a month left," she said. "I..."
"It's just a Waffle House closing, Jessica," I started, channeling my old manager. "It's not the end of the world."
She started giggling. "Except it is. Maybe not when it closes, but soon enough..."
"Yeah," I said. "I know. But -- I mean, we're lucky, aren't we? We've managed to stay afloat..."
"Yeah," she echoed. "Have you thought about checking out early?"
I thought about my mom, about the raw wound that was her absence, how much I missed her. I'd saved her voicemails, converted them to MP3s, listened to them in the car on the way to Kroger; kept the last note she'd written me about a doctor's appointment, with its looping script: Love, your old mom.
"No," I said, finally. "I couldn't imagine -- doing that to another person."
"I did," admitted Jess, in a small voice. "But I didn't want to let Blair down, and with you..."
She'd taken care of me, more than once, after Mom died. Flipped the covers back on my bed, brought me cereal and milk in a separate pitcher, chanted "rise and shine" at me until I'd gotten out of bed, grumbling -- the way she had when we both worked together, at Waffle House, when both of us had to work 5:30AM to 2PM, except at 3PM, when she got off work, and I hadn't managed to drag myself out of bed yet.
She'd kept me from descending completely into my own grief.
"Yeah," I said. "I...thanks, Jessie."
I heard her sigh, in the dark. "It wasn't anything."
"It was important," I said. "You kept me from giving in."
"Yeah," she said. "Well. You gave me a reason to stick around, too."
"I guess we're in this to the end," I said, after a moment.
"I'm still hoping they're wrong," said Jess softly. "But I guess we both get to find out, don't we?"
We went to the Falls the next day.
Jessie walked right up to the railing, leaned over to get a better look. I almost said something, but bit it back.
"You should have brought your Mom," she said, when I screwed up the courage to stand next to her.
I thought, for a moment, she meant, when she was alive, then realized -- she meant her ashes. The cremains, as the man at the funeral home with the too-straight, too-white teeth had called them.
"Maybe," I said. "I don't know where she wanted to be scattered. She just said, somewhere nice. I don't think I'm allowed to scatter them here."
"Who's around to rat on you?" Jessie asked, pointedly. "Who's going to care? It's the end of the world, Dani."
"Next time," I said. "Next time..."
"Next time what?"
"Next time we go somewhere nice," I said. "Because we will."
Jessie turned away from me. "Where?" she said, and I could only just hear her.
"Yosemite," I offered. "Or -- I dunno, somewhere along the Pacific. The Atlantic. One of the coasts. How far is it from Columbus to Cape Cod?"
"I don't know," said Jessie, and she laughed a little, in the forced way that let me know she was trying not to cry. "What about money for vet school?"
I shut my eyes. I didn't want to point it out, that there was no more need to worry about money for vet school, about the future, past the next five or six weeks. Already the sky over Niagara had darkened, lapsed from true blue into a deep velvety purple, even in the middle of the day.
"It's summer," I settled on. "We'll take my car. We can sleep on the beach, if we have to. I have sleeping bags. There's got to be something."
"It's the end of the world," said Jessie. "There isn't anything."
"We've got another month," I said. "There's time."
"Fine," and I knew I had won the argument.
She called in to Waffle House, on the way back to our apartment.
"Blair?" she said, when she reached him. "I...I can't do it anymore. There's only a month."
"I understand," she said, quietly. "Fine. Best of luck to you, too."
She hit the button, hung up on the call.
"I'm free," Jess said. "Blair's closing the restaurant," and she lapsed into silence again.
Back at the apartment, we didn't talk. We loaded up the car with what we thought we'd want, what we thought we'd need -- my sleeping bags, the camp stove, the canned food and bottled water we had in the house (we had no idea where we were going, after all). I grabbed headphones, clothes, the last note from Mom, her ashes in their sturdy pine box.
"What on Earth are we doing?" asked Jess. "This place looks like a tornado hit it. What are we doing?"
"Living," I said, throwing the last of my clothes into an old backpack. "Come on."
She trailed after me, down to the car.
"Shouldn't there be more than this?" she asked, when we finished loading everything. "Like -- shouldn't there be someone else, someone to spend the end of the world with...?"
"There's just us," I said, more bravely than I felt. "We've been friends six years. Neither of us has any family. Who would you rather spend the end of the world with?"
Jessie grimaced. "When you put it that way..."
"It sounds grim," I said, "but I'm serious: this is it. We don't get another chance. We don't get a do-over. We don't get to go back and fix everything, do it right or wrong or over again. We're making a mess of it, but that's life."
"Four to six weeks," said Jessie. "Another two months, if we're lucky."
"My mom didn't even get that," I said, and shoved my backpack into the trunk. "Come on."
I buckled the box of her ashes into place with a seatbelt.
"East or west?" I asked Jess, sliding into the driver's seat.
She hesitated, standing outside the car, then climbed into the passenger's side. "West," she said, finally. "I've always wanted to see the Grand Canyon."
"West it is," I said, and I floored it, on the way out of our apartment parking lot, on the way to the end of the world.
fiction, unless the world has suddenly ended and no one told me...
I love the idea behind the Waffle House Index. I honestly think that Waffle House would stay open until the bitter end -- or until they no longer had staff.
I wanted to roll it into another idea for a story I had, in which someone's grief at losing their mother is suddenly overshadowed by the end of the world -- the connections we forge and the decisions we make when we are tempered by the worse things a person can live through.
Thank you for reading.