As The World Caves In

Quinn Dankesreiter

The moment before the bombs fell was not quiet. The birds continued to

sing as though there would be a tomorrow. The radios played humanity’s final goodbyes. The streets were empty. No children played. Many had retreated to their basements with some false hope that brittle concrete would be enough, but the Wilsons decided that they would not hide.  

Mr. and Mrs. Wilson were orderly folk. They obliged by all the rules society

dealt them. Since they were high school sweethearts, their prom photos hung on the mantel. Their family has since swelled. The now family of four was reflected in the glass as they stepped outside, all holding hands in a neat, single-file line. They would have looked like accordion paper people had the youngest boy, Bryson, not been clutching a small dinosaur toy. He had named him Mr. Jingles after the rattle in his little stuffed head. He was a brave little boy who rubbed his sister’s damp, tear-stained hand. When he looked down, he saw her freshly painted pink nails. They had been painted for her first middle school dance. She would never attend. The event had been canceled due to their imminent end. 

Mr. Wilson’s adam’s apple bobbed as he struggled to hold back his tears. He

still held the shame in his heart from weeping openly in front of his family. He knew he was supposed to be the strong one. He looked over to his family and locked misty eyes with his wife of fifteen years. She gave a pitiful smile, but her crow's feet crinkled just a bit as she wept. He leaned over and kissed her, then kissed all his children.  

The television didn’t report anything more. The radio had a soft, somber

song lulling the world into the afterlife. The bombs from Russia and China would be received shortly. America was a courteous country. They never could accept a gift without returning it in full. In fact, America gave them each another one for the road. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t survive to feel the victory. It was doubtful that anyone would.   

Mr. and Mrs. Wilson pulled their children in for a last family hug as they

turned their faces up toward the sky. Bryson’s eyes glistened as he noticed a falling star.  

For a moment, before their eyes were vaporized, the sky had two suns. 

They never felt it. Their cells had been broken down into fine matter before

they could even think to scream. Their shadows remained on their white front door; their bodies turned to dust. Released back into the universe, as all things are meant to be.  

*** 

           The Hall of Hades, much like the face of the Earth, exploded. It was in a vastly different way, but the stoic marching of the recently deceased was replaced with a new, more tragic uproar.  

           It was the sound of reunion.  

           For a moment, the two opposing sides colliding could have been mistaken for a war. The choice weapon was not guns or militia, but open arms and damp embraces. The old residents crashed into the new.  

Parents ran into the arms of their elders, crying from the shock, but also the joy of seeing their dearly departed loved ones. A grandmother, thrilled with her newly energetic body, hoisted up her grandson and kissed his cheek. Her bliss swept away the horror that they all had just passed. The young one didn’t even know what death was yet, and now, he would know nothing else.  

           The scent of freshly pruned flora draped throughout the hall. Roses, mums, marigolds, and all varieties of blossoms were thrust into the arms of the new arrivals who wept openly. The hall erupted into a throng of bird wings, as nearly extinct flocks reunited with their brethren. The animals did not hunger, or maul, and shuffled their way to their respective rooms, further down the hall. The call of their mothers, siblings, and the promise of sustenance so sweet lured them away.  

           As Hades passed through his hall, narrowly avoiding enthusiastic arms and flapping wings, and hurried paws, he smiled. The Hall had never been so jovial.  

           He turned his head and spotted…her. She stood, shoulders back, relaxed. Her hands sprinkled seeds for a flock of pigeons, leading them to their room along the hall. When she had thrown the last of the feed in and locked the door, she turned around and dusted her palms. Hades stood on stiffened toes, struggling to catch her eye. He succeeded.  

           She smirked at his ridiculousness and made her way over to him. She grabbed his calloused hands and kissed them. New skin formed where her lips and fingers trailed. She looked up at him, expectantly. She wanted him to say something, but he did not have the words. He turned away from her, a tear in his eye.  

           She held his hand as they made their way through the reunion. Persephone smiled bittersweetly at the children who ran by. A young boy was held tight by his father and mother, who kissed him and his sister all over. The little one giggled and clutched something tight. It seems his small dinosaur toy had made it to the Hall, as well.  

*** 

“Daddy, Daddy, we’re okay! We’re gonna be okay!” Bryson was joyful,

shaking Mr. Jingles while the rattle inside it shook with every bounce.  

           Mr. Wilson looked around in awe at the sheer amount of people present. It seemed that the large room he and his family stood in was endless. He was surrounded by every mother tongue and dialect, every skin color and gender. The pillars that lined the room were ornately carved, but there was no ceiling. An endless void expanded above them, into the limitless abyss. It should have started him. He should have screamed in terror at the depths above him. His mouth hung agape, and as it did, his son bounded up to him.  

“Daddy, Daddy! You should squint,” he said. “If you squint, you can see the

stars.” 

           He did. Through his half-shuttered eyes, he could see the night sky as he remembered it when he was a child. It was a time when light pollution hadn’t taken over quite yet. He could drive out to camp and see the same sky the ancients marveled at. As he stared at Orian’s belt and the big dipper, he was suddenly a boy again.  

Arms folded beneath his head, the dew of night clinging to his legs that had

only begun to grow thicker hair. The crickets sang their never-ending song, and the world was right once more. Trapped in his boyhood memories, he thought he heard his mother’s voice.  

He felt a light touch on his arm, like a ghost from his past, and he turned.

His mother stood there, as beautiful as she was when he was a child. As beautiful as she was before the cancer took her.  

“Mom?” he asked, bewildered.  

           She smiled and nodded.  

“Yes, Bobby – it’s me.” The tears flowed before he could halt them. He ran

into his mother’s arms as he longed to as he stood on that porch, just moments before. He didn’t feel the need to be strong anymore. 

When mother and son parted, he looked down to see Bryson, smiling up at

him.  

“Mom, this is someone you should probably meet.”  

*** 

           It took them an undefinable amount of time to tuck in the last of Gaia’s children. The fauna were shown to their individual rooms. Endless on the inside, they were provided with all one could ever want. They had no needs to fulfill. The soul, after all, was self-sustaining. However, treats, like the illusion of food and drink most desired by the animals at hand were easy to accommodate. All they had to do was want.  

The humans were a bit trickier. Each one had more complex desires than

any sheep or wolf could ever require. Persephone and Hades took their time with them. They crafted them their paradises by hand. After the first thousand rooms, the work got easier. Maybe humans were not as complex as we are led to believe. We are animals with dreams and a desire to be safe and loved. Oftentimes the human’s paradise was a home of some sort, surrounded by family and loved ones.  

           More trickled in after the initial reunion. Those ones were more scared. Human or beast, they came in skittish. Their loved ones were always there to welcome them, though. Persephone made sure of it. While most times the rooms were locked to prevent any unnecessary wandering, it was easier to allow the family welcoming a member home free reign. The Gods were not omniscient, but family always knows when a loved one is coming home.  

           Persephone was tending to another set of Gaia’s children, welcoming them to their forever home. She was working much slower now that the crowd had died down. She took her time crafting the rooms, spending minutes or hours attending to life’s simple pleasures. It was during the crafting of a human’s family home that a realization had hit her. Spring was coming, and she would have to return to her mother’s home and once again leave the Underworld. She nearly wept at the thought, but then a deeper, more tragic panic lodged in her stomach; there was no Earth to return to. No trees could survive the nuclear winter spreading across the globe. Already, she felt her throat tighten as the leaves and petals of the world were choked with ash. There would be no flowers, no crops to raise to fruition. Once the last doors were locked, there would be no newcomers for a long, long time.  

           Hades had realized this long before Persephone did. He pondered now how best to comfort her the thought finally crossed her busy mind. He strolled by Tartarus. Self-claiming and self-regulating, he smiled at the screams that emitted from the trench. He found pleasure in his work knowing neither he nor Persephone had to handle the undesirable souls of man. He meandered across the barren Hall entryway. Not even footprints were left behind to symbolize that anyone was ever here. The only dirt in the Hall of Hades was put there by Persephone.  

As he crossed the room, he looked up into the abysmal ceiling. He saw the

rainforest how it was before man encountered it, how Gaia envisioned it. He saw the rooms that contained copies of this ideal forest, as best as he and his beloved could craft them. They were not perfect, but they breathed similarly. Both the mimic flora and fauna brimmed with poised anticipation for the residents of the rooms to request something of them. Just now, a faux capybara sacrificed itself for the pleasure of its resident jaguar.  

           Hades watched the rooms on the ceiling until he heard the subtle steps of his beloved. She walked over to him, head poised proudly and eyes glistening. Her high cheekbones were flushed slightly like she had been dancing on an Easter morning. Her skin was pale, for she had not seen the sun in months. Her hair was decorated with a primrose crown, the color of harvested grain. Her dramatic green gown clung to her figure as she moved towards him. Her smile beamed at him, and he bowed. 

“My love.” He said. 

“My Nightingale.” She cooed his nickname and extended a hand. He kissed

it.  

“It is as though you are courting me once more,” she said.  

“In a way, I am. The world is anew.” He offered her his arm and interlocked

herself with him. He escorted her through the hall with slow, deliberate movements. Their footsteps were the only ones now in the hall. 

“Gaia is dead,” Persephone said, suddenly. 

“Not dead, my love. Wounded. She will recover.”  

“How can you be so certain? Has the world ended before and you simply

forgot to inform me?” 

“I am not omniscient. I do not know all. But I can feel her breath. She is still

with us.” He took pause.  

“It is shallow, but stable.” 

           Hades escorted her up through the gates of his hall. Once they had left, he lead her to the bottom of the staircase toward Earth. Persephone dug her dirt-caked nails into his arm. She knew in her bones what day it was, and that today was the day her mother called her home. Every fiber of her protested against the summons. As Hades tried to lead her further, she ground her heels into the marble where she stood. Her nails raked across his skin but it only hurt for a moment. Immediately, the minuscule wounds healed.  

“Hades, it is the Spring Equinox but I do not have to go.” Her words were

rushed and feverous. Her brow furrowed and her steady eyes looked up at him. Her demeanor was fearful, but her eyes demanding.  

“My mother requires it of me, but it is no longer necessary. There is no

spring to welcome in. The Earth is desolate. I cannot save it. Not until Gaia is well again…”  

           Hades was pensive. He did not speak. He respected her too much to interrupt.  

“My love, there is nothing I can do. This is not a famine, this is annihilation!

I am powerless here.” His wife hung her head, then lay it on his shoulder as she looked up, now fearful of the stairs.  

“I don’t want to be apart from you, and I don’t want to see the ruin. Not for

months. The hurt will be too much to bear.”  

“I did not say I would leave you there.” Persephone looked up curiously at

her husband. He took a step towards the stairs. She followed. The glint in his eye was one of mischief, one she had not seen since the last time he ascended the stairs to retrieve her. Her feet matched his without thought.  

           One foot in front of the other, he escorted her all the way. Persephone shook with fear against her husband when she saw the stairs would soon end, but she was not greeted by the sun. In fact, there was no light. The sky was grey and barren, swarming with thick clouds of nuclear waste and manmade hatred. The trees had shriveled and as they approached the last stair, Persephone saw that the ground was covered in fallen leaves and ash.  

           Hades stopped them there. He looked over at her as she took in the horror of all she and her mother created. If they listened hard, they might hear the sobs of Demeter across the desolate land. But Hades did not fret himself over Demeter. He held his wife’s hand and rubbed it reassuringly. To his dismay, it did little for her. Her golden wheat hair lost its luster and turned white. The ash that still descended lit upon the snowy strains and tainted it.  

“It’s gone.” She sobbed into her hands. The primrose crown upon her head

wilted as the tears fell softly onto the Earth.  

“No, my love. It has just begun.” He kissed her tears and stepped off the last

stair to the Underworld. His shined shoes left prints behind in the ash, like newly fallen winter snow. He breathed deeply. The scent now was familiar to him. It is what he had known all his life. The Earth smelled like death.  

                   It felt wrong. Uncanny. He disliked it but decided to make peace with it for the moment. He held out his hand and waved it over where he had walked. The ash cleared a path to him. He meandered back to Persephone and towered over her. She was barely a breath away, but he was careful not to touch her without her permission. When she pressed her forehead against his chest, he wrapped his arms around her and comforted her, swaying slightly. 

           When his suit was soaked on one shoulder, and had she cried her fill, they stood silent in the unending winter. Nothing moved or stirred in the bushes. The world was unnaturally quiet. No birds sang and the trees creaked like the bones of the dead. He held her, still shifting his weight from one foot to the other kissing the top of her head. She nuzzled him, and he held his arms out at full length. She looked up at him with puffy eyes.  

           He kissed every part of her face, the trailed his lips down her neck. He kissed her in all the places that he knew she tickled until she laughed in his arms. It was because of his own manipulations, but he took it as a victory anyway. She smirked up at him, adoration in her glossy eyes.  

           He extended a hand, and she took it. He led her across the field, clearing it with one hand and trailing her behind him with the other. He took long strides but was in no hurry. They had all the time in the world.   When he had found a nice clearing and removed all the dust and residual specks of death that risked sullying the shoes of Persephone, he asked her to close her eyes.  

“Why? Do you have a surprise for me?” she asked.  

“Of sorts.” He said with a smile. She did as he requested and covered her

eyes with her hands. Her primrose crown perked up again with anticipation.  

           Hades reached deep into the suit of his jacket, and from a bottomless pocket, he pulled out a small radio from his own personal collection. He tuned it to what the humans were listening to before the end, and caught one of the somber, bittersweet songs they longed to hear as the world caved in.  

           The soft voice of Jim Reeves swept across the clearing as Hades took slow steps towards Persephone. She still had her hands over her eyes, but she let him take her right hand. She instinctively draped the other along the back of his neck. He held her close, gazing into her eyes. She was, as of right now, the only woman in the world. The delicate love he held for her shone through his rough expression.  

“…step into my heart…leave your cares behind…”  

           As the man sang, Hades pulled his beloved close and stepped in time to the music.  

“…Welcome to my world…built with you in mind…” 

           They turned slowly in the clearing, the ash still falling slowly around them, tainting their clothes with nuclear dust that had obliterated any survivors. She buried her face in his neck and held him even closer. He smelled of sandalwood and stale hospital air. Of sharp spice and sudden death. But he invigorated her, brought her to life.  

           Her hair that had greyed goldened as they turned. Her warm hue returned to her skin, despite the bitter cold. He smiled as he felt her warm in his arms.  

“Do you feel better, my love?” 

“I have simply made my peace with it.” She looked up at him and kissed

him, supple lips against his hard face.  

“We can make both Earth and our Hall a world our own, for now.” He said,

picking her up and twirling her. 

“For now, indeed.” She said with a chuckle as they danced in the ash of the

seemingly eternal winter. 

Cut from Fall 2022