• 5th Wall Press

Simulation Ending

Will sleeps in until noon on the last day of existence. By the time he wakes up his phone is full of texts and missed calls. He flicks through them at speed. Then he yanks his too-small Blundstones on, grabs the navy coat draped over his pull-up bar, and goes outside to see it for himself.

Up in the pale gray sky, two enormous words and a flashing countdown. He watches the seconds pulse away until 04:38:07 becomes 04:37:00. People are out on the street, taking selfies. He can imagine the captions: just my luck LOL, oh my god is this real, endless prayer hand emojis. He sees a university student climbing up onto the rooftop of the pizza and shawarma place for a more dramatic angle.

Oscar, one of the Iranian brothers who owns the place, is hauling a black garbage bag to the dumpster. He stops to shout at the student until they climb back down. Will picks his way across the slushy street and meets him at the dumpster.

“Hey, Oscar,” he says. “How’s it going?”

Oscar moves a salt-and-pepper curl of hair back under his cap. His apron is covered in flour and his face is a permanent shrug. “Fine, fine. Warm day today. Weather’s warming up. Feels like spring.”

Will points up at the sky. “How about that thing, huh?”

“Simulation ending,” Oscar reads aloud, as if noticing it for the first time. “Yeah. People are freaking out, man. You want a slice?”

Will follows Oscar back into the pizza and shawarma place and buys a massive slice of bruschetta pizza for $4.59, which becomes $5.03 when he adds tip. There’s a woman inside, sitting at the counter, laughing to someone on the phone in Farsi and occasionally sticking the screen out at the window to show them a glimpse of the words in the sky.

While the pizza slice warms up in the oven, Will takes his own phone out. He’s got no data, and the WiFi from the coffee shop across the street isn’t reaching, so he has to content himself with text messages.

There’s one from Jason, high-school friend from back home in Edmonton. They have a slow-motion conversation where they mostly compare workouts and talk about NBA trades, but now he says You seen it yet in Ottawa? Pretty crazy.

There’s one from his mom that says Hey bud, assuming you’ve seen it. Did N get a hold of you? Going to prayer group soon. Hoping the one who knows everything will give some answers soon. Love you.

There’s one from Alex, his ex and now the friend he texts most but sees least, that says Well that puts a damper on my morning. You okay?

There’s a trio from his sister Natalie that says Tried to call you, I think it’s a prank thing but mom is really scared so phone her? Tell her it’s a prank and then I guess it’s everywhere, so maybe not a prank and then Call me.

There’s one from 819-968-1440, a girl from Hinge he hasn’t met yet, that says Happy Doomsday xoxox.

“Here you go, brother,” Oscar says.

“Thanks,” Will says. “Have a good one.”

As he heads down the sidewalk, Will takes the warmed-up pizza off its paper plate and folds it in half, losing a chunk of tomato but doubling his efficiency. It occurs to him that if this is the last day of existence, he probably should have gotten better pizza, from Fiazza or Al Quadrato or that Louie’s place that he keeps meaning to try. But the slice is warm and greasy and crams well into his mouth.

He’s moving against the stream of backpacked university students who are heading towards campus despite the countdown in the sky. It might be exam season. He walks past the Embassy of Kenya and wonders if the words are hanging over Nairobi, too. He remembers playing the embassy game with his ex while they walked to the park, trying to guess all the flags.

He thinks maybe he should call her, and admit how badly he fucking misses her some days, and see if she wants to get high and watch Blue Planet in her bed that’s so much bigger and comfier than his. He suspects she will not. She has a new dude, a rock-climbing instructor over in Gatineau.

The park is thawing into muddy brown slush. Will follows the trail, careful on the icy steps because it would blow to break a bone right before the world ends and he’s sure all the ambulances will be busy today. He makes it all the way down to the canal and sits there on the edge.

Four hours and change until the end of the world. It seems like a long time and no time at all. Definitely not enough time to get a flight back to Edmonton and see the family.

He calls his sister.

“Hey, Will.”

“Hey, Nat. Got your text.”

“Isn’t it so fucked up? Have you been looking at the news?” Her voice is angry. “Every city in the world has the same message. Everyone was blaming China, at first? But they have it, too. And it’s in English. So whoever’s simulation it is, they’re English, so we can’t even blame China.” She gives a crackly static sigh. “I’m like a week away from finishing my dissertation. A fucking week.”

“How’s mom?”

“She’s fine. She’s fine now. She went to her prayer thing, and they all decided it’s just the work of the Devil or something. Like, trying to trick people into sinning or committing suicide. So she’s chill. So long as you don’t commit suicide.”

“I won’t.”

“I don’t even know what to do. I think I’m going to get Kenny to leave work early, and then we’ll get drunk. I can like, Skype you in, if you want. I don’t know. Do you have friends there? You have friends, right? You’ve been there a couple years.”

“Tons of friends.”

“Good. Good. I love you, you know? This is just so fucked up and shitty. I was so close to being done. Sorry, I’ll shut up about the dissertation. It just blows, is all. I hate it. You know whose fault this is?”

“Not China.”

“Not China. It’s the people who write articles about the likelihood of our entire universe being a computer simulation. It’s those people. Once people know they’re in an experiment, the results get all skewed. So now we’re data getting tossed, and it’s all because those bumblefucks couldn’t keep their mouths shut.”

“I love you, too, Nat. Miss you.”

There’s a wet rush of static. “Ugh. Yeah. Maybe it’s just a reset, or something. Maybe we’ll wake up tomorrow with no memory of this shit. Love you, Willy. Thanks for driving me to that colonoscopy that one time.” She pauses. “Hey, at least text mom, okay? And Devon. You should text Devon, if you can. I love you. I’ll call you again before zero. I’ll try to think up some meaningful shit to say.”

“Sounds good, Nat.”

She hangs up, and for a second Will considers hurling his phone into the canal how people do in the movies. He wishes she hadn’t brought up Devon—he can go for months at a time without thinking about his brother. He doesn’t have his number or even his Facebook. There’s an email address that might still work, but they haven’t been spoken in years, not since they were teenagers.

Not since he took a swing at their mom on New Year’s Eve and then crashed off into the snowy park behind the house. Will finds it hard to blend that small hard-eyed person into the chubby-cheeked kid he remembers following him around growing up. But he figures everyone has half-scabbed cuts like that, things they can ignore during the day but their subconsciouses can’t stop picking at during the night.

He knows he still cares because he has small stupid dreams about his brother, where they’re warming up together for a soccer game, or they’re getting drunk at some bar that’s also a movie theater. Once he had a dream where they were talking and it turned out they both like pissing in sinks instead of toilets because you can rest your balls on the nice cool ceramic and when you’re done the faucet’s right there, so efficient.

But the daytime reality is that he doesn’t really know his brother, maybe never did. If this was a movie he would go on some crazy adventure trying to find Devon’s phone number and get it in the nick of time, and then, right as he went to call him, he would get a call from an unknown number and it would be Devon, and they’d make things right just before the end of the world.

Will looks up at the sky. The blinking black numbers show 04:02:50. He sticks his phone back in his pocket and keeps walking along the canal. If this was a movie, there would be one significant action to make everything right, but it’s not like Devon is the only fracture in his life. Maybe he should spend the next four hours confessing all the cracks, baring his soul to strangers on the street.

A jogger passes him, yammering on his headset, and Will thinks of jumping at him and admitting that he can only get off with a finger up his ass, that he dismembered bugs as a kid, that he lies on his bed and cries for hours at a time for no reason, that he uses racial slurs in his head when he’s angry with someone of a different race, just because they’re available, that he spent New Year’s all alone in a Xanax cocoon, that he used to fantasize about his friend’s underage sister, that he was glad when Natalie’s ex died in a car crash because it meant Natalie could be miserable with him for a while, that sometimes the only thing that makes him feel good is binging, gorging himself on gas station taquitos or frozen pizzas, and then the only thing that makes him feel good after that is kneeling over the toilet, sticking his fingers down his throat until he hits that wriggly flap—he doesn’t know what it is, doesn’t want to know, prefers that whole anatomy stay mysterious—and brings it all up so it’s like it never happened and he can still trace his ribs in the mirror.

Everyone has their shit, after all. That is what his mom, who normally never cusses, told him after a bottle of wine last Christmas. And this is not a movie. There’s no way to resolve all his issues in four hours, so he needs to decide what he’ll do instead.

He could call or FaceTime everyone in his phone, scroll through every human he’s ever met and try to come up with at least three meaningful memories for each one. Old friends, cousins, exes. Humans are social animals and he’s always suspected human connections are all you really have when it comes down to it.

His old roommate’s dealer’s number is still in his phone—that’s how he got the Xanax—and maybe she won’t be cleaned out yet. He’s always suspected that the only way to really win life is to die in the right frame of mind: ideally that would be surrounded by loved ones and grandkids and feeling really fulfilled, but drugs and alcohol can also temporarily obliterate regrets, so if he dies high enough he’ll die happy.

There’s also sex. He could try to die in bed with the girl who wished him Happy Doomsday, or with a couple others who might have the same idea and are definitely willing to put their fingers up his ass. But the timing would have to be perfect, because he usually feels like shit right after orgasm. That would be a bad frame of mind to die in, all the filthy beauty fading back into sweaty lonely geometry.

Will hooks a right and starts back up the hill towards Goulburn Ave. He was lying to his sister about having tons of friends—he’s finished his studies now and most of his university classmates have moved away to find jobs elsewhere. He has some rec soccer teammates floating around the periphery who might be willing to get drunk or find an end-of-the-world party with him. He only knows one person in his apartment building, a Korean biochem student named Alyssa who thinks the kimchi in Ottawa is garbage. Alyssa doesn’t drink.

Fortunately he also knows Jean-Paul, a fifty-something playwright transplanted from Montreal, and Jean-Paul always drinks. That’s where Will’s feet carry him now, up to the big stone house that costs a fortune to heat all winter so it’s lucky Jean-Paul’s partner made a fortune in real estate. Will has never actually met the partner—he’s always away, in Texas or Portland or French Guiana. But he’s met Jean-Paul’s backgammon board and liquor cabinet several times.

Sun breaks through the fraying clouds and by the time Will is at the house it really does feel like spring. He has to shrug his coat off to keep from sweating. Jean-Paul is on the raised porch, leaned back in a camping chair, and he has a bottle of bourbon beside him.

“They’re rioting in Montreal,” he announces.

“I haven’t been watching the news,” Will says, coming to a stop under the porch.

“Me neither,” Jean-Paul says. “But I guarantee they’re rioting. Partying. Drinking in the streets. In basically any real city, that’s what people would be doing. But here, people are going to work. It’s crazy.”

“Government town,” Will says, which is what people always say to simultaneously condemn and excuse the boringness of the city.

Jean-Paul grunts, motions with his head. Will uses the railing to climb directly up onto the porch instead of going around on the stairs. He settles in on the other camping chair while Jean-Paul goes to get another glass. His head is in the shade but his body is in a wide slice of sunlight. It feels good and makes him remember, in frieze, being halfway down the walkway to his grandma’s condo on a spring day when he was a kid, snow melting all around, warm wind blowing through his hair.

He can’t decide if his grandma being deleted ones and zeros is more or less painful than her being decomposed meat.

Jean-Paul comes back, picking something out of the bottom of Will’s glass, and pours him a drink. “Cheers, buddy.”

“Cheers,” Will says. He doesn’t like bourbon—if there was ever a time to admit it, it’s now—but he gulps it down anyways. “Where’s Al?” he chokes.

“On a flight to Beijing,” Jean-Paul says. “Managed to get a few emails in, but no word since early this morning.” He scratches the bristly wattle under his chin. “So, how do you feel about being data?”

“Not sure,” Will says, trying to coax extra saliva out of his glands to wash the bourbon taste away. “Maybe it’s nice. Means we had a purpose. Or maybe it’s not nice.”

“Degrees of insignificance,” Jean-Paul says. “Who cares if we’re data in a computer or data outside one? It’s the same shit.”

“You going to try to get to Montreal for zero?” Will asks. “For a party, or something?”

Jean-Paul shakes his head. “You know I hate the language politics in Montreal.”

“Right.” Will leans forward, so his face is in the sunshine. “What if the simulation’s not really ending? What if this is just supposed to shake things up? Why else would they let us know instead of just pulling the plug?”

"If that's true, they’re kidding themselves if they think this will shake things up. There will be a hundred new cults and a thousand new TED talks and a million new think pieces, and then things will go right back to normal. The human brain’s not designed to handle non-existence. Or existence, for that matter. It’s just supposed to get us over the next hill to hump someone or eat some goddamn tubers.”

“Yeah,” Will says. “I know. It’s the whole, you know, construct your own meaning, thing. And it works. Usually. But I think it only works when you’ve got a future to project the meaning onto.”

“You got a bucket list?” Jean-Paul asks.

“No,” Will says. “I mean, just stupid shit. Go to Spain. Did that. Publish a book. Did that. Learn to play guitar. That’s the only other one I remember. You?”

“I always thought bucket lists were defeatist,” Jean-Paul says. “I have to use the washroom. Hold on.” He trundles back into the house, screen door rattling shut behind him.

Will thinks about texting his mom that the countdown in the sky has made him really rethink things, and that he might be ready to come back to Christ. That way she could be really happy when she blinks out. But she also hates being lied to, so if she realizes he’s lying she’ll be really angry when she blinks out. Instead he just texts her I love you and then texts it again to his aunt and to four different friends, sometimes adding bro to make sure it won’t be taken wrong.

It would only take a minute to get his actual brother’s number from Natalie, but then Jean-Paul is back with a two-six of Kraken and what looks like a miniature guitar.

“This is the one you like, right?” he says, sloshing the rum. “You can run get some Coke if you want. Since you drink like you’re still in middle school.”

“Thanks,” Will says, and thinks he might do just that. The Quickie is only two blocks away and they’ll have taquitos, too. “Is that a mandolin? Is that what a mandolin is?”

“Al’s,” Jean-Paul says. “It’s almost like a guitar.” He sets the Kraken bottle down on the cement between them and hands the instrument over. “Learn away.”

Four hours isn’t long enough to learn to play mandolin, or to do anything else. But neither is a lifetime, so Will takes it and runs his thumb over the strings, making metallic notes hover in the air. He realizes what he’s going to do.

He’s going to drink quickly, until the little tableau of them on the porch seems beautiful and tragic, two tortured artists hurtling towards oblivion on their own separate tracks, parallel by happenstance, bonding over annihilation. He’s going to drink until he’s bloated and tender and can confess all his sins. He won’t call his brother or his ex. He won’t become a good person. But he’ll blink out feeling good, and for once there won’t be a hangover.

“Here’s to the blinders coming off,” Jean-Paul says, pouring a shot of rum into Will’s glass. “Simulation ending.”

“Simulation ending,” Will says, and he can hardly wait.

Rich Larson

Prague, Czech Republic