This Time Tomorrow

“I’m telling you—no one’s gonna die tonight,” the lunatic on the TV says. I’ve seen him before. He stands on the sidewalk outside the bakery on Tuesdays and waves tracts in people’s faces. “This catastrophe that everyone’s hysterical about, it’s just not going to happen. The very notion that there’s a cosmic entity—a God, if you will—who will annihilate—”

I turn off the TV with one hand while pouring milk over my cereal with the other. Extremists like him have been cropping up a lot, and frankly I don’t have the mental energy to waste on delusions. Reality is reality, dad used to say. Suck it up.

Mom comes in from the kitchen with a cupcake. It’s my favorite kind she sells, lavender cream and lemon zest. Her eyes are trying hard not to be sad, but they’re sad nonetheless.

“Happy Birthday, Shiori.”

It’s not my birthday today.

I put down the spoon. “Mom…”

“It’s your Sweet Sixteen!”

“I’m fifteen.”

I will always be fifteen, forever and into eternity. I’ll miss my sixteenth birthday by twenty-nine minutes tonight. It’s fine. Nobody will know the difference. By this time tomorrow, a completely different world will exist, filled with people who don’t give a damn about those who had to be obliterated so they could live.

At 11:31 PM tonight, our world is going to end.

#

It’s a cycle that happens over and over. God destroys the world and creates a new one out of nothing, with new people and everything. It always has an expiration date. Once upon a time, our world was the new world that replaced the old one that got zapped. The old world was called Zenyo. That’s all anyone knows about it. There’s a list at the church of every world that came before ours. They used to make us memorize it in school.

Speaking of. As I finish my cereal, I debate whether I should even go today. I mean, what’s the point?

That’s a question I’ve been asking myself since I was ten.

Most of the kids in my class stopped coming to school ages ago. Half of me wonders why I stuck it out for so long.

I reach for my unfinished hat on the table. Knitting is something I picked up a few months ago. I’m almost done, but I have no idea how to make it shrink at the top, and nobody else I know knits—not even the grandma who lives downstairs. I should’ve known I wouldn’t finish it in time. I put the hat back and get ready to leave. I think I will go to school today.

#

Mom wanted me to skip so we could do something special, but I didn’t want to. It would feel too forced, like getting your picture taken in front of the church in Danton because you know you’ll never be back again. I want today to feel normal. I don’t want to eat ice cream at the park and pretend we’ll do this again next weekend. I don’t want to dye my hair pink, or finally try that burger place down the street.

I also won’t be getting behind the wheel for the first time, get drunk, high, or have sex with a stranger. My friends think it’s a tragedy that I’ll die a virgin. Dahlia tries to get me to hook up with someone every time we hang out, and a few guys have offered to be my first. But I really don’t see the point. While my friends and classmates are desperate to hit everything on their bucket list before The End, from crazy parties to cross-country road trips, I’ve tried to maintain a steady rhythm of normalcy.

Outside, it’s gray and cloudy like it might rain—a bummer for the last day ever, but I don’t mind. Gray is my favorite color.

I pass City Hall with its yellow graffiti when Dahlia comes up on her bicycle. It’s her kid bike that she outgrew years ago, but it’s the only one she has—you can’t really get new things anymore.

“You’re going to school? You know not even the teachers will be there.”

This makes me stop. “Really?”

“God, Shiori. What is wrong with you?”

I shrug and offer Dahlia the half of my cupcake I saved for her.

“Ugh, you’re the best.” She scoops the frosting onto her finger and licks it, and she makes this sound in her throat like, Oh my god, so good.

“What are you doing today?” I ask.

“Party at Dave’s. Want to come? Ryan will be there.”

Ryan is the most recent guy she’s been nudging me to sleep with. He’s smart and has deep blue eyes. I said yes the last time Dahlia asked because I used to have a crush on him, but then I realized how dumb that was and left before he could find me.

“I’m good. Thanks.”

“Let’s meet up later, then.” Her voice gets wobbly, like she’s about to cry.

I open my mouth.

“I know you don’t like sentimental shit,” Dahlia says. “I get it. But you’re my best friend. Don’t fucking tell me you’re not going to be with me when it happens.”

I’m such a jerk. “Of course I’ll be with you.”

“Meet me at the statue at nine.”

“I’ll be there. And probably my mom.”

“Tell her to bring more cupcakes.”

“Duh.”

Dahlia gives me this look like she’s taking me in one last time, even though we’ll see each other later. Then she pedals away on her bike, turns right at the liquor store, and disappears.

I decide I don’t want to go to school after all. Jackson’s catches my eye, and I make a split-second decision and cross the street. It’s not my favorite convenience store, but Red’s closed permanently on Monday. I think the proprietor hung himself. That kind of thing has been happening a lot recently. Half the shops haven’t been open for years, mostly because owners figured they have better things to do. The other half are like me—they act like everything is fine and trudge on with their lives.

The door jingles when I go in. I make a beeline for the banana yogurt drink and try to ignore the TV in the corner. The local channel is on, and they’re showing a reel of all the stuff that’s happened over the years in our town, like the spring parades they stopped doing a while ago. Every so often, the anchors chime in with their own reminiscences. It’s all so pointless.

I’m about to get in line to pay when I notice that the guy getting his wallet out at the counter is buying the rival brand of the same drink. People who choose Dojo over Ajinomi are an enigma to me. I stand there for a second, half judging him, half wondering why I care, when he takes the bag from the cashier and notices me.

I don’t turn away embarrassed that he caught me staring—he’s cute and I freeze. He’s not the type Dahlia would ever try to get me to hook up with. He wears glasses, and you can tell his hair is messy under his beanie from the section above his forehead that’s uncovered. The logo on his gray hoodie is faded, and so is the green jacket he has over it. He looks like someone who’d rather read graphic novels than go to a party and stays up all night playing video games.

But it’s his eyes that get me. They’re not ocean blue like Ryan’s, or playful hazel like Dahlia’s. They’re this dark gray color, like the sky before it rains.

He frowns a tiny bit, like he’s thinking, Why is this girl staring at me? When I don’t look away, a different expression flashes, like, Wait, is she into me? And then a third one takes over, almost immediately after the second, and it’s one I recognize right away: Fuck it, what’s the point? In the end, he gives me a half-smile—closed-mouth and crooked—and leaves.

I watch him disappear past the windows and take my place in line. By the time I’m out of the store, I’ve forgotten all about him.

#

I walk aimlessly. When I finish my drink I almost litter, but force of habit compels me to find a trash can. It’s three blocks before I find one, and it’s spilling over. I balance my empty drink carton on top of a fast food bag, wait a second to make sure it stays, then go on my merry way to—I don’t know where.

I stop dead in the middle of the sidewalk. A thought creeps into my mind, one I’ve always tried hard not to let myself think: What if I’m wasting my last day? I’ve been trying to counteract my anxiety by purposefully not engaging in anything new or exciting, but wasn’t that just as stupid? Do I truly comprehend that tomorrow will never come? That after today, there will be no more Mom, no more Dahlia and her snorty laugh, no more stupid banana yogurt drinks, no more home, no more me? We won’t get headstones with epitaphs about the parents and children we left behind. Nobody will remember us. Nobody will pass down stories about us. We will simply cease to exist. We’ll be wiped off the face of the earth, like bugs on a windshield.

I think I’m crying.

“Umm, are you okay?”

I look up. It’s the boy from Jackson’s. His hands are crammed deep into his jacket pockets, like he’d really rather not be talking to a girl crying in the middle of the sidewalk.

“Oh,” he says, recognizing me.

Damn, he’s still cute up close. I wipe my eyes. I’m so ugly when I cry.

“Sorry. I’m fine.”

“Okay.” He starts to leave, then stops like he changed his mind.

“Do you want to maybe, like, go somewhere else?”

I blink at him, and he rushes to say, “I just mean that you might not want to be standing right here. Where people can bump into you.”

“Oh. Yeah, of course. Sorry.”

I move to the side and sit on the ledge of a shuttered clothing store. To my surprise, he sits down next to me.

“You were at Jackson’s, right?”

I finger my braid. “Sorry I stared at you.”

He laughs like he feels awkward. “To be honest, I judged you a little when I saw you with Ajinomi.”

“Then we’re even, because I totally judged you for your Dojo.”

How stupid. We’re arguing over brands that won’t exist after today.

I wonder if he thinks the same thing, because he gets quiet and we don’t speak for a while.

“What school do you go to?” I ask.

“East Tech. You?”

“Sunrise.”

“When did you stop going?”

“Today.”

He raises his eyebrows. “Seriously?”

I twist to show him my backpack. “You?”

“July.”

We watch people walk past.

“Are you doing anything today?” he asks.

“Not until later. You?”

“I was, but my plans fell through.”

I want to ask if his plans had something to do with a girl he knows, but I don’t.

He says, “I know it’s stupid ’cause we just met, and I totally get it if you’d rather not, but do you want to go somewhere?”

He’s fidgeting and staring across the street, not making eye contact. I suspect he usually keeps to himself, that he’s the type who’d rather stay home alone than ask a girl to the school dance. But I sense the fuck it vibe from him that I saw at the store earlier, except instead of walking away, he’s giving in. We’re the same, but opposite.

But if I’m honest with myself, maybe I don’t want to be alone today either.

“Okay.”

#

He takes me to the east side of town, and we walk because the buses stopped running months ago. We don’t talk a whole lot, but I don’t mind.

“Do you like ramen?” he asks all of a sudden.

I purse my lips. I’ve never had ramen. I know I already broke the rules by talking to a stranger, but I’m trying not to do anything new or special today. It stinks of memorializing.

“Um…”

He squints his face. “Wait. Don’t tell me you’ve never had ramen.”

“I’ve never had ramen.”

“Are you kidding me?”

I can’t help smiling. Dramatic is not a side I expected to see from him.

“My favorite place is still open. They’re doing like an end of the world special. Let’s go.”

He starts off down the street.

“Wait!”

“Come on!” he says over his shoulder.

Ah, whatever. It’s just soup and noodles, right?

I rush to catch up.

#

Apparently he knows the owner of the ramen shop, because as soon as we sit by the window, he comes out of the kitchen to our table with a big grin. He has crow’s feet around his eyes, like he’s spent a lot of his life laughing.

“I was hoping I’d see you today,” he says to my friend. He turns to me warmly. “And who’s this?”

“She’s a friend. We just met, actually.”

“Nice to meet you,” he says, and I smile. “You know which bowls to recommend her?”

“They’re all good, Tanaka-san.”

“Good man.”

We end up ordering one miso and one tonkotsu ramen, and the two of them take a few more minutes to catch up.

“He seems nice,” I say when we’re alone.

“Yeah.”

He sounds off, and I look up from my water. He’s staring out the window like he hates everything.

“So, do you bring a lot of girls here?” I say as a joke.

He fiddles with his chopstick wrapper and laughs weakly. “Nah, you’re the first.”

The conversation dies, and I wonder if he regrets asking me to hang out with him. I get the vibe that he wants to be alone with his thoughts.

“Tanaka-san was there for me when I was going through some stuff,” he says out of the blue. “If there’s one person who doesn’t deserve what’s coming, it’s him.”

It’s my turn to look out the window. The clouds are even darker now It’ll definitely rain.

“How do you think it’ll happen?” I ask.

“I don’t know. Quickly, I hope.”

“I just don’t want it to hurt.”

“It’s weird that it’s happened hundreds of times, but nobody knows what the hell to expect.” He taps the bottom of his cup with his straw, and the ice sloshes around. “Do you ever think about the people who came before?”

“All the time.”

He looks up from his straw, and our eyes lock. “They probably felt the same things we’re feeling.”

I nod.

“And now they’re just…what? Air particles? Not even?” He laughs, but there’s no humor in it. “It’s so fucking pointless.”

Holy shit. This guy is me.

“Anyway,” he says, and I can tell he got self-conscious. He forces out a teasing smile. “Were you really staring at me because you were judging my drink?”

“No. I mean, I guess it started that way, but…”

“But?”

I’m shy. “But nothing.”

He eyes me as he sips his water. I can’t tell what he’s thinking.

“Have you ever had a boyfriend?” he asks.

“No.”

“Been on a date?”

“Nope.”

“Interesting.”

“Does that surprise you?”

He seems to consider it. “Maybe a little.”

I blush. “How about you? Got any girlfriends hiding in your closet?” I don’t know why I say it like that.

“Uh, no.”

“…Boyfriends?”

“Negative.”

I chew on my straw and hide my smile.

Tanaka-san comes back with our ramen. My miso is so good I want to cry.

“I hate myself for not doing this sooner,” I say. “To think this is my first and last ramen.”

He pushes his bowl toward me. “Try this. Make sure you get the broth.”

I do, and my eyes go wide. “That’s amazing.”

“Now you’ve had it more than once.”

I smile. What a dork.

“What did you want to be when you were little?” he asks. “You know, before you found out your dreams don’t count for shit.” He says the last part jokingly, and I’m glad he’s out of his funk. I relate to it, but it’s hard to see it in other people.

“A horse rider.”

“Like in a rodeo?”

I don’t know what that is. “Like someone who rides horses. I was obsessed with them when I was little.”

He gives me a weird look, like he wants to tease me but is too polite to do it.

“I was five,” I say. “What about you?”

“Comic book artist,” he says, and in my mind I think, I fucking knew it!

“What?” he asks.

“What?” I say.

“You smirked when I said I wanted to be a comic book artist.”

Did I?

“Sorry. It’s just…you kind of look like you’d be into that sort of thing.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“It’s a compliment.”

“Hmm.”

“I promise!”

We don’t pay for our ramen. The end of the world special is that everything is free. It makes sense, but I think what a kind person Tanaka-san is anyway. He even offers candy from a bowl before we leave, and we both pick orange.

“Thank God,” I say. “I might’ve had to ditch you if you picked the cherry.”

“Gross,” he says. “Orange all the way.”

“Finally something we agree on.”

I swear I can feel Tanaka-san’s smile on our backs when we walk out the door.

#

We wind up at a park not far from the ramen place and sit on the swings. There’s no one else here. The clock on the other side says 2:30—nine more hours.

“Where’s your family today?” I ask.

“Home.”

He doesn’t elaborate, so I don’t push.

“You?”

“My mom’s working. I told her not to, but she wanted to make sure people could get their cupcakes today.”

“She sounds sweet.”

“Ha-ha.”

He blushes. “I wasn’t trying to make a pun.”

We get off the swings, and he climbs the jungle gym. I’m about to join when I notice a pencil stub on the ground. I pick it up to throw away in the next trash can I see.

He leans over from the top of the jungle gym. “Oh, can I have that?”

I climb up and give it to him. He pulls out a piece of paper from his jacket pocket and starts sketching.

“Are you drawing on the back of a tract?”

“Don’t look.”

I watch the deserted playground and wonder what the kids who’d be here otherwise are doing now. Do they know what’s going to happen, or did their parents choose not to tell them? If I was a kid, I would definitely not want to know.

“Here,” he says a short while later.

I drop my gaze to my lap. On the back of the tract is me, sitting on the jungle gym with my chin in my hands, staring at something off paper. My breath catches.

“You’re amazing.”

His cheeks get pink. “I’m alright.”

“You made me prettier than I am, though.”

“Did not!”

I smile at the paper in my hands. No one’s ever drawn me before. Damn, he’s talented. He really could’ve done it—been an artist.

I think he just had the same thought, because he leans back on the jungle gym and stares at the sky the same way he stared out the window earlier. I can almost see the dark clouds swirling in his head—the world is ending in eight hours, and there’s not a thing he can do about it. It doesn’t matter that he had dreams he wanted to follow, dreams that could’ve been reality if he was born a century ago.

“Can I keep it?” I ask.

He looks at me. I know what he’s thinking: what’s the point in owning something that’ll be vaporized in mere hours?

“What are you going to give me in return?”

I know he’s joking, but I dig into my pocket and take out a quarter. “How about this?”

He eyes it sitting in my palm and reaches for it—but instead of taking the coin, he takes my whole hand. My heart stops.

“This okay?”

I swallow. “Yeah.”

It looks different on the outside, but we’re doing the same thing as Dahlia and everyone else—desperately trying to squeeze every last drop of something from this world before it’s gone. Even if it’s holding hands with a stranger you barely know. Nothing can satisfy that craving, though. That something we’re all searching for, I don’t even know if it exists.

It starts to rain.

#

We run to his apartment a few blocks away. He lives on the top floor, and when he opens the door I hear voices inside.

After we take off our shoes, he leads me down a short hallway to the living room. A blond-haired man who looks nothing like my friend is lounging on the couch in his pajamas, a remote in his hand. A younger man in underwear is drinking beer against the fridge. There’s definitely a resemblance between that guy and my friend—dark brown hair, the same gray eyes.

“I thought you said you weren’t coming back,” the younger man says. Then he sees me. “Who the hell is this?”

“None of your business,” my friend says.

The man on the couch turns up the volume on the TV.

The other guy takes a sip. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to go through with it.”

We go to his room. “My uncle and older brother,” he says after he shuts the door.

“What did your brother mean just now?”

He glances at me, then plops down on the foot of his bed. “Nothing. He likes to say shit.”

I survey his room. It’s smaller than mine, a little messy but not terribly. There’s an old laptop half hanging off his nightstand that I have the urge to move to safety. Instead, I look at the walls where his sketches are taped up. Some of them are portraits of people he probably knows, but most are cartoony and seem like they came from his head.

I stand in front of a drawing of a girl in a space outfit. “Hey, she looks kind of like me.”

He smiles. “I guess I have a type.”

His bookshelf is packed with graphic novels. I’m impressed he could collect them all. I pull one off, sit on the edge of the bed next to him, and open to a random page.

“That’s a good series,” he says, leaning in. Our shoulders touch, and I smell a citrusy scent from his shampoo. I turn the page, pretending to be interested in the drawings, but all I can think about is his damn hair.

One of the panels catches my eye—a bulky man in a blue cape stops a missile with just his fist. I idly trace the arrow-shaped explosive with my finger.

“Does it bother you that superheroes are always able to save the world?”

He doesn’t answer right away. “I used to wonder what the authors were trying to say when they wrote these,” he says. “They knew the last generation was coming. Did they know we’d still be reading them? If so, why fill us with false hope?”

I close the comic and stand to put it back.

“Do you think God loves us?” I ask, still facing the shelf.

“No.”

I turn. “That’s not what the Church says.”

“How could a God who destroys worlds over and over for no reason love us?”

“We don’t know that there’s no reason.”

He shakes his head. He’s not convinced. Neither am I.

“It’s so unfair.” He falls back on the bed, angry and forlorn. He opens his mouth again, and I assume he’s about to make a quip about God being a sadistic asshole when he says, “I just met you.”

My heart skips a beat. Don’t go there, I want to tell him. I don’t know if I can take it. But even as I think that, my body moves—one step, two steps. I climb onto his bed and lie on my side next to him.

His eyes go a little wide, his cheeks a little pink. I pull off his beanie and shyly touch his hair. It’s messy and wavy, exactly how I thought it’d be. I trace my fingers down the side of his face and linger close to his lips.

He stares at me unmoving, then pushes off the bed to kiss me.

I beat him to it.

We kiss slow. It’s strange at first, different from what I expected, but the shift happens so fast it’s almost scary. All of a sudden his lips feel familiar, like we’ve been together for a year and not a day.

Outside his door, his uncle and brother talk over the noise of the TV. We try to be quiet. We’re careful not to make the bed creak when we switch places, and when he shrugs out of his jacket and pulls his sweatshirt over his head, he doesn’t throw them on the floor. I’m worried someone’s going to walk in on us, but not so much that I want to slow down or stop.

#

In the end, we don’t have sex. It’s tempting, but neither of us is ready. Dahlia would scream at me for wasting this one opportunity, I’m sure. Maybe if we had more time, it would be a different story. But it doesn’t feel right today.

I prop myself on my elbow and watch him watch me back. “By the way, what’s your name?”

“Tadashi.”

I sound the name silently in my head. It suits him, but somehow it makes me sad, and I wish I hadn’t asked. Maybe because knowing someone’s name makes them a little bit yours, and I’m not ready to give him up.

“Don’t you want to know mine?”

He twists my braid around his finger. “Shiori,” he says with perfect pronunciation.

“How’d you know? Have you been stalking me?”

A mischievous grin splits his face, and I almost think he’s not going to tell me. “It’s on the keychain hanging from your backpack.”

Oh.

Tadashi moves on to playing with the hair tie on my wrist. “Tell me something about you I don’t know.”

“It’s my birthday tomorrow.”

He stops. “Shit.” Then, “How old were you going to be?”

“Sixteen.”

“Happy Birthday?”

I punch him on the arm. “How old are you?”

“Sixteen. You’re not missing much.”

“Good to know.”

I let my arm collapse under my head. My mind drifts, and before I realize it I’m fantasizing about life after today.

I don’t even dream about anything fancy, like going to prom or getting married. I just want more days like this. I want him to draw us lying on his bed, his hand lightly brushing my back. I want to watch a movie together and notice which lines make him laugh and which scenes make him cry. I want to see him get so lost in a comic that he forgets the world around him. I want to sleep next to him, then watch him slowly wake up in the morning.

All of these wants come at me so hard, it hurts to breathe.

“Hey.” He reaches out to wipe a tear from my cheek. “There’s nothing to cry about.”

“That’s the biggest lie of the millennium.”

His smile breaks my heart. I kiss him again, and the hand that was on my back wraps tight around my waist and pulls me in.

I must be the stupidest person in the world to fall in love with a stranger on the last day I’m alive. This is exactly the kind of shit I’ve been trying to avoid since I was ten. I keep thinking I’m going to miss you so much, even though I won’t. I will not have the capacity to miss him. At 11:31, all of this will just…cease. Every bad memory I have, every happy memory I hold close to my heart, will poof—disappear.

The worst part is, knowing this despair will be erased in a few hours doesn’t stop me from feeling it.

Tadashi whispers something, and for a moment I forget enough to smile.

Tonight, the only home I’ve ever known will be destroyed, and my life is going to unravel before it could really begin. Nobody will come in and save us at the last second. Nobody will cry for us when we’re gone. But maybe not everything is meaningless. Maybe it’s okay to care, to cling to this world with every last breath. Maybe it’s okay to fall in love, even if you have to say goodbye before you’re ready. Maybe, this is enough.

I hold Tadashi close, and I whisper back in his ear.

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