“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
Dissolution (noun): the closing down or dismissing of an assembly, partnership, or official body. In other words, the art of coming apart.
Two hours before the end of the world, Pam sits behind the shop counter, flipping the pages of a magazine but neither looking at the pictures nor reading the articles. She glances up every time the bell over the door jingles, but it’s always a customer, a stranger, never Ricky. She sells packets of cigarettes, tins of tomatoes and beans, a tacky plastic necklace to a young girl who beams as she places it around her neck. Pam envies the girl her smile, her joy at such a small thing, so she takes a second necklace and pulls it over her own head. The light blue plastic shells settle against her chest, but as she watches the girl walk out of the shop, Pam share none of her happiness. She tugs the necklace and it snaps, scattering tiny beads across the floor.
Two days after the end of the world, Pam is once again in the shop, this time with her brother. He’s been sleeping rough again, a regular occurrence for him since his wife left him. Pam misses Candace, her sister-in-law. Or is she now an ex-sister-in-law? Pam’s not sure if they’ve divorced or not.
Her brother’s asking for money. Again. “You’ve got an extra ten pounds in the till,” he says. “I know you do. What’s the harm?”
The harm is that Pam doesn’t like her brother, hasn’t liked him since she was twelve and got her period and he took a pair of her blood-stained underwear to school to pass around. He charged the other boys two pounds each to—actually, Pam’s not sure what they did with them. She prefers it that way.
“Go away,” she tells her brother, wearily. The world has ended, and she has no time for him. “Just go away.”
The end of the world passes quietly, so quietly, in fact, that most don’t realize the world has ended at all. They wake, eat breakfast, brush their teeth, drive to work, come home, eat dinner, make love, go to bed, and do it all over again, and nothing has changed, or at least, nothing has changed that they can articulate. And yet.
Pam always assumed the world would end suddenly—an explosion, a flash of light, and then no more. Instead, it’s a long, slow, complicated disintegration, full of rumors and lawsuits and animosity. By the end of the first week, she’s exhausted by the news, no longer cares what Paul said in an interview, where John was spotted.
Ricky is gone. This, too, she thought she would care more about. Instead, he disappears from her life slowly, unceremoniously. Longer absences, first days, then weeks. She would blame the world ending, her distraction in the wake of its destruction, but the truth is, she’s been pulling away from him for months now, and he from her. One day, seven weeks after the end of the world, Pam realizes she hasn’t heard from him in nearly a month, and she feels a strange sense of relief as she closes up the shop, knowing that she no longer needs to wait for him.
What it looks like, the end of the world: abandoned guitars and drums, pianos and synthesizers. Recording equipment covered in dust. Four, where once there was one.
What it sounds like: silence. The heaviness of the air in the seconds after a guitar chord has cut off. An empty studio that moments before contained voices. The absence—of speaking, of singing, of chords, of beats, of shouts, of whispers, of breaths, of wind, of air.
There are some who say, later, that the world didn’t actually end. Look, they say, see how it’s still turning? See how the sun rises every day, how the grass grows, how we put petrol in our cars and drive to work? The dishes pile up in the sink, because we still cook, still eat, and someone has to do the washing up.
But Pam knows. She was there at the beginning, waiting outside the club in the rain, a plastic bin bag hanging over her like a poncho. She watched them on the stage in Liverpool, in Hamburg; she followed their careers, followed their rise, and so she knows: when a star so bright crashes, it burns, and destroys everything it touches.
One month after the end of the world, before Pam realizes that Ricky is gone but after she recognizes her weariness, a new album. It’s cruel, some say, like giving false hope. It was recorded before the previous new album, which some say makes that album the last album, not this album. Pam’s head aches when she tries to piece together the timeline. She purchases this new record, listens to it on repeat, plays it in the shop until she knows all the words. Sometimes, on the streets, in the stores, she sees people weeping. Pam doesn’t join in.
Pam’s brother is once again in the shop. “What is this?” he says, meaning the music. When Pam tells him, he says, “Who?”
Six months after the end of the world, Pam closes the shop and takes the train to London. It’s October, but the sun is still warm and the trees have yet to drop their leaves. She walks through the city, anonymous, smoking a cigarette, staring too closely at the storefronts and the faces of those she passes.
It begins to rain, so she goes into a pub and orders a pint. Her stool at the bar is uneven, and it wobbles every time she lifts the glass to her mouth. The man sitting next to her notices, laughs, makes a joke. She studies him. He’s attractive, in that weather-beaten, London sort of way. Before the world ended, she may have smiled back at him, flirted, at least considered leaving with him. Instead, she looks at him coldly, picks up her drink, and moves down two stools.
It is no small thing, to carry on after the end of the world. To continue in the face of carnage. To live with the agony of knowing that that which you have loved is lost, and, in its wake, to simply breathe.
Get over it, some people say. They complain about Pam, about all those who are unable to move past the world ending. They were just a band, Pam’s brother says. They weren’t even that good, and Pam screams at him to leave.
The reason Pam examines the faces so closely: because in the eyes of some, she can see a shared loss, and without speaking to them, she feels heard.
Two minutes before the end of the world, Ricky finally comes in the shop. He kisses her, his lips cool. “Sorry I’m late,” he says. They are both of them going through the motions now, but neither of them has yet admitted it.
Pam locks the till and pockets the key. “Ready?” she says. They’re going to lunch, a late lunch now, but lunch nonetheless.
Ricky walks toward the door. Something crunches beneath his feet, and he swears under his breath. He steps back, and Pam leans across the counter to see. One of the plastic shells from her broken necklace lies shattered. “It’s fine,” she says. She comes down from her perch on the stool, bends, and brushes the bead’s ashes into her palm.
At the moment the world ends:
Pam empties the remains of the plastic beads from her palm into the rubbish bin. Ricky holds the door open for her, and as she follows him out, she flips the sign in the window from open to closed. They walk toward the cafe, and Pam stumbles on a dip in the pavement, and as she tries to catch her balances, she reaches for Ricky, hoping to steady herself, but he’s walking ahead and hasn’t even noticed.
Pam’s brother, sitting on a bench in the park, rummages through his pocket for a cigarette and, finding none, curses his sister, because it’s easier to blame her than himself, easier to say that she’s selfish, greedy, and he tells himself that he never much liked her to begin with, though the truth, of course, is so much more complicated, and he does his best to ignore the regret that flickers at the edge of his mind.
The little girl who bought the plastic necklace from Pam sits in the back seat of the car as her parents bicker in the front. She sucks on the necklace, clacks it against her teeth, and her mother, catching sight of her in the rearview mirror, snaps at her to spit it out.
Pam catches her balance but stays where she is, watches Ricky walk away from her, and for a moment, she thinks about what will happen if she doesn’t follow.
And four young men, not yet 30, exit a door into the sunshine, maybe squinting a bit against its glare, maybe each gazing at the other three, remembering what they looked like when they were younger, happier, livelier, when there was joy and laughter, which isn’t to say those things are gone now, but they’re found in other settings, on their own or with other people, no longer with these three, though once they’d have sworn they were brothers; and they meet the eyes of the others, and then one of them nods, and then they all nod, and then they say, “Well, then,” and “So long,” and they leave in separate directions.
—Emma Riehle Bohmann