Matt stretched and grinned, listening to the cracks and pops as muscles and tendons reacted to the strain. He eased back the sleeping bag a little, and lay watching the sun slowly turn the sky from black to a dirty blue-gray. A sudden streak of fire lanced across the heavens from east to west. Another piece of space junk making it back to earth he supposed. Or, maybe it was Martian Invaders finally coming to claim the heritage left them in the old science fiction stories. No matter, they would not find anything but a mystery.
Reaching over he shucked a cigarette from the pack laying on the rock next to him. A quick snap of the lighter; and he drew a satisfying cloud of smoke deep into his lungs, enjoying the bite in the back of his throat. A chuckle slipped out as he thought of how Jan had always said those damn cigarettes would kill him. It hadn't worked that way; hell’s bells, he was probably the only one left.
The zipper on the sleeping bag made a noisy rasp in the silence of the morning. He broke wind loudly and climbed from the bag. At the cliff's edge, he emptied his bladder out into space.
The view was not so magnificent anymore. The line had finally come into view, a dirty brown stain, edging closer day after day, minute after minute. "The creeping crud," he said, his voice oddly loud in the mountain stillness.
With a sigh, he turned back to the campsite and dressed; dirty jeans, dirty sneakers, and a dirty t-shirt completed his wardrobe.
I wish to hell I'd thought to get some more clothes, but you can't think of everything. Matt picked up his toilet kit and walked over to the little crystal clear pool of water. Brush the teeth, shave the face, comb the unruly hair, the last survivor of the human race has to present a good appearance.
"For whom?" he asked his reflection in the water. The reflection just looked back at him. He made a face, so did the reflection. "Shove it!" he told his likeness. The lips moved but no sound came from the water.
An impatient chittering behind him caught his attention. Turning around, he said, "Good morning, Charlie. How's the family this fine Montana morning?"
The ragged looking little gray squirrel sat on the lowest branch of the tree where he, his wife and two little ones lived. "Yup, I've finished, and I'll get out of the way so you guys can have a turn," he told the squirrel, and laughed. He moved over to where the stone campfire he had been using was laid out, sat on his favorite easy rock and watched the rest of Charlie’s family come down the tree.
Charlie, his wife Maggie, and the twins, Mutt and Jeff, scrambled down the tree and over to the edge of the pool. All four kept a wary eye on him as they drank. When they finished, they scurried over to the other side of the clearing and started looking for nuts; and whatever else it was squirrels ate.
Matt looked in the back of the pickup that had brought him to the end of the world. Plenty of food; more than he would ever need. Almost a full case of batteries for the little laptop computer, a useless radio, his axe, half a dozen cases of beer, and assorted camping supplies littered the truck bed.
Piling some wood in the fire pit, he poured a little charcoal lighter fluid over it and tossed in a lit match. He was not about to bother with rubbing two sticks together. The few matches he would use in the time he had left would do no damage to the good old Earth. We had already taken care of that.
He looked around when Charlie shouted a warning at his family and they all streaked for the nearest tree. Coming quietly across the clearing toward the pool was another survivor. The big Elk walked up to the edge of the pool and regarded him regally.
"Morning, King George, how're you today?" he asked the beautiful creature. George looked down his long nose at the human leaning against the side of the dirty truck, disdaining to answer; he lowered his head and drankk.
When the Elk quenched his thirst, he calmly turned his back and walked into the woods, paying no attention the curses hurled his way by Charlie and his family.
Matt lit another smoke and let it slowly dribble out in a long ragged cloud. Now that everyone else has had their turn it was time for a little coffee, maybe a couple of freeze-dried eggs or something. He filled the pot from the pool, put the grounds in the filter and put it on the fire. Some more water, mixed with the powdered glop from the package that said freeze-dried western omelet, went into another pan. It took a vivid imagination to call it an omelet.
He gagged the breakfast down. Eggs, especially powdered, were hard to take without salt. "You could have thought of salt," he mumbled as he had every morning since he had arrived on the mountaintop.
Refilling his cup, he walked over to the edge of the cliff again. It was much nicer when he could look out over the range and see gray and green and white snow capped peaks. Now the dirty brown stain covering the rest of the world had spread over several of the visible mountains. It seemed to move faster as the area it had to cover became smaller.
Two of yesterday's green foothills were dirty brown now. He counted hills and mountains between him and the stain. Simple math told him he had at the most three days before it was time to step off the cliff. The three hundred foot drop would be the longest step he had ever taken. An old joke came to mind, "Why would anyone step out of a perfectly good airplane when it wasn't on the ground?" He had the answer now; to escape the stain.
Time to crank up the computer, there was not a lot of time left. He got another cup of coffee and flipped up the screen. Put the power switch on; let it boot up. Select the MS Word icon from the screen; and wait while the word processor loaded. Select open, enter the file name, and click enter. He sat looking at the empty screen. For two weeks, he had tried to write the history of the end of the world, and for two weeks, he had erased everything he wrote. Who was going to be around to read it anyway?
I, Matthew Howard Tate, being of sound mind and sane body, he wrote. No, that isn't right, it's sane mind and sound body, he retyped the line, do hereby leave the entire Earth and everything on it to...He stopped. Whom do I leave it to?
What makes me think I'm still sane? I talk to animals, I'm trying to write a history of something that's about to cease to exist, for someone that doesn't exist any longer. Or, at least they won’t exist when I go.
Those are definitely not the actions of a sane mind. He clicked ‘Delete’ and cleared the screen for the twentieth time that morning. By right of survivorship the Earth must belong to me, at least there is no one else to dispute the claim. He opened a warm beer and took a sip. One more time, he stared intently at the screen.
Thirty minutes later, he turned off the power in disgust and sat watching the stain advance toward his resting place.
The sun in his face woke him. His head hurt; apparently, he'd tried to drink all the beer in the truck last night. Considering he had six cases in there, he did not make it. Charlie and his family were already at the pool.
"Morning, Charlie," he called. The squirrel seemed to understand him. It looked at him with bright, wise eyes. Charlie chittered, chattered, and barked at him, as if to say, "Hey dummy, you really made a spectacle of yourself last night. All that crying and shouting, you kept me, and the family here, up all night." Matt could see the squirrel's whiskers bristle in indignation. He sat up and put a hand to his aching head, "Sorry Charlie, I don't think that's gonna happen again," and moaned softly. Matt slowly climbed from the sleeping bag and went through his morning ablutions. After brushing his teeth, he popped half a dozen aspirin. So what if it eats a hole in my stomach, or I get sick? Two days from now, I will not care in the slightest. Maybe it will be enough to kill me early.
"This is getting to be a habit," he mumbled as he stacked firewood in the fire pit. He dropped a match on the lighter fluid and backed up from the whoosh of flames that shoot up. Putting all the makings in the coffee pot, he put it on the now low burning fire. His stomach spasmed, a damp feeling welled up in the back of his throat. He quickly shuffled over to the cliff's edge and threw up. His stomach heaved and convulsed for a week. At least that's what it felt like.
He lay at the edge of the cliff, his head hanging over the side of his little world. He looked down at the little cloud floating about half way between him and the ground. This is the first time I ever threw up on a cloud, he thought. Hell, I may be the first person to ever toss my cookies on a cloud.
“I wonder why there aren’t any birds? At least a vulture or two should have made it this long.”
The stain was a lot closer today. It will probably be here tomorrow night sometime. There was only one mountain between his lofty perch and the spreading crud. Maybe I should just go ahead and roll over the cliff face now, end it all. He lay for half an hour watching the one green mountain he could see.
The blank screen stared back at him. Inspiration hit him, he typed:
Mankind started it with rapidly increasing pollution. We started dumping all the toxic wastes in the deep ocean trenches. Then, we added the nuclear wastes. A concoction formed that grew into something new. A life form? Whatever it was, it continued to grow and spread, unbeknown to humankind, it spread across the seafloor. The first indication we had was when it appeared the island of Guam. In three days Guam was barren of any life.
Guam was only the first in a long chain of death.
Click on the main Office Button to bring up the menu. Click on Close. The file vanished. It was nothing but a bunch of crapola. Open another beer and put away the computer. He looked at his watch, nearly noon. King George hadn't shown up for his morning drink. The last proud representative of his species probably would not be back. The stain must have gotten him during the night.
"Well, Charlie, That leaves the five of us." The squirrel sat on a stump in the center of the clearing and watched the man.
"I sure wish you could talk. It'd be nice to have a two-way conversation again." He smiled at the squirrel, "I think I may have something you'd like." Matt walked over to the back of the truck and rummaged around in the boxes piled there. He found the jar he was after and carried it to a spot of bare spot of ground, removed the lid, and poured the unsalted nuts into a neat pile. "Pig-out, Charlie," he said with a grin and went back to the truck.
Charlie made some squirrel noises and investigated the pile of nuts. Rising up on his back legs, Charlie barked a couple of times, and his family came running. Pausing halfway through a big walnut, the squirrel looked at Matt. He seemed to wink, then went back to his nut.
The sunset was spectacular. Matt toasted it and all the rest of the sunsets with a beer. "You'd like this one, Jan," he told his dead wife. "It's probably one of the prettiest sunsets I've ever seen." All the soft reds and purples fading into a smooth gray covered half the sky.
Stars accumulated as the sky changed into black velvet covered with sparkling diamonds. The moon rose over a distant mountain, it would be full in a week only there would be no one around to see it. Matt toasted the moon with another beer. "Evening moon," he said, his words starting to slur. Unsurprisingly the moon did not answer.
Matt sat on the edge of the cliff, his feet hanging over the face, dangling three hundred feet above the ground. The stain was at the bottom of the cliff now. Every direction was the same dirty brown color.
"This is the last day of forever," he shook his head slowly back and forth. "That used to be the first day of the rest of your life, Charlie," he told the little gray squirrel. He looked around; Charlie was sitting on the stump watching him.
Matt drained the last of the beer he held and with a loud belch, tossed the empty bottle out into space. He watched it until it disappeared against the brown scenery. "Yup, I'm a litter bug now, too."
He was tired. He had been up all night writing. It was nearly dark again; the last sunset man would ever see was drawing to an end. It's only fitting that the last sunset should be the best one, he thought.
"Charlie, the end is neigh."
Charlie sat on his stump, his little black eyes flicking rapidly back and forth between his family, the man, and the sunset. His family sat in a tight group on the ground in front of the stump.
Matt pulled the laptop computer around in front of him. 'That's the way it was, August 23, 2015.' He spaced down two lines, typed his name, and saved the story of man's demise to disk. With a sigh, he closed the screen and turned off the power. Staggering to his feet, he carried the computer to the pickup, put it on the front seat and rolled up the windows.
"I don't know if anyone or anything or whatever will ever read that, but there it is." He turned and walked over to stand in front of Charlie, "You're the one to inherit the Earth, I leave it all to you." He snapped a military salute at the little gray squirrel, turned and walked back to his favorite spot on the cliff's edge. “I wish I had the balls to stick around and watch,” he thought.
He stood in silence for a few minutes as the sky darkened. When the last of the sunset faded, he took the one extra step.