My girlfriend was in front of me, yet it wasn’t her. My mind refused to comprehend it. The Queen in Yellow looked on, her face so still it resembled a mask.
“But if you want, I can give you a dream version of that love,” said my girlfriend. Her stance changed, cheerful and slightly mischievous, which I immediately recognized. Suddenly, it was my girlfriend again, as if she had never left. “Don’t worry, ok? You can forget what happened this night. Nothing but a bad dream!”
“You can live a happy life with her. I will ensure that,” said the waitress, her eyes empty of all life.
My girlfriend embraced me from behind, her sudden warmth, her smell, all overwhelming me as I reflexively tried turning, but she held me there, refusing to let me turn, while she embraced me. My memories flooded back, painful in their vividness. “We can live, just the two of us. Spend the life we were supposed to have. Making fun of each other’s hobbies, me dragging you into adventures, you making sure we’re always on time, spending time, even if it’s lazing in front of the TV and talking shit.” She hugged tighter, lowering her voice into a whisper. “Together.”
The pain struck me in my chest like a blow, and my breath came in short gasps as my eyes teared, completely out of my control. I missed her. I wanted to see her again, so badly it hurt. It was all I could do not to collapse as I fought against my own body for control, for composure. At that moment I would do anything to get her back.
“Get the fuck away from me,” I snarled, shoving the puppet away. When I turned to the woman in yellow she did not react beyond a smirk. The thing that looked like my girlfriend also stood there, her former personality and energy all gone, a puppet with its strings cut. “You’re the one who killed her and now you dare…! You DARE to do something like this!”
“I’m offering you a chance for happiness,” she replied. “A single wish, which is more than most people get. Is that so bad?”
“You act like you are doing me a favor?” I barked. “YOU are the one who took her away from me!”
She paused for a moment, without moving or looking away. “That was her choice, not mine,” she said at last.
“Bullshit! Why would she suddenly decide to kill a bunch of people she never met and then… And then… Kill herself?” I strangled a sob that barely escaped my throat. “Why?!”
The King in Yellow’s expression grew more somber at that. “You’re better off not knowing,” she said.
“Tell me.” My reply was quiet, but my voice did not waver. I stared down those cold, arrogant eyes as the thing behind that puppet’s face studied me and considered how to answer me.
“Some things are not meant to be known,” she said. “The knowledge taints, changes in such a radical way that you can never look at the world the same way again. If you cross this threshold, there is no going back. Even forgetting it is no easy option. Such knowledge can destroy minds, perceptions… Civilizations, even.”
“Right,” I interjected sarcastically. “Spooky knowledge that will drive me crazy! Things man was not meant to know! Great! Now spill the beans.”
She seemed neither amused nor angered by my interruption, but raised her arm holding the sock puppet. “Don’t sass me, kid!” Said Wolfy, as his one eye wobbled with every motion. “You might go really crazy if I tell you the truth! You might go killing your own neighbours and turning their skulls into novelty mugs... Or you might stop moving and give up on ever eating or breathing again. I’m NOT exaggerating. Knowing that, are you SURE you want to go through with this?”
It was my turn to hesitate. I remembered when the actors first saw the King in Yellow, how they all screamed in horror or started crying and babbling. I remembered their grim determination, as they dragged the audience, one by one, to be killed with no rhyme or reason. Sacrificed for something they would never understand, ignorant until the moment they died. I thought what had to be going through the actors’ minds. My girlfriend’s mind. What made them put on their masks, arm themselves and kill the people they loved the most. What made her plunge her own knife deep into her chest, without a word or a sigh.
“I have to know,” I said.
The puppets all smiled, unnaturally slow and mirthless, mechanical in their unisson. “I offer you a life many would call enviable. Free of worries and surrounded by people who love you, who need you. You rebuff them, run away and then jump off a balcony.” The woman in yellow spoke softly, almost contemplative, as if pondering out loud. “I give you a chance to choose what kind of life you want. A single wish. Anything you desire... And yet you refuse?”
I shrugged. “Wish for something lofty and you set yourself up for disappointment.”
“If you want a cheeseburger, a diner is the perfect place to ask,” said my girlfriend, detached amusement voice. It really didn’t match the woman I had grown so close to in the last few years.
“I want to know why they died,” I answered. “Those poor people in the audience, the crazy actors… And my girlfriend.”
“They only wanted to be remembered,” replied the King in Yellow, without fanfare.
“What?” I chuckled nervously. “Is this more cryptic bullshit or… What? They just wanted their names to be on the news? Is that it? Because I think there are easier ways. Couldn’t they have made a charity bake sale or something? Zero deaths required for that! Less cleanup too!” I laughed, a touch hysterically.
Nobody reacted to my lame joke, not even a muscle moved in that silent room. “They ain’t dead, kid,” said Wolfy.
“They are all a part of me now,” said the woman in yellow, slowly getting up from her seat. She still had her left hand raised, holding the sock puppet with a wolf’s head. “Margaret wanted to be close to her father. They had a falling out in her teenage years and were finally starting to mend it, after years of painful fights and hurtful memories. Jonas was worried about his wife. He worried all the time, whether she resented him for earning less than her, whether she regretted marrying him fifteen years ago, whether she still remained faithful. She was neither of these things, I know, she was only slightly irritated at him, but still cared in her own way. She had her own worries about getting old, but she never doubted her love for him.”
She picked those lives apart, without passion or disgust, like a butcher cutting strips of meat, as she laid those tender secrets bare. “ Alex was worried about a test, even though her friend, Ellie, was helping her out, Tae Hee was hiding his drinking habits from his parents. And, of course, the geology student who worried about her boyfriend. She wanted to meet his parents, but didn’t know how to broach the subject. And at night, after they had sex, sometimes she looked at him, and...”
“Stop!” I interrupted, closing my eyes. So it was true. My girlfriend was now a part of that thing in yellow, smiling without humor, eyes as dead as the one of the puppet she held.
“That doesn’t answer anything!” I barked at them. “Who in their right minds would want to be a part of your creepy hive mind? Why would anyone in their sane minds…?”
“Because the world is about to end.” Her voice was calm, devoid of any emotion or fanfare.
“What…? I… How…?” I choked on my words, sputtering while she looked back, calmly waiting for me to regain my composure. I laughed once more, as my grip slipped. I was way past nervous at this point.
“In one year and a couple of days humanity will go extinct. They will be annihilated, completely wiped out from the earth.” She walked closer to me as she spoke. “And it will not be a quick death that awaits you. It will be violent. It will be painful. And, if you’re unlucky… It will be slow.”
“One year…?” I whispered weakly. My thoughts wandered, of all places, to my diploma. I still had at least another year and a half before I finished my college, and I had vague plans of finding a job at a company after that, or maybe some freelancing. The thought of the world ending before I even finished college seemed like a dark joke, a ridiculous thought. “How do I know you’re not lying?”
She gave me another humorless smile, her face now a few inches away from mine. Then she touched my forehead, and I saw.
I saw a distant object, deep in space, approaching at a dizzying, unstoppable speed. Even as I saw it, I could not comprehend what I saw. Some sort of disturbance, something that should not be, folding universes and eroding reality as it hurtled through the vast void of space, past nebulae and stardust, under the light of distant stars and dying suns. It headed towards earth.
It did not hit the planet though, missing it by a couple thousand miles, a close brush by astronomical standards. But I also felt a terrifying malignance coming from that object, a feeling of dread that I could not rationally explain.
On earth, people looked up at the comet streaking across the sky, leaving a red trail in its wake. Some gathered to see it while others continued to work with barely a glance at the sky, but neither was spared of what came next.
A wave of madness swept across all, spreading across cities, countries and continents with lightning speed. A furious frenzy tore through every street and every home. People grabbed at nearest objects and attacked each other, breaking and scratching and strangling the nearest fellow human in an orgy of bloodlust and insanity. Families tore each other to pieces while cars crashed into each other, their drivers ramming and running over anyone they they could find with no concern for themselves. Planes crashed as nurses strangled their patients and policemen opened fire into crowds.
But even that was not as terrifying as what followed. After the first hours of carnage the human world slowly went quiet, as the few survivors found themselves alone amidst a pile of corpses. The weak, helpless and alone, starved in their beds and locked in their rooms. Slowly dying while babbling incoherently. The ones who had managed to kill all others now wandered aimlessly, each of them utterly alone, speaking to people who were not there and laughing maniacally as the rats and crows feasted upon the billions dead.
Humanity died a slow death, with no dignity or hope for its final dregs. They did not even comprehend that they were dying, as the comet slowly drifted away, fading into the serene and uncaring sky.
When I came to, my eyes were wide with horror, staring vacant at the dark and empty diner. The only one in front of me was the woman in yellow, her face bare of any feeling or expression.
“Do you understand now?” She asked, her voice quiet, barely a whisper, breaking the silence that utterly smothered the diner. “They saw and they understood. In one year there will be death, madness and destruction. None of you will survive.”
I tried to speak, and found I couldn’t. The very effort of speech was more than I could accomplish in my state. I was utterly drained of all energy and emotion. Not even sadness touched me, nothing but a hungry emptiness that consumed my thoughts and left me dazed and confused, a broken puppet.
“Humanity’s poetry and history, your accomplishments and sins, none of it will matter. Gone, with no one to remember them or pass it forward. The actors, and their audience, they would all be forgotten… Were it not for me.” She pointed behind me, and as I looked back I saw the actors and actresses from the theater. Without any masks or weapons, each hugging their loved ones killed in the theater that night. Their faces were placid, betraying their true nature, but they still breathed and blinked realistically, in eerie simulation of humanity. Yet they were all nothing but puppets.
“They are now a part of me,” said the King in Yellow, drawing itself to its full height. “And I shall carry their memories until the earth is devoured by your dying sun and beyond… In a way, I am the path to eternal life.”
No pithy reply or rebuttal formed on my lips. All the fight in me had gone out, like a switch had been flipped off. Nothing in my mind but a replay of what I had seen and experienced through the Queen in Yellow’s eyes. The death of humanity.
“Now you know the truth, that makes things… Complicated,” she said, pausing thoughtfully before continuing. “I could erase it from your mind, but that would just end with you jumping from a balcony. Again. We don’t need any of that, do we?”
I remained silent, frozen in place. My mind was a long laundry list of things that would cease to be. Schools without students and books with no one to read them. Bank accounts... Could they even be retrieved by some future alien archeologists examining our ruins? Would they understand money? Philosophy, comic books, truck stops, evangelical tv channels, cemeteries, porn, ice cream on waffles, superhero movies… That’s what we would leave behind once we all died, nothing but a pile of garbage, meaningless to anything left once we were gone. Is that all we would amount to, after centuries of struggles, wars, discoveries and lives and deaths? All of our triumphs, only to end with nothing but a pile of pointless garbage? Was that our legacy?
“Your last wish was incredibly vague… So I will give you one more chance. No more. I pride myself in being fair, but even I have my limits,” she spoke, calmly walking to the entrance door. She opened it and looked back at me one last time. “I will give you time to collect your thoughts, but when you leave this diner, I expect you to know what your last wish will be. Take your time, I will wait.”
She and all the other puppets slowly walked out of the diner, leaving me alone. I was now sitting in a creaky chair of an empty diner, contemplating on the end of the world.