Final Examination

I suppose it started some time back, even before the astronomers discovered it, and certainly long before I found out. How far back I have no idea; thousands of years, perhaps, or more. But the first I knew about it was one March evening, when I opened the newspaper.

Jane was in the kitchen, cleaning up, and I was settled back in the easy chair, reading through the lead articles. I skimmed through all the war talk, price controls, suicides, murders, and then glanced through the rest of the paper. One small article in the back caught my eye.

Astronomers Losing Stars, the caption read. It was a human-interest story I suppose, because it went on in that maddening coy style the newspapers use for that sort of stuff.

Dr. Wilhelm Mentzner, at the Mount St. James Observatory, says that he has been unable, in recent weeks, to find some of the Milky Way stars. It would seem, Dr. Mentzner tells us, that they have vanished. Repeated photographs of certain portions of space do not show the presence of these dim, faraway stars. They were in place and intact in photographs made as recently as April, 1942, and⁠ ⁠…”

The article gave the names of some of the stars⁠—they didn’t mean a thing to me⁠—and chided the scientists on their absentmindedness. “Imagine,” it went on, “losing something as big as a star. Although,” the writer summed up, “it doesn’t really matter. They have a few hundred billion left to play around with.”

I thought it was sort of cute at the time, although in questionable taste. I don’t know a thing about science⁠—I’m in the dress line⁠—but I’ve always looked upon it with the greatest respect. The way I see it, you start laughing at scientists and they come up with something like the atom bomb. Better to treat them with a little respect.

I can’t remember if I showed the article to my wife. If I did, she didn’t say anything in particular.

Life went along as usual. I went to work in Manhattan and came home to Queens. In a few days there was another article. This one was written by a Phd., and it had dropped the kidding style.

It said that stars appeared to be disappearing from our Milky Way galaxy at a tremendous rate. Observatories in both hemispheres had estimated that a few million of the farthest stars had vanished in the past five weeks.

I stepped out the backdoor to have a look. Everything seemed in order to me. The Milky Way was still up there, smeared across the sky as thick as ever. The Big Dipper was shining away, and the North Star was still pointing toward Westchester. No difference. The ground was frozen under my feet, but the air was almost warm. Spring would be coming along soon, and Spring fashions.

In the distance I could see the red glow of Manhattan, across the 59th Street Bridge. That seemed to settle it. The only problem I had was dresses, and I went back inside to worry about them.

In a few more days the star-story had reached the front page. Stars Disappearing, the headlines read. What Next?

It seemed that millions of stars were vanishing from the Milky Way every day and night. The other galaxies seemed to be unaffected, although it was hard to tell; but they were definitely dropping out of ours. Most of them were so far away they could only be caught with a high-powered telescope, or a camera; but hundreds could still be seen disappearing by anybody with a pair of eyes. Not blowing up or fading out; just click⁠—and they were gone.

This article⁠—written by an astronomer and a Phd.⁠—reminded everybody that only the light was stopping. The stars themselves must have been snubbed out hundreds of millions of years ago, and that the light was finally stopping, after travelling all that distance across space. I think it was hundreds of millions, although it might have been thousands.

The article didn’t even speculate on the cause of it all.

I went stargazing that night. Everyone else in the neighborhood was out in their backyards, too. And sure enough, in the gigantic spread of stars I could see little specks of light winking out. They were barely noticeable; if I hadn’t been looking for them I would never have seen anything different.

“Hey Jane,” I called in the back door. “Come on out and have a look.”

My wife came out and stood, hands on hips, looking at the sky. She was frowning, as though she resented the whole business.

“I don’t see anything,” she said.

“Look carefully,” I said. “Watch one section at a time. There was one! Did you see it?”


“Watch for little winks,” I said. But it wasn’t until the Thomas kid came from next door and loaned her his telescope that she saw it.

“Here, Mrs. Ostersen, use this,” the kid said. He had three or four telescopes in his hands, a pair of binoculars, and a handful of charts. Quite a kid.

“You too, Mr. Ostersen,” he said.

Through the telescope I could really see it. One moment a pinpoint of light would be there, and then⁠—bing! It was gone. It was downright weird. For the first time I started getting worried.

It didn’t bother Jane, though. She went back into her kitchen.

Of course, even with the galaxy collapsing, the dress business had to go on, but I found myself buying a newspaper four or five times a day and keeping the radio on in the store to find out what was going on. Everybody else was doing the same. People were even arguing about it on street corners.

The newspapers had about a thousand different theories. There were scientific articles on the red shift, and intergalactic dust; there were articles on stellar evolution and visual hallucination; the psychologists were trying to prove that the stars hadn’t been there in the first place, or something like that.

I didn’t know what to believe. The only article that made any sense to me was one written by a social commentator, and he wasn’t even a full-fledged scientist. He said it looked as if someone was doing a big job of housecleaning in our galaxy.

The Thomas kid had his own theories. He was sure it was the work of invaders from another dimension. He told me they were sucking our galaxy into theirs, which was in another dimension, like dust into a vacuum cleaner.

“It’s perfectly clear, Mr. Ostersen,” he told me one evening after work. “They’ve started sucking in the outside stars at the other side of the Milky Way, and they’re working through the centre. They’ll reach us last, because we’re at the far end.”

“Well⁠ ⁠…” I said.

“After all,” he told me, “Astonishing Yarns and Weird Science Stories practically agree on it, and they’re the leaders in the sci-fic field.”

“But they’re not scientists,” I said.

“That doesn’t matter,” the kid told me. “They predicted the submarine before there was one. They predicted airplanes when scientists were saying the bumblebee couldn’t fly. And rockets and radar and atom bombs. They’ve got the truth about this too.”

He paused for breath. “Someone’s gotta stop the invaders,” he went on in a tone of utter conviction. He looked at me sharply. “You know, since they’re dimension-changers, they can take the appearance of humans.” Again he looked at me, suspiciously.

“Anyone might be one. You might be one.”

I could see he was getting nervous, and maybe on the verge of handing me over to some committee or other, so I fed him milk and cake. That just made him more suspicious, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it.

The newspapers took up the science-fiction theory just as the Thomas kid had told it to me, and added their own embellishments. Some guy said he knew how the invaders could be stopped. He had been approached by them, he said, and they’d offered him controllership of a small galaxy if he’d cooperate. Of course, he wouldn’t.

It sounds foolish, but the sky was getting pretty bare. People in every country were saying foolish things and doing foolish things. We were starting to wonder how soon our own sun would go.

I watched every night, and the stars disappeared faster and faster. The thing seemed to increase at a geometric rate. Soon the sky was just filled with little lights going out, faster than you could count. Almost all of it could be seen with the naked eye now, because it was getting a lot closer to us.

In two weeks the only part of the Milky Way left were the Magellanic clouds, and the astronomers said that they weren’t a part of our galaxy anyhow. Betelguese and Actares and Rigel winked out, and Sirius and Vega. Then Alpha Centauri disappeared, and that was our closest neighbor. Aside from the moon, the sky was pretty bare at night, just a few dots and patches here and there.

I don’t know what would have happened if the voice hadn’t been heard then. It would be anybody’s guess. But the voice came the day after Alpha Centauri vanished.

I first heard it on my way to the store. I was walking down Lexington Avenue from the 59th Street station, looking in the dress windows to see what my competitors had to offer. Just as I was passing Mary-Belle’s Frocks, and wondering how soon they’d have their Summer line in, I heard it.

It was a pleasant voice, friendly. It seemed to come from just behind me, about three feet over my shoulder.

Judgment of the inhabitants of the planet Earth,” it said, “will be held in five days. Please prepare yourselves for final examination and departure. This announcement will be repeated.

I looked around at once to find out who was speaking. I half-expected to find a tall, cadaverous fanatic at my shoulder, some fiery-eyed fellow with flowing hair and a beard. But there was no one at all. The nearest person was about fifteen feet from me. For a moment I thought I was having a hallucination, hearing voices, that sort of thing. Then I saw that everyone else must have heard it, too.

Lexington Avenue is a pretty busy place at nine o’clock in the morning. There are plenty of people hurrying back and forth, kids going to school, subways roaring beneath you, cars and buses honking. Not now. You couldn’t hear a sound. Every car had stopped, right where it was. The people on the sidewalks seemed frozen practically in mid-stride.

The man nearest me walked up. He was well-dressed, about my age⁠—in his early forties. He was eyeing me with suspicion, as though I might have been responsible for the whole thing. I suppose I was looking at him in the same way.

“Did you hear it?” he asked me.

“Yes,” I said.

“Did you do it?”

“No. Did you?”

“Most certainly not,” he said indignantly. We stood for a few seconds, just looking at each other. I think we⁠—everybody⁠—knew, right there and then, that it was no hoax. What with the stars disappearing, I mean.

A pretty girl in a fur coat walked up to me. She was young; she looked scared, and very defiant.

“Did you hear it?” she asked us.

“Yes,” I said, and the man nodded.

“Is it possible that she was operating on a loudspeaker?” the girl asked.

She?” we both said.

“That woman’s voice,” the girl said, looking a little exasperated. “A young woman⁠—she said, ‘Judgment of the inhabitants⁠—’ ”

“It was a man’s voice,” the man said. “Of that I’m certain.” He looked at me, and I nodded.

“Oh no,” the girl told us. “A girl⁠—she even had a slight New England accent⁠—it was unmistakable.” She looked around for support.

The people on Lexington Avenue had gathered in small groups. There were knots of people up and down the sidewalks as far as I could see. The cars still weren’t moving. Most of the drivers had gotten out to ask someone else about the voice.

“Say, pardon me,” some man said to me. “Am I hearing things or did you hear⁠—”

That’s how it was for the next hour. Everyone, it seemed, had heard it. But every woman was sure it had been a woman’s voice, and every man was sure it had been a man’s. I left finally, and went to my store.

Minnie, the salesgirl, and Frank, my stock boy, were already there. They had the radio on, but they were talking over it.

“Say, Mr. Ostersen,” Frank called as I walked in. “Did you hear it?”

I sat down and discussed it with them, but we couldn’t tell each other much. Frank had been in the store when he heard it. Minnie had just been walking in, her hand on the doorknob. Minnie was sure it was a girl’s voice, about her own age, with just the trace of a Bronx accent. Frank and I held out for a man’s voice, but where I was sure the man was in his early forties or late thirties, Frank was positive it was a young man, about twenty or twenty-two.

We noticed the radio, finally. It had been broadcasting all that time, but we hadn’t paid any attention.

“… voice was heard in all parts of the country, at nine-oh-three this morning, Eastern Standard Time. This voice, purporting to be that of⁠—of the, ah, Deity, announcing the Judgment Day, was heard⁠—ah, was heard in all parts of the country.” The voice hesitated, then continued. “In place of our usual program, we now bring you the Reverend Joseph Morrison, who will speak on⁠—” The voice stopped for a moment, then came back with renewed vigor. “The Reverend Joseph Morrison!”

We listened to the radio most of the morning. The Reverend Joseph Morrison seemed as confused as the rest of us, but he was followed by news announcements. The voice had been heard, as far as they could make out, in every country on earth. It had spoken in every language, every dialect and sub-dialect.

Minnie looked dazed as the reports piled in, and Frank looked shocked. I suppose I looked as startled as my normal deadpan would show. At eleven-forty-five I decided to call my wife. No use. I couldn’t even get the operator.

“… possibilities that this is a hoax,” a voice was saying from the radio in an unconvincing tone. “Mass hallucinations are far from unknown, and the chance must be considered. In the Middle Ages⁠ ⁠…”

Cutting through our conversation, and through the blaring radio, smooth as a knife through butter, the voice came again.

Judgment of the inhabitants of the planet Earth will be held in five days. Please prepare yourselves for final examination and departure. This announcement will be repeated.

Departure! I thought. Where were we going?

“There!” Frank shouted. “You see⁠—it was a young man!”

“You’re crazy!” Minnie screamed at him. Her hair had fallen over her eyes; she looked like an impassioned cocker spaniel.

You’re crazy!” Frank shouted back. They stood glaring at each other. Minnie seemed about ready to throw the cash register at him.

“Easy now,” I said. “It seems⁠—it seems like the voice speaks in everybody’s language, and sounds like the sort of voice everybody would know.”

“But how’s that possible?” Frank asked me.

“I don’t know. But it’s certainly logical. If the voice spoke just in Latin or Hebrew or English, none of the Arabs would understand. Or the Armenians. So, while it’s speaking everybody’s language, it might as well speak everybody’s dialect at the same time.”

“Should we call it it?” Frank asked in a whisper. He glanced over his shoulder, as though he expected to find an avenging angel there. “Shouldn’t we refer to it as Him?”

“She, you mean,” Minnie said. “The old masculine idea that God must be a man is just so much ego-wash. Why, the feminine principle is evident all through the universe. Why, why, you just can’t say Him when⁠—when⁠—”

Minnie had never been too strong on ideas. She ran out of breath and stood, panting and pushing back her hair.

After a while we talked about it calmly, and listened to the radio. There were more speakers and another survey of the countries that had heard the second announcement. At two o’clock I told them to go home. It was no use trying to get any work done that day. Besides, there were no customers.

The subways were running again when I reached the B.M.T., and I rode to my home in Queens.

“Of course you heard it?” My wife asked me at the door.

“Of course,” I said. “Was it spoken by a woman in her middle-thirties, with just the trace of a Queens accent?”

“Yes!” Jane said. “Thank God we can agree on something!” But of course we couldn’t.

We talked about it all through supper, and we talked about it after supper. At nine o’clock the announcement came again, from behind and above our shoulders.

Judgment of the inhabitants of the planet Earth will be held in five days. Please prepare yourselves for final examination and departure. That is all.

“Well,” Jane said. “I guess She means it.”

“I guess He does,” I said. So we went to bed.

The next day I went in to work, although I don’t know why. I knew that this was It, and everyone else knew it too. But it seemed right to go back to work, end of the world or not. Most of my adult life had been bound up in that store, and I wanted a day more with it. I had some idea of getting my affairs in order, although I knew it couldn’t matter.

The subway ride was murderous. New York is always a crowded city, but it seemed as though the whole United States had moved in. The subways were so tightly jammed the doors couldn’t even close. When I finally got out, the streets were filled from one curb to the other. Traffic had given up, and people were piling out of cars and buses anywhere they were stopped, adding to the jam in the streets.

In the store, Frank and Minnie were already there. I guess they had the same idea⁠—about gathering up loose ends.

“Gee, Mr. Ostersen,” Frank said. “What do you think He’ll do⁠—about our sins, I mean?” Frank was twenty-one, and I couldn’t see how he could have committed an unusual number of sins. But he was worried about them. The way he frowned and paced around, he might have been the devil himself.

Minnie didn’t have any sins on her mind, as far as I could see. She was wearing what must have been her best dress⁠—she hadn’t bought it in my store⁠—and her hair was a lighter brown than it had been yesterday. I suspected she wanted to look her best in front of the Almighty, be He man or woman.

We talked about sins most of the morning, and listened to the radio. The radio had a lot to say about sins, but no two speakers agreed.

Around lunchtime, Ollie Bernstein dropped in.

“Hiya, ex-competitor,” he said, standing in the doorway. “How’s business?”

“I sold five dozen halos,” I told him. “How’s with you?”

“What’s it matter?” he asked, coming sideways through the doorway. “Four days before Judgment, who cares? Come have lunch with me, ex-competitor.”

Ollie and I had never been on really friendly terms. We sold the same price line, and our stores were too close for mutual comfort. Also, he was fat and I’ve always been suspicious of fat men. But suddenly, I found myself liking him. It seemed a shame I hadn’t recognized his solid qualities years ago.

We went to Lotto’s, a classy place on East 73rd Street. We had hoped to avoid some of the crowd by going uptown, but there wasn’t a chance of it. Lotto’s was packed, and we stood three-quarters of an hour for a table.

Seated, we ordered roast duck, but had to settle for hamburger steak. The waiter told us people had been walking in and ordering roast duck all morning.

Lotto’s had a radio⁠—probably for the first time in its existence⁠—and a minister or rabbi was speaking. He was interrupted by a news announcement.

“The war in Indo-China is over,” the announcer said. “Peace was declared at 7:30 this morning. Also, a general truce has been called in Mongolia, and in Tanganyika.” There was a lot of that. In Indo-China, it seemed that the rebels had given up the country to the French, declaring that all men should live in peace. The French immediately announced they were withdrawing their forces as fast as they could get planes for them. Every Frenchman was going to spend the last three days before Judgment in Paris.

For a moment I wished I was in Paris.

The announcer also said, the Russian airforce had agreed to pilot the Frenchmen home.

It was the same everywhere. Every country was leaning over backward, giving up this and that, offering land to its neighbors, shipping food to less fortunate areas, and so forth.

We listened over a bottle of Moselle⁠—all the champagne had been drunk that morning. I think I got a little high. Anyhow, I walked back with my arms around two total strangers. We were assuring each other that peace, it was wonderful.

And it was at that.

I went home early, to miss the evening rush. It was still rough going. I grinned at my wife as I reached the door, and she grinned back. Jane was a little high, also.

The next day I brought my wife into the city. With three days left to go, two really because you couldn’t count the Day itself, we figured we’d move into a good hotel, buy an armload of classical records and have our own private, quiet celebration. I thought we deserved it, although I could have been wrong.

Frank was already at the store when we got there. He was all dressed up, and he had a suitcase with him.

“What’s up, Frank?” I asked.

“Well, Mr. Ostersen,” he said, “with only two days left, I’m going to go on my first airplane trip. I’m flying to Texas.”

“Oh?” I asked.

“Yessir,” Frank said. He shuffled his feet, as if he knew he was doing something foolish. But his face was set. He was waiting for me to tell him not to go.

“I’m going out where I can ride a horse. Mr. Ostersen, I’ve always dreamed of going to Texas and riding a horse. It isn’t just the horses, I want the airplane ride too, and I want to see what all that land looks like. I was figuring on doing it this summer, on my vacation, but now⁠—well, I’m going.”

I walked to the back of the store and opened the safe. I had four thousand dollars there; the rest was in the bank. I came back and handed Frank two thousand.

“Here, kid,” I said. “Buy a horse for me.” He just stared at me for a second, then dashed out. There wasn’t much to say. Besides, it was an easy gesture. The stuff was as good as worthless. Might as well see the other fellow have a good time.

For once my wife seemed to agree with me. She smiled.

Minnie came in almost as soon as Frank left. She was all dressed up, too, in another dress she hadn’t bought in my store. There was a young fellow with her. He wasn’t good-looking or bad-looking; just the sort of fellow you’d see anywhere. But Minnie seemed to think he was something pretty special, to judge by the way she was clutching his arm.

“Are you going to Texas too?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” she said: “I’m getting married.”

“Oh?” Jane asked.

“Yes ma’am,” Minnie said. “Herb and I were going to wait ’til he finished dental school, so he shouldn’t be living off his parents. But now⁠—” She looked very cute, I must say. Her hair was a light blonde. It looked fine on her.

“Here, Minnie,” my wife said. She took the other two thousand out of my hand and gave it to her. “Have a good time these last days.”

“Hey!” I said, when Minnie and her young man had gone. “How about us? We’ll never be able to get in a bank. What’ll we do?”

“Quit worrying,” Jane told me. “Don’t you believe in young love?” She found the one comfortable chair in the place⁠—the one we reserve for customers⁠—and sat down.

“I’ve been too careful,” she said when she saw me looking at her.

“I see,” I said.

“And as far as money goes,” she continued, “haven’t you any faith? The Lord will provide.”

“That’s fine by me,” I said, and sat down beside her. The door opened, and in walked a short man. He was oldish, and dressed like a banker, but I knew right away he was in the dress line. There’s something about the dress line, you can always tell.

“Not much business?” he asked.

“Not much.” There hadn’t been a customer in all day⁠—or all yesterday, now that I thought about it.

“That’s understandable,” he told me. “It’s because everyone is storming the big stores, the expensive stores. Everyone wants to wear the best dresses on their last days.”

“Sounds logical,” I said.

“Logical, but not entirely right,” he said, frowning seriously through a little pince-nez. “Why should the big, expensive stores drive the middle-class retailer out of business? I am here as a representative of Bonzelli’s⁠—to reimburse you for your financial loss.” With that he dropped a thick manilla envelope on the counter, smiled, and left.

“Bonzelli’s,” my wife commented coolly. “They’re⁠—expensive.”

Inside the envelope there was eight thousand dollars.

That wasn’t the end of it. Strangers dropped in every few minutes, leaving money. After a while, I started handing it back. I went down the block to Ollie Bernstein’s store, with twenty thousand dollars in a paper bag. I met him on the way. He had a fistful of bills.

“I’ve got a little gift for you, ex-competitor,” he said. It was about fifteen thousand dollars. Everyone with money was handing it over, and getting it back from someone else.

“I’ve got an idea,” I said. “How about the unfortunate?”

“You mean the Bronx dress shops?” he asked.

“No, I mean the derelicts, the bums. Why shouldn’t they share?”

“Count me in for fifteen thousand,” he said without hesitation. We talked it over. Plans for going down to the Bowery and handing it out didn’t seem so good. The streets were still impossible, and I didn’t want to leave Jane for long. We finally decided to give it to the nearest church. They’d see it got into the proper hands.

The church on 65th and Madison was closest, so we went right there and formed on the end of the line. It stretched halfway down the block, but it was moving fast.

“I had no idea it was like this,” Ollie said. He shook his head. Perspiration was dripping from him. He was working harder handing out money than he had ever worked to make it in his life.

“What kind of church is this?” he asked me.

“I don’t know.” I tapped the man in front of me. “What kind of church is this, mac?”

The man turned around. He was almost as big as Ollie but older, tireder looking. “How should I know?” he said. “I’m from Brooklyn.”

We reached the inside of the church and a man took our money. He didn’t have time to thank us; there were too many behind, clamoring for their chance. The man just threw the bills on a table. Another man, a Reverend of some kind, was walking back and forth, picking up handfuls of it and carrying it off, then coming back for more. We followed him, just out of curiosity. I didn’t have any doubt they’d dispose of it in the right way, but a fellow likes to know where his charity is going. Besides, Jane would probably ask me.

At the side entrance of the church there was a line of poorly clad, red-faced men. Their clothes were in tatters, but their faces were shining. The Reverend was handing each man a handful of bills, then rushing back for more.

“Be simpler if they formed the line inside,” I said to Ollie as we headed back for our stores. “Just have the guys with money lined up in front of the guys without. Faster.”

“Listen,” Ollie said. “You always have a middle man. Can’t avoid it.” He coughed three or four times. I could see that the strain was getting him. A man Ollie’s size shouldn’t run around handing out money that way.

On my way back to the store someone handed me five thousand dollars. He just grinned, shoved it in my hands and hurried on. I did a double take. It was one of the bums who had just got it.

Back in the store there was more money piled up on the counter. My wife was still in the same chair, reading a magazine.

“It’s been piling up since you left,” she said.

I threw my five thousand on the pile.

“You should have heard the radio,” she said. “Congress passed about two dozen laws in the last hour. They’ve given everybody every right you could think of, and a few I never dreamed existed.”

“It’s the age of the common man,” I told her.

For an hour I stood at the door handing out money, but it was just plain foolishness. The streets were mobbed with people handing out the stuff. Everyone wanted to give it away. It was a game; the rich gave it to the poor, and the poor turned around and handed it back to the rich. By two o’clock it was impossible to tell who had been rich and who poor.

In the meantime, Jane kept me posted on what was going on over the radio. Every country on the face of the earth was passing emancipation acts as quick as they could get a quorum together. The age of the common man had really come in⁠—two days before deadline.

Jane and I left for lunch at three o’clock. We both knew it would be the last time we’d see the store. As a final gesture, we piled fifty thousand dollars or so on the counter, and left the doors open. It seemed the only thing we could do.

We ate in an East Sixty-third street restaurant. The regular help had left, but people wandered in off the streets, cooked for a while, ate and left. Jane fixed a few dozen club sandwiches for our share, and then we ate. The next problem was where to sleep. I was sure all the hotels would be full, but we had to try. In an emergency we could sleep in the store.

We walked into the Stanton-Carler, one of the biggest hotels in New York. There was a young man behind the main desk, reading The World as Will and Idea, by Schopenhauer.

“Any chance of a room?” I asked him.

“Here’s a pass key,” he said. “Take any vacant room you can find.”

“How much?” I asked, fanning a few thousand dollar bills.

“Are you kidding?” he said, and returned to his book. He looked like a very serious young man.

We found a vacant room on the fifteenth floor, and sat down as soon as we were inside. Immediately, Jane jumped up again.

“Records,” she said. “I want to spend the day before Judgment listening to good music.”

I was dog-tired, but I wanted the same thing. Jane and I had never had enough time to listen to all the music we wanted to hear. Somehow, we had never gotten around to it.

Jane wanted to go with me, but I thought, what with the jam New York was in, it would be easier if I went alone.

“Lock the door until I get back,” I told her. “It may be the day before Judgment, but not everyone’s an angel yet.” She winked at me. She hadn’t winked in years.

I scrambled through the crowd to a music store. It was deserted. I picked up a long-playing recorder and all the records I could carry. Then I came back. I had to walk to the fifteenth floor, because some guy was zooming up and down in one elevator, and the rest were out of order.

“Put on the Debussy,” I told Jane when I got back, throwing myself in an armchair. It was a joy and a pleasure to be off my feet.

That’s how we spent the rest of the day, and the evening. We played records. I had gotten some Bach, Debussy, Mozart, Hayden, and a few others I never heard of. I listened to more music in that day than I’d heard in five years previously.

We woke up late the next day, about one-thirty in the afternoon. I felt guilty. It didn’t seem right to sleep away the day before Judgment.

“Seems as good as any other way,” Jane said. Perhaps she was right. Anyhow, we were both ravenously hungry. Jane’s feet were blistered, because she hadn’t moved around so much since we were courting.

“Stay put,” I said. “Your shining knight will bring you lunch. My last good deed.”

“Your first,” she told me, smiling.

“Lock that door,” I said, and left. I just don’t trust people very much. I don’t know why. Even on the day before Judgment, I couldn’t trust everyone.

The streets were empty when I finally got down. A few people were walking around, peering nervously over their shoulders. A few more had joyous smiles on their faces. But the streets were very bare. Cars, taxis and buses had been left haphazardly all over the street. The traffic lights were still clicking red and green, but there was no traffic to regulate.

I saw no sign of a policeman, and remembered that I hadn’t seen any since shortly after the announcement. I didn’t know if I liked that, but I supposed that cops are human too. They might like to spend their last days with their families, also. And who was going to steal anything?

It might be a good idea, I thought, to drop into a church and offer up a prayer. Not that it would make any difference, or even that I especially wanted to. But I thought Jane would like me to. I tried three churches, but they were all packed, with hundreds waiting outside. Now I knew where everybody was.

I think I might have waited too, but Jane was expecting her lunch. I went on to a restaurant.

On my way back with a bundle of food, five people stopped me and tried to give me money. They seemed desperate. They explained that they had to get rid of it⁠—and they had no idea how to. After working for it all their lives, it didn’t seem right just to throw it away. And no one would take it now. They were really perplexed.

One man in particular struck me.

“Please take it, old man,” he said. “I’ve been unfortunate⁠—I’ve accumulated so much of it, it’s almost impossible to dispose of it all. And I don’t want it on my⁠—hands. I really don’t. Won’t you accept a portion of it?”

I recognized him. He was an actor, and a well-known one. I had always enjoyed watching him, so I took a pile of bills off his hands, leaving it on the desk of the hotel. The young man who had been reading Schopenhauer was no longer there.

Jane and I ate, and listened to some more music. We listened to it the rest of the day, and didn’t talk much. Towards evening Jane’s eyes were soft. I knew she was thinking back over our life. I thought back too. It didn’t seem so bad. Not really. I had made a few mistakes, but still not so bad.

Night came, and we made supper out of leftovers. We didn’t want to go out for anything, and we didn’t want to go to sleep.

“It’ll come just at dawn,” Jane said. I tried to tell her you can’t predict the ways of the Almighty, but she wasn’t going to sell out her woman’s intuition for anything. She was sure.

That was a long night, and not a very good one. I felt as though I were a prisoner at the bar. It wasn’t a very good way to feel, but I was frightened. I suppose everybody was.

Standing at the window I saw the first light of the false dawn. It was going to be a beautiful day over New York. There were no visible stars, but every light in the city was on, making stars of its own. It was as though the city was burning candles to the unknown.

“Goodbye, Jane,” I said. I knew she was right. The announcement would come just at dawn. I hoped Minnie was in her husband’s arms; and Frank⁠—I felt he was probably on a horse, standing up in the unfamiliar saddle and looking toward the East. I hoped he was.

“Goodbye, dear,” Jane said, and kissed me. There was a cool breeze from the open window, and darkness in the sky. It was beautiful, at that moment. It should have ended just like that.

There will be a slight delay,” the voice said from behind my shoulder, as pleasant as ever, and as distant, “in settling the affairs of the inhabitants of the planet Earth. The final examination and departure will be held ten years from this date.

I stood at the window, my arm around Jane. We couldn’t say anything for perhaps ten minutes.

“Well,” I said to her finally. “Well, well.”

“Well,” she said. We were silent for a few more minutes. Then she said, “Well,” again.

There was nothing else to say.

I looked out the window. Below me the city was sparkling with lights; the sun was coming up, and everything was deadly quiet. The only sound I could hear was the buzzing of an electric sign. It sounded like a broken alarm clock, or like a time bomb, perhaps.

“You’ll have to go back to work,” Jane said. She started to cry. “Although I suppose ten years is only a second in eternity. Only a second to Her.”

“Less,” I said. “A fraction of a second. Less.”

“But not to us,” Jane said.

It certainly should have ended there. Judgment day should have come, bringing with it whatever it brought. We were ready. All the worldly goods were disposed of, in New York and I suppose, in the rest of the world. But ten years was too long, too much a strain on goodness.

We should have been able to carry on. There was no reason why not. We could have gone back to our jobs. The farmers were still on the farms, the grocers and clerks were still around.

We could have done such a bang-up job of it. We could have pointed to that ten years with pride, and said, “You see! Our recorded history of thousands of years of avarice, cruelty and hate isn’t the whole story. For ten years we were good and clean and noble. For ten years we were brothers!”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t that way.

The farmers didn’t want to go back to their farms, and the grocers didn’t want to return to their groceries. Oh, some did. Many did, for a while. But not for long. Everyone talked about high ideals, but it was just talk, just like before.

For six months Jane and I struggled along, not getting much to eat, frightened by the mobs that surged around New York. Finally, we decided to move out. We joined the exodus leaving New York, drifted through Pennsylvania, and headed North.

The country was disrupted, but it pulled itself together again, after a fashion. Thousands were starving, then millions. Some had food, but they weren’t very willing to share it. They were figuring what they’d do for ten years, if they shared their food. Money they’d still hand out in basketfuls. It wasn’t worth anything. In nine months a million dollars wouldn’t buy a rotten turnip.

As time passed, fewer and fewer stayed on the job. The money they got wouldn’t buy anything. Besides, why work when the end was so near? Why work for someone else?

In about a year there was the Bulgaria incident. An American in Sophia disappeared. He just vanished. The American Embassy complained. They were told to go home. The Bulgarians didn’t want any interference for their last nine years of existence. Besides, they added that they didn’t know where the man was. Maybe they were telling the truth. People vanish even here.

Anyhow, after our third ultimatum we bombed them. The attack coincided with a bombing launched on us by China, who decided we were interfering with her trade with Japan.

Great Britain was bombed, and bombed someone else. Everyone started bombing everyone else.

I took Jane out of the city where we were staying, and headed for the open country. We ran and stumbled over the fields, with the roar of the planes above us. We hid in ditches. Jane was cut down by machine gun bullets in one raid. Perhaps she was fortunate. She missed the atom bombs the next week, and she missed the hydrogen bombs a week later.

I wasn’t around when they dropped the H bomb. I was in central Canada, and heading for open country. But I heard the noise, I saw the smoke. They had bombed New York.

After that, everyone threw the biggest bombs they had, as fast as they could, at anything that might be called a target. Radioactive dust followed, and bacteria followed that. Gas was used, some stuff that hung close to the ground for days; only a good sized storm or two would blow it away.

At this time I was heading North. Most of the traffic was South, because there was a famine in the North. But I figured I’d rather take my chances with starvation than with the bacteria and dust. As it was, the germs almost got me. I was sick for a day. I wanted to die. If I’d had a gun I would have shot myself. But I lived, and the bacteria never touched me again.

I joined up with a few men below the Arctic Circle, but had to leave them. One of them fell sick a day after I joined, and another followed him. I figured I was a carrier, so I left in the night, still heading North.

They bombed the North, too, to make sure no one got the pitchblende. I ran through the woods; I hid in caves. At night I would look at the moon, and the little sprinkling of stars left across the sky.

After the fourth year I didn’t see any more human beings. I didn’t have time to look. All my day was spent filling my belly. It was a full-time job, just to gather grasses, and perhaps kill a rabbit with a stone. I became pretty handy with stones.

I didn’t even know when the ten years were up.

To sum up, I don’t suppose I’m the last man on earth. There must be others, hiding in caves in other parts of the world, waiting on islands, on mountaintops. You can check my story with them, if you can find them, but I think you’ll find it pretty accurate.

Now as for me⁠ ⁠…

I suppose I’ve been as sinful as most, but that’s for you to judge, Sir.

My name is Adam Ostersen. I was born in Pine Grove, Maine, in June of⁠ ⁠…