This story is by Todd Anderson and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A giant doughnut caused the end of the world.
Proof that it wasn’t his fault. Well, technically, it was, but the project was a group effort, not a solo one. He approved Hades Gate and funded it, but he didn’t create it—the Quants did.
Daryl strode down the middle of the road, alternating glances between the cracked asphalt and the ruined buildings darkening its sides.
“Are we there yet?”
Daryl frowned and glanced down at the mop of brown hair walking beside him. “Almost.”
The hair fell back, and a freckled face peered up at him. Large blue eyes searched his face. Lips and chin were trembling. “How much longer?”
Daryl relaxed his jaw. “Soon. How about a story?”
The boy’s head bobbed.
Daryl cleared his throat. “A long time ago, a Chief ruled a tribe—
“What kind of tribe?”
“Uh, a well-dressed one.”
“How come he was Chief?”
“Because he was smarter than everyone else. Figured out how to slow the aging process. But the tribe wanted more. They wanted to live forever.”
Daryl’s mouth turned sour. “Studying ancient Greek myths. The Greeks believed that when someone dies, their Soul separates from their body and goes to the underworld, the realm of the dead, ruled by the god Hades—and the fallen continue to exist after their spirit passes on.”
“The tribe wanted to go to the underworld?”
Daryl rubbed the back of his neck. “Built a machine to go there.”
“What’d it look like?”
“Big and round…with a hole in the middle.”
“Like a doughnut?”
“Yeah, a giant doughnut the length of a football field. The Chief warned the Board, uh, the Tribal Council, that only God had the power over death, and they ignored him and built Hades Gate—it worked! And a beautiful white light shone out of the giant doughnut.”
“A light? That’s it?”
“It was a special kind of light that only God makes.”
The kid’s mouth formed an “O.”
“The tribe high-fived each other, and then the light turned the color of blood.”
The kid’s eyes grew the size of grapefruits.
His voice shook. “The red light spread over the entire world, granting eight billion people eternal life—and then it ate them.”
“Ew, that’s nasty!”
“Not their bodies, their souls. Hade’s Gate tore a hole in the fabric that separates life and death.”
A movement up the street caught his attention—a woman with a jerking neck headed toward them. Daryl grabbed the kid and spun him sideways. “Run past the road and lay down.”
The kid bolted.
Daryl removed a small oval disc from his front pants pocket and held it to his thigh.
The woman stopped a half dozen yards from him. Long, filthy hair fell to her shoulders, and tattered colorless clothing hung from a skeletal frame. Two white filmy eyes stared out of a scarred face. Intermittent neck spasms jerked her head.
She opened her mouth, and rapid clicking noises came out.
Daryl pressed the disc’s top. The woman’s clicking noises slowed and stopped. Her mouth closed, and she shuffled past him.
He watched her until she was out of sight. “Okay, kid, You can—” Daryl stopped talking and cocked his head. Wailing noises from the direction the woman had come from.
Daryl watched the sunset with his back against a concrete barrier with the kid beside him. His inner clock said seven o’clock—one hour until evening, and the veil only thirty minutes away. They sat catching their breaths.
“This job has big problems.”
“Cause you’re the Chief?”
He glanced sideways at the kid. “Yeah. When I’m in Heaven, I can open the veil anywhere I want, but only in the general area of the person, I’m retrieving and only during daylight. I’m stuck here with that person and their soul if night arrives until dawn.”
The kid chewed his lip. “What’s a soul?”
“A half slice of hot apple pie.”
“God bakes an apple pie, takes it out of the oven, and slices it down the middle. One half is your self—consciousness and body—the other half is your soul—your spiritual essence. And then your Soul gets eaten.”
“Why was that woman making clicking noises?”
“Probably blinded by Divine light. She gets around using clicking sounds and echolocation. But I jammed her with a device I’d made after the Sundering.”
The kid squinted an eye. “Are you soulless?”
“Temporarily. I stepped into Hades Gate when the light was white light and stepped out the other side.” Daryl’s cheeks flushed. “My entrance wasn’t exactly applauded, but I wasn’t thrown out either. Inequitable proof the apocalypse wasn’t my fault.”
“How’d you get this job?”
“God assigned it to me. Take the good souls from Heaven, pair them up with their bodies on earth, and return to Paradise. God reunites them and restores the universe.”
“Where did the bad souls go?”
“In a lake of fire,” Daryl said, “or so I’m told—not my responsibility. And you’re my last soul. Then it’s retirement in Paradise, forever.”
Daryl stood up. “Running time.”
Daryl’s heart raced. One hundred yards ahead, the center of the road shimmered. “We’re here.”
A man and woman stood in front of the shimmering. Where’s the Beast? It’s our final confrontation, and it knows we’re here.
He looked at the kid. “Stay behind me.” He strolled forward.
“It’s you!” the man cried, pointing his machete at Daryl. “The Devourer! His head’s worth a fortune.”
“José, you know what this means?”
“We stop collecting heads?”
“No, you idiot. He can get us into Paradise.” Her eyes narrowed. “Ain’t that right?”
Daryl shook his head. “It doesn’t work that way.”
“I say it does,” Trixie said. “You just need the right motivation— José, grab the kid.”
Wait!” Daryl glanced behind. “I’ll do it.”
“No funny business.” Josè slid his finger across his throat.
Daryl plunged his hands into the shimmering expanse, wiggled his fingers around, and stretched the fabric apart, bathing them in brilliant white light.
“It’s beautiful!” Trixie shouted, and she squinted at Daryl. “Now what?”
He extended his hand. “Just step into the light.”
“It may be a trap,” Josè warned.
“Shut up,” Trixie snapped. “That’s Paradise in front of us. You can rot here if you want to—but I’m going.” Trixie stepped into the light, and Josè followed.
The kid walked up. “I thought bad people couldn’t get in.”
“Evil can reunite with their souls.” The brilliant white light turned blood red. “The Beast is the ultimate trickster, assuming the forms of Trixie and Josè.
The blood-red light became a brilliant white again.
“I’m staying here,” Daryl said. “Hade’s Gate was my brainchild, and I was the one that wanted to live forever.” His eyes watered. “The end of humanity was my fault, and it’s why God assigned me the job. Correcting my mistake.”
Daryl bent down on his knee and hugged his six-year-old soul. “Enjoy Paradise. We’ll see each other again.”
“Pinky swear.” Daryl watched the kid disappear in the light.
The last ember of natural light on earth winked out, and the hole in the fabric between life and death sealed up. Forever.