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“Petra,” I said. “Hey. Hey from Spain.”

“Happy Apocalypse,” she said. “Hope you don’t mind me calling. It’s kind of a tradition now, you and me and the end of the world.”

“I’m coming home,” I blurted.

“Yeah?” Her voice lifted happily. Behind it, there was music, something choral and ancient–sounding.

“Yeah,” I said, and I pressed my free hand to my eyes to keep them dry in the chilly Spanish wind.

I found Claire Humphrey's "Four Steps to the Perfect Smoky Eye" smart and layered, so when I saw that someone had added another story of hers to our Hugo (2014-2015) spreadsheet I jumped right on it. "The End of the World in Five Dates" is rather different in form to "Four Steps to the Perfect Smoky Eye" - like "Four Steps to the Perfect Smoky Eye" it's built around linked episodes and follows one set of characters, but "The End of the World in Five Dates" skips through time quite quickly and requires the reader to follow some sharp story jumps.

Cass meets Petra at a tongue in cheek Rapture party in 2011. They make out and enjoy each others company - it seems like they might be driving straight to girlfriendville. Then Petra's taken away for a frank chat by Cass's friend Robin and Cass watches 'Petra’s face change as she listened'. Suddenly, the story jumps forward several months to the women's next meeting and Petra is unethusiastic about seeing Cass (in fact, I wasn't totally clear about why Petra had gone to meet her at all). The reader is left to wonder what happened and to watch as the story develops the women's relationship by regularly reuniting them at the time of various significant apocalyptic dates. The structure may seem a little random at first, but the reader eventually learns that Cass' believes she's seen a vision of the true apocalypse.

I'm going to have to watch out for more work from Humphrey: the rhythms of her writing are smooth and natural; her settings are the kind of ordinary but carefully detailed events I never get tired of reading, and she conjures characters it's easy to care about. I also like her way of balancing dialogue with description. Humphrey uses a lot of dialogue to build "The End of the World in Five Dates", and this story could easily have devolved into a tale where characters, suspended in a blank world, tell the reader everything. Instead, the physical world of her story and the background detailing is briefly but solidly developed in a way which pulls the reader into the setting, for example:

The day was chilly and I was the only person sitting outdoors. A waiter came out with my wine and a plate of pimientos, these little green peppers they fry in olive oil and then sprinkle with salt. I ate them and drank my wine and looked at whatever architecture I could see without turning in my seat.

"Four Steps to the Perfect Smoky Eye" uses similar sensory detailing to enrich its world:

Shawn drove us out to the reservoir overlook; the air smelled of weeds and water. We didn't talk at first. Just sat on the trunk of the car, or on one of the picnic tables. Soft hiss of caps opening, fizz of carbonation; faint wet sound of Lindsay and Shawn making out; Jen humming as she lay on her back, looking up at the stars through a film of high cloud.

However, I noticed this technique more in "The End of the World in Five Dates". This might be because the two main characters Cass and Petra are often in a happy physical relationship. Maybe the descriptions of bodies touching, or bodies being watched, allowed Humphrey to make use of lusher, attention grabbing images. Here's a bit I loved:

Dinner was messy. I got tamarind sauce on my cuff, whiskey on my arm and wine all over the floor beside me. I watched Petra’s lips: the gloss was all licked off and replaced with the shine of ghee and a few crumbs of chickpea flour. She smiled a lot, but in between smiles she looked sad.

When she laughed, her eyes and nose wrinkled up and her upper lip lifted off her teeth, and then she would follow it up with a self–conscious press of hand to mouth. The third time she did it, I touched her wrist and drew her hand back down and set a pakora in it, which made her laugh again.

When everyone was stuffed we piled all the takeout dishes under the table and Robin put Patti Smith on the stereo. I went out for a cigarette. When I came back in, Petra was just exiting the bathroom. She paused in the doorway and gave me a wide–open look. I crowded her back in and pushed her against the inside of the door and said, “I’ve been wanting to kiss you all night.”

That laugh again, and then she tilted her head back, and so I pressed my lips to hers.

I've got to say when I first read the ending of "The End of the World in Five Dates" I wasn't sold. Despite the final line's hopeful persistence, the uncertainty of Cass' situation seemed so downbeat and ordinarily terrifying that I wished for an easier, confirmed happy ending. And found myself especially in need of some certainty because by the end of the story Cass and Petra are back together. I just really want them to live happily ever after.

After reading the story a couple of times, I think I've now come to place greater emphasis on that final line, and its reassuringly repetitive word insistence that Cass's heart will 'beat, and beat, and beat, and keep beating'. Now I see the ending in similar terms to the ending of "Four Steps to the Perfect Smoky Eye" - a double edged ending that can be terrifying and depressingly inescapable if you let it, but can also be a tiny hopeful thread for the determined reader to cling onto. This story allows readers to keep Cass alive - we just have to believe. Maybe this kind of ending is Claire Humphrey's trade in stock?

"The End of the World in Five Dates" is available for free at Apex Magazine.

Supplementary Materials

Short Business: "Four Steps to the Perfect Smoky Eye" - Claire Humprey


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