My first / second date with Sophie Grant started off weird and went downhill from there.
I’ll cop to the weirdness being mostly in my own head, at least initially, but there was also some objective oddity before it ended (before it ALL ended. Again).
It started with what I would term “inverse deja vu”: the sense that you have been someplace before, even though it is your first time there, but everything about your sense of familiarity is just a little bit wrong. We had decided not to change perfectly acceptable plans we had made before she twisted her ankle the day before. Again / For the first time, I stood at a tall two-top table in the Lava Lamp, holding the table open against throngs of greedy imbibers. But even though this was just like I recalled from my dream/memory, everything else was just the slightest . . . bit . . . off.
This non-dreamt version of the Lava Lamp did not have the same problem with extremes of temperature as what I had imagined/remembered. Where before, you were either too close to the live lava lamps lining the walls or sitting directly beneath an icy AC vent, the real Lava Lamp was well-outfitted with slowly turning ceiling fans which nicely normalized the air’s temperature (even if it did nothing for the overpriced drinks). Why would everything else be exactly like my dream, but the most vivid detail of all be completely wrong?
I could not speculate on that line for long, because she entered, and Sophie was both wrong and — oh — so right. Sophie Grant entered the bar with an anticipatory half-smile on her lips and a questing gaze. I had to remind myself that we’d yet to actually meet in person, but seeing her there looking for me, she seemed so familiar, so . . . inevitable that I began to doubt the un-reality of what I had considered a dream. She was not just someone I’d seen on Facebook. I had to have met her before.
This Sophie and Facebook-memory-dream-Sophie both had above the shoulder auburn hair. They each were small, petite, and pixie-ish, with dimples when they grinned and slightly upturned noses. Each version’s eyes were framed by hipster-ish glasses which leant her the appearance of a particularly young and trendy grade-school teacher, but this is where the inverse deja vu started to kick in. Though she seemed soooo familiar, details were unexpectedly different, and thus jarring. Dream-Sophie had worn black granny horn-rims. The real Sophie preferred more modern sky-blue plastic frames. This Sophie wore a provocative black cocktail dress with a tight, short skirt rather than the dream’s white translucent blouse and jeans. And this one walked with a discernible limp.
I smiled directly at her and waved to get her attention against the throng. She locked gazes with me, smiled back — dazzlingly so — and hobbled over. “Hi! Josh?” she asked, raising her voice to be heard over the mix of club music and the low mumble of the bar crowd.
“Yes! Hi, Sophie. It’s great to finally meet you.” I looked down at her legs, which was not at all an unpleasant view. Marring their athletic loveliness, however, was her left ankle, wrapped in a supportive gauze bandage beneath the smokey tint of her hose. Instead of the high heels you’d expect with her cocktail dress, she wore more sensible and comfortable flats.
Her gaze followed mine down and she raised her foot off the floor to pose and display her ankle as if it was her proudest feature. “You noticed my gimp act, I see. I’m really, really sorry about yesterday and whatever plans you’d had for tonight, but long walks or dancing until dawn are equally off the table.”
I shook my head. “No, no, it’s perfectly fine. Yesterday’s missed date is no big deal, and as for no dancing, you get a stay of execution from death by my excessive left-footed-ness. I actually have to register my dancing shoes as lethal weapons wherever I live. I have to cross state lines barefooted.”
“Really?” She grinned, delightfully.
“The only thing worse is my singing voice. There’s been so much carnage from me crooning in the shower, I’m only allowed to take sponge baths while wearing a ball gag now.”
Sophie’s eyes widened. “Wow.”
Heat flashed in my face and I grimaced. “That, uh, came out kinkier than intended.”
Her smile returned, softer, but more natural. “It’s okay, Josh. These semi-blind dates always make me a little nervous too. I am sorry about the ankle, though. I don’t want to mess up your plans because I was an idiot.”
“Not to worry. I’m resourceful. I was ready to walk the boardwalk or endanger you with dancing, whatever you liked. But my master plan had us spending most of our time off our feet entirely.” Her eyebrow rose quizzically and I quickly added, “Talking! I mean off our feet talking, chatting, getting to know one another, that sort of thing. Not the other thing that can be done off your feet that you may have inferred from that. Of course, that can be done on your feet too, if you’re feeling at all athletic, but so can talking. And talking is great! Talking is all I was angling for. Nothing else.”
“I should really stop talking, because it is clearly not my forte.”
She smiled demurely, leaned in, and kissed me. Her lips were soft and they clung to mine ever so lightly as we parted, her lipstick leaving behind a slightly adhesive film upon my lips. Sophie gripped my arm and looked up at me, now closer to me, seemingly without taking a step. Had I moved in to her, or she in toward me?
This had definitely not happened in my dream. Hell, we hadn’t even gotten a chance to talk.
“Josh, I’m not easy, but there’s no reason this evening can’t be. Let’s both just calm ourselves and have a good time. No plans, no pressure, no expectations, and no nerves. Okay?”
I smiled back. A hint of chocolate cherries lingered on my mouth and my head swum pleasantly. “Okay. What would you like to drink?”
The serving goth from the dream never bothered to show, so, a few minutes later, I made my way back to the tall round table she had navigated to, where she now sat upon a high stool, distractedly rubbing her ankle. She smiled at me and the drink, in that order, which I hoped was a good sign. I gave her Sunrise over and nursed another single malt scotch, neat.
“So, what’s the story with the ankle, Soph?”
“Well, as luck would have it, yesterday morning I was discussing the topic of you with Lena –”
I nodded. “Richard’s wife.” Richard, with whom I’d spilled my insane dream to earlier.
“One and the same. We had just finished a particularly brutal Pilates class and she was giving me the lowdown on this Joshua Montgomery fellow.”
“Only good things I hope.”
Sophie grinned. “Ah, you can hope for a lot of things, but that might be a forlorn one. Nothing too awfully terrible, though. Anyways, my mind is swimming with visions of the evening before us and I simply do not see the aerobics step some careless fool has left out of the way amongst all the other aerobics steps. I trip over the damned thing and roll my ankle. Yada, yada, yada, a wrapped near-sprain and the end of my dancing plans. Sorry.”
“And what kind of dancing had you been looking forward to me disappointing you with? Are you a salsa girl or an afficionado of the hip and the hop? Or are you truly daring and a mistress of the venerable chicken dance?”
She laughed, then took on a false sobriety. “I usually start with the twerkin’ and the krumpin’, then when I’m good and drunk I go into a fusion ballroom hula.”
I laughed back. Damn if she wasn’t a complete delight. I adopted her same mock-serious demeanor. “Yes, the ballroom hula. That’s fair enough for a noble amateur such as yourself. I, on the other hand, have mastered the much more difficult breakdancing Charleston. My performance of it has been favorably described as a crack addict undergoing electro-shock therapy whilst wrestling an imaginary eel. It’s quite impressive.”
We both busted up, laughing until tears streamed from our eyes. By the time we got our sillies under control, we had ended up somehow holding hands atop the small round table. She looked at them, and then we looked at each other. Neither of us pulled away. Just the opposite, in fact, she gave my fingers a squeeze and adopted an impish grin.
That gave me a flash of heat and I struggled to keep us talking. “So, I work with Richard in university admin, and that’s about as boring and uninteresting as it sounds, though Richard himself is a character. But how do you know him? Is it through Lena at the school’s gym?”
Sophie nodded. “Originally, yes. I go exercise early in the morning before heading in to work at the College of Sciences. Lena goes in before Richard has to be at work, so we’re practically on the same schedule and we kept ending up in classes together. Eventually, Lena became my yoga –slash– Pilates buddy. But I don’t know Richard just through Lena.”
“Oh? How else?”
Her grin turned wicked. “Richard has been known to take a class or two himself.”
I matched her expression, gleeful. My mind boggled at the possibility of Richard in an exercise class. “Tell. Me. Everything.”
“It’s as ludicrous as you can imagine. Richard is not a small fellow. He’s a man of healthy if not healthful portions.”
“That is him, indeed.”
She pulled her hands from mine, posed, and waved one hand slowly down her body, which split the attention I had been paying to her story very effectively. Pretty girls putting themselves on display can have a very distracting effect upon me. But she continued. “Now imagine our Richard doing yoga in a class full of women. He’s the only Y chromosome for hundreds of yards, so he tries his best to fit in. And he does, but in a manner which completely defeats the purpose. Are you ready?”
She slowly gestured down her lovely flank again. “Here it is: Richard Solomon in a fuchia and teal leotard, with bright pink knitted leg-warmers.”
“Oh, God, no.”
Sophie laughed as she spoke, while all I could get out was a chuffing, incredulous chuckle. “Oh, God, yes. You should see it. The man does positively indecent things to spandex.”
“You must film this. That’s your mission in life now: Get Flashdance Richard’s image on record and send it to me. I can’t go on until I see it for myself.”
“I don’t know if that’s possible. Assuming the camera even survives taking the picture, I’m pretty certain that exposing the rest of the world to it is a sure sign of the apocalypse.”
She meant it as a joke, but it hit me like a brick to the face. Her laugh and her smile died as she saw the expression I only felt draw my features down.
I quickly tried to recover, shaking my head and forcing a smile. Lamely, I attempted to pick up the great momentum we’d had going only moments before. “I dreamed about you!”
Now, why the hell had I said that?
Sophie considered that for a second and the corner of her mouth ticked upwards. She placed her hands back in mine purposefully. “Really? And what sort of dream was this?”
I nodded. “I know what you’re thinkin’, but it wasn’t that kind of dream. It was just a regular sort of dream, nonsensical, and without any bearing on reality, but you featured prominently. You were the best part of the whole thing. Very funny, very smart, and quite lovely in black horn-rim glasses.”
She leaned forward over the table, still softly gripping my hands. “That’s sweet, though I’ve never tried out horn-rims before. Maybe I should.” She looked down, seemingly hesitant. “I’m sorry if the reality doesn’t necessarily measure up to the version in your dream.”
I leaned forward, touched her chin, and tilted her head back up. I grinned in relief that I had successfully recovered from my momentary apocalyptic brain-fart. “Oh no, you’ve got nothing to apologize for. The dream you pales before the real version. I’m glad I woke up to meet you, because this is infinitely better than anything my imagination could have conjured.”
There were no cues, but we both leaned in simultaneously and kissed. With our eyes closed and the music somehow hushed, the entire world became that soft, tender connection, the indescribable, chaotic interplay of our lips and just the barest, most intimate and tentative touch of her tongue. The moment was innocent, yet filled with passionate potential. I imagined we were a sight to be seen, without making a scene. It was perfect.
After a pleasant interlude, we parted and she squeezed my hands. My mind buzzed ineffectually, trying to start a new clever thought, a new line to keep it all going, then restarting it. I felt so wonderfully off-kilter, my mind stuttered. Eventually, I stammered lamely as we looked into each other’s eyes, “W-w-would you, um, like another drink?”
Sophie opened her mouth to speak, but her eyes suddenly widened, and she looked down at her watch. “Oh! I can’t believe we almost forgot it. Come on! No time for drinks. Come on, let’s go!”
She grabbed my hand in a grip that would not be denied and pulled me from my seat. We threaded our way through the growing evening bar crowd and out of the Lava Lamp. I could only toddle along with a look of curious trust upon my face. “Where are we going? What are you late for? Is there a rabbit and a queen involved?”
She looked back and her smile dazzled with excitement. “The sun should be fully set, silly. They said tonight after sundown was when the aurora would be at its peak. I want to watch it with you!”
Most people don’t realize this, but you can often pass weeks without once thinking of Alfred Hitchcock. Or Isaac Newton. Or of the fact that there has never been a successfully bred natural blue rose. There are all manner of things that sit at the back of your mind, information that has been gathered in passing and then simply lies there, dormant, waiting to be called upon. Then, once someone mentions Rear Window, or calculus, or the unnaturally purple hue of the latest attempt at a blue rose, it all comes rushing back.
That was such a moment for me. Until she said it, I had given not one thought to the uncanny auroras that had appeared nightly all over the globe. I had spared not a single thought to the havoc the unprecedented solar activity of late had wreaked upon satellite comms and cellphone reception. Just that afternoon, Richard’s call had sounded like an AM radio signal bounced too many times off the stratosphere, but I had not attached any significance to it.
Now that she had brought it up, however, it all came rushing back to me, almost as if it was someone else’s memory borrowed at need, much like how the reality of the night before had interposed itself over the memory of my all-to-realistic dream. Information injected, blotting out what I’d thought I knew before.
I now remembered the auroras, but they also somehow felt wrong. Dangerous.
We emerged out onto the sidewalk, where I had previously dreamed of looking up and dying in a nuclear fire. Stroughman’s, where we had dinner reservations in about half an hour, lay across the street from the Lava Lamp. Above us, the newly darkened night sky and the few stars or planets that could outshine the city’s light pollution filled the firmament. There was not a cloud to be seen, and to the east there rose a waxing three-quarter moon. But the most distinctive sight was the aurora.
No longer the sole property of the northern or southern polar skies, sheets and ribbons of gently shifting colors blazed across the heavens. Sophie looked up and sighed. She stood directly in front of me, facing away, and wrapped my arms around herself. I made no protest and used the opportunity to lean slightly down to smell the fresh shampoo scent of her hair.
My heart raced, but after a moment I realized it was not because of my proximity to her. I felt uneasy, near panic, but there did not seem to be any reason why. A few others had joined us outside to also check out the aurora, but they were not a threat. What was it that unnerved me so? What about the incredible night sky was ruining my enjoyment of that same sky, not to mention the close embrace of the wonderful girl with me?
Sophie leaned into my shoulder and turned her head so she could look up at me and night sky simultaneously. “The news said tonight was predicted to be the best viewing worldwide. They’ve even started to see the aurora at the equator! I asked one of the 1000 pound heads at work about it, and he said this was unprecedented, the confluence of the sun’s eleven year sunspot cycle with what they’re calling the Maunder Maximum. They actually had to delay the Dragon capsule’s launch because they feared for the astronaut’s safety in case of a CME.”
See-Em-Eee. It sounded so innocent and harmless when she said it, but it induced a chilling horror in me. The dream came back. During my near-prophetic nightmare, the world had come to an end in nuclear fire, triggered by territorial aggression. No missiles streaked through the atmosphere now, but the acronym CME filled me with the same sort of dread.
A Coronal Mass Ejection, a solar flare to end all solar flares as part of the sun’s fiery atmosphere detached itself from the star to hurtle through space. It was a bogeyman of near-space astronomy, as unlikely yet inevitable as the Earth being struck by a rogue asteroid. The CME’s polite astrophysicists talked about were the kind that torched satellite electronics and endangered astronauts with a few extra rads. No one talked about the other kind, the kind that could chop straight through our planet’s protective magnetic field to flay the Earth itself. No on talked about it, but suddenly it was all I could think of.
I turned Sophie around in my arms and held her away from me, my hands gripping her shoulders. She took on a quizzical look as she saw the terrified expression on my face, but then her attention shifted to something over my shoulder and her jaw dropped in astonishment. Before I could say anything, she burst out with, “Oh, wow! Check out the moon!”
I furrowed my brow in frustration, but turned around in spite of myself. My jaw dropped too. The three-quarter moon shone like a spotlight. The aurora nuzzled against it, but those shifting, nebulous ribbons of color were nothing compared to Luna’s silver radiance. The moon shone so brightly — and amped up even greater as we watched — that all its features washed away. One moment, the man in the moon was more visible than he had ever been before, and the next his face whited out until only a lopsided circle floated in the sky.
The moon appeared terrifyingly bright — bright with the reflected light of a sun gone mad.
I whipped back around to Sophie. “We have to go now. We have to find shelter, as deep and strong as we can!”
“What are you talking about? Are you OK?” Her face looked concerned and more than a touch fearful of me.
My mind overran with a thousand different thoughts. It took 8 minutes for light emitted from the Sun to reach us — a factoid left over from a youthful passion for science I never had the math to make use of. How fast would a CME travel through space? Was the increased irradiance a pre-cursor that might give us days or weeks, or was the plasma shock nearly here? How deep would we have to go to survive? Would I have time to gather supplies before the atmosphere was set alight? Was the sunlit half of the earth already a melted parking lot of bubbling glass or would the burn be gradual? What of the night-side? Would we meet our doom at dawn, or would it come sooner? How much time did we have!?!
With my brain in vapor-lock and my expression frozen in terror, Sophie must have freaked. She wrenched herself from my grasp and backed away. I shook myself back to the present and reached for her again. She turned, now as panicked as I was if for a different reason, and started to run off.
She made it two steps before she came to graceless, stumbling halt. I ran up next to her and saw her staring blankly ahead, so I turned my gaze to the same view and all thoughts of survival vanished from my mind.
The sun rose again across the western horizon. It was not quite an accelerated sunset in reverse, but it looked like that at first. Orange light leaked up from the limn of the horizon due West, growing in thickness and intensity quickly. However, it did not separate from the earth-sky interface in a ball of light like a sunrise would. Instead, the band of hellish light grew fatter and spread wider, leaking both up into the sky and down over the flat curve of the land.
The growing line upon the horizon was fire, or more accurately a supersonic firestorm lit by the impact of the unprecedented coronal mass ejection with the day-lit side of the planet. The atmosphere itself was ablaze, and if there was a chance at all of it self-extinguishing, it would be long after it passed us by. Even if a few hardy souls in some deep, stocked cave or bunker managed to ride out the initial conflagration, I doubted there would be enough oxygen or life left to sustain them after all their cans and bottles gave out.
It was the end of the world.
The power went out, killing the lights and all the background music leaking from the bar, but it did not render us into darkness or silence. By now there was enough scattered light from the fireline to see well by, as well as enough notice of the event to bring up an accompaniment of cries, screams, and the babble of hundreds of unanswerable questions. Sophie looked over at me and gave me a defeated half-smile. “Sorry I ran from you. I didn’t get it.”
I shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. I haven’t been articulating myself very well tonight.”
She nodded and stood closer to me. I put my arm around her and she leaned her head into my shoulder. “I had a nice time,” she said.
“So, how are my chances for a second date?”
Sophie laughed and then sobbed. Ahead of us, the fireline was accelerating as it left the horizon behind, gaining horrible, roiling definition as it immolated everything in its path faster than the speed of sound. Not much longer then.
She regained control of her voice and said, “It would be a sure thing if it was up to me, but I think we may be overcome by events.”
I answered her so softly even I could barely hear it. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”
Sophie buried her face into my chest and I held her as tightly as I could. “Josh. . . .”
The solar-flare-spawned wave of burning atmosphere rolled over us in the blink of an eye. There was a moment of indescribable heat and light, as well as something too brief to be called pain and then —