He was happier now. He had gotten the job. His doctor had laughed when he had told him. The joke was on them, his doctor had said. They don’t know you will die in a week. They had laughed together.
“This is it, Rodney,” said the supervisor.
They walked into a room. There were no windows. Just grey walls. A shapely woman was bent over a filing cabinet. There was a small desk and chair.
”This is where you will be working,” his supervisor said, beaming.
On the desk was an ashtray with a NO SMOKING sticker on it. Rodney was told to sit down. The woman in the corner ignored them. Once he was seated he saw the button. A big red round button. Above it were the words: DO NOT PRESS. And a big smiley-face sticker. Beneath the button was the word:
“Your job,” said the supervisor, “is to sit here and not press that button.”
Silence. The supervisor grew agitated.
“It’s like this, Rodney,” he said eagerly. “If you press that button, all society will disintegrate. Order will become chaos. Your job is not to press it. To sit here and not press it.”
They looked at the button. He asked if it was his job to stop other people from pressing it. The supervisor said he would need to confirm that with the policy and procedures manuals.
The next day was no less exciting than the first. The room was like a dungeon. Rodney liked dungeons. A little, not a lot. He felt very close to his shapely co-worker. Her name was Poseidon. He planned to tell her about his illness. In due time. Rodney knew that love took time. He had a rare subatomic disease. It tore apart his molecules. He was disappearing. He thought this would be a nice conversation starter. But not yet.
On the third day Rodney noticed a crack in the wall. He wanted to see outside so he spent two full days picking at it with his hands and teeth. He made a small hole.
Looking out through the hole he saw a city street. A car was stopped in front of a traffic light. The light went green. The car did not move. Other drivers honked their horns. Still the car did not move. People got out of their cars and started yelling. The driver just sat inside looking fed-up. Listless and lost. Rodney liked the car. He also saw a woman get into a lift in a glass office building. She got out again. She got in. And out again. She was shaking. People gave her funny looks. But then they ignored her.
“Move over,” said Poseidon. She shoved him to the floor and looked out through the hole.
“She keeps getting in and out,” said Poseidon. “Just in and out. Finally, she’s going up in the lift. She’s breathing heavily. I can see her go into a boardroom. She is giving a presentation. She looks lost. I think it went well. They are all walking out and congratulating her. She has a funny look on her face.”
This is great, thought Rodney. He and Poseidon were really talking. Connecting.
“I can’t believe it,” said Poseidon. “That woman has got it all. What have I got? Nothing. My life is rot. Are you listening?”
“Absolutely,” Rodney said, trying to get up off the floor. It was difficult since some of body parts had disintegrated.
“You had better. I’m so sick of this job and these people. I’m falling apart. I can’t go on with society like this.”
She went back to her files. His supervisor walked in. He asked Rodney why he was on the floor. Poseidon threw the ashtray at the supervisor. It broke after connecting with his head. He left. Rodney was upset. He and Poseidon had been bonding. But with other people around they lacked privacy. Besides, Poseidon said she didn’t like other people.
He got up from the floor. He walked to the wall and looked out the hole. The woman from the lift now stood on the tenth floor balcony. She jumped off the balcony. Rodney thought he would like to float like her. Lazily down. Falling forever. Except it was not forever. She hit the ground hard. The police were already there. They had just arrested the fed up driver. They were busy pulling him out of his car and onto the ground. Other drivers honked and cheered.
He still did not press the button. He got a raise for his hard work. He spent the extra money on a new ashtray for the office. His doctor told Rodney to forget about Poseidon. She was weak, he said. Unable to cope with people. Unable to face society. He said Rodney was kept together by society. Literally. He might not disappear if society kept on going. If he kept his job, he might go into remission.
But Rodney could not give up on true love. His left arm had disappeared up to his elbow. But it didn’t matter. Poseidon didn’t notice such things. She was not superficial. She paid no attention to his looks. Or to his odour. Or even to his name. It was love.
He spent the next day doing two things. He scratched where his left leg had been. And he considered pushing the button. He wrote down the pros and cons. He used a tissue. And a pencil he had stolen from his supervisor.
If I do not push the button, I might live. I might go into remission. That is probably a pro.
If I push the button, society will collapse. That is probably a con.
But if society collapses maybe I would have Poseidon for myself. Maybe we would not be affected. We would have our own little society. She would be happy without people around her.
But if I do not push the button, Poseidon would continue to fall apart. On the inside.
It would be nice to say that Rodney thought long and hard about the decision. But he did not.
Our hero pushed the button. He was a lover at heart.
Society disintegrated. His supervisor and some other guy rushed into the room.
“Who pushed the button?” yelled the other guy.
“Did you push the button?” yelled the supervisor.
Poseidon remained bent over the files.
“Yes” said Rodney. “I pushed the button.”
“Who is this man?” roared the other guy.
“Rodney, sir,” replied the supervisor.
“Why ever did you hire a man named Rodney?” moaned the guy. “It is a name that reeks of button pushing.”
Rodney was in trouble. But he had a plan. He pulled out a tape player and radio. He pressed play secretly. He had taped the news last night.
“Listen” he said. “Society is fine. The radio news is on.”
So they listened. Car crashes. Traffic. Floods. Scientists discover new vaccine extracted from dead Venetians. Petrol prices rising. Celebrity cat wedding. President wears beret in private.
“Can you hear that?” moaned the other guy. “It is chaos, utter chaos. Society has disintegrated.”
“Yes,” cried the supervisor. “It is awful. And that terrible radio station is still on the air. Ghastly.”
“Rodney,” yelled the other guy. “Do you know what is happening? Out there? To society?”
“Sure,” said Rodney. He pointed. “I can look out that hole and see it.”
The guy and the supervisor rushed to the hole. Rodney felt bummed. He would lose his job. Lose his little private society with Poseidon. He looked at her back. She was probably worried for him. She was probably hiding her tears. Pretending to look like she did not care. His doctor was wrong. She was strong.
“This is unbelievable,” said the other guy. “Rodney, look at what you have done.”
Rodney looked through the hole at the world outside. There was no one. Not a soul. Empty cars. Huddles of clothes. But no people. He saw one dog. Then it fell to nothing. Just vanished. He understood. Everyone had suddenly gotten his subatomic illness. Society had disintegrated.
“Rodney,” moaned his supervisor. “I thought you knew better.”
“Nonsense,” yelled the other guy, suddenly delighted. “It’s beautiful. Look at it. Perfect, perfect order. No mess. No chaos. Your department has excelled. All thanks to Rodney.”
The supervisor patted him. Heartily. Where Rodney’s shoulder had been.
He was glad he wasn’t going to get fired. Briefly, he wondered why everyone in the building had survived. But he had more important things to worry about. His doctor was dead. Disintegrated. Worst of all, Poseidon was not interested in him. He thought her life would be good. No messy society. No problems. But she still could not bear people around her at work. She said she was still stuck in this crummy office with her useless job surrounded by stupid people. Rodney told her that he loved her. She told him not to make things worse. He was shattered. Gutted. For about an hour. Then he was back to his usual not-quite physically complete self. Life goes on, he thought. It’s not the end of the world.
One day Rodney picked away at the smiley face sticker next to the red button. He was now merely an arm and a head. Under the face was another sign with tiny writing.
He asked Poseidon to read it aloud.
STAGE 1: Press once to disintegrate society outside the building
STAGE 2: Press twice to disintegrate everyone except the person who pushes the button.
STAGE 3: Press three times to disintegrate the person who pushes the button
STAGE 4: Press four times to reverse the process. May take between three months to fifty-six years.
Rodney and Poseidon looked at each other. Poseidon smiled at him for the first time. He smiled back. He knew he had to make the sacrifice. He would do it from love of her. He nodded.
She pressed the button. He disintegrated. The building fell silent.
She was alone at last.
A week later she decided to press the button two more times and reverse the process. Quite frankly, the end of civilisation was a bit of a letdown. She was getting bored. Plus, she was no happier alone. She still felt like she was falling apart inside. If everyone came back she would at least have people to complain to.
So she pushed the button a third time. She waited. Nothing much happened. Then her nose vanished.
She prepared to push the button a fourth and final time. Then she noticed more writing. It was tiny. Almost subatomic fine print. She bent to read it.
Warning: This is a trial version. Stages 1 to 3 are free to trial. To reverse the process, please register for a monthly paid subscription.
I won’t feel so low anymore, she thought brightly, as her legs and left bicep vanished. Soon I won’t feel a thing.
She pressed the button a fourth time. Just to make sure.
It fell off.