Countdown in the Sky
San Francisco, California
San Francisco University High School
It was midnight when the countdown appeared in the sky. Mary Johnson saw it first; she was leaning over her balcony, silky nightgown kissing the floor, when the number 24:00:00 flashed overhead. It glowed a fresh, clover green, framed by a flock of puffy clouds that circled the skies. She squinted at the artificial lights that seemed to blur with the stars, as they began counting down: 23:59:59, 23:59:58, 23:59:57…
The townsfolk met at the church that day to discuss the appearance of the countdown. No children were present; they had been tossed into a maze of parched corn husks and told to play. They stood around the unhewn altar, barking orders at each other, debating why the timer had drifted over their warm town. Pastor Clarence believed that doomsday was coming, that a fist of stones would emerge from the earth and pull them underneath. The townspeople began to panic. His words, they agreed, made sense. It had not rained in many months, and their crops were slowly withering away. Perhaps God had turned His back on them. Several townsfolk ran outside and flung broken sticks towards the sky, but of course nothing happened, and the countdown reached 12:00:00 beside the high noon’s sun.
Suddenly Bad Frederick and Tall Lawrence came pounding down the street, sending bits of thatch into the air. Bad Frederick’s plaid pants pockets bulged with the weight of a thousand gold coins. Tall Lawrence tripped, and Bad Frederick continued to sprint, his snakeskin hat toppling off his head. From the ground, Tall Lawrence raised a black rifle, baring his teeth as the dust burrowed into his beard. Three bangs sounded, and Bad Frederick fell, painted with streaks of crimson.
Above them, the countdown number became 13:00:00.
Tall Lawrence stopped and his eyes darted upwards. Then he turned the rifle towards Alice Walker, and she fell, red spots appearing on her daisy-printed blouse. The countdown jumped to 14:00:00, and Tall Lawrence smirked.
The townspeople covered their heads with their arms and ran for shelter as Tall Lawrence opened fire. They hoped that the dampness rushing down their backs was sweat and not blood. They crouched in tallgrass, hid behind cobwebs in uncleaned basements, barricaded themselves behind oak doors and clutched steak knives in their hands. The parents scooped up their children from the cornfield and shielded them with their arms as they scampered to safety. For hours the townsfolk waited, watching the countdown as it bounced around, dipping and rising like the ocean they had never known.
At night, Pastor Clarence paraded through the town, ringing a brass bell, calling out, “Tall Lawrence is dead, come out, come out.” The townsfolk nervously emerged from their shelters, convening by the limestone fountain in the town’s center square. They sat in a circle, placing silver pieces on their thumbs and flipping them into the water as they discussed their next course of action. There was no fleeing the town; nothing but desert stretched for miles on end. Some argued they should murder all the elderly to add padding to the timer. Others believed it would be just to distribute weapons to each person and engage in a brawl for survival. Blades were flaunted and pistols were unsheathed from leather holsters as the countdown ticked above them.
Finally General James devised a solution that people agreed was fair. Everyone would be confined to their homes. They could only leave to pick fruits and grain from their backyards. The countdown would be allowed to reach 00:10:00 in order for families to prepare for the upcoming quarantine. Three men, Billy Rick, William Key, and General James, would arm themselves and move through the town. Each hour they would randomly select a house and kill the oldest inside, swiftly and painlessly. Meanwhile Pastor Clarence would stay at the church and pray, pray that God would have mercy and stop the bloodshed.
The townspeople obliged; their odds of being selected would be low at first, and Pastor Clarence would surely figure out a solution. They returned to their chipped brick houses and sat around the dining table with their children, hands clasped on their laps. The autumn harvest had yet to happen, so they dined on preserved plums and stale cookies from lavender tins. No one slept; they simply laid beneath their sheets, clutching sheeps-hair blankets, staring at the countdown through their windows. The clouds had grown busier, angrier, and yet the numbers were unquestionably visible in the murkiness.
Dawn bloomed, and Billy Rick, William Key, and General James pulled on clothes made of dry cotton. William Key revealed a yellow sheet of paper with the names of all the families written in neat lines, and Billy Rick closed his eyes and pointed. They set off, drinking water from hollowed-out gourds as the sun scorched burns into their backs.
The Davis family were the first to be selected. General James rapped the brass knocker against the front door, and Steven Davis answered. Billy Rick whispered an apology, and Steven Davis told him it was okay and closed his eyes. They left his body slumped over the front porch. As they walked away they heard a young girl wailing behind them. Up above the countdown hopped from 00:02:43 to 01:00:00.
Darlene Anderson, Rick Evans, and Scorpion Lee fell next. Each nodded grimly before they were shot, wishing the rest of the town good luck and embracing the bullet with open arms. Steven Cunningham was the first to resist; after locking eyes with General James he slammed his door shut. William Key ripped a hole through the door with his shoulder, and minutes later, Steven Cunningham had stained a scarlet map on the living room carpet.
As the day moved, so did Billy Rick, William Key, and General James. Elijah Fry, Amelia Simmons, Bridget Bacon, Liam Cook, dead, dead, dead, dead. Carter Barnes was the youngest to be slain; he had just turned twenty-five several days ago. As they travelled, Billy Rick, William Key, and General James ate sandwiches and apples from the burlap sacks they had brought with them. With each kill they could only hope that Pastor Clarence was making progress.
As dusk settled on the horizon they knew they had to kill ten to stall until the next morning. They moved quickly, finishing off the townspeople in the first nine houses within twenty minutes. The tenth house was Lady Elizabeth’s. When she answered the door she dropped to her knees and began to sob, kissing their feet and begging for mercy. Her enormous belly grazed the floor.
Billy Rick and William Key moved to leave, but General James pointed his gun, and with the final bullet, ended her life. The three of them agreed to meet the next day at five o’clock, and they returned to their homes.
Late at night, as everyone dozed off, Pastor Clarence secretly departed the church to return home, only to find his wife and unborn child sprawled across the floor. For several minutes he stood still, staring at the countdown that now read 7:24:12. Then he entered his house, found his shotgun, and slung it over his shoulder.
He went to Billy Rick’s house first, climbing in through the bedroom window. Billy Rick lay with his wife beneath their hay-stuffed quilt. Pastor Clarence shot them both dead, and then he went to the room across from theirs and shot their daughter. William Key and his wife lived two doors down, and Pastor Clarence killed them as well. Finally he broke into General James’ home and killed him, his wife, and all four of his children, tucking their bodies into bed with a kiss.
Then Pastor Clarence began stopping at every house. He murdered each person inside and used their bullets to reload his shotgun. The countdown began flying back up: 45:00:00, 46:00:00, 47:00:00. His clothes dripped with blood, but he did not stop.
120:00:00, 121:00:00, 122:00:00. The heel of the sky soon spouted streaks of orange, and he pressed onward, despite the blisters on his feet. 207:00:00, 208:00:00, 209:00:00.
At last, when the countdown reached 300:00:00, he had killed every single person in the town. Pastor Clarence shoved the shotgun into his mouth and pulled the trigger, but he had run out of bullets. So he retrieved a basket of crackers and six bottles of wine from the church’s cellar, and for the next 12 days he ate and drank and watched the plants in the distance shrivel from the heat. The countdown continued to tick down, and he had no way of prolonging it anymore. When there were several seconds left he drained the final bottle of wine, sucking the last bitter droplets from the bottom.
00:00:03, 00:00:02, 00:00:01…
Upon hitting 00:00:00, the countdown vanished. In the sky, the sun slinked away, the clouds danced amongst themselves, and the rain began to fall.
Disturbing and dark, "Countdown in the Sky" is a story that crawls and twists, even up to the very end. The blend of surrealism and rural elements allow this story to feel familiar, yet at the same time, strangely distant.
Matt Hsu is a high school senior from San Francisco, California. He works as a poetry/prose editor at Cathartic Youth Literary Magazine and The Formula. Currently he’s querying his first novel, a new adult thriller about a ruthless assassin. In his spare time, he enjoys playing tennis and eating dark chocolate.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR