I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam.
—"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"
On the first day, a crisp clear morning in early October, when Jon looks out of the window of his bedroom and sees the gray specks quietly fluttering down on New York City, he assumes it's an early snowfall.
It isn't until he inhales a mouthful of the stuff and nearly has an asthma attack a half-block from his house that he realizes those specks are something far worse.
The local news is already covering the phenomenon when Tracey turns on the TV. Scientists claim it's ash, but Jon certainly hadn't noticed a volcano in New York State the last time he'd checked. Nevertheless, what can only be classified as volcanic ash (and quite possibly radioactive, according to the screaming and flailing pundits over at FOX News) is resolutely descending in a heavy cloud across the entire East Coast and parts of the Midwest.
Jon cancels the taping for the day, as there is no chance of him leaving the house on a day like this, and orders the other correspondents and writers to stay indoors. He calls in sick for Nate and Maggie, and Tracey does the same for herself. One day of watching movies together as a family isn't a bad thing, necessarily—the strange weather should have cleared up by tomorrow, at least.
On the second day, Jon wakes to find the ash still falling. Canceling the taping and rescheduling the guests is harder than it was yesterday, and Tracey orders a box of facemasks from a medical supply store online, express one-day shipping. Until they arrive, no one from the Stewart family is leaving the house, no sir.
Nate and Maggie and Tracey still stay home, and they watch some more movies, but the silence between discs is starting to grow uncomfortable.
On the morning of the third day, the masks arrive, and the ash is still falling. Similar clouds have even spread to other countries—across Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, people are trapped indoors as grey dust settles on the ground in powdery layers.
Jon tentatively steps outside and is relieved to find that he can breathe with his new protection (ha, protection) on. He makes it to the studio relatively healthy, though he does notice how few people are outside in New York City on what should have been a busy workday morning; but he tries to put that thought out of his head as he works on the day's show.
They tape to a half-filled audience, and the response is lackluster at best. During their toss at the end, Stephen tries to make a crack about the End of Days and how Jon's got a first-class ticket on Hell Express. Jon cuts Stephen off midsentence and doesn't smile once throughout the Moment of Zen.
Now is not the time to joke about such things.
On the fourth day, the ash finally stops falling, though the skies remain dark and foreboding. Jon finds three voicemail from Stephen on his cell phone. The first is an apology for the toss, the second and third are drunk dials, each one more slurred than the last. All of them ask Jon to call Stephen back.
Jon deletes them.
When he arrives at the studio, Jon learns that their guest has cancelled—not surprising, given how no airline was willing to fly through the ash-cloud that was the East Coast anymore. Jon simply tacks on a third monologue, doing his best to avoid mentioning current events and instead focusing on some fluffy analysis of the upcoming elections.
And then, just before the dress rehearsal, the acid rain comes.
Jon doesn't need to look outside or open the window to see the terrified pedestrians fleeing for shelter, or hear their screams as their flesh melt under the relentless pitter-patter of the rain. He only has to turn on the TV, since CNN's covering it all live; and for the first time Jon can remember, Anderson Cooper looks like he's going to be sick.
The acid rain continues all through the night, which means no one can leave the building or go home. Jon tries to call Tracey to let her know, but she never picks up.
It's the loneliest night Jon's ever spent away from his family, and he doesn't sleep. Instead, he waits for the rain to stop, waits for the chance to go home.
The acid rain continues for three more days. On the seventh day, the limited food supplies in the studio run out. Jon doesn't eat at all, instead letting the women and younger interns have what's left of their frozen leftovers and stale coffee. It's the right thing to do, and Jon tells himself that every time his empty stomach churns.
For the first time, Jon wonders if Stephen was right about the End of Days, even if he was joking. Jon can't even let Stephen have a chance to gloat, since the other man is also trapped in his own studio.
But if they were all going to die, it wasn't like who called it mattered much, anyway.
On the eighth day, everyone cries out of happiness when the acid rainfall suddenly stops. Jon runs faster than he's done since his soccer days, and his hands tremble as he fits his key into the lock of his door. Home, finally, blessedly home.
But no one's there. The place is deserted, smells of spoiling food and mold and decay. Flies are buzzing happily over a fermenting pile of dishes in the sink; Jon throws open every window in the place to clear the smell and scare off the insects.
He tries to call Tracey again and again, but still no answer. Finally, he pulls out every news and celebrity contact he's ever made and calls them all. He doesn't care that he makes a living of making fun of connections and political power—fuck that, this is about finding his family.
It's dark by the time Brian calls him back. "Jon," Brian says, and Jon clutches the phone tighter at the undercurrents in Brian's tone. "Maggie's safe, she's still at her preschool, but Nate and Tracey—Jon, I'm so sorry—"
It hadn't really felt like the end of the world for Jon, not until that very moment.
On the ninth day, Jon goes to pick up Maggie. She runs into his arms, screaming and crying as if she's two years old again and throwing a tantrum.
Jon doesn't even try to quiet her. He hugs her back, buries his face in her beautiful hair—her mother's hair—and cries with her.
They eat at home in silence. Jon keeps CNN on in the background, but he mutes the sound. The growing tickertape of the number of dead and dying and sick are enough news for him.
Maggie doesn't even look at the screen, and Jon can hardly blame her.
On the morning of the tenth day, Comedy Central calls. Jon's not surprised to hear that they're putting all shows 'on hiatus' until the current crisis is over. He hangs up without another word.
Stephen calls him five minutes later. "Jon," he croaks. "Did you get the call, too?"
"Yeah." Jon picks at a thread on his sleeve. "Understandable. Now's not a good time to be funny."
"No, not that call." Stephen swallows loudly. "Evie's gone."
"Wait, what?" Jon hopes that Stephen's not using a euphemism. "Gone where?"
"Gone to Heaven. Took the kids with her." Stephen's voice cracks. "All of them. They found her in Central Park—she thought I was dead, I didn't even—thought you'd want to know—"
"Oh God." Jon blindly grabs for support as his knees give out. He ends up on the floor of the kitchen, his knees throbbing from their impact with the hard tiles. "Stephen, do you want me to—should I come over?"
"No, don't. I'll be—I'll be fine," Stephen says, as if saying it will make it come true. "Doesn't Tracey need you?"
"Stephen." Jon has to take several deep breaths to steady himself. "Tracey's dead."
There is a sharp intake of air. "Christ, Jon. I'm sorry."
"Me, too." Jon closes his eyes. "Me, too."
On the eleventh day, Jon cremates Tracey and Nate. No funeral home is open these days, and it wasn't like he could hold an open-casket ceremony anyway, not after what the acid rain had done to his wife and son.
Stephen is there, too, and Jon stays while Stephen sends off his wife and all three of his kids (Jon's heart nearly breaks at the sight of Stephen kissing his loved ones goodbye for the last time). Stephen had once set his heart on a lavish Catholic funeral, but that was impossible now.
Maggie clings to Jon and won't let go, won't say a word. Jon says goodbye to Stephen, who gives Jon the most broken look as they shake hands. "When it's all over, at the end," Stephen says, quietly so that Maggie can't hear and so earnestly that Jon knows he can't refuse, "will you stand with me?"
Jon barely misses a beat. "Yes," he says, though he really wants to say, Don't be silly, nothing's going to happen. "Of course I will."
On the fourteenth day, Jon turns on the news to find MSNBC in mourning.
Rachel Maddow, 1973 – 2012, the tickers read. Jon listens to Keith explain the new and growing epidemic in New England, something they've chosen to call (appropriately) "ash lung." Jon can see the tears in Keith's eyes as he eulogizes his fallen coworker.
Later, Jon will think that Rachel was lucky, will envy her for getting out earlier than the rest of them.
On the seventeenth day, Maggie complains of chest pains and feeling hot all over. When Jon takes her temperature, it registers at over a hundred degrees.
He takes her to the hospital, but all the doctors are in over their heads with a swarm of new patients, all with the same symptoms as his daughter. Jon finally manages to get them to a nurse, who gives Maggie a once-over before handing him some sample ibuprofen. "Come back in the morning if she doesn't feel better," she advises him.
That night, Jon reads Maggie her favorite story and kisses her as he tucks her into bed. She smiles up at her father, a picture of innocence and love, and Jon tucks the beautiful moment away in his memory.
On the eighteenth day, Maggie doesn't wake up.
Jon runs to the hospital with his unresponsive daughter in his arms, wheezing and halfway to an asthma attack by the time he's there. The EMTs do all they can, but nothing they do can revive his baby girl.
It's a while before Jon realizes that the choked wailing noise he hears is coming from him.
On the twentieth day, Jon finally calls Stephen. He hasn't shaved, hasn't eaten, hasn't slept; and from the sound of it, Stephen isn't much better.
Between the two of them, they've now lost everything.
"Do you want me to come over?" Stephen asks, echoing Jon from just days earlier (which feels like a lifetime ago).
Jon looks around the cold morgue room he's in, looks down at the still face of his daughter as she lies on one of the slabs. "Yes," he says.
When Stephen arrives, Jon throws himself into his friend's arms. There are no words, only incoherent sobs between the two of them, but somehow it is enough.
On the twenty-first day, Jon and Stephen bury Maggie in Central Park. It's illegal, but not even the crematoriums are working anymore, and it's not like anyone's going to try to stop them.
They walk there in silence, Stephen with a shovel over his shoulder, Jon with his daughter's body wrapped in a sheet from the hospital's laundry room. The temperature has dropped, and ice-covered grass crackles under their feet as they walk.
It takes the two men a total of three hours to dig through the frozen ground, but in the end they manage. Jon carefully lays Maggie down and clambers out of the hole, brushing dirt off his clothes as he stands next to Stephen.
"Yitgaddal veyitqaddash shmeh rabba / B'ʻal'ma d'hu ʻatid l'ithaddata / ulʼahaya metaya / ulʼassaqa yathon l'chayyey ʻal'ma," Jon recites under his breath, while Stephen murmurs, "May her soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace."
Neither of them shed a single tear as they cast the dirt back into the hole, gradually covering the small white body from sight. Stephen helps Jon pack the earth and mound it, so that Maggie's grave won't sink during a rainfall (if a non-acid rain would ever come again). They have nothing to mark it with, but Jon doesn't think he could ever forget the place even if he wanted to.
When they leave, with Stephen almost holding up an exhausted Jon, neither man looks back.
On the twenty-seventh day, Keith Olbermann commits suicide on national television.
He'd promised a Special Comment on the current crisis, but Jon didn't expect to see him sitting in his Thurber-reading armchair, hands folded quietly in his lap. There's less ranting than usual, more of a resigned laundry list of all the things this civilization has done to rape the earth.
"I'm not saying we deserve this," Keith says at the end. "No one deserves horrors of this magnitude. But I for one do not want to be the last one standing to see everything I love, everything I've ever worked for, be destroyed by our own doing. Call me crazy, call me foolish, call me a coward—but I've decided what I will do to end this misery. It's up to the rest of you to make your own choices."
Keith raises a gun from below camera level (Jon didn't even know the man had owned a gun) and looks into the camera one last time. "Good night, good luck, and may God help you all," he mumbles, before lifting the gun to his head and pulling the trigger.
Jon pulls back from the screen in horror, his stomach twisting at the sight of Keith slumped to one side of his chair, blood and brain matter dripping from his hair as he stares blindly at the camera.
For a moment, Jon wants to make sure Maggie never sees it, but then he remembers.
It's tempting to follow Keith's footsteps, but Jon made a promise to Stephen that he fully intends to keep, no matter what else happens. However, it isn't without a little longing that Jon throws out all of Tracey's sleeping medications and locks away all the alcohol left in the house.
On the thirtieth day, Iran goes crazy. (It actually happens sooner than Jon would have predicted.)
Jon is watching CNN, where Anderson is giving a special report from India on the as-usual unstable Mideast situation, when Anderson's tiny window suddenly flashes white, then cuts to black. The other CNN reporters start shouting for Anderson, but the feed is completely dead.
Five minutes later, the Breaking News Ticker at the bottom of the screen reads, Iran launches series of nukes at India, Israel, Mexico. Anderson Cooper feared killed in explosion.
That's when Jon remembers that Aasif had left for Mumbai before the acid rain came.
He calls up John in England. John, with his more accurate news sources from Europe, confirms the worst. All of India is like a black hole—all the calls go in, but nothing comes back out. There were no survivors.
Halfway through the call, John's voice abruptly cuts out. Jon curses, redials, but there is no answer.
The ticker on CNN changes: Iran launches nukes at England, Canada, Pakistan, France, Italy, India, Israel, Mexico...
Jon stares at the TV and thinks of Sam and Jason, of how he told them to go to Canada with the kids, of how it was going to be safer there, and could they find a way to take Olivia and Wyatt and Kristen with them?
He can't find the strength to weep for even his friends these days.
On the forty-fourth day, the West Coast disappears, washed away by a freak tsunami (no doubt aided by all the nuclear explosions in Eurasia). California, Oregon, Washington, parts of Nevada and Montana—all gone in less than a minute.
Jon wants to say a prayer for them all, for Steve and Nancy and Larry and God knew how many others, but he doesn't. Instead, he prays for a tsunami to come to the East Coast, to wipe them all out of their misery.
But either there is no God, or He isn't listening anymore, because nothing happens.
On the forty-fifth day, the President holds a press conference. To a nearly-empty room, he promises that he will fix everything, that things will be better, that the American people have the strength to get through the current crisis.
Jon turns off the TV. He never turns it back on.
On the fiftieth day, the ash returns to New York City. This time, it's radioactive. (FOX would've been gloating, if they were still in business.)
Jon barely blinks. He just wishes the Apocalypse would get on with it already.
On the fifty-ninth day, the riots start. Buildings burn. Glass shatters. People kill and are killed.
Took them long enough, Jon thinks.
On the sixty-sixth day, Jon drags himself out of his crumbling apartment and trudges to his studio for the last time. The streets are mostly deserted, though the air is filled with the stench of death and charred or rotting flesh, and the few figures Jon does see aren't moving.
He finds Stephen where he expected he would, on the rooftop of the studio they used to share, overlooking what's left of New York City. Stephen is facing the red glow of the coming sunrise (or maybe that's just smoke from another fire), clean-shaven and dressed in his TV suit. He doesn't say anything when Jon moves next to him; but when Jon takes his hand, he does squeeze back.
They stand there in silence for what feels like an eternity as they watch the reddening skyline. Finally, Stephen clears his throat. "I'm glad you're here with me," he says, his voice hoarse. "Here at the end of all things, Jon."
Jon's lips twitch into what might pass as a smile. Leave it to Stephen to quote Tolkien in his final hour. "So am I, Stephen," Jon whispers. "So'm I."
And so they clasp hands, their fingers tightly intertwined, as they watch their world burn to ash around them.