In the diner, he begins to panic

The man looked over at Corine and then up at the television. He looked at the people around him. Children stood and walked around. A blonde kid in a white hat ran down the aisle chasing a paper airplane fashioned from a table mat and the mother scolded him, told him not to run, where were his manners, and then she laughed, another mother nearby laughing with her, both women shaking their heads. The atmosphere in the diner was festive, even gay. A teenaged couple cuddled in a booth near the window. A man and woman nearby commented on the television’s image of the volcano, how big, oh my dear, have you ever seen anything like it. The din in the room was quite pronounced and laughter rose from the corners, enveloping the patrons like descending ash. He wondered if what was happening was some type of theater, artifice, not real. He wondered if he was part of some large joke or maybe a test, the subject in a diagram, that maybe the quake and the volcano weren’t real at all but were elaborately staged to observe the reactions of the American people. The diner was alive with gaiety and a strange sense of adventure and he didn’t care for it, it wasn’t real. How could it be real? He looked outside to find his anchor to the world and saw cars in the dusty lot gleaming in the noon heat, shimmering with light, unreal and staged just as the scene inside, the girl across the table from him whom was just another actor, the girl whom had not spoken except to order since they’d come inside, the girl he didn’t know and whom was likely going to take advantage of him, wait for him to fall asleep or walk away and then take him for everything. The older couple behind him laughed and people everywhere in the diner laughed, food particles flying from their mouths, and he wondered if the people were in some type of severe denial, they didn’t want to accept the situation or the fact that many people had died and many more were in serious danger, they chose levity over responsibility, or perhaps the horror of it was too much for them to process, their minds simply couldn’t handle the thought of it, the reality that they might all be dead by sundown. But then maybe it was him. Perhaps he was thinking about it all wrong, he should lighten up, take it easy, everything was going to be fine, just as he said to Corine thirty minutes ago, he had lived alone for too long and had lost touch with the world, no longer recognized its ornate veneer. No, he thought, it couldn’t be, he knew something imperative had changed, something terrible in the world had happened and it was only as he sat there so close to other people and observed their interactions, it was only after he acknowledged their plight as pilgrims, refugees, just like him, that something fundamental had changed within himself in an instant, as if he’d decided while looking at the others around him that the world was now forever changed and many more people were going to die, only those with resolve would deserve to survive. He made a tacit promise that it was either going to be them or him, and he watched them laughing and blowing their noses and imagined them reading while sitting on the toilet and watched them with their heads down fumbling at their mobile devices and he decided that it was going to be him that survived, it was going to be him. His wife would have demanded it of him. He looked around and understood that people just like them, people just like himself were dying terrible deaths just three hundred miles to the west and to the north, people suffocating and drowning and immolating, killing themselves for lack of a better option.

Finally the food came out of the kitchen and it looked nothing like what he ordered. He didn’t remember what he ordered, but the food didn’t resemble food at all, it was something arranged on a plate for him or others to look at, to regard as food, just a prop in the overall production, and it was almost too much, the window and the world outside, the girl next to him looking up at him, her face blank and pale as if something were wrong with her, or maybe her face a reflection of what was inside himself, the horror she must see while watching his face change, but still all of it a replica, simulacra of life rather than life, and at that precise moment he understood and believed wholeheartedly that the worst was indeed yet to come.

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