Irene stared at the clock on her dresser. It wasn't a normal clock; it was counting down the days until the turn of the millennium. Her mother had called it silly. Whyever would anyone want to know how many days until the end of the world? Her father had only grunted and muttered something about meaninglessness when she'd proudly shown off her new toy. They were both right, in a way, she supposed. It was silly and meaningless, because it counted down to January first, 2000. She hadn't been able to find one that counted down to the real turn of the millennium, twelve months later. But then she hadn't looked very hard.
Four hundred and forty-eight days. Just over a year and two months. Her mother said the world would end. Her father said it would just be another New Year's, with one more excuse for people to get drunk. Her sister, Kathy, said that the dawn of the new millennium would herald the Second Coming. Irene thought they were all wrong. It wouldn't be just another day. It might have something to do with the Second Coming; she wasn't really sure about that. But it certainly wouldn't be the end of the world.
It would be the beginning.
She watched the numbers turn over the months that followed. 448 became 430, then 420, and during a particularly busy period in her life, the ungrateful thing jumped down to 350. Things slowed down, and the days seemed to tick away monotonously. 349. 348. 347. All too soon, though, the display read, simply, 001. New Year's Eve.
She bought a bottle of champagne for the occasion. There wasn't much special about it--she got one every New Year's Eve, to toast in the new year with. She did so alone, although she was invited to parties. She preferred solitude to enjoy the first moment of the year, still fresh and unspoiled by bad news or anger. She hoarded those first moments almost selfishly, bringing them out to look at later when she needed some peace. It was almost a religious experience for her, though not one Kathy would understand. Kathy liked to talk about how she'd been saved and what spectacular things had happened to renew her faith in Christ. Irene preferred a quieter sort of religion--something she could gather to her like a warm quilt when she felt bad, not a medal to show off to everyone.
Sipping the champagne, she passed the evening quietly. She devoured large chunks of the book she was reading. She played a hand or two of solitaire. She lit dozens of candles, turned off the lights, and sat on the couch, staring at the window. She couldn't see anything but her own reflection, but she knew it was snowing. Funny, how it always snowed on New Year's but never on Christmas. Leafing through the memories stored in her mind, she came upon one of running through the snow, laughing, and smiled in response. She had been five years old, a crazy little kid, playing tag with Kathy (Kathleen in those days; she had been very particular about her name when she'd been seven) and trying to catch the birds that were eating the seed her mother had put out. She had fallen countless times, but it never bothered her. She always got right back up and continued to run despite her mother's warnings. Sometimes she felt like that carefree child again. Sometimes she only wished that she could be five years old once more.
She looked up as the grandfather clock began to gather itself to strike. This clock had been a gift from her mother when Irene had moved out. No one cared much about it but her, so it was only natural that she take it with her. One hollow gong rang out. Then another. Another. She counted carefully, just as she always did, as the clock struck midnight.
Taking in a deep breath, Irene closed her eyes and smiled. No, Kathy would never understand.
Copyright Sara Fawbush 1998.
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