Suddenly, 99% of the people in the world disappear. Maybe they were the lucky ones.
| "I guess I’m a little less observant than you," I begin.
She winces a little. I add, "Or just plain a sheep." Nothing I said could match the horror of the Purge for her, but I continue on, assuming some normalcy is good. "I barely even knew anything was different until I was walking to my train." She smiles. "Of course I woke up. I had felt some sort of click, as well. The silent click you mentioned. But as I live alone, I couldn’t have noticed that anyone was missing. I remember the time exactly. 3:32. That’s the thing about digital clocks. Our pain has exact seconds."
She rolls her eyes. I assume it’s either because I use the word ‘pain’ or because I am being pedantic.
"I lost people in the Purge, too, you know," I say. "Maybe not a husband or-" I stopped, realizing ‘husband’ was the wrong word. How could I lose a husband? In any other world, she would have laughed. But in this post-Purge world – or what should we call it now? ‘Finning’ world? – things like that are less funny. Laughter isn’t what it used to be. Anyone who has any reason to laugh, if even they do, is probably under water.
I continue. "I also heard some car crashes and noticed they sounded odd since there was no squeal beforehand." I try to better explain. "You know that pause you feel as the tires don’t quite grip fast enough or the second the driver realizes that braking is too late and begins to cover himself. Just a thump as what we now know was an unmanned car hitting an empty house. No one to scream. No one to run out and assess the damage. And while there were still police, they weren’t arriving at many scenes so that it was a ‘thud’ and nothing more." She was actually paying attention, hanging on my words.
Maybe even trying to lose herself in what was a far less painful experience than the one she had gone through. Though, in my opinion, it pales in comparison to what our lives are like now. But the emotional attachment has become less, so maybe not. And lessens each day. For her, it’s probably even more so. Or maybe not. I think to ask but decide to finish my story.
"So, as embarrassing as it sounds to say it, I rolled over and went back to sleep." This elicits a short cackle from her. Not quite a laugh. Not quite a gasp. I can tell she is appalled, but what can I say? Her brown eyes flash a touch black, cold. She is angry. But that’s the way it happened and I am beyond caring if she is angry. Perhaps anger is good right now. It’s an emotion. "When I woke up, I pretty much did what I did every other day. Took a quick shower. Brushed my teeth and combed my hair." Or what’s left of it. "Had a quick breakfast." I add a little spitefully, "Do you want to know what I ate?"
"No," she says quickly and bluntly. But it does break the tension. She steps back and sits down on the green plaid sofa. Not mine. It came with the condo. Maybe it’s a retro thing. She crosses her jean-clad legs. Nice jeans. Just the right amount of distressed and in all the right places. She has very attractive legs. Or maybe it’s just the jeans. No, they are very nice legs. Her husband was a lucky guy. Her top is one of those- well I don’t know what they’re called. It’s black. It’s tight and has a low-cut front and short sleeves. The back has a strap running across another cut-out area. It was very fashionable before the Purge. Well, we’re all dressed fashionably now. Or at least in the clothes we want to wear, anyway, regardless of whether they were affordable or acceptable. I’m not sure where she got hers from, but the black short sleeved top and very blanched blue jeans likely would have set her back a few hundred dollars only a couple weeks ago.
Myself, I’m in khaki shorts and a t-shirt. Picked up at SportMart, actually. On the discount rack. Post Purge even, but they were what I wanted. Maybe that means I’m a little out of fashion. Not that it matters much anymore. Or likely ever again. At least I can wear shorts.
I notice she’s looking side-to-side, like an actress expecting an entrance. Wondering if I’ll ever continue my anti-climactic tale. She has nice eyes, even for brown. They seem to be a yellowish brown like that gem. And though her thin lips are pursed and there’s just a hint of wrinkles around the mouth, she looks very kissable. No lipstick. Tiger’s eye. That’s the gem! Very kissable lips, I quickly think and then continue the story.
"Where was I?"
"You were staring at my chest," she says matter-of-factly. Her arms are folded.
"And your legs," I say. "I was actually wondering where you got your clothes."
She laughs, not believing me. "New York and Company," she says. "The top I bought. The jeans and sandals I-" She pauses for the word, but adds, "Do you want to know about the underwear?" She doesn’t unfold her arms or move anything but her mouth.
‘Actually, yes,’ I think. "I continue," I say. "Where was I, really?"
"Not telling me what you had for breakfast."
"Oh." I wonder if I should even bother, but I heard her story and now it’s her turn to hear mine. I didn’t lose any immediate family, but I had none to lose, so here we are at the same place. Why does that make my story so much less tragic? "So I walk outside in the morning and notice that there’s something very wrong. In most of those movies things are dead quiet, like even the birds and squirrels are gone, but it wasn’t like that." I look at her and she is watching me speak. An odd expression on her face that’s not contempt or disgust or anything. The warmest look I’ve seen yet. "Do you know Pullman?" I ask.
"You told me about it," she says.
"I guess I repeat myself a lot," I shrug.
"Yes," she says quickly and then warmly adds, "but that’s okay." She wrinkles her nose and shakes her head slightly. I’m not sure why, but I like the way her shoulder-length black hair sways back and forth just once. Like Japanimation. "Please go on," she prods.
"I got halfway down the block before I noticed that there wasn’t a soul around." Did I just say ‘soul?’ There is definitely an apocalypse-speak happening now. Not a soul around. Not many soles either. Good one. She flashes me that quizzical look again and I continue, "And then I notice there is a car parked – and I specifically recall that I at first thought it was parked – in the middle of the house across the street’s front room. At this point I didn’t know what to think. But I knew the Reynolds. Nice folks. Were anyway." I shrug. She grimaces. We think of the dead and gone in very different ways, Amanda and I. "I knew they were home, since they had gotten back from their vacation to her parents, he hates – hated them, the previous week. In fact, he’s usually out watering his grass in his suit in the mornings and he waves to me. And here it is, middle of the morning, there is a car smashed into his house and he is nowhere around. Then I look up and down the street and see that there is really no one around. Not a soul." Not a sole. "Maybe the reason I didn’t clue in to what happened immediately is because I heard a baby crying. You know the way they cry when people are ignoring their crying? Insistent but no longer expectant?" Amanda nods. She is biting her lip.
I change the subject, continue, "I recall it hitting me at that moment. That the lack of people on the street wasn’t just a coincidence or a momentary or – what word am I looking for? Anyway, it was at that very second I realized, possibly the last guy in Chicago-"
"Possibly?" she questioned.
"Yep," I said, "possibly – oh, I get you!" She had meant that I was the last guy to notice. "But I was one of the first to understand about the water," I said in my defense.
"That was luck."
"It’s all luck," I say somewhat angrily. But the anger was unnecessary. She had meant nothing by it. Or something different. Luck was more apocalypse-speak. It means something new. Are we lucky to have survived the Purge only to, in many cases, have our legs suddenly ripped off? Are we lucky to have avoided the Finning or unlucky? Even so, I was unlucky to have had nobody in my life whose disappearance would have been instantly noticed. Or no one to call me first thing in the morning to see if I were still there. So I was blissfully ignorant of the Purge until I noticed that instead of Reynolds watering his lawn there was a car parked in his living room. Lucky.
A movie flashes into mind. A man saying: ‘It’s better to have loved and lost.’ A woman saying: ‘Try it sometime.’ Or was it the other way around? Either way, I think everyone on the Earth right now – with the exception of a few fanatics and the people who have yet to witness the Leggings or the Finnings, I wonder how many there still are? Plenty downtown Chicago so maybe there are cities that haven’t even seen any Leggings yet? What was I thinking? Oh well.
"Do you want to go?" I ask.
She looks around the condo. The previous tenant had painted the walls a yellowish green and filled them with very dramatic shots of country houses and horse farms. His own?
"To where?" she asks, but I can see she knows what I mean.
She looks very hard at me and mutters, very softly, "If you were the last guy on Earth…" Then she stands up and says, "Do you think we should bother packing or just loot at every stop?
"Bother packing. It’d save time, I think."
- - -
And so we’re on the road, as it is. Only SUVs can drive the highways now and the higher clearance the better. There are just so many cars and trucks sprawled everywhere. Some flipped over obviously having collided with another vehicle, or two, when their drivers were Purged. Some caught on fire and their crisped shells sit where they lie, no one being able to clear them away. Or bothering. More cars, though, continued in the direction they were going when their drivers disappeared and when the highways jogged slightly to the left they continued straight until they ran into a tree or simply lost their momentum. No foot on the gas pedal prodding them forward ten or fifteen miles over the speed limit.
The Ohio tollbooth is just a few miles away and if it’s anything like either of the Indiana ones, it’ll have nearly a mile of cars stacked up on either side. I slow down, expecting a bumpy off road journey and a few fences. I was smart enough to bring wire cutters, but they were barely up to the task of cutting a hole large enough for the 4Runner. No matter. We simply stopped at the next Home Depot or Menards or Whatever big box store caught our eye – I can’t remember and who even cares any more? – to pick up the biggest set we could find. We took two. And why not? They were free. I could barely lift the set I grabbed, but it went through the next fence with ease, so it was worth its unwieldiness, if that’s a word.
Amanda is getting hungry so I take the opportunity to jump off the highway, figuring I’d skirt it until after the next main toll booth. The exit booths, though bad, would probably have been hundreds of times worse had the Purge not been so early in the morning. I wonder what they’re like on the other side of the world, in Hong Kong say, where it was midday when it occurred. You’re walking down the street – or driving your car and suddenly 99% of the people around you disappear. Or, more likely I guess, melted since their clothes and personal effects just dropped to the street. Personal effects. More apocalypse-speak. Or was I using that before? I can’t recall. Driving would have been more of a mess. Suddenly you’re in a rush of traffic zooming down the highway at 70 miles and hour and then, click, 99 percent of the cars are unmanned and going every which way. I’m sure most of the people on the road at that time that weren’t Purged were killed. I wonder if the powers that be realized that so many would be killed due to collateral damage. Collateral damage. That’s not apocalypse-speak. I was using that before.
She’s asleep now, head lolled to one side. So much for being hungry. I guess the bumpy off road adventure jogged her asleep. I bet she was one of those tough young Moms, helping hubby with the painting and dry-walling. Likely outside chopping the wood for the fire. Maybe not. She doesn’t look that physically tough. Firm, but not gristly. Soft and firm. Thin but not bony or model thin. She really is quite a beautiful woman. I would never have guessed that such a beautiful woman would ever be road-tripping it to the East Coast with me. I attracted the more… well, let’s be honest, I didn’t really attract many women at all.
She changed for the trip. I didn’t even notice. She has a sky blue skirt on now, with black, sort of textured, I can’t tell how, leggings.
Leggings. A word that wasn’t horrible until just a few days ago. Eight days. I bet advertisers will stop using that word on their products when civilization returns. What am I thinking? Fins don’t need leggings.
END OF PART ONE.
(Read the entire novella at http://www.stuartstories.com/seachange/)