The Empty City

It was the sunlight filtering in through my curtains that woke me. The beams of light danced over my face until my eyelids began to glow, piercing the sleepy fog in my head. With a low groaning sound I pushed myself upright and stretched my arms over my head, feeling the pull of sleep–stiffened muscles and the pop of my shoulders cracking. I opened my bleary eyes still clouded over and looked around my room. My brain was still half asleep and my eyes slow to move, but it didn’t take me long to notice. Something was wrong.

But what? Everything was still exactly as I’d left it. My books and CD’s were still lying in haphazard piles on the floor, a half-finished essay for school was still lying on my desk. Even the shirt I’d thrown at the wall yesterday when I was too tired to bring it downstairs was still decorating my carpet. So what was wrong?

 

What gave it away was the crystal I’d hung in my window. For a couple hours each day the sun would find its way through the tree branches outside and refract through the crystal’s sparkling facets. I liked to track how much time had passed by seeing how far the resulting little rainbows moved across my room. Usually I woke up just as the rainbows were staring to appear, around eight o’clock. But today they were almost halfway across my room, instead over by my door, where they should have been. I pulled out my phone to check the time, and when it booted up I saw that it was 11:15. I’d slept in for an extra three hours. Why had no one gotten me up? My mom didn’t like me to sleep in too late, and my dad always woke up for a run on Saturday mornings. Annoyed, I closed my eyes and flopped back on my pillows. They probably thought I needed the extra rest. I had played in a soccer tournament the day before, and tomorrow I had an all–day jazz band competition. I had a saxophone solo and had been practicing for months.

I pulled the blankets up and tried to get back to sleep, but once I’d opened my eyes, it seemed, I wasn’t going to be able to. Eventually I threw back the covers and swung my feet to the floor. After pulling on some random clothes and stuffing my feet into my socks, I shuffled across the hall and down the stairs. It wasn’t until I’d reached the kitchen and had slid some bread into the toaster that I noticed that I was the only one there. My parents, my sister, even my dog were nowhere to be seen. Something was up. Had they gone on a trip? Maybe they’d just shopping. Or maybe they’d just taken Coco for a walk. Wherever they were, I was sure they’d be back soon. But, later, as I was brushing my teeth, I realized that for the first time ever, my mom hadn’t left a note. She always scribbled one down next to the phone if she didn’t get a chance to tell me where she was going beforehand. I hadn’t seen a note anywhere when I was in the kitchen. I spat toothpaste into the sink and frowned at my reflection. Why did it have to be so complicated? Couldn’t she have just forgotten? I smoothed back some short, dark strands of hair and scratched a leftover clump of mascara out of the corner of my eye. My eyebrows furrowed, as I was almost annoyed at the irregularity of the day so far. Sighing, I turned away from the mirror and dried myself off with a towel.

 

Once I had gotten completely dressed, I tried to get comfortable curled up on my bed with a book. It was a good book; something about dragons and a wall made of ice, but when I realized I had been staring at the same word for the last two minutes I dropped it on the floor with a sigh. I had to get out of the house.

I hopped off my bed and headed downstairs, snagging a light jacket as I went. My eyes and phone were waiting in a bag by the front door, which I grabbed just before yanking on my Converse. Laces tied, I extracted my bike from its place in the hall closet. Not having a car of my own, I was restricted to more environmental forms of transportation. Carefully I locked the door behind me and turned to survey the street. It was a beautiful morning. The blue perfection of the sky was unmarred by clouds, and the tall green canopies of huge oak leaves seemed to glow in the warm light. It was the kind of day you saw people out with their dogs, or going for walks, or even just sitting on their porch to enjoy the day. But there wasn’t a single person to be seen. Not one other human being was visible. In fact, I didn’t even see the three–legged cat that never left our neighbor’s yard. No one was out except for me.

 

By the point I was little freaked out, when I saw my parents’ car still in the driveway I had to take a deep, shaky breath in to force myself to get on my bike, not bothering with a helmet, and head up the street. They were just taking Coco for a walk with my sister. There was nothing to worry about. But where was everyone? Even on the most miserable of morning someone was outside, and this was far from a miserable morning.

I pedaled up the street, silently looking all around for any sign of another person, but I didn’t see anyone. I passed a café that my friends and I liked to frequent on the weekends. Usually it was packed, but today it was deserted. The door was wide open, and the lights were on, but there was no one inside, not even a barista. I even saw a cup of coffee and a blueberry scone sitting on one of the outside tables. Steam still wafted from the mug. Panic started to well in my chest, but I forced it down. My breath caught in my throat, the small sound sounding as loud as a scream in the deserted street. I began whispering to myself, quietly so as not to break the fragile silence that enveloped me.

“You’re fine. There’s nothing wrong. There’s a normal, rational explanation for this. Just calm down.” I repeated the phrases over and over again as I left the empty café and turned down the main road. But, one look down the street, and I stopped dead, my bike shrieking a complaint as I squeezed the brakes as hard as I could.

 

It was as if someone had frozen the time in the city. The road was full of cars, just as it should be, but they weren’t moving. Not only that, but they were all abandoned. All the cars were empty. Every single one. As far as I could see the road was full of two neat lines of stationary, immobile cars. Fear bubbled up, stronger than ever, and it took everything I had to push it down, to quell the rising terror in my throat. I didn’t want to think about what had made the entire population of Eastlake disappear.

With fear oozing through my veins I pedaled down Main Street toward downtown. Surely there had to be someone there. Sure, it was a small town, fewer than ten thousand people, but there was no way everyone was gone. Maybe this was all one huge practical joke my friends had set up. I had no idea how they could have ever set something like this up, but I was less concerned with that and more worried about finding someone. Deserted building after deserted building flashed by, all apparently open for business, and I shoved away the irrational fear of breaking the delicate wall of silence around me and began calling out names.

“Alice? Tyler? Savannah? Daniel?” I paused, hearing my frail voice echo around the dead streets. “Mom? Dad? Anyone?!” Silence, everywhere. The only thing I heard was the wind whistling past my ears as I kept pushing down one pedal after another. My breaths came quick and harsh now; I was so blinded by terror that I didn’t even look where I was going, just kept pedaling faster and faster, past all the empty cars, heading deeper into the city. A plastic bag blew by on the wind, and I turned to look at it, for a moment hoping that I’d found someone, but the moment I did, my front tire hit something, a curb probably, and I was thrown over my handlebars. My shoulder collided with the cement and my fingers were ground beneath my hip.

I was so shocked I didn’t even feel any pain, so I scrambled up, ignoring my ripped clothes and my bike, the front crumpled grotesquely around the concrete barricade I had struck, and spun around, trying to calm my pounding heart. Had someone heard my crash? Was someone coming? But, no. Nothing else stirred in the city. Not a person, not an animal, not even a bird. I was the only think moving, scrambling away from my ruined bike, running under the flickering traffic lights, still changing for cars that didn’t move, and pedestrians that weren’t there. The worst part was, nothing had else changed. The city was exactly how I’d expect it to be, with all the stores open, and the multitudes of cars, but there was no one to be seen anywhere. Everyone had vanished. By now my hands were shaking so badly I dropped my bag, which I had somehow brought with me from my bike, the keys and phone inside clattering against each other. My phone! Of course! I could call my older brother; he lived in another city and would be able to help. Tears began to blur my eyes and I could barely make myself turn back to my dropped phone. I fell to my knees, tearing my jeans and grazing my skin, but I didn’t feel it, or the growing wetness on my shoulder. All I cared about was calling someone, someone who could help me.

 

I dialed my brother’s number, and held the phone to my ear. I heard my own breath rasp down the line for the first ring, then the second. Then the third, and fourth and fifth. The phone rang on and on, without stopping or going to voicemail. I choked out a gasp, half strangled with terror, smothered by the feeling that the city was somehow alive and had deliberately forgotten about me. I called my mom, then my dad, and both times the phone rang and rang, endlessly, until I couldn’t bear it anymore and hung up. I even called 911, but even then there was no answer, just the perpetual ringing. The sound seemed to drag sharp claws through my insides, and with a scream of dread I flung the phone away, hurling it across the street where it hit the side of a building and shattered, showering the pavement with plastic and metal. I drew my knees up to my chest and cried, huge fat tears the spilled down my cheeks and dampened my shirt. I cried from sheer terror and panic, my heaving gasps racking my lungs in time with my pounding heart, beating so fast that I thought it would burst. I almost wished it would, so that I wouldn’t have to face the looming emptiness that was bearing down on me. At last I collapsed onto the cement, all my tears gone. I was alone in the city and no one could help me.

I never knew silence could be so deafening. My panting breaths sounded almost quiet, the sound swallowed up among the barren streets. It was as if the city were laughing at me, scornful, triumphant laughs mocking my insignificance. My own cries seemed futile, so I took one final scratchy breath and threw myself to the ground, stuffing my fingers in my ears to block out the taunting echoes.

The emptiness was killing me, my heart about to give out from fear. All I needed was the sight of one human being, just one, someone to show me I wasn’t completely alone. But no one came. I curled up into a tiny ball, wanting to die from the fear and emptiness, the bleak desolation that surrounded me. I was broken, shattered to pieces by the city’s malice that I was powerless to stop. There was nothing I could do. Nothing…

 

–G.L. Aster