The morning was rather cold. The sky cast a silver hue over the rooftops of the quaint little Vermont village he called home. The manicured lawns seemed to dance as light scattered in the drops of dew resting on the bright green blades. He decided to walk to work today, only now realizing that this was a poor decision as the chill swept through the air and found comfort in his bones. He felt the weight of his breakfast bearing down on him oddly comforting. The cold glass of orange juice, the scalding mug of jet black coffee, and the delectable poached egg and Canadian bacon perched on top of an English muffin, smothered in thick hollandaise. I love my wife, he thought to himself as a whimsical smile crossed his lips.
With every step he felt that all too familiar sensation of time coming to a complete and utter stop – something that tended to happen as he neared the glass-front prison he called work. He reveled at the sheer size of it – how it seemed so very out of place against the backdrop of quaint suburban homes and independently owned farmer’s markets. Coming to the massive entryway, that resembled a door much the same way a tyrannosaurus rex resembles an ostrich, he grasped the cold steel handle which sent a chill through his core. This made the discovery that it wasn’t opening even more frustrating. He located the smallish black buzzer hidden inconveniently beside the scanner. He pressed it with his knuckle and, with an almost inaudible click, the glass panel swung open.
The lobby always impressed him. Whether it was the vaulted ceilings or the Venetian replicas tacked on the gold and cream walls, it made him feel so insignificant. Hearing his echoed footsteps only heightened the sensation. He spotted a group near the elevator door and watched as their blank expressions grew cold with the same distant nausea that he was feeling. We’re all so programmed, he thought, as he nervously gnawed at the soft flesh in his cheeks. The antique arm above him twisted to the left as the car began to descend. After a long pause the door parted, as if to say it preferred they take the stairs instead. The group piled on while shouting out their desired floors, completely unaware of those around them.
Standing inside of the elevator, he felt a cold bead of sweat begin to form on his right temple. He raised his arm and wiped the droplets off his brow leaving an unflattering mark on his sleeve. Tight spaces always bothered him and a crowded elevator was no different. He could handle the gentle ride up the narrow, dimly lit shaft, but it was the constant jolt of stopping at every floor and the incessant cry of the twenty year old buzzer that created a whirlwind of nausea. He thought of the bright yellow hollandaise and winced.
With another loud buzz and an unsettling moment of silence, the door parted. The space before him unfolded into a monotonous blend of tightly woven dark green carpet and ivory walls dotted with brass sconces that coated everything in a warm light. He walked into the endless passageway and began to make the trek down to the office where he’d spent three quarters of his daily life when he suddenly realized that he had no idea where he was.
He began to run frantically searching for somewhere he could recognize, but to no avail. Everywhere he looked seemed so foreign. So distant – so far from reality. As he stumbled through the halls he tried to force open every door he passed. They wouldn’t budge, as if they were cemented in place.
The last door opened to the stairwell and he began to descend, taking care to realize each step beneath his feet. He quickened his pace, feeling every emotion and thought coalesce into a single sensation – one that ran from his firm grip on the railing to his fingertips. Overcome by the friction he reflexively loosened his grip and felt himself begin to tumble down the cold steps.
Unfortunately, he was not graced with the ease of unconsciousness as he fell and had the opportunity to experience the crushing pain of two of his ribs splintering against the cement. He hit the floor with a thud and wondered if head trauma would have been a blessing.
Stumbling to his feet he felt a painful spasm as his broken ribs shifted their position. With each passing breath, the pain became more real and intense. Overcome with the sensation he promptly vomited, watching as the bright yellow hollandaise spread across the stairwell floor. He thought it might make him feel better. It didn’t. Feeling he could descend no longer and despite his haste, he thought he should probably take the elevator.
It was odd to feel such relief in a place he hated and, at times, feared. But for now, the elevator gave him a moment of reassurance. Something familiar he could touch and hold on to. Unlike the empty corridors where he felt exposed and alone, it was here, now, that he felt safe.
Released into the lobby, he was once again overcome by mixed emotions. He marveled at the vaulted ceilings tiled with muted earth tones erupting in a dizzying pattern. The Venetian replicas, the gold and cream walls, the way his steps echoed off the polished marble, the familiarity of feeling overwhelmed. At this moment, like the elevator, he wished he could stay here, hold on to this brief moment of clarity, but even now as he made his way toward the exit, he felt a distance creep up through his thoughts, his feelings begin to drift and the faces tacked on the gold and cream walls lose their features. Again, he quickened his pace, measuring his steps even more carefully, wincing at the pain in his side. He reached the door and leaned against it. He dreaded the outside – afraid that this nightmare may not be over. That this phenomenon might not be contained within these walls. He braced himself, winced, and pushed.
There was not a voice. Not a sound or vibration. No murmurs in the distance. No sirens, chirps, whistles, or blaring or screams. He saw no cars or trucks or planes in the air. No mothers walking their children. No squirrels or chipmunks or birds singing. No dogs on leashes or men obsessively checking their watches. Not even the sound of the breeze rustling the leaves on the trees. The chill that sank into his core managed to dwarf the horror he endured earlier, and that fleeting feeling began to resurface with a vengeance. He began to run, pacing each foot in front of the last, the pain intensified with exertion. He proceeded past the empty parks and empty houses. Gazed upward at the empty skies. The quiet outside even more intense than before, as even the sounds of his footsteps and breath were lost in the void.
He came to another desolate road and stopped. Something felt right about this road – familiar. He looked around for clues, something he could recognize and grasp. He looked at the hydrant overgrown with ivy. He looked at the hanging branches overtaking the stop sign and the blades of grass that grew into monstrous structures of their former selves. He began to wonder just how long he was inside that building. Just how long have they been gone? He noticed the corner house with the blinds that were constantly drawn to avoid exposing the strangled spaces cluttered with artifacts, some too old to identify. He lowered his gaze and, at that moment, one of the few memories left in his fleeting conscience materialized before him. He lost sight of his pain and the feelings of abandonment; the feelings of hopelessness. He shifted his weight toward the house, his legs trailing behind him. He didn’t bother to look where he stepped, he didn’t notice the sky or the silence. He wanted nothing more than to reach that house. The one that remained a mystery, felt so distant, until now. Until everything else disappeared.
He reached the window, not bothering to try the door, he used his elbow from one arm to break in the glass, taking care to shield his ribs with the other. The sound of the glass was deafening, he hoped for the clatter of an alarm, something that noticed his intrusion – that realized he was there. What he heard was silence. He climbed in, mindful of the shattered remains of the window and his aching ribs. He steadied himself, peering at the piles of boxes and memories on display. Fixed on the family portraits carefully arranged in crates stacked neatly on the floor. He tiptoed through the clutter, careful not to disturb the heaps of empty cartons and containers. Stepping toward the center of the room he transfixed on a pile of newspaper clippings scattered haphazardly on the floor. He reached through the pile and shuffled through them feeling their crisp edges against his tired hands. He passed by the statues of Angels, Saints, and Mary, and Jesus arranged on a shelf riddled with scratches and dust. There were several couches in the space, and chairs, desks, lamps, tables, chandeliers with their wires exposed that lay slumped and forgotten, wires of all kinds that once had purpose, and toys and games missing their pieces. He collected his thoughts and gathered himself as best the space would allow. This was someone’s life. This was someone’s history. It seemed so wrong to hold on to things like this, such trivial things, but it seemed so wrong not too. He felt attached to these things. Maybe because they were the only things he thought he knew. Maybe just because he was curious. He was so accustomed to distancing himself from things, like the things you hear on the news and the accidents you find yourself passing by. He was even starting to disconnect from the events that transpired today, but for some reason, this stuff, these things in this particular house, they bothered him. They felt familiar. He felt connected to them.
Outside he felt the cool breeze lap against him and could hear the soft rustle of the leaves. As he walked away from the cluttered house, the sound of the rustling began to fade and the air, once again, became still. He walked toward the horizon, gazing upon the setting sun. He welcomed the cold night air and saw the end of this horrid day as relief. All he wanted now, more than anything, was to feel the warm embrace of his wife. To feel her soft skin and smell her faded perfume on the nape of her neck. He wanted to caress her back and kiss her lips, and feel the touch of her legs entwined with his. Though, he knew there was little hope of her being there. There was little hope of anyone being anywhere. Everyone was gone. Why he remained was a mystery. The most he could hope for was the soft comfort of his own bed. If he could scream he would, but he needed the energy to get home – whatever home was. Whatever home looked like.
As he marched on, the air soon went from refreshing to hostile as it whipped his muddled shirt into a frenzy. He pulled the slack fabric tight around his neck and subdued the flailing. Walking further, he began to feel the tiniest fraction of hope well up within him. The first time he felt such a feeling since the day began. His footsteps responded by increasing in intensity. As the night fell, the sky grew cold with warm pastels that filled him with ease. This day was almost over. Looking in the distance, against every notion of every thought and every possible combination of emotion that he felt today, he suddenly realized, that what seemed to just materialize in the distance, could be nothing else than his house.
Running he thought again about his wife. He felt that she must be there. She must be the last one remaining. She wouldn’t leave him like the others. She would stay behind, like she always did. That last thought ground his footsteps to a halt. He tumbled over himself and met the road with his pallid face. The last sound he heard was the sudden crunch of his skull shattering against the cold black surface.
She let out an inaudible shriek as the last remaining volume of air escaped her lungs. Shaken by the horrific events that have unfolded in her head, she sat up, wide-eyed and petrified. Using the edge of her king-sized pillow-top to steady herself, she steadily placed one arm over the battered crutch leaning against the wall. Making her way into the bath, she toggled the switch and watched as the reflection of a battered woman flicked into focus on the vanity mirror. She palmed the bruises on her face, and leaned into the crutch as her broken ribs shifted in agony. She found herself gazing into her beaten expression, lost in the cavernous recesses of her tortured mind. She is shackled to this man. She gently pushed the mirror to the left to reveal a small recess containing a safe nestled in the wall. She twisted the combination with care, as she has done many times before to retrieve the artifacts and forbidden relics of her past. She peered inside and located the only item in this space that was not hers. The one he insisted he store for his protection. The irony. She grasped its handle and cushioned its form against her chest.
With purpose and despite the crutch, she glided like an Olympian on ice back to the slumbering mass. Carefully, she tilted her head and directed the aim of the pistol at his relaxed and peaceful body. She pulled in a deep slow breath and stood, frozen for a moment, calculating the trajectory. She exhaled slowly and gently pulled the trigger.