The garage door rose slowly as James Benton rushed to his car on the morning after the first darkness had passed. Once in the car and backing out, he lit a cigarette. He took note that it was one of those rare days when none of his neighbors appeared to be leaving at the same time. He flipped his ashes outside the window as he pulled out of the cul de sac. Then he leaned over and turned on the radio. The speakers crackled out white noise. He changed the station and found that anywhere he moved the dial, nothing came through but static. He shut off the radio and muttered to himself, wondering what would go wrong next with the old junker.
When he got to the main road at the entrance of the housing complex, he stared in shock at the empty road for a moment. He peeled out, thinking it was one of those lucky times when he might be able to gun it the whole way and barely make it. He crossed under 465 and took the next right as he always did. This road was always empty. But as he pulled up to the light at State Road 31 with its large grocery store, many restaurants, and other businesses, he started to wonder what was going on. Had he forgotten a holiday? He looked at the calendar on his phone as he stopped. September 26th. He looked back up at the road ahead of him. To his right the exit would take him over the bridge he’d just crossed underneath. Even on Christmas Day, some traffic had existed. He didn’t have time for curiosity and he needed to get to work, so he zoomed out onto the empty road.
He took the 465 West exit, looking out for oncoming cars. There were none. After a moment he saw a car up the hill. "There," he told himself, "there's nothing weird going on, you’re just fucking crazy." He tried the radio again as he came closer to the car much faster than he expected. The radio crackled static as he reached the car. He understood immediately. The car sat still in the far left lane of the three lane highway with no one in it. He looked in his rearview then. Still not a single car coming. He couldn't see any up ahead, either. His chest tightened. He thought about turning back and going home or maybe running off to his brother Joel's on the east side of town. Joel. He pulled out his cell phone again and quickly scrolled to his brother's name in the contact list and hit send. As the fourth ring sounded, he saw something moving up ahead, beyond the bridge for Mann Road. Smoke rose, way off in the distance. It became clearer as he came around the curve of the highway. Thick, black smoke fought its way up into the atmosphere from something on the ground. Joel's voicemail answered and James closed his phone.
The smoke came from the bright orange fire engulfing the 70 West exit. It must have originally been several cars, but now just looked like a burning pile of twisted metal. The flames rolled in great waves from within the pile-up. James found himself veering over to the left, as far away from the flames as he could. He let off the gas as he tried dialing 911. The phone rang and rang as he came alongside the burning metal sculpture. When he’d passed the scene, he found himself watching the fire roll up into smoke toward the sky in his rearview. The sight mesmerized him. The fire far behind him, he realized the phone was still ringing, so he closed it. He saw more and more deserted cars as he came closer to his exit. Some just sat in the middle of the road, some had veered off, and some had piled into each other. Half of the latter were on fire. He slowed down to exit, but instead passed the Sam Jones Expressway. He was pretty sure the upside-down Crown Victoria would be impossible to get around.
He continued down the road, wondering what to do. His eyes refocused from staring at a semi jack-knifed into the East Washington Street exit with a Ford Explorer wedged underneath its trailer. Along all the exits and medians of different roads, he hadn't seen a single blade of grass. Where the grass should have been, lay rich, brown soil. He shrugged it aside as simple landscaping at first, but now that he came to the sixth or seventh exit, he knew it had to be something else. He stopped the car and got out. After turning off the engine, he noticed the piercing silence. As he stepped out, the air tasted stale. He leaned on the concrete railing of the bridge that stood over Washington Street for a long time. Other than the distant sounds of factories, he heard nothing. No cars, airplanes, people. Not even birds. He looked down at the road below him, leaning over the concrete slab to see under the bridge. At the edge of the road lay the only thing to be seen shy of road, dirt, and concrete. A single battered doll with one large, black eye, one empty gash where the other eye should be, and curly, red hair lay in the earth, looking up at him. A cool wind fluttered over and he shivered.
He got back in the car and sped on to the next exit, 10th street, finding it void of any wreckage. Going up the ramp, he saw nothing different from anywhere else. He could see a few cars abandoned randomly off in the distance. Everywhere grass should be, bare land replaced it. And then he saw the tree. James slammed on the brakes, his tires screeching against the pavement. The tree stood lonely, towering over a grassless landscape. The roots showed visibly where they entered the ground. It was an unnatural sight, making the tree appear naked in some way. James put the car back into drive and went over the median, making a u-turn toward the exit for 465 going the other way. Once he rolled back onto the highway, he began to speed. He had a few things he needed to check before he ventured east to Joel's house.
This time, as he pulled back into the housing edition he'd lived in for the past seven years, James took notice of the lifeless quiet that had escaped his notice earlier that morning. It seemed as if the life had been sucked from the place, figuratively and literally. Not a sound or glimpse of movement caught his attention as he crept down the road. His head hung out the window, listening and looking around for some sign of something, anything alive. Then it clicked. He couldn't remember seeing or hearing anything alive. Except the tree. The tree looked just as alive and healthy as him. But only one.
He looked through the bare, dirt yards for another tree. He passed his own road continuing the search, until after an hour or so he’d combed the entire complex with nothing to show for it. When he got back home, he drug himself out of his car, feeling bleak and confused. He went straight into the kitchen and turned on the water. Then he wet his hands, splashed the water over his face, and ran it through his hair. He tried to clear his mind.
Stretching his back, his eyes closed and his head back, he let a drop of water touch his tongue. It tasted stale. No, it tasted beyond stale. He knelt down and took a gulp straight from the source. It tasted purer than any bottled water he’d ever drank. Usually, his water tasted so vile you could barely drink it. It had an odor so strong, he found himself taking shorter and shorter showers over the years. He leaned down in front of the powered stream and took a long sniff. No scent at all. A thought occurred to him, striking him dumb.
Leaving the water on, he ran up the stairs to the loft. As soon as he was on the second floor, he found himself leaning over the banister, completely out of breath. When his lungs didn't feel full of razor blades, he walked underneath the entrance to the attic. Gripping the chord that hung from the door, he pulled it, bringing the door down and revealing the enclosed ladder. He experimented with putting his weight on the decrepit ladder. It seemed to still hold him. He went up, reaching blindly for the string hanging from the overhead light bulb. When he felt it, he tugged, lighting up the messy attic. The light cast an eerie, yellowish hue on the room.
He knew exactly where to look for the old microscope. He hadn't used it since college, but he used it enough then to make up for the many years since. He took a deep breath and blew the top layer of dust from the top of the box. The word Olympus appeared in bright orange letters. The sight made James smile with nostalgia.
He was back in his kitchen 20 minutes later with the dusty old microscope set up on the counter. He cleaned off its lenses and several slides. Then he turned the water down until it merely dripped. Putting the first slide under, he collected one good drop then carefully put it in the microscope. Pulling a small bottle from his pocket, he took a second slide. Opening the bottle, he let a drop of the murky liquid inside drop onto the slide. He set that one next to the other. On the third, he lightly spit and slid it into place with the other two.
He focused in on the first slide. It was more transparent than the glass itself. He couldn’t see a single living organism. Next, he looked at the murky water, gathered from the neighborhood pond behind the housing edition. Aside from murky clouds of soil, he saw no evidence of anything that was, or had ever been, alive.
The third one interested him the most. He expected to see what the other two lacked, but found nothing more than thick, slimy liquid along with traces of mucus and remnants of food. James didn't remember much from microbiology, but one thing he did remember: the human mouth flourishes with life. But the slide with his saliva contained nothing alive at all.
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