Then one morning, Crystal woke up to no noises at all. She'd gotten used to not hearing downtown commuters every day out the window of her apartment that faced Front Street a block over, but there were always a few cars and trucks. That particular morning, there was nothing.
She tossed the covers on the floor and stretched, her feet just touching the wall. Rubbing sleep from her eyes, she peeked out of the window, blinking at the strong sunlight. The wind was blowing a few papers across the vacant lot behind her converted apartment. Otherwise, she might have been looking at a ghost town.
Crystal Barnes didn't give it much thought as she used the toilet. She washed her hands for the required thirty seconds, even though she hadn't been outside in days. She had to think for a minute before realizing it was Friday. She worked four-tens, so she didn't have to remotely login to her job taking consumer complains for the state's health insurance provider. Locked down for the past four weeks like everyone else, she had gotten lax about things like personal hygiene and grooming, but she still decided to put on clean underpants, jeans and a pullover sweater. To hell with the bra.
She started to worry when she didn't hear Mrs. Oscar in the apartment downstairs getting her little terrier Jimmy ready for their morning walk. Then she decided since she hadn't been woken up by little furry monster's incessant yipping, that they must have already slipped out while she was still sleeping.
Half an hour later, she'd bolted down a couple of instant waffles covered in butter and syrup and was working on her second cup of coffee. Her brain finally was conscious and fortified enough to manage the news, so she opened her laptop in her tiny living room on her tinier roll up desk.
The internet was there, news stories were there, recorded video was there, but only up to about eleven last night.
"Where the hell is the live streaming?"
She wasted half an hour looking for a live news feed, but there was nothing on, not over the web, not on her decrepit portable television her aunt gave to her out of pity, and not on the radio.
Crystal tried texting, first her boyfriend, who didn't answer. She figured he was mad at her again, so she tried her aunt. Nothing, and she was an early bird. Her bestie Rochelle didn't answer, neither did Sadie, Clark, Phil, or Ebony. Out of desperation, she pinged Wyatt, who was pretty obvious about still wanting to get into her pants, even though they broke up over a year ago.
Still no noise from Mrs. Oscar or Jimmy. No noise from Michael next door, but then he sometimes worked late and slept in until noon. Crystal looked out the south facing window again. No cars moving at all, and no people walking. No movement period, not even a stray cat.
"This can't be right." She shrugged on a jacket, pulled her exercise trainers out of the closet, and after tucking her bare feet inside and grabbing her keys, she carefully opened her door. It creaked, sounding louder than expected. Her footfalls were awkward as she navigated the too steep stairs. Her stomach dropped out and hit the ground floor before she did.
Outside, the breeze rustled branches and new, Spring leaves over her head. The parking lot of the state labor department across the street was almost empty. Crystal checked her phone. Its silent witness declared "11:54 a.m."
"Where did everybody go?"
It took her an hour to walk the neighborhood at the edge of downtown, finally completing the wide circuit back to her place. In all that time, she didn't see anything alive, not even a bird. Thunder rumbled overhead and she dashed back inside. "What's that they say about April showers?"
She didn't particularly like or dislike Mrs. Oscar, but her door was right there, so she pressed the doorbell. “Don’t tell me it’s broken.” She pressed again, but still no sound. Crystal knocked three times and waited. No response. She listened at the door. Stupid Jimmy should have been barking like she was a serial killer.
“Mrs. Oscar?” What if she were hurt. She was pretty old. No, the dog would still be going ape shit.
By the time she got back up to apartment, she realized the power was out. That night, the streetlights didn’t come on.
Crystal called 911 at 10:35 p.m., but only after drinking most of a bottle of cheap Merlot hadn’t calmed her down. When she got a recording about the emergency service being temporarily unavailable, she started to panic.
A week later, she finally resigned herself to being alone.
She broke into Mrs. Oscar’s apartment. Except for some empty clothing lying on the living room rug and a vacant dog collar with leash attached, there was no sign of them. Crystal didn’t want to know what that meant, especially when she kept discovering empty coats, pants, and shoes on the sidewalk, in vacant cars, in other apartments, in the aisles of the 24 hour supermarket.
She was alone.
No planes overhead. If it was just Boise that was deserted, someone from the military or state police would have been around to investigate by now.
She figured she wouldn’t starve for a while, but the only thing that was going to keep long term was canned food. The smell from the produce and meat departments at WinCo was gagging. On the other hand, everything was free, and she moved up from cheap to expensive wines, then from cheap to expensive vodka, gin, and bourbon.
No internet, no Netflix, no electricity for her DVD and TV to watch movies. She broke down and raided, the grocery store’s magazine section, then an indie bookstore, and finally the main branch of the public library on Capitol and River.
Days were spent walking, reading, lamenting over her cell phone, its battery having long since given up its charge, and generally being bored. Nights were a drunken haze leading to an endless stream of hungover mornings.
For the first few weeks, she drove her car through the empty streets searching for something or someone. That lasted as long as the gas, which ran out three blocks from home. The gas pumps didn't work anymore.
Then she broke into Michael’s apartment, empty t-shirt and sweatpants under his covers, a witness to where he had spent his last moments. She took his car keys, but his car wouldn’t start. She took Mrs. Oscar’s keys, but her right rear tire had gone flat, and Crystal decided it would be too much trouble to change it. Then she got tired of stealing cars.
Suicide started to look pretty good after the first month. She started out as just bored, then lonely, transitioning to desperate, and finally arriving at hopelessness.
But she was too despondent to plan a clean death, so she stayed alive out of habit. After all, if the food started to run out, she could kill herself before she starved. This was Idaho. There were half a dozen gun shops within walking distance, if she wanted to walk that far.
She had imagined all of the possible scenarios of finding someone else alive, but one of them wasn’t rounding the feminine hygiene aisle at Albertsons and almost colliding with a ten year old girl.
“God damn it, you scared the shit out of me!” Crystal jumped backward, her right shoulder crashing into a display of maxi-pads. The girl, a blur of blue jeans, superhero t-shirt, and filthy sand-colored hair, squealed, dropped the plastic carrying cart of canned chili and tuna, and then bolted toward the dairy section.
“Hey, wait! Crystal got her footing and streaked after her, almost grabbed her shirt as she rounded the corner toward the molding breads, but lost her by the time she got to checkout.
She swiveled her head toward both exits. Only one was open, and it was at the far end of the cash registers. The kid couldn’t have gotten that far without being seen.
“Now where would I hide if I were a little girl?”
She slowly walked in front of each register. Crystal got to number four and heard strained breathing under where a cashier had stood about a million years ago.
“I’m not going to hurt you.”
No answer. The kid probably just wanted her to go away.
“If you’ve got people…I’m all alone. I have been since it happened, whatever it was. I don’t want to be....”
Crystal turned toward the register and took two steps before a four foot, six inch tornado shot out, pelting her with a frenzied combination of fists and tennis shoes.
“I said I wouldn’t…hey, cut it out…stop. Look, you’re pissing me off.” By the time she’d finished the sentence, Crystal had wrestled the kid down to the floor, bumping her head in the process. The girl was screaming, which dissolved into crying, and then whimpering.
“Please, let me go. Don’t hurt me. Please, don’t hurt me.”
“I’m not going to hurt you, but I don’t want you to beat the crap out of me, either, okay?”
She nodded, tears drawing streaks across her dirty face.
“What’s your name?”
“Let me up.”
“What’s your name first.”
“Emily. Please let me up. You’re hurting my wrists.”
Crystal loosened her grip and started to lift up. Emily shoved hard, knocking the bigger woman off balance, and then squiggled into the lobby. Crys caught her by the ankle, almost lost her when her right shoe came off, then lunged and gripped her thigh, and then her waist in both hands. She pushed the child up against the window to the front of some bank, and pressed her against it with most of her weight.
“You’re not getting out of here. Not until we’ve had a talk. I haven’t seen so much as a mouse in three months and then you show up. Where did you come from and what the hell is going on?”
It tumbled out of her, slowly at first, like prying the first pickle out of a jar stuffed with them. Then she turned herself upside down and inside out. Emily Jennings’ whole, sad, miserable life spilled across Crystal Barnes’ lap like projectile vomit.
As it turned out, they had a lot in common.
“I woke up one morning and Mommy was gone, My two sisters Kara and Shelly, even little Austin who was only two-and-a-half. I looked and there was nobody. Then I was afraid that Daddy had done something to them and he was going to come after me next. I hid in the closet until I had to pee real bad. Then I hid again, but I got too hungry. But nobody came, not even Daddy.”
She held Emily close against her chest and let her cry, human touch to human touch. “I can’t believe that all this time, you’ve been living like a mile from me. How did we ever miss each other, especially when there’s nobody else?”
It took a long time for Emily to answer, but when she did, she asked, “What do we do now?”
“I wish I knew. I wish I knew how to make this a happy ending.”
# # #
“Did it have to do with the virus? Is that why everybody disappeared?”
“I don’t know, Emily.” They were holding hands, casually walking together through Capitol Park toward Crystal’s apartment. She still expected to see squirrels foraging for nuts and scraps, and hear birds singing as they built their nests. It was almost summer, and she hadn’t heard so much as a bee buzzing.
“We were supposed to stay inside all the time. I got scared, because Daddy kept hitting…”
“Your Mom was really brave getting you kids away from him.” Crystal didn’t want to listen to the story again. It brought back too many memories of what her own parents had done. She didn’t want to wake up screaming again, and she hadn’t had an anxiety attack in over two years.
“We got out. Mommy took us to the shelter, but then…”
Crystal pulled her closer. They stopped near the street corner. A cool evening breeze sailed through them making them both shiver. The leaves crumpled and argued with each other, thousands of them, overhead, like the roar of a small ocean.
“Maybe it was the virus or something else. But whatever happened, it left you and me.”
“Nobody I’ve found. Did you ever see anyone?”
“No. I mean, then I saw you. I thought maybe you…you know…like Daddy.”
“I know.” She hugged Emily tight again.
After a long while, Crystal took Emily’s hand. “Let’s go. It’s going to get dark soon. We can build a fire and cook some franks and beans.”
“I really miss pizza.”
They both laughed. “Yeah, so do I. Too bad all the pizza places are closed.”
They skipped for about a quarter of a block, then raced down Sixth Street to see which one to get to W. Idaho first. Somehow, Emily managed to beat Crystal.
The night was warm enough to sit out, but still cold enough for a fire and jackets in the vacant lot behind the apartment. Crystal wrapped a blanket around Emily, and didn’t care when she spilled beans and sauce on it.
Hours later, she tucked the little girl in her bed, then curled upon the sofa just a few feet away. They had found each other, but their nightmares still haunted them.
# # #
Emily turned eleven on June 27th. Neither of them had been keeping track of the calendar, so they guessed when it was as close as they could. There were no cakes, but there were candles and singing Happy Birthday. Crystal never could wrap a present, but Emily had her choice of anything she wanted in any store they could walk to.
The little girl loved to read and they decided to make the library one of their homes, since they could live anyplace.
July 4th didn’t have fireworks, but it was warm. It had gotten harder to find bottled water, so they had to travel a few miles to stock up. Their bicycles and wagons were parked haphazardly against the library’s front steps, shadows stretching long in front of them. Emily put her copy of “James and the Giant Peach” in her lap while Crystal kept reading “The Left Hand of Darkness.”
“What’s going to happen to us?”
“What do you mean?” She slipped a piece of scratch paper between the pages and closed them.
“I mean, what are we supposed to do, with our lives, I mean? Just read all the library books and eat all the food?”
“I don’t know. I think you’re supposed to keep growing up.”
“What will you do?”
Crystal thought, looked across the street at a dead Kia Rio that had jumped the curb and bumped against a tree ages ago. “I think I’m supposed to grow up, too.”
“But you already are.”
She chuckled. “No, I don’t think I ever did. I never had a reason to before.” Crystal lightly kissed Emily on the top of her head. They’d both decided taking baths and hand washing their clothes would make it easier to live together, and make it easier to live with themselves. “Now I do. I have you.”
They both enjoyed sharing each other for a little while.
“What do you need to do to grow up, Crystal?”
“Something I haven’t wanted to do. We have to see if there are any more people anywhere.”
“You said there weren’t any.”
“I said there weren’t any we could find.”
“I know. Maybe we’re the only ones, but the world is really big. Maybe there’s somebody out there waiting for us to find them.”
“But what if they’re…” she almost started to cry. “What if they’re not nice? Wouldn’t it be better for it to be just the two of us?”
“Maybe. But maybe we can’t live alone just the two of us forever. Sooner or later, we’re going to need help. I’m not exactly the survivor type.”
“Crystal, we live in a library. If we want to know something, there’ s probably a book that has the answers.”
“You’re a really smart kid, Em.”
“I’m just trying to grow up.”
Crystal popped up and grabbed Emily’s arm. “Come on.”
“Inside the library. Like you said, there’s a book inside for everything. Let’s look for one that will show us what we’re supposed to do tomorrow and how to do it.”
That night there weren’t any fireworks, not in the sky, anyway. Instead, by candlelight, Crystal and Emily retreated into the library. They read, and planned, and dreamed, and grew up together. The next day, they left home to find the future.