I was at work when it happened. Helping a customer find the absolute perfect book to give her nephew for his first birthday. We’d been through most of the children's department, and I was starting to have second thoughts about my career choice when she finally settled on one.
I led her to the register, thanking any and all gods that might exist for the reprieve. As we rounded the corner, the earth shook like something I had never felt and never would again.
The customer and I collapsed to the ground. I wish I was the kind of person who would immediately think of others in a crisis but I’m not. All I could think of was myself.
I hit the cheap tile behind the counter hard, my head bouncing off the ground.
“Ow, shit!” I yelled, louder than anyone should in polite company. Especially a bookstore employee on the clock. My customer shouted something too but I didn’t catch it—I assumed it was an expletive. I hoped it was—that would make my own outburst less offensive.
I took a moment to wait for my ears to stop ringing from the impact, and then a further few minutes to check my body for injuries. I seemed to be okay, aside from the mind-splitting headache. I pulled myself up sluggishly, using the shelves behind the counter as leverage, and my formerly annoying customer screamed. An inhuman sound like nothing I had ever heard.
I dragged my head up over the countertop to gain a line of sight— something must’ve fallen on her, I surmised—only a large number of shattered bones could have elicited that kind of guttural response. I had never been so wrong in my life.
I peeked over, leaning my chin heavily against the faux wood, and gasped in horror. My customer, previously so irritating, had fallen to the ground. She wasn’t buried under bookshelves as I had imagined, instead sprouting bone-like growths all over her body. They broke through the skin, jutting out at weird angles.
Someone screamed nearby, it was not helping the pain in my head. Belatedly I realized it was me, and I clamped my hands over my mouth to hold the sound inside. My customer, or perhaps I should now say former customer, appeared to be dead. I ducked back behind the counter to catch my breath and attempt to slow my heart rate. Then I scrambled to remember any and all knowledge that had come from my brief first aid training.
I crawled around the edge of the half wall, and made my way to the ravaged body. I fumbled my hand up what was left of her neck trying to find a pulse, but there was nothing. Having done what I felt was my due diligence, I stood and glanced around the rest of the bookstore. There didn’t appear to be anybody else left inside.
My minimum wage salary was not worth any more than I had already done, so I high-tailed it out of there and ran across the parking lot towards my car. The ground throughout the lot was mostly intact, but broken. Cracks had formed in the tarmac, but they weren’t wide enough to swallow up any vehicles. Some had sustained damage, including my own—the back windows were shattered, glass shards sprayed across the seats. The rear view window was fractured but still in one piece due to the construction that held it together even through major trauma.
I ignored all the chaos as I fished my keys out of my pocket and threw myself into the front seat. I jammed the slim metal into the ignition switch of my car without consciously thinking about it—I was operating on autopilot. The engine roared to life.
I jerked the gear shift into reverse and sped out of my spot. The car bounced over the broken tarmac but I ignored the turbulence, slamming the little hatchback into drive. I weaved my way out of the lot, in between other panicked customers and employees of the shopping center. I only hoped I could make it home before the traffic ground to a halt. I just wanted to be safe, alone, in my bed. Curled up and warm, watching the news affecting everyone but me.
I was halfway home, having skirted around major roads to avoid back ups. The radio newscasters had devolved from reports of scattered injuries to increasingly frantic snippets about wild claims that were too nuts to be real. I couldn't believe what I was hearing, animal attacks that came from where people’s neighbours had been standing just seconds before, tidal waves with no discernible origin point, unexplained electro-magnetic pulses and power outages. None of it should be possible—definitely not all at once.
I swung my car into the driveway that led behind my building, the back right tire scraping across the curb at my abrupt cornering. The power was out on my street, and I had never been more grateful that I lived in an old, rundown apartment. No fancy electronic locks or upgraded smart houses in this part of town, just good old fashioned keys and tumbler locks.
I stumbled out the door of my car, barely remembering to turn it off. People screamed down the street out front, a large pool of blood slowly soaking into the gravel near where I had parked. I gasped for air, trying to get a hold of myself. If anything that I had heard on the radio was true, I had so far been remarkably lucky. I ran headlong for the door of my building and up the staircase inside, making it to my apartment in record time.
My hands trembled as I tried and failed to get the key in the lock. I was shaking so bad I almost dropped the keyring when suddenly the building around me started to shake as well. I was somehow able to stay standing through the earthquake, the tremors seeming to almost match my own panicked movements. I took a few deep breaths and the quake stopped as quickly as it had started.
I took advantage of the momentary calm and thrust the key into the lock, easily this time, and the door clicked open. Once inside, I ran around my small studio apartment and secured every window, double checking the entrance I had just come through. Satisfied that I was safely barricaded inside, I sank onto my cheap, lumpy couch and sobbed into my hands for a few moments.
Outside, a sudden deluge poured out of the sky.
“Okay Tracy, that’s enough blubbering,” I said to myself, my voice echoing slightly in the empty room. But it helped to hear the words, even though they came from me. I brought my emotions back under control and fished my cell out of my pocket. The power was out—that meant no wifi access for my laptop, but most of the cell towers had battery back ups. I hoped I’d still have an LTE signal so I could check the news and find out what had happened to our city. I sure as hell wasn’t going outside again.
I was thrilled to discover a sixty percent battery charge and full LTE bars. I quickly tapped away at the screen, scrolling through various social media feeds. All of them were filled with the same frantic posts from people who also had no idea what was going on, and shaky cell cam footage of disasters, explosions, attacks, floods, you name it and it was happening. The really scary part was that it was definitely not confined to my city or even state, posts were going up at a wild clip from all over the world. Whatever had started this was spread across the globe.
Several days passed, and the initial mania started to die down, but the streets were now overrun with roving gangs taking advantage of the apocalyptic chaos. The power never did come back on, and it wasn’t until I finally ran out of basically everything in my pantry and fridge that could be eaten without cooking that I conceded I was going to have to go outside.
I swallowed my panic as I got ready to go, tucking a knife into my back pocket, just in case. I felt oddly zen—I hoped I wouldn’t have to stab someone over whatever paltry offerings were left at the grocery and super stores—but I was ready to if I had to. Leaving the house without my cell was the most surreal part of the experience, but it had died days ago and I had no means of charging it once my laptop had run out of juice as well.
I locked the door behind me and crept down the stairs, a stark contrast to the last time I travelled this hallway, rocketing up to my door in a state of sheer, unadulterated panic. I hadn’t heard a lot of movement from my neighbours over the last few days—at the beginning I wondered how many of them had even made it home—but it was amazing how quickly the end of the world will shift your focus to yourself and only yourself.
I made it outside and almost into my car when it happened. A group that appeared to have been carhopping my parking lot surrounded me. They closed the circle around me, herding me like an animal until my back pressed against the rough brick. I fumbled for the knife in my pocket—the one I was so sure I’d be able to use—only to have it knocked into the dirt by the closest man. He was unshaven and dirty, with wild green eyes that darted between me and his compatriots in rapid succession. He grabbed my shoulders and shoved me against the wall, hard.
“One of these belong to you girly?” he asked, his stale breath cascading over my mouth and nose, and I gagged. “We could use some wheels, gimme the keys!” He shook me again, harder than the first time, and the skin on my exposed arms and shoulders tore against the rough surface behind me. I screamed in fear.
The noise that erupted from within me was otherworldly. It took me a moment to register that I was free after the man holding me dropped to the ground, hands over his ears. The sound wasn’t coming from just me, it seemed to be pouring out of the heavens itself. Echoing off of every available surface, building to what should have been unbearable. And it seemed to be for the gang that had surrounded me—they writhed on the ground, blood trickling out of their ears as they held their heads in pain.
I snapped my jaw shut and the noise stopped. I panted with exertion even though I hadn’t moved. The events of the last few days whipped through my mind's eye at lightning speed.
The earthquake when I was shaking from anxiety and fear.
The pouring rain while I cried.
The eerie calm that fell now that I was collecting myself.
The bones that jutted out of my annoying customer the day it happened, whatever it was.
The animal attacks that originated from where people had been standing just moments before.
The unexplained EM pulses, floods and tidal waves with no discernible origin point.
Whatever had happened had changed us, changed everyone. And it seemed to have changed me for the better.
“Get up!” I shouted, the volume impossible and the force kicking up dust in a small maelstrom around the parking lot. “I need supplies,” I said in my normal voice as the gang rose slowly from the ground. They glanced briefly at each other and then nodded. The leader, the one who had been slamming my back into the wall just moments before, seemed to have died. I guess because he was the closest to me when I screamed. His nose, eyes and ears leaked blood, and he stared up from my feet, unblinking.
“Yes, ma’am,” one of the older men in the group stepped forward nodding. The rest followed suit, bowing their heads in subservience. “What can we get you?”
“We’ll start with food and fuel,” I replied, “and then we’ll plan. I’m not staying in this hovel another night. Meet me back here, apartment number five. Knock three times. And if you’re not back in one hour, I’ll find you.” I tossed my car keys to him, and gestured towards my beat up old car. “Oh, and I’m going to need better transportation than that thing,” I added, my lip curling in disgust.
“Right away ma’am,” he replied, snatching the keys out of the air, and casting a long look at the dead man in front of me.
“One hour!” I shouted again, projecting my voice in a way that caused the gravel to dance between us and the trees to bow as if a hurricane force wind was suddenly blowing through. The gang members scrambled into my car and peeled out of the parking lot in record time. I turned on my heel and strode back up the stairs to my dingy apartment to start packing.
Well, my life just got a whole lot better. I wonder where I’d like to live?