A shrill, screeching sound awakens me from my sleep. My head immediately throbs at the sound and I flinch, heart pounding. There’s no telling how long it’s been; the evacuation was short and to the point, giving no one a clue of how long it would take to arrive in Seroria. People were initially upset with the lack of detail, but I didn’t mind. As long as it took us away from the plague, I couldn't care less about the time frame.
I squeeze my eyes together tightly, attempting to drown out the still shrieking sound and pounding headache. It’s no use. Instead, I lay still listening for any sign that the others have woken up. I hear nothing. I groan and lift an arm to rub my eyes, feeling instant soreness from being asleep so long. Biting my lip in agony, I try several times and finally succeed. I rub the sleep out of my eyes and succeed in peeling one eyelid open. Then the other. It takes minutes for my eyes to adjust in the pitch-black room and I suddenly fear that being asleep for so long has impaired my vision. After I’m able to make out a small table lamp beside me, I twist the knob and prepare myself for the sudden burst of light in the darkness. Once again, it takes my eyes several minutes to adjust but when I do, I’m thrown into confusion. This doesn’t look like the spaceship we were boarded on, instead…it looks like a tent. This is strange, since it looks like the same one I left behind on Earth. I sit up and press my feet into the ground below me, standing up with caution. As I take in my surroundings, I notice that is in fact the same tent I left behind. So, why am I here?
I make my way to the zipper containing me inside and zip it open, revealing a grassy environment on the other side. Realization hits me like a blow to the stomach as I take in the rest of my surroundings. This is not the spaceship I was supposed to be aboard on. I’m still on Earth. I run my hands through my hair, pulling as hard as I can to try and leave whatever nightmare I’m in the middle of. My heart beats brutally in my chest, like a wild animal begging to escape a cage. I pace around the empty atmosphere frantically, looking for any sign that I’m not alone. It’s useless. The more I walk the more I notice the emptiness of the once populated town I called home. It’s light outside, most likely late afternoon, and I realize the darkness earlier wasn’t from the time of day but simply because my eyes were shut tight. I step around the piles and piles of trash scattered amongst the town, results of hurried people escaping to the spaceship in fits of panic. I’m not sure what I’m looking for as I scan the emptiness, perhaps a sign as to why this is happening. Any sort of explanation as to why me? The air is musky and thick making it hard to breath. It was always like this during the plague. So many people died that the Earth and everyone in it began to smell like death. Seroria was going to be a fresh start. Now I’ll never know. My heart starts racing again as I see more emptiness, loneliness. No one is here and I got left behind. I bite my lip when I feel it begin to tremble and tears build up behind my eyes. A small, strangled sound escapes my throat and I fall onto the asphalt. I sob, gasping for air knowing all my friends and family are still asleep on a spaceship far beyond here not knowing I’m still on Earth. I lay there for hours it seems, crying.
Darkness is falling around me, the moon glaring above me shining a spotlight on my fetal body. I’m curled up on the asphalt, eyes sticky with tears. I fell asleep at one point, but I am wide awake now. Thoughts are racing back and forth in my mind: what will I do now? What will I do for food? How many years will pass before everyone wakes up and realizes I’m not there? Will I even still be alive? Will—
My thoughts are interrupted as a blinding, fluorescent light shines down on me. I flinch and stifle a scream as I feel a presence behind the light.
“Who are you?” A gruff voice demands. I stay in my fetal position sure that the voice and light are a figment of my imagination. “I said, who are you?” The voice demands more forcefully with a hint of fear etched into their voice. I lift my head and look into the blinding light. They lower the flashlight knowing I’m looking straight into it and shines it to their face instead. It’s a young boy, seemingly my age, with dark hair and striking green eyes. He looks just as terrified as I feel, and I just stare at him. He sighs and stretches a hand towards me. “I won’t hurt you,” he says.
My eyes are tired and I’m still sure I’m hallucinating, but I take his hand anyways. “How—how are you here?” It comes out barely above a whisper, my voice raspy from crying. I try clearing my throat but that only makes it worse.
The boys gives a laugh, lacking humor. “How am I here? How are you here? I’ve been out here for three months by myself. Never saw any trace of another human. I thought I was the only one left behind.”
“You were left behind, too?”
He looks at me with hard eyes, pursing his lips. “Yes. The ship left three months ago. I woke up groggy the next morning.”
His words cut through me and nausea flushes through my body. Three months? The world spins underneath my feet causing me to stumble to my right onto the asphalt. The nausea is overwhelming, and I throw up right beside the boy’s feet. He staggers backwards with his hands held near his heart. I’m gagging, throwing up every last bit of liquid left in my body until there’s nothing left but saliva. I sit back, slick with sweat and wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. The boy says nothing but just watches me. “What do you mean it’s been three months?” I ask.
“Wait. Have you been asleep this whole time? Did you just wake up?” He asks, pausing between each word like trying to piece together a difficult puzzle. I look up and stare at him, brows furrowed, letting my expression answer for me. His forehead scrunches up into a billion tiny wrinkles as his eyebrows raise and lets out a confused puff of air. “What—I mean, how is this possible? Are…are we the only ones left here? I searched this place up and down and never saw anyone.” His eyes are wild as he stares into the distance. I feel another wave of nausea but push it back down. “Why…why us?” He asks this as if speaking to some other worldly force, demanding answers. “What’s your name?”
The question catches me off guard. Such a normal question for such a bizarre situation. “Aria.”
“I’m Ethan. Let’s get you some water to calm your stomach.” He holds a hand out for me once again. In any other circumstance I wouldn’t take it, but I have the feeling I would collapse without another person holding me up, so I do.
I’m sipping a plastic cup of water in a tent no bigger than the one I lived in. I’m not surprised. Everyone had to move to tents when the plague got worse; houses were a hazard with more than one person living in them. With my family of six, we were one of the first to be separated. Families of ten or more were first, eight or more second, six or more third, and so on. We learned quickly not to argue with the authorities so as to not get torn from society into God knows where. We weren’t allowed to know that much and no one ever thought to question it, we just listened. Small markets were parked on every other street corner stocked with your basic needs—food grown only from the ground, drugstore medicine, and jugs of water. People got used to the adjustments fairly quickly, for it was only going to last a short while before we would be lifted up to Seroria. When preparing to evacuate, we were told life in Seroria would be paradise. A higher, clean race would be built and the plague would no longer be a problem. Restaurants would exist again, shopping malls would be bigger than the shacks that held no more than ten pairs of clothing, parks would reopen with fields bigger than we could imagine. It makes my heart hurt thinking of all the promises that we were all so hungry to experience again. So hungry and desperate that they forgot members of their family.
Looking at Ethan now, sitting on a flat sleeping bag staring at the ground with wide eyes, I realize I recognize him from around town. He went to the same street market as I did every Saturday, always choosing the fruits rather than the vegetables saying he was allergic to anything green. I notice his hair is not actually dark but rather a golden blonde with streaks of brown. His skin is tan from days of being out in the sun and he has a gruff beard decorating his chin. He must feel my stare as he removes his gaze from the floor and turns it to me instead. I look away quickly and take another sip of my water. “Are we going to talk about it?” He asks. There’s no need to identify what it is, the mention of it makes me shiver.
“I don’t know what there’s to talk about. We were left behind. I don’t know why and neither do you.”
“Yes,” He says, sounding impatient. “But Aria, everyone was drugged with the same stuff the day of the evacuation. That drug was meant to keep us asleep and the same age for God knows how long. Maybe even up to a hundred years. We woke up early and on Earth. That doesn’t sound like an accident.”
He’s right. The drugs they injected us with were top notch, made by world renowned scientists hired by the government. An accident would be impossible for such precise work. “What do you propose that we do, then?”
“We search for answers,” He says coming over to me and kneeling beside me. His voice is soaked in determination. “We search for however long it takes. We were not left here by accident; we were left here on purpose. I knew that the moment I woke up and you bet I’m going to find out why. We’re in this together.”
I stare into his wild green eyes and pull my lips in a tight, straight line. Despite his intentions, together does not sound like a consolation—it sounds like a prison sentence.
Weeks go by as we search every inch of the town and then some. We rifle through places that were forbidden for years and, as strange as it is, I feel exhilarated. I don’t remember the last time I travelled more than twenty feet outside my tent, and it feels like a whole other planet, ironically. Unlike me, Ethan doesn’t stop to savor anything about our newfound freedom. I watch as he rummages through useless piles of trash ten times, certain that something new will pop out and reveal itself to him. When it turns out to be just as useless as we thought, he pulls his hair and punches anything tangible he can find.
“Ethan, you’ve looked over that piece of paper five times for Pete’s sake. Nothing new is going to be written on it,” I say through gritted teeth. I’m leaning on the desk inside the city hall, arms crossed. We’ve been here before thinking it would be the most obvious place for answers but, as always, come out empty handed. My hair tangles up in my arms as I fold them over each other, three inches longer than it was when I first woke, and my skin blisters in numerous places as a result of the searing sun. Ethan’s hair is past his shoulders now, matted and wavy, and his skin wrinkles from multiple sunburns. We look like madmen and when Ethan turns to me with crazed eyes, I know we must act like them too. I go over to where he’s crouched on the ground and place a hand on his shoulder. “Ethan, I think…I think it’s over. We’ve found nothing over these past couple of months. It’s over.”
I can tell he wants to argue with me, tell me it’s not over and we still have hope but we both know it’s not true. He nods and lets out a loud groan. “God, I just…I just thought it would be simpler than this. It’s not possible that we were left here by accident, right?”
In all honesty, I don’t know. It doesn’t seem plausible that it was just an accident but what other explanation do we have? He must see the confliction on my face as he scoops up my hand in his and nods once, revealing that he’s feeling the same way. I lay my head on his shoulder, putting all my weight on him and let any leftover hope evaporate out of my body. “It’s over,” I whisper.
A sharp pain emerges in the lower part of my back and I gasp. “What—?” Ethan says, looking over at me right before he hunches over in the same pain. The pain is growing sharper, deeper and we gasp for air letting out little screams of panic.
“What’s going on?” I scream, collapsing to the floor and shriveling up my whole body. Ethan’s eyes are wide with terror as he attempts to reach for me but fails.
“The survivors are in here, sir.” A low, grave voice comes from behind us. Footsteps come closer and rip something out of my back. I yelp and a single tear rolls down my cheek.
Another voice sounds seconds after the first. “Well done, Kurt. I’ll take it from here.” More footsteps appear, heavier and firmer. “You two have done quite nicely out here on your own, I must say. I’m impressed. But now,” the man says, leaning so close to our terrified faces we can smell death reeking off his clothes. “The fun can begin.”
“Wh—why?” Ethan croaks out. I crane my head to see the man and notice he’s the same authority figure who injected us with the drugs during evacuation.
“Why?” The man repeats, annoyed. “You two are my prodigies. Now that the infected are gone, we had to find newer stronger people to repopulate the Earth. Start a new life. Don’t worry about your friends and family, I hear the afterlife is wonderful.”
My stomach lurches and another few tears slip out. There was never a spaceship, never a Seroria. Never a new life that promised paradise. It was all just a set up to push me and Ethan together—to repopulate. It’s sickening. “Now, shall we begin?” The man hovers above our faces so we can have a full view of his vile grin.
Then everything goes dark.