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Science Fiction

The World was Wide Enough

 

           “I should have killed you when I had the chance!” I shouted thrashing violently, trying without success to free myself from the net I was tangled in. He just regarded me with eyes as cold as steel, his face half covered in a faded blue scarf betrayed no emotion.

“There is no room for should here.” His voice was muffled, but I could see the fire dance in his eyes. “You second guess yourself and you die.”

Great advice genius. I had not survived the last three years by being stupid. I hadn’t seen anyone else in a long time, I guess I just got sloppy. I mean how was a girl to resist a full case of bottled water in the middle of a summer afternoon? The trap was obvious now. I had seen this guy sneaking around last week, just a glimpse. I had, had him in my rifle sights, but he’d ducked behind a column and I had begun to imagine that my brain had made the whole thing up.

“Are you going to let me down?” I tried next and the man just raised his eyebrows at me.

“Are you going to try to kill me?”

I glanced towards my pack where my rifle was propped up on the side. He saw me looking. “No.” I said and he just shook his head.

“Okay look-it I’m not interested in hurting you, but you are the first person I have come across in three years. I’ll assume it is the same for you. I’ve been looking for a cause, maybe there is a way to reverse it. Do you know anything useful?” He used the slow, patronizing voice my teachers used to use when they were explaining something they thought was so simple, but might as well been Greek to the rest of us.

“Useful.” I repeated the word, running my tounge along the bottom of my teeth. All I knew was that one day everyone vanished. It had been 8am right in the middle of second period. There was this buzzing noise, so loud that I thought my head was going to explode and then a moment of blackness.

When the light came back everyone was gone and I mean just gone. Like pencils rolled off desks and hit the floor, the teacher’s computer was still humming on her desk. It was like everyone had gotten up to leave and forgotten everything. I remembered thinking that it had to be some joke, like I had fallen asleep and everyone had left to play a prank on me.

They hadn’t come back and after three house the lights started to go out.

I shook my head to clear it, “All I know is that everyone is gone. There was the buzzing and the darkness and then they were gone.”

The man nodded like this was the answer he’d expected. “Do you live around here?”

I looked up to where the top of the net was caught up on a streetlamp. The bulb was broken. I shrugged.

The man sighed, “How old are you?”

“How old are you?” I countered baring my teeth. The man rolled his eyes.

“Thirty-eight, last time I checked.”

“I’m sixteen.” I told him. His face remained expressionless. I waited for him to tell me I was too young or that I didn’t know anything. I dared him with my jutted chin.

“Okay.” Was all he said.

He took out a knife and for a moment I cowered back. He cut the net and I tumbled to the ground. He helped untangle me and I sprang up, ready to run. I glanced to my bag, it was behind him, but I could skirt him and grab it without getting caught. I was fast…I had to be fast.

The man held up his hands as if he could read my intentions. “I’m not going to hurt you, you don’t have to be afraid.”

Afraid.

I’d run through the school that first day. Searching and calling. I would have even taken Candy Martin and she was a real piece of work. I remembered how she had always had gum in her mouth and then she would pop it between her teeth loudly. If you weren’t carful it would end up in your hair.

It took me an hour to get home. Cars had driven themselves off the road, still running, empty and forlorn. Mom always met me at the door. She always did. We had the same stupid conversation every day.

“How was your day honey?”

“It was fine?”

“Did you learn anything interesting?”

“How about the fact that everyone in the world just disappeared?”

She wasn’t there.

“How do I know that?” I snapped taking a step to the side. “How do I know that you won’t hurt me? How do I know it isn’t another trap?”

He winced, “I’m sorry about that, but I needed to know if you were real.”

That gave me pause. Real? Of course I was real, this whole damned world was so real that everything out here would cut you to pieces given the chance. There were packs of dogs that roamed the streets, collars still glinting in moonlight. They weren’t friends anymore.

I barked a small laugh and the man took a step back, “Doesn’t get more real than me.”

The pity came then, his eyes brimmed with it. I didn’t want it. I took another step to the side.

“What are you going to do if you run away? Don’t you want to talk to someone?”

I paused, I could hear the desperation in his voice. The aching loneliness. I knew it well, I felt it too. I ran my tounge over my lips as I made a decision.

“Alright fine we’ll talk, but not here.” I looked up to the sky and saw that it was starting to darken. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up and rubbed it down impatiently.

I came sidelong to my bag, the man didn’t stop me as I slung it over my shoulder and picked up my rifle. “Follow me.” I told him and then set off down the street not checking to see if he followed or not.

I pulled the brick from the emergency exit door and ushered the man inside before closing the door after me and flipping the lock closed with a click. I turned on a lantern and stepped forward into the rows of slightly dusty men’s clothes.

“You live at a Walmart?”

“Yeah…no sense in carting it someone else.”

“I suppose.” The man surveyed the empty refrigerators as we walked deeper into the store. I came to the can food aisle and picked up a can of peaches. There were not many of those left.

“Take something.” I told him indicating the canned food. He just looked at me for a moment before he picked up a jar of pares.

I brought him to the center of the store where I had a mattress surrounded by a couple of those folding tables and camping supplies. I set my pack down and plopped down onto the bed.

“You set all this up yourself?” The man asked.

“There is no one else.” I took a can opener to my peaches and plucked out one. I put it in my mouth and sucked the juice off my fingers.

“Yes, I know.” The man set down his pares and carefully lowered himself into an armchair I’d dragged over from the furniture section. “What’s your name?”

My name…no one had asked me that in a long time, “Heather…Heather Joy McKinley.” It felt good to say it out loud, to remember.

The man removed his scarf and offered me a smile as he finally opened his pares. “I’m James, but everyone calls me Jim…or I guess they used too anyway.”

I didn’t respond.

We lapsed into uncomfortable silence, broken only by the slurping of fruit.

“I used to be a scientist.” Jim said suddenly when the tension reached a crescendo, “I thought I was the only person left on Earth, but there are others.”

I stiffened and glanced around as if an army was going to break in at any moment. “Others?” I questioned, “Did you trap them too?”

Jim shook his head, his eyes had a faraway look, “No. I haven’t actually met them, but I’ve heard stories. There are regions out there where the power is still on, hydropower can run for years without anyone watching it. There is someone out there who calls himself Noah. He has been broadcasting over radio towers, sometimes I pick it up when I pass through a town with the lights on or a car that hasn’t run out of gas.”

“Is that where you’re going?” I asked in a small voice and Jim refocused on me.

“Maybe it’s a pipedream. Noah says that he is trying to create a community. That is anyone is out there listening they are welcome to join.”

I glanced up to the skylights and saw that the sun had completely sunk and night had fallen. My eyes darted to my rifle by the edge of my bed. “It isn’t safe to go out after dark. There are dogs and other things out there.”

Jim’s expression darkened in the lantern light. “I know.” he put his pares down and for a moment the both of us studied the empty can.

“You could come with me?” He suddenly suggested and I struggled to hide my flinch.

Leave here? Where I was safe as long as I followed the rules: don’t go out after dark, don’t be stupid, and don’t assume anything is safe. This was my home, I grew up in this town. I knew it.

Out there I didn’t know anything.

I’d thought about it, a couple of times I had stood at the town line and stared down the road riddled with derelict cars. I’d thought about running and running, but what was the point? I was alone, so alone.

I looked back up at Jim.

His face was a mask, his eyes guarded.

He was alone too.

“I’ll think about it.” I told him finally setting down my own can. “You can sleep here if you want, there is plenty of other furniture a few aisles over. I waved out my hand and Jim took the hint. He stood up with a nod and walked off into the shadow.

A feeling of unease washed over me.

My mom used to say that the only thing that keeps us human is other humans. The only reason we behaved was because others were always watching, always judging. I bit my lip to keep it from quivering as I climbed under my blankets and tucked them to my chin.

A howl split the air around me and I pressed my pillow to my ears. The dogs always ran by, always loud like they didn’t care if anything heard them. They were the biggest predator on the block now, they did not need to be afraid.

It had been a long time since I had admitted it to myself.

I was afraid.

Morning light broke lazily over the aisles of dusty merchandise and illuminated my little world. Jim and I each had another can for breakfast in silence. I knew he was itching to leave, I could feel the restlessness in my own bones. I didn’t need to leave the Walmart, but almost every day I found myself outside walking the streets and endlessly searching.

For what I wasn’t sure anymore.

“You don’t even know of this guy is real.” I said at last and Jim sighed.

“No,” he admitted, “but if it is true and there are others out there it would be worth it to find them. Maybe there is something about us that explains why we’re still here. Maybe together we can bring everyone else back.”

“The world was wide enough…” I muttered and Jim started.

“Excuse me?”

“Just something my mother used to say…it’s like the world has room for everyone, no one is more important than anyone else.” I snorted through my nose as I said it. It was stupid anyhow. The world obviously hadn’t thought so, hence the fact that I was here and Mom wasn’t. I shook my head. “I don’t know if people can come back. I don’t know what should happen, but uh…maybe you’re right. Maybe we should at least try?”

Jim smiled. “The world is still wide enough.”                        

                   

 

April 29, 2020 22:26

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1 comment

Len Mooring
00:21 May 07, 2020

Brilliant! I'm jealous. Wonderful insight into how a thirteen-year-old girl, now sixteen, would look at the world from her human arrested development. You told the story so well, you are a natural. Perhaps you are already famous and just 'slumming' down here with us mere mortals. I must have a look at some of your other stories.

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