Short story about a young bum who get's thrown into self
I remember being thirteen years old, wishing for the world to end.
I would sit in my room for hours, alone, fantasizing about the outbreak of a zombie apocalypse. I slouched in my chair behind the desk in school, sequestered away in the rearmost row of seats, blocking out the teacher’s unworldly palaver and the racket of the other kids while I gazed out the window and daydreamed of swift annihilating wars, of calamitous floods, fires or asteroid impacts. I pictured plagues and epidemics capable of erasing whole peoples within days. Of course, in each scenario, whether it was floods or zombies or plain old war, I envisioned myself as the improbable survivor, the lone wolf, the hard-necked persister that one-upped the weaklings and unprepared.
I guess most kids imagine such things every now and then. It’s human nature: the fascination of sickness and death, the passion for morbidity. The wish for being superior to others, for being brave. With me, though, those stories I concocted were never about my inner urge to be a hero or to prove myself. Plain and simple, I just wanted all those cocksuckers to die. The bullies that slapped me on the back of my head when I made my way through the hallway in school. My parents and teachers who did nothing but treat me as if I was some sort of pet, a dog that had to be taught how to behave in whatever ways its possessor deemed right, and not at all a human being with a personality and an own idea of what I wanted to do with my life. I think I must have been the most misanthropic kid ever. It wasn’t only that I was bullied and harassed and couldn’t live up to any expectation ever put on me. I couldn’t seem to fit in with the other weirdos, either. The card-collecting nerds with early onset of acne. The wonks. The computer geeks. Everything everyone else was doing seemed utterly stupid and meaningless to me. It didn’t help that I was apt to throw monstrous tantrums whenever something went some other way than mine, either. The nearest I ever came to the behavior of a normal, healthy child in the nineties’ America was reading my father’s sci-fi and adventure novels. Which, I guess, also inspired some of my own fantasies. Once, during the evening of a particular crappy day (read: report), I imagined an alien ship. It emerged from a black night’s sky while I was hiking through the forest. Not that I ever took forest walks for real; not at night and not during daytime either. But I liked to imagine myself as the most active, most zestful and profound individual ever during those reveries. Anyway, the ship was a dim light at first, another speck on the star-stippled canvas above. It moved, though. Very fast and very accurate it came towards me, the blurred light quickly swelling to a strange shape. A jagged rhombus, spiked with things that looked like needles. Huge and intimidating. Then I heard it. A faint and dull droning; a booming bass that was more to be felt than heard. For a while it hovered above me and I could see a hatch on the bottom, opening, revealing a glaring device incandescent with the purest white light. Admittedly, it was rather clichéd. But I was only thirteen after all, and, by all means, not the most creative of fantasts. The emitter shot down a tractor beam and I envisioned an alien general (or some other bigwig) being slowly lowered to the ground, landing on a clearing right in front of me. The beam went off and the creature came towards me, ungainly stalking on great insectile legs. He approached me decisively with an outstretched arm-like stick and, speaking perfectly fluent English, mumbled a greeting and announced to me that he and his friends were just about to wipe off humankind from planet earth. He elaborated that it was his kin who originally placed us humans here in sort of an experiment. Long story short, the experiment had failed, chiefly because mankind turned out to consist mainly of selfish assholes constantly craving for more possessions and giving not the slightest shit about their environment, even though they knew perfectly well where things were going. In the end, he asserted, all of the issues down here could be reduced to gluttony and blind ambition. His theory was that the initiator of the experiment must have initially failed to calculate the mixture for the correct DNA, leading to unforeseen results. He then claimed that I had been selected to remain unharmed for further breeding and experimentation purposes and, opening his hand, offered me to press the very button that would obliterate all human life on planet earth. The device looked rather boring. It was a big red button under a glass dome inside of a dull, silver casket. Pretty much like you would expect the president’s all-mighty button to launch the nukes to look like. He was still explaining the details of the deal — how long it would take and what exactly would happen and what would become of Earth afterwards — when I snatched the box, flung open the dome and punched that button like a motherfucker.
Maybe that’s something that most children go through, as well: the fantasy of how it would be if no one was left to go on their nerves, if they were the last human being on earth and could do whatever the hell they felt like.
The only difference is, I got my wish fulfilled.
I don’t know what happened. Some tremendously failed (or, perhaps, successful) terrorist attack? A suddenly evolved disease? The interference of God (or Aliens)? Beats me. All I know is that whatever it was that happened, it was quick, silent and utterly effective. And just as I don’t know what the fuck descended on us that night, I have not the slightest idea why I was spared.
I’ll give you a brief retrospection. I was twenty-three years old and my attitude towards humankind hadn’t changed. I was, to a certain degree at least, a functional member of society but I lived a life that was meaningless to me, in a place that bore no perspective. Having moved out of my parents’ place and reach as soon as I could land a job that allowed me to pay for a shitty apartment on the city’s outskirts, I had moved myself into an impasse. I was alone, stuck with a crappy job and could find no way out. My daily routine was vacuous. On most days I’d get up around eleven a.m., no matter which shift I’d do (the place where I worked opened at two, so I never had to do morning shift), fling some leftover pizza in the oven or some toast in the toaster — I even scrambled some eggs occasionally, when I felt extraordinary productive — and after that I slumped down on the couch to watch TV or play video games until I had only fifteen minutes left to get ready for work. When I got home I was so sapped, I either went straight to bed or picked up where I left off in the morning, unable and unwilling to do anything actually productive. Like looking for new job opportunities. Sure, I could have gotten up at six o’ clock at weekends, or Sundays at least, because I had to work most Saturdays. But I didn’t. The dull procedure of working six days a week, with nothing left of each day but some hours’ scraps to feed yourself and get some sleep left me depressed and lethargic. I slept as long as I could and when I finally rose from my tomb it was so late I could already feel Monday’s fetid, minacious breath on my face. Anyway, as things were I don’t consider it too surprising that it took me a full four hours to notice that something was weird. That peculiar morning, I got up unusually early — I think it must have been around eight — and I was two hours into playing some dumb shit on my PlayStation when I felt the urge to stop the virtual killing and watch some real news of real killings instead. The image was full snowstorm. I zapped around only to find that each and every channel was dead. After perhaps ten minutes of furious rage during which I pounded the remote control as if it was her fault, I pulled myself together and decided to call the cable company to ask them if it was their fault or mine. The phone line, though, was dead, too. I flipped my shit.
Since I had only some thirty minutes left before I had to head off for work I figured that I could just as well leave already and grab a beer beforehand, so I could calm down a little before dealing with hordes of morons for the next nine hours. I got ready, flung open the door, smashed it shut behind me, jumped down two flights of stairs and kicked the main door. The thing was defect and normally flew open widely at the faintest push, a good way of emphasizing your mood on days like this. But not this time. The door moved not an inch. I pushed and pressed, but the it didn’t budge. I strained at it like a madman and when there finally was a narrow gap I slipped through. A moment later I found myself gaping at an incredibly fat man who, blocking the door, lay face down on the ground right before me, stiff and bulky and revolting. His arm was raised over his head awkwardly. For a moment I thought he was a drunkard who had passed out and I looked around to see why no one else had noticed him. And that was when I arrived in the new world.
The bodies lay scattered everywhere. A young woman lay across from me, a thin rivulet of blood running from her head where it had hit the curb. Her arm was wedged in the handle of a buggy that had collapsed next to her, causing the infant inside to fall out and land on the street with its chubby limbs grossly twisted. A car had crashed into a house down at the further end of the street. Thick white smoke rose from the crumbled hood and a blonde woman lay there with her nose on the street and her legs still in the car. The motor still running. Very faint and distant, I could make out howling sirens but other than that, it was uncannily silent. I remember thinking a strange thought: I was late for the Apocalypse.
That was four years ago. Roughly. I have ditched time measuring instruments to a pretty great extent. Sometimes I try to figure out what month it is but I’m never too sure about my calculations. I suppose I could get one of those everlasting wristwatches that display the date and air pressure and God knows what for years to come. But then again, I mostly don’t give a fuck. What is time, anyway? What was so important about it that every moron needed to have a clock that counted down every single minute of his day, his whole life, and the freaking seconds, too? I think I will try to keep tracks of the seasons, so that when I grow old and feel as if I’m going to die soon, I will know how many years I did. That’s just something I think I’d want to know. I’m not even sure why. Maybe it’s the gamer in me, looking for a highscore.
Talking about time: The first great shock, if you would like to call it that, lasted for about three days. I am not absolutely certain, but I can’t remember having slept in these days. I was in some sort of maniacal trance. I went inside almost every building, first in my street, then throughout the district, kicking in doors and smashing windows, checking for anyone alive, a lonely geriatric, a four-hundred-pound-guy who hadn’t left his hole in years, for anyone who was still unheedingly sitting in his apartment, just as I had. At first that is. At some point I rather began to make sure that they were all truly dead. Some sat in chairs, eyes opened, and I yelled at them and poked them until they fell over and thumped down on the floor like a bag of rice. I remember going home three or four times to try the phone. Don’t ask me why, but it didn’t occur to me for three days that I could basically use any damn phone in the city. Anyway, I went home and tried to phone some of my workmates. I tried to phone my aunt who lived at the far end of the country. In the end, I even tried to phone my mother. But the line remained dead. I tried to get some radio signal, hoping for a bit of news, for signs of life from other people who had survived somewhere else, no matter where. But, small surprise, the radio didn’t give so much as a poop. I was alone.
I didn’t eat. The necessity of adequate and sufficient dietary intake simply didn’t occur to me over the franticness of those first hours. Looking back, I’d say that it was sheer hunger that woke me up from my hazy, half-conscious state. On the fourth day, after I woke in a furniture store on a couch where I had apparently passed out, I was ravenous. Next thing I knew, I was inside some convenience store and dined on canned fish, potato chips and tepid coke. It was only then, hovering in front of a mute and dark cooling shelf, that I realized that all the electricity was out. No subtle music playing from the store’s speakers. No TV’s running in the shop windows. The traffic lights were gone. I sat on the ground of that store just a spit away from an old lady who lay sprawled on a pile of spilled dog food and stared at that lukewarm coke in my hand, thinking Fuck, I’ll never drink a cold beer again. It didn’t come to me then that planet earth would still happily keep on spinning now that presumably all — sorry, nearly all — human life on it had gone extinct, that the world would keep on traversing through the seasons, and that all I had to do in order to get a cold beer, was wait for roughly six months, then walk into a random store and just pluck a can from its shelf, where it stood exposed to the cold like everything else that didn’t get any artificial AC anymore.
If it had been someone else and not me that survived, I guess about the first thing that person would have done was either shoot himself or crank up some sort of generator and a big-ass freezer (or a hundred of them) so they could keep the fresh stuff from spoiling. To me, however, that thought never occurred until the corpses started to stink really bad. The city I’d lived in had been home to about three-hundred-fifty thousand people. Three-hundred-fifty thousand rotting asses, strewn around everywhere. Try and picture that. It ain’t a nice thing to experience, I tell you. It was summer, you know, Outbreak Day was the sixth of June, so the smell had started up pretty quick. On the evening of the second day a nauseating stink of feces clung to the air, a rank mélange of piss and shit caused by the loosening of sphincters. This was bad, real bad, but still nothing compared to the tremendous stench of putrefaction that hung above the city on the fifth day. It was then, when I thought about moving out of the city in order to avoid suffocating or dying from some sort of infection, when I realized that I’d missed my chance to preserve tons and tons of fresh food: meat and vegetables and fish and everything else that would be hard to come by now that nobody seemed to be left who could have tended the fields or fed the cattle and slaughtered the myriads of animals that had been allowed to reproduce on farms and breeding stations for the sole purpose of being served to humans. The animals, by the way, shared my fate: There were birds in the sky, dogs running aimlessly around the city prospecting for food, some with their leashes still on, others scared and apathetic cowering next to their dead owners. And flies. Hell, what a lot of flies there were.
During my twenty-three years of living in a big city, not once I had gotten behind a car’s steering wheel. Chronically broke, I never even thought about getting a license and I think you won’t be too surprised when I tell you that I didn’t possess of a close friend with a car who let me practice my driving skills on ill-lit parking lots. But what the fuck. I scoured the streets for the biggest, toughest-looking monster of a SUV with its owner still inside so I wouldn’t have to hot-wire the thing, because that I would never have managed. I found a hulking Chevrolet the size of a small elephant parked on a shady lot behind some hardware store, which was a good thing, because the man that lay slumped across the front seat had largely escaped the intense mid-day heat of the past days and therefore was still in a condition that allowed me to grab him by his boots and drag him out. I’d rather not talk about the sound his head made when it thumped down on the blacktop, or the way his flesh gave when I padded him down for his keys. Let’s just say I was glad that the idea of getting a car occurred to me on the fifth day, and not the fiftieth.
Boy, I tell you, I’m not a talented driver. When I felt confident enough to not kill myself after roughly three hours of practicing, the car had lost most of its original grace and integrity, but it was still drivable. I had some minor bruises and was pretty exhausted from both the fear of crashing full speed ahead into a wall and the exhilaration of maneuvering a four-hundred horsepower (my personal guess) titan through the streets as if I was the stuntman in some high-budget action movie. Behind me lay chaos and probably hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage. I laughed and drove off to the mall to stock up my provisions.
On my way out of town I found myself confronted with two problems: first, I didn’t have a clue where the hell I should go. Sure, I could’ve rooted through every goddamn city in the country looking for other survivors. Thing was, I figured that if I started on that, I’d be doing it for the rest of my life, so I rather didn’t even try. Second, the damn road was congested with all sorts of vehicles whose drivers croaked in the midst of driving. Some of the cars had simply come to a soft halt and now sat askew in the middle of the road, easy to dodge, but most of them had caused what you’d probably expect when highway traffic in full flight was freed of human control within what couldn’t had been more than a handful of seconds. There were no parked cars on the road, no corpses off the cars except where the crash had sent them flying through the windshield. Whatever hit us, it didn’t leave time for any reaction. I came past countless pile-ups of smashed cars that blocked the entire width of the street. Smoking wrecks embellished the roadside ditches and guardrails, some still burning even. It was total mayhem. In fact, the look of all this reminded me much of the dead in the streets and markets: The sober orderliness of daily human life gone in the blink of an eye. For a while I tried to push the wrecks out of way or turned round and tried another part of the highway. In the end, though, I gave in and decided that it would be easier if I stuck to country roads where fewer cars had been travelling.
At some point I came by a huge, fancy looking hotel with a scaffolded façade and an empty parking lot. Some construction site vehicles stood in front of the building but other than that, the place looked fairly deserted. Appealing, somehow. I decided to have a look and swung in.
Long story short the whole damn gigantic thing was apparently due to get repainted and almost totally empty. No dead asses rotting in the beds, no stinking corpses in the lobby, and, most important, not a single dead fucker spoiling the extraordinarily outfitted hotel bar. I could smell the now familiar sweet odor of decay that seeped through doors labeled “Manager” and “Staff” when I crossed the entrance area, but that was about it. It was a problem, but not as big one as it could have been. The workmen — seven in total — had the grace to perish outside.
It took me about five minutes to come to the conclusion that it wasn’t going to get any better than this. A whole high-class hotel with more than two-hundred rooms, five of which were flashy suites. The said bar that was well equipped with more booze than I could drink up in a lifetime. The biggest fucking kitchen you ever saw, featuring a battery of gas stoves fed by a five-thousand-gallon tank (I got the numbers from the places’ documents) and therefore good to go for the next couple of years without electricity. The whole place clean and tidy except for the three staff members spoiling the atmosphere near the lobby, who had apparently held some sort of meeting concerning the paintjob. All completely at my disposal. I disposed of the dead fuckers inside and outside, burying them on a nearby public green space and then I moved in.
Six months later the place looked as if a horde of hooligans on a binge had raided it after their club had been beaten by the nemesis team. Within a half year I had managed to render the upper floor uninhabitable. This was where the suites were located and I had worked my way through three of them before the stench got so bad, it forced me down to the next floor. How? Well, you know, the elevator wasn’t working and while in the first weeks I had brought myself to haul the trash bags out of the window every few days, I also had pretty quickly abandoned the usage of bags to collect my trash — and believe me, you get a lot of that if you primarily sustain on canned food and freeze-dried stuff. Dishes? Hell, I had an estimated two thousand plates available. Why scrub one? The fact that I was guardian over the hotel’s repertoire of wine, spirits and beer, didn’t exactly improve the situation either. I was bored. There were no workmates and bosses anymore to whom I’d have to apologize for being whacked, so I was whacked pretty much all the time. Fuck the beer not being cold, it went down nevertheless. All responsibilities gone, I slept until I had to get up because my back ached.
I bet you’re curious what I did in terms of ensuring that I would be able to survive the forthcoming decades of self-responsibility. The short answer is bupkis. The long answer is I didn’t lay out a garden to get myself some fresh vegetables in addition to the tinned greenstuff. I didn’t grab a shotgun and learned how to hunt down my own meat in the woods. I thought about setting up a beacon or writing a message on top of the hotel, just in case the thing that carried everyone off had been limited to the American continent and someone came by looking for survivors. But then I remembered that I had spent hours and hours searching for radio signals with a battery-run world receiver, getting nothing but static noise, and I decided that it wouldn’t be worth the effort. What I did was raiding the stores around for laptops and tablets with charged batteries so I could watch porn and TV shows. I started to smoke.
I’m not looking for excuses here, I was a filthy swine and a bum and about the last human being that should have survived this shit, but I reckon that to a great extent I could attribute my drinking and recklessness to the colossal truth that only slowly dawned on me. During the first few days, when I discovered all the bodies and was confronted with the sudden chaos and the question of what the bloody hell had happened and what I was supposed to do now, the whole thing was pretty unreal and incredible. I freaked out a little, but not as much as I would have someone else to. I figure I just skipped the whole oh-my-fucking-god-everyone-is-dead-and-there-is-even-fewer-to-live-for-than-before-part. Then, when finally I had time on hand to take in what had happened and where it left me, I just couldn’t cope with it and hit the sauce. Brainless and in a stupor, I was not the last living man on earth but rather the only undead in some failed zombie apocalypse.
It went on like that for what I reckon were about twelve months. About six months after Extinction Day I started doing trips to the cities around. The worst part of the decomposition of the bazillion corpses was over by then, and even though it wasn’t pleasant to step past all those shriveled bastards with their leathery limbs and flabs of skin, it wasn’t half as bad as having to walk through that stink of the first days, when all you could see was flies and more flies crawling in and out of the orifices until every body was nothing but a swirling mass of maggots and insects. Those city trips were intense. Something I’d never really thought about when I contrived my own stories of human ruination, was the animals. As soon as we were gone, they came back. Large birds of prey stood sentinel on the highest buildings, elevated and untouchable. After the insects, I think the birds were about the first ones to invade the human domains. Some of the dead bodies that lay outside were eaten to the bone. But after six months of silence and tranquility, a whole lot of other members of the animal kingdom had found their way to the urban remains of my race, that now were due to get reconquered by nature. Cats and dogs were there, of course. But I saw raccoons, too. A group of small ape-like creatures, lemurs I think it was, that must somehow have managed to escape from the city zoo. A fox once. I didn’t come to the city to study animals, though. I came to fuck around and smash shit up. Once, I gulped down two bottles of red wine from the 1970’s I found in the hotel, then took off my clothes and climbed into my SUV and drove to the city. Then I was standing in a Best Buy, wearing nothing but a respirator (the motherfuckers that had checked out whilst shopping took a lot longer to rot) and a baseball bat in my hand. I battered the TVs, knocked over the shelves, and puked over a dead man when I tried to top off the wine with a beer. Why did I do any of this? I said it before, I was a shithead and I was bored.
I think to a certain degree I even enjoyed this phase. I mean, it wasn’t as if I was partying all day, acting as if nothing was wrong. It wasn’t like I imagined it in my stories, it wasn’t all love, peace and harmony. Even me, probably the most introverted loner ever born, wasn’t callous enough to not get affected by the sudden death of everyone. I missed the evenings at my favorite bar, where I sat for hours, drinking away what little money I had left to spend, watching the girls (and the douchebags that picked them up), I missed riding the bus through town on my way to work, feeling like a part of the bustle. On some days I was pretty down. If life seemed pointless to me when I was actually part of a community, no matter how deprived that community might have been, it seemed all the more futile to me now that I was alone and didn’t even have shit to do in order to eat. What was there to live for when here wasn’t going to be any new art? No more music, no books or movies, no one left that who capable of expressing my weltschmerz for me. I thought of bringing an end to it pretty often. But that was on bad days. On good days I felt like the king of the world, like the only man that had ever felt true and unalloyed freedom. Those were the days when I got buzzed and screwed around.
But then, one day in the second year, when it was late summer and the days grew shorter by degrees, something in me changed. I’m not sure what caused it. I guess sooner or later you grow up even if there are no people around to help you with it. Anyway, I was sitting in room 325, the fifteenth room I inhabited, and I was positively vexed about the fact that I couldn’t seem to find a single episode of Two and A Half Men that I hadn’t already seen. For some reason this made me so angry, I took up the laptop and smashed it down on the floor where it shattered into a dozen pieces. I looked around to where the shards had flown. The place was a mess. There were discharged electronic devices scattered everywhere. Crusty, yellowish tissues strewn around. Dishes, cans and empty bottles. Multiple pieces of furniture had not survived my urge to smash them when I’d been drunk and high on some pills from the pharmacy. I looked up and could see the vermin move among the piles of dirty plates and trash in the kitchen. Writhing heaps of maggots feasted on my leftover ravioli, cockroaches as thick as my thumb collected crumbs on the floor and a bazillion flies were swarming about, prospecting for new places to oviposit. Looking back, I think it was that moment, that disastrous image, that kicked me off.
I darted off to the nearest storeroom and snatched a gallon jug of rubbing alcohol and some cleaning rags. I soaked the pieces of cloth and the rug of my room in it, sloshed some of it over the filthy kitchen unit and poured the rest onto the wooden desk. Then I set the bunch of crap on fire and left. Looking back, I have to admit it wasn’t really the most reasonable thing to do. But on the other hand, whatever. It’s been a pretty great view. The damn hotel burned for days.
After that, a new life began for me. Slowly, but surely I dropped my bad habits. I strictly separated living (I had moved into another hotel, but this time it was a modest duplex room instead of a decadent suite) from eating. I still didn’t separate my waste and I didn’t do the dishes either, but I actually bagged them along with the leftovers and brought them to my own personal landfill which essentially was a big-ass hole I’d dug on some construction site by figuring out how to use an excavator. It’s real fun, by the way. I mostly gave up on drinking. I didn’t waste any more time watching those dumb series I used to devote my day to. Instead, I remembered how I loved reading as a child and started visiting the nearest city’s library — which had serendipitously been closed on Extinction Day and therefore was free from corpses — on a daily basis. I took some books on home improvement, made a trip to the DIY center and started building chairs, tables and all sorts of shelves. Not that I was in urgent need of furniture. It just gave me a cozy feeling of accomplishment when I finished something handmade. But that was only the beginning. I hadn’t tried myself on craftsmanship ever before; I always was of the opinion that I was all thumbs. But I soon came to the realization that with the help of some books, even I was capable of producing some decent stuff. Craftsmanship wasn’t the only field in which I had become good. I had become a pretty decent driver, too. So what I did was appropriate a big, modern Volkswagen bus which I fitted out with all sorts of gadgets and appliances. I was amazed by my progress and became enthusiastic. Six months after I had burned down the Hotel, I decided to try something else and, remembering my physics lessons, read about electric circuits, batteries and voltage so I could produce some electricity after all. When I wasn’t working, I read for fun. In school I had always hated history, but now I found myself immersed in books about the Greeks and essays on medieval European history.
I was hungry for knowledge.
But I also still missed my fellow humans.
In the early spring two years after the obliteration of mankind — and about six months after what I referred to as my Renaissance — I felt awfully lonely. I had read so much about our achievements as a race that I ultimately began to regret my earlier life decisions. I never knew what to do with this life, there was always the certainty that no matter what I’d do, there would always be someone who would do it better. It all seemed meaningless. There was an abundance of everything. The world didn’t need me. Or no, humankind didn’t need me. To the world, I had been a plaque. I didn’t want to contribute to this abundancy. But now everything was different. I wanted to find another survivor — just one! Just one other person, to talk to about what I learned. To live with.
I had built myself a radio transmitter. After weeks of broadcasting a recorded message that revealed my whereabouts and intentions my patience finally snapped. I stocked up on provisions, reading material, and charged laptops for music and some series every once in a while. Then I started my „Search for Life“ trip. I travelled nearly four thousand miles in a single week. I provided myself with a map — all-encompassing, listing each and every hick town, each ever so insignificant rural road — and began checking off places I’d been to. I adopted a daily routine of reading, driving and working. Once a week I looted a market for supplies. I slept in the car or under the open sky when the weather allowed it. I drove through each and every dullsville, no matter how small, honking and tooting and making a fuss in the expectation that another human being — a female preferably, I admit that — might dart out of a house and we would happily live ever after. No one ever came. I took the time and built a portable version of my radio unit that could be connected to the car battery. While I drove across the country, I constantly aired my recorded message. No one ever answered.
In my old life, I’d never been much for travelling. Even if I would have had the money, I rather invested in booze, electronics and food. But after two years of driving all across the continent, I had seen the coast of Florida and the Grand Canyon, I had visited New York and Washington. I didn’t meet a single human that was alive. I had given up. But I didn’t refrain from my helter-skelter lifestyle. I was so accustomed to driving from place to place I just kept floating around even after I had abandoned all hope. I still acquired skills in a variety of fields by means of autodidacticism. Whenever a big library happened on my way I took my time and restocked my book provisions. The car was equipped with a neat stereo and sometimes I would just drive and listen to the old hits of my adolescence. It could have been a prime life. Sometimes it was, I guess. Only thing was, I felt as if I was slowly losing my mind after years of not speaking to anyone. More and more often I caught me talking to myself. The nights were the worst. Even after great days full of accomplishment it was really hard to fall asleep in the mute confinement of the motorhome. I cried. A lot. For the first time in my life I knew what it felt like to be curious, to evolve. During my roadtrip I had imagined how I could be the one who fixed things when all seemed lost. How we could have a second chance as a species, now that the rat race was over and everyone could focus on the important things. And yet it was all in vain, because there was no one around to start Utopia with.
The incident took place in a midsize town in Wisconsin, about four months ago. I was slowly driving along the main road, prospecting for some grocery store or supermarket so I could grab some cans, a bag of rice and maybe some tomato paste. After about an hour, when I was already preparing to leave and try another place, I came past a lot with a row of garages enclosed by a crude fence. Each gate stood open and inside I could see at least seven or eight healthy-looking cows, two of which were eating grass from a trough. At the far end of the lot was a construct that looked like a shabby chicken coop. It was a strange view; I can’t tell why I didn’t stop. I think after all I didn’t quite realize what I saw. Before I had time to do so, I was around the next bend and saw the supermarket. It lay at the end of the road, just before a roundabout. A small parking lot in front of the market was occupied by some cars. It was late, the sun had already set and dim twilight shrouded the scene, giving it a murky, eerie look. A light shone from the building, yellowish and cozy and looking pretty much man-made. Remember the way your stomach dropped as a child when you’ve been home alone and your parents are back sooner than you thought? That’s how I felt in that moment. I pulled over and got out of the car. Slowly and very tentatively I approached the building. I was halfway to the entrance when a middle-aged woman in a black fur-lined parka emerged from the building, holding a shopping basket filled to the rim with what looked like groceries. I froze. I’m pretty sure my heart stopped beating for some moments. The woman didn’t notice me, she just got into her car, turned on the engine and drove off. I realized that I hadn’t encountered a single car blocking the road while I drove through the town, nor had I seen the odd skeleton lying on the road side. And the vegetation. After four years, earth had made pretty good progress in renaturalizing the concrete eyesores with which humankind had plagued her. Everywhere I went the blacktop was split and cracked by plants, mostly grass, clearing space for themselves. Buildings were covered with moss and creepers. Not to speak of the front yards and meadows I came by. They were exploding with lushness now that nobody came and mowed them down every other week. This town, however, was different. There was the odd crumbling façade, some yards gone wild, but all in all, it looked pretty orderly. It looked like humans.
When I felt able to move after a while, I walked over to the market and glanced inside. In front of the entrance there was a sign, reading “Fresh corn” and “Firewood”. The shop was brightly lit. Inside, I saw a cashier serving a customer. Through the open door I could hear the cash register beep incessantly as she ran the various items past the scanner. I could see packaged meat, sweet peppers and two cans of beer that looked dank and cold. Beyond the checkout, I saw a man and two elderly women walking along the aisles, grabbing items from the generously filled shelves and tossing them into their shopping carts. There was a handwritten advertising panel announcing a discount on various sodas hanging on a window. It displayed a date that by all means could have been correct. Subtle radio music was playing. I stepped inside.
The cashier looked up briefly, giving me a strange look, as if she was trying to remember my face but couldn’t. It was a fairly small market and as soon as I had left the produce section, with its range of fresh lettuces, tomatoes and other vegetables, even some mangos, I could oversee the rest of the building. There were three more customers: a young couple about my age and a snobbish smoothie in a suit. I gaped at him. When he noticed, he gave me an angry, condescending look before he turned his attention back to the display of wines and liquors. He took out a bottle of Chivas Regal and eyed it suspiciously before he put it in his shopping cart. From the corner of my eye, I saw the young man pointing at me. He whispered something to his girlfriend who turned her head. Then they sniggered. It was only then that I thought about how I must have looked. During my two-year road trip, things like shaving and personal hygiene had to be reduced to an absolute minimum. My clothes were worn and tattered and filthy. I guess I gave a pretty haggard impression.
I lurched on, incredulous, dumbstruck. I saw price tags on the shelves, old and yellowing, with the dollar symbol crossed out and replaced by another token. Walking past the two old ladies I overheard them chattering about a Mr. Thomson who still hadn’t managed to get rid of a couple of corpses inside the gas station. One announced that he would probably never manage to start a decent business. They reeked of cheap perfume and were desperately trying to hide their creases under masses of makeup. Suddenly there was the twittering of birds from around the corner. I followed the noise and came upon a shelf loaded with bird cages; each cage occupied by two canaries. It was a special offer as I could see on the sign attached to the shelf. The purchase of a cage included a free bag of birdseed and a plastic water trough.
I hadn’t talked to another human being in more than four years. Uncounted times I had imagined how it would be if I ever saw another person again. Just as I had imagined the Great Calamity as a young boy over and over again, I pictured this scenario in all its infinite permutations to keep myself sane. For hours at a time, I rehearsed what I would say. What they would say. What it came down to, now that I was standing in this town supermarket where at least nine living persons had decided to just keep up with the shit that had gone on forever since this weird, idiotic race had spawned upon planet earth, was a proclamation of everything I deemed wrong with those people. Or people in general.
“You gotta be fucking kidding me!” I yelled, pointing at the caged bird even as it plucked a feather from its body.
The cashier stared at me. The young couple who was about to pay for their goods, too. The man had his billfold in one hand, a stack of what looked like leaves from some strange tree in the other. I noticed that the leaves shape matched the symbol on the price tags. My best guess is that they had founded some sort of bank where they grew a rare sort of tree, to make sure you couldn’t produce your own money.
“Are you serious?” I asked no one in particular.
It was the girl that had giggled who answered me. “About what?” she asked, a look of genuine puzzlement on her face.
I couldn’t believe them. I turned around, snatching a random item from the shelf behind me. “About this,” I said. “I mean, all of this. You are… free. What the fuck are you doing here?” And with that, I hurled the thing in my hand through the market. The cashier looked anxious. The man who had been shopping for liquor came around the bend, looking exasperated and aggressive. “What’s up with that commotion?” he asked.
“Sir, I think you’ll have to go,” said the girl behind the cash register. “That or I will have to call for the manager.”
The motherfucking manager. That topped it off. I screamed and left the supermarket. I got into my car and started the engine, then killed it off again and got out. I grabbed the radio unit from the car’s roof and hurled it on the ground. When I got back in the car I saw the map lying on the passenger seat, the one I’d used to mark the places I’d been to. I flung it out of the window. Then I made a U-Turn and headed back on the road I had been coming from. James Hetfield blared Wherever I May Roam out of the speakers.