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by Philip B. Young
There is nothing quite like the sound of driving in the rain. I find it so comforting when I'm on a long stretch of highway late at night. I never used to. I used to hate driving in the rain, especially at night. I remember how scared I would be as the big rigs would come flying by me at unnerving speeds; splashing water all over the sides of my car and making it impossible to see out of my front windshield. The force of their wind as they passed would reduce me to a state of panic as I would find myself swerving from one lane to another, trying to keep control. It was especially bad after I had a few drinks. Who am I kidding, I never had just a few drinks; for a long time I couldn't tell you the last time I had driven sober. Thankfully, that's all in the past. The last drink I had was on May 18, 2024. I will never forget that day, though I have no clear memories of what happened. After all, the world ended that day.
When I try my hardest to remember that night, the most I get are impressions. Flashing blue and red lights in a streaked mirror, the sounds of metal slowly tearing, someone screaming--or is it a siren? A man (a police officer?) saying to someone, "... a level of 2.88 ..." and "don't give him the pill, he deserves to suffer." A clanging sound like a metal door being slammed shut; an intense silence that ends in darkness.
Where do I begin; how do I begin to tell you about the end of
everything; I mean the absolute end of everything and everyone? It's been almost four months and it's still too much to bear. I have to talk; I have to tell you what happened--whoever you are, or whatever. We, the world that is, who knows what the government knew and when? Anyway, we first learned of the virus about 13 months ago. When you think about it, in a way it's ironic. It takes nine months to bring life into being and it took nine months to end life. But I digress.
* * *
When they first arrived at comet Edwards-Lufke 6, they were so upbeat. Here it is, the very first time mankind landed on a comet, live worldwide television, everyone watching. Just think, in only nine months the Earth would be passing through the comet's tail. Who would have thought anyone would live to see such an amazing thing? Remote cameras on the outside of the spacecraft showed the airlock door slowly opening. They showed Captain John Edwards coming down the ladder and planting the United Nations flag, claiming the comet for the people of planet earth; six minutes later, all nine astronauts in and out of the spacecraft were dead. It took another eighteen minutes until they were reduced to their skeletons. Four days later their spacesuits held nothing but dust.
The world was, if that were possible, dumbfounded. The twelve friends who were at my home watching the telecast with me, and countless other families who had their own comet-watching parties that night, sat in shocked disbelief as they all started to fall and scream until only silence remained. Radio silence from the comet and silence in my living room. The three to four seconds of shock at what we saw were followed by screams of panic that were repeated around the whole world.
It took three more follow-up missions and eighteen more dead astronauts until, on the evening of October 4th, all telnet programming was interrupted throughout the entire planet. A distinguished panel of experts sat on a podium behind World President Garcia as she pronounced our death sentence. Scientists had discovered that the comet was the source of a virus that was spread from its surface throughout its million-mile-long tail. This virus caused near instant death to humans and animals. It ate through plastics and rubber and was airborne, able to exist in extreme cold and searing heat. It devoured all flesh and bones, leaving only dust. There was no building to hide in, no suit to wear, no place to escape from it. On the night of May 18 at 9:52 p.m. Eastern Standard time, the first of this virus would reach Earth's surface as we passed through the comet's tail. It was estimated that it would take maybe six hours at most for the whole planet to be infected and for all life as we knew it to cease. Within a week, earth would have only plants and buildings. There was nothing anyone could do.
President Garcia told a stunned world that in order to help us face the end, pharmaceutical companies had agreed to provide a pill for every man, woman and child. The pill would help us all to sleep that last night pain-free, allowing us to avoid experiencing the horror of our deaths if we so chose. That night the world's churches overflowed with people begging God to spare their lives. I, too, turned to God that night; his name was scotch.
The next few weeks turned into a blur. The whole world seemed to just be going through the motions, except they became real and meaningful. Everyone went to work and came home. Families spent time together; crime became non-existent. The elusive peace on earth and good will to men became a reality. I guess it was time for all of us to grow up--everyone but me. I just couldn't accept dying. The idea of death as a concept never seemed relevant to me; as if the possibility that I might one day die was never to be mentioned. Now it became impossible for me to face. The world was maturing, growing up as it were, and leaving me behind.
I started to drink because I had no family, no one to turn to for mutual consolation. Whereas I had been only a mild social drinker, overnight I started to consume liquor by the bottle. I found great peace of mind in a drunken stupor. After the announcement, it was just two weeks until I had my first car accident. I wrapped my car around a tree that my pickled
brain never saw. Fortunately, no one was hurt though I wished I had died. Three days later I wrecked a friend's car in a head-on collision. I caused a mother to have to spend her last few months of life in a body cast. Guilt just made it worse for me.
The police got so used to seeing me driving drunk that they started to stop me whenever I was seen behind the wheel. The judge didn't seem to care; why put me behind bars when we would all be gone soon enough?
I must say this about the police. It might be in the nature of why someone goes into law enforcement, but not one police officer abandoned his job. They took it as a matter of pride that they would remain on the job protecting the public as long as they were needed. Maybe that's why they looked at me as they did. I was responsible for making their lives and the lives of innocent people more difficult with each passing day. Knowing that made it harder for me to live with myself, and as a coward (all drunks are cowards) I couldn't bring myself to end it.
* * *
I started drinking that last day from the moment I got up, which was early in the afternoon. By four o'clock, I could no longer see. I don't know where I got a car, since I had been forbidden to own one because of all the accidents. Maybe I stole it. I recall vaguely that one last drive was a fun idea. The police report I found later said I killed seven members of one family.
A father and mother with their five young children died because I had to have one last drive. They were on their way to her parents to spend their last hours together as a family and I took it away from them. The report also stated how the police decided a proper punishment for me was to face the virus. They denied me the pill and an easy end. Putting me in a cell, but thankfully leaving the door open, the police went home to join their families in the death of the world--not realizing they saved my life yet gave me an even greater punishment than they could have imagined.
By four o'clock the next afternoon, my head was hurting badly. As I sat up on the cot and looked at the bars, not knowing where I was or how I had gotten there. I lifted my head a little more and the smell of my own filth caused a wave of vomit to come out of the depths of my stomach. It was then that I noticed the quiet. It wasn't the quiet of a spring day with peace in the air and a wind on your face. It was absolute silence. I walked out of the cell, down the corridor and through the doors to the outside. In the middle of the street were two skeletons--a man and his dog. I fell to my knees, vomiting again. How could I be alive; how long did I have left? Please help me, someone! I lay there screaming.
Eventually, I ran back inside. On one of the desks was a gun. I had never held a gun before, but I stuck it in my mouth and pulled the trigger. I heard a click as the barrel cut the soft roof of my mouth. The gun wasn't loaded. I collapsed on the floor in tears, "No! No! No!" I kept saying.
Slowly it dawned on me; I was alive! I struggled mentally trying to understand how it could have happened. "Maybe the scientists were wrong," I said aloud as if someone would hear. "Yes, they were wrong, they had to be! I'm still alive and that means others must be also." I looked around the police station and came across the report of my accident. Realizing I had killed seven innocent persons, I asked these dead people to forgive me. I decided to dedicate my new life (because in a way I was being born again) to them. I swore an oath and promised them and myself that regardless of what else I found and how long I lived, I'd never have another drink.
I walked over to the first car I saw and found the keys in the ignition. We had been asked to "leave your keys in the ignitions of your cars and your doors unlocked." President Garcia said in her last address to the world before the comet arrived, "Maybe whoever finds them one day will have a use for them."
My new courage started to fail right after I started the car. Where would I go? What would I do? I couldn't face any more skeletons, at least not yet. Then I remembered that even those would be consumed by the virus in a week or two. I stopped at the local market and took as much fresh fruits and vegetables as I could find. I took canned goods and bottled water. Suddenly I stopped in my tracks, realizing what had bothered me the whole time I was in the store. There was no meat! I'd have to be a vegetarian.
* * *
I spent the next three weeks alone in my apartment watching videos and spending hours dialing phone numbers at random in hopes that someone would answer. As I listened to the lovely voice of one Cristina Fredericks, whose automatic voice mail informed me that she was not home, something snapped again. "That's because you're dead, everyone's dead. No more dead voices!" I ripped the phone from the wall and threw it through the window. I never used the phone again. That night I decided to leave town the next morning and drive cross-country till I found someone or reached New York. From there, I could find a boat and probably make it across the sea to Europe. Maybe someone was alive there. I'd never give up searching. That was the first night that I felt a sense of renewed purpose and peace. For the first time, nightmares didn't haunt me.
The next morning I awoke at dawn, another new habit. My first stop that day was at Charlie Peterson's new car lot. I didn't think he'd mind if I helped myself to a new set of wheels. It struck me later that the old me would have taken the sports car with the convertible top. The new me settled on the family sedan with the "great mileage" sign on the window. As I set out from Alpharetta, Georgia, the sun shone bright and the air was pure and clear. I pulled up to the red light and couldn't help thinking it was a great day to be alive. Then I took in another dose of reality. I didn't have to wait; I could drive through the red light; no one else was on the road. No one but my conscience, which I'd found growing inside these last few weeks. I decided that it would be proper to honor the traffic laws I had made such a terrible mockery of a short while ago. So I waited. The light turned green and my adventure began.
* * *
I'd never noticed how fast the miles go by on the highway when you travel at the speed limit. I actually did 65 miles in an hour's time. As I headed up Interstate 85, I couldn't help looking for the state troopers where I knew they always set up their speed traps and sobriety checkpoints. What I wouldn't give to have a breathalyzer test administered to me right now. On the border of South Carolina, I had to stop at "the Big Peach." I've always wondered what it was; maybe it was used for water storage or something else. In all my travels, it turned out to be the only place whose doors were locked.
It was midafternoon when I pulled up in front of the Smithsonian Museum's National Gallery of Art. I love art and museums. I hardly noticed my echoing footsteps as I slowly moved from one gallery to the next. I wondered what would happen if I tried to remove a painting, but decided it would only be a selfish act and cause needless damage. What could I take on my journeys? In reality, only food and clothing and little else. I did spend a lovely hour sitting in front of my favorite set of paintings. These are, ironically, four monumental paintings by Thomas Cole entitled "The Voyage of Life." I cried aloud at his vision, knowing how misplaced it had become.
I spent the next few days driving leisurely around Washington, D.C. I knew no one had survived here when I was able to walk into the White House and wander its hallways unchallenged. I entertained the perverse idea of trying to find the room with the buttons. You know, the ones that would launch the missiles. It's amazing how humans will tempt themselves with evils. I went back out to the car.
I'd decided from the start of my search to leave signs everywhere, on the off chance that someone else had survived and would find it. Every sign read the same, "Hello there! I, Charlie Adams, survived the nightmare! If you find this come after me. I am heading to (blank space for me to fill in) next!" I found a Kinko's and printed up a batch of these. I left with several cases done professionally and in color.
Next came Baltimore, then Philadelphia. More empty streets and wonderful sights. I was truly starting to become enthralled at the majesty of the human species. Look at our great architecture, the variety and depth of the works of art the human spirit brought into being. From an objective point of view, I couldn't help but realize that whoever might visit our planet in the future will realize that we had an amazing potential that was never achieved.
The two great puzzles of my life consumed all of my waking thoughts as I kept on traveling and looking. Did anyone else make it through, and how did I survive the virus? The best explanation I could come up with had to do with how drunk I was. That blood alcohol number of 2.88; I should have died from alcohol poisoning. Maybe the virus died in my blood stream from the alcohol, at least enough so for my body to form antibodies and fight off the rest of them. I'll never know, since I have no scientific knowledge. I do know that if I am correct, there had to be other survivors; God knows there are enough drunks in the world for someone else to have made it. How ironic when you think about it, the thing that caused the officers to punish me by not giving me the pill is the thing that may save mankind. Imagine the future of our race left to the dregs of society to save; ironies upon ironies.
* * *
I didn't live in Georgia all my life. I moved from New York twelve years ago. Still, I felt that it was my real home, as if I were on the longest vacation of my life, one day to return, and that day was today. What a pleasure to drive up Interstate 95 and not pay any tolls. The view of Manhattan from across the Jersey side of the Hudson River as the sun set was awe-inspiring. I pulled to the side of the highway to look across at the lights ablaze in all the high-rise buildings; another last tribute suggested by the authorities. What a glorious sight. I can't ever remember the city looking more majestic. I drove over the George Washington Bridge and wound my way into the city.
Driving slowly down 11th Avenue, I came upon the split in the road where Broadway began. It was here that the silence stuck its dagger in my heart until I was forced to stop the car in the middle of the street. I was aware that this was New York City, but my heart knew that Manhattan is defined as much by its sounds as anything else. At any time of day or night, there was always a background noise to the city--tires squealing, people calling out to one another. Police sirens, car horns, the constant hum of humanity in motion with each individual trying to ignore the person next to him. Music both soft and loud, street vendors hawking their wares, lovers walking arm in arm whispering and laughing to each other as if they were the only people in existence. New York would fill your mind with these sounds and more until you would hear it for what it was, the essential fabric in the life of the city. The pangs of loneliness starting to overcome me were almost too much to
bear as the reality of my plight was again driven home.
"Please, oh please let someone be alive," I said--a prayer aloud to whoever might be listening. I began to drive slowly again as I started down Broadway. The buildings started to form the majestic canyon walls everyone compares them to. I turned east on 86th street. At the Museum of Natural History with its newly completed addition replacing the planetarium, I thought of the walkway that wound its way from the top of the sphere to the bottom -- the length of it comparing the age of the universe to the amount of time man had been on earth. Little did they think how real that short stretch reserved for man's existence would be portrayed.
I cut east across Central Park--the impossibility of no other cars being on that street no longer even striking my senses. Out of the park, I made a right turn on 5th avenue, the Guggenheim Museum is to my rear as I passed Metropolitan Museum on my right. Speeding up with a strange sense of urgency, I saw the Empire State Building rising majestically before me several blocks south. Entering the intersection of 34th Street, I started to turn right, wanting to park the car to go inside and look around.
My turn was half-complete when for a fleeting moment I became aware of headlights in my face. I never heard the tearing of metal into metal as my steering wheel was shoved into my chest. The glass of the windshield tore open my scalp as I was hurled violently forward through it, landing on the edge of the curb with my back turned in an impossible direction as I was flung from my vehicle. I feel nothing. I'm unable to move, staring blankly at the other car that so violently struck mine, now seemingly hopelessly embedded in it.
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As the passenger-side door opens, I notice what lovely legs she has and how unsteady they appear to be as she tries to walk a straight line toward me. She fails badly and sort of plops straight down, not really falling, her derriere striking the cement as she starts to laugh out loud. As my eyes focus one last time, I notice the half-full bottle she holds. As she begins to raise it to her lips, my vision blurs, my eyes shut, and I feel nothing.
Story copyright 2001 by Phillip B. Young firstname.lastname@example.org
Artwork copyright 2001 by Romeo Esparrago email@example.com
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