I remember thinking how cool it would be if everybody just dropped off the face of the Earth. I’d sit in class listening to Mrs. Fletcher or Mr. Howard or that substitute, Jane Something, drone on and on about the order of operations or prepositional phrases and just think how great it would be if everyone just shot out into space. I’d think about not having to go back to school ever again, about being able to sleep without setting an alarm. I would wake up just whenever I felt like it, and not before. I mean, who hasn’t thought about it? You imagine that one video game you love, playing it all day long and doing nothing else. You picture reading that comic or that novel with your bedroom window up and the sun streaming in and no pressure from anyone else in the whole wide world because you, after all, are the sole proprietor of the planet — quite literally, king of the world.
Then it happened. It happened to me.
I woke up one Tuesday morning. I remember it was a Tuesday because that’s my B-day schedule and I was dreading a particular Calculus exam that I hadn’t studied for. I meant to study, I really did, but my dad was watching a rerun of Star Trek: The Next Generation on cable, the one where Data is having his first bad dreams and there’s this phone in his chest, you probably don’t remember it — what am I saying? Of course you don’t remember it, you’re just a tape recorder I found in the Fred Meyer electronics section. You weren’t actually even for sale, that’s the weird part. You were just sitting out on a shelf next to some protein shake stuff.
Anyway, Tuesday morning, my phone alarm went off. I use that one ringtone that kind of sounds like someone is dropping a Christmas bell down some frozen stairs, bing, bing bang, bang, bing, bing, bang, bang, over and over and over again. Do you know the one I’m talking about? It sounds just like a Christmas bell falling down some frozen, icy stairs. So that happened. I wake up from this dream about Rachel Henry. We’re sitting in her car together and I’m in the passenger seat because she’s seventeen and I only have my learners. I remember we were kissing and it was just the best kiss ever, in dreams you know things like when it’s the best kiss ever even if you haven’t been kissed yet. I know, Tape Recorder, fifteen and never been kissed. How embarrassing, right? The thing is, I’m just really shy. I mean, I just like books more than I like real people sometimes.
Like, it’s just easier to read about doing things then to try to do them and fail. Or maybe I’m just chicken. Can’t both be true? Why does truth have to always just be one thing?
So, yeah, I’m in the car with Rachel Henry and we’re kissing and she says, “You know what I want now?” and it’s just the best I ever felt and all the weird, awkward parts of my body are just feeling like they finally fit and make sense. Then I go, “What?” Like, I say it real cool though, you know? I say it like I know the answer, but I’m going to make her say it anyway.
All leading her on or whatever, I go, “What?”
Then she leans in so close I can smell strawberry lip balm on her mouth and her breath is hot on my face and she goes, “I want to—bing, bing, bang, bang, bing, bing, bang, bang!”
My alarm went off and I woke up. My face still felt hot from her breath and I could smell strawberries. My business down there was so swollen I thought it might explode. Then I just felt that dread, like, “Oh, God, Mom is going to come in and sing that ‘Rise and Shine’ song and I have this situation going because, you know, Rachel Henry, and I just can’t even…”
Then I sat there. Then I sat some more. Five minutes go by. Ten. Twenty. Finally, I decide I’d better get myself out of bed or else I’m going to be late for school and it’s finals week, soon to be my vacation. Just a few more days and it’ll all be over, at least for a while.
Without looking at what I was grabbing, I scooped up a shirt and pants and sort of held them over my crotch and ducked into the bathroom so Mom and Dad couldn’t see me. I took a shower that morning. If I had known what was really going on out there, I probably wouldn’t have made it a cold one. But, like I said, Rachel Henry and strawberry lip balm. I mean, I know you’re just a tape recorder, Tape Recorder, and you don’t have eyes or anything, but just picture that. She’s got these big blue eyes and this dark, dark hair and her skin is almost white except for this really subtle olive undertone that keeps her from looking pasty white like Jenny Mitchum. Basically, she’s the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen and I felt her breath on my face. I know it wasn’t real, but it was real enough that I needed a cold shower or else I was going to miss first period.
So, yeah, fast-forward to the cold shower doing its work and me dry, out in the living room in a red flannel shirt, brown pants, and mismatched argyle socks. Not my best outfit, and I do try to look nice, but I was pressed for time. I threw all my stuff in this leather shoulder satchel that I’ve been carrying since eighth grade. My Dad gave it to me when I was thirteen. He said, “I know it’s been a long time and all, but you used to talk about wanting to be a writer. I figured, you’re almost in high school now, and a writer needs a nice bag to carry his manuscripts and pencils and things around in. So, I got you this.”
It wasn’t even my birthday, you know? Mom and Dad always give the best presents when it’s not a birthday or Christmas time. I remember when I showed up at school with this leather satchel, just so proud of it, and all the boys, especially the football players, made fun of me and said I had a purse. I remember thinking how weird and dumb and sexist that was because, I mean, lots of guys carried shoulder bags back then, but it was because mine was so nice that they had to make me feel bad about it. I think that must be why.
Anyway, I grabbed my satchel and ran out the door to catch the bus. Don’t ask me why I didn’t wait for a ride from my mom or dad. They usually drive me, but I sometimes take the bus too. I guess some secret part of my brain just figured that if mom wasn’t singing, she also wasn’t driving me to school. When I got to the corner, the bus was late and I realized that I didn’t have time to keep waiting if I wanted to make it to school on time. I ran down the sidewalk toward my school, which is about a mile and a half away, and got about halfway there before it hits me.
The streets were completely empty. No cars on the roads. No one out walking. No young couples out for a jog with their baby in the stroller in front of them. No hipsters in their cool scarves and leather shoes and groomed beards walking their dogs that look like wolves with names like Timber or Rainier or Beckett. None of that usual stuff.
The traffic lights were turning colors for no one. The transformers buzzed and hummed up on the power lines. The wind whistled through dry tree branches and the clouds, gray and heavy with a coming rain, rolled by silently overhead looking like the waves of a whole ocean that had been pulled over the world. The birds were out on rooftops and telephone wires, but they were not singing. A cat peered out from behind a blue recycle bin, sitting on the street corner waiting for a trash man that would never come. Puddles were empty mirrors, reflecting the last frantic boy on earth, jogging pointlessly to a class that was not in session.
All of this, each of these things and so many more, I saw that morning as I ran, but did not see clearly until later that night. Think back on that question, Tape Recorder. How cool would it be if you woke up and the whole world was empty? What you don’t think about is how long it takes to realize you’re the last kid standing. What they don’t tell you in the movies is that you can run around for hours before your brain makes that logical jump.
You are alone.
I got to the school, but it was all dark and empty and just super creepy. A hall light flickered like you see in movies and stuff. A sound like tree branches scraping the side of your house drags down the hallway and I turn around, instantly regretting my choice to go into a dark, empty school by myself, without even a flashlight or anything. Then, out loud, I go, “Hello, Jake,” and knock my hand against the side of my head, “It’s the twenty-first century and all phones are flashlights now, you dipshit.”
I opened up the flashlight app thingy and beam my light around, looking for another student or a teacher or even that one weird substitute, Jane Something, who is too young to be a teacher.
I heard the branch sound scraping up the hall and called out, “Hello? Is anyone there?”
“It’s cool, Jake, keep cool,” I tell myself. “This isn’t a movie or the Walking Dead or whatever.”
I made my up the hall toward the sound, still talking to myself just to try and keep calm and not shit. I do that, when I’m nervous I mean, I turn into a real chatterbox. So I’m yammering, “Principal Balder isn’t about to come out of the men’s room all gory and zombified trying to eat your brain or make you write sentences or something. ‘Mr. Miles, write these wordsone thousand times: I will not walk toward the creepy zombie sounds in an abandoned apocalypse high school.’”
I’m real nervous by this point, like real, real nervous, but I also just have to know, right? People in these situations always have to know.
“I will not walk toward the creepy zombie sounds in an abandoned apocalypse high school. I will not walk toward the zombie sounds in an abandoned apocalypse high school. I will not walk…”
Everything looked all green and jumpy. I heard the sound again and moved toward it, holding my cell phone out in front of me like a crucifix in a vampire movie. The noise was just behind the door to the custodian’s closet. I’m so sure that it’s a zombie janitor by now, you don’t even know, but I have to face it. I need to see it, to know what happened, because then I might know what happened to the rest of my town.
“I will not walk toward the zombie sounds…”
I reach for the doorknob and just give it the lightest turn when a shadowy, heavy form forces it open with the clatter and howl of metal and wood and the sound of my own screaming, panicked voice as I get smothered by the trash and weight and stink of my killer and…
“…was that a cat?”
There’s a cat clawing and mewling down the hallway, the same cat from behind that recycling bin earlier. It must have followed me and found its way in through a vent or something. Cats are always getting in through a vent or something.
Then I go, “Phew…okay. Not a monster. Just a bunch of junk that fell over.”
Mr. Claiborne, the janitor, hung up some coveralls on a mop handle and it caused a full scale pile up in the broom closet. So I laugh and go, “I will not walk toward the junk pile in my apocalypse high school.”
I’m really laughing at that point, that nervous, awkward, I almost shit sort of laughter, you know? Of course you don’t, I keep forgetting, I’m talking to a tape recorder, alone, beside a campfire off Interstate 80 somewhere in Wyoming. It just gets so lonesome is all.
Anyway, that was when I saw him. Mr. Claiborne, the janitor, I mean. He was face down in one of those big industrial sinks at the back of the broom closet. Like the kind you use for washing out paintbrushes and that kind of thing. The water was still running, but you couldn’t really hear it with the way the Mr. Claiborne was all squeezed into the sink up to armpits. The faucet was up against his spine with the water running down his back and along the floor toward this drain in the middle of the concrete. Claiborne’s were submerged like he was trying to pull himself into the pipes or something, so all you saw was this hunched over form in blueish coveralls soaked black from the running water.
I wasn’t laughing then, I started heaving like I might barf and just booked it out of the school. I ran across the dried, yellow grass of the yard, not thinking or anything, just one raw, white hot silent scream in the center of my chest as I puffed for air and sprinted away from that sink and the dead man in it.
It wasn’t until I finally slowed down that I started to think. Maybe it was a holiday, yeah, one of those little national holidays that you forget about. The world didn’t empty out, it was just a sleepy holiday, or maybe Sunday? What if I was wrong and it wasn’t Tuesday at all? Yeah, Sunday, that’s gotta be it. Maybe mom and dad and the whole town were just sleeping in. But then there was Mr. Claiborne, face down in the murky water. I should have helped him. What was I thinking? It’s not the end of the world, not a conspiracy or armageddon, just a lazy Sunday and a lazy old drunk passed out in a sink. Bad for Claiborne, but maybe not so bad for me, right?
A lazy Sunday in a town with the fewest churches per capita would explain the total absence of traffic on that section of Division Street near my school, but then I looked west toward the Willamette River and I saw them.
There must have been a hundred cars, some were crashed into each other, some had just stopped dead in their tracks. A few were still idling, run down to their last few drops of gas. It was the scariest thing I’d ever seen. All these cars, all going in the same direction across two lanes of traffic, crammed four wide across this road, all pressed together. Glass, colored plastic from headlights or taillights, fiberglass, and broken pieces of fender and bumper were scattered across the street in a hailstorm of debris. Doors were open. Interior lights were on. Warning chimes were beeping in a chaotic chirping orchestra, reminding the missing owners that they had left their keys in the ignition, their headlights on, or their engine running.
It was a weird thing to do, I know, but I went around and turned off all the keys. I guess I just didn’t want anyone to come back to a dead battery or an empty fuel tank. Truth is, I don’t know why I did it. I just had to do something. It was all so creepy. So bizarre. Where were all the people? What was so important about the river that everyone decided to turn in the same direction and head west toward downtown? That was when I noticed that the side streets were all empty. All of the traffic had been pushing its way onto major through streets and I knew, I just knew, that if I ran to any other road heading west, it would be the same.
Not a holiday or a lazy Sunday. This was something darker, something sinister. Some kind of national emergency or mass disaster. The word “terrorists” crossed my mind. The word “evacuation.”
When the streets got too crowded to drive, people just started to run. That had to be the answer. It was the only thing that made sense.
I pushed down all my feelings of abandonment and loss, ignoring the idea of my parents leaving without me, and just started running toward the river. Somewhere along the way, I dropped my satchel to the ground and just sprinted with tears streaking across my face like rain streaking horizontal across your window on the highway.
I do that thing I do when I’m nervous. Talking to myself, rambling to keep my brain distracted. I go, “Maybe mom thought dad got me and dad thought mom did. Like that time in third grade when I waited out front of the school for an hour. That must be it. They’d never leave me on purpose.”
There was an old Vespa turned on its side like someone had been riding it and just jumped off and started walking — or running — toward the river. I’ve only ridden a Vespa one time, and I almost crashed it, but I knew I couldn’t run another thirty blocks to the waterfront. Something had to give. Figuring it was now or never, I pushed the thing up onto its two wheels and it fired right up on the first try.
Taking it nice and slow, to prevent crashing into a tree or one of the dozens of stalled cars, I creeped my way along the sidewalks and side streets of southeast Portland, hoping against every knotted, ferocious doubt in my stomach that everything would be all right once I got to the water. Maybe there would be a national guard soldier, like in the commercials, or maybe I’d see my mom and dad. I had to hope, you always have to hope, but hope is a funny thing, Tape Recorder.
Actually, if we’re going to be spending this much time together, I feel like I should call you something else — you know, like a real name. Maybe APEX? That’s what it says on your housing, but it seems too formal. It feels like calling someone General or Doctor instead of Sam or Dave. What are you? You’re not digital. You’re old school, you’re retro…you’re analog. Analog… I’m going to call you “Ana.” How would that be, Tape Recorder…er, I mean, Ana? I’m sure it suits you just fine.
Well, what I was saying, Ana, is that hope is weird. You think of it as this elemental thing, like it’s a resource that you tap into and expect to be bottomless, the way people used oil and just hoped it would never run out. Something like that. It turns out, hope does run out, but it’s also renewable. You don’t thrive on the same dose of hope for your whole life, you get little measures of it that run out, then you dig deep and mine out a little more to keep you going. At least, that’s what I’m starting to realize.
That first swell of hope got me as far as the river.
I rode as far as the Morrison Bridge, right out into the center so I could get a full view of the river. It was overcast and just about to start raining, I could smell it. I was looking for a military outpost, maybe even some kind of a boat or something, where they would have taken the evacuees from whatever attack or disaster seemed so imminent.
“Remember when we were little, Jake?” I say. “When that Fukushima thing happened? Everyone was so scared this radioactive dust cloud was going to make it across the ocean and get us. People were afraid to eat seafood for like a year. Maybe it’s something like that. Maybe everyone got rushed out in a hurry because of some radioactive tidal wave or something?”
There was no sign of anything like that though. The only thing I could see was just miles and miles of abandoned cars. To my left there was this little river trail for bikes and stuff called The Esplanade. It runs along the Willamette toward the science museum and then turns into the Springwater Trail. Well, it’s usually for bikes and joggers, but all the different entrances to the trail were just full of cars running right down into the river. I could still see the headlights of some of them down under the water, then there were others piled on top of each other, sticking halfway out in the mud. So many cars, stacked up on both sides of the shoreline, running back as far as I could see. It was like the whole town just got up and drove itself into the Willamette and I suddenly knew, just knew, that the same would be true up in North Portland on the Columbia. And as soon as I thought that, I knew I had to see for myself.
I steered the Vespa toward I-5 North and headed up. Everywhere there was water, it was the same. Cars piled so deep that they disappeared into the murky green and were gone, or maybe you could see their lights shining out, white if the car had turned as it rolled in, red if it was stuck nose down in the mud.
But there were no bodies. No people at all.
I got to the 5 Bridge that goes over the Columbia, but I couldn’t cross. Someone had started to raise it and a bunch of cars had fallen off into the water. There was a big boat stuck halfway in, like the bridge was going up for it and then stopped. The whole top was all charred black and gray twisted metal, and the rest of it was painted white like a yacht or something. It was really scary to look at, Ana. I don’t mind admitting that. You just aren’t used to seeing a boat all twisted and shredded and wrapped around a bridge, burned up in some places and perfectly brand new looking in others.
The top of the boat had a few cars on it, right on the deck, like they had fallen over the edge when the bridge went up, or maybe like they had driven off on purpose. I guess neither would surprise me. One car, this old station wagon, was upside down and still burning. The boat was halfway capsized from the weight on that side and I think the only thing keeping it above water was the bridge itself.
Turning the Vespa around, I took the exit for MLK Boulevard and got onto Marine Drive to go check out the airport. If there was any official presence anywhere it would be at the airport, right? I think there’s even a military base over there somewhere, but I’m not for sure.
Jesus, Ana, I thought the boat thing was bad. I saw the smoke first, billowing black and hot up into the gray, Portland sky. It looked like a dark tear in the universe and it scared me. I rolled a little closer, angling the Vespa between stalled cars and a big semi-truck on its side, and got close enough to see this jetliner, a 757 if I remember my planes right, that had been steered off of the runway, through the grass and the big barbed wire fence at the airport’s outer edge, and right down into the water. Down the hill it had rolled onto one side, broken off the left wing and the engine was still burning in the dirt. The front end of the plane was submerged and all the emergency exit doors had been blown open with those yellow inflatable slides sticking out at odd angles. Again, no people. Just a broken plane with its landing gear rumpled all over and its lights blinking in the dull light of the afternoon. Everything was so quiet.
I got on 205 South to head back home, not really sure what I was feeling. My head was just a scramble of emotions and thoughts, the kind of thing you expect to decipher later but never do. It’s just white noise, like a blur, all the way to Exit 20 where the Vespa ran out of gas. It was about this time that I realized I was crying. Not just like the little tears from earlier either, but big, sobbing, snot-nosed crying like when you’re a little kid and you don’t care how you look or who sees you. I guess that’s weeping, I don’t really know.
I got off the Vespa and kicked it so hard that it fell over and skidded down this grassy hill. My ankle hurt for two days after that kick, but I ignored it right then because I just didn’t care. That stupid scooter collided at the bottom of the hill with a red Ford Ranger that was sitting on a service road or something down below. It’s weird what you remember, Ana. Like, I can’t remember a single word from what I was thinking right then, but I remember that red Ford Ranger like I was sitting in it right now. The mind is a funny thing, I guess.
After I kicked the Vespa I just started walking, sort of starting to limp. Again, not really thinking or feeling much, just kind of walking in a fog until I snapped out of it by the off-ramp near Exit 19 and realized I could just take some other ride. I picked this little gray PT Cruiser, not because I liked it or anything, I actually really hate those cars, but just because it was the least blocked in by everything else. Once I got off the Interstate and back onto Division Street, it wasn’t as bad. The cars thinned out as I got closer to my house.
I went back by my school and found my leather satchel. I remembered dropping it in all the commotion and was glad, but not sure why I was surprised, to find it still there.
When I got home I parked the PT Cruiser in my driveway and it stayed there for the whole rest of the time. I guess it’s still there now. I mean, why wouldn’t it be, right? Anyway, so I went inside and changed my clothes and threw my dirty, sweaty ones in a pile near the washing machine. I called out to Mom and Dad, “Guys, I’m home!” but of course no one answered. Electricity was still working at this time, so I turned on the television. Most of the channels were just broadcasting static or some variation of the “Technical Difficulties” screen. Weirdly enough, C-SPAN was still airing, but the rooms it was showing were all empty, with the empty leather chairs of Congress or the Senate cycling every few seconds like a security camera at a gas station. Cartoon Network was showing a marathon of Ed, Edd, & Eddy and I remember hearing this theory that it was actually a cartoon about a bunch of dead kids in a special ring of purgatory for the young.
I guess the idea was that they were all from different time periods and stuff, like one wore suspenders and looked like he was from the 1800s and another looked really 60s, stuff like that. Then, if you looked closely, you could see how they had died. One was really yellow like he had died from jaundice or liver disease or something like that. Another had a swollen purple tongue. Don’t ask me for more than that, it’s all I remember. I don’t even know where I read it, really. It’s just one of those things.
It did kind of make me wonder though, like maybe I’m dead and in a place like that. Maybe everyone else is fine and at home right now eating dinner or watching the news or something. Maybe the only people that are sad are just Mom and Dad because I actually died in my sleep the night before that weird Tuesday. Like that’s why Mom wasn’t singing. Then I felt my hurt ankle and decided ghosts don’t hurt their ankles.
Anyway, I watched that Ed, Edd, & Eddy show until I fell asleep, and that was how I spent my first day alone in the world. I had a dream about that airplane like I was on it, except when the emergency doors opened everyone shot out into space and was gone. That’s not really one of those dreams where you wonder what it means. It’s just one of those dreams that makes you wake up and feel bad.
Now I’m just sitting out under the stars, beside a smoldering campfire, with the wind like silence in my ears and the dust like tears in eyes. Just looking for anyone that isn’t a tape recorder to talk to. No offense, Ana, it’s just. Well. I’m lonesome as hell.