He felt the world spinning under his feet. It felt like it was finally going his way. Like those moving walkways at the airport. He picked up his pace and got into that spinning groove. Let the walkway carry him down 270. Deer skittered down the narrow paths, leapt over cars, and went every which way to get out of his path. A fox slinked quickly by in front of him, and a few foraging rabbits vanished into the retreating shadows. He thought he saw a black bear in the distance, and a pack of dogs yelped from an overpass. He wasn’t worried. There was enough to go around. And these more urban animals seemed to remember the touch of man. They understood the rifle he had strapped to his back. They knew not to fuck with the king of the apes.
The big sign saying that 270 was dividing was gone. It was one of those markers whenever he was driving home. Get ready, losers, 270 is about to go insane as it tumbles headlong into the Capitol Beltway. He’d jockey into the left lanes to start heading towards Bethesda and Silver Spring. Home was in White Oak. Upper Silver Spring. Home was about seven miles away. He dropped down onto the surface streets as soon as he hit Bethesda. He spent the night in his old high school, curled up by his senior locker. Leaves had blown in through long destroyed windows and, throughout the night, he was woken by rats and other noises in the big building. Nothing mysterious. Just the sounds of decay. He moved through the buildings in the early AM, the new spring moon outside his only light. He’d forgotten where all his old classrooms used to be. He wasn’t even sure if he had picked the right locker. He just remembered the hall. His life was a foggy dream. His memories were sluicing away with the fatigue of the long journey home…and the seemingly endless years since he last walked these halls. They seemed very small now.
He cooked breakfast right out in the open, on the center lane of East West Highway. The blank-faced buildings of Bethesda stared down at him. Anyone home? No.
He started walking again around mid-morning. Not far to go, now. Take his time. He crossed Connecticut Avenue, once a mighty intersection, now just burned out cars, crumbling houses, and silence. Everywhere silence. No smoke from cooking fires, nobody moving. He weaved down past Beach Drive, up the hill to Grubb Road, then down again into Silver Spring proper, then he cut up Colesville Road, hiking past the Discovery Building, which looked like something had crashed into its upper levels long ago, and leaving the sprawl of Silver Spring behind him. Now just houses and parkland and strip malls. He took his time. He passed by Blair High School, and, at noon, he lunched on the overpass that took Colesville Road over the Beltway. He could have saved some time, but that night in the halls of BCC helped align him. Helped remind him that a nice life in Clear Spring, or with Parker’s people, or anywhere wasn’t what he wanted.
We’re always coming home.
He was close. He moved through the pitted White Oak shopping center parking lot, a portion of it almost swampland. He cut through the vast labyrinth of garden apartments behind the shopping center, wrapping up and around to Stewart Lane and, then, to April Lane. His apartment, on the top floor of a four-storey garden apartment, a series of buildings that were indistinguishable from each other. Before he reached his complex, though, he took a shortcut through the once new townhomes. When he was a kid, the whole area was forest. Paint Branch. Now it was garden apartments and ludicrously overpriced townhomes.
He moved extra slow. He took it all in. The cheap siding and gutters of the homes was long gone, the paint peeled and the walls blackened by weather, mold, decay. Garage doors had pulled off of rusted chains and broken rails, and there was nothing but silence. He thought of all the times he’d walked past the townhomes, on the way to and from the supermarket. Every Saturday, he’d wake up at 5:30am, winter or summer, rain or shine, and head out to get his shopping done before the crowds came. He savored the apocalyptic fantasy. No sounds from his neighbors, nobody else out and about, no lights on. 5:30am Saturday was when he was most at peace in his old life. When he pretended the world had ended.
Now it was a little after one in the afternoon on a weekday, and the same silence, the same loneliness that had fueled those early morning weekend fantasies was overbearing. He stepped off the sidewalk into the road and stared at one of the townhomes. Two cars sat in the driveway, one just on rims and the flayed remains of a tire. Inside would be corpses. People who died the way he should have. Useless fucking lumps sitting on their couch watching the TV as everything came apart.
He threw a rock at one of the few intact windows, and the whole casement gave way with a screeching tear and cascaded to the ground. He shuddered as the echo played around him, then he hurried away, inexplicably panicked, and cut through the backyards down to his complex. The parking lot full of cars, three dead bodies still in the playground. Still! He’d passed them, fresh corpses, ten years ago. Had nothing changed?
11525. His building. He looked up at his balcony. The railing was gone, rusting in the bushes on the ground in front of him. There was nothing but concrete and his ratty patio table, tipped on its side. One side was covered in a mound of leaves.
He hiked up the stairs and reached in his pocket. For ten years, he’d carried his keys. They were a talisman. The door needed some work, though. He threw himself against it repeatedly until it flew inward with a spray of bugs and a startled flight of wasps. He skittered back to the edge of the landing, brushing dust out of his eyes and creepy crawlies off of his shoulders. Then he stepped inside. Rotting carpet, water in the kitchen, walls covered in black mold, paint and drywall gone in places. He kicked the couch, which looked like it had started to mummify, and pushed down on the cushions with his foot. No rats or mice. Or, at least, none that wanted to announce themselves. He dropped his bag, sat down with the dust and mold and insects, and stared at the TV set. The ceiling above had given way, covering the TV with a moldy cake of splintered wood, drywall, and rubble. Water leaked from the hole above, the afternoon sky peeking through. This is where he sat when it all happened. This is where he should have died.
What was happening up in Finzel? Parker’s people were probably toiling in the fields. Someone perched in the fire tower wistfully hoping for a phantom train. Maybe Parker had launched a proper search of Frostburg after Jacob returned with his story…if the boy had made it. Maybe Jacob was lying out in the woods, never to be discovered. A feast for the animals. Surely Parker would have retraced their steps. No doubt Murray and McGavin were buried on that hill, overlooking Parker’s plantation manor. It occurred to him that he didn’t know where McGavin was from. He’d never asked. It never mattered. After the collapse, you weren’t from anywhere. You had no one.
Gates picked up the remote, the bottom half covered in a grayish goo leaking from the batteries. He clicked the on switch, he put it down next to him, he stared at the blank TV.
Crowds gathering outside the local rescue stations…the sickness seems to be spreading…reports now from around the world…if you show any of the symptoms, then please hurry to one of the stations listed at the bottom of your screen…experts fear the worst…
It starts like the cold. Aches, a cough, runny nose. Perfectly normal for about a week or so. Then the fever starts. Then the mind gets fuzzy. You forget things. You get confused.
“And then you fucking die.” Gates said to the TV. “And then you get left in your living room, or slumped on the bathroom floor, or trapped in your car, or out on the street, in the playground. You get left and you’re forgotten.”
He pulled out his .45 and put it in his mouth.
The way it was meant to be.
Let the old world die.
There was nobody around to hear the gunshot.