It was July when I saw the first wolf, a gray male, lapping water from the creek. He saw me and made to dart away, but then stopped and just stared. It was about time they’d lost their fear of people, I thought, since there were no more people. Except me, that is. And it was about time they’d wandered down into Virginia from wherever they’d been permitted to survive before; before the Great Quiet.
I filled my bucket from the creek and climbed back up the ridge to my camp. I opened a can of something I’d taken from the Food Lion in Front Royal, the town down in the valley, and ate it without bothering to see what it was. I was too much concerned about that wolf to do anything but spoon it in and swallow. The local bears I could deal with; they had no interest in eating me, anyway. When they got too familiar I’d just moved another two or three miles up or down the ridge, set up a new camp where there were new bears and the old ones wouldn’t intrude. Now, I thought, I might have to move down into the valley for good, where I’d be able to deal with animals that hunt in packs and would, indeed, enjoy killing and eating me. Solid houses with real doors would keep them out, instead of the crude lean-tos I’d managed to build out of the crappy second- and third-growth forest around here.
It wasn’t seeing the human remains that bothered me so much about Front Royal, or the fact that ten thousand people had died there in their sleep, just died with no sign of struggle and gently dried up like autumn leaves; it was the quiet that got to me. Now the wonderful thing about the mountains, that I’d loved so much in the years before, was their own kind of quiet, the distance from the nearest human voice. So I guess that’s why I headed for the mountains a while after it happened. I’d be where the quiet felt natural and comfortable, didn’t creep me out, and didn’t remind me of all those people… all those dead people.
New Year’s Eve in Northern Virginia’s vast suburbia; 2011 going on 2012. Kathy told me she was going to a party, but not with me. Jane said the same thing, didn’t even pretend to have a cold. And Sandy, who never returned my calls, and my friends—friends! Even the guys made excuses. I hadn’t been invited to join anyone on that special night, when you’re supposed to be exuberantly happy, get drunk, and hug people. No invitations, I mean, except from CBS and NBC and ABC and Fox and two dozen cable channels all wanting me to tune in and have a happy—happy!—New Year. So, I turned on the TV and watched all the celebrants, mobs and hordes of them, all over the world, yapping and yammering humanity desperately celebrating the old year’s death. Everybody was high or drunk. Time zone by time zone, balls dropped and red rockets glared and bombs burst in air and speeches were orated and pundits pontificated and noise-makers blatted their dreary calls.
Seven billion people and counting, overwhelming the planet with their greed, their stink, their noise. Something had gone wrong with the world about the time we stopped picking lice off each other and began making tools. Damn all humans everywhere, those wretched mistakes of evolution! I wished I could never hear or see another one of them again! I daydreamed about buying an armload of AK-47s and blowing away as many people as I could, before I was shot or stopped. But no, that wasn’t me. I might have happy thoughts about getting rid of people, but I knew myself too well to think I’d ever really do it. Besides, others would just get born, more than ever. Always more than ever.
But there it was, New Year’s Eve. I stayed home and turned out the lights. Anyone passing by would think I was at one of those raucous parties, or in the town square having a wonderful time. I got good and drunk on bad wine and worse whiskey, watched the TV balls drop and the rockets glare, collapsed into bed with my clothes on, had one of those pass-out sleeps where you might still be awake but it just didn’t matter.
I sat up in bed suddenly at 10 a.m., New Year’s Day 2011, wide awake and holding my breath, trying to figure out what was wrong. Then I realized: there were no sounds other than a bird or two. No rumble of distant traffic on I-66, no trains, no cars passing by on my street. Even on a holiday morning there should have been cars, trucks, delivery vans, and the occasional airplane.
I put water on the stove for coffee and opened the door. No newspaper. I drank two cups, trying to overpower my hangover and failing. Opened the door again. Still no paper. Shit. I phoned the Post’s “Missing Delivery” number, got a recording saying I should call back after 8. Well, by that time it was almost noon. Turned on the TV. A few channels had old movies on, recycled wildlife features, that sort of thing. Most of the channels were showing blink and hiss.
I bundled up, walked over to the main drag. An old man was sitting on a bench in the bus kiosk, his back against the glass, an empty whiskey bottle beside him. On any other day I would have walked by without a word, but not then, not as strange as things had been getting.
“Ah – good morning!”
No answer. I touched his shoulder, shook him gently. He toppled over into the street. Another damn drunken reveler, I thought. Thinking he might be hit by a bus if I left him there, I dragged him onto the sidewalk, noticed that he was cold to the touch. And not breathing. No blood, no obvious wounds. Well, I thought, I’d walk down the street to the drug store. The clerk could call the police or something.
That was the last time, for a long time, I ever spoke to anyone. The last time I thought I might get an answer, anyway. When I got to the Rite-Aid, it was dark and locked.
I turned and walked into a residential section. I could hear whining and scratching from behind doors. Dogs and cats, hungry. I went up to one house where the barking was loudest, knocked on the door, pounded. No answer. I went around back, found a wooden post, broke a window. An alarm sounded. No police showed up. I climbed in, found a man and a woman just peacefully dead in bed. I let the dog out, continued on. I went from house to house breaking windows, peering in, trying to find survivors, until all the dogs and cats were outside in the street, looking as bewildered I must have looked, had there been anyone around to see what I was doing.
After the first week I stopped looking for bodies, and the houses I hadn’t checked were silent. I tried all the ways I could think of to find someone else alive, back in January. I found a shortwave radio and figured out how it worked. I’d heard that those things could broadcast for hundreds of miles, maybe more. No one answered my calls, but all the time I knew it was pointless, because there were no airplanes. That was the tip-off. Machines could still run, cars could still drive. I found a Cessna at the local general aviation field and started it up by trial and error, just to see if it would catch. I didn’t dare take off, since I’d never learned to fly. But I knew that no countries had escaped the devastation or someone would be flying—someone! I’d see contrails, or military jets, or drones, or helicopters, or missiles. But the skies were clear and quiet. Very quiet.
But what would I do if I found anyone alive? Why was I looking? Wasn’t this the world I’d always wanted? Well, yes. But it would be nice to have people around to maintain the Internet, drive the buses, keep my house warm, deliver veggies to the corner grocery.
Why me? Why was I the only one spared? Because of my New Year’s Eve wish? The world’s people surely hadn’t all died just to teach me a lesson, had they? I couldn’t believe that. But perhaps there were other people still alive. Just a few, maybe, like me. And if I found them, then what? Celebrate with bells and bright lights? Procreate and start the cycle all over again? I could call myself Adam, instead of Philip Nolan, my real name. No thanks.
Toward the end of January I made my decision to leave. The power and water hadn’t been on in a couple of weeks, anyway. And I was having bad dreams about the bodies I was seeing. Why weren’t they covered in worms and maggots, like dead deer in the woods? Why didn’t they… stink, instead of just drying out like the apple slices mom used to put in the cookie jar? The place reminded me of a funeral parlor. I’d rather have seen maggots. Scientists might be able to explain it, but there were no scientists now.
So I piled my camping gear into my car, raided the local Giant Food, took enough canned goods and supplies to fill my car, checked the gas gauge, and took off for the mountains. I was feeling cocky enough to take the I-66 inbound lanes all the way to the Blue Ridge.
Well, heading for the hills was a good idea at the time. But now in July, because of that wolf, and because of all the other wolves I thought might be coming to join him, I had to rethink my plan. I’d made enough trips into Front Royal that I was pretty familiar with the place, learned where to find canned goods, bottled water (although the creeks were running clear now), matches, ammo, whiskey, batteries. Gasoline for the car was the toughest to find, since the station pumps had stopped working. But I discovered that farmers outside town had above-ground gas tanks for their tractors, and I was able to tap those whenever I needed a fill-up.
I picked out a big white house where I could get in without shattering a door or window, moved my stuff in and two bodies out. I figured I was safe from wolves behind four walls. But I never did see a wolf in town; they had plenty of deer to chase on the ridge, I guessed, especially now with no hunting season. I could hear them from my new home, their nightly serenade.
But then, when I’d set myself up pretty well, time started dragging. What was there to do? I found the local library, read a novel every two or three days. I’d read aloud just to hear the sound of a voice. But that got old. All that human drama, all that emotion. Emotion! There was no emotion any more. There were no plots, or schemes, or ambitions, or conflicts, or happy endings. Nothing to look forward to but the day I’d catch a bad disease or break a leg I couldn’t splint, and then I’d die.
To have something to do, I started going door to door, block by block, breaking into houses and carrying the dried corpses out. The babies were the most difficult for me, but the grownups, too. Turned out, I needed someone to yell at, to bitch and moan to, to hear them tell their own troubles. Maybe not all humans were so bad, after all. Just in the mass, maybe. One by one they seemed OK, at least now that they were quiet. I carried the dead ones outside, loaded them on a flatbed, drove them to the center of town. Should be with their own kind, right? And dressed, not in pajamas or nightgowns, but in their own clothes, from their own closets. I dressed them up as best I could, gave them as much dignity as I could, although it wasn’t much.
And then, just as the weather was getting cold—I think it must have been October but I’d long since lost track of the date—that’s when I found Laura.
I was working the east side of town, clearing out the homes, making notes as to what supplies I might be able to use later. Just off a little street called Laura Virginia Hale Place I broke into a modest Cape Cod, walked into the living room. There she was, a beautiful woman in a sequined gown and a gauzy wrap. I thought she must have just returned from a New Year’s Eve party when the Great Quiet hit her. But then I saw the slippers, the bottles, the stack of books, a plate of food long since turned to dust. She’d been celebrating alone, just dozed off like I had. But she never woke up.
I asked her name. I didn’t catch it, so I started calling her Laura, after the street. I cleared off the dishes, straightened up the room. I told her she was truly gorgeous. I started telling her about how I’d come to be there, why I’d broken into her house, why I wasn’t living on the ridge anymore. I didn’t carry her out to the truck like I did the others. I sat with her until long after dark, promised to come back the next day. I did come back, the next day, and the next, and the next. I spent time every day with Laura, a couple of hours anyway.
November came (well, I thought it might have been November), and then December. It snowed two or three times. I brought in wood and stoked the fireplace so Laura and I could be warm. I asked her about her childhood, where she’d grown up, all that stuff I used to think stupid and boring. I told her about me, about Kathy who might have gotten to like me, about Jane and Sandy, about going to meetings and parties and being treated like I wasn’t there, like I had some awful disease no one would tell me about. I told her I thought she might have had the same kind of life—life! But life was all over for us now, the grim loneliness of that world.
I didn’t tell Laura what I’d been doing with the bodies.
Christmas came, at least approximately. I gave Laura a red and green shawl I’d found in one of the second-hand shops I’d been haunting, all nicely wrapped and ribboned, and with a spangly Hallmark card on top. I’d signed it “With all my love, Philip.” Laura didn’t have presents to give me, since she couldn’t get out and shop, but she had a sweet smile for me that was better than any present. The same sweet smile she always had.
She must have wondered what I was doing all day when I wasn’t with her. I explained that I was taking bodies out of the houses, but she didn’t understand. Why not just let them be? I almost told her two or three times, but this was going to be the big surprise I’d spent weeks preparing.
New Year’s Eve came, at least a day I called New Year’s Eve. I got everything ready. Just about nine p.m. I came calling for Laura, put her shawl on her, carried her outside. She wondered about the car, but I told her we were going only two blocks, so I’d just carry her. She guessed where we were headed. I felt her body shift a little as we approached our destination. She rested her head on my neck.
We turned the corner and there it was, shining in the headlights of six cars and four trucks: the town gazebo with five hundred party-goers, all dressed in fancy outfits, glasses of wine or whiskey at their sides. I carried her up the steps and put her down right in the middle, near the people I called Kathy and Jane and Sandy, more beautiful than any of them. Everyone greeted me, called me by name, smiled, asked how I was doing, gave me hugs, told me how much they liked and respected me, how I’d been spared, chosen, to make the world’s last New Year’s Eve the best one ever. Kathy and Jane and Sandy asked me to call them any time, any time! But I said no, thank you, I had a steady girlfriend these days, and I loved her.
And now, no more quiet! I ran around the circle of cars and trucks and sounded their horns again and again until their headlights began to dim. I rang the bells of the nearest church until the sounds reverberated all through the town. From the ridge I could hear the echoing howls of the wolves, disturbed by the sounds. I couldn’t come up with a swing band playing the old nostalgic tunes like they used to do Before, but after weeks of searching I’d found an old wind-up record player, and records to play on it. I turned the crank and put the needle down carefully.
I think of all the friends I’ve known
When I dial the telephone
All by myself
Don’t wanna be
All by myself, by myself
Not exactly a New Year’s Eve song, certainly not Auld Lang Syne which I couldn’t find in any of the shops, but it would do.
Laura was beaming with joy. I lifted her to her feet. “Will you dance with me?” I asked. While we were dancing I asked her if she could love me even though I wasn’t dead yet. Yes, she said, yes I will. Forever.