It was when his rock shattered the window into pebbles, when a vacuum of silence filled the midnight sky that Edwin understood: the future had arrived, and nothing would be the same again. He stood on an empty sidewalk, the final echoes of the shattering glass ringing in his ears, his back hunched ready to vanish into shadows should police arrive. He looked around, his arm holding his pack on his shoulder, admiring the empty street. He rarely saw this calm in his city. Utter silence everywhere. It filled every crevice, every room. It spilled out of the grocery store he’d just broken into. The silence was here now and would soon be inescapable.
The sound of glass crunching under his feet gave him pause as he considered his place in this. Only he seemed to move under the moon’s glow. The stoplights three blocks down had died with his cell phone an hour ago. Cars lingered in the middle of the intersection, their doors open and abandoned. It seemed to him that they had always been that way, frozen in a single moment. If there had been any occupants, they had long ago spit a curse and, finding no power around them, took cautious paths back home, sobering themselves through prayers and promises to change if they made it through the night.
If the air had lost the sounds of the city, it had not yet lost the smells; rather it seemed to have gained a new one. Wafts of burned engine components were suspended throughout the streets where every car was dead and every light burst. Signs that had painted the air with pink, blue, and red fluorescence stood forgotten in the night. Doors to all-night diners and fuel stations were shut, chains hastily slapped on them before their attendants ran, dropping register money along the sidewalk as they fled.
Edwin was looking at this when a sudden sound forced him onto the ground, pebbles of glass digging into his palms. The noise was far away, soft, though as loud as a gunshot on that desolate street. He waited, gaining a sense of what it might be. He looked up. It seemed a soft rubbing, what he might have heard by allowing his hands to brush against a live microphone, though this was much quieter. It took a while for the brushing noise to grow, but as it did, it took ownership of the vacant night. He only saw it because it crossed the moon in its flight. Military air craft. He tried to follow the silhouette but it faded quickly in the moon’s glare. His eyes drifted further from the moon until he instead found a wealth of stars, visible for the first time in decades. It was something he had not thought about in years. He smiled, carefully lifting himself up and working the glass out of his hands.
Grabbing his compass and a map from his pack, he made a quick glance at the sky, found the Big Dipper, ran his eyes along the outer edge of its ladle and down below until they rested on Polaris among the sparkling dots of the Little Dipper. He oriented himself to the North Star, using his map to guide him west for when he began walking. The star check was nothing he needed to do; he looked up both because he wanted to and because one day he might lose the compass and then would have to be familiar with the night sky. His journey would be a long trek, and he would need the North Star on his right. Satisfied, he folded the map, placed it back in his pack, zipped his compass inside a pouch, rested the pack on his shoulder once more, and returned his eyes to the night sky. He wished he had kept his telescope. It was no large contraption, but as a child he would put it on the hood of a car and look for stars, nearby planets, and the moon. He made a mental note that when he found his new home, he would find a telescope: something large that could be mounted on a building’s rooftop. He would sit in a chair, bending over the eye piece and watch the world above.
Returning to earth, he caught a family in his eyes. The smile faded as he watched them approaching down the street, swaying as they walked, nearly crossing the street to his side before returning to their own side. He could make out three figures, one smaller than the rest. They huddled together, and he had difficulty seeing anything more of them. He turned and entered the market.
The pack was open as he walked with slow steps in the store. Canned items were his target. He grabbed two at a time in each hand and shoved them into the satchel. He kept a steady pace, grabbing cans, placing them and moving on. His hands went indiscriminately through the aisle, taking three of one product, five of another, skipping some altogether, or one of something else. Food was food and would nourish him. There would be other markets and this first shopping trip needed to yield as much as possible so the riots that would soon follow wouldn’t leave him starving.
A pass through the fresh produce aisle provided apples, oranges and pears. Anything else would be too bulky to carry for the little time it would remain fresh. Refrigeration would be a long time away now, if it ever returned. He picked a banana from a stand and stripped its peel away, littering the floor with it as he left the store. It was plain but pleasantly sweet. It occurred to him to grab the rest of the bunch, but instead he quickened his pace and moved on.
Zipping the bag, he shouldered it and stepped back into the world. Quick glances told him the family had moved down the street. He could hear the child asking when they would be home, and her father shushing her. Edwin ducked behind cars and moved down the street. The pharmacy’s door was locked from the inside, but a door midway through the alley allowed him to enter. He opened a second zipper on his pack and moved inside the building.
The aisles towered above him, each one containing its own stepstool labeled, “Help Yourself!” Pack open, Edwin ran through the aisles, raking in cold medicines, pain relievers, and indigestion remedies. He zipped down the next aisle and took bandages and crutches. He ticked off items on a list on his hand. He broke plate glass and jumped the counter into the pharmacy to peer through prescriptions and antibiotics. He aimed for Penicillin and Amoxicillin. His teeth gripped a flashlight, one of the few remaining in the country that would still work. Pack filled, he hopped on the counter, setting the mobile pharmacy beside him, and swung his legs.
Blinding pain ripped through his left leg. He had swung too far, ripping the side of his knee on broken glass from the counter. He watched the knee of his pants darken first and fade into red. He pressed his palm on the wound and tightened eyes shut.
His eyes flashed open at the sound of something coming from outside. Listening closely, he could hear the sounds of the couple talking but couldn’t hear their words. What he could tell however was that they were getting closer. Pack in one hand and palm pressing on his wound, he eased himself from the counter. Too much weight landed on his bad leg, and he collapsed with eyes clenched shut, looking for something to focus on. He could hear words now, but they didn’t belong to any adults. “But, Daddy what if something happens?” There was a fear in those words. Children’s words could never hide those emotions.
Her voice faded as Edwin watched the glass by the door darken. A soft thud told him the father had tried and failed to enter traditionally. Edwin blinked away the pain as he watched the shadow move along the front to the pane glass window. He winced half expecting the alarm that would never sound again.
Glass shattered. “It’ll be alright babe,” he could hear the man say. “Just duck into the alley there so you won’t be out in the open. We’ll be right back.” Edwin looked through the mirror on top of the wall and watched as the pair stepped over the remaining broken glass to enter the pharmacy. With an eye still on their figures, he began standing, ready to walk out of their sight when they explored the store for themselves. But he lurched as pain shot through him, and he pushed hard on the stand in front of him. That mirror told a story he didn’t want to see as he collapsed with the aisle, causing a cascade of product to fall onto the floor and a domino effect as each stand knocked over the next. The two figures stood frozen in the noise not realizing what was happening until their own aisle collapsed on them.
Silence filled the room once more as Edwin struggled to breathe through the searing pain. It took moments that felt like hours for him to sit up on the shelf and a further eternity before he was standing again, ready to limp. He found a cane on a wall display and used it to help himself to the front of the store. He needed to see if anything could be done. He hobbled to the front of the store. A quick twist of the inside latch unlocked the door and let him into the open air.
The pharmacy door shut behind him, as he turned left to look at the window they’d broken to enter. Their eyes were open, but only dead eyes stared back at him. Blood bubbled from their mouths and the wounds on their necks and backs where shards of glass stuck out from the broken window. The man’s black hair cut short into a fade, the mother’s red hair matted around her face. He shook his head, standing silently contemplating what, if anything, he could do now. The coming days would see a lot of this as people would begin to fight over resources. That death would be a necessary evil. This however, this was just a mess. He hated it.
Edwin’s leg screamed as he stood in front of the store. His head rang from the adrenaline pumping through his veins, fight or flight instincts urging him to take a half glance around before vanishing into an alley. His knowledge that there would be no sirens and no police cars to surround him warred with his more primal fears. Instead, he stood, feet settling as broken glass crunched beneath them. He breathed. It was all he had energy to accomplish for moments.
It was after those moments, when the roar of his breath began to fade from the forefront of his hearing, that he became aware of another sound. Yards away, the blanketed silence of the earth around them amplified the near hyperventilated breathing of the child he had heard earlier. Left leg growing stiff from pain, he turned only his head. Her head was fixed straight, only her eyes peering up at him. She spoke only in a language of pants, sniffles and tears held back by force of will and fear.
She had heard something. Her eyes searched. He watched her at the entrance to the alley, taking quick glances at the blood on his pants and the building he had just left. She started to turn left and look. “Don’t.” She stopped, looked at his leg, then into his eyes. “Some things don’t need to be seen.” She ignored him and her walk turned into a dash as she rushed over to her parents. “No, you- ” was all he could make out. His knee buckled, and he collapsed as she ran to the bodies. He saw her kneel, and the to-go box dropped to the ground. He sat breathing and opened his pack. Gauze, tape, a flashlight, and ointments filled the ground now. He lay down on the pavement catching his breath. A failed attempt to rise again told him the story.
“Wh-what happened?” Her lip still quivered. Her body was shaking. Her clothes had been nice, a blue dress with dirt covering the knees. She’d been out for a while with her family in this. In her hands, a box from TGI Friday’s shook as she shivered.
“There was an accident.” His leg howled at him, but he didn’t move. “How old are you?”
Silence filled the space between them. “Ten…al-almost eleven.”
“And you do know what death is?”
She didn’t answer him, instead continued sobbing, pawing her parents’ heads.
“Then, I’m sorry.” His stance was unsteady now.
He waited, listening to her sobbing. It was five minutes that might have been three hours. When the weeping faded, he asked, “Do you have any family you can go to?”
“Um, no.” He could hear her voice trembling.
Silence ballooned between the two of them.
“I’m going to need your help, kid.” No answer. “You have a name?”
There was a long pause before, “Abbey.”
“Abbey. Good.” Quick breaths helped the pain a bit. “Abbey, I need you come here. See my leg there?
He heard her approach. “Yeah.”
“Good,” he breathed. “Now, roll the leg of my pants up. It’s gonna be a bit nasty.” He waited until he began to feel the fabric on his leg move.
He could feel the air on more of his leg, heard her gasp. He continued breathing. “It’s…yeah…it’s bad.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Daddy’s a doctor. I’ve seen some pictures.”
“Pictures, wow!” He couldn’t tell if the pain was spiking his voice or if he was trying to keep her engaged. It didn’t matter though. He could feel her shaking less. “Okay, look in the cut. Flashlight’s there. There glass still in?”
A pause. “No….wait…yes, a little.”
“Damn.” He took a breath. “Look in the front pocket of my bag. Find the tweezers.”
He could hear her open the bag and look through. Her breath had calmed a bit, which was good. She couldn’t help him if she was panicking. “Found them.”
“Listen. You’re going to be digging that glass out. It’s going to hurt me, but don’t stop. I need it out so we can clean and bandage my knee. Got it?”
“Yeah, yeah I got it.”
“Do it.” The next few minutes hurt beyond belief as her clumsy hands probed his gash with steel. He clenched his teeth. After a moment, he could hear her breathing cycling up. “Abbey, talk to me. What’d you have for dinner?”
“You had a box earlier. Looked like a to-go. What’d you eat?”
“Um, a burger and fries.” Breath was calming a little.
“Awesome, burgers are the best. Where’d you go?”
“Great. Good food there. Okay, listen. Glass out?”
“Good. Now, open the alcohol, and spill some of it on my leg.”
It burned, but it was better than it had been.
“Okay, it’s done. What do I do now?”
“Now, you put the gauze on and tape around it.”
“Okay.” A moment later it was done. He didn’t get up at first, laying there instead and letting his leg rest for a few minutes. “They, they have good hot dogs too.”
“Do they now? What do you put on yours Abbey?” He could sit up now, first propping himself on his elbows before leaning up and beginning to put the supplies back in the bag.
“Ketchup and mustard.”
“Yeah. Relish is about the worst. Okay, I need to get up. Hand me my cane.” She held it out to him, and he stood it upright to his left. His knee still howled but he knew he could make it now. It was stable, not bleeding out, not making him fall out. He could work now. “No family?”
“No place safe?”
He took a breath. He thought about looking back at her parents but decided against it. He didn’t need her seeing anything, falling out herself or breaking down. Not at this moment, there would be times to mourn. This wasn’t it though. “Abbey, I’ve got to leave the city. I’m taking a trip west, and it’s going to be a long one. It won’t be fun, and I won’t be coming back.” He looked at her. “But if you can hold your weight and help out, I’ll take you, and I’ll keep you safe.”
He saw her stare wordlessly at him.
“The lights won’t be on for a long time, if they come back. In that time kid, there are going to be a lot of people doing ugly things to feed themselves and their families.” He stopped there, knowing he shouldn’t have said that. He pushed on seeing her hiccup into a brief cry. “Phones won’t work, and cops won’t know what to do for a long time. Their cars are broken too. Do you understand that?”
“I’m going this way.” He pointed up the road. “If you want to be safe, then come along. I’ll do what I can for you.” He stood for a second gauging her response. Nothing. He nodded and began walking. It was a few moments before he heard steps behind him. He slowed his pace but didn’t stop. Eventually, he saw her feet draw up beside his. Then he noticed the box. “You know I don’t have a microwave, and it wouldn’t work if I did.”
“Yeah.” Silence. “But you’re gonna cook with a fire, right?”
“Then, if it’s still good, you can cook this again.”
He smiled. “Yeah.” They walked. “They’ve got good burgers.”
“They really do.”
It was the last thing they said for a while. They paced under the moon and between stalled cars. They ducked into alleys when people were around. They ate canned vegetables. Though all of this, they forged ahead to the west, away from everything they knew and everything that no longer existed.