Sola wandered the silent city alone. The area was not truly silent, just much quieter than it had been before. Birds chirped and wind whistled through the streets, but the only sounds from a human source anymore were the words of Sola, who was talking to herself.
“The lights are still on,” she muttered to herself. “I wouldn’t have expected them to last this long. Maybe it’s just the city that’s all empty like this – maybe the plants are still running.”
Sola was in her home city, Freeton. She’d arrived there after a long drive to find it deserted. Sola did not know if what had happened to the city had happened to the entire world, but she had her suspicions. She’d driven around the suburbs and outlying boroughs to find them devoid of human life. She remembered seeing a bright flash of light while on the highway at night almost a week ago. Sola had kept driving in bewilderment as the highway was void of vehicles. That was it- there were no cars left in the city and no people. It couldn’t have been a bomb of any sort – that bright flash of light – since she had survived it and little was disturbed.
This was unreality.
Sola had been wandering around in it for several days. She passed by the Great Gear Clock in the town center. Its minute hand clicked forward, marking illusion. The young woman wondered if she’d somehow jumped outside of time or to a parallel universe.
That clock had been designed by some artist she’d forgotten the name of. It was installed only about seven years ago – a funky, chunky thing cast in a golden-toned polished bronze. Other cities had their landmarks –
had its Philadelphia had its buildings, bridges and Broadway, both had drivers who did not know the meaning of turn-signals… Sola’s city had that big, stupid clock. Bell, New York
“The sky is like a sapphire,” she said to herself, looking beyond the grand timepiece. “Maybe I should stop. I’m talking to myself. Crazy people talk to themselves.”
Sola supposed that she could pray, but she really didn’t know whom to and, according to her mother, that was just as bad, if not worse, than one’s talking to oneself. Sola’s mother had taught her to pray when she was a small child, but in the course of life had lost her faith in a way that led her to condemn it and all related subjects as forms of insanity. The aging woman had come into her latest view with the exuberance of a new convert and a zeal and certainty more appropriate, Sola thought, to a member of her own generation. Unlike her mother – or that uncle of hers whose views had gone in the opposite direction with a particularly conformist church that she found creepy, Sola wasn’t sure about anything.
She was even less sure of anything in this bizarre, empty world.
“Ha!” she laughed, “I suppose I can talk to myself all I want to! Mom and Uncle Jimmy aren’t around to tell me not to, are they?”
It was three days after that when Sola found the kitten.
The city had seemed to be devoid of animals as well as humans, save for the wild types. Songbirds chattered from power lines and she’d caught sight of three deer wandering down
– a whitetail buck and two does.
Still perplexed at the continued hum of electricity and other conveniences, Sola got herself out of bed in the bright glare of an early summer Saturday morning. She filled up some plastic bottles with water (the plumbing in her apartment was still working as smoothly as ever) and loaded them into a small backpack. The television was static and, while her computers (both the tower unit and the laptop) still worked, the Internet had been down ever since the “emptiness” had begun. The landline telephone gave her nothing but a repeated computerized message about any numbers she called being out of service and her cell phone lately seemed to think that everywhere was a dead-zone. If there was an outside world anymore, there seemed to be no way of connecting to it.
As she stepped down the stairs outside, she heard a strange squeak. A little white shape came bounding out from behind a bush. It had bright pale-blue eyes and skinny limbs supporting a fat little body, round in way that kittens often were from baby-fat and bellies full of mother’s milk. It sniffed Sola’s feet.
“Well, hello there, little one…” she said, noting the soft gray markings on the animal’s ears, nose and tail. The kitten was clearly of Siamese descent, though of the rare “tabby-point” kind. The animal’s forehead bore gray stripes and the tail was trimmed in circlets.
“Do you belong to anyone?” Sola said as she cautiously picked the kitten up. She wasn’t talking about a human master. Her eyes scanned the area to see if there was a mother cat around. The kitten purred and squirmed. It appeared to be at a just-weaned age and was definitively a male. Sola set the kitten down, not really knowing what to do with it. She expected it to scamper off. As she walked down the street of her empty neighborhood, she found it following her.
“Alright, alright,” she laughed, “I’ll see if I can find you some canned cat-food while in town.” She paused and picked the tiny fuzzball up again. She held him close to her chest, listening to his thunderous purr. “I guess…” she said tentatively, “if you have no one to take care of you, I’ll have to do it. I think I’ll call you ‘Ring,’ since you have rings on your tail.”
The young woman looked to the sky and sighed. “This beats talking to myself, I guess, though I’m sure you don’t understand a word I’m saying.”
Sola wondered briefly why it was considered crazy for people to talk to themselves, but not to an animal. Even people who had a problem with others talking to God didn’t usually have a problem with them having one-sided conversations with Dog. Animals for-sure existed as much as the self did, but animals didn’t know what people were saying, for the most part. Sola had known dogs that could decipher the word “walkies” enough to get excited about it as well as a cat belonging to an aunt that knew what “sushi” was. Said aunt was the type to share small amounts of takeout with pets. Sometimes, that cat would just jump up on the kitchen table with people seated at it, too.
Ring followed Sola to a shoe store. Sola felt lucky to find the front door open, though she found the chiming of the little bell mounted on the door’s corner eerie. The soles of her old runners were getting thin. She tried on a pair of dark leather work-boots, though she removed the straps. She sat on one of the chairs in the store’s front dangling a bootstrap in front of Ring, smiling at the kitten’s frantic antics.
“You know, Ring?” she said, “I once had the thought to gather a whole bunch of these – bootstraps, I mean – and weave them into a noose to hang myself with. People all over the place tell you to ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ you know? It was going to be my answer to that.”
Sola laughed aloud as the kitten jumped and danced, and got one of its hind legs tangled. “I think you and I will get along real well,” she said with a pleased sigh.
In her strapless boots, Sola hit the street again and walked to a grocery store she knew to procure some cans of cat food and a few other necessities. One could never have too much toilet paper. The doors opened for her just as they had in the time of people. While it was bizarre and worrisome that everything meant to serve mankind was still working without a hitch, Sola was getting used to it.
“Maybe we’re a couple of bugs in some kind of alien’s jar,” she mused, talking to the tiny cat at her feet. Ring had taken to following her as faithfully as any puppy, a far more common trait in kittens than was widely known.
“What I like about this,” Sola said, popping a can of “Mariner’s Catch” into a canvas “Save-the-Earth” bag she’d taken off the side of a register up at the front of the store, “is that everything is gratis. I didn’t have to work hard to get any of this, nor am I having it denied to me because I worked hard, but was unlucky enough to not have the work pay well enough to feed myself, let alone kitty-cats. When I came home to the empty city, I’d been driving home from looking for a job… I had to go far out of my way to put in my bid with a bureau that’s supposed to find jobs for people who have trouble getting hired by conventional means…”
She picked a bag of dry cat food off the shelf, figuring her new kitty might like that, too. “To tell you the truth, Ring, I’ve long had a little fantasy about wandering around in an emptied world. Living the dream – woo hoo. I always figured it wouldn’t be what I wanted when I got it, though… that I’d be lonely or have a hard time surviving. Characters in post-apocalyptic stories always have a hard time surviving.
Sola picked up the little kitten. He squirmed in her hands. “This isn’t so bad, though,” she asserted, “… not really. I suppose I never knew until now how little I’d miss people. The city is quiet now and I don’t have to worry about what anyone thinks of me… at least, as long as I take care of you, hmm?”
The young woman held the cat close to her and shouldered the canvas bag filled with the things she wanted to take back to her home, including a small bag of clay cat litter that proved to be quite heavy. The sun had set when she stepped out into the vacant parking lot and made her way out into the streets. Something unusual caught Sola’s eye. She set her bag down and gently released Ring. Ever since she’d seen the mysterious light, the only car she’d glimpsed in Freeton was her own.
She saw a car and it was her own – just off the main thoroughfare into town, its front end wrapped around a tree. Sola picked up her feet. Broken windshield-glass was everywhere. Shadow figures appeared around her and she heard the garbled noise of police speaking into communicators. Red and blue lights flashed round-about her. Sola could not make anything distinct out of any of it. Everything was made of shadows and static.
She stood suddenly still, like a confused animal in the center of a highway. She found herself paralyzed like a mouse captured by a cat. Her every muscle locked. There was a body in the driver’s seat of the car – or what was left of it. Sola couldn’t get a good look at the face, but the long black hair and the clothing that it wore reminded Sola of her own long hair and what she’d been wearing several nights ago.
In the flashing lights, she picked up her feet to avoid nuggets of glass and spatters of blood. Just as quickly as it had appeared, the vision dissipated, leaving behind nothing more than a scarred oak. Ring came padding up to Sola. Aside from his tiny squeaking and the wind through the leaves, all was silence.
The young woman did not sleep that night. She sat up on her apartment’s small balcony as the sun rose; her knees were curled to her chest as she sat on the bare concrete, her tailbone hurting. Ring slept upon a folded-up towel, curled into a fuzzy little kitten-ball.
“I don’t think the world ended, Ring,” she said, talking to the feline although he was snoozing. “I think I ended. The world melted away for me, but really, it was only me that melted away.”
She petted the kitten with two fingers and awakened it. Ring purred and rubbed his face against her thumb.
“I don’t know where I am now. I suppose I can’t go back. I don’t want to, though.”
Sola smiled, positioned herself to sit cross-legged and brought Ring into her lap. “The more I think of it,” she sighed, “If I had the chance to go back, I wouldn’t. Alone, but not lonely… I suppose it’s a rare achievement.”
The sun glared over the empty streets below. Sola could see the Great Gear Clock without the foot and car traffic in the way, as it had always been in past days. She stroked her purring kitten.
“This is my city,” she sighed happily, “and here I am free.”