This story is dedicated to Angie E., who so selflessly and diligently edited it.
Rebecca paused in the hallway. A light showed in her sister’s bedroom. Tapping the door with a fingertip, she questioned the empty bedroom: “Maude, are you in there?” Maude was her older sister, and gone, like everyone else these 16 months. The last person she’d seen had tried to rape her.
Rebecca was 17 years, 4 months, and 14 days old. She knew that for certain, tracking the days on a wall calendar beside her desk. Today was Wednesday, April 20, 2016, and the 495th day she’d been alone.
Walking to Maude’s bedside lamp, Rebecca flicked it off, and returned to the hallway, shutting the door behind her. She wondered who had turned on the light. It hadn’t been she; Rebecca hadn’t been inside Maude’s bedroom in weeks. She continued to the bathroom to shower. There should be no running water, but there was. There should be no electricity, but there was.
Rebecca was naked. She mostly walked around naked in the house, never closing the vertical blinds or curtains. Modesty was pointless when alone in the world. Who cared if trees spotted you naked through a window? The last mascara, eye shadow, or lipstick she’d used was sitting forgotten on her vanity table, lost from sight in a translucent, red plastic box. She missed wearing makeup, no more appropriate than modestly today.
Often, she wished Gunther had succeeded in raping her. More correctly, had been given the opportunity to rape her by whatever force had evicted the rest of humanity. She wouldn’t now be a virgin, destined to grow old (or die young), without ever getting laid. Not that getting laid was how it went with Gunther. That was just rape in progress.
Grabbing a pair of clean towels, Rebecca entered the bathroom and turned on the lights. Spotting her reflection, she turned to face the big-chested girl, examining her curiously in the glass. She’d put on weight the first six months, only to lose it again over the following ten. Except for her ragged hair, she looked much as she had December 12, 2014.
Drawing erect and square-shouldered, she wiggled her breasts, and then jiggled them up and down, grinning at herself ironically. It had really freaked her out when Gunther shoved up her clothing and bared them a year and a half ago, a foreshadowing of her coming rape. God, was it that long, really?
Rebecca resembled a young Jennifer Lawrence, in looks, if not demeanor. Her body mimicked Lawrence’s big-boned build, wide shoulders and hips, slender waist and long legs. She was blonde and blue eyed.
What she lacked was Lawrence’s “don’t fuck with me” attitude, which had served the actress well in Winter’s Bone, Silver Lining’s Playbook, and The Hunger Game films. Not to say that Rebecca hadn’t fought back that Friday night, not taking it lying down, as her friend Amy would undoubtedly put it. However, fighting back isn’t the same as fighting someone off; having her jeans and panties forcibly removed, and her legs pried apart, she’d screamed against the hand over her mouth. Then he’d simply vanished, like everyone else in Huntington, West Virginia.
Rebecca raised her arms. The hair in her armpits was long as a boy’s. The hair on her legs, also, and it bothered her this morning more than normal. “Do something about that, Rebecca,” she muttered irritably. She had no notion of meeting a fellow survivor today; her condition just grossed her out. Grabbing a razor and a can of shave gel, she climbed in the shower.
Gunther’s disappearance had left Rebecca startled and disoriented. She was barely 16, stupidly wasted on weed and half drunk, in a bedroom upstairs at some girl’s house at a party. Stupid not knowing the girl’s name, or exactly where she was. Stupid to drink too much and smoke dope. Stupid to let Gunther take her upstairs. Stupid was Rebecca’s middle name.
She’d struggled to a sitting position on the bed, working her bra back into place and smoothing down her sweatshirt. She hadn’t wanted to fuck. She was okay with making out, liked Gunther enough to open her mouth and French kiss with him and let him play with her boobs and grab her ass, but fucking was something else. Being forced was something else entirely.
She had blacked out, she guessed. Gunther had done her, or had walked away disgusted and left her for someone else to do. Rebecca was under no illusion that guys wouldn’t do a nearly naked comatose teen, should they stumble across her in a darkened bedroom. Offsetting her anxiety somewhat was sensing that she hadn’t been done, or even touched. The flashing red and blue lights illuminating the bedroom window-Gunther hadn’t cared that cops were about to bust the party, detaining any underage drinkers or anyone doing dope-behooved her to get the hell dressed and away from the house just as fast as she could.
The bedroom door was locked. Gunther had locked her in, then. Muddle-headedly grateful, she fumbled the door open and stumbled into the hall, wincing at the higher decibel level. Music pounded downstairs.
She was so messed up. Had Gunther fed her something besides beer and weed? She knew about date-rape drugs and how lots of older girls got fed them in their drinks at parties. But that was college-age girls, not 10th graders. None of her friends had ever been roofied.
Hand on the wall for balance, Rebecca approached the stairs and gazed down, bleary-eyed. Be careful, she told herself, grabbing the handrail. Descending one step at a time, turning at the mid-floor landing (her own stairs went straight down without a turn-back, but then, her house was half the size of this one), she made it to the bottom without stumbling. Looking dumbly about, she tried to make sense of the empty main floor, a party without participants... “Gunther?” she called unsteadily.
Before Gunther took her upstairs half an hour ago, there’d been no room to move, barely enough space to breathe. How everyone fit in the house, Rebecca didn’t know. There had to be 100 kids, as many as a 150, maybe. Bottles of beer, red, and blue plastic cups littered the floor and every available surface. Spilled contents soaked into the expensive carpeting and furniture. Had everyone simultaneously opened his or her hands and allowed their drinks fall? Where were they all?
A voice inside her head--quite drunk---advised she get back upstairs to the bedroom, lock herself in, and grab some sleep. People were fucking with her, playing games, being common assholes. Gazing up the steps a moment, she stepped off the bottom riser onto the main floor carpeting. Half a minute passed before she released the post and ventured away from the stairs.
“Gunther?” she called again, louder this time. “Stop playing games with me, guys! Amy? Where are you?”
Embarrassed to mess with the blaring stereo, Rebecca tread cautiously to the front door and checked through the windows at top, standing on tip-toe. At the curb sat a police cruiser, a black and white SUV with the department logo on the side. Using her hand as a shield against the flashing strobes, she’d swear no one was inside the car. The driver’s side door stood half open, as though someone had gotten out. Craning to look in all directions, Rebecca spotted no men or women in blue. She dropped back to her heels, more confused than ever. “Come on, where are you guys?” she muttered.
Crossing the living room, she headed down the hall and into the kitchen. Confused, she ogled a pair of wallets on the kitchen counter, and a pair of cell phones, something girls would never leave untended at a party. Wanting to investigate, but filled with trepidation at being nosy, she instead crossed to the patio doors and gazed out. A blue plastic cover--as expected on a cold December night--safely protected the pool. Rebecca spotted no one in the back yard, hiding, or otherwise. Jesus, were those snowflakes?
“Amy?” she yelled, now really alarmed. Amy was her closest friend, her BFF with a vengeance, whom Rebecca had accompanied to the party. With only the vaguest notion where she was in relation to her house on Wiltshire Boulevard, how would she get home? Was this snow for real? How deep would it get?
Swaying awkwardly down the hall, Rebecca reentered the living room with a fresh eye, observing more abandoned cell phones and wallets, a purse or two, and coats galore. Her sense of decorum objected to the plethora of spilled bottles and cups on the floor; fuming, she snatched up a bottle at her feet, stumbling forward in the process, catching herself at the last moment on the arm of a chair. Carefully forcing the bottle onto a nearby lamp table-it required shoving others aside to make room--she rescued a plastic cup from atop the seat cushion and draped it over the bottle.
“That has to go,” she muttered of Iggy Azalea’s Black Widow blaring from the four tall speaker boxes. Advancing on the stereo, she whipped the volume knob to the left; the resulting silence was sudden and profound, triggering vertigo strong enough to make her stagger sideways a step. Trembling, she bent and grabbed her knees. Was she gonna puke? Please don’t let me puke on this expensive carpeting, she thought.
The nausea, if not her light-headedness, finally eased. Standing erect and filling her lungs with air, she slowly blew it out between pursed lips and inhaled another lungful, holding it this time. The tremble refused to go, but at least she could maintain an erect posture.
“This is not funny, guys!” she hollered. “Are you all downstairs?” Stomping downstairs to find out, she discovered the same weirdly empty tableau, abandoned bottles and cups everywhere, many on the polished hardwood flooring. Yanking open the bathroom door she discovered no one inside, or in the combination laundry-work room to her left. The sliding glass door to the side patio was unlocked. Pushing it roughly aside, she stomped outside and looked about, hands on her hips. Come on, she thought, finding no giggling partygoers crouched behind bushes, or poorly hidden behind trees and patio furniture. No cops with flashlights, either. The fucking snow had stopped falling, at least. A dusting covered the flagstones, and the surrounding grass. A thick overcast threatened more, though. She ought to head home, and the sooner the better.
“Is anyone out here?” she yelled. “Anyone at all?” Climbing the hill to her left, she approached the tall wooden fence surrounding the back yard, and checked the gate. It was unlocked. Inside, she searched the entire back yard, checking those places not visible from behind the patio window. It was empty, just like the house and the side yard. She was becoming truly scared.
Retracing her steps, Rebecca slammed the patio door hard enough to rattle the adjacent pictures on the wall, dashed upstairs to the second level and checked every single room, including the bedroom where Gunther had abandoned her. No Gunther, no Amy, no anyone. The house was deserted.
Jamming her fists to her forehead, she closed her eyes and breathed raggedly through her mouth. She was nauseous again. Leaving her eyes closed, she shakily dug out her iPhone and thumbed the Home button. Peeking one-eyed at the screen, she brought up the messaging app and opened Amy’s text stream. “Where are you!!!!!” she demanded.
Weak-kneed, she crossed to the stairs and dropped awkwardly onto the third step. Anxiety had her chest aching, and her bowels feeling waterlogged. She shifted uneasily, worrying she might need to dash for the bathroom at the front door. She’d peed there earlier tonight; Amy’d been with her.
“Feeling a little trippy there, girl?” Applying eye shadow and grinning as Rebecca went pee, Amy eyed her in the mirror.
Coloring in embarrassment, Rebecca shook her head and dodged the taunt. “Gary looks hot tonight.”
“Gary’s hot every night,” Amy countered. “It’s not Gary paying attention, though, is it? Gunther, now...” Her grin widened. “You slutty little ho’!”
Rebecca laughed, unwontedly and foolishly grinning. Gunther shared her history class, but they rarely interacted, certainly, not like tonight. Her hormones were all in a tizzy over Gunther.
“Better slow down on the booze, girl,” Amy warned. “And the dope.” Rebecca had gone outside earlier with Gunther and two others to share a joint, claiming a corner of the back yard to light up. She’d returned to the corner half an hour later with Gunther alone, making out with him while they enjoyed a second joint of fine cannabis. He’d gotten a feel of her boobs and her ass. Amy was warning her off now. She hadn’t listened, of course, and to the expected results.
“Where are you?” she typed again. “You can’t leave me here alone! This place is completely empty! I don’t even know where I am, Dammit!”
Unleashing the text, she realized finding out was no big deal. Opening Google Maps, she spotted her blue dot flashing atop a big house on Honeysuckle Lane. Entering her address on Wiltshire Boulevard revealed a distance of 2.4 miles, an 8-minute drive by car. She didn’t have a car, dammit; she’d come with Amy, who had a real driver’s license, not a stupid learner’s permit.
“Dammit,” she muttered.
According to the phone, it was 9:47 pm, and her curfew was 11 pm. She was half-drunk and wasted on weed; her mom would ground her for a fucking year and almost certainly confiscate her new iPhone. Bitch, she thought angrily. I am so screwed!
She tried Jamie, another friend, pushing off the step to pace up and down before the stairs. Jamie didn’t answer and she tried another friend Jen, home on Friday night like a good girl. When Jen blew her off, she stopped her pacing and stared at the display, teeth clenched, unconsciously twisting the phone in her grip. God, she had such a headache coming on.
She tried Amy again, railing at her in caps. Not awaiting a reply, she fired off another text to Jamie, then to Jennifer again, a plea to acknowledge her text, because she was loosing her mind over on Honeysuckle Lane! Finally, she jabbed the phone icon at the bottom and selected Amy’s number from her Favorites list. It rang 5 times, before going to voicemail.
“Where the fuck are you!” she screamed. “I’m here alone! The cops are here, but the car is empty! No one answers their fucking texts, Amy! You know I hate using the damned phone! Call me as soon as you get this voice-mail, dammit!”
Lightheaded again, she dropped back to the step and rested her forehead against the heel of her hands, iPhone pressed unfelt against her scalp. She breathed deeply through her open mouth, nauseous, trembling violently. Where had everyone gone? What the fuck was going on? Would she have to walk home?
If Rebecca had any doubt, it took only a block to confirm the weirdness extended beyond the party house. Trudging along the sidewalk with hands stuffed in her coat pockets, shoulders hunched and muttering invective, she slowed, and then halted, blinking slowly. A dark SUV with the engine running was up over the curb, crashed into a tree, rumbling quietly. The transmission was in drive, Rebecca surmised. The driver’s side was scraped halfway down its length, and advancing slowly, Rebecca discovered the driver had collided with a silver Audi at the curb. Like the abandoned house, the SUV was empty.
Before leaving, Rebecca had called her mom. No answer. She fared no better calling her dad’s cell phone, or the useless landline. She tried texting her parents next, and then two other classmates, Sonia and Susan, feeling more desperate by the moment. Was her phone broken, she wondered? Finally, remembering Casey being there earlier with her boyfriend Stephen, she tried her number. The phone rang, right there in the living room. Rebecca choked out her name convulsively.
“Where are you?” she cried. “Stephen?” Stumbling through the detritus on the floor, she located the ringing phone on the far end of the couch, beneath the lamp table. Bending awkwardly and snatching the phone up, she confirmed her number was making the call. It went to voicemail as she watched.
She turned slowly around, shaking her head, rattled to the point of almost peeing her pants. “Casey?” she warbled. “Are you here? Stephen?” Her need to go pee was so sudden and overwhelming that she jammed Casey’s cell phone between her thighs and hobbled toward the downstairs bathroom, whimpering. She made it in time, but just. When done, she shakily washed her hands, and then dashed upstairs to find her coat, and had fled the house.
“You should take this car,” she muttered. It looked drivable, despite the damage to the front end and side. Wouldn’t the front end be steaming if impact with the tree had crumpled the radiator? Glancing nervously about, biting her lower lip, she wondered how much trouble she’d be in taking the car.
She could drive it. Dad had taught her on the back roads over the summer and early fall, taking the RAV4 at night and on weekends, letting her get a jump on her friends and the requisite driver’s ed classes. Rebecca was notoriously slow mastering any new skill. She’d flattened a tire jumping a curb, scraped the rear fender backing into her own driveway (taking out the mailbox in the process), and busted a taillight parallel parking. Four frustrating months, learning to drive. Continuing on her way, she felt indecisive, stupid, and cowardly.
Honeysuckle Lane eventually brought her to 5th Street Road, where she turned left. She’d passed no more wrecked vehicles, but spotted one just ahead, run off the side of the road into the trees. Another traveling southbound had crashed into the rear of a parked car in Hatchers on The Hill parking lot. Its front end, steaming in the cold air, sat above a puddle of anti-freeze. The car was empty, with not a soul in the parking lot. Was Hatchers empty like the party house?
Shivering, wishing she had worn her Ugg boots instead of the red Converse All-Stars, she tried to understand what was going on. Gunther had disappeared from right atop her, which seemed unassailable now. Her eyes were closed, she thought, struggling to push him off, but she had felt his sudden departure, the loss of his weight. She hadn’t passed out, like she’d thought at first.
What about the others? Had everyone downstairs gone along him, vanished at one time, simply popped out of existence like some dumb sci-fi movie? And why not her? Why leave a stupid, mostly naked 16-year-old behind? She had yet to consider this might be about her.
She encountered dozens more wrecked vehicles on her way home: head-on collisions--many of a catastrophic nature, certain to leave occupants maimed or dead, others run off the road into parked cars, smashed head on into telephone poles, trees, lamp poles, into the sides and fronts of buildings. She found no evidence of human intervention after the fact.
Were she older, sober, and more observant, Rebecca would have noticed a glaring inconsistency in all this: Nowhere did she find evidence of fire. No telltale glare of flame, billowing smoke, or the acrid odor of burning plastic. No warble of emergency vehicles, either. Preternaturally quiet, the night weighed on her like a lead blanket.
She bore on, hands stuffed in her coat pockets, avoiding vehicles run up over the curb along North Boulevard, 8th Street, and then 13th Avenue. The walk home would normally take 45 minutes to an hour. At the midpoint, approaching the entrance to Ritter Park, Rebecca stopped beneath a streetlight and again tried calling her mom, and then Dad. Trying Mom a third time, she left a voicemail.
“Mom, it’s me. I’m on 13th Avenue on the way home. I’ll probably take 12th Street and Enslow Boulevard to Washington. When you get this message--” She sobbed, wiping her nose on the back of her bare index finger. “Please come and get me, because I’m really scared, Mom!” She coughed and sucked in a deep breath, coughing it back out again. “Mom, I’m really scared. Where the fuck is everybody?” she cried.
She tried Amy again, then Jamie, and then Sonia, Susan and Casey. The cell phone ringing in her coat pocket made her yelp and skip sideways. She’d pocketed Casey’s cell phone. Disquieted, she dug it out and depressed the button on the side, silencing the damned thing. Casey had an iPhone like hers, wrapped in a spangled pink and white case. She stuffed it back in her pocket. “Where are you?” she muttered petulantly.
At 12th Street, she bore right, following it to Enslow Boulevard; from there, along to Washington Boulevard, approximately 1/2-mile from home. She began to jog, clumsily at first with her hands jammed in her coat pockets, then breaking into a lope, and then finally a sprint, exhaustion overtaking and halting her a block from home. Bent double, panting, and gripping her knees, she coughed convulsively. Her heart banged against her breastbone, her lungs burned from the cold air; she had that proverbial stitch in her side, making it difficult to stay upright, even bent double. Sobbing, she jammed her right fist uselessly against her ribs.
“Fuck!” she hollered. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
She was frightened, afraid to open the front door to an abandoned house. She was falsely reassured by warm lights glowing behind the windows of neighboring houses. Gina Condone lived right here, though she didn’t get along with the 11th grader real well--sort of a stuck up bitch. Across the street and two houses down, the Keller’s place, where she often babysat, as recently as two weekends ago. The Mountjoy’s house, the Oshun’s and the Eames; across from her house, the Burnham’s. She’d caught Duncan Burham observing her bedroom window a number of times, sometimes through binoculars. Fat little fuck. Pimply-faced, middle school pervert. She’d relish seeing him right now.
Straightening, she shuffled the final block to her front walk and eyed her parent’s cars in the driveway. The RAV4-Teddy, as in Teddy Bear--would be hers in a week, when she went for her license. Dad had a new RAV4 all picked out, the new one silver instead of royal blue like Teddy. Would that happen now, she wondered?
She gazed at the house, essentially normal looking. Experiencing a shudder, which shook her head to toe, she dug out her keys and headed up the driveway.
Lathering her hair, Rebecca hummed softly to Sam Smith’s, In the Lonely Hour ... A year and four months post-event, she hadn’t learned to take the continued power and hot water for granted. Not that hot water was dependent upon the unknown force. The water heater in the basement supplied all the hot water needed, for showering, doing laundry, and washing her dirty dishes. While electricity powered the municipal pumps, Rebecca had water.
She took care with the razor, cautiously scraping away the long underarm hair and then shaving as though planning to hit the beach. She hadn’t seen a beach in 16 months. She attended her legs, and then cautiously shaved between her legs, trimming, rather than completely ridding herself of hair. No boys, no bikini, no bare pubes. Done, she slid back the curtain and dropped the razor in the trashcan.
How many cans of Venus shave gel and packs of pink razors remained on American shelves, she wondered. How many bottles of Herbal Essence shampoo and conditioner? All the perishables had long since rotted in the refrigerated bins and display stands of stores, but air conditioning kept the stink short of overwhelming. She had located a painter’s mask early on, switched out the charcoal filters every couple of weeks, but it was no longer required in Krogers, or Food Fair. After 16 months, everything perishable was desiccated.
Gas was plentiful, though some pumps no longer worked. Those at her Marathon station had died last week, caused by tripped breakers, she imagined. She would check it out. That was her favorite place to pump gas.
She conditioned her hair; let it soak five minutes while she enjoyed the hot water. Should the water heater gave out, what then? What a ludicrous concept, the idea of fixing anything electrical, or requiring mechanical skills. Before the disappearance of everyone she knew, Rebecca was the least capable person she knew. Maudie helped restore her new iPhone when she’d dropped the old one in the toilet. She hadn’t known the iPhone even backed up. It continued to back up now, every time she plugged it in to charge. Her Internet connection remained stubbornly functional; allowing her to text unanswered messages, access Netflix and Amazon Video, and Google, whatever she wanted. It made no sense, but there it was.
Rinsing and wringing her hair (lack of skills extended to cutting it, hence its ragged appearance), she twisted the tap to the right and swept back the curtain. A year and four months of solitude hadn’t killed her apprehension of finding someone waiting, knife in hand. Wrapping her hair, she dried and slipped into her terrycloth robe. For a change, she had remembered to hang it on the back of the bathroom door. She opened the door now, intending to head for her bedroom. Instead, she wiped the mirror clear with her forearm, unwrapped her hair, and shook it out, combing through it with her fingertips.
Perhaps she’d do what she had thought to do for months. Glancing at the second drawer down, she envisioned her mom’s scissors and electric trimmer, tucked away neatly in a black nylon pouch. Between haircuts, Mom often attended Dad’s lank hair, trimming above the ears and sharpening the cut above his shirt collar. Before the GEE, (Great Eviction Event), she’d always wanted short hair, but knew classmates would comment, and not all would be kind. Her oval face would look fat with short hair, she thought. Raising a handful on the right side, she wondered how much she could safely trim away. Amy would know. Maudie would know. Damn their fucking disappearance.
Reaching her front stoop, Rebecca stood shivering in her Converse All-Stars, hands jammed in her pockets, shoulders hunched, afraid to climb the steps. The house looked so thoroughly right, the windows brightly lit downstairs, obscured upstairs by blinds and curtains, both cars in the driveway. Maude’s car was with her in Morgantown, at school.
She debated pulling out her iPhone for another round of calls, and then finally, forced herself to climb the three steps. Here goes, she thought, opening the screen door. Unlocking the front door, she yelled, “Mom? Dad? Are you here?” The alarm was not set.
In blind hope, she added her sister’s name, shivering in place, doorknob clutched in her hand. She was ready to whirl and flee at the slightest provocation. Cocking her head, she made out the tinny sound of television upstairs, and the heat pump kicking on around side of the house. She heard a number of heat pumps in the eerie silence. It was 11:10 pm.
Trembling, she closed the front door and leaned against it. With numb fingertips, she unzipped her coat and let it hang open over her Huntington Highlanders sweatshirt. She wasn’t taking it off. Not until she felt secure in the house. Correction: Not until she WAS secure in the house.
Clear every level, she thought, like they did on the stupid cop shows. Search every room and closet, check under every bed, and behind all three shower curtains. Right now, though, she only leaned against the door, trembling.
How far did this craziness go? The walk home was 2.4 miles, during which she’d spotted all those wrecks, but not a single human being--male, female, or child. Despite the cold-her iPhone claimed it was 29 degrees Fahrenheit in Huntington, right now-what possibility existed that not a single wreck would garner an emergency response, clusters of do-gooders or gawkers, and at least one resultant fire? (She had finally noted that anomaly.) The answer was none. Not slim or marginal: none.
Pulling out her phone, she tried Maudie’s number. Morgantown was 3-1/2 hours away, about 200 miles, a good distance. Tapping the speaker icon, she listened anxiously as Maudie’s cell phone rang, finally going to voicemail.
“Hi,” she started in a tremulous voice. “It’s me. I’m alone here at home. I can’t find Mom and Dad or anyone else I know. Are you OK? Have you heard what’s going on? Please call me the instant you get this voicemail, okay? I’ll text you right now.” Fumbling the phone, she managed to tap the red button terminating the call. She sent the text message, short-handing a written version of her verbal plea for help. She couldn’t stop shaking.
Dead-bolting the front door, but leaving the chain unsecured pending a search of the house, Rebecca cautiously explored the main level, slipping room to room, checking the foyer closet, and behind the living room and den furniture. She inspected beneath the dining room table, checked to insure the door to the basement was locked and slide-bolted. Check the basement later, she thought, maybe with a baseball bat, or better yet, Dad’s Remington 12-gauge.
The kitchen was empty; ditto the mudroom, and the family room out back. Deadbolts were set on both back doors. Trembling not quite so badly now, she returned to the living room and gazed up the stairs.
“Mom? Dad?” she hollered. “I’m home! I had to walk from Honeysuckle Lane over in Whitaker Terrace, so that’s why I’m late! Amy and everyone just sorta-”
What the fuck was she doing? Trembling more forcefully, she gripped the rail with one hand and the banister with the other, and ascended the stairs, planting each foot solidly before taking the next step. Drawing closer to the upstairs hallway, she heard the television more clearly, recognizing the “Bad Boys” theme from Cops. It was 11:30 pm. A new show had begun.
“Mom? Dad?” she yelled again. They must hear her, shouting at the top of her lungs. Advancing down the hallway, she checked her bedroom first, turning on the light, and then Maudie’s, doing the same. At her parent’s bedroom door, she hesitated, fingertips lightly touching the wood face. The door was open its usual crack, the bedside lights softly illuminating the room, TV adding a flickering glow to the ambiance. Peeking through the crack, she observed that her mom’s side of the bed was empty. She couldn’t tell for sure about her dad, but he often watched TV from his recliner, half embroiled in a book. The chair was not visible through the 1/2” wide crack. She tapped lightly on the door.
“Can I come in?” She pushed open the door, dreadfully certain of what she would find. The bedroom was empty.
She repeated her earlier search, this time accompanied by Dad’s Remington shotgun. She had never fired it before, in fact, had to figure out how to load the Model 1100, resorting finally to the Internet for guidance.
A YouTube video featuring a stocky blonde with a deep southern accent explained it all. Under the woman’s confident tutelage, she loaded the magazine with four shells, and then pocketed a dozen more. Thank God, Dad stored his guns in a cabinet, and not a gun safe. She knew exactly where he kept the keys.
“Anyone down there,” she yelled at the head of the basement steps, “I will kill you, you know that!” It was just after midnight, and Rebecca stood back, gun clenched in her white-knuckled fists, teeth chattering uncontrollably. She had Dad’s ear protectors around her neck, but didn’t expect to need them. Still, the weight was comforting. She wondered that she hadn’t suffered a heart attack from the unbelievable stress.
“I’m passed out in that stupid bedroom,” she muttered. “Trippin’ on whatever Gunther put in those fucking cigarettes.” It didn’t matter, nor did she catch the inaccuracy of her words. She had never tried a cigarette in her life, and never would, she thought incorrectly. “I’m coming down, and I have a fucking shotgun, you morons!”
The basement was finished and the steps carpeted; no one could trip her going down. Midway, she halted and yelled out her warning again, clutching the stock so tightly it made her hands cramp. She forced them to loosen, demanded her index finger remain safely outside the trigger guard. Damned if she’d shoot Mom or Dad by accident.
“Mom? Dad? Maudie?” she tried hopefully. Reaching the bottom step, a thought occurred which froze her foot mid-way down. Losing balance, she tottered a moment at the razor’s edge. Grabbing the railing with her left hand to right herself, she cursed her clumsiness, ineptitude and the bang of the shotgun against the drywall. The consideration was this: Why do you trust the electricity to stay on, you dumb bitch?
Panicked, heart nearly seizing at the thought of being plunged into total cave darkness, she whirled and ran blindly up the stairs and to the kitchen cabinet containing the emergency supply of flashlights and candles. Keening, she flung open the door and snatched one of the two black-barreled, D-Cell flashlights off the shelf. It was empty, light as a feather. Cursing, she grabbed a 4-pack of batteries and struggled shortly to get it open. Making her hands slow and do it correctly, rather than attempt disemboweling the tough plastic packaging, she turned the package over, pried open the outlined flap, and withdrew all four batteries. Her shakes were so bad they nearly shook her apart.
“What. Is. Going. On,” she mouthed. Taking a deep breath, holding it a moment, she loaded Flashlight 1 and then Flashlight 2, testing both, daring either to malfunction. She slapped each smartly against her palm. Flashlights and batteries were both Duracell’s, inspiring confidence.
Jamming one flashlight into her back packet, gripping the other against the barrel, she returned to the basement stairs and descended, this time in silence. Like everywhere else she’d been the last three hours, the basement was empty. It was 12:24 pm.
She needed to sleep. Arming the security system first, she performed another sweep of the house, checking windows this time as well as doors, engaging the security chains. She had never been alone in the house overnight. She’d never been alone overnight, anywhere. Expected or not, every sound made her jump.
Except for her All Stars, she remained clothed, socks, included. Dropping her coat within easy reach beside the bed, she piled her pillows against the headboard, lay back against them, and hugged herself. Every light in the house was on, upstairs and downstairs. The TV was on, though muted. Patrol officers in Atlanta hunted bad boys on Cops. Flashlights 1 and 2 guarded the bedside lamp; Dad’s Remington lay beside her on the bed. Her teeth wouldn’t stop chattering.
Distraught, she repeated under her breath: “What. Is. Going. On.” Maudie not responding in Morgantown was no clear indication of how far this thing extended; her sister would ignore any call or text from her on a Friday night, regardless. She ignored Rebecca by rote. Other than Maudie, she’d tried no one out of the area. Maybe it was time to try.
Dialing Aunt Kelly in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, she listened to the speaker announce four rings, grimacing when the call went to voice mail. She dutifully left a message.
“Hi, Aunt Kelly, it’s Rebecca. I’m sorry to call so late, but you’re an hour behind me, so it’s only 11:56 there. I can’t find my mom and dad, Aunt Kelly. I can’t find anyone, Aunt Kelly, and that’s no joke, either!” She stopped, forcing herself to calm. Clearing her throat, she went on as well as able.
“I’m alone here, and locked up in the house in my bedroom. So when you get this message, please, please, call me back, right away!” She broke off again with a sob, throat constricting, eyes overflowing with tears. She wiped her stinging nose with the back of her finger, silently cursing. Jabbing the red button, she cut off the call. The keypad appeared, and with it a startling revelation.
911! Why hadn’t she called 911? Jerking upright, rebuking herself violently, she stabbed the three digits in disbelief that she hadn’t done it before. The first thing you do when in danger, is what, dummy? The speaker emitted the first ring tone; immediately, the call was picked up.
“Cabell County 911 Emergency Services. Please state the nature of your emergency: Police, fire, or rescue. If unsure, please state ‘Police.’ “ The message was repeated in Spanish.
“Police!” Rebecca trilled, unaware the voice was recorded. “Thank you,” it answered, “Connecting now.”
Laughing with giddiness, Rebecca clutched the phone with both hands. A woman had answered the phone! She wasn’t alone after all! It took less than five seconds for her excitement to ebb, however; the phone rang eight times, unanswered. Then a similar recorded voice announced: “We are sorry, but all emergency operators are currently assisting other callers. Please stay on the line, and your call will be answered in turn. Do not hang up! Doing so and calling back will result in your call going to the end of queue. Please stay on the line and someone will be with you shortly. Thank you.”
Dumbfounded and dismayed, Rebecca stared at the phone. Worse than abandoned, she felt betrayed, first by her family and friends, now by the services created specifically to render emergency aid. What greater emergency existed than this, what greater need?
Frustrated, she hung up and called again, imagining the pandemonium at the call center if the disappearance was strictly localized, inundated by thousands of other distraught callers. She suspected the more obvious answer, though: no one was there to pick up her call, the only one incoming.
Angry, she hung up and Googled Fox 11, the TV station broadcasting Cops. Dialing, she fell back against the pillows and raised her knees, digging in her heels. When the call was picked up, she immediately recognized the voice as recorded. She poked 2 at the prompt, selecting the newsroom, and another recorded voice requesting she hold on. For three minutes, the voice assured Rebecca how much they valued her call and would she please wait. Cursing, she hung up.
A call to the ABC affiliate yielded the same result. So too, The Herald-Dispatch, Huntington’s local newspaper. Which brought her to 2:07 am.
Exhausted and admitting defeat, she plugged in her phone to charge--God knew how long the power would last (how much longer, she incorrectly guessed by 16 months)--worked into the pillows, hugging herself tightly. To her surprise 7 hours later, she nodded off immediately.