I headed up the mountain, the rain beating down on my windshield. I checked my watch. Shoot. Behind schedule. I had been laid off recently, and in between jobs, I was working a part-time gig with the South Carolina Park Service that mandated the checking of the resources they maintained. That meant, in plain language, “spend time outside and get paid for it.” Today I was checking out Stumphouse Tunnel, an abandoned railroad tunnel that ran one-and-a-half thousand feet back into the mountain. At its farthest point, it was under almost eighty feet of mountain rock. I was checking it today because of the rain. The tunnel was closed during inclement weather, and there would be no people there. I pulled up to the entrance and shut the engine off. The tunnel mouth loomed like a foreboding maw, and I grabbed my flashlight and went in.
After a few minutes of walking, I passed through the first wall. There were two brick walls that stretched to the ceiling in Stumphouse, each with a heavy steel door in them. To test the door, I slammed it shut behind me. It closed smoothly. Good. The damp environment in the tunnel often rusted the hinges. I didn’t bother to reopen it, as I had the keys right under my jacket, and I continued down the tunnel. When I reached the second wall, I repeated the same door-checking process.
Finally, I reached the end of the tunnel and climbed up the slope at the end. Just for fun, I turned off my flashlight, enjoying the total darkness that immediately ensued. I did this all the time, just to have some time with my thoughts. Right as I was turning on my flashlight again, though, something happened.
I heard a deep buzzing that seemed to emanate from above. I clicked on my flashlight and scanned the ceiling. Nothing. No cracks that would indicate a cave-in or anything. The buzzing intensified into a loud hum. This is really weird, I thought.
By now I was thoroughly freaked out. I scrambled down the slope and began to jog back towards the entrance, my feet splashing into the water. Suddenly, intense pain hit me from all sides. I collapsed to my knees, gasping for air, feeling as if every inch of me, inside and out, was burning. Then, as suddenly as it had come, it stopped. The pain abruptly stopped, as did the buzzing. I grabbed my flashlight, terrified by now, and frantically shined it all around. The fact that nothing seemed out of order did little to discourage my fear, and I sprinted headlong back towards the wall.
I reached the first door and flung it open. I had no clue what had happened to me back there, but it hadn’t been pleasant. I noticed my hands were shaking as I attempted to lock the door, and something clicked in my head. Stroke. That was it. I must have had a stroke of some sort. This rational explanation calmed me down a little, and I resumed moving towards the final wall, now merely jogging. I reached the wall and locked it as I passed through the doors.
I headed through the rain towards my Park Service truck and got in, deciding to go straight to the hospital to get checked out. The truck roared to life and I rumbled off down the narrow, twisting gravel road. About ten minutes later, however, I noticed something very strange.
I merged onto a larger state road, dodging a Ford Explorer that had stopped in the middle of the road. Further down, I saw three more cars that had done the same thing. All of them were just sitting there, idling. Weird. That made no sense at all. I maneuvered carefully around them, glancing inside as I did. I glanced in as I drove past and hit the brakes as I saw that there was nobody inside. As I kept driving, I noticed that none of the other cars had drivers in them either.
“What’s going on?” I asked myself out loud, accelerating again, an odd panic filling me, “What the heck just happened?” Somehow, I suspected that the situation in the tunnel had something to do with these disappearances. Somewhere deep inside me, I began to doubt that I had had a stroke at all. I shook this thought away and drove even faster, turning on my flashing yellow lights.
As I barreled down, I saw more cars, all of them driverless and empty. I picked up speed, dodging the unoccupied vehicles as I sped towards the interstate. What had happened? Where the heck was everyone?
I flew down the on-ramp, dodging a motorcycle that was lying on its side. I hit the freeway and continued dodging stopped vehicles, my panic mounting. I then jumped as a cluster of flashing lights hove into view ahead. Thank God. Someone was still here. I accelerated and then skidded to a halt behind a highway patrol vehicle.
“Officer! Office- Oh, my gosh.” The vehicle was empty, as was the Honda CRV in front of it. I leaned on the police car to try to catch my breath and steady my shaking limbs. Everywhere around me, as far as I could see, were stopped cars. Some idling forward, others just sitting there. I was terrified. Something had happened to make every human around disappear. Why was I still here? Why me?
Then it hit me. The tunnel. Whatever happened had to have happened when I was in the tunnel! The vibration and pain somehow must have affected everyone, and I had been shielded from the bulk of it . . . Which meant that others might have survived as well . . . My neighborhood had big houses, maybe some people in the inner rooms had survived too!
I ran back to the truck and grabbed my jacket and backpack, and then sprinted back to the SCHP car and jumped in. Despite the mounting terror and the uncertainty of the moment, I was smiling. I’d always wanted to do this. I put the car in gear and floored the accelerator. The Crown Victoria responded immediately, getting up to eighty miles an hour in no time flat. I was driving on the shoulder to avoid the cars, and still could barely resist grinning in spite of my fear.
I barreled down the freeway, lights and sirens on. I had to slow down to avoid a nasty pileup at one point and about then I realized something. The radio! I could call son the radio! I picked it up and keyed it:
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
“Hey, I need help here . . . Is anyone there?”
Still nothing. I cursed and threw the handset down, accelerating again. Fear had taken a back seat to a burning desire to find out what had happened.
Twenty minutes later, I had reached my neighborhood. I scanned the dashboard on the patrol car and found the loud hailer.
“HELLO?” I boomed, “IS ANYONE THERE?”
Nothing but the echo.
“THIS IS THE SOUTH CAROLINA HIGHWAY PATROL . . . NOT REALLY. SERIOUSLY, IS ANYONE THERE, PEOPLE?”
No one responded. I pulled the car into my driveway and got out, popping the trunk as I went. I reached into the trunk and pulled out a large shotgun and checked the chamber. Good. Topped off. I grabbed a harness of shells and jogged next door to my elderly neighbor’s house and pounded on the door.
“Ron?” I shouted. There was no response. “Ron?” I leveled the shotgun and put two rounds in the doorknob, and then kicked the door in. “Ron! Are you there?”
I checked through the house, to find just what part of me expected: Nothing and no one. Interestingly enough, though, his parakeet was still in its cage. It looked agitated and nervous, but that could have just been a result of my blowing the door open. I turned on his TV and flipped through channels. TV shows were running just fine, but news and sports were conspicuously silent. It looked as if I was alone somehow. But what had happened?
I went back into the master bedroom and pulled open the nightstand drawer, where I knew for a fact Ron kept his only gun. I pulled out his Smith & Wesson 327 and two moon clips. I shoved the gun in my belt and the clips in my pocket. I then charged back out into the evening sunlight. The rain had cleared by now, but there was still no sign of life at all.
I skidded to a halt in the street and forced myself to think logically, despite my hammering chest and a terror that was rapidly taking control of me. Okay, I told myself, Something’s happened. It’s probably all a dream, but still . . . People have disappeared, that wouldn’t happen for no reason . . . someone’s invading. Has to be. And if they’re invading, they’ll be here soon; you don’t deal your enemy a crazy blow and then let him recover. First order of business, then, is to survive. For that, you’re going to need guns, water, shelter, and to be prepared for a siege . . . no telling how long the power grid will stay up, so generators and fuel . . . Food! That can happen tomorrow. Right now you just need to ensure your safety.
I went into my house, poured myself a drink, and forced myself to calm down. Once my heart was not hammering hard enough to be seen from ten feet away, I went up and down the street, kicking or blowing in doors and scanning for guns or people. I found several hunting rifles, but no life. I only took one rifle, figuring I could loot gun shops tomorrow for serious firepower. I did find a nice 10-gauge semi auto and some shells, and I took that with me as well, along with a snubnose .38 and an ankle holster. All these years I’d known him, I speculated to myself, Peter was carrying this thing?
Oh, heck . . . Peter . . . and everyone else. My family, friends, everyone. I couldn’t help myself. I collapsed on the couch and cried. I was not normally an emotional person by any means, but this shock was too much for me. Everyone I had ever known and loved was gone, and something whispered to me that I would never see them again.
After I stopped, I dragged myself back to my house, locked myself in, and spent a sleepless night staring out the windows at the empty world I was now king of.