Daimones

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Alone?

- We’re Alive -

Back in the kitchen, Mary and Annah wanted to know about Joe and Beth. I did not go into any gruesome details. Not in front of Annah, anyway. Maybe later, if Mary and I had a brief moment of privacy during the day. I told them they passed away in their sleep and I covered them as best I could. “I don’t think they suffered or realized anything.”

Nothing more to do for our neighbors but bury them. Mary couldn’t hold her tears. Then Annah asked the question dangling from the tip of Mary’s tongue. She nodded at the box. “Is it Joe’s?”

“Yes. He once showed it to me. I’m glad he did.”

From Mary’s expression, I believed she had guessed the content. She wiped her tears, and sounded tense and nervous when she asked, “What’s in there, Dan?”

“A gun,” I replied bluntly. No reason to lie.

“I don’t want a gun in my house.” Mary crossed her arms.

With a calm voice, I managed to explain why I took Joe’s pistol. “We probably have no reason to use firearms right now, or in the future, but I could not exclude the possibility.” In case—just in case, I repeated—the need should arise, better to have a serious means of protection and dissuasion rather than trusting in our ability to reason with troublemakers.

“Think of estranged dogs,” I added after a moment. “It will not take long before they turn wild and dangerous if they need to fend for themselves. And wild dogs do hunt in packs.”

Mary didn’t seem convinced so I rapidly changed the subject.

“Anyway, we should try to get in contact with someone, anyone. Did you call the emergency numbers again?”

Mary sighed. “I did. How’s it possible no one is picking up?”

“I don’t know. I can't be sure but what happened to Joe and Beth might be the same with the commuters on the expressway. Besides, I haven’t seen anyone around, not a single person. I mean, alive. I can’t… ”

Annah stared at the window, and Mary shook her head. They seemed confused. I was confused, too.

“Mary, give me the phone, please.” I thought about my parents who lived in Italy. "And try calling people on your cell. You, too, Annah. Call your friends."

I hoped all those deaths were somehow local, confined to a relatively small area even if wide by several miles. I still hadn't noticed or heard any incoming planes and, by then, quite a few should have reached the airport for landing in the morning. That, and the black smoke rising to the sky from that direction, played against my hope.

I dialed my parents’ number. After what seemed to be the longest moment ever, I got a connection. The phone rang but no one answered. I glanced at Annah and Mary and I saw they too were not having any success with their own calls.

We tried all the numbers we had stored on our phones, both the fixed-lines and the mobiles. I even called professional acquaintances, anywhere, with no consideration of time zones. I would have loved it if I woke up someone and verified that, somewhere, the world was running as usual.

Nothing.

“Dan...” Mary was pale. Annah didn’t say a word but her lower lip trembled as it had earlier in the morning.

I was not prepared to provide any explanation. We were not prepared for this. How is anyone supposed to face the possibility of being…left alone? The eventuality defied all beliefs.

Armageddon and conspiracy theories never pictured such extreme scenarios. This was the real world, though, not a theory. Our reality, not some science fiction horror movie. How could people die en masse everywhere and at the same time?

Granted, not getting any answer on the phones did not mean we were truly alone. The number of people we contacted had to be infinitesimal considering the billions on the planet. Rational thoughts clashed with everything we were experiencing.

“Dad…why don’t we try the TV?”

Damn, what an idiot. Another obvious thing to do which I didn’t think of, yet my 12-year-old daughter came up with it.

“Of course. Come here.” I hugged her. In that moment, I needed that contact more than anything else in the world.

The TV set was on the first floor, in the family room. We all went. Finally, we would learn what had happened. We would be reassured, receive explanations, and discover people busy taking action. Things would return to normal soon.

I switched on the TV and started to jump from one channel to the next. We received blank screens, black screens, a couple non-stop infomercials, and one or two music only programs. In most cases, the screen showed a message stating Technical Fault, No signal, and the like. A few times, some logos, numbers and codes, or an emphatic End of Broadcasts.

The channels were dead in all the countries we had access to. The impact on us was like a hammer blow to the head. We looked at each other, speechless, mute, and I saw despair in both Mary’s and Annah’s eyes. Had the planet reset on us? Had something or someone called off human beings and their civilization?

“Dad…my friends. Are they dead? Even those on Facebook?” Annah cried softly.

Facebook! Annah and Mary had accounts on Facebook to stay in touch with co-workers, school mates, and close friends. Others used the site for everything, even as a dating service. How many hundreds of millions were on Facebook and how many connected with each other daily?

If someone was still alive and had—as we did—Internet access and a Facebook account, chances are he could be using it right now. Searching for others.

“Honey, I love you,” I told Annah, and rushed upstairs.

Facebook, Facebook, Facebook…there was something I had read about it recently.

“Mary. Your password, quick.” I shouted.

Mary and Annah joined me and, excited, I described the theory I came up with. Surely we would find someone alive on Facebook.

“Dan, I am not friend with the entire Facebook community. How can you reach—?”

I stopped Mary short, and explained what I read the week before and just remembered: Facebook ads. “You see, if you have an account and you pay online with a credit card, PayPal, whatever, you can run your own ad campaign and Facebook does the rest! In principle, we can reach everyone on Facebook.”

My idea was to turn Facebook into the digital version of a message in a bottle. From our virtual island—Mary’s account—we would send thousands, millions of messages to any Facebook page in the world…that is, if the servers were still working.

In the worst-case scenario, at least for as long as they worked until the next malfunction, when nobody would be around to fix it.

Time was of the essence now. The plan might work for a few days, hopefully weeks before the digital entropy stopped everything everywhere.

I got to the Facebook ads management page and clicked Create an Ad. Oh, God. It worked, and the process was rather simple. I had to create a message and choose the country where to activate the ad campaign.

I started with the US, Canada, and the EU countries. A panel on the right gave me the estimated reach...306 million people and counting. I eliminated all restrictions to select focused groups. My interest group was the entire planet.

I proceeded alphabetically and eliminated countries contributing less than a couple millions accounts. Next ads will cover those. I was going to send my “Calling for Survivors” message in the Facebook bottle to a comforting reach of four hundred sixty-two million and change!

I put a picture of us taken live with the built-in camera on the Mac and this message in all capitals. “WE ARE ALIVE. PLEASE CALL OR GET IN TOUCH WITH US AT…” then the date and time. I added our phone numbers and the email addresses we had access to.

I hit the Review Ad button. A popup message stopped me short. Because I had targeted users without any age restriction, minors were reached, too. My ad had to go through an approval process before going live.

I could not rely on Facebook employees still working to approve ads. Frighteningly enough, that seemed no longer to be wild hypothesis and conjecture. CNN was dead and it meant only one thing. I adjusted the target age and placed the order.

After a few seconds, the greatest thing on Earth happened: the Mac Glass alert sound, signaling incoming messages, cheered us with the most beautiful sound ever. We received an automatic message from the Facebook Ads Team. I wondered if anyone from that team had survived, God bless them.

The email thanked us for creating a Facebook Ad and showed a copy of my beautiful help message, exactly as people would see our message on their pages. I created a few more ads to reach more countries and managed to target an additional hundred million Facebook users. Soon, depending on how the system actually worked, those ads would be seen by someone sometime. God, please!

The email from Facebook also provided an embedded button: Manage Ads. Clicking on it, I was sent to a dashboard. There I could see my intended audience, my personal interest group of hundreds of millions of people, the reach and the number of Facebook pages where my ad was going to be shown, with number of clicks and cost, plus additional information pertaining to the management of multiple ads.

I did not care about the payment, I cared about someone clicking on our message and getting in touch with us. A signal of hope, a signal of life. I guess we had nothing more to do now than wait for the miracle to happen. For the time being, the dashboard showed a frustrating Pending status for my planet-wide distress call.

Annah brought us back to reality with a practical matter, providing a welcome interruption from the spiral of scary end-of-the-world doomsday scenarios we had been abruptly plunged into that day. “Mom, I'm hungry.” It was beyond lunchtime.

“I can make some toasted panini for everyone,” Mary said while giving me an intense look as she nodded Annah out of the room. I understood. Mary’s main preoccupation now was to save Annah from all I had exposed her to.

I nodded back at Mary, meaning I understood what she meant. We needed to think about practical issues, divert the mind from focusing on what we faced now. That was crucial. We had enough to drive anyone crazy, or worse, suicidal and I had to be glad my family seemed to be holding up amazingly well under the circumstances.

Before she left, I told Mary we needed to know how much food and provisions we had, and the kind of autonomy we hoped for. Annah would help her mom to take note of everything and evaluate our situation and what to do later to improve it. “I’ll do some more research online and join you right after.”

While working on the Facebook ads, some internal thoughts brought to mind that I actually had eyes out there in the world: Webcams.

I googled “live webcams”. I got pages of static webcams with 12-hour picture intervals, with non-working links, and question marks where images were supposed to be. Frustration mounted rapidly. Then I found “LIVE Webcam Network” in all its HD glory. The main page showed live pictures from Times Square, New York! My heart jumped.

It was sunny in New York. The scene showed a crossing I did not at first recognize; it seemed familiar though. The site did not specify the exact address. Next to the curb, a USA Today vending box, two phone booths, one having on the side an ad for “AWAKE, The Movie”.

No live traffic. Quite a few cars at a stop, either in the center of the road, or against the curb and on sidewalks. They had crashed buildings and other obstacles. A car in the distance seemed to have hit a streetlight pole of some sort. “Wait.” I figured out where the webcam pointed. In the top corner, I recognized a statue I knew—George M. Cohan.

He was a famous figure in the New York City theater scene just after the turn of the twentieth century. The memorial had been erected in recognition of his contributions to the American musical theatre. I had to be at Broadway and 46th Street in Manhattan.

Something lay on the floor partially behind the pedestal. I could not tell the nature of the object and there was no option to zoom the picture either. Legs? Wooden planks?

A yellow cab was stopped on the sidewalk at the far right of 46th Street as if the driver had awkwardly parked the car. I couldn’t see anything inside any vehicles. Some smoke or vapor came out from something, maybe a light pole. White condensation flew outward, not at street level, a bit higher up, and I couldn’t figure out the cause.

On Broadway, there was a construction area with large scaffolding going from the top of the building down to the ground. No movement or people walking around; the area was deserted.

Further down on 46th Street, other stuff obstructed the visible part of the sidewalk. No way to distinguish what it was. Bodies? I felt a cold sensation in the lower parts of my spine and shivered.

I tried with another link. This one labeled “LIVE from SXSW in Austin, Texas.” I had never been in Austin so had no idea what the webcam showed. The live picture covered a downtown block with old two-floor buildings flanking the street. One had a red vertical sign “RITZ” on the corner. Traffic lights worked. Cars, parked on the right side. A static picture, if not for the flashing red, yellow, and green lights.

While I watched, the site switched by itself to a different webcam. This time, the “WRIGLEY FIELD: Home of the Chicago Cubs” main entrance came to view. No one around.

I waited a bit more and the next scene jumped to downtown New Orleans, a little street crossing with its characteristic French district flavor. Deserted.

The next one pointed at the bronze bull on Wall Street. The statue almost filled the screen. Back to New York. My heart sank. A police car with lights still on and flashing red and blue had crashed against it. There as well, not one person visible in the scene. No activity, just an empty eerie view.

I tried with Moscow. I could not get much information from there either. The scene was beautiful, a panoramic of the Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery, as reported by the site. It came from a webcam installed too high above and offered little to no street view. Some white smoke slowly rose up from in between distant buildings. No visible movements, even around the few stopped cars; too far away to tell if they had crashed or if they were simply parked.

The connection from the site was slow and, at times, I got a spinning wheel or no reply from webcam links. The Amsterdam cam presented only a white empty page. Other links reported a nasty error: “Run script void(0);” on the browser status bar.

I wanted to get some certain and definite answers from those views, but I got only hints, nothing conclusive. I expected a mass of corpses on the streets. More catastrophic scenes. Those hints were bad nonetheless, even more troublesome, probably.

I saw nothing like busy and active street views. Where were all the people? If deaths had been so sudden, shouldn’t the streets be full of dead bodies? I would have tried later on other sites and webcams, in the meantime, Mary called from the kitchen downstairs.

Annah had almost finished eating her sandwich and had a glass of milk in front of her, too. Mary had waited for me. “We have enough food to be fine for a week.”

“Water?” I asked.

“For as long as it runs from the tap...”

We could not count on municipal utilities to run indefinitely. We should get provisions of non-perishable food, rations, water, medicines.

I had already started to think in survival mode. In spite of Mary’s abhorrence for everything resembling a gun or any other form of offensive weapon, I thought I would soon become a gun store shopper, too.

I told Mary all that but didn’t say the idea was to find a gun shop in town and turn into an apocalyptic version of Rambo. I had no idea whether we would be facing real danger soon. I did not want to find myself in any dire situation and having to think, If only I had that. Whatever that was going to be.

If around us the world had stopped being served by humans, I would serve myself instead. Everything waited to be taken. The world did not suffer from a global nuclear blast. No “Day After” scenario, thank God. We ate in silence.

“I’m going to the mall,” I said abruptly.

“No, you’re not.” Mary then continued with a more conciliatory tone. “We don’t need anything right now.”

I stared at her and raised my eyebrows. My head bent to the right as I did unconsciously whenever I believed someone had no idea what I was talking about and why.

Mary looked at me and lowered her gaze for a brief moment. She sighed. “Okay then. We’ll come with you.”

“No, that is out of the question. I won’t be long.”

I pulled out my iPhone and dialed her number.

“What are you doing?”

“Just seeing if it works.”

Mary’s phone rang.

“Don’t answer it now. I’ll call you again from the mall. If it’s safe, I’ll wait for you and Annah at the entrance. We might need both cars.”

“Why the sudden urge? What do you want to do?”

“Because we need stuff and because it’s much safer today. Trust me.”

I took the pistol with me. Mary noticed, but said nothing. Annah did not react at all, and that worried me. She had been apathetic the last few hours. She was lost in some inner world of her own. She stared blankly at us.

I signaled Mary to follow me and, outside, I told her to keep an eye on Annah. “Stay with her.” I muted her words with a kiss and left. I closed the gate behind me and hit the road again.

The mall was only a ten-minute drive from our house. The road took me through the closest village, and then traversed more crop fields before reaching the large shopping center, the hardware store and a gas station, all on one site. “The Valley Shopping Center: Over 80 businesses at your service.” the billboards told customers in both English and French.

If computers still worked and managed general operations, I wouldn’t have the need to break in as the automatic doors would work and lights would still be on. Everything ready and waiting for customers that would never come.

I drove slowly, the gun tucked between my legs. I felt safe in the car, but I did not want to take any risk.

Houses along the road looked empty. Joe and Beth were not the only ones who had found death in bed during a February windstorm. A number of cars were parked in driveways. Others must have been among the early commuters on the expressway. People lost to an impossible fate.

I traversed the village, eager to catch any possible sign of life, smoke from chimneys, a boy on a bike crossing the road, customers at the local grocery market greeted, anyone and anything.

My eyes searched for scenes common for the time and place: people, shoppers, and moms pushing baby strollers. Nothing of the sort. As if everyone had vanished.

What if those believing in “The Rapture” were right: "We who are alive and remain" will be caught up in heaven to meet "the Lord." After all, a good vision, to be chosen to meet our Lord. Hopefully alive in the physical sense of the term. But no, every house, every apartment was now a tomb. I wasn’t driving through a village; I was driving through a cemetery.

I got to the mall without seeing anyone apart from cars off the road with their drivers dead inside. One, in the middle of the field, had left behind grooves like scars from his unwelcomed passage. Another one had overturned after having smashed the bus stop. At the mall, very few vehicles occupied the parking lot. I drove through, stopped the car right in front of the entrance, and stepped out.

Crows, calling each other.

I hadn’t seen any birds so far. Up in the sky, a couple flew in circles, and a few more in the distance. Indeed, I didn’t see any dead animals. Peluche had been fine, and birds must have flown away the night before and might now be slowly returning.

I looked around. I was alone. I reached to switch off the car engine and stood there in silence for a little while. No noises, no sounds but the crows. No voices. Nothing. I closed the door. With the gun in my hand, I headed toward the automatic doors. They opened.

I stopped. The music from the loudspeakers surprised me. Music had always been part of mall operations and, with the shopping crowd, it had become an almost unnoticed presence. Now the music struck me with violence: loud, arrogant, profane.

I moved forward a few steps. The shops' shutters were all down for as far as I could see. No employees had opened them that day.

I walked cautiously along the hallway. My steps resonated and were the only noise I could hear apart from the musical entertainment. I stopped, checked the bars on the phone and called Mary.

“Dan. Are you okay?” Mary’s voice was anxious.

“I’m fine. I’m fine. Everything’s fine. Don’t worry. I’ll check around here a bit more and I’ll call you again.”

“Dan, please… be careful. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

I took a deep breath. Amazing how a gun can give you a sense of security and control. Was weird to handle one there.

I reached the central plaza where the coffee bar was ready for customers with its many little tables, Parisian brasserie style. Next to those, across a barrier, “Paul’s” vending place resembled an old, last-century truck. The pastry and French bakery offered fine food, croissants, beignets, tarts, and their signature double-sized macarons. Annah loved those. I glanced. They’d be good for a few more days, I thought.

From there, taking the hallway to the left, the Migros supermarket welcomed its patrons with its tons of fresh produce and exotic foods. I was interested more in canned and packaged goods and household merchandise. An advertisement showed me how to profit from this week's sales; products marked with a red dot enjoyed a fabulous 50% discount on the original price at the cashier. How convenient. The place was flooded with light, and painfully deserted.

A vision of the multitude of shoppers, overloaded carts, children running, the always-smiling cashiers rushed in front of my eyes. All gone now, vanished. Raptured. I grinned at myself. I walked back to the central plaza. On the far left, stairs led to the office levels, maintenance and services. I headed that way first.

I climbed with caution, still expecting…what? After all I had experienced that day, I would never consider anything impossible anymore. From the top, I looked down for a broader view of the mall and its hallways. How could this be possible?

I didn’t know the location of the security guard's quarters, but I soon found them at the end of a corridor. I put my back against the wall, pistol ready, and knocked hard on the door. We could not truly be the only ones alive, could we? Maybe a panicked guard trembled inside, with a loaded gun in his hand, about to shoot. My heart was beating fast and I learned then what cold sweat truly meant. Nothing, no reaction.

“I am opening the door.” I called out. Extending my arm, I turned the knob. The door opened, squeaking on its hinges.

I peeked through and didn’t notice anything abnormal at first, no signs of commotion, and no one inside. I went in. Then I saw him, or at least his feet. A guard was on the floor; must have been about to start his shift. He was lying in a fetal position, behind a desk.

I get closer. Young, in his mid-twenties. His back curved, the head bowed, his legs bent and drawn up to the torso. The face, as Joe’s, with the same gasping expression, and blood from his nose. Eyes wide open, blood seeping from them, too. Same kind of violent death.

At the back of the room, a door stood ajar. I advanced slowly, glanced briefly at the dead guard, and then tried to peek through into what seemed to be a sort of office or changing area. I caught glimpses of lockers along the wall.

I moved to the other side and pushed the door open with my foot. Another guard; his legs crooked over a bench in the middle of the floor. He must have fallen backward when he died. Another desk and a chair were the only other pieces of furniture in the room. I had seen enough.

I checked briefly around for the presence of more guns, but there were none. These guards were only armed with bludgeons. I didn’t care to take them from their bodies. Not what I needed anyway. I left and went to the central plaza on the ground level. Still looking around me, I called Mary.

“Mary. There’s no one here.” I didn’t mention the dead guards. Yet, suddenly, I was uncomfortable with the idea of having Mary and Annah driving alone to join me at the mall, even if only ten minutes away. A pinch of paranoia could do no harm.

“Stay home. No need to come over here now. I’ll load the car, and I’ll be back soon.”

“Okay.” She sounded relieved. “Dan... Be careful.”

“You know I will.”

I headed for the supermarket area and took a cart. I knew more or less where to go as sometimes I helped Mary with our grocery shopping. I walked each aisle and collected canned food, anything with a long shelf-life, pre-cooked food, but also fruits and vegetable. For a few days, I thought, then they’ll rot soon.

I left the cart at the exit and went back with another. I loaded it with gallon water containers, and then took one more. I went for flashlights and batteries, dozens of matchboxes, candles, and canned heat by the carton. Handfuls of gauze and bandages of assorted shapes and sizes as well as scissors, safety pins and tweezers. I grabbed anything that seemed prudent to have at hand.

Over the counter, I found antibiotic ointments for treating scrapes, scratches and cuts; bottles of vitamins; acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and aspirin for pain relief. Leaving the area, I noticed hand sanitizers and disinfectant wipes; added those too. In the aisle with detergents, I collected soap bars, sanitizer bleach and was able to find nose and mouth protection masks.

I judged I had done a good job on that ride. One day, I would also need to visit the outdoor store for travel and first-aid kits. I knew they had water filtration and portable purification systems among other things. Had to sit with Mary and compile a comprehensive list for the next visits.

I loaded the car to the roof, and I had flattened down the back seats, even. I was happy to be able to leave the mall without incident.

Now was the time to test my theory on automatic services. I drove to the gas station, and pulled in to the pump right next to the credit card payment column. The system was up and running; its computer voice welcomed me and asked me to select the grade, put in the payment card, and enter the code. I was euphoric. For my next visit, I had to come back with jerrycans.

As I got behind the wheel, I heard a dog barking furiously, and getting closer. I closed the door as I saw a rather large animal ran toward the car. The beast threw its paws against the window and barked loudly, foaming at the mouth. I started the engine and slammed the pedal. The Volvo jumped forward. The dog chased me, roaring with rage. I left it behind in the distance.

What the hell? The event shocked me. Dogs can become dangerous in a short time. Nothing was safe anymore. I shivered, I seemed to be surrounded by hostility.

While driving, I could not fail to notice the empty blue sky. Condensation jet trails developed during the day, and spread in the morning hours with the start of jet traffic. The resulting ice-crystal plume lasted for several hours as testimony of the passage of an airliner across the sky. That morning, nothing.

At times, contrails criss-crossed the sky as air traffic peaked, but there were only a few clouds that day, no jet trails. It all meant but one thing: what had happened here must have happened everywhere on the planet.

The enormity of the tragedy overwhelmed me. I stopped the car. The world population was estimated to be about seven billion people. I had no idea how many survivors were alive today, thanks to whatever glitch had saved us. For all I knew, there could be only a few million left. Possible? I doubted then we would have any chance to meet survivors, ever. I caught my breath at the thought. Better not to share these considerations with Mary and Annah. After all, I could be dead wrong. Note to self: Bad choice of words. Don’t use with the girls.

The dog was nowhere to be seen now; I scanned around for more dogs or any other animals. Everywhere in sight was deserted. I drove through the village again. Nothing had changed since my passage shortly before. The same desolation, the same sensation of an immense void, and no one alive.

When I got to our front gate, I sounded the horn to warn of my arrival and immediately regretted it. In spite of all evidence, I still expected to see people show up, maybe wounded, sick, or worse. I guess my imagination had started to recollect past images from horror and catastrophic genre movies, massive contagions, and zombies alike. With those in mind, I made sure all around the car was clear before getting out, the gun still tucked in my waistband. I heard Mary and Annah running on our graveled driveway and calling for me.

What kind of world had we inherited and what kind of life could I promise them now? What kind of dangers lurked? I couldn’t show my distress in front of wife and daughter though. Annah always looked up to me.

I put on my best smile and concentrated on the good things. Provisions? Not a problem. Food and any medicine or anything else? Not a problem either, provided we were not against breaking the windows of the various shops at the mall in the future. We were safe and sound. I hoped to have the internal resources to keep going for them.

“No worries, I’m back. We have access to plenty of stuff at the mall.” I forced myself to smile.

The gate opened enough for Mary to rush out and hug me while Annah fully opened the panels to let the Volvo in.

“I was so worried. I was afraid to call myself…I imagined things. What happened?”

“It's all fine, check the trunk. But let’s get in now, let’s not stay right here.” I used a little lie to give reasons to my request and urgency. “There was an unfriendly dog not far from here, and I think I spotted a few others. Mary, drive the car all the way to the house to unload. I’ll close the gate.”

I guess I was under the influence of too many Hollywood doomsday renderings. I told Annah to go to her mother while I closed and locked the gate. In the meanwhile, Mary had parked the car and opened the trunk. “Oh my.”

“Dad. How much did you pay for all that?”

I smiled at Annah. “I guess for a while we’re going to borrow things rather than buying them.”

She looked at me, eyes wide open. “Really? You mean you just grabbed stuff and left?”

I smiled. “Yeah, more or less.”

Annah suddenly changed expression and frowned. “Because nobody was there…”

Hers was an observation, not a question. I believe she had reached her watershed moment where everything changes; events collated in her mind. Interesting that—with Annah—the trigger for all the pieces to fall into place had been shopping without paying. Nothing will be the same as before. My kid is gone, I thought.

“I need you to be brave, Annah. We need each other more than ever now.”

Annah nodded.

Mary examined the load I had brought home. With certain items, she agreed; for others, she wondered why we needed them at all.

I admitted that some might have been an excessive precaution, but knowing we had that stuff readily available at home made me feel safer. Besides, the basement had plenty of space. Actually, I wanted help from both of them to make a list of what could be useful or needed for weeks to come.

While we got the provisions sorted out, I told them—adding more details—about the encounter with the dog at the gas station, and again touched the subject of firearms. It was crucial for them not to leave home without some means of self-defense, and never wander alone. I believed it best to carry guns, even on our own property until I made sure the fence could not be easily trespassed by wild animals.

Mary looked at me as if I were a complete stranger. “Annah is only twelve. You are not giving a gun to our daughter!”

“Not long ago in the States, boys and girls knew well how to use rifles and pistols, ride horses, and tend to cattle on ranches. They kept mountain lions, wild dogs, and coyotes at bay. Mary, I don’t know what’s out there.”

She paused, not ready for my reaction, and turned away from me. She glanced at Annah, and stepped into the garden. Mary looked at her plants, her arms crossed tightly at her chest. She approached our old stones wall, and caressed the sturdy leaves of the olive tree. Then, she turned around to gaze at our house, Annah, and me.

She walked over and got right in front of me. Her eyes were swollen with tears. She raised one hand and traced my profile with her fingertips, looking straight at me.

“I don’t know, Dan. What’s happening to us?” She walked back to the car trunk.

Mary did not reject the idea as strongly as I expected. She proved to be more adaptable and flexible than I hoped for. I didn’t know then how much it had cost her. In the space of one day, Mary had changed, as Annah had, and as I had. But that were good things; we needed to be able to change and adapt to any possible situation.

Annah had wrote down all we had gathered, and completed the list she and Mary had already started. I glanced at the result. “We have things for over a month, now,” I smiled at her. “Probably even more.”

Once inside, Mary told me she and Annah kept trying to call people and sent emails around. Still no answers. Annah cried a lot because of all her friends who must have died, and she asked why we hadn't died, too. Mary managed to calm her but she was worried for Annah as well. The day had been hard for us, and we were adults; I couldn’t imagine what went on in Annah’s mind, and how tough it had to be for her.

Annah’s only island of normality, where she could rest and feel safe, would be Mary and me. For as long as we acted normally, stayed calm and resolute, not showing weaknesses and fear, I was sure Annah would handle anything. We only needed to take care that we, the adults, did not fall apart. For the day, we’d had our share already.

What Mary had told me about emails and phone calls reminded me of our virtual message in the bottle. She hadn’t checked Facebook, yet. I went upstairs, anxious to see whether the campaigns had been activated. They were still pending. Man, I hoped Facebook would work.

Mary joined me. “Annah’s in her room, now. She’s tired, exhausted even. This has been too much for her.”

“You’re right. How are you feeling?”

Mary looked through the window. “So calm out there, and peaceful. Did you notice? The black smoke... it’s almost gone.”

“I need to check on that, too, one of these days.” I paused. “And go back to town as well.”

She turned and looked at me with darting eyes. “Why? What for? People will come. Relief will come. We only have to stay here and wait. Right?” Her voice had veered to a high pitch, almost begging me to reply ‘Yes, of course’, but I couldn’t.

I grabbed her shoulders. “I don’t know.” I sighed. “I don’t think any relief will reach us any time soon...if ever. We need to be prepared for anything.”

She stepped back away from me. Her arms folded tightly around her. She didn’t say anything, and stared at the floor.

“Mary, listen to me. I will never give up. Remind yourself of this, we can survive and we will survive. I’ll do all I can to ensure that, no matter how frightening the situation. Should death ever come, I will not blink.”

She burst into tears. I held her tight in my arms. She trembled and sobbed, unable to stop. “Dan, what are we going to do? What are we going to do?”

I sighed. “God,” I thought, “if You are there…what’s happening? And how did You ever plan for this?”

I took Mary to our bedroom and cuddled her. I kissed her and dried her tears with my lips. And kissed her even more. Our kisses became passionate. I started to unbutton her shirt. Mary responded gently to my touch and helped me undress her. We made love fiercely and passionately, impatiently, as it happened with our very first time.

Dusk came upon us, and we left our bubble. We had shut out the world, briefly but intensely. Mary caressed me. “I love you, Mister.”

I pressed her against me “We have each other, Mary. It’s all I need. I need you, and Annah. Then I can face anything.”

We kissed again.

In the evening, Mary and Annah prepared a light dinner. I recovered a forgotten set of binoculars, lost in the glove compartment of the car. What I saw confirmed what the silence kept telling us all along... there is no one alive, you are alone. Households were plunged in darkness; garden lights were off, window shades closed or open into dark interiors. The neighborhood, apart from the few streetlights, was somber. The silence was unbelievable.

For the first time ever, I closed the shutters on windows and secured them closed. I didn’t want to have only a thin layer of glass between us and whatever was out there. Mary watched me without saying a word. Annah gestured to Mary, then pointed at me; out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Mary signaling her not to pay attention to what I was doing.

Dinner had been brief and, for how crazy it sounds, I decided—more for Annah than for us—to spend an evening no different from any other before. So I announced I felt like watching a movie, that I had too much on my mind, and needed to stop thinking about our next steps. Mary and Annah did not have their heart into the plan, but I insisted, and we selected a James Bond movie with Pierce Brosnan.

I activated the burglar alarm. We could not rely anymore on a non-existent police force. For as long as we had electricity, the siren would warn us of any intrusion. We sat close to each other on the sofa, without saying a word. I kept the volume of the TV too loud, and the movie was full of gunfights and blasts with improbable action scenes. In the end, we managed to relax. At least I did. Bond prevented me from thinking too much about our own incredible scenario. I tried to keep an ear to any sound coming from outside but, after a while, I let go. I enjoyed those moments of normality.

The movie ended and, when the credits started, we heard a fearful howling. Some neighbors had dogs; we had seen them walking with their animals sometimes during the weekends. We had exchanged brief conversations in the past, and the dogs had been friendly to us. Well, at least with their masters by their side.

We liked pets and had cats before. But dogs, we felt, were a lot of work. I never pictured myself in the dog-walking routine every day. No matter the weather or how tired I happened to be, dogs would never be understanding and say, “No worries, master, tonight we can do without.”

“Poor dog,” Annah said.

Mary nodded. “He must have started while we were watching the movie.” With a glance, she reproached me for keeping the volume too high.

“It would be good if we had a dog now…” I thought aloud.

Annah got excited immediately. “Really? Dad, are we going to have one? Please.”

Indeed, having one or two dogs, our dogs, on the property would not be bad at all. I had a problem though. Getting puppies made little sense and grown up animals…how to trust they would become ‘part of the family’ and consider us their masters? Dogs thrive on routines. Routine was missing now. Maybe, if we created a new one…that was something to seriously think about.

We got ready to spend our first night in the new world order. Annah didn’t want be alone in her room, especially because hers was not on the same floor as ours. She begged to sleep with us, in our bed.

She was five or six years old the last time, and never with the two of us together. Always in exceptional cases, if one of us were absent.

The floor landing separated our room from the home office and we kept a sofa bed there. Mary interceded. “Annah could start using that from now on.” I didn’t have the courage to resist and say no.

I had one more reason to agree I didn’t share with Mary. I too wanted to have Annah with us that night. In my heart, I hoped we weren’t going to experience another windstorm and we actually would awake the next morning.

I hoped nothing or no one would ‘discover’ they had ‘forgotten’ us alive. If it had to happen, so be it. Life must be lived at the right time. Death is not scary when one dies after having lived fully. One must choose to live though and face all adversities.

With a sunken heart, I kissed Mary and Annah good night. They were both soon asleep, while I couldn’t find rest. The dog still howled, and his was a gloomy sound.

My brain couldn’t stop sending and processing images of dead people, deaths, the animals, something killing penguins, and birds, and gorillas. And now us. Why was I still alive? And Mary, and Annah? What if something worse was going to happen? How would I protect them? We were resting on a thin crust, below us the unknown. And I was scared.

I soon found myself fighting to stay awake. It was peaceful outside. After what seemed a very long time, I collapsed and fell asleep.


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