Being alone may just be the best thing that ever happened to me. I felt like a kid in a playpen with no other noisy brats to bother me. The ball pit? All mine. The slides? No need to worry if there’s some other kid dilly-dallying at the bottom. I could just slide on down, walk back up to the top and immediately slide back down again because there’s nobody pushing and shoving to go next. The swings were all mine as well. I just didn’t have anybody to push me. And the see-saw? Fuck the see-saw. I always hated that thing anyway.
The world was mine now. My very own play-pen with nobody to share it with. Nobody to tell me what to do. Nobody to laugh with when I did something outrageous. Nobody to cry with when I scraped my knee. Nobody to stop me from breaking into their houses and ransacking them.
It was coming up on three months since I’d last seen another soul that walked on two legs. Everybody just disappeared. They decided to go somewhere and left me behind. Like they’d all gone to a party that I wasn’t invited for so they spared me the pain of telling me and just left. When they got there, they found that the party was so much fun, they decided to never leave and forget that they had a life back home and somebody who loved and missed them. I liked to think that the party was in heaven. At least that way I could take comfort in the fact that they were in a better place and they could be happy without me. If the party was in hell then I’m grateful that they left me behind.
The first few days were tough. The solitude I could deal with easily enough. I’d always been a loner. What got to me was not knowing. Not knowing if at any moment a dimensional rift would open up and all 7 billion people would just walk back into my world and act like they’d never gone anywhere at all. At least the birds were still around. They kept me company as I walked around the Runda suburbs looking for any other signs of sentient life. Their chirping sounded louder than I remembered. Now that the humans were gone, they were singing songs of celebration. Maybe if I listened hard enough I’d be able to understand them. Not like I had anything better to do besides not starving to death.
Thank God for supermarkets and non-perishables. I liked to make a trip there every day or so. It gave me something to do to kill the boredom. Every time I stepped out to go look for food I felt like a hunter on a mission. When I got there, I’d get down on all fours and stalk through the aisles, peep around a corner at the fresh produce section and pounce on an unsuspecting apple. A slice of ham or some chicken would have made me feel more like I was on top of the food-chain, but I discovered that the meats spoiled within days of the power going out. And the fresh produce was going bad fast as well. When that happened, I’d have to switch to the canned goods. After that, I’d have to learn how to farm. But I decided to deal with that when the time came.
After lunch, I stuffed my backpack with a few packets of nuts and crisps as well as a few bottles of water then decided to engage in one of my new favourite pastimes; finding out how my neighbours lived before they all disappeared on me. I started from the house closest to the security barriers that controlled access to the neighbourhood and I was about fifteen houses up the road when I turned right onto Runda Drive. A short gate was in my way, barely taller than the average human, with wood panelling and see-through bars. I peeked through the spaces and saw a white house up the drive with a Range Rover parked inside. There was a side-gate near the hedges. I pushed it but it would not budge. It was locked from the inside, just like every other gate on the drive. It amazed me how little faith people had in humanity. I couldn’t tell if they were trying to keep out their neighbours or the riff-raff. In this case I counted as both. But they weren’t around to care.
I hooked my foot in the spaces between the bars on the side-gate and hauled myself up. Sat on the top with my legs spread to either side, turned around and dropped down to the other side in a crouching position. I walked up the short drive and turned left to the front door. It was a large door made from wood. Something rancid hang in the air. The closer I got to the door, the stronger the smell got. The smell of something rotting. Sticky and sweet at the same time, clinging to the back of my nostrils. In the overgrown bushes by the front door, I discovered the source of the smell; a dead dog in the advanced stages of decomposition. It’s brown and white fur collapsed into its decaying body. It must have been a handsome dog when it was alive. The texture of its coat and its size told me that it was an exotic breed but it was too far gone for me to tell which one exactly. It probably starved to death when its owner disappeared. It waited by the front door for as long as it could, waiting for them to come outside and give him some love but they never did. Clearly I wasn’t the only one who was left behind. But at least I could take care of myself.
The smell of the dead dog got a bit more bearable over time. My brain started filtering out the signals from my nose telling me to stay away. I turned back to the door and pulled on the handle. The door creaked open and the stale air from inside pushed out. Stale but bearable. Much more enjoyable than the smell of dead dog.
I crept in silently even though I knew that there wasn’t anybody home. There never was, but some ingrained ideology about home invasions had me creeping in like a thief. The owners of the house weren’t there. I knew that for certain but I was still trespassing. Still invading someone’s home. Sometimes I dreamed that they’d come back while I was inside and call the cops on me, oblivious to the fact that they’d been gone for months.
I decided to start with the living room. It was always the best room to get a feel for what a family is like. I told myself that I did these home invasions because I wanted to see if they had anything worth stealing but the truth was that it was only form of human contact I could get at the time. Their living room was dark because all the curtains in the house were still drawn. I squinted my eyes and saw one long sofa set opposite the television and a couple of arm-chairs on either side. A mantelpiece behind the sofa held a row of family portraits. I walked up to it and examined the pictures. A family of three stared back at me. The dad, the man of the house, looked to be about 50 with short, greying hair and frown lines above his brow. His wife was a little more expressive with a wide smile that showed the top row of her teeth. And in between them, a teenage girl maybe a year or two older than me. Her face was all about teenage angst. Maybe just a touch uncomfortable to be so close to her parents. I’d lived in that neighbourhood for close to five years and never seen any of them once even though they lived just a few doors down from me. I guessed that’s the point of being in the suburbs; close enough to other people that you don’t feel alone but far enough that you don’t have to interact unless you absolutely want to.
The sad part was how badly I wanted to interact. How badly I needed to have some other person to just stand in the room and be there. So badly that I was invading the homes of my neighbours and staring at their pictures. I tore my gaze away from the mantelpiece and looked around the rest of the room. I rooted through the drawers and picked through the cabinets looking for anything interesting. The only thing I found was a designer bottle-opener, green on the top and larger than my palm. I squeezed it into my backpack for later so that I had something fancy to open my beers with.
With the living room explored I took myself upstairs to the bedrooms. The first door on the right was slightly open, a sliver of space between the door and the frame. The door pushed open by about a foot and then swung back at me with force. The edge of the door smashed into my face and sent me reeling. Sharp pain shot through my entire forehead and my vision went blurry. A figure came through the bedroom door, landed on top of me, pressed cold steel against my throat and growled.
“Who the fuck are you?”
I could have sworn that I was hallucinating. The figure on top of me had an unkempt afro grown so long that it was starting to knot itself and turn into dreads. Her cheeks were a little sunken and she had a wild look her in eyes but through the fog in my brain and the birds dancing around my skull, I recognized her. She looked a lot worse for wear but it was definitely the girl in the photo downstairs. The first human I’d seen in months and she already had a knife to my throat. The mixture of fear and excitement confused me. My heart wanted to smile, grab this hermit of a woman and hug her. Feel the warmth of another person. But my brain told me that if I moved too fast, she’s slide that kitchen knife right across my neck. I’d heard that prolonged bouts of solitude can make a person go crazy. I’d been alone just as long as she had but I liked to think that I still had all of my marbles in place. Her, I couldn’t be so sure of.
“Who the fuck are you?” she said again.
‘The Last Man on Earth,’ is what I wanted to say but that wasn’t true any more. Strictly speaking I was the last man on Earth but now there was a last woman on Earth. The irony of that joke would probably have been lost on her.
“Calm down,” I said to her, “There’s no need-”
“Shut up!” she said and grabbed my collar with her free hand. She leaned in so close that I could smell that she’d given up on taking showers or brushing her teeth which was perfectly understandable. For a long time after the disappearance I’d given some serious thought to whether I should keep wearing clothes or not. Good thing I chose to keep wearing them. I’m not sure how she would have felt about my biological reaction to seeing and touching a woman for the first time in months.
“This is my house,” she said. “What are you doing in my house?”
“I-I’m just exploring,” I said. “If I knew that there was anybody home I would have knocked.” The look in her eye said not test to her. Her wide-eyed craziness made me feel uncomfortable. And the blade on my neck made my skin itch. “Is this your house?”
She squinted and looked down at me.
“Yes it is,” she said. “And you’re trespassing.”
“You’re right,” I said. “And I’m sorry about that. Are you alone? Is there anybody else here?”
“You already know the answer to that,”
“I’m just asking,” I said. “I haven’t seen anybody else in months and I thought that maybe you might know-”
“Know what happened to them? I don’t.”
A heavy silence settled between us after that. I could see the cogs in her brain turning as she tried to figure out what to do next. I let her take her time. Somehow, I doubted that she’d hurt me. She’d been alone for as long as I had. Surely she was feeling the same things that I was feeling; that mixture of relief and anxiety accompanied with a whole host of questions that she knew I wouldn’t be able to answer.
She pulled the knife away from my throat and stood back up slowly. I lowered my hands and pushed myself up into a sitting position. She didn’t say anything, neither did I. But she kept the blade in her hand, pointy end in my direction. When my head stopped ringing I pulled myself up to my feet and picked up my backpack.
“I shouldn’t have come creeping in like that,” I said. “I’ll just let myself out.”
I turned towards the staircase and took a step. The girl reached forward and placed a hand on my sleeve.
“Wait,” she said. “Don’t go yet. I didn’t mean to hurt you. You just surprised me, is all. Come on in. I’ve got some painkillers that you can use. Your head must be pounding.”
She turned towards the bedroom and walked in through the door. I breathed a sigh of relief. I didn’t really want to go. The thought of going back outside and being alone again while there was an actual human being in the neighbourhood was unbearable. I stepped into the room and resisted the urge to gag. It smelled like she hadn’t opened the windows in weeks. The rest of the house was neat and dusty like she hadn’t touched or moved anything since the disappearance but her room was the exact opposite. If anything it had seen too much life. Clothes and empty food packaging littered the floor. Random items like soda cans and cigarette boxes covered every surface except the desk. I stepped over the littered floor and went straight for the couch in the corner. Moved a few dresses to one side and took a seat. The girl went to the desk and pulled open a drawer. She pulled out a red box and threw it at me.
“So what’s your name?” I asked her.
“Jennifer,” she said.
She went to the desk by the window and sat down in the chair with her back towards me. Picked up a pencil and started shading on an open sketchbook. Didn’t say anything else for a few minutes. The silence bothered the hell out of me.
“So where do you think everybody went?” I asked her.
She shrugged and kept shading.
“I’m Stan by the way. Thanks for asking.”
She shrugged again. Kept shading in the page of her sketchpad.
“So that dog outside…was that the family pet?”
Jennifer stopped shading for a second. Looked up and frowned.
“His name is Tamu,” she said.
“What happened to him?”
Another careless shrug.
“Yeah, I noticed that. Care to explain how?”
She shut down again after that and went back to doodling in her sketchbook. Maybe I was asking too many personal questions too soon. I stood up and approached her by the desk. Looked over her shoulder and marvelled at the detail of the art she was creating. It was painting of what the city centre might have looked like on a busy day. Street lights blinked and cars filled the roads but there were no people in the cars on the streets. A ghost town.
“That is beautiful,” I said. “You’re really talented.”
“Yeah, I know. Now leave me alone. I need to finish this.”
I gave up on conversation after that. Clearly she wasn’t in the mood to talk. I slumped back into the couch and threw a few of the pills that she’d given me in my mouth. Swallowed them whole then leaned back in the couch. We sat in silence for a twenty minutes while the drugs diffused into my bloodstream. They were stronger than I anticipated. The pain in my head subsided and it became hard to keep my eyes open. I struggled to keep them open but they gave in to gravity and closed.
The sun was almost down when I woke up. I looked around the room and realised that Jennifer was gone. The desk was empty and the sketchbook was gone. Instinctively I reached down to the side of the couch where I’d put my backpack of supplies. It wasn’t there. A slight panic took me and I looked around the room, tossing clothes and empty food packages around as I searched for my bag. I didn’t find it anywhere. The only other things that were gone as well were Jennifer and her sketchpad. The crazy chick had taken off and robbed me. I couldn’t help but smile. Supplies I could find more of, but another human soul was priceless. I’d find her again. At least now I knew that I wasn’t alone any more.