I woke up like usual. The sound of morning rush hour traffic outside my window. I thought about the report I had to write and send off to a client. There was a lot of information to pull together: contract terms, suppliers, timing, pricing. I needed to get up, get to it. But it was hard to get out of bed. I was tired, up late last night working. Like always.
After five minutes I was actually feeling sleepy again, and telling myself not to fall back asleep. And that was when I started noticing it – the sound of the traffic. How it wasn’t stopping. It should have; there is a traffic light right at the corner near my condo. Plus in the morning it’s always stop and go.
But not today. The whooshing sound of the cars just kept going by. No ebb, just flow. Whoosh..whoosh…whoosh…whoosh.
At first I thought it was just me – that I was tired. So I started counting the cars. I knew I’d count to twenty five or thirty and then hear the pause that means the light is red. Sometimes you have to remind yourself to pay attention.
When I got to fifty, I was surprised. When I got to one hundred, I was….puzzled? That’s not quite the right word.
So I did the math. A traffic light stays green what, three minutes? If a car goes by every two seconds, that’s what – ninety cars? But that’s under optimum conditions – no traffic jams, everyone going a smooth fifty miles an hour, bumper to bumper.
This was not optimum conditions, not at all – like I said, it was morning rush hour, usually stop and go. On the days it’s more stop than go I can sometimes even hear driver’s radios, or some guy talking on his cell phone if his window is unrolled. It’s always a guy, too, usually with that ear piece thing that makes him look like a tool, elbow cocked on the sill of his Beamer.
But the sound kept going. Whoosh…whoosh…whoosh…whoosh. I counted another hundred cars, and not one pause. Not one. Concerned. I was concerned. That’s the word.
I rolled out of bed, surprised how quick I was even though just a minute before I’d been seriously considering letting myself drift back to sleep. I was awake now, not sleepy at all. Time to get to work. In hindsight, I guess I was trying to ignore that feeling in my gut, that feeling of things being off. That feeling of being concerned.
I looked out the window, and everything inside me stopped. Everything except my heart, that is – it picked right up until it was like the traffic, fast and relentless: whoosh…whoosh…whoosh…whoosh.
The cars streamed past my window, four abreast. In places where there were cars parked in the parking lanes, the stream narrowed.
I stared at this for awhile until I figured out what was wrong. They were merging without slowing, see. No blinkers. No slowing down. No one even looking over their shoulder to check to see the way was clear – I am sure of this because I was watching. I was watching for a long time, and not one person looked over their shoulder.
I pulled on my clothes from last night and went out to the porch. I didn’t even stop to put the coffee on. I stood there watching the cars. It was….amazing, is that the word?
A river of cars flowing by at a steady fifty, sixty miles an hour. The sun flashed on the windshields as they passed by, whoosh whoosh whoosh. It was like one of those old time movies with that lady swimmer, the one who did all those choreographed production numbers, all those girls in one piece swimming suits and flowered swimming caps skiing in pyramid formation, holding on to the tow rope with one hand, smiling. I could never get over that they were doing something so impossible – something so potentially deadly – and smiling.
The drivers were just normal – a woman in a red sweater. A guy in a green cap. A guy in a suit. A woman in a camel colored coat. Another suit, another. Each driver was looking straight ahead, leaning forward, driving for all they were worth.
I don’t know how long I stood there watching. The light changed but no one stopped. My street is one way, and the cars kept flowing down it, flowing like water, the sun flashing and flashing.
At the intersection I could see the cars lined up patiently to join the flow. They were merging into the bike lane then into traffic, no one slowing but somehow no one crashing. There was no honking. Not a single car horn. No blips, no blasts. Just the whoosh whoosh whoosh.
Disquieting – that’s the word I am looking for. Disturbed quiet. That describes it.
I went inside to call in to work and the phone rang and rang. I didn’t think much about it – people normally didn’t get to the office until nine or so. But the call didn’t roll to voicemail, just went on ringing. That was unusual.
Outside, the traffic rushed past. I called my sister. She lives in Kansas, two hours earlier than me. She’d be in the middle of her Get, as I liked to call it – getting her kids off to school, getting ready for work, getting breakfast. I don’t know why I called her. Maybe to assert a sense of the normal – hear her voice, rushed but normal, asking me how I was, asking me when was I coming to visit? But she didn’t answer.
I tried her home line, her cell, her work. Nothing – no answer, no voice mail. Just ring, ring, ring. Outside the cars kept going. The word exodus came to mind. Disturbing word, that. I looked it up online. It said, Moses leading the Israeliates out of Egypt and through the wildnerness, to Mount Sinai, the mountain of God. It also said, departure.
I went back out with my cell phone and watched the traffic. I stood there for an hour, maybe longer, watching the cars whooshing past. While I watched, I called every person I know. I started with my friends, family, colleagues. I heard the phone with one ear, the traffic with the other. Ring ring ring. Whoosh whoosh whoosh. No one answered my call. The cars kept speeding by.
Then I called everyone on my contact list, just going down the names in alphabetical order. I didn’t even think, when’s the last time I called this person. I didn’t prepare anything to day. I just dialed and dialed. And it was the same every time. Endless ringing. No voice mail.
I think that was when I got scared. I had a vision of everyone in the world unplugging their answering machines and getting in their cars and speeding away, leaning a little over the steering wheel the way you do when you’re trying to get to – or away from – somewhere fast.
I stepped to the curb, standing right next to the traffic flow. Some of the drivers glanced at me – quick glances that didn’t so much dismiss me as totally miss me. They saw I was there, but not me, see? Not me.
I stepped out into the parking lane, close enough to touch the cars. They swerved a little away from me, but no one yelled, or honked, or even flipped me the bird. It went on all morning, slowing to a steady trickle in the afternoon. By then I was running back and forth across the road trying to get cars – one car, any car – to stop and tell me what was going on. But no one stopped, or even slowed, except to swerve around me.
I went a little crazy then. I don’t know how long I was out there. Hours I guess. When I came inside, I was dying of thirst. I drank some juice right from the jug – it was no time to mess with the niceties of a glass (though now I’m back to using one). I checked the internet and at first it looked normal. The relief I felt – I can’t describe it. Like a great cool wave of water flowing over me.
Then I noticed that none of the stories were updated. All day long the Dow stayed the same. There were no new You Tube videos as of 3:59 a.m. – this took me a few hours to figure out, but now I’m sure. I checked and rechecked. There were no new emails in my inbox, except automated spam. The news wires were silent, the message boards empty. And not one story about the cars all leaving my city, driving away to God knows where.
Then it stopped. The river of cars dried up and was gone, the street empty except for a few derelicts parked here and there, and the occasional car with one of those immobilizers they put on when you park illegally.
I thought about walking out to the ocean – it’s not too far, maybe six miles. I was afraid, though. Afraid I’d see boats on the horizon, one after the other, cruise ships and tankers and air craft carriers, tugs and sailboats and container ships all floating away. I didn’t think I could stand to see that.
After the cars came the birds. They flocked for days, the sky dark with them. I could hear the sound of their wings, and their guano splattering on the sidewalk. A few crashed into my window and fell to the sidewalk, stunned. I ran out to rescue them, but they either died or flew off. I got a few pecks, which is the only proof I have that it happened. They’re all gone now.
That was a week ago. Now I dial my phone randomly . All area codes: 212, 314, 713, 512. All I’ve learned is there is no voice mail in New York or St. Louis, Houston or Austin. I keep dialing, mostly late at night. I don’t go out much. I’m afraid of not seeing any people. I know I won’t, but it’s one thing to sit here in my condo and know. It’s a whole other thing to have it proven to me, that I’m the only one left.
I don’t know why I’m writing this. Maybe I just need to talk to someone, even if it’s just to myself. But it seems important to keep a record. Someday, there may be people again. They’ll want to know what happened.