Kat yawned as her eyes slowly blinked open. It was night and hard to see inside the dark bus illuminated only by the safety lights running the length of the aisle in the center of the rows of seats. She yawned again. It was also quiet... too quiet. No whispered conversations; no shuffled steps as another of the passenger made their way to the restroom at the rear of the bus; no muted rumbling of tires rolling along the highway.
She shifted to look out the window her head had been resting against moments before. There was just enough of a moon to make out the empty field where the bus sat motionless; its bright headlights shining far into the distance before the night’s darkness overwhelmed their beams.
“Strange,” Kat muttered. She could feel the distinct vibration under her feet that indicated the vehicle’s motor was still running. Why wasn’t the bus moving? And where were the other passengers? Standing, she stepped into the aisle hoping to find some of the other passengers awake... or just to find some of them.
Kat looked around as she moved along the aisle. “What the hell?” she exclaimed after discovering each row of seats deserted— she was certain many had been occupied when she’d fallen asleep. “Hello?” she called out moving toward the front of the bus. Her voice sounding loud in the silence but she didn’t care if she woke anyone; she would apologize for that after she found out what was happening. “Damn it, damn it, damn it,” she spat out when she reached the driver’s seat to find it also empty.
Kat peered out through the windshield spotting the bright lamps high atop poles that marked the path of the highway a couple hundred feet away. “Maybe the bus broke down,” she thought aloud. “Hello?” she called out again figuring that the others must outside working to fix the problem. Receiving no response, Kat moved to the glass paneled exit. “Damn, how do you open these things?” she asked finding the door sealed tight. “Must be a release on the dash,” she told herself.
Moving back to the driver’s seat, Kat studied the panel of switches and buttons. After several wrong attempts, she finally pressed the right button and heard the unmistakable hiss as the rubber seal around the door released. “Yes!” she shouted triumphantly then spun around and hopped down the steps and through the, now, unobstructed doorway.
Landing with a thud on the ground, she immediately looked for the other passengers. Seeing no one standing on the near side of the bus, Kat hurried around the front of the long vehicle. “Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn,” she muttered after circling the bus to find neither the missing driver nor passengers. Not sure what else to do, she dropped down to sit on the landing just inside the doorway. Her eyes eventually found their way back to the roadway. It took her puzzled brain a few moments to register the numerous cars stretched along the highway. “People!” she exclaimed happily then jumped to her feet and starting to run.
Nearing the paved roadway, Kat’s steps slowed then stopped. Dubiously, she stared at the cars and trucks on the highway. “They’re not moving,” she said disbelievingly. She spun around to look at the idling bus she had walked from then turned back to the road. “What is going on?” she cried into the night before forcing her legs to carry her closer to the motionless vehicles.
Nervously, Kat approached a four door sedan with hesitant steps. She bent over to gaze through a side window. Then she ran to the next car… and the next… and the next…
Angrily, Kat slammed shut the door to a passenger van. “All empty. How do all these people just disappear?” she screamed in frustration.
When only hollow echoes of her own voice reached her ears, her frustration quickly melted into fear… a deep gut-wrenching fear so intense she was unable to think. When the tears began to fall, Kat, arms wrapped tightly around her body, was standing in the middle of the highway surrounded by dozens of abandoned vehicles. Slowly, she collapsed onto the pavement.
“Snap out of it!” Kat’s inner voice was screaming. “Sitting in a puddle of tears isn’t going to get you anywhere.”
“Maybe not,” she told the voice between sniffles. “But I’m too freaked out right now to care.”
“You better start caring.”
“Leave me alone.”
“Fine, if that’s what you want. But don’t blame me when Kelly is chewing you up one side and down the other for putting her through hell as she worries what happened to you.”
“Oh, shit, is right. You know she’s expecting you home tomorrow… uh, today. You better stop feeling sorry for yourself, put your big girl pants on, and figure out a way to get of here.”
Kat forced her eyes open then blinked a few times to clear the fuzzy vision. “Damn,” she sighed raising an arm up to wipe her sleeve across her tear stained face. “Where did they go?”
“I don’t know.”
“They have to be somewhere; people don’t just disappear.”
“Sure they do.”
“Hundreds at a time?”
“Maybe not by the hundreds.”
“I don’t even know where to start looking.”
“Forget them. Think about you and getting home.”
“Dammit, girl. Worry about them later. Right now, let’s just concentrate on you.”
“I am thinking. I’m also freaking out so stop yelling at me.”
Somewhere behind her a car’s engine shuddered then died. A few moments later, another car’s engine went silent.
Kat pushed herself up onto her feet. The sun was rising in the east, its welcomed light enabling her to see further down the ribbon of pavement that stretched out away from her. As far as she could see were motionless vehicles. She turned and looked down the opposite length of highway. “This is so weird. Where could they have gone?”
“Focus. You can worry about that after you get home.”
“Okay, I’m focusing. Let’s see… if I’m going to get home…” Kat turned to look at the bus. “Doubt if I could figure out how to drive that. So I guess I’ll need,” she turned back around, “a car.”
Kat walked to the nearest vehicle and pulled the driver’s door open. “Not enough gas in this one to get very far,” she said after ducking her head inside to check the gauge showing how much fuel was left in the car’s tank. She switched off the ignition before shutting the door and moving to the next closest car. She had checked over a dozen cars before she found one with enough gas remaining in its tank to drive any distance. She settled onto the seat and pulled the door shut. “I suppose this could be considered theft,” she wondered aloud as she shifted the car into gear.
“Probably, but you can deal with that later,” her inner voice responded as Kat eased the car between other cars maneuvering to the side of the road. “So, what’s your plan, Stan?”
“First, I’m going back to the bus and give Kelly a call,” Kat answered steering the car across the field toward the bus.
“Let’s hope nobody stole your purse while you were having your meltdown.”
“Who would steal it? If you haven’t been paying attention… I’m the only freakin’ person here!”
“Shut up. I need to think and you’re not helping matters.”
Kat stopped the car next to the bus then set the brake and turned off the engine. She wasted no time returning to her seat on the bus. Snatching up her purse, she fumbled for the cell phone inside. “Ah, there you are.” She was already dialing the familiar number when she pulled the phone out of the purse. “Dammit,” she swore after lifting the cell to her ear. “Nothing but static.”
“Probably out of range.”
Kat retrieved her overnight bag from the overhead carrier then carried it and her purse off of the bus. She tossed the bag onto the back seat of the borrowed car before settling back behind the wheel and starting the engine. “Let’s go look for someone who can tell me what the hell is going on… and find a working phone.”
“That’s your plan?” her inner voice groaned.
“Any time, you come up with a better one, let me know.”
Kat weaved in and out of the seemingly endless line of idled vehicles along the highway, slowing to look inside the passenger compartment of each before moving on. “Sheesh, how long did we sleep?” Kat asked after passing another abandoned car.
“Obviously, too long,” her inner voice responded. “Nice to hear you using ‘we’”.
“It saves me from freaking out thinking I’m the only person left on earth.”
“Jumping to conclusions, aren’t you?”
“Have you seen anyone else since we left the bus?”
“I’ve seen birds, cows, horses, dogs, and even a deer wandering across a field… but, you’re right, no people.”
“Then I don’t think it’s much of a jump.”
“But doesn’t it mean something that the animals are still around?”
“I don’t know… but it must mean something. Look, there’s a gas station. There’s always people at gas stations.”
Kat steered down the off ramp then drove into the station, parking next to one of its gas pumps and turning off the ignition. “I don’t see anybody,” she commented climbing out of the car.
“Plenty of cars parked here. Their drivers must be inside.”
“Let’s hope,” Kat said walking toward the station’s small store. She pushed open the store’s door. “Hello?” she called out seeing no one inside. “Hello?” she called louder. “Hey!” she shouted. “Is anybody here?”
“Don’t panic yet,” her inner voice said calmly. “There’s a phone behind the counter. You can call Kelly.”
Kat looked to where a phone sat beside the cash register. “There’s probably a pay phone outside,” she said. “Maybe I should look for it,” she offered being uncomfortable at the thought of using the station’s phone for a long distance call.
“Use the phone,” the voice instructed. “You can leave the owner a few bucks to cover the cost of the call. Go on.”
“All right… all right, all right, all right.” Kat walked around the end of the counter and lifted the phone’s handset. “Oh, good,” she sighed with relief, “a dial tone.” She pressed the buttons entering her home number then paused listening to a variety of pings and beeps. “It’s ringing,” she said excitedly. Her elation quickly faded as she listened to unanswered ring followed by unanswered ring. “It’s seven in the morning; where the hell could she be?”
“Maybe she’s taking a bath. Just leave a message.”
“The answering machine isn’t picking up.” Frustrated, Kat slammed the handset back onto its cradle. “Dammit.”
“Calm down. Maybe there was a storm last night and the power went out. You know the damn machine always has to be reset when that happens. Try 911.”
Kat dialed the emergency number. “Shit!” she exclaimed a few moments later. “No answer. Since when don’t the police answer their phones?”
“Big power outage?”
“If the power is out, why do the lights work? Something else has to be going on... something big.”
“How the hell should I know?! If I didn’t know better, I’d think I’d enter the Twilight Zone.” Kat looked around the store. “Everything seems so… natural. Just like you’d expect to see it.”
“Except there’s no people.”
“There’s you. Maybe something has happened and you’re the only one left.”
“Don’t say that,” Kat snapped shivering involuntarily. “That really freaks me out. Let’s go see if the damn gas pump works,” she snapped heading for the door.
Kat inserted the credit card she had removed from her wallet into the slot on the gas pump.
ERROR flashed on the pump’s small screen.
“Just fill the tank up,” her inner voice told her. “You can leave the owner cash.”
“I don’t have that much cash.”
“Then you can leave a note with your name and address.”
“I guess that’ll be okay,” Kat agreed. “We do need the gas to get home.” She replaced the credit card into her wallet then removed the gas tank’s cap. “Let’s hope this works,” she said lifting the nozzle free from the pump then inserting it into the filler tube. She pulled trigger. “Thank goodness,” she sighed releasing her held breath when the pump started to release gas into the tank. “Let’s hope that’s enough to get home,” she said after the pump shut off.
“I’m sure there’ll be more stations between here and home.”
“I’m sure there are but I don’t want to owe any more people than necessary.”
“If you’re the last one on earth, who cares?”
“Will you shut up about that?” Kat returned the nozzle to the pump and screwed the gas cap back on then noted the amount she owed before turning to walk back into the store. She found a clipboard with some blank forms behind the counter and a pen near the phone. Turning one of the forms over, she carefully printed her name, address, and phone number at the top of the clean page. Then she gave a brief explanation of why she was leaving the information and, finally, listed the amount she owed for the gas.
“I’m hungry,” her inner voice announced.
Kat looked up from the paper. The store was stocked with numerous snacks and drinks. She shrugged. “I guess it can’t hurt to take some food,” she said putting the pen down then walking around the counter. She opened the door to a refrigerated display to remove a couple of bottles of water and a bottle of orange juice. After adding a box of miniature donuts, a ham and cheese sandwich, and a bag of chips she walked back to the counter. She added each of the items and their price to the list then signed her name and slipped it under the phone.
“You going to try calling Kelly again?” the voice asked when Kat picked up the handset.
“Yes,” Kat answered dialing her home number. “Damn. Still no answer,” she said breaking the connection. “Come on,” she told her inner voice as she gathered up her purchases, “let’s get going.”
Three hours after leaving the store, Kat pulled the borrowed car into the driveway of the house she shared with her wife. Having the roads deserted except for abandoned vehicles, she had felt no need to follow speed limits as she raced home. She had driven the distance in silence, finding the absence of any other people along the way not worthy of further comment.
Kat turned off the engine as she peered through the windshield at the front of the house. “The drapes are still closed.”
“Maybe she’s sleeping in.”
“With all we had planned for today?”
“Maybe she went to the bus station. That would explain her not answering the phone.”
“No. I was going to walk home from there. She was going to be here,” Kat muttered grabbing her purse off the passenger seat before opening the car’s door. She climbed out then hurried to the front door digging into her purse for her keys. She slipped the house key into the lock as soon as she reached the door. “Kelly?” she called out even before she turned the knob.
“Easy, girl, you don’t want to scare her.”
Kat ignored the voice as she shoved the door open and rushed inside. “Kelly, I’m home. Where are you? Kelly!” she shouted running though the house.
“Shut up!” Kat screamed running into the bedroom only to stop abruptly at the foot of the bed. The bed covers were disheveled as if someone sleeping underneath them had tossed them casually aside. “Kelly,” she cried softly reaching out to touch the tousled sheets and blankets. “Kelly, please, where are you?” she moaned falling onto the bed and burying her head into her wife’s pillow. Tears began to flow from her eyes. “This can’t be happening,” she sobbed. “You can’t be gone, too.”
“Hey, baby. It’s okay,” Kelly said soothingly. She was standing beside the bed, one hand tightly gripping her wife’s while she smoothed back her hair with her other. “I’m right here.”
Kat couldn’t believe her ears. She struggled to force her eyes to open. “I have to see you,” she insisted straining to turn her head toward the sound of her wife’s voice. “Ow!”
“Take it easy. Don’t try to move,” Kelly told her.
Kat ignored the warning and tried to roll over. “What’s wrong?” she cried out when she was unable to move.
“Babe, take it easy,” Kelly ordered. “You’re hurt, don’t make it worse.”
“Hang on, let me get over on the other side of the bed,” Kelly said releasing Kat’s hand. She quickly moved around the end of the bed and squeezed between the pain medicine pump and the machine monitoring her wife’s blood pressure and oxygen levels. “There,” she said leaning over the bed to kiss Kat on the cheek. “Better?”
“Wha… what’s going on?” Kat asked anxiously as her eyes took in her unusual surroundings. “Where am I?”
“You’re in the hospital. There was an accident—”
Kat looked up at Kelly. “What are you talking about?”
“The bus ran off the highway and rolled over—”
“Yes, honey. You probably don’t remember because you hit your head.”
“No! It didn’t roll over. I walked around it. There was nothing wrong with it.”
“Calm down, babe.”
Kat managed to free her arm from the under the blanket that was tucked in around her. She reached for Kelly, grabbing a fistful of her blouse and, gathering all the strength she had, pulled her down so she could look into her eyes. “Listen to me,” Kat pleaded. “I woke up on the bus. I couldn’t find the other passengers. And the highway… the cars were all empty. There was no one. No one.”
“I’m telling you the truth… they were all gone. Everyone gone but me.”
The alarm on the one of the machines began to beep.
“Calm down, please,” Kelly insisted glancing up at the machine to see her wife’s blood pressure had shot through the roof. “Kat, you’ve got to calm down.”
The door to the room opened and a nurse hurried in. “What’s going on?”
“I’m not sure,” Kelly told the nurse. “She’s upset over something but I can’t figure out what.”
Kat tightened her grip on Kelly. “Don’t you see, it can’t be true... it can’t!”
“She has to calm down,” the nurse forcefully told Kelly.
“I’m trying,” Kelly screamed at the nurse. “Can’t you give her something?”
“I’ll page the doctor.”
After the nurse rushed out of the room, Kelly turned her attention back to her unnerved wife. “Honey, please.”
“You have to believe me,” Kat said feebly, her strength weakening. “Everyone was gone. It was just me… just me.”
“I believe you, love. I believe you.”
“Of all tested, this is the only not to succumb,” a being of short stature with an elongated head and large dark eyes addressed his companion. Both beings were closely observing the activity on a panel of screens before them.
“It is so.”
“What could cause this anomaly? All tested are the same.”
“No. This one is called female.”
“It is so.”
“Female did not give into fear.”
“Thought and solution were foremost.”
A third being spoke, “The weapons have been prepared.”
“They are not required.”
Startled by the comment, the second being turned to face the first. “I am confused. Were we not sent to destroy this planet?”
“Yes. But we may have misjudged. Perhaps, they are not without hope.”
“They have been fairly tested, have they not?”
“It is so.”
“All tests but one failed.”
“It is so. But female failed not.”
The first being raised an arm, long for his short stature, and passed his hand over the screens turning them dark. “I think, for now, we will leave this world.”
“Do we return?”
“To test others?”
“To test females.”
Kelly stood by the window of the hospital room. She glanced at the bed where, with the help of a sedative, Kat was finally sound asleep. If, at that moment, she had looked up into the sky above the hospital, she would have seen an unusual metallic object of enormous size hovering some distance overhead. No sound came from the stationary craft that shimmered brilliantly like polished glass as it hung in the sky. And had Kelly blinked while observing the unknown vessel, it would have disappeared from sight in that mere fraction of a second.
…we are being tested?