Music echoes against the cold wooden walls of the old room, each note emphasizing how silent and still everything else is. Old books, stacked unevenly on the shelves, are coated in a thick layer of dust, and papers are strewn across the floor. It is 2073, and it has been years since anyone has stepped foot inside. The music comes from a tape recorder, plugged into the wall, perpetually playing the same three notes again and again. It is the only sound aside from the the buzzing of the bees outside. The drapes flutter with each gust of wind through the shattered glass window, and all that can be seen is a deserted wasteland with no human in sight. It is a fragmented version of what once was, a memory only held in the minds of the children, now adults, who once inhabited the playground outside.
Far away, a man stumbles through the dry, desolate desert all alone. Upon his skinny body cling tattered cargo pants, scattered with holes and loose threads. An equally worn long sleeve shirt hangs loosely on him, size extra large, when he is now a small. He was once known as Jeremy, but the name has long since slipped from his memory along with thoughts of his family and his home. He is the shell of the person he once was. As he climbs hill after hill of sand, his tattered leather bag slips off of his skeletal shoulders, forcing him to stop and adjust it over and over again. He can’t risk losing it, for it holds every single thing that he owns. His bag is slowly getting lighter with each passing day. It is becoming easier to carry, yet a reminder of how close he may be to death.
Memories of the past months slowly begin to infiltrate his thoughts and weigh down on his body and mind. He is reminded of the struggle to continue moving through the desert in the past weeks, as well as years ago, a time of joy, but also one that is on the brink of slipping from his memory. His daughter peaks out of his cloudy memory more often than anyone else. His wife less so, since he has had many more months to adjust to this loss.
Crap, he thinks to himself, pulled away from his thoughts as he suddenly realizes that something is wrong. Looking himself up and down, he finally notices the disappearance of the comforting thumping of his bag swaying against his back. Crap, he thinks again, realizing that he must now retrace his steps and climb the hill he just descended to find his bag. He scurries up, forcing himself to ignore the sand slipping under his feet, scattering across his face and into his eyes.
One hundred miles away, at the site of the old room, the ground suddenly begins to shake with the force of a 40 elephant stampede. One hundred miles from the room, the ground once again begins to shake. The man steadies himself, one hand against the sliding sand dune, and the other slowly losing its clutch on his bag and possession, eventually dropping them to the ground once again. The shaking comes as no surprise to the man, who has had to deal with these daily earthquakes for months now, but it is no less irritating. As the ground rapidly shakes beneath him and the earth seems to flip upside down, his feet slip out from under him, and he slides face first down the mound of sand. His chin stings as he comes to a stop at the bottom of the sand dune, then his eyes and hands as he returns from his stunned state to recognize the pain from the sand. His eyes fill with tears, and he wipes them away with a swift swipe of his hand, embarrassed, even though there is no one to see him cry. As a final droplet cascades down his cheek, making a river-like indent in the folds of his filthy face, his bag comes crashing down from the top of the hill to his feet. The earthquake slowly comes to an end, and the man checks his belongings. Nothing is broken, and he continues on.
Two months pass. The man has walked tirelessly in uneven circles, unaware that he is going nowhere. He has survived by drinking from wells in abandoned villages and sleeping in the empty houses. The water is bitter, and the beds are rusting and coated in dust, but they offer a diversion from the never-ending sand and sun. He never stays long, for he needs to continue on through the rolling hills of sand that never cease to scorch his feet with each step. It has been three weeks since he has come across any evidence of abandoned human civilization, and before that it had been two weeks. He is exceedingly aware that the towns are becoming farther and farther apart and that his strength is dwindling. His steps become smaller and smaller with each hour that he walks. He stumbles along, eyes half closed, legs giving out.
It is close to noon and already he is growing too tired to keep his eyes open. He knows that he is safe to do this because the landscape never changes, and as long as he continues walking he will be fine. He is almost at the point of sleepwalking, and his feet have a mind of their own.
The end was coming. There was a delusion across the earth that there was still a chance, still hope. Only those who could wrap their heads around it were preparing, and the rest were already as good as dead. The man had grabbed his daughter when he heard the news, shoved their belongings into their 1990’s SUV, and laid his daugher across the backseat, covering her in a blanket. Shoot, he thought, as he was pulling out of the driveway. He knew his daughter would be devastated if he forgot her favorite blanket. He rushed into the backyard where he knew that her blanket was laying and grabbed her off the grass, muddying his hands. The man rushed back to the car, the countdown to apocalypse almost visible, like an hourglass, in his mind. Without really thinking, he jumps back into his car, places the blanket carefully on the front seat next to him, and zooms out of the driveway. He needs the extra time to make it out of the city before the traffic builds.
Two hours later, with his daughter still asleep in the backseat, he arrives at the outskirts of town. They are almost safe. His brother has offered them a spot in his apocalypse shelter, and they are almost there. He turns around for the first time to shake his daughter awake, but is greeted by an empty space with a blanket strewn across. He is frozen with shock. His eyes are locked on the leather seat, and his hands slip from the wheel. The next thing he knows the car smashes into a tree, and he is thrown back by his airbag. The man can’t begin to understand what happened; his daughter is gone, and his car is wrecked. He is left with a blank feeling of terror as darkness encloses around him, leaving the man standing, out of breath, on the side of the road, his smoking car offering the sole glow of light as the stars begin to rip through the blackness above.
While the man stands terrified in the road, his daughter is scrunched in the bathroom corner of their house, crying. She is alone and afraid. Her father is nowhere to be found, and her house is full of her monsters. Two hours ago she had woken up in the car, her father gone. He had been grabbing her blanket, and the night stars had been shining down on her through the windows. She had slipped out the door and gone back into her house to see what was happening. As the front door swung closed behind the girl, her dad, unbeknownst to her, ran back up the driveway and turned the car on, forgetting to check the backseat again, driving away.
Suddenly, the man is jolted from his memory and pulled back into the desert. His body bashes against a hard, rough wooden surface, and his eyes snap open as he comes to an abrupt stop, waking him from his sleepy state. A little wooden room greets the man, almost welcoming him inside with a hard wooden hug. One note, then another meet his ears, beating down on him with the pounding of the past. The song that he once recognized feels distant, but the meaning is something he has never forgotten. The notes drift through the air, emitted in all directions from a tape recorder plugged into the wall to the left of the door, on the inside of the cozy room. Ivy covers the exterior, but a golden, rust-free handle is visible, peeking nervously through the vines. The man reaches out a shaky hand, grasps the handle, and turns it, pulling it towards him with a suddenly energized intensity.
He rushes inside, eager to escape the brutal sun. Once he is safely inside, he removes his bag, dropping it to the floor just next to his feet, and looks around. Old books, stacked unevenly on the shelves, are coated in a thick layer of dust, and papers are strewn across the floor. The drapes flutter with each gust of wind through the shattered glass window, and all that can be seen through them is the deserted wasteland that the man knows so well. The man spins around, searching for the source of the music. In the corner of the room, he sees a tape recorder with a cord twisted up and plugged into an outlet in the wall. Gasping, he holds his breath, unable to breathe because of the surprise.
The man learned long ago that electricity was no longer usable; outlets had stopped working after the asteroid. He reaches forward and yanks the cord out from the wall, but instead of ending immediately, the music falters and then continues playing louder than before. Surprised, he shakes the box and turns it around. He finds a panel on one side of the box that is screwed shut. He spots the lid of a bean can, slipped under the table and laying on the ground. Bending it in half, accidentally drawing blood with the sharp jagged edge he has fashioned into a knife, the man cuts a little door in the plastic music box and carefully lifts up the panel. The man nervously peeks inside and sees the last thing he expects, a tiny, pink music box, topped with a ballerina moving mechanically, yet rhythmically to the music.
“How could this be possible.” He gasps. The music box inside is undoubtedly what he thinks it is: his daughter’s. And he finally recalls why he had recognized the song.
He shrivels with sadness, sinking to the floor, shoulders squished against the wall, sobbing. He doesn’t know what to think of this. His mind races, jumping frantically from one laughable idea to another ill-conceived notion. As his thoughts jumble together into one, he forces himself to believe that the music box must be a coincidence, but he cannot force himself to ignore the voice in the back of his head, whispering his daughter’s name, telling him that the music box is hers.
Hours later he lies, shivering on the floor, overtaken by a restless sleep. Even as he dreams, he feels a presence. A shadow. Suddenly, he is shaken from his rest by the sound of soft tears. He can almost see his daughter shuffling through the books on the bookshelf, tears falling across the pages as she flips through the book her dad had once read to her. He has a sudden urge to comfort the girl, his daughter, but is left with an empty feeling when he remembers that no one is there. He runs to the books, noticing a select few which have somehow shed their dust not too long before. He knocks the pile down, searching through the books for one in particular, the one he had seen in his dream. One catches his eye, the bright fluorescent colors and glossy paper cover reminding him of the many nights that he sat reading to his daughter. He flips through the pages, but then tells himself that he is silly to even let his mind be plagued with this thought.
He puts the book back down, yelling internally at himself for allowing his optimism to get to him. He becomes angry, angry at himself and angry at the room for playing tricks on him. He shouts out loud, projecting his feelings into every corner of the building, yet his emotions continue to flood his body. He punches the table once, twice, three times, continuously, endlessly, expelling his rage for what happened to his daughter and to himself. He spots the books he had strewn across the table earlier and pushes them aside, onto the floor. Then, he crumbles into a ball on the floor besides the table, sobbing.
Through his tears he looks around, colors blending together from the salty water filling his eyes. The books covering the floor catch his eye and before he can stop himself, he is on his knees weeding through the pages. His tears scatter like rain across the pages, but he cannot ignore the dried tears among them that are undeniably from an earlier time. It is not till minutes later that the truth actually sinks in. He ignores all reason, his mind clouded with hope: his daughter must have been here, there is no other possibility.