Here we are, the last two people on earth, sitting at the table in the tired old Hungry Rail Diner that’s empty save for us, playing chess like we do every day. What else is there to do when there’s nobody but the tumbleweeds and each other to keep you company?
“Checkmate,” I said, moving my bishop in for the kill.
“Well-played,” Chuck said, seeming appropriately impressed. “You’re learning.”
I gave him a lopsided grin. “Thanks, I think.”
“It’s a compliment,” he assured me. “Are you done for the day?”
“Yes, I believe I am.”
He plucked each frosted glass piece off the board and laid them lovingly in the velvet-lined wooden box that lay under the board. He replaced the board and patted the wood with his fat little hands. “Are you hungry? I’m hungry.”
I twisted my lips and took stock of my body. My stomach was starting to rumble as it had been several hours since we’d cooked up some eggs for breakfast. “Yeah, I’m hungry. What’s on the menu for lunch?”
Chuck winked one of his ice blue eyes at me and whipped his green hair out of his face as he struggled to stand. He grabbed his crutches and swiftly made his way on three legs to the kitchen. “We’ve got rice, beans, or peanut butter and honey sandwiches.”
“We may as well use up the bread before it goes bad.”
I slid out of the booth and followed my one-legged friend into the kitchen. He was leaning against the counter, his chin barely clearing the top, his rotund belly protruding into the open cupboard space beneath. “Let me help you, Chuck.”
“I’m fine.” He used his crutches, specially made back when the world still made sense, to push himself up onto a stepstool. “Up we go. Whoops. Careful, Chucky-boy, keep those crutches even.”
I shook my head. We’d been together for weeks, and I still hadn’t gotten used to Chuck talking to himself as he moved around. I watched him as he expertly threw together two sandwiches for me and three for himself. Once again, I shook my head. For a little person, he was a big boy. I was pretty sure his doctors had never approved of his weight when they’d been around.
“What are you shaking your head at, wench?”
I took my sandwiches and simply said, “Thank you, Chuck.”
“Thank you, indeed. That’ll be the best peanut butter and honey you’ve ever had, I’ll tell you that much.”
There was an acerbic edge to his voice, but despite that, I knew he was mostly content. Well, as content as he could be, given the circumstances.
Three months earlier, I had woken up one morning to discover that everyone around me was just… gone. I stuck close to the house for a month, hoping someone would turn up eventually, but then I ran out of food. I panicked. I was prone to anxiety to begin with, but come on – I’m only seventeen years old. Seventeen-year-old girls are not meant to be left to their own devices long-term.
There was no radio chatter, no television, nothing that could tell me what was going on. There was just me. I went through the classic stages of grief in short order, and dealt with fast and hard depression when reality really set in.
Six weeks after the vanishing, I ventured out of the house to find food. The first place I encountered was the old train car diner, painted brownish-orange inside and out, but the paint was faded and peeling, and there were rust spots on the outside. Still, I’d eaten there many times with my dad and sister on Sundays after church for brunch, and knew they had good food, so I stepped inside and hoped they used some sort of indestructible non-perishable food that I could pilfer for my own use.
Sitting at the first booth inside the door when I came into the diner, the very same booth we were now eating our sandwiches at, was Chuck Hatton. It was difficult to place his age thanks to his avocado green hair and plump round face. He had no wrinkles and with his hair such a unique colour, he had no obvious signs of being sixty-three years old. At first, though, I didn’t see him so much as hear him.
“What’s that, then? I heard a bell. I haven’t heard a bell in weeks. Am I losing my mind?”
His head popped up suddenly over the back of the booth bench, and then he toppled over to the left, as he had neglected to support himself on his legless side.
“Are you okay?” I rushed to the table and saw him lying on his face on the bench, pushing himself back up.
“Fine, fine.” He pushed himself partway up and pulled his leg under him with his hands. “Who’re you?”
“I – I’m Gayle.” I had to think about the answer for a moment. It had been a while since I’d heard my name said aloud.
“Well, hello Gayle. Gayle what? I didn’t know there was anybody else. I’m Chuck Hatton.”
“Me either,” I admitted. “Hello, Chuck. It’s Gayle Warner.” He sat up all the way and looked at me for the first time. His face was instantly fear-stricken. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
He skittered backwards in the booth until he hit the wall. His hands scrambled to find purchase on the smooth vinyl. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” he mumbled to himself.
His reaction to me caught me off-guard, and sent me into a tizzy. I could feel my heart beating faster already, trying to pound its way out of my chest. “Chuck, what did I do wrong??”
“Face… your face…”
My hands fluttered to my face, and I ran my fingers over my features. My cheekbones, though padded more than I would like, were high and prominent. Did this offend his sensibilities? My nose was petite and didn’t slope too much or too little. My lips were on the thinner side, but I had no complaints about them, personally. Still, Chuck was cowering in the corner as if he was terrified of me, muttering, “Your face…” repeatedly.
“What’s wrong with my face? Have I cut it? Did I injure myself without knowing it?”
He shook his head vehemently. “No, no, no, no, no.”
His reaction had my anxiety levels sky-high. It was my turn to back away from him, which I did, until my backside was resting against a stool at the bar. Chuck seemed to calm down the farther away from him I got. “Your face,” he whispered. “Your face, your face, your face.”
I’d had such high hopes that I had met a new friend, someone with whom to while away the long, lonely hours. Instead, it seemed that I had only met up with a crazy little person who had taken great personal offense at my face. I perched myself up on the stool and turned away from the booth and from Chuck’s meltdown. I buried my offensive face in my hands, clenching them into fists and allowed the trembling of the anxiety to overtake me. I was gasping for breath when I felt a hand on my leg. I hadn’t heard Chuck’s crutches squeak across the floor through my panting.
“Don’t look at me,” he said. “Just keep your hands on your face and listen.”
I let his words sink in, nearly removing my hands from my face for a moment before I realized what he’d actually said. “Okay,” I said through my hands, my face and fists damp with tears.
“I must apologize,” he said, his hand still resting on my leg. “I suffer from Asymmetriphobia, and one glance at your face… well, have you ever been told that your face is incredibly asymmetrical?”
I blinked behind my balled-up fists. “No. Never.”
“It is. Your left eye is slightly lower than your right. Your left cheekbone is slightly higher than your right. Your upper right lip is slightly fuller than your upper left, and your lower left lip is slightly fuller than your lower right. Your hair is, obviously, not symmetrical, what with those bangs covering half your forehead. And your right ear is a tad higher and back farther than your left.”
I was amazed that he had managed to soak up that much detail about my face in the brief glance he had taken at me. “Um. What exactly is asymmetriphobia?”
“It’s the extreme fear of asymmetrical things. I’m afraid your face sent me into a full-blown panic attack.”
He lifted his hand off my leg and I heard him take a few halting steps away with his squeaky crutches. Curious, I turned and looked at him. He had his back to me now. His already-pale skin was now absolutely pallid. I wondered if I was going to have to leave in order to afford this man some peace.
“Don’t be sorry,” he said over his shoulder. “It’s not your fault. You were born with that face as much as I was born to be four foot nine. As much as I was born with irrational fears.”
“I guess so.”
“I’ll have to get over it. After all, I can’t let a young woman such as yourself wander this big empty world all by herself, now, can I?”
And that was how Chuck and I had started our friendship six weeks ago. Now, I was sitting in the corner booth closest to the door with two peanut butter and honey sandwiches made by the man himself. We’d come to an understanding early on that Chuck would avoid looking at me whenever possible, and I would do what I could to avoid direct contact whenever possible. Our daily chess games were played with Chuck facing the window or the restaurant while I sat as far into the corner as I could get, trying to stay out of his peripheral vision. There was the odd time when Chuck would catch a direct glimpse of my face, and nearly every time, he would recoil in horror or something akin to abject terror, but then he would employ some breathing techniques and distraction tools and inevitably be okay.
We spent our days hanging out together every day, only separating to take care of delicate situations. I learned a lot about Chuck, but I learned even more about myself. Being half the known population left on Earth affords you a lot of time for self-reflection.
“Could you PLEASE close your damned mouth when you chew? For how prim and proper you act, you certainly lack common manners when it comes to eating!”
I was snapped out of a reverie by Chuck’s harsh tone. “I’m sorry?”
“You should be. Listening to you smack your gums every time you eat is getting really old. Did your parents really never teach you to chew with your mouth closed?”
“No, they didn’t. I don’t know what to say.”
“Just try. TRY. Try to chew with your mouth closed. It’s bad enough that I can’t even look at you without a panic attack, but please don’t make it so I can’t even be in the same room as you when you eat.”
“And for pity’s sake, you don’t have to moan with pleasure every time you enjoy what you’re eating!”
I felt my cheeks burn, and was glad that Chuck wouldn’t look at me. I looked at the half sandwich I had remaining on my plate, and suddenly I had no appetite. I set the food down and slid out of the booth. I swung my backpack over my shoulder and paused for just a moment. “I’m going to go for a walk.”
Chuck snorted as I walked out the door, the high pitch of his voice making the huffy sound less derisive and more horse-like. I had to smile to myself at the image it brought to mind.
I stepped down out of the old rail car and strolled down the street, gazing out over the barren roads, silent and scary. I wandered until I came to the playground I used to play at with my friends as a young child. The swings swayed lazily in the slight breeze that was blowing through the park. I took a seat on one of them and dragged my toes in the sand beneath the seat. “Swing low, sweet chariot…” I sang glumly.
“Comin’ for to carry me home,” continued Chuck as he perched on the swing next to me.
“Swing low, sweet chariot,” we sang in unison, “comin’ for to carry me home.”
“Why did you follow me?”
“I didn’t. I knew you’d end up here, so I just came here. Your legs happen to be twice as long as mine, so you got here before me.”
I nodded. “I see,” I said when I remembered that he wouldn’t be looking at me.
“How tall are you, anyway?”
“Five eight.” I watched him for his reaction. He just stared straight ahead as he swung idly.
“You’re not likely to get any taller, you know.”
“I don’t really want to get any taller,” I retorted. “I tower over – I mean towered, past tense, over all my friends. I guess I still do,” I teased.
“Ha ha. Very funny.”
I stood up off the swing and walked over to the dome of triangles that was the jungle gym. I climbed to the top and laid backwards against the dome, stretching myself out as far as I could stand it. “I wish it was night.”
“So you could drag your telescope out?”
“What’s so fascinating about the night sky?”
“There are hundreds of stars up there, waiting to be seen. The naked human eye can’t see most of the stars that exist out there, especially with all the light pollution that we used to have. Now…”
“Yeah, it’s not as big of an issue now that the lights are down.”
“But even still, some of them are so far away that even the biggest ones are too dim to see without the aid of a telescope. Plus I like to view the constellations.”
“Ah, I see.”
I slid down the jungle gym, careful not to scrape my back on the rusted metal. I climbed aboard a weird shaped metal animal that now only vaguely resembled a yellow duck, its paint long ago having chipped and faded away. I rocked back and forth with my feet on the ground, digging my toes into the sand.
“Do you ever think…”
“Never mind, it’s stupid.”
Chuck hopped off the swing with the aid of a crutch and carefully made his way over to me on my sick-looking duck. “No such thing as a stupid question.”
I snorted. “I disagree.”
“Come on, ask your question. Nobody here but us chickens, and I’m not going to ‘bawk’ at it.”
I sighed. “Fine. I was just going to say, do you ever think that maybe they’re all up there, among the stars?”
Chuck gazed up into the blue sky, unblemished by clouds, and shook his head. “I really couldn’t tell you, Gayle. I just know I miss my Chiquita something fierce.”
I twisted so I was sideways on the forlorn duck. “Tell me about her.”
“About Chiquita? Well, she wasn’t what you’d expect. Her last name, for example, was B-R-E-A-U-X, which sounds French and is pronounced ‘Breeoh’, which doesn’t match with her Spanish-sounding first name, but get this: she’s Irish. Straight from the Emerald Isle when she was twenty-three.”
“That’s fascinating. What a mix. What else can you tell me about her?”
His eyes misted over as he thought about his beloved. “She was a wee bit shorter than me – oh, there I go, falling into her brogue even though she’s not here!” He cleared his throat and started again. “She was two inches shorter than me, and slim.” He got a faraway look on his face as he spoke. “Her hair was a deep auburn red, and it was all natural. She kept it cut short and well-trimmed. Her eyes… oh, they were the most beautiful shade of violet. Her face was a perfect oval. So amazingly symmetrical.”
“That must have been very soothing for you.”
He glanced at my feet. “That’s a very astute observation.”
“Thanks. So, tell me more about her? What was she like? Not just her looks, but her personality?”
He stared up at the empty sky again. “She loved to watch the clouds. She spent hours laying out on the grass, just watching the clouds. When everyone else was complaining about the clouds blocking their sun or raining on their parade, Chiquita would be there, face turned upward, eyes wide open, drinking them in like she would never see another one.” Chuck swiped a tear away from the corner of his eye. “All that cloud-watching made her very absent-minded, though, you see. She was so scatter-brained. I was forever reminding her about everything, from the minutest details to the big, important things.” His voice broke and he cleared his throat again. “She had a bad habit, though.”
“What was that?”
“She liked to gamble. Especially blackjack. She would go to the casino and play for hours.”
“Did she lose a lot of money?”
“Actually, no, she usually ended up being up by about a hundred dollars each time. She did know to quit while she was ahead most of the time. But it was a real time suck. When she wasn’t watching the clouds, or when it was a clear day like today, she was in the casino, watching the dealer flip those cards and desperately chasing those twenty-ones.”
“How old was she?”
“She had just turned fifty-eight when… everyone left. But you’d never know it to look at her. She dressed more like a woman in her thirties, and she wasn’t wrinkly or shriveled up like most women nearing sixty.” He paused and smiled as if he were remembering something particularly funny. “She always used to say, ‘If you were able to count up to infinity, I’ll bet you would never get over it.’”
I smiled politely. “I’m sorry, I don’t really get it.”
He laughed. “Neither did I, at first.”
“But you did eventually?”
“She explained it to me. You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that I can be a tad, shall we say, pretentious?”
“I hadn’t noticed,” I said drily.
“Well, I’m aware of this particular… flaw… of mine.” He waved his hands around as he talked, leaning heavily on his crutches, swaying back and forth in the sand. “What she meant was that I am so pompous at times that I would never be able to stop crowing over counting up to infinity, over doing something nobody else had ever done before.”
“Tell you what?”
“Who do you miss?”
My mind swam through the faces of everyone in my life, trying to pick just one out. I couldn’t settle on just a single person, so I said, “Everyone.”
“That’s a cop-out, Gayle. There’s gotta be one person who really stands out. Who did you spend most of your time with? Did you have a boyfriend?”
I lowered my head and smiled sadly. “Herb Luster.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere. Tell me about Herb Luster. Was he older than you? That sounds like an old guy name. I had friends named Herb.”
When I opened my mouth, my voice was quite a bit softer than I expected it to be. “He was named after his grandpa. He was my age. We were actually only two months apart. I was older.”
“So, you met in school?”
“Yeah, back in, like, second grade or something like that.”
“Long time. You’re supposed to be in twelfth now?”
“Was he tall like you?”
“Taller. He was eleven inches taller than me, actually.”
“So like the difference between me and you?”
“Exactly like it. His hair was ginger blond, which was funny because it made his hair look dirty more than it made it look red.” I could feel my eyes crinkle up as I thought about Herb’s mop of hair. “He had long hair, which he kept pulled back in a ponytail or a braid most of the time. Much longer than my own hair is. His eyes were a rich, deep brown that were easy to get lost in. He had, now that I think of it, an unusually symmetrical face.”
“He sounds handsome. What kind of disposition did he have?”
“Quite a sunny one. Actually, he was fond of saying, ‘Smaller the man, bigger the anger.’” I watched Chuck carefully for a reaction.
“I take a certain amount of umbrage with that statement. But on the surface, he’s not wrong.”
“He simply meant that big guys like him were more apt to be… oh, jolly, for lack of a better word. He was a solid guy, too. Barrel-chested, I think they call it.”
“What kind of things did he like to do for fun?”
“Mostly he played on the internet and people-watched. He observed things and commentated on everything around him. It was a bit irritating at times, but not nearly as bad as him cracking his knuckles every five minutes.” I had to smile in spite of the displeasing memory. What I wouldn’t give to hear a good knuckle pop from Herb right now. “The funniest thing about him, though, was that he was terribly afraid of bald people. They creeped him out, he said. Never gave a really valid reason why. But he would shudder and shake every time he saw one, and would avoid interacting with bald people at all costs unless they had a scarf or something on. It made me laugh every time.”
“That’s interesting. I can’t fault him for an irrational fear. I’ve got more than one, you know.”
“You’ll have to tell me more someday.” I stood up and walked haphazardly through the soft sand, out of it and over to the picnic table on the grass. I laid down on my back on top of the table and rested my head on my hands. The old wood, smoothed by the elements and time, rubbed against the backs of my hands. I was acutely aware of everything touching my body suddenly. Every inch of the table that pressed against my clothing felt like a hot iron working its magic to get the wrinkles out and produce a smooth garment. I stared up into the air, at the deep azure sky unmarred by clouds, and I was floating, spinning, weightless and buoyant. I started to feel dizzy, so I closed my eyes and shuddered, turning my head to the side. I opened them, expecting to be drifting in the air near the tops of the park’s trees, but found myself staring straight into Chuck’s eyes.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked, looking at me very nervously.
“Nothing,” I muttered, and I pushed myself to a stand and started walking away from the little man.
I heard him rushing after me. “Don’t tell me ‘nothing’!” he commanded. “I know you well enough by now to know when something’s wrong.”
I stopped walking for just a moment. “I just don’t feel well. I got dizzy.” I started walking again.
I didn’t hear him follow me, so I walked back to my house. I had yet to tell or show Chuck where I lived. I believed that he had followed me at least once, and there was nothing I could do about that, but I felt safer being the only one who knew exactly which house I was in each night.
I locked the door behind me, as I did every time I entered the house, double-checking it three times. Ever since everyone had vanished, I had taken very few risks when it came to my personal safety, but even fewer when it came to the safety of my home.
I carried my backpack up to my bedroom and tossed it on my bed. I walked back down the hall to my parents’ bedroom and laid on their carefully-made bed. Every morning since as far back as I could remember, my parents had made their bed to picture-perfect quality every morning. I hadn’t cared about it much, and had frequently left my bed a mess as I was growing up, but now that I was on my own, a switch had flipped in my brain, and I felt the compulsion to make my bed every morning now.
I curled up on my side with my head on my mom’s pillow and my left hand under my dad’s pillow and my right hand atop the same. This was my nightly ritual for the past three months. I breathed in her scent, what was left of it. I imagined him smiling at me. I sobbed now and then, missing them with an ache so sharp and deep that I was sure it would impale my heart and kill me on the spot.
When I was spent, I rolled over and slipped into my sister’s room. Elia had been three years older than me, but still lived at home while she worked and went to school. Where my hair was cut into a pixie style and dyed silver, Elia’s was long, curly, and our natural sandy brown. She was my total opposite in almost every way, and she was my best friend. Where my room was always a cluttered mess, with nothing where it belonged, hers was neat and orderly at all times. She took after our parents in that regard. We always joked that I was left by the stork at the wrong house, or that our parents picked the wrong cabbage from the patch and just didn’t have the heart to take me back.
I had told Chuck that I missed Herb most of all, but in reality, it was my sister being gone that was tearing the biggest hole in my heart. She was many things – cryptic, paranoid, and a liar – but she was also sweet and would never hurt a fly, either with words or violence. Elia would tell a lie in order to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, without thinking about the consequences for her actions. She spoke as tactfully as she could at all times, even if it meant “bending the truth”, as she put it.
I turned away from my sister’s perfectly-arranged bedroom and walked back into my own room. My telescope was set up in front of the window, and I noticed that the sky was getting darker. I sat down in my computer chair and slid over to the window. I peered through the telescope into the darkening sky. I could spend hours looking through the looking glass, and I did just that, finally falling into bed around eleven that night, exhausted and famished, but knowing I had no food in the house, I decided to go to bed hungry yet again, and decided to hit up the grocery store in the morning to grab some canned goods or something that I could eat cold before bed at night, since I had no power in the house anymore.
“Gayle, wake up, honey. It’s time to wake up. You’ve been out for far too long. We need you here with us.”
“Come on, Gayle. Come back to us.”
The dream was a recurring one. The disembodied voices of my friends and loved ones were begging me to come back to them, to wake up from a long slumber. Everything in the dream was hazy and grey, and I could never make out anything more than vague shapes and fuzzy movement. Still, it was nice to hear their voices in the night when I was so alone all day long.
The End (so far)