Dedicated to my amazing sister, Erin
He pulled into the Food World Bargains parking lot, eventually finding the only spot left at the far end. The sliver of a space tucked beside an overflowing dumpster made exiting difficult; he was grateful for the bit of shade, generously provided by the stringy palm tree hugging the curb behind him. It too seemed to be seeking refuge from the incessant heat.
California was unusually hot this summer; global-warming-hot. Noah Sullivan prayed ice cream would be one of the many items listed on the paper handed to him earlier by Peg on her way out the door with the twins. “You’re on supper, “she chirped with a smile, carefully bouncing down the steps, babes-in-arms, to their hatchback; apparently, he would be taking the Volkswagen today.
Food World Bargains was a brightly lit, monstrosity of a grocery store on the outer edge of Palatine, California–a distinctly unassuming northern cluster in the Los Angeles constellation. It was famous for nothing other than simply being within commuting distance of the outer sprawl of La La Land.
Noah’s aspiration–nay, relentless ambition–since puberty had always been to escape this teenage wasteland and explore the limitless possibilities the world had to offer. But that dream faded at the Antelope Bowling Alley, the moment he had gazed into the piercing green eyes of Peg Willow. He knew then and there that he would remain with her, in Palatine, forever.
Peg was a local gal – through and through. She helped her parents run the feed shop at the Portola Valley Mall. Her family was close and needed their only child near them. They all knew it. And so it was.
The twins soon followed and, as it does, life took over. Half-reluctantly and half-whimsically, Palatine became Noah’s forever-home. He embraced it wholeheartedly, content to let the river of life take him where it may.
The parking lot was a furnace, and Noah quickly scurried across the shimmering asphalt toward the large glass sliding doors of the FWB. He could already taste the ice cream. Vanilla-strawberry in a cup. A taster just to make sure it was good enough to bring home.
Two sensations: cold air and instant relief. Noah paused long enough to enjoy the reprieve before noisily pulling a trolley free from the lengthy silver line of carts just inside the front door. From what he had noticed from his brief look at Peg’s list, he had a fair load of groceries to purchase this morning.
As he always did, he would begin with the larger produce. He looked at the list. Flour and milk would be his first stops. He would end the excursion with fruit and vegetables; and finally –– ice cream, whether it was on the list, or not.
Noah headed straight down Aisle 8, pleased that there was no one in front of him–a surprise considering how packed the parking lot had been. He loved to shop quickly and efficiently. He knew the flour would be found at the end of the row, on the bottom shelf, just below the marshmallows and cake mix.
The Beatles’ Love Me Do was blasting from the sound system. Noah started humming along and, since no one was ahead of him, began to sing along. He was in a good mood. It was the weekend, which meant barbecuing, beer, and playing in the pool with the twins.
Love…love me do…
After loading the bag of flour into his cart, he reached the end of the aisle, grabbed some milk from the cooler, and turned left toward the meat section. It appeared chicken breast was on the menu for tonight. He knew Peg loved how he marinated them with lime and garlic. Again, according to his list, some potato salad, kale chips and asparagus also seemed to be the accompanying dishes he would be preparing tonight. Noah smiled and continued singing since the rear of the store also seemed to be void of people. It was a good time to shop. Mornings or evenings were the best for groceries.
Noah selected a four-pack of chicken. The Beatles soon faded and morphed into the guitar intro of Hotel California–always popular in these parts and one of Peg’s all-time favorite songs. Great tunes today, Noah thought, rounding the corner. On to Aisle 2 for peanut butter.
It was only when he looked up that the initial subtle pulses of confusion bubbled into his consciousness. Aisle 2 was also empty. Noah had been so lost in thought that he’d not noticed until now; he realized he’d not seen a single person since parking his Volkswagen. No one in the parking lot. No one in the store.
Noah quickened his pace, eager to reach the end of the aisle in order to quell his rising fear, anxious for the comforting sight of the many cashiers at the front of the store, no doubt serving long lines of customers. He could feel the pulse in his temples, and the flush of heat in his face as he neared the end of the aisle.
Surely it was just a weird coincidence.
Noah finally reached the end of Aisle 2 and abruptly stopped.
All seven cashier stations were completely void of life. Noah’s heart began to tear at his chest. He frantically looked in both directions, desperately seeking some kind of clue. It appeared he was the only person left in the entire cavernous store.
Noah’s immediate thought was that he’d missed some kind of evacuation alert. Perhaps an earthquake warning. He nervously felt for his phone in his pocket and pulled it out. No message.
Abandoning his trolley by Check Out Three, he trotted toward the large glass doors at the front of the store; the same ones that he had entered just a few minutes earlier. He was soon standing outside in the blistering heat. There was no sign of any human life in any direction. It was as if he’d been left out of some cruel joke. Surely some kind of mind-numbing prank.
Noah tried calling Peg on his phone. No answer. He checked his texts again. Nothing.
Standing in the scorching sunshine, he could feel the sweat pouring down his back and face. He was breathing rapidly.
Behind him, Noah could just make out the epic guitar solo of Hotel California as he started to sprint toward his car.
The ten-minute ride home was both a blur and terrifying. While everything appeared on the surface to be as it should, Noah saw no one. Not one solitary person.
While every block he turned down was empty, signs of normalcy were everywhere; sprinklers were on, street lights still worked and, to his confusion, his radio was working. A man was talking about the hot weather and the score of the Dodgers game last night. His brain felt like it would explode.
By the time he had turned down his street, he was beside himself with worry. Screeching to a halt in his driveway, he quickly bounded up the steps, attempting to calm his shaking hands enough to get the key in the lock of the door. It was then that he remembered they weren’t here. He hadn’t even realized Peg’s car was not in the driveway. She would be at her parents with the twins.
He immediately turned and ran back down to his Volkswagen. Fifteen minutes later he pulled in behind their hatchback in the small driveway in front of Peg’s parents’ modest duplex. Noah sprinted to the gate beside the house. They would be in the back in the pool, like they were every Saturday.
Peg! Peg! He screamed as he burst through the wooden gate and ran to the rear of the house. Peg, are you here?
Peg? Noah reached the back patio and came to an abrupt halt. It was empty. But it hadn’t been for long. There were numerous signs that they’d recently been there. Grandpa’s book and reading glasses were on the chaise lounge. Peg’s sun hat was on the deck beside her flip flops, along with sunscreen for the twins and some wet towels. Peg’s purse sat near the back door.
Noah looked over at the pool. Some water wings and their yellow dragon inflatable were floating lazily on the surface.
Peg! Noah yelled again, turning and running to the back door. It was open.
Inside, he could smell that Grandma Cheryl had been baking. A tray of chocolate chip cookies sat cooling on top of the stove. Noah could feel the heat from the oven. It had not long been off. Peg? Are you here? Dick? Cheryl? Hello?
Noah ran through the kitchen to the small living room. As expected, it was empty, as was the entire house. Deathly quiet, yet quite obviously recently occupied.
Noah pushed through the front door and scrambled down the path to the street below. He looked both ways desperately searching for any signs of life. Peg! Peg! Noah screamed at the top of his lungs before falling to his knees onto the hot road.
He could feel the tears forming and the lump in his throat growing. He was visibly shaking now, and he struggled to pull out his cell phone from the front pocket of his jeans. He pressed the speed dial for his wife and waited, listening until he heard her voice on the recording. Hi, it’s Peg. I’m sorry I can’t take your call…
He slowly leaned over and at first, he heaved, then vomited violently–watching the bile sizzle on the asphalt beneath him. Noah then began to weep.
Noah eventually decided to return home. He did a thorough sweep of the neighborhood, searching for any clues. There were none. He then returned to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. He did this same circle route, three times until he was exhausted. It was pushing toward dusk now and Noah was barely holding on.
Each time he got into the car, the radio continued to play music and chit chat as if all was normal. Even the goddamn television was working at home when he turned it on–desperately attempting to find out any news of mass evacuation, or a virus, or something. But all appeared to be completely normal. The weather lady on Channel 11 talked about the heatwave, attempting to convince people to stay in the shade during the heat of the day.
Noah decided to retrace his steps. He would head back to the Food World Bargains and see if he had missed anything.
Any clue at all.
Pulling off of Joshua Tree Avenue into the parking lot, Noah suddenly slammed on the breaks, causing the little car to loudly shudder and skim across the hot pavement before coming to an abrupt stop. Noah opened the door and slowly got out. He could not believe his eyes. It was empty. All of it. Empty.
As far as he could see the parking lot was completely abandoned. Not a single car could be seen. Looking up and down the avenue, he noticed the same thing. Not a solitary vehicle was in sight.
Noah’s heart tightened in his chest. What kind of twisted, sadistic joke was being played on him? He slowly turned to get back into his Volkswagen, but it too had vanished.
By the time he had returned home, it was almost dark. Noah was beyond tired as he weakly pushed through the front door, walking directly to the couch, and collapsing on it. Turning on the television, he began to surf through the channels until he found the local news. A reporter was standing outside of Dodger stadium talking about the upcoming game tonight versus the Giants. Garcia would be pitching. They hoped to split the series with a win. Noah tried to fight it, but slowly his eyes began to close.
It was the sound of silence that woke him. The eerily quiet morning jarred him awake. Everything was deathly still, and Noah was immediately filled with the familiar feeling of dread. It had not been a dream.
The first thing he did was to check upstairs, just in case. But his bedroom was still empty, as were the twins’ cots next to the bed. Noah could see Peg’s green nightdress neatly folded on top of her pillow. He made his way over to the bed and sat down, pulling it up to his face and breathing in her scent.
Out the window, he could tell it would be another brutally hot day. Without a vehicle, he would need to pack water and find a large hat for shade. He felt he had to get back to Food World Bargains to look for an answer.
Before he left the room, he paused briefly to look at the framed picture on Peg’s chest of drawers. It had been taken a few days after leaving the hospital. It was of him and Peg each holding a newborn baby. Sarah Dawn and Buddy Richard had just entered their lives. Noah fought back his tears, turned and headed downstairs.
It would take him at least twenty-five minutes to make the trek to the Food World Bargains parking lot. Along the way, he was determined to remain alert, in case there was any sign of life, or at the very least, any explanation that could give meaning to what had occurred over the last twenty-four hours. Other than the obvious absence of cars and humans, everything looked as it should.
Once he reached Joshua Tree Avenue, he trotted across the crosswalk to the north side of the road. That is when he first saw it. Or more precisely, didn’t see it.
Noah spun around to check his bearings and double-check that he was indeed at the right location–even though he had been at this intersection a thousand times before. The Esso station was on the corner as was the 7-11. He was definitely at the right location.
Noah turned around again, and the sickening feeling returned to his stomach as he gazed down across the two acres of empty field in front of him– the place where a parking lot and the Food World Bargains grocery store had been not ten hours earlier. Noah steadied himself against the traffic light post. He was unsure of his next move. He was unsure of everything.
Peg had always told him he was a worrier. ‘You make the simple things too complex’, she used to tease. ‘There doesn’t always have to be something to worry about, you know…’ He could still see her wide smile; perfect teeth, and dancing green eyes. Noah pulled out his cell phone and was tempted to call her again, but instead decided to try the news station he had watched on the television last night. Channel Eleven News. He opened his browser and searched for the number – thinking it was ludicrous that he could still access the internet when an entire shopping center had seemingly disappeared in front of him.
He found the contact number and pressed it, waiting for it to connect. His heart was chiseling at his chest. “Thank you for calling the CNSI television. For our newsroom, please press one, for sports, please press…” Noah pressed one. “If you know the number of the person you wish to speak with, press that number now. If you wish to speak to a representative, please hold…”
Noah pressed his phone to his ear and began walking home. It was already excruciatingly hot. Elevator-music played loudly in his ear as he crossed the silent avenue. It was still playing a half-hour later when he eventually reached his house.
As he pulled himself up the railings of the front steps, feeling utterly dejected and defeated, he knew that his life would never again be the same. Pushing through the door, his heart jumped. The smell! The smell of cooking!
Running to the kitchen, he almost started to cry. “Peg? Peg!” He screamed, as he moved toward the counter. There on the stove were some fresh muffins, still steaming from the heat. Blueberry muffins; his favorite and one of Peg’s specialties! “Peg, where are you? Honey?” He yelled with all his might.
Noah quickly moved to the kitchen door leading out into the yard and flung it open. “Peg, where are you?” He bellowed, skipping down the steps onto the lawn.
The backyard was empty, but the paddling pool was still swirling and moving from side to side as if someone had just jumped out of it. That is when he noticed the footprints on the concrete deck. Wet footprints. Peg’s footprints.
They were leading from the pool back toward the house. He looked down and could see them evaporating quickly in the hot sun. He felt like he was hyperventilating, and he tried to take deep breaths to calm his nerves. Turning around, he followed them into the house. “Peg! I’m here, honey!” His heart felt like a sledgehammer against his ribs. He could just make the footprints out on the kitchen floor, following them until they reached the carpet in the living room where they vanished. “Peg!” Noah screamed, running up the stairs to the bedroom. He suddenly stopped in the doorway. “Jeezus!” he exhaled as he reluctantly entered the empty room. No bed. No furniture. No pictures. No baby cot.
“Peg?” Noah, whispered coarsely, stepping into the room–the sound of his shoes on the floor echoing off the walls.
“Honey, are you here?”
He quickly turned and ran back down the stairs to the kitchen. He needed to see the footprints again, but they too were now gone. He was about to retrace his steps outside when he suddenly stopped, then slowly turned his head toward the stove.
A muffin was missing from the pan. Noah could see it on a plate beside the stove, a knife had been used to cut it in half and was leaning up against the butter dish beside it.
Noah’s mind was racing. It was too much to take in all at once. It was at that moment that the phone on the wall began to ring.
The three steps toward the telephone felt like an eternity. Noah resisted the urge to vomit again. He slowly reached for the receiver.
“Congratulations. You are one of our lucky contestants who have won a cruise to the Bahamas. All you have to do is to confirm your name and number with one of our call center representatives. Please press one to continue.”
Noah collapsed against the wall, slowly sliding down to the floor.
When he woke up, he was lying on the couch in the living room. A half-empty bottle of whiskey was beside him and his head was exploding. He gradually remembered having grabbed it from the cupboard above the sink the night before.
The television was still on and some news guys was whining about the traffic problem heading into the city core. He was pointing at a digital display of downtown Los Angeles showing a snarling line of dots moving slowly toward the city.
Noah lifted his left wrist up to his face and tried to focus to see the time on his watch. It was just after ten in the morning. He looked at the date. August 14th.
It had been two days since he last saw Peg, and his world had shattered around him. A week ago, he had finished his last day at work and had just started his summer holidays. Or was it two weeks ago. Perhaps longer… it seemed much longer now that he thought about it…he found it hard to focus on anything at the moment.
A sports reporter was now outside of Dodger Stadium. They had dropped another one last night. Garcia had been pulled after the third inning. Tonight, they would play the Padres at home.
Today Noah knew he had to look for clues–any possible indication as to why his world was inexplicably evaporating around him. He looked back at the sports guy on the television. He needed to find his way to LA.
By his rough calculation, walking from his home in Palatine to the Elysian Park area of Los Angeles would take him about ten to fifteen hours. Clearly out of the question in this heat and in his current state of physical and mental fatigue. A bike might work, and he had a good one in the garage.
He showered downstairs as he couldn’t bear to see his empty bedroom again. He found a clean shirt in the laundry room and pulled it over his head, pausing briefly to look in the mirror. He looked a wreck with days-old stubble and his unkempt thick brown hair.
He grabbed a well-ripened banana from the kitchen counter and headed out the back door toward the garage. It was already very hot.
He hadn’t ridden his bike in a while and the tires were a little low. He would stop and put some air in them on his way. He would connect with the highway near Flintridge and follow #2 into the city.
Opening the garage door, he was about to get on his bike when he looked across the street. Or, more precisely, toward what used to be across the street. Now, as far as he could see was an empty field. His heart again began to pound.
Noah slowly walked his bike out of the garage and down the driveway toward the street, looking in both directions as he went. No houses; no buildings; nothing but the road itself remained. Noah’s knees felt weak. Gradually he forced himself to turn around to look back at his house. There was nothing to see.
It was gone.
His home, the entire block, and it would seem, the entire town of Palatine had completely vanished. He was now standing, holding his bike, in the middle of literally nowhere.
Noah could feel the tears welling up again as he mounted his bike and slowly began pedaling down his street for the last time.
Soon he saw signs of civilization again. On the horizon, he could make out the high-rises and office towers of La Crescenta, and within an hour he had entered the city limits. He had to rest frequently; the sun was relentless again today.
He had filled the bike tires at the first gas station he’d found and had grabbed some cold water from the store cooler; as well as a ball cap and sunglasses from the counter. The Eagles were playing on the speakers and it reminded him of his initial visit to Food World Bargains where Hotel California was playing. That was when had first noticed something was different.
By the time he had reached Glendale, it was pushing four o’clock. He was exhausted and famished. He glided down the long hill, feeling the warm breeze on his face. The area felt oddly familiar. He recognized a few of the buildings as they whirled by.
Noah saw what seemed to be a nice hotel and pulled up under its inviting, covered entrance–slowly dismounting in front of the thick glass doors. He was stiff and ready for some respite.
Once inside he found instant relief from the air conditioning. As he expected, the lobby was empty. Across the small concourse, he could see a large television on the wall. The evening sports reporter was babbling on about the upcoming Padres game and the Dodgers road trip next week–the beginning of a week-long east coast swing.
Inside the large cafeteria, at least twenty square tables were all neatly set for dinner and the buffet appeared to be ready. Noah noticed a lengthy array silver steam table pans had been lined up, ready for the non-existent onslaught of hungry patrons. He thought of Peg and how she hated buffet-styled eating. He wasn’t that picky; he was ravenous now that he smelled the food.
The music changed again. It was now the Beatles, Love me Do. Noah felt a pang of sadness and sat down at one of the tables. He pulled a napkin out from under the cutlery and buried his face into the soft, cool fabric–breathing in its fresh scent and wiping his sweating forehead.
Love me do…
He was dizzy from the heat and the exhausting ride. He was utterly shattered from the emotional overload of his entire world disappearing before his eyes. Noah leaned back against his chair, letting his shoulders drop. The tension had taken its toll.
Love me do…
Gradually he let the napkin fall to his lap and he slowly opened his eyes.
“Time for your pills, Mr. Sullivan.”
“Yes,” Noah replied obediently.
“You had an exciting day today, didn’t you?”
“Your wife and kids came for a visit.”
“Brought you some lovely blueberry muffins.”
Noah stared straight ahead.
“Your twins had a swim in the pool. They’re certainly getting bigger.”
Noah nodded vacantly.
“Hard to believe they can drive now.”
“There you go. Swallow these down and I’ll help you get some supper. It’s chicken tonight, marinated in lime and garlic.”
“And your favorite, vanilla-strawberry ice cream for dessert.”
Hotel California began to play on the speaker above him. He recognized it immediately… Peg always loved that song.
C. W. Johnston travels the world as an educator and writes in a variety of fiction genres. His short story ‘Modulation: Duets in Dive Bars, Crashed Cars, and Beyond...’ can be found on Amazon. His novel Figment, an adult psychological thriller, will debut in the fall of 2019.