Fiction


Alone

Very soon now I will be alone... completely, utterly alone... no one to hold a conversation with, or say hello to... not even one other person to wave to in passing. But I will be alive and that's what counts - right?

The last remaining person - besides myself - will soon be gone, an old lady who always reminded me of my dear, late Aunt Tilly, not happy unless her knitting needles were in her hands. Mrs. Wright now lay at death's door and I knew it was only a matter of hours. I had done what I could for her but a life of 104 years had finally taken its toll. I would miss her.

I wonder what it will be like living in a community with a population of one. There had been about 350 people here when I first arrived. That was nearly twenty years ago but I remember it like it was yesterday...

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

May 2020... I had just returned to the city from my annual two-week retreat in the mountains and was horrified to learn what had raised its ugly head during my absence. A virus, which had started somewhere over in Asia, was sweeping around the globe and had now been declared a pandemic. COVID-19 they were calling it. Hundreds of thousands of people were infected. The death rate was through the roof and the numbers were still climbing. Restrictions were being placed on international travel. Many countries began to impose lockdowns that severely curtailed movement of the general population, in a desperate attempt to slow the spread of the virus... to flatten the curve, as they put it.

Of course, the word pandemic started a panic and people began hoarding the cleaning supplies they thought were necessary to keep the virus at bay... many of them forgetting - or ignoring - the fact that plain old soap and water was just as effective as anything. Strangest thing of all though was the mass stockpiling of toilet tissue, with some buying it by the case, until most stores put limits on what each customer could buy.

Two days later, my laundry was done and I was starting to get edgy. I was sure I had a fever, even though the digital thermometer didn't show it... darn thing probably wasn't working right anyway. My throat felt a little tender and I was coughing now and then. I was starting to get a headache too. All signs of the virus, right? Common sense tried to tell me it was just my hypochondria but did I believe it? No way!

I made a mad dash to every pharmacy that was in close proximity and came home with multiple boxes of pain killers, cough syrups, cold and flu tablets... everything I could get my greedy little hands on. I had masks, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and sprays, and whatever toilet tissue I was allowed to buy from every store in the city. I would go out for food tomorrow. Then I went home and locked myself inside my apartment. I would be safe here... perhaps... would I really... maybe not... and I began to obsess about survival. What was my best chance of surviving?

Well, it didn't take me long to decide that another "retreat" was in order, perhaps a much longer one this time. And I knew just where to go - the little cottage Aunt Tilly had left me in some backwoods little place called Second Eden. That was seven years ago and, although I had never been there, it had to be a better situation than the city was at present. Aunt Tilly had said that there was one street with small cottages lined along both sides, basically a retirement community I figured, perhaps even seasonal.

The nearest town to shop for supplies was an hour's drive away so people usually made one monthly trip, she had told me. Each cottage had its own well and septic system. There was electricity back then and I prayed there still was. And I hoped to God they had phone and Internet services! Continuing my work was the only thing that would keep me from going insane. I wrote several weekly columns for online newspapers and magazines... a hand-to-mouth existence but I got by.

So, I packed all my clothing and threw it in the truck. I had not been looking for a double cab when I bought it... and I knew it would be a gas guzzler... but the bargain had been too good to pass up. Now, I appreciated the extra space. Next I added a couple of boxes with all the cooking gear and dishes I possessed... a pitifully small collection for ten years of living on my own. I had never been to the cottage and had no idea what was there or what I would need. The place could be just an empty shell for all I knew... might be a good idea to take the sleeping bag too. Come to think of it, I'd take everything I owned because, if this panned out, I might decide to stay there.

The apartment had come furnished and the only stick of furniture I owned was a small desk. I doubted Aunt Tilly had a desk up there so I took it apart and stacked the pieces in the floor space behind the front seat. Linens were stuffed into a large garbage bag which I then squeezed in between the floor and dashboard on the passenger side. The backpack with my laptop occupied the front passenger seat. Lastly, I put the toilet tissue and cleaning supplies in the back seat. Maybe I was paranoid but I pulled a quilt from the bag of bedding and covered all this... just in case... temptation could be a powerful force.

Having loaded all my personal belongings I turned my mind to food which was necessary for survival. I stocked up by shopping at every retail outlet I came across on my way out of the city... mostly canned and packaged goods, literally filling the box of the truck. Fresh or frozen items were out, since I didn't know if the cottage had suitable storage for such things. Extra toiletries and cleaning supplies filled the remaining space in the back seat, tucked safely under the quilt. Anything that would be needed along the way was on the front seat beside my backpack. Finally, I added a good supply of battery-powered LED lights, since I figured the cottage probably didn't have electricity after being empty for the last six years.

Then, on an afterthought, I added packages of vegetable seed. I seemed to remember Aunt Tilly once saying that the soil was excellent for growing things up there. It would give me something to do since I had no idea how long I might be up there. Not that I had any farming experience but how hard could it be?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

May 2020, Five Days Later... It was late evening when I drove into Second Eden. Aunt Tilly had said it was the fifth cottage on the left and I found it easily enough. It was facing the street, door and two windows on the lower floor. An old-fashioned porch, complete with rails, ran the length of the front. There were dormer windows on each side of the second floor which I assumed were the bedroom windows. No peeling paint that I could see. It looked a bit desolate and lonely, but that would change as I got settled in.

When I stepped out of the truck, the night air was cool and fresh, just like it always was in the mountains. I breathed deeply. It was so quiet I could almost hear my heart beating. Oh, I could get used to this... quiet surroundings and clean fresh air.

And I sincerely hoped the place was habitable and would provide the sanctuary I had come for. I also hoped it wasn't crawling with bugs after being empty for so long. I didn't really want to sleep in the truck again tonight. I stuck the key in the lock and turned it. Surprisingly, the lock wasn't seized up and the door opened with only the faintest squeak of unused hinges. Vaseline would take care of that in the morning.

I stepped inside and flicked the light switch... nothing... something else to deal with tomorrow. I switched on my big light and looked around... dust sheets covered the living room furniture and the table in the kitchen - dining room area. About eight feet from the front door a staircase separated these two ground floor areas. Pretty good so far... Tentatively, I began to climb the stairs, hearing several creaks by the time I reached the top, which was to be expected, I guess.

At the top of the stairs was a small landing, no more than three feet square. Surrounding me as I stepped onto this little space were three doors, one facing me and one on each side. I tried the one in front of me first and found the bathroom... well equipped and fairly modern. Leaving the bathroom door open, I checked the other two. The first bedroom contained a small table in front of the window with an old-fashioned kerosene lamp on it, a rocking chair next to it, and a single bed. The second bedroom was furnished the same except it had a double bed. Both rooms had built-in closet and drawers at one end and large hooked rugs beside the beds.

I walked over and drew back the quilt on the bed... no bugs... no sheets either, so I would use the sleeping bag, but it would be on top of an honest-to-goodness mattress. I sat down to test it... make that a good firm mattress. Wonderful! I opened the windows and doors of all three rooms to let the air flow through until bedtime. It was a bit cold outside but at least it would freshen things up a little.

I came back downstairs and stood still... and then I did a complete turn around... all this was mine! Vinyl floors throughout with ceramic tile in the bathroom... no rent, no mortgage... I was a home owner. Thank God for Aunt Tilly! I rushed around, opening the ground floor windows to get rid of the unused, slightly musty smell. Then I went out to the truck, got what I needed for the night and locked it behind me. I'd deal with the rest tomorrow. I went back inside and laid my backpack and sleeping bag on the steps. Now it was time to check out what I had on the ground floor.

Removing the dust sheets revealed a sofa, love seat, lazy-boy, coffee table and end tables, and an entertainment unit with no television in the living room. There was also a fireplace that I hadn't noticed earlier. The table and chairs were hardwood and in pretty good condition. In the kitchen area I found a complete set of dishes in the upper cabinets and a full set of cooking gear plus some extra items in the lower section. I should have guessed that Aunt Tilly would be well-stocked with kitchen ware.

I spent most of the first week cleaning and airing the place out. I managed to get the electricity reconnected. Internet and satellite connections couldn't be installed until the following week. I could handle that, since I was busy getting settled in. The electric stove and fridge were fairly new and both still worked when I turned them on. I suspected Aunt Tilly had bought them when she bought the cottage, a few years before she died.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

October 2020... Five months after my arrival, I was pretty much settled. I even had a few vegetables growing in a little patch behind the house, not enough to get me through the winter, but I could get the rest of what I needed when I went to town. I had done a lot of work, tidying up around the place, even made repairs to the little metal shed in back where I now kept my new lawn mower and trimmer That had been a new experience, since I had never needed such things before. Paint was needed on the inside, but I would deal with that during the winter months.

There had been one death since my arrival - not thought to be pandemic related. A 90-year-old man had suffered a heart attack and died in hospital several days later. I knew everyone in the village now and would often stop for a chat on my daily walks. One in particular - Bernie Small - had told me many stories about this place. His cottage had been a retirement home for several generations of his family. When he was a boy he spent time here with his grandparents every summer and loved to hear his grandfather tell the old stories.

I had recorded every story Bernie told me, and those of other people I talked with as well. I had also researched the village on the Internet, but there wasn't much available. I mentioned that to Bernie one day and he told me to talk to Mrs. Wright. She had worked in the City Archives, sorting and cataloguing historical information about the entire area before she retired and moved here.

Mrs. Wright turned out to be the answer to my prayer, the inspiration I needed to bring a half-formed idea into being. She had a large collection of binders, filled with copies of every story and article she had collected during her years with the Archives, sorted and labelled by community. She had thought about writing community histories, but soon realized that writing was not her thing. Gardening, knitting and quilting took up her time. So she gave me the entire collection.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

May 2039... She is gone and I am now the last - and only - resident left in Second Eden. Should I remain here... or was it time to leave and take my chances like the rest of humanity?

There have been many changes in the past twenty years. Slowly, most of the other residents have succumbed to the latest mutations of the pandemic virus that have plagued the world periodically since the first one. Each death has felt like another part of the village itself has died. Almost as if the village was being wiped from the face of the earth, one person at a time.

I will burn the house of course... just like all the others... or it will become infested with rats... that lesson had been learned after the third or fourth empty house. Rats will move in quickly and, with that kind of shelter, they will breed faster and have a higher survival rate. Rats carry and spread disease. That's why I started setting the fires... burning the house eliminated a potential breeding ground. But first, I will salvage anything that can be of use to me... and it must be done quickly, before the insects and vermin are attracted by the smell of death.

What will it be like now that she is gone... now that I am the last resident... in the last remaining cottage? There will be no other human being within a 100 kilometre radius of me. Will I be able to deal with the silence and the solitude? Or will insanity finally claim me?

Now the ironic thing is - I have always wanted to be alone... even considered becoming a recluse at one time... living off the grid. But will the silence, the sheer emptiness of the situation, wear me down? Then again, I could always pack up the truck and leave, just as I had done when I came here in the beginning. The community histories I've written over the years... thanks to Mrs. Wright's research... and with her full support... have done quite well. I have the means to go anyplace I fancy.

Looking back, the illness and deaths seem to have started shortly after my trip to town for winter supplies back in November of 2036. That's when the pandemic was in full swing again... despite the vaccines available... with hotspots popping up mostly in heavily populated areas. But so many variants were popping up; the scientists were having trouble keeping up with them. The first two deaths in Second Eden happened before Christmas that year. After that they started dropping frequently... sometimes even two or three in the same month and other months with none.

Still, it is kind of strange that, even though I have done what I could to help the others after they became sick; I alone have shown no sign of illness during that time. I wondered why. I wasn't naive enough to think I possessed some type of immunity. Could I be a carrier? Can I spread the illness to others without becoming sick myself? Have I destroyed this quaint little village?

And yet, somehow I fear, those may be questions to which I do not really want to know the answers. After all is said and done, some things are better left unknown. Or perhaps I'm just too cowardly to face the truth.

© Fay Herridge
Published in Story Quilt, July 2021

Fiction

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