Your eyelids come down like the shutter of an old-time camera aperture: a blink. That’s all: one moment, and life, your life, everyone else’s life, the world, are forever changed. You will rub your eyes again and again, wondering whether you are dreaming, whether you have lost your mind, or been transported to another dimension, or whether it was the blink itself was the catalyst that changed the world, your world.
One moment, Main Street was bustling with Saturday afternoon activity. Pick-up trucks pulled in and out of angled street parking, shoppers carried purchases out of historic, one-room candy, antique, and flower shops, and life was humming along as usual. A blink, and every soul was gone except yours.
“Was it the rapture?” You would wonder for the rest of your life. “And if so, why was I left behind?” Vanished. Body, sound—every human disappeared from your reality and you found yourself alone, on an empty main street that stretched vertically to the horizon, with only small breaks in between buildings in either direction.
But in the minutes following that unforgettable blink, you had no time to process such existential thoughts. What you felt was sheer panic, disbelief, and the numbness of shock. You walk up Main Street slowly, calling, “hello?” Peering between brick and wooden frames to the river that flowed behind historic businesses, the footbridge now completely empty of pedestrians, the vehicles that lay silent and inert, the doors that had stopped opening and closing. Sparrows and pigeons still scurried about, squirrels hopped and paused, heads cocked and listening for the sounds of traffic and human footfalls that they had become accustomed to in their main street lives of oak trees, park benches, and dropped crumbs. But the age of humanity had come to a pause, one that would stretch on and on, and finally, gain your acceptance as permanent.
You walk up and down, looking into shops and even taking the liberty to check the offices of lawyers, chiropractors, therapists—all empty. Your sense of dread and desperation grows with each deserted space—there are no bodies left behind, no empty outfits slumped on chairs or behind registers—every living human has simply, apparently, disappeared. Elevator music still tinkles in the flower shop, and a smoke alarm is going off where meat charred and smoldered on the grill at the local Mexican restaurant. So when you hear the death metal pumping and screaming from the used record and CD store, you think nothing of it. Nothing, at least the first few times you go by, until you realize that it is the same song playing endlessly, and even then you dismiss it as one more electronic device stuck endlessly on repeat. You brush it off, too busy foraging and caching food stores, preserving perishables from restaurants and grocery stores as best you can, collecting freshwater, securing and looting supplies and tools as you see fit, to enter the store and turn off the music. And why not let it play? Some noise, a reminder of the civilization you lost, is comforting somehow, until the idea of shutting it off becomes a torment, an unbearable thought, an acknowledgement of the finality that it’s just you, and there are no other human beings around to inconvenience you or encroach on your silence.
But finally, one day, you enter the used music store. You’re ready for a different sort of comfort: the solace of revisiting the songs of your youth, to assure yourself these beloved melodies existed at all—the folk songs your parents used to play on roadtrips, the corny romantic ballads you danced to with your high school prom date. Intending to rummage through bins of CDs and records like the chipmunks and junkyard dogs that have become your sole companions, your incredulity at entering the dank, neon-lit atmosphere of the music shop and seeing another person, still alive, still animated, behind the counter is enough to make you nearly lose consciousness.
Tottering on your legs, which have become strong from the hard labor of survival, you gape at the man behind the music counter. In jeans and a grey hoodie, bearded and studded with piercings, he stands as if the world hadn’t ended. It dawns on you that, listening to the same song on eternal repeat, he may be in a state of insanity, unable to cope with the fall of human society, and yet, how could a man mentally frozen in time be still standing in this apocalyptic situation, how has he been capable of feeding and caring for himself?
Indeed, he seems perfectly relaxed. He looks well-fed, antediluvian, not crusted with dirt and wire-thin like you. His head is nodding in perfect time to the thrashing electric guitar and drums pounding through the store’s sound system. You stare, and stare, and finally, cautiously, approach. As you reach the counter, he nods a bare acknowledgment of your existence. You speak, but he gestures toward his ears and nods in time to the music.
“Pink Elephants on Parade,” he shouts meaningfully at you, pointing to a display copy of a CD by a band with the same name, as if you had asked what band was playing instead of if he knew the entire world had ended weeks ago. “$12.99, in-store special.”
You back away. It has all been too much: first the revelation that there is at least one other person left on this planet, and then the stunning mystery of his ignorance at the collapse of society. You cannot process any more today. You try not to make a scene, turning and walking out of the record store as calmly as possible, exiting the realm of the past, the realm of a time where life, more or less, made some sort of sense, or perhaps didn’t but at least there had been others to figure it out with, and into a world where the vestiges of humanity were visibly crumbling, where nature was regaining her ultimate control, a world where feral dogs fought in alleys all night and bats roosted in the old Mexican restaurant and your battle to save boxes of rice and macaroni from the rats was never-ending.
How? How has he stayed so hale and hearty, this young man behind the music counter, and why has he been listening to the same song on continuous repeat for weeks on end? You have struggled to find fresh fruits and vegetables recently, afraid to try eating various weeds and mushrooms but desperate for something as fresh as an orange or crisp carrot. You haven’t resorted, yet, to hunting and eating the stray dogs and cats, let alone the rats, as you’re still making your way through various cans of tuna and pork and beans you simply take, unimpeded, from the local groceries. But you know the day will come when you become a wandering, eternal refugee, moving from city to city, or making a permanent dwelling and living off the land. You know life has stopped all around the world, or at least, as far as you can tell, because no news or programming broadcasts from the TV sets or radios you desperately tune into. No new articles appear online when you check computers and phones, no new social media posts from anyone, ever, that you can see.
You think for a long while, but what conclusion can you draw, other than the inexorable idea that you must return to the music store and make contact with this mysteriously surviving man? So you return, again and again, but each time ends in futility, with the same result as before: he simply nods at you and tells you about the in-store special, Pink Elephants on Parade for $12.99. You try everything: gesturing wildly, shouting, but he just benevolently smiles at you, motions at his ears and shakes his head, and shouts the same reply as if you were asking ad nauseum about the band playing. And indeed, the song still has not changed.
One day, after approaching the counter hopefully, bearing your favorite album and asking him to play it instead of the death metal endlessly crashing in waves throughout the space, you lose it. After another bout of the head-shaking and gesturing to the speakers and, “Pink Elephants on Parade. In-store special, $12.99,” you hop over the counter and punch the stereo system. You punch buttons until the CD player relents and opens, spitting out its death metal CD, and hurl the disc against the wall.
“Don’t you know that everyone’s gone?” You scream at the record store cashier. “Don’t you know what it’s like out there right now? It’s all falling apart!”
There is a pause, and then, unbelievably, Pink Elephants on Parade begins blaring from the speakers again. You race back to the CD player and hit it again and again, again, until its flat plastic mouth opens, and wrench out the album. A pause. And then, Pink Elephants on Parade begins blaring from the speakers again. Again, you hit the sound system until the disc spits out. Again. Again. You take the entire sound system in your hands and use all your remaining strength to topple it over, jumping on top and stomping until you hear satisfying cracks. You glance at the record store employee for a reaction, but there is none.
Finally, exhausted, you lean against the wall. And then, Pink Elephants on Parade starts back up. Wildly, you glance at the wall. The sound system is upright, intact, and functioning perfectly. You race from the store back onto the deserted street, screaming, the local murder of crows echoing your disturbance back at you in frenzied caws.
You think. For a long time, months, you think from a distance about the meaning of this all, whether fate is playing some bizarre trick on you, whether it’s all one big practical joke. Meanwhile, you’re busy. Collecting water, securing food, staying warm at night, accessing clean water, shying from wounds and disease all occupy your time. You domesticate the local murder of crows for company, murmuring to them and naming each one, doling out treats and presents, and in return, they hop and flutter around you and warn you of any intruders with their harsh shrieks.
And then, it occurs to you that perhaps time has stood still in the used record shop. What other explanation for the song on constant repeat, the sound system regenerating itself into repair, the well-fed and relaxed man behind the counter? Perhaps when the human world ended in the blink of an eye, there had been a glitch—where time had ended for almost all, it had stopped moving forward completely at that exact moment for the record shop, and you, somehow, had been caught in the exact middle of this vortex.
You return, after months of active avoidance. Pink Elephants on Parade is still on, the same man in his jeans and gray hoodie nodding along to the thrash of metal, looking just as healthy as before. You explore the shop and casually thumb through bins of music, with the employee calmly surveying you as if you were a typical customer before the apocalypse. Nothing about the space seems amiss—no gaping black holes to fall into or yawning portals to other dimensions—when you spy a darkened stairwell leading to, presumably, the basement of the shop.
Uncanny blackness greets you as you loom at the top of the stairs. A blackness darker than the dark nights you’ve survived recently, with electrical grids finally fading out with no one to operate or maintain them. Streetlights winking out, first one or two, then the rest en masse. Darker than nights lit only by stars or the moon, and you feel something compelling you down the stairs, one by one, feeling your way. What will you find? A dragon, dead bodies, a teeming pit of sewer rats, or worse still, nothing? Nothing but more emptiness and abandonment, more silence, spider webs and storage inventory?
The staircase is taking a long time to fully descend; in fact, you being to wonder if you are traveling down into a secret dungeon or, eventually, into the center of the earth. Will you be able to find your way back? “Of course,” you tell yourself. “As long as you stay on this staircase, the only way to go is up, or down.” A thought leaps into your head, giving you a start: will the record shop employee slam the door behind you, trapping you forever in utter darkness? Just as your panic rises, and you resolve to turn around and flee back up to the light of day, you sense the distant sound of voices.
Straining your ears, sure you must be mistaken, you take a few more tentative steps down. Happy voices, unmistakable chatter. Surely, you must be going mad, but your excitement builds, your pace quickening, racing now, taking the steps two or three at a time, missing a step here and there and falling several, but no matter. Just as long as it gets you back to civilization, to the warmth of humankind, to friendly dogs that sit and beg instead of the crazed mongrels that snatch and attack.
Light. Light! You burst into the light and sound, your eyes tearing painfully and blinking in the blinding brightness. The music store thrums with life and song, and outside, the weekly farmer’s market bustles like it did in the bygone era of your previous life. You run outside into this vibrant, colorful life, but in one blink, it’s gone.
“No,” you cry. “No!” You run around, pounding on doors and windows, peering in parked cars, but it’s no use. It’s happened again. Racing back into the music store, you find the door to the staircase devoid of night and race upward like someone deranged. You miss steps, bang your shins, fall on your face, but you scrambled up and up, straining for the light of the store, and finally, you emerge back to where Pink Elephants on Parade plays at ear-splitting volume, the clueless store employee nods his head in time, and the empty main street sits silently outside.
“I need to go further back,” you think to yourself in a frenzy. You duck back into the darkness, and race down the stairs for what feels like a lifetime. You pass the first temptation of light and sound, knowing it must have taken you back in time to right before the mysterious rapture that forgot to include you in the vast ocean of humanity.
“If I stay near this spot, I won’t age. I’ll be like the record store employee, frozen in time. I might be able to travel through time in both directions infinitely,” you consider, telling yourself calmly that you’re thinking rationally.
And this is how you spend your days, which seem to be without end, until you go so far back in time that you discover evolutionary theory was, indeed, surprisingly accurate for human guessing. You want to see how far back the evolutionary tree goes, but somewhere in the Pleistocene, despite the numerous Hansel-and-Gretel breadcrumbs you leave for yourself as reminders, you forget that you were ever human at all, and your knowledge of the coordinates for the site of the old-future record store is lost forever.