It wasn’t my problem anymore, they said.
“Don’t think about it, and if you have to, think of it as a transaction. You paid for a service and now it’s done. All that stuff in your head now is just buyer’s remorse. It’ll go away.”
I asked how long that would take.
I was looking at the sky when I felt it, a sense of dread so powerful and focused that I almost passed out from the headtrip. It was like I was a magnet and I could feel the cosmic pull of another magnet approaching Earth. I had been standing next to my roommate at the time, who’d felt the same thing but with a different sense of impact. Instead of reaching for the medicine cabinet, like me, he reached for the liquor cabinet.
It sounded like a pretty good idea, so I joined him and passed out shortly after.
I woke up the following morning, not from the hangover, but from the sirens. My roommate was gone and had left the front door open; another laundry run I thought, until I stepped onto our balcony.
The sky was red. Not red in the romantically-tinged glow of the sun peeking over the horizon, but red in the sense that it was 11 am and someone or something had pulled a red filter over the entire sky. As I stared I realized that the dread was still with me, though fighting for space with my hangover. Between the stomping from my upstairs neighbor and the screaming in the hallway outside, it seemed unlikely that I could blame it all on alcohol. Everybody was seeing the same thing.
One look at the rest of the city and I knew I couldn’t stay.
I silently thanked myself for filling up the day before. Once I was in the car it dawned on me that I had wondered about how Hypothetical Me would handle in a crisis, and it was clear now—I felt no obligation or compulsion to help anyone but myself. I had to get out.
It took nine hours to make what on any other day would have taken 45 minutes.
The radio wasn’t much comfort, to me anyway. Every station it seemed had brought in their own religious leader to try and give a narrative to the disorder that was happening outside, but I could still hear it; beneath their straining calm was that same dread.
30 miles out from the flats I pulled off the freeway onto an RV park and slept in the car. The park was still full, though I couldn’t guess whether that was because the owners couldn’t find gas or not. They sounded like they were having fun.
The next morning I stopped by an abandoned market and took what little was left before finishing the drive to the flats. The sky hadn’t changed, except to take on an otherworldly sheen the smoke provided from the city.
I don’t know why I decided on the flats. It was a remarkably stupid idea, even to me, with there being no food, water, or shelter anywhere for miles. It had nothing, but then again that was why it appealed to me. There was nowhere to hide. If anything came, I would see it.
The dread, though, felt so full in my mind that it reached the mountains along the horizon.
“You think this place is safe?”
I turned to see the mirrored visor of a motorcycle helmet, its owner having ridden up on a dirtbike.
“Sorry?” I said, bracing myself against my car.
The rider flipped up their visor, but the glare made it impossible to catch any glimpse of a face. “You’re the first one I’ve seen out here. It’s on purpose?”
I shrugged. There was no satisfying explanation I could give. “Felt right. Why’re you here?”
“Figured I’d go until the tank ran out. Don’t think I’ll be able to fill it up again.”
“So you’re staying.”
“Nah, I still have a quarter-tank left. Plenty to go before the end.” The rider started the bike again. “Anyway, nothing’s going to drown out that noise in your head.”
“You feel it too?” But the rider was already gone, the engine sputtering in a high pitched whine.
I considered following, until I noticed the pebbles dancing at my feet. At first there was just a low rumble, like a train passing by, but then there was a violent lurch and a great CRACK boomed across the flats.
Tracing the sound, I caught sight of what looked like a wide, shallow bump in the ground maybe two miles away from me. I drove over and the bump revealed itself to be a small crater, having burst at the top. The closer I got to the lip of the crater, the more the dread buzzed between my ears, until I peered over and saw that the earthquake had unsealed a deep well of bones.
Whether they were animal or human, I didn’t stay around long enough to find out.
Sleep never came that night. I stayed in the car, kept awake by the escalating earthquakes and persistent buzzing of the dread.
Morning never followed, since the sun never rose. Roiling black clouds had moved in, blanketing the sky and raking the ground with lightning. In between the storms brief windows of sky would open and close, revealing heavens shifting in color and hue as if the synapses of the world were severing.
By now it felt pointless whether I was inside the car or outside, so I left it behind and started running. Fissures snaked beneath my feet, hurtling me toward a terrible unknown. Piercing through all of the chaos was the dread; my anchor.
All at once the ground rose up like a curtain, sweeping everything away. Darkness came and the world disappeared, yet the dread persisted. Why? There was nothing left to dread. It was then that I realized that I’d been wrong, my fear wasn’t from something that was coming, it was from something that had already happened.
Not dread, but acceptance.
And then there was silence.