At first, he thought it was an earthquake.
The crash knocked him out of bed and onto his back amid the shattered remnants of his lamp and a coffee mug. His television filled the room with the harsh lighting of the bad porno he was sure he’d turned off before bed (he hated bad directing). Before he could scramble to silence the screen, however, the lights flickered and failed.
Roger Harmond, 36, sat on the floor of his dark apartment and thought that maybe buying a flashlight wasn’t such an impulse purchase after all.
His small urban island, which had all the aspects of a self-sufficient universe, felt strangely empty without the hum of electricity. It reminded him of a nightmare he’d had as a child in which he was hollow and his movements meaningless and the sky empty. He went through great lengths to avoid paralyzing vacuums like this.
It occurred to him after a moment that a sound had accompanied the tremor – a sound not usually associated with earthquakes: an explosion. And, as far as explosions went, terrorism or collapsing buildings always followed. He needed to be in the streets, not in a rickety old building of certain instability like this one.
Sirens whistled to life in the distance and grew louder, driven by the prevailing winds. Roger stood and edged himself to the door. He groped in the dark for the light switch, realized the error and instead unplugged the television. God knew where he’d be when the power came back, and he didn’t want to scare the neighbors.
In the hallway, the building’s manager was stalking from door to door. Roger likened it to the grim reaper collecting souls and everything from the man’s waxy pallor to his skeletal limbs supported the theory. The old man caught him standing in the doorway, leaning against the peeling paint in only his faded boxers and an undershirt; somehow, the scowl on the man’s face deepened. He staggered over.
“What’s going on?” Roger said, watching his neighbors hustling by with half-packed suitcases and varying levels of being clothed. Children followed, wailing, reaching out for parents that were too preoccupied with fetching possessions to remember their offspring.
God, he thought, it really is the way of the world.
“Evacuation,” the Reaper answered, pointing a withered finger to the stairwell. “Now.”
Roger stared at the swollen knuckles, purple and shiny in their inflammation. Unable to respond to the grotesque scenario, he nodded and returned to his apartment for his necessities.
Keys: check. Phone: check. His first edition of the world’s best book: check. He wrestled himself into the first clothes he could rip from the hangers, tossed the rest of his precious belongings into a canvas shopping bag and slid into the hall as another rumble shook the building.
Noise grew louder as he descended the dark stairwell. Flashlight beams pierced the gloom just enough to blind the eyes and separate families; children hid like lost lambs in the corners. Wails and frantic shouts blended into the buzzing hive of humanity that trouped down from seven floors up.
Roger saw his neighbor’s son, Samuel, pushed aside but was caught up in the crowd and lost sight. Momentum propelled him into the night; he stumbled, looked up and was afraid.
The building next door was aflame. He smelled the choking smoke – saw the gushing flames that rose from the fifth floor apartment. He gaped at the craterous ruin of the third apartment on the left which had been, only last night, the home of a certain girl with a pixie haircut and pale birthmark on her neck.
The surrealism of the moment astounded him. She worked at the bistro on the corner of Maple and Westwood and served him coffee every morning; her hairstyle had never changed and never been unkempt in that entire time; she wore a pendant engraved with the Chinese character for Life and smiled even when it rained; she always returned home early, claiming that nothing good ever happened later than 2 a.m.; she was an avid reader and once joked with him that she had a tattoo of a bookworm (he had never seen it).
Their relationship had never gotten past the time he took her out for steak only to learn that she was vegetarian once they arrived. This didn’t stop him from being attracted to her; on the contrary, he loved her more than ever for her vitality. In an empty world of rot and fading colors, she was vibrant… full of life, love, energy.
Roger stood in awe of the spreading inferno. The flames roared, and this sound was the ultimate emptiness that he feared – the essence of the Void. It was a great vacuity birthed from vitality in its most energetic form.
He stood in mute terror as the entire building was consumed.