Jim Anderson stared blankly out onto Peach Tree Lane from his living room. The sun was rising and cast a beautiful orange light onto the house across from his, birds darted from tree to tree as the world woke from another night. Across the street at the Lloyd house, the family was frantically packing their new SUV with everything that they could, shouting and crying as they rushed back and forth from the house to the running vehicle.
Jim was barely out of bed, wrapped in his bathrobe, trying to understand the futility of the Lloyd’s decision to run and hide just hours from the event. For a week now, scientists and government officials had been warning residents all along the eastern seaboard to flee inland no later than Tuesday, making very clear that the safe zone started a full days drive from where Jim and his neighbors lived. He wondered what Walter Lloyd hoped to accomplish in these final hours, if maybe Walter had thought that the danger was not as severe as people had been warned. Perhaps Kitty, his wife, finally won the argument on staying or going. Maybe the kids were scared.
Without even closing their front door, the Lloyd’s got in their car and sped away, rubber screeching and smoking as the car roared away from Peach Tree Lane and off to certain doom along a highway. Jim stood silently for another few minutes, taking in the beautiful morning. Summer had come late, but it was here and in full swing at last. He wished he had more time to enjoy it, which led him to think about all of the summers he had wasted with his work and laziness. Before the feelings of dread and paralyzing fear could take hold, he shook himself and marched off to the kitchen for coffee and breakfast.
The kitchen was filled with aromatic smell of coffee and the gentle lull of some piano piece that came from the TV in the living room. Jim sipped his coffee and hummed along with the melody, sure that he knew it from somewhere but unable to place where. Three days ago all of the networks ended their broadcasts, except for a few channels that played continuous loops of evacuation routes and basic supplies needed to make the journey west. Now, almost every channel played soothing music and displayed a foreboding countdown timer. As the song ended and gently tinkled into another familiar song, Jim washed his plate and refilled his coffee before heading to the front door, making sure to avoid the timer on the TV.
Peach Tree Lane was quiet, but in the distance he could make out the sounds of car alarms and shouting. A short drive from his sleepy street he was sure to find more of those who stayed behind, looting and capitalizing on the absence of law and order. Jim wasn’t the least bit concerned as he savored his coffee, there was too much for the average looter to see and do in the bustling downtown district and little reason to seek out the valuables on an old street like his.
At the house next to his, the front door opened and closed as Tim Johnson stepped out with his own mug and a wave. Jim nodded a hello as Tim sidled up next to him, the two men sharing the comfortable silence. Jim had always liked Tim, he was a retired engineer who was handy in all the ways Jim wasn’t. They worked well together, and Jim was grateful for that having lived alone for the last five years.
“Kitty must have scared Walter into leaving finally,” Tim said dryly. “Shame it took until now.”
Jim nodded and took another sip, staring at their still open door.
“You know you’re welcome to join Martha and I. She and I were going to open up the bottle from our wedding,” Tim said, trying to make eye contact with Jim. Jim stood paralyzed, fixed on the front door, feeling the dread creeping in as the world around him began to spin. Tim took notice when the mug in Jim’s hand began to shake and placed a firm hand on Jim’s shoulder. “Hey, it’s going to be okay, Jim. We are going to be okay.”
Jim took a breath and nodded, letting a quivering breath escape his lips and looking to his old friend. He nodded again and forced a smile.
“Save me a seat, I’ll see the two of you in a while.”
Tim nodded and slowly made his way back to his house. Jim looked back across the street to the open door of the Lloyd’s house and took a deep breath. He walked across the road, out of the shade of his front yard and into the warm sun that bathed the front of the empty house. The Lloyd’s had never been one to do much except basic maintenance on their yard and home, and up close it showed. Jim had tolerated Walter, he was an overworked man with a short temper, but he meant well. Jim wondered now if he could have or should have done more to be a better neighbor to the man. Jim wondered that about a lot things in light of the coming event. He stood on the porch for a moment, looking into the chaos that had unfolded this morning. If Jim had not seen them go he could have easily assumed that the house was ransacked and robbed. Whatever had prompted them to leave had taken place in short order, and in that small space of time what had once made this place home for someone was gone forever. The dread returned to Jim’s chest like a spear stabbing at his heart. With a sigh he pulled the front door shut and walked back to his own house.
Life a week ago was as it had been for years prior; a careful routine carved into the limited hours of the day, a race to see what could be achieved before sleep reared its ugly head demanding Jim reset for the night. During the day he was an analyst, crunching numbers and looking for trends and patterns. It was monotonous but it was familiar and what he had ended up with following the market collapse almost two decades prior. At home, away from the tiresome grind of his work he would read and study. Jim had always had a green thumb, and it gave him reason to try and understand the world around him and how to make it better. For years he hoarded studies and information that eventually found his way into hand written journals and reports of his own. He worked almost every day on them, hoping one day he might have enough understanding of things to start a new career. It was a hobby he was immensely proud of, one that would scratch the itch he had to do good and help the world around him.
Until he woke up last Wednesday and the men on the TV changed everything with their timer. He spent much of the first day trying to figure out the issue in a way he could break down and tackle, but much of this time was spent wrestling with a collapsing communication network. By the second day only a few landlines worked anymore and Jim had to resort to the local library, which brought him no closer to a solution than he wanted. The latter half of that day was spent in his house crying and denying that this was reality. He slept into the fourth day, through the evacuation timeline, to wake on the fifth day with a numbed sense of danger. That day the TVs started broadcasting the timer with soft music, and the threat took on an inevitable feel. He didn’t fear it outright anymore. He spent his time catching up on his stack of reading materials, watching his favorite movies, and waiting for the timer to reach zero.
Sitting at his desk during these last hours was the most painful it had been since the second day. He couldn’t bring himself to read anything, nothing brought him the joy it had before. Now it was only the paralyzing fear of the unknown. He sat for well over an hour and songs started, ended, and blended into new songs that did nothing to make him feel calm or at-ease. Since he had left the Lloyd’s porch he had not been able to shake the dread and fear that had festered in his chest. He could no longer hide from it like he had in previous days, able to unconsciously push it off to another day and another time; something for later. He picked up his pen and wrote one final line in his journal, regarding it with teary eyes before signing his name and closing it. He knew it was a hollow act, but it gave him the strength to get up, walk into the living room, and see the time remaining.
With renewed strength, and the help of some aged scotch courtesy of the Johnson’s next door, Jim found courage to spend the remainder of the countdown on the front lawn enjoying a beautiful summer day. None of them spoke of the dwindling time remaining or the events that would follow, instead they drank, laughed, and caught a decent enough buzz to feel invincible in the face of such a grim outlook. In Jim’s mind this corner of Peach Tree Lane was an island to the rest of the world, devoid to the fear and terror that was no-doubt gripping the rest of the world around them. But none of that mattered to Jim Anderson anymore.
As the timer hit zero there was no calamitous boom, no world shattering explosion, no thunderous crack as the sky opened to the heavens and spilled the contents of the earth into space. There was only a monotone voice, a woman’s, that echoed off of the houses and reverberated across the city. Jim sat puzzled and confused, turning over the words it said with all of the sense of someone who suddenly woke up in a foreign land. His senses were blunted from the alcohol and mental trauma caused by the countdown timer, he had not expected life after it had hit zero, yet here he was trying to understand what the computerized voice meant when it repeated itself.
What did that mean, Jim started to wonder as the Johnson’s, standing a few feet from him, began to disintegrate into thin air. His brain failed to comprehend what was happening as he looked through the spot that Tim and Martha had been sitting. Then the tree they had been sitting under, followed by the Johnson’s house. Then the next house, and the Lloyd’s across the street. And the other houses and trees, the road and sidewalk.
Terror began to set in as people around the block, the looters downtown, all screamed in fear and horror. They were short lived screams that cascaded up into the high pitched squeal that resembled the old sound of dial up. Everything on Peach Tree Lane was being pulled out of existence and left with the inky blackness of nothing at all. The streets, the house, the yards and trees, all a dead black of which Jim had never seen before. His heart raced as the sounds around him faded and he too felt himself start to fade away. His mind raced as it tried to make sense of this terrifying fate he was locked into, but all at once he felt calm. Suddenly he felt a familiar feeling of peace as the truth settled back into his mind. None of this was real, it had never been real. This was as it had been hundreds of times before, and would be a hundred times over again. It was a dream that he dreamed often, starting with a bright light and ending with the blackness of peace and serenity.
As he let it swallow him up once more and waited to begin again, his last journal entry from this time, and the times before, echoed into the abyss.
“If only we had lived like the timer was always visible. What might we have accomplished then?”
“Odd,” a voice said from the blackness. “It appears one of our datapoints had a flash of something there at the end.”
“Hmm?” another voice inquired lazily. “Anything noteworthy in the log?”
There was a pause as the first voice investigated.
“It looks like it had a momentary fusion of memories, as if it had a recollection of previous iterations.”
The second voice seemed interested now. “Anything remarkable about that data point?”
“Nothing really, it was a drone, background unit. It is strange though, looks as if it had its function merged with one of our processor units.” Another pause. “Wow, it was running full tilt this last cycle.”
Silence hung in the dark for what could have been seconds or eons. The other voice returned with cautious interest.
“Could be nothing, but let’s get this one into the next version. I want it running the same program but dump all of its legacy data in there.”
“Do you think that we are getting close to solving it?” the first voice asked carefully.
There was a hard click in the darkness, a buzz of electricity, then a thunderous explosion unlike any other. It raced across the infinite stretches of the blackness, casting fiery light to every stretch of the abyss. The building blocks of the cosmos, and life, burst into the universe with a big bang.