The mountains yawned, giving way to a bumpy black tongue that rolled downhill.
A tin can bus putt-putted along the gravelly road, empty save for the driver propelling it along through the fog. There were no stops along the track, only a beginning and end – incidentally the same place.
The town it headed towards was as near to self-sufficient as you can get on this earth. Their tiny industry was predominantly fishing, with each of the eighty-strong inhabitants pitching in.
Now the Welcome To board noting population listed one. There wasn’t any kind of mine explosion or hanging that scarred the flesh of the townspeople, nothing of the sort. One day, there was an exodus that left a sole resident behind.
At first she thought they were playing a joke, like the time they all hid in Tom McGraw’s barn for his birthday. Their giggles trapped between wooden rafters while he tried to go about his business in town to little avail. They eventually jumped out. After he recovered, they all laughed and presented him with an apple pie. That was before the tree was cut down for firewood.
Now was not like then. She could almost hear tumbleweeds form overnight. No notes or tyre tracks. Everyone had gone. Investigating her neighbours’ house, she discovered the beds unmade though there weren’t any signs of belongings being disturbed or stolen. Ann’s jewellery and the children’s gadgets were gathering a thin layer of grime. She shouted their names, including the dog’s, a few more times in varying pitches. In the middle of their lounge, standing on the fraying rug she gave them from her trip to the east, she stared at her reflection in the widescreen television. Half her face was in shadow from the setting sun. She returned home.
The farm animals remained, so she did too. The bus needed to be driven, after all. It’s important to maintain some kind of routine in times of change. For the first few days, trundling between the houses, she expected to see signs of life. Twice, on the way to the main road, she stalled, thinking there was a face in a window, or someone running behind a building.
In the early days, she played the role of custodian. An inheritor of the village who dutifully took care of it until the inhabitants returned. She quickly established a daily schedule, going from the farm to the garage and from there, the small library and post office. She swept great piles of leaves into the square, preparing them for the autumnal bonfire. She kept her home and Ann’s clean, like she would if Ann and the kids went away to her parents’ house in the city.
Winter crept up. The cow milk was streaked with blue and she could see the horses’ ribs. The fish were no longer biting, but floating atop the lake. There was little she could do but watch from the back porch, as the animals drifted like slow clouds in the greying fields. Their weakening bulks fading in and out of the hanging mist as they searched for the last of the grass before the ground froze over.
As the evening wind rose, she herded them into Tom’s barn to cover them with blankets and give them water and hay. She tried to ignore their pleading eyes in her flickering gas lamp. When she returned each morning around dawn, the provisions were often untouched. She didn’t know what was wrong with the animals but hadn’t the heart to shoot them.
Fuel was running low in the bus. She had siphoned what she could from the remaining trucks and tractors, preparing for her own future departure. Even the spiders had retired from the cold, leaving holey webs in the wheel treads and side mirrors.
She remembered when she first took over driving the bus from Abe Gold, whose eyes were failing but who had refused to wear glasses. He had almost hit the apple tree, claiming it had jumped out of nowhere. But the tree had been around longer than the town itself, so Doctor Horne quietly took away the keys and gave them to the Mayor.
Her eyes were just fine and she didn’t mind the job. The main activity was ferrying the younger folk out to the nearest train station at the start of summer. It was some fifty-odd miles out, but the journey was made fast with bubbling speech full of excitement at the adventures that lay ahead down south. They called thanks and see yous as they shrugged their backpacks on, pushing each other to the ticket office. When early September came, she would be there faithfully waiting to return them to their families. She looked forward to chuckling fondly at their stories and always felt warmed by their freckled skin.
With her own supplies now exhausted, she rooted through her friends’ pantries. Feeling somewhat guilty, she wrote a list of items taken and left money with a note of thanks. It was doubtful anyone would read it, but it felt like the right thing to do. Each discovery conjured a different memory of meals shared and individual eccentricities of taste. She had managed to stockpile enough food to last until spring, though she left Ann’s jar of pickled eggs where she found them.
She was thankful for the library particularly since the television cut off, not that she ever watched it much anyway. She also had the radio and animals for company. And the wind, of course. It had leaked out from night’s shadow into the day, roaring without cease. She fiddled with the radio set around lunchtimes, hoping to catch the sound of another human voice. Stations she had listened to in the past were seemingly defunct. Where she expected to hear familiar jingles and a warm, bouncy voice there was only crackling static.
She wasn’t lonely, but couldn’t help realising she had not heard another voice for almost six months now. Her relationship with the animals no longer required any sound. They met in the middle of the field, both parties ambling across the cracked earth to save energy. Their appetites were still poor; the cows had stopped producing milk entirely. She had given up trying to make them eat, but patted each one to assure them she was still there and indeed they were too. Silence settled in.
In the rare moments she did use her voice her throat emitted a rasping howl she didn’t recognise. She shut her lips immediately, to keep it within. It was around this time she changed the Welcome To sign outside the village. Population: One.
Each mirror in her house was covered and she slowly shifted all activities to one room. She no longer left it unless she had to, spending her days drifting in and out of sleep. A recurring dream involved a banquet, full of people she felt she knew. She was passing around large copper plates of cans, fish bones and seaweed that never stopped with any one person, but continually moved around the oblong table. When she turned to the person next to her to receive another pile, their face was void of features. A big, blank oval stared back at her. No one at the party had a face.
She awoke in a feverish sweat, limbs tangled in blankets. Her vision refocused as she stared out of the window. The lake was overflowing into the field. She had noticed the rising water last time she went to the barn and had dragged sandbags with difficulty up her porch steps. The village had flooded only once before in its two-hundred-year history. The town hall still bore marks indicating how many feet high the water had reached.
A sudden thud shook her out of drowsiness. An eye the size of a fist stared through the window. She screamed. It was the dappled grey horse. The current swept its body away slowly. She started to cry. It was too late to leave.
Any hope she had of a rescue party coming had dwindled as rapidly as her can stash. Two tins remained, one of sausages and one of peas. She held up the latter, wrinkling her nose. She had never liked peas, so staved her hunger off for as long as possible. By this time, even the pickled egg jar was empty.
She wondered if, in years to come, there would be some great unearthing of the town. If they would study her remains with intensity, analysing her wizened teeth to discover what she ate. Maybe they would be able to determine why she was the only one left. Or why she had stayed.
In a half-dream her mother appeared, chastising her for the importance she placed on self-reliance, “It’ll never get you a husband, you know. Showing vulnerability isn’t a fault.” Luckily, she had never minded being alone. It was a good job too, because no one came. There was no one left to come.
Jennifer Brough works in publishing and can usually be found reading, writing or, when she’s not surrounded by words, planning adventures. To read more of her work or say hello, visit https://jenniferbrough.wordpress.com.