The People Have Gone
by Stephen Clark
Wally sat down on the footpath outside a shop. If someone had asked him, "how far to Eydaerlana college", he would have replied, "Fifteen minutes or so." It really seemed that close. But he would have given the same answer half an hour ago, or indeed half a day ago. He had been walking through these deserted streets for more than two days now and he was hungry and footsore, but still confident that his journey would be worth the effort. Eydaerlana college was getting closer all the time. "And it's a good thing", he thought, "that I started my journey three days prior to the Open Day, so as to give me some room."
He took off his shoes and socks for a while. The skies above him were thick with smog. He wondered where all the cars were and why there was no parkland in any of the suburbs he'd walked through. This was an ugly area -- Wally was glad he didn't live around here.
Just then he realised that the glass door behind him was broken. He looked up and saw that the shop was a sandwich bar. What a stroke of luck -- he was sure that if he scraped around in his knapsack he'd find enough money to buy a spot of lunch. He couldn't remember the last time he had eaten...
After putting his shoes and socks back on he stood up to look at the shop. The broken door was open so he saw no reason not to go in. Broken glass crunched under his feet. Inside it was dark and forbidding; the counter, merchandise and equipment were all covered with dust. In the gloom Wally could make out the menu sign with all the available foods listed, and he started deciding what sort of sandwich he wanted.
"Hello?", he called out. "Anyone here? Customer!"
After a pause of five seconds, there was a crash and a young woman came out armed with a machete and a revolver. She slashed aside a chewing-gum display with the machete and shattered the glass of the counter with the gun and screamed "GET AWAY! GET OUT! THIS IS MY SHOP! I'LL KILL YOU IF YOU COME ANY CLOSER!"
Wally wasn't intimidated. He thought there must be some sort of misunderstanding. "Excuse me", he said. "There must be some sort of misunderstanding. I'm just a customer here, hoping to buy a sandwich -- I don't want any trouble. So the gun won't be necessary, O.K.?"
The woman lowered the weapons just slightly. "You -- you don't want to rob the shop? What DO you want?"
"I'm still deciding! Don't rush me."
"You can't be wanting to buy a sandwich?"
"Yes I am."
The woman relaxed. "You can't buy a sandwich here, mate." She turned to the side and yelled "Hey Nik! You can come out! He's just a harmless guy!"
Wally was puzzled by the shopkeeper's behaviour. She didn't seem to know the first thing about friendly service. "Why can't I buy a sandwich here?", he asked. "Have you run out of bread? I'd settle for wholemeal."
A young boy about ten had come out of the back room. He was wearing tough, weather-hardened old clothes with blood-stains on them, and his eyes were intelligent and alert, but he had a tea-cosy on his head.
"Listen buddy", said the woman. "This is an abandoned sandwich shop. You can't buy nothin' here. This place is dead. And don't ask me where you can find another sandwich shop, 'cause there aren't any. The whole town is dead. Closed down. Out of business." The woman leaned over the counter as she said it, and a silence hung in the sir as if something was supposed to be sinking into Wally's head.
"Then what are you doing here?", he asked.
"I'm looting the place", replied the woman as she placed the gun in Nik's hands. "Just searching around to see if I can find anything of value."
"But that's terrible! What will the owner of the shop think when he gets back?"
The woman laughed. "He ain't coming back. None of them's coming back. So who's gonna care."
Wally fell silent. He was thinking: This woman has a strong, grating voice -- and her grammar is sadly lacking.
After a pause she spoke again. "You seem like the naive simpleton type. What's your name?"
"It figures. My name is Lee. And this is Nik."
"Hey there, Nik. How old are you?"
Wally was intrigued. "Why do you say 'already established?'"
"That's just Nik's way", interjected Lee. "His mind is in a very inert state, and his life revolves around the phrase 'How do you feel about working with an already established team.'"
"Well doesn't everybody's. Anyway it's nice to meet you Lee, and Nik, but I must rush off." Wally started towards the door.
"Wally! Wait!", called Lee. She came out from behind the counter and Nik climbed over. "Where are you rushing off to?"
"I'm going to the Open Day at Eydaerlana college", called Wally as he left. "It's very important that I check it out because my son is going there next year."
Lee and Nik followed Wally out of the shop. "We hope you don't mind", panted Lee, "if we walk with you for a while. You see -- there are not many survivors in this city -- and it would be good for those of us who are left -- to stay in contact. You agree?"
Her nasal voice floated out on the stale wind that drifted in between buildings. The three figures were the only sign of life in that empty, desolate main street.
"Survivors?", said Wally. "I don't follow. Survivors of what?"
"Well -- you know -- " Lee seemed to want to evade the question, "-- you must have noticed that there's very few people left in this city?" She fixed the machete onto her bag with a strap.
"I've noticed nothing out of the ordinary", said Wally, gazing up at the black shape on the hill. "I set off for Eydaerlana college two days ago. I caught the train from Yo-Dwoh to the city, and there I saw many people walking around, doing their shopping, going to work -- the platforms were crowded, the trains were packed, and I had to stand up at first because there were no free seats. Then I got off at Rowtuoba station, and you know how it is, it's a quiet station, not many people get off there. I'd seen on the map that Rowtuoba is the closest station to Eydaerlana college, but you know how distances look shorter on the map, and, well, I've been walking for two days. But it's O.K., though, 'cause I won't be late for the open day. Look, there's the college right up ahead."
"Are you trying to yank my chain?", demanded Lee.
"Your chain? No -- not that I know of."
"Well you're talking a load of crap, 'cause for a start the trains aren't running. And there no such place as Yo-Dwoh, or Rowtuoba, and there's definitely no-one in the city. And doesn't it make you a bit suspicious that these streets are so deserted?"
"Deserted? No." Wally breathed a contented sigh as if the air was pure and fresh. "The streets aren't deserted. Oh, I know there's no people out and about now, because this is the quiet time when they're all hard at work indoors, but over the past two days I've seen people. Hundreds of them. The normal throng. Nothing's changed." Wally gazed at the peaceful urban scene. He knew they were there, all those people, just inside the doors. No-one was visible, but he knew this was just a momentary lull. Why, just an hour ago he had gone into a second-hand bookshop on the spur of the moment, and there had been several customers there. Just five minutes ago he had passed a busker with a flute, and given him twenty cents. And even now, he seemed to recall that while he'd been walking with Lee, a born-again Christian had offered him a pamphlet and he had declined it. Yes, the memory was as clear as the silhouette on the hill. People were everywhere.
Lee had been keeping silent while Wally thought all this through. She seemed vaguely troubled -- perhaps he was bringing her round to his point of view. "What do you do for a living, Lee?", he asked.
"Oh -- I'm a psychiatric nurse", she said.
"Yeah? That's quite a coincidence, 'cause I work in that sort of area, too."
"Oh yeah. I'll bet. So you think you're a psychiatrist?"
"No, I'm a brain surgeon."
Nik burst out laughing. Lee remained serious faced and, after Nik calmed down, she said "Wally, how do you feel about working with an already established team?"
Wally was confused. "Have you two somehow -- swapped personalities?"
"No, I'm asking you a serious question. You see, me 'n Nik are on a mission -- we want to organise a people's army and seize control from the tyrant Premier Baleef. We're going to storm the palace and remove the Premier from power by force. He's a megalomaniac who must be stopped. But security at the palace is very tight, so we need to find a few more people to join our team. We will crush them with sheer numbers. So what do you say -- will you join us in our mission?"
Wally could see that this young woman felt very strongly about what she was talking about, and he didn't want to crush her spirit, but --
"No", he said. "You have to understand; I'm very busy. I have to get to the open day at Eydaerlana College. It's very important that I check it out because my daughter is going there next year. I haven't got time to make any detours to overthrow any Premier, tyrant or not. Besides, I have no grudge against the --"
Lee interrupted him. "Listen to this rubbish you're talking! Daughter? You can't have a daughter -- you couldn't be a day over -- sixteen! What's your daughter's name?"
"Ha! That's not a real name."
"It is too a real name; she was named after her great-grandmother Batsey."
"But don't you see that you're under a complex set of delusions? You've got to fight this -- you've got to accept reality for what it is. I've seen this a hundred times -- I'm a psychiatric nurse."
"Well I wouldn't have you working at my hospital, I'll tell you that. My hospital is a hive of skilled, intelligent professionals, dedicated to their work, driven by an impassioned desire to improve and preserve life. There are few hospitals better than Aetdehsi Hospital." Wally gazed proudly into the distance, his eyes glazing over. What a fine speech that was, he thought.
"What, you mean that nut-house up on the hill?", said Lee.
That brought Wally back down to earth. "You should know better than to call it a nut-house", he snapped. "I'm beginning to think you're not a psychiatric nurse at all. And it's not on the hill, it's -- over that way somewhere." Wally waved his hand vaguely. He didn't know which direction the hospital lay in, but Lee wouldn't know any better.
"Nah, it's up on the hill", said Lee. "I can see it from here. That black silhouette partly buried in ashes and rubble. I've been there many times."
"No, you can't have", said Wally, slowly and patiently. "That building on the hill is Eydaerlana college. That's where I'm heading for."
Lee spoke to Nik, seemlingly uncaring that Wally could hear. "Look, this guy's obviously not playing with a full set of marbles."
Nik nodded. "He's obviously not working with an already established team."
"Let's leave him and find another shop to loot."
"Yest. Yes", murmured Nik, and they both walked back in the opposite direction.
So Wally was left alone. He like to think he was the type of guy who focussed on the positive characteristics in people, but that pair Lee and Nik -- they really needed help. They could get themselves into trouble walking the streets of a big, crowded city like this. He looked up at a brick wall on his right -- it was a big one. In the pattern of bricks he saw a skinny old man drinking a cup of something as he sat at a table. The old man's eyes met Wally's for a second and his lips moved silently, then after a pause the man's hand waved in a dismissive motion. The hand had waved too fast, like in an old silent movie. Why was the film speeded up? Why was the film always speeded up?
O.K., I know that last bit doesn't make a lot of sense -- this piece of writing was originally part of a much longer story which I was writing back in 1995 -- it was meant to be a novel but I abandoned it.