David looked at the backpack. All zippers closed, all ties tied. He lifted it, feeling its weight, heavy, but as he shifted it over one shoulder, and then the other, and it settled in place, it felt balanced. It felt right. He was ready.
He walked to the front door, where his mother waited. She was trying to smile, but the smile wasn’t reaching her eyes. Eyes that shone a bit more than they should if she were happy.
“You be careful, now.” Her voice was low. Not a whisper, but close.
“I will, Mom.” He hugged her for a moment, felt her pull him tight, but releasing him again more quickly than he expected.
His father sat on the edge of the porch stairs, looking out over the fields that lay across the country road from their house. Fields where weeds were growing unchecked this year.
As David descended the steps, his father rose, still taller than he, his hand out to shake, then pulled him close. His father’s face showed less the emotion his mother fought to keep in check, but David thought he saw concern in those eyes. His father looked older in that moment than he could ever remember.
“Remember what I taught you”, he murmured. “Be careful who you trust.”
David nodded, his throat suddenly dusty. He swallowed saliva against it, unable to find words. His father’s hand on his shoulder gave a squeeze, and he knew he didn’t need to say anything. The nod was enough.
He turned to look at the cars, parked. Noted the weed growing from beneath one bumper. Cars that would likely never run again. No more fuel. Everything had ground to a halt, now. A cascade effect had washed over the world. First the prices had gone up, until only the richest countries could still run fuel-based vehicles. Then even they had stopped. David’s eyes scanned the sky, a sky empty of straight lines. Only clouds moved there now, and birds.
He kicked the stand on his mountain bike, noting the added weight of the saddle bags now strapped over the back wheel. He walked the bike to the end of the driveway, and looked left, down the empty road, then right. Finally he looked back at his parents. His father, another nod, his mother now beside him. He thought he saw her shoulders jump for a moment, then his father’s arm pulled her close, and she nodded too, her lips tight.
He mounted the bike, then, and started pedaling, before he could change his mind. The sound of the bike tires seemed loud on the cracked roadway, somehow. He didn’t look back. The road rose to a small hill, and as he crested it he passed the first house neighboring theirs. The windows were dark, the door shut tight. No movement. There hadn’t been any for months. They weren’t sure when, but quietly all of their neighbors had disappeared. When the fuel had run out, and the electricity has shut off, they’d banded together at first, sharing what news could be gathered. One by one the houses had gone quiet, though, families leaving, drifting away without a word. Perhaps they had moved into the local towns to be closer to civilization, but they’d never said. They just left. Or so David assumed. Hoped. He hadn’t entered any of the houses after. It didn’t seem right, even if they were abandoned.
As he rode he passed the occasional car or truck, stopped by the side of the road, but most people had parked their vehicles in driveways. Always considerate, they were. No abandoned cars with open doors left haphazardly in the road here. That wouldn’t have been polite.
Still, he wondered at the quiet houses. This far into the country they weren’t very close together. Their nearest neighbor had been about a half mile down the road, and the next was a mile more. But that house was silent, too, black windows staring at him like eyes. No movement, though, not even a feeling of being watched. He knew, somehow, that there was no human being within miles of his family home. And so he rode. Determined legs pushed pedals, the burn feeling good. He was glad he had rode before things went bad.
The sun was only slightly past mid-day when he reached the closest village, about twelve miles into his ride. The hum of rubber against pavement sounded louder than ever as he rode down the main street of Parkville. No children were playing outside the houses, though. No laundry flapped on drying lines. No abandoned tricycles sat at the edge of sidewalks. Just empty lawns. Closed doors. More dark windows. Silence.
David’s bike slowed to a crawl, his front wheel sweeping back and forth to keep balance as he almost stopped. His foot came down, shoe grazing the pavement without thought to catch, balance, stop his movement as he looked down the empty street. There was no sound, other than the leaves in the light afternoon breeze, and his breathing. He almost thought he could hear his own pulse in his ears. The creak of his kick-stand sounded loud in the empty village. He left the bike in the center of the street, unworried. There hadn’t been a car to consider in months.
His eyes pulled him toward the front door of what used to be the village gas station. The sign that used to display the price of gas was now empty, the blank spaces a testament to finality. It had also offered overpriced snacks and basic food essentials, and beer and wine to those that could afford it. David was surprised to find the front door opened to his pull. The small bell attached to the door frame jingled a familiar welcome, but the store was dark inside. Sunlight came through the large front window, illuminating dust motes that swirled gently at his intrusion. The back area of the store was darker, but again David felt no sense of danger, no life in the place. Oddly, the shelves were still full. He somehow expected they would look more empty, but no, instead they seemed fully stocked. He left everything as he found it, stepping back out into the sunlight, sunlight that suddenly felt more warming than it should, as a shiver ran down his spine.
The village was entirely empty. He knew inside that if he looked in every window, in every house, he would find the same thing. Empty rooms. Silence. A year ago this village had be home to at least five or six hundred people. He stared down the length of the one main street, to the small bridge that crossed the river, and the sign that read ‘You are now leaving Parkville. Please visit again!’. He shook his head briefly, mouth tight, then began walking down a side street. He looped the block, but every house was the same. Gates were closed, but unlocked. He tried a few doors, to confirm his suspicions, and discovered each appeared to be unlocked. Each opened easily, quietly, but behind each was silence. He entered no houses. Something low in his stomach kept him from stepping past the door frame. He closed each one again, leaving them as found.
As he stepped back into the main street he had a discomforting thought that his bike would be gone, but it sat patiently where he’d left it. He walked the bike to the edge of the village, looking back a few times, feeling somewhat numb. The next major town was Shefford. It was a good thirty miles further, but he guessed it was still only about two in the afternoon. There was a highway only a half mile down the road, and he knew if he stuck to that, he could be to Shefford in a few hours. With one last look at the village, he mounted his bike, and pushed off hard, heading south. He wanted to reach the town before sunset. He couldn’t say why, but deep inside he had the feeling he needed to reach that town before nightfall.