Population: One

Population: One by J. Kuzmier --  photo by John B. at JohnBdigital.com     

Night falls all around me while I drive, on the very first night of the Geminid meteor shower. If everything goes to plan, the sky show won’t arrive alone. Tonight will also feature the storm to end all storms, topped off with a surprise planetary alignment like a cherry on a toppling cake. I wonder what will happen when they all arrive on my tiny planet’s stage. If they do at all.

I contemplate all these potential happenings as I drive down a county road that darkens more and more with every passing second. There are no lights on the road. If you want lights, you must bring your own. Out in the woods where this road leads, you’re left to your own devices.

The road I drive will lead me to a destination I haven’t visited in years, an out-of-the-way park that is more populated by creatures of nature than civilization. I can’t explain why, but it seems fitting to return to this place in the darkness rather than the light. It also seems right that I’m not here as half of couple as in years gone past. I will arrive alone, living up to the very definition of my name, Soledad.

That’s what seems best for the time and the season, I reason. Darkness and solitude. After all, the mood of the world is already dark, and doesn’t even need the sky to say it’s night. The season of happy couples and merry families is long gone, whether pertaining to me, or the world around me.

Doomsday has spread like a pandemic everywhere I go. On all of the radio stations, whether broadcast or satellite, REM’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” and Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper” play over and over like a torturer’s symphony. In between these sessions, various DJs audition as amateur prophets of the apocalypse. Some of their performances are grim tomes of prose, while others consist of ghoulish jokes spun like spider webs on tombs.

During my drive, I’ve turned the radio off more than a few times. Yet I always find myself turning it back on, knowing I’ll only hear the same wearisome doomsday nonsense all over again. It’s like I want to run from my fate, but can’t. Or won’t. Even as I run to escape from all the noise, I can’t quite make the final break from it. It’s almost like an intervention is needed to help break the habit. A divine one. I hear a noise as I think this, and I realize it’s me laughing. My own voice sounds strange to me. No wonder I feel ambivalent about escaping.

The road that I’m driving is completely deserted of other travelers as the sun sets, whether in anticipation of nighttime or the storm I can’t have no way of knowing. I watch as the last edges of light peek over the hills, as though the sun treads water just above the horizon. Then, it sinks for good underneath the weight of dusk.

In the final seconds of fading light, it feels easy to liken the sun to a victim drowning alone. If it’s crying out for rescue, no one can hear it. Then, it’s gone. If it had cried out, all of it would have been in vain anyway. The storm coming tonight has begun its entry, eclipsing anything that holds the light.

The darkness of this metaphor grips me, even though I want to shake myself awake from it. But it seems nearly impossible to do, surrounded as I am by a global atmosphere of doom everywhere I turn.

If I’m to believe what anyone says on the radio, I may have witnessed my very last sunset ever. They warn me that tonight’s storm is of galactic proportions, with the universe rearranging its very core while leaving those stuck here on Earth to collapse.

As if on cue, a wall of grey clouds appears on the dusky horizon, actors standing at attention for their moment to perform. And here I am, on the road solo and driving right into the tempest’s heart.

I’m the only one left on the road as I reach my destination, a park on the outskirts of town. Only the headlights of my hatchback provide any illumination as I make up its driveway, a park shrouded with woods and meadows and a lake placed conveniently in the center, as if God himself knew one day it would be a main attraction somewhere.

Even though it’s been years since I’ve been here, everything is exactly the same. The main office sports a porch light. Its yellow beacon is like a lighthouse in the coal-like nighttime. There, the key to my cabin will be waiting just for me, even if no one else is there. I know this because the attendant I made the reservation with told me so.

No one seems concerned that I’ve hijacked someone else’s identity. Even in this day and age, this place likes to imagine it’s the haven where you can leave your doors unlocked, and the only thing stray you’ll come home to is a hunter who got a bit too drunk and will slink out the back door once you arrive. If it’s going to be the end of the world, I’m glad I will be at a place that feels like a home if home means feeling secure.

Nothing has changed from those other times when I visited here, times when I wasn’t alone. I put those memories aside, so my solitude feels more like a haven than a black hole. It’s hard, though. The voice I want to remember of my old love is so comforting to me. But right now, I have no one but me and my own strength to hold myself together.

I’ve been assured that upon arrival, my key will be waiting for me in the black lockbox near the front entrance, just punch in the code to unlock it. The code to the lockbox 1221, same as it was all those years ago. My relationship status may have changed from that time, but this one basic thing has not. Maybe that’s why I’m here. For some sense of constancy.

My home for the next week will be cabin number 123, one I never visited before. It’s bigger than the ones I’ve previously stayed in. A full kitchen, a living room, a bathroom and a bedroom. I got it at the same price as the smaller ones I used to stay in with my ex, Sean. Off-season pricing and budget cutbacks are responsible for that. It’s ironic that as a singleton I’m getting a bigger home than when I came as half of a couple.

It occurs to me that all the numbers have prophetic significance, the 1221 and the 123. But I quickly put the thought aside. After driving nonstop all these hours, I’m too weary to think of the end of the world. I’m hungry. I’m tired. In the end, it all boils down to those basic things. I want my key so I can go home, temporary it may be.

Besides the porch light illuminating its lemony tone in the front, the office itself is bathed in the loud white of fluorescent lighting. My vehicle is the only one in the entire parking lot, telling me that despite the brightness everyone is long gone. Budget cuts have seen to cutbacks like that.

Despite that, true to what I was told, my key to my cabin is still in the same black lockbox that always sheltered them. It sounds more creaky than I remember when I open it, but I still recognize it if only by sound. My key is the only one there, the numbers 123 highlighted in the same floodlight that marks my path back to my car. As I drive away, its trickle of light disappears. Everything is dark, once again except for the dim attempt at illumination from my headlights. It looks like it’s the sole candle in a darkened rock concert.

Tonight the night is so thick, even the moon is hidden. It’s shrouded by the black curtain of clouds, a veil that will also mask the Geminid meteor shower’s premiere on the cosmic stage tonight. My satellite radio is now attuned to one of those stations that prattle about in meaningless chatter.

Tonight, it speaks in crass prophecy to me, while the night’s obscurity settles around me. The radio and the night’s darkness are my only companions here in the world I’ve escaped to, one devoid of all humans but me.

So, Reiko. What are you going to do for the end-of-the-world today? says one disembodied voice to the other.

Oh, come on Jim!, the other, presumably Reiko, replies. Seriously! Do you really believe that crap? I’m more concerned about tonight’s nor’easter blowing my roof off than the Second Coming, thank you. So me, I’m just going to stock my fridge and settle in with a nice cold beer for the night. Then I’ll wake up so I can see your ugly mug all over again here in the studio. How’s THAT for a last supper, dude?

Reiko, Reiko, Reiko, Jim intones. So ornery! Good things the listeners in satellite world love you more than I do.

I try, Jim. I really do, Reiko sighs. I try my damnedest to drive you insane.

But don’t you think everything in the world has led up to some cosmic climax? With all the earthquakes and the monsoons and the floods?

Dude, earthquakes happen all of the time. You can see for yourself. It’s on this little thingee called the…. INTERNET? Reiko is exasperated, in that voice that certain radio personalities use to show disdain for their cohosts, as well as everyone who isn’t them.

Reiko, I know you think everything’s blown out of proportion.

Uh, like…..DUH…..

But Reiko, come on now! Three earthquakes over 8.5 in less than a week? The 8.6 Twins? That’s your idea of a slow earthquake week, when they start giving them nicknames they’re so numerous? And how about the fact that everyone’s drowning in Asia and Australia? You still think that the planetary alignment capping off all of this means nothing at all?

Jim, crap happens all of the time. Ever hear of nothing new under the sun?

But Reiko! A homeless man told me it’s all in the stars! Literally! Don’t you think he’s right? I mean, Reiko, think about it! Everyone’s buzzing and tweeting about the surprise planetary alignment happening with the Geminids tonight. And the homeless guy predicted it all three days ago! THREE DAYS AGO! The scientists only confirmed it publicly TODAY! How about that for you, my sweet skeptic? I’m the one who told everyone about it first!

Oh please. I’ll tell you what’s happening. That the scientists are getting disaster news from B-grade sci-fi movies and homeless people off their meds who predict the end of the world every five minutes, and The Sheeple are bored playing Farmville so they’re just chasing the next anthill they’re told to follow and trend. THAT’S what. Hash tag ‘GET A FREAKING LIFE ALREADY’, Sheeple!

Sheeple? SHEEPLE? Honey, sweetie, don’t be a hater! Are you THAT cynical about the human race, Reiko my sweet skeptic? His voice is a strange hybrid of a barroom slur and a bedroom voice. It makes me wonder what Jim thinks of Reiko when he’s off air. It also makes me feel relieved that I’m single and don’t want to be anything else.

If the DJ Reiko is fazed, she doesn’t betray it in her voice. The people do as they are told, Jim. They always do. And you know what? If it is the end of the world, which I seriously doubt it is, but if it really is the end this time around after all the false bells, alarms and whistles, maybe something higher than us wants to clean the joint up. As the Sheeple LOVE to say nowadays, just sayin’.

I snap the radio off as I reach cabin number 123, the numbers so heavenly simplistic in its perfect order. I wish I could be as steady in my emotions as Reiko the DJ, but I can’t unless I have silence. With the radio off, I am finally alone with my thoughts. The silence feels like the universe within me, and I’m the only one there. Population: One.

As I abandon the security to seek shelter in the cabin that is all my own for a time, the elements cut into me with sharp knives all me, and I shudder reflexively throughout my body. I wonder why I hadn’t noticed how cold I was when I’d gotten my key, but when I’m nearly knocked over by a gust of wind, I realize why. The wind appears to be just beginning to pick up, at this very second. It’s as though I’d arrived at my shelter with no time to spare.

Maybe on some level I’m attuned to tonight’s surprise alignment, I laugh to myself before dismissing the thought. After all, it seems like sheer nonsense that one small soul like mine is intertwined with the universe’s plans in any unique way.

I slowly make my way towards the darkened cabin with my two overnight bags, feeling hardened earth under my feet instead of the typical crunch of snow that’s normally here in mid-December. It would be a perfect scene for a horror movie, I think as I approach my temporary home. A woman alone, in the dark and in the middle of the woods, walking to an empty cabin. In the movies, there would be someone lurking in the bushes with an axe, and my last utterances on this earth would be animalistic screams of terror.

But this isn’t the movies, and no one lurks in wait for me, with bloodlust or just plain lust. The darkness makes it feel that even my own life is some surreal fantasy, where nothing in the world exists or ever did except as some abstract construct in an alternate world.

In the absolute last shadows of dusk’s ghost, I can barely make out the keyhole or hold the key to open my abode. I wonder why I just hadn’t kept the headlights on, just so I could have enough light to see. I also wonder why I’m not terrified at all of all the things I hear, of approaching the once-familiar in the black of night in the midst of all the calamity in the world.

And then it hits me. After I’ve fumbled the key, found my center enough to steady it and place it in the lock, and entered the cabin that is just as chilly as the elements it’s supposed to protect me from, I answer my own question. The night is exactly what I want, because it shuts out all the ghosts of my past, and all the screams of the present. Alone in the night, in the middle of the woods.

This is exactly what I want, and have wanted it for a long, long time. When I turn on the light near the front door, I know it for sure. It’s too blinding, and even though I’ll need it soon enough just to regulate the heat here, I turn it off, and let the darkness seep into me for a moment more. I hear the wind without feeling it, and suddenly I feel a little bit warmer.

The storm coming tonight threatens to bring the arctic tundra to my doorstep. It didn’t stop me from coming here, obviously. I haven’t been here for years, and live hundreds of miles away. Yet something I can’t explain instructed me weeks ago to come here, on this particular day, alone and right in the middle of the holiday season.

Is it because the universe knows something my logical mind doesn’t? Maybe. I think of what Reiko and Jim discussed, about the storms, the earthquakes, and what seems to figure most prominently, the planetary alignment. Just last week, the science world discovered that this surprise phenomena would accompany the first night of the Geminid meteor shower, which is tonight. And as Jim the DJ said, it was all only made public today, long after I knew I was coming here.

If the scientific predictions go off without a hitch, Earth will line up like a good little planet with Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, a surprise concert by our planetary friends. Normally, the park I currently occupy alone, with its open fields and clear rural sky, would be prime territory for a sky show like that. In fact, when I was more of regular guest here at the lake years ago, stargazers would show up hours in advance, like a tailgating party at a football game. But, from all indications, no one is here tonight but me.

Then, there are the storms. Just last week, a low-pressure system stalled in the Pacific. And just like the storm that will be presumably visiting me tonight, it blossomed literally overnight into a typhoon-like storm. But unlike its more conventional tropical cyclonic cousins, the Pacific storm mushroomed while remaining stationary. In doing so, it drowned most of eastern Asia for the better part of the week, and caused massive monsoons in places like the Australian continent throughout the duration.

Although the storm center has weakened, it’s still raining in many of the places, so no one even knows the total extent of the damage. The blizzards in the southern parts of France and the United States from two weeks ago have nothing on any of that. They’re like drama queens passed over for a prom date, their disasters long forgotten.

In the midst of this were the four earthquakes, two registering 8.7 and 7.9 in the Aceh Province of Indonesia. Then there were the 8.6 twins, one off the Aleutian Islands, its counterpart off the east coast of Japan. It must have been some week for Hawaii, Bali and the Maldives, all buffeted by tsunamis, albeit relatively minor ones. It’s not exactly paradise when the ocean runs over you four times in a row, even if was just a close call in the endgame.

No one is looking forward to the next round of geographical blows, which seems just about inevitable with everything going on. Reiko and Jim are just two infinitesimal prophets of doom in the matrix of global terror. And all during the lowest solar minimum modern science as ever seen, all without explanation. It’s the holiday season, but with everything going on, it’s not feeling particularly festive anywhere that I’ve seen.

The oblivion is letting the world’s nightmares encroach upon me, growing more ominous with every moment. I fumble for a light switch, hoping to banish thoughts I can’t do anything about. If the entire world crashes about me, at least I have it within me to turn on the lights.

A harsh glare assaults my senses as I go from room to room in my temporary home alighting each one. Despite being the largest rental dwelling, the cabin I’m residing in is relatively small, almost like a rugged cottage. It’s about four hundred square feet, just big enough to have a small bedroom, living room, bathroom and kitchen.

The decor is functional but sparse, not even minimally decorated for the holiday. No tv, no phone, perfect for solitude. Maybe, given all that is happening around us, its somber design is more appropriate. It’s larger than my previous refuges here, the shack-like rooms with a pull out bed, hot plate and half-bathroom at the end.

All in all, my current home is more than enough to provide shelter and refuge for me. If I had to, I laugh to myself, I could live here permanently. I notice that my laughter doesn’t seem so strange to my ears anymore, and that I have no need to turn on the radio, television, check my cell, anything. Perhaps I’m getting used to my own company, as long as I can control the distractions in my mind. I put my cell on silent mode before charging it. Now, I can truly rest here without being disturbed by anyone else but my noise.

But first, before I can truly relax or even eat, I need to attend to the most basic of things, which is staying warm. As I think that, I suddenly feel colder, as though my body finally realized that the ambient air indoors should be warmer than it is.

When I stayed here the other times with Sean in the smaller cabins, the only way to heat the cabins was through wood heat. No electric, oil, or coal to help buffer you; you’d either make it or didn’t. This one is a little different, but only by a little bit. In the bedroom, there’s one electric space heater in the corner. It resembles a clay jar. It makes me think of ceramics class in college, which makes me think of other things in college as well that I’m not quite ready to face yet. Or at least not fully, not yet. I obviously had some interest in meeting some of those ghosts just being here.

As though the universe is punking me, I hear Sean’s laughter. Loudly, and distinctively. I didn’t think I’d remembered it so easily after all these years, and for a second because of this assume that somehow he’s here, with me. Which terrifies me. What alternative universe have I slipped through, where the timeline I thought I was living abruptly shifts plates like an earthquake?

I turn, but I see no one. I’m still alone, still in the timeline where there is no one else in the world but me, population: one. But this doesn’t reassure me. I’m startled by the clarity of my auditory memory of Sean, whom I haven’t seen in seven years. I didn’t know I had it in myself to remember him with such force. I’d thought he faded through time, and I thought by coming here, I could remodel this place with my own unadulterated perspective. I apparently was wrong, and wonder how else I will be haunted by being here.

Yet, it’s not too long before fatigue wins the battle over adrenaline. I’m too exhausted to even contemplate escaping here. In the dilemma as to whether battle the storm outdoors or my demons inside me, there’s no competition when I see a comfortable bed with blankets in one room and a couch with a woodstove luring me to light it in the other. I can always leave in the morning, I decide, after the storm has passed.

I’m spooked out enough to rule out sleeping in the bedroom, instead making my bed on the couch after stripping the load of blankets and pillows from the bed. It feels like a trip back to my Catholic school days as I lug the heavy burden from the bedroom to the great room. Oh well, I rationalize, at least I’ll be closer to the main source of heat for the cabin. That is, I’ll have it once I actually create it.

There’s a log rack piled high with stacked firewood next to the woodstove, a flame ignitor besides that. They’re so neatly situated that I feel I’m trespassing like Goldilocks in someone’s house so as not to die from hypothermia. Then again, the analogy may not be so far off. I’m not trespassing, but since I’ve ruled out the space heater in the bedroom, this firewood is the only thing saving me from of frostbite. The load of blankets that was so weighty before seems like flimsy rags when I think of how cold it’s supposed to get tonight, well into the single digits Fahrenheit. I’m going to have to get heat in here, if I’m going to have any, it’s totally up to me.

It won’t be the first time I’ve lit a stove like this in my lifetime, but it’s been as many years as I’ve been to this park. And it had been with Sean, always with Sean. When I was here with him then, it felt like the fire insulated us not only against the elements but against a world that seemed so at odds with who we said we wanted to be.

As I think of this, I prepare the stove with an agility that surprises me as I load the wood and open the valve. Once the fire catches the wood, I marvel at my creation, and the perfect muscle memory that seemed to be just below the surface of my civilized mind. In coming here all those years, I’d knew that I at least learned that heat is more than just a flick of a switch on a thermostat. But I’m amazed at how much I’d retained. It’s as though this place was waiting for me to awaken to something.

For what, I don’t know. But I’m glad to be hungry, thirsty and exhausted all in one so I don’t have to contemplate any of it just yet. Maybe tomorrow, I might go to town for just a brief hour or two, to stock up on supplies. The darkness of the road dissuaded me earlier for some reason. Perhaps I wanted just to decompress, settle into whatever solitude that was drawing me here. I’m not exactly sure. Whatever the reason, the only food I have is what I grabbed in my condo. My meager provisions include a couple of canned food items, a small jar of instant coffee, and one instant pack of oatmeal.

If it really is the end of the world tonight, I don’t have much to go on. A chuckle escapes from me, momentarily surprising me in the silence before I realize it’s only me and I return to my activities and the thread of thought regarding the disaster buzz that’s surrounded me in anticipation of tonight’s astronomical cinema.

I don’t know why I didn’t prepare more for any of it, but maybe I just don’t want to believe in something so ridiculous. Maybe I’m more like Reiko the DJ than I thought. I’m tired of disaster, and just want to rest and eat. My brain is too fatigued and lulled by the heat emanating from the stove that I just don’t care about anything else.

In this lulled mental state, I cook up my canned provisions which is comprised of ravioli and mixed vegetables. It’s a strange mixture that I never would normally associate cooking together under normal circumstances. But these aren’t normal circumstances, and somehow the concoction seems just right to me, like I need to consume all I can before the storm takes me.

When my mixture of food percolates into bubbles of a finished product, I scoop it all into a big bowl, and sit on the flower-patterned, cotton-cushioned couch in the living room. Strangely enough, there’s a large mirror conspicuously placed over the couch. I don’t know why it’s there. It faces directly opposite the living room’s lace-curtained main window. If it were daylight, it would reflect the forest. Now, it only amplifies black darkness, unless one is brave enough to stand on the couch and see what the mirror does.

I don’t do this. The last thing I want to do is look at my own reflection. Not because I’m afraid to see my soul, but simply because I’m too primal with unfilled basic instincts to care. So, I eat the food I cooked. I drink water from the tap, over and over, until I’m no longer hungry and thirsty. These are the things that occupy me, for now.

The fire has caught the wood enough that the living room feels warm. I shut the stove’s valve, both in anticipation of nighttime and to prevent the fire from turning into a rampage. It’s a strange balance to catch, and I’m still surprised that I have the knack to it. I’ve done this before many times, but it was so long ago. It feels good to be able to remember this basic practice of survival, that my primeval nature hasn’t been completely erased by civilization.

Once I’m safe from my heat source turning on me by transforming into a raging inferno, I go to the bathroom to wash, brush my teeth. Such simplicity in activity. I forgot how basic life could be. The storm that others have mentioned seems far from me, and I don’t even remember the alignment. I’m contained within myself, and all other data seems extraneous and irrelevant.

With the pillows and blankets from the bedroom, I make my bed on cabin’s couch. It’s hard and unforgiving, the wood frame nearly touching my back. But strangely enough, I find it comfortable. I nestle myself into its body and relax, and it feels like the world’s burdens has been removed from my soul. Every atom in me seems to melt in pleasant exhaustion, as though knowing that the day’s work has been finished and is deserving of a long night’s sleep.

Though I suspect it to be very early out in the busy civilized world, the night’s darkness triggers my circadian rhythm. I reach up and shut the solo light, giving in to the fatigue that wants to envelop me. So peaceful it is, just to rest. I fall asleep without trying, or thinking of anything in particular, at least consciously.

I fall into a deep sleep punctuated with recurring dreams of harsh winds and cracking limbs. In this dream, bright lights pierce the blackest dark, like lightning bolts slicing through the skies. I hear no thunder in this dream. I blink several times in this dream, to see if I’m awake. Every time I do, everything goes silent.

This same dream visits me several times throughout the night. After the cycle repeats once, twice, then three times, I’m not sure when I’m awake and when I’m asleep. At all points in the night, I feel drowsy, drugged, sluggish. But I feel nothing else. No pain, no anguish, no agony. I don’t toss and turn, despite the tempest I witness. Sometimes I remember there’s supposed to be a storm in the night. At other points in the dream, I forget.

When I awaken for good, daylight peeks through the same windows where darkness held its nighttime vigil. Rubbing my arms, twisting my torso back and forth, blinking several times, I toss sleep away from me. Hunger pains torment my stomach, barking ornery complaints of neglect. The small of my back aches just a tiny bit from laying in one position a little too long on a couch. Yet, despite all this, I feel completely whole and alive. Like something I never knew existed in me has resurrected, swarming inside my soul with vitality.

Sunlight stretches weakly out to me, like one weary traveler reaching out to another. It’s just radiant enough to make out the shadows around me. I see myself in outline, penciled into a faded reflection. For the first time, I see the forest outside my window. There are skeletons of trees lined up against one another, dusted in white. I somehow feel out of place, not exactly sure why. And suddenly alert, like my limbo state was a glitch that didn’t quite belong.

The face clock on the wall tells me that I’ve slept for well over twelve hours, announcing the time as being six-fifty in the morning. I’m surprised for a moment at how deep my night’s sleep was, especially given the dreams that accompanied it. But it doesn’t take long for my sentiment to shift from bewilderment to gratitude. It’s good to have the fatigue that has plagued me for weeks shaken from me.

My stomach announces that I need food, so I set aside the blanket that kept me warm throughout the night on the couch. As I do, the chilly air sends a shiver through me, reminding me that the wood stove needs to be fed as well. My eyes catch the view outside as my achy body makes its way to the stove. I’m mesmerized by the sheen of white.

It’s snowed, I realize, although I can’t tell how much from my brief glance. It’s something I’ll figure out later, I decide, after I warm myself. I feel power as the wood I pile catches fire and warms me. Like everything essential matters even more so, and I’m able to meet those needs on such a basic level.

I occupy the next minutes with boiling water for the coffee and the apple cinnamon oatmeal I packed with me, my last provisions. Now, I’ll be forced to venture out to town today. Sitting down at the pressboard square of a kitchen table, I eat slowly to delay that inevitability. I catch a glimpse of the white-covered land in front of me hidden by the curtain as I do.

The scene I witness is beautiful but baffling, for there’s no sign of the storm I heard the previous night disturbing my dreams. Every tree that I saw from last night stands perfectly still, as though undisturbed for years. There is just a dusting of white to indicate snow. I can tell that it’s a dusting only, because there are still patches of dirt peeking through the white. Just enough snow to blanket everything in bits and pieces. And not one single fallen branch lies upon the ground.

Which is disturbing, or at least confusing, to me. What was the wind I heard? What happened to the big storm that was to assault us all? What about the lights I saw piercing the darkness? Was it all a dream, did I hallucinate everything?

Perhaps there had been no storm forecasted at all to begin with. Maybe I imagined everything. Maybe I dreamed that I arrived in the place of my memories just ahead of a storm to end all storms. Or maybe I’m in the city, still asleep. There’s no way I can tell for sure. Blinking, biting, pinching myself, I try to wake from the dream I suspect I’m still in.

I see the madness of what I’m doing to myself, perfectly reflected in the mirror above the couch. I’m treated to an image of a blinking, frenzied woman attacking her own body. Strangely enough, it’s a moment before I realize it’s me I’m looking at. This temporary denial fascinates me. It’s so strong that even visual evidence to the contrary crashes against its ironclad barrier.

Up until this very moment, I’ve not noticed how unkempt I look, my hair flailing all about me as I go about mauling my own person. I look like I just went on a killing frenzy, and I’m relishing the aftermath’s madness. Or a crazy woman, going insane in solitary confinement. Either metaphor will suffice in describing my resemblance in the glass image. Take your pick, it doesn’t matter. Either one will do. And I realize the crazy woman I see is can’t possibly be anyone else. No one else here, but me.

Truly, it seems, I’ve had enough of my own company. Enough of Population: One. I need the company of my own kind. Maybe not so much that I need to call everyone I know, having to explain my sudden disappearance yet again to the same people ad nauseam. But at least, for long enough to help me forget my own shadows and remember I am alive, here in the flesh. And so, I prepare myself to leave. To return to my own kind, if only for an hour or two.

I shower, washing away my feral savageness. The soap removes the grime my recent self acquired, and I watch its greasy darkness disappear down the drain. Once more, I’m restored to being a civilized woman. At least, restored enough to pass as one at first glance. I’m civilized enough for my feral soul not to be caught out in the open. Nothing gives away wildness like a sheen of dirt on your skin.

The warm water on my body feels good, oh so good. Cascades of heated rain pour upon me. Under its torrent, I shiver away a chill that even I didn’t know I had. I stay under the fierce stream until my body feels purged of this internal ice, until the water’s temperature trickles from cozy to lukewarm. It’s as though the water and I have exchanged kinetic energy, like a symbiosis. Or more dramatically, the water has sacrificed its heat so I could heal the dark holes I’ve hidden inside. Whatever it is that’s happened, I’m grateful. Grateful for a long, hot shower and the pleasure of my own solitude to do it. One with no interruptions from the outside, virtual or otherwise. And I revel in it.

After I dry myself and dress up in two pairs of longjohns, jeans, bra, flannel undershirt, sweater that will hide under my winter hat and jacket, I head to the living room in preparation to temporarily abandon this place. I fill up the stove with wood and let it catch fire before shutting the stove’s valve. The fire has just enough food to live through the morning, for when I return once more.

My wallet is on the kitchen table where I had breakfast. A picture falls out of it as I go to count my money, a photo I keep conveniently forgetting I have yet can’t quite throw out. It’s a picture of Sean from several years ago. I can’t place the specifics of its time and place, but it’s easy to guess generalities by just one glance.

Sean’s in a forest, something like this one that I’m in right now. Although there are evergreens all around him, there are maple trees bursting with bright reds and golds surrounding him, boasting the colors of peak autumn. He’s kneeling on the ground, on one knee, smiling broadly for the camera.

Although I don’t remember the circumstances surrounding the picture, I do remember that I’m the one who shot it, and that it was a candid one. I caught Sean by surprise, like a proverbial deer in the headlight. And yet, he still managed to smile for it.

I had to keep this photo of Sean, even as I discarded any other trace of him. I like to remember him this way. It makes me believe that if I see him smiling here, Sean is truly happy wherever he is in his trek across this life. I place the picture back into its place in my wallet, and prepare to leave, locking up cabin 123 with its special key once I get outside, the icy blast of winter wind greeting me. As I lock up my temporary home, I realize that I don’t have my hatchback’s key with me. Nor do I have my cell. For a second, I think about going back inside, retrieving them.

But then I don’t. I don’t quite want to break my solitude so quickly. It seems I would rather have the arctic refrigeration of the outdoors than the comfort of a warm vehicle, and the isolation of being truly alone. The walk, three miles worth, will give me more time to adapt to the world of people. I get the feeling that if I took the hatchback, I’d be more inclined to give into the ghoulish curiosity of turning on the radio. Alone, without my cell, I will have less opportunity to compulsive feed my extrovert, and have more opportunity to know what it is like to stand alone.

I don’t know why that intuition feels like the more important lesson than finding information about the world, or even to have a cell phone with me in case of emergency. But I go with the inclination anyway, and I can only explain that it just feels like it’s the right decision. There’s no logic to it at all, just like my being here alone in with my ghosts in the middle of nowhere is irrational as anything. Besides, I joke to myself, there’s probably no cell service out here anyway. Who needs the extra burden of a useless thing out here in the middle of nowhere?

Sunshine greets me lazily as I proceed with my walk. It’s muted, but I’m not fooled by its temporary subtlety. Once I walk to the open fields and the day grows older, the sun will blind me. I can tell, because the sky is bluer and clearer than any sea I have ever seen. There’s a pair of sunglasses in my outer jacket’s pocket, but I’ll wait until I reach the grass field before using them. I don’t need them right now. The sun’s power is still weak, like a dim lightbulb. Not even strong enough to heal the wind’s frozen bite, I observe as my breath creates its own frigid clouds. Even the scent of the air smells like ice.

I decide to take the trail way, rather than the road I took to get here, feeding the wild side of me just a bit more. It’s a trail I’ve been on, one that seems familiar and strange to me at the same time. The snow on the trail is less than an inch deep as I take my first step upon it, which makes me feel I can rough my way through in the winter boots I have. I can determine the snow’s depth as fact, because although the icy snow’s icy crunches beneath me like glass, my shoes barely an imprint. Only the bottoms of my soles are covered in snow. It’s only a gracing of snow on the ground. So demure is the snow’s base, that it doesn’t even warrant calling it a grazing.

Even the ice crunching beneath me is silent and subdued. It makes me think of a gentlemanly grandfather regally eating a bowl of cornflakes while reading the Sunday paper, a matronly but cheerful grandmother of a mate refilling his coffee. The image warms me even in the middle of this winter barrenness, everything seemingly white and gray with nothing else in between.

The light between the trees is just bright enough to catch the morning daylight. There are zebra stripes of shadows alternating with snow as I walk. Although I’m on a hill, it’s a small one and I’m on the top of it for now. There’s no land to block sunlight from streaming through, even though it’s still early in the morning.

I watch my breath as it drifts back to me in a lazy fog. I only hear the sound of my exhalation and the tiny shattering noise of snow crunching as I walk, encountering the downslope of the trail which means its end is coming soon. Even in stillness, there are sounds of life.

I make my way more precariously and carefully these last moments of the trail, not wanting to be fooled by the wet mud concealed by the veneer of snow. On the even terrain that came before, the saturated soil posed no problems to me. But the downward incline I face now makes me more aware of the risks it holds. Pale patches of ice hidden under the snow, even if they are so thin I can break through them with one step, are more potent with danger on the hills.

This is another thing I remember, something I’d thought I’d forgotten. The slope is only several degrees in pitch, but I know the risks it poses. I step easily into a slower pace, glad to have a practical reason for holding onto my solitude for a few more minutes. It’s like one more moment of juicy forbidden passion before reality’s rules binds me once more.

Sadly, I reach the trail’s end all too soon. I stop at the borderland between the forest and the open land, a vista of open land that is both man and God created. As I do, I’m treated to an unvarnished spectacle of glistening snow, stretched like an unending vision before me. Shards of diamond ice sparkle upon the land, like a mass of candle-holding angels praying before the brilliance of God, disguised in the form of the sun. Didn’t many of the ancients believe God was the sun, anyway? Is everything coming back to me in a full circle?

I notice all this for before I shield my eyes with my sunglasses from the sun’s piercing brightness. The wind’s sharp bite snaps into my face, its shield from the trees gone. I’m compelled to pull the brim of my hat as low as possible over my forehead, and my sweater’s neck up to my chin. My cheeks are still exposed, but the newly covered skin feels so comforted by its blanket that I can deflect that discomfort, at least momentarily.

All this allows me to focus on walking ahead, taking step after step into the open terrain. It’s an optical illusion, this place. The flattened grass and land seems endless if I look just ahead of me. Yet, as my vision takes in the lake in the far background, the plain suddenly seems small. Which interpretation is right? Is there even one that is more right than the other?

I walk slowly but purposefully across the landscape, heading towards the asphalt road by the lake. Everything is pure open land here in the place where I walk. Only a few pines are scattered about the grassy terrain, four in total. They resemble trees of a Christmas past, gone rogue and wild in the present. One of them will be dressed up for the holidays soon. Which, it doesn’t matter. In the cloudy day, they all look like shadows. I wonder if they would seem even lonelier if they were dressed up in holiday cheer, alone on the plain on a day like this, as though deserted by one that professed to love them. I exhale, and the wind joins me with a loud rush.

In the distance, there’s another lone bunny, scurrying across the flattened grass mowed perfectly by humans where the bunny roams. It’s done so humans like me could revel about traveling on hard earth exploring nature, all without being inconvenienced by cobwebs of weeds. The kind that real nature has to offer when humanity leaves it alone. Soon even the bunny is gone, disappeared from my view.

As my path turns towards the lake’s direction, the cinema’s background changes from land to water. Overnight, the lake’s edges have whitened with ice and snow. Seagulls and Canadian geese amble about the wintered lakeshore, the air pungent with their scat, the lake shimmering with morning light. The sun peeks over the horizon, a blazing ball of white. The only sounds besides the crunching of my footsteps are the occasional flutter of birds taking flight, and in the case of the geese, accompanied by honks of protest. And there is the wind, rushing against my face in a hushed roar through the open land. These are the only things I hear, for now at least.

The lake turns swampier towards the park entrance, trees and grass taking over its edges. I step onto the grey-colored asphalt that will lead me away from the park to town. Its dull hue is a shock after so much white. It tells me that the temperature is not as cold as the wind makes it out to be, if snow has melted so quickly from here. Its greyness also hides whether other people have ventured here. I won’t be able to tell if someone has entered here by searching for tracks in the road. There could be others in the park, right now. Or maybe, there isn’t anyone but me. I can’t rely on the road to warn me either way. I just have to watch and wait, and rely on myself.

As if to confirm this perception, the county road I walk on is unusually quiet today, coated in a dead silence. Like the road I just left, it’s also grey and untouched by the snow. The stark tranquility puzzles me for a just a small moment. I know it’s early, barely eight o’clock on a Saturday morning. But still, there seems to be no one else alive, or at least awake. There’s not one single car on the road, no pedestrians or bikers, no one at all.

It’s a strange sensation, but yet it isn’t long before my emotions go from confusion to relief. I don’t have to share the road’s shoulder with anyone careless enough to overstep their driving boundaries. The shoulder is just wide enough to accommodate me, in the total absence of a sidewalk. People like me aren’t supposed to be walking it. This road, a county highway, is meant to carry traffic quickly from one rural point to another. Trees that border the road hide homes with long driveways, always lending to this place a permanent sense of distance. No one comes here to be needlessly social. The hidden houses give a message of reserve, implicitly saying ‘Do not come here unless we ask you to’. Some of them are summer homes, others are not. You can’t usually tell which are which, and that’s probably the point.

About a half mile down the road, after I’ve passed about a dozen hidden homes, I get the inclination to cut through on a seasonal road towards town. The highway might be a little quicker, but for some reason this hunch to divert my route won’t leave me. It only becomes stronger the closer I get to the road. I puzzle the intuition, wondering what it means. When I consider continuing down the highway, I don’t feel any ominous sense of premonition. But yet, something tugs at me to hook a right, and go down the road less paved, so to speak. So that’s what I do, once I reach the turn.

This new path I travel is not so much populated by seasonal homes as it is old farmhouses and open fields. Unlike the paved road, a spotted sheen of white covers its base, yet given the late fall season it’s not surprising that there are no tracks on it at all.

I remember this road when I came here, years ago. The only thing that I can tell that has changed from then until now is that it seems like it’s doubled in population, which would mean it’s gone from half a dozen to a dozen residences along is two-mile length. Scattered in between the century-old farmhouses are double-wide manufactured homes, places that didn’t exist the last time I traveled here. The newcomers are fashioned with their own driveways and mailboxes, proud new members of this rural neighborhood.

Yet here, just as on the county highway, all human presence is silent and nonexistent. I hear the mooing of cows, fenced in behind barbed wire. I hear the clucks of hens having free reign, meandering through the grasses searching for their meals. The grasses, along with the weeds, poke masterfully through the frail layer of snow. They sport their temporary preeminence before the blizzards later in the season crush them for good, at least for the duration of winter’s reign. In the solitude, I hear all of them tell me these things. I see them with my own eyes, bear witness to them all, flora and fauna alike. But of my fellow human beings, there is no trace of evidence that they even exist. Except, for me and me alone.

Uneasiness threatens me. I feel my heart beginning to run even as I don’t pick up my pace myself with my feet. My breath also seems to want to take me into some kind of marathon. I ignore both, feeling that running when there is no literal threat is wasteful to me. Instead, I focus on my steps, They are something I know is solid, within my control. If I master that, perhaps the chaos I suspect that surrounds me will not completely defeat me.

So I watch my steps. Right foot first. Then left. Right. Left. Right. I’m familiar with this pointed concentration from my time here in the woods. The mantra is a little rusty from disuse, but only just for a moment. My concentration slips into the rhythm of my steps. The hills and the shiny white fields with the seemingly abandoned buildings are the only things my eyes find to focus on.

But then, the uneasiness returns as I detect something far ahead on the road moving towards me. Faster, it seems, once I spot it. I could run, I suppose. But my sense tells me that whatever that is coming towards me is faster than I ever could be, and that in running I would only lose whatever energy I do have on a useless flight.

Great to hear that message from my intuition, I think sarcastically. I curse whatever inclination it was that sent me down this road, if I was just fated to fight a winless fight. But there is nothing I can do about my choice now. I feel that all I can do this moment is stop dead in my tracks. Wait for the inevitable. Save whatever strength to help me survive.

As the figure approaches, I can better distinguish what is heading for me. When I first encountered it, it seemed like a strange moving blob, so surprised I was that anything else was on this road other than me. It is almost as though I was expecting something otherworldly or supernatural, something ominous that would usurp me in a way I was defenseless beyond imagination.

I feel silly for a moment as I realize the figure is a very ordinary four-legged creature, brown in color, most likely a dog. But my relief lasts only another moment, as I remember that this kind of encounter can bring its own kind of danger. The figure is coming for me. I’ve been spotted. There is nothing to do but wait.

As it turns out, my dread is unwarranted. The animal is definitely a dog, which I determine a half of a second after I decide to hold still. But I seemed to have misjudged the speed that the animal was moving at. Some primal part of me assumed he was bounding for me, ready to pounce. Instead, the dog is trotting at a steady pace, like an office worker out for a weekend jog.

On top of that, the dog is wagging his tail. Quickly and furiously, like a stranded motorist waving for help on the side of the road. I am most definitely hallucinating things, it seems, coming up with metaphors like these. Then I feel ominous again. Perhaps it’s the friendly dog is the apparition, and not my disquiet?

But no. Thankfully, my relief is correct and not my dread. The trotting dog heads directly for me, straight on, wagging tail and all. He or she greets me by jumping on me and licking my face like a bone. The dog is tall enough to place his paws on my shoulders. And yes, he’s tall enough for me to quite easily tell that he is most definitely a he. I find this silly, to come by the dog’s gender in this ludicrous manner, by being licked like a random lollipop in a candy store. For the first time in many days, I laugh.

And for the first time in two days, I speak aloud. My voice sounds funny in my ears as I say, “Hey you. Where’d you come from?”

The dog answers by licking me more. Not much of a conversationalist, I take it, I think to myself with a sense of irony. Well, what was I expecting anyway? Marmaduke the cartoon character? But come to think of it, with the dog’s pointed ears, he does seem part Great Dane. At least in the world of Population: One, where anything is possible. Besides, he’s licking me just like Marmaduke would. So he’s Marmaduke, just because I said so. And I tell him as such, as he continues to jump on me.

“Are you Marmaduke?” I laugh. If anything, he licks me more in response. I playfully push him off of me, which he takes to mean to jump right back on me. I push off, he jumps on. Back and forth. I’m still laughing. “So you like it. To be called Marmaduke?”

Marmaduke jumps on me once again, with gobs of healthy licks. I take it to mean yes, as I laughingly swipe the spittle away.

“I’m going to town. Where are you going?”

He responds to this by sitting down and licking his jowls. This means something. What, I don’t know.

So I continue walking, making my way towards town. Marmaduke walks beside me. More correctly, he travels beside me. Occasionally, he trots to the side, his nose bent on investigation. Then he bounds back, walking next to me, not letting me out of his sight. It’s curious entertainment, watching him. His antics distract me from the reality that I have not seen one human soul at all on this walk.

In the silent world we share, Marmaduke scurries about from here to there. Bunnies run from his scampering. Every place where the snow is deep enough, Marmaduke leaves mazes of his footsteps, proclaiming He Wuz There. Crows from above call out some kind of call. I look up at them, and the sun blazes down on me. I’m blinded temporarily, even though I wear sunglasses. It’s an odd sensation to be blinded by the sun, as a hard wind blows at me and numbs my exposed skin. A puzzling contradiction, it seems to me. Everything is plain, yet everything feels like a mystery. Nothing seems sure except my own steps.

Just before the road ends, as I reach the last main road that will take me to town, there is an abrupt turn that pitches sharply downhill. The bend is shrouded in woods, much like the kind I wrapped myself around in the previous night. There’s no way to see what’s around the corner because of them. I slow my steps in anticipation, not sure if a wayward driver will come barreling around the curve. I almost hope it will, just to prove I’m not alone.

But no one does. Only the wind travels with me, shooting through the tunnel channeled in between the trees. When I reach the road’s bend, my change in navigation mercifully shields my face from the wind’s screams. My steps take me safely around the hidden way, and the last street before town is only yards away from me.

Marmaduke has taken another one of his excursions away from me during this interval. I hadn’t noticed his absence as I made my way around the turn in the road. But now that my focus is more open to something than sheer survival, his sudden absence feels like a fist in my gut. I try to console myself, believing that he’s nearby, waiting for me.

“Marmaduke!” I yell. I place my fingers in my mouth, firing off a shrill whistle. Both sounds echo for a short time before the wind shoots them down with a blunt finality. My throat instantly feels scratched from my harsh scream and its exposure to the wind.

I’m alone now, once again. Though perhaps I always was. Maybe the dog never even existed. I wonder if I imagined the dog to begin with, so desperate for company I only saw only what I wanted to see. But that doesn’t make sense to me. If my brain is so powerful a hallucinogen, why doesn’t it continue to conjure the image of the dog? Why would it stop now, especially when I’m so frantic to see him?

I stand confused for a space of time, frozen not so much by cold as by a vortex of emotion that I can’t pinpoint. Even the biting wind eating at my face has to blow extra hard before I realize I must move to keep alive.

The dog has to be shelved mentally, if I’m going to end my isolation. Focus on the town, and what I will face there. Perhaps, I console myself, all will be fine anyway. Town is only a mile or so away from this point. I just need a hot meal, and some casual conversation. Convinced of this hope, I continue my journey, relief bursting through me like adrenaline.

As I walk, I forget that hope is really nothing more than an emotion. I forget that emotions, while being real in and of themselves, don’t mean they establish reality outside of one’s perception. Because as I walk closer to town, where the homes are closer together and more open to public view, the hope that tells me all will be well falters. Christmas wreaths and garland taunt me with the promise of companionship. But it’s the empty promise of a con man, luring with me with charm and dropping me on my head once seduced.

There’s no sounds of voices, no distant traffic, not even an overhead plane buzzing overhead on a perfectly clear day, just two weeks before Christmas. Only the sound of a distant flock of crows breaks the stillness, and even then it’s only before a moment before the vacuum returns. The echo of silence buzzes in my ears, as I strain to hear for another soul besides myself. But there is no one. There’s only the searing wind mocking me with a high-pitched cackle, now beside me as my only sinister companion.

The clock situated on the town hall’s roof tells me it’s just after nine. That is, unless it’s participating in the same deception scheme like the rest of my senses seem to be doing. If the clock is innocent and really telling the truth, then there would be people walking into the diner, the one located on the main street that I loved for its juicy pot roast and mashed potatoes, oh so soft and creamy.

In fact, the pink neon sign gracing its window insists it’s open, right this very minute. The scene is complete with a wide open door, as if to welcome lonely patrons just like me. Like a siren, the diner beckons to me. And I submit to its command, lured by its promise to shatter the panic that has sliced hope by its knees.

I let myself be lulled into the homey image of a warm, filling meal with people laughing around the table. Something that can be so inviting won’t let me down. It’s reassuring to surrender to this thought. Perhaps I’m just not awake enough to see what is plain and obvious, that are people having breakfast at nine o’clock on a Saturday morning. Just like they always do. This is what I hope.

But hope betrays me once again. It turns out to be nothing more than a weak imitation of a hero, hemorrhaging right in front of my eyes into a state of coma as I enter the diner. In the absence of everything but hope’s shell, I’m now the prey of despair and doom. For even as the warmth of the diner gives the illusion of familiarity, even as the faint smells of bacon and pancakes still waft throughout the restaurant signaling signs of recent life, even as every light is on, signifying the civilization left behind, no one is there. Not one single soul.

I walk past table after table. Plates of uneaten omelettes, pancakes, and other breakfast items still sit on them. It’s all been there long enough that sunny-side up eggs are beginning to congeal, and long enough that I can tell the food is cold when I run my hand over the food to check for heat. All this tells me my kind was here, not so long ago. But it’s also apparent that they are not here now, not one single soul. No one at all. No one but me.

Physical shock is a sensation that one acknowledges from somewhere in the deep recesses of themselves. It’s the first thing a person feels when encountered with something unexpected that defies one’s neat plans or perfect logic, or so I’m told, and so I’ve lived. Not so long ago, this is what I felt when I returned home to a scene I never thought I would find. It was as though someone had injected me with a dry ice that transformed every part of me into paralyzed crystals, all of my insides throbbing with terror at what would come next but too unfeeling to be able to scream their plea.

This is what I feel now, the feeling of icy liquid trickling through every part of me at an unbelievingly slow pace, while I stand powerless to prevent the onslaught. All I can do is reach from the depth of my soul to remember where I am as it drowns in the abyss of denial, reminding myself that I am still alive. It will be the only way I’ll be able to make sense of the life I’m now confronted with. The only way I’ll be able to fight whatever battle I can to survive a reality I would never choose otherwise but can’t escape.

I return to the streets, not sure what else to do or what I will find there. Neither my psyche nor my physiology has ever been prepared to encounter the scenario I am now trapped in. Because of this, neither of them give me any sense of direction or sign as to what to do next. Instead, I walk the streets in a state of iced shock. In this condition, I force myself to focus as I did before when I traveled here, when I zeroed in each individual step I took. I do this because want to gather what information I can, to make some semblance of sense of what I encounter.

From what I can manage to gather in this state of mind, this is what I see. Every car is parked neatly on both sides of the road, or in parking spots located in the meridian that separates the two lanes of traffic. Their engines are shut off, and none have been crashed. In each vehicle I pass, the ignition key has been placed on the driver’s seat of every car I observe. Very neatly, and perfectly. Every one of them is unlocked. It makes no difference if it’s a twenty year old pickup truck, a jeep, a luxury sedan, a family minivan full of children’s toys and gifts for Christmas.

The streets are dressed with garland, and in the town square is the Nativity scene with the tall Christmas tree dressed with lights and silver. Its branches have just a dusting of snow on them. Nothing indicates a storm of any severity came through here, and nothing indicates that an extraterrestrial came and placed them here years ago before flying away leaving them like a strange souvenir.

For that matter, perhaps I’m the alien. My humanity seems far away from me, in a scene where its existence can only be defined by the fact that I say it exists. The Christmas scene, the cars, all of it starts to feel strangely foreign, belonging to some other species. It’s as though without anyone else to notice my existence, I’m not even real myself.

My brain becomes numb like my face and fingers as I freeze from shock standing in the cold wind, my mind too empty with disbelief at the visual picture that’s feeding it. When questions finally form, they arrive in my soul. What could all of this possibly mean? What would compel everyone to act in such a way to even make a scene like this even take place?

I force my mind to try envisioning a scenario where every person parks their cars and walks away from them en masse in the middle of everyday life, leaving not one clue as to where they disappeared to. But I can’t. Everything I can imagine just seems too absurd, too ridiculous. I just can’t picture what that looks like without laughing at the absurdity of it.

And yet, it has to be true. It obviously happened. It’s the only thing I know for sure. Everything else just hangs in a black hole of the unknown. Everyone has disappeared, like they were called away. Everyone but me. Was it only because I was not in the town? Or for some other reason, one even beyond my incomprehension of the insane scene in front of me? Am I even awake? I reach in my pocket for my cell phone, but then realize I don’t even have that on me to confirm or deny anything in front of me. After what I’m seeing, what would I expect from that, anyway? It would be hilarious if it weren’t for real.

Instead, by sheer force of will, I manage to walk down every holiday-decorated street in the town and discover that the pattern I’ve encountered is completely and totally universal. Each and every vehicle is in the exact state as the ones on the main street, perfectly parked with its ignition key on the seat, and unlocked. It’s as though everyone decided that they were with done their ride, and paid it forward so the next person could have his or her turn at the free gift they left behind. Only, no one had arrived yet to do so. Just me.

In this second sweep through town, I see discarded items on the vehicles’ seats. All kinds of gadgets, keepsakes and other paraphernalia you would think one would protect, not just chuck to the ground. There are computers, smart phones, wallets, books, and even money. I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed this before. I retrace my steps and reenter the diner, the smell of food just a tad weaker than before. This time, I see wallets and winter jackets strewn about. Most of them were left on the bench seats, where perhaps my shock had overlooked them. But they are there.

The same phenomenon exists everywhere else I look in the town. In the general store, with its holiday cards and goodies on display. In the delicatessens. It’s like someone put an open invitation to the town that was so enticing that everyone just dropped everything and jumped at the opportunity. Everyone, it seems, except for me. I stand here in the town, alone. Population: One. Well, didn’t I say I wanted the world all to myself? Irony is rarely a good friend, especially in times like this.

I tell myself, this is the part of the story where I’m supposed to wake up with a start, and realize it’s only a dream. It’s where I’m supposed sit up straight in my bed, with the nightmare still blaring in the recess of my mind, but I’m still safe in the world I know. It’s supposed to be like A Christmas Carol, where after being visited by three ghosts in the night, I repent of my sins and transform myself into the greatest benefactor of all humanity, because I’ve seen into the abyss and returned. I’ve seen this story line so many times, I know this is what has to be happening to me.

Standing on the sidewalk outside the diner, I close my eyes and open them, close and open. Just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I click my heels three times, saying there’s no place like home, believing home is where I will be if only I say the right words. If I visualize it enough, this nightmare world will disappear, and I will return to the universe I once knew, because that’s what visualization is all about. Positive things come to positive people, isn’t that right? Think it, and it will come? If this is only a dream, it’s bound to happen. All those happy pithy things that seem so nice to believe in when the bad times come will come true.

So I close and open my eyes, close and open, three four times until the truth I am supposed to learn sinks into my soul, waking me up to true reality. For good measure, I even jump up and down. I bite myself until I almost scream in pain to jostle me out of my dream state, just like I did back in the cabin. After all, if this is a dream, it doesn’t matter what agony I inflict on myself, or how foolish I look. It will be all gone when I awaken, and see that everything about me is all right.

I close my eyes one last time, inhaling the wind around me into my lungs as I attempt my final visualization. I hypnotize myself, paying attention to the wind that rips into me, willing myself to feel its blinding bite. I inform myself that the dream is ending, repeating it over and over like a mantra. I instruct myself like a teacher coaching a student, telling myself these words. I say, Soledad, when you open your eyes, you will wake up in your bed. You will know that the dream has ended. You will know your world is still the same, and everything will be all right.

Reassured by my propaganda, I open my eyes to the world around me. After my self-indoctrination, I’ve convinced myself that I will awaken to a warm bed surrounded by the luxurious world of my everyday life. But hope dies its last breath as I open my eyes for good. I’m greeted by the same deserted streets that accosted me in my so-called dream. Nothing from my illusion has changed, as I stand on the streets in complete isolation.

With this final brutal blow, reality beheads hope for good while screeching with maniacal victory at the bloodshed. I’m left alone with nothing but reality’s rabid demon as it burns its merciless truth into me. Reality taunts me over and over, speaking nothing but this one single, solitary truth.

This is not a dream. Or did my dream come true?