Last Call

Post-apocalypse.  One survivor.  Her name is Claire.  She was working as a telemarketer in rural Pennsylvania.  Bloomsburg’s the town, home of the Huskies.  You’ve never heard of them unless you’ve been kicked out of any of the local bars because their linebackers make better bouncers than football players.  Claire was in the middle of a sale when it happened.  Not a removal via linebacker, the apocalypse.  The End.  Whatever it was that ended civilization and life she had no idea.  Could’ve been The Bomb.  Could’ve been something new, like a germ, or the deadly joke from Monty Python.  A week after the incident she had countless theories and nothing to explain how everyone died except her or how she continued on in perfect health.  When hunger and thirst forced her to scavenge the local shops and fast food restaurants she knew she wasn’t dreaming.

Claire enjoyed engineering.  She loved math and mechanics.  She adored design and structure.  She was in line for a full-time position at the local power plant when The End happened.  The unknown event that brought destruction terrified her because it had no explanation.  At the same time, all she had now was structure and regiment.  It was all hers.  She got the job as a telemarketer to make ends meet while she waited for job approval. She learned about supervising shifts and maintaining safe levels within the plant’s core and shadowed the control room operators.  The nuclear power plant was in constant war against the chaos of atomic energy.  Then the mystery apocalypse happened.  She was two weeks short of her review for official employment at her dream job.

Most nuclear reactors can only run for seven days without maintenance.  After seven days the internal diesel generators die and the plant goes into meltdown.  Claire broke into PPL knowing that the security system would phase out before the diesel generators ran out of juice and allowed the cooling rods to overheat.  She was so preoccupied with her own primitive survival over the previous week that by the time she got to the control center she had just seven hours to halt a nuclear meltdown.  She stopped the catastrophe in six hours and fifty minutes by triggering the SCRAM unit through the antiquated fire alarm system, adding pressure to the water mains so the pipes would overheat with high velocity steam and force the alarms to go off.  When the reactor was silent she felt a thrill rise up in her like she had never felt before.  She wasn’t worried about being lonely, she was like the man in the Twilight Zone episode, Time Enough At Last, where the main character has all the time in the world to do as he pleases without human interruption.  Now that the local disaster had been resolved, Claire set out to have the fun she missed out on because people might have judged her.

Claire raced around in various cars.  She’d find one empty with the keys still in the ignition and peel down route eleven.  Wherever she went, what ever she did, her fun was loud and fast so as not to hear the silence or see the dead bodies.  Her days were action-packed until she realized that no one was going to rescue her.  Claire had to save her resources for the long haul.  So, she walked to the grocery stores and fast food businesses to save gas for generators.  She stayed longer and longer at the call center, working harder and harder at a job she had hated while waiting for a full-time position at the power plant.  She hated telemarketing because it was forced socializing and coercive conversation to manifest sales.  Now, she had the computers dialing all the office’s outbound leads.  The phones called thousands of homes per second and as the days stretched to months, Claire hung around longer and longer hoping to not miss the one call that would save her slowly dwindling life.  If she missed picking up the one call that connected to a live human then the computer system would take over and a recording would do the talking.

Since the power plant was offline and its stored energy used up, Claire’s first order of business was to rig a series of generators in the call center.  This wasn’t so difficult, Bloomsburg was a small farm town and a tractor and industrial farming equipment store was next door.  Claire couldn’t move the generators to the call center, so she used a sledgehammer to pound a hole through the wall separating the sales floor from her calling floor.  Through the hole she ran the cables, rigging power to sustain the most amount of energy using the least amount of resources.  Her next order of business was to bring gas to the store’s lot by parking it full with trucks and SUV’s, vehicles with large tanks.

Claire had the computers calling the entire United States for almost a year.  No one had answered.  She marked the empty vehicles in the lot with an ‘X’ by using a bar of soap she no longer used to clean herself.  Fresh water was hard to find and the plumbing had stopped months ago.  Cars with full tanks of gas were rare these days.  Gasoline evaporated over time.  Claire used shreds of garbage bags to help seal the tanks beneath their caps. She had an inventory running on the front window of the call floor where she soaped a crude map of which cars were X’d out and which ones still had fuel.  She ran the five generators in a series, but as resources fell below a comfortable level Claire let one generator die before running into the dark store to start the next one.  When this happened she used a flashlight to navigate the farm supply sales floor.  She let her phone go because there were no more cell phone signals.  Something had happened to the satellites or the atmosphere no longer allowed signals to travel.  She panicked every time a generator died because she worried that the few minutes the computers were offline would be exactly when one would have connected with another survivor.

Claire also hated when she had to start the next generator because she had to fumble in the dark.  Even if it were day outside the light could no longer get in.  Claire could not spare any water for cleaning.  The grime had built up on the windows and during the day she was glad as the filth kept the hot sun out.  She had never been afraid of the dark before, but now that she was alone the darkness terrified her.  She heard people in the hollow whine of silence.  She saw the glimmer of human shapes in the sparkling colors her brain cast in her vision as it tried to process the pitch darkness outside the beam of her flashlight.  In those horrible moments of darkness she knew it was awful to be alone because it would never be interrupted.

To cope with her solitude, something she had cherished before The End, Claire talked to motivational posters on the wall featuring corporate stock models smiling in business formal attire.  There was a gray-haired CEO white guy, a dirty blonde babe with a saucy smile in a pencil skirt and a pencil in her tight hair bun, and a young, confidant man who was moving up the ladder from intern to supply clerk, but his face elicited higher expectation.  The posters boasted motivational slogans.  To the CEO she talked about the car fuel status and breakdowns of last quarter’s investment in calling a particular state.  She gossiped with the saucy blonde about the boys she imagined, all of them former crushes from a pool of celebrities she remembered adoring before The End.  The young man’s poster she flirted with and ultimately friend-zoned him because she knew one of her celebrity crushes would be coming to save her.  This was fun during the day, but once night fell the three posters were in shadows.  At night Claire returned to lonely reality where she knew no one was coming for her.  She feared suicide and she tried to remember warning signs from high school health class, but most of those signs required the mirror of a social life.  Without other people she had no way of knowing her mental health.  She knew she was in trouble because masturbating was no longer fun.  She had no sexual energy, let alone any playful creative interest in anything.  Claire had become a robot, a tool used by her billions of cells that wanted to survive despite her depression.  She felt like the SCRAM system in the power plant, always ready to jump in to stop the core from melting down.

Deep inside her mind she heard herself having the same conversations with the posters.  She couldn’t stop saying the same things because she had nothing new in herself to express, but her body knew she must express something in order to fool it into wanting to live.

In order to live like her pre-history ancestors her brain needed to regress back into an primeval stage that had no capacity for art, an animal brain just above a vegetative state with only drive enough for food, water, and shelter.  In the world Claire had just exited such a person would have been labeled “simple,” but here in this frightening new world such a brain would be a blessing because she would be happy.   Claire realized that her civilized brain needed more than sustaining instinctual needs to stimulate health.  Lacking the means for a lobotomy, like an ice pick and courage, she knew the only cure for coming insanity and suicide would be socializing with real people.  Even just one person.  Just a phone call to know that someone out there was alive.  If that phone call… no, when one of her calls was answered she would know the address of the connected line and she would pack her meager possessions and make a run for that address.  She would risk any hazard out there to be with someone.

Claire talked to the posters so she would not think about why she was the only one to survive.  She didn’t want to think about being the only human alive on earth, let alone maybe the only living thing left on earth.  She hadn’t had a perishable item to eat since everything went bad at the local markets.  The markets smelled worse than the bodies.  No one knew it was coming.  There was no warning.  Claire didn’t bother to look for evidence in news papers or people’s possessions, she didn’t bother to write her own thoughts and record history.  History no longer mattered without any one else to to bear witness.  Nature continued to record its own history in seasons and tree rings and Claire felt outcast, surviving on prepackaged goods filled with chemicals that would eventually make her dead body impervious to nature’s will.

These kinds of thoughts made her shout at the posters to drown the reason in her mind.  She was shouting out sales pitches for new products she made up.  The CEO listened with that smirk bosses give underlings, but she knew he wasn’t listening.  She grumbled about the CEO to the saucy secretary, but her smile told her that Miss Saucy was secretly fondling the CEO after-hours.  Claire wanted to talk to the poster of the young man, but his spot was closer to the filthy windows and his head was sun-bleached and faded.  Decapitated.

Claire shut her mouth with a sharp inhale and hands at her cheeks.  She had been shouting at the posters and had been unaware until generator three died.  She was in the silent dark, caught off-guard.  She felt around one cubicle and the next, trying to find her flashlight, trying to remember where she put it.

“It’s got my fuckin’ name on it you bastards!”  She shouted at the posters in the dark.  The flashlight did have her name on it, as if one of her paper coworkers would take it from the fridge and eat it if she didn’t assign her name to the flashlight.  She found it where she had left it beside her deflating air mattress and piles of Hostess snacks.  She flicked it on and felt the familiar shudder of seeing the light create spooky shadows that flickered just outside her vision and on the edge of reason.  She kept the light on the floor, watching her feet march to the hole in the wall that connected her to the farm supply store.  She didn’t dare lift the beam up.  She made that mistake once a month ago and found that the posters leered at her, the wrinkling paper formed lesions and bubbles on flesh, the moving light over the uneven surface gave the illusion of movement to her imaginary friends.  She made her way to the farm supply store, weaving through its aisles as to avoid the spring displays of scarecrows that would appear wholesome and cute had life been normal.  They were quite the opposite in the dark, in the hard shadow cast by her flashlight.  She had a gas can ready beside generator four.  This was the last of the gasoline for miles around.  She set the flashlight down on generator three, the beam aimed at four’s gas tank.  She unscrewed the cap.  The noise was enormous.  The grinding metal, the gasp of air equalizing pressure.  The metal neck of the gas can rattled on the rim of the generator’s tank’s mouth.  She was breathing hard, knees quaking.  She was thinking of those scarecrows.  The beady button eyes, the sewn up mouths, the arterial spray of hay and twigs from stumped wrists and ankles, the bulge of dark red wax leaves billowing up from their neckline.  The barn nails impaling them to two-by-four crucifixes like some hideous display of medieval retribution.

The tank gurgled a higher pitch signaling that it was almost full.  She capped both the tank and gas can and retrieved the flashlight.  She yanked on the pull-cord and the generator grumbled to life, filling the store with its hum and vibration.  She took a long, slow breath.  The air caught in her lungs.  There was a rattling sound close by, like someone walking, staggering at an injured pace or a murderous gait from horror movies she tried not to remember.  She could barely hear it over the generator.  She dared to shine the flashlight on the main aisle.  Was one scarecrow missing?  Maybe more?  She had never counted them.  It never dawned on her to do so in daylight and at night she always avoided the main aisle.   Had there always been a clearance rack of jack-o-lanterns?  The rattling was on her, never getting closer, but not going away, either.  The metal jangled and echoed in the empty store just under the roar of the generator.   She grabbed her leg to stop it from shaking and that’s when she found the mysterious sound.  Her keys, the sound was coming from all the car keys she had been collecting.

Claire laughed and felt wet tears run down her face.  It was just her keys.  It would be hilarious if this was the first time she had done this.

Her breath stopped again, her heart skipped beats, adrenaline pumped.  A new sound, one she hadn’t heard in almost a year.  A telephone was ringing.  She raced for the hole in the wall, tripping over a scarecrow’s leg.  She sprawled, listening to the ringing phone.  How much time do I have?  She didn’t know, she had always taken a call before The End because if anyone let their computer take over they would be docked pay.  She got up, was that scarecrow smirking at her?  Her feet pounded over the linoleum, her shirt tore and her skin scraped going through the suddenly tiny hole in the wall.  It’s shrinking around me, it’ll catch me and I’ll die listening to the computer answer the call!  Her thoughts weren’t controlled, her calm evaporated into the dark around her flailing flashlight beam.  There was one computer screen glowing beneath layers of dust.  The phone connected to this computer was, of course, on the other side of the long call floor.  Claire bounded down the aisle.  She saw the posters blur by, her fair-weather friends leering at her, hoping she’d trip, again.

She got to the cubicle.  She answered the phone mid-ring.  She listened to the hollow echo of the ringing fade away.  She heard someone breathe on the other end.

Claire had no words to say.  She couldn’t even choke on the air trapped in her lungs that burned from the sprint to this cubicle.  She shined the flashlight on the posters.  The CEO, Miss Saucy, Mister Friend-Zone.  Help me!  She thought to them, unable to cry out.

“H-Hello?”  The voice said.  It belonged to a young woman.  In that one word Claire heard a familiar loneliness, a desperation she, too, had not learned to live with because of the dread of succumbing to insanity.  Claire spun around, waving her flashlight as if she could capture her voice in the beam.  She only saw motivational words and sales script.

She heard the CEO in her mind say, “Smile and dial, they can hear your mood!”

Miss Saucy snapped at her, “Get off the phone, I’m waiting for a call!”

Mister Friend-Zone said with annoying smarminess, “I’m sure I could make the sale, why don’t you let me try?”

Claire heard pitches and sales prattle tumble around her.  She cleared her mind and let her last shred of sanity do the talking.

“Please, help me, I’m so alone.”  The woman said.

“Hello, my name is Claire,”  Claire said, finding confidence in her voice and authoritative approach, “I’m calling on behalf of Quail Communications with a great offer for long distance or wireless…”  Claire lost it.  There was nothing there to connect with this woman.  She had been living beneath the surface of humanity for too long.

“Oh, no… it’s a robot.”  The woman said to someone else.  The line went dead with an almost inaudible click.

Claire stared at the screen.  The address remained long enough for her to memorize the woman’s location.  Three thousand miles away.  The computer went on to the next call.  Claire lifted her jammed ring of car keys into the flashlight’s beam.  She didn’t have enough gas.