After a quick squeal of devices powering off, an ominous silence filled Sarah’s bedroom. The only sound was the faint whir of her laptop’s fan and Jibber’s breathing. With the big baby of a dog still on her lap, Sarah dialed her sons again to warn them not to go outside, but there was no connection. She felt panic come over her for fear something would happen to Georgie and Willis.
“Come on, Jibber,” Sarah said as she pushed the resistant dog off her lap. “We got to get the kids. I don’t know how we’ll get them because Larry will give me a hard time, but I can’t just stay here, not knowing if they’re okay.”
Jibber jumped off the bed as Sarah put her wallet purse inside her large crossbody bag. She put her soft cardigan sweater on before putting the bag across her body. Then she stuffed it with a pair of underpants, a T-shirt and anything she thought she might need if she could not make it back home.
A faint red glow was filling the house, finding its way around the sides of the curtains and through any unsealed space as Sarah and Jibber slowly made their way through the pink darkness to the mudroom. She rummaged through drawers feeling for her one dim flashlight.
“Damn it, it needs batteries,” she said, twisting the top and tapping it against the palm of her hand.
She opened the drawer where she kept batteries in a box. She searched through sharp screws, loose change, and any piece of junk that needed a temporary home. She was not surprised when she could not find the D batteries she needed. “That figures.”
Pushing past candles and old cell phones fit for a museum, in the remainder of the drawer, it suddenly occurred to her that her nursing penlight would be a good substitute. She made her way to the bathroom where she kept a basket filled with nursing items removed from her scrub pockets when she got home from work. Moving aside a patient worksheet and her stethoscope, she pulled the penlight from a pocket organizer where it was tucked next to calipers and bandage scissors. She squeezed the clip and went back to the kitchen, the small beam of light was better than nothing.
She crammed a water bottle and a granola bar into her already overflowing vertical messenger bag. She took the pickup keys off the hook and looked at Jibber. “Are you ready? I know we’re not supposed to go outside, but I can’t just sit here.”
Her hand lay on the knob only a moment before opening the door in slow motion. Almost afraid to breathe, she kept thinking of the confused people in Australia and if they were infected with something, and the warning to not go outside. The sky had turned to a bright red with faint sparkles dispersed in the waves of the atmosphere. “It’s beautiful,” she said, with awe.
Sarah moved quickly to the pickup’s cab. “Come on, Jibber, get in.” Sarah did not have to ask twice; Jibber jumped into the cab of the pickup without hesitation.
Sarah put the key in the ignition, but it barely turned over. She tried again and still it would not start.
“Why the heck isn’t it starting? It was running fine when I parked it,” Sarah said as if the anxious pooch could understand. She was beginning to feel like she would never make it to her sons.
“Please, God, let it start,” she said, resisting tears as she turned the ignition again. This time, it started. She put it in reverse, turned around in the gravel, and headed down the bumpy driveway to the road. The truck sputtered as if it would stall if she let off the gas, so she kept one foot on the gas pedal and the other on the break as she negotiated mud puddles and avoided trees next to the two-track drive until they reached the road.
After a couple miles, they entered the village of Bloomingdale. People were walking down the sidewalk and across yards to the village park, next to the Depot Museum.
I wonder what’s going on, Sarah thought as she slowed down and looked over toward the park’s gazebo. Several people stood in the center, near the abandoned railroad station where trains in the 1930s had once hauled eighty oil tank cars a day from what was once thought to be one of the biggest oil fields in America, but the boom ended a decade later.
“There’s Lilly, what’s she doing here in the middle of the night, in her pajamas?” Sarah said to a restless Jibber, not staying still in the passenger seat.
She let off the gas and pulled over next to the telephone company. The pickup was idling, but barely. Jibber tried to follow her out of the cab. “No, Jibber, you stay here.”
Sarah got out, crossed the road and ran up to Lilly, who seemed to be sleepwalking. “Hey, Lilly, what’s going on?”
Lilly kept her gaze toward the same spot in the sky as everyone else, then answered with a bland, “Nothing.”
Sarah was taken aback, Lilly was always talking, never shut up and now she was blowing Sarah off. Following Lilly’s eyes, she looked up to see what everyone was looking at. Sarah only saw the so-called, Aurora Borealis.
“Is something wrong?” Sarah asked, keeping stride with Lilly, who was walking as if she was late for work.
Lilly did not answer; she continued to walk with the others until she was part of the mass, like ladybugs cuddled in a warm corner near the ceiling. No one was talking, making it easy for Sarah to hear the pickup beginning to stall.
“Lilly, come with me.” Sarah grabbed Lilly’s arm near the elbow. “I don’t know where you’re going, but it can’t be good.”
Lilly pulled her arm away forcefully and with a gravelly voice said, “Leave me alone, Sarah.”
She looked at Lilly’s eyes, they seemed to have an iridescent glow, but it could have been a reflection from the sky. Lilly turned and walked into the crowd of automated people.
Sarah could hear the pickup sputtering, taking its last gulps of gasoline. She did not want to leave her friend, but she could not let the truck die, it may not start again, and her kids were the highest priority.
She ran back to the truck, got in and placed her foot on the gas just before it pushed out its last puff of exhaust. “That was close.”
Locking the doors, she looked at the gas gauge, a little over half a tank. That would get her there, but not back. No power, no pumping gas at the gas stations.
“Let’s get out of here, Jibber,” Sarah said, putting it in gear. She drove through the four-way stop and headed out of town while people walked in the red darkness on this weird night. A night where they were going to get a trick rather than a treat.
“If I can keep this truck running we should be to the kids by two,” Sarah said, looking over to Jibber, who was now finally lying quietly on the seat. The truck sputtered as Sarah approached an intersection. Since the traffic lights were not working, she only slowed down, but then, she was the only one on the road.
“This is strange, Jibber. Where is everybody? I don’t see any other cars on the road. I know it’s the middle of the night, but you’d think there’d be other cars, at least a few.”
She could not keep her eyes off the sky; it was mesmerizing, hypnotizing, like snowflakes in the high beam of a car’s headlights.
“We’re almost to the highway and then we’ll make time,” she said to Jibber, whose ears perked up.
They entered the larger town of Paw Paw. Once again, lines of obedient people were heading toward some common place.
“This is like a horror movie. Where are they going?” She looked over to Jibber, who was now sitting up and looking out the windows.
“I wonder if we should stop at the police station. I’m beginning to think we should’ve stayed home,” she said, pulling into the police station parking lot. A vintage black and white police car sat at the far end; it made her think of the old Abbott and Costello show, Police Rookies.
Once again, she left the truck running; Jibber got out with her. The power was out here, too. She approached the front door without the benefit of streetlights. I hope we don’t get shot, she thought as she pulled the double glass door open, entering a darkened hallway. “Hello, is anyone here?”
With heightened senses, Sarah walked into the reception area; her sneakers squeaked on the tile floor. A backup generator seemed to be operating, putting out very little power as the emergency lights flickered. “Hello,” she called.
Her voice fell on silence. She walked further in, past a gumball machine and waiting area, when she heard a male’s voice. “Hey, back here.”
Sarah and Jibber walked past the windowed front desk, past the unlocked security door, and down the corridor to the back of the jail toward the voice. “Over here.”
Sarah looked around the corner; an inmate was talking to her from a jail cell that smelled of old piss.
“You got to get me out of here,” said a voice from behind the bars.
She walked up closer and saw a man about her age locked up in a cell. He did not look like a criminal; he was clean-shaven and had wavy brown hair covering the top of his ears. Two other men were in the cell with him. Oddly, they were standing and facing the back wall, oblivious to Sarah even being there. “Where is everyone?” she asked.
“They all just walked out, saying something about a red sky,” the man said, gripping the cell bars. “Looks like you and I are the only ones with any sense around here.” He pointed toward the men in the cell with him who were now trying to walk through the block wall.
“Where’d they go?” Sarah asked, keeping her distance from the cell so that he could not grab her.
“I don’t know, like I said, they just walked out.” The inmate tightened his grip on the steel bars. “You got to let me out, there’s something strange going on and I don’t want to be trapped in here, especially with these two characters.”
He looked honest, but she was not always a good judge of men, take Larry for example. “What’s your name?”
“Jack. What’s yours?” He smiled, relaxing his grip on the bars.
She did not answer right away. He was looking at her in an ‘I would like to get to know you better’ sort of way. Like they had just met in a bar and he sat down beside her.
“My name’s Sarah.” She paused and shifted her weight. “Why are you in jail?”
“Too many speeding tickets, nothing serious if that’s what you’re worried about. They’re supposed to let me out in the morning.”
Sarah sized him up again. Both arms had tattoos, but she could not determine what they were from the distance she was standing. “I need to find an officer first.”
“You won’t find one, they all left.”
“And you don’t know where they went?”
“I don’t know, but they all went.”
“Every one of them?” She hoped he knew more.
“Every last one, it’s like they all just dropped what they were doing and walked out the door.” He looked at Sarah. “You know, this thing has affected everyone but you and me; I wonder why?”
“I don’t know.” However, Sarah knew what he meant. For some reason, everyone was acting strangely except for the two of them and Jibber. She turned and began walking back down the corridor.
“Where are you going?” His voice echoed, bouncing off the concrete walls.
“I just want to see if there’s a police officer who’s not affected.” When she reached the front door, she saw people walking away; even a police officer was heading toward some common area.
“Sarah, you got to let me out. I don’t want to be trapped in here helpless. In case you haven’t noticed these guys aren’t exactly acting normal.” The two men were now beginning to claw at the wall as if trying to dig their way out.
Sarah walked back to where Jibber stood guard in front of Jack’s cell. “I’m going to follow them and then I’ll be back.”
“Let me out and I’ll go with you. I don’t think it’s safe to be out there by yourself.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be right back.” She jogged back toward the front door. “Jibber, you stay here.”
Jibber lay down in the hallway in front of Jack’s cell, watching his every move.