When the end of the world happened, no one really knew it. There wasn’t a rush of panicked looting, or mass hysteria. There was no fire and brimstone; no flaming angels appeared in the sky with swords unsheathed.
It simply began to snow.
Why would this cause alarm? It didn’t, really, and in fact it caused many of the folks in Summerville, South Carolina to stand outside and stare at the sky in puzzled disbelief.
It was the middle of July when the snow began to fall.
For several weeks the clouds in the sky floated together, occasionally allowing the sun to peek through for brief instances, and the snow would melt into rain for minutes at a time. The temperature dropped steadily and, instead of those clouds wandering off, they thickened and insisted on gifting every inch of South Carolina with a beautifully soft coating of snow.
It didn’t stop with South Carolina. The snow was relentless…and it was everywhere. The clouds knit themselves together in a smothering blanket and covered the entire planet. Children in the Congo who had never experienced these cold frozen flakes stared wide-eyed and watched their green world become white. The elderly people in the group home in Lebanon gathered at the window and whispered to each other as they watched the snow fall, knowing that the last time they had seen it, in 1950, the world had been a very different place.
The beach parties in Hawaii stopped altogether. It was too cold, and the snow covered the beaches and palm trees. The sun was a stranger to everyone now…and how was it possible for the ocean to become so sluggish?
At first it was a novel experience, something to laugh in disbelief at; businesses were closed due to snow, days after America celebrated Independence Day. It was a funny thing in the southern states, to be unable to grill because there was too much snow outside…
The novelty wore off.
The news stations were reporting breaking news every half hour on the global investigation being conducted. Scientists in every country and from every field of study were pulled from their usual work and instructed to figure out exactly what the hell was going on. The facts were: the entire earth was being covered in snow, it could not be explained, and yet it was happening.
At this point, it wasn’t exactly the end of the world. A few weeks later, all satellite communications ceased. Then, people began to panic. Electronics were failing. The internet hiccuped, massively, and died a quiet death. Large patches of the world had begun to sport the blackness associated with little to no available electricity.
An hour south of Summerville, South Carolina, there was a traveler’s rest stop. It was a sprawling property, broken into two distinct areas on either side of Interstate 95. Weeks prior, it had been filled on a daily basis with people desperately needing to vacate their cars after hours of driving. Entire families had lounged around the greenery, allowing children to run out the pent-up energy before piling back into their mini-vans and their SUVs to drive on to the beach or wherever they were bound.
Now the rest stop was empty, covered in snow. One lone semi was parked on the Hendersonville side, furthest away from the buildings, the slowly decaying corpse of the driver frozen in a look of awe, the look he sported as his pacemaker failed at about the time the engine sputtered and died. Other than Mister Dead Trucker, there were no cars, no snow plows, only continuous snowfall and soft silence.
The animals were dying. Something was wrong with the snow. It wasn’t ordinary snow. There was something inside it, and the animals wandering around were getting sleepy, unnaturally sleepy. They would lie down in the snow, allowing its cold caress to cover them in a white quilt, and they would allow their eyes to close, and they would sleep. They would never wake up.
People were dying, too. The homeless population was down to almost zero, thanks to the powerful, sleep-inducing qualities of the snow. They thought they had the flu, and they got very tired, and they lay down to sleep. They would never wake up.
Trent Lebowitz drove slowly along Interstate 95. He sat behind the wheel of his most recent acquisition, a 2013 Chevy Tahoe, casually stolen from a house 160 miles back. He assumed the occupants of the house were dead or unable to come after him. It didn’t matter. The gas gauge was moving perilously close to the infamous “E” and, as easily has he had been driving on the snow covered road, it looked as though he wouldn’t be going any further. It was over.
A few dim lights caught his eye as he approached the rest stop. Apparently there was still some power available at this stop, and he slowed down as he approached the exit.
Stop and die at a rest stop? Or keep driving until he ran completely out of gas and then die in the middle of the interstate? Trent almost laughed at the absurdity of this decision. He exited the snow-covered road, pulling into the parking lot, and rolled to a stop directly in front of the building.
The snow had stopped, briefly. It did this every few hours, as if to allow the clouds to refresh themselves before bestowing more snow on the earth below.
Trent killed the lights, turned off the windshield wipers, and leaned back in the seat, one hand rubbing the newly grown beard covering his jawline while he stared at the building entrance in front of him. He left the engine running.
It was after 7 and already mostly dark. His eyes followed the lines of the cinder blocks across the building and down to the door, and just as his line of sight focused on the doorknob, it turned.
Trent stopped breathing for a moment, watching the door get shoved open against the piled up snow. He watched the figure pushing the door open almost fall through the doorway as the snow gave way a little easier than expected.
She was covered from head to foot in some kind of dark shiny fabric; the only thing exposed to the elements was the long dark hair. By her movements he could only assume it was a she. She had a backpack slung over one shoulder, and she stepped carefully out of the doorway and used her body to shove the door closed. She stopped for a moment, leaning against it and looking around. Then she noticed the SUV.
Trent stayed very, very still. He watched her body react to his presence the way a wild creature reacts to a strange, never-before-experienced odor. She stiffened, pressing herself back against the wall of the building and stared directly at him for a long time. He wasn’t sure if she could see him through the slight tint of the Tahoe’s windshield or the steadily darkening of the evening.
She stood there for a moment longer, then pushed away from the wall, squared her shoulders and approached the driver’s side of the Tahoe.
The window came down in a whisper. Trent said nothing, wondering what her next move would be. She could have a gun and shoot him in the face, for all he knew.
Her face was covered in the same shiny black material, two oversize holes cut in such a way that not too much of her peripheral vision was affected. Her eyes shown out in a murky kind of blue, staring at him, and the material covering her face puffed out every now and again as she exhaled.
Her hands grasped the window sill of the vehicle and she moved closer, her head leaning in as she peered around the interior. She looked to be about 5’9” – an inch or so shorter than him, and the material clinging to her suggested she was in at least moderately good shape.
Trent stayed silent, watching her eyes roam over the two rows of seats, the box of hastily thrown together provisions, the plastic sack of clothing turned on its side. Her eyes returned to his and she spoke.
“You’re traveling alone.”
“You’ll not get far.”
Again he nodded, and then remembered he could speak.
“I don’t think I’m going anywhere at this point.”
She didn’t reply.
He tried again, “I’m sure I don’t have enough gas to get me any further…”
She sighed, very quietly, “Can I get in?”
Once again the image of her pulling a gun and blowing him away floated just behind his eyes. He shrugged. So..? Dying was dying.
She moved back around the front of the Tahoe and he could see her craning her head upwards, presumably to wonder if the snow would begin to fall again soon. It would; the snow breaks only lasted for a half hour at most before they began again in earnest.
The passenger door opened, the interior of the SUV lighting dimly, and Trent could see she was not immediately getting in. She stood with the door open, her gloved fingers peeling away a layer of the dark shiny material from her legs which, remarkably, peeled from her boots as well. The snow clung to this layer, and as she removed it from her left leg, she half-stepped into the SUV while peeling more of the material from her other leg, holding an area not touched by snow, and dropping it onto the ground while climbing the rest of the way in and slamming the door.
She turned away from him briefly and pulled the shiny material gloves from her hands and dropped them into the floorboard. Her nails were painted black, or dark purple; he couldn’t tell in the darkness. Then she pulled the mask away from her face and dropped it alongside the gloves and looked at him, a half-wary smile playing on her lips.
He clicked the overhead light on and inspected his unexpected companion. She was striking – not pretty…not really. But her eyes were a very strange dark blue, and she was very pale which was odd for this region. By July, most women couldn’t help but sport a little bit of a tan in the south, it seemed. She had a very pale crescent moon scar which went from the left corner of her lips and traveled to the corner of her left eye.
She wriggled out of the backpack and pushed it into the back seat, then unwound the tight scarf from her neck and unzipped her jacket, the first layer of shiny material covering her upper body now wadded up and thrown atop her backpack.
“What is that stuff?” Trent couldn’t resist asking, even before knowing her name, or offering his.
“Cosplay.” She smiled.
“Cosplay? It’s a costume?”
She smiled again, “…well, it was layers and layers of cosplay material. I used to want to be an action figure.” She chuckled humorlessly. “Turns out it’s completely liquid repellent…so when I had to go out into…” she gestured toward the snowy outside world, “…I figured maybe it would protect me. I only have one layer left, now.”
Trent leaned back in the seat and stared at her.
“You think there’s something in the snow.” He had thought the same thing, and had avoided coming into direct contact with it himself on this long, seemingly pointless drive, stopping at underpasses and getting out to relieve himself, or pulling into abandoned, covered areas to find any bit of supplies he might use or food he could take with him.
“I know there’s something in the snow. Everyone is dying…the animals, the plants, the people; everything will be dead soon.” She smiled then, unexpectedly, and held out her hand.
He took her hand in his and squeezed it gently.
“Well, Trent, I don’t know how to tell you this…but I’m afraid this is it for me as well. If I put this stuff back on and go out, the next place I go will be where I die.” Her gaze dropped to aimlessly scan the glovebox and she sighed, “Really, I would rather not die alone.”
“So, stay here.” It was out of his mouth before he scarcely knew he had said it. The moment the words were out, he knew it was exactly what he wanted. Who knew how many more days there would be for him? He didn’t want to exist alone with only the thoughts in his head to keep him company.
She smiled and leaned back.
At first, they played with the radio, scanning for any kind of news, because of course: any good news might lead to some kind of rescue…right? The only sounds from the radio came from the AM side, and that was old looped programming as it seemed everyone else in the world did not suspect anything strange inside the snow, and had been exposed enough to seal their fate rather quickly.
Then, they talked.
There was no reason for secrets, and Trent found himself telling her everything that had let up to this moment, how he had decided a few months before the snow had started, that he had had enough of the existence he was in, owning the little bookstore on East 12th Street in Wilmington Delaware.
He was tired of the live-in girlfriend who brought people home during the day while he was gone, who snorted coke and frolicked, who didn’t think he knew…tired of his late nights at the bookstore, in his office, typing page after page of the novel he couldn’t help but daydream would be the Next Big Thing.
The first two novels had been moderately successful, and the bookstore was doing well. But he was restless, and jumpy, and annoyed in general. So, during a late evening in May, he had calmly boxed up the almost completed manuscript, thrown it into his car, and set fire to a room in the back of the bookstore in such a clever way that the entire store not only burned to the ground, but none was the wiser as to how it happened. He collected the insurance money a month and a half later, packed a bag, and left without so much as a word to his girlfriend or anyone else. He got into his car and pulled onto Interstate 95. He stopped at every little town on the way, spending cash as though it would never run out. Ironically, it didn’t run out because by mid-July, when he had finally found his way to this rest stop in South Carolina, and after having stolen his second vehicle, money didn’t have much value anymore.
Leslie stared at him, dumbfounded.
“You…burned down a bookstore?” It was obvious: she was annoyed.
“You destroyed all those books?” Her lips tightened a little.
“All of them. And some pretty great art, too.”
Her eyes went wide, and for a moment he thought she might slap him. He sat, watching her face, and waited. The skin around her lips tightened even more, and she had gone even paler, and suddenly she burst out laughing. It was a genuine belly laugh, the kind most women seemed to refrain from letting the world hear.
She bent forward in the seat, her laughter rendering her helpless. Tears were sliding down her face. Trent couldn’t help it; he chuckled as he watched her have this fit of mirth. Finally, her breathing calmed and she looked around for tissue to wipe her eyes. He pointed at the glove box, and she dug in, pulling the tissue and dabbing at her face, still giggling a little.
She chuckled again, and finally responded, “I was really upset just now, at the thought of all those books burning…really angry for a minute. Then I realized…”
Her laughter started up again, this time sounding a little hysterical. Trent understood. The absolute futility of their situation had crashed into her sensibilities and she was having a hard time reconciling the unacceptable thought of setting books ablaze with the equally unacceptable thought of none of that mattering now, or ever again.
He reached out, pulling her close. Her laughter dissolved again into tears, real tears, and she leaned into him, her face buried into his chest. He held her and let her cry.
After a while the tears slowed, then stopped, and she began to talk, little hitches in her words punctuating every other phrase as she calmed. She told him about her early summer weeks in Monticello, Florida with her mom, and how much fun she thought she’d have, only to discover that her mother was infinitely more interested in the constant company of bottle after bottle of red-label vodka. After a few weeks of hearing a constant political rant mixed with the drunken encouragement to seek out a priest for a much-needed exorcism, Leslie packed up her luggage, threw it in the back of her little rusty car, and started slowly back to Summerville, South Carolina.
She took the scenic route, stopping in Jacksonville to spend a few days with her old roommate from college. They went out every night for four nights straight, barhopping and karaoking until ridiculous hours of the morning. Their last night out, they both celebrated having been friends for over a decade by getting completely drunk, crashing a wedding, being unceremoniously ejected from said wedding, and stumbling back to the apartment in the early hours of the morning, giggling and swinging their high heels as they tiptoed in stocking feet up the stairs.
Leslie laughed quietly at the memory. She was calm now, her voice low, the southern drawl slipping out as she relaxed against him, recounting her drive along the interstate.
She had been daydreaming, following the Oscar Meyer-mobile of all things, and when the bizarre creation had taken the exit for Highway A1A, she had followed. She realized her mistake when the driver pulled into a Whataburger joint and had gotten out to stretch his legs, heading for the entrance.
She parked beside him and went inside as well, even joined him at the table as she was curious how one got a job driving a gigantic fiberglass hot dog down the highway. It was a fun conversation, between two people who had never before met and who would never meet again.
She had made her way back to the Interstate after the meal, barely driving the speed limit. She drove with the radio off and the windows down, lost in her own thoughts. The temperature was unseasonably cool, and after a while she had rolled the windows back up, bemused at why it was getting colder hour after hour. When the snow began, so did the panic. It crept up her spine and settled in the deepest parts of her stomach. Everything was becoming incredibly wrong with the world, very quickly.
“The short version of the rest of it,” she murmured, her face still resting against his chest, “is that I ran out of gas an hour after the snow started. For some reason I knew I shouldn’t touch the snow…I mean, damn, it was the most bizarre feeling, like instinct but stronger than that. I managed to pull one of the cosplay skins over my clothes, and then I thought maybe I should put the other two on, as well.”
She stopped and turned her head a little, watching the snow falling. Trent didn’t speak. It was comfortable, holding her like this, and he wasn’t in a rush for her to move away from him.
“There were only a few people on the road, and there was this trucker who finally stopped and picked me up. He didn’t look so good, like he was sick, and then it started snowing harder.”
Leslie’s bad feeling about the snow was overwhelming. At first the snow melted as it touched the ground. That was only for a little while…and then she watched the road from the trucker’s cab accumulate a thick white dusting. She couldn’t shake the dread; of course it wasn’t normal for snow to be falling in South Carolina in July. But there was some other kind of uneasy feeling: alarm bells firing off in her head. For one, the trucker was very quiet and extremely pale. Sweat was beading up on his forehead, and after only a few minutes of being in the truck with him, Leslie saw the rest stop sign and asked him if he would mind terribly if they stopped so she could use the bathroom. He shrugged and drove into the truckers’ entrance, parking at the far end of the lot, leaving the engine running, and resting his head against the back of the seat.
She had gotten out and, for whatever reason, pulled one of the masks out of her bag and pulled it over her head, settling the eye holes properly against her face.
There was no one at the rest stop. There wouldn’t be anyone else until Trent came along.
The trucker never left his truck, but Leslie didn’t know that. She was more concerned about getting away from the snow. Once inside the rest stop, she stepped off to the side, just inside the lobby, and peeled off the outer layer of cosplay, leaving it on the floor.
“I’m not sure how long I was in there. I don’t have a watch, and my cellphone had died hours before. After a while it didn’t seem like a big deal to destroy a soda machine to get something to drink, or break the display glass on the vending machine to grab a bag of chips…”
She shivered, and Trent, realizing the temperature was dropping again, clicked the heat on a slightly higher setting. The windows were beginning to fog up a little, but even as his hand reached to adjust the heat to the defrost setting, he stopped. Who cared? They wouldn’t be driving anywhere.
Leslie pulled away from him and they began to talk about little bits and pieces of everything. He told her he secretly loved the Muppets…she laughed and told him about the time she asked someone where they were from, because of the beautiful accent, only to be told by the woman, “I’m from here; I have a speech impediment…”
The conversation slid from one topic to another, almost as though they were having five different conversations at the same time. She told him about her parents splitting up when she was a kid and about the difficulties she was having raising a teenage daughter; he told her about how he had been writing his entire life, dreaming of that one big success that would put him on bookshelves and coffee tables around the world.
They talked for a long, long time. And then they were silent for a while.
When she asked him if she could kiss him, he smiled a little and said, “Yeah…you can kiss me.” So she did.
They clung to each other: exploring, touching, kissing, and the snow was almost up to the windows now. There had been no more breaks in the snow; it was relentless. The darkness outside was complete now. The lights at the rest stop had been flickering for hours. They blinked a few more times, then turned off completely.
Trent and Leslie had climbed into the back seat, pushing the seats down and shoving her backpack into the floorboard. His jeans were pushed down to his knees, shirt unbuttoned, and she was straddling him. Their coupling was slow, intense, needed, and when it was over, they lay together with her still straddling him, skin against skin, her lips pressed against his neck. His arms were around her tightly. They didn’t talk.
The Tahoe ran out of gas an hour later. The engine sputtered and went quiet.
They lay together, asleep. Her arms had gone up, drowsily, around his neck. His arms were across her back, fingers splayed, his legs wrapped around hers. They slept, one breathing in as the other breathed out. They did not wake up. The snow continued to fall through the night, and within a few hours, the vehicle was completely covered.
Just outside the spacious classroom of Summerville High School, the sun peeped every now and again through the clouds in the July sky as Tabitha Huntington stopped reading and looked up from her neatly typed pages. The summer writing class held twenty two other students, and they were all completely silent. They stared at her, wide-eyed and open mouthed.
The doorway to the classroom was crowded with adults; the principal had stopped by the classroom when she noticed no one had left, the school secretary had walked past but stayed to listen, and the janitor had stopped mid-sweep to stand and hear this tale.
The class should have been dismissed twenty minutes ago, and Tabitha had continued to read. There were no notes passed back and forth, no snickering, the teacher had not said a word. Every other teenager in the room was leaned forward in their desk.
Finally, one of the guys sitting against the back windows of the classroom finally burst out with, “Where the hell did you come up with that?” The teacher didn’t even blink at his language, opting instead to hear Tabitha’s answer.
She looked at each of them, unable to tell them about her mom’s phone call, telling her she was going to be home soon, about the dreams she’d been having for weeks, about the impending sense of doom overwhelming her.
Instead, she shifted the pages into her left hand. Her right hand lifted in front of her, pointing past them all, pointed to the windows behind them. Her hand was shaking. The class turned around, a few at a time, to stare out the windows.
The sun was gone, now. The clouds were thick. The July air was cooler.
Snow was falling.
3 thoughts on “Strangers”
Absolutely amazing!!! Bravo this has me speechless!
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Very cool – and I don’t mean “literally”. Well done!
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That ending was Twilight Zone chilling….As usual , spell binding writing