The first thing Ben notices is how quiet it is.
He’s taking a piss in someone’s backyard — daily morning routine y’know — and it’s so damn quiet it’s almost eerie. He wonders for a moment if he’s forgotten it’s Daylight Savings or something, maybe got up an hour ahead of everyone else by accident or habit or whatever it is that keeps him going these days. But that can’t be right because it’s summer now and the time change should have happened weeks ago.
Still, there’s usually some sorta activity on the roads by now. He’s always been an early riser, always tries to leave before anybody notices he’s around. Keeps others out of his hair if he stays out of theirs. Even so there have always been those fellas with longer commutes, the occasional jogger or dog owner. But nope. Not today. Nothing but the birds chirping up a storm and the steady trickle of liquid as he finishes up his business.
It’s still a bit dark by the time he’s done, so he heads back to his beat-up old car and wraps himself back up in his raggedy blankets to catch a little more shut-eye before he moves on. All his instincts scream at him to leave at once, but after eighty-one years of living nothing scares him much. At this time of day the young punks are usually all too hungover anyhow. And the fuzz — well, he can deal with them.
He must be more tired than he thought because the next time he wakes, the sun is right in his eyes and it’s still so damnably quiet that for a moment he thinks he’s died and gone off to Heaven where the sun is always shining and the angels go tralala.
Then he remembers there’s no way a man like him could hobnob with the likes of angels, and realizes he’s still in his car, parked in the abandoned lot he picked out specially last night, and nobody’s gone and called the coppers on him or tried to kick him out of the neighborhood. The old instincts are screaming at him again, so he crawls out of the car, rubs some feeling back into his legs and aching neck, looks around a bit. No cars, other than the ones parked along the curb. Nobody on the sidewalks. Which is odd — there’s an elementary school somewhere round these parts and it’s about time for kids and parents to start showing up in droves. Must be a holiday. So many holidays these days, can’t keep track of them all. Or maybe school is out already for summer vacation.
Well that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t explain his growing sense of unease, so he shuffles back to his car, this time climbing into the driver’s seat, and hits the road.
As it turns out, it’s not just that particular neighborhood: it’s everywhere. There are a few cars on the road, and he even catches sight of one relatively empty bus, but traffic is lighter than he remembers it being in years. The few who are out and about on foot look bewildered, lost.
Maybe it’s because he happened to spend the night near the school and it happens to be on his mind, but he soon notices another thing: there are no young folks about.
There’s one crazy fella he knew back in the day, was always talking about the Rapture, about how God was gonna take up all the believers to Heaven one day and leave the sinners down on Earth to rot. For some reason, that’s what he remembers now. Crazy old Jake, going on and on about his wild theories right before he got his brains blown out.
That was all nonsense talk, of course. It’s probably just a coincidence. Must be some holiday after all, or maybe some national incident. Maybe the president’s died or something.
Still, he decides to check back at his official address, the one they put down on all his papers and everything. Hasn’t been back there in months. It’s about time he paid the kid another visit.
No one answers the door when he rings the bell. That doesn’t trouble him much, or at least it shouldn’t, not normally. Last he recalls, the kid had landed a job. A nice one, too, at some fancy office or other. Enzo’s grandson has always been the sensible type. Straighter than a pole. Not one to get himself dragged into any shady business, that kid.
But he’s been on edge all morning. He’s not thinking straight, really. He needs to talk to someone. Someone he knows. He’ll just slip in, borrow the telephone. See if he can find the kid’s work number.
A quick glance around confirms that no one’s around to look at him funny, so he makes his way round to the back and (with considerable difficulty) crawls in through the window. (He keeps telling the kid to get it fixed, but if there’s one way the kid takes after ol’ Enzo, it’s in his pennypinching ways.)
He regrets it instantly.
The wall monsters have not spoken to him in many years. But they glare at him now from behind peeling wallpaper, sneering, laughing, grabbing at him. He crouches down, hugging his knees, whimpering.
We are hungry, they whisper. So very, very hungry.
We have missed you.
He’s not sure how he manages it, but he finds himself on his feet and running to the door with the agility of a man less than half his age. He fumbles desperately with the lock.
Why not stay for tea, Benjamin?
An eyeless face pops out from the door, offering him a toothy grin. He screams and screams but finally the door swings open and he stumbles out onto the steps.
There are papers flying about. He picks one up, unthinking, hands shaking badly, even worse than the first time he shot a man. Totters back to the safety of his car, where he immediately buries himself in his blankets despite the sun blazing overhead.
It is a long, long time before he calms down enough to look at the paper crumpled in his hands. He straightens it out, squints at it.
Newton… something something…. now welcome…
It looks important. Official.
Something strange is going on. He needs to find someone to read this paper to him, explain what has happened.