“Absence” (2003)

I. Day of Reckoning

My name is Patrick. I was born on the 28th of January in 1986, almost a month early. The doctors later told my mother that I should have died, perhaps taking her along with me. My father barely noticed. The local residents (specifically, my parent’s closest friends) were oblivious to my arrival because they were more interested in their televisions. A space shuttle called Challenger had blown up and killed seven people. A tragedy had distracted them from a miracle. I couldn’t have known it at the time, but this was the first event of many that led to my eventual dislike for my fellow humans.

I grew up in a relatively small town that had zero libraries and two movie theaters. For most of my adolescence it never really occurred to me that this might be a problem. I was always more interested in the latest two-hour feature that I could passively absorb than hours of laborious reading. It was a town like so many others, one that favored athletics over academics. And I was not an athlete. Public schooling did little to help integrate me into society, especially in such a suffocating environment. Opinions were provided. I felt detached from most people and subdivided into arbitrary social groups. The town was full of ignorance; in fact, it seemed to overflow with it. I was a victim of muzzled education. Before I even knew what to call it, anti-intellectualism had pervaded my life.

Naturally, I felt it was necessary to play the part silently assigned to me. But, the rules were hard for me to figure out. Selfishness was hypocritically treated as taboo. It was more important to fake confidence than actually to have it. And, you couldn’t disagree without offending. It was a maddening society. Too often, I would fall prey to societal blunders. In the words of my parent’s generation, I was not the smoothest of characters.

Nonetheless, I made it through high school and pushed through college, earning a degree or two in the process. This should have been a good time for me. I was allowed to keep to myself, which worked out nicely. However, I felt pressured into the degree I was rapidly approaching and found myself crippled with apathy. Perhaps worst of all, I had to attend graduate school at another university, and that’s where most of my problems resurfaced. I spoke at many lectures, sometimes to rooms full of doctors. On at least three occasions, my colleagues chuckled while I was on stage. I tried to meet with those who complained the loudest because I sincerely wanted to figure out what I was doing wrong. They were rarely helpful. I eventually gave up trying to figure out why.

One otherwise fine Spring day, I was in the middle of giving a presentation when suddenly a man in the audience stood up and threw several pieces of paper into the air. The white sheets were wrapped in a red binder. I immediately recognized what he had thrown in the air: my report, the one I was then reading.

“I have no doubt the Good Lord could decipher this rubbish,” the man in the cheap beige suit exclaimed, “but I am at a complete loss!”

I didn’t know how I was supposed to react. I’d never been to a conference where people interrupted the speaker. And here it was, happening to me. I thought surely I wouldn’t be the only one offended by this outburst. Then I realized people agreed with him. The air suddenly reeked of smug criticism. I felt betrayed. They had all turned on me – all at once – and no one came to my defense.

At that moment I had what literary types call an epiphany. I’d had enough. It wasn’t that particular incident or even that particular jerk that caused it. There were too many things about people in general that bothered me. They were too mean, too loud, too greedy, too this, too that. Always had been. I’d put up with it for a quarter of a century, and finally, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I could no longer function according to the norms of society. People were just too self-absorbed and closed-minded.

So, I walked out of the auditorium. Just like that. I didn’t even grab my briefcase. The title of my presentation, “Interlocutory Suppositions of Superimposition,” was still projected on the auditorium’s large screen. It was time to leave the world I knew. I needed to find myself without the guidance of society.

That was in the spring of 2013. I was then the spirited age of twenty-seven and in a time of personal enlightenment. Reluctantly but cleanly, I severed ties with lifelong companions, trying to assure them that it was humanity in general that I could no longer tolerate. I sold everything I could on the Internet and gave the rest to anyone who’d take it. Then I used the money to purchase a remote plot of forest land in upstate New York. I spent the next decade without any extensive human contact, and as far as I was concerned, it was time well spent.

II. Evening Star

One of the reasons I chose the section of land that I did was that it came with a cabin, complete with an underground well. Another reason I picked it (and the selling point as far as I was concerned) was how secluded it was. The nearest town, Tahawus, was about 13 miles to the west. Out this far, I rarely had to deal with people. But, on nights when the air was thick with moisture, the sky to the west would glow a dark salmon color. It was the reflected light of humanity on the underside of the clouds. I wasn’t able to remain as isolated as I hoped to be. Even there, deep in the forest, the air was saturated with humans.

In the beginning, I wasn’t very self-sufficient, and sometimes hunger would force me to make the arduous trip to Tahawus. It was only a few miles away, but after I sold my truck my legs were my only means of transportation. Nevertheless, it was a small and peaceful town, so I really didn’t mind the occasional outing.

The cabin and surrounding area required some work, but I quickly came to call it home. I felt comfortable with my isolation. Once I was released of the strains of society’s influence, I quickly fell into my element. I embraced my ancestral lifestyle: hunting, eating, building, and just living. Though my species has always been a social species, it just felt so natural to live without the trappings of civilization, essentially the same life that my ancestors had lived for thousands of years.

Sometimes I would encounter the random straggler, lost or just hiking through. It amazed me how many hikers never looked up to the stars for directions. Everyone had a glitchy GPS or an old map. I would try to show them the way by looking at the constellations, but I doubt any of them ever really listened. Most complained that you couldn’t see the stars because of the trees. I eventually concluded that most people didn’t know the night sky as intimately as I did. If anyone asked for help they were likely to get it. I didn’t want to be responsible for them, and besides, I was trying to get them out of my hair.

High overhead, a “star” would slowly streak across the sky, and I would imagine it was a satellite or maybe even a space station. Their mere existence was an irritation to me. They were silent intrusions into my life, and there was nothing I could do about it. Nonetheless, there was something different, almost inspiring, about the objects in the sky. I tried not to let these things affect me, but sometimes they made me feel (if only for a moment) inexplicably forlorn. I tried to force such sentimentality from my mind. Don’t be so damned foolish, I would tell myself. Those people never cared about you, anyway. Why should you care about them?

After a few years, I finally mastered the art of providing myself with food. I learned how to keep myself clean and healthy, make tools and weapons, and weave simple clothing out of fiber and skins. I built numerous additions to the cabin, repaired things as they broke, and learned (the hard way) how to preserve food. I taught myself how to hunt without using a gun and even overcame an aversion to skinning animals with my bare hands. I taught myself how to fish without fishing poles, which consisted mostly of standing for long periods of time in cold water and stabbing at nearby fish. Though a few winters tested my limits, I was eventually able to provide nutrition for myself year-round. Making a fire became a favorite pastime for me, and I learned (again, the hard way) how to properly cook my food. It went this way for a year, then two, then five, and suddenly a decade had come and gone. I finally found myself after I did away with humanity.

But then, as I was approaching my second decade of seclusion, I noticed something odd beginning to happen. Right before sunrise and right after sunset I couldn’t help but notice the numerous satellites quietly sailing overhead. I tried to ignore it at first. For a while, I even convinced myself that they were just a product of what I often thought of as the inexorable exploitation of Mother Earth. I lied to myself, in truth. The fact was, seeing them made me feel a bit of pride for my species. They were sailing in outer space, a place I often dreamt of but would only see from afar.

Their mere presence didn’t really bother me at first, but then their numbers began to grow. I simply assumed that this was just some phase my ex-neighbors were going through. They seemed to do that from time to time. It turned out, however, that this smattering of lights was merely the beginning. Several months later, there were dozens of them floating overhead every night. The sky was becoming alive with artificial stars.

Initially, I could only see them when the sun was near the horizon. But as their size and numbers grew, eventually they could be seen day and night. They were impossible to ignore, and I found myself growing bitter again. I felt as though they were silently mocking me. They were like insects I could never swat, taunting me as they soared impossibly beyond my reach. There was a community growing overhead, as regular a sight as the sun and the moon, and I was unable to drive them from my mind. At night, as the buildup increased, I found myself spending more time indoors. I remember growing so angry at one point that I intentionally avoided looking at the sky for three whole nights. It was like an impotent boycott. I was looking at the stars less and less, which was something I was once very fond of doing. I guessed it was something I would just have to get used to for a while.

Years went by, and I watched helplessly as the buildup reached an astonishing peak. They glowed eerily at night and shone brightly during the day. There were more and more large objects, too, but never any large enough to tell what they were. They were just so far away. Eventually, there were thousands of objects of all sizes at all hours of the day. So many of them, in fact, that a permanent ring developed: a ring of humanity encircling the planet.

I caught myself on too many occasions thinking about the ring of silvery-white pseudo-stars. I thought about the collections of people possibly gathering inside those ships. Sometimes my curiosity got the better of me. How many people are up there? Sometimes my paranoia got the better of me. Can they see me? There could have been millions of people flying over my head every day. It was amazing and terrifying at the same time. But, I couldn’t shake the idea that it had to do with the greed of humanity. Maybe some massive oil conglomerate was getting into the space station business, I thought. I wanted to make them go away, but I couldn’t escape them no matter how much I wished it.

But then – all of a sudden – my wishes were answered.

It seemed to happen almost overnight, though it only took a few weeks. I don’t know how long it had been happening before I noticed, but when I finally did, it was undeniable: the lights in the sky were beginning to disappear. The sky was beginning to return to normal. Finally, after a fraction of the time that it took for the ring of lights to appear, they were gone. The only lights left in the sky were the fixed, ever-present background of familiar constellations. I actually remember thinking, Good riddance. Now I can be left alone in peace. But that same night I had a strange dream. I was a child again, caught in the bottom of a dark well and left to die.

I found solace (or so I thought) when the skies finally grew dark again. No longer reminded of my greedy cousins on a daily basis, I found myself going outside more. I felt more at ease with myself. But something was wrong, and I could feel it. The cloudy skies, normally aglow with the lights of humanity, were becoming abnormally dark. Eventually, they stopped glowing altogether.

It wasn’t the darkness in the sky that bothered me, but the sudden absence of the light in the sky. I felt an irresistible pang of curiosity. What had all that activity in the sky been? Why had it disappeared? Why did the skies seem darker than ever? Was I in some sort of danger?

These questions began to haunt me. While I still harbored an overwhelming distaste for society, I felt an inexplicable urge to find out what was going on. I was all but consumed with this desire before I finally resolved to travel away from my home to find out. I simply had to know.

III. Night Falls

Once I started on my journey I thought to start keeping a journal, and it became the story you’re reading now. I did it mostly to help me keep things straight as I traveled, but partly out of fear that I might have an accident. If someone were to find my dead body, at least they would understand where I’d been. Oddly enough, I’d never kept one while I was living on my own. It just didn’t seem necessary. But for some reason, I felt compelled to keep a record of this trek to civilization.

I made it to Tahawus and was shocked to find it completely abandoned. Apparently, it had been that way for awhile because plant and animal life seemed to have taken the place over. The people who lived there for so long were nowhere to be seen. The remains of businesses and homes left the place looking like the proverbial ghost town.

At one point a lean black and white dog came up to me, sniffed my leg, and barked. He seemed friendly enough. I asked the dog where everyone went, but it just tilted its head and barked again, then darted away from me. I wondered how many pets were now on the loose.

Then I worried about all of the animals. What if everyone in the world no longer cared for their pets? The emptiness of that place was starting to fill my head with horrible thoughts. I wondered if everyone was dead, or if some kind of plague or war had claimed the life of all these people. It wouldn’t have surprised me in the least if it had been the latter.

I continued walking around tiny Tahawus for two full days, searching for answers. The most unsettling thing I came across was a couple of dead people. I’d never seen a dead person with my own eyes before that day, and I hoped I would never see another. After a close inspection, I concluded that they seemed to be the victims of accidents. Honestly, I tried not to think too hard about what might have caused their particular deaths and continued to look around.

It didn’t take long to figure out why the skies no longer glowed at night. I walked all around the town and there was no electricity that I could find. The local power plant wasn’t even running. It was cold, dark, and silent. I had no clue how to start it up again. Not that it really mattered. No one was around to use it. Actually, I half expected to see the power plant blown up or destroyed, so the fact that it was intact but offline was even more unsettling.

Every time I saw a newspaper, I scanned the headlines for some clue. The most recent newspapers were (according to my best calculations) more than a year old. Had it been so long? My ignorance of current and not-so-current events made reading the articles almost futile. What was an onboard? Where was Rigil? Clearly, the readers knew what “the inevitable event” was and what the “last solution” would be, but mere catchphrases and sparse details told me tantalizingly little. It actually only succeeded in leaving me more nervous and confused.

I wondered if, perhaps, a new government had taken over and assimilated everyone. Or, maybe there were no more governments anymore because all hell had broken loose. Honestly, I wasn’t quite convinced of that. I had my issues with humanity, but there just wasn’t any evidence of that yet. Still, I had to be ready for anything. I had to be ready for the worst. But I couldn’t let such foolish thoughts fill my head. I hadn’t seen or spoken to anyone, so I didn’t want to jump to conclusions. Then I worried about what might if I did see someone else. Would they hurt me? Should I hurt them? I resolved to be stealthier when I moved around.

Clearly not finding any answers in the small town of Tahawus, I decided to travel to a larger city. Surely I would find someone who could answer a few of my numerous questions. I decided to go south for as long as it took. I had to see if there was anyone around in the larger cities to the south. But, there was no one. I made it all the way to Aiden Lair before I came upon another human, but they were dead. It looked like animals or something killed them. I didn’t really want to know.

There were abandoned vehicles everywhere. Most were rusted husks, destined to fall to pieces on the side of the roads. I tried several cars before I realized few of them worked. It was a frustrating lottery of sorts. I drove when the vehicles and the roads permitted and walked when I had no other choice.

Minvera, the hometown of my high school sweetheart, looked as though it had burned uninhibited for days. There just wasn’t anyone around to put it out. For the first time in years, I felt empathy for humanity. I tried to push it out, but it was a feeling too deeply ingrained in the human psyche to ignore.

I continued to move south, hopeful to find answers. The air seemed chilly, though it should’ve been warm by that time. There was something unsettling about moving from town to town only to find emptiness everywhere I went. I’d almost preferred to see death and destruction because that would have an obvious explanation. Sometimes I felt like people were hiding in the shadows, watching me, but I hadn’t seen a soul.

I traveled through the scorched town of Igerna, the wasted city of Pottersville, a desolate Starbuckville, an empty South Horicon, and Riverbank, which seemed to be gone…literally. I began to doubt that I would ever find another person, alive anyway.

Then, as I was walking down what had once been the main street of Warrensburg, I saw (or rather, heard) a man moving through the streets ahead. He was the first living human I’d seen in years. He stumbled across the street carrying a long staff in one hand and what I could only guess to be a bottle of liquor in the other. I moved quietly closer to him, hiding amongst the trash and empty cars. He was unnaturally skinny, his hair was matted, his clothes were tattered, but he seemed healthy nonetheless. His eyes were glazed over, giving them a starry glint. His skin (though it clearly needed a good scrubbing) seemed to glow. I could see the life, the vitality in him.

“Theys ah take-uh you-uh way!” he yelled repeatedly, almost singing it. I watched him awhile, careful to not reveal myself. He never seemed to notice me, though I saw him look my direction a few times. So, someone else had lived through all this, whatever it was. I felt a twinge of optimism. I figured that if I survived whatever happened and that guy survived, then surely there’d be others. I watched him stumble around for a while. At one point he picked up a small dead rat and sniffed it; sniffed it long and hard. Because of that, I never approached him and continued on my way. I would find no answers from that him.

I made my way through all of the big cities and small towns, but still hadn’t seen anyone since the rat-sniffer in Warrensburg. Not in Lake George, nor West Glens Falls, nor Yaddo, nor Eddy Corners, nor throughout all of Albany. I just keep walking or riding the occasional vehicle. Cars were increasingly unreliable because most gas had evaporated or was otherwise impossible to come by. And there were these new types of cars, apparently electric, that I could do nothing with because of the complete lack of electricity. Another bit of irony for my journey, I suppose. I’m sure people got to use their new cars for a couple years before electricity went out of style, so to speak.

I passed through Kingston, which was ruled by wild animals. I went through Newburg and New City, but there was nothing new about either of those places. I saw buildings falling apart with neglect. Homes, schools, business, and churches all seemed to crumble slowly. Plant life seemed to strangle everything. It was strange to see these structures in such disarray. They were once so cared for. But these towns were just hollow and decaying skeletons of their previous selves. Perfectly manicured lawns, upright fences, traffic lights…all of these things were gone. I once despised these self-important people. Nevertheless, an uneasy feeling began creeping into my mind. I actually began to feel concerned. It wasn’t clear they simply killed each other off or destroyed the environment like I assumed they would.

A series of very strong thunderstorms eventually swept into the area, and I had to take shelter from them for a few days. Rivers were starting to claim their rightful place. There had been at least three major breaks in the highway that were caused by rushing water. It rained so much that I kept getting stuck between breaks in the road. The good thing was that it gave me plenty of time to reflect on my journey, not that I particularly wanted to. I wondered what would happen if the only people alive were like that weirdo in Warrensburg. He seemed healthy, physically, but he was just too…well, nutty. Maybe crazy people were the only ones left. If that had been the case I would’ve felt vindicated for leaving them. But I couldn’t convince myself anymore. I had to keep looking.

Finally, after the longest trek of my life, I reached the outskirts of New York City. Even with all the desolation I experienced up until that point, I could hardly believe what I saw. The country fell far behind me as I entered what had once been the world’s most famous city. I walked on nothing but pavement, surrounded by nothing but buildings. It was the surface of the planet reconstructed to fit the needs of humanity, but humanity was no longer around to take advantage of it.

I passed by Yonkers, through Englewood, and started crossing the George Washington Bridge. Halfway across, I stopped and looked south out over the Hudson River. The skylines were barely recognizable. There were so many buildings I’d never seen and so many familiar ones that had been destroyed long ago. It was haunting to look upon the empty buildings that lined the river. To my right was New Jersey, and to my left, Manhattan. Neither city looked like I remembered. I wondered if anyone else had seen it like this. For a while, I even considered that I might be the only one left to see it.

It seemed to grow even colder, though I knew it was now the middle of summer. Harlem looked like it had firebombed. The buildings were leveled clear to Bronx across the river. I could see it…Bronx…from there in Harlem. There used to be blocks of buildings there, but now it’s a desolate and charred wasteland. No one was there to stop the burning, to stop what happened. Everywhere I went, the air was full of the scent of burning plastic. At least, I hoped it was plastic.

IV. Dawn of Humanity

I made my way through upper Manhattan. Many tall buildings still remained, though many of them had suffered from fires. I continued south until I came upon a jungle. Well, it was once called Central Park, but that day it looked more like a jungle. The traditionally well-groomed area was besieged with plant life. I sat down in the middle of one of the fields. A large open area stretched out in front of me, providing a nice green carpet in front of the crippled Manhattan skyline. I asked myself how it could be that there wasn’t one living person in all of New York City. It seemed I was truly alone.

It was then that my emotions got the better of me, and I began to weep uncontrollably. I just sat back on the grass and let my fear and sadness pour out of me. I was not crying for my missing friends and family, but rather, for myself. I’d made a pact with myself to remove myself from humanity, but even a cynical old bastard like me felt a connection he couldn’t explain.

I laid there for several minutes, feeling the cold air and the slight warmth of sun on my skin. Sniffling, I slid my hands off my face and looked to the sky. It was unusually hazy and dark, which I remember thinking was strange considering that pollution should have been at an all-time low. For a moment I pondered that thought, but then I was interrupted by an unmistakable sound: a dog was barking.

I sat up on my elbows. For a moment, I thought it was just my imagination. But then I saw it. Several yards away from me, an energetic golden retriever suddenly came running from behind a line of trees. A bright pink frisbee sailed over its head, and the dog expertly snatched it out of the air.

“Good boy!” a woman suddenly yelled, her voice echoing through the empty park.

A chill gripped me, freezing me in place. A young woman ran into view and up to the long-haired dog, the frisbee hanging out of its mouth. She knelt down several yards from me and rubbed his head, praising it for the catch. I didn’t know why, but I was frightened when I saw her. She was the first woman I had seen in years, and her strength was visible even from this far away. She wore a full-bodied, black outfit with several pockets, like the kind paramedics used to wear. She was short and pleasantly proportioned. Her hair was dark brown and cut short everywhere except on top. Her face was oval, and (it is certainly worth mentioning) quite lovely. Her skin seemed to glow in the bright sunlight. And her lips. Her lips were—

Say something to her! My brain screamed. Before she sees you and panics!

I thought about what might happen if she caught me watching her. I feared she might think I was as crazy as the rat-sniffer I saw in Warrensburg. Plus, I wasn’t even sure I could trust her yet, much less vice versa. Hell, I thought, I don’t even know how to talk to her. I was afraid to approach her, but if I didn’t, I might never find out what happened to everyone. Besides, I reckoned with myself, she seemed to like animals.

As I stood up, I sucked in a breath and tried calling to her, but as I did my voice cracked badly. My awkward shriek clearly startled her and the dog. She stood upright, clutching the pink saucer to her chest. Oh, damn, I thought. At that moment it occurred to me that I hadn’t used my voice much in the past few years, much less yelled like that. I cleared my throat, regrouped, and called to her again. I was so nervous and excited I don’t even remember what it was I said to her. The dog moved quickly to her side as she turned to face me, crouching slightly. I walked slowly towards her with my hands extended in front of me. I wanted to assure her I meant her no harm.

“Please don’t be afraid,” I said. “I only want to ask you a few questions.”

I wasn’t sure it was working, but she seemed to relax a bit. Her brown eyes surveyed me heavily. She was in an eerie survival mode, which made me nervous. She and the dog were a beautiful sight. They appeared so warm and fluid in front of the static, gray skyline. I continued to walk closer to them. I eventually got so close to her that she took a step back and pulled some kind of device off her hip. It was small, probably a weapon of some kind. She did not appear to be pointing it at me, but her eyes made it clear she held something threatening. I had no idea what it was. I still don’t know.

“Don’t be stupid,” she growled.

“I’m sorry if I sound strange,” I pleaded. “But I haven’t had a lot of opportunity for conversation.”

“Yeah, I bet,” she said, relaxing a degree.

“My name is Patrick,” I said, trying to ease the tension. “What’s yours?” She seemed a little skeptical.

“Dawn,” she finally answered. “What did you say you wanted? To ask me something?”

“Yes, I want to ask you what happened.”

“What happened?”

“To everybody.”

“Everybody? What everybody?”

“I don’t know,” I said, somewhat exasperated. That seemed to set her a little on edge, so I tried to relax a little. I continued as calmly as possible, “I’m not crazy. At least, I don’t think I am. But I’ve had very little contact with people in a long time, and that’s why I needed to talk to you.” She cocked an eyebrow but seemed to relax again a little.

“Well, look,” she said. “Don’t get any bright ideas, okay? We are a rare breed, and I’ll defend myself if I am forced to.”

“Rare breed?” I asked innocently.

“Are you messing with me?” she said, growing agitated.

“Wha–?” I stammered, “Oh yes, yes.” I had to reason with her. “Look I’m sorry if I seem…out if it. I haven’t had contact with anyone in several years, and I only came here to find out what happened.” I eased into a conversational distance from her as slowly and deliberately as I could. She didn’t seem to mind. “I swear I’m not a threat. You’re the second person I’ve seen in years, and the other guy was probably out of his mind.” We were only a few feet away. The dog was cautiously sniffing at the air, trying to get a feel for me.

“Okay, wait,” she said. “Back up. What do you mean you haven’t had contact with anyone in years? What does that mean?”

“It means exactly that,” I said, inching cautiously towards her. The dog moved carefully towards me. “I once lived like everyone else. I had a job and a truck and even went to school for several years. But, I had a falling out, I guess you could say, with humanity. So, one day I decided to leave and never look back.”

She blinked. “Never?”


“Until now?”

“Until now.”

“Are you serious?” she asked, somewhat taken back. She was either genuinely confused or just toying with me. The golden-brown dog was sniffing at my leg, just barely wagging its tail. The woman scrutinized me for a moment, and then asked, “How long ago was that?”

“I’m not for sure,” I said, “It’s hard to keep track of time without a calendar.”

“Holy kyaa,” is what I think she said. “Do you know anything about what’s happened in the past few weeks?”

“Well, no. That’s where I was hoping you could help me.” I bent down slowly and started to pet the dog. It was growing comfortable with me. She responded well to this, visibly relaxing.

“Do you know what’s been goin’ on for the last few months?” she asked.

I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders.

“How about the past few years?”

Another shrug.

“Days? Years? Centuries? I don’t know how much you’ve missed.”

“Well,” I started, “I dropped my whole life and moved upstate when I was twenty-seven, and that was in 2013.”

Her mouth fell open slightly. “That was like,” she calculated, “sixteen years ago.”

Has it been so long? I thought.

“And you’ve been offline that long?”

“Um, yes,” I said, hesitantly. “What initially got my attention was the massive buildup of stuff in the sky a few years ago.”

“Yeah, massive buildup is pretty damn accurate,” she said blankly. She was staring at me.

“You’re staring at me,” I said, somewhat bashfully.

“I’m sorry,” she said genuinely. “You know nothing about what happened? Nothing at all?”

“No,” I said, a little irritably. “Please tell me.” I pleaded. I’m sure she finally beginning to sense my urgency.

“Well, stop me if you’ve heard any of this,” was how she began, which, incidentally, made me think that she was about to tell me a joke. By the end, I wished it had been.

“A few years ago, a bunch of astronomers and scientists concluded that, according to their calculations, our solar system was going to float through some kind of massive dust cloud. Its size was, literally, astronomical: larger than the solar system. It was estimated that it’s dense enough to block out 97% of the sun’s light, and it’s going to last for hundreds of years. It’s supposed to create the worst ice age ever seen on the planet, and virtually all life as we know it will cease to exist. The planet was expected to arrive in the cloud sometime in the next twenty years. That was almost a decade ago. The lights you saw were the escape pods that were shuttling people—”

“Escape?” I interrupted, somewhat irritated. “They chose flight over fight?”

“Well, yeah,” she said, as though the answer was really so obvious. I think she realized this because then she said, “Look, I’m sure that even back in the post-millennium era, they taught you about outer space. There’s enough dust in that ‘cloud’ to darken most of the solar system. We’ve already entered the fringes of it, which is why it’s so chilly right now. Sometime very soon, it’s going to get really dark and really cold. The light,” she said as she pointed to the sun, “is going out.”

I scanned the desolate Manhattan skyline as she talked, stunned by her revelations. It can’t be true, I told myself. I shook my head. “It can’t be true,” I finally said. She just stood there and gave a lopsided, sad smile.

“I’m sorry,” she said in a comforting tone that she hadn’t quite reached since we met. “I’m really sorry. But, it’s true.” I fell silent, and she continued her story.

“Not everyone left on the escaping ships. Many people — in fact, most people — refused to leave at first. Still, many others remained ignorant of it for years because of technological gaps. As the threat became more and more imminent, more people, from the prudent to the paranoid, began making serious preparations to escape the planet. The buildup of ships eventually became so visible that it gained worldwide notoriety. Before long, virtually every human on the planet knew what the lights in the sky were and why they were there. The crisis brought together many people that had simply squabbled before, and the United Nations voted unanimously to provide a means of escape for all of humanity.”

She paused for a moment. All I could hear was the wind rippling through the trees. Her dog stared at me, occasionally sniffing the air in my direction.

“Eventually,” she continued, now very calm, “they prepared the final phase of the plan, which was to build enough ships for everyone to escape. All eight-and-a-half billion of us.”

“And that’s why the ships disappeared from the sky,” I said.

“Yes,” she replied. “That was our species escaping. They tried to reach everyone. Did you really never hear about it?” She seemed slightly amused, which annoyed me.

“No, I’m afraid I didn’t get that memo,” I said, sardonically. Her reaction was plain enough. Apparently, I was being curt.

“Well,” she continued slowly, “they tried to reach everyone. It seems like they did a pretty good job of it. There were people who’d never heard of space travel getting on some of those ships.” She was petting the dog, which lost interest in me shortly after I did the same to it.

She apparently didn’t fully comprehend how much I was thrown back by what she was telling me. Her story finished in a very matter-of-fact tone, “But they left a long time ago. There are no more flights out of here. They’re all gone now. All but me, you, Buddy here, and a few million other people scattered like salt on a beach. The rest are headed for a planetary system near Alpha Centauri, nearly four-and-a-half light years away—”

“Science fiction!” I snapped, suddenly unable to believe what I was hearing.

She paused, trying to be the composed one. “I promise you it’s not,” she said calmly.

Then something occurred to me. I always felt something like this would happen. Not this, of course, but something like it. Honestly, I expected nuclear or biological war or some other plausible madness. Even the thought of a giant asteroid crossed my mind. But never this. This wasn’t an apocalypse. It was a forced metamorphosis. Like earthquakes and hurricanes, humanity was at the mercy of nature. But unlike war and famine, it was a global problem that we had to solve.

Dawn delivered the end of the world to me with a soft, pleasant voice. As I sat down on the ground, I couldn’t help but cry softly. If what she said was true, the sky was going to get darker and darker until a permanent night set in. We couldn’t even escape to Mars, which might have been fun. It turns out that I’d only been superficially separated from humanity, and something in me took secret comfort in knowing that. After she told me about my new fate, we just sat together in the middle of the park for a while. Millions of humans and animals have visited this place, but now there were just three. Knowing it would never be the same, I hung my head and cried my last few tears for humanity.