The wind was blowing again. Sometimes he wondered if it ever stopped or would just blow on and on forever. He couldn’t remember it blowing this much before the end of the world, but before then, he’d had a lot more on his mind.
He had his job. It wasn’t anything spectacular or fancy. He worked at the local auto parts store, mostly stocking and cleaning up at the end of the day. But he also did the occasional delivery in the company truck, and that was okay. Getting out of the store and spending a little time out on the streets was a nice change of pace. The money wasn’t great, but it was steady. It allowed him to have his own little apartment, and to buy the food he liked rather than the food his mom had always tried to feed him.
“Broccoli is good for you, Nathan,” she would say. She’d had a bland Midwestern accent, but in his memory, she always sounded like a Jewish mother. “It’s good for the blood.”
He had his family. His mother Barbara and father Randall, both living the middle-class American dream. Three-bedroom house, two-car garage, fenced-in yard for the dog, Max, and a lawn that refused to stay green and weed-free no matter how much time or what fancy chemical Dad put on it. There had also been his sister, Sharon, ginger-haired and freckled like Nate, but much prettier. She was four years younger than he and still in high school when the world had ended.
For the last little while, Nate even had a girlfriend. She had been on his mind the most. Her name was Calleigh, and she had long, dark blond hair and grey-green eyes. She was the same age as Nate and liked a lot of the same things. Pizza with a thick pan crust, drowning in pepperoni and cheese (no vegetables, thank you very much!). Horror movies of any kind, even (or maybe especially) the corny zombie flicks with the really bad special effects and even worse acting. Sleeping in late on Saturday mornings and eating cereal out of the box while watching kiddie cartoons. Best of all, she hadn’t been worried about getting flowers (at least from the florist), or jewelry (she was okay with the plastic ring from the gumball machine).
She was laid-back and unworried, and just as quick to pick a t-shirt up from off the floor and sniff it to see if it was still clean enough to wear. Added to that the fact that she was beautiful, and she was pretty much the perfect girl. Definitely the perfect girl for Nate.
So yeah, he hadn’t spent a lot of time paying attention to the wind. But now, he didn’t have so much going on in his life. There was no more pan pizza, no more Saturday morning cartoons, and the cereal was always dry because there was no more going to the store for milk. Dad didn’t have to worry about his yellowing, weedy lawn anymore, and Mom didn’t have to worry about Nate’s diet. In fact, except for Nate, no one had to worry about anything anymore.
Time was strange; it warped, like memories. He hadn’t kept track of the days, so he wasn’t exactly sure how long he’d been alone. Part of the problem was he wasn’t sure if day and night were progressing the way they should be. He remembered movies and Twilight Zone episodes where aliens came and kidnapped whole towns for scientific experiments, or where electro-magnetic storms from the Sun, or even passing comets, could reduce everyone to small piles of ash and unburnt clothing. But even if any of these theories might be true, it still didn’t explain how he came to be here, alone but uninjured.
He sat on the porch at his parents’ house, eating pre-popped popcorn from a bag he’d scavenged at the corner market. He tipped back in one of his mom’s wooden chairs, feet propped on the railing in a way that would have had her getting after him to sit down properly and not ruin her furniture. For a moment, he imagined the sound of her voice.
“Nathan, you get your dirty feet off the railing and stop trying to break my chair!”
She would be standing in the doorway with her hands on her hips, salon-styled hair perfectly coiffed, and wearing the jeans she thought made her look cool—although they only emphasized her modest muffin-top.
Dad would call from the living room, “Barb, you’re going to give yourself a stroke. It’s just a chair. And I put my feet on the railing all the time.”
Nate smiled to himself, envisioning every detail. The lawn stretching out to the sidewalk with a few hardy dandelions raising their yellow heads. Max, his dad’s seven-year–old lab mix, would be laying on the top step of the porch, soaking up the last rays of sunlight. Cars passing on the residential street, or kids on bicycles enjoying the last golden days before the weather turned cold. But the wind was blowing, pushing dead leaves and trash down the deserted street, and it pulled him from his pleasant reverie.
He looked at the book on his lap, which he’d found in Sharon’s room, surprised that she had anything like this. It was an old book, the cover soft and tattered, the spine broken in a couple of places. There was no artwork on the cover, just words printed in faded gold leaf. A Book of Shadows it stated in large letters at the top, then beneath, in smaller font, Celebrations of the Great Rites. At the very bottom of the cover, in tiny dark print, was Knowledge is good, be the price what it may.
He shoved another handful of slightly stale popcorn into his mouth, wiped his palm on his jeans, and opened the book. It fell open to the page titled Samhain—Celtic New Year, but it was the ink drawings of carved pumpkins and cemetery headstones that caught his eye. Halloween had always been his favorite holiday, and it was coming up.
He started reading the chapter, still wondering why his sister had had the book in her possession, when what he read struck a chord. Samhain, also known as All Hallows Eve and later Halloween, was believed to be the day of the year when the veil between living and dead was the thinnest. The old pagans, according to the book, believed this to be the best time to communicate with loved ones who had passed over. Back before the end of the world, he would have laughed at the thought and tossed the book aside, not that he’d have picked it up to read in the first place. But now, it wasn’t like he had anything to lose. And even communing with the dead would be better than being all alone.
He read through the chapter and the outlined rituals several times. He wasn’t interested in getting “skyclad” whatever that was, or becoming one with nature. But if there was any chance at all he could communicate with his parents, his sister, or with Calleigh—if for no other reason than to find out what had happened to them—he didn’t see any reason not to try.
The book stressed that this would only work on the correct day, so he had to find out what the current date was. Looking at a calendar did him no good, and he no longer had the option to check his laptop or cell phone for the current time and date. But now that the date was important to him again, he knew just how to find out.
Upstairs in his parents’ bedroom, on the table next to Dad’s side of the bed, was a clock. It was small, with a white face surrounded in brass and set in a wooden base. It had been a gift from Nate and Sharon last year at Christmas and had a small brass plaque on the back with their names on it. The clock was battery operated, and still running. But what made Nate think of it was the tiny inset squares in the clock face. One showed letters, the other numbers; the letters said “Oct,” and the numbers said “25.”
“October 25th,” Nate said to himself, holding the small but heavy clock almost reverently. “Six days.”
One of the things the book stated was to surround the “circle” with mementos of the passed loved ones he wanted to summon. The circle was apparently some kind of sacred ground, which immediately made him think of the cemetery. Halloween night at the cemetery might appeal to him if he had a couple of friends and electric street lights. But by himself in a deserted world, he really wasn’t interested. He flipped back to the table of contents, found a listing for “circle,” and read that section. According to that, all it had to be was a space set aside specifically for the ritual. Since everything that reminded him of his family was in his parents’ house, he would do it there.
The other thing the ritual said was to decorate the circle with objects or images that put the practitioner in the proper state of mind. What would put him in the right mindset for Halloween? Nate grinned, and headed for the closest store.
Over the next few days he prepared for the ritual, slightly altered to fit his own needs. He brought back loads of Halloween decorations which he put up both inside the house and throughout the yard. No electricity meant no strings of lights, and no air-blown inflatable decorations. But he strung yards of black and orange crepe paper, long lines of dangling vinyl bats and spiders, and arranged huge artificial spider webs over all the bushes and most of the front of the house. He hadn’t wanted to spend Halloween night at the cemetery, but he didn’t mind bringing a fake one home. So, he set up painted foam and resin headstones in the front yard, with names like Hugh R. Next, Ima Goner, Myra Mains, and Ted N. Buried. Because it reminded him of nights spent watching low-budget horror flicks with Calleigh, he also put out various plastic body parts or full-sculpted zombies that looked like they were dragging themselves out of the “graves.”
He brought one of his mom’s small wooden tables out to set on the porch and draped it with a black lace tablecloth. On top, he arranged pictures of Mom and Dad, Sharon, and Calleigh. Per the instructions in the book, he added a bowl of clean water and another of sea salt, tall candles to represent the four directions, and spice-scented votives that he placed with each photograph. There was a small brass censor with a cone of vanilla incense ready to be lit, and a small metal pot with some sand in the bottom. When he was sure he had everything ready, he checked the book again. After all his preparations, he had one more day to wait. Tired but hopeful, he went into his old bedroom and fell asleep on his bed.
The wind blew; it was always blowing since the world ended. Nate laid in bed, asleep and dreaming; but in his dream, he stood on the sidewalk in front of his parents’ house. The wind gusted, and dead leaves raced each other past his sneakered feet. The sky was covered in heavy roiling clouds, and as Nate looked up he saw a murder of crows—or perhaps it was an unkindness of ravens, he couldn’t be sure—coursing across the stormy sky. They traveled in the direction of the wind, gusts hurrying them on their way. Their raucous calls filtered back to him, ripped apart by the tumultuous air.
Movement on the ground caught his eye, and he looked back at the house. In the wind, his shabby decorations flapped and flew, threatening to join the fleeing birds. The cheap headstones leaned on their shallow stakes, and the fake body parts were slowly tumbling toward the far fence, nudged by the insistent breeze. On the porch, half-hidden by the waving shredded cloth of a dime-store ghost, someone stood behind the table—altar, his mind whispered—he’d set up with photos and props.
“Hello?” he called, wondering if the figure on the porch could hear him through the ever-present wind. “Hello, who’s there?”
“Nate, I miss you,” a soft voice replied, and the wind dropped for a moment, letting him see that the shadow on the porch was his girlfriend Calleigh.
“Calleigh!” he yelled, trying to open the gate so he could cross the yard to her.
“I miss you,” she said again with tears sparkling on her face, and the wind howled as it bowled all his tacky decorations across the yard and pinned them to the fence. He pulled his eyes from the carnage and looked back at the porch. There was no one there.
Nate opened his eyes, tears stinging. He knew he’d been dreaming and that Calleigh hadn’t been there. But he couldn’t help the welling emotion. “I miss you too, Calleigh.”
Nate woke late on Halloween day. “Samhain,” he told himself.
After his dream, he was less hopeful of getting any kind of positive outcome from his intended ritual. But he’d worked on it all week, and if he didn’t go through with it now, he’d have a whole year to wonder if it might have succeeded before he could try again.
“Halloween has always been the best day of the year for me,” he said, going out to check his decorations. “No reason for that to change now, right?”
All he had to do was wait until the Sun set and for the magic hour of midnight to arrive. He ate some crackers with canned cheese, and drank slightly warm soda out of the can. The yard decorations were still up, regardless of his dream during the night. Everything was ready on the altar. Nate made sure he had a back-up lighter, and matches as well; the Book of Shadows waited in the seat of his chair. While he waited, his mind wandered.
He remembered going out to eat with Calleigh, at the little-hole-in-the-wall pizza place they loved. The cafe was filled with people, mostly Nate and Calleigh’s age, but some were older and some were younger. The jukebox played the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” and Calleigh laughed as Nate sang along.
After dinner, they’d walked back to the apartment hand in hand, Nate still singing, and Calleigh in tears from laughing at his toneless but good-natured attempt to carry the tune. They’d crossed the street to reach their building…
Then Nate had opened his eyes in bed, wondering where Calleigh was. Had she drawn the early shift? He couldn’t remember. Everything was quiet, even the old refrigerator wasn’t humming the way it always had.
That was when he’d realized the world had ended. Everyone was gone, not just Calleigh. No power, no radio transmissions, no people, and he hadn’t been able to figure out why. Years of horror movies made him guess that something traumatic happened, and that was why he couldn’t remember anything after stepping off the curb with his girl’s hand in his. Something had taken everyone away and left him here alone. He didn’t know why, but he wanted to.
After the Sun dropped below the horizon, the sky remained light for a long time. The heavy cloud cover from his dream had not appeared. Nate went out to the lawn, sitting cross-legged next to a double-amputee zombie that he’d positioned crawling across the dying grass. He leaned back on his hands and gazed at the clear sky, watching for the first pinprick apparitions of stars. The breeze sighed around him, the continuing breath of the wind he’d become accustomed to over the last few weeks. Bells on a hanging witch’s shoes tinkled.
At 11:45, the wind-up alarm clock that he’d set rang. He got to his feet, feeling a bit stiff and cold. Had he fallen asleep? He stumbled going up the porch steps, but didn’t fall. It took only a moment to light the kerosene lantern he’d found in the garage with the camping supplies, and he set it on the railing to light the porch. Feeling like an idiot, and glad there was no one around to witness, he lit the candles in the prescribed order. There was a whole big speech in the book, but he knew he’d just feel silly reading it all. The author in many places had impressed that the most important things were intent and emotion. He just needed to be very clear about what he wanted. In this case not what, but who.
Following the directions in the book, Nate lit the incense, wet his fingers in the bowl of water, and tossed a pinch of sea salt over his shoulder. At each step, he checked the page, worried lest he miss an important step. Just before midnight, he lit the votives placed before the photographs, focusing on each person as he did so. Dad with his thinning salt-and-pepper hair and constant good-natured smile. Mom, who never seemed to find the time to sit down and relax because there was always something that needed to be done. Sharon, the straight-A student working toward a scholarship so she could go to college somewhere miles from this little town. Then Calleigh, the perfect girl for him. He’d never told her that he loved her, afraid that it would change things between them. Now he didn’t care. If nothing else, before Samhain was over, he wanted to let her know how much she meant to him.
The alarm clock rang again, and he quickly silenced it. Midnight on Halloween, the magic moment promised by the Book of Shadows. Yearning with everything he had, he willed his family to appear to him. The book said it could happen. He would just believe it hard enough that it would be true.
The breeze picked up, becoming stronger. Nate swore as it blew out the candles. His kerosene lamp still cast bright white light over everything, but all other lights had been extinguished. Even the incense fell over and stopped smoking.
“I just want to know!” Nate yelled, not worried about appearing stupid anymore. “Where did you go? Where did everyone go?”
The wind roared, gusts destroying his decorations as they had in his dream, and the kerosene lantern sailed off the railing to land on the front walk. The glass shattered, and flames caught the foam headstones and plastic zombies, burning and melting them into dark globs.
“Why didn’t you take me too?”
Barbara stood on one side of the hospital bed, Calleigh on the other. Randall sat on a hard, unpadded chair with his daughter beside him. His contagious smile was missing tonight.
Barbara looked down at her son, her eyes wet although she didn’t let the tears fall. When she looked across the bed at the young woman who might have one day been her daughter-in-law, she ignored the fading bruises and the sling that held one arm. Calleigh was very lucky to have survived with injuries so light. She was lucky that Nate had seen the car coming and pushed her—mostly—out of the way. Barbara knew that Calleigh blamed herself for Nate’s condition. He’d saved her life, but had been unable to get out of the path of the oncoming vehicle himself. In the following weeks, Calleigh had rarely left his bedside.
“It’s time, dear,” Barbara said softly, her voice rough as she fought to control herself. She would not break down. Not now. She could do that later, at home.
Calleigh nodded, clutching Nate’s unresponsive hand. The doctor said nothing, just flipped the switch that turned off the life support systems. For the first time since Nate had been admitted to the hospital, the wheezing rushing sound of the ventilator fell silent.
When the world finally ended, the wind didn’t blow anymore.
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