a post apocalytpic series - Part 1
I started this story back in November 2015 (before the pandemic, eerily, considering the subject matter), and stopped writing it in December 2015 when my mom passed away. So I'm sharing it in parts, and hoping to finish it as I share it here (I have 50,000 words written so far, so a large chunk).
I hope you enjoy!
It was a Tuesday just like every other Tuesday in Joe McCandry’s life. He peeked out of the blinds in his bedroom to check the weather so he’d know what to wear. It was Fall, and a gloomy day, but the sky looked ominous. A dark, steely grey as if a storm was brewing. “Layers,” he said to the empty room, letting the blind fall back again. Out of habit, the first thing he did was turn on the radio as he got dressed. He could do that when Char was away. He gritted his teeth at the annoying poppy song that came on. Trust Conner to put on crap like that, he thought, pulling on his jeans and favourite long sleeved red Henley shirt, even though it was missing a button or two down the front.
In a panicked rush he grabbed his car keys from where they normally hung by the front door, after first looking in his pants pocket, the kitchen counter and the bathroom for them, before slamming the door loudly behind him and then, with a shudder, realizing it still wasn’t even six o’clock in the morning. No wonder his neighbours gave him the stink eye.
“And that was the latest song by Coldplay.” The male voice on the radio sounded bored. No, not just bored, tired. You could tell a lot from a person’s voice. And not just tired but exhausted. And then there was a sudden sharp sound that startled Joe and his hands gripped the steering wheel reflexively. It was just a cough coming through the speakers, but it was an unexpected, harsh sound. And then Joe heard something even more startling than a cough on the airwaves. Dead air. Hairs rose up on his arms and the back of his neck. The silence stretched on – 10 seconds, twenty, thirty. It inched its way to forty seconds when another familiar voice finally came on and broke the silence. Joe sighed with relief. It was Shandy. She was always the voice of reason. Usually Shandy was the calm, rational one at the station. That’s why she was the news and traffic person. But this time, when she came on air to apologize for the unscheduled break in broadcasting, Joe could hear something behind the words. Something underneath, hidden, that he was sure no regular listeners would pick up on, thankfully.
He turned his car sharply to the left and pulled into one of the four parking spots out front of the small brown brick building with the four dirty white letters above the entrance that proclaimed it one of the local radio stations.
He half-heartedly acknowledged Jamie at the reception desk in the front lobby, heading straight for the recording studios down the narrow, dimly lit hall.
Joe barely glanced in the window before shoving open the door. “What happened?” he said, not giving Shandy a chance to speak. She was leaning over the control board, her shoulders bunched high near her ears with tension, as a pop-rock song played over the air, coming out of multiple speakers. Joe grimaced. It was one of the new, popular ones they seemed to play every hour, at least. It wasn’t a bad song really, but by the time you’ve heard it what felt like fifteen times in one day you wanted to tear your headset off and throw it out a window.
Joe waited, but Shandy didn’t even acknowledge him. “Shandy,” he repeated, slightly louder. “What happened?”
Slowly she turned toward him, but she wasn’t really seeing. Her eyes were glassy and far away.
“Shandy!” he raised his voice to a shout, trying to break through to her. She gave a shiver and her eyes focused on him. She seemed surprised he was there, and started to say so. ‘What-”
Joe cut her off, taking a step further into the room. “What happened?” He hadn’t even finished his morning coffee which was still sitting in his car getting cold, and it was showing with his short fuse.
‘Wha-?” This time Shandy seemed taken aback.
“The dead air,” Joe nearly spat. ‘What happened to Shane?”
Shandy’s eyes shifted nervously away, looking everywhere but at him. Her eyes flickered up and met his for a moment. “He…he has some kind of bug. He just passed out or something. Justine sent him home.” She tried to sound normal, casual, and even shrugged her shoulders as if to say ‘no big deal’, but Joe could tell that it was, in her eyes, and the paleness of her face.
He shivered and looked skyward. It definitely was colder now. An impenetrable layer of clouds blanketed the sky, looking just as ominous and stormy as it did the day before. “I hate this time of year”, he said, shrugging into his thick, padded coat.
“It’s just my imagination,” Joe muttered as he pulled into a middle lane, swiping a hand through his short, dark hair, a nervous trait that he was only vaguely aware he did. But the roads did seem just ever so slightly quieter than usual. Was it earlier than usual? He looked at the clock on the dash. No, it was 6:30, same as every morning on his commute to work. What day is it? He thought briefly before remembering it was Wednesday and that band was coming into the studio today for an interview and live performance, what were they called again? He could never remember their name. Something to do with birds? He looked ahead. The roads seemed…different somehow. It wasn’t a holiday, and it wasn’t a Friday. Maybe he was just imagining it.
A jolt of panic shot up his spine when he realized he didn’t have to squeeze his car into the last of the parking spots in front of the station. There were only two cars there. He didn’t see Justine’s old blue Ford Focus. And there were only a handful of the other cars that normally illegally crammed themselves into the other, non-marked spaces that surrounded the building.
Joe pulled open the double glass doors with trepidation. He waved at Jamie and started to move past the front desk when he pulled up short, mid-stride, nearly stumbling. It wasn’t Jamie sitting at the reception desk. Instead of a young girl with dyed blond hair with perpetual dark roots, who always wore baggy sweaters no matter what time of year it was, there was a young Indian man sitting there, tall and slim and looking slightly uncomfortable. Joe vaguely recognized him. “Har?” he said, confused. “Aren’t you usually the weekend guy?”
The man nodded. “Yep. It’s so weird being here during the week. It’s like a totally different place. There’s so many more people!”
“Where’s Jamie?” Joe felt like he had been just asking a lot of questions since yesterday.
Har shrugged. “Sick. That’s all they told me when they called me in to cover.”
Joe began to move toward the recording rooms down the hall. He was the not-so-early morning show director, and needed to get things set up, even though it wasn’t even seven o’clock yet. But his show started at eight, with Tammy and Josh at the helm as the hosts. He just sat on the sidelines. Sometimes they brought him into their conversations on whatever the topics were, but most of the time he was off the air. Silent. Which was fine by him, because he didn’t see himself as a radio person. A personality. He didn’t think he had the voice. You know, the type of voice that is made for radio. That unique sound, and tone and cadence. You just knew, when you heard people on the radio that they were made to do that. He wasn’t. His voice was slightly harsh, a bit gravelly. Some people might’ve thought it sounded good. In real life anyway, he’d been told that before from ex-girlfriends, but not over the airwaves. It sounded like he constantly had a cold, or needed to clear his throat.
Before he’d reached the studio that he did his later-morning show from, a voice boomed from down the hall. “McCandry!” the man shouted. Joe cringed and then turned, plastering a smile on his face. It was Bronson, the station manager. If he was to ever have an arch enemy, Bronson would be it. But he wasn’t sure exactly why he was. The two of them just seemed to get on each other’s nerves, everything the two of them said or did seemed to grate on the other, for no real reason in particular.
Joe wasn’t in the mood for fake platitudes but it was too early in the morning to start the day off on the wrong foot. “Bronson, what’s up?” he tried to sound casual and resisted the urge to clap the man on the shoulder in a friendly way. That would be a bit over the top, he thought.
The big man seemed to loom over Joe. He took a step back so he didn’t feel like he was looking up at him.
“Justine didn’t come in today. And Josh is off sick too. There’s some kind of bad bug going around. So you’re going to have to fill in for Josh today.”
“But-,” Joe began to protest, before Bronson stopped him by holding up a hand. Somehow that always made people stop talking, Joe thought suddenly. Why was that?
“No buts,” Bronson was saying and now waving a hand enthusiastically in the air in the direction of the recording studio. “Josh isn’t here. You’ve done some on air stuff, it’ll be fine, nothing to sweat over.”
“But,” Joe repeated, even though he couldn’t actually think of a but to counter Bronson’s reasoning. And then he stopped and looked at Bronson. Actually looked at him. The large man was suddenly sweating profusely. “Are you feeling okay? You don’t look so good. You look…grey.” And the man that usually looked a very healthy pink verging on the red of over exertion did indeed look a strange shade of not very well at all.
Bronson cleared his throat in a good imitation of how Joe imagined his voice was on the radio. “No, I don’t, suddenly,” he said, wavering like a tree blowing in a storm. Joe put his hand out and steadied the man by the arm and led him to the nearest recording room that was currently empty and helped the man fall as gracefully as he could into one of the three chairs in the room. The chair, on wheels, rolled halfway across the room with the sudden weight pushing it along. Joe was amazed that Bronson had managed to stay sitting upright and not topple onto the floor.
“Stay right there,” Joe commanded firmly, pointing at him as if that action alone would bind the man, like a spell. He ran to Har at the front desk. “There’s something wrong with Bronson, you need to call his wife or something. He needs to go home.”
Har nodded and hit one of the speed dial buttons on the phone. Joe was already almost back to the room before he heard Har talking.
Bronson was slumped across the sound desk, lying with his head on his arms, like he was napping in school.
Tentatively Joe leaned over and shook his large shoulder, gently. “Hey man, Har is calling your wife, you need to go home, or…” he looked at Bronson’s face and changed direction. “Or to the hospital.”
Bronson’s eyes fluttered open briefly and he groaned, muttering something Joe couldn’t hear.
“It’s okay, your wife is on her w-“ he was stopped short by Bronson suddenly jerking upright, looking around in dazed confusion, and then falling over, heavily, off the rolling chair, onto the floor.
“Bronson!” Joe rushed to the man’s side. He shook his shoulder. No response. But his chest was rising and falling, so that was a good sign. Though there was a slight delay, Joe thought, between breaths. He picked up Bronson’s arm, which felt as heavy as a lead bar and held two fingers to his wrist. His pulse was there, but it was faint.
Joe pulled his cell phone from the back pocket of his jeans and hit the ‘Emergency’ button that automatically dialled 911. “Hi, yes, my boss is sick and he just collapsed. He’s still breathing but he doesn’t look very good.” Joe listened to the calm woman on the other end, and gave all other relevant information, his name, where they were, and stuff that was just a blur when Joe tried to think back on it.
It seemed like time had stopped, but eventually the paramedics arrived and got Bronson onto a stretcher and into the back of the ambulance, and then he was rushed off, lights flashing in the general direction of the hospital.
Joe exhaled forcefully. He felt like he’d been holding his breath for hours, and he took in a couple more deep breaths. He realized he was shaking.
Joe pulled his card from the machine at the gas pump and headed toward the convenience store. He was suddenly needing a second coffee, even though he’d just finished the one he made at home. There was a cluster of people at the cash register and there was the low rumbling of confusion that had started to escalate into frustration and anger. There was a ropey looking man wearing clothes that seemed three times too big for him, standing at the very front and trying to reach behind the counter for some cigarettes, grasping and grunting.
There were others behind him looking lost and a bit dazed, holding candy bars or coffees from the self-serve bar.
“Screw this,” said one man loudly, who was wearing a leather vest that seemed ridiculously small on him. He took his coffee and a couple chocolate bars and disengaged himself from the milling crowd. He grabbed a third bar of chocolate and a newspaper on his way out, flinging open the door so hard it hit the glass wall and caused it to shake. This caused other people to come out of their fugue and follow in the man’s lead like he was the pied piper. The large group quickly dwindled down to a few people who still looked like they didn’t know what to do. One woman with a nest of blond hair that seemingly had never been introduced to a comb put down the jumbo bag of potato chips, and bags of mixed nuts and snacks she had right on the counter with an apologetic shrug to the others that were still there, and left, with a gentler exit than the man.
Suddenly the scrawny man launched himself across the counter top, landing hard on the other side and nearly knocking the entire rack of cigarettes over. Something landed with a clatter on the floor in front of Joe’s feet. It was a handwritten sign, shoved in a plastic poster holder that said ‘Sick, gone home. Sorry.’ There was a sad face at the bottom.
“Wow,” Joe said, and several people turned and looked in his direction. He wasn’t even aware he’d spoken aloud. “Uh,” he was caught off guard. “It seems like lots of people are coming down with this bug, I guess,” he followed up with a shrug.
A plump teenage boy with what could only be described as an attempt at a beard replied, “Both my grandparents got sick on Monday and now they’re dead.” The boy looked down awkwardly at his feet. “The funeral was supposed to be tomorrow, but now it’s been moved to next week because the church and funeral home are overbooked.”
A little prickle of fear poked at the back of Joe’s neck. “Overbooked?”
The boy looked up from the grungy floor of the gas station and nodded. “Yeah. Because so many people are dying?” He replied, more as a question, looking at Joe quizzically.
“Oh,” Joe said, stunned. He hadn’t really thought about it. About people dying. He just thought there was some kind of flu going around. He hadn’t really been watching the news the last few days. He’d been busy after work with appointments. He’d neglected to see his dentist in over a year, and his sciatica had been playing up so he’d seen his doctor yesterday. Though a funny thing, now that he thought about it, he didn’t actually see his own doctor. It was some medical student filling in for him.
Joe turned around and left the stragglers behind in the gas station, forgoing his coffee, as his mind suddenly ran on overdrive. Dying? People are dying? He got back in his car and made his way to work. This time, though he ended up being a few minutes late thanks to some people who really should have taken their driving tests again and had crashed into each other at an intersection, his was the only car in the four spaces out front of the station.
That prickle of unease tickled the back of his neck again and snaked its way upwards to his head. The tingling sensation of dread. He shivered and slowly pulled the double doors open, just enough to slip inside, as if opening them wider would allow whatever was going on outside to come inside. He put one foot forward slowly, as if he was a child playing the game where the carpet has become lava and you had to step on certain safe areas, little refuges in an unsafe world. Was the station a refuge? The thought suddenly popped into his head.
He moved to the front desk slowly. It was dim in the front lobby at the best of times, thanks to the designer of the space being overly fond of dark wood. He wanted to ask Har if he’d heard how Bronson was doing. He hadn’t heard anything since he’d been whisked off in the ambulance the day before. But Har wasn’t there.
“Hello?” he said uncertainly, feeling foolish immediately after he uttered the word, as if he was entering some haunted house and wasn’t sure what was going to pop out of some dark and shadowy corner. But like in a horror movie, there was no response. He inched his way towards the recording studios past the right hand side of the reception area. “Hey, is anyone here?” his voice sounded small and weak, and, he hoped, not trembling like he felt it was.
He willed his legs to move more normally, but they refused to do more than shuffle slowly, as if each step was taking him ever closer to something awful. When he reached the end of the hall, he realized it was. There was no one. Was there something wrong with the power? He opened the door of a studio and went up to the sound boards and flicked a few switches and turned a few dials. Lights came on, and he could hear music playing, so someone had been here. Maybe Corey from the late night crew. Well, the power’s still on so that’s something. There wasn’t any dead air. He breathed a small sigh of relief at that.
Then his feet decided to regain control and he sprinted past the front desk down the left hand side, past the washrooms, towards the staff offices and lunch room. Maybe they were having some kind of party? He looked in Bronson’s office, and then the afternoon and late night director’s offices, and then the morning show director’s office, before reaching the lunchroom. It was cold, and the lights were off. It was obvious no one had been in here for a while, not even the cleaning staff. With a shudder, Joe realized he was the only person in the entire station.
He went back to the studio that was playing music, pulled up a chair, put on some headphones and waited for the current song to finish playing and then flipped a switch that caused a small sign to light up red saying ‘on air’.
He cleared his throat and then grimaced. He should’ve done that before going on air. He tried to put on his best radio personality voice. “Good morning listeners in radio land, I apologize for the lack of …talking this morning. We’re unexpectedly down a few of our radio hosts,” he had to hold in the words he wanted to say, down everyone in the entire station. “So for all of today we’re going to play uninterrupted music with no commercial breaks and, unfortunately no DJ’s. But I’m sure you’re probably happy to hear that,” he added. “Thanks for your understanding.” He felt like that was a bit lacklustre so added, “over and out”. And then cringed at the ridiculousness of it. He wasn’t on a college ham radio.
And then he spent the next hour and a half putting together a playlist that would last, he looked at his watch. It was seven thirty in the morning. Maybe twenty four hours? Or longer? He went with thirty six hours, just to be on the safe side. “I need to CMA”, he muttered to the empty room, as his brother always said – cover my ass.
After what felt like half a day of stringing together what he felt were decent songs, he got up, raised his arms over his head and swayed side to side, stretching out his back and sides. And then with nothing else to do, he got up, shut the studio door behind him, and left. It felt very strange leaving an entirely empty office, and leaving the radio playing, defending for itself with no human intervention. It felt wrong somehow, just playing continuous music, with no one there, carefully watching over it, orchestrating it. Like sending a toddler out into the world without a parent. It just wasn’t right.
Check out part 2 of Radio Silence here: