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Alignment: The Silent City

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Alignment

The Silent City

H.G. Suren

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Text copyright © 2015 H.G. Suren

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Contents

Prologue 4

Chapter 1: The first night 7

Chapter 2: The Party 10

Chapter 3: Dead night 14

Chapter 4: The game is on 20

Chapter 5: An angel 29

Chapter 6: Reasoning 33

Chapter 7: Missing 43

Chapter 8: Dinner 53

Chapter 9: The first on duty 60

Chapter 10: A lone girl 71

Chapter 11: Erik’s story 75

Chapter 12: Disturbed dome 83

Chapter 13: The car graveyard 86

Chapter 14: The wave 90

Chapter 15: Angelic voice 93

A SNEAK PEEK FROM THE SECOND BOOK IN THE ALIGNMENT TRILOGY 95

Acknowledgments 104

[] Prologue

His heart was banging so loudly that it seemed whatever was on the other end of the long hallway would be able to hear it. His breath was heavy and hoarse as he inhaled and exhaled quickly through his nose. His eyes were wide and his face as pale as if he’d been drained of blood.

He leaned against the wall and listened.

Absolute silence.

If there was a fly he’d be able to clearly hear the beating of its wings.

Startled, he stood there, a gun in his trembling right hand, staring at the end of the hallway. He was in a hotel. Red-carpeted floor, white-colored walls and dark wooden doors.

The man, with graying hair, unhitched himself from the wall, his gaze still glued to the end of the hall, as if waiting for something hideous, or Lucifer himself, to walk out around the corner and pounce on him. But he hadn’t aimed his pistol in that direction. He was holding it despite knowing that the bullets would fail to save him from the horrendous creatures that dwelled in this hotel. Not only in here. They were everywhere; the city was loaded with them. Just one view of them was enough to suck the last hope out of a man.

The man was in his late fifties, pot-bellied and short, wearing a light-brown coat.

It was late November, so it was cold outdoors. Although the heating didn’t work in the hotel, he was sweating and gasping for air.

For a moment, he held his breath and looked back. He could see nothing and nobody, but a strange feeling started to creep over him telling him to run – as fast as he could. Something was closing in behind him, from the direction he had just come. He shivered as a chill ran up his back.

He took a step, his legs shaky, and the floor creaked beneath his feet. He glanced back again fearfully. A sharp wind arose from the far end of the hallway, whipping into him. This was it. He knew for sure the terrifying creatures had found him again.

He spun around and dashed ahead.

In the absolute silence, only the sound of his footfalls reflected off the walls. His heart felt as though it would jump out of his chest, and his breath came in short, shallow gasps, the freezing cold air burning his lungs. His legs were so shaky, he feared they would betray him and send him crashing to the floor.

Every now and again, he peeked back over his shoulder, his eyes wide and full of dread, any moment expecting one of those creatures—demons—to strike. The wind ruffled his hair, blowing it into his face. He brushed it back and looked ahead. In another ten yards, he’d reach the end of the hallway and enter the lobby.

On cue, a big puff of cloud loomed into view. It filled the hallway like water filling a tunnel.

As he came to a screeching halt, his heart seemed to stop and his blood froze in his veins. The fog had a human shape—hands and legs. The man focused on a pair of big, black eyes in a snow-white face. He knew what it was; he’d seen the demons wandering the empty streets before. Unfortunately, they’d found him and had come after him to drag him into Hell. He didn’t try to shoot the demon, well aware that the bullet would fly through it. He reached for the door to his right and turned the handle.

The man threw himself into the room, adrenalin rushing through his veins. In less than a second, he fixated on a window across the room. Instinctively, he slammed the door and darted ahead.

Once he approached the window, he covered his face with his hands and smashed his way through it. The glass shattered as he hurtled headlong through it. He was on the ground floor, so the impact wasn’t too bad.

Bits of glass rained down on him. He scrambled over the ground and tried to stand up, still holding the gun tightly, although he didn’t know why he’d been keeping the pistol so far. It would kill humans, animals, anything that lived, but not those human-shaped fogs.

On his feet, he threw a quick glance at his hands. The cuts on them were superficial. Not a big deal. So he took a deep breath and started off at a run.

As far from the hotel as possible, he kept telling himself in his head as he ran. He didn’t look up, well aware he wouldn’t see sunlight. Truly, he’d see nothing but a weird dome overhead that had covered the city a week ago bringing forth those creepy demons along with it.

For over seven days, he’d been surviving in this new world that one would call Hell. Two days ago he’d seen the first demon. He’d gone out to gather some supplies and that day he’d gone farther than before, hoping he’d find other survivors like him, his brother and his nephew.

That was when he’d spotted a puff of fog that flew along a street an inch above the asphalt. He had been in a store filling a bag with food when he’d spotted a human-sized fog. It felt off. He had approached the window to take a better look. It had been something he’d seen only in horror movies.

He’d fled from the demons, but not for long. They’d tracked him down. They’d come for his soul.

He reached the corner and stepped into the parking lot. There were at least twenty dead cars parked there greeting him mournfully. It was dangerous to step into an opening, but he didn’t have much of a choice.

As far from the hotel as possible.

The man didn’t stop and entered the lot. He wasn’t young anymore. His lungs began complaining, his weight was too heavy for his legs to carry. He was well aware that he wasn’t anything else than a walking corpse. His life would be over in a few minutes, maybe even in a few seconds.

With these terrifying thoughts, the man reached the middle and stopped abruptly.

From every side, human-shaped fogs entered the lot and huddled around him. He counted seven of them. As he glanced back, two more loomed into view.

This is it, the man thought. He could run to the hotel entrance, but not before the demons caught him. They were extremely fast, especially in such a flat outdoor area. Indoors he could somehow avoid them because they couldn’t walk through walls and doors.

The fogs started closing in on him, the circle narrowing with every second. With a terrified look on his face, the man watched them approach, mentally counting the last seconds of his life. Hope had abandoned him since he had fled his room. There was no place for hope here among the demons. His aim had been to get as far from the hotel as possible, to give a chance to the ones who had stayed in the hotel. But he’d failed. The farthest he’d been able to make it was outside the hotel and to the parking lot.

“I won’t give myself to you, fucking demons,” the man bawled and put the gun to his head.

The human-shaped fogs stood glued to the spot, their big hideous eyes fixated on the man in the middle. None of them had a mouth, so they couldn’t make a sound, much less speak. They waited.

The man ran his eyes over them. A slight smile curled his lips as he squeezed them shut.

“God bless me,” he hissed under his breath, as he winced in pain—soul pain.

He sucked in a huge breath—his last ever.

He pulled the trigger.

[] Chapter 1: The first night

Aram

Aram walked over to the window, the cigarette dangling in his mouth. He peeked out.

A moonless night clawed at the window.

Below, an empty, unlit street stretched out, fading into black. He waited for his eyes to adjust and soon Aram could see the street through the gaping darkness.

A white cloud escaped his mouth reluctantly, curling in the darkness in slow motion. It lingered in front of his face. Aram stared at it uncomprehendingly; the lazy smoke leaving his burning cigarette reached the cloud and expanded it as if blowing up a balloon.

He should’ve suspected it–the feeling started to creep over him that this inscrutable world was spinning the wrong way. But, on the other hand, what could he do? Turn around and face his friends who were sitting at a small table right behind him, and say hey guys, you feel it?

Feel what? His friends would ask. What was the answer going to be?

Just as the world felt off, so did the night. The likelihood of not being mocked and his words taken seriously seemed near zero. Think before you speak his father would always say, and reason brought Aram to one conclusion–keep his unease to himself, at least for now.

Think before you speak.

With his free hand, Aram waved the weird smoky cloud away. As it retreated, seemingly reluctantly, in a few seconds, his view became clear again, his eyes finding the dead of the night and the dark, starless sky. That was when Aram realized he had been holding his breath. He exhaled in puffs of white clouds. He brought the cigarette to his mouth. Like the smoke, his breath found its way away from the window at a lazier pace than it should have.

Aram froze, only his eyes moved. Nothing seemed odd, not in an obvious way. The narrow street was supposed to be empty, soulless at three in the morning, but Aram felt a flutter in his stomach. The world rotated wrong, had keeled off its axis. The buildings, the street and the cars parked alongside it seemed so dismal. The quiet was something Aram had never heard before–too quiet. The air stood still–no wind, no breeze, just cold and dead.

For a long moment, while he puffed on the cigarette, an unfamiliar sensation arose in his chest–a sensation of being left alone in a vast, dormant world. Instead of the world full of people, now everybody–his friends, his wife, his son, every single person–had seemingly abandoned him. A hollow voice, coming from the depth of the room, brought him back from the dark, imaginary abyss into which his mind, led by an invisible hand, had been pulling his consciousness.

“Aram, quit it,” the voice said. “Come on. Scared, eh? You’re going to lose this game for us.”

The darkness that had been crawling into his mind was momentarily pushed away by the voice. Aram even allowed a slight, wan grin as he peered back in an attempt to deaden the strange feeling inside his chest – and it didn’t improve his mood. All the while, he had been aware of his friends sitting behind him, but odd, indecipherable forces, had seemed to lock around his body, keeping him in a tight hug, and Aram had been unable to turn around until his friend’s voice reached his ear. Before that, while staring out the window, even his friends’ chatter had been muted to his ears.

“Don’t tease me,” Aram managed to say, his thoughts still glued to the darkness.

He stole a last glance through the window to make sure everything was all right with the world, hoping his imagination had only played a sly game on him a moment before. The utter darkness met his gaze steadily. A sense of emptiness radiated from the outside world and filled his insides. He thought of his fatigue, of the long day that had started at 9 am. He had worked at his office till 6 pm, gone home to spend a couple of hours with his family, and then he had come over to Mark’s apartment. Now it was three in the morning, and still Aram was with his friends, playing cards. He figured his eyes were probably red and puffy, as he felt his eyelids longing to come together. He fought it away.

Tossing the cigarette out, he returned his attention to the room and took his seat on the red couch, beside the man who’d just called to him.

“Okay, let me see what my cards have in store for me,” he said, a forced smile on his exhausted face as he took them off the table.

“They don’t like you anymore, Aram,” his friend smirked.

Aram raised his eyebrows and looked at him scornfully. A dark-haired man with light-brown eyes met his gaze through a pair of glasses, a smug smile on his round face. That was Daniel; a thirty-three-year-old, brown-haired chunky man–who detested losing; but then, on the other hand, who loved losing a game to anybody?

To his right, in a red armchair, was seated Arthur; tall, also thirty-three-years-old, black-haired, with an athletic body. Daniel only wore his glasses while he was playing cards or driving, but Aram couldn’t recall a day when Arthur didn’t have his prescription glasses pinned to his sharp nose.

In the card game favored by Aram and his friends, which was called blot, two pairs of players were in each game. Arthur was always Daniel’s partner. While they were playing, time lost its meaning. Once they had sat in that very room playing the whole night, till the dawn. The rising sun, approaching the dirty windows of the apartment, reminded them to get their asses out of their chairs and go home.

“According to the score,” Aram pointed to the notebook lying on the table in front of him, “the cards like both me and Mark.”

“Oh, please, Aram,” Arthur blurted out grumpily. “We all know you cheat. You always pad your score.”

“Why should I?” Aram grinned sarcastically. “I win regardless–”

“Regardless of your partner’s luck,” Daniel curtly broke in. Arthur’s laugh followed instantly.

“Okay,” Aram blew out his breath through his nose. “I have to admit, Mark has unusual luck at this game.” He dropped his eyes to his cards. Not bad, he thought. “You’d do well to remember that luck is fifty percent of winning, Danny.”

“Sure,” Daniel said dismissively.

“Whose turn?” Arthur asked.

“Hey, Mark,” Daniel called out to the thin guy sitting opposite Aram, his head tilted and his eyes dropped to his cards. “Earth is on the line, Mark,” Daniel teased snapping his fingers. “Do you copy? Earth to Mars, Earth to Mars, over.”

“I can hear you,” Mark murmured in an undertone. He raised his head, seemingly disconnected from life, his eyes narrow and gloomy. Aram wondered whether Mark had felt the same uneasiness he had experienced while standing at the window. “I’m thinking.”

“Be quick, please,” Arthur grumbled. “I hate when your turn comes. Think fast! This is a card game, man, not a chess game.”

“How long have we been playing? My head is throbbing. I need a moment, okay?”

Suddenly Aram felt desolate and bereft again. He forgot his whereabouts, the room vanished from his sight, and his friends’ voices became faint in his ears. The light was gone, as though the heavy night hanging outside had forced its horrendous blackness into the apartment and had swallowed everything.

It only lasted a second. Aram was thrown back into the lightened room, holding his cards before his eyes. He felt as if his heart had just stopped, the air had lingered in his lungs and the blood had frozen in his veins. Eyes widened and appalled, he shifted his gaze from the cards and looked around, wondering whether the odd sensation had occurred only to him or also to his friends. He sensed nothing strange about them.

Aram reached for his cell phone lying on the table. He wanted to call his wife regardless of the early morning, aware that she was asleep and her cell was on mute so as not to wake their new-born son. Now he regretted that he had left her and his son alone at home and had come over to Mark’s apartment where sleep was the last thing anyone thought about. No matter how tired you were, when you crossed the doorway and entered this apartment to play cards, the night promised to be long, and sleeplessness was in the forecast.

He realized that his battery was dead. He could ask for one of his friends’ phones, but he thought better of it.

“Aram,” called Mark who was seated directly across the table from him, “Your turn, bud.”

[] Chapter 2: The Party

Daniel

Daniel loved khash–an old Armenian dish, formerly a nutritious winter food. Starting with late autumn, or as soon as winter spread its freezing arms over the country, in old Armenia people had begun making khash. Following tradition, khash was made by boiling the ingredient all night long. Of course, it could be cooked during the day, but the tradition was to boil it at night. Since the ingredients included the shaved legs of a cow, perhaps this was just as well, especially for those with tender sensibilities.

In the Middle Ages, rich Armenians left cows’ legs to the poor people who had discovered this delicious dish that became known as khash. If the rich people had discovered the tasty main dish that could be made with the legs they discarded, then the needy people would have gone starving. So they built their fires at night and ate khash in the early morning while the nobility was fast asleep. The host cooked the khash, and laid the table with sliced radishes, mineral water and the Armenian bread, lavash, a thin bread-like flat cake, though five times larger.

Served in large plates, Khash looks like a white cloudy soup with the meat of the cow legs floating in it. The lavash is torn into small pieces, arranged on a plate and is used to dip into the khash.

Khash must be eaten by hand, no forks, or spoons. Use of cutlery is cause for teasing.

Khash parties are events comparable to a birthday or a wedding party for the Armenian people. In old Armenia, the host always laid two tables and men and women were seated separately. Though this tradition is no longer strictly followed, the men still like to sit together in one nook, eat khash, drink vodka, and chat.

You’ll scarcely find an Armenian who doesn’t like khash. Daniel loved making it by himself. The card game wasn’t the only reason he and his friends would be spending a sleepless night in Mark’s apartment. There, in the kitchen the gas stove was flaming, a large saucepan on it. Every now and again Daniel would put his cards on the table and rush to the kitchen to check on the khash. After carefully skimming the foam off, he’d return to the couch saying:

“Man, it smells great.”

Nobody would do that except Daniel. His friends knew he loved cooking, and not only khash.

The apartment in which they were playing cards belonged to Mark and was vacant, so the friends used it for their card games. Mark lived with his mother in another apartment. Since his older brother had left the country two years ago to take a good job offer, it was just the two of them.

Mark also owned a two-story villa in the country in Dilijan. Over the summer, when the friends were vacationing, they’d spend a few days at Mark’s villa. Daniel always took charge of the cooking. Nobody but him dared to come close to the gas stove or the fire when he was making shish kebab. Nobody argued, aware that Daniel was the best cook amongst the friends.

Knowing the process of making khash would take eight hours, the friends had decided beforehand to spend the time playing cards. Daniel couldn’t remember how many sets they had already played. He adored the game, but after six hours, it had become extremely boring.

Looking to his right at Aram who’d buried his gaze in the cards, Daniel sighed. Aram was a good player. To beat him, he and his partner Arthur had to play carefully. The guy was clever, could count the cards and remember them one by one. But also he knew, as Aram had just mentioned, that fifty percent of winning this game depended on luck.

Aram remained vigilant, paying close attention to the game, regardless how many times Daniel teased him by calling him a bad player. Aram was a dependable man in his late twenties, sometimes too quiet. He preferred listening to the others and applying reason before responding. At times, it irritated Daniel. He didn’t know whether Aram did it on purpose or if it was his character, but he hated this habit of Aram’s of trying to look cleverer than his friends. A man shouldn’t try to show off amongst his friends. That was how Daniel saw it. Every now and again, Daniel was sure Aram had tried to cross that line.

He’d never debated that unpleasant subject with Aram, but he had, two or three times, with Mark. Nobody had pointed it out but Daniel. Mark had assured him that Aram was a good friend, and if he had done something wrong, he’d done it without meaning any harm.

Mark was seated across the table from Aram. Those two always played together as partners. Aram–the mind, and Mark–the luck. Cards loved Mark, a thin man who had just celebrated his thirtieth birthday. Once his hair had been dark brown, but the gift of youth had slowly faded away, and his hair was graying. Daniel was the eldest in the room, Arthur was three months younger, but he couldn’t recall finding a white hair on his head while looking in a mirror.

Daniel put his last cards on the table. He smiled, his eyes gleaming.

“This round is ours!” he announced happily.

“Mark!” Aram shouted grumpily at his partner. “Follow the game. What the hell? Why did you play a cross king card? A big mistake.”

“Man, I’m tired,” Mark yawned as he spoke. “You’re right, it was a mistake of mine, but my mind’s stopped working normally.”

“If you concentrate on this round and we win it, we’ll win the game.”

“What?” Arthur exclaimed. “What is your score?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Aram waved a dismissive hand. “It’s going to be the last round. Whoever wins this hand wins the game.” Then he locked his eyes with Mark’s. “Fight the sleep. I’m not gonna lose the game to these two slackers.”

“Hey, quit shouting at Mark,” Daniel said sarcastically. “Take the cards. You’re the dealer of this round.”

Arthur advanced the cards to the middle of the table. Sniffing and muttering something under his breath Aram shuffled the pack.

“I’ll do my best to win it,” Mark assured his partner. “But this is gonna be the last game, guys. I’m really tired.”

“You need to cheer up,” Arthur said.

“Yeah. Good idea. What time is it, by the way?” Daniel instinctively reached for his cell phone.

“Ten past three,” said a guy, sitting between Daniel and Mark. A tall lusty man with a good athletic body. He’d be a good fit for a bodyguard job. Although his age was identical to Mark’s, he was bald-headed. His eyes were light, and he had a carefully designed beard on his face as if the absence of the hair on his head had made him take extra care of the hair on his face. His name was Aris.

“It’ll take another two hours for the khash to be ready,” Daniel said. “So guys, we have to play on.”

“I mean to call it quits.” Arthur looked at his friends. “Anybody hungry? Let’s have something; otherwise, my stomach’s going to grumble for the next hour. And let’s have some vodka too.”

“I like that idea,” Aram grinned delightedly. “Let’s play this round and eat something.”

“Aris,” said Mark. “You’re not doing anything. How ‘bout you rustling up something? There’s food in the fridge.”

“Just because I’m not playing, doesn’t mean I’m your waitress,” Aris grumbled, but he stood up anyway.

“Don’t forget the drinks,” Arthur teased.

“Go get it yourself,” Aris shot back.

Daniel watched him walk out of the room. They rarely let Aris play. The game was one of the rare things Aris wasn’t good at. He was a very clever man and studied a lot. He was very good at physics, history, mathematics, almost everything but chemistry. He hated it. As much as Aram tried to look clever and steady, Daniel would never ask him for advice. He would go to Aris–a genius, considering his young age.

Sometimes Aram and Aris would argue a topic related to physics or history using all the might of their knowledge. Almost every time Aram lost to Aris. That’s why Daniel counted him as a genius.

“Hey, lay off him,” Aram said, displeasure in his voice.

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” Arthur responded.

The friends liked to make jokes about each other sometimes. But as far as Daniel could see, Aram didn’t let it go too far, especially when the jokes concerned Aris and Mark. Those men were his close friends, his classmates he’d known for twenty-four years. Daniel had met them ten years ago. His brother-in-law was Mark’s college friend. Fate had intended that Aram made new friends, and Daniel was one of them, but Daniel realized he couldn’t replace Mark or Aris in Aram’s heart.

Arthur took the pack of cigarettes lying on the table and fished one out.

“Man, please, don’t smoke in here,” Daniel raised his hand into the air.

“You can’t send us to the window or out of the room every time,” Arthur said as he put the cigarette to his mouth.

Daniel was once a smoker, then having had health problems, had quit. Now he detested smoke. He regularly asked his smoking friends–Aram, Mark, and Arthur–not to pollute the air in the room with cigarette smoke. Usually, it worked with Aram and Mark.

That’s why their other friend, Grig, who lived next door, had been sent home. Grig smoked too much. Daniel and Aris couldn’t stand him in the small room all night long. Grig had been asked to leave and come back in the morning when the khash was ready.

Besides Grig, they were expecting another two friends, Daniel’s brother-in-law, Jacob, and another one who was not close, Areg, who also had money in the khash party.

“It’s like talking to a wall,” Daniel muttered as Arthur lit his cigarette.

[] Chapter 3: Dead night

Arthur

The apartment on the fourth floor in the entrance next to Mark’s was Arthur’s. He’d known Mark all his life, but they hadn’t been close before. Every so often, when he’d encountered Mark with his friends, he’d hung out with them for a beer. The main thing bringing Arthur closer to the group of friends was the game–blot.

One summer evening, while having a beer, Aram had turned the conversation to blot. Mark offered the use of his empty apartment as a place for the game. Now this room had become some sort of little casino place. Just opposite the door was the bedroom with a double bed where Mark brought his girlfriend sometimes. Arthur didn’t do romance and had never had a serious relationship. He was a fan of one-night stands, and he often asked Mark for the apartment keys to use his bedroom to bang his newest girlfriend.

He knew that Mark’s other friends didn’t ask for such favors. Aram and Daniel were both married. Aram had a baby son while Daniel had a ten-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl. And Aris was a man who never talked about his girlfriends. At least, Arthur had never heard him talking about them. From what he knew, Aris had had a fiancé two years ago, but then for some unknown reason, it hadn’t worked out. However, it wasn’t his business to ask Aris what had happened between them. He assumed Aram and Mark knew, but if they did, they kept it to themselves.

The table was set, the half-full bottle of vodka in the middle. None of them, except Arthur, had realized how hungry they’d been until the appetizing smell of sausages and cheese filled the air.

“So, what did you do?” Mark asked Arthur.

Arthur was telling them a story about two good-looking girls. He always liked to tell the stories of girls he’d banged. He was a good storyteller and could easily draw everybody’s attention to him, causing them to want more.

This particular adventure involved two beautiful Russian girls he had encountered in Moscow at the building where he’d been renting an apartment. According to him, he’d had a black, modded Range Rover back then. “With that car, guys,” he had once said, “every girl I met while sitting behind the steering wheel of my Range Rover, I swear to you, that girl was mine. I could always get in their pants—no problem.”

The car was famous amongst the friends. Many stories of Arthur’s included that car. The friends had all been a little sorry to see it go when he’d sold it a year ago.

In today’s story, Arthur had come home from work and had been about to park his car in the underground parking garage when he was stopped by the two girls.

“I opened the window,” Arthur gave a brief glance at Mark. “They said hello, one of them, a hot, black-haired girl with pink cheeks, leaned into the car. Frankly, both of them were hot. The other one was blond, thin and tall. Big boobs. No silicon, I checked,” he added with a smug smile on his face and looked over at his friends. Daniel laughed, and the others grinned at him. “Okay, so she leaned in, half her body in my car so her face was close to mine. I didn’t really expect that . . .”

“Not that you weren’t happy about it,” Aris remarked with a bit of sarcasm.

“Yeah,” Arthur admitted. “Okay, you get it, right? She was right in front of me, so close all I could smell was her perfume.”

“We got that. Go on,” Aris said.

“She said she’d noticed me in that car many times before.”

“Where?” Daniel interrupted.

”I found out later she and her friend were my neighbors and owned an apartment two floors above mine,” Arthur went on, entranced by his own story. “I hadn’t seen them before that day. She stretched out her hand and told me her name, which, guys, I can’t remember now,” Aris and Mark chortled; Aram smiled and pursed his lips. “Don’t laugh at me,” Arthur continued. “I was only with her twice. That’s it. It was winter, too cold outside. You know the weather in Moscow. She was shaking violently, her lips quivering. She said they’d been waiting for a taxi for ten minutes already but couldn’t get one. She asked me if I could drive them downtown.”

“Just like that?” Mark asked, chewing on his sausage.

“I’m telling you, that car was magic. It drew beautiful girls like a magnet,” Arthur said.

“So you took them downtown,” Aram prodded.

“Yes. We chatted, then they asked me to pull over at a club. I stopped the car, and they convinced me to go in with them. They took me in the club and bought me a drink. We danced. Then I spent that night in their flat, having sex with both of them at the same time.”

“Yeah,” Daniel sighed mournfully, “lucky.”

“Really, guys, that car did amazing things,” Arthur said. He reached out for the vodka bottle and began refilling his friends’ glasses. “I’m telling you, I didn’t miss a girl with that car. You should’ve seen it. The interior was fantastically designed with oak door handles and steering wheel and a Kenwood audio system. The dashboard lights were blue neon.”

“Why did you sell it then?” Aris asked with a snort of surprise.

“You know, the car was a beauty, I loved it, but I spent too much money on it. When you get your hands on such a good car, it’s always hard to get rid of it; but somehow, and I don’t really know why, I took it to a mechanic every week. I spent days in that fucking repair shop.”

“The cost of nice, sexy girls,” Aris muttered under his breath.

“Exactly,” Arthur snorted with a laugh. “But, anyway, I can get hot girls without that car, too.”

“We know,” Mark said.

“Okay, let’s leave those girls for a moment.” Daniel reached for his glass.

“Oh, man. Sorry. I forgot you’re a married man,” Arthur teased. “Your life is your home, your wife, and children.”

“I’m still a man,” Daniel interrupted, displeasure in his voice.

“You cheat on your wife?” Arthur raised his eyebrows.

“That’s none of your business,” Daniel tutted.

“Then why–?”

“Just skip it, okay?” Daniel said. They went quiet for a few moments. Daniel lifted his glass. “Guys, I’d like to make a toast,” he said. His eyes ran over his friends.

“We’re all ears,” Aram said.

Arthur looked at him with a slight grin curling his lips. Aram, the youngest of the group, was only a few inches shorter than Arthur. He had a thin face, sharp nose, and dark slicked-back hair. Aram was a tidy person–always cleans-haven–his job demanded it. He owned a little business at the center of the city of Yerevan, importing some sort of supplies from China.

“He can’t get over the game he lost,” Arthur smirked. Luck had deserted Aram and Mark at the very last moment. They had lost the game to Arthur and his partner. At first Aram had blamed Mark. A good chance of winning had slipped through their hands; Mark had spoiled it all. “Forget it. You’ll beat us next time.”

“It’s not about the game,” Aram said tonelessly, his eyes narrowed at Arthur. “I’m a bit tired, I guess. Need some sleep.”

“We’d better get some sleep if we want to be awake in the morning for the khash party,” Mark echoed his friend’s comment. “I’m so exhausted that vodka makes my head spin.”

“Look at me,” said Daniel with an ear-to-ear smile. He lifted two of his fingers into the air. “How many fingers can you see?”

“Twenty-one,” Aris snorted a laugh and chewed his sausage.

“I only have twenty–ten fingers and ten toes. How could I show you twenty-one?” Daniel raised his eyebrows.

“Apparently you forgot about your biggest one,” Aris teased. “Or don’t you have it?”

“Want me to show you?” Daniel asked jocularly and was on the point of standing up when Aram grabbed him by his arm.

“Hey! You were about to make a toast,” Aram said. “Vodka’s getting warm. Make it quick.”

“This is the man!” Arthur said, pointing to Aram. “Unlike the rest of you, he’s an adult.” Clearing his throat and speaking in a little girl’s voice, he mimicked Aris and Daniel, “Oh, you don’t have your twenty-first finger. Oh, I have it. Want to make sure. Unzip my jeans.”

Everybody laughed loudly. Mark’s voice was the loudest in the room and shook the windows.

“So, go on with your toast,” Arthur went on, good-naturedly ribbing his friends.

Daniel offered up a toast to friends, all friends, both those present and those somewhere else, most likely sleeping calmly in their own soft beds. They all toasted and drank up.

Arthur liked vodka. He could drink a bottle and still stand on his feet steadily. He enjoyed every glass he drank with his friends until the bottle was empty. He would have asked to open another one, but Daniel, coming from the kitchen, announced that the khash was ready.

“That’s it then.” Arthur rose, taking the pack of cigarettes from the table. “I’d better go home, and you guys need to get some sleep, too,” he said as he put a cigarette to his lips and lit it. “Don’t switch off your cells. I’ll call you in the morning to wake you up, okay?”

“Don’t worry.” Mark stood up, lighting a cigarette, too. “I’ll set an alarm.” He reached for his smartphone.

“I think I’ll go home, too,” Aris said. He cupped his face and stroked his beard.

“What are you talking about?” Mark spoke up. “It’s late, bro. You stay here. There’s plenty of room.”

“Yeah, dude,” Daniel murmured. “You can’t drive; you’ve had too much to drink.”

“My place is three hundred yards down the street, guys,” Aris smirked. “I’ll walk it in a few minutes at most.”

“All the way there, and then back three hours later. What’s the point?” Aram asked as he threw himself into an armchair, put his clasped hands behind his head, and leaned against the back.

“We’ve got a double bed in the bedroom,” Mark reminded them.

“You want him to stay in the fridge?” Aram asked quickly. “There’s only one radiator, and it hardly keeps this room warm. So, guys, I’m going to stay in this room. Even God can’t force me into that bedroom.”

“I don’t know what God can force you to do, but I’m leaving. See you in the morning, guys,” Arthur said and headed for the door.

“I’ll see you off,” Mark puffed on his cigarette, following him.

Mark opened the door. They stepped out of the apartment and walked into the dark hallway, lit only by the light spilling out of the door.

“What happened to the lights?” Mark wondered aloud.

“Who knows?” Arthur pressed the elevator button in annoyance. Nothing happened. “Fuck. It seems that something’s wrong with the elevator, too.”

“It can’t be a power failure.” Mark left the door propped open and stepped over to the stairwell. “My place still has electricity. You can stay or you can take the stairs. The lights are off on every floor.”

“Shit, just my luck,” Arthur murmured in disappointment, realizing he had to walk down eight floors in the dark. He took out his smartphone, tapped the screen, and it glared white. The darkness now concealed very little. “Hope there isn’t a maniac down there,” he joked as he took the stairs. “Don’t oversleep in the morning,” he added over his shoulder.

“I’ve already set an alarm,” Mark reminded his friend.

“Okay.”

Arthur pressed on into the dense darkness, holding his smartphone to his chest. The meager flashlight of the phone struggled against the darkness, with just enough power to illuminate a step ahead.

Every floor was engulfed in darkness and emptiness. The neighborhood was asleep. He moved carefully to avoid making any noise. As hard as he tried, every time his foot hit the concrete, the sound of his footfall echoed in the stairwell . . . and not in the usual way. Something was wrong with the sound. Arthur felt it but didn’t pay it any attention. He, too, was exhausted, his eyelids longed to close. So he picked up his pace and started descending faster until he reached the ground floor and pushed the entrance door wide open.

Any other night, cold winter air would have hit his face, sending a chill over his spine, but tonight it was absent. It was like the air was odorless, dead, and motionless.

The chill of the outdoors pressed upon him. He exhaled in puffs of clouds and regarded the street. Aram’s and Daniel’s cars were parked a few steps ahead. The street lamps strangely were off, leaving the street in absolute darkness. Arthur looked up into the dark sky in wonder–no moon, no stars and the sky obscuring the city. He couldn’t remember whether the sky had been cloudy at sunset.

It seemed odd to him, but Arthur just shrugged and made his way toward home. What else could he do? His mind yearned for sleep right now, nothing else really mattered. Until morning.

He opened the door of his apartment, slowly, so as not to wake up his mother and brother. He didn’t even check to see if the lights worked. Holding his smartphone flashlight, he made his way toward his bedroom, kicked off his shoes and lay on his bed. He didn’t go to his brother’s bedroom to see if he was in his bed. But why would he? He was sure his brother, Alex, had already been asleep for at least five hours. In his fatigue, he forgot that Alex snored loudly, the sound always making its way through the walls and filling Arthur’s bedroom. Tonight the apartment stood in quiet.

The only thing that seemed strange to Arthur was the absence of messages from his new girlfriend. He had met her a week ago. Ever since, they were used to sending messages to each other late into the night. Tonight, in the middle of the game, the messages had abruptly stopped coming. Every time Arthur had tapped his smartphone, Daniel had become furious.

“Stay focused on the game,” he had said.

But then, at just about three o’clock in the morning, she’d gone offline. Had she gone to bed? She may have, of course, but if she’d done so, she would surely have written ‘good night, my mustang.’ The message delighted him. He knew why she called him a mustang–because of the delicious sex. One thing Arthur was sure of: he was very good in bed.

He checked the inbox once again to make sure he hadn’t missed a message. No unread ones. And that was the moment he observed that his phone didn’t have bars. That could be why he hadn’t received anything from his girlfriend. Was something wrong with his smartphone? He began brushing his fingers across the colorful screen and checked the phone settings. Nothing suspicious. The phone apparently had lost service sometime during the night.

The problem could wait until morning. He put the smartphone on the stand beside the bed and lifted the covers to his neck. The faint light of the phone’s screen died away leaving the room in absolute darkness.

Arthur didn’t know that from that day forward his phone would never catch another signal. Because there wouldn’t be a signal . . . ever again.

[] Chapter 4: The game is on

Mark

A familiar, faint voice reached Mark from somewhere beyond. At first he ignored it. The muffled voice kept coming, idling at the back of his mind, sounding as if in another world, but Mark held on to his dream. The distant voice pressed on, with invisible hands grabbing his mind and pulling it toward consciousness. Mark recognized it, but now he hated it because it took him away from his flawless dream.

He opened his heavy eyes and dull daylight filled his view. He stared at the ceiling for what seemed to be an eternity, the familiar voice reverberating in his ears. It took him some time until his mind registered what his eyes could see.

Never before had Mark seen such daylight. It looked like it was a cloudy day with an overcast sky, but the light was surreal, as though daylight, dim and cloudy, worked its way through very dirty windows.

Finally, as Mark registered his name coming from the voice, he became fully awake. Arthur was shouting his name from outside. Why was he doing that? Mark sat up, taking his head in his hands and sighed, feeling weak, his hands and legs obeying him with difficulty. He struggled to his feet and looked at the couch where Aram and Daniel were fast asleep. Aris had taken the double bed in the cold bedroom, though Mark had warned against sleeping there. Mark had put the two armchairs together, making a short bed. Although he didn’t fit in it completely and his legs were swung over one of the armchairs, it had felt comfortable.

Then Arthur’s voice hit his ears again, and Mark headed for the window.

Opening it, he leaned his head out into the chilly air. Arthur, standing at the entrance, saw Mark and whooped.

“What’s the matter?” Mark called back. “Why are you shouting in the early morning? We don’t want to wake the entire neighborhood.”

“There is no fuckin’ neighborhood,” Arthur yelled. His voice sounded queer, unusual, as if working its way through an enormous glassy wall. “Thank God you’re still there!”

“What do you mean?” Mark wondered and then added quickly, “Come on up here. We’ll talk after you get inside.”

Arthur reluctantly pulled the entrance door open and vanished from Mark’s sight. Mark glanced over the empty street below. Not a sound stirred the air. Dead silence. It was odd even for the early morning.

Mark closed the window and turned around, then walked over to the middle of the room.

“Guys,” he called to his sleeping friends. “Wake up. I guess Arthur’s playing another stupid joke.”

Daniel yawned in answer.

“Guys!” He called again, now pulling his boots over his feet.

“Just a few minutes, please,” Daniel muttered under his breath and went back to enjoying his sleep.

“Khash is waiting.” Mark didn’t intend to give up.

Then, heading for the bedroom, he shouted, “Aris! Are you awake? Time to eat.”

“Give me a minute,” Aris’ voice came from the bedroom. In spite of Arthur’s yelling, Aris’ voice was calm.

“Okay. Arthur’s on his way up here. Hurry, and see if you can get Aram and Daniel up. Seems to me it may be a difficult morning.” As he finished, he opened the apartment door and walked into the hallway.

Arthur’s footsteps echoed there, and again, his voice barely made its way to Mark’s ears. It was audible, but vague, like hearing a voice underwater.

“Mark?” Arthur called.

Because of the strange way Arthur’s voice sounded, Mark couldn’t pinpoint how many floors below his friend was.

“I’m here,” he said back. “Haven’t gone anywhere.”

“Just stay there. Don’t go back in.”

Was this some kind of joke? But Mark stayed in the hallway, as promised. He fished out his pack of cigarettes and lit one. As he took the first drag, his friend appeared on the stairwell.

“What’s going on?” Mark asked instantly, watching his friend gasping for air. Arthur came to a stop, and leaned against the railing, trying to catch his breath. “No elevator yet?”

Arthur just nodded.

“What’s the rush, man? You could’ve climbed it slower.”

Mark glanced around suspiciously. What was wrong with his friend’s voice?

“I thought I might be absolutely alone,” Arthur panted.

“Quit pulling my leg,” Mark smiled awkwardly. He put his cigarette to his mouth. “I guess every neighbor is cursing you now. You’ve spoiled their Sunday morning.”

“You don’t understand yet,” Arthur breathed a lungful of air, climbing the last few steps up the stairs. Mark stared at him for a long moment. “No one cares. There is no one to care.”

“No one?” Mark murmured and dropped his eyes downwards to the floor as his mind started to process Arthur’s words. Then he chortled. “You’re kidding, right? Get over it and let’s go inside. I tried to wake them up, but…”

“I assure you, I’m not.” Arthur sniffed in frustration. “Are the guys in there?”

“Yes,” Mark managed to say. He stared at his friend perplexed, the cigarette smoking between his fingers.

Arthur closed in on him and put his hands on his shoulder. “Did you see them there? You sure they’re in the apartment?”

“What the fuck?” Mark pushed Arthur’s hands off his shoulders roughly. He tossed the cigarette away and spun around. “Let’s go check on them. I hate it when you make such jokes.”

“No jokes,” Arthur shoved Mark out of his way. He hurried into the apartment.

Mark looked at him obliquely. He said nothing, just followed and closed the door.

In the room, Arthur was shaking Aram awake.

“Get up! Now!” He started shouting again. “There is something odd going on out there. Get the fuck up!”

“Guys, get up. Arthur’s gone mad,” Mark mocked his friend.

“What’s the rush?” Daniel murmured, forcing his eyes open. “Arthur, stop it. Let me sleep a–”

He was interrupted by the sound of shattering glass. Arthur had taken a water glass from the coffee table and thrown it to the floor with his all might.

“What the hell? What are you doing, man?” Mark roared in annoyance. “Now you’ll have to clean it up.”

“What’s going on here?” Aram sat bolt upright. He blinked several times, regarded his friends and then looked at the broken pieces of glass splashed all over the parquet floor.

“Arthur, I don’t understand . . .” Daniel began, but Arthur cut him off with a gesture.

“You’ve gotta get up right now. You’ll see,” he said, his voice calm and steady.

“What is it?” That was Aram asking, his anxious eyes steady on Arthur. “Did you see something?”

“Quite the contrary.” Arthur raised his eyes and looked right into Aram’s, understanding that Aram was the only man who would believe him. “I saw nothing.”

“You can’t be serious,” Mark laughed, not because it was funny, but because he sensed danger, and by laughing tried to push it away. Aram’s abrupt move wiped the smile from his face.

Aram shot to his feet and bolted toward the window.

“What is it, Aram?” Daniel called after him, but Aram ignored him.

Mark knew his friend too well. Aram had never let his worries get the better of him. If he looked worried, then something was really amiss here. But Mark couldn’t understand what had gone wrong out there. He would accept that Arthur’s voice traveled strangely in the air, the daylight was unusual, and the street oddly empty, but what could all this mean?

Aram opened the window and stuck his head out.

“Guys, I know this sounds insane. But you’ve got to believe me on this,” Arthur was saying.

Aram stepped back and took his head into his hands, muttering something under his breath. All sounds muted in Mark’s ears except for Aram’s voice. He knew Daniel was questioning Arthur, but he couldn’t hear them talk. It was like, in some strange way, Aram’s mutter volume was turned up and amplified over the room.

“Unbelievable. Unbelievable. Unbelievable.” Aram was repeating the word over and over.

Then he looked Mark right in the eye. Fear was evident in Aram’s expression; his attitude conveyed something terrible, something that set Mark’s whole body to shaking. Time stopped for a long moment while they stared at each other. And then, in an abrupt move, Arthur’s voice returned to the room and washed over Mark.

“I found my apartment empty,” he was telling Daniel. Aram had stopped saying his ‘unbelievable’ word and tilted his head. Mark wondered if his mind was in the same room with them or if it had traveled somewhere afield. But he didn’t call his friend’s name; he kept his ear to Arthur’s story, the strangest story he was ever going to hear. And after that story, he would find himself in a world where he would have to struggle for his life, but he wouldn’t know what he was fighting.

“I know it’s crazy. I wouldn’t believe what I’m going to tell you guys if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes,” Arthur went on. “I knew something was amiss when I entered home last night, but I ignored it. Who would take it seriously, really? It’s like I entered a nightmare–”

“Man, I don’t quite follow you. What are you trying to tell us?” Daniel interrupted, his face falling. “Let’s be quick, please.”

As he finished the door swung open. Aris showed up looking drowsy, but obviously in a better mood than anyone else in the room.

“Everybody is up. Nice,” he said clapping his hands. “Let’s start the party.”

Mutely, they stared at the beefy man. Aris’ gaze ran over his friends. Finally, the mournful atmosphere of the room sank in on him.

“Anything wrong?” he murmured, the happy mood imprinted on his face fading away.

Arthur sucked in a great lungful of air and went back to telling his story. “Nobody was home. Mom’s and Alex’s beds weren’t made-up.”

“Maybe they had to go somewhere,” Mark supposed.

“No,” Arthur faced Mark who remembered him steady and blithe. Now his eyes were dark. Sadness filled them. “They would’ve told me if they had to go somewhere. Mom always makes up her bed. I found Alex’s cell in his room. It was dead, wouldn’t turn on. Also my mother’s phone was in the apartment, too. Everything was left untouched, except there was nobody but me. Believe me, I felt emptiness like it was a living thing and it wrapped around me. The street is completely empty, Mark. Just look out the window, it’s odd even for this early in the morning.” Then he looked at Aram who was now listening to his friend carefully. “I guess you already understand what I’m talking about.”

“Guys, can anybody tell me what’s going on here?” That was Aris asking.

“The world’s gone, everybody’s gone,” Arthur insisted, his voice loud and raspy. “We’re the only ones left.”

As he finished, quiet fell over the room. Everybody stared at Arthur.

How could it be possible?

Mark blinked. As far as he knew, Arthur didn’t use drugs. He looked sober now, but what he had just said didn’t make sense.

“We can’t be sure yet,” Aram recovered himself and stepped away from the window, the broken glass crunching beneath his boots. Mark knew his friend well, and could see that the shock had worn off.

“I think you’re giving too much meaning to details,” Daniel attempted to smile and bring a bit of cheer into the room.

“Look, man, I’m not an idiot,” Arthur said crossly. “Where is your cell? Look at the screen. It won’t have bars. The connection is out. The lights in my apartment went down. No electricity in the entrance or in the streets, and the elevator is shut down.”

“Wait a minute,” Aris stepped into the conversation. “If the electricity is out, then it would be for the whole building including this apartment. We can’t have light by magic, Arthur.”

“Go check the elevator,” Arthur said.

“We can check on Grig,” Mark said. “He’s next door.”

“Go!” Daniel said in a peremptory tone.

“If Arthur is right,” Aram’s voice made Mark stop by the door, “then Grig’s apartment will be empty, too.” He paused and peered at Arthur–talking telepathically. “I doubt there will be anybody.” He reached for his coat tossed over a chair, and pulled it on.

“If you believe me, then where are you going?” Arthur asked.

“Sorry, man. I’m sorry for your family, but I have to go check on mine. Maybe this weird thing is happening in this block of the city only,” Aram supposed, his voice low and uncertain. “I’ve got to know for sure.”

“Hey!” Arthur called, but Aram had already torn from the room.

Mark ran after him. They got to the hallway at the same time.

“Aram,” Mark stopped him and instantly noticed the change in the tone of his voice as it traveled through the hallway air. The sensation of talking underwater returned to him. Aram must’ve felt it, too. Confused, he glanced around at the walls before his worried eyes rested on Mark. “Let’s check on Grig first, then we’ll decide what to do next. If Arthur is telling the truth, who knows what we should expect to find out there.”

“I don’t care. I just need to get home.”

He quickly turned around and started descending the stairs, taking two at a time. As Mark opened his mouth to call his friend, Aris and Daniel appeared simultaneously behind him. Mark looked at them.

“He’s going home. I couldn’t stop him.”

“He’s panicking,” Daniel thinned his lips as he said it.

“Hey. What’s up with your voices?” Aris exclaimed as he looked from Daniel to Mark with an impatient air. “You hear what I hear?”

“I guess so,” Mark sighed.

“It’s not strange,” Daniel chortled. “It’s just low . . .” He looked at Mark. “Did you knock on Grig’s door?”

“Not yet.”

Daniel approached the door and started knocking on it. At first lightly, then, not getting any answer, he banged on it harder. He pressed his ear against the door.

“What is it? Can you hear anything?” Aris asked worriedly.

“He won’t hear anything.” Arthur came out of the apartment. “I’m not crazy, guys. You’ve got to believe me. I can feel it with every ounce of my body that we’re alone. You should’ve felt it, too.”

“Okay,” Daniel raised his hands into the air. “Let’s stay focused.”

“Focused for what?” Arthur shouted angrily. “You don’t get it, Danny. Maybe you–”

“What you want me to do, man?” Daniel lost his temper and yelled at Arthur. “You think I’m gonna believe in this craziness? It’s a coincidence. Your family went somewhere without saying a word to you. Maybe they forgot, or they told you, but you didn’t pay attention. Grig is probably fast asleep and doesn’t hear the knock. There may be a problem with the lights.”

“Guys, guys, knock it off,” Aris stepped between Daniel and Arthur.

“Where is your phone? I told you. Look at the screen,” Arthur reminded quickly.

But Daniel continued shouting, his eyebrows furrowed. “Fuck the phone. There is obviously a problem with the electricity. That’s why the cell phones don’t work. If you still believe in this craziness, you can go jump out the window.”

“Danny, stop it,” Mark came up and put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Nobody needs to jump out the window. Let’s calm down and go out to see what’s going on, okay? I know Aram. He wouldn’t rush out if he hadn’t sensed something.”

“You think too much of Aram,” Daniel disagreed, twisting his head left and right. “But I have to confess I’m a little bit surprised that Aram believes in this shit.”

“Let’s just go outside.”

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Arthur said in a calm tone. Mark looked at him with questioning eyebrows. Arthur exhaled mournfully and averted his eyes, facing the wall behind him. He leaned against it with his elbows. “Danny will assume I’m mad, but the air out there is changed, as if it’s got an invisible hand that squeezes your mind.”

“You see?” Daniel curtly broke in. “How can you believe this shit?”

“Okay,” Arthur turned around and pinned his eyes into Daniel’s. “Let’s all go. You’ll see it.”

“We’d better put our coats on. It’s cold outside,” Mark didn’t let Daniel speak. “Besides, Aram is alone out there. If there is anything, I mean something dangerous, we can’t let him face it alone.”

“Okay,” Daniel assented, a slight smug smile on his face. “Let’s go.”

They entered the apartment in silence, took their coats and marched out. Mark locked the door and started to descend the stairs, following his friends.

“You can’t deny that our voices sound strange in here,” Arthur broke the silence, addressing Daniel.

Daniel hummed in answer. Mark couldn’t see his face, but he was sure that even Daniel had started doubting.

“What do you think, Aris?” Mark asked with a whisper.

“No idea,” his friend answered lowly.

It was the first time Aris had given Mark such an answer. He had always had an idea about everything they had ever talked about before. Now thoughtful, Aris had dropped his eyes to the stairs. Mark guessed his friend had some theories he wasn’t ready to share yet.

They reached the ground floor. Daniel was the first to step out through the entrance and Mark was the last. Outside the building, he inhaled the air and realized what Arthur had been talking about. Everybody stopped, glanced around, and an absolute silence fell over them.

Stillness.

Mark had never heard it before. Every sound absent, leaving the street in such quiet that without straining his ears, Mark could hear the thump-thump-thump of his and his friends’ hearts.

Arthur’s description about the invisible hand coming down over them from the sky was true. It was hard to put into words but easy to feel the pressure that radiated from the surroundings and the cold air. Mark’s head swam for a moment. He wanted to cry out loudly and ask whoever had done this to them to let him out of this cage. It seemed to him to be a cage, one without bars.

A car door closed, the thud sound traveling over the street and reaching Mark. He raised his eyes to see Aram standing by his car, eyes narrowed, looking at them.

“The battery’s dead,” Aram said.

“It’s not the battery,” Arthur said. “It seems the electricity only works in Mark’s place.”

“Go check your car, Danny,” Mark said quickly, trying to avoid another shouting match with Arthur. But Daniel looked thoughtful, his eyes gloomy and sad.

Without saying anything, he walked past Arthur and reached his car. He fished out the keys and pressed the button to unlock it. Nothing happened. Muttering angrily under his breath, Daniel opened the door with his key. Everybody watched him get into the car, a Daniel’s-car-is-the-last-hope expression plastered to their faces.

It didn’t start either.

“Now you believe me, don’t you?” Arthur blurted out, taking out a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. Mark held out his hand to Arthur, holding a lighter that shook in his fist. “Looks to me like an electromagnetic radiation has hit the city.”

“Leaving out Mark’s?” Aris smirked, smiling awkwardly through his beard. “Not a chance.”

“What is this?” Daniel said aloud, his anxious voice echoing in the street. “It’s not possible, no way. The world can’t just be gone. Why would it take everybody but us? Why are we here?”

Nobody had an answer yet. Daniel’s fearful eyes ran from one friend to another, expecting a reasonable explanation. Instead Aram put his hand on his head, sighed deeply and started walking up the street.

“Aram, where’re you going?” Aris called after him.

“Home,” he called back over his shoulder.

“We have a very serious situation here. You can’t just leave; you don’t know what to expect there. We’d be better off to sit down and come up with something.”

Aram halted and wheeled around. “It’s not just a situation.”

“Meaning?”

“Did you see the sky?” Aram asked, raising his eyebrows. “Look up.”

Mark raised his eyes. Something weird loomed into his view. Where there should’ve been blue sky, he met an unusual phenomenon. An endless barrier–an enormous cupola was suspended overhead, transparent, though it could be spotted with the bare eye. It was as if air collided with it and reflected off it. Whatever it was, it had taken away the sight of the beautiful space, stars, sun, the other galaxies, and planets.

The present sky was not dark but not bright either; in the middle of the black and white spectrum.

“Holy shit,” Daniel gasped, the color drained from his face. “What the hell is that? Has anybody ever seen anything like that before?”

The question seemed stupid to Mark, and, he guessed, to the others, too, as nobody bothered to answer.

“Aris,” Aram resumed his voice toneless. “What if whatever’s happening is only in this part of the city. I mean what if it hasn’t reached my home yet, and my wife and son need me right now? I can’t take that risk and waste my time here reasoning.”

“Then we should all go together,” Mark supposed. “We’d better stick together, don’t you think?”

“It’d be better, but my home is three blocks away from here. If you come with me, you may lose your last chance to reach your families. If I come with you, then . . .” he stopped mid-sentence. Everyone understood the rest. “Look, guys, whatever is there, I can’t let it get a grip on my family. I’d rather die. Sorry.”

He curtly swung around and set off at a run. The four friends watched him and by the time any of them recovered enough to find words to say, Aram had veered around the corner and was out of sight.

“He’s right,” Daniel talked first. “We must go home. Maybe it’s not too late yet.”

“We shouldn’t do it one by one,” Arthur said.

“Any second may be the last,” Aris glanced at his friends and hit the street. “We will lose too much time if we go to every house all together. We need to separate.”

“We can’t communicate, so guys, whatever happens at home, if you find it empty . . .” as Mark said the last word, Aris stopped and stared at his friend crossly. “I didn’t mean that, but if we’re really alone, we should come back and stick together. My apartment seems to be the only place with electricity, so we’ll be better off at my place and won’t freeze to death if we stay there.”

“He’s right,” Daniel put his hand on Mark’s shoulder. “We go home, see what’s going on there, and we come back. If our families are still there unharmed, then we should notify each other. So we come back here.”

“Agreed,” Aris said and turned around.

“I’ll go with you,” Arthur told Daniel. “Your home is the farthest; I don’t want you traveling so far alone.”

Daniel nodded, looking at Arthur apologetically. Mark realized that Daniel sensed the same as the others. He saw the truth of Arthur’s surreal story now and had started to believe. But believing is one thing and understanding is another.

“Be careful, Mark,” Daniel muttered.

“You, too.”

[] Chapter 5: An angel

Aram

Aram was a good runner regardless of smoking. He was a player on an amateur soccer team. They rented a field every week and played football. Good runner or not, running three blocks at the same speed challenged his body.

As he ran, he surveyed his surroundings. Emptiness met him, the dead silence being broken only by his heavy breathing in and out. His heart hammered, blood welling in his veins, but he kept running, his mind glued to his wife and son. He prayed they were still home. He couldn’t get rid of the thought of his family, couldn’t ponder what was going on in the world, to the surrounding nature. Home was the only aim.

Aram understood he couldn’t run all the way home. After only half a block, his legs were beginning to weaken. His lungs were out of air regardless of how frequently he filled them. In this newly discovered desolated world, air didn’t satisfy his body as it had before. Every time he inhaled, his lungs felt heavy, as if instead of air, some sort of liquid flowed in through his nostrils.

At some distance ahead of him, Aram saw a bike lying on its side on the roadside. Without giving much thought to whom it belonged, Aram made his way to it. He hurriedly hopped on the bike and, in a few seconds, was back on the road again.

He no longer thought of his friends as he pumped the pedals of the bike, the biting cold hitting him in the face. Only his family mattered now, his wife and his son flashing in neon lights inside his head. Why in hell had he left them alone back at home and gone over to his friends? But how could he possibly know something like this was ever going to happen. Like what? That the world would end? Had every single person disappeared, leaving only his four friends behind? Are they still there, Aram worried as he peeked back over his shoulder instinctively? He had already covered a block, and from where he was, the street Mark’s building was on could no longer be seen. Aram sighed and turned his head, dropping his eyes to the road.

He replayed the moment he had told his wife, Adriane, about the khash party. He’d told her he was not going to spend the night at home. It was natural for her to look disappointed. A loving wife would never be happy at such news–a husband who was not going to spend the night in her bed. Not that she doubted him. Aram wasn’t a cheater, and she trusted him. However, she hadn’t argued. She knew–although Aram was a family man–he was also a friend and a respected man.

Now Aram regretted having left her. He’d much prefer to meet whatever happened to the world with his family and to disappear with them, rather than to stay alive without his wife and son. He wasn’t sure he would be able to stand that loss.

Still, he desperately hoped to find them at home. But the heavy silence on the street, the immovable cars and empty shops lining both sides of the road made his heart shrink. The more ground he covered, the smaller his hope became. Back at Mark’s place, he had hoped that maybe the strangeness was only on that block and by breaking out of there, he would go right back into a real and normal world. By this time, he had acknowledged that the arm of emptiness had spread over a much greater distance than he had expected.

Aram became sure of one thing as he pedaled up the road. Whatever had come and taken all life away had come abruptly and everything had happened in a second, maybe less than a second, like a snap, and everybody was irrevocably gone. He had come to the main road–Komitas Avenue–which was littered with stalled-out cars, buses, and motorcycles. It was like riding the bike through a heavy traffic jam that someone had put on pause–no clusters of wrecked cars folded around light poles or sticking out of buildings. Silent machines were lined up all over the road, frozen without any sign of tire tracks on the asphalt. They hadn’t come to a stop. The drivers must have disappeared in the blink of an eye, and with that, time had stopped.

Aram looked about in wonder. The shops were open. Life had been normal that morning. Could it be possible? According to Arthur, he had sensed the emptiness on the way home, which was at four in the morning.

With these thoughts and memories hovering in his head, Aram arrived at his building. He didn’t ponder what he had seen on the way here; only his family was on his mind. He dropped the bike at the entrance and rushed into the building–his breath rapid and unsteady and his legs trembling. He didn’t intend to stop until he had no strength left. There were still four floors to climb to reach his apartment, and Aram made it in seconds. Although he already knew what he was going to discover inside his apartment, he remained hopeful that in a few seconds he’d be embracing Adriane and his son.

On the way home, Aram hadn’t seen a single living soul. Along with the disappearance of people, all of nature seemed dead as well. Aram would have known that if he had cleared his head of his family for a minute and looked deeper.

He didn’t call his wife’s name while he was in the stairwell, keeping his head down and taking the stairs two at a time. His footsteps echoed in the silent entrance in a new-sounding way, as if silence was a living thing, somehow preventing any sound from piercing the air as easily as before. He fished out the key and put it into the lock.

Aram called Adriane’s name, anxiously looking around as he stormed into the apartment and ran to the bedroom. Nobody responded. At that very moment, when Aram expected–no, hoped to hear his wife’s voice and did not hear it, he didn’t know what to feel. He rushed to the living room and then to the kitchen, both revealing emptiness.

“Adriane! Please, say something. Anything,” he shouted, taking his face into his hands in an attempt to deaden his grief. “Adriane,” he muttered under his breath. His legs hauled him into the bedroom of their own accord.

As he removed his hands from his face, he regarded the somber room. Unmade bed as though Adriane had been sleeping and then had woken up abruptly and eluded some danger. Aram stood by the door, his mouth agape. There wasn’t any sign of a fight. Any other day, it would look to him like a normal early morning.

Different kinds of emotions welled within him. Aram wasn’t sure what he felt–anger, disappointment, sadness. Blood pumped in his ears. His mind still maintained the barrier between his emotions and his wit, not letting the emotions take over yet.

He inched toward his son’s bed. In his mind’s eye, he saw him sleeping calmly, his breath steady, sunk in a beautiful world of dreams. Whatever had happened here and everywhere, Aram knew his son was too little to understand. But what if he did understand? His little grey eyes would have searched for his daddy who was supposed to protect him with his own life. Aram hadn’t been there for him when his new-born son needed him most. He’d been out enjoying himself with his friends. His little boy wouldn’t understand that.

Aram’s mind lost its hold on the barrier he had mentally constructed, and his emotions erupted behind his chest, unleashed to take control of him. He collapsed to his knees right beside his son’s bed, and tears fell from his eyes, streaming down his cheeks. He couldn’t bear the suffering. A painful scream escaped his mouth. He yelled at the top of his lungs, shaking the walls and the windows. He kept yelling until his lungs emptied of air. When he refilled them, his voice refused to leave his throat.

Aram cupped his face and closed his tearful eyes, weeping soundlessly.

It was over. Nothing else mattered. He wanted to die, right there, right away. If there had been a knife within reach, he would surely have taken it without giving it any thought and pierced his heart, because his mind refused to think for a while.

Within the darkness behind his eyelids Adriane’s ghost visited him, her dark and sad eyes watching him unblinkingly, her long hair tangled on her shoulders, covering her neck. She wasn’t crying, wasn’t even trying to say anything to her husband. The look on her face was enough to understand how disappointed she was in him. Aram had let her down.

His heart was banging loudly, the air leaving and filling his lungs quickly when he finally put his hands aside and opened his eyes. The emotions gave way. Aram arched his eyebrows, his eyes becoming dark. He couldn’t become a victim to his emotions, he must reason. Think before you speak. Nothing to speak about, only act.

Whatever had happened to the world, it had to have an explanation.

Aram rose. If he found the explanation, he’d find the way to his family. He couldn’t disappoint them again, now everything was up to him. If he turned out to be clever enough, then he’d be able to return to his wife and son.

At least he found hope to hang on to.

He didn’t believe the others were dead. He hadn’t smelled death anywhere–not on the way here. Death didn’t add up here. It may reach him, but it hadn’t reached the others. The other people might’ve been taken away, or he and his friends might’ve been abducted. There might be everything, but death. Where there’s a way in, there’s a way out.

It was too early to give up. As he regained his quick-working wit, he looked back in surprise. The thoughts of committing suicide shocked him. A few more minutes and he might’ve rushed to the window and jumped out–but not now. Aram had to take control of his emotions and bury them deep, out of his reach. He must lock them in a cage and toss away the key until he solved the mystery of the odd happenings.

Regarding the room once again, Aram realized there was nothing for him to do here, at least for now. He couldn’t stay in his apartment, trying to fight the empty world there, and at the same time, find the way out of it. Alone he wouldn’t endure the pressing air, darkness, and emptiness. The electricity was out here too and, staying, he would die of exposure.

With a last look at his son’s bed, he walked toward the door, determined. He locked it as he left the apartment and started back downstairs.

Outside the building, he regarded the yard with new eyes. He freed his mind of thoughts of his family, not fully, of course, but enough to allow him to think about the new world in which he and his friends had found themselves since the dingy morning had arrived. His new, sharp eyes saw the emptiness differently. Aram wouldn’t say it carried only death, it included death, but something else had been brought forth, and Aram was determined to find out what it was.

That was the first time he paid attention to trees. It was winter, and trees were devoid of leaves. They looked to Aram statue-like, not just dead, but stony. He reached for the nearest tree and snatched a branch. As he turned his hand, it gave up too easily and broke with a crack, the sound engulfed by the strange, dispirited air. Aram brought the branch close to his face and examined it. From the exterior, it looked normal, though it was dry and dead as if the tree had been standing there for ages.

While he examined the branch, an almost inaudible sound caught his ears. He stood rooted to the spot and stared ahead. There was a football field right on the other side of the trees where the kids of the surrounding buildings played soccer in summer. The sound came directly from it.

In mid-air, a puff of white cloud, about a man’s height, began materializing from thin air. It had appeared from nowhere. Aram was sure there had been nothing there a second ago. He narrowed his eyes and strained his ears not realizing that his legs hauled him backward toward his bike instinctively. The cloud became dense, bulky and whiter, as if steam from boiling water filled it. Aram tore his eyes away from the phenomenon as he came to his bike. Looking down, he reached for the bike, ready to hop on it at any moment and ride away if he sensed danger from the other side of the football field. He didn’t have to wait long because a sense of danger carried on a mighty wind immediately hit his chest. But he lingered, raising his eyes and looking at the expanding cloud. The air around it appeared to waver like it was giving off heat.

He didn’t know how long he stood there, petrified. Soon the fog developed further, and he saw a cloudy body, hands, legs and a head. At first it had no face, but then Aram focused on a pair of big, black eyes. Not human eyes, at least twice as big as an average man’s would be. Aram couldn’t say whether they were looking at him or somewhere else; he couldn’t explain what he was seeing. He started doubting his eyes. Maybe something had gone wrong with his mind, and he had started imagining things–human-looking clouds. Not exactly a human, but something comparable to it.

As soon as the person-shaped cloud moved its hands, Aram knew he wasn’t imagining it. It was white, but not bright. It had eyes, but they didn’t focus on anything. Whatever it was, Aram felt it was up to no good. Whatever it was–an angel, an alien, a devil or something else, it had heard him and come after him.

Nature had woken up, or at least, some part of it had. A sharp wind hit Aram, sending chills over his neck and made its way toward the cloud. Aram had forgotten the last time his hair had stirred. Now it did, but the nearby trees didn’t stir, the wind didn’t pick up dust from the ground, and the air filled with an unseen, overwhelming power that grabbed Aram’s head.

Aram felt his hands tremble as he put the branch into his inner pocket. The cloudy person just across the field reeked of danger.

Aram heaved the bike.

[] Chapter 6: Reasoning

Aris

“You think he’ll come back?” Daniel asked, his voice barely a whisper.

The four friends were gathered at Aram’s car. Every one of them had returned from his home after discovering it empty. Now even Daniel realized the seriousness of the situation, Aris supposed. His eyes were as thoughtful as Daniel’s, who was now sitting on the pavement edge, his face in his hands.

Arthur and Mark were standing on either side of Daniel. Both smoking. Eyes dropped to the asphalt. Thoughtful.

According to Aris’ cell clock they had met up here, as agreed, about twenty minutes ago. Aris and Mark were the first to arrive as their homes were closer. Then Daniel and Arthur had appeared, of course, with the same news.

Aris lived with his parents. He had entered his empty apartment with the sense that he would find nobody inside. Like everybody else, he found the blankets of his parents’ bed messy, showing there had been someone sleeping in them. A half-full glass of water was on the stand next to the bed. Every night, about two o’clock, Aris’ father would wake up to take some medicine. According to the water level in the glass, he hadn’t been gone by then. Whatever happened to other people happened after two in the morning.

While walking home, Aris’ mind was overwhelmed with thoughts of his parents. As soon as he discovered their disappearance, he stood in the bedroom petrified, staring at the bed. Dread washed over him, crept into his insides, and gnawed at him inwardly.

Once on the road back to Mark’s, Aris felt terrified of the empty streets and sidewalks, and the silence. Like a living thing, fear dwelled in his soul, took a tight hold on him and filled his head. The queer sky and the dome above his head that covered the view of the sun drew his strength every time he glanced up.

He began avoiding coming out into the open. He walked alongside his building, close to the wall, his ears strained for the faintest sounds. The terrifying thing was that there wasn’t anything to hear. The only sound was that of his muffled footfalls disrupting the oppressive silence, amplifying over the street where he walked and reflecting off the walls of the houses he passed by.

His heart hammering, he could hear its every beat as clearly as if listening to it using a stethoscope like he’d seen in movies in hospital scenes. Aris knew he was panicking, but he couldn’t do anything about it. He picked up his pace. For a moment he even began to run, panting, desperate to reach Mark’s apartment to see a human face again. He was afraid his legs might fail him, and he’d fall to the ground, remaining there for God only knew how long. But, luckily, he managed to make it to Mark’s building.

On seeing Mark he relaxed a bit, fear still evident in his eyes, but shock and panic had ebbed away. Looking at Mark, he realized his friend was scared, too. They stood at the entrance for a long while, remaining silent until they couldn’t bear it anymore.

The world was gone. The life they’d had was over.

“He won’t leave us like this,” Mark’s voice distracted Aris from his thoughts. “I know him well. Even if Aram has found his family unharmed, he’ll return for us.”

“But not right away,” Arthur guessed. “Besides, we don’t know yet what’s out there. Maybe there are some psycho guys who came up with all of this. Or other survivors like us. No rules. I believe you’ve guessed that already.”

“They may have him,” Mark added, holding cigarette smoke in his lungs for another five seconds.

“Let’s not rush things, okay?” Aris stepped in, sighing mournfully.

“Yeah, let’s hope he’s made it home and found his family. But then, first, he has to decide where to put his family for safety. It may take a while. Maybe he’ll return this evening. We can’t stay here and freeze to the bones.”

“We can go upstairs and watch the street from the window by turns,” Daniel said but was interrupted instantly by Aris.

“I’ll wait. You can go.”

“I’ll stay with you,” Mark added.

“We’ll do it together,” Daniel said, sounding a bit disappointed that his suggestion wasn’t accepted. “We need to stay together, at least until we understand what’s going on here.”

“Any ideas?” Arthur asked. Everyone should’ve come up with some explanation by now, but so far nobody had voiced an idea they could all agree on as a plausible theory. “Maybe this is a massive attack.”

After they had met up, everyone except Aris had dug deep into his mind and voiced dozens of ideas. He had preferred to keep silent. If Aris doubted his information, he wouldn’t speak. He’d only be listening. So now, he couldn’t find the right words to describe the incredible happenings; and to his friends’ urgent attempts to explain the situation, he had suggested that they wait for Aram. Several ideas had been put forth, none of them really having much basis in fact. Ideas like they had been sucked into another world, or that everyone else had been killed, or God was angry with mankind and had finally determined to wipe His creation off the face of the Earth. The last suggestion crawled into Aris’ mind and lingered there longer than the others.

“I can’t deny it and, at the same time, can’t accept it,” he had answered to that last suggestion–God erasing the earth. He started processing the idea inside his head. Lost in his thoughts, he hadn’t heard his friends discussing other ideas.

“You mean terrorists?” Mark asked Arthur.

“We would’ve heard something. It was too quiet last night.” Aris spoke without looking at his friends directly. His eyes dropped to the ground as he went on. “If it’s an attack, why are we left? What’s the point? They wouldn’t have skipped over Mark’s place. No, I don’t think so. It’s a very puzzling situation.”

“You’re the genius; you explain,” Arthur said.

“I’m not a genius, especially in this situation,” he said, his eyes finding Arthur’s through his glasses.

“But you know much more than any of us here,” Daniel took Arthur’s side. He removed his hands from his face and looked hopefully into Aris’ eyes.

Aris realized his friends expected him to arrive at some kind of explanation. Because every time they had an argument about anything and couldn’t find the solution, they would turn to him for help. They were sure Aris knew the answer–he had read about it in a book or on the internet. Aris also knew he had much more knowledge than any of his friends, but he didn’t have anything that would help him find the reason for everybody’s disappearance.

“I’ll let you know if I come up with anything,” Aris closed the subject with his answer.

“Maybe we’re–” before Mark could finish his thought Arthur pointed to the intersection up the street.

“There he is,” he announced.

Aram veered the bike to the right and rode it toward his friends.

“Having fun, I see,” Arthur said.

Nobody laughed at his joke because nobody had the strength to force a smile to his face. Four pairs of eyes were glued to Aram as he approached.

“It was the same there,” Daniel murmured, standing up. “He found it empty, too. Terrible business.”

“At least we know this is going on everywhere,” Mark remarked.

“It sucks,” Aram spoke as he ran his eyes over his friends and told them about the empty streets, the cars being lined up in the streets as if time had abruptly stopped.

“Nice,” Arthur exclaimed. “We’re in a fuckin’ empty hole.”

“You stole it?” Aris pointed to the bike.

“The owner doesn’t need it anymore, I guess,” Aram muttered, then looked at Mark. “Give me a cigarette.” Mark shrugged. Arthur dug his hand into his pocket and took out the pack. “Last one?” Aram asked as he opened it.

“We can take as many as we want,” Mark indicated a little shop across the street standing between two one-storied houses. “I don’t think it’s locked. There should be a lot of stuff now, and nobody’s watching them.”

“It’s called larceny,” Aris put in.

“It’s called pilfering,” Aram said.

“If there aren’t police around, that doesn’t mean you can help yourselves to whatever you want,” Aris said in agitation.

“It belongs to nobody right now,” Arthur waved his hand and started off toward the shop.

“We can’t starve,” Aram added and followed his friend.

“Yeah, you can quit smoking,” Aris teased. Although he didn’t like the idea, Aris started walking after his friends.

“In my opinion, we were attacked,” Arthur told Aram. “What do you think? We didn’t talk much, we were waiting for you.”

“Attacked?” Aram looked at Arthur, then glanced back at his friends over his shoulder. “We would’ve heard something. Whoever did this, if they’re even human, how could they manage that?”

“They could gas us,” Arthur guessed. “They could lull us to sleep–”

“And take away everybody but us?” Daniel cut him off. “Sounds unreal. Who would do that anyway? They would have gassed the entire city to death and then gone on doing their daily job. Why would they care about the corpses?”

“Danny’s right. Gassing the city doesn’t explain the disappearance of the people,” Aris said.

“It’s not that. I told you. It’s as if life existed this morning and it abruptly stopped.” Aram came to a halt at the shop and regarded his friends. “Look, guys, I can’t explain this now, but I know one thing–the cars are on the roads, people were going to their offices when this happened–”

“No, dude,” Arthur interrupted. “I felt it last night when I was on the way home. I told you, my phone didn’t have bars before I got to my apartment.”

“I know,” Aram sighed. “I felt it too, but I ignored it like you did.”

“What is this then?” Daniel asked indignantly.

“Let’s talk about it when we’re back at Mark’s, okay?” Aram said.

“But–” Daniel began but was cut off instantly by Aram.

“Quiet!” he ordered and pushed the shop door open. It gave up easily and cracked open inward. Aram stepped in first, followed by Arthur.

Nothing seemed out of order, except there was nobody inside.

“Hello? Anybody here?” Arthur asked with a loud voice.

“Nobody hears you,” Daniel said crossly and made his way to the candy section.

“What’s going on with him?” Arthur looked inquisitively after Daniel, then turned his eyes to Aram.

His friend shrugged and walked to the cigarettes shelves. “Which brand do you prefer? We have plenty of options here.”

Aris stood by the door, watching his friends taking from the store whatever they wanted. For him, this was stealing, even though the person running this shop had disappeared.

“Do you need anything?” Mark called to Aris.

“No,” he turned around and looked at the empty street outside.

He recalled his trip home. Having been absolutely alone, the ominous quiet had engulfed him. Nothing had moved while he had been walking across the yard where he had grown up. He had never seen it so empty, so lifeless, so dead.

Now hearing his friends’ voices, the suffocating silence was pushed from his mind. The next second, he wheeled around, his heart hammering and fear flooding his eyes. He was afraid of finding himself alone in the shop, dreading that if he took his eyes off his friends for too long, they might disappear like the rest of the world.

“Did you see anything?” Aram asked worriedly. “Did you?”

“No, nothing,” Aris sighed in relief and dropped his eyes downwards. “Get it over with and let’s go.”

“I guess this should be enough,” Arthur said and came up to Aris.

A minute later, the friends were on the street again, walking to the building.

“If this isn’t an attack, then what is it?” Arthur asked. “There must be an explanation.”

“And there is,” Aram replied quickly. “We don’t know it yet, but we will.”

“Why are you so sure?” Daniel asked.

“Okay, guys,” Aram stopped. Everybody looked at him. “Before we reach any conclusions, let’s think about this calmly. By rushing things or running to and fro, we aren’t going to help ourselves out of this situation. I know it’s weird, nobody would believe such a thing could happen, but the facts say otherwise. So we must maintain our composure. Let’s go upstairs, sit down and hear every idea we may have.”

“What else could we do?” Daniel smirked and started toward the entrance.

“We might be under attack, though,” Mark said, as they were on the stairwell. “By aliens,” he added as Aris and Arthur looked at him expectantly.

“Those fuckin’ aliens forgot about us,” Arthur blurted out with displeasure. “Maybe we’ll be lucky and they’ll come back for us. I don’t wanna stay in this empty world without a woman. Man, why are you all guys? Why aren’t any of you a woman?”

“We don’t know whether it happened to the whole world,” Mark remarked patting Arthur’s shoulder from behind, “and one more thing, to be clear, Arthur. Just so you know, I’m not gonna become a gay.”

“I bet you won’t. I wouldn’t ask you to,” Arthur shoved Mark’s hand off his shoulder.

“Mark is right. We can’t be sure about the whole world,” Aram advanced another step and came to the same level as Mark.

“We might check it if–” Mark began.

“How?” Aris asked.

“TV,” Mark looked back over his shoulder. “But I don’t have a TV in the apartment.”

“We can break into Grig’s and take his TV. He won’t need it anymore,” Arthur suggested.

“I wish we had the elevator working,” Daniel panted, leaning against the railing. “We missed one thing.” Having all eyes on him, he sighed and went on. “Why does only Mark’s apartment have electricity? Don’t you wonder? I checked it back at home. The electricity was off.”

“Me, too,” Aram and Aris said simultaneously.

“It’s weird, indeed,” Aris went on. “It’s against the laws of physics. One cable is responsible for the entire building. It reaches the building and then parts into the apartments. This apartment can’t be getting electricity from somewhere else.”

“Yes,” Aram tilted his head. He was good at physics too, but Aris was sure Aram wouldn’t find a reasonable answer. “This is obviously something we missed.”

“Maybe it’s gone by now,” Mark said with horror on his face.

“Don’t invoke evil by prophesying it,” Daniel shot back.

“Maybe evil’s already awoken,” Aris said in a hushed voice.

Quiet fell over the stairwell; everybody stopped dead and stared at Aris. Aram waved his hand in the air.

“Let’s go,” he said in a barely audible voice.

Aris realized his friends had thought about what he had just said. Every one of them avoided talking about it, about evil.

The rest of the way, they climbed in silence. They reached the eighth floor. Daniel leaned against a wall trying to steady his fast breathing. He was a chunky man and wasn’t used to going to a gym. All he did during the day was sit at the steering wheel and drive his car from one pharmacy to another, supplying them with foreign medicine. After he quit smoking he had put on some weight, too much for his legs to carry.

“Light’s on,” Mark commented as he opened his apartment, preceded them in and hit the light.

Aris was the last in. He glanced at the lamp wonderingly, so did Aram.

“Weird,” Aram muttered. “What do you think?” he looked back at Aris, who just shrugged.

“No idea,” Aris said and tilted his head. Then he asked Mark, “You don’t have a backup generator, do you?”

“Absolutely not,” Mark said confidently.

“Okay. As far as we know the only place that has electricity is this place,” Daniel said. “It’s like time stopped for the whole world leaving out Mark’s place. Any ideas?”

“We have to figure out where the electricity comes from,” Aram thought aloud. “Do you have a voltage detector?” He looked at Mark with hopeful eyes.

“You’ve got to be kidding me, right?” Mark chortled. “This place is empty.”

“I have one back at home,” Arthur said.

“Okay. Now we sit down and try to come up with an idea, then you go home and grab that detector.” Aram started off toward the living room.

“No way I’m going home alone,” Arthur protested.

“Nobody’s going to let you go alone,” Aris said in a low voice and followed Aram in.

Nothing had been changed in the room where they had spent the night. The armchairs were still pushed together, the covers remained on the opened couch, an ashtray full of cigarette butts and the pack of cards were still in the middle of the table. Five chairs were randomly arranged at the window. Bookshelves stood in a line against the wall to the right.

The heavy reek of cigarette smoke hit Aris’ face. The friends entered the room one after the other, and Arthur instantly lit his cigarette.

“Give me one,” Daniel stretched out his hand to Arthur.

“You quit,” Aris exclaimed.

“Doesn’t matter anymore.” Daniel’s voice was low and quivering.

Aram grabbed the card game scorebook and placed it on the table before him.

“First,” he began, “we say everything we have on our minds about this situation. Any explanation is welcomed, even the weirdest ones. I want to hear them all and I’m going to write them down. Then we’ll discuss every point and we may come to the idea we should start with.”

“Start what?” Mark asked surprised.

“How to get out of here,” Aram raised his eyebrows. “We can’t stay here for the rest of our lives.”

“Maybe there’s nowhere to go,” Mark pressed on. “If the whole world has disappeared–”

“Then we have to know for sure,” Aram cut him off sternly. “Any better ideas?”

Mark didn’t answer, giving him a blank stare.

“Okay,” Aram looked over his friends. His eyes found Arthur. “You think this might be an attack.” As he said it, he made a note with big letters writing down ATTACK on the paper. “Mark mentioned aliens,” Aram spoke again, writing down the second point. “Why not?” Aris saw Aram’s hand trembling nervously as he was writing the word. Aram’s eyes were buried in the list longer than they should have been. “Any other ideas?” He resumed talking in an undertone.

“Planetary alignment,” Daniel said with a serious face.

“Man, quit joking. For God’s sake, be serious,” Mark exclaimed with displeasure.

“I don’t remember any planetary alignment coming this year,” Aris bent forward in his chair and glanced at the note. Being unreal or not, Aram made the third point–PLANETARY ALIGNMENT.

“We’ll say everything even if it seems crazy to you,” Aram explained as he put the pen on the table. “If one of you had told me that everybody was going to disappear today, I would have mocked him, because it’d be the most stupid thing I’d ever heard. But that’s exactly what we have now.”

“Mark is right. I was kidding,” Daniel allowed a wan smile on his face. “Guys, this is beyond any understanding. You think by taking notes and announcing some ideas we’re going to sort this problem out? Just think about it, you stupid idiots. We can’t even identify the mystery with electricity as if this apartment isn’t on the city power grid. And we’re alone. Life is over out there.”

“Danny,” Aram jabbed his finger toward his friend. “Just stay focused. Don’t lose y our head over it. It won’t help us here, nor bring us to any sane idea. We have to reason and I know we can do that.” As he said that, Aram glanced at Aris. “I understand you’re as disappointed as anyone in this room, but believe me, we can make it through–”

“Why should I believe you, Aram?” Daniel pierced him with furious brown eyes. “You know something that we don’t? Maybe I’m having a nightmare and soon I’m going to wake up and laugh at this.”

“Right, nightmare,” Aram said cheerfully. Taking the pen, he wrote the next word–NIGHTMARE. “Danny may have a point. What do you think, Aris?”

Daniel waved a dismissive hand and leaned against the back of the couch.

“Theoretically it may be,” Aris replied. He balled his hand into a fist and brought it close to his mouth. “Actually, I read something like that. Two people awoke telling of having had the same dream. But you know you can find a lot of shit on the internet nowadays. We can’t rely on that information.”

“Wait a minute,” Mark stepped into the conversation, his eyes wide. “How could that possibly happen, even theoretically?”

Aris exhaled a long breath. “The human brain reflects radio waves, you should know that.” As he began, he looked right into Aram’s eyes, believing his friend would understand him. “While the human body rests in sleep, the brain works. And I’ll tell you, it works faster, maybe as much as s twenty percent faster than normal. It’s said that is true for more than fifty percent of its processes. So, if the reflected radio wave megahertz of one person coincides with another person’s, then theoretically, we might have all fallen into the same dream together.”

“Bullshit.” Aris would expect Daniel to say that, but instead it was Arthur. A white cloud of cigarette smoke had escaped his mouth and hung stationary in front of his face. “You’re telling me that one of us is having this nightmare right now and, by some miracle, the rest of us have been sucked into his imagination? It’s bullshit. I wasn’t even with you. I went home, remember?”

“Our brains are mightier than we think,” Aris replied mildly, his expression serious, eyebrows arched. He had a special gift of making people listen to his talk, and he did it by staying calm and trying as hard as he could to explain his supposition. “You could catch our brains’ radio waves from miles away. When a mother’s heart will tighten up and she knows her child, who may be on the other side of the world, is experiencing something bad – how does she know that? She feels it because of that connection with her child. It’s a theory, indeed; I don’t ask any of you to believe it blindly, but as Aram said, we have to discuss any possibility that might explain the situation.”

“The question is, do you believe in that theory?” Aram stared piercingly into his eyes, and Aris had no way to avoid the answer. He knew what Aram wanted from him. Stating a theory and believing in it were two different things.

“No,” Aris answered bravely, sounding masterful. “I believe that only a mother’s love for her child given to her by God is capable of that feeling.”

“So you’re telling us an idea you don’t believe?” Daniel chortled, puffing on his cigarette.

“I share my information with you,” Aris looked at him askew. “I don’t force you to agree with it. You ask, and I answer. Why do you even care whether I believe in it or not? Did you believe in aliens’ existence yesterday? You said nothing about it when Mark mentioned them just now.”

Aris looked at Aram and distinctly saw fear flooding his friend’s eyes. Although Aram desperately tried to hide it, it didn’t escape Aris. Mentioning aliens made Aram nervous. Aris wondered why. He decided against asking him directly, so he tried to change the subject from nightmares to aliens.

Besides, Mark’s theories about aliens were reasonable. Aliens were Mark’s subject. In discussions, his friend never denied the possibility of unearthly creations. ‘Just because we haven’t seen them, doesn’t mean there is no life on other planets,’ Mark used to say. The limited life on earth created by God was only a tale to him. Sometimes he had even refused the Lord’s existence, demanding proof. It made Aris angry, but he had never shouted at his friend. Words could make impossible things seem possible. Aris had used that power to change Mark’s mind about many things but hadn’t been able to change his friend’s mind about God.

“Let’s be a bit realistic,” Mark said. “No human technology could do this, at least no known technology. So I guess we should rely on this fact,” he said, putting his finger on point two, written in big letters, ALIENS. “They might be here on Earth right now. They might’ve taken the others, our friends, our loved ones.”

“Why do they have to empty Earth?” Aram asked. He put his chin on his crossed fingers, thinning his lips and looked at Mark obliquely.

“Maybe they seek a new place to rebuild their home,” Mark replied, his eyes running over his friends as if expecting some other suggestions from them. “That’s it!” he cried out then. “They need this planet to build their new home. They couldn’t live amongst the humans, so they cleared out the planet.”

“Not exactly,” Arthur interrupted a slight smile on his face. “They missed us.”

“If Mark is right, then they might have missed someone else,” Daniel remarked. “Maybe we should go out and look for them.”

“And rise up against the aliens? We don’t have any proof,” Aram gave a dismissive wave. Aris never tore his eyes from him. Something about Aram had changed as soon as aliens had been mentioned. “Look out the window. Can you see them, the aliens? The streets are totally empty.”

“Maybe they’re invisible to our eyes.” Mark didn’t intend to give up easily.

“Dude, you’re describing a movie here. I watched it with Adriane a few years ago. The Darkest Hour I think it was called.”

“Yeah, right,” Daniel laughed; so did Aram. “I remember that movie. The alien guys use electricity which helps them to become some sort of invisible, but everywhere they go they take light with them. When they walk along a street the lamps twinkle.”

Mark blew out an exasperated breath and opened his mouth to say something, but was cut short by Aram.

“How do you know that mankind doesn’t own a technology such as this?” he asked.

“Guys, this has gone too far,” Arthur leaned against the table, bringing the other’s eyes to him. “If my memory serves me correctly, we’re here to reason through any idea that crossed our minds.” He looked at Aram for approval. “That’s what you suggested.” Aram nodded slowly. “But we argue about every idea. We don’t listen to each other–”

“Maybe we’re just dead,” said Aris, his voice cold and raspy.

[] Chapter 7: Missing

Mark

“You mean we’re in Hell, or Heaven, or . . .” After a long moment of silence, Arthur raised his hands into the air, looked at Daniel and Mark with shock evident on his face, and asked, “anywhere else?”

“Well, it’s definitely not Heaven out there,” Daniel said with sarcasm. “The daylight should be bright and glorious. And there should be soaring clouds and beautiful music. Anything to remind us we’re in Heaven. The emptiness and the deserted streets make me believe we’re in Hell.”

“All of us at once?” Mark asked, but Daniel ignored him.

He went on, “but Aris, to be honest with you, I didn’t imagine Hell like this.”

“What did you expect, a blazing pit filled with demons?” Aris smirked.

“Yeah, like that. Demons torturing us. Burning in a huge fireplace. Painful screams. What is written in The Bible? A sinful soul will burn in the eternal fire of Hell forever.”

“Bodily pain can’t be compared to soul pain, the kind of pain that emptiness and darkness can impart to you, Danny,” Aris said mildly. “Besides, in my opinion, only one of us might be dead.” As he said that he peered at Mark. “The others might be an illusion, the last memory before you died.”

“And you think you’re my illusion?” Arthur asked.

“No.”

“Then if I’m yours,” Daniel remarked, putting out his cigarette in the ashtray, “I could go jump out the window from the eighth floor and the next moment, if you want me here again, I’ll be back, sitting on this couch, talking to you like nothing happened?”

To Mark, it didn’t make sense. He was an atheist–God, Heaven, Hell; all were just a tale to him. It couldn’t be that easy–just be dead and his friends only an illusion, debris of his memories, and that’s all. He remembered his whole life as clearly as before the world got screwed up, he just couldn’t be dead.

“You offer us a very critical idea,” Aram said to Aris, and Mark searched his eyes. He had to know whether Aram believed in Aris’ theory or not, but Aram’s expression was cold and unreadable. “We can argue about which one of us is dead and the others are just part of his imagination or the possibility we are all in Hell. I doubt it will bring us to a sane answer, and it’ll make us more vulnerable. Let’s put this aside, guys, and think about something else. This should be the last thing on the list we consider.”

Mark understood his friend very well. To take Aris’ idea and build a theory based on it might be catastrophic. Everyone would think he was the dead person, and the others didn’t even exist–and, to prove the theory, they might harm each other, even kill.

Also, Mark realized that sitting and reasoning through the possibilities wasn’t working the way Aram had expected. Instead of talking like grown-up men, they’d started arguing about everything. The dissention it was causing could get worse. The friends had to live together in this apartment for who knew how long, and as long as they were all in this situation, in Mark’s opinion, they had to stick together, no matter what.

“This is leading us nowhere but to more questions without answers,” he said loudly to get everybody’s attention. “We’d better get busy doing something instead of sitting around talking like a pack of women.”

“Yeah. We’d better eat something,” Arthur said jocularly.

“We’re hungry, Aris,” Aram said. “A dead man could hardly feel hunger.”

“That’s not it, Aram,” Mark cut him off instantly. “Just forget about that for a while, okay?”

“Okay. Arthur is right, we should have some food,” Aram looked at Daniel. “We at least have khash.”

“Yeah,” Daniel nodded. “I don’t know if the gas stove works, but we can try.”

“Go get it started,” Aram said, closing the scorebook. “Aris and Arthur will help you set the table.” He then glanced at the two of them. “Do you mind? Mark and I will go to check on the TV. I agree with Mark. At first we have to know if this is happening to the whole world or not.”

“If the TV studio is down, you won’t be able to get a channel anyway,” Aris remarked.

“It crossed my mind,” Aram heaved a silent sigh. “I was gonna ask Mark.” Mark bent forward in his seat, all of his attention on what Aram was about to say. “You were at Grig’s, weren’t you? Does he have satellite TV?” For a moment nobody spoke. The outside silence seemed to crawl into the room.

“Yep, he has,” Mark answered, his knee bouncing up and down. Mark tapped his fingers against the table, happy to hear them cause a hollow sound and to know that he hadn’t gone deaf.

Aram looked at Aris. “As far as I know satellite TV isn’t connected to the city TV studio. Am I right?”

“Yep,” was Aris’ short response.

“Mark and I are going to wire up Grig’s TV to the electricity in this apartment so that we can see whether the dish catches any signal. We can’t change the location of the satellite dish. It must remain in the same place in order to capture the signal, you know.”

“I hope it works.” Mark bolted to his feet, obviously happy to start doing something, anything, that might give him and his friends some answers.

Mark glanced over at his friends. Nobody argued with Aram.

“We’re good to go then?” Mark asked.

“Let’s get some answers,” Aram rose and headed for the corridor. “We need as long of a cable as we can find,” he said to Mark and pulled the door open, “or a few extension cords.”

“I remember, in the loft, I saw something we can use. Let me check,” Mark said as they reached the corridor. He hurried toward the kitchen.

As he passed through the kitchen and made his way toward the loft, he missed something; or rather, something was missing. Focused on the thought of finding the cable, Mark didn’t notice it. He opened the loft door and, standing at it, ran his eyes up and down. Fortunately, he was right; the cable was there.

Soon he returned to the corridor holding a large cable coil. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Aris, Daniel and Arthur still sitting in the living room, chatting.

“Guys,” he called out. “Get with it.”

“Just a minute,” Arthur said back.

Aram was outside the apartment, regarding the soundless stairwell when Mark arrived.

“Hey,” he said obviously sensing the change in the way his voice traveled through the air–it forced its way through the seemingly frozen air.

Aram spun around and came closer. “Fine,” he smiled, dropping his eyes to the coil. “Guess it’s enough.”

“How are we going to enter Grig’s place?” Mark asked, putting his hand against Grig’s front door. “Are we going to kick it open?”

“That’s the last option,” Aram shrugged.

He lowered his hand onto the handle and turned it. The door easily swung inward. The friends exchanged surprised looks.

“Why in hell is it open?” Mark wondered.

Aram shushed him, putting his finger to his mouth and inched in. Wide-eyed he advanced into the living room, gesturing for Mark to follow him. Neither said anything. Mark held his breath, listening to his racing heartbeat, until they were standing at the TV in the living room.

“Looks empty to me,” Mark whispered and nervously glanced back toward the narrow passage they had come from.

“Unfortunately you’re right,” Aram sighed, disappointed.

Mark quickly ran his eyes over the room and was reminded of something from last year. In his mind’s eye, he saw the room full of life, bright daylight streaming through the windows, Grig’s three-year-old daughter playing with a doll in a corner, and Grig sitting on the couch that now was dismally empty. His friend smiled at him from ear to ear, telling a story, the details of which Mark could no longer recall while his wife was making coffee in the kitchen. Now it was only a happy and fading memory that Mark now relived as he stood frozen beside Aram.

“Okay, let’s do this.” Mark was snapped out of his reverie as Aram spoke. The memory, like smoke, dissolved into thin air.

Mark put the bundle of cable on the floor and began unwrapping it while Aram pulled the TV a bit away from the wall.

“If, by some luck, we discover that the world out there is still going on in a normal way, what will we do?” Mark asked.

Aram took a deep lungful of breath. “First, let’s see if we’re lucky or not.”

Mark froze abruptly, his eyes pinned to his friend. “What’s that supposed to mean? Why are you even doing this if you don’t believe . . .”

“It doesn’t matter if I believe or not,” Aram cut him off. He knelt down beside Mark to help him with the cable. “We have to stick with the facts. And the fact is if the other countries are still out there, and our people were the only ones attacked or spirited away by some mystical power, then why hasn’t one of them given a helping hand to us, to our country? You know what I mean, don’t you?”

“Maybe the rest of the world hasn’t picked up on what happened here. Or perhaps there is a rescue operation on the way out there. It may not have reached this block yet,” Mark said hopefully.

“Maybe,” Aram pursed his lips.

Aram averted his eyes, trying to seem busy with the cable. Mark sensed Aram was keeping something from him.

“I don’t recall hearing your ideas about this situation,” Mark said. “You should have one. What is it?” he asked when Aram glanced at his friend mournfully.

“I have two,” Aram replied. “First, I think you’re right about aliens.”

“Like they have moved here and wiped all humans from the planet?” Mark interrupted impatiently.

“No, not exactly that. The thought that everybody else just disappeared or is dead makes my skin crawl. I don’t want them to be dead, guess you know why.” Mark did know. Aram was a family man, lately he had had a long-awaited child, and now, when his son had just arrived, somebody or something had stolen him from Aram. “Maybe the world is still as it’s always been; maybe nobody is missing out there.”

“Then?” Mark looked him in the eye, waiting for Aram to comment.

“Maybe we’re the ones who went missing,” Aram sounded mystical.

“Meaning?” Mark blinked rapidly.

“Okay, just try to imagine that this place is built like our hometown and somehow we were transported into it. I mean we were lulled and taken away from our planet.” Mark guessed he must have had a flabbergasted look on his face because Aram trailed off for a moment, regarded his face with interest, and then went on. “You can’t deny everything out there is different from what we were used to before. No wind, no sun. The buildings are gloomy. Our voices outside sound different. And there’s that barrier hanging in the sky as if preventing us from seeing into space. Why?”

“Why would aliens need to abduct us? I mean what good will it do? We’re nobody back home, just average men.”

Aram shrugged and thinned his lips in reply.

“What is your second option?”

“The second is, I think we’re in some sort of virtual program.”

“Like we’re connected to a device and we’re now in some sort of computer program? Like in Matrix?”

“Yep. Maybe our real bodies are still somewhere back in the real world, and the people who’re doing this to us now are watching us through thousands of monitors.”

“What would be the reason for it?” Mark asked.

“Testing,” was Aram’s short answer.

“Testing?” Mark exclaimed bitterly. “Test for what? Which one of us will make it through?”

“Not exactly. You saw us in the living room a moment ago,” Aram’s eyes darkened. “We’re friends, in the past, we argued sometimes, but we always listened to each other and solved a problem politely, respectfully. But Mark, while I was riding back here, I was afraid of my own thoughts and what they would do to me. You know, I was in the army, I’ve seen hopelessness before, at the border of our country. The soul can become darker than the blackest night. I know how a man can be changed when he faces death.”

“Aram, I kind of don’t get what you’re trying to say here.”

“We’ll change, fundamentally, Mark. If this goes on for days we’ll all change to the point of being unrecognizable. That may be the reason they’re testing our brains. So we have to be very careful if we want to get through this. I know what I’m talking about. I know people.”

“I think maybe you’re just depressed,” Mark smiled, nudging his friend’s arm. “We’re grown-up men, we’re friends and even if we’re going to spend the rest of our lives like this, we won’t go crazy. Robinson survived years alone on that desert island. At least we aren’t alone. We have each other.”

“It’s just a novel,” Aram shook his head and a slight smile curled his lips.

“Who knows?”

“In the final analysis, they were only suppositions, Mark,” Aram patted his friend on the shoulder and reached for the cable.

Aram connected one end of the cable to the TV and the tuner. They took the other end into the hallway.

“That’s it,” Aram said and came up to Mark. “We need to feed it with electricity from your apartment and hopefully, it’ll come to life.”

Their conversation was interrupted when Daniel’s rueful voice came from Mark’s apartment splitting the air, and then stopped abruptly before he finished his thought.

“What the–” Mark stopped mid-sentence.

He jumped to his feet and stormed through the doorway, Aram running at his heels.

“What’s up? What is it?” Aram spluttered as he and Mark entered the kitchen.

The five friends circled the gas stove on which the saucepan full of khash was supposed to have been. It was gone.

“Where is the khash?” Mark asked, looking at Daniel with questioning eyebrows.

“You tell me,” Daniel replied. “It wasn’t here when I came in.”

“It can’t have disappeared right from under our noses,” Mark blurted.

“Really?” Daniel mocked, a sarcastic smile on his face. “The whole fuckin’ world disappeared while we were playing cards!”

“Did anybody see it this morning?” Aram asked. He looked around as if looking for the saucepan in the small kitchen.

“I didn’t,” Daniel replied.

“Me neither,” Aris added.

“I haven’t even been in the kitchen since last night,” Arthur spoke, as everybody pinned their eyes on him. “I woke you up, guys, and then we left.”

“So it may have gone missing along with the world,” Aram murmured. He tilted his head and walked out of the kitchen.

“Hey!” Mark called after him.

“Someone needs to go back to the shop,” Aram threw over his shoulder, as he stepped into the hall leading to the bedroom. “Grab some potatoes, cheese or something.”

“Why don’t you go and get them yourself?” Daniel asked grumpily. He was about to go after Aram when Mark stood in his way.

“Aram and I are trying to work on the TV,” he said with a harsh voice. “We can’t do everything while you’re sitting around with your feet up. Let’s help each other and have some respect, okay?”

“Why is he throwing orders around like he’s in charge here?” Daniel arched his eyebrows and sniffed.

“He’s not ordering. He’s thinking of what needs to be done and doing some of them himself.”

“Danny,” Aris put a hand on his shoulder. “We’re all in the same situation here, and if we start fighting among ourselves, we won’t last long. Mark is right. Let’s show some respect to each other. I’ll come with you. Nobody should go outside alone.”

Daniel looked from Aris to Mark, his eyes wide and fearful. He closed them and sighed in relief.

“You stay here, buddy,” Arthur said. “Aris, let’s go grab some food. Daniel doesn’t feel up to going outside right now. Besides I need to stop off at my place and grab the voltage detector and my cell phone charger.”

“You don’t need your phone anymore,” Mark said in astonishment. “Goodbye to your sexy, big-tits girlfriends, at least for a while.”

“Speak for yourself. At least I had plenty. How many did you have?”

Mark just grinned awkwardly.

“I need the flashlight,” Arthur explained. “The lights in your apartment are unreliable. We don’t even understand where the electricity comes from.”

By the time Mark got to the hall, Arthur and Aris had just walked past Aram, who was holding a wrapper and working on an outlet, trying to connect the cable to it. He raised his eyes to Mark and sighed mournfully.

“Danny is confused,” Mark said as he knelt down beside Aram. Arthur’s and Aris’ footsteps receded down the staircase.

“So is everybody,” Aram said drily.

“Ignore him for a while. He needs some space.”

Aram continued working silently. Some minutes later, Daniel came out of the kitchen, gave a blank stare to Mark and Aram, and continued on to the living room without saying a word.

It was the second time Mark and Aram had worked on an electrical problem together. A few months earlier Mark had had a problem in his apartment where, before the disappearance of people in this city, he had lived with his mother. Aram had helped him out with the issue. So they knew exactly who should do what.

They got the cable connected to the outlet pretty quickly, although working with the hot wires did require extra care, and went to Grig’s. They checked to be sure that the TV and tuner were connected to the cable. Aram grabbed the remote control and stepped back from the TV, about to turn it on.

“Let’s call the others,” Mark put his hand on Aram’s arm. He was anxious to see what the TV was going to do, but he thought that the others had the right to be in the room with them. “I want us to do it all together.”

Aram nodded. On cue, Daniel walked into Grig’s apartment, his eyes narrowed, obliquely surveying the room. His eyes met Mark’s, then Aram’s, then came to rest on the TV.

“Where are Aris and Arthur?” Mark asked.

“Haven’t returned yet,” Daniel replied without looking at his friend.

“How long have they been gone?” Mark fished out his cell phone. “Twenty minutes. Should we be worried?”

“Shhh,” Aram held up his forefinger, the corner of his left eye twitched nervously. “I hear something.”

Mark strained his ears.

A thud echoed from the hallway.

“I’ll go check it out. That must be them,” Mark put his hand in his trousers’ pocket and walking past Daniel, went into the hallway.

The bump-bump became louder as he stepped into the hallway. Mark stopped by the door, held his breath and stared ahead.

Aris and Arthur appeared on the stairwell, each of them holding two full bags. Mark felt a smile curling his lips involuntarily. They gradually ascended the last few levels.

“Can’t we somehow get the elevator fixed?” Arthur panted, a weary smile on his face.

Mark glanced at the elevator doors, dull-eyed and a memory flashed through his mind. Once, after having a five hours card game, the friends had taken the elevator all together–four of them–and it had stopped, and they had been stuck between the fourth and fifth floors. Fortunately, Daniel had been aware of how to open the doors from the inside.

“Are you okay?” Mark asked.

“Depends what you mean by okay,” Arthur said teasingly. “We didn’t see anything extraordinary, other than the empty streets and nobody to stop us from walking out of the shop with bags full of groceries. All this cost us nothing. So we’re relieved of the difficulty of finding money for living. It’s cool, isn’t it?”

“Nothing’s cool,” Aris said drily. “Any news about the TV?”

“We’re waiting for you guys.”

Aris and Arthur exchanged a quick look, then they both lowered the bags to the concrete floor.

“Let’s go then,” Arthur said and made his way to Grig’s apartment.

As they walked in the living room, silence engulfed them, Aram and Daniel were standing in the middle of the room, avoiding eye contact with each other.

“Guys,” Aram muttered under his breath. “How did it go?”

“We have food and the detector,” Arthur relayed. He came up to Aram. “What are we waiting for? Give it a shot.”

“You think it’ll work?” Aris murmured.

“We’re about to find out,” Aram said and pressed the red button on the remote control. The red light on TV turned to green.

“The first good news,” Daniel’s nearly inaudible voice broke the silence as impatient gazes remained pinned to the TV.

It took the screen some seconds to come to life. The blank screen disappeared, followed by a blue screen.

“Does this tell us anything? Guess not,” Arthur exhaled, disappointed. “This is definitely not our lucky day.”

“Change the channels,” Mark said, and Aram did.

“Is the tuner on?” Daniel approached it and examined it. “Working,” he blurted.

“You sure you’re doing it right?” Arthur asked, his voice empty of any hope.

“Absolutely,” Aram bit his lower lip, obviously trying to stifle his anger. He reached for Arthur’s hand and placed the remote into his palm. “You try.”

“Maybe it’s the antenna,” Aris began but trailed off instantly.

“Meaning?” Aram and Mark turned to him. Mark thought that if there was someone who could find an answer or come up with a good idea as to what to do next, it was Aris.

“It may not be catching a signal,” Aris said.

“We can see that it isn’t,” Mark’s tone was rough.

“I wonder about a mercury antenna. It’ll catch even the lowest signal.”

“Where are we supposed to find one?” Mark asked, with an uncomprehending look, as he stared at the others.

“I don’t know,” Aris sighed morosely.

“Think about it,” Aram said. “It’s not a bad idea. I want to talk to you more about that. At least we’ll be able to catch something. Anything.”

“You mean we’ll be able to catch aliens’ radio signals?” Mark asked.

“Aliens?” Arthur lowered the remote and looked at Aram inquisitively.

“We could if our suppositions about aliens turn out to be right,” Aram replied mildly.

“We don’t know they communicate via radio signals,” Aris said. “They may use other ways of communication that are, as of yet, undiscovered for us–for mankind.”

“We don’t know anything. That’s the fucking problem,” Aram said in annoyance. He blew out an exasperated breath. “Right now, we need to eat. So let’s have something.”

“I’ll make it,” Daniel stepped in.

“I have to clean up here,” Aram reached for the remote that Arthur was holding and turned off the TV.

“Just leave the cable. We’ll need it again,” Arthur said.

“No. We don’t know what we’re facing. So let’s be careful. I’ll fix this and bring the cable back with me.”

[] Chapter 8: Dinner

Daniel

Mark, Aris and Arthur marched out. Daniel lingered. Back in Mark’s living room Daniel had sat down on the couch and mused. What should he be thinking about this situation; what if Aris was right and they were dead? Or what if it was only he who was dead and the others were his imagination? But he dared not grab a knife and go check Aris’ theory by stabbing one of his friends. What if Aris was wrong?

Daniel tried to push away the dangerous thoughts and instead sank into his memories, flying back through time and finding himself home again. His wife, a blond-haired thin woman, was serving his supper after a hard day of work and his kids around the table while he ate. His family was the most important thing that he had achieved during his adult life, his loving wife and wonderful kids. In a single night he had lost everything.

He looked at the door leading to the hall. Each of his friends had lost his family, including Aram. Why had he gotten angry with his friend? Aram shouldn’t go around shouting orders like he was the boss here. That was the thing that always pissed Daniel off. Aram wasn’t any different from anyone else. On the other hand, unlike him, Aram had a firm grip on the situation. Exhaling deeply, he came to realize he slowly, unnoticeably was beginning to spin out of control.

Now, alone in Grig’s living room with Aram, Daniel watched him unwiring the TV in silence. “Hey,” he began tentatively. “Man, I’m sorry I was rude to you. I don’t know what came over me.”

He felt Aram’s piercing look, the one that not only looked straight at him, but seemingly through him.

“It’s okay. We don’t face the disappearance of the entire world every day,” Aram murmured with a forced smile. “Just don’t lose your head, man,” he said, rising to his full height. “I understand your situation. I lost my family as well. At first I thought this was the end, but we can’t give up without putting up a fight. If we’re going to stand any chance of defeating whatever did this to us, we’ll have to show some character.”

“Nice speech,” Daniel said, throwing a sarcastic smile at his friend. Then he spun around and started walking from the room. “I’ll go make dinner.”

“Hey,” Aram called after him. “Don’t forget we’re on the same team, okay?”

“I won’t.”

He walked out of Grig’s apartment and entered Mark’s entryway. Daniel passed Mark working on the outlet in the hall and made his way toward the kitchen. Aris and Arthur had left the bags of groceries on the kitchen counter–potatoes, bread, sour cream, tomatoes, etc.

  • * *

An hour later the friends were seated around the table having their first meal of the day. The first few minutes passed in silence, as each of them were too hungry to talk.

“So we have aliens here,” Arthur was the first to speak up. “That’s going to be first on the list.”

“We have nothing plausible to prove that theory,” Mark answered somberly. Then he cast a cautious glance at Aram and ended up spitting out Aram’s ideas–the virtual world and being abducted by aliens.

“Never heard of technology being able to transfer us into a virtual world,” Aris said as soon as Mark finished. “But Aram has a point here. Even if such technology did exist, we wouldn’t know. Plus there is something wrong with the air outside these walls. The way voices reach my ears . . . like I’m in a pool.”

“Look,” Daniel lifted his smartphone from the table. “Think of it this way–the technology of smartphones moves ahead quickly. My three-month-old phone is already obsolete. So being in a virtual world makes sense; it would also answer why this place is the only one to have power.”

Aram and Aris had checked the line coming into the apartment with the detector. Flabbergasted, they had discovered that behind the walls, the detector didn’t show any electric activity at all, as if the cable had been cut right as it entered the building. But then, where was the electricity coming from?

Questions, questions, and more questions without answers. The deeper they sank into the many pieces of this puzzle, the more there seemed to be. Daniel figured that even if, by some miracle, they found every part of this puzzle, there still might never be a way to fit them together correctly.

“But,” Daniel resumed, holding his finger in the air, “why’ve we been chosen?”

“Anybody in our shoes would ask the same question right now,” Arthur said, leaning against the back of his armchair. “The question is–”

“…what they want us to do and how to get the hell out of here,” Aram interrupted.

“Yeah, I was gonna say that.” Arthur rolled his eyes at Aram.

“But we can’t be sure, so we can’t latch onto this theory as a fact.” Aris crossed his fingers and brought them close to his mouth, stroking his long beard. “We should build a theory on the facts, not build facts on a theory. I guess you follow me.”

“The fact is that someone’s sneaked into our kitchen and stolen our khash,” Mark said. “Or it went missing with the world. But, why exactly, only the khash? Maybe we should check on other things?”

“We should. I doubt you know every damn thing you keep here,” Aram looked at Mark thoughtfully. “How long has this place been sitting empty?”

“Quite a long time. Twenty years,” Mark answered. “You’re right. If there is anything else missing, I wouldn’t notice. I mean the stuff in the cupboards and wardrobes, some of it is older than me. But if something’s missing from this room, I may notice that. After all, these things were right before our eyes every time we played cards.”

“Who would need khash?” Arthur snorted a sarcastic, short laugh. “You think someone sneaked in, slowly, noiselessly got past you while you were fast asleep in this room, and took only khash? Nonsense.”

“Look, guys. If we figure out who took the khash, we will know we are not the only humans left behind,” Aram said, his tone serious. “If we find out where it disappeared to, we’ll know what we are dealing with here. So the khash’s disappearance is directly connected with our situation. You sure you closed the door when Arthur left?” He stared at Mark.

“I think so,” Mark muttered dubiously.

“You aren’t sure?”

“I don’t know. I was sleepy. But–” he paused for a thought, and turned his eyes to Arthur. “I remember I unlocked it this morning. Yeah, I must’ve locked it last night.”

“Maybe the thief picked the lock?” Aris asked.

“And then locked the door behind him after he dragged out our khash?” Aram said. “No. It’s not like that.”

Daniel glanced out the window. “It’s getting dark. We’ve been in here for most of the day and we still don’t have a clue as to what’s going on. The world we used to know isn’t out there anymore. Maybe we haven’t been transferred to anywhere; maybe it’s the whole world that was transferred elsewhere, along with the khash.”

As he tore his eyes from the window, he saw Aram stand up and run his hand through his hair.

“I think we should cover the windows,” he said.

“Yeah, we’d better stay low until we know what we have in store,” Mark supported Aram.

“If aliens wander the streets then they’ll notice the light. Aram is right,” Arthur said, struggling to his feet with difficulty, looking weary. “The lone light in absolute darkness is like a clear invitation. It says ‘come and get me; you forgot about me’,” he smirked.

“Okay, we’re all up for covering the windows.” Aram cut short Arthur’s laugh. “Let’s get to work.”

“I’ll help Danny with the table and washing the dishes,” Aris said.

“Fine,” Aram turned to Mark. “Grab any blanket you have here.”

  • * *

Surprisingly, every system in Mark’s apartment worked properly as if nothing had happened, except the water heater, which did not seem to be working at all. So Daniel had to do the dishwashing with water that was freezing cold.

His hands were icy. He hadn’t washed a plate since, well, a long time ago. His wife did that now. He had married at a young age, twenty-two. Before that, he had worked as a dentist for six months in another city, Gyumri, seventy miles from Yerevan. He had lived alone, in a rented one-room apartment, but back then he had used disposable plates.

Washing dishes was something with which Daniel was unfamiliar, but he held his hands under the freezing water, oblivious to the pain, Aris at his side, helping him. They worked in silence, never exchanging a word. Daniel washing, Aris drying.

Daniel wondered why his life, his family and his job had come to such a miserable end. One day without humanity, without life–real life–and it seemed to him he’d been living this loneliness since he’d been on this Earth. He glanced at Aris, whose face reflected worry, thoughtfulness, but still calmness. Hadn’t Aris noticed the world was gone?

On the other hand, what did he expect him to do? Cry hysterically, run back and forth, or bang his head against a wall? Why not? Exactly that! Just not sit tight and wait! Wait for what? For answers they were never going to find?

It was too much to bear. Daniel couldn’t bear it, couldn’t stand the pressure of the emptiness, the realization of his missing family, the abandoned city. One moment he was rubbing the sponge over a plate, the next, the plate was dashed to the floor to shatter into a thousand pieces.

Aris’ perplexed eyes shot to him. A plate in one hand and a towel in the other, Aris froze, looking at Daniel unblinkingly, his lips twitching as if he wanted to say something, but his tongue disobeyed him.

“What’s up in there?” Arthur’s voice came from the other room.

““What’s up?” Daniel repeated in irritation, his eyes widening. He smirked and grabbed the towel from Aris’ hands. He dried his own hands and tossed the towel to the floor. “I’ll tell you what’s up here!” he cried out.

“Danny, calm down,” Aris finally spoke.

“No, I won’t.” He arched his eyebrows. “Why should I? Why should we? You really don’t get it, do you?” His voice was loud, and if the theory about aliens was true, then they would be able to hear him from the building’s entrance, because the silence that had descended upon the city magnified every sound, enabling it to travel further than before when the world had lived by its normal rhythm. “We’re fuckin’ done! There’s nothing we can do to return to normal life. The world’s irrevocably gone.” He punched his right fist into the palm of his left hand, wheeled around and left the kitchen.

The windows were covered when he entered the living room, his friends standing at the farthest wall, dull-eyed, staring at him.

“Look at you. You act like everything’s okay, like . . . I don’t know. Like things are supposed to be this way. Like this is a game.”

“Nothing’s a game, Danny,” Mark started forward toward his friend. “We just need to stay calm.”

“Fuck that! I won’t!” He kicked the nearest chair, sending it crashing to the floor. “I’m not going to sit and wait. We aren’t even trying to do anything, not one damn thing!”

“We are–” Mark began but was instantly cut off.

“Building a bunker we can all hide in? Who are we hiding from, or what? Aliens? We don’t even know if they’re really out there!” Daniel went on shouting.

“What do you expect us to do? Go out and scream for help? Run through the countryside? Because there isn’t any fucking car we could use,” Mark said.

“Whatever. This isn’t helping. I can’t stay here anymore.” Danny tilted his head and paused for some seconds before looking at Aram, who was regarding him quietly, eyes narrowed, one hand in his trousers’ pocket, standing at the window. “Maybe the more we stay here, the more the chances to reach our families slip away.”

Yes, that was it. Maybe if he went out, rushed home, he’d find them there, unharmed, his wife, his son, his daughter. Maybe the world would right itself on its axis.

He looked at his friends, from Arthur to Aram, then to Mark. Let me go… Just tell me this is a fuckin’ joke, guys. A false hope pounded in his chest. Wishing his friends would burst out laughing, and that Aris, now standing right behind him by the door, would grab his belly and roar with laughter. Let it be a joke, please. He’d take no offense; he wouldn’t take it personally… just let him go back home, back to his normal life, back to his bed.

His head was swimming now. During the day he had controlled his emotions, had dealt with the emptiness and the odd disappearances; but now, his nerves gave way. A strange feeling possessed him, entered his body and lodged in his chest. It burned him inwardly and Daniel no longer wanted to lock it inside; he wanted to free it, to let it all out.

“I’m leaving!” he roared. I don’t care WHAT is outside. I need to go. I’ll face whatever it is, just not this.”

“You’ve already been out there. There’s nothing there, not a single living soul,” Arthur said. “We should stay here, at least overnight. It’s better that way, Danny.”

“We went around this block. Maybe there is a way out of here. Or maybe I’ll disappear like the others, which I’ll gladly do,” Daniel said. “Perhaps the problem is that staying in this apartment is what is keeping us away from real life, from our relatives.”

“Danny,” Aris spoke, his voice low and calm. “God’s eyes are everywhere. He definitely has His reasons for taking us away from other people.”

“God?” Daniel turned to face his friend. Aris was a believer, regardless of his knowledge, but what did God have to do with all this? “There is no God, Aris. You’re gonna say this is a punishment? I hate to disappoint you, but it’s not. This is a fucked-up situation. I’m sick of sitting,” he muttered. “I’m leaving.”

Abruptly he rushed toward Aris. Madness seethed in his brain. On reaching the door, he tried to shove his way free, but Aris grabbed his hands tightly and held him away from the door.

“Danny!” Mark called out and darted toward the door.

“Let me go!” Daniel bawled in anguish, over and over again, the room shaking from the release of emotion and stress.

Time seemed to stretch out, his friends’ voices echoing distantly in his head in spite of the fact they were right next to him, three pairs of hands taking hold of his body and hauling him toward the sofa. He fought to get free, spat harsh words at his friends, but Aris was a beefy man, his hand heavy.

The far end of the room seemed to be getting further away, the distance between him and the wall in front of him widening. The light darkened, became dingy, squeezing his sight.

He could see Aris and Mark holding him on the sofa, and Arthur standing right in front of him so that he wouldn’t have a chance to escape his friends’ grip. Aram was nowhere to be seen. A moment ago, he had been at the covered window. Then he saw Aram come in from the kitchen holding a glass.

“Drink it,” Aram’s muffled, hollow voice came from some distant place and echoed in Daniel’s head.

His mind was hazy.

Daniel looked at Aram, dumbfounded. A second passed, then another. He stopped fighting, just sat without stirring, his eyes fixed on the glass. “Come on. Drink it. You’ll feel better.” Aram coaxed him.

Should he take it? What was it? A medicine?

The liquid in it was clear like water. As he breathed in, the air smelled of alcohol–vodka, to be exact.

“Danny! Danny!” Somebody was calling yet he didn’t register who. His eyes searched, with difficulty, to find the source of the voice. His gaze fell on Mark, fear playing in his light-brown eyes, his mouth shut. The voice was coming from someone else.

Arthur, now with Daniel’s face in his cupped hands, his eyes piercing Daniel’s, called his name over and over again. “Danny! Danny! Look at me. It’s okay, buddy. You hear me? It’s gonna be okay. Drink this,” he held out his hand and took the glass from Aram.

“Breathe, Danny. Deep breaths,” Aris said, and he did as he was told. He took several lungfuls of air.

His hand shook violently when he took the glass from Arthur.

“It’s only one shot. Come on,” Mark begged.

Daniel brought it to his mouth and gulped the vodka down. The liquid was cold, but it warmed his throat. He sighed.

“Okay. I’m cool,” he shoved his friends’ hands off him and gulped down air. “I’m cool.”

The haze in his head ebbed away. His mind cleared, but he felt a little dizzy now.

Aris stepped back and Mark released him, taking a seat beside him. Everybody went quiet for a few moments and Daniel ran his eyes over his friends. Mark looked worried but relaxed. Arthur was looking at him dubiously. Aram was standing the farthest away, his darkened eyes regarding him strangely. Daniel wondered what was going through his mind behind that pensive expression of his.

[] Chapter 9: The first on duty

Aram

It was a lifeless, windless, noiseless and motionless night. If there was a movement behind the window, Aram wouldn’t know it. Tonight’s darkness was profound, covering the street below entirely. It swallowed up everything–the shops, the cars, the surrounding buildings–from his sight. The same was true overhead; in the sky–no moon, no stars, just endless blackness hanging above, stretching ahead as far as his eyes could see.

Standing by the window unmoving, between the blanket covering it and the glass, Aram saw nothing, as if his eyes were closed. Yet he had been on the lookout like this for half an hour, examining the murky blackness of the night, which was still and dead, impenetrable, as if looking into calm, deep water. But Aram was sure the darkness was moving. At least there was something moving within the deep, black night. He had seen it, or one of them, in his building’s yard.

He hadn’t told his friends about the white phenomenon, the human-shaped cloud. Think before you speak. He had foreseen Daniel’s emotional explosion. He knew people. He’d been in the army nine years ago but still remembered the heavy nights at the country’s border when the darkness was the deepest, the air so misty he couldn’t see his own feet. He knew what a man could become in time of danger, facing the nothingness, when the reach of his sight was no further than a step ahead. He had seen what panic, fear of the unknown, and uncertainty could do. He knew that death was the last thing to be scared of. You don’t think about death in that moment, your mind shuts down, your heart is obsessed by darkness and the darkness can do more horrible things to you than death.

Aram had been anticipating a breakdown. The weak one, the vulnerable one would give way. Sooner or later. Not that he’d predicted that Daniel was going to be the first. Aram, himself, might have been the first. He did have something like that happen to him in his apartment. Fortunately, nobody had seen him, nobody was aware of the crisis moment when, in utter despair, Aram had looked for something sharp with which to pierce his own heart, wishing himself to be free of the newly discovered empty world.

He had passed that test; he had been waiting for the others’ turn. Daniel’s was the start. His friend’s faint face hung in front of him. Of course it made sense that it would be Daniel; a married man, with two kids, had many reasons to long for his normal life back. The others were single. Yes, they had parents, but the connection of a man to his family is much more powerful.

So much so, that death, for him, meant salvation, an easy exit from the desolate world.

Aram wasn’t afraid of death anymore; much less the darkness outside and the things that dwelled in it. He dreaded the thought of failing at this difficult task, failing to find the way out. He was pretty sure that there was a way, somewhere around him, maybe nearer than he expected. It lay invisible, as yet unreachable, until he found the password to its door.

Have you ever tried to listen to absolute silence? It whispers in your ear, but being occupied by the noise of the world, you lose it along the way. When there is nothing to hear, your inside voice will talk to you and guide you. When there is no light to show you the roads–the roads that have been created to manipulate you, you’re free of other people’s influence. Aram was free; Aram had gained his ego back. In the absence of music and the loud voice of the world, of civilization, of television and the internet, his mind had cleared of the rubbish with which the world had been poisoning his soul. He was clear headed and could think differently.

Right now, standing at the window, looking deep into the darkness, he regained his own mind. Back in reality, he’d been living his life under the influence of others. Here, in this desolate world, he was on his own and he’d never considered what his own wit was capable of.

Free and at the same time caged. What is freedom? Which freedom would Aram choose? He’d reached the conclusion that every world, the real one and the newly discovered one, is a board on which the humans–the pawns–struggled to reach the opposite edge, without the realization that the other edge is sharp and you could fall from it into an abyss.

Stay in the middle, or walk over the sharp edge?

The amusing thing was that in this now desolate world, he was the one who had to make that choice. He could stay in Mark’s apartment for the rest of his life or step out of it and into the silent city.

He didn’t know which one he’d choose if he was young and unmarried. Having had a son, he had to take the second option and hold on to it as tightly as his brain and muscles would allow.

Only Aram was awake, watching the others sleep. Back in the late evening, the friends had agreed that someone must keep a lookout during the night. There were five of them, so there was no way to do it in pairs. Aram had volunteered to go first so his friends could grab a few hours’ sleep.

He didn’t want a partner; he longed to be alone with himself. He didn’t want to divulge his ideas, his suspicions to his friends. Not yet. It wasn’t the right time yet. Again the wily lessons of the army. He’d been a sergeant back then and had been taught to keep his suspicions to himself, been allowed to discuss them only with officers. So he knew how to keep his distance from other soldiers, and now from his friends, the friends he had fully trusted two days ago, but now avoided. Not that he stopped trusting them at all, but he had become more careful. This was a survival game. He knew what that game could do to people.

Every single person has his unspoken secrets buried deep inside, sometimes even lying forgotten for a long time until a dangerous game uncovers them. You don’t show your real face to anybody. Life is a game of masked people. Life’s a stage, and we are all actors, William Shakespeare had said. But when it is about life and death, you stop acting and deploy your real being. You start fighting for your life and for your role on that stage.

Aram had dealt with unmasked men before. He knew the unmasking was going to occur to his friends. He’d be patient; he’d wait for the others to take off their masks first. This wasn’t going to be only a search for the way back to a normal life, to the other people in their lives. This was going to be a survival game, discovering the real faces of his friends, the ones he hadn’t known before, the ones that he hadn’t had any way of knowing before, and finally, the ones that he wouldn’t ever want to know. But it would happen. It was going to happen anyway, the buried real being of every one of his friends was going to come to the surface. The murky, unclear situation demanded that.

So on the way back to his friends from his apartment that morning, while he rode the bike, he came to realize that he should sit tight, Think before you speak, and wait for the others to voice their thoughts. He had to keep an eye on his friends because every second they lived in this bewildering world, it was changing them. It hadn’t had a big influence on everybody yet, but it surely would. Soon, maybe even now, right this second, it was changing someone. A close friend he had trusted his whole life could stab him in his back. Because ignorance is an undefeatable enemy.

Therefore, he had decided against mentioning the human-looking cloud phenomenon. It would fill his friends with fear, and fear would play with their minds, driving them crazy. He didn’t know what it had been himself. Alien? Imagination? Angel? But he was sure whatever it was, it was out there, in the pitch black, prowling the barren streets, maybe seeking the man on a bike who had happened to get away.

He dug his hand into his pocket. Took out the piece of branch, dry and dead, he had picked up in the yard of his building. He traced his finger over it. From its exterior, it felt plastic, made by a… Man? Alien?

Now, going back through his memories, Aram couldn’t entirely recall the minutes when he left his yard. Hurriedly, jumping on his bike, he had ridden away, his heart hammering, fast and eager to break loose. He remembered he had glanced back once or twice but hadn’t seen the cloudy man on his tail. Yet it’s big, dark, creepy eyes had been pursuing him everywhere he looked. Even now, staring into the darkness, those eyes materialized in front of him hanging in mid-air. They called to him; winked at him.

Yet he had no clue about the owner of those eyes. If it was an alien, then why had those living things from another planet missed him and his friends and this apartment? If it was an angel, which was the last item on Aram’s list of possible supernatural things, then they shouldn’t be on the earth anymore. They should be in an unearthly world, like Heaven or Hell, but this looked like neither of them.

The list was long. A lot of possibilities, such as; time had somehow stopped for other people, or they had all fallen into a nightmare and were unable to wake up, or the virtual game that he had unwittingly let slip in front of Mark, filled a whole sheet. Reason, reason, reason. None of them was the solution. Or so it seemed. He felt blind, like he was a sniper lying on the moist ground in position, but forced to examine the area without binoculars.

Patience. As much as his heart wanted to be back with his family, he had to show patience, let things play out, and wait for the silent world to stir first, showing something that would catch the sniper’s sharp eye.

So he would wait.

He tightened his fingers around the branch. Avoiding the memories of his family was impossible. His restless mind, even in the darkness before him, brought forth his wife’s last expression, Don’t go. Stay, it had silently pleaded with him, but he had ignored that look. He realized the night was playing with his mind, but he felt powerless to fight it. He let the memories flash before his eyes, memories of his son, his innocent, open look–only now discovering life. His son had inherited his dark eyes. Looking in them, he had seen himself. Never in his life would he forget the first time his new-born son looked him right in the eye. Defenseless, his body weak, his tongue working in his small mouth, unable to form a word, his expression had been like a reasonable, grown-up man’s.

Maybe it was because he was his kid, so he thought like him. Aram recalled the moment he first took him into his arms; Wrapped in a blanket, red face, little hands, and those eyes that seemed to recognize his father. Had they recognized the deadly wave coming upon him, upon everybody but Aram and his friends? If yes, they had surely looked for his father, the defender, who’d been absent and unable to save his son.

This isn’t the end, Aram emboldened himself. He was sure he would meet his son again. Not now, but he would. That’s why he was still standing on his own two feet, why his heart was beating, why he was still breathing.

Only his son mattered. His face in front of him hung in mid-air, behind the window. Aram lifted his hand and put it on the glass. He wanted to reach for the imaginary face. The darkness stood between them, the darkness that must be fought. Beyond it lay the way to his son.

  • * *

He was lying on his side, his breath steady and his eyes wondrous as he watched her lie next to him. A thin blanket covered her naked body though she’d left her snow-white shoulders bare. Curly hair cascaded down her back, shining in the sunlight that streamed through the curtains. Her eyes gleamed as they met his. Her beautiful face was right in front of him, her flushed cheeks so close he could easily touch them, but he didn’t want to disturb her beauty. He wanted to enjoy it.

Her eyes gleamed. The girl had just become a woman, having tasted a man’s love for the first time. The silence wasn’t silent; the emotions conveyed by her expression filled the silence. The girl—now a woman—lying beside him was his and only his. Aram realized he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her.

His fingers flinched. Unable to stifle his desire to touch her, he held out his hand to stroke her face. His fingers met a cold, unwelcoming pillow.

Aram’s eyes snapped open, taking in the dimly lit room, the old-fashioned walls, and the empty bed. Cold, heavy air filled his lungs as he took in a deep breath. His mind registered that he was in Mark’s bedroom. The abandoned world, Daniel’s emotional breakdown, the mystical light of this apartment, and the human-shaped cloud resurfaced in his mind.

He sat up, the blanket sliding off him. Dressed in gray jeans and a sweater, he remembered he had taken off his shoes and gone to bed fully dressed. His duty over, it had been passed to the next team, Aris and Daniel.

Coldness slapped across his face, bringing him back to reality. He glanced at the window miserably. Daylight, but not like before. The sun had fled from the skies.

The only radiator was in the living room. They definitely needed another one, but Aram didn’t want to disturb the silent world outside. Let things play out till he came to understand his whereabouts and the odd happenings. He could easily go outside, into a shop and steal, or ‘borrow’ a radiator, but not today.

Judging by the light, it was late morning. He was supposed to have been awakened at 7:00 a.m. Mark and Arthur had the last shift of night watch duty last night, and Aram had asked them to wake him early. Had something happened to his friends? There was no way of knowing until he ventured into the living room.

He hurried into his shoes and shot to his feet. Reluctant to call out to his friends, for fear of somebody else or of a human-looking cloud being in the apartment, he decided against making any noise and tiptoed toward the door.

The rush of blood in his veins reinvigorated his legs and hands. Aram reached the door and eased it open a bit, peeking into the hall. The light was on and the door across the hall was closed, its frosted glass blocking the view of the living room behind it. There was a silhouette of a man sitting in an armchair and facing the door.

Aram’s eyes opened wide, and he immediately held his breath to stay silent, straining his ears.

Seconds passed. Nothing happened. Aram inhaled and slid into the hall leaving the bedroom door propped open. A million thoughts hovered in his head as he reached the living room door, jerked the knob and pushed it open.

Cigarette smoke brushed against his face. His friends were in the room; Daniel and Aris lying on the couch, fast asleep. Arthur and Mark sat in the armchairs facing each other. They leaned against the back of the chairs. Heads tilted back, mouths half-open they were sleeping like babies–careless.

The covers on the windows protectively prevented the daylight from entering. When Aram switched off the light, night returned in the living room.

Blood welled in Aram’s veins. Stupid idiots.

“Get up!” he roared. He kicked Mark’s armchair. “Get the fuck up,” he started cursing.

He reached for Arthur’s cell lying on the table, 09:12 a.m. Aram had asked Mark to wake him up, he wanted to watch the night replaced by the day and see what would occur on the street. The night had been too dark, preventing him from seeing anything. According to Arthur, the vague happenings had started late in the night. Nevertheless, when he had been riding home yesterday, the streets were full of traffic and the shops had been open. He wanted to check this morning to see if there were any changes.

He had missed his chance.

“What’s up,” Mark bolted to his feet, his eyes wide instantly, fear playing in them.

“I’ll tell you what happened. You fell asleep,” Aram answered stiffly. “Was it so difficult to keep those eyes open for two and half hours? Was it?”

“Cool down, Aram,” Arthur said yawning. “Nothing bad happened.”

“Should it happen for you to begin worrying?” Aram rolled his eyes at him. “Every insignificant thing is important. And maybe we’ve missed one.”

“It’s already missed. Quit shouting,” Arthur said roughly.

“Guys, what is it?” Daniel struggled into a sitting position.

Aram gave a dismissive wave and approached the window. He yanked the cover aside, opened the window and glanced out. Puffs of smoke escaped the room dispersing into the morning air.

“Why didn’t you awaken anybody?” he heard Daniel ask Mark and Arthur.

“We were talking, then smoking,” Mark stammered. “I don’t remember how I fell asleep.”

“Calm down, Mark,” Arthur’s mild voice reached Aram. “It’s okay. Aram assigns too much importance to the night duty. Did you think something would change outside, Aram?” he called to his friend. Aram, examining the street, left his question unanswered. “I’m pretty sure that real life hasn’t returned during the night. You see anything?”

“The bike is missing,” Aram’s voice was steady. “I left it by my car. Can’t see it anywhere.”

“He’s kidding,” Arthur chortled.

Aram faced him with furrowed eyebrows. “I kid you not. We aren’t in a kidding situation. Our very lives depend on every insignificant detail. So get your asses up from the armchairs. Come over and take a look.”

Mark was the first to reach his side. “He’s right,” he said glancing back at his friends. “The bike’s missing.”

“Not only the bike,” Aram moved closer to Mark and put his hand on his friend’s head. “I’m sure Arthur’s car was parked behind Daniel’s.” The previous day it was at the entrance, before it was Mark’s, behind it, Daniel’s followed by Arthurs, and finally Aris’. “Now it’s at the intersection.”

“You’re shitting me. Let me see,” Arthur reached from behind and shoved Mark aside. His eyes found his car.

“You went out last night?” Aris asked surprised.

“No way,” Arthur murmured looking out the window unblinkingly. “Who in his right mind would go out in the night?”

“Who moved it then?” Aris asked again.

“Hell, I don’t know,” Arthur said. His apologetic eyes met Aram’s.

“Something was out there. It took the bike and drove your car while you were calmly sleeping,” Aram snapped and pushed Arthur away from the window. He leaned out his head to check on the other things. Nothing else caught his eyes.

“I agree with Aram,” Aris began but was instantly interrupted.

A painful scream split the air, coming from the direction of the short building about fifty yards away, on the opposite side of the street. It was a scream of a human suffering or intense fear, the kind produced by a savage assault or a terrifying event.

For a moment, the friends turned to steel, ears strained, eyes petrified. They hadn’t heard a voice coming from the deserted world before, having thought they were alone. Now they were undoubtedly not.

Aram jerked his head back inside in short order and staggered back from the window.

“Did you hear that?” Daniel asked, his voice a whisper, fear evident in his eyes as if whatever was outside would hear him.

Aram darted toward the hallway.

“Aram!” Aris called out.

“We have to know what that was,” he said and dashed out.

“He’s forgotten his fear,” Daniel darted after him.

Within seconds, the friends were descending the stairs, their footsteps reverberating off the walls.

“I brought a bread knife,” said Mark, the last one in line.

“Hope you don’t have any reason to use it,” Aris said panting.

Outdoors silence was king. The friends gathered at the building entrance and strained their ears for any sound. The silence swarmed over Aram’s head, pressed on his eardrums and absorbed his mind. Every sound was silenced, vacuumed off into the atmosphere. Listening to it would drive him crazy.

He looked over at his friends. “Arthur, you take Daniel and go up the street. Mark, you and Aris will go in the other direction. I’ll take this building.”

“Alone?” breathed Mark.

Aram ignored him. “The key word is Mars.” He was a sergeant again.

“What the fuck is Mars?” Daniel asked, displeasure in his voice.

“Army thing,” Arthur explained shortly. Other than Aram, only Arthur had been in the army, having served earlier than Aram.

Aram went on. “Shout out Mars if you’re in danger or you want to call us. And keep your mouths shut. Every sound amplifies farther than before.”

He turned around and peeled away. With a last glance back, he saw his friends set off too. At first their footsteps sounded close as if they were running right next to him, but within seconds they began to decrease. The pressing air gulped them down.

Aram was well aware where the piercing shriek had come from–right in front of him. Nevertheless, he had sent his friends off. He didn’t know whether it was egotism to be the first to find out what it was, or the fear of meeting the human-shaped cloud with the big, alien eyes. At least he’d be the only one in danger. His friends were safe. Not for long, though, if his suspicions were right. If he was going to face the cloudy human, which may be the last thing he’d ever meet, then sooner or later it would reach his friends. But he’d give them the benefit of time to find the exit.

But it wasn’t only about that. He wanted to go back home too, he had promised his son. He had to learn about the deserted world much faster than his friends because he allowed himself to think that he was the only reasonable man amongst them. The others would experience what Daniel had. He had to have at least one trump card in his hand.

He knew people.

Aram didn’t regret that he’d sent his friends away. Oblivious to the danger, he entered the alleyway between the one-storied houses opposite Mark’s building. On reaching the short building, he leaned against the wall and slowly edged to the corner. Somehow he felt it–the yelling person was right around that corner, or had been there. He stopped, the air refusing to leave his nose.

Silence. Stillness.

He didn’t even blink. Listening wasn’t an option either.

He glanced up at the colorless, shielded sky. The air hit the dome and reflected off, the blueness of the sky, concealed behind the invisible shield.

Hands balled in fists, a deep breath taken, eyes narrowed and determined, Aram, ever so slowly, and carefully peeked around the corner. Engulfed in quiet, the small space separating him from the building stood empty, at least empty of humans or any visible paranormal phenomenon. A gun lying on the asphalt caught his eye. Someone had dropped it there, or the gun had been left behind by that person. The shrieking man–it had definitely been a man’s voice–was nowhere to be seen.

Aram hesitated, blood pounding in his head and stomach clenching. Even having been in the army, having faced the enemy, his fingers now trembled involuntarily. Facing a human enemy and facing unknown, unearthly things were two entirely different things.

Was this a trap? There was no way of knowing until he reached the bait–the gun. So Aram gathered all his courage and came out of his hiding place, his eyes scanning all four sides so as not to miss anything. He approached the gun, a Makarov pistol that the policemen of his city used to carry. With a last glance around, he stooped and picked up the pistol.

It was heavy, loaded, the safety turned off. The handle wooden brown, the breech-mechanism black like death. Aram had been taught how to use it. Aim and pull the trigger. Stay calm, balance breathing, pull fluidly. He hadn’t been a bad shot back in the army, hitting eight targets out of ten.

A stairwell to his right led up to the building entrance. A sound came from that direction, but before Aram could hide the pistol, a stone came rolling over the asphalt. In less than a second, the gun was aimed toward the stairwell. His breath held, eyes glazed, pupils wide, the outstretched hand steady, he reacted like he’d been shown to in the army. Only he and the one causing the sound existed, everything else–his friends, the gone world, his family, his son–was put out of his mind. You want to be a good soldier, want to survive the duty at the boundary, you have to be like that–able to clear your mind of everything dear to you and face the danger. Never turn your back to it because it strikes with no warning. Faithful to his training, Aram waited patiently for the other side to stir first. He’d shoot if he had to, no doubt, regardless of the fact that he’d never killed a man before. It wasn’t about whether he wanted to kill a man, it was about survival instinct.

Time lengthened, seconds turned into minutes, minutes into hours. There was nothing to listen to. No wind, no birds, nature held its breath too.

Aram breathed very slowly because in absolute silence every sound could cover much greater distance that it was expected to and reach the person who lurked behind the stairwell. He was unable to stop his heart from beating. Its pounding against his chest disturbed the silent surroundings, giving him away.

It seemed whoever was in front of him was aware of those things and kept silent purposely. The question was, whose nerves would give way first. No way was it going to be Aram. He’d stand there rooted to the asphalt as long as the situation demanded, only the cold began creeping into his bones. Why the hell had he left his coat in Mark’s apartment? Haste had never done him any good.

A minute later, an eye emerged from the edge–a human eye, dark and fearful. In an instant, the pistol was aimed toward it. He tried to stay calm, but his face heated up. Aram held his fire. They stared at each other, neither of them daring to open his mouth first.

The person gradually stood up. His full face appeared—dark, frizzy hair, sharp nose, thin lips. He was a kid, about fifteen, with a faint-faced, scared-to-death expression. Aram gauged him, spotting a pistol that wobbled in his right hand.

“You move your hand and it’s gonna be the last thing you ever do,” Aram said with a firm voice. The guy kept staring at him. “Who are you? Are you alone?”

“I guess I am,” he said.

“What does that mean?” No answer. “I’m talking to you.” Just a blank stare. “Did you drop this gun? Hey!”

“It belongs to my father,” the guy spoke, the hand holding the gun quivering. “At least it belonged to him.”

“Where is he now?” Aram’s stomach turned to water. The man, this kid’s father might be right behind him, but he couldn’t turn around. If he turned, the next second he might have a bullet in his back. He stayed unmoving, knowing the father might stab him in the back or bash a bat into his head.

“Devil took him away,” the boy’s voice shivered, his eyes fell. “Right where you’re standing now. It took him, my father,” he raised his eyes again, now filled with hatred and fear.

“Put the gun down,” Aram ordered.

“And you’ll kill me?”

“Put the fuckin’ gun down and you’ll stay alive,” Aram raised his voice, his tone curt. “And don’t fuckin’ play with me. Trust me, I’m a good shot. One more move and I’ll put a bullet in your head. Understood?”

The guy nodded. He slowly stooped and dropped the pistol to the asphalt.

“Kick it to me,” Aram ordered. The kick followed. The pistol glided over the asphalt and came to a stop at his feet. “Now, slowly, walk toward me. Come on.”

The guy did as he had been told. Aram’s gun always aimed at his head. One move to the left or right and the bullet would spring free without a second of hesitation.

“Stop right there,” Aram said. The guy stopped instantly three steps directly in front of him. “On your knees.”

The guy gave him an uncomprehending glance. Aram waved his pistol pointing to the ground.

“You aren’t going to shoot me, are you?” he sounded scared, hopeless.

“Lay down!”

The guy did so.

“Hands on you back!” Aram said and reached for the other gun. Once it was in his other hand, he started off toward the stairwell. “You’re alone?” He tucked the guy’s gun in his belt.

“Yes. I told you my father was taken away. We really shouldn’t stay here any longer. The demons will come back. They always come back.”

Aram reached the stairwell and looked into it. Empty. The guy hadn’t lied.

“Man, you don’t listen to me. I mean that–the demons.”

Aram didn’t shush him. He came up to the guy and searched him for another gun.

“I’m unarmed. God, please, let’s get out of here. They’re coming.”

“Get up!” Aram took hold of the guy’s shoulder and pulled him onto his feet. “What do those demons look like?”

He wished the guy had described them otherwise, but he hadn’t.

“White, big black eyes. They can fly. Not the way you expect them to. They haven’t got wings; they’re like a big puff of clouds. They soar in the air and they’re really fast. You can’t outrun them, so let’s find cover first; then you can ply me with your questions. All right?”

Once again, Aram’s mind returned to the event outside his apartment building.

The boy exhaled and sucked in a big gulp of air. He’d been holding his breath while talking, the words escaping his mouth in a rush as if every second that he spent on those words could be his last.

Aram sensed the guy’s fear. He’d seen those demons, at least one of them in his yard. The guy couldn’t be lying to him.

“Mars!” a voice, from his right, interrupted the quiet. Arthur’s voice. He was in trouble.

[] Chapter 10: A lone girl

Arthur

“Easy there. Easy,” Arthur held his hands up over his head. Daniel was next to him, both gazing at a blond-haired woman standing five steps ahead. She was slim and tall, her legs were long, and she was clad in black jeans and a green shirt, a grey coat over her shoulders. Her eyes were blue, fearful and doubtful. The eyebrows furrowed, she watched the friends unblinkingly, with both hands holding a metal baseball bat.

“What was that?” she asked.

“What?”

“That Mars thing?”

“A stupid code,” Arthur chortled.

“Code for what? Talk! Don’t move. I swear, take a step and you’re a dead man.”

The best way to push the fear away is to threaten.

“Hey, calm down, okay?” Arthur began, the slight smile on his face fading away. Daniel opened his mouth to say something, but Arthur cut him off with a gesture. He had had plenty of crazy women in his life, and he knew the right way to approach them. Sometimes he met them with the don’t-even-try look. But when he tried, he could turn the craziest into the softest; he had melted many stony gazes. “We aren’t an enemy, believe me.”

“How am I supposed to know?”

“Because you don’t have much choice,” Arthur snapped, then instantly his tone changed into gentle. “Look around. We’re alone, the world is gone.”

“And?”

“And a few of us survived. Just put that bat down and relax. We don’t mean you any harm.”

“Two guys and a single skinny girl,” she snorted with a quick laugh. She sized him up. “Right, the others are gone, but why should I trust you. You may be sex maniacs. Or worse. Maybe you are the ones who caused the others to disappear.

“Or we can become one. There are no police to stop us,” Daniel stepped in.

Arthur squinted at his friend. “What are you talking about?”

“Just kidding,” Daniel shrugged.

“You tell her,” he jabbed his finger toward the blond woman.

Arthur sighed and looked at her. The bat was still firmly held in her hands.

“Look, I don’t know what is going on around here, and I doubt you know either. We heard someone yell and came over here to investigate. Was it you, by the way?”

Her eyes, despite everything, remained unreadable. She then said, “No, I heard it too.”

“So you’ve come here to check it out too.”

“Just trying to figure out if I’m not alone,” she looked at Daniel, then back at Arthur.

“As you can see, you aren’t. But if you don’t lower your bat and bash my and Daniel’s heads in, you’ll definitely be alone then.”

“So this is Daniel,” she pointed to him.

“Yes. And I’m Arthur. My other friends will join us in a minute,” Arthur indicated down the street.

“There are others?”

“Five of us. Now six.” Meeting her combative look, he added, “We’d better be on the same team.”

“I have no team,” she sniffed.

“So you’re alone. How long?”

“How long what?”

“Since you discovered you were left alone?”

“This morning. I set out to go to work and . . . it was like this.” She paused for a moment, her eyes dropped to the ground.

“Can’t be,” Daniel murmured, rubbing his forehead. “This is the second day. It started yesterday in the early morning.”

“Yesterday morning I was at my office. Working,” she said. Arthur said nothing in reply. He stared at her with questioning eyebrows, demanding her to go on with her story. “I came home, had supper alone. My boyfriend was late. The electricity went off and I tried calling him, but the phone didn’t work.”

“Didn’t have bars,” Arthur recalled that he’d first noticed his cell wasn’t working in his bedroom when he was checking for a call from his girlfriend. “Didn’t it seem odd?” he asked.

“Sure, it wasn’t like any other evening. I ignored that. I thought something was amiss with the city’s electrical service, and the engineers would fix it up soon.”

“You didn’t try to do anything? Go out, check with your friends, or neighbors maybe.”

“No. I was tired out by my work, so I went to bed early. In the morning the bed was empty, the table left untouched. I tried to call David again, my boyfriend. Nothing. I dressed and got out. An empty world met me,” she sighed, now her eyes sad and defenseless. “Can you tell me what’s going on here?”

“Good question,” Daniel chortled. “We have yet to understand it ourselves.”

“What time did the lights go off?” Arthur asked, his tone serious.

“I don’t recall exactly.”

“Check your phone. What time did you try to call your boyfriend?”

She dug her hand into her pocket. “You stay there. Don’t try to come anywhere near me, okay?”

“We’re standing right here,” Arthur pointed to the spot where he stood. “Where did you get that bat?”

“It’s David’s,” the answer followed.

“The boyfriend.”

“Yeah. 7:02 p.m.,” she said after she’d run her finger over the screen.

“Interesting,” Arthur murmured, his eyes fell, his eyebrows came together.

“What’s interesting?”

“You sure it was yesterday evening? Not the day before?” Daniel asked, looking from his friend to the girl.

“Yeah, I’m absolutely sure,” she snapped.

Approaching footsteps.

At the sound of someone approaching, the three looked cautiously down the street. Two men. One was Aram, the other Arthur didn’t recognize from a distance. But Aram was supposed to be alone.

“Who’s that guy?” Daniel stepped forward.

“Guess he’s another survivor,” Arthur pointed toward the girl. “Like her.”

Another two shapes loomed into Arthur’s view. One was thin and the other tall and muscular. Aris and Mark were converging on Arthur who had shouted the code word.

“Your friends?” the girl asked.

“Yeah. But you have nothing to worry about,” Arthur added promptly.

Seeing Arthur and Daniel, Aram and the new guy slowed down a bit. Now walking, they approached, trying to catch their breaths. Aram’s piercing gaze silently penetrated the girl’s gaze. The new guy followed his stare.

“She was here when we arrived,” Arthur got right to the point. “She’s alone. Said she was at the office yesterday and other people weren’t gone by then. She ended up here late in the evening.”

“Not in the evening,” she put in.

“She didn’t realize that,” Arthur cut her off with a quick glance at her. “She discovered the empty world only this morning.” He pointed to the young man standing at Aram’s side. “Who’s this guy?”

A young man, about fifteen to sixteen. The boy’s narrowed eyes flickered from Arthur to Daniel, then back to Aram, fear plastered on his pale face.

“This is Erik,” Aram spoke, his gaze glued to the girl. “I don’t know too many details about him, but it was his father yelling. He says demons have taken him away.”

“Demons?” was Daniel’s reaction. “What kind of demons?”

Erik told them about the cloud that had pursued him and his father and, in the end, had caught up with them and taken his father, but he had happened to stay alive–so far.

“We do need to find cover, guys,” he urged after he had laid out to them his short, scary story. He spoke looking into Arthur’s eyes, as if he would understand him, and would save him. He glanced around as if expecting a demon to come leaping from one of the corners of nearby houses. “We can’t stay in the open too long. Those demons; they’re very much alive. They’re out there, all around us. Every moment spent here is a wasted opportunity.”

“For what?” the girl asked.

“Finding a place to hide,” Erik’s voice was mysterious and low.

“Guys. What’s going on? Who’re they?” Mark and Aris finally joined the friends.

Quiet. Windless. Six young men and a girl, looking not older than twenty- two, stood on the empty, murky street.

“I guess the guy is right. If those demons,” Aram took a squint at the teenager, “aliens, or whatever are around us, we’d better continue this pleasant conversation at home.”

“What demons?” Aris asked from behind.

“Home!” Aram sounded confident and unquestionable.

Footsteps filled the quiet street that was clogged with unmoving cars and buses. The sunless sky had shed a dark shadow over the city and the street had become sort of a horror scene from a zombie movie, except there weren’t zombies or any people running away from monsters. There was nobody but those seven.

The girl stood motionless watching the friends and the new guy walk away.

“You coming?” Arthur attracted her attention.

She watched Arthur anxiously for a long moment.

“I guess I have no place else to go,” she lowered the bat. “But I’m keeping this with me.”

Arthur nodded. “What is your name, by the way?”

“Emily,” she muttered.

“Nice to meet you, Emily,” he replied with a pleased smile that he’d used in the past to bless his girlfriends with.

She just glowered at him and set off after the other men. Arthur watched her go while taking note of her ass, her long legs and blond-hair hanging down past her shoulders. He gulped down air and started down the street in silence.

[] Chapter 11: Erik’s story

Mark

“Watch the left,” Aram told Mark. Then Aris, “The right.”

“Maybe we should hang around,” Mark ventured, “In case there’s someone else.” Up to now, they’d believed the five of them were the only humans left. The girl and the guy’s appearance had changed everything, every theory about what every theory about what caused the disappearance, whether it be aliens, virtual game, entering a nightmare, or Aris’ crazy theory of being dead. He wondered whether the appearances of Erik and Emily had made the situation easier to tackle, or harder.

What else was the silent world going to throw at them?

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Erik said with a sarcastic smile. “We’re lucky we’re still breathing. If they notice us, we’re done. All of us. You don’t know what you’re dealing with.”

“And you know?” Aram cut him off sternly.

“At least I’ve seen them and I know what they are capable of,” was Erik’s curt reply.

Aris asked, “What do they look like? The demons?”

Clouds. Human-shaped. Big black eyes; looking in them is like looking into the depths of an endless space.

“You could lose a lot of sleep over them,” Erik added as he finished describing them.

One of those demons has just grabbed this guy’s father, and has taken him to Hell, at least that’s how Mark was sure it sounded to Aris, with his deep religious convictions. Hell and Heaven were only tales to Mark. Life, the real life he’d been used to living had been all that mattered until Arthur had rushed into his apartment yesterday morning.

“It killed your father?” Aris pressed on.

“Looks like that.”

The guy, who had just lost his father, looked totally composed. Not like someone grief-stricken over his father’s death. The words had escaped his mouth too easily.

To Mark, Erik’s thinking did not seem compatible with his young age. It was as if he was sort of under false pretenses. Like an old, sly guy was in that young body. He had no proof, of course, just feelings, the feeling you get when you know you’re right. Your intuition keeps whispering in your ear, but you ignore it. The guy was either too scared, or too clever, or just antipathetic.

“You didn’t see anything suspicious?” Aram asked, causing Mark to tear his eyes from Erik.

“What do you mean by suspicious?” Mark gave a sarcastic, short laugh.

Aram allowed a wan smile.

If natural voices had been normal before, now they were suspicious. If the roar of a car or a loud horn had been normal before, now they were suspicious. Everything but silence was suspicious. Even the silence was suspicious.

“Guys, please, hurry up,” Erik whispered.

“We are nearly there,” Mark said. They reached the intersection and the road jogged to the right. Mark’s building was on the left side.

He glanced back over his shoulder. Daniel was right behind him, followed by the girl, and Arthur closed the line.

“Do we sound strange?” he heard the girl ask, “My voice. It’s different.”

“Yes, we do,” Arthur replied. “You’ll hear your former voice soon.”

“How?”

“You’ll see.”

Aram came to an abrupt stop, and Daniel had to do his utmost not to collide with him.

“What’s up,” Arthur asked his voice barely a whisper.

As Mark neared them, Aram was staring at the other side of the street where the little market was.

“You see anything?” Mark asked.

“I think I saw something,” Aram said looking at the shop instead of Mark.

“What exactly?” Erik’s voice trembled. “It may be them. Demons.”

“No. Don’t think so,” Aram shook his head. “It was like footsteps.”

“A human?” Arthur asked.

“Maybe. Maybe a dog.”

“I’ve never seen any animal as long as I’ve been here,” Erik said hurriedly.

For a short while, they grew silent.

“Guys, we should get going,” Erik reminded. “We shouldn’t push our luck.”

“Let’s go,” Aram heaved a silent sigh and gestured to his friends to follow him into the building.

  • * *

The living room seemed crowded. Seven people sitting around the small table. Five friends watching the guests with interest.

At the apartment’s front door, Emily had hesitated to come in. Six guys and one girl. Her grip on the bat tightened, but gracious Arthur’s wily tongue found the right words to calm her down and usher her into the room. Her blue eyes were the most fearful of all. In addition to the big problem of the emptied world, she had to deal with unknown guys.

Mark tried to be gentle with her, to make her relax.

“Coffee, tea? You hungry?” he had asked, as she had taken a seat near the window. She had shaken her head no.

Aram asked Emily to retell her story. According to her, the disappearance of other people, for her, started last evening, which was the most confusing thing. On the other hand, Mark got some answers. The real world, most surely, was in its place, living on with its problems and rush. It was about them–the seven of them had gone missing, peeled from the life circle.

Aram’s theory of being plugged into a virtual world, or being transported onto another planet by some fucking aliens might be true. But then, looking at Aris, quiet, listening carefully, eyes dropped to the table, Mark thought of death. Hell? He didn’t believe in such things. God? No, just knowledge and technology. But still, doubts welled up inside him, right behind his chest, burning him inwardly.

“You believe her?” Daniel said in agitation. “We’ve been here a day longer than her. If that’s–”

“I’ve been here nearly a month,” Erik’s abrupt voice silenced everybody. Every eye turned on him–perplexed, guessing, registering his words.

“How many of you were there before?” Aram, being the first to recover himself, asked. His forehead wrinkled, his eyes were dark.

“Me, my father and Uncle Henrik,” Erik said. He cupped his face, closed his eyes and exhaled mournfully.

“A month?” Emily chortled. Everybody ignored her.

“I’m not from Yerevan,” Erik resumed. “It all started in the hotel room. We faced our first day of this horror in this empty, clogged city alone, shocked and confused. Nowhere to go, no one to ask for help. Nothing worked, no electricity. The car batteries were all dead, the engines wouldn’t start. No idea what happened. Guess you know what I’m talking about. You’ve been through this, too. For only a day, or two, but you have.

But things worked as before in the hotel room. And only in ours.”

“Like here,” Daniel remarked.

“Yeah,” Erik quickly glanced around, his eyes thoughtful. Something bothered him. Mark sensed it. Maybe those demons had made him feel uneasy and nervous and had caused his rapid breathing.

“Why did you leave the room then?” Aram stepped in.

“We were driven out when they hunted us down.”

“Hunted? By whom?” Arthur questioned quickly.

Mark’s heart hammered, his impatient gaze on the teenager.

“The demons, I guess.”

Aris, who’d been quite so far, said. “So they are out there, roaming?”

“More like looking for us,” Erik added, finding Aris’ eyes. “They’re after the ones like us, those who’ve been left behind.”

“Go on,” Aram interrupted. “You were at a hotel when it started. How’d those demons find you?”

“I guess it’s easy to find someone in a silent city, isn’t it?” his eyes were wide, showing some sort of surprise as he answered Aram. “Nice work you did here,” he glanced at the homemade drapes that covered the windows. “But no matter how hard you try, you can’t avoid making noise. Noise draws them.”

“What did you do then? When you realized you were alone?” Arthur asked.

“We roamed the block, got some food and went back to the hotel room. We stayed in there for a couple of days, hoping that a rescue team would come for us. Dad said that if whatever had occurred, had happened only to Yerevan, then the other cities might have survived. He thought it was a massive attack.”

“Like you,” Mark winked at Arthur.

“But?” Aram put in quickly.

Erik looked at Aram as he paused, collecting his thoughts.

“The world around us kept changing. The cars arrived and disappeared both at night and during the day,” he said. “Something lived in the quiet city, watched us, played with us.”

“Like Arthur’s car…” Daniel began but was instantly cut off by Aram.

“What did you do next? Did you check out anything? Police stations, phones, anything like that?”

No doubt Aram didn’t want Daniel to reveal any information the friends knew. And Mark agreed with his friend. They didn’t know the guy.

“Yes, we stayed in the room at night and went out during the daylight. But we didn’t find anything. After four days, we went out only for supplies.”

“You stole from shops?” Aris said.

“Nobody is around,” Erik smirked. “Didn’t you steal food?” No answer. “The only good thing about the silent city is you can take whatever you want. Food, clothes, water, guns. But the guns are useless against the demons. You can’t shoot them. The bullet will fly right through them. No harm, like shooting air.”

“When did those demons find you?” Emily, all the while quiet, asked.

“After a week,” Erik answered instantly, his eyes cast to the table, remembering maybe. “We weren’t lucky. My father and I managed to escape, the two of us. They took Uncle Henrik first. We couldn’t go back because our hiding place had been discovered. We roamed the city carefully, watching our backs, now that we were aware of the evil dwelling in the silent Yerevan. We never stayed in one place more than a day, but they found us anyway.”

“They found you today, too,” Arthur thinned his lips. “You’ve brought them upon us.”

“We didn’t know anybody else was in the city,” Erik justified himself, his voice thin and loud now.

“So you didn’t meet anyone else up until today?” Mark asked.

“No. The first person I ever met was him,” he pointed to Aram. “After my father was taken. I thought I was imagining him. But then, when he spoke… I don’t know whether I felt happy I had met someone else or sad because the demon had just dragged away my father.”

Everybody went quiet for a long moment, eyes turning from one to the other. A million thoughts hovering in seven heads, every one of them left unspoken.

Aram didn’t take his eyes off the guy. Arthur’s were narrowed after a while, staring at Erik too, as if they were trying to suck out Erik’s thoughts by eye contact.

“You don’t know how we can kill those demons, do you?” Aram asked his voice husky, echoing off the walls. Erik stared back, uncomprehending.

“They must have a weak side.”

“They don’t,” the corner of Erik’s mouth twitched. He held his smile. “At least I don’t know of any.”

“Maybe they are immortal,” Aris, his fingers intertwined together, bent forward in his chair.

“Like they are real demons?” Emily asked across the table.

“What is the last thing you remember after the world had gone missing, Erik?” Aris ignored her.

“I don’t quite follow you,” the guy’s voice quivered.

“The last thing before you woke up and found yourself in the empty city.”

Erik gave a snort. Aris’ stern, serious eyes steadied him.

“Seriously?” he said. “Okay. I was in bed, trying to sleep. The trip had been tiresome. Two hundred miles, you know. We arrived late at night. Dad drove immediately to the hotel and rented the room.”

“Didn’t you eat? Drink?” Aris pressed on.

“We had a late supper, more like lunch, bread and cheese. Dad and Uncle Henrik drank vodka.”

“And you?”

“One shot. Dad insisted,” Erik confessed reluctantly.

“Where are you going with this, Aris?” Mark stepped in. What was Aris trying to gain from the guy? Mark had already guessed what. Aris wanted to prove his theory; something he’d read in The Bible. Judgment Day, or a punishment.

Please, don’t be it. Mark felt irritation growing within him, blood pumping in his hands. Nerves on edge. Hands together, inhale and exhale. What’s going on with me?

“Just a moment, Mark,” Aris’ tone was calm, voice steady and eyes thoughtful, looking at Mark. “What is your last memory? Emily, right?”

“The light was down. My boyfriend was late. I went to bed,” she answered shortly regardless of her expression which revealed a desire to know what Aris implied.

“You didn’t make something. A dinner, maybe? Your boyfriend was to arrive soon, I guess. You’d have dinner together?”

“I did,” she nodded. Looking at the covered windows, she paused for a thought. “You want to know the dishes I made for dinner?”

“That’s not really relevant.” Aris unlatched his fingers and leaned against the table. He stood up.

“What is it?” Mark felt a flutter in his stomach.

“You sure you switched off the gas stove?” he again looked at Emily.

“I did. Yes,” she stammered, her eyebrows coming together. Perhaps she was digging deep in her memories, looking for the exact moment when her hand reached out for the handle and turned the gas stove off.

“Are you sure, or you think so?”

“I don’t recall now,” Emily said finally. “Does it matter now?”

“Yes,” Aris replied sternly. Then he looked around at his friends. “Guys, we were making khash, the gas stove was on. Nobody saw it off–”

“I turned it–” Daniel protested, his hand shooting into the air.

Aris put his hand on Daniel’s shoulder. “Except Daniel,” he said with his calm voice. “What if he really didn’t? He thought he had switched it off, but gas proceeded to pour into the air. We went to bed. We were asleep. Tired out by the game. Nobody would have smelled it.”

“I went home, remember?” Arthur cut him off.

“You sure? Maybe that part was after–”

“We were dead, you mean?” Mark couldn’t hold the words anymore.

Dead. Had they been sent into an afterlife world?

“You suppose we were gassed to death?” Daniel muttered. “And her too?”

“We might,” Aris agreed.

“And him too?” Mark pointed to Erik.

“Maybe yes, maybe not.”

“Man, why do you want to believe we’re dead?” Mark held out his hand, with an uncomprehending air, glancing around. “Don’t rush to be dead yet. You’ll have that chance. According to Erik’s demons, you’ll surely have it.”

“It’s a possibility,” Aris urged on.

“One in a million,” Mark grumbled, averting his eyes from Aris.

Aram, seated in front of him, stared at Erik. All the while, he had said nothing, not even looked at Aris or anybody else. Just watched the guy. What was it about him? In this silent world, Aram was absorbed by his own silent thoughts, sank in oblivion. The room had only his body, his consciousness was far away, somewhere Mark had no way of reaching.

That look of his, Mark had seen a hundred times, during his years of friendship with Aram; in classes when they were kids, at parties when they were teenagers. He knew Aram was up to something, an idea or a hunch was firing in his head. Still watching. Still musing. What was it Aram had said in Grig’s living room? We’ll change Mark. If this goes for days we’ll change to be unrecognizable.

We won’t change, Mark thought, we’ll reveal our real faces.

He looked at Arthur sitting next to Erik, his grey eyes running from Aram to Erik. Did those two know something the rest didn’t?

“Okay, listen up,” Aram inhaled a big gulp of air, as if he’d been smothered a moment ago and finally got free from a deadly clench. “From what we learned today, we aren’t alone,” he pointed to Erik, and then glanced back over his shoulder at Emily. “There may be other people out there that we don’t know about yet. And some other inexplicable things are wandering the city that Erik calls demons. So we do our best to avoid those things, whatever they are, demons or aliens. Plus we know that this world started long before our arrival. I mean Erik’s been residing here for a month, we’ve been here two days, and Emily just arrived. Which leads us to believe the real world, the one we used to know, is somewhere out there, behind those invisible barriers.”

He pierced his determined eyes into Aris’. “Being dead is the last option of all, Aris. Give it a rest with the afterlife in Hell thing. Mark is right, we’ll all have that chance, especially now, that those fuckin’ demons are on our tail. I want that genius head of yours on solving the real problem. If we’re dead, we don’t have any reason to keep struggling. But we do. So get those thoughts out of your head and tell me something, anything that may help us in this situation. Dig into your brilliant head.”

Aris nodded, saying nothing in return. The pause lasted longer than Mark would have expected, maybe Aram anticipated Aris would say something in return, but the bearded man’s mouth remained shut.

Aram fished the cigarette pack out of his pocket. “We have two guests. They’ll stay with us. We can’t turn them out,” he looked over at the others, looking for their approval.

“Sure,” was Arthur’s response. He ogled Emily. Then he looked back at Aram, becoming serious and businesslike. “Where would they go? Without light, alone in the city.”

“They’ll be caught and we’ll be discovered,” Aram didn’t let Arthur finish his sentence.

Mark noticed Emily flinch. Natural of her. Aram had said it as if he cared only about how it affected them, as if only the friends mattered. But Mark knew Aram too well; he didn’t mean that, even if he sounded like that. Whatever the silent city was doing to him, it sure couldn’t change Aram entirely.

“Let’s concentrate on what we’re going to do,” Aram went on. “There are too many of us in this apartment. The living conditions aren’t perfect.”

“Actually they suck,” Mark announced.

“We are short on beds and covers, so,” Aram went on and looked at Emily again, “Don’t expect a private room and a double bed.”

She arched her eyebrows, frowned at him, her voice gritty and surprised. “I don’t. I understand–”

“Fine, we have to make a plan and take our duties seriously,” Aram tore his eyes from her. He wasn’t talking to her, he was just telling them all what to expect and what to do. “Everyone must do something. Making something to eat, washing dishes, whatever. We have to think about hot water. We don’t know how long we’ll be stuck here. We need to bathe. And, the main task–we have to keep a keen lookout. Eyes open,” he glowered at Mark for a moment. “Stay on guard because those things out there may come after us. And we have to find out how to fight them off. Our friend here doesn’t know the way, but I believe there has to be a way of doing that. Maybe not killing them, but we can find a way to stop them somehow.”

Everybody was listening to Aram carefully. Nobody talked, not even Daniel, who, Mark was sure, would find something to argue with Aram about. He sat on the edge of the sofa, his glasses off, arms crossed over his chest.

“Danny,” Aram said, “Will you make dinner? Is that okay with you?”

“Yes,” Daniel replied.

“You need someone to help you with that?”

“I’ll help him do dishes,” Emily volunteered. Mark thought she was in need of distraction; that she needed to do something.

“Okay,” Aram murmured. “Sleep requires us to divide into groups to watch through the night. Also, we don’t make noise. Be polite to each other and don’t lose your heads.” He then looked at Mark. “I’m going out to get some supplies. We don’t have enough food for the whole class. Mark, will you come with me?”

“Yes,” Mark answered. Now knowing what dwelled outside, Mark felt a jolt of nerves in his hands, but instantly fought it off.

“Be careful out there,” Erik said.

“We will be. We don’t have enough food to keep us till morning. So we have to go,” Aram said.

“I’ll come with you,” Arthur said. “Another pair of hands will be helpful.”

Aram nodded in agreement.

“I’d like to ask the others to clean up the rooms a bit. That’ll be Aris and–” he looked at Erik and trailed off, probably remembering that the guy had just lost his father.

Aram stood up and lit his cigarette. Mark followed suit. Aram puffed on his cigarette, looked over the others in silence, and said, “We’re going to make it through this. If we stay put, we’ll do it.”

[] Chapter 12: Disturbed dome

 

Emily

David, wake me up.

This was a nightmare to Emily. She couldn’t accept the fact that this was the new reality. She didn’t belong here in this empty, silent world in an apartment with six unfamiliar men. Arthur and Mark seemed nice, but the other guy, Aram, was too rude to her. Aram was the tall man, with an athletic body, dark hair, and dark eyes, who seemed to have some answers to what all this was about.

Come on David…

She was in the living room, sitting in the corner and feeling awkward. Only one ceiling lamp illuminated the room, the wallpaper was very old-fashioned, and no pictures hung on the walls, giving the impression that the apartment had been empty for years. Now, it reeked of cigarette smoke, making it all the more unwelcoming to Emily.

According to the men, this was the only place with electricity in the new reality, as far as they knew. She’d already learned the men’s names. Daniel, the man she was supposed to do dishes with, had left for the kitchen. The bearded guy, Aris, was on the sofa, his head tilted back as he muttered something under his breath.

Emily’s eyes traveled over the room and rested on Erik. Of all of them, he should be the one to understand her, since he was a guest here, too. But, unlike her, he knew more about this situation than anybody else.

He’d been in this nightmare a month, longer than any of them.

Throughout that month, he hadn’t found the way out. What if there wasn’t any? Tears streamed from her eyes, as in her mind’s eye, she imagined the rest of her life in this deserted place.

Erik was seated on the floor, his head tucked between his knees, obsessed with his own thoughts. What was he thinking about? Poor kid, he’d just lost his father. Not just lost him, but watched him dragged away by a demon.

Just the thought of the word caused a tremor to run over her whole body. The presence of demons meant she was in hell. She couldn’t be dead. Why would she be? Emily remembered everything that had happened before she’d gone to bed–no light, waiting for David, eating supper alone. No, Aris couldn’t be right about the gas stove. She’d turned it off, taken the soup off of it. She remembered that much now.

Aris’ mutter reached her ears. She realized that every sound traveled much more easily over the silent room than it should. If she strained her ears, she’d hear the sounds of breaths and heartbeats. The sounds of nature such as the blowing wind, and the sounds of man, the engines of cars, and the bleating of horns, all of the sounds of a living city were absent. That realization alone could drive a person crazy.

Looking at Aris, she saw his hands intertwined together and close to his mouth, his head tilted and his eyes closed. His lips moved slightly muttering what seemed to be a prayer, under his breath.

This was the right time to pray, she thought. She was left with nothing else.

Her grip on the bat tightened. Six men and a single woman. Although all of them but Aram seemed to be gentlemen, she wouldn’t let her guard down around them. She was going to have to spend nights with them, in the same room with these men.

Should she leave?

The thought of staying alone in her apartment popped into her head, but the knowledge that there were demons outside that might knock on her door at any time was enough to make her change her mind. Better to take her chances with human beings than with unearthly creatures.

With the bat in her hand, she shifted her gaze from Aris and stood up. She walked to the window and yanked the cover aside. The windowpanes, dotted with spots of rain, overlooked a district of short houses. On the other side of the narrow street was situated a five-storied building.

From here to Konutas Avenue, the main street of the district, there wasn’t another building as high as the one they were in. Right here, from Mark’s window was the perfect place for watching the silent city.

With a feeling of great gloom in her stomach, Emily stood there mutely, watching the unmoving cars and trees, along the barren street. She was supposed to help Daniel. She didn’t know why she’d volunteered for that work at all. Perhaps, it was only right that she give something back to the men who’d agreed to let her stay here. But she didn’t owe anything to any of them, did she?

Time didn’t have any meaning when she stood by the window, looking out. It was as if unseen forces had drawn her consciousness into the still air of the silent world, enslaved her mind, owned her body, and showed her only what it wanted her to see.

Emily snapped to attention when something stirred in the dome that now covered the sky. She brushed a blond curl away from her face as her eyes moved up rapidly, unable to understand what she was seeing.

A dream? A lie? A new game her eyes were playing on her?

All she really took in was the dome; the cupola was waving as if it was made of water that had just been disturbed. What followed made Emily jerk backward with a shriek. The bat fell from her hand. The homemade drape covering the window fell back into place, hiding the horrible scene.

The next moment she found herself lying on the floor, gasping in huge gulps of air, her head on Erik’s lap as he howled with pain. She realized she’d tumbled onto the guy.

“What happened?” came Daniel’s alarmed voice.

As she turned her head, her mouth agape, she saw Aris kneeling next to her and then Daniel, standing by the door.

“You okay?” Aris held out his hand to aid her. “Did you hit your head? What happened?”

She accepted his hand and sat up. “No, I’m fine,” she said as she instinctively put her hand on the back of her head. She then looked at Erik, who had borne the brunt of her fall. “Sorry,” she said in a soft voice.

“It’s okay.” Erik pulled himself off the floor.

“What did you see outside?” Aris asked. “There was something, wasn’t there?”

“You didn’t see it?” Emily asked astonished. She received a blank stare.

“See what?” Daniel stepped in, gazing vacantly in the direction of the window. “What was it? Demons?”

“That,” Emily pointed toward the overhead covering, looking for the right words to describe what she’d seen. “White and big. Enormous. It fell from the sky.”

“Fell? What was it? A flying saucer? Or what?” Daniel peppered her with questions.

“Haven’t you seen it yet?” Erik said with a distracted look, his voice low and toneless.

“Seen what? What are you talking about?” Aris asked, after a moment of silence. “What didn’t you tell us?”

“I just didn’t think you didn’t already know about that,” Erik tried to justify himself. “You’ve been here two days already. You should’ve known.”

“So we don’t fuckin’ know anything,” Daniel shouted angrily. “For God’s sake, tell us what it is.”

“Calm down,” Erik stretched his hand out toward Daniel. Before he opened his mouth to continue, Daniel jumped on him grabbing hold of his collar and slamming him against the wall. “What the…”

“Don’t play with me, kiddo.” He bared his teeth at Erik. “You’re hiding something and I want you to tell me about it right now.”

“I’m not hiding anything,” Erik fought back, shoving Daniel back.

“Let him go,” Aris held Daniel. “Let him talk, Danny.”

Daniel struggled to get free from Aris’ embrace and soon gave up. Aris released him, sighed and lowered his hands to his side, his eyes intent on Erik.

Erik shooed Daniel off and plopped into an armchair.

“You know what it is?” Emily closed in on Erik as he darkly returned her stare. “Tell us. Is that what we think? Demons? They’re coming?”

“No, you shouldn’t get worried,” Erik smirked, twisting his head left and right. “It always comes. Every so often, it comes and changes everything. You can’t do anything about it.” The cadence of his voice made her insides shiver. “Anyway, you’ll see it come again. I’m just surprised you haven’t noticed it before.”

His eyes locked with Emily’s, and he winked scornfully.

[] Chapter 13: The car graveyard

Arthur

The way their voices sounded when they were outside had changed. They were dull and died faster than they should. The air in Mark’s apartment wasn’t the same as that in the outdoor world. Footfalls faded, sometimes without even reaching the ear.

The building entrance door burst open. The three men walked out slowly, surveying their surroundings.

“See anything?” Mark whispered.

“Come on,” Aram said. He started forward and hit the street.

Arthur followed instantly. Mark, with a shrug and a quick glance back at the metal door, set off after his friends.

Arthur peered at the next entrance. His eyes ran over the windows, reaching the seventh floor, his apartment. Mom and Alex should’ve been there. He hoped they were still there, in the real world, like Aram had suggested.

“Hey!” he called out to Aram. “Where are you going?” His voice faded to a whisper. Arthur looked at the nearest shop. It was the one from which a day before, Aris and he had taken supplies. “Man, isn’t that the same–”

“You heard Erik,” Aram threw over his shoulder. “The demons,” he chortled as he said that, “I think there’s a good chance that when we take something from a shop, they somehow use that to track us down faster. Maybe I’m right. Who knows?” he stopped abruptly and looked back. His hair was tangled over his forehead, eyes pinned to Arthur’s. The corner of his mouth stretched into a wan smile. “Somehow I believe I’m right. By changing the area around us, we call them upon us. So let’s be a pain in those demons’ asses. What do you say?”

He started onward without waiting for the friends to reply.

“We try to throw them off our trail?” Mark asked.

“As long as we can,” Aram said. “Let’s be honest guys. I didn’t say it back at the apartment because you know what the reaction would have been from Daniel, the girl, and the scared-to-death kiddo. I did it to avoid a total panic, but the fact is that sooner or later we’ll be discovered, our hiding place will be found.”

“What’re we going to do then?” Mark asked.

“Now sure yet. For now, we try to buy as much time as we can. Until we know what we’re dealing with.”

“About that scared kiddo,” Arthur said, as he came up on Aram’s left side, “You buy what he said?” Aram looked at him questioningly. “I’m not quite sure he’s scared. More like he wants us to think so,” he continued. When he looked into Aram’s eyes, he saw no surprise in them. “You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?” The way Aram looked at him told him he thought the same thing.

“You’re trying to say he was lying?” Mark asked.

“Maybe not a complete lie, just leaving out some details,” was Aram’s reply.

“Some very important details that could help us understand where we are and what’s happened to the world, Aram,” Arthur added, his voice full of suspicion. “Did you see his face when he walked into the apartment?” As he waited for a response, he received two impatient gazes. “His face was pale, his eyes roving from right to left like he was trying to conceal something. I have a bad feeling that the guy recognized the apartment. He’d been there before. I mean before today.”

“Nobody but you, guys, had been in my apartment before,” Mark said.

“You think so?” Aram halted again.

“What’s up?” Mark put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “What’s on your mind?”

“Nothing,” Aram shook his head. “Arthur, watch him carefully. If we both noticed him acting weird, keeping something from us, then he definitely has something to hide. Let’s go,” he waved his hand in the air.

On the road again, leading up to and intersecting Komitas Avenue, stationary trees lined roadsides, where several cars were parked. The street was quite narrow and had been, even when the world had been normal.

“Don’t push him,” Aram said to Arthur. “We shouldn’t intimidate him into telling anything. If he’s up to something, we’d better let him believe his plan’s working. I’ll stay with him over the night watch and try to get something out of him.” He looked at Mark. “In order not to seem too suspicious, I’ll take Mark with me.”

“What about the girl?” Arthur asked.

Aram grinned slightly, sarcastically. Arthur couldn’t remember when he had last seen his friend smiling.

“You’re the best with women. I’m sure you know what to do,” Aram smirked.

“I do,” Arthur gave a silent laugh. “Get me alone with her.”

Blue eyes, blond hair, and a confused expression materialized in Arthur’s mind, just right for him, just his taste. She had a boyfriend, at least she used to before she’d been sucked into the silent world. Now that boyfriend didn’t matter anymore. He was long gone, maybe not even alive, vanished into thin air.

Mark came to an abrupt stop. Frozen, eyes glued ahead, mouth agape, something had loomed into his view, freezing him in his tracks.

Arthur looked in the same direction and halted, too. Komitas Avenue was like an endless graveyard of a thousand empty cars, not rusty, even clean and shining from weekly washings, but lifeless. Unlike human beings, a car has no life, but in the old world, cars seemed to have a persona of sorts. They seemed to be living; recognizing their owner, welcoming him or her. Here, beneath the sunless and starless sky, the cars looked dead, like lifeless bodies. And those metallic corpses were all over the street, just as Aram had described them when he told them about his trip back to Mark’s condo.

Aram took a couple of steps and turned his head to his friends.

“Like a horror movie, huh?” he blurted out.

“Oho!” Mark gulped. “My favorite car,” he indicated a red Chevrolet.

“What’s the point.” Arthur waved his hand. “It’s of no use.”

“At least, I can sit behind the steering wheel. I always dreamed of that.”

“We’re out of time. We have a job to do,” Aram said curtly.

The friends started off again.

“Where are we going?” Arthur asked.

“There is a shop right down there,” Aram pointed to the opposite end of the street. “Let’s take a peek in it.”

“Don’t you think we have come too far?” Arthur asked. “We have to carry the supplies back, remember?”

“Quit complaining. You were in the army, you must’ve faced some difficulties,” Aram sounded teasing.

“I was a clerk way back in the army,” Arthur grunted, as they crossed the street. “This is a very dangerous area. We’re out in the open, an excellent target.”

“You think this guy, Erik, is telling the truth?” Mark asked, picking up his steps. “I mean those demons. The guy is scared, he might have imagined things.”

“No, they exist. They are here,” Aram sounded confident.

“How do you know?”

“I saw one,” he confessed candidly. He sighed and went on before questions could pummel him. “At my building. A white, big-eyed creature.”

“And you’re telling us about it only now?” Arthur said in agitation.

“I thought I was imagining it,” Aram shrugged. He passed his hand through his hair brushing it off his eyes. “It’s one thing that the guy didn’t lie about. Though I doubt they are demons.”

“What then?”

“Don’t know. They appear to be much like reasoning creatures, maybe aliens.”

“Why would aliens go to the trouble of buying so many cars in order to duplicate ours and go to the trouble to build this fake world just to put a few men into it?” Arthur asked himself more than Aram. “To test us? See us scared to death? Or do you think there are aliens sitting behind monitors and watching us, betting who’ll survive?”

“Don’t know,” Aram muttered mildly. “I woke up in this silent city same as you did. But we do need to be more cautious.”

“This doesn’t make sense, guys,” Arthur shook his head, his one hand in his trousers’ pocket, the other rubbing his forehead. “This is something else. Not a game, not an abduction either.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Aram faced him. There, in his unwavering, dark eyes, there was confidence, readiness to go the distance and determination to confront the silent city and everything abnormal that dwelled in it.

[] Chapter 14: The wave

Aram

The trio entered the shop, finding it murky and dark, due to the absence of electric light. The fact that there was only one window on the left wall made it worse. The relatively pleasant, the usual smell of an empty grocery store.

Aram held his breath, so did Arthur and Mark. Ears strained, he examined the store for a long while. It reflected the eerie feeling of emptiness so prevalent in this new world.

Three heartbeats disturbed the silence, at first hammering, then calming down. As Aram’s nerves eased off, he took a step into the gloom.

“We take only vegetables from here,” Aram announced.

“Why?” Mark took his hand off a beer.

“We can’t take too much from one store,” Aram explained quickly. “That’ll have an impact on the silence, intensifying it, and will attract too much attention, which we don’t need at all.”

“He’s got a good point,” Mark said.

“You mean the demons?” Arthur asked.

“Demons, aliens, who the hell knows,” Aram grumbled. “Something like that. You heard Erik.”

“We heard a lot of bullshit, yeah,” Arthur mumbled.

“I told you I saw one. He didn’t lie about that.” Aram reached for a bag and began tossing potatoes in it. “Like us, he doesn’t want to be found.” He looked at Mark. “Come on, guys.”

For the next few minutes, the three of them were hastily filling grocery bags.

Leaving that shop, Aram led them to another one. Here they gathered a big sack of meat.

“We should take bottled water. Maybe we shouldn’t drink the water that comes from the regular plumbing,” Arthur said.

The bread was in the fourth shop, a little store, big enough for only about five people at a time, with a glass door, and windows on the other three sides. A floor to ceiling shelf was loaded up with bread, but still, there was no odor.

“You sure we should eat these products?” Mark asked as he held out his hand and reached for a loaf of bread. “They are like plastic, but soft. Maybe we shouldn’t eat them.”

“You’ll live off the air and cigarettes,” Aram murmured. “How long will we last without food, Genius?”

Mark shrugged and stuffed the bread into a paper bag.

Aram looked out the window to his left and saw the road leading to Mark’s. One moment, everything was quiet, the next, the whining of a wind filled the store, something that had never occurred before in the silent city.

Stunned, Aram stared out the window. The air at the sky barrier seemed to stiffen. What followed next lasted less than a second. The view from the window became absorbed by whiteness. An endless, gross cloud hit the window, pressed itself into the store through the glass and swarmed over Aram. His view filled with untouchable, cotton-white matter. He opened his mouth to call Mark’s name, but the air didn’t leave his lungs. Or there was no air to leave them at all. Without air, sound can’t be conveyed.

Alone, taken aback, not daring to stir, a thousand thoughts came to Aram’s mind–what to do, what this was about. And abruptly, the whiteness was gone, the window materialized right in front of him, the street visible again behind it. Arthur and Mark were standing on both sides of him.

“What the…” Arthur’s mouth hung open.

“What was that?” Mark cried out hysterically. “Was it a demon? Erik described them as white and cloudy.”

“I don’t think so. I saw one; this was something bigger,” Aram said hurriedly. He then wheeled around. Half the bread on the shelf was gone. He blinked and rocketed outside.

As he opened the door and got out, he entered the previous silence and quietness–dead cars, plastic looking trees, nobody but Arthur and Mark to be seen.

He looked around. He was pretty sure before entering the store there had been a BMW M3 parked in front, but now it was replaced by a grey Honda Civic.

“Careful,” Mark whispered. “They might be around us.”

Aram ignored him. He looked toward Komitas Avenue. It was full of empty cars as before, but with different kinds of cars. The change of surroundings was obvious. The wave had come and replaced everything, leaving only the buildings and trees unchanged.

He took out his smartphone and glanced at the clock. 11:31 am. The wave had come a minute ago, exactly at 11:30 am. Maybe it would come again. Aram had to track it. Whatever it was, the answer to their whereabouts seemed to be lurking behind it.

“You think we’re still where we were?” Mark asked.

“No,” Aram’s reply was stern. Then he looked at his friend. “Take everything we have and let’s get back.”

“The wave has changed our surroundings,” Arthur pointed toward the road. His face pale, fear shining in his eyes, yet he had full control over his emotions. He was shocked, but not at a total loss.

“Yes. This is how the silent world is changing,” Aram vowed. He sighed. The adrenalin rush had dissolved in his body. Now he felt his legs quivering violently, and the trembling of his hands. He balled his hands into fists. “That explains the disappearance of the bike and your car. They changed their places, moved them to and fro.”

“Can we be somewhere else, far from home now?” Arthur asked.

“Don’t think so,” Aram murmured, running his hand through his hair. Do something, don’t let them see you nervous, scared. But he felt shivery inside. He had to get his head back in order. “The wave didn’t touch us.”

Moments later the friends were on the road, their hands occupied with carrying the stolen supplies. The silence of the city obsessed them, crept into them, and housed itself in their chests.

“The theory of being plugged into a computer and thrown into a virtual world seems more and more solid,” Mark said. “Otherwise how could all this be done?”

“There is no such technology, nothing capable of doing this to the real world, Aram,” Arthur said. “Nothing can bend the world to its will like this, aliens or whatever. It’s not God. This is something unreal. Something magic.”

Aram chortled. He had nothing to say to his friends.

His hands and legs had relaxed. Back at the store, after the massive wave, he had thought that the demons had sent the storm to track their whereabouts, but they hadn’t met one, so far, on the way back. Scared of meeting those big black eyes, he and his friends walked in silence for a while.

The air stood still. Abandoned cars lined the road. It was as if time had stopped around them.

Near their building, between the one-storied houses, a police car was parked. The headlights were on. Unlike all the others, this one seemed more alive, and out of place in the silent city and the death it wielded. Aram had noticed it in this same place before their surroundings changed. Shouldn’t the wave have taken it away?

[] Chapter 15: Angelic voice

 

Aris

They had missed the previous storms. According to Erik, the storm had periodically been hitting the city. Comparable to an invisible tsunami it washed the streets of cars in a second and replaced them with others. It made changes such as the disappearance of Aram’s bike and the relocation of Arthur’s car.

What could all this mean?

“So this storm will come again?” Aris heard Emily asking and raised his head.

The three of them, Aris, Emily and Erik were seated around the little table, Aris on the couch and Emily next to him. Erik had taken one of the armchairs directly across from them. Daniel was in the kitchen.

“Yep,” Erik confirmed.

“Have you been outside when it came?” Aris asked.

“Firstly, I want you to know that it isn’t quite a storm. It mainly lasts only a second. It penetrates into every house, every corner of this world except, apparently, this place.”

“Why is it leaving out this place?”

“Why is this place electrified? You know the answer to that, then you know why those storms don’t enter this apartment.” Erik paused for a moment looking impatiently at Aris, who said nothing back. “It’s like my room in the hotel, the lights were on, but the storms didn’t touch it. I don’t know how it works. Have you found any answers?”

“Nope,” Aris rose. He stroked his beard and went over to the window.

The storm had taken his car. Not that he cared about it much. He was just curious.

Aris wasn’t keen to believe some sort of unearthly creatures such as aliens had done this to his planet. It was an effect of a much more powerful force–God.

However, Aris didn’t think of this place as Heaven. Rather, it was Hell. So all of this was the work of the Devil–Lucifer.

The storm had come exactly when he’d been praying, asking for a solution for himself and his friends. Praying to the angel, Michael, for a protection for Aram, Mark, and Arthur, who were outdoors.

Was the endless, gross cloud a sign?

A sign for his soul to be separated from his body and enter into limbo?

Give it a rest with the afterlife in Hell thing, Aram’s words echoed in his head. But he couldn’t put it aside. Something or someone, a vague voice was whispering to him. He didn’t hear anything, but he knew it was in his head, talking to him. Despite the horrible turn of events, it had found the right man amongst the friends, the believer, the one who was able to lead his friends along the path to a solution.

Looking out of the window, he saw Aram and the other two men approach, each of them holding two packets. The food, the silence, the storms, and the demons; all of these were a test. Passing it, they would have a chance to go to a better place.

Aris couldn’t let his friends fail the test. The angelic voice had chosen him.

 

End of Book One of The Alignment Trilogy

  • * A SNEAK PEEK FROM THE SECOND BOOK IN THE ALIGNMENT TRILOGY

 

Aram

He was aware of the unfair game that the silent city cast upon everyone in the apartment, and of the cruel, callous and invisible tentacles the air, outwardly calm, was possessed by. Because he had met them before, in the army, at night on the border, when the enemy had moved forward. He’d been a sergeant. He’d been responsible for his soldiers’ lives. But first of all, he’d been responsible for the action station and for not letting the enemy cross it–no matter how many lives would be spent.

He was familiar with panic, uncertainty, and doubts. You can’t know what you’ll turn into in an extraordinary situation. You’d be surprised to see what you’re capable of if you look at yourself from the outside. You might become a completely different man, turned upside down, unrecognizable, ever since your very life was on the line. You can’t know as long as you live in the civilized world. You may die and never know your other ego which will lay untouched until you’re an inch from death.

Aram realized a while back that they were running out of time. The silence was gnawing on their brains with every passing second. Soon the friends he knew would exist no more. It had already started.

Mark had told him about moans he’d heard coming from the kitchen the night before. So Aram had checked the bedroom. Emily was lying on her side and Arthur’s arms were locked around her body from behind. They’d been calmly asleep as if the world beyond the walls had been put back on its axis again.

Two days were enough for her to forget her boyfriend. Looking at his friend and Emily, in his mind’s eye, Aram saw her sorrowful boyfriend who now was probably desperately ringing his friends’ doorbells, looking for his lost girlfriend. At the same time, Emily found herself in another man’s warm arms, while back there in the real life, her boyfriend suffered and cried surreptitiously, when he was alone in their apartment.

Aram’s heart sank. His imagination went wild. He didn’t know where it came from and penetrated into his head. He saw, just for a second, Adrian having an affair with someone else, at this very moment when Aram was doing his utmost to return to her.

Aram felt a moment of annoyance. His eyes sparked with anger, and he felt an urge to go into the living room and smash everything along the way. He wanted to cry out loudly to let out everything that had gathered inside him since the fucking morning he’d been left out of the real life.

What was that feeling about?

He let out a desperate breath and calmed himself down pushing the bad thoughts away. No way could Adrian cheat on him. She would mourn him now, or maybe damn him, but not run away to another man. She’d been in love with him ever since the day they met. Aram tilted his head. Nearly six years had already passed by since his and Adrian’s first meeting.

Time is an amusing thing. When you’re happy, it flies, as though hours turn into minutes and minutes into seconds. But it seemingly stops when you’re unhappy, when you need it to go on the fastest it can. In fact, time is the cruelest thing.

Aram’s eyes found Emily and Arthur lying on the bed. Emily wasn’t the kind of woman who was strong and equal. She seemed absent most of the time. Such women were an easy target for Arthur—the women’s heart-stealer. Besides that, it was Aram who’d asked his friend–a womanizer–to get close to Emily and learn all her secrets.

You didn’t ask him to spread her legs, his mind reminded him. But, on the other hand, it was a matter of time until Arthur reached between her legs. He’d been created like that.

“Every girl is a closed door,” he’d been used to saying, and every time he’d said it smugly. “They have the key in their hands. What you have to do is to talk her into opening her palm and offer you her key. And then you go. Click and you open her. But, y’know, I like it when she holds out her hand and begs me to take her key.”

Conceited guy.

Aram stepped back from the doorway and closed the door.

Emotions could be the strongest enemy here. Let them loose and you were done, defeated by the silent city. Aram understood nobody would be able to fight them off, not for very long. As time would pass, he’d be trapped in the same snare, because he wasn’t God either, he was a man.

He could take off on his own—leave his friends. Alone, at least he’d have only one problem–lucking out into finding the way out. But he couldn’t leave his childhood friends. Aris–the best pupil in his class, whom he’d been friends with since he’d been six. And Mark. At Erik’s age, they used to go to Monument, a large park in Yerevan, and talk to girls, follow them around, call them for a coffee.

No, he couldn’t leave them. On the other hand, he wasn’t that young anymore. He was a family man and a father. He was one of the branches of the tree his great grandfather had planted after he’d run away from Ottoman Turkey. If he didn’t go back, the branch that his son was holding onto now and that wasn’t thick enough, would break.

Now sank in an armchair, he had his fingers laced together and legs crossed. He stared at an empty spot, his thoughts soaring elsewhere. He sensed the way out was closer than ever, right under his nose, but he couldn’t see it.

Aliens? Demons? Parallel worlds?

What was all this about?

“Aram. Hey, you there?”

Aram blinked his thoughts away. He looked to the right. His coffee steamed that he had made for himself, and a cup of tea for Aris. From the look on Aris’ face he realized he’d been called for several times already.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“Just wondered if you might want to know where to get that mercury antenna.”

“Go ahead.”

“Yeah, well, I just remembered I saw one. It’s not far from here. A couple of blocks away.”

Aram sat forward in the armchair and reached for his coffee.

“I was in practice in the Mergelyan Institute,” Aris said. “A long time ago, in our third year at the university.”

“And you saw a mercury antenna there?”

“Yep. There was one. But, you know, it was ten years ago. Of course, I don’t guarantee it’ll be still there. But it’s an Institute that makes new technology. You can give a try.”

He trailed off, and a long pause followed. Daniel and Mark were busy making lunch. Arthur was in the bedroom for most of the day, and Emily had locked herself in the bathroom. Erik was on the sofa, head leaned against it back, pretending to be asleep.

“You don’t believe in the alien thing, Aris. Why do you care?” Aram finally asked.

“I told you, it’s not about what I believe. It’s about you starting to believe. But if you refuse then . . .” he shrugged, taking a hit off his tea. “I’m just saying, Aram. You ask me and I answer. It’s so easy, isn’t it? We don’t need to complicate it. You do your believing and I’ll do mine.”

“I can’t do it alone, dude,” Aram sighed mournfully. “I need you.”

“And you have me,” he smiled gently. The golden cross of the prayer book gleamed in his hands. “This,” he opened the book. The black words on white paper caught Aram’s eyes and kept his gaze pinned on the page for a long while. “This is for us, even if my friends refuse to believe.”

“You pray for us?”

“You pray too. In your thoughts, you just don’t realize it, Aram. You close your eyes, you wish yourself back. Whom do you ask to show you the way to your family? I doubt it’s me in your head,” a mocking smile on his hairy face. “It’s God, you ask for help. You avoid calling on Him directly, you don’t mention Him in your thoughts, but you pray to Him. Everyone does.”

Aram reached for the cigarette pack lying on the table. As he lit one, he leaned back. A big cloud escaped his mouth and dissolved in the room air.

“What are you thinking?” Aris asked.

“The antenna. If my guess is right, then we don’t need it anymore.”

“Parallel worlds?”

Aram nodded.

“It’s only a guess. You can’t be sure while you don’t have facts.”

“If this is an alien invasion, why would Erik be dropped off here a month earlier? Or Emily entered this world a day after us. Something caused them, all of us, to appear here. There is a thin, invisible thread which connects us to that something. I just can’t see it yet and you aren’t helping me find it.”

“I do what I can do.”

“No. You don’t try hard. You only pray. I don’t ask you to quit praying. I just . . . I don’t recognize you, man.”

“Like I didn’t recognize Daniel the first day,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Like that,” Aram sighed.

  • * *

After lunch something happened that proved there was not much time left until their nest was discovered. The changing storm was to come precisely at 1:00 pm. Aram had never missed a single one, even if it occurred at night, during one of the other teams’ duty. He had always been awake.

Questions, questions, and more questions. Why did the world keep changing, leaving out Mark’s apartment? Why was the apartment electrified, while the rest of the city was engulfed in darkness?

For answers, there were only suppositions. Aram came to realize something crazy must happen to allow him to luck into getting a hold on an understanding of their whereabouts. Apart from seeing the cloudy appearance in the yard and meeting Erik and Emily, there was nothing to lead him anywhere near to the answer of the mystery of the silent city.

Out in the open it was exceedingly dangerous. Every time they went after supplies, they ran a risk. Sitting in the apartment was another risk. Time would be up and the demons described by Erik would come after them, and there would be nowhere to run.

Aram pressed his forehead against the window. They were trapped in that apartment. Sadness gleaming in his eyes, his breath fogging the glass, he waited for the storm to come.

A minute. Thirty seconds. Ten seconds. A second.

It was here.

The world got sucked out of his view. As if he was looking out of a plane that was flying through clouds.

In an instant, the mist was gone, leaving behind an empty street lined with different cars. Nothing unusual as far as Aram could see.

“Aram?” Mark called out to him from the center of the room. “Got something there?”

How much he’d like to have it–the something that would change the course of their pitiful existence.

But this time he did have something.

His carefully watching eyes identifying any movement in the still world. Their building was the highest of all those nearby, not counting the five-storied building where he’d found Erik across the street. And Mark’s apartment was on the top floor, giving him the advantage of height for a good view. Outside the window, two or three-storied buildings were lined up in rows leading to Komitas Avenue. If something stirred down there, he’d see it.

The air below thickened. A human-shaped fog glided silently up the street. Moving like the wind, it passed by the shop below, pressed on toward the intersection and veered to the left heading for Komitas Avenue.

At the same time, three more, coming from the opposite direction, were gliding down the same road to meet the single one.

“Aram?” Mark said.

“Shut up,” Aram’s forefinger shot into the air.

“What–”

“Don’t talk. They’re here. They’ll hear you,” Aram hissed.

The silence deepened in the room. No voice came from behind him as if his friends were paralyzed. Then he felt someone’s hand on his back. He glanced back and saw Arthur.

Aram pointed to his nose, hinting to breathe as slowly and noiselessly as possible. There was no way of knowing how sharp the hearing of those cloudy demons’ was and from how far away they could catch a voice.

When he looked over at the others, scared and questioning looks met him. Especially Daniel’s and Emily’s eyes were huge, uncertainty shining in them. Aram found Mark, pointed to the light and mentioned to turn it off. Mark nodded and tiptoed to the switch.

Turning back to the window, Aram eased just enough of his head between the blanket and the window to be able to see out with one eye. Removing the cover would be extremely risky. So he left it hanging from the cornice.

The demons had gathered in a tiny space in front of a one-storied house. From the top floor, the view was blocked by the two-storied neighboring houses. They hung around it for a minute or so as if they were talking, as if the three of them, walking down the street, had met their fourth friend and then:

‘What’s up’ they’d ask.

And the single one would complain about the difficulties of its life, such as problems in its workplace, or with a girlfriend or wife.

The thoughts brought a slight smile to Aram’s face. Arthur nudged him on the arm. ‘What?’ he asked by a motion of his hand.

‘Nothing’ Aram waved.

“They are at the police car,” Arthur mouthed, breathing out the words. Aram made questioning eyebrows. “I’m sure it’s parked there. I saw it every time I went out for supplies. Weird, but it never changed its place.”

Now Aram recalled the police car he’d seen on the way back from the shops carrying bags full of supplies. It had been the day they first had discovered the storm.

Did the car cause the demons to be in this district? Or were they after them, looking for the seven unwelcome humans?

The others gathered behind Aram and Arthur. Everyone wanted to have a peek, except Erik, who was the last in line. For a guy who’d been living in the silent city for a month, who’d seen a white cloud with alien eyes grabbing his father, he didn’t have the look of horror on his face that one would expect. Aram’s eyes met his for a split-second. Then Erik dropped his gaze to the floor.

“What are they doing?” Emily asked.

Aram frowned at her and shrugged.

Gliding, the demons were huddled around the same spot, where Arthur assured them the police car was. The distance was too far to see their eyes. They’d formed into the look of a human–legs, arms, head; but still cloudy, the light passing through them.

“They’ve noticed the changes you’ve made,” Erik’s whisper made Aram shift his gaze from the window. The guy was next to Arthur now.

“We took the food from the shops at a different place,” Arthur remarked.

“Doesn’t matter. They’ll smell us soon. Pretty hard for human beings to stay secret while remaining at the same place here. We have to leave.”

Leave and go elsewhere, into the nothingness, in the cold, dark and lifeless world? Or stay and try to survive as long as possible, somehow throwing the demons off their trail?

“Shhh,” Daniel shushed. “They’ll hear you.”

Arthur nudged Aram’s shoulder and pointed outside. The four clouds had become one, that now was hovering around the same spot. With a clap, it disappeared in the blink of an eye.

Nobody moved. Seven pairs of eyes stared out the window. Breaths were held. The demons had been out there a second ago, now they weren’t.

“Where did they go?” Arthur’s voice was a bit louder.

“Thank, God,” Daniel sighed in relief.

“They’ll come back,” Erik spoke again. “They’ve marked this district and they’ll keep coming back. As hard as you try, you’ll make a mistake sooner or later, and they’ll chase you down.”

“As far as I know, you’re with us,” Aram remarked. “Don’t fuckin talk as if you’re a ghost.”

Blood stirring in his veins, he let the window covering go and shoved his way to the door.

“Where’re you going?” Mark asked.

“See what they were after,” he tossed over his shoulder.

“You crazy? You don’t even know they’ve left,” Daniel said as he shot Aram a look of contempt.

“We need to know what they were after,” was Aram’s answer. “The more we know, the more likely we’ll get through this.”

“If they spot you, they’ll know about the rest of us,” Erik tutted.

“I’ll make sure they won’t.”

Daniel threw up his arms in exasperation, then went back toward the window muttering something under his breath.

Aram yanked the door open and hurried into the corridor.

“Hey,” he heard Mark. “You shouldn’t go alone. I’m coming with you.”

Aram stopped at the front door. He glanced back over his shoulder. His determination infected his friend too.

“You sure?” he asked his voice husky.

“Of course not,” Mark gave a smirk. “I’m not sure of anything here. So I’m coming, to get to know.”

“Yeah. We don’t even know what we’re going to find there,” Aram gave a sharp nod with the faintest hint of a smile. He lumbered back to the door and shoved it open.

Nobody else followed them. The two of them entered the silent, dead atmosphere.

The nippy air was cold against Aram’s face as they descended the stairs.

His hands shook nervously, fear consumed his soul, but this was one of the rare opportunities to get to understand the silent city and its residents, the demons. So he wouldn’t let it slip through his hands.

At the entrance door, he came to a halt and exhaled a puff of cloud.

“Ready?” Mark asked.

“Don’t know,” the corner of Aram’s mouth twitched, as he debated whether he wanted to go out at all.

He dug his hands under his shirt and took out the pistols.

Mark’s eyes widened when he saw them. “Where did you get them?”

“I’ll tell you later. Here, take one,” he held the pistol out to his friend. “You know how to work it?”

“Easy,” Mark wrapped his fingers around the handle.

“Erik says that bullets won’t take them down. But anyway, I think you may need it out there.”

There was a pause during which they stared at each other as if it would be for the last time; like they were on the frontline, and behind that door, the enemy was waiting with bared teeth, ready to kill. And they didn’t know whether they were going to survive the battle.

Aram peeked out through the gap between the entrance door and the metal frame.

“Okay, let’s go,” Aram lowered his hand on the knob. “And thanks for coming with me.”

“Hope it’s not a mistake,” Mark smirked.

Aram took a deep, shuddering breath. “Hope is all we have.” With these words, he hit the door and walked into the daylight, Mark trailing after him.

They crossed the street. Aram grabbed Mark’s shoulder as he was about to take the road up to the intersection. He pointed toward the houses.

“We’ll go through the backyards,” he mouthed and gestured for his friend to follow him.

“Gotcha,” Mark nodded obediently.

They went through the entry to an alleyway situated between a shop and a house, then entered the first backyard. The yellow, dry lawn crunched beneath their boots. They scooted past five houses and approached the point where several minutes ago, the demons had gathered.

Arthur was right. Aram recalled the police car parked at that house. Now, it either had disappeared or was re-parked elsewhere. Leaning against the house wall, Aram peeked from the corner, surveyed the tiny, one-car space. There was no hint of a demon.

Slowly he edged ahead. The gun in his right hand, his finger on the trigger. But the gun failed to boost his courage, as it could kill a human being, but not an unearthly creature.

Noiselessly, his heart hammering, blood pounding in his ears, he reached the spot where the police car had been. He stooped and pressed his palm against the asphalt.

“Hot,” he whispered to Mark.

“Does that tell you anything?”

Aram rose. “They didn’t come after us. I think they were after the car.”

“What car?”

“The police car.”

“Why would they come after the police car?”

“Good question. There are thousands of ownerless cars around. Why exactly, this one?” He paused, contemplated the street, and failed to see anything stirring. He took a deep breath and exhaled, clouding the space between them. “Do you smell it?”

“The acid air?”

“Yeah. Burns my nose. Interesting. The asphalt is hot, the air reeks of acid.”

Aram arched his eyebrows, narrowed his eyes and cast them downward, sinking into thought.

A breeze shifted, crossed them, ruffled his hair, and then left it lying still on his forehead. Neither Aram nor Mark stirred. Both remained still, both in deep thought. For a moment, Aram felt as if he were back in real life, the cold breeze hitting his face, the smell of winter penetrating his nostrils. Then, he jerked back to the silent world. Here, the wind didn’t exist. The air wasn’t supposed to move, let alone ruffle his hair. If there wasn’t storm coming. And it wasn’t time for a storm.

“There’s something off here,” he looked at Mark anxiously.

Mark’s eyes widened, fear evident in them. His hand that held the gun shook violently. His gaze was glued to the road, with a look on his face like he was expecting death itself to come out.

Quick footsteps crunched toward them from the direction they’d come. They both flinched. The demons glided or soared in the open air, and Aram was sure they could stalk noiselessly. Those belonged to something else, to a person.

“There,” he pointed to the house, already backpedaling.

In an instant, two pistols shot up into the air and took the aim at the corner of the house.

Book 2: The Evil City

[] Acknowledgments

Many thanks to Rose Lipscomb, my editor, who made this book what you see. She worked with me for months and patiently listened to my every complaining about what must be deleted what not. But, true to be told, she always won.

Also I would like to thank a kind and lovely person Julia Austin Edwards who did the proofreading part.

Many thanks to you for reading my book.

I hope you enjoyed it.


Alignment: The Silent City

Five friends wake up to discover they are left alone on earth--the rest of humanity is gone. Empty streets are littered with stalled-out cars, buses, and motorcycles. A sunless and moonless sky is covered with an enormous barrier that prevents any view of the heavens. And silence, pervasive and absolute, reigns. Nothing stirs. The air is oppressive and there is no wind, not even the softest breeze. As far as the five friends can tell, there isn’t another living thing on earth other than them, neither animal nor plant. What happened to life on earth while they slept? Or is it that something happened to them? Are they still on earth, or have they somehow been transported elsewhere? If so, where? Heaven? Hell? Another planet? Or are they pawns in a sophisticated computer game? Or is it all just their imagination? Aram believes they aren't dead. He believes if there is a way into the Silent World, then there must be a way out. He convinces his friends to stay focused and put up a worthy fight to find their way back to the reality they once knew. He can't give up, because somewhere out there, beyond the frightening new world, his new-born son is waiting for his Daddy's return.

  • Author: H.G. Suren
  • Published: 2016-02-09 09:40:16
  • Words: 43704
Alignment: The Silent City Alignment: The Silent City