Alissa is late to spend the day at her sister Margaret’s non-profit.
Her light brown hair is tucked behind her ears. She wears a black business suit with red slacks and a silver, semi-reflective heart-shaped locket that Margaret gave her as a birthday gift when she turned fifteen.
“Maybe a bit overdressed,” Alissa thinks as she looks into the closet door mirror, “but that’s all I got.”
It was either that or an old sweater and jeans, the kind that she wears to her own office, Orcos, where she designs AI software.
Walking inside Wellington Station, a whitish chalky dust hovers in the air and causes Alissa to cough. As she takes the escalator to the lower level, she finds no one waiting from the T. Something clicks: services have been reduced. She waits for over twenty minutes, checking her phone watch repeatedly. It’s already 10:40 am – how did it get so late?
Taking a deep breath, she goes back outside and looks for a taxi. They are lined up waiting for passengers but there are no drivers inside. Towards the end of the taxi queue, two older black men chat with each other. She waves to them, giving a distinct nod; they wave back and continue chatting.
In the parking lot, a car idles. An older grey-haired woman sits in the driver’s seat.
“Must be an Uber,” Alissa thinks as she walks up to the car.
“Can I get a ride to Boston – 25 Alder Street?”
The woman gestures for her to get in.
A tall, older man, with a bald crown and grey hair around the sides, sits in the front passenger seat.
The older couple greets her in an Eastern European accent. Alissa knows that there is something she should be remembering but can’t quite recall what it is.
As they drive, she gazes out the window. Route 99 towards Boston is ghostly, store fronts are either dark or shuttered, few cars pass, and she sees only one pedestrian walking and peering anxiously from side to side. At a stop light, she looks at a newly renovated McDonalds. Inside lights are on, but it is empty. When the light turns green, she sees a long line of cars trail around the drive-thru window.
“Where is everyone?” Alissa asks the couple.
“It is almost 11 in the morning, things are quiet around this time,” the man says, looking back to Alissa.
A second later he looks back to her with squinted eyes, as if discovering something new and revealing about her.
Nearing Charlestown, the right turn onto the interstate is backed up. All along the highway entrance and on 93 South, cars are stuck in gridlock traffic. Straight ahead, in the direction of the North End, the road is completely vacant.
The driver makes an abrupt swerve and pulls into the traffic going onto 93 South.
“I almost missed the turn!” the woman says, glancing back to Alissa through the rear view mirror.
“I’ll never get there in time now. Why didn’t you just go straight?”
“I couldn’t! But no problem, we’ll get you there soon.”
The driver turns off the car ignition in the middle of traffic.
The couple get out and the man opens the door for Alissa.
“Yes, leave it to us,” he says.
Alissa follows them across the street and under the interstate overpass, where, amidst overgrown grass, empty liquor bottles and cigarette butts, is an opening leading underground.
As they descend a few hundred feet, the man says, “This tunnel was built in the early 20th century. They had thought this would be a subway line, but it never happened.”
A familiar whitish chalky dust pervades the air. They cough a bit and Alissa’s throat becomes parched.
After walking for a while, the older man turns to Alissa and extends his hand.
“How rude of me. I’m Ivan.”
“Alissa. Nice to meet you.”
With a wide smile, the woman turns to her and says, “I am Gretchen.”
“Nice meeting you.”
Gretchen, shorter and stouter than Alissa, embraces her and says in her ear, “Nice to meet you, too. We’ll get through this.”
While this all feels perfectly natural to Alissa, she has the feeling that this kind of behaviour shouldn’t be done for some reason. But, why, she couldn’t remember. Also, what was there to get through?
As they continue on through the dimly-lit tunnel, there’s an intersection.
Gretchen’s and Ivan’s faces look confused as they speak to each other in Croatian.
“You will stay here,” Gretchen says to Alissa.
In response to Alissa’s confusion, Ivan says, “As you see, there are several tunnels and none of them labelled. Some lead up to the city and others just continue on like this, forever. We’ll go find the one that leads aboveground near Alder Street, as you wish.”
They leave Alissa for what seems like an eternity.
Suddenly, Ivan’s distant voice says, “You don’t have to do this. Don’t hurt me! Don’t…”
“Shut up!” a gruff male voice says.
Alissa hears something heavy fall to the ground on what seems to be a higher level of the tunnel.
“Where’s Gretchen?” Alissa wonders as she starts sprinting through the tunnel’s chalky dust.
After what seems like forever and her mouth has become parched by the tunnel’s chalky dust, Alissa finds a narrow stairway. Upon reaching the top, she opens a heavy, steel door and emerges onto East India Street near downtown.
“Civilization, at last!” Alissa thinks. “Wait ‘til I tell Margaret and the people at the office about this!”
Glancing at her phone, she sees that it’s already noon. The streets are empty, void of the usual parade of lunch-goers. Only the dark, sleeping buildings watch over her, curious to see what she does next.
“Maybe there are people inside are looking out too.” she thinks. “But if they are, they’re hidden by the windows’ shadows.”
She walks down East India Street, takes a right on Milk Street and comes to Alder. A sense of accomplishment fills Alissa as she walks slowly towards #25.
25 Alder has a large, ornate lobby, where typically a receptionist would be seated for visitors to check-in. But when she looks in, the lights are off, and the receptionist’s desk is empty. Alissa bangs on the locked door, but there is no sign of movement inside. Then she goes to the small loading dock at the side of the building, but that door is also locked.
Alissa returns to the front and peers in; her hands block the light from either side to gain full visibility, but it still looks completely empty. She sits down, looks through her phone and texts her sister.
As she awaits a response, Alissa hears a knock on the glass window behind her. The janitor, a middle-aged, balding white man, begins talking to her, but the thickness of the building’s glass prevents his voice from being audible.
From the intensity of his eyes, he seems to be saying something important. He points to the mottled brown office building across the street. Alissa shrugs and walks over to 22 Alder.
Standing at the door of #22, she mouths back to the janitor, “This one?”
The janitor nods.
Alissa rings the bell and bangs on the front door. Inside, the reception area is dim and vacant. No one answers.
She takes a deep breath and turns back across the street.
The janitor has disappeared.
Her phone vibrates with a message from Margaret.
It says, “Alissa, I had been expecting for you to visit me at the office for years. I asked you last year on this very day. But you’ve come at the wrong time. A time when the wind has taken humanity and left only dust.
P.S., I now work remote. We all do. Where have you been all this time?”
Peter F. Crowley is an independent writer from the Boston area. His poetry book Those Who Hold Up the Earth was released by Kelsay Books in 2020. Other work of his can be found in Pif Magazine, Galway Review, Opiate Magazine and Digging Through the Fat, among other publications.