By Robert P. Bishop
My village, Chipping Well, came to a halt at midmorning. Every electrical device in the village, whether connected to the grid or battery-powered, stopped working, almost as if a master switch had been thrown by an invisible hand.
Cars and trucks died in the streets and would not restart. The daily freight train stalled on the tracks and remains there, motionless. Computers and cell phones went silent, as did the radio and television station. Life-saving devices in the small hospital failed and patients connected to them died. Water from the public utility stopped flowing from taps. A passenger aircraft flying over Chipping Well fell out of the sky and everyone aboard perished when the airplane slammed into John Stoddard’s ripening wheat field and set the golden stalks on fire.
People gathered in the village square soon after the shut-down, asking questions. Nobody knew anything, of course. The mayor tried to reassure the people that this outage was temporary, but he had no satisfactory answers. Finally, the mayor asked two men to ride their bicycles to Marshgate, the village seven miles away, to see if it was experiencing similar problems.
When the men returned and reported that Marshgate, and Spelsbury, Marshgate’s neighbor, were equally paralyzed, the response was cataclysmic; the people of Chipping Well went on a rampage, looting the stores and cleaning them out. Grocery stores were hit first. People fought each other; many were bloodied and three died in the frenzied fights for food.
People descended on the other shops after the grocery stores were emptied. By the end of the day, shops in Chipping Well were a ruin of broken windows, doors hanging from broken hinges and shelves stripped bare.
After the looting had exhausted the people, the village council managed to hold a community meeting. Several men were selected to act as constables and given the authority to shoot on sight anyone engaged in further looting and violence.
A fragile calm has settled over the village, but it’s not going to last. The people are gripped with a desperation that is dangerous.
Rumors about what caused the collapse are rampant, but they are just that; rumors. Some say it was a massive cyber assault on the nation’s electronic grid. Conspiracy theorists insist the meltdown was orchestrated by the sinister One World Government to seize power. Others claim aliens are taking over to enslave or even eat us. And some claim it is God’s punishment and the end of the world is at hand. They might be right. We still have no explanation for what’s happened to us and the neighboring villages and no way to find out.
We have reached a numb but hopeful expectancy; a belief the government, if one even exists anymore, will bring order out of the chaos that surrounds us and restore our lives to the normalcy we had before the collapse. But the government better hurry; we have only a few days before our meager food supplies are exhausted and we begin to starve.
How the government will restore normalcy escapes our grasp, yet we hope for the miracle.
But, as the proverbial saying goes… something good always comes, and for us, it is Caruso’s.
Emily finishes brushing her hair, puts the brush on the dresser and looks at me. “I want to go to Caruso’s tonight.”
“How do you know Caruso’s will be open?” I smile but my face feels like it is going to crack and shatter.
“He will be open because there is no one else, and the woman will be there.”
“How do you know?”
“She is always there. I love the way she plays the piano.”
“Yes, her music is…” I can’t go on.
Emily sits by me on the bed. “How much longer?”
“A few more days. When our food is gone.” I walk to the closet, open the door and peer in.
“Are they still there?”
“Yes.” I close the closet door carefully, as if it is made of thin and ancient glass.
Caruso’s is the only business that remains open. It is also the only business in the village that was not looted. Perhaps Caruso’s four sons, who stood guard over it with scowling faces, and armed with black, sinister-looking semi-automatic rifles, had something to do with that.
Caruso keeps his café open as a defiant gesture, a refusal to accept the chaos that surrounds us. His bistro is a gathering place where we can believe we are still well-behaved and civilized residents of Chipping Well.
His four sons, unsmiling and still armed with the sinister-looking rifles, stand guard. After a brief inspection Emily and I enter.
We sit at a small table with a flickering candle on it and accept whatever fare is offered; tonight, it is a weak tea brewed with spruce bark. We pay whatever we can. I don’t know why we bother. Money is worthless. There is nothing to buy in the village, no food, no medicines, but we pay for the fare with the few coins we still have. Emily believes we need the act of buying something to believe our lives are still normal. Or maybe it is Caruso, in his defiance, demanding we cling to the life we once had just days ago.
Murmuring voices around us fall silent as the woman with the black patch over her right eye steps from behind a curtain and approaches the piano on a small platform against the bistro’s back wall.
The woman arrived in the village last year and became a fixture at Caruso’s, performing nightly. She is a mystery and keeps to herself. The only thing she shares with the village is her music.
The woman bows to us, sits down, places her fingers on the keys and pauses for several moments before she begins to play. Her music is haunting. It reaches inside and inflicts pain so terrible people weep. Some men, it is rumored, go mad after listening to her music, hurry home, strip off their shoe and sock, put a rifle barrel in their mouth and pull the trigger with their naked big toe.
The woman pauses and beckons Emily to join her. Emily steps onto the stage and stands by the woman. The woman begins to play again. The music and Emily’s voice merge and wash over the people sitting at the tables, soaking into them as the flickering candles cast shadows across waxen faces and frightened eyes.
The language Emily sings sounds as if it might be east European, perhaps a dialect rooted in a remote village deep in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains, but this is a guess on my part. Emily refuses to tell me what the language is, and I have no way of finding out.
After the song is over Emily places her hand on the woman’s shoulder in what is clearly a gesture of love and whispers something to her. The woman begins to play again as Emily steps off the platform.
Emily returns to our table. “We can go now,” she says to me. The music follows us into the night.
Hand in hand, we walk to the park by the river and stand on its grassy banks, listening to the soft susurrus of water sweeping southward. The night is black, but the distant horizon glows saffron-orange from the fires consuming the city a hundred miles away as the looters and desperate people continue to roam unchecked.
This morning village constables shot three men from the dying city who were rampaging through our streets. Curious about what these men meant for our village, some villagers went on a scouting mission. They brought back terrifying news; thousands of crazed and desperate people were pouring out of the burning city, destroying everything in their path, and would soon arrive in our small and fragile community.
Lovers hide in the park as if the dark will protect them from the horror that is coming. After a few moments listening to the river’s dark waters flow by, Emily and I walk away. We’re not going to tell the lovers in the shadows how it ends. We’re going home where I keep a rifle and two bullets, gleaming bright as animal eyes in the night, on a shelf in the closet.
I’m happy for the woman with the eye patch who plays the piano at Caruso’s. She will be the last one to hear the music.
* * *
Robert P. Bishop, an army veteran and former teacher, holds a Master’s in Biology and lives in Tucson, Arizona. His short fiction has appeared in Active Muse, Ariel Chart, Better Than Starbucks, Bindweed Magazine, The Blotter Magazine, Bright Flash Literary Review, Clover and White, CommuterLit, Corner Bar Magazine, Creativity Webzine, Down in the Dirt, Flash Fiction Magazine, Fleas on the Dog, Friday Flash Fiction, Ink Pantry, Literally Stories, The Literary Hatchet, Lunate Fiction, Scarlet Leaf Review, Spelk, and elsewhere