In the early hours of a dreary Monday morning. I awoke with a dryness in my mouth and a pounding in my head. Rain crashed against my window and a flash of lightning briefly illuminated the room. I rolled over and grasped for the bottle of water I kept at my bedside for just this occurrence. Thunder boomed as I gulped down the stale water. How long had it been since I changed it? I rolled over again, back into the warmth of the bed and tried to fall asleep. Outside my door I heard the shuffling of a jacket being pulled on and the front door open and close. As the warm embrace of my own dreams began to pull me in again, I heard the familiar sound of my father’s ute coughing into life.
I finally stumbled out of bed properly at around twelve o’clock. The headache had subsided a little, but I still felt the dryness in my mouth, as though I’d spent my dreams wandering a desert, trying to eat sand. I was alone in the house, as I knew I would be, so I made my way to the kitchen in just my shirt and briefs. I opened the fridge. There was a variety of condiments strewn about, three cartons of eggs, all half filled. I checked the date on them, one month out, close enough to take the risk. I passed them over in favour of something easier. The milk bottle in the door was on its last day and there was plenty of cereal in the cupboard, but I had a yearning for something hot. I closed the fridge, chucked on the same pair of jeans I’d worn the night before, straightened out my hair a little and headed for the shop.
An electronic chime heralded my entrance. The man behind the counter, the owner, didn’t even turn to look at the door. He stood engrossed in the TV above him. I paid him no heed and headed straight to the fridges. I grabbed a large can of energy drink, cracked the top and took a couple big gulps. The sound of the can opening caught the attention of the owner and he turned to berate the idiot helping himself to a drink in his shop. He stopped when he saw me, smiled and said, ‘Oh, I didn’t see you come in.’ I didn’t know his name and he didn’t know mine, but we knew each other all the same. He turned his attention back to the TV. Must be something important. I stocked up on snacks, a packet of chips, a couple chocolate bars and a big fizzy drink for later, sugar free. I placed everything on the counter, including the open energy drink, and grabbed a pie from the warmer. The wrapper crinkled as I tossed it on the counter. Without taking his eyes off the TV, the owner scanned the items one by one, placing everything but the pie and can into a plastic bag. I pulled out my card to pay. The owner motioned to the screen.
‘You seen that?’ he asked.
I looked up at the TV hanging from the wall. It was set to an all-day news network. The TV was muted but the subtitles told me what it was about. A spate of random disappearances had been happening all over the world. People leaving for work and never making it. They just vanish with no trace. It had been the hot news story for a week now.
‘People go missing all the time,’ I said.
‘But this often?’
‘Sure, it’s just that the media talk about it more. Anything to drum up a story, keep people watching.’
‘Nah, this feels different,’ the owner said. He looks around the store, as though he’s afraid he’s being watched. ‘I think it’s aliens.’
I laughed. ‘Sure thing, man.’ The Eftpos machine beeped its acceptance. I gathered up my things and began the walk home. I unwrapped the pie, a mince and cheese, as I walked. A hot meat pie was one of the best things for a hangover, nothing like a bit of fake cheese and dubious meat to satisfy a nauseous stomach. I scoffed it down and followed it with a deep chug of the rest of the energy drink. At home, I flopped down onto the beanbag in my room and started up my PS4. I checked the time, twelve-thirty. I had a good five hours before my dad came home from work, I planned to get a good gaming session in beforehand. We’re gonna discuss some things tomorrow. He probably thought I hadn’t remembered our conversation. I was slurring my words, barely able to keep my head up; it had been a good night. He’d lectured me about responsibility and jobs before he’d hauled me into bed. But the drink had never once taken my memory from me.
I didn’t notice anything was different until night began to fall and I still hadn’t been interrupted by the croaky engine of my dads ute pulling into the driveway. I peered out the window. I checked my phone, thinking something must’ve come up at work. He hadn’t called or texted, but that wasn’t totally out of the ordinary. I shrugged it off. My stomach rumbled and I hoped he’d get home soon, I needed his ute. With nothing else to do besides wait, I flopped back down on my beanbag and resumed my gaming session. It was around seven-thirty that I started to worry. Not a lot. Once or twice before he’d stayed out really late. He’d met up with an old friend and lost track of time, or something really serious had happened at work and he’d had to stay. But he’d always called to tell me before. I pulled out my phone and sent him a text. Just a simple, ‘where you at?’ to hopefully get some response from him. After an hour passed and I hadn’t heard anything, I sent another. My thoughts wandered back to the news report the shop owner had been watching. I shook them from my mind. Dad’s an adult, he can take care of himself. Then I thought, he’s teaching me a lesson about responsibility. Of course, it was the sort of thing he would do too, the bastard. He had plenty of friends he could stay the night with and leave me alone to fend for myself. He’d be back in the morning, he’d have to, he had work after all. I shook my head and laughed at the realisation. I’d just order pizza or something, I didn’t need to drive anywhere. I knew just the place I wanted to order from. A local shop, no internet ordering. Usually it’s better to pick up. They had just a single delivery driver who got to you when he could. Sometimes the stuff would get to you colder than you’d like, but it was still the best place in town. I searched for the phone. I don’t usually use the landline, we only kept it around because my dad was a stickler for old tech. But I found it tucked away in the cushions of the couch. The light on top flashed red and the LCD screen indicated it had three missed calls. I hadn’t even heard it ring. I played the messages and held the phone to my ear. The robotic voice told me that the first message was left at eight in the morning.
‘Hey, Joe.’ I recognised the voice. My dad’s boss, Larry, he’d been over a few times before for parties, he’d even been at my sister’s wedding. ‘Just calling to see where you’ve got to. I tried your cell, but you ain’t answering that either. Call me back.’
Odd. I could’ve swore dad left super early in the morning. What time was it? I never checked. Did he seem like he was in a rush? I couldn’t remember. The next message was left at ten. Dad’s boss again.
‘Come on, man. Look if you need some time just say. Your daughter isn’t answering her phone either. Get back to me.’ His voice sounded irritated. I felt my mouth begin to dry up again. As far as I knew, Larry didn’t have my number, had never needed it. I knew my sister was his emergency contact, she was his eldest child, and with Mum gone… But why wasn’t she answering her phone. I flicked her a text too, asking if she’d seen dad. If this was some plot to make me take more responsibility it was an elaborate one.
The third message had only just come through, about seven o’clock. ‘Hey ah, Markus? I think that’s your name. Joe’s boy. If you get this, maybe you’ve seen the news already, maybe not. I hope your dads just off somewhere, drowning his sorrows or whatever. But if he’s one of them, those who, ah, you know, went, I’m sorry.’ The beep that indicated the end of the messages blasted my eardrums. I stood for a moment, frozen. What the hell was he talking about?
I flicked the TV on and changed to one of those 24 hour news channels. The top story, the only story, was the disappearances. They’d ramped up all over the world in the last day or so. People had been disappearing en masse, sometimes leaving behind young children and pets. In places, entire neighbourhoods were suddenly abandoned. Power was out in many countries as workers simply left their jobs, saying nothing to anyone before they left. And then, mid sentence, the anchor stopped, and her eyes glazed over. There was a sullen silence for a moment before she suddenly stood, turned and walked out of shot. The broadcast ended shortly after.
I stood there stunned. I called dad’s number, straight to voicemail. I called again, straight to voicemail again. I didn’t know what to do. I called my sister. One ring, two rings, three rings and an answer.
‘Hello?’ a panicked voice, not my sister, a man.
‘Cam,’ I said. ‘Have you seen Sarah? Or Dad?’
‘I was about to ask you the same thing,’ Cam replied. ‘I just got home from work, we had a bunch of no shows, and she’s not here. She left Andrea alone.’
My heart sunk in my chest. What the hell was happening? I sat down on the couch, the phone still to my ear.
‘Have you seen the news?’ I asked.
‘I need you to come pick me up, something’s wrong.’ I never heard an answer from him; just as I finished the sentence, the power shut off and I was left alone in darkness.