I woke up to a gray morning; as gray as every other morning. Cloud-filtered light flooded in, through windows, through open doors, filling every room, every hallway, and every closet left open. The house was like one open room, bathed in gray light.
It was like any other forgotten morning. Sometime long after I’d left my bed, after I’d put my shoes on and walked downstairs, I wondered idly what day of the week it was, what month it was.
And that’s how it often was; gray mornings existed by themselves. The clouds would burn off, and the sun would break through, and then the day would begin; what existed before then was separate.
Yet it wasn’t exactly like any other morning. From the moment I woke up, I’d known the house was empty. I’d known I wouldn’t find my sister or my parents. I knew it by the silence; I knew it by the gray light pressing in, unobstructed, throwing open every door. I was its only obstacle, I was the only thing in the house casting a shadow.
Something about the day drew me outside. Maybe the emptiness of the house pushed me outside, instead. Maybe it felt like I was outside already, like the outside had made its way in.
I stood in the grass of our front lawn, deep green and manicured, though we put barely any work into it. The lawn sloped down gently to the road; the other side of the road was lined by tall pines, nearly abutting the steel-cable guardrail which blocked off the hillside’s steep slope. I stood facing the guardrail and the trees; my eyes followed the trunks up towards the sky. The gray of the clouds was so bright that it made my eyes ache; it was so bright that the tops of the trees were simply silhouettes on a bright gray background. And, looking at that sky, I knew the clouds would be there all day.
There were no cars on the road. I looked to the right, down the row of houses, down the row of front yards just like mine. I hoped to see someone looking back, out in their lawn, too, wondering where everyone went, and who let in all the light.
I didn’t go back inside; it felt the same outside as it did inside. It was as if the gray light of the morning had blown all the windows and doors open, reaching every corner of every room, turning the inside out, or the outside in, or blending them together to form some odd middle ground where nothing was hidden and nowhere felt cozy. It was as if all the world were connected as a simple labyrinth; it was not meant to trick you, or get you lost, but there were no single rooms, and everything was simply another hallway, leading to another hallway, and so on. There was nowhere to stop which truly felt like a destination; everywhere seemed to guide you somewhere else.
The yard guided me to my right, off the grass, over the driveway, into the stone-filled drainage ditch between ours and our neighbor’s yard. And the ditch guided me up, towards our backyard, towards the hill and the trees. I knew where I was going from there.
At the top of the hill was Josh’s place. The sliding glass door under the back porch was open, as always. He was already up; he was downstairs, wearing his coat, leaning on the wall, staring at his shoes as they tapped anxiously on the ground. When I walked in, he looked up at me with a face not surprised to see me altogether, but surprised to see me in that moment. It was as if he’d been expecting me in a larger sense, but had become more interested in the flecks of dirt on his shoes at that instant.
We stood, silent.
“What?” I asked him.
Josh stared at me, a hint of confusion on his face. “It’s my house,” he answered.
“What?” I asked again.
“I don’t know. You were the one who came up here,” he said.
His expression was unchanging, as was mine. Both of our faces said that none of this mattered. It was a simple miracle that my words reached his ears, or that his words reached mine. It was the sort of morning that ate words and sounds, destroyed meanings and deflected intents up into the clouds.
“Have you been outside today?” I asked.
“No,” he started. “I mean, not out the door, but-“
“We’re basically outside.”
Silence. He looks at his shoes again. The gray light of morning is the only light in the room; it shines in through the open sliding door, casting light into the open space, but it shows nothing at all. The basement is a void save for the circle drawn by the morning light. I step back and hang on the doorframe.
“Everyone’s gone,” I tell him. He looks up at me. At that, I’d expected confusion. Getting emotions from Josh is tough; reading them, tougher. But on his face, I clearly read no confusion, simply intrigue.
“Well, let’s go look for them,” he tells me.
I put one foot on the gravel outside the door.
Sometime later, we’re walking down the road. The road widens as we reach the sharp rightward bend, but the shoulders disappear; we’re walking on the road already, though. The dense, high treetops draw a path on the sky in the shape of the bend. As we round the bend to the long, straight hill that is my street, the treetops straighten out to form a channel; a bright, gray streak extending until the sides of the channel seem to meet, far down the road. Where they meet, the road will bend again, this time sharply to the left; the shoulder will disappear, again, and the treetops will bend with the road, again. And, again, the treetops will straighten out with the road, forming a long, bright, gray channel extending just as far as the last.
We didn’t know where we were going, but we decided to take Josh’s car to get there.
We coast down the roads of our neighborhood; we start at his house, coast down, turn right, coast past my house, turn left, coast, right, coast. The roads are empty, and the houses are illuminated only as mine was; blown open by light through the windows. They sat like rows of skeletons in sunlight.
As we exit the neighborhood, the trees end abruptly at the base of the hill it’s built on. A stream traces the border between the tree-covered hillside and the flat, treeless land on the other side. Passing over the one-lane bridge that spans the stream, we can trace the stream and the treeline to the left and right. The left and right sides slowly loop inwards, meeting far ahead, far beyond our field of vision. The treeline and hillsides thus form a large, relatively circular boundary to the fields in which our town sits.
When we reached town, there was nobody on the streets. There was nobody on the sidewalks or in the stores. There was no sounds from any sidestreets or alleyways. And there was no place that the gray light of the day didn’t reach.
Near the center of town, we were stopped by a red light. Josh looked left and right, edged out into the intersection, and then backed up. We sat and waited.
As he accelerated at the green light, something caught my eye. Far down the intersecting street, almost out of my field of view, I saw a single car. Though a few blocks away, I could see clearly that the car was parked mostly on the sidewalk, with only its left tires sitting on the road. I didn’t say anything to Josh; I didn’t know what to say.
Beyond town is more fields. The road bends upwards, and the car climbs. Built into the other side of the hill is the local high school; Josh pulled into the massive, empty parking lot. He turned the car off as we stepped out.
From the lot, you can see to the hillsides in every direction, except for where the high school blocks the view. Looking back, I could see the road we took, passing straight through town, tracing a line back to the hillside where it disappears. The roads emanate from town in all directions, dividing up the flat area between the hillsides like veins divide the surface of a leaf.
We leaned on the hood of the car long enough to realize we weren’t hearing the faint sounds of traffic in and out of town; we weren’t hearing the sounds of horns, the hum of hundreds of engines...none of it came back like it usually did, bouncing off the hillsides so strangely that sometimes the traffic sounded like it was just down the hill. We realized we didn’t hear the sounds from the school: the slamming of the front door, the sneakers squeaking in the enclosed courtyard. And we realized we didn’t even hear the sounds of birds chirping, people talking, or the wind in the trees.
There was something, though. A low hum. The kind of sound that is pervasive; it seems to come from everywhere, from everything, convincing you that it’s not actually there, that it is silence.
Off of the front parking lot, a road bends around the left side of the school and down the hill towards the football field. Josh walked ten or fifteen feet ahead of me. There was no urgency in his pace. I walked on the sidewalk, while he balanced on the painted lines in the middle of the road, staring at his shoes and holding out his arms to balance himself. Beyond him, down the hill, I could see the leftmost edge of the fence that surrounds the football field; the football field itself was blocked by the school to the left. There was no sound from either of us; there was no sound but the low hum.
It seemed to be getting louder the farther down the hill we walked. The change was subtle; you could never detect an actual volume change, but every time you noticed the hum, you’d swear it was louder than the time before. Then, as quickly as it came, you’d forget it was even there; it would fade into the background, it would become your silence.
Near the bottom of the hill, it was getting louder still. At first, I’d been sure that Josh had heard it, yet he’d not yet made mention of it. I was realizing, in fact, that Josh and I hadn’t spoken a word since we’d gotten in his car.
I was in the middle of wondering why we ended up here, when Josh stopped walking. He was in the middle of a stride; his arms were out, and he was balanced on one leg, yet his eyes were not pointed at his feet, but towards the football field. I stopped too.
For a few seconds, all there was was the low hum. I didn’t move; from here, the back corner of the building still blocked everything but the scoreboard, raised up over the high fence.
“What is it?” I asked him. My voice sounded loud, abrasive, foreign.
Josh put his arms down, and his foot on the ground. He scratched his chest, shifted his weight.
“What is it?” I asked again, softer this time.
He looked over to me and shrugged. “It’s everybody,” he told me.
His words barely reached me. It was then when I really began to hear the hum for what it was. Before, it had sounded like it was just in my head; like there was something in my ear, humming away. But as I watched Josh’s lips move and struggled to hear the words, I realized it was all around me, all around us; it was more than in my head. It was the fluid we swam in. It was denser than air. It smothered us. Our words and sentences pushed through it, just barely making it from him to me, or from me to him. It suddenly seemed deafening.
Turning back to the road, Josh kept walking. I followed. And soon enough, the corner of the building pulled away to show the football field. In the grass behind the building, we stopped and stared.
The field itself wasn’t there; it wasn’t visible due to the immense crowd gathered on it. It must have been everyone in town. Nobody seemed to move, and though packed onto the field, they didn’t seem to interact. They just stood. The crowd itself was seething - I could trace the waves caused by the shifting bodies. A slight sway might start at one end or the other and fan out, like rippling water.
It was clear then where the hum was coming from, and it took on a new tone, one that was human, living, breathing. It wasn’t one sound that they were all making, but the sound of the crowd. It was the sound of so much life in one place, so much silence crowded together.
We sat on the grassy hill behind the school and above the field, watching as the field swayed.
Josh got up and began walking down the hill. “Wait here,” he said, without looking back.
He hopped the fence and walked down to the field. I could see him push his way into the crowd. For the first few feet, I could see the ripple of disturbance he caused, and then he disappeared.
I’d waited on Josh before; it was nothing new. The first time I ever met him, I waited on him. Last summer, this was.
When I first saw him, I was sitting on my roof, facing the woods; something I often did on summer evenings.
He was halfway up the hill between my house and the next row of houses, so though I was on my roof, he was at eye level when we first saw each other. He was crouched over, like he’d been looking at something. Even in his hunched stance, I could tell that he was tall. We stared for a bit, both of us wondering whether we’d been seen.
And then I was climbing back in through the window, down the stairs, out into the yard, up into the woods. To my surprise, he was still there.
I stood, out of breath and panting. I looked at the plants near his feet, and then glanced at him. Though still on his knees, he was tall. Otherwise, though, he was unremarkable.
He looked over at me with a tired glance, and I looked back at the plants. I was suddenly extremely embarrassed; the adrenaline of the moment had worn off, and now I just felt like I was intruding. For a few seconds, neither of us said anything. My discomfort was palpable, but his cool cut through it like a straight razor.
“Look at this,” he said to me, gesturing to the area around his feet.
I’d expected him to shoo me off, so anything else was a welcome relief. I looked, but nothing jumped out at me as being too strange.
“Weird,” I responded nonetheless. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I didn’t want him to know that.
“Not really,” he said. “I vacuumed out my shop a while back, and dumped the dirt over my back porch, scattered it to the wind. There must’ve been some seeds on the floor.”
I was still confused, but I prayed that it didn’t show on my face while I simply nodded to him and looked down at the plants again.
He started walking back up the hill. “Wait here,” he said, without looking back.
I stared at his back stupidly, thinking about how strange it was that I’d never seen him before, considering how close he lived. I’d lived here my whole life; I felt like I knew all there was to know about this small, small corner of the world. I’m always learning exactly how much it is that I don’t know.
At the top of the hill, he walked under the first-floor porch of the closest house and unlocked the sliding glass door to the basement. As he disappeared into the house, I realized I had seen him, or at least imagined him. I’d imagined meeting him a dozen times.
His house is directly above mine. The road that runs in front of my house runs straight for a while, bends sharply, and then runs straight, eventually passing in front of his house. We call each straight section a ‘switch’, here. I live on the fifth switch, and he, on the sixth; between each switch, between each row of houses, is a steep, forest-covered incline.
I’d spent countless nights on my roof, staring through the trees at his house. All that’s visible in those nights is the single sodium light above his porch. It was the sort of light you only notice at night - the kind you see on the sides of industrial park warehouses or small, seemingly doorless utility buildings on dirt roads, out the window of a car, speeding through some already-forgotten summer night. It’s the sort of light that makes you wonder why you’re there in the first place; in that car, in that place, in that summer night. The sort of light you remember when the rest of a memory’s gone; when the people and places in a memory have become meaningless, when the people have filed out and the places have become gray, it’s the only color remaining. They’re the lights at the edges of the world. Not wards, but indicators; relative points without which we couldn’t measure the absolute emptiness they abut.
The light cast an orange glow in a half-circle downward toward the porch. Where the light clung to the wall, all that was visible was the shadows cast by the repeating shingle pattern in the vinyl siding - there was nothing else, nothing adorning the walls, nothing hung, not even a single window. The light was centered between the porch’s edge on the left and the sliding glass door on the right, and was set at least three feet higher on the wall than the top of the doorframe.
The light spread outward, illuminating a porch without furniture or decoration. It was only until I’d seen the lack of furniture that I noted the lack of people, ever and always; no parties on holidays, nor quiet gatherings - not even a single person. Yet I knew someone lived there, as the light came on most nights, regular enough to be expected but not uniform enough to be on any sort of timer. The more I thought about the empty porch, the sadder it made me; with every passing night I spent sitting on the roof, I hoped more and more to see someone on the porch.
From time to time I imagined myself on the porch. Without furniture, I’d sit with my back against the railing. I’d wondered for a time which direction porch’s boards ran, and I decided it made the most sense in my mind if they ran diagonal. As I’d sit, the only noise to be heard would be the hum of the sodium light, somewhat loud but not annoyingly so, and I imagined the moths flocking around it, slamming into it, adding an erratic and soft rhythm to the white noise.
From my roof, I saw myself on that porch; from that porch, I saw a hundred scenes. I saw a firepit in the yard, and a woodpile near the forest’s edge. I saw countless summer nights spent by that fire. Whether it was me, or anyone else, I knew it didn’t matter. A guy at the fireside, and a girl...but not together, never together, no matter how hard they tried, not with all of the emptiness of this place between them.
I saw gray morning after gray morning, cold wetness of the dew coating the deck and the grass, soaking anything that moves. And so everything is still but the blanket of clouds, which drift so slowly that they might as well be still too. In my imagination, those mornings never end, their skies never clear, and I never move.
In those imagined nights on the porch, I’d wait for whoever owned the house to come out, to sit with me, to enjoy my company; I’d never seen the person who owned the house before, and so they never came.
But I’d finally met him, the man who controlled the sodium light. Over the next few months, we spent more and more time together. I’d come at night, up the hill through the woods, towards the orange glow of the sodium light. I used to knock on the sliding door of his basement and he’d appear; weeks later, I’d stop knocking and start letting myself in.
We spent most of our time in the basement. Come to think of it, I’ve never been on the second floor of his house. I imagine it is as plain as the rest of his house. The walls in every room are bare, all surfaces perfectly clean. Every wall is a blank canvas for casting shadows across, and as a result the house always seems dark. It’s as if the whole world doesn’t have light enough for so many rooms, and so we cower in the basement, in the darkness more familiar.
Meeting Josh was the first thing to really show me how little happens in this town. He was a novel discovery; someone I’d imagined meeting, but someone I never expected to meet. Meeting him showed me that a novel discovery was itself a novel thing.
Eventually he returned, wearing gloves and carrying a small trowel in one hand and a stack of black plastic plant pots in the other. Carefully, he dug out the roots of each plant and transplanted it into a pot. In the end, there were six or seven plants taken out of the ground.
He picked up some of the pots and began to climb the hill. I stood there, confused. When he didn’t hear my feet behind him, he turned around and stared at me. I couldn’t read anything but tiredness in his face. I grabbed the rest of the pots as he turned back up the hill.
Josh was back a few minutes later. I noticed him just before he pushed his way out of the mass, on the opposite side of the field. He exited near the left end, hopped the opposite fence, and walked around, back to me.
“I’m not sure what to say,” I told him.
“Good. I’m not sure what I’d answer,” he responded.
Back in the parking lot, we climbed into the car. Josh told me he’d seen my parents and my sister. I told him we’d seen everybody.
We drove back in silence. We were stopped at the same intersection on the way back. I looked to the left, down the long street, and so he did too. The lone car was still there.
I slammed the car door, but the noise was swallowed up before it reached my ears. The car rolled up the hill and disappeared; Josh with it. I walked towards my house, down one side of the gravel drainage ditch, back up the other. Across the yard. Onto the stone walkway. Through the front door. Up the stairs, down the hallway, still flooded with gray light. Into my room, into bed. As I closed my eyes, I realized it looked just as it did when I woke up.
The next morning, I woke to the opening and closing of doors, the noise of voices echoing through the house, the clinking of dishware, the sound of cars. ◾️
This story was originally published in Penn State’s undergraduate literary journal, Kalliope, in 2015. It was awarded the Edward J. Nichols Memorial Award in Writing for Fiction.