Chapter 2: Now
Smith Kaminski got out of his secondhand Ford Focus and took in the empty student lot around him. It was starting to look pretty likely that he might have gotten the date wrong for the first day of school.
Besides his own used sedan, the one he got for his seventeenth birthday, there was only one other vehicle: a green van that looked as though it had seen more than its fair share of miles. Smith had instinctively parked a few spaces away from it to give himself space, but that gap seemed a gulf when he saw it from the perspective of the empty lot. He took a step back towards his car, but almost tripped when he changed his mind and tried to pull his foot back. What was the point in moving the car closer, he realized.
He scratched at his freshly buzzed scalp and stood in the silence at the end of the lot. He didn’t hear anything else coming. No cars. No busses. The school lot was back from the road enough that he definitely couldn’t see anything approaching. He pulled out his phone and clicked on the calendar. September second. That’s definitely what the website said when he checked it when he got back from vacation in August. And his parents absolutely had made such a fuss the previous night about getting Emma and Tiffany ready for their first day of fourth grade.
Smith raised his right eyebrow in thought. That was last night, right? No, it was. One hundred percent! He nodded to reassure himself. The past summer had been the weirdest of his life, but for everything else that had happened, he had not been losing time.
At least not yet, a voice in the back of his head poked at him.
He mumbled an indifferent noise aloud to no one in particular and headed towards the door. Maybe they had changed the hours this year? Was school new hours now? He had been attending James Buchanan High School for three full years leading into the start of his senior year; he figured he knew when the day began. Was it Labor Day by accident or something?
He was relieved to see lights on inside the building when he got to the front door. That seemed promising; someone had to have turned them on, unless they were on all summer. Still, he expected to find locked resistance when he pulled the heavy glass and metal door. But no… it opened right up for him.
No guard sat at the sign-in desk, though the clipboard and pen were set out for guests. The sign in sheet was blank. Directly across from the empty desk was the shop class. Smith stretched his neck to peek inside, but there was no one there, either. He scratched the still-itchy tattoo on his left arm he got for his eighteenth birthday while in Myrtle Beach. He was quite proud of the work the artist had done—a graveyard scene under a giant moon—but for the moment, it just added to the strange feeling running through his body.
He pushed the wooden double doors behind the guard station open, revealing the JBHS cafeteria. Before they entirely opened, he swore to himself if no one was there, he was going back home and back to bed. Initially, it seemed to Smith like he’d be back under the covers in no time, but he quickly registered that among the rows of empty tables, there sat two fellow students.
The first he noticed was the larger of the two, Gene Eriksson, who even on the first day of school was wearing sweatpants and a plain black T-shirt that Smith imagined he bought in bulk. Gene pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose to get a better look at Smith, then smiled and waved to him. Ever earnest, Gene slid across his spot on the bench, making room for Smith. In the empty cafeteria.
Seated across from Gene and having to turn around to see what his tablemate saw was Vinny Manucci. He was significantly smaller than Gene overall, but his khakis and polo shirt also fit him better than Gene’s clothes fit him. He ran a hand across the side of his head to adjust any errant stands of hair on his head. He also greeted Smith with a wave, but his face seemed much more befittingly bewildered than Gene’s given their lack of classmates.
“I was wondering if anyone else was coming!” Gene laughed, deeper than the moment might have called for. “Is everyone else out there coming in, too?”
“No, I…,” Smith looked past Gene, still not quite accepting that these two were here, but no one else was. “I didn’t see anyone else. Just my car and a van out there.”
“Oh, that’s my dad’s van! He got…,” Gene stopped himself, then picked right back up, “he won’t need it right now, so he said I could drive to school! So awesome not being on the bus, right?”
“Did you come with Gene then, Vinny? Or did just your bus come?” Smith thought about how weird that still seemed. “With just you?”
Vinny stayed seated as Gene sat back down. Smith took a seat next to Vinny, who was closer to his entrance into the cafeteria, even though Gene had ‘made room’. After getting into his spot, Smith worried Gene might be offended, but he looked as cheerful as ever.
“No, I had my mom drop me off on her way to work. Just Gene here when I got in.”
“I guess I was too excited and got here early.” Gene laughed deeply again.
The three of them sat without words for a moment. Smith and Vinny both reached for their phones at the same moment to check the time. Smith set his face down on the lunch table after seeing it; Vinny opened an app and started scrolling through.
“Are you looking to see if we missed something?” Smith asked him.
Vinny’s eyes narrowed and his lips appeared pressed tight against each other as he looked at his device. “I was trying to, but I think Twitter’s down or something, I don’t—“
The double doors to the cafeteria opened again, and Smith and Vinny both turned to see who was there. Gene pushed himself up from his seat and tilted his head to get a view around Smith. Natalie Lyons had a dumbstruck look the same as Smith figures he wore just a few moments prior. Since last Smith had seen her in the summer, she must have finally talked her parents into the septum piercing; good for her, he thought. She pulled off her black-rimmed glasses and rubbed the lenses with the Smurfette shirt she wore under a denim vest. She put her glasses back on and looked across the empty dining hall. Confusion was on the menu for her, as well, Smith figured.
“I thought I would be more right-on-time than fashionably early,” she said as she walked toward their table. “Maybe a little archaically late. But not… this.”
Vinny’s head popped up at her voice. “Nat! Hey! Is your phone working?”
“I hope not, because I want to think I missed all the texts telling me not to come to school today. But why? Did you send me something?”
“No, it’s just—“
“I thought you told me last week you might need a ride in today, but I never heard from you since last night.”
“His mom drove him in,” Gene offered.
Nat’s head snapped at that information. “She did? So is everything—“
“Yeah, it’s fine,” Vinny answered in a hurry.
Nat raised her eyebrows. “Yeah, it sure seemed fine.”
“Was anyone out there but you, Nat?” Smith asked, wanting to get out of whatever moment Vinny and Nat were having. “Any other cars pulling up? Busses coming in?”
“No, it was just me out there.”
Vinny grabbed Nat’s cell phone out of her hand and started pressing at the screen. Nat smirked in what looked to be annoyance, but she did not make much reaction beyond that. She and Vinny were close friends, so Smith reasoned that must not have been terribly unusual of him.
“You might have an addiction, Vinny,” Gene said.
“Okay, so have we all missed something here?” Smith asked.
Nat seemed about to respond when Vinny pushed the phone back into her hands and just pointed at the lock screen. Nat shook her head, but entered a code and gave it back to him without any resistance. As soon as she finished, he pulled it back away from her. She mouthed ‘you’re welcome’, then faced Smith.
“We really have to have, right?” she agreed. “But no one said anything to me when I was getting ready this morning.”
Smith felt another question coming on, but Gene jumped in before him. “Isn’t there some kind of rule? Like fifteen minutes? If you get to class and the teacher doesn’t come after fifteen minutes, we can go, right? That’s what I heard.”
“That’s for a class. And one teacher. Not sure what applies for, like,” Smith waved his arms out to the cafeteria, “everyone. This.”
Smith, Nat, and Gene jumped at the inquisitive voice and turned their attention back to the double doors. Standing there were two more students, both first day seniors… just like the four before them had all been, Smith realized.
To their right was Aaron Washington. The red and brown James Buchanan High School football T-shirt he wore looked to be maybe half a size too small against his chest and arms. His book bag was probably the same size as Smith’s, but at Aaron’s side, it might as well have been a clutch. Aaron was a big guy last year, but now that he was going to be the school’s senior stand out tight end and linebacker, he must have put on even more muscle mass.
Next to him was his girlfriend, Becky Stern, arm wrapped around his. It was her voice that called out to them when they came in. Her blonde hair had a streak of purple that was new from over the summer, and it flowed in waves down to her shoulders where it met her light blue top. Her eyes darted around the lunchroom before finally settling on Smith and the others. Vinny’s head instantly turned away from meeting her gaze and went back to the phone.
“Is it just you guys?”
Smith looked back and forth to emphasize the weirdness of it all. “Seems like.”
“This is really bizarre,” she responded, more to Aaron than to the table.
Gene jumped up again to meet Aaron. “Hey! At least it’s not just the white kids who are dumb today, huh?”
Aaron narrowed his eyes at the smaller, stouter student. “Excuse me? What did you just say to me?”
Gene let out a squeaking noise, but grinned. “Uh, that I’m dumb?”
Aaron’s face relaxed and he jabbed Gene in the bicep playfully. “That’s what I heard, too. How you doing, man?”
“A little nervous this morning, I guess.” Gene made another big laugh. “It was about Calc before I got here, but now it’s about this weird…”
“Like we are on a game show.”
All attention turned to Nat. She went on, “It feels like we are on a game show or something. High School Big Brother, you know? I can’t believe all six of us were wrong about the first day of school. But…”
“But what?” Becky asked as Nat had trailed off.
“But… then where is everyone?”
No one seemed to have an answer. And for a moment, the sound of Vinny tapping Nat’s phone was all that broke up the chill of the question. Aaron finally just shrugged before stepping to his right so that Becky could sit down next to Smith. He set both of their bookbags down in front of him on the table and took a seat as well.
“So…,” Vinny stretched the syllable out far longer than he needed to, to the point where Smith figured he was waiting for someone to ask him what it was about.
“So what? What is it?”
Vinny remained looking at both his own phone and Nat’s. He handed Nat hers back and used his now-open hand to push his hanging hair out of his face. “What if I said it wasn’t just our school?”
That made no sense to Smith, but Nat responded before he could. “There’s something about another school’s date being wrong or something?”
“No, there’s… nothing. Anywhere. For, like the last hour. Twitter, Facebook, CNN, everything. No one has posted any sort of update in at least an hour. And I don’t mean, like, people I follow. I mean anyone,” he said, pushing hard on that last word. “I can’t find literally anything online that has been updated recently.”
“So what?” There was an annoyance to Aaron’s question that may have had as much to do with who he was talking to as it did what he was asking about.
“That’s really weird is what,” Gene answered, the tempo of his personality finally tempered. “Like… unheard of, right?”
“But what do you mean it’s not just the school?” Smith asked.
Vinny motioned towards his phone. “I mean… where is proof of anyone else at all?”
Becky pulled out her phone at the words. Gene followed suit. Smith was suddenly aware that he hadn’t felt his phone vibrate for any reason since he had gotten into his car that morning. No texts, no alerts. That was strange…
The sound of shattering glass from the other side of the cafeteria doors wrecked his line of thought.