A New World

By: Catherine Olaso

I turn my head against the driving rain, tucking my chin deeper inside my coat as I scurry without an umbrella toward the Metro station.  Lightning arcs in white jagged veins across the sky… ominous and foreboding.

Lit with the false warmth of artificial light, the station is packed with people unfazed by the storm.  The man beside me stands content to read his soggy newspaper.  A teen across the way drums his knee to the dissonant beat seeping from his ear-buds.  A woman ignores a stranger asking for directions, while a young, executive-looking type, confirms his dinner reservations over the phone.  No one notices me.  Nothing special about a fifty-four-year-old man with rain dripping off his hair and shoes. 

And that’s the problem.

Each life before me is numbed inside self-centered comas – each person blinded by the restraints of their own superficial realities.  Would that audacity change…if they knew what I knew?

The Metro stops for passengers.  Bells ding and doors slide open.  Like cattle, people move through them in both directions.  No eye contact.  No friendly exchanges.  No gesture to acknowledge any part of humanity beyond respecting each other’s space.

When did we become so self-absorbed?

I exit the Metro at thirty-seventh street and climb the stairs leading to the sidewalk, aware of the rain tapering to a drizzle amid the late afternoon fog rolling in to blanket the city.

I fend off the damp cold by ducking inside a diner to order a bowl of soup. 

“Here.”  The young waitress splashes the soup down, barely meeting my gaze, let alone asking my name or noticing the sadness in my voice.  No patience or kindness, just the bare bones of civility.

Such hardness plagues the world.

I turn toward the small TV perched at the edge of the counter, grief stricken as CNN recaps global atrocities.  Suicide bombers in Iraq.  Nuclear missiles in North Korea.  Drug cartels in Mexico.  Kony’s army of child slaves in Africa. 

My heart hurts.

I leave a five next to the empty soup bowl and hurry into the street.  The rain’s picked up again, pattering icy kisses across my cheeks.  The sting doesn’t compare to the sharp pang of emotion that assaults me as I cut through a back alley.

A stray Collie sits wet and shivering outside the rear entrance to a deli, whining for shelter and a scrap of food.  “Get out’ta here!”  An employee chases the pitiful animal away with a broom, his face lined with cruelty.

In the distance, cars honk and sirens rage.  Decayed hovels rot in the shadow of million dollar mansions.  I keep walking, my path drawn to the homeless hunkered under the bridge with strips of cardboard and old blankets.  Surely their desperation hasn’t tainted what is humane. 

I’m wrong.  Their steel eyes are as cold and detached as the others.  My pace quickens when a man pulls a knife from the pocket of his ratty jeans.  I jump a fence and skirt around a van, ditching him. 

The fog grows denser, the gray darkness as somber as my mood.  

I detour again and stop at a church.  Candles flicker a welcome when I hesitantly wander inside.  The wooden pews are empty – only a lone priest offers prayers.  I leave before he sees me. 

A weary surrender overtakes me as night falls.  On the final bus ride home, something deep within my soul begs for one last chance.  I sigh and lift my head from against the side of the fogged window.  All right.  

Rain dampens my hair.  I brush excess moisture off my wool coat and search in vain for someone to share a smile with.

One. Single. Smile. 

But the passengers around me sit isolated and withdrawn.  The allure of Facebook, iPods and Smart Phones mesmerize them.  I frown at the self-serving deception.  How easily these devices take over lives and feed a narcissistic hunger spinning out of control.  Those beside me are so seduced they cannot hear a woman crying at the back of the bus.  

Tears well up in my eyes and my throat constricts.  I cannot ignore the ache tightening my chest.  So many are past feeling…past caring…past hoping. 

It’s after six when I turn the key in the lock.  Ranger meets me at the door, his ears perked and his tail wagging.  He’s big, even for a German Shepherd, but he makes the small apartment cheery.  Ranger licks my hand as I pet his neck…the first act of kindness I’ve seen all day. 

He waits while I wiggle free of my soppy coat.  I look down and grimace.  In my rush to leave Bio-Tech, I’d forgotten to take off my lab coat.  Ranger sniffs the edges, then sits beside me as I collapse onto the couch.

“It’s done,” I say.  The words hold no satisfaction, only more pain.

Ranger cocks his head and stares at me, his dark eyes full of comfort.  I look past him…into the kitchen and hallway.  Cases of food, water and batteries are stacked to the ceiling and cover most of the floor. 

“It won’t be long now, Ranger.”  I pat his head in reassurance.  “No one suspected the virus that trailed me.”

Ranger whines softly and paws at my leg. 

“Now, don’t give me that.  I had to do it.  They’d lost all caring and decency… all sense of any awareness that extended beyond themselves.”  I clenched my jaw in determination.  “You and I are immune of course…but there will be a few others who survive.”

I stood and walked to the window, gazing into the bleakness outside.  “The Mayan calendar’s wrong.  December 21, 2012 isn’t doomsday…today is.  And out of the ruins, a new world will emerge.”