A Travel Story: Emma eyed the stranger’s bizarre drink at the end of the bar. “What’s he drinking?” she asked the bartender, who immediately shook his head.
“Oh no, that’s his own stuff, we don’t sell it. He just keeps it locked up behind the bar.” He waved at an iron cage on the counter behind the bar which held a cluster of bottles. “We keep private reserves for VIPs.”
Emma wasn’t a VIP. She was an American exchange student spending a semester in Paris, and this conversation with an actual Parisian bartender in a crowded brasserie on the Place de la Bastille was pushing her French to the limit. The brightly-lighted cafe thronged with fancy people dressed up for the opera, mingling with students and neighborhood weirdos. They were all pressed up against her at the bar, jostling for space. “I just want a beer,” she said.
The stranger at the end of the bar seemed to have noticed her interest. He waved the barman over, spoke to him quietly, and then the barman told her, “The monsieur would like to offer you a drink.”
“Oh great!” She thought he meant a free beer. Dudes were trying to buy her drinks all the time. She usually refused, but what was the harm in accepting a free beer, especially when you were a broke student and you could take care of yourself all right? Plus, the place was packed, and she might not get another chance at getting a drink.
But the barman wasn’t pulling a Kronenbourg from the tap, he was opening the iron cage with a skeleton key. He took out a dark bottle, black and smooth as obsidian, and went about preparing a drink. He looked at the stranger down the bar and said, “Are you sure?”
The stranger answered that with a two-fingered salute. The barman slid the drink onto the bar in front of Emma. It truly was bizarre-looking. She took a sip but when she looked down the bar again, the stranger was gone.
She’d been on her way to a party, and ended up arriving a little late. The party was in a really nice apartment, thrown by an au pair whose family was overseas for the weekend. The place was packed with international students when she first arrived, and she quickly ran into three guys she knew from the same study abroad program. They camped out in a corner of the room, drinking cans of beer and smoking cigarettes and talking American shit.
After a while, the party seemed to be thinning out. Emma suggested they check out the brasserie on the Place de la Bastille. “It’s a really crazy mix,” she told them, although she wasn’t sure if she was talking about the crowd of the strange drink she’d drunk.
They stumbled down the street, Emma and the three expat guys. It was barely midnight but she was surprised to find the streets empty and quiet. She took advantage of that by walking down the middle of the avenue.
When they reached the corner brasserie, she led the way inside but stopped short as the glass door swung shut behind her. “Wow. This place was hopping just a couple of hours ago.”
The place was entirely empty. No customers, no waiters, no barman, no stranger. Everything else was the same–plates of hot food on tables, drinks arrayed everywhere–but no one was around. She laughed. “I guess everyone turns into a pumpkin at midnight.”
“Huh,” one of the guys said behind her.
Emma turned to show him a shrug and found that they were gone. There was no one there.
She felt a twinge of danger. Was something major going on that she didn’t know about? The first image that came to mind was that of a giant alien spacecraft hovering over the city like a storm cloud. It only took her a moment to convince herself that that was exactly what was happening, that everyone else in the world was outside ogling the spaceship while she was standing here staring at an empty brasserie. She turned and pushed back through the door and rushed onto the empty sidewalk.
No one around. No one walking, no one driving, just an illuminated city and a great peaceful silence hanging over everything. No spaceship, just low clouds obscuring the stars. “Wow,” she said. No one else in sight.
She walked across the wide circle of the roundabout in the center of Place de la Bastille, marveling at the absence of cars. As far as she could see, down every avenue that radiated out from Bastille like spokes on a wheel, the entire city seemed to be empty of everyone but her.
Walking home, the hypothesis held true. If it weren’t for the wind blowing the flags and awnings, it might seem as if she were walking into a still photograph taken of the city in the early morning hours before a single Parisian or tourist had ventured outside.
A smile played on her face. On the one hand: scary and weird. On the other hand: the world was finally free of all the damn people!
She wasn’t worried. Even with the weird empty thing going on all around, she was still herself and she knew this must be the effect of the bizarre drink the stranger had given her. That meant that the effect would surely wear off as she sobered up. She sensibly decided to walk home. She assumed the Métro wouldn’t be running, because who would be running it?
The sprawling apartment where she lived with her host family turned out to be empty. She raided the fridge the way she never could when they were around. In the morning, she knew before she opened her eyes: it was still happening. Silence.
Looking down from the apartment’s high windows, she saw no one on the plaza below. No cars, no buses, no bikes, no planes in the sky. Part of her said Scary, but the rest of her said Finally!
She spent half a day in the Louvre, touching whichever sculptures she pleased. Her hands passed over the same smooth stone that Michelangelo had touched.
She walked up the center of the Champs-Elysées, a one-woman parade, all the way up the incline to the Arc de Triomphe, where she feasted on views down many empty avenues.
She walked through the kitchens of fancy restaurants, tasting whatever food was lying around. As soon as she’d eaten a pork chop with her bare hands, she looked back at the plate and found the pork chop still lying there in its herbs and butter, as if tiny loops were bubbling up and eddying all around in the vacant world. She poured herself a glass of infinitely replenishing whiskey at a bar in the Latin Quarter, then cast a look around to see if this place had an iron cage full of mysterious bottles–but no.
She found so much to do in the unCity (as she thought of it) that she lost track of how many days she’d been there. In some ways, it seemed like time just wasn’t moving, or that her entire experience was just a bigger version of those infinite whiskey loops. The freshly cooked food was always fresh, the espressos in their tiny cups were always hot and frothy with crema.
Eventually, she made it back over to the Bastille district. She knew she was going to need some answers as to what was going on, and the only place it made sense to look was back in that corner brasserie. And if there were no answers–well, maybe she could get at that bottle in the iron cage and see what else it could do.
The place was empty, of course. She went behind the zinc bar to peer at the iron bottle cage. Hadn’t the barman opened the lock with a skeleton key? She went around looking for it, rooting through the utensils and dishes under the bar. When she found a skeleton key in a drawer she hooted for joy and ran back to the cage, but quickly found that this key didn’t unlock that lock. Maybe there were other cages?
Her eyes went wide and she laughed and spontaneously said, “This is fun!” before remembering that she was alone. This felt like some long-ago game of imagination, like she used to play with her best friend in the second grade, Kyrie Willoughby. Wouldn’t it be fun to tell her about it? She’d be amazed!
She paused and leaned on the bar. Just how alone was she? She took out her phone and pulled up one social media app after another. In all cases it was the same: zero friends and followers.
Nobody at all. Not in the real world, and not online.
Her heart started to race. “This could suck,” she said. What if there really was nobody?
Staring at her blank timeline where it looked like hers was the only profile that existed, she clicked on the search bar and typed in the name of the first person that had come to her: Kyrie Willoughby.
She popped up.
“Oh my god!” Emma immediately hit the friend request button. An instant later, Kyrie accepted.
Emma hailed her on chat with a waving emoji, but paused before she began typing. So now the world was just herself and her best friend from second grade? That would be a weird world.
Hey, long time! Kyrie typed. How’s life?
What’s up? Emma replied.
You gotta catch me up! Kyrie replied.
It didn’t sound like there was any kind of existential crisis going on in Kyrie’s world. They had a perfectly ordinary chat session, with a vague plan to meet up sometime when Emma was back in the States. Kyrie had mentioned other classmates they mutually knew, and Emma looked them up and found their profiles too. In fact, anyone she could think of popped up if she searched for them, as if she were summoning them out of the ether only by remembering that they existed.
She thought maybe the whole thing had a force-multiplier effect, so everyone she could remember could also bring all their friends and acquaintances back, the way friend networks extended outwards from each user. Literal webs of relationships.
She closed her eyes and muttered to herself, “The stranger at the end of the bar.”
When she opened them, there he was. He was looking into his glass, ignoring her. A moment later the bartender was there, even through she hadn’t thought specifically of him; he must have come back through his connection to the stranger. The bartender politely suggested that she step out from behind the bar. And while the place was still otherwise empty, that didn’t last long. By the time she’d finished a demi-pression of Kronenbourg, enough people had come through the doors to mostly fill the brasserie again.
After a while, life began to seem ordinarily populated, at least to her. All her friends, all her family, everyone she saw in the course of her daily life–they were all back. It was actually kind of nice thinking that everyone in existence was connected to everyone else–if not, they wouldn’t be here.
But she knew she might also want to return to the unCity one day, to that bottomless silence in an uninhabited world where her whims were the only living thing. And maybe, on that day, she’d be strong enough to keep it that way.
BIO: AC Koch says, “My work has been published in the Columbia Journal, Mississippi Review, and Exquisite Corpse, and two of my short stories have been awarded first place in the Raymond Carver Short Story Award (2003, 2007). I live in Denver where I teach linguistics at the University of Colorado and play guitar in a bossanova trio, Firstimers.”
Photo: Commons Wiki
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