When I first heard the voices, I thought I was dead. It had to be the chatter of angels. Surely, I was ascending to the next plane of existence. Or at least I hoped I was ascending.
The night before I spotted lush green trees rising in the distance above the hard angles of brick and concrete that had dominated my view since entering New York City. Although I had many miles to go before reaching it, I wasn’t going to rest until I had. Stepping into Central Park, I almost felt reinvigorated. I stumbled down overgrown paths until I reached a huge patch of tall grass. I fell to my knees and cried as my hands brushed against the blades. As with every emotion I’d had in the last fourteen months, I had no idea why. Exhausted from the tears, I settled in atop my worn blue tarp, staring at the stars and imagining my family next to me until I fell asleep.
After a winter of ice clinging to naked branches and cartoon-like clouds puffing through my clenched teeth and dry lips, I had decided to head south. It took me almost seven months to get here from Maine. And it took almost as long to scare up the courage to finally leave home. To see if anyone else still existed. There were no gravestones to visit to say goodbye to my family. Even if there were, those graves would be empty. Everyone had just disappeared.
Packing up in the morning, I looked into the vast space and tried to imagine it full of people. Picnicking, tossing Frisbees, and taking for granted that they weren’t alone. I reached my crying quota last night so it was time to move on. Heading out, I found a tattered green and white sign that read: The Great Lawn. I laughed at the fact that I had slept in all of New York City’s backyard. The sign was also covered in simple lines meant to serve as a map. Although faded, I could make out a Turtle Pond and a theater, but my eyes hung on the clearest of all: Belvedere Castle. Something stirred inside me and I knew that I had to see it. A castle in the middle of Manhattan? What choice did I have? It was going to take at least a year before I made it to Florida, a little sightseeing would hardly make a dent.
When I finally spied the grey brown turret rising above the tree top, my heart pounded as if it knew something I didn’t. I took a moment, staring at the tattered American flag hanging limply at its peak and that was when I heard the voices. Light and carefree, even giggling. I edged closer, passing a half empty pond with no sign of turtles. Clearing the trees enough to see the castle, I paused when I looked at the balcony just below the turret. There were four kids, around sixteen or so. My age. Two sat precariously along the stone railing. One of them, a girl, was the first to see me. But there wasn’t fear in her eyes. Not even surprise.
“We got another one,” she called out to her friends.
After so long without human contact, four sets of eyes on me felt like millions.
“I know what you’re thinking,” another kid, a boy, said. “but you’re not hallucinating. And you’re not dead. Trust me. We’ve all been through it. Come on up.”
I wasn’t sure if it was because I had gone so long believing I was the last person on earth, but gazing up into their empathetic faces, I felt like I knew them. I took the stairs two at a time, my heart now pounding in unison with my thoughts.
I wasn’t alone.