Someone asked me what I was afraid of. This is a story about all the things that wake me up screaming at night, the things that steal away my appetite, the things that make me push you away at the strangest times. This is a story about giving in to our nightmares.

Because what if it really does get that bad?

-Greg

"The Escapist"

He thought about his job.

He thought about his wife.

He thought about his daughter.

He chuckled into the curved glass of his space helmet and shook his freshly-shaven head. Someone from mission control asked him what was so funny, and he told them he was remembering a joke.

The Escapist, still wearing that smile of relief, looked around at the blinking lights of the ChronoSpanner, the world's first faster-than-light spacecraft, more of a rocket than anything. His living space was rather small and cramped, similar to the inside of a spectacularly furnished but still small camper. Everything was stainless steel or sterile white plastic, except the bed and chair which were, of course, a space-age polymer with the feeling of silk stuffed with down.

He thought about stress.

Alexia had come home a year or so ago, from a routine doctor appointment (or so she said,) with the fantastic news that she was pregnant. He acted surprised, acted thrilled. Acted like he was hearing good news. He swept her up and hugged her, to keep her face over his shoulder, and so he could make the face that he wanted to make.

He thought about irritation.

And then the spending had begun, the crib, the toys, the clothes, the daipers, oh god the diapers. The food, the decorations.

And where did they have room for a baby? Nowhere in their apartment, except of course his rec room. His guitars, his keyboard, his playstation, his computer, his plasma television, his favorite leather chair, all gone. The instruments into a side closet, the electronics into the bedroom where Alexia could watch Lifetime when the football games were on, the chair, his poor chair, sold to a seconhand furniture shop in exchange for a baby-proof couch.

The damned couch that didn't even recline when he wanted to take a nap, during a football game he couldn't watch unless he sent Alexia shopping. She could shop endlessly, spend his money with a frivolity unmatched by any but the worse celebrity brats.

He thought about infatuation.

He liked his job, most of the time. The work was simple and exhausting, left him pleasantly drained at the end of each day. He would come home with an aching back, sore shoulders, blurry eyes, and a growling stomach, and for a while, Alexia would be waiting to sooth every hurting part of him.

She wasn't a great cook, but when she put her mind to it, she could make perfectly tasty, and more importantly, satisfying, meals. And what she was great at were back rubs, shoulder massage, oh, the sweet pressure of her talented hands.

And she knew how to cuddle against him on his recliner, just the right way so that her weight and warmth were comforting, she knew how to help him relax, help him sleep.

He'd wake up next to her every day and love what she was, she made his life so perfect. She made everything easy, she made everything worth the effort.

He thought about change.

The baby came on a cold January day, and he missed every last second of the Super Bowl. She named the little girl Patricia, Pat for short, because his beloved Patriots had won while he watched the end of his way of living squeeze itself out his his wife.

And sure enough, things changed.

Patricia was a living nightmare, a screaming, eating, stinking little beast. He would come home with an aching back, sore shoulders, blurry eyes, and a growling stomach, and find his lovely wife sitting on the floor, pretending the baby knew what the hell she was saying, lifting the confused little freak by its armpits and trying to convince it to stand.

And when she heard the door close, Alexia would turn to look at him, smile, and say some inane and utterly uninteresting thing about the baby's daily life. Maybe it took a step. Maybe it hiccuped something that could have been a word, if you weren't too judgemental. Maybe it sat up by itself.

He lived in a world of kindness, understanding, and political correctness, and he knew what a bastard he'd look like if he asked, "Where's my dinner?"

But that was the question, almost every night. Why wasn't his job as easy anymore, why didn't he get along with his coworkers like he used to? Why didn't he sing under his breath while he worked, why were the same boxes getting heavier every day?

It all came back to, where was his dinner? Where was that gesture of concern and affection, where was that nightly healing effort? It wasn't a question of routine, it was a question of attention and health. He could work like a horse during the day because he knew there was a hot, seasoned, meat-and-potatoes plate on his table, just waiting for him to hang up his coat and appreciate it.

He didn't drink, he didn't smoke, he didn't gamble or own more than one adult DVD. He was a man without many vices, but that dinner, that was it. That was his addiction, though he never realized it until he started ordering takeout at night.

And when he stopped taking off his coat because he knew he'd be heading right back out the door in a few minutes... that was what did it, he decided.

He thought about surrender.

He gave up. He started calling the Sun-Sun or the Pizza Shack or the Mexicali before he even left work. If he was feeling sentimental he would get Boston Market, hot roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, steamed green beans and cornbread.

He'd eat at the restaurant, those nights. He tried to drive home with that prepackaged "home cooked" dinner, once, but it had been a disaster. He smelled the smells he'd used to come home to, all the way home, and when he finally got to his front step, he just happened to hear Alexia in the living room, laughing in that high-pitched baby voice and clapping, applauding the baby for... he never knew what.

"Daddy will be so happy!"

And he broke. He sat down on his steps, his own steps, head in his hands, and he actually cried for the first time in years.

A hot dinner. It was such a simple thing, a dinner, one meal a day, and never anything special, but he realized he'd relied on it. Maybe it was the fact of simple Pavlovian psychology, you work hard, you get food. Maybe it was that his Alexia was a pretty decent cook after all. Maybe it was just knowing that she'd thought of him enough to prepare it.

Maybe he was just sick to death of egg rolls and greasy pizza.

Maybe he was just hungry.

He wiped his red eyes, looked around his quiet neighborhood, which was so pretty at this time of day, and his eyes fell on the paper Boston Market bag next to him on the stoop. In a rage, he flung the hated thing away into the bushes. To hell with you, he thought, you bastard imitation of love. Get off my porch.

He thought about leaving.

He thought about leaving.

Dear God, he actually thought about leaving.

And soon, he did.

Because he'd be approached about something... something wonderful.

An escape.

At work one day, a man in a suit approached him and asked his name. He told the man, and was rewarded with a smile and a nod. The suited man had been looking for him.

He followed the man to a limo, which he had never been inside before, and listened to a truly astounding proposition. There was a privately funded project, as it turned out, a "Time Capsule" for the purposes of sending a man into the far future. He was told about the theory of Relativity, by which one would slow the passage of time for himself by traveling at light speed, or faster.

He could board a comfortable and well-supplied spacecraft, be hurled into space for two and a half years, and then be brought down to be welcomed by the people of the year five thousand, six hundred and eight. Give or take a few weeks.

They'd done the math very precisely.

He was given a card, an address, a list of things he could bring (which was short), and a time limit of three days. If it took longer than that to decide, they told him, they reasoned he had too much to lose.

He thought about three and a half thousand years.

He thought about the story of Jesus, which supposedly happened less than two thousand years ago.

He thought about what could change. For the better.

Flying cars? Cures for cancer? Peace on Earth?

He drove home smiling because they told him why he'd been chosen.

He "looked like someone who needed something more out of life, maybe something that the world can't give him yet."

They couldn't have been more right.

His smile faded as he reached the front step of his house and realized he'd forgotten to order takeout, and would have to go back out. To hell with it, he decided, I'll just have some pretzels and make up for it with breakfast.

He hung up his coat, took off his shoes, and went into the next room to say hello to his wife and daughter, who was now a few months old. He kissed her on the cheek, then the baby on the forehead, but he kissed them like he ate a Sun-Sun egg roll. With no satisfaction whatsoever. They, like his anonymously prepared meals, had lost all of their appeal.

Alexia told him that the baby had said something that sounded sort of like "DaDa", right before he'd come home. He smiled like he was supposed to and told the baby she was getting to be a big girl.

He thought about modern art, where "DaDa" meant "nothing." How appropriate.

He then opened the pantry and reached for his plastic barrel of pretzels, which he kept on the third shelf from the floor.

It was empty.

He looked around the corner at his wife and his crumb-covered child, who he now saw was clutching his very last pretzel stick in its fat, greasy fist. As he watched, it lifted the stick to its now-toothy maw and crunched it to slobbery pieces. Alexia smiled at the baby's smile, at the way it enjoyed what it was eating.

She looked to him, and said the thing that hurt more than anything he'd ever heard;

"I love watching Patty eat, she seems to really enjoy her food."

Alexia looked back at the baby, then back at her husband, who was no longer there. In fact he was already starting his car with a numb expression on his face, digging in his pocket for the business card.

He thought about the future.

Looking back on this, now, as he tightened his safety straps and pressed the "OK" button, he sighed. How did he ever get into that situation.

He was glad to be moving on, away from the myriad irritations of his domestic life.

He thought about his job.

He thought about his wife.

He thought about his daughter.

They weren't, he decided, doing him any good. It was time to go.

The ten seconds passed with hideous slowness, but they passed, and the fantastic machine underneath him cycled into full power, and with a stomach-churning rush he was flung into space.

Life on the ChronoSpanner was quiet and lovely, relaxing and simple. His computer system had been programmed with every MP3 that was available at the time of launch, more than six years worth of music, comedy, and speech. He didn't have time to listen to it all.

Most of the ship was filled with ten year's worth of supplies. He never ran out of anything, even his favorite snacks, although at the end of two and a half years the tortilla chips had started to go stale, even in their hermetically sealed bags. He supposed nothing could last forever, even when it was supposed to.

And as that thought crossed his mind, the ship gave a shudder and slowed down. He rushed to the control panel and opened the shield over the window, which was there to protect him from the light of the sun flinging by at such an accelerated pace. Now, though, he looked out and saw the blue, green, white vastness of Earth.

Maybe now, with his past behind him, it could be home again. He silently thanked the people who'd made this machine of salvation, and started pressing the buttons that would let him fall home.

There weren't many clouds, he decided, after a long look at the planet. America and Canada were somewhat less green than before, Africa somewhat more so. The odd shape of America's west coast led him to believe that the Big One had finally dropped California into the ocean, a shame, but when he managed to find Hawaii, it was quite a lot larger, with new islands around the edges and three of the old ones connected by forested land.

The descent was smooth and controlled, slow enough that very little friction burnt the outside of the ChronoSpanner. He saw cities, glinting on the eastern shore of the United States, or whatever they would be now, so he directed his craft down towards one of them in what seemed to be a slightly sunken Florida.

He was almost on the ground when he decided it was extremely odd that nobody had tried to contact him on the radio. Perhaps, he mused, as he landed in a grassy plain, his dream of peace had finally happened, causing the people of Earth to regard the stange visitor (him) with little suspicion. He would have to tell them to be more careful. Why, he could have been anyone!

He thought maybe this was what it was like to be a parent.

Or maybe their technology had advanced to the point where radio was no longer a reasonable form of communication. Three thousand years was a long time, considering how fast humans came up with new ideas. Only sixty-six had years passed between the Wright Brothers' first airplane, and Neal Armstrong stepping onto the moon. Less than a lifetime. The implications were astounding.

He pulled on some boots and opened the hatch, and with a backpack full of snacks and a few drinks, he began to hike towards a towering city a few miles away.

It was incredibly quiet. There was wind in the grass, and that was all. No bugs buzzed him, no birds chirped. The few times he did see something alive, it was in the form of small mammals like rabbits, but without the puffy tails. Capybaras, he believed.

Even stranger, no smoke rose from the city, no traffic could be heard. No planes flew through the sky. Maybe, he reasoned, they had teleportation. That would account for the lack of visible travelers.

He thought about the term "desperation" but he didn't know why.

He'd spent some time on his ship planning what he would say when he met the people of the future. He reasoned that they wouldn't speak English with any familiarity, but naturally there would be a record of it, and so all he'd need to do to be understood would be to find an archaeologist or a college student. Someone who knew things that didn't really need to be known.

After all, he was a history project. He was a gift of historical certainty to the people of the future, ah, if only there had been someone such as him from the time of Egypt and Rome. Someone to explain the mysteries of the past, to fill in the holes that time had dug.

He thought about destiny.

And he reached the city, stepping from the grass onto a wide street, walled by houses. He marveled at how little architecture had changed in the time between, as the buildings were clearly different but only in small ways.

For one, the cars parked in front of the houses were sleek, silvery things with no wheels. They simply rested on the grass, having no need of pavement. So, he thought, flying cars. How magnificent.

He examined a mailbox which was no more than a communal antenna, which must have been a wireless reciever for the whole neighborhood.

Nobody came out to greet him, but he considered that unsurprising, since he was probably dressed far out of style. He wondered how he'd react to a grown man wearing a toga or a loincloth in his suburban area, and laughed. He must seem like a clown.

He waved his arms a little and called out, hoping some adventurous person would come out and ask him why he was dressed like a two-thousander, or why he was walking down a street when there were perfectly good teleporters in every home.

And with that thought, he felt a chill like none he'd ever known.

He thought about self-delusion.

He thought about logic.

Why, if teleporters had kept everyone from needing cars, were there cars everywhere?

Why, if such a familiar thing as a radio antenna was in every neighborhood, would he not have been contacted by radio?

And why, if a man stood in a street with no weapons and called out, would no one come to his aid, if world peace had driven suspicion and fear out of the world?

Where was everyone?

He looked around again with renewed anxiety, now beginning to notice the grass growing up into the cars' undersides, the vines snaking onto the porches, the broken windows here and there, the absolute lack of any kind of life other than the oddly large capybaras.

Had he been gone so long that he forgot what an active community looked like?

He thought about extinction...

...but only for a second. It was too grim a possiblity to consider.

Still, he thought, he would feel a lot better once he'd talked to someone. There had to be some rational explaination for whatever had happened to this neighborhood. He walked down the street and into the city, seeing everywhere the signs of neglect and abandonment.

He thought about the word "denial".

The Escapist stepped into a city square where no people roamed, flying cars rested next to, on top of, and smashed together with each other. He saw the mighty buildings with broken glass and bending frames, he saw the burnt-out husk of a hotel restaurant where nobody had been to fight what was probably a small fire.

He looked around the ground, stepping over things like belt buckles and buttons and earrings, cart wheels and baby strollers and briefcases, but no people, no people anywhere.

Nothing was left if the sun could rot it.

He thought about three thousand years.

It was a long, long time.

Flying cars? That was it? Impossible. Only sixty-six years between first flight and first moon landing. Only fifty more until faster-than light travel. Had humanity, especially Americans, done nothing of real significance for three millenia?

Had nothing special happened while he was gone?

Oh, but no. Something had.

The Escapist's gaze fell upon a steel box with the words ORLANDO GAZETTE engraved into it, with a yellowed but intact newspaper pinned to the inside of a glass door.

He pulled a quarter from his pocket with shaking hands, something he had brought as a gift for whatever student helped him communicate. In this time, so far forward, a real, mint-condition quarter from three thousand years ago would be an artifact of incalculable value.

But it seemed they were still quite adequate to open a newspaper vendor.

He thought about narrow escapes.

He sat down on a bench, which was only a little rusted, and read the headline for April 17th of two thousand and forty, the last newspaper ever placed in this box.

HISS GOES AIRBORNE IN USA.

Human Immune Shutdown Syndrome. The total, immediate lack of natural defenses, a hideous mutation of the AIDS virus he remembered, had a one hundred percent death rate within six or seven hours of infection.

And apparently somewhere along the line, it had become airborne enough to spread throughout the world, according to this article.

And so everyone, everyone, everyone was dead.

Everyone was dead.

Nobody had waited for him to come back because nobody had been left to wait.

Now the Escapist began to cough somewhat powerfully, then to sneeze, but the attack passed in a few minutes.

So it seemed he wouldn't be alone here for long. The virus which had emptied the world had been the cleverest thing in the world, especially compared to him. It had waited so considerately for him to come back and draw in deep, hopeful breaths.

The Escapist slumped down a little farther in his ancient steel bench and laughed, a sound the world hadn't heard in more than thirty centuries. It didn't thank him.

He thought about his job. All those people, everywhere, talking, laughing, fighting, making so much noise, hearts pounding, lungs filling, living, keeping the world alive.

He thought about his wife. Alexia. In the scheme of things, he didn't care if she ever cooked again, if only she could be here, if only he had stayed.

He thought about his daughter. She would have been nineteen, probably falling in love, probably fighting with her mother because her boyfriend had a brand new flying car.

The end of the world.

He wished he'd been there for it.