Cherrel walked down the avenue. She felt light today. But why shouldn’t she. It was her birthday. She was going to treat herself to dinner, maybe a movie later. There was a remake of Waiting to Exhale that just opened. It was just called Exhale. If it wasn’t too crowded she might check it out. She braced herself against the January chill. She hated living in the city, but somebody had to, and she was already here when it happened, so it seemed logical to stay. She was nothing if not logical.
“Hey girl! Cute shoes”
A pair of shrill yet rich voices rang out across the avenue. Traffic was slow today, it had been slow most days since the change. Cherrel had been in the middle of a health kick, walking as much as possible, so now they all were in the middle of a health kick. She stopped walking and looked up at the pair of smiling women. Sometimes it was easy to forget that things hadn’t always been this easy. Their deep brown skin complemented by jewel toned fabrics stood out sharply against the drab gray-brown of city block, concrete, and masonry. One of the women noticed Cherrel staring and waved. Her thick, tight curls bounced in the morning sunlight.
“Hey Girl! Nice jacket!” she called out.
“Thanks girl!” Cherrel found herself answering back. “I got it on sale at Sherie’s Closet on 5th!” It was the customary greeting. Showing appreciation for your fellow sister with a compliment. The return appreciation and helpful information to follow.
“You have a Blessed Day!” Both women called out in Cherrel’s direction.
“You too!” She answered. “And Happy Birthday!”
The two women smiled and waved and headed on their way. It was their birthday too of course, and they’d be off to celebrate. Every year she wondered why they still bothered, it’s not like they ever actually acknowledged getting older. Of course, the camaraderie was nice. Cherrel checked her watch. The President would be making her announcement soon.
She walked another three blocks waving at other passing women, sharing the customary compliment-greeting, sometimes a hug, but always a blessing. Cherrel rounded the corner and entered her favorite bar. Of course it was packed. She waded through the ocean of sandalwood and vanilla perfumes, ironic tee-shirts, bouncy curls and brown skin. By the time she reached the bartender she was complimented out.
“Amaretto Sour? The bartender had already started to make the drink before she could even reply.
“Yes thank you.” Cherrel replied gratefully. “It sucks you have to work on Birthday, can I buy you one?”
The bartender laughed, sweet and genuine. She shook her head and slid the drink across the mahogany wood. It glowed from within almost as deeply as the forearm that polished it.
“No, girl, I am good. If I took a drink from everyone that offered, I’d be blackout before noon. Besides I don’t mind working Birthday. It’s my best day.”
Cherrel handed her a ten dollar bill and turned towards the bank of televisions on the opposite wall. They were usually turned to various channels, re-runs from HGTV, syfy, or the History Channel. One of them reliably ran a marathon of Law & Order SVU. A vestige from what it seemed to be an age gone by. An age of conflict and differentiation. Of inequality and suffering. Even though it had been less than a decade, those things didn’t exist here, not anymore. Of course, also gone were things like passion and romance, lust and infatuation. Cherrel still wasn’t sure if the tradeoff was worth it, but when she thought about the world before she shivered.
She sipped her drink. The sweet liquor mixed with the tang of fresh lime warmed her mouth. It tingled. The bartender had topped off the drink with club soda. Not standard for the drink, but it was how she liked it. It was how all of them liked it. She still marveled at the bartender’s uncanny ability to tell who would be in the mood for which drink. Some had the sour, some a glass of Moscato, others margaritas on the rocks, salt or with fruit, blended, no salt. Perhaps she didn’t actually know but upon her suggestion, the decision was made. Certainly that had been true for her. Cherrel had not made up her mind until the bartender suggested the drink. A kernel of truth in that thought dug into her mind and planted itself. There was something in that. Something she didn’t fully understand but with time might grow to some significant revelation.
The bar crowd hushed as the bartender flipped the bank of televisions to the same channel. It was time for the President’s annual update.
“I’m just going to keep this real” She began. Her smart burgundy suit clung elegantly to her ample hips. Several women in the crowd noticed too, commenting appreciatively. Most likely this same suit would be seen all over town in the coming weeks.
“It’s been eight years since the incident. In that time, scientists across the globe have worked tirelessly to figure out exactly what happened and to what extent. Here is the new information we can now confirm.”
Cherrel sipped her drink and leaned forward, intent on the President’s words.
“After an extensive census, we can now say with certainty that the world’s population has remained at 7-billion.”
An audible collective gasp and mummer rippled through the bar. The number was much higher than they had all assumed. One popular theory in the very early days, was that everyone else disappeared and they were all that was left. On the surface, that theory made sense. Before the incident, she didn’t live alone. She had two roommates that suddenly ceased to exist. Cherrel fought back sudden tears. The unwelcome swell of emotion blocked out everything else. They weren’t simply roommates. She lived with her boyfriend and her sister. Her real actual 20 year old sister camped out in her spare bedroom, now gone. Both of them gone, and neither replaced by doppelgängers.
The mass blood testing performed two years in, dispelled that theory pretty quickly. It didn’t account for overwhelming sameness. Every woman she spoke to in the following years had the same story. She had a life that she remembered, she had family, friends, a job, all remembered, and all gone. They were now a planet of 7-billion single 30-something Black women. All the same height, mostly the same weight all the same tastes, disposition and face. They almost all had mothers named Colleen and fathers named Wes, most of them had two sisters, but a good many had only a brother. A fair portion were only children. They were all essentially the same person, but not. Cherrel blinked back her thoughts in time to catch the tail end of another revelation.
“…parallel universes built around the others.” Wait, what was that? Something about a collision?
Cherrel had heard the theories in school about parallel universes and infinite variations based on choices made and not made. Until today she assumed everyone she knew was dead or un-made, but gone forever. Now they were saying that maybe they were all out there somewhere. Somehow the decks had become un-shuffled. She suddenly felt sick, a planet full of her mom would be okay. 7-billion Colleens were probably all gardening and helping each other, but what about the ones who couldn’t take care of themselves? The babies or the infirm? She wanted to cry. Cherrel looked around the bar. A good many of them were crying. They were all variants, all products of different choices but fundamentally the same. A fragment of an old Pete Seeger song flitted through her mind, and the mind of more than a dozen others in the bar. Sardonic smiles and tear stained faces, she and they hummed the last bar.
…and they all looked just the same.