Last Updated on: 17th August 2021, 05:22 pm
Written in response to a flash fiction challenge posted on Chuck Wendig’s blog.
The day riots. When I stumble out the door of my apartment into the mid-day glare, the sun feels closer than it has ever been, and I imagine it burning off the sea in great clouds of steam. I wince and look down at my feet, tears stinging my eyes. That is when I see that I am standing in a pool of rainbow light, broken apart by the air thickening around me. I gasp and dive back through my still-open front door just before a ball of electricity explodes behind me, right where I had just been standing.
I lay on the floor, deafened and shaking, and curse under my breath when I realize that the ringing in my ears is, at least partially, my battered StormAlert shrilling dire warnings from the table where I left it. I stay flat on my back until my heart stops banging around inside my chest and the insistent beeping tapers off into silence.
I drag myself up off the floor and shove the StormAlert into my pocket like I should have in the first place. It really only gives me a few seconds’ warning, but sometimes that is all I need. I’m still standing, more or less. Never mind my attempt at suicide through absentmindedness.
Before I head back out into the day, I grab a sweat-stained baseball cap from the hallway closet and jam it down over my forehead. When I reach the threshold again, I stand there for a few seconds, holding my breath and listening to the strange, shattered stillness of the morning. The only signs of my near-death experience are a few scorch marks on the pavement and the acrid scent of burning ozone. I shut the door behind me, clutch the StormAlert in my pocket like a talisman, and hurry down the sidewalk with my head down against the glare of the sun. First to the store, then to Georgia’s.
At the checkout line, the owner tries to smile at me, but it curdles into something more unnerving than friendly, and I gather up my bags without a word. I’ve been a regular at this store for years, and I remember chatting with him some days. Empty pleasantries, but comfortable. Now the haunted look in his eyes makes me avoid eye contact, and his store is a ghost town. He keeps it open out of some perverse combination of stubbornness and denial, and I can almost believe things are normal again until he bars the door behind me.
Georgia only lives a few blocks away, but any time spent outside is doubly dangerous, so it always feels like miles. I stay beneath awnings and back in shadowed doorways, trying to find what cover I can. Everything smells like burning and it only makes me walk faster.
When Georgia opens the door, her stare is a thousand miles away. Only after I catch my breath and croak her name for the third time does she snap back to reality and let me into the refrigerated darkness of her apartment. I dump the grocery bags on her kitchen table and search for a light switch. When the overhead light sputters on, she blinks and clutches her shoulders, a wan smile fluttering across her face in a pale imitation of her former toothiness.
I do my best to smile in return, and she begins unloading the bags and putting them away. I am watching the curves of her back bend and stretch underneath the material of her thin white shirt when her voice floats back over one shoulder.
“How have you been? Still up to no good?”
She makes it sound airy and nonchalant, like always, and now I do grin despite myself.
“Oh, you know. Same old, same old. Keeping my head down.”
We put the rest of the groceries away in silence, then she pours two glasses of iced tea. We sit in the living room, sipping quietly, letting the glasses sweat moisture into our hands, and it feels like we are the only two people in the world.
“Are you staying safe, Joe?”
“Absolutely. I had a near miss this morning, but –” her head snaps up and I rush to reassure her “– but I’m fine, it was nothing, don’t worry about me.”
“I do worry about you, though. What would happen if you…”
She trails off and looks deep into the bottom of her glass, some imagined future tightening the skin around her mouth. Her skin is pale, almost translucent in the reflected light, and her hair hangs limp and unwashed, brown roots creeping further up into the blonde. She looks years older than she did before all this started, but she is still the most beautiful woman in the world.
I look at her and after a few moments I work up the courage to ask again, even though I already know the answer.
“I could stay. If you want me to.”
She shakes her head, no.
“He could be back any time. You know how he…”
She trails off, nothing more to be said. I sit there, drinking my tea, letting the ice clink against my teeth. After a moment I feel her hand, cool and damp and small, slip into mine and I squeeze it gently.
We sit there for a while in silence. When my tea is empty, I set down my glass and she pulls my head into her lap. I fall asleep with her stroking my hair.
When I wake, it is early evening, and I gather my things to return home before dark. We embrace in the doorway, and I press my hands into her shoulders, my nose into the side of her neck.
She stays carefully inside her apartment when I leave. I drink in one last look of her before she closes the door and I turn away to walk back home through the heat still radiating up from the pavement outside.