The Sky is Falling
The flat was cold and mostly quiet. Cutting the gloom with a lamp would require electricity, and they hadn’t had power for a week at least, so tea candles dotted the swaths of the floor and made the den seem like deep space. The air seemed creamy. Nobody said much. They listened to the clacking of Annie’s Newton’s Cradle, gumballs strung by dental floss, which she’d left before the accident and had yet to cease its motion.
When their screens lit up, Hope and Yolanda didn’t notice. The two of them had woozied up in a duct-taped armchair, eyes shut, both completely preoccupied with sucking splotches on each other’s shoulders. Maude was overcome; she didn’t notice the fly on her cheek, much less the notification on her phone. She stared at the bill on the table like a corpse stares at a wall. Annie might’ve noticed, but it didn’t matter, because Annie wasn’t here. So it was Jack, then, who noticed first. It wasn’t the announcement. Jack was spliffing. He bowed his head out of an open window and blew clouds into the sky, and when he sucked in a fresh breath, it occurred that sixteen stories below him the world was ending fast.
A throng of people howled their lungs out. All sorts of people. Jack saw cream and navy suits, tattered denim, bright candy flashes of sweatshirts and pea coats all amassing together. People cradled their phones to their cheeks and wept, and the sound frightened birds out of trees. They ran west down Grenadine street, subway bound, or tried their damndest. Bodies made a barricade and blocked the way. Directly below him, a father kissed his squirming children, and a lawyer on her knees cried up to God. A van spun out of control and struck an ice cream truck, pitched it sideways. It smacked the asphalt with a sound like a gunshot. Vanilla soft-serve sloshed everywhere, and cream swirled with hot red muck on the blacktop.
Jack looked at his spliff. He looked at his friends. “Something is very off,” he said.
“No,” said Maude. “My math is perfect. What’s off is the situation itself, Jack. Annie’s bed for the night was $10,000. The meds were $450, and then there are the doctor fees, and the diagnostics, and the cost of the ambulance, plus tax. It’s gonna be $17,000, minimum. Seventeen-fucking-thousand dollars. She could’ve gone to med school with that kind of money. We could’ve bought you a new Squier. We could pay rent for the next three years. $17,000. We thought we’d be scraping to afford her cab home, Jack. Off? Off? I feel like we’ve been mugged, that’s what’s off. My math is dead right. How high are you? Come here. Share.”
Annie. Jack took a second hit before he passed the spliff along. “I was talking about outside. There was an accident outside. Huge pile-up. It’s a horror show.”
Yolanda peeled her spine off Hope’s sternum. She stood, zipped her hoodie, and crossed to Jack and the window. “Accident,” she repeated. She hoisted her torso over the sill and leaned as far as gravity would allow, her hair streaming mad in the breeze. “Christ,” she said, “Jack, hold my thighs. I need a better look.”
“Stop.” Hope sank back in the armchair. She had scooped her phone off the carpet, and she held it at arm’s length, now. Her lips parted. “Yolanda, stop. Come here.”
“I won’t fall,” said Yolanda, two-thirds of her body suspended over the drop. “Jack’s got me. You’ve got me, haven’t you, Jack?”
“Mostly.” He blinked too many times.
The blood drained out of Hope. She passed her phone to Maude.
Maude didn’t look at it properly at first. Three-day old mascara settled deep in the grooves beneath her eyes, and she looked skullish, older than death. She took a drag. Twiddled the paper between her teeth, set the phone on the bill while she resituated herself. Breathed out slow. Then, when the mist had settled in the grooves of her brain, she took the time to read it. She looked at the phone, and then at the ceiling. A smile cracked over her. She barked a laugh, and the blunt fell from her lips and snuffed on the bill, singed a hole on the edge of the ambulance fee.
“They’re leaving their cars,” Yolanda said. “They’re coming inside. The bank across the way, they’re flocking there. Our building, too. The doors are locked. Where is the doorman? Pull me back, Jack, help me up. Someone’s got to run down and open the doors. I could make it down in five.”
“You’ve been to King’s Salvation, Yolanda.” Maude licked her teeth. She fidgeted with a mood ring on her trigger finger. The ring was amber-green. That was fair. “Tell me. Is the morgue in the basement?”
“Stop it. Annie isn’t dead.” Yolanda, supported by the arm Jack had hooked around her waist, found her feet again. She gathered her curls and tied them back. “Morgue talk isn’t charming, Maude. It’s ugly. Now, if you don’t excuse me.”
“Fallout shelter.” Hope ran her thumbnail over her bottom lip. “They could use the morgue as a fallout shelter, if it’s in the basement.”
“Fallout shelter,” said Jack. His jaw went soft. “Oh.”
Everybody gathered around the coffee table. They read together. The room smelled like lemonade just then, and a pulse of light threaded between the four of them, a shock of immediate marrow-deep understanding. The phone was no longer interesting, but they all stared at it, waited for it to transmute into a bird or something.
“King’s Salvation is outside of city limits,” said Hope. “She’s safe, there. Annie will be alright. They’ll hide her in the morgue and she’ll be just fine.”
“Yeah,” said Jack. He rocked back on his heels. “Annie’s OK.” Yolanda caught it. She smiled for a splinter of a second. Good. Jack nodded to himself, gnawed on the inside of his cheeks. “Bet she’ll write a memoir about us. Bet we’re gonna be famous.”
“Marlon Brando could play you,” said Hope.
“Marlon Brando has been dead for a decade. Longer,” said Maude.
“That’s appropriate,” said Jack.
Yolanda seized Hope’s hand and brought it to her mouth.
“Is there a shelter downstairs?” Hope smiled at Yolanda. She sounded raw. “Think we could make it in time?”
Jack looked over his shoulder, back toward the window. “Someone must’ve knocked the door down. If there is a shelter, I imagine it’s stuffy in there, now. Everybody came in.”
“Good for them,” said Yolanda.
“This place is more comfortable, in that case.” Maude plucked a bill off the table and ripped it cleanly down the middle. “Might as well stay put. We could call Annie, maybe. See how she’s holding up.”
So, the four of them stripped the cushions off the armchair and the couch. They arranged them on the floor in a ring, filled the gaps with books they’d loved, and the record player, and the snapped halves of Jack’s old Squier. Hope still spoke with her blood, so she set a picture of her legal sisters between a bottle of filched wine and a stack of gifted mixtapes. They moved Annie’s Newton’s Cradle without breaking it. The four of them sat down together. They dialed, put the phone on speaker. They got her voicemail.
Maude looked like she wanted to burst.
“Hello, Annie,” said Jack. “I’m spun and Maude has a crush on you. Yolanda and Hope are gross and adorable, you’d be pleased about that. I stole the truffles from under your bed. The raspberry swirls tasted best.”
Hope stifled a laugh.
“We love and care about you always,” said Yolanda. “We’re so proud of you, you Tesla-Curie-POS. You’re a damn good kid.”
“Heal up,” Hope said. “I want you back on your feet before the month is out. I want you running circles around losers like us forever.”
“I’m in love with you.” Maude’s eyes turned pink. “I’ve been in love with you since that night in Tampa. On the docks. I love you, Annie.”
Hope and Jack caught Maude around the shoulders, slung their elbows by the back of her neck. They grabbed Yolanda in the same fashion, and the four of them sat with their skulls together, phone between their knees. The voicemail ended, but they didn’t seem to notice. They gripped fistfuls of each others’ shirts. They listened to each others’ breathing. How mundane, how magnificent they were. How exquisite, the synchronization of lungs, of blood tripping circuits through limbs and heart and brain. Their minds railed electric. The alloys in their souls became raw gold.
Yolanda whistled through her teeth.
“I’m starving,” Jack said.
“Famished,” Maude agreed.
The gumballs in Annie’s device clacked together thoughtfully.
“Oh,” said Hope, “I’d kill for a slice of cake. Annie’s cake. Remember that strawberry cake? The one she made on Valentine’s Day?”
Uranium fission cracked reality. The flash bleached the world of color. It obliterated Grenadine street, reduced multistory buildings to kindling and raw twists of steel that soon caught fire, a blaze that would consume all shattered debris in the following weeks. A plume glazed over the sky, meanwhile, and sprinkled flecks of noxious ash over the ruins, which then nestled in the riggots of the lungs of those remaining uncharred organisms, administering them all a steady dose of gamma radiation. It became very quiet in the city. Birds were absent from above.
Annie, some years later, re-entered the city against the CDC’s advice. She wore a lemon-yellow space suit. Her footprints glowed where she stepped. She was here collecting samples of flora to be examined for genetic defect in a University laboratory three-hundred miles away, because clean-up projects required funding, and funding relied on potential for rehabilitation. They needed healthy flowers. They needed proof of life.
She found something green pushing cracks in a long slab of concrete. She knelt on the ground beside it, opened her enormous lead-lined kit, noted those vines that corkscrewed up between the gaps, how they unfurled in tendrils, and stretched antennae-like toward the sky with purple flowers. Annie liked them. She plucked off a blossom and dropped it in a vial. She filled a second vial, a third. She balanced a fourth vial on her knee and reached for more flowers.
A slash of teeth emerged and chomped the vine.
Annie’s tweezers jumped from her hand and struck the concrete, but stunned, she hardly noticed. She stared up at the teeth and the jaws attached. She couldn’t blink, or swallow.
The deer before her was enormous. Rather something like a deer. Deer-adjacent. It had too many antlers to be a deer proper, just rungs upon rungs of them, eight trunks that fractaled into infinite velveteen spines. It looked like a forest had grown from the crown of its skull. It had thick red fur and hooves that shaped black Vs on the concrete, hooves as big as her hands, and it yanked out her evidence at the root and ignored her. As it ate, head lowered, its antler prongs danced knife-like an inch from her face.
One of the prongs swirled violet blue.
“I published a memoir,” Annie said. “Sent me back to college. I think you would like it.”
The deer swallowed her flowers. It held still. She sucked her teeth and reached forward, pinched the mood ring between her thumb and forefinger. She pulled it loose, and a ribbon of velvet along with it. The deer didn’t gore her. It finished, and then it left her, wandered behind a fallen chunk of skyscraper.
Annie rolled the mood ring in her palm. Violet blue was fair, she thought. She slipped it in a vial and closed her kit.