When I finally reach the beach, I begin to relax, confident that the angry mobs howling for the blood of my kind have been left behind. Wind whips the soaring causeway as I cross the sound onto the barrier island. Leaky and exhausted though my car is, I imagine the cold more than feel it.
The jersey wall is scarred with impacts. The only other car is wrecked from both front and back at the causeway’s bottom, island-side. On any other road these details would slip into the glaze of civilization’s accelerating collapse, just one more mysteriously wrecked car. Here though, the mangled hulk stands out, alone and forlorn.
The beach is drenched in bleakness, the cold bleaching the land and sea to grays and slates. The smell of salt makes the air sag in a sky dark with the threat of drilling rain. I wonder again what I’m doing in this place. Already I’ve seen half-starved humans scavenging along the older country roads. They watch my passing with nebulous looks, between yearning and hunger, in their eyes. Some are even armed, clutching at their weapons in intense debate.
The small barrier island appears completely deserted. Perhaps the human mind really does move in inescapable tracks, and a beach in winter is meant to be desolate. This is a good thing. I’ve come for the solitude. It’s the only thing likely to keep me alive.
After transferring the remnants of my life from my car to a house I’ve crowbarred open, I step out to the beach. I’ve never come in the winter, yet the churned water, the hiss of breaking waves and the brackish tang on the air are perennial, reminders of summer days long past.
Sheets of water slide up and back as I edge near the surf. I spin in slow circles, taking in my circumstances here. I wonder what’s happening up the coast.
The northeastern seaboard was burning as I fled. The Gimmies, enough of us, wage a diffuse civil war against the far more numerous “baseline” humans. For our troubles, we will probably be exterminated.
Despite my resolve to stop, I keep wading back into these swamps of conjecture. It should mean nothing to me. I’ve rejected my Gimmie “brothers” and “sisters” who insist that we didn’t bring this upon ourselves, who seek only someone else to blame.
Agitation flares at the thought of those left behind. I lower my head and close my eyes, trying to find calm. I can’t get excited. I must not grope blindly along old attachments. That way lies the curse He laid on me. After several deep and measured breaths, I raise my head and open my eyes.
And I notice I’m not alone after all.
She’s three houses down, draped in quite a lot of white and a large, floppy hat, as though this was the heart of summer and not an overcast winter day. My hand is up and waving before I can stop myself, and I snatch it back as if the air is laced with thorns. I’ve specifically come here to sever human contact.
Despite the slip, she makes no move to return the greeting or even acknowledge me. I catch a flash of brilliant flame red from beneath that floppy hat, easily the most vibrant color in the entire vista, fairly glowing in the gloom. Its richness invites fixation. I’m suddenly starving for color but instead I turn for the house.
It’s then, as she slides to the edge of my sight, that I see them. They billow out behind her, passing through clothing and chair both, ribbons of brilliance, some thin as threads, others thick as ropes. Wings of light.
I turn back suddenly needing to be sure, and the wings vanish. I tilt my view, and they are there again. I have my answer, and I make my way back along the warped, weathered boardwalk leading back to my house.
She is a Gimmie as well. Even more than before, I can’t afford to have anything to do with her.
That night the clouds blow themselves out to sea, and I’m able to see the stars, all the dappled brilliance of our slice of the Milky Way. This one thing is even more spectacular than my memory, for in all the long stretch of beach, only the house three down has any lights to speak of. I spare a glance, wondering what she is doing over there, what she is doing here, on this island. On my island.
Wondering who she is.
Another lapse of attention, and I chide myself, turning back to the stars, glittering like a carpet of heaven above me, more beautiful than I’ve ever seen and never seeming so far away as they do this night.
Inland, there are several distant explosions.
The following morning her gear is parked on a plumb line between my boardwalk and the surf, as though the beach shifted three houses down in the night. Her chair is empty. What sort of message is this? Why can’t she be content with her half of the island? Where is she now?
- Perhaps she decided to take a swim
, I think with a laugh and a shudder, imagining that frigid water.
That’s when I notice her floppy white hat, bobbing out along the wave tops.
Before I really comprehend what I’m doing I’m in up to my calves, but though I’m aware of the cold, it doesn’t touch me. I’ve experienced this before–some tertiary part of my Gift–but I’ve never tested it in water. Somehow the fact that it carries over is more disturbing than exhilarating.
Despite the churn of the incoming tide, I spot her quickly. She’s floating as well, not too far from her hat. Her hair seems to have sucked up the salt water, its fire tamped down to a sodden auburn. Her skin, what I can see of it around her clothing, is going gray. It’s happening before my eyes, as I watch.
Calling upon ill-gotten and inhuman strength to fight off the slapping waves, I reach her and drag her back to shore. Her breath is terrifyingly shallow, yet I must admit I’m struck still for a moment by her elfin features, fine and lovely even through the gray mottling of her skin.
Her breath is shallow. It’s too cold out here. If she is to have any prayer of survival, she needs to be brought into the warmth. My brain arrives at these decisions without any consultation with me, and soon I’m easily hefting her waterlogged form free of the breakers. The surf has carried us back down the beach, so I jog not to my house, but to hers.
She mumbles a little as I, red-faced at what catastrophe demands of me, undress her and try to dry her, but she speaks no words as I wind her in blankets and tuck her into bed. She’s so cold that I pile every blanket in the house onto her bed. I begin to worry that the blankets will not be enough until I find a heating pad and somehow thread it into the heart of the downy bivouac, plugging it in once it is secure.
I watch her for a long time, and gradually her breathing steadies, and that gray, mottled look vanishes from her skin. A cloud seems to drift from her face as her normal pallor returns, and with it her sleep eases.
Sometime later the sun plummets into the western horizon as I watch from her sofa in the other room.
The next thing I am aware of is eyes upon me. I start awake, thinking my own eyes will open to familiar blackness and that sense of a cage within a cage, the inner one open, the outer one locked fast. Though it’s dark outside the windows, the house around me is bathed in light. I see her, the fire back in her hair, standing over me and wrapped in a white bathrobe. I briefly wonder if she owns any clothing that isn’t white.
She looks at me appraisingly, and I can detect no other emotion on her face. There is no gratitude, but there is no anger, either. Tilting her head in a way I know well, she views me out of the corner of one dark eye. I caught several glimpses of those luminous wings, like ribbons bunched together at her shoulder blades then fanning expansively out, as I put her to bed earlier.
“I can see you around the edges,” is all she says, her expression wavering not an inch. “You’re like me.”
“No two Gimmies are alike,” I say and wince as the words leave my mouth. It’s disgustingly rote, but worse; it’s like something
would say, except without the pejorative. But the tone, the slight lilt, alternately instructing, scolding, and mocking, is all His.
Her face is all thunder and lightning now. “I hate that word,” she bites. “Don’t use it again.” Her words pile atop my sense that the words are another’s, spoken in my voice. I turn away in shame, and again glimpse the wings.
She bustles about her kitchen, preparing something or other for the two of us. Twice I rise, intending to help in some awkward, intrusive way, and twice she instructs that I sit.
“If you can’t sit quietly,” she finally says, “tell me your Story.” The capital is obvious, and the context of who we are leaves only one story worth the telling. It’s not the first time I’ve traded it with other sufferers of my particular affliction. Other Gimmies.
“I’d rather not,” I say, really meaning it. Somehow her look, all innocence, splits the shell of my resolve after several awkward moments. That look seems to say “Oh? I’ll get it out of you sooner or later.” Sooner or later, Gimmies all traded Stories.
I lean back on the sandy couch and begin. White walls in the beach house give way to white walls of the waiting area.
My chit is glowing. It’s my turn. I can’t honestly say how long I’ve been waiting here, but it seems as though my fellow occupants have changed over three or four times since my arrival. I’ve heard that this close, though, time passes in a funny way, or seems to. So maybe I’m wrong.
I find myself staring at the slow, pulsing off-white glow of the chit, as if running my eyes over it, turning it in my hand, will reveal some essential truth, something deeper than “your turn.”
People in the room around me begin to notice; their eyes turn to me in slow sequence. A dozen pairs, each as different as clouds, each filled to brimming with different thoughts and emotions. Envy, anxiety, fawning awe. Even hate. The incessant murmur of the waiting room pauses, but just for an instant, as they wait for me to move.
I rise on shaky knees, and the babble resumes, grating ever deeper into my bones. I worry I’ve already waited too long. I’ve heard the same warnings that everyone receives, that too much delay will result in another being called. And there are always so many waiting.
The chamber I seek is down a deceptively short side hallway. The door opens before me on silent hinges, and inside is… dark.
“Come in, come in so that the door may close.” The voice is deep, comforting in a large way. It seems to resonate in a room bigger than this one is, but that is difficult to quantify in the pitch darkness. Even the bright white rectangle of the door behind me seems not to lessen the blackness, as though the light is made to wait at the boundaries like everyone else. Then the door swings shut as silently as it opened.
“Do not fear, friend. Is it darkness you see? It is different for everyone. The perception of me depends upon the mind of the perceiver. I apologize if it frightens you, but really, you have only yourself to blame.” Laughter, then, rich and amused. I wince, as though the rumbling curves of that sound hide rolling, sharpened edges.
I begin to get a sense of the room. At least I think I do. There is some structure, like a lattice, at the center. A cage, closed and locked. He is locked inside. Chained, perhaps. Yes, there is the faintest rattle of chains.
Doubt seizes me.
“I… I’m not sure I want…”
The door silently swings back open behind me, letting in a frail wedge of that too-weak light.
“Then by all means, leave. You are not required to stay.”
I almost do it. But the waiting room behind me has gone deathly quiet in the interval since I first entered this place. I can’t remember it being so quiet when I was out there. Somehow, that silence frightens me more than this black room. The door closes again, almost as though I will it.
Then He is in the room with me. His cage has opened as the door behind me closed that second time. I hear nothing, but somehow I sense Him close. I sense Him free.
“Do you…” I begin, then my tongue seizes. I try not to think of where he is.
“Do you bestow abilities or grant wishes? I… I’ve been told both.” Even in this darkened room, brimming with His power, the words sound silly when spoken out loud.
“I fulfill needs, not wishes.” His voice is perfectly patient, perfectly instructive. He makes a sound then, like sniffing, as though testing the air. “There are those, like yourself, who have… lost that which they need to endure this life, and that I can provide.
“I do not confer abilities, as you say, but my touch is heavy and your forms are soft and pliable, and I leave an… imprint. Most who partake of me emerge altered in some way appropriate with their need. But come, we must discuss
I goggle at the darkness. “I… I don’t know, really. I was misled in what I came here expecting.”
“Quite understandable. I will work with you. Now, what is it you need? You can tell me anything.” His voice is soft now, reasonable, like a doctor confident that all is under control with his patient.
“I ended something, a relationship, ended it too early, and I need to undo–”
“No,” He says, cutting me off with practiced brusqueness, “that is specific, much too specific.”
“I… but I don’t understand. That is what I wish done. Or undone, rather.”
“I believe it,” He says. “I can smell it on you. But I do not give you what you want. I give you what you need.”
I furrow my brow, fear giving way, edging by degrees into irritation. “What’s the difference?”
“That depends. Sometimes it is great, sometimes so subtle as to be nearly indistinguishable. But in both cases, the difference means everything.” He adopts a lecturing tone. “What you describe is a symptom, an
of your need. I cannot deal in such minutiae. Were I to give you what you asked, even assuming I could, you would simply find another way to inflict the same pain upon yourself.”
His words light a despair in me, kindling it into an acrid little plume of smoke. “Then what do I do?”
“Think. Think! What about this failed relationship troubles you so greatly?”
“Being alone,” I say, but that feels wrong at once.
“No. Again, that is an example.”
“I don’t… pain?”
“Pain over what?”
“Over losing her!” For the first time there is heat in my voice, and it seems to shock against the sudden chill of this room. I worry I have offended or angered Him. But there is a chuckle, dry and pleased.
“Good. Your passion means we are close. You spoke the word yourself just now. You feel pain for the
, a loss you aren’t strong enough to bear.” It is an echo of what He told me earlier, when I first arrived.
“I’ve tried to bear it,” I say lamely, trying to defend myself for some reason.
“I know you have,” He commiserates. “You have struggled with it valiantly.”
“I can’t bear it any longer. I want it gone.”
“Of course you do. But do not be short-sighted. If I remove the pain of this loss, what happens when the next one, perhaps even worse, arrives?”
“Are you saying it will?” I ask this, horror-struck, and then I feel His hands upon my shoulders, horrifically normal hands, squeezing in a firm grip that is somehow both comforting and revolting. The chains rattle behind me now, and His voice resides just behind my ears.
“This world has no limit to the cruelties it inflicts upon those that call it home.”
“I don’t want this, not again. I… I can’t bear it!” The pain of memory, stabbing and barbed, is piercing my brain. I feel my chest tighten against it in a sickly flush of warmth. My voice breaks, and tears threaten.
“You are weak, and you would be strong.”
“Yes.” It is a small miracle, this distillation of my thoughts into so concise a message.
“You need never be forced to bear great loss again.”
“Yes!” This one is even more perfect.
“Good. That is good. Your need is clear to me now.” There is a sense of falling, as though the black floor has dropped away, plunging me into a deeper darkness from which I will never emerge.
From far away a voice intrudes into that remembered rush into the void. The voice of the woman I pulled from the surf. It breaks into my reverie from the beach house where we now sit, the smell of grilled cheese sandwiches heavy on the air.
“You are trapped, and would be free,” she whispers. There are tears in the whisper.
Now the memory of the dark room closes around me again, the reverie total in my recollection and recount. The sense of vertigo, of endless falling, is gone.
“So be it,” He says, and in his voice is the hunger, the anticipation, that will echo in my dreams from that day forward.
She is smiling sadly as I return to full awareness, handing me a gooey, toasty sandwich on a paper plate.
“Eat,” she says with soft kindness. Then, “She tricked you too.”
“She?” I ask, then am forced to endure such a long-suffering look it’s almost as if we haven’t only just met.
- The perception of me depends upon the perceiver
. “‘It’, I suppose. It tricked us both.” It tricked us all.
“Yes,” she said. “You were the same as I was. You didn’t make the requests, not directly.”
“No, I didn’t. They were in Its own words, not mine.”
“I think,” she whispers, “that they always are.”
I nod. “They always are.” It’s almost a ritual, this conversation or something very near it. Gimmies always go through it after the giving of a Story, as though to confirm that nobody got a better deal, that nobody managed to trick Him. Her. It.
“What’s your Story?” I ask, knowing what she will say.
“Not now,” she says. “Now, we eat.” And so we do. The sandwiches are good, better than grilled cheese sandwiches have any right to be.
She stands abruptly after both plates are cleared away. “You should go.” Her voice nearly reaches apology, but she manages to pull it back.
“Do you fly? Was that how It marked you?”
She turns away. “Yes.” Her answer is hard and brittle, the polar opposite of the supple wings I keep snatching glances of. At her tone, I decide not to bring up the water and her near-drowning that seemed little like a drowning. Instead I stumble lamely into a different question, equally bad.
“Will you show me sometime?”
“No!” Her voice is laced with pain, riddling with cracks, then she pulls that back as well into her trademark monotone. “No.” At last the detachment fails her, and she falls into that tearful whisper I recall intruding into the telling of my Story. “Please don’t make me.”
I can only nod. Neither of us speaks another word as I leave, and that’s good. I can’t afford any attachments here. As I tromp across cold sand made luminous in the glare of the fat moon, I am already planning how long I need to prepare to leave the island and go elsewhere.
I wake the next morning to the sounds and smells of a kitchen in use. My kitchen. Suspicion and alarm give way to curiosity and rue. Who else could it be? That’s what I get for ruining the lock. I get up and dress in a ragged t-shirt and pajama pants. Beach bum chic.
She’s making scrambled eggs and something that requires batter. “The last of my eggs,” she says. “They were close to going bad. I didn’t eat them as fast as I thought, so I hope you like a lot of them. Hard to imagine being worried about cholesterol now.” Her smile is crooked, every bit as rueful as my waking thoughts.
Her tone unsettles me for a moment. There was a sense of finality when she spoke about the last of her eggs. Like they were the last ever. I think back to pulling her from the surf, and that only inflames the theories I’d formed laying awake the previous night.
“I didn’t sleep,” she says, eerily echoing my own thoughts, and by the look of her eyes, she isn’t exaggerating much. “I never thanked you for pulling me out yesterday.”
I hesitate at the last stair, as though to step down to her level is as irrevocable as entering that dark room with my glowing chit had been. For an instant we teeter there, the pair of us, poised between the expected societal niceties and an uglier truth that one of us knows and the other can guess.
“I got the impression that you didn’t really want to thank me,” I say, gently. The plunge is not as harrowing as it looked from above. She lowers her eyes beneath that shaggy curtain of crimson, but does not break down as I feared she might.
“I’d been planning on it before you arrived. After you got here I… hesitated. But you didn’t seem to want to be approached.”
“So you arranged it to happen right behind my house?”
“I… I think I wanted to at least give you the option.” She doesn’t sound nearly as sheepish or shamed as she ought. She sounds dead.
“It’s water, then? Water is your Catch?”
“When I was telling you my Story, you spoke once, something about being trapped, and wanting freedom.”
“Yes.” She is refusing to meet my gaze again, and her voice has recovered its tremor.
“Then I assume your Catch didn’t appear until–”
“Until I got here. As I got here.”
I recall the wrecked car and the damaged causeway.
“You can’t even cross salt water? Even over it?” Before she can reply, I’m already marveling at the wickedness of it.
“The sound between the island and the mainland is salty enough, apparently. When I realized, I tried to cross the causeway in my car. I began to go numb and black out less than halfway across. It was… painless, almost like falling asleep in a warm, soft bed. It was terrifying how seductive it was, but only later, after I’d woken back up.”
“And how did you manage that?”
“I shifted the car back into neutral just as I went under. All I could do was hope that I didn’t roll back down into something that would kill me.”
“I have a car. If I drive–” But she was shaking her head and laughing–or sobbing–silently within the curtain of her hair.
“No. That’s not the right way to think about it at all. It’s not a question of having someone else carry me over or of getting across fast enough to avoid slipping into a coma. Don’t think of it in terms of having hard and fast rules. It doesn’t want me to escape. That was the Catch. It’s not going to let me cross any body of salty water by any means.”
And that sounds all too plausible. In fact, I realize at once that I believe her, that I’m certain she’s right. I can almost feel It inside me, squirming quietly in gleeful resonance with the cruelty of her notion. And what does that notion mean for me?
“When you say the last of your eggs–”
“I can’t get any more,” she says. “I’ve already cleared out the island’s general store. When I run out of food, I run out. Why do you think I was trying to kill myself?”
A week passes with me carefully avoiding the subject of her inability to leave the island. It’s a balance I seek. And between my constant self-reminders of the dozens of homes worth of non-perishable food on the island and her seeming satisfaction with my increasingly frequent company, it’s a balance I keep. But just for a week. After that, the empathy begins to creep in, twisting my bowels in anxiety even as it warms my heart.
It happens when I walk in on her in the bath.
It’s an accident, of course, an unlocked door and no light peaking out from beneath to warn me. The water in the bath is cold. I can tell that at once by the lack of fog on the mirror. She makes no move to cover herself, and I make no move to look away, but there is no recognition, on either side, of the vulnerability this forces upon her.
My first assumption, just a random scramble for meaning in what I’m seeing, is that the water heater is broken. The weather is just starting to turn, the last teeth of winter are wearing down with the grinding passage of time, but a broken water heater would still necessitate that she switch homes.
Then I notice that she is sweating. Sweating in a cold bath. Shivering, but not from cold. From fear. In a momentary spike of my own fear and a singular palpitation of the heart, I dip a finger into the water and taste it.
Not salt. Fresh. Or near enough, with her skin submerged in it for enough time to wrinkle. Then it hits me. This is her roller coaster. Frightening because of its similarity to her Catch, exhilarating for the same reason. And not dangerous. Not to the body, at least, though judging by the glazed look in her eyes, I can’t say the same for her mind.
I call to her once, twice, and on the third attempt, the focus returns to her eyes. Horror dawns there, but horror of a different kind.
“What are you doing?” she cries, making a move at last to cover herself, and the spell lifts from me at that moment. I sputter something about being concerned when she didn’t respond, then back out of the room, and for once I’m hard pressed to describe which of us is redder.
“Here, take this,” she says, and from out of nowhere produces a shotgun, an over-under double barreled affair. I must be staring, because she grins crookedly. “What?”
“Where did you get this?”
“In another house, further west down the island, behind a few locked doors. That reminds me, I borrowed your pry-bar last night, but don’t worry, I put it back.” I remind myself that she doesn’t sleep very much.
“You just, what,
there was a gun there you could use?”
She rolls her eyes. “It’s hardly the first house I checked. There might be some other stuff there too. We can go look again later, after you get back.”
“So what am I supposed to do with this?” I point at the gun, which she has broken open along the breach. Both chambers are empty.
“It was getting ugly in the rural areas, even before I came here. It can’t be better now. If you meet someone threatening, don’t try to be all noble. Shoot them.”
This time I blink, and she looks exasperated. “You’re over-thinking it. Don’t over-think it. Just do it. There aren’t any second chances. Not anymore.” Eventually I nod, but she doesn’t look satisfied until I take the gun. She unslings an olive, canvas ammo bag from her shoulder and hands that to me as well.
“Wait,” she says then, reaching at my waist to pull two shells free, then loading them into the breach and snapping the whole assembly closed with a satisfying click.
“Not exactly like target shooting,” I venture shakily. “Maybe you should hold onto this. You seem more comfortable around it than I do.”
“No, it is exactly like target shooting…” She pauses, and I can tell she means to say something else. She breaks my eye contact, and just as I am about to prompt her, blurts “you should go.”
“I… was about to.”
“No. I mean you should
A beat passes between us.
“I can’t do that. I’ll have to, eventually, but I can’t do that yet. Not with your–”
“I can take care of myself.”
“Says the woman who hands me the gun.”
She almost smiles. “It’s not the only gun I found. I told you, I can take care of myself.”
“Begging your pardon, but you can’t. Not yet.” I’ve been convincing myself I’d work out a solution to her problem for two weeks, and I’ve been wracking my brain over it, but so far to no avail.
“Soon then. You should go soon.”
“Soon. But not yet.” I try not to let my hurt show. I try not to feel too hurt. But I think I fail at both. My heart thunders. She doesn’t mean anything by it. I know that, deep down.
“Ok,” I say, “I’ll be back with groceries and gas.” I hope to find the latter, but for now, I’ll settle for the former.
I approach the grocery store, the only one for miles, warily. The inland Food Lion has become a fortress since I passed through. It had still been running before, albeit on reduced hours. I think back to some of the booms we’ve heard at night. What could have gone on during the intervening weeks?
Sandbags block all the windows and narrow the lane to the doors. The parking lot is nearly deserted. Then I see someone waving from the shadows behind the sandbags, signaling me to approach a sort of sandbag carport, a fortified parking space.
- Fortified against what?
It strikes me that either the person firing at me was doing so from elsewhere, or I am being very easily led into a trap.
This stops me short, and the person waving does so a little more frantically. I curse. What use could they have for me? I’m running on fumes. Perhaps they need slave labor to stock the shelves? Smiling grimly at this thought, I pull into the offered spot.
The greeter is helmeted and appears to be wearing a flak jacket around his paunch. He has a gun as well, and that pretty well freezes me to the seat, but his is pointed up at an angle. He notes my gun, propped in the passenger seat, and pauses.
“You’re gonna to have to leave that in the car if you mean to go shopping today.”
The two men running the store are doing so out of basic human decency. Somehow the power is still running, both here and on the island, and Jean, my escort in the store while Floyd guards my car and gun, thinks that the attitude behind the power company must be the same altruism.
“Sure as hell nobody’s been paying their bills lately,” he says. Until he brings it up, the thought of losing power on the island hasn’t even occurred to me. Still, after a moment of queasy panic at the notion, I force myself back to relative calm. There is nothing to be done about it.
Shopping is quick and efficient. “It’s handouts, you see, money being worthless in these parts recently.” Jean delivers this in practiced rote, and I wonder if he was even a Food Lion employee before all the troubles started.
They arrange me some basic perishable food, enough for two to eat before spoilage sinks in, and a choice from an assortment of canned and dried goods. “It’s gotta last,” he says by way of apology. “No telling if we’ll ever get another shipment. But folks gotta eat.” I decide I like Jean.
As we gather everything up and bag it together, Jean looks at me anxiously. “You’re over on the island, right? You two must be the only ones. I saw the other car go by some time ago, and then yours, but no one else.”
“As far as I know, we’re alone.”
“Do what you can to stay that way,” he says, with real concern rimming both his voice and his eyes. “Don’t draw any unnecessary attention to yourself. You got nowhere to run if someone who means trouble decides to cross the causeway after you.”
This seems as good an opening as any. “You guys had much trouble?” I indicate his gun.
“Not yet, but we’re hearing rumors. Got a lot of friends in the military.” He lets this cryptic statement stand, and I’m too unsettled to inquire further.
The pair send me off with a hearty “God bless!” to speed me along, all the while hoping they don’t notice that I bear what some in the Bible Belt have taken to calling the Devil’s Touch.
It’s not the Devil that’s done this to me. If there is a Devil, there’s also a God, and the latter has the former corralled. No, this is worse. What touched me, what touched she and I both, doesn’t answer to anybody.
I arrive back, the car partially gassed thanks to Jean and Floyd’s hoarding, to a pair of empty houses. We’re each too lazy to move any closer together, so it takes awhile to ascertain that she isn’t in either of them. I assume she’s off procuring a larger arsenal, and set about storing the perishables, splitting them evenly between houses so we can lounge at both.
At some point I think to look up, and there she is. Jean’s words are like hot lead branding my gut as she swoops above and between houses, sometimes rocketing straight up into the air, sometimes diving down at speeds that would frighten any who didn’t know better. Despite her seemingly erratic flight, I note she keeps well clear of the island’s fuzzy borders.
In use, her wings glow like fire, and it’s impossible not to see them, even in bright daylight. Their glare even claws at the edges of my sight when I look the other direction.
- At least it’s not night
, I think. Though at night, most watching eyes would be asleep. I stand, entranced by her acrobatics, the sheer artistry and grace of her movements, dumbfounded with dry goods piled in bags at my feet.
At last she comes down, on the opposite side of her house from me. I shake off the trance of the experience, as I always must after seeing a Gimmie use the double-edged Gift they’ve been given. After a while, I realize she isn’t coming to meet me, though she must have seen me or the car by now.
Concerned, I find her where she landed, kneeling, her whole body wracked with sobs. The glory of her wings is fading into a shimmer like heat haze sprouting from her back. In time it will be gone entirely, viewable only from the corner of my eye once more.
I don’t approach. I don’t know what to say, not precisely, but I know what she doesn’t want, and it jives with what I can’t give perfectly.
“When I’m up, it’s pure joy,” she says, heaving and hitching between words, “but when I come back down, all I can think is that it cost me
What starts as tears turns into that full-body grief that only the deepest sadness can prop up. I leave the dry goods and pick her gently up from the ground, carrying her up the stairs, past the stilted underbelly of the house.
I enter the first bedroom I find, not hers, I realize at once, but it will suit to let her rest and recover while I make dinner. Her brazen flaunting of our existence here is all but forgotten. We can discuss it later if need be.
Her weight is warm and solid against me, hitching with diminishing sobs as her strength leaves her. I walk in a daze, fighting back my own tears, my own losses, until my knees strike the edge of the mattress.
I shift, preparing to lower her gently down, when all at once she is clinging with an iron grip. I look down to meet her shining eyes.
“Stay with me,” she says, and rising, brings her lips to mine. They are warm and moist, and her mouth is parted open, sharing breath with mine. Her tongue tastes like a spray of sea salt.
My heart thunders warning in my chest, a drumbeat of doom. This is not good. This is the very thing I’ve been avoiding, even fearing, this attachment I feel cementing itself between us. But it’s been a long time, even more in perception than in fact, and there are other parts of me awakening.
I lower her slowly to the bed as I’d originally intended, except that I follow, settling my weight atop her as she sighs in welcome.
A frozen lasagna is slowly baking in the oven as the stars come out and we emerge onto the second floor deck to watch. They carpet the night sky, a thick glittering layer of lights across the blackness. Clouds sidle in from the left, the east. Between that slate, puffy layer, and our need to hold one another close, I am at first unaware when a different kind of light show begins.
We are pressed hard together, she sandwiched between me and the railing with my arms wound around her, my lips exploring the curve of her neck, when she notices the clouds lighting up fitfully, like blooms of fire just beyond that low layer.
“Thunderstorm,” she coos, kissing me again, and I revel in it. The sounds of the titanic forces being unleashed beyond the clouds reach us some dreamless time later, and to my unconscious mind they are wrong, too strident, too full of directed wrath. But my conscious mind is consumed with the feel of her, the smell of her, the knowledge of her that I’ve gleaned these last few hours.
I am in so deep so quickly that I forget to be afraid.
Later, dazed and aching, we watch one of the last remaining news channels. This is an indulgence we seldom allow ourselves. In our other lives, each of us tells tales of being a news junkie, but now we avoid it unless both are in the mood. This does not happen often.
It is the bleary looking anchorwoman, made-up to the point of uncanniness, that tells us the truth of the false storm off the coast.
“There has been an extended instance of aerial and naval combat off the Mid-Atlantic seaboard tonight,” the anchorwoman intones. “The identity of the attacking force is not known or has not been disclosed by the Pentagon at this time, but United States forces have reportedly repelled the attack before it could reach population centers along the coasts of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C.”
How long since the country’s infrastructure functioned well enough to closely follow the movements of all other nations, military and civilian alike? Yet for some enemy to strike so close to home, to be surprised in this way… It leaves me both empty and frozen inside, and the sensation must have soaked through me, for I do not realize I am shaking until I feel her hand rest, steadying, across the back of mine.
“It’s not our world anymore,” she says. “It belongs to them, for better or worse.” But how can that be true? How, when so many of the world’s troubles lie at the feet of our kind? The feet of the people who answered a selfish, infernal call.
The aerial battles occur with a kind of maddening regularity. Sometimes they are delayed by actual thunderstorms. But despite our resolve, the evening news, once a guilty pleasure, becomes a nightly event.
The skies flash most nights, accompanied at times by upthrust lances of light at the horizon, as from ships. They combine, these auroras, forming a scintillating drumbeat that marks the passage of the days.
Another trip to the Food Lion passes without event before we have our first fight. Our moods, perfectly out of sync at the start, never clashing, gradually meld closer and closer until I lash out at her at precisely the wrong moment.
“You should go,” is how the conversation ends. There are only two ways she delivers this phrase, and this is the one with a temporal clause implied. I should go, but I should also come back. It both relieves and frightens me to hear that tone.
After, I stalk down the shoreline at near high tide. The sun is setting behind the clouds. Cloud cover has been nearly omnipresent since I arrived, at odds with my memories of this place. Despite the clouds, the air is warming fast with the ripening of spring, and the water is begrudgingly giving up its winter ghosts. I try to focus on the cool, grainy feel of the wet sand sucking lightly at my feet, but the relentless crash of surf draws my attention outward like a wire.
The ocean seems a two-faced god under such lighting, slate ridges capped with white, foaming chop receding into a flat, consumptive basalt in the distance. I cannot help but see the water as a bleak, swallowing thing, sucking out the light of the world and that which remains in me.
Later I return, but not to her house, rather to mine. I notice her deck light go out shortly after I enter and flip on the kitchen lights, so I know I’ve been observed.
My body hopes she will venture over, now or later in the evening, seeking company. My mind and the raw edges of my pride hope she will stay away.
There is no contact between us for three days, and then, as if exploding in both minds at once, we meet each other midway between homes, each on the way to apologize to the other.
We decide a change of scenery is in order, and transfer our flag to my house.
The days pass, helped along by whatever time-killing aides we can find in an entire island worth of houses. Today is Monopoly.
“I’m not trading you Park Place, you can forget it!” She laughs as she says this, but the twinkle in her eye is sly as well. My favored gambit has failed. I imagine my little top hat crushed beneath her boot. I can’t believe this set is missing the battleship.
We tear through such games at an alarming pace, and notice more and more repetition as we raid the other houses for their entertainments. It’s both mildly irritating and strangely depressing to dwell on it, so I, at least, try not to.
On the next turn she purchases Boardwalk, and three rounds after that, I’m paying for her damned hotel there.
I can’t help but notice that the two-faced ocean god has stratified itself. It seems ancient, unknowable and vaguely menacing when I walk alone, scenic, cool and inviting when she walks with me.
One day we perform a complete circuit of the island, as much as that is possible while having to avoid large swathes of the marshy inland side. Tired, sore and laughing at the finish, we are almost too exhausted to attend to one another after collapsing on my couch.
Five trips. Five trips is all I manage to Food Lion. I’ve recently begun to be worried. The perishable foods there are stretched to their final limits, with no resupplies in sight.
I begin to fear what will happen when the other food runs out as well.
It’s just minutes before I climb into my car, ready for shopping trip six. She suggests, as she hands me the shotgun I’ve never needed, that I negotiate for more of the perishables, since they are close to vanishing. Not many people are coming in for provisions, so there seems a decent chance Jean might listen.
Then the world is ripped open as the explosion passes over and through us.
At first I’m certain the blast is closer to us than it seems. But after several seconds of silent, still panic between the two of us, we run up the stairs to the front porch, hoping for enough vantage to see what’s happened.
The black smoke rising like a thick, hooded cobra is easily visible. East, and toward the landward side of the island, I think. Then we hear the sound of the jet, coming in low and slow. It’s tough to tell for certain, but I think it bears United States Air Force markings.
I see the second bomb drop after the pilot hits the throttle. It’s almost suicidally low, but I don’t really consider this, because I know instantly what the target of both bombs is, and I wonder how we will resupply with the causeway destroyed.
The second explosion rips the air, and she reads the truth of matters on my face. From hers I read only fear.
Some time passes with nothing but silence between us. On the point where I think she is finally ready to speak, two more explosions rip the sky open, somewhere further inland.
The news gives us the truth of matters. Invasion is expected, even imminent. Some jackal of a nation, or perhaps a whole cabal of them, is here to savage the once-great United States, now eating itself from within. Access to coastal barrier islands is being destroyed up and down the eastern seaboard, to prevent them from being used as easy staging areas for any landing forces.
The rotting corpse of the nation must be kept sacrosanct.
Shortly after the report begins, she flips channels. Other networks have come back online, but they broadcast nothing but reruns, some from shows twenty years gone, whatever they can dig up in their archives. It’s as though they seek to lull us all onto a bed of leaves. The leaves cover a staked pit, the stakes coated with a narcotic venom of simpler times.
We watch the inanities drone on for a while, then she speaks beside me, softly, right into my ear.
“We need to start scouring the other houses.” She leans in to kiss me, throwing her warm, needy weight against mine, and as she bears me down, she whispers “You should have gone.”
The tone is again clear. Gone, and not come back. The tone is heavy, swinging shut like the door in a black prison.
We acquire what must be every remaining gun on the island, prepared to defend our ridiculously small territory if necessary. We split the arms between both houses. By some unspoken, unanimous decree, we still have not thrown in our lot with one house or another.
Along with the weapons, we grab and haul every non-perishable food item we can find. This was a vacation island, most of the homes were for weekly rental, and thus not stocked with any food. But a few were not rented, serving only as ad hoc vacation homes for the owning family.
It should go without saying that our haul of food is distressingly small.
We watch the boat coming in through the old-fashioned spyglass. I’ve already had to resist making pirate “arrr” sounds for the better part of an hour, more out of nervousness than humor. She’s not in the mood.
“Boat” is misleading. This is a landing craft. That said, it is a landing craft in a bad way. Badly damaged, it’s taking on water, and there are blood smears along both inner and outer walls. Three soldiers remain in what must surely have housed forty. Why it is alone, certainly off course, we couldn’t say, but it ran afoul of some American weaponry, and now they are looking for a safe place to ditch.
It is a cruel vagary of fate that puts them half a mile east along the beach from us.
One of the men is wounded, but the other two set out at once, foraging. Ensconced in my house, we exchange glances as we watch from blinded windows. It will be more than obvious someone has been here before them when they see house after house with pried-open doors.
The sun is setting, but there is enough light to see by. The two motile men do not split up, but begin moving together, inspecting house by house. We have a fifty-fifty chance that they will choose to move away from us and buy us time.
We lose the flip.
When the sun finally sets, the men apparently decide that’s enough for one night. Their body language speaks volumes. They haven’t found any supplies, and are suspicious of why. They move into the nearest house to the boat, carrying their now-unconscious comrade in with them. But their conversation occurs out on the deck, lights blazing. It appears our luck will hold this one night, because they haven’t searched far enough to notice my car. Not tonight at least. But if they continue in the same direction tomorrow…
I counsel that we stealthily move in the night. The sound of the surf should muffle my car, and we could flee down the other end of the beach, buying ourselves more time. It will take them days to search everything.
“No,” she says, with a firmness I’ve never heard. “Right now they aren’t sure what they are up against. We have to take them now, while we have surprise.”
“All right,” I say, and she blinks at this sudden agreement. I congratulate myself mentally, preening in my own head under the praise. It isn’t myself I’ve been fearing for. Not exactly, not directly. “But let me do whatever it is we’re going to do.”
She’s shaking her head already. “No, too dangerous, we both–”
“If It told me anything truthful at all, these men probably can’t hurt me.” She stops dead at this, frozen as if in stone. I’ve never volunteered what my Gift was, and she has never asked. It has been a source of guilt for me, since she shared hers so easily, but I gave my Story, something she has yet to cough up.
She swallows sourly, worried, I think, more about the imbalance that exists between us now than anything. She considers her response for a long time. “I want to help.”
“The best way you can help me,” I say, in possibly the most honest statement I’ve ever made to her, “is to stay safe.”
I’ve never used my Gift for what I am about to do, but I believe it will work. That’s most important, I think. To believe.
The door yields to my kick as though it’s rotted, clattering inward in two pieces. Feeling a surprising rush, I spare the briefest of moments to be impressed with myself. Perhaps she can ignore the sensation when she’s flying, but I feel Its will coursing through me as I deliver the kick. I’d have avoided doing it if I could.
I’ve left the pry-bar at home, keeping my hands free. Most of the weapons we’ve found scattered throughout the island in their little closet strongboxes are sporting in nature, but one of the rarer pistols is tucked in the back of my waistband, safety on, as I’ve repeatedly confirmed. The fear of injury is habit as old as any, and hardest to shake.
It’s my trusty shotgun that I bring to bear against the shadowed form rising to meet me. It’s the deep darkness of the night, so I never get a look at uniform or ethnicity. I have no idea who these people are who are invading a dying nation. And I don’t care. I hesitate. Of course I do. But I don’t believe with absolute certainty in my invulnerability, and it’s her voice I hear, colored white and red and urgent, speaking in my mind.
- No warning. No chance
. As I pull the trigger and feel It slithering within me to utterly dampen the recoil, keeping my aim absolute, I wonder which of them, It or she, will dehumanize me more in the end. Which is it that robs us of our compassion, the one that offers gifts, or the one that risks taking them away?
The shot lights the room, so bright that it reveals even less detail than the darkness. But there is a glimpse of a human form staggering, and a man’s cry rips through the shocked, burnt air as the flash fades from the room but not from my sight. Then there is crashing, thumping, and the breaking of glass as the second man, revealed as a white silhouette in the flash, flees out the back onto the decking. I pursue.
As I stand on the back porch, the light of the moon picks him out in eerie bluish white against the sand and waves. He runs, I don’t know where, and since he appears unarmed, and I decide right there to let him go. In the morning we will clear out this house, and he will have nowhere to go. So long as he stays away from us…
A pair of glowing fans, symmetric and blurred with speed, streak down. I fancy hearing a piercing wail, as though her Gift was to be a banshee, as she swoops down almost too fast for sight and scoops up the fleeing man. Then she rockets skyward, and I have time for little thought beyond a muted anger at both her recklessness and her savagery, before his form plummets screaming to the earth, moving much too fast to be saved by the porosity of piled sand.
A shot rings behind me, from the house. I twitch and duck simultaneously, nearly falling in spastic haste. But the shot is singular and does not repeat, and I know somehow that it’s the sound of the third man, the wounded man, taking his own life with his pistol.
Despite the damage it has sustained, I manage to swing the landing craft around, hugging the shore, and use it to reach the mainland. I make this decision with virtually none of her input as I’m not speaking to her for reasons that already seem petty. She is at first hurt, then sullen, then angered by my silence. The fact that my actions hurt her only angers me more, because the hurts don’t make me happy, as I feel they should.
Over on the mainland, it’s just a short walk to my destination. It’s quickly evident what the other two explosions were. I can smell it well before I see it. The Food Lion is gone, replaced by an acrid, stinking crater. I suppose any landing forces could not be allowed to find food, either. And neither can we. As I stand there stupidly, I wonder where Jean and Floyd were when those bombs fell. As I bring the boat back, I wonder just how long our island provisions can last.
Summer waxes and wanes, and as we live on rationed canned beans, soups, and vegetables, all the while our relationship oscillates like a dozen mini-seasons wedged within the larger one of the world. When we can bear to keep our hands from one another we can barely speak, until the edges of our freezes and thaws blur together, and sometimes we forget whether we are angry or happy with our lot and one another.
We drive golf balls into the water until the supply runs out. We fire an old, much-used PVC potato cannon, filling it with whatever we can find that’s of vaguely the right shape and inedible. Despite my refusing to allow her to fire it, we carry this game past the point of good sense, and I am given further proof of my Gift when the cannon finally explodes beside me. The worming sense of Its protection pulsing through sinew and vein is almost worse than I imagine dying must be.
We play every old board game anyone ever left at a beach house, even the ones we had shunned before. Some are decades old, some so new they have electronic, even video components.
There is a brief period during one of our good spells where panic seizes me, and all I can think about is that I will somehow, after all this time, get her pregnant. For a time I’m unable to touch her, such is this fear, but it’s been months, and at last I come to suspect that this is yet another one of Its Gifts to us. I derive a mean satisfaction that what It undoubtedly intended to be cruel is a blessing in disguise.
Perhaps It can’t foresee everything.
She lets it slip into conversation, that her birthday is approaching. I have no idea if the hint is intentional, but an idea occurs to me.
It happens as we watch the last network. The signal is spotty, so much so that we can barely discern what the anchor says, but the fighting has evidently moved west, inland.
“Bad news,” she says beside me. “Except for us.”
“Everyone seems to have forgotten about us,” I reply, turning to smile at her, a smile that hides my new notion. She fixes me with her own grin, and it is only a little sad.
“As long as you remember,” she says.
The house’s electricity chooses that moment to finally die. In truth, it lasted far longer than I would have thought.
With the risk of our discovery seemingly reduced, I begin working on her birthday gift. It will be a delicate thing, and my stomach turns in knots as I do it, certain she will hate it, fail to see the humor, and spurn me for good. But some part of me is sure in a different way, and I continue my work.
She is at first suspicious, then annoyed by my long absences, and finally I have to confess what it is I am doing, if not
what I am doing. A smile replaces the slow smolder of her anger, as though an obscuring cloud has moved on, allowing the sun to shine through again. Encouraged a bit by this, I continue my work, no longer trying so hard to hide.
When the big day dawns, her mood buoys my hopes. I take her to the sound side of the island, and do something I have never done. I ask for a lift.
To my surprise, she agrees readily. Locking her hands together over my breastbone, she lifts us both easily into the air, and I direct her where to go, keeping us well clear of the coast with my instructions. I try to marvel at this, her Gift allowing us to soar, but all my nerves are for my gift to her.
She laughs when she sees it. The sound is so lovely and crystalline clear, as though it’s shaking caked filth from the inside of her lungs, that I’m moved to tears. They are tears of laughter, and relief as well.
Three houses in a row display it. I have pulled sheets taught across the sound-side of the roofs, and upon them written the words that comprise the message in old paint.
DRAIN THE SOUND.
As she lowers us gently to the ground, kissing me first sweetly and then roughly, I wonder which of us hopes more strongly that the joke message is heeded.
Two days later, in August’s last gasps, our food runs out. The topic has been one we’ve both been studiously avoiding, as is our tendency. She informs me at breakfast, trying not to make it sound like disaster.
“You should–” is how she tries to end the declamation, and I interrupt.
“We’ll do another house search. There must be things we’ve missed.”
And, hours and hours later, we have discovered that there are indeed things we’ve missed, but nothing of any appreciable amount. We prolong our starvation’s beginning by a few days at most with what we find.
Having few options makes decision-making surprisingly easy. I ready the boat to head to shore, hoping to search the same way we have searched the island. Meanwhile she will try her hand at fishing, at least as much as she can manage, with the dangers of the water.
She hugs and kisses me before I go, with an urgency that could almost make me weep. Midway through, I think I realize why, and then she speaks, confirming it.
“If you don’t come back,” she whispers into my chest, “I’ll understand.” But she doesn’t understand. She doesn’t understand at all.
The boat is running low on fuel when I arrive, so I make that a priority as well. But I might as well not bother.
The houses, those that aren’t burned to the ground, have been picked clean, whether by soldiers of either side or locals I can’t say. Anything of use has been stripped away and carried off. Eventually it is getting so dark I risk losing my way back if I stay any longer.
She is trying to cook two meager fish over an open fire when I arrive, utterly empty-handed. We eat the fish that night, but there is something wrong with them, and we spend the next day throwing up.
A day after that, both nauseated and starving by turns, I promise that I’ll try the other islands to east and west. “There are bound to be houses like the ones here, ones that have provisions.”
“Unless they have people like our island does who’ve eaten them up. What about gas for the boat?”
“We’ll do one more sweep of the island.” Despite the doubt scrawled across her face, it’s not impossible. It wasn’t what we looked for the last time. It’s possible that we just missed it. “I’ll swim if I have to.”
“On no food? You’ll drown!”
“My Gift…” I say, then hesitate. The next words could open up another rift between us. But they need to be said. “I’m not certain I can drown.” She looks away, for of course, drowning is all she can do in the ocean.
“You should go,” she says, and it’s obvious what she means. I say nothing. She doesn’t understand, and I can’t bear to explain.
We never do get around to searching the island. Not for fuel, anyway. The next day brings what can only be a hurricane, a monster storm of shrieking winds and crashing waves. More than one house simply vanishes in between flashes of lightning, leaving only the sounds of screaming, splitting wood. I see more waterspouts than I care to count as we huddle in another house, one further toward the center of the island. We have to keep her away from any standing bodies of salt water.
Only the orientation of the storm prevents the beachhead from being swallowed utterly. It is several days before the flooding recedes, and we are amazed to find both her house and mine still standing. They are now neighbors in truth, the two houses between swept out to sea. A number of other houses, more than half of those I see, have joined them in watery graves.
From the beach, it’s possible to see the island immediately to the west. Or rather, it’s possible to see where that island was. Of the dunes and the homes that dotted them, there is no sign.
She is screaming at me, howling that I need to leave, that I need to go and leave her behind. I can’t recall how it started, I only know that after withstanding the barrage for half an hour, I need to get out of the house. Her shrieks of grief and rage chase me out the door.
For something to do, I walk east, examining the devastation and looking to see if the next island down suffered the same fate as our other neighbor. It’s an idle fancy, for somehow I know that it has, and I know that this somehow means that both islands were uninhabited, both stocked with food.
What surprises me more is when I come upon the bombed-out causeway and find its rubble gone, as well as the entirety of our island east of that point. As though the storm reached out with shears of wind and lightning and simply lopped it off.
I don’t mind admitting that I spend a fair amount of time screaming for no particular reason at this discovery.
wants our world to shrink smaller and smaller. I know this. I feel the truth of this thing twisting and writhing inside me, like a worm filling my guts.
As the sun sets, I head home, wanting only to take her in my arms.
I notice the bottle immediately upon my arrival, and my brain names it. It’s a bottle of painkillers, formerly in the master bathroom’s medicine cabinet, and it was, as of this morning, at least half full.
It stands empty on the kitchen counter now. The message is clear, though there is no physical note.
- You should go
, written in suicide.
My heart thunders a terrified beacon of warning.
Swearing, I run from bedroom to bedroom, starting with ours, finally ending in one that we have never used, as though she wants to hide from me for the maximum possible time, to let the poison work within her and minimize the chance I might save her. I can barely breathe by the time I enter.
I find her crying but full of life, and scan the floor for signs that she has thrown up the pills, seeing nothing as I rush to her. I am hugging her, crying as well, feeling her heartbeat strong and fierce, and then I am shaking her in rage, feeling my own heart alternately race and seize in my chest.
“Why?” I am whispering this, over and over through my tears, then shouting it. “Why? Why? Why?” I am waiting for her to speak, to confirm that she is, in fact, somehow not dying.
“They didn’t work,” she sobs. “I took them as soon as you left. Hours ago. They didn’t work. I just wanted… I just wanted to free you from me.”
We curl around each other on the floor, holding tight for so long that our bodies cramp and scream. But her heartbeat never falters, and she never throws up the pills. She never even gets sleepy.
That is when we first begin to suspect that we cannot, in fact, starve to death, that maybe we can only die in the careful ways It has prepared for us. What seemed a condemnation of slow death shifts into a kind of hell.
Winter. A winter that seems to last forever. Perhaps this stretching of time occurs because I know that the season will mark a year, one
since I first became snared on this island.
I can feel It moving through me all the time now. It coils and slides, constantly dulling the hunger, feeding it with whatever repugnant energies It possesses, but never taking the ache in my belly away completely, never satisfying. It’s as though a worm in my guts is eating me at the same rate my body can heal itself.
She says nothing, but I know she feels the same way.
For a time after the pills, I feared that she would simply step out into the surf one day. But she is stubborn. She cannot bear to give It what It so obviously wants. Despite this realization, for a time I try never to let her out of my sight for more than moments. Even when we are at each other’s throats and I am banished back to my home, I try to watch her through the rubble of the intervening spaces. But after a month of stressed, exhausting vigil, I relent, relaxing by degrees, and she remains safely shore bound.
The longer we go since our last meal, the more our features change. I can’t describe it much better than that, but they grow less human, more as though we live lives trapped on the covers of fashion magazines. Wrinkles are smoothed over, blemishes vanish, eyes glaze, the skin wears a constant sheen as though it is burnished. She is more beautiful to look upon, so much so that I cannot even glimpse her without becoming aroused, even in the throes of anger. But she seems more terrible as well, less human. Her hair is a beacon of bloody fire, day and night. Her wings are visible constantly now, brightly burning fans spraying out of her back.
I can tell by the way she resists looking at me, even when we make love, that she sees the same, sees some bright cording in my muscles or bones, though she will not say it.
I find her standing at the high tide line at dawn. She stands poised there on the knife edge of my fear, a fear that seized my heart the moment I woke to find her gone.
“You could be free,” she says in a dreamy, distant voice, a tranced voice. “A few moments of fear for me, and you could be free.” She leans forward, on the point of taking a steps and entering the surf zone. The waves churn and froth, each trough seeming to yawn open like a mouth hungering for her. The tide is coming in, coming to steal her away and swallow her.
I hesitate for a moment, but fear waiting too long, and at last I break my long silence.
“I can never be free,” I say. “Never.” This arrests her, brings her up short from her intent. At last she turns to look at me, her hair the red of some strangely burning chemical, a red that inflames. I try to focus. She speaks into my struggle.
“You only say that because I’m still alive. It’s flattering to think that my death would break your heart. But you’d get over me. You’d get over me and you’d go on. You would be free.”
“I wouldn’t,” I say, and it sounds lame, as though I am merely making the sounds by rote. I reach out and grasp her, forcibly tugging her back from the brink. She resists, and I force the issue. I am stronger.
has made sure of that. She twists in my grip, snarling.
“Let me go! Let me die! I don’t want to be here anymore! It’s taken everything from me, don’t you see? Everything! It’s even taken this place! I used to be so ha… so happy when I was here! I…” Then she is falling into my shoulder, her strength gone, her body crumpling into mine.
And at last, I tell her everything.
“It was a wedding, my wedding,” she says later, safely back on the porch. Despite the cold, she will not go with me into the house. I suppose, like me, she only feels it around her edges now, as though the frigid air is trying to pry its way into a box with no seams. Nevertheless, I sit blocking her from the stairs to the boardwalk, trying to forget that she could simply fly up, then plummet down into the water. But her Story draws her in quickly, and she seems to forget that I am there.
“I ran from the wedding, ran at the very end.” A single tear falls from each eye, running along tracks I’ve learned well after kissing and cursing their fellows away this past year. “I didn’t leave him at the alter or anything so dramatic,” she says, a sad smile altering the paths of those tears, making them unfamiliar to me. “But I left him with no warning. I was certain he had read my fears in my face. They’d been growing there for months, and I was certain he could read me, but he reacted… he was so… so shocked. And then that just made it worse, made me want to get away even more. I ran an hour after telling him, just packed up a few of my things and vanished. And I didn’t explain. I didn’t know how to explain. I didn’t tell anyone where I was going. I think quite a few of them, my family especially, could guess, probably before I knew myself.”
“You went to see It,” I say. I can’t bear the pain that is wrenching her face, contorting it and gripping my heart in a mirrored fist as it goes. I want her to get away from this failed wedding now as she did in life.
“Not at first. But my fiance wouldn’t stop calling. He wouldn’t stop trying to find out where I’d gone, what he could do to fix things, what he had done to make me hate him. And I didn’t! I didn’t hate him! I still don’t. I love him. But I couldn’t bear the thought of spending my life with him. Love… it wasn’t enough. Does that make sense?” She isn’t looking at me, but her tone is desperate.
“Of course it does.” I’m lying, but it is well meant. It doesn’t make sense; it can’t make sense, not to anyone who isn’t living it. But I can at least imagine the concept of what she’s saying.
“Eventually I went to see It. When you told me your story, you said your relationship soured, and you told me that you asked to feel no more hurt. I asked to be free, free from the hurt I had left behind me. If you think about it,” she says, turning to look at me again, “we asked for the same thing, but nuanced. Apparently that made all the difference between us.”
“Yet here we are.” Now I am smiling, and I wonder if it is as sad to look at as it is to wear.
“I felt so different after It was done with me. Like something alien was living inside my skin, looking out from my eyes. Months went by at a blur. I’d wake up in unfamiliar cities, never remembering flying there. I was spiraling out of control, afraid I was losing my mind. So I came here, to this beach, this island. This used to be my favorite place. I thought maybe I could clear my head here, and forget about everything that was going on back home and with the rest of the world. As I crossed the causeway I felt my Catch taking hold.”
“Before that,” I say, with a knowing tone, a tone of profound understanding, “you were just like all the rest of us, sure that Catches were either myth or something that happened to other people.”
“It is clever like that. Clever to delay the price you pay for Its gifts. My fiance stopped calling immediately after I went to It. I didn’t hear from anyone, him or family or friends. I didn’t even try to contact them. I think I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to, even if I wanted.” She pauses, and looks deeply at me with penetrating eyes that seem to shift through the entire color spectrum, blue to green to brown. What color were her eyes originally? I can’t remember. Each shade is lovely. Her wings explode expansively behind her, passing through the back of the chair, the planking of the deck, even the wall of the house as though they are mist. She has never looked more beautiful. I have never wanted her more or been more frightened by her.
“Whatever It did to me worked. In a sense it did. When you and I… when we made love, I didn’t feel the pain I expected. I didn’t feel like I was betraying him, my fiance.” Now she laughs, and the laughter is bitter and amused. It stabs me. “Instead I felt loss, like I’d lost some part of myself, the part that should have felt like I was betraying him. It had done something to me, made me less than human.”
“It did exactly what we asked,” I countered. “But in Its own words.”
She nods and moves forward to embrace me. “Always in Its own words,” she agrees. Then she adds something, something I do not expect. “I’m so sorry for what I’ve done to you.”
“It’s all right,” I say, doubly surprised for meaning it.
“You should have gone,” she says, for the last time.
“Maybe this is where I was supposed to be.”
At least It left us one another.
In the darkness of the frigid house, buried beneath the blankets, we come together, and our union has a sense of intimacy we have never managed before. She is warm beneath me, and I bask in the glory of her otherworldly beauty, no longer made afraid by it. The ribbons of her wings wrap themselves tight around me, and for the first time I can feel them there, a ghost of her own warmth binding me in her embrace. Even through the constant, gnawing hunger, the cold, the fear, the loss of the world around us, we find for some few moments a measure of bliss.
There is a power in acceptance.
She wakes me with a gentle kiss. I look up to her face, smiling and brimming with tears both.
“It’s time you got up,” she says, and there is something in her face I cannot read, not at first. Then memory crashes home, understanding dawns, and transmutes to terror, but her smile steadies me, calms me, and I wonder that she has ever felt fear.
“There’s a time to stop suffering,” she says, turning to leave the room. I follow.
We stand out on the cold porch for a time, heedless of the wind, and she turns at last from the ocean to look at me. Her face fills up my entire world. She is all I have left, but in a strange way she is also all I need.
“Walk with me?” she asks this with a hesitance that I find charming, and I take her hand, lacing our fingers together, my palm almost swallowing hers. We stroll out down the boardwalk, watching the grasses sway in the dunes, imagining that it is warm and sunny, not cold and gray. I look and see that she is smiling, and my own widens.
We walk for long hours, ignoring the constant call of our limbs for food. We walk east, to where the island ends now so abruptly, the turn and head west, to the last extremes of the wider side of the island, where the sand piles up into expansive beaches and sandbars, creating strange eddies and currents, and the occasional tide pool. We see a fish leap up from the surface of one such, a silver dart plinking back into the rippled darkness of the pool, and it makes both of us laugh a little.
Eventually we are back, back at the beach before our house. The tide has receded, the beach stretches to its zenith. Our hands are still interlocked, and now she turns to grasp my other one. I wind them before her and stand pressed to her back, and she leans back into my shoulder.
“Are you sure?” I say, the thought of what she intends twisting in my heart for long moments.
“It’s time,” she says, and her voice is steady. “Past time. The world’s grown stale with time.”
I can think of nothing to say.
“Carry me?” she asks, and I turn her to face me and hoist her up into my arms, my hands hooked beneath her thighs. I feel her wings curl in and brush my back.
Locked together in that way, I begin to stride out toward the waiting surf. It has been patient.
She shivers the moment I enter the water, clutching tighter to me with limbs that already seem to weaken. The sea is frigid around my ankles, but she is warm in my arms. For the barest instant, I hesitate. Then I feel her growing restless, and I continue on, wading deeper.
The water sloshes past my knees in short order, and I watch as one of her toes scrawls a whorl through the foam of its surface, emerging shiny and wet with salt water.
“Sleepy,” she murmurs in my ear, her grip loosening. I tighten mine to compensate.
“Stay with me?” I whisper into her ear, nestled in its flame red canopy.
“Always,” she returns with a kiss to my cheek. But the kiss is already slurred, loose, and I notice her hair darkening as its flame begins to cool. She goes slack in my arms as her feet slip into the water, now piled to my waist.
Her skin begins to gray like the day I pulled her from the surf. It’s at this moment, at this terrible sight, that my heart begins to lurch and seize.
Before yesterday, I had kept the truth locked away, from her and from myself as well. But of course, I have a Catch too. I had asked not to feel loss again, in Its own words, and It had granted me this boon. A long time passed before I came to understand what this meant. But here, on this island with her, I had at last grasped this truth. If ever I was on the verge of feeling such loss, my heart would simply stop, and I would never feel loss, or anything at all, again.
- You should go
. How often had she said that? How many times had I needed to hear it before I understood what was happening, what had already happened, to me? Leaving her here alone would not be the same as carrying her out into the surf to die. But a great loss was a great loss. My heart would not know the difference.
She could never leave this island alive, and now, because of the ties that bound us, neither could I. But we had come to an understanding that last night in the darkness, bound together in body and spirit. We would not live out some eternity imprisoned on this island. We would die together, and we would not die trapped.
She moans against my shoulder now, her warmth fleeing, her strength ebbing. Her eyes are fluttering shut and she struggles to keep them open. “Hold me until it’s over,” she whispers, and I can hear fear fluttering in her voice, fear at last. I can see her wings guttering like candle flames.
The water is up to both our shoulders now, and still my strength, my Gift propels us forward. We will not die trapped on this island, and we will die together. My stuttering heart is the proof.
“And beyond,” I promise her.
“I love you,” she says with sluggish words.
“I love you,” I say to her. It is, I realize, the first time we have spoken the words.
At last my heart forces me to halt. I hold her head above the water, mere instinct, I suppose, but it laps past our chins out here beyond the breakers. It is bitterly cold, a cold I can feel at last, and the node of warmth she provides is almost extinguished. Her eyes have closed and will not open. Her hair has darkened almost to russet, and her skin is gray as ash. Her wings are just a faint blur in the air and water around us.
I can feel It twisting up, wrapping its tendrils around my heart, anticipating the moment, the moment It has been waiting for. I begin to fear that I will not notice her departure. Terror seizes me at the thought that she will be alone in whatever lays beyond for one moment more than is absolutely necessary. I promised to be with her always.
I needn’t worry. I feel the life go out of her, as she goes totally limp at last in my arms. Her nugget of heat is smothered utterly, and her wings dissipate into sea and sky.
I feel her die in my arms. To think that for a moment I actually feared that I wouldn’t feel her die in my arms.
The pain, the final pain, seizes me at last. It is agony in my chest, but it does not match the dread I have nursed for months. No, the worse pain lies behind my eyes, and in my memory, and buried in my soul.
- Be strong. It will just be for a moment
. It is her voice, and it reaches past the deeper pain, leaving only the death of my heart, like blood solidifying in my veins. And it occurs to me that I am holding on, clawing to life with all the strength that remains, a need as deeply rooted as only instinct can be. I hold it as tightly as I hold her chilled body to me.
Somewhere I imagine It must be laughing. For an instant, my face screws itself up in rage, but then that slips away. Its victory no longer troubles me. I let my pride slough free, for what use is pride? What use is pride when I can hear her again? She calls to me from the other side. She is somewhere beyond, and she burns bright and hot as the sun.
- Let go. I miss you already. Let go and come find me.
And I do.