The drive home was so bad, I just left my car on the road and ran the rest of the way. I wasn’t going to die in traffic. I wanted to see you again, so we could go blind under a mushroom cloud together and melt into each other, become a two-headed shadow against a wall that maybe an alien would see.
But the crowds on the Fourth Street Bridge were as bad as the gridlock. People were screaming that the missiles were coming. Somebody said to get down under the street. He had a flushed red face. I couldn’t imagine where I would have hidden, though. The missiles that hit the East Coast melted the rock and boiled the ocean. Instead, I thought of you and how you must have cried when the emergency tone cut into your favourite TV show.
You always loved this world and hated to be alone. It would be the last cruelty of this terrible earth if you died alone, soaking tears into apartment shag. So, I ran for you, like I did when you blacked out in the tub or told me life was more than you could do, from some dead-end road near the sea. I shoved upstream against the downstream of shoulders in a madhouse rush of terrified humans. None knew where to go or what to do, but I had spent thirty years in this human suit: I knew what it could and couldn’t do. It couldn’t take a bright white fireball that drank the soil and spit it back as radioactive dust at a bent-over city with glass beaches. But it could soften the worst days with an embrace that lingered. I knew a human could make personal magic that the universe—and its terrors—would never understand.
We were eight blocks apart when the first flash opened the clouds. I tried to cover my eyes, but they went black in an instant. We were seven blocks apart when the heat melted me away. There was pain and I thought of how you must have screamed. I apologized before it melted my brain.
I never thought I would think again, but I came alive in a sea, as some slick and limbless minnow that wriggled out of an egg, reborn as something far removed from the human I had been. Free of the egg—which was now just a tissue clinging to the reef—I was carried into a current that pulled me out into the waves. The swells split the orange light of the sky like a rose window, hidden from everything above the tide. The current grew hotter as I pulled wildly from side to side. I was small fry and my flippers were feathers in a hurricane.
Ahead of me the water was pulled up by the atom bomb. Its tower was a siphon that grasped at the sea with a grimacing fireball eye. I’m not sure if it’s a thing minnows do, but I saw another silver streak far behind me that I knew was you. I knew our souls had been thrown again into the same soup. I was certain it was you. No minnow would escape that boiling tower of atomic heat, but I struggled against its current—and back toward you—because how many can say goodbye once they’ve once died?
The scales were peeling off my back and rolling over my eyes in a jet stream of sequin flesh as I began to boil to death. I couldn’t scream, but I tried. You were a foot away, but a foot in a current that turbulent was like a league or a thousand miles above the sky. You were scared, and I could see that in the frantic twists of your tailfin. You dodged the crumbling flesh of raining chum that was drawn up into the nuclear spot, boiled, and rained back out, only to cycle through again. But my efforts were not a loss because—before my small minnow strength gave out—your tail brushed my nose like you used to do when you teased me that you’d stolen it then ran from our couch. You got my nose, I though, then let the hateful fire pull me up.
I had wondered—when I was a mammal—how much fish feel, and I can say it is quite a lot. Water runs rough as sand when you have no skin and you are bursting in a flash boil of salt water. I thought of that lobster you wouldn’t boil, and knew you were right, but you still ate it with me, and I guess karma knew too, because up we went to the crest of the mushroom cap. We died close, but not close enough for me to apologize for melting in the street and leaving you to cry alone. Then my little minnow head popped and I died again.
But, again, I awoke. This time I could hear the rumble through a thin blue shell that was glowing with a gloomy light across the egg’s dome. At once, I felt suffocated and itched for air. I pushed my hard beak against the shell until it split its jigsaw piece free and let in the fire’s light. My vision was sharper than that first day after Lasik—the Lasik you bought me, but could you remember why? Do the dead remember giving a gift, even after I insisted I would never celebrate my birthday again? From my nest, I saw the fading flash that had melted and boiled those other me’s away. A flash that was maybe two miles from the island I was being born on.
I flexed my sticky wings to crack the egg, then I was free in my weak and wet bird body, which clung with its feathers ten storeys above a smoldering jungle, The heat of the burning underbrush was shrinking the green palm leaves into crooked black fingers, curling as a fist over the climbing fire. My nest of twigs was already smoking, perhaps from the radiation shower. It must have been spreading along a mile of up-wind gust from the collapsing mushroom cloud. But maybe I could fly? I wanted to try when I decided you must be nearby. Twice we had landed together in the swirling smoke of experienced time. Some rhythms must be constant, my bird brain surmised. I knew somewhere you were nearby and afraid to die.
The smoke and heat burned my wide eyes but dried my wings and gave me confidence to dive. I leapt from the bound basket of branches that held one other blue egg, which I had been sitting with on the cliff side. I leapt and—as gravity took hold—I heard that last egg crack, then saw your beak emerge. My bird thoughts were richer than a fish’s, but only formed once I was hurtling down: Oh no, you were right beside me! I flipped and writhed in the blackening air, trying to fight my way back to you, but those bent arms barely moved. So, the wind roared against my regrets. I could have left early and been by your side, but instead I insistently lied and finished out the day because I thought the alerts were surely untrue. Then I struck a branch and was Kentucky fried.
I couldn’t hear or see, but I bumped against crowding forms in some soup. The fading static of a lightning blast permeated through my cell and I multiplied. Then I polymerized. I had no thoughts and no sense of time, but somehow I knew with this saline I would find legs—and somewhere ahead something like me would find something like you, and then you would never again die alone.
Written by Rory Stevens
Edited by Alessia Yaworsky
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