Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Dry Air

by David Brookes


Outside looks perfectly normal but for the unusual glow in the air. The driveway is the same as it has always looked, long and sandy-coloured and meandering. The topiary animals still gaze upward, as though they understand that everything is changing and hoping to observe it from the best possible angle: the lions outside the front gate, impressive in size and stature; the bunny by the apple trees to the right; and the pair of cockerels, proud and one-legged with their knotty wooden combs stark against the pale cloudless sky.

I must have been standing here for five minutes, just staring out the window at the garden. My mind doesn't seem to want to understand that, whilst everything is changing, nothing is different. The gardens are the same. The marble-topped walls around the grounds are the same. The sky is exactly the same as it ever was.

Continuing what I was doing before my faze-out, I fill the glass tumbler with ice and slosh Irish whiskey over it. I'm not the only one to start drinking too early since God decided to rejoin us.

'Don't drink, Jack. Don't consume the poison. Keep it clean, keep it pure.'

Ignoring Michelle's complaint, I sip at the whiskey. I've never been able to swallow more than a thimbleful at a time, even with all the recent trouble. It's cold on my lips and a little watery from the ice, but it still feels warm all the way down.

Michelle rubs her hands through her long hair like a porn star, relishing the tactile contact. She's always had a hard time feeling attached to the world, and struggles to understand that she's a part of the human race and the societies we have created, and that her illness doesn't dislocate her from the rest of us.

'I'm like bubbles,' she told me once, dreamily. 'Bubbles. There's air on the inside and there's air on the outside but I'm not really in the air, I'm just in the bubble. Floating, floating, and then -- and then I can't reach out, I can't touch, I can't -- I can't --'

Now, she unfurls herself over her mother's opulent chaise longue and lifts one of her long ballerina legs high into the air. Her eyes examine at her toes; there's a soft smile on her face. She always felt comfortable in the luxury of her parents' house, at home amongst the rich colours and the heavy satin drapes, the original J.S. Sargents.

'I drink because I hurt, Michelle,' I tell her.

'Oh, we're all hurting.'

I fill her a glass of Vimto. It's all she'll drink, even though she's twenty-five and supposed to be grown up. Her madness, if you could call it madness, never affected her intelligence, only her emotions. But she sure has some strange quirks.

She takes the glass and drinks. When she finishes, the Vimto's given her a purplish moustache that she knows she has -- she's just waiting for me to say something. I meet her smile with a weak one of my own, and sit down opposite her on a larger couch.

'Have you heard from Dennis lately?' I ask her. He was the so-called friend who had said that he'd watch over her, and then disappeared without a word.

'No,' she replies, a little breathless.

'You all right?'

She nods, clutching her chest. I know how she feels -- everybody does. Short of breath, and subject to a sort of pressure all across the body, as though each one of us is being sat on by some invisible person. It isn't far from the truth.

'People for two thousand years have been waiting for God to come back,' I say idly, sitting next to Michelle and comforting her as she gulps in breath. 'They preached about it, they prayed for it, they warned us about it. I guess they expected a man in a white robe or something. Someone they could touch.'

'He's touching me,' she gasps, and pushes me away as she forces herself into recovery. Her breathing slows, and her eyes become less wide as the panic subsides.

'He's touching us all,' I say.

And so he is, now that he has returned. I guess that it's part of human nature that when our hopes reach the strength of religious fervour we make mistakes, missing vital pieces of information that our minds conveniently neglect to remind us of. Such potent desires, ones of the eternal spirit, have powerful effects on us, many of which go unrecognised by the powers we pray to. The result is usually a complacency of the mind that leads directly to the sort of obvious error of judgement that prevented us foreseeing the predicament we're now in.

It only makes sense that, if God is in all living things, that when he returns he will do so inside us. Inside all of us.

Michelle's mom, every the debutante, realised soon after the onset of what people are calling the Rapture that there would be an opportunity to become “known”. It's always been her wish, and I guess I must grudgingly accept that she's been at least partially successful in that regard. Riding Michelle's pop's wealth like a horse-drawn carriage, Marianne Essex managed to bob around the fashion industry long enough for her gain enough capital to start her own enterprise. Although the last few years haven't been particularly kind to her, they've been positively evil on her hips and ass, meaning that she can only wear flouncy skirts and it's not doing much for her professional image.

Lately she works from home, directing her business from a place where she needn't be seen, but the moment there was a chance to thrust herself back into the public eye she took it, and left for the Washington Monument gardens where half the country is camping out in preparation for the final moment of the Lord's return. This is all very well and good for her, I'm sure, but it left Michelle rattling around her huge stately home by herself.

Michelle's room has a rambling kind of haphazard order. It employs a certain kind of logic to its layout that I've never been able to fully understand, things placed on shelves or in drawers that seem thoroughly reasonable to Michelle, but entirely unsystematic to anybody else.

There are books on her wide window-seat in no particular sequence that I can figure out, but if I were to, say, pick up the Donna Tartt paperback and place it between her copies of The Bell Jar and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Michelle would flip out for a full half hour before she could be soothed. Her clothes hang in her walk-in wardrobe all mixed up, blouses next to trousers, dresses next to T-shirts, every sort of outfit mixed up with the others. On her desk, which is three times the size of mine and sits comfortably in the corner of the south- and east-facing walls, there is an assortment of random memorabilia and small plushie animals, empty photo frames and trinket boxes stuffed with twenty-odd cents in loose change.

I sit at the desk and look at all of Michelle's things. Since I all but moved in a few days ago, I've made a game out of this; seeing what new thing I can find every time I sit down here. Today I spot a tiny ceramic cat behind a small packet of tissues. It is white with gold leaf markings, polished to a shine. It has one paw raised and a goofy smile on its face -- it's a Japanese Lucky Cat, what I think they call maneki neko. Well, we haven't had much luck so far, depending on your point of view.

The discreetly placed PC beneath the desk boots up with a few airy whirs and chatters. I sit and wince at the pain I get from every movement. The painful contractions in my gut have been getting steadily worse this last week. At least I'm not the only one suffering. The TFT monitor displays the boot-up screen and, when it's finished, I connect to the wireless net.

Online is flooded with stories about God's return, about where people are meeting across the world to celebrate or protest. There are medical articles about how to treat the symptoms, although a lot of it seems to be guesswork. There are columns of embedded video footage showing gatherings outside of public Monuments like the one outside the White House, and others showing the doctor's surgeries crowded with panicking people.

I only logged on to check my e-mail -- it's amazing how many estranged friends and family want to get back in touch when they think the world is coming to an end -- but Michelle's instant messenger signs in automatically and I get a video call request from Dana Kemp.

Lord knows why, but I accept. My own face is picked up by Michelle's webcam. Another screen shows Dana's disappointed face, her movements jerky with lag in the tiny window.

'Oh. It's you.'

'That's right,' I say, and then leave a lengthy enough pause to make Dana visibly uncomfortable.

She makes a show of typing away as though she's doing something else, but I can see her eyes occasionally flicking up at the cam. For a few seconds it freezes with lag and all I can see are the whites of her eyes, her thin purple lips and the loose straws of yellow hair highlighted against the open window of her room.

When she moves again, she's shrugging on a denim coat fringed with white fur and flicking her hair out from beneath the collar.

'Where are you going?'

'Not that it's any of your business, but I'm travelling to DC to join the gathering there.'

'You've gotta be kidding me,' I say. 'What good is that gonna do? D'you think God is gonna take pity on you just because you all got stoned together on some big lawn?'

'This has less than nothing to do with pity,' she spits. She's moving around the room now, packing a suitcase that I can just see on the edge of her bed. 'This is a celebration the likes of which our planet has never seen, or likely to see again, and I want to be part of it.'

'It was you who got Michelle on this fucking trip. What is happening has nothing to do with God! It's just ... just some fucking plague!'

'Whatever, Jack. You only argue with me because it's what lovers do,' she says, smiling sourly. She has that pop-eyed look that is so popular nowadays, the pressure within us all slowly forcing the eyeballs out of our heads.

'We are not lovers,' I tell her. 'I don't want anything to do with you, or the mass hallucination you're involving yourself in.'

'Just because he hasn't spoken to you directly,' she says quietly, 'doesn't mean that he hasn't spoken to others, Jack. The entire world acknowledges that this is nothing but God. Ninety percent of the planet's population are hearing his thoughts, his heartbeat, his living pulse inside them. Don't deny what this really is just because your girlfriend believes it, and she just happens to be insane.'

'Don't you talk about--'

Violent coughs shudder through my body, working my way outward from the lungs into my stomach and throat, convulsing in concentric ripples that throw me forward at the waist and hacking breathlessly into my hand. I look at my palm momentarily, surprised as the vivid splash of red pooling in its centre.

'Look!' I point my bloody palm at the webcam so that Dana can see it. 'Look! This is what your God's doing to us. So don't tell me that it's part of some grand celebration. God is doing this to everybody.'

Dana logs out.

I check my e-mails, surf the CNN site for a while but find nothing new. Some people are still clinging to the few scientific explanations there are -- magnetic field distortions, a hallucinogenic virus -- but nobody really believes anything but the truth now: that God is returning. He returns in the rocks, the trees, the men and women on the street and in their homes, every object animate or inanimate, everything has a trace of the Lord in it.

People have never blogged as much as they are doing now. It's all the same, not that blogs were ever worth reading anyway; MySpace and Facebook are crammed with posts about the Rapture. It seems infinitely more boring with every day that passes and I can't bear to read about it anymore. I guess that means I am resigned to the situation.

Something is scratching somewhere in the corner of the room. Searching, it only takes a minute for me to find the source of the noise: down the gap between the corner of the bed and the wall is Ebony, Michelle's cat. It's a queen and small, black as a jungle panther. She looks up at me with narrowed green eyes, looking sleepy. Her ribs protrude and sink beneath the fur with each quick breath. Her long tail whips up and down, thumping against the wall. Her front claws extend and shrink rhythmically like a pulse, scraping at the skirting board. There's white froth at the corner of her mouth, and her tongue protrudes like a tiny slip of wafer ham. A terrible smell wafts up from her.

'Oh, little cat,' I murmur.

I reach down with my fingers. I've only met Ebony twice since I moved in to look after Michelle; she's an active outdoors creature and she's generally out hunting. Normally she swipes at me, but today she doesn't react. In fact she lowers her head, her little ears flat against her furred skull, and looks as though she's falling asleep. The movement of her ribs stops suddenly, and her tail lowers like a dried leaf uncurling in the cold.

'What do you see?'

Michelle has her shoulder against the doorjamb and she swings, forward and backward, tugging on the pleats in her pink and black skirt. Her toes wiggle inside her tights.

I sit up on the bed quickly.

'I saw I spider,' I say, hoping that it will deter her, but it doesn't. She jumps onto the bed, nearly bouncing me off it.

'What do you see...?'

Her fingers stretch out into the gap between bed and wall. Her mouth is still half open.

'Ebs?'

'Michelle, come away. It's all right, it's just...'

She jerks away from me when I try to ease her back. The quick movement causes another convulsion in my gut, as though there's a muscular snake trying to form a spring in my intestine. Michelle begins pulling the dead cat out from behind the bed. Her hand curls under its front leg, pulling. It twists and jams. She tries putting her other hand down to ease it out but there's no room and she moans as her knuckles scrape against the wall. Eventually she managed to pull Ebony out, the black body bending sideways over the corner of the mattress, and she rests it on the duvet.

'Ebs Ebs Ebs,' she says, and I can't tell if she's saying the cat's name or if she's sobbing. 'Ebs Ebs Ebs.'

'It's all right...' I try pathetically, and move to put my arm around her. She lets me.

Michelle works in increments; if there is a problem, only a short-term distraction will work. The timeline that she operates on seems different to the one on which the world runs. Her life exists in blocks, like short chapters in a book. Temporary solutions might sometimes have long-lasting effects. Similarly, minor problems can have permanent consequences for her.

When she cries, she does so for an extended period of time, and somebody like me can do very little, merely stand by for attention should any be needed. I make her cups of tea on saucers, with pairs of biscuits propped on top of one another like two children sleeping at angles in a bed. I bring her a blanket when she's cold, fold it up again when she's too warm. She cries silently and refuses to impede the streaming tears with tissues, just letting them fall into her crumpled skirt.

Twenty minutes after we found her, Ebony lies still on the melamine surface in the kitchen. I can see her now from the lounge, through two doors, stiffening in the orange glow from outside. The sun hasn't gone down since God began to return, leaving the sky permanently bright. The molecules of the air glow with their own luminescence. After pulling Ebony onto the bed, Michelle swore she saw one of the angels standing in front of the desk, between Ebony and the window. All I saw was a particularly dense area of the glowing air.

'I saw one,' she says, 'I saw it bright like the sun, but whiter and gold around the edges, standing there in the bedroom with its mouth moving.'

'What did it look like?'

'It didn't look happy. I always thought angels would look happy.'

'Why was the angel sad?'

'It wasn't unhappy. It looked only normal, like it wasn't upset or excited by what is happening now. I don't know if it was a male or a female. There were no features on it. It looked a little like one of those shop window mannequins.'

'What about the wings?' I ask. 'What were they like?'

'It didn't have any wings,' she replies, and tears are rolling out of her eyes like water trickling from an overflowing basin. She curls forward with her forearms upturned, palms to the sky as though she wants to catch her own tears, save them from falling into her lap and disappearing altogether.

When I suggest leaving, Michelle wants to take the dead cat with her.

'Not without Ebs,' she says. The cat never goes on journeys with her; Michelle is not that kind of pet owner.

'We can't take Ebs. She's dead, Michelle. I'm sorry.'

'I want to bury her in sand.'

'We'll buy some sand on the way home.'

'Can we?'

'Yes, we can. I'm taking you to your mom, okay? I'm taking you to the place of the Rapture.'

I have to pull her out of the house by her arms. She weeps but doesn't protest too much, merely tugging against me every now and again. By the time we're on the long gravel driveway she gives up and allows herself to be led. The topiary animals scrutinise us as we walk between them. Some are twelve feet high, now ragged around the edges without the hired gardener to keep them in shape. The cockerels are the worst -- looming above us from their posts by the gate, knobbly branches jutting out at every angle. There are dark areas on the faces that look like frowning eyes, staring at Michelle and I as we slip past. Their beaks are half open, serrated around the edges with small green leaves.

The plant-life has flourished since the onset of the Rapture. We see how the young beech trees that line the street at the end of the drive have prospered in the warm orange air. Silver bark constantly glows sunrise yellow, the glare broken only by the splits in the bark that spill out rotten mulch. The grass is overgrown everywhere, shin-high; people haven't had the time to mow, or aren't interested anymore, or have adopted the belief that what God wills will be. Much of the grass is pale and ill-looking, but it continues to grow rapidly. At a glance the plants seem to be booming, but upon closer inspection the sap looks gritty, the dewdrops are running over mottled leaves, the earth has the consistency of clay.

Marianne, Michelle's mom, never allowed cars to pass the gates. Even her own was chauffeured to a garage around the back of the property. My Ford is parked on the kerb two streets away -- people have actually abandoned vehicles at the side of the wider roads, and finding a place to park in a residential area has become impossible. Conversely, the town centre is almost empty. People, if they go anywhere, seem to want to walk to wherever it is they're going. Mostly they're at home, feeling ill.

'I feel like shit,' Michelle mumbles, leaning against the car.

My keys jangle against the door. They used to be able to unlock the car at twenty paces, but most wireless signals seem to be disrupted, probably by something in the glowing air.

'Just get in,' I say. 'I'm picking up some more painkillers on the way anyhow.'

'I don't want to go. I want to stay with Ebony.'

'Ebony won't mind you being gone.'

I open the door and get into the driver's side. I push the button to lower the passenger side's window.

'Get in, Michelle. Come on.'

She's still crying.

'I don't want to go anywhere.'

'Please,' I say tiredly.

The pain in my gut is worsening. It's like a knotted piece of string that propagates inside me, becoming a rope. It's heavy in my stomach.

'Please,' I say. 'I'm taking you to where God is.'

By car Mount Vernon doesn't seem a particularly large place, but it's so rammed with other vehicles that I can't believe I didn't take the Light Train.

People are tooting their horns. Most of the cars are parked, but the ones with people in can't move because there are folk in the street. My little Ford stutters as the engine idles. Michelle is dozy in the passenger seat.

The air is a little dimmer now, almost like a sunset, but the sun hasn't gone down for days. This is as close to night as it gets. A little easier on the eyes but nothing more. When the glow is dim like this, you can see particles suspended in the air, like dust motes caught in a beam of light. Some are smaller than others, but it's clear to see that this is the source of the glow.

'Angel,' Michelle says sleepily. Her head is leaning on her arm, which is propped against the half-open passenger window. 'I can see another angel.'

'I'm sure they're all over.'

'What if they're evil?'

'They're not evil, Michelle. Can you see what the hold up is ahead?'

She unclips her pocket-size metal tin. She takes out a packet of Rizlas and little transparent baggies full of brown tobacco and tightly-packed, mossy marijuana. Her eyes are half closed as she licks the paper and begins to roll.

'Christ,' I say.

'Don't judge the faultless.'

She's smoked for as long as I can remember, but I never made any real effort to stop her. I smoked myself in the past but stopped when I hit twenty and had to grow up; Michelle carried on right through her useless Management degree and straight out the other side.

'I thought you'd stopped that shit.'

'Embers is dead.'

The wonderful Marianne Essex, always associated the weed with her daughter's neuroses and other problems, but I knew Michelle when she was little, though not very well, and she was almost as bad then as she is now.

'Fine. Just see if you can see over the cars in front, find out what the delay is. If it's something bad we can just drive around...'

'Nothing.'

'Good.'

I pull out into the second lane to try to overtake the line of stationary cars in front. Immediately an oncoming Volkswagen crunches into the front of the car, hard enough to make the back wheels of my Ford lift off the ground and then slam back down again. Glass shatters in the back, but not the front; the windscreen splinters into three large polygons but doesn't break. Through the distorted lines I can see the other driver slumped over his steering wheel. It's too dark inside his car to see anything but his baggy sleeves and limp white hands. There is, amazingly, no smoke at all, but there's an acrid burning smell like a Duracell battery that has recently split and fizzed over.

'Are you okay?' I ask, a little out of breath.

I can't credit it, but Michelle is laughing with her knees propped up against the glove compartment, her hands still holding the half-curled rolling paper. The tobacco is sprinkled all across her hands and tights.

'Nothing bad, not nothing there! Nothing bad, not nothing there!'

She looks fine and I'm far too groggy and dazed to deal with her if she isn't hurt. Fuck her. The car door's jammed and I have to yank on the handle and slam with my shoulder, although there isn't much room to manoeuvre. It clunks open and the seatbelt stops me falling out. That burning odour is doubly strong outside. It elicits another bout of the cramps that darkens my vision for a moment, and I have to pause half-out of the car.

The air is very warm, and stifling. 'Isn't it stifling?' Michelle has said more than once since the Rapture, 'I'm suffocating, God's stifling us. I can't breathe at all.' Life for the body is a struggle at the moment, and a burden on the thoughts that linger at the back of all our minds. Living itself is a struggle!

Clumsily I get myself out of the car. The driver of the other car definitely looks worse off and I am. I move closer so that I can see into the dark interior of the vehicle. He's slumped over his dashboard like he's trying to bite the dials on his radio. His fingers are whitish-blue, signs of frostbite. I move closer, staggering a little. Nothing seems broken in me, but my legs feel like I've run a marathon and then left them for an hour to stiffen up.

The Volkswagen driver has blood on the front of his face.

'Hey, buddy.'

He doesn't move.

There's no glass in his windshield or the driver's side door. The broken glass crunches under my feet. I lean in from the side and touch his shoulder, and find that the blue cotton of his shirt is damp. He's sweating like he just woke up in a sauna.

'Buddy,' I say.

He doesn't reply. At least his eyes are closed. If they were open I don't think I could stand it. Not something like that. But his grey lips are pressed tightly together, as if he were stopping himself from saying something he shouldn't. It's almost like he was driving the car already dead.

Then suddenly he looks up, and he opens his mouth. Blood rushes out like regurgitated seawater. It wasn't the crash that hurt him; in fact it was the hurt that probably caused the crash.

'I can feel him inside me,' he says, and I back away, trying to stop my mouth from moving.

Back at the car, I try very hard to get Michelle out of the car without becoming frustrated.

'Come on.'

She says, 'No.'

'Please come on, we can't go anywhere in the car, it's totalled.'

'And there's another car stuck in the front of it,' she points out. Her knees are still up against the glove compartment. There's a small tear in the black cotton of her tights that I hadn't noticed earlier.

'That's why we'll have to walk,' I try patiently.

She says, 'I need a smoke.'

I try to persuade her to get out of the car. Michelle and I were never in a relationship, at least a romantic relationship, and although we knew each other in our teenage years we were never that close or particularly good friends. She always smoked then, too. It would always be cigarettes up until she was sixteen and I was eighteen, at which point my friend Rick introduced her to gange and told her how fun it was so many times that she believed it:

'Aren't you having fun?' he would say.

'I suppose,' she would say.

'This is great.'

'Yes, it's not bad.'

But before that it was always cigarettes, but unusual ones that her mother purchased from specialist shops or brought home from abroad. Back when Michelle's father was alive -- it was a heart attack that finished him, which always struck me as ironic as he was the most emotionless bastard I ever met -- he worked in exotic places like Budapest or some obscure little mountain town in Switzerland. Marianne would visit him sometimes just so that she'd have something different to put up on a shelf, or a few new recipes she could have the cook prepare, or an unusual type of cigarette paper to make her slow decline into lung cancer, which did eventually happen, a little more interesting.

When Michelle was sixteen I would look over from across the student common room, or wherever we were at the time:

'Is that liquorice paper?'

She would blow smoke away from me deliberately, as though by doing that she would fill only one half of the room with her emissions. 'No.'

'Smells like liquorice.'

'I don't know what it is.'

Now all I can hear is Michelle protesting from my Ford. 'I want to stay here! Is there a gas station on this street? I need more Rizlas!'

She isn't a cold person. Far from it. The day her father died, I was there at her place with a few others playing cards. We'd all just learnt how to play Texas Hold 'Em a few weeks before and played it almost daily ever since. So, I was present when she got the call from her mom.

'D'you wanna stop?' I asked. I put down my cards, thinking the came was over, and everyone saw the three aces I'd been hoarding.

'No,' she said brightly. 'You were going for four-of-a-kind, weren't ya!'

We all hesitantly carried on playing. Michelle's house back then wasn't the most comfortable place in the world to begin with, especially with her latest step-dad just escaped to some place on the East Coast and Marianne with her ever-changing tastes in décor; one side of the house was always in one style, and the other still trying to catch up. There were always decorators and paint-spattered ladders in Michelle's house, and it never got the chance to feel lived-in. So it was a long and uncomfortable game in which I lost about ten bucks to Michelle and she sang and jived in her seat just to rub it in. Then there were a few more rounds to follow until Michelle suddenly burst into tears, screaming for her daddy who she hadn't even seen for three years, and we could only sit there, all too young and uncertain to give a girl a hug when she needed it most. Marianne returned before we could get our act together, but she didn't do much better.

'Don't cry, baby. Shush-shush, don't cry baby.'

Then she got her underpaid cleaner to pat Michelle on the back while Marianne herself flounced to her study to cry down the phone to her friends for sympathy, instead of share her grief with her own little girl. That was the first time I wanted to slap Marianne and it wasn't the last, let me tell you. And now, with all that's going on, I'm wondering if I'm ever going to get the chance.

The Volkswagen driver's knuckles twitch against the few jagged fragments of glass that remain around the bottom edge of the windshield.

There's smoke coming out of the front of the Ford now, thick like that made by a burning tyre.

'Get out the car, Michelle, I don't think it's safe.'

I've never seen fire reach the gas tank of a vehicle before, or know if it's even possible with real cars, but I'm not particularly interested in finding out. I yank on her arm and eventually this is enough to make her unclip her seatbelt and climb out of the ruined Ford.

'Good. Now come on.'

Leading her like a child.

She won't stop looking at the crumpled Volkswagen. I hold her hand and escort her away, weaving between the other parked cars that are the very things that stopped us moving forward in the first place. The whole place smells of smoke and warm, damp air. I can't stand it.

'How far do we have to walk?' Michelle asks. Her voice is high, as though someone has a hand around her throat. 'Is it far?'

'We didn't do so well in the car. We have quite a ways to go.'

'I hate this,' she pouts. She has that adult type of pout that would be sexy under any other circumstance.

'I'm not too thrilled about it either. Can you taste that? In the air?'

'Like metal,' she agrees.

I wonder if it is blood.

We went on a kind of date, once, Michelle and I. It was a few years after her pop passed away, and me and the others realised that Michelle sometimes needed company just to get by, more so than most. We were never close and the date led precisely nowhere -- in fact a few weeks later I scored with her best friend Dana, though that wasn't exactly long-lived either -- but the memory suddenly strikes me as one of the few that have never faded over the years, in the way that memories often do.

It was part of an extended college trip to the English Lake District, which was both poorly supervised and uninteresting. The educational trip was part of a Cultural Heritage module -- something which the States admittedly has little of, at least compared to the UK -- had done nothing but drive us to desperate lengths to stave off the boredom. Six of us abandoned the shitty boarding house that night, sneaking off in couples. I was left with Michelle from luck of the draw.

A nearby landmark drew us like a magnet: a grey hill that reached almost to a point, dominating the surrounding dale. The starlight made the landscape silver with wakeful light. The hill was muddy and packed with gravel, a hard slog from foot to crown.

'It's like cookie dough,' Michelle laughed, using her hands to help with the climb.

It reminded me more of the pebble-dash variety of shit, but I was old enough then to realise that saying such things out loud got you precisely nowhere when your only company was a girl, even one as strange as Michelle Essex.

At the top of the hill was a shallow moat that had perhaps once surrounded a castle, empty and grown over with rich green grass. We couldn't imagine that little trench stopping anybody, let alone an invading army. We figured it must have been deeper back when the castle had existed, if it had existed at all. There were only a few pale stones protruding from the heathery hilltop.

We laid in the trench like toy soldiers, feet pressed together, heads at either end. We talked about what might have been positioned at the top of that hill; what might be on the moon, or what might be put there one day in the future; about what made stars twinkle. Neither of us knew the answer to that one.

When the first growl of thunder came, she reversed position and lay next to me. The steep curve of the trench meant that although we were lying flat on our backs, we were facing each other. I realised that she was a little frightened of storms.

Electricity, Michelle had always reasoned, was the deadliest thing on the whole planet. I guess that she must've seen a show some time about people who got hit by lightning whilst playing golf. She laughed whenever any was unsubtle enough to mention her phobia, saying that it was nothing, but I've noticed before how she flinches every time she hits a light switch.

Now, moving as quickly as possible up Maine Avenue, the air is heavy with that metallic taste. Everywhere is aglow with that orange light, and above there are clouds gathering like grey swarms of insects, bringing with them the dry tingle of an impending storm. It conflicts with the pockets of moisture that linger in the air from the Washington Channel, making my body uncomfortable with a mix of incompatible sensations. Life for the body is a struggle. It is becoming tremendously hard to breathe.

'It can't be a storm,' Michelle is murmuring. 'Not now, a storm might damage the angels...'

'I don't there are any angels down here,' I tell her grimly.

There are bodies on the street.

'Don't go near it.'

'I just want a look. It's not as though he's going to hurt me, is it?'

'We don't know what he died of,' I say patiently.

Michelle is already crouched over the first of the bodies. She looks back at me and I can see that her lucidity is returning, and with it the intelligent edge to her smile and eyes. 'We both know how he bought it, Jack.'

The corpse is half propped against the wall of a bank, right beneath the ATM. One hand is limp in his lap, the fingers poking out of the gloves very pale. The other is hidden in the sleeve of the man's jacket, which is the kind of durable plastic material that anglers and ramblers wear. Sticking out of the cuff is a single fingertip, touching the paper label of a green bottle that is all but empty.

'There's so much stuff in his beard,' Michelle is saying, her eyes only inches away from his motionless face.

She's right. I can see the bits of rock-hard bread crust and coffee stains from here. His cracked lips are frozen in a sort of kissing shape. A dirty grey beard conceals most of the rest of his face, although the broken blood vessels in his cheeks stand out brightly from beneath the matted hair. He has only has one boot. I feel infinitely sorry for the guy.

'Come on, Michelle. We don't have all day.'

The truth is, we do. There's no deadline, not unless you count the end of the Rapture, which Michelle and her friend Dana think will spell the end of human life and the ascension of all worthy human souls. Others think the unexplainable phenomenon will come to an end in the way that things came to an end for the people at Chernobyl and Hiroshima: slowly and painfully, a radiation death. So there's no real rush, but I can't say that I want to stare at this dead vagrant all day, especially as it's pretty clear that he had an advanced case of what everyone else in the world has.

His eyes are closed. What I first took for a ruddy complexion is actually blood that's poured out from under his eyelids and dried. I can't say if it happened before or after he passed on. The same goes for the stinking crust of blood and shit that he evidently expelled at some point in the recent past. The toe of Michelle's boot is right in it, that russet-brown cocktail of fluids. Whatever happened to finish this guy off, it happened explosively. I suppose that this is what we all have to look forward to.

'I think there's a smile,' Michelle says quietly. 'Under his beard. A smile!'

'Enough, Michelle. If you want to want to make the gathering before the Rapture ends, you'd better step up and start compensating for lost time.'

'You sound like my pop.'

She stands up. Her knees crack, just like mine always do. How old are we meant to be? Twenty-five and twenty-six, respectively. If we are, I sure as hell don't feel it any more. There's a constant pressure in my gut that feels like I swallowed a bowling ball, one of the heavy number 16s. I used to bowl until I finished university, and then the game just left me. I feel so goddamn old now; it's probably down to the haze in the air, and the way it acts on our blood. I can hear the blood rushing through my veins, like a thick, pulsing, hissing sound.

We carry on walking.

'Your eyes,' I say.

She touches the tear ducts with her fingers. 'Oh, God. Oh, God!'

'It's okay.'

I pull out a Kleenex and fold it into a dull point, and then dab at the blood coming from her eyes. It's only a trickle, but enough to freak me right out. There's hardly anything left in me that remains un-freaked. Soon I'll be gone. Totally gone. I can feel it.

'There, see? It's stopped now. It's probably just a broken blood vessel behind your eye, that's all.'

'Are you sure?' she asks. 'You're sure it's all gone, it's not still bleeding?'

'They're both fine. Still as beautiful as they ever were, right?'

She smiles weakly. Bless her. God, please bless this girl, if it's really you, God. Don't continue to kill us. Don't suffocate us by returning this way.

When she says 'I don't feel too good, Jack,' there's this twist inside my chest that has nothing to do with the Rapture. I can't help looking at her now. She's all quivering arm muscles and tight, pale lips, like she's trying not to throw up. I know that what she's feeling isn't just nausea like after a night out. It's only the same as what we're all feeling, and it seems to be worsening.

'It's getting dark,' I comment needlessly, 'or as close as it gets nowadays. We've been walking all afternoon. Let's find a place to rest for half an hour, okay?'

'Right.'

A lot of the stores we pass are closed for business. One or two places are still open, as there always will be; this kind of event always leads to hysterical food stockpiling, and there are storekeepers who can't help staying open late and pricing up canned good. It's simple profiteering and I don't agree with it, but right now it's in our favour. We duck inside a quiet bar and find a booth in a corner. This is one of the few places that still have electric lights on; the air seems to provide its own illumination nowadays.

'I'll get you a drink,' I tell Michelle. 'What d'you want?'

'Anything with ice,' she says.

'Lemonade?'

'With ice.'

There's no-one at the bar. I'd guess the place was deserted if it wasn't for the smell of recently-smoked cigars and the empty glasses on the bar.

'Anybody home?' I call.

A girl younger than Michelle steps out of a narrow doorway. I catch a glimpse of a sink full of plates and the edge of an oven before the door closes. She has a damp kitchen towel over her forearm.

'Can I help?'

'Do you serve food?' I ask. I can't help noticing the fresh red lines criss-crossing her bare forearm.

'Usually, but our kitchen staff called in sick. I could probably whip you up some fries...'

'What about onion rings?'

'Sure.'

'Where's the bar staff?'

'I'm it,' she says, smiling apologetically. She fiddles with the kitchen towel, wringing its corner so that murky droplets squeeze out and run down her wrist and into her sleeve.

I put on my best friendly face. 'A Kronenbourg and an iced lemonade to go with those onion rings?'

'I'll get right on it. Would you mind watching the till?'

'Of course.'

How easy it would be to rob the place while she's got her back turned. But what use would it be? I get the impression that cash is worth progressively less with each passing day. There's a pervading sense of despair around this place, and I feel like I'm breathing it in. It's not just in here; it's everywhere. That girl behind the bar looked like she was about to collapse with -- what? Fatigue? Or was there a touch of grief mixed in with her valiant effort to smile?

People have already died. Maybe she knew one of them. I think of the score-lines on her arms.

Michelle looks tired. In fact she looks ill, with dark rings under her bulging eyes. But then we all have bulging eyes, and I probably look just as bad. I put the drinks down and rub my face wearily.

'Oh god, I feel terrible!' Michelle groans, staring up at the ceiling. 'There's a balloon in me!'

'There isn't a balloon in you.'

'I can feel it, pushing in me. It's trying to inflate itself inside me.'

'It's not.'

Her head snaps down and she looks infuriated that I don't believe her. 'I'm telling you it is.'

'Okay.'

'God, it hurts.'

'Okay.'

She clutches her stomach.

'Drink your lemonade,' I suggest. 'I got ice.'

The onion rings arrive. The girl doesn't look well either. Are we all dying? Is God smothering every one of us? I have no idea why this is happening and that absence of knowledge is almost as bad as the thing itself. The girl hands me our onion rings and gives that same weak smile.

'Is your friend okay?' she asks me quietly.

'She's as well as the rest of us,' I say.

The girl leaves.

'I can't sit here,' Michelle says abruptly. Her long fingers move over the arms of her chair, searching for the grain through the varnish.

'It's okay, this is fine. It's bright, see?'

'I want to sit over there...'

She gets up before I can stop her and slowly wanders toward the back of the room. The booths meet in the corner, and their pinched leather pools with shadow under the dim lights there. There are covers of frosted glass over the little bulbs that diffuse the light, and immediately Michelle looks softer, smaller, as she enters the pale spheres of light they exude.

She sighs.

'Is it that much better over there?'

'Mm-hmm.'

I follow her. The wiring is bad in the walls and there's a pretty annoying hum that itches in the back of my mind.

I hope we don't have to stay here long.

Thunder rolls outside. There's a lot of comfort to be had from hearing a storm when you're safely protected from it, a feeling of being a baby in the womb, or a field mouse on a bed of leaves, protected from the weather by a canopy of gorse and dock leaves. I think this, but Michelle shudders horribly.

'It's okay,' I say. 'It's only noise.'

'I don't like the sound it makes, like I can feel it in me. I can feel it through all of my bones like water running down pipes...'

'But we gotta keep moving, or else you won't get to see your mom.'

'I never want to see my mom,' she says sharply. She sits up, rejuvenated by sitting in the shade. Sometimes she needs a period of solitude, and a few shadows to hide her from view. Then she can rest and reenergize herself.

I say, 'Come on.'

'I don't mind rain,' she says, 'it's just the noises, and the feel of the ... the electricity...'

I guess the air feels so strange because of the temperatures. One minute it's like it's running over you like warm water, the next you're shivering. Sometimes it's both at once, like that curious mixture of temperatures you get on your tongue when you eat hot pie and cold ice cream together. It's the air itself: there are two currents blowing, or rather multiple currents each either warm or cool, rippling over the skin like dappled light. Everything still glows, and I'm surprised that we don't all have headaches by now, as if the cramps and the stifling ever-presence aren't enough.

The streets are busier at this end of town. The closer we get the Memorial Gardens the more congested the streets are. People bob up and down against the glowing horizon as they climb over abandoned vehicles. I check a few of the cars out of curiosity and, against expectations, they're all locked. There must still be a few folks who hope that, following the Rapture, they will still be alive and well; that there will be a normal life to go back to. I would think those people are of a minority.

Michelle and I silently pass a flatbed truck with a sealed cabin. Inside there is a swarm of fat black flies; we can hear the buzzing through the glass, but the glare against the window prevents us seeing anything other than the vague shape of the driver inside.

'What time is it?' Michelle asks quietly.

'Almost six.'

The sun would normally be setting now. Instead it just moves behind the silhouettes of the buildings in the distance, never dropping fully below them, sometimes rolling left or right over the space of half an hour. Realistically there should be areas of the planet that are freezing right now, stuck in unending night, but the word is that the atmosphere is radiating its own luminescence all around the globe, not just in the States. There is no darkness here any more, only a persistent half-light.

The air is electric. I say to Michelle, 'A storm's building,' and she shrinks against me. All at once she transforms from a woman into a girl.

'Pull yourself together,' I say kindly, trying to smile reassuringly. She looks at me with big eyes, like a child's eyes.

'I just don't like storms.'

'We're nearly there, look.'

The buildings to the left are too close to allow us a glimpse of the Monument, but I can see the front entrance to the grounds, not far from where Lincoln sits in his grand seat amongst the pillars. Cars are parked everywhere, crammed as close as possible each other. Michelle and I hop over the point where two front headlights meet in a crunched mess of safety glass, and continue towards the park. There are flashing lights down there.

'The police?'

'Maybe,' I say.

'Is my mother with them?'

'Not with the police, but she'll be there.'

I'm flicking my mobile open. I've been trying to call Marianne for the past half an hour, hoping to meet up as soon as we arrive. Not that she'll much care if her girl's followed her all this way, just for a modicum of comfort during this strange time. She'll be too busy trying to push her underwear brochures onto people.

'Jack, do you know her number?' Michelle asks me.

'I've got it. There's no answer. I don't think the phones are working any more.'

'They must work.'

'They don't,' I insist.

'Please let's hurry. I don't want to get wet.'

I see another body leaning against the inside of a window, in the building on Michelle's side of the road. It's an old man in a cardigan, one eye closed above his cheek, which is pressed against the glass. The other eye is open but unseeing, long since glazed over.

All I want to do is get Michelle somewhere where she can be comforted. She is far too vulnerable, and suffers too greatly over small tragedies. I've got to get this over with.

Of course, there's nothing that I can do to halt the return of God. What can a man do? God returns within everything, everything he created. He returns within us. He is in the air. He is completing the world with his presence. A man can't fight a world. He can't fight its creator; no-one can. So I can't help Michelle that way, but if I can just get her somewhere that is so busy, so filled with people that she doesn't have time to freak out ... I'm still not entirely convinced that the worst of this isn't some mass psychological event, a self-fulfilled prophecy so powerful that we're killing ourselves with it.

Michelle is slowly beginning to straighten up again as we approach the Monument grounds. She pulls back her narrow shoulders and she lifts her chin, further defining the line of her jaw, her lips filling out as she stops pressing them together so tightly. Her hair is lifting in strands of the glowing light -- there are particles floating in it now, tiny shapes that flit to and fro like insects. It's no wonder that when the air is thick with them, people see angels.

We all need something to pull close and hold tight, like a security blanket. Michelle needs confidence, in herself and in her thoughts, however turbulent her emotions sometimes are. She is not a weak or a vacant person, but she holds within her a stronger variant of that desire we all have, to be close to something important, to involve ourselves in something spectacular. I shouldn't be surprised at people like Dana, who throw themselves into spiritual situations like this, or by Marianne's desire to integrate herself with the phenomenon, make herself a part of it rather than merely a witness to it. Is every one of us like this, at heart? Dana and Michelle fell right into the scenario, driven by -- what? Desperation, or need? I don't think I can answer these questions. I don't think I'm qualified to comment on a whole race of people, or solve mysteries that are posed, intentionally or otherwise, by a god.

And then we see it. The buildings on either side of the street fall away, and we can see the trees adjoining the greenery around the Monument and the long straight stripe of water that leads away from it like a shadow. The water looks like orange fluid spilled from a neon sign; it reflects the air, defusing and enhancing its hue and brightness. The Monument itself pierces the sky, the base surrounded by thrashing flags and the edge of a huge crowd of people.

I've never seen the place so busy, or the grass so ruined by such a high volume of trampling feet. There is mud everywhere, thick music-festival mud, up trouser legs to as high as the knees. It's been tracked across the wide paved areas to either side of the pool and up the steps leading to Lincoln's quiet dome. I can't see inside it yet but I would guess that it's just as packed, people crowding together against the uncertainty of the situation, attempting to find solace in numbers. It surprises me really; dogs, at least, have the sense to make sure they're alone when they die.

At regular intervals on the grass there are vehicles with flashing lights: police cars, especially around the outside edge forming a loose cordon, and in the interior there are three ambulances. One of them is trying to nose its way through the crowd, towards what looks like a flag fashioned out of two walking sticks and a blouse. I can make out two pairs of pale arms, waving it backward and forward frantically.

'A place as crowded as this...' Michelle says, still holding my hand.

I know what she's saying. We'll never find Marianne amongst so many other people. The whole city seems to be gathered here, shoulder to shoulder. There are people practically kissing, they're that close together. And, above everybody, the air ripples with diffuse colour as though the light is refracted into its component colours, and strongest of all are the warmer hues: red, orange and golden yellow.

'Look!' she screams joyously, pointing at the twisting skeins of light. 'Can you see them, Jack? Can you see?'

I can. There are shapes. Human shapes, misty-edged and huge, striding amongst the crowd. They don't seem to get in the way or knock anybody over, as though the crowd unconsciously move out of the way, or as though the shapes are wholly insubstantial but for their bright, pulsing outlines. One second they're vivid against the sky, the next they have faded into total invisibility; and a few seconds later they rematerialise somewhere else, a few steps further along in their apparently aimless strolls.

Before I can stop her, Michelle rushes forward. I reach out to grab her hand but catch only her fingers, which slip out of my grasp like dry stalks. Almost immediately she stops as though caught on a chain, and staggers. She plants her feet wide to avoid falling over, but she's buckling at the knees and now bent double.

Jumping forward I feel it myself, a dizzying intrusion in -- my mind? My body? Can't think, can't describe ... Stepping back, and I realise it's like retreating through a barrier of nausea. The dizziness recedes, and the sickness that rose up in me, like petroleum pouring into a can, begins to drain away again. It was like the crackly energy of the building storm had been forced away by an invisible wall of balmy air.

Michelle is on her knees, her tights torn on the muddy pavement. I've seen the Monument gardens once before and I don't remember seeing so many cracked paving stones, so many sharp edges. She has her hands bunched against the side of her head, feeling that same rising, swelling, suffocating feeling inside -- the balloon she spoke of, inflated like an alien lung inside her so that its leathery sides fill every niche inside her body, pushing her organs aside, squeezing her blood vessels flat. She coughs and there's stark redness on her hand. When she looks up, there's blood leaking from her eyes in constant streams, so much so fast that she's gonna bleed out if it doesn't stop soon.

I grab her through the haze, hugging her tightly and whispering words that aren't registering with me, don't even know if they're words. She's still pulling away from me, trying to stumble towards the most concentrated areas of the crowd where the air is brightest, the angels standing stock still there as they tower above us all like giants. The air smells of burnt wood.

'No, stop...'

She pulls and pulls, towards the angels. I can hear people crying out in the middle distance, towards where the Monument stands like the trunk of a naked tree against the warm sky. One of the ambulances squawks its siren for just a second, like a startled animal. I can hear the clatter of paramedics struggling with a tangled-up gurney.

'Michelle!'

She's gone. I rush after her. Then I see: she isn't chasing the angels, which now only register as vague shapes to me, not men-shapes at all -- she's seen Marianne standing on an upturned paving slab waving her arms. There's a news van nearby, but there's no-one with a microphone, nobody filming. A guy I take to be a reporter is sitting on top of the parked-up van, his tie unknotted and dangling like wet hair from his hunched shoulders, the knuckles on his hands white. He's not looking at anything in particular, and Marianne's taken this as her chance to get recognised, or even just seen, anything to make things easier for her now and better for her in the future. She hasn't changed.

Michelle is calling out. She staggers, and so does my heart; I realise that I don't want her to fall and hurt herself. Fatherly feelings, or the other kind?

'Michelle, wait...'

She is staggering and falling, and I've lost her amongst the crowd, she's gone ... and then she's on her feet again, hand cupping her face with blood gushing between the fingers of one slender hand. Her eyes are closed and there are wide, red smears across both of her cheeks, clotting her eyelashes.

'Michelle!'

I'm with her, and the world is full of pain but I don't think I'm bleeding from anywhere -- maybe it has something to do with the level of belief, or the person's strength of will, some hidden factor that makes it worse for some than it is for others ... I touch her face, lifting her chin -- there's blood filling the space under my fingernails, as if the cuticles have burst -- and try to get her to move back. She's struggling, and either she has a new strength or I'm suddenly very weak, because we're getting closer and closer to Marianne. I can hear her calling to the reporter on the van:

'Hello? Hello? I'm happy to provide a statement...'

The man ignores her. He sees her, but he doesn't respond. He looks miserable. His eyes are leaking red tears.

Marianne isn't looking too hot either. Her stomach is bloated, pushing up her white top so that there's a crescent of stretched, pink skin. The rest of her is skeletally thin, particularly her arms. She looks very pale.

'Mom,' Michelle says, almost on top of her now.

Marianne looks around and blinks. 'Baby? What are you doing here?'

I'm not close enough to answer for Michelle. She's stops stock still in front of her mother. They look very willowy together, like two branches of the same tree, only Marianne's half seems ill and undernourished, even compared to poor Michelle.

Michelle says nothing. She just stands there, strands of her hair floating atop the streams of glowing air, her eyes, as far as I can tell, focused on her mother. I'm fighting through the crowds to get to them. I want to be there to ease her into the new situation, so that I can leave her in a good place where she can be at peace. And now, of course, I'm realising how stupid I am: this is the worst place for her, where her delusions will only be compounded by the madness here. It's more likely that she'll drown in the fervent lunacy that, even now, is drawing me into it as well.

And then Marianne speaks.

'I didn't want you here.'

Michelle doesn't move. Somebody bumps into her and fails to apologise. The crowd washes around the three of us, moving slowly like the froth of industrial pollution on a quiet stream.

'I didn't want you to come,' Marianne shouts, and I recognise something of Michelle in her. The complacency against contiguous madness. The snap of reversed emotion. Michelle is her mother's product, all right.

'I came to--' Michelle begins, but there is a thunderclap immediately overhead, deafening and terrifying. I jerk and slip on the mud, falling and catching myself on the ground with my hand. Mud squelches up between my fingers. My pants especially are ruined. I skid around for a second as I try to stand up and observe the two women at the same time. The thunder rumbles on, like a lion's roar right in my ear. It's harsh and sharp-edged. The air crackles for a moment with electricity, and I come to a sudden realisation that drops too quickly to register with my brain. Can't remember what it was. An instant of wakefulness, as though the delusion had lifted for a second. And then it fell back down like a thick, heavy curtain, blotting out everything else.

'Michelle,' I say, reaching out. Somebody gets in my way and I shove him to one side just in time to see Michelle slap her mother hard across the face with her right hand. Marianne remains rigid, but her cheek begins to glow as brightly as the dry air.

'You little bitch.'

She touches the afflicted area with her long-nailed fingers. And then she coughs into her hand, hacking up thick, clotted blood. I'm reminded of Embers, Michelle's dead cat. Marianne looks up, mouth gaping like all the muscles in her face have broken all at once. And then she clutches her chest, nails cutting into the fabric.

'Mom...?'

The reporter sitting on the edge of the van's roof sees it. I watch him wave frantically over the crowd, then point down. I look to where he's waving at and see the white roof of an ambulance. Nothing seems to happen for a long while.

Marianne allows her daughter to keep her upright, leaning on her. Michelle is looking worried now, on the edge of one of her minor breakdowns. She's wondering if her slap caused her mother's anguish, but it seems to me like heart failure.

''Scuse me, pal!'

Two paramedics slip past me sideways. One has a large, bulging bag probably full of medicines and syringes and bandages. The other has a plastic case that looks a little like the set of screwdrivers I have at home, hardy and black. He's already unclipping it. Inside is a set of paddles, one on either side of a dial. I push forward to watch.

The first paramedic stops. He gestures to the second. The second sees what he's pointing at -- someone else in the crowd, having his own medical emergency -- and lets his partner go help. The remaining paramedic eases Marianne to the ground. He doesn't look too good himself, his knees buckling as he kneels forward.

And then there are people falling all around me. I see them through a rippling haze. My eyes are picking up only bright colours and the flare of reflected light off shiny objects. Nausea, I'm gonna be sick ... People on the ground already, nearly trip up over one ... The paramedic has collapsed over Marianne's inert body.

Got to get there. I grab his case. His hand won't let go. He half-turns, trying to get up. His eyes are rolling in all directions, like a dizzy cartoon character. There's blood on his chin. I push him to one side.

Marianne's staring at the sky, gasping and gripping her chest. She spasms, kicking up one knee, and her breasts dance beneath her loose top. Then she looks at me.

I turn to Michelle. She's screaming.

'I can feel it ... he's in me! He's ... he's swelling, he's growing ... Help me ... Help me God...!”

I look at the paddles in the case. I think I know how they work ... A dial, a red light ... I flick a switch and there's a high-pitched whine mingling with the white noise in my ears. I can see the angel standing over us. His leg is like a tree trunk. I can see his musculature, his powerful limbs, and wings with no edges that splay out from his shoulders like fountains of blurry colour.

The paddles are connected to the heavy case by twin curly wires. There are switches beneath my thumbs. They have indentations that fit my thumbs perfectly, as though made for them.

The thunder and the electric air; the moment of solace that they provided. The dry tickle around the buzzing lights in the bar, and how they made Michelle feel better, even temporarily. The sky is bright with the return of God and I'm thinking about currents and crackling energy and the way that lightning can transfer dull sand to reflective glass, can destroy a tree so that a hundred plants beneath its canopy have a chance to grow, can charge the air with arcane energy that both gives and takes, creates and destroys. Michelle is not having a heart attack. I should not use the paddles.

'Please ... Choking me...'

She's not having a heart attack, but she will die -- so will Marianne, but Marianne I can take or leave, she's nothing to me compared to Michelle -- Michelle who reaches out for me now, barely visible in the glow of the world, only a pair of eyes and a gaping mouth amidst a blinding sea of yellow light. I place a paddle over her heart, and she grabs it, pushing the electric thing away. She isn't sure what's happening, or why I'm doing what I'm doing.

'No,' I shout, feeling deaf, 'no, leave it.'

She pulls at the spirals of the rubber-coated cable. I knock her hand away, and pick up the second paddle. The charge is already full. Marianne goes limp and motionless next to Michelle, perhaps dead. I could have saved her, but now's not the time, not the time ... I position the second panel against Michelle's ribs on the left side, under her arm. She tries to get away -- I jab both switches with my thumbs, loosing the charge. My arms jerk, not from the release, but from the feedback of all that electrical energy going through Michelle's body, through her heart, the core of her being, and meeting in the middle of her like a tiny sun going nova. Her eyelids flutter spasmodically; she arches her back like a snake after being shot. Then she drops.

For a second, all is still. Then she reaches up and wipes the blood from her nose and her eyes with the back of her head. It's already drying; the bleeding has stopped. She breathes out, slowly, and settles back in the muddy grass. She's smiling.

'Are you all right...?'

'Feel much better ... thank-you...'

The charge in the plastic case has gone; the dial has dropped all the way to the left. If I could have helped anybody else, including myself, then that time has passed. It's too late. And Marianne is dead, although I don't think even Michelle will care so much, once a few days have passed.

I lift her into a sitting position.

'Oh, hey,' she says. 'You look like shit ... Lean here.'

I lean.

'What's the matter, Jack? You look exhausted.'

Nodding against her shoulder. I can feel her breath on my forehead. Then she goes stiff, and I think she must have seen the chaos around her that, for a second, had been blotted out. People lying on the grass, ruptured from within like fruit in the baking sun. Blood in thick, sticky rivulets from every orifice, and some others whose bowels have loosed -- I can smell that from here. There's a coldness to the air now, but I know things aren't over.

'He's still coming,' she whispers to me. 'He's hurt all of these people, and he's not going to stop. He'll be back soon.'

'I know,' I murmur. I know, I know, I know.

'I want to go home. I never wanted to come here in the first place, Jack.'

Nodding again. I never expect a conclusion, not to the good things of the world or the bad, and especially not to this, this so-called Rapture. Things never seem to end, only exist as precursors to something else, the next problem or unfulfilled dream, the beginning of a challenge, or becoming a doorway to an opportunity. When we live in cycles, in spirals, but our lives have square corners. The world doesn't always fit.

The blocks of our lives aren't easily swallowed. I think of Michelle and I, scaling the hill. We got to the top rather easily, if I remember well. She said that the gritty mud was like cookie dough, making our journey difficult. We barely knew each other then, but we got to the top all right. We never thought, we never stopped to wonder. It was just a thing. We got there, we spent the night, and in the morning we went back to the place we were supposed to have been. It had been a dry night, without rain.

The sky right now looks much the same, only perhaps a little brighter.

THE END


© 2008 David Brookes

Bio: Mr. Brookes says, “I've had plenty of stories published online in the last year, including stories printed in Aphelion, Pantechnicon, and Brew City Magazine. My first novel, "Half Discovered Wings", will be available from Libros International in the New Year. My website, Spinning Lizard, has received hundreds of hits in 2008.” His most recent Aphelion appearance was Bleach, August 2008.

E-mail: David Brookes

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