ISSUE 2 · SPRING 2009



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Copyright © 2009 

Nicole Miyashiro

When the World Ends

NICOLE MIYASHIRO



They might think the world is going to end, but I think they’re paranoid and agree to take the pictures for fun.

 

The two men stand in the hospital B-Wing outside my office. The one talking to me—Marcus, he calls himself—is all business. The way he slouches in his navy suit makes it appear a size too big, suggesting there was a time he stood tall in it.

 

“Just get the job done,” he says.

 

“Sure.” I’m to be paid $100 per subject per day, no questions asked.

 

The discussion has to take place out in the hall because my office is occupied by two other coworkers. We share a space and have three desks equally littered with camera accessories, video equipment, cords, and sketch pads.

 

Marcus’ partner jerks the shoulders of his gray-speckled sports jacket, his eyes panning the corridor.

 

“And Jace,” Marcus hits me on the cheek with a spot of steamy coffee breath. “As I’ve said: confidential.”

 

“Research,” his partner adds. “Confidential research.”

 

Marcus nods, and I accept his handshake. His partner still looks as though he may scramble for the nearest staircase or elevator at any second, and I weigh the odds that this is a scam, consider the ways I can be taken advantage of.

 

“One thing,” I say. “Which government agency are you with?”

 

“EPA. Environmental Protection Agency. So we have a deal?”

 

“Okay.”

 

“Good.” Marcus places a hand on my shoulder and its weight falls through me, pressing my heels hard against the floor. “Let us know as soon as you capture any signs of deterioration.”

 

·     ·     · 

 

Plant life. Any sprout of it poking through the city’s cracks can be photographed for the confidential research. Fifteen or more subjects over a three-week period. Marcus said they recruited people who were experienced with taking photos for documentation purposes but, to prevent mass panic, left out what the purpose was.

 

I usually photograph pigmented lesions, rashes, and burns as a clinical photographer. After I record the activity of a disease or the healing process following reconstructive or invasive surgeries, doctors use my work to monitor patients. The good part about the job is that I get to contribute to curing people without serious risk. When a patient’s blister continues accumulating puss or prescribed meds cause undue itching, it’s not my job to know why. I just take the pictures. And when someone is cured, I know I’ve contributed in a way. I can mess up of course: bad lighting, lost film, the wrong angle, the wrong leg. But if I mess up, I just retake the shot. No harm done. I record stuff to document progress. Or, in some unfortunate circumstances, regression.

 

Among the papers on my desk, I spot a familiar envelope. Each block of writing is printed in leaky black ink and in all caps. The stationery emblem, a silver, dime-sized butterfly, sits in the lower right corner.

 

It’s a note from Aurora.

 

Aurora and I have this coincidental connection. I only think about her two or three times a year, but each time we seem to be in sync. Once she sent me the article, “How to Cope with Stress,” a day after my coworker quit and my patient load doubled. Other times, it’s simpler. I remember grinning at a wet paint sign near an elevator, thinking of the swatches of paint and design tips Aurora might offer the hospital. When I returned to my desk, I had a voicemail from her.

 

Despite living in the same city, we never run into each other, and this seems right. For all the times we’ve been in sync the past few years, we were off for plenty of the years before.

 

It started when we were fifteen and she didn’t show up to the shore one summer. Her parents said she had joined camp and had cheerleading practice. They didn’t tell me she was never coming back.

 

Before I went to college, I finally mustered the nerve to get her phone number. We talked a few times—not about our childhood kissing games or how disappointed we were not to see each other again, but about exams and demanding professors and spring break plans. There was always something preventing us from reconnecting fully. Either I was dating someone or Aurora was; or she had sworn-off guys for awhile or I was preoccupied with improving my grades.

 

By the time she returned from a graduate program studying interior design in Italy, I was married to Donna. Even when Aurora told me she was moving to the city with her new boyfriend, Russell, neither of us rushed to arrange a double-date. We were just happy knowing that the physical space between us would finally shrink.

 

Soon after her move, I called her on a whim.

 

Aurora? It’s Jace.

 

I know. Check your mail.

 

And she was right. There was a letter from her in my office in-bin.

 

Since then, this is what happens with us. A cycle of mutual thought.

 

·     ·     ·

 

I decide to wait to open her envelope. It’s something small, I can tell by its weight, but still something to look forward to.

 

I’m already late for a 2:30 appointment. It’s in Room 16 of the Outpatient Unit over in K-Wing, so I collect my camera bag and lighting equipment from the office. The new patient I’ve kept waiting might be a new acne surgery candidate or another episode of eczema. All I know is that, as much as I like my job, I’m having one of those days when even a parasitic worm case wouldn’t be exciting enough. That’s probably why I agreed to participate in some undercover research to prevent a serious global threat that I know nothing about.

 

Maybe it’s something big that I can wow Patrick with when it’s over, while we’re having a catch in the yard and he begs to know what Daddy’s secret project was. Right now I imagine him sitting in Language Arts or Social Studies, feeling like I do, and retracing figure eights in his notebook.

 

I pull the chart outside Room 16: Eva Verde. Severe mammary and inframammary lacerations, left side, post surgery. Mammary necrosis due to trauma, auto accident. The girl is seventeen. Just five years older than Patrick. I gather my composure and enter the patient room.

 

“Hi, Eva. How are you today?”

 

She’s thin, appearing much younger than seventeen. A frizzy wave of hair covers her right eye. It’s dyed red, the color of an overripe strawberry, and I can see the dark roots of her natural brown. She’s Hispanic, like Aurora, but has darker skin. I wonder how Aurora’s doing, if she’s designing bedroom interiors in front of an easel, or onsite hanging paintings in a recently refurbished home.

 

Eva shifts on the examination table with her arms crossed over the front of her gown, holding it tight. I place my camera on the counter before unloading the other equipment.

 

“I thought this was at 2:30,” Eva says.

 

“I apologize for being a few minutes late.” Without delay, I begin prepping her while unloading equipment. “I’ll need you to lift each breast when I raise my hand, then turn to the side when I turn my palm to the wall. Are you comfortable with this?”

 

She nods.

 

I place the lamp against the examination table. “This may feel warm, but I promise it won’t burn you.”

 

All of this seems okay with her, and I know the faster I work, the better. The legs of the tripod slide to the floor. I click each in place, then attach the camera to the head.

 

“I’ll begin when you’re ready.”

 

She looks down at her dangling feet and grasps the neck of her gown. Squeezing her eyes closed, she yanks the gown and it slides down. It must have been untied in the back.

 

I click once, framing the front of her chest. I zoom in on the right breast, refocus, shoot. Then I zoom in on the scarred skin, refocus, and shoot.

 

“You’re doing great. Just a few more.”

 

I see a concentrated spot of black and blue. Zoom, refocus, click. She begins to move, and I try to refocus again, failing to compensate. I peer over my camera and see that she’s crying.

 

My palm leans into the side of my Cyber-Shot, primed for shooting, but I know this is it.

 

“It’s okay. We can stop.”

 

She sniffs, arms shaking at her side. The gown is still sitting in her lap.

 

“Don’t worry about it. We’re done for the day.” I close the camera shutter and unlatch the tripod.

 

“Are you disgusted by me?” Eva’s voice is mature, revealing only a slight tremble.

 

“No. Of course not.”

 

“You are.”

 

“I am not disgusted by you.”

 

I want to tell her I’ve seen worse, but stick with standard procedure: reassure, promote positive outcomes, and under no circumstance imply any kind of diagnosis.

 

“You wouldn’t understand.” She lifts the gown over her chest and wipes her eyes.

 

“Maybe not. But I could try.”

 

I continue wrapping the extension cord under my elbow. The cord goes in the inside pouch of the camera bag. I collapse the tripod. This is work, routine, but to Eva it’s something awful that happened to her.

 

For all I know, something awful is already happening to us. Eva Verde wouldn’t be self-conscious about being photographed if the world were ending. Mr. Walker, waiting for me in Room 5, would forget about the third degree burns blistering over his abdomen, elbow, and forearm if there were no tomorrow.

 

There’d be other things to worry about.

 

“Do you remember your first kiss?” Eva does want to talk.

 

“Sure.” I take my camera into my hands and fiddle with its disengaged buttons, thankful for this momentary pause from the usual.

 

“No, I mean do you remember? Still know what it feels like, that first real kiss?”

 

It feels like a child’s game, a peck here, a peck there. It’s playing around and sometimes bumping foreheads. On the lips, Aurora said once. And from then on it was a kiss on each cheek and then her lips like a ritual.

 

“I remember.”

 

“Well now it’s too late.” Eva shivers, but not from cold. Her dark eyes deepen behind the flutter of soaked lashes.

 

For a second, I wonder if she’s involved with and knows more about the undercover research. This is silly, because she’s a kid and not a photographer.

 

And the world isn’t really going to end.

 

“Too late for what?” I ask her.

 

“Everything. I can’t explain.”

 

Her openness with tears urges me to go to the window, give her space, clear my head. Cars and buses roll and stop on the street below and people zip up and down the sidewalks, others wait at corners.

 

If it were to happen, a lightning storm could strike buildings and trees, knock things down on top of us. Or the oceans could overflow and swallow us whole. If it’s plants, maybe they’re riddled with a poison that’s spreading—to animals, our food.

 

The idea is laughable, as I watch the busyness outside and think of the paranoid men who approached me. The city is at peace. Even the revving motors and beeping horns sound soft, muted by the mood in this room.

 

I turn back to Eva. “It’s okay to be afraid at first. Things will get better.”

 

This is what I have to show him.” Her gown falls to her lap. “This.”

 

I have no lens to look through, no lighting adjustments or refocusing to concentrate on. I see her skin with my naked eyes, the flesh above the tan of her nipple crinkled in wide gashes, the skin doubled over itself in uneven elevations, creased with bruises. The pattern repeats itself upward to the torn edge of her collarbone.

 

I don’t know what I’m suppose to do.

 

“What if things were falling apart,” I say, muddling through. “The world was going to end and nothing here mattered. Then what would you do?”

 

“What?” She laughs like I’m crazy, and the moisture in her eyes twinkles a bit. The straps of the gown flap at her sides, as she lifts the cloth over herself.

 

“Yeah. There’s no time left. What would you do before it was really too late?”

 

“I don’t know. Tell him. I guess.”

 

“So you’d tell him.”

 

“Yeah. If it was the last day on earth.”

 

“And it’s something important, right?”

 

“I think so.”

 

With the last of my equipment packed, I swing the bag over my shoulder and lift the tripod under my arm. “Well I don’t think you should wait.”

 

Eva’s nostrils flare and cheeks flush. Sighing, she pushes out a heavy rush of air, eying her clothes balled up on the chair next to her backpack that’s sprinkled with violet star stickers made of glitter.

 

When she looks at me, I can tell she still questions my sanity, but smiles—a horizontal stretch of thin lips scrunching two rounded cheeks, free of dimples. I see now how she resembles Aurora.

 

“See you next week,” I say.

 

·     ·     · 

 

With her note unopened and waiting, memories animate the rest of my day. I move the camera, adjust the lens, and snap—flashing to the past: sneaking to the outdoor shower of my parent’s shore house.

 

·     ·     · 

 

The water wasn’t on, but our feet made dull slapping sounds against the deck-like floor. We were careful not to get splinters.

 

Aurora brought her fingers to her lips and giggled, as the hinges of the door creaked. She wasn’t giggling at the noise. This was our secret and we closed ourselves inside. A ritual had evolved from a kissing game, but at age 14 we were growing out of games. She even had a boyfriend and remained loyal. She hadn’t kissed him yet.

 

My neck, Aurora offered. Her bikini top glowed fluorescent blue in the moonlight that seeped in from the vented roof. She wanted a kiss in a new place.

 

I slid my hands down her shoulders and pulled her against my torso, lowering my lips to her ear. Okay.

 

She seemed nervous, but unafraid—her eyes closed and lids pulsating. We had discovered a trust.

 

I pressed my lips into her neck, smelling the washed-out remnants of sweet shampoo. I tasted her sea-salted skin for what I feared was too long, but Aurora flung her arms around my neck. Neither of us knowing what to do, and both of us knowing exactly what to do. It came naturally. There was no doubt, argument, or monotony. Our bodies raced with an instinctual need to feel each other, to give and receive. To touch.

 

I backed her into the wall of the shower. Aurora lowered her hands from my neck and slid her fingers against the straps of her bathing suit. They fell to her shoulders, the rest of the top unmoved and waiting.

 

I kissed her neck with more confidence and skimmed my hands over the hanging straps. My fingers latched at the last second to pull them the rest of the way down, to her elbows. Placing a kiss on her collarbone, I lowered a knee to reach her.

 

She was all new, completely bared to me—her fresh skin, her unfastened and eager moan. My unsteady tongue rounded each breast in the same circular direction, and I touched each one again with a kiss. Then I enclosed her there in my arms, her beating heart warming the skin against my ear.

 

We stayed there, silent. My knee balanced on the shower floor. Aurora’s arms crossed over my neck.

 

I was sure we were the only ones alive at that moment.

 

I covered Aurora with the light-blue fabric of her top and then replaced the straps on her shoulders while planting kisses: cheek, cheek, lips. We sealed things there, in that damp wooden shower.

 

It was the last of our summers together.

 

“Jace.” Dr. Fennimore startles me, halting my stride back towards B-Wing. “Tall man with a blonde crew-cut and a snake tattoo on his left shoulder—possibly naked. Have you seen him?”

 

“What? No.”

 

“Gown and slippers in the bed, stuff in the closet. But the patient’s gone.”

 

“Took off?”

 

Fennimore shrugs and turns to continue down the hall. He waves his beeper in the air as he walks away. “See him, page me.”

 

“Sure.”

 

As soon as I unload my equipment in my office, I scoop up the white envelope. Inside is a square piece of paper. As I pull it out, a smaller strip falls onto the floor. This one struck me, so I thought you should have it. Always, Aurora. I lean over to peel the strip off the floor. It’s from a fortune cookie.

 

·     ·     · 

 

Good to see you, she said the last time I saw her.

 

Aurora smiled and clasped her hands at the back of my neck and smiled some more. It had been ten years. A need to touch her resurfaced from our past. All that time, yet I couldn’t help savoring each point of contact we exchanged.

 

My hands found their way to her waist, right where the form-fitting crease connected white, gem-studded ruffles.

 

Congratulations, I said.              

 

She grinned. We had never needed many words.

 

We stepped side-to-side at a slow pace. Peeking past her shoulder, I saw the rest of her guests occupied with pumping arms and hips, keeping beat with Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration.”

 

Without arranging it, we had created our own rhythm. One we found instantly. The thought of Donna sitting over at our table sipping red wine and watching us drift at a slow pace made me uncomfortable. I looked through the crowd and could just see the maroon scoop of Donna’s dress hanging down her back, her left elbow propped on the table as she swished her glass, the way she always did when she talked.

 

I still found Donna to be incredibly sexy, with her straight, smooth back, not a freckle or mole to speak of, her beautiful neck glowing under the sway of deep, auburn hair, cut in bold layers. She was a loving wife who was attentive to all of my needs. I was grateful to have found her. My wife, the woman I loved. My attraction to Aurora was only a memory from our past. It had nothing to do with my current life.

 

You know, I’ve always wanted you to be happy. Aurora’s newfound happiness was evident in her eyes when she spoke. They gleamed with a knowing flicker. A flicker that made me wonder if she knew what I was thinking—that I wondered, if we could have been happy together.

 

In that moment, I knew we could. I wanted to know how that could be, why I would think that. I wanted to know if the natural rhythm of our body language meant something, or if I was just imagining it.

 

Aurora tightened her hold on my neck. It’s funny that our parents still go to the shore. Isn’t it?

 

Yeah, I said.

 

Those were good times.

 

We both laughed and slipped into playful grins. Grins that implied, I know you. I know you because I discovered you first.

 

A cheery “celebrate good times” began to fade and the crowd eased up on their twists and jabs.

 

You’re a beautiful bride. The words caused a bubble to curl in my throat.

 

The flower girl came tugging on a ruffle of Aurora’s dress, and Aurora stepped away from me. She tapped the girl’s crown of white roses, allowing her to slip behind and grab onto her waist.

 

A new song had started.

 

People continually latched on behind the flower girl, as Aurora turned to lead the chain across the dance floor. I turned to find my table.

 

When I sat in front of my yellow-starred nametag, longing and regret panged inside me. I was desperate for another time, an explanation.

 

I slid my arm under Donna’s, as she chatted with strangers. I squeezed her turning wrist and looked out to the crowd again. Aurora was strutting past, leading the conga line; she looked at me, and winked.

 

As the sparkling white of her dress trailed her steps, I inhaled, feeling a warmth circle my insides. Things were right, I decided. Aurora was never mine, but somehow always would be.

 

·     ·     · 

 

To begin again, work backwards.

 

I fold the fortune into thirds and then pull out my wallet. Behind two thick layers of crammed credit, insurance, and discount cards, I slide the fortune in where news articles, a folded postcard, and two other fortunes are flattened. Preserved by a pocket of leather.

 

·     ·     · 

 

Donna and Patrick are well into their steaks and mashed potatoes when I get home from work.

 

“Why all the stuff?” Donna asks.

 

“Oh. Got a little assignment.” I unload my bags in a heap next to the kitchen door.

 

Donna pecks me on the lips with a mouth full of food. I nudge Patrick on the way over to get a plate from the cabinet.

 

“Hey, Dad.” He laughs. Twelve years old already. Twelve. Not sure where the time went. Just day after day. Waking up, kissing Donna and Patrick goodbye, and then going to work. Doing it all again. Then, he’s twelve.

 

I put my plate down across from Patrick’s, but hesitate before sitting.

 

“The salad’s in the fridge, if you want some of that. And plenty of everything else.”

 

“I love you,” I hear myself say.

 

“Love you too, baby.” Donna sips her water.

 

“No, I just want you both to know how happy you make me.”

 

“Okay, Dad.”

 

Donna stops eating and looks worried, so I sit down.

 

“I just thought I should say it.” And I meant it. But it doesn’t feel like I thought it would. Things are quiet and mundane. I swallow a gulp of potatoes and wonder if I should warn them about the serious global threat. Only, I wouldn’t be able to elaborate much.

 

“What was your day like?” Donna asks.

 

“Same old stuff. Took pictures. Lots of skin.”

 

Patrick laughs and shovels his food.

 

“Pimply, rash-covered skin,” I clarify.

 

His chewing is less enthusiastic.

 

“And these men, these government guys, hired me to take photos, starting tonight. Of plant life in the city.”

 

“Government guys? What kind?”

 

“EPA.”

 

“Environmentalists?”

 

“Yeah, I guess. Hey, maybe you shouldn’t eat that salad until I find out what’s going on. They’re research is confidential.”

 

Donna combs a portion of salad to the edge of her plate with her fork, but giggles at me. “Okay. But we’ve been eating it all week.”

 

“I know, you’re right. It’s just starting to bug me that it’s so confidential.”

 

“Plants were poisoned in Europe,” Patrick interjects. “They said at school. Disappeared like magic.”

 

“Not magic.” Donna swirls her glass, creating a mini twist of water. “A farmer in Sicily said his wheat crops disintegrated. They suspect he torched them, because he’s suing the pesticide company for lots of money.”

 

“Mr. Roper says programmed cell death. Accelerated . . . osmosis?”

 

Apoptosis,” I correct. “I think you might need to re-review your homework, Patrick.”

 

He shrugs.

·     ·     · 

 

I bring my plate to the sink and peer out the window. It’s seven and the sun hides, casting an odd and lingering sheen to the sky. I brush leftover chunks of steak and potatoes into the trash bin.

 

“That’s it? You’re done?” Donna says.

 

“I should take these photos so I can get back home.”

 

Donna pushes back her chair and stands. She wraps her arms around me, swinging left-to-right, using my waist as leverage. “Be careful.” She dots my lips with hers. Her eyes dart to the window and squint. “How long will you be?”

 

“Not long.”

 

“Good,” she says, releasing me.

 

·     ·     · 

 

A clump of bark drops to the ground as I snap a photograph of a leafy tree branch. Subject one. I’ve been assigned the blocks from 20th to 22nd between Market and Sansom Streets. If Marcus and friend were more specific about what I was documenting, I might have a better idea of what to look for. Plants shriveling prematurely or developing abnormal stems? Discolored and spreading fast? Or crippled by stunted growth? What ever it is, I’ll try to capture it.

 

On 22nd there’s a church. Within its gates is a massive garden of greens and bushes. I crank up the tripod and take a shot of the whole scene.

 

The sky is now a color I’ve never seen. A gray-blue that glows without a central source, spreading evenly over space. This wouldn’t be odd for late spring, except that it seems to have gotten brighter since I left home.

 

I retrieve the camera from the tripod so I can get close-ups of the garden. First I take a shot that includes a piece of the three-foot gate. I hop over it to get closer. I zoom in on a shrub and let it fill the frame. Then I kneel closer to focus on a single branch and its leaves. The sky provides just enough light. I snap the photo, and before the zoom lens retracts, the leaves fall off the branch, crumbling to the ground.

 

I fall back on my heels. They’re gone. I ruffle the grass and an ashy, sand-like substance coats my fingers, the leaves nowhere to be found. I lift my camera and snap a shot of the naked branch. Just like that. Gone.

 

“Shit! Did you see that?” A smack against pavement follows the voice, and I stand to find a boy in a green Leo & Pop’s cap beyond the fence. A flipped open pizza box sits on the ground. The boy points ahead, down the sidewalk.

 

As I jump the fence, I recall the weight of Marcus’ hand on my shoulder. The sensation falls to my stomach when I see the neat heap of litter on the sidewalk.

 

The delivery boy looks to be a couple years older than Patrick and is still pointing.

 

“What happened? You alright?”

 

He doesn’t answer. He keeps pointing at a discarded lump of clothes.

 

“You’ve been robbed?”

 

He just shakes his head, lowering his pointed finger. I approach the pile, and he makes a guttural protest, backing away.

 

“Someone probably just left it.” I lift the dress shirt by the collar and dust bursts from its fabric.

 

“Holy shit.” His feet pounding pavement trail the remark.

 

Looking after him, I’m amazed I can see so far this time of night. I watch him sprint towards the corner, and his shape seems to hit a bump and disappear to the ground. I rush over to see if he’s okay.

 

·     ·     · 

 

My only reaction is to take pictures. I take one from above, that frames the baseball cap, to catch how it tops the lifeless pile of clothes. Click. Then I squat to capture an angle that will display how each sneaker is on its side, socks snug inside where feet should be. Click. Click.

 

I lower my camera—leaving it beside the pile of clothes. This is it. It’s here. And my photos can’t do anything to stop it. I stand and see the gritty particles that blanket the sidewalk like debris. Then I run.

 

I run down 22nd towards Walnut, rationalizing as I go: the leaves, the branch, the farmer. The boy, the pile, the dust. I run. Here and there I spot a tree top disintegrate and fall through the air like a cloud of rain. I hop scattered piles of empty clothes. One catches my foot and I shake it, thinking of Donna and Patrick. I think of them and run, waiting for my arms and legs to fall in showers of dust as I turn the corner of Waverly Street.

 

·     ·     ·

 

Halfway up the block from my house, I collapse on the curb.

 

A lurch knocks in my stomach, the thought of seeing them crumble. Or finding what’s left. Their abandoned clothes.

 

I can’t go inside. Instead, I envision them sitting at the table, talking long after their last bites of dinner. Something they always do. Their voices, safe in my mind: Patrick’s laugh, Donna’s smiling, inquisitive response, That’s funny, is it?

 

I hear a low whiff and open my eyes. A woman stands across the street, stunned and holding a leash. It hangs slack, an empty loop at her feet, and I don’t want to wait for the tears. I don’t want this to be the end.

 

I need to know.

 

I lift myself off the curb and hurry out of my neighborhood. Fierce honking rattles my ears. There’s a dead man blocking traffic, but no one can see that he’s curled up in the legs of his pants, in piles at the foot of his pedals as I squeeze by. Poof.

 

Like magic.

 

Turning the corner, I see a small crowd surrounding a weeping man. He is crouched at a pile of clothes. An observer slips down through her own clothes, and the crowd gasps.

 

I go from jogging to running. I want to scream but want to hide. To sneak away before losing everything, and I realize I’ve left them. They’ve left me. There’s nothing I can do.

 

Trees crumble and blow in the air like snow, but the pavement remains sturdy under my clapping feet. I’ve run at least a mile, numb to strained muscles and joints.

 

And it’s not too late.

 

I knock on 955 Bridge Street. A place I’ve known but have never been to. When she opens the door I crave a piece of her calm. She doesn’t realize.

 

She is beautiful, the same, but different. Her hair is longer, feathery against her cheeks, and she smiles her smooth-cheeked smile as if expecting me.

 

“Jace,” Aurora says. “I was just—wow. This is unbelievable.”

 

“Aurora,” I pant. I grab hold of her hand, and she stops me in the foyer.

 

“Russell is napping upstairs.” Aurora takes her hand back. “You’re winded.”

 

I can’t formulate words, formulate sense of what’s happening, why I’m here. A sweet, familiar scent encloses me, and Aurora pats the sides of my arms.

 

“It’s okay,” she says, and I realize I’ve been crying. My breath hiccups with tear-choked gasps, and I allow the pain to enter: a vision of Donna’s squinting face, Patrick’s chirpy voice. I feel it now. The loss, the fear.

 

Their memory.

 

“You have to say goodbye.” I wipe my face, tears streaming my knuckle.

 

“What?”

 

“Goodbye. Now.” I grab Aurora’s wrist and yank her towards the stairs.

 

“What’s happening? Jace?”

 

I ascend the steps first, pulling her along. When we reach the top, I see a polo shirt and pants neatly placed on the bed—an impression of where Russell lay. I stop Aurora short, but she sees it in my eyes.

 

“Jace,” she almost whispers. “Why are you here?” Her lips quiver, and she looks towards the bedroom, the empty clothes.

 

I release her arm, unable to answer. She takes steady steps, glancing back at me, as I follow close behind.

 

Her scream extends Russell’s name into a cracked and broken shrill. Hazy powder clouds the air as she whips the empty shirt off the bed. I rush to restrain her arms, and we collapse against the bedside, lowering ourselves to the floor. Taking her to me, I wrap myself around her until her sobs are buried in my chest. Tears linger heavy on my cheek, and I look up at the window. A sky that is still a uniform blanket of gray-blue glows. Aurora presses her warmth into me.

 

My neck, I recall her suggesting—and close my eyes.

 

She begins to fade. No screaming, no more crying. Just a light cascade rolling down my chest and slipping from my arms. Like sand. The sound reminds me of ocean water at the shore, and I don’t open my eyes.

 

Letting go, I work my mind backwards, to a place I know and trust, to where things are just beginning, and she and I—