When we were kids, Mindy and I used to cut through the metro station on our way home from school. The station was brand new, with ocher tiles I couldn’t take my eyes off; they were both gorgeous and disgusting, shiny but colored like runny shit. That was the first time I ever noticed polar opposites, coexisting.
In high school, I often rode the southbound train into the city, to see my dad and attend band practice. I tried to ignore the passengers who gave me dirty looks because my banged-up tuba took up a lot of space. Mindy traveled on the northbound train to her art lessons upstate, her smock and supplies spilling out of a tattered tote bag. For one of her birthdays, I used some of the money I’d earned by mowing neighbors’ lawns and bought her a set of spray paints she’d been gushing over.
That was a lifetime ago.
Right before the sirens started blaring, I laid it all on the line, told Mindy how I felt, and she, the girl who never shut up, just sat there in silence, looking at me like it was the first time she’d ever seen me, and with every passing second my gut twisted tighter, so I got up and left before my insides burst. The next day, I went to my dad’s for the summer, and then everything went to hell.
Everyone said it was environmental, that it couldn’t be helped. People dropped in the streets, as if someone had turned off a switch. No warning. No cure. Mercifully, no pain. A toxin, they said, of unknown origin. Airborne. Alien. Tinfoil-hat stuff.
I couldn’t reach my mom. I was too embarrassed to try and reach Mindy.
Most people stayed indoors; some went underground. A few rich folks went into orbit, but died anyway.
Within weeks, there was no TV, no phone, and no Internet. Then the power went out for good.
Bodies piled up and rotted in the sweltering heat. Military vehicles came through and cleared out the streets once or twice, then disappeared.
Dad and I roasted in his house, but weeks passed and we were still fine, so I thought we would make it. Dad was handy and rigged a simple air filtration system that worked without electricity. I didn’t believe it made a difference at the time, but it did, because, when our food dwindled, Dad put on a makeshift mask and went outside for the first time in months, and he never came back. I saw him weeks later several blocks away, decomposing, surrounded by cans of onion soup. I took the cans home.
After Dad passed, I didn’t see or hear a soul. The time I didn’t spend scavenging for food, I spent on Dad’s hand-crank radio and got in touch with a few people. They were scattered and alone, at the end of their ropes. When I could no longer take their despair, I broke off contact.
Then my chest and throat started burning. The air became opaque and dry, as if permeated by ocher smoke. Within days, several tiny slits, pink and taut, appeared on the sides of my neck, and once they did, I no longer struggled for breath. I figured they worked like gills.
Finally, I caught a faint radio signal from a military base up north. It said that alien ships had landed and the creatures that emerged had slits on their throats, too. It was unclear where the aliens came from, but they were here to stay and didn’t seem to mind the humans who were still around. Perhaps we might coexist, after all.
I set off toward the base. My hometown was on the way, a couple of days on foot through the brownish-yellow fog. I could walk much longer distances than before without getting tired. Visibility was poor, so I followed the train tracks. I never saw anyone.
As I cut through my old metro station, the smell of rot overwhelmed me. Just as I was about to exit where Mindy and I always had, I noticed a spray painting on the wall, those ocher tiles now devoid of former sheen. The painting was of a girl and a boy, holding hands. With the other hand, the girl clutched a spray can while the boy gripped a tuba. I smiled; Mindy’s art lessons really paid off.
I touched the openings in my neck. I hadn’t thought about the tuba in months. Could I even still play?
Then I looked closer at the painting and fell to my knees. With my forehead and palms against the tiles, I laughed and I cried the way I forgot I could, releasing months of loneliness and fear.
I rose to my feet, breathing in a heady mix of ocher haze and newfound hope. The girl in the painting had pink slits on her throat. Mindy was alive and I would find her.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maura Yzmore is a writer and science professor based in the American Midwest. Her flash fiction has appeared in The Arcanist, The Molotov Cocktail, Bending Genres, and elsewhere. Find out more at https://maurayzmore.com or on Twitter @MauraYzmore.