It happens on your way home from dropping your brother off at school. You’re stopped at a red light. There’s a soundless flash that makes your ears pop and the world go blank. You stand on the brakes, hard, trying to push the pedal right through the floor. As your eyes squint themselves open, the horizon pulses distantly, once, twice. Heat lightning? That was weird. The signal turns green.
Then the cars turn feral.
The engine of the blue Ford Escort beside you claws up through its hood as though the steel were fabric. It crouches a moment in the wreckage. Then it attacks the driver through the windshield in a glittering crunch of glass. Screams slice the air like razors: the driver’s, cut short as the window washes red, and those of a handful of bystanders, going on and on.
Then they fade, retreat, like screams heard underwater. Vision dims. Is this what fainting feels like? You’ve never fainted before. A clammy presence insinuates itself between clothes and skin, shocking you hyperaware: The inside of your car is filling up with a black mist or smoke or maybe a gelatinous cube straight out of your Dungeons & Dragons days. You hold your breath and scrabble at the car door. For a long handful of seconds, it won’t open. Then it does. You tumble onto the street and crab-scramble backward up the sidewalk. Everyone knows you’re safe on the sidewalk. The sidewalk is home base.
The driver-side door slams itself shut and your Chevy surges forward. It climbs atop the white Fiat ahead of it in line. Then it springs into the air, flying south like a goose getting an early start on the fall migration. You stare after it, mesmerized, until it disappears.
Then you run for your life.
The three blocks from that intersection to your parents’ house has become crowded with nightmares. Tree roots whip like jabberwock across the cement, trailing loam. The screams don’t stop. A black-and-tan dog lies motionless across the sidewalk; you leap over its body as though from one hopscotch square to the next. It rolls upright beneath you, opens slavering jaws. It does not say bark. What it says cannot be spelled in any alphabet you know.
You have to get home. You have to tell Mom and Dad you’re OK. You aren’t actually sure you’re OK, or that anyone could ever be OK again. But you’re alive, at least, a detail that the morning news can’t be expected to convey, and they need to know.
They must be alive. They’re at home. They’re on home base.
You make the left turn onto your block and come skidding to a halt at the edge of an abyss. The Rogers’ house at the corner of Chickadee and Poplar is simply gone. A powdery, rotten smell rises from the pit like the breath of some undead creature. On the other side, half of the swing set and a third of the climbing wall that Bernice Rogers had constructed for her kids still stands in what’s left of their backyard. Of Bernice, of six-year-old Sasha and two-year-old Ronnie, there is no sign.
Something like roots, something like plumbing, regular as ductwork and covered in bark, extrudes from the pit and extends down the block. It develops a series of protrusions like cypress knees that thrust up though lawn, shrub, and porch next door. They proceed down the block, growing larger as they go, punching through the houses, through windows, through roofs. Branches in leaf and flower make regular, angled shapes like scaffolding. All of it is finally dwarfed by what crouches on top of or sprouts from what’s left of your parents’ house: a tree the size of a dragon, roots like a fence and multiple trunks like castle spires. The central torso-trunk twists to bring something like a face around to stare at you.
The burl that forms its lips opens. The tree speaks your childhood nickname. No one is watching the news here, not anymore.
You shouldn’t even be here at all. You were supposed to have returned to campus a week ago, half the country and two climate zones away. But you had decided to take a semester off to figure yourself out.
Your parents were cautiously supportive, but they had concerns. Was it really a good idea to interrupt your momentum?
You didn’t so much have momentum, you said, as a habit of spinning your wheels. You still didn’t know what you wanted to major in or what kind of career you wanted. Without a clear goal, next semester would be nothing but wasted time and money.
But what if you never went back, they wanted to know? What if one semester off turned into two, and then three, and before you know it all your opportunities are behind you and you’re five years into a schlub job delivering pizza?
So you’d be a college drop-out, you snapped. So what? Worse things could happen.
Those were your exact words: Worse things could happen. And now they have. The dragon-tree-tower is crooning lullabies. You back away, babbling promises and apologies. If you somehow make it through this day alive, if you can find your way back to a normal life, you’ll finish college. You’ll pursue a real career. You’ll build yourself a future to make your parents proud. You’ll do whatever they want, if only cars would stay cars and trees would stay trees and your parents were home and safe and alive in a house that’s still a house, that’s still your house and not just “your parents’ house,” and by the way what’s the point of building an Independent Future and pursuing Career when the world can blink its skies and turn into this?
That’s when you fall backward over a bicycle in the middle of the street. Not just any bicycle. Your bicycle. The one you brought in for a tune-up back in June, the one you vowed to ride for at least an hour each day, the one you subsequently left in the garage to gather dust. It should be in the garage now, buried in the rubble, smashed by cthulhoid roots. You suffer a vision of vast whippy branches smashing the workbench, overturning the pool table, and tossing random items into the street with a sudden outburst of the same great force that cracks concrete and holds together hillsides.
Unbelievably, the bike’s in good condition. The pedals turn, the brakes function, the tires are still full of air. You mount up and hold your breath: Nothing uncanny happens. It stays a bicycle.
You start pedaling up the street, away from the wreck of your parents’ house, back the way you came, to find your brother.
This is your new purpose in life. This is your career plan: to find your brother, to keep him safe. For this you will run through carnivorous grass and leap over transfigured German shepherds. For this you will bike down streets turned strange and brave packs of feral cars and nothing, nothing will stop you.
But the streets are only strange in that they are empty. The feral cars have moved on in search of prey or entertainment or whatever it is feral cars want in life. There are no bodies in the streets nor signs to show there ever were. The living are absent, too: No one is wandering in shock or calling the names of missing loved ones or even going about their daily business. It is as though not only the whole incident of this morning was a dream, but so was your memory of a small, bustling suburb with traffic and a morning commute.
The school is empty too. You pass through front doors hanging open, calling your brother’s name. Your voice echoes down the depopulated hallways and bounces around classrooms full of overturned furniture. No one answers you. No one is here.
You wander out onto the playground. From the rhododendrons lining the wall, a sudden burst of movement. A piglet comes out of the bushes.
It’s tiny, barely the size of a Yorkshire terrier, big black spots on pink bristly skin. It’s not alone. More of them emerge from hiding, enough to fill a classroom. They seem to realize that, whatever has scared them, you’re not it. They scamper over to nudge your feet and nibble on your shoelaces.
You have begun to entertain impossibilities over the past hour. It makes a terrible sense to kneel among the piglets and quietly, questioningly, say your brother’s name.
None of the animals react in the least. You say it again. They mill around happily, nosing your outstretched fingers. Whoever they may have been this morning, they are nothing but piglets now. There is no one left for you to rescue.
You leave the school, biking in no particular direction but away. Somewhere life must continue as normal. Somewhere there will be a boundary, a border, a limit to how much ground whatever has happened can cover. All you have to do is survive that far. That is now your purpose in life. That is your career plan.
The bike’s gears make a sound like sobbing children trying to sing the national anthem. You can hear your brother among them. It’s easy to pick him out; he’s always had a lovely singing voice.
More flashes in the sky, white-violet and gold, off to the west. Heat lighting. Yeah, right.
You travel all the rest of that day and the next. Mostly you walk. You abandoned your bike two hours in, when the voices of your old algebra and history teachers joined those of the children and you couldn’t bear to listen anymore. You left the thing by the side of the road and continued northward on foot. Behind you, the tires came to life and slithered away.
You start scavenging food from abandoned houses and grocery stores, the ones that are still standing and look safe. Not every building meets both criteria. A gas station corner store looms dark in the middle of the day, filled with the same black mist or gel that tried to suffocate you in your car. Cement walls shift and rustle like a skirt on a restless teenager. You steer clear.
In one house, the television is on and tuned to the local news. That gives you hope; the station it’s filmed at is only three miles away. The anchors are talking about what happened yesterday morning. It’s hard for you to watch. It’s not the subject matter or the aerial footage that distresses you so much as that the news anchors’ faces keep changing. Their noses slide down their cheeks. Their eyes migrate up their foreheads for a better view. New mouths open in unexpected places, and the teeth in those mouths are all wrong. Periodic static obliterates the picture for a second or two at a time, and when it clears, the news anchors’ faces are back to normal. But in half a minute or so it’ll start again.
Put up with it, you tell yourself. Keep watching. Close your eyes if you have to. You need all the information you can get. But you can hear the changes, too, a glorping sound quiet as a whisper and faithful as an echo. It makes you sick to your stomach. You have to change the channel.
Three clicks away, a familiar movie is playing. You watch it for five minutes. There’s nothing wrong with the signal on this station.
At dusk of the third day, you notice that your skin has begun to glow, a pale blue-white radiance that reminds you of the flashes in the sky. It’s almost too faint to see by twilight. It’ll be much more noticeable come full dark. The light pulses gently in time with your heartbeat. It stutters when you hold your breath.
You don’t know why it’s happening or what it portends for your future. You don’t much care. Your immediate lookout is to survive the night, a task that can only be made more difficult with your skin lighting up the depopulated suburbs like a beacon. You’re afraid of what might find you in the dark.
It’s only half an hour back to the house you scavenged for supplies this afternoon. You return to scavenge it again, this time for long winter clothes to cover up your traitor skin.
While you’re in there pawing through the closet in a house you’d supposed empty of living things, you hear a noise. It’s a slimy, scrabbling sort of noise, and it seems to come from everywhere: the corners, the cupboards, the stairs down the hall, far too close yet just beyond your skin’s ability to illuminate. A chill starts in your stomach and spreads along your spine. You grab what you need. You get the hell out.
No more sleeping in abandoned houses for you. You wish you never had to sleep again.
You walk on through the night, sweltering under your wraps in the late August heat, moths battering themselves against the lantern of your face.
You awaken slowly to the sound of crickets chirping. It’s a comfortable sound. It makes things normal again. For just a half-asleep moment it’s ten years ago and your parents have taken you camping. Dad’s telling you about a kind of parasite that preys on crickets, tracking them by their mating calls. “So those crickets evolved to stop chirping,” he says. “But their predators evolved to find them by their glow.” You shoot upright in horror, clutching your hood tight around your face.
The crickets are louder than they ever were back then. The sound is coming from your backpack that you’d been using for a pillow. You empty it out and identify the culprit: a packet of jerky you’d acquired that evening. You hold it up to let your face illuminate the package. Nothing visible has changed. The vacuum seal is unbroken. But the insect song won’t stop. The jerky buzzes in your hand until your bones ache. You shove it under a bush some twenty feet away and try to go back to sleep.
Come morning, you retrieve the jerky. It’s gone quiet now. You eat half of it for breakfast and stow the rest. There’s no point in worrying about contaminated meat; you are arguably contaminated meat yourself. You drink the bottled water, too, straining it through your teeth to avoid swallowing the small school of mournful fish that spawned there overnight. You tip the fish out gently into an irrigation ditch and wish them well. They deserve a chance to survive, same as you.
Over the next couple of days, the glow continues, intensifying or fading according to your mood but never dying away entirely. It also changes color. You begin to recognize the patterns. A steady blue-white-lavender corresponds to the resigned, plodding tedium that passes for contentment at being left alone. Rapid flashes of yellow and green accompany the weary terror that greets your encounters with the new normal: relatives of the tree-dragon-tower thing screaming from apartment buildings, bindweed leaping up to climb you like a trellis, mouths made of water with teeth made of who-knows-what opening to devour unsuspecting ducks.
It’s either the sixth or the seventh day when something gets the jump on you with a roar. Before you see it clearly, before you can think, your skin emits a supernova flash of white-hot panic that leaves your vision swimming. When the afterimages clear, your attacker lies stunned at your feet. You force yourself to examine it more closely. It resembles a small jaguar, but it was probably born a house cat. Not all house cats know how to hunt; this one must be a slow learner. The outline of each rib stands clear and stark along its flank.
You’re hungry, too. The sky keeps flashing new changes into the world, some inside the houses you visit for supplies. Where you’d hoped to find canned vegetables and tuna fish were instead hissing nests of metallic vipers in the livery of Green Giant and Wild Planet. The tropical vines sprouting from potatoes on kitchen counters have left nothing in their roots to nourish you.
You consider, with some reluctance, the temporarily helpless predator on the ground. Skinny as it is, there’s meat on it, and survival means you hunt or you starve. But you can’t shake the feeling that you’re committing a sort of cannibalism. You and the thing are, in a way, related. The oscillation of its spots, blue-indigo-purple, is a rhythm that your skin recognizes.
In the center of each spot is an open eye that tracks you, hazily and without fear. Feline whiskers sway through the air like underwater grasses. They caress your wrist as you position your knife. At your first inexpert cut, they stiffen into needles, wicked sharp, and the air all around you goes yellow yellow yellow. Then the light dies. The whiskers fall limp.
The blood from the creature’s throat is only blood. So is the liquid that oozes from the pinprick wounds in your knife hand. That is something else you have in common.
On the ninth day you find the boundary you’ve been seeking. It is made of razor wire, sandbags, and soldiers standing quietly at the ready. Beyond that border, normal humans are presumably going about their normal lives, while here contaminated meat is left to rot. Your world is under quarantine. It comes as a shock. Despite the changes you have journeyed through, you’ve never stopped imagining that you could go back to the way things were as long as you kept moving and stayed alive.
They haven’t seen you yet. You crouch low behind a screen of palmettos.
Hours pass. Then someone appears in the clearing. Someone swathed, as you are swathed, in out-of-season winter clothes. Someone who walks, as you have walked, with the steady ground-eating roll of joints that are no longer standard issue. Between the soldiers and the traveler, this is the closest you have seen another person since the morning of the feral cars.
One soldier barks an order. The traveler stops mid-stride. You stare in astonishment. The order makes no sense. It is in no language you know; you’re not sure it’s a language at all. It’s so flat. The syllables are meaningless and undifferentiated, no light of any color to hear them by.
The other traveler spreads their arms, I come in peace, and takes a single step toward the fence. The soldiers raise and level their rifles.
The traveler backs up a step, and another. And another. They continue to hold their hands out, open, away from their body. Each step is a prayer, a statement of trust, a gift. Step. Still alive. Step.
Your journey has made you sensitive to unexpected motion, however slight. You notice when a soldier farther down the fence tenses up around his rifle, raises the weapon just a fraction higher, peers more closely down its barrel. His finger tightens on the trigger. Instantly and without thought, you stand and throw back your hood. Your skin shouts magnesium-white, loud enough to fill the sky and change the world.
The traveler drops, spins, sprints out of a runner’s start for the cover of the trees. Gunfire stutters behind them, but you think they got away. Your face glows pink and gold with relief, then strobes to panic when you realize you’re a perfect target. You let yourself fall backward into the mulch. Then you crab-scramble through the palmettos as fast and as far as you can.
You stop when you sense that you’ve reached home base, or at least have escaped enemy territory. The silence is astounding. Even the small mutant things that go bzzt have caught their breath in their teeth. Somewhere nearby is the other traveler, frozen and wary, same as you.
Trust is dangerous. Hope can be deadly. But there is only so far you’ll be able to get on your own.
Come out, come out, wherever you are …
Slowly you rise to your feet. You let your heavy coat fall to the forest floor. You call out a query, just once, a high whine buzzing at the back of your throat, a pulse of emerald green like a crown. The silence after you fall still could turn any color at all.
Then it breaks up ahead on a note of the purest cerulean blue.