Choice: Full Story

Image: Winter Garden by Mark A. Harrison

I

Mistaken for dead, they carried him to a stone room, the room where his brother lay. Seven years since the fall, when feathers had drifted snow-soft, and silver blood pooled mercury-thick on the frozen ground. Measuring the hours by the frequency of the static on the radio, the day by the twining of the vines that grew from the bodies, how long it took for the red flowers to open. When the pollen broke free and drifted up into the night sky, bright motes of dust turning to stars, he would know a year had passed. And so it went.

II

Winter came, a shock of snow on the trees, white against unseasonable green. Darkness had become habitual, and so the light blinded him at first. There was a hint of sweet decay in the air, blankets of leaves settling after the rain. There had been fingernail scratches in the stone, shining blue-white against the black.

He’d been given a watch as a child, its letters bright green in the unlit bedroom. For a long time, he believed anything that glowed was radioactive, and had the potential to bestow superpowers. He also knew these things could only happen by accident. And so he willed himself to forget what he knew. It was, after all, the only reason he was standing here now, blinking and shading his eyes against the glare. To return to the living world, one need only forget that one is dead.

III

Like most of her kind, she could not remember being born. Her first memory was of floating, suspended on the wind, surrounded by winking sparks. Their rising action guided, not by physics, but by something else – something that had dipped its fingers in the sunspots and swirled them as one might swirl milk in coffee, something that had watched molten magma cool and solidify, had seen the first rain fall on barren land, buffeted by waves tall as mountains. Were she anyone else, they would have called it foolish bravado, this attempt to resist what they all knew to be an irresistible force. But she was innocent, and so when she sang herself down again, they smiled and shook their heads and said, young people these days. She won’t last long down there, they said, all alone in an unforgiving world. She’ll come back eventually, it’s only a phase. She could not mark the precise moment when they forgot about her, but she felt it happen. It was some time after the first moment she set bare feet on stone.

IV

The watch lay where he had left it, next to the bootleg Pogues album. Some live concert in Bristol, before it had all come apart. The face was dark, lifeless, until he ran a sentimental finger across the scuffed glass, leaving a smear of brightness that faded like fogged breath on a window.

Before the fall, the sight of a naked woman strolling through the wreckage as if on a summer beach might have startled him. He had seen many such sights since, although the shapes had often staggered and stumbled, as if half-blind. He had thought, the first time, that the fire might have returned, that the moon might once again be reflecting the sun. They had all left, in the end. His brother had died, trying to follow them. Now here she was, marching through the steel graveyard towards him, as if she knew him. She must have gotten lost, he thought, all those years ago. Only she did not walk like someone lost. When they finally stood face to face, he realized that he knew her, had known her all along.

Sorry I’m late, she said. He held up the broken watch. The way his cheeks felt, oddly stretched, he must have been smiling. I remember now, she said, how to bring it all back.

V

It is Saturday again, and they are leaning over the wooden railing, watching children play. Boats made of sticks and paper bob in the green water. At the end of the boardwalk, a woman in face paint is giving out free balloons. Is this real? he asks. She shrugs, says, that’s up to you. Her hand on his is warm and cold, like ice melting. The sparks from the bonfire jump and spit like firecrackers in the final throes of ecstasy.

Above, a gull circles the sky, white against the blue.

T.H.

Photo by Mark A. Harrison