art by Liz Clarke
by Michael Banker
***Editor's Note: Adult Language appears in this story. You've been warned.***
Alyssa held out her hand and watched the sunlight leak through her fingers. Not ordinary sunlight; certainly not like anything she had ever gleaned from a Physics textbook. It looked like faintly iridescent, golden foam, and she could clearly see it drifting onto her palm like snow and then dripping through the cracks of her fingers. The air glowed with it. Pockets of congealed light collected on the pavement before evaporating or melting away. The effect was subtle enough that if Alyssa tilted her head just so, it would disappear, like rain viewed against a dark backdrop. But even in those moments, the air still sparkled as if concealing a secret.
All Alyssa knew was that it was instinctively, exquisitely wrong. It felt as though the world had decided to end, not with a bang, but with a shudder and a whispered farewell.
And all of this started only two hours ago. Two hours since Alyssa squinted into the sunlight from the library steps and decided that something seemed weird. Now she ran, floundering in this new reality that no one could properly explain. Was it radioactive particles, or perhaps static from a parallel universe? Were the four horsemen of the Apocalypse riding up the horizon? Alyssa ran and listened to the distant sounds of yelling and crying and laughing. To doors closing as people sought shelter from the paradoxical light. But it was too nice a day to waste indoors! She found that thought so funny that she wanted to puke.
Let me out, Alyssa wished silently, let me out, let me out of this beautiful nightmare. But then she thought, Henry will be able to fix this. Or at least explain it. Or hold me in his arms as the world crumbles to pieces around us. Funny how it wasn't her mother or her twin sister that Alyssa ran to in the end, but the on-and-off boyfriend who inspired grief, heartbreak, and cut-the-bottom-out-of-her-heart fondness in almost equal measure. Maybe there was something real between them after all.
Alyssa clung to that thought, gold and shimmering like the foamy light, as she finally crossed the street to Henry's apartment complex, thrust her spare key into the lock, and then threw herself up five flights of stairs. Her mood had taken to oscillating between panicked and detached, and just then she was in full fight-or-flight mode. She lunged for his door and called out, "Henry!"
A dizzying blast of chemical fumes slammed Alyssa flat in the face when she opened the door. She teetered and knocked over something with her foot; looked down to find an upended paint can and violet paint splashed in a wet arc across the hardwood floor.
Paint. That was what the apartment reeked of. Wall primer, acrylics, water colors... containers of every kind of paint imaginable littered the room.
"Shut the door!" Henry barked, and Alyssa jumped and did so.
"Grab a paintbrush," he told her. And then, "I was so worried, why didn't you answer your phone? Here, you do the window." He crossed the room toward her. For a moment their eyes met, and it was like coming home. But then he snatched a can of primer off the floor and rounded on the door, painting liberally between the cracks as if to weld it shut.
Alyssa belatedly turned toward the window. There was a hasty branch painted across the glass--twin to the real branch outside, she realized. And a half-formed swing-set. Henry was apparently painting the scene that he saw looking out.
"Hurry up with the window," urged Henry, "I want that done next. Then we can talk."
Henry had a plan. Alyssa had convinced herself that Henry would save her, and look, here he was: actually doing something. So she suspended disbelief and picked up his abandoned paintbrush... hovered it over his lines... but her hand was shaking. It was trembling so hard, like she was having paroxysms or something. She stared at her own hand, willing it to stop, but then she dropped the brush onto her shorts, leaving a thick gray streak across the red fabric. "Shit!" she cursed. "Shit, shit, shit." Tears collected in her eyes as she rubbed furiously at the smear.
Then Henry was there, holding her trembling hands and kissing her forehead. "It's okay, Lyss, I'm sorry. I'll take care of this, huh?"
"Henry, what's happening?" she said.
"I don't know what's happening."
"What's going on out there?"
"I don't know."
"Well then what," she said, "are you doing?"