The night when the world ended I thought I was sleepless. The day had been especially torrid and darkness, alas, didn’t bring relief. Truly, I must have dozed off intermittently, as the voice of the police took me by surprise.
They were booming away from their choppers. With all windows open, I could hear them as if they were shouting in my face. I was used to it. In summertime, they came often. Fires started frequently. Houses or flats deserted for vacations attracted seasonal burglars. Ordinary people, alas, were prone to random attacks of madness due to the high temperatures.
In a daze, I waded into the kitchen, where I noticed something strange—besides the officers yelling. A glare. I looked up. The ceiling seemed taller. As I probed the wall for the light switch I stopped, realizing I didn’t need turning it on. A cold, eerie luminosity peered from above. Somehow, the roof had become… transparent? I held my breath.
I didn’t. On the contrary, I started to hyperoxygenate, getting dizzier by the minute. I could see through, could I? Pure and simple. Through opaque, solid matter—walls, tiles… They had not vanished. Their appearance hadn’t changed. Only, they didn’t block my vision anymore. Everything had suddenly become… porous?
Not entirely. I mean things were somehow veiled, indistinct. Yet I saw the helicopters, no doubt. Three of them, lowering in rapid succession, almost level with my roof—my sheer, my inexistent-although-still-existent roof. Their color… How was it possible? They were painted a gaudy turquoise, almost festive. What was that? Were they real or was a movie being filmed? Was it a kind of advertising?
Wait! How was I reasoning, or rather unreasoning? Why would the color of the engines matter under such absurd circumstances? Hadn’t all parameters of reality shifted? I mean of perception. Hadn’t I stepped into an awake dream of sorts? Wait! Listen, would I?
I could hear their words so clearly, I said, they seemed etched in stone, so near they seemed intimate, confidential—notwithstanding their volume, and in spite of the fact they were uttered by a sheriff or such.
“Alert! Someone in the house is in pain. Someone is in danger. We have detected a persistent lament. Someone needs immediate attention. We are going to search the house. Someone might need to be flown to the nearest hospital. Alert!”
I rushed towards the guest bedroom—the one in the back, separated from the kitchen by a small den. A few steps away, but another phenomenon took place. At least I believed so—too flustered, too preoccupied for a full, rational understanding. But for sure things were happening, or had happened, with matter—now getting denser, I guess. I don’t know. Maybe time was dilating instead. Briefly…
It wasn’t brief. On the contrary. Slowly, slowly, against immense resistance, as if the air had solidified into a deadly cobweb, I tried to cross the den—my body stretched forward, arms swimming in a desperate crawl, my feet holding back, helplessly glued on the floor.
In the meanwhile, I was scorching my lungs with screams—“Arthur! Arthur! Arthur!”—as I called my brother, my young brother who must be in trouble, for sure. He must have overdosed—my nightmare—my permanent fear—Jesus Christ—I should call the police. Thank god, the police were there!
Then I came to my senses. I recalled my brother had passed years before, clean and sober, in his adult age. He hadn’t lived with me for many decades, and now he was dead. Why did I even… I had slipped into a wrinkle in time. I had retrograded. Regressed.
In the meantime, the air surrounding me had given—or did something happen with time? Not sure, but I had crashed with all of my weight against the bedroom door, which swung open, and momentum made me fall on my knees. Luckily, the bed rug where I landed was soft. My hands met the mattress, grabbing it for support. I rested my head upon it, exhausted.
The odor sneaked through my nostrils, thin, subtle. A faint scent of moisture and dust, both brittle and damp, full of contradictions. A smell of enclosure and past—both cozy and uncomfortable. Darkness here was perfectly dense. I could not see through walls. As a matter of fact, I saw nothing, my face buried deep into the mattress, niched, indented. Then a hand touched mine.
Two hands. Repeatedly. Not affectionately, simply reassuring. Gently, but with a kind of remoteness. Very calming, especially because I had recognized them. By the size—exceedingly small—the shape—strangely conical—the long nails. Most of all the skin texture, which for each of us is unique, unmistakable, just like fingerprints.
“Elsie,” I sighed. “Elsie, Elsie…” A compulsion, a commandment made it clear I should repeat each word thrice. No voice answered. I couldn’t hear breathing. The hands replied, though, palms against my palms, fingers interlacing—sensible, lively. Yet something was odd in their placidness, their cool, their lack of urgency.
Then I recalled my sis lived across the planet could travel no more and we had not seen each other, in fact…
Then I was back into the kitchen, standing still by the table, blinking at the glare, aggravated by the hovering presence of the police yet feigning indifference. My stare vacuously paused on a vase of withered marigolds parsed with myosotis whose blueness…
I considered a glass of water. The fridge was behind me. I should turn, but it seemed vital for my hands to hold the edge of the table, and my head ached for immobility.
My head ached because they were deafening me—the police—as they kept hammering their warning like a broken record.
My son! An old ulcer pain stabbed my stomach. Was I finally awake? I had recovered the present tense. Present! Present! Once more, I rushed towards the guest bedroom that indeed was my son’s room, and my son must be in trouble, and I had missed it. I had missed him, stuck in past confusion and sibling revivals.
My son! His room, movies, music, posters, clothes, old bikes, engine parts, random electronics, half-smoked cigarettes, childhood toys, lost wallets, torn backpacks, leather jackets and charms, bongs and pocket knives, neckties, and nail clippers.
I walked into the now-familiar space, lit by the mild, sweet, natural blush of dawn, and I murmured his name three times as per superior orders.
But I wasn’t looking for him, well knowing he was gone—a grown-up living on his own. I just hadn’t finished emptying the nest, having had other fish to fry. No urge, the task could be postponed. Good for me! My lack of alacrity in tidying the house and clearing my son’s possessions had turned to my advantage, because now I curled onto the bed, surrounded by the most delightful of messes—an encyclopedia of life in its wondrous minutia, the most futile, the dearest. A festival of remembrance.
I was looking at nothing. Things came to my eyes at their pace, dancing graciously. I even managed, perhaps, another fragment of sleep.
The voice of the police awoke me. I could hear the words neatly, perfectly, spat like balls of stone from the mouth of a cannon, blown like poisoned arrows, thrown at me like grenades.
“Someone inside the house is in serious pain. Someone needs to be succored. We are coming!” Were they? Why hadn’t they yet? Clearly, they were fake. A projection. Advertising. A trick. A portent, or miracle, or mystery. Unsolved. Unsolvable.
And I shouldn’t care because it meant nothing. No action needed to be taken. Not even a lesson was there to be learned. I should go back to my own bed and get proper rest. Why had I fretted so much? Why had I allowed for my consciousness to be turned into a spoiled mayonnaise?
No one in the house needed help. No one was in pain, as I should have known immediately. Such an occurrence was utterly impossible because no one was in the house besides me. No one at all.
Toti O’Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has recently appeared in Reunion, Maryland Literary Review, Sum, and The Capra Review.