Jason's skipping stones across rain puddles in the street, and everything's floaty and loose with gasoline rainbows. I smell rain, it's all very rain, and the world is just starting to dry in ropy strings of sunlight. We are walking home through streets like empty veins, black and shrunken and brittle. Boarded windows we've broken and empty ones we haven't yet. It's all a complex system. A binary of broken and complete. Zeros and ones. I cock my arm, holding a little chunk of brick, and Jason shakes his head.
"Not this one," he says. I wonder at that. The next home is as empty as the last. But, of course, I obey.
Jason is my new brother. His mother, Janell, is my father's new wife. They were married in our backyard during an earthquake under a crooked parenthesis of moon. Most things are during earthquakes now. A folding table broke in the shaking, and Jason and I ate lemon cake off the grass. Crouched together like cavemen around a small fire. Janell and my father were already inside at that point, bits of their clothing left behind them in a trail like bits of skin. A tie. A shoe. A lace veil that seemed very dark in the slated moonlight.
Jason passes through a clouted puddle and, for a moment, it looks as if he's walking on water. All this feels a little uneven. We live in a sinking city. We walk by rows of crooked "For Rent" signs every day to and from the shrinking high school. Most of the signs have clumsy penises drawn right over five-dollar, shit-eating realtor grins. Sunlight leaks from the sky as curls of gray cloud unspool like softening balls of wire. I'm thinking of the narrow window above my bed through which I can see more and more stars as there are fewer and fewer lights in the city. I'm thinking of the sudden absence of my mother, and the way, when Jason asked his mother for the car tonight, for a date, she said, "Why don't you take Thomas with you? He'll keep things calm." I'm thinking of the geo gas, hissing up out of the new cracks all over the world even at this very moment.
All this feels a little like the exhausted calm after a birth. Someone is holding their breath.
Jason has a graceful wrist. It bends like the curve of a whip. He skips a stone and oily rainbows scatter. He is excited and loose for his mystery date with his mystery girl, a vaguely female shape standing behind a curtain, and he is almost not angry. Though, of course, he's always a little angry.
"Doyousuppose," he says, the single, jumbled word indicating that we are about to take a hard left into some hypothetical world of his dark making. "That if money didn't exist, my mom would still be with your dad?"
"Yeah, I think so," I say. My father has other assets that Jason may not be able to understand. I have seen the way drops of tangy shower water gather in the hair of his chest and hang there like glass beads. His back is as wide and hard as a lunar desert. With his shirt off, his skin is pale, and beside Janell, who is a cinnamon cider color, he almost glows. Luminescent. Ghostly.
"Yeah fucking right," he says, swooping down and picking another flat stone from the street in a fluid swing of motion. His eyes are dark islands in his head.
I wonder what he and I look like together. He is two years older than me and hairless and dark skinned. His hands are huge and so are his teeth. He is the only boy left on the swim team, and he swims like an eel, desperate and slick. In the bits of light bursting in the evaporating rain all around us his face looks ageless and supernatural. And me? I'm paper left out in the rain. I'm spilled milk. I'm four-foot-seven. I am fourteen, and I can feel my bones under my skin like chopsticks. I have lungs like withered leaves and tremors in my ribs. There are new cracks that go all the way across the street deep enough for me to disappear into.
"You're bleeding," Jason says, gesturing at my hand. He chuckles, shaking his head.
I look at my hand. I am bleeding. There's a shallow cut in my palm. Little drops of blood are filling all the cracks in my skin. How do these things happen?
I throw the piece of brick and it thuds lamely into the side of a post-war style home. All big, hopeful windows and clogged aluminum gutters. This is a fourteen-year-old kind of day. Bursting with long limbs and near misses. Jason laughs.
"This feels like a weird day," he says.
When we get home, Janell is baking upside-down cake and drinking something yellow from a tumbler that she holds with the absolute tips of her painted fingers. There is something shameful about looking at her. She wears panties and a short robe and little silver earrings. Her skin is like oil, almost too smooth.
She's a small woman and, yes, blindingly beautiful, and, like Jason, there is lightning trapped inside her body. I can hear her crying when my Dad makes love to her, which is almost every night. Through the crying she says things like, I'm here and yes and hurt me. Dad uses his lung voice, so personless and huge, to groan and to scream. The tin sounds of the bedsprings and the smell of all their crazy is everywhere in the house. Vodka and oranges and sweat and pineapple cake. They'd like to be the only people in the world, and I can almost understand their wordless language.
"Don't look at her," Jason told me once, sideways and under his breath. She had been wrapped in a gym towel that barely covered the exact curves of her ass. Her hair was wet, and Jason was staring at the carpet and digging his toes into it. I wasn't looking at her. I was watching him, the way his shoulder muscles seemed to move under his skin like animals beneath the surface of dark river water, but I obeyed and turned to look out the nearest window and watched our neighbors struggle to load a stained mattress into a rented truck.
"Boys," she says now, and licks a grainy blob of cake batter off a finger.
On top of all the torn fruit and alcohol, it smells like wet flour in here, thick and yeasty, and the marble countertops and steel surfaces of the oven are covered in a white film.
"Doyousuppose," Jason says, dropping his backpack in the hall with a dirty, high school thump. "That this place'll ever be clean?"
I don't say anything. We both know the answer to that. Both of us were born with the sick ability to imagine places that don't exist and never will.
"You okay?" she says, pointing at me. I'm holding my hand up and cupped, and blood is slowly pooling in it. Rising out of me on some vascular, heartbeat driven tide. There's another new cut there that must have come from some sharp rock I threw.
"Sure," I say. "I'm super fine."
"Play nice," she says, and winks, then turns away. She opens the oven and leans over to put the cake in. The robe goes up at the back and opens in the front.
"Don't look at her," Jason says. And I'm not. Not really. Not in the way he means. I'm looking at the dirty glasses on the counter and the cylinder top of an empty bottle peeking out of the trash like the top of a snorkel. Who can breathe because of that, I wonder.
"Excited for your date? Gonna get some?" Janell says, then without pausing, though Jason has nothing to say anyway, she goes on. "Keep an eye on them, Thomas. Keep them on the straight edge. Not too straight though." And she laughs with the desperate carelessness of people who appreciate their own jokes.
There's a shifty feeling in my guts, an open space feeling. Our windows, clean, unbroken, seem to magnify the light, and I don't know where to look.
Our house is built on a slab of limestone, deep in the skin of the earth. Because of this, the shakes are minor, and when the voluntary evacuations in our city became recommended, then mandatory, they passed us by. On collapse zoning maps, we live on the edges of a red zone, on an island of pale blue.
Like a crumpling ball of tinfoil, the world is shrinking. Inhaling. Collapsing. This means our city is sinking and so is the rest of the world, by colorful degrees and demarcations on zoning maps. This means blocks of the city lamely tapped off, condemned as hazardous. This means sinkholes swallowing abandoned cars and stray dogs. This means earthquakes and geo gas and so many windows to break. This means people flocking to the white zones, the stone mountains and the solid inner planes, in great, dark clouds of breath.
Everything, it seems, is shrinking. The population here is in free fall. My mother was one in a crowd. She took the dog and all our wine glasses, and hitched her ride to pilgrimage with a backpack full of broken glass and a leash bow tied around her bare ankle. So nothing. The dog used to growl and bark at me when I got too close to its food or to Mom, and Mom was always throwing seven-day candles and pixie dust and pill bottles at the walls and at my dad. She believed in everything, in phases like "great waves." Wica, Jesus, Karma. The Great Void, opening under us all a few geologic centimeters at a time. Now she believes in the road, the way all pilgrims do.
Sometimes I watch online clips of the highway processions, pilgrims and pilgrims' children limping in dirty circles across the country. Clogging the roads like human mudslides. "God is Movement," their banners read. I have seen faces in bus windows and leaning back in truck beds that are like hers, and yet, strangely out of focus. Like pictures of Bigfoot or of God. You have to squint to really see it and even then, you think it may be just your own imagination leaking out of the cracks in your head.
Dad is a geologist, a man of solid things, and the great collapse fascinates him. The new relevance of his life and his work is staggering. He works late and comes home with wild eyes.
Jason is doing supermans in the backyard, shirtless, and I'm sitting on the porch and wrapping medical tape around a puffy square of gauze clutched in my hand. There's a little cut on the inside of my lip now too, from nowhere to nowhere, and it tastes like I have a mouthful of pennies. Jason is flat on his stomach, with his arms and legs held up in the air and only his hips still connecting him to the wet tangle of suburban grass that is our life. Flying without moving. The shadow of rain still a jumble in the air.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm disappearing," I say, surprising myself, tasting blood. Somehow, the back of my other hand is cut too, and I'm pressing more gauze into it.
Jason's in the middle of a superman, but he starts laughing and his form collapses downward. He rolls onto his side in the grass, and the laughter flutters like a mad cloud of bats through his big teeth. He curls in around it.
"You know just what to say," he says. Does this mean he understands, or that he thinks I'm joking? The sun is a bald head, and the light is something always in the middle of falling on us. "I get you, man. I get you."
"What's competing like?" I say, trying to change the subject. I have seen him compete only once. He looked scared and very slim, and the pool cast random shapes of reflected light all over his body. But in the water, he became something else completely. A sea serpent. Dangerous and mythic and shining.
"Ahh," he says, sitting up and tapping his temple. Our house is huge behind me. Matching double sinks and clean lines of lagoon green trim on blind white. Casting a slim shadow that ends just as the porch ends and closes around me like a thought. "It's like disappearing."
There are little bits of grass sticking to his bare chest. The light is high and hot on him. The bones of his ribs lock slickly into the muscles of his abdomen and chest as if they are pieces in a prefabricated puzzle.
"Like the gas, man," he goes on, still tapping his temple. He is all teeth and elbows and silt skin. "Like the gas, it makes you vanish."
His date is with Olivia Lewis. Good God. I have pretended to have a crush on her for so long, I feel betrayed despite myself. She was my paper valentine in kindergarten, a cut out heart of history, which is the closest I've ever been to a girl or to anyone, except, perhaps, to Jason.
"I think I love this girl, man," Jason says.
Of course he does. This is just one more shaky inevitability somehow connected to the end of the world and to the narrow, reedy desires that seem to be growing right up out of my fingernails no matter how I try to trim them.
We pick her up, and I can see her nipples through her shirt, and her skirt may well be the lie we have all agreed to believe in. It is almost not there at all. When she steps up into the car I see her panties, they have a little bow on them, but Jason doesn't tell me to look away. Instead he smirks at me, and nudges me with his long elbow.
Jay Bird runs the old drive-in, and he, like everyone else left standing, has lost a certain decency. He wears overalls and nothing else and chews tobacco that he lets run down his chin in little black lines. When Jason drives up to the wooden booth at the entrance, painted a chipped white, and pays for our spot, Jay scans the car then gives me a tobacco-y, sympathetic look.
"Stag tonight?" he says, making change with swollen, mechanic's hands. Olivia is in the backseat, and Jason and I are in the front, but the question of whether she is with me or with Jason is a ridiculous one.
"Always," I say. "What about you? Got a girl back there?"
"Lots," he says, and gestures to the huge screen across the almost empty lot. He chuckles and spits, and it smells like dark, dark wood.
Jay Bird plays movies in silver and gray with big yellow subtitles translating French or Dutch. Love stories? It's hard to tell. Men in trench coats slap around women with perfect lipstick while in the backseat Jason groans and Olivia gasps like she's trying to catch up to someone who is leaving her behind. I smell them, the peach of her perfume and the chlorine of his skin, and the drive-in popcorn tastes like salt and spoonfuls of old grease. I try to chew as loud as I can. The crunching, which I hear with the small bones in my ears, doesn't drown out anything.
Finally, when Olivia's foot knocks me in the back of the head and she says, "Oh shit. Sorry little brother," even though we are the same age, in some of the same skeleton classes even, and Jason is all pectorals and lime deodorant and hands, and I'm seeing spots, I throw open the door then slam it.
The smell of rain is all gone and so is the sun. All that's left is the egg and gunpowder-matchstick smell of sulfur escaping through the new cracks in the earth everywhere around us. I climb onto the hood and watch the movie laying back against the windshield. My hands are aching and soaking through their tangle of bandages. I feel gently at the spot where Olivia kicked me, and my fingers come away lightly dark and wet. Something about all this, about the glass under my head, and the dull sounds of their movements and hissed laughter, and my aching hands, and the stars swimming into being above as if they are swimming down, down, into the darkness of the sky like men diving for pearls, reminds me of the beginning of the collapse.
"Repeat after me, little one," my mother had said, stroking my bulb of a head, already filling with secrets like a bowl filling with light. We were watching a stucco and cardboard city suck in its chest and fall apart on TV. People throwing rocks and bottles through windows as thin as a single layer of human skin, dispassionate but screaming anyway, the same way I might now. Earthquakes all around the world for the very first time.
"I am on solid ground. Nothing can shake me." she said, still stroking my hair while the world on TV began its protracted slide into chaos. I repeated, the words as soft as skin. I followed her the way the moon follows the sun. Cool and long.
The drive-in night smells rotten. On the screen, a huge silver man forces his tongue down a girl's throat and she only resists at first. Jason is grunting away, animal and hot. Everything is blurring, and maybe I'm crying, but I refuse to make a sound or to move even one inch from the safe space I've carved out of the air, a solid space, that is just big enough to fit my body and nothing else.
After the movie, which I can only recall as a gray shifting and an anger growing in me like a balloon inflating in the center of my head, Jason wants to go to the edge of the world and breathe the geo gas, and he makes me drive. I am fourteen and small, and I navigate down empty streets on pointed toes, stretching my neck over the wheel and swerving to avoid potholes and already run-over housecats. I clutch the wheel hard enough to open all the little cuts on my hands. It makes the wheel slick, then sticky and dense.
The edge of the world is the site of the big collapse in the center of the city. On clear days, if you look over the tip, you can see swirls of a heavy, white gas, ghost gas, like silk fog. On other days, it's all darkness. Some of the taller buildings that fell poke out of the shadows and the river of gas like the tops of underwater mountains. Islands of glass and stone. Like torn cloth, it's all very loose.
The yellow headlights are only strong enough to reveal more darkness, and the same square of empty window seems to follow us all through the squat city. Parts of the edge of the world are closed off, but I drive right through yellow tape, and Olivia screams out the window and tries to catch plastic scraps of it in her teeth while Jason holds her hips from behind. When the bony fingers of my headlights hit an edge then reach further and further into nothing, I let the car drift to a stop, then cut it.
We step outside. More tails of police tape flit in the wind like discarded clothing. A yellow like an accident. The first floor of Chuck's Hardware has slipped halfway into a sinkhole in the street, and yard shovels and orange five-gallon buckets and paint samples and plate glass are everywhere, like a life has been broken open and spilled out onto the street. A bank sits thick and stony with only one huge window damaged, cracked in the shape of a "y." Beside it is a sunken pile of wood and cotton candy insolation. I try to remember, and think a Vietnamese place used to be there. A particularly strong series of earthquakes hit this region and broke it apart along established lines, as if it were made to break in a certain way. Some streets can be driven. Some streets are all holes and cracks and negative spaces. Ones and zeros.
Olivia is talking. She is sharing bits of herself I already half knew or could have guessed.
"I'm half orphan," she says, like it makes her special. Like it should afford her certain rights. The right to self-pity. The right to shoplift and dress trashy. Like everybody's not half orphan.
"I feel that," Jason says. "I feel that deep."
Jason feels everything. He's got the oversized, radioactive sensory organs of a giant space monster.
"My dad was here when it all fell. He worked right there," she says, pointing across the rift to some building in the faraway financial district, all stiff towers, crooked now and leaning on each other like tired brothers. "He said he felt like he was in a movie. Like someone was watching his life. He felt like that even before. And while it was happening, and he watched little specs that were people falling and falling, like watching stars going out, he started laughing, and felt more free than he said he could really explain to me."
"Aquifer collapsed," I say, parroting something half remembered that I overheard my father work-shout into his cell phone.
Jason hushes me. He is bobbing his hairless head. Olivia is somewhere beside us, and he and I have our legs dangling over the crooked edge, where the street ends in a sheer cliff, and the gas rising up out of the edge of the world is smooth and cool and smells like rotting blueberries and the most ancient parts of the sea.
"He died two weeks later."
"Crushed?" I ask. Jason cracks me in the ribs, but when I look at her, she's grinning and shaking her head. The streets around us are littered with trash and random scraps of leftover lives. Food wrappers made colorless by the rain. A purple ribbon stuck to a crooked stop sign. Two high heeled shoes placed neatly together on a curb. Abandon is all around us. Everything here has been abandoned by someone.
"His heart," she says, biting her lip, and I realize she is trying not to laugh. It strikes me that this may be her first time, with the gas. "His heart exploded while he was fucking my mom."
She bursts into laughter. Jason chuckles, still bobbing his head like it's trapped in a current. I'm laughing too. It's all very laughing.
"He had a bad heart," she says, wandering away now, gliding high on animal legs. The rising current making her skirt swirl and her honey hair tangle with the stars, and even I have to admit she is frantic beauty at the edge of the world. "Bad heart. Bad heart."
She gets further away, and I can't hear her anymore over the gentle hissing of the geo gas. It swirls and dances far beneath our feet like a crowd of actual ghosts. Olivia is still visible in the starlight and the weak, random light from the cityscape far on the other side of the rift. Some businesses are still in operation, even at the edge of the world. Jason is watching her and holding his chest like he thinks he's in a black and white movie. "She gets it, man. She gets all this fatherless crap."
The patter of running water comes from somewhere. I spot a bent pipe spitting rusty muck into the white void like some twisted garden fountain.
"She's easy street, man. She's easy all over. Easy sleazy," he says, letting the last "e" hang hard between his blocky teeth and throwing his head back. The gas must already be separating his bones.
"I'm thinking about joining the swim team," I say, shifting us. And I am starting to feel the gas too. Primordial and hot. I'm sweating. "I want to be weightless."
Jason shakes his head at that, not laughing for once. Suddenly and heartbreakingly serious. Blinking rapidly and hard, as if he is trying to crush his own eyes.
"That shit's not light," he says, then pauses. "It's heavy, man."
Another pause. It's filled with gas and brittle light. He struggles for the words like someone sorting grains of sand, with a quiet, frustrated focus, staring down into the gas. I look too, but can't see anything. It's a whiteness down there that eats all light. "When you're in the water," he says. "You gotta carry yourself. Nothing's down there but you."
Off along the street, Olivia is repeating, more loudly, "I'm a fairy princess. I'm a fairy princess." Over and over and balancing on the edge of the rift, crushing big shards of glass under her feet with her arms straight out at her sides. "And when I grow up, I'll be the queen. I'll be the queen. I'll be the queen."
"Doyousuppose," Jason says, watching her. "That this is hurting us?" He waves vaguely at all the nothing between the seams of the earth. A sunken city. The arbitrary scatter of the lights in the crumbling cityscape across the void is a close mirror of the arbitrary scatter of the stars. Suddenly, it seems that all of history and all of life up to this point has only been some form of bad imitation. This is a revelation I can't quite grasp.
"I'm sure it is," I say. I feel my joints popping loose as they fill with gas. "I thought that was the point."
He laughs, slipping back into himself with an ease that baffles me. "You really get it." He slaps his hand on my thigh and leaves it there, and my muscles stiffen all by themselves.
"Get what?" I say, afraid to move. Focusing hard on the last lights in the world.
He looks pointedly to Olivia, "It man, it."
He squeezes, then lets go. And I am falling like sunlight through the void of space. Always downward, always, always, toward whatever is heaviest in all the universe.
Jason gets up and goes off to join Olivia. They laugh, young and high and wispy, and they are holding each other, and I am by myself again, legs dangling above ghost streets, and I am thinking of aquifers like caves, collapsing like hollow eggs, and how to tell if something is empty inside. I am thinking of when I learned this, a few slim months ago.
Dad was on his cell phone, using his work voice, which turned him into a stranger. Mom had disappeared with a pop, and he had slid into his new life like a man sliding for home. Delirious and excited and frightened. Moving his mistress in exactly two weeks after Mom was gone, though I still found her things hidden in the most unlikely places. A bra under the bathroom sink. A pink dog toy in a sofa cushion beside a pewter figure of the Egyptian god of life and death.
"Yes? Yes?" Dad spat into the phone. I was at the table eating wet cereal beside my brand new brother, whom I had not yet unwrapped. He had a plastic film that gave him a clean, unreal shine. Janell, my new mother-ish, was asleep in a vodka mist and would be for hours.
"No. No," Dad said, booming, and I rolled my eyes at Jason, which I meant as an invitation, and he smiled and snorted and seemed to accept it. "Of course the aquifer was basically empty, but that doesn't account for all of it. Not by a long shot."
Why was the world sinking? It didn't surprise me. Hollowness is the deep nature of all things.
This was confirmed for me later that same day, in Jason's room, flooded with hazy yellow light through his blinds spitting into my hand, and him telling me to go on, go on, what was it like making out with Cindy Braces on Halloween? Sliding my hands up her childish ribs and the springy fabric of her training bra? Not unlike this. Not unlike the thick scent of people leaking from every hole. Not unlike the taste of three-dollar whiskey in a plastic pint bottle, which Jason had bought off some kid at school, industrial fumes like lighter fluid trapped in the pockets of my teeth. Not unlike the hard, hot feeling of Jason's skin. Not unlike the gas. Not unlike everybody's eyes tightly shut, tightly shut, and someone saying, hissing, Faster. Faster. I'm almost there.
The patter of rusty water. The soft hiss of moon. I laugh. I am feeling hopeful, kicking my legs like a kid. That special kind of gassy hopeful, and in the night, opening like a canyon all around me, and the gas slowly rising and rising and escaping everything, even the earth, even the earth, even the earth, I know that if I am hollow, then at least I should be able to float.
I laugh at that, and it rushes out of me and leaves me a little shaky. My hands and my head ache. I feel something warm trickling down my chin, and I can still feel the ghost of Jason's hand on my thigh. Like a steel cuff. I stand, and, laughing, have a little trouble with balance.
Jason and Olivia have disappeared like smoke.
I find them climbing out of a diner's empty front window. They are crumpled and high. Olivia's face is a red splash of teenage apocalypse. Jason is all teeth.
"Let's run," I say. I hear Jason's loopy rattle of laughter in response. It sounds closer than it is. Echoing in the hollow places all around us. Empty storefronts. Empty streets. Police tape wrapped around everything like bandages. I stumble, slightly, on my feet.
"You sure?" Jason says, eyeing my shuffling body as I approach. I am light. I am evaporating like rain. "You look shaky."
"You're bleeding" he says, pointing to my nose, which is indeed running dark and red. I wipe at it with the back of my hand and feel it smear across my cheek. These things just happen.
"Who cares?" I say. "Do you suppose I care? You suppose wrong."
The ghost gas writhes somewhere beneath us. It's corrosive. Dissolving the world like a cube of sugar, one skin-thin layer at a time.
"The edge game?" Jason asks softly, not quite looking at me. Is he ashamed? What could he be ashamed of? He kicks an empty bottle lightly and it rolls with a hollow, glass sigh, right over the edge of the word.
"What's the edge game?" Olivia asks, watching me. She is worried, thinking I am evaporating. She doesn't need to be. The stars light our faces in odd, half ways, and I can see so clearly.
I explain the edge game to her. It's a race from 12th street up to 17th, along Ash Road. Ash is the street that runs along the edge of the world. More of it crumbles into the abyss every day, so the path is never quite where we left it, and it gets narrower as time passes. Last time, a week ago with Jason, about a third of the street was left, less, in some thin places.
"So we try not to fall?" Olivia asks, peeking over the edge, a wisp of white ghost gas on an updraft curling by her.
"On the gas," I say, "everybody falls."
"We try to fall the right way," he says, then winks.
I am running like a ghost. Thin, white-limbed boogie and shake. By the blue-white light of my phone, the blob of street two feet ahead of me wavers and shifts in my gassy eyes. It's cracked and gritty and my feet never meet the ground quite where I expect them too, stuttering and jerking. But I am running with all the limb-swinging abandon of the end of the world.
It doesn't matter. It's all very abandoned, and Jason and Olivia run just as desperately as I do.
Jason is the fastest. His limbs are long and fluid and he flows like a liquid shadow. A flash of him swimming. He has the heartbreaking ability to become whatever is around him. And he gets further and further away no matter how hard I run. Feet slapping the ground. Pumping my arms like a cartoon. Always almost falling. I can feel the softness of the street in all the little bones of my knees. The receding light of Jason's phone pops in and out of existence. Each time further away.
Olivia is ahead of me too. She runs like a normal person. Straight-backed. Eyes forward. But inside her, I know, is the bad heart she inherited from her father. The same as the weak lungs I inherited from my mother.
Just a little faster. Just a little harder, and I could catch them like fireflies in my hands. I bite down on my tongue and taste metal. The asphalt rushes under my cloud of light like the surface of a river. I am running right along the edge, and half of what I see is white nothing. I am running like I have no body. I am running like falling. This feels like terminal speed, and for just a moment, Olivia's back seems to grow, like the future growing. Even Jason feels closer. I catch a whiff of chlorine and sex on some strange wind.
The earth breaks, just a little. A small earthquake, overdue even with all the built up stress in the earth, but the street is already weak and chunks of it slide away with dirty cracking sounds. Sliding out of the light and landing in scattered splashes of ghost gas. I dodge one break and run harder. I almost fall, but catch myself on bloody hands and steel springs of pain shoot up my arms. I throw myself forward and keep running. Keep running while it all falls apart. Keep running. A crack opens in front of me, three feet and growing. A pit. Everything sounds monstrous. The crack opens and opens like some bizarre door. I jump. My own body astounds me. I am so light.
I land in a twisting jumble of ankles and knees. My phone is gone. I'm choking on blood, spitting. I'm flat on my belly, and I curl in while the street shakes and cracks around me. Breathing is a struggle all its own. I am on solid ground. Solid ground.
What's one more lie on a night like this? Another empty window. Another mouthful of gas.
The tremors slowly stop. The hiss of my mind. The sound of light crashing into the ground. The wheeze of my breath. I stand, it's tough, and I shuffle over to the edge a few feet away. It's all very soft now.
"Are you okay?" Olivia asks. She is approaching me cautiously. She must have seen me fall.
"Mad leap," she says.
I am bent over, spitting dry breath and flecks of blood into the void.
"Can't... breathe," I say, and I can't. My lungs feel burnt, wrinkled. Shrunken like dried fruits. Jason is a black dream, somewhere far away, along the edge of the earth. Where has he gone? The place in me where a little version of him has lived for months feels supremely empty and silent. Like the dark spot of the new moon.
And I am rocking back and forth over a ravine that looks bottomless, but must, of course, end somewhere. Somewhere down there, in the unseen place of all our origins.
"'course you can't," Olivia says, taking my shoulder and pulling me back from the edge. "There's no air there."
I throw up. I'm crying and spitting and my head feels like it's about to burst. I'm leaking from the new holes all over my body, and I'm losing something. I'm leaking more than blood. Lightness. My lightness. I am becoming heavy.
"Can't... breathe." I say again. It is the only thing in the world that I know to be true.
"Well, your nose looks pretty broken," she says, and a bit of light shines off a shattered window nearby and lands crooked on her. The streets are eating themselves one blank night at a time and so are the stars and random pipes are spitting rusty water like blood always. It feels like night all over my body.
Something is falling. It's all very falling.
"It feels pretty broken," I say, lightly touching my cheek. Pain ricochets against the inner walls of my skull, and it sobers me a little. My breath is coming back, my lungs inflating huge like second and third hearts. The night tastes rotten and sweet and new.
I start walking again, carefully at first. My nose is ripped to bits and crookedly pinned to my face, and I'm bleeding all over like my skin is weeping. I'm hurt, sure, but I'm not going to die. I try to shake it off. Olivia walks beside me. In the distance, Jason's lithe shadow emerges between curls of displaced gas and dust and contorted light. Or perhaps that wild shape in the distance is a young doe drinking at the gas like water, or perhaps it is a tiger escaped from some abandoned zoo, hunting ghosts. Somehow, it looks to me like all three. It raises one arm in a slow wave. Olivia waves back. Maybe this is the way pilgrims feel.
"But," Olivia goes on, and her face has all the serious flatness of the surface of a dream and all the icy beauty of completely immortal youth. She cracks a fairy queen grin. "At least your heart isn't exploding."
A weak little laugh escapes me as if it is my final prisoner, as if I am a prison finally broken open, and emptied, and cleaned.
Title image "Fade Out" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2017.