'fore it hopped to my throat it turned to me,
bright eyes glistening.
Put its black beak beside my ear,
I am here to take your voice to God."
* * *
North near Los Alamos one siren screams. Old-world newspapers boasted this warning would endure even if the reactor went down. Three years, they guessed it. Faithful sentinel, they called her. Her voice flew up in her throat and she started screaming;, wind whipped around the turbines feeding power back to her and she’s been screaming ever since.
She’s been screaming ten years, now.
Now wolves howl as they wander; you can see tan flanks loping over dunes by the horizon. Crickets drone in perpetual desert heat that evaporates when the sun slips away. A few birds still flap in the sky, and where they won’t go no one else will either. They know things.
Now wild crow garlic digs out of the trenches either side of the highway. The signs facing north are bent over backward, faces stained white in absolute horror. Signs facing south bow meekly to the sand, and on the asphalt pilgrims pass them by.
Up by the big crook sits a cairn like a congregation of stone fists. Someone stood at the edge of the highway and threw them one by one and when she was gone someone else threw them for her. You can’t pass the bend without adding to the cairn; if you take from it you’ll die. It’s a ritual. A curse as old as the world.
* * *
Raul was alive ten years ago.
He was born to the old world. He stood in the desert when the Los Alamos siren screamed, far too far for him to hear. He heard the falling whistles, though, and felt the whole Earth shudder, and when he fell to the ground and cowered with his head caught up in arms like a cage he still saw the blasts—six or seven far-off bangs, snare staccato, flashed like fireworks and were over. Birds flapped up from places he didn’t know birds stayed and careened south. Some fell to the ground like hail.
After that the world changed. Something shifted in the quality of the air or the weight of the stillness, more than dust edging south or the way the trucks stopped coming. Something shifted so deep and so unknowable that the fact of silence changed; where once it was peaceful, cupped in the chalice of the desert sand, now it was fragile and empty. It paused, deathly lost, and stayed for a moment. Then it stayed forever because it had nowhere else to go.
* * *
Raul didn’t know why he liked Anisha.
Once in a while he’d get the feeling that he did and wonder about it, but there wasn’t any reason—just the feeling. Sometimes he found more counts against her than for her—the way she’d refuse to believe things even when she knew they were true, the way she’d read volumes before the world ended and hadn’t learned a useful thing. Sometimes these vices gave him the impression she was slow, but he knew she wasn’t.
Then, sometimes, some little bit about her would strike him—the way she quoted Milosz, or the dancer’s hop-skip she ran in a hurry. She had a face that could be beautiful or ugly, depending on her mood and the mood of her observer. Sometimes she would enter a rage looking like Kali and come down from it, and her face by contrast looked as gentle as the world before.
When he found these little notions he tucked them away in the back of his mind, tried to remember them. But invariably they’d pass out of his thoughts—not immemorable, but immemorial.
They met in one of the towns where everyone had run—coastward, or inland to the lakes, or toward cities small enough not to have been tumbled, big enough not to fall. Where they had gone didn’t matter. They left the towns with what they could carry, and the rest they left for scavengers.
Raul didn’t stay with her because they were friends, at first. At first it was just desire—to have another set of footsteps in the sand to look back on, another person breathing the inhuman air.
* * *
The sixth or seventh time he and Anisha met he showed her his counter. He called it his treasure. “Best thing you can have in times like these.”
It had a yellow boxy body and a snakey cord with a sealed tube, and Raul was happiest when it did nothing. Sometimes it would click, once or twice—sometimes it would click as they walked, faster at each step. Then Raul would put his hand on Anisha’s shoulder and steer her away until the counter went quiet, and he would smile at her.
“I just saved your life.”
* * *
One day they sat on a hill and saw down in a ditch where a dog had died. The funeral guests stood over it, dressed in pressed black, heads bowed and shoulders moving and feathered tails bobbing down and up and down. Anisha smiled. “Funny, isn’t it? How they all look like they’re crying?”
That was a thing he liked about Anisha. She could see two things at once—the dinner and the funeral.
“They’re clever,” Raul said. “Think they know more than we know.” He caught Anisha watching them and laughed. “Maybe they do.”
“I’ll bet you ten of anything they don’t have a counter like yours,” she said.
“I’ll bet you twenty back they do, or they don’t need one them.”
* * *
Raul didn’t always go with Anisha. Sometimes he needed to walk alone in the silence, listen to the sounds that defined it. Now as never before he could heard the edge where crickets and cicadas intermixed. He could heard wings in wind and wind in wings. Sometimes he could heard his own heart beating, as if to remind him he was still alive.
He couldn’t add to it, could barely scratch a place for himself. Once in the first days he had shouted, screamed until his throat turned arid. The sky had an insatiable thirst for sound and would swallow it up as the ground would color—it was easy to believe that somewhere thousands had died, but left no mark upon this fitful gold.
On still days, sometimes, he thought he heard crying, hanging in the air. He’d been east and south and a little to the west, scoped out his desert and shared it with Anisha, but maybe he could have the north to himself.
He walked up the highway toward Los Alamos.
* * *
Over the road three birds flapped, sliding like shadows with nothing to cast them. They called to each other, raucous and small in a heaven too large. In this place without tombstones losing was easy—the faceless desert held its secrets in, life and death smoothed over so all that showed was sand.
Raul walked past the crook in the road and would have been fine but a cover caught his eye—the kind of cover on manholes, though no sewer ran through. It was bigger than others, made from something darker, and someone had painted on a message that had flaked off in the sun.
Maybe it was treasure. Some long-forgotten cache. Back before the world ended he would never have thought of stealing, but that was too long ago to think of. Whoever made this left so long ago the paint had flaked away. Or they lost it and couldn’t find it. It didn’t occur to him they didn’t want it found.
He kicked off the cover and stared down into a well, where there wasn’t any light to see by. When he considered putting a hand in, it was snakes he was afraid of disturbing. He didn’t notice his counter crying like ten cicadas until he knelt, then he didn’t know what to do—first he tried to run away, then in a panic he ran back and kicked the cover into place, and he didn’t remember what came next but Anisha found him far away shaking, holding the counter in his cracked and bleeding hands.
Of course. It was a burial. Of course.
She sat down beside him, not close but not far away. When he saw her he screamed in one short yelp, threw the counter into the straggling bush where it clicked a slow cicada. He started crying. “Did no good at all, damn thing! It’s probably tainted now, too.”
“How bad?” she asked.
Raul found the math in his head. His mind had the conversion ready, had waited for her to ask for it. “Twelve sieverts. It’s a lethal dose.”
Anisha looked off at the horizon. She looked down at her hands.
“I still have drugs. Pills, and things. I know some places maybe we can take some more. If—”
“I’m not sick, Ash,” Raul said.
“Yes. You are.”
“I’m not sick.”
“They call it sickness.”
“It’s not the same!” He looked at her, hands jerking in futile gestures. “A sickness is this living thing inside you, get it? This living thing that fights you and you can fight back and you can hate it and you can win. This is different. It’s like burning yourself. It’s like staying out in the sun too long and getting sunburnt. It’s like swallowing part of the sun and burning inside, with no shade to get to, never!”
That was a reason he liked Anisha—she didn’t cry. Her face scrunched up and she’d get a sphinxish slant to her eyes, but then she’d turn away quickly and with three sharp breaths she’d be fine to talk again.
“Just get me a blanket,” he said. “See if you can find one.”
“You can come inside at night,” she said with her back turned. “There are some safe buildings. It’s not cold that way.”
“The blanket isn’t for the cold,” he said.
“Then what’s it for?”
“It’s for you shouldn’t have to see this.”
* * *
She tucked him in against his protests. Didn’t move him. Brought him food, cleaned up his messes, the blood and rude expulsions. Stood sentinel while he dreamed.
His dreams came choked in garlic and dust, terrible outcries that clung to his eyes. He dreamed of becoming hollow, so his skin would fall in flakes down through his bones—of becoming a skeleton, wrapped in pain like a blanket. He dreamed an unending ache, pushed by his fumbling heart—one long hurt like dusk on the bruised horizon.
Sometimes he would wake up and see that Anisha had a pile of fist-sized stones and would fling them at dogs that got too near. He dreamed of scavengers dancing past his crumbling skin. He dreamed of his bones lasting after him, warmed first by sickness and then desert sun. He dreamed of the edge where they blended, heat to heat, dust to blood, screams to the thirsty air. And then he dreamed of nothing.
He opened his eyes and the world hung about him, tatters for a shroud. Anisha watched him, as if she could learn every crater on his changing face.
“I think maybe you’re still alive,” she said. She dribbled water past his lips, and when his throat was wet enough he smiled.
“It’s a ghost phase,” he said. “I don’t know why it happens. It’s all the health I have, now. But this is how it is, this peace is how we die.”
“Why do you think I want to hear this?” she asked.
“Because it’s the world, and a counter won’t help you.” He looked up at her. “But if you go up the highway, up where it bends—”
“Stop, Raul,” she said.
“There’s a manhole cover, Anisha.”
She looked at him with eyes like autumns. “What do you want from me?”
“If it turns out,” and he choked and almost laughed. “If it turns out there’s no way to change the past, that this is what’ll happen these next hundred years, you’ve gotta bury it. Don’t you dare go near, but bury it so no one else will either.”
* * *
The ghost phase ended.
Anisha wrapped her hand in gauze to hold his, and he could feel his heart failing through the pressure of her grip.
He thought he was delusional—the last steps to take, delusion and then death—when huge dark wings beat down the air around him.
Kaah, the black bird threatened. Haak.
Anisha took a rock and drummed it on the dust. “Don’t,” she said, hefting it. “I’ll smash your shiny feathers.”
“Don’t.” Raul sounded stronger, as if the pain sloughed off like sand and left him well again. He watched the bird too, its black body an exclamation in the dust. “Ash, leave that bird alone.”
“But—” she said.
“Hey,” he called out to it, flopping his fingers in the dirt. “Come here. C’mere, you. C’mere.”
It strutted over, putting down its feet like a little onyx Caesar. When it got close it showed its wings, and Raul laughed far back in his throat.
“It was twelve sieverts, little fella. I don’t have much time—I don’t have much extra. You wanna tell me something, you wanna tell Anisha something nice and comforting, you tell it up quick.”
It quirked its head, regarded them both before it leaned in.
Gaad, it told him. Gaad.