Her only memory of the end was of great, winged beasts descending upon the earth. Had that really happened or had she imagined it? She thought about the creatures often, most often at night, behind tightly closed eyes. Maybe the answer to her question did not really matter.
She saw them more clearly every night, as if they were only gradually revealing themselves to her.
Only to her…
Rachel stared across the table at Greg while she spooned meat from the great black bowl. Silverware clinked against broken dishware as they ate. Rachel found it difficult not to look at Greg. She watched him stab a piece of meat with his tarnished fork and bring it effortlessly to his mouth. He chewed without wincing. Rachel admired that. She admired the way his firm jaw moved beneath this skin; she could not take her eyes away from his mouth. She wondered what that mouth would feel like on—
It was John.
“I said, could you pass the salt?”
John stared at her through his glasses. His eyes looked crossed.
Now everyone was staring at her.
Greg was staring at her.
She could feel the blood pulsing behind the skin of her face. She grabbed the salt shaker and handed it over to John. Looking down at the food again, she felt the pressure of the three gazes. Had they understood what she had been thinking? Had Victoria caught her staring? She spooned three more helpings of food.
John was pouring salt over his plate. John always covered his plate with salt. Rachel ground her teeth so she wouldn’t have to hear its falling-sand sound.
Unconsciously she looked at Greg again, at his thick neck, at his hair.
The conversation went on around her. Greg’s voice made her eyes water, made her palms sweat. She wondered how that voice would feel whispered in her ear late at night under the yellow moon. She and Greg spread out on a blanket holding each other, knowing each other, watching the dim movement of the heavens. She discreetly shook her head. How could she be thinking of Greg this way? How could she be doing this to Victoria? Oh forget it, forget it.
“The water is particularly refreshing tonight,” John said. Rachel hated him when he said that. Not that she felt differently; it just sounded so … bland, coming from John.
It was hard not to look at Victoria, at the drool.
“Well,” Greg spoke, “it’s all we have, you know.” He looked at John, a quizzical expression spreading across his face. He hesitated, as if almost remembering something, then he shrugged. “I guess we’ve all been very fortunate to even have the pond. And to have uncontaminated food.”
Both Rachel and John glanced accidentally at Victoria but then looked quickly back at Greg. He did not miss the glance; surely he was used to that by now. Poor Greg, thought Rachel.
“I know,” said Greg, “I know what you’re thinking.” He did not have to look at Victoria to remind himself. He did not have to acknowledge the bandages or the wire. He looked down at his food and shook his head.
John said, “Still, it is quite refreshing.” He drank deep from his glass.
The winds beneath those wings, the destruction in their wake. Collapsed buildings, savage cries.
Clouds of memory in Rachel’s mind: deep thunder above the falling beasts as they struck. Eternal night, black faces.
Rachel giggling softly as the giant birds screeched overhead. Her hair whipping in the darkness.
And when the rain began, Rachel wanted to scream but could only laugh.
Rachel stabbed another piece of meat.
She stared at Greg, who was speaking again after a very long pause.
“Please don’t think I’ve lost sight of what’s happening. I do know what’s happening. I just … just …” He shook his head slowly. Rachel had accepted the fact that he no longer looked Victoria in the face. He never spoke to her. “I want you both to know that I’m … I’m at peace.”
John grunted. Rachel, a tear moving down her left cheek, wanted to spit in John’s face. Of course, she couldn’t. She hated when he grunted like that.
Greg pulled more food from the bowl with the wooden spoon. Greg did not use salt. Rachel noticed with a quick lump in her sore throat that his eyes were brimming with tears. She stared at him and coughed briefly. She wondered what the skin of Greg’s back might feel like.
Their next-door neighbors, Greg and Victoria, finally ducked in between downpours to stay with them.
“There is pleasure in numbers,” Greg had said, hastily brushing off the few drops of water clinging to his stained jacket.
“This is the best thing to do,” said Victoria, “the most logical thing.”
Rachel was able to speak then. The water from the pond had not yet ruined her vocal cords. Still, she said nothing as they moved their awkward furniture in; she could only stare at Greg. Her eyes would not leave him. His broad shoulders, his long arms, his strong nose; she could so easily imagine him flying …
Victoria uttered a prolonged moan through her sealed lips. It was difficult to ignore. Of course, the louder sounds were always difficult to ignore. Rachel chewed faster, trying to create a blanket of her own sound within her head. One time—a week ago?—Rachel had been feeding Victoria the small bits of food they found in neighboring houses, food they deemed fairly edible—uncontaminated was the word Greg used. It had been completely quiet in the house. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, Victoria had screamed. Rachel had jumped, mashing her head against the slanted wall, hissing her own silent scream.
It took forever to get over that scare.
A viscous fluid rimmed John’s mouth as he whispered: “Do you ever think we should have known better than to drink from the … the pond? Did it ever occur to any of us that the water might not be entirely pure?” He glanced around the table with his crossed eyes, moving his head as much as his mangled neck would allow. “Did you ever—”
Greg brought his fist down on the table, wincing at the pain. Rachel noticed that the skin of his hands was also splitting in places. “Do you think we had a choice?”
Rachel reached for her glass of pond water and drank in painful gulps. Greg was so smart. He seemed to know all the right answers. Why couldn’t she think like Greg? Why couldn’t John be like Greg?
Greg repeated his words: “We had no choice …”
Rachel looked down at the food on her plate, feeling the water wash over the sores in her stomach. Then she looked at Victoria, who was staring at Greg’s plate of food. Could she possibly be hungry for that food? Was she longing to chew this meat, to digest this meat?
Rachel backed herself away from the makeshift table and walked slowly into the bathroom. She came close to jamming her fingers down her throat to bring up the food.
Dimly she thought of the pond. Of Victoria’s face. The feelings within her swirled angrily for a moment and then spiraled away. She looked at her own wrecked face in the broken mirror and found that she could only think of Greg’s words: no choice. Would those words keep her awake tonight, as they had on other nights?
She went back out to the dining room, where she knew no one had spoken since her departure. Victoria was looking at her. Was she trying to smile beneath her gag? Rachel moved to her place beside John, across from Greg. They all looked at her.
“Are you alright?” asked John, placing one twisted hand on top of hers.
She nodded painfully. Might she someday have the courage to say “No”? She guessed not. “No choice,” Greg had said. She understood that those words applied to other things, too.
Something about the rain, something so … bright. But something so dark.
She wanted to stand beneath it and open her mouth and let the water pour into her, fill her. She watched the thick drops, entranced by their danger, their evil.
There were corpses outside, their mouths open, filled with the brackish water. Eyes still open, she imagined, watching the high flights of the giant birds.
She ached to swim, to fly, through the rain.
She knew she would not eat anything more tonight. Why hadn’t it disturbed her before, she asked herself, that Victoria always watched her eat? That pitiful blank stare, watching the meat move from plate to mouth. Why had that not bothered her before? Maybe it was Victoria’s silence; maybe it was the quiet complacence of her expression.
Or had Rachel at one point simply chosen to forget that July evening when they had drawn straws? Probably she had needed to push away the memory of that night. But on some days, days like this one …
Even though he had suggested they draw straws and had even broken in half the matchstick that would mark the loser, Greg was crying. Rachel watched him, wanting to comfort him, longing to touch him. Was it wrong to feel the way she felt? Should the outcome have so darkly thrilled her? John sat in his chair staring at his thin dry hands, at his unbroken matchstick.
Victoria had not moved.
Rachel looked at her, not knowing how to speak to her, realizing that she could never talk with her in the same way ever again. It seemed odd how the quality of a relationship could balance so precariously upon a point of such helpless absurdity.
They all avoided looking at the small broken stick that Victoria still held between her trembling fingers.
Would they ever speak to one another again?
Maybe, though Rachel.
It would take time.
Hunger pangs both chilled and burned her insides. She knew it was the same for the others. They all would have died. Yes, they all would have perished.
She stared at the pond water in her glass, and then at the stunted matchstick protruding from Victoria’s fist.
For how long had they been drinking that water? Rachel couldn’t remember. For how long had water been falling from the strange-looking clouds? She couldn’t remember. She moved her gaze to the dark window over the dry sink—this pane had not yet shattered beneath the driving gales—and watched the gritty rain fall.
Greg said, his voice trembling: “I can’t do it, John … you’ll have to do it.”
Rachel looked quickly into Victoria’s eyes, trying to read the expression there, but she could see nothing. The pupils dilated upon a deep chasm.
She wondered how many people were still alive. Hundreds? Thousands?
John got up from his seat, dropping his matchstick onto the table with a tiny click.
Victoria looked over at Greg, who wouldn’t meet her eyes.
John picked up the wire from the floor.
She wondered if she might be able to see Greg alone tonight. Away from Victoria. That should be easy enough. He usually kept Victoria in the basement now, where it was cool. Greg’s bedroom lay beyond the kitchen, two doors past the blackened hole in the west wall, a hole that had become their access to the pond. She would try to find him. She would enter his room quietly. Greg would open his arms to her and speak softly into her ear the things that she so wished he might say to her, about her.
She glanced at John, who sat writhing in the midst of one of his convulsions. Greg never convulsed. She believed sometimes that John did that only to be dramatic.
She would find Greg. Touch him. Talk.
Victoria started moaning again, and Rachel left the table. She went to her room and crawled into her bed.
Rachel dreamed about the pond.
About the day she had walked out to the pond when it was new, filled with the liquid from the black sky. She remembered feeling both attracted and repelled, and that strange conflict came back to her in her dream.
She walked barefoot across the warm concrete, feeling the moon on her back, watching her shadow glide toward the water. Greg was watching her from the kitchen window; she understood that, felt urged on toward the beckoning water by his gaze. The pond pulled her with warnings, and she was hypnotized.
She pushed her toes into the mud, felt it surround her foot. She brought her head back. The feeling was almost sexual. She let out a quiet moan, experiencing a wave of gray joy.
She pulled the stained dress up over her head without a thought. It left her grasp and floated away with a gritty breeze, settling gently to the earth. She moved along the perimeter of the pond naked, feeling Greg’s eyes.
She was so thirsty.
The touch of the water, lapping softly against her ankles, made her want to cry out. She closed her eyes, biting her bottom lip. The water tickled her calves. She saw the water behind the lids of her eyes, rising and falling, caressing, dangerous, pure, bright. She brought her hands to her breasts, feeling the water above her knees. She felt a teenage giddiness.
“Rachel,” a voice whispered. Rachel at first thought the voice belonged to the water, it sounded so moist and resonant.
Coldness at her thighs.
She brought the palms of her hands to the surface of the water, touching it gently. The cool water entered her and she gasped.
She opened her eyes, her body jerking. Greg watched her from the side of the pond.
She opened her arms to him.
He reached for her hand, pulling her roughly from the water. She cried out, suddenly frightened.
“What are you doing?” Greg asked. “You know it will kill you.”
She craned her neck, looking back at the water, her head already clearing. Greg brought her close to his body, holding her tightly.
“Are you okay?” he asked her gently. “Did you forget?”
Rachel could only stare into his eyes. She found memories there, of the rain and of the blackness. Of the fires in the sky and of the red lightning. Of the screaming echoes and of the rushing smoke.
She turned her gaze to the dark water, feeling its eerie attraction again. It pulled at her. She snapped her head back, nestling against Greg’s warmth.
He had saved her. So graceful, she thought.
“Are you alright?” he asked her, lifting her dress from the ground.
She opened her mouth, moving her tongue across her dry lips.
“I know,” he said. “I am too.” Then he draped the torn dress awkwardly over her shivering body. “I’m thirsty too.”
She stood on her toes to kiss him lightly on the lips. His mouth felt dry and cracked, but he returned the kiss and Rachel felt a blanket of dark bliss envelop her.
She woke from her dream sluggishly, reluctant to leave his arms. She smiled, feeling pleasure at his touch, and an inevitable foolishness at their first frightened reactions to the water they—at the very least she—had since discovered was harmless. She laughed quietly, her thoughts making her thirsty again.
Rachel couldn’t get enough of the pond water. Her belly bulged and sloshed painfully.
John had finished tying Victoria to the chair with the wire. She had not resisted, had not even blinked. She still held the matchstick between her thin fingers.
Rachel took another drink, staring at Greg, who closed his eyes. He was so composed! Silently he grasped his own glass of pond water and drank, a single slow tear moving down his cheek.
John inserted the gag.
Rachel grew excited. She kept imagining her meeting with Greg. If only they could meet by the pond, so that the cool water might wash slickly over their skin, caressing them, exciting them.
She moved with difficulty out of her bed and walked to the cracked mirror, where she pulled a broken-toothed comb through her matted hair. Her heart beat painfully.
When should she go? The very thought squirted adrenaline through her veins. Should she go to him while he slept, and gently wake him? Or should she go soon and fall into his waiting embrace?
She pulled hair from the teeth of her comb and stuffed it into a box of waste.
She looked over at John, who sat in the corner convulsing and talking to the wall about how delicious the water had tasted today. The soft incessant babble of his words only made her think of Greg.
Her face flushed, Rachel opened the door.
The great rolling dirty clouds had begun to appear shortly after the television stopped working and all the radio stations began to blare static. After the first of the burning winds whistled through the town. After the first of those majestic winged creatures screamed across the sky. Her memory was dim. She had vague recollections of life before the pond, but as soon as she felt she had grasped a moment from her past, it moved like a dissipating mist away from her. She did not feel remorse. Should she?
John brought the knife to Victoria’s shoulder. He had sharpened the knife as well as he could against an old leather strap. The knife was not very sharp, but Rachel predicted that Victoria would not feel much pain. They had been drinking pond water for three weeks. The resulting numbness they all felt should block out most pain.
Rachel drank pond water and looked at Greg, who watched the knife begin to work. John’s slight sawing motion rocked the table. Greg was no longer crying.
She would have him now, and with him she would fly.
Rachel moved to the blasted hole that led to the pond. She paused there, her gaze settling on the lightly moving water. It was so quiet, so dark and peaceful, and yet the pond seemed to vibrate and hum. She could feel it in the soles of her feet, under her toes, in her lungs.
She considered going out to its edge and touching its water with her feet. A rainbow of colors danced just beneath the surface. If she touched it, would those colors burst outward to overwhelm her? Would that life overtake the grayness that surrounded her? She longed to be in the pond, but Greg’s words always came back to her, whispering in her ear: You know it will kill you …
How could such loveliness provoke such cruel words?
The blood flowed sluggishly at first and stopped in no time with only minimal dressing. Rachel guessed this was due to the pond water as well …
Her own body seemed to be in the process of some elaborate change—it could only be for the better. Though she could no longer speak, she felt little pain. Though her skin had toughened and formed hard calluses in several areas, she felt that she more clearly understood the things going on around her, more quickly grasped concepts the others seemed to ignore. For example, only she knew about the flying beasts. Only she knew that they were actually a force for good, and that they would come back for her and take her away to somewhere beautiful. She felt this deep inside her, deep inside her where the pond water flowed.
There were other things: the shedding of hair and fingernails, the strange welts above her abdomen, the spitting pores. These were hardly worth mentioning. She knew that whatever the water from the pond was doing to her insides, it was keeping her alive. Now wasn’t that something to value?
John handled Victoria’s arm delicately. He placed the knife on the table. The room was quiet and still.
Victoria had cried out only once.
She knocked gently on Greg’s door, pushing softly against it. Her heart beat heavily. She could hear and feel the rush of blood and adrenaline through her skull.
No answer. Was he asleep? For how long had she slept? Perhaps it was much later than she’d thought.
She brought up her hand to turn the knob and pushed more forcefully against the door, opening it a foot, two feet.
Would he be on this bed, watching her entrance, holding one long-fingered hand toward her, beckoning? Would he be smiling, welcoming?
She moved through the doorway, deciding to surprise him. It’s going to happen tonight, she decided. I’m going to touch Greg. I’m going to love him.
It was the left arm first, then the right arm. Had that been her suggestion? Had it been part of a conscious desire to render Victoria partially defenseless? She couldn’t remember.
The legs next, then the tissue of the lower torso, being careful to avoid the organs of the abdominal cavity. Rachel was always nervous watching the knife in John’s shaking fingers.
Then the shoulders and the back.
Then, just recently, the face and the tongue.
How much longer would Greg insist they keep her alive?
All these thoughts, flitting through her consciousness all the time, especially now, seeing the monstrosity atop Greg’s bed in the middle of the night. Had she been able to do so, she would have screamed.
How much longer would he keep her alive? The question came to her again, and it was answered abruptly. Rachel knew from a distance of eight feet that Victoria was dead. She saw it in the eyes. Life was gone from them.
Rachel walked to the bed and stared into Victoria’s wrecked face. She noticed the look of peace, the stillness.
The finger marks around the neck.
“Greg …!” she called soundlessly, happiness flowing through her.
She turned around, toward the door. She knew where he must be, where he must be waiting for her, where—
Her eyes found Greg.
Sliced and served in the black bowl. They had been sick the first time. Because they had not eaten in so long? Or because of the implications? Perhaps both.
Did Greg even care that Rachel existed?
A pond-water tear moved down her cheek as she chewed the meat.
Swinging, swinging. Greg was. Convulsing.
Rachel turned away quickly, moving, moving, through the door, bumping the wall, screeching, breathing.
She staggered through the hole in the wall and out to the pond. She stared into its rainbow depths.
Eyes wide, watching the surface ripple.
They came in the night, wings beating heavily, eyes burning.
Rachel watched their descent on the reflective surface of the pond. Finally the water vibrated, then chopped beneath the wings.
The birds landed and Rachel stared at the water.
Soon the pond was still again.
When she looked away, she saw the black ground moving away from her.
She felt the wind move around her, felt the strong limbs lifting her, felt the rain running down her body.
And she saw the faces of the winged beasts and knew that she would find love after all.