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HE TRIED to open his eyes, but they felt glued shut, so he just lay there, exhausted, listening to the screams. His cheek was against a hard surface, pebbles pressed into his skin. A dog barked nearby.
Dog. The word burst in his mind, fresh, like he was giving birth to it. Yet, he knew what a dog was. When he thought the word, a picture formed. Four-legged animal, fur, wagging tail.
His mind felt slightly clearer, his energy returning.
He dragged his eyes open.
The world was incredibly bright, remarkably colorful. Someone ran by in green and white sneakers, sideways, as if running on a wall. Except he was the one who was sideways.
As he managed to sit upright, the world tilted and spun for a moment before settling into crisp focus. He was surrounded by tall buildings; cars and trucks were scattered on a street. None were moving. Thick black smoke rose from behind the closest buildings.
A few feet away a pink-haired woman was doubled over, clutching her head in her hands. There were colorful tattoos of flowers on her forearms.
“What is happening?” she wailed.
“I don’t know.”
The woman looked up, startled. “Do you know me? Do you know who I am?”
“No. Do you know who I am?”
The woman shook her head.
Something had happened. The confusion he felt, the screaming, this wasn’t normal. He needed to figure out what was going on. Maybe he could find help. Police.
When he pressed his palm to the pavement to try to stand, lancing pain shot down his thumb and into his wrist. There was a deep slash across the pad of the thumb, caked with dried blood. There was more dried blood on the tip of his index finger and under the fingernail. This must have happened before, he realized.
Still shaky, he stood, looked around. There was a little silver cart with a yellow umbrella nearby. The word for it sprang to mind: hot-dog stand. A red and white bus sat parked along the curb. A few blocks away, a cluster of people stood with their backs to him.
He went to see what they were doing.
There were no buildings beyond the place where the crowd was standing. The sky grew wider as he approached, until he merged into the crowd and saw that the world simply ended a few feet from where they stood.
There was nothing beyond but sky.
Ragged asphalt and concrete marked the edge of the world. A concrete sewer pipe jutted from the dark earth below, spewing water.
He couldn’t say how, but he sensed this, too, was wrong. The sky felt too big, although he knew skies were enormous.
A white-haired man knelt off to one side of the crowd on a stoop that led up to thin air. He was studying a small photograph, the contents of a wallet spread beside him. The old man looked up as he approached, held the photo up for him to see. It showed the man in a black suit, smiling, clutching an old woman’s hand.
“I found this in my pocket. They must be people I know.”
It took him a moment to realize the old guy didn’t know he was one of the people in the photo.
“That’s you,” he said, pointing.
“That’s me?” The old man held the photo closer, studied it. “That’s me.” He sounded surprised.
He wondered if there was anything in his own pockets. Checking the front ones first, he pulled out a folded food wrapper and a toy soldier.
There was a photo in one of his back pockets: a dark-haired woman with freckles, grinning, hugging a round-faced, sandy-haired man. They looked happier than anyone could possibly look.
He showed the picture to the old man, who pointed. “That’s you.”
He studied the man in the picture. How could that face be his? It was a stranger’s face. He preferred looking at the woman. She had bright, intelligent green eyes that looked ever so slightly crossed, arms like flamingo legs.
He scanned the faces in the nearby crowd, hoping to spot the woman among them. His gaze paused on an old woman, hands buried in the pockets of a black sweater, standing at the edge of the crowd. He glanced at the picture in the old man’s lap.
“Hey, there she is.”
The old man stood, squinted into the crowd. “Where?”
“There.” He grasped the man by the elbow, led him to the woman. She turned as they approached, her eyebrows pinched.
The old man studied the photo, looked at the woman, studied the photo again. He held the photo up so the woman could see it. “I think that’s you in the photo. With me.”
Relief spread across the woman’s face. “Do you know me?”
“I don’t,” the old man admitted. “But we must be something to each other, don’t you think? In the picture we’re holding hands.”
“I don’t understand what’s happening.” She touched her face. “Am I dead? Is that it?”
“I don’t think we’re dead. No,” the old guy said.
He was glad these people had found each other. He wished he could find the woman in his photo, so they could face whatever was happening together.
“I’m going to look for this woman.” He held up his photo.
The old man nodded. “Thank you. I won’t forget the kindness you showed a total stranger.”
As he set off along the edge, he took a closer look at the other things in his pocket. The thumb-sized green toy soldier was connected to a toy parachute by a half-dozen threads.
As he opened the folded-up food wrapper, he stopped walking. There was something drawn on the back in rusty brown, the crude shapes smeared and splotched. A series of ovals ran down the length of the page, with an X over the bottom one. He moved his thumb, which was obscuring a second image in the bottom right-hand corner of the page: a triangle with two numerals in it—a one, followed by a three.
He studied the dried blood caking his thumb, set it beside one of the ovals. It was the same rust color as the writing. He’d cut his thumb and scrawled those ovals on the food wrapper with his own blood, then put it in his pocket. He’d left a message to himself. If he’d sliced open his thumb to write it, he must have known something was about to happen, and the message must be important.
He studied the ovals, the triangle with the numerals inside, and tried to make sense of them, but it meant nothing to him. Carefully folding the wrapper, he put it back in his pocket and walked on.
Crowds were gathered along the edge on every street. He searched the faces, seeking the dark-haired woman.
The crowds thinned with each block, and eventually he came upon a deserted, ruined part of the world. Only a few buildings stood; the rest had been reduced to piles of steel and concrete. Wading through the wreckage, he picked up blackened bricks, melted electronics. Vehicles had been crushed flat, fires had raged. There were no bodies, at least none he could see, and no smoke, so the destruction wasn’t recent.
Feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, he squatted, closed his eyes. He was in serious trouble. All of them were. But he didn’t understand the trouble; nothing made sense, none of it fit together.
What was there to do but keep looking, both for the woman in the picture and for answers? He moved on, staying close to the edge.
* * *
HUNGRY, HIS throat dry, he found himself back where he’d started.
The world was a circle, and smaller than he’d imagined.
Most of the crowd was gone, including the man and woman he’d reunited. They’d all no doubt gone to find food and a place to sleep. He decided he’d better do the same.
Copyright © 2016 by Will McIntosh