Mostly, now, they leave us alone.
We aren’t news any longer; we have been wrung dry of “human interest”; even the tabloids have given up hoping for a miracle to put us back on the front page. Generally, someone shows up around the anniversary, but they are not allowed to see us, and I do not know what they write. Harry asked once if I wanted him to tell me, and I said I did not.
We are the debris left after you save the world: broken bricks and dirty straw. I spent three years waiting to be tidied away, cast into the fire like chaff, but last night I had a dream.
For three and a half months after the flash, I was in a coma.
And for every day of those three and a half months, Harry talked to me.
He did not sit beside the bed and hold my hand—neither he nor I could have borne that, even if they would have let him—but we had been left, like two abandoned walkie-talkies, tuned to the same frequency. The effect has faded with time, though never entirely disappeared; we must converse aloud now, like ordinary mortals, but I do not have to ask to know how he is feeling.
The only memory I have for nearly six months after the flash that is neither pain nor grief is that interior sound of Harry’s voice: scratchy, careless, tender.
It was how I knew, as soon as I woke, that Harry was no more responsible for what he had done than I was.
Once, almost a year ago now, Harry said in the middle of the night, knowing I was awake, “They let me have a mirror today. I’m like the Elephant Man, only not as cute.”
“Then I won’t be sorry I can’t see you,” I said.
A beat of silence. Then we both started laughing, and it was some time before we could stop.
The day the troubles began—although I would not know they had begun until the next morning—I had a screaming argument with my piano teacher and stormed out into the quad to sulk. I would not have put it that way, of course; I fancied myself an artist, and fancied that my selfishness and temper tantrums were “temperament” when they were nothing but pure childish egotism.
I remember lying on my back in the grass, staring at the pure warm blue of the sky and thinking about the comet that had everyone so excited. We didn’t know then that it wasn’t exactly a comet.
We didn’t know what it was going to do.
Harry and I have different names for the nursing home in which we live. Some days we call it the Bastille or the Château d’If, other days Bedlam or Arkham Asylum. On very bad days, Harry calls it the Gulag, but I don’t think, even then, that he means it. Once, bitterly, I called it the Trianon, and then had to explain to Harry what I meant.
It is a comfortable prison, ours. “One of the best private care facilities in the country,” the lawyer my mother hired said proudly. The fees are paid by the federal government, which wants to keep Harry where they can see him, and does not want (with careful prompting from Mother’s lawyer) to appear ungrateful toward me. Our room is spacious, more than big enough for the two of us, with windows everywhere; I can still feel the sunlight, even if I cannot see it. There are gardens in which we do not walk, a swimming pool in which we do not swim. For my twenty-first birthday Mother sent a grand piano, and the staff very obligingly cleared a room for it. I told them to let the other inhabitants use it—and it was only Harry’s warning nudge in my mind that kept the word from coming out “inmates.” I would not even let Harry take me to inspect it. I have not touched a piano since that last screaming argument with Madame Vautelle.
The nurses are cheerful, kind, and efficient. We know them all by name; they talk to us, sometimes, like human beings.
I asked Harry once, on a very bad day, why he had talked to me when I was in my three and a half month coma. “Wouldn’t it have been better to let me die?”
“Maybe,” said Harry, “but how was I supposed to know that?”
“But why did you care?” The selfish, spoiled child I had been, demanding attention, answers, never letting go of what she wanted.
But before I could open my mouth to say, I’m sorry. Never mind, Harry answered me.
“Everyone I loved was dead, kid. Everyone. And I probably killed them, although I don’t remember it. Don’t remember much, in case you were wondering.” Bitter sarcasm, and I could not quite control the flinch of my hands. “I remember the smell of blood and ozone. I remember the screaming. God help me, I remember what it felt like to crush a man’s skull between my bare hands.”
He stopped, and I didn’t dare say anything. After a moment, he said, “Sorry. You didn’t deserve that. But the investigators found pieces of my wife’s body. Pieces. I didn’t ask them which ones, and they were nice enough not to tell me. They wouldn’t let me out of the hospital to go to my daughters’ funeral. You know, I still have dreams that I’m buried with them—and then I wake up and realize that the coffin I’m trapped in is my body.”
He came closer. Not close enough to touch, for we do not do that unless we have to, but close enough that I could feel his body, hear his labored breath. “I talked to you because you were the only one left.”
I can’t cry any more. The flash burned that out of me, too. But I said, “I know, Harry. I’m sorry.” And just for a second, his scarred, lumpy fingers brushed across my hair.
I understand that the scientists and the philosophers, the mystics and the UFO-chasers, the psychiatrists and the madmen, still argue about what they were: demons, aliens, mass hallucinations, spaceborne viruses, gods. A hundred thousand theories, none more implausible than any of the others.
I gave my theory in my testimony, when I was finally well enough to speak. The Commission liked my theory well enough to bury it in political doublespeak and jargon and call it their own. I am a little bitter about that, but not as bitter as I am about the fact that I told them the truth, and they listened because the truth happened to be convenient.
Templates. That’s what we were infected with, Harry and me and the woman in India and the two men in South Africa and all the others whose names I never learned. We were reformatted, like computer disks. Set to run a series of programs and then, like something out of an old spy show, to self-destruct.
It might have been carelessness, or the deterioration of very old technology, or some other mistake, that kept Harry and me from dying like the others. It might have been my fault for refusing to complete the program. When he sank to his knees in front of me, weeping, and cried in a voice that was nothing but ashes and pain, “Kill me!” and I did not. Could not. Perhaps that was what the flash could not consume: Harry’s guilt and my compassion.
Or perhaps it was simply the punch line of a very cruel joke.
In the early days, when they were still trying to find a new template to fit us into, the reporters tried to make a romance between Harry and me. The idea made us both feel slightly ill, and not merely because we could neither of us bear to be touched. “It would be like screwing my sister, if I had one,” Harry said later, after everyone had gone, “and pardon me for saying it, princess, but you just aren’t my type.”
“You aren’t my type, either, Harry,” I said, and I felt his affection like the smile his scarred face could not make and my scarred eyes could not see.
I saved the world.
Nineteen years old and I saved the world.
Very heroic, except for the fact that it wasn’t me. The hero wasn’t me, any more than the villain was Harry McLaughlin, forty-year-old forest ranger and father of two. We were just the matrices that held the pattern, the straw and clay from which the myth was built. And now that we are only straw and clay again, the world does not know what to do with us.
My mother sent lawyers and a piano, but she has never come to visit. The reporters came to try to make a story and went away defeated. You can’t use the same straw twice, I wanted to tell them, but they would not have understood what I meant.
There’s not supposed to be anything left after the end of the world, even if the end of the world doesn’t quite happen.
But I am beginning to think maybe it wasn’t a mistake, or a joke. In my coma I had Harry’s voice to hold to, and did not die. Last night, I had a dream.
In my dreams, I can still see, and in this dream I am walking among the ruins of a house, skirting crumbled piles of mellow red-pink bricks. It’s very peaceful, and the sky is the same blue I remember from the last day of my old life. I hear someone singing, a wordless crooning little tune, and I follow the sound until I come to a man sitting beside one of the piles of bricks.
Every brick he touches turns into straw, and as I watch, he takes the straw and twists and plaits it into marvelous multi-pointed stars. He’s utterly unhurried, utterly content; as he finishes each star, he balances it on his palm and gives it a little flip up, and when I look at the sky, I see his stars shining.
What are you doing? I ask.
He looks up at me. It’s Harry, unscarred and unhurt, his eyes shining as brightly as the stars he has made. And he says, You can use the same straw, kid. You just can’t expect it to come out as bricks.
Today I said, “Harry, take me to the piano.”