atoms — one
Warning: A strong PG, mild PG-13. If any of the following bothers you, don't read:
-Use of the word 'gay' to describe someone's sexual orientation in a non-derogatory way
-One religious exclamation
I opened my eyes.
I was blinded by light. Not just any light—bright, clean white that smelled so pure it made my throat burn. There was an ache in my chest, one that stemmed from my very center, squeezing out painful shivers with every heartbeat.
My limbs were completely numb. Without thinking about it, a hand appeared in my peripheral vision. It was mine. I know because I was wearing the ring Chase gave me: a brilliant sapphire heart. I had called it mine for only three months.
A fine layer of—I daresay—frost covered it, along with my arm. Somehow my other hand moved enough for me to spastically dust it off. It’s a half-hearted sort of job, but some of the feeling returned.
I lay there God-knows how long, unsure of what surrounded me, of where I came from and where I’m going. The only thing I knew was the curve of my hand and the satisfying way the ring nestled between my index and fourth finger, sparkling in the pristine sunshine. But I couldn’t be sure it was natural. It was almost too much—manufactured, even.
I tried to recall my last memory. All I could draw forth was the moment when Chase presented the ring to me. Dinner. Velvet curtains and white linen tablecloths. A little black dress for me and a silk dress shirt for him.
“You look like a pimp,” I couldn’t help blurting when I’d seen him.
“Gee, thanks.” He’d mocked uneasiness, then grinned, pulling me close. “Call it corny of me, but if I’m the pimp then you’re the girl who makes me the most money.”
“Jesus. That’s just creepy.”
He laughed. His grin stretched on for miles.
I sat up.
My head spun with a force more powerful than vertigo. I gripped the sides of it, struggling to right the world. I could just make out the hard-packed snow underneath me. I touched it. My fingertips burned.
A groan came hurtling out, bursting in the air. Was that me? But no, the echo—long and loud—was reverberating toward my ears, not away from them.
I turned my head just slightly. My heart stopped.
Dozens upon dozens of figures. Clad in pink, blue, white, red, grey, black; they lay in the same position I’d just been in before. A few of them were just beginning to sit up, also like me. We were almost comical, dotting the snowy landscape as far as the eye could see.
The girl closest to me was several feet away. I turned over onto my knees and crawled forward, feeling nauseous. Her hair was brown with a bold stripe of pink in it. Her eyes were closed and her cheeks were sunken in.
I shoved her weakly, but she didn’t move.
“Oh my God,” Somebody wailed. I didn’t have the energy to see who. Then, the subtle, desperate sound of a poor soul’s retching. My stomach rolled, gravity pulled, and I moved as if to puke myself. Except nothing came out. Just air.
Air. I remembered how to breathe and inhaled, as deeply as possible. The iciness in the air turned to moisture in my lungs and made me choke. I was shivering uncontrollably, despite being in a down coat and my trademark pair of jeans. New York winters were killer. But they still didn’t prepare me for being here.
Pink Stripe Girl was in a tanktop and shorts. She had a nice, summery tan. She must’ve been from Florida or California or some other place where the cold never hit and snow dare not make an appearance. It certainly looked like her presumably perfect life wasn’t helping her much now.
I turned away, unable to look any longer. She was dead, right? Didn’t most alive people wake up, like all the others were beginning to?
A shrill scream came from in front of me. I squinted, struggling to see who it was. It was so clean here, so void of anything even the slightest bit obtrusive. It was a blank page. A clean slate.
But for what reasons?
The voice was mine. It was frantic and entirely foreign to my ears. Deeper, almost, more animalistic. I squeezed my eyes shut and pictured him. I tried to remember my last memory of us. Nothing. Still nothing.
I cracked an eyelid to find Pink Stripe Girl staring dazedly at me. My other eye slid apart, and the sting of the sudden air made me blink.
She was wheezing, goosebumps peppering every visible spot of bare skin. Her eyes were wide and she was probably going to die and I didn’t know what to do.
“Here,” A guy to my right said. “Give her my coat.”
Where had he found the words? I obliged, scooting my way over to him on all fours. I accepted the soft jacket from him and barely managed to slug my way back over to her, bracing a fist against the ground for leverage. She was too frigid to do much of anything besides shiver violently, so I tossed it over her as best as I could manage and encouraged her to sit up.
When I sat down on my butt and tucked my hands between my legs, I saw my knuckles were blue.
The girl lay there another minute more, a poor, suffering thing, before she finally drew upon herself the strength to pull into a sitting position. The jacket fell away from her. She looked at it, but that was all. Just stared.
I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Sarcastic, annoyed gestures like those came as a second nature to me. It was a small comfort to have that, at least. Even in this new, unfamiliar place.
I rubbed my hands together, trying to warm them, then gently set my splayed palm down on the blanket of snow underneath me. I pushed. My lower legs wobbled as I raised myself into a standing position, then promptly plunged forward, back to my knees.
“Don’t stand up!” A new voice commanded. Everyone in my line of sight, everyone within hearing distance, turned their heads toward it like a pack of well-trained dogs. The grumbling, groaning, crying—everything ceased to exist but those words, hanging
in the clearing.
He was sitting a distance aways. His hair looked gray against the backdrop of white. Maybe it was; I didn’t know. But his face was young. And he looked like one of those confident guys who always knew everything about anything. He was the sort you asked material advice of—should I sell my car and downsize or keep it and work extra shifts?
“Don’t stand up,” He repeated. His eyes bored into mine. I was slightly relieved when they shifted away, somehow lighting upon everyone else in a matter of seconds. Then back to me. “If you do, you’ll just fall to pieces.”
Wonderful. He was the type you asked emotional advice of. The gay friend who said no one would ever be good enough for you. So then you wished he wasn’t gay because he was good enough for you. But, duh, he was gay.
The guy who’d given his jacket to Pink Stripe Girl shook his head. “Man, we so don’t need this.”
Emotional Advice Dude raised his eyebrows. He had extremely pronounced features; so much so that I could see every expression he made from several meters away. As could Jacket Guy, which was the problem.
“You don’t know anything more than any of us do.”
“I actually do know,” Emotional Advice Dude answered. “And if you’ll kindly shut up long enough to give me a chance to explain—”
“We don’t have time for that.” He gestured broadly. “You see these people? They’re freezing. We all are. If we don’t move, then we’re sitting ducks. We’ll die.” He stood up. Emotional Advice Dude yelled for him to get back down.
I watched it unfold before me, like some kind of really twisted foreign film. Jacket Guy stepped forward, swayed. Stepped forward again. And then he just crumbled. Right before our eyes.
It was like he was paper. One dimensional. Easy to dispose of. He flaked away and the flakes flaked until there were so miniscule you couldn’t see them. No timely wind came along to symbolically blow the pieces away. They just kept crumbling until jacket guy was reduced to nothing.
A woman cried out. I was fixated on the spot where Jacket Guy had just been.
“No one else stand,” Emotional Advice Dude continued, unswayed. “Until I tell you it’s safe.”
Pink Stripe Girl had finally came to her senses and wrapped the jacket around herself, tight. It was big on her small frame. She tucked her knees into the cavernous space and zipped it up, flipping up the hood. Still, she shook.
“This is crazy!” A lady to my right yelled. “Is this some sort of prank?”
EAD snorted. “Some prank.”
“That guy was right!” A new voice chimed in. “I’m shivering and I can hardly breathe.”
“It’ll get better,” EAD promised. He really did have an answer for everything, albeit lame ones. “Just a few more minutes. You have to give your bodies time to adjust.”
Pink Stripe Girl let out a sob and buried her head in her knees. I barely spared her a glance. My eyes were rooted to EAD, anticipating his next move. The next words of comfort to come from his lips.
My own were beginning to go numb. I drew them into my mouth, warming them up, running my tongue over the chapped skin. When I released them, the bite of the temperature made me wince.
We sat there for what felt like an eternity, grumbling amongst ourselves. A few people complained, making sure their voices were nice and loud so EAD would hear them. But no one was brave enough to try what Jacket Guy had. No one was stupid enough to repeat such a costly mistake.
When EAD moved, everything went back to being silent. He took a deep breath and rose slowly. His face all but disappeared in the glare of the sun but a long, lean body came into view. He was wearing faded jeans and a long-sleeve dark green t-shirt. The tips of combat boots peeked out from underneath the jeans. I held my breath as he toed the spot in from of him, timidly testing the waters. He stepped forward. Closed his eyes. Repeat once, twice, three times.
“Okay,” He said, and the word was one long exhale. “Listen carefully. I think we’re okay, but I can’t be certain. So you need to do this slowly.”
Pink Stripe Girl had stopped sobbing long enough to listen and was sniveling as she wiped her nose on the sleeve of the too-big jacket. I cast her a disapproving glance over my shoulder. She made a face at me in return.
“Just stand up and do as I just did. If at all you ever feel dizzy, stop immediately.”
Pink Stripe Girl bit her lip. I hesitated a moment, then pushed myself up. My legs were less unsteady this time around, for which I was grateful. I put one foot forward and looked down. I’d forgotten I was wearing flats. My foot was a nice, pale shade of blue. Crap. Just crap.
But I could walk. That became clear as I moved, then kept moving. As did the others. We formed a half-circle around EAD, questions pouring from eager mouths. Pink Stripe Girl elbowed her way up beside me, towards the front of the line. We exchanged a glance then went back to ignoring one another.
“What do you know about this?” A semi-hysterical woman demanded. The man at her side ran his hands through his hair and nodded in agreement as she prattled on about government conspiracies and political hierarchy. Another young girl clutched at a child who was freezing half to death in her sundress and Mary Janes. “Where’s my mom?” She kept asking, over and over, while the young girl searched wildly around her for the woman in question.
It was pure, absolute, unquestionable chaos. I had never experienced anything so profoundly unsettling.
“I can give you answers,” EAD said about the rise of voices. “But you have. To. Shut. Up. Got it?”
We got it all right. Once again, we quieted .
He took a deep breath and ran his hand through his hair, which was actually black, not gray as I’d suspected earlier. “Look, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but, ah. The world just ended.”
No reactions. No gasps or cries out, although he sure looked like he’d been expecting them. He stuttered out his next sentence. “I-uhm-know it’s sudden and everything. But, uh, it’s been coming for a while. And you weren’t too far off, lady.” He beamed at the woman who’d been insistent on the Government Conspiracy theory. “NASA knew about this. As did our good old President.”
“So how do you know? Are you a part of some science team or something?” She accused.
“Well...” He scratched the back of his neck impishly. “I’ve got a lot of free time.”
“That still doesn’t explain what happened.” My voice surprised me for the second time today. “Why are we
here? Where is everything? And our families?”
“Scattered,” He replied evenly. “All over the world.”
Pink Jacket Girl’s brown eyes went wide at this. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that...” He firmly rubbed the space between his eyes, closing and opening them in rapid succession. “Okay. How do I say this?” He stared at the sky above, squinting from the glare. “Think of it this way. The sun just burnt out—”
“It seems perfectly fine to me,” Said the Conspiracy-Theory woman.
“Do none of you listen?” He snapped. “If you don’t be quiet, I’m not going to explain this!”
She pursed her lips and stared down the length of her angular nose at him. “We do not need a child explaining this to us. You can’t be more than twenty, now can you? A lot of us, on the other hand, are older. Wiser. You may underestimate us, but I’ll have you know we’re far more capable when it comes to our minds.”
He threw his hands up in the air. “Whatever! Fine! Go figure this out for yourselves.”
“I think we will,” She shot back, then turned to face everyone, elbowing EAD aside. “All right, listen up. I’m leaving to find someone who knows what’s going on.” (Irony, you are thy friend). “Whoever wants to can come with me.”
A few of the older people, and even a couple of the younger ones nodded in agreement. They were obviously uneasy when it came to EAD. But not me. When they split off, I took that as my opportunity to scoot closer. He wasn’t paying me any attention, just staring forlornly at the retreating backs of the Conspiracy Theory lady’s group.
“They’ll be dead in a few hours,” He said with a chilling sense of grim confidence. He met my eyes out of the corners of his. “Whose side are you on?”
“Me?” Squeaked Pink Stripe Girl, who was lingering behind me.
He smiled swiftly. “Yes. You.”
Her teeth chattered. “Yah-ors, I guh-ess.” With that, he reached forward to pull her under the crook of his arm.
“Good. Then you chose correctly.” He studied the lot of us. There were maybe ten; I was too disoriented to try and count. He squared his shoulders, keeping a protective arm around Pink Stripe Girl.
“Before I got interrupted,” He began, “I was trying to tell you that the world ended. The sun burnt out. Scientists, astronomy enthusiasts, people with a lot of time on their hands—” He stopped to hook a thumb towards his chest, forcing a grin. “—All of them knew it was going to happen. And we figured out long ago there were two probable outcomes: either the world would cease or exist, or it would reset itself. Can any of you guess which happened?”
His tone was teasing, but a guy still called out, “The second.”
EAD didn’t miss a beat. “The second, yes. So basically, this happened: the sun died, everything froze and then proceeded to break apart, kind of like you just saw that poor man do a second ago. But here’s the difference: the world was turning. All our atoms, our makeup—they turned too, so quickly that they heated up to thousands and thousands of degrees. It kept them alive long enough to, once the world stopped, to join together and sustain despite the now-freezing temperatures. Anything with living, breathing cells made the orbit.”
“What happened, then?” Pink Stripe Girl asked through clenched teeth.
He patted her shoulder. “What happened then, my friend, was that the world stopped. The sun had been caught in its sudden orbit and was refueled, if you will. It now has another five billion years left in it. Give or take a millennium. So then our atoms found one other, rejoined, and here we are. All this happened in less than a millionth of a second. So quickly that your brain didn’t even have a chance to process it.”
A breeze started up and goosebumps rose on my arms. “Where are our families?” I asked, stuffing my hands into my coat pockets.
“Your guess is as good as mine.” He shrugged, scraping his boot along the snow. “I have no idea where we are, where they are. We just randomly landed wherever our atoms did.”
“But we’ll find them, right?” A sweet, bug-eyed girl asked hopefully.
EAD drew his lower lip through his teeth. “There’s more.”
Pink Stripe Girl cursed under her breath. I’d gone frigid, hoping against hope that the more wasn’t bad. That there was some shred of sanity left in this new world.
He sighed. “Look, we were spinning so fast. There’s no guarantee all the atoms stayed together. Some evaporated. Others crashed into each other and imploded. The truth is, we’re the lucky ones. Because it’s very likely that a vast amount of the population didn’t make it back.”