The Size of Everything

By Raiff Taranday

All Nora Barnacle could think about as she steered the cargo van out of the driveway and down the street was that she hoped she would never see the house again. Not just the house but also the thirty-six year-old teenage boy who lived there because his daddy bought it for him. She wanted to leave it all behind, the flower garden she had planted out back; the kitchen sink she had fixed (by scrupulously following step-by-step YouTube tutorials); the anti-police brutality mosaic she had spent three months painstakingly adhering onto the wall of the art studio he never used; the very notion of herself as being in any way defined by him. 

The only thing that stopped her from wishing the whole structure would burn down or vanish into the event horizon of a blackhole was that it still contained a tiny parrot named Derpley whom she loved from the tip of his yellow crest down to his tiny raptor toes. She would have taken the cockatiel with her but he was not technically, legally hers. She had been there when they rescued him, had paid for all his food, all his toys, had played with him every day, helped preen his pin-feathers even when he’d bitten her, taught him to whistle the Addams Family theme-song until she was sick of the sound of it, but it washe who had signed the papers. At the time it had seemed like there was no separation between the boy and Nora, nor would there ever be. Sure, they were stuck inside together, just like everyone else in the country, but they were handling it so much better than all those other unfortunates whose friendships and partnerships were fracturing under the stress of constant proximity. Caring for a pet together would be just one more affirmation of their unbreakable bond, so what did it matter whose name went on adoption forms?

That kind of shortsighted hubris was one of the many things Nora kicked herself about when everything fell apart and it became clear that not only were things over with the boy but that there was no space left for her in the home they had shared for an entire year. The house belonged to him after all, by way of his tech executive father, and her sweat equity—which honestly translated to only a few thousand dollars and even that sum was her being generous to herself—did not earn her any kind of post-break-up squatter’s rights. She had asked for more time and been refused. The boy had another “friend” coming to take her room, one who just happened to be an IG fitness model with gargantuan tits. 

Nora had asked for her bird and been refused (in his mind, the bird had always been his, she had just been his ever-dutiful “friend” who helped him get the bird, train the bird, care for the bird, grow to love the bird, and that entitled her to the same nothing as anything else that had passed between them during their time together). She could have fought harder, but she was too tired of conflict, felt blood-poisoned and hungover with it. Besides, there was no room in the rented van for a birdcage, crammed haphazardly—she would not permit anyone to help her load it—with the sum total of her worldly possessions. She had even taken back some of the things that she had bought for him, like a manscaping electric razor that she would certainly never use, because she had paid good money for them and also fuck him. 

Nora drove by an acorn the size of a Buick. There was an impact crater where it had fallen from a normally-proportioned tree before rolling several yards, flattening the neighborhood’s mailbox. Nora had called the Tallahassee DPW three times asking them to remove the live oak at the street corner for this exact reason. Trees posed a significant hazard and, according to federal law, the city had a responsibility to remove them from residential areas. Well, it wasn’t her goddamn problem anymore. She couldn’t wait to get out of this swamp-fevered hellhole and make it to Baltimore where there were people who actually loved her. 

“Fuck!” Nora screamed. She stomped on the brake. She had forgotten to call Leopold, even after all his texts making her promise she’d give him a heads up when she lit out.

She shifted into park, the van right in the middle of the street. She wasn’t worried about obstructing traffic. No one was on the roads these days. It wasn’t safe. She shouldn’t be on the road either but at least the van’s aluminum paneling afforded her protection from flux events and she had her particle-poncho in the passenger’s seat if she had to get out of the vehicle for any reason. 

She fumbled her phone out of her pocket. She hadn’t even put the address into her GPS. It had been a rough morning. She’d started drinking yesterday as soon as she finished packing and continued well into the night. 

 The IG model with the bodacious rack was already there, her equally impressive ass—its callipygian dimensions expanded by thousands of hours of meticulously documented squats—taking up Nora’s space on the couch. She had been hovering around the house for a week, being sweet and innocent and blameless, like a shapely guillotine primed to fall on the life Nora had made here for herself, with the boy happy to let her share his room until Nora was moved out. Nora didn’t say shit about it but her high wroth must have been written on her alcohol-reddened face. The boy was quick to remind her that while he and Nora were lucky enough to have families who could afford to keep them protected, housed in aluminum-shielded buildings, this poor, innocent model was not privileged with those kinds of options to protect her perfectly toned body. 

“You’re the one who’s always saying how dangerous it is out there,” he said, condescending, typical.

“Yeah, I know you’d never want to put anyone you ‘care’ about in DANGER,” she replied, drunk. “You’re a saint.” 

“That’s not fair. I helped you out when you needed it, but this… situation was never supposed to be permanent. Just because I have another friend who needs me doesn’t mean I’ve stopped caring about you.”

“I, I think, really, honestly, we’re past the point of you havin’ to pretend.” She wished her words weren’t slurred, wished he knew it was her and not the Jim Beam talking.

“You’ll be safe in the van until you get to your brother’s awesome apartment where you’ll also be safe and in an even nicer room than the one you had here. Time to stop being dramatic.”

Alcohol was the only way to keep all that shit bearable, but she was paying for it now. She blearily cycled through her contacts and made the call. Leopold picked up after one ring.

“Hey kid,” he said, voice soft with sympathy.

“You’re not allowed to call me that, Leo,” she told her twin. She hated this lifelong habit of his, had felt diminished by it even as a girl and particularly now that they were in their early 30s. Besides, she was technically the older one, by a passel of seconds. 

“You on the road? Any chance you cut the bastard’s dick off on your way out?”

“Just setting out, yes, and no, unfortunately, to the castration.” 

“He’s not even worth the trouble, sis. I always thought he was wasting your time.”

Nora felt a clench inside her chest, an instinctual urge to defend the boy even when she had said the exact same, and worse, about him to herself. Just because something like a relationship didn’t end the way you wanted, that didn’t mean you weren’t changed and maybe even enriched by your experiences, by the very act of loving and being loved, however imperfectly, in return. She opened her mouth to say something to that effect but couldn’t find the truth of it anywhere in her heart. 

“It… it wasn’t all bad.”

She heard him sigh.

“Of course, kid. It never is. George and I are so excited to see you.”

“Well, George always had good taste.” Her brother’s husband was one of the few people Nora still had unalloyed affection for, at least as long as she checked her socioeconomic prejudices at the door. “Besides, only having one other person in your pod is a sure path to madness.”

“Yeah, things have started to get a little weird around here. You’ll definitely bring some much needed variety. Are you taking a straight shot up I-95?”

“For nine-hundred miles, yeah. I was going to drive all day, ten hours, then stop at the motel in Virginia, do the last four hours in the morning. The three of us will be having lunch by noon tomorrow.”

“The CFC says there’s supposed to be a series of flux storms along the east coast this week. That it might even start today.”

“A: They say that every damn week and they’re only right half the time. B: the rental van’s shielded and the highway’s even got some protected rest stops. I know you guys both work from home so everything you know comes from the news, but it’s not that bad out here.”

She was talking out of her ass. She hadn’t gone outside in six months except to tend the garden or run to the corner store, always in protective clothing. The boy had their groceries delivered by nervous looking app-serfs who practically sprinted from their cars to drop the bags at their aluminum-lined door. Nora had spent the past two weeks utterly terrified of this journey but now that it was here, it seemed easier to pretend that her brother was being the dramatic one.

“Besides,” she added, mixing some truth into the bullshit, “I can’t stay here another week.”

“Alright, kid, I get it. You sure the motel’s properly shielded too?” his voice said through the phone.

“They have to be, it’s the law.”

“They say they are but people always cut corners. That’s why you gotta look at the reviews. If someone popped in one of their rooms, that’s where you’d find the dirty deets.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll check the place out when I get there. If it looks dicey I promise to sleep in the van WITH my particle-poncho on.”

“Promise me you’ll keep it on. Don’t just wait ‘til you see the rainbow light. I read a piece in The Times that said by the time you see the shimmer, it’s already too late, that the air around you is already saturated with flux. I know the ponchos aren’t exactly light or cozy, but better to be uncomfortable and alive, right? Promise me you’ll be careful.”

“OK, mom, I promise.”

She instantly regretted saying anything that would recall their mother. It touched, however lightly, on a wound that would never heal between them and also recalled how long it had been since either twin had gone to visit her at the Castle of Care assisted living facility out in Bowie. 

“Just get here already,” Leo said, bypassing the thorns with his usual airy grace. “George whipped up some homemade ice-cream to celebrate. He used fresh strawberries and everything. They weren’t cheap or easy to find either, now that the supply chain’s fucked, but that’s George for you.”

“Well, at least there’s one resourceful man left in the world who remembers my favorites.”

“See you tomorrow, kid.”

“Don’t call me that. See you tomorrow. Love you.”

She input the directions into her GPS, then hunted around for a car mount to secure her phone on. It took her a full minute to figure out that she’d packed the mount, that it must be somewhere in the back beneath the disordered mounds of everything she owned. With a frustrated sigh, she tossed her phone down by the gear selector. She just had to reach the highway, then it’d be basically a straight shot to Baltimore.

She made enough wrong turns that she had to drive through the bad part of town to get there. Nora was no classist, never one to avoid certain neighborhoods, but these days things around here were genuinely tough to look at. Nora drove by half a dozen recently collapsed buildings, some of which still had families or scavengers digging through the rubble to see what could be recovered. Their hands and faces were pale with dust. None of them were wearing proper particle-ponchos. A good one like Nora’s ran about $7,000. Some of them had bootleg ones (there were plenty of videos online about how to grind up old soda cans by the dozens in order to get a sufficient mass of aluminum) but those things were notoriously unreliable. The feds had promised to distribute vouchers to aid low income citizens in purchasing lab-tested protective clothing from the companies that had won the government contracts to make and sell them, but the rollout had been plagued by logistical errors.

Nora frowned so deeply it felt like canyons were forming across her face as she drove by the wreckage of a multi-story residential complex. Legally, all these buildings had to have shielding, but Leopold was right, people always cut corners. All it took was a single brick in the foundation suddenly getting way too big or a support beam suddenly getting way too small to trigger a cascading structural failure. The Supreme Court had recently made a ruling that gave landlords broad latitude against flux-based liability, so it was unlikely any of the survivors would have legal recourse.

Tallahassee had been hit hard recently. Flux storms could encompass areas as small as several square miles or as large as several states, could go on for seconds or hours. The last one here had been ten days ago but signs of its aftermath were everywhere, not just in the ruined homes and lost lives, but in residual flux particles drifting in and out of tangibility in the lower atmosphere. They waited, like time-bombs, like a cancer cell about to divide, until they drifted onto an unshielded surface and began rescaling whatever object or animal they happened to land on. People on the street moved with fearful speed from one shielded area to another.

Nora’s navigational errors compounded. A truck-sized plastic shopping cart rolled out of a grocery store parking lot, crushing a sidewalk beggar’s leg along the way. The carts were supposed to be stored in aluminum kiosks but this one had been abandoned in the parking lot by a thoughtless shopper and caught in a subsequent flux event. The injured man had crawled away from his sign and charity box, going arm over arm into the middle of the street, his maimed leg leaving a bright trail of blood. He had stopped traffic. He was calling for help from people in the cars nearest him and intermittently pointing at the massive object that had harmed him. The cart’s front wheels were now precariously hanging over the curb. Wide-eyed, Nora did a 3-point turn with a speed that was almost automatic. She could hear the man screaming as she accelerated in the opposite direction.   

She had seen plenty of videos of scenes like this one while relentlessly doomscrolling during the past year, but it was so much worse to hear the cries of pain vibrating through her car window. She was so distracted she barely had time to swerve out of the way of a line of half-dozen ten inch tall recycling bins that rolled into the road, their newfound smallness liberating them from the stall where they’d been stored. She managed only to clip the lead one, which tipped over spilling a rolling pandemonium of hamburger buns, greasy butter wrappers, used coffee filters, all the size of pocket change. Of course, Nora thought, the one day she chose to travel would be the same one where everything decided to roll into the street. Then she thought, with a certain sinking horror, that maybe every day outside the safe confines of a shielded neighborhood was like this.

She tried another route but found her way blocked by a fallen billboard that was now large enough to obstruct traffic for five city blocks. Oftentimes, when writing was enlarged like this, it took a helicopter or even satellites to determine what it actually said (who could forget the time a page from a 7th grader’s notebook blew up to canopy their small New England suburb in the world’s most embarrassing poetry?), but in this case the billboard was still close enough to its original size to be legible. The full text was now too big to read from her present vantage but the letters she could see, each now a story tall, spelt out


 It had been a long time since her Bible-readings with her father, a progressive minister who ran a church out of Providence before a stroke put him in the ground when she was fifteen, but in those five words she recognized Jeremiah 1:5. Anti-Abortion weirdos loved plastering that verse all over the American South’s roadways. Nora’s dad, who’d been a shitkicker and protestor in his youth, had always taught Leo and her that this part of Jeremiah was really about how to stand up against authority even when it’s scary, about how God gives us the courage to speak for people who can’t speak for themselves. She shook her head, putting the van in reverse one more time, wishing she could talk to him again. She knew in her heart how disappointed he’d be by the state of the world, by the way the powerful discarded the meek, especially in times of crisis when we needed one another most. She could only hope that disappointment wouldn’t extend to her as well.

She finally found a viable route to I-10 E but it was bumper-to-bumper getting there. Nora figured it was just a bottleneck caused by all the other obstructions, until she saw the ambulance. The paramedics were lifting a gurney into the back. There was a body on it, an impossibly small one, completely draped in what appeared to be a dark handkerchief, but the outline of a human corpse, albeit one with the proportions of a Barbie doll, was still visible. It was the first time Nora had ever seen the aftermath of a person getting fluxed in real life. She knew the process was nearly as fatal as it was irreversible. Animals rarely survived a trip through the rainbow shimmer of a flux event. The stress of suddenly growing or shrinking was too much for most hearts. The ones that survived usually did not stay alive for long.

 Eight months ago, Nora had obsessively followed the story of a pregnant woman, fluxed to the size of a literal house, and its aftermath. The mother had died instantly but the doctors, using the sorts of industrial saws normally employed by lumber mills, managed to extricate a living newborn, now over a dozen feet long. Big Baby, as the media had instantly dubbed the child, had lived for 161 days before her chronic arrhythmia, apparently caused by a birth defect, had blossomed into full-blown cardiac arrest and plunged the world into mourning. Nora had wept when she saw pictures of the Pope himself giving a benediction to the body of the giant infant. She thought of that now, crying again as the paramedics slammed the ambulance door, her van slowly making its way past. Seeing that little body carted away almost hurt enough to make her forget her own troubles.

Back in the 1950s, when sock hops and the whole hyper-science-heroes-and-villains thing were all the rage, Professor Peril had menaced Washington D.C. with his Giant Shrink Ray. He was going to make the entire city small enough to fit into a glass bottle unless Dow Chemical agreed to distribute his cure for cancer, which they had acquired the patent for, to the public for free. Fortunately, the Super Scientist Society had shown up just in time to stop that commie maniac.

Nora, along with her whole fifth grade class, had watched the footage of their battle, the heroes in their passe little costumes flying through the air, propelled by jet-packs or antigrav rings, shooting lasers at the Professor’s battle-drones. The Giant Shrink Ray, its sleek Art Deco housing humming with energy, caught a stray blast from Doctor Improbable’s star spangled freedom gun. The subsequent detonation filled the entire sky with rainbow light.

During the following press conference, the Super Scientist Society had assured everyone that the massive storm of flux particles dispersed into the atmosphere did not pose a threat to the population. Besides, there were any number of materials that could shield people and things from suddenly having their atomic structure reduced or enlarged by orders of magnitude. No one had any cause to disbelieve them, those heroes of a bygone age. Even after the whole costumed crime-fighter craze faded after the Vietnam War, public sentiment never really turned against their past deeds. Society moved on and relegated the Giant Shrink Ray explosion to an event that you learned about but never really thought about, that is until a massive solar flare fourteen months ago had suddenly reactivated the dormant flux diffused throughout the upper troposphere. It was a global phenomenon but the eastern United States, the site of the original detonation, was being hit the worst. 

At first, naturally, it seemed comical to see things like a gargantuan tangerine rolling down Broadway, a Roald Dahl novel come to life. The world laughed when geologists announced that Mount Everest was now officially one foot shorter. In a way, it was a relief to have the news focus on something genuinely phenomenal. Everyone could stop thinking about Presidential elections or income inequality and just wonder what crazy thing would change size next. 

When that huge oil refinery in Port Arthur had been reduced to the size of a Lego playset, Twitter had been an inferno of hot takes. Nora herself had commented, beneath video of the aerial shots depicting the now teeny platform with its six-inch tall towers, that it served the energy companies right for ruining the planet, that maybe this plague of disproportionality was actually nature healing. Then Conch Energy had released footage of what had happened to the workers inside when the refinery shrank all around them, and suddenly only the bravest of podcasters had anything funny to say about it. 

Five weeks later, that poor woman had blown up to titanic proportions inside a CVS, pasting the other customers in the pharmacy line before actually popping and flooding downtown Atlanta with a literal river of blood. That one had sent the Evangelicals over the edge, with all the same types of Christians her father used to describe, charitably, as “not all the way there yet” pointing their fingers at all the types of people they usually point the finger at. 

The scientific community had sheepishly emerged into the limelight to calm everyone down with a stern, sensible talking-to. The President’s top doc had admitted at his first press conference, yes, it was human ingenuity that got us into this mess but it was also human ingenuity that would get us out of it. The Super Scientist Society was defunct for decades now, but they had been Men of Vision and left behind just so many binders full of warnings and precautions.

 That’s when aluminum, as well as the handful of alloys proven to disrupt the formation of a flux matrix, became the world’s most precious resource. Some plating on the side of your house, some bags of powdered metal sewn into your clothes, and you could have guaranteed stability of scale. Thankfully, it was among the more abundant metals in the Earth’s crust, but it still needed to be extracted, formed, and allocated. The government, shedding its typical partisan paralysis, moved with unprecedented speed and unity to protect the economy, pouring the kind of resources usually allocated for manufacturing and selling weapons into anti-flux technology. Shipping corridors, factories, giant corporate farms, and the private estates of VIPs were all flagged for immediate protection. Inner cities and their residents, not so much, but the police, now outfitted with aluminum-lined body armor, were on hand to put down any nascent protests with shocking brutality. There was plenty of footage of cops wailing on activists, even killing them on camera with a more brazen attitude than usual, but most people were too afraid of going outside to protest. The only demonstrations you saw on the street these days were put on by people disconnected from reality enough to believe that this whole thing was a hoax perpetrated by shape shifting lizards. People of means could afford the shielding on their homes and vehicles, could drape themselves and their children in high end particle-ponchos, while everyone else had to make do in a world which no longer had a fixed sense of proportion. 

Nora was not a person of means but the boy was and, while they lived together, this catastrophe remained the kind of thing that happened to other people. Thank God Leo’s husband had invested heavily in bauxite refineries and was also a kind man with a spare room, because Nora didn’t think she could take living life like the plainly terrified residents of downtown Tallahassee, especially not the version of herself she’d been these past few months, walking around like her chest was flayed open with her heart exposed for everyone to see. 

She finally made it to the highway, more than ninety minutes behind schedule. She clicked on the cruise control. There wasn’t much to look at now that the land around the thoroughfare had been so thoroughly clear-cut and paved over to avoid flux-adjacent hazards. Even more boring were the occasional stretches where the highway was completely covered by an aluminum lined tunnel, usually in areas where the structure of the roadway was particularly susceptible to being compromised. Congress had been quick to approve the construction of safeguards for major roadways and shipping corridors. Businesses had to keep turning a profit, no matter how big or small things became at random. Now instead of the open road taking you through American splendor, you had flat expanses of asphalt and hastily constructed enclosures for your eyes to drink in. Unfortunately, all the monotony gave Nora time to be alone with her thoughts, which was the last thing she wanted right now. 

She half-wished she had thought to load an audiobook or podcast onto her phone, but she was never the type to sit and listen. Narratives weren’t really her thing either. She was a copy editor and it was difficult to turn that part of her brain off long enough to enjoy reading anything, so she had years ago fallen out of the habit of doing it for pleasure. It was only in poetry where she found freedom from the compulsion to constantly analyze and correct. Poetry was rarely much good on long solo car drives.

She tried putting on the radio but had trouble getting a clear FM signal and all the AM stations were either doomsday preachers or, much worse and more boring, regular preachers. There were things about living in the South that Nora would miss but this was not one of them. 

“Sorry, no one’s saving my soul today,” she told the empty van.

She shut off the radio and tried to focus on the road.

Inevitably, like a tongue probing an abscess, she couldn’t keep her mind from turning to the boy and a mental reconstruction of the timeline of their relationship and its disintegration. They had known each other since middle school when his family moved to Providence. She’d always been half in love with him, the skater who hated his corporate executive parents, an enthusiastic scourge of substitute teachers and vice principals, his acne-dusted face always in a scowl except when he was making a joke at someone else’s expense. Even Leopold, who never cared much for him, had to admit he was hot “if you’re into guys who are built like coat racks”. To Nora, whose household was loving, cosmopolitan, and religious, this bad boy from a bad, rich family who never had dinner together and certainly never discussed art or matters of the soul, was simply too much of a novelty to resist. 

The boy had trouble resisting her too, and made a point of making sure he was in the same classes and group projects as Nora, that he was skateboarding outside the Youth Center on the afternoons she volunteered there. Next, he was coming over to watch movies with Nora and her girlfriends. In front of other people, he’d flirt with her shamelessly and compliment her constantly, but their private conversations were never easy, always strained by what was left unsaid, and the boy himself proved inconstant. He lost his virginity at fifteen to one of Nora’s girlfriends, then proceeded to barely say another word to her, a pioneer in the art of ghosting before it even had a name.

Nora chalked it up to the deep, dark adolescent pain he was always brooding about, to his wild nature, to hormones, to herself for never telling him outright how she felt. One night, smashed on vodka at a house party, she’d worked up the courage to confess. She made her feelings clear but was also upfront about not being ready to go all the way. Nora was no prude and (though she didn’t tell him this part) she had touched herself often to the fantasy of him, even more so when she’d discovered he had real sexual experience, her jealousy and arousal seeming to feed on one another, but she still felt too much of a connection to her childhood, to her family, maybe even God too.

“I think a part of me still believes in Santa Claus,” she had said as he put a hand on her shoulder to steady her. “So I don’t think I can do any of those, y’know, major sex acts with you… yet. But my whatsit, my heart, is like all yours forever.”

 He’d patted her hand, told her that he understood, and kissed her gently, just once, without insistence or demand.

“I love you too, Nora Barnacle,” he’d said to her. “Didn’t you know that?”

 It was Nora’s first kiss, even better and more tender than she had hoped it would be. Then, less than a week later at a different house party, the boy fucked another one of Nora’s girlfriends, one he proceeded to never speak to again. After the news reached her through the grapevine, Nora had stayed up all night crying and masturbating. She’d been ready to call it quits then and there, and it made her sad from the vantage point of her current retrospect to think of all the ways her life might have been different if she actually followed through. 

Then her father had died and the boy was there, always by her side. When Leo retreated into himself and her mother fell apart to the point of near catatonia, the boy had been there. He held her when she wept. He listened to her when she told stories about her dad. He said things that made it clear he understood what she’d had and what she’d lost. He told her he loved her every day. So, when she gave herself to him, the two of them hidden beneath a pile of coats at her dad’s memorial service, it made perfect sense.

He didn’t ghost her. That would’ve been easier. He just got meaner and meaner. After they spent a few weeks with him in her bed every night, he told her that he was worried she was getting the wrong idea. They were friends and he was comforting her. He didn’t want to be anyone’s husband. She managed to stop crying long enough to say that she understood.

He no longer flirted with her in public, never called her beautiful. He would belittle her in front of mutual friends. He would never miss an opportunity to criticize her or make her feel small. At the end of the day, he would send her an Instant Message to tell her that he loved her and apologize for “being the way that I am”. Then the next day he would treat her just as coldly, acting like he didn’t even remember the words of contrition he had written the night before.

“Why are you treating me this way?” she had asked him outright when it all got to be too much.

“What way?” he asked, his face slack. “You’re the one who blows everything out of proportion.”

It was a conversation that left her feeling even more desolate than in the days after her dad’s untimely death. That had been a senseless tragedy. This was her first love rejecting her, slowly and deliberately, in the cruelest possible way.

Her friends were sympathetic, at first. She had lost a parent, after all, but then again she never talked to them about that. She only ever complained about the boy, always the same complaints with no action on her part, and, for the people who cared about her, it was as boring as it was frustrating. She could hear how annoying she sounded but couldn’t do anything to stop herself. Leopold would just walk into another room as soon as he heard her carping about the boy’s latest outrage. To her brother and her friends, none of this behavior seemed out-of-character at all. If anything, it was incredibly consistent with who the boy had been from the start. Nora understood that, on some level, but it only deepened her despair. He might hate the world, sure, but he was never supposed to hate her.

The boy would come to her after that, for sex, every so often and on his timetable. She let him, not because of any skill or even joy on his part as a lover, but just to feel close to him, to try and recapture that sense of wholeness she felt when he had first touched her that way. It made her feel good when he moved inside her, but she never climaxed when they were together and he was too offended to listen whenever she tried to show him how.

His family moved away the summer before her senior year of high school. He hadn’t even told her it was going to happen. When she confronted him about it, he just shrugged and said he didn’t want to hurt her feelings, a consideration that had never stopped him before. After he left town, he’d call and write to her every so often to let her know he still loved her. He promised to visit but never did. 

She didn’t see him again until her early twenties, when he showed up at her door one summer afternoon, penitent, with grand professions about healing what was between them, about wanting to be her friend and champion, how he knew everything had been his fault. She thought they were both older and wiser, changed for the better by the pain they shared, and eventually let him back in. History did not repeat, as the saying goes, but it certainly did rhyme. Once she let her guard down, he rejected her in ways that seemed custom-ordered to hurt her the most.

 It happened again and again over the years. He would turn up, humbled, having burned his relationships with everyone else in his life except for faithful, forgiving Nora, with an apology on his lips and heartbreak in the offing. The details shifted and blurred, the pieces rearranged but formed the same picture, and Nora always found a way to tell herself that it would definitely be different this time.

Nora blinked the tears out of her eyes. She had begun drifting out of her lane, not that it mattered, there were barely any cars on the highway, but she still overcorrected and had to fight not to spin out. God, she felt pathetic. A few hours ago she had witnessed real, actual suffering and death, yet here she was crying over her own stupid problems. Her stomach quaked, a combination of her hangover and agitated emotional state doing a number on her guts. 

After five minutes of trying to suppress a digestive crisis, she pulled into a rest stop, parked across two spaces in the empty lot, and sprinted into the cramped, aluminum lined dome that enclosed the facilities and rest area. She made it to the lady’s room and managed to exorcize some of the evil inside her, but when she emerged from the stall, she was shocked by the sight of her own reflection. She saw that same 4’11”, skin-and-bones frame she’d had for so much of her life, the same long platinum blond hair, but the face it framed was just as pale, save for the dark circles beneath her eyes. She looked even worse than she felt, no make-up to conceal the patches of dry skin and adult acne running riot on her face, no persona of normality to slap onto her utterly disconsolate expression.

She wanted to get back on the road but felt the aftershocks still rumbling in her gut. Better to take a break and stick close to the toilets, just in case. She bought a soda out of the vending machine, groggily got her copy of Nayyirah Waheed’s salt. out of the back of the van, and sat at a picnic table outside of the bathrooms. The protective dome around her had been hastily wired for electricity (Nora could now imagine what a logistical nightmare it must have been to get construction crews out here) but there was enough light to read by. She sipped, savoring the bubbles on her tongue and the internal relief of the carbonation, and read the spare, arresting lines of verse. At some point she heard the gravel crunch of another car pulling in.

She got stuck on one particular poem, her eyes scanning it over and over, her fingers refusing to turn the page. Fall apart, the first line commanded. There was an implied promise of catharsis if she did, but she had been here before so many times. The world itself was falling apart and neither it nor she was emerging stronger or even healed by the process. Iron strengthened iron, sure, but people are generally made of much softer stuff. Nora certainly was. She never learned so she never changed.

Nora felt the tears dancing in her eyes again. She tried to sip on her soda but it caught in her throat and she coughed. She felt herself utterly incapable of getting behind the wheel and back on the road. She wasn’t a real person anymore, just a diminutive pile of pain and need. She was a child herself in a barely adult-sized body and there was no one left to take care of her.

A shadow fell over here, obscuring the page she hadn’t been reading. Great, someone was about to ask her if she was alright and she would have to tell the world’s least convincing lie.

“That must be a hell of a book, got a pretty girl like you choking up.”

It was a man’s voice but it didn’t sound like it belonged to someone from around here. Accents didn’t mean much these days, plenty of people lived in the South and didn’t sound like it, but this one was particularly exceptional: high and constricted, like an academic who’d had just one quick hit of helium. 

Nora cleared her throat.

“I really like Nayyirah Waheed’s work,” she managed to say.

“Ooh, I think I’ve heard of her, eh. One of those social media poets? Can’t say it does a lot for me. I’m really more of a Western canon guy myself. The great writers, the great thinkers.”

“Yeah, they’re a great, great bunch of dudes.” Nora looked up now at this man who had approached her. He was very clean and tall. Her age, probably. He had stubble but it looked intentional. Nora didn’t know cars but, from what she could see through the double doors that were still swinging with his entrance, he’d driven up in a nice one, one of those sleek silver Porsches that douchebag manosphere influencers with big watches liked to drive. 

“Hey ho,” he said. “I’m James.” He sat down across from her as if he’d been invited. She tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. It was cramped in here, only one table. 

“Nora,” she responded automatically. She was honestly dumbfounded. She’d seen her own reflection, her face haggard and miserable. Wasn’t it obvious how badly she wanted to be left alone? Of course, this guy barely seemed to be looking at her, a look of preoccupation glued to his bland, symmetrical face.

He took a big bag of beef jerky out of the inner pocket of his sherpa jacket and began to jam it into his mouth by the fistful. He held the bag out to her but she shook her head, so disgusted by the idea of eating it that she was nearly sick.

“Didn’t expect to see anyone on the road. All the sheep are stuck in their pens,” he said through a mouthful of dried beef and sodium nitrate. 

“Well, it’s dangerous out. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have to be.”

He made a derisive noise that strongly suggested he had plenty to say on the subject.

“Out on important business?” he asked.

“I, uh, have to move.” She pointed in the direction of the van. “Move in with my brother, Leopold. I couldn’t stay at my old place.”

“Ha!” he replied. She narrowed her eyes at him, caught completely off guard by his astonishing rudeness. He looked, for the first time, contrite. “I’m sorry, I’m not laughing at you, I swear. It’s just, you’re Nora and your brother’s name is Leopold?”

“…yes.” It had been a mistake to engage with this guy from the start but she still didn’t want to come off as impolite. Her father had once told her to always know she was more and walk away, fast, from anyone who made her feel less, but he’d been dead for a long time. 

“Your parents must’ve been big fans of Irish literature is all. Any chance your last name’s Joyce?”

“It’s Barnacle.”

“Holy shit, what a coincidence. You know about the real Nora Barnacle, right? Joyce’s wife?”

“I know where my name comes from, yes. She’s a distant relative. And I’m just as real as her.”

“Man, have you ever read those love letters he wrote her? About how much he loves her farts? So damn funny! That’s a kind of love most of us can only dream of.”

She hated to admit it, but she actually agreed with him. Her and the boy used to read those letters out loud to each other and die laughing.

“And here I am, a man of letters named James.” He toggled his pointer finger back and forth between them. “Seems like we were meant to run into each other on this old deserted highway, eh.”

“I don’t think anything’s ‘meant’ to happen.”

He was looking at her now, really looking.

“I don’t think you really believe that, Nora.”

“The hell do you know?” She was tired of this conversation. She went to get up. He reached out and put one of his big hands on top of hers, no force at all in the movement, but it might as well have been an irresistible weight the way it completely immobilized her.

“I know another free thinker when I see one. The only way you’d be out here is if you saw through all the lies like I do. You know this whole thing’s a big hoax.”

Nora was too floored to respond or even reclaim her hand.

“I… I just saw it happening. On my way here. Things changing size. People dying. Not online. With my own eyes,” she managed, eventually.

“I know you think you saw what you saw, but what you gotta realize is, this is all a movie. It’s special effects. Crisis actors, CGI, makeup, props, the whole deal. Maybe even holograms. They got some of that post-WWII super science junk out of mothballs and they’re using it to control and enslave us. I haven’t figured out if the Chinese are doing it or if it’s a Deep State psyop, but you gotta think for yourself. Do the research, Nora. Don’t be a sheep. Here, what’s your number? I can text you some links to a few cool substacks.”

Now she did pull her hand away.

“What are you doing out here anyway?” she said. She closed her book and took it off the table. 

“I go where I want,” he said with a shrug. “I love just flooring it up and down this highway now that all the cowards are off it. Feels like epic heroism. It’s my own personal Autobahn with all the sheep huddled in their little shielded pens, hiding beneath their precious particle-ponchos. I saw you weren’t wearing one, so I figured you weren’t brainwashed. My bad! I’ll let you get back to believing everything you see on ‘the News’.” 

Nora stood up. She had left her poncho in the passenger’s seat. She’d promised Leo that she’d wear it when she went outside, but she had been in such a rush to get to the toilet. She was having the most miserable road trip of her life.

“Well, you have a nice day!” she practically spat the words at him, not knowing what else to say.

Then there was a rumble. Then the ground split and the world went sideways as Nora fell.

When her head hit the concrete, all she could think of was her little dinosaur, Derpley. The way his beak was slightly misaligned at an angle that made him look twice as dimwitted as a typical cockatiel and a million times more adorable. The way he bent his crest down to her finger for scritches. The way he bobbed his head and danced and sang at her empty shoes on the floor. 

“Nora! Come on, I got you.” James was yelling, lifting her back to her feet, his sinewy arm over her shoulder. The overhead light was flickering, then it died entirely. Something was pushing the ground up beneath them, cracking the floor, shaking the domed enclosure. James and Nora shouldered their way through the double doors out into the daylight. 

Some fifteen feet ahead of them, a massive tendril ripped its way out of the asphalt, spraying gravel in every direction, rising into the air like a titanic serpent from ancient mythology. Then it slammed down into the side of James’s sleek, silver car. It flattened like a beer can and he screamed as if his own mother had been inside. What the hell was happening? The tendril kept growing up out of the ground, twisting and looping. Nora saw dozens of smaller tendrils branching from the main stalk. It was a root, she realized, a massive tree root unearthing itself. It was pushing against the traffic barrier, bowing the metal out, mindlessly expanding and tearing its way through. On the horizon beyond this spectacle, Nora saw rainbow light shimmering in the air.

“My poncho!” she shouted. One of the limbs of the huge root was rapidly growing in the van’s direction. 

“Leave it, we gotta get out of here,” James screamed back. She ignored him, shrugging his arm off her shoulder, sprinting toward the van. She’d made Leo a promise. She’d said she would be careful.

Her little legs managed to get her there. She tore the passenger side door open. Got her particle-poncho off the seat, and fell backwards right onto her ass just before the van flipped into the air as the root rapidly grew in a waveform beneath it. She saw it spin as it sailed up, then crash into the wreckage of the bathroom facilities. 

Get up, get up, get up! she told herself. She struggled onto her feet. If she stayed here, she’d die. She ran in the opposite direction of the root and the distant shimmer of a flux storm, onto the clear cut embankment parallel to the highway. She managed to leap over a rootlet thicker than her arm, trying to will her body into remembering she had run track in college. She struggled to get the poncho over her head, barely managed, and rolled her ankle as she tripped over a displaced piece of pavement. It hurt but she stayed upright and kept going.

By the time she stopped running, she was at least a hundred yards from the actual roadway. She turned back to see the ruins of the rest stop. The root was still growing. Another one had torn its way free from the ground directly across all the lanes of the highway, dust billowing up from a deep fissure that now bisected the road, utterly compromising it. 

“Holy shit, look at that,” James was beside her now. It was a small miracle he had made it out, his body neither crushed by debris or altered by the flux. In the distance, only eddying motes of rainbow shimmer remained in the air and they were burning out quickly. Nora assumed James was talking about the destruction of the highway but she saw his gaze went further out than that. On the horizon was a tree so tall they could not see the top.

“Yggdrasil,” James said in awe. 

Nora thought of Jack’s beanstalk. 

“We’ve gotta get out of here,” he said.

“Shouldn’t we wait for the authorities?”

Shouldn’t we wait for the authorities,” he said in a mock Down Syndrome voice. “Don’t be a bloody mongoloid, Nora. That thing,” he pointed at the mass of roots that had replaced the rest stop and highway as if summoned by a witch’s curse, “came from underground. This whole place could collapse any second.” He pointed at the giant tree. “I say we move as far and as fast away from that damn bastard tree as we can. Time for my Campbellian journey, you can come along.”

His hand was on her elbow, guiding her in the opposite direction. She let it happen, matching his pace as best as she could, wincing whenever she put weight on it. For some reason, she had expected James would help her along, he seemed into the idea of himself as a rescuer of women in distress, but when it became clear she couldn’t keep up, he power walked several feet ahead of her.

“Still think this is all a hoax?” she called, mostly as a ploy to preoccupy him before he left her behind entirely. He might be an ass, but she didn’t want to be alone. He slowed down, nearly stopping completely.

“Damn, even with our lives on the line, it all comes back to who’s right and who’s wrong. Typical smug lib. Typical feminist. You and my ex should trade notes. You’re both infected with the same mind virus.” The pout on his face reminded Nora of a little boy. It was only the catch of genuine hurt in his voice that kept her from laughing.

They moved on in silence. James actually slowed down to accommodate her pace. They were somewhere in northern Florida or Southern Georgia. They walked by a fetid swamp, swatting mosquitoes away. They walked through empty meadows. They walked past an abandoned farm, most of the human-built structures collapsed and already beginning the process of becoming overgrown and reclaimed by nature. Whenever she looked over at him, his eyes were darting in thought.

“I had no idea the special effects were this advanced,” he muttered to himself at one point.

“My car, my car, myyyy fuckiiiing car,” he said under his breath some twenty minutes later.

Nora was sweating and thirsty. The particle-poncho was heavy, weighted down by sealed pockets of powdered aluminum. Neither of them had brought any water. She told him she needed to rest. They were in a grassy field and she found a rock to sit on. She wondered if it had once been a pebble or if it had always been this size.

“We ought to be far enough away at this point,” he said, like he was an expert in the subterranean effects of giant tree roots. He squatted on the ground across from her. 

“So, Nora, what do you do for work?” he asked casually. She snorted with laughter.

“I’m a copy editor,” she said once she regained control of herself. “Mostly cookbooks. Work’s been slow lately.”

“Not exactly a big bucks occupation, even when things are normal, eh? No wonder you have to move in with your brother. You gotta supplement that income to afford a nice particle-poncho like that. You have an OnlyFans or something?”

Nora had nearly been lulled into forgetting who this guy was but she remembered now.

“Well that’s a little bit of none of your damn business,” she replied. The truth was that Nora did have an OnlyFans account. It was mostly pictures of her in white lingerie that the boy had taken with a professional quality camera he barely ever used. They’d started it together during lockdown. Nora liked the attention. The boy liked splitting the profits, enjoyed the act of making money even if he didn’t need it. 

“Hey, hey, I don’t judge. You’re a beautiful woman and everything that can be monetized probably should be, eh.”

“James… are you from Canada?”

He paused.

“Originally but they’re all a bunch of pussies up there.”

“James, I think it’s, uh, probably best if we think about going our separate ways. We don’t know each other and, uh, well…” she couldn’t think of a politic way to say that she felt less safe around him now than she had when the earth was coming apart beneath their feet.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, totally agree,” he said, surprising her. “You’re a stranger and if you don’t want my protection, I’m under no obligation to give it to you. You’re a modern woman. You’ll be fine on your own.”

He got up and dusted off his pants. Nora felt the beginnings of relief unclenching in her chest.

“Just real quick,” he said, off-handed. “I am going to need your poncho.”

Nora got up. Started to back away. He advanced.

“Like you said,” he added, “it’s dangerous out here.”

“These things are useless, remember?” she tugged on its hem with mock daintiness. She tried to keep the fear out of her voice but it cracked through her words.

“Maybe, maybe not. I try to keep an open mind. You understand. But there’s one of it. Two of us. And as you pointed out, we’re not together.”

He was right in her face now, snaking his arms around her back. She ducked under his reach, hustled away as fast as she could on her injured ankle. He was right on her heels. They crashed to the ground, him on top of her, his hands slipping under her poncho, tearing at her clothes. 

“Get the fuck off of me!” Nora screamed. She scratched at his face, clawing for purchase in his eye sockets or nostrils.

He ripped the inner lining of the poncho, spilling pouches of aluminum onto the ground beside them.

“Just give it to me! Give it to me, you fucking bit—” and then his head went back, bent by an impossible pressure that exploded through his forehead leaving a hole Nora could see into. The sound of the shot still echoed in the air. Her face was warm and wet. She touched it and her fingers came away tacky with his blood.

Panicked, she pushed her way out from beneath his weight, scooting backward until she was on her feet. His body lay slumped there in a rapidly widening pool.

“I don’t have time for this nonsense,” said the woman holding a smoking bolt-action rifle. She was middle-aged, Asian, fit, probably the same height as Nora, wearing some kind of high tech-looking particle-poncho. She racked a fresh round and pointed the gun back in Nora’s general direction.

“Wait-wait-wait-wait-wait-wait,” Nora said, throwing her hands up. 

The woman sighed. Lowered the rifle. 

“Relax. I’m not here to hurt you. I only came out of the bunker to take some post-phenomenon atmospheric readings. You alright? I’m Dr. Kwong.”

She slung her rifle around her back, approached Nora with an outstretched hand to shake. Nora’s own arm remained by her side. She felt outside her own body.

“You, you killed him.”

“Yeah, like I said, no time for this nonsense. The world’s ending. We don’t need useless men anymore. I suspect that we wouldn’t be in this mess if we had started killing them sooner. Was he your boyfriend?”

“No! No. We just met. We were at a rest stop together, back on I-95. Then there was a tree.”

“I know about the tree.” Dr. Kwong unclipped a rectangular object from her belt. Nora thought it was a cell phone at first, then realized it was some kind of data-gathering instrument she’d seen CFC scientists using in footage of flux storm aftermaths. “One of my telemetry drones sent footage and measurements to my listening post. So its root network got all the way out to the highway? They were so confident they’d done enough clear-cutting and uprooting. They never accounted for the magnitude of these recent transformations.”

“You’re with the CFC?”

The agency’s logo was written across Dr. Kwong’s fancy poncho.

“Front lines. Where do you think those weekly predictions come from? Not out of a hat.” Dr. Kwong reached into her satchel and brought out a towel. She approached Nora and put it to her face. Belatedly, she realized the woman was wiping James’s blood off her. When she finished, she balled up the towel and threw it as far as she could away from them. “Don’t want to attract predators,” she said, confusing Nora. 

“The government has you all the way out here? Taking readings and stuff?”

“They have us set up in countryside bunkers all along the coast, stationed in areas where the flux is most densely concentrated. Areas like this one.” 

The device in Dr. Kwong’s hand gave a beep. She turned away from Nora, began walking away at a rapid pace.

“Come on,” she said. “Your poncho’s ruined. We need to get you inside before the next flux storm. It might happen within the hour.”

“They never happen that close together in the same place. Right?”

Dr. Kwong did not stop. Nora followed. James’s corpse stayed behind.

They trekked on in silence down a dirt road. Eventually, Nora found the courage to ask a question.

“If you were outside to take readings, why do you have that gun?”

“In case I run into the cat,” Dr. Kwong replied.

“The what?”

“It was always good at hiding, so we need to be vigilant. What’s your name?” 

“I’m Nora.”

“Nora, I need you to shut up until we get back to the bunker. Noise puts us in danger.”

“I just—”

“Nora, if you don’t shut up, I’m going to shoot you. I mean it. Better one single loud noise than a persistent, chattering one. I have nothing left to lose but my life. If you see a furry boulder with yellow eyes and claws, let me know in the softest whisper you can make.”

Nora nodded. She was hurt and adrenalized. She’d lost her book of poetry somewhere back there, along with everything else she owned. She’d had a man lay hands on her, really trying to harm her, for the first time in her life. She was very scared of this woman but also in awe of her terrible certainty. She would have followed her anywhere, obeyed any instruction.

It was another ten minutes of silent walking before Nora understood what Dr. Kwong was really talking about.

The thing was sprawled on its back on top of a nest of kudzu inside a caved-in fishing shack. Its gargantuan proportions would’ve made it difficult to recognize if Nora hadn’t been primed to expect it. It was a cat the size of an elephant, asleep and dreaming giant cat dreams. It was nearly motionless, eyes closed, but the even rise and fall of its chest showed that it had survived its own flux event. Its fur was matted and patchy in places. There were two long, scabbed over cuts across its belly from a recent injury. There was a scattering of white objects dotting the cat’s nest. Nora had to physically put a hand over her mouth to stop herself from making a noise when she realized it was a human skeleton. 

“We’re almost there,” Dr. Kwong whispered to Nora, very softly. “Just over that hill there. We need to go fast and quiet.”

Nora nodded. The pain in her ankle had subsided to a point where she could match Dr. Kwong’s pace. She kept expecting a stick to snap under her foot and then a harrowing chase, but that did not happen. The two women weren’t exactly as silent and fleet as shadows, but they gave the animal a wide berth as they made their way over the hill. Dr. Kwong had said the cat was good at hiding but, like all cats, it was even better at sleeping and did not stir at their passing. 

The bunker was set into an earthen mound, a hobbit hole with a submarine airlock for a door. There were various antennae and satellite dishes sticking out of the upper sod. Dr. Kwong twisted the hatch and hurried Nora inside. They went down a narrow metal hall that opened up into a common area. Nora saw two cots. A small television and DVD player. One of those big coolers that serial killers keep in their garages to store bodies. A large pair of men’s work boots.

“Is there someone here with you?” Nora asked.

“There was. My partner. Dr. Wilkes. Cat got him.”

“That thing eats people?”

“No. Not yet, anyway. It sat on him. It was playing. It was used to sitting on him, back when it was its native size. It didn’t realize it was suffocating him. At least, I don’t think so.”

“It was your cat. It survived getting fluxed?”

“A stray he found outside and adopted. Boredom. I didn’t mind having it around either. Except we could never keep the damn thing from sneaking out of the bunker. I can’t bring myself to give it more than warning shots and grazes. I know that’s not rational.” Dr. Kwong handed Nora a canteen, which she drank from gratefully. “Want to hear a theory I have? Well, theory is a strong word. Want to hear a crazy idea that keeps me up at night?”

Nora nodded, trying not to drink too fast.

“I think that most living things have an internalized sense of their own size. You think of yourself as being big or small in relation to other things. In fact, most of the language we use to describe scale comes from comparison. Am I bigger than a breadbox? Smaller than the universe? Yes, there’s certainly a physical strain on the body when you’re altered by a flux event, but I think it’s the shock of having that highly conditioned sense of yourself disrupted, thrown so radically out of proportion, that actually kills you. Remember that Big Baby story from the news? That little girl didn’t know she wasn’t supposed to be that size. To her, nothing had changed. The cat didn’t die because it always knew it was actually that big, inside. Its new body still matched its idea of itself.”

That sounded insane to Nora but this person seemed like a scientist, had saved her from an assault, and was demonstrably capable of spectacularly off-hand violence, so she didn’t say a damn thing about it.

“What was the cat’s name?” Nora asked. “You know, back when it was your cat.”

“It’s the cat. Dan… Dr. Wilkes called it something, but it was always ‘the cat’ to me.”

Dr. Kwong gave Nora a pack of frozen peas out of her serial killer cooler. 

“I, uh, noticed you were limping.”

Nora bit her lip, trying not to bombard a potentially unstable and armed woman with too many questions. She thought about it and picked one, hoping it would diffuse the tension.

“How long have you been here by yourself?”

“I don’t want to talk about that. Too long. They’re supposed to rotate us out but we’re short-staffed, spread thin, and we keep losing listening post personnel to flux-adjacent mishaps like what happened to…” she paused, her eyes darting to the empty men’s work boots. “Excuse me, I have work to do.”

She went to her computer terminal at the far corner of the room. She began inputting whatever data she had just gathered with her instrument. She made broken conversation as she did so, seeming to only half-listen to Nora’s replies.

“You shouldn’t have been on the road,” Dr. Kwong said absently.

“I was living with a, uh, friend. He kicked me out. I had to go to my brother, Leo. He and his husband have a nice place up north. Room for me.”

“Doesn’t sound like much of a friend.”

“He… needed my room. For another friend of his. She can deadlift 190 pounds.”

There was a long pause.

“That seems like a shitty excuse to put your life in real danger. So he couldn’t let you sleep on the couch? Or the floor?”

Nora pressed the frozen pack onto her inflamed ankle and thought about how to answer that question.

“There were emotional issues. He’s been my best friend most of my life. Sometimes more than that. He just, I don’t know, never had a good model for relationships. They make him feel trapped. A year ago, when nobody was taking the flux seriously, I went to visit him. Actually it wasn’t even that. I was in Tallahassee for an interview, a job I really wanted, and he let me stay at his place so I could save money. Then the news told us all shelter in place. The job got canceled and I was stuck. We thought it was just going to be for a few weeks. We had a blast. We partied. We played Super Mario on his old Super Nintendo until we got too weirded out by how much he changes size. We did art together. He was silly and sweet and told me he loved me every day. We, we really thought we were handling it so much better than everyone else. I let the lease lapse on my old place, couldn’t afford to keep it, and started giving him a few hundred every month for my room. He said this whole mess must’ve been fate’s way of showing him we were meant to… we adopted a parrot together.”

“Those things shouldn’t be in cages,” Dr. Kwong said, tapping away at her keyboard. “Too smart.”

“Derpley was… is the dumbest bird on the planet. No thoughts. Empty head. I love him so much. He sings to me and does little dances. Anyway, I didn’t want to let myself believe the guy meant the things he kept telling me. He’d talk to me about buying land together in Tennessee or Kentucky, about the vacations we’d go on, once we could go outside again. And I’d try to hold the line ‘cus he’s burned me plenty of times, you know. But I was stuck and little by little, I started to let it happen. He’d look at me with caring eyes. He’d give me little kisses, but shy, like he wanted to respect my boundaries but couldn’t help himself. It was my secret wish, I guess. Maybe not so secret. In my head, he was always mine and I was always his. The last time he hurt me…”

“He was hurting you?” Dr. Kwong actually turned to face Nora. Behind her thick glasses, her eyes were narrowed with concern.

“Not like that,” Nora said, thinking of James on top of her, screaming and clawing at her. “Not like what you saw when you… stopped that guy. No, the boy… the man I was living with only hurt me on the inside, I guess. He just hurt my feelings. I know I shouldn’t, uh, minimize that. They are my feelings. Who’ll speak up for them if I don’t? My point is, I thought I’d wised up. After all those years of his bullshit, of me letting myself get suckered into the bait-and-switch, I accepted that it was never going to be what I’d expected or hoped. Then we were trapped together and he was acting like, I don’t know, a real partner, like someone who’d finally, you know, made a choice and that choice was me.”

“Patterns, by definition, repeat.” Dr. Kwong stood up, went to the pantry. She took out two cans of chicken noodle soup. She started dinner going on the hot plate. Nora had no idea what time it was or how long she’d been in the bunker.

“The second I decided to let myself believe; he did what he always did. Shocking, I know. He was just mean to me, all the time, every day. Have you ever seen that movie The Terminator? You know how the camera lets you see through the killer robot’s eyes, how they scan everything and give little read-outs about all its potential targets? He was like that but for things about me to criticize. Some days I’d spend hiding in my room, working or crafting, or out in the garden and he’d come to scold me for doing something or not doing something. If there was nothing to harp on, he’d just bring up something I’d done years ago. ‘I’m not your husband’ he kept telling me. ‘You read too much into what I said’. ‘You were only helping me adopt the bird’. He said I was stealing his life, like I was an invader or that I’d made the world this way on purpose to trap him. But I was only there because I was the one who was trapped and I only bought in because he convinced me to.”

“Love has a particularly cruel magnetic field,” Dr. Kwong said as she handed Nora a steaming bowl of soup and a packet of saltines. “It repels us when we seek it, and the harder we want it, the greater the counterforce. I’m sorry that happened to you.”

“I don’t mean to whine.”

“You’re not whining. You’re talking about your life. I’ll be honest, this guy sounds like a fucking asshole. A textbook psychological abuser.”

“He’s… complicated.”

“Doesn’t sound complicated to me.” Dr. Kwong sighed. “He wasn’t looking out for you. That’s what you do when you actually care. But I get it. All the worst things that ever happened to me happened wearing love like crypsis.”

It was Nora’s turn to scoff. This woman was locked in a doomsday bunker and lived in fear of a giant cat who had killed her only companion, but somehow it was love that was the problem? Then again, it had been her cat and her partner, so maybe she was on the money after all.

“I hope I didn’t disrupt your work too badly.” Nora was scraping the bottom of her bowl for the last dregs of the soup.

“No, I got the data I needed. I just need to let the computer run overnight to get confirmation on something.”

Nora nodded even though she didn’t really know what Dr. Kwong was talking about. Did this have something to do with predicting the flux storms? Nora wished she had taken those forecasts more seriously. 

“You can stay here tonight.”

“Thank you, Dr. Kwong.”

“My name’s Angela. Technically, it’s Angelababy but please don’t ever repeat that. Chinese parents can be, uh, weird about picking our Western names.”

“Your secret’s safe with me.”

Dr. Kwong opened up a DVD case and took out a copy of Moonstruck. Nora had never seen it before. They watched it sitting on their cots.

“Huh, this is like, the best movie ever,” she said after the scene where Nicolas Cage bemoans his lack of hands and brides. 

Muriel’s Wedding is better,” Dr. Kwong said, no nonsense. “But it’s a close call.”

Nora fell asleep on her cot, wrapped in a blanket. She dreamt she was back in Tallahassee, back in the boy’s house. Derpley was singing in the next room. She went in to find him but he wasn’t there. She followed that phantom song from room to room, always finding absence where she expected to find love. She woke up with Dr. Kwong’s rifle pointed at her face.

“Time for you to leave, sweetheart.” The little scientist kicked a backpack in her direction, never taking the gun off her. “This has some bottled water, some dried fruit, a compass, and a map to the nearest town. It’s four miles northwest. Remember to be absolutely quiet when you leave and watch out for the cat. You don’t want to go out like Dr. Wilkes.”

“Angela?” All Nora could focus on was the rifle’s round, black muzzle. It made her think of the hole it opened in James’s forehead, of one negation propagating another. “Do you really need to aim that thing at me?”

“Very much so, yes. The computer finished its analysis. It confirmed something I’ve suspected for a while. The flux is getting worse. The particles in the atmosphere are multiplying and each new generation is more powerful than the preceding one. That tree yesterday was the most extreme rescaling we’ve seen yet, although even that is nothing compared to what’s coming. The events are becoming more frequent and severe. It’s the actual apocalypse, just as weird as anything out ofThe Book of Revelation, we just haven’t admitted it yet. It’s only a matter of time before the microorganisms in the soil become gigantic and reign over us like dinosaurs. Human civilization is going to vanish and what’s left in its place will be something new and far stranger. I suspect tardigrades will be the next dominant form of life on this planet.”

Nora blinked.

“If,” she said, “if that’s true… do I really have to go?”

“I’m sorry, but yes. I have a limited store of food here. It’s enough to last for years, even after the genny eventually goes out, sure, but I’d rather have time than company. I want, need, to see as much of the end as I can, and especially what comes after, with my own eyes.”

“Please don’t make me go. I’ll die out there.”

“I think you are operating off a lifelong pattern of underestimating yourself. Break the cycle, Nora. Be your own woman.”

“You’ll shoot me if I try to stay?”

“Oh, absolutely. As I believe I’ve already said, the world is over and I have no time left for nonsense.”

Nora picked up the backpack. 

“Do you have an extra particle-poncho you could give me?” she managed to make herself ask.

“The cat shredded my last spare during our most recent close call. Damn thing keeps coming back no matter how often I drive it off. That’s the price we pay for letting man or beast get too close for too long, I suspect. Just one more reason you can’t be here. I don’t need another stray. If I had an extra I’d give it to you, but I need mine if I’m going to play my role as humanity’s last witness.”

“Okay,” Nora said. “Okay.”

Dr. Kwong followed her at a remove of a half-dozen paces. Nora opened the bunker door and stepped out into the stinging light of day.

“I didn’t mean to jerk you around like this,” Dr. Kwong said softly. She was leaning out of the hatch, slowly moving the door shut to minimize the noise it would make. “For what it’s worth, I really am rooting for you.” Then she sealed the door.

Nora expected to turn and see the cat immediately. Her heart was a sledge hammer beating against her chest from the inside. She waited, still too fearful to look behind her. She didn’t feel any hot breath, didn’t hear the snarl. She made herself look, her body moving in slow motion. Nothing there.

Nothing in the cat’s nest either as she crept past. Her flower patterned Vans squelched in the swampy ground as she picked up her pace down the road. She checked the map as she moved. Dr. Kwong had written out very precise annotations, thoughtful and direct even as she aggressively abandoned Nora to her fate.

Every minute she was sure something was watching her. She would look around, see nothing, and continue on her way. She walked by a dilapidated cotton plantation. She’d lived in the South for long enough to have practice not thinking about it. The boy had told her that this kind of compartmentalization was necessary and didn’t hurt anyone.

It hit Nora all at once that she had been kicked out of two shelters in the past 24 hours. When had her life been reduced to this fucking bullshit? She’d had so much potential. When she was a kid, the adults had always told her that. She was a good student, made friends easily, volunteered often, gave freely, and asked for very little in return. She’d wanted to have a good career, a house like the one Leo and her had grown up in (before they sold it to pay for Nora’s college education). She’d wanted to have a partner and be someone’s mom, to do her best. When had she let her dreams get so small, so microscopically small, that she couldn’t even see them anymore?

She thought of how Leopold never stopped calling her “kid”. His apartment seemed like a sanctuary but it was probably going to be another temporary arrangement before she wore out her welcome. Nora thought of Dr. Kwong telling her she was just another stray. The boy telling her he couldn’t stand another minute living with her. It made her ashamed to admit it, but it made her feel worse than when her father had died. People leaving you is natural; on a long enough timeline, everyone leaves. But when someone asks you to leave, that’s different. That’s a choice the other person makes and that choice is not you, was never going to be you.

Nora braced herself against a big, old willow. She needed a moment to catch her breath. She felt like she was drowning in unwanted recollections and associations.

She thought of the boy slipping into her room in the night, climbing into her bed, then in the light of day telling her that it was all in her head, like she’d imagined everything he’d said and done to lead her on. He told her that he didn’t want to be mean to her but that’s just how he acted when she was around. If she wasn’t around, then he could be different, happy and generous with others. He said he wanted his old life back, like she was the one who had the power to issue federal directives to shelter in place. 

“You’re just throwing me out like I’m trash,” she’d told him. “Anything could happen to me out there and you don’t give a fuck. After everything. I thought I meant something to you.”

“You’re everything to me,” he’d said. “Everything except fun.”

A single short, hard sob escaped from Nora’s throat, unbidden. It sounded louder than a gunshot, echoing across the desolate countryside. She looked frantically to her left and right, so she didn’t see the cat as it descended on her from above. It had come from the other side of the willow tree, creeping up cautiously and deliberately on powerfully arched feet. It had bent the willow over like it was a sapling, cracking the trunk and using it as a springboard to leap on poor, sad Nora. Its paw caught her across the chest. It was a playful swipe, claws in, but its enormous toe beans still drove the breath out of her, sending her to the ground. The backpack spilled its contents as it rolled away.

The cat’s head descended on her. She saw fangs the size of swords. Then she felt its soft, huge cheek bunting into her side, nuzzling in a way that made her bones feel like they were grinding against one another. She forced herself not to crawl back, knowing it might provoke a far less cuddly response. She struggled to fill her lungs again.

It was moving in a tight circle around her, raking her with its whiskers, suffocating her with friendly rubs from its face. It was pheromone marking behavior, some distant, objective part of her realized, the kind reserved for displays of affection. One of its people was a skeleton back in its nest and the other warded it off with a high powered rifle. It was hungry for human attention. It still felt the instinct to touch and be touched. That need was going to kill her.

It circled again before falling onto its side, settling its bulk onto Nora like a lethal weighted blanket. She made small, choked gasps. Her vision flickered in and out of darkness. She idly wondered if this was how the boy felt having her in his house, a warm, crushing love without room for breath. She brought her hand to the cat’s side and stroked it.

“Pretty… h.. h.. kitty…” she gasped. “You, n, n, n, are… so… h… h… good.”

Its deep, resonant purr was like a siren’s song, calling her away from herself. She no longer had the strength to hold her head up. It fell backward and she saw the open sky above her. She would drift into it and disappear. Up, up, into the rainbow light. She could see it, the shimmer, dancing and expanding. Nora idly, distantly hoped for a reset, a chance to do it all again. She swore she’d get it right this time. She was not ascending but that was alright. The sky was coming down to her in all its swirling resplendence.

The cat moved off of her, all the dormant quickness in it activating at once. She didn’t even see where it went as she drew in a deep, painful breath. Somehow she made it back to her feet. The flux was descending on all sides in eddying spirals. She should run, right? She didn’t feel like it.

Nora sat down. She breathed. What was the point? There wouldn’t be any thrilling escape. By the time you saw the shimmer, it was already too late. She was sick of struggling in vain. She’d spent so much of her time on Earth seeking and had found less than nothing.

Her father had told her to know that she was more, but every man since him had told her that she was less. Tell someone that long enough and it starts to seem like the truth. Nora stood up, held out her arms, let the flux take her.

She breathed it in. The particles tickled her throat pleasantly. The colors and lights billowed around her, gyrating faster but never fast enough to dizzy or overwhelm her. She would not fight it even if she had the strength. It was the most beautiful thing that ever happened to her.

She was shimmering now too. She was excited, positively giddy. Maybe the flux was affecting her brain chemistry. She didn’t care. There was something like pain in her body, but it was the kind of pain that purged and brought relief. She was changing. It did not matter, in that moment or ever after, that she had waited so long to change. It could happen any day, if you let it, and then none of the time was wasted.

Nora brought her foot down and the old plantation collapsed beneath it. It felt like stepping on a cardboard box. She giggled and her voice resonated like thunder. That pleased her. She kicked the collapsed pile of wreckage and the debris scattered like matchsticks, rolling into a nearby copse of dead trees, uprooting and shattering them.

Nora knelt down. She saw the cat, back arched at the sudden destruction. Their proportions weren’t exactly reversed. It was more like a mouse to her now. She held out her palm.

“Psst, psst, psst,” she beckoned and the sound shook the earth.

It crawled into her hand, revolving curiously, before settling itself. With one pinky she very delicately scratched behind its ear.

“You are so good,” she repeated. Miles away, in the nearest town, all the glass windows on Main Street exploded. 

Nora did not know how long she had left, if her heart would eventually give out like Big Baby’s, or continue beating away as strong as it felt right then. She knew she would try to last as long as possible, like Dr. Kwong, but not because of some objective desire to witness what would come next. Nora Barnacle was now the biggest woman in the world and she felt a deep need to meet her new peers.

She could feel some of them already. They were connected by the flux as it propagated and spread around the world. She felt them in the ocean. A mantis shrimp bigger than the Chrysler Building was going to emerge off the coast of Maine any day now. Deeper than that, a titan of a volcano snail, its iron shell strong enough to withstand a nuclear blast, fed on the deep sea vents, beginning the process of readjusting the planet’s climate in preparation for the new age. Nora could feel her nascent brothers and sisters sleeping underground, just waiting for their rebirth into the macrobiological universe. She would shed particles wherever she trundled and wake them up.

She turned south and her new eyes saw Tallahassee in the distance, stretched out like a mold colony. She toyed with the notion of going back and stepping on the boy’s house. She figured it was one of those things that felt a lot better to think about than actually do. She had outgrown the need to turn back, after all. Let him keep his bird and whatever life he made for himself; it was no longer her concern. She wished them well, in a distant sort of way. 

 She set the cat down. It pranced in a tightening circle around her foot. It was welcome to tag along. They were both heralds of the world to come and, more than that, every single stray had a place at her side. In her vast mind, Nora said a prayer for her father, then for everyone, asking God to grant them the serenity to accept everything that was about to happen. The air shimmered and scintillated around her. She lumbered on like a brontosaurus, each colossal tread taking her further north, lighter than ever.

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