by Cheryl Murfin
Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud.
Lauren’s heart mirrors the dense pulse of movement in the city street not yet below her apartment window, but getting closer. Thud. Thud. Thud.
She jumps with each door that slams up and down her hallway, with each muted click-slam-crash filtered through paper-thin walls and rising up through the creaking, ancient floorboards.
It’s happening. She hears screaming. It is coming from all directions, from the right and left, from above and below her. Women, screaming. Children. Babies. She cannot tell if there are men within this swell of sound; their tones are so much deeper, surely lost in the high-pitched surround-sound soprano of shrieking.
They said it would be like this. Chaos. Entropy. The realization that what was impossible has actually happened. That what was undefeatable has been defeated.
The sea of people filling the streets is getting closer. She can feel their energy even though she cannot yet see them rolling like a wave, filling in the empty spaces, on dim lit Fourth Avenue below.
He is somewhere in that mass of humanity. She knows he is. She closes her eyes and sees his presence like a warm, red island of calm in a sea of blue liquid angst. She sees the thrashing waves of bitterness wash up onto his shores as he is jostled and pulled along the streets, barely lifting his own feet, carried by the energy of the mass, of forward motion, of tidal pull.
Thud. Thud. Is it her heart? Is it the heat? Is it him? Thud. Thud. Thud.
All these possibilities, all these probabilities, everything represented in that overwhelming sound – the sound of blood rushing through her veins, the same sound of humanity rushing through the city.
Lauren has never been in love.
She had all the time in the world. That is what she believed.
And so she did not open herself to the invitations of the heart. She wanted to know herself first. To love herself. And so when the news came, she was stunned. Two weeks. One. Four days, three.
And now just hours.
Hours before there is no more time. Before all the time in the world is zero.
She hears a gunshot from the apartment above her. Without hesitation, she knows Mrs. Wright is gone. She knows that her husband has fulfilled his dream, pulled out a shotgun, and smiling, blown her head off. She hears their children screaming. The bastard, he wouldn’t think to put the children out of the room.
Because that’s what the end is, when you are given warning. People everywhere madly trying to fulfill unfulfilled dreams. To do the things they believed they had time to do. To take their revenge.
The shrill sound of storefront windows shattering below sounds to Lauren like chandelier glass shaking. She moves her mind away from what she knows has happened upstairs to this image. Spectacular light broken by each angle of prism. The shine of brass.
It is the chandelier above her parents’ table, swaying gently after her father’s simple push. They lay on the table, Lauren and her father, watching the light. Happy. Her mother takes a picture. And so her eyes open and she moves them to the piano and this very image framed in teak.
She is glad they are gone. That they will not see what is ahead. Her thought of her parents emboldens her. Fulfill your dream, she can almost hear them saying. Together. Always together. This is what Lauren wants of love. This is what she believed all the time in the world would bring.
She does not grab a coat or purse. There is no need. Too much heat. Nothing to buy. No time left. Hours.
She fumbles down the stairs, pulling herself to the wall as frantic, crazed neighbors and strangers race up and down, falling, picking themselves up. Carrying away chairs and jewelry boxes.
For what she wonders? To sit where? To dress up for who? There will be no place to use these things. They are of no value.
On the street, the mob is almost to her building. Behind it she sees a city aflame. The noise is cacophonous. Bodies already fallen on the street – having jumped from windows, having been pushed before oncoming cars before traffic came to a standstill. She looks down her alleyway, horrified to see a gang of men, boys, really, no more than 13 or 14, lined up, huddled around two scared, shrieking girls. She turns away.
They said there would be rape. They said it would be worst for women.
Lauren’s hair is tucked up in her hood. She has been dressing in baggy clothes for days. In case. If she dies without love, she will at least die a virgin.
Suddenly the wave has reached her door.
She is surprised by the ease with which she enters the surf. Head down, arms up in self-protection. She does not need to watch where they are going. They are simply going. There is no destination. A crowd simply moving until the end. And so she closes her eyes, tunes in to that thudding center, reaches inward to feel for the red island.
And there it is. Near. So near to her.
He is here.
Is it intuition that comes with the end? Hope? Or merely wishful thinking? Does it matter when all that is left is to fulfill the unfulfilled dream? He is here. This she knows. Like her own breath. She has willed him here.
She turns her face into the sea, a fish moving upstream. One step forward, two steps back, until she get’s her grounding, until she finds the rhythm of her swim in a channel of men.
It is like this for what seems like forever, constant movement, bodies pressed together. Difficulty breathing. Going nowhere. Going everywhere. Never stopping.
And then she feels him again. Only this time stronger. Like fire. He is right here. Right here. She turns, turns, turns. Face. Face. Too close faces.
And then his face.
Here is where their eyes lock. But she must keep moving. If she stops she will be carried away. Or trampled. And so will he. And so they step, step, step in time. Eyes fixed on only each other. Histories telepathically flooding back and forth – she telling him everything she ever wanted a lover to know, all her pain, all her joy. Her essence, the whole of her. He telling her of his loss, his fear, his inability to grasp the anger of so many in this moment.
He has never been in love either. Until now.
This is what they tell each other. This is what they do not hear in the deafening thrum of the crowd. It is as if in this moment, all the time in the world has arrived. It is present. It is enough.
He reaches his hand out to Lauren, who is just a few feet too far away. She pushes, pushes sideways toward him, wanting that hand so much. From behind her, a gruff, hairy arm grabs her wrist, yanks it down, thrusts her forward.
“Shove off, Motherfucker!” the hand and the full of the crowd, yells. Motherfucker.
She thinks again of her parents. She imagines that when they died in that plane crash six years ago, this is how it happened. This chaos, fear, and then a hand, reaching out, clasped. And peace. Not going alone.
And the, she thinks, I will have nothing less. Nothing less. She turns to the hairy hand behind her, comes face to face with the raging ugly being connected to it, lurches forward with both pointer fingers rigid like spikes and pokes his eyes out.
And then, she turns again to him. He nods his head, accepting, forgiving her this violence, knowing it is not who she is, it is an act of survival, a prelude to death. And with a strength he didn’t know he possessed, he lunges forward and finds himself entwined with Lauren, arms, legs, like pretzels.
They fall to the ground, feet trampling behind them, above them, on top of them. They grab and rip at each other’s clothes and within seconds they are naked, bruised, bloodied, but united. He thrusts inside her like it is a final act, his farewell. And as he does, the monstrous crowd around him breaks, they encircle this coital moment with a silence and awe unthinkable just one moment before.
Lauren closes her eyes; she feels this. It is love. She sees her parents. She feels them, she opens her eyes and the two of them look eye to eye as the wave breaks over them both. Their moan is the sound of life and death and they fall into each other spent, finished.
And then the crowd closes in on them, like a pack of lions on two straying lambs.
They do not try to escape death.
It is welcome now. They breathe together, as one, into the chaos of it, the fear. And then hands clasped they let go. Into that peace. Never again alone.