The morning Robbie left for Etchton, two sea-blue sparrows fell from the sky, landing as hard as rocks on our front lawn. Mom and I rushed over to them from the garden, but it was too late. They were dead, or deader, their necks broken and already dissolving into the grass as marvelously sharp colors smeared blades of grass as easy as paint stained paper. Turquoise and lapis glistened like icing, the air smelled rotten.
I'd been staring, replaying some of Robbie's saved videos in my mind. His collection was daunting: the first, squirrels, crows, rabbits, even a couple deer, all melting into pools of color and nothing more. Dissipating from this life and transcending to the next, he'd say with a nod. My brother knew more big words than little ones, which was why the university had accepted him so fast.
Mom didn't know that he'd let me watch the vids, thankfully. She squatted, bunching her dress up as she hovered over the poor things. Serious-face was in full stretch. "Go fetch the bucket and shovel. Hurry now."
It took nearly an hour to clean up the colored mess. The news reports, highlighted at least three a week, warned, re-warned, and re-re-warned again that contact with the blood oils was dangerous. That was a media term, there, blood oils, and it caught like fire; Mom preferred to call it paints, being the kindergarten teacher twenty four-seven; Robbie told me intellects called it pigment, and I always did from that day on, just never in front of my parents. Robbie was swift like that; sure, he checked out every uploaded video on the net of animals bursting like watermelons and melting into the ground. The point, though, was that—unlike his peers—he didn't make journal icons out of the images or tiny animated GIFs or ghastly colorful tiled wallpaper. He was studying.
I held the bucket by its butt while Mom used the shovel like a knife. She cut at the soppy grass and scooped it up in heavy, dripping heaps. I kept my fingers safe and hidden, and wondered why animals melted.
Whenever I asked I got a look. Mom's face was rather plain save for her puffy cheeks, and when it contorted up or down or in, I felt genuinely bad. So I wondered a lot, first placing the blame on God then science and evolution, lastly letting it fall on the twisting fingers of Mother Nature. Was she angry, tired? Bored? Maybe the cosmos had something to do with it.
As Mom and I walked to the well to dump out the bucket, she said, "Now let's just keep this between us. Your father'll be upset enough not to have seen Robbie off this morning. Dead birds won't bring him up."
"Sure." I inspected my hands, seeing only pink skin. "Mom?"
"Yeah?" She carried the shovel straight out, as if balancing something invisible on its spade. Some pigment dripped off it, solid-colored droplets, but not enough to matter. It seemed to rain every other day since the Revelation, and Katie Tomsinelli from Channel Seven News said that a solid thirty-minute downpour was enough to cleanse the land.
"Will we ever know why the animals are melting like this?" I kept my eyes moving, avoiding Mom. I could almost hear folds of skin contracting on her face, the look stirring below pores.
"Maybe. Your brother might figure it out." She carefully stuffed the shovel into the ground and took the bucket from me. I watched as she tilted it down, and blue-green liquid gushed out as if the bucket itself had gotten sick. I understood completely; the smell was bad eggs times ten, maybe more. The well beside the garden wasn't used for anything, and Mom had said it'd been there when they bought the house. As of late, it'd become a pigment pool of colors and dead things. Vibrant slop, Robbie had called it, doodling in his sketchbook as he always did, algorithms in red marker running along the spine.
It'd be nice if he figured all this out. The news said only the best got accepted to Etchton, that only the best produced the best.
We walked back to the house when we were done washing the shovel and bucket clean with the hose. It was late morning now, the sky clear and the rotten smell gone with the wind. Confidence came to me in a deep breath.
"Mom, are we going to melt at some point?"
She laughed, a little too quickly. I wrinkled my nose as she said, "We're not animals, darling."
After watching a low-res video of two rabbits melting while going at it, I shut my television off and wrote Robbie a letter. I told him I'd write him as soon as he left, and I meant to keep the promise. There wasn't much to say besides the two birds melting in the lawn, but I tried to make the letter light. He was studying at the finest university this side of New Jersey, and the first few days of classes will have passed by the time this reached him. No need to bog his mind down anymore than the courses would be doing.
For awhile I sat and just wondered—about what Robbie might be studying (do chameleons melt into rainbows?), about the well and if anything actually survived down there, and about Mom and her quick laugh. Aren't we animals?
I scribbled that question down just below my name, and drew a picture of me on all fours, covered in bristly fur and swimming in shaded pigment.
Dad came home just as I finished sticking a 2033 eclipse stamp on the envelope. Not wanting to disturb them (Dad liked to be left alone for at least ten minutes every night after returning from the labor farm), I snuck out the house through the garage and dropped the letter in the mailbox. Something made noises in the trees above me. I looked up and made out the flutter of oily wings, flapping like wild fans in the night. Birds.
Not sparrows like from this morning, but beady-eyed crows. They perched and stared down at me. As I headed back across the lawn, I heard them shriek and lift off their branch. I turned quickly enough to see them diving at me, swooping in like flying daggers, and only by dropping to the grass did I miss them colliding with my face. I was breathing hard, but not hard enough—I could feel something warm and wet beneath my fingers, even on the side of my face.
Pigment. "Oh no . . ."
I moaned out. It felt hot against my skin. I imagined it sizzling or eating away at my flesh, melting me away, but as I scraped the goop off I realized none of that was happening. Nothing was happening yet, but the news reports and Katie Tomsinelli's warnings played over and over as I stood and cleaned myself off as thoroughly as possible. By the garage light I could tell my penguin pajamas were ruined, splotches of mud and grass and navy blue all over.
"Amanda?" The screen door opened. Dad's outline appeared monstrous with the light surrounding him from the living room. He stepped out and down the porch steps. "You out here?"
I ran up to him, crying now, showing him my blue-colored fingers. His jaw went slack, and for a moment I thought he was going to back away and shut the door. He carefully threw an arm around me and carried me inside, shouting: "Charlotte, get the kit! Get the kit!"
I was eight when the world changed. Robbie had just come home from his afternoon tutoring, immediately gathering Mom and I in the living room (Dad worked). A news alert was happening, and we all sat down to watch. A balding man with a handlebar mustache shuffled papers on his glossy desk, cleared his throat, and spoke:
"Good evening and welcome to Town Five News. I'm Donald Billard. Tonight's top story is about a bewildering tragedy that occurred at the Philadelphia Zoo earlier this morning. Our newest correspondent, Katie Martins, is live at the scene. Katie."
I remember the screen fading away until it cleared again on a young woman in a striped suit jacket, blonde hair blowing across her face. She wasn't smiling as she looked directly at the camera. Behind her were a fence and an empty lion pen.
"Thank you, Don. Authorities and zoo personnel are still at work determining just exactly what happened here today. Witness reports claim that in the middle of feeding the lions Huri and Henri, something went wrong. One woman said she thought the lion was simply lying down for a nap, but when she turned back to check on it there was nothing left but an orange puddle in the dirt. The woman's child said that Henri came right up to the viewing glass, brushed against it, and left a fur-covered smear of something."
The rest of the report consisted of Katie speaking with zoo workers and customers, the camera zooming in and out of focus on a muddy spot or dirty glass wall. Later on, two howler monkeys were playing in their tree-infested exhibit when they suddenly fell to the ground with a splash. The zoo shut down for a day, then a week, and then a month until it went on official hiatus. It didn't matter. The world was anew now; within a week, Katie Martins would marry corporate billionaire Harry Tomsinelli and become the woman to cover all things pigment-related. Within five hours, Robbie found hidden camera footage leaked on the net, and we stayed up after Mom and Dad went to bed to watch lions and monkeys melt away in his bedroom.
"How does something like this happen?" he had asked, not of me but of his computer screen. His eyes were set. "How?"
Mom scrubbed at my right hand with an emergency rag dipped in vodka while Dad worked at my left. The stinging sensation was gone, or I had imagined it all along. Now everything smelled like alcohol, and the kitchen lights made me uncomfortable.
"Next time tell me, all right," Dad growled. I concentrated on the humm humm hum of the refrigerator while Mom took out a bandage and wrapped it around and around and around my hands.
"I thought we'd cleaned it all up."
"Might've seemed so, but it last rained on Thursday. Next time at least mark off where the birds fell. I don't know. Use something—anything—but mark it off."
The refrigerator grew louder as my parents quieted down; they were upset, Dad more agitated than Mom—was it because Robbie was gone or because I'd got myself into such a mess?
Afterwards, Mom called the family doctor for an appointment tomorrow morning.
"I don't need a doctor," I said. "Really. Can I call Robbie, Mom? He can check on me."
"'Manda, he just left this morning. He'll call us when he's ready, and you can talk to him then. But tomorrow we're going to see Dr. Latimer."
I left the kitchen and snuggled up on the living room couch. Dad was watching an old movie, black-and-white with subtitles and slow shots of people smiling or frowning. A world without color. I watched with little interest, instead thinking about how the reports weren't true—that the pigment wasn't dangerous, least not to me. But doctors surely must have touched the stuff at some point during their research?
"Yeah?" He spun his armchair around and peered at me from behind his reading glasses.
"How can someone be an authority on a subject no one really knows anything about?"
"No." Like doctors and news correspondents and students at Etchton. I hoped Robbie would be the first to tell the world why they were so stupid, why they didn't get a thing. He'd do it so well-spoken that they might not even realize how insulted they should be.
Dad went to bed before the movie was even over, giving me a kiss on the forehead. I stayed up and watched the news, counting four different clips related to blood oils. No Katie though; her hour was just before and during dinner time—the top slot. I shut the television off and went to bed. Tomorrow was the doctor. Would he know more than a reporter or less?
"Robbie'll know more than the whole world, soon," I whispered, wrapping my blankets tight around me, keeping myself warm and safe and completely together.
"Which slide, Amanda, would you say is closest to the color you got on your hands last night?" Dr. Latimer never aged. His rotund build stretched his white jacket to its ends, and he peered at me behind wire-rimmed glasses that made his eyes larger than they needed to be. Behind him and his fluffy salt-and-pepper hair stood a row of illuminated blue slides, each a different shade.
I perched forward on the examination table. Squinting and staring did little to help. "They all look the same. I can't tell."
Dr. Latimer reached for the door. "I can bring your mother in then."
"No no." She'd take over and say things like she knew all the answers. Truthfully, no one did—yet. Not Mom or the doctor or even Robbie. Today was his second day at Etchton, and my letter was still a good three away from reaching him.
"It was dark out," I started. "So it could've been any of those blues, really. Like that one." I pointed at the slide stuck in the middle. It was a nice blue, the kind Robbie'd wear in the summer when he went running.
"That would be azure, from the melted body of a blue poison dart frog."
"Yeah." Dr. Latimer scribbled something down on his clipboard, and then seemed to really hear me. "Oh, no, that's just a print. A zookeeper in Baltimore sent the original blood oils to Etchton for study."
"My brother's going there."
"That's nice." He wheeled a stool over, sat down, and stared at my hands through a magnifying glass. After a couple minutes of heavy breathing, he looked up—his eyes were now twice as huge, magnified behind two glass circles. They were blue, I saw, possibly azure like the dead frog. Maybe lighter. "You said it burned at first?"
"Felt like it. The news said it would, so I think that's what I thought of as soon as I felt it on my hands and arms. Like it was supposed to burn. But it didn't, or it hadn't yet."
"Your mother told me she washed your arms clean with vodka. Did that feel good?"
I shrugged. "Smelled funny."
After eight more simple questions, we were done. I rolled my sleeves down and joined my mother in the waiting room, Dr. Latimer a towering mound behind me. Mom was reading an old issue of National Geographic: the cover story was about a swarm of desert locusts in northern Africa that all melted in a matter of seconds last month. An enlarged grasshopper—yellow and brown and gray, perfect for pigment the color of slop—stared at me quizzically from the magazine's cover.
"Is she all right?" Mom asked, standing. "I mean, is she going to be all right?"
"Seems so. Her stats check out just fine." He showed her his clipboard, but Mom stared down at me instead. "I don't know if using vodka helped or not though. How'd you get that idea?"
"My son. He put together a safety kit just before leaving." Now she gave Dr. Latimer a look and half a smile. "He's studying at Etchton."
"Well, if rubbing alcohol becomes the cure for all cures, then bless your boy. I'd like Amanda to come back in a week or so for another checkup. You can call to set up an appointment at your leisure." He squatted to be eye level with me, and something cracked or ripped on him. I tried not to think where. "Try not to fall into any more blood oil, all right?"
"Why? I'm fine."
Dr. Latimer clicked his tongue twice and shrugged. "You might melt."
Turning my hands into makeshift claws, I growled and said, "But we're not animals."
As I wrote Robbie his second letter, I realized something. I both wanted him to come home and to stay at Etchton. To teach me things; to teach the world.
I told him about my day at the doctor's, and how Dr. Latimer was nice—as usual—but no smarter than your average television watcher. I drew frogs in the margins, scribbles melting past thin, faded blue lines. Our neighbor's dog had died while Mom and I were out—the pooch died normally, which was strange after yesterday's events—and they were having a funeral for it in a week. An actual funeral, with a body in a box. Granted, it was a dog's body and not a person's, but we weren't animals. Were we?
I soon lost my focus, signed my name, and headed out to mail the letter. It was midday now, bright and clear as water, and I felt more confident walking to the mailbox. Still, I looked up in the trees and sky waiting for something to fall with a splash of color. All was quiet.
"Any mail?" Mom called when I came back inside.
A little while later, as I sat in my room re-naming and organizing my pigment video collection on my computer, the doorbell chimed. Peeking out my window, I glimpsed the backside of a tall man wearing an inky suit. Mom went to the door; I sat on the floor cross-legged, listening.
"Hello, ma'am," I heard him say in a tinny voice, "my name is Peter Hauslim."
"Afternoon." We rarely ever got visitors, and even when we did, Mom never said any more than she did to this man-stranger. No one wore suits around here. Was he one of the Real Believers? A lot of people hated them. "If you're here to sell anything, I'm sorry—"
"Are you Charlotte Valentine?"
"I . . . yes. What's this about?"
Something dropped on the porch. "Your son Robbie. I'm a professor at the University of Etchton."
At the sound of my brother's name, I was up and darting from my room to the front door. Mom stood holding the door, and Mr. Hauslim looked more like a lawyer than a professor in his suit, his dark hair combed from one ear all the way to the other. He carried a briefcase, and a small statue rested on its side next to his foot. No. Not a statue. A squirrel—frozen stiff, its paws caught in a cute pose while its once-fluffy tail looked more like a spiked staff.
"What about Robbie?"
"What about him?" I pointed at the squirrel. Too many questions; Mr. Hauslim needed to hurry up and speak. "What's that?"
"Ah," he said as he bent to pick it up, "this is complicated. But I'll gladly explain if you have the time. I'm in no hurry to get back on a train." He was speaking to Mom now, yet I still moved out of the way so he could come in.
"Come in, then," she finally said. "Would you like something to drink?"
"Water, please." He stepped into the house, taking a deep breath. "I'm sure you'll want to save the champagne for later."
We sat in the kitchen. The refrigerator still humm humm humming, but now I had something else to concentrate on. Mr. Hauslim took a long gulp of water before placing the squirrel on the table so that it faced me.
"I must admit that I'm glad I got here before the news did. Though you'll have Tomsinelli at your door in a day or two. We're a very private university, but when these things happen . . . well, like a virus in the air, it spreads."
"Please, is Robbie all right?"
"Yeah," I seconded.
"He's better than all right." He made the statue do a little dance. "Your son is going to change the world."
"I knew it!" Everything tingled, inside and out. "He cured me with just vodka!"
Mom just chuckled lightly. "The world? He's only been there a day or two."
"That's all it took him." He pushed the squirrel into Mom's hands so that she could hold it up to her face. "This is your average ground squirrel. One student affectionately named it Chiriq. No matter. It began to die the afternoon your son arrived."
"All right," Mom said. I continued to stare at him, the way his lips moved and the way he spoke so calmly. Yet, beneath his words, there was excitement. The same I felt now. Robbie; change the world; it was happening. "It's still dead."
"Right." He sucked in a big gulp of air, the unlikely angles of his face all pointing to his mouth. "Ah, by die I meant melt. Four out of five specimens we study there end up melting. It's at this point that my fellow professors and I experiment. We let students watch from the amphitheater; this being the first full day of classes, I was pretty excited for them to see a live melt up close."
"We saw one the other day," I said, snatching the squirrel. It was heavy and rough. "Well, two. Bright blue birds."
"Careful with that." Mr. Hauslim opened his briefcase and pulled out a piece of paper. On it was a diagram of numbers and shapes, bits circled in red here and there; scribbled animals in the corner smiled sternly at me. "Your son quickly offered us this as Chiriq liquefied into the operating table. Apparently, he came to Etchton prepared."
Mom and I peered at it. "What is it?"
"We actually don't know. Yet." He took back Chiriq. "But whatever the solution means, it worked. He had an eye dropper ready and proceeded to squirt it over the squirrel. Normally that's cause enough for expulsion. But then this happened." He held it up like people did in movies, like it was a hunk of treasure rightfully returned to his hands. But it wasn't his. It was Robbie's, my brother, the genius.
Mom cleared her throat. "I . . . I'm afraid I still don't understand."
"It hardened. The process, however it happened, reversed itself."
"But it's still dead."
"But Mom," I said, "Robbie changed how it died. Maybe if they can find a way to pause the process in the middle, sort of like a movie, the ending won't end. You know?"
Both Mom and Mr. Hauslim regarded me, brows wrinkling on cue. They looked seriously confused until the professor chuckled and said, "My, you're fairly bright. That's exactly what we're going to be working on now. You enlisting at Etchton come the end of summer?"
I giggled. "I'm going into the sixth grade."
"Ah, of course. But to be blunt, we'd like you to come to Etchton a lot sooner than that. Say, a week."
The refrigerator had gone quiet. I noticed it first because right after I noticed Mom's silence. No one breathed, no one said a word. Did he just invite us to the university? I couldn't handle all the pauses.
"Seeing what your brother did to little Chiriq here, we took him aside and offered him a chance to forgo classes while we worked on his formulae and diagrams. I can tell you that his eyes lit up and wanted nothing more than to get to work right away." Mr. Hauslim finished his glass of water, sucking it down in a big gulp. "We asked him what he needed, and he said, 'Mom and Dad, Amanda. Soon as possible.'"
Mom asked me to leave for a bit so that she could talk with Mr. Hauslim alone. I hurried to my room, took a new sheet of lined paper out, and started writing a new letter. I wrote so fast that my words were messy and smeared, but I didn't care. Excitement rushed through me, rushed through my skin. I felt like I'd melted, but in a good way. We were going to see Robbie, to stay with him. I was going to watch him change the world.
After the professor left, Mom assured me that it'd be possible. She just needed to speak with Dad, but he probably wouldn't be able to go because of work. But Mom and I had the rest of summer off. We were free to do it.
I skipped out to the mailbox with my new letter, and saw that the postal lady had already taken my earlier one away. No matter. I might even arrive before Robbie got this one.
Birds chirped in the trees, and a squirrel bounded from branch to branch, shaking a bunch of leaves from their home. Somewhere in the distance, a dog, truly alive, howled. Had they heard the news, too? Colors everywhere seemed a shade brighter—blues now baby blue, greens now soft lime, browns a lovely khaki.
The media, including Katie Tomsinelli in a gleaming yellow dress, arrived the next day. They knocked on the door and pushed the bell countless times until Mom finally opened to only say: "No interviews."
More swarmed and knocked and pounded and cried out for information.
"Animals," I muttered, returning to my packing.
Paul Abbamondi reads and writes speculative fiction compulsively. His short stories have appeared in Shimmer, Aberrant Dreams, and Apex Digest, among other fine publications. In his spare time, he draws a comic strip about the mundane happenings of his life and loves looking at LOLcats. You can send him emails at firstname.lastname@example.org. He likes emails.
copyright © 2008, Paul Abbamondi
BECCA DE LA ROSA
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