They were still at the height of a heat wave and Leah was trying to eat her water to ward off dehydration. The clearer her pee was, the more relieved she felt. Ben liked this about her. How she’d focus her sights on what she could control. But for Ben, the heat was a sign of something.
Of what? Leah asked.
Well the temperature can’t just rise forever, he said. And when it stops, where will we be?
Leah crunched into a celery stalk and shook her head. Right here, she offered, though she knew Ben meant it in a more metaphorical sense.
That May, Ben and Leah had fit their lives into a cramped attic apartment. A studio with low ceilings, the bathroom the only room with a door. Ben liked the open layout, but Leah had put up partitions. Not to separate, she said, just to enclose. All through June the temperature climbed, Leah ate melon, and Ben peed a stream of neon that darkened every day.
It’s radioactive, he said and he stared into the toilet as if the future were floating there.
Leah looked. It’s cloudy. She spat toothpaste in the sink and rinsed her spit down the drain.
They were sitting on the couch, the TV on, Leah biting into a pear and wiping juice off her chin. She felt the two freckles below her lower lip. Brown and large. So close they nearly overlapped. When he kissed her, Ben would put his thumb above them and rub gently as if blending them into one.
Ben had a freckle too. Right on the side of his neck. Leah tried to see it now but she couldn’t. It was facing away from her. Once Ben had held his head up to show her.
Look, he’d said. Isn’t it the same shade? Doesn’t mine match yours?
Leah wasn’t sure. She’d never looked at her freckles beside his to know. But she’d pressed her chin up to his neck for a moment. Entwining them like a pair of mute swans.
The weatherman was saying that tomorrow would be the hottest day yet. Ben watched Leah watch this, her face flickering blue from the screen. He traced her posture. The perfect right angles. A set of tiny capital L’s: torso to lap, clavicle to neck, forearm to bicep. He’d never seen her quite like that before. He wanted to tell her. But if he did, then she’d want to see it. She’d move and the whole shape would change.
They heard the familiar warnings: Heatstroke. Sunburns. Leaving babies in cars. How strange, they thought, that the Earth is pulled toward such a dangerous body. That it would be catastrophic to shift any closer or any farther away.
The forecast ended and a special broadcast began.
Scientists are baffled, the reporter announced.
A sinkhole was opening like an eyeball somewhere near the North Pole. A black dot in the middle of nothing. A frozen snow-scape, an iris of ice. A shot from above conveyed the depth of the darkness. Textured, layered.
Look at that, Leah said.
Ben was already looking. And the sinkhole seemed to look back.
Ben stayed up watching the sinkhole long after Leah had fallen asleep. It didn’t seem like a part of this planet. It looked like an ice world hurtling through space. What did snow even feel like? He couldn’t remember what life was like before all this heat.
Their first winter together, Leah taught Ben to ski, skiing backwards in front to serve as his guide. Ben hated heights and was horribly clumsy but he let Leah convince him to give it a try.
When she thought he was ready, she faced forward and told Ben to follow behind.
Here I come, he yelled. Watch out!
Ben crashed into Leah and they stumbled without falling. His skis slid right outside of her skis and they glided down the mountain forming two sets of parallel tracks.
In the distance, Ben heard a noise like static. Simmering, hypnotic, alive.
A fire, he thought. He got up, went to the window, parted the curtains. There it was.
A fire was burning in the park across the street. The noise grew as he watched it until it was enormous. It rang in his eardrums. He fell asleep sitting upright, dreaming the world was frozen but also aflame.
In the morning, Leah’s face hovered above his. Did he feel ok?
Ben blinked in the daylight and nodded.
The flames were still there, just barely. Though the noise hadn’t faded at all.
What? Leah asked, touching his shoulder.
He didn’t move. She was about to repeat it when she glimpsed a small orange blur.
She had to squint to see it clearly. A fire? It looked like it would burn out soon.
Leah left to take a shower, but the fire didn’t die down. When Ben went to the kitchen, the fire moved with him. He could see it from every side of the house. It felt intimate, for him alone, though he wasn’t sure what it might mean. He thought of ways fire can be used as a message: In lighthouses. Smoke signals. Arson. Plagues.
Something is starting. He looked at it moving. But what? In the bible, fire came from the sky. In a hailstorm. And what were the others? He got stuck after darkness and blood.
In the bathroom, Ben saw Leah’s body through the frosted glass of the shower door. She had no real outline, only a vague Leah-toned blob.
He tried to make sense of the shape in the mirror but he couldn’t determine which way she faced.
Hey? he said over the noise of the water. What kind of fire doesn’t spread or die? She shifted toward him.
A fire that’s frozen? she said lightly. Or in some sort of vacuum. Or, I don’t know, a fire that’s deep underground? It wasn’t a riddle. She just wanted to put Ben’s mind at ease.
She slid the door open and the steam escaped, shrouding them. She reached for where she thought Ben was standing, but her hand hit the mirror instead.
Leah made coffee late the next morning. It was Saturday and all the shades were pulled closed. Ben came upstairs with the mail and Leah poured him a mug and added the milk.
The bills were not burnt. Her glossy magazine glistened. Leah didn’t mention the fire and neither did he. It was still out there though, still burning just beyond the edge of their house. They could hear it.
Leah sorted the mail and gave Ben two piles.
You can recycle the first one, she said.
There was a noise then, like machine guns, like bullets hitting the roof. Ben jumped, dropping both piles, and ran down the stairs.
Outside, there was a battlefield. Bird corpses everywhere. All across the driveway. One baby bird had landed on the welcome mat and he stopped just short of crushing its skull. They had fallen from the sky together, dozens of them. The smell was immediate. The rotting and death seeping out of the ground.
What do we do? Ben asked. Leah wasn’t behind him. He was surprised to see that he was alone.
In the kitchen, Leah was squatting to pick up the fallen envelopes. Ben told her about the dead birds.
What do we do? he repeated.
The downstairs neighbors were away on vacation. They wouldn’t be back for several more weeks. The landlord lived in the next town over. The blackbirds were their problem to solve for themselves.
Now we call Animal Control, she said.
She made the call and Ben closed every window in case the birds carried an airborne disease. There was news of the sinkhole on the TV, but they only half-listened while they waited for the van to arrive. Ben stared at the blackbirds on the driveway. They formed constellations. Dark dots against the concrete. Fallen shadows of the sky.
The Animal Control men tested five birds at random.
No virus, they said.
That was fast
Ya, we do it fast now, the taller man said. The shorter man gave Ben a clipboard to sign.
They just fell, Ben began. Like a flash flood.
You’re the third call about blackbirds this week, the taller man said. How about that? He looked at his watch. We’ve got to go, he told the shorter man. The shorter man nodded and took the clipboard back.
Wait, Leah called. What about the bodies?
We’ll come back, the taller man said, walking away from them. Maybe tomorrow. Or the day after that.
Alone, they looked at the corpses that littered their feet. Ben coughed once and could not stop coughing. He doubled up and held his stomach and coughed until his mouth was completely dry. Leah pat his back but the fit continued.
You should get a glass of water, she said. I’ll handle the birds. Go inside.
When Leah had finished and Ben had stopped choking and the bodies were buried in a mass bird-grave close to the fire, which was still burning, the scent lingered. Leah made popcorn and burnt toast on purpose but it didn’t help. They could still smell it. Was it in their hair or their clothes? They took a shower and scrubbed each other’s backs but when they dried off, it was still there.
For the rest of the night, they were silent. The smell had a thickness, sticky and heavy. It coated the backs of their throats.
On Sunday, the timer went off on the oven. The casserole Ben was baking was done. Leah wouldn’t have known if she hadn’t heard it. The whole house reeked of decay.
Once, on an early date, they had baked a soufflé.
It’s a miracle, Ben said when they pulled it out of the oven. It was taller than the dish but it hadn’t caved in.
A miracle? Leah echoed. She’d laughed at the earnestness in his voice.
She set the table and watched Ben grab a mitt and an apron. A miracle. He liked to turn the everyday into the cosmic. Ben opened the oven. But sometimes there isn’t a greater meaning. He placed the dish on the countertop. Sometimes the everyday is cosmic enough.
The dish broke. Shattered. Spontaneously combusted. There was one loud crack before the casserole and glass scattered in pieces across the floor.
In the aftermath, they blinked at each other. The timer kept beeping on beat.
Oh my God, Ben breathed. Oh my God.
Don’t move, Leah said. Her voice was even. She was wearing socks. Ben had only bare feet. She got the dustpan and swept up the shards and vacuumed the floor. The vacuum was louder than usual, Ben thought. His hands were shaking. He couldn’t make them be still.
Later—after Leah removed one small piece from Ben’s big toe with tweezers, after they threw out the remains of the casserole, which had glass in it, and ordered Chinese food, after the delivery man rang the doorbell and later still when they abandoned the chopsticks that they did not have the dexterity to hold on to for very long in the best of circumstances—Ben said, But why? Why did that happen?
Because you put tinfoil in a glass dish, Leah told him. You shouldn’t do that. Please don’t do that again.
That night Leah lay in bed as if in a coffin, on her back, hands folded on top of her chest. She wasn’t asleep. When the heat wave started, they’d thinned their bedding to sleep below one itchy, peach sheet. Leah had imagined their flesh melting onto the mattress and that sheet stretching to cover both their bones. Back then, their sweat left an imprint that made it look like only one body had been there. With one set of arms and legs. With her eyes closed, she had no sense of where Ben was. If he were with her at all.
Ben’s big toe throbbed like a heart. In the bible, he wondered, did the ten plagues happen in layers or turns? Did the hail stop before the locusts began? Or did they pile up one on top of another—blood, frogs, darkness—layer after layer, worse and worse, right until the end? For that matter, was the fire still burning? He hadn’t paid attention after the blackbirds rained down. When he listened, he heard it: the roar. And the rotting corpses filling his lungs. Casserole clinging to the ceiling. The sinkhole was still opening on the top of the planet. How wide was it now? And how deep?
He crept to the couch and turned on the TV. He saw all the weather in all the parts of the world. Soon, Leah joined him. The monotonous music washed over them. The weatherman read the signs for a while and told them what the future would be.
There was night and there was morning and Ben woke late to the TV on mute. The weather channel was running a feature on natural disasters. The closed captions ran on the bottom, too small for him to read. He strung together the fragments—an expert volcanologist, molten lava, a map of Japan. Leah was sitting on the floor by the coffee table.
Good morning, he said softly.
She hit the volume button and the sound rushed back.
An anthropologist was facing the camera. Everything he wore was the color of sand. There’s a theory, he said, that a volcanic eruption was the source of the biblical plagues.
Louder? Ben asked. Leah turned it up.
The ten plagues, said the anthropologist. He counted off on his fingers as he went on. The blood was lava running into the Nile. The lava killed the frogs, which the lice and flies ate. Pestilence and boils spread from the flies. Fire? Well that’s obvious. Locusts thrive in hot, damp earth. And the ash clouded over the sun. Darkness.
The wedge of fruit in Leah’s spoon looked like a maggot. She shuddered as she swallowed it whole.
Even the final plague could’ve been part of it, the anthropologist continued. The eldest children got the most food and, since the grain was tainted, the firstborns died first.
Leah wiped her face with a napkin and had the sudden fear she’d wiped her freckles away.
That’s just one theory, the anthropologist said. There are others. But the point is that, when we want to, we can see anything as a sign of anything. And we can fail to see things as they actually are.
Ben looked at Leah and she looked at him and she hit power and the TV flashed off.
The rain started, hard on the skylight. A cool breeze blew through the window like one giant sigh. Ben felt Leah about to say something.
Look, Leah began.
Ben looked up.
No, Leah said. I mean, look.
Ben closed his eyes. He didn’t want to see the sky torn up by lightning. And he didn’t want to see her face as she explained.
Anyway, he knew just what it looked like.
Like seismic chasms amassing the pressure to cleave open the floor of the sea.