Forty Days After the First Explosions
The tattoo on his hand is like faded denim, worn, soft, shredding at the edges. Not an eye, anymore. Not a dagger, anymore. He passes her a cracked black cup of thick coffee and turns to make the next, this time in a metal camping mug, dented, squat, chipped.
“This is —” the word ReRe picks from her rubble feels fresh and new, it’s been so long since she’s heard or said it — “nice.”
“Es algo,” he says, the tattoo on the ridge of his cheek shifting in time.
Someone laughs at a joke they cannot hear, and it’s a surprise burst of color against the grey and brown of the past months. Contagious. The street filling with calls and response. ReRe finds the source: a white man sitting on rebar, his shirt stained with blood and soot, his burnt face healing into red and pink iridescent furrows. Another man rests a palm on his head, near where the hair will not regrow. A gesture soft, tired, comfortable. Intimate.
And, jealous, ReRe looks away.
Coffee Man swirls thin honey, powdered milk into the camping mug, the metal flecked in blues the same shade of his eyes, the color of black gone bad. She wonders if he is blind in the left one. The one with no black left. The still one.
She is. Its vision trapped in the first explosion, her right eye now just a cloud of that initial blue-fired spark.
The woman ahead who takes her coffee sweet and light is cast in metal: hand, leg, jaw, ear, nose. All taken. Replaced. The border below her eyelid is red and puffy, taut epidermis more membrane than skin there, shining with sweat and heat. A fever that will kill her, probably.
ReRe pulls a bottle of pills from the bag strapped and taped to her chest.
It is back alley work, that prosthesis. Emergency work with no emergency rooms left.
“Antibiotics,” she says. Shakes out a handful. Presses them into the woman’s metal hand. Red and blue, they tumble across the word “Chrysler” etched in her palm. Butt up against the dainty Ram. As black kinks cascade across the woman’s face in a movement like a bow, ReRe wonders if she is a nun. She could be a nun. One of the nuns. Disappeared in the first wave of ships.
There are rumors that some have reappeared. A magic trick. There are rumors that some have been found. Bodies. Gnawed apart.
ReRe sees disappeared nuns everywhere. Everyone looking as if just found.
Everyone looking gnawed apart.
There are twelve people taking the coffee the man doles out, more limping up, but ReRe lingers. Making room for each new sweated body but holding her space.
Loving the smell of humanity pressed against.
This the most people she has heard, smelled, felt the sweet warmth of since the explosions. Everyone dead or taken. Everyone at home. Everyone in her building. Everyone in her block, dead or taken.
She has walked and walked and walked and walked and walked for this cup of coffee.
For these sweated bodies. For the kindness in this stranger’s tattooed hands.
“News?” she says.
“War,” someone answers.
“There aren’t enough of us left for war.”
“If there is one, there are enough.” A recruiter.
The coffee man shakes his head, takes ReRe’s cup. “Nadie sabe nada.” Rinses it with water from a gas can. “Ninguno. None of you.”
Fifty days ago, ReRe would have made eye contact with this man who looks like her brother and then looked away, afraid maybe. But today she holds him with her one good eye, the space next to him a bursting firecracker, indigo and white. “¿Y tú? What do you know?”
“Hot coffee,” he says. “And to stay down when the fucking spaceships come back. ¿Y tú, niña? ¿Tu que sabes?”
ReRe watches him make another pot. Giving comfort. Finally yields her place around his make-shift sanctuary.
Nothing. She knows nothing. The concrete under her feet is cracked open, every building cracked open, every wall cracked, every roof cracked, bits of their shells sunk or floating in the fetid water and dirt that checkerboards everything. “Nada,” she says. Nothing.
But she doesn’t go far. Settles on a pile of concrete and rebar, smelling the steam from her coffee as it curls past the line in her broken vision.
Leigh Camacho Rourks is a Cuban-American author and Assistant Professor of English. She is the recipient of the St. Lawrence Press Award, the Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award, and the Robert Watson Literary Review Prize, and her work has been shortlisted for several other awards. Her writing has appeared in a number of journals, including Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, TriQuarterly, December Magazine, and Greensboro Review. Her collection of short stories, Moon Trees and Other Orphans, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press (Oct. 2019).
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Image: United States Department of Energy Public Domain