I was one of the lucky ones. I was outside when it happened, outside and naked.
It was a glorious day, the sun high and bright above the garden, the clouds mere hints of white in the endless blue sky. I was on top of my wife, Sarah, taking advantage of the weather and the fact that our neighbours were on their summer holidays. I thrust downwards one final time and we screamed in unison. Not the expected screams of pleasure, but screams of agony. The grass beneath us had become sharp as glass, piercing my hands, my toes, my shins, my knees. Our screams ended but neither of us moved, scared as to what might come next. I felt the blood flow. My hands became wet, then sticky, then dry. We kept our eyes locked together. Fear and confusion and pain echoing between us like two mirrors. The grass stayed inside me and my fears contracted down into a single thought - what if the grass had become part of me?
I raised my right hand, the grass sliding away, fresh blood flowing. I let out a breath, my worst fear negated. Slowly, slowly, slowly I put my hand down on the grass again. At first a gentle touch, then harder, until I felt the blades - truly blades now - pressing into my hands once more, digging into untouched flesh and existing wounds. Sarah looked up at me, I raised my palm to show her and shook my head. I don't know if we could have spoken if we'd wanted to.
And so we stayed like that, my palm in front of her face. Our chests rose and fell, that was all. The shadows around us didn't move, the tingling in my naked back started to become a forecast of sunburned pain to come. I wished I'd put on sun-block, I hadn't been expecting to be out this long... But how long? I didn't know at first, but then it came to me. There was no 'how long'. There was no time. Nothing was moving. The air was still. I took in a deeper breath and felt nothing. No air filled my lungs. I blew out, directing my mouth at Sarah's hair, lying limping over one shoulder. It didn't move. I lent in closer to her. as close as I dared, put my cheek by her mouth. I felt nothing, no breath. The lungs and heart were still doing their work, but it was habit, nothing more. I tightened my chest and held my breath. It felt like time to me, I felt it pass, seconds, then minutes. But my body didn't rebel and I knew I could stay like this forever, because this was forever.
We had to reach the patio. The paving slabs were uneven - a bone of contention between us, an example of my sloth - and they were rough, but they weren't sharp, they couldn't cut us. I steeled myself for the pain to come, reached down, pressed my hand back into the grass, let it cut me. I pushed harder on my hands and feet, moved into a crouch, then stood. The blades sent sharp waves up my previously untouched heels. I gasped, I wavered slightly, I felt my head swim, I stayed upright. I looked across to the patio. I estimated ten steps. It took eleven, each a new and terrible surprise. When I reached the safety of the stones I collapsed and looked back. A clear trail of blood, drops and streams between each dark footprint. Sarah looked back, her eyes filled with concern for me, even as she lay there, pinned on her back.
"I'm okay," I said, "I love you."
The words seemed to die as they left my mouth, but the look in her eyes changed to show she'd heard me.
I looked across to the patio table, white and round and always too big for this garden. If I could slide it across, move her on to it, then I could spare her some of my pain. I grasped the table and pulled. It didn't move as I was expecting, it didn't move at all. I fell backwards, landed on my coccyx, felt the jolt of the fall and fresh grazes. I let myself collapse backwards and I started to laugh.
And I lost myself then. I lost myself in screaming, hysterical laughter and I didn't care. There was nothing but the laughter inside me and it had to come out before I burst. And it came and it came and it slowed a little and came again and slowed and...
At some point I stopped and heard sobbing. I looked back, to see Sarah walking towards me. Her body language looked calm and measured as she raised her feet and put them down again, but her face was contorted, her breaths ragged, tears running down her cheeks.
"Stop!" I shouted, "I'll get the table!"
She shook her head sadly, one step ahead of me, and continued walking. Still, I went back to the table and tried to move it, more cautiously this time. It wouldn't budge, I may as well have not been there at all. I tried one of the plastic chairs with the same lack of effect. I tried other chairs, I tried the plant pots, I tried tearing leaves from the plants themselves. All I got for my troubles were fresh cuts. Then Sarah was on the patio, she was in front of me, she was in my arms and I was kissing her, trying to find every single cut on her body, trying to kiss them all away. The taste of blood tinged my lips, salty and unpleasant. I kept kissing, lost in her pain, until she pushed me away. She stood on her tiptoes, winced and leaned up to kiss my forehead. Then she collapsed into one of the chairs and I found another.
We sat there, waiting for the wounds to heal, or at least to dry. Sometimes we looked at each other, sometimes we stared around the garden and the sky, searching for movement. But there was no movement and no sound. Just Sarah and me and this strange world that had appeared around us. I noticed she wasn't breathing any more, realised that neither was I.
"We're not dead," she said finally, her voice like a whisper though I'm sure she hadn't meant it.
"No, I don't think we are," I answered.
Then more silence. It should have been twilight, at least, I thought, before shrugging it off as being meaningless. Twilight was never going to come. Even if the world somehow started to spin once more then this odd existence would still exist outside of time and always would.
"We can move through air," Sarah said, "That doesn't make sense."
I shrugged and said, "There's still gravity, too. And light. No sense at all."
"Do you think it means something?" she asked.
I shrugged again and she nodded in reply.
I felt suddenly scared once more and forced myself to start breathing again, the contractions of my lungs my own clock, my own time. Hundreds and thousands of risings and fallings and we didn't move, we didn't speak. There didn't seem to be any point, there was no urgency to anything. I waited as the dislocation and the sense of strangeness and the fear quieted down. I wasn't hungry, I wasn't tired, but I found something new - curiousity.
"I'm going to wander around," I said, "Coming?"
Sarah nodded and stood up. We walked into the house through the open back door. The dishes were soaking in the sink. Sarah walked over, tried to push her fingers into the water, nothing happened.
"It's cold," she said and I wondered if that meant something.
We'd left the TV on in the living room, an Australian actress was frozen in the process of screaming at someone off-screen.
"We're missing Neighbours," I said.
Sarah giggled at that, then cut herself off.
"It's okay to laugh," I said.
"I know," she replied, "But I just..."
I nodded in understanding and walked upstairs to the bedroom, squeezed myself between the frame and the half-open door. I saw my clothes lying in a heap on the bed. Not expecting anything, I tried to pick them up. I didn't try again. The bathroom next, I tried relieving myself, just as an experiment. After a fight a trickle of urine fell into the toilet bowl and pooled on top of the water there. Out of habit I walked over to the sink and was momentarily confused when the tap wouldn't turn. Back downstairs I told Sarah that I was sorry, but the toilet seat was going to have to stay up forever. She smiled at me, genuinely, but didn't laugh.
I collapsed onto the sofa and groaned as another shock leapt up my body. The sofa now wasn't its usual comfortable, yielding self. It had become hard and lumpy and less comfortable than the stone floor of the patio. I stood up quickly, wondering why the sofa's transformation was the most disturbing of the events so far.
I looked at Sarah. I knew her well enough to know that she was biting back the same question that I was.
She knew I didn't have an answer, and I knew the same of her.
"We should find other people," I said.
"We're naked," she said, then shrugged.
That sort of thing had ceased to matter the moment the grass had started to cut.
We lived at the end of a strange mile-long cul-de-sac, a nice quiet road in a nice quiet town. We assumed the road had once gone somewhere, but had been cut off when the land by our house and been given over to a local school for its playing fields. I'd never really liked the location. The long walk up and down the dead straight road had always seemed endless, progress down it like the movement of an hour hand on a clock. If only I'd known then what endless really meant, maybe I'd have enjoyed it more. We started to walk.
At first I thought I was imagining the sounds ahead of us, but the closer we got to the end of the road the louder they became. I shivered. Groans and thumps and banging, sometimes a scream further away. Someone who hadn't given up yet, someone with second wind, someone who'd just woken up, I didn't know. Sarah and I moved closer almost unconsciously, she put her arm through mine, leant into me. We got to the end of the road and there we found hell.
People were frozen inside cars; muffled voices shouting for help. Those in t-shirts hammered on the windows with their hands, their arms, their wrists. I saw four fingers waving at me from behind an open door, the man inside caught in the act of leaving his vehicle, not even able to show his full hand. Naked people stood at open bedroom windows. I knew what had woken them, I knew the confusion they would have felt when the sheets they were lying on froze beneath them. They were waving and crying for help, not knowing if they should jump. A crumpled body on the pavement showed them what would happen when they got desperate enough, as I knew they eventually would.
Worst of all, though, were the people who had been walking in the street. They were trapped in their clothes, mid step, trashing as much as they could to try and free themselves. Some had let go of their shopping bags, which hung eerily in the air. Others were clutching their bags, their knuckles white, terrified of letting go. One by one they saw us, one by one they started to scream for help. Ten, twenty, fifty people pleading with us with their eyes, shouting at us to let them out, to help them out of their tiny prisons, screaming and moaning in pain as their muscles begged for freedom. I walked up to the nearest person, a man in his fifties with a week's worth of stubble and a bag full of extra-strength lager.
I don't remember his words, I've forced them out of my head. I knew it was pointless, but I tried to tear at his clothes, I tried to lift him out of them, I tried to push him over. I tried anything and everything and I didn't stop, I wouldn't stop until he told me it was okay. He pitied me in the end, that was the worst thing. In that torture, that confinement, he found it in him to pity me as I tried to free him. Sarah was trying to free someone else, a young boy in a push-chair. His mother was begging and pleading without pause, but the boy was trapped in his Spider-man t-shirt and shorts in the same way as all the others.
There was nothing we could do. We walked on, apologising to everyone we passed, letting the tears fall. We were cursed at, even spat at, but we didn't mind that. We understood it, we accepted it, we offered our apologies and we moved on. Mothers and fathers and lonely old men and women with blue hair and teenagers in baseball caps and young women in halter tops. One girl had managed to wiggle out of her top and was forced to lean at the strangest of angles, topless and trapped in her jeans. A man of about thirty holding a copy of FHM stood staring at the wall of the nearest building, muttering under his breath, entreating it to fall down and end his suffering. An old lady was bending down talking to her cat, who was as frozen and dead as any inanimate object. Still she kept talking all the time we were in earshot, asking it if it wanted milk, if it was all right.
We left the town as quickly as we could, walking hand in hand. At first we walked down the country lanes, but the people in the cars we passed broke our hearts anew every time. So we walked across the fields instead, though the rough earth hurt our feet more than the tarmac. Every time the pain got too much we'd lie down at the nearest flat spot and wait for our wounds to heal. We'd talk about old times, make love, lie together in silence staring up at stars that no longer twinkled. We walked across the English Channel to France, laughing hysterically at jokes about Jesus. I walked between two waves and declared myself Moses. But I didn't have the long, white beard and I rubbed my hand against my cheek to confirm that I never would.
We moved through Europe, avoiding roads as much as we could, avoiding towns and villages entirely. We couldn't avoid everyone, but we took to acting like ghosts, not making eye contact, not breathing, not saying a word. I couldn't look at people, couldn't see the new hope in their eyes as the spied us. The voices were bad enough, language no barrier to understanding. By now the people had long since abandoned pain, the bodies had given up all hope of respite. That was until the saw us, when the pleading was always soon replaced by fresh screams of agony. Our freedom was a curse to all the trapped, we were bringers of pain, demons.
We had to bypass weather, any rain was like a barrier of needles. I'd found out to my cost how painful water could be when I'd walked right into a drip from a gutter, caught in mid-drop. I'd been walking too quickly, forgetting to be careful and it had plunged deep into my arm before I pulled back. The wound was big enough to be a worry and it took too long to heal. At beaches we picked our way carefully through the surf, ever mindful of the dangers.
Once in Germany or Switzerland - we were never really sure - we saw a group of five or six other naked people. Sarah and I looked at each other, eyes wide with fear, and we ran. We hid from them, huddled together, long enough for the fresh cuts of our flight to become scar tissue.
We never saw anyone again. The world is a big place. We've walked it countless times, once even crossing the Atlantic without pause. That's all we can do. We've tried finding a new home, but everywhere is dead, everywhere feels like a prison. All we can do is keep moving and hang on to those moments of beauty we find at the top of hills and round unexpected corners, enjoy the slow cycle of night and day as we make our way around the globe.
Neither of us have mentioned it yet - we don't often use words any more - but Sarah's stomach is starting to swell. I don't know how it can be possible and I'm scared. Sarah's scared, too. She's been clutching my hand more tightly lately and making love with more urgency that I've ever known. I don't know what's going to happen. Will our child grow old as we stand still? Will he or she remain a newborn forever? There's no precedent here. My deepest wish is that, maybe, our child will be able to move this world. To be able to pull a leaf from a tree, or kick a stone across a field. It's an idle hope and I'm trying to forget it, but there aren't any rules anymore. I can't dismiss the hope, can't send it away.
I look over at Sarah, lying under a tree next to me in this Japanese twilight. I smile.
"Have you thought about names yet?" I ask.
©2004 Owen Allaway. All rights reserved. Not some of them. ALL of them.