They woke to the alarm, still entwined. Wrapped around each other desperately, as though they knew what was to come. They each occasionally woke under similar circumstances with others — sometimes multiple others — but the clinch was not as tight, never felt as good — as right — as this.
They were incredibly happy to have what they did. Happy, but nervous. Scared, truthfully. The next half hour would tell the tale. Determine their fate, definitely in the short term, possibly… forever. Would they stay together or be callously separated? Cast apart?
They had faced this dire uncertainty on a daily basis for years now, and had thus far survived together, but there was no guarantee. Certainly others had not been so lucky. Their own close calls were innumerable.
They were on the move, and suddenly night was day — calm, soothing darkness shunted aside in an instant by the bright, nearly blinding, light of morning. Their world was one of extremes. With the morning light came a change in the atmosphere, the humidity spiking. Then the skies opened, and they were drenched, the rain first scalding, then freezing, their gods of extremes dealing the day’s first punishment. The why was a mystery. A puzzle with no clues. They had never been issued commandments to follow and thus knowingly break.
The storm was painful, yes, but they came through essentially unscathed — no trivial feat. They had seen too many others succumb, unable to withstand the force of the tempest or the temperature extremes or simply lacking the will to go on. One way or another, each storm brought victims.
But today, they had survived, together, still side by side.
Then the world went dark. Darkness was often a refuge, but not always. They clung to each other, bracing themselves as they were pummeled, knocked this way and that, waves of unbearable pressure broken by brief respites, during which they could feel the shock waves through the ground as their neighbors suffered their beatings, before the brunt returned to them.
Finally, the world brightened again, and calmed.
They had separated during the tumult, but only slightly. They were battered and dazed, but they were resilient, and they were still close. But their ordeal was not over. They, and the hundreds — thousands? — around them looked to the sky, and waited. There was the sound, a high-pitched whistling which foretold the coming of the gate. A moment later, high above, it appeared.
Huge, a shining, glossy black, it hovered for a moment, then descended. In its shade, they flinched what little they could, and prayed.
They sensed it before it happened. A subconscious analysis of the geometry and physics in play? A psychic intuition? Regardless, there was despair and an unwillingness to accept, but no real surprise when the gate touched down between them.
The gate moved slowly, inexorably, to the east, dragging those caught in its path and knocking them flat. Then it was gone, back to the sky, before it plummeted to the same spot, and replicated its methodical slide, this time moving west, leveling the survivors.
Then the gate was gone, but the damage had been done. They’d been separated. They had always feared this, yet had not allowed themselves to fully imagine it as a possibility. They both lay prone, knocked in opposite directions, futilely trying to see the other across the barren no man’s land created by the scraping of the gate.
And so they remained, hour upon hour. They struggled, not even to stand, but to just creep or slither toward the other, but the force of the gate had weakened them. And even these feeble, futile efforts offended the gods, who further subdued them — and many of their fellows suffering the same crisis of separation — with a giant padded band that, from their perspective, seemed to cover the world while clamping them to the ground. The restraint was accompanied, tauntingly, with the far off sound of happy music, the message clear — their own happiness would be as distant — or even unattainable — as the whims of their vindictive gods dictated.
Many more hours passed. The restraint had been removed, and things had been tranquil, outwardly, at least. Emotionally, they each had never been more frantic. They could move slightly as the day wore on, but just when they believed they might have a chance to look across the divide to locate the other, the gate would unfailingly return to slap them back down.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, a peculiar, erratic phenomenon of the world’s climate — or maybe it was the gods at play again — commenced. The heat and humidity rose alarmingly over a period of forty-five minutes, the heat emanating from below, from the surface, as though the planet’s core was in danger of exploding. Rivers ran hot, flooding past them, though there was no precipitation — unlike that morning’s storm, which had been violent but at least clean, this liquid, like the heat, bubbled up from below, passive but rank — some sort of escaping sewage, perhaps.
Perhaps this was the end. The apocalypse. The surface was moving alarmingly — not just vibrating, but pitching up and down, forward and back, as though the planet, should it not explode, meant to catapult its residents into space. How the gods must be laughing.
But in the midst of the terror, a silver lining — they spotted each other! They reached and nearly touched as they flailed at the mercy of their violently bobbing and weaving planet, but then, of course, the motion stopped. An evening storm erupted, which, if nothing else, chased away the vile stink water.
And then the gate was back, but with much less precision than it had demonstrated that morning. It was there and gone almost before they noticed. But in that instant — a miracle! It had raked across the divide! The gate had worked in their favor for once! The open expanse was gone, and they had been dragged together again!
Jason ran his comb through his hair after his shower, not bothering to perfect a side part this time. No point. He’d finally gotten in a workout, and forty-five minutes on the treadmill, as he saw it, earned him a lazy evening on the couch with a beer or two while watching the Indians game.
They feared they had seen the last of each other. They wanted to vow never to let go of each other again, but that was an empty promise — they could not fight the gods. But they could vow to enjoy this — this moment and every moment they did have together. They had somehow survived the day and found each other again, and to be able to hold each other with this renewed intensity must be what heaven held in store.
This would be a good night. The best night. They had experienced this pattern before — the heat, the flooding, the storm, the gate. From here on, things would be serene. The world would settle, and they could relax, together. First bathed in a cocoon of flickering light and muffled sounds, followed by a long stretch of quiet darkness, where they would lie undisturbed. Together. Appreciating.
At ten-thirty, feeling the effects of his run (and what had turned into three beers), Jason turned off the TV halfway through SportsCenter and headed to bed. He eased down and felt his treadmill-weary muscles relax, and he sighed.
He smiled, realizing just how tired he must actually be, imagining hearing a series of much tinier sighs as he drifted off.
Mike Range spends most of his time writing nonsense on Medium to make people laugh, most not involving sentient hair. If you agree to read some more of his stories he might stop bothering his wife with it every five minutes.
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