Of course, he didn’t want to linger in the tunnel, but Alice needed to know what was under all that green. Alice called it “verdigris,” as if it were cryptic, as if a genie might burst forth from the leak. He checked for lollygaggers; Alice called them onlookers.
Nobody. The radio crackled overhead, undecipherable, like everything else in this diseased world. Above ground, Alice had to avoid the sun, like the rest of them, so that whatever had attached itself to them would not spread, grow, take over.
“It smells like rotting skim-milk,” Alice said. She chiseled away at the thick coating, as if it were a matter of survival.
Did skim rot differently than whole? Raw rotting eggs he would’ve guessed. The only clear word from the radio static: forbidden.
“You could help.” She tossed a tool.
As they chiseled, no one came to the underground. Underneath, she thought they’d find something metal, something from before. He thought, if this is rotting, this verdrigis, he wouldn’t mind being rotten. It looked almost beautiful, something alive and thriving.
“The green of Greece,” she said. “That’s what it means.”
They chiseled, and he imagined the underneath being nothing but that endless green. If he thought of something else, something material, it was of a coin. A face unmarked. Threads of hair. Like the Keats’ urn, that kiss forever held as a promise of things to come rather than of something long since vanished.
In that life a thousand dreams ago, he’d been the sick one, collecting things—coins, cards, figurines—shelves and drawers and cabinets stuffed with that uncontrollable urge that now just collected dust, void of value, like so many things from that life before. And she had stuck by him, through failed therapies and behavioral conditioning and now, in this world, that desire had dried up leaving only that sense that he owed her in a world that left no way for him to pay up. Here, he was immune to the sickness—he was well—whatever that meant in such a place.
A few days ago, they’d come across this bright green patch like a promise. She insisted upon returning, uncovering its secrets. So they dug, he beside her, her before-self facing him, smiling, hoping, insistent. She wanted to find a key, an answer to the why of it all.
Instead, they found a quotation, most of it effaced: two reasons for doing something —Carlyle.
She looked very sad. “Well, what did you expect?” he asked.
“I don’t know.” She threw her tool down the tunnel, and its clang echoed like a bell. “Something else. Something to hold, you know. Something untouched by—”
From some distance, a buzz of voices, the clack of feet and bodies coming their way.
She moved close as if to kiss him. She smelled like seawater. “The putrid ones.” She took his hand, pulled him down the tunnel. “What were you hoping for?” she asked him, finally.
He lied, said, “Nothing. It was your thing. That’s it.”
“Just for me.”
“Yes.” And held her there, against the grime of the walls, chiseled in. “What was that word again?”
“Verdigris.” She turned so the green, rotten half faced him. She had hewed at the plague because she needed to know that something else existed underneath, something complete, uneaten. He had to fight that sense that it had to do with him, a test of what he was made of. “We should go.”
They took off, he pulling her along, away from that underground tomb, and he thought of that world beneath the green until that was all he saw as they ran, a different kind of end, a sparkling, glittering thing.
Randall Brown is the author of the award-winning flash fiction collection Mad to Live (Flume Press 2008). He teaches at and directs Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. His short and very short fiction has been published widely, and his essay “Making Flash Count” appears in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field (Rose Metal Press 2009). He blogs regularly at FlashFiction.Net.