What I saw was a face as pitiful as my own, as ugly as black lava, cooled, dull, cracked, and void of life. As soon as I looked into the eyes, white, colorless, and as blind as mine, I knew we had found another survivor.
We were few and most of us were now dead. Whatever the plague that spread upon the winds, it acted with surety, killing off almost all mammals, and those of us who lived, well, we weren’t sure we were the lucky ones.
Our skin became swollen, and thick, like elephant hide. Then stiff and black, and cracked whenever we moved. The cracks bled, raw nerves exposed to the air, the dust, the dirt, and, I suppose, more plague. Were we now immune? We didn’t care.
We no longer distinguished gender among ourselves. We walked south, a band of hideous nightmares. We ate seeds and berries, and whatever roots and leaves we could pull with our swollen, cracked hands.
Our eyes changed. I did not study the right courses in school, but I think we saw in infrared, though I’m not sure. We saw heat. I found a book, but could not see the words, I could barely turn the pages with my swollen and dead fingers. I have no idea how long I cried, for I had loved reading.
Speech became too difficult. We communicated by grunts and groans. We had slipped further back than the earliest hominids.
There were twenty-three in our band. Twenty-three out of how many thousands, millions, who had lived here? There were no small animals, at least not that I saw. Had the whole world been infected? How many billions had died?
Only mammals seemed affected. We heard birds, and reptiles, and insects. The reptiles became hard to see due to their cold-bloodedness. But we heard them swishing over the rocks and through the leaves.
We hobbled south on our stiffening legs and feet. Winter would come, and if we were to have a chance to survive, we needed to be someplace warmer. We could no longer build shelters, nor fires. And we didn’t want to go into the homes of the old ones. It was too hard to see the bodies, and then the skeletons. So we agreed to stay outside, and to walk, or stumble, to the south, where we hoped to find… what? Warmth? Life? Death?
What I saw was a face as pitiful as my own, as ugly as what the Preacher Man used to call sin. The face was on a small body, a child, perhaps? How had a child survived? She could no longer talk, either. She, I called her a she, named her, in my mind, Jewel, but she could easily be a he. She came to us, held out her hands, or what passed for hands, and touched each of us in turn. I felt a tingle at the touch. Not pain. That was the first touch since the plague that did not bring pain.
So Jewel joined us as we continued south; toward the warmth, toward the Gulf of Mexico. The warmth brought relief, but the rains brought pain. We used what we could for shelter, but it wasn’t much. Water got into the raw cracks in our lava skin. We moaned, a few screamed. Two of us died. Jewel did not seem too bothered by either the rains or the deaths.
We found no more survivors. Twenty-two of us reached the shore of the Gulf. It must have been winter, as the weather was warm, but not hot. It had not rained in days, or maybe weeks. Ever since the Plague, nothing was the same. I had no idea of time. If it was light, I walked. If it was dark, I tried to sleep. And now we were at the shore of the Gulf. Birds flew and screamed overhead. Hot spots that sounded like gulls, but I don’t know.
We stood on the sand, and Jewel made a funny sound, almost a laugh. She ran, at least I think it was a run, and again came up and touched each of us. She put her hands up, and bent our heads to hers. We touched foreheads and this time, there was no tingle. This time, only pain, as I had to bend. Then, as quickly as she touched her head to mine, she moved on to the next. As the last of us moaned at the pain of bending to placate a child, a child who still found and brought joy, she turned and ran into the water. She screamed once, as she dove under the warm water.
And we all followed. We had no choice. We walked into the water, and as we dove under it, we too screamed. Never had I felt such a burning. I would die, but knew this death would be better than living as a lava man.
My skin felt funny. It burned, but in a good way, like scrubbing years of filth off with a new loufa sponge. I opened my eyes, and could see perfectly underwater. I saw my friends, and the black, swollen skin we had suffered so long, floated off us in the gentle currents. There was a sting as pieces floated away, and then we saw our new skin, not the human flesh to which we were used, but scales–brightly colored–mine were blue and green, Jewel was yellow and orange. We were living rainbows.
What I saw was a face as surprised as my own, as full of wonder as mine. What I saw were my twenty-one friends, free and beautiful as we cavorted in the slanting rays of the dying sun as they pierced the blue green sea.
Lenora Rain-Lee Good lives in Southeast Washington State. She writes memoir, fiction, and radio plays. She also quilts, is an avid photographer, tells bad jokes, and is a connoisseur of fine naps. Her work has appeared in Origami Condom, Periphery Online (with her sister, Marjorie Rommel), The Writer’s Eye, Beyond Centauri (upcoming), and Grit Magazine. She has had two radio dramas produced and aired.