The floor was littered with broken glass and pieces of filament from an overhead lighting fixture. The shattered bits cut through Judith’s pantyhose, into the skin of her knees, into her palms as she huddled on the floor. The room spun. After the blast, a fluorescent rod had struck her in the head, nearly knocking her senseless. The carpet beneath her felt warm.
She squeezed her eyes shut and opened them again. The room stopped its lazy spin but it was dark. Why was it so dark? She looked behind her. Smoke. Thick, oily plumes billowed outside the windows that weren’t broken and poured in through the windows that had been blasted out. The wind tore the smoke apart for a moment and Judith caught a glimpse of the other tower. The gash in its side bled fire. She guessed that this one looked the same.
Judith turned and focused on the rectangles of light on the other side of the office. The windows showed smokeless air but for a few wispy clouds drifting on a sea of blue. Another world, and so far away…
The smoke was everywhere. She heard voices, cries, footsteps. Someone bent their face down to hers and hysterically demanded to know WHAT HAPPENED. Cell phones rang and tearful voices prayed and begged and said goodbye.
Judith listened with a primordial fear in her heart. Inexplicably, she felt the stretch of humanity, every eon’s march of souls. She saw herself in the line: not old and sick and soiled, but young and smartly dressed and plump with time. But there was no more time. Here were all the endings that came before… and now her own, made obvious to her by the heat of the floor and the smoke rolling in from the gaping mouths of windows with their shattered teeth.
“No…” she moaned and saw her blue window, so far away, on the other side. Whole and unbroken, there she would be safe. She crawled. It seemed she scrambled for ages over the terrain but at last she made it. She slumped, exhausted and coughing hard. She thought of David. Where was he? Why wasn’t he there, holding her hand and telling her everything would be all right?
A shape bent over her. A cool hand touched her blood-stained cheek. She opened her eyes. In the gloom a man knelt beside her. David? But no. This man was plain where her brother had been handsome. Then the stranger turned to the window and his face was the most beautiful she had ever seen…
“Judith — ”
“Who are you? What is happening?”
The smoky shadows fell over him and the stranger’s face was hideous; a grotesque mask of decaying flesh and red eyes like burning coals. “Something incomprehensible.” He smiled down at her and was beautiful again. “Come with me.”
Judith’s head reeled as she stood. “Where? No, I can’t — ”
“It’s getting too hot.” The stranger smiled sadly. “Isn’t it?”
“No… No, not yet.” Judith eyed the boiling smoke. “There’s no place…”
“Think of a place,” the stranger said. “A place that brings you peace and you will go there.”
A vision flooded Judith’s mind; green and blue, sunlight, the sound of laughter. The stranger nodded, took her hand and drew her up.
“Are you taking me there?”
The stranger said nothing, only smiled. He’d put on his exquisite face.
The heat beneath her grew and grew. She closed her eyes, she sat against the wall, she ran with the stranger.
The journey lasted forever and only moments. Now and then the stranger turned to smile and his face was a Botticelli, a Durer, a Raphael. Other times, the shadows licked it and she had to shut her eyes against the ghastly visage. He wore a dark suit, but no… he wore white and gold and his sandals were winged. When she grew tired, she sat and he poled them through the ashy waters. When she was too dizzy he carried her, enclosing her in wings that were soft as down but black as night.
At last, she opened her eyes and shrieked as the stranger smashed a chair through the window above her.
“Why did you do that?” Judith shielded her eyes from the light, or tried to. There was a chair in her hand and broken glass at her feet. “Where did we go?”
The stranger’s face was radiant in the sun. “You tell me.”
“The playground.” Judith eased a sigh. “David and I would come here when we were little. On that swing set.” She pointed to the two seats, side by side, hanging from chains that swayed gently on the breeze. “We would go up so high. He’d take my hand and say, ‘Let’s fly!’ and we’d jump off. I didn’t want to jump; I always got scared. But he would tell me that one day I wouldn’t be afraid. And when I got the job here, he called and told me he was right. He said, ‘See? Now you’re up so high. You’re flying.’”
The stranger led her to the swings and helped her into one. He took the other and they swung. Higher and higher they swung until Judith could see all around. The sky was a lovely mid-morning blue and the city stretched out below her. The stranger took her hand just as David used to.
“It’s time,” he said.
Judith nodded. The sun was hot — so hot on her back — and the clouds were coming in, obscuring the blue skies and making her cough. “I’m ready.”
Azriel smiled with the face of David.
Jennifer Ripley lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area and wouldn’t have it any other way. She is currently working on a nautical fantasy trilogy and reading everything David Mitchell has ever written with the firm belief that even his grocery lists are astounding feats of imagination.