Before the World Crumbles Away

The lakeside painter is lying, but no one seems to care.

It’s a beautiful lie, even Elodie will admit that. There are two lovers on the pier with the painter, sitting for their portrait, and she’s honest about the way the light of the setting sun catches their hair, the way the breeze ripples their clothes, how they lean into each other. She gets so many details right that even Elodie doesn’t notice what’s missing at first.

The painter has left the lovers’ faces blank. She’s glossed over the tension in their shoulders. She’s included the families in the distance, trying to have a carefree night by the lake, but she didn’t include the long cracks in the ground.

Or the uprooted plants. Or the fallen lamp posts.

The painting is idyllic and a lie, but that doesn’t stop the lovers from squealing in delight when they see the finished product. They either don’t notice their blank faces, the missing details, or they don’t care—which is even worse by Elodie’s standards. The painter cracks a joke and all three of them laugh. They don’t notice Elodie watching them at the end of the pier and Elodie feels a pang of jealousy at the painter’s ease at making other people happy. As if happiness was as simple as buying a painting in a ruined park.

The lovers pay in cash.

After they leave, carrying the drying painting like a holy relic between them, the lakeside painter retwists her long black hair into a bun, unaware of the streaks of paint she’s leaving between the strands.

The last moments of the sunset are in caught her hair, Elodie thinks. The thought makes her incredibly sad, so she pushes it away. She should really head home.

Then, the painter turns around, spotting Elodie on the end of the pier. She smiles and Elodie can’t help but stare back. The painter’s eyes are stunning—a network of implants and gray, reconstructed pupils. The future of bioengineering by the lake, in the flesh.

“Hey there,” the painter says, and Elodie opens her mouth to respond.

Before she can say anything, the ground starts to rumble.

After the earthquake passes, Marina picks herself up off the pier, soaked. Waves keep thrashing against the damp wood and there are still faint tremors. It wasn’t a bad earthquake, but it was enough to ruin the evening. All around the lake, people are shaking and picking each other up, leaving the park in small clumps of twos and fours. Marina sighs and looks at her scattered brushes and canvases. She didn’t earn nearly as much as she was hoping to tonight. But from experience, she knows that no one will be in the mood to support the arts now.

The woman who’d been watching her paint at the edge of the pier is suddenly beside her, helping Marina pick up her wet supplies.

“Thanks,” says Marina.

“Don’t mention it.”

Marina studies the woman from the corner of her eye. She has bright pink hair and vibrant clothes to match. Eyebrow piercings and a tattoo of an android on her arm. A hard person to miss in a crowd and Marina instantly loves her for it. Then she notices the woman’s hands are shaking.

“You okay?” Marina asks.

“Not really.” The woman clenches her jaw.

“Fair enough,” Marina says and picks up the last of her soaked sketches. It was a silly question. Earthquakes are conversation-killers anyway. “Thanks again for your help.”

But the pink-haired woman lingers awkwardly.

“Why didn’t you paint the cracks in the ground?” she asks.

“What does the tattoo on your arm mean?” replies Marina.

“I asked first.”

“But my question is more interesting.” Marina tries to keep a straight face, but her eyes ache and she still feels the trembles of the earthquake in her femurs. So she smiles, even though none of this is particularly funny. She’s surprised when the other woman grins back.

“I’m Elodie,” the woman says.

“Marina.”

They shake and Elodie’s hand is strong, warm, and calloused. Not the hands of an idle person. Marina likes that. Elodie is still staring, though.

“Sorry, I’ve never seen someone with optical implants before,” she says. “Bioengineering is sort of an interest of mine.”

Marina nods. She’s used to people doing double takes or trying to steal discreet glances and failing. She’s learned to appreciate a good excuse. “I was legally blind before I got these. Used a cane and everything.”

“And now?”

“Now, I have twenty-twenty vision. Most of the time.” Marina picks up the last of her brushes.

“They’re beautiful. Your eyes.” For a moment, Marina wonders if that’s supposed to be a joke, but Elodie’s voice sounded sincere and her expression matches.

Marina has no idea what to say. It’s been a while since anyone called her beautiful. “Um, I didn’t paint all the damage because I wanted to capture a moment when things get better,” she says, changing the topic

“Do you think they will?”

Again, there’s no sarcasm. Only earnest curiousness in Elodie’s voice. Marina shrugs. “Probably not, but people need some hope to keep moving forward.”

Elodie tilts her head, considering. “What about the blank faces, then?”

“Turns out I’m terrible at remembering faces. Like, I barely recognize my own in the mirror. I don’t really want my work to erase that, if that makes sense?”

“Oh.” Elodie blushes. It’s surprisingly cute.

Marina smiles. “Actually, I find it kinda funny. Maybe give me a call sometime, and I’ll tell you about it?” She pulls out her receipt book from her back pocket, writes her number on an empty ticket.

Elodie’s blush deepens, but she folds the receipt carefully and slides it into the pocket of her pants. “Okay, that’ll be cool.”

Elodie gives her a small, unsure wave and begins to walk away. But at the end of the pier, she stops and turns. “My tattoo doesn’t mean anything,” she says, with a cockeyed grin. “Androids are just awesome.”

Marina is still soaked, but she’s elated when she leaves the park, with her supplies tucked under her arms. She doesn’t stop smiling until three blocks out and her hand brushes the pocket with her wallet. Then she remembers. It’s too thin. Too empty. A bad sales night on a week where Marina can’t afford to have bad sales nights.

Today is not a loss, she tells herself. This is worth it. She doesn’t quite believe herself though as she walks through the city, towards home.

Her eyes are aching and she still feels the aftershocks of the earthquake under her feet.

Elodie is furious with herself the whole trek back to her house. She shouldn’t have been so nosy, so blunt with the painter. With Marina, rather. She should have thought of something witty to say.

It’s not like you get asked out every day, she thinks.

Four blocks away from home, there’s a man on the corner with handwritten signs and a three-day beard. He looks like he hasn’t slept for days.

“The world is ending,” he says, tiredly.

“No shit, dude,” Elodie mutters. The man glares at her, but she keeps walking.

Maybe Taylor’s right, maybe she needs to work on her people skills. Which is hilarious coming from a roommate who’d rather explore every inch of every Final Fantasy game than face the unstable world.

Elodie, on the other hand, would rather leave something useful behind.

When she reaches her house, she doesn’t go inside. She briefly considers sending a text to Marina, but she can never think of anything clever when she’s nervous. So, she opens the garage and flips on the light.

There’s an android sitting in the middle of the room. Its smooth aluminum body is folded neatly on a chair in front of her tool chest. She’s pleased to see the earthquake hasn’t upset it and that there aren’t any new cracks in the ceiling. A game of Candy Land, though, is scattered on the floor with the folding card table lying on its side.

Upstairs, Elodie hears the familiar video game music at full volume and is surprised when it’s turned down.

“How was your head-clearing walk?” Taylor calls down from his permanent seat on the family room couch.

“Full of earthquakes,” Elodie shouts up. “How are the Chocobos?”

“Steady,” Taylor replies, which is as close as Elodie has ever heard him acknowledge a natural disaster.

“Hey, I met this…” she calls up. Too late. Taylor has turned the game back up to full volume.

Elodie sighs. She uprights the table, gathers up the scattered board and cards, sets up a new game of Candy Land in front of the android.

“I met a painter today,” she tells it. “She had the coolest eyes.”

She grabs her laptop from her bench in the corner and scrolls through the code she wrote that afternoon. She wonders what Marina’s doing right now. She should probably text her and tell her it was nice to meet her.

Elodie turns on the android instead.

“Why would someone so optimistic want to spend time with me?” she asks the android as it finishes its boot-up cycle. “I’m just asking for future heartbreak, aren’t I?”

“Hi, Elodie,” the android says, looking at her and then at the board on the table. “Do you want to play Candy Land with me?”

Elodie runs a hand through her hair. “Yeah. Okay, let’s see which bugs I managed to fix.”

For the rest of the night, she and the android take turns drawing cards, moving pieces across the board racing to make it to Candy Land. Elodie makes a list of any errors or halting movements to debug. She also makes a list of reasons why she shouldn’t get her hopes up about Marina. It’s a long list.

When she’s finished testing the android that night, she takes the receipt with Marina’s number from her pocket, carefully unfolds it, and sticks it in the top drawer of her tool chest. Out of sight.

Marina’s landlady meets her halfway up the stairs to her apartment. She recognizes that curly, red hair anywhere. “I was worried about you,” Silva says, softly.

“I’m fine. There were only few big waves at the lake. Everything okay here?”

Silva starts to nod, but stops abruptly. They both look up toward the fourth floor apartment and Marina’s heart sinks.

“He never left, did he?” she asks.

Silva puts a hand on her shoulder. “Maybe tomorrow.” But her voice is a mixture of doubt and sympathy.

“Oh, I have this for you.” Marina pulls out her earnings. She presses the crumpled bills into the other woman’s hand. “I’ll get the rest to you soon.”

Silva, the best of landladies, doesn’t count the money in front of her. “I know you will, dear.” She wishes Marina good night and disappears down the steps.

Everyone runs away from me, Marina thinks, but she knows that’s not true. She’s just tired.

Marina stops in front of her apartment. She presses her ear to the door. Nothing, not even the sound of the TV. Panicked, she fumbles with the lock.

Inside, Kelvin is cocooned in blankets on the couch, face down on a pillow. He doesn’t move when Marina enters. Looks like he hasn’t moved all day, except to get some bread and Diet Coke from the kitchen. Crumbs and empty cans line the coffee table. Among the wreckage, his bottle of Ambien.

She rattles the bottle gently, still full, though she wonders what they’re going to do when the prescription runs out and his insomnia returns with a vengeance. But one problem at a time. She puts a pillow under his head and looks at his phone. A text message lights up the screen. “Payment due at the end of the month,” it says.

Marina bites the inside of her check, holds back tears. Her brother paid for the implants, when she was considering them, but they weren’t covered by her insurance. Told her that the cost shouldn’t be a limiting factor. He didn’t tell her how he got the money, though.

She tries to clean the coffee table, but her eyes ache and the migraine she’s been holding off all evening finally breaks like a tidal wave. Her vision blurs; she can’t fight the eyestrain anymore.

So, she puts on the sleep mask she keeps in her bedroom and for a moment, relishes the darkness. At the end of the day, it’s a relief not to see.

She was never totally blind before, but fine details and anything farther than three meters was a blur. But her implants are not the magic bullet most people think they are. They’re only reliable for ten or eleven hours a day before eyestrain starts to kick in.

Marina makes her way to the couch, bumping into the coffee table once, and lies down next to Kelvin. She feels for the remote and from memory, powers on the TV. On the local news, a scared-sounding scientist makes predictions for the next earthquake, the next storm, the next eruption, and when the Big One will finally hit. He’s followed by confident sounding “experts” reassuring everyone that this is temporary and everything will go back to normal soon.

Marina wishes she could believe that. Instead, she listens to Kelvin’s breathing and remembers how hopeful her brother was not so long ago.

Elodie’s been working the overnight shift in the hospital morgue even before the earthquakes started. She likes the quiet, the way she can fit shifts around her grad classes. The pay’s pretty good, too. It’s a simple job: run a retina scan, print out a toe tag, log the bodies that come and leave, and occasionally, lend some muscle. But otherwise, she can study or work on her latest project in peace. Except, she always makes a point of learning the name of the deceased. She might be the last person to ever do so, and it feels like a small and important kindness.

These days though, there’s not much peace in the morgue. Every time there’s an earthquake, there’s a fresh wave of bodies from car accidents and collapsed buildings that weren’t built to code. And suicides.

Some days, they run out of space.

But tonight, work’s been quiet, it’s been a week since the last earthquake. A week since she met Marina by the lake. Actually, Elodie is grinning madly today. After dozens of tests, her Candy Land program ran glitch-free last night. She wasn’t sure if her android program would be ready for the Crisis Innovators’ Competition in time, but she did it. She managed to create something that would make kids happy if there were no adults around. Elodie’s certain the judging panel is going to love it. When the world ends, people are definitely going to need androids to keep them company.

Edward Duncan. Mae Sun. Jeremiah MacArthur. Elodie reads the names of the deceased. But bodies are bodies and today she is victorious. Nothing can bring her down.

Until she sees the dead kids. Four of them. Caught in a house fire when they didn’t realize the gas line was leaking.

And suddenly, Elodie can’t breathe. Her happiness is gone, ruptured like a balloon that floated too high.

Candy Land won’t help anyone, she thinks, squeezing her eyes shut. A stupid game won’t keep anyone safe. Useless, useless, useless.

That night, in her garage, Elodie doesn’t turn on the android. Instead, she pulls out the receipt from the top draw of her toolbox and calls Marina.

Sunset Bar is one of Marina’s favorite places in the universe. She’s been a regular for years, bringing friends and sometimes clients here back when she was a human resource consultant for startups. They have the best nachos in the city and the bartenders were always friendly to the cane-wielding blind woman whether she was with company or alone.

Marina still hasn’t gotten used to being here with full vision. Seeing the vintage photos on the wall, the scratches on the clean but well used tables, the names on the Board of Shame over the bar is weird. But it still smells like stale beer and limes and they still are playing the same rotation of post rock albums. Of course, the prices have tripled in the last year. Natural disasters have a way of driving up the cost—and desire—for some fresh food and a hard drink at the end of the day.

It’s strange to be here with a date. Across the room, the bartenders send her mischievous winks when Elodie isn’t looking

“No offense, but you look like you haven’t been sleeping well,” Marina says. Elodie’s only muttered something about kids’ games, a programing competition, and a useless idea. She’s slumped in her chair. “Don’t tell me you’ve given up on life.”

“Not quite,” Elodie replies. “You?”

Marina shakes her head. “My brother would kill me.”

“You have a brother? What’s he like?”

Unemployed. Depressed. Scared shitless, Marina thinks, but this is a first date, so she says: “He’s the one who helped me get the optical implants, even though they’re still pretty experimental. Financed my unemployed ass for the six months it took me to recover.”

“That’s so cool,” Elodie says. “I’ve always wanted siblings. Especially one that’s loaded.”

Marina smiles around her beer. She doesn’t tell Elodie that she spent the morning dropping off her and Kelvin’s resume at every local business that would take one. Not that there are many job openings with inflation and unemployment being at an all time high. “No one’s fucking investing in the future when no one knows if we’ll even be alive tomorrow,” Kelvin had said. But Elodie is finally starting to talk and Marina isn’t about to ruin the mood with her own problems.

“So, tell me about this competition that’s you’re convinced you’re not going to win,” Marina says, with a smile.

Elodie does, enthusiastically, even though she keeps insisting that’s her entry is not very good, that games won’t help anyone if there’s no running water.

“What if it was also like, a schoolteacher too?” Marina says, thinking out loud. Elodie tilts her head, but doesn’t reply. “Never mind, that’ll probably be way too complicated for a house android.”

When Elodie asks about her projects, Marina tells her about her afternoon by the lake. She had a few eager customers, including a dog, who sat patiently as she painted in exchange for carrots. But mostly she ended up doing a lot of preliminary painting and prep work for her next batch of sunset portraits, her most popular work.

“I want to paint as many sunsets as I can, with as many subjects as I can,” Marina says and taps the corner of her eye. “Before these, they just looked like bright, colorful blurs.”

“No sunrises?” Elodie asks.

“And wake up that early? Like hell.”

It feels good to talk about their creations. It’s a nice break from worrying about the weather, money, or the ground below their feet.

Elodie leans forward with her chin in her hands, pink strands of hair falling over her eyes. “So, how did you learn to paint if you’ve only had the implants for nine months?” she asks.

“I’ve been painting my entire life. My earlier works were just a more… abstract.”

They both giggle and it’s a beautiful sound in the Sunset Bar. Even the bartenders look up. Marina can’t remember the last time she genuinely laughed with someone.

Just then, her phone buzzes. A message from Kelvin.

Won’t extend deadline, it says. Need 2 get $10k in 4 weeks. So dead. Marina bites her lip, a wave of guilt clawing at her insides. She should have never gotten the implants. Being blind was never the end of the world.

“What’s wrong?” Elodie asks and her voice is full of concern. So much so that for an instant, Marina considers telling her everything. But Elodie has dark circles under her eyes and behind the determined posture, Marina senses a deep sadness. No, she won’t ruin the first lovely evening she suspects they’ve both had in ages with all her doubts and fears.

“It’s just my eyes,” Marina says. “They’re starting to bother me.”

She has two weeks until the deadline for the Crisis Innovators’ Competition and Elodie has modified her strategy. The android needs to be able to do more than just play games and ask small talk questions with a kid. She’s only getting about four hours of sleep a night now.

She’d be lying if she said that was just because of the android.

Elodie sees Marina as often as she can. They usually meet by the lake, where Marina is painting for longer hours than normal. The pier where they met finally collapsed in one of the quakes and now she works where the rocky beach meets the lawn.

On free afternoons, Elodie brings homemade peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwiches or cheap, store-bought egg rolls and they talk for hours, while Marina paints. It’s easy to lose time with Marina. But Elodie has never been good at the next step, which is why she’s glad Marina’s bolder than her.

“Are you sure your brother doesn’t mind?” Elodie asked the first time she climbed up the stairs to Marina’s apartment. That was before she met Kelvin and realized he was taking the end of the world harder than her roommate was. Before she saw his bottle of Ambien.

She didn’t realize that Marina wears a sleep mask in the evenings to fend off the migraines. Even completely blind, she’s just as bold.

Elodie gets even less sleep after that.

Three days before the competition, Elodie invites Marina over and runs through her presentation for judges. She demonstrates two of the ten different board games the android knows how to play and some of the conversations.

“Elodie,” it says while moving a checker piece, “Make sure you clean your cuts with alcohol if you have it. I know it stings, but getting an infection is worse.”

“That’s pretty cool,” Marina says, studying the android. “I’ve never seen one up close. Aren’t they supposed to be really expensive?”

“They were, but this is a new mass market model. I just made an app for it. Taught it some useful tricks.”

“Wow. We are really living in a golden age of technology.”

“We were.”

“Stop being such a realist,” Marina says as she picks up the box for Hungry Hungry Hippos. “Oh man, I haven’t played this in years.

Elodie grins. “Want to?”

“You bet your cute ass, I do.”

Turns out, both of them are quite competitive, even when they’re laughing. They make so much noise, that eventually Taylor comes down and introduces himself to Marina shyly. Elodie’s impressed by the way the Marina coaxes him into conversation and he even joins them for a speed round of Chutes and Ladders.

“I think you’re the first person he’s met in months.” Elodie says after he retreats back upstairs.

“Wow, I feel special.”

“You are.”

Marina’s eyes twinkle. “Special enough to stargaze on the lawn with me?”

Laughing, they drag lawn chairs down the driveway and onto the grass. The night is clear and quiet and none of the streetlights are working anymore, so it’s easy to pretend that the city is theirs alone.

“What are you gonna do with the prize money?” Marina asks.

“Travel the world. While I still can.” Elodie is giddy, light, and happier than she’s been in ages. “Hey, want to come with me?”

Marina hesitates. “Well, I—”

This time, they feel the beginning of the earthquake before it hits and they clutch the arms of their chairs, screw their eyes shut. Elodie prays for the ground to go easy on them. She prays for it to stop.

Eventually it does.

When the quake is over, power lines are down and everything is relentlessly dark. Elodie crawls over to where Marina is lying. She slides her arm under her and holds her in the damp grass. She feels Marina shaking against her shoulder.

“I was getting a headache, anyway,” she whispers.

Elodie doesn’t know what to say, so she holds Marina closer.

“How did you imagine your future before this?” Marina asks.

“Bright. You?”

“Clear.” Marina curls her fingers around Elodie’s. “You know, I’d never seen the stars before the implants.”

“We’ll never get the chance to reach them,” Elodie says. The thought makes her both incredibly angry and sad. She feels Marina’s warm tears on her shirt.

“I don’t understand why anyone stops looking up,” she says.

In two weeks, Kelvin’s expected to pay his debt of ten thousand dollars. No, her debt. She’s still six thousand short. Prices keep going up and these days, everyone’s struggling financially. Asking friends or family for a loan would be totally irresponsible. So, Marina paints and paints and paints, earthquakes be damned, only stopping when the migraines get so bad at night that even the dimmest light feels like a cleaver.

She begs Kelvin to follow up on the resumes she dropped off for him.

“Okay, I’ll try,” he promises every morning.

But depression is a bitch, and he rarely steps out of the apartment.

Marina’s sitting by the lake again, this time in the structurally questionable gazebo that has a crack running through it. But it’s raining, so Marina risks it. A woman walking her dog, despite the drizzle, stops to ask why she’s bothering with art these days.

“Because I don’t want to spend my time doing anything else,” she replies, though that’s only part of the answer. Because it’s the only thing people are willing to invest in anymore, she doesn’t say. Because I want people to have something to remember the better times with.

Who knows, maybe the world won’t end and maybe she’ll be able to paint sunsets and rainy days and the stars over the lake for years to come. Or maybe her art will be enough to get her and Kelvin out of this mess.

No, it’ll be enough. She needs to believe that it will.

Elodie’s standing in front of the university building in the only professional outfit she owns, with the android packed in a rolling suitcase besides her and a poster tucked under her arm. There’s the sign that says “Crisis Innovators’ Competition!” hanging over the door.

Water is spilling out of the building.

She’s stunned and so are twenty other people standing on the university lawn with her. There was no warning, no information, nothing from the organizers or her friends in the community. There is nothing except frantic texts from Taylor who just saw the news. Nothing until one of the judges comes over and tells everyone to go home.

“They canceled the competition,” she shouts, later when she meets Marina in the park. All that work and her dreams of helping kids, to travel might never happen. Useless, useless, useless. Elodie puts her head in her hands

“Wait, what? What happened?” Marina asks, tugging gently at Elodie’s hands. Her fingers are smeared with paint.

“A water main broke. Flooded the entire building, possible electric damage. They’re not rescheduling the competition. They said things are too unstable.”

“I’m so sorry, Elodie.”

“What’s the point? What’s the fucking point?” Elodie shouts. She pushes Marina away and turns around. Elodie doesn’t want her to see the tears in her eyes. She hates crying.

Marina comes up behind her and wraps her in a hug. “I’m sorry, babe. But I’m sure there’ll be other opportunities. You’ll get your app out there.”

“Easy for you to say, you make art for fun. Your hopes and dreams don’t depend on your next painting.”

Marina’s arms go stiff around her. “I’m drowning in debts, Elodie,” she says, quietly.

“For what? Art supplies?”

“They’re going to kill my brother,” Marina whispers.

Elodie turns around. “What?

“Maybe take my eyes out too if we don’t come up with the money.”

Elodie stares. She’d thought Marina was doing what she loves because it made her happy. She was the only person Elodie knew that was still hopeful.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

Marina shifts uncomfortably. “You were so stressed out about your android, I didn’t want to add to that.”

“So you pretend to be happy just to get laid before the world ends?

Marina bites her lip, hurt. “Is that what you think this is?”

Elodie balls up her fists. “I don’t know what to think. You paint everything rosy,” she says. It comes out harsher than she means.

There’s a cold anger in Marina’s brilliant gray eyes and hurt. “I can’t handle this right now, Elodie”

“Marina, wait—”

But she doesn’t. Marina quickly gathers up her things and within a minute, she’s leaving from the lakeside, refusing to look back.

And Elodie lets her walk away.

Marina avoids Elodie’s phone calls and texts all week. She doesn’t have time for people who’ve given up. Or rather, she only has time for one. To Kelvin’s credit, he has gotten a temp job with the city, on a clean up and repair crew, but his first paycheck won’t come until next week. Every evening she has to convince him that it’s not all pointless. Even as they watch the news and tears slip down his face. It doesn’t help that earthquakes are becoming more frequent, more insistent.

She still makes her way to the park every day, but the infrastructure’s so cracked that not many people are out walking by the lake anymore. She knows she’s been pushing herself too hard, her eyes hurt all the time, but she doesn’t have another option. She feels like she’s standing on a eroding ledge and it’s crumbing away faster than she can back up.

The money is due in two days and Marina has no idea what she’s going to do.

It’s evening by the lake again when Elodie drops the wad of cash on Marina’s lap.

“What the hell, Elodie?”

“It’s my savings,” she says. “It should be enough to cover whatever these people want from you.”

Marina blinks, her expression going from shocked to angry. “I’m not your damn charity case.”

“No, you’re desperate to save that irresponsible brother of yours.”

“You don’t know a damn thing about Kelvin.”

“Except that he’s going to get you killed.”

Marina crosses her arms. “No, Elodie.”

Elodie jams her hands in her pockets. Taylor’s right, she does need to work on her people skills. “Then paint my portrait. Before the sun sets completely.”

They glare at each other, but Elodie holds her ground. Marina might be the bold one, but Elodie knows she’s more stubborn. Still, she’s relieved when Marina relents.

“Sit,” Marina says with a sigh.

With the lake spread out behind her and the breeze tickling her neck, Elodie sits for her first and only portrait. She tries to be the perfect model, tries not to blush as Marina studies her like some glorious puzzle to be solved. She’s never been under such intense scrutiny before, never felt more exposed. Yet Marina’s smiling to herself as she works. Elodie doubts she even realizes she’s doing it, but that smile, it makes Elodie feel like a masterpiece. No wonder her patrons are always so happy.

Marina refuses to show her the painting until she’s perfected every detail. She paints for a long time. When she’s finally satisfied, she turns the canvas around and Elodie’s breath catches.

Her portrait doesn’t have a face, but Marina’s captured every detail that matters. Her bright hair, her posture, the shape of her hands, the hint of her tattoos. Her portrait doesn’t have an expression, but in it, she sees her stubbornness, her determination as the sunset in the background reflects off the water and illuminates her. In it, Elodie is stunning.

“Is this how you see me?” she whispers.

Marina nods. “This isn’t forgiveness, you know,” she says, holding out the drying portrait.

“I know.” Elodie takes it with the utmost care. “Thank you.” In the painting, it looks like everything will be all right with the world.

It’s a pretty lie, but Elodie clings to it.

The money from Elodie’s portrait is enough and the next morning, Marina pays up. Ten minutes at the sketchiest bar Marina’s ever been in and one envelope of cash later and it’s over. The debt is gone and this month’s rent and half of next month’s is covered. Marina practically floats up the steps. She hasn’t felt so worry-free in weeks. She texted Kelvin the good news and now there’s an overpriced bottle of champagne in her bag. She considers texting Elodie, inviting her over, but she’s too emotionally drained right now to figure out what the hell’s going on between them. She’ll call her later.

She knows something’s wrong the moment she walks into the apartment. Kelvin is lying on the couch. A terrible shade of gray.

Marina doesn’t notice the bag falling from her shoulder, doesn’t hear the bottle break, or feel the liquid sizzle and seep through her sneakers.

She calls an ambulance, begs them to hurry. She knows, but she doesn’t want to know. There’s a half written note on the floor, by the couch, and she’d rather face a thousand earthquakes than this. Earthquakes can’t understand the pain they will inflict on loved ones.

It takes the ambulance two hours to get there because the roads are a wreck. Marina watches the paramedics work, unhurried, while tears stream down her face.

Elodie’s right. There’s no point, she thinks. There’s no goddamn point to any of this.

Kelvin is dead.

Elodie finds Marina balled up on the couch, her beautiful eyes puffy and red. She looks up when Elodie opens the door, but doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t say anything when Elodie comes over and sits on the couch besides her. “I’m so sorry, Marina.”

“I tried so hard to save him,” she whispers.

“I know,” Elodie puts her arm around her carefully, worried that Marina will pull away. She doesn’t.

They are silent for a long time. There is nothing to say, nothing either of them can do except inhale and exhale. Kelvin’s half-written goodbye is on the floor beside their feet.

“Taylor rushed me here on his motorbike,” Elodie says, eventually. “First time he’s been out of the house in months. He’s worried about you too.”

“How did you know?” Marina whispers.

“The morgue. I saw Kelvin. I read his name.”

“Oh,” Marina says and that one word, the sadness it holds is enough to make Elodie’s heart break. “What am I going to do?” she says.

Slowly, Elodie untangles herself and gets up from the couch. “Let’s go,” she says. She holds out her hand.

She leads Marina out into the city and down to the lake. The walk is slow and silent, picking their way through the broken roads. By the time they reach the water, the sun is dipping below the horizon and it’s chilly enough that Elodie wishes she brought a sweater. But the evening is spread out before them. The grass is damp and soft around their legs.

“What’s the point?” Marina whispers, looking up at the sky, tears streaming down her face.

Elodie studies the horizon watching as the brightest stars begin to appear against the bruised colored sky. “I’ve never realize how beautiful sunsets were until I met you,” she says. “Maybe things will get better.”

“And if it’s all just an optimistic lie?”

“Well,” Elodie wraps an arm around Marina, putting her face in her hair, holding her as close as she can. “Well, okay.”

A moment later, she feels Marina’s arms slip around her, keeping her steady.

That evening, on the lake, they lean into each other as the ground beneath them begins to shake, crumble.

(Editors’ Note: A. T. Greenblatt is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

A. T. Greenblatt

A.T. Greenblatt is a mechanical engineer by day and a writer by night. She lives in Philadelphia where she’s known to frequently subject her friends to various cooking and home brewing experiments. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise XVI and Clarion West 2017. Her work has been nominated for a Nebula Award, has been in multiple Year’s Best anthologies, and has appeared in Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Fireside, as well as other fine publications. You can find her online at atgreenblatt.com and on Twitter at @AtGreenblatt.

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