The Liar

The last words she heard me say were, “I love you,” then we were crushed by falling debris before she even had the chance to say it back. Her hand was in mine and I held her close. Explosions rattled our ears and brought everything to a piercing shriek. Smoke wrapped its thick gloves around our throats; the acrid scent of gasoline and rust coated our nostrils. Her face was smeared with grease and blood and vomit (not hers), and her once-blue eyes had suddenly and strangely gone gray somewhere over the course of the night. From the look on her face, she knew this was the end. From the look on her face, I knew she needed some sort of comfort.

So I lied.

And said, “I love you.”

Then boom.

I remember my last thought being, That was nice, that was good. We’ll die knowing we were cared for. Because I knew she loved me. It was in the way she traced her fingernails around my own under the table at dinner. It was as clear as the new day when she woke up before me and blew gently on my naked stomach to wake me up, something I claimed to hate, but actually rather enjoyed. It didn’t matter she didn’t get the chance to say it, because it was painted on her face from the moment she had met me, so that was comfort enough.

It wasn’t hard to say it. And I didn’t think it would matter. We were dead, after all.

Only I didn’t die.

Only I’m here in this emergency room, gauze strapped over my face like a muzzle, my one exposed eye bloodshot and draining pus, my right leg crooked and waiting to be set, my other leg like shredded drapes, flapping in the breeze from every passing doctor and nurse, and my entire being indented with tiny bits of gravel and metal just waiting to be picked out one by one by a nervous med student who could barely hold a medical chart, let alone a pair of tweezers, and not just because he’s new to the field.

The invasion is over, and I survived.

Emily didn’t.

*          *          *

I was going to break up with her. That’s the truth. Right after the party, we were going to go to my place, and I was going to end it. I would sit her down, stare at my feet like a coward and say I thought it was a good idea to spend some time apart. I could picture her reaction: shock, tears, pleas, anger, acceptance, more anger. It wasn’t going to be pretty. But it had to happen. To string her along any further would only make the inevitable ending even worse. Isn’t that what they say?

She must have known something was up on the ride over to Ricky and Jaime’s. I kept my concentration on the road, on the lights, on the pedestrians, never once glancing over to see how beautiful she looked, how her short hair looked like spikes of chocolate cascading over her forehead, how her red sweater and beige jeans brought out her eyes and the peach hues of her skin. There was no question that Emily was a catch.

And I had caught her.

So why the hell was I throwing her back?



“You all right?”

“Yeah. Why?”


“Well what?”

“Did you hear what I said?”

“About me being all right or not?”

“No, about next weekend. Lulu wanted to know if we were free for dinner. She wants to try this new restaurant on Twenty-Fourth. Apparently, and she’s only heard this second hand, or third hand, even, they have the best margaritas in the city. She could probably care less about the food, but offer me fish tacos, and I’m there, you know?”


“So what do you think?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

I saw her nod in my peripherals, then turn her attention back to the road in front of us. How could she not know something was amiss?

We’d been dating seven months. Things were serious, or at least on the cusp of serious, but every discussion our friends ever had about us had to do with taking it to the next level, all because we hadn’t said the L word yet. But we’d talked about it. Neither of us believed in notions like love at first sight. We knew relationships had to build, had to grow, and we both knew that saying something without meaning it was the biggest betrayal possible. The two of us had been in previous relationships that hurt us, and ones where we hurt someone else. We both felt that this could be the relationship where we learned from our past mistakes, where we could have the foresight to see when danger was coming and stop it dead in its tracks before it hit us head on. And for a while there, I believed that could be true.

But it was a lie. Another lie. I liked Emily. I liked her a lot. But she wasn’t doing it for me. I would look at her and feel nothing. Not quite a hollowness, but something empty. I’d look into her gorgeous face, those gorgeous eyes, and not see a future. I’d look at her and not become scared of ever losing her. Emily just wasn’t my person.



“You missed the turn?”

“Shit, sorry.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Why do you keep asking that?”

“Because you don’t seem okay.”

“I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?”


“You’d tell me if you weren’t, right?”

“Of course.”

Liar, liar, pants on fire.

    *          *          *

I resigned myself to the snack table for most of the party. Friends would come by, say hey, catch up, all around mingle and bullshit, then move on, but I would stay put, eyeing the deviled eggs as if I was thinking, Should I have one more? Maybe. Sure, why not? Another?

Emily was roaming. She bounced from person to person, laughing and smiling all the while like the sugar-high pixie she was. But I knew something was lingering under the surface for her. I’d created this passive-aggressive tension that seemed to squeeze the entire room into a tiny, cramped box. Every wayward glance she would shoot my way was full of longing, full of doubt, full of rightfully deserved fury.

I kept thinking about the last time I broke up with someone. Natalie was a no-brainer for dumping. She was cute, but nothing else. Emotionally distant when sober, loud and incoherent and even more emotionally distant when drunk, which was often. After four weeks of putting up with her, she was long overdue to be set free to spread her chaos elsewhere. Even so, I felt awful. My skin turned to sand in an hourglass as I walked up the stairs to her apartment, so much so that I barely felt the knocks I laid on her door. My mouth became parched, and the words that managed to come out seemed thin. And all because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. All because the threat of her becoming sad hovered soundlessly but ready to strike. All because guilt just didn’t seem worth it.

My sister called me a dumbass and slapped me upside the head a few times. Becca was never fond of Natalie and was one of the many proponents of me breaking up with her, but my attitude toward going through with it offended her. “What, you’re worried she’ll never be able to pick up the pieces of her torn-apart heart?” she said. “First of all, Natalie’s a bitch, and bitches always bounce back because they don’t care about anyone but themselves. Secondly, fuck you, you selfish prick. Do you think you’re so amazing that any girl you leave will never recover? I mean, I love you, and any girl would be lucky to have you, but fuck you. Women aren’t weak, pawing at every guy we come across and begging him to stay at all costs. There are other facets of life besides a guy in your bed. Yeah, you run the risk of hurting someone, but that’s why it’s called a risk. Natalie’s a big girl. And you should be happy to be rid of her.”

It was hard to disagree with Becca, but nonetheless, I still felt badly.

Emily was different. Everyone loved Emily, Becca included. I would no doubt feel guilty not just for ending things with her, but also for removing such a bright spot in so many lives.

I had to, though. It would be crueler not to.

Once at the party, excuses kept cropping up in my head. After all, breaking up with her when she appeared to be having such a good time socializing amongst our friends would probably be just as cruel as putting it off indefinitely. There was absolutely no way around the harshness of such an act. No warm teddy bear to latch onto for comfort, or no warm, probably alcoholic beverage to sip on as the terrible words came spilling out of me. The pain for her and the guilt for me: it was all inescapable.

The best thing to do would be to get it over with as quickly as possible. Give it the Band-Aid treatment. One fluid motion, one quick swoop. Let it be done and never look back.

I resolved to cross the room and take Emily aside. I led us out of the apartment into the hallway, just outside the door. The way it played out in my mind, I was going to take us as far away from this party as possible, maybe even drive her back home, as though that would dissuade some of my shame—a good deed makes up for a bad one, right? But there in the moment, standing on the violet hallway carpet, the muffled sounds of Passion Pit and drunk twenty-somethings complaining about their various First World problems, it seemed better to just do it now.

Quick and painless.

Quick and painless…

“What is the matter with you?”


“I’ve not seen one smile on your face this whole night. That’s a clear sign that something’s bugging you. And the fact that you can’t tell me what it is—”

“I want to tell you what it is. I brought you out here so I could tell you what it is.”

“So what is it?”


“Jesus, Jack, come talk to me after you’ve practiced this. It sounds like it has the potential to be a grand speech.”

She started back into the apartment, but I hastily cuffed her wrist with my thumb and forefinger. She looked at me, and it was all there in her eyes: she knew. Like somehow, just by my touch, the message transferred to her, swept over her like a cold sweat. The frustration she felt over my horrible ability to talk to her was suddenly gone, replaced with what I had feared would be the case: sadness.

Her hand froze on the doorknob and her body went tense. Her beautiful eyes became glassy and doll-like. I could hear her thoughts: Just say it. Just say it and let me get out of here and never see you again.


We were rocked against the opposite wall by thunder and flame.

*          *          *

My mom died when I was eleven, and I was there when it happened. Our car was struck from the driver’s side by an ignorant troglodyte in a pickup who must have been colorblind and directionally dyslexic. Our car flipped over several times before coming to a sudden stop on its roof. Blood rushed to my head and everything went out of focus. I screamed for my mother, but the silence, as well has her limp frame in the front seat, told me all I needed to know.

My point is, even in a horrific accident such as that, I never lost consciousness. I witnessed the whole thing. I watched the world dance; I heard the metal clang and sharpen itself against the concrete. I felt my right arm bend awkwardly and saw my mother’s neck twist. I still wake up from recurring nightmares that get more and more graphic as the days go on and that three to four therapists could not quell, but the fact of the matter is: I saw it, because my body decided not to pass out.

That’s how it was when the attackers arrived.

It still felt as though years had passed from the explosion to the realization that I was face down on that purple carpet, but logic soon returned to me and said that would have been impossible—after all, I didn’t have any beard growth. A haze of silver now smothered the room. Small fires had sprouted around me like little hot tufts of grass growing from the floor, including one underneath my stomach, which definitively broke me back into common sense and forced me onto my feet.

My balance took a few more minutes to arrive, and the alarms fine-tuning themselves in my ears didn’t help matters much. Then I saw Emily. Her back was against the wall, legs spread uncomfortably over the floor, some of those miniature campfires creating a moat around her. I stumbled over to her, really unsure of, well, anything. She was unconscious, but very much alive. I tried to wake her up, only instead of blowing gently on her stomach, I shook her gently by the shoulders.

I was about to lightly slap her cheeks, but that’s when I noticed what had happened to her.

At first I thought it was just the smudges that my vision had become, but as things started to get clearer, the reality set in: there was an open gash on Emily’s face, stretching from below her left eye down to her chin, cutting across her lips, making them loose, skewed, like a reflection in a cracked mirror. The meat underneath her cheek was a fine orange, with red dripping down to her neck in fancy swirls, like food coloring in water. Her teeth, or what teeth remained, were wine-stained with blood. My gut instinct said, Fuck, that sucks, followed quickly by, That’s going to get infected if it isn’t already.

Even in the midst of anarchy, I was still thinking about Emily in anything but romantic terms.

Her eyes began to flutter open, panic already inside. She grabbed at the carpet and tried to scream out, but pain seemed to limit that, and she could only groan hoarsely and spit blood into one of the little fires. I managed to take her hands and get her to look at me.

Her eyes had started to go gray.

“Emily, it’s Jack, it’s Jack.”


I got a sneaking suspicion she was missing vital parts of her tongue as well.

“Don’t try and speak. You’re… you’re kind of a mess.”


“Don’t, it’s okay, it’s okay, I’m here. Um… shit, um… I think we need to get the fuck out of here.”

She nodded, her body loosening, her thumbs beginning to rub my palms.

“Can you stand? You need to stand.”

I helped her to her feet and dusted her off for some reason. I mustered up a smile, some way of telling her we were all right. But that wound was nauseating to look at, and the smell of impending infection was making jokes out of my sinuses.

“Okay. So. Don’t freak out. You’re okay, you’re okay, but you’re hurt. Shit, you can probably tell. Shit. Um, I need to find something, something to… help.”

Emily pointed to Ricky and Jaime’s behind me. I’d forgotten all about the party. I’d forgotten all about our friends. The explosion had come from behind us. From the apartment.

The front door hung loosely off of one of the hinges.

*          *          *

I met Emily through Ricky and Jaime. Ricky was my college roommate, someone I didn’t necessarily respect, but got on good terms with anyway. He was a player, someone who flaunted each sexual conquest around for the world to see, use them, then rate them on a scale of “repeat” to “never again.” Every woman, even the ones I thought were cool, rated a “never again.” I put on a man’s attitude, nodding in agreement at how lucky and sweet his life was, but inside I was always seething, pissed over the idea that this was the jerk that had chosen to be best friends with me, leaving me in the uncomfortable position of going along with it, just to save face.

It wasn’t until Ricky met Jaime our senior year that his feelings towards women started to resemble something more respectable. Jaime was a fox, as Ricky put it, but more importantly, Jaime didn’t take Ricky’s bullshit, and for that, she got under his skin. She came from a very poor upbringing and was the first of her family to actually go to college, so she had a way about her that said she knew how to take care of herself. I don’t know what attracted her to a guy like Ricky or why she decided to stick around for the long haul, but she did, and Ricky was more than game. He was in love.

Jaime and Emily worked together at a start-up in SOMA, and something in Jaime’s head regarding Emily and me automatically clicked. She wasn’t subtle about it, either.  She introduced the two of us at a party (which I long figured was held just to get the two of us to meet) as a future Mr. and Mrs., which led to a very painful silence, but nevertheless resulted in the exchange of phone numbers by the end of the night. Jaime always expected gratitude after that for introducing me to my “soulmate,” and I obliged as politely as I could. But I never felt gracious. I always felt guilty.

As Emily and I looked at the chasm that had once been Ricky and Jaime’s apartment, that guilt seemed to rise. The entire side of the building had been blasted away. All that remained of this particular apartment was the living room, now cluttered with flames, glass, guts and potato chips. Everywhere my eyes darted was another horror: a limb here, half a head there, the body that particular half-head belonged to dangling off the newly-minted cliff. Emily dug her face into my arm and mumbled more incoherence. I barely suppressed my vomit.

The horizon was burning. Whatever had happened here was not an isolated incident. This city was attacked. By what, I could not say, and there was no evidence in front of me to point me in the right direction.

I scrambled for a plan as Emily continued to clutch onto my arm. I could feel her mourning. Mourning the loss of our friends, mourning the destruction the city was facing. I kept my focus on that planning scramble.

I knew it wasn’t safe in this building anymore, not to mention the whole city. But she needed medical assistance, stat. Anything I could provide would be half-assed and probably negligent in some way, but who knew when the experts would be here, especially with other explosions rocking the city at that moment.

I wrapped an arm around Emily’s shoulders and led her out of our friends’ final resting place. I resolved to search in another apartment.  We walked down the hall several doors down, I picked one at random, and like a fool, knocked. There was no answer. I knocked again, and again, no answer. I tried the knob, and if it wasn’t locked before what just happened, those inside chose the safest route possible and locked it as soon as the bombs or whatever went off.

“Great. Um. Stand back a second. I’m going to do something stupid.”

Emily shuffled back a few steps and I braced myself against the wall behind me. I was in no condition to be breaking down doors prior to this whole ordeal, but if I was ever going to attempt such a feat, now was as good a time as any. I lifted my foot, thinking for a second that I didn’t have the right shoes for this, and slammed it against the door. It took sixteen hefty kicks before the door even budged, and another fourteen before it opened wide enough for us to fit inside.

This apartment was thankfully intact. The lights were off, giving the space a blacklight hue, and the only signs of disarray seemed to be the picture frames that had fallen off the walls and tables. No one appeared to be inside, but I yelled “Hello?!” anyway.

“We need some bandages. We’re just going to look. For some bandages. I hope that’s okay. If anyone’s here…”

I was met with silence, which was all the permission I needed.

I found the bathroom and began pillaging. There was nothing of use in any of the drawers, and all there was under the sink were refills of soap and such, but nothing sterile, nothing I could wrap around Emily’s face. That’s when the frustration of the situation finally hit me. It smashed me in the chest and stretched its legs like a spider around my entire body. I grabbed a bottle of mouthwash from under the sink and threw it against the shower wall. It blew up in a splash of green, spraying my face and arms with minty freshness.

I wanted to scream.

But I didn’t.

I couldn’t.

I heard a whimper from the other room. Emily. I sat up quickly and ran into the living room to see if she was okay. She was on her knees by the couch. Broken glass lay in a puzzle beside her. She held one of the shattered picture frames in her hand and was staring at the photo inside. I went behind her to look at the photo: it was of a family, the family that usually resided in this apartment. A mother, a father and their one-year-old daughter, from the looks of it.

Emily looked up at me.

She was crying.

*          *          *

I’d only seen Emily cry once before over the course of our relationship, during what could probably be considered our third date.

Our first date had gone smoothly enough. There were a few awkward pauses, but we seemed to hit it off, especially considering we kissed before saying our goodbyes. Our second date was more intimate, but not in a surefire sense where a bond grew and became unbreakable. Surprising, because our topic of conversation that night was very personal. Private, even. Things you wouldn’t usually tell someone after knowing them for just a couple of weeks.

It turned out we had both lost parents. Me, with my mother, and her, both of them. She wouldn’t go into detail about how they died, except to say that she remembered feeling nothing after they were gone. “I don’t think I knew what to feel,” she said. I could relate to this: I never cried after the accident. Not during Mom’s funeral, not during my father’s subsequent depression and overall malaise, not once. Becca got angry with me over this on several occasions, but the tears never came to my eyes.

In talking about her own parents, though, as well as the foster home she went to afterwards where she was treated like a “slave,” she didn’t cry. The numbness had long since passed and there was emotion in her voice, but not the rest of her. It wasn’t until a few days later when she called me out of the blue, already in tears, and asked to see me. I went to her apartment and she let me in, a misshapen origami of Kleenex in her right hand, her luminous eyes somehow even brighter when surrounded by a scratchy red. She hugged me tight and sobbed into my armpit before she even thought to invite me in and tell me what was wrong.

She never did tell me what was wrong, though. I felt strange about pushing for the origin of this sudden fit, and even my gentle attempts felt forceful, but she never told me. Like the mystery that surrounded her parents’ death, she would only give me one sentence that served to explain everything:

“I messed up, and now I think something bad is going to happen.”

“Hey. Hey, everything’s going to be okay. I’m not Superman, but you got me. I can help.”

My first-ever lie to her.

So now here, with her on the floor and tears on her cheeks yet again, I instinctively wanted to kneel down beside her and tell her everything was okay again, despite all evidence to the contrary. But the words caught in my throat and my knees stayed stiff. All I could do was watch the waterworks flow, the tears from her left eye getting caught in the gash and piling up next to her flapping lips.

Emily pointed at the family. She tried to speak, but to no avail. She managed something that sounded like, “Dead,” only with more consonants than vowels. To make her point clearer, she lifted a finger and made a slicing motion across her neck.

“We don’t know that.”

Emily nodded in disagreement.

“They’re not here. They might be in Houston or Cambodia, I don’t know, but they’re not here.”

She shook her head.

“Emily… There’s nothing we can do.”

She pointed at herself, tried to speak, could only drool blood.

“All we can do right now is leave this building.”

I lifted her to her feet and draped my arm across her once more. I spied a roll of paper towels in the kitchen and figured they were better than nothing, so I led us over to them, ripped off a dozen and pressed a few against her face. We went back into the hallway, only to stop dead in our tracks.

A monster stood silhouetted in the smoke about ten feet away.

*          *          *

It stood roughly eight feet tall and looked like a bodybuilder who was one steroid away from exploding. As it emerged from the smoke, its orange skin became clear and looked leathery and unripe. Its head resembled a human’s, only the eyes were big and black like a fly’s, only the pupils were bright green like night vision. It stood naked from the chest up, the muscles rippling with every breath, each one shallow and quick. Veins bulged over those muscles like wires, and I’m pretty sure I could see the blood or whatever lifeforce this thing ran on streaming through them. Two spikes protruded from the shoulders, giving it the overall appearance of the lovechild spawned from Conan the Barbarian and a stegosaurus. In its hands—long and slender, sharpened into claws at the end—it held a weapon that looked like an assault rifle.

You expect alien life to look a certain way.

Then it comes and it shatters all your expectations.

At the time, though, there was no way to know what it was, except for an ugly and menacing creature that also happened to be holding an instrument of death. The squeak Emily managed to let out said it all.

It also got the thing’s attention.

And it didn’t even bother to hesitate in firing at us.

Whatever shot out of that gun was impossible to identify. It was too bright and quick to be a regular Earth bullet, but the impact to my left leg certainly felt like one. I screamed bloody murder and collapsed onto the floor. Just as I was falling onto my chest, I caught a glimpse of the monster charging at us like a bull.

I heard it grab Emily in its clutches.

I tried to sit up and muster some strength to stop it, but my knees were disobeying me, one for good reason, the other out of solidarity. I listened to Emily grumble and whine as best as she could; the creature, meanwhile, was purring like a cat.

Images of the accident flashed in front of me. My mother’s lifeless body. The bone jutting out of my arm. Life spinning, spinning, spinning, then coming to a dead halt. I felt nauseous, but I managed to suppress my barf and channeled all my energy into attempting to save Emily.

“Let her fucking go!”

Then it was back to agonizing, followed swiftly by no-longer-hindered vomit gurgling up my throat.

The noises that came after didn’t do much to pause the puking. There was a light snapping, like breaking twigs, then something heavier, wetter, more like full and utter dismemberment. My imagination ran wild and saw the thing tearing Emily in half, feasting on her innards like it was drinking milk straight from the carton. More vomit spilled from my stomach.

The silence that followed was unbearable. I couldn’t move, and I couldn’t tell if it was out of paralyzing fear or the other thing, the decimated leg thing. I resolved to stay still, wait for the end, wait for that thing to put an end to this nightmare of a night as hastily as possible.

The hand that touched my shoulder was normal, gentle.

Emily brushed her fingers against my cheek. She took her sleeve and wiped some of the former deviled-egg from my mouth. She didn’t seem to have been injured by the creature at all.

“What happened?”

Her eyes darted this way and that, searching for an explanation. I cringed as I sat up, nearly falling back down at the sight of the decapitated monster bent in a half somersault against the wall. Its head was nowhere to be seen, but the body was still twitching, its abs still heaving rapidly as though it was still taking in oxygen. Bright yellow goop dripped down from the neck, forming a lemony slush on the hallway carpet.

“What the fuck?”

Emily only shrugged.

She ran back into the family’s apartment and emerged with an office chair on wheels. She helped me onto it; my leg was a strand of hair in the wind, flapping back and forth. I kept switching my attention from the not-quite-dead thing on the floor to Emily, the one who slew the beast. She put both her hands onto my cheeks. Her touch was warm, welcome, forgiving.

She refrained from kissing me, but I knew the intent was there. She glided behind me and began to roll me down the hall.

*          *          *

In a situation like that, the appropriate or even natural response seems to be absolute devotion. A “my hero” mentality. I would now follow Emily till the ends of the earth, which, about that time, seemed to have arrived. But I didn’t. I didn’t feel anything besides the searing pain in my leg. I was thankful, yes. Thankful that she had survived, that I had survived, that she had basically saved both our hides. But love, affection, all of that was nowhere to be found inside of me. I was still empty. I was still missing something toward Emily.

Not to mention, I felt awful for having usurped her injury. Suddenly, I had become the dependent one. I knew full well I didn’t mean to get shot by an orange behemoth’s gun, but that didn’t lighten the load that had quickly set up shop on my shoulders.

Emily didn’t seem to notice my inner conflict. She’d rediscovered her strength, was like a mother on an adrenaline rush lifting a car off her fallen child. That’s not to say the trip downstairs wasn’t brutal for the both of us. We had to take one step one at a time with the chair in tow. Ricky and Jaime lived on the twelfth floor, so it could have been worse, but there was a lot of stopping and starting, and with the added threat of whatever those things were, each intermission in our escape had to be brief.


We had stopped at the fifth floor. She was catching her breath, holding the paper towel to her cheek again, something that proved to be a futile enterprise.

“Emily, how did you kill that… that? Its head was gone.”

She stared at me.

“I thought it was doing that to you, and…” My eyes were wide. For a moment, I thought I might cry, for the first time in decades, but the tears never came. “How?”

Emily shook her head. She looked at me, took a deep breath. But before she could even try to explain, an explosion rocked from outside the building, shaking a quick and soft snowfall of drywall onto our heads. Any answers she may have been close to providing were washed away by the return of danger, and we resumed our decent down the stairs.

A part of me expected to emerge from the building into a mass panic; into citizens racing to get away from the attackers, and soldiers unleashing their entire arsenal on an equally large army of orange, bug-eyed freaks and towering fires reaching their fingers toward the sky like they were trying to stroke Heaven.

I ended up being half right.

The battle was clearly taking place elsewhere, but residual explosives and gunfire were still being lobbed in our direction, and the terrorized screams of our fair city that filled the air morphed into a shrill whine, a loose fan belt that wouldn’t be silenced. Those stragglers lucky enough to be apart from the fighting but unlucky enough to still be in the city ran as fast as they could in any direction they saw fit, taking short pauses to tread lightly over those with even less luck who hadn’t survived. The scent of a filthy barbeque swam around us, all crumbling charcoal, the distant but ever-present memory of lighter fluid, the specks of blackened meat fused to the grill.

Our options of places to go seemed limited. Open spaces were vulnerable to being seen by whatever was trying to eradicate the human race; anywhere indoors seemed likely to collapse under the weight of fires or crashing spaceships or whatever disastrous, cataclysmic thing was probably heading the city’s way. And to top it all off, Emily and I were both crippled.

I looked up at her. Her expression mirrored my own: this was pretty much hopeless.

In spite of that, Emily began rolling me away from the violence. We passed by building after building in need of window repair; I thought, Somebody’s going to get a lot of business after all this, if there’s a world left. Bodies with smoldering holes in their chests lay crumpled in the street. Emily had to dodge them as she trotted the two of us along, weaving left and right like we were avoiding banana peels in Mario Kart.

Finally, we managed to get far enough away that the chaos was turned down to a more acceptable volume. We were at the Embarcadero, where a slight fog hovered through us. The bay sounded undisturbed by everything that had happened so far, the water rocking peacefully, a foghorn sighing somewhere. Emily rolled me closer to the park. I looked up at Cupid’s Span, a piece of modern art I never understood, but now seemed rather fitting for a time like this, an arrow piercing the heart of the planet, signifying certain doom. I saw traffic stalled on both levels of the Bay Bridge, tiny dots of people out of their cars and looking toward the city, some racing hurriedly back to Oakland on foot. One dot saw no escape from all this and dove over the railing, landing in the water with a subtle splash, like someone opening up a soda can. Emily moaned in horror and looked away.

We saw a large group of people huddled at the far end of the park. Emily wiped away more tears, wincing as her hand swept across where her face used to be, and wheeled me in their direction.

It was thirty or so people, each one more panicked than the next, but nobody was sure what the best course of action was: staying here or moving. A woman who looked like she had been tarred and feathered, only in this case the feathers were various pieces of garbage glued to the ash that covered her, was making the case for heading to the ferry building while she held a wailing toddler in her arms. She did her best to try and calm the girl down so she could be heard, resorting to clasping her hands around the kid’s mouth; any harder and she would have smothered her, and I don’t know if anyone would have minded.

A couple of teenage boys sat on their skateboards. One was wearing the remnants of a broken helmet, seemingly unaware of its uselessness toward safety. The other was missing a shoe, his ankle sock brown from dirt, blood or both. They stared at the pavement, shell-shocked, until one of them looked up and saw us.


Everyone turned to look. It was apparent from that point that we were the worst-looking of the bunch. I felt Emily’s hand tense up on my shoulder as all eyes fell upon us. I could feel the fear coursing through her, but I didn’t understand why she felt so nervous.

Someone made their way through the crowd and stopped in front of us. It was a middle-aged man with graying temples. There were cracks on his glasses, making V-shapes in both lenses, one upside-down and one right side up. In his splotchy hospital scrubs, he looked like he might be able to help.

“I’m a doctor. Are you two all right?”

“Is anyone?”

“Ha, yeah. Okay. Okay, does anyone have a shirt we can use for this woman’s face? And a belt we can spare for this man’s leg?”

The broken helmet skater stood up and quickly removed his belt from his pants. He handed it to the doctor and all I could think was, With those saggy pants, you might want to keep that thing. The doctor knelt down next to me and gave me a look to suggest what he was about to do would not be pleasant. As he tightened the belt around my thigh, it was clear how much his expression understated the lack of pleasantries: it felt like my leg was being strangled with fingers made of broken glass.

Meanwhile, someone stepped forward holding his flannel button down. The doctor took it and carefully pressed it against Emily’s face. She stumbled back a bit as pressure was applied, but she planted her feet on the ground and frowned resiliently.

“Okay. She’s right, over there. We need to find shelter until this whole thing blows over. Everyone keep close and keep your eye out. We’re not far from the ferry building.”

“We live here, doc, we know.”

“Then let’s go.”

The doctor kept his hands pressed against the shirt on Emily’s face and walked with her as we all left the park. Broken Helmet took the reins of the office chair, pushing me next to his shoeless buddy, who held both their skateboards.

On the one hand, it oddly put me at peace to be helped out by strangers: human decency still existed and hadn’t been replaced by riotous selfishness. But on the other hand, this group didn’t need to rally around Emily and me. We were literally the last to join this collection of survivors and now we were suddenly the focal point? What about their lives, their well-being? Why us? Why me? Why was I so fucking special?

“You know you’re missing a shoe.”

“Well, your girlfriend’s missing a face.”

“Dude, Bryan, what the hell?”

“Sorry, that was… sorry.”

“It’s okay. It’s been kind of a rough night.”

Is that your girlfriend?”

“Um, yeah.”

Shoeless Bryan nodded. He seemed to be choking on some words as he kept his eyes forward.

“I don’t know where my girlfriend is.”

“I’m sure she’s fine.”

“Don’t say that, dude, you don’t know that. We don’t know what the fuck’s going on or where.”

“She’s in the Outer Sunset. She’s gotta be safe.”

“Fuck, I wish my fucking phone was working.”

Bryan clenched his jaw as he tried dialing on his iPhone. He put it up to his ear, only to take it down a second later. He squeezed the phone aggressively, made motions like he wanted to smash it against the sidewalk, toss it in the water, or even crack it with his own two hands like he was breaking a graham cracker for some ‘smores. He swallowed the fire he was seconds way from breathing, tucked the phone back in his pocket, and dropped one of the boards onto the sidewalk to skate away. Someone in the group caught up to him to get him to stop, fearing the sound would attract trouble.

It was obvious: this kid was in love. He was probably fourteen, maybe a couple years younger. His balls had hardly dropped, and he was already completely overwhelmed with the feeling. The thought of living without this missing girl was already clawing through him like a bear, a pain that could only no doubt be stopped by that girl’s lips pressed against his own. And here I was, over ten years older, my girlfriend walking ten feet away from me, and I didn’t feel a goddamn thing. I knew what should have been there, though. Why couldn’t it have been?

We made it to the ferry building, and one lucky volunteer got to be in charge of smashing the glass doors with a Watch Your Step cone so we all could be let in. Inside, the place was unscathed. The stores were all closed up and protected. No trash or pieces of infrastructure cluttered the floor. The books in the bookstore rested peacefully on their shelves. This was as good a safe haven as any. Still, the way everyone’s footsteps echoed across the empty halls didn’t sit well in my stomach. Or maybe I just needed to puke again.

“Kids, can you just place the man there next to the cheese shop?”

“Don’t call us kids.”

“Bryan, who cares?”

They did as they were told. The doctor walked Emily toward me.

“What are your names?”

“Jack and Emily.”

“Dr. Blair. Well, Wesley. Sorry, force of habit. This isn’t really… time for formalities, um… Emily, you need your face cleaned. Can anyone here take her to the bathroom to wash her face?”

An older woman in her pajamas came forward to offer her services.

“Thank you. Um, you should probably use alcohol, but… stick with water and we’ll try to figure something out.”

Emily nodded. The older woman took her by the hand and shuffled her toward the bathrooms. Emily caught my eye and did her best to smile without contorting her face. Their steps became drops from a leaky faucet, blip after blip, slow, distant and small.

*          *          *

As I watched Emily go, I got angry. Something ignited in my chest, and I wished I had Bryan’s cell phone to snap in two in order to relieve the tension. I watched her disappear around the corner, and I didn’t miss her. My world felt the same. This detachment, this stupid indifference toward this wonderful woman… I obviously couldn’t break up with her now, not after a night like tonight. If we made it out of this alive, we were now pretty much obligated to stay together forever, have many children who would go on to have many grandchildren, and we could both tell them the tale of how Grandma got that awful scar and why Grandpa walks with a cane.

I was a fraud, and I had no excuse for it. I knew what was right and I wanted to do and be what was right, but I couldn’t do it and I couldn’t be it. My insides were like tiny cracks in a sculpture, full of beauty and meaning from afar, but clearly broken the closer you got.

Wesley put my arm around his shoulders and lifted me onto the cheese store’s counter.

“All right, let’s take a look at your leg.”

“Don’t bother.”

“Hey, I know it seems pretty… well, fucked right now, but if there’s a chance, we should take it.”

“Just let it rot off.”

“A bit extreme there, Jack. Now, sorry, but I’m going to have to rip your pants open—”

“Don’t. Stop it. Please.”

Wesley looked up at me and stepped back to capture the full image of self-pity I had become. He pressed his tongue against his teeth and took a deep breath.

“What’s wrong?”

There’s not a lot worse than upsetting a stranger, especially a stranger offering assistance. It’s a big middle finger in their face and probably begins a cycle of that person never helping anyone out of the kindness of their heart ever again. All because of my bullshit. All because I whine.

“Forget it. Just do what you were gonna do to my leg. I don’t care about the pants.”

“Jack, I took an oath that said ‘do no harm.’ I feel it would be very harmful of me if I let whatever’s on your chest just slide. You should see the look on your face: you’re in pain, and I don’t think that’s all about your leg, so what’s going on?”

“I deserve to suffer.”

“Again, sounds extreme. Why?”

I shrugged. Wesley frowned. He went over to a nearby recycling bin, stuck an arm in and began rummaging through.

“This isn’t your fault. This is some freak… act of God or something else… I don’t know, but it’s not you, it’s not us. It’s no use feeling guilty for something you’re not responsible for.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about.”

Wesley removed his arm from the can and came up with a glass soda bottle. He looked around, shut his eyes in a cringe and smashed the bottle against the wall. Some of our fellow survivors quickly turned to us or jumped in shock. Wesley raised a hand in apology. He looked at the remains of the bottle in his other hand, raised an eyebrow as if to settle on it as his tool of choice, and returned to me.

“So what are you talking about?”

The simplest question and I couldn’t answer it. I knew what to say; I knew the different words and the right combination in which they would land in order to truly express what was the matter. I had the right amount of energy within me to speak them aloud. But the words careened into one another and instantly became foreign, and my vocal cords dried up into raisins before I even had a chance to say one of them. It was as though my body had an internal response and kicked the defense mechanisms into high gear so I wouldn’t say what bothered me out loud, make it real, cause damage, and allow it to define me in public from then on instead of just defining me in secret.

It didn’t really matter either way, because before I even had a chance to possibly open my mouth, the counter underneath me began to vibrate. Wesley’s eyelids peeled back and he scanned the whole building, even the office chair at his side, for whatever could be causing this makeshift earthquake.

Of course, it was no earthquake, but rather a large aircraft descending through the ceiling, toppling a large portion of the building into gray chalk smoke highlighted by the torch from the vehicle’s propulsion system and blood and screams from the people it crushed and burned.

The ship looked like a black claw made from chrome. It landed with a dull thud. Some people had enough time to react before the ramp fell open and a posse of orange attackers, armed to the teeth, ran onto the floor and began firing at everyone and everything without a care. Wesley regrettably had no time to react and was quickly pierced through the right temple with that special ammunition I knew so well. The force of the impact to his head was enough to knock me back behind the counter, but not before I witnessed Wesley’s face curl off his skull like an unfolded poster rolling itself up again and flutter to the floor.

I took refuge behind the counter and listened to the carnage: screams and shrill profanity; the slinky-sound of alien guns being fired; walls crumbling, like the melody of a strike in bowling when heard through water-clogged ears; a choir of those incongruous purrs.

The smoke and dust crept over the counter and secluded everything around me. I took a chance and poked my head up, half-expecting it to be eaten instantly. It was nothing but thick clouds and miasma. I could see vague silhouettes traveling through the haze; some were obviously orange, but others were more obscure. If I was quiet enough, I could have conceivably crawled or limped through the fog and make it outside, somehow make it to safety, even if it was just momentary.

There was just one thing I was forgetting.

*          *          *

It was impossible to know if these monsters followed the laws of common decency and wouldn’t just barge into the women’s bathroom unannounced. That, of course, is generalizing the monsters as one hundred percent male, or if they even had gender or believed in gender, but something told me, based on their penchant for violence so far, they didn’t care too much about being respectful, and Emily and the old woman were in danger.

I stayed low to the floor, dragging my legs behind me like I was a frog half-smashed by a speeding car. Gravel from the walls and loose tendons from the bodies around me began to collect between my arms and chest as I crawled. I wasn’t making good time. By the time I got to the bathroom, it would have been too late, and Emily’s tendons would be in my arms along with the rest of them.

My leg bumped into something and I heard a familiar rolling sound. A small wheel against a flat surface. I turned back and felt around. Sure enough, my hand found the rough, blacktop-like deck of one of the skateboards, miraculously intact. I had no idea where Bryan and his friend were, but something told me they wouldn’t mind if I borrowed one of their toys.

This was going to be loud. It was risky, it was stupid, but it was the only way I was going to get there quickly enough. I positioned the skateboard under my chest and without even taking a breath began rolling myself forward. The skateboard made a nails-on-a-chalkboard screech, interrupted many times as I bumped into bricks and corpses. I heard some gunfire race over my head; I heard purrs on both sides of me fade in and fade out. My hands felt warm, like they were in mittens, when in reality I knew they were caked in who knows what.

I slowed when I reached the corner and readjusted myself to turn. Just as I did, a mammoth shadow stepped over me. One of the beasts stomped forward without realizing I was there. The gray broke as he passed through, as though the world wanted me to see it enter the bathroom before I had a chance to do anything.

A scream was cut short by the sound of slop hitting the walls. Considering Emily couldn’t scream, I knew that must have been the old woman, but Emily wouldn’t be too far behind.

I rolled forward, reaching the entrance, and then rolled inside. The alien’s hulking back was to me, rising and falling with angry breaths. Emily had her back to the far wall, her breathing almost in unison with the monster, which spoke in an indecipherable language in a voice low and full of static, like it was coming off a ham radio. Emily kept her eyes fixed on the thing. She didn’t look afraid. She actually looked angry.

The monster took a step forward.

I propelled myself toward its legs, caught it by the ankle and did the best thing I could think of at the time that would inflict the most pain: I bit it. I chomped into it hard. Its skin was tough like a car tire and just as tasteless, or so I thought. As I bit down even harder, the skin burst open like a cherry tomato in my mouth, and a dry, hot and chunky relish flavor filled my cheeks.

The thing grunted and kicked forward. My grip wasn’t nearly as tight as I thought it was, and I was hurled up into the ceiling and came crashing down onto the sinks. My collarbone splintered like a popsicle stick.

Everything went back to blurs, but I remained alive and awake. I tried to lift my head up, but I underestimated how cruel gravity could be and ended up just falling onto my other side. I looked up at the blurs that were my girlfriend and my inevitable death. They blended together. Purrs and screams and grunts, just like in the apartment hallway, only this time I was seeing it in action—relatively, anyway. It looked like Emily, this tiny bird compared to this gigantic predator, was overpowering the thing. Like she was climbing onto it and grabbing it by the neck and twisting with all her strength, twisting like it was a jar lid, twisting it until the head popped clean off and the body fell to the floor. Emily stood on top of it like a champion.

She dropped the head and kneeled down next to me. She took my face in her hands, only to realize they were covered in the alien’s foamy innards and wiping them on her jeans before taking my face in her hands again. Even out of focus, even with that slice across her face, I could tell she was trying to smile.

I puked up the monster blood into her face.

Now that attempt at a smile was out of playful annoyance rather than accomplishment.

We didn’t waste time. Emily let me lean on her and we carefully limped outside. There was no longer anyone nor anything in sight. The ship was gone; the aliens had cleared out and the whole area had gone eerily quiet, which I knew wasn’t a good sign, but I was almost too lost and confused to truly care.

I sat on the pavement, spat excess puke onto the ground. Emily sat cross-legged next to me. We stared at the vacant street for a long time. She eventually took my hand in hers, interlocked our fingers. She rubbed her thumb affectionately over mine. Her head found its way onto my shoulder. I felt her looking up at me, felt her wanting me, needing me. But beyond that, I didn’t feel a goddamn thing.

I was cruel.

I wasn’t so surprised when the rumbling started again. This wasn’t gradual; this started off heavy and vengeful. Emily removed her head from my shoulder and looked at me, then carefully looked behind her. I did the same. We stood. Two large aircrafts, even larger than the one that made its grand entrance through the ceiling, raced from both sides, dropping bomb after bomb onto the earth below them as they made their way.

And we were where they would meet.

Emily and I kept our hands clasped tightly together. There weren’t a whole lot of places to go. Back inside, we would be blown up; anywhere outside, we would be blown up. We settled for not going anywhere and stayed right there on the steps. We settled for accepting our fate.

Emily pressed herself against me. She shook, pawed at my chest. I had to wrap my arms around her. That was the decent thing to do.

The explosions moved closer. I swear I could already feel the heat in the breeze.

I took one of Emily’s hands and we sat back down on the steps. She buried her face into my shoulder.

The ships were bullets. Almost to us.

The ferry building trembled like it wanted to escape, but it was tethered to the ground and just as stuck as we were.

Emily was trying to scream. Instead she just choked out desperate squeals as her scabs chipped off against my arm.

Any second.

She was a mess. She was going to die. We were going to die. And for what? There was no reason behind any of this. This was senseless and unfair and something inside of me told me I needed to do the right thing in order to bring some sort of order to the situation.

So I lifted Emily’s head up.

Looked into her eyes, now fully gray.

And I said the lie.

Right before we blew up, I saw her attempt to smile, this time out of happiness.

*          *          *

My dad never once said Mom dying was my fault. He didn’t have to. Every time he frowned, I knew he was thinking that, and he frowned all the time, especially when looking at me. He was never the most energetic guy in the world—in fact, he always seemed rather boring, never really going into detail about his life when talking with friends or really saying anything beyond a couple of words here and there. But after the accident, his neutral energy dipped to new lows. He slogged along the hallway when just going from his room to the bathroom; it seemed to take him five minutes to go seven feet. He didn’t sink into alcoholism or anything like that, but the mere act of drinking or eating suddenly became a hardship. He became thin, gaunt. He wound up being briefly hospitalized for malnutrition after fainting at his job. He eventually packed on some more weight but seemed to do so begrudgingly.

The point is, that was all my fault, and we both knew it. Dad seemed to get worse after spending more than a couple of minutes in a room with me. I had to start eating my meals in my room or over at a friend’s house, just so he would be able to have more than a few bites and not just poke at the pork chops my sister had made. Even as an adult, whenever I call him to say hi and catch up, he speaks to me with a thin glaze of gloomy hostility, one that sticks to my ears with every sigh, every silence, every pause. He sees me as a fiend who took away the love of his life.

And he isn’t wrong. The whole reason my mom and I were in that place at that moment was because I’d forgotten a pen. A pen. It was one of those four-colored ink pens with the switches, which was a fun novelty to have as an eleven-year-old, but still, it was a pen. I had left it at the rehearsal space for the play I was in at the time, a school production of You Can’t Take It with You. There was a good chance it would be there at the next rehearsal date, which was the following day, so I could have waited. But no. Mom picked me up, we drove off, I realized my pen was missing, she turned around, and we were slammed by a feckless asshole.

I wish I could feel what Dad feels when he thinks about Mom: the longing, the nostalgia, the overwhelming sensation that this person was with me to make me whole.

But I don’t.

I didn’t realize Emily was dead right away. Like always, I never lost consciousness when the bombs fell and covered us in fire and rubble. I lost sight of her, but her hand miraculously stayed in mine, even though we were separated by the remains of the Embarcadero. We weren’t buried deep, but we were buried enough. I couldn’t move. The air was thin and reeked of melted plastic. I felt no pain, not even in my leg, but I think that was because I had no way to assess where and how I was hurt, causing my brain to press the numb button. I was under there for what felt like days, though in reality, it was likely just one. That’s when the rescue effort came in.

Military personnel and survivors alike unearthed me. The sun scratched my eyes when someone removed the stones that were near my face. There was muted shouting and more removal of debris, and then people were doing their best to lift me up and onto a gurney without harming me further. I still had Emily’s hand in mine. It only occurred to me later, after they wheeled me away and put me in an ambulance, that her hand wasn’t connected to the rest of her.

I got bits and pieces from the paramedics and the doctors at the hospital. The invaders, whatever they were and wherever they came from, had been defeated, easily. It seemed to be a coordinated attack all around the world and many people were killed, but their numbers were small and they underestimated how resilient humanity could be. The majority of them were killed; some of the ones that managed to escape were seen taking captured people with them.

Now I’m here in the emergency room. The doctors did what they could for the time being, but there’s a lot more to be done, more critical patients in need of care. I’m not seconds away from death, but I need surgery: both my legs need repair and it looks like I’m going to lose vision in one eye, as I get the impression it was caved deeper into my skull if it isn’t entirely mush at this point.

I want to sleep, but all attempts have failed so far. I’ll probably finally lose consciousness when they put me under.

Here comes the nurse now.

A part of me hopes I never wake up after the surgery. I’d rather not live when I’m this cold and uncaring. Surgery isn’t going to fix the real damage—if anything, it’s going to cause more.

I want to apologize to Emily. I need to, but I know I’ll never get the chance. This is my fate. I’m meant to live with this guilt forever; every time I look at a scar or my face or the wheelchair I’m inevitably going to be using, I’ll think of her and how I lied to her. This is what I deserve.

But if it’s any consolation, Emily, I’m really sorry. I’m really, really sorry.


He dreams while he’s under anesthesia. The house he grew up in. The living room. He lies face up on the couch. He doesn’t hear me walk in. I take a seat on the coffee table next to him. I lift up his shirt and gently blow on his stomach.


He flinches. Slowly rolls over to look at me. Disorientation takes him as he sits up and realizes where he is. His eyes go back to me.



“How are you here?”

“You lied, Jack.”

His face drops. He slumps down deeper into the couch. His eyes scan the floor for solace.

“I’m sorry.”

I stand up and look down at him. He seems so far away. So small. This is how he sees himself, here, in his head.

“I… I shouldn’t have told you I loved you. That wasn’t fair of me.”

“I don’t know, it felt good to hear. Did you ever think of that?”

“But it wasn’t true. You don’t say that to someone unless it’s true. I wanted to love you. I really did. I just… couldn’t. There’s something wrong with me. I’m sorry.”

I sit next to him. He seems to shrink more. I take his hand in mine and I recall how cool and calm his touch was. I’ll never feel that again.

“You deserved someone who could give you what you needed.”

“You gave me what I needed. Don’t you understand that? God, I’ve had to stand here for what seems like centuries, hearing you go over everything in your head and blame yourself for every little thing and not once taking a second to think about how I saw things. It doesn’t matter if you said the words or not. I went through my entire life under the thumb of monsters that oppressed me. You gave me affection, something I’d never experienced before.”

“I was just going through the motions. I shouldn’t have strung you along—”

“You can give a million excuses, but I’m still not going to let you off the hook here, Jack.”

“I’m sorry.”

“So yeah, you lied. But not to me. To yourself.”

His eyes meet mine. He may not be able to cry in real life, but he sure as hell is crying here.

“You lie when you don’t allow yourself to feel anything when in fact you feel everything. You know it. You just need to believe it. See it. You just need to know you’re worth it.”

He shakes his head.

“You gave me something special, so don’t you dare take that away from me by telling me that it wasn’t real.”

I lift him to his feet.

“Look at where we are. This is in your head, Jack. You can’t keep the truth out of your own head, no matter how hard you try.”

I put my hands on his cheeks. His tears trickle down my fingers and onto my wrists.

“I love you. Know it. Feel it. And when you can say it back to me without denying that it means something, that’s it’s real… I’m right here. Just close your eyes. I’m not going anywhere.”

He sniffs.

“You’re not really here.”

“Even if I wanted to leave, I couldn’t. I’m a part of you now. You’re stuck with me.”

The lights from outside are getting brighter. He’ll be regaining consciousness soon. The living room will fade. I’ll stand in blackness. It will remind me of home. But no. That was never home. Home was this planet. Home was with him.

“See you soon.”

I kiss him. He gives his all into the kiss. He doesn’t realize what this means. But one day he will. I don’t mind waiting.