“Just breath,” Nancy murmured. She slid a sweaty hand into her mauve leather purse, pulling out mother’s blue lace handkerchief. Using the fabric between her finger and the elevator button, she pressed the number thirty-one until it glowed warm white.
She exhaled. My name is Nancy Miller. I’ve been proofreading documents for over ten years and I would make an excellent member of your team. She imagined putting a hand into her interviewer’s and shaking with a firm grip, just like she had practiced at home. Sick vibrations of panic rocked her stomach. It’s fine. It’ll be fine. I can do this. I need to do this.
With a loud ding, the silvery elevator door slid open. Nancy walked up to the reception desk where a red-headed woman wearing a canary yellow scarf answered phone call after phone call.
“Leaman and Leaman, hold please.” Click, click. “Leaman and Leaman, hold please.” The redhead’s bright eyes met Nancy’s. “Hi. Do you have an appointment?”
“Um, yes. I’m here for an interview for the remote proofreader position.”
Without saying another word, redhead pointed a slender finger toward a row of modern wooden chairs. Nancy pressed her lips together, feeling small. She stood next to the chairs preparing herself. This was it. Stick hand out, be firm, but not too firm. Be confident, but not arrogant. You can do this.
“Yes.” Her voice squeaked. She cleared her throat. “Yes. That’s me.”
A stocky man dressed in a pinstripe navy-blue suit waved her in. She took a deep breath, walked up to him, reached her hand out where it was nearly at his chest and said, “I’m Nancy Miller.”
He laughed, causing his gut to shake like an overfilled waterbed. He placed his hand into hers. Nancy couldn’t help but notice his knuckles had brown curly hair, a golden ring wrapped around one of them.
“I’m Jack Leaman. I do like me an eager worker.” He looked her up and down, licked his bottom lip then said, “right this way.”
Her hand felt like it was on fire. Microscopic bacteria multiplied where his filthy appendage had touched hers. She took a staggering breath as she shuffled behind him. The hand sanitizer in her purse quivered. She tried to ignore it.
Seated across from the giant mahogany desk of Jack Leaman, Nancy stared out the oversized windows of his office overlooking the city skyline of Chicago. It was a spring afternoon and the midday sun cast a bright blanket over the city.
“So, I already know you’re qualified. You have a very impressive resume. Tell me something that’s not on there.”
Nancy’s heart skipped a beat. Something that isn’t on my resume? Everything he needs to know is on there!
“Um, well,” she staggered. Sweat beaded over her upper lip. “… well I love to read. I think it’s why I’m so good at proofreading.”
Jack’s eyebrows lifted. He steepled his fingers and leaned back in the black leather chair, which creaked angrily below his weight.
Bile rose, burning Nancy’s chest. Dry sand drifted in her mouth. To make matters worse, her voice had caught in her throat making speech impossible.
“Good thing I won’t be paying my proofreader for their eloquence.” He leaned forward, using his momentum to get out of the chair. He wrapped thick fingers around a crystal decanter, pouring himself a whiskey. He offered one to Nancy, who shook her head.
“But the person I’m looking for will be expected to join virtual conference calls.” He swirled the amber liquid around the glass, “and participate.”
“Yes. I can do that,” Nancy said sheepishly.
He continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “Many people applied, you know.” He leaned back on his heels, eyes boring into her. “I’m looking for the best.”
Nancy brought her gaze down, staring at her hands.
He continued, “I’d like to know what you think you can…” his voice trailed off as his eyes glazed over, unfocused.
No response. He dropped the glass, sending whiskey splashing in all directions. His throat made a gurgling noise and he clawed at it. Jack Lehman’s mouth parted to speak but no words came out.
Nancy shot up so fast that her chair tipped over. Every hair on her body stood on end.
He reached forward with both hands, taking small shuffling steps until he bumped into his desk, sending him doubling over.
Without responding, he shuffled around until he was standing again, his movements becoming more frantic with each passing moment. His flailing arms knocked into a bookcase sending law books sprawling over the blue pixilated carpet.
Nancy screeched, backing away. He must be having a stroke or something! She sprinted out of the room.
“Help!” She yelled, as she skidded to a stop in front of the reception desk. Her mouth dropped open. The red-haired receptionist was crawling on the floor, hands searching, eyes wide. Beyond the redhead, more office workers moved about bumping into walls or each other.
Nancy backed up one step at a time, her mind racing. Something solid stopped her. She spun around to come face to face with a tall man just as he grabbed her by the shoulders. Nancy screamed and ducked out of his grasp while he continued to thrash at the open air in front of him.
An ear-deafening bang rocked the surrounding space. Nancy gasped, almost losing her footing from the startle. Just outside of the floor to ceiling windows, a plane crashed into a neighboring building. Then one by one, more planes fell from the sky. Each one creating a mushroom of fire upon impact.
Hot tears sprung to Nancy’s eyes as she shook her head in disbelief. Her throat closed up, sticking to itself. She dashed to the elevator, pulled out mother’s handkerchief and pressed the down button twenty times. Another loud bang, this one closer, more violent. Nancy fell to the floor.
The elevator doors slid open but thinking better of it she ran to the stairwell taking two, three stairs at a time nearly stumbling down.
The stairwell door flew open on the first floor, slamming against the wall. Papers, purses, briefcases sprawled across the gleaming marble floor of the lobby. People in suits and dresses ran into each other, arms outstretched. A car had crashed through the front window, now resting on its side in a planter.
Panic painted the faces of aimlessly wandering people as unadulterated fear spewed from their pores. Every one of them acted just like Jack Leaman had.
By the line of elevators, a woman leaned into the wall. Her eyes were lost, face streaked with tears. Defeated, this woman held the marbled surface, as if letting go meant floating away. Her shoulders bobbed as she cried, yet the only sound escaping her lips was the in and out of her breaths.
Nancy pulled her purse to her chest, caressing it like a sick baby, as she approached. “What’s wrong,” she asked the woman. No reply. “Hello?” Nancy waved a hand in front of the woman’s face. The woman kept looking forward.
It was as if everyone had gone blind, deaf and mute. Nancy seemed to be the only one not affected. Was it a terror attack? Was this some kind of chemical warfare?
She normally didn’t watch the news; it was too overwhelming, and Dr. Nick told her not to. So, she didn’t know if there was some looming conflict that could provide an explanation.
I have to get out of here!
Nancy moved as quickly as she could. She dodged moving bodies, ducking, sliding to the side to avoid their searching hands while her heart raced, threatening to burst open her ribcage. By the time she reached the exit, she was slick with sweat; hair sticking to her cheeks and poking at her mouth. She finally burst out onto the city sidewalk and into complete chaos.
Chicago had come to a grinding halt. Cars crashed, flipped over, burned. Buildings caught aflame; deafening explosions came in consistent bursts. Hundreds of bodies weaved through the destruction. All afflicted with the same condition. But, despite the pandemonium, humanity remained deafeningly quiet. No screams. No shouts. No cries of pain or despair.
A young woman with a large coffee stain on her white blouse bumped into Nancy, wrapping arms around her. Nancy screamed, immediately pushing the woman away who fell to the ground. Nancy bristled. Yet, regret seeped through her as she watched the woman cry and pathetically stretch her arms out for human touch.
Nancy wished she could help this woman. Wished she could scoop her up and tell her everything was going to be ok. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t touch her. The crippling thought alone was almost worse than everything she had just gone through.
Tears streaking her face, Nancy backed away before taking off at a jog. She moved to avoid searching touches, tearful faces, and panicked children separated from their parents. Air cooled her sweaty face as she ran and the heat of burning car wreckage warmed it again.
She reached her beige Toyota Corolla on the first floor of the parking garage without even realizing that’s where she had been headed. Overcome with exhaustion, she collapsed into the driver’s seat. Her skin crawled with filth.
Using a shaky hand, she started the car then slammed it into reverse, before peeling toward the exit. The moment Nancy’s car pulled out onto the street she had to stop. Helpless, she stared at a blocked road. A delivery van had tipped over and its cargo of fresh produce was strewn across the street. Bags of oranges and apples piled between twisted metal.
The sound of ruin was muted through Toyota’s windows. As she listened to the muffled din, Nancy realized how powerless she was to do anything to change her situation. Mother’s words swam in her head, weak like your father. The thought made the back of her skull tingle.
She wasn’t getting out of there. Nancy knew it.
No longer able to deny her frustrations, Nancy sobbed. Big sloppy tears streamed down her face like rivers through an eviscerated forest; filling the crevices of her despair. Trembling fingers reached for her mother’s handkerchief.
As the fabric enclosed in her palm, a silver Honda Civic rear-ended her, sending the Toyota reeling forward and into the tipped over delivery van. The Toyota flipped onto its side and Nancy’s world went black.
After the roar of metal on asphalt settled, Nancy’s eyes blinked open, slowly returning to consciousness. The driver’s side of the car floated in the air, with her in it. Her head and arms hung limp toward the passenger side, which rested on the ground. This can’t be happening, her thoughts jumbled.
Nancy’s hand trembled as it reached around to the buckle; with a loud click the seatbelt latch opened, dropping her back to Earth. She eased down toward the door as best she could, but her foot slipped. All the air ripped from her lungs as she smacked onto the broken glass of the passenger’s side window. The taste of metal filled her mouth.
One knuckle at a time, her fingers outstretched feeling shards of glass against soft skin. Nancy winced. Each sore muscle tensed. A cascade of discomfort swept through her body.
With great agony, she lifted herself up using the dashboard as a step and climbed out of the driver’s side door. She collapsed on the asphalt; hands outstretched. Her tortured cries echoed off the buildings in synchrony with distant police sirens and the crackling of burning steel.
“Hello! Is there anyone who can hear me! Why won’t you answer!” She screamed through sobs. Bodies littered the street, most sitting or crouching, having resolved to helplessness.
In between sobs, Nancy wondered if what was happening also had affected her mother. She imagined her crawling around their kitchen floor trying to yell Nancy’s name. Even across so much space, the burden of guilt crept into Nancy and she thought, I shouldn’t have left home. What could she do about any of it? Inaction hung like a dirty bedsheet over her thoughts.
Sounds of shuffling made Nancy look up. Through hot tears, she saw two people walking toward her, their eyes focused, unmistakably able to see.
“Hey,” Nancy whispered at first, then yelled, “hey!” She pushed herself off the ground and stumbled in their direction. Nearing them, she saw it was a short older woman with grey hair and a tall man in a business suit.
Once they were nearly in front of her, she sobbed, “Oh my God! I thought I was the only one! What’s happening!?”
“Nancy? Is it?” The grey-haired woman asked with an air of confidence as if they weren’t all surrounded by complete turmoil.
“Wha… What?” Nancy stuttered and stared at her in disbelief; the woman stared back. “How do you know my name?”
“Listen carefully,” the business-suited man said. As he did, the world took on an almost hazy quality, blurring the edges of Nancy’s vision.
The woman’s voice vibrated through the air. “White apples lay in golden fields mainly in the spring but also on Tuesdays in February.”
Like tension released from a rubber band snap, the part of Nancy’s brain that had been asleep, ignited into a frenzy of activity. Memories of worlds past and worlds future streamed, then flooded into her consciousness.
The grey-haired woman and business-suited man watched with no sense of urgency as flashes of understanding spread across Nancy’s face.
Overwhelming amounts of information about who really steers the course of humankind downloaded straight into Nancy’s awareness. Her eyes fluttered, then opened wide, seeing the world for the first time.
Nancy lifted her hands in front of her, examining them. The last body she’d had was in a lifeform that didn’t have such sensitive skin, which explained her aversion to touch over the years. She was happy to leave that trait behind, now that she was awake.
“We’ve had to activate plan Theta,” the businessman said. Flames in the building behind him illuminated his thin frame. He glanced at his watch. “We have about two minutes to spare.”
“What tipped the decision?” Nancy asked.
“They were about to exterminate each other. Our consensus was rather forced.”
Nancy exhaled and gave a soft nod. As she looked around, she noticed a small group of people huddled together. Their arms intertwined with one another; their bodies rising and falling in unison under exaggerated breaths. Faces, although muddled with salty tears, were at peace.
Surrounded by complete turmoil, uncertainty, despair, yet here were strangers finding comfort in one another. Perhaps there was hope for humanity yet, Nancy thought.
“These life forms seem worth saving,” said the man, having heard Nancy’s thoughts.
She sent her assertive response directly into his mind. After spending so many years asleep within this body, she was ready to start living. Which for her meant weaving herself into upper leadership of this civilization in the wake of tragedy, a time most vulnerable to change.
She looked around, seeing years of fulfilling work ahead of her. Civilizations needed help to survive. They needed even more to thrive.
The man and woman nodded in unison and turned on their heels. Nancy watched them walk through the destruction until they turned a corner and out of sight. Then like a drop of water in a still pond, the rippling of reawakening began as sight, hearing, and speech returned to all people.
“I can see!” Shouted one man, desperate relief in his voice.
“I can hear!” Shouted another.
Quietly at first, gaining traction as it went, came the sound of humanity’s resurgence to the present. Screams, gasps, confused chatter, horror in vocal form filled the spaces between every building of the city.
The small group Nancy had been watching, hugged in celebration. One of them, a man in a cycling outfit, leaned into Nancy giving her a tight hug before moving on to the next person.
Moving through the pain of her physical body, Nancy turned to face Lake Michigan, which sparkled under the sun. The blue handkerchief was still clutched in her palm. She squeezed it, feeling every thread of fabric, before releasing and letting gravity take it.
Knowing full well that this tactic had worked on other worlds, Nancy sincerely hoped it would work on this one too.
© Andie Ski 2019