by Ricky Massengale
“It’s just good to hear another voice.” That seemed to be Gene’s mantra. Night after night coming through the staticky speaker of a walkie-talkie.
The black rain had descended April 15th. It wasn’t just gray with pollutants; it was black, and when the downpour was at the heaviest, it was dark as night. Looking out the window had been like watching a worn-out filmstrip lose its tracking. Occasionally, the black rain would falter, and you could see pale faces across the street—everyone searching the clouds for . . . anything.
No sign ever came. No solution.
Twenty stories up, Lewis had watched the rain fall with a certain amount of bewilderment. He had found himself smiling at the unusual display. The Northerners had their lights; Arkansas now had its black rain. On some level, though, he was certain there was something toxic about it, something dangerous. Something that should keep him from smiling—he just couldn’t help it.
The black rain fell all day, black droplets splatting industrial windows and sliding down their long sides. They didn’t leave a mark. And so, when you could see those other buildings, it looked like millions of downward racing beetles.
The walkie-talkie spluttered static . . . then Gene’s voice:
“Did I tell you about—”
“Who tried walking on it?” Lewis finished the question for Gene. “You did.” Lewis looked out at the blackness beyond his window. It was nighttime. Daytime existed in shades of gray. “You said it seemed to attack him—”
“Not seem to, Lou. It did. That still surface is a trap . . . like one of those plants that sits so still, and then when you least expect it—BAM!” Bam was too loud for the tiny speaker system; the explosion became a robotic squawk—like a garbage disposal trying to speak as it ground a fork.
The silence that followed the exclamation rang in Lewis’s ears. It had too much weight—too much authority—that silence. Gene was right. The stillness was a trap.
The wonder had turned into a trap, and the part of Lewis’s mind that had tried to warn him kept chiming that it had known it all along. It wasn’t a confident voice, though. It was the quiet, terrified voice of a man holding off the darkness with a candle—a voice very much like Gene’s. Gene was somewhere in the “Black City” (as they had come to call it over the last week), holed up in his attic.
The radio clicked as though Gene might say something, and then it clicked again to kill the transmission.
Gene had said his backyard and the neighborhood’s yards, as far as he could see, were just a still blackness. Trees stuck out of the water like swamp trees; fences were fine, too, according to Gene. Ornamental structures, too. Objects, like fountains and birdhouses, stood in the middle of the unmoving black lake. According to Gene, it was blood the water didn’t like.
And it would wait. Silent. Still. Glossy.
The radio clicked again, and when Gene spoke, he was calm; the silence must have been too loud for him as well.
“Okay, Lou, it’s time to pick up where we left off.”
Lewis sat in the blackness, aware that the random soft tinks were fresh raindrops—black raindrops. Finally he said, “I’m a pilot.”
It was a lie, and Gene knew it but didn’t stop him.
“I’m a pilot, and tomorrow was supposed to be a big break for me. I was actually going to be the pilot who jetted the President to a safer location.”
“The President, huh?”
“Yeah, but don’t get too excited, it’s the president of our company, not the—”
“Oh, but still!”
“Yeah, but still . . . still it could be the most dangerous thing I try . . . I mean, what is above those clouds?”
Gene didn’t care about the clouds: “You won’t touch the black?”
“No, they will helicopter me out of here.”
“No chance they could pick me up?”
“I’m sorry, friend, they won’t have room. But they’ll know that you lasted—outlasted—what they couldn’t. That you faced the black.”
There was silence.
In it, Gene was probably looking out the portal window, seeing if there was a break in the clouds. Lewis was. He sometimes wondered if they were looking at the same segment of sky, if Orion was still up there somewhere.
“That was a nice way of doing it,” Gene finally said. He sounded tired and happy. “What will you be tomorrow night?”
“Why don’t you try it, Gene?”
There were a series of clicks that Lewis, over the week, had come to associate with Gene’s anxiety. Then Gene’s dry voice repeated, “What are you going to be tomorrow night, Lou?”
Lewis thought of the obsidian swamp that refused to drain in the gutters, refused to ripple in the wind, that deepened each day. He thought of the nightmares in which he stood on a steep crag under an alien sky, looking across a shifting black river that licked at half-submerged cyclopean structures.
“Tomorrow night,” he said, “I will be the man who saves you.” It at least sounded heroic.
“But how? How will you do that, Lou?”
“Tomorrow night, Gene.”
“Until then, we fight off the black?”
“We wait it out.”
Lewis crossed the room, out of the lantern’s light, and squatted in a corner next to a box of crackers. They were almost gone.
“Okay, then . . . you know, it’s just good to hear another human voice out there,” Gene said.
The radio clicked—nervously.
“It’s real good,” Lewis said and ate a cracker.
Outside, more drops fell to feed the malicious black sea.
“Over, Gene,” Lewis said.
A third voice, one that had been hiding, chimed in as strong as a cello, “Over.”
“Over,” another hidden voice—a woman—sighed.
“Over.” Another woman’s voice.
There was a scattering of clicks; of jagged syllables. An overlapping of desperate voices, each coming out of the blackness to sign off for the night. They sounded weak and disconnected. Yet they remained. Voices of light.