There was a lightning storm the night my brother and I went to the Barrier. I didn’t want to go; it was such a weird request. Jamie had been acting weird and distracted for days. We trekked out to the desert’s edge on my night off. The sun had just set, and the sky had that strange pewter sheen it gets before a storm.
Jamie walked up to the chain-link fence and curled his fingers through the gaps. The fence was erected so people wouldn’t run into the Barrier by accident; the vast invisible wall that keeps us all safe is a quarter of a mile ahead.
“What are we doing here again?” I said.
“Shhhh,” Jamie said. “Listen.”
There was only the soft whoosh of the wind, blowing over the desert and wastelands of the east. There was nothing to see—only the flat earth stretching empty before us. The darkness closing in. It had been years since I’d been so close to the border. I shoved trembling hands into my thin coat pockets. I was about to speak again, but then the sky split open.
Lightning forking across the sky, branching again and again. Purple light streaking and cracking the dome of the world. Silence. The violet lightning in the border-cities makes no sound, even when it seems to break directly above you.
“Do you hear it?” Jamie said.
I shook my head.
“It’s louder on nights like this. It’s coming from across the Barrier. I thought so, and now I know.”
“What are you talking about?” My voice was thin and too high in my ears.
“I think,” Jamie said, staring into the desert beyond the fence. “It’s the Angels speaking.”
No one’s ever heard the Angels speak. They were silent, burning, as the roads cracked and buckled, as giant sinkholes yawned, as the air itself tore and spilled out purple flames. As people died. As reality bent. The Angels stood (or hovered) and watched.
One was watching when Mom died.
People called them Angels because of the wings. Though surely, they were no messengers from God. Not that I’ve ever believed in God. It was hard to see their faces. There was so much heat, so much shimmering air.
“No,” I told my little brother.
I told him that he wasn’t hearing anything. That he was mistaken. That the Barrier kept everything out,everything, and that meant any sound, any voices, too.
He couldn’t be hearing what he thought. And if he did, it didn’t mean anything.
“Let’s go home,” I said. I was shivering with cold.
“Jenny,” he said. Pleading.
I turned my back on him. “I’m going home.”
Strange things happen near the Barrier. Everyone knows that. That’s why normal people stay away.
The eerie lighting storms. The occasional lights glimpsed from the wastelands. Electronic equipment shorts out; cell phones lose connection.
Even living in a border-city can be disturbing to some. There are stories online: old traumas awoken in survivors who moved from camps in the interior to a border-city. Well-adjusted, resilient people falling prey to sudden headaches and fatigue.
I’d never heard of anyone hearing anything.
But I knew that I didn’t hear anything.
Nothing had crossed the Barrier in over a decade. For all this time, our world had held firm. It’s different this time.It’s nothing.It’s not like before. It was just Jamie, not Jamie and me. That’s what I told myself, over and over as I fell asleep that night.
Jamie followed me home after all. We didn’t talk. There was hot water in the shower, for once. I stayed under the hot water for a long, long time. When I got out, Jamie was asleep in his bed.
It felt like a miracle, when we first came to this city: a hot shower, a living space that consisted of more than one room. Privacy and space as we’d never had in the camps. Jobs and the prospect of normal lives. As normal as we could expect, anyway.
Jamie was leaving when I woke the next morning; his job at the warehouse starts early. I caught him before he left. I wanted to apologize for the way I’d behaved. I didn’t know how.
“Hey,” I said awkwardly, standing in the little kitchen.
He nodded, his face expressionless. “Hey.”
He started to move past me. I stopped him. “Look. I’m—I’m glad you told me last night.”
Something flickered across his face—a hint of wry amusement. A mix of anger and sadness. He shrugged. “It’s okay, Jenny,” he said. “I’ll see you tonight.” He pulled on his jacket and left.
This is the thing: I’ve been responsible for Jamie for eighteen years. Since the day he was born. That’s what our parents taught me. I’m six years older, the big sister. When he was little and misbehaved, Mom and Dad—especially Dad—would punish me for it. I resented Dad so much for that.
And then Mom was gone, swallowed by a hole in the world. Dad died in a camp two years later; it’s been just Jamie and me, ever since.
Angels don’t speak in words like you and me, my brother says. Which, well, doesn’t exactly come as a big surprise.
We talked a lot about the Angels over the next few nights. I was trying to understand. I was trying to keep calm, to not interrupt. I didn’t want to push him away.
So, what do they sound like?
He said that they sound like gusting wind and rain lashing against your window. But they also sound like the crashing of cymbals—very faint and shivery. And they sound like the taste of an ice cube as it slides down your throat. And like a forgotten memory as it scratches again and again at your mind.
And how do you know it’s the Angels? I asked.
I just do. His voice rising on the last word. Still hurt, disbelieving that I wouldn’t believe.
But I couldn’t hear it. Not even when he took me back to the fence. There was no lightning storm that second time.
“It’s fainter,” he admitted. And he also admitted that he didn’t hear the sound continuously, that it came and went.
“A glitch,” I guessed. Some kind of technological glitch in the Barrier that he was uniquely sensitive to. It didn’t mean anything. I urged him to ignore it.
I remember his face when I said that. It was dusk, but there was still enough light to see the doubt, the wavering, in his eyes. He bit his lip. He wanted to believe me. I could tell.
I’d gone online, of course. He had, too. Neither of us could find, among all the stories people had to tell of living near the Barrier, any mention of anyone hearing anything like Jamie.
“It’s just a glitch,” I told him.
He was silent.
I know what it’s like to not be believed. To be asked to doubt your own senses.
But when Jamie and I saw the first signs of the Breaking a dozen years ago, we saw them together. The two of us, from the beginning.
He was only six, playing in the backyard, at the edge of our lawn. I would have been twelve—was I reading to myself outside? Daydreaming while idly digging with sticks in our sandbox, overturning beetles? I just know that I heard Jamie yelling my name. And I saw it: the rip in the air, shimmering above his head. The first crack in our world, in the soft summer light. A horizontal line, an actual crack, that spread and then flared with purple light.
Jamie was still shouting. He’d backed away, but now he moved slowly toward the light, as though to touch it. But I was there, I’d reached him; I grabbed him by the arm, yanked him away; I was dragging him toward the house, yelling for Mom and Dad. They came. They stood on the back deck and looked at the crack in the world and saw nothing at all.
My brother and I kept pointing, pleading, insisting. Our parents couldn’t see. They wouldn’t even step off the deck to get a closer look. “Stop it,” Dad finally said. “Your games aren’t fun or funny.” I started to cry. Jamie was already howling.
I wait tables at a restaurant that’s an homage to a city that no longer exists. Even before the Breaking, the chain had been popular for its deep-dish pizza; now, to feed the nostalgia, the owners have added Chicago dogs and Italian beef sandwiches. It has worked; customers crowd the doors, and the tips are good.
This city on the border is full of people from elsewhere, trying to replicate what was lost. Here on the edge of a desert which was once a prairie, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and shacks as well as fancy themed restaurants sell Memphis barbecue, Philly cheesesteaks and hoagies, biscuits and grits from a deserted South. New York bagels and knishes and pizza, and gumbo from Louisiana. In tiny home kitchens, more foods from the cities and states that are gone. In those homes, all the accents and languages of lost places.
The food at my workplace is good, and it’s much as I remember Chicago-style pizza to be. But what I really miss are the doughnuts from a bakery near our home in the suburbs. Barbecued duck, glossy and rich, at a crowded restaurant in Chicago’s Chinatown. Dim sum with my family. My mother’s food. Her Thai noodle soups and curries and stir fries. Khai jiao—the crisp, fluffy omelets she served with jasmine rice. I make those omelets sometimes for Jamie and me, but I know it’s not the same. Every time I try, I recall less of her face.
“What do you remember?” Jamie asked me in the dark. I’d gotten home from my dinner shift, and I’d thought him asleep on his mattress in the living room. I’d been tiptoeing to my own room. It was a couple weeks since we’d first gone to the fence.
What are you talking about? I started to say and stopped. He was sitting up, a slip of shadow in the faint light from the window. His words hung in the air, quiet and urgent.
Sometimes, my brother acts like I should be able to read his mind. Sometimes, I can.
I sat next to him on the bed. “I don’t know,” I said. “It’s all confused. I feel like I remember less all the time.”
“But you saw the Angels with me.”
“We saw everything together.”
“And other people did, too, didn’t they? How did it begin? Why didn’t we run sooner?”
I stared into the darkness before us. “I don’t know.”
Dad was apologizing to us at the end. And that in itself was frightening. Our dad, who had never apologized to us for anything—who had tried so hard to not show weakness in front of his kids. “I should have believed you,” he kept saying. He bent over, wracked with coughing. An awful, wet cough, that left a white froth on his lips. “You saw it, you saw…” He clutched at our hands. His grip sweaty and weak. “I should have put us all into the car that first night, driven us away. Kept going till we hit California. I should have booked plane tickets, crossed the sea, taken you back…”
Dad coughed again. His eyes were panicked. He said his brother’s name, now dead. He said our mother’s. He said something in Thai that I couldn’t understand. Our family tent was surrounded by a thousand others, yet there was no one to help. Jamie was crying silently. Sputum flecked my fathers’ mouth, fell onto his shirt; I saw the pink tinge to it, the blood from his lungs.
The world cracked open, but it took time for everyone to see. Our mother walked through the crack at the edge of the lawn. I saw her do it. The purple light danced on her arm. I wanted to call her back, to yell, but my throat closed tight. Lightning bugs were winking in and out. Crickets were calling. The summer air so soft and warm. Mom stepped forward, her arm swinging through the broken air. Nothing happened; she never noticed. She stepped out the other side, as though nothing at all lay in between.
What do I remember? What do any of us remember?
The history as recorded on the Web is all confused. Servers throughout the affected portion of the continent failed. Data was lost forever. The original newscasts are gone. To go online now (paying with credit I can hardly afford) is to be drawn into a maze of conflicting accounts and theories.
This is what I remember: the cracks in the world growing like webs, splintering the air. The place on the playground where no kid would go—even the kids who swore they didn’t see anything, that the rest of us were crazy. The bus driver swerving to avoid the torn air above the road. Roadblocks appearing at that spot and then taken down, again and again. Grownups shouting, even screaming with one another over what was real. Some of them saw, even though our parents couldn’t. Dad said it was my fault that Jamie was afraid to go outside, that I’d filled his head with hysteria. Stop, stop, said our mother and fed us eggs and rice.
On the television: scenes of panic. Reports from the East Coast that “perceptual anomalies” were increasing there. Crowds filling the street, demanding that something be done. Other crowds disbelieving, hurling abuse at the first.
It’s nothing, Mom said. That’s what I remember. A huge fuss over nothing.
I saw the Angel in the old oak tree at the corner. Its wings beating in a blur, like a hummingbird’s. The halo of blue light around it, the air warped and shimmering.
“You shouldn’t listen,” I said when Jamie told me he could hear Angels. “Please don’t listen.”
Jamie and I went to our jobs—he sorting goods at one of the new shipping warehouses, me waiting tables in the afternoon and at night. We saw each other late in the evening and on days off.
I never told him to stop speaking of what he heard. I told him to let me know if anything changed, if the Angel voices grew louder or clearer. I still thought it might not mean anything. I thought, wait and see.
It’s what some of the grownups said during the first Breaking. Wait and see.
No one at the restaurant mentioned hearing voices across the Barrier. I eavesdropped on customers as I balanced trays of food; as I poured water, set down pizzas, and then gathered up emptied plates. People spoke of jobs, of new construction and investment in the city. Politics in the Western states. Love lives. Bad bosses. Relationships and hopes for the future. No one spoke of the Breaking, or of the days before.
The other wait staff said nothing. I didn’t know how to bring the topic up. I thought of the few people I trusted from the last camp. We were all scattered now.
Wait and see.
This border-city wasn’t my first choice of a home. But there’s the military base here, and the businesses supporting it—and new industry, fueled by investment from abroad. The major cities to the west of us are all bursting at the seams, overwhelmed with the millions who flooded in during the Breaking; there’s no room there to breathe. California has sealed its borders almost entirely. When the residence lottery matched my brother and I here, to this once small city on what remained of the Great Plains, we jumped. I figured it was a start.
This is where they dump the refugees from the lost states: along the border, in the new cities trying to grow.
I remember California. Our uncle, our father’s youngest brother, went to school in L.A. He’d come to America following my father’s path, studying engineering just like Dad. We went to visit him, and Aa Dang took us to the beach. It’s my first memory of the ocean. Those gray waves were so huge, and I was so scared; it was so much bigger, wilder, than the beach we went to on Lake Michigan. But Dad was there, and he could swim better than anyone in the world; he’d grown up by the sea, and he was with me, holding me, lifting me up through the crests of the waves as they rolled in and it felt just like flying. I was safe. Mom was back on shore, watching Jamie.
Aa Dang seemed so much younger than Dad. He teased me, but in a kind way; he laughed all the time. He had a new wife, a white American woman he’d met in grad school, and they were expecting a child. I called her Aunt Lisa, and she laughed a lot, too. Dad and Aa Dang talked about people I didn’t know, family they’d left behind in Thailand. Later, they went swimming together on their own, carving smoothly through the waves, strong and confident like creatures of the sea itself, until they were nearly out of sight.
I told Jamie that we could move if he wanted. To a neighborhood farther from the Barrier, where maybe he wouldn’t hear what he thought of as Angels. He shot me his classic exasperated you-are-so-full-of-it look. A look that said at that moment: And how on earth are we going to afford that?
“We can do it,” I said. Rents got more expensive the farther you got from the Barrier, but still…
“Aren’t we locked into this lease?”
He shrugged. “It’s fine. It’s okay.”
“Would it help you if we moved?”
“We don’t need to.”
“Do you still hear them?”
He didn’t say anything.
“Do you still hear them?” I said again. Demanding.
His hand lifted halfway toward his ear, then stopped. He seemed to wince. Was he hearing them now? “It wouldn’t help, Jenny,” he said. “I hear them at work sometimes. When they speak, I’d hear them anywhere in the city.”
Jamie started taking extra shifts at the warehouse. He began staying out late, so that I didn’t see him when I got home. He said he was spending time with friends from work, sometimes crashing with them overnight. I was surprised; I knew that he didn’t make friends easily. He was so quiet with people he didn’t know.
Don’t worry about me, he said. He said I should go out more, too. I reminded him that we needed to save money. “Get that old bald guy to take you out,” he said, smirking. I threw a pillow and Jamie dodged. I’d dated that guy for only a few weeks, and he wasn’t old. He just had a prematurely receding hairline.
“I’m fine,” Jamie told me, serious again. “Don’t worry.”
He no longer seemed jumpy, as he’d been before. He didn’t seem like someone suffering delusions. He was calmer. We didn’t talk of strange voices, or the Barrier, or the past. We so rarely saw each other to talk at all. When I saw him in passing, too early in the morning or too late at night, he seemed tired, but that was only to be expected.
I thought that maybe he’d stopped hearing whatever he’d thought he heard. Or that he’d adjusted to it. That it didn’t matter. That he, and everything, was okay.
That’s what I wanted to believe. I wanted to believe it so hard.
To this day, no one understands what the Angels are.
Scientists say they must be extraterrestrials from a distant world, incomprehensible but still part of our material universe. Others say they’re demons come to punish us for unknown sins. Spirits, monsters, eruptions of the supernatural, or true angels of vengeance, after all.
We’ve held them back with the Barrier, a vast electromagnetic field. By trial and error, we figured out how to repel them. But we can’t destroy them; we can’t make them give back what they took; we can’t bring our lost homes and loved ones back.
Why did only some of us see the start of the Breaking? Why did only some of us see when the Angels first came?
Nobody talks about it in person. Everyone wants to say that they saw from the start. And online, the answers are all confused. Experts speculate about “differing thresholds of perception” and “innate sensitivity to unearthly phenomenon.” Others talk about mass hypnosis, say the Angels sowed confusion on purpose. Still others find a way—as always—to somehow blame it on the old U.S. federal government, now gone.
No one knows.
Dad was a Man of Science. Someone who loved numbers, measurement, logic. A trained engineer. Someone who thought he saw things clearly. And he couldn’t.
And Mom… She was an artist of a kind, wasn’t she? She loved beautiful things. The sheer white curtains she trimmed with lace. The potted orchids on the windowsill, neatly arranged in a row. She liked to garnish our meals with cucumber slices carved into flowers, and delicate ribbons of carrot curls. In the year before the Breaking, she was taking a class in watercolors at the local art center. An unusual indulgence for her. She brought home paintings of luminous landscapes, meadows and mountains and lakes. Soft, dreamy landscapes shot through with light. An artist is supposed to have heightened perceptions, right? Aren’t they supposed to see truth?
No, she said when I tried to tell her of the Angels flocking in the trees. No, when I spoke of how I felt their eyes upon me, even if I couldn’t see their faces through their beating wings, the shivering blue air. Her normally gentle, even voice rose in anger. Stop listening to the other kids, she said. Stop listening to all that craziness. And she actually covered her ears.
I think we were afraid, someone wrote online. We didn’t see because we didn’t want to see. Somehow, we blinded ourselves to what was in front of our own eyes.
Jamie withdrew from me, and I thought it was okay. I thought maybe he really was going out with friends at night. That he was tasting freedom in this new city, as an eighteen-year-old should.
I started going out with a few of my colleagues after work, too. I slept with one of the prep cooks, a guy with rough hands and beautiful blue eyes. He lived in a tiny space downtown with four other guys, so I took him to my place, instead. We were a thing, I guess, until he decided he preferred screwing another girl.
I missed my brother.
A rare moment: I came home and found the lights on, Jamie there and awake. I was in a bad mood: rude tables, the kitchen falling behind and customers upset; a toddler flung food and spilled her drink on me. Jamie saw it all in my face. “I’m making a snack, want some?” he said. I watched him crack eggs in a bowl and beat them with fish sauce. Then I sat in the living room until he came out with the fluffy khai jiao and rice. We ate in silence, until I felt my angry edge fading. “Thanks,” I said. We talked a little about nothing: work, friends, a video series we were both watching. And then I said, “Hey, I feel like we hardly see each other anymore.” I meant my tone to be light. I was surprised by the wistfulness on his face. More than wistfulness. Sadness, and even a kind of tenderness. I didn’t understand at the time. After all, he was the one who’d been withdrawing from me.
It was my day off, and I’d been looking forward to sleeping in. The knock at the door was a steady beat, invading my dreams. I was confused. No one ever knocked. We hardly knew our neighbors.
I stumbled to the door in the T-shirt and sweats I’d worn to bed. It was the woman across the hall: her face and everything about her was frazzled. She was so, so sorry but would I mind watching her kid for an hour? Teresa—her name came fuzzily to my half-awake mind. I’d watched her kid once before, when we first moved in. Teresa explained that her husband should have been back by now, his work shift was done; but his ride had broken down and she couldn’t afford to be late to her own job. It would only be for a short time, and she’d make it up to me, of course.
“Sure,” I said. The poor woman seemed on the edge of a breakdown.
I followed her to a one-bedroom apartment with a layout that mirrored the one Jamie and I had. Unlike ours, the living room had no mattress; I knew that their daughter shared the bedroom with her parents. Toys and sheets of paper were scattered on the floor and over a table. “Rosa!” Teresa called, and a child of four appeared. Rosa looked at me solemnly with big brown eyes.
“You remember me, right?” I said when her mother left. Rosa nodded. She sat at the table and pressed a blue crayon to paper. She drew a swooping curve.
“Pretty,” I said. “What are you drawing?”
She gave me a long, wary look.
“Oh come on, it’s not a secret, is it?” I didn’t remember her as so suspicious before.
She looked at me levelly a moment more. Then she bent her head and drew another curve. “They make the air blue,” she said.
I felt a chill.
I looked more closely at the other pieces of paper on the table and on the floor. All covered in crayon scrawls. All blue, with zig-zagging lines of purple. If you knew, you could imagine that they traced wings and rips and shimmering air.
I tried to speak lightly. “Did your parents tell you about the Angels?”
She shook her head.
“Oh. Um, did someone else, then?”
She didn’t answer.
I felt both foolish and uneasy. I took a seat across from her and joined her in drawing. I doodled aimlessly with a red-orange crayon. Red. I’d been dreaming of something red that morning. Fire. Explosions, plumes of thick smoke. And for a moment, I saw again a line of trees catching light, blazing up into torches. A wall of roaring flame along the highway. I was in the car with my family; we were trying to escape, Dad driving as fast as the traffic allowed; and I whimpered and squeezed my eyes shut but even so I could feel the Angels watching through the flame.
“They’re coming,” Rosa said softly.
“Who?” I whispered.
She tapped her paper. “These. The bright ones.”
“When? Who told you so?”
She pressed her lips together.
“Rosa, has my brother been talking to you? You know Jamie, the skinny guy who lives with me?”
She shook her head.
“Who then? Who’s been talking to you about Angels?”
She refused to meet my gaze.
I lowered my voice, tried for a conspiratorial tone. “Rosa. It’s okay. I won’t tell your parents. I won’t tell anyone else.”
“Double promise. Triple.”
“You’ll believe me?”
She looked up at from under long lashes. And then she cupped a hand around her mouth and stage-whispered what I already knew she would say. “The Angels told me.”
It was like my stomach dropping, gone. Like falling, and not hitting ground.
I heard my voice, flat and mechanical. “What do they sound like?”
“Like wind.” She rounded her mouth and went Oooooooo. “Like rain. Like people, but louder and softer and shivery.” She frowned, thinking. Then she smiled, proud to come up with the right comparison. “They sound like ice.”
I texted Jamie when Rosa’s dad got home. We have to talk, I wrote to him. Please come straight home tonight. And then I hit Send and I waited.
When the world finally shattered, it happened so quickly.
A web of cracks pulled tight, tighter, until everything burst: pure chaos flooding through.
Planes vanishing from the sky. The earth opening underfoot. Bridges cracked in half, skyscrapers tilting.
My father numb before the news reports. His youngest brother lost on a flight to Orlando, the jet vanishing from radar just as it started to descend. Aunt Lisa gone along with Aa Dang, along with their daughter, my cousin, a hazel-eyed girl of five. They’d been on their way to a family vacation at Disney World.
And now there was no denying it, the Breaking, a tide of madness rolling across the continent from east to west as the bonds of reality snapped. As hair-thin cracks tore themselves wide into gaping holes visible to all—swallowing planes, roads, buildings, people. Whole neighborhoods. The purple light bleeding over everything, the air on fire. The Angels watching, silent. We saw it on our screens—until the screens went dark. Heard the screaming voices before they cut off.
We looked up, and outside the windows we saw them hovering in the backyard. Gathering in the skies.
My parents saw, but they were paralyzed, in shock. They didn’t grasp the direction of the rolling tide, the inevitability of it reaching us, too. By the time we ran, everyone around us was running.
We eventually left the car behind, abandoning it on the clogged highway along with so many others. No gas to be found anyway. Westward, westward, to where the world hadn’t cracked, no “perceptual anomalies” reported. A ragged mass of humanity, walking. It was late fall now, but so hot. Unseasonably hot. How long had we been in the sun? I handed Jamie the last water bottle. Why did our mother stop? What was she staring at? I saw the blue air, a blurring of white wings. A seam opened where none had been. A flare of violet light. I screamed, dragged Jamie back. Our mother said nothing. She was no longer there.
By the time we reached safety—by the time the first version of the Barrier was up, the protective field developed by scientists and engineers who would be hailed as heroes—Jamie was no longer talking. Two years later, when our father died, Jamie stopped talking again for a month.
I’m waiting for my brother to talk to me now. I waited all day for him to text me. I called and messaged, again and again. Finally, I called his workplace and found that he’d never come in.
I was already running out to the Barrier when I heard my phone chime.
And now I’m here at the chain-link fence, where Jamie and I stood months ago. It was spring then; it’s fall now. A storm is gathering. In the dark clouds high above, I catch glimpses of lightning. A wind is blowing from across the Barrier, across the empty wastelands.
My brother is out there somewhere. Where I can’t see, where only the Angels roam.
I have my phone out, and I keep reading Jamie’s last message. I still don’t understand.
Voices. Footsteps. Not before me, but behind. There are others gathering at this section of the fence. People seemingly of all ages and types, dressed against the chill and shadowy in the failing light. They’ve come seeking their own loved ones. Waiting for them, like me. Their voices fall silent, and we look out together through the gaps in the fence.
The Breaking never stopped, Jamie wrote in his message. It was only on pause.
And I understand that. I understand that there are no safe places. I think that I’ve known it, deep down, for years. Years in which I dreamed of getting as far from the broken lands as I can—saving money for the passage and entrance fee and taking Jamie with me to California, to the westmost edge of the continent, to the place where my father held me in his arms in the sea. And beyond that sea are countries as yet unshattered, marred only by slight cracking before the Barrier technology spread and took hold. In a distant country there are relatives I barely know, but they never came for Jamie and me. There are too many restrictions on the world now.
When he was sick, Dad said that Jamie and I would only have each other. He always said that family is everything, and that I was in charge of my brother. Mom was gentler, but she’d always said much the same. So it makes no sense that Jamie should leave, that he says he has to go talk to the Angels. I can’t understand how he heard when I didn’t. I can’t understand how he claims to be among some select group of people, called before everyone else to cross into the wastelands; chosen to hear and respond and initiate the next steps of change. Because he’s not that special. He’s no one special. It’s bullshit that he claims to want to protect me, that he says he’s going forth to smooth the way. He’s not a hero or a sacrifice. He’s just my brother. My baby brother.
The wind picks up, howling across the Barrier. It stings my face and pulls cold fingers through my hair.
And as the purple lightning flashes soundlessly above, I hear rain where there’s no rain at all. I feel ice in my throat. A shivery echo in my bones. Voices, singing.
I press against the fence, and the people around me are doing the same. Far off, purple lightning strikes the ground, splitting the empty, wasted lands. There’s a shimmer of blue. I imagine white wings. I imagine my brother walking back to me. But I don’t know what he’ll look like now. What form he’ll take, how he’ll be transformed.
I see Rosa among the crowd with her parents, her face perfectly calm. She’s not big enough to climb the fence, as Jamie and his companions must have done, but she’s talked her parents into bringing her here. They listened to her. We’re all listening, and we stare out toward a Barrier that is even now crumbling, humanity’s best technology all useless. Ice sings through my bones. The earth cracks before me.
I should have listened sooner. Jamie, I should have believed you. I’m sorry. We had so little time together—you and me, our parents, everyone here. The world when it was still whole. We didn’t see, and then we didn’t listen. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. The Angels’ song rises and the air shivers blue. I strain my eyes toward the horizon, even as cymbals clash and a thousand voices cry. It’s the next change in the world, the next phase, the next steps of the Breaking.