“You know how it feels when you focus a little too hard on the way your teeth are set? You move your bottom row a little forward, or a little backwards. You try to match up your two rows of teeth, but then it feels all weird and you can’t remember where your teeth are supposed to go anymore.”
“It doesn’t matter. It’s just how I felt the day the sky ripped open and the golden ships came through with…well, we know what they are now, but we didn’t then.”
“The ships with the raiders.”
“Yes. They came through almost immediately. I know because I was watching.”
Judy stopped speaking abruptly and stared over Ana’s shoulder. Judy behaved like everyone Ana had ever met who witnessed the universe split open. A little haunted. A little bit like they would never be the same.
Ana coughed lightly, and pulled Lily — her small, floppy dog — onto her lap. Her mother had been right about the world beyond their small town in West Virginia. They hadn’t even known what was happening at the time. Some kind of nuclear bomb had wiped out half the town, she’d been told by the adults.
“How long did you watch for?” she finally asked.
“I couldn’t even tell you. Maybe hours. I didn’t know what to do.” Judy made eye contact with Ana once more. “I hid in an alleyway and just stared up. Finally, I worked up the courage to walk home. When I got there the apartment was empty. The lights were all off, and no one had even bothered to lock the door. I remember it was dusk, and there was still just enough light coming in through the gate over our fire escape window in the kitchen that I could at least see where I was going. I waited for them that night because I thought that maybe they were coming back. My dad, at least, would come back for me. I ended up waiting in that apartment for weeks. I thought that they would know I was there. I didn’t dare turn on any lights, or even look out the windows, because I was afraid someone would come and take me away. I don’t know why I thought that, but it seemed like a real threat at the time. Anyway, first I ate all the leftovers in the fridge. Cold. Then I moved on to the snacks and canned goods. Everything cold. My stomach was always upset.”
“When did you leave?”
“No one ever came for me. I ran out of food, and I knew I’d have to leave if I wanted to live.”
“And you did want to live?” Ana prompted.
“It never occurred to me that I shouldn’t.”
There was a moment of silence while both girls mulled that over. Ana decided it was a subject best left alone for now.
“You know why they never came back, don’t you?” Ana asked instead.
“Yeah,” Judy said, but then shook her head. “I mean, no. I never actually looked for their names on the lists of the deceased. Sometimes I want to, but I can’t tell which scenario I prefer: my parents leaving me to die, or dying themselves.”
“I don’t think it’s a question of preference. Don’t you want to know the truth?”
“Does it matter? I don’t think it does. I don’t need to know, definitively, one way or the other. The outcome is the same. My parents are gone, and the world is different now.”
Ana gripped Lily a little tighter in her arms, afraid she might say something she wouldn’t be able to take back. Judy, meanwhile, was playing with a loose thread in her sweater, twisting the string around her pinky finger over and over again.
“Do you know how I found this place?” Judy said, as if she were a little bit proud of this bit.
Ana shook her head.
“I left the apartment and went to the nearest subway. I spent a little bit of time on the platform, deciding what to do. There were no trains coming, which I figured would be the case. I needed to make sure, though, so I waited and waited. When I was absolutely positive, I sat down on the edge of the platform, with my feet dangling over the tracks. There was a buildup of really smelly, weeks-old garbage. It took everything in me to do it, but I jumped down onto the tracks. I picked a direction and just walked. I think I was trying to just get off the island, but honestly, who knows what I was thinking at the time. It was dark, and there were rats everywhere, but I was alone apart from them. The garbage-rainwater mixture soaked through my shoes and socks as I walked. I could feel it between my toes, and it smelled so bad. I just started to cry.
“There was something about the trash juice and the dark that was so repulsive that it triggered this strong emotional response in a way that being left alone for weeks hadn’t done. I cried, and walked, and threw up a couple times, and kept walking until David found me. He brought me here.”
Ana didn’t say anything. Here was the sanctuary for those who had not been successfully removed from Manhattan.
“Is that what happened where you’re from? With the sky and the evacuations?” Judy asked.
“No. Not at all,” Ana said.