George Runk
Thomas Plain

Everything is not as it should be. What is wrong is wrong way down at the molecular level. No human on Earth knows it yet. Some animals know. Most insects. Sponges, jellyfish, and sea anemones are quaking in their boots.

George Runk pours yesterday’s cold coffee into yesterday’s unwashed coffee cup. He studies the skeleton of the platypus on his kitchen table. He sits and leans nearer to examine it. The first caudal vertebra has separated from the pelvis. He looks up from the platypus skeleton and makes eye contact with the head of the Thomson’s gazelle fixed to the wall. He raises his cup. “Good morning, Tommy.” George restores his attention to the platypus. He fishes a piece of wire from the pocket of his bathrobe and deftly secures the separated caudal vertebra to the pelvis. “Just a temporary fix, Tommy.” George sits back and sips more cold coffee. The Thomson’s gazelle stares back at George.

George stands and takes his empty cup over to the sink. George is tired. He hasn’t slept. He stands with the empty cup in his hand and closes his eyes. He thinks about going back upstairs to his bedroom, lying on his bed, and trying to sleep. He stands for a good deal of time with the empty cup in his hand. He needs to sleep, but he hates lying on his bed waiting for sleep to come. He can sleep if he’s exhausted. Sleep only comes to him when he is totally exhausted. For now he is just resting his eyes.

Outside children play. It is August and hot. The children play on the steps in front of George’s house. The children of Mercy Street often play in front of George’s house. George never complains. He’s not like the other homeowners on Mercy Street. The children have never seen George. All the windows of his house are painted black. George hasn’t left his house in years. His food is delivered and no one visits. The children know they can play in front of George’s house away from prying eyes.

George ceases thinking about sleep and places the coffee cup in the sink. He turns on the faucet to stream water into the cup. No water comes out. He turns the faucet off. He listens to the voices of children playing outside. They are playing tag. A child is complaining she is not it. George turns the faucet on and water pours out. He reaches for the sponge and as his fingers touch it the sponge leaps off the ledge of the sink and lands on the kitchen floor. “You’re it.” George turns and looks at the mounted head of the Thomson’s gazelle. He almost thinks the tag call came from there. George bends over, clenches the sponge in his hand, and the sponge grasps George’s hand in return. George wonders how the sponge is grasping his hand. George lifts the sponge and holds it beneath the running water. It releases its grip and flops into the coffee cup. He observes the sponge rolling about in the cup. “Is it alive?” George thinks. The Thomson’s gazelle wonders, too.

George needs sleep. That’s all. There’s a sponge in a coffee cup in his kitchen sink sitting under cold running water. He reaches in and plucks the sponge out. It’s a wet sponge that no longer exhibits signs of life. The water is icy cold. George puts the sponge back on the rear ledge of the sink. He is thirsty. He fills the cup with the cold water and takes a sip. He turns the faucet off. The water continues to run. He takes another sip. The unplugged toaster on the counter next to the sink pops up two pieces of badly burnt toast. George takes another sip of water and another and another.

In the attic there is an aardvark in a cardboard box. It’s not alive at the moment.

George walks from the kitchen holding the cup of cold water he has refilled. He walks down the hallway and stops before the photograph on the wall of his long-dead sister. George stares at the image of his sister lying in her coffin. “So small,” he says. He stares at her image remembering how he had felt deep down inside when she died: cold and alone. He brings the coffee cup of cold water to his lips and sips. The water is as warm as if it had sat on a sunny windowsill for hours. He looks back at the photograph of his sister. The glass covering the photograph has turned cloudy. He can barely discern the image of the child lying in her coffin. He reaches out to wipe the glass of the picture frame with his finger. It is wet to the touch. The cup of water in his hand is steaming. He walks back to the kitchen and puts the cup down in the sink. He looks down at the cup in the sink and watches the surface of the water churn and bubble.

George sits down at his kitchen table. He is overwhelmed with sadness. “So small,” he says. The Thomson’s gazelle shifts his head slightly, just ever so faintly. The sound of the children break through George’s veil of sadness. “Fred! Catch!” George listens. “Fred, catch,” George mutters as he listens to the children playing. “Catch it, catch it.” George pulls himself up from his chair, walks out of the kitchen, past the photograph of his sister, and to his front room. He hears the children better from there. He stands listening until he grows weary of eavesdropping on the children at play. He walks over to the shelf that holds his collection of 78s. He selects his favorite record, “Blue Skies,” and places it on the turntable of his Philco. He sets the needle in the entry groove and switches on the machine. He sets the mechanism for the tone arm so it will play the record continuously. He raises the volume enough to mask the sound of the children and he walks down the hallway, stopping once more before the photograph of his sister. The glass is clear and dry. He stares at her tiny washed-out face as he listens to the music playing on his Philco.

“Blue skies smilin’ at me,
Nothin’ but blue skies do I see.”

The aardvark detests being dead in the attic. It is too cold in winter and too hot in summer. It is a far cry from the grasslands of Central America.

“Bluebirds singin’ a song,
Nothin’ but bluebirds all day long.”

George listens intently. He knows his record collection well. He knows every skip, hiss, and pop. Something is different. The record sounds mint. George doesn’t own mint-condition 78s. Where were the pops caused by the lamination cracks in the record? It sounds like a store-stock record.

“I never saw the sun shinin’ so bright,
Never saw things goin’ so right.
Noticin’ the days hurryin’ by . . .”

The song comes to an end. He hears the mechanism of the tone arm as it swings up, back, returns, and settles back down in the entry groove of the record. He expects the song to begin again.

“Georgie, Georgie, push swing.”

Tears well in George’s eyes.

“Georgie, Georgie, push more.”

His sister’s voice is coming out of the Philco in the front room. She is calling out to him from half a century ago. The photograph of her lying in her coffin is gone. The photograph in the frame is now of his sister rising forward on her swing and behind her George sees himself, a young man of fifteen, all ears and an enormous grin.

The dead aardvark in the attic is aware that he is a dead aardvark in a cardboard box. And he is just as aware that something strange is going on deep down at the molecular level.

George stares intently at the photograph. He looks at the young man he once was. As he studies the features of his younger self a Thomson’s gazelle steps tentatively out of the doorway of the kitchen, looks down the hallway at George, then walks slowly up the staircase to the second floor.

“Blue skies all of them gone,
Nothin’ but blue skies from now on.”

The song is playing once again and the voice of his sister is silent. The photograph is once again the sepia-toned picture of his sister lying in her coffin. George is bewildered. He wants to sleep. He’s exhausted.

“Blue skies smilin’ at me . . .”

He just needs sleep and everything will be fine. He walks wearily up the stairs to his bedroom. He lies down in the dark room and awaits sleep. He feels as if he is being dragged through time toward something dreadful.

The aardvark creeps out of the cardboard box and sets about looking for a way down from the attic.

Sleep will not come. He gives up trying and walks out into the hallway. He stumbles across to the door of his study and grasps the doorknob. It feels warm. Humanly warm. Moist and humid like a tightly clasped hand. Spongy. He stands holding the doorknob for quite some time. He does not want to let go. It feels pleasant. The doorknob embraces George’s hand. The longer it holds him the more the fear George is feeling diminishes. Eventually the doorknob cools and turns brass once more. George twists it and enters the room.

This room is filled with dozens of stuffed animals and birds he has worked on over the years as a taxidermist. George closes the door. George’s prized specimen is perched over the door: his beloved Lenore. He reaches up and takes her from her perch. He strokes her black feathers. He caresses her crown and nape. Rubs her chin and throat. Soothes her breast and belly. All the while, deep down inside Lenore, molecules are starting to warm up.

“I am afraid,” says the aardvark who is dead and not dead and looking for a way down from the attic.

George does not know that his study is inhabited by organic sea-dwelling creatures from 700 million years ago. Soft-bodied jellyfish, corals and seaworms. Starfish. Trilobites. Lungfish. They are gathered together there, like the children of Mercy Street, away from prying eyes. George cannot see them. They are part of a faintly visible membrane affixed to the furniture, walls, floors, and ceilings. It arrived the moment George opened the door as light does instantaneously. Fused beings from Precambrian seas. These 700-million-year-old creatures think the world of George. These creatures love the man who is gently stroking the stuffed bird he loves. This membrane, which is the essence of billions of extinct creatures, is here to embrace George. It grows in intensity the better to caress George. To be with him throughout eternity in an encompassing embrace.

The children of Mercy Street gathered on the steps of George’s house, drawn there like steel filings to a magnet. They bond to the steps and are frightened they will never be released.

George walks about the room holding Lenore close. Something is peculiar. The northern yellow bat, the armadillo, the gray fox, the opossum, the lark bunting, the purple finch. Their glass eyes are missing. Just their eyelids, sculpted from clay, remain over murky, hollow sockets. He looks closely at Lenore. She looks much more closely back at him.

The aardvark is frantic. He has to get down from here. He has to get away from the glass eyes—six, eight, ten, twelve, twenty, sixty, eighty—that are arriving and arriving and arriving to stare at him from the dark recesses of the attic.

Lenore grows warmer. He can feel her warmth in his hands and against his chest. Lenore is singing to herself. “I never saw the sun shinin’ so bright, Never saw things goin’ so right.” George wants to leave his study. The creatures do not want him to go. In George’s head the membrane speaks: “George, don’t go.” Lenore caws, “Release the children, George . . . leave this room and release the children . . . ”

The neighbors of Mercy Street do not know what is happening down there at the molecular level.

Lenore struggles against his tight grasp. She fights, but George does not let go. Inside George’s head a list of the mundane and the most bizarre thoughts he has ever had loop over and over. Repeated memories and flashes of circumstances past. And images of a billion extinct creatures. A photo album of existence, cracked photos of life as it is, never was, always was. On and on and on . . .   Lenore screams, “Caw-caw-caw-caw.” George releases her and she flies about the room. “Caw-caw.” George turns and opens the door to let Lenore fly from the room. George, broken from his trance, follows her down the hallway, past the Thomson’s gazelle standing in the doorway of George’s bedroom, and away from the aardvark who is crawling ever so slowly toward him. George descends the staircase following Lenore. “Catch up with me, George.”

The membrane of a billion creatures spills out of the room behind them. The membrane engulfs the Thomson’s gazelle. The aardvark momentarily halts its creeping advance. It does not want to become one with the membrane.

George follows Lenore’s flight down the stairs and along the hallway and his eyes catch the movement behind the glass encasing the photograph of his sister. He halts transfixed and watches the tiny image of his sister—her fists banging on the picture frame glass—her voice, muffled, “Georgie, don’t leave. Georgie, let me out, let me out.” Lenore flutters beside George then dives into the photograph, exchanging places with the image of George‘s sister. George looks down. His sister now stands beside him. George scoops her up and carries her to the front room. The Philco is still playing.

“Blue skies smilin’ at me,
Nothin’ but blue skies do I see.”

George wants to leave this house. He wants to be released. He holds his sister to him and feels her renewed warmth. He now has what he wants. He has what he needs and he can leave all the rest behind.

“Bluebirds singin’ a song,
Nothin’ but bluebirds all day long.”

The membrane reaches the bottom of the stairs and oozes toward George.

The aardvark creeps cautiously behind. The aardvark wants to leave this house, too. It wants to leave this burrow. It wants to leave its long cold night of forever and ever and reach the warmth of the sun.

“I never saw the sun shinin’ so bright,
Never saw things goin’ so right.
Noticin’ the days hurryin’ by . . . ”

The aardvark rises up on its hind legs, perks up its ears and turns its head in all directions trying to pick up the resonance of the molecules. The aardvark begins to quake in its boots.

From a long way away, out there, from a point distant from Mercy Street, as distant as the beginning of time is to now . . . From a billion annihilations, one particular entity remains, and looking for a mate . . . is working its way toward Mercy Street.

The children of Mercy Street are frightened. The hot August day has turned to hot August night and they are stuck there on the front steps. No one has come for them and no one is looking for them and no one is passing by and deep down they are stuck and they began to quiver and shudder and heat up beyond the radiant heat of a hot August day and they are sure of nothing. The red dodge ball they have been playing with stirs. It shakes and spins and mounts the curb and rolls toward them with increasing speed and they are terrified.

George wishes to escape. The blackened windows loom larger and their blackness envelops the room. George’s eyes shift to the front door. He wants to be in motion toward it, but he cannot move. The membrane containing the 700-million-year-old sea-dwelling creatures comes to a standstill in the doorway of the front room. It listens to the music while it keeps an eye on George. The membrane hesitates for a trillionth of a second. Deep down it knows something is wrong at the molecular level. It cannot embrace George. George is beyond its grasp. The membrane turns and faces the trembling aardvark, engulfing it, and making it one with darkness and death. This membrane, which contains billions of 700-million-year-old creatures and an aardvark, sweeps up the stairs, passes George’s bedroom, then goes down the hall and up the ladder to the attic where it crawls into the cardboard box and shuts itself up.

The children are released. The centrifugal force that bound them to the stairs is broken. The red dodge ball pleads with them to waste no time—to run—to flee as far from Mercy Street as they can.

George does not make sense of any of this. He clings to his sister and tightens his grip. Things are continuing to happen at an accelerated pace down in the quantum world. The darkness is closing in.

“Blue skies all of them gone,”

George is fearful. The room is so dark he is nearly blind.

“Nothin’ but blue skies from now on.”

The body of George’s tiny sister begins to heat up. George feels the human warmth she exudes flooding into him and through him and this essence of human warmth begins to permeate the room and with it comes the smell of grass, and flowers, and it brings with it a feeling of far-off sadness and it intensifies the human need for touch and this warmth, this body, these eyes, this mouth cries, “Georgie, look after me. Don’t let me go.”

“Blue skies smilin’ at me,”

The backwash of human emotions long dormant in George intensify, making it difficult for George to orient himself. Is he still facing the front door? He tentatively takes one step forward as a window on his right shatters and through it comes a radiant orange-red fiery ball of light. It emits neither spark nor ray as it bounces along the room. George feels something akin to an electrical shock and he can hear the ball crackle and hiss. It bounces all around the room emitting a trail of bluish smoke.

“Nothin’ but blue skies do I see.”

It passes through solid objects in the room. It passes through the Philco...

“Bluebirds singin’ a song,
Nothin’ but bluebirds all day long.”

. . . but it causes no apparent damage. It continues to pass through objects in the room, but avoids George. The ball of light reminds George of an experience he had when he was a young man. A light streaming over him while he was surrounded by blue smoke. He frequently had visions of this smoky light running through his body and up and down his back, bringing with it clairvoyant experiences. He remembers the flashing pain he suffered soon after and the constricted feeling and then the night terrors that seized him when his sister died. He remembers not wanting to listen to the light and wanting to shut it out and how the light spoke to him and said he was turning away from a gift.

George did not want the gift then and does not want the gift now. George has been afraid for most of his life. George wants his mind to be still. He is ready to leave.

Everything has always been. George would always be. There is no death, no sudden disappearance, no vanishing, just always forever and ever.

This child, his sister, this being, he holds her in his arms as the ball bounces crazily about the room. She is proof of life everlasting, he thinks. I am no longer afraid.

“I never saw the sun shinin’ so bright,
Never saw things goin’ so right.
Noticin’ the days hurryin’ by,
When you’re in love . . .”

The ball of light is not through with him. George wants to escape it or he suspects he will be reduced to molecules and annihilated. George yells, “Not now. Not ever. I am no longer afraid.”

“Blue skies smilin’ at me,”
Nothing was as it should be.

The ball suspends itself in mid-air.

“Nothin’ but blue skies from now on.”

The ball says to George, “I’ve burned barns and melted wires.”

Nothing was as it should be.

“Bluebirds singin’ a song,
Nothin’ but bluebirds all day long.”

George orients enough to see the outline of his front door. He heads quickly for the door and he senses the ball is following. He turns to look and watches as it grow redder and he can feel the intense heat it gives off. The ball becomes more concentrated, turning from red to white. The brightness is such that George has to avert his eyes. He turns back toward the door.

“I never saw the sun shinin’ so bright,
Never saw things goin’ so right.
Noticin’ the days hurryin’ by,
When you’re in love,
my how they fly.”

He reaches the door, but now he has to fight the numerous locks he installed, as much to keep himself in as to keep others out. He gently puts his sister down and rips at the locks. He opens one, then two, and three then loses his place and relocks the second...

“Nothin’ but bluebirds . . .”

George feels the explosion. The Philco no longer exists. There are more explosions. The room is being consumed. The house itself will soon implode. George struggles with the locks. One more. No, two more.

The spinning white hot ball of light is tripping over the ferrite nails in the flooring in its haste to reach George. The skeleton of the platypus in the kitchen scoffs, “Nothing is as it should be.”

Nothing is as it should be. Something is wrong way down at the molecular level. This house on Mercy Street is quaking in its boots.

George snaps the last dead bolt. He cracks the door and feels the night air enter cautiously around him. He could leave. He can leave. He reaches down and takes his sister and swings her back up into his arms. He looks into her face . . . the lifeless head . . . the missing eyes . . . the hollow sockets under clay-formed brows . . . the human skin stretched over polyurethane foam . . . the human mounted life-sized trophy of a life that once was. George drops her from his arms. She does not call out. She cannot call out. She shatters as she hits the floor. George turns to face the open door. The ball of white heat expands and waits for a decision.

George Runk steps out onto Mercy Street.

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