The radio barely finished announcing the tornado warnings when the man in the ratty blazer stepped off the sidewalk – or was it more of a hop, just a bit too gleeful? – in front of Carl’s pickup. Carl slammed on the brakes, a couple tires locking and hydroplaning. Lily, knees already tucked at her chin, stopped mid-sentence. He instinctively reached up to shield his face with the palm of his hand, a hollow movement that offered only a flimsy promise of safety.
The truck stopped not more than a foot away from the man. He continued walking, the green traffic light above framing him in a nimbus like a prophet walking amongst the masses. Then he paused, baring his teeth. The primal gesture made Carl forget about screaming in self-righteous rage, not that anyone outside the car would have heard through the driving rain. “The hell’s wrong with people?” If Carl’s voice was shaking, Lily made no indication she noticed. She remained silent until they accelerated past the staring crowd on the sidewalk.
…storm system continues to pass through the greater metro area. Expect rain and hail into tomor– Lily switched off the radio, legs still clutched to her chest. “See, that’s a perfect example–”
“Really? This again? Can’t you just agree that something good finally happened to us?” He did not look at her, eyes on the road. Even though he could have, just for a moment.
She sighed. “No, ‘good’ or ‘bad’ aren’t the point. On a grand scale, those values don’t exist. I’m talking about the sheer odds.”
Carl gave a sharp gesture at the center console, like an orchestra conductor directing the percussionists in the back. “The numbers on the ticket right there are one in three hundred million. So there you go.” He snorted a brief laugh. “How about some other odds? Let’s see, apparently the odds of being devoured by a shark are–”
Lily waved her hand dismissively. “That’s horseshit. Those stats are meaningless. A ranch hand in Montana who has never left the state has a practically zero percent chance of being attacked by a shark. So it depends on the individual. Just like your odds.”
He silently maneuvered the car, swaying in the heavy gales like a pinball bouncing between the solid and dotted lines confining them to the lane. “No, the odds are the same for everyone. Every single time.”
“The numbers they give you on the commercial can’t possibly account for everything. Too much of it depends on personal circumstance.” She shot her left arm out like she was orating before her students, almost knocking the rearview mirror. “I know you don’t play every week. So what were the odds you played this week? Fifty percent? Now suddenly the odds of winning are twice as unlikely. How about the odds one of your buddies didn’t text you and get you distracted from going to the gas station? Factor in every single nugget of coincidence and chance that could have gotten in the way of your win, and you’re talking astronomical. Literally.”
They sat in silence with only the drumming rain for company. Blurred trees and signs passed on the right. Carl reached for the radio. …explanation for the behavior. We recommend listeners stay indoors, and if you are outside, seek shelter im– He switched it back off. “And yet I won.” Something like a wan grin crept across his face.
“And yet you won.” She frowned. “And that’s the point. Despite odds the human mind can’t even comprehend, you won.” She turned and gripped him with her bloodshot eyes. “Are you familiar with modal realism?”
He shrugged, attention focused on the few feet of visibility in front of him. “Of course not. Sounds like something you’d teach in one of your graduate classes.”
Lily shook her head. “It’s not my area. More philosophy than math. But let’s say there are infinite possible worlds. You say your odds were one in three hundred million. Even ignoring my point, that means in all but one of those millions and millions of possible worlds, you didn’t win.” The car continued hurtling forward, passing masses of people standing at the side of the road in the rain. Like they were waiting for a bus. Or just waiting. “Take that jackass back there. In how many possible worlds did he get caught in your wheelwell?” She paused, observing the large raindrops exploding against the windshield. “A lot more than ones where you had the winning ticket.”
Carl reached a trembling hand out and stroked her knee. He took a breath. “Alright, alright. But can we just accept that it happened regardless? Think of the positives.” He switched the radio back on. …limiting interactions to those you know personally. Multiple reports of unpred– The chatter blended into the background of the rain, thunder, and whirring engine. “Can we maybe, maybe, agree that this is something good that’s finally happened? That we finally caught a break, regardless of the why’s or how’s?” She hesitated before reaching for his arm, his skin clammy and slicked with sweat. She held it in an awkward show of affection. Solidarity.
“Let’s say we do.” She forced a smile.
“So we do.” His voice amplified with emotion. “You can quit your job at the university and focus on your research. No more sabbaticals because your colleagues ‘are concerned about your health.’ No more sideways looks because of your…” He trailed off, throat dry. “…ideas.” Lily sat quietly, staring through the dashboard. He shook his head and continued, “I can focus on my interests. Coaching, fishing.” He flashed her an emphatic smile and chuckled. “And hey, I can finally stop screwing up the kitchen myself and hire someone to do the remodel!”
“Sure.” Her attention drifted to the window beside her. The car rolled to a stop as the white Walk signs in front of them flashed on. Throngs of people crowded the sidewalks, torrents of rainwater flowing off their filthy bodies. But no one moved. Lily sat up, eyes darting from one end of the crosswalk to the other. Analyzing.
Everyone stood still, staring in the same direction. Toward the horizon, past the trees and buildings. Past the green-tinged sky. The only movement was a man pressing the Walk button on the light pole every few seconds.
His fingers were too long.
The light turned green and they accelerated. “Did you…” she began.
Carl waved his hand, almost in irritation. “Look, we just need to turn this thing in to make it official. Then it all changes for us.”
…smell it? It’s in here with me. I’ve earned this. Back to you, Kimberly. Lily smashed her fist into the radio dial. She sat up and ran her hand through her hair. The smoky green clouds teased funnels and blocked out everything else. “I just can’t accept–”
“Accept what?” He tossed her a quick glance.
“Look, if we accept this can happen – did happen – but maybe shouldn’t have, then what else do we have to accept?”
Carl’s tendons flexed in his left hand as he gripped the steering wheel, right hand fidgeting in hers. “Sure, things happen. Just like this happened.”
“Just like how you told me your wife died of cancer in her early thirties.”
“Jesus Christ, Lillian.” He pulled his hand back and slumped against the window.
They drove on in silence, both nearly catatonic. Lightning flashed followed almost instantly by crashing thunder, the noise acting as stand-ins for any verbal exchange. Eventually Lily dozed as they merged onto the freeway and later exited again. She repositioned in her seat, window cold against her face. After some time, she sat up, squinting through the downpour. Street light after street light arched over them as they drove. And every few lights, someone sat atop them. She rubbed at the window to clear some of the fog. Just up ahead, a little girl in a yellow rain slicker kicked her feet back and forth as though she were on a swing. Lily sat in disbelief, and while her thoughts were with the people above them, her eyes drifted to the side mirror. She shot bolt upright, recoiling. “Carl. Carl?”
An arm dangled from the truck bed.
No longer restrained by confusion, Lily turned her entire body around to look. Three people sat in the back of the pickup: a man in a t-shirt and jeans, a woman in gym clothes with a stroller next to her, and another man in a suit. All three sat with legs folded and backs straight, heads angled away from the truck. Up at the sky. The first two sat on the passenger side, and Lily could only see the backs of their heads, hair blowing in the wind. But the man in the suit was fully visible. His face was warped and contorted, something out of a funhouse mirror. If the mirror were melting.
Lily screamed. Carl startled at the harsh sound and looked in the rearview. Then he joined her with his own wide-eyed cacophony. He braked hard, only giving attention to his right foot and what he saw behind him. His hands moved automatically, the truck swerving before it stopped in the grass over the curb. They rushed from the car in tandem, communication wholly unnecessary. Running into the rain’s onslaught, they stopped fifty feet from the vehicle, close enough to each other to trade looks.
Everything was still. Children in the nearby park on the jungle gym. Couples on the sidewalk. A dog on the median. Even the pines stood as sentries despite the constant gales. All looking expectantly heavenward.
The thunder was slowly overtaken and enveloped by a roar, dull at first, but dopplering like an approaching freight train. Lily and Carl could only watch, transfixed. All other sounds were lost to the terrible rending of the sky, splitting at its very fabric, the tearing of bone on flesh writ large. As the sky pulled apart, the screaming abyss beyond spilled into the world.
Nathaniel W. Phillips (Twitter: @Nathaniel_WP) writes into the night and homebrews into the night, often at the same time. He lives just outside of Raleigh, North Carolina.