Ella sat by Nana’s body for two days before she pushed it out the window.
She had spent the first half-day realizing what death was, the next half-day grieving, the following morning waking and feeling reverent if somewhat nauseated, and trying to decide what to do.
It was three in the morning when she finally did it, and it was almost the season of electric rains.
There had been one already, fitful and slight, harbinger of spring and the season of avoidance. Once the weather warmed in Washington, D.C., thunderstorms boiled up almost every evening, preceded by the leaves in the park across the street turning up silver undersides. Ella was twelve, and had grown up knowing that she could not let the rains, or the rare snows, touch her.
But Ella had to take Nana home. Besides, she was beginning to smell bad. Night was a good time, the time least likely to rain.
In the end it was easy. There was no heat in the old lady’s three-room apartment with the toweringly high ceilings and the hole in the plaster that looked like South America, so she’d not gotten very warm. The old lady had an electrical setup but used it only for cooking and powering a space heater in the most bitterly cold weather, hooking up big sparking clamps, which scared Ella. There were people who kept the grid alive, down by Anacostia. Engineers, and those whom they taught, people who had escaped the first electric rains, like Ella and Nana.
By now, the body was very stiff. Ella was not surprised to find that the tiny old lady was not terribly heavy. She wrapped the body in the sheet upon which she had died, which made her easy to pull over the shiny wood floor, through the sitting room with its yellowed lace doilies and once-valuable international knickknacks—the ancient Chinese vase, the intricately carved Vietnamese table, the rug from nineteenth century Baghdad—and managed to lift her to chairs and then push her onto an oval table of shiny hardwood, a table she herself had polished only days before, one of the unending chores the old lady had her do so they could “live with dignity in this shit-eating world.”
She shoved the table on its clawed wheels to the window. Grunting, she pushed up the reluctant sash. Paint chips flurried in the moonlit air, and the gust of wind took Ella by surprise: It was warm.
That was not good.
She leaned out the window; sniffed the air. It smelled too warm, like sudden spring. Perhaps it was. And the stars were obscured by cloud.
No matter. She had to do this, and soon.
She looked up and down the length of the street, waited until a lone car stopped at the light and then moved past, low, prowling beams of light ahead. She leaned out further, saw a few ragged shapes curled on the sidewalk. She swallowed. The rain people, those who didn’t go down into the Metro but let the rain wash them countless times, could sometimes be normal, harmless. But sometimes . . .
She looked back at Nana’s face, her delicately curved nose, her imp-like face overwhelmed by wrinkles, her high lacy collar always kept clean and white.
A middle-aged man used to visit, and talked to Nana blusteringly, with wide frantic gestures. He always frowned at the sight of Ella and she knew that the man did not like her being there and couldn’t do a damned thing about it. She didn’t like him much either. “Little bitch,” he called her, the time he had squeezed her back in among Nana’s spicy-musty clothes, but she had kicked him hard and he hadn’t tried it again.
She sat down in one of the high-backed chairs and watched Nana for a moment.
Then, through the doubled wavy glass of the high windows, she saw a light streak through the heavens. A monitor plane, checking for contagion. Very rare. Nana laughed derisively whenever they saw one. “It won’t be safe in our lifetimes, missy. At least,” her voice gentled, “not in mine.”
Ella knew, though, that the light was the spirit of Nana and that it was all right, that she did not have to tell anyone, that she could stay here as long as she wanted to. That was Nana’s plan. Nana had talked about papers she had signed, and showed her the key to the safety deposit box at the bank. That nasty old man would do something about it, she was sure. He blabbered about the apartment being a “gold mine,” and called Nana stupid all the time, even though he was her nephew.
But because of the newspaper room, she knew that both of them might well be insane. In the back of the townhouse was a huge room filled with stacks of old Washington Posts, yellowed, crumbling, musty-smelling. Nana had her cut out the crossword puzzles from each day, right by the funnies, and put them into a box from which she drew; she did one a day.
The newspapers were sorted roughly into years, but the year that Ella was most interested in was the year, the very day, that terrorists had run an Amtrak Silver Eagle from New York into Union Station in downtown Washington at full speed, crashing right into the lobby of the station.
They had hoped that in the resulting confusion they would be able to get into the Capitol Building, a block away, and set off their dirty bomb.
Their particular dirty bomb was not full of radioactive material. It was, instead, full of what became taken up by the atmosphere, rather than filling up the Capitol Building. That material was what had turned into electric rains.
The Post headline for that day said TERRORISTS DECIMATE DIRTY BOMB.
The terrorists had, apparently, been Ella’s parents. She deduced this by reading several month’s worth of Washington Posts, and hid them from Nana. That was not difficult in a room full of newspapers.
There was probably no bank anymore with the important papers in it; or, if there was, there was no one to pay attention to them, anyway.
Ella knew that Nana had lived here all her life and had seen her beloved city change and change and change and all the relatives and friends who really cared for her die until she was all alone, except for Ella, in the place she owned; the rest of the building she had divided into apartments when younger and rented them. Now, she kept the squatters out with fierce bars, preferring them to be empty rather than full of the “rain riffraff” which now inhabited Washington.
Ella climbed onto the table, knelt, and pushed the woman’s shoulders. She leaned forward and grunted. It was harder than she thought it would be. Finally Nana’s legs and her hips were outside and Ella, with a shriek, let go.
The window had a deep sill which overlooked 14th Street in Washington D.C., between R and S Streets. It was a place, Ella had been made to understand from listening to endless stories of hell and glory from Nana, burnished to mahogany smoothness by many tellings, which had felt the ebb and flow of time. When Nana’s grandfather had bought the building, the street was genteel, alive with a shop for each need, even if that need was for fresh flowers, a need which Nana and now Ella felt keenly as stomach-hunger: brilliant purple zinnias mixed with broad creamy spider chrysanthemums, studded with red baby rosebuds, ah! Set on the grand dining room table, they made one feel royal.
But Nana, Ella often observed, had no problem feeling royal. She told Ella tales of the city lights being akin to blood for her, tales of being young and speeding about the city in a fine gray car, and then jolting on the farting buses when they still ran. Now, there were no buses, and the Metro entrances glowed. People had taken refuge underground when the electric rains had begun, but of course it had been too late: The rains, with their voices, had gotten them, had spread its contagion among them.
Now, if they went anywhere, they had to walk, even after Nana was attacked and raped. After that she walked her same route, head held high, Ella in tow and terrified, a heavy gun in her pocket that she practiced with once a week in the back alley on bottles and cans, laughing every time she blew one to bits. Once she dropped a young woman gangster just like that, when the gangster walked toward them holding a knife, and then she became known and feared, even by the people who danced up and down the street singing, “What a glorious feeling, I’m happy again!” The electric-rain people sometimes had ragged parades, which marched beneath their window. They blew horns, and usually wore hats to hide their terrible deformities.
A warm breeze stirred the curtains. Ella was filled with terrified reverence as she gazed down on Nana, who had landed spread-eagle, face-up. The sheet had caught on a ledge and fluttered just below Ella, so Nana gazed at the stars.
Nana loved the stars, and had taught Ella their names; she had a formidable telescope she kept inside a little concrete room on the roof. On clear nights, cold or hot, they would go up, unlock the giant padlock, roll out the telescope onto the bumpy roof, and gaze all night, drunk on pulsing lights arranged with the precision of numbers. “If you got close they’d change position so you wouldn’t recognize them but of course you can’t get that close,” Nana told Ella. One night, as a great treat, she’d shot out the six remaining park lights so that the sky would be darker. “Ha!” she laughed. “Think the cops will show up? Not a chance.”
Ella knew there was not a chance—she knew what cops were, but had never seen one. She only knew that now that park would be dark at night forever.
“I used to go to lectures with my dad every Friday night at the Naval Observatory,” she told Ella in her deep, rough voice, sticking her gun back in her pocket. “Now that’s dark. Gentle man, so kind, too good for this world. Nothing like me.”
But Ella saw gentleness everywhere in her, in the way she took care of Ella, how she took care to keep her in fine silk pajamas, how she made sure the linens were always clean, lowering the laundry down to Ella waiting nervously on the street with a red wagon that said Radio Flyer on the side, then trundling down to the Deep-Clean Laundro-Mat. “Shitty machines,” she always said, “and they cheat us on the drying time but what can you do?”—a litany Ella had grown quite used to. Once she asked if they could not just dry the clothes on a clothesline and had received a lecture about the possibility of electric rain polluting the clothes. The Deep-Clean was operated by an old man who wore very clean clothes, a fine and eccentric mix of clothes—thin wool suits in winter with vests and colorful silk ties and combat boots; beautiful, starched cotton dresses with aprons in the summer that he claimed he’d stolen from the Smithsonian Historic Collection. He ran his machines with a generator and spent most of his time gathering fuel.
Well, now Nana had returned to the streets.
Ella was very unhappy as she gazed down at her. She should have wrapped her more tightly, she thought now; she should have hidden her from the world; she should have cushioned the fall.
Suddenly frantic, she ran for the linen closet. Every sheet was ironed and folded; Nana knew how to take up the time of day, that was certain. Ella pulled a chain and the closet lit up and she felt the neat but sparse row with her finger and lit on the smoothest, oldest one, white cotton limp with age and use, smooth as glass, and yanked it out.
She paused to look around the apartment. She felt in her pocket for the key. She went to Nana’s bedroom; got her purse which she had never before violated, a shapeless black leather affair, and pulled out the wallet, stuck it next to the key in her pocket. The gun was already there. She stepped out into the hall holding the sheet, locked the door, and ran down five flights of stairs.
At the foot of the stairs she pulled out the key chain and felt for the key to the closet beneath the stairs. Unlocking the storage closet, she pulled out the laundry wagon.
Once outside, she felt exposed. She’d never been outside, alone, that she could remember. She took a deep breath and looked down at Nana.
She expected blood but there was none. Maybe death had dried it; maybe it was frozen in Nana’s veins now that there was no heart to move it. She heard glass break a block away, and distant gunfire. She felt in her pocket Nana’s heavy gun, filled with bullets; she had checked as Nana had taught her.
She hastily spread the sheet on the sidewalk next to Nana. Taking a deep breath, she knelt and shoved her hands beneath Nana’s shoulder and bony hip and pushed. Nana rolled on to the sheet, twice, there, now she was well on and Ella took the edge of the sheet, pulled it over her face, and felt better. Pushing with all her might, she rolled the woman up in the sheet like an egg roll, tucking the ends in.
Now for the hard part. Nana was not tall; in fact, she was no taller than Ella and often complained of having shrunk.
Ella tipped the wagon on its side and pulled it next to Nana. Now what? She set the wagon back up. She could do it. She had lifted her onto the chairs, the table, hadn’t she? But she was a lot more tired now.
She heard shuffling footsteps behind her and whirled.
A shape of rags was making its way toward her.
The shape had a greasy silk scarf folded like a triangle and tied beneath the chin; probably a woman. She looked at Ella, the wagon, and the sheeted shape. Squatting, she shoved her arms beneath the body and lifted it into the wagon. Ella noticed that she had very large feet in dark untied boots. She stammered, “Thank you.”
The . . . person said, “S’all right,” and shuffled along.
Nana’s torso and thighs took up the wagon; her legs stuck out stiffly behind and her head was just a bump. Ella picked up the handle and paused.
She looked out across the park, her only play yard for so long, and then only rarely. She remembered little before Nana: a beautiful face framed by smooth, sweet-smelling, pitch-black hair which swung forward and tickled Ella’s face; an older brother. Ella would always remember him, his baggy sweater hanging from wide shoulders; she never told these things to Nana, nor did she tell her about the special school she attended, and though she knew that her whole family had died, she no longer believed the story Nana told her, that they had been shot all of them by a thin white man for no reason at all as they left a restaurant in Georgetown while Nana watched from inside, then rushed out and grabbed her, then jumped into a taxi, when Ella was about four or five. She had no memory of such a thing, and she remembered things before.
She knew who she was. She had been there. At the train crash. And now, she had seen the newspaper article.
TERRORIST’S CHILD SAVED BY DECORATED ADMIRAL
She took another deep breath of sharp air. The park benches across the street were filled with dark lumpy shapes. She and Nana planted tulips there every fall, which they got from the cold basement of a deserted nursery, and nothing delighted them so much as to see them come up every spring; they did not even mind when people picked them, for flowers are meant to be picked, Nana said. But for a precious two weeks they flamed gold and red and when the twisty old trees were darkened with rain the flowers took on deeper color and then everything was so absolutely beautiful.
But now the blooms had come and gone. A match flared tiny across the street then went out. 14th Street stretched before her. She had a very long walk ahead of her. She picked up the wagon handle, glad that the street was level here.
Her memory of the route was of changing constellations of lights, for once a month they had walked this route, at night, Nana swinging her gun in her hand openly. “Exercise,” she would exclaim with satisfaction at regular intervals. “Exercise! This is my city too, dammit!”
Now, Ella was terrified. Here she was, all alone, pulling a dead old woman in a wagon through no-man’s land. She leaned forward and yanked hard.
She was wearing her glasses. She felt like taking them off, but did not. When she walked with Nana, she had often removed them, until their absence was noticed and Nana demanded that she put them back on. She had noticed Ella stumbling several years earlier and checked her eyes. It was then that Ella found out that there were such people as ophthalmologists, and that Nana was one—or had been one. After the months of the first electric rains, when her parents, fifth-generation Americans from Kansas City, had been on trial for treason, everyone who could, fled the city, or were drawn into the Metro station, where, rumor had it (and they so claimed), her parents had placed some of the first uploading devices. Even the Washington Post faltered, but then cloaked their intrepid reporters in rain gear—ineffective, they soon learned—and soldiered on.
Nana’s office was two blocks away from the apartment, dark and full of mysterious shapes until Nana flicked on the lights. “Ah,” she said. “Electricity. And my equipment is still here. Amazing. Sit up there in that chair, missy. Here’s a pillow.” And she looked into Ella’s eyes and clicked this and that until the world was sharp enough to draw tears; sharp enough to force Ella to leave fuzziness behind, enough to make her behold, remember, yearn, and regret.
Nana let Ella pick out several frames and made lenses for them all. “Who knows if this will even be here, next month,” she said, sighing. “I loved my work. Not many can say that, missy.”
Ella had been amazed to see, once the glasses had been slid onto her face and they stepped out into the night, that the moon was a single sharp sliver, and not white mounds resembling scoops of snowy ice cream on a velvet black sky. With glasses, she had seen the stars for the first time without the telescope. She had always believed that she needed that special tool to see stars, but there they were: a part of the everyday life of those who could see. But still she missed the blurry blossoms of light, the fuzzed red taillights shimmering on wet streets, the towers of lights, which, with glasses, were revealed as buildings with actual edges.
After that, Nana’s newspaper room beckoned increasingly. “Never could bear to throw away the paper till I’d read the whole thing,” she said.
Ella read advertisements from a lost world. She read advice columns about strange and alien problems: my mother-in-law is too controlling; when should I tell my fiancée that I’m bisexual?
Finally, after figuring out the dates and searching extensively, she found biographies of her parents, starting above the fold on page one and continuing on page A-9. A thrill went through her when she saw their pictures. Then she burst out crying.
They had both worked for the Department of Homeland Defense, and decided that what their country was doing was all wrong. Ella felt very strange reading her mother say, “You have killed my son. I demand to have my daughter back. We only wanted the best for her. She was supposed to be one of the first people uploaded.”
When she read that, Ella stood up and made her way to the window through and over stacks of newspapers. She stared out at the park, with its soldier-statue darkened in patches by the rain that had been falling for days, at the shiny, wet streets, no longer full of evacuees but only the occasional car, inside of which, she could only imagine, sat intrepid, stubborn people like Nana. You could tell electric rain from regular rain because the charged nanocrystals glowed. Each one was unimaginably small, the paper said, but together they produced sweeping rainbow effects, and, at night, a seductively beautiful scintillation, like you were traveling among the stars.
It was an initiation device, which changed the biochemistry of your brain, readying you for uploading. Making you want it.
You would remain uploaded until the world was ready for peace, when you would be downloaded into the new bodies they would have ready for you by then.
Outside, in the air above 14th Street, in colors of electric rains, Ella saw her parents’ faces, an afterimage of staring at their newspaper photographs.
According to the paper, they had been executed several years ago, on August 17th of the year of their terrorist attack. Because they worked for the Department of Homeland Defense and knew all possible avenues of attack, so far no one had been able to hack into any of the components of their grand plan, which swept up the East Coast, and was borne inland and then out to sea by hurricanes. By then, it was reproducing, and had taken over New York City and all of the coastal cities down to Miami.
Ella yanked at the tall window sash, but it was painted shut. She banged and smashed on it with her fist and was finally getting it to open, just a crack, when Nana came in. She immediately saw the paper and grabbed Ella. Ella fought her, struggled, but Nana was surprisingly strong and finally Ella collapsed, sobbing, into her arms.
“There’s nothing out there,” Nana told her, in a surprisingly tender voice. “You’ve got to live your life here and now. Remember how I found you.”
They planted crops in the back yard of the townhouse—soybeans, corn, potatoes, and kale—and the electric rains did not survive their trip through the soil to the roots.
And Ella did not forget what she had read.
Ella felt relatively safe on 14th Street, especially with the gun in her pocket. She had no qualms about shooting someone who might want to hurt her. Nana had drilled her fiercely about that, shoot first and think later, they wouldn’t do any different. She knew this was true, and she needed her glasses to see these threats approaching, and in gauging the degree of threat. She knew she looked defenseless trudging along with her strange bundle. This walk would take till well past daylight, and then she would find a place to nap and return at night.
Now, the city unfolded around her with splendor. A liquor store on the next block glowed with neon of all colors, green, blue, yellow, and she slipped her glasses down briefly and saw it: yes, the unfolding flower the lights became without that focus. She loved that flower, and Nana always had to yank her along, at this point. She stopped, though, and absorbed the beauty of the flower, the glowing petal-point of intersecting green and red which read quite dully COORS with her glasses on. This was one of the landmarks. She went faster to get past the rotting smell of the dumpster in the alley next to the store, another landmark.
The usual bodies lay in front of it, and some cardboard structures. She was not afraid; these people were the least of her problems. The wagon squeaked past them. They would not rouse even if kicked, for Nana always gave each one a token kick as she passed, saying, “Scum! Sluggards! Weaklings! You’re ruining my beautiful city!” and the like, and no one ever moved. Music blared from the door as Ella passed, and within she saw a bald, wary black man, his head washed in white neon, and rows and rows of bottles. He glanced up from a tiny TV sitting on his counter as she squeaked past. They had a television set, but Nana never turned it on anymore. There was no news, only old sitcoms and soap operas.
Next was a block of pawnshops drawn tight with aluminum fences drawn down in the evening, terribly dark, no streetlights. She waited on that corner until a car swept down 14th Street and illuminated the sidewalk for a moment. A few bums in doorways, nothing more. She pulled forward as quickly as she could, trying not to seem afraid and hurried, standing straight, as if she were strong and powerful. In the middle of the block a shadowy figure lurched toward her. She veered to the left and reached into her pocket, then saw him fall with a thump without any assistance from her.
On the next corner she pulled her glasses down again, for an instant, and could just see the red blinking light on top of the Monument, which stood atop a low green hill behind all the buildings ahead of her. Prostitutes postured in very short skirts and low blouses, running out and stopping a rare car. A door opened and two got in; an arm reached out and shoved the others away; one fell down on the street and got up dusting her butt off yelling, “Fuck you too.” But they did not bother Ella as she trundled past.
Ella was feeling a little better now. Chinatown was to her left, a few blocks over, and Ella pulled her glasses down to blur the beautiful green dragon which arched high above the buildings hiding the rest of Chinatown, fusing it into a creature who roared into flame with the pulse of her own heartbeat then returned to a coiled position. There was no clearer place to see the dragon; a block further back or forward the dragon was hidden by other buildings. She was filled with joy at the sight of the dragon each time she saw it.
Once she had been walking down the street and stopped at a tangle of white string at her feet. It was fringed with red and blue, and as she looked Ella had become aware that it was, miraculously, twisted into the shape of a dragon, perfectly and unmistakably. She had picked it up carefully and pressed it in one of Nana’s musty books which crumpled in tiny sharp triangles from the corners of the pages whenever she opened it, with print so small that it was almost impossible to read. The dragon always gave her strength and it did now, flashing beneath the moonless sky as if, without her glasses, it were independent of buildings, poised in the sky, dancing for her, telling her that she deserved to be alive for reasons she did not understand.
Next came the Man on Horseback, one of her favorite statues. His sword was brandished. He would protect her. She had seen him many times, dappled with sunlight, which moved as the broad branches overhead shifted in the summer wind; plastered with dead orange leaves. The bums there were old and kind, never mean; Nana told her that they were different, that for many bum generations they had preyed on government workers ascending from the Metro, an easy touch. And she always gestured toward the site of the old YWCA Cafeteria a few blocks over. Nana used to meet her friends there for lunch, and Ella knew Nana’s memory of the inside almost as well as she knew the inside of their apartment: the tall windows, the wide booths, the cheap, good food, the sound of silverware plunked on trays drifting up to the high ceiling. Nana had a table and two ladder-back chairs she bought from the cafeteria when it had been closed and the furnishings went up for sale, sitting in one of the apartment alcoves. Ella had never minded polishing the old worn wood; she loved polishing all the things in Nana’s apartment; they seemed to miraculously hold a past just beneath their surface which was lush and carefree and deep, like flowers, like city lights, something she could feel like heat as her fingers felt out their ornate crevices; and afterwards they always had good green tea from a beautiful pot covered with china flowers, and Nana always seemed so happy to see everything shining and perfect like the rows of linens in the closet.
Ella was very tired. Her feet burned; her legs felt like rubber. She became afraid that she had gone out of her way and fear closed her throat for a moment. She removed her glasses and recognized none of the blurred constellations.
And it began to rain.
She saw one scintillation and it was like the first flake of snow: Was it real?
The Smithsonian Institute was two blocks away. Nana had brought her here on sharp blue winter days, carrying flashlights so that she could see the insides of the dark museums. One time when they went, self-appointed technicians had found the central power switch and illuminated everything, but usually they saw everything in the focused beam of a flashlight, in pieces. Nana liked Modern Art more than anything else, so Ella had seen the reclining Matisse women with hairy armpits, the two-faced Picassos, the sharp edges of Cézanne. She had also seen things much more mysterious: a pendulum that never stopped swinging; the history of atomic energy; a small thing called a capsule which had orbited the earth. These were the things that interested her the most.
Ella began to run. She was tired, but she had no choice: She had to get out of the electric rains before it began to pour. As far as she knew there were two alternatives. You would hear ethereal singing voices, or beautiful music, the intrepid Washington Post had reported, and be irresistibly drawn to a Metro entrance. If you went down into the Metro, you would be uploaded. Or you could stay out of the rain.
The trial of her parents had taken place in Los Angeles, which had become the new capital of the United States. The Post had gotten hold of some of their classified scientific papers and published them; the papers were subsequently critiqued by other scientists who condemned their uploading processes as being untested and dangerous. Others said that they had been tested, and that they worked, and that the entire Cabinet and the President and all of the Congress had been briefed on an alternate uploading system, one that was manufactured by the company that the President had once run.
As Ella ran uphill, a glow lit the grayness of the morning and she realized that not only was she almost at the Smithsonian, she was also almost at the Metro entrance for the museum.
It was glowing most brilliantly now and she stopped, panting, as the scintillations increased. She only had moments before the singing would begin, before she would become one of the derelicts drunk on electric rain living in the streets, or drawn down into the Metro.
Her parents had not been uploaded, according to the newspaper. But . . . would they not have made copies of themselves? She had asked Nana once, and Nana had become very angry and said that those people were not her parents; they were criminals and that they had ruined her city and that she should be grateful to have a home at all, and that was the end of it. She kept her thoughts to herself after that, but did not stop wondering.
Perhaps they were there, in the brilliant light emanating from the subway entrance.
Perhaps she could see them again.
If she just went into that glowing, beautiful entrance, down the rainbowed stairs . . .
She took a few steps toward it, across the Mall, then forced herself to stop. She looked back at the sheet-wrapped body.
Nana had taken good care of her. She had to do this one thing. Even though Nana had not asked, she knew it was what she wanted.
Turning, she ran under the deep concrete overhang of a nearby building and huddled down to wait out the shower.
Electric rains drifted across the face of the Castle, making it look magical. She could see the top of the Washington Monument; the anti-terrorist doors had long since been removed and she and Nana had hiked to the top one lovely winter morning, and that was one of the few times she had seen Nana cry. “My city,” she had said. “My beautiful city.”
Ella thought that she heard one vagrant melody, in her head, faint, like birdsong through the closed window in the spring, like all the loveliness she had ever known, like flat clean sheets, like glowing polished wood, like bright tulips, and she began to sing her own songs, loudly, songs that Nana had taught her. “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” “From the Halls of Montezuma,” and “Beautiful Ohio.” She stood up in the concrete alcove and shouted, “B-I-N-G-O, B-I-N-G-O, B-I-N-G-O and Bingo was his name-o.” The echo was almost like a round, as if Nana was singing with her, overlapping her sounds to make chords.
But it was so hard to think that her own parents had been wrong. And it made her angry that Nana had never told her the truth. She began to cry, then wiped away her tears.
The shower was over. The slight green buds on the trees lining the Mall sparkled in the morning sun.
And five people approached the wagon holding Nana.
Three were women and two were men, walking across the tall, dry winter grass of the unmown Mall. They were of various ages. One woman, with long blonde hair, was wearing shorts and a sweater. The two men wore business suits and red ties. The other two women were middle-aged and also wore suits.
The wagon was about two hundred feet away from Ella’s shelter.
She wasn’t sure what to do. She decided to stay in hiding until they passed.
But apparently they had spotted the wagon, all alone out there, and were heading toward it. She could hear them faintly.
“What’s this?” asked one of the men. He bent down and began pulling at the sheet. The women murmured excitedly, and the blonde woman smiled broadly.
“A body! What luck!” She picked up the wagon handle.
Ella, heart beating hard, ran out from beneath her alcove. “Stop!”
They all turned, looking surprised.
“She’s . . . mine.”
Ella was closer now, about twenty feet away.
“Why, how could she possibly be yours?” asked one of the middle-aged women. “You’re far too young to have your own body.”
“We need her,” smiled the blonde woman. “For the greater good. So that more of us can get out. And change things. You come with us, sweetie.” She gestured toward the Metro entrance, still glowing.
“She’s not very old,” muttered one of the men. “She can wait a while.”
Ella fumbled in her pocket. The gun got caught on some folds, but finally she got it out. She held it steady, as Nana had taught her. “You can’t have her.”
“Why, you greedy little—”
Ella thought sure he was going to say “bitch.” She fired over his head.
The blonde woman turned pale. Ella was glad. She was afraid that they would not care if they were shot. “Get away or I’ll shoot you all.”
They all looked at each other uneasily. One of the middle-aged women crouched down and held out a hand. “I . . . used to have a daughter like you, honey. I know you’re scared and lonely. Come with us and we’ll help you out.”
Ella advanced steadily, still holding the gun on them. “I have plenty of bullets.”
One of the men pulled on the blonde woman’s arm. “Come on. It’s not worth it. It took us a long time just to get our bodies.”
Still, they backed away slowly, as of one accord. They did not turn away from Ella until they were farther away, and then they ran toward the Metro entrance and disappeared into the glow.
It was then that Ella knew for sure: She did not want to go down into the Metro. Not ever.
A gray overcast crept over the sky, threatening a day of spring drizzle. Ella figured she had about three miles to go. She’d better get started.
Independence Avenue was right across the street. Now it was just a few blocks’ walk, past the Washington Monument and the Vietnam War Memorial. She had gone there with Nana several times. Her son’s name was on the wall.
Ella picked up the handle from where she had let it clank to the sidewalk and trudged on. She smelled the dampness of the river and knew well where it was anyway. She and Nana often sat on its banks and watched the beautiful lights of traffic wind along the Virginia shore, and from time to time Nana dressed them both up in finery, took a taxi to a restaurant full of crushed velvet and dark wood, high above the river, sipped a tiny bright drink before dinner as she watched the lights hungrily, sometimes through a glimmer of tears, and taught Ella to like snails.
No. Neither of those were true. They were stories Nana had told her, many times, stories about how it would be again once everything was right. Once the electric rains were over.
She was getting tired, she realized. Tired and hungry and thirsty. After a long trudge, while the sky became steadily more gray, she finally glimpsed them: the magnificent naked people, the man astride the horse, the woman leading it.
And across the bridge, set on a hill, the white mansion.
Ella’s arms ached, but the wagon didn’t seem quite as heavy now though she dreaded the hill. The river was swift and rushing below the bridge and she felt as if the dragon of light was bursting through her own chest as she walked across the arch of the bridge.
Once across it, she had to turn back, not forward, to get her bearings, crossing the main highway via another circle and running up the asphalt until the angle of the hill stopped her. There were only four turns now. And here—
Here was the stone that said Admiral James Tolliver.
The man who had rescued her, and then died.
To the right was another stone for Nana: Rose Ann Tolliver.
Nana always hurried past these stones, but Ella always saw her glance at them; saw tears well in her eyes. Perhaps she thought that Ella didn’t know her real name. Perhaps she was pretending that Ella had never seen the newspaper articles.
Perhaps she was pretending that, by rescuing Ella, her husband had ingested the electric rains, and was lost somewhere, uploaded to an unknown future. There was no body here, beneath the stone that read National Hero. He had given his life to help prevent what had actually happened. Maybe.
Or maybe, because of him, it had not happened everywhere.
Ella, grunting, tipped the wagon sideways. Rose Ann Tolliver tumbled out. Ella pushed and pulled on her until she was roughly aligned with the headstone. It was all she could do. She had no shovel. She got out Nana’s old driver’s license and slipped it inside the sheet. She saw fresh flowers on some of the graves. Maybe there were real people here. Maybe they were taking care of things. She was not sure she wanted to meet them, though. Just because they took care of Arlington Cemetery did not mean they were sane. But they might bury Rose Ann Tolliver next to the memory of her husband.
There was the Pentagon, to her right. Five sides, Nana had taken care to teach her the shapes, but somehow Ella thought she had already known.
She sat below the decaying white mansion and thought of the things that could happen. The things Nana had said might happen. The day that she said might come, the day that Nana told her she had to live for.
All the people living in Washington the day of the attack, the ones caught in the electric rains, the ones who had rushed into the Metro and been uploaded, would be downloaded. The world would be new, peace-loving, like Ella’s parents had believed it could be.
Those people would go about their lives in Nana’s timeless, beautiful Washington. They would go to office jobs, come home to families, eat snails in French restaurants or dim sum in Chinatown. They would think, read, do research, go to concerts and plays. They would walk the lovely, tree-lined streets of Washington with friends and relatives.
They would not be afraid of the rains.
But when would that be? Ella wondered.
And why would they be any different than the people she had just met?
How long was she supposed to polish the furniture, iron the sheets, and plant the dwindling supply of tulip bulbs?
And how was this supposed to happen?
Were there really people elsewhere? Normal, old-fashioned people, not rain-mad? In California? Was anyone flying the monitor planes?
Was there any place the electric rains had not reached, a place where they were doing all the things Nana had longed to do, or figuring out how to do them very soon?
What would happen if the electric rains fell on her and there was no place to run to, no Metro where she could be uploaded? Would she just go mad herself?
Nana might not have thought that these were good questions to ask. But she did.
Ella rose from the damp ground and brushed leaves from her pants. She picked up the wagon handle. The wagon would be useful.
“Goodbye, Nana,” she said, and walked down the narrow cemetery road heading west.
© 2007 by Kathleen Ann Goonan.
Originally published in Eclipse One,
edited by Jonathan Strahan.
Reprinted by permission of the author.