Three

Barack woke with a warm tide at his knees, and he crawled backwards into the damp sand above the waves, where he sat up, buried his eyes in his palms, and willed vigilance to settle in. There was sand in his teeth. He remembered that the sun was rising, but that couldn’t be right. It must have been setting. He didn’t think he’d slept through the day though.

Something. Day. Sunrise. Haircut. The wind is cool. Why were the waves warm? Smells like seaweed. Haircut means go inland. Flip flops. Michelle. The woman with no face.

It was morning. He was twisting his palms now, but he remembered the morning light, his shadow stretching into the foam. But the sun was in the west. He swung his palms out and blinked until the swimming stars faded and the world came into focus.

It was an eye. A world-sized, tarry earthworm creature curled up from behind the horizon, and its neon-blue eye flashed in the sun as it scanned back and forth, bobbing in circles. It was hard to make sense of its enormity or to read its shape. Staring didn’t help. It was distant enough to lose a dimension. Like high clouds or the other side of the Grand Canyon, it seemed projected onto reality.

He watched, eyes wide, panting, as the creature sank into the horizon. The waters didn’t crash around it. It wasn’t submerging. It was disappearing behind the curvature of the Earth.

Then it was gone. There was the morning-blue sky and a white tangle of cloud. The deeper ocean was red and boiling, and a sharp line dragged it toward the coast.

“Kevin!” he screamed, and at first there was no answer. He heard his panic, and the reptile part of his brain demanded that he flee from the blood. He staggered up the beach to oblige, but kept watching the ocean. The eye hadn’t been flashing when he was waking up. The creature had been watching him. He screamed again, “Kevin, come out!”

When he dragged his eyes away from the blood, he found Kevin walking toward him from the direction of the pier. He still wore a suit and sunglasses, and he raised his arm in greeting. Barack wore only his wrinkled pants, which had torn at the knee. He turned back to the ocean. The blood was coming in quickly, though it was still a long way out. It would reach them in a few minutes if he had the distances right.

He looked back toward the pier. Kevin stood a few feet away. He held a prescription bottle with its cap off, and he handed it to Barack, who shook out three Xanax and swallowed them. They left a bitter slime.

“How are the men with guns?”

He gave the bottle back, already comforted by the knowledge of the drug. Kevin screwed the cap back on and slid it into his coat.

“Mostly unified.”

“So,” said Barack with a smile he hoped was more charming than deranged, “I bet you’ve saved a few of my lives.”

“Just one,” said Kevin. “But he almost phoned home. Of course, we’ve kept you invisible.”

They watched the blood. It seemed faster, but that was probably just the perspective. Barack kept his estimate at a few minutes. He lit a cigarette and paced, drifting up the beach.

“I figured,” he said. “Easier to erase me for them than gunfire for me.”

“I tried to honor your desire for privacy.”

It wasn’t perspective. The blood was coming in faster. There wasn’t time to handle Kevin’s feelings.

“I’m sorry,” he said anyway.

“They joked about my eye,” said Kevin. “The jokes were inherently sexist.”

“It healed. First thing I’ll need is a haircut.”

“There are clippers in the car, and we have a suit for you. We’ll clean you up before the stylist sees you.”

They walked away from the beach. A long, black car waited in the distance. It hadn’t been there long.

“Any scientists still American?”

“They’ll come back when they have a country.”

“Any challengers?”

“That may require diplomacy.”

Barack stopped and flicked his cigarette. Its ember spun, and visions of the worm drifted through his awareness, great dragons swimming through the space behind his eyes. Two passed each other, and he was terrified again. He wanted another Xanax, but knew better than to binge.

“How many serpents are there?”

“Three.”

The peer caught fire when the blood touched it. They ran to the car, and the driver hurried them inland.

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