Have you ever found yourself on a midtown sidewalk on some warm July day when a plummeting body splattered on the pavement, directly in front of you? Close enough to feel the explosive shockwave of hot liquid air, pelting your trousers with meat pellets the size of quarters? Have you ever staggered backward, sodden with gore and spitting out substances you could not stand to identify, half-blinded because some of it got in your eyes, the screams of other pedestrians rising all around you, the smell of blood and shit hitting like a second assault almost as bad as the first, followed by the third that arrives in the form of an epiphany: somebody’s just jumped, yes, somebody’s just jumped, from the roof or some shattered window in the mirrored glass edifice high above you; and that’s a human life on the ground before you, and on you, and if the taste is any indication, in you? Has that ever happened?
Have you ever felt an invisible fist tighten around your diaphragm, your stomach rebelling, the sick awareness that you were about to vomit racing the gray awareness that you might faint? Has this ever made your knees go weak and have you ever felt gravity lurch as the gore-sodden ground called to you? Have you had a fraction of a second to register something odd about the corpse, not what little remains of its humanoid form, but the cut of its clothing, which seem odd somehow, in ways you can’t quite catalogue before the next body lands?
Did the next one burst open the same way the first one did, prompting everybody around you to a fresh round of gasps and screams and the sensible reaction, among the many hundreds also traversing this avenue on this fine morning, to look up?
Have you ever also surrendered to this wholly reasonable impulse and searched the sky for explanation, only to see that it was peppered with dozens of other flailing forms, black as pepper against a sky as blue as any Pacific lagoon?
Before you look away, do you have a moment to focus on the one or two of them falling your way and see the terror-struck eyes, their gaping mouths, their flailing limbs? Do you recognize that they are not the corpses they will shortly become, but living people who know what’s happening to them?
Does one crumple the hood of a nearby taxi? Does one strike the wire bearing a traffic light, rebound, and hit the ground spinning, shedding parts of itself as it goes? Does a third flatten a woman near you, whose last sight as she peered upward must have been another woman, not unlike herself, whose outstretched arms must have looked like an offer to embrace?
Did they all break open on impact, each like a water balloon filled with blood? Did some shatter glass windows at ground level? Have you ever heard the screams of horror coming from every direction, that of people reacting to carnage that did not involve them, suddenly changing character as the people in the street understood that this was not some tragedy they were witnessing but one they were part of?
Have you ever staggered through this madness, too stunned to formulate a practical plan for finding shelter from this storm, and felt yourself step into something hot and steaming that swallowed your right shoe as you stepped out, leaving you soaked to the lower calves with blood?
Did you feel the world around shudder as some other falling body struck a protrusion of some sort, maybe a flagpole, somewhere above your head, and you became the eye of a storm within the storm as the scarlet fragments rained in a perfect circle around you?
Were you then knocked down by some young man fleeing for shelter? Did you mistake the impact for one of the bodies striking you dead center? As you toppled face-first, landing on a street already well-greased with human juice, did you think that this was the last moment of your life?
Did you see the young man in question—a skinny guy with a scraggly black beard and sweat-stained t-shirt, likely homeless if the filth was any indication, though everybody in sight was filthy now—struck in the shoulders by a body tumbling with such force that the impact bent him in half?
Did you see beyond him other people crawling through the abattoir, their groping hands sweeping whorls on sidewalks turned to bloody finger-painting canvases?
Were you trampled again? Did a young woman’s stiletto heel pierce the small of your back as she stumbled over you? Was she then bowled off her feet by another small mob of panicked people with no plan other than getting out of the open? Did the mob crush her against a glass storefront that first wobbled and then shattered, the glittering cascade slicing into all those unlucky enough to be forced into the store window as it went? Did you see the people in the rear of that mob thrashing and clawing and biting those ahead of them in their desperation to get past the dead and crushed and wounded?
Did the storm of falling bodies intensify? Did the points of impact take down the members of that mob in groups of three and four at a time, panicking the mob even more, so that the piled humanity at the shattered window was high enough to slide back downward, burying some of the still-living behind them whose only sin was seeking purchase?
Was that when the tattoo of bodies striking down grew even louder, like a rainfall that has intensified from drizzle to shower to torrent?
Was it now hundreds? Did you now hear a wet thumping drumbeat in every direction? Were you surrounded by breaking glass, rending metal, screams cut off in mid-breath, the shrieks of men and women losing their sanity from the ongoing deluge, and the even more evocative wet sounds that these bags of flesh made as they broke open, splashing every nearby surface?
Did you somehow rise, the blood of your wounded back now mingling with the spatter of so many, the agony elevating our tortured, staggering walk into the most difficult effort of your entire life? Did you not know which direction to flee? Did your traumatized gaze find a chubby-faced man in a gray jacket gesturing at you from the doorway of a nearby office building? Did you make your way toward him in most direct route you could manage, even as the intensifying storm dropped more bodies in your path? Did you step on necks, on faces? Did you stumble over boneless legs bent in more ways than legs should be able to bend? Were the bodies piling up into higher ridges and did you sometimes sink into them, not into the spaces between the bodies but into the bodies themselves, the strained skin and flesh giving way like thin ice beneath your weight, to plunge you knee-deep into the already shattered organs beneath? Did your one bare foot go molten with agony the time what shattered beneath your weight was a splintered ribcage, slicing to the bone? And throughout all of this, were you hearing the screams of all the other people caught outside being cut off, being smothered, being hammered to silence, by the screaming holocaust from above?
Were you almost blind from the blood stinging your eyes by the time you made it to the door that chubby-faced man had been holding open for you? Did you still feel his hand grab you by the wrist and pull you into a narrow lobby crowded with other refugees moaning and retching and weeping? Did you hear him tell you that you were okay now and think that you had never heard anything so fatuous? Was his face so dotted with red specks that he looked like a victim of pox? Did you take in his greenish pallor and shiny forehead and air of imminent panic and despite his efforts to save you did you hate him a little, for having been lucky enough to be inside during the storm? Did you murmur something incoherent as you pushed your way past him into a lobby greasy with blood, either that tracked-in or that oozing in through the passages to the outside? Did you see men and women and children huddled against the walls, some of them panting, some of them openly sobbing, a few finding solace in one another’s arms, most of them looking like they’d just gone swimming through viscera?
Did you hear that crack behind you? Did you whirl at the sound? Did you see a jagged lightning-bolt fissure spreading across the glass of the window, as some body part—not a complete body, but a limb—crashed into it at high speed? Did you realize that the lobby was not a safe haven after all, that what was happening outside would impinge on this space soon enough, and that you needed to penetrate deeper into the building for the protection of its walls to do you any good? Did you shuffle past those who had collapsed immediately upon entry? Did you have to step over a slender stringy-haired girl whose age and features were impossible to discern beneath glistening veneer of blood, who lay on her side between you and the elevator bank, trembling? Were you aware that only a few minutes ago you would have been shocked by her appearance? Or that, seeing how broken she appeared to be, you would have reached out a hand and offered whatever was in your power to help? Were you no longer capable of that instinctive response?
Did you hear a thumping drumbeat coming from the elevator bank, a group of six? Did you see that in each case the narrow line between left door and right doors were oozing gore and that puddles were beginning to form outside a couple of them? How long did it take for the epiphany to form, that the storm had penetrated past the roof and invaded the shafts? Did you picture the plummeting bodies landing atop each elevator car, wherever it had last come to rest? Did you picture the cars catching some of what fell, the rest toppling over their sides and plummeting the rest of the way to the bottom of the shaft? Did you do the necessary math and figure how long it would take the bodies to start accumulating at the bottom, like bloody snowfall? Did you consider those that still piled atop each elevator and figure that it would still be no time at all before the cables were all supporting more weight than they’d been designed for? Did you even have any idea what modern elevators did when overloaded, whether those cables would snap, whether the emergency brakes would come into play, or whether the cars would plunge like missiles, smashing into the stacked corpses that had preceded them? Did you turn away, find the nearest stairwell, and start to climb, following the shining and bloody trail of at least one other refugee from the street who had come this way before you?
What was it like to climb that stairwell, a towering vertical space whose structural integrity still held for now? Did you enjoy the relative silence, not total, but still a shock of a sort after all the screaming and dying from outside and downstairs? Did you find your tears mingling with the patina of blood on your cheeks? Did you smell everything that had landed on you, the gore, the bile, the shit, the puke? Did you feel your stomach clench again, once again urging the eruption that it had been forced to put off earlier? Did you feel a fresh stabbing pain in your injured foot, with every step? Did the one shoe you’d kept squish with every step, from all the substances it had splashed in? Did you just kick it away after a flight or so, feeling relief, taking odd pleasure in the feel of the cold feel of that staircase, a surface that felt real on a day when nothing did?
Did you encounter two women, one a tear-streaked redhead not far into her twenties, the other a gray matron in a pantsuit, supporting each other as they made their way down the stairs? Did they stop, gasping, when they saw you climbing toward them? Did it occur to you that they may have seen in you some version of the horror-movie cliché of some bloody zombie, rising from the depths to eat their brains? Did you see them realize that you were just someone from deeper in the catastrophe that had engulfed you all? Did the young woman stagger in mid-step? Did the older one hold her upright with what seemed a hideous expenditure of will, and did you shake your head, not speaking, but indicating with that gesture that there was no point in descending any farther? Did she glance upward and shake her head, too, establishing that there was also no real point in ascending? Was that when the central well between each half-flight of stairs began to drip scarlet rain, establishing that at some level higher above, the stairwell had also been breached? Did you register the drumbeat echoing downward and understand that you had minutes at most before the stairwells would become cascades, river rapids so powerful that any attempt to ascend to higher floors would be an exercise in wading against a current too powerful to permit any progress in that direction?
Did you close your gummy eyes and continue to take the steps one at a time, just as the younger woman’s mind snapped and the stairwell became an echo chamber for shrieking? Did you manage another flight, another five, your injured foot shrieking almost as loudly to your ears, but ignoring it because it was all you could do? Did you feel the walls around you shudder as something nearby dropped a chorus of shrieking people to their deaths, and did you have the presence of mind to know that this must have been one of the elevators, surrendering to the inevitable? Did you stagger at the thunderous and terribly liquid crash a dozen stories below? Did your imagination insist on providing a vivid illustration of all those shattered bodies left beneath that hammer’s blow, pulping even further from that impact?
Did you feel a rush of sudden dizziness, perhaps blood loss and perhaps shock, perhaps emotional surfeit, and perhaps just the strain on anybody used to sedentary activities, not used to pushing itself up this many flights of stairs this quickly? Did you feel yourself sway at the next landing, gray spots gathering at the periphery of your vision? Did you gasp and punch the wall and gather your will to stay upright, before ripping open the door to the nearest floor, the twelfth? Did you emerge onto whatever company’s cubicle farm occupied that floor, and did your appearance raise gasps from the workers there, all clustered in the center of the room away from windows that had shattered inward? Were the overhead lights flickering? Did you have the feeling that it would be minutes at most before they failed, and darkness was added to your problems?
Did you confirm by the blurred shapes plummeting past those windows, that there had been no lessening of the storm? Was the sky instead black with plunging bodies, all thrashing in doomed attempts to fly? Were there thousands more falling with every instant? Did you feel the need to say something to all these wide-eyed people staring at you, a report from downstairs, a bulletin from the street? Did the words fail to come? Did it strike you that they were unnecessary? Did you stumble further into their midst, see the one sandy-haired guy in the thin tie stand up as if to protest at your intrusion, then think better of it and sit down? Did any of these ridiculously clean creatures from a civilization that pre-dated your condition make further attempts to intercept you? Did you stop before an Asian woman turning to gray who recoiled when you looked at her and seemed relieved when it turned out that all you wanted was directions to a bathroom? Even then, did she just point with trembling hand, because it made no sense for her to speak?
Did you then make your way to the little room at the end of a hallway and inside find a mirror that revealed to you a vision of yourself you had never imagined, and wished that you could not see now? Was the gore so thick on your face and on your clothing that it was not red but black, and were there white flecks that could only be bone fragments? Did you not see anybody you knew in that reflection? Did you turn the tap and find to your astonishment that it still provided water? Did you run the stream and splash it over your face, rinsing some of what painted you down the drain? Did you scrub and scrub before realizing that it made no difference, that there was too much for anything but a long shower to make a difference? Did you succeed in finding your old self behind the remnants of everything you’d crawled through? Even as your face was as clean as it was ever going to get, was the reflection that of a stranger?
Did the clear hot water streaming from the spigot then sputter and hiccup, only to turn pink and then red, before stopping?
Did you consider everything you had still wanted from this life? The people you loved, the dreams you’d held to your breast? Did it then strike you that it was all irrelevant now?
Did you emerge from the bathroom no less horrific nor more recognizably human, but with fresh resolve, as you stormed past the office workers whose great fortune in being inside at the start of this cataclysm had only afforded them a few more minutes of safety? Did you find your way blocked by a balding older man, likely a manager, appealing to you for explanation? Did you place the palm of your hand against his chest and urge him aside, and continue toward one of the abandoned glassed-in offices at the outskirts, which had shielded the central cubicles from the direct effects of the storm? Did you ignore the shouts of panic from behind you and open the glass door, entering a rectangular space now as ruined as any battlefield? Did you step over the corpse of the gray-haired man whose office it had been, and approach the one empty frame that had lost its window to multiple impacts, the only one that offered any degree of visibility between the two that were spiderwebbed with cracks and opaque from the blood streaming from higher floors?
Did you stand there, on the edge of the bodyfall, breathing deeply as if in appreciation of a refreshing summer shower, taking in the aerial view of the boulevard now so deep in pulped corpses that the accumulation had formed drifts two or three stories high? Did you smell the fires from crashed airplanes? Did you see another jet, drawing a hornet’s-swarm of corpses in its slipstream, disappearing behind the buildings on the other side of the street? Did you wince at the vast eruption of flame? Did you shudder and draw your focus closer, to the bodies falling in great number only a few feet away from where you stood? Was the airspace over the street so thick with them that it seemed conceivable to leap from one to another as they plunged, and in that way, cross the street on their falling backs? Did you see what was written on the faces you were able to glimpse, faces that were similar to humanity but not of it?
What did you see on those faces? Was it fear? Resignation? Or apology?
Did you peer down at the street you’d escaped? Did you see the mass of fallen bodies, now risen well past the level of the fourth floor, and still rising? Did you perceive that while most individuals in that mass were dead, the whole throbbed as if alive? Did any of the bodies who’d landed face up seem to meet your gaze, before they sank or were buried by those who fell afterward?
Did they seem inviting, to you?
Did it seem easier to just give in to the inevitable and join them?
If so, what did you do next?