Just like that, the entire world froze, every single person on Earth, all except for Matthew Harris, a brilliant, young software engineer student in enemy occupied Colorado. At first, it's all fun and games as he takes advantage of what appears to be an incredible opportunity to act without consequence, but as the weeks wear on, he begins to wonder if this is going to be his new reality. There's something off about all of this, though...He just has to figure out what it is.
Have I gone crazy? Did that fall finally do it?
“Are you real?” the girl asks, a curious look engraved on her amber skin. She looks like she’s only a couple years younger than me, if that, maybe fifteen or sixteen. She’s actually quite tall, though, probably an inch or two shorter than me. Her grey eyes are filled with concern, but also with something I’ve been searching for this whole week; they’re filled with hope.
I look at her with my eyes wide open, and suddenly I’m very self-aware of the fact that I’m only wearing boxers.
“Ye—yes…” I stammer, shocked by the sound of my own voice, which, of course, has remained unused for more than a week. “Are you?”
“And you can see me?” she continues, moving towards me from her place behind the car. I pick myself up off the ground and inch my way along the wall of the building behind me.
“Well, yeah,” I say. I scoot sideways, making my way steadily towards a man “walking” down the street a short distance off. “What’s going on? Do you know?”
The girl just shrugs, continuing to make her way in my direction. I arrive at the gentleman and take the coat he’s carrying from his stiff arms, then wrap it around myself and zip it up. I’m sure I look like an idiot, but I don’t care.
“Okay,” I continue. “How did you, you know…”
I’m not sure exactly how to put it. Rather, I’m not sure how to put it in a way that won’t make me sound stupid. She pauses a few feet in front of me and looks me over.
“How did I what?”
“How are you, moving, I guess?”
“How are you moving?” she counters.
I stare at her, puzzled, but defeated. With a shrug, I dismiss her valid response and fold my arms, too in shock to think of a proper reaction. The next few moments seem to carry on for an infinitely long period of time, while the two of us struggle in silence to process what is happening. I’m finding that I have to retrain myself to actually think and respond to something—to someone—animate.
“I saw you fall.”
“I saw you fall. From the building. Was it on purpose?”
My cheeks turn red at her probing question. “Yeah.”
“I don’t know,” I say, choking on the words. I suddenly feel much more exposed than I did before putting on the jacket. Just like that, all of my inner darkness has been thrust out into the open, all my supposed secret thoughts over the past week, everything that I assumed was between me and myself. Now, there’s a bright spotlight shining on all my pent-up guilt, something I was hoping to bury away. My initial instinct is to run, but how can I? The hope that I may not be alone anymore clings far too hard to allow my legs to react.
“It’s okay. I’ve tried similar things,” she says consolingly, seeing the panicked look on my face.
The girl smiles, and a wave of warmth and relief rushes through me, sweeping away the despair and guilt threatening to bubble up again. I return her smile and move forward with my hand outstretched.
“My name’s Matthew. Matthew Harris,” I say. She accepts my hand, taking it firmly in her own. Her skin is smooth and cool, but not clammy like mine usually is.
“I’m Kim. Kim Reisberg.”
I can’t help but smile wider at the sound of her voice. I don’t know if it’s just the fact that I haven’t heard anyone else speak for days, but there’s something addicting about her tone, the rich, alto timbre of it, the way she seems to infuse her genuine emotions into every syllable. It makes me feel like my entire soul is exhaling, like it’s been holding its breath and can finally breathe for the first time since the world stopped moving.
So, I found some pants and a shirt at a nearby store—the very least I could do to make myself presentable. It’s my first time wearing clothes in a long while, and it feels a little weird, to be honest; but, it’s a necessary measure now that I’m not the only one moving around. Kim and I haven’t left each other’s side since meeting a few hours ago, both of us afraid that we’ll lose the other if we split up for even a moment. We’ve been going everywhere and doing everything together, soaking in each moment and savoring this new reality of ours, the reality that we’re not alone in this strange frozen world.
Kim and I sit on a bench in the bird sanctuary at the zoo. Colorful and exotic birds surround us, all paused mid-flight, their wings stretched out in a stunning showcase of their shimmering plumage. I don’t come to the zoo nearly often enough; I even get in for free with a student’s pass.
“Kind of lucky that I did jump off that building, huh?” I say. Kim is sitting next to me on one of the observation benches, while a woman in her seventies sits on my other side, her hands preserved in the action of applying more makeup to her face.
“Yeah? How so?”
“I mean, imagine the chances of us running into each other. It’s lucky that we met at all, considering how big the city is and how many people are in it.”
She smiles and shrugs.
“Not luck. Sometimes people just need people, and life has a way of making that work out.”
I turn to her and grin. She looks back at me with that same warm smile from earlier. I don’t know what it is, but something about her makes me feel like I’ve known her my whole life. Maybe it’s the way she talks, the way her tone makes you feel like you’ve never been a stranger to her. Perhaps it’s something deeper, something that’s just a part of who she is.
“Well, if we’re going to be frozen together forever, we might as well get to know each other. Where are you from?” I ask.
“I’m from the north boroughs, up by Standley Lake. My family’s been there for generations.”
I try to hide my instinctual grimace, but fail horribly. “Ah, isn’t that a pretty rough area? I feel like I’m always hearing about something crazy happening there.”
“Yeah,” she admits quietly. “I mean, it didn’t used to be too bad. You just had to make sure to stay away from certain streets. Since the invasion, though, the cops have been ignoring our neighborhood, and things are just getting worse.”
“Why would they do that? The cops, I mean?”
She shrugs, almost seeming indifferent. “Nowadays, their only focus is keeping uprisings from happening. Gangs are only loyal to money and power. They don’t really care about who’s in charge of the country. So, the provisional government doesn’t see gangs as a threat so long as they stay in their little bubble of influence. It’s kind of a symbiotic relationship between the two, actually; the gangs keep our neighborhood in check, keep anyone from gaining too much power, and, as a result, they profit from the government’s hands-off approach to law enforcement.”
“Hmm. I’ve never thought about that.”
“What about you? Where are you from?” she asks, pushing past my tone that I thought suggested continuing interest. Clearly, she doesn’t want to talk about it anymore.
“Oh, I’m actually from Seattle; I just came down here for college. I live in a little duplex in Lincoln Park near campus.”
She raises her eyebrows and shakes her head in shock.
“Okay, two things. First, college? How old are you?”
I grin, trying unsuccessfully to suppress my pride. “I’m seventeen. I graduated early from high school and got accepted to UC.”
“You must be super smart then,” she says in awe.
“Nah, just a mix of luck, I think.”
“Psh, I don’t believe in luck,” she says dismissively. “Not just anyone can get into UC. You must be studying software then? What kind of grades did you have in high school to get in there? I’ve thought about applying myself someday.”
“It wasn’t so much the grades. I think they liked some of my apps and offered me full tuition.”
“Ah, you make apps. What have you made? Maybe I’ve heard of it.”
I bring my arm down and wring my hands gently. I’m not sure I want to say; people always seem to behave differently around me when they find out.
“Well, my first was ChimeHive, but I’ve made others like Portle and SySTEM.”
She stares at me with her mouth wide open. For a second, I worry that she’s become frozen like everyone else, but then she opens her mouth wider and leans forward.
“ChimeHive? Are you kidding me?” She grins smugly and leans back in her seat, throwing her arm on the bench back behind me. “Yeah, I’m in eternal lockdown with just the most famous developer of our era.”
I laugh. “I don’t know about that.”
“Okay, two,” she says, moving on. “Seattle. Isn’t that at the edge of the occupation? Things are pretty hot there right now, yeah?”
I frown and look down at the ground. “Yeah.”
Kim raises her inner eyebrows sympathetically and inches a bit closer.
“What about your family?” she dares to ask. I shuffle my feet uncomfortably.
“I don’t know. Latest reports are saying roughly seventy percent of the city is destroyed, including the neighborhood I’m from. I haven’t heard from my family in a few months.”
I don’t like the way this conversation is going. I’ve avoided discussing the topic with anyone who knows me, anyone who knows where I’m from. After defeating the Panamerican Seventh Armored Division in Denver, the Europeans swept across the western Americas, facing little to no resistance as they passed quickly over the Rockies and onward towards the sea, unopposed. Only after meeting fierce resistance in Los Angeles and Seattle did their advance come to a halt, and ever since, those two cities have been brutally beaten to bits by both sides, bombed practically beyond recognition. It’s the last foothold we have in the lower Panamerican territories, and the Mandarins seem hell-bent on holding it at all costs. It’s a subject of hope for most everyone in the occupied territories, but for me it’s just a solemn reminder that my home is nothing more than dust now.
“Have you thought about going back?”
I look over at her and shrug.
“What difference would it make? If they’re gone, they’re gone. If they’ve fled, I wouldn’t even know where to start looking for them. And I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it would be to cross the European front right now.”
I stare at a passing parakeet, at its green and yellow feathers stretched out in a magnificent display as it prepares to land atop a feeding perch. I begin to consider her question more seriously. If everything is frozen all over the world, just like it is here in Denver, it wouldn’t, in fact, be that difficult to cross the front. But still…
“Honestly, I just don’t think I could handle it if the truth turns out to be what I expect it to be. I would just feel so...alone.”
Kim gives me a half smile and takes one of my hands, both of which are red again from rubbing them together. I smile weakly back. Without saying anything, I can tell she gets it, she understands what I’m trying to say with words that feel so incapable of describing what I feel.
“Hey, if we ever get out of this thing, this weird pause, whatever it is, would you want to go together?”
It takes me a moment to register what she’s said, and for a moment I wonder if I heard her correctly. Normally, I wouldn’t even consider the idea, especially not with someone I just met. But for some reason, her offer seems natural, not at all out of place, considering our circumstances and all.
“You mean it?” I ask skeptically.
“Yeah, of course. You aren’t on your own anymore, you know. I won’t let you feel alone again.”
I smile wider and grip her hand tight. “I think I’d like that.”
We keep our gazes locked on each other for a moment longer, and my thoughts turn to the feel of her fingers in-between my own, to the connection between us deepening with each passing moment. Maybe it’s something about sharing this strange reality together, but I feel an indescribable link tying us together, something more than superficial.
She takes her hand back and stands up.
“Come on, let's go do something to get your mind off everything.”
I stand up, too, and follow her as she makes her way out of the sanctuary.