It feels, Emma says, like the world is shifting under her feet.
When her doctor insists there is no physical reason for her vertigo, she seeks a second opinion. When the second matches the first, she gets a third, this time from a neurologist. Three doctors, three physicals, with blood draws and EKGs and stress tests and MRIs. No diagnosis. She is advised to manage her stress, to eat healthily, to get enough rest.
Emma knows her vertigo has nothing to do with diet or stress or lack of sleep. She sees doctors because she wants to be proved wrong. She wants a physical explanation because anything—uncontrolled diabetes, thyroid problems, chronic eyestrain, even a tumor in her brain—would be better than the truth she can no longer deny.
If she isn’t sick, the world really is shifting. Something is wrong with the universe.
Something is trying to break through, and Emma feels each attempt. She shouldn’t be able to—feeling this is like being able to feel the earth’s rotation, enormous and impossible—but she does. She imagines something huge and terrible—she pictures a massive bull made of smog and shadow, although she’s sure the reality is more horrifying than that—charging toward the edge of some other world. Each time it hits the barrier that keeps it where it belongs, the barrier gives a little more. Each impact of the bull’s flat skull and twisted horns sends a compression wave through to the other side. The universe shudders—the world shifts—and Emma feels it.
What’s worse is that, if she looks up and focuses in just the right way when the vertigo hits, she can also see the cracks in the barrier. They hover in her field of vision, vague black slashes that tremble and vanish when she tries to look directly at them. Harmless floaters, her doctors say, but she knows otherwise. She imagines soon she’ll also start hearing the impacts. They’ll echo like sonic booms, each a little louder than the last.
Emma wonders how long it will be before the barrier crumbles and the bull crashes through, clearing the way for its brothers. It’s not alone; she’s certain of that. It will lead a herd of trampling beasts.
It finally happens two weeks after she loses her job (her boss at Ward & West Booksellers is apologetic but cannot afford to keep her on when she spends more time dizzy in the backroom than helping customers on the sales floor). She is walking in the city, heading west toward Central Park on 72nd because strolling around the lake sometimes clears her head. It’s a late spring morning, warm and bright, and the sidewalk is clogged with meandering tourists. She’s still more than a block away from the park when the ground tilts and the cracks appear in the air. This time she does hear it—it’s a sick thud, not a boom at all—and she realizes the breaks are deeper than before. Blacker. They stay in place, even when she focuses on them.
The crack in front of her is huge. It balloons out cartoonishly as another thud sends a pulse through the concrete under her boots.
Emma freezes. Pedestrians on the crowded sidewalk dodge and grumble, but she doesn’t notice. Her attention is on the bulging crack. It widens enough for her to see through. A white mass—as wispy and indistinct as smoke, although she imagines she can make out a shape like a bull’s head—glows against the blackness inside. Within the shape, a putrid yellow eye rolls to look back at her. The eye is bloodshot, rimmed with red. Lidless and almost reptilian, not bovine at all. Its stare is dead, she’s sure of it, yet it still focuses on her.
It seems wrong that the world should end on such a nice morning. Without thinking, Emma reaches out and grabs the edges of the crack. Her hands grip something hot and pliable and slimy, like folds of thick, greasy fabric left to rot in the sun, and she braces herself, pulling the crack shut. It won’t stay unless she’s there to hold it, and her arms already ache from the effort, but at least it’s closed. The world trembles as the bull tries again, charging and thudding. Emma holds firm. She stares at the bottom of the crack and sees it slowly knitting itself back together. The sight makes her laugh in triumph. If she can just keep hold until it mends....
But people are noticing, she realizes. They can’t see the crack, but they can see her, a lunatic woman posing strangely and laughing at nothing. Someone speaks gently and touches her shoulders, trying to lead her out of the way. Someone else uses a cell phone to call the police. She cannot be distracted. She must not be moved. She screams at them to leave her alone, let her be, can’t they see she’s trying to save them all?
When the police cruiser pulls up, followed by an ambulance, she snarls and fights. She holds onto the crack in the universe, summoning every spare ounce of strength, but she is no match for two deputies and two paramedics. As they yank her back and strap her to the stretcher, she loses her grip. The crack balloons out again, and she swears she hears a huff of air like the snort of a bull. It blows hot and wet on her reaching hands.
She watches the crack through the rear window as the ambulance pulls into traffic. The first bull-creature steps through into the bright, warm morning. Tail lashing, it tests the air with wide, flaring nostrils. Dead yellow eyes roll hungrily in red-rimmed sockets. As the end begins, the shift in the world is like an earthquake.
No one feels it but Emma.