The man in the white shirt had finally stopped screaming.
He lay face down on the parking lot, and Steve thought he might still be alive. Every few minutes his limbs, or what remained of them, would twitch, sending up thin spirals of smoke. His shirt was no longer white; it had first turned red, then a pale, watery pink as the rain—
“How long will it last?” the young kid with the nose ring asked for the tenth time. The kid came in once a month, but Steve could never remember his name. Jake, Jack, something like that.
Steve stared out the plate glass window and didn’t answer. He didn’t know why the kid kept asking. Steve owned the barbershop; it didn’t make him an authority on anything but cutting hair. George, one of the old regulars, sat in the chair farthest from the window, his faded eyes staring off into nothing, mumbling nonsense under his breath.
When the storm started, they hadn’t thought anything of it, but when the emergency news broadcast had flashed on the corner-mounted television, the three of them fell silent at once. Steve would never forget the look on the newsman’s face. Not five minutes after the warning to stay inside at all costs, the man in the white shirt pulled into the lot and got out of his car. He didn’t notice the kid’s frantic waving hands or hear Steve’s shouts as they tried to get his attention. He made it about fifteen feet before he collapsed, writhing in agony.
He must not have been listening to the radio. He must not have known, but when he opened his car door and smelled it, why didn't he stay inside? He had to smell it. It stinks like sulfur and wet metal mixed with something dark. Something very, very wrong.
After the first disturbing broadcast, the television had reverted to the usual daytime nonsense. There was something very wrong about that, too.
The kid stepped closer to Steve and dropped his voice to a whisper. “Where do you think it’s coming from? I mean, I’ve heard of acid rain, but this shit? That guy, did you see what it did to his skin? How come they don’t know what it is? How come they don’t know why? How long will it last?”
“Kid, will you just shut up?” Steve said. He kept his voice calm, but his hands clenched into fists.
The kid’s eyes grew wide, but his mouth shut and stayed shut.
Steve sighed and unclenched his fists. “Look, I don’t know where it came from or what’s caused it. I don’t know anything more than you do. The most important thing is that we can’t go out in it, not unless we want to end up like him.” He pointed to the man outside.
The kid turned away and plopped himself down in one of the chairs, spinning it around so he could watch the rain.
The rain sounded like a normal spring storm, albeit a heavy one. It bothered Steve. It bothered him more than the absence of an updated news report, more than the dying man in the once-white shirt. It shouldn’t sound that way at all. No wind blew, no lightning flashed, no thunder rumbled, only the caustic rain falling from a sky gone a sick shade of greyish-green.
Maybe Mother Nature’s heart finally broke and these are her bitter tears.
Wisps of grey rose up from what used to be a small patch of grass between the sidewalk and the parking lot. At the far edge of the lot, all the leaves on a large oak tree had fallen prey to the rain first. The thinnest branches went next, and Steve suspected the rest would not last more than an hour.
There won’t be much left of the man then, either. I should have gone out anyway. I should have tried—
Shuffling footsteps broke through his reverie. George walked up, his face pale as milk, and stopped so close their shoulders almost touched. Dark purple circles like old bruises darkened the skin under his eyes.
“My Daisy. I let her outside before I came here,” he said in a whispery, paper-thin voice. “I didn’t think I’d be gone long. She’s got a doghouse. Do you think she’s smart enough to wait in there until it’s over?”
Steve put his hand on George’s shoulder. “I think so. She’s a good dog.”
“I just hate to think of her out there alone. I know she’s scared. She likes to play in the rain. You don’t think she’d try to play in this, do you?”
Steve shook his head and tried to swallow the huge lump in his throat. George’s wife died last year, and they never had children. He lived alone with Daisy, a feisty Golden Retriever. The thought of Daisy lying in the yard, in the rain… Steve pushed the image out of his mind. Dogs were smarter than people gave them credit for; she was probably hiding out in her doghouse, just like the old man said.
The newsman said only organic materials were vulnerable and people were safe indoors. Steve wondered. A faint, fog-like mist had begun to rise from the hood of his car. He didn’t think George or the kid had noticed. Yet. If the rain didn’t stop, how long would it take before it ate through the paint and the metal? And what about the roof over their heads? He reached over and flipped a switch. The barber pole slowed down and down, the stripes like bright ribbons.
Ribbons of flesh and blood.
Steve shuddered. He tucked his hands in his pockets and thought about the dying man in the parking lot, only vaguely aware when the kid came over to stand at his right. George stayed at his left, and the three of them stood in silence, watching the rain.