atlas was permitted the opinion

Atlas was permitted the opinion that he was at liberty, if he wished, to drop the Earth and creep away; but this opinion was all that he was permitted.

-Franz Kafka,

After, it's like everything is behind a screen (you were the love of my long life) (and you were mine) and she can't touch it, she can't be touched. George used to be able to hug her, but now he can't, and Nina can't, and the Annie can't, she can't even touch herself. You were the love of my long life. You were. You were. You were.

Peoplediethat'swhatpeopledo. Except Mitchell—Mitchell wasn't supposed to, that was what made them so perfect, you and me is for eternity, only it wasn't, only they weren't, only, only—

Can't live without you, he had said, only it turns out he couldn't live with her, either.

.x.

She doesn't blow anything up. She doesn't go into Mitchell's room and lie on his bed and cry and cry and cry. She doesn't make tea. Annie just . . . doesn't.

George doesn't, either. They sit together on the couch and stare at nothing, the TV screen in crinkled static, and so. And so. The couch is too big. Once upon a time there had been three of them. Once upon a time there had been a pink house, and they had lived in it, Annie and George and Mitchell, being human.

Nina holds the baby in her arms and whispers, nuzzling their noses. Plates of food and cups of chamomile pile up on the coffee table, but George and Annie, they don't. George and Annie can't.

.x.

When a baby cries, the whole world hears it. A baby doesn't try to be polite. A baby cries because it wants its father and it wants milk and it wants, it wants, it wants.

If only it were that easy, Annie thinks. If only she and George could curl up and weep, if their tears could move the world to pity and produce Mitchell, whole, dirty but not dusty. She would cry for eons if she thought there was a chance.

But the baby cries. They haven't named it. Annie realizes George has gone to quiet the sound because Nina is wearing thin. She gets up—if she had muscles they would be tight and confused by movement—and walks up the stairs to the nursery. George has the baby in his arms. He is staring down at her, bewildered. He looks up at Annie and asks, "How can I-?"

Once upon a time—when there were three of them—Annie would have laughed and kissed his cheek, she would have wriggled her fingers in the baby's face and said, oh, George, of course you can.

But he is not asking now what he would have been asking then, so Annie only shrugs and comes to stand close to him, the two of them looking down at the baby's wet face.

"I don't know," she says honestly. "You just do."

.x.

And George, bless him, does. He drinks Nina's tea and eats her food and they name the baby Eve. That's a lovely name, Annie thinks, and even though she still can't touch anything at least she can leave the house again. She doesn't often want to, but she can.

She goes for walks at night. Mitchell used to call them her Little Travels, and she'd liked that. They don't feel like that now, they feel Big. They feel like one night she is going to start walking and never go back.

But she does go back, always, because George needs her. They need each other. Once upon a time there had been three of them, but now there are two carrying the heavy memory of the third. She could not carry Mitchell without George any more than George could carry Mitchell without her.

.x.

"I was thinking it might be time to clean out his room," Nina says, six months after. Annie and George go still. They look at each other. She feels his panic and he feels her nausea and together they want to say no don't you dare touch his stuff it's his

But then Annie nods, once, and George nods back.

"Okay," they say together.

Everything hurts. Everything hurts. Everything hurts. But Mitchell is dead, and they are—not. It's pornographic, the way they stand together in the doorway and don't dare go in, don't dare disturb the air, the way they let their grief bite into them and carve a person out of emptiness.

"I don't want to," George says that night, as they stand at the foot of Mitchell's bed and breathe in his smell. Annie can't imagine what it's like for George, with his perfect senses buzzing through him, humming Mitchell.

"Me either," Annie agrees quietly.

They sit on the foot of the bed. Annie is shaking. George puts his arm around her shoulder and they both startle when he can touch her, when his fingers feel cold.

"He's not coming back," George murmurs, half to himself. "He's—it's not like with you. There's no . . . he didn't get a door."

No. He hadn't. They had—they had swept him off the floor, dear God, they had pushed his dust into a collector and . . . and Annie had . . .

"He wanted this," Annie tells him, tells the room, tells herself. "It was—"

"—the only way," George agrees. "Yes."

Into the silence, Annie's voice is small. "I miss him."

George's is smaller. "I can't get the dust out of my clothes."

.x.

Some time later, the room is empty, and Annie sits in her armchair breathing clouds. They hang low on Barry Island.

George and Nina are inside with the baby. George's voice is soft and sweet as he sings.

"You'll die, too, one day," Annie says into the mist, "and then I will be carrying both of you."

She looks around for doors and finds none.

.x.

But she gets better. Of course she gets better. She has to get better. Time heals all wounds.

She hates time. She hates the untender scar of him, she hates the way she can say his name now and not want to turn herself inside out. She gets better and she hates it.

She wants to cling to him, to the agony, to the emptiness, to the days of sitting on the couch and sitting on the foot of his bed and George and Annie and there were three of them, once.

But she doesn't, can't. He fades. She is dead but she is human, and time heals all wounds. She moves on.

.x.

When Nina dies, there is a part of her—a painful part, a tiny part, a hateful part—that thinks: now he understands. But of course he has always understood. George, George. Her last remaining boy. She'd had two, now she's just half of one.

He sits on the couch and the baby cries and the whole world hears it. George doesn't move. She prepares him tea he doesn't drink and she wiggles her fingers in Eve's face to make her laugh. George grows roots. Annie keeps them tended.

When the baby is sleeping, Annie thinks of Mitchell. You were the love of my long life—and you were mine—and you were mine—and you were mine

She'd had that. She'd had a last kiss, she'd heard those words (you were the love of my long life), she'd been promised that this was right, was what he wanted, was the only way.

George has Nina's battered body and the nausea of knowing she didn't want to die. Wouldn't have, if he'd not bitten her years ago. Annie swept Mitchell into the rubbish bin but George has to bury Nina and know her body will rot.

"Thank you," she whispers, gathering up a weeping Eve in the still of morning.

.x.

Annie wonders: if she held George up to her ear, would she hear the sea? He is hollow as the conch shell her grandmother had brought home the year she went to Brazil. Annie always knew the sound of the ocean was just the air collapsing in waves against the rock. She wonders if this is what the inside of George sounds like.

"My Nina," he says sometimes, when Eve is nestled in Annie's arms. If someone looked in through the windows—if someone could see her—they might think they were looking at a family.

He stations himself outside Eve's bedroom at night, a watchdog, but he does not hold her or cuddle her nose the way he used to. Annie remembers the blank whiteness of Mitchell's death and is sorry for the way things are. She wonders what George would be if he had never met Mitchell, had never moved into the pink house.

Would they all still be breathing, if they hadn't tried to be human?

.x.

The night before George dies, he comes to her. He sits on the edge of her bed and she curls herself into his lap, the way they used to when they watched Super Nanny.

"I always have this sort of morbid hope that one day the kids are just going to kick the shit out of her," he had said once, and Annie had laughed so hard she'd leaked tears.

Tonight, George rests his cheek on the top of her head. "My parents are alive somewhere," he says wonderingly. "My mum, my dad. They're out there with his mobile home. Without any idea about—all this. They must think Nina is still . . ."

He breaks off, breathing through his nose.

"It's a nice world they live in," Annie agrees quietly, taking his hand. "But it's not our world."

George whispers, viciously resigned, "It ought to have been."

"Yes," Annie agrees. You were the love of my long life. They should have had eternity, literal eternity, and she lost him before the year was out. "But."

"But?"

"If—if you lived in that world, George, you wouldn't . . . I wouldn't have found you. We'd have never, Mitchell and I . . . Nina wouldn't have—"

"Nina would be alive!"

"And Eve wouldn't."

George doesn't look at her. She can hear the terrible truth that he's not saying.

.x.

"She's perfect," George whimpers before he dies, and Annie feels the weight of him fall onto her shoulders. Little Annie Clare Sawyer, a new Atlas, bearing the memory of three lives on her slender frame.

Maybe this is what happens to people who escape purgatory. Maybe you can't, really. Maybe the locked room with the burned key is just a neat way to describe the way that none of Annie's doors open into light.

.x.

Four months after George dies, Annie goes back to Bristol. She stands on the porch of their old house and can hear the echoes of them, her boys. Mitchell is sitting on the stoop, I knocked over a chair in Casablanca, and George's voice is high-pitched and panicky as he says I love this place, I love it I love it I love it!

It's dusty and shuttered now, an apt metaphor maybe. Annie tries to remember what it felt like, to be the person who doesn't know all of the things she knows now. They'd had no idea—how could they have?—that she would be the last.

She'd always thought it would be Mitchell. George would get old; Annie's door would come. And Mitchell would carry on, because Mitchell always carried on.

"Oh, Annie," she breathes sadly, reaching out to the phantom of herself. "Oh, Annie."

.x.

She looks after Eve because Eve is all that's left. Eve is George and Nina and the night when Annie had gestured between herself and Mitchell and cried, we're going to be—be—babysitters!

Hal and Tom, they are not left over. They are new. And Annie loves them—she can't help it—but they are only replacements of what had been here before. A ghost a werewolf and a vampire walk into a bar. Two of them die in a bar fight. A ghost a werewolf and a vampire walk out of a bar, but only one of them is the same.

"Annie Sawyer," her grandmother used to say before bed, "you're going to save the world."

And she is, and she does, but she never imagined she'd be doing it alone.

.x.

When the flames come, Annie looks down at baby Eve and whispers, "I'm sorry." She will carry this, too.

.x.

There is light and dark and the static of a TV screen behind her door. She doesn't know what she expects. She expects nothing.

There is a long corridor. She has been here before; she knows already what doors will show her horror and what doors will show her light. Behind the bright pink one she will find her best friend Sonya, aged fourteen, whispering . They climbed out on the roof and looked at the stars until her mother found them.

Behind the brown door is her first day of college, the smell of books and leather. Behind glass she'll find spring break when she was twenty-two. She hasn't yet worked out if that one's supposed to be a pleasure or a sin, because it had been both.

She doesn't know which one will bring her Mitchell, will bring her George. She's afraid to look.

.x.

Lia comes to her. She isn't sure how long it's been. She has been wandering, poking her head in and out of rooms, observing herself. She's not afraid of what she's done anymore. She knows how the story ends—she was there the first time around.

"Well, looks like we'll get to be BFFLs after all," Lia says, smiling that smile of hers.

"It's just this?" Annie asks, resigned. "Forever?"

Lia shakes her head. "Not forever. But you have to wait."

"I've gotten really good at that."

"Red tape," Lia explains apologetically. "Things haven't lined up yet. George, Nina. They all . . . it's hard to get the timing right."

"Timing?"

"People go at different paces."

Annie shrugs. "I've just been wandering. I don't mind killing time. I've got so much of it."

Lia laughs. "Annie, sometimes I think that's all you ever have."

.x.

In the room with Sonya, there's a door in the back. Annie hadn't seen it before. She walks through it.

On the other side is the tree house they'd made their fathers build, the one Sonya fell out of when they were teenagers and broke all the bones in her arm. But there's a door in that, too, so Annie keeps walking. She walks, she finds doors, she walks. She walks through Owen and the night he bashed her head in. She walks through the exhausting months alone, bitter, angry, getoutgetOUT. She walks through the boys moving in. She walks through every painful step of their lives together, the weaving of their fraying threads.

It's beautiful, she realizes, even when the pain of watching becomes so dazzlingly bright that she has to close her eyes. It's beautiful, the up and down of them, the shaking and settling.

The night that she walks into Mitchell's death, she stands behind herself with a hand on her own shoulder. She remembers that she had whispered thank you at the dawn with Eve, because Mitchell's voice says you were the love of my long life and the two Annies say together, reverently: and you were mine.

.x.

And then, one day, there are no more doors.

It is a white room, round, with no windows; but when she steps inside, it is Honolulu Heights on Barry Island. A baby is crying. George and Nina are on the couch, watching the static.

"I don't remember this," Annie says to herself, and George turns. They look at one another. "You can see me," she says, softly, an echo. He gets up slowly from the couch, walking towards her as if he is afraid she will disappear.

"Annie," he breathes, and his voice is a prayer. "Annie. Annie."

And then she is in his arms and he is in hers and he is warm, warm, warm, so warm, she can feel him. They are crying, George and Annie, and the weight of him falls from her shoulders.

"I don't have to carry you anymore," she weeps, and he cannot understand what she means but he does anyway, brushing her hair from her face.

"You never have to carry me again," he says, pulling her close again, "we will carry Mitchell together."

.x.

epilogue

When the door appears, Annie grips George's hand in terror. She is happy, here. She does not want to walk anymore.

But the hinges swing inward.

The light is not white and perfect as hers had been; it is red and hot. But she knows him even before he steps into their replicated little bed-and-breakfast, and she is out of her chair before she registers her own movement.

Mitchell's body knocks the door closed as she tackles him against it, breathing slowly and steadily, the scent of him, the feel of him, his hair is the same, he's still wearing those stupid gloves, there's stubble on his chin because he was always so lazy about shaving and

and now Annie can feel him breathing his chest rising and falling

she has waited a hundred years, she has waited a hundred years, they should have had eternity, they were promised

—and now they do.

"You are the love of my long life," she whispers into his ear, and Mitchell shudders into a sob as he murmurs, "and you are mine."