With his eyes closed, she was beautiful. With them open, she was a scarred and withered hag, most of her skeletal form still covered as it would always be covered with burn scars and the beginnings of what might have been the mutant herpes. Since he had it himself, he didn’t worry. It was pointless to worry about any of it, this being now the world.
A thin crescent of skin along the side of her face remained unburnt where she must have turned it to a wall when the Flash came. Part of that eye was relatively unblemished, and now a tear slid from it as she whispered, “Must you go?”
“Darling,” he said, “there will never be an easy time to say goodbye, and so I say it with difficulty.”
This was literally true, given the state of his mouth and what remained of his jaw and several teeth. He pressed his cracked lips to her no less wretched hand and offered a final kiss, as tender as he could make it. Something crackled. For once it was not his flesh—it was behind him in her hovel. A plastic net woven of six-pack mesh dropped over him. Mutant henchmen wrestled him to the floor.
“Svetlana,” he said with dismay but no great surprise, “you sold me out.”
“You don’t remember me, do you?” she said, the good corner of that one eye now gleaming with angry satiation. There was something familiar about it, he supposed. But only barely. He had to shrug. “I’m sorry.”
For a moment she remained rigid, the imperious queen of the scraptown mutants, but the strain was too much. Her pretense collapsed like a garbage mountain excavated too deeply from below; she caved in, falling to a heap herself in genuine despair. He blew her a kiss as they dragged him away, down the pileside to where they had parked their three-wheeled grocery cart.
Blindfolded, he was able to imagine the route as it had once been: a superlative superhighway, nothing but smooth tarmac humming softly beneath his tyres, lush trees speeding past like blurs in a late-period Monet. Not merely the trappings of culture, but culture itself. Expensive spirits, fine champagne, museums full of gilt frames and chamber music. The dirty blindfold—a disposable wipe that should have been disposed of long before—was dislodged from his eyes by their juddering progress, and he beheld the reality that now prevailed: cracked asphalt, scorched and fused to tarry glass, infested with mutant weeds that fired poison-tipped scarlet lacquered thorns at unprotected ankles. The sky was also choked with swirling clouds that threatened to dump their vile brew any moment. The henchmen, he had seen somewhere before—or anyway, he knew their type—shrouded in foul bandages like obedient mummies. Beneath their notice, he slowly worked free a coil of coat-hanger wire concealed inside his sleeve, waiting for events to indicate whether he should fashion it into a cutting tool, a lockpick, or a weapon of some sort.
The cart rolled down an underpass, where he could not prevent the stench of pooled human effluvia from entering his nostrils, nor with his soaring imagination convert the fumes to anything heady and delicious. The mutant mummies shoved the cart hard against a metal door. The door banged open and the cart upended, tumbling him into a sprawl on the oily cement floor, where he did his best to imagine himself in a bespoke suit, perhaps a white tuxedo that would now be irredeemably stained.
“Well, well, well,” said the cold voice he had been expecting all along. In that squalid chamber, among pipes and bins and tunnel maintenance equipment, he saw his old enemy, blind eyes milky white and scarred from admiring his handiwork by staring directly into the Flash. He had unwisely savored that impersonal climactic moment just as he attempted to savor this rather more personal denouement.
“In my power at last,” he chuckled. “And so much reduced…as are, I hesitate to say, we all.”
“Get it over with. I know why you brought me here.”
“Of course. To gloat. And then, I assume, to kill me.”
“I find I’m not much in temper for gloating. Yes, it comes as a surprise even to me. You failed utterly to stop me. I ought to rub it in, but I find in myself a strange reluctance. There are days when, in spite of everything, I almost wish you hadn’t failed. I certainly never expected anything quite like this. It’s turned out to be rather unpleasant, even with all my precautions. Yes, I admit it. This is fairly hellish. I have nothing to add. I have only ever wanted to ask, why did you let me? I have had the lingering impression you didn’t even try to stop it.”
With the bit of hanger wire hidden behind his back, he quietly sawed through his plastic restraints; they were dusty and brittle and parted easily. “I didn’t honestly think you’d go through with it. I didn’t think you could be that mad.”
“Mwa…mwaha…mwahahahaha! Oh, that’s rich. And richest of all is that we’re all mad now! You have to be, isn’t that right? But enough. I can’t bear it. Your survival is a constant, irritating reminder of your failure and my success. Goodbye, my old nemesis.” And to his henchmen. “Go ahead, into the tank with him!”
For a moment, in the poor light, he clearly saw the doom intended for him: A pool full of mutant piranha. The mutant mummies lifted him and tossed him in. He tensed against the splash of warm brackish water and the searing bite of ten thousand devouring, radioactive teeth. He had already twisted the versatile wire into a fish-gutting instrument. Instead he hit bottom with a hollow clang and found himself in an inch of green slime and mutant frogspawn. Eventually, realizing there was to be no subsequent threat, he got to his feet and clambered out of the metal garbage bin. The henchmen had already shambled off, duties discharged, no interest in the outcome.
His nemesis sat staring down into the slime-sloshed bin, grinning and rubbing his bony hands together, chuckling to himself: “That’s what you get. Long overdue. Well deserved.” But the laughter quickly turned to sobs and he fell against the wall, a sobbing wretch: “Oh god, why? Why didn’t you stop me?”
He left his archenemy, spine intact but spirit broken, and hobbled out of the tunnels, up to the light again, going carefully on legs that ached from deep within the bones. At the top of the ramp he left the twist of coat-hanger, having fashioned an arrow pointing back toward the lair for any who might come looking.
His penthouse was a hollow he had fashioned on the far side of a scrapheap not too far from Svetlana; they were neighbors, which was how he had come to spend time with her. After a short but wearying hike, he ascertained the place was empty. The sky had wrung itself out as he headed home, and a brown, gritty precipitate drizzled him as if he were a burnt flan; there had been no rain for weeks but he was still glad to get inside. The collection barrel contained enough fresh sludge to fill a Vienna sausage can. This he filtered methodically through a square of soiled undershirt into a small glass jar still redolent of sentimental gherkins.
Holding up the jar to toast his continued survival and the complete collapse of his final foe, he closed his eyes and plainly saw a martini glass beaded with cold crystalline drops, brimming with clear delicious liquid: So perfect! And always tasting best when it was shaken, like the world, not stirred.