Podcast Episode 27: A Song Born

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Hey, yes, it’s me, Michael J. DeLuca, and today on the Reckoning podcast I will be reading you what turns out to be the last of our Utopia Award nominees that will appear here, Remi Skytterstad’s novelette about the colonization of the Sami people of Norway, “A Song Born”. We had six nominations total, but the last two are for Tracy Whiteside’s artwork series “Too Hot to Handle”, which is awesome but doesn’t translate well to audio, and for Reckoning 5 itself, thanks to editors Cecile Cristofari and Leah Bobet, without whom we wouldn’t have been able to bring any of this amazing work to light.

As with Oyedotun’s story last week, though I have had ample help from Remi, I must ask you to bear with my clumsy pronunciation and assume responsibility for any f-ups.

Voting for the Utopia Awards is open now through August 21st. Please go vote? You can find the link here at reckoning.press or on twitter.

And our fundraiser is still on, and I’m very pleased to announce we have passed the threshold that will allow us to raise payrates to 10c/word, $50/page for poetry. Hooray! And thank you! Now we get to move on to other worthy goals like paying our staff more than the token honorarium they currently receive, and putting out a print edition of Our Beautiful Reward, our forthcoming special issue on bodily autonomy, edited by Catherine Rockwood. We have now laid eyes on the vulva monster Mona Robles made us for the cover, and it is brain-scramblingly good. You can find out how to help make that happen at reckoning.press/support-us.

[Bio below.]

“A Song Born” by Remi Skytterstad

Podcast Episode 26: All We Have Left Is Ourselves

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Welcome back to the Reckoning Press Podcast. Today, I, Michael J. DeLuca, am going to read you Oyedotun Damilola Muees’ PEN Robert J. Dau Prize Winning and Utopia-nominated story, “All We Have Left Is Ourselves” from Reckoning 5. I going to need to ask you to bear with me. This heartbreaking story about living with the consequences of corporate environmental exploitation is written in a culture and an English vernacular far from my own. I’ve had help, I’ve been practicing for this, psyching myself up. Oyedotun says my pronunciation’s not bad, it doesn’t have to be perfect. All my time reading Nigerian twitter at 5AM instead of writing is about to pay off!

Voting for the Utopia Awards is open now through August 21st. We’ve been podcasting the nominated work over the past few episodes, and next week if all goes well I’ll have Remi Skytterstad’s nominated novelette, “A Song Born”. Please go vote; you can find the link at reckoning.press or on twitter.

Our fundraiser is still on, we are oh so close to being able to raise payrates to 10c/word, $50/page for poetry, and I have been out in the woods and fields collecting blackberry prickers in my hands so I can offer Patreon supporters some delicious wild preserves. Don’t let my suffering have been in vain! Just kidding, I love it. Anyway, you can read about the fundraiser at reckoning.press/support-us.

[Bio below.]

All We Have Left Is Ourselves by Oyedotun Damilola Muees

Podcast Episode 25: when the coral copies our fashion advice

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Hi, it’s me again, Reckoning publisher Michael J. DeLuca, reporting from droughted, heatwave-beset northeastern North America. Is it brutally hot and dry where you are? Is your representative democracy hamstrung by corruption?

While you’re waiting around for the revolution, cool off with me for a minute or two and listen to Ashley Bao read her effervescent, beachy-apocalyptic poem, “when the coral copies our fashion advice”. This is the second of five podcast episodes featuring our Utopia Award nominees from Reckoning 5.

The Utopia Awards, organized by Android Press as part of CliFiCon22, will be up for public vote between August 1 – 21, and winners will be announced at the conference in October. We really hope you’ll listen and be inspired to vote. I’ll include links to the voting pages here once they’re live.

Also, in case you missed it: we’re having a fundraiser! We’d love to pay everyone better and give more folks a chance to feel invested in this undertaking while making more cool stuff and amplifying more radical, revolutionary, restorative ideas. There will be rewards! Take this opportunity to sport some antifascist, pro-environmental justice Reckoning bling. Maybe win a personal critique of your writing from one of our editors. Or encourage our staff to generate some bespoke educational content on how to make the world a more livable place from right in your own backyard or local biosphere preserve. Come on over to reckoning.press/support-us to learn more.

[Bio below.]

when the coral copies our fashion advice by Ashley Bao

Podcast Episode 24: On the Destruction and Restoration of Habitats

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Hi, it’s me, your nominal host, Michael J. DeLuca. Today on the Reckoning Press podcast we have for you Reckoning 7 nonfiction editor Priya Chand introducing and reading her Utopia-nominated essay, “On the Destruction and Restoration of Habitats”. This is the first in a series of what will hopefully be five episodes highlighting work from Reckoning 5 nominated for the inaugural Utopia Awards.

The Utopia Awards, organized by Android Press as part of CliFiCon22, will be up for public vote between August 1 – 21, and winners will be announced at the conference in October. We really hope you’ll listen and be inspired to vote. I’ll include links to the voting pages here once they’re live.

My pitch for Priya’s essay is as follows: she’s doing what solarpunk fiction projects, and she’s encountering the complexities and conflicts of the real world making that work harder, more fraught. It’s the work we all need to be doing. Follow Priya’s example.

Also, in case you missed it: we’re having a fundraiser! We’d love to pay everyone better and give more folks a chance to feel invested in this undertaking while making more cool stuff and amplifying more radical, revolutionary, restorative ideas. There will be rewards! Take this opportunity to sport some antifascist, pro-environmental justice Reckoning bling. Maybe win a personal critique of your writing from one of our editors. Or encourage our staff to generate some bespoke educational content on how to make the world a more livable place from right in your own backyard or local biosphere preserve. Come on over to reckoning.press/support-us to learn more.

[Bio below.]

“On the Destruction and Restoration of Habitats” by Priya Chand

Podcast Episode 14: The Talking Bears of Greikengkul

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Welcome back to the Reckoning Press podcast. It’s been ages, but we’re ramping up to a lot of cool new stuff in the coming year and beyond, including lots more podcasts, a fundraiser to increase payrates to 10c/word, $50/page for poetry and pay staff better too, t-shirts, pins, who knows what else. Homebrew recipes. Foraging instructions. Bespoke lectures about culling invasive species. We’re flush with ideas, as we should be, but we’re always looking for more. Drop us a line if you’ve got any?

Reckoning Press is a US-based nonprofit; we flourish under your regard. Please support us on Patreon, consider donating directly, buy a book or an ebook, read our contributors’ beautiful work for free online, and submit! We’re always open to submissions, we’re always excited in particular to read work from Black, brown, Indigenous, queer, disabled, trans, or otherwise marginalized poets, writers and artists.

You can find all this and more on our website at: reckoning.press/support-us. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or by visiting reckoning.press/audio.

Thank you very much for listening.

This week we’re taking a break from Reckoning 6 content to bring you a flash back to a story from Reckoning 5: “The Talking Bears of Greikengkul” by Sandy Parsons, read by the author herself. This is a weird, creepy story that blurs the line between human and animal and examines some of the ethical implications.

[Bio below.]

The Talking Bears of Greikengkul by Sandy Parsons

The Restoration

They’d been restarting the earth for over five years now.

Marie picked up a box of seeds and some jars of bugs and soil bacteria from the dispensary. They gave her hackberry seedlings too, a good, hardy tree. She put all these things in the large panniers on her bike. She was instructed to go north and west, and she went by train to her first stop, where she switched to the bicycle and set off until she found a house beside a dry riverbed. It was probably once a vacation setting. She leaned her bike against the house and went up to the front door and knocked. No one. She went on to the next house and the next, until she found someone at home at last.

“I’m from the Seeding Project,” she said. “Can you take the seedlings for three trees? I’ve got some worms, too.”

An old woman stood in the doorway. “Trees,” she said. “Yes.”

They went around to the back yard, which was dry and had a small section fenced off for a vegetable garden.

“What are you growing?” Marie asked, indicating the plot.

“Beans, sometimes. I get a few tomatoes, too. Not much, it takes a lot of water.”

“Can you handle the trees? They’re hackberry. They can tolerate drought when they’re full grown, but they’ll need water for the first year or so.”

“If they’re close to the house, yes. I get some water from the well, mostly in the morning. It trickles up again overnight. I store some for the plants and I water them in the evening, so it won’t evaporate right away. There were trees when I was younger. It was wonderful to watch them in the storms, you know. And hear them. Yes, I’ll take the trees.”

They chose spots for the trees, dug holes, and planted one seedling for each hole. She helped the woman measure out a gallon of water.

“Trees,” the woman said, and her eyes were bright.

“Someone will be along with groundcover in a few months,” Marie said. “And some beetles after that. Try to keep everything fairly close together—I mean, to form a habitat. But you know that.”

“I do,” she said.

She was invited inside for water and something to eat. A protein stew. And then Marie moved on to find another house.

On the first day, she planted nine trees, and logged the addresses in. The next day was only six trees, because the houses were farther apart. One day she couldn’t find anyone who would agree. One man was moving on; some houses were shut up. She found a heritage farm with two old horses and a dog. The man there pointed to the unworked fields. “What about them?” he asked. “Do you have any corn?”

“Not enough rain for corn,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for five years, and they’ve never had corn.” She saw the look on his face. “I’ll make a note. Maybe the rains will come.”

The owner of the next house was very friendly. “Ah,” she said, “A bee man came by a few months ago. I don’t like bees much, but I took some. They’re living near the house. Not too near,” she said. “And I don’t have to water them or anything.”

“Good. And are you composting?”

“I even have worms,” she replied. “They came out of nowhere. I put scraps in there. They like it. I’m supposed to turn half of them into the soil in a few weeks, then build them up again.”

“I can give you two more worms and maybe some squash seeds.”

She logged all this, and sat down to a welcome meal of water and a sandwich. The bread was dense and therefore government issue. The paste was probably beans and whatever fish was raised on the fish farms. Probably some parsley mixed in, easy to grow. It made her drink more water, however, and she apologized for her thirst.

Marie was tired and sat for a while, looking at the sky. The woman was friendly and sat with her. There were really only two ongoing conversations these days: “When I was a child” and “They say in fifty years.” The woman chose the latter.

“They say in fifty years we might have trees and maybe more crops. I won’t be here, of course. They sprayed a lot when I was a kid, but I remember what it was like.”

They both paused, thinking about it. “I may not be here when the trees grow tall. But someone will see them.” She said it with satisfaction.

They sat companionably together, until it was time for her to leave. Marie stood to go and the woman raised her head up, her face lined with worry and said, “And the predators? Have you heard when they’ll release the predators?”

 

After five years of releasing things one by one, trying to restore the environment from the bottom up, everyone kept asking about that.

“What have you got there?” a man asked suspiciously, farther along.

“It’s just some cocoons.”

He eyed her warily. “Poisonous?”

“Are any cocoons poisonous?” She was startled.

“Not the cocoons. What comes out.”

“No. It’s just some moths and a few fritillaria. Perfectly harmless.”

There was another cautious silence. “So,” the man said, dropping his voice even lower. How low could it possibly go? “When are they releasing the predators?”

She had learned how to unnerve people by looking at them with absolutely no expression. She’d done that just to do it, for no good purpose. She liked to test things. If there had been snakes in her childhood, she would have prodded them with a stick. She would have whacked a hornet’s next. She would have leapt off cliffs. The closest she could come to danger and adventure was this, sticking cocoons to the undersides of houses, or on bushes someone a year ahead of her had planted.

“The predators,” she said. “They did mention them. Soon, I think.”

“Big cats?” the man whispered.

“Bred to be big.”

“Bears?”

She shook her head. “Too hot, they said.”

“Alligators?”

“I think I heard that. And, I think—hippos? I hear they have a temper. Of course they like the water, which means that you take a chance if you find a river. But that’s the point, isn’t it? To even things out?”

“There’s no river here,” the man said, relieved. “I have a well. And there’s a mud pond when the rains come.”

“Oh well, I’m sure a mud pond would do,” she said evenly.

 

The first wave of Seeding had been worms and some bacteria and micro-organisms for the soil, and then small bugs and grasses, and clovers and seeds of all kinds and then more bugs and then lizards and birds and small mammals, going up and up. Wild raspberry, different bushes, chinkapin oaks, one wave after another. Squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, rabbits. Up and up. Soon there would be deer and coyotes and some wild ponies on the best plains sites. Eventually, cougars, rattlers, venomous insects, poisonous plants. A fair playing field, was how it was being described. The world had gotten destroyed by the apex animal, and it was because the apex animal had been unchecked. So bring back the checks. Make it fair. No one was very specific about the final predators, the ones who would help to keep the people in check. Lions; wolves; what?

The complaints against the top predators had been loud, but the decision had come at a time when the world’s resources were at the lowest point. People were dying of hunger, of thirst, of disease in a world that had been squeezed too tightly. They would face the predators when they needed to, but even before that, they needed to eat.

 

Marie found a platform rising from a flat plain. She dropped her bike and walked around it. There were fourteen wooden steps up to the top, no railing on any of it. It wasn’t very old, so it likely wasn’t a hunter’s blind left over from the good times. There were no hunters now, anyway. Guns had been confiscated, poisons and traps as well. Unregenerate hunters had been rounded up and housed somewhere far away. The whole point now was to let everything try to live.

She climbed up and looked around. Mostly dry floodplain, but off to the right were one or two tall trees, and some scrub bushes and tall grasses. The beginning of something, she thought. She’d add some bees and spores before she left. Flies, too.

Far, far off she could see the grasses moving, left to right. From this distance, it was hard to imagine how tall the grasses were, and how big the creature might be. A raccoon? A possum? It made her uneasy, this creature she couldn’t see.

She went to a small farm where she was let in and gave them the seeds and worms and was asked to stay for dinner and then, as the sun set, they offered to put her up for the night, as long as she left first thing in the morning and didn’t shower. “We’re using more water because of you,” the woman said gently. “And we need it for the vegetables and of course for the seeds. And the chickens, too.” Dinner was eggs and some potatoes and some herbs and a mushy protein.

“How are the chickens doing?’

“Better, since they brought those beetles last year. Though the birds disappear sometimes. We don’t know where they go.”

“Do any of them ever come back? You know, just find something interesting while they’re away and then remember home?”

“No. They’re gone. They’re good and gone. We think, sometimes,” and here she hesitated and looked over to her husband. “We think sometimes that it’s the seeders. We know they have to eat and we know some of them are, well . . . shy. Not given much to social situations.”

“No one’s allowed to kill,” Marie said patiently. “That means us, too. Killing harms the earth. Maybe later, when there’s an abundance—if there’s an abundance—maybe then killing animals will be permitted. But slaughter belongs to the past. I can’t imagine anyone doing it.”

“I can’t imagine any other explanation. I mean, they have to eat—you have to eat.”

“No,” Marie said, intent on getting this woman to stop saying this—stop thinking this. “Really, the seeders are fine. They’re tested, you know. To make sure they fit the job.”

The husband snorted. “We had problems with the centipede guy,” her husband said grumpily. “He wanted to come in for a glass of water and we said of course, and well—he unloaded a bunch of centipedes in the house.” He glared at her. “Did he have to do that?”

She had to keep herself from rolling her eyes. “Centipedes walk around. Maybe there’s a hole in the foundation or near a window or somewhere. At any rate, I’m sorry that happened. But it has to go on, you know. We can’t be the only living organisms on this globe.”

“I know,” the man said abruptly. “No need to lecture. Just—whatever you have, keep it outside.” He got up and left the table.

 

Occasionally, she happened onto a thriving community with wells with good water, with plots of land that grew food and even some cows and chickens and goats that hadn’t been provided by the agency. It was a microgeographical heaven. There was birdsong and there were bugs flying—and fleas and mites and mosquitoes and other things that she had tended to forget about. This is what life was like, both good and bad, beautiful and irritating, all flowing together. No bug sprays. No weed killers, no polluted water. Cow dung for fertilizer. Solar for heat and cooling. This was the way it was supposed to work.

“It’s so wonderful here,” she told the family she was staying with. Farmers and teachers, the two most important professions.

“Don’t tell anyone!” the woman yelped. “We’re supporting ourselves at this size but I think we’d get into trouble if there’s any more people.”

“Of course not,” Marie said, soothing her. “Of course not. We’re not allowed to discuss locations, anyway. You’re safe. I’ll just be here for a few hours and I’ll be on my way.” It was, after all, a kind of rehearsal for restoration. A wonderful, brief dip into the future.

“What are you putting out?” the woman asked.

“Ticks.”

“Ticks? What, are you crazy? We don’t want ticks.” She stood up and put her arms akimbo. Defiant.

“Oh but ticks have a place,” Marie said. “Birds eat them, you know. Chickens especially. And possum.”

“We don’t want those either!”

“Why not? They eat ticks.”

The woman’s mouth dropped open and then she laughed out loud. “Oh now I see, I can tell you’re messing with me.”

“I am,” Marie said, grinning. “But you’ve got to understand that I have all this time in my head when I’m going from one place to the next. So I think up things to say to people.”

“You shouldn’t,” she was told. “I mean, people get a little off when they’re alone too much.”

Marie shook her head. “People get a little off when the worlds ends. You know?”

The woman sighed heavily. “I know. But no ticks.”

 

She had been out for two weeks, with some days almost silent, marking deserted houses. In those cases, she walked around them, noting anything growing, pulling leaves if she couldn’t recognize a plant, listening for bird song and frog croaks and any signs of life. She found a house almost filled with spiders. It was not something she was likely to forget. She found spiders repugnant. She dreaded them. She had had to reassure herself that there was little chance that any spider she encountered was dangerous.

She thought that the first lacey sheets were spider webs but in fact it was the daddy log-legs, their legs linked, forming a chain of curtains that rippled without wind. She had yelped. She had run outside and dusted herself off and when that didn’t help, she removed her sweater and shook it out and then took off her shoes and socks and shirt and shorts and shaken everything out until she was satisfied that nothing remained on her.

It had taken a while to regain her confidence but she had continued with her mission, though she didn’t go back inside. She walked around the house and found two wolf spiders, lurking as they usually did. Unpleasant creatures. She had buttoned her blouse up to her neck and continued cautiously. Wolf spiders liked to be near water, so she looked for a pond or a leaky pipe. She could hear water trickling, and traced it to a corner of the house, where either an underground pipe or a small stream pumped up bubbles of water. She planted three trees there herself, looking over her shoulder and around constantly. No one would have to be responsible for watering them. At least finding the spiders had led to something good.

Had the spider man been here or was this some sort of natural selection? She was aware that, in nature as it used to be, sometimes things would explode into excess and sometimes disappear into extinction. This particular extinction had been casually made by human greed. She made a note to ask if someone had deliberately left those spiders. She didn’t actually know which answer would bring more relief.

 

It was late spring, and heat was coming on so she changed her biking to morning and evening, which is what people did as the temperature rose. She stayed with a horse rescuer, a metal worker, a mechanic, a blacksmith, a baker, some kids who had run away and had found an empty house. Different people. Some of them wanted seeds; some did not. She was not judgmental; the seeds were a commitment and not everyone stayed put.

Once she saw a hawk overhead. She stood there mesmerized. What was the hawk hunting? She thought it might be mice or maybe even rabbits; the rabbits would be quick to multiply. That cheered her up, that things were thriving. At her next house she asked about that, about hawks and rabbit and got a slow nod. “Someone brought rabbits and let them go. Not your people, just some, I guess you’d call them free-lance? There’s that going on. People who saved seeds you know about, but people also had pets. Or places where things held on.”

“That’s great,” she said. “I watched the hawk for a long time; it never dove. But it was looking and I have to think it had a reason for that.”

“Most likely,” the man said. “Most likely.”

 

It didn’t occur to her until a few days later that a hawk was a predator. Of course it was, she knew that. But she had been thinking that the release of predators meant things that would threaten her, and a hawk did not. And besides, weren’t they supposed to be warned? She thought about that as she wheeled her way down a driveway, left some seeds and then went on. The people there had been nice. They said they’d seen a snake, but they believed it was a ring-necked snake, a small one, maybe a baby—not a litter, what was the word—and what about cats? When would there be cats again?

She would love a cat. After her tour was over, she hoped she would meet a nice man and they would live together and have a cat. Maybe they’d have a kid, too, though she’d have to see what the world was like in a few years.

She was due to check in to a Service cabin, only a few miles away. They were kept stocked, so there’d be food and water and beds and, of course, new seeds to take with her and a counselor to advise her on her next steps. She’d stayed with people the last few nights, but it was hard to use their water and eat their food. Everyone struggled. But the cabin would be well-stocked because it was intermittently used.

She made a quick decision to try to get there before nightfall.

But she timed it wrong; within an hour it was getting dark. She was off the main road, cutting across a dry-grass field to get to the cabin, and she could no longer bike. Pushing the bike was hard work, and slowed her down even more. It had been a long, slow afternoon but then all at once it was racing towards sunset. She consulted her map and her GPS and figured it was another hour or so. She looked up. A few clouds. If the moon came out, that would help. She checked the moon chart. Sickle. Not much light.

It was her own fault, and besides it was warm. If she didn’t make it, she would sleep outside; she’d done it a lot already.

The grasses got taller and thicker and she couldn’t see the end to them yet. She stopped, took out her canteen, took a sip of water and put it away. She took out the knife she carried and used it for a while as a machete—or tried to; it wasn’t very good.

It was tiring. She stopped and thought about staying right where she was. She could easily push a wad of the grasses down and cover them with her space blanket. She had some protein bars and enough water to make them go down easily enough. She kept checking her direction and lighting the way ahead of her, but it was wasting the phone’s battery. Best to stamp down the grasses and spend the night where she was. In the morning she could get to the cabin and have breakfast and a wash.

She made a decent bed and spread out her blanket and was eating her health bar when she saw a light in the distance. She paused in the middle of a chew, thinking. Was this the cabin or was it someone’s home? It was risky to knock on a stranger’s door at night, even though the guns had been confiscated. People were erratic. Just then a shadow passed in front of the light. It seemed bulky and it paused at the window. She imagined him staring out at her. Looking for her.

She listened for the whistle of grasses moving, for the lurch of an animal footstep. What was she expecting? The world was safe. There was nothing alive anymore that could kill her. Except people of course, other people. Was that what she was worrying about? That man whose shadow she’d seen—was he somewhere close by, sniffing the air for her, creeping up on her? She’d been out in the field for a few years and yet she’d never truly felt afraid. Angry at the way the world was; regret for what had been done; hope a few times, hope for what she could accomplish; but never really and truly afraid.

What was she afraid of? She was alone in a field of grasses, with bugs at her face, bugs that she should be grateful about. She looked ahead and saw the light had gone out.

Something flew by her in the night; wings. Were there owls? They had released mice and there were apparently rabbits. And that hawk the other day. There was beginning to be an ecosystem, no matter how limited.

A bug crawled over the hand that held the knife. And then another one. Were they really there or was this just nerves? Now there was something on her neck.

Something was moving in the weeds, moving closer. She listened intently, willing herself not to brush anything off, afraid that any sound she made would draw whatever was out there. Was it an animal or was it the man from the house? Surely it would be a man, not a woman. No woman did that—stalked someone in the dark. Why didn’t women do that? There was something on her face now, crawling around her nose. Now it was moving towards her eyes. She closed her eyes tight.

Something bit her and she drew in her breath despite herself. The rustling paused. She felt a creature waiting out there for her, listening for her. She could feel eyes peering at her in the dark, sniffing for her, even.

She lay there, curled up, all night long. She dozed off for brief minutes, jerking herself awake, and even then not moving at all for fear of making an identifiable sound.

She woke and stood up slowly and looked around. The grasses stretched away. There were the beginnings of small trees, then some bushes and off some distance past them, a cabin. She squinted. She had been much closer than she thought.

Her nerves were on edge and the hairs on her neck prickled. She carried her seeds and some bugs and she moved slowly and carefully, observing everything. There was birdsong; and it stilled when she got near. If it weren’t for the fact that she had been thrown off balance, she would be reveling in this. It was what they were all working for: a bit of the earth that had life in it. She made her way across the field in the daylight, walking slowly and pushing grasses aside. There were more and more insects—she stopped and checked them and saw grasshoppers and beetles. An amazing crop, really. They’d been seeding bugs for years now but up to now she’d only seen a few, and not much variety. This valley showed what could be done and how quickly it could be done. She wondered how many of the people from that village she’d passed came here. She hoped they hadn’t actually found it—or if they had, that they would respect it and allow it to develop.

A man came out of the cabin, saw her, and gave an exaggerated wave. He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted something, but she couldn’t hear it until she got closer. He kept saying “Watch your step!” but he didn’t say why, so she stopped and looked around, expecting rocks or fallen outhouses with nails sticking up. She saw nothing, but she slowed her step and walked forward, casting her eyes about until she came out of the fields into the clearing around the house.

“Snakes,” he said in explanation.

“Ring-necks?” she asked. “Garden snakes?”

He laughed. “That’s a good attitude,” he answered, which puzzled her even more.

“I was expecting you last night,” he said. “Run into trouble?” He led her into the cabin, which had three other Seeders in it, Malcolm, Zach, and Jenny. Seeders loved to meet each other, so they asked where she’d been, what she’d seen, what she’d heard, and she asked back.

Alex was the outpost leader, a bald black man around 50. He waited patiently for all of them to finish and settle down.

“Well, you’re a day late, but that’s all right,” he told her. “You’re actually down for a two-day break—all of you are—so there’s time to catch your breath before you head on out again. Actually, I’ll be heading out with you. This particular area is considered far enough advanced that we can let it go for a year and then come back and see results. We’ll switch to the barer areas.” He grinned. “You say that: barer areas. It’s hard.” They laughed genially.

He sort of looked away and then looked back. ”I’m curious what you’ve all been hearing from people, so let’s take a little time to go over what they’ve said, and also let’s discuss what communities there are and where they are and what their water situation is, for instance. Just a general sense of what’s out there now. You’ll be filing with the office if you haven’t already, but I’d like to get us all to look at the bigger picture right now.”

He nodded and motioned to them one by one. She was interested in their stories. There were areas with nothing out there—abandoned houses, dried-up wells, that sort of thing. But there was also a loose wide circle of places where people were resettling and bringing in a cow here, a goat there, even two horses. People, generally, who had lived there before and kept an eye out. Who had hoarded the few animals they had left and the seeds they had gathered. The animals were of course precious because they produced good fertilizer, if there was enough to feed them. They had resettled a year or two earlier, from all accounts, and some people now had babies. They were small communities, but they radiated hope. The seeders talked about what life had been like before it began to slip away; this was what they’d been working towards. They nodded to each other, their eyes shining. They just handed it around, their visions of a renewed world, a green world.

Alex encouraged them. “Beautiful, isn’t it? Like life used to be? Yes? I remember it, myself, I grew up in the country and then we moved to the suburbs. Never having to think about anything, really. Food and safety and water, heat when you needed it, a/c when you needed it. Go to a store and get what you want. Get in a car and go where you want. Good days, right?”

They got still, the good memories slipping from them. They knew where he was going.

“Of course, everything pretty much died to give us that. The wilderness, the prairies, the forests, the wild animals. Extending our own secure zones by destroying theirs. Doesn’t seem right? It wasn’t right. So we can’t reproduce that. We have to be careful that we get the balance right.”

“It’s time?” Zach asked softly.

“It’s time,” Alex said. He looked behind them, at the distribution boxes. They all turned and looked at them, shifting slightly, their shoulders tightening.

She hadn’t thought it would be this soon. Well, none of them had. This part had been in the future—she thought long ahead in the future, nothing to worry about now.

But there had been signs, of course. Those movements in the grasses—there was animal life. Those thriving homes, with children. That sudden fear last night was not a vestigial fear; it was the animal in her acknowledging that there was a threat roaming, moving, reaching out to her.

“What is it?” she asked. “What are we releasing?”

“The middle. Not the big things yet. Venomous snakes and spiders. African bees. Mosquitoes and ticks with diseases. We’ve already got a few souls out releasing the smaller cats—puma; civet. It’s just the beginning, really. I don’t think any of us will die from it.” He looked at them. “You knew it was coming.”

They nodded and murmured agreeably. They were trying to look at it as a good thing. But there was a part of them that fought it.

“We can’t make the same mistakes,” Jenny whispered. “We have to make sure that there are constraints on us. We have to make sure we’re actually part of the cycle of nature. We moved out of that a while ago.”

“We know,” Malcolm said stiffly.

Zach looked a little happy about it; he had a small smile. “I like snakes,” he said. “I’ll take them.”

She looked around at them. Eager or not, they had a look in their eyes that they were committed to this, and she supposed she had the same look. It was calculating. It said, “At least I’ll know, and I can be careful. At least I’ll know.”

She had to orient her emotions, for a moment. She knew the others felt the way she had up until now—that the predators were the future, not the present. That they could be brave in their resolve for the future, but that bravery wouldn’t be tested. Because the world, half destroyed as it was, was also fairly safe for humans as far as immediate threats were concerned. There was nothing to harm her. Yes—drought was a persistent problem, and the results of drought and the lack of animals and insects and birds were the results of a decline in the productivity of the earth, but she personally had access to food and water. She could think about danger and threat in an abstract way. This, however, was immediate and personal and not abstract.

Zach was still cheerful, but the other two were quiet and were probably lost, as she was, in thinking about the days ahead. Up until now they had been restoring what was essentially benevolent, the little things that parsed the earth. Now they were being turned into the first wave of checks. They were the beginning of a leveling.

“Well, that’s it,” Alex said. “We’ll have a relaxing evening and in the morning you’ll be off. You’ll get the usual map with directions, and if you want to choose a box rather than have it assigned to you, go right ahead. I know you have mixed emotions—you’re not the first group going out with these. I can tell you that this step is truly and remarkably necessary. We’ll be going out with the big cats and the bears and stuff pretty soon, and there will be alligators and a few non-native species with a nasty temper that will thrive in this climate. It’s harsh. The world was harsh, always, but we were harsher. It’s time to accept the fact that we are temporary, each individual, but we have to maintain the longevity of species. Not just our species. We’re a niche. We shouldn’t be making the decisions because we’ll always make the decision that benefits us. We’re too selfish to remain unchecked.”

She spent the night thinking about it. They had dinner and there was beer and everyone got a little too loud with wary eyes shifting left and right. These were people who had dedicated years of their lives to the restoration. They had understood it; they had sworn to uphold it. but now it was time to prove it.

They got quieter as the night wore on and drifted off silently to their beds. They all rose early and stood in front of Alex, in the room with the boxes.

“Anyone want a particular box?” Alex asked. “Besides the snakes?” He handed Zach that one.

Then there was silence. They all hesitated. Choice seemed somehow to suggest culpability. But she ran though her own thoughts, her own objectives, her own decisions to save the earth, no matter what. She remembered the curtain of spiders, and how awful she had felt—a terrible, consuming, destroying human reaction. She hated siders and she might as well admit it. And she should also admit that destroying what you hated was how they’d all gotten into this mess. She should turn her fears into dedication, maybe. She should really take her chances, and not rely on staying safe.

“I’ll take the spiders,” she sighed and stepped forward.

He nodded and gave them to her. She could hear faint skitterings in the box. There were air-holes, and she thought she saw a hairy black leg stick through a hole briefly and then subside. She took a long breath and made her way out the door.

Her heart skittered too, but her hold was firm.

letters from the ides

I am writing to tell you

that the apple blossoms have opened

and, for a moment, made clouds

out of the trees. rain has swept

the cherry’s petals 

into great muddy drifts

where they will linger, for now,

in a deficit of brooms—or rather

of hands and arms to sweep them.

 

we are become molluscs, in a way,

curled up soft and moist

within our shells. sound

reverberates a little differently

through homes turned castles;

I press my cheek against the wall

when the twins cry, learn to recognize

their parents’ footsteps.

a world away. connected.

 

I try to think of us as coral.

the city, that is—a thing

of shell and rebar, concrete,

glass and grass and promises.

even as polyps retreat

against the coming storm,

we breathe and breathe and

breathe. creatures, for once,

made flesh; and in that, unified.

 

but you have to understand:

 

I try to think of us as coral

because the alternative

is to wake in the night

as red blood cells, as marrow,

as the dna-test scrapings

off the inside of a crime scene

while the skeleton of Seattle

struggles on without us—because

if there is anything to learn

from the rot and rent of centuries,

it is that even bones can crumble,

given time.

 

fear is a nebulous companion.

I did not invite it in. and yet

we are none of us hermetic, none

immutable under strain. I fear

this is a chrysalis. I fear

what might emerge. I fear

more than anything

that it will not

be enough.

I fear

 

that the deaths

and the wounded

will dissipate

from our memory

as atrocity so

often does, and

leave us frozen

by a future we

cannot prevent.

 

I fear it will

happen again.

 

but I

am not

my fear.

 

I will not be my fear.

 

and so:

 

I am writing to tell you that

today, I saw a robin. it clung

to the corner of the sidewalk

and pecked at leaf mulch

caught in the unswept gutter.

worms, I would imagine, had emerged

after the rain, and the bird,

appropriately, would eat its fill.

 

today, the sky was blue and chill

over the white and pink of flowers,

and the streets, new-washed, stood empty

as at dawn.

 

in the quarrelling gulls and crow mobs

where our footsteps used to tread,

I must see courage: I must take of this

a caring, a patience, a love

for one another, in this organism city,

that faces the gaping unknown future

& says: together. we will wait, and watch,

and see what comes, and tomorrow, perhaps,

the maple may bud, and perhaps

we will see it

with you.

After Me, A Flood

The engineer is kind enough, in that he lets Marin breathe his enriched oxygen. He lights something to smoke, lets most of it burn off into the room. The filters kick into high gear. Filters. Her lungs sear; her throat feels scorched. Marin holds her oxygen pack to her face with one hand and lets her father handle the pleasantries.

“You know, that’s contraband,” the engineer says, and Marin exists in a moment of pure terror. He winks. “I’ll allow it.”

Her heart knocks against her ribs and she gasps and tries to keep the malice from her smile. First impressions must be made.

The engineer holds out the deal with grimy, upturned hands. He calls them industrial models, and Marin’s father laughs. They’re remembering something, together, from earth. Two gears laughing at the clock they’ve been soldered into. They raise their voices in raucous laughter and for a moment, it’s enough to drown out the hideous wheezing that’s coming from Marin’s chest.

The faux-lungs themselves are ugly things: dull metal, recycled ore, that early shimmery-soft bio-tissue that looks like liquid metal grafted together. She’s seen patchwork fixes in the clinic, for miners with the goriest injuries—bones breaking through skin, crushed fingers, gruesome burns that go deep to the muscle. These are different; these are intricate. A faux-trachea shines with seams of blue: already cracked. They tremble in their case like living pieces of slag.

The medtechs have offered her months to live and carefully meted pity. This bargain is a bad deal. Marin is a bad deal. Too young to be in the mines, too damaged to ever earn out her contract topside. There is a scarcity to the air that is more marked for her than it is for the miners that file out of the tunnels at night, retching into their sleeves. Best case, she stops coughing up blood long enough to put in a few good years in the refinery before she’s right back here, dying.

But her father has always been blind when it comes to Marin and his eyes are bright and the pen is already in his hand.

Don’t you want to breathe? His favorite refrain. Don’t you want to get better?

Marin doesn’t want to be the one to tell him she’s not worth his contract.

“Bet you’ll be glad to get rid of those,” the engineer says, pointing at her chest. As if parts of her can be plucked out and replaced for convenience’s sake.

But these lungs are hers, and they’re the only ones she’s ever had, and she’s not ready to be rid of them yet.

“I know they don’t look like much, but I do good work. Stronger than those vanity models,” says the engineer. “You can buy yourself a few good years.” He flips the blinds and looks out at the bank of their little river, flush with cobalt dust.

He smiles, generous, irresistible, at Marin’s father.

A few good years for who, she doesn’t ask.

#

The violence of the surgery untethers her.

They’re not a rich colony. The only surgeon is out of their reach, over on the light side. Here, they make do with expired supplies and good sense and self-preservative ignorance.

Marin sees herself on the table, anesthetized with contraband from the livestock facility, peeled open and glistening. The medtechs put her real lungs in a bin for disposal. They look like soft pumice, mottled and shrunken and pockmarked. The techs shuffle her, rearranging her ribs, her heart. They make room.

Put me back, she wants to say.

They take their time. They trace their fingers over the imperfect craftsmanship of her faux-lungs, mesmerized. They press on the bio-fiber just to see it clench and shudder, blow on the ends of the shining silvery veins to draw the color to the surface and watch it fade.

She is intensely aware of the moment the metal goes into her, matches up, slots together with her own self. A breathlessness, and then something almost as good as breath: a coolness, a relief.

There’s something else, too: a blunting. A binding.

After, she claws her way back to consciousness alone in the tent she shares with her father. Her center of gravity has shifted. She’s heavier. Her new lungs feel huge in her chest, drag-anchoring her to the ground. Living tissue bears its own weight, at least. Her breathing is jagged, still, her chest distended and stiff. Her blood is a little darker, a little thicker.

The wrongness of it pervades her and she presses her hands to her chest and feels the solidity there and wonders how she would even go about ripping them out. She feels along her collarbone and hits bone in the wrong places. She settles into her newness. Acquaints herself with her transplanted chassis.

Despises it.

Her father is so pleased. He says she’s the future. That she’s lucky. He kisses her on the forehead and holds a stolen oxygen pack to her face, his own lips tinged with blue.

#

The week before Marin dies, the engineer’s body turns up downstream where the water smells sour and the floodplains are buried under a foot of brackish grey sludge.

The colony doesn’t break ground for burials. Shooting the dead into space is foolproof and cheap and Marin’s been borrowing so much of her life for so long that she doesn’t imagine it will happen to her any differently. The disposal techs talk about sending her remains back to earth for study, but there’s another strike and the supply lines are all being rerouted. There’s only room for one body amidst all that expensive dead cargo, and it’s not hers.

Marin was nobody, so she gets zipped into a bag. She drifts along behind the techs, separate, bound, as they drag her body to processing. The metal detector trips when they wheel her through the bay doors. They pat their pockets, check the scanner. They look at each other and then at the body bag that has Marin in it.

The moment they cut into her and see gleaming metal lodged in her chest, she’s salvage. Her own quarry. She doesn’t blame them; they see some future they couldn’t see before—inside her is the shape of baseless, desperate hope. Something to sell, something to study. Something to pass up the line to buy themselves a little more freedom.

She gets wheeled into another room, a lab where corpses go to be fed to the incinerator. They rifle through her bones and pluck the thing out of her ribs and sever the connections and then she is in two. She is scavenged. They carve her up, pull the cobalt trachea out of her, piece out the bronchi. They rinse it all until it gleams under the grey water sputtering from the tap.

She realizes, as they discard the meat-bits of her, that she has never seen a real, healthy lung, only imagined them: soft, pink, with feathery blood vessels, like the pictures in her moldy books.

#

I can’t believe someone signed off on this, someone is saying. Look at this vein, Jesus, who’s refining this shit? They pry their tools into her crevices. They tilt her body and scrape metal over her and eventually she’s turned out into someone’s palm. The warmth feels like the sun that’s been described to her over a lifetime and she is handled with reverence, with tenderness.

Oh yeah, the technician says. We can make use of this.

#

Marin’s never asked where the cobalt goes. Most of them don’t. They’re all consumed by the just-until-tomorrow’s, the grind of it. Mouths covered until they can return to their little bubbles of stale air. Everyone falling over themselves to dig out that blue marrow for some stranger across the terminator line, across the galaxy.

Something of Marin is stuck in one of the new minerbots. Her new body creaks and shudders. Sometimes when the dust gets bad her joints lock up. Her plating is junk metal, the kind that hasn’t been tempered right. Her limbs are too big. Her treads stick in the mud.

The only grace in this body is that it’s inured from the poison that seeps out of the ground, that she is able to stand sentry while she watches everyone else sleepwalk toward messy, protracted deaths of scarcity. She records those: time, date, identification number, quadrant, corridor. She thinks it must be half programming, half self-imposed imperative: remember the ones who manage to escape this wretched dynamo. She looks for herself in them, but they’re all caught up in their dying. The best she ever did was train for it.

She tries not to get lost in her seething jealousy, her awe for the way they all meet their ends.

She thinks she doesn’t make a very good minerbot.

Sometimes, late at night, in her blue-lit alcove, she plays a game to try and learn this shell, to shock her new self awake. She focuses her will on trying to move its limbs forward. Corrupting its database. Writing directives of her own. Her speech processors aren’t calibrated for screaming; the best they can do is translate her distress into a flat, garbled moan.

She sees a man that looks like her father, one day. They all look like her father: faces sallow and grey and crusted with poison, spitting the dust from their mouths. The man is trapped in a sinkhole. His corridor is flooding. He shouts at her. Help me. You stupid fucking bot, do something. But Marin’s mouth is a slit and her voice is pre-recorded and all she can do is watch.

Stay calm, she chirps. Help is on the way.

She’s decommissioned the next day when she coaxes her treads off the bridge and into the river.

#

She’s being scrapped. She is torn and tossed into piles, she’s threads and plates and cables and her memories blink and fade and she has to choose or she won’t get to keep anything—

She is six. We’ll fix you right up, her father tells her, the first time she becomes conspicuously ill. She’s young yet, he tells her. She will get better. Right now, it’s new. It’s hard. The air is visibly thick; the atmosphere is thin enough that they dwell under a sky of eternal twilight. The storms turn dry and vicious as they blow in over the terminator zone. The dust kicks up cold, like the stories about winter back on earth. No snow, though. Everything that rains down here rains down grey.

He sees a future where she lives lives upon lives, the world she’ll inhabit when she grows up. There’s enough wonder in her still to believe him, to imagine that someday she might leave the dust behind. She has so much to look forward to, her father tells her. The mines, the planet, the adventure of it all. The colony will be different, so different, by the time she’s grown—

Marin is in pieces, dumped in a bucket, onto a conveyer belt—

Marin is eight and her father crosses the line every day to throw out his back digging holes for the drill housing. He comes back slouching and stiff to kiss her on the forehead. He reads to her about history and time. He pulls pieces of stolen ore out of his pockets, lets her turn them over in her hands, holds them up to the light. This is better than air, he tells her—

—melted and pressed, melted and pressed, and still she can’t find herself, formless, and she only has the shape of the memory of what it was like to have a body—

—she doesn’t get better. Her father coughs, now, too. He forges her ID card on her birthday. He hands it to her and tells her she is a technician, now. The colony is hiring lots of technicians because the old minerbots from earth buckle under the gravity, here. They’ll work it out soon. The colonists say this with awe, as if they are so lucky to be denied innovation. Like it’s a great privilege to burn out your life in service of this dead rock, in service of other, better, luckier bodies somewhere else. The business is in the bodies, here. Use one up and the corps can buy another. Humans are doing the work of machines, always, paving their way. They are all just passing the time between now and when they cease—

Marin lies in the tent and listens to the oxygen recycle and imagines what it would be to fill a cart with cobalt and walk along the filthy tributary that feeds into the grey river without one hand pressing a mask to her face—

—she is rinsed, tumbled, rinsed. Formless is better, maybe. She warms. It feels like soothing and dark, like there may be an end to it—

—her father trades his rations for codeine for a week after the medtechs turn her away. His worker friends have to drag him back into the tent. She looks at the bottle in her hands, weighs the pain of bright hunger against the pain of seizing lungs. “Oh, dad,” she tells him. “I wish you wouldn’t.” She isn’t going to last the year—

fucked up the tempering, someone is saying, do it again

—she’s eighteen and furious and holding a mask to her face between yelling at her stupid, naive father who won’t hear her. “You’ll outlive all of them,” he insists. He curls up on the floor on his mat, so scant beneath his filthy jumpsuit. He used to take up all the space in a room. He has withered into this stranger. “Just wait until they get the condensers working and we have real air,” he says. “You’ll see.” You’ll see.

He was right, almost. Outlive was generous.

#

Her body is laid in the stream bed and she’s left to drown for 50 years.

She is some kind of pollution monitor nestled into the fine silt at the bottom of the river, a crab that’s had its legs pulled off. She misses the sun. She is buried and flayed by tons and tons of rock and dust and filth suspended in the current. She’s traded one life of drowning for another.

Sometimes there are human hands on her. This body is simpler than her last; it’s not hard to trip the switch to shut the sensor off, to force herself to malfunction. Anything to attract their attention, anything to buy herself a few moments of maintenance out of the water. On these occasions she is drawn out and shaken before she is discarded again, her meter ignored.

The current rushes ever on and her housing fills with water and sediment. She goes unnoticed, tucked away from even the stars, her mouth soldered open in a silent scream.

#

They bury her in the walls.

Enough of her is here that she can thread herself through the wires. She must be in one of the administrative complexes. She finds the computer system unrecognizable, labyrinthine. The datacore gives her the current year and she laughs and rages, leaning on calcified muscle memory. She fries three of the door controls on level two.

It is nice to be touched, palm after palm laid against those control consoles. The soft press of a passcode is almost like a whisper; the way they bend for retina scans feels like supplication. Even the momentary agony that comes with a short out is welcome. For the first time in years, she’s maintained. They check her all the time. They go to great lengths to ensure her functionality. Her sensors are cleaned. Her interface demands constant attention and she is quietly thrilled with the new power she commands.

Her dominion is absolute. She can open the doors. She can deny entry. She can override the airlock controls and steal everyone’s breath, flood their buildings with nothing, watch them beg and gasp and die.

She wonders at that. How she can still find fury, after so long.

She lets them live, she operates as expected. Clean people with clean clothes breathing clean air. She doesn’t know how long she’ll be here. She needs to be better than this monstrous system that has subsumed her. She needs to be able to tolerate herself. She hasn’t looked in a mirror for a long time.

#

Her body lies fallow in a field.

It’s the first time Marin has passed the terminator line. She didn’t dare imagine it, in life; she’s only ever experienced this side of the tidal-lock in the quiet space of stories and hushed whispers. The reality is grimier: she sits in a dried-up tidal basin, one of a thousand panels with their cracked faces turned skyward.

The sun soaks into her metal frame. She has few visitors. The dirt here is just dirt: inoffensive, inert. It stays on the ground instead of tearing over the plains in swirling clouds. She luxuriates in her frame of steel and weathered glass and cobalt, waits for the thin clouds to part so she can drown in the scant sunlight.

Her barometric readings tell her that the oxygen is abundant, now. Particulate matter has settled. The sky is the color of those pictures of junk cobalt, the pieces that weren’t pure enough to be beaten into alloys. A stratosphere is forming. It is an embarrassment of riches. What lies they’ve all been told, over there in the dark. How constrained they all were.

To think they all thought they knew air.

She passes years without seeing a human. Overhead, the transport ships skim the planetary rings streaked white over the sky, like someone has scraped away space itself. She dreams of the ascent. Of making it off-world. Of all of her, collected and brought back together and thrown gently into the same scrapheap.

#

They bring her back across the terminator line and her body is mounted on a launchpad and pointed at the sky.

It is almost a relief to be in the dark again. To be home. She is spread across so many pieces of metal, now. They have scavenged her from stolen scrap, and she is melted and cast and propped up on the hill overlooking the narrowest stretch of river. She is riveted back together and returned to herself and soldered into something strong and deliberate.

Hundreds of hands are on her at a time. Sometimes they come to her, alone, press their palms to her frame and whisper their hopes to her. It is almost warm, like skin on skin. So many of them must be dreaming for the first time. There is finally room to imagine what might be, it seems. There has not been a new engineer in some time. The ships have stopped coming. The river is a little clearer. These things they tell her. Please work, baby, they say. This is it, I can feel it.

She lets herself hope, for them.

She gathers, little by little, a sense of the future they intend for her. They tell her stories of escape. They tell her stories of the people they have held, the people they have breathed, the ones they’ve lost. She is to be a vessel; they will use her to leave this planet behind.

There will be no more dust and no more lungs and no more sky, but she is glad to be something more than slag to these hoping bodies.

She fails them. She never makes it past the fragile, fledgling cloud layer. She tries to stave off her reeling panic, but it spreads through her like the seizing of a diaphragm, the choking of phantom lungs. It shocks her metal into something brittle and shuddering; it shears away like sloughing skin. The loss of it all, the enormity of almost, drops her from the sky.

This feels familiar, too: she always gets so close. The sky recedes. The dizziness overtakes her.

The Corps burns the bodies before they dismantle her. They use her white-hot wreck as a pyre. She welcomes the scorching. She wishes it would take. But she’s been breathing worse than smoke her whole life and she should know better by now: the lifeless parts of her always endure.

#

In her last life, she is laid into the circuitry of the dam.

Her body is wide and expansive. She holds back tons and tons of freezing poison, years, decades, centuries of the things the Corps has put away, out of sight, as if that lessens the violence of their transgressions. The reservoir runs through her teeth, cascades down the surface of her, thunders into the canyon below.

Her once-home is unrecognizable. She is distant from the parts of her that could tell her how long it’s been. An eternity, certainly. She’s built into the mountains she’d only ever glimpsed from the ground in that first life. The first time it rains, she thinks she’s being demolished, the water stinging against her broad self. But then the barrage turns angry and bright and lovely. Almost too much after so long spent blunted and cold. She wonders if the atmosphere is suffused with metal, too. If there are places untouched by cobalt on this wretched colony. If it’s still a colony or mostly a grave.

Open, closed, open, closed. She complies, this time. She plays thrall to whomever, whatever is controlling her. They must have learned better than to let her access their systems, or perhaps she is simply less every century. Perhaps every time she is diluted and melted and hammered into something new she loses something of herself.

One day, after a flood, bodies wash up against the base of her. Their blood rubs off on the piling; they stain her.

Her fury, muted for so long, reverberates through her, and she cracks. It doesn’t take much; the poison has been eroding her for a long time. It drips down her face in a foul welter. There is more of it, and more of it. The waterline at her base disappears as the trickle becomes a torrent.

The river swells and spills over its grey-blue banks. It carries the silt, the shale, the bodies. It sweeps through the valley, forces what has been extracted back into the ground. All her life has been this: the dread, the waiting, the knowledge that she is failing, will fail. That her center is one breath away from collapsing. That the most she can do is hasten her own collapse.

She can drive mercy towards them. Out of herself. She wants them to know, just once, what it feels like.

The trick has always been the same: keep breathing.

Marin groans and heaves. Sighs. Lets the deluge cleave her.

SPF

Apricot died, three days into the heat wave. She had just turned three, with no underlying health issues, but temperatures had soared to 120 degrees that weekend, and not even the full strength of Dani’s air conditioner could keep the cat cool, much less alive. One minute, Apricot was a spry thing, young enough to live forever, and the next, she was gone, immobile under a bed sheet, claws still clinging to thread. Hugh, however, decided to blame no one, not Dani, not even the heat. It did not matter that thousands of pets died in the city that year, and it wouldn’t matter how many more would die in the next. Even as Apricot’s owner of three years, he would just fall back on his platitudes about the circle of life, hold back his tears, and talk about how her time had run out.

“What now?” Dani had said during the funeral in Hugh’s Brooklyn backyard, while they were still digging up the plot. As a show of respect, Dani showed up in a black dress and a matching pair of sandals, while Hugh opted for an old-looking shirt with flowers splattered across the chest. In California, he insisted—though he’d only been a handful of times—people lived and thrived in their vintage finds, as if worn-down fabric could protect anyone from heat stroke.

“Who knows?” said Hugh. “Maybe she goes to the great beyond.”

“The kind with white sand?” Dani asked, eying his god-awful shirt.

Kokomo, baby.”

“This is no time for The Beach Boys.”

“There’s always time for The Beach Boys,” Hugh said.

“Not when a blizzard strikes in Zambia,” Dani said, “and definitely not when the second one hits a month later.”

Although Hugh never yelled, there came a crack in his smile as she brought up Zambia, an inscrutable knit in his eyebrows. He dug up the rest of the plot. When he buried the cat, he did not take his time in lowering her into the ground; he dropped her in with a quick plop that made Dani wince, then picked the shortest prayers to recite. Their moment of silence lasted a breath, a fraction of that, and then the service was over.

She walked home, he biked to the bodega. When she called later, Hugh insisted he was too busy to talk, and that he was getting ready to leave town for training camp again on the west coast. Dani knew better. The cat might have been at rest now, soon to be forgotten under the barren earth, but she would not die waiting for Hugh to admit the sky had been falling for a while now.

By next spring, Dani moved out from Brooklyn into her own apartment, west of Times Square. Rent in Hell’s Kitchen was higher than she would’ve liked, the price of living alone on an island about to sink into the ocean, but she figured there was no better time than now; another heat wave was approaching this spring, with temperatures climbing to 125 degrees, and apartments were hot enough without another roommate or an extra cat taking up the space. Dani spent her nights mostly alone, content to bask in the air conditioning until the blackouts made them moot.

On one of those nights, Dani woke to the sound of her phone buzzing from the dresser.

“Dan!” It was Irene, the night before her shotgun wedding to a man who still bothered to take at least four kinds of daily multivitamins. She always missed the second syllable of Dani’s name when she was excited about something. “Did the blackouts hit you?” she asked.

“Yes,” Dani said. “About an hour ago.”

“Oh you poor thing,” Irene said with a click of her tongue. “Wasn’t it only scheduled for the Upper West Side tonight?”

“They just keep getting worse,” Dani said. “I have a theory, actually—that they’re not planning them anymore. It’s just everything going to shit.”

“You’re in a mood. You better not bring that to the reception.”

“If I remember correctly, you just said I had to bring the napkins.”

Irene laughed. “Well,” she said, “why don’t you sleep on my couch tonight? That way, you can just help me get ready in the morning.”

“Sure,” Dani said, “if you’re sure Tom’s still going to be there in the morning.”

“That’s not funny,” Irene scolded. “I should just let you melt.”

Dani laughed and the two of them made plans to meet up in about an hour. She got dressed, made sure her dress was still wrinkle-free in its garment bag, and slung it over her back. She packed away a few toiletries, deodorant, a toothbrush. Irene had makeup at her place. Hopefully tampons, too. In her pocket, she made sure to pack her 150 SPF sunblock, which she’d need when the sun rose.

Out on the street, a block party sprawled out up the street, to the edge of the intersection. They always followed the blackouts, in the neighborhoods where people didn’t need or want enough to riot. Hell’s Kitchen brought zeal; if they were going to be the next neighborhood to collapse into the river, they thought, let’s just dance until doomsday. Residents brought out their battery-powered speakers and played thirty songs all at once, creating tunnels of bass so deep it felt as if this was the thing that might sink them. They danced from the fire escapes and rooftops in nothing but their underwear, while some even came naked with their pendulum genitals. They drank from their red plastic cups, spilling drinks onto the sidewalk in waterfalls. When things got really rowdy, people dropped various appliances from their rooftops, from toasters to TVs. People drove drunk in their chosen vehicles, racing their bicycles and mopeds at top speeds.

Tonight, the speedster was a tandem bicycle on the corner of fifty-second and tenth. Dani came within an inch of meeting her end when someone yanked her by the ankle and pulled her back towards the sidewalk. She let the cyclists curse her for trying to cross on a red light. In return, she delivered a middle finger in their direction, towards the horizon line, as if she were cursing it directly.

A laugh emerged in the air, close enough that it rose above the general noise. Maybe Dani knew the sound too well.

Hugh remained seated on the curbside, in a navy blue suit and a bloodied nose. Despite the starchiness of the fabric, the outpour, his smile grew with each passing millisecond, until it stretched past the crumpled napkin he held at his nostrils.

“Thought it was you,” Hugh said, making a waving motion with his hand that lasted from the top of his head to the bottom of his chest.

Dani shrugged and pushed her hair back behind her shoulders. “I haven’t had a chance to cut it.”

Hugh stood up to meet her eye-to-eye, though he was a solid six-two to her five-five. Dani resisted getting on her toes to match him.

“How have you been?” he asked.

“Fine,” she said. “I’m on my way to Irene’s.”

“Oh, that,” Hugh said with raised eyebrows. “I’m staying at their place, actually. Can you believe they’re actually getting married? Don’t you think they’re rushing into things?”

“I don’t think so,” Dani said. Shotgun weddings were the norm in all her friend circles, even if the couples in question had been only been dating as little as a month. “It’s—you know.” She took one look at Hugh and remembered Apricot, the blizzards in Zambia, the new heat wave upon them. “Crazy little thing.”

Hugh frowned at this for a moment, just like he had at Apricot’s funeral, then nodded along as if to accept the answer. “Love,” he said, as he removed the napkin from his nose.

“Anyway.” Dani noticed the crusted blood at the edge of Hugh’s nose. Pre-Apricot, she might have gone over to clean him up herself. Tonight, she would stay on the other side of the plot they dug up last spring, no matter how long it’d been since they filled it. “Isn’t it a little early to put on a suit?” she asked, changing the subject. “The reception is tomorrow.”

“I was on a date,” Hugh said. “We were at a Broadway play a few blocks over. Then she said she wanted to walk along the canals.”

“Horrible idea,” Dani said. “People are always falling in.”

“Some might find it romantic.”

Just a year ago, the canals stretching across the odd streets were simply troughs filled with muddied water, an emergency measure to alleviate rising sea levels. Romantic was an attempt at outdoor seating, lampposts, and brick-lined sidewalks, enough to the point where people were calling the city New Amsterdam again.

“Did you know gondola drivers need medallions now?” Dani asked further. “Five million dollars a year.”

Hugh made the sign of the cross. “God bless them.”

“And where is she now? That poor woman?”

“She said it wasn’t going to work out between us,” Hugh stated with a sigh.

“Why’s that?”

“She says I have nothing in my head.”

“Well, that’s wrong,” Dani said. “You had blood ooze right out of it.”

Hugh laughed again. From the rooftops of Hell’s Kitchen, illegal fireworks emerged like there was something to celebrate, and the two of them decided to make the cross-town trek together, along the canals.

#

In the morning, Irene put on her wedding dress and braided Dani’s hair. She always insisted that Dani was the last girl in Manhattan to keep her tresses, and that it was a wedding gift in itself to be able to play with them one more time.

“I don’t know how you do it,” Irene said as she tied it up at the ends. Including the bride, every girl in the wedding party had some sort of short bob, or a pixie cut, while Dani had enough hair for it to hit the bottom of her breasts. “I mean, the length is easy to miss,” Irene said, “but I always just have to tell myself that it’s a chance to show off my collarbones.”

“Like I said to Hugh last night,” Dani said, “I haven’t had a chance to go to the salon.”

“Uh-huh,” Irene said. “Weird that you ran into him, though.”

“Yeah,” said Dani, “like he just so happened to stay over the same night you invited me here, too.”

“I had nothing to do with that.” Irene yanked at a tuft of Dani’s hair in retaliation. “In fact, he was the one to turn down this ritzy place his team was going to put him up in. He even told his manager, ‘Stevie, I’m going to take the subway to Yankee Stadium. See you at batting practice later.’”

“What a waste!” Dani said.

“It’s not everyday you get to have a wedding,” Irene said, “and mine is going to be with a man I’ll love until the day I die.”

Dani looked out towards the living room, where she found the remnants of last night’s sleep situation: two unmade couches, divided by a coffee table and a few errant coasters. Dani had taken one side while Hugh took the other, and the two of them had spent the night catching up, hushed under the rattle of the air conditioner.

“Tired of Brooklyn?” Hugh had asked, presumably about the Hell’s Kitchen move.

“My roommate kept complaining about her ice cream melting. It was time to go.”

“Oh?” Hugh said. “And how are you liking it now?”

“Well enough,” Dani said.

“Enough to stay?”

“Sure. Where would I go anyway?”

“Jupiter?”

“Be serious.”

“Out west,” said Hugh. “Venice.”

“Italy? That’s east,” and sunken at the bottom of the Adriatic Sea. Dani didn’t say that last part.

“California,” he clarified.

“I hardly have it in me to walk across the island,” Dani said, “and you want me to move across the country.”

“It’s really not so bad.”

“That’s a shame,” Dani said. “You’ve become one of those LA people.”

“Oh, Dani,” Hugh said.

“Yes, Hugh?”

“You should see me out there,” he said. “I’m on TV every night.”

Dani tore herself away from the couches, her time with Hugh. She found herself gritting her teeth. When Irene asked what she was thinking about, Dani merely called it the usual lack of sleep.

There were some people that electrified the rooms they walked into, and Dani knew countless girls that thought of Hugh in this way, and millions more would fall prey to him in Los Angeles. To Dani, it was more of an electrocution—teeth-gritting, lip-biting, shivering-in-a-heat wave sort of nervous system failure. He fried her, cut her, braised her for extra effect, even when he was merely asleep in the same room; memories lifted her into sleeplessness, soul out of body.

On the desk lay a few of Hugh’s baseball cards, where he was featured as a backup infielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Irene tossed them over to Dani when she caught her looking at them from the bed.

“There’s no point in fighting with someone who’s in town for a few days,” Dani told her. She couldn’t help but scoff. “Baseball! The island is flooding, and all he cares about is batting practice.”

Irene sighed, tucking a bit of hair behind Dani’s ears. “You know how it goes. Some people are stupid enough to get married in this heat. Others run right in the sun.”

#

The groom collapsed en route back to the apartment, just a few hours before the ceremony. The coroners called it heat-induced cardiac arrest, which made some sense: joggers everywhere were warned not to exercise out in the heat wave, but Tom kept on running just as he did every morning. It also didn’t help that he’d been born with a defective heart, a fun fact he told Irene on their first date, but now all she could do was mumble about it in regret, as if she should’ve known she was marrying a man on borrowed time.

Hugh had been there. In fact, he’d encouraged Tom to go running that morning, even though he was hung-over from his bachelor party at the bar down the block. As Dani comforted Irene on the couch a few nights later, letting her wail into her lap, she stared at Hugh from the other side. It was Apricot all over again. The platitudes came like the eventual rain at the end of every heat wave, this one broken too early and for nothing: he’s in a better place, just know that he loved you until the end, things happen for a reason. This only made Irene cry harder, so Dani asked to see Hugh in the hallway.

“How did he die?” Dani asked.

“Come on now, you heard Irene before,” Hug
said with a swallow. “Cardiac arrest.”

“You’re missing a part of it.”

“I mean, we don’t know for sure it was caused by that.

“Say it,” Dani insisted.

“Who cares if it’s hot?” Hugh said. “I mean, god, all those drills we run everyday on the field? No one breaks a sweat. Everyone’s fine. We’re always fine.”

“It’s not fine.”

“He had a bad heart, okay?” Hugh’s voice broke as he said this. “What more do you need to say about this? Just—he’s gone to a better place. A better place than this.”

“So you admit it, then,” Dani said. “You know how bad it’s gotten.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“Then explain it to me.”

“It’s why people leave New York,” he said. “We don’t have blackouts in California. We all still go to the beach and watch baseball after work. You know why I think Tom died?” He paused for a moment, making sure Irene was still inside the apartment. “It’s because you’re all counting down to it yourselves, like you’re going to drop dead at zero.”

Hugh took Dani’s hand, which stunned her enough to hold his back tighter in competition. He kept his thumb pressed into the softest part of her palm, like he was trying to excavate her lifeline, or rip it apart with his fingernails. He let go and brought that same hand to Dani’s cheek, where his fingers sifted through strands of her unwashed hair.

“You’re not like them,” said Hugh. “I remember Apricot. You put on your sunblock and you do all the things you have to. But you’ve still got it,” he said. “And this city is going to rip it away from you if you don’t do anything about it.”

“What is it that I have?” Dani asked.

Inside the apartment, Irene stopped wailing, and all that remained were two people trying to breathe through the heat. Hugh held onto her, not by the hand, or a hug, but by the slight tug of her hair, looped between his fingers. Dani wondered, at that moment, if she should’ve cut her hair like the other girls. There’d be nothing to hold onto then, and Hugh would’ve had to settle for their natural distance.

The lights in the hallway flickered in and out until they went out altogether. Another blackout had arrived, and the people in their apartments began to holler and blast their music. Dani did not budge. In the darkness, she could still follow the lines of Hugh’s body, upward to the arch of his nose and his sky-high cheekbones. She followed him until she was close enough to trace those lines herself. She pressed a thumb over his cheek, then the tip of his nose, his upper lip. She kept it there. Other people might have seen the blackout as some excuse to take off their clothes and consummate even the most fleeting of unions, but Dani knew not to push things. Irene and Tom had, when they first met and made love at a blackout down the street two years ago, and then when they decided to get married not two months after. Tom certainly pushed things, when he decided to go for a run in the middle of the city’s worst heat wave ever. Dani knew better than to touch his face. This was not a consummation of anything. Repeating this to herself, she held the thumb over Hugh’s lip like the lock to her old apartment, always jamming.

Hugh bowed his head, something Dani could feel when her thumb brushed back up the bridge of his nose. He embraced her, something he hadn’t even done when Apricot died, or when Dani’s father died. They remained that way as the tenants poured out of their apartments.

“Come to Los Angeles,” Hugh said at last. “I’m tired of looking at you in the dark.”

#

A downpour came after Hugh left, enough to render lighters useless and dampen any other plans for partying on the roof. Dani pawed her way back inside, where Irene busied herself by collecting all the balled up tissues she’d spent the day crying into. She didn’t ask about Hugh, or where he’d gone in this storm, which was fine because Dani didn’t feel like talking about anything at all. She merely followed after Irene in tidying up the apartment, lighting the tea candles that were supposed to sit next to name-cards and utensils, and cutting up her wedding veil into confetti. That was the nice thing about the dark, even the candle-lit kind. Dani could comfort with the best of them, all without letting Irene know that she had things to cry about, too.

Lastly, Irene mounted her portable speaker on the windowsill. She started “Come on Eileen”, moved the couches to the opposite walls, and skipped around the coffee table. Her hands went up in the air as the chorus dropped. “Come on, Irene,” she sang with her hands over her heart, making Dani laugh. “At this moment, you mean everything!”

Dani could not help but dance, too. As she turned over and over around the coffee table, she let herself fall into dizziness, one that lasted hours and hours, and continued on until they were sure sunrise was coming.

#

In life, Dani’s father had adored the New York Yankees. This was something he never had to prove to anyone, given the yearly pilgrimage he made to Florida, by car, where the team regularly held spring training. Dani thought this never made much sense, since the Yankees played in New York, plus the fact that the city hardly ever stayed cold enough to warrant a migration. Manhattan usually got one winter storm, the devastating kind with six or seven feet of snow and comet hail, before it all melted away as if it’d never happened by early February. Still, Dani’s father never hesitated in packing a backpack, throwing on his favorite jersey, and leaving first thing in the morning. Then Dani would call him from the road, five minutes, maybe an hour later, and warn him of that year’s approaching hurricane.

“Dani,” he used to say, “there are just some things you shouldn’t give in to.” He insisted upon this even when the hurricanes needed new categories like seven, eight, sometimes nine. It was something Dani’s mother used to say too, even in the throes of her skin-cancer-induced hospice care. Her Chinese family had a funny attitude about this: that no matter what, one had to keep good tidings, or everything else was going to catch up with you. This meant blessings from every elder before a flight, and the insistence that Dani should never frown on her birthday, even on the year her mother’s hospice care turned into an empty bed in a hospital ward.

On her twenty-fifth birthday, the year after Tom’s death, Dani found herself in a parking lot somewhere near the beach. She stretched her arms up to the sky after days of driving. Irene sat on the hood of her car, content to scarf down an extra large order of French fries. They’d been on the road for what felt like years, east coast to west, and all Dani could feel was a lingering queasiness, all the way up to her nostrils. She rushed behind the car and vomited right onto the pavement, where she remained crouched over her own mess.

“We reached the end,” Irene said. “How could you still be car sick?”

Dani shrugged. She got progressively more and more nauseous the closer they got to California. “It’s the fire,” she said. “God, it was like driving through hell.”

The entire state of California had been engulfed in what experts called the infinite drought. Everything from the air to the pavement to the rolling fields dried up, as if the entire region should’ve been cremated by wildfire. On the highway, inflamed skylines rose over the horizon, rising out of the trees and soaking into an orange sky. Out a rolled-down window, she had let her bare arm roam free in the open air, to sift the soot and ash. Her palm came back gray. In the constant light, she thought she look jaundiced.

Dani wiped off any remaining spittle and looked ahead, towards the wilted palm trees, the waves. The locals marched out towards the sand in their burnt skins, past the point of a supple pink. Fault lines formed across their faces, stretched and tight to the point of fissuring. Dani watched them—how they could still strip off their sun-safe clothes into bikinis and swim trunks. They bathed in the sea, not their sunscreens. The girls here still wore their hair long, longer than Dani’s; they spread their arms open to the world, still with everything to give.

They drove further up the road, where they spotted a series of semi-attached apartments, all painted a shade of coral pink. The complex was called The Ridley. Dani had read on their website that it was named after the now-extinct Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, and that one percent of the rent paid here would automatically go to some marine life charity the landlord designated. Dani doubted the credibility of this, but it was enough for Irene to justify the move across the country and claim she was doing all this for the greater good.

That night, when the two of them finished unpacking, Irene insisted on taking Dani out to dinner. Dani suspected this was out of pity. It wasn’t like she’d had many people left to celebrate with in New York, since more and more of her friends had escaped to cooler cities like Boston or Toronto. Five months after Tom’s death, Dani’s own neighborhood had been re-zoned into sunken wasteland, thus ending her lease, which left Dani wondering why she was even playing this game of musical chairs with the other surviving Manhattanites. She imagined the lot of them, circling their ever-shrinking island, competing over apartments the size of linen closets. The whole endeavor, even the thought of it, was enough for both her and Irene to pack their bags and go.

“I’m glad we picked this place,” Irene said, though she was the one who did all the deciding. She took in a deep breath as she locked their front door for the first time to drive to dinner. “It’s going to be good things from now on. Making the most of it.”

Dani inhaled, too; the air went down thick, balling up like a stone at the base of her throat.

“I wonder if it’s why people wear vintage. It’s bad, but in a good way. Like making the most of what you’ve got,” Dani mused. “Like that one time Hugh wore this ugly Hawaiian shirt to a funeral.”

“Hugh,” Irene said, leaving her lips puckered. “Who needs him? All that boy does is hit baseballs.”

Dani laughed, remembering their conversation the morning of the wedding never-to-be. She wrung an arm around Irene and kissed her on the cheek, thankful for her. For a moment, she pondered if all she would need here was Irene, and maybe that would be enough to sweeten the air.

#

At the restaurant in Santa Monica, Dani realized this was not going to be a dinner between the two of them. At the bar sat all the friends Dani once knew, most of them from college, meandering folk that only knew her through occasional social media updates and the rumors she once fancied Tom their sophomore year. No one could remember what she did for a living, or that Tom had died just before his wedding to Irene. No one recalled anything. They just sipped their drinks and nodded along, lost in the haze of forgetting something just as soon as they’d heard it.

Her birthday party stretched on for several nights; each reigned more sleepless than the last. One man who’d sympathized with Irene about Tom was now dancing close to her, to the point where it was inevitable they’d share a kiss. Dani braced herself for this, yet found herself nauseated when they made contact: she watched how their mouths fit so perfectly together, right at the start, then completely fell out of alignment. Irene yanked at his bottom lip like hardened taffy; he accidentally smattered himself across her cheek like he was trying to slurp a hot soup.

Dani ran out of the bar and threw up again, right on the curb. She cursed wildly, out loud, twenty five times for twenty-five, and sat by herself on a bench. Her mind drifted to good tidings. As she peered up into the hills, fire lit up the peaks, a light of the worst kind. She let the sight of it mesmerize her, until she got three taps on the shoulder from behind.

It was Hugh. He smelled of spearmint gum, hair still wet from a shower, all of which Dani got to know up close when he hugged her briefly out of nowhere. She thought she was dreaming. On the car ride over, all the way from New York, she’d imagined bumping into him somewhere in the city. He’d be married to a model, or drinking a beer he’d be sponsoring on billboards. Instead of a cat, he’d have a bouncing golden retriever, appropriate for California. But this was no new moment. It was a moment that decided to pick itself up where it left off, as if Dani had pressed pause on it all the way in the East Village, carried it with her, and decided to let things play out on the other side of the country.

Dani shuffled her feet back and forth in silence. Hugh spit out his gum on the sidewalk and kept his eyes on the cement.

“Food poisoning?” Hugh asked.

Dani shook her head. “I’m not sure this city likes me that much.” She pressed pause again, merely by stepping back from Hugh altogether. “What are you doing here?”

Hugh dug out a small box from his pocket and handed it over to Dani. Inside, there was a collectible pin, a “2” the size of a postage stamp. It was painted a simple white with navy blue pinstripes, the mark of the New York Yankees—and most importantly, the number of her father’s favorite player when he was a kid. Dani resisted the urge to vomit again. Maybe it wasn’t that. But she felt something in her was about to burst, so all she could do was shut the box and bow her head.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s been weird, hasn’t it?”

“Doesn’t have to be,” Hugh said. “We can pretend it’s New Year’s. Birthdays already feel like that, when you think about it. Whenever I break a resolution, I think, ah well, I’ll just wish for things to get better when I blow out the candles.”

“And does that ever work for you?” Dani asked.

“Maybe not all the other times,” he said. “But you came to California, didn’t you?”

#

That night, Dani abandoned her own party and drove away with Hugh with the top down, the city still burning above them. They ended up at the beach, where Dani encountered a west coast strain of those blackout partygoers. They were much the same with their red cups, their portable speakers; some things, like the need to dance, were universal. It was just the way they did it that felt foreign. In New York, the residents embraced dancing in the dark, feeling their way through the rest of the night, while the Los Angeles breed huddled around towering bonfires, as if the infernos had become part of who they were.

Hugh sat in the sand with her. Dani felt dizzy, just watching the people link hands and dance around whatever they could burn.

“I should be happy for her,” Dani said. “I know I should.” It was one of those things that rested, top of mind, like a book at the edge of a shelf. Normally, she pushed a thought like this back into place, to be forgotten like all the others, but she found herself unable to put it away. Maybe it was because Hugh wasn’t dancing like all the others. Between them, there was a stillness she could speak into.

“But the whole time,” she continued, “all I wanted to tell her was to slow down. Slow down, why don’t you? You just met him. Tom just died.” She peered out towards the shore, where she spotted the silhouette of a girl, dashing between the fire and the darkness of the waves. Dani thought someone should stop her, because she’d either get burned alive or swallowed up by the tide, never to be seen again, but no one did, and she kept running back and forth until the sight of her was a blur.

“I hate this place,” she said. “But I can’t hate you.”

Dani let her eyes grow wide, impossibly so, and let out a childish yelp, something she used to do with Hugh when she couldn’t make up her mind about certain things. He used to roll his eyes at this version of Dani, the silly Dani, but the sight of her this time made him smile, then wider, until it broke his face from the strain. She always knew when he was about to cry: the air currents around them changed, all by his attempt at a deep exhale, while he mashed his mouth closed so tight you couldn’t see his lips anymore.

Dani, in turn, let their hands crawl towards each other until they were held. This was enough for Hugh break down altogether. He cried, ugly, then soft, until all he could do was smack himself to stop.

“Do you remember when we last met?” Hugh asked. “In Hell’s Kitchen? My nose was all busted and that girl said I had nothing in my head?”

“Sure I do.”

“Well, it didn’t go like that. Not quite. She said she liked me, I think, but then I said I couldn’t ever go out with her again. She asked me why.”

“Why?” Dani mimicked.

“I didn’t even know at first. It just fell out of my mouth. She was a perfectly fine girl, pretty, smart. Baseball fanatic. But I couldn’t see her again. I just couldn’t. So I told her, ‘there’s this girl who killed my cat last year, and I’ve never been able to forget her.’ That’s when she socked me in the nose and called me a pig. But I didn’t care. I thought, Dani has to come to California—not because I was avoiding the end of the world. But because I wanted you at the very end of it.”

“But then we walked the canals,” Hugh continued on. “The way you belonged out there, like you knew every street still worth walking. The more I saw it, the more I thought, I have to save her. I have to save her. But then I knew there was no one to save. That that was the end of your world. And this here is mine.”

Dani peered out towards the sea. The darkness seemed to stretch out forever, tides climbing higher and higher like they came out of the underworld itself. The girl, who’d been running between the light and the dark, had stopped altogether. The party stopped when they realized the girl was nowhere to be found, and that she was nowhere near the fire. She’d gone to the waves. Screams arose from the shore, with calls of a name Dani would soon forget, need to forget, for the sake of not counting another loss.