It was the year the lake turned to glass. It was as though the water wasn’t even there, the shore simply extending further and further into a barren landscape. The lakes had been cleaned in recent years, some meager effort to beautify the city, but that made it all the worse. Every discarded bottle, every useless tire rolled into the surf, they petulantly stared back at you when you walked along the water. It wasn’t just the trash, either. The lake itself turned malevolent.
I was part of the team trying to figure out how to save the lake. Or maybe what had happened to it. Or, more specific to my actual job description, how to get the public to accept the lake as it now was—as a blessing rather than a curse, a sign of the times which no one wanted to read, but everyone already knew said EXIT HERE.
We had a set-up on the unpopulated side of the lake in an area which had been poisoned long ago by a paper mill but the city swore wasn’t toxic anymore. Nobody believed the city, not even those of us who worked for them. It wasn’t just that the grassy slopes of the hills around us looked like mange, patches of dry dirt resistant to grass, the soil powdery to the touch. The air had an oily feel. It settled in the lungs like a conscience. And the animals. I had trouble looking at them, even the malformed rabbit Talia took in and designated the project pet. Talia was a biologist, but not a very good one. To be honest, none of us were very good at our jobs, which is why we had this job. City finances being what they were, people left if they had any other option, and only came for work when the rest of the world failed to appreciate their virtues.
And, to be fair, the rabbit fit right in. It had one eye permanently half-closed, while the other eye’s pupil was blown out. Its teeth were too short and its limbs were too long and seemingly all different sizes, so it moved with an awkward hop where it was never quite clear what direction it was heading. Talia had named the rabbit Thumper.
We lived and worked in a concrete warehouse. It had been built as a boathouse right before the lake began to die in earnest and had never been used. But instead of being fresh and new, a few years of abandonment had rubbed the concrete raw, smooth and discolored. Pink. Concrete shouldn’t be pink, should it? Like skin trying its damnedest to heal? But we made the best of our new home. Yiannis, the chemist, hung tarps as tapestries and painted them with correction fluid and agar, abstracted images of the landscape and the lake. His hills were filled with mold. The bottom of the lake seeped rust.
Out at the lake’s edge, I took pictures. This was more time-consuming than it should have been, since the water only shone at the right angle, and if the lake wasn’t visible, then how could I convince people the lake was worth saving?
Klarissa followed behind me as I snapped pictures, deliberately scrunching her feet through the crackling, pristine sand. The sand had been imported years before, back when the city was a tourist destination. Enough sand to bury a small town.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she said.
“Still. Despite that. Just look at it. Could you paint something as perfect?”
We all had little quirks, strangenesses we had to get used to in hope the others would endure ours. Klarissa was simply blind to the world, seeing everything as separate from her. As if life was a casual stroll through a museum and one day you died lonely and forgotten in a niche the docents hadn’t even been to in years, surrounded by minor Renaissance still lifes.
But she was right. The lake looked like a painting by someone who couldn’t paint anything living, and so just cut animals and people out of the equation entirely. The water glowed. The sky was feathered with clouds. Far in the distance was an island with a few brown sticks of trees which looked like telephone poles waiting for harvest. And closer by, a yacht rested on the lake floor without any obvious damage. The red hull was as lurid as a fresh scab.
Klarissa was an urban planning specialist; her job focused on how to get the water to be drinkable, sustainable, and unpollutable. Inside our warehouse, she flashprinted miniature dioramas of her plans, all of the pipes and water pumps and filtration systems working at that tiny scale. It didn’t matter how much she planned, though, if the lake refused to live again.
We had a time limit. The city wouldn’t tell us what the time limit was, but we were instructed to hurry. Lack of sleep was encouraged, as was generous use of the stimulant provided to us. The time limit was tied into the vegetation death encroaching on the city’s shores. That was one thing. Another was the diminishing population. Not through death. Well, not that we were told, anyway. Houses were being abandoned at an alarming rate. Put up for sale and then evacuated. Eviscerated. Every last appliance. Every built-in shelf. As if the owners knew the house was never going to sell and they were never coming back.
Harold was the project leader and also a philosopher. Not just in temperament, but in occupation. He’d headed a philosophy program at a sub-Ivy League East Coast school before being driven out by some scandal he refused to discuss and I refused to look up. Not out of respect for privacy, but for fear of what I’d find. It was easier to live not knowing.
“We can’t live in ignorance!” Harold said at almost every weekly meeting. “What happened to the lake is our fault, and we can only atone for what we’ve done when we’ve fully admitted what we’ve done.”
“This isn’t a religion, Harry,” Yiannis said. Talia nodded, petting Thumper.
“Isn’t it?” Harold pressed.
I expected Nadia, our geneticist, to argue with him, but she refused to look up from the table. Her hands were splayed on the surface like she was going to push herself up and away from this entire conversation, this entire place. But her fingers only twitched impotently.
She hadn’t realized before arriving that all of this was our fault. Or, more specifically, her fault. The fault of geneticists like her who believed in the power of their newly strengthened science. The Yellowgills invaded the lake due to people dumping the troublesome, custom-engineered pets they no longer wanted into the freshwater because they didn’t want to kill them; eventually the Yellowgill population grew so thick schools of them were chopped up by powerboats, so the geneticists created Razortooth Gar. The Razortooth Gar decimated the Yellowgills, as well as every other fish in the lake. A disease named Red Rot was introduced to the Razortooth Gar and ruined their gills so they suffocated, which resulted in a thick scum of dead fish on the lake’s surface. Worse, the disease bacteria mutated so it separated from the fish entirely and turned the lake maroon, clouding the water and staining the flesh of anyone who swam in the lake. And so modified Gullet Mussels were seeded to filter the water clean. That last was a success. They filtered the lake clean of everything.
We each did our jobs, such as they were. Harold took everything we did and combined it into reports, which he sent off to the city. He never told us the results of those reports, just patted us on the back whenever he saw us, smiling beneath his thin moustache in a way that was meant to be comforting but always came off as the smile a priest gives a person about to be executed.
It sounds dark. It was dark. Even during the clear, fine days of spring and in the height of summer, sunlight skipped over us. It shunted off to the city itself, that distant line of buildings that glittered in the light like frosting on a cake in a display window. None of us had been back there since our jobs began. Regularly, automated ferries crossed the lake bringing supplies. We were cut off.
But there was still beauty to be had. Playing with Thumper. Walking through Yiannis’ garden, laying bets on what each seed would look like after growing up through the poisoned soil. Celebrating each newly launched experiment of Nadia’s, drinking champagne as the spider-legged frog skittered into the water or a jar full of net-winged insects twirled and dove over the surface, chitinous bodies already crisping in the lake’s vaporous glare. Sitting at the end of the long dock, staring down through the water to the perfectly clear lake floor, imagining it as a long drop through the air, as though I were on a cliff rather than just a few feet away from what would hold me up, what wouldn’t let me sink.
We made no progress. The land refused us. Nadia’s various animals, slowly or quickly, all died. The chemical composition of the lake and the soil fluctuated, but from poison to poison. My record of events was one of failure, and no one read it. Maybe after the city was dead, the city and all its surroundings a shell, someone would come and find the diary of our efforts and understand the obvious thing that eluded us.
“We can’t give up,” Klarissa told me. She’d caught me at the end of the dock dangling my camera over the water’s edge.
“I’m not giving up. I’m admitting defeat.” I firmed my grip on the camera strap, but still held it over the water. “Let’s just go somewhere else. Somewhere living.”
She nodded across at the city. “They’re counting on us.”
“You don’t care about them.”
It was true. Her voice was flat. It was just a talking point, what we were supposed to repeat in our heads when depression came calling. But what I was feeling wasn’t depression, but elation. Excitement. To leave. To get the hell out of that hell.
“Maybe.” She wouldn’t admit it. It was hard, I knew, because that’s what I’d been wrestling with for weeks. “But there’s no point in running, because there’s nowhere to run. What happened here, we’ll take it with us. The poison is in us.”
I argued. I tried to convince her to come with me to the coast, that we could start a new life, the city and the lake and everything here be damned. The lake didn’t want us here. Nothing wanted us here. Everything we’d tried, I rehashed it right then and demolished every one of her objections, but she didn’t budge.
“I don’t need to convince you,” I said finally, pissed off, and threw the camera into the lake, except Klarissa caught the strap.
I was done with words. I yanked the camera back, but she wouldn’t let go. The dock rocked beneath us, and we didn’t care. We grunted and pulled and pushed. She was stronger than me, and she tugged so hard I fell into her. We tumbled onto the sun-worn wood, the camera between us. It broke with a snap, and we stopped struggling.
Klarissa rolled off me and sat up, pointedly looking away from me, out at the lake and the city’s ghostly skyline. “You got what you wanted.”
The body of the camera looked undamaged, but the lens had shattered, lacerating my fingers. The cuts were shallow but bled freely. Exhausted emotionally, physically, mentally, I stretched out on the dock, head and arms over the side, and lowered the camera into the water. None of this was what I wanted.
The dock shuddered as Klarissa rose to her feet and walked back toward the warehouse. Blood from my cuts dripped into the water, each drop spreading like cream into coffee. The breezeless air settled around me like a second skin.
I didn’t realize it at first, but my blood was changing something in the water. The red didn’t just spread out and disappear, it drifted away in fractal swirls, as though something was sucking it up. Where my blood dripped, the water turned from glass into, well, simply water.
“Klarissa!” I called out, and she ran back at the excitement in my voice. Seconds later, she was stretched out next to me, watching my blood slowly drip with the same fascination. She was there when the silt below us popped with a dozen tiny cloudbursts and the most miniscule fish I’d ever seen swam up to us, so transparent they were just bones with peppercorns for eyes.
I unstrapped my utility knife from my belt and flicked the blade open. The first cut was hard to do, a thick jag across the meat of my thumb, but the others came easier. I wasn’t killing myself. I didn’t want to die. But the pain, oh, it felt good, if only because with every slurry of my blood into the lake, more happened in the water, the blood setting an entire cascade of consequences into action. It was hypnotizing. I only heard the tail end of Klarissa calling the others on her phone, saying they needed to come down to the dock quick.
Then she held out her hand for the knife.