The Last Good Time to Be Alive

@antediluvian: london isn’t alive, zuri

@antediluvian: london is just a city. it can’t hurt you.

@ZRI_: yeah yeah i know

@ZRI_: just let me be delusional for a minute okay i’m having a Time over here

@antediluvian: can you get here? are the railways still up?

@ZRI_: lmao no

@ZRI_: power’s off and everything

@ZRI_: it’s whatever. it be like this sometimes

@antediluvian: i love you

@antediluvian: okay? i love you. don’t fucking die in rugby.

@ZRI_: dude

@antediluvian: without wanting to steal your look or whatever

@antediluvian: just let me be delusional for a minute okay

@ZRI_: you lunatic

@ZRI_: i love you too.

London isn’t alive, says Marlo, but that’s easy to say from her place inside its heart. You don’t think babies conceive of—anything, really, before they’re born. But you can’t imagine you thought of your mother as alive when you were taking up space in her body way back when. Outside of the city, on the wrong side of the flood barrier that hasn’t been opened in years, it is easier to see it for the monster it is. It sucks the life from the land around it, and then shrugs off the consequences when they threaten to hit home.

The rain has not stopped falling. It’s the middle of the day at the height of summer; the windows are slick with condensation, the air heavy with humidity and heat. When you were a little girl your mother would watch downpours like this from the window and mutter darkly to herself: “It never used to be like this.”

You go about the process of preparing for the flood like you are only a machine, some switch flicked inside you to turn off all but the essential. Mains power off. Generator unplugged. Sandbags at the doors—you trap the tight curls of your hair under the hood of your raincoat, shove the hems of your jeans down into your boots. The water’s already halfway up the garden. You’ve been lucky in the past; it’s made it this far and no further, the godawful reek of the brook behind your parents’ house lingering in the air long after the flood had receded. But this is the future, and the clouds overhead are smog-choked and steely grey, and the endless thrumming of rain on rooftops is shutting down pathways in your brain. It isn’t going to stop. When you get back inside, there’s rainwater, inexplicably, soaked right through your socks to your feet.

There’s no sound in the house but the rain—no refrigerator humming, no air conditioning unit keeping up an endless desperate wheeze. You don’t remember the last time you felt small here, like the vastness of home could swallow you whole.

@ZRI_: Hey mama

@ZRI_: I just wanted to let you know I’m taking care of the house

@ZRI_: The whole place is sandbagged now and I turned off the power

@ZRI_: How are things in London?

There’s no reply.

@ZRI_: i’m looking out at the street and the kid i used to babysit is chucking toys out the window

@ZRI_: like trying to see if they’ll float? i think?? is the reasoning there???

@ZRI_: made me think of yr old video about the car trying to drive through a flood

@antediluvian: !! what old memes can tell us about flooding!

@antediluvian: is it awful that i still think the original vid is kind of funny

@ZRI_: nah it’s fine

@ZRI_: gotta laugh, right?

@antediluvian: we used to be better at that

@antediluvian: like someone saw this person doing this incredibly stupid thing and got his phone out to film it

@antediluvian: the whole time telling the driver what a fuckin tit he was being

@ZRI_: what a bellend

@ZRI_: what a fuckin knobhead!!!

@antediluvian: and then he shared it on the internet bc it was funny! it just was

@antediluvian: like obviously people still absolutely live to humiliate other people on line or whatever but i don’t think the car flood video would happen now

@ZRI_: idk

@ZRI_: i’d be filming amal’s toy purge rn except it’d eat right into my battery life

@antediluvian: idk if people would laugh

@antediluvian: i think they might just find it sad

@antediluvian: like this is what we do for fun now……… we just throw toys in the flood water. hashtag good old days hashtag bring back hanging.

@ZRI_: lmao

@antediluvian: idk maybe i’m just a big sensitive Baby

@ZRI_: no i don’t think so

@ZRI_: you’re human

@ZRI_: more historians should be human about this shit imo

@antediluvian: ‘historian’

@ZRI_: car video is history okay!!! you talk about history

@ZRI_: i want to watch your flood meme doc now. fuck

@antediluvian: battery?

@ZRI_: ye

@ZRI_: listen

@ZRI_: if phone signal goes

@antediluvian: zuri no

@ZRI_: you know it could happen and if it does i want you to check in on my mum and dad

@ZRI_: they’re in the ez motel in stratford under the name christopher emmanuel

@ZRI_: i know it floods out there and mum’s not replying to my messages

@antediluvian: i’ll do what i can

@antediluvian: but for real though

@antediluvian: i need you to not talk like you’re going to drown or something

@ZRI_: that’s okay i can do that

@ZRI_: that was like my one thing. we good now baby i promise

@antediluvian: lmao ‘baby’

@ZRI_: wish i could watch the flood documentary

@ZRI_: any of your videos really

@ZRI_: kind of just want to hear your voice? today in gay as shit with zuri dot online

@antediluvian: god

@antediluvian: i love you extremely

@antediluvian: and when this is all over you’re fucking. coming to london and we’re watching the video together

@ZRI_: yes’m

@ZRI_: <3

It’s your thing, the vintage heart emoji, the one that looks like a less-than-three. Marlo did a whole documentary once on that, the way people made faces and expressions out of numbers and punctuation. Before people even had emoji. Sometimes you want to burst into song about Marlo—my girlfriend is an internet celebrity and she knows so much cool shit, the single, the album, the musical—except that nobody in Rugby has the time or the wherewithal to care. There aren’t any famous people here. Just warehouses and terraces and the ruin of an old cement works, looming large over every skyline in town.

You’re the person you are because you lived here all your life. Your parents got you into high school and promptly disappeared to London, living out of bunk beds in a motel room because it worked out cheaper than commuting to work by train. Every time you see them, they’re a little more like strangers, in their second-hand suits with ID cards on lanyards around their necks. London devours all the life it absorbs, bit by bit. You could swear your dad is shrinking to fit the room he lives in, harder at the edges every time you say goodbye.

You stayed, though. You studied. You got used to filling silences in your parents’ tired old house, blasting witchhouse and blurcore on speakers you rigged up yourself, falling asleep to video footage of Marlo explaining how things used to be. You are tough and enterprising and equipped for disaster. You are Zuri goddamn Emmanuel, wringing out your socks over the bathroom sink, eyes straining for perspective in the unlit dark. You live here and no goddamn flood is going to change that now.

The garden’s underwater, out back. You pitch up in the living room instead, looking onto the street as the drains start to choke. There’s a plastic toy boat bobbing weakly in a puddle that is threatening, not without grounds, to turn into a lake.

@antediluvian: <3

Before Marlo even knew who you were, you had learned the ending of her goddamn flood documentary by heart. What does this tell us about the way things used to be? she asked, as the picture faded from a flooded suburban street to a photograph of historic London, gleaming in the sun, the Eye still unbranded on the skyline. At first glance, there’s not a whole lot to learn from a silly video from way back in 2016. But I think it tells us a lot about how people in the tens understood the world they were living in—a world that was starting to see real-time evidence of its own impending doom. We didn’t know how to come to terms with it, so we laughed at it, as best we could. We looked past the unthinkable for something we could understand—which was comedy, or absurdity, or just plain old human error. We didn’t know how to answer for everything we’d done wrong. Can you blame us? Could anyone?

You snap a quick photo of the boat. You’ll send it to Marlo later, when the power’s back on. Once it’s safe to laugh in the face of death again.

This is the best time to be alive, said Marlo; you remember how your heart swelled in your chest, watching her film herself walking through the city, watching her expressionless face open up into a smile. London all around her, the perfect co-star, bright and enticing and undrowned. Maybe this is the last good time to be alive. We don’t know what’s coming next, or when it’s coming. Of course that’s scary, and of course we should pay attention. But maybe we should be readier to look for joy, as well. Do we want to look back from the end of the world and realise we wasted the last days we had?

Maybe you should throw all your shit out the window, too. Amal from two doors down looked like he was having fun.

You give up on the ground floor at about 5pm.

It’s still light outside, which is something. You can sit in your parents’ bedroom, its every surface coated in a thin film of dust, and watch the world descend into chaos with something like a bird’s eye view. A half-eaten tub of ice-cream in your lap, scavenged from the freezer and already melting at speed. Water’s rushing down the slope of the street toward your house like the worst kind of waterfall, some unnatural wonder of the world. If you close your eyes, you can almost hear it seeping into the walls and the floorboards, soaking the bones of the house so they’ll never get dry.

@ZRI_: mama if you are reading this could you please message back

@ZRI_: I don’t have power to check the news and i want to know if you are safe

Your parents won’t care about the house. It’s barely theirs anymore. They would have sold it years ago if you’d been able to sleep in a store cupboard at school, like a really dutiful daughter would’ve done. Mostly they’ll be mad about the water damage, although it’s not like there’s anyone to blame. You did everything you could. Your hands are shaking in your lap, too unsteady for a decent grip on your phone. You’re so fucking frightened you could puke.

@ZRI_: downstairs just flooded lol

@antediluvian: well fuck

@antediluvian: tell me you’re upstairs

@ZRI_: yeah, with food

@ZRI_: we had ice cream in the freezer can you believe it

@ZRI_: be a crime to let it melt

@antediluvian: i hate this so much

@ZRI_: yeah i’m not exactly hype about it myself

@antediluvian: you have to leave

@ZRI_: little late for that babe

@antediluvian: no i mean after this. it is not safe for you to be in the suburbs anymore

@ZRI_: rugby’s barely a suburb

@ZRI_: a freight terminal maybe

@antediluvian: come live with me

The world drops away, precipitous, leaves you suspended like some dumbass cartoon character in the air. You’ve visited Marlo’s place. It’s some high-rise shit in Tower Hamlets, gentrified almost to death thanks to a comparatively minimal flood risk and paid for entirely with internet video money. She does well out of what she does; it’s a really nice flat. You just see Essex underwater in your head every time you look out the window. Barriers closed, water rising downstream. You have a ticket to safety, ready and waiting whenever you want it—but not Amal, not his mum. Not any of your neighbours, who will be digging out their emergency kits right about now if they have any sense about them.

What sucks beyond belief is that the thought has its hooks in your heart. No more water seeping under the door. She caught you at the best possible time.

@ZRI_: whoa

@ZRI_: are you asking me to move in with you

@ZRI_: i mean i’ve heard of shipping but this is pretty intense

@antediluvian: u-hauling!! oh my god zuri it’s called u-hauling

@antediluvian: shipping is

@antediluvian: whatever

@antediluvian: not the point. come live with me. i’m central and high up and insured

@antediluvian: the flood barrier works in my favour and i need it to work in yours too

@ZRI_: marlo

@antediluvian: no listen i am trying to be sincere for once in my life can you just

@ZRI_: i know

@antediluvian: let me do that

@ZRI_: i promise i’m not trying to be an asshole i just like

@ZRI_: i don’t think i can just quit

@antediluvian: ‘quit’

@ZRI_: on home.

@antediluvian: the same home you just called a freight terminal

@ZRI_: idk what to tell you

@ZRI_: sometimes home is garbage

@ZRI_: doesn’t make it any less home

@antediluvian: zuri i cannot go through this again okay

@antediluvian: i’m not physically equipped to be alive and in love with you and know you’re right in the middle of a flood and not know from minute to minute if i’m ever going to hear from you again

@antediluvian: and i know this sounds like the most entitled bullshit

@antediluvian: i know this is scarier for you than for me

@antediluvian: but i am scared, zuri

@antediluvian: i don’t think i’m great at being scared

You don’t realise you’re crying until there are big, rainbow-smeared blotches of water on the screen of your phone. It’s fine. You scrub at your eyes with the back of one hand, swallow your tears until your breathing’s started to calm. You want to be with Marlo. You don’t know who you are without your home wrapped tight around you. You’re a crab inside a shell, and if you leave that shell then you’ll turn into something you don’t know how to be, laid bare before the elements with nowhere to hide. But you want Marlo, more than anything in the disintegrating ruin of the world. You want Marlo’s safe place, high above the water where catastrophe can’t get you. If there’s a flood barrier, and you know in your heart that there’ll always be a flood barrier somewhere, then there’s a miserable, craven part of you that needs to be on the right side.

There’s no Brighton anymore, no Essex, no Kent. London closed the barriers and it left them behind to drown. How long does Rugby have, if it keeps getting worse, if the tides keep rising and the rain keeps falling all your life?

@ZRI_: me neither

@ZRI_: can we talk about this later? like i know you’re worried and i get it and everything but

@ZRI_: i am also scared and i need to concentrate on like

@ZRI_: not, being that,

@ZRI_: so i don’t completely lose my whole shit,

@antediluvian: that’s okay

@antediluvian: i’m sorry. i love you.

@ZRI_: i love you too

@ZRI_: and you know i want to be near you

@antediluvian: i do

@antediluvian: it’s okay, zuri. i promise it’s okay.

@ZRI_: i don’t want you to be scared marlo

@antediluvian: hey. if i’m not great at being scared then maybe it follows that i am great at being brave?

@antediluvian: so i’m going to test that theory

@antediluvian: and maybe you can do the same and we can compare notes later

@ZRI_: <3

@ZRI_: can you like

@ZRI_: keep your phone on you

@antediluvian: like i haven’t been physically attached to it literally all day

@ZRI_: lol that’s fair

@antediluvian: <3

@antediluvian: i’m here.

@antediluvian: i’m not going away.

The light gives up before the rain. Sunset happens all at once; the clouds swell and darken and blot out the sky, and just like that, there’s nothing to see. You get on your knees and dig out the emergency kit from under your parents’ bed—wind-up torch, bottled water, tinned fruit and tuna and beans enough for a couple of days without power. It’s not a small box. The last time you had to use it, you were new in high school and your parents had just left town. You got under the bed with the torch and a book and you tried to forget that you were twelve, and alone, and with no guarantee that anyone would find you if you drowned.

Not tonight. You resume your post at the window like you’re a cop in a prison watchtower, like actually the water is trapped in here with you. You’re eighteen years old and so you turn the torchlight onto the street, where the water is almost at window height and rising. If there’s anyone else at their windows looking out, then they’ll see. You might be going down, but at least one person is going to know that you were here.

For a split second, you don’t think anything of the splash.

What gets you is the sounds that come after, these weird, choked-off little gasps and shouts that hesitate right at the edge of your hearing. You pause, and you listen, and you nudge the window ajar, and it takes you a second to make out what’s going on—it’s Amal, it’s the kid from down the street, his dark head bobbing just above the surface of the flood. The light from your torch hits a little speck of plastic, just out of his reach and floating ever further away.

You don’t even have to flip the switch. All your inessential processes start to power down on their own; your body knows what needs to happen next.

@ZRI_: marlo i gotta go for a minute

@ZRI_: <3

You drop your phone onto your parents’ bed and you hurtle down, torch in hand, two stairs at a time. The hallway’s flooded up to the second step—up to your knees, pouring right over the tops of your rain boots and soaking your feet in an instant. It doesn’t matter. The grossness of it passes you by. You tuck your hair up into the hood of your coat, zip it right up to your chin and pull the drawstrings tight. You open the front door and you’re kicked in the shins by a tsunami puked up from the overburdened drains, but that doesn’t matter, either. It can’t matter, because there’s a three-year-old baby out there in the water, and nobody that small can swim well enough to handle a flood.

You force the door shut behind you, and you take a breath of air that reeks of shit, and you throw all your weight against the current.

There’s nothing left in the world but the wind and the rain, plastering your hood to your hair and your sleeves to your skin. It’s cold; you hadn’t expected that, which is almost impressive for being so stupid. Middle of summer or not, the world is cold like this, with water up to your waist and soaking you all the way through. You drag yourself through the flood, through the confusion of cold and dark, and onto the pavement, shouting all the while: “Amal, holy shit, Amal, can you hear me?”

Your voice is so fucking small, and the rain and the wind are drowning you out—drowning you, full stop, no qualification required. Your face is numb, freezing, except for where the cold has made it a bright bloom of pain. You keep moving forward, down what would be the street if you could see where the fuck you’re going. You try again—“Amal”—but your mouth isn’t working right; you’re slurring a little where your lips have gotten too cold, muscle memory not quite enough to get you by.

He doesn’t see you. He doesn’t even turn his head, intent on that fucking toy where it bobs just out of his reach. It doesn’t matter. You feel it like a knife in the gut when he falls, splash, gone under the surface—like a wire in your head being cut, instantaneous, leaving you paralysed and useless in the dark.

He doesn’t scream when his head breaks the surface, or when it dips below and out of sight again. He just reaches, up and out of the water like he’s trying to find purchase on the sky.

You wrench yourself, hard, back together. You take a step, and another, and you keep going and you keep reaching until you can grab him and lift him clear of the flood. He’s so heavy it hurts to hold him up, but he’s alive, breathing, clinging to you and sobbing terrible breathless sobs into your coat. You should comfort him. It’s so dark and so cold and the rain is lashing at your body like it’s trying to fight you for him, and you know what you should say but the words stick hard in your throat. You don’t have it in you to string together a sentence. You barely have it in you to go back, following the current, back to the window he found his way through, where his mother is screaming his name into the night.

With the last strength you have, you lift him up up up and into her arms. She clutches him close, dripping wet and reeking, crying hard enough that her whole body shakes. He’s the only family she has, this kid you used to babysit while she worked late shifts at her second job. For a second there’s no storm, no flood. There’s just a mum holding her son, who survived.

You go. The door opens easily when you reach it, pushes back hard when you try to close it again. You make it, you figure, maybe halfway up the stairs—just clear of the water, whatever that means—before you drop. Your hands are wet and filthy and shaking on the fastenings of your coat, on the soles of your boots, your socks and your shirt and your bra and—everything. It’s all ruined, isn’t it? You peel away layer after layer, trying to get clean, and you don’t realise you’re crying until there’s nothing left to claw away but your skin.

It’s so fucking stupid, is the thing. There’s a bath towel upstairs, maybe more than one. You could use some of the bottled water, try to get yourself clean, except your whole body is trembling and useless, and you’re crying hard enough that it hurts to open your eyes. This isn’t you. You are Zuri goddamn Emmanuel and you deal with shit; you don’t cry about it, a huddle of raw nerves and bare flesh that couldn’t even make it up the stairs.

It’s so stupid. The world is ending. You’re living in the end times and the most you can do, the absolute outer limit of your capacity to help, is rescue one kid from a flood. He nearly drowned, he definitely inhaled a whole mess of filthy water in the process, and you didn’t even think to fetch the toy he went in to save. You can’t open the barriers on the Thames, or force London to accept its share of the things the world’s done wrong; you can’t repair the holes in the ozone, take planes out of the sky, burn all the poison out of the ocean or the air. You’re one person. It’s bigger than you, all of it. The house is going to flood no matter what you do, over and over until it finally drowns.

Boneless, hopeless, the stink of the flood choking you by degrees. That’s you. It always has been. It’s not enough to try to be better, anymore.

@antediluvian: zuri what

@antediluvian: what do you mean what are you doing

@antediluvian: if you don’t reply right this second zuri i swear to god

@antediluvian: come on come on come on

@antediluvian: ZURI

@antediluvian: oh my god what did you do

@antediluvian: where are you

@antediluvian: i’m losing my fucking mind

Your fingertips are wrinkled and tender but they are dry, and they are clean. You cradle the phone in your hands, huddled on your parents’ bed and swamped in a dressing-gown you co-opted from your mum, and wait to feel worse than you already feel. It doesn’t happen. Maybe you’ve plateaued. You climbed the whole mountain, and from the peak of feeling terrible, you can see a whole world of terrible things, sprawling endlessly away from you in every direction.

@ZRI_: i’m so sorry

@ZRI_: i’m okay i’m here

@antediluvian: i am so fucking mad at you

@ZRI_: yeah i

@antediluvian: i am going to physically come to rugby and fight you

@ZRI_: probably deserve that

@antediluvian: god

@antediluvian: zuri i am

@antediluvian: in the immortal words of the ancestors

@antediluvian: crying irl

@antediluvian: you could have fucking died

@antediluvian: i wouldn’t even have known

@ZRI_: i know

@ZRI_: i’m really sorry

@ZRI_: i know it was stupid i just

@ZRI_: the kid was drowning

@antediluvian: what

@ZRI_: the kid

@ZRI_: he was throwing his toys

@ZRI_: he got out the downstairs window and i saw him and i just

@ZRI_: i couldn’t

@antediluvian: holy shit is he safe??

@ZRI_: yeah

@antediluvian: jesus

@ZRI_: he was just trying to get one of his toys back

@ZRI_: i couldnt even find it for him marlo

@ZRI_: he was crying so much

@antediluvian: zuri

@antediluvian: you’re like

@antediluvian: i can’t believe

@antediluvian: i love you so fucking much zuri i wish i were there i wish you were here

@antediluvian: idk how to do this anymore

@ZRI_: lmao me neither

Or maybe you haven’t plateaued. Perhaps you are just hiding from it all, burrowed down deep inside the crab-shell of your body, waiting for the sadness to crest overhead. It might break itself apart against you but you won’t even feel it where you are. It can be something that happens, for once, to somebody else.

@ZRI_: if i come to london

@ZRI_: could you really like

@ZRI_: is there actually room in your flat or were you just

@antediluvian: yes

@ZRI_: trying to get me to agree or something

@antediluvian: zuri

@antediluvian: there’s room

@antediluvian: i promise

@ZRI_: i feel weird inviting myself to live with you lmao

@ZRI_: hey there, minor internet celebrity, it is i, your new and surprising housemate

@antediluvian: no

@antediluvian: you didn’t invite yourself

@antediluvian: i invited you and i would fucking love it if you accepted the invitation

@antediluvian: more than anything in the world

@ZRI_: haha well okay then i

@ZRI_: i guess i accept

@antediluvian: when the water’s gone down we will talk trains

@antediluvian: okay? i will make it work and that is a promise

@ZRI_: i fully do not doubt it

@ZRI_: @ flood waters watch yourselves marlo is ready to part the sea

@antediluvian: hell yeah baby

@antediluvian: i’m gonna get you directly out of there come hell and/or high water

@antediluvian: preferably and, tbh

@antediluvian: i could take em both

@ZRI_: i believe it

@ZRI_: and i love you

@ZRI_: <3

@antediluvian: <3

The rain’s starting to slow—not stop, but it’s something. It’ll do, short-term. You’re sitting up in bed and you’re drifting, Marlo’s last little less-than-three heart blurring at the edges as you start to lose focus; your whole body is heavy with exhaustion, your skin tender where you scrubbed it clean of the flood. You think floating for a moment, and then you unthink it, pull yourself back before you float into a current you can’t swim against. You’re drifting. Like a bird on an updraft of wind, high above the water and the world.

Your phone buzzes in your hands, once and again and again. The vibration in your palm pulls you back into reality, three sharp jerks of a chain.

@GlorisEmmanuel: Hi sweetie sorry I forgot to charge my phone!! Lol

@GlorisEmmanuel: No flooding here praise God! Ur papa and I stayed home all day watching modern lovers can u believe they had a video maker on lol! Like your friend marlo tho her videos were all about pranks haha

@GlorisEmmanuel: Love u sweetie ur papa says hello!!

You don’t register your own reaction until your knees are pressing hard against your forehead, your shoulders shaking with useless, breathless laughter. There has to be something to leaven these last remaining days, some small, stupid joy you can cling to. Marlo will laugh as well, you think, when you can show her at last in the flesh.

mm

Author: Waverly SM

Waverly SM is a speculative fiction writer preoccupied with apocalypses, impossible choices, and the ambient trauma of living in the world. They’re a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow and have been mentored, as part of a cohort of emerging LGBTQ+ voices, by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Waverly studied English at Newnham College, Cambridge; since then, their work has appeared in Argot Magazine, and will appear in Stim: An Autism Anthology (Unbound, forthcoming). They can currently be found trying to approximate the anchorite lifestyle in Oxford.

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