Sometime after the end of the world, a man buys a woman a drink.
He’s old enough to remember a time when drinks at no-name bars like this one came in bottles with printed labels, made in everywhere—glass bottle in Australia, label in China, hops in America—the casual wealth of easy resources bottled up for cheap. She isn’t. Maybe that’s the draw for them both.
“Samuel,” he says, when she takes a seat at the table. “Sara, yah?”
Sara nods. “Hi Samuel. Nice to meet you.” She attempts a smile. It’s been a while since she’d last had the resources to go on a proper date, so she’s splurged. Mineral powder makeup, the last of her blusher, even some lipstick. Samuel’s possibly worth it, judging by his Bumblr profile. He’s tall, an atheist, has a full-time job and Grade+ access to water rations, which more than makes up for his average access to everything else.
The night before the dead boat arrived, I couldn’t sleep. Seal was sharing my nest, built inside a great whale’s lower vertebra, decorated with treasures of fine carapace and a collection of shark’s eyes, turrets, angel wings, even tulip shells. I took the smallest and wove them into my blue-black hair.
As I braided, Seal nestled close, her fingers running lightly across my tracer bracelet. “Will you leave with them on their boat that doesn’t breathe?”
“No,” I said. “This is my place.” Did my voice falter, just then?
Seal’s expression wavered, lit in the surrounding fluorescent glow emitting off the great whale’s metallic bones. I knew that she didn’t believe me.
I meant to be grateful to her, truly I did. Without Seal, I wouldn’t have survived. Still, the islands weren’t a place for beginnings. I was beached here, and though I wasn’t alone, sometimes I thought I might as well have been. I longed for what I had lost—for the voices of many, the sense of belonging, and the love that my first family offered to me so freely, never a prize to be earned.
Yente Visscher froze on the crowded Zürich street, arrested by the sight of the distant Alps. Five years on and they still did that to her, some undefinable Dutch strand of her DNA making her powerless in their presence.
“Vorsicht,” a passerby shot at her, bumping into Yente with enough force to spill iced coffee from her cup.
She immediately felt stupid for apologizing to the brute and submerged back into the stream of commuters braving the morning heat. With her company blazer and cactus-leather attaché case, she blended right in—nothing about her screamed refugee from the Low Countries. There were so many of them here now, and almost all of them had lost everything but their lives. Death had come for the Netherlands in the form of a hundred-meter-high tsunami, whipped up when an undersea methane store near Norway discharged overnight. A point seven increase in global temperature was all it took.
The three story, twelve-unit luxury condominium slid into the sea on the shoulders of a moon tide, kneeling into the waves with the resonance of a ship running aground. It lay on its side, foundation sheared away, windows turned to the cloudless sky.
Glen watched its descent.
It had been his night to search the behemoth of wood and glass for squatters, to trawl the condemned units, kicking out those who lingered in the darkened rooms drinking their lives away or just trying to stay dry.
But Glen’s mind wasn’t on the bodies that may have been hidden within. He was worried about the creature that swam in the basement, its bone-knit tails and the innumerable mouths that refused to eat the food he left for it. He’d never seen it leave the space, only swimming endless laps as the building grew more and more waterlogged. He doubted it could have escaped in time.
She came to me on the high tide of a spring storm. I was embarrassed that my uncle's cottage, quivering in the bared teeth of the gale, was not as tidy as perhaps it could have been, nor as homely. And I had nothing to share except half of yesterday's loaf and the better part of a bottle of cheap wine, drunk from a pair of mismatched tankards.
She seemed content enough, sitting before the roaring fire that every so often twirled and fluttered in time to a low moan from the stout chimney, out of the rain that drummed in waves on the slate roof. I'd asked her if she wanted to take off the grey, fur coat that cloaked her from neck to foot, but she demurred. “Not yet, Patrick,” she said. “Perhaps when I am warmer?”
Come, come, say his hands as he leads you through the foyer, nothing to light his way but a dusting of blinking ghost lamps. His coat, a long affair with too many pockets, pirouettes about his legs as he twists and turns. Come and see what I have just for you.
And here in the dark with shining eyes and his grin reflected in your spectacles, you believe him. You’ve read about him: a connoisseur of oddities, a collector of dreams and nightmares...
Conquest rides into our neighborhood on the supple leather seat of a block-long limousine that his driver parks next to a mostly dead jalopy. The seams of his finely tailored suit are close to bursting, his massive frame fighting hard to break free of its cloth restraints. The cigar resting in the corner of his mouth never grows any shorter or longer, but remains an eternal, slobber-covered nub. In his hand he clutches the deed to the factory that has been boarded up for longer than any of us downtowners have been alive. He promises us jobs through pearly white teeth and a millionaire’s sneer. And when the factory is billowing black smoke and filling the river with sludge once more, we flood through the doors and take what little he offers us.
Whenever I’d ask John how old he was, he’d tell me he was “born in ’75, same year as the Sex Pistols.” Not that this answered my question since I wasn’t sure what year it was and the old-timers didn’t seem interested in stuff like that. All I knew is he was old. Old as fuck, probably. And I guessed I was somewhere in my twenties, though I couldn’t be sure since John was my only family and he didn’t know when I’d been born.
Whatever age he was, it hadn’t slowed him down. He still got up every day to scavenge the old town with me in search of stuff we could use back at the trailer park. Cans of food maybe, medication, and of course, the odd punk album. Not that we’d had much luck today, I thought, staring at the handful of disposable razors and single jar of pickled beets we’d come back with.
“What was it like to come back?” you ask at book club, almost three months since regular meetings started. You’re not quite sure if you’re ready to talk about this; you are sure that if you don’t, you’ll explode. Still, it’s very personal, or at least it was for you: coming out of the weightless, thoughtless lack of self to a withered meadow full of red poppies and crumbled stones, how old your hands looked and how young they felt, turning your head and seeing your husband asleep in the dead grass next to you. He’s younger than you this time; girls in their twenties side-eye the two of you on date nights. Ereshkigal snorts when you mention that, but you recognize it as the friendly snort and don’t choke off your words like you used to before you went away, before any of you knew there would be a coming back.
Spotting a seven-foot-tall construct in an open-air market should have been easy.
Kenli scurried between stone workshops and rattling wind towers, hoping not to draw the attention of his fellow crafters. Most hadn’t risen yet, even on the morning of Reconnection, but lights shone through the occasional curtain. If anyone noticed him out in his bedclothes and sandals, he’d find out how little patience they had left.
Especially since they had been right all along: finding that intact construct had been too lucky. It had wandered off twice already, thankfully without damaging anything. Tweaking its sigils after hadn’t helped either, though there was a lot about the old magics Kenli didn’t know. He must have missed some hairline scratch, or maybe one of the sigils he couldn’t decipher was at fault. With Reconnection looming he’d spent more time preparing his wares, and now that would cost him.