“Twenty-seven grams of copper wire,” Ethan told me, sliding the twisted wires off the scale and into a plastic baggie. “When are the dealers coming back to the island?”
“I don’t know. They haven’t been here in weeks. I just don’t know.”
I retreated to my room and lay down on my cot which sagged low, almost against the dirt. Sliding my watch off, I traced the seam between my flesh and prosthetic sections of my arm, and then I twisted my left hand forcibly until it detached. A full day, and only twenty-seven grams of copper to show for it. I needed things to sell, anything I could scavenge from the sea.
Everything on our island was very green, the grass and trees and thick foliage. It rained often enough to keep plants and ourselves alive, unlike other parts of the country. When I was a child, people still populated the arid Midwest. They lived in clean mansions atop red dunes, and elaborate pipes beneath the earth carried water from a basin hundreds of miles away. Today in the cities, they would charge a fortune for modern plumbing. The basins and aquifers and trickling streams dried up as the climate changed– the people left, and the desert consumed their lives. Buried their sports cars and leveled their massive houses. Everything just gone.
Fifty years ago, everywhere was either drying up or drowning.
When Ethan and I found the island jutting from the sea so far from the coast, we rejoiced. Other islands existed, but closer, the rare higher-lands that had become low-lands just as the low-lands had become the ocean floor. We built a lean-to from cypress wood, but storms successively knocked our shelters down. We lucked out during a non-rainy season and built a ramshackle cabin with three distinct rooms using fallen Palmettos and pieces of scrap metal. One wall was the hull of a luxury yacht that had crashed on some rocks a mile east, mostly rusted now.
We had no artificial lights except a fire we kept in the pit of a Cypress grove. Inside our house, the light filtered through slats in the trunks, but it was still too dark to see most of the time. Our doorframe came floating to us intact a month ago, and I still felt pride pushing open that wooden door. Those little things that reminded me of how life used to be.
Ethan sat by the shore, perched on smooth rocks as he scrubbed his feet with a sponge. Still cared about hygiene, though he’d have to swim thirty miles to west to find any females to impress. He looked across the rippling march tides. The marshes surrounded our island, one of the last green places, though that meant poisonous snakes lurking in the depths and clouds of bugs that clung to your face, until you had to spit them out and wipe them from your eyes. But at least we didn’t live like everyone in the cities, crammed into towering high-rises, pretending to feel safe.
The day I met Ethan, he canoed past me in an non-functional motorboat. I called out to him, and he warily rowed over. Not every day you find people who trust strangers, especially crazy, bearded, old ones like me. Ethan grew up in the city, but he ran away, though he never told me what he was running from. These days, everyone was running from something. He had a boat, and I showed him the old diving gear I found years ago. We could make money, I proposed. After all, most of peoples’ lives got lost beneath the water, and imagine what was waiting down there, ready to be found. Treasures, submerged.
Still young enough to think I would one day turn into an adult like a caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly, I fumed as I climbed into my car and drove away from the restaurant. Some damned fast food joint, the kind where you could approach the counter and type in your order into one of those LED screens. You know the kind, the kind that automatically upgrade your order to extra-large if you don’t track back and edit. What a joke, the owner emphasizing with me as he told me I was over-qualified. That was the problem. Everyone was either not qualified enough or too qualified– no wonder machines fried our fries and grilled our burgers. It was pointless.
As I whipped onto the freeway, I mused about the angry old people I had seen protesting on television. Every time I glanced at my watch, the news showed some pensioners marching with picket signs: We Want Our Labor Human. Maybe they were right; maybe I needed to join them, start screaming at news anchors about how technology had stolen our jobs. I remembered once watching a classic movie my grandparents loved called Terminator, where machines enslaved humans and destroyed humanity, and I chuckled as I realized maybe that vision had subtly become reality.
I drove until night fell, and I was unsure I’d ever pull over– the gas tank would run low first, though my car traveled eighty miles for every gallon. Crossed the border into South Carolina, where there were no metropolises, only miles of barren pinelands. Pines and miles of gated suburbs, spotted with industrial Walmarts and horrific parking garages. When the sun began to rise, I stopped to piss, though I could not afford gas. A man stood at the corner of the road in a ramshackle booth, waving a sign proudly. One of these Machines-Took-Our-Jobs protestors, probably.
When I hobbled from the bathroom, the man stood by my car, grinning widely. “Son, you ain’t from around here? You from–” He read my license plate. “North Carolina?”
“I’m not from anywhere.”
“Well, then, where you headed?”
“Not to go to the wall, to help build the greatest feat of architectural finesse South Cackalacky has seen since… since… well, the greatest. You ain’t heard? It’s in Charleston. A wall big enough to stop the sea.”
“The sea?” At the time I lived a life consumed with personal thoughts, giving little time to notice the events transpiring around me. “What’s wrong with the sea?”
“It’s getting higher, every year getting higher. So they’re searching for boys. That’s what I’m here for. Been all around the state, recruiting able, young persons to come help construct this damned wall.”
“I’m just passing through.”
“You don’t need no job? Ain’t likely. I seen a hundred or so boys like you– all pissed off, and ain’t no one your age can get a job anymore. Hell, this job ain’t even much.”
I swallowed. “I might be interested. Is there a number I can call, or something?”
He rifled through his pockets and licked his puckered lips, then produced a creased business card. “Got all the information you need right there.”
I stuck it into my pocket and drove away. Thirty minutes later, I pulled over again, the card in my hand, punching numbers into my cell phone.