When it began raining, we brought buckets, pots, Tupperware, flower vases, trash bins, and plastic cups outside. Anything that could catch water, we hauled outside. Then as the sky puked its guts like a binge-drinking frat boy during finals, we paddled off in our rickety dinghy. Work to do, beneath the shifting sea.
Irregular, to purchase fresh water in this part of the country, most of the land underneath the ocean, but rain came every few weeks; we collected every last drop. Ethan struck his paddle into the water and pushed our vessel away from a shallow mud bed. We floated between two strips of land into the open sea, where the waves crashed violently against the edge of our boat.
As Ethan changed into his rubbery diving suit, I took the paddle and furiously beat against the waves. Our island stood several miles away from the bay where Charleston lay. In the islands near the coast, a few people still lived, either too criminal or too poor to survive in a city. Most people lived in cities, because the federal government had invested billions to protect the patches of urban growth, the places where money came from.
They built walls and glass ceilings that filtered the sun’s UV rays; farms only existed in blooming skyscrapers, seeds sprouting in clean, white laboratories. Everything wild eradicated. And below the gleaming banks and offices with sterling views lay the waste of society. Slums strewn in the underbellies of luxurious hotels, these houses made of rotting wood and trash. The garbage was often unbelievable, sometimes flooding the streets. Sewage leaked into the streets, where children sifted through the muck that reached their knees, collecting trash to sell in local markets. For them, anything could have value, anything at all. Though we were no better, diving beneath the sea to strip garbage form forgotten cities, selling it to modern pirates.
Though the smugglers had not come, not for weeks. Before, they sailed the islands once a month, docking near us to buy whatever we had found. Sometimes copper, sometimes old car parts they no longer manufactured. Once, they paid us a fortune for a pack of unopened Coke cans. I wanted badly to let Ethan try drinking one, since they didn’t make sodas anymore– you needed water for that, but we sold every last can. All unopened, not too badly damaged. We had found them floating inside one of the abandoned houses underwater.
Ethan pulled the mask over his face and mumbled, “Ready.” Through the frothing waves, I could make out the dark patterns of Charleston’s streets.
“Stay close. We’re looking for more copper. Copper would be great.” He nodded, then flipped backwards out of the boat. I cranked the winch backwards, the rope snaking into the water slowly. The boat bobbed with each passing wave, the rain splattering against the brim of my hat and trickling down my neck, cold as death. Grasping the rope, I let it run against the edge of the dinghy, burning my palms raw. Rain made it slippery to grip, and Ethan kept tugging, traveling further and further from the boat.
Another wave crashed against the boat’s bow, water spraying onto the deck. The next onslaught fell heavier, crashing against my legs and nearly knocking me to the ground. The smugglers– they never came. What happened to those damned pirate bastards?
Not far from where the top of the wall still jutted from the ocean’s surface, a broad white sheet as grandiose and strong as the Hoover Dam. I sighed, bracing myself as the waves crashed harder against me. A foolish idea to row out in the middle of a storm, but we would have been stupid not to– only a few copper wires, and what was that worth? There must have been more, under every house here.
Lifting the rope, I pulled as tight as possible. Ethan, how incompetent– had he not found a suitable house by now? I felt a tug in the rope, a sign to begin cranking. Turning to the crank, I clutched the handle and turned it wildly. The winch whizzed loudly, even against the pounding of rain, the rope disappearing into a thick hemp spool. A minute later, the end of the rope rose from the water and whipped limply onto the boat deck.
Collapsing against the boat’s side, I clawed through the water. “Ethan?” Now I shouted his name. “Ethan.” But no head came bursting from the water. I tipped out of the boat, plunging my head beneath the sea. Bubbles escaped my mouth as I called out his name again, and again. Then I rolled over the side, plummeting through the waves.
I had never lived in a city and never imagined one so antique like the kind you saw in classic movies. Like a tropical snow globe of pastel-bright houses and business men in flip-flops. But I arrived downtown in a traffic jam of shuddering cars, languid tourists, and horse-drawn carriages. All a mirage of simpler times, when no one worried the sea might kill us all.
Still, the reminder loomed clearly from many miles away, the wall half-finished. It would be over nine hundred feet tall when finished, a bleak white spectacle. In downtown Charleston, residents and visitors tromped around like nothing was happening, like the world wasn’t changing. At least someone had learned to ignore the inevitable.
I parked my truck by the docks where the man told me. Others waited anxiously, some without vehicles. Most looked like burnt-out college grads like me with too much stubble, and others looked unluckier. A man approached us wearing a bright-orange hardhat and holding a plastic clipboard.
“You’re the ones here for a construction job?” He chewed on a piece of gum, glancing at the wall thirty feet away, which struck out of the water solidly, a concrete barrier. “Follow me, and we’ll get you set up with jobs.”
We all needed jobs here, I realized, all of us desperate and drained of ambition. Lining up behind the hard-hat man, we followed him up a set of steel stairs to a stark office where a fat man in a red tie assigned us, seemingly randomly, to different crews.
“Top of the wall, block placement.”
“Top of the wall.”
“Crane duty. Danny’ll teach you. Just head over there.”
“Look like a good cement hauler.”
When I approached him, he glanced at me only briefly before announcing “Cement cutter.” Before I even knew what that meant, I was ushered off with the other men and women assigned to cut cement. Really, the task seemed pretty easy after a burly black man explained it to us at the base of the wall. Some other people created these massive concrete blocks a few miles away, then the cement haulers brought the huge blocks to the wall, where we would cut it into smaller blocks depending on what the foreman wanted. Then we loaded the blocks onto palettes, which were moved by massive cranes to the top of the wall. There, hundreds of men shoved the block into place Egyptian-style. It seemed very crude to me, it being almost the twenty-second century, but I could hardly complain about scoring a job.
The next day, after sleeping in dorms the construction company provided, I walked down to the docks where other men began climbing onto the backs of the flatbed trucks. One of the supervisors handed me a portable concrete saw and indicated the freshly drawn black lines running down the length of the long cement blocks. After cranking the saw until it vibrated violently in my hands, I pressed the blade against the concrete. I could hardly hold the saw still as I attempted to trace the black line, and sparks spat from the blade as I jerkily cut.
Pulling the saw away from the block, I nearly fell over, weighed by the saw’s immense mass. “This is not as easy as I thought,” I muttered. The black man from the day before stood beside me, wearing safety goggles and calmly cutting. He turned to watch me as I reapplied the saw.
“Careful there, now. Wouldn’t want that saw to drop down, cut into your foot.” I shook my head, that no, I didn’t. But it was certainly one more thing to worry about.
Six weeks later, exhausted near the end of the day, I collapsed against the concrete block, and the saw veered from its path falling on top of me. But before the blade sliced through my chest, I grabbed it hard with my left hand. The blade sliced clean through my thumb, and as I fumbled with the saw, screaming, the blade fell against my wrist. Blood spurted from the stump as I crumpled to my knees. It took nearly ten minutes before the supervisor decided to call an ambulance.
And all I could think about as I blacked out, red lights blinking around me, men shouting, some jeering at my stupidity– now I was useless, truly useless, even for this sort of job.