Category Archives: Short Fiction
[Short Fiction] Interview with Mr. Talbot Odessa: Transcript Concerning His Personal Theories About the True Cause of Hurricane Hugo
Interview with Mr. Talbot Odessa: Transcript Concerning His Personal Theories About the True Cause of Hurricane Hugo
Just start at the beginning please. Don’t leave anything out.
Pawpaw used to say, the ocean’s about the closest a human being gets to Heaven. ‘Cept the ocean killed his brother back in 1953—this was when Pawpaw and Great-Uncle Hank boozed around France post-war, picking up women and pissin’ into the Seine. Two weeks after Pawpaw met Memaw, they went for a small cruise in her daddy’s boat off the coast of Mallorca, and Hank stayed up deck while my grandparents did the nasty down below; soon, a storm comes and knocks his ass clean into the water, his arms flailing for help. But course Pawpaw’s flailing himself—if you heard him tell the story, you’d be cringin’ more than this—and Hank drowns beneath the vicious waves.
But Pawpaw still swore a love of the sea, could wax poetic about how the current of beauty pulls you under. When I was just six or seven, that’s when it happened—swear this is a true story. Back then, Pawpaw brought us to Myrtle Beach from Sumter on the first vacation we ever had—and I saw them for the first time. The mermaids.
No, real live mermaids. With fins and gills and everything.
And not like that redhead chick from Disney, I mean savage fuckin‘ mermaids. That’s why you came here, right, to ask about the storm of 1989? Well, I was there, just a child at the time. Wasn’t cleanin’ no place, tell you that. Wasn’t moppin’ up blood or vomit from the floor of this club after the high school seniors go home. This was the time of Hugo, ask anyone. For years after, all anyone could talk about was how that storm wrecked the shoreline, but some of us, we know the truth. The true truth about the mermaids and the sea turtles?
Hell yea, they rode in on these big-ass sea turtles. Swear on Jesus Christ, the bible, and Memaw’s grave. Now let me get on with the story: daddy and mama didn’t own no TV, so we thought we was supposed to have a nice, fine weekend. Rode up in the back of Pawpaw’s truck for about two hours, me and my brother hanging out the side of the bed with our arms waving. Loved the feeling of wind in my face, ‘cept the whole ride lasted too long. Daddy and Mama couldn’t come, so it was just us boys and our grandparents.
When we get to Myrtle, we post up in a hotel right on the shore. The Sandy Kingdom, this regal place. Memaw said the place reminded her of the Palace of Versailles, only The Sandy Kingdom was better because it had a water park. We got two big king-size beds, a refrigerator, and a window from which you could see the ocean. Pawpaw opened his arms wide and gestured to the water.
“Look, boys, he said. Just as beautiful as I remember.” Said it just like that. Told you I had a hell of a memory, I can recall it perfectly. “Just as beautiful as I remember,” that’s the exact words that fell from his lips.
Only when I peeked under his arm out the window, I didn’t think the ocean looked too pretty. Cloaked in gray-sky like some old antique smothered by dust, the tar-black ocean whipped the shore violently. The beach stood nearly empty, the wind whipping up belts of sand. “Dang, guess people don’t come round late summer,” Pawpaw said. “Guess we’ve got this whole place to ourselves.
My brother was around the age he started to play with himself and think about girls in a sense that didn’t involve them having cooties. You know: little hairs on his giblets and his voice doing that thing where it goes up and down, breaking like a ceramic plate. I didn’t like so much the idea of sleeping in the same bed as him, for obvious reasons.
“Grab your trunks, boys,” Pawpaw said. “We’re going down to the beach.”
Memaw decided to stay upstairs and read. “I just enjoy looking at it,” she said.
We changed into our trunks and headed down with Pawpaw to the beach, walking barefoot cross the parking lot. Once we got to the ocean, the sand lashed us something fierce. “Damn, that wind’s strong,” Pawpaw said. “Must be sandy season, and that’s why no one’s here at the beach.”
Not a damn soul in sight, not for miles in either direction. My brother Lincoln barged toward the waves that crashed huge and swallowed chunks of sand like some hungry beast. Plastic shopping bags, empty aluminum beer cans, and torn bits of net swirled in the dark water before us, carried by the crests of breaking foam. The entire beach, littered with trash; we couldn’t figure out why. Till I saw Lincoln go in that water. Soon as he leapt into an oncoming wave, something threw him back out. Something with scaly hands.
I screamed. Pawpaw came round to tell me, there’s nothing to worry about. Lincoln seemed to think he got pushed back by water, didn’t see no hands. But I saw ’em, and they would too. Pretty soon, I realize all this trash, the ocean’s spitting the trash back onto the beach. Cigarette butts, glass bottles, and fishing hooks. Even a pair of lady’s underwear, the kind with a little string that sits in the butt-crack.
See, you wanted a story about beach conservation, well, this story’s just right for you. They sent you to the right man, oh boy. Because see, that’s what the mermaids wanted. To save the ocean. That’s why they came onto land that wretched day.
So I was sitting on a dune minding my own business, trying to rub the sharp grains of sand from my eyes, and Lincoln yells, “Someone’s coming!” Sure-nuff, there’s this pair of men riding up in a golf cart. Only it ain’t a golf cart but instead some kinda military vehicle, you know, like the ones from M.A.S.H. You ever seen M.A.S.H.? I miss that damn show. I recall, when we first got our TV, it was on some channel, and I kept getting all excited; only my Daddy says, M.A.S.H. went off the air years ago. Anyways, these men were driving toward us and screaming. I couldn’t hear what words they were saying, cause they was far off, but it sounded pretty bad.
“Looks like they want us off the beach,” Pawpaw said. “Best listen. Come on, boys.”
By this time, I was feeling pretty weird bout the whole thing: we ain’t ever been able to afford any fancy hotel room before or no vacation to the beach. But here we were, mid-September, at Myrtle Beach. All the kids at school, they used to say, I go to Myrtle Beach every Spring and every Summer. But family never got to go until the weekend of the hurricane.
We walked across the parking lot, and the two men climbed out the Jeep. They ran up to us and started yelling. “Get out of here?” “What the hell you think you’re doing here?” Stuff like that.
Pawpaw puts his palms on both our shoulders and looks the men square in their faces, says, “These here my grand-kids, and I’m showing them the beach.”
“Sir, you can’t be here right now. You know there’s a storm coming.”
Pawpaw pointed to them clouds black as death and said, “Them clouds ain’t nothing? Let me tell you about the clouds they used to use in trenches. Them Nazis… ” He trailed off. Pawpaw liked to claim he was in the Second World War, but he was only an ambulance driver working in Italy.
“Sir, it doesn’t matter what you think. You ain’t heard of this hurricane? Hugo’s supposed to blow this whole city away, and you wanna bring kids here. You got to get in your car and get out.” One of the military men began waving his arms wildly.
Then I saw the strangest thing. The waves began to break, split apart like the Red Sea at the hand of Moses. Two walls of water blast up into the air real tall-like, and then I saw ’em. The beastly creatures stood on their tails and slithered up the beach like humanoid serpents. Straight biblical beasts, them mermaids were.
Yes, mermaids only. No mer-men or nothing. Just mer-maids, and you could tell they was women cause they had—well you know, women’s parts. Blue nipples on their pale-gray skin, first time I ever saw a breast. Their faces were wicked, jagged teeth like skinning knives jutting from their crooked jaws. Their eyes green like granny smiths. They wore white-green hair long down their backs, braided together thick and intricate. And halfway down, their skin became scales; they became fish with these pronged fins that stuck out underneath them as they slid like slugs up the beach. And they chanted something, foreign words. Afterwards, I swore it was Russians—they must have been communist infiltrators sent by Gorbachev cause he was sore bout the wall that was gonna fall—but Lincoln said their words sounded more like one of them Arab languages.
Anyways, they were chanting or singing. Kinda like in church, a prayer with rhythm. In their hands, they held these long tridents. Like them fancy salad forks you see at Olive Garden, only bigger and pointier.
You writing all this down? It’s important.
So these mermaids came up onto the beach with their weapons and their fishy-bodies, and suddenly they stopped. One was in front, she was the leader, obviously. She moved forward alone toward the two men.
The one man who was mean to Pawpaw screamed into his walkie-talkie, “They’re here. The combatants have touched ground. I repeat, they have touched—”
Suddenly, this screech comes right out the Queen Mermaid’s wicked mouth. And then we hear something, not out loud but in our heads. Like she’s speaking straight to our minds.
This is your final warning, humans. Make amends now. Promise us you will discontinue your campaign of destruction, and we will allow you to live.
But the military men only leapt into the Jeep and began driving away. Suddenly, we heard the rumble of helicoptors overheard and the smack-smack-smack, tap-rapta-tap of bullets. The words from the Mermaid Queen made me shudder, but the gunfire got me running too. I sprinted toward the Sandy Kingdom hotel with Pawpaw in tow, Lincoln a few lengths ahead of us.
Once inside, we stormed the stairs to the third floor and found Memaw. She sat in bed with a book above her face. “Look, Marguerite, we’ve got to leave.”
“But I’m only getting to the good part.”
The entire building shook, wind slapping the walls of the hotel. Rain sprayed from above in trembling blasts. Have you ever got your friends to shove you in a foot locker and roll you down a steep hill? Like that.
We peered over the edge of the balcony. The beach swarmed with mermaids now, the one we saw earlier merely a vanguard. Now a bonafide army of the slippery creatures stood ashore locked in mortal combat with human soldiers. The mermaids moved fast, knocking guns from hands with swift smacks from their tridents. Some blasted lightning from the tips of their weapons, siezing men with electricity. Men tended to remain far from the water, because waves continued to lash forward and drag the men beneath the depths.
The wind picked up. The rain chattered against the window harder. We moved away, backing against the door. We could not go outside, not with the sky damning each building. I crawled forward and could see the expanse of the beach shredded by the destructive storm, the waves of mermaids descending upon shore. We could sea the turtles now too, huge terrapins stomping up the beach like tanks. You ever see that movie Finding Nemo, came out a few years ago, and there’s a turtle in it? Well, nothing like that. They had legs large as tree stumps, spikes rising from their concrete-thick shells.
To our left, a pirate-themed mini-golf course, its astro-turf uprooted and thrown like a green-brown pawl against the face of One-Eyed Jack’s ceramic statue. Further down, a rollercoaster rusting against the relentless rain, its train bending under the power of sky’s rebellion. To our right, bright-neon signs crashing upon black pavement. Mermaids crawling up the light poles, wrapping their tails around street signs and breaking their stands like fragile toothpicks. They skewered car tires with tridents, overturning vending machines and spilling pinball machines from the arcade, which rode out like life rafts on the rising tide. As the mermaids overpowered the military men with lightning and brute ferocity, they advanced along the street. And the ocean followed them.
We watched as the entire city became Heaven.
Well, that’s it? That can’t be it. How’d you get out?
Oh, you believe me now, huh? Well, for awhile, the bottom floor of the hotel was flooded. We survived on provisions of snacks from vending machines upstairs. Pawpaw bust them open with can of corn we found. We stepped outside after the storm, and the whole city was wasted. Everything devastated in the mermaid’s wake. I seen tornadoes tear through trailer parks before, but nothing like this, nothing like how the rage of sea and sky could scorch a city so good, you wouldn’t recognize its fondest sites.
The amusement rides, broken and bent. The boardwalk crippled, boards ripped up, dock collapsed into the water. I remember seeing this stand, one of those fair-type places where you could shoot targets and win prizes. The whole thing sunk into mud, fluffy bears staring from the wreckage with gouged-out eyes.
Entire buildings collapsed, became a mess of concrete and sadness. Some houses got pushed off their foundations, even the ones raised up on wooden stilts. Church steeples toppled. You ever build a Lego-castle as a kid, a huge castle out of multi-colored blocks that gets taller than you, and then you take the whole structure and toss it to the ground, maybe from some height like the couch or kitchen table, and all the parts explode, blocks sliding across the floors? And you can’t recognize that magnificent castle you built? Like that.
Except there was one thing I guess people never tell about Hurricane Hugo, and that’s this. All the debris lying around the city, it all didn’t come from the buildings. Some came from the ocean. Piles of rotting, sea-soaked garbage. Just stacked in the streets like bodies from a war. Like a calling card or symbol. Or a warning.
His older sister’s friend lays on her back, stretched against the white plastic slats of a poolside chair in the glaring light of the sun. July afternoons have cooked her tan, her long legs shiny and satin-soft, even her feet perfect and brown and pretty. She wears her hair down, un-wet because she never dipped her head beneath the pool’s lukewarm water. Instead, she allows the water to cling to her in tantalizing droplets.
The boy swims around the pool, bobbing his head up from the surface of the pool and back down again. He wears goggles that mask his entire face, even his nose because he has not yet learned to properly hold his breath. When he pops up from the water, he peeks at his sister’s friend through the fogged glass of the goggles, then returns to his aquatic exploration. He wears blue swim shorts with cartoon sharks, which he thinks make him look childish. For the past thirty minutes, he has wanted to climb out of the pool and jump from the diving board to impress his older sister’s friend. But each time she stands and stretches cat-like, her bikini bottoms caught in her crack and revealing the tanned buns he has seen only in videos he watches at 2 am while his parents sleep.
Meanwhile, the girl looks up from a book she is reading for school. She holds it aloft in front of her face, mumbling the words with chapped lips and adjusting her bikini bottoms which unfortunately ride up her ass every time she moves. She contemplates buying a new pair she saw yesterday while shopping online. From behind her amber-tinted glasses, she can see the bloated old man in the pool staring at her. He does not seem to harbor any shame in viewing her body, his eyes glazing over her legs and her breasts. She does not think her breasts look as good in her bikini top as her friend’s, whose little brother looks like a frog dipping in and out of the water. For a moment, she wants the old man to watch her, but she does not.
She reads a book she must read before school starts back, and though she secretly adores the story, she does not tell her friends because they absolutely hate reading.
The man floating on an inflatable ring is a poet, 67-years-old, and gay. With his shirt off, he believes he looks like a Goodyear blimp. He can already feel the sunrays blistering his skin, caressing it with singes that will broil the white into a sickly red. Across the pool from where he floats, he watches two teenage girls—they must be only seventeen. Whenever they look back at their books—they are reading the same novel—he peeks at the girl on the left and shudders. She reminds him of his dead sister. The man wants to cry but he thinks it might be inappropriate. Somewhere behind him, a thirteen-year-old boy bursts through the water, spins around quickly, then descends back underwater. His sister had been driving home drunk one night from a party—this was when the poet had been attending college in another state. He did not hear about her accident until three days later when their foster parents called.
The boy wonders what it might feel like to drown. To test himself, he swims to the bottom of the pool and sits cross-legged on the floor, pinching his thumb and forefingers together like a Buddhist monk—or rather, what he conceptualizes as a Buddhist monk. He attempts to hold his breath for as long as possible, but he cannot. He cannot think about anything other than his friend’s sister if you don’t count the chicken fingers he ate for lunch—they came with honey mustard dipping sauce. He uncrosses his legs and pumps his legs hard, kicking off of the bottom and rocketing to the surface. His splash licks at the old man’s feet, who brushes the droplets of water off his toes, and the boy gasps for breath, then goes under again.
General Bates let us sleep in a tent with Jaime, though we used our own blankets. The summer air clung so fiercely to our skin, though, I could not keep covered. Instead, I lay shirtless against the ground, studying the seams along the interior of our shelter.
“You’re angry, aren’t you?”
“Maybe. Just disappointed. I just– what are we going to do?”
Ethan shuffled. “We can give them the seeds, the medicine. Some of it. We don’t need it, and then we can go back to our island. We can just–”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“About what?” He breathed heavy beside me, and in my side-vision, his chest rose and fell rapidly.
“About needing to register. What were you running away from?”
“I– if I were living like that, where they accounted for everything you did? You don’t know how nice you have it out there in the marsh. You’ve never lived in a city, not like they’re like now. We’re all rats, scrambling on top of each other for some sunlight. And men patrol the streets and beat you if you say anything to them. That’s what passes as police.”
“That’s why you left?”
“I left because I had heard about something else, something simple. I thought maybe if I stole that boat, rowed out to sea, I’d find something better. And I did.”
I resettled against the ground, soothed by the crescendos and decrescendos of Jaime’s snoring. “There have never been simpler times. Never civilized either. It’s always been difficult: existence. Whether you’re stuffed in a polluted city, mired in poverty, or stuck out on an island, rooting through the ground for a vegetable to eat, something to kill and clean. No life is simple, and it never has been that way.”
When morning came, I tracked down General Bates and showed him half of our supplies. If Jaime might return us to our island, I told him, he could have our supplies. Some of the stronger medicines and the seeds too. Hemp seeds and corn, though I kept the majority of the rice seeds– I could plant rise in the marsh, harvest every year. I kept a lot of the allergy medicine as well and a pocketful of pain-killers. The general took the rest gleefully, shuffling from the tent to wake up Jaime.
Jaime waddled crankily from his tent. “You want me back on the road again?”
“Sure, sure. Take these two back where you found them. Or wherever they might want to go.”
“Do you have a boat?” I asked. “We could also really use a boat.”
The general shook his head. “We need all of our boats. Now, get out of here before I take the rest of the stuff you hid from me.”
Once loaded back into Jaime’s truck, we sped down the road, crisscrossing through empty highways and abandoned interstates. He allowed me this time to sit in the cab, leaning against the window, my forehead pressed flat.
“Still torn up, thinking you was going to be a rich man?”
I ground my teeth, watching the pine trees as they vanished behind us, the truck picking up speed. “Rich? No, maybe not. Maybe so. Not so sure I ever believed that plan could have worked– I should realize the world has changed. It also changes, even when you’re not a part of it, and it keeps churning on. All that time away, you don’t realize what happens, what happens to everybody else, the whole world. Places disappear, and people do too. Entire societies collapse, and new ones rise. Back when I was a boy, we never thought we’d live like this, constantly at war. Sometimes, it’s not just land that gets submerged, but the past and your perception of the present. If you think you know what’s going on, pretty soon the water’s up to your neck, and you don’t know anything anymore.”
He nodded along politely.
As the hours passed, I scanned the trees for our boat, a way to get us home. I prayed to encounter none of the soldiers Jaime described, a barricade along the highway. Looking back through the window, I could see Ethan wiggling his head in the wind– only the second time he’d ridden in an automobile, so he told me. And then I kept watching the road, dreaming of my island and my home and my marsh and that little boat, about paddling back out to Charleston and exploring the city lost. I didn’t belong in the land of the living, but instead at the bottom of the sea, in that city of ghosts.
Corn. Rice. Apple. Hemp. Soybeans.
The seeds from some of America’s greatest agricultural movements, sitting on the shelf next to my bed. When I awoke from hallucinatory nightmares, in which I tumbled endlessly beneath the sea’s surface, I fumbled with the bottles, but didn’t screw open the cap tops. Instead, I shook the seeds inside and prayed these would be my salvation. But if the smugglers had crashed their ship near Charleston, then there would be no one to buy the seeds.
When the storm died three days later, we assessed the damage: half the containers we’d set out to catch water had been tipped over or blown into the marsh. Ethan waded into the muck to collect empty tin cans and plastic pitchers that were now full of mud. We poured the containers into ten-gallon jugs we had collected months ago, from where we could draw water for cooking, drinking, and on occasion, bathing.
In the aftermath of rain, mosquitoes clung to my legs until I walked pocked with red all over, sores itching with needling wrath. The heat swamped my lungs, and even as I breathed, I felt as if gulping mouthfuls of salty water. Still the dreams haunted me, even while awake, of drowning, of drowning in that city of ghosts.
We lugged the battered dinghy from the shore and cleaned its hull before paddling with haste back into the Charleston bay. “Down here, this is where you found the ship?” I could see already its bulking black shadow as I zipped up my wetsuit; Ethan would not go diving again, if he couldn’t keep tied to the boat. “Keep watch of that winch. We don’t want a repeat of the other day.”
When I dove, I sank quickly toward the shipping vessel. Nearing the end of the month, the smugglers docked in the marsh and leapt onto our isles. We haggled near the shore over copper wires, glass Coke bottles, unopened cans of green beans, steel plumbing pipes, and other valuables. We didn’t want money, only supplies: tools, fresh food, fresh water, and medicine. This was what I dove after: medicine. They kept bottles of pills in a cabinet inside the captain’s cabin.
Their ship’s three masts rested against the concrete wall, the middle and highest splintered into shards that now floated around me, spears of wood threatening impalement. Fifty feet long, the boat laid on its side, probably smashed against the jutting portion of the wall when the terrible storm came. I hovered above the wreckage, trying to remember the layout of rooms, of compartments. A few foam safety rings rested suspended above the ships’ deck, still bound to iron rungs in the wood. Snaking through the grappling ropes, I found the lower deck, where a door lead to the main cabin.
Once I reached for the door, I tugged and found it locked– or at least sealed closed by the immense underwater pressure. Crash. I elbowed the window, slivers of glass rising peacefully past my face like throwing knives sailing at me in slow-motion. A great surge pulled me against the window, my body smashing the window frame apart as I tumbled into the cabin, sea water crashing in after me. I fumbled with my oxygen mask, breathing deeply as water filled the cabin to the top, and then I drifted confused among the wreckage.
The medicine cabinet. I tore it open, and orange pill bottles spilled out. Aspirin and stronger opiate painkillers. Suppositories in a massive mason jar. Sleep-aids. Ritalin and other forms of speed. Allergy medicine. Locked in a metal box, I found sealed capsules of even more powerful medicines– surgical opiates and anti-psychotics. A few unmarked vials and a clean, sealed syringe.
When I reached the surface, lugging my cloth bag of medicines, I tossed them aboard the boat. “Don’t open any. We can sell these.”
“You sure we can’t use them?”
“Use them? What, you have allergies? Or do you just want to pass out from drugs? Look, help me up.” He hefted me from the water, and I collapsed on the floor, shaking off water and breathing heavily. “If we can find someone to buy these– and the seeds? We’ll be set for life. We can buy our own boat, a huge cruise ship if we want. Or we can hike out into the mountains, purchase a mansion on a hill. We won’t have to live on a forsaken island in a swamp.”
Ethan nodded slowly. “But– but– right, maybe you’re right.” He smiled, but grimaced at the same time. “Sure, we’ll be rich. But if the smugglers were at the bottom of the sea, who do we take these things to? Who would buy them?”
“Who would buy seeds?” I considered this. “The farmers in the cities might. They plant engineered crops, things invented in laboratories, but how long as it been since– since someone saw real seeds? Actual seeds?”
Ethan shrugged. “We have to travel to the city, then. Atlanta? It’s close enough.” I nodded frantically, and then we embraced. I gathered the medicines and puts them in a cooler we strapped to the back of our boat. We would be rich, I knew it: we would survive.
After two hours, Ethan collapsed against the side of the boat, dropping his oar over his lap. “I can’t– just keep going. Where are we? Do you know?”
I glanced left and right, peering through the thick trees surrounding the marsh. “I don’t know. I’m just trying to find– some land or something.”
Once we realized we had almost destroyed Earth, the federal government passed stringent laws to drastically lower carbon emissions. Personal vehicles were outlawed, though no one could afford the gasoline to run them. Most of the country’s population traveled via magnetized railways, zipping east and west across the continent, but no rails reached south along the east coast, unless you traveled deep into Georgia. Near Atlanta.
“We just have to– have to find a highway. It’s say on this map– here–” I unfolded the map and tried to flatten it against the boat’s dashboard, and the breeze ruffled it from beneath. “Come, here. There’s a– if we can find this highway seventeen, we can–” A gust of wind bloomed beneath the map and levitated it above our heads, then the map crumpled into a ball and splashed into the swamp. “Well, what are we supposed to do now?”
We floated aimlessly for another hour, before pulling the boat ashore. Our feet sank up to our ankles in rich, black soil, but I kicked it against a tree trunk as he laid the boat to rest. We hiked through the muck, pushing vines from our path, when we stumbled across the black asphalt. “We start here, try to find someone with a mode of transportation. Use the seeds to pay people, or the medicine.” We carried our bounty in a duffel bag with our clothes. Night fell, and I laid out thin blankets I’d taken from our house. Then we fell asleep underneath the stars, the sky’s muggy breath pressing against our cold necks.
I clawed through the water, sinking only ten feet beneath the surface before crawling back up from air. Gasp. A wave sprayed my face with stinging flecks of water. “Ethan!” No sign of a head bobbing above the surface, only a black expanse constantly displaced. “Ethan, where are you?” But he couldn’t hear me, even if he swam twenty feet away, because the wind howled, the waves crashed against each other like war chariots, and my mouth filled again and again with salty water. “Ethan!”
Turning my head, thrashing through the water, I searched for anything. A sign. Where was the boat? I spotted it rising on the crest of a wave that had pushed it three hundred feet in the opposite direction. I furiously swam for the boat, wind-milling my arms, pushing through the black though the tide sucked me away from underneath. Another wave washed over my head, and I spun, clutching for something, anything. Climbing for air, reaching for the thin, drizzling light. But I couldn’t find the surface, I felt so disoriented, like someone had hung by upside down by my toes and beat me like a piñata.
A hand clasped around mine.
The city rose up to swallow me, and through the ruins under the sea, I could imagine the city as it once had been. There, that strip had been an old market, where tourists bustled past each other to buy straw-woven baskets. A great grass square I passed on my days off, before a saw sliced off my hand. Young people, still delusional with visions of grandeur, rested without anxiety beneath the warm sun, rocking in hammocks, or sunbathing on beach towels.
There– there had been some sort of old prison there, a dark creepy place they said was haunted. Always stories about haunting, though in a way the city had become just another ghost story.
Floating high above, I could see everything. The whole history splayed out, the myths of a thousand ghosts floating in an underwater dream. The green glare of the past pulsated to the surface, the houses rebuilding themselves, then crumbling. In my dream, I could see the birth and death of a city, and it seemed now, like the life of any person, nothing significant.
He slapped my face with the back of his hand, then pressed his clammy hands to my throat. Still, I spewed water as I lay on my side, the sea escaping from my strained lungs. “You’re alive. I thought you might be dead.”
I opened my eyes, staring at the side of our boat, as Ethan leaned over me, checking my vitals like I had taught him. “Where were you? You– the rope.”
“I’m right here now. I’m fine. I’m fine. You cranked the winch too fast, and the rope caught on a rusty nail down there, snapped the rope clean in two. Took me long enough to find the boat. Then there you were floating face-down in the ocean, I thought you were dead. You were dead, nearly.”
“But I’m not. Where are we?”
“We’ll need to paddle back to the island.” Ethan stood, shaking the salt water from his pants legs. The boat had flooded, and as Ethan rowed us in the right direction, I found a bucket to toss the water from our interior, though the rain made it impossible to keep dry. The rain died down by the time we reached our island, bumping against the marshy silt and hopping onto the shallow green platform surrounding our house.
“I need to show you something,” Ethan said, covering his eyes with one hand as he scanned the waves. “No one’s around. The smugglers– I don’t think they’re coming back.”
“What do you mean? How would you know?”
“I saw them. I mean, I saw their ship. They must have tried sailing into Charleston, but they crashed against the wall. Their whole vessel lies at the base of that wall.” He reached into his cloth bag and dumped a pile of gold jewelry on the table, chain necklaces and sparkling engagement rings. Then a rusted can of what must have been petroleum.
“Holy– you took it all?”
“Not all of it. There was a lot. They lost everything down there, at the bottom of the sea. But I found something even more important.” He reached into his pocket and removed orange medicine capsules, the kind they used to give out at pharmacies before people learned to print their medication for cheap at home. “That’s no Advil in there. Those are seeds.”
I picked up the capsule and studied it warily, reading a sticker label that had been hastily written on: Corn.
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.
“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.
Through the greenish glass of the goggles, the houses no longer looked like houses, only rotten skeletons. Some without four walls, some with punctured roofs, others wholly decimated with only a few stark wooden beams standing to show what once had been there. I swam past a street sign and rubbed a layer of algae from its surface. Crumpled at its edges and indecipherable, its blocked lettering had peeled away years ago. To my left I found a property where a house once stood, though now I hovered above only a smooth white platform. Years of sea current had polished it smooth, the only standing structure a stone staircase crumbling with age. Underneath, a hole where the door to a cellar might once have been.
Swimming toward it, I placed my hands at the edges of the door and pulled myself down. The concrete gaped like a stone-teethed scar where I entered. Adjusting my headlight to shine brighter, I proceeded into the cellar. Cans of preserved food bobbed against the ceiling, which I pulled into a cloth bag I wore attached to my waist. Rusted tools floated like flotsam around me. Behind a busted washing machine was a circuitry board– Jackpot. I retreated from the cellar and looked to the sparkling surface.
I tugged at the rope, and it grew taut until I rose through the water like an angel ascending. Above, Ethan cranked the winch furiously– my invention, since we could not afford enough gasoline to run our machinery. The city shrunk below me until it was only a ruined maze of uneven streets, deteriorating buildings, and abandoned cars.
It had been twenty years since the sea finally broke the levies, the wall fell, and the city drowned. In the distance, I could make the jagged outline of the wall we had built fifty years ago. Just out of college, pissed at my fortune, I signed up with other gullible young men for a grueling construction job. As the sea rose, the beach eroded, and islands flooded, the Charleston city council voted to build the wall, back when they still believed they could be safe.
I burst through the surface.
“How are you on oxygen?”
“Running low, but I have enough for another trip down. No need to switch the tank. I found an open cellar down there, and there may be something we can use.”
Ethan leaned against the battered dinghy, skimming the water with his hands. “Seeds?”
“No.” We needed seeds like we needed oxygen. If we found seeds, we could travel somewhere fertile, live off the land. Or sell them and buy a defunct cruise ship we’d populate with exotic women. But what might be under the house could be better, at least financially. “There might be copper.”
“Pipes? No, well, wires.”
“That’s nothing. It’s not worth it.”
Clambering aboard the boat, I strapped a heavy sledgehammer to my hip and heaved a portable concrete saw onto the boat’s ledge. “It’s worth it.” I nodded. “Are we all clear up here?”
“I haven’t seen any boats, no. Good you remembered this place. I didn’t expect much to be here. How’s it look down there?”
“Different than last time, to be sure.”
“Don’t know. Different, I suppose. No people for one, and the whole city’s fallen apart. Some fish still lingering down there, which is surprising. Figured the water would be too polluted.” After the oil fields of the world dried up, frantic energy corporations bored holes into the ocean floor. Species died out, the sea filled with goopy black oil, and we slowly came to realize we were fucked, truly fucked, and had been for longer than we had known. We still believed oil meant life or death. Then we began running out of water.
The North American continent solidified into a single nation, but what territory you lived in, that changed all the time. Local, secessionist movements sprang up every five years, and some asshole would come around, asking you to fight in their ragtag army. Then the continental nation would regain control, and this happened too often for people like me to keep caring. It no longer mattered where you lived, as long as you figured out how to live.
“You sure you can do this?” Ethan eyed the concrete saw, then peered through the ocean surface at the ghost city.
“Sure. I’m fine. As long as no government boats don’t come up here and fuck us, we’ll be fine, kid.”
“I can go down there, you know. You should trust me.”
“You don’t have enough practice. Maybe when we’ve practiced more.”
“But– but we can’t practice if you continue to not let me dive. You’re what, seventy?”
“Yes, but you’re only fifteen. Maybe next time. Now, start cranking that winch backwards.” I slipped off the edge of the boat, and I sank fast, the saw and sledgehammer weighing me down. Down into the submerged city.
The rope unraveled behind me as I guided my descent toward the vanished house. Through the hole, into the dark cellar. I chose a place a few feet away from the washing machine and place the saw against the concrete floor, revving its electric engine. Whirring, screaming, spitting bubbles at my face. If I had not been underwater, the saw might have thrown sparks into the air as the blade sliced smoothly through the floor. I cut a block shape, then swung the hammer against the square repeatedly until cement chunks and grainy particles choked the water.
My mother’s agent crossed her legs and smoothed her skirt, placing the manuscript delicately on the coffee table. “Georgina, it’s not even finished.” Mum nodded, folding her hands over her knee. “And– the murder scene at the end, it rings disturbingly similar to the finale in Black Tears, you know where the killer tries to drown Detective Knaus in a swimming pool. In this, you have the main character drowning in a Jacuzzi, and maybe there’s a fine distinction, but– look Georgina.”
Mum burped out a quick apology which faltered once it left her lips. “Angelina, please, look, I can tidy up the script. I’ll change the scene even. She’ll drown in the sea or a bathtub or a dunk tank at the carnival. I just can’t stop writing Catherine Knaus novels, Angie.”
“Yes, well, you can’t write them. Not anymore. You killed Knaus off in the final book, and didn’t I tell you not to? You could still be writing her character now. But no, you wanted to go for shock value. End of the series, hero has to end. And now where are you? Writing a bland replica of the same character with a different name. Georgie, I can’t even use this– it’s, it’s… it’s fine, but your comeback must be strong, soaring, magnificent. Not– this.” She tapped the manuscript and smiled with bared teeth. “Honestly? Rhonda Flame? That doesn’t belong in a Georgina Snyder novel; if you were writing erotica, though…”
I crept another step down, peering through the banister at where they sat below me. My father entered the room, brandishing a slightly taller stack of paper than my mother. “Angie, you want some tea? Nice to see you again after–”
“No tea, thanks. Your wife and I were just discussing–”
“You know who else finished a manuscript, Angie?”
Angie the editor shifted her glasses and waited a beat. “Am I supposed to guess?” Another moment of that silence adults share when social constructs fall apart. “You?”
“Me, yes me. As you’re my wife’s agent, I was hoping you’d take a look.”
“We’ve talked about this,” mum said, pushing my father’s manuscript back toward him, away from her own on the coffee table as if one might infect another. I imagined all the sheets of paper spilling onto the floor, and when you rearranged the pieces, you got a literary journey of discovery and scandal intermixed with grungy noir gore.
“It’s a tale of a broken middle-aged man, in an existential clash with himself. He’s a writer, though he has not written anything for years– oh, the crisis, it’s sort of a metaphor for writer’s block, you see. He begins looking to make his life more interesting, takes up gambling, then begins an affair…”
“Mr. Snyder, I appreciate–”
“Better not be a fucking autobiography,” my mum muttered, finishing her wine in a grand, gulping swig.
“Mr. Snyder,” Angelina continued, “I think your writing is superb, but the idea of the book is hardly marketable. There’s nothing distinct that sets it apart, you understand?”
“Bet his wife catches him shagging one of his students on his office, and all she wanted to do was surprise him on his birthday.”
“He’s not a professor, Georgina. He’s a writer.”
“Listen, both of you. I really need to be leaving.” Angelina smiled again, her teeth on vicious display, taking steps toward the door. “Georgie, we signed a contract. At least finish something, change the hot tub scene, and– my boss wants to see it by next month.”
“Next month. The fourteenth then?”
“The first would be better, Georgie. They’re awfully particular about those contracts, and I mean, maybe after Catherine Knaus died, that was a sign. That your, well at least your career in crime novels–”
“My career?” My mother stood up, though clumsily, knocking her empty wine glass onto the floor as she crossed to Angelina. “Angie, Christmas is coming up, and we can’t even–” she lowered her voice “avoid presents. We’re going to have to pick and choose. Honestly, if Michael keeps breaking windows– January 1st will be too early. Can’t it wait until at least the second or third? You’ll be too hung-over– I mean, knackered– to read it.”
“The contract, though, states that our agency will represent you for the entire Catherine Knaus series, and after that ended, we gave you two years.”
“I can have it in a month. Two weeks from now, no problem. All I need is– some space, some coffee, a little inspiration.”
“Good. I’m glad we’re all in high spirits then. Send it to me in an e-mail, Georgie. Talk to you soon.”
“But you were going to read my manuscript,” my father shouted as Angelina slipped out the door, then half-sprinted down the walk through our garden. “Well, bugger that slag with a buttered broom handle. Georgina?”
“Don’t talk to me, Richard.”
I leaned in close, trying to read their nuances, their motions, their faces. “What the hell are you doing?”
Nearly tumbled down the steps when I leapt up, my heart rocketing into my throat. “Aggie, just headed downstairs for a cup of tea.”
“Have you been in my room?”
“No, of course not. Why? Is something– um, missing?”
She cocked an eyebrow, licked her lips, then replied. “No, nothing’s missing. Just my notebooks fell over, and I know you’re a nosy little brat who likes to snoop around in other people’s things.”
“Maybe it was Michael, looking for inspiration for his Great American Novel.”
“Fucking idiot. I’m pretty sure only Americans are allowed to write those.” I nodded empathetically, then slipped away before she realized the horror on my face. The ring, she knew it was missing.
While reaching my arm down the air vent, the screws rolling against my knees, I wondered how I would formulate this scene in the final draft of my memoir. Would I write the scene dramatic, my breathing heavy, my fingers scrambled to find the lost ring, my eyes shifting constantly to the clock that hinted at my impending doom? Maybe not so suspenseful. Maybe more comedic.
Halfway through, my hand would get stuck and I would hear my sister begin her ascent up the stairs. At the moment, she shopped for Christmas presents with my parents while Michael sat upstairs doing whatever Michael usually did, probably writing another rip-off Stephen King novel.
As I thought about a comedy of errors, a series of mishaps in the story like a 3 Stooges cartoon but more literary, I feared my hand might actually get stuck. As if how I fictionalized the event might preemptively affect the actual event. Like a blooper, but from real life.
People in the audience at a play— they laugh politely at the gaffs but laugh the hardest when you lynch your lines, when you forget a word, when your wig tumbles off, powder clouding the air. Laughing at something that’s supposed to be funny, that only makes you a conformist. It’s the fuck-ups that really make people cackle.
I withdrew my hand and wiped the black, grainy smudge from my fingertips. When first contemplating the lost ring, I considered telling my parents, but then Agatha would know I lost the ring. Also, we had moved beyond tattle-tale-ing on each other because it meant the snitch too would face punishment. We knew so much about each other, we could never blame each other directly, only indirectly, like two hostile nations pointing nukes at the others’ capitals, knowing once we set off the explosives, we insured our mutual destruction.
Dropping the vent back over the hole, I began to tighten the screw when I heard omeone creeping down the hallway. I faced the door, my hands shaking, and then I dropped and crawled underneath Agatha’s bed. I imagined that in the fictional version of the moment, I might feel like a character in a horror movie, breathing slowly as the serial killer stalks around the bed. The door opened, and dirty sneakers trod across the room before halting next to Agatha’s book case.
After some strain, the person sat down on her bed, and I could hear pages flapping. The sneakers smelled like dirt and mashed potatoes, a hairy ankle sticking out. “What are you doing?”
As I clambered from under the bed, Michael fumbled with Agatha’s notebook to return it to its hiding place. “Shit, Neil. You scared me.”
“You’re reading Agatha’s journals? Trying to steal ideas?”
“I’m just– what are you doing in her room?”
“I’m just– I– uh– so she keeps the notebooks behind the other books on the book shelf.”
Michael nodded. “She’s smart. Turns ’em sideways so they lie flat against the back of the book case, and they don’t stick out. But I found them this time. Have you read this stuff?”
“I think she’s pretty good, actually. Might be the best writer in the family. I mean, at least she’s honest.”
“Honest? She’s hormonal. Dad’s the best writer.”
Michael screwed up his face. “He only writes reviews. Anyways, dad’s not all that smart.”
He only said that, I suspected, because dad refused to read his newest project. Dad had tried to read previous novels by Michael, but then Michael never finished them, and my father grew frustrated with this until he refused to not comment on any more of Michael’s unfinished manuscripts.
Being brutally criticized, my brother could probably withstand that but what broke his heart and his resolve was being ignored. As if his work had grown so insignificantly droll, my father could not devote time to criticize its quality.
The front door opened, and Michael and I retreated from Agatha’s lair to stand in Michael’s room. On the desk stood a stack of clean notebooks, a row of mechanical pencils filled with graphite sticks. “You’re planning to write a lot?”
“I have been writing a lot.”
“And what is it this time? Like, a story about dragons or is this another Philip K. Dick rip-off.”
Shrugging, Michael moved the notebooks into his drawer. “I’m working on my magnum opus. My bestseller.”
“You can’t just decide it’s a bestseller before it’s even started.”
“But it’s all about the dramatic inner lives of a group of writers, on whom the nation recognizes.”
“You mean mom? What are you writing?”
Michael took a deep breath and sat down on the chair. “Oh, well, a memoir.”
The door opened, and Agatha dropped her shopping bags in the hallway before storming in. “What were you two doing in my room?”
“But we weren’t–”
“My notebooks were on the bed, you little snoops. You don’t have to be so damned jealous that I can write poetry and you can’t. Michael, stop being so desperate.”
I cut in, “He was probably just collecting research for his memoir.”
“What a joke. Michael, please go throw yourself out of a library window.”
Michael’s face grew red. “Shut up, Agatha. You’re not even good anyway. The only reason anyone likes you is because you starting seeing that Greg guy.”
“Greg? Michael, you’re–”
“Oh, you know, just the guy you talk on the phone with every night, that boy you write poems about. He’s four years older than you, and I mean, it’s not a coincidence you’re featured in his magazine.”
“You’re a nosy little creep.”
I looked between them. “You’re dating someone?”
Mum walked in. “Dating who?”
“Greg,” said Michael. “He must be an American, and he wrote that article about Agatha, and now she thinks she’s hot shit. But she’s not. Once I publish my memoir, everyone will know.”
“You can’t publish a memoir,” said mum. “You’re not even an adult yet. You don’t know anything about life.”
Shaking my head, I looked to Agatha. “Did he give you the ring?”
“Right? Agatha, what’s going on?”
“How do you– you lost the fucking ring, didn’t you? Mum, he lost my damned engagement ring.”
Mum turned dead white, pressing her hand against the door and gasping dramatically like they do in the movies. “Engaged? Who are you engaged to?”
“Greg, probably,” said Michael, retreating to his bed.
“I didn’t to lose it. I just held that card, and then– it fell out.”
“You’re getting married and you haven’t told us. You’re not even an adult yet, Agatha.”
Michael smirked at this. “Yeah, Agatha, you’re not even–”
She lunged for me, toppling me to the floor as she clawed at my face. “You little snarky bastard. You lost the ring. I was going to give it back to him but now you lost it. And he’ll hate me. Even more than when I told him no.”
“You told him no? Agatha, what?” Mum looked even more horrified, clutching her blouse.
Everything that was happening, I could not help but imagine how awesome it could play out in my memoir. How Agatha had turned violent over her passionate secrets, how my mother felt so scandalized.
Mum called up my dad, and with Agatha, they drifted to the kitchen to discuss Agatha’s engagement ring. I sat upstairs, relieved they had forgotten to ground me for snooping in her room, and Michael began writing in his notebook.
“I don’t know why you’re trying. I think I’ve already got the memoir market for this family cornered.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m working on one too, I meant. No offense.”
Michael shrugged. “They’re probably different anyways.”
I chewed on my cheek and walked from the room. “We’re just different people. How different could they be?”
In my room, I began to write, but I found it hard to concentrate once dad started yelling. Something about how Agatha didn’t deserve to be off in California if she were just hooking up with indie magazine editors. Somehow, I could not write the truth, so I wrote something else: a story about a boy in a family of writers.
The father, a children’s book illustrator. The mother, a redundant poet. His older brother, a budding literary novelist. And a little sister, who had decided she wanted to be a doctor instead.
Every story we tell is a memoir disguised as fiction. The characters we write, they’re just derivatives of ourselves, expressions of who we want to be and who we don’t want to be. We’re obscuring the truth in fiction.
We live anecdotal lives. Everything we can do becomes just another story to tell our parents or friends or spouses when we get home from school or work or Pilates. As humans, we love stories. In the case of lying about who you are, come full-loaded with anecdotes. Stories make you believable—that’s why Hitler promoted the publication of anti-Semitist children’s books.
This is just my version of a children’s book, starring me. Everyone wants to write a memoir, to cash in on their stories, so why can’t I?
The truth, when it’s unwrapped, when it’s raw, burns our skin with embarrassment. We recognize too much of ourselves in the truth, things we could not say out loud printed onto a page. We’re so afraid of sharing our secrets, we make ourselves into a breathing sarcophagus. We write our confessions on bathroom walls, trying to find salvation in anonymity. And we only end up alone.
The day after Christmas, Angie visited to pick up the manuscript for the first adventure of Rhonda Flame, the protagonist of a true-crime-inspired erotica series. Angie agreed to read dad’s manuscript too, maybe out of starch politeness.
Agatha found the ring by fishing down the air vent with a campfire skewer. We celebrated by sealing the ring in an envelope and mailing it back to California, back to Greg, who I felt slightly sorry for. Then again, if we were an American magazine editor, he probably deserved better than Agatha. If he had made that mistake, she’d be even more of a crazy, psycho bitch. Not that her foulness bothered me– it made good fodder for a memoir, that memoir I still needed to start writing.