The Process of Writing Fiction Is Actually Just Describing Tiny Moments and Then Some More Tiny Moments

After a first draft, written in a fever of creative spirit, I begin to finally ask myself what the story is actually about. From writing, I learn what I actually intend to write about. Because of this, the final draft of a story appears very little like the first draft. Now and then, a singular phrase or description will remain, a simple description or inspired aphorism. I record everything that happens in a matter-of-a-fact way, first with the entire story and then scene by scene.

If Character A steps through the door, Character B must first open the door. Will Character B gesture or embrace Character A? What does this say about their relationship? Will Character B walk inside, or will Character A lead them further into the house? Will Character A offer a drink, a snack? What kind of niceties would be exchanged and how would they interact, given their personalities? Where would Character B sit? On the sofa, chair, on the floor maybe? Would Character B sit at all? Would they look at Character A as they talked or at the floor? Would they study the new environment? If I’m writing from Character A’s POV, should I describe the room? Or should I…

On goes the process. I ask myself every inane question possible, sketch out each movement and gesture in a massive narrative architecture. On one hand, I wish for the story to flow smoothly, to make sense. Most of the “work” of writing involves writing small moments. Someone blows their nose. Someone places their thumb in a book to keep their place. Someone unlocks a bike from a street post. Someone cracks their knuckles. Each movement translates an emotion, the vocabulary of theatrical gestures offering context to lines of dialogue. Each movement is calculated and makes anatomical sense, at least to the best of my abilities. I recall a particular critique from a fiction writing professor about a story I wrote, which involved a window. Several times in the story, an elderly and yet stalwart woman climbs in and out of a window, and throughout the story, the window changes heights. At times, she struggles to enter the window and later on she leaps out the window and lands below without any trouble. Because I had not paid enough attention to little moments, I created a tiny seam in the narrative, a warp in the vision. The tenuous dream film reel projected on the reader’s skull tweaks out, and the audience is temporarily thrown into darkness. And when that happens, the film or story is partly ruined. One remembers that one is consuming a story rather than living inside the story.

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That’s half the story, the technical step-by-step process it takes to compose a scene. During the first draft comes a different sort of work, the creative part of the writing. The writer must also create new worlds, even if the places technically exist in real life (I don’t actually write fantasy). Because the reader must live within the dream. And often dreams have moments of absolute presence, of epiphany. And in the creative frenzy of the first draft, often these moments arrive.

Between the gestures and the conversation, the step-here and step-there, the said and the sighed, come moments of un-reality. Only within the context of a complete dream, a stable narrative architecture, may these moments appear as something other than trite, but rather something perfectly human.

I spend a lot of time searching for a particular moment– an ethereal moment that transcends the literal and the literary, something that lifts the reader into the air. Like when you’re on a rollercoaster at the top of the hill, and you’re not sure you’re then until you plummet. Like that. I want to capture moments of brilliant presence, when the character has become human and the words on a dead tree have become vision. The moment’s hanging there, waiting to crumble, but right now this moment is perfect, a floating light above a lake. Maybe something no one’s ever seen before.

But it’s recognizable. We become comfortable in the world the writer builds, a living hallucination that derives from looking at marks of ink on paper. And here, in these human moments, we live.

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Being a Writer Is Easy! (If You Have Nothing Else to Do)

In the past week, I have written 12,000 words. 1,000 of those words have been fiction, 0 words poetry, and the rest devoted to various academic projects. With the publication of my first novel fast approaching, I must consider myself more and more a writer, and yet such a title demands attention and effort. A writer, after all, must write. Not just blog posts like this one. Or Tweets, a form of which I am particularly fond. But rather, stories. Novels. Poems. Essays for lofty literary journals. And in the past few months, I have done little of this. Moored to the workload of senior year, I have neglected my holy and dreadful duties as a writer.

So what to do? What is a writer who does not write? Recently, my laptop crashed—kaput! The latest draft of my second novel, on which I’ve been working since my Freshman year at College of Charleston, was lost within a fried hard drive. The loss eliminated any motivation to continue working on the novel, and for the past four months, the story has languished in the purgatory of forgotten manuscripts. Where novels-in-progress go to die. Of course I still have the second draft for reference, and I can jump right back in with a new draft.

After all, my inspiration in writing has been replenished. This year I am taking my first ever fiction-writing course with Professor Brett Lott at the College of Charleston. What I expected to be a course crammed with trite advice and undergraduate pandering has actually been quite helpful. Several of the most basic lessons of fiction have eluded me until now, and I must return with a critical eye to my new material. Like all young writers, I am already terrified of my first novel (I wrote the novel when I was seventeen and eighteen), and yet I still have such pride in it. It is, after all, a fine work, especially for someone as young as I. But nevertheless, I intend to do even better next time, applying the lessons I have learned in the course.

But what of time? How does one grapple with the lack of time one receives in university? Some college students participate in Nanowrimo, and I long for the days I could spend hours in a coffee shop furiously typing. But no, that won’t do. It’s not that I don’t have the energy to write nor the ideas, but rather that other obligations have wrestled me away from the stories. Too often I wish to scribble ideas into a notebook and abandon whatever essay, presentation, or op-ed I am working on. Too often I find myself at the end of the day exhausted by the sheer effort of living, of academic rigor, of the expectations of professors and parents, of the black hole of social media that promises either publication success or ruin. Too often I find myself discussing writing with friends rather than writing. But I am finding my groove. I am writing on the toilet, on planes, in cars, in class, between classes, and in the library while I am supposed to be working on the two essays, three group projects, and poster presentation due in two days (as I am doing now).

So I must work without ceasing. I must work even when not writing. Always, a tiny elf sits in my head, scribbling down experiences, filing away gestures and odd phrases, and composing grand scenes. When I am in class, I am working: who needs to listen to a lecture on Benedictine monks when one has read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose? When I am exercising (which means here riding my bike aimlessly through the decrepit and ruinous parts of my city), I am working. During sex, I am working. While eating lunch, I am working. While taking a shower, I am working. When I am out drinking with my friends, dancing a wild gig of youthful merriment, I am working. I am cataloging my life for the sake of my art. My mind is alive with stories.

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Me, Working

I have taken a semester to step away from my second novel, hoping to return with renewed vigor during winter break. For now, I am perfecting my storytelling. I have written six short stories so far since August and I intend to write another two before winter crashes into South Carolina and forces me inside. And when it does, I will pour a hot coffee and keep writing.

Preview: Read Chapter One of THE HEATHENS AND LIARS OF LICKSKILLET COUNTY

Welcome to Lickskillet, South Carolina.

A town of enigmatic and wild people where five teenagers will confront their futures, their friends, and the town’s dark secrets.

I’m releasing sample chapters to my debut novel which appears in bookstores and Amazon in November 2015.

Follow the link to read chapter one: https://derekberry.wordpress.com/in-lickskillet/lickskillet-preview-declin-ostrander/

Read more about the book here: https://derekberry.wordpress.com/in-lickskillet/

Enjoy and share thoughts on the page. Share the chapters and news of the upcoming book release!

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[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

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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.

onU8Y.AuSt.78                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.

[End Transcript]

Submerged: Part Seven (Fin)

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?”

types_wetlands_clip_image023                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.

 

Fin

Submerged: Part Six

The truck woke me, its trembling motor roaring in my sleep. Again, the underwater dreams, those lucid moments beneath the surface of consciousness, drowning in the ceaseless churn of a storm. Then I could make out above the hollow crash of waves a burping, mechanical clatter that unglued me from sleep and sent me bolting upright, staring into white-bright headlights.

“What the hell’s goin’ on here? Why you sleeping by the road?” A man stared back at us, his lips puckered at a peculiar angle and his eyebrow cocked. His skin was black as the soil, his clothes tattered. He stood beside a shuddering, rusted truck.

I clawed my throat for words, but none came. Ethan spoke: “Is that a truck? You driving a truck?”

The man reached into his cab, turning off the motor and flipping off his headlights, leaving us into the dim illumination of early morning. “It’s my truck. Personal business. None of your concern. Who y’all fighting for? Soldiers?”

Clearing my throat, I stood up, pushing the blankets off of me and limping toward him. He was a massive man, though old, wearing a broad plaid shirt and jeans caked with mud. “We’re– we’re headed to Atlanta.”

“Alright, so what? You’re gonna walk there? Where are y’all from?”

“We live not so far away. On an island.”

He nodded. “How long?”

I looked to Ethan. “I’ve been there, well, about eight years now.”

“Then you don’t know– it’s illegal to live out here now. Radiation zone, they’re calling it.”

“I– I haven’t seen any radiation.”

“You can’t see radiation.”

“But I never felt it or nothing. I mean, there are fish. Birds and snakes.”

The man snorted. “Best not tell them that, they’ll come root you out of your island. It’s been illegal for more than three years ago.”

Slowly, the gears of mathematics churned in my brain: how long had Ethan lived with me?

“You never told me that,” I said, turning to him.

He shrugged. “What do you think I was running away from? They wanted to register everyone, otherwise you’re not considered a citizen, don’t got no rights.”

I thought about this for a moment. “You said there was some sort of soldiers?”

“Couple, running around these parts.” He shrugged. “The Continental Army, sweeping through pretty often.”

“Another rebellion going on?”

He nodded. “I’m running guns to an encampment fifty miles up the coast. Stole some canisters of gas, so we have a few trucks making trips through roads where the army left alone.”

“We need a ride, if you can spare it.”

2415009055_0e4e6f2bfc_z                He gestured to the bed of his truck, where a pile of black guns lay. “You can ride back there. Got any way to repay me?” I rifled through the bag and tossed him a bottle of Oxycodone. He checked the label, then watched me, startled. “This stuff real?”

“Pretty real. Can we get a ride?” He nodded to his truck, and we gathered our blankets, stuffing them into a bag and hopping aboard.

*

                Five hours we bounced against his back windshield, metal guns sliding across the bed beneath us. Guns made me nervous, though the smugglers carried guns for protection; men would kill each other with these weapons, to claim sovereignty over land that was being slowly covered by the ocean. Their military encampment looked like a small village of pop-up campers and trailers shipwrecked on concrete blocks. The man driving us, his name Jaime, stepped out of the truck and approached a tent big enough for a circus show. A moment later, a stocky man with iron-gray buzzed hair stepped out, wearing shredded Army greens and old combat boots.

“You the stragglers he found on the road?”

“We’re on the way to Atlanta,” I explained.

“You don’t want to be traveling the roads. There’s a war going on.”

“But there’s always a war going on. Isn’t there someone to buy what we have to sell?”

“Sell? With what? What do you want? Food? Guns?”

“I don’t know,” I said, feeling incredibly naked in front of the men filing out of the tank. “Money.”

“What’s the use of money? Jaime says you live in a swamp.”

“‘Spose that’s true.”

“You live in a swamp, and you don’t know what’s happening.”

“It doesn’t matter, damn it. I just– I just–”

Another man spoke up. “He said you gave him medicine. What do you have?”

“I– I don’t have anything. Nothing I can give away for free, I mean.”

The Army guy grinned, knuckling the toe of his boot into the dirt. “You can’t just come into a rebel camp, say you got medicine, and not share it. Why would you want to go to Atlanta? That’s dangerous.”

“I have things to sell– more medicine. We’ve been living on an island, but we wanted– we thought–”

“No one to sell it to.” He paused. “I’m Bates, by the way. General Bates, if it please you. Commanding officer of this outfit for the Free States.”

I began to grow frustrated. I didn’t care about their petty rebellions and lurches for power, their killing and bombing and gassing. Once I sold the seeds and medicine, I could buy a new boat, return to my island. Get as far away from this disaster as possible.

“Alright, General Bates. Just point us in the right direction; we’ll be on our way.” I began to back away from the truck, eyeing Ethan, clutching the duffel bag tight to my chest. “Which way to Atlanta?”

“Told you, you don’t want to go near Atlanta, less you want to die. Whole place is devastated. That’s why we moved out to the coast, the Continental’s have closed in on us. And Atlanta– that was blown apart a year ago. Nothing left but radiation and a black hole in the ground.”

My grip on the bag loosened as his words sunk in– the war. Because of the war, there would be no one to shell out millions for seeds. We wouldn’t sell a thing, and everything we’d hoped for had been destroyed by a nuclear bomb twelve months before we began searching.

Submerged: Part Five

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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.”

“Sell them?”

“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.

Submerged: Part Four

{Start at the Beginning}

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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!”KXR_Centaur_swimming_storm_

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.

Submerged: Part Three

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{Part 1}

{Part 2}

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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.

*

2086

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.”

“Filling cement.”

“Cement cutter.”

“Cement hauler.”

“Top of the wall.”

“Crane duty. Danny’ll teach you. Just head over there.”

“Cement hauler.”

“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.

Submerged: Part Two

{Read Part One Here}

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“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.

tidal-marsh-on-roanoke-island-greg-reed

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.

*

2086

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?”

“Nowhere.”

“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.