The days are hot and the signs are hotter. Sun-baked shores are littered with shiny blue beer cans and the swollen red necks of men who haven’t held a fishing pole in years. Fishing is a sport for men’s men of course — which is why Miss Alana Mikel smiles out over the water with bleached pearly whites, immortalized on a forty foot poster. She’s larger than life, and it’s easy for wandering eyes to get lost in that bronzed skin, that raunchy teal bikini, those eyes like smoldering charcoal.
People think they like the beach, but what they really like is the idea of it: warm white sand, cold drink in hand, a horizon so vast that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’ve come from. Proud pictures of fishing trips long gone, a pretty blond boy is holding up a bass the size of his head. Beneath all that, the impossible murk of the open sea, and a hint of disapproval in a father’s stare.
When Miss Alana came for her photo-shoot the crowds doubled in an instant, swarming just beyond the acceptable distance, afraid to tread deeper. She lay in front of the surf, poised on her side like a prized marlin, fisherman’s net draped over a misty thigh. When she left, married men admired the sand that encrusted her contours. Everyone wanted to be with her, even the girls, but nobody wanted to be her. Maybe it’s pretentious to have a half-naked woman overlooking the ocean, but what isn’t these days?
In the blue distance her image on the board shimmers from noontime heat, out where rusted fishing boats hope for the best. Fishers grasp silver crosses and mutter prayers to the Goddess of the Bay. She’s got flesh that tempts the stoutest of believers. Confessions are at an all-time high.
Bless me Father for I have sinned.
It’s just that the way her neck curves, and that soft jawline, and that windblown hair — you get it don’t you Father? His silhouette on the other side of the latticework doesn’t seem as judgmental this time. But the Miss Alana that’s captured the hearts and groins of the salty town is the product of the best artwork Photoshop can produce. Need to fill out the hair more, lighten up that complexion, make those red lips really pop. The Miss Alana people love isn’t real. She doesn’t even exist anymore.
There’s an unspoken truth about the model on that billboard. One day she went missing, and the town didn’t lose a wink of sleep over it, as long as they could keep the poster up. Something about those eyes kept the foggy mornings from feeling too lonely. No one thinks about sending condolences to her family.
A white sailboat breaches the seam between sea and sky. On deck, a man with golden stubble drags a bag to the side, weighed down with ropes and stones. The city still sleeps, waiting out the brisk dawn for a strong summer’s day. No one hears the decisive plunk of cargo thrown overboard, sinking into untold depths.
What they don’t tell you is that mermaids are born of drowned corpses; of men’s selfish impulses. They wriggle out of artificial shells, with their clammy skin, and unseeing eyes. Cold fingers claw at an unfamiliar tail, letting out their mournful, seductive wails. Miss Alana’s lips tremble a siren’s song.
A rusted old speaker crows out a jaunty song. The captain is a stickler for old Earth junk. It’s a husky voice that soothes the crew, straddling the line between male and female, which suits them just fine. The ceiling shows a spattering of reddish clouds burdened with rain. Portholes in the floor offer glimpses of a foreign land: untapped expanses of dust and ice. S.S. Equinox brands the side of the ship.
Sub-surface probes continue to send back information that the circling armada have already known for years now: this planet was dead on arrival. It wasn’t long before mankind decided to leave its mark. The frame of a steel cage — grand in scale — floats idly around “New Earth”. The crew is bringing the final pieces of the puzzle, expected to make the drop tomorrow by standard time measurements.
As if to reflect the artificially constructed sky, a fine mist begins to spray from high up, prompting hoots and hollers from the excited crew members. Rainfall is a rare treat for spacefarers, a gift for another good job about to be finished. Men and women dance and slip about on the deck. Small moments of unadulterated humanity captured before a starry backdrop. They watch tiny droplets slither down the front window, distorting the view before disappearing down the side drains, and finally take refuge after being thoroughly soaked.
The next ‘morning’ finds the cargo shuttle drifting above the drop zone. Workers tethered to the landing platform hail the captain with a ready signal. With a slight nod to the operators, the bay doors open up, lowering a stack of reflective tiles onto the target area. The downward-facing mirrors are adorned with etchings of maple leaves that shimmer from yellow to red when the light strikes their surface just right. Arranged along the grid of the planetary cage, they might give the impression of a spherical stained-glass window.
From our front row seats, we watch over the processions alongside the rest of the fleet. Each square is put into place with painstaking precision, a job that takes months to complete. Linked up with the rest of the New Earth team in orbit, spaceships shine sunset tones from that testament to man’s technological ingenuity. The Equinox is just one of many there to witness the sight late in September, when the last piece makes the picture whole. An antique wooden table has been pushed right up to the viewing window, steeped in plates and napkins and apple spice scented candles.
The captain is waiting on a rehydrating turkey in the kitchen block, because this isn’t some damn luxury liner that can afford to keep a pen full of live birds. The other freeze-dried pastes, revived into a more palatable form, lie in wait in the kitchen as well. Some of us have stolen an olive or given a sidelong glance to the simmering dinner rolls, but otherwise we wait for the centerpiece to arrive fashionably late. When’s the last time we even thought of having an Earth-style dinner?
Our attention turns back to the ethereal beauty of New Earth, encased in ornate mirrors. From what we know, those suckers are going to slow-cook the surface for a good long while, like the poultry making our mouths water with its scent. We won’t even be here to see the shell cracked open, to reveal a lush new home with real oceans and forests for once. Silent Night soothes us from the frumpy radio speakers. Sure it’s a Christmas song, but we never hear any different the month before.
New Earth will still be a distant hope when we’re long gone. We knew that when we signed on for the job, but maybe it was worth it for the experience. The captain strides in with a rehydrated turkey piping hot from the oven. The steam fogs the glass, and for a moment we forget that we’re suspended in the middle of nowhere.
Nothing is quite as awe-inspiring as the soft rumble of thunder when wet snowflakes flock to the ground. It takes less than a minute for our footprints to be erased from the ground. A dazzling flash of lightning illuminates the scene for a scant second, travelers shadowed against the blinding white. Their own flashlights cut the thick air barely an inch in front of them; it’s fortunate that no one is falling behind. Not that it’ll matter in the end.
No amount of survival guides, or zombie handbooks, or bunkers full of emergency Twinkie rations could have prepared the masses for how the so-called zombie apocalypse started. It’s been 365 days since everything turned to ice. The dead just rose up quietly from their resting places, dusted themselves off, and went about their business as usual. Of course, media brought with it the idea that when dealing with zombies it should always be “shoot first, ask questions later”. Thankfully, their sudden undead-ness came with the perk of a bizarre immortality. Sure they had bullet holes to patch up, and blood to wash out of their clothes, but the zombies came out of it no worse for the wear, and it’s not like the clothes stopped being machine washable. Aim for the head no longer applied.
It killed the living, that their romantic notions of holing up in the dark ages with a shotgun and hordes of milk-eyed corpses out for blood was so swiftly destroyed. Well, that and the unending winter wonderland. We used to make those jokes about having Christmas in July, until it was clear that Christmas was going to keep up its generous donations of snow for a long time coming. That was back when suicide pacts started getting popular. But it didn’t seem to matter in the end, they all came back the same way. It almost felt planned, with the onset of the global ice age. Dead people don’t have to worry about freezing to death.
The weird thing is, the only other animals that came back were the crows. Clever bastards. Maybe the trees too, but who can really tell if there’s such a thing as a zombie tree. Destiny was trying to say this wasn’t the living man’s world anymore. That’s what was so frightening about being a breather — that’s what they started calling us — when the end of days came. Eventually we were going to run out of ways to make more food, and have to face the hard truth that no matter where we came from, we’d join the dead communities too. It was a sobering fact no matter how we crunched the numbers. For once it seemed like all of us were on equal footing.
I’m one of a handful of breathers left in North America, flanked by our undead brothers and sisters. There’s not much left to do other than shiver together, and think about whether or not we want to die naturally or by our own hands. Lauren’s a real patriot — white skin, red cheeks, blue lips. She sputtered to me the other night, in front of a low-burning fire. She said, “It’s not the dying that gets me, it’s knowing that’s not the end. It’s knowing we won’t get off this damned ball of ice.”
Then she shoved her gloves in so close to the fire I swore I could smell burning wool. Maybe there isn’t any room left in the afterlife, but I don’t tell her that.
Life, in a way, continues to go on just fine without our contributions. They really aren’t that dumb, no matter what the movies say. The people are coming up with new ways to deal with living in perpetual snow. They’ve started to build homes out of ice. Not igloos, full-blown homes. You can see through the walls a bit, and it gives everything a bluish hue. It’s just like those ice hotels in Russia, or wherever that was before. No one’s getting paid for it, they just build things to curb the boredom.
Maybe if the snow would let up for a day or two we’d be able to have ice roads going into other zombie towns. Even if it’s just as pale as everything else, I wouldn’t mind seeing the sky one more time before it’s my turn to die. The thought has only become more attractive as time’s dragged on. I can’t believe I’ve even made it a year alive.
I can vaguely see a handful of crows making a game out of sliding down the frameworks for a roof, cackling as they roll along. I wonder if zombies ever think to go sledding.
“Alright, Jesus, come on, get up.”
I jostle the rest of my merry crew. There are groans of protest and questioning looks thrown my way.
“It’s not going to get any better, right? We might as well do something fun before, you know…”
And maybe they’re moving just to get me off their backs. It hurts like hell to do anything other than sit, but they get up. Or maybe they just don’t want to think about their own impending funerals. As if, zombies did away with funeral culture months ago. With all the authority I can muster, I lead the few other breathers to a big hill on the side of town, and with a quick shout to follow my lead, I toss myself down it.
For a brief moment there’s nothing but the roar of the wind, and sprays of cold flinging off my body as it tumbles. My stomach is doing flips, and I’m gripped with sheer panic, but it’s the most fun I’ve had in the apocalypse. I’m trying to steal glimpses at the sky, but with everything spinning white it’s hard to be sure which way is up. Sure enough, as I’m gathering my bearings at the bottom, I can faintly hear the shuffle of others joining me. There are shocked laughs to either side, and I’m grinning like a moron.
I crawl over to the bodies flailing about in the snow, breathlessly calling for another round of sliding, and to my immense relief, we do it again. And again. And once more for good measure, until our legs are burning, and it seems like the world just won’t stop spinning. We stumble back into camp like a gaggle of drunken college students, collapsing in a circle around the pile of ashen wood. Tomorrow, I think. Tomorrow is the day I’ll end it; then I’ll let them know if the trip down is just as fun on the other side.
I’m just a plant, what do I know? I know that the cold is finally starting to melt away. I know that spring is the time when life begins anew. When I unfurl my young leaves and feel that bright warmth, I know I’ve made it just a little while longer. When I start to feel the dappled shade of a broadening canopy, I know I’m not the only one who has. A fresh green scent washes through the woods, the calling card of wounded grass. What is it this time: an errant caterpillar?
A purposeful lawnmower? Unfortunate fungal infection?
It makes me do a mental checklist for my own body — ensure that my stalk is unbent, that there are no holes chewed through my budding flowers. I want to be the one that keeps living, so I can expose my pollen to the clasping feet of butterflies and bees, so I can keep feeling the sun every year. I feel down into the dark soil to appraise every spindling root, tracing the shape of my buried treasure.
Caged within my thirsty fibers, a key has slept for many, many years. It is a brass key, dull and caked with mud. My fingers curl around the heart-shaped bow with care, encasing its blade in an organic sheath.
What the key goes to is of little consequence for me, but sitting hundreds of miles away on a termite-infested bookshelf its counterpart is forgotten under a blanket of dust, next to a forlorn stack of encyclopedias. It’s a lovely box that looks like it belongs in a renaissance painting instead of being shut away out of sight.
The keyhole is so gummed up that it can’t be unlocked anymore; although if someone were so inclined, a hammer would do the job just as well. Within the tarnished chest, a love poem lies in wait, mold creeping at the edges of the dead profession. Had it reached its intended audience, it would have read as such:
Here, in thawing days where people hold close
Their hands to their Hearts to stave off the cold
Mine dance over canvas — blank as your clothes —
I temper it with wild words, rich as gold.
Your dulcet tones are planted firm in me
Your distance, my Affection it nurtures
Oh! How your faint smile encourages glee
Your voice, kindling with heat like a brazier
(Lest it burn me to my tremulous core)
I must suffer awful isolation
Like glass I feel, before my sweet savior
Your touch, many needles filled with burden
Forgive me, my tears must blur the ground
Where in pieces by you I was found
The writer then, seeing no other option than to fulfill his own prophecies, hurriedly shut the mad song away, and jumped from a great height. At the end he felt nothing, save the split-second sensation of becoming pulp and broken bones. His body, uninterred, became food for hungry beasts, hands still stained with ink, grasping a shiny brass key.
If the subject of the poem had been able to read it, she surely would have wept at the strangeness of it all. To speak of love as a burden, and then end his life in short order. Perhaps she would have left the town that produced such an unstable mind, certain that her would-be lover did not understand her. Perhaps she did not even know who the anonymous admirer was, who so worshipped and feared her touch that it became his ruin. Or, perhaps, on the back of the poem she scribbled a single word that has faded with time: “why”.
As it is, I cannot speak to either of the affair. His lips are sealed, as are hers, and the key is tucked beneath me. I’m just a flower, what do I know of lovers?