I stare at the splintered sea glass, then look at Kate. “Do you prefer this?”
“Yes.” She laughs at me, mocks me.
“Give me a break. Like back then everything was gold. Remember Conner?”
I close my eyes, clutch at my collar. “Don’t.”
“Yeah. That’s what I fucking thought.” I listen to Kate walk away, hear her yell for Marcus. I keep my eyes shut, listen to the crashing torrent of the oceanbursts. The night pounds on my eyelids. I don’t want to see. Tomorrow will be worse. It always is.
“Come on, Ally!” Kate yelled gleefully. I smiled at her giddiness. Kate was vibrant, tingling, always about to fly apart in every direction. We could never do enough, be everywhere. It was all right. Seniors in high school were allowed to feel like that. The world wasn’t open to us—we weren’t going to be famous or rich. But we’d get out of the city, and we’d do it together. I ran after her, laughing. I always laughed with Kate. We raced to the beach, stripping as we went. Kate won, she always won, and she dove into the surf. I hesitated on the beach until she surfaced.
Then I jumped in after her, floated to the top of the water, weightless.
“All right, Ally! It’s your turn!” Kate yelled at me over the crashing waves. I nodded, and dove down, down to the dark suffocating underworld of the sea. I kicked at the water, fought to stay below. When I couldn’t stand it I exploded above, gasping. Kate swam to me, grabbed my hand.
“Well, what’d she say?”
I turned to her, smiling grandly. This was our make-believe game, our pretend treasure. Maya, our misty goddess, lived under the surf, deep down in a ghostly sea-city. She waited for people to swim down and ask for their future fortunes. Asking Maya for advice, our childhood game, had evolved into a sort of Magic 8 Ball event reserved for life-changing moments. Like when Kate had to decide which parent to live with. Or when I didn’t know whether or not to break up with James Briggs. Now we had to decide where to go after graduation. We preferred Maya’s decision to our guidance counselors’, and relied on it as the only true way to know what we wanted. I grabbed Kate’s shoulders and both of us bobbed wildly in the waves.
“She agreed with me. College in the Northwest it is,” I said.
Kate shoved me underwater, drowning me. I laughed my way back up.
“You’re such an asshole. Of course she told you to go where you want to go,” Kate began to swim away. “But as luck would have it, she told me the same thing. Northwest it is.” Kate disappeared in the water and I flipped on my back, lolling in the rhythm of the ocean. I stared into the sun until I saw black.
I shiver, pull my black jacket closer. I look for Kate.
“Jesus Christ, it’s freezing!”
I swivel quick, see Kate’s head as it bobs above the edge of the roof.
“You gonna give me a hand or what?” Her heart-shaped face breaks into a vicious grin as I inch closer.
“Did you get it?”
“Yes I fucking got it. Think I’d be here without it? And you think you’re the only stickler for ceremony.”
I help Kate clamber up. She leaps to her feet, slings an arm over my shoulder. With her other hand she pulls a small bag and a bottle out of her pack. It’s funny what has crossed over from before.
“Ahh. Truly glorious.” Kate takes a satisfied swig out of the bottle, gestures towards the ruined sky.
I follow her gaze. Our city smolders. I look across the roof of the building we’re on. Once upon a time it was a university. Now children infest it. If you can call them that. If you’d want to. The children keep to themselves, though they shouldn’t group together like this. It’s dangerous to be the number-one commodity, and even worse to be one so defenseless. Not my problem.
Kate slaps the bag into my palm, and I hold it up. The white inside is tinged with a sickly green hue, and I sigh.
“Is this coke?”
Kate looks at me, disgusted. “I don’t know, just snort it. What’s wrong with you lately?”
I remove a thin, long piece of cardboard from my pocket, tap a bump onto it. I judge its size, add a little, then tap another one next to it. The sun starts to come up now, razing orange slits through the tops of what used to be the skyline. Kate laughs and her voice sounds crumbled. I don’t ask why she laughs. I raise the cardboard and we both snort. After, Kate inhales deeply through her button nose. Wouldn’t want to waste what I’m sure is half rat poison, half salt. But I do it too, suck air in, and I feel the drip in my throat, am at least somewhat convinced that there’s a little cocaine left in this world.
“What’d you trade for it?” I ask, wipe my hand under my chapped nose. The back of my hand comes away bloody, and I slide it off on my jacket.
“Nothing we’ll miss. Couldn’t let our little ritual get fucked up just because of a lack of supply .”
I kneel, pick up the bag by my feet. Its weight comforts me.
“We can’t keep doing this.”
Kate laughs again, and the sound is arresting.
“What else are we gonna do?”
She’s right, and I can’t argue. Our tradition is completed, another year gone. I never thought we’d get stuck here. Three years ago we thought we had done our narcotic ritual for the last time. That was before the war, before the bio-weaponry got out of hand. They killed billions and left the survivors with this wasteland. The scene before me looks like some futuristic Romero movie, except instead of zombies we have human shadows, listless and despairing.
Kate hands me the bottle, collects our stuff. I gulp some down, and though it brings bright tears to my eyes, it warms me up. I cap the bottle, stash it in my bag, help Kate get everything. We walk to the ladder together, but Kate stops me.
“Look at it, Alison. You ever think it’d be ours?”
I look at the city, lit pink by a dying sun.
“No. But I guess it is.”
We jump off the bottom rung and I draw the bat from my bag. The bat is all I need—we aren’t going far. The city is an ash tomb by day. Swirls of grey snow rise with our footsteps, the neon advertisements muted by the silence of the city’s inhabitants. I look at Kate as she stops, cocks her head to listen. She thrives. Harshness meets harshness, finds a match in Kate. I try to imitate but I know she looks down on me. Me and Marcus. Kate cracks her neck, motions me forward. She has a knife today. Suits her.
I walk—never run—through the twisted desolate alleys. I hear a low scraping sound, drop to a knee. I hesitate, look around slowly, see nothing. I breathe in and the air is sharp in my lungs. I’m dizzy from the lack of oxygen in our air. In trying to kill our enemies we killed ourselves. Such a cliché. My vision breaks and I’m on the ground. Distantly I hear an elongated scrape. A muffled thud. Another. Then Kate’s lilting laugh jolted through with a crazed anger I recognize even through my fog. I feel her arms jerk me to my feet and her callused hand slaps me across my left cheekbone.
“Snap out of it Alison. You’re fucking embarrassing me.”
My vision clears. Kate stands close in front me. A small black lump lays at her feet. It moans faintly. She grimaces at me, baring teeth yellowed from pollution, gums cracked from low- quality drugs. I know mine are mirrors.
“You are so useless,” Kate kicks at the jumble. “Help me with this.”
I recover. Tuck my bat away, help her lift the light mass of bones and blood. We’re close now. Kate looks over her shoulder as we shuffle down the streets. We don’t keep to the shadows. No point. And she’s thinking, We have a bargaining chip, should it come to that. We shear a corner, both stop, lower the black shape. Kate runs, jumps, her short black hair ruffles slightly from her momentum. No wind to move it, not any more. The atmosphere is decayed, lost to the mushroom clouds. She stretches, grazes the bottom of the fire escape on the side of our building. Misses, crashes to the ground. I hear her teeth click, and I smile.
“Oh shut the fuck up. You do it then.”
I leap, catch the ladder, drop it with my weight. Kate and I struggle with the heap, and when it whimpers, Kate smashes it in the face. I don’t protest, ignore that twinge. We haul it up the stairs between us. Finally, our floor. I heave the door open, Kate tosses the child inside. It doesn’t whimper again. I drag it to our door. No locks. We enter to warmth. Marcus is sitting near a rancid blue-green fire. Burning what? He looks at us.
Seeing Marcus always relieves me. Marcus is the best of them. Of us. He stares at the broken child, then me. His light eyes, so like Kate’s, lock onto mine, questioning. I turn away, suddenly ashamed. Kate strides to Marcus, sits next to him on the rotted floor. She does not touch him.
“What the hell is that?” he asks.
Kate answers, “It’s food, Marcus. It’s drugs, Marcus. It’s alcohol, cigarettes, clothes, Marcus. It’s whatever you want it to be, Marcus.”
He ignores her. I look out the cracked window. Can’t meet his eyes.
We used to sit at the same table every Thursday night. Kate and I. Kate would flash out to everyone, a jewel of the dive bars. I’d sit and watch her roam, choosing different prey each night. It was Kate who introduced me to Conner. His name still tastes like burned fruit in my mouth. Perfection is hard to come by, especially when you’re a drunk virgin in your junior year.
The night we met, Kate was sloppy, her laughter laced with menace. She was often like that—Kate would have been a ruthless lawyer, or a high-strung banker, before. She would have torn people’s lives to pieces. Conner watched her silently, his eyes following her stumble around the table, spin her empty beer bottle on it.
“Come on guys, let’s play roulette.” She ran her fingers through her pixie cut—even before, Kate kept her hair short. “Lucky winner gets me falling drunk into their bed, terrible drunk sex, and a really awkward morning!” She laughed, but Conner didn’t. He reached out slowly and ensconced her small wrist in his hand. She sat down, hard, bit her lip.
I looked into Conner’s pale blue eyes. He grinned at me and let go of Kate’s wrist. We both stood to smoke a cigarette and outside the bar, we talked in his jeep. We left Kate inside. Between chain smoking and the lines that gave me an exquisite clarity, he told me about himself. His mother used to believe he’d be a painter, or an architect. He had loved creating things. When he was four, they had lived by the beach. His mother worked as a waitress in a bar near their house. She told him they would soon leave for a city, but Conner didn’t want to leave. He collected dozens of sugar-spun green seashells, saving each one to give to his father when he returned. Eventually Conner’s mother gave up, but each shell her son collected was an anvil on her heart. When they moved, she left the shells behind, and though Conner cried for days, she had never felt freer. Now she lay in her bed and refused to leave it.
I was entranced, enchanted. He split his heart open and I was engulfed in its bloody beating whispers. I drank it. Later though, when the flood stopped, there wasn’t much romantic about a boy with daddy issues that liked to shatter. But I loved him, and we would be together, the two of us, the three of us. If I showed up to Kate’s with blood filling the caverns between my gums and my cheeks, it was because I couldn’t fill the hole in him. Or in myself.
I stop remembering. I can’t remember. That is not me, I’m not there. I’m here, in this freezing room, with this toxic fire, with this crying child. Marcus goes to it. He removes its layers of filth until it quivers, naked, terrified. Marcus reaches for a blanket as Kate moves toward the child, hand at her pocket. She circles it, cocks her head like a raven. Marcus watches Kate, waits for her to make her move. Kate moves suddenly, and Marcus lashes out. He grabs her shoulder, slams her into the floor.
“Who are you, Kate? What happened to you?” He’s sobbing. “It’s a kid! Just a fucking little kid.”
I watch. The child screams weakly. Marcus begins to beat Kate. Kate won’t cry. She lets him. I gather the child, blanket it. It is not comforted. I hug it to me, move away. I hear Kate’s face rupture, her skin slaps the floor, sticks to it.
I walked into my apartment, still a little drunk. Conner was sitting at the table with a bottle of whiskey, waiting. I tried to straighten up, suck my cheeks in, breathe through my noise so he wouldn’t smell the alcohol. He smiled at me, and my heart beat painfully in my throat and ears.
“Where were you?”
I tried to smile. “I was with Kate. Just girl talk.”
Conner stared at me. I removed my scarf and jacket slowly, keeping my eyes on him. He spoke again in that same dead, flat voice.
“Well, sit down. Have a drink with me.”
“Oh, no, babe. I can’t. I have to get up early tomorrow and—” He picked up the bottle slowly, spinning it between his hands. I stopped talking and sat down. Conner leaned back in his chair and hooked two shot glasses in his fingers. He set them down solidly, poured us both a shot.
I breathed slowly, quietly, like I imagined a doll would. Conner pushed me my shot, and raised his hand in a toast. “To us, Alison. To our anniversary that you forgot.”
“Oh my god, babe, I’m so sorry, I—” I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten. I felt guilt and fear course through me in equal measures, knowing I deserved what came next, anticipating it with a fiery swill of adrenaline.
“Shh.” Conner shook his head, quieting me. “Take your shot. Celebrate with me.” I lifted my glass with him, closed my eyes and tilted the glass back against my mouth. Then the glass was in my mouth, slicing into my lips and gums. I sputtered, trying to tuck my tongue away. Conner removed his palm from the shot glass, let it slide down my chin and drop to my lap. I brought a finger to my lip, roving carefully to find the shards. I moaned softly. Conner stared.
“Conner,” I said, but couldn’t speak. My lips were shredded. He circled behind me.
“Tell Kate this is her fault,” he said.
“Wha?” I tried, but pressing my lips together made me cringe.
“She knew it was our anniversary. Stupid bitch knew. Still, you knew too.” Conner tipped my chair back, and I gripped the sides of my seat. Maybe it would end soon this time. Conner pushed me back, made to set me down, then with an astonishing thrust, brought my chair back crashing to the floor. I twisted to avoid hitting my neck on the cabinets behind me, caught my shoulder instead. I heard a distant snap and tried not to move. Conner stood over me, contemplating the mess before him.
“You sleep on the couch tonight, Alison. I’ll take you to the hospital in the morning, when your lips don’t look so fucked up.”
I managed a nod, and he left. When I was sure he was upstairs, I crawled to the couch in the living room. I couldn’t haul myself up, and when I tried, I passed out from pain.
He took me to the hospital, just like he promised, then brought me home, covered me with kisses, tucked me in. Told me to rest. I smiled and nodded. He’d never broken my bones before. When he went back to work, I snuck away. I took a taxi to Kate’s. It took me fifteen minutes to climb the two flights of stairs to her apartment. After I finally got my breath back, I rang the doorbell. The door opened, and Kate’s brother, Marcus, stared at me.
“Uhm, hey. Is Kate here?” I managed.
“She’ll be back in a minute,” he replied, staring at my bruised face. “Come on in.”
We sat on her couch in silence. He clearly wanted to ask me, and I clearly wasn’t going to answer his unspoken questions. Time slowed. Finally, he reached out and brushed my lower lip with his thumb. I tried not to cry.
The door banged open and Kate blew in, arms full. Marcus and I froze and Kate took a step back, then laughed.
She rolled her eyes at us. I followed her to her room and shut the door.
“Nice sling. This is the last time, Ally. You two are fucking poison.” I nodded, knew she was right. She paced her room, stopped suddenly. “If you don’t end things, I will.”
I think about this as I rock the child. What was before was potential. I hear Marcus killing Kate. I hear Kate scream, finally scream, for me. Then, silence. I rock the child. The child does not cry anymore. I look down, wonder. Marcus comes for me. I look up at him, the child in my arms. He reaches down. Gentle. He lifts me up slowly, we move for the door. I don’t look at Kate. We creep down the stairs. I want to ask but I don’t. We are three shambles. Marcus takes the child. He carries it close to him, extends one hand to me. I take it. We walk. Three offer us sex for the child. Five will give us food—real food, untainted by the fallout, grown underground. One brandishes four cigarettes as equal trade. Marcus refuses them all. We can’t keep doing this. The child does not speak. It might be dead. I hope not. I hope.
We reach the outskirts. The sun goes down in a purple-black mist. Maybe today is its last. Marcus and I sit, watch. The child stands next to Marcus, afraid to breathe. I pull her into my lap. She cries for a moment, hiccups, sleeps.
“Marcus.” My voice scares me. Marcus slides closer. “Now what?” I whisper.
Marcus shakes his head. “She was happier, after. It let her be who she was all along,” Marcus takes me face in his hands. He looks at the child, strokes her hair. “We can never let that happen to us.”
I whisper, “I’m sorry,” hang my head. Marcus says nothing. We left Kate inside. I take his hand.
“It’s better this way,” I try. Marcus nods, doesn’t look at me.
“We’ll figure out something in the morning, Alison.”
We slid from her car, and I blew hot air into my hands, trying to stay warm.
“Here.” Kate handed me a bottle of whiskey. “Go crazy, I have another bottle under the seat.”
I took a swig, eyed Kate with concern. “Are you okay?”
She stayed silent, smoked. I shrugged, turned away, took another sip. The whiskey flowed through my body, settled behind my ears. I chanced another look at her. Kate had opened her coat, letting the wind caress her. Her eyes were closed, and she started walking towards the sea.
“Hey! Don’t you want any of this?” I shook the bottle at her. She didn’t even look at me. I stood back for a moment, then made my way to her. She stopped at the water’s edge and put out her cigarette. We looked out.
“Kate, what’s wrong?” I whispered, scared. She started to take her shoes off. I looked over the sea, at its freezing depths. She continued to strip until she was completely naked. I took in her bruised body. The moon lit up a pattern of yellow-green and black stains that snaked around her torso, across her breasts, down her thighs. She looked over her shoulder at me and grinned.
“Think you’re the only one he loves?” She stumbled and nearly fell. I reached out instinctively to stop her but she brushed me off and slipped into the water. She stayed down a long time. I didn’t go in after her. She was talking to Maya. I waited. She finally broke surface and crawled out of the sea, the water clinging to her with sluicing tendrils. She worked her way into her clothes, the dry material grating on her chilled skin. I didn’t look at her as she sat down next to me, snuggled into the sand.
“Well.” I handed her the bottle. “What’d she say?”
Kate took the bottle, rolled the whiskey around her mouth before she swallowed it. “She said none of it matters. Something else will happen, and none of this will matter.”
I nodded, staring towards the sky. “She’s never been wrong.”
Eventually I stood up. “Let’s go.” Kate got to her feet, and we walked to the jeep. She threw me the keys and I caught them, liked the cold scrape against my hand. We drove, saw the gray-rose light of dawn.
“Going to my place, huh? Probably not to spend more time with me, though. Want to see your savior, I guess.”
I sighed. “He wasn’t my savior, Kate.” I parked near the entrance, and we both got out. I looked at her, shocked by how excruciating it was between us now. “You were.”
“If you’re expecting an apology, you’ll be here for awhile.” Kate stubbed her cigarette out on her car and I sighed.
“I’m not expecting anything, Kate.”
“Good. I’m not sorry. You took the only thing I really wanted.”
I shrugged. Probably it was true. We stumped up the stairs and I let myself in with my key. Marcus was passed out in front of the television. I smiled. Even at that moment, Marcus made me smile. Kate saw me, shook her head in disbelief.
“I fucking hope Maya’s right. Anything is better than this shit.” She stared out the patio door.
I said nothing, just sat by Marcus, who stirred.
“Hey, baby.” He yawned and huddled under his blanket. I smiled again.
Kate stumbled back into the coffee table. I glanced up and she stared at us, frightened. I’d never seen her look like that in my life.
She shook her head, tears in her eyes. “Nothing.”
She turned away from us, looked out the canvass window behind her. Then she spoke, and her voice shook.
“Look at the sky.”
We leave the city. The child doesn’t cry much anymore. She doesn’t talk, either, but we’ll work on it. We walk for four days before I ask where we’re going. Marcus shakes his head.
“Anywhere. Anywhere but here.”
I accept that. We walk south, towards tomorrow.