Steve's Online Fiction

THE COMMON SEA 

"I feel we are all islands - in a common sea." Anne Morrow Lindbergh

 

      His oldest memories were peeks into another world, its cities crumbling into an alien sea, strange plants dying under intense heat, entire animal species going extinct. He never could decide if these revelations were current, or delayed because of transmission time. Either way, what was he to do about it? There was nothing he could do.

     Tom had struggled with these messages--without context or identifying information--since childhood, or before. Did a fetus dream? No one seemed to know for sure. When he told his parents they promised these were just nightmares which would go away in time. They hadn't, but over the years he'd become less emotionally engaged. He never understood the point of them. Were they warnings, or complaints? And how could he care about who he couldn't possibly know or understand?

     But then as the seas on his own world continued to rise, and coastal areas drowned, as forest land burned and record droughts deadened the land, he became increasingly anxious about these images of another world. The messages--if that's what they were--intensified.

     Their small house clinging to existence above the spreading Atlantic tide felt brutally insignificant beneath the vast sea of stars. But still Tom looked up almost every night, and wondered if one of those flickering lights--the ones who appeared to be asking for attention--was the source of his visions, even though he knew well enough the flickering had more to do with earth's atmosphere than some attempt at communication.

     Some nights he would help his wife Jenny out to the back deck of the house and they would sit there together. It was beautiful: below them the waters flooding the neighborhood and above them a universe of possibilities. Off in the distance the lights were out in the flood-isolated towers of downtown Miami, except for a few fires on the upper floors set by squatters.

    Downtown Miami had become the new Florida Keys, and only the desperate lived there. He understood that was a terrible thing, but rich people had the option to move, and almost all of them had. But for poor people out in these suburbs, with the sea pouring out of the sewers joining the sea spreading north and east across the peninsula, what did they get? The reduced light pollution gave them a better view of the stars. At least it was something.

     "Your dad liked the stars, didn't he? He taught you their names." Jenny gazed up from the faded vinyl lawn chair. She almost never stood anymore.

     "He did. The lion, the archer, the peacock, the swordfish, all of them."

     "Have we heard from them yet? Have they talked to us?"

     She looked so earnest with her face tilted up, like a child. And if he hadn't known about her dementia the question might have seemed a little odd. "I don't think so, but I believe we're still listening, if they haven't cut the funding by now. We've been listening a long time."

     "Ha! You're a good listener. They should talk to you."

     As he always did, he examined her face for some signs of insight, but there was just that faraway look, as if she were gazing at something past him, miles away. He"'d never told her, or anyone, about his visions, for fear she might think him crazy. And he certainly couldn't tell her now, not in her state. "You think I should volunteer? Leave retirement and join the SETI project?"

     "No! You need to stay home with me and watch the stars. Why don't you ask your dad to come out and watch the stars with us? He would like that."

     "No, Jenny. Remember, Dad died years ago, right after he raised this house."

     Jenny laughed. "That's right. We live in a house on stilts! Like a tree house without the tree!"

     His dad had been the first in their neighborhood to erect pilings and move their house on top of them. They had just enough advance warning, and the state had allowed it. A lot of others followed suit. "In this neighborhood either your house is up high or it's under water and you're not living in it."

     "Oh, I would hate that. Promise you won't make me live underwater!"

     "I promise. We're living right here as long as we can."

     They'd been married a very long time, through a lot of good times, and now through these bad times. When they'd met she'd been smart and warm and beautiful and he couldn't quite get over the fact that she'd chosen him. She was still warm, when the confusion didn't make her cranky, and she would always be beautiful as far as he was concerned. And he liked to think she was still smart--she just couldn't communicate that anymore. She seemed further away from him every day. He had begun to realize he was preparing himself for when she wouldn't be there at all.

      And that other planet seemed so much closer. The fire and the shadow and the smell of it had crossed over into his world. When he first woke up that morning he hadn't been sure where he was.

      The wind gusted harder and soon it would be too cold for them outside. Dark clouds now obscured half the stars. Inky waves churned against the pilings of nearby homes, the chained boats and floating utility buildings clapping against each other. One of the neighbors was closing his shutters, and then stopped to wave and gesture toward the dark band of the horizon. A storm hadn't been predicted, but the forecasts weren't always accurate in this part of Florida, and the tide predictions increasingly unreliable.

     "So do we live on a boat now? Did you move me onto a boat and didn't tell me?"

     "No, Jenny. We still live in a house. The same house Dad built." It was a conversation they had almost every day.

     "But I heard the waves! I could feel myself rocking!"

     "We're having a little wind. We may have a little storm. We're going inside now."  

     After he got Jenny into bed with a kiss and a promise to return, he went around closing shutters and checking seals. His wrists, fingers, and knees were sore from arthritis, so sometimes it was a struggle. He walked over to Debbie's room and knocked, then let himself in. His small grandson Charlie sat on the floor eating some kind of sweet. Tom resisted the urge to snatch it away. Baby Charlie's gums were bleeding, mixing with the melting candy into a pinkish drool at one corner of his mouth.

     His daughter was sitting on the bed eating the same candy, reading. The small video player he'd given her chattered softly from her bookshelf, like little people trapped in a glass jar. The waste of electricity annoyed him, but it kept her company. They didn't own a TV, although Debbie had asked for one. Tom was still thinking about it, afraid it would let too much of the world into their temporarily safe place. "That's not helping his gums," he said.

     She looked up and smiled sadly. "It makes him feel better."

     "Looks like a storm coming. I'm going to close your shutters, and you'll need to shut off your lights and the player. We're running a little low on power--too many cloudy days I guess. You can still use your lantern to read--if the weather's okay I have to make a Dock run tomorrow. I'll get more batteries. You'll need to watch your mother."

     "I really want to go. We should all go. Mom hasn't been out in ages."

     "I can't take your mother--she gets too confused. You don't understand what people are like anymore. They're scared, and they take advantage. It's too crowded and too dangerous. Sometime I'll hire somebody to watch her and I'"ll take you and Charlie to the clinic. You'll see the Dock from there--you'll see how bad it gets."

     "Charlie's okay. He hates the clinic--you wait forever."

     "He looks a little underweight, don't you think?"

     She gazed at the baby appraisingly. "He's okay, Dad. You worry too much. We're all a little underweight these days."

     She'd been crying, but it might have been the book she was reading. He kissed her on the head and busied himself securing the shutters. He paused on his way out and stroked Charlie on the head. "Charlie, goodnight," but the child was preoccupied and seemed unaware of his presence. His grandson hadn't started talking yet, and was always so inattentive. It was worrisome.

     He had an old cell phone which he checked every night for weather and key news items, scientific developments, sea rise along the coasts, conditions overseas, especially around the Indian Ocean. He still got spotty reception, and practically no reception where there'd been the most flooding. The cellular infrastructure in this part of Florida had a few holes.

     Jenny was half asleep when he crawled into bed, but she curled up against him and he put his arm around her and held her close. He stared at the ceiling. The wind whistled through minute flaws in the shutters. The room swayed slightly under the force of wind and water, and creaked like an old wooden boat, and smelled--faintly of sickness, more strongly of water-logged timbers, with traces of an earthy sewer scent. Of course they didn't drink the sea water, but they had to live on top of it, and sometimes wash their clothes in it. Everyone in the family suffered from one rash or another, particularly in the summer.

     The dark ceiling began to curl away in waves, rolling back until he was looking into that other world again, with its ocean black from all the storms that filled its skies. Warm waters fed a violent convergence of winds as the swollen clouds gathered into one unending turning of firmament. The ocean lifted and spread and all those souls had nowhere to go.

 

     Jenny's sobs woke him up the next morning. "You promised we'd visit the Everglades! You promise that every week but then the weekend comes and we never go!"

     He pulled her into his arms and said, "I'm Tom, sweetheart. Your parents aren't with us anymore." He thought about how the Everglades weren't with them anymore, either, but chose not to say that. Most of that area had disintegrated, dissolved into the new boundaries of the ocean.

     He'd overslept--the sun was already high enough to be uncomfortable. After Jenny went back to sleep he went around the house looking for damage and opening shutters to let the air in. Both Debbie and Charlie were sound asleep, curled together like a mama dog and her pup. Out on the deck some trash had blown in, and the vinyl chairs tied to the railing a bit more beat up, but nothing major. His next door neighbor appeared to have lost half a shutter and a window screen. Tom climbed the ladder to inspect the roof. The solar panels were old and beat, but the only cracks were in the one he already had to replace. There was a large, flat pile of twigs and trash near one corner of that panel which he'd get to with a broom later, but then he heard it rustling, and a pelican popped its head over the edge and stared at him, then stood up. A thick wire, maybe a piece of coat hanger, dangled out of a tear in its throat pouch, the other end digging into its neck, aggravating a blood-encrusted wound. Tom started up the ladder toward it but it made a screeching, distressed sound, flapping its wings.

     Tom stopped. "It's okay. I'm staying right here." He watched as the damaged bird settled awkwardly back into its nest, stretching out both neck and beak in an apparent attempt to not hurt itself further. Tom could see now that the nest actually had very few branches or twigs--it was mostly bits of plastic, tiny twists of metal, some mud-stiffened cloth and other rubbish. He wasn't sure what he would do--leave it probably, until it died or abandoned the nest on its own.

     Debbie was waiting for him when he got off the ladder. "Are you still going to the Dock?"

     "I have to. We're running low on groceries, bottled water, and I need to drop off those recyclables."

     "Could you pick up more of Charlie's medicine? He's almost out. I thought I'd try some crossword puzzles with Mom while you're gone. She used to like those, didn't she?"

     "She did. I don't know--don't set your expectations too high."

     "Maybe it'll get her to focus, just trying. At least that's what I thought."

     "Of course. When she wakes up, well, just make sure she understands I'm coming back."

     Access to the water was down a staircase from a converted utility closet at the front of the house. A steel hatch covered the opening, secured with a metal bar and four heavy-duty sliding bolts. Debbie locked the hatch back down once he was in the staircase. She'd never quite appreciated the need for security, but she always did as he asked. She also knew where he kept the shotgun and how to use it.

     Double-chained to the bottom of the stairs was their outboard-powered dinghy and a floating outhouse--an enclosed composting toilet the state emptied once a month. Tom took the boat out slowly between the houses into a lane of water marked with state-installed yellow buoys moored every hundred yards or so. In some places the lane was marked with old wooden utility poles. Florida--with millions already crammed into hastily-built housing--allowed the flooded communities to remain, but maintenance was up to them. After two anxious years as power, transportation, and sanitation were worked out, things had settled down into a difficult, but more or less predictable routine. Except sometimes you had to pull somebody"s couch, or bloated cow, or piece of roof out of the right of way. He kept a pole with a hook attached in the dinghy for that very purpose.

The alligators were mostly gone, victims of the massive increase in salt water. In the early days of the flood many had migrated north only to be shot for food. Tom hadn't seen one in years. A number of species of bird, fish, and plant life were also missing from Florida's new world.

     Still, there was something peaceful and ethereal about this monthly voyage inland for supplies. The water was rarely crowded, but the path long and meandering to avoid sunken trees and buildings and other underwater hazards. The water lane often couldn't follow where the roads used to go. Houses and commercial buildings often came right up to the street, so there were quite a few obstacles in those regions. Sometimes a path over a series of submerged back yards was a safer route, or where there had been an open field or parking lots. And sometimes a sunken forest had to be avoided entirely. In some areas near the marked path signs attached to buoys or poles declared "Hazardous Waters!" Some of these were state-authorized and official-looking; others were hand-lettered on battered bits of plywood. Tom knew that people got tired of the meander and took short-cuts off the marked path. He imagined these warnings were a result.

     Along the way Tom passed people sitting in their anchored vessels, fish lines in the water. A few had nodded off. He'd heard of people successfully fishing the area, but not often, and he wasn't sure he'd ever seen a catch. He'd certainly had no luck. Many fish species had moved. He supposed in a hundred years or so some marine life will have adapted to the new environment, nesting in somebody's drowned living room, bedroom, or undersea kitchen.

     He would encounter other boats coming to an intersection. He always said something, smiled and waved. Friendliness might protect him. Most folks smiled back, but some pretended he wasn't there. On this trip an old fellow in an especially battered flatboat hailed him and came alongside. "Have you ever seen anything like this?" He held a large, full-bodied insect in his outstretched hand. It had an enormous head and shiny, reddish-brown coloration. The old man trapped its forelegs between two trembling fingers.

     "I've never seen anything like it," Tom admitted. "I don't think it's native to this part of Florida."

     "Not from these parts." The old man grinned. "I reckoned it's alien. You agree it's alien, then?"

     "It might be from another state," Tom said, somewhat uncomfortable. "When things are disrupted, new species come in."

     "Well, just thought I'd check. "New Species," then, is what I'll be calling it."

     Some communities along the way--so vaguely recalled Tom thought it possible they might have actually been fictional, existing only in some book he'd read or movie he'"d seen--had disappeared entirely beneath the waves. Sometimes an hour would pass before he'd see another group of houses raised on pilings or perched precariously on stacks of debris. Bit by bit the world had floated further away, and in the gaps he would see more pieces of that other planet: low resolution images of the crowds too fuzzy to know whether they were humanoid, but so consumed by their panic he could feel that emotional tide over the incalculable distance.

     On some trips the sea stank from the beautifully iridescent, but malodorous islands of algal bloom, and the surrounding water was an impenetrable dark terre verte soup. On other days the water was miraculously clear, so that he could see the outlines of streets below, the corroding metal light posts, and the dead gray fields, houses slowly dissolving upward, as if he were part of some sunken neighborhood's dream.

     The Dock was a sprawl of floating barges and connected platforms attached to a spit of land below the old I-75, Alligator Alley road, on what remained of the Miccosukee Indian reservation. The tribe ran the Dock, leasing a portion to select parties willing to keep the prices reasonable. It was a chaotic, but colorful place, and sold almost everything they needed. But Tom had never felt at ease in that crowd of people who had lost so much, and the journey was exhausting, requiring hours roundtrip.

     When his dad was in an expansive mood he would talk about "floating cities." He had been convinced that was the future for Florida. Great floating concrete platforms with domed neighborhoods, solar and wind power, and sustainable aquaculture. Originally his dad planned to reconstruct their house on a barge. But it would have cost more money than he had, and he was worried about how it might withstand future storms.     Tom experienced a sudden flash of that other ocean, uncontrollable crowds grabbing on to anything they could, and floating platforms unmoored and breaking apart, their occupants tumbling into the agitated waves. But he had errands to run, things they needed and could not do without.

     He pulled up to a long dock alongside a few dozen other boats and tied on to a cleat. He gave a few coins to one of the native kids to watch his boat. A few times he'd seen one of these kids aggressively defending the vessel he'd been guarding from strangers who got too close. When Tom returned he usually gave the child his recycling as a bonus.

     Tom slipped on his biomask, although many adults at the Dock didn't wear them, even though they insisted on them for their kids. Almost every trip he'd see a mother or father, maskless, yelling at their child to put the mask back on. The native kids who guarded the boats never wore them.

     Kids were everywhere, running down the aisles dividing vendors. The Dock always looked overloaded and precarious. But unlike his visions of that other world everyone here appeared to be having a good time, celebrating a break from their water-bound residences. It was a carnival atmosphere with goods stacked under canvas awnings and hanging from 2by4s and clotheslines strung overhead.

     But although it was good to see other people going on with their lives Tom could never feel quite comfortable here. He wasn't always aware of it at home, but here in the middle of all this energy he felt as if he'"d been aging rapidly. His eyes were noticeably weaker--he had to squint to read the labels on things or ask the vendors to read them for him. And he couldn't quite negotiate the pace here--the excitement and the rushing felt alien. Everywhere he looked there were mirrors, and it seemed he looked older in each one--a ghost, pale as a sheet, and smaller than he remembered. He no longer maneuvered well, and felt fragile every time a younger, healthier looking person bumped into him. His arthritis had so progressed he was now forced to live in a much smaller, less flexible space inside his own body.

     The Dock still received its electricity from the utility grid, which they used so flagrantly it alarmed him. Flashing Christmas tree lights were strung everywhere: defining the perimeters of each booth, supporting signs overhead, encircling particular product displays. There were always a large number of flat-screen TVs blaring, some with news, some with music videos, and some with the latest TV shows. He assumed the excess was purposeful, meant to suggest a kind of luxuriousness for customers no longer used to that at home. If you were so inclined you could follow a pathway of these lights further inland to a 24-hour casino, built to replace the one in Miami which was now under water.

     "What's this one about?" he asked the young woman standing next to him. She"d been watching intently. On the screen four young men in cat costumes were running across the street.

     "It's four brothers. They dress up as different animals each week and ask women on dates. It's a comedy."

     "Do the women ever say yes?"

     "Almost never, but the brothers keep trying."

     He watched for a few minutes. The action was so frenetic he had to look away. "Are there any comedies set in south Florida?"

     She looked at him strangely. "Of course not."

     He found another screen where he could catch up on the news. It was rarely a pleasant activity, but he saw it as a kind of duty. They were making another attempt to rebuild the coastal areas of New Jersey. Much of Georgia's forest land was in flames, which explained the smokiness in the air that past week. And then some disturbingly familiar video footage: buildings crumbling into the water, a frantic population racing for higher ground, desperate rescue attempts as indistinct figures were swept out to sea, a parade of countless immigrants--their homes obliterated or submerged--packing themselves into an already overcrowded city. The banner beneath these images declared: The Tragedy of Bangladesh, and An Entire Population on the Move, and The Death of a Nation, and Millions Starving in Dhaka. A flat, low-lying country at the foot of the Himalayas, and the people had absolutely no where to go.

     All the screens were now showing images of Bangladesh. The Final Hours. A Continent Lost. The floor rocked as people moved and gathered near the screens. But not everyone, of course. Some moved as far away as possible and continued their shopping.

     Tom couldn't escape the images. Every glimpse resonated with the phantasmagoria of destruction he had been seeing all of his life. He became confused. A huge wave appeared to engulf the Dock. People were screaming as they were swept away. But then they were moving around as if nothing had happened, completely dry, and laughing again.

     Tom walked away and found a small bench near the water. He'd get what he needed and get out of there. He was running out of time. Some days the best you could do was to get the things on your Get List, do the things on your Do list, kiss your family and try to get a good night's sleep before the next dawn, when you'd start the process all over again.

     Near the shore a section of water had been roped off for children. A few kids were splashing around in these giant inflatable rubber ducks. You could buy them here in a variety of bright colors--he'd seen them tied to pilings in his own neighborhood. But there was something sad about so few children playing in that relatively large swimming area, and those that were wearing biomasks which practically swallowed their small faces.

     A few yards across the water the Bar Barge tipped scarily from the large number of customers crammed onto the deck. There were no chairs or tables--it was standing room only all the time. At one point or other one side of the barge would dip beneath the surface and the drinkers would clap and cheer and stomp their feet to make as large a splash as possible. Some dressed for the occasion in swimming trunks and oversized rubber boots. Periodically the bartenders ordered a certain portion of the rowdy customers to move to another side for balancing purposes. The chosen would cooperate by raising their hands in the air, drinks spilling everywhere as they shouted in unison "Move, move, move, move!" and danced in the indicated direction. People did fall in from time to time, but there were always those ready to pull them out.

     Tom was running dangerously late. He got up, paid a few coins to rent a cart, and began to collect his goods as quickly as possible. Although a few shops had closed down or moved, most kept the same location. Three cases of bottled water and groceries went quickly into the cart, a spare can of gas for the boat, a box of generic batteries, clothes for the baby of approximately the right size, a stack of the used science fiction paperbacks Debbie liked to read, all of it on his orange social security Pay Card. The solar vendor was out of the proper replacement panel but reluctantly agreed to order one special to be picked up next month. He insisted on charging Tom's card in advance. Tom held his breath but thankfully the charge went through.

     The afternoon light was running out as he pushed past the lines waiting for the games and the food hawkers and headed up the spit toward the clinic. As usual lines ran out the door but there was only a small wait at the pharmacy window.

     On his way back to his dinghy he glanced at the pale rubble along the shore marked with a Free sign. A few men were lifting some of the larger pieces into a cart, discussing what they could build with these. It was fragmented coral, tons of it, bleached and dead and scraped off the reefs by the storms and eventually deposited here. He wanted nothing to do with the stuff, thinking, it would be like building with bones.

 

     Tom knew he was in trouble about an hour after leaving the Dock. He'd been stupid, but there was nothing to do but push on. Night had fallen swiftly, and a dense bank of clouds hid the moon. A few buoys had battery-operated lights, but most of these were near the Dock. The further southeast you got, the more basic the marking of the waterway. Yellow buoys and yellow poles a hundred yards and more apart, and many of these were badly in need of a new coat of paint. Miss one and you were in trouble. Miss a few and he had no idea what you were supposed to do. He'd never heard of anyone trying the route at night except for the occasional drunk, and those excursions usually ended badly.

     He had a spotlight--it came in handy when the skies were gray--but he'd never had to rely on it this much. Another half hour and it began to noticeably dim. With a lot of back and forth movement of the boat he was able to use it to find the next buoy. If he remembered correctly there was a bend in the route a short distance ahead, marked at its apex by a painted utility pole.

     He could never find it. The spotlight didn't reach far enough. Thinking new batteries would give him further range, he got up and moved to the front of the dinghy and started rummaging through bags. He found the box of batteries he'd just bought and turned to go back to the outboard and the spotlight when the boat hit something and twisted violently. He went sprawling forward. The box went high, and over the side into the sea. He scrambled and groped around in the water, but it was gone.

     A few minutes later the spotlight flickered and died. He shook it; it flickered once, but died again. At that point he decided to sit and allow his eyes to adjust.  There were a few stars visible, but his knowledge didn't go much further than possibly naming them. He certainly didn't know how to navigate by them. But if the clouds were to move, then perhaps he'd have enough moonlight to find his way.

     He took out his old cellphone. He could have used it at the Dock, but here there was no signal. The screen glowed, but that was about it. He held it high overhead and turned it. He saw what he'd hit--a dead animal of some kind, but torn and swollen so badly it was impossible to identify. He turned the phone off and sat looking around.

     He could just sit there until dawn. It would get cold, and his arthritis would hurt like hell, but he could survive it. But he thought about Jenny, and Debbie there watching her with the baby, and it felt unacceptable. Jenny might go completely out of her head and they might never get her back. He couldn't sit out there all night thinking about that.

     He stared in what he thought was the direction of home. And there, well above the water, a faint flicker. One of those fires in the towers at Miami Beach. He'd heard they sometimes set entire floors on fire. If they set a whole building on fire that might be good for him right now. He couldn't exactly navigate by that flicker, not with all those turns, but at least he knew he was going in generally the right direction.

     He tried to imagine the route from somewhere near that last buoy to home. He'd made the trip dozens of times but he'd never tried to memorize it. Some people had made their own little maps, he knew, but he'd never imagined he would need one. A map would be of limited use in the dark anyway.

     He started the motor and glided slowly forward. Now and then he would turn on the cell phone again and hold it up. When he saw that he was quite close to some trees above the waterline he knew he was well off course. He turned at a right angle and hoped that would eventually take him back onto the marked path. His dad used to have a compass. He wondered where that was. He'd never learned to use a compass. He wondered if a compass would have even helped.

     At one point the boat scraped something along the bottom. He turned on the cell phone again and looked down. It was a church steeple just under the surface. If he reached down as far as he could he probably could have touched the bent top of the cross. He made another ninety degree turn, moving as slowly as possible. He wondered if there might be dead people inside the church. Supposedly most people had time to evacuate, but there were always stubborn people, and people who were both stubborn and stupid.

     He began to get anxious. That wasn't a good thing, and he tried to get better control over his breathing. But he kept thinking about Jenny, and how much time they might have left together, and Debbie, whether she could handle this, if he had taught her enough, and Charlie, who had something wrong with him Tom was sure, but he didn't know what. And dying out here in the flood, which was a stupid, stupid thing.

     "There was ship," he said out loud. "He holds him with his glittering eye." What was that? The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Coleridge. He'd memorized it once for school. He remembered the story, but he couldn't remember the words.

     "There was a ship," he said out loud again, a little embarrassed that someone might hear him. But wasn't that what he wanted? But even if he was on the right path, who would be out there to hear him?

     He turned on the cell phone again and held it up. "His glittering eye!" he shouted. At least the water looked smooth, with no immediate signs of debris. And that faint flicker was there ahead of him still. And the moon was still behind the clouds.

     His anxiety had not subsided. He could hear his heart beating in his ears. He wondered if he would have a heart attack just like his dad, if that would be how he died.

     To distract himself he searched for more lines from the poem. "The ship drove fast!" And foolishly he increased speed. "Loud roared the blast!" And he hit something again, and he thought his chest would explode. He immediately cut the engine.

     He powered up and raised the cell phone. Another dead animal, far larger than the last, but still completely unidentifiable. It appeared to have multiple fins around a long neck, a triangular-shaped head, like a snake but much bigger. But he couldn't really be sure if that was a head. In fact it was highly likely it wasn't, because what had a head that size? Decomposition could morph a body in strange ways.

     He looked around. The sky had lightened slightly. It had a reddish tinge. But it was far too early for dawn. He let his eyes adjust to the shifting light. The sea was black, and slightly oily in appearance. He looked up to find the stars again, and they were clearly the wrong stars.

     It grew wondrous cold. That's what the Mariner had said. And as a boy Tom had liked that line very much, because he'd never heard the word wondrous before.

     The sky above him began to turn, and the sky quickly became so red it looked to be on fire. And Tom knew he was seeing that other world again, but this time it was all around him, and he was living inside it.

     Something landed in the front of the boat. Something wondrous. Tom stared. It was the pelican he had seen that morning, the section of coat hanger still protruding from that hole in its throat pouch. It stared at him with one glittering eye, the other in deep shadow. And screeched.

     A foul smell arose, permeating the air. At first Tom thought it was the bird, maybe something it held in its mouth. Then he thought it might be another algal bloom, because the stench was something similar. The water around him did appear sleek and shiny. Or maybe slimy. Slimy things did crawl with legs upon the slimy sea. More dead shapes, turning and turning in the roiling sea, and for a moment he thought they might be dead alligators, brought up from wherever the salty sea had hidden their bodies, but they had these legs and these arms and these loose expressions on their dead faces.

     Tom heard a loud wailing, a shuddering cry, and his hands went to his face and it seemed his hands recognized it before he did, that he was the one making that sound, although he'd heard it before in dreams and visions, and that very afternoon on those screens broadcasting the death of millions in Bangladesh.

     This dark water could have been the Indian Ocean. In the darkness he could have been floating in the Indian Ocean, or the Gulf of Mexico, or that dark ocean on that other world he'd witnessed as long as he could remember. Or the waters of the Bay of Bengal, as they rose and spread over the lowlands of Bangladesh, covering Kuakata, and Kalapara, and Barguna, and Galachipa, Patuakhali, all these places the rest of the world knew nothing about, because they were small places in a small, poor country, full of brown people who had contributed nothing to the problem, but who would be among the first to suffer. But determined not to forget, Tom had memorized those names.

     Tom saw it all as the buildings disintegrated into the sea, as the millions rushed inland where there was no room. In that moment he thought he saw everything that he'd been waiting for all of his life.

     The pelican screeched again and tore into the sky. Tom tried to follow the bird's path, but his eyes were weary and too weak. But he kept staring, and would not let himself blink. Until he saw the bird descend onto a flat roof over blazing windows. They'd left on every light in the house, and Tom was sure they'd used up most of their power reserves, but he would have nothing to say about it.

 

     Once he got everything safely inside, and the dinghy chained securely, Tom went around quietly and turned off some of the lights, but not all. He sat down with them in the living room, and apologized for being late. It was his entire fault; he was sorry to have worried them. He hadn't planned things properly. He told them about what was happening in Bangladesh, and although Jenny looked sad, she didn't become distraught. She said, "Debbie said she was going to make this house a lighthouse, and she did. So do we live in a lighthouse now? Tom, you didn't tell me you were going to move me into a lighthouse."

     "This house can be anything you want it to be. It can be a boat, or it can be a lighthouse. You tell me what you want, and that's what it's going to be." She seemed satisfied with that.

     Debbie had been looking at him steadily, but hadn't said a word. Finally she asked, "Were there lots of people there? Did they give you trouble?"

     He smiled. "There were lots of people, yes. Next time we'll all go, but we'll leave early, I promise. No one gave me any trouble. There are lots of people trying the best they can. Just like us."

     "Paw," Charlie said, and pointed. They all looked at him in surprise. "Paw," he said, pointing. But Tom thought his grandson wasn't pointing at him, but at some place far beyond him. "Wa-ter."

     Later, when they crawled into bed, both of them so exhausted Tom wondered if they would be paying the price for days, Jenny turned to him, looking serious. "You're an unlucky man," she said. "Why are you so unlucky, Tom?"

     He carefully brushed the hair out of her face. "Not true. Not true at all." And he held her until they both fell asleep.

 

END

"The Common Sea" originally appeared in Interzone 269, March 2017


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