On the shore, all you can hear is the sound of the tide coming in: wish-wash, wish-wash. The sun is a brillo-scuffed marble suspended behind a steamy shower door. The birds circle inky water, waiting for the divers to surface for breath, when they will peck at already-scarred scalps and sustain themselves off of the flesh they find there. There’s no other food for them.
An unincorporated bedroom sits at the spot where sand meets water; the waves lap in under the bed and tease open the doors of the armoire, where mildewy clothing hangs limply on rusting hangers. It all smells of salt. Nothing of the rest of the house remains, except an ascending corkscrew staircase that leads from the bedroom door up into featureless sky. At the top of the stairs stands Abel. Sea foam clings to the rags that clothe him, plastered to his frail body by the mist that hangs over everything. He looks out past the shore, hand over eyebrows, for a sign of something–anything–other than endless water. His son, in the bed on the floor below him, calls “Papa, Papa” in a parched singsong, like a scarecrow who just learned how to talk. He goes to him.
Abel’s son collects discarded video cards, filament-less light bulbs, bits of frayed copper wiring. Right now the pieces are collected and connected in the form of a tiny automaton, with diodes for eyes and AV cables for limbs. He stifles a cough, pulls the robot up to his ruddy face and breathes warmth onto it to keep away the incessant mist. Far away and behind the boy a diver surfaces, gulps air, dives again before any of the birds can attack.
“Tell me about the people who aren’t people.”
The bed is the type with taffeta curtain running around it, thin enough to turn everything beyond it into a dusky golden version of itself. Abel encloses himself with his son, tries to ignore the pained screams of a diver too greedy for air to dip again in time.
“You are sick. You should sleep.”
“But I want to hear the story about the people who aren’t people. I’m not too sick to hear the story, Papa. I promise.”
A gust of wind eddies the sand, sends it onto Abel’s bare feet. He kicks the grains away, but some of them stubbornly cling to his sole. His toenails are yellowed, dog-eared pages in a book that hasn’t been read in years. He takes his son’s robotic homunculus and sets it on the scuffed nightstand. His eye sockets are darkened graves.
“A long time ago, before the mist and the flood and the broken buildings, there were people everywhere. People so numerous you couldn’t even count them all.”
His son’s eyes go wide. This happens every time, no matter how often the story is told.
“The streets were filled with people. There were so many people that they had cars to drive themselves to where they needed to go. There were too many people for them to walk, even. There were so many people that they sent them up in great ships out past the sky and into the stars. There were so many people that they sent the bad ones to islands in the sea to starve. There were so many people that they took down buildings with people in them and built more buildings over the ones they took down. There were so, so, so many people.”
“How many people, Papa?”
“So, so, so, so, so, so, so many people. So, so many. So many that they needed to figure out who among the people weren’t people, so they could get rid of them.”
“How could they be people, but not people, Papa?”
“Anything can become true if enough people say it is. So they found the people who weren’t people, and they killed them. But there were still so, so, so, so, so many people.”
“How many people?”
“So many that they decided there must be even more people who weren’t people than they first thought. So they broadened their definition and killed many more people. They pushed the people from cliffs. They hanged them. They shot them, until the bullets started to run out. But there were still so many people.”
“How many people, Papa?”
“So many people that they took the souls of people and put them into stone, where they could be locked up until there was more room for people again.”
The robot shifts on the nightstand. The taffeta curtain rustles.
“When they put their souls into stone, their bodies were burned or set into the sea or buried up where they’d never be seen again.”
“And that’s where mother is? In the stone?”
Abel’s beard brushes against his caved-in chest as he nods, at the place where the rags give way to skin, the transition indefinite and hazy as the fog all around them.
“We’re going to bring her back.”
Abel lifts his son from the bed and slings him over his shoulder. His feet sink into the sand as he leaves the bedroom behind, the birds still circling and the tide as it goes in and out, wish-wash wish-wash, over and over and over.