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Surviving the Apocalypse: Dystopias and Doomsdays


First at the Dump

It wasn't exactly a competition, but I'd been digging at the dump ever since I had been old enough to care about making a living, and more than me said I was pretty good at it. I'd pulled up bottles with drinks still in them, and paper books that could still be read. I had a nose for it, that's what I told people, but I didn't tell them where I got my nose.

A lot of people said I got my gift for finding from Snave, the creepy old bastard who took credit for bringing me up until he came down with the sickness. It wasn't from him, that's for sure. It wasn't from waking up more than once a week in the dark with Snave's cold hands on me until I was old enough to beat them away. My mother took up with Snave after my father died. I don't remember much about my dad, but I know Snave wasn't an improvement.

I found the old stuff because I had a secret technique. No one had noticed, but I didn't eat before I started digging. I would get up early, when the grey lightened a bit, then I would sneak over the dirt floor, my shoes in my hand because one of the soles had came loose and had started to make noise at inconvenient times.

Sometimes a crow would complain I'd woken them from a nasty crow dream, but the pit was usually quiet when I got there. The pit itself is just a long trench, where the best digging is, but if you have the knack there's other stuff to be found. If I was alone, which in the morning the chances were pretty good, I would try to ignore the plastic blowing in the wind off the sea when the day lightened. I would concentrate instead on feeling the ground. I would close my eyes and picture the ground hollowed beneath me, mentally examine the lodes of treasure, and then put them aside until a piece would catch my mental eye. That's where I would dig. And being hungry helped.

If things had been dry for a while, I'd go without eating for longer. Once I starved for four days until I found a huge hunk of aluminium and some cans with food in them. My father used to say, sitting on the edge of the dump pit in the old days before it was as picked over as it is now, that if you dug long enough you could find one of everything in the world. "You can find anything you imagine, boy," he told me, looking into the pit and his eyes far away. "There's stuff down there that even the people who threw it out didn't know what it was. Stuff no one has a use for, and stuff people would kill you to get."

"Like what?" I asked him at the time.

"I hope you never know. I hope you're never that good a digger, that you dig up your own death."

My father wasn't the best digger. He was steady and careful. My mother told me how he'd pull up a bag, and before tearing it open, like others would, he'd shake it, and then find the tie that held it closed. "Many's the time that he shook out delicate stuff someone else would have broke," my mother told me, pointing to the shelf over the fire that held things that had been precious once. As a kid I'd looked at the fragile fingers of the porcelain hand, its missing central finger obscured by the silk flower my dad had found and inserted into the stump. We had porcelain dogs and glass cups, too nice for use, until Snave broke them all drinking his rotten stump swish.

I never really planned to be a digger like my dad. I was going to be a fisherman, like Frank. Except better. I was hoping to build a boat, like those I'd seen in pictures in the dump books. Frank knew better than me that we didn't have enough wood on the island for a boat, and we never pulled up anything from the dump that could be used to make one, but it was a long time before I gave up my dream. Finally, I became a digger like my dad.

I probably would've stayed a digger, if I wasn't such a good finder. Or if I had eaten more, I'd probably be on the island right now, together with Lyne from two houses over and raising diggers like everyone before me. But I never even approached Lyne. I figured I needed to raise something spectacular, something that would bend even her iron dad, Mel, to my approval. Then I could sit with her on the rocks near the shore and pull her hand to mine.

But I was a good finder, and there's no point to lament that now, especially given how everything's turned out.

The thing I found was dissatisfaction. That's what Preacher Evans called it. "He's found his way to the dump of hell," he told everyone he could force to listen to him, he was so angry about it.

Usually we'd dig up plastic bags with what might have been food decades before, and scraps of plastic and metal that we'd look over and then either stockpile or burn. There was always lots of cardboard, and we kept any wood for Mel. He said he was going to build something, but everyone had the things they kept and wood was his. He'd made a shed out of what could be spared from building other houses, and there he kept scraps too small for burning, although my dad had teased pieces away from Mel to make into something just with a knife and some energy.

Dad liked delicate stuff like the porcelain on our shelf and Osborne liked machines. He was going to build a machine to get us off the island, but as far as anyone saw, he just piled.

Preacher Evans didn't like the digging. He claimed that only god was worth digging, although he would be right in there demanding what food had been brought up and which none of us younger ones had ever tasted.

I hadn't really developed my own taste, and one morning, I pulled up the package.

Everything from the dump has a look that you learn to recognize. There's stuff that no one liked even when it was new, like an iron dog with a movable tail, or a wooden woman whose legs move apart and together again. Those items are never worn, like many of the fancier kids toys which are broken and smooth-edged with playing. Most metals are rusted into machines that I bet even the maker couldn't recognize, and most shiny pieces of bright glass beckoning from the mud prove to be broken and dull.

Only occasionally would we find something sealed. Tin cans contained foodstuffs that in some cases were still edible, even after the intervening years meant that such foods didn't exist anymore. Some toys were still in unyielding plastic, soaked from ground moisture, but otherwise perfect, as though they'd been thrown away hours before, when the kids with too much to do had grown tired. Crazy Cara, as we called her, found a case of knives, thin and brittle though they were, still in a plastic and cardboard case. The lettering on the cardboard had long since faded, but every house got a knife from the Cara find.

Although we tried not to think badly about the people who threw away what we ended up digging, it was hard sometimes, when we cried to uncover the wealth they had discarded.

On my last day of digging I got up early, for it had been five days of finding nothing beyond a few pieces of plastic for the fire and a re-sealable bottle that I still have with me. My mother had begun to comment that I'd lost my gift, and people wiggled their knife blades at me, signifying that I was carrying bad luck and they were hoping it wouldn't jump to them. I decided to fast. I was beginning to worry that my skills were gone and that I'd have to make do with junk like the rest of them.

When I arrived at the pit, Cara was already there, scrabbling around. I ignored her. I would have anyway, for she was prone to following if you gave her attention, and that would throw off my concentration. My mother said that Cara had been bit by the wrong bug, but I blamed her mumbling ways on her age, for Cara was the oldest amongst us after Zemro had died. She had to be over fifty, and bent over like she was dead already.

I went away from Cara to the far side of the pit and began to feel with my feet and my head the ground beneath me. I reached under, pulled up lumps of clay and rocks and meaningless metal shapes. The gift was gone.

I was making my third pass of the section I'd mentally staked off when Cara approached me. With my eyes closed I couldn't see her come, but I could feel the impress of her feet on the ground. "You're digging early?"

Her voice grated like gravel in the cold air. "Today is the day." I'd learned that if I was cryptic with Cara she might leave.

"The day to find nothing," Cara stomped her foot.

The sound of her foot bounced off my mental image of the ground. As the vibration came to me, I knew I'd found it. I kept my face shut, but Cara could tell. "What is it?" She stamped her foot again, as if that would make me answer. Down deep, so far I could barely extend my mind's fingers, an image came. It wasn't flesh, which was just as well, for bodies pulled from the dump are horrifying incomplete. It was a reverberation, a thrum of tension.

I went over to the pit and grabbed one of the shovels and went back to where a piece of plastic bag kept my place.

"You've smelled something, haven't you?" Cara was no more than an arm's length away and I could smell her. "You've found the big one."

Sometimes at the pit, when the grey day turned sour with cold, we talked about the big one. It kept us warm, and for some of the younger kids, it gave them hope. They could summon the energy to dig, especially if they thought a toy lay at the bottom, but they hated drudgery. I never talked about the big one, although it lay buried in my dreams just like anyone else's.

"I doubt it's anything," I said. Bad luck followed excitement about a find, especially when it was still covered in dirt. "But I'll just do some digging, limber up my arms." I made a show of morning stiffness, but Cara's sharp eyes weren't fooled. She watched me dig through the brown surface layer, then the grey clay that lay a foot deep everywhere on the island, and then into the black mud that hid the treasures of the past.

I was still digging, my muscles loosened by the pile of mud beside the hole, when the rest of the houses emptied their contents into the dump. Mel came with his daughter Lyne, and Frank limped by on his way to fish and stayed, keeping an eye on his son Eddy, who wasn't smart and couldn't be left alone but was a champion digger. He hopped into the hole with me until I got so deep that there was only room for one. Then I called out above, and lifted him until he could get his purchase on the sloping sides.

Frank lowered the bucket on a yellow plastic rope that represented one of my luckier finds. I filled the bucket and hefted it to him so he could dump it out of the way. Mel and Lyne began pulling dirt away from the crater until the light could get down to me without slanting past the heap. In their excitement everyone was calling out advice, although they stopped respectfully when I asked for quiet to seek out what I'd heard. I'd received no signs since I'd started digging, but I figured the find had gone into hiding. They did that sometimes. I imagined a bottle full of sweet brown drink once, only to dig in three different spots when it became suddenly shy of the open air.

"Wait," I called above. I wasn't above a bit of grandstanding when I had an audience. "I have to smell for it."

"That's what Snave taught him," I heard Frank say.

"Bullshit," I muttered to myself. I'd argued with them before, but each person clung to their own theories like food and drink. I wagged my head and pretended my anger was part of a complex ritual.

"Snave didn't teach him shit." My mother had joined the others and, far over my head, she argued how I could sense hollows in the ground. "His father had a bit of a nose."

I heard Mel's good-natured joke about my father's face from far away as though I was drowning. I was further into the mud than I'd ever been and I felt the weight of the mud over me. For the first time I became a lode of an object underground myself. I stopped breathing for a moment and felt faint. "You okay down there?" Lyne called, and I breathed again.

"I'm fine. It's just this is a big one." With Lyne as my audience, I couldn't resist bragging. When I finally uncovered the package, most people were gone from the hole. In their sensitive way, they feared I'd overreached myself and, afraid of coming up empty, I was going to dig to sea water like the legend of Dan the dump digger. They had left to their own business, Frank to the sea to try his luck with fish, and Mel and Lyne to the beach to see what might have washed up. But I still had my mother, faithfully lowering buckets, and Cara, waiting like a half-dead crow, torn between hope for something fantastic and delight in my failure.

"I've got it," I yelled up to my devoted few, then climbed the slick mud, clutching the precious package to me.

Frank was too far away to hear me, but Mel and Lyne had stuck close just in case.

"Open it already," Cara was practically tearing at it with her eyes, but I shook my head.

"Everyone has to be here. This is the big one." My entire career as a digger fell away from me. Even if I opened a well-wrapped body of an animal as we sometimes found, I knew I was done digging. I endured a few jokes at my expense as Frank went for Osborne, and in the distance Eddy hurried back, lurching to one side in his excitement.

As I placed my package on the ground, I heard Cara echo my claim. "This is the big one." It sounded tinny somehow coming out of her mouth.

The package was cardboard wrapped in many layers of clear sticky plastic. I cut that away with the flimsy knife I'd received from Cara's haul, and revealed more plastic. I cut through layer after layer, exposing cardboard that hadn't seen daylight for who knows how many years until I got to a sealed container. I could feel it. The thrumming was louder now. The package was talking to me.

My avid audience leaned forward. Their hands grappled with the plastic and paper I'd already taken off as if clearing the way, but really wanting a tactile confirmation of what I'd found. I swept away the trash, helped by their eager hands and then, following my private ritual, I began to bend the edge of the container like I had others that we'd unearthed.

"Stop." The call came from the other side of the pit, and such was its creak that Frank said afterwards he thought it was a crow gone mad from the stress of the moment. Once we saw it was Preacher Evans, we turned back to the package. He constantly told us we shouldn't have what we found because what was buried was sacred. He wanted us to fish and grow our food, to eat and to reproduce. He wanted us to forget that life had once been different, for others at least.

"Stop. You have no idea what you've found. He is evil that brought that to the surface." Mel looked nervously towards Evans and Lyne reached out for her father's hand.

"Piss off, Evans." I was as wracked as anyone else, but I wasn't going to let Evans convince everyone to put what I'd found back into the ground. "This is the big one."

"It will mean the destruction of us all," Evans was raising his hands to hit someone when I opened the container with a popping sound. Lyne leaned in to smell the air from years before, just as we always did. Hoping that we'd get some sense of a time that had passed somehow without any of our recollection. "Smells good." Cara sounded calmer than she had in years.

Nestled in rumpled newspaper in the bottom of the plastic box, was another box. I suddenly feared that I'd been tricked. A sound of hollow laughter reflected from the empty ground. "What is it?" Frank broke the spell.

"I don't know." I lifted out the paper and gave it to my mother, who would want to keep it. The box was a sealed plastic device, with various wheels and indicators on one side.

"Wait. There's a note," my mother said as she unfolded one of the pieces of plastic. "It says it's a radio." We savoured the word on our tongues.

"What does it do?" In his eagerness, Mel pushed on my mother's arm, earning a sharp look from her.

"It will kill us all." Most of us had forgotten Evans in the excitement of the moment.

"'This is a working radio,' it says." My mother liked to show that she could read. Few others on the island could and it was a point of pride and contention. "'I am sorry for all the trash we have left you, but I hope that you make use of this as I have. I am sorry for everything.'"

"That's it?" Mel snatched the paper from my mother's hand and scanned it. Frank grinned, for Mel couldn't read and the paper would mean nothing to him.

"He's sorry for this, I guess." I held it up where we could all see it, slapping away Eddy's hand. "It's a device of some sort," I said positively. No one knew any better than me what it was, but Cara's quick hand was the one that started it.

"You need to turn this." She reached out and twisted one of the wheels. There was a click and then a hissing noise. If I had been more certain of the box's solidity, I would have thrown it back into the pit. As it was, I held it like a live rat, afraid it would bite if I kept it, and afraid of what I would lose if I threw it away. "And you turn this to make it clear," Cara twisted another wheel.

"Suddenly you know a lot about these things." Frank was reaching to touch it himself when a voice came out of the box. I set it down carefully, not wanting to hurt it but eager to get it out of my hands. As I did, the voice faded, then became stronger again.

"It matters where my hand is," I said, wonderingly. "Look." I passed my hand back and forth over the machine, and the voice faded accordingly. "It can detect movement."

When we backed away the voice became stronger, and to our amazement we could understand it. It was evening finally, when we picked up the radio and brought it to my house. Preacher Evans complained the entire way, but after Mel warned him that he'd have no food if he persisted, he finally slunk away. Lyne was looking at me with the shining eyes of my dream now that I'd found the big one, but once I was actually in the moment, I was too distracted to give her the attention the occasion called for.

The voices told of grey weather and storms, of floods and deaths. Although the sounds must have been trapped in the radio from before, what the voice was saying compared uneasily, in my mind, with our present weather. I twisted the wheel when I was alone, only to find other voices, other concerns, and late at night when the radio died, I realized that we were not alone.

Although the idea that there were other islands and other people elsewhere had been bandied around, I had not been an advocate. Cara saw boats in the distance, Osborne's machines weren't local, Mel knew his wood didn't grow on our island and he talked about other people as a possibility, as if to explain how his daughter's hair could be red. Only Preacher Evans claimed that we were the only ones alive, and I had found myself in reluctant agreement with him.

The radio, for me at least, was confirmation that not only were there people on other islands, but they were close enough for their voices to be picked up by the device.

My mother was sceptical. "You're talking like Cara now. Going to be looking out to sea like her, every cloud somebody coming."

"I know what Cara says, but she might be right. We never considered that."

"And what are you going to do about it?" My mother sat in the plastic chair that my father had pulled out of the sucking mud. The stains had never come off, but the chair was one of few in the houses.

"I'm going to build a boat." I went to bed defiantly, but my mother's look of pity made it difficult to sleep.

The next morning I went to find Frank to ask him what he knew about boats. "You're a fisherman, Frank. You must know something about them."

"I could use one, that's for sure. What have you been talking to Cara again?" Frank didn't try to hide his smile.

"I mean it Frank. You remember the books?"

"There were all kinds of things in those books. Better off without them, that's what I say."

I left Frank as he was giving me advice on continuing what I did best instead of competing with his fishery. Next I went to Mel and told him I intended to make a boat.

"There's not the wood on the island, boy," he said, glancing involuntarily towards his shed.

"That's why I came to you, Mel. I need your shed."

"Look, I didn't collect all that wood to-"

"No you didn't, Mel. I did. Me and everyone else. And I finally know why. I want to make a boat, or more like a platform."

"A raft," Mel dredged up the word with difficulty.

"Exactly. A raft." It was in front of me now. "A raft."

"You're going to lose all my good wood for nothing," Mel complained. "Just so you can go chase some voices that can't even keep going through the night."

I spent a few hours arguing with a weakening Mel until I convinced him to open the shed, then I went to see Osborne. Osborne was easier to convert to my way of thinking. He already had his theories about other islands from his machines so he willingly gave me three of the many containers of nails we'd pulled from the mud of the dump, or wrested from the rotting grasp of wood on the shore.

Many days passed before I had a craft that I thought would hold together long enough for me to get to another island. I had fastened Mel's wood as best I could with Osborne's nails and some wire, and then caged it in light woven metal from the dump. When it was ready, my mother brought some of the others by to comment, thinking that as a group they might halt me in my suicidal path. Setting aside their fears, and the caterwauling of Preacher Evans, I dragged my ugly, lopsided creation down to the sea.

The day was nice, grey with a light wind whipping the water to whitish waves. I tried to give Lyne a kiss goodbye and was rebuffed and then I hugged my mother. She wiped tears from her eyes, the first I'd seen in years, and said, "You're going to your death, son. Evans says so."

I'd seen Preacher Evans sniffing around my mother, and I'd not missed her use of his name, but since I was leaving her alone I could scarcely complain if she found solace in his company. "I hope not. I hope I'm going to find some others."

My raft set off to the accompaniment of a ragged cheer, although Lyne turned away with Mel while I was still close enough to the shore to see her. I watched, the raft heaving sluggishly beneath me, as one by one my community turned back to their lives. My mother stayed the longest, and I looked for her figure even when it became impossible to distinguish from the broken rock of the distant shore. Watching my island drift away from me, I felt as if I were being pulled from a reluctant sleep, as the gentle tug of the current and the indifferent breeze took me out to sea. Just before my island was consumed by the restless waves, as I stood to glimpse the cluster of houses that was my island's tallest point, I was seized with an urgency to return. I spent some time splashing the water with a board I'd chosen for a paddle, until I collapsed on the deck, my island lost behind me and nothing ahead except for ghostly voices from a radio.

I was careful to ration the water I'd brought with me in fragile dump bottles capped with plastic bags and twine, but the small store of food I'd been given was more difficult to divide. I cut open a few of the precious tins early in the second and third day, although when my potatoes shrivelled I regretted my earlier impetuousness. I was still optimistic on the fourth day when a drifting shape proved to be a large piece of foam. I watched it go by with interest. It was beyond my reach, so I couldn't add it to the raft, but as flotsam I felt it was a harbinger of more solid land, the bigger dump of my dreams.

Once my food was limited to a few wizened carrots and I'd set out the tins in hope of gathering drinking water, I began to fish in earnest. Frank had given me, in his sober way, three of his prize hooks, and cautioned me in their use, but only now that I was growing desperate did I trail them behind me. I used fabric from my shirt for bait and licked it until it was wet with my taste, just as Frank had taught me. Although the fish I pulled from the water were few and limp, I devoured them whole so that their fluid might pass to me. After my clamouring stomach resounded with the numberless days, I began to question why'd I'd left. I listlessly tugged on the string that held my remaining hook-the others being taken by larger fish who'd disappeared with my meal. The radio was bait for an elaborate trap, I realized, and I drained precious energy into profanity and entreaties from my cracked lips.

Only when I was facedown, hanging over the water and eating the slimy weed that accumulated on the underside of the raft, did the urge to drink seawater occur to me. Although I instinctively rejected the idea, I found it impossible to set aside, and finally, impulsively, I dipped into the water and drank from my hand. My lips burned from the salt, but even thirstier, I drank until I choked from the saline.

The many days that were my raving, as I passed into the final stages of salt poisoning and starvation, came to an end finally, as I was shaken from sleep by uncomfortable waves. I turned bleary eyes to rocks and the splashing that indicated a shore, and was just raising my hand when I was tipped by the raft upending in the curled waves. I gasped, summoned energy I thought I'd lost, and thrashed the water until I was close enough to stand. I walked, picking my way from delirium to fantasy, until I fell, whirling, upon the shore.

There I was found by the fisherfolk who live along the beach. They gave me small amounts of water, and my ravings gradually subdued. As I regained my strength I began to wonder at the strange faces I saw about me. I continually expected, when someone approached the room they'd lent me for my convalescence, to turn and see Frank's kindly and lined face, or Evans' haughty insincerity. Instead, the solid bulk of Emma, the wife of Tom, the tall fisherman who'd found me, would greet my surprised sight. I felt as though I was continually being shaken awake from one shallow dream into another one which was only slightly more convincing.

When I was strong enough on my feet I ventured outside and saw the hillside leap to the sky behind the village, and the other houses that clung to the narrow shore. I compared them to the orderliness of my own island and found them wanting. I missed the stolid good sense of Frank, which he had learned from many years on the shore, and the familiarity of my mother. The fisher people were loud and laughing, and one night, from far away, I heard sounds they said was music. The island was strange and chaotic, and although they were very kind, I felt like a curiosity.

Eventually, I was taken to the mainland and met the people who lived there. There were no more than a few thousand of them, but for me, accustomed as I was to my tiny village, they were a bewildering array of humanity. They lived in brick and wooden buildings, made their living by lush gardens and fishing, and even had time for forays into the ruins of cities, which to hear them tell it, were larger than my entire island. There they would recover working machines and I was shown piles of old books that were treated with a nonchalance that would have made my mother cry. Their bustling town was planted with trees. That felt like a mirage to me, since I'd only seen such things in pictures. The tallest plant on our island was the tenderly cared for bush near Mel and Lyne's house that was shorter than me. Here they made boats, and on the bay in the distance I saw someone re-learning the use of the sail.

On our tiny island, living in such mental and physical privation, our only respite the discarded trash of a former time, we had no idea of the broad world. When they asked me to explain, I was ashamed. When they asked me to help them locate the island so they might rescue my people, horrified, I could not. At their question, the enormity of what I'd done came home to me. I was blown by this wind and that for so many days, I was delirious for so much of the time, I had no idea which direction I'd come.

When that realization finally hit, I became disoriented. I was caught piecing together branches from trees, and trying to pull the makeshift raft into the sea, trying to feel the land with my feet, as I had the dump when I'd found the radio, but there was no echo of my distant island. I was gently returned to the shore-side cabin where Emma and Tom, out of an understanding perhaps, of our common mariner heritage, they let me stay.

Every day I go with Tom onto the sea in a boat none of my people could craft because of a lack of wood, and we let out nets the like of which I had not even imagined. When we pull up the thousands of silvery fish, we sort those too small and deformed to eat and throw them back into the sea. Every day I go with him and scan the grey horizon, straining my eyes just as in his house I strain my memory, trying to remember the way home, trying to unearth enough about my island that my description might make sense to the mainlanders.

I have often fantasized about my return. Frank would see us first, and call to my mother, and Mel would bring Lyne and Cara. Safely behind them Preacher Evans would howl of devils from the sea, but we would go to shore and welcome them, and feed them food they had only found in tins. We would bring them to the larger world, where their children might prosper, and learn to have higher aspirations than a good find at the dump.

I realize now, after thirty years, that Lyne has likely long since given her children to another, and that my mother, Cara, Osborne, Mel, and nearly everyone I knew is dead. I am long-lived for my clan, eating so well here on the mainland, but the price of that longevity is that I am forced to remember the island. I remember the life we led there, and that by my leaving, and by the betrayal of my mental frailty, I have abandoned them to a misery unrelieved even by their one entertainment-digging up the trash of a former time.

I try to persuade myself that somewhere, out on the broad reaches of the limitless ocean, lies a tiny island. Somewhere, beyond my reach, a people eke out an existence. If I am remembered at all, it is as the one who drifted away in the wind and never came back.

I send this message to you, who should have been my distant family, who hopefully retain enough curiosity about the world to break the bottle that contains it. In it, preserved from the ocean's careless corrosion, you will find my hapless explanation and hear my vain appeal. You have not the wood to leave the island and we cannot come, but I would wish that you cast your imagination wide, and in that ephemeral net gather enough driftwood to follow my ill-considered path.

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