Such intensity of emotion was rare for Calvin, but seagulls warranted it.
“Are you sure you don’t want that soup you made? It’s wonderful.”
“I’m sure,” he said. He shouldn’t have even accepted the beer, but he didn’t want his mom to have to drink alone, even if it wasn’t really drinking. “It’s better if I save the food for you. Never know when the next shortage could happen.” He checked his watch and dug into the pocket of his pants, producing a baby blue pouch, which he tore open, squeezing the gel into his mouth and swallowing.
“What does that stuff even taste like?”
“Nothing, really. Like water, but slightly bitter.”
His mom made a face, every wrinkle and crease deepening, like riverbed drying out in fast-motion. He still wasn’t used to how old she looked. The video connection from space wasn’t great, and the lens on the webcam of her hulking desktop computer was scratched, so he’d only seen a smeary, pixelated version of her face for the last decade. “I don’t know how you young folks live like that. You must be the first generation to go to such lengths to avoid enjoying yourselves.”
“We’re doing what we must,” he said shortly. It had been a while since he’d heard himself described as one of the “young folks.” He drained the rest of his beer and stood. “I’m taking a walk.”
“Wait a minute, let me get my hat, I’m coming with you,” said his mom. He moved to help her, but she waved him away, pressing her hands onto the arms of her chair and lifting herself, painstakingly, to her feet, her jaw tense and eyes squinched shut. Upright at last, she hurried inside without looking at him.
They followed the sun-baked street along the base of the sloping hills that bordered the valley. When a dark shape raced over the sidewalk, Calvin looked up. A seagull coasted overhead, landing with an inelegant stumble on the chimney of a nearby house.
“Look at that one, there.” His mom tugged his sleeve, pointing at another seagull that had landed in the middle of the sidewalk.
“You recognize individual birds now?”
“Just this poor thing. Look at him.”
Calvin looked. This gull was slightly smaller than the others, featherless in patches. When it turned its head to the side to study them, he saw that that half its face was featherless too, so that from the right it looked normal and from the left it looked like a mistake of nature, as though some mad ornithologist had attached a baby turkey’s head to a seagull’s body.
“That’s disgusting,” he said.
“Calvin!” She gazed up at him reproachfully from beneath her straw hat. He couldn’t believe she still had that hat—it had already been old when he was a kid, and no more fashionable. The once-gold straw was now closer to gray in color, the white ribbon encircling its crown frayed and yellowed. To make matters worse, the once-stiff brim had grown limp and flaccid, drooping over her eyes and wiggling outrageously with each step she took.
They walked a few more blocks in silence, the cracked sidewalk unspooling endlessly before them, concrete shimmering in the heat. Calvin squinted at each house they passed, trying to recall how it had looked thirty years ago, when he lived here as a kid. Back then, they had been distinguishable from one another, but beneath a layer of dust, with missing walls and roofs and fences, any differences—stucco or wood, one story or two, modest or grand—were rendered irrelevant.
Calvin estimated maybe a thousand people remained in this town that had once held fifty times that. Of the missing forty-nine thousand, perhaps thirty thousand had died in the violence of the early days, when resources were scarce and people were scared of each other, before the crude infrastructure of the postapocalypse emerged and the world settled into a new kind of mundanity. Another four thousand had probably survived but were wise enough to leave the valley for less bleak places, if there were any to be found.
The other fifteen thousand likely did what he had done, and signed contracts with various ships—a lifetime of food, water, lodgings, and a small salary in exchange for their labor. It wasn’t a bad deal at all. He worked eight hours a day, five days a week, making sure the software running the ship was bug-free and protected against cyberattacks. He had a studio apartment with a virtual reality entertainment system and a window overlooking a small park where people strolled between manicured trees or picnicked on artificial turf. His coworkers were pleasant enough, his neighbors friendly enough. It was a good life.
The road twisted past another handful of dusty houses into the center of town, an empty square scattered with spindly trees and saguaro cactuses and a stone fountain that hadn’t spouted water in decades. Along the streets that radiated from the square like clock hands, most storefronts were boarded up, but a few remained open—a grocery store with a deli, a pharmacy, a hardware store. The dusty white courthouse and brick church with its modest bell tower were still open too.
“I don’t know how you stand it here, don’t you find it depress—” Calvin turned to where his mom had been, only she was no longer beside him, but halfway across the square, hurrying toward a large blue mail-collection box.
“What’re you—” He jogged after her, reaching her just as she pulled an envelope from her jacket pocket. “What’s that?”
“It’s none of your concern,” she said, but he snatched it from her, flipping it over. In the corner was her address, stamped in fading black ink. In the center, penned in her spidery cursive, was the address of the corporate headquarters of his ship.
“Seriously?” He waved the letter. “You’re still doing this?”
“I will keep ‘doing this’ until they listen.” She reached for the letter, but he pulled it away. Her lips pursed, and he braced himself for her to launch into a speech she had probably already delivered at least a dozen times in this very square, back when there were still people around to ignore her. “They need to realize Earth is not a lost cause. If they devoted a fraction of their resources toward rebuilding infrastructure here, people could return, and we could find a path forward on our native planet.”
He felt a surge of anger. “Do you have any idea how hard you make things for me? What it’s like being the guy with the mom who’s a crazy pro-Earth activist? I have to work so hard to convince them I’m not like you.”
“You should be proud of that reputation. You come from a long line of Earth activists, starting with your great-grandmother—”
“I don’t need the monologue, Mom. If it was gonna work on me, it would’ve a long time ago.” He was startled by his own voice, the way it echoed around the empty square. Emotional outbursts were discouraged on his ship; he’d only heard one or two people shout in all the time he’d lived there. He’d forgotten that a single human voice could take up so much space.
“So you’ll leave again?” His mother’s voice was unmoved by his, no louder than it had been the last time she spoke. She pulled off the absurd sun hat and ran the back of her hand across her shiny forehead.
“Of course I’ll leave. I mean, I’ll stay here till––” His voice faltered. “As long as you’re here. But I don’t have your sentimental attachment to this planet. If you’d just come with me—”
“If I’d come with you, I’d be dead already.” A gust of wind lifted her wiry white curls, and for a moment she looked like she was ascending into the sky. But then the wind passed and they dropped back down. “Doesn’t it bother you that you won’t live past seventy-five?”
“Better than living out my old age here.” He gestured wildly. Somewhere nearby, a seagull shrieked. “The world’s ended. This place just hasn’t realized it yet.”
His mom stared at him. Her large eyes, starkly pale against her bronze face, looked watery, but he wasn’t sure if it was from emotion or the dust. He held out the envelope, and she took it wordlessly, pressing it into the slot on the collection box.
She was fine when he put her to bed that evening (just tired from her walk, she told him), but he woke in the bleary middle-night to the piercing ring of the little bell she kept beside her bed. He lurched to his feet, jamming his toe against a floor lamp and stumbling down the hallway to her room, sagging floorboards groaning at the disturbance.
Her labored breath greeted him when he opened the door. “Mom?”
She sat against the headboard of her bed, her white pajama shirt soaked through with sweat. A swollen moon flooded the room in cold white light.
“I have a fever.” Her voice quavered. “My medicine––”
He fumbled across the surface of her desk, his hand passing across her stationary pad and pens and booklets of celestial stamps till he felt the bottle. “Here—”
When he turned back to her, she was standing, leaning against the windowsill, gazing out across the valley and the sloping hills and the moon hanging over it all. Her sweat-soaked hair was slicked to her scalp, and she almost looked bald. At the sound of his voice, she whirled around, her face flushed and delirious. “Abi?”
“No, it’s Calvin,” he said.
“Where’s Abi? Where’s my sister?”
“She’s not here right now,” said Calvin. “Just get back into bed—”
“My sister is a brave woman,” his mom said urgently. “She went out there––” She gestured out the window. “Past the moon, all the way to another solar system.”
“Yeah, I remember.” He pressed a pill into her palm. “Take this. You’ll feel better.”
His mom pinched it between her fingers, studying it. “My sister is brave,” she said, and she frowned. “But foolish. Our kind doesn’t belong out there.”
“Humankind.” She turned back toward the window, and the moonlight stuck to her sweaty face, turning it brilliantly white, like a second, smaller moon. “I can’t recall the last time I felt so cold. It’s almost refreshing.” She laughed. “Do you think the earth ever feels cold anymore?”
“Maybe,” Calvin said.
She extended her hand toward him. Hesitantly, he held out his own hand, and she seized his wrist. “I don’t want to leave Earth, Calvin.”
“I’m not making you come back with me,” he said.
She shook her head. The grip on his wrist tightened. “I didn’t mean space. I meant dying.”
“Don’t worry about that right now.” He was trying to keep calm, but the matter-of-fact way she said the word dying sent cold dread radiating through his body. The sensation angered him. There was no reason why hearing it aloud should affect him like this. Of course she was dying. That was the only reason he’d come back here—so she wouldn’t be alone for her remaining months or weeks, or days, or . . .
“I know I don’t have much time left—”
“Take me out to the desert, Calvin. I don’t want to die in this ugly old house.” She flung herself against his chest, clutching him with her frail arms.
“At least the front yard. I don’t want to die indoors, sealed away from the sky—”
“Mom, you’re not dying tonight!”
She groaned. “But I am, I am. My bones are whispering it to me.” He could feel her rapid pulse jolting through her body. Was that how a dying heart beat? He didn’t know.
“Well, my bones say otherwise.”
“You think your bones know better than mine? My bones made your bones.” But he must have assuaged her, because she released him, returning to bed and swallowing her pill without speaking. Her breath was still labored though. If anything, it was shallower now, more rapid, and he was reminded of a wren that crashed into their front window when he was a boy. It had breathed like that, and it had died in his palm.
He stood and backed out of the room.
“Calvin? Where are you going?”
“You think your bones know better than mine? My bones made your bones.”
“I’m getting you water,” he said. He descended the stairs, which emitted vertebral pops underfoot, to the kitchen, grabbing the jug in her refrigerator. When he returned, his mom was a still shape beneath the blankets. The room was mercilessly silent.
“Mom?” He rushed to her side. “Mom—” The icy dread surged into his throat, into his head, where it melted and warmed, leaking out the inner corners of his eyes. He was too late. His mom, his only remaining tether to this sunbaked dirt clod of a planet. Who’d kept him alive as the world crumbled. And what had he, her only son, done for her? Abandoned her, ridiculed her, denied her even her simple last desire, then stepped out of the room when death arrived for her—
But she stirred then, drawing a long, rasping breath. Beneath the blankets, her torso swelled with air, a dormant mountain waking into a volcano, an earthquake, some sublime spectacle of nature. “You have the water?”
“Yes,” he said. His hands shook as he filled the glass. “Yes.”
In the early dawn, her breath deepened and her skin cooled and she slept. Calvin, bleary-eyed from a night of anxious monitoring, rose from the chair beside her bed and slipped outside.
The sun wasn’t up yet, and neither, blessedly, were the seagulls. For now the world was cool and silent, suspended in the intoxicating blue of dawn. A lukewarm breeze tugged at Calvin’s sweat-soaked pajamas as he plodded down the street, then veered off the sidewalk between two abandoned houses. His feet found the narrow path that wandered out of the valley, into the hills, and he ascended.
From the hilltop, he gazed down at the town. Without realizing it, he’d expected everything to look the same from up here, the way it had when he climbed these hills as a boy. But it didn’t look the same, because it wasn’t the same, because it was steadily, rapidly, ceasing to be anything at all, breaking down and drying up while its last living inhabitants drifted millions of miles overhead. Soon—he wasn’t sure when, but it couldn’t be much longer—he would rejoin them.
He already knew exactly how it would go: catching the weekly bus on the far edge of town back to the airfield; the roaring, stomach-churning ascent; the earth falling away from him; the jolt of the transport ship docking; the heady, chemical-scented decontamination shower; the speed-tram back to his quarters. Collapsing onto his bed. Eating his evening pouch. Putting on his virtual reality headset, shimmering images erupting up from the floor and out of the walls, soaking into him.
The most popular virtual worlds were those depicting notable periods of Earth’s history, where one could be an Egyptian pharaoh sailing along the Nile, a medieval knight storming castles, or an early 2100s bootlegger smuggling water from fortified corporate reservoirs. But Calvin always chose to visit one of the countless planets that satellites had digitally mapped—the farther from Earth, the better. He spent hours wandering through alien terrains, through forests of unfamiliar vegetation and across strange seas, exploring lands that no human had ever set foot on and perhaps never would.
If he somehow saved enough money, he could relocate to a settlement on a nearby planet, but that was unlikely on a ship salary. Other planets were for the rich, and for scientists, like his Aunt Abi, who’d embarked on an exploratory mission when he was a kid and never returned.
So he would return to his ship and remain there. For years. For decades.
Until—his seventy-fifth birthday. The knock on his door. The escorted walk, his neighbors standing in their doorways, applauding him for his lifetime of service. Hugging and kissing his family goodbye, if he had any by then. Then ushered into the headquarters, down a corridor, to a small sterile room. Reclining back on the cot.
Gazing up at the ceiling screen, where leaves fluttered or fish swam, some soothing, repetitive footage. His last words, if he offered any, transcribed meticulously for posterity by some fresh-faced, smiling attendant.
The injection. Descending into blindness, then paralysis, then nothingness. A cylindrical vessel rolled into the room, opened, his corpse transferred onto the bed of straw within. The vessel lid clanging closed above him, the temperature rising.
Decomposition. Over the course of a month or so, his body would unmake itself. Flesh to soil. Soil to the ship’s agricultural sector, where it would nourish the crops, which were processed into the meal-replacement gel the ship’s employees consumed—until, of course, they themselves turned seventy-five and gave their own bodies to the crops. No matter how far anyone got from the planet that made them, it seemed they were all destined to return to it, if only in form. Flesh to earth.
He felt dizzy, and he backed away from the canyon’s edge, turning to face the desert. It sprawled before him, pale ground scattered with squat shrubs and little clumps of flowers. Here and there a barrel-chested saguaro rose from the ground, its arms lifted toward the hazy, dawning sky. The round moon, silent witness to the turmoil of the previous night, was retreating behind the craggy red mountains that fringed the horizon.
At his feet, a brown scrap of a lizard emerged from a hole, and he crouched down for a better look, reveling in its delicate claws and striped skin. As a boy, he’d known the names of all the animals in this desert. It wasn’t until the lizard darted across the ground, disappearing between the paddles of a prickly pear cactus, that its name returned to him—Sonoran spotted whiptail. He’d thought they’d been hunted to extinction during the first food shortages, but he must have been wrong.
Overhead, the sunrise unfurled toward him, the sky blazing in a fanfare of orange and pink. With the colors came the high, insistent voice of an elf owl, unseen but nearby. Then the sun broke over the tops of the mountains, and, for a moment, everything—the cactuses and the mountains and the dirt and Calvin himself—was gilded in its light.
By the time he descended back into the valley, his stomach was groaning. He’d forgotten his morning pouch. When he reached the sidewalk, he hesitated, then veered right, away from his mom’s house, through the square, the trees and saguaros and his body throwing long-limbed shadows across the shattered pavement, not stopping till he reached the shabby little grocery store, where he purchased a hot chicken sandwich from the tired-looking woman behind the deli counter.
Grease was already blotting the paper bag by the time he arrived home. He sat on the porch steps and tore it open. Liberated from the paper, the aroma of salt and oil filled his nose, and his stomach growled impatiently.
He’d only just taken his first bite when the first seagull arrived, landing neatly on the front lawn and pecking at a plastic bag. Soon, a second seagull glided down from a telephone pole, strutting toward the first. In minutes, a dozen had clustered before Calvin. They kept their distance, occupied with eating small unseen things on the ground, but Calvin knew these were performative gestures. There was no mistaking that they were here for him.
As he reached the halfway mark of his sandwich, a shrill cry issued from overhead. A shadow passed over the gathered birds, and another seagull landed abruptly in their midst, scattering them. It was the patchy seagull his mom had pointed out to him the day before. Unlike the others, it didn’t peck timorously at the ground. Instead, it turned the featherless side of its head toward Calvin, studying him. A low, grating squawk issued from its throat, like a warning, or maybe a battle cry. Then it charged the porch in a blur of spindly pink legs and webbed pink feet, hopping onto the lowest step and gazing up at him with its cold yellow eye.
The bird seemed aware of its grotesqueness, its capacity to unsettle. Calvin reminded himself of their respective positions in the food chain and willed himself to stare back, chewing slowly. How could his mom feel love for this bird? How could she not see it for what it was, a pathetic, doomed creature, accomplishing nothing, belonging nowhere, fighting over scraps?
“Scram,” he said.
The seagull opened its sharp yellow beak and screeched.
Calvin jumped to his feet, and it hopped backward but didn’t break his gaze. “For God’s sake,” he shouted. He tore some chicken from the remaining nub of his sandwich and hurled it at the seagull, but the bird dodged nimbly, chasing the meat as it tumbled across the dirt, finally trapping it under its claw and attacking it with its beak. The sight filled Calvin with a perverse combination of delight and disgust. “You stupid bird,” he said. “Don’t you know you’re eating your own kind?”
Behind him, the door squeaked open. “Oh, my, Calvin,” said his mom. “I never thought I’d see this day.”
If she’d been gloating, it would’ve been easier for him to stomach, but he heard only genuine excitement in her voice. Loathing flooded him—some for her, but mostly for himself.
“What can I say,” said Calvin, who couldn’t actually think of anything to say.
His mom descended the porch steps, stepping between the birds, who congregated around her, showering her in supplicating squawks. The patchy seagull swallowed the last of the chicken and joined them, jostling several birds out of the way to stand directly at her feet. Once more, it angled the naked side of its head toward Calvin, eye piercing, beak curved into an unmistakable leer.
“I’m glad to see you eating well,” said his mom.
Calvin wasn’t sure if she was talking to him or the patchy seagull, but after a moment’s thought, he realized there wasn’t much difference.