The city rises up through the fog like a silver and steel mountain of countless jagged and harsh angles. Skyscrapers crisscrossing and stabbing into the sky directly behind a cargo port, only everything is eviscerated, scorched and shattered. The sky has rained glass, and that rain still floods the streets and hangar bays. Two breakwaters cut into the sea, and between them, red cranes and forklifts covered in rust and an immense ship half sunken into the dense murkiness. The ship is named For Clay, My Thanks. Its name lingers just above the dark surface, but it, too, will someday sink to unseen depths. And then no one will thank clay. White and orange cargo containers litter the cement shore—they are the only color other than the cranes and forklifts—and behind them, small office buildings now only half erect, and behind them, a parking garage crumbling into itself, and behind it, more gutted skyscrapers and others in mangled ruins, exposed steel beams and debris piled high. Disquieting holes of nothingness in the city’s skyline, where the world has fallen never to be rebuilt. He could throw a rock and hit the other side of the world.
Black ash covers everything, marring colors, darkening even the darkest shades. Black ash slips down from the sky where pockets of gray open to release their Cimmerian bequests. The soft rains are not raining here quite yet, but he feels their advent in the damp winds.
The city is a horrifying site, much of it having already slipped into the sea and the rest soon to follow. The coast resembles the jaws of a terrible breast everywhere but at the cargo port, where cement gently slopes into the waves and vanishes beneath. Skyscrapers have toppled and created new submarine topography: misshapen beams and crumbled pillars, sections of rooftops and stairwells below as the boat passes silent overheard. An elevator cart protrudes from the sea like a once proud statue torn down and discarded offshore. The buildings lining the shore are dangerously close to joining their brethren beneath the waves; some hang on only by cables exposed without their steel shells, tendons that never stretch or swell but snap violently, tearing everything down with them.
Fires have raged here, just as the woman across the sea insisted they had. She said he wouldn’t like what he finds, and so far he doesn’t, but he hasn’t liked anything since waking in Green Lanes, so nothing has changed. Only now there’s more destruction and more places to hide for those who wish to hide.
And piano music still plays. For the longest time he thought he had imagined it playing in the fog. Now, almost ashore, seeing the city in all its former glory and now hopeless ruin, he still hears music cascading over the vestiges.
Music has guided him this far. It will guide him further. To the end.
He stays near the shore because of the music. That, and he fears losing himself to the city. If cities once homed people, then perhaps they still do. He only has his knife and the backpack on his back packed with food but mostly water. Life forces him to leave almost everything behind. First his car, now his boat and almost all his supplies. He has, essentially, thrown his life away by coming here, but this is something he accepted from the beginning.
Continuing has always proven the more difficult choice. He could have woken in the padded room and went back to sleep to let himself die. His arms still show lacerations from the bone-saw. He could have stayed inside Green Lanes, with its surplus of food that could have lasted him, alone, forever. And The Resurrection Fern offered him a possessed jukebox and his very own desiccated tavern. He could have stayed across the sea, learned to live with another person after beginning to prefer the silence of himself. At every option he chose the fork with the most unknowns.
Perhaps he really does want to die, only he can’t do it himself. It’s always easier to refuse change, to maintain your status-quo, stand perfectly still, feel familiar pain and suffering and recall that you’re old friends and none of this is new. If you’re not changing, then you’re not hurting anyone other than yourself.
Studying his surroundings—an overturned cargo container and stacks of wooden pallets, a stroller and blankets covered in ash—he reminds himself that he has done anything but stand perfectly still. He has searched and will continue to do so, until he finds what he’s looking for or concludes that it cannot be found in this world, and then he will search the next.
He will search in silence—other than the piano music—and that’s what unnerves him the most. Hospitals are supposed to be quiet, and countrysides aren’t much different. The tavern at least had the jukebox, but this is a cargo port attached to a shoreline city. Silence here is like a waterless ocean or starless night sky.
Unnerving, but now appropriate.
The world was silent in its creation. Destruction should be no different.
The trains aren’t moving now. Parked in rows miles long that eventually fade deep into the city, they sit like part of the track rather than vehicles that move on the track. That track leads somewhere, but he’s not supposed to follow.
It’s the music, and his own path, that he follows, and occasionally the two converge.
Trains share much in common with dolphins. At least the dolphins he’s come to know these past days, or weeks, however much time has passed. The dolphins the old man spoke of—the dolphins from a dream, only now he places more credence in dreams than he does reality. Dreams blur, and he wonders if the dolphin-wormhole-beautiful woman dream is his own or the dead old man’s. One of them told the dream to the other, but who? He supposes it doesn’t matter now,. When so few words are said and shared, all those words possess significance and relevance to the past and future.
It isn’t like before, when people spoke for the sake of sound, when silence didn’t rule the world but was feared due to its clumsiness and discomfort. Now silence is everything, and stories, and all words, are treasures unearthed from ancient vaults. Such treasure must be handled carefully, every detail recorded and remembered for later use.
So the dolphins have purpose. Like trains, dolphins are means of transportation, only they carry far more important belongings. Not goods for trade and sale, but souls to be entwined in the foreverness of life after life. Eternity. That word scares him as much now as it ever did; nothing will ever terrify him so deeply, to the very soul that the dolphins will one day guide into the radiant darkness of life and death.
He looks up and smiles a rare smile. A dolphin is painted on the train cart. Most of the paint is chipped and faded, but the dolphin is clear, swimming somewhere deep beneath the waves, where sapphires sparkle like stars at night.
Trains are often near train stations, and this time is no different. A massive stone building rises up before him, beyond a lawn of brown grass and eight lanes of ashen traffic, the lanes in pairs of two and separated by narrow footpaths painted yellow bordered by rusted railings. The traffic isn’t moving, as the cars and buses and trucks are empty. The vehicles span down the street in both directions, until those streets curve out of view. A traffic jam, so long-lasting that everyone abandoned their cars.
He looks both ways before crossing the street, sliding between bumpers, peering into cars after brushing ash off the windows. Nothing inside. Not the living or the dead, or evidence of either. Former belongings, but everything is old and gray and not useful to him now. Part of him expected and wanted to find evidence of the departed, a sign that life, now over, at least once existed, that he isn’t as crazy as he feels. That this isn’t as crazy as it seems. Hundreds of cars, bumper to bumper, but no sign of life other than the empty vessels. Is this where all the cars from Green Lanes ended up? Racing to the shore, to a ferry back then, only to end up in traffic, for their cars to stop and never move again. Why had the drivers left their cars? What forced them out? Where had they gone?
It seems safe, inside those cars. To enter one and shut the door, lock the doors, the windows covered in ash and soot. No one could see in, and he could not see out. Far safer than wandering through this city alone, exposed to countless potential eyes. Only, he would feel those eyes. After being alone for so long, he would sense otherwise, wouldn’t he? But he can’t hide in these cars. They now belong to the dead. .He wasn’t so sure a few hours ago, but seeing this city and hearing the silence, the gray everything and the darkness within that everything, it becomes clear. This world belongs to the dead.
He knows the massive stone building is a train station because of the equally massive lettering stretching high across it. Resounding Lakes Train Station, the letters read, only the building looks far too important to be a train station. The arched colonnade towering above the entrance and the mammoth wooden doors leading inside resemble those of a castle. At least the doors are open, but from afar he sees only darkness within. He hears only silence and piano music and sees no lakes, is not sure what sound lakes make. Watery and fleeting, if anything. Perhaps resounding.
The piano music isn’t louder here than it was anywhere else; it seems to be playing from everywhere in the city.
He crosses the eight lanes of traffic and cement islands and moves swiftly along the cobblestone walkway leading to the front doors, knowing he’s leaving the shore behind but proceeding anyway. Deeper into the city. Maybe the train station will give him some idea of where he is, or where he’s going. Maybe he will sit in silence and hear the sound of lakes. Mystical and pagan. Maybe, here, something will change.
Train stations do that, he thinks. Even when it’s not about where you’re going or where you’ve been, it’s about what you’re doing while you wait to depart, how you make the silence less silent.
Inside is slightly darker than outside, as skylights cover the vaulted ceiling high above. Pockets of gray and pockets of black, and he jumps from one to another, doing his best to stay within the gray.
At the top of an unmoving escalator, a stone well sits in the center of the floor. The well doesn’t hold water, and he doesn’t think it ever did, but when he looks inside he finds fistfuls of silver and copper coins. Dipping his hands into the coins, he finds the shineless metals are cold and filthy, his hands feeling like they just held mud until it clumped and dried and coated his skin with brown that cannot wash off.
A wooden arch rises above the well. Please, remember me. My misery is engraved on the wood with a crude hand. He circles the well once and twice and stops the third time where he began, where he rereads the engraving. Coins still fill his hands.
“A coin for every thing I’ve forgotten, and some for what I shouldn’t remember but must.” Trickling through his fingers, the coins drop back into the well, the metallic tings loud against the silence. Maybe this is what lakes sound like.
There’s nothing for him here. The well cannot grant wishes. Even if it could, he has no idea what to wish for, what’s most important, and if wishing for what he desires cheapens it in some way. He must do this himself, without the aid of a well.
He passes a greeting card store. A card with a red train—a train with big happy eyes and a wide smile and a speech bubble. Choo-choose me, it says. Another card says Don’t look down, but ahead. And another. Everything happens for a reason, no matter how much life sucks. That would mean life ended for a reason, that the world ended for a reason, and that, he decides, is an honest and good greeting card.
He would take it off the rack and carry it with him, only he has no one to give it to.
The piano music is louder now. The song has repeated so many times, and for so long, that he doesn’t hear it unless he’s paying attention. Much of him believes it’s all in his head, that the sanity he regained is fleeting again, leaving him insane, and music is part of the insanity. Perhaps music drove him mad in the first place. Perhaps this song. It’s the saddest song he has ever heard, and that’s not just because he has heard only one, possibly two other songs that he can remember. This song is birthed from loneliness, from the fallen. The melody haunts him. Every note inspires a touch more melancholy, to the point of deep despair, and then the song begins again and the process repeats.
After climbing three sets of escalators he peers over the railing and finds himself on the top floor. where there’s little more than enormous windowpanes darkened by ash, and potted plants wilted and dead. A coffee stand and cheap thrift stores and a pizzeria. Although he has not eaten in a very long time, he does not feel the slightest bit hungry; the thought of food disgusts him.
He descends a short flight of stairs and turns down a narrow, windowless hallway, where posters hang beneath glass, publicizing events that happened long ago or never at all. Maybe the world ended too soon. Maybe some of the performers still wait for their audience. They will wait forever. The hallway empties into a square room bathed in a pale green hue. Sunlight barely penetrates the emerald tinted shallows of an undiscovered pool. Everything is liquid, everything shimmering and fluid. Tables draped beneath long white linens line the walls, and the floor, polished marble, reflects everything above. A glass dome, and the glass explains the emerald hue, for the glass is green and dull light from outside passes through it. The linens are clean and straight, the floor spotless and slick.
Couples dance soundlessly and elegantly, movements precise and nearly replicas of each other. They have danced this dance before, for a very long time. They have studied and prepared and are experts now. They are ethereal; he sees through their suits and dresses and even their shining black shoes and sparkling heels. He sees through their powdered and made-up faces and white teeth and teary, dreamful eyes, curled and straightened and permmed hair. Ghosts? But ghosts only exist in stories. Then again, the end of the world was never more than a story until now. But ghosts don’t dance. Ghosts don’t smile.
And if they are ghosts, they would have noticed him for disturbing their ritual. But they could be ghosts. In a world of so many dead, it only makes sense that a few ghosts forgot to leave, to wherever they’re supposed to go. Perhaps wherever the dead belong was full, so the spirits had to flock somewhere else. If so, he empathizes for them. He also has somewhere else to be, someplace else to go. Because this is no place to be, least of all if you’re already dead.
Whatever they are, he doesn’t want to disturb their dance. If smiles still mean something, then these people, spirits, ghosts, lost souls, are happy, and the last thing he will ever do is steal someone’s happiness.
Music filling his ears—a new song—he sits alone and watches the dance, and when the music ends and begins again with not a second between the replaying track, he still watches, and watches, and doesn’t know what else to do. He has come so far and achieved so little. Sometimes it’s best to do nothing more than watch and wait. And wait. And wait. And be silent. Patient. Understanding.
Words and actions can ruin everything.