At the Edge of the City

“Please don’t leave me. You’re all I think about.” Angel tore at his black hair, which stood in tufts framing his boyish face. They stood on her parents’ rooftop garden where the wind dragged its claws across her jacket. The distant cry of a siren below grew into a screaming wail.

Angel touched Sofie’s shoulder and held it there. She could smell the oil and must emanating from his fingers; he hadn’t washed his hair in days. She didn’t want to want him anymore, but she knew that a small part of her still did.

“You cheated on me.” She stepped away from him onto a bed of flowers. She heard the petals crush beneath her feet. Her mother would be so mad. The gardener had designed the violet color to match the living room walls. “You know I can’t stand her. Is that why you did it? To get back at me?”

Something flickered in his sapphire eyes, but she couldn’t read it. Almost like he was formulating a lie, but she couldn’t be sure.

“No, baby. I love you. I was being selfish.”

Sofie stared at him. He was honest about the selfish part. He moved towards her, even closer, his breath hot on her skin.

“Let’s go away,” he said. “Just for the day. Let’s take the train to the edge of the city and see the ocean.”

Sofie wanted to say no, but she felt herself nodding instead. He kissed her on the lips. They had a physical connection that was undeniable, and she was a sucker.

The ride to the ocean only took four hours by the high speed train. At 200 miles per hour, the high rises of Old Chicago gave way to thinner and taller skyscrapers of the Plaines, the tops of which disappeared into cottony clouds. Angel had fallen asleep, his head bobbing forward, his hand still interlaced with hers.

Sofie leaned her head against the windows and watched the buildings whip by in a blur of chipped concrete and rusting steel. She thought she glimpsed a naked man pulling his shades shut, and moments later a little girl sitting on a fire escape, tossing breadcrumbs at the pigeons that roosted on a flower box filled with the corpses of browned leaves.

After awhile, the buildings began to all look the same, but the monotony suited the gentle rocking of the train. There was nothing but endless city all the way to the ocean, most of it uninspired and cheaply made. She sometimes forgot how nice her neighborhood was with its architecturally curated skyscrapers. Her family’s apartment was especially luxe with its rooftop garden and oversized fireplace. She loved the view; there was only endless cloudscape from her bedroom window.

“Wake up,” Angel said. “We’re here.” He was shaking her. Sofie opened her eyes and blinked. She must have fallen asleep.

“First Queens,” the electronic voice announced over the intercom.

Sofie stumbled out of the train into the blinding sunlight with her arm interlaced in Angel’s, her backpack slung over one shoulder. Slipping on a pair of sunglasses, she inhaled. She could smell fish, brine and the putrid stench of sewage and rot. Just outside the train station, the sidewalk was flooded with a shallow pool of water, and seaweed gathered in clumps around the street’s drainage system.

“I haven’t seen the ocean since I was a kid,” she said.

“I was here last summer for the weekend with my parents. Remember? It’s going to be high tide soon. Good thing we got our boots on.”

Sofie did not remember. In fact, she was pretty sure she would have recalled him going away. She wondered suddenly if he’d brought that girl with him. The thought was like a wound that stung. She removed her hand from Angel’s arm.

“I’m so glad we did this.” He pecked her neck with his lips and took her hand again.

The walk to the coast was only ten minutes, but with each block the flooding got a little worse, until they were wading ankle deep through dirty, inky water. They passed by residence towers and saw kids tossing a ball with paint-like splatters of gray sea sprayed across their bare legs. Further down, the shops at ground level had boarded up their windows and relocated to the second and third floors of the high rise buildings.

“Just a little further.” Angel picked up speed, the water at their calves now.

Sofie had been prepared for the flooding, but the fact that she couldn’t see what was beneath the muck was starting to make her sick. Something tangled between her legs. She stumbled and readjusted her backpack. They could now see the ocean between where the street emptied out onto the shore. It was fair blue, reflecting the even bluer sky. But the high tide continued to rise.

She pointed to sign for a bar at the bottom of a set of stairs. “Let’s go inside and wait until the water recedes.”

“Naw,” Angel said. “Let’s check out the ocean now. We can get a drink later.”

“I’m wet. I’d rather get a drink and dry off. The next train isn’t for three hours anyway.”

“I thought we could spend the night.” Angel looked at her like a Golden Retriever humping a pillow. “Maybe just stay up all night looking at the stars and catch the first train home.”

She hesitated. She liked the idea of spending the night on the beach, but she also wanted to punish him. The bastard had cheated on her. “Maybe. Let’s just see how we feel.”

They waited at a bar until the water went down, seated at a two-top that had an expansive view of the ocean. For the first time since she was a girl, she could see the edge of the city. She sipped a gin and tonic with a sallow lime wedge and looked out at the tossing sea.

“Do you think there’s anything out there?” Sofie glanced at Angel. He was on this third beer already, eyes glazed. “I mean, maybe an island with palm trees — you know, like the ones in the pictures?”

Angel took her hand and rubbed it against his cheek. “I don’t know, baby. If there was such an island, don’t you think we’d all be there?”

“And then there’d be no island at all because there’d be too many people.” Sofie withdrew her hand from his gentle grip. “It’s just hard to believe that there’s nothing else.”

“We’re all that matters anyway.” Angel’s hand moved to the inside of her thigh, rubbing it. She closed her legs.

“Let’s get a room,” he said.

“Let’s get another drink first.” She was stalling. She didn’t want to get a room. The ocean seemed sad. This place was depressing. She wanted to go back to Old Chicago.

Angel gestured to the bartender.

A few hours later, Angel was passed out on the table. He cradled his head in his arms. Sofie had switched to tequila at some point. Rather than having a dulling effect, she felt invigorated. The sun was at the horizon, and the water had receded, leaving black water stains along the sides of the skyscrapers and pieces of plastic, dead fish and trash loitering in the streets. A few people had wandered out and bent to pick up the trash. Yet the ocean had calmed, and the waves lapped tamely at the shore. The waning light sparkled like champagne bubbles.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it? I mean, it’s like something from a dream, wouldn’t you say?” The bartender slipped another drink in front of her. She did not remember ordering it.

She looked up at him. “I guess. I mean, the flooding is bad. When did the water breach the dykes?”

“Oh, maybe ten years ago now. I can’t really remember exactly.”

He straightened his narrow black tie. Sofie realized for the first time that he was dressed in a formal, old-time sort of way. Collared white shirt, pressed and starched, dark trousers, polished dress shoes and a blonde, waxed mustache on his upper lip. An apron was double-tied around his waist. Yet, his head was shaved to his scalp, and she could see that his arms were covered in tattoos. His brown eyes glimmered as he looked out across the ocean.

“I used to come here when I was little,” Sofie said. “It was nice then. There were beach chairs and cotton candy. My mom used drink Campari and tonic.”

“We closed that a long time ago.”

“Why don’t you leave?” she asked, wondering why this man — her own age, probably — would stay in such a sad place. He seemed interesting, like he should be from somewhere else.

“Why don’t you?

She laughed. “I don’t live here. I’m from Old Chicago.”

The bartender’s eyes darted to her, and then Angel, whose face was smushed against his hand. “I meant, why don’t you leave him?”

Without breaking eye contact, she said, “I don’t know.”

He paused. “You came all this way. Why don’t we dip our toes in the ocean?”

It may have been the tequila, but for the first time in a long while, she did what she wanted.

Little Fish

She was a little fish in an infinitesimal pond, but this pond was outer space, and it slid boundlessly across the universe.

She touched her hand to the large window that looked out upon the stars that fanned across the Milky Way. The glass felt icy and a fine layer of crystalline frost had formed along the edges near the seal. She first noticed the frost twelve days ago after being aboard the small shuttle for nearly 40 nights. This was a very bad sign.

To measure the creeping frost, she had taken to drawing hatch marks on the window in green toothpaste with the edge of a knife. She estimated this to be 34 millimeters every 24 hours, which meant that in fifteen days the window would be completely frozen over. She could only assume the rest of the shuttle would be in a similar state. The systems might work for another few days before the frost crept into the wiring and froze the guts of her flying machine solid. After that, she would only have an hour or so before she became a popsicle herself. The cold would certainly get her before the lack of O2 did.

She tried not to think about that too much. It was demoralizing to dwell on impending death. She needed to stay focused, sharp and physically fit. If she gave up, all hope was lost.

She moved to the center of the space shuttle and sat in the center, facing the window. With eyes partially closed, she meditated. She thought of Iowa, where she was from. There, the fields were green in the summer and paper brown in the fall. When the corn was harvested, the husks were big and heavy in her hand, and when she peeled back the leaves, sometimes she would find misshapen kernels, or a black and white striped worm. She thought about other details too, like the heat that undulated off the fields when the weather got hot, and the blue sky that stretched on for as far as the eye could see.

She could see the similarity now between the corn fields and outer space. Iowa was just another big pond in a different place. Sort of. In Iowa, there had at least been daily routines shifting between the grocery store, bank and Dairy Queen that left her feeling like she’d filled up her day with something. But out here, in space, there was nothing to do, nothing to see. It was a vast emptiness.

Yet space was not the real nothingness. No. That existed beyond space. The nothing started where space ended. It was outside of time, had no mass or sound. Even the principles of science and mathematics were crushed by its fist. Yet she had trouble believing that was true. After all, nothing was something, wasn’t it? Which would mean that there a place beyond space.

She opened her eyes and let her thoughts settle. She could not dwell inside her head. She stood, crossed the room and took out a mat from the closet for her physical exercises. Part of emergency training at ISSI included an exercise routine to maintain physical strength. Though she had memorized the routine for final exams, there was also a card pinned to the mat with pictures of a person doing each movement. Arms up, arms down, touch the toes, jump back into a push up, stretch to a plank, jump forward and repeat twenty times. This was followed by balances on one leg and sitting stretches for hamstrings. She added to it by finishing with a headstand, which she held for five minutes twenty-two seconds. The physical exertion made her feel better. It gave her a sense of purpose, no matter how brief.

Refreshed, she stood and walked to the control panel. A small, red light blinked with persistence. It was the signal for the automated emergency message that was broadcasted once every two minutes. The message was transmitted first in Morse code, and then as an audio file.

She sat down in front of the control panel and pulled the headphones on to listen to her voice in the recording — again, for the thousandth time. “Mayday Mayday, Mayday. This is escape pod Alpha 2. Emergency evacuation from Blackbird Station, planet Mars. Need immediate transfer to passing vessel or request urgent landing on any available docking station. One Dr. Gillian Morris aboard of planet Earth, Des Moines, Iowa. No surviving crew. No injures. Model A156.”

She glanced back at the window and the creeping frost. She swallowed hard. She needed to update the message with more information about her current condition. She didn’t want to though; it was like admitting that she was going to die. Her finger hovered over the record button for a moment before she pressed it. Her lips brushed the mic.

“Condition of ship deteriorating. A crack in the right window.” She paused and looked at her watch. “Will be frozen in 15 days from January 6, 2513 Earth time. Life support systems currently stable.”

After a moment, she played the message back and was surprised to hear a woman’s voice that she did not recognize. It was thin and raspy. She frowned. Was that her? She re-recorded the message, then listened to it again. Yes, it was her voice. How was that possible? She sounded so weak.

With the new message activated, she checked that the transmitter was still working. It was. There were no messages of course; there was no one to hear her. She was millions of miles from home.

The 7:52 Part Two: You of All People

This is an update from the B.A.R.T. control center. Please remember that there is no eating, drinking, or smoking on B.A.R.T. trains.

Ruby rested against the pole in the middle of the car. If she leaned, she didn’t have to touch anything. Commuters back in New York never would have let her take up so much space, but she’d been lucky in Oakland—people seemed to give her more room.

Giggling babies. Seven Signs He’s Cheating. Hamster on a Piano. Facebook was the literature of commuters. It was all crap, but she checked her feed anyway out of FOMO: Fear of Missing Out.

Now departing 19th Street Oakland. This is a San Francisco-Millbrae train.

As the doors tried to swing shut, a single bare leg thrust itself between them causing them to bounce back open. A man jumped in, sweaty and panting. His clothes were meticulously clean, but they were all out style. His tie was last season and his button down shirt was short sleeve, which was never acceptable, and cut too boxy. Ruby placed it circa 2007, a relic of the pre-metrosexual craze. The rest of him was more shocking than his bad taste–between his shirt and cheap faux-leather shoes, there was nothing. Nothing, that is, except bright white Fruit of the Looms. The pair must have been torn from its plastic wrapper no less than an hour ago.

“Jesus! Can’t you hold the train? You all saw me running for it.”

No one even looked up at him. It was a collective thought: Do not stand next to me.

As the man squirmed through the school of commuters toward Ruby, she could not help but stare. His head nearly brushed the top of the train, and his body shape was as terrifying as his height—a great upright praying mantis with an impossibly flabby belly pulling at the buttons of his shirt.

She tried to create a little space, but the woman behind her slammed an elbow into Ruby’s rib. “Move over. So gross!” The woman spit the words out with more hate than Ruby was accustomed to.

The man fixed his blue eyes on the woman and scowled, “Sorry, you have to make room for everyone, lady.” She didn’t hear him. Maybe she didn’t want to. He jerked his head toward Ruby, and leaning in close said, “Can you believe these assholes moving out to the East Bay, jacking up our rent?”

Ruby didn’t respond.

“Holy Moses, it’s hot as hell in this shitbox.” He thrust his hand out. “I’m Miles.”

“Leave me alone.” Ruby unlocked her phone and opened Farm Heroes Saga, examining him out of her periphery.

“You don’t have to be rude. We are all in this together: This great machine, this great commute.” He shrugged with vaudevillian exaggeration and gestured toward his legs. “I assume that the fact that I am not wearing any pants is the source of your animosity?”

He bother anyone else. He ignored them and they ignored him—a silent agreement Ruby was not privy to.

The train lurched to the left. Its abrupt stop smacked her against Miles. She reached her hands out, an instinct, and they sunk deep into the soft cushion of his revolting belly.

Sorry, folks. We’ll be holding here for just a moment. There’s a medical emergency at Montgomery station.

“I think I’m going to be sick.”

Miles swung his willowy arms above his head, “Give her some air!”

“Stop. Please.”

“Why? Who cares what they think. Look around. They pretend I don’t exist.” He examined her for a beat too long before his eyes went gentle, “Do they ignore you too?”

“We all ignore each other. I’d like to ignore you too. Stop talking to me.”

Okay, everyone. Hold on. We are clear for Embarcadero. Thanks for your patience and thanks for riding B.A.R.T.

“Do you want to know why I’m not wearing pants?”

Ruby screwed her face up into her most deadly look. “No, I don’t. But I imagine your goal is to make us all uncomfortable. Well, you won.” Miles recoiled as if slapped.

“I guess I thought you’d understand.”

“Why on earth would I understand? Now, go away.”

The doors slid open. Commuters moved out of the train and onto the platform at Embarcadero station. Miles bent over and picked up his briefcase. He paused for a moment to look at Ruby. The swarm of people moved around him, in front of him, through him. From somewhere deep and unexpected, Ruby felt shame. He turned on his heel and walked out without looking back. The train felt empty.

She moved toward the doors anticipating the timing to Montgomery station. After three years on the same route, she had it down to a science. Today, Ruby wanted to be the first one on the escalator. The first one out the turnstile. The first one onto the street.

“Excuse me, honey?” An old, wrinkled woman jabbed the back of Ruby’s thigh with her cane.

“Am I in your way?

“No, sweetie. But I think you forgot something this morning.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, what?”

“Your pants. Young lady, you forgot to put your pants on.”

Ruby caught her reflection in the train windows. She wore her favorite grey silk blouse, a black suit coat (meeting with her boss), soft black leather heels, and nothing else from the waist down except white cotton bikinis. The kind you bought at Walgreens.

The doors tore open at Montgomery. Ruby ran a hand through her hair to straighten it. She popped her ear buds in and stepped among the swirls of commuters racing along the platform. For a moment the old woman could make her out among the others, the bright white panties bobbing like a buoy in the water, and then, just like that, Ruby was gone.