by Ross West
I got a resupply pack in the Repair & Maintenance Shop and lugged it out to the floating wooden dock where we rented kayaks. The ocean air was filled with the lazy calls of sea gulls, and out on the beach the park’s visitors were having their fun. From the pack I took the electronic controller and punched in the command. A harbor seal stuck its head out of the water and, with a few kicks of its powerful tail, propelled itself up onto the dock next to me. Another command launched the seal into its roll-over routine that brought it to a rest propped up on one fin, belly exposed. I inserted the special wrench and opened the door in the seal’s chest. Out popped the old toaster sized battery pack. I slid in its replacement, snapped the door shut, and punched the DONE button on the controller. The seal barked, scooted across the dock, and dove back into the water.
When I first started working at the COWABUNGA! water park I thought the seal was about the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I still did, but recently something else had definitely caught my eye. I was stationed at Lifeguard Tower Four when I first saw her, wearing a T-shirt and a pair of gym shorts, walking barefoot on the dry sand. One of her hands held a pair of flipflops, the other occasionally brushed aside a strand of her long, wavy, chestnut hair. Never had I seen anyone so beautiful.
Turned out that she, Mary, had just been hired. A week or so later our shift supervisor assigned us to pair up later that afternoon doing Special Needs Aquatic Support. I couldn’t believe my luck and bounced through my morning duties grinning, whistling, and feeling all kinds of stupid goofy happy.
If any of this had happened even a few months earlier, I wouldn’t have been ready for it. Back then, I didn’t do much except play high school water polo and hang out with guys from the team—guys who had girlfriends and were always telling stories about burning the love light. But I was shy and super busy with water polo practice and games, school, and two part-time jobs I worked to help Mom with the bills. The guys used to razz me pretty hard about my lack of experience in the female department.
All that changed right after graduation when I got hired at COWABUNGA! On my third day on the job I met the park’s owner, Greg. When I got off my lifeguarding shift at Tower Four he was standing there waiting—forty-five or so, shaggy-haired, in a Hawaiian shirt and a pair of dude shorts.
“Hey man,” he said, “let’s you and me take a walk down the beach.”
As we wove our way between the kids running in and out of the water, he asked me, “Why do you think all these people come here?”
I was a little nervous—new to the job, talking to the big boss—and all I could think of was, “To have fun?”
“Exactly” he said. “For fun and to get away from the crazy stuff outside the park. Drought, mass starvation, water wars—half the world’s starting to look like freakin’ Mad Max. Even in this country, things are getting a little . . . scary. So, it’s important we give our visitors a vacation from all the doom and gloom. Make sense?”
“Totally.” Mostly I didn’t pay attention to all the environmental stuff in the news, but yeah, he was right.
Greg stopped walking and faced me, dead serious, eye to eye. “You and the rest of the staff make that vacation happen. You’re the COWABUNGA! vibe.” He talked to me like an adult— very different from any of the bosses and teachers and coaches I’d ever had. “The way I look at it,” he said, “people are suffering. This place is a hospital, the beach is our medicine, and you, my friend,” he tapped a finger against my chest, “you’re Dr. Feelgood. Can you dig it?”
It was like he’d knighted me or something, like all of a sudden I had a mission to help people. I felt ten feet tall, ready for anything. And yes, I could definitely dig it.
On the afternoon Mary and I were assigned to work together in Aquatic Support, we got to the parking lot just as the van from the state hospital arrived. The driver, a nurse named Roberto, had brought us one tiny and very shy little girl about five, Jeannie. Earlier on the telephone Roberto had filled us in about Jeannie—that she had had eleven surgeries and spent most of her life in the hospital.
We wheeled her out to the access ramp and got her into the floatation jacket. She was scared—maybe headed for a meltdown.
Mary bent in close, stroked Jeanie’s little stick of an arm, and said, “Can I tell you a secret?”
With tears about to spill out of her eyes, Jeannie gave a shaky nod.
“Jacob here is about the best swimmer in the whole wide world. Did you know that?” Jeannie shook her head.
“See that island way way out there?” Mary pointed at the man-made atoll we called Gilligan’s Island, a quarter mile offshore. “He can swim all the way out there and back.” Mary rested her hand on my shoulder. “Isn’t that right, Jacob?”
“Done it a hundred times,” I said.
I gave the kid’s cheek a little brush with the backside of my finger, something that used to help when I babysat my cousins and they needed a little reassurance. It didn’t work any great miracles with Jeanie, whose fingers were clamped on the arm rests of her chair as we rolled her down the ramp and eased her into the Aquatic Support swimming area. The water came up around her and the flotation jacket lifted her out of the wheelchair. Mary and I held her, one on each side, but even so, Jeannie was panicky, straining her head upward and gulping down breaths like a hungry baby bird.
Every time she bobbed down and the water came up close to her mouth, we made sure she bobbed right back up. After a while she calmed down, enough so she started to notice how different rules apply in the water—how light she was, how easy it was for her to move her frail body. She made a few tentative strokes to test things out, tried some variations, and it wasn’t long before she got pretty good at floating and paddling, an accomplishment she signaled with open-mouthed glee and a string of excited chirps.
“I’m flying,” she squealed. And she was, flinging herself back and forth between Mary and me like a giggling little motorboat, spinning around and around, slapping her arms onto the water to make big splashes.
She swam and played until Roberto honked the van’s horn and waved his arm. “I don’t wanna go,” Jeannie cried.
We rolled her out of the water and got her all bunched up in a towel.
“Don’t. Wanna. Go,” she insisted, pushing her fists into her cheeks.
“We’ll always be here,” Mary said.
I took her hand and gave it a squeeze and a little shake. “You can always come back.” “Promise?” she asked, her face lighting up.
“Promise,” we said together.
Roberto got Jeannie and her chair strapped into the van. She bounced happily up and down, talking to us through the glass, saying words we couldn’t hear. The van turned out of the parking lot, and she waved and blew us a kiss.
I waved back. “What a cutie.”
“Hope we see her again,” Mary said, pulling her hair into a ponytail.
We just stood there in the parking lot like neither of us wanted to leave.
Finally, I asked, “So how did you know I’ve been out to Gilligan’s?”
The corner of her mouth curled up in a sneaky little smile and she aimed her green-green green eyes at me. “I’ve been watching you.”
I totally froze.
“See you tomorrow,” she said and walked off toward the Operations Center. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her—the graceful way she moved, her swimmer’s shoulders, how her ponytail swayed.
Greg approached us at CJQ Capital Partners with a rather modest pitch: Six months of profitable operation constituted proof of concept for his themed water park; now it was time to open a second park to test out the feasibility of spreading the COWABUNGA! brand by way of the franchise model. Greg and his CFO walked us through the financials, construction cost estimates, timelines, projected return on investment, and the rest of their package. The numbers penciled out and I was intrigued.
I had my team run our own analyses and rather quickly saw that, like many newcomers to the universe of venture capital, Greg was fixated on growing sunflowers while the market was crying out for redwoods. His vision of piecemeal expansion through franchising would fail to fully leverage disruptive impacts and the first-to-market strategic advantage.
At a second meeting I laid out our counterproposal: Financed by a consortium of institutional and private investors, we would roll out nine beach parks at or near major coastal cities around the world—simultaneously inventing and dominating the market.
When I finished, Greg’s cheeks were wet with tears of joy. I loved his honesty, his unguarded emotions; at one point he said with complete sincerity, “Hey, I’m not really a money guy.” As if we hadn’t noticed.
Far more important than his good heart and clever idea, he possessed the necessary ingredient of every entrepreneurial success, exquisite timing. This is how my team’s Cultural Analytics Specialist summed it up in her evaluation:
The intensifying global emergency of catastrophic climate change (including the worldwide disappearance of beaches resulting from rising sea levels) is forcing governments to impose unprecedented draconian restrictions, eliminating freedoms of activity, behavior, expression. Constrained consumers are resentful of these severe austerities. Their compensatory desires thus stimulated, they crave respite and distraction as never before. COWABUNGA! offers the succor of escapism via an otherwise unattainable resource.
Simply put, we had ourselves a moneymaker.
So far, both meetings about the COWABUNGA! proposal had taken place at our Manhattan office. At these sessions Greg repeatedly implored us to make a site visit, claiming that “all the spreadsheets in the world won’t tell you half as much about the park as spending an hour on the beach.”
We scheduled a visit.
Nights were super popular at COWABUNGA! We had bonfires and weenie roasts and s’mores, full moon surfing, romantic walks along the sand. But the day after Mary and I worked together in Aquatics Support, the park closed early—the staff swept all visitors off the beach and out the doors even before the Sky-Tron kicked into its sunset routine. A maintenance crew was coming from the wave machine company to do their quarterly check-up on the hydraulics. My job was to let them in and make sure they had whatever they might need.
With the crowd and the staff gone and the crew not yet arrived, I was the only guy in the whole huge park. Very cool, very peaceful, like being on my own island. I went for a walk on the sand and stopped at one of the cement fire rings that held a pile of ashes and some charred wood left from last night’s luau. I found it amazing that in the middle of a global climate train wreck we could have open fires on the beach. Outside in the real world just about anything that releases even a puff of greenhouse gas is regulated seventeen different ways by six different branches of government. Not to mention the scary EcoGuardian vigilante groups that go after “Earth killers” by burning down their businesses, cars, and homes. But Greg wasn’t about to have a beach without campfires, so he purchased ten times more carbon offsets than were required and ended up winning a Green Hero award. Smart guy.
My phone rang. The maintenance crew leader said one of their trucks had broken down and they’d have to reschedule for another night. Before we even finished the conversation I was already thinking about Mary and working up the courage to ask her if maybe she might want to come hang out.
“Oh perfect,” she said when I called, her voice happy and bright and not hesitating for a second. “I’ll be right over.”
While I waited, I went into the Control Room, fired up the Sky-Tron controller, and bumped up the intensity of the sunset routine for the dome that covered COWABUNGA! I paced around and looked at the clock about five times then went back to the Sky-Tron controller. What the heck—I cranked all the inputs to the max.
Mary arrived and we ran to the beach, laid out our towels, and dove in. Soon we were beyond the breakers, moving in the open water as easy and happy as a couple of otters. I had jacked up the Sky-Tron settings so much that as the sun dipped toward the horizon the western half of the dome throbbed in bright neon colors—orange, red, gold, green, and purple. I told her what I had done.
“You made us tie-dye sky,” she said, a big grin on her face. She slapped water at me and dove. I felt her gliding smoothly past my calf.
We swam back to shore and toweled off in the fading light of the greatest sunset in the history of the world. I lit a fire while Mary uncorked a bottle of red wine. We sat and drank and watched the flames and laughed and listened to the crackling fire and the shushing waves and drank some more and got a little buzzed.
“Oh my god,” she giggled, looking to the eastern horizon, “What is that?” The full moon I’d programmed on the Sky-Tron was rising. It wasn’t a normal full moon—no, this thing was gigantic, twenty, maybe thirty times regular size, with the Man in the Moon gazing down on us, obviously quite pleased to be setting the mood for what was to come.
Greg had fervently insisted CJQ Capital people visit him at COWABUNGA! and here we were, myself and Lou Moretti, dressed, as our host had recommended, in “beach casual attire.” Perhaps Greg had feared Lou would show up in his wingtips and I would be in heels. In fact, Lou was just back from two weeks on a sailboat with his wife and kids and looked almost as tan as Greg. I was a little pasty (having been working for months on both the COWABUNGA! project and a leveraged buyout of an Indonesian mining outfit), but I felt fashionably beachy in a batik sarong I had picked up in Bali.
Greg first toured us around the park’s headquarters. Everything state-of-the-art, with an admirably cost-effective structure: staffed and operated largely by low-wage labor supported by contracted maintenance and engineering services. Every employee seemed competent; morale was high. When we got outside, the waves made a soothing hum and the air smelled of salt. I took off my sandals, the warm sand felt wonderful on my feet.
“A mile and a half of beach,” Greg said proudly. “Boogie boarding, snorkeling, volleyball, pipeline surfing—everything.” He wasn’t overselling one bit; in a quick glance left and right I saw all he described plus sunbathers, Frisbee tossers, joggers, inner-tubers and kayakers, body surfers, picnicking families, roaming clumps of teens, and an old couple with long poles fishing near the jetty.
Greg swept his arm toward an ultramarine sky streaked with two clouds shaped like white feathers.
“Our Sky-Tron dome gives us a completely programmable environment. We can dial up wispy clouds, a typhoon, or anything in between. The synthetic sun emits infrared heat. Out at the horizon, you can see a sailboat regatta and, closer in, surfers riding the reef break. All holograms on the Sky-Tron.”
Lou, an engineer notoriously hard to impress, emitted an appreciative “Wow.” “Every afternoon we’ve programmed a pod of gray whales to swim past,” Greg said. “They put on quite a show—fins, tails, spouts, breeching. Our guests love it.” “But those are real,” Lou said, pointing at a group floating on their surfboards, waiting for waves while two skillful riders cut up and down the sloped face of a perfectly formed six-foot curl rolling toward the shore. “Must be one hell of a wave machine.”
“A mechanical marvel,” Greg said, smiling and shaking his head, as if he could hardly believe what he had created. “When I was a kid, I spent as much time as I could at a beach a lot like this one. Never felt more alive, more optimistic.” His face was blissful, but quickly turned solemn; his tone grew somber. “When I heard about beaches around the world disappearing. I said to myself, hey man, this is a bigass problem. In fifty years or maybe a hundred we’ll get ocean levels under control and natural beaches will come back. That’s the hope. In the meantime, my job, my sacred duty, is to keep the flame of the beach vibe alive.”
A thin gauze separates the visionary from the lunatic. I needed to make sure which side our future partner was on, so I had to ask, “Why is the beach vibe so important?” “Global warming is just bummer after bummer after bummer. And that’s a soul killer. The more depressing and dispiriting things get, the more people need a break—a place to have some fun, to recharge. We’re Homo ludens, man. As a species, we want to—need to—have fun. And we can’t afford to bum out and give up. The stakes are way too high.” He raised his arms and opened them to take in all that surrounded us. “We need surfers and slackers, parrot heads and pirates, a place where lovers can rub suntan lotion on each other and lay in the sun, where kids can chase each other into the surf.”
He was on a roll and would probably have continued his lilting beach rhapsody but stopped abruptly when something behind Lou captured his attention. He squinted and tilted his head as if he wasn’t quite sure what to make of the sight. Lou and I turned around and saw a tall white-haired man in a funeral-black suit lumbering across the sand toward us. When he arrived, he adjusted the hang of his still buttoned coat and asked, “Greg Becker?” Greg nodded suspiciously.
“I’m with the Office of Cultural and Historical Disambiguation.” The man reached into his coat’s breast pocket, withdrew an envelope, and handed it to Greg. “You have thirty days to cease this facility’s operation.”
Down at the tidepools with a group of kids gathered around me, I talked about the starfish I had in my hand and about how, when one of these amazing creatures loses a leg, it can grow a new one. The kids thought this was pretty cool and responded with oohs, aahs and a ton of questions.
I noticed Greg standing off to the side, watching. He had his arms folded across his chest and didn’t look like his normal cheery self. I tried not to let his presence distract me and passed my visual aids to the kids—the starfish and a glass jar holding some hermit crabs, limpets, and a spiny purple sea urchin. I got the kids wading in the pools, touching the muscles, chasing striped shore crabs, and having their fingers sucked on by sea anemones—to shrieks of joy.
When we finished up and the kids drifted off at around 2:30, Greg walked up to me. “You were good with them,” he said, close enough that I could smell alcohol on his breath. There was plenty of red in his light blue eyes, the skin around them was puffy. “Thanks.” I had a bad feeling he was going to bust me for my night with Mary—exactly one week ago.
“Let’s have a drink,” he said.
We chit-chatted as we walked down the beach to his hut, the casual talk made me all the more certain he was going to let me have it. It would explain why he’d been drinking—he didn’t seem like the kind of guy who liked to dish out discipline. I felt crappy for putting him in an uncomfortable position. Still, if there was a price to pay for being with Mary, I was willing to take the hit. It had been the best night of my life.
The hut was on a rise away from where any of our guests would walk. It had a great view of the ocean and a hammock strung between two palm trees by a covered lanai. On the outside, the hut was a rickety frame of weathered boards, bamboo, and palm fronds, but inside it was like a regular modern apartment.
Greg rattled ice into a blender, unscrewed different bottles and splashed in a couple of jiggers from each one, squeezed a lime over the top, and let it rip. He pushed the button to make the clattering roar stop, then turned his back to me, getting glasses from the cupboard. Over his shoulder he said, “I see you and Mary Yeager seem to be hitting it off.”
My face grew hot. Since our night on the beach, she and I had been spending every spare minute together, but I hadn’t figured anyone else had noticed, especially not Greg. He came over and handed me a water glass filled to the brim with the icy margarita.
“She seems like a real fine young lady,” he said with a wink and a smile. Obviously, I wasn’t busted. That was a relief. Okay, things were on the upswing. A drink in the middle of the afternoon with the owner—heck yeah. Beats working.
Before I’d had more than a few sips of the sweet, strong drink, he was back with the pitcher, topping off my glass. He dumped the remainder of the slush in his the tumbler he’d already drained. He tilted back a swallow then returned to the blender and mixed up another batch. As we drank, I got more comfortable and relaxed. My mind drifted to Mary and the one week anniversary celebration we had planned for after work. Life had never been so great. I’d been lost in my daydreaming when I noticed that Greg hadn’t said anything for a while. I looked over at him and saw he was fidgety and kind of agitated.
“I saw your hammock outside,” I said, thinking he could use some fresh air. “Could I give it a try?”
He grunted and led the way, his steps a little shaky. The warm breeze carried the sounds of the waves and of a bunch of kids squealing down at the waterline. I rolled into the hammock and made a big show of rocking back and forth.
“This is awesome,” I said.
But he wasn’t listening. He had his arms spread out wide, his glass in one, the pitcher in the other, thrashing around the lanai, mad, mumbling something about a letter. Then he got louder and clearer, “—god damn idiots—wrecking everything. Pissy little pissant bureaucrats . . . addicted to their pissant power.” He scowled, burped, and came over to the hammock and put his sweaty flushed face close to mine. “Beware the man who knows only one book.”
He was raging, no question about that, but it wasn’t aimed at me. I figured he just needed somebody to vent to, so I listened. He ranted on and on about the letter, about people being blind and stupid, about there being many paths to the top of the mountain. I just swayed in the hammock and nodded and sipped my drink. Maybe it was the booze, but I found the whole weird situation kind of amusing.
Something big was up, yeah, definitely. But as far as I could tell, it wasn’t my problem. In a couple of hours I’d be with Mary in her bed—next to that, what else could possibly matter? All was right with my world. No, not just right, all was perfect and radiant and glorious. Just the two of us, Mary and me. And nothing was going to ever interfere with that—ever.
To: Office of Cultural and Historical Disambiguation
From: Delilah Mallet-Grimshaw
Subject: Progress Report, Case No. 1307
In accordance with the Accuracy in Historical Representations and Communications Act (8.3.26b), I am reporting progress related to actions taken by my office.
On April 19 it was reported to this office that a commercial enterprise—COWABUNGA! (hereafter referred to as “the replica beach”)—was operating in violation of numerous provisions of AHRCA.
Field investigators were dispatched for initial information gathering. Upon confirmation that the replica beach promoted and/or portrayed inaccurate historical representations, I formed an Action Team for further investigation (electronic surveillance warrants obtained). Formal analysis, assessment, and response preparation activities ensued.
Numerous violations of Class 1 restrictions were identified including, but not limited to: • Romanticized and unhistorical representations (as set forth in AHRCA subsection 1.1.4: “no description of an historical time, place, situation, etc., may be shown/presented inconsistent with the full and accurate context of the historical dynamics of anthropogenic geodegradation”). • Denial of basic tenets of science-backed consensus on Global Warming mechanisms and impacts.
- 103 specific infractions of the Code of Observance.
Sole proprietor of replica beach, Gregory L. Becker, was served with a Letter of Finding enumerating violations of the AHRCA and demanding cessation of operations. Letter informed recipient of how failure to comply would render proprietor subject to the full extent of the Act’s punitive remedies (17.1–67).
Replica beach operations suspended. Historical Reconciliation improvements begun under auspices of the Office of Cultural and Historical Disambiguation, Office of Narrative Compliance.
Successful removal/remediation of offensive, unhistorical, and dangerous (in terms of public perception) misrepresentations of significant natural and cultural activity associated with ecological dynamics/degradation/dysfunction.
Assistant Director, Office of Narrative Compliance
When the government lowered the boom, everything went down the crapper fast. Greg fought the shutdown order with every ounce of his strength, his lawyers made appeal after appeal—with zero success. He showed up at the park less and less, and when he did, he mostly spent his time alone in his hut drinking and smoking weed.
The government brought in all these Narrative Compliance people to transform the place—an Artistic Director, Experience Designers, code writers, a crews of construction workers, and the main man, the Story Czar who had one droopy eye and oversaw the whole project.
The Czar was big on living history dioramas. One day we gathered in the Operations Center, and he told us his vision, which was mostly of schoolkids on field trips having the
experience of learning about global warming by talking to real (fake) people—a boatful of climate refugees, island people whose village was half-submerged, a climate scientist in a lab coat, a UN delegate working on global environmental policies. Could anything be more stimulating for young minds? Some of the laid-off COWABUNGA! staff got rehired to put on costumes and be actors in these dioramas—though most were laid off again when the majority of the living dioramas got replaced by holograms.
I was among the people who were lucky enough to keep our jobs as COWABUNGA! got reconfigured into the Beach Museum—the BM, as we dubbed it. Even though this transformation was slow and horrible, like watching a beautiful animal die, I stayed on. What the hell else was I gonna do? I was a beach bum, that’s all I knew.
Once the BM was up and running, there was hardly anything going on, just a fraction of the activity from back in the COWABUNGA! days. Mostly we marched groups of schoolkids through the museum’s fourteen Info Stations. At each one they’d have to listen to a staff member or hologram drone through an indoctrination speech filled with bleak and demoralizing facts— another glacier melted, another forest burned, another species gone extinct. The happy squirrely energy that buzzed in the kids as they got off the bus would be completely drained by Station 3, replaced by yawns and glassy-eyed stares.
I had the most seniority of anybody left on the staff, so one of my jobs was to break in the new hires. This kept me pretty busy as the BM had a hard time keeping people on the payroll. Randall was my latest trainee, a chubby, baby-faced kid who, like almost all of the hires since the swimming requirement had been eliminated, wasn’t half as physically fit as staff members used to be. I took him to the employee dressing rooms and got him squared away with a locker and a set of work clothes to match the ones I already had on.
“Time to costume up,” I said. Randal awkwardly wiggled into his pea-green rubberized rain suit (with hood) and the knee-high rubber boots. The bosses said this gear was designed to protect us from contact toxins and environmental pathogens—what it was really good for was making us sweat like pigs. Once he was suited up, we stood in front of the dressing room mirror—a couple of Gumbys.
I unscrewed the cap from a tube of white zinc oxide cream and squeezed a thick gob onto my finger.
“Really?” Randall said, narrowing his eyes.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “it’s just sunblock with an SPF of like ten thousand.” I applied the white goo to his nose, cheekbones, and forehead in kind of a starburst pattern. “We could use regular sunscreen, but the Narrative Control Team decided that this fits better with the E.D.N.’s section on the resurgent ozone hole and skin cancer.”
“Environmental Degradation Narrative,” I said, looking in the mirror and dabbing the goo onto my own face. “That’s our bible, the document that controls everything we do.” I led the way out to the beach, which the E.D.N. had staged with a soiled diaper, cigarette butts, random plastic crap, crude oil and beach tar, dead fish, rotting bird carcasses, and a condom. Not far offshore, a one-tenth scale cruise ship was anchored in a vast gyre of floating plastic trash—from a pipe in its stern gushed a waterfall of chunky gray-brown waste. Randall’s face pinched with repulsion.
“Right over there used to be our number-one surfing area,” I said, leveling my gaze at the slack water.
He squinted to see through the smoke (non-greenhouse) rising from a pile of (simulated) burning tires. “Surfers? Here? Are you kidding?”
“The wave machine’s still out there—it’s just turned off. The accountants say that saves a ton of money. And why not? With the E.D.N., the water’s so filthy it would be like surfing in a toilet.”
Randall wiped his sweating forehead.
“Getting a little warm?”
“The temperature inside the dome is set at 93 with 95 percent humidity under an always overcast sky. The only break is every day at four when we get a Category I hurricane—the air movers rev up to a godawful howl. Keep your peepers peeled for flying debris.”
It was a lot for him to take in and he didn’t look too happy. Still, my job was to give him the skinny, so the skinny he would get.
“Just down there is something pretty cool,” I said, picking up the pace. We arrived at a child-sized body lying face down on the sand just at the waterline, wavelets lapping around the lifeless form.
“The Experience Designers went through a bunch of different models before they settled on this one. The first version was too stiff—like a mannequin. Then there were a few that were kinda loosey-goosey, jiggly like water balloons. Technically this guy is the CMBC-6, for the sixth version of the Climate Migrant Beach Corpse. We call him Ricky.”
“My god,” Randall said. “That’s disgusting.”
“Narrative Compliance says it really hammers home the tragedy. The schoolkids are totally grossed out, but it’s the only thing in the park they actually pay attention to.”
We trudged back across the sand toward the parking lot where a yellow school bus was pulling to a stop, the noise of high-spirited kids pouring from its open windows. Randall fixed his eyes on the bus. “I’m planning to become a teacher,” he said. “The ad for the job said I’d get to work with kids.”
My gut tightened as I thought of Jeannie, the little girl in the wheelchair—how I had promised her we’d always be here for her, how I had broken that promise. “Kids we got,” I said. “Class field trips make up ninety-six percent of our visitors. That’s the business model now. Technically we’re still owned by our founder, Greg Becker, but really, the government subsidizes the whole operation. We don’t make squat on gate receipts anymore.” Next to the bus, the teachers straightened the wriggling elementary school kids into lines. “What happened to Becker?” Randal asked.
I wondered about how to reply, even as I recalled being on a midnight beach patrol, my flashlight beam sweeping onto a very wasted-looking Greg staggering with an empty bottle of tequila in one hand. He fell to his knees, doubled over, and spewed violently into the sand. “Greg doesn’t come around much anymore,” I said.
“People come, people go, huh?” Randall said with a stupid laugh, like he’d said something clever.
It was just then that we came to Lifeguard Tower One, the place where I’d last seen Mary. She too had kept her job during the transition to the BM, but it hadn’t taken her long to see where things were headed. She was smart that way, lots smarter than me. We were standing right by the Tower in our knee boots and our dorky rubber rain suits when she said she was leaving. She told me had dreams of finding somewhere that was more like what COWABUNGA! used to be. “This place is the shits,” she said. “You know that, right?”
“We could go together,” I blurted. But by the time I said it, I already knew we wouldn’t. There was something about the way she stood, the way she spoke—she’d thought it all out and decided.
“I need to do this on my own,” she said, looking out to the horizon. “Do you understand?”
I didn’t, but I said I did—like it was the thing I was supposed to say.
“When I find a good place, I’ll call,” she said, brushing away a tear from my cheek. “Maybe you’ll wanna come be with me.” She gave me the gift of her warmest, twinkliest smile then took my head in her hands, looked into my eyes for a long time like she wanted to remember, then kissed me soft and slow.
“Be brave,” she said.
She turned and walked down the beach. I watched her get smaller and smaller and then she was gone.
It almost killed me. Mary was my whole world. There wasn’t anything without her. I told myself we’d only be apart for a few days, or at most a couple of weeks. When I didn’t hear from her, I imagined she was off the grid someplace in Peru or Thailand or maybe New Zealand, doing whatever it was she needed to do. But she would call. I was sure of that, and I still am. She’ll call and I’ll go to her, wherever she is, anywhere on earth, and everything will be like it was before.
Ross West has placed fiction, essays, journalism, and poetry in publications from Orion to the Journal of Recreational Linguistics. His work has been anthologized in Best Essays Northwest, Best of Dark Horse Presents and elsewhere. He served as senior managing editor of Oregon Quarterly magazine and as text editor for the Atlas of Oregon and Atlas of Yellowstone.