Gill

“Maybe they won’t come,” he said. “The water’s getting colder now.”

The sun descended into the sea, leaving behind only dark outlines of what was once visible. Patrick felt the air turn cold and damp against his skin; the leaves of the cedars and dogwoods around him were slick with moisture. He zipped up his jacket and slid on his forest-green parka. The mist enshrouded him as he crept behind the trunk of a conifer tree. Lying on his stomach, he pointed the barrel of his rifle through a growth of ferns and pushed away the undergrowth that blocked his view of the shore.

He saw a glowing dot amongst the rocks and sand. Ty was down there, crouched behind a boulder, shielding his lighter’s flame from the ocean wind. Pulling his jacket’s hood over his greying crew cut, Ty exhaled a puff of smoke and leaned back against the rock while sea spray drifted around him. After a few minutes he got up and walked across the beach into the forest, climbing up the hill to a dugout beside Patrick.

“You wanna hit this?” asked Ty, holding out a lit joint. “It’s pretty good this week.”

Patrick could smell the fresh weed burning between Ty’s fingers.

“Hit me.” He pinched the army-issued joint and took a drag.

“It’s chilly tonight, ain’t it?” said Ty, rubbing his hands together. “Damn sea breeze.”

With the joint hanging from his mouth, Patrick scanned the shore through his rifle’s thermal sight. Jade-coloured waves rolled over the sand, leaving behind seaweed and foam.

“Maybe they won’t come,” he said. “The water’s getting colder now.”

Ty dropped into his hole and began loading his rifle, one bullet at a time as he always did. “They’ll come. I’ve seen them break through ice when I was stationed in Alaska. Gave me fucking nightmares.”

Patrick envisioned the scene at the northern outpost. The ice cracking apart in the darkness, the deep moans of the monsters as they painfully sucked in air for the first time, the slow and steady rumble of gunshots echoing across the waves. He was glad the army hadn’t sent him there.

“You ever think about the irony?” he asked Ty. “How we evolved the same way?”

Squinting into his rifle’s scope, Ty rubbed the pad of his finger against the trigger. A wail rose out from the sea, as if some creature were being burned alive. Ty took a deep breath and squeezed the trigger. The blast ruptured the air around him and his body jerked back from the recoil. He exhaled, lowered the rifle, and pulled the bolt back to release the spent cartridge. “Naw.”

He turned and stared at Patrick. “Let me ask you something. Why’d you enlist?”

Patrick could make out a dark shape on the beach, the waves lapping against it. By morning the tide would pull the carcass back into the depths.

He said, “My wife killed herself while I was asleep. She jumped off the balcony, twelve stories up. No goodbye, no note, no anything. I just didn’t feel like starting over again … so I joined the next day. They put me here on fish duty, thinking I’d be a liability in combat.”

Ty nodded. “I was born type-four radiation. My great-grandparents were from the east coast, by Philadelphia. They crossed west before the war got too hot, but they still had some exposure.”

He paused for a moment, trying to fake a smile. The weed had left him vulnerable.

“I’m not allowed to have kids,” he went on. “They’re scared I could pass down a mutation or something, like these fish have. So yeah I see the irony. I’m only one step away from what I’m killing.”

Patrick tried to apologize — he didn’t know Ty was considered a mutant — but his throat felt dry; he couldn’t form the words. He could only shake his head.

“You know what my nickname was in high school?” continued Ty. “Gill. Fucking Gill. Even the teachers, man.”

The waves crashed in the distance. The tide was growing stronger, threatening to carry more monsters ashore. Patrick moved his mouth until the word “sorry” came out.

Ty climbed out of his foxhole and became a silhouette against the moon. “It’s not your fault. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and it hasn’t gotten any easier.” He gazed out across the sea. “I’m going to die alone … The army won’t have me forever. How old do you think I am? Really.”

“Fifty-six?”

“Shit, sixty-two.”

Patrick understood why Ty was breaking down. He would be forced to retire out of the army on his next birthday.

“With my health, I got another good forty years in me,” said Ty. “What then? Scrub toilets because no one else hires me?” He slammed his fist against a tree. “Not a day goes by I wish those bombs dropped just a little closer and I was never born. You know what they used to say in Alaska? We bombed the Chinese so hard we drove them into the sea like rats. If you look hard enough before you pull the trigger, you can see a Chinaman staring up at you.”

Patrick stared at the ground; it felt like someone had slapped him across the face: the chilly sting, the hot flash of guilt. He figured Ty for an asshole, someone who broke a man’s nose at the bar and left with the bleeding guy’s woman at his side.

“Won’t you still get a pension?” he asked.

Ty unslung his rifle from his shoulder. “This gun’s worth more than I am,” he said, running his fingers across the barrel. He bent down and placed the rifle on a mat of moss.

Patrick remained silent as Ty crouched beside him and put a hand on his shoulder.

“Look,” said Ty, “I know you lost your wife. But you don’t me know from Adam. I’m just a solider you shared a lookout with for a couple weeks. I—”

“I won’t do it,” said Patrick, looking him in the eye. “You deserve better than that.”

Ty squeezed Patrick’s shoulder. “It’s the best I’ve got and you know it. There won’t be an investigation. I’m type four, bottom of the chain.”

“You’re as human as I am, Ty.”

Ty smiled, earnestly this time. “Hell, I know.” He stood up and began walking towards the beach.

“Hey, Mr. Philosopher,” he shouted, his voice faint against the roar of the waves. “Ain’t it ironic how we’re killing our ancestors?”

Crazy bastard, thought Patrick. But he found himself smiling too.

Then he started thinking about his wife. How she would hum her grandmother’s favourite songs while she cooked, how her dark hair smelled like jasmine when he’d wrap his arms around her. He argued with her, the day she died. It was morning and she was changing for work, her hair still wet from the shower.

“I had another dream about it,” she had said, admiring her half-naked body in the mirror. “I really think we should go. I’ll call Bill today and ask him about the dates.”

He sighed and told her he didn’t think it was such a hot idea anymore, moving back east to rebuild the barren wastelands for a volunteer’s salary, not with a promotion looming at his banking job and life finally becoming more secure — maybe they could settle down and start a family. “If you want me you’ll realize there’s more to life than a promotion,” was the last thing she ever said to him.

Now a yell came from the sea. By instinct Patrick raised his rifle and scanned the beach through his scope. He stared for a long time until what he saw became a long round-jawed fish. The slime on its grey scales glistened in the moonlight; its white eyes were filled with agony as it opened its mouth to gasp for air. It cried again while pushing its body up with its front fins, as if shocked by the weight of the surface world. He watched it crawl across the wet sand, searching for a briny swamp in the forest to lay its eggs, away from the radiation of the Yellow Sea. Its pink, flailing gills began to remain closed; the war had caused changes in its body. With lungs, it would be able to tolerate the surface long enough to hatch its spawn. To start the migration from sea to land.

Patrick normally became sick when he watched the fish emerge out of the water, but now he found it beautiful: This was how life evolved millions of years ago — when the world was young, when the possibilities were infinite.

Yet here he was, at the other end of the spectrum, the catalyst for another person’s suicide. How able he was in inviting death, of convincing someone that life’s opportunities had run dry. He didn’t do it deliberately, or even consciously, but he accomplished it nonetheless. Perhaps they picked up on his hopelessness, his own sense of failure and despair. But it was more than that. His wife had once hinted at it, although she couldn’t fully wrap her fingers around it. “It’s as if you don’t care the war happened,” she had said. “You like living in ruins.”

He had denied it. But deep down she was right: He believed they deserved this grim existence. The war had only ended because there weren’t enough survivors to continue it. It was a sad path his species had taken, and he felt no pity for what they, nor he, got in return.

Patrick took a deep breath. Through his scope he could see the fish staring up at him, waiting for the shot. He pulled the trigger. The surf tossed the lifeless body back and forth like an old rag doll; blood mixed into the froth and stained the sand. It began to rain and Patrick crawled into the muddy hole, counting his remaining bullets using his parka as a makeshift tarp.

“Three damn weeks until the supply truck comes,” he said. “Hopefully it comes early, you think?”

He waited for an answer, the wind swirling through the hills and trees. After a long while, he heard more monsters emerging from the sea.

 


C.A. Barbalescu writes from Sussex County, NJ. He is completing his MFA in creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University and has been published in Every Day Fiction magazine.

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