Ballard left the city to live a life in the wilderness. He wrote a letter to his wife and two children in which he vowed never to return to the life of the city or speak to people again.
He wrote the letter by dim candlelight. The city was quiet that evening. He could hear the scratch of the pen against the paper. In the distance, one could hear an ambiguous wail, an open mouth of man or beast in pain.
He left his wife sleeping in their bed. He kissed her head. He went to see his children for the last time and kissed them both on their heads too.
He was sad but driven by some inward force.
He roamed the house and touched the furniture. He held his armchair and recorded its touch in his head. He slid his hand across the marble mantelpiece above the fireplace; his hands, upon inspection, were covered in a light film of dust, the skin of himself, the skin of his family. He wished he could package this dust and take it with him.
Before he left the house, he checked his bags. He had packed clothes for every season, a grooming kit, a rifle, bullets, hunting knife, medical provisions, tinned food and binoculars. As he exited the house, he closed the door to but did not lock it. Upon leaving, he entertained thoughts of his family being assaulted in the dead of night by a faceless assailant. He thought of his bloodline being ended there in the house he had left. He left the house bearing ill feelings towards the ones he loved.
The thin man did not make enough wages to sustain his life in any meaningful way. In the same way a human puts food into their mouth, chews, swallows and devours food, the air of the city consumed the thin man little by little.
For fear of anything happening – a fall or perhaps a social encounter that raised the heartbeat – the thin man confined himself to his chair most evenings.
From the chair, he saw the city down below. It was a city in its infancy. Flaws were being ironed out. The inhabitants were testing limits, boundaries were pushed and sin was apparent everywhere, the windows steamed up and hidden from his view. Food was scarce in his apartment. Often he would lick the tips of his fingers and dab the breadcrumbs off his plate one by one to make them last longer.
To keep warm during winter, he would have to wrap his feet in torn bed sheets. He would pace the apartment to keep the blood flowing in his veins.
One evening, he happened to notice a woman in the apartment across the road. The mold lining his windowpane obscured his view of her. He found a cloth and wiped it clean. The sky was dark and so was his apartment in order to save money on electricity. By candlelight he watched her walk in and out of view. His chest raised and rattled, his ribcage shrink-wrapped by skin.
She was a beautiful, in a rugged way. From a distance, he could not quite make her details out. Was she brown or blue eyed? Were her hands big or small? How many toes did she have? He invented it for her. He wished her to be full blooded. He imagined holding her hands and feeling their warmth against his cold.
Her legs, too, were strong and muscular. This is what he wanted to believe. But all he could make out, from distance, was her hair scraped back into a bun, her eyes downcast and cheeks ruddy, her posture in a permanent downward pose, a supplicant, but a supplicant to whom? Did she live alone? Was there somebody else in that space that loved her? Or perhaps hated her? That, perhaps, gave her orders?
The thin man loved her, from a distance. Over time, he spoke at the window, to her. He wondered if she could hear him. He wondered if she was doing the exact same thing.
After a few weeks, the thin man realized that maybe she was a woman or maybe she was new mold, delicately placed in his line of view.
The next day the boys all signed on to the Cannery World. Their names were Adam, Grainger and Kenneth. They were set to sail the next day.
They introduced themselves to the other sailors. They were pale and sickly looking young men with weak handshakes. Adam shook hands with a man who called himself Jerky and nearly broke his wrist.
The hall where they were all stationed was high and wide, the brick blue, the windows tall and domed at the top. Kenneth wondered if it was once a library in here, a fine place for knowledge. The hall had the faint smell of ammonia, which made the boys feel sick.
Grainger, the skeptic, was unsure of the crew they had fallen in with. “There’s something in their eyes,” he said. “Like a fever. A feverish look.”
Adam looked around, his head lowered and hands behind his back like he was bobbing for apples. “The one who calls himself Jerky,” he said, “had the handshake of a child.”
“We can’t judge a man by his handshake,” said Kenneth. “They’re just like us, I am sure of it.”
The next day, the Cannery World set sail. Adam asked Jerky where they were headed. “We’re off to discover new worlds,” said Jerky. “We’re off to find out terrible truths.”
Down below deck, Kenneth noticed that some of the boys he was bunking with had started to fall ill. A ginger-haired man with a concave chest started becoming short of breath. Kenneth and his roommate wetted a flannel and place it upon the ginger man’s forehead like a portion of fish.
Kenneth asked him a question to pass the time. “Your name, chap?”
“Wallace,” he said. He grimaced in pain and pointed to his crotch.
“What’s this? You hurt? Down there?”
Adam and Grainger walked past and came in the room. They helped Kenneth remove Wallace’s trousers and pants. His penis was covered in small, yellow lesions. From his urethra, a green liquid secreted. The shaft of his penis, too, was covered in broken capillaries that contrasted against the sickly jaundice of the penis’s skin.
Soon enough, nearly the entire crew had come down with this mysterious illness. The men who were not afflicted had holed up in the mess hall. Grainger and Adam were amongst these men.
They had barricaded the doors, thinking of tomorrow. Grainger asked where Kenneth was.
As they looked down the corridor, they saw Kenneth and Wallace, both up against the wall, perfectly in tune with each other, moving inside of each other.
Grainger trembled, contemplating on whether or not to remove the barricades and enjoy the freedom they had been granted, stranded in the ocean with no civilization in sight.
These were exciting times. This year, no new films were released. No new species were discovered and nor were there any disasters or acts of terrorism or demonstrations or charges of corruption. The world was at a standstill.
Things had simply stopped. People had stopped having sex. No new children were born. Children had stopped playing. The sun sometimes refused to go down and the elderly were cooked on the streets. In Los Angeles, they were flattened against pavements, burnt, singed, and the authorities had not bothered to clean them up.
So when people get excited, I have to remind them that last year was a year of unpredictability. This year, yes, is different. But next year, too, will be different. The excitement will stop. Creation and malevolence will begin again.
Thirty days later and she was still stuck in the quicksand. She held onto the branch of a tree, which saved her from sinking completely, but did not have enough purchase upon the branch to escape. She imagined herself as having longer arms, but sunk lower, thus putting herself in the same position as she was now. She imagined herself as a man and this, too, gleaned no further solutions.
Oliver Zarandi is a writer/editor in London. His latest stories have appeared in Dum Dum Zine, Potluck Magazine, HTMLGIANT and The Bohemyth. Check him out on www.oliverzarandi.com.