O’Meara / You and Me Sand and Sea /
YOU AND ME, THE SAND AND SEA
Suri turned on the lights to the beach, relieved to hear the distant generator whirr into action as the lines of air extraction fans imbedded high in the ceiling rattled to life. The great, white walled room (two Olympic swimming pools laid end to end in size) was empty, save for the deep, pale blue sand flooring it.
She’d come to this section of the new-look Frontier Mall often enough as a small child and every day since the last survivors of Cheyenne City had decided on safety in numbers and moved into the Mall complex together. The last two years she’d been living here, Suri hadn’t ever been permitted unrestricted access to the iBeach controls before. As of this morning, though, she was in charge of everything.
She set the wave-imaginer to gentle and felt her tensions ease as the image of a rich blue sea with calmly lapping waves appeared along the main wall. The shorter walls at each end of the space depicted untouched beach disappearing towards distant headlands and the ceiling and overhead fans softened to blue, completing the sky.
“Temperature …” she turned a dial. “Sunny day, I think.”
The hot lights came on overhead. They chewed power, but one day couldn’t hurt, particularly after the horrendous morning she’d had. Tomorrow, if she returned, she would set the beach to balmy afternoon, but today … today was forecast to be a scorcher.
The birds would be out today. Cue seagull sounds. The tinny sounds of long gone seabirds wheeling and calling came from above, through mesh-fronted speakers.
As Suri stepped out onto the sand, she wished the artificial beach had real water, but what water hadn’t been tainted by the radiation was far too precious to use for this. She’d been to a place in Montana once that’d had a proper wave-maker. That place was probably gone now, along with the rest of the state.
The warming sand scrunched between Suri’s toes deliciously. From the feel, it was hard to believe it wasn’t real sand, but minute baubles of glass imbedded with sensitive circuitry. She walked to the end of the beach and back, closing her eyes, imagining the sun on her face in place of the ashy grey cloudbanks that dominated the skies outside Frontier Mall.
As Suri walked, footprints suddenly appeared in the sand beside her, walking in tandem.
Suri gasped and stopped. The human-shaped divots in the sand walked forward a few paces before turning to face her.
Lines appeared in the sand, narrow lines written by a human finger. “I thought I might take a walk with you.”
Suri looked about her. As of this morning, the Mall was empty of people save her. The entrances were sealed shut. No-one could get in … or out.
Not that she’d want to leave. Those who left soon died. As did those who stayed.
Yet, someone was here in spirit at least. A ghost?
She put her finger to the sand and wrote, “Who are you?” and, almost immediately, there came a reply.
She wondered if the ghost had made a finger version of a typo. “Daniel?” she enquired.
“No. Dannel. I know my own name. I’m a boy, by the way.”
Suri laughed, the sound bouncing about the space. “Suri.” She pondered the wisdom of giving her second name to a ghost and figured it couldn’t really hurt. She’d be a ghost herself soon enough. Best to start making friends now. She thought of Lauren, who’d coughed up the last of her lungs in the wee predawn hours as Suri had dabbed helplessly at her lips with tissue and felt tears drop to the sand. She elaborated, “Suri Champion.”
“You’re crying, Suri Champion,” the ghost wrote, chasing the words with a basic doodle of a downcast face.
Suri sniffled and wiped her eyes, leaving the pale sand clinging to her lashes. “I’m afraid.”
“I am alone.” There had once been a community here of sorts, all bedded down among the mattresses and recliner chairs of Sears. She had had friends. The college kids from Fox, the military guys from Francis E Warren air base west of Cheyenne, Lauren from her year, Toby Bradshaw ...
Oh God, Toby.
More tears fell to the sand as Suri pictured his smiling green eyes, remembered his first bloom of stubble brushing her cheek as they’d kissed for the first time right here on the beach. It had been a scorcher then too.
“If it helps, so am I.”
“Where are you?” Suri wrote.
Suri was stunned. “They got you too?”
“Everyone got everyone, I think. Where are you?”
There was a long pause and then the writing reappeared in jagged, angry lines, as if it’d been stabbed into the sand. “YOU did this!!!!”
Suri fell backwards onto the sand as if the words had leapt at her showing teeth. She wondered if the imprint of her buttocks would appear in Australia.
“What do you have to say, American?”
Helpless rage flooded Suri’s mind as she remembered the mushroom clouds, visible from her house, rising high to the north and the looping news feeds of the Montanan cornfields engulfed in nuclear fire after the missile silos were destroyed before they could even give birth. The mudslides and squalls had followed close behind as the snowfields melted, accompanied by the earthquakes that had decimated the western seaboard and, finally, the long, cold, starving winter, which still cast its icy shadow over everything.
“I was forced to eat my dog,” she wrote back.
The Australian didn’t reply. She wondered if Dannel had left, but, no, the imprint of his knees was still there in the sand.
“There are no animals left where I live,” she continued. “Most died and we caught and ate the rest after our food ran out. I found a dead raccoon one time. It was frozen stiff and for once we were happy because it didn’t have maggots.”
“Dad cooked my cat. He didn’t tell me what it was until after I’d eaten.”
Suri was relieved the boy hadn’t left the conversation, hadn’t left her. “I am sixteen,” she scrawled in rushed, messy lines. “I have brown hair and brown eyes and horrible freckles. I am too young to vote, but my parents picked Democrat if that means anything to you. Everyone I ever knew is dead. My country is gone.” She added, on a separate line, “You think I wanted this?”
“No.” Suri saw deep divots pound themselves into the sand beside her and realised Dannel was punching the ground. “I’m just so angry! We never had any nukes, yet we were hit. Australia burned. Everyone I love is gone. So is my house. I live at Harvey Norman now. It’s a homewares store.”
Suri laughed despite the gravity of the situation. “Sears,” she wrote.
“Haha,” Dannel replied, adding a smiley face.
“How did you find me?” Suri asked.
“My shopping centre has an iBeach. I figured someone else might be remembering better days on an iBeach too and hacked into the network. I got a lot of empty beaches before I found you walking.”
“Are we the last two people left?”
“Possibly. Though, if that’s true, soon it will be only you. So I hope it’s not true.”
“I’m dying,” the two words were matter-of-fact.
“No,” Suri groaned aloud.
“Were I beside you, I’d be unable to talk through the coughing. This was my last ditch effort to connect. I didn’t want to die alone.”
“How long?” Suri asked.
“Hours. Days. Who knows?”
Suri’s response caught her quite by surprise then, as her unbidden hiccoughs of impending loneliness echoed throughout the space. She had only just met this boy. Her tears pattered the sensitive particles.
“You’re pot-holing my sand. How about we forget our sadness a moment? I would like to walk with you, Suri Champion, on this last of days.”
She saw the sand nearby scuff and imagined him getting to his feet. Now that she knew, she could see how weak Dannel was, how his feet dragged. She stood and together they walked back and forth along the beach, Dannel’s disembodied footprints appearing in the sand beside her as she knew hers did beside him.
Eventually, Dannel tired and collapsed to his knees. Suri saw broad splats of pitting appear in the sand before the impressions of two hands and realised Dannel was coughing up blood.
“Are you ok, Dannel?” Suri wrote, knowing the answer.
“Ignore it,” Dannel instructed. “We are on the beach at Bondi. You and me, the sand and sea. There is nothing else. No war. No dying.”
Suri, kneeling in the sand beside him, closed her eyes and forced herself to picture the scene. The sound of the birds became real. She could hear the quiet swoop of their white, knife-blade wings. In her mind she could feel the balmy sea breeze, like the warming Chinook winds that had once come off the Rockies. She could see the sky, depthless blue. She could picture Dannel beside her: a ruddy, tanned Australian boy with longish, blonde-streaked hair and coltish legs. He would have freckles too, she was sure. His eyes, in her mind, were salty blue, crinkled at the edges with laughter and the premature age lines all Australians seemed to have.
“I see it,” she wrote.
“Picture yourself in your most beautiful form and tell me about it. What are you wearing to the beach?”
Suri looked down at her heavy, lead-lined jacket and ugly tan overalls and thought hard. “A sundress,” she wrote.
“Canary yellow. Hemmed in white. Underneath is a bikini striped in blue, white and orange.”
“Lovely. I can see you. Your hair is short. It flits about your face in the breeze.”
Suri’s hair was very long and straight, but she would have cut it for the boy in her mind.
“I am naked as the day I was born. That was when I was most perfect.”
Suri smiled fondly, imagining his strong, broad back, his lily-white buttocks. Her lip quivered as she pictured him gone and she forced herself to hold onto her image of the two of them.
The sand shifted. “Shall we walk?”
“If you’re sure you’re okay.”
“It’s a day at the beach. I couldn’t feel any better.”
Suri got to her feet and watched his struggles to rise carve themselves out in the sand. He staggered forward several tip-toeing steps. He was not okay. She crouched, “Maybe we should just sit a little.”
Dannel started walking, leaving her words behind. Suri followed, drawing swiftly level with him. The Australian’s steps were now uneven, limping, his path stumbling to the side at times, criss-crossing hers, but he kept going. Together they reached the end wall and started back, Suri slowing to match his pace.
Suri closed her eyes, pictured their fingers entwining and imagined the warmth of his skin against hers, the hot odour of coconut sunscreen rising from their bodies. Lost in the illusion, she leaned her head towards his.
His tracks were gone. Fallen behind.
The imprint of his body lay sprawled upon the sand several paces back. He was tall, his arms and legs as meatless and angular as Lauren’s had been at the end. Suri waited, heart pounding, for the faint to end, for Dannel to rise, but he never did.
Hunched against the sand, Suri sobbed brokenly, the artificial grains blending with the saliva, snot and tears on her face.
Finally spent, Suri stumbled to the door of the iBeach complex and stepped out into the unlit hall beyond. The stale air was chill against her sun-warmed skin, her eyes, accustomed to the brilliant blue of the sky, struggled to adapt to the darkness. Passing by the abandoned and vandalised shopfronts, watched only by mannequins with their empty eyes, Suri climbed a ladder to a window set high above the barricaded main entrance. Beyond the glass, all the lights of Cheyenne City were extinguished. A black snow was beginning to fall.