Everything the sea takes, it gives back in its own way and its own time. That was what Jess’s grandmother believed, what she’d told Jess as they stood in the shadow of the giant red cedar that had washed ashore, its severed roots thicker than Jess’s body. It must have drifted for a thousand years or more to return to them in that moment.
So, when the virus takes Jess’s grandmother, Jess steers her little solar-powered boat out past the Channel Islands and gives the body to the sea. She is sixteen, old enough to know the sea’s ways, that if her grandmother returned, it would be through the cycles of life. She’d be part of the food chain, better at least than plastic and algal blooms. Sixteen, and old enough to know the truth, but young enough to fantasize that the beloved woman would come striding up the beach, her skin kelp-green, her hair flowing along unseen currents.
• • • •
At twenty, Jess finds the waterlogged duffle bag, its nylon handles tangled in a cluster of driftwood. The plastic bags inside are sealed, and the powder they protected is untouched. She feels her stomach turn, wonders in what manner the sea took this, and why it has returned it here, returned it to her and Lana.
“What if someone comes looking for it?” she asks, though it had clearly been in the water for a long time, because she can’t name her true fear.
“The sea gave it to us,” Lana says, and Jess can’t deny this. “It means for us to have it.”
Jess thinks the sea’s reasons are more opaque, that gods act in their own ways and for their own reasons. But the shelter they’re living in is run by a fundamentalist group, and they can’t even share a bed. So they do what Lana says they must, and for the first time in years, things are truly good. For a while.
• • • •
Militias from the other side of the mountains push towards the coast, and soon it might not be safe for two girls to be together. Worse, the militias are eliminating the competition. Lana, cunning, tough, fearless, insists these are solvable problems, though Jess wants only to run.
“What makes you think it’s safer anywhere else?” Lana asks.
Since Jess couldn’t abide the thought of leaving the sea, of abandoning Lana, she stays.
They last longer than anyone would have expected. But they can’t fix the world.
• • • •
For years after she loses Lana, every time Jess wanders the beach she dreads what the sea might return to her: Lana’s heavily-Sharpied sneakers, a rotting foot still inside; great clots of plastic waste, death given form; the necklace Jess had saved for and proudly given Lana when they were young and couldn’t have imagined that anyone could hate them enough to give Lana to the sea.
Her dreams are sea-haunted, thick with briny toxins and the dead with eyes like dark candles. After each dream, she swears she’s done with the sea, meaning to turn inland at last, stop her aimless migration up and down the coastline, trying to stay ahead of the militia, but not trying as hard as she should have. It was Lana they’d wanted most of all, but they’ll kill Jess too, if they get the chance. She half wishes for that, her body weary, her face battered by sun and saltwind, by grief. She never does make it far from the sea.
• • • •
Just as no coastline is impervious, just as the sea claims what it will, grief can hollow a heart. Who can say what will fill it?
The woman walks along the surf. Jess watches her, wary. The stranger kneels, scoops water into a vial, caps it, and moves on. At times she stops to gather refuse from the beach and stuff it into a bag at her hip. Jess does not understand, but sees a pattern, evidence of a purpose, and that’s enough.
Eventually the woman stops, sits on a rock above the high tide line. Jess approaches. The woman looks up with neither surprise nor malice.
“I wondered if you were going to keep following me forever,” she says. Jess imagines what it would be like to be so unafraid.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“Collecting samples,” the woman says, and gestures for Jess to sit. She does, and the woman shares her bread. Not rations, or even grain packed with wood fibers, but real bread. They eat in silence, and Jess feels the dull ache in her gut flare to a fire, the hunger becoming more intense by being partially sated.
They gather every last crumb. “That’s all the food I have,” the woman tells Jess. “But if you’d keep me company, I’ll show you what I’m doing.”
Jess has nothing better to do, and there might be more food, no matter what the woman says. They tread the beach, taking samples at regular intervals. To heal the ocean, the woman explains, to make it again fit for life.
“There’s no fixing it,” Jess says, her voice frail and bitter in the cold wind. “We’re less than plankton to it. How could you even hope to fix something so massive?” She hates herself for the question, for the desperation she hears in it.
“Healing, not fixing,” the woman insists. “And I can’t. Not on my own. This is the work of thousands of people, on many shores. We’re gathering data, and computers are using it to run simulations—”
“There aren’t any computers left.”
“There are.” The woman stoops to gather a sample, holds the vial up to Jess, who seals it in the way she’s been shown. “Powered by solar farms or the heat beneath the earth. And there are still radios to call in data, even over oceans.”
They walk in silence.
“Everything is shattered,” Jess says. “The ocean most of all.” Farther down, the waves bloom green with algae, the only life that could thrive in its heat-scorched, plastic-swamped depths.
The woman looks at her sadly, a look so near to pity that Jess bristles. “Maybe,” the woman concedes. “But it still feels good to do the work.”
• • • •
The woman’s name is Cyn. Not short for Cynthia, she tells Jess. Nor short for anything. She camps near the beach, and they share body heat. Jess stays with her, heating rations, digging latrines, recording data, anything to earn her keep, though Cyn hasn’t asked her to. Jess does not want to be indebted. They speak little. Days turn to weeks.
“It’s good that you’re learning this,” Cyn says one night after they’ve run their simple tests, radioed in their results.
“Why good?” Jess asks, fearing a trap, a complication.
“If something happens to me, you’ll know how to carry on. How to report from these shores.”
Who says I’ll carry on without you? Jess almost says, but stops herself. It is better to wander with a task than without.
“Nothing will happen to you,” her voice is flat, the lie thick on her lips.
Cyn holds her gaze for a long moment, then turns back to the sea. “We both know no one can be sure of that.” Though they never speak of their griefs, the world is full of them, the shoreline a catalog of all that has been lost.
“Then why go on?” Jess asks, minutes later. “Why fight against it?” She didn’t know what she meant by “it.”
Cyn shrugs. “Why do you go on?” A scar a half-inch thick runs along her neck. During the day she wears high collars, but in the tent at night Jess has seen it circling her neck, angry, puckered white-pink.
Jess has no answer.
• • • •
Their pace is deliberate, but every coast yields to time. The years lap like waves. They work for food and supplies when they must, take gifts when they’re offered, which happens with a frequency that never ceases to surprise Jess.
“People want to help each other,” Cyn says. “Most people. More than you give them credit for.”
They’re sometimes threatened, cursed, attacked. One man, blank-eyed and wire-strong, shares a meal with them, then attacks Cyn. Jess is prepared and does what’s necessary.
“I wish you weren’t so trusting,” Jess says after they give his body to the sea.
“I’ve spent too much time being afraid,” Cyn says. “I’m done with it.”
• • • •
Their silences grow more comfortable, then begin to crack. Jess tells Cyn of her grandmother, about the homeless shelters, about what the sea smelled like when she was young. She never speaks of Lana.
She keeps an inventory of things she has learned about Cyn: when she was born, people called her a boy, and kept saying that until she told them no, she wasn’t, and then even after that; the scar on her neck was given to her, but the ones on her wrists, bone-white and fine as needles, she gave to herself; she had a brother, once; she can imitate the sounds of seabirds that Jess has not heard in many years, but cannot carry a tune; she is often in pain, though she never speaks of it; her eyes are blue, but when she has been crying they look green, flecked with glints of gold shine.
Which is to say that Jess is in love with Cyn, even though she tried not to be, even though love is a kind of debt. Nothing physical is between them, nothing besides the sharing of body heat on cold nights, but Jess believes Cyn loves her too, though she doubts Cyn is in love with her.
And one more fact: Cyn is dying. The realization comes slowly but Jess can’t deny it. Cyn’s body slowly consumes itself, her hands cold, her steps slower. One day Jess will give her to the sea, and then—
She doesn’t know. Her own personal extinction event is coming, and she cannot imagine anything after it.
• • • •
Jess’s grandmother returns to her dreams, her skull like bleached coral; her limbs a tangle of seaweed, her mouth lolling open. Jess wakes with a scream stillborn on her lips.
• • • •
They sit on a rocky outcropping. There was a pier here, once. Its remaining pillars slice like canines from the waves. The sea is golden in the late afternoon sun. Far out, visible only as a dark line on the horizon, is a living mat. Ruslav and Iona, speaking to them over the radio, have told them of the biological lattice on which the mat grows. Musa described the bacteria that consume plastic, the great vines of seaweed snaking down into the depths, which may someday play a small role in food-chain restoration efforts. Jess and Cyn understand only a small portion of this project, as do all the others. Perhaps the AIs that coordinate understand more, but there is no one in charge, no one vantage from which all becomes clear. A million interlocking labors, an ecosystem of harm mitigation.
“It’s beautiful,” Jess says. “I never really thought I’d see it.”
“So many ways it can go wrong,” Cyn replies. Alarm surges through Jess. This sounds like despair, something she’d never expected from Cyn. She doesn’t look at her friend, chooses her words with care.
“Yes,” she says. “Many ways. But still worth trying.”
The sun arcs towards night. Each wave is a light-tipped flash over dark water.
“I thought that would be enough,” Cyn’s voice sounds far away. “But one comes to the end and wonders . . . what I mean is, I’m wondering what it was all for.”
Jess has wondered this many times, but had never thought to hear it from Cyn’s lips. She doesn’t have an answer, only a story. So she tells her of Lana, that name breaking through a dam of silence, and how they were clever and in love and thought they could do anything. And how it had ended in the only way it could.
“Oh, Jess, I’m so sorry,” Cyn says, and Jess doesn’t know how to make herself understood, how to say what’s held her together in the years since they took Lana from her.
Night creeps over the beach. The stars blossom like they never did in Jess’s childhood, not even far out from the city. A dead satellite streaks overhead.
“I’d hoped I’d see results in my lifetime,” Cyn says. “For a happier ending.”
“This is my happier ending,” Jess says, and knows it is true, even though Lana deserved to share it with her, even though it may be a kind of betrayal to admit it.
“Is this all life is? Is our destiny to try and build something and watch it all wash away?” Cyn leans on her shoulder, one arm around her. She has faded away of late, is becoming insubstantial. But for now she is here.
“I don’t believe in destiny.” Jess wipes at her eyes. “Maybe we just didn’t understand the systems that we were caught in. Like tourists—when I was young, there were still tourists, and if they didn’t respect the currents, they’d disappear just like that. They thought because they could swim . . .”
“I’m sorry,” Cyn says. “None of it is fair.”
“We thought we were alone.” Jess pulls Cyn tighter to her, sharing warmth, because soon they will need to retreat to the tent, and there aren’t many days left for them. “I wish Lana and I had known something like this project . . . I wish we’d found . . .”
“Community,” Cyn says.
“Yes. I wish . . . oh, Cyn, I wish I could tell you it will all work. That the ocean will thrive again. Oh, I wish you’d let me lie . . . but this isn’t just about the project. I don’t think we’re growing rafts. I think we’re growing a model for a different kind of world.”
“I like that,” Cyn says, and Jess can hear the smile on her lips.
“I’d hope so.” Jess squeezes her shoulder. “You’re the one who taught it to me.”
The cold soon chases them into the tent, and they share what they have: food, body heat, tenderness.
• • • •
There comes a morning where Cyn doesn’t wake up. Jess washes her body, gives it to the sea. She takes the day’s samples, cries until she’s empty of tears. When the sun sets, she takes up the radio, and shares the news. None of them are anything but voices to her, just as she and Cyn are—were—voices to them. But they share their grief, their data, their knowledge, their mingled hopes.
• • • •
Jess feels three presences with her as she walks the tideline day after day. Or perhaps three absences, like the places the sea has swallowed, now remembered only by rusted road-signs pointing the way to nowhere. The three women in her life, each beloved in different ways. Each given to the sea, each returning only in dreams.
The work sustains Jess, gives her a reason to keep walking. Alone with her ghosts, she sometimes fantasizes about joining them in the depths. But there is Cyn’s task to carry on, and the voices sharing themselves across the night, and so she continues her pilgrimage.
One day, she senses she is being followed. A figure not much larger than a child, wary but fascinated. She keeps at her work.
On the third day, as she eats her lunch, the figure approaches. They’re young and malnourished, a familiar void in their eyes. Jess shares her small meal with them.
“I don’t have anything else to offer,” she says, “but if you’d like to help me, I could use the company.”
A few days later, she bends to pick up a clump of garbage, but her companion is faster. They hand it to her, but it isn’t garbage at all: it’s a tangle of hair. No, it’s a clump of seaweed, dark green and smelling of her childhood.
Everything we give to the sea comes back to us, Jess knows, though rarely in the ways we expect, the ways we dream.