Patrick found the seagull fetus on the roof that morning, when he went to check the traps. His stomach registered it before his mind did. It looked like a chicken egg is what he thought, though of course there were no chickens. No birds today but something to cook. When he got close was when he saw the avian stillbirth for what it was. Half of an egg-like thing lay in the goop. His knees weren’t going to cooperate enough to bend down so he got the stick out of a nearby trap and flipped the shell over.
What would have become the thing’s face stared at him. There was a thin dermal layer stretched over it, grayish, and a blank jelly in the eye sockets. Since the top of the shell had dissolved before it fell out of its mother it was no surprise to see that a beak hadn’t formed. The teardrop-shaped nasal holes leading into the skull made the thing appear remarkably human and all the more horrific for being still attached to a recognizably birdlike body. Its long stick limbs bent every which way around the torsioned thorax, as if someone had been casting lots with the carcass.
Any meat was some meat. He tapped the body with the stick and it slid and turned over in its ooze and there was much more flesh on the backside but also there it was pocked with cancerous craters like inverted black barnacles. You saw one, maybe two, and you could cut them out, cross yourself, and char the meat to jerky and probably you’d not get too sick. This high of a rot to meat ratio though was just no good no way. Jewels would have to come up later to scrape it up and throw it in the water. Couldn’t risk if an actual able-bodied bird landed here that it would eat the thing and then be no good its damn self.
* * *
Clear, bright, hot. Jewels sat on the floor of the high-rise, legs briefly exposed to air and sun out of the opening that ten years ago when they had taken this place had been a floor-to-ceiling window. The water was deeply blue and somehow clear at the same time; in the shade of the building she could see to the bottom. No algae or clouds of creatures. Mostly down there it was cars slowly decaying, furred with rust, and some bodies. The air smelled of metal and salt. It had been several months since she went out for a swim and marked the waterline on the side of the building with a small piece of their remaining duct tape. She saw the dull silver rectangle now, half peeled and waving at her three inches below the surface.
She considered taking a quick dip. She bit the insides of her cheeks as she recalled what happened after the last time. Skin hanging off of her in rags, flaking, like a mummy with nothing but nerves and blood under its wrappings.
Every crevice and plain of skin itched.
Across the way a rug with a giant wolf head on it covered another opening that was formerly a window. The rug moved. It darkened at the corner and through it stepped that man. He was big. Patrick and Jewels often discussed what this man must eat. His face at this distance was scrunched and red and ringed with dark hair. He waved and she waved back and neither of them said anything and he untethered his patchwork canoe and paddled along the side of his building, checking the lines. He plucked strings that as far as she could tell were invisible. He never tried to communicate beyond a wave or come near to them and this was how they knew he was trustworthy.
“Gonna lose that boat one day,” Patrick said. She hadn’t heard him come in.
Surprise registered in her mind, like fluorescents flickering in an empty room. Reflexively she waved her hand in front of her face, as if her corroded neurons could find only this motion in response to the surprise. She looked at Patrick. The hand kept moving, like it was palsied or batting at a fly.
“Sorry. I’ll try to make more noise next time.”
She breathed in and out deliberately and her arm fell into her lap.
Patrick spoke again. “Lose it or get it stolen.”
He closed his eyes and shook his head. “Nothing today.”
She unfurled the desalinator’s transparent hose out into the ocean and began to pump. The familiar motion smoothed out the twists in her mind and she was able for a while not to think. Water spritzed and dripped from this end, into the jar on the table. Patrick crossed the room and examined the plants set to catch sun from the section of the corner window that wasn’t blocked up with foil. In a previous life, they had been married.
* * *
The third miscarriage was the one that set him off on perseverating fits of Google searching. Embryos, fetuses in development, clinically framed photos of post-abortion material in the sacks attached to the tubes that sucked the human goulash out of women who couldn’t or wouldn’t. Pictures of toilet bowls full and red, taken in unsure and horrified moments and uploaded for god knows what reasons.
The first he’d borne fine; it hadn’t even been real to him when it happened. The second he tried to think of as a person from the beginning, invisible like Jesus. Patrick didn’t know how Jewels took any of it. She’d cried a lot, and lashed out in odd moments, and lost two close friends. It wasn’t like he didn’t know that it upset her, that anger salted with depression was her primary mood state. He comforted her. He exercised max patience. But what it was to her, what they were to her, was void to him; visible as negative space only.
Almost two years after the second zygote critically failed and sloughed its way out the mouth of Jewels’s vulva, she asked if he was ready to try again. Well I’m kind of not in the mood, he replied, and she punched him in the arm so it bruised later where the knuckles of her index and middle hit, and then pressed her hand to his crotch on the side where he carried himself and licked his earlobe right there in the Chipotle. That’s how it had been with them.
So no go on the third attempt, that’s the charmed number of essays, which meant almost for sure long-term Issues regarding this making a baby thing. Jewels’s way of accepting the imperfection between them was to allow no attempts to correct it. “I can’t have the thing I want,” she said how many times, and after a while he stopped trying to change her mind.
Breathe wake eat move work gain connect think talk see sleep. For them time was a circle. Adoption became the plan, when they were ready, when their days broke out of the ring that contained them. And the days did escape, when they (the days) were ready for it, and all propagation, surrogate or otherwise, was out of the question because the great bodies of water began to die and the ball of the sun seemed to tighten in on itself, more dense and violent every day, and the color green became precious so rapidly that those born into its abundance could barely put their finger on what was so different when you looked out a window. Years they spent getting old and going west.
* * *
The corner with the crops in their pots had darkened by late afternoon. Like it did every day the sun left them to blaze on the back face of the building. Patrick slept, his naked scalp a moon in the small night of the room. Very little protein these last months; he often couldn’t make it through the day.
Jewels put a whole leaf on her tongue. She might have found it waxy and without flavor, but these qualities were not things she thought about or any longer realized. Just so she knew without knowing that the man in the room with her was Patrick and also that she had not thought of him so named in a single memory of her life that she worked to recall. The necessary was all that was possible and it wasn’t necessary now to name him Patrick or her Jewels; him husband, or her wife.
She chewed. Some part of her anatomy registered the nutrient intake, dimly. The afternoon moved toward twilight and for lack of anything in her mind she looked out of the opening one last time before fixing the tarp over it. A blade of flame cut the water to the horizon and here and there above the mirror of the saltwater surface an intact pane flashed back at her, each one of these living eyes surrounded by jaggedly dark cousins. Not even the sound of breathing came from the corner of the room. Where she’d exposed the back of her head to the swollen sun it burned and beneath her thinning hair sweat grew in spheres like pearls and ran down her neck.
She moved back into the protection of the room and and reached up to unclasp the tarp. Across the way the man’s boat was still gone. Late for him to be out. As she dropped and then fastened the artificial blue material over the opening something like a feeling rose in her chest. She parsed it at first simply as discomfort, a flat negative signal. It became sharper, rounder, and finally settled in her gut. She wondered briefly if she were dying of hunger. It had been so long since her body gave her a signal of any sort.
In the room was an armchair, upholstered with some kind of fuzzy fabric. Like everything it was damp and radiated heat but with no exposed metal or leather it did not scorch to sit in. It had been made to recline in while watching entertainment and drinking something cool and sweet. Usually in the evenings she sat here for a length of time, occupying herself by listening for noises. Any kind of animal sound and she’d go to wake him from the corner and he’d already be up and halfway to the flap, looking and looking. Mostly she never heard a thing. The sound of air molecules fizzing would force its way into her ears so she felt deaf and then pulled the lever on the side of the chair and closed her eyes until she woke up. Tonight she sat until the thing in her revealed itself.
Fear bloomed out from her middle, a liquid feeling and denser than blood. By the time she’d identified it every stream and tributary of her circulatory system was contaminated. Her capillaries were opaque with it. Whether fear of or for the man with the gone boat might take the whole peeled night to see, but the distinction didn’t matter to her as much as the reality of the feeling inside her.
She put her hand down into the crack in the cushion, between it and the armrest. The knife was there, and the tape came off the fabric like a licked envelope pulled before it had a chance to set. Black-handled; fat; shapely. A kind of survivalist consumer’s knife, well-made for tasks once extracurricular. She laid it on her denimed thigh, tip just on her kneecap as if she was ready to slice and lop it off. Be as useless then with the legs as the sleeping man here. The idea of opening the leg and releasing the matter inside of her came to her in a screaming vision that she let play on a loop until it lost its power to make her feel.
She heard something at the door. Beat beat beat.
Patrick’s body remained stone in place but his eyeballs were alive and wet and popping, like they’d been circumcised of their lids. She and he looked at one another and their mutual dumb panic communicated nothing. They had had a gun, and used it, once.
She sat forward, prim and correct with her hands folded like a monk’s, and he, switched-on and in motion, up and loped the length of the room in two impossible bare-footed strides, a flash of metal protruding from his fist. Her throat, paler than even the flesh underneath her fingernails, pulsed like a garden hose repeatedly kinked and let free.
Patrick passed the kitchen, the old refrigerator prominent in the center, doorless and stuffed with literally anything he could find on expeditions out. His knife was smaller than Jewels’s but all the quicker for it, and he felt confident he could stick before being stuck, if it came fair like that. If not, how could you worry?
The door had a peephole but no glass. Patrick did not want to present his eye to a naked hole. He reached up and knocked on the door himself. The knife he held pointed near the likely level of a windpipe.
A heavier knock responded, twice, something not done with human hands. He looked back at Jewels. He turned the handle whose faux-chrome plating had been worn down to brown metal and a force like a wave threw the door open and him back, into the hallway wall, and then onto the ground gasping. He tried to get his arm under his body to lever himself. To Jewels he looked like a dead old man trying to rise from his grave.
The big man stepped over Patrick and somehow this close his face seemed even smaller than it had earlier today. His eyes were spider’s eyes, dim and reflective in a face that looked as if it were sculpted roughly from flushed bark. The bulky things he wore had been bled of all color and everywhere holes showed still more layers underneath. He heaved and his breathing sounded like it was being strained through a plugged duct and he did not smell like them and he held over his head and to the side a metal bar and Patrick was up on one elbow and attached to that elbow was a hand holding the knife and the man brought down the bar on Patrick’s hand or wrist, Jewels couldn’t see which, and for so big a man he was back and up like lightning and the sound of that one clean shot that ruined Patrick’s limb for the rest of his life made no impression on her mind at all and Patrick like a broken thing wept so violently that the sobs seemed to go backward in time and start before he’d opened the door.
The man kicked Patrick’s knife away. He stepped further into the room and pointed his bar at Jewels. The tip of her knife was already in her chest. With a clenched overbite she grimaced at him and prepared to press in as far as the knife would go.
He did not come nearer to her. He said something without moving his mouth. The knife she pushed in half an inch more and she breathed in deep and her chest puffed out and the knife went in still more. He coughed and spat and Patrick behind him cried like an abandoned child. His way of speaking fit no catalog of accents in Jewels’s mental library, though the second time he spoke his vocalizations seemed to resolve themselves into words. He labored to form his mouth into shapes.
“You been from otherwhere times,” he said.
She shook so hard she couldn’t keep a grip on the knife and it fell into her lap.
“You.” He pointed at her with the bar, and then did the same to Patrick on the ground. “You. From otherwhere times. No this.” His face contracted and Jewels for a second thought his chin and his brow were going to touch, so overplayed was the act at thinking, and her hand closed over the knife and this close yes he was big but only now could she see also how young. His face cleared, having found what it was looking for. “No here. Others.”
“There’s–there’s no one else,” she whispered. She pointed the knife at him.
He grunted, shook his head. He looked from her to Patrick. He dropped the bar. he pointed back to the building from where he’d come, then in the opposite direction, where the sun had just set. “From where? Foodka. Foodka.”
“We have barely enough food for ourselves. Please. Please.”
“Foodka.” He again alternated pointing in both directions, this time punctuating the pointing with a question: “Foodka?”
She nodded, thinking she should kill herself, and then she understood. He knew they were not from here. It came to her that he was, that he had always been here and in no other place or time on the Earth. From some source he knew about the food camps and this is what he was asking after. He didn’t know enough to understand that they could not be out west, that in that direction lay ocean and nothing more.
She stood, slowly, knife held out. He beheld her movement as if she were a revelation, his eyes alive as they hadn’t yet been. “If,” she breathed to steady herself, “if the food camps are still there they will take you.”
She pointed east with her finger and at him with her knife. “Food camps. Foodka.”
He picked up his bar and walked past Patrick who had huddled himself against the wall and through the open door she saw him enter the empty apartment across the hall and leave it through a broken window, stepping into his canoe.
* * *
The next morning, before it was very light, Jewels followed Patrick up to the roof. His right arm hung at his side. The mass at the end of it that had been a hand was knotted and colored in shades ranging from salmon to a deep deep indigo. In the weeks to come it would get black and ill green, like his body was deciding whether or not to reject it. His fingers would not uncurl.
Below him on the concrete stairway, Jewels took off her shirt. Through the open squares in the walls came the wind and at this hour in this place it was nearly cool. She looked up and around for the naked openings so she could reach out and feel the breeze push itself through her fingers, but the color of the sky outside was the same color as the walls. She placed her hand just above her left breast and felt for the part in her skin. It had gummed over and was enflamed. The bump felt warm to the touch, especially where the slit of the cut had filled with blood now crusted. She would heal much better than Patrick.
At the top of the stairs he opened the door and the wavering whine of the hinges brought her back to a moment when she was still young in a young world, sitting on a back porch of a country home that belonged to a person she couldn’t recall. The Jewels of then looked out over fields of food. She searched for a song to listen to on her phone, to complete the peace of the moment, and YouTube recommended something called Whalesong. It played a kind of decayed skree.
Patrick held the door for her. Small sounds came from him on a schedule, emissions required by the pain. Out on the roof they sat and looked beyond it. What the man had said after disabling Patrick was between them now.
From otherwhere times they been. As the first brutal light particles from the sun slammed into the planet and them, Jewels and Patrick looked out over the water at the man’s building and at the wolf blanket still sheltering his room. No boat.
“He’s gone,” said Patrick.
“We have to get over there.”
The light crested the little flat lip of the roof. The traps were empty even of the spirits of birds, and Patrick turned his attention to a dark spot on the ground.
“Oh, Jewels,” he said, and then his voice failed him. The intimacy of using her name, after decades of empty-minded silence and instinct between them. It was an affront, an immature illusion to pretend that they could be other than what they now were. She stood and parted her lips and before she said a word her anger spoke for her. His dome was dotted with sweat and his head rose and his rheumy left eye looked through her. “Yesterday, meant to tell you. Thing of rot and scrapple up here to remove. My knees.” He patted them gently and without sound.
She walked to the spot. Today it was barely recognizable, just cauterized stuff you could tell had at one time been organic. When she had come up here two evenings ago, the egg lay there, moving, the chick making its way out of the opening eaten away by acid. Before the sun fled its responsibility that night she had hunched over it to watch it struggle. There was no helping it, this process. The thing that would have been a seagull strained itself out of its egg, that being its nature, and in so doing left some of its insides stuck to the concave surface of the inner shell. A thin carmine string connected the bird to a purplish mass, something like a bloodslick raisin. An organ both missing and dead. By the time night proper came on there was no movement that Jewels could see. This morning it was a very small discoloration on the face of the earth.
“Leave it,” she said.