Read Steve’s climate change story “The Common Sea”
below the links to Steve’s other free online fiction.
“Red Rabbit,” Borderlands #6
“The Men and Women of Rivendale,” Nightmare #35.
“A Space of One’s Own,” Clarkesworld #141, June 2018.
“Cats, Dogs, & Other Creatures,” Talebones.
“Charles” (audio) StarShipSofa.
“Dying on the Elephant Road,” Beneath Ceaseless Skies #54.
“Field of Shoes,” Daily Science Fiction, May 2018.
“For All His Eyes Can See,” The Dark, August 2018
“Home Invasion,” Daily Science Fiction, October 2013.
“The King of the Cats,” from Deadfall Hotel in the Weird Fiction Review.
“Too Many Ghosts,” The Dark, December 2016.
“Wheatfield with Crows,” The Dark, August 2016.
“No Rest for Those Who Can’t Sleep,” This is Horror, July 2012.
“Halloween Street,” “Tricks,” “Butcher Paper,” and “Masks of Me,” (audio) Pseudopod 566.
“Her Oh So Pretty Face,” Hex Words, January 2017.
“Giant Killers,” The Pedestal Magazine.
“Aphasic World Syndrome,” Pindeldyboz.
THE COMMON SEA
“I feel we are all islands – in a common sea.” Anne Morrow Lindbergh
His oldest memories
Tom had struggled with these messages–without context or identifying information–since childhood, or before. Did a fetus dream? No one seemed to know for sure. When he told his parents they promised these were just nightmares which would go away in time. They hadn’t, but over the years he’d become less emotionally engaged. He never understood the point of them. Were they warnings, or complaints? And how could he care about who he couldn’t possibly know or understand?
But then as the
Their small house clinging to existence above the spreading Atlantic tide felt brutally insignificant beneath the vast sea of stars. But
Some nights he would help his wife Jenny out to the back deck of the house and they would sit there together. It was beautiful: below
Downtown Miami had become the new Florida Keys, and only the desperate lived there. He understood that was a terrible thing, but rich people had the option to move, and almost all of them had. But for poor people out in these suburbs, with the sea pouring out of the sewers joining the sea spreading north and east across the peninsula, what did they get? The reduced light pollution gave them a better view of the stars. At least it was something.
“Your dad liked the stars, didn’t he? He taught you their names.” Jenny gazed up from the faded vinyl lawn chair. She almost never stood anymore.
“He did. The lion, the archer, the peacock, the swordfish, all of them.”
“Have we heard from them yet? Have they talked to us?”
She looked so earnest with her face tilted up, like a child. And if he hadn’t known about her dementia the question might have seemed a little odd. “I don’t think so, but I believe we’re still
“Ha! You’re a good listener. They should talk to you.”
As he always did, he examined her face for some signs of insight, but there was just that faraway
“No! You need to stay home with me and watch the stars. Why don’t you ask your dad to come out and watch the stars with us? He would like that.”
“No, Jenny. Remember, Dad died years ago, right after he raised this house.”
Jenny laughed. “That’s right. We live in a house on stilts! Like a tree house without the tree!”
His dad had been the first in their neighborhood to erect pilings and move their house on top of them. They had just enough advance warning, and the state had allowed it. A lot of others followed suit. “In this neighborhood either your house is up high or it’s
“Oh, I would hate that. Promise you won’t make me live underwater!”
“I promise. We’re living right here as long as we can.”
They’d been married a very long time, through a lot of good times, and now through these bad times. When they’d met she’d been smart and warm and beautiful and he couldn’t quite get over the fact that she’d chosen him. She was still
And that other planet seemed so much closer. The fire and the shadow and the smell of it had crossed over into his world. When he first woke up that morning he hadn’t been sure where he was.
The wind gusted harder and soon it would be too cold for them outside. Dark clouds now obscured half the stars. Inky waves churned against the pilings of nearby homes, the chained boats and floating utility buildings clapping against each other. One of the neighbors was closing his
“So do we live on a boat now? Did you move me onto a boat and didn’t tell me?”
“No, Jenny. We still live in a house. The same house Dad built.” It was a conversation they had almost every day.
“But I heard the waves! I could feel myself rocking!”
“We’re having a little wind. We may have a little storm. We’re going inside now.”
After he got Jenny into bed with a kiss and a promise to return, he went around closing shutters and checking seals. His wrists, fingers, and knees were sore from arthritis, so sometimes it was a struggle. He walked over to Debbie’s room and knocked, then let himself in. His small grandson Charlie sat on the floor eating some kind of sweet. Tom resisted the urge to snatch it away. Baby Charlie’s gums were bleeding, mixing with the melting candy into a pinkish drool at one corner of his mouth.
His daughter was sitting on the bed eating the same candy, reading. The small video player he’d given her chattered softly from her bookshelf, like little people trapped in a glass jar. The waste of electricity annoyed him, but it kept her company. They didn’t own a TV, although Debbie had asked for one. Tom was still thinking about it, afraid it would let too much of the world into their temporarily safe place. “That’s not helping his gums,” he said.
She looked up and smiled sadly. “It makes him feel better.”
“Looks like a storm coming. I’m going to close your shutters, and you’ll need to shut off your lights and the player. We’re running a little low on power–too many cloudy days I guess. You can still use your lantern to read–if the weather’s okay I have to make a Dock run tomorrow. I’ll get more batteries. You’ll need to watch your mother.”
“I really want to go. We should all go. Mom hasn’t been out in ages.”
“I can’t take your mother–she gets too confused. You don’t understand what people are like anymore. They’re scared, and they take advantage. It’s too crowded and too dangerous. Sometime I’ll hire somebody to watch her and I'”ll take you and Charlie to the clinic. You’ll see the Dock from there–you’ll see how bad it gets.”
“Charlie’s okay. He hates the clinic–you wait forever.”
“He looks a little underweight, don’t you think?”
She gazed at the baby appraisingly. “He’s okay, Dad. You worry too much. We’re all a little underweight these days.”
She’d been crying, but it might have been the book she was reading. He kissed her on the head and busied himself securing the shutters. He paused on his way out and stroked Charlie on the head. “Charlie, goodnight,” but the child was preoccupied and seemed unaware of his presence. His grandson hadn’t started talking
He had an old cell phone which he checked every night for weather and key news items, scientific developments, sea rise along the coasts, conditions overseas, especially around the Indian Ocean. He still got spotty
Jenny was half asleep when he crawled into bed, but she curled up against him and he put his arm around her and held her close. He stared at the ceiling. The wind whistled through minute flaws in the shutters. The room swayed slightly under the force of wind and water, and creaked like an old wooden boat, and smelled–faintly of sickness, more strongly of water-logged timbers, with traces of an earthy sewer scent. Of
The dark ceiling began to curl away in waves, rolling back until he was looking into that other world again, with its ocean black from all the storms that filled its skies. Warm waters fed a violent convergence of winds as the swollen clouds gathered into one unending turning of
Jenny’s sobs woke him up the next morning. “You promised we’d visit the Everglades! You promise that every week but then the weekend comes and we never go!”
He pulled her into his arms and said, “I’m Tom, sweetheart. Your parents aren’t with us anymore.” He thought about how the Everglades weren’t with them anymore, either, but chose not to say that. Most of that area had disintegrated, dissolved into the new boundaries of the ocean.
He’d overslept–the sun was already high enough to be uncomfortable. After Jenny went back to sleep he went around the house looking for damage and opening shutters to let the air in. Both Debbie and Charlie were sound asleep, curled together like a mama dog and her pup. Out on the deck some trash had blown in, and the vinyl chairs tied to the railing a bit more beat up, but nothing major. His
Tom stopped. “It’s okay. I’m staying right here.” He watched as the damaged bird settled awkwardly back into its nest, stretching out both neck and beak in an apparent attempt to not hurt itself further. Tom could see now that the nest actually had very few branches or twigs–it was mostly bits of plastic, tiny twists of metal, some mud-stiffened cloth and other rubbish. He wasn’t sure what he would do–leave it probably, until it died or abandoned the nest on its own.
Debbie was waiting for him when he got off the ladder. “Are you still going to the Dock?”
“I have to. We’re running low on groceries, bottled water, and I need to drop off those recyclables.”
“Could you pick up more of Charlie’s medicine? He’s almost out. I thought I’d try some crossword puzzles with Mom while you’re gone. She used to like those, didn’t she?”
“She did. I don’t know–don’t set your expectations too high.”
“Maybe it’ll get her to focus, just trying. At least that’s what I thought.”
“Of course. When she wakes up, well, just make sure she understands I’m coming back.”
Access to the water was down a staircase from a converted utility closet at the front of the house. A steel hatch covered the opening, secured with a metal bar and four heavy-duty sliding bolts. Debbie locked the
Double-chained to the bottom of the stairs was their outboard-powered dinghy and a floating outhouse–an enclosed composting toilet the state emptied once a month. Tom took the boat out slowly between the houses into a lane of
The alligators were mostly gone, victims of the massive increase in salt water. In the early days of the
Still, there was something peaceful and ethereal about this monthly voyage inland for supplies. The water was rarely crowded, but the path
He would encounter other boats coming to an intersection. He always said something, smiled and waved. Friendliness might protect him. Most folks smiled back, but some pretended he wasn’t there. On this
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Tom admitted. “I don’t think it’s native to this part of Florida.”
“Not from these parts.” The old man grinned. “I reckoned it’s alien. You agree it’s alien, then?”
“It might be from another state,” Tom said, somewhat uncomfortable. “When things are disrupted, new species come in.”
“Well, just thought I’d check. “New Species,” then, is what I’ll be calling it.”
Some communities along the way–so vaguely recalled Tom thought it possible they might have actually been fictional, existing only in some book he’d read or movie he'”d
The Dock was a sprawl of floating barges and connected platforms attached to a spit of land below the old I-75, Alligator Alley road, on what remained of the Miccosukee Indian reservation. The tribe ran the Dock, leasing a portion to select parties willing to keep the prices reasonable. It was a chaotic, but colorful place, and sold almost everything they needed. But Tom had never felt at ease in that crowd of people who had lost so much, and the journey was exhausting, requiring hours roundtrip.
When his dad was in an expansive mood he would talk about “floating cities.” He had been convinced that was the future for Florida. Great floating concrete platforms with domed neighborhoods, solar and wind power, and sustainable aquaculture. Originally his dad planned to reconstruct their house on a barge. But it would have cost more money than he had, and he was worried about how it might withstand future storms. Tom experienced a sudden flash of that other ocean, uncontrollable crowds grabbing on to anything they could, and floating platforms unmoored and breaking apart, their occupants tumbling into the agitated waves. But he had errands to run, things they needed and could not do without.
He pulled up to a long dock alongside a few dozen other boats and tied on to a cleat. He gave a few coins to one of the native kids to watch his boat. A few times he’d seen one of these kids aggressively defending the vessel he’d been guarding
Tom slipped on his
Kids were everywhere, running down the aisles dividing vendors. The Dock always looked overloaded and precarious. But unlike his visions of that other
But although it was good to see other people going on with their lives Tom could never feel quite comfortable here. He wasn’t always aware of it at home, but here in the middle of all this
The Dock still received its electricity from the utility grid, which they used so flagrantly it alarmed him. Flashing Christmas tree lights were strung everywhere: defining the perimeters of each booth, supporting signs overhead, encircling particular product displays. There were always a large number of flat-screen TVs blaring, some with news, some with music videos, and some with the latest TV shows. He assumed the excess was purposeful, meant to suggest a kind of luxuriousness for customers no longer used to that at home. If you were so inclined you could follow a pathway of these lights further inland to a 24-hour casino, built to replace the one in Miami which was now under water.
“What’s this one about?” he asked the young woman standing next to him. She”d been watching intently. On the
“It’s four brothers. They dress up as different animals each week and ask women on dates. It’s a comedy.”
“Do the women ever say yes?”
“Almost never, but the brothers keep trying.”
He watched for a few minutes. The action was so frenetic he had to look away. “Are there any comedies set in south Florida?”
She looked at him strangely. “Of course not.”
He found another screen where he could catch up on the news. It was rarely a pleasant activity, but he saw it as a kind of duty. They were making another attempt to rebuild the coastal areas of New Jersey. Much of Georgia’s forest land was in flames, which explained the smokiness in the air that past week. And then some disturbingly familiar video footage: buildings crumbling into the water, a frantic population racing for higher ground, desperate rescue attempts as indistinct figures were swept out to sea, a parade of countless immigrants–their homes obliterated or submerged–packing themselves into an already overcrowded city. The banner beneath these images declared: The Tragedy of Bangladesh, and An Entire Population on the Move, and The Death of a Nation, and Millions Starving in Dhaka. A flat, low-lying country at the foot of the
All the screens were now showing images of Bangladesh. The Final Hours. A Continent Lost. The floor rocked as people moved and gathered near the screens. But not everyone, of course. Some moved as far away as possible and continued their shopping.
Tom couldn’t escape the images. Every glimpse resonated with the phantasmagoria of destruction he had been seeing all of his life. He became confused. A huge wave appeared to engulf the Dock. People were screaming as they were swept away. But then they were moving around as if nothing had happened, completely dry, and laughing again.
Tom walked away and found a small bench near the water. He’d get what he needed and get out of there. He was running out of time. Some days the best you could do was to get the things on your Get List, do the things on your Do list, kiss your family and try to get a good night’s sleep before the next
A few yards across the water the Bar Barge tipped scarily from
Tom was running dangerously late. He got up, paid a few coins to rent a cart, and began to collect his goods as quickly as possible. Although a few shops had closed down or moved, most kept the same location. Three cases of bottled water and groceries went quickly into the cart, a spare can of gas for the boat, a box of generic batteries, clothes for the baby of approximately the right size, a stack of the used science fiction paperbacks Debbie liked to read, all of it on his orange social security Pay Card. The solar vendor was out of the proper replacement panel but reluctantly agreed to order one special to be picked up next month. He insisted on charging Tom’s card in advance. Tom held his breath but thankfully the charge went through.
The afternoon light was running out as he pushed past the lines waiting for the games and the food hawkers and headed up the spit toward the clinic. As
On his way back to his dinghy he glanced at the pale rubble along the shore marked with a Free sign. A few men were lifting some of the larger pieces into a cart, discussing what they could build with these. It was fragmented coral, tons of it, bleached and dead and scraped off the reefs by the storms and eventually deposited here. He wanted nothing to do with the stuff, thinking, it would be like building with bones.
Tom knew he was in trouble about an hour after leaving the Dock. He’d been stupid, but there was nothing to do but push on. Night had fallen swiftly, and a dense bank of clouds hid the moon. A few buoys had battery-operated lights, but most of these were near the Dock. The further southeast you got, the more basic the marking of the waterway. Yellow buoys and yellow poles a hundred yards and more apart, and many of these were badly in need of a new coat of paint. Miss one and you were in trouble. Miss a few and he had no idea what you were supposed to do. He’d never heard of anyone trying the route at night except for the occasional drunk, and those excursions usually ended badly.
He had a spotlight–it came in handy when the skies were gray–but he’d never had to rely on it this much. Another half hour and it began to noticeably dim. With a lot of back and forth movement of the
He could never find it. The spotlight didn’t reach far enough. Thinking new batteries would give him further range, he got up and moved to the front of the dinghy and started rummaging through bags. He found the box of batteries he’d just bought and turned to go back to the outboard and the spotlight when the boat hit something and twisted violently. He went sprawling forward. The box went high, and over the side into the sea. He scrambled and groped around in the water, but it was gone.
A few minutes later the spotlight flickered and died. He shook it; it flickered
He took out his old cellphone. He could have used it at the Dock, but here there was no signal. The screen glowed, but that was about it. He held it high overhead and turned it. He saw what he’d hit–a dead animal of some kind, but torn and swollen so badly it was impossible to identify. He turned the phone off and sat looking around.
He could just sit there until dawn. It would get cold, and his arthritis would hurt like hell, but he could survive it. But he thought about Jenny, and Debbie there watching her with the baby, and it felt unacceptable. Jenny might go completely out of her head and they might never get her back. He couldn’t sit out there all night thinking about that.
He stared in what he thought was the direction of home. And there, well above the water, a faint flicker. One of those fires in the towers at Miami Beach. He’d heard they sometimes set entire floors on fire. If they set a whole building on fire that might be good for him right now. He couldn’t exactly navigate by that flicker, not with all those turns, but at least he knew he was going in generally the right direction.
He tried to imagine the route from somewhere near that last buoy to home. He’d made the trip dozens of times but he’d never tried to memorize it. Some people had made their own little maps, he knew, but he’d never imagined he would need one. A map would be of limited use in the dark anyway.
He started the motor and glided slowly forward. Now and then he would turn on the cell phone again and hold it up. When he saw that he was quite close to some trees above the waterline he knew he was well off course. He turned at a right angle and hoped that would eventually take him back onto the marked path. His dad used to have a compass. He wondered where that was. He’d never learned to use a compass. He wondered if a compass would have even helped.
At one point the boat scraped something along the bottom. He turned on the cell phone again and looked down. It was a church steeple just under the surface. If he reached down as far as he could he probably could have touched the bent top of the cross. He made another
He began to get anxious. That wasn’t a good thing, and he tried to get better control over his breathing. But he kept thinking about Jenny, and how much time they might have left together, and Debbie, whether she could handle
“There was a ship,” he said out loud again, a little embarrassed that someone might hear him. But wasn’t that what he wanted? But even if he was on the right path, who would be out there to hear him?
He turned on the cell phone again and held it up. “His glittering eye!” he shouted. At least the water looked smooth, with no immediate signs of debris. And that faint flicker was there ahead of him still. And the moon was still behind the clouds.
His anxiety had not subsided. He could hear his heart beating in his ears. He wondered if he would have a heart attack just like his
To distract himself he searched for more lines from the poem. “The ship drove fast!” And foolishly he increased speed. “Loud roared the blast!” And he hit something again, and he thought his chest would explode. He immediately cut the engine.
He powered up and raised the cell phone. Another dead animal, far larger than the last, but still completely unidentifiable. It appeared to have multiple fins around a long neck, a triangular-shaped head, like a snake but much bigger. But he couldn’t really be sure if that was
He looked around. The sky had lightened slightly. It had a reddish tinge. But it was far too early for dawn. He let his eyes adjust to the shifting light. The sea was
It grew wondrous cold. That’s what the Mariner had said. And as a
The sky above him began to turn, and the sky quickly became so red it looked to be on fire. And Tom knew he was seeing that other world again, but this time it was all around him, and he was living inside it.
Something landed in the front of the boat. Something wondrous. Tom stared. It was the pelican he had seen that morning, the section of coat hanger still protruding from that hole in its throat pouch. It stared at him with one glittering eye, the other in deep shadow. And screeched.
A foul smell arose, permeating the air. At
Tom heard a loud wailing, a shuddering cry, and his hands went to his face and it seemed his hands recognized it before he did, that he was the one making that sound, although he’d heard it before in dreams and visions, and that very afternoon on those screens broadcasting the death of millions in Bangladesh.
This dark water could have been the Indian Ocean. In the
Tom saw it all as the buildings disintegrated into the sea, as the millions rushed inland where there was no room.
The pelican screeched again and tore into the sky. Tom tried to follow the bird’s path, but his eyes were weary and too weak. But he kept staring, and would not let himself blink. Until he saw the bird descend onto a flat roof over blazing windows. They’d left on every light in the house, and Tom was sure they’d used up most of their power reserves, but he would have nothing to say about it.
Once he got everything safely inside, and the dinghy chained securely, Tom went around quietly and turned off some of the lights, but not all. He sat down with them in the living
“This house can be anything you want it to be. It can be a boat, or it can be a lighthouse. You tell me what you want, and that’s what it’s going to be.” She seemed satisfied with that.
Debbie had been looking at him
He smiled. “There were lots of people, yes. Next time we’ll all go, but we’ll leave early, I promise. No one gave me any trouble. There are lots of people trying the best they can. Just like us.”
Later, when they crawled into bed, both of them so exhausted Tom wondered if they would be paying the price for days, Jenny turned to him, looking serious. “You’re an unlucky man,” she said. “Why are you so unlucky, Tom?”
He carefully brushed the hair out of her face. “Not true. Not true at all.” And he held her until they both fell asleep.
“The Common Sea” originally appeared in Interzone 269, March 2017.