The lake looked beautiful that time of year. Trees swooned in towards the water, heavy with leaves and fruit, and algae bloomed the color of liquid emeralds. I watched the wind send shivers across the water’s surface and each hint of breeze filled the air with the smell of catalpa flowers—so pungent that the scent could almost be seen. I breathed in. I breathed in. Somewhere, behind me, I heard something call out. But maybe it was only a bird.
Years before, I listened to a different kind of water: the recordings of the Mariana trench. Shrieks and moans from the deep. They sounded so disembodied, so alien. Rahul walked into my office. “What is that?”
“The recordings from the Mariana Trench. It’s how things sound underwater: listen you can hear ships way above and whales. Even the earth moving.”
He leaned over my shoulder, reading the text on the screen. “It sounds like outer space does in movies. You know when someone’s on a planet or something?”
So close to me, he smelled of peppermint soap. “It makes me kind of sad,” I admitted.
“Sad?” He turned to me. Our faces near enough that I could count his eyelashes.
“That even so deep into the earth, there’s still so much sound. It’s like you can’t escape from noise.”
He smiled. “That should make you happy. Even in the darkest, you can still hear life.”
Often, I went back to this memory, searching through it for signs that the world would end. I wanted to know if even then things were shifting around us. But, mostly, all I see is Rahul smiling. The color of his eyes, the shape of his lips.
Anna Moritz was the first I watched die. It was the second year of the plague and things were already going to hell. We’d worked together for years. She was my friend. I sat there as she lay dying, watching her body shake and jolt and I couldn’t do a thing to help her.
“Oh god, oh god, oh god, oh god. I can see them in my blood, Rissa! I can see them in my blood! Such tiny teeth they have!” Her voice was so high-pitched, so breathy. She gasped for air between every word.
I held her hand. They always said not to touch the sick, but she needed someone and nothing I’d done so far had gotten me sick. She needed some grasp of life.
“I loved him so much and I never told him it was our fault,” she said. Her moment of clarity. All the sick got one moment. I’d noticed it over and over. They didn’t, maybe, know it was clarity, but I saw it. Anna’s eyes cleared and she stared up at the ceiling as she said it. I wanted to ask her what she meant. Then she returned to gasping, moaning, muttering.
In the last moments, she dug her fingernails so deep into my palm that she drew blood.
I was twenty-seven when the plague began. I worked in a laboratory, studying plants. My degree was in ethnobotany and I wasn’t truly one of the scientists, more of a glorified researcher for the company. Mostly we were looking for the medicinal benefits in plants that had not yet been fully studied. An Emerson quote was framed on one of the walls: What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered. However, sometimes, we helped out labs that were less well-equipped: studying contaminant species and the like.
I was there on the day they brought the samples back. A kind of algae-like bloom spore that had been found in a lake in the Pacific Northwest. People in the neighboring town had started getting sick. At first it was headaches, then fevers that brought vivid hallucinations, then pain, pain, and finally death. Everyone thought it had something to do with a chemical company on the edge of the town or possibly some sand blasting going on nearby. Then they found the algae. It slicked the top of the lake, like an oil spill, glimmering and tinted blue. I’d seen pictures and it looked like nothing I’d ever seen before.
“Do you really think it could be algae making everyone sick?” I asked Rahul. He leaned against the wall next to me, drinking a mug of coffee, and watching three of the lead scientists crating a box of samples into one of the labs. Our shoulders touched.
He shrugged. “I suppose if it got into their drinking water. During a bloom, cyanobacteria can be quite toxic.”
One of the scientists pulled out a glass sample container, filled with water and blue tendrils of slime. It was no algae I’d ever studied before.
Next to me, Rahul shifted forward. He stared at the container with a mix of fierce concentration and worry. “Something’s not right.”
Two years later, in the car as I raced to get to somewhere safe even though I knew no such place existed, I saw a man walking alongside the highway. His clothes were ragged and his hair disheveled, but from behind, I thought I knew him. Something about his walk, the steadiness of his pace. I slowed the car, begging my vision to be right.
Please, please, please, my mind said over and over. The man turned to look at me and it wasn’t him. Just a man, dried blood under his nostrils, and a look on his face so close to madness that I pressed my foot onto the gas pedal and sped past him in a blur.
“What did they say?” Anna and I were eating at the deli we often went to. They made their own bagels and spread them thick with avocados and fresh goat cheese.
“Nothing they’re willing to tell me,” Anna said. She was a lab assistant. Two years younger than me, but already ahead in most “adult” aspects: she had a husband, a mortgage, and plans to start a family in the next couple of years. Her husband would die before her. She’d scream his name when the fever first took hold of her.
“Rahul said they looked worried,” I said. Taking a bite of the bagel, avocado filled my mouth. The taste was so rich that it seemed wrong with the conversation, with a town dying only a few hundred miles away.
“Rahul is a worrier. It’s why you’re so perfect for each other,” Anna said.
“I’m not a worrier.”
“Exactly, he worries and you’re the voice of calm, of reason.” Anna pulled the edge of her bagel off, popping it into her mouth. “What is he like in bed, by the way? He seems like he’d be either good or gentle.”
“He can’t be both?” I thought of Rahul’s hands, of the way he’d run one up and down my thigh, almost absentmindedly, as we watched something.
Anna laughed. “Not in my experience.”Only later would I realize that she’d been changing the conversation on purpose, that the scientists had told her more than she said. She’d admit it to me one night, a year later, as we watched bodies being taken away from the street in vans. They knew, Rissa, they fucking knew so much.
The town was quarantined. The situation has been contained, newscasters reported. The lake sanitized. The death toll was in the hundreds. A shocking number, but the word “contained” made us feel safe.
At work, I noticed more meetings going on than normal. Once a scientist brushed past me in the hall, and I turned to apologize, only to see that he had tears in his eyes.
“Are you alright?” I asked. His name was Dr. Perrin. I never knew his first name, but I remembered that he had a daughter who liked horses and Pixie Stix. The facts that stick in our mind are sometimes astonishing.
He shook his head. “Tell everyone you love them.” He hurried past. I hoped his daughter was fine. I hoped it was nothing serious.
The first time I met Rahul was my third day of work. I was lost in a back hallway of the lab, trying to find a man with a sample of a prairie grass that he wanted me to look at. I saw a man coming out of a side room. He was tall, thick dark hair, and wore sneakers the color of the sky—a soft blue that seemed incongruous paired with his white lab coat.
“Are you looking for something?” he asked me. His voice was soft.
“Prairie grass?” I responded.
“Maybe try Iowa?” he said. His tone not mocking, just playful.
“So, you are not the prairie grass man, then,” I said.
“I’m mostly the lake weeds man, but people often call me Rahul.” He extended a hand. His shake was firm, but not pressing.
“Rissa,” I said.
Once, later, Anna asked me if I’d known right away that I’d love him. I shook my head, said I’d been attracted to him, yes, but no one can know love right away. She had laughed, relieved, and said that she hadn’t loved her husband for months and she always wondered about it. If it was something wrong with her, with her relationship.
The truth was, though, that the minute I’d seen Rahul, I had thought something strange. I’d thought: one day, I’ll want to remember this. And, at that point, I hadn’t known why.
A month after the quarantine, another town became sick. The river running past it was thick with algae. The news stories did slow pans over the water. In the sun, the algae seemed to glow, pale blue as sapphires.
As we watched the news, Rahul shifted next to me. “It’s not algae, Rissa. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not algae. I looked at it, under the microscope. It’s something else, the spores, they’re mutated or something. I think someone may have tampered with them. It seems engineered.”
I turned to him, he looked so scared. “We’re going to fix it. We have the best lab in the country, top scientists. We’re going to fix it.”
He stared at me for the longest time before saying, “I want to believe you.”
Later, in bed, his body pressing into mine, our breath fast, he said that he loved me. I wanted to believe me then, too. I wanted to believe that everything would be fine.
One night, when the nation had first gone into a state of emergency, I woke up to my phone buzzing. I picked it up.
“Hello?” I whispered, not wanting to wake Rahul.
The person on the other line didn’t say anything at first, but I could hear them breathing. Gulping in air, as if they’d been crying.
“Hello? Who is this?”
“Jesus, someone, someone, they burned it down,” Anna said. Her voice shuddering and shaking.
“The lab, Rissa. Someone burned it down,” she shouted the words. “All that work. We could’ve found a cure. I mean, we . . . ”
I never knew how she’d finish the sentence. She hung up.
In the morning, Rahul and I drove to the building. Its carcass still smoking and the remains so charred that it had to have been burned with something fiercer than gasoline. I walked as close to it as I could without being overwhelmed by the smell. Someone had spray-painted something on the sign that used to hang over the door, but only half of it was now visible: Gui. Just the three letters and nothing else.I walked back to Rahul, who stood staring at the wreckage, and I didn’t tell him what I saw. I didn’t say, I think it must have said ‘Guilty.’ At that point, I thought that the arsonist had just meant that we were guilty of not being able to help.
It only took months for it to be most places. Some of them cities that weren’t even near bodies of water. The newscasters warned us not to panic. The CDC said that it was now an illness, spreadable through contact with the sick.
Stories ran on blogs about how this was not sickness but a cleansing. We are paying for our sins, the writers declared as if they were street preachers in apocalyptic movies.
A few months after the State of Emergency was declared, after the rioting and the burned cities, I took shifts volunteering in one of the makeshift hospital tents that were set up wherever people could find space. There was no cure, there was just an attempt to ease suffering, to keep the sick contained where the bodies could be easily rounded up after death.
Walking through the beds, looking for anyone in need of more pain meds, I recognized someone. Doctor Perrin, from the lab. He looked so hollowed out, so fragile.
“Dr. Perrin,” I said.
He looked up. “Rissa, you’re still you.”
I wondered if he meant still alive. “Yes, I am.”
He coughed. “I thought you left, went under the sea with some of the others. God, it’s probably so dark and cool there.”
“Under the sea?”
“You know, where it came from, right?”
“What? The algae?”
He shook his head, wincing. “No, dear, the algae came from us. I thought everyone knew that. It was supposed to eat, eat, eat up all the output. You know we put so much into our water and we needed to get rid of it. Clean the water. We were going to be helping. Helping. Funny word, really, that helping has hell in it.”
“We did this?” I whispered.
Dr. Perrin smiled at me, as if I were a student who had gotten the answer to a particularly challenging question. “Did I tell you about the sea? No water. No not water. No, I meant the cure. It’s under the sea. No, not the sea,” he said. Then he coughed again, harder, and blood speckled the sheet he was laying on. “The lakes. It’s in the lakes.”
“There’s a cure?” I wanted to keep him talking, keep him present.
He smiled. “God, you look just like my mother. You’re so pretty, Gretchen.”
That was the name of his daughter. I remembered it then. A girl I’d met once at a Christmas party. She’d been hiding in the corner, tapping a Pixie Stick against her hand, like it was a cigarette. She was years and years younger than me and looked like she’d grow up to be an elegant looking woman. The fever must have been deep at that point.
“Thank you,” I replied.
“Oh, love, you’re forgiving me, right?” He asked. Blood leaked from his mouth, tiny red trickles of saliva.
“Of course, Dad,” I said.
It took a year before the country was in ruin. Longer than I think anyone would have predicted.
It was a year and a half when Rahul never came back. I woke up and he was gone. A letter on the table, saying that he’d heard of something. A lab to the North. Right now, you’re safe here. I’ll come back to get you when I know it’ll be safe there, too. Always, I love you.
I wondered why he’d think I was so safe. Our doors had locks, but wouldn’t we have been safer together?
Outside, I’d heard rumors as well. Hushed voices saying that someone was going to cure us, that there was a place working on the cure. I’d never have been stupid enough to think there was truth there. I’d have never left him. Sometimes, I’d wake up from a dream that he was sleeping beside me, and find that he wasn’t there. I’d curse him. Yell every foul thing I could think of to the air, to the space he wasn’t.
When he first asked me to move in with him, he’d baked a cake. It wasn’t particularly good: dense chocolate with too-sweet frosting.
“I’m not very good at this,” he said. “I just wanted to see if I could even bake.”
My mouth was full of cake, I was trying to swallow it down, to assure him that it tasted good.
“If you move in here, I’ll promise to never bake again,” he said.
And I laughed and we left the cake uneaten on our plates. And years later, when I searched through empty cabinets and the city outside was dying and Rahul was gone, I thought of the cake. I could taste it in my mouth. Sweet and rich.
I found Anna again not long before her death. She was living on the street at that point, unable or unwilling to go back to the house where her husband died.
“He kept saying that he could see God. That God was a fish with sharp teeth,” she said to me one night after she came to live with me. “Like one of those Angler fish. God as some ugly-ass creature down at the bottom of the sea. That’s all he talked about toward the end.”
I didn’t know what to say.
Some nights Anna would climb into bed beside me. She slept in fitful bursts, whimpering sometimes and I would shake out of sleep thinking she was crying. It was only dreams, though. Probably nightmares.
It was almost three years after the plague began when I found what I needed. I moved steadily, unable to stay still. Loss hung over every place I went. I’d seen the man collapse along the side of the road and I went to him.
I poured some water into his mouth, hoping it was just the heat. But he pushed my hand away. “Too late for that, darling. I’m a goner.”
“How long have you been sick?” I asked.
“A week or so, longer than most get to stay.” He smiled. “Why are you out here?”
“I heard about a place near here,” I said. I wasn’t sure how much to say. I had grown cautious, grown to be someone who didn’t show their cards until I was sure.
A look passed over the man’s face, like he’d been looking for something in a crossword puzzle and then the answer had revealed itself. “The lake is real you know.”
“What?” I asked, studying the man’s face. He looked kind, like he was someone’s grandfather. The kind who’d keep coins in his pocket, just so that he could do the trick where he made one appear from behind an ear.
“To the North. Not far. That’s where the lab is. Isn’t that what you’re looking for?” He asked.
“How do you know?”
“Everyone’s looking for someone.” He frowned, pausing. “No something. That’s the saying, right?”
“But, how do you know about the lab?”
“I was there once, before all of this. Worked there. Sometimes, I go back and I watch them. From a distance. I never liked being locked away, though I think I see their point now.” He tapped his sweaty forehead. “Once you go in, they don’t let you out, though. Keep a strict eye. They want to keep everyone safe. They’ll have the cure soon. Maybe, even, they already do.” He smiled, again. Not happy but not sad either. Wistful maybe would be the best word to describe the expression on his face. I wondered if he was hallucinating. I found I didn’t care.
After Anna, I fled the city. Cars still went aways, if you knew what to do. I drove north because I didn’t know where else to go. Some nights I still dreamed of him coming back, but mostly I nightmared that he was dead. He died in so many ways in my dreams: killed by a looter along the road, of the sickness, of exhaustion. Sometimes, even, he’d die in the most normal pre-plague ways: car accident, cancer, slipping in the shower.
I drove until the car gave out. I passed graffiti-covered stores: It comes for us all, one store window stated in red paint. I passed the dead in piles and cars abandoned.
When the car finally stuttered to a stop, I got out and began walking. I wondered if I’d simply walk until I stopped.
The man gave me directions, as best as he could, between coughs, as his fever began to rise. His words began to lose meaning, but I had enough. In his moment of clarity, he looked at me and said, “my mother used to sing me that song. The one about sunshine.”
I sat next to him as he died. I sang, “the other night dear, while I lay sleeping, I dreamt I held you in my arms.”
My voice cracked, too long without singing. The words felt sharp, like a bruise being pressed. The man drifted into nothing. He was the most peaceful one I’d ever seen at the end.
“Look at this,” Rahul said. He stared into one of the tanks in his office. There were so many water plants, he was always adding new ones. I walked up next to him, leaned to stare into the tank. He pointed at a tendril of a green grass-like plant.
“What am I looking at?” I asked. “Isn’t it just water celery?”
He smiled. “Yes, but, it’s doing so much and we can’t even see it. Think of water, think of these systems set up naturally: everything working with everything else. It purifies the water, filters sediment, feeds the fauna. And it didn’t have to be engineered to do that, taught to do it. It just does it. What miracles the world has wrought.”
“How long have you been staring into this tank?” I asked, laughing.
He slipped an arm around my waist, pulling me closer to him. “When we’re old together, and we’re retired, and living somewhere warm, let’s fill a pond with life: fish, frogs, all the water plants of my heart’s desire. What do you say?”
I didn’t answer. I didn’t want to imagine us old. A life behind us instead of ahead of us. But I liked the thought of staring into water, of the sun glinting off of it, of Rahul dipping his fingers into the pond and splashing me. “Okay.”
The walk was long. It took me days and then I stumbled into a clearing and there was the lake. It was beautiful in the half-light of the rising sun.
For a moment, or maybe much longer, I just stood there. I breathed in the catalpa-scented air. I studied the water. The algae was algae: green and tendrily, but just algae.
Finally, I walked up to the surface. I bent down and touched the water. It was warm. I took off my shoes and stripped out of my pants and shirt. Stepping into the water, it felt like a nice bath, like comfort.
I walked in up to my shoulders. The algae smelled almost sweet up close. I dunked under the water, let my body still. I kept my eyes closed. It was just the dark and me. I couldn’t hear anything.
Then something. Someone calling out. Muffled, way above the deep, the sound filtered down to me. Even in the darkest, I could still hear life.
Chloe N. Clark’s poems and fiction appear in Booth, Glass, Hobart, Little Fiction, Uncanny, and more. She is co-EIC of Cotton Xenomorph, writes for Nerds of a Feather, and teaches at Iowa State University. Her debut chapbook, The Science of Unvanishing Objects, is out from Finishing Line Press and she can be found on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes.