I’m trying to write more short stories. I think this one is a piece of shit, but I’m going to post it anyway. I’m sick of writing about myself, and I’m most especially sick of writing cultural criticism.
It takes a lot of courage to sit down and write something, especially when you don’t feel like you’re good at it. I can write because I work hard at it, but I’m not sure I can make up stories. I think most of writing is just practicing a LOT, plus some imagination, so hopefully this will inspire you to work on some of your own stories, or even better, make a blog of your short stories so that I can read them.
Mine was inspired by a dream I had about opening my eyes under water, and seeing the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge laid out before me, in tones of sepia.
When Conner invited Amy to go on the boat with his friends, at first she had been disappointed. Their relationship, even after six months of open courting, was still in the awkward stage. He avoided her as much as possible, and when he did make plans to see her, he usually tried to include other people.
But disappointment quickly gave way to fear when she found out that he wanted to go to the Sunken City, where it was rumored that boats quickly—and mysteriously—got sucked under the water, the passengers never to be seen again.
Normally boats, even those captained by elders, never strayed farther than an eye’s distance away from the shoreline, in case they needed to be alerted of danger. But it had been years since a foreign ship had passed through the waters surrounding the colony, and people were beginning to talk like the hunger wars were over.
“You don’t believe in that shit, right?” Conner asked her as they wandered down the path from her father’s bluff, which was the highest on the island. Beyond the stacks of houses, which toppled onto the beaches from the hills in dis-orderly chaos, the sun glistened off the charcoal water like shards of glass. Or stars, she supposed, although she had never seen one.
“Believe in what?” Amy said. Then she made pulled her finger to her lips, opened her eyes, and shhh’ed him silently. She was afraid that her father, even though he had waved goodbye to her from the doorway, had decided to follow them, to see what they were up to. Her father didn’t much like Conner, and for good reason. He was a mean-spirited kid, cruel to the younglings, known to raise his hand against his widowed mother and sisters. But with times like they were, and the population so small, he couldn’t be too protective of his daughter, especially now that she was at an age where she could bear a gift.
Still, if he had known that they were going to search for the Sunken City, he would have forbidden Amy to the leave the house. He also would have thrown Conner off a cliff.
After a pace, they reached the main thoroughfare, which was filled with stalls selling fish, salt, seaweed, and woven goods. The other things—tomatoes, limes, coconuts—were so precious that they were rarely seen in the markets. Those types of things were sold only to elders, and the elders did not share them with the people.
Quickly, the silence of the path gave way to a lethargic murmuring. It was high afternoon, and so hot that any utterance made its way slowly, thickly, into the air, often coagulating before it was heard by another ear.
“I believe in it,” Amy said when they were in the thick of the crowd. She stopped to thumb a parasol made from finely woven fish skins, but pulled her hand away when the shopkeeper, leathered and missing his mouth, looked up hopefully from his work. “I can feel it.”
“What does that even mean?” Conner said, quickening his pace.
Before them, the street cleared. People moved to the side to let them pass. Amy bowed her head to deflect attention. Conner sneered.
Both Conner and Amy were children of elders—or in Conner’s case, a late elder, given that his father had died of dehydration during a particularly dry spell. They both knew rare pleasures. Free access to boats and books. The right to marry. Houses on the top of the bluffs.
Amy’s highest of all, because her father was the king elder, appointed before she was born. He had kept the people on the island safe from the strange guests. And when the strange guests had disappeared, he had kept them all alive by rationing the bounties of the sea. Or at least that’s what the sand dwellers said in their songs, which rose through the air on cool nights, up so high that her father could hear them, at his table, surrounded by his old letters and his old things.
“It’s just a load of crap the dwellers tell each other because they don’t have anything else to look forward to,” he said. “Fucking inbred idiots.”
“Don’t say that,” Amy protested sharply. And then, to lighten the mood, because she felt something for Conner, not because he was one of the only boys her age, not because he wasn’t deformed like most of the rest of them—or rather, not deformed too badly—not because, given the relative purity of his bloodline, he had the best chance of giving her a gift, but rather, because sometimes, when he stroked her hair in moments of forced tenderness, she had a reaction so intense that she couldn’t tell if it was passion or fear. “I guess they are kind of inbred,” she giggled.
“Yeah,” he said. “Tell me about it.”
Before long, they were on the sand before the docks. “Wrap your head in this,” Conner said, handing her a net of dried seaweed. “I don’t want anyone to recognize you before we get on the boat.”
At the checkpoint to the docks, a guard asked Conner why he was bringing a dweller wrapped in nets aboard a boat. “Why do you think?” he said, smiling. “For the pleasure of me and my friends.”
“Good luck finding a clean hole in that one,” the guard chuckled. “She looks like she might have two holes but no head.”
“Half-brain,” she breathed as she passed him.
On the boat, in a small dinghy, Conner’s friends—who were less friends, and more voluntary slaves, given that he fed them to hang out with him—awaited, Conner’s precious beachwood oars ready in the water.
Conner reached up his hands, encircled them around her waist, and lifted her into the bottom of the boat. With his arms around her, she felt the familiar rush of something. He sat her down roughly, and turned his head from her gaze.
“Do you know where we’re going?” he said to the assembled crew.
“No,” one answered, so formless and hairless that he looked less like a human than he did a freakish sort of jellyfish.
“Just paddle until we can’t see the shore anymore,” he said. “And then paddle fucking harder.”
Amy was silent as they pulled out into the open water. She became even quieter when the sun began to burn through the net, heating up her hair, making precious sweat drip down her back.
“Oy, isn’t this far enough?” one of Conner’s friends dared venture after about fifteen minutes. To which Conner responded by smacking the thing, who had an open cavity where his nose should have been, clean across the face.
Eventually, they came to a place where they could see the shore no longer, and Conner called them to a halt.
“This is far enough,” he said. Then he turned to her. “Amy,” he said weakly, dehydrated, through the burning haze. “Can you swim?”
“Yes,” she said. “You know I can swim.”
As part of their training, the children of elders had been subjected to daily lessons by middle dwellers on how to paddle, how to dive, how to hold their breaths under water in the case of an attack, as had their parents, and their parents before that.
“Can you swim right now?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” Conner snarled. “Can you jump out of the fucking boat, and swim?”
The friends laughed nervously, as if he was making a joke. Or flirting.
Amy looked down from the boat, into the murky gray water, whose depth, given its opacity, was impossible to measure. “Sure,” she said, affecting lightheartedness, as if this was all a fucking game, one that would end with her paddling for a few feet in the boat, and the climbing back into it so that Conner and his friends could row back, and deliver her to the shaded depths of her father’s study. “I guess.”
“Then get out of the fucking boat, and swim,” Conner screamed.
“What are you talking about?” Amy asked, a swarm of energy running through her that for once, she could clearly identify as fear. Of course she could get out of the boat. But once she was in the water, there was no telling what would await her. Creatures. Waste. Chemicals. Body parts strewn and rotting for centuries, calcified by the sea. The stuff of myths and religion.
“I want you to dive under and tell us if you can see the Sunken City,” he said. “You know how my eyesight has been bad since birth.”
“No one could see anything in these waters!” Amy protested. “And you don’t even believe in the Sunken City.”
“My father heard that once you get past a certain depth, the waters clear,” one of Conner’s friend, the one without a nose, offered.
“The water will pull me down,” Amy said, her panic level rising. “Like it does to ships.”
“You know that’s a fucking myth,” Conner sneered. “You’re a smart girl. Just go do it.”
“Well, I’m not going down unless you do it first,” Amy said, for the first time in Conner’s presence, acting her part as the daughter of a king.
“I’m not giving you the option.”
“You take me back on this boat, and I won’t tell my father,” Amy said. “We can pretend that this never happened.”
Conner glared at her. She met his gaze and saw, behind his eyes, that he was missing. A human overbred so much that his brain had lost its humanity. He had a body. Hopefully a penis. An ability to speak. Capacity for reasoning. But no desire. No empathy. He didn’t love her, and he never would.
She tried to dodge him, but he lunged at her, with his tiny hands in front of him. Then he lifted her from her seat just as roughly as he had placed her there, dragged her to the edge of the boat, and pushed her straight into the water.
Down, she sank, too shocked to move her limbs. Through the topcoat of filth, which smelled like rotting fish, and felt like a mash of seaweed, to the slightly cooler waters below, and even further, deeper, darker, cozier, until she regained her senses, and started desperately pulling herself back to the surface. The depths of the ocean pulled her deeper.
It was rumored that their island was once a very tiny part of a very large city, which consisted of many islands connected by bridges that were higher than a thousand men, and wider than the length of their town. Across the bridges, people traveled back and forth. To work. To trade. To sleep. Then one day, a man with no capacity for empathy lit up the bridges with a fire in his stomach. He cursed the city to eternal damnation, and left it burning.
By the time that the strange guests ruled the earth, the great city was lost forever, written in literature to be underneath the deep, infested waters, it’s inhabitants, if not dead, then slaves bred for food.
Amy thought about what these infested waters might hold. She opened her mouth to scream, but all that came out were bubbles, a wail that popped into a hundred pieces. She pulled her arms up to her head, and pulled them down again as hard as she could. She rose them, and pulled harder.
But the current dragged her deeper. Her lungs burned. Her body weakened. Her mind cleared, and emptied. Her body left her.
In the last second of her life, she opened her eyes for the first time underwater, and saw, splayed out before her, wrought in shadows and subtleties of brown, the outline of two bridges. At one end, they were so far apart that she couldn’t see where they ended. But on the other, they were so close together, that she was able to imagine they were kissing.