Underwater

Jeff Buehler (c) 2010

Hanging suspended there I watch as Mickey knocks on the door to the haunted house, and realize that Nitrogen Narcosis must be setting in. There simply can’t be a movie playing right now. Swimming slowly across the theater I watch my shadow on the screen; it feels a bit like a haunted house here. I look down at my oxygen gauge and realize that I’m going to die in this place, and if I could without breathing in water I would laugh. Looking behind me I note that there is no light coming from the projection booth – no tell-tale beam from there to the screen that would verify that yes, Mickey Mouse really is playing just for me, generations after the Haunted House cartoon was created, and years after the human race became mostly extinct. Looking back, though, I swear I can see it, Mickey playing the organ for a bunch of skeletons, and my mind begins to drift. It somehow seems exactly right to me, this cartoon playing here, in my mind, skeletons dancing on the screen in a celebration of the end of human life as I begin to die. I shake my head and resolve to try the door below one last time before my oxygen is gone, and as I swim down to it, I think about how only and hour or so ago that fucking door closed on me and I still don’t know how or why.

How or why has always been the question, though, hasn’t it? Why am I here? Why did the rain come and simply not stop? How do I survive, and why would I even want to? I haven’t seen another human being in more than a year; that may well be because there are none left to see, although I doubt that, at least a little. As my oxygen runs out, I have to doubt that, because I can’t get out of this theatre, and I can’t be the last of us. I can’t. I am getting so tired now, and as I slowly swim down toward the door, parts of my life sort of swim in front of my vision, but behind my eyes.

I have lost track of time, but I guess it was about eight years ago that the rain started, and everyone knew there was going to be trouble. Enough of the icecaps had already melted to worry most of us, whether because of global warming or natural cycles I don’t really care. Islands that had been around for thousands or even millions of years sank below the waters not to return during our lifetimes. Then the rain came, and not just in several places but all over the globe. Those who understand the science behind nature’s whims said that it shouldn’t be happening, but the rain just kept on coming. Finally a group of scientist got out to the ice caps and found that they were evaporating, almost as if they had already melted, but it wasn’t warm enough there for that to be happening, at least not yet. People started buying boats, and when there were no more boats to buy, they started making them. Everyone started shuffling away from their homes to higher ground when the flooding started. It wasn’t long before you had to swim to get down to the first floor of your building in Manhattan, and San Francisco became some sort of twisted aquarium decoration. Everyone began to take on the look of oily, sickly fish as the sun refused to make an appearance, and people started to get downright mean. When I say mean, I mean I mean killing mean, stay the fuck away from me or I will explode from sheer meanness and kill you with shrapnel from my bones mean. Women handled it better, but the men mostly became psychotic, and started protecting their scant belongings like ravenous dogs guarding a piece of bacon. It really didn’t take long at all for the human race to correct its ever increasing population problem once given a little inspiration. I don’t think anyone was too surprised when everything literally fell apart; I certainly wasn’t.

I remember what I did before, when life was more normal, but it really doesn’t matter now. I remember thinking when times were especially difficult that I was in “survival mode”, which seems ridiculous now – I had no idea what survival mode was back then. I had been living in coastal California most of my life, and that’s where I was when everything started. As things continued, my girlfriend Trisha and I packed up our most valuable belongings into a truck we bought and went to live with my father in the Rockies, in Utah. When we finally arrived there it had been raining for two straight weeks everywhere, or almost everywhere. The flooding was unreal, and traffic across the country had pretty much ground to a halt. We arrived in Utah with what we could carry on our backs; there was no way to get the truck through all of the obstacles. I told Trish we would get back there and get our stuff out of the truck shortly after we got situated in Utah, but we never did.

It rained for a year straight where we were, and over most of the United States. The one hour it stopped for us in the mountains brought everyone out of their homes, all of us praying silently together that the rain was done. A day after the rain started again hundreds of people in our area killed themselves, which gave many of us a guilty joy because food was becoming scarce; there were few deer around to hunt, and the community cache of canned, preserved and boxed goods wasn’t getting any bigger. However, that reprieve was short lived. As the Eastern United States slowly disappeared below the water line, more and more people made their way west. Within a month after we lost hundreds in our area to suicide, twice that number had replaced them, and then our population doubled again. Some people brought food with them, but most didn’t. Finally the loosely grouped people around us began to organize into tighter communities, and those communities began simply turning away people who found their way to the mountains, sometimes by force. I think that may have been the real turning point, the point at which we as a community decided that it was not only necessary but appropriate to use violence to turn away others so that we could preserve what little we had. Once that happened, the neighboring communities all began a sort of cold war with each other, a complex dance of flexing real muscle and disguising weakness when it reared its ugly head. One group of several hundred people made the mistake of asking their neighbors if they would trade crafts for food. When the person they had sent over to negotiate the trade never returned, they knew something was wrong. When their neighbors came over and killed all but a few of the women out of hundreds of people, all of us in the mountains knew that the hard times had only just begun.

All of us had worth based specifically on what we were able to provide to the community. The most artistic among us had perhaps the most difficulty – there was no singing for a meal, but you might get dinner for repairing a leaky roof. I daringly made a couple of sojourns into what used to be Salt Lake City with a couple of friends, which turned out to be lucrative but incredibly stupid. Salt Lake City was about an hour by car, back when cars were able to make the drive. It took about 4 hours by horse, something I never really wanted to know. Groups had formed in the city as well as in the mountains, but the communities in the city were crueler and harder by at least an order of magnitude. The population in Salt Lake City was probably only about a hundredth what it had been after only a year, and this includes an inflow of people of immense proportions, equal I’m certain to what we saw in the mountains. I think that everyone had literally killed each other off, and maybe that was humane. Watching people starve to death is one of the worst things I have had to endure. Lucky for us, everyone was so busy with each other that they mostly left us alone, and amazingly whole caches of stuff were still to be found all over the city for those who were healthy enough to look. When we came back to our group in the mountains, we had with us food, guns, a couple of motorcycles, some designer antibiotic that actually ended up saving quite a few lives, and two less men than had gone. They had been my friends, sort of, but they weren’t really missed. We had all learned how to stop missing loved ones who passed away.

Trish died of pneumonia sometime in the second year. Getting good and sick was a pretty certain death sentence once the antibiotics were used up, and it happened a lot. I thought that the population in the mountains here would begin to stabilize as those who couldn’t survive didn’t, and they might have, but there really wasn’t a chance because the thing we all dreaded the most happened as our third winter ended.

I simply referred to them as “The Shitstorm”, but I wasn’t feeling too creative when I found out about them. They were in essence a large group of modern day Vikings with lots of equipment stolen from their victims. As bad-ass as most of us in the mountains had gotten, and that was bad-ass, we didn’t have a chance against these guys who represented pure chaos. With no eye to rebuilding any sort of a future, they had arrived to simply survive the week on our stuff, and next week they would just have to go kill off another community, ho hum. All work and no play, but at least they seemed to enjoy their jobs. They were so good at it they we had barely even heard of them when they wiped out our neighbors, whom we had established a really great relationship with. Some of us stayed to fight, like my father. He liked his house in the canyon on the river, and he simply wouldn’t leave, so he armed himself to the teeth and started making booby traps using an old army field manual I had brought with me from California. I decided to leave, since we all knew that it was only more death coming, and soon. I left with something like three days worth of food, a really beautiful Browning rifle with an incredible scope, a Glock 9mm pistol, one of the dirt bikes I had found in Salt Lake City, lots of ammo and some warm clothes. I had no idea where I was headed, but anywhere was safer than waiting for the Shitstorm to come into town.

I found a couple of things out over the next few weeks that made me question whether or not I should have just stayed to drop the shower soap. Pretty much all of the communities had either self-destructed, taken each other out, or had been taken out by some outside group of raiders. When I had come this way to get into Salt Lake six months before, there were three or four times the number of people. I found more than enough stuff to keep me going, all the way down to the coast at the base of the Rockies outside of Salt Lake. The Mormon leader Brigham Young had supposedly stopped in Utah, thinking in some syphilis induced vision that the Great Salt Lake was the California coast, and I suppose his vision had finally been realized: Utah finally has plenty of beach front property. I had heard that once a year a bunch of people in Nevada got together, pulled out beach chairs and waited for California to sink beneath the waves – well, I hope their chairs had floatation devices.

I tried to catch a few fish, and made forays into Salt Lake City, which was quite a bit quieter now than it used to be, which was saying as lot. I didn’t see more than five people over the next several months there, although I knew there were a lot more in hiding. Disease and fear had wiped out almost all of us, and it was people like me that were still around, people that didn’t really know why they were here or what to do, but just kept on keeping on because, well, what else? The animals that hadn’t been hunted to extinction made a gangbuster comeback, and I had as much meat as ammo. I started to build some really excellent traps as well. I ran into a woman about twice my age, Fiona, and we spent a few weeks together, but when I came back to our makeshift home after a day foraging in the city she and anything of value were gone. I don’t think she took it, I think she was taken with it. That was around three years ago, and it was the last person I spent more than several hours with.

I found a mostly unbothered scuba store in Salt Lake City and hoarded away some gear for a not rainy day. There were more of those now, and the sun felt like a god, like Ra, shining down and bringing some relief from the last eight years of sadness and pain. As I wandered the mostly empty streets of the city I realized that nothing could wash away the hollowness of a place populated by so many ghosts, and I started to cry all the time. I lost weight and stopped looking for others that might be hiding. Finally one day I found myself a boat, filled it with cans of gas and food, and weapons and clothes, and I started back toward home, toward San Francisco and the Golden Gate.

The first night on that boat I dreamed the most beautiful dream of having coffee in a little café in Point Reyes Station, a tiny little town North of San Francisco on the coast. In the dream there were people walking around, people having breakfast or looking at books in the bookstore next door. There were people. I was dreaming of life the way it was more and more often, the way it was before the rain had come. I woke up when the boat ran into something and stopped floating, and I decided to just go back to sleep and find out in the morning what it was. When I woke up, I found that the boat had grounded on some high point of land, so I pushed the boat off it and went around the small island. Over the next seven days I saw many such islands, all through Nevada, but all that I took the time to investigate were empty, barren. A simple book on navigation and twelve days was enough to get me back to San Francisco, and I could see through the water ghostly buildings far below, and the occasional flotsam and jetsam of civilization floating by, and I knew I was home.

Somehow I had thought that the tops of buildings might be poking up through the water, at least the Transamerica or parts of the Golden Gate Bridge, but there was nothing of the sort, just water. Other than the fact that I was floating over the ghost of a city that a short number of years ago had around one million inhabitants, it was little different than floating around in open ocean. Part of me knew this is what I would find, and I really had no idea what I was going to do here, but here I was. I had enough gas and food to get back to the Rockies, and the water had been calm my entire time out, so I decided it might be nice to stay for a while. The next day I wriggled into a wetsuit and got my diving gear together. I knew a little about diving from a college diving course, but I had also liberated a pretty large book on diving information from the diving store in Salt Lake, and so I felt confident that I could keep myself from drowning. I wasn’t certain if the gas in the tanks would still be good until I actually went under, though, so I was cautious.

That first dive was magical and terrifying. All manner of sea creatures had moved into San Francisco, and so it was actually full of stranger oddities than it was before being submerged, if such a thing is possible. The water was too deep to go down to the street level – I was only able to get down to the upper floors of some of the tallest buildings, the ones that I could make out from the boat. Here I found a few useful things, but mostly I found the trappings of the most amazing and saddest race I was able to imagine; computers and paperwork, all tracking a way of life as removed as possible from the realities that I now dealt with every day. My life before the rains was more of a virtual life, concerned about bills and my future, cash and credit. I wouldn’t even bother burning cash now, too smoky and stinky. I wondered if I could get a laptop working, and found several in San Fran-aqualand. After some fiddling I decided they were all done for and threw them back over the side of the boat, just more useless crap that I couldn’t have afforded ten years ago.

About three days of this, and probably six somewhat short dives later, I spied a downtown area atop a hill that I thought I might be able to reach. As I swam closer, and after some careful consideration, I guessed it must be Pacific Heights, even more appropriately named now since it was one of the higher points near me submerged under the Pacific. At any rate, I spied the theatre then, the still very legible letters “CLAY” proudly set on the building. I was far more excited about the small commercial buildings around it, or rather, what goodies the small commercial buildings around the theater might have inside, but for some reason I couldn’t resist the theater itself. I went to the front doors and peered through them into the murky darkness inside. Things looked pretty well preserved. I tried the doors, but they were locked, so I swam around the building and found one of the side exit doors a bit ajar. How nice, the theater had been waiting for me.

That was about an hour ago. I reach the door from the inside and pull weakly at it twice, but the weight of all the water above me is too great, and the door doesn’t budge. I suck air from my tank, and about half-way through a breath nothing comes, the air just stops, so I hold it and stare back toward the screen. There Mickey and Minnie stare back at me smiling, leaning against a circle with “The End” printed clearly in great big letters, and I laugh so hard that my mouthpiece blows right out of my mouth, along with the last of my air. Then the screen goes blank.