by Matthew Johnson
Breath in. Breath out. The blue mask covering Cassie’s mouth and nose rose and swelled like foam, trapping in her droplets and filtering the smell of exhaust from the flow of cars on North Coast Highway sweeping along to the tides of the light. Clusters of people wearing masks scuttled past, keeping a polite distance. With the world teetering on the brink of a zoological pandemic—microscopic virus cells seeking refuge in any living host, like disembodied spirits in search of blood and flesh to inhabit—potential victims moved about, oblivious to the consequences, or in disbelief it could happen to them. Cassie observed their actions, judging them the way Anubis would weigh a heart. A single word from her, or perhaps even a gesture, a nod to a question soon to be asked, and all of this would be gone. Stripped away. Wiped from existence in a flood more Biblical than Noah could imagine.
Her cell phone vibrated against her leg. She ignored it, moving upstream against the crowd. An older man with white hair curled under a red hat and sunglasses nearly shouldered her off the sidewalk. He wasn’t wearing a mask. He begged to be inhabited by this new unholy spirit. To drown in his own bodily fluids—in the end, water was water whether it came from the salty swells of the ocean or produced by one’s own body, killing itself in defense against the possession.
On the bright sands men and women worked out, shaping bodies, building strength in defiance of the inevitable. Cassie stopped, watching the rippling muscles of a young man, the coil of veins beneath a thin sheen of flesh; youth never understood the frailty of life, that he was nothing more than a shell on the edge of a rock ready to be snatched away by a crashing wave. Let them laugh and smile, faces exposed, breathing in each other’s vapors and exhaling potential doom. These superficial creatures, Cassie noted, were not worthy of the life the gods gave them. The beauty presented on the outside withered before it rooted beyond the bone and into the spirit. Sculpted bodies lasted a fraction of time compared to sculpted art. Their presence wouldn’t be missed in the grand scheme of eternity.
Again, her phone vibrated. She hardly looked at the screen before denying the caller. She should toss the useless piece of plastic away. Nothing could deter her from such an important task. All of humanity balanced on her decision. The outlook was bleak.
Bleaker even still as she sat on a cement bench to observe the waning moments of existence. At a large intersection a man wearing a kaki hat, sun burnt arms and legs where he desperately waved a flag in worship of his demigod. In his eyes was a quiet desperation. The more he waved the flag, the more she could sense his need for the demigod to live. To validate his existence with every bleat of the truck horns and every curse from the passing compact cars.
“He’s going to die!” A young man cried out from across the street, sitting on the corner of the market building wearing a blue shirt and smoking a cigarette.
“Fuck you! Go back to Iraq!” the demigod’s heralder shouted back.
“I’m from Iran, you racist dumbass.”
Watching across from her were vagabonds, carrying their lives in garbage bags and seeking shelter from the sun. None of them wore masks. Why when life had given up on them should they care about other lives? Pedaling around on an old beach cruiser was a native American man, a jug of water in the basket. He circled the demigod’s herald, shouting slurs and insults at the man from Iran. This ritual wouldn’t save them. It wouldn’t save any of them. Like the hungry pigeon peeking at the half-eaten sandwich dropped by the garbage container misses the cat lurking in the flower patch. These lost souls couldn’t see the gathering storm in the Pacific.
Clear skies and a cool, salty breeze were a mirage. The dark clouds, the angry lightening streaking through the sky, those were the wrath of a true god. Rage against the hypocrisy of mortals placing their own on pedestals made of cardboard and quilled their words in blood. Vapid vapors, sea spray that promises to quench a thirst, but dries them in salt. She heard the anger, the cry to smite them for their impudence. Smite them the gods would with pestilence and the breaking of land.
A gaggle of blonde girls passed, chirping about a boy. None of them wore a mask. Their vapid words spotted the air, inviting others to taste their ineptness. Again, the stupidity weighed on Cassie’s mind; the decision she had to make before all was beyond the point of no return was becoming clear. Like clay figures the true gods would smash them and recast them in new pottery; nothing more than a memory with no one left to remember.
Across the street at the Mermaid shop, an Asian family, all masked, exited out onto the sidewalk. The little girl bounced along at her mother’s side, gripping a dark-haired mermaid doll. She turned briefly to look at Cassie. Delight glistened in fresh eyes untainted by the dirt and cruelty of the world. Was it fair that she should die? Wasn’t the world full of the young, the innocent, the ignorant? The price of countless mothers’ and fathers’ sins passed onto them. Such potential for beauty and greatness, squandered by a vast void echoing desire of momentary pleasure. Pleas for more, more, more. More what? Nothing. Everything was nothing.
Near Heisler Park mountainous apartment complexes defied the eroding land. Cassie pondered the banners of competing demigods hung out apartment windows, their battleground breached by a grizzle bear. She prayed for the bear who had no say in the destruction. Down winding stone steps, she passed pods of people, some masked and others bearing their naked defiance. She paused to watch surfers swim out in hunt of the waves. A few balanced on their boards, skimming along, tempting fate close to the rocks that would gladly split their bodies and leave them bleeding for father of the seas. Others were dumped into the cold surf, bobbing up afterwards to try their luck again. An endless exertion of arms and legs kicking for a few moments of being carried on the waves and then plunking back into the Father’s embrace. Cassie found a bench, yellow tape broken around a table declaring the area off limits. The heaviness of it all forced her to sit. Sit and contemplate.
Breath in. Breath out.
The sun dropped slowly, the Pacific swallowing her whole. This could be the last day for humanity and all living beings for that matter. No need to be a speciesist. Countless times life was wiped away and new ones rose from the ruins. The world was a giant whiteboard covered in colored scribbles by immortal children. One pass of an eraser would take it all away. One word from her, or maybe even a single nod. The dark clouds gathered, unnoticed, even as others saw the blood-red reflection of the sun weeping into the waters.
Cassie’s cell phone buzzed. She looked at the bright screen; a text message from her mother, begging to know where she was and to respond. There were thirty unanswered messages very much like the last. Unimportant. She couldn’t be swayed by the concerns of one person. Not when she was so close to a decision. As night approached, she passed a gazebo. White lights glittered like stars. A young couple stood shoulder to shoulder, edges of their masks nearly touching as they whispered loving words. Was it about the future? The past? The present? What hopes did they have? Did they know death was close as a lover, warm breath tickling their necks?
She wished she had an appetite for one last meal. A veggie burger from her favorite vegan stand. Her stomach churned with the approaching darkness. Her legs shook in anticipation, but she forced them to move on. One step at a time, kicking off her shoes, toes sinking into the sand. The angry rush of the tide roaring in. She shed her clothes, standing naked in the salty spray, except for the mask on her face. The moment had come. The moon had risen, silver over the dark waters. Water tugged at her ankles, then her knees. She stood firm, waiting.
A loud, high-pitched whiny of two large sea horses rose from the Pacific. They dragged a chariot behind them, golden in the silver moonlight. There stood an old man, holding a trident tall as the buildings on the streets. Sea foam dripped from his white beard and kelp clung to his shoulders like a cloak. Dark blue eyes stared at Cassie.
“What is your decision?” The voice, deep as the sea roared in her ears.
A single word was all she needed to utter, or just nod. A simple gesture to end the pain. The misery these creatures placed on one another.
Cassie thought back to all the people without their masks, carrying on as though they were doing no harm to themselves or others. The banners to worthless demigods, the struggle for human decency that was denied. She licked her lips, ready to pronounce their sentence.
Breath in. Breath out.
Then the memory of the young girl holding her mermaid doll pressed to her chest in love, delight in her eyes surfaced. The young couple with dreams whispered in the dark Had she really decided against them? Against their future?
It would all be better this way.
“I offer you,” Cassie said, surprised by the firmness in her voice, cold water splashing her thighs. Nothing. She wanted to offer nothing. Then what lessons would they learn? There was no redemption in nothing. She tore off her mask.
“I offer myself as sacrifice.”
Father of the seas nodded and the chariot swept in on her, waves twice her height. Cold arms snatched her up, lifting her from her feet. She gasped, tasting salt and ocean and feeling the rage fill her, flow through her veins. She surrendered and a great peace calmed everything. She would be going to a new home, to his watery kingdom. To vast nothingness. All for people who she hoped would have empathy, never knowing what she gave up for them.
Breath out. Breath in.
Matthew Johnson is a graduate of the MFA Creative Writing program at University of Riverside, Palm Desert. He has published fantasy short stories in “The Blackest Knights;” “Blackest Spells;” and “Beyond the Shadows” anthologies; Lazarus Rising, a zombie play; the forthcoming fantasy comedy play, Wooing the Dragon; and is currently working on a horror novel. He resides in Riverside, California, with his wife, director and actress Wendi Johnson, and his three lovable puppies.