The Shape of Water

It was called the "Flood to End All Floods" by a Mars-based EBC reporter today. But we must ask ourselves, how many floods must we endure before they all do end? Or will it be the Earth that ends first? Today, July 23, 2912, marks the eighty-fifth consecutive year of cloud and rain on our planet. For eighty-five years, no light has brightened our skies and cloud has shrouded the Earth in one all-encompassing blanket of grey. The last of the once-flourishing Mediterranean islands has finally sunk to the watery depths, and EBC's Antonio Di Benedetto witnessed a plane crash today involving a man in his nineties named Bradley O'Shagnessy. This is Bob Hurley of the Earth Broadcasting Company, coming to you from Mt. Everest. Over to you, Antonio—

I never got to hear what Antonio had to say because at that moment a torrent of hail and wind smashed open my window and tossed the radio to the floor. I was pelted with bullets of icy water, and I threw my wrinkled hands up to shield my face. With a tremendous effort, I clawed my way over to the window and shoved it shut.

Outside, the hail was drilling into the wet earth with determined force. I watched it through the cracked glass. So, Bradley O'Shagnessy was dead. I had never met him, but I had certainly heard of him. He had been the oldest man still living on Earth, but now I, at ninety-five, had inherited the title.

I cannot say this news was particularly shocking; I had been anticipating it for a long time. When the Flood started eighty-five years ago, the communities on the Moon and Mars filled up at an alarming rate to accommodate for the amount of people wanting to vacate their drowning planet. Now, the only inhabitants of Earth dwelled in shelters among the peaks of the Himalayas.

I remained on Earth not due to a "stubborn lack of reason" that the other remaining townspeople had diagnosed me with, but a faith that none of the others possessed. I was now the only one who had been alive before the Flood, and thus the only one that still believed in the sun. I used to tell stories of the returning sun to the younger children, stories of warmth and light and a safety that they had never known. Initially my tales enthralled them, but as the clouds continued so smother the Earth, the children grew older and became wise enough to be able to dismiss my "wild fantasies". As adults, they rejected the open-minded freedom of thought that had flourished in their childhood brains, and my occupation as a storyteller dwindled until I was forced to move down the mountain. My new home was a shelter on the brink of the water, a metal and stone structure who's interior looked like the inside of an empty old garbage can, as if someone had dumped all the trash out but left little bits of grey and yellowing debris stuck to the walls.

The only real color in my house came from my paintings. They had been the fascination of the town for a while, with their "mysterious source of light" and vibrant colors, but the effect had eventually worn off. My paintings were my real method of storytelling. I could see one of them reflected in the window's tear streaked face as I stared pensively through it, and I turned to the wall behind me. Images of light, images of dazzling whiteness and clarity shone at me, but nevertheless had no effect on the oatmeal dreariness of the rest of the house. I closed my eyes, felt the rays warm my face, and for once listened to my own story told back to me.

"Once, there was more than this. There were clouds and rain, but there were also days of light when you could go outside and feel the same warmth as when someone you love smiles at you, just by standing in the sun. You could look around and see not frozen grime and mud but birds and insects and dandelion tufts floating on a breeze like white crayon pirates. You could hear a child's laughter unfurling its wings in the wind, and the contented humming sound a dog makes subconsciously as it sunbathes in the grass. The hills are now mute, but then they sang with life in a frivolous melody that drifted down to you through your door, which was thrown wide so as to let the earth breathe inside."

I never knew how to end my stories, even the ones I never spoke about or painted, but that didn't worry me. My story's ending might be bitter. It might be sweet. It might be bittersweet. What I was worried about was whether or not it'd ever begin.

I could still feel the tawny warmth from my painting dancing on my closed eyelids, and I opened them slowly to savor the sensation. My imagination was still shining a shaft of light across the painting's multicolored surface, and for a moment it seemed so real that I felt a tear slide down my apricot-wrinkled cheek. Part of the wall was splashed in yellow reality too, and I watched it, waiting for it to fade. But the minutes ticked by, and the ray of light did not fade, but instead seemed to grow stronger. Shaking, I turned to my cracked window.

The sun was shining through a break in a tumultuous black cloud. The light poured amber through my window, igniting the room with color replicated a thousand times through the raindrops still clinging to the face of the window. The tears on the glass were mirrored on my face, falling freely and unheeded as I walked slowly to the door. I pulled it open and stepped out into the sun for the first time in over eighty years. The brilliant shaft had glared right through my window, but now it was spreading along the ground and licking the corners of nearby houses like a flame, setting the wet earth ablaze in light.

A yell came from my right, and turning, I saw a man shepherding two small boys and a girl toward me. "Hurry now, get inside!" he was ordering. "My house is just up the hill, get inside and stay under a blanket. Whatever you do, stay out of the light!" He ushered them hurriedly past me and farther up the hill. Past him, I could see other people running and yelling, all avoiding the light, all scampering indoors or into the shade.

"Hey lady!" I turned to see the man looking in my direction. "Lady, come on, you've got to get inside, you're already in the light!"

I couldn't say anything, and just stood there and looked at the man. I suddenly realized how very pale he was, how pale they all were. All those years in the dark had taken the pigment from their skin, deforming their faces into ghostly shadows of the life they'd once contained.

The ghost was still staring at me, and he came at me and tried to grab my wrist and pull me up the hill. "Lady, come on! What are you doing? You don't know what it'll do to you!"

I found my voice at this. I watched the sunlight rebound off his colorless skin and glassy brown eyes, and said, "Neither do you. Is that what you're afraid of?" He stared at me a moment more, and I saw the light almost penetrate his eyes. But then he dropped my wrist and backed away uphill into the shade. I turned from him, another tear with another cause sliding down my cheek. Stepping fully into the sun, I moved down the slope toward the water's edge.

The ground had seemed afire from the light, but the water was so dazzling that I couldn't look at it. It seemed to absorb the sunlight and cast it out again tenfold. It whispered at me with the hidden joy that shows when you try to keep your voice calm but are laughing hysterically inside. I needed to be a part of that joy, and with my eyes closed against the sheer brilliance, I took a step into the pool of light.

I felt the slimy moss shift beneath my foot before I realized I was falling. My body plummeted forward into the icy water, and I gasped a breath of the clearest, coldest air I'd ever tasted just before I went under the surface.

Cold so intense it was fire blazed through my bones and paralyzed me like an electric shock. So this is what it's like to be burned alive. I couldn't see for the blinding water all around me, but somehow I managed to get my joints working enough for a burst of energy to carry me sputtering up again. My body beneath my neck was either frozen solid or still blazing with liquid fire, but for a minute I could feel the sun on my face as I surfaced. Bells rang in my ears and I tilted my head up to the light. Red shone through my closed eyelids.

Somewhere, someone was yelling. I opened my eyes a tiny slit that barely allowed me to make out a figure running along the shore. It sounded like the ghost man from before, but it was impossible to hear him properly above the clanging in my ears. He was pacing up and down the bank as if he wanted to jump in but was being restricted by an invisible barrier. Poor soul, I thought. You've spent so much time in the dark that now the light blinds you even more than it does me. Cowering forever like that, playing hide-and-seek for your entire life... no wonder reality seems so terrifying.

I turned away and tilted my head up again. The light was fading, the opaque black menace of cloud about to snuff it out like a iron candle snuffer hovering over a tiny burning pillar of yellow wax. My energy slowly seeped away, and the last thing I thought of before I slipped under the ice and fire surface was the poor ghost man on the shore and his hide-and-seek game.

I never was any good at hide-and-seek. I would always sneeze on purpose, just to make sure my friends would come running and find me. And when I was older, I had no one else to play the game with. But sometimes, when it was raining hard but light emitted from a paining on the wall, I still made a lot of noise. Just in case someone was still looking and hadn't found me yet.