Rumpus Original Fiction: The Ghosts of St. Louis

By

The guy on the news says the Atlantic and Pacific are one ocean now. It’s been like that for a while, just no one’s said. We’ve lost California, Florida, all the original Thirteen Colonies. There’s no Gulf Coast anymore because there isn’t a gulf. There’s just this bit in the middle of the country. We’re being swallowed up by something called the Pangeal Sea.

“Woo wee, Rayanne, it’s hot. I’m sweating like a whore in church,” Bon Bon says.

Bon Bon’s my cousin. She’s living with us until Aunt Kitty gets out of the iron lung. On Sundays I take the tram into town with her so she can sit next to the lung and tell her mom what-all happened during the week. After the Bon Bon update, one of us wipes Aunt Kitty’s face off of tears and she asks how things are going with me. I try to say something that will cheer her up or at least give her something to think about, lying there all day. This week it’s the Atlantic and Pacific merging, how they reached out their fingers until some of them touched and made a new thing.

“Well, shoot, the world just keeps on turning while I’m in this thing,” Aunt Kitty says. She says that whatever I say. The continent shrinking, the price of genSorgh® going through the roof. Sometimes I think she doesn’t really listen to what we say on account of the iron lung. It’s her whole world. If that were my life, I wouldn’t pay attention to stuff either.

*

On Friday, school is closed because we’re at seven on the Air Quality Index—one being clean sweet air you could sleep outside in and ten being total lockdown. Me and Bon Bon are still in our pajamas when my mom leaves for work. She’s one of the productivity inspectors that walk the floors at the genSorgh® facility. Without her, all that brown fluff would never make it from the little chutes dangling over the belt into boxes of cereal, cooking flour, and baby ration. There would be a lot of waste. Mom says the job is shitty but it could be worse. She could still be on the lines, working the levers on the chutes till her hands cramp.

“Don’t go outside or shoplift at the commissary or set anything on fire,” Mom says inside her respirator. It covers her nose and mouth and makes her sound like a robot that’s given up on becoming human.

We won’t do any of that because of how bad it smells outside, like hot garbage and melted plastic. Nobody wants to smell that. We stay inside all day in the clean recycled air that doesn’t make our lungs hurt. We watch news reports and jump on the couch because we can. We’re young. We’re the future of this planet, if it has one.

“Renewed unrest in the border states of the Caucasus this week. Skirmishes reported along the neutral zone.” The guy on the news talks in this bored news guy voice kind of like my mom’s respirator voice, like he’s given up, too. He’s read the same report a hundred times: the anarchies in Europe fighting over the wind turbines, blowing up their best chance for survival. Things are pretty bad over there, way worse than here.

I know what anarchy is, what that means. At town hall meetings, the Councilors will sometimes talk about the damage not having laws over there has done to world peace. How lucky we are to have laws and people working together and Councilors. A system keeping all of us alive. I guess they’re right. I guess things could be a lot worse.

“There’s nothing on,” Bon Bon says. She says it out of habit, because there’s never much on except news reports. When I was a little kid, there were still cartoons and game shows and stuff. You could save up your recreation rations and buy space on the settlement’s public access channel. We had this one show called Cookin’ with Shirl. Our lunch lady Miss Mabel went on and showed how she makes fiestada. People liked it because it wasn’t bad news or air quality reports. Like, the world couldn’t be falling apart if a lady was on TV making fiestada. Now, we want this hamburger ground real fine.

Switching channels, I find a celebrity gossip show with a breaking news feed going. The camera zooms in on Ariel Waxwing Saint, the most famous folk singer in the world, being loaded into an ambulance. The headline flashes SAINT PROTEST ENDS, SINGER RUSHED TO SANTA FE MEDICOMP. The subhead flashes SEPARATION FROM TUTTLEMORE CONFIRMED BY SOURCES CLOSE TO THE SINGER. The subhead of that flashes WILL HE RUSH TO HER SICKBED???

For the last six months Ariel Waxwing’s been living in a redwood in the North American Tree Sanctuary. The tree’s called Cheyenne, the last redwood in the world, and she’s about as famous as Ariel Waxwing. Some dicks in the Energy Procurement Bureau want to chop all the sanctuary trees down for fuel, including Cheyenne, and Ariel Waxwing got so mad she pitched a tent in Cheyenne’s branches. She said if they wanted that tree, they’d have to cut her down with it.

“The protest wasn’t going good to start with,” Bon Bon says, because she keeps up with this stuff. “Ariel Waxwing was starting to look sick. Then that jerk goes and has divorce papers sent right up Cheyenne.”

The jerk is Rowan Tuttlemore, celebrity oceanographer. He’s on the TV all the time saying end-of-the-worldy stuff like, If we don’t intervene now, it may be too late. When everybody can see it’s too late. He laces his fingers together and bounces them up and down to show what will save us is more cooperation, less infighting. The social fabric and whatnot. Tuttlemore came up with the name Pangeal Sea for the new ocean that’s swallowing us. People thought that was so smart they gave him a call-in show.

Ghosts of St. Louis ill. 1Famous people breakups aren’t my thing, though. “Who cares?” I ask.

“You’re dead inside, Rayanne,” Bon Bon says. She heard that expression a couple weeks ago and now she trots it out every chance she gets. According to the reporter, the protest ended when Ariel Waxwing passed out from a hunger strike and paramedics hauled her down from Cheyenne. When the camera zooms in on her again, weak and shrunk up on a fluid drip, I shut the tube off. I don’t want Bon Bon to get upset.

A couple weeks ago, they moved Aunt Kitty into a special quarantine ward where we can’t visit. Bon Bon’s handling it about like you’d think. The guidance counselor at school hauled Mom in about it. Mom told her she’s a single mom and a single aunt and held up her chapped hands to show that she’s doing the best she can with what she has, which is nothing. The counselor sighed because it’s like that with all the parents. Her job is to tell people stuff they can’t do anything about.

Bon Bon wonders out loud if Ariel Waxwing Saint always wanted to be an activist, or a folk singer. If the reporter and paramedics always wanted to be a reporter and paramedics. Were these their dreams as little kids or did they just take the first job that came along?

“I’m going to be a scientist when I graduate out of that school, just like Rowan Tuttlemore,” I say. I won’t study whales and sponges and stuff, though, or waste time getting married to folk singers. I thought up this thing called Gunkomatic 3000, this big old vacuum cleaner that pulls all the crud out of the air and the ocean, the chlorofluorocarbons and the gray sludge and the things everybody these days feels terrible about. I’m gonna build that.

“I’m going to be an activist like Ariel Waxwing Saint,” Bon Bon says, leaping into the air. She lands wrong and hits her head on the coffee table and I have to put iodine on her scalp. It runs down her face and stains it with sick mustard-yellow tears, like how the sky looks today.

*

The sky is the color of the chalky orange sherbet they sell at the commissary. Not as angry as it was yesterday, when the AQI was a six. Then it was the color of egg yolk. Today it’s a five, as low as it ever gets, so they reopen school.

On the rec field, me and Bon Bon hang out on the fringes like always. Miss Nelson tried to have class like normal, but what she didn’t know was we’d all made this silent pact to be assholes all day. She couldn’t keep a single butt in a seat. I almost feel sorry for her, trying to educate us on a day like this.

I wonder what Miss Nelson is when she’s not teaching. Does she just kind of go hollow on the inside and gradually fade to nothing? Does she sit up all night and stare at the wall, waiting to turn into a teacher again in the morning? Nobody knows where her pod is. There’s a rumor she sleeps on the cot in the nurse’s office.

“Oh, God, here comes Dickie again,” Bon Bon says.

Not everybody’s having a good time during the free period. That’s because Dickie Farkus is on the lam, running around snapping the girls’ bra straps. His mission in life. Bon Bon stands with her back to the outside wall of the gymnacafetorium, wishing she didn’t have boobs. She doesn’t need to worry because I’m prepared to pound Dickie. Done it before; Bon Bon is family. One day after I’ve grown boobs too, we’ll be all each other’s got.

“This is stupid. Why did they even have school today?” Bon Bon says.

“I guess they don’t know what else to do with us.”

We’re supposed to be identifying rocks, but nobody is. Miss Nelson handed us geology worksheets on our way out. Was all, Just because we’re getting an extra rec period doesn’t mean we can’t learn something. The worksheets are blowing around the playground like ghosts trying to get back in their bodies.

“Go toward the light!” I say, running after the papers, waving my arms at them. I’m trying to cheer Bon Bon up. The last few days, she’s been looking sad the way she does right before she picks all the skin off her lips till they’re raw hamburger. After the lip picking comes not brushing her hair or taking showers. I don’t even want to think about what comes after that.

It’s taken me a few years to work it out, but now I know that Bon Bon’s moods and the color of the sky have something to do with each other. One time in elementary school the AQI stayed at nine for three straight days, and she pulled her hair out strand by strand. I had to go behind her with a broom and a dustpan. Not really, but still. The sky was a burnt orange color, and Bon Bon’s scalp showed through her hair, and we knew even though we were little kids what color the clouds are when the world can just barely keep us alive.

The sky today is really best-case scenario, the most we can hope for. Bon Bon picks at her lip, wondering how a sherbet sky and sherbet air that tastes like chalk going down are supposed to be enough. I know she’s wondering that because I’m wondering that. Everybody out here who isn’t popping bra straps is wondering that.

Ghosts of St. Louis ill. 2

There are books in the school library showing orange skies before the war—sunsets, not sick air. Back in those days, most of the really bad stuff was still ahead of them: the sea levels rising, countries splitting in two over who would lead them out of hell. In North America, the sky lighting up tangerine coast to coast, an orange daylight that lasted three weeks. They tell us in school that we’re supposed to be grateful we didn’t have to live through those days. What those people went through, the ones that survived. Miss Nelson says we’re heading toward another bad time, that Rowan Tuttlemore is right and if something doesn’t change we’ll disappear under the Pangeal Sea. One day in the future, if an alien civilization whizzes past Earth they won’t know we ever existed.

We shuffle around the dirt ground of the quad for a while, me guarding Bon Bon’s back from Dickie, both of us kicking rocks we’re supposed to be logging on our worksheets. We wait for Miss Nelson to sit down with the book she brought out in her armpit. Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell. A little slice of time opening up.

“Let’s go look at the fence,” I say.

*

The fence is on the other side of some woods separating the civilian part of the settlement from everything else. It’s a monster, as fences go. The Council built it on top of the dam ten years ago when people started breaking into the hydroelectric plant to steal juice for their phones and HAM radios. If not for the hydro dam, we’d be in the dark. If not for the hydro dam, we’d slide right into the Pangeal Sea.

“I’m gonna look at the skyline again,” Bon Bon says, and she’s up the fence like a squirrel.

I don’t really want to climb the fence, even though coming out here was my idea. But Bon Bon’s been in this funk, and I’ll do just about anything to make her feel better. When we’ve been climbing for about five minutes, my arms start to shake. I loop them through the chinks and hug myself, thinking what my neck will look like with a right angle in it when I fall Ghosts of St. Louis ill. 3off this thing. Bon Bon zips up the fence. She isn’t afraid of anything except orange skies. She’s going to be an activist, chaining herself to trees and other things that need saving.

“I can see it,” she says.

About a quarter of the way up the fence, you can see what the world used to look like, before it fell apart. I suck it up and climb to where Bon Bon’s stopped, and there it is, just below the surface of the gray water, a grid of dark rectangles and domes. A city that used to be called St. Louis.

Hundreds of years ago, when the Mississippi River started flooding the land along its path south of here, they built a dam. I wrote a report on it last year. For years, as far as the people of St. Louis knew, it held back the end of the world. Then there was a little spark deep in the earth a hundred miles south. A fireball in the continent’s gut, spreading every which way. Highways moved like ocean waves. Trucks bounced around like toy cars. There was a sound like thunder right before, or if you asked some people it was like heavy hail falling, or just a low roar that meant they should have run. I guess the couple of minutes right before you kick sounds different to everybody. When I go, it’ll be like a herd of stallions running across the prairie. What it would sound like if there were any stallions anywhere, if prairies were a thing.

While people were busy pulling bodies out of rubble, the cracks in the dam spread like roots, and the city was an underwater ghost town in a few weeks.

There are photos in the Citizens’ History Museum of what the city looked like right after the flood. The water was lower, and clear enough that you could see everything that was lost.

“The water looks gross today. I can’t see shit,” Bon Bon says.

“It always looks like that.”

“Last time I could see all the way down to the streets. The lights in the carnival came on and there were spirits riding the Ferris wheel. Just going around and around and around and never getting off.”

She can see dead people now, I guess. Like, there’s this whole world going on right beside us that most people can’t see. We’re separated from it by an invisible glass, and occasionally a shriveled gray arm will reach across the void and make contact. If I was a ghost, I wouldn’t want nothing to do with the world that killed me.

“All that’s down there is the remains of people who were too sick or old or hurt to make it out in time,” I say.

Bon Bon is a believer, one of the people who think what’s down there can be saved. They’re still caught up in the story of St. Louis. Someday it’ll rise out of the flood waters and not be this rotten-ass city anymore. We’ll all move into the houses and our parents will pack into the high-rise corporate centers and sell computer chips and real estate and the world will start over again.

“Think about it,” I say. “You drowned in a big flood, you lost everything. You don’t know what happened to all the people you knew. You’re a ghost. First thing you’re gonna do is ride a Ferris wheel?”

She climbs, puts some space between me and her. She doesn’t want me to follow her. Or talk to her, or anything. Lip skin and hair, turning the apartment into a bird nest.

“It’s depressing hanging out with you sometimes, Ray Ray.”

*

The quake that flooded St. Louis is still happening. Aftershocks, humming way down deep. Every hundred years or so, another spark works its way to the surface, and the people living around here have to start over. It makes this one of the most dangerous places on earth to be, but we stay. There’s not a lot else to choose from.

I’ve never climbed this high, but Bon Bon has, plenty of times. She went halfway to the top on a dare once, claimed she could see clear to Arcadia, thirty miles away. I don’t know if she was yanking my chain or not. All I know is from here I can see all the way across the huge bay that used to be the river basin. Water all the way to the horizon, no other cities or people. We could be all that’s left and who’d know? I look for the spot where the tower my old man was working in collapsed, but Bon Bon’s right. Except for that top slice of St. Louis, there’s nothing to see.

*

Me and Bon Bon were little kids when the government started building the new dam. My mom won’t talk about it, but Bon Bon heard it from Aunt Kitty. My old man and his crew were working without harnesses when the rumbles started. The tower was almost finished. After the boss called everybody down, those six guys and Joelle Dickerson, better known as Joelle the Harelip, stayed to screw on a few last rivets. They were saving themselves the long, slow trip up and down in harnesses the next day.

It was a bad time. Bon Bon’s old man had just got his head blown off by a busted steam pipe at the genSorgh® factory. Then Aunt Kitty’s lungs went bad on account of the orange air from the orange war, and Bon Bon moved in with us. Even though it was awful for everybody, I liked having somebody to sleep with, to grab onto when I had that dream about our whole town falling into the ocean. I wouldn’t tell Bon Bon this, but now that we’re older I still like sharing a bed with her. On the nights when I feel myself falling, I don’t have to go far to find somebody to hold onto.

Poking up over the horizon is the New Tower, a vertical rectangle with a silver pyramid on top. Rising from the ruins of its predecessor, the dedication plaque reads. Men with sniper rifles are hiding inside it. Bon Bon waves. She knows they won’t shoot at kids.

“Hi, guys,” she waves. She gives a last wave, and when nobody comes out with a bullhorn to run us off, we get on with the blessing.

Peace go with you. Go in peace,” we say. “Peace be your today and all your tomorrows.”

In our settlement, this is what you say when someone dies or leaves in search of a better life or just disappears. The Chief Councilor read the whole blessing at opening of the New Tower last year, after they riveted on the metal plaque with all the names of the dead on it and read them all off. The blessing is forty-seven stanzas long. We had to memorize it all in Community Hygiene class, so if we’re ever stuck at the bottom of a well or anarchists take out the power grids we’ll have something to mumble into the dark. The long dark has ended. Our linked elbows are Community. Our linked arms are the Future.

Today we just say the first part of the blessing, the important part. It’s kind of corny, but we’re afraid not to say it, like knocking on wood. Like maybe if we don’t, a spell will break and the people under the water won’t ever get out of there.

I scan the ancient skyline for signs of life. There’s a dark shadow moving past the arch. A shark, maybe even a manta ray. People have started claiming to see weird things in the water. Nobody wants to think stuff like that could be this far in yet, the sharks and rays and jellyfish and stuff. Whatever the thing is, it circles the arch and moves back toward the city and eventually disappears into it. After it’s gone, the water is still and quiet. Not a creature stirring, even a mouse.

“Did you see that? What the hell was it?” Bon Bon says.

“Probably a school of electric eels,” I say.

“I’m pretty sure those are extinct.”

“Look it up.” I shrug, even though from where she is she can’t see me.

It’s weird to think a whole society lived down there once. Some of them might still be in their houses. Every couple of years, a person with a dreamy look in their eye stands up at a town hall meeting and asks why we don’t try to take back the city. Build an oxygenated dome, pump the water out and start over. An iron lung big enough to fit all of us. Once in a blue moon, someone mechanical will draw it out on paper. They’ll unroll the paper and say, look, it’s this easy, we already have the tools. The papers and sometimes the person who draws them will disappear.

Ghosts of St. Louis ill. 4

I can feel Bon Bon up there stewing at me. It’s been building all day, this feeling that she’s sick of me. We spend too much time together, the guidance counselor told Mom that. She said Bon Bon needs other friends and I need other friends. It’s always been the two of us, against the Dickie Farkuses and the collapsing towers of the world. I guess I’m a little sick of her, too, even though I know the only reason she came out here was so I wouldn’t have to go by myself. It’s why I go on the tram with her every Sunday. I like Aunt Kitty, but she’s Bon Bon’s mom.

I’m thinking about my old man clawing at dirty water when I feel Bon Bon moving again. We’re already up high enough that if one of us fell, that would be it. I think about the guy who committed suicide off the top of the genSorgh® grain elevator a few years back, how his leg was bent in a V shape in the wrong direction. His face has my face on it. My face has Bon Bon’s face on it.

“Yo, Bon, I don’t think we should go any higher,” I yell up.

We don’t have to. We can go back down if we’re scared,” she says.

Each of my heartbeats is a foot placed in another chink in the fence. She’s climbing too fast, almost to the halfway point. One wrong move, and she’ll come skinning down the fence. Most of me wants to leave her there, save my own neck. My arms are shaking from holding onto the fence so long. I should probably climb down before they give out, but without me telling them to, my feet find the other chinks above me. I know Bon Bon’s crossed the midpoint of the fence by now. The highest anybody’s ever gone. I’m almost sorry nobody else is here to see it, and then I remember the man from the genSorgh® factory, that red chunk of his skull sitting next to his body like a hunk of pomegranate.

St. Louis is a smudge in the water below me. Now I can see the other side of the bay we’re in, that it’s not closed off like I thought. There’s high ground beyond it and a kind of estuary in the middle. The factories and residential compounds and security towers of Arcadia spiking over the new horizon.

“Wow, Bon, you see that?” I say. It’s a dumb question because she’s been this far up before.

“Yeah, Ray, we gotta go,” she says. “Now.”

The fence rattles as Bon Bon changes directions, climbing down toward me like the devil’s on her ass. Then I see the red light flash on the North Tower’s top spike, the navy jumpsuited bodies on the watchtower waving sticks I know are rifles.

“Move along, citizens,” the voice from the bullhorn says. The voice is followed by a rifle crack, a warning shot fired into the air. Bon Bon thinks they’re firing at us.

“Haul ass,” she says, and we do.

*

Going down, I keep my eyes on the city. Try to think of anything other than falling off the fence. I think of the story Miss Nelson told us about Atlantis. The people who lived there were an advanced people, real smarties. They had aqueducts and toilets and everything. They all looked around and said, Dang, what a future we built for ourselves, and then just like that it was gone. The whole island underwater. They didn’t feel smart then. All those lives, all that possibility. If people from another island rode by in a boat, they’d never have known the Atlanteans existed.

Bon Bon makes it to the ground a minute or so before me.

“Hurry up, Ray Ray,” she says. She wants to run, but she’s not going to leave me.

When I’m a couple of Ray Ray lengths from the bottom, the gun cracks again. It echoes off the fence, the face of the dam, anything solid around the bay, sending the warning back to me again and again. This is not a place for children. This is not a place for any civilized person. I hold my breath and listen for stallions in the distance. Their hooves beat out a message. Get off that fence, get off that fence, so I jump.

*

With the pain shooting from my left foot all the way up my leg, I can’t get up or run or do any of the stuff Bon Bon yells at me to do. A broken ankle, with my luck. When Bon Bon notices the bulge where my ankle juts out funny, she presses her fingers into the soft place under the ankle bone. Something gives. A little piece of bone or cartilage or whatever shifts a millimeter. I let loose a string of cusses I did not know were inside me.

“Holy turkey titties.”

“Sorry,” she says. “It’s swole up bad.”

“You think?”

More than an hour later, we hobble out of the woods and back into the civilian side of the complex, me using Bon Bon as a crutch. The longer we go without getting shot, the more we worry about how long we’ve been gone, what Miss Nelson will do to us when we get back to class. How skinned alive we are when we get home.

“We got a week of caf duty with Miss Mabel, easy,” I say.

“Well, I don’t want to peel no potatoes.”

“I don’t want to make no fiestada.”

“Sorry, Ray Ray, but we gotta pick up the pace.”

She hunches down so I can climb on piggyback, even though I’m bigger than she is, and runs us both back into the schoolyard. She moves faster than I’ve ever seen her move. Faster than she’d run if Ariel Waxwing Saint was signing autographs. Faster than when she thought we were getting shot at.

*

We think we’re so smart, just sneak into our seats without anybody noticing. Figure the ankle out later. It’s 2:30. Fractions. Miss Nelson will have her back turned writing on the board, and we can scoot in, act like we’ve been there the whole time. But when we get back, it’s just Miss Nelson sitting alone in the classroom, smoothing out a stack of worksheet souls she’s saved from the playground. We don’t waste paper or anything here.

“Where on earth have you two been? Why are you walking like that, Rayanne?” she says. She knows exactly where we’ve been, but she can’t bust us like she wants to. Anybody can see she’s broken Educational Bylaw #37 and let the rest of the class go early. Dickie could have snapped half the bras in the settlement by now. “I’d call both your mothers, but they’ve got enough on their minds.”

This is supposed make us feel bad, and it does. We take our demerit slips and mumble how sorry we are, which we kind of are but kind of aren’t because if we don’t ever climb the fence then it’s just a bunch of stories that can’t possibly be true. We couldn’t see the city glittering under water that shouldn’t be there. Taken over by weird sea creatures casting dark shadows, calling dibs on the city. This is ours now. The Ferris wheel lit up in colored light and turning under the gray water. We wouldn’t see the ghosts of St. Louis, of my father and his crewmates. People who should have made it. Their eyes are black with silt, their hair streaming in the current. They think of the lives they might still be living if they’d been more careful. Taken safe work that didn’t mean anything. If they’d just grabbed the people they loved and run. They go through the motions of their old lives, finding their hearts aren’t in it because their hearts have stopped. They’ve lost their voices but still mouth at us with blue lips as if to say please try and survive, please, please please try to make it.

***

Rumpus original art by Brandon Hicks.


Emily Koon is a fiction writer from North Carolina. She has work in Midway Journal, Portland Review, Atticus Review and other places and is the winner of The Conium Review 2015 Innovative Fiction Contest. She can be found at twitter.com/thebookdress. More from this author →