I hadn’t been to this city since the day it fell.
It had been chaos then, fear rising from every street corner and doorway, voices mixing into a chant that shook the ground: Get out get out get out. Eyes wide, hands gripped tight to whatever they valued most, heads turning to glance over their shoulders as they fled.
It had been smoke and bursting pipes, shifting ground and rising water, stale air and confusion. I remember thinking: anywhere but here. I remember thinking: I have to run. I remember thinking: don’t look, don’t look, don’t ever look back.
And here I am. Returning. The city is a different creature now. Shells of buildings, not quite empty but vacant nonetheless. Seagulls scream from their nests on collapsed rooftops. A soft roar of the rising tide echoes down abandoned streets. The sea claims a third of the city during high tide, carrying in sand and shells and discarded seaweed to leave where it pleases.
Cracks in concrete spread out like spiderwebs, buildings droop against each other in a state of settled catastrophe. Old cars on flat tires are filled with bird nests and spiderwebs. Open doors sag on their last hinges, and walls are left with a patchwork of windows and shattered glass.
Flowering jasmine sprouts from every crack and crevice, every pile of sand, soft white flowers gluing scraps of a city together, their powerful scent filling the air like perfume.
I pick a few of the flowers as I make my way down second street, startling a flock of pigeons and a raccoon. My fingers are shaking and jittery, twisting the flower stems together to keep my thought from racing away from me. I can’t believe I’m here. I can’t believe I made it.
The building used to be a flower shop. Its glass doors are still shut, locked even, though the glass has long been shattered. I carefully step through the empty panes and take in the space that used to hold the most color in the city. Empty canisters and vases filled with dead flies, dead stems and cobwebs, swirls of fine sand drifted in from the wind and gathered on the floor.
He’s sitting on the counter, stacking cylinder vases in a pyramid. He looks up at me with eyes of sea glass and dreams, and it’s only a moment later that I have my hand in his, fingers locked together. There’s something unbreakable in our shattered gazes. Something we built when our guts shouted at us to get out, get out of this terrible place. Something we grabbed when our minds said you have to run, run, run.
Something I clung to when I told myself you can’t look back, don’t ever look back.
I think perhaps I can hear an echo of the pounding hearts that fled here the day the city emptied, or perhaps that is my own heart matching beat with him. We’re in shock, amazed we made it, not quite ready to believe it.
We walk out and find where the beach begins on seventh street. Washed up seashells poke out of drifted sand, stones beaten smooth from constant turmoil gleam in shafts of sunlight. Abandoned lives and washed out dreams surround us, forgotten and left to lie in peace. This is a place for the claiming of waves.
This is a place for the forgotten, the wandering, the runaways.
We sit on the roof of a rusting car, tucked close to each other’s side, listening to the water as it says shhh, shhh, shhh. We’d promised to get out, to find somewhere safe, to do it together.
Together, or not at all.
The sea is lapping at the deflated tires beneath us, not quite able to reach farther, but seemingly stretching out to us, saying shh, shh, it’s alright now. I rest my head on his shoulder, and his heartbeat says we made it, we made it, we made it. I squeeze his hand, and it tells him we’re out, we’re out, we’re out.
No one will find us here, in the ruins of a city fallen to the sea. We can finally take the time to hear our thoughts and figure out how our lungs are supposed to breathe. Jasmine perfume fills the air, and I’m starting to remember what it is to imagine something more than running away. His hand often intertwines with mine, a reassurance that I’m here. We made it.
Where the sea washes up on deserted streets, learning to settle, to be what it has become.
Together, or not at all.