The doorbell rang, and I knew that Matthew was dead.
It wasn’t a remarkable sort of knowing, although maybe it should have been. It was too quiet for that, too sad, creeping out of nowhere and filling me from toe to tip with the knowledge that the world was different now than it had been a few moments ago.
If I turned on the news, someone would be talking about it. That should have been a comfort, knowing that I wasn’t going to mourn alone. All it did was make me tired. I stood, leaving my computer to compile its code, ticking down the seconds of my working day with mechanical precision, and walked to the door, opening it with a press of my thumb to the authorized entry detector next to the knob.
There was a person on my doorstep, a real person, not a mail robot, wearing the uniform of the United States Postal Service and gingerly holding a large manila envelope. Real paper, to go with the real person. A pack of those was worth a month of my salary. I was afraid to reach for it, afraid that this was a mistake—hoping that this was a mistake—and that I could be debited for mussing someone else’s property.
“Catherine Nast?” asked the postal worker, and it wasn’t a mistake: this was really happening.
“Sign here, here, and here.” The form to release a piece of official government mail was dizzying, and ended with a request for my thumbprint, just in case I was a squatter who had managed to successfully ID-jack the real Catherine Nast to the level of hacking the house. Not common, but it could happen: sixty percent of all full-immersion ID-jackers were uncovered by the post office, IRS, or pizza delivery services.
The red light at the top of the postal worker’s clipboard flashed green, and the envelope was released into my hand, smooth and heavy and irrevocable.
“Have a nice day,” said the postal worker, and then they were gone, disappearing down the hall, off to another essential but infrequent delivery, leaving me standing alone, exposed, with tears running down my cheeks.
Matthew was dead, and the world was never going to be the same again.
• • • •
The discovery of a living Pacific Bluefin tuna in open waters made the world news. The species had been believed extinct for over a decade, since the last of the aquarium breeding programs had ended in failure. The Pacific Bluefin had been the last known species of tuna to hang on, battling through overfishing and changing oceans until the final tagged individual had been found in a poacher’s net on November 17th, 2032. After that, the species had been assumed lost forever, one more entry in the long book of things that humanity’s time on the planet had destroyed.
Then a research vessel tagging the surviving Humboldt squid population off the California coast snagged something unexpected: a small silver fish, no more than eighteen inches long, with spikes along its spine and a familiar, silvery sheen.
One of the researchers started to weep when she saw it, the last tuna in the world shining in the sun. We have video, her hands clasped over her mouth, the tears running down her cheeks as two more researchers cut the tuna free of the net, heedless of the damage done to their equipment, because what was a single net in the presence of the last tuna? They moved the fish to a holding tank, filming all the while, in case something happened before they could get back to shore, in case there was a storm, in case hungry pirates from the drowned islands—which was virtually all of them, from Hawaii to New Zealand—boarded them and took their treasure away.
There were no storms. There were no pirates. The last known Pacific Bluefin tuna in the world was delivered to the Monterey Bay Aquarium on March 2nd, 2035, where it was given a full examination and declared a healthy male.
The world went wild. Tuna fever dominated the news shows and blog cycles. Schools taught impromptu lessons about the ecological and cultural significance of the tuna, while the sole surviving specimen swam lonely circles around the giant viewing pool at the aquarium, no longer free, unaware of his importance. To people who lived in terror that the ocean was broken forever, he represented something almost unthinkable: he represented hope.
When the tuna fever began to flag, the conservation orgs that had been using him as their new mascot searched for a way to make him relevant again, and seized on the most obvious: they would give him a name. Not just any name, no. They would allow the entire world to have a say.
The contest was simple. Anyone, anywhere, could enter. The entries would then be judged by a special open-source software program designed to detect profanity in every known language, both natural and constructed, and entries which passed this filter would be put into a single massive pool. Then, on a simulcast sent to anyone who cared to watch, the winner would be selected. Their name would be given to the tuna, and they and their family would be flown to California to attend a grand gala in honor of the last Pacific Bluefin tuna in the world.
It was calculated. It was designed to stir the sympathies of the world. And so, when the winner was announced as seven year old Catherine Nast of Chicago, Illinois, there were people who demanded that the random number generation code be released to them, so that they could tease and tear it apart, looking for the place where they’d decided to cheat.
It wasn’t there. Little Catie had won the right to name the big silver fish fair and square, and when she went to the gala with her parents, she wore a silver dress with a lacy white skirt that made her feel like a mermaid, or like a princess, or like both at the same time. There were reporters who wanted to talk to her, and when one of them asked why she would give such a magnificent fish such a boring name—because there had been hundreds, even thousands of “Nemos and “Neptunes and “Poseidons in the barrel, but according to the data, only one Matthew—she cast her eyes down to the floor and replied with genuine sorrow:
“My grandpa died last month, and when I asked Mom what his name was, she said it was Matthew. So I named the fish after my grandpa. He was the first person to take me to see the ocean.”
It hadn’t been much of a sight, not by the time Catie was born, wide-eyed daughter of the ecological collapse, but it was clear just by looking at her that she hadn’t cared. It had been a day in the company of her grandfather, him loving her, him showing her something that mattered, even if she was too young to understand that once, people had played in the water, instead of standing at a safe distance and covering their noses against the acrid chemical smell of the waves. And now he was gone, and thanks to a spin of a random number generator, his memory would live on, swimming endless circles in a tank that had been designed to hold dozens of tuna, and now held only one.
The reporters left her alone after that. Catie spent the evening wandering the aquarium with her parents, staring in wide-eyed wonder at the exhibits. She spent the longest time in front of the tuna tank, her hands pressed against the glass, watching Matthew circle, ever-moving, ever seeking the lost and endless sea. One lucky photographer got a picture of her just as Matthew swam by, the little girl in the silvery dress, her eyes turned up in wondering awe, watching the last tuna in the world pass. Aquariums around the world used that picture in their brochures.
Very few people remembered her name.
• • • •
The envelope contained a press kit about Matthew—where he’d been found, his vital statistics, the results of the necropsy that had been performed after medical science had stopped working miracles and he’d been found floating at the surface of his tank. There was even a paragraph about his naming, and a copy of that damned picture, me staring in slack-mouthed amazement at the most pampered fish on the planet.
I don’t remember much about that night. I remember that the hors d’oeuvres were much too rich for my stomach, but I’d eaten them anyway, pretending I didn’t see Mom loading them into her purse by the handful, pretending that every bite wasn’t worth a week of my father’s salary. I’d been sick on the ride home, clutching my stomach and vomiting by the side of the road, and I still hadn’t been hungry for two days after that, my body struggling to deal with things that were much more complicated than my usual nutrient-rich food products.
I remember standing by the tank and watching the fish with my grandfather’s name circling endlessly. I’d been old enough to understand that death was forever, but young enough to have some confused ideas about religion and what heaven was. For my grandfather, getting to be a fish in clean water, with places to swim and new shores to see, seemed about as close to heaven as it was possible to get. Sure, Matthew was just a fish, but he was a miracle, too. Maybe Grandpa could be a part of the miracle.
I knew better by the time my parents finished eating their stolen appetizers and selling the last of the memorabilia from the evening on various online auction sites. There were no miracles. There was only keeping alive, one day at a time, until you couldn’t anymore.
My mother couldn’t when I was sixteen. Cancer. She went fast, or maybe she was sick for a long time before she told me. Either way, I’d been a teenage girl with a teenage girl’s coping skills. That was the first time I ran away, selling two pints of plasma and my grandmother’s real silver earrings to buy myself a bus ticket to the aquarium where Matthew still circled, eyes fixed on a horizon that was just a trick of the way the walls curved.
No one came to take a picture that time. I guess weeping teenagers who haven’t washed their hair in a week aren’t as photogenic as carefully-dressed seven year olds with stars in their eyes. It’s too bad, really. That’s a picture I wouldn’t mind having displayed in aquariums around the world. It would be more honest. “This is what grief looks like.”
My father couldn’t when I was twenty-one. Heart attack. He fell over in his cubicle, mouse still clutched in his right hand, like productivity could somehow save him from the inevitable. He’d been with the company longer than I’d been alive. They didn’t pay for his funeral. They hired someone else to do his job inside of the week.
There was no trip to see Matthew that time. Even if I’d been able to afford it after paying to have my father cremated, I couldn’t have taken the time off work. I needed to keep coding if I wanted to keep eating, and the urge to eat—to survive—was as strong in me as it was in any living thing. I did pay for half an hour’s access to the aquarium livestream, and watched him circle, and wished that I were swimming there with him.
That would be the third photo in the set. The adult, beat-down, exhausted, watching her childhood swimming in an endless circle, wondering where it had all gone so wrong.
Maybe they were right to stick with the first picture. At least that one looked like it belonged to a world where hope could still exist. Matthew and I had both been young, with our lives ahead of us, capable of dreaming of a future where things would be better, if fish could dream. Now here I was, alone, and he was gone, and so was his kind. Gone forever.
The envelope also contained an invitation. All expenses paid.
COME, it cajoled. BID FAREWELL TO A WONDER OF THE DEEP. At the bottom, awaiting my thumbprint, flashed the question will you attend? I hesitated, thinking of time away from work, thinking of demerits on my record. Even with the aquarium paying for everything, it would cost me.
Screw it. I pressed my thumb down on the text, watching it flash to green, hearing the ping as a plane ticket was credited to my personal account, ready to fly me across the country, to take me to the funeral of a friend. You only live once. Someone who loved you should be there when you go, to say goodbye.
• • • •
The last time I saw my grandfather before he died, he’d been too sick to take me down to the sea. The smell wouldn’t have done him any good in his weakened state, chemical and cruel as it was. So he’d sat in his wheelchair, oxygen hissing, and he’d walked me through the process of bringing the sea to us.
First I’d filled every big bowl the kitchen had to offer with lukewarm water—”Not hot,” he’d said, in that careful drawl of his, “because I won’t have your folks saying I endangered you, and not cold, because then the salt won’t dissolve”—and carried them out to the living room, placing them reverently around him. He’d given me a container of salt then, the old kind that came in a paper cylinder and would pour out as much as you wanted at a time, not measuring it into nutritionally approved portions, and I’d mixed salt into the water until it had turned cloudy, while he put on movie after movie about whales and fish and the open sea, back when it loved us, back when we still loved it.
The two of us spent the whole afternoon like that, my hands growing soft and wrinkled like his as I dangled them in the warm, soft water, him smiling down at me, and it had been amazing, and it had been perfect, and the next time I’d seen him, he had been a face on a viewing screen and a vase full of ashes, all the water burned out of him by the crematorium’s flame. When we died, we ran as far from the ocean as we could go.
We shouldn’t do that. I thought that then, and I think that now. We should find the opposite of fire. We should find some chemical process that chases us all the way back to the water, instead of taking us away from it forever, so that we could dilute the damage that we’ve done, one body at a time, restoring the world with our bodies. It seems wrong that we should hurt the planet in the process of living, and then refuse to give of ourselves to put it all back together again.
It seems wrong.
I don’t know what they did with my grandfather’s ashes. They weren’t in my father’s things when he died. Whatever it was, I doubt it involved going back to the sea.
• • • •
The celebration of Matthew’s life came with a dress code, and while my invitation had included admission, airfare, and even two nights at a capsule hotel—one before and one after, so that I wouldn’t appear rushed when the news sites saw me, the little girl who’d named a miracle and been forgotten, now miraculously all grown up, as if twenty years hadn’t passed, as if I hadn’t been getting older alongside my friend, the fish—it hadn’t come with a dress. That was my responsibility.
If it had just been them, these strangers with the money to burn, these shadows of the ones who killed the ocean, I might have said fuck it and stayed home, or taken their plane ticket and their two nights in a hotel and done some travel, let myself feel rich on the back of someone else’s carbon emission offsets. But this wasn’t just about them. It was about Matthew, and my grandfather, and a little girl in a silver dress who was and was not the ghost of my own past.
I’d been setting money aside for a rainy day. Not much, but enough to take to a vintage shop and buy myself a dress of silvery material with sequins on the skirt, like the dress I’d worn as a little girl, but cut for longer limbs, a differently shaped torso. I looked at myself in the mirror and saw my mother, and through her, my grandfather, who would have wanted me to go, who would have wanted me to stand in the shadow of the sea.
The news about Matthew had broken by the time I bought my dress, and the world was in mourning. People who’d gone to see him posted tearful testimonies. A few bands wrote songs, or covered songs someone else had already written. The company that owned the right to sell cloned fish-protein based on cloned cells taken from his body at various stages of development experienced a resurgence in popularity. An animated movie was planned, about Matthew and a little girl who looked suspiciously like that old picture of me. No one contacted me about likeness rights. I did not pursue the matter.
Instead, I closed up my apartment. I went to the airport. I boarded a plane, with my silver dress carefully bundled into my carryon, and I watched the country unspool beneath me like a miracle, and I thought of Matthew, my friend. I thought about saying goodbye.
• • • •
I spent the day of the gala walking around Monterey, fishing town turned coastal city turned tourist trap. No one lives there anymore. Half the stores are automated, and the ones that aren’t—the ones where the doors scan your credit rating at the threshold, and won’t even let the poor inside—can afford to bus their employees in from the shanty towns that dot the California coast like sores.
Water purification tanks blocked most of the view of the horizon, sucking in ocean water and spitting it out again cleaner, sweeter, less chemically tainted. The surf still left a layer of yellow scum on the shore, but at least the smell wasn’t enough to burn my nostrils. I watched it beat itself against the sand for a little while, tirelessly trying to tear down the land, and then I returned to my hotel to change my clothes. It was time to prepare for the evening ahead.
News of the gala had traveled around the world, naturally, and the world’s elite had responded by showing up in droves. All the beautiful people, coming in from all the beautiful places to show their respects to a fish who had been one of their number—a global celebrity—through the simple fact of his existence. So many of them were famous because of who their parents were or which fortune they had inherited that somehow, it didn’t seem strange that they should be so set on honoring Matthew. If there was anything strange about this night, it was that when I walked up to that arched doorway, stepped onto that red, paparazzi-strewn carpet, no one came to escort me away. I was a part of this. I had always been a part of this, since the random number generator had decided that Matthew and I should be inexorably linked in the eyes of history.
Inside the aquarium, the air was cool and tasted of salt, like the living sea my grandfather had tried so hard to emulate for me. I stopped to close my eyes and breathe it in, and staggered as someone bumped into me from behind.
I dimly recognized the man whose handlers rushed him past me. A movie star, one of the interchangeable faces who performed in romantic comedy after romantic comedy, right up until the first gray hair appeared and they were disappeared to wherever retired idols go. We never quite solved the issue of ageism in Hollywood. We just convinced them to apply it to everyone, filling our screens with people who never grew old, never had to stop and think about a future, who could die a hundred beautiful fictional deaths before they quietly slipped away, never to be heard from again.
I closed my eyes again, trying to recapture the moment, but it was too late; the peace was shattered. With a small sigh, I started walking, following the signs toward the Farewell Gala.
My invitation was scanned three more times before I could get there. I would have been offended, had I not seen the aquarium docents doing the same to everyone else, including my movie star assailant—who was, I realized, quite drunk, and had the sort of wobble in his step that I associated with long time drug users. This world chews everyone up and spits them out again, regardless of how privileged they seem. It’s all a question of how many times you can fall before there won’t be anyone left to catch you.
I turned toward the voice and found myself looking at the aquarium director, identified as such by the pin at his lapel and by the swarm of docents attending on him, ready to move the world for his pleasure if he asked them to. He was smiling gently at me, like he was expecting me to embrace him as the latest surrogate for my long-lost grandfather.
I said nothing.
His smile didn’t waver. “Your dress is lovely,” he said. “Perhaps I’m reading something into it that isn’t actually there, but did you choose the design to honor the one you wore the last time you were here? I was also in attendance that night, you know. I was a docent then, volunteering for college credit, but that night . . . ah, that night.” His gaze turned misty. “That night changed my life.”
That night had changed my life, too. That night had shown me that it was worthwhile to keep swimming, even when you could never have the horizon. Matthew had been free and then he had been captive and he had continued living in exactly the same way. What did it matter if I would never get anywhere? It was enough to stay alive. It was enough to keep swimming.
It was enough to know that I would die trying, even if what I was trying to accomplish had no worth to anyone but me.
“We’re so glad you were able to join us tonight,” the director was saying. I looked at his face. “We had to keep the numbers small—you understand—but I fought for you. I said you deserved to be here, to say goodbye. It was the right decision, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” I said, because what else was I supposed to say? That he should have cut me out, leaving me to watch this on the news along with everyone else? I was in the building. It was too late to decline, even in spirit. “Thank you.”
“Come, my dear,” he said, and offered his arm.
I took it, as cameras went off all around us, flashing through the dim halls. A new picture for their brochures. The girl at the beginning and the end of a natural wonder’s long journey home.
We walked into a vaulted room that must have held exhibits, once, with a vast tank taking up all of one wall. Sharks and rays swam there, predatory fish that had managed to hold on as the sea turned against them, eating whatever the world had left to offer, until finally they had been scooped up and tucked into tanks to wait out the cleansing of the waters. If it ever happened, they would be ready and waiting, eager to go home.
Long tables had been set up all along the room. The director led me to the seat with my name, motioning for me to sit. He even pulled my chair out for me.
“Enjoy,” he murmured, and was gone.
I sat there, bemused, as luminaries filled the seats around me, as the sharks circled in their tank and the waiters circulated with small trays of delicacies that bore a dizzying resemblance to the ones they’d offered me twenty years ago, when I was a little girl and hadn’t understood the scope of what was happening. My head spun, half expecting my parents to stroll into view, making uncomfortable small talk and stuffing their pockets with caviar.
When the last of the seats was taken the director stood, a microphone in his hand, and made an impassioned plea for oceanic conservation, for supporting the aquariums where the last fragments of the living sea struggled to hold fast, waiting for the world to recover. People dutifully applauded. I clapped along with them, not really hearing a word he said.
The doors opened. Waiters poured in, each carrying a domed silver dish, which they sat down in front of us, one by one, waiting for the signal to whisk the dome away and reveal . . .
A small cube of baked fish, resting atop a bed of white asparagus and whipped potatoes, with a milky spoonful of tartare off to one side. I managed, barely, not to recoil. There was no question of what I was looking at. Of course they had needed to keep the numbers small. Of course.
There was only so much of Matthew to go around.
The director was talking again, but no one was listening. Everyone I could see was picking up their forks, waiting for the signal to dive in. Some of them were visibly salivating, their eyes bright with the thought of tasting something they had thought was gone forever.
I couldn’t. I couldn’t. People would have killed to be in my place, people would have slit throats and gone to prison for the rest of their lives for the opportunity to even breathe in the fumes wafting off my plate, which smelled like the past, like a time when the sea could feed each and every one of us, seemingly without end.
He was just a fish. He had been my friend. He had never known it, but he had been my friend.
People were starting to look at me and then at my untouched plate, eyes covetous. It was only a matter of time, I knew, before someone asked whether I was going to eat; whether someone offered me a sum of money that I could only dream of for the privilege of two more bites of the last tuna in the world.
I picked up my fork. The flesh was soft and flaky; it crumbled when I touched it. I lifted it to my mouth. This was how and why the world ended: because we were hungry, because it was there. Because bellies must be filled.
I owed him this much. Ashes to ashes, and flesh to the sea.
The body of my friend was communion and it was condemnation, and it tasted like the entire ocean, and when I closed my eyes I could hear my grandfather’s laughter, far away, distant as the tide, and see the shivering silver spangle of the last tuna in the world, swimming for a horizon he would never have.
Spread the word!