“When they talk about the romance of snow, they aren’t wrong.”
Alex glanced over at his companion before glaring back out across the bay, trying to catch a glimpse of anything through the swirling grey and white. He never liked big open spaces, and normally the press of fog and darkness would be comforting. Tonight it was just unsettling. “Sure, when you don’t have to be out in it.” He looked at her again, this time turning to face her and gesturing at himself. “You see this? No insulation. I hate being cold.”
The woman who stood vigil with him laughed, looking him up and down. She didn’t pretend to hide it- she wasn’t shy about anything. He could almost hear the raucous chorus of analyses, comparisons, and incessant commentary running through her head. He knew he should be uncomfortable, and with anyone else he would be. He wasn’t an impressive or handsome looking man. He was tall, sure, but even after years of adulthood and “filling out” he was still awkwardly thin and long-limbed and without an ounce of grace. His hair was an unkempt tangle of curls, and his clothes were drab, if functional.
Yet he didn’t mind this woman’s intense gaze as she picked apart every detail of his appearance. He’d known her long enough now to become accustomed to her stares. Her eyes rose again to his face and she pinned him with a stern look as the corner of her mouth tightened in a hidden smile.
“Don’t be a baby. It’s not that cold and you’re not that skinny.” She turned away from the cold grey water and looked back up the hill towards the city. Alex followed her gaze. The glow of a few functioning lights was softened by the mist and falling snow. The beauty made one forget for a second that the once charming harbor city was now a ruin. Cataclysmic climate change, culminating in a massive extinction event 17 years ago, had changed Whitehaven and everyone still alive in it.
Some called it the Death of Poseidon. Droughts, floods, and deep freezes in places they didn’t belong were already ravaging food production across the planet, but this was the nail in the coffin of the age of plenty. As a child, Alex remembered eating salmon from the local rivers and oysters, raw and fresh, from local farms. Now there was no more salmon, and no more oysters as far as anyone knew. Not much of anything anywhere in the oceans that so many depended on for food. Collectively, the world fell apart while billions starved.
Starvation wasn’t the only killer in the years that followed. As infrastructure and medical care ceased to function, simple injuries and preventable illnesses became fatal. He thought of his mother, who died of lead poisoning when he was 8. Part of it was her own stubbornness. While much of the city was moving towards using filtered catchments for drinking water, his mother insisted that their family well, which had been in use for generations, was perfectly safe. His father would have none of it, and left with Alex long before her passing to live in another part of the decaying city.
There had been plenty of places to choose from. Once a bustling ocean port with a population of over a hundred thousand, calamity and necessity had reduced the cities numbers greatly. While there was no official census, unofficial counts estimated the new population to be no more than two thousand, when counting both the permanent city dwellers and those who lived in the surrounding valleys and hills most of the year, only returning in the wintertime, when the generators ran and the forges burned.
With such an excess of space and a complete disregard for the value of money, it was easy to simply claim whatever space was empty and liveable. A sort of honor system had developed among the surviving community, which for the most part held. Don’t take what already belongs to someone else. Don’t take more than you can care for. Don’t take more than you need. Out of either entrepreneurship or greed, there were those who tried to claim much more space than they could possibly use, and tried to reestablish the old tenant and landlord system. But the community quickly turned their back on the would-be slumlords, refusing the materials and services usually provided freely in the new barter economy. Without additional supplies and labor the old apartment buildings and homes were impossible to maintain and quickly abandoned.
It was a self-regulating system that worked, for the most part, because the community of Whitehaven was always close-knit and isolated, and even more so after the collapse. Most quickly came to the consensus that money was fairly useless, and that an egalitarian sort of trading system would serve them better. Others fell in line over time as they realized that their money was indeed useless, if no one around saw any value in it.
In this way Whitehaven limped on. Enough buildings were lovingly maintained to house the population, and infrastructure was adapted to provide power and heat relying on only local resources. Tonight the biodiesel generators roared in an effort to keep up with the bitter cold. Alex shivered again, reminded that he was out in that cold, and not holed up in a warm cozy apartment like everyone else.
Everyone except Mag, of course. Once she was set on a course it seemed like nothing could distract her. Her gaze had moved from the city lights to the darkened bay, her face still and pale. He watched her inhale, slowly, as if counting the seconds, and then exhale with a deep quick sigh. For a moment she looked worn and so much older. She caught him watching - she always did- and instantly her face lifted into that stern tight-lipped smile as she turned towards the churning waves once more. “But really Alex, how much longer are we going to wait here? Any more standing around and even I’m going to get cold.”
I guess she is capable of impatience too. Alex just looked down at his own aching feet, wiggling his toes in the dampness of his boots. He didn’t say anything. There wasn’t anything to say. It would happen when it happened. Whenever that was. Still, He thought looking back up at the city, it would be nice to get this over with.
“There! There there there!” She was leaning hard against the guardrail now, wide eyes on the bay, practically bouncing in her excitement. She didn’t even stop to tell him where before dashing away down the street and disappearing into a break in the roadside bramble.
Alex peered out into the water, straining to find just a hint of glow, but he couldn’t find whatever it was she spotted. He tried closing one eye to keep them from competing with each other as they often did, but it didn’t help. With a groan he bent down to pick up their bags and jogged after her. He almost missed the path in the dark, but at the last minute he turned and ducked into the thorns. His temper spiked when he felt the claws of the blackberry bushes pulling at his skin and his clothes, but he pressed on until he was staggering over chunks of broken concrete and out onto the beach. The wind was harsh and wet and cold, and he was wishing more with every second that he was back indoors.
“Mag!” He stumbled out towards the water, looking left and right trying to catch a glimpse of the woman through the swirling snow. “Mag!” He was surrounded by a thick, impenetrable mist on all sides now, with no city lights, no mountains, no borders to the darkening world. Picking his way toward the water, he relied on the soft crumbling of the waves to tell him where to turn aside to prevent soaking his feet even more. His pulse accelerated and he scrambled down the rocky beach, desperately looking for a sign that he wasn’t alone. Somewhere the rational part of his brain knew it was silly. Of course he wasn’t alone. Mag was nearby, she had to be. Just on the other side of the snow and fog; all he had to do was keep pushing forward through it. Then he would see her standing at the edge of the water, still and calm and quiet, refusing to break her own reverie to answer his shout. He just had to beat back the rising fear and keep walking. His feet knew where to go.
In either a moment, or forever, he found himself standing next to Mag once again. She didn’t acknowledge his arrival at first. Her gaze was locked out on the water with her typical intensity. He followed her eyes and saw what held her captive. The flickering, swirling, gemstone green light that signaled their goal was close at hand.
The light was brought forth from the bioluminescence of the bay. Once only a feature of late Summer, increased pollution and the change of the overall chemical composition of the oceans created an environment where the microscopic beings thrived. They could be found en masse most any-time of year now, though the light was particularly bright in the winter, when the other scum and algae that proliferated the bay retreated somewhat.
What disturbed the tiny creatures now made this night particularly unique. A new, and little understood species of jellyfish appeared in the bay every year in late January to feed on the bioluminescent beings. It wasn’t known if they traveled, or if they bloomed somewhere in the deep dark corners of the local waters. The resources to study such things were long-since shifted towards the more practical tasks of keeping the town from falling into the water, keeping the energy grid running the most essential part of a city’s infrastructure, and maintaining the comfortable lifestyles of the region’s most fortunate. No one cared to wonder over the origins of a jellyfish. No one except Mag, who had dragged him out into the wet and cold to see, and hopefully catch, these creatures.
He was almost sorry he had ever brought them up to her. Relatively new to Whitehaven, the woman had wandered in and set up shop in a small space on the bottom floor of the building he lived in. It was a strange apothecary of sorts, filled with drying and potted plants, oils, resins, powders, and tinctures. Rumor was she also dealt in rare pharmaceuticals and medications that only the wealthy had access to. It was only rumor, however. There was no way she would be able to get her hands on that precious of a medicine.
There was a living area in the loft above the shop, but she was rarely there. Mag was the type to keep odd hours running the shop, sniffing around the abandoned alleys of the town, or dropping in on a friend. That was how he met her the summer before- at a small gathering of loosely acquainted young adults, drinking someone’s latest basement-brewed ale around a bonfire on the beach and skipping stones out into the calm waters of the bay. She’d wandered into the firelight and introduced herself as if she owned the place, accepted a drink, and proceeded to - in his mind- interrogate everyone. People are vain and love to talk about themselves, so they were only too happy to tell her stories, give advice, and divulge what seemed like every secret Whitehaven held. She listened with an unnatural intensity, her vivid green eyes fixed on whoever spoke, even as she smiled and laughed with everyone. Witch’s eyes, he had thought, though he couldn’t remember where the connection came from. Some old superstition from his childhood maybe.
When she turned those eyes on him it was as if she had used some kind of black magic. Riveted as he was, there was no way to avoid her gaze. He felt her assessing every part of his being, from his ragged appearance and too thin body to all of his insecurities and failings. Anxiety welled up in his throat and his pulse pounded in his ears. He didn’t know if she asked a question, or if he spoke just to satisfy that hungry curiosity- to pull her up to the surface where his thoughts were safely hidden behind nondescript features and a wallflower personality.
“You should come down here in January- there’s a jellyfish that started showing up a few years ago that no one’s seen before.” He spit the words out like spoiled food and choked back the urge to gag from his own discomfort. There was something unnatural about that woman.
She grinned at him then, a real smile that lit up her entire face. “That sounds exciting! Promise me you’ll show me!”
Me? He thought, perturbed. “Uh… well…” he started to say.
“Ah, you won’t catch Alex down here in January!” Pitched in a teasing voice. It was a younger girl with sandy brown dreads and henna covering her arms and neck. Janna was her name; a girl who could always be found when there was an abundance of boys and alcohol. “He hates the cold. He barely leaves his apartment during the winter!” He felt relief, and then irritation at her words. It’s true, he recoiled at the idea of trekking down this rocky beach strewn with wreckage and concrete in the cold and wet. He also felt a small fluttering of excitement at the idea of going- it would be something of an adventure compared to the utterly routine way he lived his life.
Mag looked at him again, gently. Then the right corner of her mouth tightened into what he would come to learn passed for a smile when she was deep in thought. “Perhaps we can work out a fair payment - something from my shop in exchange for your trouble?”
“That’s not necessary.” He had decided. “I’ll show you once at least, so you know how to find them.” He wrinkled his nose teasingly at the girl who had spoken before. She was cute, and he was feeling suddenly more outgoing than usual. “Stop trying to embarrass me Janna.” He lowered his voice and raised an eyebrow. “You know I like the occasional adventure.” He finished with a smile. The invitation was set.
“I don’t know- I never see much of you,” Janna fired back, still grinning. “Maybe if you showed your face more I’d have a different opinion. Maybe come over some time.”
“Deal.” He clinked his dull brown bottle to her warped green one with satisfaction, eyeing the promising curves barely contained within Janna’s too-tight clothes. It might be a decent Summer this year after all. Her sudden interest in him was surprising but he wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity. He drank and tried not to meet Mag’s gaze; she was listening to another story, but this time, her eyes were fixed on him.