by Dan Rivas
At first, the shining darkness appeared to be an island. Or were they imagining it? The four friends had been to this beach at the edge of this ocean for three consecutive years, but no one could remember ever seeing an island. “Maybe there’s a crack in the ocean floor and last night magma seeped through and created an island,” Stacey suggested. The others nodded and made noises of approval because they were young and hungry for earth-moving events. They watched the island as it seemed to rise and fall with the waves until they realized that it was getting closer. Could islands move? “Maybe it’s a whale,” Colin said, and then they all saw it as if for the first time. A whale.
The wind carried word down the beach, up through the campground, and into the forest. More people appeared. Maybe 60 or 80. Gawkers gathered in pairs and small groups, squinting into the distance or passing binoculars as the whale tossed and pitched in the surf. It didn’t matter that this creature was certainly dead. Everyone was excited. They’d never seen a whale up close before.
Once the whale touched bottom, the tide began to roll it ashore. Its sagging flippers rose with each wave then flopped over and disappeared into the sand and foam. When a flipper dipped beneath the surface, there was a collective groan of disappointment as everyone waited, holding their phones for another photo, then an intake of breath and a buzzing excitement when a flipper reappeared above the water, bent and lifeless.
Was it even real? Rafa walked into the surf to get closer. Two kids in wetsuits pulled at its tail. A girl made a video of her friend squealing with grossed-out glee when the whale slopped over next to her. The closer it got, the more people wanted to touch it, their faces puckering at the smell of rotting flesh. When the whale was solidly on the beach, Maddie held her nose and gave it a poke. She was surprised to find that the creature was both softer and firmer than she’d guessed, like a massive balloon. She imagined it floating above them, held by a string, the wetsuit boys parading it up and down the beach.
The four friends spent a somber evening around the campfire. They felt guilty and vulnerable, like children standing in the shards of bottles they had broken. They went to bed early, lying down in the feathery softness of their Patagonia sleeping bags in the spacious four-person tent Rafa had gotten for these weekends away from their stuttering lives.
It wasn’t long ago that they were in college and wasted whole days in the sun, drinking beer on the front lawn of the house they shared, sprawled across the sectional couch dragged from the living room, calling out to people they knew who were passing by as if they had conjured these familiar faces. They each thought that the other three were the best people in the world, as if something other than happenstance and proximity had made them friends. Colin met Maddie first. He saw this coltish girl with a mane of wild shoulder-length hair galloping across the stage at a theatre audition and had to know her. He didn’t get a part in that play and soon realized that his enthusiasm for make-believe wasn’t the same as acting. He started writing poems and joined the campus literary magazine, where he met Stacey, an ethereal creature with secrets and hard edges, so unlike the pretty girls from Lake Oswego or Redmond or Marin County. She had character despite her beauty and a wicked sense of humor and wrote weird poems about bodies and their emissions. Stacey liked how Colin laughed, squinting his eyes and opening his mouth wide as if he were taking a big bite, and that Maddie didn’t try to be pretty and wasn’t competitive about boys and seemed to be genuinely interested in everything. Colin, Maddie, and Stacey would stay up late reading poems to each other, some from books and some they’d written themselves. One night, Rafa wandered by their door and stopped when he saw Stacey propped up on one elbow like Cleopatra, the curve of her hip the hill above a valley that from that day he wanted to live in forever. He was on the tennis team and didn’t have time for poetry, but he found that reading poems out loud stole his breath and made the thread that ran from his brain to his heart, his stomach, down to his testicles tingle with pleasure, even when the poem was sad. They all went to movies together and concerts. They watched Maddie’s plays, attended Colin’s readings, and cheered at Rafa’s matches. Rafa and Stacey dated, broke up, dated again and broke up again. One year, Stacey did modern dance, another year she was the singer in a band, and they were there for all of it. They had met at what felt like the beginning of the world, when possibility dropped around them like rain. That sense of becoming bound them together even after one of them went to more school, or took jobs in other states. Recently, they each found their way to Portland, pursuing careers, or at least jobs that paid enough to live. They were beginning to sense an ending, long and slow and not entirely of their own making. Somehow, that night in their tent on a bluff above the beach, the weight of a dead whale on their hearts, the world more wonderous and disappointing than expected, they slept.
By morning, the smell of rotting whale flesh had crept into the campground and they all agreed that it was time to go home. As the road hummed beneath them, the whale continued to swim through their thoughts.
“What do you think it meant?” Stacey finally said out loud. “It was like the whale floated right to us, don’t you think?”
She believed in hidden meanings, spirits with secrets. She dabbled in taro, astrology, and reiki. Rafa teased her sometimes. “Feel the force,” he’d say in his Darth Vader voice. They all understood that he was still in love with her and would do anything to catch her attention, even if it was a frown or an eyeroll. The others waited for Rafa to make his joke, but he surprised them by saying, “Yeah, it was like the whale was trying to tell us something.”
“The world is ending,” Colin said and laughed nervously. “I mean, not really, but kind of? Like, maybe life on the planet?” He’d recently joined the Sunrise Movement because of a tall boy who wore a painter’s cap over his fuzzy hair and t-shirts with slogans such as, “Hotter than I should be.” Colin had not only been thinking about the whale. The fires outside of Portland had been burning for weeks. The sky was always dark now and the air pungently dry. It took a whole day camping by the ocean to get that ashy taste out of his mouth. All those days in the smoke made him feel as though he were desiccating from the inside, as if he might turn to dust one night while he slept. Days or maybe weeks of his life had been lost. Up in smoke, as they say.
The four friends sat in the heavy quiet you might expect at the beginning of the end of the world. Maddie thought about how Colin had said “life,” not the world itself. The Earth would still be here, wouldn’t it? The planet. It just wasn’t going to be their world anymore.
Maddie always woke at first light when she was camping. Her unconscious mind knew that she was somewhere other than home. On this trip, she decided not to fight it. Each morning, before the others woke, she walked down the beach to where she knew she wouldn’t see another human and imagined that this beach was all hers, that she was on an island and not part of the crowded, noisy, demanding world. She liked that feeling and wished she could bring it home with her.
“We should find an island somewhere,” she said to her friends in the car. “A place just for us.”
The others liked the idea and began to chatter excitedly. A world all their own. It was what they’d always wanted. To live together. To live better. No capitalism or pollution or fighting. No commutes or performance evaluations or networking events. Just them.
If they’d thought about what they’d learned in basic science classes, lessons on cycles and ecosystems, they might have better understood what they were suggesting. An island is not an island. The multitudes are made singular by one planet. There’s no escape. The whales know this.
“We can get a boat. Something big enough for all of us to live in,” Rafa said. He worked for a tech startup and owned stock that, when the company sold to Amazon, was now worth a couple of million. The others didn’t know about the shares. The boat would be his way of surprising them. He already knew what he would name the vessel: Possibility. “We can sail every ocean, navigating by the stars.”
“We’ll follow the whales,” Stacey said. “They’ll lead us to the island.”
“We’ll be whale people,” Colin added, his voice screeching a little. The thought excited, but also scared him. Was this who he was? A whale person? What kind of person is a whale person? And how would he know?
The whole way home, they fantasized out loud about life on the boat and then the island, how they would build their own homes from trees they cut down themselves and grow their own vegetables and marijuana from seeds. Colin said he would give them all whale tattoos. Maddie would teach them to fish, which she learned from her dad on the ice in Minnesota. Stacey knew plants, what was food and what could be medicine. This new island life would be like a survivalist TV show, but with their best friends and more planning and no cameras. Humanity could start over, be better.
No one talked repopulation, but they all thought about it. Maddie had always wondered what it would feel like to lie naked under Rafa’s lean, muscular body, his arms and big hands wrapped around her, warm and firm. Colin decided that he would do his duty for the gene pool, but he wondered if he too might have a little time with Rafa. Had there been hints of interest in the past, a drunk evening sitting deep in a couch, shoulders and thighs touching, heat trapped between them? Stacey did not want a baby. She’d decided that back in this world. Maybe Maddie could have all the children? Or maybe they didn’t need children? Would it be so bad if they were the last people on Earth? Rafa wouldn’t have minded if the whole island were Stacey and him. The rest of the world could burn for all he cared. All he wanted was her.
Their car sailed across the Columbia River, shrouded in smoke, the fires still burning in the foothills outside of the city. Rafa began dropping his friends off at their apartments, releasing them to their separate lives. Maddie sat cross-legged on her bed and wrote vivid prose in her journal about the dead whale and the island and their utopian coast. She thought she might write a play. Maybe that was how she could get out of these little community productions and background acting gigs and into the theater for real. Colin texted the Sunrise boy photos of the whale carcass and then posted them to social media; the boy wrote back an unsatisfying polemic against oil companies and his friends replied with sad face emojis and “RIP” before scrolling on. Rafa took Stacey home last, helped her carry her camping gear up to her apartment. He had not kissed her since before she moved into this apartment, back when he was trying too hard to impress her, nearly killing himself to climb Smith Rock while she watched in the shade below. They didn’t know what to say as they walked down the hall, closed doors like posts marking distances on a highway. The smoke made her look unreal standing there, squinting at him through the haze as if they were both disappearing. “Goodnight,” she said, forcing a smile, and then closed her door. Another post.
He was a beautiful boy, but he needed her too much. She would disappoint him. She would never love him enough. Stacey put away her camping gear and sat down with her cards, flipping them one after another to glimpse all the possible fates.
Rafa went home and washed the ocean salt off his skin. He made a burrito from canned beans and pre-grated cheese and ate his dinner looking out at the orange glow behind the ridge from his eighth-story window. He texted the three friends: I’m going to look at boats next weekend. Anyone want to come? Maddie replied right away: For real? Definitely. Colin wrote: I think I have a boating hat somewhere…. Rafa waited, holding his phone like a tiny prayer book. Finally, Stacey replied: Why not? That night he lay in bed thinking about spreading out on the deck of a boat in summer, breathing clean ocean air, the sky painted with stars, the whole universe right there in front of him. What if their future were something other than doom? He fell asleep almost feeling the rock of the waves and the breeze on his face. Almost believing.
Dan Rivas’s work has appeared in Brick, Your Impossible Voice, the Jabberwock Review, and other publications. In 2021, he was named a Finalist for the Sustainable Arts Foundation Awards. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan and lives in Portland, Oregon.