Maybe Charley could help.
I carried my dog to the car and laid him on a blanket. His tail thumped on the front seat; he still loved his car trips even though he couldn’t see anymore. Then I drove down the hill, to the Big Splash. Parked the car on the shoulder of the road, took off my shoes and walked onto the beach.
Charley was in. A wasp landed on the back of my hand: midnight blue with a needle stinger. It perched there a moment, wings quivering like a hummingbird’s, and then flew off. I went back to the car to get my dog. Wrapped him up in a blanket and carried him to the beach.
I passed the sign that read Warning: Shark Zone. The sun was setting, lighting up the tops of the condos sticking out of the water. They had been swallowed by the swollen ocean, when it spilled over, like everything else: the skyscrapers, the cars, the fast food joints, the schools and supermarkets and liquor stores. A colony of wild parrots nested in one of the condos; big green squawking monsters that made a ruckus.
Charley sat on a lawn chair watching the sun set. He looked human—sort of—but there were differences, the biggest being the third eye above the bridge of his nose. When Charley got stoned, his corneas turned bright pink and the third eye rolled up into his head.
“Hey, Mark.” Charley raised a hand. He looked at the bundle in my arms. “Who’s this?”
“This is Roger, my cocker spaniel,” I said. “He’s a good boy.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Charley asked. He held out his hand and Roger sniffed it.
“He’s old,” I said. “He can’t see anymore. Can hardly walk.”
“Poor guy.” Charley scratched Roger’s ears.
“I want to ask a favor,” I said. “Maybe it’s stupid.”
“I thought you might be able to help him.” I tried to keep the tremble out of my voice. “Maybe reverse the aging process.”
“What makes you think I could do that?” Charley asked.
“Well, you’re an alien and all. And you do that stuff with the wasps and the crabs.”
“They’re simple organisms. Don’t have backbones. Nothing I can do for Roger, I’m afraid.” When I didn’t answer, Charley said: “Sorry about that.”
“That’s OK.” I swallowed but the lump in my throat didn’t go down. “That’s it, then. I guess I’d better go.”
“Where are you going?”
“To the vet,” I said. “I’m putting him to sleep.”
“What does that mean?”
“They give him an injection. He goes to sleep. He doesn’t wake up.”
“Stay awhile,” Charley said. “I think he likes it here.”
It was true. Roger’s head was up; he was sniffing the ocean air.
“All right.” I sat on the lawn chair. Put Roger on my lap. Stroked his head. Felt his bones under my fingers, delicate as a bird’s feathers.
Charley lived next to the ocean; the Big Splash, he called it. Made a shelter out of pieces of junk the tide and his crabs brought in. He slept in a hut made of tire rims, pieces of driftwood, sheet metal, bottle tops, and seashells, all glued together and painted fluorescent red-yellow-green. It stood out; some people said you could see Charley’s hut from outer space.
We sat for awhile. Watched the sun set. A white van pulled up and three people got out: two girls and a guy. The guy wore Jams, the girls bikinis. I heard something zip past my ear, saw the wasp land on Charley’s upturned palm.
“No, it’s okay,” Charley said. “They look harmless.”
The wasp flew back to its nest, a beach-ball-sized gray lump hanging next to the garden, which was just a bunch of bright green leaves sprouting from the dunes. Charley made Space Lord Spliff by drying the leaves in the sun.
“Hey, man.” The guy walked up. He carried a surfboard under his arm. “Tide’s right. Mind if we surf here?”
“Be my guest,” Charley said. “Watch out, though; the water’s full of sharks.”
People threw their trash into the Big Splash, and the half-eaten food attracted sharks. The seas were mostly empty now, so they came close to shore. I’d seen a shark leap from the water and take a parrot sunning itself atop a half-submerged stop sign.
“Yeah?” The surfer scratched his head. “What kind of sharks?”
“No Great Whites?” He sounded disappointed. The girls laughed.
“Tiger sharks are plenty ornery,” Charley said. “We’ve had half a dozen attacks this year.”
“How many died?”
“The ambulance came and picked them up, so I don’t know.”
“Cool.” The surfer stood up. “Let’s go.” He ran to the water and the girls followed.
“Humans. You never change.” Charley laughed. “So what’s going on, man? Give me the Mark report.”
“Nothing much,” I said. “I’m graduating in a few weeks. I’ll be going to school out-of-state.”
“Yeah?” Charley pulled a joint from the pocket of his baggy shorts and lit up. The smell of Space Lord Spliff filled the air. “You gonna have a party? Go to the prom?”
“That’s right. Did you have proms, where you came from?”
“I came from right there.” Charley pointed at a dull orange star gleaming in the muddy sky. “And no, we didn’t have proms.”
I watched the surfers. The guy caught a wave, got to his feet, fell on his ass. The girls clapped and whooped. I noticed that the girls didn’t go near the water.
“How long have you been here, Charley?”
“I landed in the Big Splash fifty years ago,” he said. “Right before the waters rose.”
“Can you go back?”
“My planet exploded. So no.”
There was a cry, from the surf.
“That didn’t take long.” Charley shook his head. “You know the drill, Mark.”
I did. I used my Buzz to call emergency services. The girls were dragging the surfer to shore; Charley ran to the water’s edge and helped them. They laid him on the sand. His left foot was gone; I saw blood pumping, shreds of ragged skin, knob of bone. Charley made a tourniquet with a beach towel and tied it to the calf.
“Did it get my leg?” The surfer reached out and ran his hands over his hairy thigh.
“Just the foot,” Charley said.
“I didn’t see a thing.” The surfer’s face was white, like cottage cheese. “I was cruising along and it bit me. I gave it a kick in the nose, with my other foot.”
“Good for you,” Charley said. He put a hand on the surfer’s shoulder. “Lie back and try to relax.”
“I’ll be goddamned,” the surfer said. His wild hair was plastered on the sand. His eyes opened and closed. He was panting. “I can’t believe it.”
“I told you,” Charley said. “There are signs all over the beach, telling you.”
“You think they’ll be able to reattach the foot?”
“Your foot is in a shark’s belly,” Charley said.
“Shit.” The surfer closed his eyes; tears rolled down his cheeks. “Oh, shit.”
Afterwards, the ambulance faded into the distance. One of the girls rode with the surfer, the other stuck around. She was pretty; redhead in a black bikini, a yin-yang tattoo on her right hip.
“I told him it was a bad idea,” she said. “I’m Liz, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you.” I was back on the lawn chair, Roger on my lap. “My name’s Mark.”
“Can I get some Space Lord Spliff?” she asked.
“Sure,” Charley said. He handed her a joint. When she held out a ten-dollar bill he shook his head. “On the house.”
“Thanks.” Liz stroked my dog’s gray muzzle. “You didn’t introduce me to this guy.”
“His name is Roger,” Charley said. “He’s Mark’s friend. And he’s dying.”
“I’m sorry,” Liz said. She touched my arm; my skin stirred. “Do you want to take a walk?”
“Sure.” I stood up. When Charley held out his arms I put Roger on his lap. We strolled along the beach. All around us midnight blue crabs scuttled out of the surf lugging hubcaps, bundles of copper wire, glass bottles. Charley sold it to the junk dealers.
We stopped walking. I took my Buzz out of my pocket, flicked to the OpenWeb and sent her the file containing my recreational sex partners for the past year. She did the same for me. I didn’t see anybody I knew on her list. My Buzz beeped; everything checked out.
“I put my cat to sleep last year,” Liz said. She draped her towel over the sand. “It was awful.”
“Yeah.” I pulled down my shorts. Watched her unknot the strap of her bikini top. “Sorry. I don’t feel much like talking.”
“That’s OK,” Liz said. She took my hand and drew me down to her. Afterwards, she rolled up her towel and started getting dressed. I closed my eyes; when I opened them she was gone. The used condom lay in the sand. A crab scuttled over, picked it up, and hustled towards the trash pit.
When I got back, Charley still sat on the lawn chair. Roger was sprawled on his legs, still, so still.
“Oh.” My voice caught. “Oh.”
“He went peaceful,” Charley told me. “Just closed his eyes and died on my lap.”
“Why don’t we bury him?” Charley said. “I’ve got a shovel.”
“I’ll do it,” I told him. And I did. I dug until my shoulders hurt. Then I took a break and started again. I kept at it until the hole was big enough.
“This is his favorite blanket.” I wrapped Roger up and laid him in the grave and shoveled sand on top of it. Charley got down on his hands and knees and helped.
“Nothing will get at him, will it?” I asked after we finished.
“No.” Charley shook his head. “You dug deep, Mark.”
I wiped at my face. “I’m sorry to have bothered you.”
“No bother,” he told me. “Let’s sit.”
“No, I guess I’d better be going.”
“You sure you’re okay?” When I nodded, he put an arm around my shoulder. “When will I see you again?”
“We’re having a beach party next weekend,” I told him. Me and my friends. Soon we’d be gone, scattered by the tide: Andy studying in Europe; Mara excavating the ruins of San Francisco; Peggy working in her parents’ coffee shop.
Soon; not yet.
“Good.” Charley smiled. “I like your little group, man. Like your karma.”
“You mind if I bring something next time?” I asked. “Flowers? Or a marker?”
“That’s fine.” Charley gave my shoulder a final pat. When I got to my car I looked at my Buzz. Liz had sent me her number. I kept it.
I twisted the key and the car hummed to life. But I didn’t drive away. I sat there listening to the surf hit the beach and it sounded like the world’s bones, creaking as they turned, twisting, grinding.