A Long Walk on the Beach

She said, “You are prettier now that your country is gone.”

He said, “Continent.” He said, “There might be people left on the West Coast.” He said, “You should have seen me in 2008.”

“Were you pretty in 2008?”

He didn’t flinch, at least, but his illusion of joy faded too soon. Could she really not remember? How young was she? He made space in the ashtray on his stomach, stubbed his cigarette out there, and lit another. They were the French kind that they stopped exporting to the United States during the Bush years. They were strong enough.

“I was pretty as fuck.”

She clawed at his chest, at the fine hair that grew in silver when he let it. She made a cooing sound. That settled it: she was young. He dropped the ashtray on the heap of sheets between them and stood to find his shirt—there was no relief left in her bedroom.

She picked up a cigarette that had fallen and placed it back on the pile in the ashtray. She said, “You are pretty again.”

His white dress shirt, colored by the sand of his walk, hung on the bedpost, which couldn’t have been his intention. He pulled it over his arms and turned down the collar. He made sure the cufflinks were there, but didn’t bother to fasten them or button his shirt. His cigarette was secure between his lips, and he spoke around it with ease.

“Not that pretty,” he said. “Few are.”

“Not this pretty?” she asked, framing her face with her thumbs and forefingers.

He said, “2008.”

She threw his sock at him and laughed. He smiled, but couldn’t muster his own laugh. He pulled the sock onto his foot and looked around for the other. Then he gave up and turned to the window to let his smile drop. He wanted to leave, but didn’t want to be cruel—it was hardly her fault that his relief had fled.

Outside was the wrong side of the Atlantic. He didn’t know how far he had walked beside it, how many beaches were left to him. He had been walking for over a month now, since the news had come through and his security detail had dropped him off at the nearest beach. They were reluctant to leave him there, but he had insisted. He had started north, but if there was an end to his walk that way, he would turn around and walk south.

He never got far along the beach before someone was delighted to recognize him, delighted more still by how dark his hair had gotten since the apocalypse. Odd magic, that, some mysterious fountain of youth that washed his scalp and left the rest of his body weak. Maybe it had only missed his heart. Maybe that’s all it took to feel weak everywhere.

“Will you claim what is left of the world?” she asked. “You can, I bet. For a little, you ask and it is yours.”

He said, “I don’t intend to do much of anything.”

She said, “You are lying.”

He said, “There doesn’t seem much worth doing.”

“There is still the free world.”

His smile was genuine, and he turned to give her at least that much. He said, “America’s gone, baby—the whole world’s free.”

She threw his other sock at him. He wiggled his foot halfway in, then bent down to pull it up. She crawled to the edge of the bed.

She said, “You know I am pretty, too.”

“Of course you are,” he said, and meant it more than he seemed to.

She said, “I must be. Very pretty. Prettier than your wife.”

He was almost relieved then, because he could leave. His cigarette had burnt to the filter. He stubbed it against the windowsill, gave her an easy smile, and headed for the door. She couldn’t have known, and he almost left without telling her, but her mistake had made him feel cruel. He brought his hand to one of the cufflinks, which had been a gift.

“Michelle was with our daughters,” he said. “On the East Coast.”

He felt sorry at once when her hands flew to her mouth. He didn’t mean to pause to see if her agony was genuine, but he couldn’t take his pause back—it was. He closed the bedroom door behind him.

Outside the bungalow was the Atlantic. The wrong side. His shoes were back in her bedroom somewhere, so he took his socks off and left them there. He walked along the beach, northward again, further west this time so the ocean could reach him. Small, cool waves washed over his feet and drained through his toes. Halfway across the Atlantic, the sea boiled, hills of blood knocking around bones. The blood crawled east.

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