It starts with rust.
First, she picks up the metal plate. Her fingers trace the letters and she rubs away the red clay-dirt, watching it crumble.
She puts the plate on the pile. She goes back out and finds another. She carries the metal from beach to treasure trove and amasses a heaping mound of forgotten places. Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, California. What’s not sunk under the sea is still near water. Miles north, where she’s never belonged.
Second, she finds a shovel. She sticks it in the golden part of the ground, and the grain sifts easily, slides back into the hole. She gets blisters on her hands with how long she digs.
Third, she takes each piece of her treasure and places it under the sand. She examines each item carefully: license plates, cigarette lighters, tiny shoes, scissors, tablecloth, broken glass, some of it— most of it —still tainted red.
She goes back to the red part of the beach and collects the minerals there into her palms and carries them to the grave, and then covers it with a nice red spot on the horizon— a blotch so bright for them to see from outer space. Will they remember what the Earth looked like?
Fourth, she collects the stone pebbles lining the shore. She puts them in her pockets, making sure to nestle each one firmly against the rest. She bends down and scoops them up and plops them in until her clothes start to sag under the weight, and she starts to feel heavy like she’s made of stone, too. And it’s hard to stand up anymore.
She looks back at the tall grass beyond the dunes, and the empty houses beyond the grass, and the empty roads beyond the houses, and the empty gas stations beyond the roads, and the empty schools beyond the gas stations, and the empty offices beyond the schools, and the empty temples beyond the offices, and the empty monuments beyond the temples. Every structure is covered with vines of ivy, as a symbol of death, rebirth.
Looking forward, she can see the spire of an apartment building just peeking above the water. The city lies bare of humans and tuna lay their eggs on window sills. Octopi glide through the streets, cuttlefish make graffiti in the alleyways. Coral reefs sprout where there were gardens, sea cucumbers and mollusks role-play umbrellas to sharks. Loud music sounds from the echoes of dolphins clicking, screaming, chirping, through ripples.
It’s a long way back to the road she called home. The swings now sit empty, the birds stopped their songs. The creeping of nature finds reason for them to fall, one way or another.
Fifth, she closes her eyes and she walks into the water. It laps at her ankles, shins, knees, wades to her thighs, circles her waist. Her hands drag behind her, until she’s up to her chest, until her chin tickles the surface, until she’s submerged.
Underwater, the sun still shines, somehow. The music still plays, and the beat of the Earth still drums. She opens her eyes and keeps walking down the slope, blood pounding in her ears, waves rushing overhead. Her hair floats out behind her, pressure sinking, crushing her spine with its weight. She doesn’t mind.
The neon signs are broken now but they still glitter when she looks at them. The sunken city feels all the same as it did before it sank. Lively, and terrible, and vicious, and forgotten.
She watches it in all its glory, full of turtles and stingrays and lobsters that soak it up and roam just for the sake of roaming. The animals are looking for food, looking for purpose, looking for love. She wishes she could remember what that’s like.
She shuts her eyes one final time, poised beneath a lamppost, one foot outstretched to take the next step onto watery pavement. She feels the crack of the ocean whip, breaking her body apart, bubbles spurting from her lips, brain pressed to the sides of her skull, and she has her chest out, sternum open, protruding, until it breaches the skin, and her lungs, heart, skeleton strip away, and everything peels to black—
Fifth, she walks into the sea—
Fourth, she nests stones in her pockets—
Third, she buries her treasure—
Second, she finds a shovel—
First, she picks up—
First, she’s picked up, four years old, snatched away from the sharp thing that made a gash in her foot. Brother’s kind eyes, telling her everything will be alright, tiny legs swinging down from the kitchen counter, next to the sink, his hands cleaning out the blood, from the wound, from the red-caked nail, sticking out of the floorboards.
It starts with rust.