I know they’re coming for me.
When the people mover stops at the airport, a giant corrugated steel shed since it was rebuilt inland, I’m the only one who gets off. I tuck my hair behind my ears and adjust my sunglasses, scanning left and right. The wet air stinks of jet fuel. Gravel crunches beneath my boots as I tread toward the glass doors, swinging my attaché. I always travel light.
Inside, the usual scene. Tycoons in tailored suits bluster at the makeshift bar. Their braggadocio swells to fill the enormous space, echoing and amplifying to a crushing roar. Gray light dances off their cuff links and diamond-encrusted watches.
I saunter over and order a glass of tonic water I don’t touch. They’re all silver hair and wolfish grins. They run oil companies, tech firms, and chemical plants. They think they hold the world by the tail. In many ways, they do. After the devastation from floods and mudslides, fires and tornadoes, only the most elite travel by air. In another time, execs of their caliber had private Lear jets, but that’s all over. Too dangerous. Every flight requires a military escort.
Mr. Brown, a black bear in a charcoal trench coat and fedora, fingers my target, a tycoon idling over Balvenie, his gaze rapacious. I linger long enough for my Chanel No. 105 to work its magic, then flip my hair and pad off toward security.
We can’t all be like Lotta Tornberg, environmental crusader. I, for one, never had her strength and confidence, her resilient spirit. She remained optimistic to the end, certain that her peaceful protests, with the speeches and marches and sit-ins, would actually make a difference. Back then, her image was everywhere: a slight twelve year-old girl with braided pigtails and a doughy smile. Politicians, not to mention some of the most egregious corporate polluters, paid her lip service, while working adamantly to undermine her cause and credibility. Lotta simply gritted her teeth and doubled down.
So no one was surprised when, after more than a decade of quietly provoking the rich and powerful, all of them bent on denying the evidence of the environmental destruction they’d wrought, Lotta met with a nasty end. A truck driver plowed into her in the park across the street from Congress where she was leading a rally. The whole thing was made to look like an accident—even the driver died in ICU—though everyone knew better. It was a messy ordeal. We were all victims.
At the gate, I review his details. White male, mid-fifties, CEO of Utopia Solutions. Another tech vampire. It’s not long before he wanders in. He carries nothing but a sleek black briefcase and finds a seat on the facing row. He’s handsome as the rest of them, smells good too: a musk of spice and smoke beneath the scotch. Although he tries to catch my attention, fussing with his tie, glaring at his watch, straightening his cuffs, I ignore him completely. Only when he begins attacking the screen of his handheld do I say:
What’d that gadget ever do to you?
He glances up. Thing’s got a mind of its own.
Whose mind should it have?
He aims a thumb at his chest and grins. There’s only one big boss, he says.
I laugh lightly. I bet you’re good at giving orders, aren’t you?
Now he slides into the seat next to me. We smile and flirt, the air growing heavy with innuendo. It’s the part of this role I thought I’d loathe but actually enjoy. They all think they’re so suave, charming me with their wit and looks and status. But ego creates blind spots. They never realize I’m the one in control until it’s too late.
You look tense, I say.
I can see it in your red eyes and balled fists.
He fidgets in his seat.
Let me relax you.
I’m already up behind him, my hands kneading his shoulders. It’s all a ploy, but he’s riddled with knots, and I take pleasure in trying to loosen him up. It’s not terrible to rub the soft gray flannel of his suit jacket either. When my hands begin to tire, I work my way up his neck, then back down again.
Ooh, he says, that feels nice.
I let my left hand dance to his chin, while my right glides to the back of his head. I feel a smile bloom on his face. Then a quick hard twist to the left. I lace my fingers together and pop my knuckles in case anyone heard the crack. I tousle his hair, then slide back into my seat. He leans on my shoulder. I pull a calling card out of my attaché and slip it into his inside breast pocket. It’s black ink on heavy Italian stock and reads: I’m sorry for your loss.
Nearby, the crumpling of newsprint. Out like a light, huh? says a portly gentleman.
I cast a panicked glance his direction.
Lucky dog, he says. I hardly sleep a wink.
I force a smile and say, Works every time.
Lotta was killed about the same time my father passed away. Lung cancer. He’d never smoked a day in his life. His doctors hypothesized that fifteen years of breathing in solvents and adhesives as an aircraft mechanic did him in, yet we all had to contend daily with chemical mists and plastic particles, inhaling diesel exhaust and noxious gasses from incineration plants. Water pollution might’ve been more obvious—the sea was turning Jello green—but the air was even worse. It was a wonder we didn’t all have lung cancer already. Maybe it was only a matter of time.
At the funeral and wake, my father’s old friends, coworkers, and drinking buddies kept saying, I’m sorry for your loss, I’m sorry for your loss, I’m sorry for your loss. My mother, teary-eyed, nodded, shook their hands, and thanked them for coming. I wasn’t even ten and didn’t know what to make of it.
At the gate in San Francisco, Mr. Black, a gorilla in a worsted three-piece suit and Panama hat, points out my next target, a petrochemical exec and one of the worst polluters in Asia. Despite his pinstripes, he looks huge, wider than he is tall. He’s not difficult to keep an eye on.
I make sure he notices me, too, fixing my hair, touching up my makeup, smoothing non-existent wrinkles from my perfect black cashmere. When I catch him looking at my cleavage, he gives me an embarrassed half-smile. I make eyes at him and pout, and I can almost hear his blood race.
I don’t need a Glock with a silencer or a twelve-inch carbon tactical knife to get the job done. The trip across the Pacific takes sixteen hours, so there’s more than enough time for nuance. After he finds his seat in 3A, I relax into the flight. The takeoff is smooth as butter. The tycoon in 7D wants to chat me up, so I humor him for a while, fabricating a bucolic childhood in Des Moines. I enjoy a glass of Lacryma Cristi before dinner, then another alongside my pasta primavera. My target downs three scotch-and-sodas with his seared tuna steak and asparagus. He has pecan caramel cheesecake. I give my slice of lemon meringue pie to my chatty neighbor. I leaf through three magazines and Business Journal over a double espresso, biding my time.
Extreme wealth may help prolong life, and it certainly makes it cush, but so far it has yet to rout the call of nature. Not twenty minutes after the flight attendants clear away the dessert plates and coffee cups, buckles stretch and latches clink, and the tycoons file toward the bathrooms. I watch them backslap and guffaw until my target waddles down the aisle. He tries to make himself small, but what can he do? His fellow tycoons grimace and sneer, muttering amongst themselves as they make their way back to their seats. To be honest, I almost feel bad for him—but my twinge of sympathy drowns in greasy green seawater. Three-headed tuna float belly-up. Whales shriek and dolphins scream.
When the door accordions open, I’m waiting. My target steps forward. His pinstriped suit, double-breasted and stitched from the fine fur of some defenseless Asian monkey, looks immaculate. His jowls flap. His forehead creases. I don’t make room, staring him straight in the eye. We’re so close, his gut almost pins me to the fuselage wall.
Excuse me, miss.
I don’t think so.
My seat is that way.
What’s your rush?
He makes a low, panicked noise in the back of his throat, shaking his hands as if he forgot to dry them. That this man is responsible for the decimation of so much sea life boggles the mind. He’s so meek and awkward.
Now I lean in close. Meet me when we land, I whisper, slipping my calling card into his pocket.
While he takes another long look at my breasts, I rake my nails across the back of his neck. He winces. And that’s all it takes. The nerve agent will seep into his bloodstream as he lumbers back to his seat, buckles up, and hand-wrings about my advances. To distract himself, he’ll skim Wallstreet Weekly, then sink into some saccharine tearjerker. Before he knows it, he’ll drift off to sleep, and that, as they say, will be that.
Maybe a year after we buried my father, I saw on TV that Mr. Freeze, the local zoo’s oldest polar bear, had died. After my first visit to that place, I refused to go back. I never understood why other people couldn’t see it for what it actually was: a prison. My mother even had to write notes to excuse me from class field trips. Yet as soon as I heard about Mr. Freeze, I skipped school and went down there on my own, paying the entrance fee with my lunch money. When the ticket lady gave me a sour look, I said, My mother’s already inside. She smiled. I smiled back. I never knew I could lie so easily.
I ran all the way to the polar bear habitat. They liked to use names like that, and it was true the bears weren’t living in cages, at least not ones with bars. They had pseudo-ice, a fake rock cave, and a swimming pool meant to resemble the Arctic Ocean. But that didn’t mean they weren’t in prison.
There were supposed to be four other polar bears, though I only spotted three. They were amazing creatures, huge, powerful, majestic, but they seemed lethargic, even listless, groaning and moping in the hot sun. It was obvious they were grieving. Even their eyes looked sad.
Eventually, they lumbered off the rocks and splashed into their artificial Arctic. It was much too small. I watched through the glass as they paddled from one end to the other and back. As they swam past, I tried to catch their attention. I’m sorry for your loss, I said once, twice, three times.
And I was.
My next target, a panda in a gray Western suit and cowboy hat, is Mr. White. I tail the plastics exec through the Singapore airport already knowing where he’s headed: Hong Kong. Even though it would be easier to transact our business at the gate before boarding, in the air, or as we wait to claim our luggage, I exercise some patience. I don’t want to become predictable.
I follow his limousine by taxi through the pitted landscape into the city. It takes longer than it should. I’ve heard that Hong Kong was once a huge, thriving city, but much of it is now underwater. So we can only get so far before we have to transfer to the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor, now ten times its former size, the water a viscous green that reeks of ammonia and melted plastic. As we board, the crew hands each passenger a gas mask and life preserver, though more than a couple minutes in that toxic sludge would melt flesh from bone.
The tycoons strap on their safety equipment. I do the same. Most of them cram inside, but my target scurries to the upper deck. As we putter southward, he leans against the stern railing, gazing at ash falling from a hazy red sky into the water. The ferry chugs and churns and belches thick clouds of diesel exhaust. The other tycoons mill, inside and out, bloviating at high volume despite their masks.
I need to finish this project before we reach land, or else face a difficult tail job through a warren of congested boulevards and narrow alleys. I have no reliable intel regarding the plastic exec’s final destination. Still, I wait until we’ve made it to the middle of the harbor and the tycoons’ blather reaches a fever pitch. I creep up behind my target and drop my card into his jacket pocket, though it will amount to nothing. The ferry horn blows. I glance left and right, then spring my move. No one hears my target’s muffled scream as he pitches over the side of the boat and splashes into the polluted murk. No one but me. I watch him flail for a moment, panicked, his five-thousand dollar suit already disintegrating. Then I crowd into the cabin and join the nearest cluster of tycoons, guffawing right along at the punch line of a joke I didn’t hear.
After that, any time I heard about an animal dying at the zoo or aquarium, I skipped school and bolted down there. I think my mother knew what was going on, since she must’ve been hearing from the principal or counselor or somebody, but she never let on. Whether tiger seal or elephant, baby giraffe or gray whale, I went to pay my respects. I would stand outside their prison cells and witness their mourning. When the time felt right, I told them all, each in turn, I’m sorry for your loss. Although we often made eye contact, and I was pretty sure they appreciated my gesture, no one ever said so outright. I could hardly blame them. I belonged to the same species that had abducted them and locked them in cages.
Then one spring morning, I was down at the beach. I couldn’t spend all my time in those prisons. This was back when we still thought it was safe to walk barefoot in the sand and splash in the cold Pacific surf. It was what used to be known as whale-watching season. People gathered on headlands, piled into tour boats, or paddled kayaks out to observe pods of orcas making their annual migration. I couldn’t stand the crowds, so I wandered down a solitary beach, binoculars around my neck. My mother was laid up in bed again, and the few friends I had were busy with birthday parties and gymnastics, pretending the world wasn’t falling to pieces around us. As I traipsed through the rolling sand, I could spot the orcas by the mob of tour boats and kayaks. Although people traveled vast distances and paid lots of money to see them, I doubted those whales appreciated all the attention.
Stupid people, I muttered, almost tripping right over her. A beached orca. She was small, maybe ten or twelve feet long. She didn’t appear to be breathing. I wanted to call for help, but there was no one around. What would anyone actually do anyway? Make stupid jokes about whales’ intelligence? Take scientific measurements? So instead, though I wasn’t religious, I knelt and offered a little impromptu prayer to honor her spirit. Then, in case her family was listening, I said, I’m sorry for your loss.
So you keep saying, she said.
If you call this living. Damn idiots won’t leave us be.
I’m so sorry.
Not your fault, honey. You’re one of the good ones. We all know about you.
Everybody. Word travels fast. All the gossip distracts us from thinking about what your kind has done to our home. We can’t rage twenty-four-seven.
I glanced up. Styrofoam cups, cellophane wrappers, and plastic bottles littered the beach. A seaplane whined, circling overhead. An oily green stink wafted off the breaking waves. Do you need help? I asked.
Uh-huh, she said. Though not how you think.
Should I call someone?
Nope. You’re the one’s gotta make something happen.
I don’t understand.
We know you mean well. Everybody says so. Just like that Lotta Tornberg.
But I don’t—?
Naw, lemme finish. The time for talk’s long gone. Your kind are still fouling the nest, but it’s our nest, too. We need action, honey.
What could I possibly do?
Don’t worry about the details. We’ll show you the way.
It’s only a matter of time now. When and where. So I flee Hong Kong, catching the first flight to Auckland, then another to Papeete. All told, it’s fifteen hours in the air. I need to sleep, but I’m too wired and jittery. I can barely keep my eyes open, but they won’t stay closed either. I down one espresso after another until the flight attendant purses her lips at me.
Although I’d rather keep moving, I have no choice but to hole up when I land in Tahiti. I ditch my handheld, then wend my way to a remote corner of the island, where I rent a hut on the beach. The water sparkles like lapis lazuli. We must be in a lull between oil slicks and garbage swirls.
I wake up in a panic, despite the slosh of breaking waves. I only intended to stay for a night, but the digital display tells me I slept for three days. Sweaty, my mind in a jetlag fog, I throw on my clothes. When I stumble across the sand, cool breeze soughing through the palm fronds, the owner lady babbles at me, offering fresh coconut water. I swat the vile poison from her hands and stagger to the road, hailing an open-air bus. I know they’re coming for me. It could happen at any moment. I can’t trust anyone.
But I have to get where I’m going, so I charter a sailboat with a one-man crew. I give him a heading but tell him little else. The journey takes three days with favorable winds. I pay the man a king’s ransom since I know what awaits him. Maybe his maydays will save him, but his boat will wind up at the bottom of the South Pacific.
While it’s my own private island, I’ve spent little time here. Just long enough to get the lay of the land and build a reinforced bunker deep in the lush vegetation. My location affords me 360 degree views, though I can’t be spotted, even in the bright afternoon sunlight. Lotta, as I christened my island, is one of the most remote places on earth. Yet she’s completely strewn with trash. It’s mostly plastic, bottles and wrappers and bags of all shapes and sizes, washed ashore from the great Pacific garbage patch. So much for paradise.
Soon as I hit the sand, I make a beeline for my bunker and double-check my weapons cache. Glock 9 mm pistols and Heckler & Koch assault rifles, with enough ammo to hold off a special forces unit for three weeks. Grenades and flash-bangs, smoke bombs and tear gas. Kevlar vest and gas mask. I even have two missile launchers in case I need to take down drones or assault helicopters.
While all coms are vulnerable, it would take serious technical sophistication to trace mine. I check the online and radio chatter. All’s silent where I’m concerned. They seem to be playing it close to the vest. I make myself an espresso, followed by another.
Night falls. Waves crash. Wind rustles palm fronds. I expect the wet thwack of chopper blades, the whine of engines over open water, the well-drilled footfalls of elite commandos taking formation. I wait for the eerie red dance of laser scopes seeking their target. I cycle through my protocols, checking all directions through binoculars and rifle scopes. I listen for radio chatter. Still nothing. Caffeine crackles through me like electricity. I stare out into the darkness, listening. Frogs croak, crickets chirrup. Bats flutter and squeak. I strap on my infrared night vision goggles and wait.
After the orca encounter, I looked for signs everywhere. Robins twittered outside my window: what were they saying? Ants marched across the porch: was I supposed to follow? Gray wolves howled deep into the night: was their message for me? I couldn’t be sure. I didn’t understand what they might’ve been telling me anyway. I knew I was overthinking the whole thing, but I couldn’t help it.
Then one morning, I went for a long hike in the woods. My mother didn’t like me going out alone, but she was getting worse every day, more sunken and sallow. She’d been to the doctor but wouldn’t tell me the diagnosis. Still, I knew it was cancer, likely from the fallout. So I had to get out of the house and clear my head.
Overnight, onshore winds had blown the smog inland, and it was a beautiful fall day, the air warm, leaves on maples and oaks just beginning to redden. There was only one vehicle at the trailhead, a huge, shiny gas-guzzler, so I wasn’t surprised to have so much solitude. Blue jays cawed and sparrows twittered. Firs and hemlocks whispered in the light breeze. I tried to reconcile myself to the fact that my mother was going to die.
Then I felt a whoosh of air against my cheek. Startled, I froze. A red-tailed hawk spiraled up, then whirled and sailed back past me, eyes bright. It was enormous, with a huge wingspan. I wondered what it was hunting—rabbits, squirrels, other birds—and whether I was intruding. I considered turning around and heading home, but when it circled back and flew past me again, I’d swear it was smiling. It gave a shrill cry, followed by another. I continued up the trail after it.
I kept an eye on that hawk as best I could. When she was out of sightline, her call echoed down the canyon, reminding me she was there. The path climbed through the spruce, ferns, and moss-covered boulders to a high bluff. When I was younger, there would always be a family up there, kids monkeying around, their parents nagging at them to stay away from the edge. It was a long way down.
But now, as I made the lip of the clearing, a man’s voice, loud and angry, filled the morning. I expected to find a father and son, or maybe an old married couple, squabbling in the morning sun. Instead, I spotted a lone man in trail shoes and head-to-toe spandex, bawling into his handheld. What do you think I pay you for? he shouted. Thick silver hair pushed up from his running visor. Not to think, moron, he bellowed. Now finish what we started!
He killed his call, wiped his brow, and fiddled with his handheld. Probably checking his stats: time splits, heart rate, calories burned. He didn’t even seem to notice the view. Maybe he had stellar hearing despite his headphones, or maybe he sensed my presence, but he glanced over his shoulder and gave me a wolfish leer. Fucking subordinates, right? he said. I inched into the clearing. The hawk sailed overhead, its screech echoing into the new day. The man aimed his finger like a pistol, taking a bead on the hawk, then pretending to fire. He leered at me again. The hawk cried, circling.
Then, all at once, clarity. I understood what the orca meant. I knew exactly what the hawk was trying to tell me. So I stepped across the clearing to where the man stood, fingers pounding the screen of his handheld, and without a second thought, I gave him a hard shove. His eyes screamed as he fell, but he never made a sound.
An early morning squall blows in torrential rain, so visibility’s nil for a couple hours. The wind howls, stirring up a whirlwind of plastic. I hunker down in the storm. It’s exactly when I would strike (darkness, diversion), so I expect the worst. I won’t be forced into retirement—now or ever. There’s too much work left to be done.
Yet at daybreak, when the wind dies down and the rain lets up, Lotta still hasn’t been fire-bombed or invaded by hostile forces. I listen hard, but all I hear is the steady plunk-plunk of water dripping from palm fronds onto plastic milk jugs. Crakes cackle and lorikeets twitter. Surf laps at the sand. I massage my aching hands and roll my shoulders, twist and bend and stretch. I take a series of slow, deep breaths.
After cycling through my protocols again for good measure, I emerge from my bunker, gun in hand, and wander through the lush vegetation toward the beach. The new morning sparkles. Rain beads on luminous orchid petals. Gulls glide overhead. I stop at the edge of the sand, leery of leaving cover to stroll across the beach. I wait and watch.
Then I spot them: hermit crabs. Hundreds of them. They scuttle here and there and back. I fiddle with my pistol, puzzling. Soon I realize they all carry garbage in their claws, and they’re creating one giant trash heap. The entire island’s strewn with plastic detritus, yet here they are, cleaning up a small patch of sand. Incredible. I watch in awe for longer than I should. I even make a contribution, gathering a few stray water bottles and grocery bags and adding them to the pile.
The plop of a pelican plunging into the surf startles me. I watch him surface, a fish writhing in his throat pouch. He tilts his head back and swallows once, twice, then smacks his beak. Soon he flaps his wings and takes to the air again, searching the waters below for his second course. I marvel that there are still enough fish left to sustain him. Has there been a resurgence of sea life?
I grab my Heckler & Koch and a couple of new mags from my bunker, then ease into my hammock. Sunlight glitters through foxtail palms. Fruit doves coo and reed-warblers trill. Dangling fronds bob in the sea breeze. I feel myself relaxing for the first time in years, fatigue tugging me down into sun-drenched darkness. But just as I begin to slip under, a clutch of panic seizes my chest. A high whine overhead. A low drone across the water. I flip into the sand and take cover in the thorny underbrush, round chambered, finger on the trigger. I steady my breathing, listening hard. Nothing. I lie there in the sand for a long time, waiting for the adrenaline surge to dissipate.
When my pulse drops back to normal, I take a deep breath, then hoist myself out of the sand and lean against the trunk of a palm. The surf roils and crashes. Puffy clouds skate across the empty blue sky. A gull sails on the breeze, screeching. Then, to no one in particular, I say, I’m sorry for your loss.
And I am.
J. T. Townley has published in Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Threepenny Review, and other magazines and journals. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net award. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University.