“Sweepers” by Leslianne Wilder

Image by Michal Ufniak

Manhattan. They bought the island for beads and built it up into a forest of steel and glass. I used to spit in executives’ cobb salads at the cafeteria, listen to them talk about eating little companies, and look out over their shoulders at all the buildings spiking up, gray, white, and shining, like they were going to poke holes in the sky.

They made up that word, you know: sky-scraper. They had a contest. Some old guy who loved Beowulf sent it in and said that’s what the Vikings would have called them.

You never think how everything is going to change forever, and even when it does, you always believe tomorrow it will go back to how it was before. Some days I still wake up and believe it. We were lucky. There’s a kitchen here, and we’re high enough up.

There are pumps under the city. The guys who worked them might still be down there, floating in little rooms. I know they didn’t wear white lab coats, but that’s how I imagine them: suspended upside down next to control panels like astronaut scientists, beside open valves of rainwater and sewage.

The smell was the worst part. The city always smelled. There were too many cars, too many people, too much garbage for it not to. I guess if you’re born here you never notice, but I always felt like it burned the inside of my nose. When the water started rising it was worse. It brought up the sewers. It drove up all the rats. There were so many it sounded like the walls were screaming and tearing themselves apart. The radios told us to stay where we were. Rescuers would come. For a while we looked out and tried to pretend it was Venice. We drank all the wine when the power went out. I spit in the executives cups, and they talked about insurance stocks. Cara and I had sex on the cold stove. We decided it didn’t matter if we got fired.

The helicopters never came. The batteries ran out. The water kept rising. And the smell got worse.

We didn’t recognise the bodies for what they were; we were too high up for that. We pressed our heads against the glass and looked down at what looked like cereal that had sat too long in milk. Everyone below us swelled and floated, and even from a spike piercing heaven, you could see there were too many for all of them to come to the surface. The streets weren’t wide enough for the rising tide of dead.

Some cried and wiped their eyes with hundred dollar ties. Some jumped. They dropped down into the soup of everything that had been, and where they hit they left little black holes where they dragged the bodies down with them. Then the holes closed up.

Cara talked about God–not like I’d ever heard before. Most people talked about redemption and making life easier when they quoted the bible. Cara talked about locusts, and frogs, and first born children. She said terror of God is the beginning of all wisdom. I miss her. I wish she hadn’t given up. The ovens here are so big and she was always small. I thought she’d gone to explore, or to look at the stars. She held the propane tank to her like an infant, and she shut the door.

The water sucked up the tenements and the walk-ups. By the third day the bridges were gone. The guys who had been to school said it didn’t make sense. There wasn’t this much water in the world. Our bead-bought island city turned into sky-scraper dots, and the people below us moved in and out on the tide. It looked like someone was trying to make a puppet show of traffic. Glass and trash and human remains went east and west. We put Cara out into it. There weren’t any flowers left. I folded up a silk napkin for her to hold and I cried when we let her go.

The executives turned their briefcase lives inside out, and we made fires to cook everything before it went rancid. We got sick and the food ran out anyway. The executives talked about eating each other. I guess it wasn’t far from what they did before. There weren’t any little companies left, only little people.

I won’t do it, no matter what it comes to. I don’t like them, but we’re all still humans.

The water is only a few floors below us now. I’m too tired to catch the gulls and pigeons anymore. I think of Cara and Jesus and I wonder if one of those birds was to land with an olive branch, would I still try to hit it with my pan?

The dead people went away slowly, day by day. Maybe it was the fish, maybe the tide, but the water seems cleaner now. All of the city is diluted out of it, like it had never been.

You can’t see to the bottom, but you can see down a ways.

I’ve been watching. I think I’m the only one that’s seen the sweepers. They don’t have any bones, from the way they curl through the broken glass. I wonder if they brought the water, or if the water brought them. They make their own blue-pink light, like blind fish that live at the bottom of the ocean, and they have hundreds of arms. They touch everything. I don’t know if they’re eating, or if they’re searching. I wonder if they can taste us on the city’s bones. I wonder if they know about the beads and the newspaper contests, about the little companies. About all that terror and sins. About Cara. About me. I watch them and I can’t decide. Maybe that’s what they came for.


Leslianne Wilder works by day on an ambulance in San Antonio, Texas. By night, she writes fiction that has appeared in Shock Totem, The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, and others.

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