We had to take a step, hold a pose, take a step, hold a pose, on and on like that to get anywhere. It was like pouring glass. Standing in someone’s home like a misplaced garden statue, watching the dust settle, it was hard not to think about who might’ve lived there.
The dust was the reason we had to step so slowly. We didn’t know then that it wasn’t important to leave things as undisturbed as possible, and so we assumed that it was. Sealed inside our rigged up Hazmat suits, it was easy to feel only like an observer, not a participant, not an aggressor. With the radio turned down it was almost peaceful, eerie, but peaceful, like something from an artsy post-apocalyptic indie film, probably European. Of course the dust was too fine to be snow, though its dirty grey color matched the city slush we remembered from the old kind of winters almost exactly. The way it puffed up around even the most carefully placed foot, particles dissipating in the air, landing among a million parts per of their own, it could’ve been magical. Could’ve been if we didn’t already know the dust consisted mostly of whoever had been standing there when everything went up in light.
That was what I thought of the first time I got to be the lead entry on a new site. I pushed the door open slow like they told me, like I’d seen so many times over past leads’ shoulders. The view of the pristine room feeling me on my way in was intoxicating. It was desert wind on endless ash over loveseats and TV trays. Talk about defamiliarizing the home-sphere. I’d bought in wholeheartedly to the propaganda in the immediate after. I even took posters (we weren’t supposed to) and put them up on the walls of my room. They should’ve just streamed a view of a room on first forensic contact. It would’ve worked on me. I was already there and it still worked on me.
We weren’t all idealists though. There were some assholes who were in it for their egos. It’s easy to be tough when everybody’s already down to molecule omelettes. They took trophies, nothing major, but enough to pawn plus a few things to wear like scalps, since the scalps were always already gone before we got there – jewelry mostly, plus lots of watches. Which was stupid since none of them worked. I knew one guy who collected drivers’ licenses. He flipped through them, all mangled and melted. He only kept the ones where the scans were still visible. Another guy collected car keys, which was, again, stupid since the cars were long gone. It basically made for annoyingly loud neckwear. They all just wanted something, something to make it worth it, something to keep the ghosts away by keeping them close. Who knows.
I did something sort of like it, though not for the same reasons I think. If anyone knew, and someone must have known, they probably figured I was the creepiest of the creepy. I just wanted a little bit, a little bit of each of them. Someone had to remember them, right? I know it was ridiculous. It’s not like I could’ve done anything with it, even if I’d known how to do anything with it. If there was any DNA left in the dust, it probably looked about as human as a recipe for quiche. But I don’t know, I wanted to remember, even if my remembering meant mostly imagining.
And I did imagine. I imagined I heard them all. They whisper when the dust brushes the air. They whisper when we finally sweep it clean. They whisper that they’re not gone. I can’t ignore that. I have all those whispers, all those faded voices. I’ve kept them all in small plastic pouches, labeled and safe. I’m mapping the city that way. I’ve got a friend working on harvesting some old hard drives I picked up too. I’m sure I can find an IP directory, a utility record, something. They all had names before. Someone had to imagine them into existence once. I can do it again.
Maybe that’s the real reason I do this. It’s not “For Love of State.” It’s remembering the bones. It’s painting over the bleached white skeletons, remembering our humanity, if we ever had any, or imagining it up if we didn’t. Who am I to bring them all back? Nobody really, but I don’t see anyone else caring.
I still remember the first time I saw the city as a kid. I’d never taken the tram so far before. I held onto my dad with one hand and leaned against the window with the other. It was huge. I thought it was alive. It sort of was, then. My dad must’ve seen the look on my face, reflected maybe in the glass. He lifted me up for a better view out and below. He clutched me to his front. I planted one foot on his thigh and one on the window, his arms around me.
“You see that?” he said. “That’s what we’re capable of.”
We don’t use the trams anymore, though I bet someone could get them working if they wanted to. Instead we do our slow stepping into the city, a million statues spreading out like time-lapse photography. Most days I try to start early so I can catch the sunrise over what’s left of it. Every day when it comes into view I hear my dad’s voice again in my head, another whisper I’m keeping in a labeled plastic pouch, pinned to a map of what was.
Daniel Takeshi Krause’s work has appeared in two languages, three countries, and four dimensions. His work has been performed or printed most recently in Dream Pop Journal; Halophyte; Versal; at the Banff Center in Alberta, Canada; in A Bad Penny Review; and Sugar House Review. He completed his PhD in English at the University of Utah. He currently lives and works in Southern California.