Sneakers can float, the television reminded us, so be on the look-out for limbs.
Word of the inevitable slipped into our radios, conversations, and our children’s ears when we thought they weren’t listening. We took off work indefinitely and combed the beaches until the morning sun disappeared into the night sky, a taut canvas that revealed no stars. Day after day we waited for the right tide, and when we got desperate, a divine intervention.
It was only after we had let our guard down that we found the missing. A baby, walking hand in hand with its mother, picked up what he thought was a shell. When questioned, the mother could not remember her own screams that sent half of the town running to the shore.
What we discovered were bone fragments spread out across the sand like a mosaic and skin that had turned to wax. Besides the bodies we found refrigerators, keys, pop bottles, and everything else one could have prophesied.
By the end of the day, footprints covered every inch of sand. Even schools abandoned classes after the news spread. Imagine this: the tan and slender bodies of teenagers bent over the surf, questioning the will of God.
It happened on another island football fields of coordinates away. Without warning, a wave rose from the earth and smothered a village in static. It was an inexplicable act of nature, scientists explained. Strangers from other continents stood in front of news cameras and yelled about our last days, about how it was only a matter of time.
Intricate charts and computer animations were drawn up to show us the projected path of the missing. The government came to our island and told us, as juice from our ripest fruit dribbled down their chins, that the dead would descend upon us like locusts.
Some of us felt responsible. We studied newspapers religiously for the list of people never recovered and woke with copies of dental records in our hands.
A translator for the families, a handful of sole survivors, thanked us for our help. An older woman screamed at the translator until he wearily said, a wedding band, size nine.
News outlets from other continents wanted to interview us but we kept to ourselves. Instead we worried about what to do with all the bodies, which had started to wash up daily.
A week after we found the missing; a couple, the children of university professors, were caught trying to sell a toothbrush and a child’s sock to a tabloid. There were those of us who claimed to be desensitized by differences of language and tradition. Some posed alongside exercise equipment and baby dolls.
In school they taught our children about Greek mythology, about Gods who believed in an eye for an eye. They spoke of Vesta the virgin, who kept the flame of Rome burning, the source of life and all immortality, with just her purity. Dishonored goddesses, however, were buried alive.
Every night we’d fall asleep to emotionless voices on the radio: the earth’s axis has shifted, they said, the world will never be the same.
Some of us wandered the shore all night long without flashlights, stumbling over a now unfamiliar landscape. We walked down the coastline until we couldn’t walk any longer, until we were spent and dreamt of old things, like white bulbs strung between high branches and dances that went on forever. When we wandered, we desired flesh that could tan, burn, and melt. We hummed pop music we told our children they couldn’t listen to and sometimes we set our throats on fire with the bottles hidden beneath our beds.
Others still searched for the missing, even when the bodies stopped coming. One woman spent her retirement on funerals and gave the dead names. She set the night ablaze with sky lanterns and sent the missing back into the darkness, where she hoped someone would mistake them for stars.
Eventually, the days arrived in flashes. What wasn’t sent back to the survivors we kept in a small storage unit because nothing else felt right. We went back to work and the T.V. stopped showing people with signs who said we were next.
As we drove to our appointments, made our kids lunches, and waited on line for the movies, we sometimes thought of the missing. We didn’t think of how our muscles tightened when we drug the countless body bags across the sand or how their lungs must have felt like cement before they were carried away.
Never would we admit to each other what shot across our minds every time we were alone. These visions, we kept to ourselves.