Franklin Pezzuti Dyer

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A fish out of water

NOTE: This is a story I wrote as a creative project for my ethics class.

Hovering cameras encircled the vehicle, and Wink squinted at flashes strobing through the tinted windows. After a few moments, the gates swung open and the car inched forward. Fuzzy black microphones dragged along the windowglass and frantic interrogatives bounced off of the doors. Finally the iron gates clanged shut, pushing the last of the reporters out of view, and a vast green-brown lawn appeared. Down the road stood a long white-painted building guarded by rosebushes in dry mulch along the perimeter. Upon its expansive porch, men and women with patchy white hair, wrinkled features and button-down shirts oscillated asynchronously in rocking chairs. This was where Wink would see his father for the last time.

As he made his way to his father’s room, Wink passed through various common areas where the elderly reposed in armchairs, protected by shiny hardwood floors and floral-patterned wallpaper. Frilly cloth lampshades hid humming bulbs that emanated yellow light. Real logs burned in crackling fireplaces. An ancient grandfather clock wearily swung its pendulum, counting down the seconds to its own extinction. A toddler’s fingers skittered across the surface of an IPad, his eyes glossy with intense engrossment; the shriveled grandmother beside him started wistfully out the window at the rosebushes. The whole place felt dusty, but not a mote could be seen in the air.

Finally, Wink entered the back hallway and knocked on a door.

“Come on in.”

His father sat hunched on the edge of the bed with bony hands on his knees and fuzzy slippers pressed to the carpet. His head, speckled with gray fuzz, was turned away from Wink and towards the window.

“Dad, I’m here to say goodbye.”

“I should be dead already. I wish you would have left me out of this place long enough to kill myself. Now I can’t even do that because these damn people are always watching me.”

“Please don’t be like that, I know we didn’t end off so well last time, but we don’t have to—”

“Can’t you get me out of here long enough to bump myself off?” He blew out a grim laugh. “Please. We can spend some time together and then I’ll make it quick, instead of rotting away slowly like these other corpses-in-waiting. It feels like the earth is shifting underneath me, and I can’t do anything about it. I’ll only ever feel secure again once I’m buried.”

“Dad, you’re being ridiculous. You spent half your life reading books and articles and whatever you could get your hands on, so I refuse to believe that it’s torture to spend the rest of your life somewhere where you can eat and sleep and read and socialize without having to worry about falling down the stairs or electrocuting yourself with household appliances again.” Wink inhaled slowly and wiped his hand over his eyes. “Sorry, that sounded bad.”

His father chuckled bitterly. “That doesn’t offend me, but you still don’t understand. I try to resist as long as I can, but eventually I can’t hold out anymore and I pull out the phone and read the news. It’s the only window out of this crypt. But at this point I’ve given up any hope of connecting with you or the rest of the world. It’s just morbid curiosity. Apparently it’s okay for mothers to kill their babies, and boys and girls to have sex with strangers they meet on the internet, but it’s not okay for me to make funny jokes anymore because they’re ‘insensitive.’ And I assume you know all of this and more, and probably understand it better than me, but you don’t bat an eye. And don’t you dare call me a bigot.”

“I’ve never called you a bigot.”

“Oh, right, not a bigot, just... what is it you say? I’m not ‘open-minded’ enough? That’s not fair either. I really try to understand, you know I do.”

“Please don’t take this personally. You’re just... too dogmatic. Too inflexible. These days you have to believe things for a reason, but you just stick to the same things because that’s how it’s always been.”

“Too dogmatic? Are you kidding? I’m not even religious! Anyways, I’m ‘open-minded.’ I’m not like these other... skeletons here, who just shut themselves off and play bingo until they keel over. I’ve really been trying to understand. Do you know how many editorials I’ve read, just to try and find these ‘reasons’ you mentioned? And they all make perfect logical sense, but at the same time they’re absurd! Look, like this one I read the other day, I’ll show you...” He pulled a phone from his pocket and held it in front of his face, poking intermittently with a bony finger and muttering “No, that’s not it... wait, I don’t want to do that... be damned!” until he finally gave up and threw it onto the bed, exasperated.

“Please, Dad, can we please not do this right now? I have to go soon. I can only stay for a couple minutes.”

“The decor in this place doesn’t help either. Look - look at this!” He grabbed a doily from his nightstand, and it trembled in his hand like a cobweb. “What even is this? What purpose does this serve? Is it even from this century? I can’t...” his speech trailed off, and he hung his head feebly.

“I’m going now, dad. Let me...” he cringed and looked down. “Can I hug you before I go?”
Without waiting for a reply, he stepped forward and wrapped his arms around his father in an awkward embrace. A layer of air like cold glass separated their chests, and his father clutched him loosely with stiff arms until he finally pulled away.

“Five hundred years...” he shuddered. “Will you visit my grave?”

“What difference does it make? Why not take advantage of still being—”

“Will you visit it?”

Wink sighed morosely and nodded.

After Wink left the home, the rest of the afternoon flew by, and before long it was time to go. Finally he was escorted down a long hallway and into a small, dark room where a glowing cylindrical tank extended horizontally from one wall, filled with translucent blue liquid. Wink undressed and pulled on a tight blue swimsuit. His escort opened a glass hatch in the top of the tank, regarded Wink with admiration, and shook his hand enthusiastically.

“Our ambassador to the future,” he remarked reverently. “I wish you the best of luck.”

Wink smiled and climbed into the tank. The viscous goop swallowed his legs, then his torso and chest as he reclined. The door hissed closed above him. Steam filled the tank, and soon Wink sunk into unconsciousness.

The Earth whizzed through space. Microbes, plants, and animals lived their lives in the blink of an eye and died upon its surface. Humans residing there did such things as fall in love, seek revenge, care for their families, help strangers, kill infants, lie to each other, cultivate virtue, donate to charities, slaughter animals, and drive trollies. But all of this activity made no visible mark upon the green and blue splotches covering the Earth’s smooth sphere as it indifferently spun hundreds of times around the sun.

Suddenly gasping for air but inhaling liquid instead, Wink sat up rapidly and coughed. Viscous blue solution dripped from his hair and flowed down his shoulders, chilling his skin as it evaporated. When his eyes finally adjusted to the light, he found himself sitting upright in a cylindrical tank in a room with blank white walls. In front of him stood a man with curly bright-green hair and light brown skin, who appeared to be middle-eastern. Blue jeans hugged his legs, and he donned a black t-shirt with the words “DON’T PANIC!” printed in red across the middle.

“Congratulations! You’re the oldest person alive!” He grabbed Wink’s slippery arms and helped him to his feet. “My name’s Darius, and I’m here to help you get comfortable. You might be feeling a little weak right now, so we’ll get you some food as soon as possible. But first, there’s a towel and some clothes next to the tank, if you want to dry off and get changed. There’s a mirror over there.”

Wink blinked a few times and opened his eyes wide. He looked down at the towel and folded clothing next to him, then down at his tight skivvies, and then back up at Darius.

“Wow. Okay... you want me to get dressed? And then we’ll talk?”

“Yep!” Darius smiled at him expectantly.

Wink stared awkwardly for a few seconds before spluttering “Can I maybe have some privacy for a sec?”

“Oh! Right!” Darius laughed and started out the door. “Sorry, of course. Just come on out when you’re ready.”

The door clicked shut. Wink stood stationary for another minute before wiping the remaining juice from his torso and legs and slowly pulling on the underwear, jeans and t-shirt with cold fumbling fingers. Finally he shuffled over to the mirror, and gasped: he looked the same as before, except that his skin was ghostly white, and his hair and eyebrows had faded to pale silver.

When Wink stepped outside, Darius smiled at him and began down a long, white corridor. Wink found it difficult to keep up with the brisk pace, and his cold limbs swung stiffly as he hobbled along behind. His eyes were repeatedly drawn to the crown of curly bright-green hair on Darius’ head, whose texture, upon closer inspection, seemed not to resemble that of human hair at all. Each strand was unusually thick, and they appeared almost rubbery as they bounced with Darius’ springy gait.

“Is that hair dye, or...”

Darius turned and smiled. “No, they’re actual plants.”

“Are they—”

“Yeah, they grow directly out of my head. Photosynthesize, too.”

“So, do you even have to eat?”

Darius laughed. “Yeah, of course. They’re mostly ornamental. I don’t actually get a significant amount of energy from them. My parents just thought it would be cool to have a kid with plants growing on his head.” He laughed again.

“Seriously?” Wink grimaced. “I guess biotechnology must have made some advances. But I don’t think I would want my parents to have that much control over what I look like.”

“Actually, believe it or not, scientists were able to do this kind of thing just a few decades after you went under. The hard part was getting it approved for public use. Lots of people felt pretty icky about letting parents design their children. But, you know, progress is an unstoppable force. Anyways, it has its perks - the biotech, I mean, not the hair. I may not be a big fan of plant hair, but I’d rather have the schematics of my body determined by my three well-meaning mothers than by random chance.”

Darius strode along, smiled good-naturedly, and Wink chewed his lip pensively as he staggered behind. Their pace slowed as they passed a glowing blue fishtank embedded in the wall, its interior decorated with a cartoony plastic treasure chest and skull, and a plant that appeared too symmetrical to be real. A few isolated fish stared vacantly at their visitors.

“Hello, boys! How’s the water?” quipped Darius, chuckling to himself.

Wink’s gaze lingered a moment longer on the alien creatures, whose tiny eyes regarded him with equally grotesque entrancement. Then he continued down the hallway.

Eventually they came to a room that appeared to be a lounge, featuring a sofa, a television set, a small circular metal table with chairs, and a few bookshelves. Wide windows and sliding glass doors on one wall revealed a courtyard with oak trees, enclosed by a brick wall. Wink stopped and squinted for a moment as his eyes adjusted to the light, and then he gazed out into the courtyard.

“What in the name of...”

Upwards of a hundred frenetic squirrels filled the courtyard, prancing across the lawn, swishing their tails frivolously, scurrying up tree trunks, and chittering antagonistically at each other. Darius turned around and asked:

“What’s up? Everything okay?”

Wink snickered, wiped his eyes, and answered “Sorry, I just didn’t expect that squirrels would have done so well for themselves in the future. Is this normal?”

“Oh, sorry. Is it too many?” Darius laughed sheepishly.

Wink tilted his head sideways. “What do you mean by that?”

“The truth is, squirrels haven’t done that well for themselves. But we wanted you to feel at home, and we know there were more squirrels and greenery where you came from - when you came from, I should say. So we stocked up the courtyard for you, although we might have overdone.”

“So you’re saying there aren’t as many squirrels anymore? Or plants?”

Darius let out another anxious laugh. “Look, we’ll have plenty of time to talk about that. First things first, we need to get you something to eat. Any preferences?”

“How about just a McDonalds hamburger for now? It’s been a... curiosity of mine to see how the Big Mac might have changed after a few centuries have passed. And I’m sure it’s safe to assume McDonalds is still around.”

“No problem. I’ll be back with that in a few.” He started away.

“Hold on,” Wink interrupted. “Mind if I come with? I’m itching to see what—”

“Um, that’s not a great idea. Just... hang out and rest for a couple minutes, and I’ll be back soon. Then we can talk, okay?” Darius smiled reassuringly and walked away down the hall.

Wink moped for a minute or two before wandering over to the television. It appeared surprisingly similar to those of his century, and didn’t even look quite as modern as the one he had once watched in his own house. Disappointed with the future of TVs, he found a remote next to the sofa and switched it on. The screen read: “PLEASE INSERT DVD INTO DVD-PLAYER.”
He fiddled with the remote, but couldn’t figure out how to switch to cable. Huffing with exasperation, he wandered over to a shelf next to the television and surveyed the DVDs. Most of the titles were familiar - he recognized a few classics, like “Frankenstein” and “Silence of the Lambs.” As he checked the dates, he was puzzled to find that the newest titles among them had come out only a few years after his departure. When he heard Darius’ footsteps echoing again in the hallway, Wink was beginning to grow annoyed.

“I’m back! Let’s sit down over here and you can eat.” Darius sat down at the silver table.

“Can you help me get connected to cable TV? Or can I read the news or something? When will you take me out to walk around in a city?”

Darius shifted uncomfortably and replied “Um, we’re going to talk about that in a second. Want your hamburger now?” He pushed a paper bag forwards.

Wink frowned, sat down, and pulled a warm hamburger out of the bag. After taking a bite, his shoulders dropped and he smiled while slowly chewing.

“Mmm, some things never change, huh? Five hundred years and it still seems like the same hamburger.”

“Well, it hasn’t quite been five hundred years.”

Wink stopped chewing. “What?”

“It’s actually only been about two and a half centuries. Two hundred and forty-one years, to be exact. We thought it best to pull you out a little early.”

“Why? Did something go wrong? Is everything okay?”

Darius laughed and replied “Don’t worry, nothing bad has happened. We just realized that the designers of this project might have been a little... short-looking. Short-sighted, I mean. And that brings me to why I can’t take you out into town anytime soon.” He hesitated, and then continued. “As you can imagine, a lot of things have happened in the past couple of centuries, some of which might be... well, it could be a bit of a shock to blob you down in it all at once.”

“Wait, you mean—”

“Sorry, did I say ‘blob’? I meant ‘plop.’ Plop you down in it all at once. Sorry, I always get those two confused.”

After a bitter laugh, Wink retorted “So that’s why all of the movies on the shelf are old. I can’t believe this. Look, I get what you’re saying, but the whole reason I’m here is to see what the future is like, and I realize that it’s probably different - a lot different - but I was prepared for this. Don’t baby me.”

“You might be surprised.” Darius smiled at him sympathetically.

“Come on, tell me something shocking. I’m open-minded. Shock me.”

Darius leaned back and shifted again in his seat, wrinkling his brow. “Okay, if you say so.” He took a long breath and sighed before continuing: “About fifty years after you went under, the first interspecial marriage took place.”

“You’re kidding.” Wink chuckled and shook his head. “Come on.”

“Nope, not a joke. A woman and her dog.” Darius’ friendly smile had vanished, and he stared penetratingly into Wink’s face, which was growing paler.

“It wasn’t—”

“Yes, it was consummated. They had a honeymoon.”

Wink swallowed and gripped the edge of the table, glancing queasily at the half-eaten hamburger as if had begun to emit a foul odor. “Is this—”

“It was fairly controversial at the time, but now it’s pretty common. More than five percent of all current marriages in the United States are interspecial. And keep in mind that was legalized more than a century ago. A lot more has happened since then.”

“How is this...” stuttered Wink, “How is this justified? Beastiality isn’t legal... wasn’t legal, because of consent issues and... animal abuse concerns...”

Darius’ expression brightened again and he laughed warmly. “Sorry, it wasn’t fair of me to expect you to accept that at face value. You’re right to be concerned about animal abuse, but we’ve actually had a few significant technological enhancements - I mean, advancements that have allowed us to deal with that problem. Because of breakthroughs in neuroscience and brain scanning, humans can actually obtain consent from other animals by identifying certain patterns of neuronal firing.”

“But how could you... be sure? That seems really...” Wink winced.

Darius shrugged. “Hey, it’s not like human verbal consent is one-hundred-percent reliable either.”

“Yes... you’re right, that makes sense... I can’t disagree with that...”

“But I can see it bothers you.”

“Fine, right, it bothers me!” Wink exclaimed, blushing. “But it’s not like I have any... real objections. I won’t argue with you about it, and the fact that five percent... jesus... five percent of all marriages are interspecial probably means that I’m in error. But still, that’s no reason to keep me locked up in here. It’s not like they’re... doing it in public or anything.”

Squinting uneasily and scratching his head, Darius replied “Actually, I was going to tell you... these ‘indecent exposure’ laws that used to be obsequious... sorry, ubiquitous in your time, they’re pretty much gone now. Except for certain private neighborhoods and fundamentalist communities that still mandate the use of clothing.” He paused for a moment, and then laughed. “Of course, people still wear clothes. It’s just not uncommon to see nude people out and about or even going at it in public. Especially in the cities. Hey, are you done with that hamburger?”

Wink pushed it away from him. “Yes, please take it away.”

“Really, it makes more sense this way, if you think about it. The only legitimiate purpose of clothing is as protection. So if the weather’s fine, and clothes never really stopped the spread of germs that much in the first place... what’s the point?”

“Because... it’s indecent not to wear clothes?” He contorted his face in anxious anticipation, like a child deliberately sticking its finger into a mousetrap.

“Indecent? It was only ever indecent because it made people uncomfortable. And why did it make people uncomfortable? Because they weren’t used to it. Why weren’t they used to it? Because nobody used to walk around naked. And why did nobody walk around naked? Because it was indecent! See? It’s just a vicious cycle that existed for no reason, and now we’ve broken it. Although I suppose you fast-forwarded past that part. Anyways, I realize talking about it isn’t going to convince you of anything. You just have to get used to it, and that will take time.”

Wink shivered, and Darius watched him with soft eyes and a pitiful smile.

After a few minutes of silence, Darius began to get up.

“Looks like you want to be alone for a little while.”

“Wait!” Wink grabbed his arm. “Will I ever be able to get out of here and look around for myself? How long will it take?”

Darius sighed and replied “Given how you reacted earlier, I think it will take a good bit of preparation. And aside from you being... emotionally unprepared, you would have to play a lot of catch-up just to use basic technology and navigate the city safely... without harming yourself, I mean. No matter what, you’ll stick out like a sore toe. It will even take a lot of effort on your part just to communicate.”


“The English language has changed a lot in the past two-and-a-half centuries.”

Wink cocked his head quizically. “So far, it sounds pretty much the same to me.”

“Well, erm... we haven’t exactly been speaking modern English. The whole reason I got picked for this job was because I studied the history of the English language, and learned to speak dialectical variants all the way back to the seventeenth century.” His chest swelled. “Of course, I studied a good bit of social sciences too, so that’s not my only qualification... Anyways, you would probably find it difficult to understand the speech of most people nowadays. Printed text might be easier to decipher, but it’s also fairly different. On top of that, almost all educated English-speakers also know at least a little Chinese, so you’ll have to pick up some of that as well...”

Wink stared grimly at the tabletop, and Darius looked down at him morosely.

“I’ll start catching you up tomorrow. For now, just try to relax—”

“What if I demand to be released?” Wink cut in, his eyes flashing viciously. “I’m still an American citizen, and I have rights. So you have to let me go if I demand it of you.”

Darius sighed and replied “Um... really, things have changed quite a bit in the last couple of centuries. Whatever contract you signed... isn’t valid now.” He winced apologetically, then continued. “Look, we’re not trying to screw you over or anything. All this is for your own safety. Please just—”

“Can you at least take me to see my father’s grave?”

Darius winced again. “I was afraid you’d ask that. The answer is... no.”

“Why not?” Wink asked tearfully, his hands trembling.

“The thing is... at this point, almost everyone agrees that graveyards serve no real purpose and are pretty much a waste of space. So most large graveyards have been seized, and the bodies exhumed and cremated. I checked up on it, because I figured you’d want to... but your father’s body was among those dug up.”

Wink said nothing.

“Hey, at least we don’t eat the dead.” Darius laughed, and Wink recoiled, evidently horrified. “Okay, bad joke, sorry. I’ll leave you to your own devices for a while now. Try to enjoy yourself, and I’ll send someone to feed you dinner later.”

He disappeared into the dark hallway.

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