In the foul-smelling armpit of Comfort Canal and Dolphin Expressway, Lulu and her adult grandchildren, Jackson and Lexi, shared a humid bungalow. The last storm surge had glossed their modest home’s outer walls with mud, so the family hadn’t objected when a neighbor parked his oversized pontoon in front of the house — obscuring its view from the street. The three of them thought little of the home’s appearance anyway, as they were under no illusion about the less-than-enchanting character of Reed Street. Vehicles on the nearby six-lane highway relentlessly pierced the air, sending its gusty entrails shrieking down Reed. Intersecting the expressway, the viscous Comfort Canal dared even the most formidable gators to swim through its dangerous, churning brew of yacht oil, discarded Coronas and scrap metal. The canal threatened the neighborhood’s human occupants too, for the waterway was discontent to be confined by the floodgates recently installed by the Florida Climate Control Agency. And unbeknownst to the trio, the pontoon in front of the bungalow staged the local vermin’s Darwinian theater. Therein, the most ferocious rats earned themselves comfortable accommodations in the seat cushions’ foam hollow.
Inside the bungalow, though, Grandma Lulu, Jackson and Lexi forgot their surroundings. Each of them spent that sweltering Miami summer, the hottest on record, in their respective rooms. Their devices were ossified extensions of their hands, their movements were sloth-like or imperceptible and their air conditioners performed global-warming-belying magic for longer than Florida’s mandated limits.
This mess of a year has felt more like a decade! Adjusting her glasses and leaning closer to her computer, Grandma Lulu re-read her neighbor Darlene’s post. She then clicked “like,” sharing it to her wall with the bold prelude LOL. The post hadn’t actually made her laugh, but the abbreviated comment was the best Lulu could muster, for the octogenarian reserved her most elegant online prose for a more noble cause. Among the 33,900 Facebook members of “MIAMI-DADE COUNTY LOST DOGS,” Lulu was the group’s most active participant. Though Lulu was indifferent to her own Chihuahua’s ragged appearance (owing to his daily assault by the neighborhood rats), the elderly woman wrote passionate messages to Facebook friends, to the West Flagler Neighborhood Association, to the Miami mayor, to the Miami-Dade County clerk, to Florida state representatives and even to the Florida governor on account of the tragedy of her community’s lost dogs.
“Pookie… poor Pookie,” Grandma Lulu cooed into her computer monitor.
Pookie was a white Maltese with two miniature red bows affixed to his head. Though Lulu and the dog’s owner were only acquaintances, the elderly woman had enthusiastically volunteered herself to manage the dog’s Facebook rescue campaign. Pookie did not look particularly content in his glamor shot, but no amount of grooming or accessories could animate the dog’s lifeless expression. His dull, black eyes communicated the ennui of a lifetime sentence to house arrest. (It was no wonder he’d emancipated himself.) Busily preparing a flyer for Pookie, Lulu hadn’t noticed the dog’s glaring malaise. Indifferent to the damp, sticky confines of South Floridian domesticity, Lulu was content to lead a sedentary life.
Friends… please keep an eye out for Pookie, one of God’s most angelic, precious creations, last spotted in—
Lulu’s computer monitor suddenly went black. Her confused and wrinkled reflection replaced Pookie’s pixelated image on the screen. The woman sat before the computer for a while longer, contemplating her own matted white hair, sagging jowls and tired black eyes.
“Damn it,” Jackson muttered.
Spitting dipping tobacco into a teacup, Jackson rose from his bed and sauntered to the dark bungalow’s back door. He paused before exiting and surveyed the barren garden, bounded by the canal and two parallel lines of chain-link fencing. It was pelting rain outside and the yard’s lonely palm tree, already ravaged by a fungal pathogen, careened violently in the direction of the canal. Several capsized skiffs had met their demise in the mangroves opposite the yard. And two sailboats, elevated nearly to ground level by the canal’s surging waves, appeared to glide across Lulu’s patchy lawn as if in a surrealist film.
Had the weatherman called for flooding? Jackson couldn’t remember, nor could he recall the last time he’d watched the news. Opening the door, Jackson saw only with tunnel vision, eliminating the raging canal from his periphery and focusing his gaze on the cement patio’s rusted generator. Jackson would get it running and return to his video game, British Raj II, which he hoped his gaming console hadn’t reset. BRII, as Jackson and anonymous Reddit users referred to the game, simulated the British East India Company’s colonial extraction. Evidently, Napoleon Complex-afflicted “gamer bros” were an apt target market for neoimperialism, as Jackson and his friends took to colonial conquest with unsettling delight. They amassed British pounds (Sixpence per kilo of iron ore!) and “invasion medallions” (Gold for the capture of Madras!) with a hungry fervor. Daydreaming about BRII, Jackson spilled half the contents of the oil canister he was holding onto a patch of lawn, missing the generator’s fuel tank completely. He winced through dense torrents of rain after igniting the engine, watching the house slowly come back to life.
Drenched, Jackson oozed back into the house like a puddle of the canal’s fetid slurry. Laying on his bare mattress, he soaked in a marinade of rainwater and sweat as he waited for the game to reboot. On BRII’s loading screen, the game’s protagonist, Lieutenant Colonel Edwin Cobb IV, took long drags from his pipe. Expelling the fumes through his nostrils, Cobb paced slowly over a map of the Subcontinent laid across the floor of a wood-paneled office. Edwin was the haunting, beady-eyed Victorian love child of Ebenezer Scrooge and Mr. Bumble — whose collective villainy was only amplified in their treacherous offspring. In Level 28, which Jackson had unlocked moments before the outage, the Company tasked Lieutenant Cobb with quelling the 1857 Indian Rebellion. Per the gamer’s unlimited discretion, Cobb could manage the conflict with diplomatic resolve or, of course, with indiscriminate violence.
“Perhaps we should ready the garrisons,” a general advised Cobb.
“This level shall indeed be difficult,” Jackson whispered to himself in accented English.
From the day he had purchased the game, Jackson’s own identity had begun to mix with the Lieutenant Colonel’s persona. In fact, BRII’s narrative had so completely osmosed into Jackson’s mind that he often spoke in the colonial lexicon: his “to-do list,” for instance, became his “mission to her high holiness, Queen Victoria.”
Approaching his 30s and still his grandmother’s roommate, Jackson knew his economic future promised little more than several crinkled dollars of literal pocket change and the inheritance of Lulu’s 2010 Buick LeSabre. When questioned by non-gaming laymen, Jackson distilled his all-consuming passion for BRII to an appreciation for intelligently designed strategy games. Privately, however, Jackson recognized that the true source of the game’s appeal was rooted in his social and economic condition. BRII reminds us of the awesome strength of the Western world and its armies of courageous men, Jackson once wrote on a Reddit forum. His online identity, “LoyalistAvenger1810,” was inspired by Jackson’s personal exploration of his Argentine heritage. According to his research — a mishmash of data from Ancestry.com and Wikipedia — Jackson traced the family line back to the first Spanish Viceroy of Río de la Plata. He liked to imagine an alternate reality in which the Spanish Crown had retained its control over the colony, and had invested him with the same royal office as his aristocratic forebear.
Distracted by the fantasy of his noble pedigree and by the carnage of Level 28, Jackson took little notice of the violent thunderstorm shaking the bungalow. Jackson’s focus on the game was so intense that it seemed plausible that his eyes, in cartoonish fashion, could stretch like rubber bands from their sockets. They’d reach the television, fuse with the screen and burst into pixels — consecrating a digital-biological union of game and gamer.
Lexi penciled a stylized unibrow onto her face with the assurance that she was engaging in activism. As instructed by her latest TikTok poll, she was to appear in her next video as Frida Kahlo. After studying the painter’s artistic record, Lexi had decided that she would attempt to portray The Broken Column, a self-portrait in which Kahlo depicts her nude body assailed by nails and held erect by a crumbling pillar. To Lexi, the column undoubtedly represented the patriarchy. So, in the tradition of feminist activism, Lexi planned to repurpose her metallic corset as Kahlo’s polio brace and the kitchen broomstick as her pillar.
For a fleeting moment, Lexi worried that her performance might eroticize the artist’s suffering. But most people only engaged superficially with feminism anyway, she reasoned. The progressive symbolism and buzzwords alone were enough to earn Lexi some social currency (praise from thousands of faceless TikTokers). A quarter of these users were surely Chinese bots, brained by 45-kilobyte files of indecipherable code, but Lexi didn’t care who bestowed the likes and comments. As long as her viewer statistics rose, Lexi’s Advertiser Super-Score would grow, earning her coveted corporate sponsorships. She could persuasively “LOVE!” or “dieeeee for” or “OBSESS over” any product an advertiser sent for promotion, but Lexi’s penchant was for heavily discounted (likely sweatshop-sourced) online apparel from East Asian mass retailers. The notion of an “activist-industrial complex” didn’t particularly trouble Lexi. Activists gotta eat, too! she had once written in her journal. But Lexi had plenty of food and a well-paying part-time job. Since it wasn’t very progressive to feign food insecurity, she later scribbled the line out of her journal.
We can do it! Lexi would caption her Broken Column video, conflating Rosie the Riveter and Frida Kahlo in her historically erroneous mental pantheon of feminist icons. Lexi first realized that her historical knowledge was imprecise after her fans had furiously criticized the anachronism of the TikToker’s Jane Austen cosplay. In it, Lexi reenacted the writing of Pride and Prejudice using a neon pink typewriter. Her followers’ anger soon bubbled into hatred, but unlike most abusive relationships, Lexi had the power to shut everything down and walk away. She chose not to.
After the Austen Affair, Lexi was unsure whether she still experienced a mutually symbiotic relationship with her fans. Her research, at least, confirmed that parasites’ incubation period and volatility could often be unpredictable. All the same, Lexi wished to be optimistic about her fanbase’s true character. Without abandoning all caution, the TikToker generally practiced a policy of appeasement with her fans. Give the people what they want was her mantra. In this spirit, Lexi thought she might add a #GirlBoss to her caption. The feminist slogan, she hoped, would demonstrate her unfaltering commitment to emancipation and compensate for any unwitting historical inaccuracy.
Having strategically arranged her bedroom lamps for the most seductive interplay of light and shadow, Lexi was testing her set design when the room went dark. As her fatigued air conditioner sputtered into silence, Lexi could hear rain forcefully bulleting into the bungalow’s rotting shingles. Groaning, the unconvincing Frida collapsed onto her bed and watched as the heart-shaped patch of already water-damaged ceiling grew a dark, moist halo. She wondered whether the outage was a message from the Divine, who’d interrupted His busy schedule (miraculously healing famine victims, restoring global peace, etc.) to warn Lexi, of all people, that her TikTok would surely fall flat.
Murky droplets began to tumble onto Lexi’s pimpled cheeks, where, to the TikToker’s delight, they resembled mascara-tinged tears. Reddening the skin around her eyes with a balled fist and ensuring that her artificial tears reflected the pulsating glimmer of her battery-powered fairy lights, Lexi filmed a melodramatic selfie video. She overlaid the clip with a Radiohead song that she felt cool for knowing, but then hesitated to publish the video. The “Post” button appeared to vibrate, its bluish, continuously shuffling pixels seemingly charged with an electrical current.
In the deepest ocean, the bottom of the sea. In the deepest ocean—
Lexi allowed the video to loop 30 times before her brother resurrected the generator and her blinding, studio-grade lights disrupted her self-induced depressive trance.
“Could anyone have it as bad as me?” Lexi thought aloud.
Lulu was still studying her reflection in the monitor’s black gloss when Pookie’s gloomy visage blinked back onto the screen. Roused from her catatonic state, Lulu clapped with delight, leaned forward in her suede desk chair and returned to the task at hand. Usually rising at dawn, Lulu would hobble to her desk in the kitchen and remain there until bedtime. With its cushions permanently molded to the shape of her wide frame, the chair met all of Lulu’s needs: her piss bag strapped to her leg and her granddaughter’s cooking delivered to her desk, Lulu could remain in her seat, unmoving, for hours.
—last spotted in Alameda. Suffers from terrible phobia of iguanas and gators. God protect Pookie at all costs. Amen. (Reward: $25 Hooters gift card, from owner).
Satisfied with her flyer, Lulu retracted her sweaty fingers from the keyboard, click-clicked her mouse and uploaded Pookie’s ad to her canine advocacy groups. Because of this extensive online activity, dog-related content flooded the old woman’s Facebook timeline. Grandma Lulu appreciated this, though, imagining the nebulous “algorithm” — to which Jackson had attributed her feed’s canine-promoting tendency — as a sort of digital angel. Winged and clad in a shimmering robe, the virtual angel resided somewhere within Lulu’s computer, she was convinced. The cherub benevolently surveilled her online activity, firing arrows at all the dreadful news articles that invariably triggered her hypertension.
“The war, that darned storm surge and all them migrants — bless their hearts,” Lulu began to list into her landline’s receiver, her snowbird neighbor Doreen on the other end. “These are all terrible things, which is why I’ve got to focus on what’s good in this world.”
“Those doggies need you, Lu,” Doreen replied, communicating her understanding from her living room in Maine, where she escaped South Florida’s increasingly fatal summer heat.
“Don’t I know it. I told you how I’m helping my neighbor Jim find his Pookie, no?”
A shrill, ominous tone returned Lulu’s question. A palm tree must have downed a phone line, the unfazed senior figured. Though Lulu and her computer had been engaged in a staring contest, she finally forfeited, taking in her surroundings for the first time all day. The octogenarian’s eyesight had worsened over the years, but she could still make out the general features of her yard through the glass sliding door. Only a few patches of yellowed grass were still visible, for the lawn was nearly submerged by the canal’s overflow. But Lulu couldn’t imagine that the flood barriers, which the Florida Climate Agency had only just erected, could have possibly broken.
“Better to look away,” she thought, and returned to her device.
Jackson read his mission objectives on the BRII home screen. Unsure where to begin, he loaded the map of the Subcontinent and beheld the Queen’s expansive empire. Should he deploy census takers to Hyderabad, bringing its subjects into the Empire’s all-encompassing knowledge regime? Or should he initiate the extraction of coal in Jharkhand? A dispatch from London then flashed across the screen, telling of the latest parliamentary amendment to the Poor Laws — a national relief system that, regrettably, would drain the imperial coffers. Jackson decided to ready Jharkhand’s mines for drilling.
In Jackson’s room, the air conditioning was always on, heaving gusts of humid air through its metallic throat to maintain its operator’s strict mandate (a brisk 65 degrees Fahrenheit). After solar rays had penetrated Jackson’s bedroom skylight and left scarlet second-degree burns on his skin, he had boarded up his windows. Even with the ultraviolet protection layer that the Florida Climate Agency had applied to the bungalow’s windows, the summer’s severe heat was uncompromising. Still, Jackson considered a man-made climate catastrophe to be the stuff of myth.
“The solar energy industry is clearly bribing these so-called scientists,” Jackson had theorized to his younger sister. He was rubbing prescription aloe gel into his welted skin as he insisted that the atmosphere’s accelerated warming was consistent with the earth’s geothermal history.
Having freighted hand drills and pick-axes to Jharkhand, Jackson watched the map as dark plumes of smoke began to rise over the province. Simultaneously, in the map’s top left corner, the box displaying the Company’s pound sterlings gleamed gold, then tripled in value.
“Splendid,” Jackson said, faintly imitating the Queen’s English.
Frida fared poorly with Lexi’s followers. Had Lexi not done their bidding? Followed their scripts? Frida checked the cultural representation, sexual identity, reproductive history and women in art boxes, so Lexi wondered how her performance could be anything other than a quadruple whammy. The TikToker’s mind soon drifted from confusion to self-loathing, as Lexi pondered whether she was the problem all along. For a moment, she thought she might like to tear the temperature-insulating pads from her walls, peel the UV-blockers off her windows, unplug her AC unit and set her room to Bake. But Lexi wasn’t sure that self-flagellation was her thing. In fact, Lexi wasn’t sure of anything she really wanted.
“Is there anything worse than a #BossBabe without aspirations?” Lexi whimpered
Droplets of perspiration pushed through Lexi’s forehead and coalesced into narrow rivulets. Swept into the salty currents, the painted unibrow spread across her face. Soon, the ink had filled the deep lines around Lexi’s nose and mouth that she felt she was too young to have. Gazing into her hand mirror, Lexi saw the reflection of a woman she did not recognize. This was a woman who seemed to have violently collided with the glass ceiling of her feminist lectures (though without breaking through). She appeared haggard and confused. And, if missing a tooth, she might convincingly pass for a witch.
If Lexi’s followers didn’t like her best, they should have her worst, she rationalized. Recording herself, Lexi growled and smeared the inky remnants of her unibrow with her fingers.
“Is this what you want?” Lexi asked her audience through the lens of her phone. She then clicked “Upload” and feverishly refreshed her notifications, as she looped the same song she’d earlier selected for her selfie video.
Somewhere, a siren blared a warning. But Grandma Lulu, Jackson and Lexi had never quite learned which alarm signaled heat advisories and which communicated storm surges. Either way, the trio was too engrossed in its activities to notice a thing.
“Representative Ruiz? Hello? Oh, anyway, I have a call to action regarding the most neglected members of our community. Please phone me at any time.” Returning the landline to its cradle, Lulu failed to realize it had never even dialed.
With the Company nearing bankruptcy, Jackson couldn’t afford any risks. A telegram flashed across the screen. Lieutenant Cobb, ought we to reallocate grain exports for famine relief?
“Doreen, I’m just ringing again. Hoping Maine’s not too cold. HAH! Come on down and get some heat.”
Lexi turned it louder now. In the deepest ocean. Then a tick higher. The bottom of the sea.
“Lieutenant Cobb? Sir! You’ve badly bungled things and you must respond to the parliamentary summons,” a brigadier pleaded. Jackson was sweating in his seat.
She knows we don’t care about her live-streamed breakdown… right? World’s got bigger problems, babe!!
To the Board of the West Flagler Neighborhood Association, please see the agenda (attached), which I have taken the liberty of revising in accordance with this community’s needs. These should and, in fact, will, so help me God, prioritize our needy canine friends.
Could he answer the call? Could he answer to his, no, the Queen’s subjects?
Louder still. I get eaten by the worms, and weird fishes. Picked over by the worms, and weird fishes.
Indeed, catfish, bristlenose plecos and several other fish were visible in the brown, murky water slowly cracking Lexi’s windows, saltwater dribbling through fissures in the glass. Grandma Lulu might have spotted a bashful carpet shark gliding against the kitchen’s sliding doors, but she and Lulu and Jackson were oblivious to the reverse aquarium in which they were now suddenly (though not without warning) enclosed. In 400 years, diver-archaeologists tasked with excavating the lost city of Miami would find Lulu’s body mostly intact. She’d be preserved by the water’s unusual salinity and, curiously, guarded by a shiver of spiny dogfish. Jackson, though, would be reduced to bones: filter feeders, amphipods and other benthic detritivores would extract as much of his organic material as their slimy oral cavities could gorge. And Lexi’s painted unibrow would be long gone. Her phone, which she’d once clutched against her chest, would find its resting place in the skeletal remains of her rib cage — right where vasculature and tissue had once kept her heart suspended.
The diver-archaeologists would determine that the sad trio was the last to know of Miami’s demise. Even the pontoon rats, even Pookie, even the family’s forgotten Chihuahua had long escaped the city. Lulu, Jackson and Lexi were the Atlantic’s weirdest fishes, bottom feeders nibbling on the scraps of human civilization.