Environmental Catastrophe Blog by Alex Miller
What I’m doing for money today is affixing my phone to a plastic tripod overlooking a gigantic municipal landfill in Western Pennsylvania. The garbage fields begin beyond a razor-wire fence some fifty yards below and stretch in all directions as far as the eye can see. The sun sets behind a row of sheet-metal warehouses blocking the horizon. Golden Hour. The light turns soft and cinematic. I’m optimistic. Maybe the garbage will put on a show tonight.
“Sure hope you get a lot of clicks on your YouTube video,” Jess says. She hunches over a camp stove, heating up beans. She makes a gagging sound and pretends to vomit into the bean pot.
I squint to the south and see a flock of birds, barely visible, migrating toward the landfill. The birds are tiny black dots, so far away I can’t hear them yammer. I set the phone-camera to record. Then I lift the viewfinder of my nice SLR to my eye. Really, it’s the video that matters. Video makes money. But I take still-frame photos anyway, I guess because I love them. The photos are for me.
“Late-stage capitalist parasite,” Jess says. “Social media whore.”
The Google AdSense revenue generated by the videos is all me and Jess live on. It doesn’t buy much. Gas for the van. Cell service. More beans. Jess is unmoved by this. She is a good communist. Committed. A better communist than I’ll ever be. Jess will not acknowledge her dependence on money earned by my environmental catastrophe blog.
The flock draws near. A big one. Thousands of seagulls form a crude blob in the sky, like a gigantic airborne jellyfish or amoeba. I zoom in and snap a photo. I smile, recognizing my good fortune. The birds have a desperate, hungry look about them.
“You’re wasting your time,” Jess says, stirring the beans with a metal spoon that clanks against the pot. “Remember Portland? Remember the nazi who clubbed you in the face? Ain’t no garbage video gonna save you.”
The mob of birds wheels in the air, flying a sharklike semicircle above the garbage before diving—abruptly and all at once—as if obeying orders delivered by a hive mind. They barnstorm the surface of the landfill and frantically pick through the detritus. Grocery bags. Discarded plastic toys. Soiled diapers. Soggy cardboard cereal boxes. I zoom further. Click the shutter. Capture the birds fighting over scraps. A seagull slashes another with its talons. Click. Two large birds pin down a smaller, peck its face and wings. Click. Click. A storm of white feathers rises against a blue backdrop of sky. Already I know the photos will be beautiful.
“Tired of all this masturbation,” Jess says. “We should do something real. Buy a gun.”
Now I take photos rapidly, not even bothering to compose shots, clicking away in the hope that a few will turn out usable. The birds feed and fight. Take to the air. Land. Feed more. Fight more.
“Next time some skinhead comes at us—bam—right between his eyes,” Jess says. Even over the cacophony of bird calls, I hear her slurping beans from the spoon. “I never wanted it to come to this. You know me. I’m not violent. Not unless I have to be. But these are the times we live in. Face it. All that’s left is to kill them before they kill you.”
Birds pump their wings. Soar through the evening sky. Fading sun rays transform white wings to gold. The flock is a living tapestry. An organic symphony. A complex social dynamic pitting individuals against one another in a brutal fight for survival. A moment of molten time frozen into art through my camera lens.
From the far side of the landfill erupts a percussion of gunshots. Sanitation workers attempt to drive away the birds. The flock scatters at the first sharp blasts, then reforms and resumes scavenging among the garbage. This cycle repeats several times until the volley grows loud and rapid enough to shoo the flock back into the sky for good. The birds flap wearily toward some distant roost, even as the gunshots continue. Limp forms drop out of the air, trailing feathers. I snap my last photo. I reach for my phone to switch off the video.
“Those beans sure smell like beans,” I say. Jess hands me the spoon.
“Pretty sure I heard a 12-gauge,” she says. “We could use one of those.”
I eat beans out of the pot. I don’t like them, but I like going hungry less. The beans are warm, at least. The evenings have grown chilly lately. I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up. Driving around. Taking pictures. Hitting up food pantries. I zip up my jacket to the neck and stuff my hands into my pockets. I sit close to Jess. She’s the warmest thing in my life.
Jess forms her hands into a gun. “Bang, bang,” she says. She blows over her fingertips with frosty, smoke-like breath. I look at Jess. Smile. I love her. I will not buy a gun. I have something more elegant in mind. Once winter comes, I’ll find somewhere quiet to park the van. I’ll finish the last can of beans, bundle up and take off tramping through the snow until I find myself in some lonely field sparkling quietly in sunlight. I’ll reach out my arms, and they’ll sprout feathers, just like a bird, and I’ll fly up into the sky. That’s the last anyone will see of me. I’ll be up there with my flock. And we’ll pump our wings and ride the currents, looking down on a landscape of rivers and forests all frozen and glittering for winter. We’ll form a giant V in the sky and fly away together someplace warm.
That’s the whole plan.
Maybe if I’m lucky, Jess will come too.
Alex Miller is a writer and graphic designer who lives in Denver. His fiction has appeared in Pidgeonholes, Back Patio Press and Rabbit Catastrophe Review. He is the author of the short story collection "How to Write an Emotionally Resonant Werewolf Novel" (2019, Unsolicited Press).