2018, Middle School, Prose
Balmy, humid day. Very humid. So humid, in fact, Prisoner 4 can practically feel the air condensing into tiny water droplets inside his lungs. So humid that the stench from the harbor seems worse than what it usually is.
Prisoner 4 is a fisherman. He’s been one all his life. But instead of fishing for animals in the ocean, he fishes for trash around the clock. Day, night, it makes no difference to Prisoner 4. He is still always surrounded by the mass of filth and garbage that is simultaneously his workplace, his home, and his prison.
He was sent here as a punishment. Violent crime, they had called it. He’d been lucky to get away with his life, he had then thought; but he wishes he’d reconsidered. Death would have been a welcome reprieve from the horrors he endures. Every. Single. Day.
When the planet’s resources began to dwindle, the temperatures began to rise, and the global crime rate began to skyrocket. The world’s governments, at a loss for solutions – the prisons were already packed to capacity – had ironically assigned new prisoners to clean up the environmental mess. The faster their area got cleaned up, the feds declared, the faster the prisoners could leave the places they’d been assigned to and reenter “civilization.”
A laughable task in its sheer difficulty, Prisoner 4 thinks – the areas measure between five to 65 million square miles apiece.
Prisoner 4 has been assigned to Sector 5, the area once known to the world as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. He knows there is little to no chance for him to get out before he dies an old man. He knows that he will probably be discovered years later, by another prisoner, as a corpse, trash bag and net still in his rotting hands; just another piece of trash, albeit bigger, among the infinitely many smaller ones in Sector 5.
He lives in a shack, built by his own hands, built by the trash he picked out of the ocean. That was something the government had made clear; he would have to live off the area he had been assigned to. He eats whatever he can find, and most of it isn’t even wet or salty; there are so many layers upon layers of garbage that what he finds up at the top might as well be sitting on land a thousand miles away.
It’s not easy living out here in the wet, miserable desert he calls home. Garbage surrounds him for as far as he can see; it extends to the horizon and its stench diffuses into every imaginable nook and cranny.
Prisoner 4 vividly recalls Day 0. The planet had been brought to its knees repeatedly by the crass lifestyles of humans who blindly believed in technology’s ability to pull them out of any hole they dug themselves into. Engineers had always been able to solve mechanical problems, doctors had always been able to come up with new miracle vaccines, Earth had always managed to keep itself going, one way or another.
Until it didn’t.
The mass destruction began when the polar ice caps, on both sides of the world, melted completely; Antarctica and the Arctic completely ceased to exist. Waves from the engorged oceans smashed into coastlines around the world, depositing trash and dead, rotting corpses of marine animals onto the shore. Much of the planet’s species were wiped out; the ozone layer practically ceased to exist; and mutant, heavily lethal strains of zoonotic – marine pathogens spread by the corpses on the world’s beaches – made their deadly rounds across the globe.
Day 0 had arrived.
The day, long predicted by scientists, when the human population curve, exhausted and stretched to the utter limit, would invert upon itself. The terrifyingly steep, rapid rise called exponential growth plummeted – almost as quickly, and just as frighteningly.
Prisoner 4 remembers, quite vividly, that it was the oceans that went first. The Great Barrier Reef collapsed first; its once-vibrant coral reefs and abundant wildlife replaced by swarms of garbage and mounds of plastic that seemed to take on a life of their own. The exhortations of Australia’s government and the explosion of coverage by the world’s media couldn’t begin to put a dent in the damage being done. Global warming and climate change had already begun killing thousands of species in the delicate ecosystem, warming the waters of the reef beyond habitable levels.
Even the hardiest species that survived the first culling, however, were no match for the wave of murder that was to come.
Pesticides and fertilizer were dumped into this intricate marine ecosystem with abandon, choking the very life out of the ocean. Due to climate change, the Queensland coast had already lost most of its coastal wetland, which acted as natural filters; this spelled disaster.
It wasn’t entirely surprising or stupefying; humans’ careless dumping of waste, general insensitivity to the vast treasure trove of wildlife beneath the waves, and callousness when it came to the global climate situation overwhelmed the ocean ecosystem with a ferocity barely comprehensible to Prisoner 4 today, ten years later.
Of course, the rest of the planet soon followed suit; the virulent epidemics of Marburg and Ebola, century-long drought of the U.S. Southwest, and even Day 0 itself – and the mass deaths and chaos that came with it – paled in comparison to the speed and the heartbreaking callousness with which humanity destroyed the last unexplored frontier.
Prisoner 4 doesn’t have to try to remember the destruction; he lives it.
He wishes to be away from the constant reminder of failure and of death and of suffering. Just two days ago, he’d unearthed two corpses from the murk: two rotting men, fishermen from the look of them. One was still clutching a net in his soggy, bony hand.
He and the six others assigned to similar fates, one in each of the world’s “oceans” (if they could be called that anymore), pick up trash from the moment their eyes spring open to the moment their eyes spring shut, exhausted from a day of fishing. It’s becoming harder and harder to remember if he’s even in the ocean anymore. As far as Prisoner 4’s eyes can see, an unextended plain of garbage spreads to the horizon.
He pales when he thinks of spending the rest of his life here, amidst the destitute wreckage of Earth’s great last, unexplored frontier, and a reminder of how far Earth has plunged.
Suddenly, a wave rises and smashes into him, bowling him over. Cursing, he stumbles to his feet, dripping from head to toe – not with water, but with liquefied plastic.
Enough thoughts about what’s already happened, he silently chides himself.
And he returns to his original task, picking up pieces of trash, a single drop of polluted seawater among an ocean of garbage.
I was recently with my family at the beach one sunny day. I was gazing at the Pacific, awed by its vastness, when the thought struck me: What if this giant expanse of water was garbage? More thoughts immediately followed: What if there was someone assigned to clean this up? How did the Pacific become this way? And more. I simply knew I had to write a dystopian story to satisfy these inquisitive thoughts if nothing else. I spent the rest of the day not sunbathing, but sitting by the water’s edge, occasionally getting drenched by an unruly wave, thinking about this narrative. By the time we got in the car, “Prisoner 4” had already begun to take shape.