I was sitting on the beach at dawn, peering into the distance. A wave rolled in under a thick layer of trash and broke with a feeble crunch.

“We can’t stay here…” I said.

Virgil didn’t speak, but I knew how he felt.

What in the world was that thing? Faint in the haze, you could just make it out: a glassy spire, cleaving the sky. There must be a city there, but the spire was so tall…ten, twenty times the height of a skyscraper. Who, or what, would construct such a thing? At times, it stirred to life with an eerie red glow, pulsating in dark storm clouds that never seemed to rain.

We were starving and there was nothing to eat. Trash was everywhere, but no food. Sometimes the breeze brought a rancid smell, like a rotting carcass, but we were too weak to search for anything. Who knows where the smell came from? Probably just decay, bubbling in the ocean. Our last hope was to get to that city.

How far was it? I had no experience with the sea. I guessed it might be ten miles. Might’ve been 40 or 50 for all I knew. It seemed close, like you could reach out and touch it. Surely there’d be ships and planes shuttling around such a futuristic city, but we’d seen none since the incident. Maybe it was just a beacon?

Our last hope was a small rowboat I found half-buried in garbage from Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Didn’t seem to have any leaks. There was one oar. Virgil was no help at all in preparing and spent most of his time trembling in a fetal position on the beach.

I’d assembled an apparatus of plastic wrappers, straws, and aluminum cans to harvest the small quantities of condensation that kept us alive. Wasn’t sure it would even work in the boat, but I arranged it the best I could. Tried to keep it stable, propping it up with napkins and plastic coat hangers.

I roused Virgil and settled him in the bow, his black, wide-brimmed hat covering his face. He was severely emaciated and almost dead, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave him behind.

Plopping myself down in the stern, I rowed, one stroke a side, like a canoe. Hour after hour, slogging through the trash. It was deflating how little progress I made, but as night fell, I dutifully made a tally with a screw-cap in the boat’s faded green paint. Or at least I thought I did. My head drooped and I was dead asleep.

How long was I out? Days melted away in a haze. Delirious from lack of food and water, I rowed on…my arm muscles racked with pain, shaking uncontrollably. Or maybe it was all just a nightmare? The red beacon of the spire pulsed in reticulated patches of black water, interspersed in plains of trash. The sky was gray and a thick fog had settled around the base of the spire.

Oh no…Virgil kicked over the water can again. Angry, I pulled off his hat, but was shocked to find it wasn’t a hat. It was a trash bag. Virgil wasn’t there. Just black trash bags neatly laid out in a vaguely human shape, flapping in the breeze, held down by rocks. I was frightened and hastily tossed the bags overboard.

The bags snapped in the wind as I jabbed them with the oar, trying to hide them deeper in the carpet of trash. My thrashing opened a small hole, and in it, I saw an ugly, albino fish under the surface, deathly still, hovering there, looking at me. Was it dead? Was it plastic? It had an uncanny quality, like a hologram. I tried to poke it with the oar, but the oar slipped from my hand and sank into the murky depths. In response, the fish exhaled a bubble that seemed too large and slow-moving to be real. It bloomed like a flower into an oily, iridescent circle on the surface that stunk like a fart in the humid air. My God.

The island we’d left was nowhere to be seen. The spire wasn’t any closer. Now I wasn’t sure if there’d ever been an island.

My emotions overwhelmed me. This was it: the final episode of my life. Stranded in a sea of garbage. Licking drops of condensation off grimy Coke cans was just postponing the inevitable.

I desperately wanted to die, but knew death wouldn’t come easily. I literally convulsed with anguish. Through gummy, clouded eyes, I saw the contours of great cities in the distance: New York, London, Cairo, Tokyo, Shanghai. All just vast deposits of garbage. It was obvious now. I was in Hell, and the spire was the citadel of Lucifer himself.

I looked up, seeking oblivion in the featureless vault of the sky, and there was a shattering thunderclap, a flash of light so intense it seemed to X-ray my skull.

I was in the City of the Spire. Alive, barefoot, riding a ten-speed bike. Sprinklers were ticking across the freshly-mown grass at twilight. Young again, my long, curly hair blowing in the wind. My limbs charged with electricity and vigor. I parked my bike next to a large gravestone and sat on the damp grass, poplars rustling in the summer breeze. How long have I been here? As if in answer, a grinning fox in a woman’s bonnet held up a mirror and showed me my reflection. My black putrefying body, teeming with flies, afloat on a ship made of fingernails of the dead. Further ahead, mounds of fish and people, still in the process of dying, were stacking like logs behind a receding tidal wave, washed by the rain.

The fox’s eyes clouded with death and then it was gone.

Glancing up, I saw a mausoleum, a lone candle glowing in the red-stained glass of its steeple.

As it burned, I gradually realized: it wasn’t a candle. It was the dead Earth, flickering in the swollen corona of the dying sun.

Everything was gone…all the faces…all the names…everything human…

All submerged in rivers of roiling lava.