The scum on the water was thicker today. It glistened iridescent in the sunlight as it frothed on the surf, giving off a metallic tang. Another container must have burst over in Toxic Bay and the current had brought its contents up the coast. Bill shook his head. They were three miles away and it didn’t make a damn bit of difference.
He stood waist deep in the ocean, keeping his mouth and good eye firmly shut as waves crashed into him. His bad eye he left open. The infection made everything a blur, but he didn’t dare risk his good eye. Maybe he’d be lucky and catch enough fish to trade for a pair of goggles.
Bill cast his net. Margaret had dug up plastic bags from a dump dating to the Old Times, twisted them into cords, and wove the cords into nets. She was just pulling hers in a little further along the deserted shore.
“Catch anything?” he called to her. He couldn’t see well enough to tell.
“No, we’re too close to the bay.”
Bill shrugged. What could they do? Only half a mile north, the shoreline took a sharp turn and was sheltered from the current. The shallows were cleaner up there but the Galvers clan had staked out those waters. Those folks used their harpoons for spearing more than just fish.
Bill pulled in his net. Nothing. A wave hit him in the chest, sending up a spray that stung his nostrils. Bill winced and cleared his nose. People thought fishermen got used to this shit.
They hadn’t caught anything all day. Yesterday and the day before, they’d barely gotten enough to eat.
Last week, before this latest injection of toxins from a foolish, fallen civilization, fishing had been better. Twice they’d caught enough to walk to the market just outside New City’s walls, into the shantytown called the Burbs where a couple thousand farmers, scavengers, herdsmen, and traders eked out a living. They weren’t allowed inside New City itself, but none of its few hundred citizens ever deigned to eat fish. For them, “fish eater” was an insult. They feared the toxins in the ocean. Not that the land was much cleaner.
Going to the bustling market was a treat. People traded goods excavated from the ruins for crops grown on the few patches of clean land. They’d carry their catch dangling from long poles slung over their shoulders, calling out “Fresh fish!”
Many sneered and turned away. Others laughed and shouted, “False advertising!” But some came to trade. They’d get a handful of corn meal or some nuts or maybe a bit of cloth. Enough to get by.
But today they hadn’t even caught anything to eat themselves.
Bill tossed the net back into the water. Although it was finely woven, not even the smallest fish were swimming through this gunk. He’d build a boat and go further out if all the trees on unclaimed land hadn’t been cut down.
“Still nothing,” Margaret grumbled.
Bill felt a tug on his net. He pulled. Something pulled back hard.
“Got one! A big one!”
Bill hauled on the net. Panting, he backpedaled towards the beach as Margaret waded over. As he got to where the water was knee deep she made it to his side and helped pull. The fish splashed into sight, fins sticking out of the plastic weave. Margaret stumbled as they dragged it ashore.
It was a fat one, as long as Bill’s arm, but not big enough to have fought so hard. Bill realized they were getting weak.
“She’s a beaut,” Margaret said.
Bill kissed her. “You’re a beaut.”
They were naked. They didn’t want to ruin their clothes in the seawater so they hid them in the dunes. Bill looked at her. Despite Margaret’s visible ribs and patches of red skin, she was still attractive. He kissed her again.
As Margaret built a fire, Bill gutted the fish with their knife. The insides didn’t look bad. No cancers or infections. He cut open the stomach and scooped out the contents, a gray goo sprinkled with colorful bits of plastic from the Old Times.
The gleam of metal caught his eye. Scraping away the sludge, he pulled out a gold ring.
“A wedding ring!” Margaret gasped.
Bill slipped it on her forefinger. It fit perfectly.
“You look wonderful,” he said.
“I look like someone who’s going to trade with some rich chick in New City!” Margaret laughed.
Bill felt hurt. Margaret put a hand on his cheek.
“Don’t be silly, we can get lots for this.”
“It’s not food and can’t be used to get food.”
Margaret shook her head. “Not everyone needs to think that way. You’ll see.”
That evening they sat at a food stall in the market, sharing a whole roast chicken. Their satchel was filled with cornmeal and beans. They’d gotten some herbal cream for Bill’s eye and Margaret’s skin, plus a new blanket.
Still, Bill wasn’t happy. Margaret deserved that ring. They’d been married a long time and the only thing he’d ever given her was half his catch. And the trade goods wouldn’t save them for long.
Margaret looked pensive. Was she thinking the same thing? Suddenly her face brightened and she looked up at him. She saw his expression and kissed his cheek with greasy lips.
“We’ll find another,” she said.
“The fish was a bottom feeder. Probably scooped the ring up from the sand.”
“It could have drifted from anywhere.”
“No. When I was helping you I tripped over a line of stone that didn’t move when I hit it. I just realized now what it was.”
“Stone? Out there?”
Margaret smiled. “Felt like concrete.”
Bill perked up. “Ruins?”
Margaret nodded. “Covered by the rising seas and never scavenged.”
Bill gasped. “There aren’t any untouched ruins within a hundred miles! Think what may be down there.”
Margaret hugged him.
“We’ve caught ourselves a new life.”
Sean McLachlan is the author of numerous novels and nonfiction books. He’s currently expanding two series: Toxic World (post-apocalyptic science fiction) and Trench Raiders (World War One action). He’s also dipped into Civil War fiction with the novel A Fine Likeness. You can find him at his Amazon page.