Looking Backward

Steve’s feet sunk only slightly into the wet sand, just enough to feel it between his toes. Only the sound of the breaking waves interrupted the eerie silence. Not even a seagull graced the shoreline to provide a sign of life on the empty beach. As Steve pondered on the unusual emptiness, the shock of icy water hitting his feet jolted him out of his thoughts. He suppressed his reaction and continued walking, allowing the periodic flows to come and go over his steps, as if the ocean were breathing over them. It tempered the feeling of solitude, but only for a moment.

A set of footprints. Someone else had been on the beach. In the wet sand. Recently, since the tide had gone out. They extended southward, away from the houses and other signs of civilization. Nothing beside the single set of footprints. The lone and smooth sands stretched out as far as eye could see in both directions.

“There are no return steps,” Steve muttered to himself, “whoever was out here must still be on the beach.”

He took a step forward, almost involuntarily. A strange feeling compelled him to follow the footprints. Like the sound of the waves breaking and the crash of water against his ankles, the footprints failed to hinder the feeling of solitude. Step by step he followed them as the sun sank toward the horizon and the water shifted imperceptibly inward as the tide began to roll in.

Steve walked, lost not in thought, but in a strange thoughtlessness. Perceiving, not pondering. He was acutely aware of the water and the sand, the shifting tone of the sky as dusk approached, the houses no longer visible in the distance behind him. The angry sun beat down heavily on the sole trespasser in the void over which it ruled, as if bitter over its own impending disappearance at the rapidly approaching end of the day. Steve perceived but didn’t react. In his awareness without thought, he continued after the footprints, step by step.

He walked. He felt the sand between his toes. He felt the water washed away. He felt the non-presence of the mysterious person whom he compulsively followed, but who didn’t seem to exist.

The footprints shifted slightly inward, away from the water and away from the incoming tide. The mysterious being couldn’t be far ahead, but Steve still could not see him.

The sun hit the horizon. The footprints made an abrupt turn. Steve turned toward the water. Against the wide sun melting into the sea stood a man among the waves. As the icy water hit Steve’s feet once again, the chill ran up his spine and into his chest. He tried to call out to the man, but the mysterious figure dove into a wave and disappeared, just as the last of the sun disappeared below the horizon in a green flash.

Steve stood motionless, frozen solid. He waited. The figure did not rise back out of the water. He waited. The sky turned a deep blue and Steve could make out the first stars. He turned to head back. The squawk of a seagull interrupted the silence as the bird flew past Steve. He glanced back for a moment and saw the silhouette of a black dog in the distance.

After the sickness

My dear grandchildren, it is time you learn what happened when people started disappearing. They didn’t vanish all at once, you know. They began to flicker and fade away over time, as if they were a radio signal from a departing ship. The signal is strong and clear at first, but over time becomes lost in the static. So many people slowly departed this universe, and perhaps reality altogether, in this manner.

Naturally it was a frightening experience, even for those of us who remained. Those who disappeared were driven utterly mad in their final days. You have to understand, even our doctors didn’t understand what was going on, and a number of them picked up the vanishing sickness, too. I know of nobody who was cured before completely disappearing. I have heard of it happening, but if the cases were anything more than rumors, they were extremely rare.

I mentioned that a number of doctors picked up the sickness. In general, it seemed that the professional class was afflicted much more than tradespeople or unskilled laborers. And among professionals, perhaps doctors and engineers were the least affected. Scientists, lawyers, bankers, managers, and even teachers disappeared in large numbers. Virtually no politicians remained. Although the sickness was much less common among the working class, even they didn’t come out of the crisis unscathed. I remember old Joe, a plumber who used to live down the street. He was an alcoholic who regularly beat his wife. He got sick and faded away fairly early on in the outbreak. People began to say that it was those who had lost touch with reality who got the sickness. Maybe there is some truth to that. Almost no children picked it up, and the few who did were those who spent their time on smartphones and tablets.

Politicians? Smartphones and tablets? Yes, I realize those are strange concepts these days. We haven’t had much use for them since the outbreak. Or rather, we have been afraid of them since then.

Before the outbreak, there was a thing called government. It was an organization of people who made “laws,” rules everyone had to follow, and people who enforced those laws by capturing and punishing anyone who broke them. A government was necessary back then, because there were some few people who would steal, kill or hurt others, trick others to get power over them, and do other bad things. You can imagine it only takes one such person to ruin the peace of a community, so a main purpose of government was to discourage people from doing those bad things.

Even among those who didn’t do bad things, back then very few people would help out their neighbor when he was sick or hungry. Government sometimes tried to help people in trouble, but not always.

We have done well without government since the outbreak, but you can see that it was necessary before because of the nature of people. I don’t know if people can live without government when they aren’t terrified of an existential threat. Since your generation didn’t live through the crisis, it might be difficult for you to maintain the peaceful way of life we established after it passed. You might need to establish a government again. So you need to be aware of its risks and problems.

You have a lot of power when you are the one who makes the rules or the one who enforces the rules. Those who were or wanted to be rulemakers were called politicians. We had a government here that was set up in hopes of attracting the best people to government as a public service. We thought this a good thing because we had seen terrible things from other types of government, in which one person or a few people ruled for their entire lives, and in which rulers obtained their positions by birth or violence. Nonetheless, even in our system, power was too attractive to scoundrels who looked out for their own interests before the people. They would make laws favoring their friends and hurting the poor. Another class of people, lobbyists, tried to influence the politicians in favor of certain people, businesses or movements. Political movements tried to influence politicians by stirring up people to anger, so that they would pressure politicians to adopt certain laws. Things got so bad, that, as I mentioned, virtually no politicians survived the outbreak. As far as I know, no lobbyists or activists in charge of political movements did, either.

You learned about computers in school, right? We don’t use them nearly as much as we used to. Tablets and smartphones were small computers that were very common before the outbreak. Smartphones were small enough to fit in your pocket. You could play games on them, take photographs, watch videos, and communicate with people around the world on a world-wide computer network called the internet. The internet held so much promise, but boy did it bring out the darker aspects of humanity! People were so cruel at times that they drove each other to suicide. So much time was spent on pornography—I know you don’t understand the term, but it was an all-around degrading thing—and other things to satisfy one’s greed, lust, and self-interest. A concept called social media was the worst of it. People would mislead their acquaintances about how good their lives were, creating a never-ending competition of consumption and bragging that was perhaps more mendacious than real, but had the real effect of driving so many people, especially young people, into depression and despair. Not only that, but governments and commercial enterprises used the internet, and especially smartphones and social media, to track and monitor everyone. They became experts at using the information they acquired to manipulate and control people, without those people even realizing it.

Yes, it was incredibly convenient. People no longer wrote letters, because they could send a quick message or perform a video chat. People no longer visited the local stores, because they could order anything online and have it delivered to them–sometimes within an hour or two. So it sucked us in, and we were trapped in a comfortable, pleasure-filled hell. And in hindsight, a hell it was.

Yet we exposed our children to it from infancy. Even as some psychologists and other prophetic voices cried out against the harm we were doing, we convinced ourselves that technology was the future, and that our children needed as much exposure to it as possible to prepare them to get ahead in the world. We convinced ourselves that we were doing the right thing, and that the fact that these toys kept our children entertained so we didn’t have to give them our attention was just an extra benefit. We would never admit we were just lazy and self-centered.

I mentioned that the few children who got the sickness were from among those who spent most of their waking hours with these devices. Many other children also suffered even after the sickness was gone. They had become dependent on the gadgets and were too young to understand why they were suddenly taken away. They are from your parents’ generation, by the way. Your mom and dad can probably tell you more.

I don’t mean to trouble you with my warnings, dear grandchildren. I just want to help you understand why things are the way they are. The traditions of our community are based on experience. They aren’t arbitrary. And the disease that made people disappear was one of the most terrible experiences that humanity has gone through. Nothing quite like it had ever happened before, so I can at least hope it never happens again, but it has influenced us. It changed us. For the better, I hope, even though my generation, and to some extent your parents’ generation, will always bear the scars. Even though I think we are better people now, the pain, the existential dread, the sorrow never goes away completely. It is a part of me and everyone else my age.

I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t change the traditions. Every generation does to some extent. Some generations go so far as to throw out their past and culture entirely. And some things need to be changed. We once had a tradition, long before I was born, that allowed people to buy and sell other people. A stubborn resistance to change required a lot of bloodshed before that tradition was taken away. So my advice is to be open to change when necessary, try not to make it so people have to die for good change to be brought about, but also be cautious about it. But I don’t know if my advice is good. Constant uncertainty is one of the long-term effects of having lived through the crisis.

Do what you want, then. You now understand why our traditional ways of doing things are the way they are, so you can make informed decisions. Hopefully they will be wise decisions. Either way, your grandmother and I will always love you. Nonjudgmentalism is another long-term effect of having lived through the crisis.