One and a half years ago, now-dead Tess had the best week of her predetermined, moderately short life. She and her boyfriend Kevin spent four days in a rented house at Beach 503. This was a mostly unplanned venture, “spur of the moment,” as Kevin described it. One week off work, by themselves, on a deserted beach, off-season.
Spur of the moment and no plans! In a rush, Tess packed her bags with books and puzzles and games—all the things she called hobbies but never got around to doing. And a laser gun, just in case. At the last minute, she tossed in her Day Counter, too.
The day they arrived was sunny and not too cold. Some fluffy clouds hung on the horizon. Tess and Kevin dared to dip their pale toes in the cold water, then ran shrieking with delight along the gray, hard-packed sand like sterile children or short-lifers who decide to give it all they have.
In the early evening, they scrounged up worn driftwood and piled it in an unorganized heap, since neither of them had experience building a bonfire. Kevin pulled out a lighter and soon a yellow glow reflected off their thin faces. Tess’s brown hair kept dancing across her face in the wind. She could see shapes in the pieces of bleached wood: a reindeer, a squid’s head, a proton extractor. Nope, she thought. No more self-imposed ruminations of work in the time she had left, both here on the beach and back home. 1.5 years left. Loads of time and hardly any at all, depending on her mood. She looked up at the black sky, feeling the heat of the fire on her throat. Kevin kissed her cheek and she held up a semi-charred log and said, “Kidney.” Kevin immediately caught on and held up another piece and said, “Piston.” They grabbed at the wood in a rush, squinting, tilting their heads in imagination.
“Ration of bread.”
“The Greek letter Omega.”
Tess threw Sperm into the fire and golden sparks issued forth in response. She grabbed Kevin’s hand as a shield. She felt a large splinter lodged in his otherwise smooth palm and plucked it out. Kevin didn’t bleed.
On the second day, after a luxurious sleep-in, the black rain came. It was inevitable—the idea of a week without it was ludicrous. Tess and Kevin spent the day inside, watching the water from their large living room window, the small waves pounding the sand while being pelted from above by the tar-like drops. The grassy dunes smoked and the small, sparse cabin filled with an acrid odor.
The only channel available on the archaic TV was the local news station. The hourly news loop stated Beach 510 had been closed due to fire. “More likely a downed sensory drone,” Kevin said. “They have problems with those here.” Tess continued to watch the rain and pick at the puzzle she had started—kittens in a white basket. Kevin sat next to her on the musty couch and quickly assembled the left corner of the puzzle, then stopped and looked at her apologetically.
Tess shrugged and fingered a piece. “Guess I shouldn’t waste time on a puzzle, huh?” she said.
“Do whatever makes you happy,” he said as he tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear. He opened his mouth to say something else, then stopped.
“What?” she asked.
He shook his head and looked out the window. Their fire from the night before was reduced to goo as the ashes melted and reacted with the rain.
Tess pushed the card table away. Walking into their bedroom, she returned with a copy of Walden. “Always wanted to read this,” she said and plopped down beside Kevin again.
“Wow, that’s ancient,” said Kevin. Tess nodded and cracked the book open, smelling the centuries on the yellowed pages.
It was too dim in the room to read. Kevin adjusted the glow of his complexion to reduce the strain on Tess’s eyes. She settled down in the crook of his arm, warm and content.
On the third day, the sky cleared and the dunes stopped smoking. High tide washed away the bonfire remnants and gulls picked over various dead and dying sea creatures. Tess and Kevin wandered miles down the beach, keeping track of their plot by the pylons, labeled and distinct, keeping away from Beach 510.
Around lunch, Tess found a starfish. She dangled it by one of its arms pinched between her thumb and index finger and danced in a circle, laughing, having never seen one before. Kevin walked over, but stopped suddenly as he saw a group of people running toward them over the dunes. All they could do was stand and stare as the group approached, thinking about the laser gun foolishly left back at the cabin.
“Where are they coming from?” Tess whispered. “Beach 510?”
“I don’t know.” Kevin stood slightly in front of her, pushing her behind and down. “An unknown quantity.”
The group came closer and Tess saw they were young, probably late teens. Odd-colored hair, some face paint, yelling, laughing. Disheveled and uncoordinated, like a pile of earthworms all cut in half. The group ran around them, a ball of mercury dividing then clinging together again on the other side. They smelled of sweat and smoke and chemicals and hunger. They smelled alive.
The group continued on, leaping, screaming, laughing, rushing at the waves, then back along the shore. Within minutes they were out of sight.
“Short-lifers,” Tess said and relaxed. “Trying to make the most of it, I suppose.” Startled, she realized the starfish she had been holding was gone, plucked from her fingers in the rush.
“Let’s go back,” said Kevin.
They plodded back to their cabin, looking behind every so often. Upon their return, they were hungry and wind-burned. While Tess heated noodles on the small gas stove, Kevin turned on the TV.
“Beaches 508 and 509 are now closed,” he called from the couch. Almost immediately he was standing behind her, arms around her waist. “We should probably leave tomorrow.”
Tess turned off the stove. “I wonder where those short-lifers were going,” she said. “I wonder how they spend their time.”
“You probably shouldn’t compare…” Kevin drifted off.
“They seemed happy. Free. I don’t think I could ever be that free.”
“Tess…” Kevin started.
“Why can’t we just stay here?” Tess blurted. “Just until, for my…” Tess imagined them cooking food on bonfires, sleeping all day when the black rain fell, and wondered if they could eat starfish. She grasped at happy thoughts like they were scattered marbles.
Kevin sighed. “We can’t do that. It could get dangerous. It could…”
“This has been the best week for me,” Tess said.
Kevin knelt on one knee. From a back pocket, he produced a box. “Tess,” he began. He opened the box. In it was a small data chip. “You may have already suspected.” He looked sheepish.
Tess nodded and smiled. She wondered, but had never asked. Some couples didn’t share these things, whether one was an android or not. Kevin fit the attribute schematic. And now he was offering his life chip for her to download—in effect, to control. A symbol of commitment akin to the archaic engagement ring.
“I can be deactivated in 1.5 years, if you want,” he said.
“That might be nice,” she said and looked out the window. The sky was dark. How could she build a family knowing she had 1.5 years? Conversely, how could she not try? Tess wondered how many short-lifers were on the beach that very night, dancing naked, singing, making poetry knowing their predetermined lives had maybe months, maybe only hours left.
Kevin stood up and stirred the noodles. In the quiet, they could hear the TV in the other room. Beaches 508 and 509 were burning.
“You’re right,” Tess said. “We should leave tomorrow.”
On the fourth day, they packed. Tess shook the sand out of her clothes, threw a few shells and pebbles into the bottom of her bag, and slid Kevin’s chip carefully into a small side compartment. The last item she packed was her Day Counter. It read: 540. Less than 1.5 years left now. She might as well consider herself a short-lifer. She didn’t notice anyone in the group yesterday carrying a Counter; they probably couldn’t afford one. Maybe they didn’t even know how long they had left. Tess put the Day Counter back in the drawer and zipped up her suitcase.
“Ready?” Kevin held the front door open.
“Yes,” Tess answered. She smelled smoke as she walked out the door.
Anna O’Brien is a writer and veterinarian in Maryland. She is a contributing editor to the national magazine Horse Illustrated and has had fiction published in The Reject Pile and Brilliant Flash Fiction. She prefers Star Trek over Star Wars and enjoys having breakfast for dinner. She can castrate any mammal. Any.