“Walled City” by Seth Marlin

The carcass of an orca washes up one August morning, on a gated beach preserve just north of Seattle. The boy knows this because he is there on a field trip when it is found. The weather that day is clear and cool. The air smells of pine and water and sand. He hikes with his class over trails, surrounded by evergreens. His grandmother would complain that the trees look sick, but in all his life the boy has never seen so much greenery. He imagines they are walking through a forest. He imagines they are visiting a garden.

The students and teachers eventually emerge from the treeline, follow the shore back toward the parking area. There are sounds of commotion up ahead, and rounding a bend, the class discovers that the southern half of the beach has been cordoned off. A news crew is on scene. A few police officers mill about the perimeter, and city workers wearing masks cluster around a huge dark object in the sand. Something slick and black, nearly the size of their school bus. The animals have already been at it. Gulls flap and scream rage at the workers.

“I thought they were bigger,” says a girl from his class. She is tall and blonde, with hard eyes and a small, hard mouth. She has wandered up beside him, stands watching without expression. The boy is not sure what he was expecting—there have been no live sightings of a wild orca in Puget Sound since before he was born. He looks past the carcass, focuses on the high-rises going up on Bainbridge Island.

“Maybe the others are bigger,” he says. “Maybe this one was just a baby.”

“Then why was it alone?”

* * *

The bus ride home is quiet. Hardly anyone speaks. A few of the other students hazard inappropriate jokes, but even those have lost their appeal. The chaperones look outside, and somewhere in the back a child cries quietly. The boy listens but can’t tell if it’s a boy or a girl. He supposes it doesn’t matter.

He goes home, finds his grandmother at the kitchen table. In the air above it hovers a projection, thin as glass, showing the orca’s remains. The picture has a grainy, zoomed-in quality. Lines of news-text scroll by underneath. The old woman looks up, sees him in the doorway, asks him, “You saw this?”

He gives a small nod. He has a sense that his grandmother, like many of his teachers, has been shaken deeply, but he doesn’t know how to respond. “The teachers tried to talk about it, when we got back to school.”

“When did you last see one?” she asks. “I think it was on the ferries. We must have been twenty-five, twenty-six, do you remember? We must have just gotten married.”

The boy shakes his head. He is only ten years old. He says, “Grama, no.”

“Do you remember that word they had for it? From our trip to India the one time? Samsara. One thing passing into another. Not so terrible really, just sad is all.” She goes back to the image of the carcass onscreen, and her eyes take a faraway look. When a moment has passed she spies him watching her. “Yes, sweetheart?”

He frowns. “Grama, you were just talking.”

“No I wasn’t.” She laughs, and a brief shadow crosses her face. She pauses, frowns, rubs at her eyes. “I’m tired,” she says. “I think I’ll go lie down for a bit.”

* * *

Later, after she is asleep, the boy fixes dinner, eats at the table in silence. Afterward, he goes out and sits on their balcony. The boy and his grandmother live on the eighth floor of a housing project near SafeCo Field; he has lived there with her since his parents died in the eruption. In the summertime, the view through the blinds is of other apartments, the endless rooftops with their solar panels and tangled power lines. The distant stadium with its floodlights. The evening light is fading to gold, and the skyline is a mass of conflicting architectures, fluorescent mosaics. The night air, a wall of horns and angry traffic. The boy imagines the scene as a painting, wonders what it would be like without all the people in it.

This is not the first time his grandmother has spoken this way. She has always been a dreamer, in love with her sculpting and her books. She has always been immersed in her fancies, but it’s been more often lately, and been getting worse. Now she mistakes him for other people, or forgets basic details—the day’s date, the location of her keys, how many times she has asked him about his homework. The boy is frightened. He has no one else. He has lived long enough to know what happens to those who have no one else.

He glances over the balcony railing. The streets below are a crush of pedestrians, pedicabs, the occasional car. Street vendors work over grills, shout out in English, Tagalog, Japanese. Even from here he can smell the steam, the cooking meat. He watches the crowds, wonders what will happen when his grandmother cannot care for either of them. Will he end up in foster, or be sold into juvie? Will he end up as one of the street kids? No one knows what happens to the street kids. No one cares what happens to the street kids.

He spies a familiar figure among the crowd, a tall girl with blonde hair. Outside of school she wears a heavy black jacket, too warm for summer and two sizes too large. She cuts through the crowd, guarding a large black bag. He shouts down to her, but she doesn’t hear. Her attention is elsewhere, and he watches her as she goes.

* * *

He finds her at recess the following day. She hides from the sun beneath the bleachers, hunches over a notebook. The city sizzles in the distance beyond the chain-link. He sits down beside her, says, “I saw you yesterday.” When she doesn’t respond, he tries a different tack. “Where do you live?”

“Define ‘live.’” She frowns over her sketch, bears down with her marker. She answers finally, “Yesler.”

“I’m up on Sixth,” he says. “What were you doing out by yourself?”

“I just go,” she says. “Around. Mostly I walk. Sometimes I take the train.”

“What about your parents?”

“What about my parents?” she asks. “My dad doesn’t care, and my mom’s not around to say anything.” The boy frowns. He used to envy that level of freedom—to be able to go and do as one might wish. Then one day his parents dropped him off at school, and Mount Rainier woke up, and no one came back to get him. He changes the subject.

“What are you working on?”


“What? I just want to see.”

“I told you already: don’t.” Her voice is like a cold, clear stream. She fixes him with harsh green eyes, reminds him of the cats that stalk the alleys beneath his window. Thin and wary, faces upturned toward the sun. He lets the matter drop, and she goes back to her work.

Later on in class, her messenger bag is open beneath her desk. Her notebook peeks out from inside it. On the top page is a drawing of a black shape, an orca, rendered in thick black lines. Like the old tribal carvings, he thinks, but instead of white eyespots or ivory flanks, one can only see the bones.

* * *

He comes home to find his grandmother sitting at the living-room window. It is a bright day, hazy with smog. She cradles a glass of water on her knee, looks down on the streets below. She has always worn her gray hair long, pinned back with a turquoise barrette. In the light from outside she looks almost young. She sees him and smiles, turns her gaze back outside. “Hello, sweetheart.”

He doesn’t reply. He removes his bag, approaches the window slowly. The view across the street is of other buildings, decrepit signs, the massive el track above their neighborhood. The el carries bullet trains into and out of Seattle, up through Vancouver and farther on up to Anchorage. To the south, the routes all go out to Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles. The track’s maglevs hum at all hours, and they grow louder whenever a train is coming. They grow louder now, and he can feel their charge upon the air. That old smell, like dust on a hot stove.

“Reminds me of cicadas,” she says. “Back when I was your age. You used to hear them singing in the trees.” The boy has never heard a cicada. He doubts that such music could ever rise to roar the way the trains do—the way that one does now, shaking the walls, thundering the floors, snapping the breeze outside like so many prayer flags. The pictures on the wall all rattle, and the boy counts the roar of each passing car. He makes it to twenty and then the sound is gone again. He feels his arm hairs prickling with static. “Why don’t they ever stop here?” he asks. “Like the commuter lines?”

The old woman looks at him. “Sweetheart, those kinds of trains, they don’t build stations here.”

“Why not?”

She shakes her head. “You know, I wanted to move out here for years,” she says. “To the west side. Your grandfather refused to go. We fought about it—I tried to make him see, told him he’d work himself into the grave, trying to keep that farm alive. Then one day he was out in the barn, trying to change a prop blade on one of the drones. I was at the window and I watched him stand up, wipe his forehead, take two steps toward the house, and fall right over. Neat as you please.” She never once meets his gaze, never once lets her sad smile fade. He wishes that he could have known her when she was younger, if they might have grown up as friends. It seems wrong to keep her in a place like this, like watching a flower die in a vase. For the first time since his parents’ funerals, he finds it hard to swallow. “I’m sorry.”

“I know I’m losing things,” she says. “I know I’m going away. I’m trying, though.”

“I know.”

“You have to be big for me,” she says. “When the time comes. You have to be a big boy. Don’t cry, don’t be afraid, just call 911.” She looks at her hands a moment. Says, “I’m scared, sweetheart. I don’t know what I’ll do. What will happen.”

“It’s okay,” he says.

“You have to promise me,” she tells him. “She’s just a little girl. She’ll be scared. She won’t understand where her mother’s gone.” She goes then to pull him in close, and he lets her. He says nothing as she strokes his hair, as she tries not to cry. He is strong for her, the way she has asked of him. He does not speak, only focuses hard upon his breathing.

* * *

The next day his grandmother has gotten worse. He finds her sitting on the edge of her bed, back bent, both feet planted. She grips the mattress, stares hard at the floor when the boy peeks in. She presses her lips together, shakes her head, and says, “I can’t go. Please don’t make me go.” The boy says nothing. She has realized that she is losing this battle for good. She will not be leaving the apartment today.

He keeps to himself at school that day, keeps his head down, takes lunch alone in the classroom. He avoids his teacher’s attempts to talk both before and after class, later sits against the wall outside the band room until the buses have gone. He is still there when the girl comes in from the schoolyard. She pauses when she sees him, asks him, “You waiting for your ride?”

He shrugs. Right now his grandmother is probably sitting at the table, he thinks—perhaps watching the feeds, perhaps staring off into space. He wonders where she goes during her episodes, thinks that he should head home, tells himself she probably needs him.

“I don’t want to go,” he says.

The girl frowns, glances toward the doors. Something in her face hardens. She turns as if to go and then stops. “It’s fine,” she says. “You don’t have to. Come on.”

They set off, and the girl dons her sun-goggles, adjusts her great heavy bag. “Don’t get me pinched,” she says. They cross a street, take a right, take another right, and soon pass beneath the Chinese gate of the old International District. The streets are a mass of faces—black, white, brown. Delivery trucks blare horns as they inch through the mobs. Aerial drones run parcels and direct traffic, while people beg on every street corner. An airliner roars in overhead.

The girl asks, “So what are you avoiding?”

“What?” Then he remembers their conversation. “Oh. My grama.”

“Like what, does she hit you?”

“No,” he says. “She’s just gone a lot.” Some lies only reveal themselves as truths once we speak them. “What about you?” She doesn’t respond. They keep walking, and the boy takes note of the heat, wishes he had used the drinking fountain before they set out. He shouts through the crowds, “I’m thirsty.”

The girl glances back over her shoulder, but otherwise says nothing. At first, he doesn’t think she has heard him. Then she collides with a pack of gangbangers in kimono and vintage tracksuits—they shout curses and finger their swords, but she bows an apology and continues walking. They mutter and go back to their smokes, but eye the boy up as he passes.

He finds her with her head down, busy rifling through a wallet she didn’t have before. She fishes out a clutch of metallic green notes, drops the rest, shoves the money into her coat. “Come on.” They slip into a convenience store, beeline for the cold drinks in the back. She stops at a wall of sodas, grabs a bottle of the green apple. Asks him, “What did you want?”

He looks at the bright displays, feels the pale, cold light against his skin. “I don’t want to get in trouble.”

“Just pick,” she says. “Or I’m picking for you.” After a moment she grabs another green-apple soda, marches up to the counter, plays polite with the Russian man working the till. She says good and yes, please and thank you, shoots the boy a look as she hands over her money. She grabs the bag containing their spoils and wanders outside, walks out into the street, out to the sculpture in the middle of the roundabout. She clambers onto the pedestal, produces their sodas, along with two granola bars that he didn’t see her take. She hands one to him and opens her soda, palms the cap and takes a long, hard pull.

He asks her, “Why?”

She wipes her mouth. “You said you were thirsty. What?”

The boy frowns, wrestles with the implications. It is stealing—he knows this. It is also the first nice thing that anyone from school has ever done for him. He mumbles a “Thank you,” twists off his cap, and takes a long slow drink. He savors the cold and the sweet, savors the bubbles on his tongue.

“You take what you need,” she says, “but you share what you have.”

* * *

They sit and tuck into their granola bars, wash them down with swigs of their beverages. He asks her after a time, “Who said that earlier? About the sharing?”

“My mom.”

“Is she still—”

“No,” she says. “Come on.” They climb down off the sculpture, wander north in the direction of downtown. The buildings grow taller, older, and people line up at every bus stop. College kids hiding behind sunglasses and earsets; middle-aged mothers with their purses, waiting to go to night classes or to second jobs.

They come up to a crowded intersection. The girl steals again as they cross the street, from a man busy arguing on a call. She nudges past him, keeps walking, and in the crush of bodies it’s just one more gentle brush. One more checked elbow.

“What about your dad?” he asks. “Does he know?”

“Him and his friends drink a lot of beer,” she says. “I don’t think he really even looks at the checking anymore.” She slows as they pass a poster selling luxury condos, pass a construction site sealed off by chain-link fences and plywood. Steel girders loom above them, and a crane hauls supplies to the upper levels. Workers move through the dust and the noise, wearing blue coveralls and masks. Many wear orange turbans. All wear barcodes.

“I saw your notebook the other day,” he says. “In class. Your bag was open.”

“So? Who cares”

“The orca thing really bothered you too,” he says. “Didn’t it?”

“Quit being a puss.” They walk faster, and the sun dips behind the taller skyscrapers. The streets around them fall into shadow.

* * *

At some point, she says, “Cop car, go left,” and they slip into an alleyway. They wind past two emergency exits and a fire escape before coming into a large courtyard. Trucks and platforms and dumpsters everywhere—a loading zone. Department store logos cover everything.

“They throw tons of crap away in places like this,” she says. “Pull lookout.” She throws back the first of the lids, and the boy glances back up the alley. The city beyond is awash in sunlight, a crush of bikes and taxicabs and people. Beyond it all the water and the distant mountains. It can be beautiful, he thinks, when it’s too bright to see the flaws.

“Never mind,” she says. “Someone’s coming. Move.”

They cross over a storm canal between buildings, pockmarked with weeds and piles of trash. The only time the canals ever flow now is during the winter months, when the typhoons roll in down out of Alaska. The boy has heard it said that there never used to be typhoons in Seattle, only a soft, steady rain. He wonders what that must have been like. They’re nearly across the walkway when he spies something down below. “Hey,” he says, “look.”

The girl pauses and glances down. There is a stairway down into the channel, where a human shape lies facedown on the concrete. A man, badly bruised, wearing an expensive suit. Neither the man nor the suit is clean. One of his eyes is swollen shut.

“I think he’s dead,” says the boy.

“No, look.” The man groans and picks up his head. He looks up at the sky, squints, then slumps his head back down again. There is an empty bottle nearby—he reaches for it, fumbles and loses it. It rolls clattering away down the channel, and the man watches it go. He looks confused, as if he does not know how he got there.

“I didn’t think homeless people had nice clothes.”

“He isn’t homeless,” says the girl. “He’s just on his way down.”

“We should get help. Someone might be worried.”

“The way they worry about us?” she asks. “No one worries about us.”

“That isn’t true,” he says. He thinks then about his grandmother, is distracted by a shadow overhead. They’ve attracted a guest it seems, a drone, a remote-controlled quadcopter. No markings on it anywhere—could be police, could be the news, could be some hobbyist holed up somewhere with the curtains drawn. It hovers above them like an insect, fixes them all with its cold camera eyes. There is a faint green backshine to its optics.

The girl says, “I’ll be quick. Just hold on.” She hops down into the canal and begins frisking the drunken man; meanwhile the boy looks back at the drone, watches it lose interest and fly away. He wonders: what unseen force lurked behind those lenses? What did it see? Did it feel anything? Why did it turn away? He supposes that it makes no difference. A god that sees but does not care is the same as no god at all. The girl climbs back up, fixes her coat and her bag.

“Nothing,” she says. “Someone must have already rolled him. We should go.”

* * *

She buys them each a hot dog and they take seats on the edge of a terrace wall, just up the street from the Union Gospel Mission. The line for a bed and a hot meal stretches around the block. Here, the folk of the lower boroughs mix with the college kids and tech bourgeoisie of downtown. This is where the rest of the city buys their drugs, their girls, their boys. In the distance, the rusted cranes shimmer above the flooded ruins of the Old Harbor. The girl’s attention is elsewhere. She says to no one particularly, “I’d want to live there, if I could.”

The boy follows her gaze. Across the street, on the side of an old building, is painted the ghost of a mural. It says SEATTLE! in friendly vintage letters, and the years have left it bleached and faded by the sun. The city the mural shows is a quarter of its current size, and its skyscrapers are fewer, its hills still blanketed with pine. Beyond the Space Needle and the downtown skyline, Mt. Rainier is still covered in snow, and in the right foreground a cartoon orca breaches the water—its bright smile strikes the boy as sad, out of place. Like a mascot with no one left to cheer.

The girl says, “My mom always liked orcas. She gave me a stuffed one when I was little. You know, before.”

“Yeah.” It occurs to him that no one speaks of the Mount Rainier incident directly now. It seems unnecessary—all it takes anymore is a pause, a change in someone’s voice, a word like before, and everyone knows what is meant. He thinks back to the day when a wall of mud and volcanic ash swept away his parents’ car, on the freeway just outside of Issaquah. It is the same with the deaths of the last orcas. He has learned that there are some things we simply do not speak of, and the girl’s admission now frightens him.

“You didn’t have to invite me along,” he says. “No one else does. Why didn’t you just leave me back at the school?”

She shakes her head, as if she hasn’t heard him. She goes on, saying, “She named it Oscar for me. After she died, I slept with it every night, even though I was too old and only babies do that. Then when we moved, we had to pack all of our stuff up into boxes. When we unpacked I couldn’t find it anywhere. I asked my dad—he didn’t even know what I was talking about.” Her gaze hardens again, and for a moment he thinks she might cry. Instead, she looks down at her feet. “It’s stupid,” she says. “Just forget it.”

“No.” He pauses a moment, hoping that more words will rise in him, but they do not. He has a faint sense that all this pain is somehow our birthright—the inevitable delivery into suffering—but he does not know how to say this. Nothing beautiful ever endures. He feels a great wave of sadness then, not for himself, but for the girl. For the whole world.

“I’m scared of growing up,” she says. “What if it never gets any better?”

“Maybe things will be different.” He watches as up the street come a pair of drifters, a young man and young woman. They wear their long hair braided, have covered their bodies in ornate tattoos. They wear old camouflage pants and tank tops, carry heavy rucksacks and walk a pair of dogs ahead of them on leashes. Even the dogs are loaded out—like their owners they have a rangy look, lean and well muscled. He thinks that together they look like the old tribespeople from the history texts at school. He wonders if one day everything will be like this. The pair soon slips back into the crowds, and the boy watches them go. He says, “Maybe we’ll be different.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” she says.

* * *

The day begins to fade toward evening, and they head home, in the direction of the boy’s apartment. They walk in silence, and when at last his building looms above them he pauses, asks, “Did you want to come up? I was just gonna make us some dinner. You can join us if you want.”

The girl frowns. “Sure, I guess.” He types in his security code and they slip past the heavy steel door, into the cool cinderblock stillness of the stairwell. They head up, and when they reach the eighth floor they find his apartment door open. The boy’s heart freezes. He calls out, “Grama?”

No response. They peer inside, discover the apartment empty. Back up the hall, the door to the fire escape is also open. He calls again, wanders out onto the rusted grating. He looks down into the alleyway below, then looks up. There is a woman several levels above them, in sandals and a long denim dress. He calls out “Grama?” and begins scaling the steps, with the girl just behind him. The wind makes the catwalk shake, makes him dizzy.

He finds her on the top level of the fire escape. She looks anxious, stares out at the city as if confused. She doesn’t look like the suicide jumpers he’s always heard about, but it worries him all the same. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I was just out with my friend. I didn’t mean to be late.”

The old woman glances back at them. Behind her, the sunset lights the water and the mountains on fire. She asks him, “Do you know how long it’s been since it rained here?”

“What?” He looks back toward the girl. “Grama, we should go in now. It’s not safe here. You could fall.”

“I don’t know how we got here,” she says. “I want to go home now. I want to go home.”

“We are home.” The boy has never believed any statement less in his life. “Grama, please, come down now. Come inside.”

“Why doesn’t it rain?” she asks. Her voice reaches a frantic pitch. “Why doesn’t it rain anymore?”

“Because you’re old now,” he says. “Because that time is gone. Now please.” This last remark seems to have some effect. His grandmother’s eyes clear, and her mouth works open and closed. She looks down at the backs of her hands.

“It happened again,” she says. “Didn’t it? I’m sorry.”

* * *

Later the three of them sit around the kitchen table. A nature-special plays, volume off, on the projection in front of his grandmother. He knows this gives her comfort. He boils ramen on their tiny stove, portions out bowls so there is enough for everyone. He sits down once everyone has been served, watches his grandmother struggle with the chopsticks. Her motor skills are failing now as well. He says, “Here, I can get you a fork.”

“No.” She tries again, wrestles up a mouthful of noodles. He watches her a moment, the way he imagines one must watch over a child. His grandmother looks up from her meal, asks the girl, “Are you two looking out for each other?”

The girl glances at the boy. Frowns. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”

“He has a good heart,” says his grandmother. “A gentle heart. Keep him safe.” A shadow darkens her gaze, and she looks to the boy, asks him, “It’s time, isn’t it?”

“No,” he says. “Not yet.” The lie is surprisingly easy to believe. He finishes his own portion, pushes back from the table, takes his bowl, and kisses her cheek on the way by. “You need to eat more, Grama. You’ll be hungry later.”

* * *

After all the dishes are put away, the girl goes to leave. He sees her out, but at the head of the stairs she stops, turns. “Find me,” she says. “Whenever you need me.” She lingers then, as if waiting to say more. Then she turns and heads off down the stairs.

That night, he lies in bed with the lights off. The skyline peers through the blinds; the air feels thick with static. He thinks about his grandmother and his friend, worries about them each in equal measure. He thinks about whom he will tell tomorrow, when he goes off to school. His teacher, he expects. He imagines he will be taken from there to see the counselor, and that they will ask about his grandmother, about her illness. From there inevitably the social workers will come. He has seen this all before. He wonders what will become of him, clutches the blankets hard to his chest. He takes comfort in their warmth, the way they take on the heat from his body. They are the most comfort he has known in some time, and even now he realizes that such things fade. He is seized then by a weight in his chest, a sense of fear and pity and a longing for tears that will not come. Then a train snaps by outside, shaking the walls and shuttering them all with light. He takes a deep breath after it has gone, thinks then that there is a lesson in the trains. About the things we love. About all the memories that desert us.

Seth Marlin holds an MFA in fiction from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers. He is the author of Shred, a chapbook of slam poetry from Pompadour Press, and is the former author, under a pseudonym, of the critically acclaimed Iraq War blog Calm before the Sand. His stories and poems have appeared in Knockout, RiverLit, Railtown Almanac, A cappella Zoo, and Silk Road Review, among others. He teaches composition at North Idaho College and lives in Spokane, Washington.

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