It was the third time he threw his plastic into the garbage instead of the nearby recycling bin that I knew with a sudden certainty that Dave Holden from accounting was going straight to hell. I wasn’t sure what hell, exactly, but whatever his spiritual persuasion, he sure wasn’t bound for paradise.
The polyethylene terephthalate in his bottle would degrade quick enough, sure, but plastic doesn’t disappear in a puff of smoke and fluttering doves. It just keeps dividing, into smaller and smaller bits, eventually ending up in the guts of whatever poor creature is clueless enough to swallow it up.
Anyway, I didn’t say anything.
In five minutes I’d clock out of the lab and cash in all my paid time off–nine much-needed months. Work at the Schenectady Chemical Recycling Facility would go on without me. They’d only be missing a handful of plastiphage microbe samples.
I’d developed and synthesized the microbes myself, it wasn’t like I was stealing them from the facility. They were mine, my bacteria babies, and I couldn’t help but feel a certain patriarchal fondness for them.
Now, armed with a doctorate in biochemistry, my dad’s old sportfishing boat, a sealed case of bacteria that could eat through plastic and nine months paid time off, I was ready to clean up the world’s oceans.
It wasn’t so different from maternity leave, really.
I was just taking care of a very dirty, salty child.
In the gyres of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans floats the Great North Atlantic Garbage Patch. The island drifts aimlessly, a tiny sanctuary for all the trash and rubbish of industrialization, birthed of man but not man-made–the collective refuse of the northern hemisphere, fused together through the cyclical patterns of ocean currents. The patch is constantly in transit, spinning clockwise around the Atlantic, and though it swells immensely with every passing year, it remains nigh impossible to find, despite countless attempts by fanatical environmentalists and youthful marine biologists.
Fitting neatly into both categories, I’d fixed up my dad’s old boat. It was cleaning day, and I’d decided to start with the Atlantic.
The Pacific is just too big.
I realized after the first three weeks that it wasn’t going to be quite as easy as I’d hoped.
The hunt for the North Atlantic Garbage Patch took me from the beaches of Morocco to the cliffs of Ireland. On the advice of an itinerant whaler in the Faroe Islands, I spent seventeen days combing the waters north of Shetland. I ran out of fruit leather and rice cakes and moved on to the mackerel I’d been catching and drying on lines above-deck.
Finally, on the 98th day of my quest, I caught wind of my quarry.
My first response was to retch violently, emptying my breakfast out over the starboard side of the Lady Green. The scent of curdled milk, carrion, and old cat litter assailed me, clinging tenaciously to the air about me, surrounding me in a reeking cloud. It smelled like burned plastic and fossilized pizza crusts. It smelled like an Indian landfill after a month-long monsoon.
I clamped shut a pair of nose-clips and maneuvered the Lady closer to the garbage patch.
That’s when I saw her–a woman lounging atop the trash, luxuriating in the sun. Curly red hair cascaded down her back, covering her ivory body in a rusty quilt. A stained jacket and sundress lay draped over the trash alongside her. Her eyes shimmered as bright and wet as the meeting point of the sun and the sea, and for a moment, I forgot about the piles of garbage littered all around me, the swelling dunes of refuse that roiled beneath us.
She was pale and thick, and ten types of beautiful.
I cleared my throat, searching for something clever to say, and she squeaked and dove into the water. A moment later, her head broke the surface.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t mean to scare you.” I still hadn’t thought of anything clever.
She giggled. “You didn’t scare me. You’re trespassing, though.”
“How’s that? These are international waters. No one owns the North Atlantic Garbage Patch.”
“Garbage Patch?” She spat out a fountain of seawater and glared at me. “This is Bruscar Skerry. My home.”
I raised my eyebrows. “You live on a floating island of trash?”
Somehow, she managed to sniff. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“For one, it stinks.”
“Well, I’ve been at sea for three months.” I paused. “Still, point taken. Besides the smell, though, this garbage patch is killing countless fish and birds.”
She shrugged. “To live is to kill.” She pointed at the mackerel filets drying over the deck of the Lady Green. “Those fish just fly up onto your deck and skin themselves, did they?”
“Look. Your home is tearing apart fragile ecosystems. I’ve come to put a stop to it.”
“Over my dead body, maybe.”
I sighed. “I think we got off to a rough start. I’m James. What’s your name?”
“Ligeia.” She eyed me suspiciously. “I’m not going to marry you.”
“Don’t patronize me. You men are all the same. See a woman enjoying the sun? She must need a husband. Well, that ain’t me, babe.”
“You’re being ridiculous. I’m not trying to marry you.”
“So you don’t want me to come up on your boat?”
“Well,” I cleared my throat. “I guess you’ll have to go somewhere after I destroy the patch. You may as well come with me. I can get you back as far as Belfast, or farther south, if you want.”
“Of course.” She rolled her eyes. “I’ll bet you can make women come with you anywhere.”
“That’s not what I’m saying!”
“You don’t need to say it. I’m not blind. I saw the way you were eyeing me up.”
With that, she dove back under the surface of the water, disappearing under a mound of plastic six-pack rings. I cursed and considered my options.