We wear the masks long after penguins have been extinguished. By now we are hauntresses, hordes of extinction shuffling along the city streets under the excruciating weathers of this brutal world we’ve inherited. Individually, we are called pinguinos. It’s something to do; the world is depressed and none of us have jobs. Nights, we pull the masks off beak-first, breathing our first fresh breaths of the day. Then we strip out of our black and white sweatsuits. Then we pull out our vapes and get high. Some of the cool kids roll joints with real bud. Evelyn, who I suspect is secretly wealthy, is on this whole kick about it. “This is how they used to do it, you know. Really keeps you in connection with the fact that it’s a plant.”
“Fuck off, Evelyn,” says Garth.
“Gives you a different kind of high. And you don’t have to use electricity.”
“I said fuck off.”
“Whatever, Garth.” Evelyn lights her joint and sucks in too hard. “Fuck,” she says through a cough.
“Vapes are solar powered, anyway,” says Penina. “Better for the planet.”
I decide to pipe up in favor of Evelyn, which surprises me because I am rarely in favor of anyone. “Yeah, but the resources have to be mined from somewhere. Like China or whatever. And an evil corporation is probably using slave labor to… do whatever.”
Penina looks down at their own vape, scowls, and takes another puff. “I never actually saw a penguin. Not even in a zoo.”
Duh. That’s the whole point.
Penina has a theory that all of the millions of species missing from the planet will evolve again one day, exactly as they were before the mass extinction started. I maintain that this is a bullshit theory because that’s not how evolution works and also because it’s one of those things that lets people off the hook. It’s a ho-hummer: Shame about the planet and everything, but don’t worry—everything will just evolve again anyway. That sort of shit can’t even be considered hope; it’s nihilism disguised as optimism.
My theory is that the pinguinos need a steady diet of anger and fear if we want to achieve anything. So I stay angry and afraid and I try to keep everybody else that way too, which is hard because we are always high. Also, people are starting to hate me, so I’m trying to be a little nicer. “That sucks,” I say to Penina. “Maybe there’s still a little guy out there, just waiting for you.”
They’ve already forgotten about the penguins.
“What’s the point of being sad if you don’t even wait around for someone to cheer you up,” I say. Evelyn blows pot smoke in my face and speaks through a yawn or whatever it is that she’s always doing when she talks while smoking. “You need a time out, mister,” she says.
There are close to twenty thousand of us, spread throughout the city. In other cities there are more, but our crew isn’t too shabby; you can’t go a block without running into a gaggle of us. Maybe you’ll be on your way to work, hoofing it down the street because you’re seven and a half minutes late to work, sweat stinking up your shirt before you even have a chance to impress your shitty boss, and then bam—there we are, two or three dozen penguin-people, shuffling mindlessly along in front of your building. And you check the time and you sweat more and your left armpit is absolutely rank by the time we pass and let you through, and by the time you clock into whatever world-wrecking job you were so anxious to get to, you really do feel like the world is ending. Don’t worry, it’s not personal.
There are thirty or forty of us per house, each with our sleeping mats and bags of clothing. We sleep like sardines in a can, not that sardines exist anymore. But someone explained the metaphor to someone else, and that person explained it to another person, and in this way sardines have been kept alive as an idiom, if nothing else. We eat gigantic communal meals made up of beans or lentils or rice or whatever else friends of the horde have donated. Certain mysterious benefactors pay for our heating and rent.
Some people call us zombies, and maybe we are. We don’t engage; we’re not a protest or a rally. There are no chants because there’s no chance. We’re past the point of no return, ecologically speaking, and our role is simply to remind. We don’t acknowledge passersby. We don’t get out of the way when they encounter us on the sidewalk, don’t stop to see if cars are coming when we cross the road. Once, a gas-powered truck plowed through a whole group of pinguinos, and all of them died. The truck driver got sentenced to five months for killing the penguins, but he never served out his sentence; some well-organized eco-terrorists planted a bomb in his truck, so he blew up as soon as he got out on bail, and that was that. As for us, the event didn’t change much. We continue on, beaks angled downward toward the sidewalk’s grimy pavers. It’s not a job, but—to me at least—it’s a purpose.
On a rare day free from rain or drizzle or haze or ozone or storm or flood or heatwave or lightning or tornado or snow or anything else—which is to say, on a pleasant, sunny day—Penina suggests that our gaggle take a break from penguining and go on some sort of retreat. We are waking up in our sleeping bags, sweaty and confused at the early morning’s brightness, and for my part, I feel that the sun was an enemy no matter how cute it’s trying to be, so I wriggle out of my bag and tell Penina that they are a fucking moron.
“I’m on Pep’s side,” says Garth.
“Fuck off, Garth.”
“You fuck off,” says Dandy. “They’re just trying to do something nice for us.”
I stand up, slimy with sleep-sweat, and turn in a circle to see who’s still sleeping, who’s pretending to be asleep, and who’s watching. “First of all,” I say, “there is no such thing as anything nice anymore.” I dig into my bag for some clean underwear and start changing. “Second of all,” I say, stuffing my genitals into their rightful place, “This is not supposed to be fun. This is not a slumber party.”
“Okay,” says Dandy from their sleeping bag. “You can wander alone, and we’ll go on a retreat.”
I have never wandered alone, and the first thing that happens when I do is that I get lost. We’ve gotten lost as a gaggle, in the sense that we’ve landed in places none of us have ever explored, but we’ve never gotten lost-lost. We’ve never been afraid that we wouldn’t find our way home. Today, immediately, I am lost-lost. It’s weird—usually I’m at the front of the pack, and I have always assumed this was some indication of an innate sense of direction. Apparently, I’m just a fast walker.
I don’t realize I’m lost at first; I’m beak-down, a lone pinguino drudging along, and city sidewalks are by-and-large identical, so it’s easy to let time and space slide by around me. By the time I stop to get my bearings, I am at least a few miles away from where I started and have no recollection of which turns I’ve made or where. I’m on the border of some sort of park; snakelike trees weave up around me, weird leaves curlicuing off of gnarled branches. The world these days is an arboretum for mutants, the reject species that have managed to survive the unpredictability of earth undone. Every once in a while I long for elms, lindens, locusts, but the mutants will do. They’ve got green leaves and they’re drought-hardy, beetle-hardy, and cold-hardy, which is pretty remarkable. Nature’s gonna look so cool by the time we’re all dead.
It takes a second to notice the tower.
The tower is ginormo-tall and ultra-reflective, which is the reason it’s so hard to see. It’s a mirror that fills your entire field of vision. When my eyes adjust, I see that the park is relatively small—well, exactly half as big as I thought it was. The rest is trapped in mirrorland. I crane up to try and find the tower’s peak. Instead of doubling the sky, like it does to the park, the building cuts it in half. For some reason, the heavens are harder to imitate than the earth.
I finally know where I am, by the way. It’s the Government Center. Which is why the park is empty of all regular people. Not pleasant to be stared down at by the powers that be.
At this point, a stream of government workers swarms out of mirrorland, gripping lunches and chit-chattering so obnoxiously that, I swear to god, the air literally reeks of apathy. Forget Penina, these are the real ho-hummers. We call them worker bees, and there are now lots of them dotted around the park and just as many trapped within mirrorland. I glance up as though there will be a similar swarm buzzing up around the tower’s height, bouncing up against that horrible gash in the atmosphere, but of course, these worker bees cannot fly. They’re not real bees, in the same way that I am not a real penguin. Both of our counterparts are extinct; the difference between pinguinos and worker bees is that we wear out sadness on the outside, and they wear theirs on the inside. If proper pinguinos require a steady diet of fear and anger, worker bees require hopelessness. Why else would you work for a government when society has entirely collapsed?
“Hello,” says a worker bee behind me.
I honk. I’m not actually sure if penguins honked, but at least I don’t fully break character.
“You realize I should arrest you,” says the worker bee, who has beautiful sun-soaked skin and beautiful amber eyes. I see all of this obliquely, since I’m still beak-down. A pinguino is always beak-down. The worker bee pauses as though he expects a reaction, but a pinguino never gives other species the satisfaction of a reaction. The worker bee wiggles his hips, which I recognize as a sign of discomfort, but it also makes me think of how real bees used to communicate by wiggling their butts in intricate patterns.
“Just kidding,” says the worker bee. “I’m not a policeman.”
I think that ‘worker bee’ is absolutely the right moniker for them; this dude just buzzes with anxiety. “Ha, ha,” he says. “You’re supposed to laugh.”
“Honk?” I say because, despite myself, I’m really craving some attention.
“I can see the outline of your dick through your sweatpants,” says the worker bee, which is probably not something a true hymenopteran would say.
“Um… honk.” I’m losing my resolve. It’s been a while since I had sex, and while I’m sure that penguins got erections whenever the fuck they wanted, it seems uncouth for a pinguino to do so at the Government Center, where pinguinos are technically not allowed to hang out on account of our desire for government officials to be slaughtered by the hundreds, preferably with guillotines.
“I’d like to have sex with you,” says the worker bee.
“Yeah, I know. I’m a pinguino, not a dipshit.”
“Honk.” I’ve lifted my beak. At this point, who gives a fuck. “Yeah, alright.”
He steps closer.
“You mean right now?”
The worker bee smiles, which feels like light on my face, shining through his amber. “Not here, but yeah. Now.”
“Don’t you… have work?”
“The world’s over, nobody cares. Government’s just a thing to do, you know?”
He gives a little squat and I understand instinctively what he’s offering, so I jump up onto his back and we piggy off towards his apartment, my dick pushing right up against his spine with a pleasant pulse at every little bounce. Honk, I think. Honk-fucking-honk. I’m such a doofus.
The worker bee, unfortunately, fucks like a worker bee. Which is fine. He gets the job done. But you’d think a man who plays hooky from his job as a government official in a doomed ecosystem just to have sex with a penguin-clad outlaw would, I don’t know, have some pent-up rage to express. Maybe my theory about hopelessness is correct; there’s no anger left to animate him. Or maybe we’ll just have to work on it.
“You’re very fun,” says the worker bee from his kitchen after we’re done.
“Thank you,” I say. I’m still naked on his fluffy bed. It’s eons better than my mat back at the nest. I feel like I could sleep for a million years. Maybe when I wake up from my million-year nap, Penina’s theory will have proven correct and the world will be filled with all of the animals I never got to see.
When the worker bee comes back from the kitchen he’s got fruit cut up on a tray for me. Pineapple! Who the fuck has pineapple? I sort of understand why someone would work for the government, but only while I’m eating the pineapple.
“Did you have fun?” says the worker bee.
“Well—” I want to be honest, but not brutal.
“Say no more,” he says, so I say no more. But he’s discontented with silence as well, so: “Actually—”
I kiss his stomach, and he giggles. I’m reminded once more of amber. The man is a gem through and through, and I’d like for him to shut up. Outside, the afternoon yawns threateningly up around us. We’re in a skyscraper. It’s not as tall as the Government Center—nothing is—but a lowlife like me belongs, well, lower. And the man smells too clean. It’s oppressive. I feel guilty and slimy and horny and hungry and sleepy and disloyal.
“You’re preoccupied,” says the worker bee.
“No,” I say. “I’m occupied. And I should get back to my occupation.” But I don’t budge from the bed because there’s fresh fruit in my hand and an amber hunk under the sheets with me. It’ll be years before I get to have sex in private again.
“What’s it like to be a penguin?” He drags a finger up from my navel to my neck. He’s been biting his nails; the ragged edge pulls at my skin, and my muscles ripple curiously up behind it, tickled and tantalized.
“I don’t know. What’s it like to be a worker bee?” I shove more pineapple in my face. Juice drools down the corner of my mouth. “Also, it’s pinguino. Penguins are extinct.”
“So are worker bees.”
I could sleep with him again. I could teach him to be more fun. I look past him, through the window, and watch as cityscape spills out below us. We’re all just little atoms sloshing around in a suck-ass cosmic stew. “You are the least boring government official I’ve ever met,” I say. “It’s been a pleasure fucking you.” I hold out my hand for him to shake on it.
He takes my hand uncertainly. “Buzz buzz,” he says.
There’s this thing Penina did once, before we joined the horde. We were high and dissociated from too much sadness. We lived together, and the only time I didn’t feel like a little speck of dust inside of my own head was when we held hands, or slept together, or sometimes when they pinched me hard enough for me to yelp. We were way outside of the city, where the foliage is even odder than at the Government Center park. Trees with purple thorns. Conifers laying low, sending up antenna-like spires that whip around in the wind, cacti that bleed a viscous black ooze. Penina and I sat on a nighttime hill, staring upwards. The nice thing about so many people being dead and everybody being too scared to use electricity is that evening is dark enough to allow the stars their anger. You really get the sense that they’re made out of fire. After a long while of silence, they said: “Who watches the watchmen.”
I let the words drift out into the wilderness. This was one of the more memorable headlines from our childhood, and maybe the one that ended it. WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMEN? As global catastrophe strikes, Congress pursues political ends.
It didn’t change much. Global catastrophe struck and struck again, and nothing changed, and we went to war, and we went to war again, and the cities got darker and then darker still, until nighttime felt like wilderness and the galaxy revealed itself as vast and unforgiving, and looking up at it induced a sense of vertigo that could last for weeks. The end of the world had the curious effect of enlarging the universe, and eventually the only way Penina and I knew how to cope with our smallness was to stay blazed out of our minds, laying on a silty hillock and looking up at the cosmos.
“I dunno,” I said. “Who?”
Penina looked curiously at me, then up at the sky. And then they started laughing this crazed little cackle. “Uranus,” they said, and I didn’t laugh. But Penina couldn’t stop; the cackle went on and on, so loud and so long and so alone that I could hear it echoing back at us hours later when we traipsed cityward once more, towards the small apartment we shared in the land of disaffected penguins.
Back at the pinguino nest, the rest of my gaggle is sun-baked and smiley. Someone’s made lentil slop, which is a meal that I usually like (the word slop is deceiving; it’s good), but I’ve still got pineapple on my tongue and I want to see how long I can go before the flavor fades. I sit at the table and ask banal questions about the retreat, like, So what’d you do? Oh, you went for a hike? Rode the carousel on the pier? Enjoying the end of the world? Was it everything you hoped and dreamed? Are you rejuvenated and ready for another sixty years of waddling?
Garth, who is at least as cynical as I am, or maybe just as foul-mouthed, launches a well-aimed spoonful of uncooked lentils right at my forehead and says, “You are a sourpuss.” The lentils ricochet off of my forehead and scatter onto the floor, settling in between the floorboards to join the rest of our filth.
“Yeah,” says Evelyn. “It’s not like a day off matters. Did you change the world while we were out playing?”
“Shut your fat face,” I say, looking down at my plate. Fine, I think. I’ll eat the damn lentils. Evelyn scoots over to me and places a sympathetic hand on my thigh. “I’ve got some really good bud,” she says. “Sounds like you could use it.” I nod vigorously, and we excuse ourselves to go get high.
The thing about Evelyn is that she’s not snooty, not really. She would just prefer that we have higher standards. That we try for something at least a little bit nice before a hurricane comes and eats us up. She’s not like Penina—Penina’s… I dunno, Penina’s unrealistically hopeful. But Evelyn is really committed to the penguin horde and understands how important it is to instill existential dread in the heart and mind of every person who refuses to look the apocalypse in the face. She’s not an ascetic like me, but she’s not distracted from the point. What I’m trying to say is that I appreciate her good weed and the way she rolls old-school joints.
“Something on your mind?” she says, through a yawn-puff.
I want to say something like, No, but there was something in my ass, ha ha, wink, but that would require me to tell her about the worker bee so I say, “I’m really fucking tired. You ever sleep on a real bed with, like, sheets? And a comforter?”
“Sure. A long time ago.”
The ways she says it gives me the sensation that it wasn’t actually a long time ago. I remember my theory that she’s secretly rich. “Was it nice?”
“Beds are great, but I think what we’re doing is… well…”
“I meant the retreat. Sorry. I’m high.”
“Oh,” says Evelyn. “Yeah, it was really nice. Everyone’s got good smiles.”
“They were smiling a lot. I didn’t realize how many of them I hadn’t seen them… be smiling.” She giggles.
I grab the joint out of her hand. “You’re high,” I say. And so am I, and suddenly I don’t want to be. Like, at all. I want to be myself again, and I don’t even know who that is. I close my eyes, and the world spins black. “I want a fucking penguin,” I say, and suck way too hard on the joint, because that’s all there is to do, and it burns my throat so badly, and through my coughs I keep going, I say, “I want a little baby penguin to be my friend, a really cute fuzzy baby that I can just, like, sit on.” Evelyn laughs but I smack the floor with my open palm, and she cringes. “I just want to know how it sounds, you know? And we’ll never know, we’ll never—I want to know what a fucking penguin sounds like when it’s hungry, Ev.”
“Does it fucking honk, Evelyn?”
I’m crying very hard and all the other pinguinos can probably hear me downstairs.
In the morning, nothing’s different except a rawness around my eyes. Evelyn doesn’t say anything about my outburst. Penina’s already up, mask-on, sitting cross-legged on their sleeping mat. Garth and Dandy and all the others smile and nod as we stretch our morning muscles and strip out of last night’s underwear and put on our “uniforms.” Now I’m just another pinguino in a crowd of pinguinos. Things feel better like this. I enjoy being part of our slow moving dread-cloud. I do.
At some point around midday when we stop to drink water and eat crackers, I turn on my heel and waddle off. And since pinguinos aren’t supposed to do anything or break character or have opinions while we’re in public, nobody protests. I just waddle into the abyss, wandering the empty streets in my sweatsuit, wondering if the whole world can see the imprint of my dick as I weave my way towards the Government Center.
It’s hard to spot my worker bee in the swarm, but he has no trouble spotting me. He bumbles right on over like we’ve been doing this for ages. “You came back,” he says.
“Honk,” I say. I look over his shoulder, into mirrorland. There we are, in reverse. He looks hunky even from the back. He has a good ass. I, on the other hand, look like a dork in a penguin suit.
I could have this future, I think. I could live with an amber-eyed hunk, way up in his skyscraper apartment. I see him years from now, a little flabbed out and wrinkly, and then I see myself, wandering around the apartment’s soulless stainless interior, eating an apple like it’s nothing. I hear myself say the word darling unironically. I watch my worker bee pat the bed next to him, and I watch myself hop up onto the duvet. He leans in to nibble at my ear. Bzzt-bzzt, he says. Honk, I say, and then I catch a glimpse of the world outside. The sky is soot-gray and rumbly. Down below, the alien trees are flopping back and forth in the wind. And there are pinguinos everywhere—everywhere. There are pinguinos leaned up against buildings and smoking cigarettes. There are pinguinos struggling headfirst against massive hurricane-force gales. There are pinguinos swept up into the air, flying around the streets like little birdie rag dolls, broken kites of indistinguishable yellows and whites and blacks.
“Bzzt?” says the worker bee.
“I’m sorry,” I tell him. I turn around and shuffle off. If I looked back, I’d see my penguinesque antipode wandering deeper into the abyss of mirrorland. But I’m afraid that another glance would trap me forever in my worker bee’s beautiful, terrible, unconscionable amber.
It’s dark in the pinguino nest, and I’m risking a mass awakening simply by talking. I’ve already stepped on three hands and four legs on my way to Penina’s sleeping mat, but the victims have fallen easily back to sleep, and now my face is inches from Penina’s. Their breath smells exactly like their breath. It hurts to remember.
“Get your face out of my face,” they say.
“Let’s go look at the stars.”
They ruffle around in their sleeping bag, and in the darkness, I think I can see the shadow of an eye roll. But they don’t say anything snarky, and finally they climb out of their bag and tiptoe across the sleeping pinguinos with me, towards the staircase, towards the city. The unpredictable bluster of a windstorm hits us in the face, but we’re pinguinos; we’re good at ignoring things. “Why’d we join up?” I say, hoping the wind doesn’t carry my words away.
Penina doesn’t answer because it was my idea for us to become pinguinos. That’s my question to answer. Instead, they touch my hand, and I feel my neck ice up and my fingers grow warm, and I think—maybe this is what it’s like to mate in Antarctica. Maybe half of you combusts and half of you freezes until every part of you is ablaze with terror and anger and fear and life and death and lights and sounds and smells and memories and futures and losses and hope, and hopelessness, and longing, and love. Maybe it’s not an option to feel some of it. Maybe it’s all or nothing.
“Come on,” I say, “I want to find someplace where I can scream.”
“Me too,” they say.
And I get it, I think. Why we joined up, all of us, the hundreds of thousands of penguin impersonators shuffling along. We think we’re doing something to the rest of the world, but that’s wrong. We just want to be around people. To feel some sort of warmth. To not scream alone. We start walking. Down the city streets, into the wilderness, face up against the coming storm. I’m in front but they’re leading, and isn’t that how it’s always been?