I am the last survivor of the Gull Point Needle, an observation tower that looms fifty-six stories above the ruined city of Gull Point. I live in what remains of an upscale revolving restaurant called the Haystack, a name chosen for the cloying slogan printed on the napkins and placemats – You’ve found the Haystack in the Needle! The restaurant no longer turns and the floor-to-ceiling windows have been shattered by bullets. Running water prevails, though who knows for how much longer. By my accounting, six of the Haystack’s captives are missing and fourteen confirmed dead – from premature escape attempts, heart attack, helicopter fire. You’ll find our corpses piled in the walk-in fridge.
My name is Shelly (Shel) VanRybroek, née Donagan. I’m a sculptor, though I haven’t done much of note since grad school. I’ve exhibited in Brooklyn, in Tempe and at several group shows in Chicago. My CV stops short in 2011, when I became a public school art teacher at the insistence of my husband, Roland (Rod) VanRybroek. I don’t blame Rod for my failure as an artist. I would probably have come to the same decision without his influence, and his relative wealth allows me to live in luxury despite my schoolteacher’s salary, enjoying organic produce, imported cosmetics, and the brick colonial in Wheaton, Illinois that I’ve decorated with works commissioned from my successful artist friends.
My meal at the Haystack was gratis, part of the package I’d won in a sweepstakes hosted by Sandy Soles LLC, engineers of the Gull Point tragedy. Rod refused to come on the trip, citing the likelihood of a coup. He referenced the recent New York Times exposé that had termed Gull Point the ‘Sodom of the Heron Peninsula,’ among other insults. I knew the people of Gull Point had suffered for decades and that I would have blood on my hands if I came. But I’d never won a contest like this, and in a spasm of self-pity I resolved to go no matter what, in compensation for other forfeitures.
The lights cut out around 9 p.m., while I was finishing my entrée of roasted chicken. The electric motor that turned the observation deck lost power, and the restaurant coasted to stillness. My table stopped in a north-facing position, perched over the city. I watched the lights of Gull Point flicker off in bands a few blocks wide until the entire thumb-like promontory was blacked-out and indistinguishable from the ocean. Servers rushed to our tables with battery-powered tea lights. The manager sent around complimentary desserts to placate us, and because the ice cream would melt soon anyway.
Rod called and told me what was happening in Gull Point. Tourists had been taken hostage in the rooms of the Landover Hotel, where I was staying. Emergency evacuations were underway, primarily by sea, as the rebels had blockaded the main roads leading south from the city. The uprising appeared to have been meticulously planned and coordinated, just as Rod had feared. ‘I told you it was a bad time to visit Gull Point,’ he said. I was irritated by my husband’s gloating tone and hurried to end the call, saying I needed to save my battery. It was the last time I would speak to him before we lost service.
We ate our desserts and watched fires bloom on the dark city grid. One by one, the hulking white cruise ships blasted their horns and pulled out of the harbor. Of course none of us wanted to spend the night in the Haystack, but the manager insisted we were safer here than on the ground. We were persuaded by the sight of the boardwalk’s Ferris wheel and roller coaster in flames, and by the muted drumming of automatic gunfire on the streets below. Several male staff members stacked tables and chairs against the stairwell door, a defensive move that seemed more symbolic than functional. We overturned the remaining tables and fashioned private sleeping forts. The windows were soldered shut, and without AC the heat quickly became unbearable. Among the captives was a group of four elderly widows who’d come from an Alaska-bound cruise. One of them died that first night, her body overwhelmed by heat and stress. Her name was Bonnie Neville, and her corpse can be found in the lobby, wrapped in a shroud of tablecloths. Two of the men volunteered to carry her down the fifty-six flights of stairs. They returned twenty minutes later, chests heaving from the climb, and told us about the vicious firefight raging on the streets just outside the lobby. They’d hurried back to the stairwell to avoid being spotted.
In spite of these developments, we were in good spirits the first morning. Even the other old women took Bonnie’s death in stride, explaining that they’d only met her a few days ago, on the ship. We assumed it wouldn’t take long for some authority to intervene and restore order to Gull Point. In the meantime the chef prepared a massive brunch, gorging us on everything that would spoil without refrigeration: plates of braised calamari, shrimp Caesar salad, filet mignon, smoked salmon. We drank warm gin and flat tonic and lay in squares of sunlight on the carpet. I got drunk and attempted to flirt with a married surfer named Dustin, but he politely brushed me off.
By evening we had digested and sobered, and a vocal contingent began discussing plans to escape the Needle. Five captives departed at midnight. Four were college students from, I think, the University of Indiana. The fifth was a server named Eric Chamberlain. We never saw the students again. In the morning I woke to screams; Eric’s corpse had been skewered, belly-up, on the spire of a neighboring skyscraper.
No one talked about leaving after that. We began, belatedly, to panic. From our vantage we were able to witness, using a pair of binoculars that belonged to the restaurant, anarchic scenes unfolding on the streets of Gull Point. We saw tourists tied to lampposts. We saw young citizens of Gull Point smashing the windows of the souvenir factories that had long extorted their labor. We saw men emerge from one of the hotels wearing gas masks; moments later, a corner of the building erupted in flames. I kept imagining a gang of revolutionaries climbing the stairs, breaking down the stairwell door and slaughtering us, the Needle’s stem filling with blood. We were relieved the third morning to find Eric’s corpse gone; it had rotted and softened in the heat until it fell off the spire like meat from a bone.
On the third day I snuck into the kitchen, seeking material to sculpt with as an alternative to waiting idly for death. I found five economy-sized boxes of foil and four boxes of toothpicks, which I brought to the unoccupied southern bank of the restaurant. I began by crafting foil likenesses of myself and Dustin, of the elderly widows, the manager, the college kids and the restaurant staff. From there I moved on to constructing the Needle itself. My model’s observation deck measured one foot in diameter, and for an entire afternoon I assembled the stem that would hold it aloft, four feet from the ground. Fellow captives came and watched me as if I were a street artist working for tips. They loudly doubted the structural soundness of my foil Needle, but I bolstered the stem with toothpicks and it stayed upright as I carefully populated the observation deck’s interior space with foil furniture and figurines corresponding to each captive. This impressed everyone, and I was able to recruit two of the widows, Melanie and Rebecca, as assistants. They were happy, like me, to have something to do, to avoid thinking about how our stay in the Needle would end. I showed them how to plait the foil into tough braids, how to hide seams and smooth edges until the figures appeared cast from liquid metal. When I expanded my project to encompass the city of Gull Point, I invited the women to look out the northern windows and choose a neighborhood they wanted to render.
Rebecca and Melanie were among the casualties of the seventh night.
When the helicopter hovered before the north-facing windows, everyone thought it was the National Guard, come at last to liberate the Haystack. I remained crouched with the foil while the others stood in front of the windows, in the blinding floodlight, raising their arms and waving napkins – whether as flags of surrender or symbols of celebration, I don’t know. It was horrible. I remember Melanie saying, ‘Why aren’t they doing anything?’ and then the helicopter’s armaments opened fire, killing eight outright and mortally wounding four more.
With that it was down to me, Dustin, and a line cook named Anthony who – like the rest of the staff – was a scab from the mainland and had worked in the Needle only a few weeks, since the resident workers went on strike. We spent the night in the kitchen, crying and arguing and drinking reserves of liquor we found in a locked cabinet. In the morning the men dragged all twelve bodies to the walk-in fridge. We expected the helicopter to swoop back at any moment, but it never did, and we cautiously returned to the main room to savor the fresh air coursing in through the bullet holes.
Late that night, Dustin crouched beside my sleeping fort. He was drunk, and he promised to do everything in his power to give me the best possible chance of survival. It was an odd speech, inappropriately familiar, as if I had become a proxy for his wife or one of his daughters. When I woke the next morning Dustin and Anthony were gone.
Another week or two has passed since then. I no longer keep track of the days. That about catches us up.
I wake each morning in a panic, thinking that I’m back in Wheaton, and am coaxed into reality by the itch of carpet against my bare arms, the smell of smoke from the burning city, and the sparkle of sunlight on my vast foil model of Gull Point. My project now fills half the restaurant, extending from the south windows to the stairwell door. I’ve begun constructing vignettes at a larger scale within the cityscape, as if certain scenes have been put under magnification. I rendered in foil the souvenir factory inside which foil captives were forced, on threat of imprisonment, of having their children taken as wards of the state, to work fourteen hour days, using hot glue guns to affix tiny seashells to velvet-lined jewelry boxes. I rendered foil brothels where tourists paid third-world rates for sex with the young men and women of Gull Point, and slightly higher rates for sex with minors – a practice vehemently denied by city officials, but corroborated by multiple undercover investigations. I’m planning models of the Grand Casino and the drug bazaar and the complicated subterranean network of T-shirt sweatshops. ‘Never before could we have imagined,’ the Times feature began, ‘that such barbarities could take place on US soil, condoned and often abetted by local and federal law enforcement.’
Each morning I stroll the perimeter, assessing what needs to be done. Today I pause over a vignette of a dog fight. I adjust the ears of one of the long-snouted dogs, which are both mid-lunge, their hind paws planted to the ground with a paste I made from flour and water. I crouch carefully, my toes wedged into the gaps of Gull Point’s broad avenues. I’m dissatisfied with the expression worn by one of the dogfighting men. He is less finely wrought than the other figures, his thin body listing to one side. I pluck him from the vignette. This is one of the figures I’ll work on today, molding the face into a mask of exultant cruelty.
I’ve set up a worktable on the east side of the restaurant, where the light is good, the windows offering an unremarkable view of mainland suburbs across the wide, murky bay. I have requisitioned useful items from the purses of murdered women: tweezers, nail clippers, clear nail polish, dental floss, reading glasses. I work for hours without a break. I reshape the half-dozen figures I’ve extracted from completed scenes, and then begin crafting a new vignette in which a woman lies on her stomach across a motel bed. Above her, two amateur surgeons hover, preparing to remove one of her kidneys for sale on an overseas black market.
I finish this vignette near sunset. I carefully transport the scene to its appropriate position on the model, corresponding to the strip of cut-rate motels along the northern rim of Gull Point. Once I’m satisfied with the vignette’s placement I go to the women’s restroom to pee and refill my water glass. I turn the sink handle and the faucet gurgles. A few drops fall from the pipes, and then only a gush of air.
I remember, with shame, that in the early days I had wasted liters of water to bathe myself, or to splash my face when I felt hot. Above me, the skylight is coated in ash from weeks of perpetual fire, and now admits only a dingy, sepulchral light. In the mirror my face is smeared with ash and oil, the muscles around my mouth and eyes slack from disuse. My gray tank top is mottled with grease, ragged at the bottom hem from where I’d torn out threads for use in my sculpture. The bones of my chest protrude and my shoulders are red and peeling from working all day in a patch of sunlight. I feel, proudly, like a wild animal that has survived against the odds by tucking itself into the eaves of a crumbling edifice.
I’ve expected the loss of running water, but it’s still disturbing, a reminder that my stay in the Needle will soon end. I check each sink in the women’s and men’s rooms. They all emit the same gurgling death rattle. My stomach lurches when I realize I’ll have to check the kitchen sink, too. I haven’t entered the kitchen since the walk-in was repurposed as a crypt. I brace myself, hold my breath, run in and turn the handle. Again a bubble of pressure bursts, releasing a few sun-warmed drops that I catch in my palm. A fur of human decay gathers on my skin. I run back to the main room and stand at one of the broken windows, cleansing my lungs and pores with fresh air. When my heart rate has slowed I take stock of the remaining water. On the second day, we’d filled every receptacle, anticipating the water supply would soon be cut. I have two gallon-sized jugs, three two-liter bottles, assorted pots and saucepans filled to the brim, and half a dozen cans of soda. Plenty of water, enough to last several weeks if I’m careful.
The sun is setting and I bring my dinner to a table along the west-facing windows. With the tip of a spoon I peel back the lid of the 100-ounce can of garbanzos I opened last night. As I shovel beans into my mouth, I feel the sucking sensation of a negative presence, and I realize it’s because the town has gone silent. For weeks the battle raged in the streets as the National Guard subdued the citizens, loaded them onto armored trucks and school buses, and removed them from Gull Point. There were explosions, sirens and the constant percussion of shooting. It was like the sound of a TV in the background, a veil of noise that made me feel less alone. But now, nothing. When had it stopped? I scan my binoculars over the city: the streets are empty. The fires have been extinguished and the smoke has cleared. Gull Point appears to have been completely purged, leaving only the husks of buildings, the avenues strewn with garbage and shell casings and glass. I search for movement on the ground until the sun slips beneath the curve of the ocean and it’s too dark to see.
For the first time since the men left, I panic. It feels as though the pace of events outside the Needle has accelerated, as if more time has passed than I realized. I think of Rod, and am flooded with guilt. He must have started to accept that I might never come home. Rod is fifteen years older than me, and as the years pass he grows more insecure about our age difference. He embarks on drastic diets and juice cleanses that make him miserable. Last fall he assembled a Crossfit gym in our basement, augmenting and sculpting his body in an attempt to ward off the imaginary advances of younger men. He’s always wielded a coarse masculinity to hide his fear that I’ll slip from his grasp, and now it’s happened anyway. Until the very last moment, he hoped I would come to my senses and agree not to take the trip to Gull Point. I kissed him in the car, at the Delta curb, and said there was still time for him to change his mind – I’d booked two tickets just in case, it was part of the prize package. He shook his head and said it was too late, he hadn’t taken the time off work. My resentment melted away, and I was disappointed that he wasn’t coming with me, sad to think that he might have been willing, had I pushed harder.
Now, I’m glad he didn’t come. He would have died quickly, venturing out with the first group in a clumsy demonstration of control. Or he would have stayed and prevented me from creating anything of value.
I worry I’ve missed my chance to escape. Maybe there’s no longer anyone out there looking for survivors. I resolve to leave the Needle in the morning, before my odds diminish further. It’s time to go home and account for what remains of my life. This decision comforts me as I fall asleep, in a nest of tablecloths, listening to the foil rustle as it shifts and settles into its shape.
But in the morning I look over my sculpture and am struck by how much remains to be done. The northern skyline is missing several key buildings, and the boardwalk attractions could use some work. Many sections now appear sloppy and ill conceived, especially those I created early on, when I was less experienced with the medium of foil. Daylight has scattered my melancholy. I now feel only the urgency to finish the project. I will push it as close to perfection as I can manage, even if I’m the only one who will ever see it.
I become engrossed again. I lose track of the hours. In the afternoon I hear and feel in my chest a dull, distant thudding of explosives, and look out in time to see one of the brick factory buildings shudder, the wall that faces me caving in like the face of a rotting pumpkin. The city is no longer empty. Cranes and bulldozers and excavators now riddle the landscape like a herd of yellow animals. The city is being chewed up and broken down. The loss of running water must be a sign of the commencement of a new project. Once everything on the surface has been razed, they will begin tearing into the city’s subterranean infrastructure, prying up buried pipes and wires until no future archaeologist can unearth evidence of the crimes committed here.
Within a week the boardwalk has vanished: the rides and game kiosks, the overpriced seafood restaurants and high-rise hotels. Then the casinos and factories are leveled, and the spoked configurations of Sandy Soles employee housing, and finally the government buildings that always seemed tongue-in-cheek, as if behind the ostentatious faux-marble facades one might find only a civic-themed brothel.
I ration my water carefully – three cups a day, taken in tiny sips at measured intervals. I keep telling myself, one more day, one more scene and I’ll leave. But with each vignette, I have ideas for five more. Besides, the journey home terrifies me. I will have to walk ten miles south to the checkpoint, and explain why it’s taken me so long to evacuate. At first they’ll suspect I’m an enemy of the state, one of the rebels disguised as a lost tourist. Even if I established my identity, I won’t be allowed to board a plane; I’m filthy and practically naked. Maybe I’ll be given some sort of refugee garb – a souvenir sweatshirt, ill-fitting khakis. Rod will pick me up at O’Hare and we’ll go home and eat a meal prepared in accordance with his Paleo diet, maybe hunks of chicken wrapped in raw cabbage leaves, a perverse simulacrum of tacos. My husband will insist on making love to me, to demonstrate how glad he is that I’ve survived. After, I’ll go to the garden shed that doubles as my studio and stare helplessly at projects I will never finish, projects that mean nothing to me.
I dread every step of this process. So I stay in the Needle, and my model becomes more elaborate and more difficult to tear myself away from before it’s complete. On a parallel track, the city beneath me is destroyed, block by block, a wave of destruction churning methodically south toward the Needle.
One morning I stand at the north-facing windows and look down at the combed gray skull of Gull Point’s absence. Behind me stretches a perfect scale model of a city that no longer exists. I am finally satisfied. It’s time to go home.
I’m gathering my meager possessions – leather handbag containing wallet, house keys, phone, magnetic keycard to my room in the extinct Landover Hotel – when I hear a rumble of footsteps in the stairwell beneath me. I freeze, stooped over, one hand still groping inside my purse. I could hide in the bathroom. I could go into the kitchen, crawl in with the corpses and wait for the intruders to leave. But they are too close; they’re coming fast. Before I can move the door is thrust open, easily toppling my blockade of chairs. A soldier enters in camouflage combat uniform, and behind him a team of six or eight identical men. Behind them is a petite woman in her forties, wearing an expensive-looking gray suit. The soldiers see me and raise their pistols. They push the woman behind them protectively, but she elbows her way to the front and begins shouting at me. ‘Who are you? What are you doing in here?’ She pauses, then says, ‘What on earth is that horrible smell?’
Two of the men force me to the ground. They wrench my arms from under my body and pull them behind my back. Electric pain shoots into the muscles of my chest. The handcuffs’ teeth scrape my wrists. The other soldiers fan out into the restaurant, guns drawn, while the woman demands to know who I am and why I’m here. I know the words I should say, the ones that will calm them, make them treat me civilly and shepherd me back to the living world. But these words catch in my throat, flaring and sputtering like wet matches. One of the men has his fingers wrapped in my hair and is pressing the side of my head into the carpet. I watch their feet – the men in tan combat boots, the woman in black velvet flats – stepping all over my sculpture, flattening the figures, having not noticed a thing. In the moments before I lose consciousness, I wish only that I could be allowed to render this final scene, what I now know was always the nucleus of my model, its secret heart hidden from me until the very end.
Photograph © Frans de Wit