This story was written for the August 2016 Monthly Short Story Writing Challenge held by our writing community at the EA Forums. If you write SimLit, we’d love to have you join us! We have a new challenge each month.
Walking to her flat on the evening she quit DeConsenny and Sons, Katie Hildebrand noticed for the first time that pavement and cement smothered this entire quadrant of the city. Iron cages encased spindly trees, and the tangled vines withered before reaching the promise of wilderness offered by the canal’s green waters. A lone shoot of grass, stubborn and resilient, poked through a crack in the sidewalk. She thought for a moment about what can be contained and what can’t.
She knew it was within her legal rights to keep the job: in theory, laws protect employees who report sexual harassment. But every legal secretary knows that theory and practice dwell on parallel planes. You can’t legislate gossip, sneers, innuendo, or cold shoulders. The day after she filed the first complaint, the man who was now her former boss began to shift her tasks to copying and filing–jobs any intern straight out of high school could perform and which used not even a tenth of her education, experience, logic, or imagination.
At least she reported it, she reminded herself. She could have kept quiet and kept the job, trying to avoid being alone with him in empty offices or abandoned hallways. But what of the next person, male or female, that he did this to? She could have kept the job and suffered it out. But she did the right thing, she reasoned. She spoke up. She quit. It’s on record, so the next time someone has to report it, he’s already got a file. Now onto something else.
After she secured a teaching job for the fall, the whole summer stretched before her. She stowed her couch, boxes of books, suitcases of business clothes, and crates of dishes in a storage bay in her new town, cashed half her severance pay and deposited the rest, and then she took off for the mountains.
Granite replaced concrete. Trees grew unrestrained. Everywhere the calls and songs of birds sounded. And the air! Pine rosin, mint leaves, and wildflowers perfumed the air with sweetness.
All the crumpled pieces of Katie slowly unfurled. She forgot the iron sheen in her boss’s glare and the sibilant whispers that fell to silence whenever she walked into a room.
None of that mattered when Jezebel butterflies hovered over the meadows.
Katie spent long days wandering and exploring. The meadows and pines made better companions than any person–friend, lover, or coworker–she had known.
Each day, she discovered treasures. Deep in the forest, she found Boisduval’s blue butterflies hovering over sages.
In one meadow, traipsing through the tall grass, she flushed grasshoppers with each step.
She caught one and held it gently in her hands. She looked in its striped eyes, and it gazed back. When she spoke softly, the grasshopper moved its antennae towards her, raising and lowering them in time with her voice.
She set it on a young alder and watched as it grabbed a leaf between its lower mandibles and slowly devoured the whole thing.
Watching luna moths in the alpine meadow, she reflected that, while once common, they were now endangered.
When she was a child, one day her father bundled her into the truck. “Are you ready for wonder?” he asked. They drove all morning, at last pulling into the dirt parking lot by the beach.
“What will we find?” she asked her father. “Is it the ocean?”
The ocean had been wonderful, rich with the scent of algae and seaweed, but that wasn’t the wonder. They walked through the salt marsh, following the trail into the grove of eucalyptus.
“Look up,” her father said. The leaves shimmered and opened and began to fly, and the grove was filled with flashing orange.
“What are they, Father?” she whispered.
“They are butterflies,” he said, “here to pretend to be the forest leaves while they hibernate all winter.”
Would the monarchs return this year, foliating the forest? She had read that they were endangered now, too, disappearing with the milkweed.
What love isn’t tinged with the bittersweet? Is it loss that makes us treasure it more?
Beneath the anticipated sorrow of waiting bereavement, Katie felt comfort, poised here in her embracing home, cradled by this broad green planet, spiraling slowly through the galaxy.
Her old crowd in the city, when they weren’t talking about rising sea levels and estimating the number of years before their city were underwater, loved to talk about the “next life.” They were believers in reincarnation, all of them. “Next life, I’m blowing this place,” Davon said. “I mean it. I’m not coming back. This planet is harsh.”
“Oh, for real,” said Cynthia. “There’s gotta be a better planet out there, right? Something more gentle.”
“Something not populated with self-destructive idiots,” Brent said.
“Someplace where you think it, and it happens. Where it’s not person against person. Where it’s not cold in winter, or hot in summer. But it’s always lovely. Where it’s made for individuals.”
“Where we can thrive,” Miranda said.
Katie never joined the conversation. She loved her friends; and often, she felt she belonged with them. They joked that they traveled through time together, popping up each lifetime on a planet where they could do something significant. They’d messed up this time by coming here. They weren’t coming back.
But Katie, having actual memories of six distinct lives and snippets of several more, each one lived on this green earth, was more than just a believer in hypothetical reincarnation. It was part of her remembered experience. And when they joked about never coming back, she felt alone and dismayed.
This summer, she discovered what she always knew: she had one love, and it was this earth.
Friends will come and go. The jet stream will disappear. Sea levels will rise. The green water from the bay and canals will flood the old city. Populations will be displaced, and the poor will suffer most. Extinctions will occur, and parents will describe to their children “what used to be” with tears in their eyes. The earth will heave and moan. We’ll grieve the incalculable losses, too tragic to name, together with trees and ferns and the keening rhizome. And she’ll come back, back to her home, to do whatever a good person can do on the planet that that is her one true love.
Summer ended. She packed her tent and gear and stood in the wide meadow.
Nine months of teaching biology to seventh graders extended before her, and then, it would be summer again.
“I’ll be back!” she shouted to the pines. Through their own language, whispered in phytochemicals spread through the air and the underground network of mycorrhiza, they shouted in reply, “Until you return!”