52 years after Grandma lost everything.

 

The robotic walls tightened to get us all into a single file line in preparation of entering The Chair’s office, so we could get our yearly anti-SoL lecture. They had already tested the SoL alarm earlier in the morning, so we knew it worked despite not having needed it for the past forty-something years.

Grandma used to tell me stories about when my parents were kids, how there was a parent who tried to grow a tree. How the Sign of Life alarm sounded right then and there, and how quickly they were taken away to The White Room. Supposedly it’s not that bad—or at least I couldn’t fathom it would be if my parents left me and Rhyse to live there without us. Grandma hasn’t told any stories since they left.

Once it was my turn, The Screen popped up to my face. “BOY OR GIRL,” it questioned me.

I blinked. They didn’t do this last year. “I . . . don’t know.”

“BOY OR GIRL.” It questioned again.

“Neither.” The kids behind me started rustling in impatience. We all just wanted to get in and get out. I sighed. “Grandma never made me have a specific—”

“You heard ‘em,” I turned to see a short, curly haired person, with eyes magnified double their size inside their lenses. “Move it along, Screen-y, us kids don’t have all day.” The Screen did what was the human equivalent of huffing before letting me pass through. Before she could be prompted by The Screen, she yelled, “Girl, girl!” then skipped into The Chair’s oval-shaped office. Well—skipped—as well as she could with one mechanical leg.

We landed in seats beside each other, for no other reason than I was intrigued by her.

“Did ya notice?” she asked me before I could think of saying anything. I looked at her quizzically. She took a deep breath in through her nose. Then winked.

“You’re new?” I then said. She nodded like it was an exciting thing—being on a decayed planet. “I’m Harper,” I told her.

She stuck her hand out for me, and shook my hand as well as she nodded her head, “Ooh, Harpie, good name. Calliope. Got stuck here after my Papa passed.”

“Sorry to hear.”

Calliope shrugged, “He’s better off somewhere that’s green anyway. I’m sure that’s where people go after they die. Somewhere green. Don’t you think?” I shrugged too.

The Chair’s lecture started then. We never saw who he really was, just looked at the back of his big, fancy chair. Fancier than anything any of us owned. It started the same—“Every year, the ten- to fifteen-year-olds will attend this lecture”—“This year a specified gender was required”—“Any Sign of Life shall be reported.”—“This year it will be 6 coins to enter The White Room.”

We didn’t get halfway through before Calliope leaned close to me. “Watch this,” she whispered. Then she stood up on her chair, hand raised high as the ceiling. “What happens if we win, sir?” she asked, loudly. Everyone turned to look at her. She grinned.

“Win?” The Chair grumbled at the interruption.

She nodded vigorously as if he could see her. “Win the game.”

The fans stopped all of a sudden. I could only tell because I didn’t realize until then that it was annoyingly loud in that room. “Win what game?” The Chair’s voice boomed somehow.

Some kids started coughing. My throat felt irritated too. Calliope spoke through it. The smog. He was filling the room with the smog—our smog. “The one you’re making us play.”

The Chair laughed. “Amusing. Foolish—”

“I know what the world used to be like!” she had to yell to be heard over the sound of us choking on the air I could’ve sworn we’d grown used to. “And I know you’ve burned down the forests and the books, but I’m gonna bring them back!”

“You—”

“And if I do!” she stomped her good foot on the chair, “then I win! And if—once I win” —she finally coughed then—“you step down, Chairy.”

 

—————

 

It took an hour to get back used to the smog. Rhyse was the first to greet me, putting down his fourth failed attempt at making a hearing aid to sign to me. “How was it?” his hands asked. I just made a gesture equivalent to “blegh” to tell him it was just how it always was, but only because I wasn’t exactly sure how to describe Calliope.

I tried greeting Grandma, but she didn’t look away from the window. She never did anymore. Rhyse’s last hearing aid was almost the one—we thought Grandma’s eyes brightened for a second. But she stayed in her wheelchair, staring blankly out the window. I asked Rhyse once why he wasn’t trying to make it for himself, but he just waved me off.

Rhyse tapped his foot on the molding wood floor to get my attention before handing me a note. Meet @ Grove #54 🙂, it read, with no signature. I maybe had a guess who it was from. “I’ll be back, okay?” I signed to Rhyse. He nodded before turning back to his table of scrap. I shoved the note into my pocket before leaving our shed-house, climbing back up the hill of rust and dirt I traveled to get to The Chair’s office, under the watchful eye of the blinding SoL searchlight.

Calliope opened her door and pulled me in before I had a chance to knock. She didn’t have her leg on. “I have such good ideas, Harpie, you wouldn’t believe it!” She closed her door and sat me down across from her own table of scrap, all before she finished her sentence.

“Um,” I started, but didn’t get a word in once she started dragging a drill against a piece of wood, shaped like a shallow bowl. She said over the buzzing that it was her soon-to-be kneecap. I didn’t question it. I looked around her shed-house to see it looked like a closet full of inventions. Like Rhyse’s table if it were a house—a room. She told me her father had passed, so she must have been dumped here all alone.

“If I was alive back then, I would’ve been a doctor,” she said to me then.

“A doctor?” I watched her nod while working at her wooden kneecap. “My grandma never told me about that one.”

Calliope laughed, “Don’t worry. I’ll tell you all about it once we win.”

“What d’you mean, ‘win’?”

“I exchanged my leg for five minutes. To make a deal.” She spun in her chair to look at me through her ice blocks of glasses, eyes big with excitement. “I grow a tree—he steps down.”

She was holding onto my arms, which I tried to pretend wasn’t making my heart pound. I cleared my throat, “Um,” I breathed, “what happens if he steps down? Wait—wait—grow a tree?” She nodded as furiously as she always did. “How’re you gonna—”

“Harper.” I blinked. She grabbed her almost-knee and waved it in my face. “I’ll do it. I’ll find a way.”

I cleared my throat again after she turned back to her table to carve at the wood. “How’d he even agree?” I asked her.

She snorted. “He doesn’t believe me. He doesn’t believe in me.” She spun towards me again, just to look into my eyes. “All they want is to be on top. They want to trample us, Harpie. People like us—the ones without both legs, without fair skin, without a label. I mean, they already have . . . but,” she breathed, “but if we bring back a way to sustain ourselves for the long run? We’re set. We won’t need them. It’s either that or give up and go to The White Room, right?”

The long run.

Never in my life had I considered the possibility of the long run. I watched Calliope delicately and intricately detail her future kneecap. Maybe somehow, deep down, she made me think there could be something. A long run.

Grandma was the only person I knew on our planet who experienced the time when things were green. I’d never thought about it that way. Grandma was the only person left who knew what a green world was. My heart started pounding uncomfortably. She must know how to get our green back.

“I have to go,” I said to Calliope, stumbling out of her shed before she could say anything back.

The smog made it hard to run, but I did it anyway—as fast as I could. I had to get to her. I had to get to her.

“Grandma,” I said, stood in front of her. I tapped the wheel with my foot. She didn’t move. Only blinked. Only stared. My fists clenched. “Grandma,” I said, shaking the wheelchair more. If she would have looked at me she would have seen the tears flooding my eyes, but she didn’t. I felt like I was going insane. Maybe this isn’t what’s supposed to happen, I thought. Maybe there’s no hope.

No.

“GRANDMA!” I held her head in my hands, and forced her to look at me. To see me. I was breathing heavily, maybe near fainted. Tears dripped down my cheeks while I signed, desperately. “I—NEED—TREE,” I said while speaking to her. “I. WANT. NEW. LIFE.” She was watching me so I was sure she had to have understood me. I needed her to understand me. “Okay?” I said, “NEW. CHANCE. Please . . .”

Maybe for an eternity, nothing happened. No one moved. But I swore—I swore—for just a second. I could see the life glimmer in her eyes. But still, nothing happened.

I sighed, standing up straight and wiping my eyes with my sleeves. I turned to dig out our money jar from the dresser. I was certain we had enough to at least make it in, at least have a room nice enough for Grandma to live out her last days. Maybe get hearing aids for Rhyse. I needed to go back to Calliope. Tell her there was no hope. If Grandma’s our only chance, why try?

I only turned when I heard her yelp. Grandma. She was waving for Rhyse, urging him out of his cot. I stood, alarmed. I tried to sign to ask what was wrong, but she just yelped again, waving more incessantly. Rhyse got up, not as alarmed as I. And he helped her stand. Grandma stands? I thought. She never stands.

But she stood. Slowly, and with my brother’s help. I realized this was their protocol. How they functioned without me. My alarm turned to relief. We’re not hopeless.

I watched while she scurried to the middle of the room, beginning to pull at the rug. I dropped down to help her, alongside Rhyse. She looked at me with the look I swore I’d seen before. She smiled. Grandma never smiles. She urged us to continue. We rolled up the rug and set it beside the door while Grandma toed at the floorboards. One right step, and the board swung right up. She let out a laugh while Rhyse squealed with joy. I wished they could hear themselves.

We all kneeled at the hole in our floor. She pulled out stacks of worn paper I’d never seen, bound together with rope. I was confused. But then I saw it. Green. I gasped.

 

—————

 

Her eyes were wide when she opened the door. “Calliope!” I ushered her and myself into her shed before peeling my jacket back. I put the whole thing in between a newspaper, newspaper with nothing but The Chair’s propaganda on it. That’s what Grandma always said it was.

For a while, she didn’t say anything. Then she breathed. “Seedling,” she said, finally.

“This is right, right?” I asked her. “We just need to grow this, and then—”

The SoL Alarm sounded. Red, hot, and piercing. They know.

We were running before I realized we were running—she was pulling me as best she could on one leg. And we were running up the hill, so I knew where we were headed, just didn’t know why. The doors burst open on their own.

“YOU MUST THINK ME A FOOL—”

“There’s a root!” Calliope cut him off. She hopped to The Chair’s desk and placed the newspaper there, open in the center. Then she brushed the dirt off the seedling. White veins hung from it. I didn’t even know that’s how it worked. Grandma never told me. “See? Growth. It counts.”

The Chair didn’t turn, but we knew he saw it. He saw everything. She was breathing heavily while holding it up, then put it back down, carefully. She clung to the table, breathing hard. I was hunched over too, sweating. Waiting. It was silent until suddenly she laughed. Loud. Giddy.

“You lost, Chairy,” she breathed out. “I told you—I told you! One person is all it takes. One person . . . who still trusts that there’s hope.” Her hair had matted with sweat. “You lost,” she said again, to The Chair. Whatever he was. It was. “It’s over. See it now? You’re not getting rid of us,” she hissed. “We made our own chance. Let. Us. Have. It.

Everything started shaking. Like an earthquake. They did this to us sometimes. To scare us. I realized then how everything about it was to control. I realized then The Chair was just an old coward who was too ashamed to show his face. An old coward who ruined everything for us just to make his pockets a little deeper. An old coward who hid behind a face of terror—feigning power.

Calliope stumbled. I dashed to her side. I didn’t see it, but she did.

She caught it before it fell. Held it against her chest. “Harper,” she said while the building started shaking, cracking, splintering. Her brown eyes were wide behind her lenses. “You and me, okay?”

I nodded.

Then we went down with the building.

 

—————

 

75 years after Grandma lost everything.

 

I turned my head towards the sound of my name, and squinted to see who was calling. I smiled as I waved. “Hi, Este!” I called as she waved to me too. “How’s your garden coming along?”

“Good!” she exclaimed. “According to Grandma’s journal, I’m growing . . .” I watched her flip through the pages of her copy. She smiled a wide toothy smile while turning the page spread towards me, “Lettuce!” I applauded her with the hand I had free, gripping my bucket of water in the other. “Hey, you like my new dress?” she swayed from side to side to show off how it flowed, “Kenny made it for me so I could dress easier, with the baby ‘n all.”

“Looks great, Este.”

She laughed cheerfully, “Sky blue goes well with my dark skin, huh? Kenny’s hoping the baby’ll look more like me.” She waved me a goodbye as I walked past her house, laughing again when her sprinklers activated. I smiled thinking about the creation.

I put our bucket of water down beside our door and said a brief hello to Rhyse and Grandma before making a trek up the hill, where Calliope sat under our tree with her notebook and basket. She was talking before I had a chance to sit beside her.

“Harpie! Wanna go through the list with me? We’re making magnificent progress. I wanna do everything right this time around. I want our future to have a future. You know what I mean?” I nodded, and she smiled. Then she started scribbling on her notepad. “Okay, so everyone has rooftop gardens—check, Rhyse is making the last copy we need of Grandma’s plant journal, so—check.” She tapped her pencil on her lip while humming. “Oh! Solar powered sprinkler system, of course—check. Now we can move onto . . .” She smiled at me, “Hospital! Hopefully just in time for Este’s baby. We got it, right?”

I gave her another gentle nod, smiling when she grinned.

“We can build it right next to the school, so everyone can walk to it—y’know my dad told me about cars when we were little. But I don’t really want those this time around, don’t you think? Grandma told you about cars?” I nodded. She nodded too, “Yeah, we don’t need those as long as we keep everything close together.”

“Which we will,” I added.

She laughed, nodding as enthusiastically as ever, “Of course, we definitely will.”

As the melody of her voice traveled through the wind, so did something little. Something yellow—something buzzing.

We watched it fly by, across the beginnings of the grass. “I knew they were still out there,” Calliope said, just softly enough for me to hear. She breathed out a laugh. “All it takes is one.” I didn’t say anything. Just breathed. I imagined what it would have been to have had this all our lives. Maybe we’d even take it for granted. Calliope brushed away my thoughts when she exclaimed, “Oh!” She uncovered her basket and held a bunch of two in her palm before showing me. “Cherry?” she offered.

I looked at her, feeling maybe every emotion I’ve ever felt before while I watched her giggle to herself at the irony. She didn’t stop until she saw me—looked into my eyes.

“Harpie?” she said, “What’s—”

“I love you,” I breathed, “Calliope.” Her lips were parted as if she’d speak but she said nothing. I tried to laugh. “That’s okay, right? This time around.”

She let out a laugh. Loud, and giddy. And she nodded—she nodded vigorously.

 

“You and me, Harpie. You and me.”