The Mother that Made Me.
Cold and wet and smacked with air. I scream until I feel a familiar heartbeat. Smell of milk, and beyond that, the smell of lavender. Blooming in fields that stretch to touch the horizon. Home. Safe. Warm. Warm like the burning sun in the burning sky.
The New Boy Who I Kissed Behind the Door at School.
His name is Dallas, which is a place that seems very far away and exotic, and he wears a dinosaur backpack. I like triceratopses. He has blond hair and blue eyes that are the color of my blanket. His skin is the color of cereal. When he sighs, it reminds me of the way my mommy sighs when she looks at the dry farmland outside with all her dead herbs shriveled up, and all I want to do is tell him it will be all right even though I don’t know if that’s true. Instead, I tell him to come with me onto the playground at recess and we sing that song “Rain Rain Go Away” but with the words changed around so the rain will come back.
The Boy with the Dimples at the Gas Station.
The fires are coming in over the mountains, hot, red, and fast, consuming everything in their path. They eat the trees in huge, whooshing gouts, take their time through the wild grasses and fields of lavender, and nibble on the stucco siding of our one-story farmhouse.
Home is where the heart is until it’s not. Until you’re running for the car and shoving into the backseat with the only thing you could think to grab, a stupid third-grade soccer trophy because it was within reach when the sirens went off. Until you’re crying like a baby watching your home turn into a bonfire and then just a wisp of smoke in the distance while you clutch that hunk of spiky gold plastic to your chest. Then your home is just ash. Then home is nothing.
We drive for hours, Mom, Dad, my brother Andy, and me, and Mom is crying and Dad keeps saying “at least we’re together” like it’s a magic spell that can bring everything back.
We drive past more burning houses and the blackened ruins that the fires have left behind. Whole cities have been flattened beneath its gluttonous hunger. We drive forever. Driving and driving until I don’t know where we are and I’m tired from crying. Then we stop.
Mom sends me into the gas station to grab water and snacks for everyone while she fills up the tank.
Inside the store, the air is cold and crisp as an apple. Huney Buns and Slim Jims are displayed in neat rows on the shelves and everything smells like a pleasant mixture of bleach and hot dog water. I don’t realize I’m hungry until I get inside. I don’t realize I’m dirty with soot until I see my reflection in the doors of the soda aisle. I don’t realize I’m in love until he smiles.
“Let me help you with that,” he says, reaching up to grab the Coke I’ve been eyeing.
He says it slow and shy like he’s afraid I might startle, like I’m a deer he’s found wounded in the woods, and he smiles the same way: slow and shy. He’s around my age, probably working a summer job, but he doesn’t carry himself with that same overeager awkwardness that the other boys do. His movements are careful and kind.
I trip over his dimples, the size of moon craters, and words fall out of my mouth in a tumble. “We lost our house.”
He nods. “Lotta people had that happen lately. Where are you headed now?”
I want to watch his lips move forever. They’re a dark, golden brown like the rest of his face, but his bottom lip turns pink towards the center like a rose petal.
“East. To the city,” I say, biting my own lip.
“Yeah, they say it’s safer there. My aunt moved all the way to New York. She said they built giant walls to keep the hurricanes away.”
“Do they work?” I ask. “The walls, I mean.”
I want to talk to him more, find out about his aunt and him and his parents and why they stay even though they keep seeing people like me pass through every day, people with dirty hair and sooty faces. But maybe the answer is obvious. Maybe he stays for the same reason we stayed and stayed and stayed. Even as we saw the fire coming down the coast. Even as we lost Redding and Chico and Santa Rosa and Sacramento. Why did we cling to the land like that? Like it would spare us?
I’m suddenly embarrassed and angry. Betrayed. We were so stupid. I look so stupid.
My mom’s car horn blares from outside. I want to loop my arm around his waist and take him with me so I can keep staring at his rose petal mouth and watch his hands rearrange things into straight, safe lines. Even that he does kindly, like he doesn’t want to disturb the chips in the bags when he moves them.
“Sounds like you’ve got to go,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say.
The Girl with the Box Braids from Fourth Period.
We lose almost everything in the fire, and so we drive and drive until we end up in Chicago sharing a three-bedroom apartment with another family. My parents sleep in shifts. With its dirty streets packed full of people and its bitter cold winds, I think we might have been better off in the fire. The people here like to talk about the good old days when there were a sixth as many bodies packed into the city limits and everyone kept to themselves. But I can’t imagine a world like that anymore. A world without elbows and knees and twenty million anonymous faces staring back at you as you walk down the streets.
I live though. My family lives. We make it work in this horrible garbage city because it’s safe from the fires of the West and the floods of the East and the tornadoes of all the places in the middle. Because Chicago is the city that looks out for itself. It ran a river backwards. It built the giant, whipping wind dispersers and the industrial temperature panels to protect itself, and to hell with all the little suburbs that got screwed in the process.
Mom grows lavender in the windowsill, a bit of basil, and thyme. She makes me water them—thirsty, greedy creatures—and makes me smell their sweet, soapy aroma.
“Look how hard they fight to live,” she says, pointing out the way the stalks bend towards the sun. “I like a plant with sass. It reminds me of how the world used to be before all this.”
Sometimes we take walks up the lakeside with its murky water and trash-filled beaches and pretend it’s nature. But we do it less and less until the only thing I’ve got left is staring up at the skyscrapers and wishing they were redwoods.
We get older this way. We forget things without realizing it: my elementary school teachers, the color of our old front door, the name of the place we got ice cream in the summer. We’ve only spent a year within the confines of the city, and Andy’s already forgotten the smell of fresh-tilled soil.
But tonight I forget everything. I’m drunk on Wild Turkey with the girl with the box braids who just moved in across the hall, and we’re on our rooftop looking out over the city.
“What was California like? You know, before the fires?”
“Nothing,” I say, beating back memories of purple fields and blue skies. “It was always fires.”
Abby nods. “I don’t remember a time before the hurricanes were trying to chase us from Charlotte. No one knew the water could even make it so far inland. But every month, another one. It took us in inches.”
“Why didn’t we leave sooner? Why did any of us stay as long as we did? We could have gotten here early, gotten our own apartment before all this crowding and ugliness. That would have been the smart thing to do. Smarter than staying there just watching the fires creep up.”
“Why is here any better?” Abby asks. Her smile is a slow curve up one side of her face, and her eyelid on the opposite side droops just a little—the result of an accident from when they were escaping the flood. It gives her an amused look, like she’s got a secret that no one can share.
“It’s safe here, at least,” I say.
“It’ll get us eventually though. The dust, the rain. The heat, the wind. Something will get us. There’s always something.”
She hands the bottle back to me and we stare over the lip of the building at the sky. It’s too bright to see much. Too many lights shining from cars and uncurtained windows and neon signs over shitty grocery stores. But you can still make out a few stars: shining pinpricks of light out in all that empty space.
I turn to Abby, letting that static charge build in the empty space between us, feeling the hairs on her arms tingle against mine, and wondering what it would be like if it were just me and her in all the universe. Cold black space and warm black skin. “Why don’t we run away then,” I say, emboldened by youth and liquor and the electricity between us.
She laughs and breaks the tension, her voice more intoxicating than the Wild Turkey. She doesn’t say that we’re basically strangers or that we’re just kids or anything like that. Instead, she looks out over the city and sighs. “But where would we go?”
I don’t run away until years later. Instead I find myself twirling my fingers through the thick basil leaves in the windowsill, getting the smell on my fingers and wondering why the Earth hated us so much and why we didn’t fight it back with equal vigor.
In school, I study the stars.
The Woman on the Greyhound with the Longchamp Bag.
The summer before my senior year of college, when disease takes my mom, eating up her bones and turning them to chalk, I walk out of the hospital, down the street to the bus stop and don’t look back.
Andy and Dad keep calling me, but I don’t answer. I am untethered. I pass from bus stop to bus stop, not caring where I am or who I’m with or what I’m doing, and wondering nothing except where I’m going to lay my head that night. Sometimes I don’t even care about that.
There aren’t many places to go anymore, but I don’t care to stay in Illinois with all its memories. Texas is gone. Florida, Nevada, and Louisiana too. And most of the east coast is waterlogged. But New York keeps persisting like a stubborn cold, so that’s vaguely where I’m heading. I remember the boy from the gas station and wonder if his aunt’s still alive out there.
A woman sits down beside me.
Her face is a perfect oval. Thick brown lashes frame brown eyes that are neatly rimmed by dark brown eyeliner. She’s beautiful for sure, but what gets me is her fingernails. They’re cut short with just a centimeter of whites showing, filed smooth, and clean. Her cuticles speak to me of someone well cared for and well loved, someone not so stressed and worried and messed up that they’ve chewed their own away. She looks as if she’s stepped out of another world. In my mind I spin out a cozy, middle-class life for her where nothing bad has ever happened—the kind you see in old sitcoms. I imagine her as delicate, but not because she’s weak, just inexperienced. And I imagine putting her head against my chest and holding her as she discovers how cruel life really is.
I want to hold her perfect hands in my own and kiss her fingers. I want to make her coffee in the morning and deliver it to her while she’s still asleep, naked and sprawled out in our bed. I want to step into her clean, unburnt skin. I want to say hello.
She looks at me, catching my gaze, and for a second I am so hopelessly in love that I freeze.
She tells me her name is Lilly.
She tells me she’s running away to New York to have her baby.
I tell her everything.
The Girl Who Knows Nothing Yet.
Six months later, Lilly’s baby is born at 4:03 in the morning on January 18. She is 7 pounds 11 ounces. I remember these numbers for the rest of my life. We name her Grace.
The Girl Who I Rock to Sleep at Night. The Girl Who Loves Bubbles. The Girl Whose First Word Is “Bird”. The Girl Who Will Now Only Eat Bananas When Previously She Did Not Even like Bananas, and What Am I Even Supposed to Do with That.
Every time I see her, it is like the first time. Even when she’s screaming. Even when I am so dead tired that I see dark visions in my periphery. Even when I feel like a monster because I have to go to work and she is there on the floor clinging to my leg begging, “Stay me, Mommy. Stay me.”
Every day, I fall in love with her anew.
The Girl Who Turns Four Today.
“What’s a spaceship?” Grace asks. I’m trying to show her how to water the little garden I’ve started in the windowsill, but she’s not paying attention.
“It’s exactly what it says in the name,” I say. “It’s a ship that takes you into space.”
“Because the Earth is too dangerous. It keeps trying to hurt us, so I’m working to get us to a safer place,” I explain. Lilly convinced me to finish my degree remotely, and after that I managed to get a spot on one of the many aerospace companies finding a way off the planet.
“But why is it trying to hurt us?”
“Because…” The question stumps me. All my answers are bitter: because life is cruel; because the world is hateful; because we messed it all up and it’s messing us up in return. But they don’t feel right. Grace plucks a leaf from the basil plant to put in her mouth and makes a face at its herby sharpness.
“It’s just leaves, Mommy,” she says as if I’ve betrayed her.
“It’s leaves now, but when you cook it up, it actually tastes pretty sweet.”
Her eyes grow wide and I laugh and think for a second that maybe Earth is not entirely heartless. At least it gives me this. I pull my daughter in, overcome with joy and blow a raspberry on her belly, making her scream with laughter.
Lilly watches from the doorway, smiling at us, her hair wet from the shower. I put Grace down and walk over. The smell of her body wash reminds me of the farm back in California before it all turned to smoke, and I bury my face in her neck, breathing in memory.
Something buzzes in my pocket: a familiar alarm. We both freeze. The weather notices have been going off more and more frequently. The wall that holds back the ocean is strong, but every time it rains, we lose something new. Once, we took a boat out to see the remains of Coney Island, just rusting metal and gaping clown faces grinning at you from above the water.
I let go and reach for my phone. Flood warning.
“Will we have to evacuate?” Lilly asks.
I pull up more details. “No, we’ll be fine. Work might be closed.”
The tension in Lilly’s face relaxes and Grace cheers. Flood days mean we both get to stay with her. No preschool. Her excitement makes her wiggly, and she runs across the room to where her presents sit on the kitchen counter. Brightly colored bags stuffed with old newspaper. She clambers up like a monkey and tries to shuffle the papers around to see what’s inside.
“Not yet, Peanut,” Lilly says and pulls her away. “You have to wait until you blow out your candles.”
For a second the two of them are silhouetted against the small window, grey light peering in from behind the rain clouds and I ache with a heavy sort of happiness.
The View of the City from the Hurricane Walls.
“Look! There’s the Statue of Liberty,” I say, pointing.
“There’s my school!” Grace shouts.
“The Empire State Building,” Lilly says.
“The park!” says Grace.
“You can’t see the park from here, silly.”
“I can see everything from here,” she says with the wisdom of all her six years.
I’ve never been religious, but as I look out over the city, Lilly’s hand in mine, I understand the Bible a little bit: why Adam named the animals, I mean.
Names have power, and in naming the city, its power courses through me. I know this place now. I know the pace of its streets and which bus to take to get to the Brooklyn Museum. I know the length of its sidewalks and the dingy bodegas on its corners. I know its parks, its trees, its canals. And once you really know somewhere, you have to love it.
My heart flutters up in my throat as the realization hits me hard and fast. This is home. Again. Again. Again. No matter how far I run, no matter how I fight, the earth keeps calling me back.
“What are you thinking about?” Lilly asks, once Grace has settled down with a sandwich onto the picnic blanket we’ve spread out.
“The city. Everything. Out there, it’s…” I can’t bring myself to call it beautiful. Not yet. “Not all bad.”
“I know, right?” Lilly says. “I wish I could take her back to Oklahoma and show her where I grew up, the big sky, the red earth. See where she comes from.”
I put a hand over hers. She never talks much about why she left: the trash youth minister and his threats. But she talks about Oklahoma so much I feel as if I’ve grown up there too. My memories twisting in with her storytelling, the open sky above Anadarko mixing in with the sunset over Chicago, the flat earth looking like endless concrete sidewalks and California soil.
“She’d have loved it,” I say.
“What if we…” She stops herself.
“What? Stayed? It’s too dangerous. You know that.”
“It’s safe here, though, right? And that bill just passed—all that money going into climate reversal research. Restabilization something—”
“For now. But who knows how long it’ll take for that to go into effect, and after that there’s no way to know for sure it’ll work, or when. It could be decades. Centuries.”
“I just… I want so much more for her than what we had. We’re stuck here behind these walls just waiting for everything to end. I want to give her the whole world.”
“You’ll give her the stars,” I say, trying to lighten the dark mood that’s settled over us both.
She chuckles, but it’s a sound made mostly to humor me. “Yeah. It’s not the same though, is it?”
She’s right. Out across the water, the sunset is reflecting off the glass skyscrapers and the sparkling flickers of night lights are just startling awake—the city is golden.
The Forgiveness I Know I Don’t Deserve.
His face is new. The same, but still new. Everything is broader, as if his features decided to relax on his face: wider nostrils, thicker, bushier eyebrows that remind me of Mom, doughier cheeks. Andy shows up at my office—my photo’s on the website; it isn’t hard to find—without calling ahead, and drops his bag on the floor. Smiling. Big. Bigger than I remember him ever smiling before, and for a second I’m frozen like a trapped animal. Not out of fear. It’s shame.
“Are you going to give your little brother a hug?”
I go to him, hug him, and it all feels alien and familiar at the same time. Warm.
“You’ve gotten bigger,” I say, pulling away.
“So have you,” he says. I’m quiet as he looks around my office, whistling appreciatively. He eyes the photograph on my table: Lilly, Grace, and me. He points. “Yours?”
“Yeah. Gracey’s seven now.”
I nod and babble something about how kids are a handful while my mind races. Why didn’t I call after I left? Why didn’t I visit? It made sense at the time, shame and sadness stretching days into weeks into months into years until the chasm of time opened up and swallowed my intentions whole. “How’s Dad?” I ask finally, scared of the answer
“Good. Good,” he says. “Well, sort of good. He would have come along but he had radiation scheduled. Skin cancer. I mean, he’s not terminal or anything, don’t worry. And we managed to score him a really great doctor at Northwestern Memorial—just fantastic. Degrees out the wazoo.”
I laugh at the word “wazoo” because it sounds just like Dad. But that only makes me feel worse. “Fuck. Cancer,” I say, not knowing what to do with my hands. “I’m sorry I never called.”
“I know,” Andy says. “This really wasn’t meant to be a guilt trip or anything. I mean, we were mad at first, super mad, but then it just… we just missed you.”
We talk until the rest of the office clears out and my phone rings. It’s Lilly asking if I’m coming home late, and I tell her my brother is coming for dinner without asking him. We eat leftover fried rice that’s been re-fried with an egg on top. Hot, slick, and fragrant with sesame oil, extra crispy. Grace is shy of my brother at first, but warms up after he starts telling stories of when we were little. I am surprised at how much I forgot, his words filling in the holes in my memory and patching them over with his own.
When conversation turns to work, I get quiet and awkward. This is what I think is coming: he’s going to ask me for a seat on the spaceship. It’s what everyone’s been doing. Asking, hinting. Sometimes even bribing. I’ll probably even get him one with all the shame I’ve been burying.
But instead, this:
“That’s why I came,” he says. “To say goodbye. I got offered a seat way back in February but turned it down, so I’m not going with you.”
“What?” I say, dumbstruck. “Why?”
“Oh, I mean, I just assumed you’d be going. I’m not wrong, am I? It’s history repeating itself,” he says. “You leaving. Me staying.”
“No. I mean why are you staying?”
He laughs. “Where would I go? We’re farmers. Farmers belong on Earth.”
“Farmers belong in Chicago?”
“Well, sort of farmers,” he corrects himself. “It’s just what we call ourselves at Compass Climate. Kind of like a nickname. I’m part of the re-habitation program, trying to make it all grow again, turn back the clock, fix what’s broke, that whole thing.”
Lilly lights up. “I’ve been reading about them—the dam removals and the re-seeding, those little algae that scrub carbon dioxide and poop out oxygen. That’s you?”
“I’m just on the re-seeding group. Starting with a test plain in Illinois, and working our way out from there. Trying to get the mixture right so it’s as close to natural as we can get. You’d be surprised at how hard it is to find heritage switchgrass.”
Lilly goads him for more information, impressed, curious. He explains more about the work finding seeds, searching archives for old explorers’ diaries and agricultural texts, the biology, the chemistry, the engineering the whole undertaking requires.
“It’s funny it worked out this way,” he says turning to me. “You were always the one with the green thumb.”
I snort. “That was Mom.”
“No,” he says, pointing at the windowsill, which has grown over with lavender and rosemary to accompany my unruly basil. “You always said you hated it, but you never really did.”
Lilly nods. “Grace is learning too, and she’s getting pretty good at it. They’ve got a tomato plant on the fire escape that she’s been tending to herself. First time she saw a tomato on there, you should have seen her face. Pure joy. She came running in and asked if we could make salad with it.”
I try to protest: it wasn’t that big of a deal, and Grace had made a huge mess bringing the whole plant back in through the window with her. But Andy just laughs. “Yeah. That’s my sister: shoving her hands in the soil and then complaining about the dirt.” He pauses, as if holding in a breath. Then release. “That’s why Dad thinks you left, you know. It’s why I think you’re leaving now. You love it so much that you’re afraid of losing it. So you leave first.”
Lilly puts a hand on my arm and gives it a squeeze. “I think I’ll go check on Grace. Sounds like you two have a lot more to talk about.”
That Look of Hers that Means She Understands Without Even Trying.
There’s a dive bar that’s been around since the time of the dinosaurs. It’s dark, full of heavy wood and vintage beer advertisements, and the specials are all written on the mirror behind the bar in sharpie. On warm nights, they open up the back door and let the crowd spill into the narrow concrete backyard, faces aglow in fairy lights. They’ve got a good veggie burger, too, and sometimes Lilly and I will come here after a movie when we’ve paid the sitter to stay late.
This is the last time we sit here, facing each other under the moon, our napkins stained with French fry oil. The last day we have on Earth before the shuttle takes off.
Her nails are still perfect. Always have been. Always will be, even here at the end of the world. But I do not take her hand and kiss her fingers the way I want to. Instead she takes mine. Soft and slow as if I might startle.
I take a breath, ready to spill out my feelings in a rush, all my second guessing and guilt and worry and sadness and explain what a coward I am and how I’m sorry I’m like this, so indecisive and selfish and… but she goes first
“You want to stay,” she says. Her voice is calm.
It’s not a question, but I answer anyway. “I don’t want to run anymore.”
Home is where the heart is until your home is on fire and also underwater and being blown away into dust. Sometimes you lock your heart away because your home is fighting you like a teenager who can’t understand how much you really fucking love them until it’s too late. And sometimes you have to leave your heart behind so you can run. So you can travel as fast as your legs can carry you, searching for new homes in new places that won’t break you quite so hard.
But every so often, your home and your heart line up. Sometimes you can kiss your heart on the forehead and hold your other heart’s hand while you all watch the shuttle take off, your feet still and solid on the home you’ve chosen for yourself. Sometimes you promise your heart that you’re going to make your home better. You’re going to fix everything humanity ruined, because one day your little heart will know what it’s like to grow lavender in a field wider than the eye can see.
For a while, after the spaceship leaves, Lilly, Grace, and I don’t know what to do with ourselves. There’s no school and no work and no nothing. We take a walk in the park and duck through the quiet museum, touching things we know we shouldn’t until the last security guard in Brooklyn shoos us away. Protecting their home the way I’m doing mine.
We’ve got a flight out to Chicago the next morning, but tonight we sit on the roof of our building and marvel at how empty everything feels, how quiet. A cold wind tickles my neck, and stretched out across the horizon is that same golden city I fell in love with.
It makes me think of a poem Lilly always liked: “The world is too much with us.” And I wonder if maybe it’s not that the world is too much with us, but that we are too much with this world. We are made of its earth, of its water and sky. And that’s why we have such trouble leaving. It’s why we stay and stay and stay.
I think of all the running I’ve done, fighting the part of Earth that’s always been inside me, and am overcome with exhaustion.
Sometimes home is where the heart is. And then sometimes home is just you, sitting with the choices that you’ve made on this beautiful, dangerous, glorious, garbage planet. This planet you chose to save. This planet you chose to love. With your heart telling you it’s okay.
(Editors’ Note: “A Catalog of Love at First Sight” is read by Stephanie Malia Morris and Brit E. B. Hvide is interviewed by Lynne M. Thomas on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 28B.)
© 2019 Brit E. B. Hvide