Alice has forgotten most of the feelings of home. She can’t remember the heat of the sun on her skin, or the sound of cicadas, or the taste of water that hasn’t gone through miles of filtration. Sometimes her father tells stories, trying to help her recreate the sensations that she has lost.
“Back home, in summer, all the trees would put out their leaves. Everything would get so lush, it was like walking through green tunnels.”
Dad shows Alice a picture. A young girl looks thoughtfully at a sunflower twice as tall as she is.
“It’s so hard to grow flowers like that here. They need so much water, and space…”
Alice takes the picture and examines it.
“I wish we didn’t have to move.”
“I know, sweetheart. But we’re lucky that mom has the job she does.”
“Do you think we’ll ever be able to go back?”
Dad gives Alice a small smile.
“If your mother’s work goes well, I think so. I’d like to go back too. I really would. And I know that mom is doing everything she can to figure out how.”
Dad walks out, but leaves Alice the picture.
Alice’s favorite grown-up is Dr. Pauda, who works with her mother. Dr. Pauda has a funny accent, can pull a coin out of Alice’s ear, and most importantly lets Alice help out in the lab when she gets bored.
“Your mother works with air – how to make it cleaner, pull out all the toxins and pollutants we’ve pumped into it, and make it into something a human can breathe safely again. My job is similar, but with soil and plants.”
Dr. Pauda walks into a closet and brings out two haz-mat suits. He gives the smaller one to Alice before putting on his own and picking up a box full of beakers. Each beaker has a clear liquid in it.
“Are you ready?”
Alice nods, faceless in her suit. Dr. Pauda goes over to a door. He presses a button and it opens with a hiss of escaped air. Ushering Alice inside, he turns around and closes it. After a moment of pitch black, a soft red light turns on. In the dull glow Dr. Pauda opens a second door, again closing it behind them after they pass through.
The room is lit from above by sun-lamps, which spill rich beams onto rows and rows of white plastic boxes of dirt. Most of them are fallow, but some have tiny green seedlings doggedly pushing their way towards the artificial sun. Dr. Pauda passes Alice half the beakers.
“Today, use one full beaker each per box, on rows twenty through twenty five.”
Alice nods and sets off through the stark white light.
Later, they have hot sweet tea and cookies (“don’t tell your mother”).
“Did any of them work today?”
“No, not today.”
That night, Alice dreams of green tunnels. She is walking barefoot through the forests she cannot remember, breathing the clean air her mother strives for, dirtying her feet in the soil Dr. Pauda cannot create. The trees lean over each other, bows arching across the sky, making a royal hall for Alice to proceed down. By the roots of the trees are sunflowers, their heads heavy as they bow before Alice, turning as she passes by.
The next day, Alice goes back to Dr. Pauda.
“Can I have a plant?”
Dr. Pauda looks up from his work.
Alice nods. Dr. Pauda shrugs.
“I suppose I can spare some of the ones we’ve finished with. Would you like a ficus or a wisteria?”
Alice takes the ficus back to her room. Her shutters are open and outside is a thick black night, punctuated here and there by pinpricks of stars. She places the ficus on her windowsill and gives it water until liquid starts pooling on top of the soil.
In the morning, it is already dead.
“You gave it too much water. We bred these to be really dry-growing. They hardly need more than a cup every few days.”
Alice has her eyes fixed on the ground.
“What’s wrong, Alice?”
“I killed it.”
Dr. Pauda kneels in front of her.
“We’ve all done it.”
That night Alice dreams again. Confused dreams, of forests razed and sunflowers withering in the heat, of smoke staining the sky black and of people stoking the fires anyway, letting them burn and burn and burn until everyone chokes on the fumes. She wakes up thinking of green tunnels.
Over the next few months Alice tries to build one of her own. She refuses to let her parents into her room, only telling them to please wait. First she plants a window-box of wisteria, then a second ficus. Dr. Pauda gradually lets Alice take morning glories, white asters, clover, tomatoes that she can hang from her ceiling. For her birthday he surprises her with a sunflower, which gets its own pot and a special place near the head of her bed.
“I thought these were too hard to grow here…” Dr. Pauda just smiles at her.
“You can open your eyes now.”
Dad doesn’t say anything at first. The room has become a jungle. The walls have vanished in a covering of bluegrass, and when dad stands up his head bumps into tomatoes, gets tangled in wisteria hung with purple-white blooms. The floor is carpeted in rich neon moss, with only a narrow winding path of slate grey lichen leading to Alice’s bed. Underneath the bed mushrooms squat in the dark. The air is damp with moisture and heady with the lives of growing things. The sunflower towers, but never stops nodding demurely to its caretaker.
“Is it like home was?” Alice asks anxiously. Dad can only stare.
“It’s beautiful, honey.”
Outside, it is dark. When Dad leaves and turns off the light, the mushrooms beneath the bed begin to glow.
Alice has never heard her parents fight before, and it scares her. Curled up under the covers of her bed, she hears it through the crack under the door. Getting up, she peeks through. Dad looks furious as he paces around the room.
“How can you just give up like this?” he shouts.
Alice’s mother has her arms wrapped around her chest. Her face is pinched, and pale, and she is looking down. She speaks quietly.
“I just don’t know what to do anymore… Jon, I’m tired. I’ve tried everything. Over and over… For ten years.”
“But you said you’d find a way! For us! For our daughter!”
“I was never sure, I only hoped, I really thought I might… the facilities up here are so limited, maybe if I had better equipment…” She falls silent.
“We came here because we believed in you! I believed! Or I would have stayed at home and suffocated with everyone else!”
Suddenly Alice’s mother looks up. Her hands tighten into fists.
“I never said I’d given up,” she says through gritted teeth. “There just might not be a solution in our lifetime.”
Dad stops pacing.
Alice hears Dad start to cry, and that scares her more than anything.
“I told Alice we might go home…”
“It stopped being home a long time ago.”
Alone in her room Alice snuggles back into the covers. She wishes she could remember the green tunnels, even if thinking about them makes Dad cry. The bed is backlit by the phosphorescent mushrooms and in their light Alice looks out at the ever-present darkness.
It is gorgeous. Stars wheeling across the sky, planets strung out in dizzying orbits, galaxies scattered like dust in a breeze… and gently rotating on its axis, a solitary blue planet. Alice looks at her sunflower. It bends down low over her, as if it is about to whisper something in her ear. Some sunflower secret, a recipe for good clean air her mother doesn’t know…
“But you can’t talk,” Alice says quietly.
The sunflower bows its head.
Image: I caught the sun by Sarah Horrigan