One Tiny Leaf

Short stories and poems

In the past two years, I have written at least three alternate future/post-apocalyptic stories. I'm not sure why I occasionally circle back to that topic, but this one is the most tame of them.

On the nights we face home with our surface totally exposed to neighbors, friends, family, and pets, the observation deck is always full of people. We stand beside each other and quietly murmur about the minutiae of our lives before Bravo Colony, and we smile knowing that on nights like these, all those we’ve left behind can see us clearly almost without the help of a telescope. In the pristine compartments of the colony, not an inch of space was spared for anything as indulgent and potentially hazardous as a window. The observation deck was the ICAP design team’s great concession to the artists in the colony. No one regrets this decision now, as it is the only place where the fuss and rumble of daily living pauses, and we can be lonely together.

On nights like these, an oblivious young couple may meet under the vast limbs of genetically modified maple trees, fingers entwined, eyes and lips locked in blissful acknowledgement of only the present. When eventually they pause to see the people gathered around them, they would smile at each other in brief recognition that tonight we are full. On nights of waxing or waning, the couple would have had plenty of privacy, but on a full night, no one can bear to miss the sight of a continent drifting by or the Atlantic with a swirling storm moving unobstructed from the African shores.

It may be a broken place now, full of filth, disease, and chaos, but we don’t speak of what we don’t know. The saccharine smell of the maple sap and blooming honey suckle on the walls offers a sweet incense that only magnifies our memories of home. Under the enormous transparent dome, we quietly wonder if the daffodils have bloomed in our gardens yet, if the neighbors have ever bothered to repair their side of the fence, if the children have started using our front yard for impromptu soccer tournaments. We think about apple pie from the farmer’s market or the tart taste of the earliest picked strawberries. A vigorous debate hatches over which of our favorite monuments is the best, but no one asks which is likely to remain standing without intentional care.

Ten years ago, we gathered on a full night after the last transmission from home, and we clung to each other in silence only broken by heavy breathing and the throaty gulps of withheld sobs. Even the livestock workers who were still covered in the grime of the day had a hand to hold. We witnessed the surface North America disappear under a glowing haze. After the initial gasps and murmurs faded into aching quiet, a pregnant musician dropped her guitar, and the discordant twang of the strings hitting the tile floor filled the room with fragile, breaking echoes. She stood instinctively holding her protruding belly next to the Colony Surgeon General, who fell to his knees peering through his fingers at the eastern seaboard. A normally stoic man with a frigidity that inspired unquestioning obedience, he shook with visceral heaves, and none of us moved. The newly planted maples were lost in the crowd, and everyone stayed until each smoking continent had passed. We were onlookers of a great funeral procession except that we didn’t know for sure that our loved ones were dead.

In the months preceding that night, the Prime Minister had always called our attention back from staring at earth to the work at hand, survival, sustenance, and the project. During the weeks following his election, he had starting giving cryptic inspirational speeches that hinted at some new progressive goal. Formerly a nuclear physicist, he’d only been elected by a narrow margin against the very popular Chief of Food Distribution. In the end it was the physicist’s promises of an attainable goal in the near future, an all-encompassing project that would benefit all of humanity, if we could only trust him with our labor, resources, and time, that won the day. The majority saw a man who could provide for tomorrow versus the food distributor whose primary concern was the present and the status quo.

The new president encouraged us to lay aside the marginal duties of our original goal of making a future home for surplus populations from Earth and devote our spare time to the new project. We had each been hand selected by our respective governments for our abilities, cultural value, and genetics in order to build a sustainable proto-colony as a model for future endeavors. With the president’s promises of impending hope and peace, we readily quit our pet projects and focused on the task at hand.

The coming months were laden with surplus hours of work on the Bastien Project, as it became known. Named after the engineer who birthed the idea after weeks of calculation and labor, it caught like fire, and soon every department was engaged in the details and bringing it to fruition. The project first targeted the areas of the Earth most harmed by the earthquake that caused the later power vacuum in the United States. We agreed that the damage from the quake trumped the political fallout from the ensuing war because surely some sort of stalemate would follow as a natural result of our plan. The Prime Minister even hinted that we might be able to broker a lasting peace agreement between all of the opposing sides.

Of course breathable air would be an issue, since the tectonic shifting from the earth quake caused a volcanic eruption and consequential ash cloud. However, the atmospheric regulation team had already been working on a way to chemically engineer the molecules of our own enhanced breathing air, and they felt certain that with some tweaking, it could be applied planet wide. They were joined in this venture by the Terrain Development team who proposed population shifting and soil redirection as possible solutions to finding livable ground.

As the plans continued to develop, we exchanged smiles and high fives in passing. We became more familiar with our coworkers and more jovial with our friends. A sudden spike in pregnancies elated us further, and we felt confident that our children would one day feel wind and rain, see waves hitting golden shores, smell fresh cut grass, and all the simple joys of earthly existence. We began telling the young ones stories of seasons and change, mountains and sky, and they returned our stories with empty stares that we knew would one day be filled with all the beauty of a home they’d never known.

When the plans were nearly complete, we began our attempts to communicate them with the leaders of our respective countries. The Bravo Colony had never been able to communicate with the surface. It had been part of the sacrifice of choosing a stable location. When the Alpha Colony’s atmospheric regulators had been hit by a small meteor, we immediately moved Bravo to a sheltered valley beneath the crest of a crater. The ridge did not allow our signal to reach the satellite with clarity, and after the wars on earth, we had never received much communication from home anyway. So we continued our work of maintaining a sustainable lunar colony and assumed they’d contact us if anything changed.

Our first several hundred attempts failed, but the blinking transmitter lights from the observation deck and the visible but garbled response from the satellite told us we were not far from the answer. Six months passed from the first attempt, and the other departments began testing for their roles in the salvation of our neighbors. It was Christmas time when the first complete signal reached us from the satellite. We were still unable to call out to home, but we were able to see the recording our administrative contacts had sent. In his excitement, the Prime Minister decided that we should air the feed in the dining hall as inspiration for the final push on the Bastien Project.

When the first feed was projected on the wall, we turned from our table talk and familial chatter with bated breath. It was our first sight of home since our arrival in Bravo. The general commotion dimmed as a battered blonde scientist in a lab coat flickered on the eastern wall. She was standing at the fault line covered in sweat, dirt, and bruises. She gave her name and rank in the International Colonial Aerospace Project, and then she directed the camera to pan the landscape. It was pockmarked with smoking craters. The air was yellow and hazy. When the camera returned to her face, she said:

“This is not the epicenter. This is not even ground zero. This is just one of hundreds of ruined places here. The wars have not stopped. We have been bombing each other for years now, and intel reports state that the nukes are equally spread between all the sides here. From what we understand, the President intends to fire ours next week in the hopes that it will end the war. I’m sending you this message because we at ICAP do not believe in the success of a nuclear war. We believe that if he stays the course with this plan, there will be nothing left here.”

Here she paused to wipe away the rivulets of sweat pouring down her brow. She swallowed audibly and shook her head as she continued, “ Bravo, you are now officially on your own. We charge you with survival, with peace, with prosperity, with freedom. Use the technology that you have to find new resources elsewhere, but you cannot come back here unless you only wish to die with us. You are officially released from ICAP authority. It was a pleasure working with you all.”

“My God,” the Prime Minister said. “That transmission was dated five days ago.”

We rushed to the observation deck with panic that would not yield to any rationalization that there was nothing we could do. Not now, not months after trying to save them; we could not give up hope yet. It was the full night we have never escaped, and North America’s scarred face was partially hidden under clusters of smoke laden with radioactive debris and pieces of what some of us once called home. The guitar crashed to the ground, the Surgeon General fell to his knees and covered his face, the Prime Minister aged one hundred years with tears magnifying his wrinkles, and the rest of us could hardly look at each other. We could only stand together in communal agony and stare at the vanquished world we had hoped to save.

Ten years and two prime ministers later, we have expanded the colonial housing units to accommodate the next generation of adults. We have developed our technology and transport carriers to take us further faster in search of alternate fuel and food sources. While we know that we can never go home, we have never stopped telling our children stories about rain and wind, blue skies and wet grass, colorful birds, and all the terrestrial beauty forever out of their reach. Though we hardly speak of it, our most vivid dreams are haunted with lost senses, smells, sights, sounds and tastes that, upon waking, leave a residue of longing that carries us each full night to the observation deck.

This is a story I wrote quickly and discarded it just as quickly. Later I rediscovered it and touched it up a bit. I'm not sure if I'll add to it or not in the future, but here it is in its present form.

This is a beforeshock. The foretaste, a glimpse of an unknown truth on the horizon.

He leans forward and pushes his index finger into the space between his brows. She is talking about something mundane, her paycheck. Her boss must have shorted her again. The pain rotates to a place deep behind his eye, a place just above his ear. If he touches the place, it will look weird. Afterall, they are at a restaurant. The throbbing intensifies until it is a solid stream, no pulses, no pauses, just unbroken pain streaming to his right eye.

The beforeshock begins.

His left eye sees Angela talking, her bright red lips moving quickly. His right eye sees a rainforest from a bird’s eye view. The emerald canopy stretches out beneath him like a rugged carpet. Mists rise from the blurry horizon. The vision slowly focuses on a smaller section of trees, and he feels as though he is zooming in on something. The pain intensifies the closer he gets. Angela has disappeared from his left eye, and nothing is registering on that side. On the right, he can make out details of the trees, the shape of their leaves. Shadows move beneath the sprawling branches, but everything is still too blurry to see their shapes. Angela’s touch hits him like a wave, and the vision is gone. The pain is reduced to throbbing again.

“Adam? Can you hear me?” Angela’s voice quivers, and her blue eyes are huge as she whispers, “My God, what is happening to you?”

The obese blonde family at the table across from them are staring with their mouths open, and a pasty faced boy covered in bits of smeared food shouts, “Eew! He’s bleeding!”

Sure enough, his nose had bled onto his white dress shirt, and tiny scarlet drops rested ontop of his rice pilaf like shiny beads.

“I swear if you don’t call Dr. Nelson this week, I’m going to,” Angela’s voice disappears into the hum of the restaurant, and everything seems to be spinning around him.

“Ok, ok,” he mumbles, taking a guess at what she said. “I will. I’ll go see him, and we’ll figure it out.”

Angela insists on driving home after the horrified waitress clears their food and accepts a much higher tip than she deser ved. The headlights of oncoming cars swallow him and spit him back out after they pass. Adam covers his eyes and reclines the seat, trying to retain the image of the rainforest. Something important was happening there. That is how beforeshocks work, he figures. You see an important image of something that hasn’t happened yet, but the shock of it tears up your body.

Two weeks ago, Adam thought they were migraine induced hallucinations, but then he started reading blogs and web studies about other people who had experienced the same symptoms as him. Everyone described a similar pain followed by visions. One woman had seen her son’s death happen only three days before his fatal car crash, and she credited the beforeshock for enabling her to say goodbye. Another man saw a cottage by a familiar bend in a local river. He drove up and down the highway for days looking for it, and when he finally found it, a twin he never knew he had was cutting the grass on the front lawn. There were dozens of similar stories. No explanations, no acknoweldgement from creditable scientific institutions, not even any religious musings were offered, just story after story of excrutiating pain followed by haunting images.

The mechanical rumble of the garage door pulls Adam out of his musings. Angela pats his leg, which is still shaking involuntarily.

“Ok, we’re back. Why don’t you leave your shirt on the washer and go to bed?” she says as if talking to a sick child. “I’ll take Duke out and work on the bloodstain.”

Adam watches the English bulldog waddle out the door after Angela, and leaving the bloody shirt, he falls into the bed with his shoes still on and passed into a deep, empty sleep. The next seven days are uneventful, but as the sun rises during his Friday commute, Adam fearfully experiences the slow clench of the tightness that will later become a beforeshock. His sick days are gone. His supervisor, Tracy, eyes him with managerial suspicion as Adam walks to his desk rubbing his right temple. She will later drop a loaded hint about his lack of sick time, insinuating of course that he must stay at his desk or lose his job.

It happens as he is reconciling the second quarter Accounts Receivable revenues. The dull pain spikes. His fingers lose all feeling, and his stomach convulses. He is cold and can no longer contain the shakes. Tiny silver comets reign across his right line of vision. Tracy’s dark outline has faded into an approaching sea of treetops veined with tiny grey rivers. The computer screen is too bright for his left eye, and he closes it just as the blood drips from his right nostril onto the key board. Murmuring voices whisper his name, and someone’s hand rests on his shoulder as the forest draws nearer. Black smoke is rising between the densely gathered branches. Adam focuses on the smoke, trying to follow the whisping trail to its source, but a paramedic forces his eye open and the vision evaporates into an excruciating white flashlight beam.

After a series of medical imaging tests on his head, the doctors conclude that intense migraines are applying pressure to areas of his brain that trigger the release of visual memories that are too deeply stored to have any conscious meaning to his short term memory.

“What you are likely seeing,” says Dr. Roberts, the leading neurologist at St. Mary’s, “is the visual memory of something that impressed you as a child or adolescent. Perhaps a place you visited or wanted to visit or simply something your memory catalogued and stored. In any case, it is being brought to your attention now because of the chemical imbalance caused by your migraines. It’s the same every time because your brain now associates this image with the migraine.”

The explanation continues, but Adam has stopped listening. Dr. Roberts had immediately dismissed the beforeshock theory as urban legend on par with gators in the sewer system and alien designed crop circles. Adam knows the forest is a place he’s never seen before, that it is not important as an image but because something is happening there. He accepts Dr. Roberts prescription without question or complaint, and he fills it to placate Angela. The following morning, he drops the first pill down the disposal in the kitchen sink. Maybe it would help the pain, and maybe it would dissipate the visions. But then, Adam would never know the significance of the forest and the smoke.

“Maybe it’s stress,” Angela says on Tuesday. “We should get away, somewhere tropical and beachy. You still owe me a honeymoon anyway.”

It had been almost a year since their tiny wedding in a mountain chapel. Neither of them had accrued enough vacation time to go anywhere special, so they spent a weekend in the city and returned to work Monday in the hope of taking a real honeymoon in a year or so.

He smiles at her. “You’re probably right, on both counts. Let’s take the Belize trip you found a couple of months ago.”

Seven days in a resort on a paradisical coastline with Angela sounds restorative, and suddenly he wants to leave the dreary midwest winter immediately.

“Let’s go soon,” he shouts up the stairs as she searches for her planner in the office.

Sunrise on Friday brings the pain again. This time the beforeshock comes late. After Angela has retired for the evening, Adam’s head is too tender to even touch a pillow, but rather than saying anything to Angela. He turns the television on and selects an action film that she is sure to hate.

“I’m not sleepy yet,” he says hoping that he isn’t overacting while he tries to contain the pain.

They exchange goodnight kisses, and after she is gone, he removes his shirt and wraps a navy towl around his neck. No tell-tale bloodstains this time. He has just returned to the couch when it starts. The familiar stab behind his eye, the slow revolution of the room, the silver rips across reality and the vision opens to him.

The trees approach more quickly this time, and the branches reach up to embrace him as the descent continues. He is following the smoke trail, it’s undulating black path uncoiling before him. As Adam strains to see through the thick foilage to the source of the smoke, he can feel a warm trickle of blood making it’s way down his face like thick tears. He can feel the tremors in his legs, but the pain has dissolved into emerald beauty all around him. This is as close as he has ever been to the trees. The descent has slowed enough for him to spot jewel colored birds perching in the branches and broad petaled pink and orange blossoms drooping from dark curling branches that part as he passes. The forest floor is alive with movement, and though the images on the ground are still blurred, Adam thinks he can see the outline of people moving quickly in various directions.

A heavy weight on his chest and slurping in his ears awaken him, and Adam opens his eyes just in time for a full face encounter with Duke. After the shakes subside, Adam goes to bed beside an unconscious Angela.

Ten uneventful days later, they board a plane bound for Belize. Angela is wearing a crimson sundress with a white cardigan, and she is the image of a dark haired American beauty on a tropical vacation. As they take their seats, Adam’s right temple throbs. She has generously given him the window seat, and she clenches his hand as they take off, leaving snow laden pines far beneath them.

The first two legs of the trip and subsequent layovers occur without incident. The further south they travel, the more intensely Adam’s head hurts. By the time their third and final flight takes off, she has had a few drinks and is too relaxed to notice the pain he can barely conceal. They are twenty minutes from their destination when Adam glances out the window and sees it. The forest, his forest. The rivers and trees align perfectly with the vision, and the beforeshock begins.

He sees it with both eyes this time. The silver comets swirl surround him tearing away the cabin of the plane one tiny illuminated streak at a time. He glances at Angela’s dozing face and holds her hand. Behind the rips, a new vision opens, and the pain in his head reaches a new apex. He hears his own scream joining a chorus of other voices, and it is too loud to tell if they are screaming or singing. New colors emerge around him blurry and whirling into each other in frenzied motion. The shapes reform into silouttes of partnered dancers hurrying on a coiled black surface. Lights flash all around him, and the pain never dulls. But Adam does not lose focus. The chorus, the dancers, the lights all pulse to the same rhythm. One, two, one, two they synchronize like a heartbeat, like his heart beat. His breathing matches the pace.

The blossoms and colorful birds have passed, and he knows there only moments before he finally sees the end of the smoke trail. The dancers gather around him, and silver swirls above. He feels the undulation of the trail matching the rhythm of his heart. The branches finally part, and he sees jagged silver pebbles nestled in a bright green carpet. The smoke rises thickest here, and just past it, past the rocks and the carpet, beneath them in the glistening sunlight, an ocean with a pure white shore stretches endlessly to the horizon. The coastline under that emerald carpet and smoke beckons to Adam with longing more intense than the pain. People are waiting for him on the shore. He mustn’t look back or they’ll disappear. The silver pebbles grow into boulders and then buildings. Adam can feel the warm water on his neck and arms, smell the salt heavy breeze. The people call his name, and he thinks Angela is with them, smiling and waving. One final burst of pain thrusts him into the warm white sand where he was always supposed to be.

When the recovery crew finds Adam, his fingers are still locked tightly around Angela’s, her wedding ring embedded in his palm. But his face is still looking longingly out the window.

About One Tiny Leaf

I see my writing as one tiny leaf on a great big tree of budding authors. While I hope to one day publish professionally and find a community of writers and readers, for the present this blog allows me the space to put my work to the test. I welcome any constructive comments and feedback.