Father’s leaves are wilting again. The bright green sprouting from his temples is tipped with crusty brown along the margins. He runs a finger across his scalp, parting the foliage on one side, treating it with as much respect as a comb-over.
“Father, you need to get outside,” I say, although I may as well be talking to myself.
He pulls up his visor. “What, Child?”
I cup one of his leaves in my hands. “You need sun. Look at these.”
He doesn’t bother turning his head to look; instead, he plucks a leaf, inspects it for half a second, and tosses it on the floor as if it were a stray grey hair.
“Chill, Child. It’ll grow back. I won’t starve.” He pulls the visor back down and returns to whatever virtual event is keeping him occupied in the land of the non-existent.
“You should come outside with us, Husband.” Mother walks into the room holding the jar of red Chlorokill and pops the lid.
“It’s primetime,” he says as if that explains everything. Father holds out his hand without hesitation. If only my voice could encourage such an instant reaction.
Mother gives him his dose and then opens my palm. She gasps as she places my red pill among the new foliage.
“Oh, Child. We should ask the geneticist to up your dose.” Mother casts her eyes from me and sighs. “Enough to feed is one thing, but sprouting on your hands!” She pops her own pill and whacks the jar on the sideboard with a thud. “We need to keep you more in balance. You could end up with leaves everywhere if we aren’t careful.”
I run my fingers across the leaves on my palm and feel the tiny salt crystals on their surface. Mother doesn’t notice what lies hidden among the leaves or her outburst would be so much worse. I close my fist on the pill and the small white four-petalled flower.
“Can we go to the bay, Mother?” I ask.
Mother casts me a stern look, but then relaxes and picks up the ignition stick. “Fine, but I’m not walking.” She saunters to the front door and hits the window control button on her way. The glass loses its dark tint and the room fills with bright light. Its warmth engulfs and comforts, but it is not enough for me.
Father shifts in his seat. “What the heck!”
“Your daughter is right,” says Mother. “If you won’t feed outside, at least absorb some sunlight. There is no food out there unless you make your own.” She leaves Father to bask indoors and leads the way through the enclosed alleyway to the car park. The neighbour’s pod is out. Presumably they are also capitalising on the more subdued sunlight before dusk.
Mother inserts the ignition stick. Her fingers grasp the joystick like she is clutching a gun. As she drives out of the car park, the ruined cityscape spans before us with a mishmash of grey and charred black: blocky skyscrapers drowning in the ocean and modern houses using every inch of roof space. Between the buildings’ roofs, the open-air sky bridges dotted with people and their circle of foliage add beautiful contrast to the greys below. Real plants sprout from our skyscraper’s roof in a collection of guano and dust blown from the distant Arid Lands. I imagine their weight and the encroaching waves can wash it all away till nothing is left but silt, sand, and an unblemished sky, with a warm sun giving us life. The desire for sunlight overcomes me.
“We could just walk along the sky bridges to the bay,” I suggest to Mother.
“Yes, and get hijacked by those who still crave real food? Don’t be absurd, you know you'd be a tasty morsel to them.” She manoeuvres the pod to the edge of our own skyscraper and begins the descent to the ocean.
“We make real food, Mother.”
She looks at me with the mislaid pity one would reserve for a stray dog about to become tonight’s stew. “Your generation baffles me. Do you think all this rapid evolution and development is natural?”
“Not natural. Needed, in this crazy climate.”
Mother just shakes her head.
The pod hovers above the ocean. Water laps through the smashed windows and cracks in the mortar. In one window, straggly plants droop from a windowsill and grow up the cracks towards the sky. Steel struts and girders are braced against the skyscraper like sturdy tree branches, but I wonder how long it will be before the cracks give way to the waves and the plants reclaim their dominance.
We dive as Mother spots a horde of hungry scavengers up ahead. The pod sinks out of sight. Even here, under the water, the plants have taken over the ancient skyscrapers. Strappy looking kelp sways back and forth with the ocean currents like green whips taming the ocean.
Mother never seems to notice anything around her. Feeding time is a mission: get out and get back inside. Once past the people, we bob back up and skim above the ocean. She steers the pod towards the bay, ducking under struts and weaving between the old towering buildings.
“Mother,” I begin with caution, unsure of the response my statement will receive. “I've decided on a name.”
“Please don’t. Names are things you give to pets and other things you don’t mind losing ... or eating.”
“Avicennia,” I continue, ignoring her. “Or maybe Avi for short.”
“What kind of nonsense is that?”
I open my palm and push aside the Chlorokill pill so I can inspect my little white flower. “I found an old computer file that describes plants. It said I had mangrove leaves.”
“There are hundreds of plants. Your leaves could be anything.”
“Don’t you ever wonder whether there is still a plant with your kind of leaves? Maybe something from the Arid Lands? The brittle leaves would be suited there.” Hers are beautiful, as are mine, but there is something rugged and haunting about her foliage. Each leaf is a grey green but it does not look sick, and the edges have ornate patterns. They don’t hang from her head but stand rigid like a mohawk. Their exterior is tough, like her.
“I wonder a good many things. That, my child, is not one of them.” She turns to look at me and gasps. "Child!"
I clench my fist shut, hoping she has not seen my flower.
"Why haven't you taken your tablet yet?"
I breathe a sigh of relief, and pluck the little red monster from my grasp. I want to hurl it into the oceanic abyss, but pop it in my mouth before Mother can grill me further.
She manoeuvres the pod towards the large sandy stretch of exposed land.
Even before she removes the ignition stick, I jump from the pod and onto the soft squelchy sand.
Mother hesitates, as she always does when exiting, but the fear is unwarranted. Nobody ever comes here except us. It’s too far from the supposedly safe indoors. Perhaps the isolation and lack of predatory people is why Mother tolerates my requests to come here to feed.
I stride towards the water’s edge. Far off on the horizon, a storm cell hangs like a massive grey helium balloon.
“This is why we should just feed up on the roof,” Mother continues, squeezing the ignition stick between thumb and forefinger. “That storm does not look safe.”
“Perhaps.” Behind us, the grey of the cityscape looks far more menacing. I dig my feet deeper into the sand. One day I sank them so far I felt the broken bitumen hiding beneath. If I stand still long enough, maybe I can collect more silt washing against my legs or probe my toes so deep that they crack and erode the grey monstrosity below. “Perhaps there will be a king tide with the storm,” I whisper.
“What are you blabbing about now, Child?”
“Avi,” I correct her.
“Come on, let us leave.” Mother darts backwards as the waves wash in.
“I’m still hungry. I’ll just wait a bit longer.”
“Wait for what?”
Wait for the sun to set, wait for the tide to come in.
“Child, I cannot stay here indefinitely.”
“Go. Father will be fretting.” I mean it as a joke. Father will be sitting where we left him, but the gag goes over Mother’s head.
She gazes at the sky and fidgets. She doesn’t want to leave me here among the elements and at the mercy of the outdoors, but her anxiety will get the better of her soon.
“I’ll wait for you in the pod, and keep an eye out.” Mother finally cracks and flees from the outdoors to the indoor sanctuary of the pod.
I turn my attention to the encroaching ocean licking my shins and lapping upon the shore behind me. My feet squish even deeper into the muddy sand. With each wave, more silt washes up in the whitewash. A school of small fearless fish swims between my calves.
If I stand here long enough, my feet will trap so much silt that the city fades from memory.
I spit out the pill sitting under my tongue along with tainted red saliva. The rest of the red coating bleeds into the water and dissipates with each new wave. Mother and Father will not understand. They crave safety and sterility and structure. I crave dominance.
A tiny black insect descends onto my palm and frolics in my flower. I must be patient. My propagules will soon grow and disperse. We will spread and grow and take down the grey monstrosities behind us.
I am waiting. Waiting for more than the tide. The sun pelts down on my face, my feet sink deep, my woody pneumatophore-toes spread laterally clinging to the sediment, then they turn upwards towards the air. They tingle and breathe in the sweet, sweet air of our future.
Copyright © 2018 Melanie Rees
Melanie Rees is an environmental consultant whose work involves playing with soil and plants. When she isn’t gallivanting in the mud or stuck up a tree she writes speculative fiction and poetry. Her work has appeared in magazines such as Aurealis, Apex, Daily Science Fiction, Persistent Visions, and The School Magazine. In the real world, she lives in a straw house with a menagerie of animals in regional South Australia.