I was going to be a desert.
They’d designed this recliner for conductivity, not comfort. I lay down, feeling cold alloy through my shift because it was either “rehabilitation” or relocation.
“Where did they assign you for Environment Week?” the guard asked.
“I don’t remember.” It was twenty years ago. You turn eighteen, and they ship you off to be part of the landscape, literally, for an entire week. Happy goddamn birthday.
“Hmph.” Cold gel on my temple. “It’s important to remember how our actions change the planet, you know. One month will do you good.” The guard’s sincerity made me want to scream.
The electrodes connected.
I was drying out from the inside. The thought of ungluing my lips, letting air corrode my throat, was too much. So I waited and let it happen and then I blinked.
I was miles of dust crisscrossed with buried riverbeds. We’d drained the aquifers, so there were no oases in me. Nothing at all, except red fire ants and the heat. My surface was baking.
No, I wouldn’t let go yet. My skin cracked open, insects drifted between my pores. I was supposed to put this miserable ecosystem before myself? Screw that. I’d take all the long hot showers I wanted. My thoughts went in tight, angry circles. I lost count of the days. One after another, all the same, trying to change me.
And then, one cool silent night, the air hinted at moisture. Oh god. I had come to terms with my dryness by forgetting wet.
“Are you okay?”
No, I’m not okay, I’m a desert. But I couldn’t say that to a person who was an air current flecked with sea salt. “I’m holding up.”
I chose not to tell my new friend I was a thirty-eight-year-old criminal. “Thank you.”
Their winds ruffled my expanse, which was unperturbed by tiny skulls and the remnants of saguaro. Some said that murderers and rapists were left to wallow there forever. But I hadn’t heard any voices from them, so maybe not.
“How are you enjoying your first environmental dissociation?”
I wanted to strangle the neighbour who reported my busted meter. “Fine,” I said.
“I love it.” Their voice caught every time the winds shifted, which was constantly. I-ha-love-ha-it-ha. Playacting. “You don’t get a choice when it’s your first, but if you work hard, you can be the wind. I save up, buy a week, rinse and repeat.”
“It is magnificent. I hope you try it.”
If I had the credits, I’d take hour-long showers and dump my trash in the landfill just because I could.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“You need to embrace it.”
I said nothing. Let the wind think that, like the desert, I was an insect-riddled corpse.
“Focus on where my winds touch you, desert. I’m picking up sand, following the heat, I drift and roll. What do you feel?”
A caress. “Sand moving.” Patterns and new patterns across my surface like fingers on skin. Winds rearranged my rolling curves. My consciousness flirted with a crack in the soil where the salt fell in, filling me, and then moved to a point where sand and wind formed words in a language that bloomed through my whole body. Through the desert.
I remembered tasting chocolate when I was sixteen, the summer my friends and I lifted a whole shipment for ourselves. Tasting and then coming back to it day after day, at our leisure, until it ran out, leaving my life once again as empty and bland as the desert.
But now, I experienced details I’d never noticed, the way my dips and rises shaped the flow of the current passing through me, the desert.
The wind shifted. “Oh, I’m going back towards the sea. Until tomorrow, I hope.”
“Bye,” I said.
The sun rose. I didn’t need eyes to feel ants scurrying from their mounds, or the blossoming heat. As the desert spilled into my consciousness, I baked and froze with all of myself.
It was torture. It was what we had done to nature. I had thought my choices could be self-contained, that I was an island. The biggest lie of all.
In a thousand years, the rivers would flow, filling the aquifers, restoring whatever life found its way back here. And this desert would bloom.
I wouldn’t see it, but I would be part of it. I would make sure of that.
Copyright © 2020 Priya Chand.
Priya Chand grew up in San Diego and now resides in the vicinity of Chicago. She has previously been published in Clarkesworld, Nature Futures, and Analog SF, among others. Her interest in ecosystems stems from a background in biology and a love of marine life. When she’s not reading, writing, or eating, she enjoys swimming, martial arts, and naps.