He reached deep into one of the pockets in his jacket and took out the packet of Black Sky that one of the Revelers at the shelter had sneaked in as a goodbye present. He held the tiny ziploc bag up to the faint light, looking at the transparent crystals inside. Turning the bag sideways back and forth, he listened to the tiny rocks tumble over each other, sounding like grains of sand. Opening the bag, he brought it close to his nose so he can smell the contents, but there was no odor. Taking a few seconds before deciding what to do next, he placed his little finger in his mouth and then into the packet. Taking out his finger, he observed closely the crystals that had adhered to his skin, holding on through invisible threads of moisture. It was about a quarter of what was in the bag – a sensible amount, he thought.
He licked the crystals off his finger and headed for the kitchen sink. Half a cup of water. That should do. Now back on the couch. He waited while the natural light coming from the window had dwindled to almost nothing. The night sky eventually entered the living room, as John began to feel warm and relaxed. The weightlessness of the darkness had now cloaked everything, stifling any noise, strangling to death the slightest remaining ray of light. A comforting vacuum had surrounded John, protecting him while heightening his senses at the same time. He hoped that this would work as well as it did the first time, as he waited patiently for the EoT to make its appearance.
Five minutes later, and the blue Northern Lights had entered John’s living room. Undulating slowly, sometimes speeding up, they hovered above him on the ceiling for a bit, before heading for the door. The entire door lit up in blue, as if the light had infused into it.
“I knew this was trouble” – John thought, as he grabbed his jacket and keys and opened the door. He followed the light down the hallway, into the elevator and out of the building. It was 10 pm. He followed the mimosa trees along the pavement as they lit up one by one, like blue Christmas trees. The blue light crossed the intersection by infusing itself into a cat, waiting for John on the other side. He looked around to see if anyone was watching him.
“I’m high as fuck, and I’m following a neon blue cat, great” he thought.
He followed on for half a mile, down towards the ocean then further into a largely abandoned side of the CBD. The light was becoming stronger and stronger, illuminating his path, sometimes creating a shield around him that looked like a bird’s nest. At times John would be running ahead of the light, sometimes the other way round. But in the end, they synchronized into a pace that felt comfortable for both.
And then they stopped. They had arrived. The light infused into a large steel door, as John looked up.
“Where the fuck am I?”
Like a drunk twenty-something texting an ex, he did something no one would ever dare to do in this city anymore, especially at this hour in the night: he rang the doorbell. The door begun to open very slowly, as a supernova of blue and white rays began to rush out onto the street from inside the building. John took a few steps back as he put his hand out to protect his eyes from the flood of white and blue light. A human form began to emerge, dressed in an astronaut suit of some sort. Or rather, that was the Blue Sky talking. It was a single-use aseptic suit, very similar to the personal protective equipment that healthcare staff had worn during the pandemics. The plastic bag astronaut looked at John for a few seconds, almost like a confused alien who had just arrived on planet Earth, trying to decide on the spot whether they were even interested in exploring this new world. Maybe they should just close the door and go back to their planet.
The alien reached out for the beginning of a zipper line somewhere in the area of the shoulder. In one, steady-speed motion, they tore through the middle of the suit, splitting the plastic bag in two like a peanut husk – at which point the blue light started spinning like crazy around the alien’s head. It formed a bright neon- blue angel halo around the head, lighting up the face so that John could see.
John wasn’t sure if this was the real Aspen or the entheogenic one. His doubts disappeared when he felt the familiar imprint of her hug on his chest. He held her face up with both hands, as she looked up into his eyes with a curious stare:
“How. Did. You…”
John had to make up a lie on the spot. “I did my research. And I made a few lucky guesses! I knew you liked the vertical farm menu so I thought this might be one place to look. I’m so sorry I couldn’t find you sooner. My phone died while I was at the shelter, right before the telecoms network blackout that we had for a whole week.”
“So, you’re telling me you didn’t see the blue light just now?”
John’s eyes popped out as he froze. “How do you know about that?”
“Oh, I see it all the time. They taught me.”
“They” was a group of Revelers and Minimalists who had saved Aspen from near certain death during Hurricane Julia. They saw her floating semi-conscious on a huge piece of debris and managed to pull her out at the last minute. She had left her flat only minutes earlier to go look for John.
“They gave me this part-time job. I just pack salads into boxes mostly. Sometimes I eat them, haha!” – her face lit up, as John cracked a smile. He still couldn’t believe Aspen was alive and well. He was trying his hardest to refrain from blinking. The slightest movement in his eyelids and the tears that had already formed lakes at the bottom of his eyes would cascade down his face. Tears that John had learned to hold back all his life – whether they were tears of sadness, or happiness.
Olivia could be seen in the distance waving with one hand while leaning with her entire body on a big shovel. The early morning heat had pretty much exhausted her already, but the accomplishment of garden work had left a wide smile of satisfaction on her face. She had spent the past hour finally getting to know David, the mystery gardener in the square. She had managed to convince him that he could use some weekend gardening advice from a couple of biologists, and an aspiring vertical farmer.
“So this is the famous niece I’ve heard all about?” Olivia said as John and Aspen approached. The air was filled with the heavy smell of warm soil that had been sitting too long without any plants to nurture.
“Welcome to our new project!” – Olivia made a 360-degree gesture pointing to the destroyed botanical gardens. Everything around her was still a ground zero of mixed debris: dead plants and man-made objects from the surrounding buildings, all glued together by a thick, fertile mud. A stubble of young grass had begun growing on the surface of all this, which had already started to die out in the areas where the mud had desiccated and cracked open in the summer heat.
“I guess this is all ours now” Olivia said as David wasted no time handing out garden tools to John and Aspen.
“Don’t forget these!” – Olivia frisbeed out two massive straw hats.
“The sun rays today are murderous. But we have high fashion on our side”, she added. Aspen chuckled innocently at Olivia’s joke, as her eyes became lost for few moments in the weave pattern of the hat.
John pointed towards the flower bed: “Good choice on the African aloe David. But I’m surprised your calendulas even germinated. They tend to dislike intense heat. If you’re lucky they may just stall for a couple of months and start growing again in October. But if you’re just looking for some yellow color, you’ll be much better off with California poppies, Mexican marigolds or even rudbeckias. They can really take a battering, as long as they have water. By the way, by battering I don’t mean hurricanes!”
John saw Aspen’s shovel fall on its side as she slowly kneeled down over what she had uncovered. It was the corpse of a dog that must have perished in the hurricane. John spotted the identification tag around the neck. He rubbed the mud off with his thumb to reveal the name: “Petunia”. He pulled on the buried leash with both hands, carving a deep line in the mud as it unearthed. He pulled until it he couldn’t pull anymore. Clearing the mud with his bare hands, he saw that the leash was firmly tangled under a submerged tree trunk. Petunia had drowned in the flood because her leash had got stuck.
David came over, immediately recognizing his dog. His face suddenly became tired. A sliver of hope had been holding back the fatigue of grief all these past few weeks. Now it was time to let this bitter lake of tears that had built up finally break its rim, burst its banks, and fall carelessly like an avalanche down the side of the mountain. He could almost feel himself fall, as his knees began to weaken. He followed the draw of gravity and slowly kneeled in front of the dog, as his eyes began to well up.
Petunia’s face became fuzzy as the tears distorted his vision. Placing both palms in the semi-hard mud, he clenched his fists tight, as thick tubes of clay gushed out of the sides of his hands. He felt his breath skip an inhalation as he got lost in Petunia’s expression for a moment: a combination of agony, innocence, and angelic tranquility. He lay down on his side in a fetal position facing Petunia, as he started to cry in complete silence. With Petunia dead, he felt like he was himself now half-buried in the mud.
He felt Olivia’s hand on his shoulder as he surrendered to grief: that strange feeling where one finally realizes that all the memories that we have of someone close to us are indeed memories, whether this person is alive or not.
“This will be our petunia section” John said in a cautiously upbeat but evidently nervous tone, hoping to drag David out of the emotional abyss he was falling into. “We’ll have grandifloras, surfinias, dwarf varieties, everywhere you look, in every color that exists. I know where I can get the best seeds!”
He put his arm around Aspen, pulling her close. Taking his hat off with the other hand, he placed it on his chest as they both kneeled down to join David and Olivia in paying their respects.
from the novel A New Earth
George is an author, researcher, podcast host, chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , listen to his Spotify podcast George reads George, sign up for blog alerts below, or enjoy his books