When I wake, I know I must return to the valley.
I don’t know why–I don’t even wonder why. I just know that it must be.
I don’t want to go. I want to stay here, where Tessa is. Where the eagles are. Where I can forget that it’s the After and pretend, instead, that it is childhood.
By evening, I reach the valley. I can’t remember anyone’s name, except for Tessa and Veegan.
I meet a gardener and a man with an Elvis-beard.
The gardener laughs when he hears I’ve returned from the Sky Islands.
“And you walked all that way!” he says, like it’s the greatest thing. My feet hurt.
Elvis-beard leaves, and the gardener tells me to grow trash plants.
“Trash plants?” I ask.
“We just call them that. That fruit you’ve been eating? The stuff that smells vile but tastes divine? That’s the plant it grows on.”
Since I arrived, I’d been eating this small black fruit. It’s a staple that everyone swears by.
“You don’t eat it,” the gardener says, “and you’ll be wimpy, like this.” His wrist goes limp. He’s a funny guy. I wish I could remember his name.
Back at base camp, it’s beautiful. The poppies and verbena shine in the setting sun. A blue morpho sips nectar, then hovers off to settle beneath a leaf for the night.
In the morning, I find an abandoned box of old nicknacks in the desert behind camp. I set them up on a table and put a “For Sale” sign.
I don’t know what our currency is or how much to sell them for or if I can even do anything with money.
A friendly man in a fisherman sweater comes to admire them.
“Do you want to buy any?” I ask.
He doesn’t, so we become friends, instead, and I give him a little statue of Frog-Suit-Guy.
“Thanks,” he says. “I’ve always wanted one.”
Why does this gesture make me feel settled?
Maybe because it’s the first thing I’ve given to someone here. And isn’t that when we start to belong, when we are able to give?
I pack up the rest of the statuettes and head off for a walk.
I find a building, grown over with vines and trees like something out of a fairy tale, and lined with cases of books.
A man with glasses tries to avoid eye contact with me.
“Are you the librarian?” I ask him. He is. We don’t bother with names, which is something of a relief, for I know already, I would not remember it. I remember only Tessa and Veegan.
“What are all these books?” I ask the librarian.
“These are the stacks,” he says. “They’re books.”
“Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal?” I ask.
“Library of Congress.”
I am glad. I find my way to the TD section and discover a book from the previous century on The Technology of Environmental Engineering.
I am hoping to learn something about ways of harnessing wind energy, but I lose myself in a description of a process for building dams. I wonder why the idea of dams fascinates me, and I seem unable to stop reading.
I feel strangely happy. It’s not that I want to build a dam in the river behind the base camp. It’s that the idea of a dam exists, and once, in the Before, the technology for constructing such a dam was developed. And, if a dam could exist in theory and in plan, then what else that we might need might also, one day, exist?
I’m still pondering possibilities while I scramble up a snack on the grill at the park later that afternoon.
The gardener arrives.
“Heyo,” he says.
I watch him make his way to a patch of daisies and roses. He is, actually, a gardener.
“Why do you grow them?” I ask.
“Why? Is that even a question?” he replies.
“I mean,” I struggle for words. What I want to say is that, aren’t we just barely surviving? Isn’t it the After, and hasn’t everything been destroyed, or nearly, and isn’t life basically unrecognizable, and why can’t I remember anyone’s name, and who am I, actually, and am I even OK? And you’re tending daisies?
But I just say, “I mean, flowers?”
And he smiles. And it is the kindest, wisest smile that I think I have ever seen. And he says, “My dear. I am a gardener. I tend all manner of growing things.” And right then, I love him.
Back at the library the next day, people are everywhere. And they’re all reading. I pick up an old book on the effect of meteors on the earth’s climate and read an article titled Implications from Chemical, Structural, and Mineralogical Studies of Magnetic Microspherules from around the Lower Younger Dryas Boundary. In the history of the earth, unusual events have happened before, followed by climate disturbances.
On my way out, I fall in line behind a little girl.
“I like books,” she says. “Do you?”
I tell her I do. I love them.
“My name is Rocket,” she says.
“I’m Cathy,” I reply. “Cathy Tea.”
“That’s a funny name,” she says. “I like tea.”
“So do I,” I say. “I like rockets, too.”
“Huh. Yeah. There aren’t any anymore. Only me.”
We leave together.
I plant my garden at the edge of base camp, all in a row. When I stand at the end, I look out to the old abandoned highway, where a Freezer Bunny on a billboard gazes at a giant statue of a brontosaurus.
Cycles of change.
Tessa drops by one evening.
“What are you doing here?” I ask, after I wrap her in a bear hug.
“I come through here sometimes,” she replies, “when it’s not my shift in Sky Islands.”
We walk to a park in the valley where she sometimes camps.
“Do you ever think about ice ages?” I ask. “About meteors and cataclysmic events, and all that?”
“I do,” she replies. “I think about what might have caused the dinosaurs to become extinct, and I think about how their extinction led to all of this.”
“To this?” I ask. “How?”
“It’s their extinction that created fossil fuels, and the dependence on fossil fuels, millenia later, that lead to the After.”
I stare into space, thinking of the meteors that struck the planet, causing ice ages. I imagine vast plains covered with the bodies of dinosaurs, decaying into black seas of petroleum. All this, because of some meteors.
“Look what I found,” Tessa says. She pulls out a battery from her backpack. “I think it still works!”
We put it into an old boombox that was sitting near the table. She hits “Play” and “New Speedway Boogie” comes on.
We dance, moving in sync as our thoughts roam through the galaxy searching for the home of the mother of all meteors.