a 'cli-fi' short story by Victoria Elliott
published in Boston on May 27, 2016
[Victoria Elliottis a student at Harvard College in the Class of 2016]
It's supposed to be blackberry season. It's August. I honestly didn't know that until I read about it in one of my dad's encyclopedias that he kept in the attic. Well, they was my great grandfather's and he gave them to my dad, and my dad to me. But my dad never found any use for them because of the internet.
I used to just look at the pictures and identify the plants and rocks I would find in the meadow behind the barn. Then one day it occurred to me to actually read what the book had to say.
Black•ber•y/ 'blak,berë/ 1. a soft, edible fruit, made up of a cluster of small dark purple druplets.
They ripen in late summer, early autumn to a dark red to black color. That's how I spent my summers. Exploring in the meadows, splashing in the streams, finding chunks of what I thought were rough diamonds and gold. And eating ripe blackberries in May.
"It didn't always used to be like that," My mom enjoyed arguing.
" Course it was". My dad entertained her.
"No, it was not, Curtis!"
And it was always pretty funny to watch. "Olivia, what makes you think you're a blackberry expert?"
"Now I didn't say I was an expert."
"Then how can you say that--"
"Let me finish, Curtis! Now, you know that big ole black bear that my daddy killed and stuffed."
"The one that he said he killed and stuffed?"
"Oh, he most definitely did, and it was on his birthday. I specifically remember him saying that he spotted it eating blackberries off the bushes near the Johnson's solar panels."
"And what does that have to do with--"
"My daddy's birthday is September, Curtis. I'm no blackberry expert, but I do know the seasons are all in different places now. Adam, honey, how was the last day of school?"
It was always kind of alarming when they suddenly pulled me into the conversation "It was fine. No complaints. Could you pass the potatoes?"
"I will not be passing anything until you tell me bout something that happened during the seven hours you spent at school today."
It's frustrating being 17. Being told that we have so much responsibility and opportunity but still unable to actually do anything and still treated like a child.
"It was the last day of school, so nothing really happened. Signed year books, exchanged numbers, gave cards to teachers, and all that"
"And did you ask if anyone was interested in working on the farm this summer?" "Yeah."
I really didn't. Don't they know how embarrassing that is for someone my age? I'm still not sure why, but it just is. "Nobody wanted to though."
"It's alright, son," dad cut in before mom could expose my lie. "I honestly don't think we'll need too much help harvesting this year. The crops are getting sparser and sparser every year. I fully expect us to be able to do it ourselves."
For the first time in a long time, my parents fell into silence.
Illustration by Victoria Elliot
Illustration by Victoria Elliot
We made our living off of this land, and selling summer produce at the local farmers' market was how we made our summer earnings. "I was thinking about applying to work at Freddy's this summer, maybe I could-- "
"That greasy excuse for a diner? Nonsense. You'll work the farmer's market like you always do. There will be plenty of work for you to do."
My mom was right. I spent that summer picking tomatoes, cucumber, rhubarb, strawberries, nectarine, and a ton of other produce, and selling them at the farmers' market in the town square. And since all of my friends worked at Freddy's, I found myself there when I wasn't working. Like every other aspect of my family's life, it evoked a sense of old fashioned American nostalgia. Waitresses skating across checkerboard tile floors, jukeboxes playing Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, fry cooks wearing those silly paper hats made the place look like the spot to go right after you leave the sock-hop. Coincidentally my friends had names to match. As soon as I sat down, Pete slid into the red vinyl seat across from me and Sally skated in behind him with three milkshakes.
"You're earlier than usual," Sally said as she slid my vanilla milkshake across the table.
"Well, I sold out, so I had to close up shop. Business is slow this summer." My parents were pretty worried about it and I was starting to become worried too.
"Two words. Climate Change." Pete always had his theories.
"Come on, they've been saying that for decades, and it hasn't gotten that much warmer." "Don't deny the science, Sally. We read about it way back when we were kids, in Adam's old encyclopedias. The last polar bear hasn't died off yet, but summer is definitely longer than it used to be."
I didn't like to think about change.
"You know, it's probably nothing different at all. I'm sure it's some 200 year cycle none of the living generations have experienced before. Everything's probably going to go back to normal in a couple years. We shouldn't be worried about it. Nothing's changing."
"But it's enough change to make people move to the city." Sally didn't like change either.
"Nobody's going to the city, who told you that?"
"Well for one, the Parsons. They're headed out at the end of September."
"That's because Sam is headed off to college in the fall, and they'll be empty nesters. Can't blame them for wanting to downsize."
"Well what about the Patels?"
"Who?! No." I said. "They're friends of the family. They'd never leave here."
"Cameron said he saw a couple secret agent looking guys drive up to their house and offer them a briefcase."
"A briefcase? I bet you think it was full of cash."
"What else would it be filled with, Sal?"
"Also, are you really gonna listen to the same guy who claimed that me and my parents are lizard people?"
"No offense, Sally, but I believed him. But whether or not they actually had a briefcase, the Patels have sold their land, and are moving by the end of the year."
"Well who says it's the climate that's making them move? Maybe they just want a change of scenery," I began to sound defensive.
"Think about it," Pete began, "your family, the Patels, the Parsons, and maybe three other families around here are the only ones who actually make a living off of their land. If they don't see a chance of their production getting better, don't you think they would gladly accept an offer for their unproductive land?"
"Well, if the sum is large enough," Sally said.
"No. This land is priceless. Our families have lived here for generations, you don't understand what this lifestyle means to us." That was the only time I dramatically stormed out of any place, ever. I couldn't imagine living away from our farm, the chickens, and the woods behind the meadow. How could anyone live cooped up in a small box in a crowded city, with no wildlife, no fresh eggs… people had been doing it for centuries but I couldn’t see myself as a part of that.
When I pulled up to the house there was a black sedan sitting in the driveway. I allowed myself to wallow in denial during the few seconds it took to get from my truck to the front door, and I tried to hold my self together when I saw two men in suits sitting at the kitchen table with my parents. But I fell into a hysterical fit of laughter when I saw the briefcase on the table. By the time I got to my bedroom, my laughter had turned into crying. Weeping, is probably the more appropriate word for it. Staring at the ceiling, trying to put together other pieces of evidence that may have hinted to my parents' actions, I waited for my parents to knock on my door to tell me about the decision they'd made without me. Hours passed, and they never came. It wasn't until I saw that the sun had risen that I realized that they likely went to bed crying as well. This couldn't have been an easy decision, and they were surely more upset than I was. I arose when the scent of bacon wafted up to my room and summoned me to the kitchen.
"Good morning, Adam", my dad said, putting down his paper. Behind his glasses, I could see dark circles under his bloodshot eyes. I felt as if I saw an older reflection of myself as I pulled out the chair across from him.
My mom, however, beamed as she placed my eggs and bacon on the table. "Morning darlin." "Hi mom." We were silent until she sat down, attempting to suppress her smile, but the evidence of her apparent elation escaped through her eyes. After a few moments of awkward silence and slight confusion, my dad broke the silence "Son, you're a smart kid, and I'm sure you already know what's happened. Times have been hard, and we've been offered a pretty large sum to sell the land."
Hearing him elaborate would just upset me even more. "So what's gonna happen now? Are we just gonna cut all of our ties to this place and move away?" My dad began to say something but paused to take his glasses off and rub his eyes, but before he could say anything, my mom took my hand and said "We're moving to the city."
Of course we were.
I knew my dad was partly doing this for my mom. She'd always thought of herself as a city girl stuck in the country, even though she didn't know any more than I did what that meant. "But why?" I said but I sounded like a whining child, so I cleared my throat and repeated myself in a deeper timbre. "It's gonna be great, Adam! We'll be able to live in a high rise, go to shows, and take the subway!" Now she was sounding like a child.
I stared into her eyes in disbelief, "We can do all that now… what about us mom? What about the horses, and the memories, and the land--"
"Enough about the land! It's not doing anything for us, so we have to leave it behind. And you'll still have your memories."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"It wouldn't have made a difference. You would have been adamant about staying here, but we didn't have a choice."
"You had a choice. You chose money and a glamorous lifestyle over hard work and history." I watched the fire in her eyes burn out into something that looked a little more like guilt.
"We're leaving at the beginning of September. In time for you to start school."
"And what are you two going to do?"
"How do you mean, son?"
"Well, we won't have to, but I was thinking about getting back into city planning."
"You know, before you were born, your mom was the best planner around."
"And you, dad?"
"I'll do some freelance writing, and maybe some web design."
"Well, it looks like you've got it all figured out. Excuse me, while I go tell my friends that I'm moving away in less than a month."
"I'm sorry, son, we should have told you sooner."
"What difference would it have made?"
I met up with Sally and Pete by the creek the day before we left. "We don't usually come out this far," Pete said, attempting to keep his balance on the unfamiliar rocks in the stream. "The surveyors are scoping out the land pretty close to our usual spot."
"Already? Jeez, you'd think they'd let you guys leave first."
"Looks like they're pretty eager to get to something."
"Or more condos."
"Why aren't you guys taking this seriously?" Sally said, after saying nothing during the entire hike. "Why aren't you more upset?"
"I don't want to be a Debbie Downer about it. Yeah, it sucks that I have to leave here, but I can't do anything about it. Gottaaccept it."
"But you've never lived anywhere else."
"I need to start some time, don't I? Let's not think of this as too big of a deal. I'm not gonna be living too far away from here, and we can visit each other. It will be a good change of pace. I'm sure I'll adjust to city life just fine."
And I did.
The apartment we moved into was small, but cozy. I thought I would get antsy about not having any chores or yard work to do, but there were plenty of other things to keep me occupied. Restaurants to try, used bookstores to browse, concerts to check out… and I never had to drive anywhere or charge up my truck.
It wasn’t too long before I forgot what it was like to live out in the country. I began to realize how much freedom I had, living in a city where everything was so accessible. The only thing I could complain about was the lack of fresh air. My lungs weren't used to smog, exhaust, and the proximity of the germs of millions of people.
Slowly but surely my newly realized freedom began to be taken away by the air pollution. By the time Pete and Sally came to visit, I'd already had to keep an inhaler at all times, and I couldn't go on a run without collapsing into an asthma attack. "I didn't know you were asthmatic," Pete said.
"I wasn't. I was fine when I first got here, but I guess I'm just not used the air yet."
"You know what you need? A nice, long hike."
"That might just make it worse, Sal, I'm sure I just need to get adjusted to it. That's what my mom thinks."
"Okay, but what do you think?"
"I really like it here. A lot better than I thought I would. I don't want to leave because I can't handle it… I feel like that would be like giving up."
"You're not used to this environment, Adam, and you're probably just gonnamake it worse by staying here. We're not asking you to leave forever, but we just want you to take a break and see what happens."
We started to get worried when I got headaches everyday and a perpetual sore throat. The doctors echoed what my friends said, and it wasn't just the outdoor air, but the indoor air that was wreaking havoc on my body too. It wasn't until I missed a week of school that I heard my parents decide to do something about my condition. I woke up, feeling as if I were about to die of thirst, but I found the pitcher that my mom kept on my bedside table to be empty.
"Mom," I croaked almost inaudibly. I knew she couldn't have heard me, so I had to go about quenching my thirst on my own. My entire body hurt, and it was quite a task just to roll out of bed and get to my bedroom door. Trudging down the hallway, I heard my parents speaking in hushed tones in the kitchen.
"It's not getting any better, Olivia. He's been sick in bed for a week!"
"We don't know what's making him sick! It's probably just a bug that he picked up from school—who's ever heard of someone getting fevers and nausea from the air?"
"I'm confused as much as you are Liv, but we need to get him out of here. It might be the apartment, it might be his school, but we can't keep doing what we're doing, because he's only getting worse."
"Curtis, he just needs to adjust. It's probably not even that bad, it's probably just an act so that we can move back out to the country."
"Do you hear yourself right now?"
"I know exactly what I'm saying. I've wanted to move to the city for my whole life, that's all I've ever wanted. And every time there was an opportunity, it was always something. The kid. The house. The land. The memories. And now that we're finally here, now that I'm finally happy, we find that our son just can't live here?"
"So you were never happy before? All those years?"
Before I could hear anything else, I felt a strong itching feeling creep up from my chest into my throat, and I knew that I would probably blow my cover if I let the cough escape. I stumbled as quickly and quietly as I could to my room and as soon as I let my door shut, I fell into a heap on the floor and hacked until my entire body hurt for what felt like a lifetime. My parents came in after a couple minutes, replenished my water supply and promptly left after my attack was over. How they could take care of me without having concern for me was disturbing and unreal. I felt like I was at the center of attention, yet I was still being ignored. My condition would only get worse if I stayed in that apartment, even if they did change the insulation, or remove whatever was causing my body to react in that way. The only way I thought I could get their attention was if I took care of my problem myself.
Illustration by Victoria Elliot
Illustration by Victoria Elliot
I decided to take a one way ticket back home on a day when I felt a little less like I was going to die. I still felt terrible and the trip seemed to take forever but the first breath that I took when I stepped off the train was the most fulfilling feeling I'd ever experienced, like taking a cool refreshing gulp of water after being stranded in the desert. Sal was there to greet me and we picked up Pete on the way to her house.
"How do you feel?"
"Amazing. I haven't breathed so easily in months."
"Well, I told my parents you'd be visiting for the weekend, and they'll start asking questions if you stay any longer," Sal said.
"You could stay with me for a while, but you'd have to stay under the radar before people start asking questions."
"What did you tell your parents?"
"I didn't tell them anything. They're too busy trying to live their glamorous lives that they don't even know I'm there. We'll just see how long it takes me to realize I'm gone, and then I'll figure out what happens next." I spent the weekend recovering at Sal's house, and for old time's sake, we decided to hike up to the old creek. It took longer than usual, but with ragged breathing and exhausted limbs, I made it to our childhood meetupspot. Everything looked the same, but something felt strangely different. The woods were silent, and there was no wildlife to be found. "What happened to this place?"
"What do you mean, it's the same as how you left it," Pete said.
"Did they start to build anything over here?" I asked.
"Not that I know of. I expected them to develop all of this but it's still all open land." Pete said.
"You also thought they'd be digging for gold." We hiked downstream and the woods became even more peculiar. The birds had stopped chirping all together, and the faint smell of rotting flesh occasionally drifted through the air. We came across a dead frog, and then a rabbit, and next a raccoon. The further we hiked, the larger the dead animals became. We'd had enough by the time we'd reached a dead moose.
"I think we should get out of here," Sal said, "I don't think I want to be around to find out what is killing all these animals."
"Chill out, we're not in a horror movie."
"I realize that Pete, but there is a reason why all of these animals are dead, maybe we should--"
"Shhhh," just a bit past the creek, much further than we'd explored together, I heard a faint mechanical sound.
"Don't shush me! I'm being logical! We really need to-- "
"SHHH!!" I began to lead them toward the commotion that I heard, but before we could reach it, what I thought was a dead deer came to life.
"Hey, buddy? Are you alright?"
"Are you kidding me?" the deer responded, "No, I'm not alright. I just got laid off from my job, and the oil company wants me to relocate to another town."
I felt bad for him, "What oil company?"
"What difference does it make? They're buying up all the land and the local businesses, and everybody's losing their jobs. My friend Raccoonathought she could make it in the city. And now she's eating out of trash cans. Scavenging, can you believe it?"
"Pete, Sal, we should really help this guy!" When I turned around, Pete was vomiting rainbows and sunshine and Sal was sharing a honeycomb with a bear.
"Adam, you should really try this, it's organic!"
"In a minute Sal," I turned back to the deer, but he was gone, and I was face to face with a tall man, black with coal dust. He took off his goggles to reveal the sad bloodshot eyes of my father. He formed his lips to say something, but before he could pronounce a word, he clawed for his throat and fell to the ground, gasping for breath. I took a step to help him, but I immediately fell to the ground in an asthma attack. All I could see was a blinding white light, but I could faintly hear the voice of the deer saying my name. When I came to, I found that the light came from a small flashlight held by a man in a lab coat. "Adam? If you can here me, please say 'yes'."
"Actually, my name is Dr. Buck. Do you know where you are right now?"
"Good, now do you know why you're here?"
"Adam, you and your friends suffered from toxic gas inhalation. I'll go and inform your parents that you've regained consciousness."
I was right, my parents didn't seem worried at all. They were furious.
"You almost died, do you realize that Adam? We were searching all over the city with nothing but a picture of you. If those security guards hadn't found you by the creek, we'd still be out there!" My mom sounded more like that she was upset that I wasted so much of her time.
"Adam, what were you thinking?" my dad said, beginning to sound more like a concerned parent should.
"Well, I felt awful, and considering what the doctor said, I thought I would get out of the city to see if I would improve. And I did."
"Why didn't you say anything?"
"I did! And so did the asthma attacks, and the doctors. You guys weren't responding to anything else, so I had to leave." They were silent for the first time in a while, but before I could let the silence last too long, I interjected "Also, when were you guys going to tell me that you sold our land to an oil company?"
My dad, genuinely shocked asked, "Who told you that?" I paused trying to figure out how I would tell them that I was informed by a recently laid off deer who'd been resurrected shortly after my arrival to that part of the forest. I couldn't figure out how to make myself seem like a logical adult, so I said "It doesn't matter who told me, how could you let this happen?"
My mom, speaking for the first time since her rant, "You don't know everything, Adam. You don't know how hard it was to support the family with nothing but that land. And do you think that we'd get offers for it if we weren't sitting on top of something valuable like natural gas?"
"But do you know that it's wreaking havoc on the ecosystem? We found tons of dead animal carcasses, and so many of them are losing their jobs."
"So many animals are losing their jobs?"
"Adam, the nurses said that you were mumbling about a coal miner and a talking bear, and some colorful characters that you met in the forest."
"I was just dreaming."
"You know, Sally and Peter were also shouting about equally vivid personalities in their sleep too." Then I started to realize that I didn't really know what had happened in the forest that caused me to be sent to the hospital.
"You don’t even know why you woke up in the hospital, do you?"
"No, I'm not entirely sure."
"You came across an area that was leaking a combination of gases," my dad said. "The doctor said you were probably hallucinating, and the gas leak explains why you all were passed out when the site security found you."
"Adam, I know how much you love that place, but you have to promise us that you'll stay away from there." My mom said, for the first time sounding concerned about my well being.
"So neither of you are worried about the other people that might come across that gas leak, or all the dead wildlife?"
"It's not our problem anymore, it's the gas company's problem." In my mom's short sentence, I understood why there were so many environmental problems that are never addressed. They were perpetuated by greed, and the responsibility was diverted to people who didn't care at all. The worst part was realizing that I could neither live in my new home or my old one.
"I'll be in my room."
I sat in my room for the next few hours with the air purifier on, thinking about how great I felt as soon as I stepped off the train in my home town, and how awful I would feel if I stayed in the city for too long. I had to get back to see Sal and Pete to figure out what to do about our old farm, but I knew that my parents would be keeping a closer watch on me. So I went back to school for a few weeks, to prove to them that I wasn't going anywhere.
To buy myself some time away from home, I printed out a summary and permission slip for an overnight field trip to an observatory up the coast. They gave me their signature and money for the trip, and I got on a train back home and met with Sal and Pete at Freddy's.
"You can't be here long, Adam, and you can't stay with us," Sal said. "My parents have promised to call yours if they so much as heard a rumor that you were coming to town."
"I figured that." I said. "I grabbed some camping equipment, and I planned to set up in the barn away from where we think the drill site was."
"So what's your plan?" Pete asked.
"I'm not trying to start any kind of revolution or get my family's land back. I just want to draw attention to the problems that the gas company is causing in our backyards."
"So what do you want to do, a protest?"
"Something like that. I was thinking about doing something with all the animal carcasses we found. We need to show people what's really going on, and they won't know or believe it unless they see it."
We decided that we would drag as many animal carcasses and skeletons as we could find to the area around where the natural gas company were drilling, but we needed to be careful about exposure to the gases, so Pete ordered some gas masks and told his parents they were for a group costume.
We took pictures of the carcasses, the contaminated creek water, the dying blackberry bushes, as well as the drill sites and fences, printed them, and put them in envelopes along with letters constructed in ransom note style with characters from magazines that said simply "We are suffocating".
One night, we put an envelope in every mailbox in the town. I went home that night with another envelope and placed it in my parents' mailbox before entering the apartment.
"How was the trip son?" my dad asked.
"Fun!" I replied before going back to my room.
The next morning, I sat in bed reading a book. I heard a knock on the door, but before I could respond, my dad stuck his head in the door.
"Hey, son, can we talk to you for a second?" I came out of my room and my mom was sitting at the kitchen table watching a story on the news. I saw video footage from a helicopter of the drill site on my family's land and the ground peppered with the animal carcasses we placed there.
The story cut to a terrified mother, frantic about a letter that she received in the mail. "I am scared! I am scared for my children, I am scared for my neighbors, and I'm scared for myself!"
The next interview was Pete with tears in his eyes "What does this mean? Do we have to leave? Are we safe?" With crazed eyes, he got closer to the camera, saying "Some one… save us! Save the animals! Save the planet!"
I was trying really hard to control my laughter, but I was able to regain my composure when my mom turned to me with her letter and asked, "Did you have something to do with this?"
"I did. People need to know. People need to be scared about it, and people need to be made uncomfortable. Because if we keep redirecting the responsibility and ignoring the issues, before long, we won't be able to live anywhere."