GREEN THINGS ON CONCRETE
By Em Harriett
Content Warnings: Dystopia, death.
You remember falling asleep.
The stars were white and hollow in their tapestry, a constellation of noise deep in space. On the dry earth, the only sounds the night held for you were a symphony of crickets and your own breath as it passed through your lungs. You blink and remember:
The asters you plucked from the next mound over, transplanting them like a surgeon so that your dead lover could have a bit of beauty in his rest.
You took the survival kit off its hook in the kitchen without checking its contents first. Leaving the door unlocked, you marched into the empty fields behind your house without a backwards glance.
Wheatgrass whispered in your passing like ghosts.
Maybe this was a bad idea.
But that house has nothing for you now.
You fish a bluegill from the river and spear it over a fire, plucking pin bones from its flesh and tossing them into the embers. Your water filter will last three weeks. You know you will last longer. In your head, there is a map, but it is frayed with aged inaccuracies, and you know there is a city to the east filled with steel and echoes of the past.
You decide to walk there, but not to ogle memory. You have memory in spades within you: sun-warmed kisses, meals scraped together in a salvaged pot, just the two of you in your bit of land among the wheat sea. For twenty years, that was happiness – that was home.
Now, you don’t know what to do. You figure trekking to the city is as good a use of your time as any.
You finish your fish and scrape dirt over the fire, burying the bones. Animals have not bothered you, but you know better than to leave scraps for coyotes. At night you hear them yap and yowl from miles away. Their shrill voices make the stars shake.
You rest and rise with the sun. You hear your lover’s voice on the wind, urging you to some new horizon.
You march on.
The land undulates like water-soaked paper. Cornfields wave in patches across the plains, grown wild from untended farms. Limbless trees hung with dead power lines and birds’ nests dot the landscape like sentinels. Lightning has scoured many of them with thick strips of char; they stand inert when you pass beneath them. Their shadows point the way east.
You wonder if the city is real after all or if it’s a fabrication, the promise of a heaven that does not exist. It’s been years since you’ve spoken to another human who did not live with you. Whatever you needed to survive, you and your lover grew from the land itself, tending your respectable garden and minding a few chickens that had wandered into your yard. The one time you saw a caravan, it was a pod of wagons at the edge of the field, its habitants journeying to some greener pasture.
You wonder if such a place exists.
You wonder if you deserve it.
At night, you deny the stars and close your eyes, your mind adrift to your house and the memories you thought would last forever there. Your lover’s face appears like a shade.
Every morning, his features burn against the back of your eyes.
You find a dog.
It is not your dog. Your dog is buried beside your lover, sharing the same plot of land behind the house. The asters you’d planted there sprouted pink and purple and blue, a riot of colour, and your lover used to say it was your dog’s spirit that made the flowers bloom so bright.
If that was true, then you hope the asters over your lover’s grave outshine the stars.
But back to the dog that is not your dog. It is a mongrel, a pedigree of miscellany, and its fur sticks up in all the wrong places. Its coat is steel wool dipped in white-and-brown dye. Its ears prick up when it sees you, and it trots to greet you with a wagging tail and promises of friendship.
You ignore it. You keep walking.
The dog that is not your dog follows you through the fields, silent and desperate for love.
You sleep in the shells of old houses when you find them. Nothing remains except the outlines of concrete foundations, but even a few inches of solid wall against the wind is better than sleeping in the open. A hollow, rusted carapace of a car rests next to your current shelter. Golden grass brushes the metal with gentle strokes.
The dog that is not your dog sleeps closer and closer each night. You give up trying to dissuade it. The heart of a dog only knows how to love, and in your condition, you’d be cruel to ignore it any longer.
You let the animal’s small body curl against your own. The balm soothes your loneliness even if you did not wish it.
You know you’re on the right track when you find a long, straight path like a canal through the fields. Long ago, it was a highway, but now the asphalt is cracked and half dirt, coated in windswept dust. It leads east with the rising sun and wears holes in the soles of your shoes.
Your clothes are sun-baked and wind-worn, clinging to you like a second skin. You’ve long grown accustomed to your own smell. It’s not like there are other people around to judge you, and the dog that is not your dog keeps its tiny mouth shut.
Your water filter ran out. The creeks you’ve found this far from your old home are muddy and slow-moving. When you cup the water in your hands, silt settles in your palms.
You grimace but swallow anyway. The dog that is not your dog laps from the creek beside you, and you swear it makes the same face you do at the water’s taste.
You return to the road and follow it one resolute step at a time. You can’t name the thing that drives you – hope, fear, denial, acceptance – but you’ve long since become the passenger on your own journey.
The dog that is not your dog knows how to fetch. It brings sticks you throw back to you, running regardless of the distance. When it is exhausted, its pink tongue flops out of its jaws and it rolls onto its back, splaying its paws in the air.
You laugh. It is the first sound you’ve made since you left your home behind.
Your lover would be proud.
You see it.
It is a man-made mountain range looming out of the horizon, crenulations of black against the blue sky, and it stirs something inside you like the flutter of a bird’s wing. It’s real. The city is real after all, and it is large and dense and filled with mystery.
You wish your lover was here to see it with you. You think of how you’d describe it to him, and your imaginary conversation sustains you even as you realise you’ve had nothing to eat for two days.
You pick up your pace. The dog that was not your dog trots beside you, its paw pads calloused and strong.
You hurt your leg scavenging for supplies. It was a stupid mistake, really, something you would have scolded yourself for had you any scrap of anger in your chest.
The foundation was unsafe. You fell, gashed your leg against a rusted metal sheet on the way down, and landed in a heap of mud and dirt in someone’s old basement. The dog that was not your dog barked his head off until you dragged yourself out of the hole to his side. He licked your face with a rough tongue and whined the rest of the day, his scruffy coat pressed against your body every chance he had.
Your painkillers are expired. You clean your wound as best you can with your meagre supplies. But, like all events that turn the stomach with their importance, you know:
Your days are numbered.
The aches come first. Your leg lags stiff as you walk, dragging your feet over cracked asphalt. Wheatgrass spreads rumours about you in the wind. You try not to care.
The dog that was not your dog keeps pace beside you, stealing glances up at you as if to check that you’re still there. His scruffy face is worried, his tail wagging so fiercely it could power a generator. You smile at him and scratch his ears. He whines. He does not want to lose you.
Asters grow atop the graves of your two loves. You think you will turn to asters, too.
Your skin blisters. Every breeze is a blade. Every night is ice.
You don’t know how much longer you can keep walking.
Why do the stars look so unfeeling?
Why do you care so much?
You reach the city. At least, it was a city, long before the buildings crumbled under Nature’s weight and let her run her fingers through what remained. Greenery clings to every concrete surface. Trees grope with their roots over crumbled sidewalks and hollow steel beams.
If there are bones here, you pretend you do not see them.
Your steps slow. The dog that is now your dog trots beside you, his tongue lolling pink and luscious from his small jaws. Sunlight at your back throws your shadow far ahead of you over cracked pavement and the weeds that flourish there.
Your chest aches. Your leg throbs. Thirst drags its claws down your throat.
You lie down in the shade of an old storefront, its walls half-fallen and covered with ivy. The dog that is now your dog curls up beside you and rests his head against the curve of your neck. His wet nose is a balm against your burning skin. You sigh and run your fingers through his stiff fur.
Leaves rustle in the wind. Crickets sing in a language you cannot parse. The wheatgrass murmurs the story of your life from blade to blade and out into the fields, over the long golden plains and towards the people scattered like seeds in the wind.
You look up into the yawning sky and see white stars peer through the sunset. Their tapestry is no longer noise. When the trees susurrate, the stars speak with their unfeeling wisdom:
Green things on concrete.
Life after death.
You close your eyes and sleep for the final time.
Em (she/they) is a queer agender author and illustrator from New England. She enjoys writing speculative fiction when she isn't knitting or making another cup of tea. You can find Em on twitter @em_harriett or at emharriett.com