The Greenhouse

By Chloe Lomas


A POWERFUL DYSTOPIAN SHORT STORY ABOUT WHAT WE HAVE TO LOSE...


 

When I met her, we were both dying.

I thought that our diseases were separate, that maybe if we tried hard enough, we could save each other. As it turns out, I was her disease. I wish she had been mine.

When the first rumbles of crimson thunder roll across the parched planet, the only thing I know how to do is run. The fact that I just spent the last six hours gathering supplies is barely relevant. Besides, I haven’t glimpsed another human being for hundreds of miles; there’s not a soul around to take the provisions that I’ll leave behind. If my timing is right, and there’s no way to be sure if it is, the scraps will disintegrate the moment toxic gas starts seeping out of the ground. Once I would have been bitter about wasting such precious nutrients, but things changed after my parents died. One decaying mouth to feed is much less than three, but now there’s only one pair of hands to carry it all, and the less things I have the faster I can travel.

Glowing coals—the product of the planetary crust being stripped away—stir in their slumber beneath my feet, hissing with betrayal at each panicked step. I hiss back at them, but patters of fear dance in my chest. The fires below, laced in rivets across the jagged slope of this planet, burn more brightly than they did yesterday.

Squinting through the fog and the ash that constantly trickles from the sky, I put on a burst of speed, my eyes stinging as they scan for somewhere to escape. Buildings were swallowed by erupting magma a long time ago, leaving only skeletal remnants behind. So when I catch sight of something in front of me, just a glimmer of grey among all this red, I’m not sure if it’s real. My only option is to take that chance. I reach the structure just as lightning illuminates the sky, almost crying with relief. Lunging for the handle of the rusted door under my feet, I yank. It doesn’t budge. No, no, no. The telltale whisper of vapor fumes has started from behind me. I have no longer than a minute, or I’m gone.

My feet slam against the panel and it starts to shift, creaking with age. “Open!” I snarl desperately—and with a violent groan, the metal caves beneath my weight. Suddenly everything is a dark blur, my limbs are reaching, my body is flipping, my eyes are rolling and searching and shutting as hard as they can—

Silence.

Cautiously, I rise to my knees and feel heavy powder on my tongue. Years of surviving off potentially lethal substances trigger bad memories and my gag reflex at the same time, causing a litany of curses to fly through my head. I spit the brown glob out of my mouth, repulsed at how much it tastes like water and smells like clay, then finally look up to scan my surroundings. I’m sprawled across the floor of what must be abasement, with a low, slanting roof and crumbling russet walls. It’s filled to the brim with things—I don’t know what— that are a color I’ve only seen in worn, faded photographs.

I breathe in slowly, clutching at my chest as my mouth floods with coppery shock. Something about this place is wrong. The quiet Outside is not like the quiet here. Outside, silence is cruel and constant and usually means you’re about to die. You’re always about to die.

When I was younger, I heard whispers of past civilizations that attempted to rally forces after the First Failure—something called Yellowstone—exploded almost two-hundred years ago. Apparently some societies nearly worked, but then the Second and Third Failures came in waves and devastated any hope of group survival. People were scattered all across the planet when it finally split. I’ll never forget the stories of how the surface dissolved away, disappearing into the gaping maw of the lava raging below and taking thousands with it. They thought it was just affecting the islands, in the beginning, but a crack becomes a web if enough pressure is applied. That was the Fourth Failure. By the time I was born, they had stopped numbering them.

A rustle drags abruptly from my own thoughts. Dazed, I soak in the blinding shades of malachite that drape around me, too stunned to even move. That is, until I realize I’m not alone. A woman—no, a girl, maybe even my age—is watching me from behind an explosive dome of prickling color. Her hair glistens like ink, and her skin is the shade of the ground beneath us. My hand strays tot he knife strapped to my bicep.

“Hello,” I rasp warily. “Is this...area...yours?” I don’t want to say “home.” Nobody has those anymore.

“Yes, it is.” Her hands are folded in her lap, turning over and over again. I edge towards the stairs I must’ve fallen down, unsure of where to position myself. Every single entity in here is close enough to kill me. Could I fight back? Would I want to?

“You haven’t left,” she echoes softly without opening her eyes, phrasing it like a question. “Most humans come inside this place looking for food, and when they find it, they don’t even know what it is.” Her fingers tapa gentle rhythm against the thing I think is called “dirt”. “Isn’t that sad, that they can’t recognize life anymore?”

I take her lack of hostility as an invitation, slowly creeping closer and carefully dodging the willowy things as they try to brush my bony shoulders.

“What are these?”

“Plants.”

“Oh.” I hesitate. “I don’t...I never learned about them.”

She rises to her feet gracefully, causing me to twitch. As she turns in a slow circle, her arms brushing against the plants, I realize her feet are bare. “Do you ever leave this place?” I ask, shocked. Maybe I’m no longer used to talking with voices that come from real people, but that strikes me as strange.

“Why would I need to? I have everything I need in here.”

I’m dumbfounded—so dumbfounded that I forget to be suspicious as she steps closer and reaches for me. Immediately, my entire body tenses, and my knife appears in my hand without a second thought. Save but for a gentle smile, my reaction is completely ignored. Her hand flies behind my shoulder and grabs a small pot from seemingly out of nowhere. “Feel,” she commands, grabbing my fingers without a single warning and guiding them to lay against the tiny, vibrant thing resting in the dirt.

Suddenly my anger is fading. It’s soft, almost waxy, and each time I let out a slow breath, it trembles too. The scariest thing—the most fascinating thing—is that it feels more alive than I ever have.

“The Earth used to be green like this,” the girl murmurs, staring fondly down at it.

“The Earth?” The word feels unnatural on my tongue, and when she fixes me with her gaze, I am heavier than ever.

“This world.”

“It has a name?” Something about that makes me angry.

“Not anymore.” Bile rises in my throat. “Nobody ever told me that.”

When she opens her mouth, a horrible claw rakes through my stomach. “There’s no one left to tell you. You are the last.”

I shuffle backwards. My eyes are warping the way air does around a fire. “Wait!” The girl shouts, but I’m already pivoting away from her. Up the steps, through the door. Into the open. Weaving between the shattered fractions of the ground beneath me. When was the last time I came across another human being? How many weeks, how many months, how many years, has it been?

Hello?!” I scream, turning in a circle so maddeningly fast that I know the universe is watching me dance. I dare the stars to come out now, after so many years, because they would cower at the strength of my cries. “Anyone! Is anyone here?! If you can hear me—

The cement rumbles, shifts. A monster about to wake. The acrid smell of charred flesh mingles with floating ash as it rains down, resting between my lashes. I remember this. This is what always happens Right Before. The wind and flames are eerily dormant, leaving only fragments of evidence that they ever came at all. For a moment, this feels right—me standing here with my hand raised to catch falling cinders as they drift—but then one sizzles like a heartbeat against my palm, joining the collection of black stars on my skin. It jolts me back to life, but my reflexes are slow. I am too late, always too late.

BOOM. A fissure twenty yards away bursts with a mighty roar, snarling with heat as a geyser of lava launches towards the sky. No! I’ve seen what happens to people when they breathe in the noxious fumes created by this planet’s flames, and it’s not a scene I would like to relive. My feet scramble, but in the haze, I’m tipping with the upheaval of the ground, sliding towards the explosion instead of away from it.

The terrain ripples, and my head slams against it with a crack. The Earth is opening below me, rupturing like a shockwave and giving way to the boiling crimson sea underneath. I scream, terror ripping through my throat at the realization that I’m about to die. In my heart, I know what this is, even if there’s nobody else alive to say it: the beginning of the Final Failure. No stories will be retold of this one.

Blood drips from my forehead. My lungs are constricting, fighting every command I give them to hold in what little air is left. More pillars detonate around me, triggering a vicious cycle, and the smoke is so thick that I have to close my eyes before they’re scarred. I’m crawling blindly away from the wreckage, praying the tremors will halt long enough for me to reach solid ground.

I can’t see. I can’t—

A steady hand grabs my wrist. I cling on, desperately scrabbling against the caving landscape. Someone is dragging me away, and I couldn’t care less who it is. “Get up!” A voice commands over the screeches of churning metal that’s being sucked in behind us. “We have to run, or we’re going to fall in!”

Running.

That’s all I’ve ever known.

I lurch to my feet. I think I’m crying, and my suspicions are confirmed once I crack open my lids and watch the wilted ground quiver. Behind us, the world burns. I can hear it froth and groan as if it’s shifting, one last time, on its axis. The girl limps urgently next to me. Why am I not surprised that it was her who pulled me up? She already told me there is no one else. “But I don’t know you,” I mutter incoherently to myself, and that is my first lie of the day. Deep in the recesses of my mind, a voice whispers that we all did.

“Let’s get inside. You’ll breathe better in there,” she croaks. I just nod deliriously, stumbling as she pulls me along for what could be hours. It hits me, when the atmosphere gradually shifts, that we are the last two survivors of a dying world. With her trembling arm hoisted around my shoulder and the deteriorating outline of her greenhouse finally in sight, I’m no longer forsaken.

We descend unsteadily down the steps. I am shaking from adrenaline, but she iss haking from weakness. Her face is gaunt, and the flush of warmth in her skin has vanished. A few agonizing minutes of silence follow as we reach the middle of the room and sink to the floor. “You should go,” she chokes after my sputtering breaths have calmed.

I stare at her. I should. There’s nothing stopping me from fleeing, and if I leave now, I might be able to make it out before the magma traps us in—but I have one last question. “Who are you, exactly?”

She blinks, not looking at me. “I’m tethered to the fate of this planet. I am...the thing humanity stopped trying to save.”

I might survive if I rise to my feet and walk away. Maybe another safe haven is waiting for me halfway across the world like this one was. Maybe I can last for a while longer, scraping by off of the carcasses of dead animals and drinking the manufactured water people once buried in the desert. But even if my legs still work, I am too drained to run.

I want to stay. I want to trace the calluses on her fingers and understand that they were born from roots, from dirt, while mine were born from twisted metal and singed hair. I want her to teach me how to breathe all over again because from the first moment we met, I realized I was doing it wrong. I collapse beneath the mossy canopy as these things swirl through my mind, pressing my face against the roughly-hewn surface beneath me. We lie there together, waiting eons for the storm outside to die and knowing we’ll fade first. “I like your eyes,” she tells me, causing my cracked lips to part in a broken smile.

“What color are they?”

“They look like the sky.” The fervor in her voice is dimming.

“The old one.” I think about that. The sky. Maybe we’ll go there when this is over. Or maybe I’m bound here, like the bodies of those forgotten—those with eyes that never got closed, because they spent their last breaths searching for a different world to die on. They might not have found one, but I did.

A violent rattle quakes from above us, and she stirs feebly next to me. “It’s ending.” I glance over at her. She should be immortal, and it is a cruel fate that I am left breathing as her body turns gray.

A sigh.

A shudder.

She is gone. Her body curls, a small child returning to the place it once came, seeking comfort from the very thing destroying us.

I will protect her now.


 

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