a story of the future

Charlie pushed into the municipal office to escape the rain. Hot, frantic, the water lashed at him until he got the door shut. He swiped at his bald head with the sleeve of his soaked shirt, and the water receded like a wave, back to the world.

“Rains used to be here and gone in an hour; now it’s a two-week monsoon,” he said into the silence.

“Hello Councillor.” Nancy took the property tax bill from Charlie’s outstretched hand, and she shook the rain off it before turning to face a computer. “You’re sounding old today.”

Charlie’s shoulders rose and fell with a chuckle. “Speaking of old, I forgot your veggie basket in the truck.” He winked at Nancy, “got something special for you too this week. brb.”

Charlie dove back into the rain. Through the office window and water, Nancy watched him jog to the back of his truck, reach over the tailgate, and lift a basket from under a tarp. He cradled the bundle and hurried back.

He hefted the dripping basket onto the counter and rifled through it. Soil broke off and fell from dirty bunches of lettuce, herbs, a bag of peas, onto the counter and down to the floor. 

“Ah, here we go; close your eyes, Nance.”

Instead Nancy lifted a corner of her eyebrow, “is this going to hurt?” Charlie smiled.

Nancy closed her eyes

“Now put out your hand.” 

Nancy put out her hand.

The cold of the object shocked her first. It’s weight next, heavy for its size, that of a tangerine. It felt imperfectly smooth, too smooth. Nancy opened her eyes.

In her open hand was a pure white ball, almost glowing. She squeezed it, as hard as she could, as if by instinct. It didn’t deform; she couldn’t change its shape. She turned it over and found a wispy filament, like a hollow root hair, almost transparent, emerging from a small crease in the otherwise unbroken surface of the object. Was it humming? Vibrating slightly?

Nancy nearly dropped it, nearly threw it to the ground.

“what is this…”

“I call them ‘ornaments’” said Charlie. He plucked the ball from her hand and slammed it down onto the counter. It would not deform.

Picking up the ornament, he hypnotized Nancy as he tossed it and caught it, tossed and caught.

“I found them in a flooded corner of the fields. Had my tractor stuck and was tearing up my crops trying to get free. I climbed down to survey the damage, and it was the brightness of them that caught my eye, like little lights shining out from the dirt. The rain seemed drawn to them, like the water was rushing in, trying to cover them up again. They must’ve been growing under the water and mud, hydroponic horticulture eh?

“But this is the coolest part” he said, winking, catching the tossed ornament and turning it over in his hand to expose the crease and filament. He leaned close and breathed warmth on them, each breath slow and long. 

Beneath his breath, Nancy thought the slight glow of the ornament grew brighter, and its skin maybe slightly wrinkled. 

For a long 30 seconds, the crease expanded under Charlie’s breath to become a sinuous canyon, snaking its way around the object, a prime meridian. The filament greyed, wilted, and fell to the counter. 

Charlie pulled his face back and plunged his thumbs into the crease, ripping apart the ornament like an orange. It complied, meek now despite its earlier defiance. 

He offered half to Nancy and wrapped the rest in a rag, pushing it into his pocket.

Nancy raised the exposed fruit to her nose. The smell was sweet and seemed a mix of flowers she couldn’t name. Some homeless memory squirmed in a back alley of her brain, tickled, restless.

Nancy stared into the ornament’s insides, homogenous, no veins, no pit, no seed. “What is this?” she said again, captivated by the ornament’s foreign heart.

“Can’t say” said Charlie.

She lifted her eyes, “can’t say or won’t?”

Charlie looked away and out the window in the direction of his farm. He wiped at his forehead again, though he’d long since cleared it of rain.

“I asked the Harvester the same question: ‘what is this’. It spit out an error code I couldn’t place, and turned up no search results either.

“I went back through the records, checked the network, and found an unscheduled run on the seed printer, a few weeks ago, before the rains started. I thought maybe it was an upgraded strain pushed out by the supplier, but the seed formula was unattributed, no record of where it came from. On the same day the Harvester made an unauthorized run to the field: to the same corner of the field where I found the ornaments.” 

Charlie turned back to Nancy, a distant look in his eyes. “It’s a bit of a mystery maybe,” he said.

He took his chequebook from his front shirt pocket. “I guess I owe you some money.” He wrote the date and signed before looking up with a grin “how much do you bastards want this time?” His shoulders shook quietly with hidden laughter.

Nancy felt the hum of the open ornament in her hand and wondered if it had warmed. 

She read out the amount owing from the computer screen and Charlie started his pen again. It rubbed on the cheque in rhythmic scratches, blending with the ornament’s vibrations, harmonizing, a melody she thought she maybe knew.

“Here you go,” he said, ripping the cheque from its booklet. “no spendin’ it all on booze and babes,” shoulders bouncing as he turned to leave. 

He was nearly to the door when Nancy spoke out, “Charlie.” 

Charlie turned back, pivoting on a foot, gliding through the movement as if in dance. Nancy searched his eyes: were they brighter than usual? Was he standing straighter? Could he feel the hum?

Nancy’s mouth was dry. It clicked in time with her words:

“…have you eaten any?” 

Charlie brushed his sleeve over his head, and seemed to slip away for a moment, lost somewhere back within his own narrow streets and silent nooks.

He met her eyes. “I wouldn’t dare” he said, and he drifted out into the rain. 

Nancy watched Charlie step up into the truck and turn on the headlights. He reversed and turned, and the lights shone through the gloom of the storm, crossing Nancy and the ornament.

She saw the streams of headlight split by each cutting drop of rain. She felt the heat of the engine as Charlie shifted from reverse to first and pulled away. She thought she smelled the sourness of exhaust.

Through it all the sweet hum of the ornament passed its infectious song through the skin of her hand in its quick and caustic dialect.

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