“So, what are these?” Rea raised an eyebrow, waiting for Nial to finish assessing the bundle of little reddish-brown pips she found in one of her great-grandmother’s drawers.
For the last few months she took the habit of stopping by Nial’s apartment after work. Unlike hers, his apartment was immaculate. They sat in the sunroom, under the multicolored light that came in through the tinted glass windows with flowy floral motifs, the curvy wooden frames still in place.
Her family’s apartment was quieter, more somber after her great-grandmother died, and their fridge emptier without her skills to make money go a long way, but she tried not to think about it. She was 15, a woman grown, and could take care of herself.
He looked at her, puzzled. “These are seeds, Rea. Have you never seen them?” Given her age, it wouldn’t surprise him too much, though. He first saw them at university, studying how the pollution from The Last War killed all local flora.
“Of course I have. But seeds of what?”
“I don’t know yet. Leave a couple with me and I’ll find out for you.” She nodded, and he put two or three of pips in a small plastic box. “Did she ever tell you about these?”
Rea shook her head, her tight brown curls brushing her shoulders. “No, I didn’t know she had them.” Her great-grandmother didn’t reminisce about her past—she preferred to focus on the present, on making money and feeding themselves and finding opportunities for her rather than dwell on the past. Nothing was sacred. She even sold or repurposed family heirlooms like their wooden bedframe, which fed them for almost a year after selling it, old clothes, and some books and letters from before her time.
Nial got up to the kitchen when the kettle started wailing. Outside, the sun showered its warm dying light over the dusty skies above them.
“Will you try to grow them?” He simpered as he poured the water for her tea. “It’s not impossible for old seeds to sprout. And they look in excellent condition—no mold, no bugs…”
“Hell, no.” She frowned. “I need the money.”
“Wouldn’t your great-grandma want you to grow them?”
Considering the question, the girl paused for a second, holding her cup with both hands. “She wanted me to eat. She even left me a list of potential buyers. Los Altos is the first one.”
“Rea, you know what they do…”
“You work for them, so I think you know better than me,” she snapped, crossing her arms. She knew they bought all viable land after the families who owned them disappeared. “What would I even do with a plant, anyway? I’ve never even seen a live one. And where do you suggest I get the soil to plant it? And the water? Am I using my water ration?”
“I’ve heard of people who’ve done it,” he started, measuring his words. “If you know the right people, you can get enough soil and water to grow anything.”
“And you know this, how…?”
“I work for them, don’t I? And I talk to people. People who know things.” If he learned anything from his sister, it was to talk to everyone as if he cared about them. If she was still alive, she’d have been even more successful than him. But she lived in his memory as she died: young, skittish and self-assured, just like Rea. Her self-portrait, a small watercolour sketch painted on a piece of real paper, hung on an cream-coloured wall in the living room.
The girl leaned back on the curvy, light wooden chair, sulking.
“I’ll think about it,” she conceded.
Back in her apartment with the small tin box in her backpack, Rea left her mask and protective outerwear in the hallway and walked past the empty kitchen to enter her great-grandmother’s bedroom. When she was little, she remembered the house full of people, even full of laughter sometimes. Her brother’s mattress rotted away in her room. If he still lived, he’d know what to do about the seeds.
Her great-grandmother’s bedroom was a mess of dusty trinkets and furniture, including a chest of drawers Rea was preparing to sell.
To her relief, the first drawer didn’t have much: some mismatched socks with holes that her great-grandmother might have been saving to turn into rags, a few old coins she could still sell, and two odd-looking books.
She sat on the mattress on the floor and as she opened the first book she found it was, in fact, a photo album. Ghosts from a world long gone greeted her on every page. Two women, one old and one young, held two babies in a green, luscious garden. A small child played in a bright blue kiddie pool next to a young man in a red swimsuit, frozen in time as he was about to burst into laughter. A couple in their twenties posed next to their car outside her apartment building, judging by the floral patterns and the curved shape of the door behind them. A little girl with dark braids caught mid-jump under a tall, leafy tree. Rea took that last photo out of the album to look at the child closer. The girl’s green, almond eyes were familiar. On the back, someone had written: “Lavinia, first summer in the country, 1989.” She was her great-grandmother.
For a minute, she imagined her in that world and wondered what the air smelled like, what the trees sounded like when the wind ruffled their leaves, how wet soil felt under her fingers. Maybe her great-grandmother thought about it at night, too, her mind filled with memories she wished to bring into her dreams. Maybe that’s why she didn’t sell the seeds.
Rea laid down on the mattress with the photo album on her chest, hoping to enter that world, too, even if just for a moment, wishing she could sit under a large, green tree. All the trees in the city had died, but she had seeds and the sudden determination to grow them.
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