By Sophie Wang
The house was silent. A flame rushed over the hill towards it. In the window, Anna pressed her fat-cheeked little face against a window and chuckled as the flames slammed into the glinting walls and lapped at the metal.
“You know, people used to run from fires,” her great-great-great-grandma’s machine croaked.
“What was the fun in that?” Anna wondered, unsticking her face from the alloyed glass.
“There wasn’t any. Fires killed. This was before the waves, too.”
Anna’s eyes widened. “Teacher said that the waves were here always, and the fires were also.”
“Teacher gets paid to say that.”
Scowling, Anna scuttled across the room and settled in a fur armchair. The two sat in silence as the fires receded, before a thought popped unbidden into Anna’s mind.
“Great-great-great-grandma, what’s Flor-eeda? Danny was talking about it. It isn’t real, is it?”
“Child, Florida was real. There were crocodiles there, and cranes and every animal you can imagine. There were mosquitos the size of houses.”
“What do you mean?”
“Why did Florida exist? It didn’t do anything.”
“Things don’t have to have a purpose to exist.”
“But the fires exist so that we can stay warm and the Wave existed to take out parts of America we didn’t need. Things exist to make the world better for us. What did Florida do?”
“That’s a lie, child. We evolved long after the Earth existed. And the Earth didn’t change for us. We messed up.”
“I think we did good.”
“Well, child, and we didn’t do well, otherwise we wouldn’t be in this mess,” great-great-great-grandma patiently explained.
“Well, what was it like before this mess?” Anna snapped, her six-year-old temper rising.
“Come here, child. Come here.” Great-great-great-grandma slid out her arm and patted the sofa next to the window.
Feet dragging, Anna stalked over.
“You see that hill?”
Brow wrinkling, Anna scrutinized the hill. After a few seconds, her eyes were dry and smarting and she had seen nothing unusual.
“On top of that hill, there used to be a big old grove of redwoods. I would wake up in the mornings and walk to that grove. There was a lake there and in the mornings, the air was so thick with fog that you couldn’t see across. And I would sit there and listen to the frogs croak and the birds warble. Once a squirrel ran right up to me and just sat there, staring.”
“Fog, like the yucky yellow stuff that goes through the city and blocks the sun?”
“That’s smog and that’s bad for you. Fog was harmless. And it smelled nice and clean. I had a garden out back and I liked working there in the mornings. Everything was so fresh. Even if the buck that lived around there had nibbled the turnips, I was happy.”
“I don’t understand,” Anna mumbled.
“What do you mean, child?”
“What was a redwood? What was a frog? And a buck?”
“They were alive and beautiful. Frogs and bucks were animals.”
Anna huffed. She had only seen an animal once, a mewling cat the size of her hand, blind in one eye, and skinny — no doubt flea-ridden, so the word failed to arouse wonder.
Great-great-great-grandma paused, glowered, then continued, “And trees were majestic. Some were hundreds of years old and they were bigger than you could imagine.
“In the fall I sometimes drove up to Canada—”
“Why’d you go to Canada? It’s just like here — on fire all the time and where it isn’t on fire, it’s just rain.” Anna’s brow wrinkled.
“There were maple trees there, and in the fall they turned red. And people made candy from maple syrup. It was delicious.”
She continued, “I remember I once went to Britain. Now, it’s hot, really hot, and dry in some places and flooded in others, but it wasn’t before. I went to the countryside — and there was still countryside at that point — and lived in a little cottage with morning glories blooming. In the mornings, everything would be so foggy that I couldn’t see six feet ahead of me.
“But I loved the ocean the most. Now the coral’s all bleached and white and dead, but it used to be hundreds of different colors. It seemed that there were millions of different fish there, all beautiful and happy. Sometimes I would spend the entire day at the seaside — breakfast at a little old diner near the beach and then snorkeling, lunch at the diner, and then swimming again until dark. That was the way it was before people messed everything up.”
The quavery voice paused and great-great-great-grandma’s machine seemed to be regarding Anna, waiting for her to understand the beauty of how the world was.
The wide blue eyes in Anna’s chubby face widened still further as she tried to imagine it, and then they squeezed into slits and she burst out, “I still don’t understand. Where were the fires? There isn’t a garden out back, it’s flames. There isn’t a red — redtree grove there, it’s fire. I’ve never seen a buck or a frog and if there were fish in the ocean, they’d fry when the fire roared out. This is the way the world is, and the way it’s always been. You —”
She paused. Her great-great-great-grandma shouldn’t say things like this. There must be something wrong with the machine – that was it. It must be faulty. Anna reached over and pulled the plug from the machine sitting next to her — after all, what was it but a machine, a clearly confused machine that needed a reboot — and watched it buzz into silence.
The house was silent. A flame rushed over the hill towards it. Anna sat and chuckled.