I didn’t know about the time-bomb. Did you? I asked everyone I knew, which was only the people who were there with me when it happened. The rest was dissolving. I was in a parking lot. I know you know where you were, stranger, when it happened, because that was all you had.
Autumn is falling from great heights, the leaves there and suddenly gone. There are not many good answers after a thing like this. Here are the answers I receive in my asking: a stiff breeze, winter approaching faster than it should in normal circumstances, the steady, distant cries of someone howling for something they can’t remember.
I have a son I did not ask for. His eyes are like planets. His eyes are like big promises I can’t keep. I was in a parking lot and then he was in my arms. The leaves came down like it was war again, like they were warning us. Trees that had not been there were there, suddenly, wallowing into the sky like tall, uncertain children. And what were we thinking? The world is too old for children. It would be better for them to be born full grown, having left their jacket at home, having waited too long at the coffee shop.
I am sitting on the stoop of a Walgreens holding a child I do not know to my breast. There is milk. I cry a little, and rock a little, like I’m the baby, and I laugh and dare to look at him again. We are playing peek-a-boo and I’m glad he doesn't know that I am one who is scared. He hasn’t cried once. This is all very normal to him. I must be his mother somewhere else, in some other place.
We haven’t moved out of the parking lot yet. There’s about seven of us. One person fell when it happened, blood dripping out of her hand where it’s held up to her mouth.
“Chipped tooth,” she says, garbled, looking at the new trees. “It happened when I was a child.” And now it’s happened again.
I hold my baby closer.
We are too afraid to go anywhere. What of the rest of the world? We don’t even know if it still exists.
The police arrive. They tell us to move along, as if they are not rattled in their shells as well. They tell us: move, get.
I am walking down a path lined with trees I have never seen before. We don’t talk much, there aren’t as many of us now, there were three paths leaving the parking lot.
Chipped-tooth is walking next to me, looking at my child. Her face looks like a pond right before a disruption, before the rippling.
“You didn’t have that before,” she says, like it's not really a question.
For the first time he starts crying.
“Sorry,” chipped-tooth mumbles.
I stop and hold him closer to me, bouncing us up and down in the middle of the road.
Chipped-tooth stays with me.
“Do I know you?” I ask her.
She shrugs. “I don’t remember.”
“Okay.” The wind has stopped being so cold. It’s only three of us now: me, chipped-tooth, and my child. Names seem very far away, even my own. I suppose I will have to choose one for him, but nothing comes through the dark. It doesn’t seem urgent.
“It’s getting dark,” she suggests. He hasn’t stopped crying. I shudder a breath and follow her along the road.
There’s a village a little ways ahead. The houses start making their way through the trees.
“Do you know what your home looks like?” I ask chipped-tooth.
“No,” she says, then points. “Maybe this is it.”
I smell the smoke first. There’s a house burning black smoke off of it, the bricks like embers. There’s a crowd slack with arms standing in front of it. The police watch.
It feels like being rolled like a pearl in the tongue of a clam, it feels worse, like being seasick, a rocking. What has been done morphs into what can be done. There are people wandering around with bundles of flowers in their arms, with their hands full of forgotten or newly remembered things.
Children are weaving through their parent’s dumbstruck legs, colored ribbons flying from their ankles and wrists.
It was supposed to be a festival day, or maybe it is suddenly supposed to be a festival day, out of the blue, along with all the houses burning. They are pressing damp clothes to their children’s faces. They are apologizing.
I look at my child, but cannot say sorry, it doesn't quite make it past my throat.
Chipped-tooth and I sit in the children’s section of the library where they told us to wait. There’s supposed to be a bus, later, but nobody knows where it’s headed. The linoleum is laid out with flimsy blue mattresses and the shiny husks of reflective blankets.
Chipped-tooth hands me one of the two oranges a disgruntled looking librarian gave her.
I’m unsettled by her presence, how she has chosen me, like she didn’t have to think twice, just as I have no choice in carrying my baby wherever I might go. I don’t let my discomfort show. We take a corner and two mattresses, backs to the wall.
If there is another dissolve, I would like to see it. For once, I wish for a uniform, something that would tell me about who I was, or who I am.
Chipped-tooth is wincing as she tries to eat the orange with her back teeth. The citrus must sting. I resist the wild urge to wipe the blood off her upper lip.
Instead, I begin telling my son about the oldest tree in the world. How it was felled because a man did not know patience. That he thought it might be the second oldest and lost the bet. How he sat down in the sand with his axe and his calculations and wept.
“That’s not a very nice story,” chipped-tooth says. I glance at her, but her expression is open.
“I’m just glad I still know it,” I say, so quiet it might be only for my baby, but I know she hears it too.
I tell them that the oldest tree is hidden now. Its exact location is a well-kept secret. And it grows limbs up to the sky in rejoicing anonymity, like a warning, like a greeting. And the world turns a pearl in its mouth and reminds itself that there should be no more children.
“But just this once,” I say, to my child. “The world says, one more couldn’t hurt.”
He’s asleep. I look up helplessly, adrift without another person to take care of.
Chipped-tooth looks at me with something akin to kindness. She holds an orange slice out to me, as if noting that I haven’t eaten mine.
“I won’t be able to sleep,” I tell her. I am not crying.
“Neither will I,” she says.
I eat the sliver of orange. She smiles.
“It means we’ll catch the bus.”
Norah Brady is an 18 year old moon enthusiast writing about conspiracy, climate change, mars, and mountains. They were a runner-up for Youth Poet Laureate of Boston in 2020. Their poetry and short fiction works can be found in Rookie magazine, the Ekphrastic Review, the Blue Marble Review and elsewhere.