Josie remembers a time without trees and is trying to stop it from happening.
Dreamer. In those days, those days lon’ past but not so long forgotten, that’s what they called me. My dreams were filled with things not seen, not known in many generations—but each night I walked among the vestiges of something we’d been threatened to believe never existed.
Damn us all they wanted, but as long as a Dreamer lived, we knew otherwise.
I don’t rem’ber much, truth be told, of the dark, sunless sky. I was young, barely tottlin’ with unsure legs on the black land of spent coal, when my mama took me to the strange man. Of course, I can recollect by pressing on the medallion here ’round my neck. He made sure of that, made sure I would always wear some sort of burden to remind me of what I could fail at.
Funny, as if I could forget when the Nightmares replaced my Dreams.
That strange man my mama took me to—he smelled funny. He smelled old and of clay and the underneath. I’ve always liked that smell. It wasn’t so fake. He also smelled of peppermint oil, or at least, what I imagined peppermint oil would smell like from eating it in my Dreams. Peppermint oil and old, worn pages of a book.
A heretic, he was—an old, crazy, and broken man. I didn’t think he was so crazy though. He believed me and didn’t shush my stories as I told him of the things that lived in the ground, of air bending these living creatures and even more incredibly, of water that ran clear and not trailing sludge. He patted my head, called me a living miracle, a light in this dark and heavy world.
Those words brought angry tears tumbling down my mama’s face. Her lip trembled somthin’ fierce, her tiny hands balled up in quivering fists.
“Take it away from her, Lonnie,” I remember her saying. “They’ll kill her if she doesn’t stop tellin’ these lies.”
“I can’t take these dreams away no sooner than you and I could stop breathin’.” He grinned a wide, toothy smile and clapped leathered hands together. “She’s got something special! She can see our old stories, she can see the world, the mountains we had before it was all taken away.”
“Just silly, superstitious stories, old man!” Her eyes glanced around us all, and it’s funny now how I can realize that even in that quiet part of the mine, she was afraid of the Control overhearing us. Back when she held my hand, all I could think of was how funny she looked, her eyes wide enough to show the white. Now I understand, and—if I could—I would travel back to give her a hug and tell her it’ll be alrigh’.
God woulda struck me down for tellin’ that fib.
“Mabel, you know as well as I do they ain’t stories. Your daddy usedta tell you about his Dreams.”
“And they killed him for it. Just like they’ll kill her.” My mamma leaned her head back on the wall, her breath catching as we heard an all too familiar whirring of the Control sentinel. Her hand covered my mouth and I could taste salt and grime and oil from her long day working on the machines. Blue light glanced its way through the tunnel, but did not penetrate the old mesh cloth thrown over the entrance way. She waited a moment, listening to that awful noise that still haunts my nightmares. “Lonnie, if not for me, if not for your great niece, then save her for the brother they killed.”
He sighed, brushed hands against bushy brows, and frowned. “Mabel…what do you expect me to do?”
“I know you been workin’on something for the Administration.”
“Hush, you fool girl!” That strange man had never looked so surprised, so angry, as he did in that moment. “You think Josie’s dreams will sign her death warrant? Girl, throwing out that word would sign something much more painful than a simple death.”
She swallowed and stood her ground. My mama had always been a tiny, frail thing. All legs and sinew, it was why the Corporation had put her to work as a mechanic. Seeing her stand against the stooping old man, I thought my mama coulda been ten foot tall. “If you can help a buncha troublemakers, than you sure as hell can save your family.”
“Whatever poor soul told you to come find me is gonna find the mistake of it,” he growled. “And you’ll regret it too. There ain’t a way to take those dreams, and I wouldn’t if I could. We need her, she’s the only one that keeps us rem’bering. If it wasn’t for her dreams, the stories wouldn’t live on, and if it wasn’t for those stories then we would lose what it was like before they took the mountains away.”
“Why? Why would you want to remember things that only cause heartache?”
“Because they would win. Because we are the last ones left that ain’t convinced that those god-blasted smokestacks weren’t always there! Because your father remembered—and your girl remembers!—that one time humans didn’t breath from air made outta machines, that we didn’t eat packages and capsules of water and medicine daily. There was a time when we weren’t stock to work to death, and your father, and your daughter are the only reasons we know that!”
“Lonnie…” My mamma was crying for real now—not angry tears—but real tears. Sad tears. That scared me more than anything. My mama never cried for real. “Lonnie, they know. I wouldn’t of come lookin for you if I didn’t know for sure, but they know. Not sure how…I think Michael, that snitch, heard her telling me about the dream of a tree. But they know.”
In all this, watching my mama talk to this old, odd smelling man, I never said a word. Not sure why, maybe I just didn’t understand that my words had been too loose, maybe I did understand and I was too afraid to speak. It was a world away and I don’t remember now. All I do remember, is that I just stood there, holding her hand and silent.
All at once, he was no longer tall and stooping. I watched my mama’s words break the old man. He nearly stumbled to his knees. He reached a hand for her shoulder as if to steady himself.
“I gotta get us outta here.” Her words were frantic. “If you can’t take the dreams, then you can help us run. God, at this moment, I don’t even care if the Administration helps us run!”
“It ain’t gonna help. They will hunt you to the end, now that they have found a Dreamer so young. They’ll send the war ships and war dogs until nothing is left for her or anyone else to remember.”
“She’s all I got…”
“She’s all we got, girl. Don’t you forget that.” He was crying too, tears inching through grime to bury into a beard. “You were right…I have been working on something, but it’s a terrible something…”
“Let her hand go. I can’t tell you, and you can’t come with us. When they find you, and they will find you, they’ll torture you and use their mind wyrms on you, but they can never know.”
“What…Lonnie…no…” Mama backed away, pulling me with her, but he caught hold of my arm.
“I will get her out of here, and then I will take care of my loose ends so the Corporation will not learn it from me. I know this is hard, Mabel, but it is the only way. I’m sorry.” He didn’t give her a chance to say something, and he didn’t give me a chance to say goodbye. I remember him reaching into his pocket, I remember the pile of dust that he clenched from the pouch, and I remember the feeling of falling before it went all dark.
By the time I came to, mama was gone, and I was no longer in the cave. The old man had strapped my breathing pack on and we were outside on the dark soil. All around me, all around the flat, burnt land, shadows and smoke hung heavy. The only light was offered by bulbous orbs hung from thick sticks in hoped of mimicking the trees and shrubs and land that I’d seen and walked so many times in my Dreams. Behind my great uncle that smelled of old pages and the underneath, three behemoth smokestacks billowed out old black and gray air.
My head hurt and my neck burnt, but I couldn’t rub away the pains. My hands were strapped to cold, smooth metal that sparked green and yellow lights.
“Now, I know yer too young to understand, Josie Gail, at least right now, but one day you will remember this and know what to do.” He pointed behind him. “You see them smokestacks? They are all over the world, spewin’ forth poison and money for the rich like lies from a devil. But…these were the first. These were here before the mountains were gone, your papaw told me so before he died. You gotta stop it all. You gotta stop it all from happening. Otherwise, we will forget, and they’ve won. You and I are the last that remember and believe, and after we are gone, those stories will be forgotten.”
I heard those words, but for the life of me, I didn’t understand then. I just whimpered and cried.
His eyes, faded and gray and hard, softened for just a moment. “Don’t cry, Gail Bug. Whenever you wanna see your mama or you need to remember, you have a necklace to remind you.” He pushed my hair from my face and pressed his forehead to mine. “I loved you, remember that. And I loved yer mama too, despite our differences. When you remember me, and you remember this, don’t hate me for it.” He pushed a button and I felt a terrible jarring sensation. The world filled with electricity, blurring my eyesight and tearing my skin away. The last thing I saw of my old world and my old time was my great uncle removing his mask to breathe the poisonous air.
But, recollecting, that was a long time ago, and a long time ahead. I often open my locket to see my mama’s picture. Her skin had been so pale, and I catch myself wondering if she’d ever seen the sun if her skin would have been dotted with freckles.
I made a life, after a childhood of confused child services and bad foster homes, I made a life in the same mountains that no longer exist. My home is nestled in trees that I’d once only seen in forbidden dreams. I have a group, a small group, who knows the truth of what I am and who I am. Make of it what you will. Our job is far from over. I no longer dream, but my grandson does, and he dreams of nightmarish gray skies and screaming bodies, so I know we have not yet succeeded. My family and the trees have thus far died for nothing.
I lean my back against an old oak, marveling at the rough texture of the bark. So strange of a miracle that individuals of this time take for granted, but I know it is beginning to end as they peel away the first mountain tops. The world is uneasy, knowing the deep wrong sin that is being committed. I walk back to my house, my steps slowed by age, my back bowed by sorrows.
There, in the skyline, while I rock on my porch and work on my quilt, I can see the beginning of the smokestacks being built.
Word Count: 1,975
Initially Submitted to: Short Shots: Official WDC Contest (entered:4/29/2015). Prompt:Use photo for story inspiration. Photo consisted of three smokestack billowing dark air and obscuring the view of the sky. noplacing Link to contest: http://www.writing.com/main/handler/first_in/1/item_id/1221635-Short-Shots-Offic...
Submitted to: Boy, Have I Got a Story for You (entered:9/27/15). Contest Ended Link to contest: http://www.writing.com/main/forums/item_id/1848696-Boy-Have-I-Got-A-Story-For-Yo...