Atop Dead Trees

Elizabeth Broadbent

Dec 23rd 2022


Killian slumped in a plastic hospital chair, head lolled against a white wall. Needles tugged my arms as I scrambled upright. Why was I hooked to IVs? Why was my high school boyfriend there? I’d been buying a latte. I’d smelled espresso. Machines beeped around me as a small, frightened sob slipped out.  

Killian wrapped around me before I could speak. “Shhh, Lila. You—”

Weakly, I wiggled from his arms. “Where’s Bruce?”

“Who?” His eyebrows met. “Baby, someone ran a red and hit you while you were jogging. You’ve been out for three days.”

My throat tightened. I scrunched up under the rough-woven blanket. “This isn’t funny. Get Bruce.”

“Who?” He reached for me again.

I ducked. “My husband. Where is he?”

“I think we need your doctors.” Killian’s chin-length hair brushed my shoulder. He smelled so familiar. I could’ve closed my eyes and slipped back into my teenage years. “I’ll sit here, okay?”

I pulled away. “Where is my husband?”

“Shhh, honey.”

“We broke up. I went to Berkeley and—”

Killian’s mouth tightened, but his voice stayed calm. “Honey, we went to UVA. We got married right after graduation.” Careful not to disturb the needle, he lifted my left hand. “See? The doctors wanted to take it off while you were here. I wouldn’t let them.”

I wore a sapphire engagement ring.

Bruce had given me a diamond.

I slammed back. I wasn’t dreaming—dreams didn’t hurt and IVs ripped at my arms. I screamed. Killian shushed me as nurses rushed in. “He’s not my husband!” I shouted, smacking him away. Needles tore and I screamed again. “We’re not married! Get Bruce! Bruce E—”

A shot in my thigh. Black spots hazed together, then I was blinking at a white ceiling.

“Hey, honey.” Killian stroked my forehead. “You hit your head pretty hard. They want to run more tests. But they’re thinking you have temporary amnesia.”

Get Bruce, I wanted to yell. But that sapphire—had I imagined everything? Bruce, my friends, my yellow kitchen, my whole life?

No. I’d waited in a Starbucks line. I’d smelled of coffee beans instead of antiseptic; an espresso machine had whirred.

“So where—where are we?” My voice teetered.

“Richmond. St. Mary’s.” He combed his fingers through my greasy, unwashed hair. “We live in my parents’ house. They passed. So have yours. We took over their bookstore. No kids, no pets.” He smiled a bit. “No days off, really.”

My parents were dead. I hadn’t escaped to San Francisco. I lived in Richmond with my prom date.

They ran tests. I stayed numbed, quiet. I’d dropped into someone else’s life. Endlessly patient with what they called my “memory lapses,” Killian never left. At my discharge, he handed me a scrap of cloth. “I brought your favorite mask.”

I must have looked blank.

“The pandemic?” Gently, Killian slipped the covering onto my face and tightened it, then slid on his own. 

My stomach flipped. “Does it kill you?”

“Only if—” He sighed. “No. Yes. Not you, okay? You’re vaxxed. You’d feel like you had a bad cold, probably.”

St. Mary’s had a monorail station, but we walked the wrong way. Instead, Killian led me to a dimly lit building. I stared. “What’s this?” 

He glanced at me. “What?”

“This building. It’s full of cars.”

He took a moment before answering. “It’s a parking deck, baby.”

“There are so many cars they have a building?”

“Lots of people come to the hospital,” Killian replied, but his eyes slid sideways, like a parking deck was something important, like not recognizing it meant something more than not recognizing him.

I couldn’t figure out how to strap myself in. Killian helped. As we turned onto the road, a terrible smell slammed me. “This runs on gas?”

Killian reddened. “We can only afford part-electric. The bookstore—”

“What about the climate?” I asked.

“Oh, baby. I know how guilty you feel about using gas. But one electric car wouldn’t have saved the polar bears.”

I stared. “The polar bears are dead?”

Killian went quiet. Finally, he said, “There are some in zoos.”

When I began to cry, he picked up my hand. Cars clogged the streets like plaque in a sick man’s arteries.

While he cooked dinner, I hunted for a holoscreen, then turned on an old TV. There’d been “another” mass shooting. Killian found me crying again.

“Lila?” His voice rose. “What happened?”

“Are we at war?”

He hesitated. “No. I mean yeah, we’re always at war, but—”

“Then why do people have guns?”

He sank down and held me.

Killian had grilled meat. We had an enormous lawn but no solar panels. On a handheld computer, The New York Times told me that Beijing couldn’t breathe and whales wouldn’t stop beaching themselves. Killian mentioned the president, elected for a second, non-consecutive term. Bruce and I had always hated his TV show. Bruce. Killian rubbed my back while I wept. “This isn’t my life,” I managed.

He lay down and curled around me. “This’ll pass.”

“What if it doesn’t?”

Killian took a long time to answer. “Then we figure it out. We always have.”

He must have held me until I slept. Whenever I woke, his knees were tucked behind mine, and we breathed together.

“You’ll be okay while I’m at the bookstore?” Killian asked in the morning. His lips brushed my cheek.

I had decided, in the night’s dark and quiet, that I would leave. He wouldn’t find me—I’d give him that grace. But I’d read words they used to describe their slow-moving catastrophe: climate refugee, police brutality, smog.

Killian’s eyes were kind. He seemed so worried. “Honey, I don’t like leaving you alone.”

I could walk away from it, or I could take a gift offered amid so much sadness. Maybe that sadness made it more precious.

“Lila? Do you want to come with me?”

I stood. The wooden floor felt smooth, cool under my bare feet. Atop those dead trees, I slipped my hand into his.

Elizabeth Broadbent has published speculative prose poetry in Bewildering Stories, Down in the Dirt, and AntipodeanSF (forthcoming). She lives in the United States with her three children and husband.

This story first appeared in Wyldblood # 10

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