The cacti bloomed red flowers whenever it rained. At first, everyone thought the flower buds were just pricks on the green cactus skin, sprouting as soon as the plant slurped up all the rainwater the sky had given. But these pricks were thicker and grew faster than anything anyone had seen, until they weren’t pricks at all, but petals. Thick and red, they flowered out, folded over, and formed a heart at the centre before a black stamen emerged and hung over the desert.
Red is the colour of infection, Dolly thought. But black is the colour of warning, to keep us away.
She had only seen the flowers once before. And now, for the second time in her life, and the first time this year, it was raining again. The water hit her metal trailer in flat splats. Outside, the rain was gone in a matter of moments when it hit the desert sand. No puddles lingered. As the clouds parted, and the storm was over, the cactus hearts emerged.
Cassandra’s knocks on Dolly’s door were next, thick and heavy like the rain. “Dolly—Dolly! Dolly!”
Dolly ran to the door before everyone awoke. “What? I’m here.”
“Good.” Cassandra slipped her hand into Dolly’s, tight and rough. “Come with me.”
Cassandra pulled Dolly past the bunkers, trailers, and food storage, along the fence by their work areas. When the fence ran out, the ground was so thick with cacti that in order to get through a narrow passage both of them had to suck in breath and walk on tip-toes to avoid getting pricked.
“One, two,” Cassandra counted before darting ahead at three. Dolly followed because she always followed Cassandra. On the other side of the green, they were surrounded by red petals and black warnings. Dolly watched as an insect with large see-through wings in iridescent blue and purple hummed above them.
“We should leave,” Dolly murmured. “I feel like they’re watching us.”
“Who? The bugs? Nah. They just want the rain like we did.”
Dolly wasn’t convinced. The insect landed on the green skin of the cactus and folded its wings. The buzzing didn’t stop, though. The antenna emitted a hum that Dolly swore was a camera from one of the base camps.
“Here,” Cassandra said, extending a petal to Dolly. “Try one.”
“What? Where?” Dolly didn’t even see Cassandra break off the petal, but she held two halves of one cactus heart. She tried to hand it back, but Cassandra was insistent.
“We’re being watched.”
“We’re not.” Cassandra clapped her hands together, her dry skin thick like thunder from before. The bug and its see-through wings flew away. Dolly checked for more and strained her ears for humming. Nothing.
“What are you going to do with it?” Dolly asked, eyeing the petal again.
“We can eat them?”
“Yeah. Why not? If it tastes good, we should.”
“I still don’t know…”
Dolly had been told, ever since coming to the desert after the radiation blast, never to eat anything out there. The ground had been so scorched, so full of chemicals, only cacti could grow with very little water. Dolly and Cassandra’s families got most of their food in strips and tin containers, which left the whole store tasting like pennies. Not that anyone used pennies anymore—only for decoration. Dolly’s mother, Mina, had an old pencil case that had ninety-nine pennies glued around it. That’s how Dolly knew what pennies were and—from desperate boredom—what they tasted like. After dinner, she’d often counted the pennies on the case like the factory workers counted machine parts, as if she expected the numbers to be different, and as if counting could remove the taste of copper out of her mouth. When she grew tired of counting, she’d fall asleep listening to the crackle of the contaminated earth, begging for water and rain.
“Now is different,” Cassandra said. “We’re not eating the land, but the drinking water that grows the flowers.”
“I don’t see how it’s different.”
Cassandra huffed. “It just is. Flowers come after rain. But they don’t live here—they can’t. The toxins kill them. Like they kill us. So that means that the cactus is the only pure thing we have left. It’s the only thing that survives, and then, can give us something good. I don’t know—just eat.”
Cassandra shoved the petals in her hand at Dolly’s face. They brushed her lips and scent wafted towards her. So strong. So pungent. It reminded her of something she couldn’t articulate, something she couldn’t quite say or see yet in front of her.
“Just try it. You would be surprised at what you liked.” Cassandra smiled. She cracked her side of the heart-shaped petal back, and sucked out the juices from inside. Dolly licked her lips, and did the same thing with her own.
It was like sweet water, better than the juices they made from powder. By the time she got to the end, she was shocked that the petals were now bone white. They were hard too, and after tapping her fingers against their shell, they turned to dust. The broken remains fell between her fingers, and down onto the sand again.
“No,” Dolly said, her hands on her stomach. “I think I’m too full.”
Cassandra licked the petals again, before it became too much. Without saying goodbye, Dolly sucked in her breath to wedge through the cacti, and went back to the bunker where her family—her brother Jim, father Andy, and mother Mina—now lived.
Usually, everyone woke up when the wind was bad. Sometimes the wind blew chemicals up from the sand, giving everyone in camp a light show. They had also awakened when rainwater splashed back against the chemicals in the ground. But her family had worked hard the day before, pulling up uranium from the ground and then sorting through the dental records for those who were left behind. Whenever they found bones between the metal and the minerals they harvested, they were supposed to gather them to one side. The bugs with see-through wings sometimes touched down and perched on the bones, removing whatever sand or chemicals was on them. After, the bones were quantified and measured, and brought to Cassandra’s family to be processed.
Dolly was never sure what “processed” meant; no one ever really wanted to find out. No one ever cared to ask, either. Cassandra’s family lived next door, and their work space was across the giant desert where they all lived. They shared their water and food stores, like good neighbours and workers. The life was easy when they didn’t think too much.
Everyone was asleep when Dolly returned. She sat at the kitchen table by herself, an empty glass in front of her. She saw the thick red lips of the flower petals in her mind and wondered if she would die from touching it. Would she become sick, and be another jaw bone to handle in black bags where they kept the Fallens? Would Cassandra be able to touch Dolly then, only when she was a skeleton to process? Or would the bugs get to her first?
Dolly shook her head, blanching the thoughts from her mind. She watched as Cassandra’s family’s lights went out, one by one, and then the earth was quiet. For the first time in a while, it didn’t crackle or hiss and beg for water at night.
Dolly could hear Cassandra walk back home all by herself.
She rose from her seat and went over to the kitchen door. She couldn’t let Cassandra sleep, and then have everything go back to normal. Cassandra’s silhouette danced on the other side of the screen. She had nothing—not even flower petals—in her arms.
“Oh. Hi,” Dolly said. “I was just coming for you.”
“Were you? You ran away awful fast.”
“I think we should talk,” Dolly said.
“I’m not really one for talking.” Cassandra laughed, then opened the screen. She stepped inside, closer to Dolly. Then another inch closer.
“There are no bugs here,” Cassandra said slowly. “Nothing to watch us.”
Dolly swallowed hard. “What does it taste like?”
“Not like pennies, that’s for damn sure,” Cassandra answered, and then kissed Dolly on the mouth.
Come morning, the ground was dry and hissing again. But some of the cacti still had buds of red on them, and the black hanging bits that were no longer threatening as Dolly glimpsed them from the window.
“Have you seen the flowers today?” her mother said, letting out a low hiss from the kitchen. “Not many left, but there are a couple hearts. Nice, huh?”
“Yeah, they’re nice.”
Dolly stood by her mother at the window. Blue chased the pink sunrise across the sky, then followed with clouds of purple smoke from plane engines, meaning there would soon be another shipment of food. Workers in protective suits came outside from their bunkers and began to pull minerals from the cracking ground. Cassandra, along with her father, walked across the wasteland and took residence in the office to collect the Fallens. Dolly’s heart stuttered in her chest when Cassandra turned around and smiled. She pointed to the sky, and nodded.
“What’s that all about?” Dolly’s mother asked.
“Nothing. She’s just saying hi.”
Dolly’s mother shrugged and went back to the dishes. During breakfast, Dolly caught her still staring at the buds of the cactus hearts. She wanted to say that the flowers tasted like hearts too, but she kept her mouth shut.
At work, Dolly’s eyes lingered on the sky while her mind prayed for rain.
Story copyright © 2017 by Evelyn Deshane
Artwork copyright © 2017 by Shauna O’Meara
Evelyn Deshane’s creative and nonfiction work has appeared in Plenitude Magazine, Briarpatch Magazine, Strange Horizons, and Bitch Magazine, among other publications. Evelyn (pron. Eve-a-lyn) received an MA from Trent University and is currently completing a PhD at the University of Waterloo. Evelyn’s most recent project #Trans is an edited collection about transgender and nonbinary identity online. Follow @evelyndeshane for more info.
Shauna O’Meara is an Australian artist, writer, and veterinarian. She has contributed cover and/or interior artwork to Lackington’s Magazine, In Fabula-divino, Cthulhu: Deep Down Under, Gold Coast Anthology: Undertow, Andromeda Spaceways 61, Winds of Change, Next, and The Never Never Land. Her interior artwork for Lackington’s Issue 12 won the 2017 Ditmar Award for artwork. The interior for The Never Never Land won the E.G. Harvey Award in 2015.