The first time he brings me flowers, I throw myself in the river, right off the end of the dock and into the brackish shallows. The bouquet is bright and noxious: tufting yarrow and Queen Anne’s lace that blanket the shores of his boarding school marina; oily, crow-footed buttercups from the shade of the windbreak trees that isolate the school campus from the perimeter barrier of my family’s farm; and clumpy dame’s rocket, vividly purple against the white of his polo shirt.
“For me?” My voice climbs. No one has ever given me flowers before. No one would dare.
“Beautiful flowers for a gorgeous boy…” His sneeze interrupts his idiotic declaration.
I watch the microscopic pollen drift toward me like radioactive fallout and I can’t help the repulsion that moves my body backwards, down into the water.
“Come for a swim. The water’s fine,” I taunt, reveling in the coolness of the water.
His sunburned, city-boy face is repulsed, torn between wanting to be my gallant rescuing prince and not wanting to get his boat shoes wet in the muck.
I duck my exasperated smile beneath the murky water and swim around the edge of his boat as he steps on board above me. It’s all sleek lines of fiberglass and extinct mahogany, its downpayment worth more than a dozen crop licenses. With money like that, our farm’s fields could easily survive the next mutations. We might even be able to buy back the land from AgriTech.
He lets me drip all over the pristine white cushions in the baking heat of the cabin, the wilted flowers forgotten on the pier above us.
A boy could dream.
The second time he brings me flowers, I’m programming the planting bots to dig precision grids along his school’s entry drive. The disease-resistant bulbs are engineered in my family’s greenhouses with a guarantee of unnatural perfection. AgriTech’s horticultural monopoly on beauty, grown only for the bragging rights of the rich. To him, they’re nothing more than the invisible adornments of a gilded life. To me, they’re the embodiment of the blindness of entitlement, of everything I can never have.
From inside his navy uniform blazer, he produces a handful of tall, dripping solidago and rapeseed, blazing yellows, plucked from the ditches alongside the highway.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I ball my fists. Saboteur. A single stem inside the farm’s security boundaries would destroy us.
“Don’t you like them?”
I take a step forward, imagining how easy it would be to knock that perfect nose out of alignment, to grind his elegant cheekbones into the pea-gravel driveway at our feet. But all I can see in his petulant face is the pursuit of the conquest, the simplicity of desire. Maybe he really is just a vapid, beautiful rich boy who thinks that weeds are an acceptable token of regard for an expendable fling.
I let him crush those virulent blooms against the arch of my back behind the bot storage shed on the edge of campus. I tell myself there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the amusements of summer romance and disposable love, no matter how wide the chasm of money and privilege is between us. He’ll be gone soon enough, off to a life of collapsing vulnerable economies with the touch of a button, or circumventing regulatory oversight of some toxic industry for profit. And I’ll be stuck incinerating those same weeds from the perimeter zone around the hot houses and crop fields for the rest of my life.
I wash the smears of petals and pollen off the back of my jacket in the drainage ditch of the highway on my way home. In the farm decon gatehouse, I scrub every inch of skin, trying not to cringe at the memory of his hands running through my hair, leaving behind sticky, possessive contamination.
The third time he brings me flowers, I fall out of the open tailgate of the farm pickup at the surprise of the bristly sedge tuft brushing down the back of my neck. He doesn’t even try to catch me, and my palms and shins scrape across the crumbling asphalt.
“You’re such an asshole,” I laugh at him, my hands eager at his belt in the alley behind the lawyer’s office. My parents are in there, dressed in their Sunday best, meeting with AgriTech about their underperforming canola, begging for more licenses to replace the barley fields that were destroyed earlier this year by illegal pesticide spray drift.
“You love it,” he smirks.
I feel the rough bark of the crabapple tree against my back as he presses me into it, his knees grinding foxtail seedlets into the dirt and gravel. The scent of his cologne and the tang of his sweat mix with the redolence of rotting summer fruit until I can’t tell them apart. I dig my fingertips into the specks of gravel in the scrapes on my palms and revel in the biting sting and the burning pleasure of it all.
No one asks me where I’ve been while I load the AgriTech fertilizer into the trucks in the parking lot later that morning. Without it, our seeds are useless, modified only to respond to licensed growth compounds. Without it, we’d be just like the rest of this ravaged world: rampant gene corruption, pathogen epidemics, and back-stabbing sabotage. Famine and starvation. I glare at the suits, untouchable power in gray wool under the shade of the magnolias. My father and mother duck their heads in subjugated defeat. At least we have some way to live, they say, so weary they can’t even meet my eyes.
This isn’t a life, I want to tell them, I want to scream, but the words never reach my lips. They only echo around in my head, thoughts like live wires, arching and flailing, day after day.
It takes me the entire rest of the evening to program the broadcast robots with the new licenses and arrays my parents managed to beg from AgriTech. I walk the acres beside the bots, the grinding spray of chemicals hissing above the weakling canola rosettes, the creak of under-oiled wheels and axles. I dig my fingers into the soil, grit under my nails, dust dry and fallow.
That night, with the sickly light of the summer bathing the porch in nuclear orange, my pulse pounds at the reckless selfishness of it all. The memories of kissing the curve of his palm, soothing the wounds from unexpected bougainvillea thorns wound about the chainlink fencing in the alley. The contrast of the heat of his tongue and the velvet of the fuchsia petals, his fingers fumbling to open the button on my jeans. I run my hands over my hair, paranoia taking hold at the thought of missing any hitchhiking awns or florets. The certainty of devastation.
I hear my mother crying softly at the kitchen table, and the stuttering rhythm of the irrigation pumps as my father cusses at the filters and takes out his futile anger on inanimate objects. Crows roost atop the ultrasonic repellent systems on the edge of the stretching fields, dotting the robotic monoliths like sentinels over a crumbling kingdom.
The last time he brings me flowers, I’m lying on the berm next to the bus stop just outside of town, chewing on a long stem of timothy grass, watching puffs of yellow goat’s beard drift about in the breeze and cover the fabric of my tattered duffel bag. His SUV passes me once and I don’t look up when it circles around and leaves tracks in the dirt on the side of the highway.
“Where are you going?” he asks.
I point up the road without turning my head. “That way.”
“Why are you leaving?” His callow sulking leaves a sour taste in the back of my throat, a reminder of poor choices and bad habits.
I pause, holding his chicory bouquet in my hand, the blooms already fading and closing with the afternoon shadows, and I marvel at their delicate beauty, saturated indigo. I brush them against my chin, back and forth, and savor the joy of something so simple. So easy.
“Because I made a choice.”
He hovers beside me in antsy silence, kicking the steel post of the agricultural control perimeter signs to the farm. Property of AgriTech, Do Not Enter. I shake my head as he smooths his hair and throws his shoulders back at the sight of a convoy of AgriTech Enforcement trucks speeding by, stirring up dust devils along the edges of the clear-cut land. I know where they’ve been.
The wind shifts and smoke from the burning fields behind us comes wafting overhead like a thunderstorm, rising. I tilt my head back and look up into the roiling darkness of the plumes and try to find the blame, the guilt. There was no way I could stay. Not anymore.
I kiss that naive, arrogant pout off his face one last time. On the bus, I pull apart the tightly furled lavender-blue buds, my speeding view shifting gradually from desolate brown fields to gray concrete block and the buzz of neon and possibility. I let the wind take the breadcrumbs of a former life from my fingers out the open window, and turn my face to the sun.
Story copyright © 2021 by Kelly E. Dwyer
Artwork copyright © 2021 by Carrion House
Kelly E. Dwyer is a writer, mother, instructional designer, and independent bookseller who lives in the Washington, D.C. metro area. She was first published by Abyss and Apex in 2010 and her fiction has been reprinted in The Best of Abyss and Apex, Volume 2 and has earned an Honorable Mention in The Year’s Best Science Fiction #28, edited by Gardner Dozois. Find Kelly @deviousdwyer.
Carrion House a.k.a. Luke Spooner currently lives and works in the south of England. Having graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first-class degree, he is now a full-time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence.