In a post-apocalyptic city, Kit ekes out an existence by tending to her rooftop garden. A rift in time brings her a new friend from the past and something else far more menacing.
You can also listen to this story here, narrated by Ashley Klanac.
In the mornings, I slip out the broken window so anyone still living in this building will not hear me. Footfalls echo in the empty hallway, and since debris blocks the stairwell to the roof, no one climbs to the top anymore.
Except me. But I take the long way.
I slide along the tenth-floor ledge, rough bricks scraping my shoulder blades, heels locked against the building. My fingertips inch from brick face to mortar. It’s this I concentrate on. To think of the fall is to wish for it.
In the mornings, mist hides the city and dampens the stench of rotted wood and flesh. In the mornings, I inhale the scent of damp soil from the rooftop garden and the sharp odor from the volunteer tomato plants. When I was little, I always imagined the plants with tiny flintlock rifles over their shoulders, marching from one garden to the next. I know better now. But as I tug weeds from around their stems, I like to think we’re both fighting a good fight.
This morning, when I pull myself onto the rooftop, my foot strikes a rake. The handle flips up and plops back onto the tarpaper shingles. I freeze, certain that yesterday I left the rake leaning against the stairwell to the floors below. I take a cautious look around.
In the garden itself, a set of footprints, much larger than my own, crosses the expanse. Tiny hairs prickle on the back of my neck, like someone has come from behind and blown a stream of air against my skin. I remain stricken.
By the time the sun touches my face, my feet ache, and my calf muscles knot, so when I do move, my gait is hobbled. I study the outline of the footprints. Some sort of heavy work boot—the depression is deep and the soil crushed. Yet my spindly volunteer tomatoes stand proud, all green except for a faint yellow blush. No one has tugged on a carrot or dug a potato. The soil is moist. The watering can sits on the east side of the garden, not the west, where I left it yesterday. And then, of course, there’s the matter of the displaced rake.
Only when the sun warms the top of my head do I notice them. My heart jolts. I grip the rake, certain I’ll snap the ancient wood in half. There, on the roof’s edge, is a perfect set of fingernails—the press-on kind, that, once upon a time, were advertised on TV. They are such a brilliant red, they make the brickwork around them look dull and dowdy. They are so pristine and lined up so exactly, I’m surprised they’re not attached to some starlet hanging on for dear life, waiting for the man in those heavy work boots to clomp across my garden and rescue her.
I whirl around, certain he’s here to do just that. The roof is empty. A breeze rustles the leaves of the tomato plants. They bow their heavy heads and whisper to each other. They will not tell me what they know.
* * *
All week, I sneak up to the garden earlier and earlier, until there’s a danger I’ll miss the ledge in the dark. Fresh footprints greet me each morning. Mid-week, someone clears the scum from the top of the water in the rain barrel. Weeds gather in wilted piles along the edges of the garden’s cedar container. Most unsettling, every day I find a set of press-on nails in the same spot. Today they glow sparkly pink, glitter catching the early morning light.
Something compels me to search for the starlet. I kneel at the ledge, stretch out a hand. It’s silly, but at the same time, I’d want someone to reach out for me. Today, the sun strikes my face at the same moment my fingers reach the air beyond the ledge. A burst of light blinds me. Wind kicks up dust, and I duck my head.
Warm hands with sharp nails grip my arm. I jerk backward and tumble across the roof. Someone tumbles with me. After the noise and light, all is quiet except our haggard breaths.
“I’m through!” the girl next to me says. “And look! My fingernails. I thought I’d lost them for sure.”
Her clothes flow with her every move. Her hair is tall, so tall, maybe taller than her head—well, at least the bangs are. Brilliant blue is smeared across her eyelids. Dark pink streaks her cheeks. And her lips are as red as my tomatoes should be. I touch my own face, but brick dust and mud can never compare.
“Are you an actress?” I ask.
“What?” She shakes her head, but her hair barely moves. “No, silly. I just live—” Her brow creases and she scans the rooftop. “Well, here, but not here.” Her gaze travels until it reaches the garden. “Oh, how strange. I keep wondering how my grandmother’s garden changes. But it doesn’t. I’m just seeing yours.”
“Thank you for pulling my weeds,” I say.
She laughs. “But then I get in trouble for not pulling my grandmother’s. And I always put my nails there.” She points to the ledge. “So I won’t ruin them. I thought the wind was blowing them away.”
The air shimmers above the nails. Something bright flashes from the space beyond but vanishes before I can even grasp what it might be.
“I’m Shelli, by the way, with an i.” She stands and her clothes flutter, their colors startling, like the blue jays and goldfinches you still sometimes see.
Her feet are tiny, her shoes so clean and bright. They do not have the heavy soles that crisscross my garden and trample the soil.
“I’m Kit,” I say, “with an i.”
Shelli laughs, but as she walks the rooftop’s perimeter, her features grow somber. “This isn’t all like my grandmother said it would be.”
“She’s been here?”
“A long time ago.” Shelli shields her eyes with a hand and peers out over the ledge. “Is this the end of the world?”
She scrunches up her face. “The future, then?”
I shrug. That glimmer catches my eye again. I wonder what it is about my rooftop that makes the air do that. I wonder what it is about my rooftop that brings strangers to me.
“I’m from 1999,” she says. “What year is it here?”
Some claim to know the year, but no two claims match. I’ve since stopped caring, so all I do is shake my head.
Shelli leans forward where the ledge is still waist high. “I go to school …” She points. “There.”
I follow her gaze and her finger to the charred remains, where wisps of smoke rise in the morning mist. “I used to go there,” I say.
Her mouth turns down, but she is still so pretty. I want to work in her grandmother’s garden, have shiny, tall hair, and fancy nails—a different color on each finger. I do not want to stay on my rooftop. I do not want to use everything I have to coax tomatoes from the soil. I want to go to a place where hope still lives.
“I don’t know how to bring you back,” she says, as if reading my mind. “I’m not even sure how I got through.”
“That’s okay.” But the words leave my mouth with a sigh.
Her gaze darts from black-streaked buildings to my garden and then to me. “It’s not really okay.”
She’s right, of course, but I don’t have words to tell her that. “I want to show you something,” I say instead and point to the heavy footprints in the garden. At the sight of them, it feels like a boot is crushing my heart. “Someone else is slipping through.”
Shelli kneels at the garden’s edge and traces the impression as if that will tell her what we need to know. She says, “Be careful.” And I think that maybe it has.
Before I can respond, all the air around us is sucked away. I duck my head, bring a hand up to cover my nose and mouth. Soil and dust swirl around me. Grit stings my eyes. Then, all is quiet. Shelli is gone. Only her pink, sparkly nails remain, not clinging to the edge, but at my feet in a little pile. I scoop them up and hold one against my finger.
Oh, so pretty.
* * *
Today, I find the tomatoes crushed, their seeds and pulp spread across the garden, their juice soaking into the soil. I tunnel my fingers beneath the dirt, excavating tiny bits of green flesh in hopes of saving it. My efforts only drive the dirt deeper into what little remains.
I gather the tomatoes anyway. Perhaps with water from the rain barrel, I can rinse the bigger chunks clean—or clean enough. Perhaps …
The slap of the rake handle against tarpaper shingles forces my gaze up. At first, all I see are big, white boots, with heels so enormous, they could smash my largest tomatoes with one step—and probably have. His clothes do not billow. They are sleek and stiff, an exoskeleton that encases him from foot to head. The man before me is not from the past, not like Shelli. If he’s from the future, then I think humanity may be better off among the remains. My gaze darts to the building’s edge and the nails there—a set of brilliant blue. Only today, one nail points toward the rooftop stairwell.
“You don’t belong here,” I say to the man.
His image flickers then solidifies again.
“This isn’t your world.”
More flickering, but he stubbornly stays on my rooftop. Not only that, but he takes a step forward, followed by another.
I dodge his steps, like a mouse out-maneuvering a feral cat. The toe of one boot catches me and sends me flying toward the building’s edge. I roll, palms scraping tarpaper and grit. I grip the ledge, stop my descent, heart thudding against the brick, lungs inhaling dust. When I open my eyes, bright blue nails greet me, pointed toward the stairwell. I scramble to my feet and dash for safety.
Shelli flings open the door and pulls me inside. “Thank God! You’re okay.”
We cling to each other in the shelter of the stairwell.
“He can’t open the door,” she says.
“Did he try?”
Shelli nods and I clutch her tighter.
“What do we do?” she asks.
I shake my head. What can we do? He’s already destroyed my garden. Once the noon sun strikes the rooftop, cowering in the stairwell won’t be an option. We’ll broil in here, and with the stairs blocked, there’s no way down. Perhaps the two of us could rush him, using our combined strength to push him over the ledge.
I open my mouth to voice this idea, but can’t force the words from my throat. So little remains—of my garden, of this world—that I don’t want to take one more life, even one that doesn’t belong here.
In front of us, the man crouches, lifts a handful of tomato and soil to his face. He pushes back his visor and inhales as if it’s the most wonderful thing he’s ever smelled. Then, he turns toward us. Sorrow washes across his face. His mouth moves. After a long moment, I piece together his words.
Oh, and so am I.
“He’s trapped,” I say to Shelli. “He’s not in this world, or his own, but in between.”
She nods, but her eyes are huge, the beautiful blue around them caked and creased. Dark smears travel down her cheeks. I venture from the stairwell, Shelli gripping my hand.
“You need to get back,” I say to the man. “Right?”
The sorrow fades, and he nods. He steps from the garden, trailing mud and tomato innards. I try not to cringe at the destruction or his approach.
“There must be a way.” I glance toward the now-empty ledge. “Shelli! Your nails! They’re gone.”
I creep forward and take the man by one of his stiff, gloved hands. His fingers swallow mine whole. The safety of the stairwell is too far away; he is too strong. But he trots by my side like a compliant puppy.
“Where, exactly?” I ask Shelli.
She bends over, hair sweeping the bricks. “Here, where this dent is.” She peers at me through the strands of hair. “My grandmother told me to stand here and wish upon a star. Funny how it’s lasted all this time.”
We position the man at the ledge and stand across from him. An urge hits me, like I should salute. Instead I stretch out my hand. A smile lights his face that makes him look like an action hero. He shakes my hand, then Shelli’s.
Then, it’s as if the wind steals him. When the dust settles, speckling my arms and face, nothing remains except for me, the crushed tomatoes, and one of Shelli’s bright blue fingernails.
* * *
Footprints no longer mar my garden. The rooftop’s ledge looks lonely without Shelli’s colorful nails. I may have salvaged a tomato plant. A week has passed, and it seems to have a hold on the soil, if a tenuous one. I am its fiercely protective mother. I spend hours on the roof, chasing away chattering crows, providing sips of water from the rain barrel.
This morning when I crest the rooftop, something bulky sits on the opposite ledge. I creep forward slowly, still on all fours. There, in the spot where Shelli’s nails used to clutch the edge, a basket of tomatoes sits, along with packets of seeds. Beneath those, I uncover a set of press-on nails, the very shade of the tomatoes.
The sun hits the ledge, warming the tomatoes, making their skin glow. The nails dazzle my eyes. Together, they are the color of blood and hope.
And oh, so pretty.
Sometimes a character and her voice arrive in my head and I’m simply there for the dictation. This would be one of those stories.