The man was lucky; he knew that. He had food and water. He had the huts. At least, that’s what he called them. The buildings had fancy names. Proper names. But he preferred huts.
Yes, he was lucky. But there was one downside, one problem that gnawed away at him like an ache in his bones, and there nothing he could do about it. He was lonely. That was the top and bottom of it. He missed Deborah.
Deborah had been strong and determined. Clever too. She’d kept him going when things had gotten tough. And she’d rigged up the power supply. Without it, he wouldn’t have been able to keep the green stuff away, and that was the most important thing. Plus, with the power on, the filtration system kept the air inside the huts perfectly safe, and it made the water drinkable and ran the recycling systems. And the indoor lighting—well, that was certainly a comfort in the long, empty evenings.
Shame about the comms though, he thought. Deborah had tried to get them working, but something was missing. The command module, she’d called it. It had been removed, presumably by the people who owned the huts, and without it, the comms couldn’t be coaxed back into life. There was no way around it.
What was it she’d said? I’m not a miracle worker. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
The man smiled. He’d always liked her little sayings. They were one of the things he missed. One of the things.
Not a miracle worker. To him, she had been just that. She’d made the days bearable, made this place a home. I’ll visit her later, he decided. He had no flowers to leave at her graveside, but he’d sit by her for a while and dust off his happy memories. God knows that wouldn’t take long; their time together had been too short. He tried to visit her grave every few days and spend at least half an hour there. It wasn’t enough to repay her kindness, her warmth, her generosity, but it was something. And it was all he could offer. If only I had something to take her, he thought. Lilies. That was what you left at a graveside, wasn’t it? White lilies.
“She’d have liked that,” he murmured and sat up with a start. Had he just said that out loud? He cocked his ear, half expecting to detect an echo of his own voice. He talked to himself all the time, but it was disconcerting not to know whether he’d just been doing it. It was as if he was losing his grip; the border between thoughts and actions becoming blurred and muddled. If you carry on like that, you’ll lose it completely, he told himself. You’ve got to keep it together.
He stood and crossed to the window, looking out beyond the chain-link fence and staring out across the bizarre landscape. Deborah had fixed the fence and locked the gate too. Nobody could get inside without his knowledge. He was safe. Locked away from the outside world.
The man let his gaze roam over the surreal forest of twisted living statues, marveling at the way the light caught the blue-green branches and made them glisten as if they’d been freshly painted. It’s grown since yesterday, he thought. The trees were getting wider, stronger, reaching farther into the air. He stayed at the window, lost in thought until he caught sight of his reflection in the grime-smeared glass, a foolish grin on his lips, his eyebrows raised in an exaggerated expression of dumbfounded amazement. What the hell am I doing? Grinning like a goddamned idiot! He scraped his hand down his face, muttering, “Trees! They don’t look anything like damned trees. Green and tall but that’s about it.”
He scowled. Real trees, like they had back on Earth, were beautiful, soaring into the sky, brimming with life. But the gnarled and twisted structures growing outside were nothing like that. They were ugly, deformed, gangling things, crowded together and stretching to the horizon in every direction; more like an infestation than a forest. Oh, they were alive all right, that was for sure. But they didn’t harbor life, they destroyed it. To touch them meant certain death.
“Oh, Deborah,” he whispered, “why did you do it? Why did you try? We had everything we needed right here, didn’t we?”
But, as always, he knew the simple answers to those questions. Deborah had been an engineer, a problem solver. She’d been compelled by her curiosity, driven to find out more. She’d done what she had to do.
The man stared at the glass, and for a moment, his reflection faded away, replaced by a vision of Deborah’s face; her sweet, kind face. Look at me, moping around, he thought. If she could see me now, what would she say?
He allowed himself a small smile. “She’d say, we’ll get through this,” he murmured. “She’d say, you can do it, so pull yourself together, Parkins. Pull yourself together.”