by Dominika Olszowka, UK
‘Hello, moon,’ she murmured into the sky where the moon cut a sharp silhouette against the morning’s fading grey.
A coughing fit shook her body. Laura lay under a tree, staring at the withered branches that extended outwards like crooked fingers grasping at something, perhaps already lost. The cold of the ground seeped through her damp clothes, making her bones shiver. She pushed herself up carefully, recognizing most of the sounds her body made as it unfolded, listening intently to the odder cracks that she’d developed throughout the night. She breathed in the thick air, her lungs wheezing. The taste of smoke filled her mouth.
The tree that had become her home stood on the edge of a forest. She didn’t know many people, but those few she’d met along the way had called her mad. Forests, those that hadn’t yet been fed to the flames, were declared areas of immediate danger, along with coastlines and half of the sinking world. Whether she had a death wish or not, she knew she couldn’t leave. The air down in the valley where only smokestacks sprang up from the ground was filthy, forcing most people to stay at home. The last time she’d been down there, she could have sworn the pollution had sat on top of her skin like a horrible kind of dew. With the few trees that were left, the air had become so thin that Laura and her asthmatic lungs had to fight to survive. She’d decided to stay close to the last source of fresh oxygen, hoping both she and the trees could take comfort in each other’s presence.
Standing up, she stretched lazily, determined to save her energy. The evening before, she’d seen a star skimming across the night sky. More would be reaching the atmosphere by now, hidden from greedy eyes by a layer of velvet misery. Heavy smog clouds rose up towards the sky as soon as the world woke and factories opened up for business, but she’d been hunting for a long time. She knew where to look. The stars chose places that humans had finally left in peace, having done all the damage they could.
Laura faced the silent forest. She lowered her head as she stepped between the battered trees, bowing to the fallen guardians of her world.
The sky had grown dark by the time she found her star. Sleek with sharp edges, the spaceship sat heavily in a bald spot surrounded by a circle of broken trees, wisps of smoke snaking from beneath its body and thin tongues of fire tasting the burning ground. Laura watched the ship, first in horror, then, timidly, in awe. She could imagine her future so clearly now. She was flying, tearing through the sky, Earth dwindling in the distance. Off to the next planet, discarding her home like a used tissue as many others had done before her. Her eyes stung with hot tears of loss. She’d read everything there was about the populated planets of their solar system. Mars, Saturn, even the exotic Venus, less popular with humans, would do. Earth was her home, but it had turned her into one of the withered branches about to snap. Even now, she could hear her body groan under the weight of anticipation and fear. This time, it would be different.
The ship’s lights tore through the darkness, for a second making it easier to breathe. She stepped closer towards the reflective canopy that revealed a star-riddled universe, awaiting her as much as she awaited it.
People emerged out of the ship’s open jaws, forcing Laura to jump back into the shadows. Kids with high-tech masks over their mouths clutched their parents’ hands, babbling cheerfully. Tourists, Laura thought with spite. Showing their brats the planet they’d trampled down and fled, as if it was a sweet childhood memory.
Slowly, the ship and the landing emptied, the tourists taking to the city ruins, determined to show the children their shattered inheritance. The entrance to the ship stood open, unguarded. If the tourists remembered the people they’d left behind, they’d fooled themselves into thinking those poor souls must be all dead by now. So much time had passed.
Laura hovered behind the branches. Now, while they’re gone, she thought. The far-away sound of a brook brimming with ice-fresh water reached her ears. She stood still. The air, although not quite enough to quench her thirst, tasted sweet. The sky had cleared, stars staring down at her. How different would they be on Mars? How much more frightening, how much more foreign?
The moment was gone. Someone tore through the forest, returning to the ship. She watched the man slip inside as easily as if he’d been born with a ship of his own. Perhaps he had.
She turned and walked away. Maybe next time.
Laura’s face was slick with sweat when she reached her sleeping place. She lowered herself onto the ground, shivering in the immediate cold that came with the loss of adrenaline. She could feel her lungs struggling, like a freshly hatched bird, wrinkled and red, flapping its wings drenched in black oil. She laid her head back against the tree’s bark, her breath easing to the waning beat of her heart. The glittering sky fluttered as she struggled to keep her eyes open.
The moon watched until the very end.