Today we're excited to spotlight After the Green Withered by Kristin Ward! Read on for more about Kristin and her book, plus an excerpt & giveaway!
Meet Krisitin Ward!
Kristin Ward lives is a small town in Connecticut with her husband, three sons, and numerous furry and feathered friends. As a nature enthusiast, she infuses her stories with environmental themes and encourages her readers to learn about the world in which they live and strive to do their part to leave it a better place for future generations.
After the Green Withered is her debut novel.
They tell me the country looked different back then.
They talk of open borders and flowing rivers. They say the world was green.
But drought swept across the globe and the United States of the past disappeared under a burning sky.
Enora Byrnes lives in the aftermath, a barren world where water has become the global currency. In a life dominated by duty to family and community, Enora is offered a role within an entity that controls everything from water credits to borders. But it becomes clear that not all is as it seems. From the wasted confines of her small town to the bowels of a hidden city, Enora will uncover buried secrets that hide an unthinkable reality.
As truth reveals the brutal face of what she has become, she must ask herself: how far will she go to retain her humanity?
We’ve all heard the stories of how it began, but no one really knows the truth because no one ever owned up and took the blame. Anyone who was there when it all started is long dead and all that remains is their awful legacy. All I know that is real, true, is that the world wasn’t always like this. It used to be green.
I suppose the awareness of a looming crisis began slowly, perhaps with a faucet that ran dry or maybe a water restriction where there had never been one. Whatever it may have been, there was a turning point and from that moment on the United States of the past disappeared under a burning sky.
This is what I have come to understand of our history, that thing buried and skewed under hidden agendas and untruths...
In the early 21st century, the voice and face of the country changed. An exploding population triggered an energy crisis that swiftly grew beyond our borders and enveloped the world. Wars erupted over control of these dwindling energy sources, resulting in a recession that dwarfed the crash of 1929. Our nation’s leaders responded by doubling down on efforts to extract resources in every forest, ocean, and watershed, rather than investing in what many viewed as ‘unproven technologies’. Companies that specialized in advancements in sustainable energy were forced into bankruptcy, halting the tide of progress. Environmental protections ceased to exist as everything from national parks to the once pristine Arctic disappeared under an onslaught of drilling and mining that left these places barren and poisoned. Coal, oil and gas burned, unchecked and ignored. The results were devastating.
Massive storms, brought on by rising temperatures, began to dominate newscasts. People watched as violent hurricanes in the Indian Ocean destroyed whole communities, washing away thousands who had been unprepared for the force of the waves. The eastern seaboard saw Category Five hurricanes on a monthly basis, until many areas became uninhabitable. But the drilling continued.
Extreme weather escalated, as tornados ripped through areas in Europe and Asia that had never experienced the phenomenon before. In one night, Hautmont, France was wiped off the face of the earth as a previously inconceivable F6 tornado spent twelve minutes on the ground. And yet the event was soon forgotten, the majority of citizens preferring stories of scandal and entertainment and war.
As the climate grew hotter and drier, the last of the ice caps melted belching out methane trapped for millions of years and filling the ocean with too much fresh water, creating a chain of unfathomable and merciless events. The Maldives disappeared under the sea, followed quickly by other island nations across every ocean. Tens of millions of people were left homeless in places like Japan, the Netherlands and Bangladesh, as huge swaths of land became submerged, leaving many cities uninhabitable swamps. New York City was inundated with tides that never receded. While Florida became a ghost of its former self, as millions fled the water-ravaged state.
The desalination of the oceans, combined with high levels of acidity and rising temperatures, took effect. Beached whale species, from dolphins to orcas, became a common sight. Coral reefs died off on a global scale, looking like bleached underwater graveyards. Fishing communities went bankrupt and prices for seafood skyrocketed until only the very wealthy could afford it. The ecological imbalance further poisoned the already toxic oceans, making even the technology to convert salt water to fresh water for human consumption only possible for the elite. And still, the refineries continued to process their crude oil.
The sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history continued. Species from insects to mammals died off at unprecedented rates, unable to acclimate to changes that occurred in years as opposed to centuries. The few remaining rainforests saw these extinction events on a massive scale and those species unlucky enough to need polar climates were gone after a few years.
Precipitation continued to dwindle while massive dust storms swept through towns and cities, choking the air and causing havoc for those stuck in their midst. The city of Las Vegas experienced a storm of such intensity that the sky turned black as sand and dust covered every road and building, until the metropolis was buried under a layer of dirt that took months to cleanup. While in the western half of the country, wildfires ravaged California, displacing thousands and turning huge swaths of land to smoldering ash. And through it all, fingers of blame, rather than solutions to the root cause, became the norm as scientific evidence was censored.
Drought continued to creep across the world, silent and ruinous.
Initially, the areas hardest hit by drought were underdeveloped countries. Starving children or withered remains of cattle splashed across the screens in the living rooms of U.S. citizens who, though saddened by the images, remained ambivalent. Most people viewed the water wars raging in Africa or the battle over rights to the Amazon River, with a sense of detachment. But there were some who voiced their warnings, pitting themselves against the majority, fracturing the nation.
Environmental activists attacked refineries and shipping lines, disrupting the flow of resources to such a degree that they were labeled terrorists and hunted down by the government. Those who took a pacifist approach did no better at conveying their message, as their forewarnings were mocked and disregarded as hippie ideologies by those in power. Eventually, messages of the resistance were defined as alarmist rather than credible, making them easy for people to discount. All the while, areas experiencing water restrictions grew. But most citizens saw these measures as nuisances, rather than portents of worsening problems. This perception would not last.
It was a global drought of unprecedented proportions that cared nothing for which hemisphere you lived on nor how much money you held in your bank account. Over time, even the staunchest disbelievers were faced with undeniable truth. Emergency measures to curb the effects to the US were taken and hope stirred in the minds of the populace. Those technologies that were shuttered in the early days took on new life in ambitious plans for fusion power plants and hundreds of square miles of solar panels and wind turbines. Rumors of unmanned spaceships launched into the solar system to find a new home and escape from our dying planet,
circulated throughout the country. But time eroded such fantasies and reality crushed those hopes, as years turned into decades that saw no relief from the storm of devastation. The efforts were simply too little and came far too late.
Eventually, our nation’s borders closed and all refugees were turned away, no matter their circumstances or family connections. Those citizens made homeless by severe weather migrated, desperate and angry. The land itself began to wither and no part of the country was left untouched by the unrelenting scarcity of water.
After several years, rain became a fairy tale for children to imagine. The aquifers, which provided water for the breadbasket of the country, dried up. Crops shriveled while the nation spiraled into chaos. Food shortages became common and soon starvation and civil unrest were rampant. Those starving children and dying cattle were no longer relegated to the problems of ‘other countries’. Parents struggled to feed their families, further driving people out of their homes in a frantic search for food and water. This brought out the ugliness in human nature that you only see in times of desperation.
A militarized presence emerged as violence became pervasive. Riots and looting led to lottery systems for food and water. This method ultimately failed, as seen in cities like Houston where a small war erupted and obliterated the landscape. States threatened to secede. Fearing a nationwide revolution, the president took extreme measures to preserve the majority of the country. Hawaii and Alaska were stripped of statehood, being too remote and damaged by rising seas and economic catastrophes.
The remaining lower forty-eight states were restructured to eighteen, each representing a unique river basin. This reorganization was aimed to prevent states from entering periods of civil war over water rights as each state now had its own water resources. Borders grew along these new lines, complete with heavily guarded checkpoints to keep the influx of destitute people from pouring in and overtaxing an already untenable situation. Towns followed suit as entire communities were abandoned. Soon it became apparent that to live outside a regulated community meant death. Survivalist factions arose in opposition, but were dealt with, swiftly and severely. The country became unrecognizable.
Not everyone had ignored the signs of catastrophic problems. In the shadows, one group led by a visionary man named Oren Frey, had seen an opportunity and quietly took control of water resources from reservoirs to real estate above aquifers. When things began to look desperate, this agency, The Drought Mitigation Corporation, offered their assistance in distribution and long-term water usage. Under the leadership of an impotent president, the DMC’s power grew, while the pillars of democracy became more divided and vulnerable. By the time the DMC was fully entrenched, the drought had taken the lives of millions and changed the face of the country forever.
I live in the aftermath.
My memories of childhood are plagued by water, or rather the lack of water. Laundry sitting in a dry wash tub or covered in dust on the floor. Food containers we have to scrape and wipe down with a towel so they never really get clean. Dirt that never leaves the underside of my finger nails because washing my hands is not always an option. Dust storms that roll through
and leave behind a coating of grime on every surface, even the inside of my nostrils. And then there are the nightly, televised announcements of civil wars, border violence, and rationing. These are the images and realities of my life at seventeen years of age because, by the time I was born, water was the global currency.
It wasn’t always thus This tragic world
Of dust and death But the green withered And with it
Our dreams for the future
LTife, as it is...
he siren blares. It is six o’clock in the morning. No one should have to wake up to the scream of a siren at this hour. But it’s Tuesday and they always go off at this time on Tuesday. I groan and roll to my side, pulling my pillow over my ears. As if I could forget
what Tuesday means. As if anyone in this town could. I sigh after the noise stops and flop onto my back. There is no use trying to get any more sleep. I need to get up in thirty minutes anyway.
Tuesday. Tuesday means no water in my community of Prineville, in the Pacific Northwest Basin. No flushing toilet. No washing hands or hair or anything, for that matter. It means standard-issue antibacterial lotion that chaps my skin and gives me a rash. It means that I have to brush my teeth with a dry toothbrush and let the spit sit in the sink alongside Mom and Dad’s. It means piles of dirty dishes because we can’t wash plates and silverware. I better use my leftover water ration wisely.
I stretch and face the inevitable task of getting up and starting the day. The relentless sun is already beginning to shine through the cracks in the shades, causing the temperature to begin its daily climb to a point where light films of sweat will pool on my skin, triggering my body to lose water that it can’t afford. I walk to my metal dresser and pull out a pair of standard issue, threadbare shorts and a shirt that has only a few stains. I dress and sit on the edge of my bed to plait my hair, the best style when it’s not quite as clean as it should be.
In the bathroom I lean into the mirror, under the blinking of the harsh bulb that has never quite worked right, and check my face for any pimples or gunk stuck in the corners of my eyes. Finished with the inspection I gaze at my reflection for a moment, taking in the dirty blond hair, pale blue eyes, and smattering of freckles sprinkled across the bridge of my nose and cheekbones. I will never be considered a beauty. My eyes are too small, my face too narrow. I sigh and head to the kitchen.
Our modular always feels claustrophobic in the morning. Like my bedroom, the shades are kept closed as often as possible to block the sun and keep the house cool, though by late afternoon it feels stifling regardless. My dad is sitting at the table, the only seating area in the home, cradling a mug of stale, synthetic coffee while his mind is elsewhere. Like all adults that I know, his skin is thin and wrinkled from too much sun and not enough moisture. I stare at the
painfully dry and cracked skin along his knuckles where he grips the mug. His hair, once a dark blond like mine, is peppered with gray and thinning on the top so that I can see the pink of his scalp through the sparseness. I wave my hand in front of his face.
“Hey, Dad. You in there?”
I often find my parents in this state. It has gotten worse as I have grown older and at times I worry that one day their eyes won’t flicker back to life.
“I’m sorry, sweetie, I was wool-gathering. Want some?” he asks as he holds up his cure for morning fatigue.
I shake my head. I’ve tried the stuff but it tastes like crap and doesn’t give me any energy anyway. Instead, I go to the pantry, grab the last breakfast ration, heat it up in the microwave, and join my dad at the table. We sit in silence for a few minutes, the scrape of my fork the only sound, until he seems to shake off his stupor.
“Only a few weeks left, right Enora?” He’s referring to my graduation from high school. “Yeah, just a few weeks.”
I don’t bother adding anything more to the conversation. Graduation is not something I
like to think about. It is this inevitable milestone that is coming closer to becoming a reality that I am afraid to face. My dad doesn’t seem to notice my lack of response. He is back wherever he had been when I found him.
Soon my mom shuffles in, her feet making a sound like sandpaper rubbing against a plank of wood. She is dressed in a uniform of slacks and a matching, unflattering shirt that balloons from her body like a sack. Both are pale blue as opposed to the darker shade of my Dad’s clothing. Like my father, my mom’s age is evident in every line etched into her sour face. I think that she must have been pretty once. Perhaps her blue eyes sparkled with youth years ago or maybe she smiled often. Now though, she is dried up and resentful. She mumbles a hello, grabs a mug, pours a cup of the lukewarm sludge, and plunks herself down at the table, which tilts precariously on its uneven legs before I grab the edge and right it. Mornings are quiet in my house.
I am an only child. That is all that is allowed. Couples that wish to have a child must apply for a license and after passing a series of genetic tests are given permission to become parents. Every now and then you hear rumors of those people who have bucked the system and had a second child. Those stories never end well.
We sit in companionable silence until a low rumbling permeates the house as a shuttle pulls up to the end of our street. This is followed by a message that flashes on the wall screen alerting my parents that it is time to board the shuttle. At this point, my parents lift themselves from their chairs, give me a perfunctory kiss on the cheek, and head to work. Knowing they’ll be working gives me some relief, at least they’ll earn some credits and, looking at the nearly empty cupboard, we need all the credits they can earn today.
My parents are paid in water. Not literally of course. Rather they are paid in water credits. It’s not just us either. The entire country uses water credits as currency. It is highly regulated and portioned throughout all eighteen states and there never seems to be enough. Honestly though, I can’t imagine what my life would be like if water wasn’t controlled. People don’t always make the best choices and if it were up to us, letting that faucet run unchecked wouldn’t seem like a big deal. We’d likely be suffering severe dehydration if our supply wasn’t shut off when we met our
quota. It’s all about control for us, from the wall screen to the water credits. Everything is regulated and nothing goes unnoticed.
As I sit alone in the kitchen, I stare down at a slightly raised lump, barely visible under my skin. This is their form of regulation in its strictest sense. Inserted into my arm at birth is my key to survival in the community. Everyone has a microchip on the inside of his or her left wrist. It is our permanent identification and so much more. Anytime we need to buy something we slide our arm into the reader, which scans our code, and credits are debited from our family account. The opposite happens when my parents work. For each day of work, credits are put into the account. Our microchip isn’t only used for our water credits though. When I get on the school shuttle, arrive at the school or even pick up my lunch portion in the cafeteria, I am scanned.
The Company’s database regulates everything as we are scanned throughout the day. That’s what we call them, the Company. It’s really the Drought Mitigation Corporation or DMC. They have been in charge since before I was born. No one knew about them back in the early days of the drought, or so my dad once told me. People found out later and by then the DMC had control of all of the water in the country, but the power they had was really much greater than that. Now they have stations outside every town and systems that regulate water rations, usage and credits.
My parents don’t particularly like the DMC. While my Dad’s views of the Company are rather moderate, he sees some of their controls as invasive. He can often be found mumbling about this or that, but is generally apathetic. Mom is much worse. She is constantly berating the Company and refuses to see the essentials of their actions. I’ve stopped engaging in debates with her, it’s a pointless effort. I may not like the DMC, but I understand the role they play. If it weren’t for the rampant waste of previous generations, things would be different. But this is the world I inherited.
Everyone is on water rationing in addition to our water credits. To regulate water usage, each housing unit is monitored and when the threshold is reached, the water is shut off remotely so that even in those times when we have enough credits, we have to wait. Everybody has rainwater drums outside their homes on the off chance that rain will come. But those days are so rare that the drums are dry as a bone most of the year. Inside we conserve as much water as possible. We even have a small pan under the bathroom and kitchen faucet to catch any drips that may fall because, you never know, there may be enough for something as mundane as rinsing your hands.
As I said, on Tuesday there is no water. Every town has a day when the Company shuts off the water to help conserve it. This has always been the way. Clearly, that doesn’t make it any easier. I feel bad for families with a young child. It must be hard to listen to the cries when the water runs dry and the ration is used up. In my housing section, it’s not so bad. I think we have all gone to each other at one time or another for a bit of water. I can’t say the same for other housing sections or other towns.
Like most people, we can rarely afford to buy our full water ration, always enough to sustain our bodies but never enough for the many other uses that require it. Most of our credits go toward food although the credits don’t go far. Meat is the most expensive, which means we rarely eat it. I’ve seen pictures and videos of cows, but the amount of water and resources it takes
to raise one means it’s a luxury families like mine can’t afford. Instead, we usually buy the DMC meat substitute. I’m not entirely sure what it’s made of and, honestly, I don’t really want to know. In addition to control over the water, the DMC grows and supplies all of the food. They
have farms, specially designed greenhouses, and processing plants across the country, which produce everything we eat. Their greenhouses are huge buildings with the typical solar panels that we all have, lots of glass windows, and intricate water recycling systems that minimize water waste. They have stockyards and fields of crops too. As expected, these compounds are heavily guarded. My parents have told me stories of earlier years when these locations were often raided and food was stolen. That doesn’t happen much anymore, thankfully. In school, I’ve only had to watch one broadcast of the execution of one of these traitors and I have no desire to ever see another.
I sit on the ground just outside my empty house, waiting for the electric sound of my shuttle and once again contemplate how we got to this point. Not just me. Everyone. The whole world is affected by a drought that really should be called something different because it has been going on for about a hundred years, globally.
I feel the heat on my skin and look up hoping to see a bank of dark clouds rolling in, but as usual, the sky is clear. No rain for me. In school, they tell us that during the wet cycle of the earth this part of the country is a lush landscape of green where the trees are healthy and a clear day is a rarity. I wish I could see that. I can’t imagine a world of green.
In history and science classes, we’re taught about the reckless fossil fuel and water usage of the past and how the DMC stepped in to protect our future. If not for the Company putting a stop to the drilling and then investing in renewable energy sources, the sky would be a blackened, sickly thing. As for water, in my time wasting water is not something we do. It’s too precious. To waste it is a crime for which, even my parents, would want consequences. Of course the DMC control goes far beyond water, but without their intervention things would be even worse.
In Prineville, the forests hardly resemble anything even remotely green. With the drought, most of the trees dried up long ago and then bugs moved in to finish them off. The only trees that are left are scraggly, drought-resistant things that dot the land around town in small clusters. In the footprint of the old forest just inside the perimeter of town, there is now just a graveyard of trees lying on the ground, like dead soldiers in a war with no enemy.
I don’t like to visit what remains of the forest. It’s too quiet. I find myself wondering where the animals went. Did they die too? Are their bones buried deep within the cracked earth?
I find it hard to breathe sometimes, everyone does. It’s like the air is somehow depleted or has gone so bad that my body tries to reject it. Most days it doesn’t bother me, but there are times when I begin to wonder if my lungs are working too hard and will up and quit. It must be the lack of trees or the dust in the air or maybe something noxious they don’t tell us about.
Local history class taught me that a century ago this area was a large lumber community, which I find hard to fathom. I do know that the town was much larger and sprawling than it is now, you can see the proof of that beyond the fence where the old buildings sit vacantly. Those parts of Prineville look like a ghost town, eerie in their emptiness. I just find it hard to imagine
this place as some thriving environment where the forests were so lush that trees could be culled and sold for wood. It’s so different now.
Due to the loss of the timber industry, wood is unaffordable and, as a result, the few remaining original houses in Prineville are worn down, old things with sagging roofs and peeling paint. No one can even live in them anymore and I wonder why they don’t tear them down. Nearly all of us live in modular homes. They look like cubes when viewed from the outside. Square windows with rounded edges are the only things that break up the bland structure aside from the front door. Each residence is made out of a synthetic material that wears better under the blistering heat than an organic material ever would. Still, most of our homes look like they have seen better days, having become faded and covered with dust over years of living.
Every neighborhood is set in an organized grid with a specific type of dwelling. There are eight neighborhoods in my town, Sections A-H. Most families are located in sections E-H, mine being section G. A family unit has two bedrooms while single or childless housing have only one. The only part of Prineville that could be considered nice is near the town square where you’d find the families of the Sentinels living in sections A and B. These modulars are larger and newer with the latest interactive screen systems and furniture made with cloth rather than the hard, artificial material the rest of us are stuck with. But I’d rather live in my section. The Company may be great and all, but at least here I can be myself.
A few streets over I hear the faint whining of my parent’s shuttle as it picks up more passengers. It always makes me shudder when I hear it. Like most families, my parents work just outside of Prineville’s border in the textile mill. Many of the residents of Prineville end up working in the mill, as jobs are scarce in town. Kids get such glamorous choices as: working one of the menial jobs in public utilities, working at the textile mill, getting shipped off to a larger manufacturing facility with housing, or getting recruited. The scarcity of employment options means most of us end up slogging through life in jobs that will never extend beyond the tedious. With the DMC bringing in all of the goods we need, local craftsmen are obsolete.
This is one of those things that get under my Dad’s skin, forcing his turtlehead to emerge from his hunched shoulders as he fumes about how things could be better without the DMC controlling all facets of production. I guess he has a point about how the Company has made innovation among the populace a thing of the past. He often refers to my grandfather’s time during these rants, reminiscing about the old days when local craftsmen and independent businessmen were common. My grandfather was one of those successful businessmen, owning a company that employed hundreds of workers. Apparently, he was one of the elites when things got bad. People with money always seem to do better, even now that’s true. Yet his money only took the family so far and now we are just like the bulk of the population in my town.
When my dad rants about how things in the past were better, I find it hard to bite my tongue. I want to just yell and say that if the ways of the past were so great, then why did grandpa’s business go belly up? I mean, I wonder if my dad even realizes that the he’s lucky to have a job from the Company. If he works, then it means we’re not left to someone else’s mercy.
His job at the mill may not be much in terms of personal fulfillment, but it keeps our family from homelessness.
Our mill produces the synthetic cloth that is used for uniforms for the DMC and is the primary employer. I really don’t want to end up at the mill. I don’t want to come home with an aching back, chapped hands, and the dull look that I see so often in my parents’ eyes. Geez, now I sound like my Dad. It’s hard to look toward the uncertain future.
If I lived in the past, I could have moved to a different town or even a different country, but not now. The drought caused so many mass migrations of people that all of the states closed their borders, and when that wasn’t enough, cities barricaded their populations behind cement walls and larger towns absorbed the smaller ones putting up fences to build their own borders. The populations in these refuges were untenable and viruses and scarcity took their toll. Now we are stuck. The only time you can leave is for work at the mill or if you are recruited by the DMC.
The barbed wire fence surrounding my town is patrolled twenty-four hours a day. I have been close to the fence a couple of times with my friends, when we’ve talked jokingly about running away, about sneaking through the border and getting out, finding a place where water flows, clean and free. But the guards carry large guns, and besides, it’s just talk anyway. We all know it’s nothing but desert out there.
It could be worse. On the evening announcements, they always show how awful it is in the big cities, like Brigford, all of the violence and food shortages, viral outbreaks and choking air. We are told that it is like this in every large city across the country, though it must be beyond imagining in places like Chicago where overcrowding is the norm and violence is rampant. My parents say that it is better we live in a small town. For once, I have to agree with them.
The shuttle to school arrives. It is an ugly, electric thing. A relic from bygone days, with wire mesh embedded into the windows and hard, plastic benches that my legs stick to as I sweat through the seat of my shorts. To me, it has always seemed like some kind of transportation for criminals, although traitors caught by the Company have always been forced into vehicles much newer than this one. Still, it feels oppressive and considering where it takes me each day, I guess that’s appropriate. Reluctantly, I hop on and scan my arm before finding a seat. The trip is short, as my house is the last stop before the school. It’s an old, two-story building with cracks in the brown walls and broken tiles on the floors. Very little new construction can be found in town and fixing up the school is not a priority.
As a twelfth-year student, in just a few short weeks I will turn eighteen, graduate, and begin working, beginning my contribution to the community. I try not to think too much about this but it is always there, at the back of my mind. Sometimes I feel like school is such a waste of time since I know there are few real choices for where I will end up. My teachers would argue that by getting my education I am better prepared for the workforce, but I hardly see how deconstructing a sentence is going to help me work the loom at the mill or drive the truck that picks up recycling from residences. I almost wish that we were not given any options, simply placed in our early years in the track to which we will be assigned for the duration of our adult lives. If everything were predestined like that, then I would never have to go through this uncertainty. Of course, that idea sounds great now, but in reality, I’d probably hate it even more. But being thankful for my limited choices isn’t how I’m feeling as I travel closer to the school. I don’t want to end up bitter and angry like my parents, but it’s hard to see the positive and as much as I hate to admit, I can understand their resentment.
I suppose the dynamics at Prineville High are typical of any high school. There are popular kids, I call them drones, who live in the newer section of town. All of these kids have family members who work in the militarized branches of the Company. They have newer clothes and aren’t scraggly wraiths like the rest of us. It’s a common sight to find them ganging up on the kids who don’t seem to fit in anywhere. I don’t trust the drones. They are too perfect, like they are all cut from the same genetic material. It creeps me out, hence their nickname.
The remainder of the student body is like me. Most of us are on the hungry side wearing our standard issue clothes that have patches or holes because there aren’t enough water credits to buy new. I only have a couple friends. Well actually, just one now, who is the sole person I can be honest with. I guess you could say that I’m not really the social type. The idea of entering a room full of people I don’t know is about the worst thing I can think of. If I could sit outside in the shade with an actual book, instead of a Company-approved text, and not have to talk to anyone, I’d be in my own version of utopia.
As the shuttle pulls into the lot, I see my friend, Safa, standing outside the school entrance looking for me. Safa and I always head into the building together, though our schedules allow us to share only two classes. She is the one bright spot in an otherwise dreary day filled with people I equally loathe and avoid. We greet each other and she begins to chatter about her latest project. Safa always has some crazy project she is working on.
As she begins a verbose explanation of her current obsession, my mind starts to flip through the many ‘projects’ that she’s designed in the past. I smile to myself when I get to her biggest debacle.
We were ten years old and Safa’s fixation at that time was pottery. We had just learned about ancient people and had been shown different artifacts, like shards from clay pots and utensils made from bone, from those cultures. Safa decided she wanted to create a vase out of clay that future people would find, thereby learning about our time in history. Naturally, clay was not something that family credits could be wasted on even if we could have found any at the supply depot. So, Safa decided she would make some clay herself.
The biggest problem with making clay was having any water to mix with the hard, packed dirt in her yard. This challenge was mulled over for a couple of days until Safa decided that water could be substituted with her parent’s synthetic coffee. To back up the use of such a liquid, she had determined that the ingredients she used to make the clay would be additional information for future people to interpret.
I can remember that afternoon like it was yesterday. Safa gathered up her dirt and coffee and placed it into a pot on the stove so that it could ‘cook’ which would make it a more durable. Looking back on it now, I suppose I should have stopped her from putting the airtight lid on the pot. The noise made when lid blew off was enough to make us scream and run into her bedroom, slamming the door behind us. When we finally gathered up enough courage to open the door and creep into the kitchen, the mess splattered on every surface was truly astounding. Not having any spare water with which to clean it, we scrambled to find old cloths to wipe away the most obvious blobs before they hardened. Needless to say, if you look closely at the cracks between the cabinets and those in the floor, you can still find remnants of it to this day.
While I have been reminiscing and half listening to the hum of Safa’s voice, I stop mid- stride when I hear the word “garden” come from her lips.
“Are you crazy?” I nearly shout.
“Sssh,” she says and looks around to see if anyone is listening.
Safa pulls my arm and hauls me into an alcove in the hall. “Don’t talk so loud. I don’t
want one of the drones to hear you!”
I lower my voice. “What is wrong with you? Don’t you know what can happen if you get
She rolls her eyes. “Look, I’m not waving it in front of everyone’s face like those idiot neighbors of yours did. I’m being careful.”
Planting our own garden is strictly forbidden. The rationale that we are told is that planting our own food wastes water resources, but I think it’s more than that. The Company regulates this law with frequent sweeps through town. My neighbors were caught a couple of years ago with a tiny garden hidden in an old rain drum beside their residence. They had planted some tomatoes or something. I remember being jarred awake in the middle of the night by a loud noise. I looked out the window and saw guards from the Company hauling my neighbors out of their house and into a van. Their residence was empty by the end of the week and a new family moved in. We don’t try to grow our own food. Besides, our own efforts would probably waste too much water or be totally inefficient anyway.
“Safa, they didn’t flaunt it either. It was hidden in a rain drum and they still found out.” I can feel the speed of my heart ratcheting up a notch.
“You worry too much,” she says and swats my arm. “Look, you have to come over and check it out.”
I shake my head. Inside I’m thinking, what if I get caught?
“Come on,” she whines. “Please?”
And then she gives me the eyes, the ones that translate into: If you were really my friend you
would do this for me.
So I cave. “Fine. But I swear if anyone finds out...” I don’t finish the thought because,
really, the answer to that is not something I want to explore. “It’ll be fine. See ya at lunch.”
She gives me a quick hug and jogs to class. I stand in the alcove for a few more minutes, telling myself to calm down and stop worrying. After all, we’re just kids anyway and it’s not like they are going to do anything to a kid.
I pass the next few hours of the school day either listening to a mind-numbing parade of monotone voices lecturing from the front of the room or from the headphones that are becoming more common in each class. I loathe the headphones. The sound invades my senses and is inescapable. But I have a suspicion that the headphones are not going away any time soon. After all, with the DMC talking in my ears, teachers can’t tell you something they shouldn’t.
It’s a woman’s voice droning in my ear this period. While my mind wants to wander, I find it impossible to ignore the information pouring into my head.
“People of the past were incredibly wasteful with their resources. An average citizen used over a hundred gallons of water each day. This was not sustainable as the earth’s weather changed.”
I’ve heard this statistic countless times, as though they are trying to drill it into my head. I wish I could tell them there is no need to remind me of the recklessness of past generations. Just hearing the idea of a hundred gallons of water being squandered by every person in the country is enough to rouse my anger and resentment.
“Some organizations tried to curb this excess, but their efforts were ineffective and the waste continued. It wasn’t until the Drought Mitigation Corporation, or DMC, got involved that lasting structures were put into place to safeguard water for future generations. In order to protect this essential resource, the DMC took control of public and private water sources. This ensured that every citizen had equal access to water.
Your town once had multiple water sources like wells. Those that remained after the initial dry-period were drained by the DMC and transported to a treatment facility. The refined water is distributed based on the number of individuals in each household and the availability of credits toward water for non-essential purposes. In this way, all members of a town receive the water needed for survival and multiple everyday uses.
In the early days, not everyone embraced this revolutionary thinking. Insurgent groups grew in pockets throughout the country. These rebels were responsible for numerous attacks on facilities, supply lines and branches of government. The worst of these attacks occurred in Phoenix, located in the Great Basin. A group of rebels targeted branches of the DMC, preventing any warning to the public, while devices were strategically placed in varying locations. At a predetermined time, this terrorist group detonated bombs at DMC facilities across the city. Over fifty thousand people, DMC employees and civilians, died as a result of this attack.”
My eyes flick to the screen that lights up showing the devastation. The photos are a reminder of the cost of war. The entire class is glued to the images scrolling across the screen, many of us leaning forward to see the details in the wreckage of collapsed buildings and twisted hunks of metal. A collective gasp reverberates around the room when the first human casualty is splashed onto the screen. The shock turns to horror when a photo of what may have been a schoolyard floods our eyes. There’s not one person in the room who isn’t affected by the image. Even the drones, whose snarky comments peppered the first few pictures, grow silent.
After the last image is shown, the narrator continues. “The DMC is here to protect you from this kind of devastation. Through government coordination, we can prevent future acts of war and the senseless loss of life that is seen in countries across Europe and Asia. We need your help to ensure the safety of all civilians. By graduating and entering the workforce, you have the opportunity to help safeguard our way of life for future generations.”
Following the video, we are assigned a reading passage about the Phoenix attack and the subsequent measures that went into effect to protect the populace from rebels launching future assaults. I glance around the room, taking in the faces scrolling through their personal screens as they absorb the information. I can’t help feeling like what I am reading is a bit one-sided and I wonder what the intent of the rebels truly was. Were they making a statement? Was the attack an effort to regain control of resources? Had they been attacked first? These questions are not answered as I read. I guess they aren’t important anyway.
A bell rings and I stand up to head for lunch. All of this is so much to take in. The world was so different before. I find it hard to imagine it. As I slowly make my way out of the room, a drone shoves past me, knocking me into the doorframe. Typical. I don’t matter in their eyes. I know I should be used to it but it pisses me off regardless and I’m tempted to say something to him. But I keep silent.
The only time I really surface from that inner place I go when in class, and actually speak to someone, is during lunch. I walk through the lunch line, picking up my measly ration. A few
kids ahead of me is Ariel, yet another one of the lucky ones whose father is some kind of bigwig at the DMC training center. I can’t help noticing the food on her tray, it looks so much more appetizing than my globs of mush that I know will stick to the roof of my mouth as I struggle to force it down. My mouth waters as I see her reach for an orange. There have been a total of five times in my life that I have ever tasted the incredible sweetness of that fruit and each time it was only because a friend, with more credits than me, shared a few slices. Bram was always doing things like that.
I shuffle forward with my unappetizing meal, place my arm in the scanner, and then survey the room looking for Safa. She is seated at a table in the corner of the cafeteria and waves me over. As I make my way through the maze of students, I notice that Safa is not alone at the table, which unfortunately means we will have to censor our conversation when all I really want to do is grill her about this idiotic and dangerous garden idea. Lunch passes too quickly and too soon I find myself with headphones on and the Company talking in my ears again.
By the end of the school day, my anxiety over the garden has returned. I skip taking the shuttle home, meet Safa in the back of the school, and we begin the long walk to her neighborhood in section E of town. She is positively glowing, bouncing around and telling me about how she thinks she’s discovered this new way to cultivate food with very little water. So little, she says, that everyone could have a garden and wouldn’t it be nice if we could all grow some of our own food? Just mentioning water makes my mouth feel parched and I consider taking a few precious sips of my ration. But I squelch the thought. The idea of giving even a few drops of the precious liquid to a plant is slightly appalling. I’m always thirsty and would rather every drip of water coats my tongue, keeping the pervasive cottonmouth at bay.
I listen to her prattle on but inside I am a ball of worry. All I can think of is what will happen to my friend if the Company finds out. I don’t share my worry. I know she won’t heed it anyway. Safa has always gone her own way, justifying her actions with this and that. The heat of the day beats down on my head as we continue our trek. The billboards we pass, usually easy to ignore, catch my eyes today. Things like, ‘We are all responsible for protecting our resources. Report water wasters,’ and ‘Notice something unusual? Report it and keep the community safe. The DMC is here to protect you.’ I feel a strange compulsion to turn Safa in when I see these reminders and it fills me with self-loathing. I am not an informant.
We arrive at the house and she hauls me through the front door, not where I had anticipated going, and into her room. Like most family modulars, there are two utilitarian bedrooms, one bathroom, and a small kitchen with room for a table. Like mine, space is cramped but livable and it’s nice to have a small pocket of the house to ourselves. Safa’s parents are still at the mill and won’t return for another hour so there is no need to keep our voices down or be discreet.
At first, I don’t notice it. It’s much smaller than I had imagined. In truth, I actually don’t know what I had imagined, just not something that would fit on the shelf under her bedroom window. There is a thin, clear plastic tarp over it and I can see drops of water that have collected on the underside of the plastic.
“Here it is!” She announces proudly. “Want to know how it works?”
I have to admit that I am curious. Being so small, it is hardly the threat that I had imagined earlier and now I am beginning to consider the possibilities.
“Yeah, definitely,” I say with a grin.
I sit on the bed as she uses her hands to explain how she has managed to grow a small garden in her room with very little water. So little, in fact, that her parents haven’t noticed an effect on the water ration nor have they seen the contraption in her room. As she explains how it works, I study the garden more closely. The small plants don’t even sit in soil; rather they are planted in gravel that I can see is made up of rocks Safa has found. Their thin roots are visible snaking through the cracks in the rocks, which are sitting in water. The container itself is covered with transparent plastic that looks like it had been packaging material from a box of protein cubes. I can see droplets of water collecting on the underside of the plastic that will eventually become so heavy they drip onto the plants. It’s ingenious and yet so simple.
As I take a closer look a thought pops into my head. Where did the seeds come from? You can’t just buy seeds in town. I mean, why would you need them if you’re not allowed to plant a garden? Plus, any fruits or vegetables that we buy have been genetically engineered to be seedless. That means only one thing.
“Safa, where’d the seeds come from?”
I see her eyes dart away and then she mumbles, “I just got them.”
“From who? I mean it’s not like you can just buy them at the repository?”
“I can’t tell you. I just got them, okay?”
She has started wringing her hands and I know that if I push it she’ll cave and tell me
who it is. But do I really want to know? Didn’t someone once say, ignorance is bliss?
I sigh. “Okay, I won’t ask. But I’m worried, you know? I mean if someone else knows
about this then it just makes it riskier.”
I know she gets it and I hardly need to point it out, but I’m scared for her. What if she
can’t trust this person who supplied the seeds?
“I know you’re worried, but it’s already done so there’s really nothing you can do now
I let out an exasperated breath. “Fine. I’ll ignore the seeds, but what about the water
waste? You shouldn’t be using your ration for this. The small amount of water we’re given means that every drop counts and being so wasteful is going to hurt you and the community.”
Safa looks at me and rolls her eyes. “Oh my God. I can’t believe you just said that. Sheesh. You sound like Mr. Frink. He’s always spouting DMC bullshit.”
I make a face at the comparison. “I do not sound like that little automaton!”
“Yes, you do!” Her voice rises before she takes a calming breath and continues. “Here’s the thing. The Company facilities that we learn so much about have like a twenty percent water waste. My design recycles all the water and none of it ends up being wasted.”
I must look confused because Safa pulls me closer so I can see what she’s talking about. “Do you see any water from the top and sides of the dome that end up on anything other than plants or the rocky soil?”
I lean in. “No.”
“Well the Company has greenhouses for water recycling and they tell us that eighty percent of the water they use is recycled. That means that twenty percent is wasted. If they used my design then they would save more water.”
“Hm.” I think about what she’s said. In science classes we’ve heard all about various food operations, but I vaguely remember statistics about recycling and water waste. Obviously, Safa paid much closer attention than I did if her numbers are accurate. “I get it.”
“Good. So you see how mine is more efficient? I mean, if each family used this design then everyone would have more food, better tasting stuff too.”
I nod, thinking about the lunch I choked down. I imagine I can still feel the lump slowly moving down my dry throat. It would be wonderful to have fresh vegetables and fruit that I could eat anytime I wanted. Maybe if the Company did find out they’d see her design as an improvement on their own production techniques and Safa wouldn’t get arrested. The shred of hope gives me some ease as I make my way to the edge of the bed to sit down.
She sits next to me and we both just look at her illegal garden. It’s magnificent in its simplicity. But despite its cleverness, it’s the biggest threat I have ever known.
Other than a quick, conspiratorial wink at the lunch table the next day, Safa and I don’t mention the garden. It’s our secret, a small thing we hoard that is tucked within the tedious normalcy of school. I do admit that I am worried. It’s not like I can forget that what she’s doing is against the law, but I like to think that the Company wouldn’t see her creation as a complete violation of their rules. They’re not out to get us and Safa isn’t some water traitor or anything. In fact, she hasn’t even used any more water than what she’s allocated. That would certainly count for something.
The day drags on and though my niggling worry is there, my mind wanders to the larger concern in my life, leaving school and entering adulthood. I know my days are slipping away and that I will need to choose among my limited options, but the choices are all equally unappealing. I feel like I’m being funneled into a life I don’t want. To be fair, every job is necessary to the community but I just don’t see myself being happy here knowing what is available for most graduates. Being a Sentinel, or working in a similar position at a DMC headquarters, is not something I want either. Those jobs may mean more credits, but I have no desire to end up like the people I know who come from rich families. I don’t want to end up like a drone.
My eyes roam the faces that surround me in the classroom and I wonder how many other minds are drifting down the same road. How many others are fighting an internal battle? Maybe if I really put a lot of effort into my placement exam I could end up out of this town and see a bit of the world. That would mean working for some specialized branch of the Company but, as long as it is far from a military role, then I would do it.
After school, Safa and I return to her house to unwind. Hanging out in her room, a once normal activity, feels a little different now as I take furtive glances at the garden.
“Why do you keep looking at it?” Safa asks after a particularly long look.
I shrug. “I can’t help it. It’s just...I don’t know. It’s kind of scary I guess.”
She rolls her eyes. “Enora, you need to relax. Nothing is going to happen, okay? Besides, with all these crazy regulations the Company is just asking for people to take things into their own hands. It’s not like they’d be surprised that some of us are fed up with how things are.”
I huff, a little offended that she thinks I’m some unreasonable worrywart. “You act like this is no big deal, but it is.”
Safa shakes her head. “Look, if it makes you feel better, then I promise I will stop with what I have now. I won’t get any more seeds and I won’t make this any bigger or anything. Okay?”
I feel slightly mollified and say, “Thanks. You know, I just don’t want you to get caught or anything.”
“I know, Mom!” She nudges me hard and a small giggle escapes as the seriousness of the situation evaporates and I let go of my unease.
Soon our conversation drifts to other, less critical things and I let go of all of my angst over the events in my life. Safa helps me to do that, just her presence works to lift my spirits and lets me know that at least one person gets me. There used to be another who understood all that I am, but he’s gone now.
After the Green Withered
By: Kristin Ward
Release Date: May 18, 2018
Two winners will receive a paperback copy of After the Green Withered (US only).