A Million Kinds of Happiness

by Karina Andrew

Monday. Sunny. Low of 68. High of 94. Nineteen percent chance of rain.

The scent of dirt follows me into the house. People say “dirty” like it’s a bad thing, but I like dirt. It clings to me, to the knees of my jeans, to the undersides of my nails, to all the tiny lines and crevices in my skin.

I scrub my hands with lots of soap, watching that dirt run off my skin and down the sink. It leaves tracks in the white bowl.

“Avie.” Mom’s voice is gentle and perky, like pink carnations. “Don’t leave the water running too long.”

Right. The drought warning. I turn the tap, and the water stops.

Mom doesn’t make me change clothes for dinner, which I appreciate. Hallie’s already at the table, her pink nails clicking against her phone screen. She’s wearing makeup, too, something she never did before I left for college. Granted, her makeup is poorly done—an early attempt at painting over thirteen-year-old insecurities—but I can’t help her fix it. I haven’t worn makeup in months. I wonder if she expected me to be more . . . something when I got back for the summer. Cooler, funnier, more interesting. I’ve likely disappointed her in all categories.

I help Mom set the table. Dad comes home as I put the last fork in place, towing a dirty Logan into the house behind him. I give Logan a smile. Of all the family, he is the only one who shares my affinity for nature. He flashes back an impish grin and rushes to the table.

“Wash your hands,” Mom reminds him, eying his grubby fingers. 

“But it’ll waste waaaater,” he rebuts, eyes twinkling.

“Wash them really fast.”

He runs to the kitchen sink. He’s been bursting with energy since I got back three weeks ago. Four weeks ago? Each day morphs seamlessly into the next with little distinction. I don’t pay attention.

Logan reaches for the potatoes.

“Logan,” Dad says, “wait until we say grace.”

It’s the only time of day we talk about God. We all close our eyes while Dad thanks the ceiling for the food Mom made, then start in on our chicken, potatoes, and broccoli.

“Savannah and David should arrive tomorrow,” Dad says. Savannah is Dad’s sister. “We’re going to put them in your room, Avie, is that okay? I know it’s not ideal.”

“No, it’s fine. I understand.”

“With their neighborhood being evacuated—”

“I know. It’s really fine.” I force a small smile, so he knows I mean it—it’s not like the wildfires tearing through California are his fault—but Dad’s still opening and closing his mouth like a Venus Flytrap, forehead wrinkled in guilt.

“Well, when they get here, we’ll just have to do something fun as a family,” Mom says, spearing a potato with her fork. “Take a day trip out to the beach or something. Hey, isn’t the summer fair next week? They always have those stands with the hand-made jewelry you love, Avie, remember?”

I do remember. I remember being fascinated with them as a kid, with the way the sunlight filtered through the beads and changed the color of the sand. I remember walking through the stands with my high school friends in the months after graduation and talking about the future with glittering eyes and high hopes. I remember going there with Grandma, until she grew too sick to get out of bed.

I shrug and shove a piece of broccoli across my plate with my fork. “Yeah, sure.”

Mom and Dad exchange glances. My gut drops a little, and I quickly turn my lips up at the corners, so they won’t worry. I finish my food hurriedly to escape the feeling of their concerned gazes like searchlights on my face and head back out to the garden.

The flowerbeds line the porch in front of the house like a dense, brown moat. I kneel, feeling the dirt squishing beneath my knees, the moisture soaking into my jeans. I inhale and taste the metallic scent on the back of my tongue, cool and rich and alive—a breathing bank of precious metals. I dig my fingers into the earth, clearing space to make my deposit.

I’ve planted halfway down the length of the porch since coming home. To my left grows a plethora of flowers, my own porch-side Eden: geraniums, daisies, lilacs, even two rose bushes. To my right stretches a blank canvas of earth, waiting to be painted from nature’s own pallet.

I work well into the evening, tending carefully to my little buds, adding fertilizer, pulling the tiny beginnings of weeds, planting new rows of flowers in meticulously dug trenches. I don’t notice the darkness creeping in from the east until Mom flicks the porchlight on and comes outside.

“Looks good,” she says in her carnation voice. Sandals separate her feet from the cool evening grass.

“Thanks.”

“It’s getting late. You want to finish this tomorrow?”

“Finish?”

“Continue.”

“Of course, I’ll continue tomorrow.”

“I mean, how about you come inside for tonight? We’re putting on a movie.”

I sit back on my heels. “I don’t like movies.”

“Since when?”

I pluck a blade of grass from between two geraniums.

Mom’s eyebrows pull together a little in the middle, but she tries to keep her lips smiling.

“We’ve missed you while you’ve been gone, Avie. Come inside and be with the family, okay?” I can’t deny her that. My eyes run once more over my garden. It glows golden in the sunset. No weeds spring up between the flowers. No leaf or bud is out of place. Immaculate.

I stow my unplanted flowers on the porch in their plastic containers, next to my spade and hand trowel, and haul the bag of fertilizer up the steps after. It slumps against the porch rail.

I do change clothes this time, so I don’t get dirt between the sofa cushions. Mom has done my laundry for me, and the detergent she uses smells better than the discount stuff I bought at school. It’s a soft scent, clean and fluffy and vaguely reminiscent of cherry blossoms, though the bottle advertises lilies.

I want to call it a night, crawl into bed and lie with my eyes closed until the world spins around and puts my garden back into the sunlight. I want to skip the night, fast-forward through the darkness. But it isn’t fair of me to wish that the night would pass faster, because I suppose the sun is shining on someone else’s garden somewhere—maybe the palace gardens of a queen, or the garden of a single mom growing food to feed her family—and why should my comparatively inconsequential garden get priority? So I go downstairs and join the others in the family room. It’s a secluded space in the basement where I’ll be sleeping once David and Savannah arrive.

I pause in the entryway. Logan is sitting where I usually sit, in the corner of the sectional, his knees tucked under his chin like a bomb of energy liable to explode at any moment. Hallie lounges to his left, her neck arched pompously like the stem of an orchid, her face lit in the darkness by her phone screen.

“Stop bouncing,” she snaps at Logan.

“I’m not,” Logan taunts, stretching the one syllable into three.

“I can literally feel you shaking the whole couch.”

“Well, what if I do this?”

He launches to his feet and starts jumping on the sofa, each hop getting him closer to landing in Hallie’s lap. 

“Mom!” Hallie says.

  “Logan, sit down,” Mom says without turning around from the Blu-ray player.

“But I’m not touching her!”

Dad gets up from his recliner, his eyes twinkling in that mischievous way only dads’ eyes twinkle before they do something dad-ish.

“No jumping on the sofa!” he says, grabbing Logan around his small waist and flipping him upside down.

“Stop—stop—” Logan gasps between giggles, kicking his legs in the air and barely missing Dad’s face. I slip behind their play-fight, dodging one of Logan’s flailing limbs, and reclaim my corner spot. The family dynamic is much the same as it was before I moved out, but I can’t seem to find my place in it anymore. As if, in my absence, they all grew to fill in the places I used to occupy. Maybe I never played that big a role at all.

They pick a feel-good family movie with wide-eyed animated characters, only it doesn’t make me feel good. I might have enjoyed it more before college, but now it seems the cinematic equivalent of eating unsalted potatoes. For a moment I entertain the idea that my year of university education has refined my taste in media, but then I remember the art gallery Mom took me to a couple weeks ago as a “welcome home” outing, and how that, too, had been bland. That was the day she’d started pulling up her eyebrows when she looked at me, lowering her voice like I was something fragile—glass that might splinter at the slightest shiver.

I hate it when she looks at me like that, hate that I’m causing her distress. She’s got Dad giving me the look, too, but they don’t get that they don’t need to worry about me. People change. That’s life.

I get up and slip out of the room just before the end credits roll. In the reflection of the TV screen, I catch Mom giving me that look.

 

Tuesday. Sunny. Low of 71. High of 97. Eleven percent chance of rain.

David and Savannah arrive a couple of hours after the sun. Their tires sound hot and dry against the driveway.

“Avie!” Savannah sounds unnervingly chipper for someone whose house might burn down any day. “You’re back from school already?”

“It’s June.”

“Remind me what you’re studying?”

“Biology. With a botany emphasis.”

“Explains the gardening.” Savannah’s smiling eyes roam over my work, then return to me. I stand up but instantly regret it, suddenly too aware of my stained jeans and dirty fingernails and the fact that I rolled out of bed and fumbled my way out here without brushing my teeth. I try to smile back at Savannah, but it feels unnatural, like I have weights attached to my cheeks. I don’t know what to say, but Mom opens the door, and I don’t have to say anything.

“Savannah,” she says. “David. How was the drive? Have you had breakfast?”

“Not yet. You didn’t happen to make those banana muffins, did you?”

“You know I did.” Mom smiles, pulling Savannah in for a hug. “How’re you doing?” she murmurs.

“Oh, we’ll be alright.” Savannah is still smiling. It doesn’t even seem fake. I turn my spade over in my hands while Mom hugs David, and they exchange more encouraging sentiments. 

“You coming in, Avie?” Mom asks. “You’ve been out here for hours, you must want something to eat.”

“Hours?” David asks, checking his watch. “It’s only nine.”

“Oh, Avie’s been getting up at the crack of dawn to fix up the yard for us,” Mom says. “It’s been her project all summer. I guess one of her botany professors . . .”

Mom chats David and Savannah into the house, and I trudge in behind them, leaving dusty footprints on the white tile. The house does smell like bananas. Mom’s muffins are famous among family. Everyone gets outrageously excited about them, as if they aren’t made of the same ingredients that comprise every other baked good known to man.

Hallie makes her way downstairs, and Dad follows close behind, carrying Logan piggy-back into the kitchen. Greetings bounce off the cabinets and loud voices ring in cacophony until all our mouths are filled with warm banana mush. 

I wonder what makes banana muffins any better than German chocolate cake, or sourdough bread, or peanut butter cookies, if they’re all made of flour and sugar and butter. Why do some come out dense, while some are fluffy? Why are some desserts, while others are breakfast?

Humans are the same way, I suppose. All made of blood and bone and muscle. But sometimes, one will come out different, wrong. I have the same ingredients as my family, the same DNA. But they all seem like banana muffins, and I feel like a crusty grain roll. 

“Avie?”

“Hm? Yeah?” I tune back in. Savannah is looking at me, smiling wide like a daisy.

“I asked if you were planning on planting sunflowers anywhere.”

“Oh. Um.” I glance out the window. “I hadn’t thought about it. I could, I guess. Down the side of the house.”

“Sunflowers are my favorites,” she says. “We were going to plant them this year, but . . .” She leaves a space in her sentence for the fire that’s burning down her house, then goes on. “But I’d love to help you plant some! Since we’re here for a while, anyway.”

  “Sure,” I say automatically, but my stomach sinks at the thought of letting someone else in my garden, which is stupid, because it’s in the front yard and anyone can walk in whenever they want, anyway.

The conversation turns to other topics, and I take the opportunity to slip back outside. When the sun sets and I go back in for the night, the couch in the family room has been fitted with sheets for me.

 

Friday. Sunny. Low of 76. High of 101. Six percent chance of rain.

White bits of skin flake off my sunburned neck and dust the soil beneath my hands. I’m putting in another row of geraniums today, orange and yellow, like a hundred tiny suns. Savannah sits on a quilt on the grass, watching me work, getting tan. She keeps apologizing for not being more helpful, but I prefer it that way. The same way a painter can distinguish the stylistic differences between his work and that of another artist, I can see the places where other hands have touched my garden.

Mom steps outside with glasses of lemonade just as I pull the hose around and begin a gentle spray.

“Do you need to use so much water, Avie?” she asks, frowning.

“Yes.”

“We really need to cut back. The city is asking that we don’t use sprinklers—”

“The sprinklers have been off all summer.” The lawn itself is dusty and brown. “This is just for the garden. The flowers need water.”

  “Well, just try to be careful about it, okay? Don’t waste a drop.”

I press my lips together and watch the soil beneath my flowers darken with moisture. Savannah joins my mother in the shade of the porch. I don’t hear their low voices over the steady flow of the garden hose, but when Savannah returns to her quilt, she’s wearing that same, pitiful look Mom always gives me.

 

Saturday. Sunny. Low of 74. High of 99. Three percent chance of rain.

“You know why I love sunflowers so much?”

Savannah has started planting a row down the side of the house. It’s late in the season to start planting, I warned her, but she was sure they’d grow just fine. “Why?”

  “Because they’re heliotropic.” She pauses proudly, as if expecting praise for knowing the term. “They always look toward the sun.”

Of course I know what heliotropic means, but I don’t want to make her feel bad, so I just smile awkwardly.

“I just think that’s lovely,” she goes on. “And people can learn something from it, too. No matter how bad things get, just keep looking on the bright side, and we’ll bloom.” She looks up at me hopefully.

I sit back on my heels, thoughtful. “Sunflowers aren’t universally heliotropic, though. Not all species follow that pattern, especially not wild sunflowers. And at this point in the season, these ones will likely never develop the turning flower heads.”

Savannah blinks at me, and a pit churns in my stomach. I’ve said something wrong—I can see it in her slack jaw and disapproving squint. I don’t know what I should have said.

“So, what got you into gardening?” she finally asks.

I shrug, leaning forward with my clippers to prune the rose bush. The buds should be plumper by now. Must be thirsty. “It feels good out here, I guess. Like being alive.”

“Right, like you’re not alive the rest of the time.” She’s laughing but I’m not.

“Plants are easier to connect with than other living things.” I don’t know why I’m still trying to explain it, but it suddenly feels urgent, like I need to make her understand. “They don’t have to think or feel—they don’t do anything. They just are. They just exist, and make the world pretty, and . . .”

She’s blinking again, and I trail off, because even if I could explain it, she wouldn’t get it. She wouldn’t get it.

I go inside early, climb into my makeshift bed, and stare at the ceiling.

 

Sunday. High of 102. Zero percent chance of rain.

Mom is already up by the time I come upstairs.

“I’m glad I caught you,” she says, yawning. “Don’t go out to the garden this morning, okay? We’re taking a family outing, and I don’t want you getting dirty.”

I stare. “No one else will even be awake for another three hours.”

“Then how about you sleep in, like a normal college student?” She says it with a smile, running a gentle hand over my hair, but the comment still stings. Not normal. Broken.

“What are we doing?”

It turns out Mom’s idea of a “family outing” is visiting my grandmother’s grave. She and Savannah make us all dress up like we’re going to church, and we drive forty-five minutes to the cemetery. The grass here is thin and yellow. It strikes me as strange that the city won’t even use sprinklers in the cemetery, but I guess the people buried here don’t know or care what the grass looks like.

We stand by the plot, looking at the tombstone sparkling in the sun. I think about the same, scorching light blaring down on my little plants. They haven’t had water today. Savannah takes Dad’s arm and leans her head on his shoulder.

“I can’t believe it’s been a year without Mom,” she whispers. Dad nods his agreement. Logan isn’t bouncing around for once. He looks up at Dad. “Is Grandma in heaven?” 

Dad smiles at Logan and nods. “She’s an angel now. And she’s with Jesus, just how she always wanted to be someday.”

But she’s not in heaven, I think, frowning at the dried-up grave plot. She’s right here, rotting under our feet. Dissolving slowly into soil, feeding the withered grass with her body. Disappearing.

The family is smiling at one another, clasping hands and patting shoulders and bringing up fond memories of Grandma, and I want to join in, but I feel like I’m watching them from the far end of a tunnel. Nothingness like a fog grips my mind, crawling in from the edges of my consciousness and resting firmly in the center of my brain. I drift over to a bench sitting in the sparse shade of an oak tree. The fog follows me. I stare at nothing.

“Avie?”

A voice emerges from the nothingness, and eventually a body. Savannah sits next to me on the bench. How long have I been sitting here? She drapes a tan arm around my shoulders.

“How are you doing?”

“I’m good.” The words come automatically, but they taste stale in my mouth, the same way off-brand Oreos don’t taste quite like the real ones.

“I know you miss her.”

“Yeah, well. That’s life.”

Savannah, for once, doesn’t say anything else.

“Do you really believe in God?” I don’t know where the question comes from, but it spills from my mouth before I can process it.

Savannah considers my question a moment before answering. “Yes. I just can’t imagine that there isn’t . . . something out there. It doesn’t make sense to me that all this”—she gestures vaguely at our surroundings—“could be meaningless.”

I turn that comment over in my head, my forehead creasing. I don’t see how the existence of a God factors into life meaning anything. Either there is no God, no one listening in the ceiling when we say grace over dinner, and meaning dies with our bodies, lies with us in the ground until that inevitable day, billions of years in the future, when the sun expands in its final stages of life and swallows us up and leaves no one left in the universe to remember that human life ever meant anything. Or, there is a God, and the droughts and the wildfires and the emptiness of life will eventually give way to eternal bliss in heaven, in which case we would all be better off under the grass with Grandma, anyway.

But it’s not a normal thing to say, so I make an indistinct noise in my throat and watch the yellow grass quiver in the pathetic breeze until Mom comes over to pack us all back into the car and take us home.

 

Monday. 101. Zero percent chance of rain.

My alarm doesn’t go off, so I don’t get up. I just lie there, and the longer I lie there, the more overwhelming the task of getting up seems. The numbers on the clock keep changing, nine, ten, eleven, and I think that maybe I ought to feel bad that I’m wasting my day, but I don’t feel anything at all except a muted sense of dread, like something bad will happen if I push off my covers. So I don’t. I just keep lying there.

The garden.

I hear footsteps on the basement stairs. Someone coming to check on me. I close my eyes until I hear the click . . . creak . . . snap of the door opening and closing again.

The garden.

My Eden. My roses and lilacs and geraniums. No one will water them if I don’t. I pull my covers off, swing my legs over the couch, and fumble up the stairs. My mind is groggy, drunk on an excess of sleep. Savannah and David are putting together sandwiches for Hallie and Logan, who sit on the counter barstools with their legs swinging. David asks if I want one. I shake my head, stumble out the door in my pajamas and grab the hose.

The rose buds are still too skinny.

 

Wednesday. 103. Zero percent chance of rain.

Mom and Dad call a family meeting before dinner. We’re still using too much water, they tell us. We’ve got to cut back. Scrub dishes with soap and get all the food off before rinsing them. Don’t leave the tap running when you’re brushing your teeth. No one should take a longer-than-five-minute shower.

“And Avie, honey, I’m sorry, but we really can’t be watering the garden anymore.” My heart plunges into my stomach with dizzying force.

“But . . . Mom,” I say. My voice creaks, barely louder than a whisper. “It’ll die. The roses . . . everything. They need water. They’ll die.”

“And I’ll die if I can only shower for five minutes!” Hallie interjects. “How am I supposed to wash my hair, ever? It takes longer than that, Mom!”

Hallie keeps whining and Mom tries to calm her down, and everyone forgets that my garden is going to dry up and turn brown and disappear to a place where I will never be able to bring it back to life. My throat goes dry at the thought, drier than the godforsaken California dirt. My heart picks up speed and my brain feels fuzzy and no one notices. No one else seems to understand how urgent, how crucial it is that the garden stays alive.

The oven timer goes off, distracting us from the argument. Dad serves the food and asks me to say grace. I only ask the ceiling for one thing.

Rain.

 

Thursday. Zero percent chance of rain.

I wake up early, too early, and grab two mop buckets out of the closet. I use my five minutes of water to fill them up, then rush them outside, like a surgeon in an emergency room running to deliver life-saving medicine to a patient on the cusp of death.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper, emptying the buckets over my little plants as the bluish glow of dawn creeps over the eastern edge of the neighborhood. “I know you’re thirsty. This is all I have.”

Their leaves, sickly yellow around the edges, curl downward, betrayed. You’re going to let us die, they accuse me.

“No, no!” I whimper, hands quivering, but my tongue is dry and they can hear it, hear the uncertainty. They weep tearlessly.

I grab my clippers and prune away their yellow parts.

 

Saturday. Zero percent chance of rain.

Savannah has stopped joining me in the garden. Her sunflowers will never send up shoots. I don’t waste water on them.

 

Tuesday. Zero percent chance of rain.

Dad cuts us back to one five-minute-shower every other day until the drought is over. Five minutes of water every forty-eight hours is not enough for my garden, not in this heat. I sneak into Hallie’s room and use her perfume when she isn’t in there. My nails are permanently black with dirt and my hair is heavy with oil. Getting out of bed grows more daunting every day, but I do it, because no one else will give their five minutes of water to my garden.

 

Friday. Zero percent chance of rain.

Logan runs into the house late in the afternoon, his face lit up in a big, dandelion grin, yelling that he saw storm clouds while he was playing outside. Savannah and David and Mom and Dad and even Hallie come running outside to see their salvation. They file onto the lawn, and stare in dense silence at the huge, black billows of smoke creeping up from the southwest.

 

Monday. Zero percent chance of rain.

Dad has bad news when he comes back from work. The wildfires have taken on an unexpected trajectory, putting our house in the path of danger. We should all have a bag packed, in case they evacuate the neighborhood. Hallie and Logan whine loudly, but Dad pinches the bridge of his nose and tells them to do it.

“And try not to go outside, okay? There’s a public health warning, the air isn’t safe,” he calls after them as they run upstairs. I sneak out to the garden before he can turn around and tell me that the public health warning applies to me, too.

 

Thursday. Zero percent chance of rain.

The stench of smoke clings to my sweaty skin and greasy hair, clings to the yellowing leaves and cracking dirt in the garden, clings to the house and everything in it as if with millions of clammy, gray hands. I stop using Hallie’s perfume. None of us ever smell clean, now.

 

Monday. Zero percent chance of rain.

Mom wakes me before my alarm goes off, before the sun has started peeking through the narrow basement windows.

“We’ve got to go, Avie.”

I stir groggily. “Huh?”

“They’re evacuating us today. It isn’t safe to stay any longer.”

I sit up, rubbing my eyes. “I can’t today. I have to fertilize, prune . . . ”

“I’m sorry about the garden, honey. Really, I am. But the National Guard is clearing everyone out. We can’t stay.”

Her words sink through my sleepiness, sink through my fog and my nothingness. I open my eyes and focus on my mom’s face in the darkness. “No.”

 “Avie—”

“No.”

“We’re not discussing it.” Her voice hardens for the first time, thorns prickling out of her lips. “Go upstairs and pack up what you can—Savannah and David are already out of your room.”

The thorns in her voice cut deep. She doesn’t care about my garden. She doesn’t care.

I sit up and push past her, leaving the blankets in a tangle on the floor, and run outside. Even in the dark, I can see how yellow the garden is. I kneel in the dirt, rubbing the wilting, thirsty leaves between my fingers. There’s commotion in the street—neighbors calling for family members, National Guardsmen giving instructions, dogs barking. A siren blares somewhere in the distance, and that cloud of smoke hangs in the air, too close, an extra layer of blackness against the sky. It chokes me with its long, clammy fingers.

I don’t bother with my pruning shears—I just pull off yellow leaves with unnervingly steady hands. I watch those hands, as if they belong to someone else. The sun sends up shoots over the horizon, turning the sky purple.

“Avie.”

A hot breeze scatters the pile of yellow leaves. My little plants need water, but I don’t have five minutes for them today. I gave them seven yesterday.

“Avie, let’s go.”

I look around, dazed. My whole family stands in the driveway, dragging suitcases and backpacks—I recognize my own luggage among their load. Hallie cries frustrated tears. Logan slumps, still half asleep, against the porch rail. Dad, Savannah and David are loading up the cars, and Mom stands expectantly on the lawn behind me, a scarf tied over her nose and mouth.

“I’m not going.”

“I grabbed your suitcases from school—they were mostly still full. If you need anything that wasn’t in them, you should go grab it now.”

“I’m not leaving them,” I whisper.

“And we’re not leaving you.” Mom kneels beside me and strokes my snarled, greasy hair. “I know it’s hard. But you can plant another garden next year.”

Not if the house burns down, I want to say. But then I remember that I’m supposed to be hopeful, heliotropic, looking toward the future and all its blazing inevitability with a blind grin, so I don’t say anything. Instead, I pick up my spade, but I don’t know why, because I don’t need to dig for anything. I jam it into the ground anyway, like maybe I can dig a hole big enough to crawl into and escape Mom’s prying gaze.

“Avie, you haven’t been yourself all summer.”

I jam my spade hard into the earth again. It gives with a dry crunch.

“Is this about Grandma passing?” Mom asks, her carnation voice wilting.

I don’t know how to answer that, how to explain that it isn’t Grandma, but the questions left in her absence. Too many questions about life and death and meaning and time, ending only in dead ends and complications, and I am unequal to the daunting permanence of their answers.

So I say no, and punctuate the word with another jab with the spade. “It doesn’t matter. That’s just how it goes.” I don’t know what I’m digging for, but my spade keeps flashing and my throat feels hot and suddenly all these stupid words are spilling out of my mouth, putrid like vomit, and I can’t contain them. “Things leave. People”—crunch—“time”—crunch—

“ happiness. It all leaves and it doesn’t come back and you just have to live with it.”

Mom gives me that damn look again and for some reason, it makes anger boil up inside me, hot and rancid and guilty. I hate myself for putting that look on her face.

“You’re right,” she says. Infuriating. I want her to disagree. I want to argue. I want to scream. “But there’s more than one way to be happy.”

“But has it ever occurred to you that some kinds of happiness are better than others?” My voice comes out shrill and ragged. My family members all turn to look at me, some startled, some pitying, but I can’t stop. “Effortless happiness. Real happiness. Not fabricated happiness. The kind we have to convince ourselves we have, force ourselves to have.”

“You don’t have to force yourself to feel anything.”

“But everyone else has it!” Crunch. “Everyone else is normal. Why can—” my voice breaks. “Why can everyone else feel it?”

A drop of water lands on my right hand, and for one wild moment I think it’s started raining, but then my vision fuzzes over and the heat from my throat stretches up behind my eyes and I realize that I’m crying.

Stupid, I think angrily, watching more drops spatter onto the dirt. Stupid how the human body can produce so much water, but not enough to drink, or put out forest fires, or water the garden. Useless.

Soft footsteps on the grass behind me. “You ready?” Dad asks.

I palm the tears off my face, horror crashing over me like a heat wave. “No.” I look at Mom, frantic, but she just shakes her head.

“Avie—”

“No. No!” More tears burn hot in my eyes, but I can’t wipe them away fast enough. “I can’t leave them! They’ll die!”

Dad reaches for my arms to pull me up, but I jerk away from him. “Don’t! You don’t care!” I hear weeping, but I don’t know if it’s me or my garden, mourning my last betrayal. Another set of strong arms wraps around me and hauls me to my feet. I pull against them, but they bind me, constrict me, pull me to the car.

“No!”

The door slams shut like the lid of a coffin. I press my face to the window, tears streaking down the glass like the rain the traitor ceiling never sent us, like five minutes of water drizzling into a mop bucket. It didn’t matter. None of it mattered.

The car lurches beneath me. We follow the line of traffic from the neighborhood, and I watch my poor, yellow plants grow smaller and smaller until we turn a corner and they disappear from view.

 

 

August. Zero percent chance of rain.

We watch the news coverage from my mom’s cousin’s house upstate. I don’t look at the screen—don’t want to see the blackened remains of our home. Instead, I look at my hands. Clean, soft, with trimmed, white fingernails. No dirt.

Mom and Dad say we can’t come but I stand up from the sofa and get in the car anyway and they don’t stop me. The drive seems an eternity, but when we get there, I wish it had been longer. I wish we could have driven and driven until we reached the line on the horizon, the end of the world.

The street is silent, except for a few of our old neighbors milling around, speaking with National Guardsmen and fire-fighters. Everything is gray and black and the air scratches my throat when I inhale. My body feels numb. Blank. Empty.

I turn my eyes back onto the remains of our house for the first time. They trail from the partially-collapsed roof, to the blackened windows, to the front porch, to the—

My heart punches into my throat and my lungs clench. I step forward. A gentle hand lands on my upper arm, trying to stop me, but I shrug it off. It doesn’t touch me again. Slow steps, up to the side of what used to be the porch.

It’s gone.

My knees hit the sooty remains of my Eden. The geraniums, the lilacs, the roses. The last piece of happiness, the last thing that had mattered. All gone. I dig my fingers into the soil- turned-ash, breathing in gasps, and sink into this pathetic grave for the flowers and the time and a million intangible parts of me I can never bring back to life.

My burning eyes land on something green. I turn my head slowly, the nothingness stifling any incredulity that might have sprung up at the sight.

Impossible.

By the side of the house, a single, tiny sunflower shoot pokes out of the ash.

A ragged, primal pain tears through my chest. I press my forehead to the ground and water the garden.

Karina Andrew grew up in rural Ohio, but she’s a big city girl at heart. She dreams of moving to New York City someday, after she completes her degree in journalism at BYU. When she’s not writing, she can be found attending concerts, burying her nose in a fantasy novel, or, if it’s early in the morning, repeatedly pressing the snooze button on her alarm.