There’s something you ought to know about abandoned things—yes, they are quite lonely, and some may say they’re haunted, but there’s an undeniable beauty things find when left on their own. At first, it takes them a little while to realize they’ve been abandoned—that the ones they love aren’t coming back, and their rooms will remain empty and empty and empty. After that, they get angry at the ones who abandoned them—they shake and groan, crumble and try to crush themselves and the memories inside them.
But then plants grow.
Roots replace columns. Leaves weave through roof tiles and flowers carpet the floors. Vines stretch up the walls, clasping their faces, and say, “You’re okay. I’m here now.”
I’ve been here for as long as I can remember, but I never thought it was lonely. The shadows of Tall buildings follow me around all day and give me little reminders.
“Remember to wash behind your ears!”
“I know, Tall.”
“Don’t sit so close to the edge! He’s old and might collapse!”
“It’s fine, Tall. He won’t drop me.”
Sometimes, it can get a little annoying.
Luckily, they can’t follow me underneath Trees. It had taken some time, but eventually, the forest had pushed between buildings and through the concrete. Trees push Tall’s shadows out, and they talk to me instead. Well, more like they whisper while I just listen because it’s hard to respond to all of their chatter, but it’s cool and colorful and safe to rest on their broad branches. I like to sleep with Trees at night, and then during the day, I play with Small.
Small buildings are the most common, and they’re very polite and shy. They ask small questions like: “Oh, how was your morning, even tinier one?” “Oh, how was your night, even smaller one?” “Oh, how was your afternoon, even punier one?”
They don’t mean to be rude—they just enjoy not being the smallest thing around. Besides that, they are quite kind, and I always answer back, “You’re not so large yourself, Small!” even though they’re all at least two stories tall and I’m not even one. They know that, but they still get irritated, and we run and climb until Tall pulls me aside and huffs about how it’s dangerous to run and climb so fast.
“It’s just for fun, Tall!”
“No fun when you get hurt, Little One!”
“Oh, we wouldn’t hurt even smaller one!”
“Oh, we were just playing, Tall!” Small would cry and yelp.
“Shush, shush, it’s nighttime. Time for Little One to go to sleep.”
I think Tall assumes I just find a pillow and go to bed after that, but I don’t. I climb up to the top of Trees and they tell me which branches are young and can’t hold me so I don’t fall. Up high in Trees, I can see past Tall and plan out what I’ll do when the sun comes back. Sometimes I go to Factories, which are the biggest and the strongest. But they’re also the quietest. It took me a long time to realize, but Factories are actually very kind. They’re just very stern as well, and when I go climbing on them and they suddenly say, “No,” or “Stop,” then I know that something isn’t safe. The only time I’ve ever heard Factories say more than those few words is when they send rust whispers to the forest. Trees pass along their message, and it’s always the same: “Man is here. Don’t let the Little One come.”
And then Trees will erupt into whispers.
“Man is here.”
“Be careful, Little One.”
“Don’t let him go.”
“Stay here, Little One.”
“Careful, Little One.”
“Man is here.”
I’ve tried many times to go see what Man is, and why Trees become so anxious and noisy. But every time I start towards Factories after they say Man is there, everyone starts to scream.
“No, Little One!”
“You cannot go, even tinier one!”
“Stay here! Stay here!”
“Man is there! Do not go to Factories!”
And any step further from where I stand will be blocked by Trees’ branches and Tall’s walls and Small’s windows. They’ll start breaking themselves apart and throwing pieces in my way, and I have to scream, “Stop! I’m not going!” before they break themselves so badly they collapse.
Tall watches me for the rest of the day, until Factories say that Man is gone. They keep me distracted with reminders and lessons.
“Don’t forget to wash between your toes!”
“I know, Tall.”
“Man can be very dangerous, you know. They always go so fast.”
“It’s fine, Tall. I won’t go looking.”
And they love me and kiss me for staying.
I wake up because of a strange sound. Silence. Trees always whisper, whether it’s dark or light, wet or dry, but today there are no whispers. And usually when I wake up, Small start peeping softly: “Oh, how was your night, even littler one?” “Oh, how was your morning, even shorter one?”
But today, there is nothing.
Tapping gently on Trees, I whisper into the wood, “What’s wrong? Why are you so quiet?”
And the leaves immediately stir, whispering and rousing from their strange silence. Even now, they barely speak over a breeze.
“Little One is awake.”
“Up, up, quiet.”
“Man has come.”
“To the young ones.”
“Yes, our young ones.”
“Go meet our young ones at the trolleys.”
“Go hide in the young Trees around the trolleys.”
I nod and fly to the young Trees. Man is here, and I don’t know why, but suddenly the ones I had been so curious to meet now frighten me beyond reason. I know the young Trees surrounding the trolleys—it’s an excellent place to hide. Trolleys don’t speak, and young Trees’ voices are too quiet to hear.
I weave around their thin trunks quietly and hop over the tracks. The doors of the aged street cars are all frozen open, so I step in with careful footing over the foreign floors and at last curl up onto a leaf-bedded seat. Some courageous young Trees have pierced straight through the metal roof and floor—their branches create an artificial canopy inside, their small trunks, extra wooden guard bars.
“Stay here. Stay here.”
I nod into the silence.
“Dad, over here! There are train tracks!”
“Slow down, Will! I don’t want you to get hurt. This place is pretty old.”
“Yeah, yeah, over here!” The boy smiles, unable to contain himself.
Will sets down the heavy camera bag and tripod, assembling the equipment with expertise surpassing that of a normal twelve-year-old. His father hurries over under the burden of his own supplies and quickly snaps a professional camera onto the top of the set up. He places an eye in the viewfinder and smiles.
“Good spot, son.”
The boy swells with pride and carefully observes as his father makes slight adjustments to the angle and zoom, trying to capture just the right amount of light peering through the baby leaves to create a kaleidoscope of colors. The camera clicks a few times before the man smiles, satisfied.
“You want to take a shot?”
Will nods with stars in his eyes. He stands on the tips of his toes to see through the viewfinder and turns the camera ever so slightly to the left to get more of the trolleys in his picture. Suddenly, a flash of gray catches his attention, and he instinctively turns to the source. Eyes.
Flickering, gray-green eyes stare straight at him from over the edge of a trolley window. They almost blend into the shadow of the leaves, and for a moment, Will doubts himself and blinks. Still there.
“Dad? Dad, come here!”
And then the forest screams.
I’m dozing off on the trolley when rustling suddenly rouses Trees and me. They tense and whisper:
“Still. Stay still.”
The rustling grows louder and closer. It’s unnatural, and unlike anything I’ve ever heard. It isn’t like the gentle shifting of shadows or the rhythmic pad of animals. It’s off-beat, hard, and clumsy. The rustling almost sounds like the noises I make, but louder and harsher. Heavier.
“Dad, over here! There are train tracks!”
A voice. Words. Man. Man is here, and he is looking.
I slowly rise in my seat to the window sill. Trees hiss in a panic as I peek over, but I have to see. I have to know.
“Good spot, son.”
Another voice. Two? And lower as well. Rough, like Trees’ skin, but warm. Is Man warm? Is Man more than one? I look.
There are two. A tall one, and a small one. They look like me. Not the eyes or hair—those are lighter than mine—but they have arms and lips. Their skin seems thin and soft like mine, rather than dark and thick like Trees’. They stand on two legs, not like Tall or Small or Trees, who stand on wide bases. I never thought that Man would look like me and sound like me. For all that Tall talks, they have never told me that in their lessons.
All of a sudden, the clicking stops, and I look up a little more only to freeze. The small Man is staring at me—straight at me with his blue eyes. They blink slowly, then continue to stare. I dare not move from my place. Slowly, he raises his arm to the black box again before shouting, “Dad? Dad, come here!”
And just as the black box makes another click and the tall Man lumbers over, I am deafened.
A scream louder than thunder swells up from the forest floor, sweeping every leaf into the air. The wind circles Man like a predator as I heed Tall’s, Small’s, Trees’ and even Factories’ desperate plea:
Will is completely thrown off his feet by the wind before his father’s arms wrap around him protectively and they brace themselves against a trolley. He hears the camera and tripod crashing to the forest floor, the trees quaking in the current, but above it all he hears the wind itself, shrieking highs and bellowing lows seemingly out of nowhere. Will shuts his eyes as it circles around, and he just barely hears the quiet thumping of footsteps in the trolley before everything ceases. The great billowing gusts stiffen, the trees freeze, and then the boy and his father are the only things moving as they uncurl.
“You okay, Will?”
The two begin picking up the toppled camera and equipment, Will too lost in thought to even realize that his small digital camera is snapping pictures of his absentminded expression.
“Hey squirt, you’re wasting memory. Turn that thing off auto.”
Suddenly, he snaps awake.
With a few simple setting changes, Will scrolls through the recent photos of his face until something different appears.
Leaves swirling through the frame.
A broken branch.
Trees bowed over in the wind.
A blur. A blur of peach, black, tan and hints of green and gray. Eyes.
“Dad! Come look at this photo! Dad, hurry!”
Will scrolls back a few more pictures until the one with the eyes comes up. He shows his father.
“Oh my God.”
I can’t remember exactly how I get back to the city, but when I do, I’m exhausted. Every inch of my body cries for rest and quiet—sleep, just sleep. I’m too tired to see, or hear, or accept the apologies that Tall and Small and Trees cry.
“I’m sorry, Little One! Did Man see you?”
“Oh, you must have had a horrible morning, even tinier one.”
“Oh, we’re terribly sorry, even punier one.”
“We did not see.”
“We did not hear.”
“We did not know.”
I don’t listen to their whispers as I climb up Trees’ trunks, still warm from the sun, and find a pillow. Sleep—just sleep. The branches sway gently, dappling the shadows over my eyelids. It feels like I’m floating. Drifting.
Suddenly, a rumble rises from the ground, shaking the tiredness out of my bones and me out of Trees. The rumble frightens me, because it’s accompanied by Tall’s voice—louder and angrier than I had thought possible. I had made Tall mad many times but mostly out of worry. This time, they sound hateful and loud, shouting, “Get out! Go away!”
And then I realize the source of the rumble, as a distinct crack resounds.
Tall is breaking.
I leap off the forest floor and shoot out from underneath the protection of Trees, just in time to see a solid stone corner of Tall’s top falling down. They had thrown the blocks on purpose, and I see why.
Man is here—the small one, standing right where Tall is aiming. Very faintly I can hear the big Man’s deep, panicked voice over the wind screaming, “Will!”
And before I can think, I jump. Launching myself forward at the small Man still frozen in place, I leap even though I’m afraid—not of Tall, but of the small Man I am trying to save. They don’t seem nearly as fast as Tall says they are. This one still isn’t moving. My arm snags its target as I fly by, too fast to stop and land well, so I turn onto my back and we skid to a halt on the ground. On top of me lies the small man—dazed and fearful, but unscathed.
I glance back to the place he had stood moments before, now buried in jagged slabs of broken concrete and metal supports. My blood boils.
The small Man jumps in surprise and pushes off of me. I stand, glaring at Tall in absolute disbelief.
“Why? You tried to hurt man! What were you—”
“Blood! Little one, you bleed! You are bleeding!”
Tall screams like they are the ones bleeding, but I’m too angry to be softened by their concern.
“Man would have been much worse than bleeding if I hadn’t come! How could you try to hurt them?”
Suddenly, Tall grows quiet, though their shadows move over to swallow me.
“Man hurt us.”
And I can feel their cool caresses against the wound on my back.
“You hurt me,” I say, knowing it would hurt them.
Tall pulls away as though they have been burned, but the touch is soon replaced by material hands—skin touching skin. The warmth feels so strange I recoil and sink further into Tall’s shadow. Looking back, I see the small Man standing there, hand still outstretched and sticky with red. His blue eyes glisten with concern.
“I’m sorry! Are you hurt?”
I stand, staring, unsure of what to do. The small Man’s mouth frowns.
The pain in my back is only now beginning to creep in, and I wince and glance at my reflection in the glass doors of Tall’s front. My right shoulder has a long cut tearing through the back of my shirt and darkening the fabric with a rare red color. It burns and sticks to my skin uncomfortably. There’s glass embedded in the skin around it, and reaching back to pull it out myself makes my eyes go white.
Another reflection appears in the glass behind me. The small Man approaches carefully, as though not to frighten me, but it doesn’t help. As he reaches out once more, Tall feels me tense and rumbles, “Do not touch Little One.”
And suddenly the small Man’s body seizes as Tall swallows his shadow and begins pulling him down. He sinks to his knees and almost touches his hands to the floor before I realize what is happening.
“Tall, let him go! He was trying to help!”
“No, Man will not help! He only hurts! He will hurt you as he hurt us!”
The small Man’s breath grows panicked as he tries to stand and finds his body unresponsive. I’m used to having my shadow swallowed, but he looks unwell.
“Tall, let him go!”
“He will hurt you! He will not help you!”
“Then you help me!” I feel them falter. “You help me. It hurts.” I turn to give Tall my back. “Help me.”
The grip on my and the small Man’s shadow slowly loosens as Tall whispers quietly, “We cannot.”
“Then let him help me. He won’t hurt me.”
The small Man stumbles to his feet as Tall releases him and pushes him towards me. He pauses for a moment, looking down and around in bewilderment. This time, he approaches more cautiously before placing a hand on one of the shards. “I’m sorry. This may hurt.”
It does. I can feel each pain as it pulls on my skin, but I keep my voice down so that Tall doesn’t think the small Man is hurting me. It feels like an eternity before it ends and a voice calls out, “Will!”
The tall Man is stumbling over Tall’s corner. It’s so large, it fills up the entire street, but the tall Man manages and races over. He embraces the small Man as though he were holding his own life, and then holds him at arms’ length to see if he’s hurt. Then he turns to me.
It isn’t apparent, but I can tell by his eyes that he thinks I’m strange.
Well, I think he’s quite strange as well. He covers his feet with boxes that make much more noise than normal feet, which is why I hear him when he comes towards me—I hear him and I see him, but I don’t realize until I feel him that he is embracing me as well. Thick, warm arms encircle me and pull me close. They travel carefully to my head, where my face is buried in the tall Man’s chest. He bends low, and breathes into my hair, “Thank you…”
And all my fears of Man melt away. I understand now. The small Man means to the tall Man what I mean to Tall. We are precious. I like being precious and having precious things.
The tall Man releases me then, and carefully assesses my front. He turns me around, and a deep frown settles on his face.
“You need bandages.”
I’m not sure what that means.
“Tall, what’s a bandage?”
“A bandage is a cloth wrapping used to cover pains so that they don’t bleed.”
Tall seems to be acting normal again. They’re talking more, and with less anger in their voice. I can still feel their shadow tense though.
“That sounds like a waste of cloth to me.” I look at the tall Man. “I don’t need it.”
But the tall Man looks like he’s forgotten about the bandage and is now staring at me in complete amazement.
“You can talk?”
I pause. Think. Talk? Yes, of course I can talk. Tall had taught me how to talk and Trees had taught me how to whisper and Small had taught me how to sing. Laughter bubbles in my throat at the silly question.
“Of course I can talk! Can’t you hear me?”
“Yeah, Dad, he was talking a little while ago—yelling at someone,” the small Man suddenly cuts in. “Who were you talking to?”
I don’t understand.
“I was talking to Tall. They threw their corner at you and swallowed your shadow. Can’t you hear them?”
“Them?” The tall Man looks around. “There’s no one else here. It’s just you, me, and Will. That’s why I was surprised you could talk, since there’s no one here to talk to.”
“Of course there is! Tall talks my ear off with lessons sometimes, and Small always asks questions and Trees whisper all the time.”
The small Man seems to realize something and walks over to touch Tall’s side.
“Do you mean these? The buildings?”
I nod. “And Trees,” I add, beckoning them towards the forest Trees have created in the middle of the city.
“But buildings and trees don’t talk.”
“They do! They just don’t like you.”
I climb up into Trees’ branches. The small Man gapes at me in wonder while the other begins setting up his black box again. The small Man tries to join me in Trees, but they are cruel and hiss,
“Man is here.”
“Man. Bad man.”
“You bleed, oh dear.”
Trees notice my wound and shake their branches, sending down cool leaves to kiss it and tell it to heal.
“These trees are amazing,” the small Man breathes, touching one of their trunks and stroking the smooth bark.
“Ooh, he is gentle.”
“Called me amazing.”
“No, me. Me amazing.”
“This Man is warm.”
I laugh at Trees, who are all too easily won over by flattery. After that, they let him climb up to join me in the branch where I keep most of my pillows. The small Man appears a bit uneasy being so high, but he looks at me and smiles.
“You’re the first Man to come here. Trees like you.”
He looks at me strangely. “I’m not a man. Not yet, anyways. I’m a boy, and my name’s Will.”
“Will…” I test the name on my tongue.
“What’s your name?”
I think for a moment. The tall Man calls him Will, and Tall calls me Little One. “They call me Little One. I don’t know if that’s a name.”
“Doesn’t sound much like one.” Will frowns. “I’ll call you… Lio!”
“Yeah! The ‘Li’ from ‘Little’ and the ‘o’ from ‘One’!”
“Lio,” I try. I like it. I like having a name. It makes me feel like I own something. Something more than flesh and blood. I’m not a body, a Little One—I am Lio.
“Will, get down from there! It’s time for lunch!” The tall Man calls.
I wonder if the tall Man has a name, too.
Will begins climbing back down to where the tall Man is sitting at the base of Trees. He drops his bag, then chooses some conveniently placed branches to lower himself.
Trees suddenly whisper, so I swing down because Will can’t hear and grab his hand before it hangs onto a branch too young and weak to carry him.
“Not that one. Trees said that one won’t hold.”
I nod and jump down the rest of the way, beckoning for him to follow. The tall Man is pulling metal boxes and containers out of his bag, different from the black box he had held before. Will runs past to sit down next to the tall Man. They each take a box and begin eating the inside.
“Want some?” Will asks, holding out a hand with a piece of food I’ve never seen before. I shake my head and climb back up the Trees they are resting under.
“Did he not want any?” the tall Man asks as Will sits down next to him.
The boy shakes his head.
“What does he have to eat out here then?”
“I don’t know. I bet he hunts or something, though—he was crazy fast when he saved me earlier!”
The tall Man takes a deep breath and shudders like he’s seeing it happen again. “Did he say anything to you after that? About why he’s out here? How he got here? The kid—”
“His name is Lio, Dad.”
“Lio? Is that what he said?’
“No… I just kinda named him. He said he likes it!”
“Did he say anything else? Anything about where he’s from, or if there’s anyone else here?”
“No—but, Dad, he can talk to the trees! And buildings! He told me just before, when I was climbing down, which branches I couldn’t touch because they would break! He said the tree told him!”
The tall Man glances up into Trees, where I’m standing. “Will, sometimes people make things up when they’re lonely.”
I don’t understand what that means.
“But Dad, back when he saved me too, when his back was all cut up and I went to help him, all of a sudden I couldn’t move and I got dizzy!” He thrusts a finger in Tall’s direction. “Lio started yelling at them to stop, and then I was okay!”
“Maybe you were just dehydrated. Drink some water.” The tall Man furrows his brow in concern and rifles through his pack to find a bottle. “We’re out of water. I left the emergency supplies back in the van.”
Hearing that, I swing backwards from one of the branches, hanging upside down by my legs in between Will and the tall Man. “Water? I know where water is. Come, I’ll show you.”
I lead them down to the bottom of the city where Tall is oldest and weakest. “Be careful. Sometimes Tall can’t help it and pieces of them will fall off.”
I love this part of the city because it had been abandoned long before the rest, and so Trees are much bigger, and plants climb up the walls everywhere. We turn the corner past an old gas station and there before us stands Tall, massive and gray-green with their concrete and vine wrappings. The windows are yellowed and some open to taste the wind. I show Will and the tall Man, who takes his time with his black box, through the door. As soon as they step in, I jump ahead of them because there is only a small ledge that you wouldn’t know is a ledge, before a screen of vines that leads to a straight drop into water.
Although it looks like a normal Tall from the outside, this one’s insides have been swallowed by a sinkhole. It is so deep that while all the rubble fills its bottom, the top is still clear and full of crystal water so pristine it looks like a mirror.
“What is this place?” Will gapes.
“Water. You can wash and drink, Will.”
However, as soon as I speak, Tall’s shadow darkens the pool and they rumble, “Should Man ever step foot in this water, I shall drown him.”
But Will is already advancing towards the edge, removing his shirt and dropping his bag. I race towards him. “I’ll go in with you.”
I take off my shirt with care for my cut, and walk to the water’s edge with Will, but I don’t relay Tall’s message this time because I don’t want Will to be frightened. Tall can’t pull at the water if I’m there too, unless they intend to drown us both. I step into the water first and swim to the center of the hole where the most rubble had collected into a small concrete island. A single Tree stands on top, and I fix myself into a place between their roots to wash my back.
“Where did all this water come from?” Will asks as he climbs onto the island.
“Underground. Tall says it’s filtered through Trees’ roots and wells up here, then runs back down under.” I point to the old pipes from when Tall had still been young and whole. They are in the water and run up the walls, to where the tall Man is standing on an upper story with his black box. “What’s Man doing with that little black box with a nose? He’s been looking through it the whole day.”
Will looks over at his dad. “Oh! He’s taking pictures. That black thing is a camera—my dad’s a photographer.”
“Is that why you came here? To take pictures?”
“Yeah! We heard this place was beautiful, but no one’s visited in a long time because it’s dangerous.
“Tall doesn’t like Man here. I’ve never met one before you came.” I think of something then. “Would you like me to show you?”
“Show me what?”
“Beautiful places! All the beautiful places like this, where Man can take lots of pictures!”
Will’s eyes widen. “Could you, Lio? That’d be great!” Looking up, he shouts, “Dad! Lio said he’d take us to all the best spots in the city!”
The tall Man looks just as excited as Will and gives a thumbs-up.
I will show them everything. Take them everywhere. I will learn more about Man—why we seem so similar—and I will protect them. Tall will not crumble and Small will not chase and Factories will not rust as long as I am with them. I will keep Man safe. I will keep Man kind.
Over the next few days, Will and his father follow Lio all over the city. Lio shows them the factories coated in rainbow rust and old graffiti. The mechanics of the machines are open and exposed, spilling their guts with pride. Sometimes, the platforms where they stand start to groan, so Lio rushes over to stand with them and then the groaning stops.
They visit a hospital with trees crowded inside an elevator shaft, and lonely beds pushing up against the open air where walls once stood. They visit a prison where Lio climbs the bars like a jungle gym even though Will winces at every creak. The way Lio talks to buildings and trees makes Will less afraid of ghosts though, because maybe being friends with buildings and trees meant Lio could be friends with ghosts too.
The library is completely overtaken by plants, and the wood of old bookshelves almost seem to have come back to life with branches and leaves sprouting out of them. Some books were left behind when the city moved, and Lio says the buildings—he calls them tall—taught him how to read.
“This book is my favorite.” Lio holds out an edition of Peter Pan in his hand. It’s in such bad condition, the faded words are nearly impossible to read, but they sit, and he reads his favorite parts to Will. Once or twice, Will catches him looking around and not at the book while the story continues to flow from his lips.
Will’s favorite places are the airport and cathedral. The airplanes are incredible, with their enormous wings and all the seats inside covered in vines. They explore every single one, and Lio even takes them to see where all the military jets are. The cathedral is where Will’s father takes the most pictures, though. They stay there for almost the whole day, and no matter what time it is, the sun always streams through the stained-glass windows. Almost all of them have missing pieces, except for the big circular one above the altar. They are all still beautiful though, with the vines curled all over the walls and up the pillars, covering the holes in the windows with their leaves.
As the three sit on the pews, bathing in all the colors, Will’s father suddenly asks, “Lio, today is our last day here and I was wondering if you’d—would you like to come back with us?”
Lio looks over in shock, gray-green eyes trembling with something akin to fear.
“Come back to the city with us. You can’t live out here forever—it’s not safe, and it’s not going to last.”
Lio stands then, and looks to Will. The boy wants Lio to join them as well, no matter how selfish it may be, so he smiles and nods to him.
Lio regards the boy sadly and shakes his head. “I can’t leave Tall and Small and Trees and Factories.”
Will’s father takes Lio by the hands. “Lio, you can’t stay out here all alone. You can’t—”
But Lio recoils at that and steps away. “I am not alone. Don’t lie. Tall told me Man lies.”
“I’m not lying, Lio. You keep calling me Man like we’re different, but we’re the same! We’re both humans, and there are so many more humans out there you can meet!”
A silence stirs.
“I am… Man?”
And then the light and colors disappear from the room and Will’s father checks his watch. He holds both boys by the shoulder and nods forward.
“Let’s go back to the van before nighttime so we can pack up and get ready.”
Lio makes no move to follow.
“Lio?” Will calls back.
Lio runs before anyone can stop him.
Man sleeps in the metal box tonight, instead of outside, under Trees. If I were Man, should I be sleeping in a metal box too? It’s hot, and my pillows are too stuffy, so I climb higher into Trees and slump over a bare branch. I can feel it alive under my skin. I can feel its care. The tall Man lied. Trees do care. And so do Tall and Small and Factories. Who’s to say the tall Man wasn’t lying about me being like him? I tap on Trees and whisper, “Trees, am I Man?”
I feel their branches go rigid, and my heart sinks.
“So it is true? I am Man?”
“No, Little One!”
“Do not say that!”
“You are not man!”
“You are Little One!”
“You are Little One!”
But I can feel their lies and shake my head. “You must hate me. You must hate me, like you hate Man. You must want me gone—dead! Oh Trees, have you hated me this whole time? Am I really alone?”
And all is silent and all is still, because I’ve never heard Tall scream at night, and I’ve never heard Tall scream so loud.
“Little One, you are Man. We will not lie to you like they do. But you are less like Man, and more like us—so much more like us. Man is harsh, and abandons—they abandoned us, all of us—and you too! So we raised you to be kind. We do not hate you Little One, we love you.”
“We love you.”
“Little One, you are precious.”
“Too important to leave.”
“We love you!”
“We love you!”
“Oh, we could never hate you, even tinier one.”
“Oh we’re sorry for keeping secrets, even punier one.”
And I can feel their love and desperation and I know they do not lie.
But I still feel an ache for more than their love.
I stand in front of Trees, and they stand in front of their metal box. We walk towards each other slowly.
“Are you sure you won’t come with us, Lio?” Will asks sadly.
I shake my head. “This is my world.”
He nods and hugs me. “Well then, goodbye.”
I hold out the pillow I’m carrying. “You can take this. It’s the fluffiest pillow I could find.”
He takes it and gives me an envelope in return. “Look at them later.”
I tuck them inside my shirt and look at the tall Man. “I hope you took lots of beautiful pictures.”
He smiles sadly and reaches out for a moment, pausing before ruffling my dark hair. “Thanks, Lio.”
And then they climb into their box and roll away faster than I can follow.
They go away and I am alone.
“Why so sad?”
“Are you awake?”
“Why are you sad?”
“Why are you lonely?”
“You don’t move.”
“Do you weep?”
“You don’t laugh.”
“All you do is look at those pictures.”
The city convenes around Trees because they are the only ones who cannot not move their shadows. It is also their young ones around the trolleys who watch Little One.
“He is not happy anymore. He misses Man,” Tall sighs. “He is lonely with just us now. We are not enough anymore.”
“He does not speak.”
“He stays at the trolleys.”
“He is not well.”
“Hoping another Man will find him.”
“Looks at pictures.”
“Oh, poor thing, even smaller one.”
“We have not chased in so long.”
They fall into silence, contemplating what to do. Finally, Tall speaks. “We have been here long, and kept Man away to keep Little One kind. Perhaps we should be done. Perhaps we should let him go.”
I sit on the trolley seat, flipping through the pictures Will left me. By now, I have memorized their order and all the colors in each picture. Some are just of places or things, but most are of us—of Man. It is a strange sort of emptiness that consumes me. A cold that only warm touch can chase away. The sun and shadows aren’t enough for me, now. I can barely feel them over the memory of hands that still haunt my skin.
A rumble sounds in the distance, but I pay it no mind.
That night as I walk back to Trees, I notice a strange sound. Silence. My heart betrays me, and for a moment I hope it’s because Man is here. I run over to Trees and tap on their trunk.
“Trees, what’s wrong? Why are you so quiet?”
But this time, no one answers.
A breeze rustles their leaves, but I hear no whispers. They aren’t saying anything.
And then the cold comes back, harder this time, as a different thought seizes me—that if I can’t feel the sun or the shade anymore, then maybe I can’t feel the city anymore either.
My blood freezes at the thought, and I take to racing through the entire forest, embracing, tapping, pounding on every Tree, trying to coax a word—a whisper—out of them.
I burst through the other end of the forest and run to Tall, placing a hand on their side, crying, “Tall, please say something! I can’t hear you!”
But I don’t hear anything.
At last I press my entire side against Small and kiss their windows.
And I hear something—finally, I hear something. But it is not a voice. Not a song. Not a whisper.
It is a crack.
It climbs up Small’s side, through their windows and over their head, and then Small collapses right beneath my fingertips. Without a sound. Small are such crybabies—they wail if I so much as throw a stone. But now, not even a sound as they perish. I can’t hear their last cries.
A scream rises up inside of me—something mortal and wounded tries to make its way out—but I don’t let it. Not when it means I might miss hearing something, drowned out by the sound of my own sorrow.
Then a rumble rises from all around me, and my eyes die at the sight—cracks forming all over Tall, all over Small, all around Trees.
They break easily, as if they were as brittle as Man’s bones. And I wonder if my not being able to hear them means that they can’t hear me or if they simply ignore me as I scream for them to stop, that I’ll listen forever, that I’ll never see Man again, that I love them, that I love them, that I will not leave, that I love them.
I beg until my throat bleeds, until my eyes can’t see, until there’s almost no city left to beg to. Only one Tall stands still, and as the cracks climb higher and higher I cry, “Please don’t leave me! Don’t leave me alone! Don’t let me go!”
“We love you, Little One.”
“We interrupt tonight’s regularly scheduled programming to bring you breaking news. Last night, the old city on the outskirts of the factory district reportedly collapsed without warning. Plans to completely demolish the area have recently been under review by the city council and governor, but no final decisions were in place at the time of collapse. Construction crews have since been sent in to assess the damage. This incident comes just as photographer Johnathan Bailey’s recent photobook, ‘Abandoned Things’ has sparked interest in a restoration project. The stunning scenes of urban decay captured in…”
“Abandoned Things” and its accompanying artwork by Kristina Kim appeared in Issue 40 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Kristina Kim is a third-year English major studying at the University of California, Berkeley with the hopes of being able to call herself a writer someday. Besides writing, she also enjoys singing, drawing, dancing, and going on night picnics with friends.