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When they came to, it was not in the comfortable window seat, or even on the floor, in a spill of limbs and mass confusion. But a scene that felt more akin to something in a dream: a field of flowers and a setting sun.
Meike sat up with a yawn, more curious than anything. Nothing felt out of the ordinary with their body, but assuming the train crashed, there was no sign on it. No broken machinery, scorched tracks, or even the bodies of their fellow passengers. ‘So it has to be a dream,’ they thought, and stood to take stock of their surroundings.
The field they’d found themselves in consisted almost entirely of ranunculus flowers of all shades, but arranged in such a pleasing matter that it had to be deliberate. Someone’s private garden, in other words. And yet there was no sign of civilization anywhere, no houses, roads, or other structures. ‘It’s a dream,’ they told themselves.
But Meike had no love for buttercups, or the yellows and oranges that dotted the reds and blues. They didn’t care much for flowers at all, outside of studying their properties and breeding potentials. Any garden of theirs, fictional or otherwise, would be strictly carnivorous: sundews, flytraps, pitcher plants, rafflesia, and waterwheels.
They pinched themselves and had sudden doubts about their original assertion. But there was nothing else to do but explore and familiarize themselves with the area. They secretly hoped it was a dream, as the only alternative was, well…
Meike forced themselves to trudge through the flowers, their target the lone tree in the area, a Sycamore. If they could climb it and get a good view, it might shed some light on this mystery. ‘Or you’ll fall down, hit your head, and wake up.’
But they never got that far; they were in the middle of swinging themselves up onto one of the sturdier branches, when their foot caught on something solid. Not solid the way the tree trunk was, but more of the flesh and bone variety. They tentatively nudged the object beneath the leaves, and something white and slender rolled out — a human arm.
They glanced around, half-expecting someone to rise above the flowers and aim a finger at them, before emitting a dull scream like a pod person. But no such scene followed. The only sound was the wind, bird song, and the soft groans beneath their foot.
Meike crouched down and brushed the mass of dead leaves and flowers away from the arm, and froze when it grabbed for them. At least now they knew it was attached to someone, and not simply tossed out like day old bread. They frantically shook the hand off and resumed digging.
A jacket and another arm came into view, and with nails black with soil, Meike grasped the flailing hands and dug their feet into the ground. They weren’t particularly strong; years of gaming, reading, and gardening only amounted to muscle memory and toned fingers, but determination guided them through.
Out popped a gasping figure, blonde hair almost indistinguishable from the dirt she was born from. The woman came kicking and sobbing, and dropped to her hands and knees in a patch of purple buttercups.
Meike stood back and watched as she hacked up a series of debris, most notably soil, so thick and generous they almost mistook it for vomit at first. Next came chunks of leaves, and tiny, pink chunks they recognized as earthworms. She lowered her head into a clean section of the flowers once her gut was empty, and divulged into tears, great wracking sobs and disjointed concerns about her location and what became of the train and everyone else.
“I don’t know,” was all they could offer. They were just as lost, and horrified at the idea that this was, in fact, reality, and not a cozy dream.
Meike had been out of college for all of two months, and already their parents were making plans to renovate. Not that they blamed them; the room was going to be vacant until at least the end of the year, possibly more. It all depended on whether or not Meike could tolerate working on a farm. If not, there was always horticulture.
They kneeled before their bookcase, an old hand me down that once belonged to their mother. Solid wood and towered a good six feet above them. Heavy, and heavier still with a collection of fiction books and a smattering of encyclopedias and dictionaries. They’d collected a ton of knickknacks and toys over the years, the bulk of which they discarded without a second thought. But even with their e-reader, it was hard to just toss books. There was something special about the weight and feel of a book, and the satisfying sound of pages turning.
They turned from the looming shelf to meet their mother’s stern gaze. “Always got your heads in the clouds,” she said, exasperated. “I asked you to sort this out a month ago.” She didn’t so much as ask than demanded, as they recalled. But they knew better than to talk back.
“I had a good idea of what I want to keep and donate. It’ll only take thirty minutes.”
Thirty minutes to box up their whole life and move across the country. The host family supposedly had a small shelf set up for them, but Meike intended to pack light. Two suitcases and a backpack for their electronics would suffice.
Meanwhile, their bedroom for the past ten years was almost entirely stripped of character. Their desk was the first to go, dresser second, and old band and movie posters tossed, leaving faint imprints of what once was. All that remained was the bed and tv.
“You know you don’t have to do this,” she said. “You can stay here. I’m sure they’ll give you your job back if you explain the situation.”
“Can, don’t want to.” They’d given up on selling botany as a science to family; it always came back to retail gardens and floral shops. And they didn’t want to be stuck in the same job they started in high school forty years later.
“Gabby, are you out your mind? We just got rid of the boys.”
Meike was glad to have the heat taken off of them, but dad was…overly enthusiastic about them leaving, to say the least.
“I wasn’t happy about that either.”
He shooed her off to the side, a tape measure in one hand. “We got you a sewing room, and I’m getting my man cave.”
“When are you leaving again? Two days?”
Dad raised an eyebrow. “…How much is it gonna take to get you out of here in a week?”
While they weren’t stoked about leaving early and losing out on good wifi, staying here was only adding to the stress. “I’ve never gotten to ride on a real train before.” They were slow and expensive, but gave ample time for rumination and catching up on reading.
“Oh, you want to see the sights, huh? I can work with that.”
“No problem, pumpkin.”
“Darius! Stop running our children off,” their mother snapped.
Ignoring her, he turned to face the room as a whole. “I’m gonna put the 50 inch right here,” he gestured to the spot currently occupied by the bed. “And my recliner right over here.”
Meike pulled one of the encyclopedias from the shelf. “What even is a man cave?”
“A place where a man is free to be himself,” he said. “Could be a game room, private theater, or a place to store his impressive comic book and gun collection.”
“This fool just wants to play video games,” their mother said. “Which is fine by me. I need to be able to watch my programs.”
They picked up a game guide to a jrpg they hadn’t played in years. Most of the game took place in dungeons, the only reprieve being excursions into settlements to stock up on supplies and recruit new characters when the others eventually died. The whole point of the game was to map out new areas and explore the range of classes while doing so. Could prove for an excellent time sink, though they were hoping to sneak in time to play their favorite MMO.
The latest expansion was announced a few months ago, one boasting an array of new classes and unexplored terrain. And, naturally, the release date was set to when Meike would be starting work on an organic farm. Their host had internet at least, but nowhere near as fast as their connection here. Hakeem essentially bragged about his kids being free from the influence of social media and television.
Meike sighed and placed the guide in the keep pile. They were going to be horribly underleveled by the time they had a steady internet connection. But volunteering would look good on their resume.
They moved past the haphazardly stacked game guides, to their reference books — plants to avoid, herbal remedies, a big book on mushroom hunting. This latter book was dog-eared and starting to fall apart, but Meike sorted it into the keep pile. Were there better and newer editions? Yes. But it was theirs. More specifically, it was a gift and part of their initiation to the local mushroom society.
‘A month isn’t nearly enough,’ they thought, glancing once more at the shelf, the sound of bickering in their ears.