It got harder over time to keep the garden going. It wasn't just in terms of the time it
took, the other demands on her, the tiredness. All those things came from her. It was the garden itself that clung to life a little less tenaciously each season. Madeline knelt in front of the planter box, turning the soil with a fork, humming to herself, sometimes breaking into a brief burst of whispered song. On good days the mood still took her like that. And the garden could still bring out a good day, even in the midst of an apocalypse.
This was still her green haven, it was still a jewel amidst dust and dirt, amidst
concrete, rust, iron. She counted herself lucky to have this space – twelve floors high and overlooking the city: a curved balcony with enough room for her to plant boxes of flowers, shrubs, saplings. She liked the flowers because she could alternate them, bring in new colours and new patterns to mark a season or a mood; and equally, the small bushes and gentle saplings, the denizens of her garden that brought it stability, that were green against all odds, that lived while so much died, that smelt sweet and clean when she came out here amongst them.
The hours she had here, they were her escape. They let her imagine a world still like this everywhere – between the leaves and ferns, a place to hide a while. And if she ever caught herself gazing up at the sky, she quickly made herself stop.
He was calling her, and she hadn't immediately heard. He never remembered the intercom. Or didn't want to. He put down the fork and went inside. In spite of the filters there was a slightly sweet and musty scent, a reminder of sickness. She brushed the dirt off hands onto her skirt and stepped over the threshold. “What is it, honey?”
“I'm sorry, love...”
“It's all right. Not your fault. What's wrong.”
“The blanket....” And he was pointing to where it had fallen onto the floor.
Madeline walked over. “How did you do that?”
Denholm shrugged. “Rolled over.”
“It looks like you threw it across the room.”
“It was a vigorous roll.”
Nothing was vigorous about him now. Though he absolutely did his best. He painted on a
smile for her when she came in to check on him – a matching smile for the one she painted him. He talked about things – stuff that couldn't possibly matter any more. And he asked her about the
“You should grow vegetables again.”
Madeline sighed. “I wish we could.”
“We could get a soil filter. We could get one of those bacteria packs.”
She was a botanist. She'd worked the most advanced gene mapping and hybridisation. She worked the early days of catastrophe. So she knew. “They're not really to be trusted. Better than nothing, but only irradiation is enough in this zone.”
“I miss your carrots.”
“I know. Me too.”
He started to sit up, and she had to help him. It made the pit of her stomach a little bit cold, but she stifled that. She loved him beyond measure.
He said, “Will you grow me some poppies?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I might still have some seeds.” She checked the chart. “You don't need meds for another couple of hours.”
“Sit with me for a while, okay?”
“Sure. Whatever you need.” While we still can.
And she found it hard to sleep beside him, to listen to the wet, laboured sound of his breathing. She had nights where she lay awake, listening to it, afraid to stop listening, afraid for that moment when she would suddenly stop hearing it. She told herself that there could be up to two years left, and surely there were at least six months. It seemed like so few days, even fewer when it turned into hours or minutes. A minute spent taking out the rubbish. Five hundred minutes spent sleeping a single night.
The night sky couldn't help but seep in around the edges. Sometimes black, sometimes deep,
deep blue; sometimes stained with gold and not properly dark. It had so many moods. Madeline could hardly keep from crying, sometimes, when she thought about what lay ahead. She would think: what have I done? - she would wake up sometimes with her heart in her
mouth, her head full of wild panic, desperate to flee, thinking why did I do it?
So hard to believe they'd been happy so few years ago. Denholm had been
healthy, he'd been a successful lawyer, and he'd always been so full of himself. He'd always known exactly what he wanted, he'd always set his hat at it, cheerfully, and with absolute certainty of his own impending success. She'd been swept up in that. And surprised each time by moments of unexpected tenderness, by the silk, sure way he'd touch her, the glitter in his eyes when he looked into hers.
And she, she'd been at the top of her game. An experimental botanist. She'd worked the cutting edge stuff, she'd rewritten DNA, she'd changed the rules: where and how plants can grow, sculpting beautiful hybrids from their base code. Changing the world.
And now all of that was dust. Her career she'd let go to care for Denholm, whose strength and drive the algae had stripped away. The spores were in his bones, his flesh was wet with them, his heart
strained pushing them through his blood.
“I love you,” she whispered to his sleeping body.
He muttered, he coughed.
don't regret anything.” The lie came automatically to her tongue. And was it a lie? That changed from day to day. On a day when the sky was clear, when she could see the stars, when she could see them silver and faraway...
“What about when I'm gone?” He'd asked her.
“Don't you talk like that.”
“When I'm gone and there was nothing you could do to prevent it. You'll still be here in this house, all alone, with everything falling down around you. How are you going to feel then?”
“We're going to fight for you.”
“Everyone fights. It isn't enough though is it?”
“....new treatments....” it sounded lame in her own ears.
And Denholm had only shaken his head. No new treatments. Nothing that could combat this deep a rot.
But they tried. She mixed dandelion root, with sunflower seed, bee pollen, hybridised red and green pine, mint, mixed barks – and she dissolved them in boiling water, flavouring with vanilla before she
gave them to him in a mug. She watched him drink it down before she fixed him his porridge, his toast, his sausages and eggs. She'd watch while he ate. They'd talk for a while, but he'd be tired, and she'd leave him to sleep in the sun.
She'd go out to her garden and look out over the city. The sunrise was a bitter pill, but it could also be beautiful, there were so many shades of yellows and reds, layers of them, with the sun's rays
punching their way through. Parts of the city were still capable of gleaming with the touch of sunlight. And there were people to watch - spots of colour moving under her.
She'd go through the garden, pulling away dead leaves, checking on flowers, pulling opportunistic weeds, and checking the water feed to make sure it was still flowing and still clean. The display at the back wall gave her the stats, and she checked them every day. They gave her a sense of comfort, she understood them. The smells floated around her. It was enough just to sit out here sometimes, breathing them in. She might read a book for a while, or write a few emails, sometimes she'd lean over the balcony and watch traffic, maybe see if she could see anyone she recognised.
Until he woke up and needed her again.
“I've got this from Ernie last night.” Denholm was having a good day. He was sitting up, and his face seemed less swollen, the colour more neutral; she could see her husband in his face today.
Madeline sat down by his feet. “How's he doing?”
“He's good. They've gone out to Retreat.”
“Stella said they would. She never wavered on it, did she?”
“Where are they?”
Madeline pressed her knuckles against her lips. “Okay. That's one of the better ones. It's a long way from civilisation, and it's in a blue zone.”
“The mountains around it help. That's the theory?”
For what it was worth. She'd heard a number of these alternative communities spring up. The theory being that to get away from the cities, from areas full of humans, industry, electricity, radio waves, to get away from the areas that were the source: that could be the way to beat the spores. Madeline had her doubts. The contamination had followed the wind around the globe. She knew that there were scientists who'd tracked ocean currents, wind patterns, had convinced themselves they'd found areas less vulnerable. She'd listened to all that, but it had felt like wishful thinking. It's just not far enough.
Denholm was reading over Ernie's mail: “He says it feels like home already. It's a great range of people. A lot of families. They're living pretty closely, but he's okay with that. Says: 'I feel like we've
known some of these people half our lives. So many good friends and so quickly. We all have a common goal, we're all committed here. The food tastes different, it comes out of untreated soil.'” He looked up at Madeline suddenly. “But is that okay? Even out there?”
“Opinions are divided.”
“I wouldn't risk it.”
“I suppose there aren't a lot of options, are there?”
“There's science. There are people still trying.” She wanted to say: and it's not a hopeless fight. But
deep inside she thought it was. She thought the world's very DNA was compromised. The escaped spores had gone deep, they'd bonded with the source code, stained life itself at an atomic level. She had no proof that that was logical, but it was what she believed.
“Good luck to him, I say.” Denholm determinedly put a smile on his face.
“At least he sounds positive.”
“I think he's always wanted to live hippy. I don't think Stella was willing to take the plunge.”
“It only took the end of the world.”
“Funny, right, the way things turn out?”
Without her knowing it, every choice in her life, every branch, had lead her here. And yet, if she'd lived a whole other life, wouldn't she just have ended up in another version of here?
Madeline walked outside and stood at the balcony, looking down over the city. There were a few other green spots like hers, but the rest was shades of dun, grey, oatmeal, dull-orange. The sky that should have been blue was hazy mud-yellow, and low clouds clotted below it, curdling with rain that would be sharp and toxic.
They'd offered her a place. She was a skilled botanist. Where-ever they took the ships, they would need to grow food. And her early work in hydroponics had made hers a natural name to call on. But by then Denholm had already been sick. No way, they'd told her, no way. He was not just dead weight, he was a potential source of contamination. Live spores in his blood, in his breath. This hard
line was a line they had to take.
Butto leave him.... dying here alone....
So she'd go in there when he called her, she'd feed him, take care of him. She'd keep researching new recipes, desperate hope-cures, anything that might make a difference. They'd love each other for as much time as they still had. He'd make her laugh sometimes, she'd say things to him to recall happier times. They would sit arm in arm, watching some trashy show, poking fun at it; make stupid-talk about how they'd remodel the house, re-decorate; about the crazy latest fashions they would pack into their 95 square metres.
She would hold him at night. She would listen to his breathing, or his tears. She would try not to think about the sky, or about what might lie beyond it. She would try to forgive them both for what just was.