Obviously, this is not three-minute fiction. It’s a longer piece I wrote for a different contest. I did not win, so I’m debuting the story here, instead. Much sympathy to the victims of the flooding in West Virginia; it’s been a bad week for extreme weather. –C.
“Where is my jet-pack?” demanded Andy Cote, the eminent scientist.
“Your what?” asked his nine-year-old daughter, Jordyn, from the living room floor. She was busy doing his portrait with crayons.
“He’s joking, honey,” explained her mother. Alejandra Garcia came up behind her husband in his recliner and rested her hands on his shoulders. “If you had a jet-pack you’d just incinerate your feet,” she told him. She brushed his hair off his forehead and kissed him there.
“I would not!” he protested. Theirs was a marriage of professors (he of ecology, she of literature), but he was the absent-minded one and she would not let him forget it. “We’re halfway through the 21st century now,” he continued. “You’d think we’d have jet-packs. Or at least flying cars, like in ‘Back to the Future?’ Remember?”
“That was a little before my time,” confessed Ale. She was fifteen years his junior.
“You had to have seen ‘Back to the Future,’ though.”
“Daddy, are you turning into a grumpy old man?”
“What? No, why?” Even as he spoke, Andy noticed that his daughter had selected the grey crayon for his hair and was scribbling away with it. She didn’t bother with the admixture of light brown he swore was still there.
“Because grumpy old people always talk about the past,” Jordyn explained, simply. Then she pitched her voice down as far as it would go and waved her arms around pompously. “When I was your age, it snowed on Christmas! And the snow would stay on the ground for weeks! There were no hailstorms or hurricanes and it was never too hot and if it was we just turned on the air-conditioner!”
“Ok, but it did used to be colder.”
“I’m headed off to class,” Ale announced. “Don’t forget to feed our daughter lunch.”
“I wouldn’t!” He feigned hurt. “I get too hungry to skip meals.” His self-deprecation made her laugh, that lovely russet laughter. When she tried to walk away he grabbed her arm and held her, his gaze dark and urgent. “I love you,” he told her, just in case. He always said that before they parted, even if she’d only be gone a few hours.
“I know,” she said him, and kissed his mouth. Her fingertips lingered just under his jaw for a moment and then she was gone. He glanced at his daughter, wondering if she were old enough yet to find parental displays of affection embarrassing. She looked up at him.
“Ok, Dad, what’s actually wrong?”
He sighed. She was as direct as her mother. He wasn’t sure he could explain this to a child, or that he even wanted to try, but he didn’t want her to think him unwilling to answer questions, either.
“When I was your age,” he began, and stopped. Hadn’t she just said that’s how old men talked? But he was not going to let himself be cowed by a nine-year-old. “When I was your age, tablet computers, autonomous drones, and a lot of the other technology we take for granted was science fiction. Now, I’ve just read online, on my tablet, that my friend, Diana Cartwright—do you remember her?—has launched three hundred drones to help her collect climatological data. It’s like I’m living inside one of those movies I used to watch. And whenever I have that thought about living in a movie, I remember being a little boy and then a young man, with all the expectations I had for the future.
“But those movies never covered climate change. The one thing we actually knew about the future–and we ignored it. Intellectually, of course, I knew that the way we lived was unsustainable and would have to change somehow, but emotionally I believed the movies. I don’t mean jet-packs. I mean that I expected the life I knew to basically continue. And when those expectations didn’t pan out, I felt like I had lost something. Sometimes I still feel that way. Does that make sense?”
He was unprepared for Jordyn’s aggrieved shock.
He had told her before, briefly, about how the old civilization finally collapsed and about his other family, the wife and children who had died. He knew she had probably guessed that those losses still haunted him. But he had not stopped to consider how these pieces of knowledge would fit together inside the child’s mind. He had a blind spot where others’ perception of him was concerned and he realized too late how Jordyn would feel seeing him grieve a world and a family that hadn’t included her.
“But Daddy,” she exclaimed, “I’m here!”
I am the worst parent in the world, he thought. How was he to explain that yes, he wished he had never been widowed and he was grateful every minute of his life for his new wife and child? Just like he was overjoyed that the age of fossil fuel had ended at last, even though it had taken a stupid and preventable catastrophe to accomplish the change, and he missed air conditioners, passenger airplanes, and his motorcycle? None of it made any more sense than his fantasy of using a jet-pack.
Andy Cote had written and published three books and co-authored 47 papers and two monographs. He made most of his living by talking to people, either in class or in public lecture halls. And yet at that moment he had no words at all to comfort his daughter. He opened his arms to her instead and she climbed into his lap, which she was really too big to do anymore, and he held her tightly as though someone or something might try to steal her away.
And he sang, just like he had sung over her cradle when she was a baby, a James Taylor song about a young cowboy.
He had meant the old song simply as a lullaby, a way to evoke a point in their relationship when fatherhood was simpler and love more obviously expressed. But as he sang, a new meaning welled up in the words and he realized he wasn’t singing about a fantasy figure alone on the range–Andy was singing about himself. Like the cowboy, he had no real companions outside of work and he, too, had organized his career around travel. He had a solitary streak and a wanderlust no love could root out and over which he had no control. He taught classes in the winter and spring, but with the next academic season he would be off again, walking across the country, meeting with colleagues, teaching where he could, and exploring the world. His next departure was only weeks away.
And so he sang in lullaby and in warning. He would leave again, and someday he would die. And the world would continue to change—the greenhouse gas emissions already up in the sky had not yet finished their work. It still snowed sometimes, where he lived in Pennsylvania, and sometimes it snowed a lot. It didn’t have to be very cold for snow, after all. But there might come a day when even that respite from the heat would be lost to them. He’d given his life, his intellect, his labor, and his heart to learn how to repair the world, but he understood it might not have been enough.
In his singing and his embrace were the only legacy, the only love, he could be sure of leaving his daughter; his acknowledgement of the truth of her world.