The wings of a mechanical magpie glided across the freshly mown yard, and left a trail of azure and cream feathers. Elizabeth carefully placed her hand on the windowsill, caught the cool breeze, and relaxed her shoulders. Her ashen hair swept across her face, and she reached up to tuck her hair behind her ears, revealing her still curious and verdant eyes. The kettle stationed on the counter flashed a blue light three times and began to whistle; the water was ready. Elizabeth pressed the open button on the kettle and slowly poured the steaming water into her favourite red mug, which held a few Earl Grey tea leaves, and sauntered towards the living room. As she plodded along the hallway, her gaze shifted to the calendar hung on the left wall. It was Wednesday, July 1st, 2050.
The living room was dreary and somber; chalky blankets draped over the dilapidated furniture and hoary cobwebs occupied the corners of the room. The only furniture uncovered were the century-old armchair–embellished in scarlet and maroon floral patterns and diagonally positioned to face the only window–and the mahogany table on its side. It was almost noon and the sun was already at its peak, yet the inside of the room remained dark. Elizabeth strolled across the room and situated her mug on the table before collapsing into the rough armchair, sighing in discomfort. She picked up the mug and let her hands cup around it to feel the warmth. As she was about to take a sip, she noticed an azure-winged magpie outside the window that was attempting to fly with one wing; the wingless side of it was a hole, except around the rim, there were a few torn wires that flopped with each movement. Something gleaming at the core of the creature intrigued her eye and she concentrated diligently on the mysterious object. It was black and small with sharp, straight edges and eight corners; it was a box. There were two words printed in white on the top surface, but her farsightedness prevented her from reading them.
Elizabeth looked down at her tea, and contemplated whether she should take a sip as the steam made it seem too hot to drink; she decided to let it cool and settled it back down on the table. She fixed her gaze at the window to amuse herself with the magpie’s misery. Surprisingly, it was perched on the window ledge; it was illuminated like a herald from heaven, except this time the source was a by product of a nuclear reaction inside the sun. A sudden lump formed in her throat and a mixture of nostalgia, pain, and fear seized her. She closed her eyes and remembered.
“Lizzie! Please for God’s sake, don’t fall in the water!” Dad warns from behind.
I spin around with a dance and snicker at him. “I won’t! Even if I do, you’ll be there to save me.” I grin as I continue to jump and balance on a row of large, jagged rocks, inches away from the harmless river. His forehead wrinkles with worry and he sighs.
I was born sixteen years ago, on July 1st, 1984. I guess you can call today the cliché “sweet sixteen.” It would have been nice to have a party but my dad was recently diagnosed with mild Alzheimer’s, so I need to spend time with him. He doesn’t even remember today’s my birthday.
I take a deep breath and let the warm sunlight nurture my soul. I take a peek at my dad and catch him observing a shoal of rainbow fish racing against the current of the river. I turn around, and tiptoe and twirl under the fierce sunlight like a proud ballerina on her first stage. My flowery dress, embroidered in swirls of amber and blue, embraces me like the ring of fire. I glance over and catch my reflection on the surface of the river. As I hold onto my sun hat, I lean over to say hello to my doppelgänger living underwater. She smiles and waves back.
From the river’s reflection, I inspect a white butterfly fluttering along the bank in my direction. Its wings shimmer in the sun like a brand new porcelain tea cup. A few feet behind me, dad stops in his tracks and reaches for a cigarette and lighter in his pocket. He clutches the cigarette in his mouth and hovers his left hand over the waving flame of the lighter to shield it from the wind. Instantly, his shoulders drop in relief as he exhales three rings of smoke. I shiver and look away in disgust. Instead, the glorious scenery that envelops me captures my attention.
A sudden scent of smoke grasps my attention and I quickly turn around to find a motionless white butterfly on the ground, covered in ashes and a cigarette butt that is still burning brightly.
“I’m sorry, it just happened, I didn’t know it was there..” Dad mutters.
I glare at him in disbelief, and kneel down to gather some nearby rocks and grass to make a resting site for the fallen soul. I stand up and look him in the eye.
"I really wish you’d stop smoking, but I know it’s become an essential part of your life, so I respect your need to do it as a way for you to adapt," I say, "but just be aware of your surroundings, especially when you're around nature. Please."
He looks at the ground like a child in detention, then looks up and smiles at me.
“Wow, you’ve sure grown up,” he says with a sad look in his eyes, “you remind me of your mother. She used to lecture me all the time." He chuckles.
The mentioning of mom feels like a stab to the heart; a wave of sorrow washes over me and I force my small fire of outrage to extinguish as I turn away to continue walking down the path.
Oddly, the heat that enfolds me seems to increase every passing second. Droplets of sweat start flowing down my cheeks and dripping onto my dress. An intense itch forms in my throat, forcing me to cough, and a sudden overwhelming desire for water overlaps me and my head begins to spin: dehydration. My vision becomes blurry and I trip over a rock, falling forward. A distant yet comforting voice shouts my name and a set of arms reach out in front, just in time to capture me, as my breathing proliferates.
“Elizabeth! Are you alright? Hey, let’s slow down and sit by the water for a bit. It’s way too risky to be using so much energy under this red-hot sun,” dad says worriedly, “I don't want you to be smoked bacon after this walk."
We sit on some patches of dried grass and observe a cluster of tiny, purple fish scurrying beneath the tranquil water. I remove my sun hat and gently place it beside me. It’s embroidered with a pattern of red and orange marigolds, and overlapped with an azure lace bow; the perfect accessory to my dress and the last gift from my mom before she passed. I turn my head around at dad, and notice the dark circles under his eyes and the deep creases lined across his forehead. He catches me looking and tilts his head to the side and smiles, prompting a pair of crow’s feet around the outer corners of his eyes.
“I’m okay, dad, don’t worry,” I say, "can we get some strawberry shortcake?”
“Whatever you like,” he answers.
We begin walking back towards the entrance of the pathway, thinking about my favourite childhood dessert, and forgetting the sun hat that’s still sitting on the dried grass by the water.
I stroll alongside my dad and glance at him.
“Thank you,” I say, "for everything."
He looks at me with a smile that reaches his eyes.
The cheery and energetic ambiance of the cafe made my freshly baked strawberry shortcake radiate beauty and delight. Its light and fluffy cream squeezed between layers of spongy cake with ravishing strawberries oozing juice down the sides prevented my eyes from looking anywhere else. Every bite feels like I’m wandering through a landscape of emotional epiphanies.
I look up and see dad reading the daily newspaper. His left brow is raised and his nose scrunched.
“What’s the matter?”
“It says the afternoon will reach up to 49°C.”
Strange. This city has never went above 35°C.
I frown, trying to contemplate reasons.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” He puts down the newspaper and looks up. “We better get home to avoid turning into roast pigs,” he jokes.
“I guess.” I lower my head in disappointment.
I dig my fork into the remaining cake, splitting the last piece into two then bringing both pieces to my palate; this time I swallow hard. I drink some water and wipe my mouth with a handkerchief. Then I reach behind me to grab my hat, but my hand just grabs the back of my seat. Hold on. I look under the table and search the floor frantically. Dad stares at me with a puckered forehead.
“What’s up, Liz?”
My eyes widen. “I can't find my hat.”
“Don't worry, we’ll find it. Where do you remember last seeing it?” He says with composure.
“I don't know..I can't possibly lose it. It was a gift from mom. I was wearing it before we came here, right? Oh, I’m so careless.” My eyes start puffing and my breathing increases quickly.
“Elizabeth, slow down and take a deep breath.”
I take a deep breath and search through my memories of this morning. I remember holding my hat as I observed the creatures under the river, and the white butterfly; I had it with me when we went to sit by the river, and I placed it beside me, then we left..and oh my God, the hat is still by the river.
“Dad! It’s by the river where we sat!” My eyes light up.
“Great. It’s too hot outside so I’ll go get it, Liz. You stay here and-” he hands me some cash, “get a milkshake and read a book?”
I nod, though a bit uneasy letting my sick dad go back to the park in this peculiar temperature.
I check the cafe’s clock. Fifteen minutes have passed. It shouldn’t take that long, right? The park is only a block away and dad knows where to find my hat. I look at the cash in my hand and consider ordering a vanilla milkshake. I suppose it’ll help pass time.
As I slurp the last blobs of my milkshake, I check the clock again. Forty-five more minutes have passed; dad has been gone for an hour. I lick a smudge of milky substance off my upper lip and look down into the empty cup, noticing the dregs that line the inside. Something doesn’t feel right; dad has been gone for too long.
A woman with a double stroller rushes into the cafe, and promptly drops her shoulders in relief as a gust of cool air from the fan blows straight at her. Subsequently, a short and stout man wearing a green tracksuit jogs in and crashes into the nearest empty chair; his face is cherry red and soaking in perspiration, and his tracksuit bears the features of a swamp. As soon as he flops down, a group of people bolt in, screaming “Fire!!"
“Where’s the fire?” I ask a woman who just ran in.
“Oh, at the park," she answers, trying to catch her breath.
A spike of energy rushes up my spine. Dad. I head for the door, pushing people back–a few give me weird looks–but I ignore them; I sprint out the cafe, as fast as my legs can take me, and down the block to the park. Heat waves crash into me and I can feel myself drowning in sweat, but I propel forward as if there’s a man chasing me with a gun. I turn a corner and see endless smoke emerging into the atmosphere from a violent, blazing fire that’s spreading at a proliferating rate in the middle of the park. Firefighters are carrying bodies–many with ashen faces, blood, and burnt marks all over–to the paramedics. I run up to a female firefighter holding a clipboard–assuming it’s used for recording casualties.
“Did you find a middle-aged man named Hughes Murphy?” I ask while panting.
She looks down at her board, flips a page, then looks at me and shakes her head.
Inside, I feel a small relief. But I know dad. He would never leave me.
I find the entrance to the park–people are running out and screaming and firefighters are sprinting in with their equipment. I have to make a decision. I have to find dad despite the risk of me injuring myself, or worse. He’s the only family I have left in the world, and I'm not going to leave him. I cover my mouth with one hand and put the other in front of me as I run into the smoke. I hear someone shout at me, then another, then a cluster of clunking noises head in my direction. It’s probably the firefighters. I run faster, uncertain of my destination.
It’s hard to see anything. I can hear people running back and forth, but I can’t see their faces. Ashes float around me and sparks of red and orange momentarily appear. As I pace myself down the path, smouldered branches fall and I hear cries in the distance. The smoke clears a bit and I glance at the river. Fallen trees, floating fish, and a few scattered bodies. I look straight ahead and sprint to the part of the bank where dad and I were sitting this morning. I observe the area. There it is. Mom’s hat caught on a branch on the other side of the river. I climb down the bank and my eyes widen in fear. A still body with ripped clothing, burnt marks, and blood dripping down the sides of its torso, lies where the water touches the shore. A lump forms in my throat. I kneel down and turn over the body. It’s dad. His breathing is slow and heavy. He opens his eyes halfway and looks at me.
"Liz..Happy...birthday." He remembered.
"Dad! I'm right here. They're coming, dad, don't worry."
He smiles and closes his eyes. I check his pulse. He's gone.
I bring him close to me. I scream. A flood of tears roll down my face. “Please dad. Please don’t leave me all alone.” I whisper.
Elizabeth woke up with tears staining her cheeks. Her tea was cold. She grabbed the armrests and slowly got up, careful of her back. She walked to her porch and observed the vast, empty city in front of her. An azure-winged magpie swooped down and she caught a glimpse of the box that was embedded inside with two printed words. This time she knew what they meant.