Freebie Mondays: On the Corner of Never and Forever

Freebie Mondays: On the Corner of Never and Forever

Welcome to another random picture prompt. I held onto this one for awhile before inspiration struck. I love rain, which is what drew me to the photo, but it was ultimately the way the young woman is holding the umbrella that inspired the story.
. . .

Her heels clicked against the sidewalk as she made her way down the street. The sound echoed through the dry air as if she walked through a large tunnel. She paused to draw a deep breath and longed for the kind of cool air a tunnel might have provided.

Above her, the sky was blue, empty of clouds or other obstructions. The sun was a hazy golden orb, just as it was every day, all day, from the moment it first peeked over the horizon until the moment its last rays dipped back out of sight.

Someone once thought wouldn’t it be nice if it was sunny all the time? And now here they were, ten years later, with an answer.

Everyone had a favorite type of weather, she supposed as she resumed her trek around the corner and down a small hill. At some point in the past, people who liked rain probably dreamed of how nice it would be to have a steady, soaking rain to sit by the window and enjoy while they sipped tea. But if any of them ever moved to England, back when it was still blistery, they’d have been cured of that desire right quick.

Good things were always best in moderate doses. You got sick of something if you ate it every day, even if it was your favorite thing in the whole wide world. It was the same with the view outside your window or the weather on your daily commute. The thing that kept it interesting was the constant change of seasons making it cool or bright, white or green, brown or gold or red.

People didn’t appreciate things until they disappeared. Snow seemed like a great idea just when the last of it melted. Summer was best enjoyed during the last few days before it slipped away, when brain and body worked in tandem to hold on to the memory of crisp evenings and cool dunks in the swimming pool.

Her daughter didn’t even know what a swimming pool was. They had gone the way of the dinosaurs, along with green grass on the lawn and front window boxes full of colorful little flowers. Her mother used to bring home a new little basket to hang from the front porch every month. But no one wasted water on such frivolity anymore.

She reached into a pocket as she turned the final corner, fishing for her wallet, which always fell into the deepest depths of her dress pockets whenever she decided to walk to work. It reminded her how annoying it was to walk five city blocks in the high heat of morning only to fumble for the card that could get her through the door into the sweet relief of air conditioning. But it also reminded her how miserable it was to drive the five blocks, since the car never had enough time to cool down before she got here.

That was the way of the world now. It was always one evil or another, and often the lesser was only lesser by a sliver or an inch.

Her fingers closed around the card and she lifted it, waving it in front of the window behind which regular security guard sat. He jumped into motion, as if startled by the sudden appearance of such an important piece of plastic, and jammed his fingers against the button that would grant her entry.

“Good day to you, Mrs. Salinas,” he called when she passed safely into the bubble of cool air he didn’t want to risk sticking his head outside of. “Lovely to see you this morning.”

“Yes, yes,” she replied, distractedly. “Lovely, isn’t it? Except don’t you wish you could just go back in time and smack whoever thought it would be lovely to have endless sun all the time?” The words slipped free of her lips before she could scold them into evaporating.

The guard blinked at her blankly.

“Never mind,” she replied, waving her hand as she headed down the hallway.

Last year, she and her husband drove six hours to stay at a lakeside resort so that their daughter could go swimming for the first time. She was seven and had learned the theory largely from internet videos and odd games they played during bath time. Thank goodness she had taken to it, or the trip might have been a total bust.

Now that natural bodies of water were the only way to recreationally swim, resorts like that had to be careful about the amount of bookings they accepted at one time. Otherwise, every natural body of water would be packed so full of people, no one would be able to move.

They booked the trip six months in advance. She was pretty sure they’d have to book a year out by now. And in a year or two you might need to plan vacations two years in advance if you wanted to make good on them.

Who knew where they would be two years from now?

Alaysia Salinas knew where she wanted to be; she wanted to be standing in a downpour dancing like they did in old movies.

“How are we looking?” she asked as she slipped into the observation room and crossed her arms in front of her chest. Her employees always seemed to take her more seriously when she had her arms crossed in front of her chest.

“Not great,” the man manning the computer console admitted, pushing up his glasses as if that would help him hide behind them. “Reversing the moisture harvesting process simply doesn’t give us a wide enough margin to encourage natural rainstorms again.”

Alaysia clicked her tongue, annoyed but not actually surprised.

“Let’s fiddle with changing the climate since the climate is changing anyway,” she muttered, mocking the tone she imagined someone had adopted in that long ago meeting.

No one would admit to pulling the trigger on the project anymore, of course. The originators of the machinery had probably gone into hiding under the guises of early retirement or sudden career changes just to keep their heads on their necks as soon as they found out that flipping the switch into the off position didn’t fix the problem they created.

Dispersing cloud cover in select areas seemed like a good idea until humanity collectively remembered that clouds where what provided rain and rain was what made plants grow. Rather than picking up and forming elsewhere, clouds seemed to have stopped being a thing.

As part of the short-term solution, climate scientists developed machines that could suck moisture out of the air; it wasn’t hard to develop them on an industrial scale since smaller versions of such machines already existed. This, at least, allowed farmers to carry on as usual.

But as soon as people started sucking moisture out of the air, clouds lost the heart of their substance. Which meant that waiting around for them to form quickly became pointless.

“Maybe we just need to wait a few months?” the man at the computer suggested, once again pushing his glasses up his nose as if they might form a barricade. Though whether he was trying to protect his face or his dignity, Alaysia wasn’t sure.

“At every step of this process,” she replied dryly, “people have suggested temporary solutions. Which is why everything we’ve done so far has simply made the situation worse.” Not on her watch, though. If she wasn’t going to make the situation better, at least she wasn’t going to dig the hole a level deeper.

“I want viable solutions,” she announced in a voice that brooked no argument. “I want them on my desk by the end of the week.”

Plans for strict water rationing were already in development. Getting rid of recreational water use simply hadn’t solved the problem. It was only a matter of time before they had to give up running water to ensure they had enough moisture for consumption and plant growth. And every year they seemed to lose a little bit more of that life-giving stuff to some unseen, incalculable force.

That gave her a timeline, even if she didn’t yet know how many months or years it contained.

“One way or another, I want my daughter to see a goddamn rain drop if it kills me,” she muttered as she spun and walked out of the room.

*   *   *

She paused in the doorway. She almost always paused in the doorway to glance at the sky and check the position of the sun before she darted into the garage or whatever waiting hallway – a habit she picked up from her mother. But today she stopped because a small, navy blue object stood in her path.

It was gripped firmly in the hand of a man who stood next to the doorway. A man she was used to passing on her way in or out every day. This particular man organized her schedule and helped make certain she kept it. Without him, she would end up in all the wrong places and at all the wrong times. So when he held something out for her to take, she always stopped to consider it.

“You might need it,” he insisted, shaking the small object slightly when she didn’t reach for it.

“You used to say that to my mother all the time,” she replied with a click of her tongue. “And she never ended up using it.”

“No,” the man agreed. “But she always wanted to.”

Again, she regarded the small, navy blue object. There were slight scuffs on the fabric indicating that it had been opened and re-folded several times, though not an ounce of moisture had ever graced its surface. She could just imagine her mother walking down the street, holding the umbrella above her head, extending one hand hopefully as she glanced toward the sky.

It was how she remembered her mother most, actually. Despite all the odd looks her behavior always drew from the surrounding neighborhood, there was something magical about the potential locked in those moments.

But while the umbrella had always provided a fair patch of shade, it had never done much else. Mostly because the sky had never fulfilled its half of the intended bargain.

With a soft sigh, she wrapped her fingers around the worn cloth and tucked the device beside her as she scurried to the waiting car.

Most people didn’t walk anymore. Most people couldn’t stand the heat for more than a few minutes.

Some people couldn’t even stand to see the damn sun anymore, so they used black curtains to block all trace of it from their homes. Though most people now lived in large buildings or shared spaces to cut back on the consumption of water. It was the only way to delay shutting off flowing water to large swaths of the city, and even that was growing quite tenuous.

“It will have to be today,” she muttered as she slid through the door and slammed it behind her. If the latest test didn’t work – just like all the others – her team was flat  out of ideas. And a demoralized team didn’t work well with a deadline that had long since passed.

As the car pulled out of the driveway and made its way down the empty street, she found herself glancing skyward again, looking for any small trace of white mist among the bright blue. Her mother always told her she would recognize clouds when she saw them. And indeed, she had seen enough pictures to trust the endeavor would prove simple. But she knew so little about the visual process of cloud formation that she couldn’t help wondering if it was working. Had they flipped the switch already? Was this yet another dud? Was that what she was seeing right now? Another dud?

“They’ll have more information for you at the office,” the man from the doorway reassured.

She settled back into her seat and stopped looking at the sky. Instead, she counted street lamps as they rolled by so that she wouldn’t be tempted to look at the houses beyond. Half those houses were empty and had been for some years. The rest were packed full of expectant, hopeful, worried people.

They, too, probably had their eyes fixed on the sky, waiting for the same event she was waiting for, expecting it would never come to pass.

Her mother told her never to say never, but it felt like they were on the corner of it now, the corner where never met forever and people’s priorities had to change.

The car turned the final corner. This drive was always too short. Too short, but also too long. Because she had nothing to do during these short car rides but think of all the things that could go wrong. And not just that, all the heavy expectations riding on the success or failure of this project.

There were days she hated her mother for handing it over to her, but she always reminded herself instantly how unfair those feelings were. Her mother hadn’t wanted to hand the project over to anyone. She simply hadn’t had a choice.

The car parked across the street from several other cars, all of which probably belonged to her team. No one else would be out on a day like this. Because no one would want to be forced to look into anyone else’s eyes if failure should once gain prove the outcome.

She gripped the umbrella as she stepped free of the car. As usual, she paused with her foot halfway to the ground to check the sky.

The navy blue that blanketed the area above her for the entirety of her life looked a little duller than usual. She might go so far as to call it grey.

With her heart jumping wildly into her throat, she hurried down the sidewalk and across the street. She tried to keep her eyes on what was in front of her so she wouldn’t walk heedlessly into any sign posts, but it was difficult.

The sun that had beat down upon her every moment of her life had finally lost its sway on the world. It was growing dark as sunset, though a bright spot in the sky indicated it was still very much day.

She had just passed two empty, parched, earth-filled planters when a rumble sounded above. Her head shot skyward.

At this point, she was fairly sure she didn’t need to reach the office to receive answers.

The first drop landed almost exactly in the center of her forehead, a spot of cool dampness in the midst of what had otherwise been a clear, hot day.

That single droplet was like liquid gold. It almost transported her to a hundred other days when she stood beside her mother, blinking up at the sky, waiting for something to happen.

The first drop was followed by a hundred others as the sky opened up. The rain storm did not build, it simply began dropping buckets onto the sun-baked sidewalks.

“Gracie!” the driver called. He mimed opening the umbrella when she turned sharply toward him.

Startled, she recalled the little bundle of fabric and springs clutched in her hand. She hit the button and it shot open, unfurling into a small canopy.

Hand shaking, she held it over her head. The rain made a light bouncing sound as it hit the fabric and slid on its merry way.

Breathless, the heat of her exhalations forming mist in the suddenly cool air, Gracie slid her hand forward. With joy and wonder, she tilted her head upward, watching water fall from the sky as it bounced across her palm.

This was what her mother always hoped to share with her whenever she adopted the same pose. If only she were here now to smile instead of frown.

The door to the office opened and people spilled onto the sidewalk. They laughed and whooped as they tromped through quickly forming puddles. Some unfurled umbrellas but others simply twirled in the rain, embracing the dampness as it seeped into their clothes.

Behind her, Gracie knew other doors were opening and other people were spilling from buildings to behold the miracle. It had taken countless hours of experimentation and calculation and nearly an entire generation, but rain had returned to the parched lands that once attempted to banish it.

Gracie stood transfixed, frozen in the moment as the storm continued unabated, her eyes trying to trace individual droplets as they fell from the sky.

She had dreamed of this moment her entire life and she had no idea how long it would last. It seemed best to enjoy it before the wonder wore off.

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