By Madisen L. Ray
They walk their bicycles along the hard-packed dirt road. The carriages and carts and the hooves that pull them kick up dust into the dry air.
One of the girls looks across the street and slows her pace until she stops, staring at a half-empty lot and a smattering of market stalls.
“What is it?” her friend asks.
“This is where the city’s first high-rise is going to be built…”
“The first what? What is a ‘high… rise’?” her friend sounds out, following the girl’s stare to the lot.
“A building taller than any tree you’ve ever seen. Metal and glass…” she trails off, her eyes transfixed on empty air above the stalls.
“I don’t like this, I’m going home.” Her friend hitches up her skirt and pedals south towards home.
The girl watches as the building’s thirteen stories are framed and constructed with a spiderweb of scaffolding. The mayor cuts a big red ribbon at the front doors when it’s done. The girl isn’t a girl anymore, but a woman with a husband by her side and a baby in a stroller. The baby reaches up towards his mother. She takes his tiny hand in hers as a carriage rumbles past in a spray of dirt. She’s clutching a carrot in her bicycle basket. There is no building, not yet; she’s just a young girl. She makes her way home.
The woman is holding her baby’s hand and remembers the carrot in her basket. She smiles at her husband, resolved not to tell him of her impossible memory, of knowing this moment before it arrived. She turns to the young man at her other side, her son grown, and thinks maybe she can tell him, one day. Until then, she kisses his chubby baby cheeks and adjusts his blanket.
The woman tucks her son into his crib that evening and sings him a lullaby before reading by the fire. Her husband puffs a pipe in his study. She shivers and discovers a blanket being tucked around her legs.
“Thanks for always taking such good care of me, Mama,” her son says. Silver streaks his temples. “Let me take care of you for a little while.” She leans her face into his broad hand and closes her eyes.
His mother safely ensconced in her blanket, the man with silver temples takes his young daughter downtown. They eat ice cream on the steps of the monument and watch people hailing cabs or tucking themselves into phone booths for a quick call. It smells like smoke—from cigarettes or fire, the girl can’t tell. She smiles at her dad and turns back to look at the building across the street. The ice cream in her hands is a cigarette, and she’s waiting for her date. The demolition site across the street has been mostly cleared of rubble, but the smell of water-dampened soot hangs in the air.
“There was a fire, Grandma,” the girl says back home, a memory of vanilla on her cheeks. She leans into her grandmother’s blanketed knees. “I watched as the inside of the building burned and burned and almost jumped the street to another building.”
“What happened to the building after?”
“They’ll tear it down and build something new.”
“I watched that building being built,” the woman says, her hand linked with a little boy’s. She’ll buy him ice cream if he promises to not tell Dad she’s smoking again. “There was another building there before it, and before that—” she spreads her arms wide and encourages her son to look around in wonder— “there was nothing here at all but trees and some houses.”
“What about before it was a city?” the boy asks. “Before this was a state? Or a country?”
What right, he writes in his blog, did we as settlers have to claim this land? To take it from the people who already lived here? To ply them with smallpox blankets and herd them west?
He’s at the protest on the street outside the building his mother watched being built. He watches bricks shatter glass and rubber bullets shatter eye sockets.
“What was it like, Dad?” his daughter asks as the car guides itself into a waiting parking spot.
“It was scary to be there, and to watch it happening all over the country on social media.” He hooks a cloth mask over his ear and lifts his sign higher as a row of police in riot gear march forward. “I’m not afraid of you,” he whispers.
“I know you’re not, Dad. I never would have been out there facing cops.”
“You never know until it’s happening in front of you.” He spits at an officer’s feet, stares him down. “You don’t know what you can do until you’re there.”
“My dad told me that story many years ago, long before your mother was born, and before you were even a thought in the world,” she tells her granddaughter. They’re sipping tea in a clean, cozy living room. Transparent screens show wreckage in the city.
“I know, Grandma,” she watches the smoke on the screens and all around her. A cheer erupts from the crowd she’s standing in. “I hope I don’t know what it’s like to be in that situation.”
“I hope you won’t either, sweetheart.” They both watch the screens. The old woman is young again, fighting for what’s right. Her granddaughter is, too. The buildings burn. They tear them down brick by brick.
Each young woman looks to her grandchild and smiles, knowing there’s more to be built. They’re watching it right now.
* * *
Madisen L. Ray graduated from Ball State University with a degree in English Literature. Today she works for a public relations agency in Indianapolis and craves stories told in every medium (especially video games). She was recently published in a speculative fiction anthology by Of Rust & Glass.