“What am I doing here? I wanted to get away from it all, but the smoke’s even worse here.” Gary Flowers didn’t hike often anymore, but life in the city and suburbs had been wearing him down over the last decade or so. Married, three children, two grandchildren, divorced, semi-retired, he had in his grasp what people used to refer to as the American dream. Of course, all those who didn’t have the opportunity to seize that dream resented people like him, or maybe they just weren’t in the right place in history he had been when he was up and coming.
Yes, he had grasped the American dream, but then slowly let it slip away. Life had become dull and meaningless. His children were grown and didn’t need him anymore, and besides his grandchildren, he couldn’t say that anything mattered to him these days.
And every summer there were these fires. The governor blamed global warming and the utilities company, and the news agencies blamed the governor’s poor wildfire planning, and his emphasis on social reforms over thinning the overgrown forests.
Gary figured he’d had enough of the news, the internet, and bumper-to-bumper traffic, and decided to strike out for the wilderness. He chose a place far from the dangerous fires that were consuming the western U.S., but there was no escaping the smoke. He’d even read that the smoke had finally gotten as far as New York.
“The last wilderness, the last refuge is gone. There’s no where left, no grand new frontier.”
Then he happened to look up and saw the tree. Oh, there were a lot of trees around him, but this one had an odd curve to it. The tree almost looked feminine the way its shape swayed, first to the left, and then to the right, and then back again. About halfway up, it split into two branches, and right at the fork, sunlight streamed through. It was beautiful, artistic. He started to pull out his cell phone to snap a photo and then stopped. Was that singing?
It was then that he realized the sun was to his right, so whatever was shining through the branches ahead of him couldn’t be sunlight.
He found he couldn’t look away, even as the light became brighter, he had to stare. There was something moving in the light, pictures, like a movie.
It was the world as it was long ago. No smoke, no fires, and no people. Was it even this world, or some otherworldly utopia? He’d been wrong about one thing. There were people. Not so many, but not too few, either. They seemed to live peacefully, an agrarian society, one living in harmony with the environment around them.
Then there was another sight, a woman, tall, lithe, dressed in flowing robes, dark brown hair swaying in a breeze Gary couldn’t feel.
“We have felt your need, Gary.”
She had been up in the light, and now she was standing in front of him.
“Who are you? Where did you come from.”
“I’m from the world of what might have been, a world where all humanity lives in peace with each other and with nature.”
“That people can live in harmony, or that I can cross the space between our realities?”
The question stumped him because it was only then that he realized he’d meant both.
“I can take you with me, to that world, but you have to be willing.”
“Why me? How is this possible?”
“At unpredicted moments, the barrier between your plane and ours weakens and we who are adept at sensing such things, can cross the threshold, offer someone from your world longing for a better place a home in ours.”
“You mean I can become one of you, live in a world where there is no pain or sorrow, where people take care of the land and not exploit it?”
“That is precisely what I mean. This offer isn’t for everyone. Most of the people in your world, if they could travel to ours, would destroy it, just as they have destroyed all that you see around you.”
He looked up at the yellow, smoky haze in the sky over his head, remembering the rat race he’d known all of his life, the greed, hostility, the small opinionated minds, the loneliness.
“I understand. I promise I won’t harm a blade of grass.”
“Which is why we offer this opportunity to just you for now. You are one of those who would nurture other people and other life.”
“I’ve always wanted to, but I manage to keep getting sidetracked.”
“Your world is too full of mental noise. It’s difficult for most people to focus on the simple truths of existence.”
“I’d love to come.”
“Then we are waiting.” She held out her hand and he almost took it. Almost.
Instead, he pulled his cell out of his pocket and opened up the photo app. There they were, Josh and Chrissie, his beautiful grandchildren. He remembered that every time they’d visit, he’d hear them joyfully scream “Grandpa,” then they’d both rush up to him and into his arms. It was unconditional, simple, sincere, love. The love of a lifetime. He’d screwed up so much of his life, but this time, he’d gotten it right.
“Sorry, I’d love to, but no matter how wonderful your world is and how terrible mine’s become, I couldn’t live without them.” He flipped his phone around so she could see the photo.
“We can only bring one.”
“I know, and I couldn’t take them from their parents, their aunts and uncles, all of the other people who love them. No matter how lousy this world is, they make it worth it.”
“I understand. The power of love is strong. It makes suffering endurable and brings joy beyond measure. Our world, no matter how pleasant, would be hollow and empty without love.”
“I realize now that it’s not hopeless here. It’s my generation and my children’s who have to make a difference so there’ll be a world left when my grandkids grow up.”
“I wish you and your world well, Gary.”
Then she wasn’t standing in front of him anymore. She was up in the light again and the vision was fading. Then the light was gone and he was alone once more in the forest. Maybe it wasn’t the last forest, but one he and others like him had to save, so that those who came after him would leave a legacy for future generations to inherit, one that was green and growing.
I wrote this for the Thursday photo prompt hosted at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo. Yes, I’m late. Every Thursday, Sue puts up one of her original photos and anyone who wants to participate can use it as the inspiration for crafting a poem, short story, or other creative work.
I did take a stab at California Governor Jerry Brown and his wildfire management policies, but really, every one of us is responsible for leaving behind a world a little bit better than it was when we were born. I don’t think we’re doing a very good job, but perhaps it isn’t too late. At least I hope it’s not.
Oh, and I’d like to think that the mysterious woman’s offer wasn’t to take Gary into a new world, but to help him realize he still could bring hope to this one.