It’s dawn when I leave our house, the cold sting of night sharp on my cheeks. Adrian is sleeping, but it’s better this way. He doesn’t want me to go. Thinks we should just enjoy the time we have while we can. I watch him for a few moments through the window, breath fogging the glass. The flowers I picked last week wilt on the sill, a smell of something dying in the air.
“I’ll be back before long,” I whisper to the window, before heading towards the dry.
Most houses I pass are long-abandoned or burned down, rusted bikes leaning against rotting fence frames, amidst smashed flowerpots with only ash within. Sometimes I wonder if there’s any society left at all. All I have now is an old roadmap to go by, a literal ‘x-marks-the-spot’ that we bought from a trader in an edge-of-nowhere outpost. Our last-ditch attempt to help Adrian: a cutting-edge medical facility that could replace a broken heart. I’m not exactly sure what the place looks like. Adrian was convinced the trader was taking advantage, that it can’t be real. “If artificial organs existed, we’d know about it,” he said. We were huddled together in an old bus station at the time, wrapped in layers of jumpers, eating cold soup, and trying to pretend everything was fine.
“Don’t you even want to try?” I remembered reports from the world before: bio-engineered bodies, 3D-printed organs. Hiding an experimental facility in the desert made sense – the military did stuff like that all the time.
Adrian hugged me close. “If it’ll make you happy, let’s go.”
He got too sick before we made it, so we set up home in an abandoned town as near as we could get. We settled in for a while, grew our own food, scavenged the rest from surrounding ghost towns. But still, I couldn’t stop thinking about the map.
I don’t know what I’ll do when I get there. Part of me hopes I’ll find doctors ready to save his life. Then, I’ll come back for Adrian, and all will be okay.
I camp overnight in a warehouse, trying not to think of Adrian waking and finding me gone. I left him a note on the bedside table, enough food and water for a few days, and a couple of gardening magazines I saved for this very moment. He’ll probably still spend his time watching out the window over our garden, waiting for me to come home. Adrian’s always loved gardening, so I’ve done my best to maintain our plot so he can admire it on his good days. The plants struggle from the heat and dry, but a few persist. Sometimes, we sit out together at sunset and watch them change colour as dusk falls. He says if you listen closely enough, you can hear them breathe. I think about those moments as I fall asleep, can almost feel his warmth beside me.
In the morning, a few miles out from the ‘x’, a dust storm hits. Despite the scarf covering most of my face, my skin screams, and my throat aches. Road markings disappear. All I can do is follow the vague outline of a mountain and hope I don’t get lost.
The land looks strange when the dust settles. As if doused in sepia. There’s a structure in the distance, a shed or a small hut. I approach it to get a better look, heart racing. It’s a greenhouse. Curiosity drives me forwards. When I reach it, I find a strange place bursting with colour, full to the brim with oddly-shaped plants. I skirt around the edge and find the door.
Inside, the air tastes sweet, fresh. A tall plant to my left whirrs quietly, its two-fronded fruits moving in and out, inhaling, exhaling. Blue veins blossom along it.
I hold my breath as I search the rest of the greenhouse where fruits in all shapes and sizes grow. An eye-like plant, pupils watching me as I pass. Another fruit flowering in the shape of a liver. If it wasn’t so beautiful, I might find it horrifying.
Finally, at the centre, I find it. From a distance, it looks almost like a tulip. Its fruit is just ripe, pulsing with blood.
I kneel down, wondering how to take it home. I’d expected frozen organs in vats, in an underground lab, not plants in a greenhouse.
I brush my fingers along the base, digging gently to find its roots. They are thin tendrils, stretching beneath the earth like veins. I could take the plant home. But I don’t have any medical knowledge, or horticultural for that matter. Still, I’m not leaving it here, after I came all this way. I stare at it for a moment. I’ll take it back, then get Adrian a doctor after.
I find an empty pot in the corner of the greenhouse, then carefully scoop the heart-plant inside. I tie it in a sling to my backpack so that the fruit beats softly against my chest. Leaving the mirage-like greenhouse behind, I head home.
“I want to show you something.”
Adrian opens his eyes, face pale. Cold to the touch. “Find what you were looking for?”
“Can you walk?”
He nods, but he can barely stand so I help him outside to the garden where I’ve placed the heart-plant. We sit on the bench, and he squeezes my hand, his feet rooted to the ground.
He turns and looks at me, as if for the first time. “It’s the second most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
I lean over and kiss him. Colour unfurls across his cheeks. His hands warm. Eyes bloom. Together, we watch the plant as the desert sun wanes.
For a time, it beats steadily in sync with Adrian’s heart. For a time.
Lyndsey Croal is an Edinburgh-based writer of speculative and strange fiction. She is a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Awardee, and her work has been published in several anthologies and magazines, including Mslexia’s Best Women’s Short Fiction 2021, Shoreline of Infinity, and AAN Press. Her debut audio drama ‘Daughter of Fire and Water’ was produced by Alternative Stories & Fake Realities, and was a finalist for a 2022 British Fantasy Award. Her novelette, Have You Decided on Your Question, is forthcoming from Shortwave. Find her on Twitter as @writerlynds or via www.lyndseycroal.co.uk.