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The orange sun burnt into the sides of the apartments, shimmering in the heat that still lingered. In moments, it would turn red, mahogany, and then inky black.
Kayla stayed inside of 7B, refusing to submit to the 97-degree heat by blasting the air conditioning. If she was grounded, then mom and dad can just pay more on the electricity bill. Looks like your plan backfired, guys, she thought nastily as she gazed with melancholy out the window. The sunset, as if to reflect her mood, turned a deep brown as the sun slipped behind the thick blanket of smog. In an instant the sky turned a starless black.
Who leaves their daughter home alone when she’s grounded anyway? She pondered as she checked her phone. Just as her fingers brushed it, it received a text from her boyfriend.
surprise road trip. meet me outside.
bring enuf clothes 4 3 days
Did Carlos remember she was grounded? Or is he just stupid? He must be, for Kayla heard a car horn honk outside. She walked to the door and stuck her head out into the unremitting heat that hadn’t subsided with the sunset. Humidity made her hair start to frizz within seconds.
Carlos was parked there in his rickety 2017 Ford something. “Hey babe. Get your things. We’re hitting the carretera.”
“I’m grounded, Carlos.”
“So? You need a little fun in your life.”
Don’t go, she told herself. However, her lips pulled back into a smile, her feet turned herself around, and about 10 minutes later her hand gripped the handle of her full-to–bursting suitcase.
Why not? She could use a little fun. And a change in scenery would be a breath of fresh air.
Usually, long car rides made her lethargic, but Kaya was wide awake. They’d been driving for eight hours straight yet neither her not Carlos felt the need to sleep. Why should they? It was a surprisingly cool 74 degrees, the air didn’t want to make her cough up a lung with every inhale, and the first star blinked into existence, guiding their travels as they sped north. The clock glowed cyan:
12 Miles outside of Greenview, Washington
It was silent but the night spoke to her. It spoke words of the land, of the past, and of their hope. Without asking she knew Carlos heard the night too.
He broke the silence. “Babe, go to sleep. I can wake you up when we get there.”
“Get where?” she asked, not for the first time. “Where are we ‘getting’ to?”
“It’s a surprise. You’ll love it.”
She refused to give up this forbidden luxury; blackness and primitive air. Nothing felt like this back in California. Nothing was like the feeling of being out in the open, with trees! She started to see flashes of trees in the LED lights. Granted, she’d barely seen a dozen in the past couple hours, but they were special enough. This was a once–in-a-lifetime experience.
The night put weights on her eyelids, and as she fell asleep, she thought she heard a faint “aaaaoooo-ooooh” through the open window, like that of a wild dog.
“Wake up, babe. We’re here.”
Kayla smiled through her drowsiness and forced her eyes open. “Good mor—“
The sky was gone. Smog covered every inch, making the expanse a dusty grey-green. Today, though, it seemed greener.
In fact, leaning closer to the window she realized that it was much more emerald than grey. It wasn’t smog at all.
“What the hell…” With wide eyes, she gazed at Carlos in wonder and shock. “Why is the sky green?”
“Look around,” was his laconic reply.
She obeyed. All around them were large trunks of trees. “I don’t get it,” she said slowly.
Carlos laughed, the familiar sparkle that she fell in love with in his brown eyes. “They’re trees.
Trees… As in plural? As in the isolated, separated ones next to the highway? They grew far, distanced by dozens, if not hundreds, of miles from each other. Now, they surrounded the car, a wall of trunks and a roof of leaves; both housing them.
“It’s the last forest in the world besides Russia. Welcome to Canada,” he said softly in his Mexican accent. “Do you like it?”
His question was answered without words. Kayla’s hands and nose were pressed against the glass, and as soon as her fingers could find the unlock button, she stumbled out onto the soft grass and underbrush.
Odd, alien whistles filled the air, silky on her skin. The entire experience was otherworldly.
Her fingers yearned to stretch out, to capture as much of the filtered sunlight as possible. Not one whistle, chatter, or howl escaped her ears, not one breath of wind passed by her outstretched fingers, and not one smell missed her nose. She felt so alive.
Suddenly, a flash of crimson interrupted the ceiling of green. She drew back, frightened. “It’s a cardinal,” Carlos explained.
“What’s a cardinal?”
“It’s a bird.”
“But…birds are white and grey.”
“Those are just seagulls. There are hundreds of types of birds, just not in the US.”
As she stood immobile within the green, dirty-smelling air and animalistic calls, Carlos took her hand. Somehow, he had known her on a deeper, subconscious level. He knew, even if she didn’t, her prehistoric desire to be part of the earth—part of nature.
“Why?” she whispered, barely moving her lips.
“Why what, babe?”
“Why don’t we have this? This… beauty. This air. These cardinals.”
“Times change. Deforestation took off in 2015, so pollution and carbon dioxide increased a lot. Soon, we needed even more wood with the higher population. All we have is this and Russia’s forests, plus so much smog that there aren’t proper puestas de sol,” he answered.
Tearing her wide eyes away from the trees, she asked, “What’s wrong with the sunsets in California?”
“Oh, you’ll see.”
The hours passed quickly. Carlos held Kayla in his arms in the shade of a weeping willow (although neither of them knew what its name was) and sang soft Mexican songs in her ear. They ate a lunch of Sun chips and sandwiches at 3 o’clock. When the digital clock showed 6:30, they got back in the car, to Kayla’s dismay.
“Are we leaving?” she asked, disappointment filling her words.
“Nope. I’m going to show you your last surprise,” he replied, easing the car down the rocky road. Within minutes, the wall of trees thinned, opening up to show the Pacific Ocean. Carlos parked the car.
The sun still sat on a high shelf in the sky, looking as though it were hours until sunset. As this moment the sky would be blackening in California.
“The smog,” she said suddenly. “It acts as a horizon. Here, the air’s clean and the sun takes longer to set.”
Carlos smiled. “Buena. When the sun sets at 8:27, it’ll be much more hermosa than what you’ve seen in California.”
She thought of the dark, gloomy colors: rusty orange, blood-red, the countless browns, and black, caused by millions of square pounds of carbon dioxide. A “hermosa” sky seemed too chimeric to be true.
Despite her doubts, when 8:15 came, the blue sky turned a light pink. The scattered clouds turned solid; not white and translucent, but purple on top a seashell pink on the bases. Instead of turning dirty, the sun changed into a bright orange disk as it lowered itself toward the indigo ocean. From the far eastern edge of the sky, she traced along the horizon with her eyes: navy, heliotrope, rose, and an orange-yellow aura around the sun.
It kissed the Pacific goodnight and slipped below its edge with a green flash. To her disbelief, the firmament didn’t immediately change to black. It retained its colors despite the sun’s departure. She and Carlos stood there until the sky slowly faded to deep blue like the blue of the waters, or the blue her heart turned when he gently lead her to the car and drove her home.
20 Years Later
“Mr. President! MR. PRESIDENT!” President Vasquez smiled blindly through the camera flashes at where the frantic calls seemed to come from. “Yes?”
“Why did you want to pass the Forestation Act of 2050? Twenty-seven point nine percent of the country is a lot of land to plant. Seems like a waste when we need land for schools, businesses and homes,” the reporter said.
Carlos Vasquez smiled again, but this time a sincere one; not the confident, fake façade reserved for the crowds. He had been waiting for this question.
“How many of you have seen a sunset? Breathed air that wasn’t pumped with factory output, or wasn’t artificially produced to contain enough oxygen to live? How many have felt the rough bark of an oak while standing under its branches? How many know what a cardinal is?
“It’s a bird. No one has seen it in America since 2018.
“Human beings have lost a sense of what it is like to be part of a living Earth. It’s time to start instilling sense that again. By reforesting areas of each state, perhaps you, your children, and your grandchildren can live in a world with oxygen-producing trees and wild animals. Perhaps one day, America can learn to love the land again.
“Perhaps we can watch the sun set behind the ocean and not the smog.”
Dutifully by his side stood First Lady Dr. Kayla Vasquez, an esteemed but considered somewhat radical ecologist and conservationist. A tear rolled down her cheek as she smiled brighter than the sunset she’d seen on the Canadian coast back in 2030.