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art by Jonathan Westbrook

The Safe Road

Caroline M. Yoachim is a Nebula-nominated author and a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her fiction has appeared in Asimov's, Lightspeed, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among other places. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com. Search Daily Science Fiction to find her previous publications here.
"Do as I do," Mama tells me, "and you'll be safe. We walk this road together." The road is seven feet wide and four billion years long. All my ancestors walk ahead of me and my progeny follows behind.
Today the road is a pair of tractor ruts in a field of screaming-psychosis grass. The shrill sound makes my head ache, and Mama says if I listen too much longer, it will drive me insane. She plucks a handful of grass from the side of the road. Once picked, the grass is silent. The road is wider, and the psychosis grass is quieter because it has fewer voices with which to scream.
My daughter is behind me. I repeat what Mama said to me. "Do as I do and you'll be safe. We walk this road together."
I show my daughter how to silence the grass. My daughter teaches my granddaughter, who teaches my great-granddaughter, and all of us down the line will be safe. Eventually the field is behind me, its wails reduced to a low hum.
The tractor ruts broaden into a dirt road. Butterfly trees grow on both sides, so tall that their canopies block the sun. The tips of the tree branches extrude venomous butterflies with wings in red and blue and green. Swarms of butterflies fall like raindrops towards the road. They open their wings a few feet above our heads and hover there, poised to attack.
Mama teaches me to use an electrified umbrella to zap any butterflies that come too close to my head, and I pass the trick along to my daughter. We march, with our umbrellas open, to the sound of butterflies zapping. The fallen wings are like confetti, but squishy, with an unpleasant odor of burned flesh.
I'm glad when we leave the butterfly forest and the road becomes flat and wide and paved. We do battle against germ-infested rainstorms and exploding mushrooms. Mama shows me how to deal with everything we come across, and I share this precious knowledge with my daughter. But she isn't grateful. As we hack up radioactive watermelons, she asks, "Why must we destroy everything we pass?"
I'm not sure of the answer, so I ask Mama, even though she will think that I am ungrateful. Eventually she answers, "We have to make the world safe for our children. Someday, all the world will be our road."
What Mama says is always right, but hearing this makes me sad. The road is safe, but it is also empty and bare. I pass Mama's message to my daughter. She shares my sadness.
The road is a five-lane highway that passes near the sea. Mama protects me from a blood-sucking clam by crushing its shell with a titanium cannonball. I wonder if the clams are really dangerous. I set down my cannonball and pick up a clam from the edge of the highway. It clamps onto my arm and slurps my blood. I pry it loose.
"Don't do that," I tell my daughter.
I toss the clam back into the ocean. None of the other clams approach me. The first clam hadn't attacked until I picked it up. I stand at the edge of the road. I don't know what's out there, beyond the safety of the path my ancestors have carved. There's no one out there for me to follow.
I don't want my daughter to live in a world with only road.
I step off of the road. The sand is soft beneath my feet, more yielding than the pavement. My daughter stands behind me, waiting for me to move forward so that she can follow. I turn and walk next to the road, back the way we had come. The watermelons are radioactive, but the rainstorms turn out to be harmless. We'll never know about the exploding mushrooms; all of them have been destroyed.
The butterfly trees are mostly dead and bare, but I find one that still oozes butterflies from the tips of its branches. A blue butterfly drops, and I catch it gently in my hands. It isn't poisonous. It is strange, but beautiful. I carry it to a bare tree, and my daughter catches another and carries it, and with the work of many generations, the forest will be healed. I stay to watch the restoration. My daughter goes on without me, and when she comes to visit me, she tells me of a field of grass that no longer screams, but sings.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

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