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art by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

When The World Was Full of People

Patricia Russo has other tales at Daily Science Fiction (and other fine venues, of course).

Once, when the world was full of people, I saw a man who looked exactly like my brother: same height, same stringy ponytail, same puffy cheeks, same big gut. Same type of clothes, too--bleach-splattered jeans, faded plaid shirt with cut-off sleeves. I was across the street, and I stopped. I don't remember why I was out that day. Running errands, probably, the sort of thing everybody used to do in those days, going to the post office, paying bills, picking up a few things at the grocery. I stopped, and the other people on the sidewalk moved around me, moved on with their business, moved on with their lives. After a second, I shook my head, and told myself, That cannot be my brother. My brother's beard is gray. That man's beard is brown.
He was loading great blue jugs of purified water into the back of a pickup truck, the kind of jugs they used for water coolers back then, and he was sweating. I could see that even from across the street. The Purified Water Store (it wasn't really called that, but who remembers now?) was on the corner, and he was making one trip after another from the store to the truck. Could have been they were short-handed that day and didn't have a stock boy to help him load up. He'd gotten ten containers in the back of the pickup when I crossed the street.
I wasn't planning to speak to him. I just wanted to get a closer look, completely casually, and then go on my way.
I got tripped up by timing. I had to wait for the light, and then I was momentarily distracted when a jitney bus braked abruptly to avoid hitting a floppy-haired, no-helmet-wearing delivery woman on a silver bicycle. (Funny, isn't it, the details that never leave your mind.) So when I finally made it across, I came face to face with the guy. He was hauling another two jugs of water to the truck, one balanced on his left shoulder, and the other one dragging down his right arm and bumping against his leg as he walked.
He looked straight at me.
"Want to give me a hand?"
His voice was raspy, and his accent was local--the same accent I had made efforts to smooth out, and which my brother hadn't.
He looked at me so hopefully that all I could do was roll my eyes and sigh.
"All right." I took the jug that was nearly pulling his right arm out of its socket. The container had an indentation near the top where you were supposed to put your fingers. The damn thing was just as heavy as I figured it would be, and I said, "Oh, man. How many of these are you buying?"
"They won't all fit."
"They'll fit," he said, swinging the one on his shoulder into the back of the pickup.
"Why so many?"
"Why are you helping me?" He smiled as he said it, but there was a glitter in his eyes, sharp as a splinter of glass.
"You asked." That was not the answer, and the way his smile widened showed me he knew that. Hell with that, I thought, and shot back, "Your turn. Why all this water? It'll take you a year to drink it all."
"All my family are dead," he said, and the gleam in his eye vanished. "I am going to plant cerulean sun blossoms. A whole field of them."
"There's no such flower."
"There is."
"Listen," I said. We were walking back to the Purified Water place at that point. "I used to work in a florist shop. Cerulean sun blossoms don't exist."
"I have the seeds."
After we hoisted the next two jugs into the pickup, he wiped his forehead with his arm. His sweat smelled like my brother's sweat. He glanced at me again, and reached into the back pocket of his jeans. He brought out a little plastic bag, secured with a twist-tie. The baggie held a scattering of tiny black specks.
"I have the land, too," he said. "It's not my land, but it'll do."
"I never heard of such a flower."
"Wait a second." Stuffing the seeds back into his pocket, he walked to the front of the truck. He took something off the seat and ambled back. It was a book--spiral-bound, plastic cover, plasticky pages--and he flipped through it as he came toward me. "Look," he said, and handed me the book, open to a two-page entry on--no shit, cerulean sun blossoms. With the scientific name, place of origin, growth zones, and all that stuff. And two full-color illustrations, one of the plant, the other only of the bloom. It looked sort of like a blue daisy to me. It also looked--the whole book looked--like a one-off someone had mocked up with some not halfway-decent shareware program and a check to a print shop. I thought I knew just which print shop, too. They made spiral-bound books just like this, for business presentations. They used to be located next to the florist where I'd worked for a year, until they moved uptown.
I didn't believe in the existence of cerulean sun blossoms, but I knew nothing I said would make the man see reality. Someone who had lost his whole family could acquire the strangest fixations.
We all discovered that, later.
But this was back when the world was full of people.
I returned the book. He saw the skepticism in my face, and raised an eyebrow. So I said, "You did read it, yes? Even if those seeds you got are what you say they are, this plant won't grow here. Wrong climate."
"They'll grow," he said.
"And then what?"
"And then they'll be beautiful."
There were worse things to want, I thought. Without a word, I helped him load the rest of the jugs of water into the pickup. He was right; he managed to get them all in. My arms and shoulders and back got ridiculously sore. I'm going to feel this tomorrow, I thought, and boy, was I right. And the errands, the reason I was out and about that afternoon in the first place? They'd vanished from my head. Sometimes I wonder if I actually had had any errands. It could be I had just been taking a walk, except that I never took walks simply for the hell of it, not in those days.
The man gestured toward the passenger seat.
I shook my head.
"It's all right," he said. "I'll do all the planting. But you might enjoy the ride."
"I've got to get home." I didn't, really. There was nothing, no one, waiting for me there. But it was one thing to haul jugs of water for him on a public street, and another to get into the cab of a pickup truck with a stranger. What people looked like and what they were were not the same thing. Many things have changed since then, but that isn't one of them.
"Of course." He looked down at his feet. Scuffed work boots. Just like my brother's. "But I'm all alone."
I didn't get into the truck until he started to cry. He didn't cry loudly, didn't sob or make a huge spectacle of himself. Tears trickled down his puffy cheeks, and he simply didn't brush them away. He just kept looking at me.
"All right. Goddamn it. All right, already."
We drove to the park. There was a road that cut through it, running east-to-west, but midway he turned left, went off-road and into the trees, where cars weren't permitted. Any second I expected a copmobile to come screaming after us, and I called myself every flavor of idiot, but nothing happened. We bumped and thumped through the trees, scraping the paint job, tore across a walking path, sending gravel flying, then up a rise, and down it, and wound up at a bare patch of land. Nearly bare--brown dirt, a few weeds. He stopped the truck.
"Wrong climate," I said. "Wrong soil--bad soil. Look at it. Wrong season, even. Think this through."
"I have."
I sat in the truck. As he'd promised, he did all the work, even lifting out the jugs from the back to water the seeds once he'd put them in the ground. He didn't use all the jugs, only a couple of them. Then he got back in the truck, smelling of dirt and more sweat, but with an expression of peace on his face. He drove me back to the same spot where we'd met, and let me out.
We never exchanged names.
I imagine he returned to the park several times, alone, to keep watering the seeds, to pull out weeds, to watch over what he'd planted. I imagine, but I don't know.
The flowers grew.
Cerulean sun blossoms. The illustration in the book he'd shown me hadn't done them justice. They didn't look like daisies at all. They didn't look like sunflowers, either. They didn't look like any flowers anybody had ever seen before. They were small, with seventeen petals on each blossom, and the most brilliant blue. Not even sky blue, but paint-box blue. They couldn't exist, but they did. And they began to appear everywhere in the city. In people's gardens. In window boxes. In vacant lots. In the small spaces the municipal authorities left in the pavement to shove trees into, the trees that died of pollution and confinement. The cerulean sun blossoms did not die. They grew even in the cracks of the sidewalks.
I never went back to the park to look at the place where the man had sown the seeds. I didn't figure I could find it again. He had driven to a spot I'd never been to before, and he had not exactly driven there in a straight line. And in any case, what would have been the point? The seeds had clearly sprouted, the plants had clearly grown.
I won't lie. The cerulean sun blossoms were indeed beautiful.
They lasted until midwinter. The cold finally killed them. I thought perhaps they might return in the spring, but they must have been annuals.
I saw the man again, though, a couple of years later. Not by the Purified Water Store, but in a bar on Gelsin Street. I'd gone in for one beer, just one, but I wound up having three. Or it might have been four. And glancing down the bar, the way you do, I spotted him, a few stools down. Same hair. Same fat cheeks. Same plaid shirt, only he was wearing a no-brand down vest over it. Same brown beard.
I went over to him. It took him a moment to notice me. He was staring down at his drink, whiskey by the look of it.
"Hey," I said. "The flowers. You did it."
"The cerulean sun blossoms. You were right. You made them grow. And they were beautiful. They really were."
"Oh, that," he said, and picked up his drink. "That was my brother, not me."
I went back to my stool. I finished my beer.
That was the sort of thing that used to happen when the world was full of people. Hardly anyone remembers that now, but it is true.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, November 18th, 2013
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