Ship in a Bottle

by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/291840.html)

1888

“Look, Edgerton left his coat,” said one clerk, pulling it from the hook in the convenient modern closet the new building’s architects had included in the office.

The other snorted. “I doubt he’ll be coming back for it, after that exit.”

“It’s good enough cloth.” The first rubbed the dense boiled wool between thumb and fingers.

“To hear him tell it, he could buy a hundred coats tomorrow and never feel a dent.”

“Hmm. It’ll never fit me.” The clerk glanced over. “It’ll never fit you.”

“Yes, yes, I am short, thank you for reminding me. Why is Edgerton’s abandoned coat any concern of yours?”

“We binned thirty years of flotsam and jetsam when we moved. Why do we have to immediately start cluttering the new place up?” The clerk stretched out a long arm and dropped the coat on the farthest hook at the back of the closet. “If it’s still here in the spring, I’ll bundle it up for the church rummage sale. Don’t let me forget.”

1916

“That’s not mine. Mine has a velvet collar.”

“Flash,” muttered his friend, putting the coat back on its hook. “I think this is Jenkins’s, isn’t it?”

“Is it? I don’t remember him in it. It looks a little old-fashioned, don’t you think?”

“Jenkins wasn’t a natty dresser. Isn’t, I mean. And when he comes back, he’ll want it.”

They were both silent for a moment, thinking about those who would never be coming back.

“You’re right, best leave it,” the first said. “This yours?”

“Finally. Come on. It’s chop night, and I don’t want to be late; it’s the only recognizable dinner my landlady serves all week.”

1954

“It must be Mr. Simpson’s,” she said. “It’s about his size.”

“Freddy? Aww, he’d never wear an old sack like that.”

“You’re going to be in such trouble if he ever hears you call him that. Anyway, I meant his father.” She ran her palm down the thick black sleeve.

“Mustn’t throw it out, then. I’m sure we’ve cleared enough space. Let’s get one of the boys to move the boxes in. I’m dying for a cigarette.”

1976

“Shhh.”

She giggled. “You shhhh.”

He pressed her against soft cloth. “Would you like it,” he whispered, “if we did it right here? Against Mr. Arnold Get-Me-Some-Coffee-Hon Dane’s good winter coat?”

Oh,” she said, and reached for him in the darkness.

Now

Alex staggered forward and gratefully dropped the box onto the surface of the desk.

“What’s in that one?” Cheryl asked.

He flipped open a flap of the lid. “Some kind of paper.” It had green and white stripes, and holes in the sides.

Cheryl clicked her tongue. “Blue box it. How much more to go?”

“I think that was about it.” Alex ducked back into the closet. Oh, right, that coat. He lifted it off its hook. It felt good and solid over his arm, a weight equal to any Toronto winter. He backed out of the closet door. “Do you know whose this is?”

She shrugged, tossing an unopened box of Sharpies into her tote bag. “Probably left behind by some hipster douchebag consultant.”

He laid it out over the back of one of their twelve-hundred-dollar ergonomic chairs. Dark, straight-cut, classic, the kind of coat that made him think of black-and-white movies, silk scarves and leather gloves. Judging by the shoulders, it might actually fit him. “Is it okay if I take it?”

A handful of cello-wrapped Post-its followed the Sharpies. “Take anything that isn’t nailed down, I couldn’t care less. In fact, if you see something you like that is nailed down, go get a goddamn pry bar. It’s all going to be condos in a year anyway.”

Cheryl was bitter. Cheryl’d been banking on stock options and early retirement, and what she’d gotten was two weeks’ notice and a bagful of stolen office supplies.

That was what came of having expectations.

Alex slid the coat on and stretched his arms out. The sleeves were a little long, but it felt good. Substantial.

“Okay, that’s it for me,” Cheryl said, hefting the bag over her shoulder. The phone on her desk rang. She gave it an incredulous eye. “See you in the unemployment line.”

“Yeah, take care.”

The coat was a little heavy for September, even if they were having the fall’s first cold snap, but wearing it would be less trouble than carrying it. Alex gathered his windbreaker and bag.

At the door to the offices he paused and looked over the bags of trash, the denuded cubicle walls, the shredder with a few festive curls of paper hanging over its edge. There hadn’t actually been much to the job, making it the best eighteen months of his working life–ordering sushi for catered meetings and pigging out on the leftovers, flirting madly with hot graphic designer Matthew, taking two hours in the afternoons to pick up his boss’s dry cleaning, dicking around on the internet. He’d always known it wouldn’t last.

Well, it was back to the coffee shop mines for him.

But he was walking away with a well-padded bank account, eligibility for EI for the first time in his life, a backpack full of Moleskine rip-offs customized with the company’s exceedingly cool logo, and a pretty decent winter coat. Best of all, Cheryl aside, there had been almost no drama: no firing, no quitting, just the quiet sale and gutting of an internet startup that had been barely more than imaginary to begin with. He could have done way worse.

~*~

The way the coat brushed against his calves made him swagger a little as he walked, and he stuck his hands into the side pockets on pure movie-montage-fuelled instinct. They were deep enough that his hands didn’t fill them. That made him wonder whether there might be something at the bottom of those pockets, say, some forgotten wallet or a lost iPhone with a reward attached, and he broke his stride to pat himself down. Nothing in the side pockets. Nothing in the right-hand breast pocket; nothing in the left.

He almost missed the last pocket, a little slit in the lining, just the size for a key or, he supposed, a pocket watch. He poked one finger inside, and his fingertip met cool, smooth glass.

He stepped off the sidewalk and stopped entirely to tease it out. It was a small, clear bottle, the length of his palm. There was a cork stuck fast in the neck, and a tightly rolled, age-browned scrap of paper inside.

Cool.

Somewhere in his cutlery drawer there was a corkscrew that had followed him home from some waitstaff job or other. The instant he kicked his door shut, he threw the coat and his bag over the back of the couch with one hand and rummaged in the drawer with the other, a maneuver made possible by the fact that his kitchen was two masonite cupboards, a sink, and about six inches’ worth of countertop glued against one wall of his bachelor apartment. The cork wasn’t thick, and he ended up pretty much destroying it getting it out of the way.

He upended the bottle and shook the paper out into his hand.

It wasn’t a roll of paper after all. It was…a twig?

Something happened.

He blinked. The world shivered and dipped, like when he’d had that weird reaction to that tropical nut trail mix that one time.

Something…dropped? Landed? Appeared, on the scuffed parquet of his floor. A man. On hands and knees, breathing hard. Naked.

The man’s hands tightened into fists. “Ten years!” he gasped. “You fool, did I not say but ten–”

He flung his head up. Under its cherrywood hue, his skin had a sallow tinge. His eyes were frantic, black pupils nearly eclipsing irises like backlit spring maple leaves.

“Have you any idea what you,” he panted, “you nearly–I nearly–”

He took a long, shuddering breath, and seemed to see Alex for the first time.

“You…are not he,” he said uncertainly.

“I’m guessing not,” Alex said.

The man sat back on his heels. “Is this the year of your lord eighteen hundred and ninety-eight?”

“Nope.”

The man rubbed his arms as if to comfort himself and looked around the shabby apartment. “Well,” he said, and wearily pushed cinnamon hair out of his eyes, “fuck me green.”

~*~

Alex dumped vegetarian chili out of the can into the smaller of his two pots and set it on his hotplate.

“This fastening is baffling,” the man said, frowning down at the zipper on the hoodie Alex had given him.

“Okay, just a sec.” Alex gave the chili a stir, and walked the three steps over to where the man sat on the arm of the couch. He demonstrated, zipping the hoodie up over the Keep calm and chill out T-shirt he’d gotten for volunteering at that meditation thing in the park last summer.

“We do not fashion from metal on my world,” the man said, rather defensively, Alex thought. His accent, though mild, was precise and faintly clipped, like Oxbridge through Stuttgart with a detour via Delhi.

“No big deal,” Alex said. He went back to stir the chili again, because the hotplate didn’t offer much of a middle ground between “lukewarm” and “carbonized.”

The man followed him and sniffed over the pot. “Do you eat beasts on your world?” he asked.

“Well, I don’t.”

“At least you are a civilized people.” That was under his breath. “However, I fear that your dead foodstuffs will not fully restore me.”

Alex looked at the chili, which wasn’t an aesthetic dish in any event and now looked markedly less appetizing for having been described as dead. “So when you said you needed sustenance, what did you mean?”

The man went to the larger window and peered upwards through the grimy glass. “Does your sun’s light reach this abode?”

“Sure. For about twelve minutes, about half an hour ago.”

He shook his head. “After so much time, my reserves are gravely depleted. How close is the nearest nourishing ground?”

“That depends. What does one look like?”

“What does–oh. Yes. I forgot that animals cannot nourish themselves directly. It must be such an inconvenience.”

“You looked like you needed something fast,” Alex said, letting the man’s slightly patronizing tone pass.

“Yes. I thank you.” The man looked abashed, and gave him a strained half-smile. “It will be a green place where all are welcome.”

Alex turned the dial on the hotplate to Off. “Let’s go.”

~*~

The blue titanium wall of Frank Gehry’s art gallery addition loomed above them like a stage set of a summer sky. Alex had begun to lead the man into the park proper, but his guest had stopped on the western edge, in a patch of orange-tinted sunlight, and begun pulling off his socks and shoes. “This will suffice. We have little time before your sun sets.”

“If you’re going barefoot you might want to watch where you step,” Alex said.

The man looked down at the cool grass. “Do hooligans despoil your public nourishing grounds?”

“…Yes,” Alex said, considering and discarding a long explanation about syringes and broken bottles and inconsiderate dog owners and the lack of public washrooms downtown.

He clicked his tongue. “People are everywhere the same. Very well, I will remain in this spot.” Foregoing the zipper, he took hold of the hem of the hoodie and pulled it over his head. His hands, Alex noticed, were shaking. Then he grabbed the bottom of the T-shirt and divested himself of it as well. He pushed both articles of clothing towards Alex, who took them by reflex, and his hands fell to the drawstring of his baggy yoga pants.

Whoa,” Alex said. “Okay, stop there.”

The man looked at him curiously. “I have said I will remain here.”

“Yeah, better remain in your pants, too.”

“But–” The man made a face. “Very well. It is not ideal, but I will have what I can now.” He dug his toes into the grass and lifted his reddish-brown arms to the fading sunlight. His eyes closed.

Alex glanced around. On the tail end of rush hour on a cool late September weeknight, there were still people walking home through the park, or heading down to Queen Street to grab dinner. On the other hand, this was downtown Toronto; a reasonably attractive shirtless guy could jump up and down and shoot a rainbow laser show from the top of his head, and most people would shrug and walk on past.

Not being “most people” himself, Alex turned back for a discreet eyeful and–

Wait, what?

He stared until the sun dropped below the line of buildings across the street. His visitor sighed, lowered his arms, and opened his eyes.

“Was that what you needed?” asked Alex.

“It was but a tidbit,” the man said, “and your soil is packed hard and laced with unpleasant contaminants, but there is nothing for it but to wait until your sun rises again.”

Alex handed him his clothes. “So, about you turning green…”

The man’s head popped through the neck of the T-shirt. “Receptors are tender. We have evolved–you understand evolution, I take it?–to protect them when not collecting nourishment.”

Alex thought about that for a second, and decided to just keep rolling with this thing.

They crossed the street. Alex stopped at the line of newspaper boxes to pick up a copy of the city’s free lefty weekly. It often had ads for medical study participants; a few years ago he’d scored a month’s rent in one admittedly dismal weekend by not sleeping for thirty-nine hours straight.

“You have much green in your city,” the man said, looking up and smiling faintly as they passed under century-old ash and chestnut trees on the way back to Alex’s apartment.

“Yeah, it’s not too bad,” Alex said. “Look, what’s your name? I’m Alex, by the way.”

“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, most generous Alex. You may call me…” He gazed into the overhead branches. “Names are complex to translate. To those I work with, I am…Instinctual Middle Redleaf? Is that acceptable in your tongue?”

“How about just Redleaf?” Which sounded like someone’s World of Warcraft name, but elf, alien, whatever.

“That will do.”

Mrs. Yeung, who had the first-floor apartment in the house, was sitting out under the porch light with her Sing Tao Daily and her post-dinner cup of “tea.” Alex waved to her as they went in, and she raised an arthritis-stiff hand at him in return.

“I thought perhaps you had the responsibility for this abode. But do you live communally?” Redleaf asked as they mounted the creaking stairs.

“In this city? I’m never going to afford to own,” Alex said. “But it’s cool. I don’t need the hassle.”

“I admit I have always hoped to be the caretaker of my own grant of grounds,” Redleaf said wistfully. “But the pursuit of scientific knowledge is not as lucrative as it would be in a better world.”

In the apartment, Alex filled his small kettle with water and plugged it in. Long discussions always went better with a pot of tea.

When he turned around, Redleaf was yawning. “I must rest. Where shall I sleep?”

“Sleep? It’s not even eight o’clock.”

“Ah, I see. You are nocturnal?”

“No, I–okay. You can have the couch. Tomorrow, I’d like to ask you some things.”

“Of course.” Redleaf put a hand on Alex’s arm. His fingers were room temperature. “I am grateful to you, Alex. An unexpected thing has happened, and without you it might have gone much worse for me. I will be happy to satisfy your curiosity when I have recovered.”

“It’s cool. It’s not the first time someone’s surfed my couch,” Alex said, and went to get his spare blanket out of the apartment’s single closet.

~*~

He woke with a sparking surge of adrenaline to a pounding on his door.

“Alex! Friend Alex, are you awake?”

“Nnnnrrg,” Alex said to the empty apartment, and rolled off his futon to shuffle to the door in his boxers and turn the knob.

“Your door closed behind me, and I lack the cellular pattern to open it.” Redleaf pushed into the apartment. “Come greet this glorious morning!”

Alex blinked at him. Redleaf’s skin was a deeper cerise shade than it had been, and had lost its dullness; he looked sleek, almost polished. His eyes had darkened to the green of orchid leaves.

“So I guess you got breakfast?” Alex said, yawning.

“It was marvelous! Your sun is strong, and your generous neighbour of the name of Ho granted me access to his grounds. He is a most gifted steward. It was a feast! I feel I am myself again.”

Mr. Ho had been supplying the neighbourhood with bitter melon, pak choy, and tomatoes from his corner lot for a quarter of a century, and the soil in his garden was like crumbled chocolate cake. On occasion it had made Alex’s mouth water.

Alex refilled the kettle and fumbled with tea leaves and strainer. “I guess you don’t drink tea?”

“Water would be welcome.”

Alex scratched his scalp. One of the many benefits of not having to go to work was not having to wake up in time to go to work, but it looked like the universe had alternate plans for him today. “I’m going to take a shower. Don’t touch that thing, it’ll turn off on its own.”

Hot water and peppermint soap worked together to bring him fully awake, and through long if reluctant practice, he was back in the kitchen just as the water was coming to a rolling boil. Four minutes later, he was sitting on the couch with a mug of lavishly honeyed tea and a bowl of dry Cheerios. He put his feet up on the low coffee table, tipping a half-knit chemo cap and a book on making vegan cheese over onto the floor to make room. Redleaf sat on the other end, cross-legged to face him, his hands wrapped around a mug of plain warm water.

“So,” Alex said.

“I was injured after my ship ran aground on your world’s gravity, which was stronger than I had expected it to be. I paid one of your people gold to guard me while I healed in a pocket dimension, but he betrayed and abandoned me and I nearly perished there,” Redleaf said.

“…Huh,” Alex said.

“My poor, brave ship did not survive, but I planted another from her seed. She must be well past maturity now, and I must harvest and shape her in order to return to my world.”

“Well, okay, then.” Alex turned a Cheerio on its side and broke it between his molars. “Okay. Interesting.”

“Do you have further questions?”

“I can think of a few, yeah.” Alex took a slurp of hot tea, and looked at Redleaf’s glossy hands against the blue Starry Night mug. “First thing, why aren’t you, like, an octopus or a nasturtium or a cloud of glitter or something? Why are you a guy?”

Redleaf let out a snicker. “A nasturtium?”

“You know what I mean.”

“I do. As it happens, wherever in the universe there are sentient species, this is the shape we take. Even on worlds where it seems anomalous, which are many. It is one of the great mysteries.” His lips twitched. “Nasturtium!”

Which brought Alex to his second question. “How can we understand each other? Did you study English before you came?”

“Your tongue? No, no. I grafted a translation bud long since.” He paused, the mug cradled in front of him. “Is our communication unclear?”

“It’s…a little idiosyncratic. Nothing to worry about,” Alex reassured him. “Did you actually say you were in another dimension?”

“Of a sort. I created a pocket in which to heal while I waited for my ship’s new generation to grow.”

“So, uh, why were you naked?”

Redleaf stiffened a little. “I had more than enough to do transporting only myself and could take nothing with me. As I say, my ship was injured. Plenty of travellers cannot do the calculations manually.”

“Relax, no judgement here.” He regarded Redleaf’s new glow. “But you were there longer than you planned?”

“Much longer. I fear I was pushing the limits of my endurance. It was supposed to last a mere ten of your years. I left the token that brought me back to you in the hands of a Trust.” He pressed his lips together. “Never would I have imagined that he would break faith with me. A Trust!”

“What’s a Trust?”

Redleaf stared at him. “Has the tradition died out? Become degraded? That would at least go some way to explaining the situation.”

“I’ve never heard of anything like that.”

Redleaf tilted his head at Alex. “How did you come into possession of my token?”

“It was in this old coat someone left at my–wait. Wait.” Alex squeezed his eyes shut and envisioned the antique wood panelling and frosted-glass doors of his soon-to-be-condoized former workplace. The chipped gold curve painted on the main office entrance, words passed so often they had become invisible to him: Simpson Trust Co. Ltd. “It was a trust company?”

“Yes, as I have said, a Trust.”

Really different thing, I’m guessing. So you just walked in and…gave the first guy you saw a bottle and a handful of gold?”

Trust was written on the door!” Redleaf said. “I explained my need to the young man behind the barrier. He seemed sober and accommodating. Who would dare impersonate a Trust? There is no reason I should not have relied on him!”

“Yeah, exactly how much gold did you give him?”

“It is always difficult to judge the local markets, and I was short on time. Perhaps five hundred grams?”

Alex crunched a Cheerio contemplatively. Yeah, he could see it: Crazy guy with a twig in a bottle and a bagful of gold, check. Random low-level employee, check. Somebody making a quick decision and skipping town with the proceeds, check.

Redleaf’s mug clattered against the coffee table as he set it down. His hand was over his mouth. “He did abandon me.”

“Looks like it,” Alex said apologetically.

“He abandoned me to my death.” His complexion had gone dull.

“Not to your death. Hey. You’re safe. Totally safe. Breathe,” Alex ordered as Redleaf swayed where he sat.

“I–I knew the journey to your world would be perilous, but–” Redleaf swallowed. “To have come so close to death due to another’s negligence….” His jaw tightened. “That perfidious wretch.”

“There’s always gotta be one,” Alex agreed.

Redleaf stood. “I am sorry, Alex, I will answer any more questions you have later, but now I must go to my ship. I must see her.”

“Yeah, no problem. So did you…bury it or something?”

“I planted her, yes.”

Alex rubbed the back of his neck. “Um, yeah. So, you buried something, what, a hundred and twenty-five years ago…I don’t want to freak you out, but Toronto’s changed kind of a lot in that time. How are you even going to find, um, her?” If it still exists. There wasn’t a lot of downtown that hadn’t been excavated deeply for highrises since the fifties. On the other hand, if anyone had ever found an alien spaceship buried under the city, he was pretty sure he would have heard about it.

“Ah, now this I am certain of. I planted her near a landmark I knew would endure, your highest institution of learning. ”

What year had he said, eighteen-ninety-something? U of T had to be that old, right? “Okay, I think I know where that is.”

“Is it near?”

“Yeah, we can walk there.”

“Very good! Let us go at once.”

Standing up, Alex crammed the last handful of Cheerios into his mouth, and chased them with a cooling swig of tea.

“I am not keeping you from your employment, am I?” asked Redleaf, as if it had just occurred to him.

“Me? Nah, my last gig just ended yesterday. I’ve got time.”

Redleaf watched him shove his bare feet into laceless Keds. “What work do you do?”

“For money, you mean? A bit of everything. Barista, cater waiter, messenger. Office temp when I can stand it. To tell the truth, when it comes to work, I’m pretty much a slacker. I’ve got other stuff to do, you know?”

Alex turned from locking the door behind him to find Redleaf looking at him with interest.

“A slaker?” he said in that curious, crisp accent. “You slake? Interesting. I did not know they had such people here. That is a happy chance.” He turned and barrelled down the stairs. “Come, Alex, I am anxious to meet her!”

They had slackers in space, or alternate universes, or wherever? People really were the same all over, Alex marveled, and followed him down.

They headed up Beverley Street, Redleaf’s urgency pulling Alex along in its wake. The only times he stopped were to lean over fences and step onto lawns to put both hands flat against the trunks of some of the taller trees.

“They breathe shallowly,” he said distractedly, not looking at Alex. “The water parches them with its–salt? How can that be? We are not on the ocean here. Their roots are boxed in by stone on all sides. I planted her where I could find her again in a strange city. Perhaps it was too near the buildings. Is she confined? Is she undernourished? Will she be able to speak to me?”

Alex traced a finger down a valley between rough plates of bark. “Are the trees actually telling you those things?”

“No, no, they are not awakened. But–I can sense what they feel.”

“They’re not…in pain or anything, are they?”

“They do not know anything better,” Redleaf said, and let his hand fall.

At College Street, Alex turned them east, towards the older buildings on campus. As they passed the pillars that marked the university’s official entrance, Redleaf looked up and grabbed Alex’s arm. “That is it!”

Straight down the brick-paved road and across the lawn of King’s College Circle, the central tower of University College pointed to the sky like the vanishing point in a perfect perspective drawing.

By the time they were halfway across the field, Redleaf was jogging, and when they neared the building he was running full out. He dashed across the road with complete obliviousness to traffic. Alex had to stop to let a Beemer hybrid and a couple of irate cyclists go by, and when he caught sight of Redleaf again he knew it was bad news even before he reached his side.

Redleaf was hunched with his arms folded over his stomach, pacing around and around in a tight circle, looking up at the building, then down at the ground, then up again as if there were something he might have overlooked on the previous dozen passes.

Alex looked at the trees that shaded the building’s age-dark stones. Tall, but he’d bet none of them was anywhere near a hundred and ten-odd years old.

“She’s not here?” he asked softly.

Redleaf flapped a hand at the corner of the building. “She would be right where I stand. This many paces from that arched window.” He made another circuit. “I see no mark of roots, no swell where she was left to feed the soil.” He turned again. Alex suspected he wasn’t even aware he was doing it. “She has been gone for years. Decades, even.” He took a hoarse breath. “Did she live near her full years? Was she felled young by lightning or disease? She would never had been awakened. She would never have known–” He bent over as if in pain.

“I’m sorry,” Alex said.

“I left her,” Redleaf whispered. “I should have stayed. I should have tended her.”

“You said you were injured….”

“I should have found some way.” His voice shook. “My ship’s line is ended, her daughter is gone, and it is my fault. My greed, my pride.” He ran a hand over his face. “And I pay, though not as dearly as they. They are lost to me, and I can never go home.”

Redleaf knelt, and pressed his palms against the grass. When he rose again he pulled his hood over his head, shadowing his face. “Take me away from this place, Alex. Please.”

When they got back to the apartment, Redleaf crawled onto the couch and lay in a tight knot, knees bent up to his chin. Alex spent the afternoon half-heartedly surfing job sites on his laptop, sending off a few emails to temp agencies he’d used before, chasing obscure hashtags through Twitter, and scoring low on Bejewelled. At lunch, and again at dinner, he left his futon and went over to the couch to ask Redleaf if he needed anything. Redleaf shook his head and said nothing.

The next morning, Redleaf hadn’t moved. Alex left a mug of warm water on the coffee table for him and went out for some literal and figurative air. He dropped by Dustin’s juice bar and vegan eatery to shoot the breeze and see if he was hiring (no). He browsed the new magazines at his local library branch and treated himself to a two-dollar bahn mi at the corner store. He stopped into his favourite bike shop to see if there were any jobs open (no). On the way home he ran into the ex of a party planner he’d been waitstaff for. She had just started her own catering business, and he came away with the possibility of work once things picked up for the holidays, if his EI benefits had run out by then.

Redleaf was still on the couch.

The mug was half-empty, though. Alex replenished it, grazed on salsa and chips for dinner, soaked in a hot bath to read a few dozen pages of the battered copy of Infinite Jest he’d been trying to get through for the past year, and made it an early night.

The sound of his door closing woke him.

The windows were grey in the dimness. Rain thrummed on the roof.

Something–instinct or just curiosity–prodded him. Alex switched on the lamp on the floor beside his futon. He rolled out of the bed alcove and pulled yesterday’s cargo pants and sweatshirt on over his T-shirt and boxers. He dropped his keys and i.d. into a pocket, slipped his feet into sandals, and grabbed his jacket and umbrella from the hook on the back of the door.

Morning traffic drove and cycled past, headlights bright against the rain-thick dimness. Alex shook the umbrella open as he scanned the street. Movement caught his eye: a woman dashing past in business suit and red rubber boots, the piercingly orange vest of the crossing guard two corners down. Would Redleaf have gone left, towards the park, or right, towards Mr. Ho’s, or…

A shape detached itself from the bough-shadowed trunk of the pine tree across the street. Redleaf slogged across a front yard of patio stones streaming with runoff, and put his hands against the ancient elm that dominated the next yard. By the time Alex had reached the sidewalk, he had moved on to another tree a few doors down, reaching over the low iron fence that edged the lot to press his palms on it like a faith healer awaiting a miracle.

Alex caught up to him at the chestnut on the corner. “Hey, Redleaf,” he said. “What’s up?”

The man’s eyes were closed. “Alex?”

“Yeah. What are you doing?”

“I must find one. There must be one.”

“What are you looking for?”

Redleaf pulled his hands back from the tree, and looked at them. “One I can awaken. One I can shape, and slake. One who will take me back home.”

His hair was slicked to his scalp and the sides of his face. His hoodie was sodden and dripping. Alex angled the umbrella, futilely, to shelter Redleaf’s face. “You couldn’t have waited until it wasn’t raining?”

“Your season is darkening. Already they are withdrawing and thinking of sleep. I have little time.”

Alex sighed. “You can’t touch every tree in Toronto.”

Redleaf turned evergreen-dark eyes on him. “If I must.”

Cold water seeped through the backs of Alex’s pants. “Fine. Let me help.”

“You have not the knowledge for this.” Redleaf pushed by him and rounded the corner to encircle a sapling with his hands.

“But you must have criteria, right? Where you come from, you don’t just talk to every tree until you find the right one, do you?”

Redleaf blinked water out of his eyes. “We grow them from established lines.” He was silent for a moment. “But yes, when we seek new stock, there are qualities we look for, that is true.”

“So come inside and tell me what they are,” Alex said. “Or draw me some pictures. We can narrow down probable locations online. Or at least I can Google some photos of parks. Don’t just go wandering around an unfamiliar city in the rain fondling trees. You’ll get arrested for trespassing or hit by a minivan or something.”

Tilting his head, Redleaf said, “This online…is it like the tangle?”

“Is that what you call the place where you keep all the information and blogs and porn and illegal movie downloads?”

“The knowledge and the stories, yes.”

“Close enough.” Alex changed hands on the umbrella, and stuck the freed one, cramped with cold, into his jacket pocket. The storm front must have dropped the temperature a good ten degrees between yesterday and today.

“Compatibility is not a matter of knowledge,” Redleaf said. “Can you fall in love by brushing someone’s node in the tangle? It is feeling.”

He moved as if to step past Alex on the sidewalk, but Alex stopped him with a hand against the clammy cotton of his sweatshirt.

“You won’t make the right choice as long as you’re panicking,” he said.

Redleaf bristled and began to say something. Alex overrode him firmly. “There are better ways to do this. And honestly, you’re freaking me out a little. Just come upstairs and we’ll work it out, okay?”

Redleaf glared at him for a moment, then looked away. “Very well,” he said stiffly.

They were both silent as they squelched back across the street and up the stairs. Alex unlocked his door with chill-clumsy fingers. Redleaf sat down on the couch, back rigid.

Alex reached into the bathroom and snagged two towels from the shelf. He tossed one in Redleaf’s direction. “Go throw those clothes into the bathtub. I’ll get you something dry.”

Redleaf went. Alex peeled off his own pants, which were wet to the thighs, towelled himself down, and changed quickly into thick sweats and a woollen sweater. He looked at the increasingly faded and worn offerings on his closet shelves–a laundromat and possibly a visit to Value Village needed to be in his near future–and grabbed a change of clothes. He bent his arm around the half-open bathroom door and dropped them on the floor.

The kettle had boiled and he was sitting on the couch with his hands wrapped around a mug of tea and an afghan over his feet when Redleaf emerged from the bathroom.

“Show me the–” he said, and paused. “Alex? Are you ill?”

“No, I’m cold,” Alex said. “Aren’t you cold?”

“No, of course not. My kind are not afflicted by temperature in the way that animals are.” Redleaf’s eyes widened. “Oh. You believed that I was uncomfortable in the rain.”

“Well, yeah.”

Redleaf’s shoulders drooped. “You are a better friend than I could even have wished for, had I chosen one for my stay here.” He grimaced. “You were quite correct. I was panicking. And I have been known to become…fervent when pursuing an idea.”

“Not a problem,” Alex said, recognizing the spirit of an apology when he saw it. “You’ve had a rough few days.” He leaned forward and tapped the trackpad of his laptop. The screen bloomed into brightness.

Redleaf sat down beside Alex. He put out a hand and traced a finger along the rounded corner of the screen.

“It is so odd to me,” he said, “that you fashion things rather than growing them.”

“You grow computers?”

“Is that what you call them? Yes, our nodes are the portals to the tangle.” He made a circular motion with his finger against the screen. “How do you communicate with it?”

Alex demonstrated the trackpad and the keyboard, making the cursor trace the curves of the mandala on his desktop.

Redleaf shook his head in fascination. “Perhaps one day I may return at my leisure and spend some time learning your world’s ways.”

Alex thought back to their earlier conversation, and the questions he hadn’t had a chance to ask. “You said you crash-landed. What were you coming here for in the first place?”

Redleaf stared with an air of absorption at the screen.

“You’re not a smuggler or something, are you? Or a pirate? Are you a pirate?”

“I beg your pardon, I am a man of science! And it’s perfectly legal,” Redleaf snapped. “Just….” He cleared his throat. “Just somewhat inadvisable.”

“What is?”

Redleaf sighed. “Very well.” He braced his elbows on his knees as he sat forward. “I have said that we raise our ships, and our other technologies, from established lines. There are also those of us who work with experimental strains. We incorporate new materials, with their unique forms and energies, found on different worlds. The amount we can learn and improve is endless! These materials are additions to, not replacements for, the traditional lines, and to think that we must choose one or the other is– Er. That is a discussion for another time.

“But in my generation, the exploration for such new materials has slowed. Branches other than mine have staked claims on materials from the easily reachable worlds. All they have left us is dregs and salvage. For those of us not long from saplings, prospects are scarce.

“Except! There are worlds that have barely been explored and that are mysteries to us. Anyone who succeeded in travelling to such a new land and bringing back viable samples for breeding and study would be welcomed into any branch he chose. He might even earn enough to establish his own branch.

“Your world is one such. The passage to it is, as I have said, perilous and arcane. I was warned against it, but still, its ferocity surprised me.” He looked down at his hands. “At the time, it seemed worth the risk.”

Alex hovered his fingers over the keyboard. “What kind of samples are you looking for? A particular kind of plant?”

“Oh, yes. Several.”

“Okay. Give me an example.”

Redleaf pursed his lips. “I am working through a schematic for an improved communication node, and I lack the perfect element. The stems must be straight, the energies long and silken, the flowers imperfect so they yearn towards another, and orange pink dawn as through the ether they stitch round silver together in braids.” He looked at the laptop, and then at Alex. “Why are you not doing your computer? Was that not clear enough?”

Alex leaned back against the couch. “What do you think you just said?”

“I described the characteristics of a plant I seek.” He tilted his head. “Does your world use a different taxonomy?”

“Pretty much completely different, yeah.” Alex scratched his nose. “Those were all actual words, but I have no idea what that meant.”

Redleaf titled his head. “If I say to you that my ship was deep golden seeing and polished to the heart…?”

Alex shook his head.

“Interesting. It seems the translation bud has its limitations.”

Alex extended his hands over the keyboard again. “Let’s start with the basics. What does it look like?”

“What does what look like?”

“The plant you’re looking for. The…long silk silver dawn one.”

“Why would its appearance matter?”

They stared at one another.

“Okay, new plan,” Alex said.

~*~

They stepped down, and the streetcar creaked away at speed.

As they waited for the light to change, Redleaf looked up with interest at the tree-dense hillside on the other side of the Queensway. “You say this is a sanctuary of plants?”

“Yeah, the website says there’s a couple of different kinds of woodlands, and marshy habitat near the pond, and there’s cultivated species in the flowerbeds and allotment gardens. It’s the largest park close to downtown.” The light winked to green, and he stepped off the curb. “But there are others, and they’re not impossible to get to, so don’t freak out if you don’t find what you need today, okay?”

Redleaf had sped up ahead of him, and was already closing his hands around the gnarled branches of a lichen-covered tree beside the park path.

Alex shrugged. At least he’d been able to persuade Redleaf that they should wait until the rain actually stopped.

Three hours later, he had a picture in his mind of a High Park so different from the one he knew that he felt as if he were seeing in entirely new colours.

The weeping willows that dotted the eastern edge of Grenadier Pond were in fine health, but “truthfully, for artists,” Redleaf said, with a roll of his eyes. The bulrushes made him wrinkle his nose and look past them up the path. When they passed a stand of the park’s famous sakura cherry trees, Redleaf smiled at them sidelong and dipped his chin, but when the path took them along a row of forsythia, he went yellow under the gloss of his skin, and pulled Alex by the elbow until the embankment blocked them from view. He wouldn’t explain why.

He spent a long time with the chrysanthemums in the flower beds that made up the maple-leaf-shaped central garden, stroking their thickly clustered petals, looking from orange to purple to rust.

“Maybe, I think–this could–I would have to twine–” he muttered, and left them with a frown of speculation.

They were cutting across the lawn when he gasped and dropped to his knees.

“These. You have these?” He cradled a golden blossom against his cupped hand.

“Is that rare?” Alex asked.

“Rare, and treasured.” Redleaf brushed a thumb over feathery petals. “I would not so far forget myself as to rob a sanctuary, but–friend Alex, I know many who would pay dearly for such as these.”

“For those,” Alex said, looking down at the cluster of late dandelions in the damp grass.

“If you could only feel how their lustre pulls at me! And this one in particular has a sustained harmony of which I have never seen the like. An I am able to return to your world a second time, I would trade you much gold for even a few specimens.”

Alex pursed his lips. “I…might be able to get you a good deal on some.”

Redleaf looked up at him. “Within the bounds of the law?”

“One hundred percent,” Alex reassured him.

In the restored black oak savannah, Redleaf embraced trunk after trunk, while Alex surfed a few disappointing job sites on his phone.

“They are so aged,” Redleaf said as they climbed the trail up to the park road. “Even the youngest among them is well at the end of their shaping years. There are perhaps two I might call to me–though whether they might awaken at all…”

“It’s not the only park in the city,” Alex reminded him.

Redleaf shook his head. “I understand. Yet it is frustrating. Everything is so muted. On my world, their qualities would sing to me the way your birds call, but here, I must be near atop them before I can feel their colours. What if I pass steps from my best match, and never hear?”

They followed the road as it sloped back south to the streetcar tracks. The sun, lowering towards the west, speared out from under of a glower of grey clouds, and a mosaic of greens glowed to life around them.

“We haven’t even touched the east side of the park,” Alex said. “Tomorrow, why don’t we–”

“Those are not so old,” Redleaf said, and veered off onto a path that led up railway-tie steps and through trees and knee-high undergrowth. Alex, with a brief struggle to accept the moment and not think instead of dry socks and a cup of tea, followed.

Redleaf wove through the young trees as if through a crowd of friends, putting his palms against them, letting the whip-thin ends of branches drag through the curl of his fingers. He checked himself at one, closed his eyes, patted it, and moved on. He smiled at another, but kept walking.

Then he stopped in front of a sugar maple. He looked up at its summer-burnt leaves, and laughed with relief in his voice. He put his hands on both sides of the trunk–they went perhaps halfway around–and rested his forehead against the grey striations of its bark.

“This one. Oh, friend Alex, this one may have me.”

Alex rested his hand against the tree. The bark was rough under his skin, and damp from the rain. “What do you do now?”

“We will see if she will let us inside her. The calculations–fortunately these I know well–but hush, let me–”

Alex waited, while Redleaf whispered under his breath, nodded and shook his head, and finally pulled away and opened his eyes.

“She is awake.” His smile glowed. “Give me your hand.”

Alex put his hand in Redleaf’s outstretched one. Redleaf’s skin was smooth, and no warmer than the air, and–

The world staggered.

Alex squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again.

He wasn’t sure where the light was coming from, but he could see the wall beside him clearly, an undulation of polished wood curving up into leafy shadows above his head. Across a space that didn’t feel quite like a room, he saw…vines? Moss? A sensation of both coziness and openness, a softness to the air, an anticipatory stillness.

“Are we…inside the tree?”

“After a fashion,” Redleaf said. “I have drawn out a pocket of its heart spirit, thought it golden with longing, rooted it to the physical plane and pulling with the leys brought it young and sap running to house us.”

Alex lifted a hand and held it an inch from the sleek wall. “Is it all right if I touch it? It won’t be hurt or offended or anything?”

“Of course you may touch her. After all, now comes your part.”

“My part?”

“You said you were a slaker, yes?”

Gingerly, Alex brushed his fingertips along the wall. He didn’t feel tingling, or a heartbeat, or any kind of movement. At the same time, it didn’t feel like furniture. More like something large and slow, sleeping.

“I’m happy to help, but I’m not actually sure what you want me to do,” he said.

“It is, of course, slaker’s choice,” Redleaf said. “I am hoping that we alone will be enough. I found one other sufficient before, but each ship is different. I know a pilot who required four.” His lips twitched. “He was so exhausted he delayed the virgin flight for days. But I know of no one who has ever shaped a ship from your world, so we are embarking into the unknown. That is not necessarily to our disadvantage. I have been thinking; it seems possible to me that she may hold an affinity for her home, and perhaps that will enable me to more safely run the passage back to your world. If I am able to return regularly, the resources your world may offer to my funding and my research–” He caught himself, and shook his head sheepishly. “But let us deal with first things first.”

“How did your first, uh, slaker like to do it?” Coming right out and saying No to a new experience wasn’t really Alex’s style, and he generally found learning by doing preferable to formal instruction, but he was kind of at sea here.

“We decided upon the oldest way. Many pilots have found that the most rewarding. Gratification at the beginning of one’s awakening seems to have a sustaining influence.”

“Okay, let’s do that, then.”

Redleaf smiled at him. “I confess, friend Alex, I am not unhappy that that is the method you have chosen.”

He put a hand on Alex’s shoulder, and the other on his arm, and leaned in to kiss him.

Huh, Alex thought. This week was just full of unexpected personal growth opportunities.

Redleaf’s lips were cool. This close, he smelled faintly of something herbaceous, freshly pruned branches or shoots of new grass. His mouth tasted like maple sap straight from the tree, slightly sweet.

Redleaf stroked a hand down the side of Alex’s neck and trailed his fingers over his throat. His thumb inched under the neckline of Alex’s T-shirt and sweater, moved slowly along his clavicle.

Alex heard himself make a sound into Redleaf’s mouth. Redleaf cupped the back of Alex’s head. Firm fingertips massaged a circle at the base of Alex’s skull. Redleaf’s hands warmed with Alex’s body heat. Alex curved his arms around Redleaf’s back and pulled him closer.

After a time, Redleaf’s mouth left his, brushed along his cheek. Teeth closed gently over his earlobe.

Alex gasped. His hips twitched forward.

Redleaf hummed. “Is that something you enjoy, friend Alex?” Delicate moisture traced the curve of his ear.

Alex shuffled backwards, pulling Redleaf with him, until they shored up at the wall. He could tell he was going to need something to lean on before long.

Redleaf’s mouth travelled down Alex’s neck. Alex titled his chin to the side. His right hand, curving around the bottom of Redleaf’s ribs, met a gap at the edge of his T-shirt. He wormed his fingers in, pulled the cloth free. When he ran his fingers up firm torso and flattened his palm over a hard nipple, Redleaf’s breath hitched.

Alex put his other hand on Redleaf’s tailbone and pressed him forward. Redleaf’s hips angled as his feet moved, one thigh between Alex’s, just exactly where Alex needed it. He rotated his hips, not really thrusting, just experimenting with the stimulation, half relief, half tease.

Redleaf’s hand dropped to Alex’s waist, slid back and down to cup the underside of his ass, fingertips brushing the junction between buttock and thigh, and okay, now Alex thrust against Redleaf’s hip.

“You must warn me when you are nearing the climax of your pleasure,” Redleaf said breathlessly against Alex’s shoulder.

Something about that ridiculous, precise phrasing sent a thrill through Alex. “Yeah, getting there,” he gasped, with another thrust, aware that if he was supposed to be the representative of all human males he was giving a pretty pathetic showing; they hadn’t even gotten their pants open–

Redleaf pulled back from him and stood breathing hard at arm’s length.

“Um. What the,” Alex managed, gulping in air.

“We must have the self-mastery to make her strong,” Redleaf said. He swallowed. “The build, the sustain, the ebb and surge of our need bring her flush to her slaking–”

“Nrgh, stop talking,” Alex said desperately. Polar Bear Swim, uncooked steak, uh, practising piano scales, uh… Breathing, concentrate on your breathing. Noticing that he was panting gave him the ability to slow it down, smooth it out, ignore his body’s urgency until he backed away a bit from the brink.

He rested the back of his head against the wall and eyed Redleaf. “Okay. You’re on. Just tell me I get to come at some point today.”

The look Redleaf gave him sent a jolt straight down through his core. “Oh, yes, most assuredly, friend Alex. I vow it.”

The third time Redleaf brought him to the edge and abandoned him there, Alex’s knees turned to water. “Gotta lie down,” he said hoarsely, and without waiting for a response he pitched forward in a semi-controlled hunch and rolled with immense gratitude onto his back. The sides of his unzipped fly settled against his thighs.

Redleaf, who was already on his knees, sat back on his heels. He looked as ragged as Alex felt, hair pointing in all directions and wet lips parted as he breathed heavily. At some point he had discarded his T-shirt, and his chinos pooled around his knees. Alex wanted to grab him and don’t think of it, think of anything but that, uh, job hunting, filling out forms…

Redleaf opened a hand against the floor. “I believe–we may be–this feels as if it is vigorous enough for her,” he said.

“Yeah?”

“Yes. Now we may continue to our release.”

“That…is the hottest thing anyone’s ever said to me.” Alex rolled his head to the side and grinned giddily. “Come on over here.”

Redleaf crawled the few feet to Alex, kicking his pants off behind him as he moved. Alex, unsure he could even prop himself up on an elbow, pulled Redleaf’s leg over his and nudged his arms into position, until Redleaf was braced over him on hands and knees. Alex took a moment to relish the view, then wrapped both hands around Redleaf’s erection and stroked. Redleaf murmured and began to rock his hips, thrusting into Alex’s hold.

Alex felt a tingle go through him with each push. His hips, touching nothing, moved in time with Redleaf’s. The second Redleaf touched him, he knew, he would–

“I–oh–haaaaaaaaahhhhh.” Redleaf spattered pale green liquid all over Alex’s rucked-up T-shirt. Alex, briefly distracted, watched in fascination as Redleaf’s arms and chest whirled through sunrise yellow, pale yellow, spring green, acid green, deep forest green, and back to brown, like a kaleidoscope under his skin.

Redleaf staggered down onto his elbows. “Ah–oh–Alex–” His voice vibrated against Alex’s ear.

That tiny stimulation went from Alex’s ear to his cock as though there were a single nerve stretched between them. He felt the hot rush begin, inexorable; he blindly seized Redleaf’s hips, dragged down, shoved up. His body arched against Redleaf’s weight. For an agonizing moment he couldn’t breathe, speak, move. Then the pleasure burst through the tension. It took him in long waves, hard and shaking, and he heard himself cry out over and over into the waiting space as the rhythm wrung him empty in the best possible way.

He felt Redleaf move off him and slide to the floor. There was smugness in Redleaf’s voice as he said, “Yes, she is well satisfied.”

“Yay us,” Alex mumbled, and closed his eyes.

He must have dozed off, because when he opened them again, Redleaf was fully clothed and standing with his back to Alex, his hands stroking the wall in long sweeps. Alex sat up, feeling both sore and wonderfully relaxed. He gave up his T-shirt as beyond hope and used it to clean himself up, then got into his sweatshirt and sweater and pants.

He watched Redleaf for a few minutes, not sure whether he should interrupt, enjoying the grace and confidence of Redleaf in his element. Then Redleaf glanced over at him and let his arms fall.

“I am coaxing the manifestation of the controls,” he explained. “She is eager to take flight.”

“So you think you’ll be able to make it home?”

Redleaf’s expression warmed. “She is a fine, strong ship. I feel certain I shall.” He stepped closer. “Friend Alex, I owe you much. Without your luck in liberating me from my own error and your generosity in guiding me through your world–not to mention your fine skill at slaking–I would be in a hard place indeed.”

“Well, think of me the next time you help someone else out,” Alex said.

“May I find you again if I return?”

“Yeah, absolutely.” He wondered how long interstellar, or interdimensional, or whatever-it-was travel took.

“Thank you. You will see me the day after tomorrow, if I am able to come at all.”

“Seriously? You can make it back that fast?”

Redleaf looked puzzled. “No, the journey is far, but–ah. I see your confusion. Once I have completed the configurations, my ship will have the facility to navigate the fourth dimension along with all the others.”

It took Alex a moment to parse that out. “This ship is a time machine?”

Redleaf pursed his lips. “In layman’s terms, yes, I suppose you could say that.”

Alex felt himself start to grin. The borders of the universe, already porous, began to blow outwards with possibility. “Your spaceship is a time machine.”

“Yes. Is this another point of mistranslation? Were my words imprecise?”

“And you want to pay me gold for dandelions.”

“That is what you call those lustrous flowers we encountered earlier? Yes, if you are able to procure some.”

Alex brushed the glossy wall with the backs of his fingers. “Do you ever take passengers on your ship?”

“Passengers?” Redleaf blinked at him. “Not heretofore. I have never been asked.” He looked down at his hands. “I confess, a partner in my expeditions would not be unwelcome.”

“Would your ship mind?”

“I do not believe so. You are linked to her now. In fact,” and he gazed at the wall with apparent absorption, “there are some who theorize that slaking done habitually keeps a ship balanced and nimble. I would not be averse to testing that hypothesis. In the pursuit of science. If you are willing.”

Alex looked up into the leafy shadows of the ship’s ceiling, and smiled at whatever was up there that he couldn’t see. “I’ll see you the day after tomorrow, then.”

“I greatly anticipate it, friend Alex.”

Later

The dinner crowd had claimed most of the tables. Alex waved to Dustin, and weaved between rickety two-tops and a long communal table to the back of the restaurant, where he slid into the coveted semi-circular booth that hunkered between the kitchen proper and the juice bar.

“Hey, man,” Eric said. “How’s it going?”

“Great.” He peeled out of his winter coat, and grinned at his friends. “I missed you guys.”

Shelley took a skewer of grilled tofu from a plate and bit off the end. “Since, like, the day before yesterday?”

Right. It had been more than that for Alex. “It’s been a long two days.”

“That new job making you actually work for a living?” Micah smirked at him and took a swig of kombucha.

“Oh, hey, did you find a new job?” Marla waved black-nailed hands to get his attention. “Because I was going to tell you, Shirley’s looking for a back-up receptionist while hers goes on mat leave.”

He wasn’t sure he had enough tattoos to work at Shirley’s. “Actually, no, I’ve got a couple of things going on.”

“Another web start-up?”

“No, it’s…I guess you could call it a scientific study. And I’ve been doing some, uh, import-export consulting.”

Shelley poked him with the end of the skewer. “Is that a fancy way of saying you got a job at Ikea?”

“No, it’s mostly working with plants. With some bonus travel.”

Eric gave him a sharp look. “Tell me you are not doing anything stupid.”

“What? No, seriously, nothing like that. I’m kind of…a native guide to a botanist who’s not from around here. I can’t talk about it, for, um, confidential business reasons, but it’s totally interesting and the pay’s good.”

Marla shook lilac curls in envy. “You find the best jobs.”

“Pays well, you say? When are you going to let me sell you some decent clothing?” asked Micah, who got on this hobbyhorse at least once a month. “I can tell that that shirt has been previously enjoyed. And that coat? Like something my grandfather would wear. And not in a good way.”

“Hands off! This coat has sentimental value.” Alex raised a hand at Annie, who was waiting tables tonight. “Anyway, I have better things to spend my money on. I hope you guys are hungry,” he said, and ordered every dish on the menu that he hadn’t tried yet.

 

 


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