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“I’m fired?” I swallowed. “You’re firing me?” I felt for the desk behind me, held on. 

“Not at all!” boomed my principal. “You’re redundant. Entirely different.”

“Redundant — useless?”

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“Redundant — excess. They’re closing the school! Ancient windows, cracked roof, flooded gym, too much! However, here’s a list of school boards with openings. We’ll write you a stellar reference!”

My eyes were wide. I made myself blink. 

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On the solarbus home, I thought, how to tell Benni? She’d grown up here, in our big, crazy “family.” Leaving would be terrifying.

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When I was 25, I’d been crazy in love. Perhaps I’d stumbled too quickly into parenting. More quickly than he. I had no idea what to do with an adorable infant who couldn’t discuss Thunberg or Yousafzai, and needed to be carried. All the time. Benni never touched down until they were 3 and jabbering in five languages: Mohawk, French, Arabic, Anishinaabemowin, and English. These represented my kind neighbors in Toronto.

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Back in 2040, the wealthy had left Toronto en masse for their “cottages” when high-rise dwellers were being moved into low-rises. All homes were metal-rooved, solar-panelled. Buildings over six stories were torn down, material reused for multi-family-plexes with the latest energy tech. All along the Great Lakes were wind farms, beautiful. (I dabbled in pastels.) But I knew we’d scored a jewel in a Bridle Path mansion two weeks before the birth. We could rent a large bedroom for our Den, cook and eat downstairs with 26 neighbors. I’d been in such a daze with moving, then a 48-hour birth, I’d barely noticed when my lover exited. 

Everyone took care of us. Benione was loved by nine families, and I was awkward enough, a Nepalese/Irish/Black new teacher, that they’d parented me too. 

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However, there comes a time when a woman has to walk her own path. When her child reaches thirteen, it’s clearly a sign to Grow Up.  

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“How was school, Shi-shi?” asked Chu-hua, knitting in a sunny corner of the common room. Her eyes crinkled up at the corners. “I put your tea on.”

“Is Benni home yet?”

“Lacrosse practice with Tael.”

“Right.” I collapsed in an ancient stuffed chair. “I’m in shock!”


“My school’s closing! I have a list of other boards to apply to.” I pointed at my bracelet. “Chu-hua, how can we possibly leave?”

She set her curved needles down, rolled her wheelchair over, cupped my hand between her small, wrinkled ones.  “We can do anything, together.”

I moaned. “Together is where we won’t be.”

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Benni took the news calmly. They asked if I could supply teach; or had I ever considered a career switch? They asked for the list.

I tapped my bracelet, pulled up the holoscreen. The closest position was two hours away: Custodian needed.

“Let’s set this aside,” I suggested. “Make cookies. With the works.”

Benni rolled their eyes. “You mean. ‘Let’s eat the cookies my kid will make.’” 

“I’ll help!” I protested. “We can watch dorky old movies and eat popcorn for supper.”

“With greens, Mom. And blueberries for senility.”

“Hah.” I tickled Benni, then pulled them in for a hug and kissed their hair, a series of twists and puffs. “We’ll be okay, leafbud.”

“I know, Mom. Tell yourself.”

Damn, that kid was smart.

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Three weeks later a message tingled my wrist: a middle-years class on Wînipâkw Bay, a gorgeous new village nearby. The homes were built like seeds around a core community centre/greenhouse. I’d done three virtual interviews already.

“We regret to tell you … excellent qualifications … keep you on file …”

Fire and floods!

I lurched downstairs, complaining bitterly. Chu-hua put on the kettle. Nancy reminded me I had a coffee date tonight.

“I can’t go now,” I whined. “What’s the point?”

“Good practice, Shiya,” argued Nan. “When’s the last time you went on a date?”

“Well, there was Benni’s dad …”

Chu-hua snorted.

“Just a donor. Since then?” demanded Nancy, holding out her orange coat to me. I did love that coat.

“What if Benni needs homework help?”

“As if. But we’ll check.”

Chu-hua frowned. “Go. Forget your problems.”

“He said he’d be wearing “enoki” pants. What are those? Seriously?”

“Probably light tan, like common fungi,” replied Nan, a botanist. “Go!”

I glared at them, shoved my arms into the coat, grabbed mitts and stamped out for coffee with a mushroom.

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Our streets are made of recycled plastic dredged from the ocean, millions of kilometers. The edges light up nicely from embedded solar lights, which feels like they’re gliding you home. Of course, nearly everything shuts down two hours after sunset to save energy. 

That meant you could go for a coffee date, but not a late-night show. Unless you were an emergency medic or care worker, we needed the night to sleep, and your biorhythm thanked you.

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I texted Benni (still not declaring a gender, but their choice), that I’d be back in an hour. 

Enoki Pants had taught in Mi’kmaq lands, but tired of Atlantic hurricanes. He’d come to Toronto, traditional land of the Mississaugas, Anishnabeg, Chippewa, Haudenosaunee and Wendat peoples to teach. Now I was jealous. 

I followed the soft solar trail past another delightful urban forest, snow dappled, to the café, adjusted my mask and went inside.   

I set my mitts on a table, glanced around. The last fellow in line had brown pants on.

I walked up and tapped his shoulder. 

He turned around. Long pirate beard, tattooing around one eye like a sunburst.

“Excuse me. Are you Jaber?”

Thick eyebrows raised suggestively, then a nod. “So you must be —“

“I grabbed a table.” 

“I’ll join you in a minute,” he pronounced grandly. 


Pirate-beard turned back.

I was miffed. Hey, it’s 2063, but show some interest? You pressed for the date. I considered kicking him, when I felt a sharp poke. I turned around, annoyed.

Excuse me?” I asked.

It was a zombie-skinned senior. “Are you, perhaps, looking for me? Jaber?”

Just my luck. I swallowed a large slice of humble pie. “Yes?”

“Honored.” His face mask wriggled. It was covered with cartoons of mushrooms, like his pants. 

“Sorry.” I ignored Pirate-beard, who was laughing, the nerk. 

“May I purchase you a coffee?”

At least Zombie-Grandpa had manners. “Oat latté,” I agreed. I lifted my chin and walked regally to the table, after an accidental kick to someone in line. 

My own parents, real grandparents, visited us twice a year. Mom, a retired solartech, was always wandering our home, pointing out things to repair, touching up solar paint on exterior blinds, mending the snow-rake. Everyone loved her help, but she was acerbic, and I’d often winced at things she’d said. Mom had a way of making me feel about nine years old, brainless.

My dad, an arborist, spent his time examining Every. Single. Tree. Nearby. Since everyone had to plant a local species tree or shrub annually, the old city had become nicely forested. Former parking lots were all dense urban forests, delightful to peer into (and public transit amazing). Dad loved them. I was always exhausted by the time five days were up.

“Here you are.”

Enoki set a mug in front of me and sat opposite. Who’d lied on their profile page, hmm? By decades?

“Thanks, Jaber? So? Where are you teaching?” I asked.

“Well,” said Jaber. “Hasn’t happened.”


“My cousin has a transportation company.” He coughed. “I’m doing the books.”


He began a rambling story about a lost delivery as I looked him over. Grey hair, thinning, with orange stripes. Trying to be trendy. His profile had stated age 40. In his dreams. Enoki’s cold moonlight skin was a near opposite of mine, warm gingerbread. His must be brutal in summer. Was he a game addict? His eyes were red-rimmed. Then there was the snake thing. Whenever he lifted his mask to drink, his tongue darted out like a serpent, licked his lips before the drink, then after.

I shuddered. Pushed away. “Umm,” I murmured, trying to drag my eyes away from his lip-licking. “Interesting.”

“And you?” he asked, belatedly recalling that other people speak. “You teach? Summers off?” He licked his lips.

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“Maybe he had a lip condition, Mom.”

I made a face and shrugged. “Well, it’s your fault my first date bombed. You and your lice.”  I pretended to scratch my head.


“I only thought it fair to tell him. That you,” I brought up two hands to vigorously scratch, “had a bad case of lice. And your five siblings.”

Benni guffawed, and I joined in, flopping down beside them. 

“Do you think you’ll ever meet someone, Mom?”

I clapped once to turn the lights off. “I already have someone,” I answered. “You.” I reached for their hand and held it.


I paused. “I’m not ancient yet. It’s possible. But first, we have to find a great job and home. Where Benni and Shiya can be happy.”

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“Mom,” said Benni, a week later, “You need to sit down.”

They were pregnant. They were joining the astropilot league. I clutched at my heart. 

“Your bracelet needs repair. They re-routed a letter to me.”

“What?” I shook my wrist, tapped the bracelet. It lit up fine. I felt like I’d been running a race. “A letter? What letter?”

“Here. Look.” They waited until I sat. “It’ll be alright, Mom. Whether you get the job, or not. Breathe.” They held out their wrist, and my private email from the school board in Omàmiwinini Territory shone in the air between us. 

“Dear Applicant —“

I dropped my head.


I took a breath. “Dear Applicant — We would be very pleased to meet you at the train station in Madawaska on the first of April, should you still be interested in the position. We have found accommodation —“

I leapt up and swung my kid around. “We got it! Benni, we got it!”

Benni allowed this nonsense, but seemed stiff. 

I slowed, and set them down, peered into their eyes. “Second thoughts, leafbud?”

They shook their head, sending all the twist braids swinging.  “No. This is good. I’ll just miss Tael and our family here. We have to do this. It’s just, you know. Starting over.” 

We both fell into a hug and had a little cry. Well, I cried. Benni sniffled and after a minute, patted me on the back. 

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A month later we were on the Skytrain east, holding hands tightly.

“Look, Mom! C’est un lynx?”

I glimpsed a streak of gold, a catlike loping. The hydrogen-fuel-celled Skytrain traveled over the old highway 401. Fascinating to see how shrubs and trees had worked their gradual fairy magic through asphalt. 

I squeezed Benni’s hand, “Je pense que tu as raison.”

 We would adapt too. Right?

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Our host introduced herself as Gokomis Sal, and seemed in an awful hurry. “Boozhoo! Shiya and Benni, right? Don’t be scared, citybreds, we’ll toughen you up. Grab your bags, eh? Let’s go!”

Benni and I exchanged startled looks, threw on our large backpacks, grabbed bags and scurried after Sal. She led us to the solarvan owned by the Villagehouse. There was an embroidered bag in the shotgun seat, so we sat in the row behind her.

Gokomis Sal had grey-streaked red hair, light caramel skin, freckles and talked like a river. “There’s a big pow-wow in September. In Madawaska. It’s a dandy. You’ll love it. It’s major, let me tell you. Wonderful. Unforgettable. There’ll be ceremonial and social dances, hoop dancers, artists from as far away as Navajo Territory. And the art …”

I tried to interject questions about our village but Sal was determined to tell us her favorite famous artists, dancers, and so on, from the front seat. 

Benni got a fit of the giggles and I grinned. 

Outside, the trees were giants, standing hundreds deep, light green on dark green on navy-green, needled and leafed. Forever. I loved all our urban forests in Toronto. But this was like being inside a painting.

“I forgot the election. I’ve been so busy …” I replied to a question. There were no political parties any more so you chose your representative for their character and integrity. 

“You can’t slide under a log like a newt! Hear what the candidates say, make up your mind. Yourself.”

“Yeah, Mom,” added Benni, “Hear what they say, make up your mind.”

I stuck out my tongue at my kid. “Anyone running from our village?”

“Two! Elijah — respectable member of the circle. Works for the Heritage Seed Bank. Distributes seeds we grow here across Turtle Island.” She paused. “Stole my mother’s prize zinnia once. Ate it!”

Benni and I raised our eyebrows at each other. “Ate it?”

“He was 3. He’s a good soul, good friend. Sends the exact quota. A position of trust and responsibility.”

I pictured Sal’s grey-haired friend, counting seeds with a magnifying glass.

“And Calli. Professor at the uni.” Sal sniffed.

“Not a flower eater?”

“Smart, I’ll say that. Citybred.”

I see

“Newt,” Benni whispered to me.

The road narrowed, made S turns around granite outcroppings — sunlight glinting off mica, then we pulled into an open area with two other vans, panels unfolded like umbrellas. We helped, then picked up our gear and followed her through trees into the village.

“I hear music,” Benni whispered. “Flutes?”

“Wind band,” corrected Sal. “Whaddya play?”

We shook our heads. Not in our budget.

“The first thing you’re gonna change,” she announced, striding forward. 

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In the holomaps, this village, “Giiwe,” looked like three hoops beside a river with small hydro plants. Each hoop had six Villagehouses, shaped like wide “V’s” around a park/community garden. All faced south, with a greenhouse.

What holomaps don’t show is how large these structures were, steep roofs for snow, solar panelled, and broad windows. Both the main and second floor had decks with shrubs, small trees, and laundry waving gaily. Overhangs and thermal floors used passive solar. The outside walls were a mix of local rock and wood, covered in vines, budding. I noticed repair digging for the underground heat exchanger. 

We entered through a door beside the greenhouse. Benches were scattered through rows of climbing tomatoes, tiered trays of lettuces and greens.

“Lookee here, folks! Citybreds! Say ‘Aanii’!”

A clutch of seniors playing 3D games looked up and waved. Two were in wheelchairs. A dozen people were doing homework at tables: pre-teens to adults. Behind them, the walls were a painted tromp l’oeuille of an old library, with books and ladders. It looked utterly real, from back in the 2020s. Fantastic.

“Hoof it, kids.” Sal ordered. 

Benni and I hoofed.

We panted down a wide corridor past several doors, some gaily decorated. One had a life-sized mural of a wolf.

We came to another common room with a circular staircase under skylights. This was the halfway point, where the building turned southeast. Children were having lessons on keyboards. Sal nodded and waved at a woman working at a large easel, her painting arm moving like a dancer. Her frizzy light hair swayed and she hummed.

Did Sal ever slow down? How old was she? She was already part way up the stairs.

We dragged our bags up, huffing, glimpsed a large kitchen, and turned right. 

In the upstairs hall, most doors were ajar. I glimpsed knotted white or braided cloth rugs, but somewhere ahead was a screeching.

“Er, is that a trumpet?” I asked. “Tuba?”  It grew louder as we approached the end of the hall. I’d have liked to cover my ears. I prayed we weren’t next door.

“Saxophone,” Sal threw back over her shoulder. “Here we are!” She stopped before the very last door on the right, plain brown.

 Benni pointed at the neighboring door. The white waves painted across the navy door were vibrating. From sound. Then, with a squeal, it suddenly halted. The relief lasted a second.

Then a child screamed as if being tortured on a medieval rack. 

Benni and I dropped everything and clutched each other.

“What?” Sal noticed us. She laughed, snorted, had to lean over and slap her thighs. (I was thrilled our horror was so amusing.) Slowly, Sal’s laughing became wheezing.

“That’s Ndanga. And his cat.” She turned and set her thumb on the center of the door. It opened. “You’ll get used to it. I hardly hear it anymore.”  

Benni was about to enter but Sal raised a hand. She rooted around in her satchel and pulled out a palm-sized shell, herbs and a feather. Sal gestured us closer. 

We recognized the smudge ceremony and smiled (also because the screaming had ceased). We began to take deep, slow breaths.

Sal lit the dried sage, used the feather to blow air over it and created a pleasing smoke. 

It smelled like home. Our own Elder had done a smudge for us just this very morning, surrounded by 38 people. Sal spoke in Anishinaabemowin, welcoming us into our new home, reminding us to think good thoughts, say good words. We pulled the smoke over our heads, eyes, ears, mouths, bodies, in turn. 

“Miigwetch. For everything,” I said. 

Sal clucked her tongue, then started packing up her ceremony bits. “You can go in now,” she said, as we stood awkwardly. “I’ll check on you later. I have to talk to someone downstairs.”

I smiled at Benni.

Benni stepped eagerly into our Den. I followed.

 “Home,” I whispered. A living room in pine: floor, table, chairs, desk, sofa, ceiling. Simple but pleasing. A low clay wall to absorb heat, then a grand sweep of windows behind, the exterior blinds at half-mast. I dropped bags, backpack, and exhaled. I let out two weeks of breath-holding.

Benni raced into both bedrooms and the toilette. “No bathtub, Mom! Must be down the hall, communal.” They were at the deck door. “Ready?”

I glanced at the kitchenette: cupboards, a reheater, a kettle, a wide sink. Clean, basic. No quaint touches or arched windows like home. It was fine. Really. I turned back. “Ready.”

Benni threw open the door and stepped into the late afternoon light. 

I took another breath, and prepared to admire juniper shrubs and saplings silhouetted behind them.

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An hour later, I carried Chu-hua’s rice and veggies into the kitchen down the hall. It was a long room, curved where the house bent eastward, with three adults busy at sinks, oven, stovetop. Kids were playing tag around the hewn table beyond. I steeled myself with a deep breath and a smile.

The first looked up and elbowed her friend, who coughed. The third, a man who might be Japanese, turned and smiled.

“Welcome to our Villagehouse,” said the first, her hair wrapped high with a blue cloth. “You’re the teacher. I’m Cora.”

“Shiya-no-partner-with-teen?” asked the second, a Latina with thick, wavy black hair.

“Boozhoo,” added the third. He seemed relaxed. “I’m nearly done, if you need the stove.”

“Yes, thank you,” I said. “I just have to warm up something.” They knew everything about me. I felt naked, swallowed. “We’re, uh, glad to be here. Everything smells so fresh. So new.”

“We might not be the mansion you’re used to, but everyone pulls their weight,” declared Cora.

“Of course. We had chores back home —“ I winced. “I mean, is there a duty schedule to sign up?”

“In your den.” Cora frowned. “Your times are on it.”

I blinked. “Sorry,” I said. “Didn’t notice it. But, there’s a reheater there. I’ll just …” I turned and slid out like a newt under a log.

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We pulled up the blinds and ate at the small table, looking out. 

“The deck is gorgeous, hmm? Huge!”

Benni agreed.

“And our bedrooms are okay. Your bed all right?” We’d both been given singles, which annoyed me.


We chewed in silence.

“I’ll have to figure out where to buy food. And the schedule,” I added.

“I think I’ll read in bed, Mom.” Benni brought their dishes to the sink, washed them quickly.

“You okay, leafbud?”

“Just tired.”


Benni left me for one of the square box-bedrooms and I sat, staring past scraggly deck plants at a darkling sky. 

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An ear-splitting shriek woke me out of a nightmare of being in a tiny kayak; my legs were stuck inside, and my paddle toddler-sized.

“Mom?” Benni was in my doorway. “Did you hear that?”

“Come here.”

Benni dove under my quilt; both of us listened.  

“It sounded like murder,” they whispered. 

“Probably the cat.” Damn Ndanga, I thought.

“I was dreaming of my quilts, my flowered wall …”

I sighed. “We’ll plan you a new mural, leafbud.”

“Newt,” they whispered.

I wormed my arm under their shoulders and pulled them closer. “You’re the newt. It’ll get better,” I promised, kissing her satin hair wrap.

Then the wretched cat howled again.

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The next morning I let Benni sleep, washed up in the tiny washroom, (could it be any smaller?) and tiptoed out. My eyes were bloodshot, my back ached, and I needed java. I hoped the Despicable Duo weren’t in the kitchen. 

“Score!” I said, entering the room.

“She’s at work,” said a voice.

I peered closer. There was someone lying under the long table.

“Er. Hello.” I hesitated. “Do you, um, need help?” 

“Do I look like I need help? Do you always make assumptions? Some of us like to stretch in a quiet place,” snapped the voice.

Clearly a teenager. “Okay,” I said. “Fine. Do you mind telling me where the java is?”

“The what?”


“Come again?”

“Liquid drug? Necessity of life?”

“You can gather dandelion roots. Roast them. Citybreds are addicts.”

“You telling me no one here drinks coffee?”

“Gotta problem with that?” 


“There’s flour.”


“Cows aren’t native.”

I put my hands on my hips. “Eggs?”

“You can track wild grouse and steal their children. If you must.”

My nostrils flared. Where had I landed us? 

“And excuse me, I’m meditating here.”

I’ll meditate you, I thought. I turned on my heel. If I ordered now, how long would it take to get supplies? From civilization? I marched down the hall. 

Suddenly, the waves-painted door flung open and I was sent flying. 

On the floor, blinking, I looked up at the looming idiot with far too much facial hair. 

“Don’t you look where you’re going?” I yelled just as he said, “Are you okay?” in a very different tone.

We both pulled our heads back.

“I’m extremely sorry,” he said in a monotone. “I was trying to back out without letting the cats out.”

“There’s more than one?” 

He held out a large hand, hoisted me up. “Two. Have you heard them?”

“They kept us awake all night!”

We glared at each other. His brows furrowed over deep-set eyes. He showed a bare inch of walnut skin under a scruffy-dog-face. 

“I’ll do what I can,” he said freezingly, “to solve that. Do you need a medic? Or can you walk alone?”

“I’m fine.”

“Excellent. Goodbye.”

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The rest of the day followed that downhill trajectory. The chore list: I’d been put on hallway and kitchen Mondays and Thursdays. They expect me to wash floors Thursday nights after teaching all week? I scanned further. Next month my chores changed to Gardening/Garbage. Thrilling. Luckily teachers have no homework! My cooking times for the kitchen were 6-7 p.m. What if Benni felt like baking? Laundry was Sunday. But at 8-9 a.m.! 

 These people were monsters.

Benni helped me move the furniture around different ways, unroll and hang art, and set out pieces. We had some boxes coming later with quilts, a three-generation rug, winter clothing, a weaving from Chu-hua, and a few real books, preserved. 

I suggested a walk. It was mild, so thick wool sweaters, scarves, and boots would manage. We went down the central stairs and saw the artist setting up. 

“Hi,” I said. “It’s nice to see you painting.”

“You think no one paints outside of BigCity?” asked someone passing by. 

I ignored Cora.

The artist looked up slowly, and studied us. Her pupils were quite large in a pale face. “What is your favourite tree?” she demanded.

Benni did not hesitate. “Oak. White. The leaves with rounded lobes.”

She nodded and turned to me. 

“Deciduous or conifer? Or fruit?” 

She shrugged. “You decide.” She had a soft voice. 

“In fall, maple. In winter, pine. But I love chestnut and shagbark hickory —“  


“Sorry, can’t choose. But we’d love to see what you’re working on.”

“Someday. I’m a bit private.”

“Right.” I turned. “Which way’s out, Benni?”

“Door behind you.”

Outside, we faced the wall of forest. 

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The park was lovely: shady groves, open space, a hodgepodge of raised garden beds. Little white or yellow flowers were open. We found “The Market” tacked onto one Villagehouse. It carried food (eggs, bread, coffee), wool clothing, household bits, and ice fishing gear. The word ‘hick’ rose from my lizard brain stem.

Dinner was a struggle, trying to find pots and politely sidestep a distracted couple cooking for three kids. I’m not the most attentive, but when our cat-neighbor came in, the smoke alarm went off. My rice had burned, smoke poured out, and a toddler started crying. Everyone scooped up their food and skedaddled. 

Cat-neighbor opened the windows and hollered into a speaker. “The Newbie burned rice. It’s fine.” He turned to me. “I’ll be back once you’ve cleaned up.”

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I’m ashamed to admit I cried myself to sleep that night. This was terrible. I longed for our noisy skies, for laughter in our kitchen! Benni whispered to Tael for ages.

Monday arrived. We were up, dressed, fed, and outside awaiting the solarbus early. Benni, in their fave twist updo, went boldly to the back where older kids were sitting. I sat beside a grey-haired fellow.

The school was built of mycelium walls but incorporated a greenhouse and five trees in the common room. With skylights. Gorgeous!

Behati was on a Principal rotation for three years. She walked me around, explained the gardens and attached animal hospital, and introduced me. My own class had eighteen students aged 11-12. They looked me over, head to toe. I kept a pleasant expression pasted on, tongue to the roof of my mouth, then sat in a back corner. They were giving me two days to observe, two to plan, then I was on, full-time, next week. 

I kept my hands in my lap but surreptitiously tapped notes on my bracelet about each child. I watched them read, chat, and soon forget me. Very interesting. The child with long, sandy hair was polite to the instructor only when watched. They had two minions and a running conversation about a fiscus game. Another had a timid, anxious appearance. A third daydreamed. One was reading Braille, another drumming fingers on the table. 

Which students were on the spectrum, and which ones had learning disabilities? Who was troubled; who needed a chance to shine? I tapped some ideas for intro games.

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Benni and I met at the solarbus. They chatted merrily with two others, hurrying down the aisle. Our resident artist sat up front. 

She looked up and smiled.

I lowered myself beside her, trying not to sit on her cape — wool, swirls of ocean colors.

“How was the first day, Shiya?” she asked. 

“Sorry, didn’t catch your name?”


“Safiyyah.” It was a song. I thought. “I love the way the classrooms have movable walls, and desks that interlock like puzzles. And the students — I can’t wait to learn them, you know? Learn what makes them tick.” I paused. “So, good! After wretched yesterday.”

She raised her eyebrows.

“Smoke alarm upstairs?”

She chuckled, showing a few crooked teeth. “Thank GreenEarth I’m not the only one. You’re off to a poor start with Ndanga. He’s really very sweet. And the others …” she flapped a large, graceful hand, “they’ll enjoy you, in time.”

“Do we really have to learn music?”

Safiyyah laughed. “Relax. I promise you, next year, we’ll celebrate your burnt rice.”

Her eyes were definitely hazel. A forest. The pupils were normal today.

“What is your favourite tree, Safiyyah?” 

A slow smile stretched her plain face. “I love them equally. Like children.”

I snorted.

She touched my hand. “They’re afraid you’ll judge them, from the city. I overcame the same fate, as did Ndanga.”

There was something dreamy and appealing about those eyes. 

I forced myself to drop my shoulders. Okay. It was supposed to be hard at first.

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That night I assisted Benni to bake their famous ginger cookies. We went to every door upstairs to deliver. A very sexy person, gold skin and a wide grin, pushed a potted plant at us. The famous Elijah. Not exactly the septuagenarian I’d pictured. Quite — fit.  Noted. Later, when Ndanga opened his door, a dark wraith bolted out through his feet toward the stairs. Then another. 

“Get them!” he yelped and tore off. Benni set the tray down and we followed. 

Illustration of lynx used to divide story text

Later, we ate cookies on our neighbor’s washroom floor.

We were thrilled when a bat-eared, slinky kitten deigned to walk under our knees or rubbed against our legs.

Ndanga brought us tea. “I found them under a boat, half starved,” he said. “How could I say no?” He held out a piece of kibble to the one with white paws and eartips. “They’re terrified of everything. Except this washroom.”

“That’s why you play sax in here?” asked Benni.

“I live in this darn room. I have to practice, so …”

“Don’t they run up the walls?”

He tickled one under the chin. “They sing. By the way, watch out for Cal. Our resident sarcastic teen.”

I laughed and nearly choked. 

Illustration of lynx used to divide story text

It would get easier, I told myself that night. Chores were once a week. Ndanga’s feral kits were adorable. Safiyyah and Eli were — well, there was potential. For friendships, at least. And Benni could still win us others. The newt.

I rolled over, took a deep breath, then let it out.

Read more from the 2022 Imagine 2200 contest:

Jerri Jerreat (she/her) is a writer and environmental activist in Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee territory, north of Lake Ontario. Her fiction has appeared in the journal Alluvian; Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment; The Yale Review Online; The New Quarterly; Etched Onyx; and in the solarpunk anthologies Glass & Gardens: Solarpunk Winters and Solarpunk Summers.

Mikyung Lee (she/her) is an illustrator and animator in Seoul, South Korea. Her poetic and emotional visual essays focus on the relationships between people and objects, situations, and space.