This story first appeared in Lamplight Magazine in February 2020.
The tree in the schoolyard had been dead for as long as anybody could remember. The records said it sprouted on the ship from Earth, and in the early days of the settlement grew up strong and full. But then the terraforming went wrong, and the meteor storms went off course. The meteor storms never stopped, and the tree sickened. Its leaves yellowed and dropped like so many tears to the thin grass, the hardscrabble ground. It bleached white and then yellowed, like bone, inviolate branches reaching to the sky like a child’s arms, begging an adult, any adult, to pick it up.
Twice a year, the aid workers came from Earth and set up their tables beneath the tree. The school had the only basement on planet, housing their tech, their communications equipment. It was a holiday, the only real one the settlement could afford to take away from the labor of survival, and everybody scrubbed themselves pink and got into nice clothes, indoor clothes. One at a time, nice and orderly, every living soul on the planet got their care package, as though receiving Earth’s apology.
Anya and Max stood in line together, hair braided so tightly that the veins in their temples throbbed, in boots and leggings and school dresses. Anya’s boots pinched her toes and she stood first on one foot and then the other, trying to get some relief. Max danced around, not quite warm enough, but she hated to put a coat on over her dress. Their mothers were ahead of them in line by a few groups of neighbors, and eventually Max’s mom gave them a withering enough look that they noticed and stood up straight.
“What do you think we’ll get?” Max asked. The little kids who already had their packages were calling out in the playground, playing new games, sharing the spoils.
“I don’t know. There’s oranges every time, anyway.” Anya laughed.
“Batteries,” Max said, laughing with her. “Isn’t it funny, what they think we want?” Years ago, almost all the kids got battery operated toys, little fuzzy things that blinked and talked. A bunch of the tech kids wired them together to give a play, each thing saying the lines of a different character.
Anya elbowed her in the ribs. “Be grateful we get anything.”
“That’s what everybody says. Like sometime they’re just going to stop.”
“Maybe there’ll be bread and butter.” The line moved up. “Shoes.”
“Shoes would be nice,” Max agreed. “A cow would be better than butter.”
“They’ll never send a cow. They only sent goats that once.” The goats were sent years before they were born, and thrived in a way the humans failed to. “They could send a ticket to Earth.”
Max opened her mouth to answer but Daniel ran up. “Wow, you’re almost to the front already!” The people in line behind them grumbled, and he waved at them, smiling. “I’m just saying hi,” he called before turning back to the girls. “I’d better get to the back of the line. I’ll see you at the barn?”
“Yeah, we’ll meet you there,” Max said, and Daniel ran off. A ticket to Earth, she thought. That was something that would really change their lives.
Their fathers had been first, after the fuel lines were hooked to the ship, lining up in their work clothes, weary and dust coated. The adults all took their packages home unopened, decided as a household how to handle what was within. The adult packages were serious, seeds and medicine and birth control. There would be a big meal later for the whole settlement, and the adults would drink vodka and smoke long into the night, while the children ran unchecked. No school for a week, maybe, even if the adults went back to work right away.
The line moved up, and Max stood in front of the plastic folding table. The aid workers wore normal clothes, cargo pants and t-shirts and field jackets, but always wore rebreathers. The atmosphere was just a little too thin for them. Package in hand, Max waited for Anya just past the schoolyard, looking towards the spaceport and the worker’s ship. It never stopped steaming the entire time they were planetside, ready to launch at a moment’s notice. Max didn’t think they’d ever even stayed a full day. Anya came through quickly, carrying her package against one hip. “Should we wait for Daniel?” she asked.
“I don’t know if I can stand it.”
“Me either.” Maybe this was what Christmas on Earth felt like.
“We’ll just see him at the barn, like we said.”
They walked side by side past kids with oranges and adults carrying raw materials for the settlement. Salt. Cloth. Flats of duct tape. One small boy ran past them, already wearing a Nike t-shirt over his indoor clothes, a lollipop stick jutting from between his teeth.
Max thought about what would be beneath the brown paper of her package. Oranges. A new tablet. Chocolates. Gloves. Small things, to stay within the weight constraints of transport from Earth. She stole a glance at Anya. Shoes. There was never equipment to move their homes underground, or an answer for why the meteor storms kept coming. The aid workers weren’t even from any Earth government, but used one of the private spaceflight companies. There were always such high hopes, as though the aid workers were genies come to grant wishes.
In the barn, the goats looked at them and chewed their cud, muttering occasional goat sounds. Nobody else was there, and they sat on old crates by the feed room. “Should we wait?” Anya asked again. She bit her lip and looked at the package resting on her knees.
“He’s all the way at the end of the line.” Max pulled the string on her package, and the bow peeled open and slid off. She worked her thumb under the seam of the paper and waited while Anya did the same. They looked at each other, and Max smiled. “On three,” she said. They’d done this since they were old enough to be allowed alone.
The thick paper tore heavily. They tried to be careful with it, set it aside and save for writing, like the teachers said. Inside, everything was individually wrapped in thin plastic, the only dust free items in their lives. A whole bag of oranges. A teddy bear in a t-shirt with a logo Max didn’t understand. Packets of chewing gum, flavored with fruits they’d only ever seen pictures of. Sunglasses. A small bundle of socks. Then, at the bottom, a flash of yellow, and she dug it out. A box of cereal.
Anya had oranges, of course, and colored markers. Foil packets of freeze dried ice cream. Clear nail polish. A pair of black boots with brownish treads. “No batteries,” she said with a shrug.
“Look, Cheerios.” Max held up the box, and Anya took it for a moment, turning it over in her hands.
“There’s a prize,” she said, handing the box back.
“Rub on tattoos for a movie I’ll never see,” Max said, rolling her eyes.
“Do you think they feel bad about us?” Anya asked suddenly.
“They must, or they wouldn’t send us stuff.” Maybe before the original ships had been turned into habitats they could have left. Maybe before families were formed and children were born, and anybody who left would leave too much behind.
They heard running feet in the lane, and Daniel burst in with his package, the paper tattered on the edges. “Oh, you never wait for me!” he said, flinging himself onto the floor.
“You look like you opened yours on the run. Are you sure you didn’t drop anything?” Anya asked with a laugh.
“I didn’t! It’s still tied!” Daniel manhandled the string off of his package, and rifled through the contents. His had five comic books made of actual paper. Oranges. A package of glow sticks. A plastic yoyo, a baseball cap, and a container of powdered cow’s milk. “Well. What did you get?”
Anya and Max showed him, and Daniel’s eyes lit up when he saw the Cheerios. “And you got milk,” Anya said to Daniel.
“We could all share,” he said.
Max’s fingers tightened on her Cheerios. She couldn’t say why, but she didn’t want to share them. “We would need to get bowls,” she said. “And I don’t think our mothers would let us just eat a whole box of cereal.”
Daniel didn’t appear to be listening. “I wonder if they’re Cheerios from America, or black market Cheerios?”
“What’s the difference?” Anya asked, pulling off her pinchy boots and trying on the new ones. The laces took a long time, and when she stood and bounced on the balls of her feet, she smiled broadly. “What’s black market mean?”
“Black market is….um. Stuff nobody is supposed to have? Copies of stuff nobody is supposed to have? But I’ve heard that black market Cheerios are sweeter,” Daniel said with authority.
“Who’d you hear that from?” Max couldn’t imagine what Daniel had been reading. “Why would anybody bother to copy cereal?”
“Alex. He said his grandfather used to talk about it, from movies.”
Anya reached over and plucked the box from Max’s hands again, turning it over. “I wonder how you tell? It says Made in USA. That’s America, isn’t it?”
“It’s not like they’ll write ‘black market Cheerios’ on the box,” Max said impatiently, taking the box back, a little more roughly than she’d intended.
“I don’t know, they might,” Daniel laughed. He tried the baseball cap on; it was far too large at first, and he spent several moments fiddling with the plastic clip on the back to get it right. “Do you remember the time every last one of us got a Hershey bar?”
“Were they black market Hershey bars?” Anya asked, but she laughed too.
Daniel shrugged, pulling on the bill of his cap. “I don’t know. Maybe they’re not real, and it’s just another company making them cheap to send stuff to us and copying the logo.”
“Alex was probably just telling you stories. Or Alex’s grandfather was telling him stories. If anybody’s going to make a copy of something that isn’t real, it’d have to be actually worth something.”
Daniel finally noticed Max’s change in tone and cocked his head, looking at his friend. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know,” Max said, and she stuffed the things back in her box, laying the Cheerios on top. “Mother will want me home.”
Daniel frowned. “What, already?”
“She said today she wants me home early.”
Anya reached over and pulled down on the bill of Daniel’s cap. “She doesn’t have to share the Cheerios. Stop begging.”
“I wasn’t begging.” Then Daniel’s mother called. In fact, everybody’s mothers were calling, in voices that would not be ignored, and then the settlement alarm began to blare.
Max was out the door and down the lane before Anya and Daniel scrambled to gather their things and followed. She saw the door swinging shut on the aid workers ship, out in the fallow field. There was a thunder in the distance, and Max looked up at the cloudless sky, even though she knew. They all did.
It wasn’t thunder.
Then the first meteor struck a building in the center of the settlement. Anya shrieked, and another came and another, and then they were all running. They ran through smoke, and shards of metal and plastic and stone, eyes streaming. Anya screamed again, and Daniel, and when Max turned, she couldn’t see them.
She stumbled on until she ran her belly full force into something and fell to her knees, coughing. One of the folding plastic tables. She crawled under it, dragging her package. The door to the school was so close, hanging open, and so far. She watched for Daniel and Anya. The tree above her was dead, and had never yet fallen. But they didn’t come past, and she watched meteors and parts of buildings strike adults who had been caught out until there was too much dust in the air to see anything, and the day was a seething red and orange twilight around her.
Max crouched with her back against the tree and slid her finger underneath the cardboard flap on top of the Cheerios. The waxed paper bag inside was so loud, she thought, then laughed at the madness of it because there were meteors falling. She pulled the bag open and drew out a handful of the cereal, hard and gritty in her palm. Like the ground they scratched their crops from, sank desultory wells into. The meteors were falling and Max shoved the Cheerios in her mouth, chewed, swallowed. The meteors fell and she sobbed and chewed another handful, the sweetness sticking in the back of her throat.