By the time I’ve stepped outside, the leaves are on fire, and the autumn light is so clean it could cut you. All around, everything is just dying away in glory on another rainless upstate day. Behind me, the prison gate clangs shut, and the guy in the guard-house says I can catch a bus down the road. So, I search my pockets for money and find it: the fifty-two dollars I had when I went in. And I breathe. I just breathe the air. It’s clean, and I’m out, and I feel a bit of hope for the first time in almost a year. I think of Dr Paulson’s words in our psych sessions. That I’m free, that even in jail, I’m free to make choices and that I have the responsibility to make them on my own. That no one can force them them on me. Not friends or family, and not N8ure. And I know that now. N8ure have no reason now to come after me, and I owe them nothing. I’m washing my hands of all that. Shedding it like autumn leaves.
Like Val. But one step at a time. I can’t think about talking to V just yet.
The bus downstate takes hours. Rolls through the red and gold hills, past the leaves on sidewalks, the brown lawns. Everything crisp as paper. No rain for months. Climate change creeping ever forward, throwing off the scales. There’s still that smell of autumn leaf-rot and earth, but no sweet hint of smoke. No humid tang in the breeze. A dustbowl autumn. A tinderbox autumn. Cardboard Halloween decorations hanging in the dry, paper trees. I watch all this roll past, as the news on the bus-seat monitor starts talking terrorist threats to an oil refinery, maybe credible maybe not, and N8ure comes up again. No escaping them. And I just can’t deal with it. I turn it off.
I know the problem is still there. The ticking time-bomb of the planet. It’s still there and I hate everyone for ignoring it, for pretending it isn’t happening. The fucking burners... But no, I stop myself. That’s a N8ure term. That's how they desensitise you, how they dehumanise others. I’m done thinking like that. Burners are just people.
From the 34th Street bus station, I get the 7 train home, everything so familiar, so automatic from here, like the last year never happened. But then my childhood street in Sunnyside feels like a walk of shame — Mrs Patel out in her garden looking at me like something her dog dug up. Then me knocking at my own parents’ door for a place to stay. We’ve been through it all already, me and them — all the shouting and handwringing. All the way from the arrest to the sentencing. So today our voices are low. No recriminations. No hysterics. But no joy. Not even a hug. They ask what Dr Paulson said to me and if I’m still seeing her. I tell them that she offered to see me privately, now that I’m out, but I can’t afford it. They offer to pay, and I say no, trying not to let my voice rise. I’m fine. She said I’ll be fine. So they give me my old bed to sleep in for now, and a hundred bucks, and I tell them I need to just get outside and breathe, and they pretend to understand. I grab my coat and walk back up to the train station again, catch the 7 to the N train and get off at Park Avenue.
I need the Park. I need it.
It is a mistake to go to old haunts. Dr Paulson warned me of that, said I need to break free of my habits. But after eight months locked up, anyone would need a little comfort. A little familiarity. I just want Central Park — my oasis before, but especially now. Especially in its autumn beauty, even if the drought has made the ponds low and muddy, and the grass crunch underfoot. Even if the trees look a little bony, and the few pines are browning with root-rot. The park is still my breathing space, my safety zone. And I need her. The café is still there, too — the one near The Pool, where they’ll serve you coffee in a ceramic cup if you ask. And I wonder for a moment why I am surprised to find it still standing. Somehow, even a short prison sentence like mine can make you feel like the outside world has vanished. Like everything you knew will crumble and burn before you get out.
I get a coffee and I find a table where I can stare out the windows at the trees and the water and the people. I hang my coat on the back of the chair and put my hands around the warm mug. And for about ten minutes, everything feels safe and good and familiar.
And then I hear V.
—I knew you’d come here. I knew it!
I'm not ready for this. I turn and look at her. Her hair is dyed black now instead of the fire-engine red it was I last saw her. She’s in a brown hoodie. Black jeans. You wouldn’t look at her twice, except that she’s beautiful. Always beautiful.
—Heya, lover! she says.
Then she bends down to embrace me, tries to kiss me, but I turn my head so that her lips land on my cheek. She lingers there, her arms are tight around me, and I find myself squeezing her back despite it all. Even this awkward sitting-hug is a balm I didn't know I needed, the warmth I didn’t get in Sunnyside. Still, when she lets go she looks at me strangely. She feels the distance. She knows. And I know this is all going to go badly. So I start:
—V, you can’t be here.
—Why? You take out a restraining order?
She laughs, like this is a great joke. A few people look our way. I shrink into my chair.
—I’m on parole, V. I shouldn't be anywhere near you. If they find out, I’m fucked. They’ll send me back.
—You’re so cute when you’re paranoid. Jeezus, Cory lighten up. No one’s going to see us together. Besides, no one even knows who I am. That’s thanks to you, by the way.
She bends down and this time succeeds in kissing me on the lips. I don’t respond, but I want to. God, I want to. V thuds into the seat across from me, and takes a long drink from my coffee, grinning, her eyes staring over the mug the whole time. I want to reach across and take her face in my hands. I want to take the train together, back to that dump she calls an apartment and climb into her mattress on the floor, take off our clothes and wear ourselves out banging to old songs from the 2020s, then eat shitty vegan takeaway. I want to just disappear into the smell of her and forget everything else. And I can’t.
I can’t because that is how I got here. Following her. Following her to so-called workshops and seminars. Listening to N8ure and their slick propaganda designed to convince us all that we were freedom fighters — no, smaller than that, but more effective: they convince you that you are a rascal. A troublemaker. A gremlin in the machinery of the polluters and the Capitalists. And I bought it. I looked into V’s eyes, and saw that she believed every word, and then, eventually, so did I. I couldn't understand how everyone else could be so asleep at the wheel, how the system could be so corrupt. Burners, all of them. Filling the atmosphere with carbon. God, it felt good to be so certain, so right. We had to force the government to do something, because without us, they never would. It was our obligation. Our spiritual calling. The elections and the promises, the petitions and filibusters and rallies, none of it led to anything. Just increasingly severe weather, more dying coral and more dying fish. More species disappearing. Food chains falling apart. More dying trees. More methane from the permafrost. More dry spells. More hurricanes and typhoons. More fires.
The problem is that all of that is still true. If I thought N8ure could really cure it, I'd still be with them. But all N8ure does is breed more chaos. Hurt more people.
—Whatcha thinkin’? she says.
—Nothing. So...are you still with…?
She looks around with exaggerated caution, a finger to her lips, and whispers:
—Yes! Hey, you want to see something awesome? You’re going to love this.
She puts down my coffee. The mug is empty now, but she cups her hand over the top and I hear a ping as something small and metallic drops inside. She urges me to look, so I pull the mug over. At the bottom is a horsefly, or what looks like a horsefly. It even moves like one, its legs adjusting, head tilting. But it is clearly artificial. Metal and plastic.
—What…am looking at?
—No seriously, though. I know what a firefly looks like, and this is not one.
—That’s what it’s called. A firefly! This is all thanks to you, Cor. Remember that guy you helped us get in touch with? The robotics guy? This what he’s been working on for us. You can send them anywhere. Program them to be attracted to certain things or just send them to coordinates. And then…
She looks at her watch, swipes and taps a few times.
—You might want to move your nose back, she says.
I sit up. There is a sizzling sound. I see the insect’s abdomen emit a white-hot light — the legs the body melting with the heat, flames licking out from it. I pull back, just as the coffee mug snaps in half and the pieces tumble to the table. There is a whiff of burnt coffee, and V whoops with pleasure. The closest customers shoot us an irritated look, then turn away again. The café staff go about their business. I am frozen. I don’t want to touch the remains of the thing still glowing orange with heat. Instead, I hunch my body closer to the table and try to hide the broken cup with my arms. I hiss at her:
—What the fucking hell, V!
—We’re active, she says.
—No. No, we are not active. And you are not active. Christ, Val! Why are you still doing this? Wasn’t it enough that someone died when you all tried to sink that tanker?
Her face goes hard.
—That was an accident. He wasn’t supposed to be there. You know that.
—Yeah. Like the time you accidentally left me waiting for you in the car at the docks, and never turned up because you had to run from security. And where were any of you when the police came to my office? I did eight months upstate, and you spent that time, what? Learning how to make better bombs?
—They’re not bombs. They’re fireflies. They don’t explode, they just burn.
—Oh, arson, then. Much better.
She looks at me like I’m the one that has lost my mind.
—God, she says. I didn’t want to believe it, but the others were right. You really are gone, aren’t you? You know, I…I really wanted to believe that you still understood. I figured you didn’t rat us out because you were still with us. Because you cared. But they got to you, didn’t they? Got in your head. All that psycho-babble crap. Now, you’re just another fucking burner.
—You do not get to call me that.
—Fuck you. I went to prison for you!
—Oh, a one-year sentence. Poor baby. They couldn’t even connect you to us, so a fraud charge was the best they could do. And you’re so squeaky clean, you got out early!
—V, please. Geezus…I’m not talking about me. N8ure is going to get you arrested. Or killed.
When I say the name out loud, she glances around nervously. I carry on:
—You can’t stop all the airplanes and tankers and refineries and pipelines and plastic producers. You just can’t. You’ll never make their worries greater than their profits. There’s always a desire for more consumption.
—I know that! We know that.
Her face changes. The defiance fading into something like resignation.
—Have you seen Hong Kong, Cory? Have you?
—What? Like in person? No, of course not.
—You know, most people think it’s one giant city, but it’s not. Ninety percent of Hong Kong is protected wilderness. Back at the start of the millenium, Hong Kong had beautiful green mountainsides with hiking trails and wild boar and cockatoos. Then they got dry spells like everyone else. Draught and fire and storms, over and over. Hong Kong was a garden, and now it’s just a brown slag-heap, with typhoons washing away the soil that the burnt trees can’t keep in place anymore. And what do the burners do? Nothing. Because, hey, Central Park is still pretty, right? Maybe a little browner, now. Maybe a little drier. But the maples are red and the oaks are yellow and the kiddies can jump in the leaves, so everything is cool!
—So…write a damn article or something.
She stares at me.
—Who even are you? No, but you’re right. We can’t change the polluters. We’ve realised that. That’s why we're changing the game. We have to get to the burners. All of those people out there? They have the power we need. We just have to make them feel it for real. Make them afraid. They’ve got to understand the cost of climate change in their own lives. Because until then, it’s just something that’s happening far away, right? You’d know about that, right? Nice safe house in the boroughs. You never really risked anything big. Copied some documents. Forged some key cards. Then you ended up in a cushy low-security prison. Just pay your dues and get out when it gets complicated. Right? Forget about it all. Forget about me...
V’s voice cracks, and I look at her. Her eyes are red-rimmed now. She looks angry, but also desperate, her hand on the table prodding at the pieces of the shattered cup. And I want to hold her. I want to tell her that it doesn’t have to be this way. Convince her that we can do something about it. But then I’d just be me making the same argument I made before all this started. I think of Dr Paulson's advice and make my decision. My voice is low:
—Val, this is over. We are over. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to do it like this.
She snorts, her voice breaking.
—Oh, how did you want to do it, Cor? Candlelight dinner?
—Please, Val, you've got to wake up. You’ve got to see how poisonous they are, what they're doing to people! N8ure is turning you into something you’re not. You’re a good person.
V’s shakes her head from side to side in an expression of disbelief. Her mouth hangs open.
—I thought you were a good person, she says.
And at that moment, I know I’ve lost her. And she’s lost me. And right now, I need to get away. I need to think.
—I’m taking a piss, I say, and get up and stalk toward the toilets at the back of the café, my hands at my sides so she won’t see them shake.
The washroom is empty. I lock the main door and then punch the metal wall of the stall as hard as I can. The skin pulls away from my middle knuckle, the blood oozing up slowly. I feel stupid and empty. I told myself that I would find her, meet her. Talk her out of all this if she was still involved. Help her deprogram. But who am I kidding? I’m still fixing myself. Maybe I am just a burner.
I take a few deep breaths. Try to be mindful, the way Dr Paulson taught me. Try to be in the moment. Then I rinse the scrape, press a piece of paper towel over it and stick it there, and go back out to the table, prepared to broker some kind of peace.
But V is gone. There is only a torn bit of paper folded in half, in front of my seat. In V’s handwriting, it says:
We could have set the world on fire. Enjoy the show. The park is so beautiful this time of year. I will love you regardless, V.
And I sit blinking at the paper, uncomprehending. Enjoy the show? The park… Make them feel it for real, she said. Make them afraid. The pieces begin to fall into place. Can I catch her? Can I still catch her? I pull my coat from the back of the chair and put it on, thrusting my hands into the pockets, but my fingers crunch into something like bits of tinfoil. I withdraw them slowly, because I already know. My hands are covered in metal flies. The fireflies. Dozens of them.
I tear off the jacket and throw it an empty corner of the cafe, shaking the remaining flies off of me. Then I begin shouting at the disinterested café crowd, screaming at them to get out. To run. They shrug and whisper and ignore me. But as I run toward the door, I see something else through the windows. Outside in the park, in the tinder-dry brown of the autumn trees, thousands of tiny sparks are lighting up like stars in the branches above. V’s show is about to begin. And by the time I’ve stepped outside, the leaves are on fire.