Billy Used To Talk About the Forest by Sarah McPherson

The day he vanished I saw him on the shuttle home like always; nodded, no chat. No-one chats after a fourteen-hour shift.

The only green things in the plant are our overalls, and they’re closer to khaki than leaf or grass. Billy was on a different line to me, so I only saw him occasionally if our breaks lined up. We’d sip the terrible vending machine coffee and he’d reminisce about his childhood for ten minutes till we had to get back to work. I liked listening to him talk.

He told me he grew up in the country, said there was still green out there if you knew where to look. I wasn’t sure I believed him. His family had owned a farm for generations, but by the time he was born nothing would grow anymore, same as anywhere else, and they had to give it up when he was just eight or nine. He reckoned he remembered trees on the farm though.

I’d never seen a tree, not a proper one, not like they had in the old TV shows. Tall trunks so wide you couldn’t stretch your arms round and great shady canopies of leaves. To be honest I wasn’t sure they’d actually been that big, it seemed impossible that something needing that much earth and water could ever have lived, let alone whole swathes of them covering an area of land. The way Billy talked about it though, I could close my eyes and see myself there.

Sometimes we’d talk on the early commute, on the way in: small talk in the small hours when you’re just tired from lack of sleep rather than from a day’s graft. That day he told me he’d started a campaign to have more trees planted in the city, said we needed more than the stunted shrubs along the embankments. Said people couldn’t live without trees.

I said did he really think anyone was going to go for that, when it was hard enough to even get fresh vegetables most of the year. He got quiet after that and I was worried I’d upset him, but just as the shuttle pulled into the plant he said something I didn’t quite catch, something about going back there if he couldn’t bring them here.

The next morning he just didn’t show. I asked around but no-one had seen him. He lived in a building near mine, so after work I went to see if he was ok, even though all I wanted was to stick a meal in the microwave and crawl into bed.

When I got to his apartment, the door was ajar. There was no sign of Billy, but the walls were all covered in pictures of trees.

Biography: Sarah McPherson loves folk tales and myths and finding the weird in the everyday. Her flash fiction has been widely published, nominated for Best Small Fictions, longlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50, and selected for Best Microfiction 2021. Find her on Twitter as @summer_moth or at theleadedwindow.blogspot.com/.

Image: unsplash.com

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