"Class, open your books to page 213, please. Today, we'll be talking about trees. Now, there many kinds of trees, but they can be separated into groups. Some trees are deciduous - that means each spring they grow new leaves, and then each autumn the leaves fall off so that the tree can sleep for the winter..." Daniel had to strain to hear the teacher's voice; today the window of the classroom was only open a crack, and she didn't speak very loud. Faithfully, he turned to page 213 of the wrinkled, torn textbook he'd rescued from the trash a few months ago. It was his most treasured possession.
There were pictures on the page, which were mostly green and a little brown. "Trees," Daniel whispered, puzzling out the caption under one of the pictures. "Oak tree. Its seeds are called acorns," he read softly. He'd never seen anything like it in his life; there was barely any green around, and it was all neon tubing or pieces of painted metal left over from military vehicles. Even in the picture, the tree looked soft and rough at the same time, all sort of wonderful textures that he couldn't even imagine. It made him think of cool breezes, which were nothing but a dream and a rumor to him. It's always been burning hot under the artificial sun, as long as he could remember. He huddled into the little strip of shade afforded by the school building. He'd have to move soon, since the class in this room always did Science before their lunch, and if he was around during lunch the other kids would throw rocks at him and call him names. And he didn't really want to be sitting on a piece of concrete and leaning on a concrete building when the light would be full on him anyway.
Daniel looked up, brushing his long brown hair away from his face. It hung in stringy, dirty locks. If his hair'd been clean, it probably would have been pretty as a girl's, but with water so scarce on the streets, he couldn't remember the last time he took a bath. Solo waved at him from around the corner of the building. It had to be something important; Solo wouldn't interrupt his eavesdropping if it was silly. With a sigh of regret, he closed the book and wrapped it back up in the precious square of plastic film he used to protect it from further damage, tying it with a frayed piece of twine. He checked around to make sure no one was watching, and edged along the wall to where his friend was waiting. "What?" he asked, sounding a little sullen. Trees had sounded so fascinating.
"Found something you might be interested in, Danny. One of the guys was watching the dock today, and he said a bunch of crates came in for the rich people. They're supposed to be for a Park. We found a place where we could sneak in and watch what they're doing. It's kind of cool, so I thought you'd want to see." Solo grinned.
"A park? What's that?" Daniel asked, still reticent. He had at least another ten minutes of listening he could do before he had to leave the schoolyard.
"Lots of green stuff. We figure you'll know what it all is once you get a look, since you got the book. Come on!" Solo grabbed his friend's hand and dragged him along, not even waiting for agreement. Daniel didn't protest though. Green things sounded rather fascinating now. And maybe it'd be cool green things, which sounded even better with the mid-day heat beating down from the ceiling.
The rest of their little gang was hiding out on a rooftop, in the shade of a towering metal box that Cliff swore helped the rich folks keep their apartments cool. It hummed and rattled, so they couldn't talk without yelling, but it provided decent cover. They had learned a long time ago that the rich people - which to them was anyone that had a house to live in - didn't like it when they came around. If they were lucky, they'd get a little money or food as a bribe to go away, but normally they got things thrown at them, or worst of all the soldiers would get called in.
"What are those?" Mick yelled in Daniel's ear, pointing down at the ground. There was a small square formed by several buildings, and the tile that was normally there had been replaced with something dark brown. There were huge plastic crates scattered everywhere. Sweating, shirtless workmen had opened the plastic crates with pry bars. Inside each were hundreds of objects that created a cool blur of dark green. Daniel had never seen anything like it with his own eyes, and neither had the rest of the kids.
"Hold on!" Daniel unwrapped the book, and carefully paged through it until he found the section about trees again. The other kids leaned in close, and he had to slap a few overeager hands away. No one touched his book but him. They'd just mess it up. "I think they're trees," he said, pointing to the picture.
All of the kids stared at the picture, then looked back down at the activity on the ground. "Wicked!" Cliff exclaimed.
"What are they doing with them?" Solo asked.
"I don't know..." Daniel tried to read the page of the book. It was hard to concentrate on puzzling out the words, between the noise of his friends and the noise of the air conditioner. He had to move his lips to sound them out, something he hadn't had to do in over a year. "Okay," he said, "I think they're going to put all the big trees and little trees on the ground and keep them there. To make a park, because a park is a bunch of plants all together."
"What's it do?" Mick asked.
"I don't know. Maybe they eat them?" He slogged his way through another paragraph of text. "The book says some trees grow food. Like...” he puzzled out the word, “peaches."
“Peaches? What're those?” Cliff asked.
“They're a kind of protein bar. Geeze, everyone knows that, dummy,” Mick said, doing his best to sound authoritative. He liked to pretend he knew more than anyone else.
“They're fruit, Mick,” Daniel said. “The book says so.”
“So what's fruit, then?” Mick demanded.
“I don't know. But it's sure not protein bars. So shut up.” Daniel shrugged. For a moment, he wondered if Mick was going to try to hit him, but the bigger boy quickly thought better of it. Daniel was small, but he always won fights, because he fought dirty. Really dirty.
Solo suddenly grinned. "I got an idea," he said. "We're good at stealing things. So we steal one of the trees. We can hide it in the back of the junk yard. And it'll grow food for us."
Daniel grinned as well. “Hell yeah! I bet the book can tell us how to take care of it and everything!” The book hadn't steered him wrong even once since he'd rescued it.
The rest of the boys smiled and cheered. The thought of having a source of food that didn't involve begging or stealing was one they could barely grasp. It sounded like heaven.
The door to the roof flew open, and one of the workmen from the square stormed out. Apparently, they'd been so loud that even the noisy air conditioner hadn't hidden them. "Get out of here, stupid punks!" he yelled.
They didn't have to be told twice. They fled down the fire escape, gone from the roof before the man had even finished calling them punks. Daniel almost fell twice, because he was concentrating more on holding on to the book than on where he was going. They all got to the ground in one piece and went running back to the slums, chattering about stealing a tree.
They stole tough black bread and a couple pieces of chicken from a deli for dinner, then slept with their bellies full of that feast, so they could be well rested for their great burglary. When the night was darkest, Solo woke them all up and they crept carefully back to the neighborhood where the rich people lived. They had to stay in the alleys and be silent, because there were a lot of police and soldiers around those days.
Solo had Daniel bring the book with him, so that they could look at the pictures and figure out which of the trees they should steal. There was a fence around the new park, but it was more there to look pretty than keep anyone out. It wasn't any kind of challenge for kids that were used to dealing with razor wire.
The park smelled funny, and the ground felt weird too. It was soft and springy and cool, as opposite of concrete as you could get. A few of the boys giggled and danced around a little until Solo hissed at them to shut up. Daniel just savored the feel of the ground cradling his bare feet and not burning him.
"Okay, Daniel, pick us a tree," Solo said.
He nodded and unwrapped the book. He had to strain his eyes to read the book, but eventually he found a picture that helped. "Apple tree," he whispered. "It should have round... leaves? And little red fruit hanging from it."
"Great!" Solo headed straight for the little group of trees, the other boys trailing behind them. They stopped short. The trees were a lot bigger than they'd been expecting.
"Do you think we really can steal one?" Cliff asked. "They seem kind of... big."
"Sure. They can't weigh that much, right?" Solo said.
The other boys wandered into the trees, looking for the one with apples on it. Daniel stayed where he was. Something just seemed wrong, to him. It wasn't like he'd ever seen trees before, but the ground under his feet, as cool as it was, felt strangely familiar. The trees looked cool, and they looked like the pictures, but something about them just didn't match up with what the book had made him imagine. Daniel crouched down and felt the ground. It was kind of furry, in a coarse way, but slick too. He separated one strand and pulled. It thinned, then snapped, and he stared at it, his eyes crossing. Suddenly hoping he was wrong, he stuck it in his mouth, then spat it out.
Plastic. It was made of plastic.
Danny walked over to the nearest tree, still cradling the book in his arms. He tentatively touched the outside - the bark - with his fingertips. It was dry, and it felt like plastic too, though at least it was textured. He might not know how organic things felt, but he'd been around plastic and metal and concrete all his life, and he knew those feelings. There was nothing alive about the tree, or the stuff on the ground, or any of it.
His eyes stung with tears, and he went looking for the guys.
"Hey Danny, what is it?" Solo asked when he walked up. Solo and the other two boys were gathered around one tree, trying to push it over without success.
Daniel walked right up to the tree, and hit it with all its might. It made a cracking noise, and he left a dent in the bark.
"What are you doing? Are you crazy?" Mick hissed.
"It's fake," Daniel said, shaking his hand. It hurt, but that wasn't what was bringing the tears to his eyes and making his voice thick. "All of this is fake. Trees are supposed to be alive and beautiful. This stuff is just plastic and metal. Nothing's alive here but us."
"You're kidding me..." Solo said, sounding like he wanted to cry as well.
"It's not even dead, because none of it was ever alive. It's all just fakes the rich people bought." Danny shook his head. "Nothing grows here, ever. We should've known better."
“But...” Cliff said, his voice barely a whisper.
“No buts,” Solo said. “Danny has the book. He knows.” He touched the dent Danny had made in the bark, then clenched his hands into fists. “Let's go.”
They left with their shoulders bowed, crawling back over the fence. None of them even had the energy to want to destroy the fake park. As they walked back down the alley, headed toward the slums, Daniel dumped the book in a trashcan and never looked back.