The Hilarious Inside Joke of Our Overwhelming Melancholic Nostalgia
by Francis Bass
A hot salty breeze curled through the leaves of the Sperry trees. Kyra crept over the knotted chaos of roots, tangled fingers clutching the shoreline to prevent erosion of the 30-meter-coast. The moon was near full, and the splashes of light it spilled through the tree branches lit Kyra’s way. Out here, the only sound was the ocean, and the wind. No bikes or busses—and the train was too far away to be audible. This section of shore was only accessible by gated-off footpaths, to keep people from coming out and littering, or scavenging for metal scrap and excavating it from the fragile terrain.
But Kyra had studied maps of this place. She loved maps, loved drawing out sketches of plans for dikes and polders, loved to imagine what the shoreline around Tallahassee had looked like twenty years ago, or sixty. And she’d spent a good few hours studying this section of the shoreline, which Sophie had told her was where she’d find the orange tree. This place used to be a research facility, and a golf course—but looking out over the water, Kyra couldn’t see any signs of those buildings now. The salvage ships must’ve taken them apart awhile ago, because now, looking south, Kyra just saw the white-and-black crinkle of moonlit ocean.
It wasn’t long before she reached the older trees, just like Sophie told her. According to her, somewhere in this grove at the heart of the coastal forest was the last orange tree in Florida. Kyra peered up at the canopy, trying to spot any variation. She’d looked up pictures of orange trees, so she knew the rippled, spearhead leaves she was looking for, the sunset-orange spherical fruits. But all she saw were the Sperry trees, with their oblong, reddish purplish butterplums hanging from them, and a few old pines. She wasn’t concerned though, the whole point here was that it didn’t matter if she got caught. Kyra wanted the “punishment” of getting nimmied. So she would keep searching for oranges for as long as she could, or get caught trying.
After scanning the trees around her one more time, Kyra moved on, further inland—and heard a twig snap. Instantly she fell to the ground and lay flat against the mesh of roots. The salt of the soil mixed with rich, old dirt hit her nose. She lay still, waiting. Had she imagined that sound?
She considered just turning herself in right now … no, better not, she didn’t want to disappoint Sophie. And imagine, if she came back with an actual orange, wouldn’t that be even more impressive to her older brother and his friends than getting nimmied? She had to at least make an effort.
It was tempting though. By WCRR law, the punishment for any crime against the future (and trespassing in the College Town shores, disturbing the ecosystem, was definitely a CATF) was to get nimmied. From what her brother Daren had told her, the arresting officer would drive you back to a regime station, sit you down in a dark, quiet room. They’d put a cotton hat over your head, with wires coming out of it and little balls of metal inside that you could feel against your scalp. Then they’d put a mask over your mouth and nose, and start pumping some kind of dusty, vanilla-flavored gas into your lungs. You’d fall asleep, and you might dream, or you might not. But when you woke up, you’d have intense memories of how things were a century before. Back around the turn of the millennium, before the sea really rose up, back when Florida was a whole peninsula, back when everyone knew what an orange tree was.
It was supposed to be a punishment, to make you think about what the World Climate Restoration Regime was working to restore, about how you’d jeopardized that. But Kyra wanted it. She wanted to remember how it used to be.
The day before, Kyra had biked down to Apalachee, expecting to find her brother Daren there, just gotten off work. Sure enough, he and a couple of his friends were sitting across from the old Capitol under a live oak tree, still dressed in their gardener’s uniforms.
“Nah, they suck, VR is better,” Ellie was saying.
“What?” Daren said. “Really?”
“Yeah, they’re wack, you can’t adjust the volume, can’t pause and use the bathroom, you just sit in this room with a bunch of strangers—”
“Hold the phone,” Sophie said. “Where did your broke ass get money to go to a movie theatre?”
“Not me, my uncle took us. Or great uncle or something. You know I got real upper crust relatives, regime officers, on my mom’s side.”
“What about the popcorn?” Daren said. “They’re supposed to have popcorn, right?”
“Oh. Yeah, it was gross. Just greasy and—”
“Alright, that’s where you’ve crossed a line,” Sophie said.
“It’s gross,” Ellie repeated.
“What are you talking about? Movie theater popcorn is the best!”
“When have you had movie theater popcorn?” Daren asked, then he looked to Kyra and waved. “Sup Kyra.”
“We’ve all had it!” Sophie shouted.
“We all remember it,” Ellie said, “but if you’d actually tried it, you would know. That shit is disgusting.”
“Hey y’all,” Kyra said. “Daren, Mom needs us to help take out a couple windows.”
“The super can’t do that?”
“I don’t know, Mom just wants it done right now. Ask her.”
“You’re getting those new hurricane windows? It’s only April,” Sophie said.
“Yeah, so?” Daren said. “Always be prepared, right?”
“Alright boy scout,” Sophie said. Ellie and Daren chuckled.
“What’s a boy scout?” Kyra asked.
“Just some old shit,” Sophie said. “Just some old delinquent shit no one else remembers.”
Daren stood up. “Alright. See you guys—”
“I should ask to get nimmied,” Kyra said. “Then I’d know all the references y’all make, and I’d understand your curse words.”
Daren and his friends laughed. “It doesn’t work like that,” Daren said. “After your first time getting nimmied, the memories fade within a couple weeks. That’s how it’s supposed to work—just a few weeks for you to reflect, you know? They didn’t anticipate us.”
“The hurricane generation,” Sophie said. “We all still have these memories because we did it constantly. Always stealing, trespassing. Career criminals.”
“Shit, we had to,” Ellie said.
“Well no shit we had to,” Sophie nodded. “Regime wasn’t looking like the safest bet back then. Anyway, that was before your time.”
“That’s what Daren always says!” Kyra exclaimed. “But it wasn’t, I remember Hurricane Robert, Hurricane Eva!”
“You were … what? Four or five back then?” Sophie said. “We were in our teens. Old enough we had to pick up slack for the family. It was different.”
“I’m gonna get my bike and we can head out Kyra,” Daren said, walking off toward the Capitol sea wall.
“I’m serious,” Kyra said. “I’m gonna walk down to the correctional office and ask them to nimmy me.”
“Do you even know what nimmy stands for?” Ellie asked.
“Something-something-Memory-Implantation,” Kyra said.
“Wait.” Sophie held up a hand. “Are you really, really serious about this?”
Of course she was. She’d always wanted to do this, but she’d never had the nerve. “Yes,” Kyra said. “Even if I only remember stuff for a couple weeks. For those couple weeks, Daren wouldn’t be able to tell me, ‘it was before your time,’ ‘never mind, it’s a millennial thing.’”
Sophie laughed at her impression of Daren.
“Well if you’re serious, don’t let ‘em punish you for free,” Sophie said. “You wanna get nimmied, you oughta commit a crime. Go running up and down the Cascade dunes or something.”
“No no no no,” Ellie said. “You don’t—Kyra, right? Kyra, you don’t wanna get nimmied. It’s not fun, it’s it’s depressing.”
“For us maybe,” Sophie said. “We don’t know how she’ll take it.”
“Kyra, don’t listen to her. It is sad as fuck, for everyone. Do not do it.”
“Look, how old are you?” Sophie asked. “Fourteen?”
Kyra smiled. “Thirteen.”
“Boy they grow ‘em tall now huh,” Sophie said. “Well, thirteen’s old enough to make your own decisions. I won’t sugarcoat it though. It’s not just special swear words and old movies. It’s a lot of other stuff. It’s a lot of loss. You can’t even imagine how much loss we’re living in right now, having never been nimmied. But. You’re grown enough to decide whether or not you want to do it. And if you do, you should go down to the College Town shores, find the orange tree there—”
“Stop,” Ellie said. “Stop this.”
“And pick as many oranges as you can, so we can grow some orange trees for ourselves.”
“Stop it,” Ellie said. “There is no orange tree alive in the entire Southeast, and there certainly ain’t one at the fucking—”
“—the fucking College Town shores in Tallahassee?!”
“You don’t believe me?”
“What’s an orange tree?” Kyra cut in.
“The most delicious—oh my god Kyra,” Sophie said, “they are so good.”
“From what we remember,” Ellie said.
“From what we remember,” Sophie said, “the sweetest, juiciest, tangiest fruit.”
“Like butterplums?” Kyra asked.
“Hell no! Those nasty old GMO—no, oranges are way better than that. They used to grow them all over here, had em on the state license plates—of course you wouldn’t know about license plates, but—”
“Way too hot for them to survive here,” Ellie said. “They only grow in China now.”
“I’ve seen it! I swear on a stack of bibles Ellie, no joke, there’s an orange tree down at College Town shores. I saw it once, and we all spent weeks trying to find it again—but I know it’s still there, it’s gotta be.”
“Is this a … like a prank?” Kyra asked Ellie. “Is this a set-up?”
“No, I’ve heard her talk about it before,” Daren said. Kyra turned around and saw him standing behind her with his bike at his side. “She really believes that we’ve got the last orange tree in Florida right in our backyard. But we don’t, it’s impossible.”
“You’ll be singing a different tune when your lil sis comes back with a basketful of oranges,” Sophie said.
“You want oranges, buy ‘em online.”
“Uh, I work the same job you do Daren, are they paying you buy-some-Mongolian-oranges-online money, because they sure as shit ain’t paying me that much.”
“Well don’t involve my sister in your nostalgic delusions,” Daren said.
“She’s old enough to make her own decisions,” Sophie said. “We were her age when we were stripping copper. Shoot, I was only eleven when I started counterfeiting food stamps.”
“‘Food stamps’?” Kyra asked. “You mean regime tickets?”
“Ooh, she knows the old lingo,” Sophie said. “You sure you haven’t been nimmied before?”
“I’m not totally clueless,” Kyra said. “I know some millennial words.”
“The difference is we had to,” Daren cut in. “Kyra, you know better than this. I did what I did because someone had to keep mom and you fed. You don’t have to do that now though, and certainly not for a nonexistent orange tree.”
“Come on, don’t lie,” Sophie said. “We all tried to find it at least once.”
“Alright, once,” Daren said. “But that was stupid. Don’t make the mistake I did.”
“Well whatever you do Kyra, don’t get nimmied for nothing,” Sophie said. “Just keep committing crimes until you get caught.”
“Great advice, thanks,” Daren said. “Come on, Kyra let’s go.”
They said good-bye to Sophie and Ellie, and Kyra walked over to her bike.
“Kyra, look at me,” Daren said as Kyra hopped onto her bike. “Do not go out trespassing. I know you feel left out sometimes, and you want to know what all we remember. But it’s not worth it. You’ve got your own friends—worry about impressing them, okay.”
“Yeah but they’re all—everyone my age is so boring.” She put her helmet on and the chin strap tight. “They just wanna talk about dumb pixel games and wires.”
“So find some people like you. They’re out there. And if they aren’t in middle school you can find them in high school. But don’t try and be like us. Okay?”
“Hypocrite,” Kyra said.
Kyra pushed off, and Daren pedaled after her.
After a while of silence, Kyra rose to her feet again, and moved further inland. Old fallen butterplums squished beneath her feet. If she couldn’t find the orange tree, maybe she could just pick a bunch of butterplums. Then her mom could make a cobbler with them, like she always did for Kyra’s birthday.
Kyra heard another rustle behind her and again hit the ground. She looked up just in time to see white light cut through the forestry. The trees were all so thin, there was nothing to hide behind. The officer would get her. Should she just surrender now, or would that look too suspect? She heard footsteps approaching, and could make out a figure behind the light. The figure reached the grove of trees, and then someone else came running in from the side, tripped, and fell right in front of the officer.
“Hey!” the officer yelled. “Stop!”
“Shit.” Daren’s voice—how? “Alright, you got me,” Daren said, rising from where he’d fallen.
“Daren Cartier, right? Still scavenging salvage in protected zones?” the officer asked.
“Wait, no!” Kyra jumped up. “It wasn’t him!”
Daren whirled around. “What the hell?” he said. “Kyra! What are you doing here?”
“No what are you doing here?”
Daren turned to the officer, who now pointed her flashlight at the ground so they could actually see her. “I’m sorry, officer,” Daren said. “This is my kid sister—she follows me sometimes, I—she didn’t have anything to do with this, she’s just worried about me.”
“She’s walking on the shore too, whether she’s digging for metal or not,” the officer said.
“I know, but, please, she’s never been nimmied, it’s not worth it …”
“Uh-huh. Well, I’ll let her sit in the waiting room while you get implanted.”
“Thank you,” Daren said.
“But I—but this was all me!” Kyra yelled. “I’m the one who was trespassing!”
The officer looked between Daren and her, and then laughed, and Daren joined in. “That’s a good sister you’ve got there. Now come on, let’s get this over with.”
Kyra felt bad that Daren had taken the fall for her, but that wasn’t going to stop her. He couldn’t protect her over and over again if she just kept at it enough. About an hour after the regime officer had dropped them off at home, she crept out through the cardboard-covered window, awaiting a hurricane window, onto the roof of the old house. She startled when she saw the other person sitting on the roof. In the light of the moon she could see it was Daren. Carefully, she crept across the shallow incline to stand over him. From up here, the odd flat of the ocean was visible, and that’s where Daren was staring.
“Sorry,” Kyra said to him. “But you can’t stop me every single time. I want to do this.”
“I know. I just wanted you to see this.”
Kyra looked out at the ocean.
“No, this, me,” Daren said. His voice was softer than she had ever heard. “Kyra, you don’t know how miserable it was. Still is. How cynical it makes you, bearing someone else’s nostalgia. I miss a world I never even knew, a world I’ll never get back to.”
Kyra sat down next to him. “What do you mean,” she said. “That’s the regime’s whole plan. We’re going to get everything back to pre-industrial levels.”
“There’s no way that’ll happen. We still haven’t completely stabilized yet,” Daren said. “But that’s okay. The reason you don’t know how miserable and depressed me and Sophie and all of us used to be, constantly nimmied—you don’t remember that because, it was you that got me through it. Scavenging, counterfeiting, hitching, it was all for you. And that’s what I focused on whenever the loss was too overwhelming—your future. Not the stupid lost past, all the stupid beaches and all the stupid manatees.” Daren’s voice choked up, and he pressed a hand to his mouth. “See what I mean? I wanted you to see this. This isn’t some fun inside joke to get in on, it’s, it’s …”
“But—but shouldn’t we remember, even if it’s painful? Otherwise, this becomes the new normal,” Kyra gestured at the ocean, the little blocks of as yet un-demolished buildings sticking above the waves.
“This is the new normal,” Daren said. “Focus on saving this. You don’t need to obsess over the pain of old dipshit dead millennials too. It should’ve been us. It should’ve been our generation, the first kids born under the regime. But it wasn’t. So now it’s got to be you.”
“Got to be me?”
“A generation that doesn’t remember anything. That’s ready to be something new. That’s ready for this to be the new normal. That’s what you can do. If you stop trying to get nimmied.”
“But. But what if I can actually find an orange?”
“There’s no more orange trees, Kyra.”
Kyra picked at the asphalt shingles. “Well. We’ll see. I’ll think about what you said, and then decide …” Kyra stared out at the ocean and tried to picture it as just a sprawl of buildings and pine trees. She tried to imagine the constant rumble of cars, snaking enormous roads, strange animals crawling on white sand beaches.
And she couldn’t. She could only think of the muddy root-knotted shores, the crowded buses, and red, ripe butterplums.
Francis Bass (he/him) is a writer living in Philadelphia. His writing has appeared in Reckoning, Electric Literature, and others, and he has self-published many other works. You can find him online at francisbass.com.