Dead Tree Walking

When Judy-Lu was ten, her foster parents took her to see the Last Grove. Ingrid and Helen were an odd couple, at least odd among their peers. Children were so rarely born anymore that most people wanted to adopt babies, where available, to get the full experience of life, so to speak. It was well known that childhood memories were often implanted, and so the idea was to gain experience of childhood through one’s own child. But it wasn’t easy to have one biologically, or what used to be called ‘naturally’, so when couples like Ingrid and Helen were looking for children to adopt, it was rare that they would go for older girls like Judy-Lu.
But Ingrid and Helen were strange women, and they’d both decided at relatively young ages that they didn’t like babies very much. They found them creepy, like wax dolls come to life and screaming their faces red to boot. It wasn’t an attractive prospect, raising a baby. But a child, a child was something completely different.

They were big talkers, Ingrid and Helen, and they liked the idea of having someone to talk to. When they saw Judy-Lu in the adoption agent’s album, the first thing they asked him was, “Can she talk?” The adoption agent nodded and told them in a serious tone that the picture was outdated, and that she wasn’t two years old anymore – her age in the photograph – but seven already. He felt it was conscientious to tell them this, since it was true that many adoption agencies purposefully didn’t update pictures as the children grew older. In this case, he said, it wasn’t a purposeful slip-up, since his agency didn’t play such paltry tricks in order to make unsuspecting would-be parents adopt older children by accident. No, in this case, Judy-Lu was simply a very shy child and was impossible to drag out of the closet whenever the photographer came by.
Ingrid and Helen were intrigued by this and asked if they could meet the girl.

The agent swiftly set up a video call to the center Judy-Lu lived at. Apparently Judy-Lu wasn’t shy of him, since she agreed to come and speak on the call when she heard who it was. She waved merrily, showing a gap in her teeth where a front tooth had fallen out and a new one was growing in, crookedly. She said hello to Ingrid and Helen. They asked her why she didn’t like taking her picture take and she said “Poo. I’m ugly is why.”

She was certainly an ugly child, as such things went. But Ingrid and Helen didn’t mind and they took her in. They were foster mothers, not real adopters, because they wanted to have a way to give her back if they needed to. Judy-Lu wanted to have a way to leave as well, so they understood each other pretty well.

Ingrid and Helen had wanted to see the Last Grove for many years but they’d never managed to bring themselves to do it. Now that they had Judy-Lu, they began to plan the expedition and save money – no small feat, what with having another mouth to feed and the economy slipping between recession, depression and boom on a bi-yearly basis or so – and when Judy-Lu was ten, they finally got the tickets and flew out to the rain forest, where the last of the truly biological trees were kept in a biodome with specific and expensive temperature, watering and lighting systems.

“Are you excited, Judy-Lu?” Helen asked, holding the girl’s hand as they walked among the crowd of tourists through an exhibition that showed the history of Earth’s tree-loss and the preservation of the Last Grove by a rather too handsome group of young activists sometime late in the 2100s.

“Uh-huh,” said Judy-Lu. “Ingrid, are you excited?”

“I’m excited to be here with my two favorite ladies,” Ingrid said and tweaked Judy-Lu’s nose.

They stood in line for an hour. The exit to the biodome was on the other side, because they never saw anyone coming out. Judy-Lu wondered whether the trees were the kind of predatory plant that dominated her historical adventure books where the bad guys always got eaten by the rapacious things. She was nervous, but not nervous enough to say anything about it. She didn’t want her foster moms to think she was a wimp.

It was very quiet inside the biodome, and Judy-Lu whispered when they got inside. “What’s the smell?”

“I don’t know,” Ingrid said.

“I’ve read about this,” Helen said. “It’s probably what the air used to smell like. Before it was regulated.”

“It smells funny,” Judy-Lu said, and sneezed. The sound seemed very loud.
It was an awe-inspiring sight. The trees were very tall, much taller than any of them had expected, and the branches only started growing out of the trunk a few feet above their heads. But they draped down lower, and the bottom leaves rustled softly in the wind made by people’s bodies moving around.

They were only allowed ten minutes inside before they were ushered out. Ingrid and Helen chatted once they got outside, and they each held one of Judy-Lu’s hands. Judy-Lu herself felt like she never wanted to talk again. She couldn’t hold so much beauty inside her.

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