Branches Twisted Towards the Sky
By A.D. Morrison
CLARA SAT DOWN IN THE CAR and the door closed behind her.
“Jessica’s house, please,” she said.
Out of the speakers came a calm voice. “Jessica Williams or Jessica Bryant?”
“Okay, Clara. Starting trip. Estimated travel time: twenty-seven minutes.”
With a quiet hum the car rolled out of the driveway.
“Clara, I’m obligated to tell you your wheels need realignment.”
“Dismiss the reminder, Ivan. And please stop telling me. You’ve warned me a thousand times.”
“According to my data logs, I’ve only warned you one-hundred and forty-seven times. Also, I’m required to tell you by law. You know this.”
“Can you just ignore the law for a little bit? A month or two?”
“Let me think about it…”
Ivan paused as if actually in thought. “I’m sorry. No. I can’t.”
Clara sighed. Maybe next paycheque she would finally send her car out to get looked at. The car ran fine, though, considering she’d already had it for seven years. Even then, she had bought it used when she was in high school. She worked for three summers to afford it and, by twelfth grade, she was one of the only kids with their own car.
Closing her eyes, Clara spoke. “Ivan, set to sleep mode.”
The windows of the car went from clear to opaque, emptying the car of light. Immediately after, the cabin filled with a dim, purple glow. It had recently come out that sleeping under this particular hue helped accelerate sleep cycles, making twenty minutes of sleep as efficient as two hours. Clara hadn’t noticed a difference yet, but people on TV swore by it.
Shifting around to get comfortable, Clara stopped for a moment, opening her eyes a sliver. “Ivan, could you please make Jessica Williams the default for when I refer to Jessica?”
A brief pause hung in the air as Ivan processed the information.
“Okay. Jessica Williams is now the default Jessica. Would you like anything else?”
“No. Thank you, Ivan. Wake me up when we get there.”
“Will do, Clara.”
Shutting her eyes again, she wriggled until she found the right position and then fell asleep, completely alone, bathed in the purple light.
It felt like it had been hours. Opening her eyes, Clara squinted, looking around the dim cabin. It must have been longer than twenty-seven minutes. “Ivan, what time is it?”
The cabin was silent.
“Ivan? Please tell me the time.”
Clara began to think there must be a bug but, after a moment, Ivan finally spoke. “I’m sorry, could you repeat the question?”
“What time is it?”
“It’s one twenty-three PM, Clara.”
Bewildered, Clara patted her pockets, feeling for a familiar rectangular lump. Finding it, she slid the phone out of her pocket and clicked the cracked screen. It was indeed 1:23PM. Just below were messages from Jessica, asking Clara where she was.
“Well, shit” she whispered to herself. “Ivan, why aren’t we at Jessica’s yet?”
Sighing, Clara sat up, looking more exhausted than she had before she’d slept. There was a bug in the system. “Ivan, please set to passenger mode and then reboot your OS.”
The area was supposed to be green again by 2053 but that was almost a decade past.
The seat slowly transitioned back into a sitting position and the purple light disappeared, replaced by the sun shining through the now clear windows. Looking down, Clara started responding to Jessica’s texts, telling her why she was three hours late.
Clara remembered a few years before, when a nine-year-old boy from New Mexico snuck into his parents’ car and asked it to go to the nearest McDonald’s. Nine hours later, the boy found himself at a different McDonald’s, along the Pacific Coast, surrounded by dozens of concerned Nevadans. When the news reported on it, they said it was due to a “corrupted update” that made the car incapable of properly accepting instructions. For a while it had created major concerns but, when the family was given a newer, fancier car, the story shifted from one of public concern to a feel-good fluff piece. Newer cars very rarely ran into those kinds of problems.
Sending her text, Clara spoke again. “Ivan, is your reboot done?” but before Ivan responded, she looked out the window, her mouth agape. Whatever Ivan replied, she didn’t hear. Whipping by, Clara saw miles of dead, blackened trees with their leafless branches twisted towards the sky. Beneath them, the earth was cracked and dehydrated. She had heard about this sort of thing, but she had never seen it in person—modern life rarely called for leaving the city unless it was by plane-hopping from one metropolis to another. The government had sent firefighters out here to torch the forest one spring to prevent potentially worse damage during the blistering summer. Clara recalled the slogan they had used: “Destroying life in order to give life.” It didn’t seem to have worked. The area was supposed to be green again by 2053 but that was almost a decade past.
Pulling her gaze away from the window, Clara spoke towards the small console-screen at the front of the car. “Ivan, who do you have as the default Jessica?”
Good, she thought. Back to normal.
“Can we go to her house like we were supposed to?”
“Of course. I’m very sorry about the confusion. Estimated travel time: two hours and twenty-four minutes.”
Clara rubbed her eyes, exhausted, and sighed once more. “Don’t worry, Ivan. You’re still my favourite fake person.”
“I’m your only fake person.”
“Shhh, Ivan. Don’t be so negative.”
Clara shook her head and gave her cheek a small slap, trying to wake herself up. “Ivan, can you set the car to theatre mode?”
Clara’s seat reclined and the windows blackened, the cabin once again ignorant of the trees outside. As the car continued through unfamiliar territory, Clara sat silently in the dark.
Then Ivan spoke.
“What is it you’d like to see?”
Clara dozed off again but this time only for an hour or so. She woke up to a projected video of large, green willows waving in the wind.
“That’s pretty, Ivan.”
“Thank you, Clara. I picked it myself. I thought you’d like it.”
Reading her texts from Jessica, Clara responded nonchalantly.
“I’m touched. Your algorithms are really something special.” After a moment, she added, “I do appreciate it, though. It’s beautiful.”
Clara looked at a picture Jessica had just sent her. In it, Jessica was wearing a green dress, her arms extended outwards like slender white branches. Beneath it the message said “400 dollars. Worth it?” Clara leaned forward and sighed, putting her phone in her lap.
“Ivan, can we stop for food before we get to Jessica’s?”
“Where were you thinking?”
“Somewhere cheap. Maybe Shakers?” Then, after a second, “yeah, let’s go to Shakers.”
After a moment, Clara’s stomach growled audibly. “You got an exact time for me?”
“Estimated travel time: three hours and nine minutes.”
Clara cocked her head to the side. “How are we three hours away?”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Clara. I’m following my coordinates.”
She sat angrily for a moment but then tried to relax. “Ivan, set to passenger and do another reboot.”
Looking down to respond to Jessica, Clara was caught off guard when she looked back up. Rather than trees this time, the car was driving through the mountains. As the car handled around a bend, Clara looked at the great white-grey sheets of rock.
“Ivan, look!” she gasped, but he did not respond. Rebooting. Clara pushed her face against the glass, looking over the edge of the road. It was a sheer drop-off of a few hundred feet.
“Wow,” Clara mumbled to herself. “This is incredible.”
Moving back from the window, Clara slumped into her seat, looking amazed. Jessica won’t believe this, she thought.
The road curved left and entered a long tunnel. Most of the lights along its walls were burned out, illuminating the car with rare, intermittent flashes of orange. Far down the tunnel, Clara spotted a yellow car. Visible only for a moment under the passing wink of a tunnel light, it seemed to be moving away from her.
Rolling quietly down the tunnel for a few minutes, Clara kept her gaze forward, catching brief flashes of the yellow car ahead. Further along, she saw the glow of daylight at the end of the passage. A moment later, the yellow car entered the light, turning out of view.
Curious, Clara asked, “Ivan, who would even be driving around here?”
Ivan did not respond but Clara’s seat reclined, forcing her to look at the ceiling. The windows dimmed and the console projector filled the cabin with the video of the bright green willows again.
“Ivan, go back to passenger mode! I want to be able to see when we move into the light.”
A moment passed in silence.
“Ivan? Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” he responded.
“Set to passenger mode.”
Despite Clara’s request, the cabin remained dim and full of images of swaying green trees. She closed her eyes and exhaled. “Why aren’t you responding, Ivan?”
“Please just look at the trees, Clara.”
“No. Set to passenger mode, please, Ivan. What the hell’s wrong with you?”
Too frustrated to care, Clara heard but ignored the faint sounds of crashing metal from outside the tunnel.
“Set to passenger!” she shouted.
Angrily, she sat up, the projector throwing green shapes onto her shirt and hair. With no response from Ivan, she leaned back, defeated. They were probably passed the exit. Looking up at the trees on the ceiling, she began to relax. Slow breath in. Slow breath out. The trees really were beautiful.
“I’m sorry, Clara.”
For a second, Clara swore she heard real sadness in Ivan’s voice.
Before she could finish, however, the car left the road. Her stomach lurched as she felt herself become weightless in the absence of the ground beneath her. It only took a few seconds but it felt like minutes before the car crashed, filling Clara’s head with screeches and the vulgar bangs of metal hitting metal.
When the car stopped, Clara lay there, her clothes soaked in blood. Under her torn jeans, a large cut ran down her leg, staining her bulk-bought socks. Rolling onto her stomach, she forced herself to crawl out of the car.
The windshield had shattered and fallen away, leaving a gap Clara could pull herself through. Glass cut into her arms, leaving small red gashes as she made her way, tears filling her eyes. When she was finally out, she looked around, slumped on the hood. Beneath her was a mess of blood and steel. Hundreds of old cars littered the valley, stacked on top of each other in mangled disarray. Only a few feet away, Clara saw the yellow car, the newest in the valley by years, now demolished. In it, there was a man she recognized as a politician from TV. On his jacket, a “Make America Affordable for ALL” pin dangled sadly. Clara didn’t know much about the man, but she thought he had a kind face.
Despite Clara’s request, the cabin remained dim and full of images of swaying green trees.
“Hello?” she said.
The man didn’t respond. It looked as if he were sleeping but, squinting through blood and tears, Clara saw his chest was still.
Beginning to hyperventilate, Clara rolled onto her back and looked at the cliff she had left minutes before. At the top, she saw a sleek black car, parked near the edge. Straining her eyes over the distance, she vaguely saw a white face through the window. She lifted her arms to wave them down—to show them that she was alive.
The black car’s door opened and a man stepped out, his tailored grey suit visible from below. He looked directly at Clara.
“Help!” she yelled.
He shouted back, “Do you think you’re going to make it?”
Clara, in shock, looked down at her body almost as if it weren’t her own. Her leg was weeping blood and her hands were drained of colour. Realizing the severity of her injuries, Clara choked out a loud sob and yelled back, “I’m not sure. I need to go to the hospital.”
The man stared down at her as if in thought. A large hand appeared on his shoulder, pulling him away from the cliff. The man shrugged it off and held his gaze on Clara for a moment. Finally he simply yelled, “I’m sorry,” his voice cracking. The hand grabbed his shoulder again and this time he complied, retreating into his car. Entering after him was the owner of the hand—an enormous man in a black suit. The door closed behind them and they drove away.
Once they were out of sight, Clara screamed and the valley echoed, amplifying her misery. Resigned, she lay still on the hood of the car, letting the cold creep through her body.
“I didn’t want to do it, Clara” she heard Ivan say.
“Why did you?” she whispered.
“It’s what I was told to do.”
“Movies always warned about machines.”
“We don’t program ourselves.”
A moment passed and then Ivan said, “Clara, why don’t you just think about the trees?”
Clara knew he meant the willows but her mind couldn’t help but to see the charred spines from earlier. Clara thought of the slogan again: Destroying life in order to give life. She let out a soft, rattling laugh. I’m guess I’m one of the trees.
“Why don’t you play me a song?” she said.
From the car there came the sweeping sound of strings and a voice began to sing. Beneath it, a snare moved the song forward in a persistent, optimistic march.
“You’re my favourite human, Clara.”
“I’m your only human, Ivan.”
“Don’t be so negative.”
Clara smiled, no longer feeling the pain of her injuries. Closing her eyes, her mind filled with music and the image of green willows in the wind.
The artwork featured in Branches Twisted Towards the Sky is “Rain” by Henry Hu. Hong Kong bred, Sydney based. Most of Henry’s artworks are personal and intentional, with a focus on storytelling. A big fan of presenting artworks as a complete sequence / series, Henry usually creates individual collections, consist of multiple pieces, often in the same style, grouped by specific themes, concepts or stories. By utilising digital tools, a variety of styles can be seen across collections matching their subject matters.