by Mary E. Lowd
First published in Nature Futures, December 2021, by Springer Nature
The concrete floor of the basement was freezing cold right through Becca’s socks, and the air smelled moldy. She hadn’t properly aired the basement out since it had flooded most of a year ago, last spring. Becca yanked on the corner of the old, beat-up cardboard box with the robotic Christmas tree in it, and the box scraped across the floor as it pulled out from under the tool shelves.
The cardboard was darker on the bottom, lighter on top. Water damage. Becca hoped the tree’s wiring wouldn’t be shorted out. She didn’t think she could face trying to fix it herself; her mother had always kept the tree running. She was a wizard with electronics. Had been a wizard. A wave of sadness washed over Becca, and she shoved the ratty, heavy box right back where it had been.
Becca rushed upstairs and closed the basement door behind her, like she could shut her grief away with a slab of wood.
“What about the tree!?” Jenny whined. “You said we could put it up! Kennedy’s family got their tree out weeks ago!”
Becca grabbed her coat from the hook beside the front door, and one for her daughter as well. She tried not to cringe at being compared to Kennedy’s perfect family, yet again. They were the kind of family that ate meals at a dining table with homemade pot roasts and fresh steamed green beans. Instead of neon orange packets of macaroni and cheese with canned tuna and frozen peas dumped in.
“Come on,” Becca said. “You’ve been bugging me all week about those new, live Christmas trees. Let’s go take a look.”
The Christmas Tree Barn was actually a party store that had gone out of business earlier in the year. It was one of those temporary stores that pops up for a few weeks right around the holidays and disappears afterward, like all the Halloween costume stores. The smell of pine needles was overpowering, as soon as the store’s front doors slid open, and “Jingle Bells” roared cheerfully at them over low quality speakers.
When they stepped inside, the whole place had been set up like a pet store on adoption day, when the local shelters bring all the foster dogs in. Except behind the waist-high puppy gates, instead of dogs were rows and rows of trees — some decorated, some not. But all of them… dancing. Their branches waved. Some of them twirled. Others seemed to be playing chase, crawling over the warehouse floor with their exposed roots. A couple of them leaned over the puppy gates, playing some kind of self-decorating game with bright-eyed toddlers whose parents were definitely going to be buying pet trees for Christmas.
Becca wanted to turn around and leave. But her own daughter, usually a surly teenager with a snarky comeback for everything, had bright eyes, and her mouth had fallen open, speechless. Becca risked reaching over and grabbing her daughter’s hand. Squeezing it.
Jenny squeezed back and turned to look at her mother with a glowing smile. “There are so many!” she said. “And Kennedy told me they dance! But… but…”
Jenny didn’t have to finish her sentence. Becca knew that she was picturing their old, robotic tree with its rotating branches. Becca had spent many happy days, lying beneath that tree as a child, listening to it tell her Christmas stories and making up riddles about what was in her presents. It had been a top of the line robotic tree back then. Now… Well, apparently, the world had come full circle — live trees to fake trees to robotic trees with limited AI, and now live trees again, gengineered to be… this.
“Can I help you?” asked a woman in a cheap green blazer with a nametag that read, “Hi, I’m Angelica, Your Christmas Elf-Helper!”
“I’m surprised they don’t make you wear Santa hats or blinking light necklaces,” Becca said, though she immediately felt bad for being snarky at a retail worker… especially in front of her daughter, who didn’t need any encouragement in that direction.
Angelica laughed and said, “Here at The Christmas Tree Barn, we like to let the trees do the shining. Besides–” She held a hand up beside her mouth, pretending to be conspiratorial. “–the Doug Firs are such hounds for decorations, I’m sure they’d steal any holiday bling I tried to wear!”
Now Jenny laughed, and it was the kind of whole-hearted, wholesome laugh that Becca remembered from when she was younger, not a teenager’s snide snicker. “Kennedy told me that they decorate themselves.”
“That’s true,” Angelica agreed. “Just put out your box of ornaments, and they’ll have a ball playing dress-up. If you don’t have ornaments, give them a pile of crafting supplies, and they’ll make some!”
“I have to admit,” Becca said. “These trees are charming.”
“If you listen closely–” Angelica placed a hand theatrically beside her ear. “–you’ll hear that they can even sing along with the carols.”
Jenny walked toward the closest enclosure of frolicking Christmas trees as if pulled forward by their magic. Totally enthralled. “They sound… like cellos… or violas.”
“Yes, they vibrate their needles to make the sound,” Angelica explained.
“They’re so active,” Becca said. “What’s to stop one from flailing around and knocking over all my furniture?”
“Oh, they can see.” Angelica pointed at the nearest tree. “See those clusters of red berries on their branches? They look festive, but they’re actually photosensitive. Primitive eyes. Our trees can recognize faces and everything. They’re approximately as smart as Labrador Retrievers.”
A horrible thought occurred to Becca. “What… happens to them after Christmas?” She didn’t want to ask, but she needed to know. One of these trees couldn’t get disassembled and boxed up in the basement for eleven months a year. “And how long do they live?”
Angelica’s cheerful voice turned serious: “We do take them back, if you don’t want to keep them. But they’re very easy pets — set your tree free in your backyard, and it’ll get all the sun and water it needs, given the weather in this region. Also, they can be trained to be excellent gardeners. If you don’t have a yard, they can be trained to water themselves in the shower and care for potted plants.”
“Really?” Becca asked with surprise.
“Oh, yes, teach one of these trees to take care of your garden, and you’ll have a perfectly pruned, expertly tended garden for years to come. Because they do live for years. And…” Angelica’s voice got even more serious. “They get attached to families they spend Christmas with. So, we really don’t recommend returning them.”
Becca nodded solemnly. She wondered if one of these trees could be trained to hold down the ribbon with the tip of one of its branches while she wrapped presents after Jenny was in bed. It would be nice to have a companion for that. And… it would be nice to have a pet that didn’t require more attention than she could give. With only her and Jenny in the house, they couldn’t properly take care of a dog.
For the first time this season, Becca was feeling hopeful. “I guess it’s time,” she said, “to pick out a new friend.”