by Chris Hertz
Narrator's Note: While it's true that history is written by the victorious (which is why I'm writing this manuscript on stretched raw hide instead of wood based paper), it is also true that such victories are not possible without certain sacrifices by the enemy. Those stories are often overlooked by history books. This is one such tale...
The discovery of the phenomena of radioactivity adds a new group to the great number of invisible radiations known, and once more we are forced to recognize how limited is our direct perception of the world which surrounds us, and how numerous and varied may be the phenomena which we pass without a suspicion of their existence until the day when a fortunate hazard reveals them.
Let's start with conjecture and move into fact. The discovery of radium was mankind's single-most important contribution to modern science. Like most great discoveries, it happened mainly by accident. Madame Marie Curie stumbled upon it in the lab in 1898 while studying pitchblende (oxide of uranium ore). Her curiosity had been piqued by a strange property of pitchblende. Somehow, it was more radioactive than pure uranium. In an effort to prove that such a measurement was impossible (after all, how could the oxide of an element be more radioactive than the element itself?), she found radium. The discovery was lauded as a major breakthrough in the fledgling study of radioactivity.
Now, radium doesn't just have a clever name -- it's one of the most radioactive elements known. Powerful, active, and alive: Its alpha particles can initiate nuclear reactions; its most stable isotope, radium-226, slowly decays into the deadly gas radon; and the lab books used by the Curies during their radium research are so contaminated they must be stored in lead boxes and only handled with radiation suits. Powerful stuff indeed.
In the early 1900's, radium was seen as a magnificent medical and commercial breakthrough. The radiation it emitted was viewed as strong enough that it could possibly eradicate cancer and was widely used in cancer treatment. Its luminosity (radium glows an intense greenish-yellow in the dark) made it desirable to be used in paint for watches and clocks. About twenty scientists flocked to Curie's lab to assist with radium research. Watchmakers scrambled to produce clocks that could be read in the dark. Radium was the Johnny-come-lately cure-all that the world was waiting for. It was the greatest thing since sliced bread before sliced bread was even invented. There wasn't a thing radium couldn't do -- including kill a healthy person.
About twenty years after the discovery of radium, the sicknesses started. The deaths followed soon after. You see, what wasn't known at the time (but was discovered later) is that the human body treats the element radium like calcium. It collects in the bones, saturates the marrow and sucks the life out of them from the inside. One by one the scientists who rushed to participate in the research conducted at the Curie labs developed radiation poisoning in one form or another. One by one they dropped like leaves in late autumn. The watchmakers, who handled smaller quantities of radium in their paints, still developed anemia, bone cancer or both. Even Marie Curie, the founder of the feast so to speak, couldn't beat radium.
By the 1930s, the risks associated with radium were well known. Still, one of Curie's assistants, Henry Koenig, soldiered on under a self-imposed death sentence. He was the last of the scientists to succumb to bone cancer due to radium poisoning. He bravely sacrificed his life to study an element he was convinced would ultimately prove beneficial to society. Little did he know how right he was or how much his sacrifice would mean.
Henry Koenig was buried in Homewood Cemetery in Pittsburgh, PA, in 1934. In late summer, 1986, his body was exhumed for examination. The purpose: to study the saturation level of radium within his bones. When the exhumation crew came upon Koenig's burial plot, they found a sapling growing out of his grave. As they began to excavate, they found that the sapling's roots dug deep into Koenig's wooden coffin.
The crew did their job (ugly as it was). Koenig and the sapling were disentangled and removed. The bones were shipped to the Argonne National Laboratory's Center for Human Radiobiology for study. The sapling was replanted in a wooded section of Frick Park bordering the Homewood Community Garden within the peaceful confines of Homewood Cemetery.
Koenig's bones were successfully examined and re-interred in the spring of 1987. His remains showed one of the highest levels of radium ever measured. Later that same year, the sapling, tended by a fringe group of somewhat radical community gardeners, successfully broke free of its root system and took its first step...
Morning -- about 25 years later
It is human nature to believe that the phenomena we know are the only ones that exist, and whenever some chance discovery extends the limits of our knowledge we are filled with amazement. We cannot become accustomed to the idea that we live in a world that is revealed to us only in a restricted portion of its manifestations.
Jeff Thompson, slightly overweight and sweating, jabbed his garden hoe into the dirt of plot #75 in the Homewood Community Garden and thought, I am making a contribution. It was a half-hearted jab and a half-hearted thought. He didn't feel much truth behind either one. More like wishful thinking. But at the very least he was trying. He pulled the hoe back toward him scratching the earth. The motion produced three rocks of not insignificant size. He sighed, reached down with his chubby fingers and chucked the rocks underhand into the woods next to his plot. The leaves shook as the stones passed through and landed with a soft thud in the thick underbrush.
For a long time -- many years -- Thompson didn't contribute at all. He had a job sure. But sitting in a cubicle for 37.5 hours a week plus nights and weekends wasn't exactly his definition of giving back. He worked as a means to pay the bills and accumulate stuff. He was the consummate consumer. When he was told to shop after 9/11, he did. When they returned his money and called it a stimulus, he spent it dutifully on a new flat screen, laptop and 120 gig ipod. He measured his contribution by the size of his credit card debt. Then, come to find out, that didn't help the economy go anywhere but in the toilet. So, he decided to change. He sold all of his material goods and started a new directive. He would make a contribution through his actions not his wallet. And he was succeeding. At least, that's what he told himself.
Thompson stood his sturdy frame up straight and wiped his brow with his left sleeve. He wheezed and tried to catch his breath. All that for bending over. It was only 9:30 on a sunny Saturday morning but it had to be 85 degrees already. Another hot one. That was nothing new. It had been beastly all summer. By the time the protest kicked off at noon it would approach 95. It was almost enough to make him stay home. But he no longer had an air-conditioner (sold it), so there was no point. Better to go to the protest and suffer through the heat along with everyone else. Contribute to the cause. Who knows, he might even finally meet Tyree, the protest organizer. And, from what he'd heard, that alone would be worth the price of admission.
He wiped his brow again, stood the hoe upright and leaned on it -- surveying the scene. The Homewood Community Garden stretched from west to east on a narrow expanse of land in a slight valley. On the hill above and beyond, the residents of Homewood Cemetery lay peacefully in their tombs. The garden land, donated by the cemetery, was broken down into numeric plots -- 89 to be precise -- each tended by a different owner for a $30 yearly donation. The plots sat side-by-side separated by chicken wire. They were 20-by-20 feet allowing ample space for each gardener to grow whatever their heart desired. Thompson's plot sat at the base of the hill and was bordered by a wooded area that ran into Frick Park. Everywhere he looked, plants stretched high out of the ground thick as jungle. It had been a good season for most, but not for him.
The entire right side of Thompson's plot was overgrown with weeds -- and some of the biggest and angriest looking weeds he ever saw. You could walk the entire length of the community garden and not find as many weeds as were in the right side of Thompson's plot. He'd have to pull those sometime today. It was against the rules to have a plot overgrown with weeds. The middle (where the three rocks had appeared) was brown and barren. The far left of the plot -- the side bordering the woods -- had potential. The soil was better there. Richer. There, he was able to produce some small tomatoes and carrots which he dutifully donated to the local food co-op. He also had a tree growing on the left side -- a little maple sapling. Trees were against the rules too but he didn't want to pull it. He couldn't explain why. It just felt to him that the tree belonged there.
Kenzy Philips in the plot behind him must have read his mind. "I wouldn't pull it either," she said. "There's just something wrong about pulling a tree -- unless you're going to replant it."
Thompson offered her a smile. That's Kenzy, he thought, always helpful. She's nice, but she's no Clair. (That would be Clair Entwistle -- Thompson's very beautiful and very British neighbor. Not his garden neighbor like Kenzy but his actual neighbor. He had lived next to Clair for about four years and had been in love with her for around three years and 364 days. But, alas, unrequited love, she had yet to give him the time of day -- not that he had worked up the courage to ask. Not for the time or for anything else. For some reason, whenever he passed her on the street, his head would grow so heavy his neck couldn't support it. Head down, he was stuck stealing glances at her ankles as she walked by. He was able to catch much more of her lovely frame watching her from his window. Not in a creepy stalker way but in a gosh-she's-hot-and-I-have-no-confidence kind of way.)
A shout broke Thompson from his daydream. Roy McElroy from plot 46 was running up to Kenzy. His long hair bounced off his shoulders as he ran; a head-band kept it out of his eyes. He wore jeans and a white t-shirt with cut-off sleeves. With a beard and glasses, he would have been Tommy Chong. He was followed closely by the very thin Rainey Barnes from 31.
"Hey!" Roy said. "Did you hear? Rich Stevens over in 55 found a ten pound tomato this morning. Ten pounds!"
"No way!" Kenzy said.
"Yeah," Rainey chimed in. "I heard Rich had a three-inch stake supporting the vine. Snapped it right in half. He found the tomato on the ground this morning like a damned red pumpkin or something."
"We're headed over there to check it out, if you want to come with," Roy said.
Thompson cringed at Roy's grammar. He hated the thought of prepositions dangling out there in the breeze.
"Sure," Kenzy said, "You coming too, Jeff?"
Thompson smiled. Yep, always helpful. But, before he could answer, Rainey craned his toothpick neck over Thompson's chicken wire.
"Whoa, dude," Rainey said.
Thompson frowned. Not helpful, he thought.
"You better clean this shit up in here. I've never seen weeds that big."
Not helpful at all...
The plants had grown tall that summer. Taller than any of the plot owners in the Homewood Community Garden could remember. And lush. It was the last summer of Barack Obama's first term, and hot would not be a strong enough word to describe it. Sweaty was much more accurate. That summer was the first time that the average temperature rose above 90 degrees. But it was certainly not the last. The average dew point was a tropical 75. The air had become oppressively thick and palpable. It pushed, like an invisible force, against each movement. Each breath felt wet and heavy like breathing in a cloud. Americans closed their windows and turned their air conditioners on full blast. Comfort was all that mattered. An inconvenient truth of that time was that folks were still a little suspicious about the whole global warming thing. Some believed. Some didn't. But the fact remained that humidity and CO2 levels had spiked -- causing sultry, greenhouse conditions -- and the plants thrived because of it.
Homewood Community Garden had never witnessed a summer like it. Records were broken. Green onions grew as big as softballs; peppers as big as small church bells. There were hedgerows of lettuce, kale and horseradish. Asparagus stretched out of the ground like bamboo. Beans resembled potatoes. Potatoes were dug out of the rich soil like dirt-covered footballs. Cucumbers were the size of ... well, we'll leave the cucumbers alone, but let's just say that they were pretty darn long. And thick. But not as long or as thick as the crowd that had gathered to see Rich Steven's ten pound tomato.
Thompson observed the crowd from a distance -- his back to the woods. The leaves and branches seemed restless as they waved back and forth above him rustling in the background. Thompson heard the sound and thought it odd that he didn't feel any wind. But it was very much a fleeting thought. He shrugged it off and turned his attention to Stevens who was hamming it up for a camera. No surprise there. Stevens took great pride in his garden and made sure everyone knew it. He held three garden records for biggest vegetable: pea pod, lima bean, and now tomato. Thompson told himself often that he didn't care. Still, curiosity dictated that he at least see the prized specimen. He found a small crate to stand on to peek over the crowd. He stepped up and saw the giant red mutant on the ground next to Stevens. It wasn't so much like a pumpkin (as Rainey had said). It was swollen and firm -- more like a beach ball that was given too much air -- like it might burst at any minute. Thompson chuckled as he imagined Stevens suddenly soaked with tomato juice and picking seeds out of his hair.
"Whatcha gonna do with it, Rich?" someone asked.
The crowd buzzed with anticipation.
"Thinking about making some of my famous homemade salsa," Stevens said.
The crowd hummed its approval.
"I'll be sure to share with some folks," he continued.
The crowd hummed louder.
"But some of you will be out of luck," he added with a smile.
Thompson saw that that last comment had been aimed a little higher -- to the one face that stood just above the crowd. He stepped down from the crate and trudged back to his plot.
"Hope your luck doesn't run out," Thompson mumbled sarcastically. But he knew that was only jealousy talking. He thought of his own (mostly) fallow field. He had tried several times to move but someone would have to vacate their own plot first. The community garden was functioning at full capacity with a waitlist. Once (more like if) another plot opened up he'd be able to leave his sterile dirt for fertile ground -- like the Israelites out of the desert into the land of Canaan. He smiled at the thought. And the milk and honey would flow like rivers. And each harvested vegetable would break records. And he'd share it all with anyone who needed it (except for Stevens of course). And Clair and Kenzy would be his harem. And it would all be part of his glorious contribution to society. Like Sydney Carton said, it would be far, far better.
Better than the life of a consumer. Better than Stevens' ten pounds of arrogance. And much better than to be one of the souls of the dearly departed on the hill above. Thompson gazed at the white and gray marble markers of Homewood Cemetery peacefully watching over the garden. Their final contribution had been made. The plots in the garden offered a stark contrast to the plots above on the hill. The community garden plots sprung life. The plots above housed death. But if death is just a door into another dimension then Homewood was a gateway.
Thompson picked up his hoe and began scratching at his garden again. His mind far away pondering those other dimensions and the contributions people might have made to get there. He looked up and saw that the crowd that had gathered to see Stevens' tomato was beginning to disperse. He glanced back over at the cemetery and for some reason thought of zombies. Not the blood-thirsty, brain-munching kind, but the slow-moving, dumb-witted kind -- clawing out of their underground wombs and limping aimlessly about the earth.
"How'd you like that tomato?" a voice said snapping Thompson back to reality.
He was disappointed to see Stevens standing just outside his chicken-wire.
"I guess it's impressive," Thompson said. "Congratulations."
"Damn right it's impressive. No need to guess." He pointed at Thompson's plot. "Looks like Rainey wasn't kidding. This garden's a mess. Can't you follow the rules?"
"I'm doing my best."
"Why don't you do your best someplace else? Look, man, I hate to tell you but you're not wanted here. You're dragging us down."
Thompson doubted very much that Stevens hated to tell him anything negative. He looked around. There was no Kenzy to help him this time. In fact, none of the other nearby plot owners seemed to be paying attention. They all had their heads in their own dirt. They had to have heard what was said, but none came over to second the complaint. None of them offered to back Thompson up either.
"You have to clean up your plot. Comprende?" Stevens belabored the point. "Are those sunflowers or dandelions growing in there?"
"Dandelions," Thompson said softly his eyes shifting down to the dirt.
"That's what I thought. Biggest goddamn dandelions I ever saw."
"The weed killer isn't working."
"Better check the bottle. You sure you didn't use fertilizer?"
Thompson shrugged his shoulders.
Stevens continued the onslaught. "How ‘bout this: Have you tried picking them? Bend your fat ass over and get your hands dirty whydon'tcha? And look over here," he pointed to the far end of the plot closest to the woods. "You've got trees growing for Christ's sake. This is in direct violation of Rule 2 of the Garden Regulations. You have to clean this shit up or I and the other plot owners will file a complaint with the Garden Captain. You'll be outa here faster than..." He eyed Thompson up and down. "Faster than you can eat a plate of chicken, fatty."
Thompson offered a weak smile at that comment. He didn't consider himself fat. Other people might have, but he didn't. Was he carrying more weight around his mid-section than he would like? Sure. But weren't most people? At least he was working on it -- walking, biking, swimming, cutting out snacks and pop. He didn't own a car (he had sold that too during his great purge). He studied his wide feet inside his shoe-leather express and the thick fingers that clutched the garden hoe in his hands. His grandma used to call him big-boned. Funny how she always seemed to call him that while spooning another heaping helping of mashed potatoes onto his dinner plate.
Stevens didn't wait for a response on the fat comment. He bent over and put his hands around the sapling as if he was going to choke it out of the ground. A faint wail wafted to their ears like a baby crying for its mother. A stiff breeze angrily shook the leaves above them. Thompson looked around.
Stevens was visibly annoyed. "Christ, now what? Somebody brought a baby here? Can't a man garden in peace?"
"I was just thinking the same thing," Thompson mumbled.
Stevens stared at him like a teacher at a smart-mouthed student -- face bulging and red like his beach ball tomato. For a moment, Thompson imagined the other man's head exploding like he had imagined the tomato exploding earlier. This time eyeballs and brains spattering all over the garden. He couldn't help but smile.
"Is this funny to you?" Stevens said. His eyes were thin and flaming like lit matchsticks. "This tree is gone now and you're gone tomorrow. Understand?"
Thompson didn't protest. Stevens bent down again and pulled a pair of hand pruners out of his back pocket. He was about to snip the sapling at its base when a heavy rustling in the woods made him stop. Both men turned toward the sound. A man in a green t-shirt and blue jeans strolled calmly out of the trees. He sported a goatee and it was obvious he was bald beneath his ball cap. His appearance, in fact, was almost normal (the simple matter of appearing out of the shrubbery aside) except for the dozen or so angry red scratches that cut into his arms, neck and face in various places.
"What'd that sapling ever do to you, friend?" he said to Stevens in a deep, penetrating voice. "Don't you have any respect for life?"
"Trees aren't allowed in here. It's in the rules," Stevens said and pointed his chin at the man.
"That tree's not bothering you," the man said.
"I'll just have a talk with the Garden Captain and we'll see..."
"He's with Tyree," the man said. Thompson's ears pricked up.
"Good," Stevens replied. "I want to talk to him too. Where are they?"
"I can't tell you."
"Why not?" Stevens put his hands on his hips.
"You haven't been invited," the man said plainly.
"We'll see about that," Stevens said. "When the Garden Captain comes back he and I are going to have a little chat about all this."
"You do that," the man said. His expression never changed but the scratches on his face seemed an angrier red.
Stevens snorted loudly, but he returned his hand pruners to his back pocket and sulked away.
"And stay out!" Thompson yelled when Stevens was out of earshot. He turned and put out his hand. "Thanks, uh..."
"Malcolm Deforest," the man said taking Thompson's hand. His skin was rough, Thompson noticed, but not from manual labor. More burned and stretched than weathered and worn. Up close he was all straight lines -- almost chiseled -- as if he'd been carved instead of born.
"Jeff Thompson," Thompson said releasing his hand. He paused. "You know Tyree?"
"Sure," Deforest said and smiled. There was something sinister about it. Too much teeth and goatee. Or maybe it was his eyes. Thompson wasn't sure if he trusted them.
"I'd love to meet him," Thompson said and looked at the ground.
The smile widened. "Will you be at the protest later?" Deforest asked.
"You know it!" Thompson said and put his palm up for a high-five. But his enthusiasm fell flat. Deforest stared at the hand hanging exposed in the air. The only sound was an awkward scuffling of feet. Thompson wanted to curl up like a giant potato bug and roll into the woods. He put his hand down.
"Will Tyree be there?" he asked sheepishly.
Deforest smiled again. He bent down to the sapling and patted the dirt around it. His lips moved, but, if he spoke, Thompson couldn't hear him.
Deforest stood up. "Nature needs nurture," he said.
Thompson seemed puzzled. He was about to ask Deforest what he meant when Kenzy appeared.
"Hey, Deforest," she said.
Deforest nodded to her. "You ready?" he asked.
"Ready as I'll ever be!" Her enthusiasm was apparent. Thompson wondered what she was ready for.
"Where you guys goin'?" he couldn't help himself to ask.
"To, uh, another part of the garden," Kenzy said.
Thompson noticed there was no invitation to come along this time. "What other part?" he pushed.
Kenzy glanced at Deforest.
"Take care of your plot," Deforest said to Thompson. "Especially that tree."
"But, it's against the rules. I have to..."
"Don't worry. Tyree's changing the rules," Deforest said. And with that, he and Kenzy turned and walked into the woods.
"See you at the protest, Jeff," he heard Kenzy say as they disappeared in the thick brush.
Thompson stared after them. For a moment he thought about following. Instead, he picked up his garden hoe and, head down, began sifting for more rocks.
The properties of radium are extremely curious. The radiation ... is at least one million times more powerful than that from an equal quantity of uranium.
The protest was in full swing when Thompson arrived at half-past noon. And, really, it wasn't so much a protest as it was a demonstration. There was no marching, no chanting, no hell no we won't go, nothing burning, no stand-off with the National Guard. It was (not to downplay its role) a small group standing around waving signs hoping to illicit a few honks from passing cars. They had gathered at the same busy intersection in Frick Park every Saturday for the past nine years -- since the start of the Iraq War. By now it was just old habit. The protest wasn't even the main reason Thompson showed up every week. Sure, he wanted the war to end. And, sure, he wanted to stop global warming. (Both causes being main courses on the protest menu.) But, beyond those reasons, it was simply another way for him to be involved. That and his hot neighbor Clair Entwistle was sure to be there at some point.
Thompson stood on the Southeast corner of the intersection, protest sign in hand, watching the traffic. The vehicles flowed through the busy intersection like hot blood through an artery -- the red light stemming the flow only momentarily, warming the cars with the heat of the day like a giant heart, before pumping them to the neighborhoods of Squirrel Hill, East Liberty or the main vein of the parkway to Downtown or the Monroeville shopping plex. Clouds had rolled in giving the intersection a gray, dream-like tint. The exhaust from the traffic made the air thick and uncomfortable like a heavy blanket on a warm day.
Thompson wiped his forehead and squinted against the bright gray ceiling of clouds. The sun was an ashen blob above him. He wondered how it could be so hot with such a thick cloud cover. The clouds should be blocking out the heat. But he knew the opposite was true. They were keeping the heat in and doing a magnificent job of it.
Still, despite the heat, the sounds of activity were all around. The traffic hummed as it passed through the intersection. Horns honked every so often at a protest sign or to move traffic along. Children squealed with delight as parents chased them around a playground on the corner. Now and again, a metal bat tinked a base hit over at a nearby field. Tennis balls were smacked around with a gentle throp on the clay courts in the distance. Runners and bikers exercised on the park trails sweating out the heat. Protesters with homemade signs mingled with each other in their like-minded cause.
Only two hundred yards away, the Homewood Community Garden sat peacefully -- a quiet jungle of giant vegetables -- in stark contrast to the zoo of activity in Frick Park.
Thompson moved from his spot on the corner and wandered through the group of protesters. He marveled at the myriad of signs. Each one with a different message. Each a tiny extension of the protesters' personalities. Some signs were simple like the blunt black and red of Blood-Oil. Some more dynamic like the cool blues and greens of the Love Your Mother sign -- the words written in the shape of a rainbow around a giant Earth. Some were emotional like the one of the weeping willow that said, The Trees are Crying; some more comic like Save a tree: Eat a beaver. Some poignant -- Support the troops, end the war. Some tragic like the Casualties of War sign with the picture of dead Iraqi children. Yes, all of the signs he had come to expect week after week had made an appearance. He felt a certain comfort level in that. But the one sign he was really searching for was missing. The giant peace emblem. Two things surprised him about that. First, it wasn't the sign or the person he thought he'd be concerned about. And, second, that sign was a mainstay of the protest every week. But it wasn't there today. And neither was its owner, Kenzy Phillips.
Now curiosity has murdered more than cats, but it's also human nature. Kenzy had been invited to another part of the garden. Where was it? What had she found there? Had she met Tyree? And, if so, what was he like? Inquiring minds wanted to know. And so did Thompson.
He moved passed the playground to where Blood-Oil stood talking to Trees are Crying. "Good turnout today," he said to make conversation.
"Yeah, it's great," Trees are Crying said. "Feels like it's gonna storm, though."
"Hopefully it does," Blood-Oil replied. "Relieve some of this goddamn heat."
Thompson nodded in agreement, but something told him that it wasn't going to storm. Not today at least.
"Have you seen Kenzy Phillips?" he asked. The two stared at him blankly. "You know, the brunette with the giant peace sign."
"Oh yeah, she's usually here by now, isn't she?" Trees are Crying said.
"Thought I saw her over at Little Ben's," Blood-Oil added.
Thompson thanked them and crossed the street. Little Ben's was just on the opposite corner of the intersection. For a long time, it was a high end antique dealer. Thompson knew it well back in his consumer days. The store had a large plate glass façade and was great for window browsing. Beautiful oak desks, pine bed-posts and cherry tables filled the store-room. But Thompson's favorite piece was the beautifully ornate, wood-carved grandfather clock that sat in the window. When the antique dealer went out of business, a local group bought the space to use for community meetings. They cleaned out all of the furniture except for the old clock. It remained in the storefront window like a cigar store Indian. The Last of the Mohicans. The final remnant of a good economy when people bought from want instead of need. Its wood was warping from the constant humidity, but it still kept good time and there was something hypnotic and soothing (to Thompson anyway) about the gentle sway of its golden pendulum. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.
He reached the store front of Little Ben's and peered beyond the clock. A few protesters in there but no Kenzy. He wandered over to the corner where stood staring at the traffic -- dead Iraqi children displayed like a billboard above his head. Cars whizzed by -- the drivers and passengers with their eyes straight ahead doing their best to ignore him.
A woman in a blue hybrid stopped at the red light. She honked her horn twice and waived emphatically. Casualties just stood there looking grim. Thompson wiped his brow on his sleeve and extended two thick fingers in the shape of a V. With the other hand he bounced his own sign up and down. "No more blood for oil!" he shouted. The light turned green. The woman honked once more and sped through the intersection.
Thompson addressed the sour-faced Casualties "They say we're still in a recession, but this intersection is always packed with cars. I don't know where these people go every weekend."
Casualties just frowned and shrugged his shoulders.
"They don't know where they're going," a deep voice said from behind. Thompson turned and saw Deforest approaching from the store front of Little Ben's. He wore the same green shirt and jeans from earlier in the day. The scratches on his arms and face were scarlet and enraged. A smoldering cigarette dangled from the corner of his lips.
"There's nothing beyond that red light but their future," Deforest continued. "And their future's the graveyard. They're not going any further than Homewood Cemetery." He dragged on the cigarette. "They're nothing but zombies."
Thompson started a bit. "That's strange," he said. "I was just thinking about zombies earlier today."
"Great minds think alike," Deforest said and smiled. His goatee stretched across his face and the cigarette followed.
"Well, at least the girl who honked seemed to get it," Thompson said.
"Didn't stop her from driving though did it," Deforest said. It was a statement not a question. He waived his arm at the traffic. "Fuck Detroit, man. Fuck the auto-makers. That's what I say. We could have been off oil years ago if they had any vision. But they only see green." He puffed a cloud. "Tyree has a vision. He sees green too, but a different kind."
The glow of the cigarette bobbed like a firefly as he spoke. Thompson's eyes were drawn to it like road kill to headlights. Smoke wafted to his nostrils and he coughed nervously.
"Does this bother you?" Deforest asked pointing to the cigarette.
"I ... I didn't expect you to be a smoker," Thompson managed.
"I smoke as a symbol -- as a reminder."
"Reminder of what?"
Deforest pointed his head toward the traffic. "Pollution," he said.
Thompson showed no reaction. Deforest knew that he needed more.
"I smoke to pollute my body like we pollute the earth," he explained. "That," he dragged and exhaled, "and cigarettes are fucking addicting."
Thompson nodded his head. "I guess that's why I don't smoke," he said.
Deforest stared at Thompson. Hard. The cigarette glowed orange at the tip for a second. Smoke wafted around his face.
Thompson shuffled his feet. "Not that it bothers me," he said shakily.
Deforest continued to stare. "You were late," he said.
Thompson raised his eyebrows and shook his head.
"You were late to the protest," Deforest repeated. "You didn't get here until 12:30. Why?"
"I had to clean up my garden a bit," Thompson said almost as a plea. "They want to kick me out."
"You didn't touch that tree did you?" Deforest asked. His expression softened to concern.
"No." Thompson held his breath.
"Good," Deforest said relaxing his gaze.
Thompson exhaled. "Had to get those weeds out of there though," he said.
"They'll be back," Deforest replied with a cloud of blue smoke.
Thompson changed the subject. "Have you seen Kenzy?"
Deforest gave an inquisitive look.
"The girl you took into the woods this morning," Thompson said finding it hard to hide his jealousy.
"Oh, yeah. She's with Tyree."
"With Tyree? Were they here?"
Deforest smiled. That same smile from the garden earlier in the day. All teeth and goatee. He turned to a young woman standing behind him.
"Was Tyree here?" he asked her.
"Last time I saw him he was with that lovely girl from the garden," the woman replied with a slight British accent.
Thompson's heart froze for a moment when he saw the slender raven-haired beauty behind Deforest. His limbs suddenly felt too big for his body. His breath came quick and heavy. She was handing pamphlets to passers-by, her head cocked to one side, her blood-red lips parted just slightly. Her deep blue eyes sparkled against her light skin. Thompson was reminded of blue skies and white clouds on a summer day. It was Clair Entwistle.
"I like your sign," she said to Thompson.
Thompson's eyes found the pavement. His head bent downward -- suddenly too heavy for his neck.
"Uh, thanks," he somehow managed after an awkward pause.
"Walk or bike or take a hike," she read and giggled.
The temperature around Thompson suddenly rose about 100 degrees. Sweat rolled in little rivulets down his back. He caught his reflection in the window of Little Ben's. His face was as red as Stevens' tomato. The golden pendulum of the grandfather clock seemed to smile at him as it swooped back and forth, back and forth. He turned the sign around. He was quite proud of it when he made it this morning. But now he couldn't help thinking how stupid it was. Each directive on the sign was punctuated with a picture. Next to the word Walk Thompson had drawn a pair of shoes. Bike was accompanied by a 10-speed. And Take a Hike showed a figure with a walking stick and back pack heading on a trail through a mountain pass.
"That's right on," Clair said.
Deforest agreed. "It's a bit involved," he said, "but I guess it's clever."
"You didn't drive down here," Clair said. "I mean you couldn't. Not with a sign like that."
Thompson laughed nervously but found his voice. "You're right. I walked. It's not far. I'm just up the road across from the cemetery."
"I know," Clair said and Thompson just about died. "We're neighbors. You never say hi, though." Her lips pursed in a fake pout.
"I, um," Thompson fumbled for words. "What do you have there?"
She handed him a pamphlet. It wasn't some cheap loose leaf tri-fold. It was much fancier -- four-color glossy on card-stock. Bold, florescent green letters jumped off the flyer from a dark background. The message was simple and clear: REVOLUTION: Patriotism is not State obedience. Behind the words, the shadowed outline of a tree was unmistakable. Thompson studied the flyer closer. Two black notches near the top of the trunk slanted inward like a pair of angry eyes.
"I like your sign too," Thompson said his voice a bit high like a pre-pubescent boy. Deforest rolled his eyes.
"Thanks," Clair said and smiled -- her scarlet lips parted revealing sharp canines.
Someone who hadn't been in love with Clair Entwistle for four years might have thought, the better to eat you with, my dear. But not Thompson. He wanted to walk up to her. He wanted to hold her. He wanted to do a lot of things. But he just stood there until the moment passed away. His neck grew heavy again and he lowered his head. A strange sound was building in his ears. It wasn't his heart. It wasn't fear. It wasn't even laughter. It was a chant. Someone was chanting behind him.
A younger man in a red SUV had stopped at the light where Casualties still stood with his sign. The passenger window was down and he was fairly singing: "Drill, baby, drill!"
Deforest lit up. His goatee extended in a wide smile. He flicked his cigarette away and sauntered over to the corner. "Drill baby?" he asked the driver. "Is that like De Tar Baby? You know, once you get stuck in de tar, baby, you don't get out."
The window of the SUV went up and then came back down again.
"Palin for President!" the driver shouted.
Deforest waltzed over to the window. "Dude, this is a revolution and Sarah Palin is a Tory."
The driver's face scrunched with confusion.
"OK, dude, I get it," he said after a moment. "You still think that half-cast is really gonna change things don't you. He's a Muslim with terrorist friends. Osama Obama."
Deforest smiled. His teeth gleamed through the exhaust. For a moment they were all that was visible like a six-foot Cheshire cat. "Your kind never evolves," he laughed. "Talking the same old, tired trash that didn't work four years ago. Well, let me talk now. Bill Ayers didn't go far enough. This is the sequel, my man. And the body count's always higher in the sequel. You know what I'm sayin'?"
The man made a move to jump out of his SUV but at that moment the light turned green and the cars behind him immediately began to blare their horns. The intersection sounded like geese in distress. The man punched his fist toward the passenger window and extended a singular finger. "You're number one in my book, bro," he said and pealed through the intersection tires screeching and rubber burned into the asphalt. Thompson didn't think it was possible but Deforest's smile actually widened as he watched the man drive away.
"See," Deforest said. "You can't reason with a zombie. You can't educate a zombie. Hell, you can't even talk to a zombie. They're brain-dead." He pulled another cigarette out of his pocket, lit it and took a drag. "The only thing you can do for a zombie," he said as a puff of blue smoke clouded each word, "is put it out of its misery."
"You really think Bill Ayers didn't go far enough?" Thompson asked when Deforest returned to stand by him and Clair.
"Read the Declaration. When government takes advantage of us, it's not only our right, it's our duty to overthrow it and install new leadership. That's all that the founders were saying. And that's all that Bill Ayers was doing -- declaring his independence. He isn't a terrorist. He's a revolutionary. You know the difference between Bill Ayers and Sam Adams?"
"One tried to blow up the Pentagon and one's a tasty beverage?"
Clair laughed at the joke and Thompson blushed.
Deforest frowned. "The press," he said.
Thompson thought he must have looked like the guy in the SUV when Deforest called Sarah Palin a Tory. He had no clue where Deforest was going with this one.
"In Sam Adams time, the tide was flowing toward revolution. The press picked up on that and turned him into a folk hero. Bill Ayers was fighting a revolution too. But the press was firmly ensconced on the side of the establishment -- and has been since 1783.
"We've grown soft, my friend. We've forgotten what it means to rebel. To fight injustice. Sure, we're great at pointing fingers. We'll fight injustice anywhere -- Germany, Russia, Africa, the Middle East -- if there's money in it. But what about injustice here? The politics of fear brought us the arms race. Trickle-dick economics led to a widening of classes. And no revolution.
"Inflation drove up the cost of housing, education and cars. Hospitals care more about insurance companies than about patients. And no revolution.
"Enron, Halliburton, special interests. Where's the revolution?
"The 2000 election, 9/11, suicide bombers, anthrax, the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, bans on stem cells, bans on marriage, AIG, CEO bonuses, Bernie Madoff, the housing crisis, the credit crisis, bank bailouts, auto bailouts. The lie that perpetrated the Iraq War. The disappearance of the middle class. Four dollars a gallon for gasoline. Where's the fucking revolution?"
Deforest took a breath. His eyes were two fireballs. Thompson stood quietly next to Clair.
"The truth is," Deforest continued, "it takes generations of getting fucked before people revolt. Hell, it took years of abuse to get some farmers pissed enough to tell the Redcoats to fuck off." He glanced over toward Homewood Cemetery and the community garden. "But even revolution isn't enough anymore. It's time for evolution and Tyree's our founding father. We're the new Flower Power, baby. We've developed a new breed of plant that's going to help restore the balance with nature. And balance is the key. Tyree found the secret ingredient. The community garden? That's all us. You think that fool could grow a ten pound tomato on his own? Come on."
Thompson's eyes grew wide. "I knew it!"
"We're shaping the future. We're changing things. We're making a difference. And we'd like you to be a part of it."
"But what about Obama?" Thompson asked. "He's making changes, right?"
"Not fast enough. He wants to make sure everyone's happy. He wants to talk out the problem. How did Republicans ever earn the White House again after Nixon? How do they have a voice today after eight years of W.? No, the time for talk is over. It's time for action. You want to talk? Join the Democrats, and I'll meet you on this corner every week for the next four years. You want to help? I mean really help?"
"I want to. Yes." Thompson said.
"Wanting isn't enough. You have to be willing."
"Meet us tonight."
"Over by your plot. We want to show you the other part of the community garden like we showed your friend."
"Kenzy?" Thompson had forgotten all about her.
"That's right. She's there now. Helping."
"I'll be there too," Clair said. Her face was hopeful. "Will you come? Say yes."
Thompson pretended to think about it for a minute, but there really was never any doubt. This was his big chance. He grinned wide. Like Sydney Carton said, it would be far, far better.
"Hell yeah I'm in," he said.
"Good," Deforest said.
Clair just smiled at him. Her blue eyes twinkling.
"What time?" Thompson asked.
"Soon as it gets dark -- around nine," Deforest said.
"See you then!" Thompson smiled. He said goodbye to Deforest and Clair and watched them retreat into Little Ben's. As they disappeared into the building, he caught his own reflection in the glass façade and almost didn't recognize himself. He was beaming. He glanced at the grandfather clock to check the time. Only 12:40? That couldn't be right. He peered closer. The second hand was motionless. The golden pendulum had also stopped swaying and was fixed on the far left. For some reason and for only a split-second, he thought, out of time. But the thought flew away just as quickly as it had come. He turned and began to bounce his way back home. He felt warm and not just because of the weather. He had just talked to the girl of his dreams and she didn't laugh at him -- she laughed with him. But more than that, he was contributing. Finally, really contributing. And it felt damn good.
Radium has the power of communicating its radioactivity to surrounding bodies. ... When a body that has remained in a solution with radium becomes radioactive, the chemical properties of this body are modified...
The cicadas had finished their summer twilight serenade and the crickets were into their fiddle-legged encore when Thompson burst from his apartment into the warm night. The afternoon hours had seemed to crawl but the time to meet Deforest (and Tyree) had finally arrived. He jumped down the front porch steps and bounded across the road to the front entrance of Homewood Cemetery. He moved quickly through the wrought-iron gate and passed the headstones pale as corpses in the dusk. The first beads of sweat had already formed on his forehead. When he hit the access road that led to the community garden, he slowed his pace. The sun had set but the humidity had hung around like a truant beneath a no loitering sign. He dabbed the sweat with a handkerchief. Another few minutes of power-walking and he'd be a puddle. His excitement was obvious, but he also wanted to make a good impression.
Thompson reached his plot and found it empty. He glanced up at the moonless night. The sky was a shroud of violet. In a minute it would be too dark to see. His eyes strained for movement. A tiny, orange glow ignited in mid-air from the shadow of the trees. It burned intensely for a moment then faded like a firefly. Thompson could just make out the black outline of a form in the fading twilight.
"Deforest?" Thompson said -- his voice a little too high.
The black form did not answer immediately.
"You ready?" Deforest's deep voice finally said from the shadows.
Thompson realized he'd been holding his breath. He let out a sigh.
"Ready as I'll ever be!" he said -- his enthusiasm rushing back. He thought of Kenzy. He'd be seeing her soon. And Clair. And Tyree.
The orange glow burned once more and was snuffed out abruptly.
"Follow me," Deforest said.
Thompson hesitated for a moment. He stared into the thick, dark canopy of trees like staring into the mouth of a cave.
"That might be tough," he said.
He heard a click and the thin white beam of a pocket flashlight shone into the woods revealing a narrow trail. Deforest stepped into the trees, and Thompson hustled after him. Almost immediately, they were engulfed in darkness -- the forest close around them. The air was a bit denser. The invisible canopy smothering them as if mother-nature had pulled a blanket up over their heads. Blindness was everywhere -- the darkness so total and complete that Thompson couldn't even see himself blink if he ventured a glance outside the pale glow of the flashlight.
The forest seemed angry and alive. The thick underbrush clawed at his bare legs in the dark. Branches grabbed at his arms. Leaves scratched at his scalp. Thompson thought he could finally explain the red marks on Deforest's arms and face. But by far the most disconcerting thing -- beyond the darkness and the clutching shrubbery -- was the silence. The only sound was the soft steps of the two men and the whispery rustling of the underbrush as they tramped their way through the woods. There was no scurrying of small animals nor the hoot of an owl. Even the nightly concert of crickets seemed to have been canceled. All was dead quiet -- almost as if the forest was listening.
Thompson shivered a little as they pressed on through the trees. The silence pounded in his ears. The urge to run seared through his legs and sat burning in his chest like a lit match. He shoved the feeling back down. Instead, he stuck close to Deforest who glued the flashlight tight to the trail.
Neither man spoke. After a couple hundred yards (at Thompson's best guess -- there was no way to know for sure...), the ground began to slope slightly downward. Thompson couldn't even tell if they were on a trail anymore. His eyes had finally become accustomed to the dark but shadows ruled the night. They moved slowly, grudgingly forward. They walked until Thompson thought they must have reached the other side of Frick Park. Then they walked some more. Down and still down they marched. Finally, the ground began to level out. A faint yellow glow appeared in spots through the foliage ahead of them. Thompson could make out the black shapes of leaves and branches. A small clearing was visible just ahead. Deforest clicked off the flashlight.
A young oak stood at the entrance to the clearing. One of its low-lying branches cut across their path about waist high. Five shorter, thinner branches extended out like a hand. Thompson was amazed at how much it resembled a human arm.
Deforest approached the tree. "It's alright," he said soothingly as he held back the branch. Thompson was feeling a bit apprehensive, but he wasn't sure if Deforest was speaking to him or the oak. He nodded and pushed his way through the opening.
The clearing was egg-shaped and no more than 25 feet long at its widest point. It was also empty. No Kenzy, no Clair and certainly no Tyree. A solitary tree stood in the middle flanked by two mounds. The one on the left was an oblong mound of dirt about six feet in length. The one on the right was a mish-mash of debris that looked (and smelled) like compost. Both were slightly luminescent and glowed (Thompson could not explain how) a faint greenish-yellow. It gave the air a jaundiced quality and seemed to cast more shadow than light.
If the glowing mounds seemed strange, the tree was nothing short of bizarre. It was unlike any tree Thompson had ever seen before. It was short (about ten feet tall) yet it appeared fully grown. Its base was split up the middle -- almost as if two trees had grown into each other and formed one trunk. If Thompson had been forced, he would have admitted that the dual trunks looked like legs. The branches weren't so much wild as symmetrical. The leaves were thin and wispy. And two deep notches -- black and bottomless in the pale light -- had formed side-by-side near the top of the trunk.
Deforest moved away from Thompson along the tree-line toward the opposite end of the clearing. He picked up something metal from the shadows and carried it over to the dirt mound. In the faint yellow light, Thompson could see it was a watering can. Deforest tipped the can slightly forward and what looked like lemonade trickled out of the sprinkler spout showering the soil.
Thompson stood alone at the edge of the forest feeling rather foolish. He began to wonder why he'd been dragged through the woods to an empty clearing only to be ignored. He shifted nervously not sure what to do with himself. Even the leaves seemed restless. They rustled noisily. He again thought it odd that he felt no wind. But this time the thought lingered a while.
"All in good time," a voice said. It was melodic and deep like a bass trombone.
Thompson kept one eye on the trees. "You mean until Tyree shows up?" he said hopefully to Deforest.
Deforest never lifted his gaze from watering the dirt. "Why are you talking to me?" he replied. "I didn't say anything."
Thompson's face scrunched with confusion.
"Besides," Deforest continued, "Tyree's already here."
Thompson's eyes scanned the tree line. "Where? It's just us..." he stopped. The tree in the middle of the clearing was ... different. The top half bent forward toward Thompson in a slight bow. His eyes grew wide as it straightened out again.
"Welcome, Jeff Thompson," the same deep, melodic voice said. This time it was clear that Deforest wasn't speaking.
Thompson's heart fluttered at the sound of his name. He tried to answer but found his tongue was made of sand. His throat cracked as dry clay. His voice caught there like a bone and he coughed.
"My name is Tyree," the tree said. "Why have you come?"
Thompson could only shrug his shoulders. His voice was gone.
"You mean you don't know?"
Thompson coughed again. The tree twisted toward Deforest who immediately brought the watering can over to Thompson. The gangly gardener stared hard at the newcomer -- the scratches on his face a furious crimson. The look in his eyes said: Don't screw this up.
Tiny glistening beads formed on Thompson's forehead and upper lip. He peeked in the watering can. Lemonade-yellow liquid sloshed around inside. He hesitated.
"It's just water," Deforest said. "Trust me."
Thompson lifted the can to his nose. There was no scent. He thought it must be the strange glowing mounds that gave the liquid its color. He took a sip. Cool water flowed across his lips and down his throat. His tongue absorbed it like a dry sponge. He lifted the can again -- drank deep and long as if his thirst would never be quenched. Florescent yellow liquid dribbled out the corners of his mouth and down his chin. He began to feel warm inside like he had just chugged hot tea instead of water. He handed the can back to Deforest. The tree waited patiently. The two deep notches on the trunk began to look more and more like eyes. The branches more like arms. The leaves more like hair. The lower trunk more like legs. He even noticed that the bark was slit just below the notches. Maybe it was an old hatchet scar. Maybe it was a mouth.
Thompson shook his head. He had to be hallucinating -- there could be no other explanation. At the very least, his imagination was running wild. Even the clearing was playing tricks on him. It seemed to have shrunk a bit.
"You don't believe what you see," the tree said calmly.
Thompson didn't answer. Not because he couldn't, but because he didn't know what to say.
"I'm not offended," the tree went on. "You're not the first. The gentleman with the rather large tomato didn't believe either."
"Stevens," Thompson said finally regaining his voice.
"That's right," said the tree. "He arrived uninvited. To cause trouble. But he won't be bothering us anymore." The notches seemed to glance at the compost heap. "Tell me, Mr. Thompson, why have you come?"
Thompson watched Deforest who had returned to watering the dirt mound.
"I came to meet Tyree."
"Pleased to meet you," the tree bowed again.
"And help with the new species."
"I am the new species," Tyree said.
"But ... It's impossible," Thompson whispered.
"Obviously not," Deforest said irritably.
"Then ... how?"
"Like all living creatures I was born," Tyree began, "twenty-five years ago in Homewood Cemetery. How it happened I cannot say. Just as you couldn't say how you were born. Oh, you could tell me the story of your birth. The story your parents told you. But you couldn't give me an eye-witness account of it. What the womb looked like. How it felt to be forced out of the birth-canal. The way your lungs burned when they breathed oxygen for the first time. The embarrassment of being presented, raw and naked, to the world."
Thompson fidgeted nervously. Tyree went on.
"And so it is with me. I was born; I grew. But not like other trees. More like a human. I took my first steps. I learned to communicate. And I'm here now having a conversation with you. That's the proof that I exist. I never knew my parents. My father died long before I was born. This is all that's left of him."
One of the branches held out a long black bone for Thompson to see.
"His name was Henry Koenig," Tyree continued. "The last surviving scientist of Marie Curie's radium lab. He died of radiation poisoning -- his bones, this bone, saturated with radium. He knew he was going to die like all the others, but he stayed in the lab. Continued his research. Sacrificed himself for what he thought was the good of society. From his bones -- from his sacrifice -- I was born. I grew. I live."
A twig snapped from behind and Thompson jumped. He wheeled around hoping to see Kenzy. Instead Clair Entwistle stood just inside the tree-line. Despite the humidity she was dressed in heavy coveralls with dark stains that did their best to hide her shape. She carried a shovel in one hand and a tiny maple sapling in the other. Thompson recognized it as the sapling from his plot.
"Why did you pick my tree?" he asked. He was not nervous to speak to her this time -- not after having a conversation with Tyree.
"I didn't," Clair smiled. "This tree picked you."
"We've been watching you for quite some time," Tyree said and took a step toward Thompson. "The way you give your time at the community garden. And at the weekly protest. I wonder if you'd be willing to give more."
"I want to," Thompson said still watching Clair.
"Wanting isn't enough," Tyree said and took another step. "You have to be willing. To sacrifice -- like Henry Koenig."
"We need you," Clair said.
"For what?" Thompson asked.
"To help this tree grow. Help it to live."
"What do you mean?" Thompson's mind was beginning to swirl and continued to play tricks on him. The clearing seemed smaller still and was growing claustrophobic.
Tyree crept toward Thompson until he was close enough to touch. "When these," (he pointed with the black bone to the two deep notches at the top of his trunk) "had no pupils, I had visions -- nightmares -- where mankind drained the Earth. Stripped it bare. Left it for dead. Now that I have eyes, I see a new future. A world with no war, no global warming. Where the trees have evolved as the higher species -- thanks to the few who have sacrificed. Mankind had their chance. It's our turn now."
A thought flashed in Thompson's brain as Tyree spoke. His heart began to pound against his ribs. "Where's Kenzy?" he asked.
"She's here," Clair said.
Clair didn't answer but stared past Thompson and Tyree. He followed her eyes to where Deforest still stood watering the dirt mound. Thompson gasped and took a step backward.
Tyree reached out with two branches and pulled Thompson to him. His stale breath -- like the inside of an old cedar chest -- shoved the oxygen out of the air. The scene began to fade until all that remained in the world was Tyree. Tyree's body disappeared and there was only his face. Then Tyree's face melted away. Slowly. His features drew back leaving two giant black holes -- the pits that were his eyes. Thompson's head swam and he floated for a minute. Then he was falling -- pulled into the black holes by their massive gravity. He stared deep into them and saw eyes -- his own eyes reflected back. He didn't like the look in them. Trepidation. That was a good word. Yes, he saw trepidation there. Uncertainty. That was definitely there. But there was also fear. Plain, old-fashioned, unadulterated fear. No mistaking it. He was scared out of his mind and it showed. He hated that about himself. It was one of the many things he vowed to keep working on.
He shut his eyes tight. The rustling of leaves grew like a storm in his ears. He regained his equilibrium and he felt Tyree release his grasp. He opened his eyes. A group of five or six trees had surrounded them. The clearing had shrunk to maybe ten feet and that was not his imagination. Deforest continued to water Kenzy's grave. Clair stood behind with the shovel; the maple sapling now on the ground -- its roots exposed and writhing like so many earthworms.
Thompson looked at Tyree. Nervously he asked, "So, what do you need me for?"
The leaves on the trees above rustled excitedly. Again, he felt no breeze.
The bark around Tyree's mouth cracked slightly at the corners. His eyes blossomed like a flower. The trees continued to rustle. Somewhere he heard laughter.
"Fertilizer," Tyree said.
Thompson squeaked an, "Oh." He heard more laughter. "But ... why?" he managed. "I just wanted to help."
Tyree exposed the black bone again. "There were 206 of these originally," he said. "89 are in the community garden. There are others elsewhere, but our supply is running thin."
"You're gonna die anyway," Deforest said nonchalantly.
"You mean eventually," Thompson hoped.
"No, I mean soon. You drank radium water. Lots of it."
"What will happen?"
"The radium will collect in your bones, and you'll die painfully of cancer."
"Sacrifice yourself for us." Tyree waved his branches at the surrounding trees. "Sacrifice like my father, like the young lady this morning. You've been searching for a way to contribute. What could you do that would be better than this?"
Thompson's mind was a whirlwind unable to land on a single thought. The entire day flashed through his brain -- the garden, Kenzy, Tyree, the juicy red ten pound tomato, Rich Stevens, zombies, Tyree, Deforest, Kenzy, Tyree, the protest, Clair, Deforest, Tyree, the grand-father clock, the golden pendulum, the forest (Deforest), the tree (Tyree). Kenzy, Clair. Tyree.
He stared deep into Tyree's eyes -- this time without fear. He saw plants and trees -- happy, peaceful; walking, laughing. Sharing the land. He saw Little Ben's overgrown with vegetation. The grandfather clock barely visible in the window. The golden pendulum again swinging back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Forever. He saw no war, no cars, no exhaust. No consumers, no protesters, no zombies, no people. Just life.
Like Sydney Carton said it would be far, far better.
Clair whispered in his ear. Her breath, colder than the air, didn't quite tickle like the soft whisper of a lover but nibbled a little. For some reason, Thompson thought of a vampire teasing a jugular. More Bela Lugosi than cheap horror flick rip-your-throat-out vampire, but a vampire that was going to suck the life from him nonetheless.
"I can't wait," she said. , far better...
"Take me," Thompson heard himself say -- his voice a distant echo in his ears.
Clair lifted the shovel and reared back. The leaves above rustled with excitement. No wind again. Why would there be? Thompson wondered if his accomplishments would flash before him. Isn't that what was supposed to happen? He hoped that they would. Something, anything to prove that he didn't waste his time here. The time that was now rapidly running out.
The little sapling's roots wriggled hungrily. Thompson closed his eyes. The sensation of falling returned. This time he did not fight it. He let himself be pulled down, down, down into Clair's whispers, into the abyss of Tyree's black-hole eyes, into the soil, into the roots of the trees around him.
He did not hear the ghostly whoosh of the shovel as it cut through the thick air with deadly speed. Nor did he feel it crush into the back of his skull. He did not hear or feel a thing. But there was a quick flash of light and a fleeting thought that he had indeed made his final contribution...
Epilogue: 15 years later
You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end each of us must work for his own improvement, and at the same time share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.
Deforest stood patiently in line at the APP (Atlantic Processing Plant) in Emerald City waiting for his turn. Not all that long ago, Emerald City was New York City. The name changed after the take over -- like when the British renamed New Amsterdam. This time, bright green ivy climbed the Empire State Building and (unlike King Kong) couldn't be knocked off. Instead of shooting the beasts down with bullets, the planes dropped weed killer. Then napalm. Nothing worked. In fact every attempt to rid the Empire State Building of the ivy only seemed to make the ivy stronger, grow taller, became a brighter green. Eventually, it climbed every building in the city. Tyree's soldiers marched in soon after.
The line moved slowly -- snaking through what used to be Central Park. If it had been stretched out, the line would have reached five miles or so. Now it looked like thousands waiting to ride the next big roller coaster at the local amusement park (back when there were amusement parks...). The trees stood tall on each side like foot soldiers. Watching. Vigilant. Making sure that no one escaped. No one tried. They had been schooled that it would be far worse to try.
Amazing what had transpired in only 15 years. The Pittsburgh operation was such a success that they had moved base to New York. More kidnappings and killings soon followed. Central Park became a nursery for the new breed. But it wasn't progressing fast enough. Not until radium was introduced to the water supply. That's when the fun really began. Governments were simply unprepared. Most were ready for terrorism, viral outbreaks, even a nuclear attack. But there was no contingency plan for rebellious vegetation. Plants had been stationary, passive for millions of years. There was no reason to think they would be a threat. But evolution had caught up, and, because no one suspected it, the plants easily took control. In less than a year, The White House became The Green House with Tyree the Commander-in-Chief.
The line pushed onward -- slowly, grudgingly onward. Deforest couldn't help but think that this had all happened before. The Earth has a history of destroying its dominant species -- wiping the slate clean. Oh, the trees would keep some people alive. They'd have to. Use the populace like heifers or swine or chicken. They were meat-eaters now. Carnivores. The top of the food chain. If there were no more people what would they eat? Still, better to be processed now than live like a cow. Grazing in confined spaces. Fattening-up. Chewing and chewing and chewing with glazed eyes and vacant stares. No thanks, Deforest thought. Better to go out now. Get it over with. Actually it would have been better to go out 15 years ago. Before all of this. Before the Earth turned green. Before the processing plants. Before the war.
The line forged ahead -- slowly, painfully ahead. Radium. All because of radium. One-simple, radioactive element. The scientists (Curie, Koenig and the others) were so sure, so convinced that radium would only benefit society. Why else would they have sacrificed so much? In a way they were right -- it did benefit society -- but not the one they intended. The new species had been developed to fight the establishment. Deforest watched as an elm prodded a group of stragglers back into line with a stiff branch. There was no denying who the establishment was these days. The pendulum had swung too far the other way. Didn't the Native Americans or Chinese have a proverb for situations like this? When the hunters become the hunted? He wracked his brain. He couldn't think of it. It didn't matter anyway.
The line trudged on -- slowly, agonizingly on. Deforest thought about the first few. The girl. The heavy-set guy. What was his name? He wanted so badly to contribute. He just stood there and took it. Head smashed in, body chopped up and fed to the trees. Fertilizer. That's what Tyree called him. What else did Tyree use to call them? Zombies. That was it. Brain-dead, slobbering zombies. Well, they were the lucky ones now. They didn't have to live to see this. How could a dream that seemed so great end up so terrible? It would have been far, far better he thought to just have it over and done with.
Two teenagers -- a boy and a girl -- broke from the procession. Deforest braced for what came next. An alarm sounded. The trees focused on keeping the line of people intact. No one moved. All eyes stared straight ahead. No one dared to watch. Hearing was bad enough. An angry humming buzz descended on the crowd. Deforest glanced up to check. Bees. He exhaled deeply. At least it wasn't mosquitoes. They were worse. Far, far worse. The buzz passed over the crowd and rushed toward the two escapees. Deforest braced again. The screams started flat, then rose in pitch, then curdled blood and held for oh so long. The buzzing grew furious. The screams went on and on and on. The line shifted uncomfortably. Finally the screams died out.
The line inched forward -- slowly, excruciatingly forward. To not be here at all. To be gone already. That was all he thought about now. No one spoke. The air was moist and close. Steamy. The lush green was everywhere. Birds sang above them. The smell was ... well, he was trying to ignore that. Maybe he could organize an insurrection. After all, he had helped organize all this around them. He was good at manipulating situations. Not as good as Tyree, but still... He glanced at the 50 foot oak planted at the front of the line and then at the forest to the left and right of the line. Who was he kidding? The fight was gone from him and the others. Maybe the situation was hopeless. Maybe they figured they deserved it. Either way, those tree-soldiers would put down any rebellion in about three seconds. He'd seen it before. Besides, if any of his own people found out who he was they'd give him up and turn him over just as quick.
He neared the oak tree. The person in front of him walked forward and disappeared. The oak put a branch down to block his path. He stared beyond into the blackness; heard the whir of the processor. He knew what lay ahead. He helped build it. The bone-chipper.
Deforest's ears rang. His pulse pounded. Suddenly, he no longer wanted it to end. The branch lifted. The line pushed from behind. His path was clear. It was finally his turn.
© 2009 Chris Hertz
Bio: Chris Hertz currently lives, works and writes in Pittsburgh, PA. His work has appeared in The Copperfield Review, The Stirling Review and The Harlequin.
E-mail: Chris Hertz
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