Leaves crunched under his feet, shortly interrupting the murderous silence of absence. How long had it been since he heard a bird chirping? Forty, fifty years? It was back in ’23, so that would be . . . it wasn’t important. Birds were annoying and just shit all over everything, too. He remembered when he left his cell phone out on his balcony after his seventeenth birthday, only to find it covered with fresh dew and bird shit the next day. Thank God for the death of birds.
Still, after however many years, it was creepy to hear nothing. Nothing if you stood still, that was. There were still enough dead twigs and leaves for generations to utilize.
The Southeast Mounds were Lylo’s favorite place to think. They were two hours from Central Mounds, but it was worth it, as nobody would disturb him. He walked over the hill and saw them—they always put a smile on his face.
He sat on one of them, covered, of course, with dead grass and other biomass, being blown all over the landscape by the gusts. Perhaps he was wrong about there being enough leaves. Patches of sand became more and more frequent, as the winds ceased to bring trash and were now blowing it away.
Lylo had his shovel, and found a fresh mound, secluded from the rest. Nobody ever thought to dig in the mounds, probably because it was unnecessary and tedious. He didn’t care, though. He knew that something made the mounds.
Sift through the dry dirt, stick in the shovel, kick it down, pull it out, dump the stuff. Repeat.
He hit something.
The sun was especially hot that day, the heat raining down like hail on Lylo’s skin. Hail was something he hadn’t seen for a while, either. Nor rain. Only sweat. Lots and lots of sweat.
He stopped, and bend down, to brush his hand across his treasure. He had uncovered a patch of stained wood, thin because his shovel had went right through it. Probably a shelf. He started to dig around it, taking care not to puncture the artifact anymore, until he had only to brush off some dust and lift it up.
But there was something on the ground over which the shelf had been laid. Something bright and sunny, and rainy and cool, and breezy and glossy.
Jesus. It was a rose. Flowers hadn’t grown for twenty something years. Especially roses.
He had missed roses.
“I like my coffee like I like my women. Black, fresh, and rich.”
“Well it tastes like all of your stories about your women—full of shit.”
“Awww, fuck you.”
“It’ll be more than you ever got.”
The two men slammed down their mugs and laughed hard at each other. The diner had become a morning tradition, as it was either that or eat breakfast at home with their wives. “I ate breakfast with my wife every day for sixty years, and I’ll be damned if she ever did learn that you can’t reuse coffee grinds.”
The waitress finally came, introduced herself (Katy-Lynn), and asked for their orders.
“Denver omelet, links, sourdough bread, and a side of hashbrowns with tabasco sauce,” said Jimmy, the older of the two.
“Just the oatmeal for me, with a side of pancakes. No syrup, just bring extra butter,” said Bob, and smiled at Katy-Lynn.
“What happened to your diabetes?”
“Still here. Ain’t no little shit disease gonna stop me from eating my pancakes.”
“But she sure stopped you from going skiing with the rest of us.”
Katy-Lynn passed by, and Bob grabbed her arm. “Do y’all have the mornin’ paper?”
She angrily gestured to a stack by the front door, then walked off. Bob got up, walked over to the pile, with his mocking hunchback and struggling step, grabbed the newspaper, and went back to the table.
“Anybody else we know die?” Jimmy asked. Laughter.
Bob, out of habit, flipped first to the obituary section, then stopped laughing.
“Jimmy, you remember Cecilia and Matt? From last year? I had both of them in Pre-Cal, I think you had Cecilia for botany, but Matt was always walking around with her.”
“No,” said Jimmy. He said it not in dissent, but in disbelief, dreading what Bob was about to say.
“The hell are their pictures doing in here?”
CECILIA, MATT: juniors in high school
BRIAN, LINDA: seniors in high school
AMELIA: mother to Matt
JACKIE: sister to Matt, younger
A house in suburbia, no different from any other house in any other suburbia. Well decorated, but bland, and could do with some more colors. White walls, with scattered pictures of people, old and young, dead and alive. Basement floor; family room; carpeted with a large flatscreen television overlooking the dominion. The television is off. In front of the television, a coffee table, then a sofa. Two people are sitting, CECILIA and JACKIE. CECILIA is helping JACKIE with her homework.
CECILIAD-A-D. What does that spell?
JACKIEI don’t know.
CECILIASound it out.
JACKIEDuh, ah, duh. Duhahduh. Dad?
CECILIAGood! Now, B-A-D.
JACKIEI don’t know.
CECELIASound it out.
JACKIEBuh, ah, duh. Dad?
CECILIANo, try again.
JACKIEBuh, ah, duh. Buhahduh. Dad?
CECILIANo—it’s time for me to go, but we’ll work on it more next time.
MATTHow was she today?
CECILIAAlright. Still having trouble with CVC words, but she got more words than last time. I still don’t think she’s trying.
MATTI’m not surprised. You should see the look on her face when I tell her to get ready for tutoring.
CECILIAShe really does hate me, you know.
MATTNo, she doesn’t. She would just rather play on her tablet than have to sit still for an hour and read words from flash cards.
CECILIAAnd she sucks at keeping secrets.
MATTWell, if it’s any consolation, I appreciate you coming. Nobody else cares enough to help her.
CECILIAI know, Matt. You tell me every time I come.
MATTWell, it’s never any less true. Do you have to leave so quickly? We’re in no rush—you can stay and eat or if you wanted to work on that Literature homework together. . . .
CECILIANo, Matt, I really do have to go. And besides, I’ve already got to tutor Jackie. I don’t need to take on her older brother, too.
MATTOuch. Alright, if you’re sure. But you’re always welcome.
CECILIAI doubt I’ll ever have the time. I’ll see you tomorrow.
MATTOkay, see you then. Good night.
CECILIAYelling. Bye, Miss C!
AMELIAFrom upstairs. Good night, Cecilia! Thanks so much!
JACKIEI hate her.
MATTDon’t say that. She comes here three hours a week trying to help you do better in school. You should thank her and give her a hug every time she comes over.
MATT“If you want to work on homework together. . . .” God, how dumb can I be. She probably thinks I’m desperate. Fuck.
A sidewalk in suburbia. Reminiscent of the boring houses, a boring walkway. The only sounds are the wind blowing through the trees and CECILIA’s footsteps on the concrete. CECILIA is on the telephone with LINDA.
LINDAHow was it?
CECILIAFine, I guess. Jackie still thinks every word is “dad.” Matt is still desperate.
LINDAWhat do you have against him?
CECILIAWhy do I have to have something against him?
LINDAHe obviously wants you.
LINDAAnd you don’t want him.
CECILIARight. . . .
LINDASo what’s wrong with him?
CECILIANothing! He’s great.
LINDASo. . . .
CECILIASo, I’m just not into him like that.
CECILIAI don’t know! There isn’t a reason! I’m just, not! Why aren’t you into me?
LINDABecause you’re my best friend.
CECILIASo was Ally. Didn’t stop you from wanting her.
LINDAI don’t know, I’m just not.
LINDAI don’t know. He’s really sweet.
CECILIASo is antifreeze.
LINDAYou’re saying he’s antifreeze?
CECILIANo, I’m just—nevermind. How are you and Brian?
LINDAWe’re doing great. You know Matt writes poetry?
CECILIAYes, Linda. So do you. That doesn’t mean I’m going to fuck you.
LINDAOkay! I’m just saying. You should give him a chance.
LINDABecause it might work out!
CECILIANo, it won’t!
LINDAWell, don’t you feel bad?
CECILIAYeah, of course. It makes me feel so guilty to think of how much I’m hurting him, but I just can’t.
CECILIACan’t do it.
LINDAWell, you don’t have to be such a bitch to him.
CECILIAI do, though. I can’t let him keep his fantasy. If I force him out of it, he’ll be able to move on. And I care too much to just outright tell him.
LINDAYet you’re fine being a dick?
CECILIAIs Brian still at practice?
LINDAI don’t know. I’m not his keeper.
CECILIAOnly his girlfriend.
CECILIADon’t you get . . . concerned?
LINDAYeah, I’m paranoid. I just can’t let him see that.
CECILIAWhatever floats your boat. Ricky and I kept no secrets from one another.
LINDAAnd Ricky is your ex.
CECILIAWhich was a mutual decision.
LINDAMade by only him.
CECILIAIt was better for the both of us.
LINDAWhatever. I’m gonna go, Brian just pulled into the driveway.
CECILIAOkay. See you tomorrow.
“I don’t know, I just . . . found it.”
“You’re not serious. People don’t just find roses.”
“Apparently they do.”
Morae looked at Lylo with disbelief. Nobody had seen flowers in decades. Any plant that needed a lot of water had died long ago, leaving cacti galore and various other ugly growths. Water was a nonrenewable resource, and had long become the principal form of currency. Even as the rest of society collapsed, water kept some sort of market system afloat. Perhaps it was the only vestige from the old times. No more electricity, no more plumbing, no more families—just water.
“Is it real?” asked Morae.
“I think so.”
Lylo couldn’t believe it. That morning, he set off for another simply day at the Southeast Mounds, that afternoon he had one of the most precious artifacts in the region.
“What should we do with it.”
“I don’t know.”
“You found it, you should decide.”
“I want everybody to be able to appreciate it.”
“Ah, I understand.” Morae looked at Lylo with a sheepish grin. “How much?”
“How much what?”
“How much water will you charge?”
Morae was about twelve years Lylo’s junior, so the former had grown up in the post-drought world, whereas Lylo still dreamed of sinks and hot showers. Morae saw the rose as a privilege, Lylo saw it as a right.
“No, I just want everybody to see it. No charge.”
“No charge?” Morae donned disbelief once more.
“I have enough water for myself, and when I run out, I can find more. I just want everybody to see it.”
“Lylo, listen to me. You’re still living in this fantasy world before the drought. We can’t appreciate anymore.”
“Can’t, or won’t?”
“Can’t. You have to see this as an opportunity.”
“An opportunity for what?”
“Water. Life. They’re synonymous.”
Lylo didn’t think they were synonymous. He thought back to the days when he had a watch. He missed having a watch. Without a watch there was so much time.
“I’m not going to charge.”
“You’re impossible. Why don’t you give the water you get to me?”
“Why are you more deserving than anybody else.”
“Life doesn’t care about the deserving, but the lucky.”
“It’s just not right.”
“Who invented right?”
“I don’t know. God? Science? It doesn’t matter.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Man invented right, and so he can change it.”
“Morae, you can’t convince me. I’m not selling.”
Morae, defeated, stormed off. Shame there weren’t any doors to slam. He did kick over a pile of dirt, though. Better him than the wind.
“There has to be a mistake.”
“Has to be.”
“It can’t be.”
“There must be another explanation.”
Jimmy and Bob sipped their coffee silently, fondling their memories under the table, trying hard to think of what else could have happened. It wasn’t natural. Kids don’t die. Not their kids.
“They were both such happy kids.”
“It’s always the actors,” commented Jimmy.
Katy-Lynn brought their food over, but suddenly, neither Jimmy nor Bob were hungry. They just wanted to drink their coffee, and take in reality.
There was a clock mounted on the wall opposite their booth. It was shaped like a pancake, with the numbers being painted on to look like syrup drops. It had been up there as long as both of them could remember, always ticking. Once, the second hand had fallen off, but the clock continued ticking, the minute hand becoming the leader. It had been put back on at some point, but nobody could say when.
Jimmy looked at his watch. The pancake clock said it was 8:47, his watch read 8:43. The pancake was fast. No, no. The watch was slow. The pancake was always right.
Bob watched Jimmy adjust his watch.
Neither of them were hungry, but they still ate their meals, mostly in silence. Bob commented on Katy-Lynn’s ass, then they both chuckled, and felt guilty afterwards.
“Do y’all want your bill now?”
“No,” they both said simultaneously. Jimmy said, “We’ll just stay a little while longer.”
“We’ve got a line, sirs. I don’t mean to be rude, but other people want to eat, too.”
“Yes, but do they want to mourn?”
“This is a diner, not a cemetery.”
Jimmy gestured over to a man eating steak at an adjacent booth. Katy-Lynn walked away.
A coffee shop down the street from the high-school. Lunch period. LINDA and CECILIA are sitting together, eating a slice of pound cake and sipping on an espresso, respectively. Noisy atmosphere, but not loud. MATT is sitting at a table not too far away, out of sight but not out of earshot.
CECILIAWhat did you and Brian do last night?
LINDAWhat we usually do.
CECILIADoesn’t sound like it was, “the usual.”
LINDAWell, it was.
CECILIAAre you sure?
CECILIAYou can tell me if something is wrong.
CECILIAIs something wrong?
LINDANo! I said that!
CECILIAWell you’re acting the opposite.
CECILIAAre you crying?
LINDAYour pestering. Can we talk about something else?
CECILIAOkay. What did you and Brian do last night?
LINDAWhy do you care?
CECILIABecause I’m your friend.
LINDAA friend would leave me alone.
CECILIAAnd a best friend cares enough to worry.
LINDALook, just let off. It’s nothing big.
CECILIABut it’s something.
LINDAYeah, I guess, but don’t worry about it.
CECILIAI can’t help it. Look at you. You’re dressed like you woke up this morning and raided Matt’s closet, and you don’t even have makeup on.
LINDAI don’t wear makeup.
CECILIAAnd you go to Church on Sundays with Brian, right?
LINDALook, could you please, just let off.
LINDAGod, why do you need to know?
CECILIADid you guys—
LINDADid we what?
CECILIATaken aback at the thought. Did you guys have sex last night?
CECILIAYes you did!
LINDAIf we had sex, I would feel a lot sexier.
CECILIAThen what happened?
LINDAYou’ve got to promise not to tell anybody, or else I’ll tell everybody else what I found in your nightstand drawer that one time.
LINDAHe—he—he couldn’t get in.
LINDAHe just couldn’t.
CECILIAWell, I mean, you’re a virgin. It’s not your fault.
LINDAIt’s not that. It’s just that . . . he couldn’t keep it up.
CECILIAHe couldn’t keep it up?
LINDAHe couldn’t keep it up.
LINDAWhy? I mean, aren’t I at least decent looking?
CECILIAYeah—I—I mean, you’re really hot.
LINDAApparently he doesn’t think so.
CECILIALook, don’t blame yourself. I’ve heard that all the porn that guys watch messes with their brains, and—
LINDAYou heard me the first time! Don’t make me repeat it!
CECILIAOh my god. . . .
LINDAI’ve gotta go to the bathroom. I don’t want people to see me like this right now.
CECILIADo you want me to come with?
LINDANo, just head back up to the school. I’ll probably be late to Botany.
CECILIAI can’t believe it. She pulls a compact mirror out of her pocket, looks at herself, and begins to cry. If he doesn’t even like Linda, where does that leave me?
A locker room. Between twenty to thirty guys changing after swimming. The showers are running, and voices alternate between mockingly homosexual to raucous laughter.
i cried last night i cried i dont know why i just cried but i do know why or do i i think its just that i dont want to say it but deep down i know why why why why why she was right there why couldnt i why she cried i cried tears and tears and a clock and tick and tock and tears and tears and an empty condom and a crying girl picking up her underwear from the ground she was right there i dont know why look at yourself look at yourself in the mirror you have to do your hair i said to her that i loved her and then she grabbed me she came on to me i didnt want to but i didnt want to tell her and i cant even tell myself oh god oh god oh god poor kid theyre calling him a fag and i cant stop them because then theyd think i was a fag im not a fag im never a fag not even when i cant fuck my girlfriend im not a fag a fag could probably fuck his girlfriend oh god oh god the water is cold the water is cold the room was cold maybe that was why yes that was why why why why why look down look down no eye contact only fags make eye contact just look at my feet and dont get one not right here theyll call you a fag even though im not a fag oh god not not not here im not a fag even though i couldnt keep it up for her i was in her mouth and then she pulled me down and the condom and then i lost it and she tried to use her mouth again but it didnt work and i cried and she cried and i ran and the steps on the sidewalk no different from the tick tock tick tock not here not now i have to find my towel and dry up and hide it i can get it now but not for my girlfriend but she can never know she can never know even though she knows now even though im not a fag see that kid is crying i wouldnt cry if they called me a fag even though im not a fag not really oh god i forgot matt is in this row and i cant look at him or else ill get it even though im not a fag but his hair and his hair and his hair and my towel and the water dripping down onto the floor drip drop drip drop tick tock and the door slamming and the screaming oh my god the screaming was it crying or laughing how different are they its all just a change on the sound of a clock tick tick tock tock drip drop step step pull up my boxers because boxers are sexy and its easier to use the flap on these like i saw in that video the video the video yes yes thats what ill tell her porn is better than being a fag even though im not a fag put on the shorts and the shirt now spray spray fold up towel put it in the locker turn away from matt oh god too late its here well ill just sit down and tie my shoes even though theyre tied i opened the door and ran up to my room and put the chair in front of it and put on that music i hate but my parents also hate to love like i hate to love not being a fag because im not one and i cried and i cried and i broke a mirror but thats okay because even when its broken i can still see me in there
A bedroom, MATT’s bedroom, to be exact. Very soft music playing, MATT is sitting at his desk, pen in hand, staring at a blank sheet of paper. Frustrated look on his face.
MATTWhy can’t you write? The blank sheet of paper has always been your friend.
MATTI don’t know, I just can’t. Writer’s block, I guess.
MATTWrite about Cecilia.
MATTWhat should I write about her?
MATTI don’t know. Maybe a love poem.
MATTAnd what? Shred it up? Give it to her.
MATTShe’ll love it. She’ll totally fall for you.
MATTListen to yourself. That’s silly. She’s not even that into you.
MATTBut maybe into me.
MATTShe loves Brian, she even said so.
MATTAh, yes, while you were eavesdropping on her today.
MATTI was there first.
MATTYou had to wait for the tears to dry.
MATTIt hurt a lot.
MATTWhen she told me she doesn’t love me.
MATTI don’t remember that.
MATTI don’t care. That’s what it might as well have been. Even worse, though, because she said it behind my back.
MATTThat she doesn’t love me.
MATTShe didn’t say that.
MATTThen what did she say?
MATTShall I quote or paraphrase?
MATTLeave me be.
MATTShe said, “If he doesn’t even like Linda, where does that leave me?”
MATTYeah. Same difference.
MATTNo, you think she said that she doesn’t love you.
MATTAnd she did.
MATTNo, she said that she loves Brian.
MATTAre you sure?
MATTA blank sheet of paper blows off of the desk, into a candle, setting the darkness aflame, and with it my sweet Cecilia.
Six men met in the dead of night, the only light coming from the stars in the sky. New moon. It was between the North Mounds and the Northeast Mounds, where it was rumored that trees bearing fruit once grew.
“So, my friends, what shall we do?”
“I don’t see the crime in having a rose and doing what one wishes with it.”
“Don’t you see,” said Morae, “he is deceiving us all. Even I, at first! We cannot fall for this folly!”
“What folly?” asked Illyra.
“Yes, indeed, what folly?” chimed in Haego.
“Don’t you all be naïve. We are the most intelligent six men of the Central Mounds. Do none of you see the trickery that Lylo hast set on us all?”
“Why don’t you quit speaking in riddles and tell us already,” suggested Egon.
“It was no riddle, but an honest question. Regardless, allow me to tell you the story of our future. Imagine Lylo, putting his rose on display, without charge. Everybody far and wide comes to see it, appreciating the last flower of the Before. Now, what do these people do? They are no different from us! They will drink our water, eat our foods, force us into starvation! As they take our resources, Lylo refuses to demand tribute, to accommodate for this imposition!”
“And how will people far and wide hear about this rose? Will we send a postcard?” asked Egon. Four men laughed.
“They won’t, certainly, but one must remember, Lylo is from Before. He still has delusions of living in unison. Oh, his plan will surely fail, but can you not smell the spirit of mutiny on this man!”
“His plans are harmless, you admit to this, but yet you suggest we kill him?”
“I suggest we take an opportunity. He will use this rose for evil, failed evil, but evil. We need to take it from him, and monetize. Think about it, we charge tribute to see it, and split the water amongst ourselves, completely equally.”
“I am in need of water—my stores are running out, and I’m in no condition to hunt,” said Kroso.
“See, we will hunt, but with our minds, not our hands,” said Morae.
Egon still looked displeased. “Why don’t we simply steal it? He’s an old man; what will he do?”
“He is an old man, indeed, but can still take the commoners as his slaves. Imagine when he tells them that if he gets the rose back, he will let them see it for free. Everybody has been dying for a little action around here, why not save some water while we’re at it. No, we must kill him, showing everybody the evil of his ways.”
Egon looked around, trying to find sympathy. He saw the nodding heads of Illyra, Nicha, and Haego, along with the approving stare of Kroso. None were with him, and with water on the line, that meant that they were against him.
“Very well. How shall we commit this sin?”
“Lylo likes to walk to the Southeast Mounds in the mornings, to think. Tomorrow should be his last day.”
Kroso smiled. “Nobody goes to the Southeast Mounds. Who will miss him?”
“Nobody,” replied Illyra.
“So it is settled. Grab any weaponry you have, something you can cut or stab him with, and we will meet here in an hour to walk.”
Lylo’s favorite part of the walk was watching the sun rise on the horizon. Somebody had told him the sun was a star, like any other in the sky. Indeed, it was a very large star. A leviathan among mice. Why did God create one star so unequal from the others? Did He treat his stars as he treated his people? Why did He let us suffer this way? Lylo pondered these questions most mornings, but not this one. This morning, he just missed his watch.
“So much time without my watch.”
The winds blew heavily over the mounds that morning, pushing him back, screaming in his face. He went on against them, though, as the Southeast Mounds came into view.
Dust blew in his face, nearly blinding him. He stopped, knelt down, rubbed out his eyes, and when his eyelids parted, six men stood before him.
“Oh? Hello, my friends. Strange to see you here.”
“We wanted to talk to you in private,” said Morae, “this seemed to be the best place.”
“Can we see the rose?” asked Illyra.
“Yes, we would love to see it. Haven’t seen a flower in my whole life,” said Kroso.
“Where did you find it?” asked Haego.
“How do you think that it survived all these years?” asked Morae.
“Please let me see it. I’ll give you water.”
“Under a shelf, I hear?”
“What do you plan to do with it?”
So many questions, he didn’t know where to look. Finally, apart from the din, spoke the voice of Egon, saying, “I’m sorry, but we each have a responsibility, and this is mine.” He shoved a rusty knife into Lylo’s shoulder, and then held him. Next was Kroso, then Illyra, Haego, Nicha, and finally, Morae.
Lylo was still standing, six dull knifes inside of him, as the six men turned and walked away. Egon was the last.
He looked up at the sun, and understood. The sun was no bigger, merely closer. God, how he missed his watch. He remembered a line from a play he once read, and wanted to say it, but looked around, and Brutus was nowhere to be seen.
“I don’t know. I have no ideas.”
“Nor do I.”
The two men sat, silently mourning children whom they knew very little. Almost strangers.
Katy-Lynn kept shooting angry looks at them, but they stayed, sipping their coffee, trying to make jokes. Either the noise had gone down, or the pancake had grown louder, but the ticks were constant and urgent, like a telephone ringing, or the stained glass windows of a church.
Bob began to cry.
Jimmy began to cry.
The restaurant did not cry, but merely looked at them, mourning the loss of students whom they did not know personally nor professionally; students whom had merely sat in the back of class, giggling, speaking during lectures, barely passing their tests. Or perhaps they were front rowers, the first to raise their hands and the last to leave, packing up their assorted books with needless haste and unprecedented sluggishness.
Neither of them could say, but now it did not matter. The boats had sailed, and their cargo had been dumped to rot at the bottom of the ocean, only empty shells of wood floating on, sailing endlessly against the current of the past.
I was reading a letter. I don’t know who it was from.
Yes, you did.
No, I didn’t. The lines were blurry, yet I understood them perfectly under the veil of sleep. The only thing written in English was a stanza of poetry at the end.
A text message conversation.
MATTHow are you?
MATTThat’s good to hear :) What are you doing?
© Copyright 2016 Austin Mordahl. All rights reserved.
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