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The Silent Holocaust
“Careful, now. Try not to fall, Mr. Bailey.”
“Daley,” the man corrects, for the second or third time. He hobbles a few more steps, then sighs and pushes wisps of hair like clouds out of his eyes. His head throbs. He must have fallen asleep without his pillow.
Odd, the thought of sleep. The longest nap I’ve ever taken, I reckon. Where am I?
“John Walter Daley,” he murmurs to himself, rolling his name over on his tongue, smacking his lips on the last syllable. He stares at the tiles beneath his slippered feet, and he knows that the white-coated men and women watch, their smiles as cold as the whitewashed walls leering down at him. The fluorescent lights are blinding. The machinery, looming on either side of him, gleams and hums and skids against his nerves.
His arthritic knees are surprisingly sensationless. They take him two more steps.
“Good morning, Mr. John Walter Daley. How are you this fine day?” Fascinated, he repeats the question to himself, then meets the gaze of the nearest smiling doctor. “Where am I?”
The doctor exchanges triumphant glances with his colleagues, and a flush stains his pale cheeks. Too pale, as though the sun hasn’t brushed his skin in years. He smiles. “Congratulations. You are Experiment 594A, the â€˜A’ connoting the experiment’s success. You are at the Institute of Advanced Biocytology, headed by the Vice Chairman of the Alliance for a Better Planet, or A.B.P. It is the year 2108, and you, Mr. Bailey, are alive.” The recitation is well rehearsed, and he rattles it off without a stumble. As an afterthought, he adds, “I’m Dr. Phillip Morgan, R17.” He looks smug, expectant.
John blinks. His bleary eyes assimilate the reflective surfaces, the jungles of wires, the holographic display of a window on the far wall. Within the hologram, sunlight filters through tangled greenery and crowns the head of a mockingbird trilling Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. He looks at his withered hands, turning them over and over, stroking his palms. Bones, bones. That night, stretched out under the blankets in the hospital bed… “John, oh, John. I’m going to miss you so very, very much.”
He wets his lips and croaks, “Where’s Sarah? I want Sarah. My wife…”
Dr. Phillip Morgan, R17, lowers his brow. “I don’t think you heard me, Mr. Bailey. It’s been a centuryâ€”a wonderful centuryâ€”and you’re alive again. Blessed, Mr. Bailey, blessed with a miracle. About the 500th miracle we’ve had since June, in fact. Thank science!” He goes off, reciting something about stem cells and telomeresâ€”nonsense that rattles like tin in John’s ears. The mockingbird in the window strains a high note in “Ode to Joy.” The overhanging leaves are too bright, too green.
John closes his eyes and wonders at the price of heaven.
Meanwhile the recitation drags on. “…and if you don’t mind, we’re going to hold you for a couple more weeks to execute gene testing and observe your physiological patterns…”
“No,” John says, softly.
“…also closely monitor your neuron activity, all with your permission, of course. If you’ll sign here, Mr. Bailey.”
“No,” he repeats, more loudly this time.
Dr. Phillip Morgan, R17, frowns. “No?”
“No. I don’t give my permission. And my name is John Walter Daley.” His knees feel fine, but from habit he helps himself to a cane propped against the wall. “I’ll be leaving now. Good day, doctors.”
He doesn’t look back.
John Walter Daley never knew the sun could be so close. It throbs behind a slate of gray clouds, and instantly upon stepping through the sliding doors, the naked skin of his face begins to blister. He ducks his head and wanders away from the glass tower of the institute, a lonely figure between the gleaming edifices, his slippers flapping against the concrete.
It is snowing. The flakes dribble from the colorless skies and sway drunkenly through the heat, their crystalline facets winking as they dissipate near the ground in tiny trails of steam. He catches one, and the sharp fragility of it crushed between his fingers reminds him, like everything else on this street, of glass.
Beyond the concrete square, traffic blurs in a river of lights that mesmerizes him. He stands and watches the cars glide by with grace reminiscent of metallic swans. A few pedestrians drift on the sidewalks. One of them strides toward him. It is a woman, half her face shaded by a translucent mask, the other half obscured by a screen clipped five inches in front of her face. Her heels click on the pavement.
John ventures closer. “Excuse me.”
“…did he really, now? How dare he?” She clicks right on by.
Clutching his cane, John staggers to catch up with her. “Excuse me…” He puts a hand on her arm.
The woman recoils as if burnt. “Sorry, Lucy.” A speaker crackles in response. A manicured finger pushes a button, and the screen blinks out. She whirls on him. Beneath the mask, not a wrinkle mars her marble complexion. “What do you want?”
Overhead, the shadow of a bloated aircraft rumbles above the blanket of clouds. Its thrusters spew flame that blazes vermilion across monotonous gray. Every trace of it is gone a heartbeat later, perhaps a hundred miles into the horizon.
John glances skyward. His knuckles pale on his cane. “Where… where am I?”
“The insane asylum is that way in the M District, old man. Don’t ask stupid questions. I’ve got an appointment in four minutes and twenty-nine seconds.” She sniffs, and the screen buzzes back to life. “As I was saying, Lucy…”
John drops his hand. He stares after her, but not once does she glance back over her shoulder.
The people, mindless, continue to drift by. Should he dare to search their expressions for something comforting, familiar? He doesn’t know. The translucent masks shield their pale faces. He cannot see. The glittering synthetic snow stings the blisters on his nose. Somewhere around the block, a music player croons Christmas carols with notes that drip like rain on the warm wind. A single tear rolls down the angle of his cheek and clings to his chin. He absently brushes it off.
Well, he supposes. One direction is as good as another. He commands his feet to carry him down the sidewalk.
Glass and steel. Steel and glass.
The skin on his face is already raw and peeling when he spots the garden. It blossoms on the other side of the street, a tropical island of colors, its vastness dwarfed by the buildings towering on either side of it. Splashes of pink and red and gold… Dizzied, hardly daring to believe his eyes, he clambers onto a pedestrian bridge to cross the street.
The flowers are beautiful, more beautiful than he would have thought possible for such a cold city. Marigolds and tulips flame in the gray twilight. Vines twist their way up arbors as fine and graceful as spiders’ webs, then bloom at the top in starlike buds that graze the skies. Beneath the slender arms of magnolia trees, water lilies slide on ponds while ghostly petals float on air.
He collapses onto a white bench. Alone. I am alone in the world. This paradise is mine, mine alone. Come sit beside me, Sarah. How I wish… Perhaps if I sleep… Sweat stings the blisters on his brow. Gripping the cane, he slowly rises to feet that grow weary of supporting him.
Just outside the gardens is a shabby café that seems to cringe, embarrassed, on the gleaming front of the building it shares. A bell shaped like a mistletoe chimes above the automatic doors, announcing John’s arrival.
Behind the counter, a young man in an apron and a baseball cap hastily shoves his comic book under the seat. “Would you like dine-in or take-out, sir?”
The aroma of grilled chicken and mashed potatoes wafts from the kitchen. John swallows and rasps, “A cup of water, please.”
The waiter shrugs and points at a screen over his head. John’s jaw goes slack. The waiter shakes his head. “Hey, our water’s cheaper than the pub’s across the street. Some people are just trying to empty your pockets.”
The thin shirt and pants that the institute clothed him in has no pockets. John wets his lips. The skin on his face burns. “But I… I have no money.”
The waiter shakes his head again.
“Please. Can’t you spare an old man a cup of water?”
The waiter studies him in long, long silence. At last, with a cough, he picks up his comic book and turns away.
John rubs his throat. Light from the city traffic outside streams through the window, polishing the rusty tables and empty chairs with an icy shine. An electric broom creaks as its mechanized arms sweep the black and white tiles.
Another cough. “Water’s expensive these days.”
He looks back and, to his astonishment, the waiter is sliding a half-filled cup across the counter.
“Use it wisely. You’re not getting any more.”
“Thank you. Thank you.” He seizes it, dips his hand, and bathes his face. He then sips it deliberately, letting the cold purity dribble down his parched throat.
The waiter is studying him again. He appears to be a nice boy, with freckles and ruffled brown hair under his cap. His nametag reads Andrew, Q47.
“Wow. You look terrible, Mr….”
“Mr. Daley.” Andrew nods. “You have red splotches on your neck. I think you’ve contracted something. Did you forget to take your vaccinations this morning?”
“Vaccinations?” John sets the empty cup back onto the counter.
“Yeah. I saw you coming out of Memorial Park. You like it, huh? That place gives me the chills.”
“The gardens? Why?”
“I don’t know. All those dead bodies, I guess.”
The legs of a chair scrape across the tiles as John’s own legs give way. He falls heavily into the seat. “What?” he whispers.
Andrew stares. “You’re not from around here, are you? Don’t you know? Those gardens sit on a mass grave from the Third World War. Twenty thousand people. How do you think those flowers grow so well? Here, let me get you something to eat.” He disappears into the kitchen.
John sits there and stares at his withered hands, turning them over, clenching and unclenching them. His fingernails drive into his palms with acute pain. Flesh and blood. Those doctors brought him back. Flesh and blood…
Where am I… where am I… Sarah, oh, Sarah… why am I…
Andrew returns with a platter of buttered bread. John accepts one and takes a bite. The bread is thick and seasoned, but it crumbles like ash in his mouth. Slowly, he crushes the rest of it in his hand.
“Is there… nothing… left?”
The silence trembles. Outside, the drab twilight is dimming. In the room, shadows pool, evaporated only by stripes of headlights gliding beyond the window.
“The last oak grove in the world is in the center of the city,” Andrew says quietly. “It’s an eyesore, they say. The A.B.P.’s cutting it down tonight.”
The silence squeezes its fist around John’s chest. It suffocates him, bit by bit. He stands. “How do I get there?”
Andrew opens his mouth, then closes it again.
“How do I get there?” John says, gently.
A gradual release of breath. “On the left, three blocks down. Then take another left.”
His hand is already on the door, when he hears from behind him, “Wait.” He turns just in time to catch Andrew’s baseball cap. “It won’t block much UV, but it’s better than nothing. You know, ozone debt and all.” Andrew shrugs and flashes a grin. “The Cubs lost the playoffs on Sunday anyway. Horrible luck.”
John returns a bit of the grin and, securing the baseball cap on his wispy head, steps out onto the sidewalk.
The gray has deepened to black by the time he reaches his destination, and the slate of clouds has shattered before a spray of city lights. The synthetic snow has ceased, and the air is less tepid, less stifling.
In the center of the city stands, as promised, the oak grove.
The trees stand erect and bathed in shadow, their gnarled limbs crowned in emerald, groping for the distant heavens. Proud. Enchanting. Sacredâ€”yes, sacred. Sacred survivors in a sea of steel. Sacred victims of a silent holocaust in which the perpetrators, secure in their mechanical lives, couldn’t care less.
He ducks under the yellow caution tape and leaves behind the world.
Within the grove, mist lighter than the down of goslings clings to the moist earth. The oaks expand on all sides of him, monolithic guardians of a secret long dead. His cane drops, and he follows soon after, lowering himself onto the ground to rest against the trunk behind him.
If he lets his eyelids fall just enough, he can push out the people and the city. He can pretend that the buds of radiance overhead are not fluorescent lamps, but starsâ€”the same stars, winking above the farmhouse roofs, that he counted as a boy. When the swollen bulk of an aircraft sears by on flaming thrusters, he closes his eyes and pretends not to see. The rumble of the aircraft passes, and all is quiet once more. He feels only the mighty oak at his back. He hears only the silver wind plucking the treetops. Nothing else exists. Nothing else matters.
There it is now. A hum of machinery. A screech of blades. They are distant in his ear, as though from across a vast canyon. The grove groans and settles on its ancient roots. The wind kisses the outstretched arms one last time. The oaks are weeping.
I’m lost, so lost. Please, Sarah, come sit beside me. Won’t you wait for me? His shoulders shake with unuttered sobs. He clutches Andrew’s baseball cap, a soft weight in his hands.
The humming and screeching grow louder. The canyon grows thinner. An amplified voice slices through the cacophony: “Attention, all civilians in the area. Please remain outside the yellow boundaries. I repeat, remain outside the yellow boundaries. Preparing to demolish in five… four…”
The machines roar, and the blades are screaming, raking through the warm air with the scrape of a thousand shards of glass. The oaksâ€”silent, stoicâ€”do not flinch.
The din is earsplitting. Beneath the tempest, one can faintly detect murmured words, soft and insignificant. “Good morning, Mr. John Walter Daley. How are you this fine day? Just fine, just fine. I know exactly where I am now. I’ve found myself, you see.”