"And in every sector, carbon sequestration has exceeded our goals…"
The federal news channel droned on as Melinda picked up in the living room. Her kids, irritable with the heat, ignored both her and the TV. Tulsa in the winter was no cakewalk, but summer in an energy crisis was brutal, and this particular energy crisis had started – oh, when? before Brighty was born? Melinda couldn’t remember really a time without it.
"…and methane management has led to increased rice cultivation…"
Did he say nice cultivation or rice cultivation? she wondered idly, and then brushed the thought away like a fly. She could not escape the repetitious blather, but she could resist reasoning with it. She had too much to do, taking care of three children on her own, in a summer so far that had broken all heat records. And after her last boyfriend, who was so smart and handsome he had been granted nine reproductive allotments, had filed for separation, her government stipend seemed more puny each year, what with inflation and the EGM (Emergency Green Measures). So air conditioning and unlimited water use were luxuries she could not afford.
The grey-suited robot news reader looked up from his text and turned to his female co-host and half grinned. This spontaneity always amazed her, the lengths the federals would go to with a computer-generated avatar.
"So keep those cows inside today, Lee," he winked at his female counterpart. Why would someone train a machine to do that?
"Oh, Ron, I will," she blushed at him. And then they both swiveled their steel and rubber faces back to the camera.
"And now for the weather," Lee chirped.
Blah, blah, blah, Melinda thought, weary of the weather and the incessant droning. The morning sun was already heating up the room as she clicked off the TV–the picture anyway, as the sound always remained on during the day (a real energy saver, the GMB, Green Measure Board, said.)
She looked at her three children, their sweet faces shiny with sweat: Betsy, Kerry and Albright, all named after famous Americans, as suggested by the ambassador of the Patriots Club at the birthing center and agreed to by Melinda. She really was at a loss for names so she accepted the suggestions, which had garnered her a free community college education for each kid and a complete set of recycled Styrofoam dinner dishes. So that would be three sets, which came in handy when bartering. They were good-looking, smart kids, each from a father who seemed right for that time in Melinda’s life. Betsy was named for Betsy Ross, the first woman president, denied her office by the cabal of deist men who gave it to a male general instead; the boys, Kerry and Albright, for top diplomats who brokered the peace after the Third World War. Right now, as they were hurtling towards adulthood, she realized she really could use another partner, someone to bat cleanup, to pull these kids over the finish line in one piece. None of the single mom classes at the community college helped much in that regard nor did paging through the male profiles at Health Services nor listening to the usually single or single gay facilitator. She and her friend Rita would end up going out for wine after the first break to whine about how the good ones always got away. But they did actually get away, because the more good looking and successful they were, the more the government rewarded them with tax breaks for each new "family." She and Rita had considered applying for relocation to Alaska, which had men and no heat waves, but then they would have to deal with the cold and with the endangered bears, now so numerous and hungry they ran amok through the streets eating everything in sight, including an occasional park ranger.
Kerry and Brighty were wrestling as usual on the floor, despite the heat.
"Homo!" Brighty yelled, as Kerry finally pinned him.
"Mom!" Kerry yelled, still pinning him. "He said a bad word."
But Melinda was already there, and swatted Brighty’s butt. "That is a bad word."
"I said hobo, you dork," Brighty protested, as he craned his head up.
"Mom, he called you a dork," Kerry said as he spun around to Melinda.
"Did not," Kerry argued, "I called you a dork."
"Racist," he shot back.
"Oh, hobo," Melinda said, perplexed. "Well, that’s a bad word too."
Betsy was splayed across the recliner reading her favorite teen gossip mag, Time, and peered out at the commotion. "They’re homeless, Mom," she said, rolling her eyes.
Kerry lost interest in crushing his younger brother and whirled around to Betsy.
"They live in boxes, Betsy," he yelled.
"That’s not a home," she yelled back, as she leapt up from her chair.
"Yes, it is a home, it’s just different," he countered.
Ralphie, the beagle, plunged in through the doggie door and threaded his way jauntily across the mound of boys and around the recliners and furniture and out towards the kitchen, hoping for a full bowl of chow after a bracing plunge through the community compost heat.
"Ouch!" Brighty yelled as the dog’s claws dug into his arm.
All three kids groaned as the stench of the fermented garbage on his paws filled the room.
"Kids, stop it!"
Kerry relaxed his grip, and Brighty immediately saw his chance, and half-crawled, half-raced out of the living room into the kitchen.
Betsy peered over her magazine. "Mom," she demanded and turned her glance towards the clock. She pinched shut her nose against Ralphie’s earthy stink.
"It’s not coming on till four, honey," Melinda sighed. It was not even lunchtime yet. They simply could not bypass the state-o-stat that clicked on late in the afternoon during heat waves.
She heard Brighty slam a door.
Melinda sighed. "I think you made him cry."
Kerry looked down and traced the pattern of the ancient carpet with his finger. Suddenly, he had an idea. "Can we go to the park today? Please, please, Mom?"
Just then the sound of a strangled gargle of a flushing toilet sounded dimly down the hall. At once, the three of them shouted, "Brighty, stop! What are you doing?"
Melinda turned and wailed. "That was the one flush we had today, Brighty! What were you thinking?"
"He wasn’t thinking, Mom," Betsy replied, as she slunk back behind her magazine.
Melinda rushed towards the back of the house. She turned the corner into the hallway and saw Brighty standing outside the bathroom, his shoulders heaving up and down as he tried unsuccessfully to suppress his tears. He looked up at her. "I’m sorry, Mom, I forgot. I really did."
Her heart melted at the sight of her baby boy and his agony at wasting the family’s one precious daily flush. She took him to her and hugged him and stroked his hair. "That’s all right," she cooed, "Next time you will remember, right?" Brighty looked up and nodded and wiped the tears from his face.
"Come on, turn that frown upside down," she said, and he did. "That makes it a smile!"
Brighty beamed. He still liked all her old sayings from her favorite father, Davey.
He pointed back to the toilet. "What about… the other kids?" he asked, with a grimace.
"Don’t worry. We’ll just throw some bleach in there until tomorrow."
Brighty hiccuped the last of his tears, and relaxed, finally convinced he had been forgiven.
"We’ll stop by the office and fix it," she smiled. "We have to go there anyway. Now go get in the car," she said, as he scampered away, all smiles.
"We’re going to the park, kids!" she called out.
Melinda snapped shut the toilet seat. She looked at the usage meter next to the handle; the needle throbbed fully into the red zone. She jiggled the handle in a desperate hope the meter was not working, which set off an electronic warning. She let go as if the handle were hot, and it stopped. She would keep the kids at the park as long as she could so she could save the water and electricity allotment for later. It was going to be a long day.
She climbed up on the foot stool and opened the linen closet. She groped back around the Q-tips and extra soap until she found what she was looking for, that was high enough and far enough back that the kids couldn’t find it. She pulled out her ration book and paged through it. She evaluated her options and ripped out a single coupon. Then another one, after a thought.
She and Brighty climbed into the car.
She called out towards the house: "Betsy, come on! Kerry! We’re going to the park!"
The front door slowly opened and the kids poked their heads out.
"I don’t wanna go," Betsy pouted.
"Well, you have to go. You know two is not enough for the car on a Tier 2 day… wait, or is this a Tier 3 day–I don’t know, but come on." Betsy and Kerry groaned and climbed into the back seat.
"Why does he get the front seat? You know, my teacher says that the patriarchy changes us and diminutes… I mean–"
"Diminishes, honey."
"Diminutes women in subtle ways."
"Well, you are not a woman yet, by any stretch of the imagination, but your teacher has a right to her opinion, I guess. And I want to keep an eye on Brighty because he is younger than you are," she answered, raising her voice at the end to emphasize what to her seemed like an obvious point.
She parked the car under the hot sun, the few spaces under the solar shade already taken, as usual, by all the city workers and Green Ambassadors. The kids walked ahead of her and she led Brighty by the hand towards city hall. As they passed the rows of recycle bins, Brighty balled up his chewing gum and tossed it–into the wrong bin! She whirled around.
"Brighty, you know that doesn’t go there. It goes… well, gum doesn’t go in the Gaia box, does it?" She looked at the row of six bins in puzzlement. "I always forget."
The sun was beating down and Brighty was wilting.
"I don’t care! I’m sick of Gaia!" he shouted.
"We’re all sick of Gaia, honey."
As she grabbed his hand and turned away from the bins she was stopped short, blocked by the massive chest of a Green Ambassador. She looked up, past the glint of silver on the medals dotting his shirt, to his face, almost blocked by the sun. His eyes, narrowed with suspicion, softened and he unexpectedly smiled.
"Now, now, Melinda, I know it’s hot, but that’s no way to raise a conscientious boy, is it?" How did he know her name?
Betsy, in her Green Youth t-shirt, stood with her hands on her hips, as if she were considering giving someone a piece of her young mind but couldn’t decide who that should be.
But she quickly broke into a smile, flattered, when the Ambassador gave her a knowing nod to her Green Youth t-shirt, sort of Green to Green secret handshake.
"You’re right, you’re right. It’s just that it’s hot and he’s so little and . . ."
"We understand. Completely! Everything."
She squinted. What did he mean by "Completely! Everything"? What did he mean by "we"?
She did not want to think about that right now.
"Thank you. It is good to get a reminder now and then."
The Green Ambassador smiled and with a flourish allowed her to pass.
Why were they always there when you least wanted them? And why did it frighten her more when they smiled.
Brighty pointed to a holster on the Ambassador’s waist. "What’s that?" he asked.
"That’s a gun, son. A big gun," he said, eyes narrowed again.
At the energy support window, where they paid their fines, she spoke through the thick glass to the ambassador stationed there, resting her ample behind on a swivel topped stool. Ms. Gregor, as her nameplate stated, was safely ensconced in her cage, closed on three sides, with a slab of glass separating her from the public she served. It was so thick Melinda imagined it must have been bullet proof, but how dangerous could people actually be if they were coming in to pay energy fines? The door on the wall behind her, which led to somewhere that no one in Melinda’s acquaintance had ever been, was securely shut as always.
"I’m not quite sure of my agua usage for this week. Could you check?" She decided to play dumb and apologetic to soften her thoughtless green homemaking crimes and to slip in a little bilingualism as well for extra credit. She thought she saw a sneer sneak onto Ms. Gregor’s face.
"Sure," said Ms. Gregor. "Write down your address, could you?" as she slid Melinda a piece of paper through the little passageway on the counter, like they had at the old banks before banking was all digital and federalized.
Melinda caught the almost imperceptible wink from her.
She knew the drill.
"Oh, I have a pen," she said as she opened up her purse. She took out a pen and wrapped a coupon around it. She glanced down to make sure she had the right one. "Sugar," it read. Yes, she will give this lady some sugar. She wrote down her address and slipped the paper and the pen too, with the coupon wrapped around it, smiling sweetly. Ms. Gregor, her eyes wide and fixed on the pen, seamlessly picked up both without unraveling the package. Melinda noticed the strap crisscrossing from the clerk’s shoulder to her waist was studded with other shiny objects with leather covers, unidentifiable due to those leather covers, a big one at her waist. Another big gun? Melinda could only imagine to what use Ms. Gregor could put that to.
Ms. Gregor glanced at a computer screen and scrolled down. "Let’s see here… you’re on Elm… 732, 736… got it. You’re fine, Miz."
Melinda beamed in unctuous gratitude. "Thanks. You’re a lifesaver." A little flattery never hurt, along with the sugar.
She glanced at the receipt, in the name of David Madison, her favorite stepfather, who had left her the house when such inheritance was still lawful.
"Absolutely fine," Miz Gregor repeated, as she leaned back and tucked the coupon into her ample bosom.
Melinda smiled, pleased with her success, and she even had one coupon left.
Just then Melinda heard a low powerful rumble from behind the securely closed door. Ms. Gregor looked up and her eyes widened, in a fleeting look of panic, as the rumbling grew in volume. Melinda stared back. And then they heard the roar and rush of water that could only have come from an old full flow something, an appliance from the old days, before the revolution; a large spigot of some type, or more likely a toilet, one of those old water wasters, which were banned long ago, had burst open into use. Rumor had it that the last few that were smuggled in from Mexico and Canada years ago were all destroyed and the smugglers sent to GS (Green School), where they spent their last years happily doing green research. The American Standards were long ago pulverized and recycled.
Both of them paused as the forbidden sound hung in the air and then gurgled slowly to a stop. Betsy caught the look that passed between the two women and frowned; she edged in closer to the window.
"Earthquake?" Melinda asked, quietly.
Ms. Gregor recovered enough to say, "Why… yes, must have been a little shaker."
Melinda smiled and nodded, in a way that did not give her thoughts away. Davey had also taught her that sometimes silence was golden; a fool would soon fill it.
"Wouldn’t want to be caught out of compliance, would we now?" Ms. Gregor asked.
Melinda heard the threat implicit in her tone, a common occurrence in this time of green crisis, and ladled on a little more sugar.
"I’m so grateful, Ms. Gregor."
Melinda was not exactly sure what her plan was yet, but she remembered to always "keep your cards close to the vest." And she walked out of the office without looking back.
Outside the office, Betsy tugged at her arm. "Mom!" she whispered hotly.
"What?" Melinda asked. Melinda was not sure what to do with this new, valuable piece of knowledge. Valuable or dangerous or both.
"Mom, there is something going on there! We’ve got to tell someone!"
Melinda remembered something else Davey told her. She turned to Betsy and said firmly, "Don’t play hard, Betsy, play smart."
Betsy stamped her foot and then followed her mother out to the parking lot.
Melinda lay awake that night, despite the soft purr of the ceiling fan that usually lulled her to sleep. She heard Brighty’s shallow snore from the room next door and she knew her children, worn out from a day in the park and cooled off by the community fountain (thus hoarding their bath allotments for another day!) were in dreamland. The balance sheet of modern life had worked out okay today. She sighed. But why this niggling sense of trouble, or curiosity? She remembered long ago when she and Rita were in community college. Rita was an engineering student, while she was in art history. They both were studying the prejudice that existed back in the old days about Soviet art and the now-coveted Soviet manufactured goods in the Multicultural Segment. "Hah, consumer goods!" the old Russian professor would snort with derision. "We have destroyed Gaia with the damn consumer goods!"
But what is so wrong with consumer goods? Melinda wondered, even then. Didn’t Marco Polo bring back noodles from China, which the Italians then turned into spaghetti, which everyone agreed was delicious?
And also, she loved to buy clothes for her kids. Her favorite day of the year was the first day of school, when all three of them stood in brand new outfits, ironed to an inch of their lives, their hair slicked and smoothed into perfection, and stepped onto the school bus. They looked handsome and pretty and special. They loved it, too, even the boys.
She tiptoed down the hallway to the bathroom and reached in to the linen cabinet to put back the one remaining coupon. She had outsmarted, at least for now, Ms. Gregor. There was some satisfaction in that but she knew she had to find out more, or she would never get another chance. Yes, something in Ms. Gregor’s momentary look of panic told her she had witnessed an occurrence that would be valuable someday, if only she could decode its meaning.
She went to the kitchen and poured half a glass of wine from the box. At the kitchen table, she stared out at nothing, then pulled out a piece of scrap paper from the recycle bin and began to write a note. A few minutes later she gulped the last of the wine and went to Betsy’s room and looked in. She left the note on her pillow and then tiptoed out of the house, before she could think of reasons not to.
Melinda pedaled her bike slowly away, threading a path around the abandoned bins in her cul-de-sac, towards the civic center once more. She stashed it behind the dumpster next to city hall and quickly noted that behind the dumpster was set of pipes attached to the building: one yellow, one white, and one red. This must be at least the water supply for the building and, who knows, the whole city. She saw a small ventilation-type window, the kind often used in bathrooms, on the wall above the pipes. She hauled herself up on top of the dumpster, pulled open the half open pane of privacy glass, and stretched as far as she could to look in. Off in a corner just barely in her view was the base of a toilet. A red stripe of paint around the base punctuated by small red stars gave the provenance of the commode away. It had to be! The only old-fashioned water-guzzling toilets left were the fabled Soviet Malusha 2000s, reputed to have been recovered from Chernobyl. The folklore of functional appliances held that the GWB (Green Water Board), feared radiation poisoning and so allowed the commodes to be bought and sold on the black market in an attempt to find the miscreants, and to avoid the sickness themselves. They half hoped that the traitors and wreckers who bought one would be flushed out of hiding by symptoms of radiation sickness, or worse. Either would suit their purposes.
She walked over to the outcropping of three pipes at the edge of the parking lot. The pipes, one yellow, one white and one red, popped up from under the tarmac and led in a straight line to the city hall building, if she was seeing this right. Yes, they had to be part of the same system, but where did they go from the edge of the lot?
A short distance from the pipes was the chicken wire fence that separated the parking lot from the concrete incline beyond. The "no trespassing" sign dangled limply as she climbed over it, and then fell to the ground. She laughed to herself at the ease of it; she had half expected a SWAT team to pour out of the building as she pulled herself over, but then their union long ago forbade night calls.
She climbed up the concrete wall spider style. At the top of the concrete slope, she heaved herself over the berm and landed on soft ground. The overgrown shrubs and trees blocked the light from the moon, but she had no trouble following a path that had been roughly set by others. Who were those others, she wondered. Then, she slowed to catch her breath; the path was growing steeper. She stopped as she heard the snap of a branch by someone’s or something’s footfall behind her. She heaved a sigh of relief as Betsy appeared behind her.
"Sweetie, what are you doing here?"
"I want to find out what’s going on." She had not forgotten the incident with Ms. Gregor after all; she even thought to wear her Green Youth t-shirt before tailing Melinda.
Melinda gave her a quick hug. "Alright, follow me."
They climbed for another half hour, Betsy gamely keeping up. Melinda reached the end of a steep climb and saw the path level out ahead. She stood up at the top of the rise, tracing the curve of the surrounding hills as it formed a protective arc above the valley below. She looked down and caught her breath. A lovely, preposterous, water-filled lake dazzled in the moonlight. An empty raft bobbed lazily atop the gentle waves. How could this be? Children must play here! She remembered another lake, eons ago, when she and Davey and two of his neighbor friends splashed out until their feet couldn’t touch the bottom, and then floated up on their backs towards the sun, a reward for a day of quail hunting the started before dawn. It wasn’t unusual back then.
Three pipes–one yellow, one red, and one white–at the water’s edge pushed out of the dirt and met in a tangle of valves, valves that could be switched on and switched off, with smaller pipes feeding the bigger valves, so that one could easily send this precious commodity to where one desired or to withhold water from other areas as well. Ms. Gregor and how many others, she wondered angrily, helped themselves to such treasure while the rest of them starved. Melinda would one day have Ms. Gregor’s Soviet toilet, free of throbbing red meters and awash in gallons of glorious purifying water. Melinda thought of the Malusha 2000 in city hall. This would be hers, she vowed, hers and her kids’.
She turned around to find Betsy. Betsy appeared and stood up, brushing off the leaves and dirt from the last few feet of the steep trail. Melinda reached out and took her hand and pulled her up. Betsy stared at her grinning mother and slowly turned and saw the lake.
"Mom!" she hissed.
"Yes, sweetie."
"A lake!"
"I know. Isn’t it wonderful?" Melinda asked.
"But I’ve never seen… only in books… the Green crisis…" She was babbling, like a child, like the child she was only yesterday.
Melinda hugged her daughter hard and then put her hands on her shoulders. Melinda waited as Betsy turned back to her.
Softy, Melinda began. "Oh, Betsy…"
Betsy was rapt. Melinda could see herself and first partner and a little of Davey in Betsy’s eyes.
"Yes, Mom?"
"Honey, Betsy Ross was not the first president of the United States."
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