A Good Place for Graves

by Clinton A. Harris
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (8 votes, average: 4.38 out of 5)
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On the seat between Vermillion Green and his pregnant wife, sat a syringe full of lethal purple liquid, visible through a semi-transparent plastic case, nested in a bed of foam rubber. It was either this or terminate Cerise’s pregnancy. A life for a life. It was the law.

Adoria Leaf was the name of the woman about to pass on.

As they rode the dingy chromat-designated lev train across the city, the golden glare of late afternoon reflected off the shimmering heat of the wastelands, just beyond the city walls. A billboard alongside the rail diverted Vermillion’s attention. He had seen it many times before and never took notice, but today, it struck him. The image was of a sleeping baby, cradled in its mother’s arms.

“Your Baby is Killing Our Planet,” the caption read. It was part of the LifeDefense campaign; to stem overpopulation and environmental impact through voluntary sterilization. The news said it was working.

“Jesus Christ.” Vermillion was suddenly aware Cerise was reading the same sign. He apologized. She didn’t want his apologies. She never accepted them anyway.

“Why doesn’t anyone just die on their own anymore?” she asked.

“It’s their right to live,” he said.

Cerise leaned back in the seat and closed her eyes. She hummed softly to herself, rubbing her stomach and waiting out their arrival to ElderHome.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just let go?” she said.

Vermillion wondered if she caught the irony in her own words. Cerise often visited her dead grandmother at MemoryMakers. She traveled just within the furthest distance their caste-commute voucher could take them for her sessions with “Nanna.” It was worth the expense at first. But a year and a half after the woman’s death, when Cerise would return home to wander around their apartment on the verge of tears, Vermillion was ready to let the Memory lapse.

He activated his dentel with a yawn and tuned to a police drama, then to a report about Luddite attacks. Beyond the image of the news, he could see the other commuters, their mouths and voices cancelled out by the blue privacy fields of their own devices. An old woman was glaring at Cerise’s belly. She looked away when she realized Vermillion was watching.

The passengers trickled in and out with each stop until the Greens disembarked at ElderHome. The old woman deliberately coughed on Cerise as she passed and then offered a syrupy smile before they could say anything. Vermillion ushered his wife down the aisle and out the door of the lev.

“Typical,” he muttered. Cerise gave him a warning glance and he said no more. Today was not the day to complain about the elderly and their attitudes toward pregnant women.

A pair of light guides pulsating along the edges of the floor, directing the Greens to ElderHome. Large view screens covered the walls along the corridor. Scape panels on the walls greeted them with live images of jungles, clean beaches, and the churning a bubbling of a live volcanic caldera spewing molten rock into the steaming ocean. Further down the walk, Vermillion spotted a mountain vista. The geometry of the ruins unmistakably contrasted with the mountain crags and highland jungle.

“Machu Picchu.” Cerise took Vermillion’s hand and squeezed it in a rare display of tenderness. “They have a Machu Picchu!”

“Amazing, isn’t it?” A man in a white lab coat approached. His facial features were strong, yet graceful and obviously tooled in the landarian-caste mode d’Jour. His teeth were straight and bleached to a brilliant white. His skin emitted a soft, glossy glow, accentuating the numerous augmentations he had undergone.

“I’m Dr. Stone. And you must be the Greens. Come right this way.”

Dr. Stone led them to a large set of doors that opened to reveal a cathedral-like chamber. White and ethereal. Buttressed walls rose all around them, stretching beyond their sight into a milky white blur above.

“So this is the Rendering Plant?” Vermillion regretted saying it the moment the words left his mouth.

“I’ve heard it called worse,” Dr. Stone chuckled. It was unusual for a landarian to tolerate such a remark.

Dr. Stone whistled a tune as he lead the way. He waved at other ageless employees as they passed. Among them, the white-haired ancients pushed walkers while others sat slack in their wheelchairs, doubled over beneath the weight of the world and all the years they had collected. A hundred and twenty, a hundred and fifty years or more for some of them. Despite their best efforts, Mankind wasn’t immortal.

“The bereaved are waiting for you in here. I’ll leave you to it.” Dr. Stone waved his hand and the doors opened at his gesture. The Greens entered alone.

Unlike the main chamber, this room was dark and confining. An array of lights illuminated a single hospital bed. In the bed rested the shriveled form of a white-haired old woman. Her skin was translucent and thin like onionskin. A respirator gasped and wheezed somewhere in the shadows. Vital signs monitors chattered and beeped. The cloying scent of antiseptic was a thin veneer to the underlying smell of infection and decay.

The Leaf family watched from a large lounge area via view screen. They were a large family, as only a landarian could afford to have. The children, grey and white-haired themselves, grandchildren and their children, and so on. The fifth generation was a pair of twins in their teens. Two red-haired boys dressed identically, glaring at them through the monitor.

A voice coming in on the dentel signal filled his head. “Cerise and Vermillion Green, do you understand your domestic rights and responsibilities as outlined by the Transition of Citizens Rights Act?”

“We do,” Vermillion answered for both of them. Cerise was staring off in the direction of the woman in the bed. On another wall, a montage of the life of Adoria Leaf was being played as a living eulogy. She had been a toddler once, then a laughing, flirting teenager. There were clips of her weddings and even footage of her holding her newborn children. The music was appropriately somber yet uplifting. Some of the relatives were wiping their tears. Others were looking around the room, fiddling with their shirt collars. One man was picking his nose as he stared at a blank wall.

“Adoria Leaf is her name,” the voice continued. “In entering into contract to exchange her life for that of your unborn child’s, the family has requested a stipulation; that you name your child some variation of Adoria Leaf. The paperwork can be filed with the TCRA office.

“Cerise Green, please administer the solution.”

Vermillion opened the translucent case and took out the syringe. The drug would collapse the woman’s heart and stop her breathing simultaneously. Her catatonic state supplanted the need for anesthetic. Ms. Leaf would simply continue a never-waking sleep.

With trembling hands, Cerise took the needle out of the case.

She was frozen. “She looks just like Nanna, Vermillion. I can’t do it!”

“Yes, you can. Look, she’s already gone. The machines are all that’s keeping her here. Come on, her family is getting impatient.”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”She slid the needle into the IV port and pushed the plunger down. She wiped her eyes on the back of her wrist and set the needle down. Cerise sidled up to her husband and rested her head on his shoulder.

“What now?” Cerise said.

“The remainder of her viable organs, what few are left, will be harvested, the rest will be processed,” Dr. Stone said as he entered the room. “Stem cells, tissue therapy. Cosmetics. That sort of thing.”

The old woman’s monitors began beeping rapidly. Dr. Stone’s smile evaporated. He circled the bed, checking machinery.

“What’s happening?” Vermillion asked.

“Nothing.” Dr. Stone’s smile flared up briefly.

The old woman’s eyes snapped open, jaundiced and spider-webbed with burst capillaries. She reached out and caught Cerise by the wrist. She yelped a little as Adoria Leaf pulled her close. Her mouth opened and closed like a suffocating fish, trying to form words.

Cerise pulled free and heard the brittle snap of the woman’s arm. The bed rattled beneath the old woman. A monitor echoed her racing heartbeat until the poison finally took hold. She let out a long sigh and settled down again one last time. Her eyes were glossy and motionless.

On the wall, the chaos was unfolding. The Leaf family was in an uproar. Dr. Stone went to the view screen controls and stopped transmission.

“She spoke to me.” Cerise had turned an ashy shade of grey.

“What did she say?” Vermillion asked.

“She said ‘It hurts.’”

“Rudimentary brain function.” Dr. Stone said, straightening his collar. “Nothing to worry about. This sort of thing happens, but very rarely.”

Cerise looked away. “I’m going to throw up.”

“There is a washroom just outside. Take all the time you need. Your partner can finish filling out the paperwork.”

Vermillion’s eyes burned and blurred with tears. He didn’t know why he felt the urge to cry for this stranger, but he did. Dr. Stone was wrong, he thought. It was anything but painless.

In the weeks that followed, Cerise and Vermillion saw little of each other. Somehow their schedules at work had been switched and now while Vermillion worked the day shift, Cerise worked nights. When he promised to have management move their schedules back to how they were, she told him not to.

The moments they spent together were filled with uncomfortable silences, punctuated with terse responses and sometimes rage. It had been nearly fifteen years since they had known a friend or family member to undergo a pregnancy. It must be hormones, he thought.

“What’s bothering you, honey,” he asked as she drew the sheets back up over herself.

She shrugged. “Nothing.” She rolled onto her side, facing away from him. She shuddered slightly as though she was sobbing.

“No one was forcing you, Cerise.” Vermillion began spooning with her and kissing the back of her neck.

“That’s real fucking romantic.” She pushed him away with some well-placed elbows in his ribs.

Vermillion got out of bed and pulled on a pair of shorts he had tossed into a heap at the foot of the bed before they had made love. Or whatever it was they had done.

“Where are you going?” Cerise asked.

“To the living room. I’m not missing the news.”

On the couch, he cycled through the channels until he fell asleep. He woke to the sound of the front door slamming shut. Cerise didn’t even bother covering up these trips out of the apartment anymore. She sometimes left in the middle of work to go on one of her secret errands. Vermillion didn’t need to follow her to know where she was going.

MemoryMakers was kind enough to send him a bill for each visit.

A scheduling error at work had both of them riding the morning lev together to pollinate the quarterly bean crop. Cerise pretended to sleep while Vermillion listened to the news. He clenched his jaw to silence the broadcast. Outside, the sun was bright and hot. Workers clambered over a section of the city walls that had been blasted out by a Luddite attack, working hard to keep the sweltering heat of the outside world at bay.

Vermillion looked across the aisle to his wife. Her eyes were opened slightly, her pear-shaped body swayed gently with the velocity changes as the lev glided down the rail.

“I didn’t know you were awake,” he said.

“I went to see Nanna at MemoryMakers this morning.”

“Jesus, Cerise! What could she have possibly told you this time?” He didn’t care how harsh he sounded.

“She’s right. I’m not ready. I may never be.” The lev slid into a tunnel of the city’s inner wall. Only the dim blue glow of scramble fields across blacklight-lit teeth chattering in silent unison in the darkness. A moment later, the daylight streamed back into the lev.

“You mean she’s not ready yet. You are forty-three years old, Cerise. I’m pushing fifty. We’ve renewed to each other twice and I still can’t think of anyone I’d rather be with.” Their next wedding was coming up in two years. He had hoped they would make it three terms of marriage.

“We’re still young. We have time to make this work.”

“What kind of life can our child expect to have with parents like us?” She closed her eyes to sleep, getting the last word. Or rather, old dead Nanna had gotten the last word.

A few minutes later, the lev pulled into the terminal and Cerise hurried out ahead with the other passengers. A pregnant woman should have been easy enough to spot, but once he got off the lev, she was nowhere to be seen.

As the crowd filed past, Vermillion got an unexpected call from the TCRA office. He told them he would meet them tomorrow in person for the final arrangements, without Cerise.

As part of the Petition for Live Birth, Vermillion was required to pay the full amount for Mrs. Leaf’s ElderHome tuition. It took a moment to finish the forms, but it had taken nearly seven years of savings to pay the bill. Cerise would have to limit her trips to MemoryMakers now. As it was, her visits were costing them dearly in carbon-credits.

He stood over the computer, punching in his signature code to initial each section as he read it. He stopped when he got to section 21.

“Excuse me. This says something about ‘relinquishment of an out-of-caste pregnancy?”

“That’s correct,” the woman said. “Standard agreements for custody.”

“The lady that was just euthanized for my wife’s PLB was a landarian. We are classified as horticulturists. Chromats.”

“Oh, there must have been a mistake. You’ll have to appeal custody. Though it’s probably easier just to give the child up. Custody issues like this can take years and are very expensive.”

“We just killed some poor old woman, and now you tell me they are going to take our baby?”

“Unless you can get someone out of your own caste to take Ms. Leaf’s place in death, then yes. This is the law. And we are certainly not in the murder business, Mr. Green.”

“I see, just the kidnapping business. What happens then? My baby just gets sent off to live with someone else? For how long? This is bullshit!”

“Be that as it may, sir, I have to notify you that another expletive will force me to call security. The police won’t be as understanding as I have been. I’m just here to make sure you follow the letter of the law.”

Vermillion promised to behave and finished entering his information. Rather than getting himself arrested, he decided to leave quietly. Shortly after, his phone rang. The tone of the dentel filled his skull and a hot wash of acid and bile threatened to launch out of his stomach.

He picked up the call and Cerise appeared to him on the blank wall of the lev. Her eyes were bleary, her hair disheveled.

“Cerise, did you talk to ElderHome?” She shook her head and said she had not. “There’s a problem,” he said. “Adoria Leaf was in a higher caste, which according to the State, means our baby will be considered landarian when he is born.”

“How that is a problem?” she said. “He won’t have to work in the pollination house at least.”

“Cerise. It means they will place him with a landarian family.”

Cerise was quiet for a long time. Her face showed the torrent of emotions that were passing through her, one reaction at a time.

“I’ll go to BestDecisions,” she said.

“The PLB was approved, Cerise. They wouldn’t let you abort, even if you wanted to.”

“They do more at BestDecisions than abortions.”

“I know what else they do, Cerise, but they don’t let pregnant women kill themselves. At least not without a court order.”

“I don’t know what else to do. I’ve got to ask Nanna.” The transmission ended.

Vermillion requested the address for the nearest MemoryMakers, in hopes he could approach Cerise there. Or maybe Nanna could help him. In a few moments, he had directions and began the mile run to the nearest “ghost-booth.”

At MemoryMakers, Vermillion showed them his ID and was given access to a visitation room. They told him it would take a few minutes to load his loved-one. The ghost-booths made his skin crawl, but he needed help.

“Nanna?” he called in the dark room. It smelled of stale perfume, candles, and grief. “It’s Vermillion Green. You’ve got to help me convince Cerise to come home.”

The room remained dark for a while. Vermillion lost perspective and would have thought he was floating if not for the feeling of the floor beneath his feet. He watched as a dim light began to glow in a distant space of the darkness. He reached out to hold on to something before the effect completely threw him off balance. An old woman appeared, vaguely illuminated by the pale light.

“Hello.” The old woman smiled and looked off into the distance, just over his shoulder. The image of Cerise’s grandmother was a media collage of every phone conversation, media clip, and message in her life. She had no idea of his presence. Nothing but her memory was here, but the effect was still powerful. It allowed people to continue a relationship with their loved ones long after death.

“Has Cerise been here to see you today? I can’t find her.”

It took a moment to process his statement. When she was ready to answer, Nanna had taken on an earlier appearance, about ten to fifteen years younger than the first image of her. “That’s a shame. Why don’t we talk about it?”

“I need to know what you told her to do.”

“It’s not really your business, Vermillion. I’m talking to her now. In another room. Across town.”

“You’ve got to help me, Nanna. You have to tell her I’m here!”

The image of Nanna was younger still, “What do you want me to do about it?” she challenged. “What makes you think you can do anything about it?”

“I’ve got to try. I love her. I’d do anything for her!”

“Then prove it.” The oldest version of Nanna returned. This time, the old woman’s cloudy eyes fixed on his. There was anger there, hatred. “I never liked you and I know you convinced her to put me up for passing on. You said my river of life had run its course. I had years left, and you took them from me!”

“Nanna,” Vermillion said. “I had no part in your death! Cerise’s mother was the one that put your name on the short list, not me.”

“What would you do for your wife to help her?”

“Anything,” he said.

“Liar,” the old woman whispered. The room was dark again and Nanna was gone. Vermilion started walking, hoping that eventually he would reach a wall and be able to feel around for a door. It was half an hour before someone came to let him out. Nanna was no longer on Vermillion’s list of the dead to visit.

He was on his way home when his dentel rang. It was the moment he had been dreading. Cerise was calling him.

He went to a wall and stared at it until the visual mesh populated an image of his wife. Cerise was still somewhere in the city by the looks of things. Near a breach in the outer wall. Beyond, he could see the wastelands.

“I talked to Nanna. She says I can’t let them take our son. And since BestDecisions won’t take me, I’m better off going into the desert. Nanna talks of a place called Echo Valley. A farm where she grew up, before it was illegal to live outside the cities. She says it’s beautiful there.”

“That makes no goddamned sense,” Vermillion replied. “We’ll go home together and figure this out.”

“It’s too late for that, Vermillion. I started labor a few hours ago.” Vermillion felt panic begin to boil in his stomach.

“I have to go. The police will be here soon. Come find me, Ver.”

Vermillion watched her turn and walk toward the golden light of sunset. Her silhouette became the point of the long shadow aimed toward the sun, she stepped over a pile of debris, holding her stomach and was gone. The image faded out and Vermillion was left staring at concrete.

“How are you holding up, Ver?” Cerise asked.

“I’m better,” he replied. She rubbed her belly thoughtfully, looking peaceful, radiant yet sad. “How are you?”

“You aren’t here to talk about me again, are you?” Cerise chuckled. She was winding a strand of her hair around her finger.

“I think you owe me that much. You broke the law, Cerise!” he snarled.

“I’m sorry. I just couldn’t let them take our baby!”

He took a deep breath and continued. They only had a few more minutes together. “I like talking about you. I know not much goes on in this place, but we do have each other still. How are they treating you? Can I get you anything.”

“Your question is unclear,” Cerise replied. “Please restate it in another way. Preferably in regards to our past interactions.”

“I’m sorry. I’m having a hard time dealing with this I guess. I need to ask you something, and I know it’s difficult. Probably impossible.”

“Nobody’s stopping you,” Cerise flashed her lopsided grin. She wore the same grey and brown dress she had worn the first time they met. She looked young again. Maybe nineteen or twenty. The familiar bump was gone. A moment later the buffers corrected the discrepancy in memory correlation and returned Cerise to her present age. Or at least the age she had been just before going to her death in the desert.

“I should have gone to BestDecisions. Maybe they would have taken my life in trade.”

“That’s a little morbid, don’t you think, Ver?” she replied. “MemoryMakers isn’t here to promote morbidity.”

He nodded. “I’m sorry, I don’t want to upset you. I just need to know if you were mad at me. I tried. Believe me I tried to go after you, but the Patrol stopped me. I just have to know if you suffered out there.”

She sighed, the image flickered for a moment. “You really piss me off sometimes, you know? If you need to know more, you need to get my dentel piece. It records every moment until it is removed. But most people choose not to know those moments. They just can’t handle the pain. I talked with Nanna about her death once and believe me, you don’t want to know. It makes what we saw at ElderHome look like a picnic.”

“I’ve got to know,” he replied. A light in the chamber flickered, followed by the twittering of an extinct songbird, signaling that their time was nearly up. “It’s consuming me, Cerise. When you died, I almost felt it. They won’t even retrieve your body, Cerise. If we were landarians or protectorates they would have flown out to get you. It’s not fair! I miss you so much.”

“Come find me,” she said. He wiped the tears from his eyes and nodded to her before leaving the ghost-booth. It wasn’t the same, but it was good enough.

Vermillion stared out of the lev window, towards the wastelands. Most passengers avoided the view, each talking to someone distant, their voices scrambled and muted by the encryption fields. A bunch of jabbering mimes, he thought. Some flailed their hands, others laughed; all of them stared off into the distance, detached. He doubted a single one of them knew their next-door neighbor’s name. Or what a baby kick felt like through its mother’s belly.

“Not many appreciate the desert,” a nearby man said. He wore a dusty, age-tattered coat, sunglasses, and tall leather boots Vermillion could smell the ethyl homebrew on his breath.

“I’m sorry?” Vermillion said. “Are you talking to me?”

“Weird huh? Not often you talk to a total stranger these days, but I don’t know of no other way to make friends. My name is Billings Moffat. I noticed you were lookin’ out the window. I thought I sensed a kindred spirit.” His rough grin of yellow teeth divided his beard and mustache.

Vermillion lowered his voice.”Are you a primitivist?”

Moffat laughed it off. “No, I ain’t a Ludd. Why?”

“I’m sorry. I was hoping you could help me. My wife was lost in the wastelands a few days ago.”

“You don’t need no Ludd, you need me. I’m a tracker.”

Riding the tracker’s treadbike through the city’s Fringe, they found the breach in the wall where Cerise stepped into the wastelands. The heavy steel track squealed as they came to a stop and Vermillion extracted himself from the sidecar.

“What do you think?”

“I asked around some,” Moffat said. “A few of the anchorites living in the shanties claim they saw her. Some said the Sweetwater Clan got her.”

“What would they want with a pregnant woman?”

“I wouldn’t even venture a guess. The anchorite said she paid them to take her into the desert though. If we can find her body, we might be able to trade for some of her things if they decide not to kill us too.”

“If we get close enough the short-range locator on my dentel will tell us where to go. We use them in the grow houses to keep tabs on each other in case of emergency.

“So, I don’t need her body, Mr. Moffat. Just her dentel.”

“Suit yourself. Less to haul back anyway.” Moffat put the cycle into gear and rolled out onto the brittle ground outside. The debris crunched under the tread.

Vermillion put on his radio headset and stuffed himself back into the sidecar.

He had never seen the city from the outside. Towering concrete walls and skeletal buttresses supported ten million people and two hundred levels of structured civilization. An endless shadow trailed out behind the city like a black flag as the sun began to set.

“If she’s been picked up,” the tracker said over the headphones, “I reckon I know where they took her.”

“Where would that be?”

“Hard tellin’ for sure, but it won’t be long now ’til we find out.” The tracker opened the throttle all the way and the single track of the bike bore down hard on the sun-baked pea gravel and scrub brush landscape. A lingering column of exhaust and dust marked their trail.

“Have you ever heard of a place called Echo Valley?” Vermillion asked.

“Yeah, I heard of it,” Moffat’s voice crackled with static. “Why?”

“Cerise’s dead grandmother told her to go there,” Vermillion said.

The sunset ignited the horizon and distant clouds into a hellish landscape of fiery orange and purple. Soon, the treadbike was nothing more than a noisy speck in the open desert, cutting a wedge through the night with its single headlamp.

They traveled without speaking, following tracks in the dark. Their only company was the rumble of the cycle as it churned up the fine silt of the desert floor. When the city lights disappeared over the horizon, only the stars remained. Vermillion had never seen so many. The sky was choked with constellations people had once named for their gods. An arm of the Milky Way bisected the universe.

“Do you think she’s made it out this far?” Vermillion drew his jacket around his shoulders and suppressed a shudder. He couldn’t decide if it was the chill of the night wind or the oppressive depth of the sky that made him shiver.

Moffat was silent.

“I feel small,” Vermillion said, looking up at the sky.

“You are small,” the tracker replied. “The night gives us perspective. To your city, you are important. You’re a cog in the big machine, serving a purpose. Out here, the night sky doesn’t give a damn. Don’t matter anyhow. Most of them stars is already burnt out. So I’m guessin’ we got the last laugh.”

Billings Moffat geared the cycle down and slowed to a stop. He smiled and turned to Vermillion. “Now that we are out on our own, there’s something I’ve been meanin’ to tell you.”

Moffat drew a pistol. The laser sight point jittered and zigzagged, targeting Vermillion just around his left eye. “Get away from my bike and take your clothes off. I’m gonna give you a chance, just to be fair. If you keep movin’, you might not freeze your pecker off.”

“I don’t understand,” Vermillion said, already unfastening his shirt.

“It’s a robbery you fuckin’ idiot. What did you think it was?”

“Wait. I can pay you more. I can get you more carbon credits!”

“You think your money means anything out here? Do you? Now strip!”

“How can you do this?” Vermillion wanted to rush the man, even if it meant taking a bullet in the head. Instead he did what he was told, just like he had always done.

“Them’s the breaks, asshole. Life has its pains to deal with.” Moffat waited for Vermillion to finish undressing and cinched his hands together behind his back with a plastic tie. With a kick, he swept Vermillion’s legs out from under him. The fall knocked the wind out of him, and he started gasping for air. After rolling him on to his back, Moffat put a knee in Vermillion’s chest and took a rusted pair of pliers out of his pocket.

“Now hold still. This is gonna hurt bad.”

Stop fighting it. Just let it take you. This is as good a place to die as any. It’s what Cerise did.

Vermillion fought to breathe, swallowing mouthfuls of clotted blood to keep from choking. Eventually, the blood soaked through the tape covering his mouth and he was able to breathe again. He gasped and sobbed where he lay for a while before taking on the bands on his wrists. More wriggling and straining allowed him to get his hands to the front of his body. It took everything he could muster to stay conscious. When he finally chewed through the ties, he let them fall to the ground and stumbled on ahead on the rocky ground in his sock feet, clutching his jaw where Moffat had pulled two of his molars.

A swath of dried blood ran down from Vermillion’s face across his bare chest, soaking into his underwear and down his socks in a matted mess. Without a dentel, there was no calling for help now. There was no finding Cerise either. The sun was a few hours off, but the bleary eye of morning had already cast its gaze across the land in a sickly, pale light.

He hoped Cerise had not felt this way. Lonely, cold and desperate. “Come find me.” He whispered her last words like a prayer.

He kept following Moffat’s trail, until the sun brought with it the unbearable heat. Strangely, the tracks did not diverge from the ones they had been following. Something in the desert moved and caught his attention. He stopped and looked in its direction, hoping to see it again. A dark stone seemed to flinch for a moment before becoming a large jackrabbit, which froze in place as soon as Vermillion stopped to watch it.

He tossed a rock at the rabbit to see what it would do. The rock went wide and bounced across the ground, leaving puffs of dust where it struck. The rabbit stared back for a while until a shadow slipped across the surface of the desert. He heard a shrill whistle in the hot wind and stared up at the sun that had already passed its zenith. Vermillion raised his arms and waved them in hopes of signaling the plane as its shadow cut through his own. The rabbit sprinted away and the craft stopped wheeling across the sky and followed slowly towards the mountains. Vermillion realized it was no plane, but some kind of bird.

Impossible, he thought. He followed the shadow of the bird, watching until it joined others that were circling the skies, catching thermals and dropping to the ground. Vermillion headed for the place the birds were landing. In the distance, he heard a gunshot. He broke into a run, ignoring the sharp rocks and sticker bushes that lodged into the tender soles of his feet.

Not far away, Vermillion spotted Moffat’s treadbike. The vehicle lay on its side, the sidecar crumpled and riddled with a line of bullet holes. The contents of Moffat’s rucksack were scattered as was Vermillion’s clothing, a few packets of food, and a banged up canteen. Nearby lay his dentel, still attached to his molars by a metallic net of conduction fiber.

Vultures the size of German shepherds surrounded Moffat. They squabbled and flapped, pecked and danced in a bizarre ritual feast. He sat on the shade side of his bike, his pistol in hand, aiming it at vultures as they hopped near. One pecked at his bleeding leg and hopped into the air when Moffat screamed. The bird exploded in a burst of feathers and blood when the tracker fired.

Moffat cursed the vulture and laughed sadistically, the laughter trailing out into a labored cough. Vermillion picked up a large rock and crept up behind the treadbike. He gripped the rock with both hands a raised it high above his head and looked at a patch of bloodied scalp on the back of Moffat’s balding head.

The tracker looked straight ahead and thumbed back the hammer on his pistol. Vermillion’s eyes followed the man’s line of sight and saw his own shadow stretched out on the ground ahead of them. The tracker twisted where he sat and aimed the gun straight at Vermillion.

He heard the dull click of an empty gun. The tracker fought to pull the slide back on his weapon to chamber another round, but the magazine was empty. He sat forward with a growl and threw the gun at Vermillion. It hit the ground and cartwheeled away in a cloud of dust.

“They left me one shot and I wasted it,” Moffat complained. “Go on and do it. If you got any balls, city boy.”

Vermillion circled around the bike, still clutching the rock in his fist. Moffat’s face oozed with a mixture of blood and gravel imbedded in his flesh. Blood soaked through his pants all the way up to his waist. Below the knees, there was only empty space and some leather cords for tourniquets. Both legs were severed just below the kneecap.

“I guess somebody must hate you worse than I do,” Vermillion said.

Moffat laughed. “Come have a seat with me, kid. Say, you ain’t got any water on you, do ya?”

“No. You left me for dead in the desert, remember? Helping you is the last thing on my mind right now.”

“But I’ve got good news, fella. I caught up with them Ludds you was lookin’ for. They was camped right here and like a damned fool I drove right into the middle of ‘em. I tried to buy your girl off them too. She’s alive! We can catch ‘em still if you put me in the sidecar. Leavin’ you in the desert; I swear I didn’t mean nothin’ by it!”

Vermillion winced as his tongue filled the empty gap in his mouth. He tasted the blood. “You saw Cerise?”

“Sure! They ain’t done nothin’ to her. Yet.” Moffat reached up a hand to Vermillion. “Now let’s shake a leg ‘fore they get too far.”

“Where did they go?”

The tracker lowered his hand and sank back against the treadbike. “Same place as you, buddy. To hell. ‘Cause I ain’t tellin’ now.”

Vermillion swung the rock down hard and felt the hollow impact with the man’s skull before he slumped to the ground. A trickle of blood began to well up from his temple. His eyes rolled back into his head, his eyelids blinked and fluttered sporadically. He wasn’t dead. Vermillion straddled the man’s body and beat the rock against his head until he heard a loud crunch. The blood on his hands was warm. Moffat’s last breath came as a gurgle from his throat.

“Fucking liar.” Vermillion tossed the rock down with a heavy thump. He dragged Moffat’s body away from the bike, tossing it to the vultures. A short distance away were Moffat’s boots, with the lower halves of his legs still inside.

Vermillion picked up what he recognized as his own clothes and put them back on. He shouted and waved his arms in the air, and a few of them waddled off. Others spread their wings wide and flapped defensively before taking flight. He hooted and cheered when they flew away from him. Warmth filled his chest and stomach that he had never felt before. A cocktail of fear and exhilaration, tinged with madness.

The first foot came out of the boot with little effort. He shook the second a few times before reaching in and pulling it out in one piece. Flies had already begun to swarm the remains. He had never seen so many flies outside of a growhouse. Once, they had attempted to use them as pollinators, but flies never worked as well as bees, having a taste for the crops the bees left alone, and forced pollination to be done by hand.

He left the flies and vultures to their carrion and went back to the treadbike. The dangerous scent of oiled leather wafted from the boots when he examined them. He slipped them on and stood up. He should have felt nauseous at wearing real leather, but he didn’t. They fit well enough.

He found Moffat’s canteen and took a long drink. He finished off the canteen by rinsing the blood from his hands. Vermillion attempted to activate his dentel. Without blood pumping through the tooth providing a biosignature, it was hard to use the device beyond basic functions. He tried to push his teeth back into their sockets, but the gums had already begun to heal. Until he could get the device reattached, there was little he could do to boost the signal, having the antennae wired mostly through his jaw. Cerise’s signal was weak, yet audible through the static of the tiny external speaker filament.

He set about uprighting the treadbike. After a few tries, the engine came alive, belching a cloud of black smoke. Vermillion set out for the west, following tracks. The horizon became a shimmering blur of not-water. He drove ahead blindly until he reached the foot of a mesa. Like everything else in the wastelands, it was powdered with silt and alkaline dust. It was as though the moon had rubbed up against the world, leaving a scuff behind.

He knew why Cerise had wandered out here to die. It made sense. A land like this was best suited to death. He decided to drive as far as the bike would allow him to go and then he would lie down to join her.

As he rode, Vermillion thought of something she had said once about her grandmother.

“They didn’t even bury her, Ver. They don’t bury anybody. They just grind us up and give our pieces to strangers! Now Nanna’s just a memory trapped in a machine. And what happens when the power goes out? There won’t be anything left. Not even a marker for a grave. Nothing!”

Saying something like that could have gotten her turned into MentalHealth. Vermillion had considered notifying them himself at the time. Now it was beginning to make sense. He felt guilty for saying he only wanted her dentel. If he could find her body, he promised himself, he would give it a decent burial out here.

Rising up from the ever-shifting haze of silver in the distance, Vermillion saw standing columns of white lined up across the desert like the bleached bones of some great dead beast. As he got closer, he could see it was acres upon acres of wind towers.

Tire tracks wound their ways around the base of the towers; the trail was gone. He rode through the turbines and listened to the fans as they cut through the hot air. One white pylon showed signs that someone had taken the time to scavenge parts. A length of heavy power cable ran from the nearby tower to a plateau in the distance. Beyond that was a stark range of jagged white mountains. His dentel was finally picking up Cerise’s signal, though it was weak.

“I’m coming, Cerise,” he said.

Vermillion traveled west along the floor of a dry canyon, until he found tracks again. He rolled back on the throttle and sped off after them. Murder thundered in his ears with every heartbeat.

The sight of the earthworks rekindled some long-forgotten primal fear within him. He decided he needed to ride up and out of the canyon. The treadbike lurched and sputtered up the embankment to the causeway of a dam. He had never seen so much water in one place. He imagined the sensation of falling into it, attached to the heavy steel treadbike, descending down into the murky darkness with the fish and algae. The thought overwhelmed him.

Beyond the reservoir, a forest stretched out, reaching up into the snowy mountains. He searched for a path he could take to get away from the lake. A concrete block of a control shack was perched on top of the western bank of the causeway. He could make out the words “Echo Valley” stenciled in black paint on the crumbling cement.

At the forest’s edge was an old, three-story house. Outside, a line of clothes dried in the breeze. Ducks wandered around the yard. A big black dog barked up at him. A woman watched from the porch before ushering the dog inside, shutting the door behind them.

The treadbike rumbled as he rode down the hill, chewing up rich black soil before eventually giving breaking down, steam pouring out from the motor. Nearby, a pile of earth sat beneath an enormous oak. Stuck in the dirt was a pair of shovels. He wondered what they could be growing with a hole that deep, until he saw the tombstones. The small graveyard was only about twenty meters from the house. He had only seen cemeteries in documentaries. He felt cold and alone for a moment. Vermillion took one last look at his dentel and tossed it into one of the graves.

Through the front door window, he could see the woman waiting inside with the stock of her rifle tucked against her shoulder. The dog barked frantically from another room. The woman held her fire. Her skin was nut brown from what must have been years working in the sun, though she couldn’t have been any older than him.

“We don’t want trespassers,” she called out.

“I’m not a primitivist. My name is Vermillion Green. I need your help.”

“You askin’ to be invited in?”

“Yes. I am,” he answered.

“Try knockin’ first, then. It’s good manners.” She held that rifle to bear on his head until he awkwardly balled his hand into a fist and rapped on her door.

“That’s better.” She unlocked the door. “Don’t they have doors in that city of yours?”

“We have many,” he said, “but no one ever knocks on them.”

She ordered him to wipe his feet and when he did, she eyed his boots for a long time. “You a tracker?”

“No ma’am,” he said.

“Then why are you wearin’ the boots of a tracker? Billings Moffat’s to be precise. What happened to that old rattlesnake?”

“Was he a friend of yours?” Vermillion asked.

“No. Yours?”

Vermillion shook his head. “I smashed his head in with a rock this morning. I don’t think the vultures left much of him.”

On top of an old refrigerator was a dentel, sitting in the bottom of a glass of water.

“Cerise,” he said, oddly relieved.

The woman gestured for him to have a seat at the kitchen table and gave him a glass of cold water. “I’m Rachel. Now tell me, why are you here?”

“I need that dentel. It’s all that remains of my wife. Give it to me, and I can go to MemoryMakers and fill in the last hours of her life.”

“You got lucky. Especially with Billings Moffat. Are you a soldier or something?”

“I’m a pollinator. We worked in the growhouses, fertilizing plants. Because the bees are all extinct.”

She chuckled a little, as if he had told her a joke.

Please. You have something that belongs to me, and I will leave peacefully once you give it back.”

“Don’t threaten me unless you want a smack in the mouth. The Ludds found your girl wandering out there in the desert, just outside the city. They were worried when she didn’t want to go back, so they brought her here to me. Figured I’d know what to do. I did everything I could for her.

“So, never mind that piece of junk, Vermillion Green,” she said, thumbing over her shoulder towards the dentel in the glass. “You need to see it right.”

Rachel led Vermillion to a bedroom in the upper story. They walked through a long gallery with bedchamber doors on one side of the hall and open windows with sheer white curtains playing out on the wind on the opposite side. She opened the door to the bedroom and there he could see Cerise in the center of a large feather bed. Her face was peaceful. Her chest rose and fell gently with each breath.

“She’s alive?”

“Luddies are rough characters all right, but they ain’t monsters. They just had a score to settle with Moffat. Looks like you settled it for ‘em just fine though.

“Truth be told, they don’t sound any worse than what you seen in the city.”

“At least they helped her. The authorities back home won’t be as understanding. It’s likely we’ll spend the rest of our lives in prison.”

“We could use the help here. There’s a lot of work to do and not many of us,” Rachel said. “You’re welcome here.”

“I saw the grave outside. It wouldn’t be too much to ask, to spend our days near our son’s grave, would it?”

“That’s a lark! He’ll be buryin’ you one day, just like it should be. This land is still a good place for graves, but for now, it’s just as good for makin’ a life.”

She led him to a wooden cradle in the corner of the room. A pair of tiny fists jerked into the air, followed by the kick of a pair of legs, swaddled in a knit blanket. A tiny thing with enormous eyes and miniature fingers. He wore a blue hand-knit cap and focused on his fists, determined to make them work.

It was an impossible thing, Vermillion thought as he touched his son’s cheek.

“You found us,” Cerise whispered from the bed.

Vermillion went to her and held her close, unable to speak.

“I felt the baby kick, Ver,” she whispered. “At that woman’s deathbed, at ElderHome, I felt him kick and I knew it was either him or that stranger. I had no choice. I shouldn’t have left you, but I…if I came home, they would have been there, trying to take him,”

As he smoothed her hair, he thought of Billings Moffat, sitting legless in the desert sun, waiting for the vultures to eat him. He wondered if that memory would ever fade.

Rachel handed the baby to Cerise. “Feedin’ time,” she said. To his surprise, Cerise loosened up the ties on her sleeping gown and exposed a breast. The baby latched onto the nipple, nuzzled down into her soft skin, and began to feed. She chuckled a little at Vermillion’s reaction, his head cocked to one side like a curious dog.

Rachel opened a curtain and motioned for him to look outside. The window overlooked the back of the house where a portion of the forest had been cleared. Rows of corn grew outdoors in that small field. Beyond, he could see the edges of other fields and houses. There, people tended to chores, carrying rakes and shovels right there in the open air. No domes, no growlights.

A fat bumblebee chugged around the edges of the window, trying to find a way in through the glass. Vermillion put his finger on the glass, which attracted the bee. When it couldn’t get inside, the bee flew away, streaking off into the backyard where flowers grew and clothes hung out on lines to dry. He reached out his hand as if to keep it from leaving.

“Enough bees for now, Ver,” Cerise said. “Come and help me think of a name for our son.”

6 Responses to “A Good Place for Graves”

  1. Verna Harris says:

    Nice story.

  2. Don Bagley says:

    The story had a cinematic scope. Once I entered, I had to let it run its course. It reminds me of classic science fiction. What a trip.

  3. Helice says:

    Such a lovely ending! So stark and depressing until a ray of hope that you never saw coming.

  4. Rich world-building and development of the setting; you took me to a place I’ve never been–but that was believable enough to be the not-so-distant future…

  5. Clint Harris says:

    Thank you, everyone. I couldn’t have asked for better reviews.

  6. Bruce says:

    Thank you, everyone. I couldn’t have asked for better reviews.

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