WALLFLOWER



From Tomorrow, No. 23, pp. 75-80 (November 1996).

Thomas A. Easton



Once Avril Montez had been able to hear the cries of children at play in the schoolyard not far beyond the tumble-down stone wall.

Once there had been the roar of traffic on the highway, the whine of aircraft overhead, footsteps and bouncing balls on the pathways.

Once there had even been visitors.

Now there was nothing. A thread of obsessively piping music. Sidney Mailloux's plaintive voice crying, "Is anyone on yet? Evan? Amelia?"

Nothing. Nothing real. Nothing but ghosts and memories.

She could see a pigeon pecking quietly in the bramble-narrowed path that entered through the gates, a crow sitting in the branches of the apple tree on the knoll, a seagull in the distance. They were all that was left, the opportunists, the scavengers. Pigeons and crows, seagulls and ravens, sparrows and starlings. Songbirds had been only memory even when she was alive.

"I'm bored," came Sidney's voice. But there was no other sign that anyone was present. The brambles and everlasting were still and quiet beneath the yellow sky. The only movement was a small red ground squirrel emerging from its burrow beneath a stone. Once in a while, there was a skunk, a raccoon, or a mangy cat.

"Where have all the people gone?"

Avril laughed out loud at the echo of the old, old song. "Gone to graveyards, every goddam one of them," she said. "Just like us."

Yes, she told herself. Graveyards. The rusty gates hung askew on their pillars, and the letters that said so were still there. "Eternal Rest" on one of them. "Cemetery" on the other.

"I mean us," said Sidney. "It's not as if the storms have been bad lately. There's been plenty of sunshine."

All charged up and nowhere to go. To either side of the gateway's pillars stretched a stone wall distorted by frost and roots and time, something growing in every cranny. Violets in the spring, their color magnified in the lilacs that billowed in one corner of the cemetery. Wild roses in the summer. Tiger lilies in August. Wild asters in the fall. She thought of Tennyson and smiled at the thought of him uprooting roses and lilies. What he once had craved to understand no longer existed, did it?

"Oh, shut up." That was Ricky Moi. Shrubbery obscured the lettering carved into the face of his stone, but she could see its encircling band of visual sensors. Since it sat a little down the slope of the land, she could also see the panel of solar cells on its top. "We don't have to chat-chat-chit-chat all the time, you know."

"Save your energy." Avril had never learned this one's name. She had never said, and bushes obscured her inscription too. But the stone was the same, as were almost all of the cemetery's occupants. Sarcophagi full of circuitry, solar cells and light sensors, microphones and speakers. Once they had thought it would pass for life. "Maybe someone'll finally show up, come walking through at midnight, and we can all yell 'BOO!!' and give the poor bastard a heart attack."

"The last man on Earth, and you'd do that to him?"

"Serve him right."

"Might be a woman."

"Serve her right."

"I'm laughing."

They were waking up, then. All the eternal residents of this eternal rest home, eternal witnesses of time, rank on rank of blocky stones, surrounded by weeds and brush and brambles.

Eternal rest? Not that, not really. They talked too much. But eternal loneliness, yes, and no way out, not so long as the sun still shone and earthquakes and volcanoes and the sea refused to cover them with mud or ash or deep, dark water.

A mad, mad giggle reminded her that not everyone could take it.

A dog barked. For a wild moment she thought her heart leaped within her chest, though she now had neither heart nor chest. It had been so long since she had seen a dog, and then it had been only a scrawny mongrel that snuffed along the ground as if searching for the master and the home it had never known.

Another bark, and, "Want bone. Want ball. Want run and chase and...."

"Shaddap, Rufus."

His dog had been no Rufus, cosseted all its life until at the end its simple mind was downloaded into a solar-powered gravestone just as if it were a sacred human being.

His dog had been a beagle named Wooftop, and he had left it to wander. To be adopted by another student if it were lucky. To be caught and butchered and eaten if it were not.

If only she had not been so shy. If she had had the nerve. If she had spoken to him more than that one time, petted the dog when he walked it in the quad, sat down beside him on the lawn, in the caf, even in the lecture hall where she had first seen him. If and if and if, then perhaps Wooftop would also have had a pampered life and been preserved forever after. It might even have wound up here, with her. With them.

If only....

"Allie, Allie, Allie...."

Avril made a sighing noise just as if she still had lungs. "What do you want, Kirby?" He spoke to her more often than to anyone else, calling across the intervening stones as if across a breakfast table. He seemed to like her voice.

"You weren't paying any attention, not any, none at all, and I called your name, I did, I did. I know I did."

"There isn't any rush," said a thin, patient voice. "We're not going anywhere."

"Well, of course, Chandra. Of course. Of course. We're dead. But dead is boring, just like Sidney said."

"I'd rather be dead," said Chandra. "I was a soldier, you know? And the things we had to do on the Mexican border.... I'm shaking my head."

"Did you die in action?"

"I must have. They had to use a year-old download for this stone."

"It was one of those new viruses that got me," said Kirby. "I don't even remember what they called it. But I remember dying, yes I do. I was on a Coast Guard destroyer, intercepting supertankers filled with refugees, telling them to turn around and go home."

"Not that they had any hope of surviving there," said Ricky Moi.

"We had our orders. We didn't like them, but we knew that letting them in would destroy the economy and use up the resources we needed. Overload the lifeboat. So, well...."

"You sank them." Avril had heard rumors when she was alive.

"Yeah. We had to. They carried diseases too, you know. That's where I got.... It was pretty nasty. Made me choke and wheeze. I was burning up inside, and then that helmet was sliding cold, cold, cold onto my head. And I woke up here."

Silence fell across the cemetery, broken only by the buzz of insects and the rustle of the ground squirrel in the dead leaves beneath a shrub. But it did not last. How they had died was a favorite topic of the dead, one many of them returned to again and again, chewing it over and over like a dog with an ancient bone, as if some nourishment remained in the weathered husk.

"That's what I wanted to ask you, Allie."

Many of them.

"How did you die? You've never said."

And she never would, no matter how many times Kirby or the others asked. It was embarrassing, a shame she could have lived down only if she had remained alive.

Several voices came to her defense: "Oh, leave her alone. Some of us like our privacy, even here. She's got a right to take her secrets to the grave even if she can still talk. Leave her be."

Avril said nothing herself, though she could not help but remember, just as she did every time the subject arose.

She had first seen Paul in biology class. At the front of the huge lecture hall, the instructor had been pointing at a chart with two lines projected on a screen. "There is only so much land suitable for agriculture," she was saying. "Only so much water. We can grow only so much food. Yet for centuries we have felt that there was no limit on human numbers. We have multiplied until now...."

Three rows in front of her. Dark, curling hair, a square angle of jaw, a muscular arm emerging from a short-sleeved shirt. Head turning to look toward someone else, Roman profile.

When he winked at the target of his gaze, Avril felt a flash of white-hot envy.

The instructor tapped the screen. "Erosion costs us topsoil, fertility, the ability to produce the food we eat. Irrigation has already drained most aquifers, until now we cannot irrigate. It has also poisoned millions of hectares with salt and toxic chemicals."

She didn't even know who he was. She had never spoken to him. And when he winked at someone else, she raged with jealousy.

"We have converted forests to farms. We have all the benefits of genetically engineered supercrops. But the best we have been able to do is to keep agricultural production from declining. We've been holding steady for years, while the population has continued to increase.

"The effect...." Her voice rose as she pointed toward a student, who answered: "Less food per capita. More famines."

"Until...?" Who was he?

"Nature brings us back into balance with the world."

The instructor nodded. The point was obvious, conventional wisdom in this age of the world, hardly something one needed to have read a textbook to grasp.

"If we fail, there is a strong possibility that the human species will die out. We will be extinct."

Yet people still bred as if they had some special dispensation from the laws of nature. Suddenly Avril understood how they could do so, for she wished to do the same. She had seen her perfect mate, and her body tingled in anticipation of what they might do with and to each other.

A different student raised her hand: "Could the world recover?"

The instructor nodded. "Just as it did after the cometary impact that ended the Cretaceous and extinguished the last dinosaurs, along with seventy percent of all the species then alive. A few million years later, there were as many species as ever. Though there weren't any dinosaurs."

When Avril left the lecture hall, she noticed the posters as if for the first time. They lined the corridor just as they did every corridor on campus, just as once upon a time had proliferated exhortations to use condoms or to protest the draft or to save tinfoil for the war. One showed a multihued sea of faces, with superimposed white letters that said: "If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. Get out of the way." Another said, "If you cannot contribute, it is your duty to future generations to remove yourself." The legend on a third claimed it showed a refugee camp filled with starving children. A fourth pictured a hospital crammed with cholera and plague victims. A fifth needed no legend at all; it showed the mullions of a window, a tattered curtain, a glint of glass, and beyond a dessicated landscape littered with shriveled human bodies. There were more as well.

But her arms felt as heavy as if she already held a baby all her own. Hers and his, his though she had no idea of his name.

Now, looking back from the vantage point of death, she could see that her body had been telling her why all the lectures the world had ever heard on the dangers of overpopulation were useless. People were as subject to biological imperatives as any animals. Reproduction was part of the program, even when it threatened long-term survival.

She had learned his dog's name before his own. For a week she had looked for him, sat as near as she dared in the lecture hall and in the caf. She had watched him with his dog and heard him cry, "Wooftop!" more than once, a laugh in his voice every time he said the word. Eventually their instructor had called on him by name.

"Paul," she repeated to herself, then and now, forever. "Paul Trainor."

"What the hell are we doing here?" Sidney Mailloux's voice, angry and querulous, called her back to the present.

"We're dead," said Ricky Moi. "Where else would we be?"

"Heaven or Hell or Purgatory. Not here. Anywhere but here."

"That's what they used to think," said Kirby. "Plant 'em deep and figure the important part rose up like smoke forever."

"The soul," said Avril.

"Yeah. With angels and harps waiting on Cloud Nine. Or devils and pitchforks in the pit."

"Maybe that's where the real us really is? We're just copies here?"

"I feel real enough," said Ricky Moi. "A lot realer than if I were just a name on a rock."

"That's how it started," said Professor Calmari, who rarely spoke. His voice was formal, unctuous. "Our ancestors captured the souls of the dead by naming them. Perhaps they thought this would pin their shades to their graves and keep them from terrorizing the countryside. Later they carved portraits in the stone, and attached photographs. When small, cheap voice recorders became available, those were embedded in gravestones so the survivors could hear the dead speak once more. Then there were video recorders, and interactive personality simulators, and finally downloads. Us. Each step a little closer to preserving all of us, until now all that's missing is that putative soul. Which I don't believe exists in the first place, you know."

"Eternal life," said Sidney. "If you don't mind a bunch of dead old farts for company."

"If you call this living," someone muttered softly.

"Beats the alternative," said someone else, not quite as gently.

There had been no alternative, thought Avril Montez. Not even after she learned his name. She had been shy. He had not. He had had friends to wink at, male and female. Friends to play with in the quad, throwing balls and disks to each other and to Wooftop and other dogs. Even when she had seen him sitting still, on the grass, in the caf, at the library, he had had friends around him. She had not dared to intrude, and he had never noticed her watching him. Or if he had, if his friends had and had mentioned her to him, he had been too polite to confront her.

That had only made her want him even more.

"Allie, Allie, Allie...."

"Yes, Kirby?"

"You sound so young." It was true, they all sounded their ages, or the ages at which they had died, just as if their vocal cords had been downloaded with their minds. "Were you a soldier?"

"Leave her be!"

But Avril chose to answer. "A student."

Only silence answered her. They too had seen the posters. They knew what it had meant to be a student in an overcrowded world. They too remembered the small buildings on every campus, each one with its little fake-brass sign:

HARRISON MEMORIAL EUTHANASIA CLINIC
"Making Room"
Funded in part by the Kevorkian Foundation
Open 5-9 every evening
ADDITIONAL HOURS THE WEEK AFTER FINALS


Similar buildings could be found in cities and small towns and even highway rest-stops. Each one had had a human attendant, but it was the artificial intelligence in the walls that took one's name, asked one's choice of methods and disposals, and said, "Now just lie down, right here on this couch. Close your eyes, and...."

No questions, no attempts to talk one out of it or to relieve depression. The world needed fewer people, and if you did not need the world, that was fine. You would not be missed, not even if you had special talents. In a crowded world, special talents were not rare.

She had wondered, after the bio course's first exam. She had done well enough, but Paul seemed dejected and angry and afraid all at once. In the quad, Wooftop stayed close by his side, staring upward, whining just a little. His friends were quiet, as if they sensed something dreadful looming over them all.

Her heart ached for them, but she dared not say a word. Paul was still too beautiful, too unattainable, too unapproachable, and she was too shy, a nerveless mouse clinging to the wainscoting, burying her nose in a book or a screen every time he passed nearby.

And he passed nearby more often then. He spent more time in the library, more time studying, intent and serious and still oblivious to the pounding of her heart just a few feet away.

"Yes," she said to Kirby once more, to fill the engulfing silence. "A student."

She had spoken to Paul only once. On her way to class, she saw him in the corridor, staring at one of the many posters on the wall. "If you cannot contribute, it is your duty to future generations to remove yourself." Stark white letters, glossy black background, photo of a roomful of white-bloused people intent on the screens of their terminals. College grads, every one of them, of course.

The poster beside it bore the same words, but the photo was of peasants knee deep in a rice paddy.

There were tears in his eyes.

"Good luck," she said. But she ducked her head, and her voice squeaked, and she did not think he heard.

After the second exam, he did not return to class.

She did not see him in the hall, nor the caf, nor the quad, and his friends--Wooftop sitting lonely in their midst--were sober. She remembered that it had hurt to breathe. Tension had made her shoulders sore. Her heart had ached.

She thought she knew where he had gone, what he had done, where he was now. Yet she dared not ask: if she did not confirm her fears, they might prove false. Paul might return, saying there had been an illness in his family, he had been ill himself, he had enrolled in a special training program, he had joined the army and only had a day or two of leave but he had noticed her, really he had, and would she....

Tears came at her own foolishness. Angrily, she shook them away--imagining that they flew into the void in her life, her world, and would fill it up with salty water--and tried to study. When the words no longer made sense, she took long walks down roads crowded with houses small and large, stores, offices, and apartment blocks. She found every cemetery within miles of the campus, dozens of them, small ones, large ones, old ones, new ones. She realized how crowded her world had become with both the living and the dead.

Was he in this one? Or this one? Or none of them? She dared not pass their gates to look for new stones, or shout his name in hope of an answer, though she listened carefully to the incessant rattle of the stones' conversations. But she never heard a familiar voice.

Sitting in the library, trying to study, she sensed movement in the corner of her eye and jerked, looked around, searching, hoping, heart pounding. But no one was there. Or someone was, but it was not Paul. The void remained.

Wooftop vanished too. Paul's friends once more threw balls and disks and ran and shouted, and at last she could stand it no longer. As soon as they collapsed panting on the grass, she approached and stood over them and asked, "Where's Paul?"

They looked up at her and saw... what? A short girl, brown-skinned, dark-haired, too broad in the hips, not broad enough in the chest, her dark eyes hollow with pain and yearning.

They looked at each other, silent, surely knowing why she asked. They shifted their shoulders and their legs uneasily. And at last one of them said quite simply: "The clinic."

That simple confirmation of her fears broke all that was left of her heart. She managed to turn away before the tears came once more.

"You're awfully quiet, Allie."

"May lightning fry your circuits, Kirby. A nice black raven should die on top of your solar cells."

"I love you too, dear."

She thought he might, but before she could speak others joined the game: "A squirrel with diarrhea should perch on you for a week. A hailstone the size of a grapefruit should...."

"I get the point, I get the point. I'll leave her alone, I will."

"Pick on somebody else."

"Okay, okay, okay. Chandra?"

"Yeah?"

"You ever feel guilty?" asked Kirby.

"Do you?"

"Hell, yes. You think it was easy, sinking ten thousand walking skeletons at a pop?"

"Probably. We got pretty used to gassing Mexicans."

Silence, as the dead reflected on what horrors one could commit in the name of survival. Then Ricky Moi said, "Yeah. In Peru and Chile, too. The guilt comes later."

"I still have nightmares," said Kirby.

"I'm nodding," said Chandra.

"Me, too," said others. "Me, too."

Yes, thought Avril. So did she. Though not because of the deaths she had caused. Over the next few weeks, she had revisited the cemeteries. She dared not enter, for finding him at that point, speaking across such a barrier, would have been unbearable. But she had to look.

She had managed to keep up her studies. She had completed the term successfully. She had not been one of those whom the posters urged to get out of the way.

Yet.... Talent was not rare. She would not be missed, she had told herself. Except by her parents, and she had been quite unable to tell them what had happened or what she now thought she would do. They would never understand.

Every day she walked past the one-storey brick building that housed the clinic. Once she opened the door to study the foyer. It had three doors. The one straight ahead stood ajar to reveal a utilitarian array of metal cabinets and a long conveyor belt that entered a dark hatchway. Stark and real, reminder of finality and irrevocability. The door on the right had a glass window through which she could see three desks and a filing cabinet. Only one of the desks was occupied, by a young man who did not even look up from the screen he was studying. He was used to ambivalence, she thought. The door on the left was solid wood or wood-look steel, closed tight. Behind it....

She was listening to sociology lectures in the hall where she had first noticed him. Perhaps, in a better world, he would have been there too, but his seat was now occupied by a skinny fellow with boils on the back of his neck. Wooftop was gone. And his friends were as active as they had ever been before he vanished.

It had been only a matter of time before she let herself touch the clinic office's door and push it open. The attendant, no older than she, surely a student putting in hours for his tuition, looked up from his screen.

She felt as shy and hesitant as if she had finally forced herself to speak to Paul. "I've never done this before."

He sighed gently. "No one ever has." He pointed behind her. "Just step right in. There's no one else."

She turned and stared at the other door, solid and closed, a barrier.

"It won't open for you. You have to make the decision."

She took a deep breath. Paul was gone. She would never meet him again unless.... And she would not be missed.

She hesitated when she thought of her parents. Would they understand if they knew? But she was the one who had to decide. The attendant was right. And she had no great unique talents--no one really did. The world did not need her. Nor did she need it, as empty as it had become.

She laid her hand on the knob, hesitated, and finally twisted. The door pivoted away from her. As soon as she was in, it swung shut once more.

She faced a pair of padded couches flanked by metal tables and racks built of metal rods and glass tubes. Glass-fronted cabinets held mysterious devices. Soft music and the scent of flowers filled the air. There were the usual posters on the walls, and two small windows let her glimpse the campus outside.

It felt macabre, a mad scientist's laboratory, a place of horror and monstrosity. She wanted to turn and flee and forget Paul and the world and life and love.

A silky voice said: "Your name?"

She gave it, though already she had begun to tremble. Was this really what she wanted? She had assignments to study, papers to write, an exam next week.

"You have three choices: Gas, pills, or intravenous drip." As the voice named each item, a small spotlight illuminated a mask attached by a corrugated hose to a metal tank, a bottle of bright pink pills, a metal rack beside a couch, its top supporting a clear glass bottle from which dangled several feet of plastic tubing.

"No," she said, and her voice shook on that single little word. "I want to leave. I've changed my mind."

"It was too late for that as soon as you let the door close behind you. You can't. Not any more. But don't worry. It's all quite painless. We've made sure of that."

"No," she said, shaking worse. Perhaps, if the room had said she could leave at any time, she would have stayed. But it had said no, and she could feel her panic growing. "No!" She turned and tried the door. When the knob would not turn, she tried to shake it. "No!" She kicked at the door. Tears flooded her eyes. "I want to go!" She began to scream.

"Sorry, lady." Something hissed gently, and a sweetish odor added itself to the air. "Just a little tranquilizer."

As soon as she inhaled, she could feel it working. Loosening, relaxing, robbing her of protest. Of course, she had had her chance to say no before she ever entered this room. And the whole idea of the clinic was to remove people. It really wouldn't do to let them back out at the last minute. Would it?

"There's only one way you can leave now," said the room. "You made your decision, and a good one it was, too. To stop using food and resources. To make room for others. But you don't really have to die, you know. We can download you."

When the room's last words penetrated, she slumped against the door. Yes. Turn her into a....

"You'll be a stone, a gravestone, needing only sunlight. Watching the world go by, still making new friends, chatting with them. Would you like that?"

She had known of the option. She had even avoided entering the cemeteries she had stared at for fear of finding a Paul who could still speak to her. But she had not thought of it for herself. Not seen the possibility of....

"Isn't it expensive?"

"Oh, no. It's quite routine, really. Something we offer everyone. See that helmet hanging from the head of the couch?" It had a cable that burrowed into a wall socket. When she nodded, the room added, "You just put that on. Set your arm in the support, and we do the rest. Very simple."

She nodded again. She stiffened herself against the door, stood straight, and took the first hesitant step toward the couch. If she did not, well, the room had said it could use gas. Surely, it could replace the tranquilizer in the air with something deadlier. And then she would fall to the floor in a tangle of disordered limbs. If she obeyed, she could arrange herself more gracefully. For some reason, that seemed important.

A moment later, the helmet was on her head, chill against her brow and nape just as Kirby had described it.

"We're recording already," said the room. "Now your arm."

The support was positioned like the arm of a chair. As soon as she set her arm in its groove, curved bands snapped over her flesh, immobilizing her.

"There, there. Don't panic. Just have to hold you steady."

A needle stung her arm. She began to feel sleepy.

"Do you prefer some particular cemetery? A family plot perhaps?"

"Where'd.... Where'd you put Paul?" The tranquilizer in the air was combining with whatever was in the needle. Her tongue felt thick, her thoughts slow. "Wanna be near him."

"Paul?"

"Paul...." She hesitated, groping for his last name in the fog that was already engulfing her mind. "Paul Trainor."

"Oh, him. Tsk. We cremated him. He didn't want to be downloaded."

She tried to protest against the injustice of it all, to roll back time enough never to have entered this room of death, to cry out, "Let me live! Oh, please! Let me live!" But it was too late. The drug was claiming her. She could not even gasp for another breath, though she could still hear the room's fading words:

"He didn't even want an old-fashioned stone. He'd had enough, he said. Didn't want to see things get even worse. But you'll be around to see what happens. Your download's done, very nice."

"Allie, Allie, Allie."

"Yes, Kirby?"

"Were you a virgin when you died?"

"How can you...?"

"That's pretty crude," said Chandra. "We may be dead, but we can still show a few manners."

"I was just thinking," said Kirby.

"Didn't sound like it."

"That's one of the things I miss the most, you know?"

"Me, too," echoed several other voices.

Avril broke the ensuing silence herself. "There was a guy...."

"Did he make you scream?"

"Not that way." She hesitated, but she could not bring herself to explain. "He died."

"Ah."

As soon as she had awakened in her stone, she had wanted to let her scream burst forth at last. But she had refrained, contained herself. Her head had felt clearer than it had for months, and she had known immediately how futile that would have been. Perhaps she had even felt it would have been rude to disturb the peace of the cemetery, or to alarm her parents, who were standing, heads bowed, beside her grave.

They had visited her for years. They had talked a little, and she had learned of wars and plagues that could no longer touch her. She had watched them age, and she had thought that perhaps one day she would see them installed in stones beside her.

But they had just stopped coming.

All love then was dust and thinning memory, one with Verona and Shakespeare and the past world's greatest lovers.

In time the cemetery's other visitors had stopped as well, and the supply of news had ended. The weeds had grown. The buildings visible beyond the cemetery wall had fallen into ruins.

The life of the stones continued:

"Allie?"

"Yes, Kirby?"

"Do you think you could talk dirty for me?"

"That's all that's left, isn't it?"

"Right out in public like this?" asked Chandra. "It'd be like an orgy. Don't do it."

"Please," said a voice, but it did not say whether it wanted them to do it or not to do it.

"They should have wired us together," said Ricky Moi. "A ghost-net. Private lines. Then we could...."

Witnesses to eternal time, eternal presence, eternal chat, as long as the sun kept shining.

Perhaps there was even something that could pass for eternal love.

But where had all the people gone?