If not her brother, somebody’s brother was in one of the fifty-five boxes delivered from North Korea to the United States Government, and it was for this reason that a woman, who re-introduced herself as June Powell, wrapped her arms around Harold Stockwell, and wept tears of gratitude for, as she said, ‘the wonderful work that he was doing’.
Harold led a team of forensic anthropologists hired to sort through and identify the remains stored in the boxes—soldiers mostly, from the conflict in Korea, nearly seventy years ago.
He’d seen June before.
In ’98, North Korea had transferred two hundred and forty-four similar boxes. Under a man named Parker Hill, Harold and a dozen other FA’s had identified the enclosed remains. June Powell had been there then, hoping to find her brother. She had hugged Parker as well.
Ten years it took them to put names on the bones in the boxes. June Powell had called weekly for updates. Harold had spoken to her at times, telling her, no, they had yet to find her brother, and that someone would notify her immediately, if and when they did. She would always ask about the others—the families who had received lost loved ones. She would say, ‘We’, as if she spoke for all of them, ‘are so very grateful for the work that you are doing.’
To Harold, then, the ‘work’ that he was doing was just a steady paycheck. But seeing June Powell again, twenty years later, with this new round of boxes. The devotion this woman must have. ‘Yes, I remember you,’ he had told her. And when she wept in his arms he knew that he would call her every week and give her the news, be it good or bad.
On his own, Larry wouldn’t be able to care for the plants. He could argue all he wanted, but she knew better. It was just too much work.
‘But I need them,’ he had told her, in tears, ‘to remember you by.’
She left him two: the potted fern he had given her on their thirtieth anniversary, and the little lemon tree that every year bore more than its limbs could sustain, and that, only because she couldn’t get it out of the ground.
Her neighbors took a great deal of them. What remained, annuals mostly, she carried in a black trash bag to the dumpsters at the far end of the complex.
She tried as she walked to put a figure on the plant’s value, determine what she might have spent over the years on their care. There was no telling. Thousands. They probably could have retired on the money.
She lifted the dumpster’s lid and hoisted the bag over the lip. The plants and loose soil made little noise as it fell in with the other trash.
A year and a half they had given her. Two Tops.
She closed the lid back, the sun bright and hot on her face, and it struck her as funny, to wonder when it would ever rain.
It was not an educated guess. Edward (Bun Bun) Taylor’s formal schooling had promptly ceased after a miraculous, possibly fudged, graduation from the State-required Eighth Grade. Not for any practical reasons. Edward just didn’t ‘get’ school, is how he put it. In fact, if eight years had not been required, Edward would have removed himself sooner, which, in truth, would not have upset the teaching staff at Middleton Elementary in the least. They didn’t ‘get’ Edward either.
But Edward didn’t need a higher education to determine, from a single glance, that his mother was dead in the passenger seat of his father’s ’05 Caprice Classic.
She'd fallen asleep, as she always did, ten minutes into the trip home, doped up and exhausted after her weekly visit to the doctor. On every other occasion, the seatbelt had engaged when she lolled forward, limp with sleep, restraining her in a mostly upright position, where she would simply nod in silence as Edward navigated the Caprice homeward.
Perhaps her weight had deteriorated beyond that which the seatbelt’s catching mechanism could recognize. She was so tiny, light and frail that Edward himself had begun to see her as one of those mosquito-like creatures he called Gallinappers, a winged manifestation of dust, dried air and cobweb.
Whatever the case, the seatbelt hadn’t caught. Edward’s mother had listed steadily leftward, toward him, until the belt reached its full extension, where she had come to a stop, suspended just above the Caprice's center console.
She had rolled in her downward journey, and when Edward glanced at her, his mother was looking up at him, like some kid, goofing, her mouth agape.
Edward (Bun Bun) Taylor looked away from his mother's upturned face, back to the road. Traffic was light. He sensed his mother swaying gently in the harness beside him, her eyes opened and rolled back white behind her Solar-Guard sunglasses. He listened to the steady click of his father’s Caprice Classic, its rings long burned from lack of oil, lowered the visor to shield his eyes from the sun and drove his mother home.
In April of 2023, Neil Patterson made the discovery. But by then, the Earth had been nearly cleared of humans, the soil rich with their decomposition.
Neil had had a hunch. In full respiratory gear, he studied pollen taken from Deciduous and Conifer alike. Maple, Oak, Beech, Pine—all of the samples registered quantities of an allelopathic chemical once found only in leaf sap, a mild herbicide rained down as a means for clearing the soil immediately around the tree of competition for nutrients and water.
In the pollen, however, Neil tested the chemical at nearly one hundred times the potency of what it had been in the sap. A single blossom, he found, had the capacity to inflict irreparable damage on human lung tissue. Springtime became a massacre.
The aged fell first, the infirmed and young children.
They thought it was a virus. Ran tests. Declared emergencies. Countries were quarantined. The dead couldn't be buried fast enough. Five years and Neil began to wonder if he had the Earth to himself.
From the quiet of his back porch, he watched now their gentle movements in the breeze, the sway of shadow over the unkempt grass. It was nearing fall. He was safe, for the moment, and smiled, remembering how helpless he had once thought they were, remembering the ambitious young tree-huggers he had known. He wondered if any of them had survived. If, now that the predator was removed, the chemical would weaken and return to the leaf sap—if the gift of clean oxygen the trees had once given freely, would become safe again to breath.
He could only wait.
It was only upon request that Richard Tinder would actually divulge information on the needs specific to the flora that consumed his slip of gardened yard—sunlight, soil requirements, pruning tips and what have you.
Those out for a stroll, who found Richard at work there and made the mistake of asking for a brief tour, would quickly find that his wealth of horticultural knowledge, his green thumb and keen eye for balance and foresight in planting were all incidental when compared to his great love of the acquisition unrecompensed.
Richard would positively beam as he explained how every single item in his garden had been scavenged in one manner or another. The cuttings, the stone, the bird feeders, the bench seats, all of it acquired through some means of his cunning, the details of which, would unfold as tourists brushed past beds rich in Gladiola and Snapdragon, Aster and Peony.
'Keep your eyes open,' Richard would advise as they neared the exit gate.
'Your garden is out there,' he'd say, pointing with plucked weed to some untold wealth beyond the immediate rooftops. 'Waiting to be had.'
There are seven apartments at the Pinewood 8, all of which are ground level and rent month-to-month, weekly, or by the hour.
Click Larson stands outside of Unit 3, door opened behind him, on the concrete stoop Pinewood 8’s rental agreement designated as ‘patio area’, and whose maintenance he was responsible for, at risk of losing his one hundred dollar cash deposit.
In the same practiced and slightly absent manner a long-time smoker might coax a final strike from a Bic lighter, low on fluid, Click is shaking a squeeze container of French’s Hot Dog Mustard, his stare intently eastward. Click has rented Unit 3 for the week.
Against the mold, monochrome and dark silhouettes of the apartment’s sparse furnishings encased in the doorway at Click’s back, the bright yellow mustard container is a splash of cheer, a lone Daisy growing through the cracks of an eight-lane Interstate.
Cheerful as it is, Mark ‘Piles’ Brandon, wonders no less what the fuck somebody would need mustard for at six-thirty in the morning. He pours a second cup of de-caf and watches Click as the coffee cools enough to sip.