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Authors: Chris Howard

Rootless

BOOK: Rootless
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Contents

They figured me too young for a tree builder. I could see it in their eyes. Bunch of rich freaks, staring at me like I needed to impress them. But I did need to. That was the problem. The wagon was about out of juice and my belly was so hard I couldn’t even stand to scratch it. I built the best trees in the Steel Cities, but you’d never know it from the drought I’d hit.

“You thinking evergreen?” I said, looking at Frost, him being the man wanting trees.

“We’d like to see the seasons, Mister Banyan.” Frost was a big bucket of a guy with too many chins, and the hair he’d bleached white to look older left his face looking twenty years too young.

“That’s the real trick, ain’t it?” I said, shaking my head. Make a big deal of every request, Pop had drilled it into me. The client pays more and ends up twice as happy.

“Just get all the scrap you need,” said Frost. Man practically smelled of cash. His wife all lit up with sparkles in her hair and studs on her face. Hell, even their watcher looked polished — his dreads clean and fluffy, his long beard woven with fabric. Not a mark on him, either. The sign of a bodyguard you do not want to mess with.

I took a look around the dirt lot. Acre at least. Blank and ugly, full of dust and sky. But not for long. Not if I built a forest to get lost inside. Shade from the sun and a break from the wind. Show the world you could still own something special.

A decent slope gave some perspective to play with, and I’d give them the seasons, all right. Plastic leaves wired up to turn color and shrivel on metal branches. I’d give them spring blooms and fall colors.

“Good news, Mister Frost.” I made a smile, extended my hand to him. “Seasons are my specialty.”

Frost returned the smile but ignored the handshake. He just stood there with his arms resting on his belly, and his mouth all twitchy at some internal joke. Then he stomped over to his wife and put his arm around her pointy shoulders and I felt bad for her just having to be so close to the guy. She was a stunner, no question. Gray eyes and dark skin.

“The question is,” Frost began, his body trembling as he pawed his wife’s polyester top, “can you build this?”

Then Frost tore open the front of her shirt and the woman was practically naked, right there in front of me.

I’d never seen a thing like it.

She was more pretty than I knew what to do with, no doubt about that. But it was the tree that took my breath away.

It was tattooed on her skin in a thousand different shades. The roots spread down her right hip and a thin white trunk curved across her belly, branches reaching all the way up. A fragile tree. Flexible. With golden leaves falling as the tree swayed in some imaginary breeze.

I felt sweat trickle down the groove of my back. But Frost’s wife looked ice cold, her silvery eyes staring straight through me until I finally turned my head away.

Frost laughed and stepped away from the woman, leaving her there, her shirt ragged and open.

“Can you build it, boy?” It was the watcher who spoke. Voice as big as he was. Unblinking eyes the same color as his skin.

I stared at the dirt, shaken. Frost reckoned himself a tough guy, doing that to his woman. And a man like that don’t deserve nothing pretty.

“Can you build it?” the watcher said again.

I had a bad feeling about this one. But a worse feeling was the empty howl in my guts. I needed the job and I needed it bad. And what was I going to do? Quit?

“Yeah,” I muttered, all the swagger drained out of me. “I can build it. But I’ll need a place to pitch my wagon. And I need an advance on some corn.”

“You can stay here. In your forest.” Frost laughed as he gestured to the dirt. I looked out at the sparse shapes of the city — the filthy steel domes and bunkers, the crumbling concrete remains. The wind was picking up and it came screeching around the buildings, whipping the dust into a shotgun spray. I pulled my goggles down, buried my nose in a rag, but the rich freaks were caught off guard and they choked on their pampered lungs.

“Make yourself at home,” Frost muttered, after he’d quit coughing and the wind had died back. He shrugged at the watcher. “Crow will get you the corn, but it’ll be deducted from your fee.”

“Which is what?”

“Whatever I think you’re worth. Old world Benjamins, if you’re lucky.” He stuck out his hand then — one finger missing past the knuckle, his skin puffy and moist. “Work hard, Mister B,” Frost said, shaking my hand. “And keep away from the house.”

I turned and stared at the steel building that blocked the lot from the street. Pretty new, by the look of things. The monstrous metal pillars gave it a spiky appearance, like a giant piece of barbed wire. I spotted a window on the top floor with two faces in it. Looked like small versions of Frost and his wife — the wiry brown girl was about my age. The boy was younger. He was picking at his nose, digging around in there like he’d lost something up it, but the girl was just staring straight at me, her forehead pressed at the dusty glass.

“Don’t worry,” I said, turning back to Frost. “You won’t even know I’m here.”

 

I’d got the wagon parked as far from the house as possible, squeezed up against the old brick wall that lined the far edge of the property. The house on the other side had a pool and I could hear people splashing around, laughs and jokes sparking in the night. Sounded like a grand old time. Hell, it even sounded good to someone as scared of the water as I was. I’d steer clear of the pool is all. Just hang to the side. Be nice to have someone to talk to.

I had the hatch lifted and was sprawled in the back of the wagon, surrounded by my tools and supplies. The pliers and hammers, sheets of metal and rolls of wire. I had my head propped on a box of LEDs, a sack of screwdrivers beneath my feet. On one side of the compartment hung the blowtorch and nail gun, my gloves and an extra pair
of goggles, and on the other side, I had stashed my advance. Enough popcorn for one more week. Three meals a day.

The microwave pinged and I pulled the popcorn out. Superfood, GenTech calls it. Engineered for everything a body needs. And maybe that’s true if you eat enough of it. But most folk look yellow and bent over and all stretched out and thin. And even someone rich has to fake looking older — no matter how full your belly, most everyone ends up with crusted lungs, sooner or later.

I cracked the purple bag open. Mac’n’Cheese, by the smell of it. I guess they used to get cheese out of cows, back before every critter had been swallowed and spat. But now we just got whatever GenTech figured cheese should taste like. Still, the corn was sweaty and stinking in my hand, and as glorious a dinner as I’d any right to expect.

I picked up Pop’s old sombrero. The hat was woven out of corn husk, punched full of holes, and stained with my old man’s sweat. Stick my face inside, I could still catch the smoky scent of him. And pulling the hat on, I imagined telling Frost he could shove his job where the sun don’t shine. Because my old man would have split, no matter how desperate. Soon as Frost started treating his lady like dirt.

Pop used to say we’d build a forest of our own, once we saved enough to quit drifting. He said we’d build a house in the treetops, hidden away from the suffering and spite.

Weren’t going to happen now, though. It had been almost a year since Pop had been taken, and missing him still stung like a broken tooth. Sure, I’d gotten used to building without him, taking care of the wagon, eating alone. But the silent times crept up and turned things hollow.

I took off the hat, lounged back and studied the house, watching the lights flicker on and off. And when I was done eating, I didn’t feel like sleeping and I didn’t feel like figuring how I was going to build the tree mapped out on Frost’s wife. So instead I reached in the box of LEDs and rummaged around. Pulled out my headlamp. And my book.

I never did take to reading, but Pop had been able. My mother taught him before she starved. Before she passed on. So maybe the book reminded me of the mother I wasn’t able to remember, as much as the father I couldn’t forget.

But the book also reminded me of the stories Pop used to read me. The stories of the old world. Tales of folk that marched along rivers that ran cold and clean, fish to be caught and things to be hunted, grass growing tall and valleys full of flowers and trees in the mountains that pushed at the sky.

Trees full of seeds and blossom. Branches weighed with nuts and berries and other things just waiting to be picked off and chewed.

The book was stained the same rusty color as my wagon, and I flipped through the pages, put my face to them, and breathed them in as if I could breath the stories in, too. But it was then I heard a scrabbling sound come digging around outside.

Close. Real close.

I slipped the book beneath a sack of nails, making sure it was well hid. Then I scooted out the back of the wagon and threw myself into the dark.

“Who is it?” I hissed.

But right away I saw him. The fat kid from the window, squatted down by my rear wheel like he was pissing on the tire.

“You’re the tree builder,” the kid said with a chubby grin. He jerked up as I shone the headlamp at him. “You live in my house.”

“I don’t go near the house. Strict orders.”

“Too bad.” The kid snickered. “We got lights. And a television.”

“It works?”

“Like a dream.”

I leaned against the wagon. Played some old movies, is what the kid meant. Still, if there were trees in those movies, you’d get to see them alive and well. The branches swirling and dancing, leaves puffing in the wind.

“So it’s too bad you’re not allowed in the house.” The fat kid snickered again.

“Maybe we start being friends and your old man will have me over.”

“Doubt it,” the kid said, sticking his head in the back of the wagon, snuffling around at my stuff.

“Don’t be shy, now,” I told him. I watched the house, wondered if just talking to Frost’s kid might get me in trouble.

“You liked it?” The kid was tinkering with the nail gun.

“Put that down,” I said. “It ain’t a toy.”

“But did you like it?”

“What?”

“Her tree.” The kid pulled his head out of the wagon and stood there, leering up at me in the darkness. I shut the headlamp off.

“I’ve never seen it myself,” he said.

“Well, shit. You ain’t supposed to see your momma naked, son.”

“Don’t call me son. You’re not much older than I am. And she’s not my momma, neither.”

“What is she then?”

“My dad won her. In Vega. Her daughter, too.”

“Your sister?”

“If that’s what you want to call her.”

“She got a tree on her and all?”

“Why?” The kid got all leery again. “You want to see her naked?”

“Beat it,” I said. I was sick of him. Little punk rooting around in my shit.

“Maybe you want to read some more.”

I didn’t say anything for a bit. Just stared at him.

“You spying on me?”

“What are you reading?”

“Ain’t reading nothing.”

All of a sudden I could hear a noise coming out of the house, a door slamming shut. Footsteps in the dark. The kid must have heard it too, because he went bouncing off into the night as Crow appeared out of the darkness. The watcher had a pair of headphones on and big plastic sunglasses pushed up in his dreads.

“What you doing, little man?” Crow plucked the headphones from his ears.

“Nothing at all.”

“You building?”

“Can’t build in the dark, tough guy.”

Crow smiled. His teeth huge and white. Then he drifted off and I was alone again, wishing I could have gone looking for someone else to build for. But Frost had given me corn and put juice in my wagon, and now that bastard owned me till the work was all done.

I put the book in a new hiding place, buried it behind the popcorn.
Because there aren’t many of them left, books like that. People burned most of them to keep warm during the Darkness. And after the Darkness, there were no new books because there was no more paper.

The locusts had come.

And there were no more trees.

BOOK: Rootless
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