By Bettyann Moore
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have taken that last shot at Larry. Things would have turned out very differently, at least for some.
Mrs. Oddstetter was pleased to see me, though she still wanted an audience with her great-nephew. She forgot all that, though, once I told her about the holograms and the birds’ refusal to migrate.
“I knew it!” she said. “I just knew there was something rotten going on, thanks to my good-for-nothing great-nephew and those of his ilk.” She gave me a nasty look, then picked up an old-fashioned rotary phone. I watched, fascinated, as she dialed. It seemed to take forever just to make one call, especially when she messed up and had to start all over again. She waved me away when I held out my cell phone to her. I wandered around the grand living room, admiring the antiques and paintings; the lady was loaded.
“There,” she said, hanging up and turning back to me. “In a day or two I’ll be among the birds once more.”
“You’re going to South America?” I asked. “How’d you manage that?” It’d been nearly 10 years since any American had been allowed to go south of the border, ever since the bill dubbed Washington’s Revenge had been ratified. I’ll amend that: any unconnected American. Mrs. Oddstetter was obviously connected.
“I almost wish I was going with you,” I said a bit wistfully.
“Poor Prescott,” Edith said, immediately understanding my dilemma. “All this amazing information and there’s really no way to use it, is there?”
I shook my head. “It’s just too big, too complex,” I said. “It’s not like the birds can be legislated to come back. It not like there’s anything to come back to.”
“Not to mention your own culpability in that,” she said, but not unkindly.
“There is that,” I admitted.
“Canaries in a coal mine is what they are,” Edith said, thinking of the birds, “and we didn’t pay any attention. My boy, you really must consider leaving here. I sense impending doom.”
Touched by her concern, and a little amused by her warning, I assured her I would be fine. There were still bills to be paid and a job to do, though I was decidedly less enthusiastic about that job. It was late. The Senator would already be on K Street dining with the Boys’ Club. I decided I could use a good meal and a few shots of bourbon myself. The Senator could wait until morning.
Once again, the old coot managed to get to the office before I did. Diego rolled his eyes when I came in, slightly under the weather from too many bourbons.
“He’s in rare form,” Diego said, handing me a cup of coffee. “Here, you’ll probably need this.”
I slugged down a few gulps along with some aspirin at my desk and went in.
“Just the man I want to see!” the Senator boomed, making me wince. “Ready to fly?”
“Someone hasn’t been listening to their voice mail again,” he chided, wagging a finger at me.
He had me there. I hadn’t even turned on my phone that morning. Was I already checking out?
“Sorry,” I said weakly. “Where are we off to?” A little change of scene would be nice, I thought.
“To the West Coast, my boy,” he said, “Big Oceans meeting there. I’m gonna try to turn a pig’s ear into a silk purse.”
He was referring to the Senate’s Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard committee, of which he was a member. Since the coasts started shrinking due to the oceans’ rise and there wasn’t a thing anyone could do about it, it’s been the committee’s goal to – shall we say – put a pretty face on it.
“Sounds fun,” I mumbled. “Maybe we’ll see the eagles while we’re there.”
His face lit up. “That would be grand!” he said. “Maybe I can get a picture of me with them.”
Not unless you’re flapping your wings and flying a thousand feet off the ground, I thought. I think I was just a more than a little hungover.
“Maybe so!” I said. We passed through my office and I paused long enough to grab the carry-on I always have packed and ready to go.
“The, uh, handlers also want me to meet with Rep. _______,” he said offhandedly.
“They want you to meet with her?” I asked, surprised. “The woman who’ll likely be your opponent in a run for President?”
“Don’t worry, boy,” he said, “I won’t give the farm away, just scoping out the lay of the land.” There he went with his farm-boy lingo. “Speaking of eagles,” he said, changing the subject, “what’d you learn about the birds?” He stopped mid-stride and changed his mind. “Oh, there’ll be plenty of time on the plane for that,” he said. I just shrugged and followed him out.
Only there wasn’t any time. I was less than delighted to see Leela and a couple more handlers already making their way up the narrow stairs into the jet as we came out onto the tarmac. While the Senator huddled with them in the front of the plane, I hunkered down in the back and nursed some hair-of-the-dog.
We toured the new floating production plant whose sole product was kelp, which the Senator and the committee touted as “the food of the future.” (I almost suggested they call it Soylent Green, but checked myself). I didn’t bother going to the meeting with Rep. ________, since the handlers would be in attendance. There were no opportunities to give the Senator the lowdown on the birds. The next day, though, while the handlers looked on with nodding approval, the old man corralled me in the hotel lobby and said that he’d chartered a boat to “go out and see some American eagles.” Just he and I would be making the trip.
“Bald eagles,” I corrected, which only made him laugh.
The boat captain, someone who’d made the trek out to Eagle Island hundreds of times, didn’t help much. As we neared the rocky island, he pointed upward.
“Behold the American Eagle,” he said, a bit too dramatically for my tastes. “We’re lucky with the water up like it is,” he went on, “’cause we’re all that much closer to the nest.” It sounded like he’d taken a page from the Senator’s play book: Paint a pretty picture and that’s all that they’ll see.
Even without binoculars we could see one eagle on the nest and another circling overhead. As if to give us our money’s worth, it made a spectacular dive into the sea, coming up with a large, wriggling fish.
“Bravo!” the Senator yelled.
I, of course, wondered if this was the real pair or the hologram pair. It didn’t take long to find out.
While the Senator stood on the bow squinting through a pair of binoculars at the flying bird, I saw the other one lift off from the nest. It began streaking toward us, growing larger and larger as it got closer, its talons poised to strike.
“Holy mother of God!” the captain cried, ducking down behind the wheel. “Senator, look out!”
Confused, the old man lowered the binoculars seconds before the bird reached him.
They said it was a massive coronary caused by shock that killed him; he was dead before he hit the water. I’d seen the fringing a second before the bird passed right through him, headed for me. I was already pulling off my shoes to dive overboard by the time the bird reached me; then it disappeared altogether. While I groped in the murky water, I knew this had been Larry’s parting shot to me, only it didn’t turn out quite like he’d planned.
The funeral was well attended, though Mrs. Oddstetter declined to return home for it, for which I’m now grateful. The handlers were there, though, and I saw Leela shadowing Rep. _______ the entire time, right up until the gasp went up and people started screaming and scrambling for the exits.
“We’re under attack!” more than one person yelled. Somewhere along the line the flag-draped coffin got bumped and it crashed to the floor, the Senator’s corpse spilling out and rolling itself up in the flag. It came to rest at Leela’s feet.
We weren’t getting attacked of course, at least not in the way we all first thought.
The Earth had had enough. Starting from the West coast and moving amazingly fast eastward, it began to split and heave, fracturing like a Wyoming windshield. The poisons we had been forcing into it spewed out like so many volcanoes, the gases quickly becoming a raging, moving inferno. The military pilots who were scrambled to the skies, could only watch and report, their spirits plummeting as their own states, their own homes, succumbed to the fury. They held onto hope when the rivers of fire seemed to stop at the Western Slope of the Rockies, then cried when they appeared again on the Front Range, sweeping eastward.
Why it stopped at the Mississippi River is anyone’s guess. The scientists, what few there are, are baffled, and no one listens to the preachers any more. Those of us who are left, though, know it’s only a matter of time. If the radiation from the nuclear plants that remain burning doesn’t get us, the Earth will figure out another way.
We’re on our own. Not surprisingly, many nations simply refused to give aid. The ones who offered have so very little to give. And, of course, some insist we pull ourselves up with our own bootstraps – yes, they’re still with us – but they’re quickly drowned out. The very rich left to their chalets in other countries. This includes, it goes without saying, most of the senators and representatives, pockets fat with riches from lobbyists and corporations. The unrest of a frightened people has died down. For the duration, I hope, we’re of the people and for the people.
I could have gone as well, I suppose. Instead, Diego and I have moved into one room of Mrs. Oddstetter’s manse (at her insistence) and have turned the rest of it into a free boarding house and school. Diego is a whiz in the kitchen, turning what little we have into flavor able sustenance. We look forward to the monthly food shipments from Mrs. O, who is still living amongst her birds.
I’m the maintenance guy, and the teacher. The school was Diego’s idea.
“Mi amor,” he said, “the people, now more than ever, want to learn.”
He was right. The classes are packed with children and adults eager to unravel the thinking of the past so as not to carry it into the future, even if our future is short. My most popular class is the one where I tell the story of the birds. They listen raptly, without judgment. And not one has ever said: “We should have gone with them.”