At last Plantman was led to the vault of The Accused. The walls and door were three feet thick, but the vault was air-conditioned, lest The Accused succumb before The City could legally VOID him. The Official punched the key-code and the door yawned open, revealing a cot, a toilet, and a small table which held The Accused’s beloved African Violet, “Rose.”
The Accused wore a plain white t-shirt and prison denims. Clean-shaven — perhaps a dash of Earn cologne? A pale man, shy. Not the monster depicted by The City News.
“Plantman, you’ve come.”
“I’ve come,” said Plantman as The Official sealed the door behind him.
“There she is,” The Accused pointed to his potted plant. “Her name is ‘Rose.’”
“You’ve taken good care of her,” observed Plantman.
“I water her from my own cup,” said The Accused.
Though tired from his long day at the CGS, Plantman made a great show of tending the small plant, and listened patiently to the curious tale of the Accused:
“The fishing was a catalyst, a push in the right direction,” the doomed man began.
“All changed utterly with the poisoned fish. I never knew about the area being poisoned. I used to skim rocks and skate on that pond as a kid. All the deaths in the area. Cancer. Blood diseases. Strange infections. Mysterious dumping grounds. Connections abound. How could we have been so blind?
“My parents were probably on their way, the cancer inside them. All the memories of youth spent by the quiet pond — poisoned. I was headed for my parents just to visit. To talk about The Past.
“‘Where is The Wife, The Children?’ Mother asked.
“‘I wanted it to be just us. Like in The Past.’
“‘We were going to order in,’ said Father.
“‘Let me cook for you,’ I said. ‘It’s a big fish. For three of us.’
“‘God-man in heaven, it’s still alive!’ screamed Mother.
“I shocked them both by smashing the creature’s head against the sink, several times, until its eyes dimmed; then a final blow for ‘out, out dark spot.’
“‘Well, it’s certainly fresh,’ Father said.
“‘You’re working too hard, Son,’ Mother said. ‘You need rest. Maybe you should go to your room and rest.’
“‘My old room,’ I said sadly. ‘I must cook the fish.’
“‘I’ll cook the fish,’ Mother said, unaware of her complicity. ‘I’ll fry it. With onions and potatoes. A real cook-out!’
“‘We were supposed to order in,’ Father said, disappointed. ‘Pizza. Or Chinese.’
“‘Mother said, ‘I’ll fry the fish. A real cook-out.’
“My room had barely changed since I moved out to attend The City University, then The Life — oh yes, almost 20 years; that is some time ago. It had been straightened and cleaned and converted to an impromptu guest room for the kids. My kids. But my old things were still there, strategically placed. Music discs on the shelf. Sports equipment in the closet. Old books and fading magazines. My past. Thoughts I had thought while being in The Past, untouchable — from where we sit now.
“I lay on the bed, pondering my old things and the Summer I left those things to became, at sixteen, one of The Missing Young. I’d slept on The City Big Park lawn and on benches. I’d held The Missing Girl in my skinny, hairless arms.
“The closet where the magazines were stacked contained cover stories of The Missing Girl. When I knew her, when I loved her, how could I have known what she’d become? A symbol. An icon. Poster-child for The Nation’s Missing Young. She was, for all I knew, still Missing, and for all I dared imagine, still Young.
“These memories brought pain because I’d been a worthless bastard. A typical Summer runaway. I arrived on the street in June and left in September. I was afraid of losing myself to The Young. I had a Situation to return to, and I returned to it. The contempt in The Missing Girl’s eyes as I stammered my good-bye is still the featured presentation of my nightmares. I was no longer Missing, but sleepless. Always sleepless. Soon The City will end my nights of always-sleepless.
“When all the newspaper and magazine stories appeared, when Big Media chose The Missing Girl to be The Missing Girl, I found myself, at age seventeen, grieving for my lost youth.
“Then The Future came.
“Sunday nights, my Wife asleep beside me, the work week breathing down my neck, those magazine covers loomed like glossy clouds above my bed. What might have been? Was there an alternative to the path I’d chosen, the path that seemed as inevitable as death itself?
“Once, I’d lain on the grass in The City Big Park with The Missing Girl. I wrote symbols on sidewalks, paper bags, rolling papers. It was a different life. A hard, miserable life, in truth, begging for beer money and food, but a life that was good for me. None of the other Missing Young knew of the knick-knacks in my room or the thoughts I’d thought at the pond.
“Fear thoughts. Anxiety thoughts.
“The pond, the trees surrounding it — I was positive there’d been chirping birds, then — took away some of the edge. I had always been a timid, nervous boy.
“My parents welcomed me home. After I’d bathed, of course. I loathed their teary embrace. I hated the comfort of the home I could run back to. Might I have become a poet, an artist, or at least a sort of MAN? Or would I have ended as I’d feared, begging and drinking and sleeping in The City’s filthy nooks, hounded by The Authorities and Detectives of LOSD until I died of pneumonia or drug O.D. or was forcibly returned?
“I was born to live the safe life, the comfortable life, the life that kills itself before it properly begins. And the question would always haunt me: was there another way? Could I have saved myself from me?
“I smelled the fish frying downstairs. My fish. The fish I had subdued. I told myself that The Garrulous Old Man was as brain-bent as the Quiet one, that at worst, the fish would give us indigestion. But I went downstairs hoping deep that the fish would exact its revenge upon the three of us and send us straight to God-man.
“After the meal, nothing. I called The Wife to tell her I’d be spending the night at my Parents’. She’d been worried. She’d been upset. She was angry. I told her I needed to talk to my parents, and that I would explain things later. I’d drive in early to change my clothes before work. I told her I’d gone fishing.
“The fish fought back around midnight. My parents vomited side-by-side into the same lavender toilet. I phoned Emergency Services.
“I awoke days later in a hospital bed with The Wife standing beside me. She told me my Parents were dead. I nodded, as if she’d told me my shirts were at the cleaners.
“A man came in to question me about the fish. Routine investigation. I could have walked away with a fine for trespassing. I told the man a story that was not quite true, but the more I talked, the truer it became. I told him I feared defective genes. I told him I deliberately sought the fish and fed it to my parents and myself to see if any of us would survive.
“If we could survive, then my own children might have a chance to actually live lives in this toxic world rather than merely maintain their bodies through seventy years of sickness, despair and medication. I told the man that since I survived, I must be fit, that is, made of stronger stuff; hence, my children had what I had, somewhere inside them. I told the man I wanted my children to be like the fish.
“The Defense Attorney urged an insanity plea, but I refused. I was going to see this through to the end. I elaborated on my story. I told Big Media, because this case was garnering a fair amount of attention, of my long-ago affair, my Summer romance, with The Missing Girl. They checked the records and concluded that I’d been Missing and in The City at the same time She had been Missing and in The City, so it could have been true. Regardless, it made great copy. The more Big Media attention I received, the firmer became my grasp on my true but not-quite-true story, and the more pressure I put on The Defense Attorney to defend the merits of my argument.
“I craved exposure. I believed, or made myself believe, that somewhere out in The Nation, perhaps within The City itself, The Missing Girl would see me on the small screen and remember.”
“But now you will be put to death,” said Plantman.
“Yes,” The Accused said, casually. “I want you to leave here with Rose. I bequeath her to you. I’d leave her to my heirs, but she’d be dead in a month. I want the very best for her. She will thrive under the care and nurturing of Plantman.”
“Where did you get this plant?” asked Plantman, accepting the last wishes of The Accused.
“She was a gift from The Wife.”
“A plant of sentimental value,” said Plantman.
“The Rose was the flower of my Summer among the Missing. You know, Young Love.”