It took until the day after Paul’s son threw the rock at the cop for everyone to hear it hit. They heard it hit in Routon, in Merville the town over, and in the extended ranges of wheat fields all across Crimson County. They heard it hit in the unmoving scarecrows staring down accusingly at the tiny trickles of water weeping their way down the dry canals. They heard it hit in the quiet of their steps, the way that everything now had to be done carefully; and in the spaces between gasps where they learned they’d forgotten how to breathe, had to consciously relearn the fullness of their lungs; and then they heard it hit there, too. They heard it hit as the red heavy sun rose overhead, and in the deep sighs of half-light streaming through the dark curtains of their eyes. They heard it hit in the reverent bowed necks of breakfast in their ramshackle blood-adobe homes; the light clatter of plates lowered unsuccessfully stealthily onto the plastic tables, the glittering tinkle of four-pronged forks, cheap spoons, and unsharp butter knives mixing together in the silverware drawers. They heard it hit in the tumbleweeds of spare trash dancing across the streets, left over from the protest.
It took until the day after Paul’s son threw the rock at the cop for him to hear it hit in the silent morning of his own home. The rock hit the cop’s helmet, denting it with a resounding crack of broken rituals. There was no waking up to the alarm clock of Paul’s son’s routine practice of violin scales, worked and scratched and repeated far earlier in the day than was respectful to anyone still asleep. The day after Paul’s son threw the rock at the cop, Paul’s son’s mother’s old box of maple and rosewood sang no notes rising up and down. There was no beautiful waterfall of music coalescing into clouds and then becoming itself again in the descent—a dry silence scratched at Paul’s barely-conscious ears. His son had almost been done learning that song, too—some dirge by Beethoven, which to Paul would forever be an incomplete work. And after the silence there was no resounding clud of the case closing, the quick sprayed staccato of a two minute’s shower rinse broken by pauses of soap and lather, the shifting music of Paul’s son getting dressed: rustles of cloth across skin, clip of the bright green glinting name badge, every detail a daily reminder of how poor and thin the walls of Paul’s just-now-at-56-paid-for home on the outskirts of Routon really were. There was no Paul, slapping bacon and eggs onto the pan and cold bread slices into the toaster for two, just as once he had done for three, as now he did not have the courage to get up and do for one.
The day after Paul’s son threw the rock at the cop, he heard it hit in the sound of his own doorbell masquerading as a song. It rang once, and then, when Paul did not get up, it’s jingle permeated his halls and head over and over, participating in a duet whose singer he recognized as Louise, neighbor and friend of his twilight years.
“Paul! Paul! It’s me, Louise!” The deep bullets of her voice sheared through the walls. Paul saw everything in slow motion: the trajectory of the rock, how big it was, the way it spun unevenly in the air as it climbed its way in a beautiful arc toward violence, the way the red sun gleamed from the top of the horizon like a bystander, a murderer …
“Paul! Goddammit, I know you’re in there! It’s near 10 o’clock, won’t you let me come in? Please, Paul, open the door! ”
Paul’s bones creaked as he turned in his bed. He hadn’t slept in this late in forty years. There are some people who cannot sleep in a crisis, their heads repeating the shock of it all in a cacophony which strangles restfulness. Paul only heard the sharp crack of a rock, Martian and fist-sized, striking against the plastic-metal standard issue police helmet, and to him the sound was a lullaby which tucked him into a place where his son still played the violin, still stood up for what he believed in, still threw rocks with the shoulders of his heart …
Tap tap tap.
Paul sat up quickly, one open palm half-raised toward the sound coming from the window. His ears had not recognized his friend outside, only the spectre of what should have been a song. Paul saw only a silhouette standing outside, hand against the glass as if pleading, “Let me out!” Paul rose unsteadily toward the spectre, throwing apart the curtains and ducking behind the right one defensively as he did so.
“Christ, Paul. You heard me, didn’t you?” Louise stood outside, her hands now holstered into her hips. The window separated them from each other but Louise shined smartly in the morning light. A thin, formless robin’s-egg blue cotton dress was kept up by her shoulders, and she wore kindness in her eyes like a schoolboy’s first necktie: full and sincere. Her sharp jaws danced a frown with her lips, and her wedding ring’s tiny diamond glinted slightly in the mid-morning light. A light dash of freckles, worn by time, splayed across her cheeks playfully, making the seriousness of her expression all the more intense. Her voice sounded far away, muffled from the window and the morning’s drowned weight.
“You’re going to insist on coming in, aren’t you?” Paul’s voice, hoarse from the last night’s protest, surprised even its owner.
Louise nodded, “Please?” Tears hid themselves in the corners of her eyes—Paul couldn’t tell if they were him for him, the situation, or just gathering to gather, the way people will say what everyone around them knows just to make sure they’re part of it, too; to make sure reality still works the way it did yesterday.
Paul nodded, gestured toward the front of his house, and wordlessly made his way through its unlit corridors. The button-down shirt he had been wearing last night rustled rough and cheap across his torso. It was only now that Paul realized he had no pants on—that his penis, limp and wrinkled and covered in a slight bush of salt-and-pepper curled hair, had been hanging out, and it was almost entirely certain that Louise had seen it. Paul found to his own shock that he cared very little about this, although, to prevent her from having too many nightmares, he turned around to find and throw a towel over his lower half. He almost chuckled as he did so—Louise and he had reached the point in their middle-aged friendship where eventually something like this would have happened, like it had inevitably happened with all of his friends (male and female and otherwise) beforehand. It was a signal to a closer place, long coming for Paul and Louise, Paul who was forever home alone in the comfort of the lack of his own pants, and Louise who was always coming to Paul’s house to borrow cooking tools, to chatter about the weather, the way it never rained anymore, the drought, which always lead to current events and politi—
Paul’s son’s voice in his right ear, chanting the same chant which the people Routon had been chanting for many hours that night, “DOWN with the Water Co., UP to the people! DOWN to the Water Co., UP to the people! DOWN—”
Paul realized his hand was suspended above the handle to his front door, trembling. He shook his head and reached forward, feeling the cold, imitation brass handle creak as it turned. Before he could react, still half-stunned by the memory of last night, Louise moved forward, bent down and embraced him, her arms curling around his slight chest with the strength of compassion. Paul nodded slightly, giving a slight oof from the center of his torso at the same time.
“Th-Thank you, Louise …”
“Is there anything I can do for you?” Louise disengaged from her friend and let herself in, taking her flats off in two quick flicking motions and placing them by the door. She immediately strode forward into the kitchen, opening and closing Paul’s shelves in a rapid search.
“Tea—you do have tea, don’t you Paul?” She turned her neck toward him, balancing on one foot reaching for a shelf that was too high even for her 5’11” frame, before adding, “Preferably black?”
“Um …” Paul placed a hand on the back of his neck, “Sure, Louise. Yes, tea would be great. In the pantry—Yu used to keep the tea out, but ever since the funeral I just haven’t had the taste for it.”
Louise frowned; Paul was still saying “the funeral.” Like that had been what had killed her—that they’d gone with the new ways instead of the old, with cremation instead of the old prayers and burial rites.
She shook her head out of her reverie, “But, you want some now?”
“Yes. Yes, I think I’d find it comforting,” Paul sat down in one of the plastic chairs surrounding the small, circular kitchen table he’d bought as a “homely nightstand.” He briefly glanced around as if looking for the first time into an entirely new space. Framed pictures lined the west wall between two windows, and he focused on one: an old picture of him with less wrinkles, his son in one arm and his wife in his son’s. Paul looked at the frozen moment of his son as if transfixed: the thin brown hair, greasier than his mother’s but still copying the same shape; the gentle hazel eyes reaching forward into the present; the wide, expansive smile at his middle school graduation, grinning with a combination of pride, youthful exuberance, and a confidence that everything would always be like this, that nothing could ever go wrong. Paul’s wife’s attention was turned toward his son, her long locks in a ponytail, her build encompassed by a brown button down shirt and blue jeans, her shoulders stock and forward as ever. Paul had thought that nothing could ever come between him and his wife, and instead it had grown inside her and feasted on its own home, had festered and eaten at her lungs for so long before they’d found it that by the time they did it was too late.
Returning to reality, Paul’s head found a crook between his two rough hands and he embraced the warm feeling of flesh across his cheeks.
“Truth is, Louise, I … I really miss her. Part of me wishes she was here for all this, but another part of me wonders if it would’ve killed her. I wouldn’t have wanted her to see it—or have to tell her about it—but I could really use her comfort at a time, a time, a time like—”
“Oh, Paul,” Louise threw a gentle look Paul’s way as she was about to turn on his faucet, pausing before she twisted the knob. She wished her best friend were here, too; Yu who was strong as packed dirt, Yu who was released back into the soil too soon.
“Are you sure it’s ok to use some of your weekly water like this? I can go get some of mine if you’d like?”
“What?” Paul looked up from his stupor, “Oh, no, really Louise, it’s fine. It’s … something I need. I wouldn’t want you to go to that effort, especially when they’re sending me … his, still, too. And besides, it’d take too long. Please, go ahead.”
“Well, alright then,” Louise let the drops drip into the kettle, sparingly, measuring the amount by the seconds it took to pitter into the thin tin container. She finally set the kettle down onto the stove and sat down across from Paul, pulling his hands away from his face and into hers.
“My friend. How are you holding up?”
Paul stared up at her, “It’s been less than a day. How do you think I’m holding up?”
She gave a wan smile as a sorry, “Dammit, Paul, you know what I mean. It’s awful, what happened. Do you know what started it all?”
“Course I know. I was there, wasn’t I?” Paul reflexively squeezed his own leg with the fist of his free hand, “He … He threw a rock. When they tried to break it up, tried to drive us off the streets and back into our homes … he threw it. Damn idiot. Should’ve just gone home,” Paul snorted, “Throw a rock. Who does something like that?”
“Did someone tell him to?” Louise leaned into the center of the table, trying to force Paul’s eyes to feel the weight of her own.
“Well … Fuck, I can’t remember, Louise. It … it all happened so fast. The protest, the-the rock, the gunfire … it’s a blur. It still doesn’t feel real. I feel numb.”
Louise squeezed Paul’s hand firmly, “I don’t know what to say, Paul. ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t quite feel right.”
Paul nodded his understanding, “I just keep expecting him to come back, you know. To walk through that door and be all ‘hey Dad!’ in that lazy way of his. I keep wanting this to be a dream. It’s like I’m watching myself, waiting until I wake up.”
A light whistling had grown toward the end of this sentence, and Louise squeezed his hand once more before she got up to pour the tea into small ceramic cups. She was amazed Paul hadn’t cried. He seemed remarkably put together, for someone who had just lost his only son. She had to keep reminding herself that he was likely still in shock; that he was grieving, in denial, doing everything he could to get as far away from his life as possible. It was the only way she could understand his current state—the only way she could avoid seeing him as a sociopath, so calm—that there had to be walls there, walls keeping even himself out of his own emotions. After letting the tea steep into the silence of the room, Louise emptied the small tea bags into the garbage and sat back down.
“And all for this,” Paul muttered into his cup, “Water. Back home—on Earth—we used to take it for granted. I remember when I was a kid. Rained all the time, you could shower as long as you wanted. Nobody gave a second thought to grabbing a glass at night if they were thirsty. We didn’t have outhouses, too, did you know that? No outhouses! On Earth those are relics of the past, rather than places to shit in the now.”
“The protests are necessary, you know that. We’re dying out here. They gave us promises and then conveniently forgot about them. Old Man Dale had to be sent to the cross-county hospital just last week for dehydration. We can’t water our crops, we can’t water ourselves … we’re not living right.”
“No,” Paul felt steel build up in his sternum, “No, no we are not.” His feet planted solidly onto their flats, and he tightened the knot of his towel far harder than was necessary. Paul felt himself counting each blink like seconds until the start of a great show. The deep sense of calm and shock he had felt, like a sleeping gas keeping him from understanding what happened, had begun to disperse. Paul felt awakened by Louise, whose presence reminded him of all that was missing. He had an idea—a flicker, a question, an unwatered seed, a moment which had not yet come to pass—and part of him hated himself for it, and part of him desperately needed it. He knew he could not tell anyone, for fear that they would protest and stop him—but it had to be done. Yes, he concluded, and knew he would need to do it as soon as possible.
Louise sensed a great shift in Paul’s demeanor, like he was about to do something, and she worried very much about what that might be.
“Paul, you wouldn’t—you’re not thinking about—”
“Revenge?” Paul assumed and snorted, “He was doing his job. Well … It’s not that simple, no. He used excessive force. But my son threw the first stone—he shouldn’t have done that. He shouldn’t have done that. No. I won’t begrudge a man for hitting back. And hell, cop was just a kid, too. Everyone was at fault. No, I won’t blame the individual.”
“Bullshit, Paul,” Louise fanned her anger with the steam from her tea rising into her nostrils, “He wasn’t in danger. Killing somebody over getting hit with a rock is an overreaction. You can’t just take this lying down. I know I won’t.”
Paul’s fists clenched slightly at this confrontation, and then released as slumped low in his chair, shoulders at ease, “Yes. Yes, I … I know you cared for him. As much as anybody. I won’t forget, but—I know I have to forgive, because it’s what … it’s what he would’ve wanted.”
Louise shifted uneasily. She felt his great anger, growing in herself, too. She had cared very much for—no, she could not even say his name. Not yet. The sounds of the rock hitting, the bullet, their echoes from the street outside her house still resounded throughout her mind, and she knew they would have to pass before that name came again unbidden to her brain. She blamed the police officer, who was an outsider from the big city, called in, who had shot six times into the heart of a nineteen-year-old child. And she had never seen Paul this way before. He was normally a calm man, collected, willing to doubt himself if need be, always a gentle touch; not this held-back ferocity, this caged venom. You’d be more afraid of a scarecrow than Paul—that’s what Yu, his late wife, had said—and that’s what Louise knew about her good friend. He hadn’t been able to go out into his own farmland for weeks now due to the drought, like most of the population of Routon. And, yes, he had protested the injustice of it all—but who hadn’t?
“Paul—Paul, you should know, people are talking.” She said this quietly, afraid he would hear it but needing to say it all the same.
“Let them talk.”
Great coils of steam rose like snakes from the top of Paul’s untouched tea. His hands wrapped around it, sizzling slightly with an unnoticed burn, gripping with several tons of potential energy.
“No, I mean—about you. That it was you who threw the rock, not … And the police, what they asked you. They say you told—you told them he did it, and lied to the police about it last night to avoid blame. That’s—that’s what I hear anyway.”
“Did I talk to the police last night?” Paul’s voice raised at the last note of this question in genuine confusion. His eyes searched the horizon of a place in his mind, which was far away but also too close still for him to see clearly, “I don’t remember what I said. Certainly I never would’ve suggested such a thing, because it didn’t happen. I’m not a liar, Louise. Do you believe them?”
Louise stood up straighter, hiding her uncertainty, brushing a loose strand of her hair behind her left ear, “Of course not, Paul, I know you. You’re no violent man. Not like the rest of the town at least, or what they talk about: grabbing up guns and ships and taking some of the water for ourselves. No, Paul, you wouldn’t even talk about that, let alone do something like it in the moment. I don’t believe them for a minute.”
“But you weren’t there,” Paul shook his head, and continued, “No, you weren’t there. Don’t throw faith my way so easy, Louise. I’m not deserving of it.”
His mouth gulped up and down helplessly, like a fish trying to breathe on land, “And the people I’ve known for so long, blame me … for my son’s death …”
Louise shifted uneasily in her seat and sipped at her tea. Paul drained his, still steaming, in one gulp without feeling the recoil. He stood up straight-backed and looked out the window into the empty street. Still, almost noon, no one in Routon was out or about. The entire world stood still on its red axis. Louise heard every tiny shift of Paul’s frame against his nightshirt, the towel still fastened around his waist like a curtain. His face was written in a dialect she could not read.
“No, no you weren’t there. We all feel the anger of our situation, but together like that in the protest—it was the anger of everybody, being treated like trash. Second-class citizens. I realized everyone on the plains feels like this, everyone on this planet. We are thirsty for something we must have, Louise. We must have it. More blood will be spilt before the time is over, and some of it will be ours and some of it theirs. Who knows how anything will turn out?”
Louise looked back at him, waiting.
“But no … no, I did not tell him to throw the rock. The people—they’re confused, need somebody to blame, and I guess it’s me. If the cops—ours, mind you—find proof, I’ll go willingly, but they won’t. Nothing like that happened. I was just there to hold a sign and yell. Now, though, now that there’s been blood—”
Louise backed up slightly in her chair, “Paul, you’re scaring me. I know they call us aliens, but you have to—”
“Yeah, aliens. Like we aren’t human, aren’t like they are. Like because we live somewhere else, we’ve got different DNA.”
Louise paused, worried that she found herself agreeing with him, “You aren’t thinking of—of doing anything, are you? Not, to the cop, but … to yourself?” She shuddered with the resounding echo of her own thought, fired into the quiet of the room.
The lightning storm in Paul’s eyes softened, the dusty redness of his cheeks fading away back into his veins. He took a deep breath of tea fumes and hope.
“No … no, I’m just … angry. Deeply so. Maybe that makes me understand things I wouldn’t have otherwise. But no—I’m not going to hurt anybody, if that’s what you mean. Enough blood, enough blood has been …” Paul drifted away again, toward that thought he’d had, that idea, across a cavern Louise could not follow. Several minutes of silence and uncertainty passed before he returned.
“Thank you for the tea and the talk, Lousie, really. It’s calmed me. And thank you for coming here, for me, and for telling me that the people are talking. It’s good for me to know. Let them talk. I don’t care what they say, because it’s wrong. It’s just talk.”
“Of course, Paul. I can’t imagine … what you’re going through. What these past 24 hours must have been like.”
“They’re not real, not yet. It may take many months for them to be real. For now I’m going to go see my son one last time before he’s cremated, like ... like he wanted.” Paul shook his head at the idea, at the new ways smothering the old.
“You’re going to the morgue? Already?” Louise raised a worried eyebrow at him.
“Yes,” Paul shook his head up and down to convince himself of the idea, “It’s something I have to do. Yes. To convince myself what is real and what isn’t. To water my own sorrow, if you’ll allow me a moment or two of poetry.”
Louise stiffened her brow, “You think this is going to be a good idea?”
“Yes. I’m more certain of this than anything. And I’d like to do it alone—if you don’t mind.”
“You know, it’s important for me to let you know that I greatly disagree with you.”
“You’re in a state, Paul. I’ve never seen you talk like this. You say you’re calm and I don’t believe you. Grief is driving you to a place I’m not sure you’ll be proud of, looking back.”
“Maybe, but I have to go there. You’ll really begrudge an old man for wanting to see his son one last time?”
“No,” Louise stood up and straightened her dress, “I respect you enough to not try to stop you, though. Please, just … You’re my friend. You say you won’t hurt anybody; know that that includes you, too.”
“I won’t hurt a soul still alive, Louise, I promise.”
The day after Paul’s son threw the rock at the cop, Paul heard it in the sound of his own footsteps clapping down onto the rough dirt road of Isaac Lane. Dust kicked up in the end of the dirt behind him. The sun busied itself by tucking into the blankets of the horizon’s shimmers and mirages. All was still for one hour, blissfully death-still except Paul’s work boots making their steady gait out toward the County Morgue, plodding a steady rhythm and countdown coinciding with the degrees of Martian temperature that slowly dwindled from hot to warm to cool to very cold, even at the height of summer. His boots were the metronome to a song Paul had not heard the end of, and he knew tonight would be when he finally heard it. He passed the various citizens of Routon, stealthed behind their windows and shops, watching him go by and commenting on it in the safety of their own minds. He passed a few solitary cars which slowed at his approach, and the road grew thinner and straighter the closer he got to the end of the town. He heard the great cries of cicadas in the planted dying trees, shining their roars and lullabies into the vast valleys of sorrow and fallow fields. And as he neared the morgue at the edge of the town, walking the same walk he had done so many times when there had still been water and farming had been his profession and his fields had been behind that building of mourning, he gazed upon the dead wheat and lilted corn, slouching into the dry night awaiting their demise, and crept on toward it like a reaper toward a soul.
The county morgue stood as a lone square building, the last of its kind before the ground opened up into the Martian wastelands of crop rotations which were never meant to be. It had two columns in front of its solid steel door, and no windows. Its slanted, triangular ceiling reminded Paul of something he’d seen in one of his high school books—some historic building, stained white with time, sitting on a hill in a place called “Grees.” Half-dead hedges crawled up along the morgue’s walls trying to worm their way inside, the winds stripping them of their barren brown leaves to leave stiff stalks rustling an eerie muse. Iron dust filled Paul’s nostrils; he could taste it on the air, like licking a hammer, a taste and smell he had fallen in love with as a child when he had moved to the planet of the war God.
Paul’s confident hand rattled against the door, and he waited several minutes before an answer sounded from inside, a nasal high whine of a voice.
“Hi Clarence. It’s me, Paul. Was wondering if …”
“Of course, Paul. Anything at this time. Come in.”
A cool breeze greeted Paul as the door unlocked and opened for him, revealing a tall figure with beady glasses and a broadly oval face. Clarence was a young man for a doctor, just 35, wearing a long orange coat with a small white cross on its lapel. He was short, beating Paul in that regard by several inches, and wore bright black shoes polished to a deep shine. Everything about him stood spotless, except for his nose, which twitched a slight nervous tick at the sight of the slight old farmer standing before him.
“You know, like I said last night Paul, I’m really sorry for what—”
“I don’t remember,” Paul tranced into the room, not feeling the sterile checkered tiles of the floor as if he was floating above the ground like a spectre. All around were the cold refrigerators used to house bodies, and there on the desk, still slightly blue from its internment the entire day, unmoving and lifeless, was Paul’s son.
“What was that, Paul?”
Paul didn’t answer, only moved toward the desk and paused, looking down. His son had long eyelashes, lids closed. Paul smiled. His son’s nose was slightly bent from a baseball accident as a kid: never had been good at sports, and that’s what happens when you lean into a pitch. His son’s long oak hair whispered its way down to the center of his neck in greasy waves; his expression rested, not the harrowing plea as his life bled out into his father’s arms, but peaceful, like closing your eyes and leaning into a hot shower, feeling its steam flirt its way across your skin and taste the water on the air. Paul took in every blemish and fault, planting the image into his brain so it would sprout and stay there forever, like now he wished he would have taken the time to do every morning, before it was too late.
“Jason,” Paul said, far more loudly than he intended, to no one in particular, “Jason, I’m here.”
Clarence, forgotten, needed to do something, so he said, “I’ll leave you alone for a moment, Paul, I’m—I’m so sorry,” and headed out the door with a slithering squeal of the metal against the frame of the walls.
Paul smiled a knowing smile, his eyes gazing down the pale body to the medical wraps over Jason’s chest which, even now, were keeping his son’s life energy from leaking out. Paul knew what he had to do. He had known for some time now. Gently—muscles tensing, his shoulders yelling at the sudden exertion and strain—he picked his son’s body up, feeling the full 145-pound weight of it against his chest, draped across his left shoulder. The overbearing stench made a gag rise from the depths of Paul’s stomach into his throat, and he let it be and clear out without fighting it, making his stumbling way to the back door of the morgue and opening it quietly with one hand. Hearing no response from Clarence, who should be out on the other side of the Morgue’s building, Paul walked the slow walk toward the desiccated fields of wheat, disappearing into their bent folds and forests.
For many two-stepped minutes, Paul let their tendrils caress his cheeks and Jason’s and he moved along against their bodies. He let the dry dust kick up and fall across his back and Jason’s bouncing, sagging face. Paul heard movement in the thrushes and underbelly of the fields: small mice and snakes and bugs let free from the unused insecticides unneeded now, animals roaming the lifeless terraformed lands they clung to with nowhere else to go. Paul felt the cold of evening descend on him in waves, the cool thin atmosphere unable to keep the stars from observing Paul heave Jason to the tracts that once they had both owned, both tilled, both watered and farmed and ate of their own blessed work out on the Martian loam. And finally, after an hour of strained exerted walking had passed, when Paul had reached the center of the fields—when he heard far-away sirens screaming his name, when Clarence had clearly realized something had gone wrong and both father and son had gone missing, had run out into the wilderness for one last camping trip—Paul let down his son onto the crimson soil and took off the bandages atop the bullet wounds. Jason’s blood poured into the already dampening soil, Paul’s tears falling to join them in a cascade of deep red and crystal blue to form a fountain which drizzled into the cosmic dirt, a fountain of the old rites, a return to a time when this sorrow would not have been necessary, and calling those years into the present. This was the rite and the passage, the return back into the planet, the final voyage into the unknown. Paul sobbed, calling out his son’s name to the sprinkling new source of life that, Paul knew, would one day spawn great hosts of vegetation, and feed the entire planet with its bounty.