It was the third time this month that Carleton had forgotten to water his geraniums. True, the geraniums had barely had time to dry out before he corrected his error, but he knew when he heard the little vermiculite-sized alarm pebbles crying their horrible little peep that he was in trouble.
So now here he was, calmly sitting at his kitchen table and waiting. Any minute now, the doorbell would sound its charming little bell tone and someone from UETOPIA, Unit For The Ethical Treatment of Plants, Insects and Animals, would be there. Only this time, instead of handing him a warning, they would cuff him and take him away.
There was nothing to be done. He’d tried fighting the earlier tickets on the grounds that his plants were doing fine and hadn’t suffered, and had gotten nowhere, except perhaps he had been marked as a trouble maker by the bored-looking judge before being fined a months’ stipend.
It was a strange and serious world, Carleton mused. What was once shrugged off as a simple mistake if even thought of at all was now considered immoral and therefore, illegal.
Ever since dolphins claimed to have landed on the moon a few years back, things had been different. Privately, Carleton had doubts as to whether they really had sent a ship into space, but of course talking about it publicly was unthinkable. The claim was enough to gain the dolphins a seat at the UN, properly accommodated, of course, and with a translator.
Now, according to the article Carleton was idly reading while waiting for UETOPIA, the soybeans wanted a seat, too. Carleton wondered how anyone could tell at all what a soybean plant wanted, aside from sun, water and fertilizer. But the UETOPIA people were in charge these days and they claimed to have their ear to the soil, so to speak, and knew these things.
He absentmindedly stroked the pot containing the geranium with his blue-veined, ever-so-slightly shaky hand. The plant looked fine – its wide green leaves stood firmly out from the sturdy stem and the single head of pink flowers had hardly wilted at all. It didn’t look the worse for wear, but he’d brought it into the house and set it on the table anyway because he knew they would want to take it and examine it to see if its rights had been violated.
A bell sounded, tinny and muffled. Not from the front door. Confused, Carleton looked about for the source, then patted his shirt pocket, frowned to himself and dug out a phone. He fumbled with it a bit then finally hit the right button.
A dark haired, serious thirty-something face appeared on the screen.
“Hi, Dad, what are you doing?”
“Waiting for the UETOPIA people to come. I forgot to water again.”
“Oh, no.” Rachel looked worried for a moment, then pasted a smile on her face. “Well, anyway, I wanted to bring you some wheat grass. It’s allowed now, and I got the last tray from the grocery. I’m just around the corner.”
Carleton made a face. “I wonder when they will allow us to eat actual food. Can’t even eat the rotting apples that fall off the tree anymore, in case a worm wants them. Come over. It will be good to see you.”
Moments later, the doorbell rang. Since Carleton had put tape over the outside camera in a fit of frustration some months back, he had to answer the door in order to see who was there. He didn’t mind. It reminded him of the old days before constant surveillance had been implemented.
“You sound surprised, Dad,” she said, hugging him with one arm. The other was holding a tray of grass. She was as compact as he was, although slightly taller now that age had shrunk his frame a little.
He chuckled. “No, just happy to see you made it before the UETOPIA people came.”
She followed him into the kitchen and with familiar movements, set the juicer on his tiny counter and proceeded to juice the grass. “It’s a shame I couldn’t get more grass,” she said, handing Carleton a small glass of the green juice.
He closed his eyes and swigged it down.
She looked him up and down critically. “Have you been eating?”
He imitated her, exaggerated the critical eye by raising one eyebrow and squinting with the opposite eye. “Eating what? Have YOU been eating?”
They were silent for a moment.
“Too bad we can’t just sneak out to the back yard and pick some apples and avocadoes,” Rachel said regretfully.
“Damn vermiculite alarms. I can’t even take a step outside without UETOPIA poking their nose in my business.” Carleton absently licked the rim of the glass. Then he set it down firmly. “Do you know that An Cho next door had to go to court to prove a worm hadn’t wanted his apple?”
Rachel shook her head.
The doorbell rang again.
“Here they are,” Carleton said. He shuffled to the door while Rachel cleaned up the juicer.
There were three of them. The one in front, a brown-skinned man with bad teeth, was holding his ID up to the camera’s taped lens. He stepped back as Carleton opened the door.
“UETOPIA,” the man said, holding his ID about six inches from Carleton’s face. He had a deeply lined face, the face of a long-time smoker. “You have a plant whose rights may have been violated. May we come in?”
Carleton moved aside as they swept by him and into the small living room.
The second person, a very tall woman who looked as though she might be wearing a wig, flashed her ID and followed. She moved quickly through the living room and into the kitchen.
“Is this the plant?” she asked, holding the geranium aloft. The soft pink flowers and green leaves contrasted with the orange of her uniform, a loose body suit that made her look like a deflated kickball.
“Yes,” Carleton said, turning his head toward her. He was bent over, busy changing his slippers for the walking shoes he kept next to the door.
The third, a young man, slight of build and not much taller than Carleton, nodded to him as he passed, flashing his ID with an embarrassed smile. He handed Carleton a business card. Across the center in sturdy block print was typed, “Justice For All.” Carleton put the card in his pocket.
The woman carefully handed the plant to the younger man and pulled out a pair of handcuffs.
Rachel drew in an audible breath and looked at her father. Carleton shook his head. “It’s okay, my dear.” He held out his bony wrists for the big woman to cuff.
“I’m coming with you,” Rachel said firmly.
Carleton shivered. The Justice Hall was cold. The marble bench where, cuffed hands in his lap, he waited outside the court, was cold. The stark white walls, the dark wooden double doors, the bluish fluorescent light, all served to highlight the cold. He thought wistfully of the brown padded jacket dangling from the hook next to the door back at his house.
Rachel was pacing in front of the bench in her sensible shoes. They made a rubbery sound on the linoleum, an almost wet squish, that set Carleton’s teeth on edge.
“Sit down, my dear,” he said.
His voice echoed slightly down the long corridor, mixing with the sounds of quiet conversations taking place on benches outside other rooms. Orange-uniformed guards stood stiffly alert beside each door, ignoring the cold and the conversations.
The door to his court room opened. “James, Carleton,” a voice said tonelessly.
Rachel helped him rise and held his elbow as they made their way into the courtroom. It was a smaller version of the cold hall, except with dark wooden desks up front and a few rows of wooden seats toward the back. The judge, of course, sat at a desk on a raised platform at the front. A banner hung on the wall behind the desk: “Justice For All.” It had a yellow rosebush printed on it.
“Yellow means friendship and caring,” whispered Carleton to Rachel.
He stood in front of the judge’s desk, waiting. Rachel stood on his left, holding one elbow, and the large woman in orange who had taken him from his home stood on the other side. She smelled like deodorant and coffee.
The judge looked down at him. She was the same judge he’d seen the other two times he’d been here, a kind-faced woman. “Mr. James,” she said. “I am sorry to see you here today. I thought we had an understanding.”
He hung his head. “I’m sorry, Judge. I just forgot to water my plants on time.”
“The Agriculture Department’s findings show that the plant had not been fertilized recently and was showing signs of slow growth. You do realize you have violated its rights.”
He sighed. “On an old man’s pension it is difficult to afford fertilizer. I am doing the best I can.”
“He is, your honor,” Rachel added, a little fiercely.
“Who have you brought with you?” The judge looked curiously at her.
“I’m his daughter.”
The judge steepled her fingers and looked at him. “I believe you when you say you are doing your best. You know that on the third violation there is a mandatory sentence of six months.”
He nodded unhappily.
She continued. “I do not believe your actions were deliberate, but you do understand you have broken the law.”
He nodded vigorously.
“Therefore, I cannot simply let you go with that apology. I am going to remand you to your daughter’s custody for six months, to be confined under house arrest.”
He looked up. “No jail?”
She smiled at him. “No jail. But you cannot leave the house, you understand?”
He nodded and relief showed in his eyes.
They went first to the grocery. As usual, the aisles were crowded and the shelves nearly empty.
“They took all the soy products off the shelves,” Rachel remarked. “They have barley, oats, and wheat grains but no soybeans.”
“No soy milk or soy protein powder, either,” Carleton said, indicating a shelf with a few forlorn cans sitting on it. “It has rights now.”
The next aisle was fully stocked with bright plastic-wrapped packages of green discs.
“These are new,” Rachel said, picking one up. She eyed the ingredient list. “Formulated from specially digested and fermented grasses,” she read.
Carleton grabbed a package and squinted at the tiny print. “Who digested them?”
“It tastes great!” A young man in a white shirt with the store logo on it came up to them. He was carrying a basket of the flat green crackers. “Everyone says it’s just like meat. Would you like a sample?”
It didn’t taste anything like meat to Carleton, just sour dried grass. He asked the boy, “Have you ever had real meat?”
“Of course not!” the boy looked shocked. “What a terrible thing to say.”
“Come on,” said Rachel, and pulled him down the aisle. Carleton stuck his tongue out at the boy as they turned the corner.
They came out of the store with one grocery bag full.
They stopped at Carleton’s house, where a “For Rent” sign was already in the window. Rachel waited in the driveway while he packed. He took a photo album, some clothes and a couple of pieces of his wife’s jewelry that he’d meant to leave to Rachel when he was gone. Then he stepped out onto his back patio and stood for a minute. Bees buzzed around the fragrant white blooms on the dwarf apple tree he and his wife had planted in the middle of the small lawn just a few years earlier. “I hope someone is allowed to enjoy your apples,” he said to it. He watched the way the sun and the wind played through its leaves and put the memory away for when he might need it later.
His gaze fell on the yellow tulips and little purple grape hyacinth that were pushing their way up in the dirt against the back wall of his house. Those he had planted after Missa had passed. They were her favorite colors, her favorite flowers.
Red, pink and white geraniums rested in their pots on the little concrete patio. His geraniums. He liked the way the flowers seemed to flow out of the pots and welcome the sun with open arms. A few insects buzzed lazily over them, busy on insect business, whatever that was. No doubt UETOPIA knew.
He took his pocket knife out and carefully took a small cutting from the pink one. He wrapped it in his cloth handkerchief and tucked it gently into his jacket pocket, then he turned and went on back through the house. He rolled his little suitcase out the door and left the rest of his things behind for the next tenants to use.
Rachel’s house was smaller than his, but he liked his bedroom. The window had south exposure, which meant all-day sun, and a wide sill. It faced the blank wall of the building next door, but was far enough away that he could see sky. The single bed left enough room that he could move about without knocking into things, and the small chair under the window had just the right amount of padding for him. Next to it stood a scarred pink student desk. The room was still painted a pale pink from when his granddaughter had lived there; she was in college two states away and engaged to be married now.
“We could paint it any color you like,” Rachel had said when she showed him the room, but he refused. He liked the soft glow the sun gave to the room. But he let her take the pink rug out and replace it with a shaggy white one.
The first night he was woken up by tiny pinches on his arms and ankles. He was disoriented when he opened his eyes, adding to the confusion. The walls and window were not where he expected them, and the angle of the moon through the window was wrong.
He sat up and turned on the light, then realized where he was with some relief.
Then he looked down to find there were ants crawling over the bed. His arm was covered with tiny red marks -- ant bites. He traced their meandering trail into a crack in the wall. He knew he shouldn’t kill them, wondered what Rachel did to manage them. He expected there was something like the vermiculite alarms for insects now, too. He lay back down, but there were too many ants in the bed and they kept biting.
He stood up, brushed himself off and stood by the window for a minute, looking at the night sky. The moon was nearly full, making the stars seem dimmer. It reflected off the apartment wall across the way and illuminated the room in pearly grays.
He turned and rummaged through the baggage he’d set in the corner and pulled out his brown jacket. From its pocket, he pulled out the handkerchief and gently unwrapped the small cutting, now slightly wilted. He turned the tiny pink desk lamp on and inspected the cutting, turning it this way and that in the dim light. Then he placed it carefully on a corner of the desk. From his baggage, he pulled out a small pot and a plastic bag filled with potting soil, which he set next to the little plant. Then he unfastened the bag and poured a handful of the dark matter onto the middle of the desk. With his shaky old-man hands, he sifted through the handful of soil, pushing the little yellow vermiculite alarm balls to one side of the desk and the soil to the other. He spread another handful of soil across the flat desktop and painstakingly separated out the little balls, and then another handful, until he had removed all the tiny alarms. He turned the bag upside down and shook the rest of the soil onto the desk, along with a couple more alarm balls. Then he gathered up the balls and dropped them back into the little plastic bag. He didn’t know what would happen if he simply crushed them, whether that would set off some sort of signal. He decided he would scatter them out the window into Rachel’s yard tomorrow, where they could join the myriad alarms already there.
Then he potted the geranium cutting, gently pushing it into the dark potting mix and pushing the soil around it so it stood nearly straight up. He found a cup in the bathroom and watered it then set the little plastic pot gently on his window sill and looked at it.
He was surprised that the moon had already set. Time hadn’t seemed to pass when he’d been at his task, but he felt tired now. He sat back in the stuffed chair and let himself doze off as the sky slowly lightened.
He woke to the warmth of sun on his face. He stretched, yawned and, with a grunt, pushed himself up and shuffled the couple steps to the window where he inspected his new geranium, also in the sun. It looked like the little leaf was perking up.
He wondered what the judge would say if she knew he had an unmonitored plant. UETOPIA would certainly be displeased.
Carleton was careful to keep his bedroom door shut, whether he was in or out of the room.
One morning, when he was sitting out on the back porch in the sun with Rachel, she said, “What’s the secret?”
He laughed and said, “The secret of what? Long life? It used to be meat and whiskey, but that can’t be true any more.”
“Dad,” she said earnestly.
He turned and looked at her eyes, shaded under her straw sun hat.
“What are you hiding?” she asked. “What’s in your room?”
At that, his heart beat faster. “Hiding?” He made his eyes wide with what he hoped was an innocent look.
She narrowed her eyes and stared at him. He debated whether to tell her.
Aware of vermiculite alarms and CCTVs and sky drone recorders outside, he said, “Are you thirsty? Come inside and I’ll make you some tea.”
“You go ahead,” Rachel said. “I’ll wait for your answer.”
“I need you to reach the tea for me.”
She gave a martyr-like sigh and followed him into the house.
By the time they’d taken the four steps to the sliding door, he’d made up his mind not to tell her. It was safer for her. Instead, when they were in the kitchen and he’d closed the door, he said, “Did you know that ants live in the closet wall?”
She nodded. “Yes. Natalie used to get ant bites all the time.”
“There are a lot of ants.” Carleton held out an arm for her to inspect.
Rachel touched his arm and frowned. “I’m sorry about that, Dad. There should still be some ointment in the bathroom.”
“If they don’t live out in the open, do you suppose we could do something about it?” He was filling up the tea kettle at the tap now.
“Do something? We can’t, it’s illegal.” She folded her arms across her chest.
“Those people can’t possibly be tracking all the ant hills in the world,” he said, putting the kettle on the burner. “I don’t know how they manage to track all the plants. They’d have to employ every person in the city, but they don’t.”
Rachell set her lips in a thin line.
“Anyway,” Carleton said, handing her a cup. “Anyway, I want to do something about those ants. I can’t sleep in the bed.”
“Nat used to make a line of toothpaste on the floor around the bed.”
“Ants hate certain smells. Mint, catnip, eucalyptus, cinnamon. Toothpaste is mint.”
“I meant, find the anthill and get rid of it.”
“You’re already on house arrest. If you do that and they find out, they’ll charge you with murder.”
He frowned. “Toothpaste it is, then.”
There might have been fewer ants that night, but he still woke up because of the biting. He thought longingly of the old days when no one thought twice about getting rid of the pests, and moved over to the arm chair. Outside, it was dark. Lights were out in the neighboring buildings and the sky was clear of clouds. He wasn’t sleepy now, so he watched the moon as it slowly moved across the sky from one side of the window to the other. It seemed to him that the geranium’s one wide leaf followed its trajectory. There was a little bud sprouting from the stem; another leaf was coming soon. He felt a thrill at his small act of rebellion. The plant was his, and his alone. No one could take that from him as long as he kept it secret. He didn’t know how long that would be, realistically. After all, Rachel was sure to come in to clean the room soon and she would see it, and then she would have to report it, if UETOPIA asked.
And they would ask, sooner or later.
No use worrying, he decided.
He leaned back and fell asleep, dreaming of pink blossoms in the moonlight, while the ants made a new trail across the floor and up his chair.