By Alec Lownes
Marco Evans had once felt duplicitous in everything he did. Now, that sense of deceit fell into the background wash of emotions as he went about his daily routine. It had been so long since he’d come to Freehold with its floating wind turbines dotting the sky and miles of crystal blue canals winding their way through the city-state, he almost felt at home among the people who called him brother.
He kept everyone at arm’s length, and they just assumed that he was a bit standoffish or maybe a bit shy. He was registered, after all, as a refugee, and everyone seemed to know this incredibly personal fact about him. Whether it was from his accent or the particular cast of his skin, or even his last name, something screamed that he’d seen terrible things. He preferred their inferences and guesses just fine; they would never guess the truth.
The rich musk of fertilizer filled his nose as he plunged his pitchfork deep into the pile to pick up a load to deposit on the nearby soilbed. He’d heard that there used to be chemical fertilizers that would last much longer than a few weeks and would burn your skin if you touched them, but he’d never seen that kind. Before he joined Freehold, he’d never touched fertilizer in his life. He’d been a city boy before —
A new sack of fertilizer plopped down next to his pile, and the woman in the tank top who’d hauled it in let out a whoop.
“These things sure are heavy.”
Marco grunted and continued to shake his pitchfork over the bed. There wasn’t much time now until the crop was planted, and this whole field needed to be covered before then.
He upended the fork, dumping the last pieces of compost and guano on the ground, before turning back and coming up short at the hand held out to him.
“I’m Cleo,” she said and smiled. He took her hand gingerly and felt her tight squeeze through his work glove.
“Marco,” he said, then went back for another forkful. He could sense her eyes on his back, the way he always attracted eyes at his strange aloofness. Freehold was a particularly friendly city, and why wouldn’t it be? Why wouldn’t he fold into the community that had welcomed him so grandly, setting him up with everything he’d ever need to survive and thrive?
“You know,” Cleo said as she shoved her own shovel into the sliced-open sack beside his. “In some parts of the world, the smell of fertilizer is considered an aphrodisiac.”
The comment caught Marco off guard, and he turned his head to look at her in surprise. She was grinning back at him. Was she… hitting on him? So obviously?
“Uhhh, those must be pretty strange places,” he said and chided himself. Don’t talk back, don’t connect, just stay to yourself. He was supposed to be integrating, but that little voice in the back of his head had always kept him apart. Liar, impostor. It always whispered those things when the loneliness got too much, and he reached out.
But the voice was strangely silent today. She smiled.
“Not as strange as you’d think. They’re mostly farmers, and the smell of fertilizer means you’re the kind of person who puts work into supporting yourself, supporting the community. It means you think ahead, that your yield will be better. That the whole town may just live off of your planning when you could’ve been getting an early start on planting. It’s so much more work, to fertilize the ground; there has to be some kind of genetic reward, wouldn’t you agree?”
Marco felt dumbfounded as he stared back at her massive grin. He could see that two of her teeth were prosthetic — the subtly different shade of ivory was a dead giveaway. He didn’t have the mismatch that might clue anyone else in; all of his teeth had been surgically replaced before he’d first come to the city.
“I… suppose,” he said, and again, that little voice didn’t speak up. The wound spring that kept him ready, that kept him prepared, that kept him on-task, loosened ever so slightly around his heart.
“So, Marco, what else do you do? Besides hauling fertilizer, I mean. Or is this it?”
“No, this isn’t it,” he said, but then realized that was a lie. This was it. He volunteered as many in the city did, then he went back home. He’d tried to socialize when he first arrived, going out to bars and the like, but that band around his heart always kept him apart, and the pain of disconnection was always too great. So he didn’t do that anymore; he went home and read, the words on the page helping him to escape his life. When he read, when he was transported elsewhere, it was like he could stop being Marco for a moment.
“I read books,” he said and let himself smile. She responded, putting her hands on her hips and smearing dark earthworm casings all over her light linen work pants.
“A bookworm, eh? Read anything good lately?”
“I can’t say,” he said. What was he even reading now? He couldn’t remember. He couldn’t think straight. “Just a little of this, a little of that.”
“Fiction, or Non?”
“Fiction,” he said, and they hauled loads of the dark musky fertilizers to the bed.
“Are you? A reader, I mean.”
“No, I’m naturally physical,” she said and winked back at him. What was this? What was happening? Was she really coming on that strong? Did she think that would work?
But Marco felt his stomach flutter and smelled something above the fertilizer. Something strong and organic, something human. It was her, her sweat in the high midday sun, hauling right beside him. His breath hitched, then he let himself breathe again.
It was nice.
“You going back to your house to read after your shift?” Cleo asked. “Or can I wrangle you into something a little more fun?”
“More fun?” he asked and blushed.
“Slow down, soldier. I meant drinks.”
His stomach dropped at the title, and for a moment, he thought he would throw up, but he brought the load of compost close against his body and stomped rhythmically to the bare patch of farmland.
“I don’t know, maybe I should just — ”
He dumped the load, then looked back at her and realized his mistake. With his fork down, nothing between the two of them, he felt dreadfully naked. She also had her shovel planted in the earth, her arms shining with sweat and speckled with the dark, musky chips. Her chest rose and fell beneath the bloom of dark fabric under her neck; he couldn’t stop himself from taking her in completely.
Just go back to his house, the one he’d been issued as a refugee and had never moved out of? The one he’d never had anyone visit, as if there was anyone to visit? Alone, so he could read his books and escape from his life? Five years now, and he’d had nothing but loneliness, surrounded as he was like an island in this sea of community. They were friendlier in Freehold than where he was from, than where he really belonged. They were so accepting, so free with their affection and camaraderie. It was hard to keep pushing them away, to channel all that pain into dissociating.
“Maybe… I should take you up on that.”
“That’s what I like to hear.”
Nights turned into weeks, which turned into months, and before he knew it, half a year had passed. His own place was mostly unused. He only ever returned to pick up a book, or to check the mail. In effect, he lived at Cleo’s; they lived together, they were together. He would’ve never thought it possible.
They had a place; their place. Where they’d gone out for drinks that very first time; she liked the greasy fried zucchini, and he couldn’t complain. The lights were low, music filtered down through the hanging ceiling draperies, and when they were there together, it felt like they were the only people in the world.
But not tonight. Tonight she had, after many assurances and proddings on her part, invited her friends. She said it was important for him to get to know them, to become more enmeshed in the community after going at it alone for so long. He wasn’t sure he agreed.
A dark-skinned woman a couple of years younger than Cleo stared at him from across the table.
“Fascinating,” Varsha said, not taking her eyes off of him.
“What’s fascinating?” Patrick, who looked like he might’ve been Marco’s twin if he’d taken a different path in life ten years before, asked.
“To see an American, a real American, in the flesh.”
“Varsh,” Cleo warned, and Marco felt her elbow touch his.
The woman with long, blonde hair to Varsha’s left put her drink down, cut her eyes between Cleo and Varsha, then finally settled on Marco’s.
“What was it like?”
Cleo sighed. “Not you too. He’s not a performing monkey.”
Marco felt his core clench, but he took another swallow of the stiff drink and spoke to the tabletop.
“It wasn’t so bad. You just sort of get used to it.”
“The pollution?” Patrick asked.
“And other things.”
“What made you come over? It’s very dangerous, isn’t it?” Patrick asked.
“More than you can imagine,” Marco said.
The music playing overhead went fuzzy for a moment, switching to hard static, making Marco’s hair stand on end. He looked left at Cleo.
“What?” she asked, and touched his knee with hers under the table. “What is it?”
“It’s… nothing. Just brings back bad memories. When the radio cut out, we had to hide under whatever we could find for nuclear defense drills.”
Cleo turned to Varsha, and he could only imagine the stare she was giving, but the music came on again, a different radio channel, and his muscles relaxed.
“What matters isn’t how he got here, but that Marco’s here, with us, now,” Cleo said, and she grabbed his arm. He met her gaze and felt at home for the first time since they entered the bar.
“Y — yeah,” Varsha said, and held up her glass. “To Marco, who made a hell of a decision, a hell of a journey, and if I know Cleo at all, is a hell of a man.”
Marco’s eyes widened in mortification, and Cleo smiled back at him, then they were all toasting, him included. It almost felt like he was among friends.
Maybe, he allowed himself to consider, he was.
Sunday afternoons were lazy at their place. Cleo puttered around the kitchen making herself a bowl of cereal, while Marco read to the low hum of an untuned radio station. He said the static helped him get into the world of the books, and she believed him. He almost believed it himself.
Until the station went quiet, then erupted with a series of clicks. Marco looked up from his book, Cleo bent back to peer out from the kitchen, and they listened as the rapid-fire clicks went on and on.
“What the hell is that?”
“Probably radio interference,” he said, as his bowels turned to liquid.
“It sounds like a dolphin.”
“Maybe they’re radioing back,” he tried to joke, but he heard the tension in his own voice. She leaned further out and got a look at his face.
“Baby, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” he lied, just one more lie for the pile, a whole house of lies, their house together, ready to fall down. And it would fall, now that the clicks had arrived.
“You don’t look okay.”
“Something I ate.”
“Are you sure?”
The clicks finally ended, and with them, he regained a modicum of composure. He let out a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding, and slumped back into his chair. He hadn’t realized he’d been leaning forward. He felt exhausted. He felt terrified.
“Just some gas, probably.”
“Damn chili,” she said, and smiled. He faked a smile back, and of course, he was faking. He was a faker, just a big liar, a shell of a man who wasn’t even really real. He was a ghost, destined to blow away in the wind, leaving her behind to wonder what had happened. Would she ever guess? He hoped she wouldn’t.
Because he did understand the code that had come through the radio clicks, the code he’d been trained and drilled on during those hot, sticky months at Fort Bragg before his deployment. He understood it all too well. It meant that playing house was over. It meant that this life was over.
He was going home.
“I might have to stop by the dispensary later tonight,” he said, trying to sound natural, though his whole body had taken up with a tremor he failed to suppress.
“Why, what are we out of?” she asked from back in the kitchen.
“Tarragon,” he said, knowing she wouldn’t check the spice cabinet. Knowing that she trusted him. She’d been wrong, he’d been wrong to let her. He should’ve kept to himself, just like he’d tried to.
“Well, pick me up some more almond milk while you’re out,” she said. “I think we’re almost out.”
“Alright,” he lied. “Will do.”
The rest of the day passed in a haze; he didn’t have anything he needed to gather before he reached the extraction point. He tried to make every moment count, but that voice was back in his head. Liar, impostor. It chided him with every word he said, every kiss. Even the touch of Cleo’s skin felt dishonest, like he was something venomous that could kill her in an instant. He supposed, in a way, he was. They were, after all, on opposite sides of a war. Just not a war that had started yet.
He left in the late afternoon, saying he’d be back in an hour or so. Lying. Instead of heading to the dispensary, he skulked to his nearly abandoned home. In the closet behind the front door was a duffel bag, and within the duffel bag was an old wooden clock. On his intake paperwork, he’d claimed it as a family heirloom, the only one he’d been able to bring on his long trek across the mountains.
Marco ripped the wooden shingled roof off of the cuckoo clock and fished around inside its jangling innards for the secret within. It was so small he almost missed it, but he brought out a tiny transmitter that was no more than a bare circuit board attached to a length of insulated wire. The same transmitter they’d trained him on while he spent weeks memorizing his cover story. The transmitter that would call the radio-cloaked dinghy waiting even now far offshore, and bring it to wherever he activated the thing. That would end his life here.
He sat dangling his legs off the corrugated metal dock, just after sunset, with the tiny transmitter cradled in his hand. He wasn’t bringing anything with him but the knowledge he’d accrued in his long years of being an ecocitizen of Freehold. They’d extract as much as they could — locations of vital infrastructure, seats of government, public concourses — before they made their targeting decisions. What he told them would ensure the success of many future missions, but it would also lead to the devastation of Freehold. He was like a scorpion you found in your boot; by the time you realized it was there, too late. Damage done.
Even so, the device sat cradled in his hand, unactivated. What if one of those hypersonic tungsten rods from space hit Cleo? What if she was on the roadway, or at the dispensary, or in one of a hundred other vital points that would be targeted after his debriefing? What if the words from his mouth lead directly to her death?
And what of her friends — Ann, Patrick, Varsha? What if they were in the wrong place at the wrong time? What about their favorite bar, would it escape bombardment? He shook his head; it didn’t matter. He wasn’t coming back.
They were as good as dead to him anyway, like he was to them. After he pressed that button, they’d never see him again, and he’d never see them. He’d go back to America, to the barracks on some military base, maybe in the dust bowl, maybe on the polluted coast. He’d go back to wearing a respirator when he went outside, to eating protein mash for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and watching everyone get sicker and sicker from the toxic miasma. That was where he was born, that was where he’d grown up. That was where he belonged.
Marco opened his hand and watched the transmitter roll off his fingers and fall into the water. It was little more than a circuit board and a fat, flexible antenna; he knew it was dead on impact. He’d never be able to salvage it, even if he found it in the silt.
That was best.
He looked out to sea. Somewhere out there, a radio-cloaked rubber dinghy waited to pick him up, and would keep waiting until morning, when it would return to the destroyer that had launched it. Would they think he was dead? Would they know that he’d defected? In the end, he found he didn’t care what they thought. Whatever happened to the city would happen to him too.
Marco sighed, got to his feet, turned, and almost startled backward into the sloshing ocean waves below. There, at the other end of the dock, was Cleo. She was watching him, had been watching him, the entire time. He tried to understand, to come up with a lie, a deflection, but he deflated. He put two and two together as he watched her in the twilight.
“Did you always know?”
Cleo nodded. “It was my assignment.”
“Even that first day? At the soil bed?” She nodded again.
“I…” he said, and felt his face screw up beyond his control. A sob escaped, and he lowered his head into his hands. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
He felt her strong arms encircle him. He was sure she was going to throw him into the water at his back, or cuff him, but instead, she just held him. Just like she always did.
“I forgive you, Marco,” she whispered into his hair. “We’ve both been lying; I’m sorry too. I’m sorry for… manipulating you so. I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you.”
“Was it — ,” his breath hitched in another sob. “Was it real?”
“Love? Of course, it was real. It is real, Marco. It’s still real. They never told me to sleep with you. You know that’s not how things work here. They just told me… that you were in a lot of trouble. That you were in too deep. That you had a decision to make somewhere down the line. They asked me to make you my friend, they never told me to make you my lover.”
“What happens now?” he muttered, resting his tired body against her strong frame. He couldn’t bring himself to hold her, to touch her. He felt like a liar, like a cheat, that she’d been lying to him the entire time as well meant almost nothing in relation to what he’d been about to do.
“Now? I hope you’ll come home. I don’t suppose you got my almond milk?” He shook his head.
“Thought not. Well, I suppose we’ll have to stop by the dispensary first. Then… I guess we’ll just have to talk this out. If I’m being honest, I was always looking forward to hearing about the you from before. From out there. To hearing about what made you the way you are now. We can be real to each other, true to each other, if you want to.”
Marco nodded. “I want that,” he said, still not quite believing that there wasn’t prison in his future, torture to divulge what little he knew about his military’s command structure. Maybe there was, somewhere, sometime, but not now. Right now, there was just the two of them, and he finally held her.
They stood holding tight to each other, a prominence on that stygian dock, as the last rays of twilight scattered into the indigo sky.