Sunday, November 15, 2015

Ending the Cycle of Violence

In the wake of what happened in Paris this week, the international community will bond together over those innocent men and women stolen from their lives by acts of terror. People will make speeches, have moments of silence, and the French flag will temporarily wash over Facebook photos from New Zealand to Newfoundland, from sea to shining sea. Words like life, liberty, and phrases like the pursuit of happiness will grace the lips of Americans appalled by the violence, and similar things will come from German, British, Japanese, Brazilian, and a whole host of other affected, empathetic peoples. We will talk of bravery, of freedom, and of courage and of the will for those that lost to go on with strength in the face of such adversity.

And we should. Humans, by our very nature, have the capacity for communal love, for bonding in times of need and suffering to help those that cannot help themselves. In these moments, we realize, if only briefly, that our combined efforts are greater than the sum of our parts, that something about our connection strengthens us. Even the idea that we have the support of others can begin the healing process.

But while the wounds are fresh, while the tragedy burns in our collective minds, while the red white and blue bars grace the Empire State Building, Christ the Redeemer, and our sacred monuments worldwide, let us take a deep breath and think.

Cultures from the Middle East and the West have been at war for at least 2500 years, since the Persians and the Greeks, and though the faces and names have changed, the ideals and the misunderstandings have not. It's easy to make villains of the other side, that group of people that looks different, sounds different, and that thinks differently than you do. It's easy to dehumanize those people that suffer for our actions because we don't fully understand them, there is an element of unknown about them, and we fear the unknown. We have trouble relating to them, and worse, we start to make assumptions about them. We group them together. We fail to separate the terrorists from the civilians because they look like those that hurt us, they sound like those that hurt us, and they share some culture as well. We put a Middle-Eastern face to this evil, and likewise, they put Western faces on the drones that fly overhead and the tanks that roll through their streets, regardless of why the tanks and drones are there.

And fear and anger flow both ways across the Mediterranean. The people of France, much like the people of these United States fourteen years ago, will want vengeance. They will want the heads of those behind the plots on a platter for what they've done. Revenge, I believe, is one of the most basic human feelings, but I also believe that, in this case, it stems from that communal love, the idea that your community has suffered, and that you will do whatever it takes to prevent that from happening again. That you will do what it takes to prevent this from happening to you and your loved ones someday, perhaps. Consider then, the idea that this violence is a cycle 2500 years old and perpetuated by both sides motivated by self-preservation, cultural pride, and in some cases, this sense of community that we feel towards our fellow countrymen and women.

Then consider that evil can wear any face, can speak in any tongue, and feeds on fear and hatred. There are terrorists that live among us that look like us, that sound like us, and that have some of the same culture as we do. There are people that would breed fear and hatred with Western ideals and white faces. Extremists can walk in any skin. Terror does not stem from the Middle East, and terrorists are not all Middle Eastern. They are a brand of people that have lost respect for human life and dignity.

Which leads me to believe that the vengeance we feel should not be geared towards any one terrorist organization but towards terror itself, towards hatred, fear, and suffering. When we eliminate the members of ISIS, will another sect of radicals, spurred on by those Western faces on our otherwise faceless bombs, spring up in its place? Will the hatred permeate through the communities affected by our war on terror, and will they continue to fight against us? Will they feed off of the fear of the strikes that come in the night? Because if they do, one generation from now, we will have a whole new crop of zealots ready to take lives in the name of their community, religion, and culture.

What then, if we stopped the cycle? What then, if we took the opportunity to demonstrate the full and awesome power of our ideals, freedom and democracy? What then, if we executed a kind of vengeance that targets fear and suffering under the global banner of peace rather than taking more lives? What if, instead of sending our troops to fight them, we sent our troops for a more constructive purpose?

I wonder if we could fight this terror with concrete, plaster, and steel, with words and books, with medicine. I wonder if going into war-torn Syrian or rural Afghanistan, we could build schools and roads, hospitals, factories, and farms, the sort of infrastructure that breeds stability and peace. We could show the people that these extremist organizations prey on for their soldiers, that we, the West, have their best interests in mind, that our freedoms, that our ideals are for more than armies and bullets and bombs. We could show a culture that might not understand us exactly what we stand for: peace, health, education, and equality, or put another way, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We could show them that we, fellow human beings caught in the hands of time along with them, are their brethren, their community, and more than capable of bonding together to overcome. That the sum of our parts, Western and Middle Eastern, is greater than the whole.

What if every bag of grain, bottle of water, or brick sent over in aid to the areas affected by ISIS and the unrest in Syria had the name of someone that suffered and died in these attacks? What if they all said, "In memory of..." to remind the people receiving them exactly why we care, exactly why we fight suffering of all kinds? What if we remind these people in our times of hardship, that we are there for them, that we do not fear them, that we might not understand their particular suffering, but that we do understand loss? What if we remind each other that we are all human?

A life taken too soon is a tragedy, no matter what skin that life walks in. I don't wish to see another innocent person lost in the name of vengeance. The only way to prevent this type of violence is to break the cycle, to wield education and healthcare and essential supplies in the place of our hatred and fear. The only way to prevent this type of violence is to wage war on the violence itself.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Hydraulic Heartbeat

This is based on a story at the Writing Forums for a competition in rewriting:


“Unit John McCreary,” a robotic voice came out of his earpiece. “Another unit is down in your area.” A little red blip showed up on the screen between the handlebars of his hoverbike. “Report to the indicated location.”

He hit the air breaks and swung the bike into the next alley along the highlighted route. Up two more stories and down two more blocks in one of the seediest parts of the cityscape, he came across a raised covered walkway that bridged between two buildings. Stepping off, he pulled up a plasma pistol and switched his HUD to infrared. Ahead, he saw nothing but fog. Behind him, a light that could have been a candle flickered near the ground.

“Dispatch, I’ve located the unit.”

He approached it slowly, gun-raised in a crouched position, stooping even lower when he found the body. Her arms sprawled out to her side; hydraulic fluid seeped from wounds on her chest.

“Poor dame,” he said, pulling a cable out from the bottom of his pack. He peeled back the soft flesh on her right hip and jacked the cable into the port. “Dispatch, I’m recording her last seconds.”

In his left eye he saw a tall man, scars over one eye pointing a pistol at him. “You cheating on me?” he asked, a manic grin pulled across his bearded face.

“I—I—,” he heard the voice but couldn’t see the speaker. “I have only ever loved you, Jack.”

“Bullocks, dame,” the scarred man spat. “You’ve been spying on me.” The pistol whined in his hand, and a little wire jumped out from the barrel. John’s left eye vision started to vibrate, then went blurry. “Tin Man.”

The whole world shifted so that it looked as though Jack had shrunk. John knew that poor Esther, the downed unit, had gotten up to try to defend herself, systems still haywire from the virus shot. Before she could activate any of her weapons, Jack had put five shots into her, the last straight through her microprocessor, and all went black.

“Don’t worry, Esther,” John said, regaining his vision. “I’ll nail the bastard.” He pulled the cable out.

“Report, Unit John McCreary?”

“Unit Esther Cole no longer functioning. Infrared distress signal activated. Suspect: Jack Hardwood. Unit John McCreary in pursuit,” he said, jumping back onto his bike. “Request clean-up crew.”

He felt bad leaving her, but her parts wouldn’t rot away like flesh. Besides, taking her would only weigh him down, keep him from enacting justice. Still, as the city air brushed by him, he felt cold. Almost as cold as his prey…

This time he needed no highlighted route. He reached the Hardwood Diner on a kind of autopilot. He parked the bike out front, took out both pistols, and busted through the doorway.

“Gentlemen,” he said to the three customers inside. “Please vacate the premises.” No one stood up. “Very well, I shall vacate them for you.” He pumped each of them full of plasma before they could reach their guns. “Dispatch, a report of non-compliance by patrons of the—.”

Something slammed into him from the left, throwing him against the wall. By the time he raised his gun, something hit him in the hand, turning it into a twisted metal hulk.

“Thought you were quick, huh, Tin Man?” Hardwood asked, his whole body reeking of hydraulic fluid. He stepped out from behind the counter, pistol smoking. “Not quick enough.”

“Jack Hardwood, I place you under arrest in the name of the Commission. Non-compliance will result in your termination. For references, see previous patrons.”

“That’s funny, Tin Man. You don’t think I can kill you? Have you seen your bitch recently?”

“Have you?” Esther stepped through the doorway, half her face torn off. She raised her plasma pistol and emptied the clip into him. When she was finished, she turned to John. “Dispatch, second core reboot successful. Target neutralized.”

John got back to his feet, picking up his gun with his one good hand. “Sorry I left you behind.”

She shrugged. “We’re robots, John. Compassion is not in our nature.” She looked at Jack’s steaming chest. “Revenge? Well, that’s a different story.”

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

King of Serpents

            William took a puff on his inhaler, pocketed it, and pushed the turnstyle out of the way. He expected someone to show up at any moment. Part of him hoped that someone would, but when the door closed behind him, leaving him in total darkness, hope was lost.
            Something hissed. Something croaked. Claws scratched at glass. William pulled out his phone and started up the flashlight ap. It was just a gecko crawling up the display. Nothing to be afraid of there. Even with it’s bulging eyes, the gecko was no larger than his hand. This mission was meant for bigger things.
            William passed by the entry exhibits, the large bits of indoor rainforest being politely sprinkled by the timers to recreate a tropical environment when no one was watching. Lizards in those exhibits he could handle.
            He sidled up a ramp, his palms sweaty along the railing, his puffer not far away from his fingers at any time. Each step brought him closer. He started imaging the thick coils wrapped around his legs, strangling his resolve to go any further.
            “Mustn’t worry, William,” he said. “It’s behind glass. It can’t hurt you.”
            Ten meters long and up to fifteen centimeters in diameter, he hoped the glass was thick.
            “It must not mistake you for a mouse, William. Stand tall.”
            He came to a circular room with various exhibits positioned around it. Something splashed into some water, which flashed in the meager light. Williams jumped back, barely grabbing the railing.
            He read the exhibit tag. “Frogs. Newts. Worse than geckos. Not even reptiles,” he said and shook his head. “Nothing to fear.”
            He had to get to the end quickly. Someone would have noticed the alarm to the Reptile House going off. Someone would be around soon to check on it. Worse still, someone would have noticed he wasn’t on the bus headed home with the other children.
            “Do you want to be a man?” He waded through his own fear, his muscles seized by spasms to flee. “When she hears you snuck into the snake-pit, she can’t call you a coward anymore, but only if you face the snake.”
            There were two things that scared William, really. One was on the bus back home, and the other was somewhere in a tank, hunting small rodents.
            “The boa constrictor can swallow small children,” he said, reciting what he’d read from the Zoological Books. “It can crush steel girders or break the neck of a buffalo. It does not need venom. Once you’re in it’s grasp, you are as good as dead.”
            He read the signs as he passed, each one more dangerous sounding than that last. “Skink. Monitor Lizard. Gila Monster….”
            He paused at a bronze sign with white lettering. “Copperhead.” He tapped the glass, but it was too dark to see. Besides, the Copperhead was only three meters long, at best. It wouldn’t be enough.
            Nor would the Coral Snake, the Taipan, or even the King Cobra that seemed to fly by him. At the end of the hall, there was a large glass structure that held the place of honor. There was no mistaking who lived in that one. No other exhibit could match its sheer size.
            His feet were positively glued to the floor, and there was no railing to let him haul himself forward. His fingers brushed against the glass of exhibits on either side, oblivious to the noise of the disturbed serpents inside. Transfixed on what lie before him, nothing could stop him, not even his fear of lesser snakes.
            Finally, he was at the exhibit, pressing his palms up against the transparent material too strong to be for meant anyone else. His breath fogged up the surface; he had to lean back to see through clearly. He held up his phone and saw something moving in the corner. He jumped back, dropped the phone, and yelped. He clawed at the floor trying to scramble back to his feet.
            “It cannot hurt you. You have to be strong.”
            Retrieving his light-source, he pressed himself against the glass again. The something in the corner moving was just a leaf. He shook his head.
            “Courage, William. Are you a man, or are you a mouse?”
            Just then, he caught sight of an actual rodent near the leaf. It chewed nervously on some of the fake foliage, twitching every time the leaf moved behind him. So small, so weak, it ran from the light.
            “You are doomed, mouse! Thirty feet of snake is hungry!” He chased it with the light. “Mustn’t be a mouse, William. Mustn’t be afraid.”
            He cornered the little creature, backed it up against the wall, and just as he was about to scold it, something moved on his left. Slick scales slithered through arranged foliage, over rubber pebbles, and out of lukewarm tap water. William’s light caught only the tip of it’s tail flicking through the homemade dirt.
            He flashed his light back at the mouse now too frightened to move, thinking that motionlessness might help it’s cause. He flashed back to the snake, or at least the paper undergrowth. The fog cloud on the window became denser.
            “Move, mouse! It can sense your body heat, you know.” His attention darted back and forth between the villain, and it’s terrified prey, whispering prayers of good fortune for a rodent he hardly knew. “You must fight. Run for your life.”
            But the rodent did nothing, save slowing it’s breathing. Against the blue painted wall, the gray mouse had no camouflage. In the light of his phone, there was not even darkness to hide it.
            “Perhaps it could get to the shrubbery?” he asked. “If only I could…”
            Snake and mouse converge, the diamond-shaped head emerged from the plastic forest, rearing up to tower over the poor animal. There was nowhere to run, no need for stealth. It’s coils, slightly less than thirty feet for sure but still omnipresent at rodent-level, slipped to either side. There was nowhere to run.
            “It’s only a mouse.” William balled up his fist. The distant click only barely registered in the back of his mind, the darkness fading with the distant light. “You are a man.”
            Footsteps echoed off the ramp into the amphibian room, the snake flicked the air with its tongue, the rodent’s little heart pattered like rain on the canopy, and William balled up his fist. Just as the beast was about to strike, William slammed the glass. The snake twitched, the rodent escaped, and it turned its massive head hungrily toward the boy. Mouth opening ever-so-slightly, it slithered forward, into the puddle that it used to cool down, drawing closer and closer, just as the footsteps and shouts behind him.

            He looked it square in the slivered eyes, let out a primal roar, and turned in time to see Ms. Abignail and the security guard rushing toward him. “I am the bane of the boa!” he shouted, beating his chest. “I am the King of Serpents! I am a man!”

Thursday, May 15, 2014

An Emotional Roller Coaster

            Bruce looked up at the steel arch and felt his knees knock together. A mad scream and thirty people hurtled over the crest, riding double-file, some with their hands in the air, some holding tightly to the belt in front of them. The roller coaster car screeched to a halt, and the windblown passengers filed off.
            Lucy nudged him toward the car, but his hands were stuck fast to the gate.
            “Sorry,” he mumbled, breathing deeply. “I’m just not—.”
            “Oh, God,” she scoffed, rolling her eyes. “Tell me we waited in line for two hours so you could chicken out again.”
            Bruce couldn’t speak.
            “You’re making a scene.”
            Several smaller children scraped past the height requirement worker and positioned themselves in the front car. The people behind then were tapping their toes, eager to take his place. He would have let them, if she hadn’t been so insistent.
            “We have to get out more,” she had said. “We have to start living!”
            Afraid that she would find him boring, he’d taken her to the theme park, came to the roller coaster first thing in the morning, and realized it wasn’t for him. After a couple of hours going through the games and the food markets, Lucy had started doing these little, disapproving sniffs every time he suggested something. Desperate, he’d come back to The Blaster.
            Reluctantly, trying not to see the slope going up away from the platform, Bruce sidled over to the car, buckled himself in, and said a silent prayer. “Does this belt feel a little loose to you?”
            Lucy sighed. “We need to talk.”
            “Yes, now. I can’t keep doing this.” She shook her head, the operator’s distant voice starting the pre-ride warnings. “Where’s the man I met, Bruce? Where is the guy who ate a chunk of wasabi to make me laugh?”
            The brakes released, the car slid forward, swooped down a small hill, which made his heart jump into his throat, and then, the chains started dragging them up the first slope. All the while he kept thinking that he ate the wasabi accidentally.
            “Now look at you.” She twisted in her seat. “This was your idea to spice things up, and you can’t even carry through. I want adventure. I want excitement. I want a boyfriend, not a baby.”
            The front car disappeared, followed shortly by the second. Soon, they plummeted. He closed his eyes, which made things worse. The contents of his stomach kept coming to mind. They swooped up another hill, around a corner and into a second set of chains.
            “Seriously, it’s like I don’t even know you,” she snarled. “It’s like it was all a front.”
            Swoop, turn, flip, turn, swoop. Brakes.
            “I’m done with you, with this whole charade. It’s like I don’t even know you anymore.”
            He made a noise of pain. Nauseous, nauseous pain.
            “I’m breaking up with you, Bruce.”
            The car lurched, and shot up into a loop. Without his consent, his feet were soon over his head, his eyes struggling against gravity to stay open. The blood drained from his face. Next was a tightly banking turn. She screamed expletives at him. He just held the rail.
            The last straightaway unfurled, and the brakes hit, mercifully. He fought down the chilidog from an hour ago, breathing deep. They waited while the train in front of them loaded.
            “Aren’t you going to at least fight for me?”
            The train rolled into the station. The belts kept them locked down.
            “What’s to fight for? You’re right,” he replied, finally. “I’m sorry I had to be someone else just to get your attention.”
            She sniffed and left the moment the belts clicked.

            Queasy, Bruce hobbled onto the platform. One of the small children from the first row was staring at him. “The things you do for love, eh?” he asked.

Friday, May 9, 2014

An Open Letter to Mother Nature.

I am a chieftain among men when it comes to missing out on awe-inspiring natural disasters. That’s not to say that where I go is safe to follow: quite the contrary, but I am never a part of the terrible experience that so many can say that they lived through.

In particular, I can think of three stories.

The first takes place in Disney World, believe it or not. We had gone down to Disney in a trailer to stay at the only trailer park in Disney because having a big family meant sleeping several feet from half your immediate relatives. I was seven, and at the time, I didn’t know any better. I thought camping was the best I could ask for…that is until two tornados tore up the county. It was the deadliest tornado disaster in the history of Florida, with forks of lining that even Floridians couldn’t handle, knifing through the sky and splitting open trees. The real sufferers, however, were people that lived in a trailer park five miles south of where we were. Sleeping tight in my own trailer, I never saw a thing, not the swirling winds of either tornado nor the bright flashes nor the deluge that came with them both. When I woke the next morning, everyone had a story to tell but me.

The second was one of the most destructive blizzards the northeast has ever seen. It happened in October, which was why it was so devastating, hauling down trees that hadn’t lost their leaves, felling ancient monuments to the existence of nature in the few small spaces where they hadn’t been pushed out by Connecticutians. My father, and he was not alone in this, described it as looking very much like the pictures of Hiroshima when you walked through the forest. Everything had been pulverized. People were without power for months in a part of the country where missing your TV shows can be a tragedy. A tree fell through my Aunt’s roof and, to my knowledge, wasn’t removed for almost a week because there was simply too much damage to the infrastructure of the state to allow engineering crews to do anything else. And while this once in a lifetime experience was taking place, I was spending my very first winter in the south of the country, away from the northeast, where snow had also paralyzed the state…except that the snow was a dusting of half an inch and only resulted in a distinct shortage of eggs and milk at the local WalMart, the shortage being caused by paranoid denizens and not the storm itself.

The last was one of the first earthquakes that I can remember hitting the east coast. As long as I’ve lived here, there has been only one. Mind you, I’m the kind of person who wonders what it must be like to have the Earth shift beneath your feet, rattling and vibrating and pulling pictures off the wall (because that’s about as disastrous as I can imagine). It happened near Richmond, VA while I was living in South Carolina, only two states over. By all means I should have felt it. I should have heard glass shattering and metal groaning. Certainly, some of my fellows did sitting in different buildings, but I was in the engineering building, which for some strange reason, had been properly engineered not to do those very things. How is one supposed to experience a natural disaster if you are so well prepared, University? What really cooks my goose is that the vibration was felt by people in the next room who quickly came over and let me know what their bottoms had felt. Unfortunately for me, I had been sitting on a cushy chair with my feet pulled up Indian style. I never felt a thing.

So to you, Mother Nature, while some might find you moody or vindictive or to be a stone-cold bitch, I say thank you. For whatever reason, and I don’t want to say it was the invasive species project I did in AP Biology (though it might have been), you have spared me your wrath. If you could kindly keep doing that, I would be more than appreciative.

Hugs and Kisses,
Bryan Thurston

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Last Human

There’s no telling if I wake up from this. Everyone knows it, but no one will say it.

“Ten minutes,” the nurse says, poking her head in.

That’s how I know. They’re giving me a warning, like they want me to put my personal effects in order before I go under, just in case. I’m sixteen: I don’t have personal effects. I have fifty years of unlived life lying in front of me. Sometimes I like to imagine what my kids would look like. That’s what keeps me going. Maybe, just maybe, if I can keep my heart pumping, I can keep those beautiful brats alive.

Mom is stroking my head, which is only making things worse. Her hands are shaking, and her brittle voice keeps saying, “It’ll be okay,” like she knows anything about liver transplants. I know how bad it is. The doctor gave us the odds. Plus, any time they cut a sizeable chunk out of you, there’s a chance you won’t recover.

The disease that put me here has some long name, something important sounding. My mom says it all the time and then tells everyone that I’m a trooper. I hate that. One, troopers are soldiers, and soldiers die. Two, just hearing the name makes it sound like I’ve got no chance. Why couldn’t they call it the “Lazy Platelet Disease”? That doesn’t sound so bad.

Dad pretends he’s okay with his arms crossed and his eyebrows all knitted together, but he’s not fooling anyone itching his cheeks that often. It’s not like he developed eczema overnight. Those are tears he’s wiping away.

The nurse comes back in. She and Mom start talking about the weather, like I’m not lying here, hooked up to enough equipment to power a submarine. She’s here to usher me into the OR. I keep thinking to myself that this might be the last human I ever see. I wonder if this is what gladiators felt staring down their enemies.

“If you can’t fight for your life, maybe you don’t deserve to live,” I mumble through the mask.

“What’s that, dear?” the nurse asks.

Mom hates when I talk about death. She can’t handle it. It makes me wonder what’s worse, dying, or watching someone you love die. It’s even harder because we don’t have compatible livers. She would do anything to keep me going. It must be killing her, standing there so helpless.

Now I get it. “Crazy weather, right?” I wheeze, loud enough for them to hear it. It’s not about the weather. It’s about feeling normal; ignorance is bliss. The nurse knows that. That’s why she started such a frivolous conversation. I decide to take up her lead and pretend like there’s nothing wrong.

The nurse gets my IVs attached to my bed-frame, my chariot into battle. She compliments my mother on her dress as she wheels me out.

“It’ll be okay,” she says when the door closes. It’s not the way my mother says it, hoping I’ll make it through. She knows the odds. She means that there are fates worse than death, like being alone. I will always have my parents.

In the prep room, they wash me down. She holds my hands while they put in a new line for my anesthesia. She doesn’t say anything. She just smiles.

I’m glad she’s my last human.

I can feel the drugs creeping through my system. She doesn’t let go, even though I’m going limp. I squeeze her hand. I’ve been fine up until now. The drugs make it real. These might be my last few rays of light.

“Tell my mom I—I—,” but I can’t finish between the tears and the numbness.

She squeezes my hand back. “She knows.”

Those might be the last words I ever hear. Her smile might be the last thing I ever see. I imagine coming through a tunnel into the Coliseum with the crowd cheering my name. I will fight.

Monday, April 21, 2014

No More Cabbage

            Barnaby the Tortoise had been alive for longer than he could remember, which to him meant that he had been alive altogether too long. Still, as old as he was, he wasn’t the old coot of the Tortoise Exhibit in the London Zoo. That was Francis, a real old wheezer, who spent most of his time putzing about, eating cabbage, and lecturing the younger tortoises about the coming apocalypse, today being no different.
            “It will start with lettuce!” Francis preached to gasps and gawking from the younger, more impressionable crowd. “The Great War approaches! And when the humans run low on their resources, they will start replacing our cabbage with lettuce!”
“Pish tosh,” Barnaby said, in return and piddled off to find a quieter place. He had already been through several Wars to End All Wars, and the thought of humans killing each other in droves did not in the slightest bit affect his happiness. In fact, during the last one, they had moved the animals all off to a nice farm in Yorkshire, where, yes, it had been a bit colder, but there had actually been more cabbage than there had ever been in London.
            “I quite hope there is another bloodbath,” Barnaby said, and then he harrumphed happily. “More’s the cabbage for me.”
            “What’s that, Barnaby?” Ethel, his shell-cleaning bird asked. “Are you going on about Francis again?”
            “No, no, my dear,” Barnaby chortled, trying to use merriment to cover up his grumpiness. “I was just trying to look on the bright side. Always a good tactic.”
            You, looking on the bright side?” Ethel squawked. “You miserable old git, you’ve been moping around ever since they sent Ursula to San Diego.”
            “I have not!” he wheezed, and some of the sparrows that had come down to nip at his cabbage hopped off. Not because the noise had been particularly loud but because the fog of hot air felt uncomfortable on their backs. “I have not,” he said again quietly, “and even if I had been, I’d have every right to be upset. They sent my daughter to the Golden State, and they kept me here in dreary London. I thought for sure I had earned a vacation in the tropics.”
            Ethel scratched at his shell. “Perhaps you have, my dear, but maybe you’re too old to be moved.”
            “Too old to be moved,” he echoed. He tried to shake his head, but being a tortoise, it took him a long time to do anything, so instead he munched with purpose to show how indignant he felt. “Well, I’ll be the judge of that.”
            “Oh yes, dear?” Ethel laughed. “Next time they’re looking to move someone, you should submit your candidacy. Assuming they could understand you, I think you have a good shot.”
            “Confound it all, Ethel, you know I don’t speak human,” Barnaby grumbled. “Don’t you sass me now. I’ve been hosting your family on my back for six generations. The least you can do is offer me some respect.”
            “That’s why I speak up, Barnaby. Someone has to tell you when you start sounding senile.”
            “Yes, I suppose so.” One of his eyebrows rose. “Don’t want to sound like a raging loony, do I?” He wiggled his shell. “Not like Francis, right? That tortoise thinks the sun rises and sets with him, doesn’t he? What a loony!”
            Ethel pecked at his back. “You know, it’s not at all kind to be calling someone names, Barnaby. You’d think in your old age you would understand that.”
            “In my old age I’ve earned the right to be obstinate,” Barnaby said. “You know, the London Zoo bought me with funds they acquired from Darwin himself? I’m more than one hundred and fifty years old.”
            “And looking quite nice.” There was a sound like the breeze, if the breeze had somehow caught pneumonia. Francis was laughing. “When I was one hundred and fifty, I had far more shell problems than you do.” He smiled and licked his chops at Ethel. “Perhaps that’s because my shell bird died back in the Victorian Era.”
            “Yes, yes, we’ve all heard the story. Tragic. Last of her kind. Extinction of her shell-cleaning species,” Barnaby rattled off. Ethel tapped her foot against his shell impatiently. “I’ve always said you could borrow Ethel whenever you wanted, Francis.”
            Francis shook his head very slowly. “No, no. Don’t trouble yourself for an old goat like me.” Then he smiled. “Did I say goat? I meant—.”
            “Yes, yes, we all know what you meant, Francis. What can I do for you?” Barnaby asked, munching some more cabbage. “I thought you never came up to these parts.”
            Francis leaned to one side, opened his mouth, close it again and leaned to the other. “Oh, it’s been so long since I was here, and what with the end drawing near, I thought it might be a good idea to visit the old pool again.” He looked at the stagnant puddle just beyond the cabbage.
            “’End drawing near’,” Barnaby scoffed, but Francis didn’t seem to notice. “I’ll not even dignify that with a response.”
            Ethel cleared her throat. “Francis, dear, would you like some cabbage?”
            Barnaby grumbled but moved aside.
            “Oh, yes,” Francis said, humming to himself. “Got to get it before they start replacing it, you know.”
            Ethel pecked Barnaby’s shell before the old tortoise could even groan. “So I’ve heard,” she said, transitioning to Francis’s shell. “What a terrible thing to do. There’s no nutritional value in lettuce.”
            “Can’t fault the humans,” Francis said, a piece of Barnaby’s cabbage dangling from his mouth. “It’s so hard to see read the Mother Turtle’s energy. They live such short lives, they’ll never really understand their impact on the Earth or on their fellow humans.”
            Before Barnaby could compose himself enough to start ranting, Francis had turned away. “Well, the end is nigh. Enjoy your very last cabbages, Barnaby.”
            “Wait!” Barnaby shouted. “Wait just one frog-eaten minute, Francis. You can’t just say things like that and walk away. Defend yourself!”
            Francis’s long neck stretched and swayed like a dancing snake. “Surely I can’t trouble you, my old friend. You’ve always called my theories rubbish.”
            “And rubbish they are,” Barnaby argued, stomping his foot very slowly, slightly embarrassed that Francis knew what he had been saying behind the old tortoise’s back. “What evidence have you?”
            “Evidence?” the elderly tortoise sang. “Evidence? Why, my old friend, you need not look any further than your breakfast. You cannot tell me the cabbage tastes as good or as fresh as it did in our youth…watery as if it were just…lettuce.”
            “No, I cannot. Might as well be lettuce,” Barnaby admitted, “but that doesn’t mean the world will end soon. That just means the humans have gotten lazy.”
            Francis’s eyes got very wide. “Does that not worry you?”
            Barnaby’s face scrunched up, which was saying something for an old tortoise whose face was always scrunched. “As long as they pay to see the creatures at the zoo, what do we care what they do to their own habitat? It’s their own faults.”
            “Silly Barnaby, you think what they do is independent from what we do?” Francis laughed, throwing back his head very slowly. “Why, look at my shell! Hasn’t been cleaned since before the great Prime Minister Churchill! Where have all my birds gone?”
            “It’s called extinction, Francis. We tortoises survived the last one, didn’t we, what with all the dinosaurs going the way of the dodo.” Barnaby laughed. “And we survived the Ice Age and the Romans and the Incans and even the Germans when they started bombing London. What’s any different about this one?”
            “Well, Barnaby, I believe you have put your foot right on it,” Francis said and sighed. “Laziness. Indifference. Ignorance.”
            “Come now, Barnaby. Worse than bombs?” Ethel asked. “I think we should have a little faith in the recent peace. There hasn’t been a major European conflict in years. Don’t you think that’s a bit pessimistic?”
            “Realistic, my dear,” Francis said. “The word is realistic. Don’t believe me? Ask the Moa.”
            “The what?” Barnaby’s mouth hung open, and regrettably, his cabbage fell into the dirt.
            “Precisely,” Francis gassed. “Huge bird, wiped out by human ignorance.”
            “So what?” Barnaby had had enough. He marched over to Francis as fast as his tortoise feet could take him. “So a couple of birds died out. Maybe they had it coming, Francis. Maybe it was their own fault. Maybe humans are a new form of evolutionary pressure.” Barnaby paused to take a breath after unloading that phrase. “In the end, it always works out. I’m sure our ancestors were particularly incensed by the number of Tyrannosaurs, and look what hapened. Nature finds a way to even things out. Human laziness will end in human destruction.”
            Francis smiled. “Perhaps, but then, when they die off, who will bring you cabbage, Barnaby?” He wrinkled his nose happily. “It will start with lettuce. Goodbye, Ethel. Goodbye, Francis.”
            Barnaby watched Francis go, stunned into silence for long enough that Francis got away, which is saying something, really. “I rather think lettuce would do him good, the fat, old buffoon. Maybe a little more lettuce would clear his head.”
            “You don’t think he had a point?” Ethel asked, pecking at his shell nervously.
            Barnaby munched a piece of cabbage thoughtfully. It was in fact a bit watery for his tastes. “Even if he did, what good is there worrying about it? I don’t even have thumbs, Ethel. I don’t know what you want me to do about it.”

            Ethel leapt down and took the piece of cabbage Barnaby was about to eat. “Well, someone has to do something, Barnaby. I, for one, am going to cut you back on the cabbage. There’s a start.”