“Francis Snyder isn’t producing oxygen, Dack.”
A thin man with a few wisps of strawberry blond hair on his head stood just in the entrance of his supervisor’s office. A poster hung behind the supervisor’s desk. Two children stood in front of a tree. A speech bubble over the boy said: “Thanks Mom and Dad. Because of you, we have a future.” And underneath in shimmering purple and silver letters it said LifeTree: Save the planet for your children.”
“Sentimental.” Said the man with the clipboard.
Solomon Dack, a man of twenty-five with the scowl of a cantankerous geriatric, rolled his eyes.
“The higher ups sent it over. It’s some retro thing from when they started the program. Back when they had to convince people it was in their best interests to be executed and recycled to fertilize a tree. Higher ups claim it improved morale. Like we have to bother with improving morale now that it’s illegal to live past forty-five! I think it just makes them feel better about reducing the age limit from 50 to 45.
“But don’t change the subject! Whaddya mean Snyder isn’t producing oxygen? It’s what trees do! They can’t help it! You keep coming and telling me these trees stop producing and I tell you, it’s impossible! What was the last one, just some meter malfunction, right? That’ll be it again. Your whole job is making sure those things run right.”
His junior just recited the facts in a monotone, his bulging eyes and sallow face expressionless. “Computer registered a fault, so I went out to check and she just isn’t producing anything. No problems with the computer, or the meter, or anything as far as I could tell. The tree appears to be withered.”
The supervisor took his feet down from his desk and groaned, slamming his hand down on a pile of paperwork. “This is the third problem this week! And now they’ve lowered the age cut off again they’re sending me more and more corpses every day, but does anybody think of the infrastructure? No. Dumb computer probably fed the tree nuclear waste or something…” Dack turned to his computer and said, “Pull up Francis Snyder.”
The two men stood in silence as the computer read to them: “Francis Snyder, born August 2032, recycled July 2081. African American. No known health problems. Became Silver Maple, Acer saccharinum. Average .71 lbs oxygen per day. Mild case of anthracnose fungus in 2097.”
“Well that tells us absolutely nothing.” Dack grouched.
“She was recycled in 2081—people were still hiding from the recycling gangs back then. Unusual to have volunteered.”
“Idiots.” The supervisor said. “Like they couldn’t see the ground cracking in front of them, even if they didn’t believe we’d burnt up the ozone layer. Computer, any special notes about Francis Snyder?”
“Francis Snyder was one of the first volunteers for the LifeTree program. Her daughter was suffering from Oxygen Failure Disease (OFD) and she believed her death would help her daughter breathe again. She read this before entering the recycling center and requested that the audio clip be entered into her file.”
“Back when they got stupid requests granted just by asking,” Drack said in aside to Harris.
The voice of a black woman came out of the speaker. Once it might have been a rich, full voice, but emotion made it squeak and crack. “Gloria. My daughter. I want so much for you to enjoy life. I can’t stand to see you struggle to breathe every day and know that there is something I can do to save you. You have married a wonderful man and you deserve a life together. Live long, and live well, daughter. Tell my grandchildren—”
“That’s enough of that.” Said Dack, and the recording clicked off. “As I said, idiots. Like one stupid old person dying is actually going to stop anybody’s OFD. Or Global Warming!” He pushed off the table and stomped past Harris. “Come on. Let’s go look at Snyder.”
They stepped out of the office building to a world split in half. On their left, cut off from them by a cloudy film that stretched up into the air, the sun beat down on cracked red soil and a few clumps of yellowed grass. On the right, endless rows of silver-grey bark and green leaves along paths dappled with fallen leaves and shadow. Each tree had a plaque, a meter, a wire running up its trunk and a balloon suspended above it. Harris and Drack climbed on an electric four wheeler and drove off down one of the rows.
Tree seventy-two was a large silver maple whose leaves had a sickly brownish hue and were withered. The plaque in front of it read Francis Snyder. Dack jumped out of the four wheeler and planted his feet. “Now look here!” He said, pointing a finger at the tree, “You made this problem! You were part of burning the ozone layer away! So you fix it! I don’t want to see any shirking on my farm, understand?”
Then he laughed, shook his head and bent down to tap the meter. “You know the government just asks for it, insisting we put up those stupid plaques for headstones and use their names. They’re dead! Who cares who they were?”
“Indeed.” Harris said.
While he fiddled with the meter, Harris pulled a plaque out of his pocket and moved over to the next tree, a sapling recently planted. Harris shoved the sign down into the freshly upturned dirt. “Forgot to put that in when that lady got planted yesterday,” he explained to Dack. “Corpse from the newest age limit reduction.” He stopped, an odd look on his ugly face. “Real pretty corpse. Makes me glad I bought that exemption.”
“She look young?”
“Eh, well. If you’ve gotta look at a dead person, why not look at an attractive one, I say. Better than some wrinkly old geezer, right?” Dack stood up and scratched his head. “The meter’s reading fine. The line’s connected, the computer is operating properly. What the heck is going on here?”
Both men looked up at the tree as a breeze stirred the leaves into a papery susurrus. The breeze died away and the leaves drooped like used tissues. Some of the edges had already began to curl into a crisp brown. The whole tree seemed to sag, a dark, withered thing against the acres of fresh green leaves.
“Well…” Dack said with false cheer, “It’s only one tree. They gotta die sometime.”
Harris cleared his throat. “Actually, sir, since we planted the new harvest of recycled people there are several more of our older trees doing the same thing…”
“How many?” Dack’s gaze was sharp.
“What!? That’s almost ten percent of our trees!” Dack swore and jumped into the four wheeler. “Get in! If this is a blight, we have to stop it now! You realize if these trees die, our exemptions are worth crap? Everybody dies if they die!”
They sped away. As the dirt settled, a leaf from Francis Snyder fluttered down through the air, floating back and forth and finally landing in front of the new sapling’s plaque. The plaque read: Gloria Snyder. Born 2062 -Recycled 2107.