The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 21, No. 1

Items Awaiting Protective Enclosure

by Téa Obreht

One evening almost thirty years later, a call from an unknown number. The ringing brings your husband out of the kitchen, ladle still in hand. This is the prelude to the only scenario that keeps him up at night: some stranger, a kelp–rig medic perhaps, interrupting dinner to notify you that your son has been killed, washed overboard somewhere off the coast of Cambria amid the gray roil and boom of the Pacific.
     To flaunt your immunity to these catastrophic fantasies, you let the phone ring and ring.
     Tom's smiling, but he doesn't find it funny. "Pick up, Syl." Then, after a moment: "Fine. Why don't I just cancel our anniversary picnic and volunteer us for roadside cleanup instead? I know how you love scraping those possums off the freeway."
     When you finally lift the phone to your ear to deliver the usual greeting—"Rayles–Brennan residence, home of the Arbor Cottages in scenic Grey's County!"—you get the wind knocked out of you. It's not a medic. Not a telemarketer. Not the Mammalian Gene Bank of the Rocky Mountains inquiring if you'd like to increase your annual donation.
     It's Wade. Your Wade. So long–lost that his name overcomes you as first a sensation and then a smell before finally taking lettered form. Wade Dufrane. Calling from some other lifetime, his voice as familiar as your own, saying: "Syl?" And then: "I knew you'd sound exactly the same."
     In a minute, it will hit you that of course you sound the same. But for now—for this particular second—there's just that one–note whiff of Fell Gulch in January, of pine and woodsmoke, of you at twenty, assisting your father up the narrow stairs to the office of Serenity Pods overlooking Main Street. Through his coat sleeve, Dad's elbow feels like a bag of bolts. Somewhere outside, the Rendezvous Trio is fiddling an overzealous two–step for the benefit of the tourists.
     Serenity Pods occupies the attic above the Well Digger's Wallet Saloon, where your childhood friend Kenny Kostic tends bar. In the six years you've been helping him oust inebriates, you've never thought to investigate where the back stairwell leads.
     Dad's monstrous shirt hides the black threads of more than a dozen mole excisions. Six–foot–three and down to 140 pounds, he's taken pale frailty to another level. And now here's Wade Dufrane, tall and ginger–stubbled, good–looking in the way of people who don't know it, manning the front desk in a white linen getup.
     The place looks like a celestial break–room. Everything hums: the bare bulbs, the sleek computer panel, the wall painted up like a field of tree–brindled snow. At its center stands a thick black elm. Its roots twist around a subterranean teardrop, in which a glyphic body lies folded.
     Wade maneuvers you both to the sofa with pamphlets and rank gray tea, then carefully sits between you.
     "So—which of you is looking forward to reabsorption?"
     While Wade talks your father through the marketing collateral, you try to smother your irritation. Let Dad get the reassurance he needs: that he's doing the right thing, that pod burial restores soil nutrients, that you just don't get this kind of solace from a coffin.
     "Something about committing to reabsorption just gives folks a sense of peace," Wade says. "I know it did for me."
     Conveniently, Wade's own father had signed the entire family up for pod burial back when the process was still new. "Not to mention far more expensive," Wade says, skirting around the price, "but I figured: if it could offset some of my parents' debts to our world, worth every penny."
     You can't help yourself: "Yet here you are, sucking air and drinking water—I guess that means your folks are still in arrears."
     Dad says: "Syl. Please."
     Wade, as it happens, came dangerously close to reabsorption when he was a teenager. Some vague cardiac incident briefly killed him en route to the hospital. He perceived himself floating up, above the gurney, above the bald EMT trying to resuscitate him. Of his three remaining sensations—besides filial love and the strange, sulfuric odor of his chest hair frying under the paddles—what stood out most was how complete he felt, knowing that he would soon give sustenance to a new tree. Even his miraculous return to his body, and the continuation of his life, haven't dispelled the strength of that feeling.
     Dad nods gravely. As if Wade's story has firmed the legs of a newborn notion.
     "We want to take a couple of days," you say, standing to leave. "Consult with the rest of the family."
     The rest of the family consists of an uncle in Cleveland who hasn't returned your father's calls in years and the dog who's been underfoot ever since the combined chaos of veterinary school and bartending forced Kenny to abandon her at your house.
     Wade insists you take all the time you need. "It's a tough mind–shift. In the end, we're all just items awaiting protective enclosure. Most of us have a vision of what that is—a coffin, an urn. Not everyone can get used to the idea of a tree. But remember that with a Serenity Pod, the whole world is your memorial."
     The trouble is, he really means it. The spell is cast. All the way home, Dad rests his head dreamily against the window. The tram winds past the Refuge boundary, past Highness Park, with its cocoa stands and skate rentals and brightly bundled husks of winter tourists, and then up Painter's Knoll, where the constellated hillside mansions recall the Fell Gulch of twenty years ago, when people were still able to convince themselves that everything would work itself out somehow, as it always had before.

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