Tomorrow the Green Grass
Ethan awoke under the covers, afraid to come out. The clock, a rattling bell, tugged him out of hiding. He tapped its top.
Margaret stood in the bathroom. The sink ran. She switched on the hair dryer and spoke like a stranger. “Better get out of bed or you’ll be eating breakfast at your desk again.”
Up and about, Ethan didn’t tell her his thoughts.
He stumbled in silence, twisted in his bedclothes, naked in the shower. His heart telegraphed the familiar, frightened sensibilities of a child. Shaking in his towel, his nose to the mirror, Ethan felt dull pins all over his skin. It was a very dark dream.
Today, it said, is the last day. One o’clock.
Margaret didn’t fix any coffee. Her hair half-dry, wet at the tips of her red curls, dampened the shoulders of her business suit. It was unlike her to leave anything unfinished. She took up her purse. “Don’t want to be late, and we will be if we don’t leave this very instant.”
Ethan delayed in the closet, changing to a brighter tie, but soon met his wife at the door.
Ethan and Margaret walked to work every morning. They lived at the edge of downtown in a luxury high-rise, just a few streets from all the shops and the tall, tall buildings. Even in cold weather, in windy weather, they walked. Even in that morning’s threadbare rain, umbrellas dipped against strokes of the wind, the fabric hiding their faces and blunting their attempts at conversation, they walked. Ten blocks on, they kissed at the steps of the Bank Building and Margaret spun away with, “See you, dear,” leaving Ethan to hurry towards his own employer.
Each arrived — him at the newspaper, her at the bank offices; they read messages; they answered mail. At nine o’clock, Ethan called his wife.
“Margaret,” he said, “I think I might have a bit of a cold.”
“From the rain?” she asked.
“Possibly. I feel a little sour.”
“Are you going home? Please don’t go home. Don’t leave me here at work with you in bed asleep. I’d be jealous.” She teased, but there was truth there.
He felt the need to ask, “Are you all right? You don’t sound well, either.”
She didn’t answer, just hurried on with, “If you go home, be sure to call me so I don’t wait for you at five o’clock.” At the mention of five o’clock, she had a catch in her throat, like she was going to cry if she didn’t hang up right then. So she did. It was rude, but he would understand. She just couldn’t talk.
Mr. Forrester, the bank’s manager, caught the last trickle of the conversation. He appeared beside Margaret’s desk. A touch of concern in his voice, he asked, “Margaret, how are you this morning?” The manager took a chair near her desk, crossing his legs tight and stroking his graying beard.
Margaret waved the man’s question away. “Oh, yes… that was just my husband. He’s coming down with a bit of a cold, I’m afraid, and he might go home early…”
“Really? He didn’t give it to you, did he?”
She hesitated, then said quickly, “I’ve got a lot of work to do, Mr. Forrester. I can’t even think of leaving.”
He placed his hand on hers, slowly forming a sentence. “It’s just… well… ” He lowered his voice to a quiet breeze. “I’ve just heard a couple of the others talking about a dream… in the morning, when they were waking.” He paused and removed his hand from his chin. “D – Did you have a dream?” he stuttered, innocent.
Margaret scrunched her eyes, remembering… lying. “Why, no, not that I can remember. But I rarely remember my dreams, Mr. Forrester.” The man seemed disappointed. “The others – what was their dream about?”
Mr. Forrester smiled. “Never mind.” He pushed himself out of the chair, let his weight fall on his uncrossed legs, hand rested on a stack of files at the edge of Margaret’s blotter. “I’ll let you be.”
He was ten feet away when Margaret spoke.
“Mr. Forrester,” she called out. He turned and came back around the corner. “You’ll think I’m silly,” she started. “I had this feeling, not a dream really, when I woke up. Well, I thought that today something was going to happen. At one o’clock. Was that it? Yes. That’s all I can remember… but it wasn’t like a dream or anything. Not really.”
She looked up, for she found she had been speaking into her desk drawer, the tabs of the bank ledgers sticking out and Mr. Forrester’s shadow wrinkling through them. The manager’s mouth opened just a centimeter, and his face became pale as the moon. “That’s the same dream the others had,” he said, trembling. “And me, too…”
By mid-morning, it was all the talk. Not a high, gossipy chatter, but a slow waft over the walls and desks of Ethan’s office, where he dutifully tried to work through his mood, and not think about the dream. But, as his watch ticked to 10:29, he suddenly stood up and said to no one in particular, “I’ve got to leave!” Collecting his coat and his case, he turned to see the half-dozen newsmen around him. They were all staring, looking anxiously at his lead. “I… I can’t stay,” he told them. “We shouldn’t be here.” And he walked out, down the hall, past the water cooler.
Following suit, others shut off their phones, powered down their printers, their computers. Some stayed – Mr. Morris, Mrs. Klein, and the temp at the copier, timecard in pocket.
Down Madison Avenue and Main, people spilled from buildings, hailed taxis, and took up an anxious perches at the bus stops. Dozens disappeared underground into subways.
Ethan traveled back towards the Bank Building, umbrella closed and the last of the dying rain shooting holes in his suit. He took the elevator to the tenth floor. He slipped past the secretary – on the phone with her son, home from school, let out, and she was busy making plans to meet the boy… too busy to see Ethan touch the walls, as if dizzy, and fall into the office where his wife sat.
Margaret was bent over her ledgers, writing with a fury, figures and numbers and columns of this and that. She jumped with Ethan’s first words.
“Margaret… We should go.”
Laughing, she shooed him off. “What? Oh, you are ill, aren’t you? Several workers have not shown or already left. I’ve got to stay. Someone must answer the phones. Must be some kind of epidemic!”
“Don’t you feel it?” he asked, taking her by the shoulders and kneeling at her side. “Something’s going to happen at one-o’clock.” He met her eyes. ”Did you have the dream?”
“The dream…” she trailed off, thinking, playing. “Oh, you mean that silly dream the others were talking about? About this being the last day? You don’t think that’s anything, do you, Ethan? No, you’re far too sensible for that. I may be the banker, but you’re the logical one. You never believe in dreams.”
“Well I believe in this one. There’s something… coming to an end. At one o’clock.” He stood, paced the room, and looked out the windows of his wife’s office and to the work-floor. People were grabbing coats, making calls, moving away from them in growing numbers. Phones rang across the office, the abandoned switchboard causing jams. “We shouldn’t be here,” he pleaded with her.
She turned back to her work. She was not the kind of person to abandon her post. So Ethan changed tactics.
“Okay, Margaret,” he coaxed, “say we do this: we take a long lunch. It’s nearly eleven. We’ll walk back home. I’ll fix you something. We’ll return after one o’clock, but you won’t miss much. I’ll work until the end of the day, too. Just… just come with me now. Please.”
She looked to him. Then back to her ledgers. “I suppose there’s no harm,” she replied. “Mr. Forrester’s gone and done the same. I really shouldn’t… but…” She pulled her arms through the sleeves of her jacket, tucked her umbrella in her pocket, and followed Ethan to the crowded elevators. There was no catching one now. They took the stairs.
Out in the world, the rain was over. There were puddles, and people leaving in high numbers, and there had been a drop in temperature. Yet both of them felt better than when they had been inside. The closer to their apartment, the easier the couple found it to walk, the main traffic dissipating. Ethan touched his wife and kissed her on the ear. He broke into a tear and had to look away.
Thick with emotion herself, Margaret gripped her husband’s hand tightly, squeezing, squeezing.
The cracks of the sidewalk were wider than she remembered. At places, long blades of grass and green shot through, out of gutters, too. Margaret resisted checking her watch for the time.
Ethan held her arm. He felt as if he was propping her up (or was she propping him?) They moved around a patch of green that split the yellow lines of the final street, vines tangling through the high-rise parking garage, an ivy settlement along the concrete. How had he not noticed all this green? They entered the lobby of their building, set to greet the guard, but found the desk chair spun around and empty. The main door stood ajar. They caught an elevator and counted themselves lucky.
“What would you like to eat?” he asked her, once safe inside the apartment. “We have soup, I think.”
“I’m not really hungry,” she replied. He made a show of it by placing a pot on the burner, but he didn’t have the strength to rummage the cupboard. Staring at their view of the city, Margaret noted the fringes of gray in the clouds, and the clock tower across the way.
11:59. It had been a longer walk home in the crowds.
Even now, people still moved below, thinner in number in this section of town, but more than on any other day. Margaret turned to find Ethan behind her. “What?” she asked. “Is isn’t true, you know. It’s just the rain. Days like these – they feel like they’re the end, but they’re not. Why are you so sad?”
He had broken into tears, full-grown down his cheeks and she came forward to take him weak in her arms. She found that she, too, wept.
“I don’t know,” he finally got out. “I feel like something is dying. That these… these buildings and this place and our friends… that it really is the last day for it.” He wiped at his eyes and lifted, seeing her shoulder wet from where he put his head. Suddenly, he tore away. “Let’s go back to work. That’s what we should do. It was stupid of us to come home, mope about like this. What we need,” he declared, “is something to concentrate on.”
Margaret nodded. Here in the apartment, she felt claustrophobic. She felt useless. Without losing a moment, she took off with him towards the stairway. Ethan removed his watch and shoved it in his pocket. She did the same. They took the steps two at a time, hand in hand, each in concentration, hearts nearly moving out of their chests. At the bottom door, they broke into the day like divers for air.
A block down, above them, stood the clock tower.
Ethan started to pull his wife along, out across the street so they wouldn’t have to look at the thing, moving around clumps of dirt and grassy ruts (never there before), and around trees which appeared suddenly, reclaiming things when they were not looking.
Margaret screamed. Her hand jerked in Ethan’s and they stood watching through the haze.
Then, she spoke.
“We should pack something,” she said calmly. She knew it to be right. The signal was as strong as the dream had been. One o’clock – the last day. It was definite. “We shouldn’t pack much,” she continued, “just a few bits of clothing, maybe a toothbrush.”
“What!” he exclaimed. “Are you –?”
But he felt it too – a moment delayed, a little light in the back of his mind. They should pack. They should go upstairs and get a bag or two together. Without further protest, they once again crossed the street, took the elevator to their floor, pulled out shirts and slacks, and stuffed them into a bag. Not much. They wouldn’t need much. Just for a while. They felt quite deranged, but as Ethan debated over a shirt, and Margaret over her jewelry, that need to scream started to move away from them. They felt relief. They even laughed.
Ready, they went outside again. The clock tower now read 12:44. Their building became a tall tree. There were paths where the sidewalks had been. There was ivy and roots around the cinema and the library. It was a forest, and the green started to glow a summer’s green. The rays of the sun lit down on the two of them, there, outside, bags in hand. Ridiculous, but very right. Other people walked by, some offering nervous smiles, displaced smiles, but smiles nonetheless.
Is this extinction? Being led off through the grass? Not by wars, or by plague, but collected by something in a dream. Is this what the Incas went through? Or the Aztecs, now alive only in books – the reconstructions of architecture. Maybe it was a dream – one o’clock… the last day. Ethan and Margaret moved onto the path without a word or a guide, out into the forest, still holding hands, into the ghosts of the green, green grass.
Darren Callahan lives in Chicago. His novel “City of Human Remains” is published on Fiction365, and can be read in its entirety here.
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