The Virginia Round-Leaf Birch
“The first grafting apparently hurts like Hell. Several of them have died trying the process. Only one of the trees has produced successful hybridization.”
Gideon Weatherford stood across from his boss’ desk – maple, maybe, or oak? Hard to tell with the coats of varnish. Behind him on the wall hung a map of the Commonwealth of Virginia. He tapped a tiny region in the southwest of the state with a conductor’s baton.
Heavily forested and interspersed with countless small creeks and gullies, the region had already been a difficult acquisition for the Department of the Interior. Upper level officials had become frustrated at numerous delays and various iterations of bureaucratic process. They’d wanted to expand government field offices there for some time, and environmental surveys took an inconvenient amount of time. Those finally over, the road ahead had seemed to be clear. No one could have seen the Grafters coming.
Gideon’s boss, Secretary of the Interior Byron Ross, grunted and grumbled from behind his desk. He took a sip from a glass of water before returning it to the desk. Ross never used a coaster, which irked Gideon. The water rings from years of glasses – tap water, three ice cubes – had aged and warped the wood in places. Gideon had learned to let it go – mostly.
“Hybridization. They’re turning themselves into trees?” Ross asked, missing the nuance per the usual.
“Uh, not exactly.” Gideon shook his head. “They’re still humans, but enough of their DNA has become arboreal that their bodies manifest adaptations of the birch. Resinous skin, hardened bone. Enough to tick the Endangered Species box.”
“These idiots are part tree? Like I’m part fucking Scottish?”
“Part Virginia Round-Leaf Birch, to be specific.” Gideon winced at the anger that flashed across Ross’ face. He course corrected “Yes, sir. Part tree.”
“Fuck me sideways,” the Secretary of the Interior said in an office paid for by taxpayers. “What a fucking mess.”
“It’s a complication, sir. Certainly.”
Ross sighed, put his shoes up on the desk – the oils in his over-polished shoe leather would also hurt the wood. Gideon blinked twice.
“Well, we’re going to need you to fix it.”
“I’m not sure I follow,” Gideon said.
“Fix it. Go down there, talk to them, get them to fall in love with a different kind of tree or something. How many of these trees are there anyway?”
“Eleven – well, I suppose fourteen now – individuals left before extinction. I doubt they’d walk away because we ask them to. And we can’t cut any down – Endangered Species Act. It’s interesting, actually. We thought it was extinct until this grove was found in Smyth County in 1975,” Gideon slowed to a halt. There was perhaps no one less interested in that information than the man across the desk.
Byron Ross laughed, then – an awful sound, like a car engine that doesn’t want to start and and sort of liked that you were upset about it. He reached into a desk drawer and removed a small metal briefcase and a manila folder, then pushed them across to Gideon.
“Thank you for the history lesson, Weatherford. Fascinating stuff. Wouldn’t want to run afoul of the Endangered Species Act, would we? Can’t cut down any live, healthy specimens.”
Gideon didn’t like the way Ross said that. He didn’t like it at all. He took the case tentatively, and looked over the desk – and Ross’ greasy wingtips – questioning.
“That’s our last offer to them. Best and final.”
“And the case, sir?”
“You’re a bright guy, Gideon. Been here longer than anyone. You’ll figure it out on the way there. Figure out how they’re doing it, then stop them.” He paused, then smiled. “You’re an Amtrak man, right? Next train leaves in a couple hours. Give your wife a call, tell her you’re on a work trip this weekend.”
And with that, Ross began to read a report from the Inbox on his desk. Dismissed, it seems, Gideon shuffled out of the office past the map of Virginia and the fourteen green pushpins clustered in its southwest corner.
Gideon pulled up short and waited, patiently as always, for the other shoe to drop.
“We’re blazing a new trail here at Interior, I’m sure you’ve seen the signs of change – it’s what the people voted for. This is your chance to show me you’re on board. And if you’re not, well, I’m sure there’s a nonprofit somewhere that could hire you. Not sure about their benefits situation, though. Probably an HMO or some shit like that. Super high deductible.”
Gideon stayed right where he was, hand still stretched toward the doorknob. There it was. Like a lead-lined, spiked boot. The other shoe.
“Are we clear, Weatherford?”
Gideon mumbled an affirmative.
“To my face, if you don’t mind, Weatherford.”
Gideon turned, his face a deepening shade of pink.
“Understood, Mr. Secretary.” At the Secretary’s satisfied half-smile, Gideon turned and exited the office as quickly as he possibly could.
Two hours later, Gideon Weatherford sat on one of the least-stained chairs he could find on the Amtrak headed southwest toward Smyth County and Marion, Virginia. His wife, Dot, had been a tad irked at the short notice, but when he explained why he was headed southwest, she understood. He apologized for the short notice, which he knew was inconsiderate. She apologized for being upset about it, which she knew would ease Gideon’s guilt at springing this news on her. Their marriage and partnership worked well, just as it had for the previous forty-one years. Gideon took comfort in that. Always.
Gideon did not, however, take comfort in the contents of the case. He stared down at the three sealed vials of Bronze Birch Borer larvae like they were loaded pistols. Which, he supposed, is exactly what they were. Lethal little pests, they would attack the birch tree by boring through its bark. Once they got hold, the tree was doomed. Three vials of these were enough to destroy thirty acres of individuals, let alone the dozen or so that he was going to visit.
He shut the case and latched it again, then put it underneath the manila folder as if to hide it from himself. Gideon tried to redirect, staring out at the scenery as it passed by. Most ecological variety had long since been eliminated as part of the EPA’s Job Creation Program, taken up in concert with the Department of Fossil and Quasi-Fossil Fuel. What little of the Eastern seaboard that wasn’t covered in tech outfits and automated factories was regimented into monoculture swathes of Brazilian Copaifera langsdorfii, which could produce a resin very similar to diesel fuel and, as such, was the industrial establishment’s dream tree.
Other species of tree just didn’t stand a chance. Even the Canadians had begun looking at their maple trees with something resembling thinly veiled resentment at its purely dietary and cultural byproduct. It’s not even that the Diesel Tree was an ugly tree, necessarily. But, when it was the only one around for miles and miles and miles, well, it got tiresome. Such was the case with too much of anything, Gideon supposed. This pained Gideon to think about as well, so he looked away from the window and back at the folder. Then, he decided it might just be better to shut his eyes to avoid seeing the silver glint of the case of arboreal murder weapons he was toting.
He must have fallen asleep, because the next thing Gideon knew he was jolted awake by the automated messaging system over the intercom announcing that this stop was Marion, Virginia, and that all passengers planning on exiting at this stop should gather their things. Gideon Weatherford blearily rubbed his eyes and went about the business of obeying the disembodied voice, trying to ignore the sour pit developing in his stomach.
Shayna Robinson had initially been running a few minutes late, but she didn’t mind that. Actually, she’d decided that was sort of the whole point. Initially, she was going to be on time. Then, she’d forgotten her second of three daily grafting injections and had to turn around five minutes into the trip to go back to the Grove. After that, she’d reassessed.
Now, she was parked near the back of the Marion Amtrak station parking lot, rubbing the spot on her arm that she’d injected. Hurt like shit, but less now – way less than the first time, and less than the thirty or so times after that. She picked off a papery growth of skin from her shoulder and smiled. Looked a bit like bark. Felt a bit like bark. It was working.
She glanced at the clock again, then out her window at the slightly disheveled man sitting on the steps of the station. He was twiddling his thumbs – actually twiddling his thumbs, who did that? Periodically, one hand would drift to a silver case at his left side, as though making sure it hadn’t grown legs and run off to start a life of its own in scenic Smyth County, Virginia. The man checked his watch and sighed deeply. This had to be the guy, this Mr. Weatherford she was supposed to pick up.
“Alright, alright, alright,” Shayna whispered to herself. She’d left him waiting long enough. Satisfied by her power play, she started her car and circled back around the parking lot, then up to the man.
“Gideon Weatherford?” she called out the lowered window.
The man gave a perfunctory smile and got up, grabbing the case and coming over to the car.
“Are you Miss Shayna Robinson?” he asked. He pulled on the door handle, which didn’t move.
Shayna nodded, then reached over to unlock the passenger door manually.
“Yep. Sorry – locks broke a long time ago. Have to do it all by hand now. And sorry I’m late. Traffic was killer.”
Gideon looked out at the nearly empty streets surrounding the station, then at his watch, which would be telling him that Shayna was about thirty-five minutes late. Shayna had been sitting at the back of the parking lot relishing the joy of her power move for about twenty-seven of those minutes.
“No problem at all, the sun was nice.” Gideon got into the car, slumping into the seat and clicking his seat belt. He nodded at Shayna, and she pulled out of the parking lot onto the main road and headed southwest.
After about twenty minutes of silence – Shayna driving, Gideon staring out the window like he was trying to count the fenceposts – the rumpled man cleared his throat.
Shayna made a vague sound of affirmation. Yes, it was. That was sort of the whole point. She didn’t bother saying anything, and a few more minutes of silence followed before the man spoke up again.
“I, uh,” he started before shifting in his seat uncomfortably, “want you to know that I empathize with what you’re trying to do here. My wife is from the area. We used to come down to fish. Camped some, had picnics with the kids before they went off to college. Mostly in spring, but sometimes we’d come down during the fall to -“ he stopped. “Sorry, I’m rambling a bit. I do that. I just – I want you to know I’m really hoping we can negotiate a good settlement for everyone.”
“S’okay. But I’m not supposed to talk about the negotiation without the others.” Shayna let the silence go a couple seconds more, then decided to throw the poor guy a bone.
“How long you been with D.I?” She pronounced it “Die.” Sometimes, she just couldn’t help herself.
Gideon sighed slightly, taking the jab in stride.
“Thirty-six years this May at Interior.”
“Ah, so since before. . .“ For the first time, Shayna didn’t entirely despise this man. She thought that, on some very fundamental level, this slouching man with a wrinkled jacket seemed, all of a sudden, very sad.
Gideon nodded but said nothing, turning his attention back out the window.
“Why’d you stay? If you don’t mind me asking,” Shayna said.
The man didn’t look away from the window, but he seemed to sink just a bit lower in the chair.
“When, uh, when it’s all you know how to do. . .” he started, but didn’t finish. “How much longer till the Grove?”
“Another thirty or so,” Shayna answered.
Gideon nodded, and the pair settled back into silence, where they stayed for the rest of the trip.
Gideon Weatherford couldn’t help but smile as Shayna, his assigned guide for the weekend, pulled her wheezing little sedan through a large wooden gate. Over the top, in garlands of evergreen bough and flowers, was the name of this impromptu collective: “Overstory Grove.” Shayna appeared to visibly relax after passing through the gates, and Gideon glanced over at her. Not for the first time, he noticed the small flaking effect of what appeared to be bark growing in the skin of her arms. So, she was one of the hybrids.
“The team should be ready to meet with you in the main yurt, if you’ll follow me.”
Gideon couldn’t help but chuckle. A yurt?
Shayna glanced at him, unamused.
“Sorry,” Gideon said. “It’s just, the last time I was in a yurt it was my honeymoon. This will be very different, I think.”
Shayna didn’t respond, leading the way through a quaint campground, beyond which stood a grove of the reason he was here: Virginia Round-leaf Birch trees. They stood in a group as if huddled for safety, the ground between their thin trunks scattered here and there with small, round amber leaves. Gideon smiled. They were beautiful, absolutely beautiful. And now, he’d seen every single round-leaf birch tree that existed. He hoped he wouldn’t have to kill them.
As they continued on, Gideon got his first look at the other inhabitants of the Grove. He was expecting hippies and flower children, but he was wrong. They just seemed to be, well, people. Multiple races, and – if the wardrobes could be believed – multiple economic strata. Then, Gideon saw something that made him gasp.
“There are hybrid children?”
This had not been in any briefing information Gideon had ever seen, but sure enough, here were three children playing tag. They looked every bit like children, except for the quite notable fact that their hair was made of small, round, leaves of green and gold. Walking after them, hands pressed into the small of her back, was a pregnant woman with bark climbing up her arms. She smiled at him as the children raced past. “Kids,” the smile seemed to say. “What can you do?”
Ten minutes later, Gideon sat on one end of a makeshift conference table which had been, in a former life, a picnic bench. This wood was well cared for, Gideon noticed. Old, but clearly maintained – not a warped circle or sign of termite in sight. Across from him sat four men and women, two of whom were hybrids with bark developing in their skin. Shayna was one, and the other was a man who could have been a cologne model. Ivan was his name, and he shook Gideon’s hand – firm, no nonsense.
“Mr. Weatherford, I hope the trip here was uneventful. I’m sorry, we would have had better accommodations prepared but we weren’t given much notice of your arrival from Interior.”
“Totally understand. I’m easy, no worries.” Gideon tapped his fingers on the table in front of him. “I’m sorry to bother you and – well, I know none of us want the situation to escalate. I’m hoping we can agree and I can make like a tree and, uh, leaf.” Gideon knew the joke was a bad idea the second it started, but he’d rarely been able to stop an awful joke once it was past the “bad idea” filter. The four across from him managed to smile politely.
“What did you bring for us?” Ivan moved on, mercifully.
Gideon brought out the manila folder and read from the papers inside. “Enclosed please find the Federal Government’s best and final offer of five million dollars plus relocation expenses to be distributed at protestor discretion upon vacation of the premises. The additionally enclosed Non Disclosure Agreements would also need to be signed by all protestors, effective in perpetuity.” Gideon slid the single piece of paper across the table to them, staring at his hands. He noticed “AB + RS” carved into the edge of the table. Cute, sure. But also vandalism. Gideon let it go – not the time.
Ivan gave the letter a brief glance, then gave each of his three compatriots a glance in turn. All of them shook their heads once, and Ivan nodded. He slid the paper back across the table to Gideon.
“We pass. This isn’t about the money, you understand. But our story is all we have. All these trees have. We’ll never agree to silence.”
Gideon had thought this might happen It’s what he would have said, had he been on the other side of the table, after all. But, even so, he found he didn’t quite know what to say. Certainly not the truth about the Plan B in his case.
“However,” Ivan continued. “We have a counter proposal.”
“Oh?” Gideon cocked an eyebrow. This, he had not expected. “What sort of counter proposal?”
Ivan nodded at Shayna, who produced a manila folder of her own and read from the document inside.
“Okay, so hear us out on this, Mr. Weatherford. With an open mind?”
“Of course,” Gideon nodded. Then, he smiled what he hoped was a comforting, reassuring, I-don’t-want-to-kill-your-precious-trees smile. “Promise.”
“Good.” Shayna gave him a slight smile, and continued. “About forty miles southwest of here, outside what’s left of Shady Valley, is a large swath of Loblolly Pine. It’s not endangered. We checked.”
Gideon nodded. It was the second most common tree in the country, actually – only the red maple was more common. But he kept that trivia to himself and let Shayna go on.
“The folks who lived in Shady Valley have long since moved on. The land’s not doing anything. Build your complexes and your field offices there. You don’t need this land. The round-leafs do. We do.”
She slid her manila folder across the table to him, and Gideon opened it. They’d done their research, that was for sure. Maps, topographical and environmental surveys from historical records, pictures of the sacrificial Loblolly Pines in question. They’d thought of just about everything. And their proposal seemed, to Gideon, perfectly reasonable.
“You have to understand,” Gideon said, “That I don’t make these decisions. That’s for my boss to do. But I’ll make a call, give him your counter. He’ll have to consult his team, I suppose, but I should have an answer in the morning. If that’s okay with you, I’ll go make the call?”
The group nodded, and Gideon got up. He walked out of the yurt and back through the camp to the small grove of round-leaf birch trees. It seemed like the only place to make this particular call. He dialed, and on the third ring, Byron’s assistant answered the phone.
“Byron Ross’ office.”
“It’s Gideon Weatherford for him, if he’s around.”
“One second please, let me see if I have him.”
After about a minute, the blare of one Byron Ross came over the line.
“Weatherford! How are the boonies?”
“Just fine, sir, just fine. So, I have an – “
“Well? Do you have an update or what?
Gideon took a very deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Yes, sir. In regards to the proposal I brought them. Well, they passed on that, sir.”
“Son of a mother – “
Gideon didn’t hear many distinct words after that for the next few seconds. He held the phone away from his ear until the sound died down.
“Couldn’t have said it better myself, sir. But they came back with a counter proposal if you’re interested.”
“What is it?” Ross, as always, had not noticed Gideon’s absence from the line.
“Well, there’s apparently a large grove of Loblolly Pine – very common sir. Second most common tree in the country, as a matter of fact.”
“Uh huh. And?”
“And, well, they propose we go there instead, since it wouldn’t be environmentally significant or detrimental to an endangered population. And I have to say, sir, I think this is worth exploring, or at least doing some more – “
Gideon stopped short, those two words standing in front of him all of a sudden like a brick wall.
“Won’t – uh. Sir, could I ask why? It’s only forty miles southwest of here. In a town that’s now empty. No displacement necessary, sir.”
“Yeah, won’t work. We know about that area. North Carolina, right? Tarheel country?”
“I don’t know that they’re – that’s more Chapel Hill, sir. But yes, it’s in North Carolina.”
“Yep. Yep. Nope. Won’t work. POTUS won’t go for a North Carolina project, not since it went for the other guy.”
Gideon stared at one of the round-leaf birches in front of him. He crouched on his haunches in the grass and rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand. He stood up again. Then paced a bit.
“Went for the other guy? Three years ago?”
“Yep. Yeah, not a fan of North Carolina. Not going to send jobs their way.”
Gideon felt like all the air was gone. Where had all the air gone? He tugged at the collar of his shirt.
“Sir, I – I told them you’d take it to the team and get me an answer tomorrow. I don’t think it will go over well if I leave tonight.”
The malfunctioning machinery of Ross’ laugh screeched over the phone. It was even worse over the phone.
“Well of course you can’t come back tonight. You’ve got other things you have to do tonight, Weatherford! Time to open door number two! Stall with them, then get it done. I’ll call in a few hours so you can tell me the good news. Got it?”
Gideon looked down at the metal case at his feet. It seemed to swirl with the rest of the ground, and all of a sudden Gideon was on his rear end. When had he fallen?
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Gideon ended the call without waiting to be dismissed and promptly began to hyperventilate.
Shayna Robinson found Gideon sitting against the trunk of one of the round-leaf birch trees, staring up into its branches. She cleared her throat as she approached, worried she would spook him if she got too close while his head was still in the clouds. He smiled at her.
“How’d it go?” she asked.
“Eh, nothing unexpected. Has to talk it over with his people and let me know tomorrow.”
Shayna nodded, letting silence wash back into the grove of birch trees.
“These trees really are something special,” Gideon said. “I love this part of the country. Did I tell you that my wife and I used to – “
“Take the kids camping, yeah,” Shayna finished for him. Something was bothering him. Could be that he was spending the weekend with some potentially hostile strangers, but no. There was more to it than that, something fundamentally not right about the balance of this man’s life.
Gideon looked back behind Shayna, where the nightly campfire – artificial logs, of course – was getting started. Men and women from across the camp came and began to sit down on log benches, old tree stumps, some even with blankets on the bare ground. Shayna looked behind her, then back at Gideon. She offered him her hand.
“Want to come sit by the fire for a while? Won’t talk shop until you say so,” she offered.
“I’d like that very much,” Gideon replied, taking her hand gratefully and standing up. He picked up the case that seemed to go everywhere with him.
They made their way over to the campfire and sat down, Gideon next to Shayna on a small bench. She was sure to make eye contact with the rest of the folks in the circle, letting them know that Gideon was okay for the night. Gideon rested the case on the ground next to him and took a lukewarm beer Ivan offered him. Then the second, and the third. Eventually, the group was laughing and talking about human things. About how Gideon met his wife – he was on a work visit to the building her law firm’s office was in; and about where their kids were going to college – UCLA and USC, because why not insert a bit of manufactured drama into an already stressful time of life?
“Why do it at all?” Gideon finally asked. “Grafting, I mean. Do you think it will make a difference?”
Shayna looked over at Ivan. This was his area of expertise – the public relations, the marketing components of this campaign they’d started.
“No one ever changed the world knowing they were changing it, Gideon,” he said. “Besides, the trees can’t graft into human hybrids. We have to go to them to bring their story to the public, to the people who can do something. People like you.”
Gideon paused for a few moments, then took a sip of beer.
“Does it hurt?”
“Less each time, but yes. We’re playing God here. That doesn’t come without, well, side effects.”
Gideon nodded, staring into the fire.
“I admire you folks, I hope you – ” he paused, seeming to search for the words. “I hope you know that I’m not here because I believe in what I’m doing. I’m here because it’s my job to be, and I’m saying the party line because that’s what my livelihood depends on.”
Shayna reached out and patted Gideon on the arm.
“We know,” she said. “And we appreciate you taking our counter offer to your boss. Here’s hoping that – “
Gideon cut her off then, looking around him in a panic. Any softening effect of the alcohol evaporated in a flash.
“Where’s the case? The case I had here?”
The case, sure enough, was gone. Shayna got up and started to look around, trying to be helpful. Gideon wheeled around, then barreled past Shayna, pushing her to the ground. He was screaming for someone to stop.
Gideon Weatherford hadn’t run a sprint since high school gym class, where he’d run them poorly and at little more than an accelerated jog. This time, though, he sprinted.
“Put that down!” he yelled. Three of the hybrid children were playing “Monkey in the Middle” with the case – when had they gotten it away from him? The case sailed, time after time, through the air and into the waiting arms of a laughing child.
Alarmed at his cries, the children stopped the game and looked his way. Unfortunately, the case was in mid-air and came crashing down to the floor, unlatching and swinging open from the impact. A flash of glass in the firelight indicated a vial had freed itself from the case.
Gideon rushed to the kids, pushing them aside and sliding to a halt on his knees over the case. Two of the vials were still in their indentations, but where was the third? He spun around on his knees, feeling blindly at the ground for the final vial. He saw a glint of glass on the ground nearby and lunged for it, then stopped short.
Shayna, who’d been so kind to him, stepped in front of the vial, blocking Gideon’s way. She reached down and picked up the vial, eyeing it in the firelight.
“What is this?” she asked.
Gideon didn’t answer.
Shayna turned the vial over til she could see the label.
“Bronze birch borers,” she slowly held the vial away from her, brandishing it at Gideon like a firearm. “Gideon? Gideon, what is this?”
“It’s – you have to understand, they gave these to me before I left DC.”
“They gave you one of the most lethal things they could? Do you have any idea what would have happened if the kids had come into contact with – “
She stopped cold.
“That was the point, wasn’t it? A diseased grove has to be cut down to protect the surrounding growth?”
Gideon, miserable, nodded.
“But I wasn’t going to – I didn’t want to if I didn’t have to, it’s just they gave – “ he stopped. There was nothing more to say. No way to explain away the murder weapons.
Shayna went away very quickly then, to get Ivan and a few other Grafters. Gideon leaned forward slowly, resting his forehead on the ground in front of him. Shayna and the others may not have seen the tears, but they were there.
A few minutes later, Gideon was in a makeshift jail cell out of what he was fairly certain was a pen meant to contain especially large dogs. Three of the Grafters stood guard outside the pen. They were going to keep him there “until further notice,” which was a phrase that carried a very specific set of meanings in Gideon’s line of work. The zip tie handcuffs around his wrists served to underscore that point.
Gideon didn’t try to plead his case. What was there to say? That he was sorry? That he was on their side? Not all that convincing for a bank robber to say such a thing when he’s got a gun pointed at the teller.
Shayna sat on a log by the fire, staring at him. Then, jarring in the near total silence of the Grove, Gideon’s phone rang, “Piano Man” by Billy Joel ringing out in the darkness from the inside pocket of his jacket. His hands tied as they were, Gideon couldn’t reach it. The chorus played on, until one of the men guarding him retrieved the phone and held it up to Shayna, who’d come over to see what was happening. Ivan arrived seconds later. Gideon looked at both of them – miserable – as Joel implored the piano man to “sing us a song tonight.”
“I wouldn’t recommend answering that,” Gideon said. But it didn’t matter. Shayna had already answered and put it on speakerphone.
“Hello?” she said.
The grinding gear voice of Byron Ross echoed out into the campground, ruining any remaining sense of peace.
“Who is this? Are you – Weatherford, you dog! Who is this fine lady I’m speaking to?”
Gideon winced and looked up at Shayna. She was disgusted. Gideon understood, of course. He’d just managed to evolve out of his mental gag reflex over time. Before he could answer, though, Ivan spoke into the receiver.
“This is Ivan at Overstory Grove. Who is this?”
“I’m sorry – who the fuck is this? This is Byron Ross, asshat. Secretary of the Interior, United States of America. Where is my employee? Wait – before you answer – are you one of those tree people sickos?”
Ivan neglected to answer the latter portion of the question, but gave Gideon a long look.
“Gideon is here. We have him under guard. It seems he came to us in possession of what we’d consider to be a murder weapon. Something profoundly illegal.”
Gideon winced as that laugh scratched out from the phone, garbled and made somehow more awful by the poor audio quality of Gideon’s flip phone speakers.
“Did you just say you have Gideon under guard?” Gideon could almost see the smile, the slow-spreading, poisoned honey smile of Mr. Byron Ross.
“Oh no,” Gideon breathed.
“I did,” Ivan replied.
“Fantastic! Just had to make sure we got you on tape admitting to kidnapping a federal officer. Ciao!”
With that, the line disconnected. Shayna gasped and let the phone fall to the ground. Gideon hung his head.
“What just happened, Gideon?” Shayna asked.
“You,” Gideon almost couldn’t bring himself to say it. “You just announced yourselves as domestic terrorists and potentially dangerous to American citizens, at least legally.”
“Does that – “
“Override any claim to Endangered Species status? Ask the Cincinnati Zoo sometime, they’ll be able to tell you all about it. Remember Harambe?”
The people around Ivan and Shayna began to panic – men and women ran to tents and started packing up their things.
“What about the trees?” Ivan demanded.
Gideon just shook his head. There was nothing to be done for the Virginia Round-leaf Birch. The last line of defense had just delivered an audiotaped confession to –
“Wait,” Gideon said. “There might be something we can do. I can’t guarantee it will work. I can’t guarantee it will do a single thing. And it’s going to require you trusting me more than I’ve done anything to deserve.”
Ivan shook his head and started to walk away, presumably back toward his tent to pack up whatever he could. Shayna and Gideon made eye contact.
“Camping with the boys, Shayna,” Gideon whispered. “Let me help you save this place.”
Shayna looked over her shoulder at Ivan, who was almost out of sight. She stared back at Gideon before taking a deep breath.
“What would you need?” she asked.
Gideon sat up a little straighter in his makeshift dog pen.
“I’d need my phone. I have to call my lawyer and get her down here to take a statement before Ross can mobilize local authorities.”
Shayna nodded and picked up the phone. Then, she climbed over the little fence and untied Gideon. He took the phone from her and called his wife.
He apologized, because he knew it was late and Dot would have fallen asleep reading a few hours ago. She had, but that was okay – she was always available for his calls. He loved her for that. For so many things.
Gideon asked his wife if she would be up for a little late night adventure to save some trees, some really beautiful trees whose last line of defense was about to be breached. Dot laughed the same laugh that had ensnared him decades ago and said she was putting on her coat and grabbing her briefcase. Gideon said he loved her and hung up. He looked up at Shayna.
“I’m also going to need you to go grab something for me.”
OVERSTORY GROVE VS. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
“Exhibit A: Signed Affidavit of Gideon Weatherford, Taken and Recorded by Dot Weatherford, Attorney at Law”
My name is Gideon Weatherford. I have worked at the Department of the Interior for my entire working career, since graduating Summa Cum Laude from the College of William and Mary.
I declare that, to the best of my knowledge and belief, the information herein is true, correct, and complete.
I, being of sound mind and under my own control, under no duress or pressure from any third or outside parties and having at no point been confined against my will, declare unequivocally that six days ago I underwent the first of several subsequent “Graftings” to hybridize myself with the Endangered Species of tree known as the Virginia Round-Leaf Birch. As such, any attempts to characterize the party known as the “Overstory Grove” as domestic terrorists should be null and void. As such, any attempts to assert eminent domain over their land must be halted indefinitely, considering the detrimental impact a project such as the planned “Smyth County Field Office” would have on the ecosystem and the species contained therein.
– Gideon Weatherford, Department of the Interior (Retired)
About the Author
Andrew Bain has been reading and writing sci-fi and fantasy stories since he read The Lord of the Rings before he was old enough to. Since then, he’s worked in the writers’ rooms for a variety of shows, including THE TICK, DUNE: THE SISTERHOOD, and LOCKE & KEY. He’s published two other short stories: “Intrepid” in Daily Science Fiction and “Dear Diary” in the Thrice Fiction Magazine.