The morning before our option vote, a culmination of many years of work, a nightmare brought me back.
I dreamt that I was five again, the night a tree’s branches erupted through the floor of our bedroom in the middle of the night. I remember that I was pushed upward before the tile caved in through an expanding thicket of leaves. My mother and father tried to grab me before I fell down three stories through a snarl of pipes, maple limbs, and other apartments, but they were on the other side of the foliage. We were living on the sixth floor of an apartment and a man had died in his sleep on the fourth floor.
It was amazing that everyone survived that night--I could still remember the sound of twigs scratching at the ceiling until the growing stopped before it could penetrate the next floor.
My mother had told me before that night about how people changed on death. I knew that because we were poor, we had to live in taller buildings while others could be closer to the ground for their own safety. I knew that the maple trees that would sometimes interrupt the middle of the road were once people. I knew that hospitals were sprawling single-story networks with immediate access to the outside, regardless of the room, but I never really appreciated why until I was about to be crushed against the ceiling of my home by a tangling mass of once human limbs.
When I woke up, sweat curling around my chin, I felt chilled by the sunlight coming through the window. Somehow I understood, even then, that it would be my last day knowing your husband.
Outside the gate and a floor down, a mob hissed at our window. They had been there all week and had grown in number and aggression. “Protect the Change,” a sign read, featuring a real picture of a severed human maple’s stump with the prohibition sign on it in red. It was one of the kinder slogans. Another said “Murder for Money” and had a picture of Doris Geats next to her cut stump, linking her case with our Option Coalition even though that happened five years before us. Worse still, one sign read “Cut Him Down” with a human maple’s growth rings replaced by an image of the head of my boss, Paulson Branner.
“They’re not moving,” Paul muttered, startling me as I peered out through the blinds.
“Of course they’re not! They know we’re getting a vote. Did you see what happened with Jean last night? They almost changed him!” I argued.
“Killed him, you mean. Can you make sure that he’s taken care of? Like, does his family have enough money to pay for the medical bills? I’ll write a letter to send home to him later.”
“Write the letter tomorrow. I don’t want to see you changed.” Paul started to shake his head, grinning slightly like he did the first day we had a protest. “You could leave through the emergency escape on the side. We could turn on the lights on out front and distract them long enough to let you go.”
“You’re going to go first. Do exactly what you’ve said you would do for me--it’s a good idea, but it’ll only work once, and you’ll have to move quickly after you get out. I’m going to stay and watch the results of the option vote.”
“Those people outside aren’t like the protestors anymore, Paul. They hurt our own! They’re killers now!”
Paul looked at me, sighed, and sat on the corner of his desk. “You’re using their words, Abby. We’ve worked hard to make sure that people have an option in changing or dying. I want to know, right here at the desk I’ve worked at for eight years, whether we’ve made a reality out of being able to choose how our remains are used.”
Trees are sacred! People are sacred! Branner must go! Some idiot had gotten a microphone hooked up to speakers and was using it to have the crowd shout and drown out all other sounds.
I was watching them out the window when Paul tapped on my shoulder. When I turned to look at him, his eyes were narrowed. “I’ve scheduled all doors in the building to be automatically locked in ten minutes. If you don’t leave, you’re stuck here. No one is going to hurt me once that happens, but I’m not leaving until the vote is over. The police will keep an eye on the outside and put it down the moment someone tries to get over the fence.”
“What will you do if I stay?” I asked.
“I’ll fire you,” Paul said with a grimace.
“Wouldn’t want that. You wouldn’t know what to do with a yes vote if you fired me. It’s not over when we win the right to an option--we’ve got to implement it.”
“I know. I’m working on it.”
I wished him good night and then checked every door on the way out just to make sure the building didn’t have the digital lock disabled like it normally would be. Having even two people in a building with the lock on is a serious code violation, so we would normally leave it alone.
It was dark, so I managed to get out through the tree escape reasonably well and coded out at the gate before the mob noticed me. I was in my car and driving away when a brick glanced off of my rear door. By the time I had reached home, the Congress still had not voted on our plan. Too many men were dragging it out by talking about the importance of divine will as manifested by roots--the usual drawling monologue we were accustomed to getting but this time done by our nation’s leaders.
Turning the light on in my driveway, I looked at the gouge caused by the brick. I figured I would sleep poorly knowing that someone who had meant to change me with it was still waiting outside the gate at the Option Coalition, waiting to inflict divine will at any moment.
I dedicated my life to not having to relive the night my family nearly died when I was five. I helped design networked wristwatches that could perform survival reporting for cheap so that almost everyone could have some choice in how much damage their changing inflicted upon their family or house or other families--habitation care, done traditionally in a scenic, open space, would no longer need to be a choice available to only those with constant health exams and doting family members.
I never expected how much resistance I would get. I starting receiving death threats at age 24, two weeks after I announced a prototype. Just moving a body away from a place where its skin could start rooting and sprouting was considered to be a breach of a holy prerogative. I guessed that most of the concerns came from people who could live in single story houses, where rebuilding around a tree was a feasible option. Most probably had never seen it happen--how jarringly brisk a human could transform into his or her own kind of building-shredding maple tree.
Paul Branner saw me on the news after they interviewed me about the death threats and helped fund my research until we sold the idea to our government for distribution. It was then that he approached me with the idea that people should be able to choose whether their own tree continues to stand after they change and how that lumber is used. Only then did I really appreciate how traditional I was in my own thinking. I was appalled by the idea for half a year before he managed to talk me into it.
Couldn’t discern why he was so dedicated to the option idea, though. He was not very communicative about himself and his background. All I really knew about him was that he was inexorably devoted to the people he worked with and the values he held. He was the best boss I ever had.
It was hard to tell how he had died. Half of the facility was burnt to a crisp, but it hadn’t reached him before emergency water systems shut down the flame and the fire department had arrived. His watch, which was stranded high amongst his branches with much of the rest of his soaked clothes, stated that his change happened at just after midnight, which police officers noted was about twenty minutes after several individuals broke free and crossed the gate, and about five minutes after the fire started. The door locks were disarmed, but it was impossible to tell when that happened.
When they were willing to let me survey the items retrieved from the scene, they gave me a letter he had written to me that night. Part of it was a substantial check he cut for Jean Lawson, who was physically attacked by the protesters the night before Paul died.
I hope you will spare me from reciting it out loud for you. It was a lot of legalese, mostly. Paul knew that his death was imminent and wrote out a will pre-empting the martyrdom that he knew it would bring. When they received word that the firm backing the option proposal had lost its leader in the middle of the night due to violence, the congressional vote swayed hard in our favor--and Paul became the first adopter of the right to choose what to do with his own remains.
I want you to know that even though Paul was never more than a colleague for me, his passion for what he did edified my mind and spirit and helped me do what I needed to do. His reasoning surpassed my understanding until I read his will and came to find your treeless marker on this hill overlooking the ocean.
He wanted me to say all of this because I was the person who knew him best after you perished. He never believed in a purely afterlife-through-growth concept because he lost you to a fire before you had a chance to grow into your own human maple. He rebuked the linear thinking of everyone around him because you were always around him, a silt carried by the air. On the chance that you can hear these words as you are, I want you to know that I will carry on his legacy for him as he moves forward to be with you.
He hopes that as I burn the ashes of his lumber here, that he has a chance to mingle with your ash in the breeze, or find you at the bottom of the sea, or become fertile ground for a new tree together.
As he transitions from the face supporting all of my goals to the coarse vertical ridges of this bark I now toss into the fire, may you know him again as a fine dust on whatever wind you now inhabit. May he find you wherever you roam and may you find respite together.