‘Maryann Saves the World’, Michael J. DeLuca

Illustrations © 2009 Carmen

 [ Dream houses © 2009 Carmen ]

On her first morning in her newly finished dream house, Maryann awoke to a distant pounding. She covered her head with her pillow as usual and tried to go back to sleep. But it occurred to her that this must be something other than the usual pounding. The builders were long gone. The movers had unloaded the last sofa more than a week ago. Dale had kicked out the interior decorator once and for all on Sunday when the woman tried to talk him into re-detailing the foyer trim a third time. And yesterday the landscapers had promised, having planted the last of the bulbs and activated the irrigation system, that she wouldn't be seeing them except on Wednesday afternoons.

She thought maybe Dale had forgotten his keys on his way out the door and had locked himself out. Then she remembered Dale had left for Amsterdam last night—another economic summit. The reality crystallized that someone must be knocking at the door.

The identical clocks on the nightstands on either side of the enormous bed read 6:01 AM. Maryann threw off her pillow and the Egyptian cotton sheets and wriggled her way across Dale's side of the bed to peek through the blinds. Way down at the end of the driveway, a pristine white minivan idled—one of those new biomass fuel models. She'd never seen one used commercially before, though one of the richer neighbors had a biomass roadster. There was a tree-shaped logo stenciled on its door, and a uniformed man unloading a row of tall gray cylinders onto the grass. Plumbing? Maybe they worked for the town.

Fine, she thought. Fine. I'll just go see what they want.

She levered herself in the direction of the walk-in closet, feeling that bottle of wine she'd drunk before bed. The closet's empty echo oppressed her. She wrenched her rose-colored robe from among the mostly-bare hangers, slid her feet into slippers, then shuffled across the dense, creamy carpet into the seaside tones of the master bathroom. Maryann turned on the nearest sink, splashed the blear out of her eyes. This was Dale's sink, technically, but her own was too far from the bed; she hadn't used it since their first night here.

She gave the array of bottles in the makeup chest a cursory glance. Dale wasn't here. Not worth the effort. She'd just apprise the bumbling maintenance men of their mistake and climb back into bed. This was supposed to be her day of rest, well-deserved and long in coming. The inconsiderate bastards who'd disturbed it could stand to have a look at her without her face.

She headed for the back stairs, along the blinding, skylit upper hallway, past innumerable empty bedrooms. They didn't have children, but Dale and his patriarchal ambitions had insisted. Maryann hadn't argued. She never wanted to move again.

The back stairs led into the kitchen, and she'd made it all the way to the foyer before she realized she'd forgotten to use the Grand Staircase again. Damn it, Maryanne, she thought. She knew she really ought to go back up and do it right, train herself into the habit. One staircase was enough, she'd said. Dale had held firm, though. You had to be part of the system before you could change it, he said. Peer pressure, she thought. But of course she'd caved. It was his money.

The hammering at the door persisted.

"Alright, enough! I'm coming!"

On the doorstep stood a small, friendly-faced young man, sandy-haired and dressed in white coveralls identical to those of the man in the yard, with the neat green tree logo embroidered on the breast. He carried a tablet under his arm. "Good morning, ma'am. Very sorry to have to disturb you at such an early hour, but timetables this time of year are always tight. Lots of new construction."

The indignant tirade dropped from Maryann's lips. Ma'am. He'd called her ma'am. She blinked away sleep, studied the courteous young man with disbelief. The zipper was open at his neck, revealing a pink and white tie-dye shirt. He couldn't be more than, what, three years her junior? They'd probably been in college at the same time. Was it the makeup? Or the house?

"Could you step outside please, ma'am? This will only take a moment. Five minutes at the most. For your own safety."

Five minutes. Maryann cinched her robe tighter around her waist and plodded after the young man down the front steps to the end of the walk.

It was a cool morning. The breeze raised goosebumps on her legs. Across the house's three rolling acres of immaculate, fairway-quality lawn, each blade of grass glistened with dew. A blue jay cried from the distant treeline. Maryann had lobbied to keep a few of the lot's original maples, but the landscapers argued against it, saying something about how natural competition for space had limited their growth, made them unsuitable for decoration. Dale was so busy he couldn't care less. But she didn't want to be a bother.

"Understand your husband is away," said the young man, studying his tablet. "No children in the house, ma'am? No pets or infants?"

She shook her head no.

"All right, then. Guess we can go ahead." He tapped at the tablet, then nodded to his co-worker, who hoisted one of the long tubes to his shoulder and dropped to one knee at the edge of the driveway. This must be the man she'd seen from the window. He was taller, rougher, not nearly as appealing, though he did touch his cap dutifully when she met his gaze. The cap was black, embroidered with a stylized, angular skull. She studied the gray tube, trying to guess its purpose. Some kind of surveying equipment? "Are you gentlemen with... the zoning department?"

The tall man grunted. "No, ma'am. Concerned citizens."

Maryann needed coffee. This was making no sense at all.

She went and picked up the morning newspaper from in front of the gate, clamped it under her arm and shoved her hands into the pockets of her robe. She looked up at the house—a monstrous thing, really, five thousand square feet, with its imposing brick facade, its silly profusion of gables and pretentious plastered columns.

But she shouldn't think that way. It was luxurious. It was what Dale's ambition, his unswerving goal to change the world, required. It was her home.

Maybe she'd throw a little party this weekend, before Dale came back. Invite a few of their old college friends, the ones she still talked to. Make the place feel lived in.

"You might want to cover your ears," warned the young man. The tablet emitted a series of unobtrusive trills.

A rocket emerged from one end of the gray tube, screeched across the lawn and smashed right through the arched, two-story picture window over the entryway. It struck the Grand Staircase and detonated with a percussive implosion that broke every window in the house, sucked the chandelier down off the foyer ceiling, and caused the walls and roof of the house to visibly buckle.

"Holy shit," said Maryann. "What the hell are you—" She took two steps forward. The sandy-haired young man put out a hand to stop her. The man in the black cap laid down the first tube and shouldered another.

This time she covered her ears.

The second rocket brought the roof down. The whole west-facing wall collapsed inward, dumping tons of brick and debris onto the luxury SUV and the sleek black soft-top still parked in the three-car garage. The noise was so loud Maryann couldn't hear herself gasp.

It was shocking. She felt... indignant. A lot of time and effort had gone into that house, and it did seem a shame to see it all so calmly and systematically undone. On the other hand, witnessing the act of destruction as it happened was... actually fun. It didn't feel as though she were losing anything important. She was quite wide awake now, and probably couldn't have got back to sleep, even given the opportunity. Which didn't seem likely.

In the aftermath of the third rocket, when the remaining structure of the house had been pretty nearly demolished, a secondary effect became apparent. There was a rustling sound, and dark, sinuous shapes moved through the dust cloud—as though there were giant serpents in there, dancing to a subaural rhythm that occasionally broke through into audible range with the crunch of a snapped beam, the rumble of a heap of bricks plunging into some resistant cavity.

"Implosive Refoliation, we call it," the sandy-haired young man explained, raising his voice to be heard over the howling of the neighbors' house and car alarms. "It's a new technology we're hoping will soon come into widespread use worldwide. Of course, it can't restore 'developed' land to its original, natural state. Nothing can do that. But we're optimistic the replacement growth will provide comparable CO2 processing volume, watershed filtration and purification, and wildlife habitat. Insurance will cover your losses, and we encourage you to rebuild—provided you adhere to our specifications. Otherwise, well, you'll be seeing us again." He handed Maryann a white card, which on one side bore the tree logo, and on the reverse listed specifications for resource usage, structure footprint, drainage and environmental impact. "Again, I'm very sorry for the inconvenience. Please try to enjoy your day."

Maryann stared at him blankly, open-mouthed.

The dust began to settle, revealing, in place of where the house had stood, a shadowy, slowly expanding mass of dense thorns, twisted, nightmarish black branches and grasping creepers. As she watched, the thicket began to eat the driveway.

Police sirens insinuated themselves over the cacophony. The two gentlemen in the white coveralls hastily shoved the empty rocket launchers into the back of the van.

The breeze picked up. The goosebumps on Maryann's legs prickled. She wondered what they expected her to do now, standing here in her bathrobe and slippers, with no house to go back to. She supposed she could go knock on one of the neighbors' doors. She doubted anyone was sleeping now. But somehow the idea of going up to one of those other pristine, spanking-new mansions and petitioning for help made her feel... guilty. Like the bearer of bad news. No doubt their names were next on the tablet.

"Hey!" she said. "Why me? Why us! We were barely settled here. The Mancinis have been living here for months, and their house is just as big and... almost as ugly. What the hell? Couldn't you have given us a couple months and hit them first?"

The sandy-haired young man paused, his hand on the driver's side door. "Look, I'm sorry. Rome wasn't burned in a day?" His eyes flicked to the tablet, then to the approaching police cruisers. "Uh... kids. They have two girls. And a black lab, juvenile. If you'll excuse us...”

Two car doors slammed, and the minivan pulled backwards out of the driveway, its biomass drive belching fumes that smelled vaguely of salt marsh.

It occurred to Maryann that she would have to explain all this to Dale when he got home. That what had happened could be considered her fault—since there was no way she could sufficiently explain why she had felt inclined to step out of the house at the request of a friendly, sandy-haired stranger, in order to watch her brand-new, absurdly expensive, custom-built mansion razed to the ground practically at its moment of completion.

She remembered the small, guilty feeling of glee she had experienced as the first rocket cremated the Grand Staircase.

 [ Thicket © 2009 Carmen ] "Wait!" screamed Maryann. She pitched the morning paper into the encroaching thorns and ran into the street, chasing after the white minivan as it accelerated towards the main road. Her slippers flew away behind her. Her bathrobe flapped and fluttered, the terrycloth belt barely holding it closed. "Take me with you!"

The van screeched to a halt. The driver cranked down the window and stuck his head out, looking back. His sandy hair glowed in the clear sunlight of the spring morning. His face broke into a beatific smile, the promise of youth, of hope. Saving the world, one shoulder-fired rocket at a time. Just like everyone had wanted to in college. Even Dale.

The harsh red and blue of police lights flickered between nearby mansions. "Cops!" roared the young man in the black hat. "Let's go already!"

The sandy-haired ecoterrorist angel threw open the sliding door. Piled inside were dozens of long gray tubes. Maryann threw herself on top of them. They were cold.

The white minivan peeled away like a rocket.

© 2009 Michael J. DeLuca

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