About the Author
They figured me too young for a tree builder. I could see it in their eyes. Bunch of rich freaks, staring at me like I needed to impress them. But I did need to. That was the problem. The wagon was about out of juice and my belly was so hard I couldn’t even stand to scratch it. I built the best trees in the Steel Cities, but you’d never know it from the drought I’d hit.
“You thinking evergreen?” I said, looking at Frost, him being the man wanting trees.
“We’d like to see the seasons, Mister Banyan.” Frost was a big bucket of a guy with too many chins, and the hair he’d bleached white to look older left his face looking twenty years too young.
“That’s the real trick, ain’t it?” I said, shaking my head. Make a big deal of every request, Pop had drilled it into me. The client pays more and ends up twice as happy.
“Just get all the scrap you need,” said Frost. Man practically smelled of cash. His wife all lit up with sparkles in her hair and studs on her face. Hell, even their watcher looked polished — his dreads clean and fluffy, his long beard woven with fabric. Not a mark on him, either. The sign of a bodyguard you do not want to mess with.
I took a look around the dirt lot. Acre at least. Blank and ugly, full of dust and sky. But not for long. Not if I built a forest to get lost inside. Shade from the sun and a break from the wind. Show the world you could still own something special.
A decent slope gave some perspective to play with, and I’d give them the seasons, all right. Plastic leaves wired up to turn color and shrivel on metal branches. I’d give them spring blooms and fall colors.
“Good news, Mister Frost.” I made a smile, extended my hand to him. “Seasons are my specialty.”
Frost returned the smile but ignored the handshake. He just stood there with his arms resting on his belly, and his mouth all twitchy at some internal joke. Then he stomped over to his wife and put his arm around her pointy shoulders and I felt bad for her just having to be so close to the guy. She was a stunner, no question. Gray eyes and dark skin.
“The question is,” Frost began, his body trembling as he pawed his wife’s polyester top, “can you build this?”
Then Frost tore open the front of her shirt and the woman was practically naked, right there in front of me.
I’d never seen a thing like it.
She was more pretty than I knew what to do with, no doubt about that. But it was the tree that took my breath away.
It was tattooed on her skin in a thousand different shades. The roots spread down her right hip and a thin white trunk curved across her belly, branches reaching all the way up. A fragile tree. Flexible. With golden leaves falling as the tree swayed in some imaginary breeze.
I felt sweat trickle down the groove of my back. But Frost’s wife looked ice cold, her silvery eyes staring straight through me until I finally turned my head away.
Frost laughed and stepped away from the woman, leaving her there, her shirt ragged and open.
“Can you build it, boy?” It was the watcher who spoke. Voice as big as he was. Unblinking eyes the same color as his skin.
I stared at the dirt, shaken. Frost reckoned himself a tough guy, doing that to his woman. And a man like that don’t deserve nothing pretty.
“Can you build it?” the watcher said again.
I had a bad feeling about this one. But a worse feeling was the empty howl in my guts. I needed the job and I needed it bad. And what was I going to do? Quit?
“Yeah,” I muttered, all the swagger drained out of me. “I can build it. But I’ll need a place to pitch my wagon. And I need an advance on some corn.”
“You can stay here. In your forest.” Frost laughed as he gestured to the dirt. I looked out at the sparse shapes of the city — the filthy steel domes and bunkers, the crumbling concrete remains. The wind was picking up and it came screeching around the buildings, whipping the dust into a shotgun spray. I pulled my goggles down, buried my nose in a rag, but the rich freaks were caught off guard and they choked on their pampered lungs.
“Make yourself at home,” Frost muttered, after he’d quit coughing and the wind had died back. He shrugged at the watcher. “Crow will get you the corn, but it’ll be deducted from your fee.”
“Which is what?”
“Whatever I think you’re worth. Old world Benjamins, if you’re lucky.” He stuck out his hand then — one finger missing past the knuckle, his skin puffy and moist. “Work hard, Mister B,” Frost said, shaking my hand. “And keep away from the house.”
I turned and stared at the steel building that blocked the lot from the street. Pretty new, by the look of things. The monstrous metal pillars gave it a spiky appearance, like a giant piece of barbed wire. I spotted a window on the top floor with two faces in it. Looked like small versions of Frost and his wife — the wiry brown girl was about my age. The boy was younger. He was picking at his nose, digging around in there like he’d lost something up it, but the girl was just staring straight at me, her forehead pressed at the dusty glass.
“Don’t worry,” I said, turning back to Frost. “You won’t even know I’m here.”
I’d got the wagon parked as far from the house as possible, squeezed up against the old brick wall that lined the far edge of the property. The house on the other side had a pool and I could hear people splashing around, laughs and jokes sparking in the night. Sounded like a grand old time. Hell, it even sounded good to someone as scared of the water as I was. I’d steer clear of the pool is all. Just hang to the side. Be nice to have someone to talk to.