No Rain in the Rose City
by Shelley Stearns and Jody Jones
Lela wiped her hands across the bus kiosk. The city’s public transit map lit up under her palm, revealing a web of confused colors inter-tangled like a basket of yarn. She moved her fingers in and out to separate one from the next. Her line—the two sixty-three—blinked in bright fuchsia. She double-clicked, bringing it to the foreground. The doors to the fuchsia MAX opened blasting cool air around her. She stepped on and brushed her hands across her jeans. The chill was always shocking, but she settled into it. A bit of fuzz stuck in the snaggle of her left fingernail. She let it sit for a moment, and then threw it to the ground. She sighed and bit on the part of the nail that was sticking out.
“You look good in green, Lela,” a man broke her concentration.
Lela looked up, “Flynn?”
“He told a story of you in a green dress. A theater. Actors whose words spilled out melodiously. Stage lights in fantastical colors. But he could never remember the name of the play.”
Lela turned her head to the side.
“Wesley repeated that story every day for six months.”
The train whizzed by a section of grocery chains, colorful advertisements decorating their sides. Flynn sat down next to Lela, “Let’s go play tennis.”
Lela watched as Flynn patted the bag hanging over his shoulder, “C’mon. I’m fat, you’re short. It’ll be fun.”
Lela looked at her watch and laughed, “How are we going to play tennis?”
“I got a pass. It’s just for the day. I was the top stacker at work this week.” Flynn rolled up his sleeve and pointed to the microchip under the skin on his arm. “I’d invite Wesley, but he’s stuck at work late. I already called him.”
Lela nodded and returned to her fingernail. She watched as a group of teenagers got off and two men in blue jackets took their seats. A hum filled the car. Lela turned to the window, letting her focus decentralize. It was all a blur of color and shape. Red, followed by green and so on. Flynn tapped her on the shoulder and pointed at the door. “Portland Fitness Co-op” flashed in yellow.
A bluish light projected an illusion of running water. Lela stuck her hands under the light, rubbed them together, then removed and shook her hands, a motion her mother had taught her and one she kept up without knowing why. She grabbed one of the white pills that mimicked electrolytes from the dish under the mirror and popped it in her mouth.
When she finally made it to the court, Lela was already tired from her introductory lesson. Flynn stood on the opposite side of the net, his legs firmly planted on the ground. He tossed the yellow ball into the air and winked, “Ready to go?”
She grasped the racket high around the neck. The training modulator had clearly stated that she should hit the ball and hold on to the racquet. It was important not to drop it. “Ready,” Lela replied. “No wait.”
Flynn had already tossed the ball. She ran for it and missed. “15-love,” said a monotone voice from the ceiling.
“Can we just turn that off?”
Flynn opened a panel on the wall and pushed a button. The room became silent.
Flynn tossed the ball again and she hit it gently back. The two engaged in a polite volley until Lela hit the ball out of its direct trajectory and Flynn reciprocated. Lela kept her eyes on the flash of yellow between them, “Is this your first game, Flynn?”
Flynn caught the ball with his hands and stopped, “Here, hit it.” He threw the ball in the air and whacked his racquet against it. She watched it buzz by her. “It’s okay, here’s another.” Once again the ball whizzed by her. “No, Lela. It’s not. I’ve been practicing for months now. I learned a fat that troubled me. I needed to let you know. I wanted to let you know, but I didn’t know exactly how. It took time,” he threw another ball into the air. Lela was ready this time and she hit it back to him. His return was gentle, allowing her to keep up. He played for a few minutes and then stopped, just letting the ball bounce on the floor. “Look, you have to tell him. I see him held back by what you did. I remember his telling us every day about that green dress and I…it’s too much. Tell him about the THOR or I will. He needs to know.”
The next day, Lela crept from the bed as soon as the sun’s heat woke her. She ran her hand over her forehead wiping away the sweat. Her head was pounding and she was unsure for a brief moment where she was trying to creep to. She shook herself awake and walked quickly but quietly to the bathroom. The linoleum was still slightly cool from the night’s lack of sunshine. She closed and locked the door and leaned into the sink with all her weight. If Flynn followed through with his threat, Lela knew Wesley would not be able to forgive her.
Wesley was more to Lela than a husband. He was a sacrifice she had made. She sacrificed a future pursuing dreams. She sacrificed adolescence and her experimental twenties. Lela took cooking classes and studied fashion magazines while her friends explored, played, and grew into people so different from her that friendship was no longer possible. Lela didn’t regret any of her choices, but she knew she would if she lost Wesley. This fear, or need, is what led Lela to her greatest sacrifice and what was now the greatest threat to her marriage.
When Lela pulled Wesley’s Thomas Taylor Meadows Halcyon Obligatory Rating (THOR) scores from their mail chute and saw how high his scores were, she was elated. But then she realized that the test scores would move Wesley to the elite class and this rising in status would keep him from being able to marry her. She stuck the scores in her pocket knowing she would do anything to keep Wesley from seeing them. She didn’t, at the time, know that she would be risking both of their lives to change his scores in the official records. More than that, she didn’t realize she was capable of anything so dishonest. She told herself she did it for their happiness, but she knew that she had kept him from a more esteemed career and, unknowingly, was the reason he was shipped off to war.
“Lela,” Wesley said into the door, “you okay?”
Lela’s head shot up and her body sank. She had hoped for more time before he woke up.
“I’m fine, Wesley. Just have a headache.”
Lela listened to Wesley’s footsteps retreat down the hallway. She wished water wasn’t sparse and she could take a long, cold shower. She stood hesitantly and then went to find Wesley.
Wesley was making coffee in the kitchen. Lela was surprised to see he looked as though he hadn’t slept. His eyes were ringed in puffiness and his body seemed to hang as though weighted. He didn’t smile at her. Instead, he turned his back.
“I just got off the phone with Flynn,” he said with his back still to her.
Her body tensed. Had Flynn told him? Her stomach turned and she unconsciously ran her hands over her stomach.
“He sounded strange, Lela. Really strange,” he continued.
Lela, relieved and still dizzy with fear, replied, “How? How did he sound strange?”
“Tense, Lela. What happened between you two?”
“What do you mean? Nothing happened?”
“I know something happened.”
Lela ran her hands over her stomach again and then swatted at a nonexistent bug in front of her face. She walked closer to Wesley and assured him that nothing had happened. Wesley turned to her. He still didn’t smile. Instead, he walked past and away from her.
Wesley was distant the rest of the morning. Lela did her best to seem normal. When Wesley informed her that he was going to head into the office to get some work done, Lela didn’t make a fuss. As she watched Wesley drive away, she made a decision. She picked up the phone and dialed Flynn’s phone number.
They made arrangements to meet at Forest Park in half an hour. Lela arrived in 15 minutes. When she saw him walk towards her just minutes after she found a bench to sit on, she realized she didn’t know what she was going to say to him. As he got closer, she looked closely at his face. As she explored his face she saw, real or imagined, scowl lines running from the corner of his lips to his jaw, dark circles and bloodshot eyes. She saw unkindness, almost an evil shadow, on his face. With that realization, she knew what she would say to him. She found that same confidence that led her to the job at the THOR office and to the records where she changed Wesley’s test scores.
“Would you like to sit, Flynn, or take a walk?” she asked.
Flynn raised his eyebrows. “Well, I hope this won’t take too long, Lela. I am not certain we have much to talk about. You know where I stand.”
Lela patted at the space next to her on the bench. “We’ll stay here then.”
“Whatever you say,” he said and sat down.
“You need to really listen to what I have to say. I don’t think you understand that you are not behaving in Wesley’s best interest. I almost think that you are doing this in order to bring Wesley closer to you. Some fucked up thing, emptiness, inside of you has convinced you that destroying me will make Wesley happy. But, it won’t, Flynn. Wesley loves me as much as I love him.” Her voice was flat as she spoke yet severe. She could feel the force of the words tingle in her gut and in her mind. She wondered what she looked like so self-assured.
Flynn stood. “You’re wasting my time. I told you everything I had to say. You won’t change my mind.”
Lela’s face twisted and the lightness she had felt just a few seconds ago turned to a heat that she felt from her toes to her forehead. She imagined herself striking him. The urge to harm him was impulsive. If she’d been standing, she probably would have hit him, but since she was sitting, she didn’t. In an even tone she warned him that she would do anything to stop him. She knew it sounded like a threat. She knew she meant it as one.
Flynn glared at her for a single moment before turning and leaving. She watched him head not out of the park but instead in the direction of the public restroom that stood near the trailhead. She was shocked at how especially gray the day was. In Forest Park, the skeletons of trees still stood. Their twisted and dark branches stood out against the brightness of the sky. They looked ethereal.
Lela, gratefully, arrived home before Wesley. She decided that she’d prepare a nice dinner in hopes his earlier mood had faded. She pulled out the cookbook her mother-in-law had bought her for a wedding present and began searching through the entrée section.
Lela was finishing the vinaigrette when Wesley arrived home. She smiled to herself when she noticed he appeared to be in a better mood. She smoothed her skirt and ran her fingers cautiously through her hair. She wanted to look the part of the wife. She had dressed carefully earlier, applied subtle makeup, and curled her hair until it looked playful and innocent. She hoped she could make herself appear the opposite of the Lela she had been in the park.
Wesley wasn’t only in a better mood. He also apologized for his earlier suspicion. He enveloped her in what she considered to the most manly, husband-like arms. He kissed her sincerely on the forehead. He complimented the smell of the roast chicken coming from the oven.
After dinner, life seemed for the moment to be back to normal. The two of them put the dirty dishes into the autovaporizer. Wesley told her about his boss’s ridiculous new incentive plan that included glittering stars and an employee of the month photo. They laughed. They touched. They enjoyed each other’s company.
When the dishes were cleaned and put away and Lela and Wesley were preparing for bed, the phone rang. The sudden interruption from the outside world startled Lela. She was, suddenly, scared.
“Hello,” Wesley said into the receiver.
Lela watched as Wesley listened to the caller on the other end of the phone. She watched as Wesley’s face fell, his eyes getting big and filling with tears. She watched, feeling nothing, as Wesley said, “Yes, of course I will. I’ll be there in 30 minutes. Goodbye.”
She dressed without speaking. She put on her green dress that she imagined made the blue of her eyes rich and deep and the red of her hair shiny and golden.
They arrived at the morgue twenty-nine minutes later. Lela held Wesley’s hand protectively as they walked in the front door, as they inquired at the front desk, and as they were led into a private room to wait for the police detective to arrive and lead them to the body. When the detective arrived, Lela relaxed a little. He looked worn out and overworked. His voice revealed no kindness or compassion as he explained how the cell phone on the body revealed only one number, Lela and Wesley’s, and the steps that would need to be taken to identify the body.
They drove home silently. Once they arrived, Wesley sulked silently to the bedroom. Leila remained on the couch. The sound of desert wind remained the strongest token of the destruction the wars had caused. It signaled the dryness and bleached backdrop to imigrationists and anti-immigrationists. Dividing the land had meant changing it. Treelessness and oceanlessness were all Lela knew, but her grandmother had lived in dreams of green and blue, nonsynthetic color was something she remembered from childhood.
Wesley walked into the living room with red eyes, “He’s gone. Lela…” Wesley fell to the floor and implored her feet.
“Get up honey. Honey?” Lela sunk down to floor level and twisted her arms around him. His body was warm and soft and smelled salty like her grandmother’s ocean. “Wesley, come here.” They sat on the floor, his arms around her, tighter than ever before.
After hours like this, and several moments when Lela almost revealed the truth of the test to him, Wesley spoke, “I’m getting a promotion at work, Lela. It’s going to be great. I haven’t told you yet because of all that’s happened, but yeah, here it is. Finally.”
“Wesley,” she smiled.
“I just have to take the THOR tomorrow morning, first thing. I know I can do better this time. I’m older, more experienced.”
Lela’s throat tightened and she felt her heart beat quicken. “Damn,” she mouthed to the darkness. “Let’s go to bed. You need some rest.”
The couple lay in bed, Wesley behind Lela. She shivered at the juxtaposition of the darkness in front of her and the feel of his skin on hers. Wesley threw a blanket over her and began creating rhythmic friction along her arms and shoulders. He moved his hands down her back and around her thighs. Pausing, a look of sadness crossed his face. He muttered Flynn’s name and buried his face in her neck.
“Wesley,” Lela traced the contours of his ear with her fingertips.
“Flynn saved me. There were two of them. I was pinned. One was jolting me with electricity. The other told me I had to. The ceiling was a series of ever increasing red pulsating circles. I puked. I was about to agree. But Flynn came in. He shot them full of bullets.”
Lela felt her stomach lurch when Wesley pulled her closer, she couldn’t look at him.
Wesley continued, “The detective called earlier. Accidental. He said it was conclusively accidental. How does a man who survived a war die in a park bathroom?”
Lela let in an involuntary breath and continued to stroke Wesley’s ear until he fell asleep.
The next day was long. Wesley even texted her to say he was going in to the testing room. She imagined him seated before the THOR, as she had been her one and only time at sixteen, staring at the round computer terminal and electronic bubbles that would decide her future. It had to be tonight. She could do it again.
Planet Smart was housed in a round brick building. There were four doors into the establishment and all were set up with an intricate array of alarm systems and passwords that changed every three days. Ever since the war, everything was guarded. Even this simple food cannery had a system to ensure that no one got in or out who didn’t belong. She’d stolen the latest codes from Wesley’s digitizer and memorized them quickly while she put on a pair of his maroon fatigues to fake her way in. She knew enough about the job from years of hearing Wesley’s stories. She knew, for example, she would step through the first gate and encounter a long metal corridor with vegetable degerminators on its sides. Wesley had worked there for four years, pushing surges of electrical current through the green beans and carrots they ate four days a week.
“The code will be easy,” she told herself, repeating the words she would later mouth into the scanner. “Red, white, yellow.” Her elbow twitched and she thought of Flynn. The look in his eyes as he stood across form her in that tennis court was indiscernible. He had swung his arms with ease, hit the ball, and come back again. She wondered how much of this heavy, muscular man was real. Had he truly saved Wesley’s life? Had that been selfless? She brought her hands to her face and sunk down.
“Ma’am. Ma’am,” a voice called from above her, “Checking in?”
“What? Yes,” Lela shot upright, alarms sounding silently in her head, “Yes.”
“Then proceed,” the man bowed, his arms outstretched towards the door.
Lela moved along, the taste of bile rising to her mouth. “Damn. Damn,” she murmured. She walked through the door and blackness enveloped her. Wesley had never told her about this. She couldn’t see a thing; she advanced towards a trickling in the distance. The sound of and old movie recorded in the mountains. Water on rocks. She touched her arms and drew them to her. A light flashed on and off again. “Red, yellow, white,” she shouted, ready to run. When she finished, the light became normal and her eyes adjusted. A line of men in suits bustled past her, heading for a string of lights on the far wall. The smell of light sulfur filled the air. She blinked. Enclosed in a glass case directly in front of her, water trickled down rocks. There wasn’t a metal corridor and no vegetables, as Wesley had told her. There was just people, some in suits and some dresses in baggy maroon.
“Where am I?” Lela asked herself quietly.
No one stayed in the entryway for long. Without pause, they jetted off to one of the many-labeled rooms surrounding it. Lela advanced to the “Testing Quarry.”
“I hope his records are still here,” she thought. The room was bright and oblong. It was the same as the one she had taken his scores from so many years ago. A woman in a grey pantsuit pressed buttons on a screen to her right. Lela walked past her to the blue holding bin. If she didn’t do this just right, silent alarms would flash and alert the men who would have her before they made a sound.
“I’ve done this before,” she said causing the woman next to her to bring her index finger to her lips.
Lela ran her hands over the top of the holding bin to the touch screen and drew Wesley’s indicator sign on the top—a falcon with a large wingspan and wise eyes. She added extra texture to the feathers and even took the time to subtly shade the eyes. When she had finished, it echoed Wesley back at her so fully that she saw him standing in front of her. “I’m doing it to keep us together. I—”
“Kindly be quiet, ma’am. I’m taking the THOR,” the woman chastised.
“Right. Sorry,” Wesley’s image disappeared. Lela bit her bottom lip and pressed the button in the middle of the bin. Wesley’s scores flashed on the screen. Lela lost her footing. They were higher than last time. He could be an administrator with a score of 143. Lela felt guilt rising, but she pushed it back down. She couldn’t change things now. She pulled out the file and replaced it with the one in her pocket. She adjusted his scores on the computer, plugging in the file from her pocket that synchronized with the main computer. Now he had a 62. Everything would run as expected by everyone.
Wesley would be at home in bed. As she finished up, Lela imagined running her hands over his head and kissing his cheek. The muscles in her legs loosened and her breath returned to normal. She exited the building easily save for a pause at the enclosed water vignette. Joy rose inside her, blossoming out to edges of her experience. She used her last bit of paycheck to buy his favorite candy bar, which she put in the spot where Wesley’s electronic file had resided in her pocket. She threw those into an incinerator and dreamt of happiness.
But it came too soon. When she arrived home, a man was leaving. He tipped his green pointed hat in her direction and looked down. Wesley was standing at the door.
“The war’s on again. My scores match the soldier profile. I ship out next week.”
The next evening, Wesley and Lela had a nice dinner out, spending the last of their meager entertainment tokens. Lela couldn’t help but imagine the Wesley that would exist had she never altered his test scores. She saw his other self dressed handsomely in a handspun linen suit in “Fiodora’s,” the only restaurant in Portland that still served glasses of water with dinner.
Wesley noticed the strange way that Lela was looking at him and asked her if she was okay. Lela smiled and put her hand softly on his thigh. “I’m just imagining what my life will become without you in it,” she told him.
Dinner went by too quickly. They walked out partially drunk from the bottle of wine they splurged on. They walked as close to one another as they could. Lela was careful to appear cheerful for Wesley. After all, he was the one going to war. Inside, however, she knew that he would favor far better than she would.
The next day, Wesley went into work as normal. Lela was left alone to consider her actions. She told herself that her love had made it meaningful and necessary.
Lela cleaned their home spotless. She ironed all of Wesley’s button-downs. She picked at her cuticles, she pulled at her clothes, and she thought of Flynn.
Lela was angry when Flynn walked away from her that day. She was angry that Flynn existed, that Flynn thought he knew Wesley better than her, and that Flynn would not respect her enough to listen to her. She remembered his callously creased face and crumpled clothes; she remembered his smug smile and his superior demeanor. She remembered standing and following Flynn to the restroom.
If Lela felt guilt about anything, it was that she had not been a better wife. She didn’t always cook the best meals, and her clothing wasn’t as fashion forward as a husband like Wesley deserved. During their younger years, they had decided that having children was too risky in the rough terrain that was now Earth. Wesley had said raising children in a class-oriented world that was trying to survive without the resources and with 40% less land available since the oceans rising was simply too heartbreaking to comprehend. Lela now begrudged Wesley’s simple yet realistic outlook. Lela’s regrets were overwhelming and she spent three hours typing up all of them and making promises as to how she would behave from here on out. It was noon when she started, and the sun warmed the home up so severely that she crouched in the corner of their bathroom, the coolest room in the house, and cried freely, allowing her carefully painted face to smear.
Lela was cleaned up when Wesley came home from work. Although he was clearly overwhelmed by his day, he did everything he could to make her feel special. He praised her mushy pasta, played with her hair while they watched a movie, and told her she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
They both went to bed that night feeling as in love as they did on their honeymoon.
The next morning Lela woke up thinking about Flynn. Wesley was glued to the laptop. He created a list of everything he would need to do to prepare for his deployment. Lela, on the other hand, sat in the heat of the day on their porch and made a list in her head of everything she hated. She hated the THOR, the truth of what she’d done, the gray landscape, the cockroaches running around the wood of the porch, and the President of the United States for deciding that there should be a border conflict with Canada. She recognized the importance of gaining control over as many resources as possible – she liked being in a country that could still fight – but she hated that it was this power that was taking her Wesley from her.
“Why are you sitting in this heat?” Wesley’s voice interrupted her from her thoughts.
“I’m thinking. I’m not sure I can do this, Wesley.”
“We did it once before. We can do it again.”
Wesley sat down next to her, put his arm around her shoulders, kissed her on the cheek, and said, “I know that you feel guilty, Lela.” He paused to sweep a cockroach from his shoe. “Nine years ago I came home from my parents’ house and collected the mail. I saw my THOR, Lela, before you did.” He paused for a moment. Lela stared horrified at him. She had nothing to say, so he continued. “I was upset because I knew what the ratings would mean for us, so I left. I drove around. When I got home, the results were gone, and you seemed so happy. I let it play out, Lela. When the test ratings showed up a couple of weeks later and were lower, I knew what you had done.”
Lela collapsed into herself. She was ashamed and sorry. She told him so.
“You were willing to put your own safety on the line for our relationship. When I got those second ratings, I fell more in love with you.”
Wesley pulled her closer and together they watched the dust from the streets form funnels in the wind. Lela grasped his forgiveness and held it close even as she recalled her quarrel in Forest Park with her husband’s best friend, Flynn.
Lela followed Flynn to the restroom. Her heart was pounding and she wasn’t quite sure what she would do when she caught up to him. He was clueless. He opened the door and entered the restroom. Lela was at his heels. She followed him in.
“Flynn,” she said.
He turned. He’d had time to pull his shirt halfway out of his pants where it hung. Lela focused her eyes on it. The crudity of it infuriated her.
“Promise me, Flynn, that you will never tell Wesley.” Her voice was even. Controlled.
“No, Lela. I can never promise you that.”
Lela’s eyes found Flynn’s and she became aware that Flynn’s loyalty had never ceased and she knew that he loved Wesley as much as she did. For a moment, this knowledge saved her from her fear and anger. Flynn, in response to her softening features, turned to the toilet bowl. This disregard brought Lela back to the reality of what his actions would cost her.
In a split second Lela had reached out and in as quick a moment Flynn fell to the filthy, cement floor. Blood pooled around him. Lela watched as a scrunched up piece of toilet paper that lay in the corner of the restroom turn red.
Wesley and Lela stood at the airport terminal looking into each other’s eyes. They made promises. They hugged, cried, kissed, reminisced, and comforted one another with a refusal to say the word “goodbye.”
As Wesley walked away from Lela, Lela smiled, waved, and made a list of all of the things they would do when Wesley returned.
Number one: sign up for tennis lessons.
© 2011 Shelley Stearns and Jody Jones