by Jennifer Noelle Welch
Nature's Mill blog, June 15, 2015, 9:20 am:
Because you won't let up on these environmental one-upmanships
(yeah, I saw the passive-aggressive note you left on my bag of cheese
doodles), I'm issuing you a challenge. Something bigger than the two-sheet rule you made about the office toilet paper last week. Anyone
who's looked up Nature's Mill knows we're not just a green company.
We're the only two-person, twenty-something distributors of Earth-friendly products on the East coast.
You said, when I hired you, "Graham, we've got to start a blog to
publicize our products and emphasize accountability." Fine. You want
accountability? Let's keep a running blog as we see which of us can
make the smallest environmental impact. One month of competitive
green living, to show the interweb peeps how global stewardship is
(To all you lurkers reading this on the website, I already took the liberty
of filling in my half of the "About Us" page, so read my bio and
become a fan).
Ed? You are doomed, brutha. I lived out of a backpack for three years
after college. There's a lot I can do without.
Graham hit 'return' and pushed back from his office desk in satisfaction. Boss though he
was, no one could accuse him of running a boring workplace. Out of all the other business and
environmental science double majors he knew, none of them were doing anything as awesome as
operating a company out of a reclaimed industrial building in the middle of State forest. He spun
a few times in his Aeron chair and came to rest facing the windows overlooking the river. Recent
rain had swollen the rapids, and the air outside pulsed with the sound of tumbling water.
His parents would have been thrilled that he spent their bequest on the mill. They went
the way they would have wanted, in a bus accident on the way to an environmental protest. Still,
he wished they could have stood alongside him when he'd seen it for the first time. The three-story building, tucked snugly between the slopes of the Delaware Water Gap, offered all the
space his business would need: a ground level housing the mill's old machinery, a second-floor
office space, and a sprawling third-floor warehouse. When he'd stood on the building's flat roof,
the view of the gorge and surrounding forest had sold him on the spot.
The mill's freight elevator clunked open downstairs. Graham straightened up in
anticipation as it groaned upwards. When the doors rolled back, Ed sauntered in, shaking the
remnants of a bag of granola into his mouth. His bike helmet dangled from one arm.
"Morning," Graham said.
"Mrnn," Ed replied.
"Surprised you didn't use the stairs."
Ed switched on his computer and plopped into his chair. "The only thing holding the
steps together is rust. You don't use them either."
"I'm usually carrying boxes for the office."
Holding in his glee, Graham watched Ed click open his email, read, and slowly put the
granola bag aside. He kept his eyes averted when Ed briefly leaned out from behind his
computer. The sound of typing followed.
Posted by Ed (@e-star):
Beat your chest all you want, Graham. I'm not daunted. You said the
goal was "smallest environmental impact"? You realize that means
measuring EVERYTHING, don't you? Consumption. Emissions. Any
ecosystem disruptions. Are you ready for that kind of scrutiny?
Don't forget, I grew up on a COMMUNE. A closed system. People
purified and drank their urine when they had to. So (a) I accept your
challenge, and (b) if you think you'll win this one easy, you're wrong.
Posted by Graham (@grahamarama):
Communes fail. They expand until the sanitation issues get out of hand.
That is, if all the interpersonal crap doesn't contaminate them first.
Ed shot him a wry look and stabbed at his keyboard.
Posted by Ed (@e-star):
A commune needs diverse personalities and skill sets. People can stay
true to the vision, if they escape the distractions of consumerism.
(On that note, do you really think you're starting out strong today? My
shirt, pants, and socks came from Goodwill. You know that overpriced
"outdoor apparel" you're wearing comes from corporations, right?).
P.S.: Before you ask about my shoes - they're ninety percent post-consumer recycling.
Ah, Ed. That competitive streak was one of the reasons Graham had hired him in the first
place. Two days after the Assistant Manager opening went up on the Nature's Mill site, Ed had
physically stopped by to drop off his resume. Ballsy, but the impromptu interview had gone so
well that they'd been kicking back on the roof with two bottles of Graham's homebrew by the
afternoon. Graham's first impression of Ed's work ethic proved true. Three days into the job,
he'd fixed the glitch in the website's ordering form and realigned the counterweight system of
Reflecting on Ed's background in Mechanical Engineering now, in light of the present
challenge, Graham felt the first inkling that he was, possibly, screwed. His gaze fell on the space
where the copy machine had been. Ed had converted the company's financial records to an online
system, eliminating paper waste and toner cartridges. He'd also made noise about getting the
mill's old turbines running and becoming 100% hydroelectric. "Think of all the power we're
sitting on!" Ed was fond of exclaiming. If he made good on it, how could Graham compete?
"I'll make a chart of our carbon points," he blurted out, drawing Ed's attention away from
the computer screen. "You're right. We track everything. Energy use. Food. Transportation.
Recycling and waste."
"Total commitment," Ed said.
Graham carried on, unable to stop himself. "The loser blogs to the world a public
apology. And an analysis of his failure."
"I don't need an incentive chart. This isn't about ego. It's about the planet," Ed said.
"Keeping score will teach the public."
Ed stared in the direction of the mist rising off the river, stroking the side of his jaw.
"Okay?" Graham asked.
Ed's gaze was clear and steady. "Yes. It's on."
"Well." Graham said. He rose from his desk, suddenly feeling the need to assert control.
"I sold fourteen of those new compost buckets with the charcoal filters yesterday. Got to get that
shipment packed up."
"Right on, champ," said Ed. He put his palm up in the air.
Graham high-fived it as he passed.
Just as the elevator doors closed, he heard a derisive snort.
Graham's hand darted for the 'stop' button, then pulled back. The idiot just took a shot at
me, he thought. That high-five and that "champ" comment were totally sarcastic. Undermining
my leadership. And I played right into it. As he rode the freight elevator up one level, indignation
lashed at him.
He exited into the welcome solitude of the warehouse. Even in summers as warm as the
current one had been, the place remained damp. White mineral trails seeped from the seams in
the concrete block walls, and when it rained, dark patches appeared on the oil-stained floors.
Graham rummaged through cardboard boxes and crates, gathering his items on a cart. Compost
buckets. Solar dehydrators. Kits for growing your own wheatgrass. Birds tweet-tweeted between
the I-beams overhead. He didn't mind sharing the space with those that flew in; the windows
were barred, like those in the rest of the building, but otherwise open to the elements.
In Ed's first months of employment, the long afternoons in the warehouse had actually
helped Graham get Ed to loosen up. Ed was single-minded, focused. Nothing like Graham's
previous hire, who never stopped texting long enough to appreciate his kickass surroundings.
Graham found that together, he and Ed were hyper-productive all-stars, often getting the day's
ordering, shipping, and bookkeeping done with two or three hours to spare. Afterwards, they'd
run around the warehouse like college hooligans, hooting and yelling to hear their voices resound
in the cavernous space.
Next was the gamut of office-sports. Broomball on rollerblades, bumping into crates.
Office chair crack-the-whip, ending in scraped elbows and bleeding ankles. "Life is compost!
Food for worms!" Graham would holler. It was a favorite, fatalistic battle cry from his party days.
"But damn it, for now, I'm alive!" Google headquarters had professional masseuses, gourmet
chefs, and office ping-pong. He and Ed had their concrete playground. Let those cubicle sell-outs
run Wall Street. This was life in the raw.
Halfway to the shelves with the boxes of packing tape, Graham slid, his foot rolling on an
object. His ankle wrenched sideways.
"Gah!" He glared. Some feet away, a Whiffle ball spun lazily and came to a stop. The
previous week, he and Ed had batted dozens of them as hard as they could at a makeshift target
on the warehouse wall. When Ed realized he'd beaten Graham for once, his eyes went rolling and
wide in victory. "Ha!" he screamed, pumping his arms in something between a mad jig and a
seizure. Graham wondered then, for the first time, if he had let things go too far.
He retrieved the ball and squeezed it, hard. Honestly, the "employee management"
moments of his job had always given him a twinge of discomfort, making him feel like some
confrontational blowhard in a suit and cufflinks. He might have asked his parents for advice, if
they were still alive. But what could they have taught him about authority? He'd operated on a
first-name basis with them since diaperdom. Proposing the contest might have been a mistake,
but he couldn't lose face by calling it off in front of the blogosphere.
On the other hand, if he won it, he'd show Ed who was boss, once and for all.
When Graham rolled the cart out of the elevator onto the second floor, he stopped at Ed's
workstation. Ed was revamping the company website again, and didn't even look up until
Graham set the Whiffle ball on the corner of his desk. The furrows of concentration on Ed's face
abruptly gave way to surprise.
"No more games," Graham said. "Not until someone wins."
Over the next week, the contest mushroomed. Graham devised a plan to chill his hand-bottled beer in a minnow trap in the river, accessible from a pulley system on the ground floor.
He savored the look of envy on Ed's face when he explained that he'd donated the office's Freon
nightmare of a fridge to a soup kitchen. By now the chart Graham had pinned to the office
corkboard was covered with green stick-on stars in both columns. The blog updates multiplied
Posted by Ed (@e-star):
I redirected rainwater from the roof into growing containers for the
office. I can live off the herbs and veggies, if I get enough going. No
packaging. No chemicals. Pulled a sixteen-inch trout out of the river
today with my rod and reel.
Posted by Graham (@grahamarama):
Still, I saw you hugging your almond-milk latte pretty hard this
morning. Too bad about that plastic-lined cardboard cup. Those do a
number on the landfills.
Posted by Ed (@e-star):
Well, I couldn't help noticing the wrapper from your Veggie Delight
sub in the trash. Good luck when you trank out this afternoon from the
GMO toxins coursing through your veins.
Graham found the aforementioned sandwich wrapper tacked carefully to a new section of
the corkboard labeled "Wall of Shame."
On another day:
Posted by Graham (@grahamarama):
Day five of the beard competition. Shaving is a pointless consumption
of resources. Plus, you never know someone else or yourself until you
commit to growing facial hair. I'll let all my fans in on the revelation:
Ed's a redhead from the nose down.
Posted by Ed (@e-star):
Yes, you can never tell what kind of patchy excuse for a goatee
someone will generate until they try. Emphasis on 'try.' Graham's
effort emerged like a groundhog dragging itself ass-first out of
The number of comments Ed's posts received baffled him. "Right on, bro!" "Fight the
good fight, man. You can do it!" Graham clenched his jaw, reading them. Ed never mentioned
friends. Where was he getting all these connections? In all of the responses, one odd comment
Posted by Chuck (@Truhealth):
The decision to leave Reardon was up to you, Ed, but honestly, this
contest sounds like a trigger. Your room's still available. I want to
reiterate that you can come back any time and continue the good work
you started. Like we talked about. Okay?
Nobody coordinated the recycling at the Home like you. The whole
gang here, staff and residents, miss you.
Posted by Chuck (@Truhealth):
Maybe I should apologize for reaching out this way, but this is what I'm
left with when you don't respond to my calls or emails. Touch base,
Graham's finger hovered over the 'reply' tab. Who was this guy? He shook his head and
deleted the comment instead. The business didn't need to attract bad press by encouraging posts
Just then, a resounding plunge distracted him from his computer. He tiptoed down the
decrepit steps to the ground level, where a floor grate opened to the river forty feet below. The
rope and pulley for the beer remained undisturbed. The noise had come from Ed, swimming in
the calm, foam-flecked water of the natural basin, not far from the dormant turbines.
He could have asked permission, Graham thought.
Ed scrubbed his darkened curls with his fingers and made strokes back and forth, his
freckled body stark and white against the cola-colored water. As Graham stared, the uncanny idea
struck him that he didn't know his office-mate at all. Ed lacked Graham's height, but he moved
with a pared-down self-possession. The sinewy kind of strength that competed and won.
He shook off the thought.
Graham couldn't pinpoint the exact moment when the irritation of the contest began to
eclipse its entertainment value. Was it when Ed uprooted the office's potted palm to make a
composting toilet? Or when every bite of packaged food Graham took resulted in a long-suffering sigh from the next desk?
He coped with his resentment by working odd hours for a week, coming in at 6 a.m.,
while Ed lazed in around noon. The mutual avoidance might have eased Graham's mind, if it
hadn't been for the odd increase in the mill's electric bills. "You're leaving the lights on at night,
Ed. It's got to be you," he said. Ed responded only with evasive shrugs. I won't let him force me
into becoming some micromanaging bully on this, Graham thought. But after his third night lying
awake, obsessing, he could no longer stomach his own passivity. He bought coffee from the all-night diner a few exits down the highway and headed for the mill.
From the last quarter-mile of dirt road, he could make out the cold LED light shining
through the trees from the warehouse windows. The play of jagged shadows on the ceiling
suggested movement on the floor. What the hell was Ed doing at two in the morning? "I should
have checked in sooner," he muttered. His reluctance toward the impending altercation pressed
him to his seat. He pounded a fist on the steering wheel and forced himself out of the car. The
mill was his, dammit. He yanked open the unlocked door and entered the ground-floor vestibule.
The door at the very top of the stairwell gaped open, and pulses of light and clicking noises
ricocheted against the brick walls as he climbed.
In the center of the warehouse, Ed leaned over a tangle of partially constructed steel
frames. Graham recognized the lines of his shoulder blades beneath his t-shirt, but then Ed
turned. Graham cried out at the featureless black mask that confronted him.
Hurriedly, Ed snapped off the torch in his hand and flipped up the visor of his welding
helmet. In the glare of the work lights he had the frightened look of a discovered child.
Graham took in the six-by-four-foot cardboard boxes stacked nearby. Each was marked
"Ed? Explain this."
Panting, Ed squeegeed sweat from his forehead with one finger. "The mill needs...
adjustments. That's what I've been working on."
"I figured I'd save money by building the frames myself."
"You bought how many?"
"As many as the roof could hold."
"Two - " Graham sucked in air.
"They'll more than pay for themselves. Green thinking is long-term thinking, right?"
Graham turned away from Ed's beseeching expression. You shouldn't be planning
anything long-term, Ed, the kind of crap you're pulling. He suppressed the urge to kick the boxes
across the room.
"You can have all the contest points," Ed said. "I know it's the business's money paying
"You can't return them, I'm guessing," Graham said.
"Not now that they've been modified to fit the mounts. It was going to be a surprise for
Graham pressed his lips together. Too angry to look at Ed, he aimed his words at the
"Go ahead. But only because getting rid of them would waste a stupid amount of
materials and money."
"Graham, you won't regret - "
Graham flashed his palm. "Don't waste my time as well. Understand me. You act without
my permission again and you're finished here."
I've given the warning, he thought as he drove home. Next time, I can fire his ass with no
conversation. No emotion. Clean. Done.
The next day, it might as well not have happened. In fact, Ed was downright chirpy
around the office water cooler. Much too chirpy.
"You should try commuting on two wheels, Graham. I ride ten miles each way. No
carbon footprint at all. And a fit body processes nutrients more efficiently." As Ed's rapturous
voice pierced his pre-caffeinated brain, Graham seethed with resentment. He couldn't ditch the
contest, not with the public eye on the blog. But just then, in an instant of terrible genius, his
misery offered a glimpse of what might shut Ed up for good.
"Yeah?" he said nonchalantly, giving his revenge plan time to fully unfurl. "I'm thinking
of modifying my car to run on fryolator oil."
"Sure, you can support the lard-giants." Ed shrugged. "I guess it just depends how deeply
Graham exhaled slowly, deliberately. The smug bastard. That was it.
He fixed Ed in his gaze. "You hardly make a footprint, you said."
"Yeah. I've been uber-responsible. By now, I hardly carbon tiptoe."
"I'm afraid even decades of that won't atone for last night's misstep."
"Those two dozen solar panels you bought. They're great now. But what about the long-term, like you said? When those panels wear out, they'll leak as much cadmium as a million
double-A batteries. Where will you put the waste?"
Ed's mouth went satisfyingly slack.
"I don't know," he stammered.
Graham didn't know whether to laugh or feel sorry. By god, it had worked. Messing with
Ed was almost better than firing him.
"Billions of toxic molecules, dispersing into the air and groundwater," he said. "Oh well.
We're stuck with it now."
Ed's lips trembled. Graham hid his smile as he refilled his mug from the water cooler.
That afternoon, the sound of banging, whirring tools, and metal sliding across the floor
rained down from above. Ed had apparently returned to his work with the renewed vigor of an
ant on crack.
Ed's blog post the next day, however, unsettled Graham:
Posted by Ed (@e-star):
I can hardly see to type. I gave my cat to a shelter this morning. And
now I am alone. I loved him, but I couldn't justify my interference in
the life of a wild creature any longer. Or what would have been a wild
creature, if I hadn't domesticated him, ruining his innate hunting
instincts. The shelter was the only solution. At least I am free now. Free
from all but one obligation.
One reply followed:
Posted by Chuck (@Truhealth):
Ed, are you in some trouble? Why would you disconnect your number?
You know I worry about you. Come back to Reardon before you go
down that route.
At five o'clock on Friday, Graham noticed Ed sitting paralyzed at his desk, his face
forlorn. He paused on the elevator threshold. A new vision of himself formed in his mind. A
good boss offered firmness, yes. But also emotional support.
"What's up, Ed?" he asked.
"I can't stand it," Ed said. He tapped his fingers against the security glass, squinting. "I sit
here at night, working. The light from my desk makes insects fly up against the window. Look
what I've done."
"I see some cobwebs . . ."
Ed's voice sounded pained. "They're there because of me. I attracted the flies, and as a
result, the spiders have completely altered their habits. The bugs are feeding the spiders, not the
bats that pollinate the flowers and trees."
It occurred to Graham to wonder if Ed was stoned. But in the light of the desk lamp's
compact fluorescent bulb, his pupils were focused and tight.
"That's you, Mister Natural Selection," Graham quipped. But Ed continued on.
"Yes. I am. Earlier this week, I didn't think about all the acorns I stepped on in front of
the building. That's two dozen nuts the squirrels didn't crack open by themselves. That means
more nutrients for those squirrels per day. More squirrel babies per litter, more litters per year.
I'm changing the ecosystem."
"If I'm not part of the solution, I'm part of the problem," Ed said. "Just like the solar
panels. Always, something crowds in to ruin your best intention." His fingers worried his lips. "I
have to balance it somehow," he whispered.
Graham opened his mouth to speak, but found his sense of charity replaced by
exasperation. Kind boss, tyrant boss.... he realized he wanted neither. He just wanted Ed gone.
Two days later, a review of company invoices gave Graham all the evidence he needed.
Once the disbelief wore off, he printed the transaction record and climbed the ladder to the
warehouse roof, where he found Ed polishing one of the solar panels with a rag. The row of tilted
glass faces reminded Graham of Easter Island. He gazed in wonder at the plantings spilling out
around the perimeter and underfoot. A fuzzy odor from some nearby herb made his nose itch.
"I've been meaning to show you the vegetable garden," Ed called out cheerily when he
The new brownness of Ed's upper body startled Graham. His torn shorts barely clung to
his hips. Fairly certain Ed was going commando underneath, Graham avoided looking too closely
at the holes.
"The sod's going to regulate the building temperature all year," Ed said, giving a pea vine
an affectionate pat.
"You sold the shipping truck," Graham said. He brandished his print-out and waited.
Ed grinned. "I'm rebalancing," he said. "I don't think that junker could clear even the
loosest emissions test."
"I warned you about going over my head like this. I'm the boss here." Graham swallowed
a groan at how pathetic the words sounded.
"I didn't ask because I knew you'd agree with me," Ed said. "How can we help our
clients develop responsibility if we're stuck in the old patterns?"
"How do we distribute without a truck?"
"You said you were serious about going green, Graham. I can't think that you're a
"No. I'm just the sap holding the paperwork when we file for bankruptcy."
Ed laughed. "You see, that's just another cultural construct."
Graham smacked his palm against his forehead. "We're a business."
"And it's businesses that cover this planet in asphalt, waste, and poison."
Graham fumed. Nature's Mill didn't practice blind profit-making. He was as responsible
as his budget allowed. And sometimes that meant compromises. Bosses understood this.
"You're fired, Ed," he said. "It's been interesting. Good, even. But - "
"You want me to leave?" Ed faltered against one of the panels. Graham felt a twinge,
remembering the office-sport afternoons. He kept his eyes on the jagged tree line across the
gorge. "Let's not end it ugly. You don't have a lot of stuff. You can be out by the afternoon."
"Or else what?"
Ed's lips thinned. "Or else you'll 'make me'?"
Graham exhaled forcefully. Right. Like this was going to end in blows. Ridiculous. He
headed for the exit ladder.
"I'm out of here. Get your things and get out."
He scolded himself for taking one last look, knowing the image of Ed's hollow-cheeked
dismay would sear itself on his memory.
A dark building greeted Graham the next morning. A good sign, he thought. He unlocked
the door and took the elevator upstairs. To his relief, he found Ed's desk bare of everything
except his computer. Graham felt his heart lighten. No messy interactions after all. He took his
place at his desk. Time to rewrite the job ad and start again.
His computer beeped with an instant message.
Good morning, Graham.
Dammit. Graham bolted out of his chair and paced, his knuckles against his lips. He
kicked the wall, then slid back to his keyboard. He pounded out:
Ed. Leaving the building means leaving the system.
He finished with a whack of his middle finger on the 'return' key.
Who said I left the building?
Graham craned his neck to look down the length of the office toward the packing tables.
Vacant. Ed was either loitering downstairs or in the warehouse.
He stalked to the elevator. The button felt strangely dead under his finger.
He tried again. No response.
"What the hell."
The stairwell door, then.
No exit. Locked.
He returned to his computer.
Ed, stop messing with me and get off the property.
He stilled his breath for a minute, inclining one ear, straining to hear anything over the
rush of the river.
Graham, I am sorry. This friendship is no longer sustainable.
Graham sat with his back against the packing floor wall, slowly massaging his beard. In
the two days that had passed, he had eaten all but a remaining pack of peanuts in his desk,
developed a closer familiarity than he wanted with the Tempur-Pedic properties of the office
floor, and put an Aeron-shaped dent in the elevator's doors.
His cell phone lay in front of him, still cued up to 9-1-1. He'd dialed every hour for the
last forty-eight hours, until he forced himself to stop wearing down the battery. No service. No
service. Bullcrap. He'd set his stomach to boiling again if he thought too much about it. Ed must
have mail-ordered a black market signal blocker. As an extra measure, he'd also taken all the
office cell chargers. Though not the water cooler, Graham noticed.
A pile of spent objects sat in front of him - scissors, boxcutters, the heavy, unscrewed
blade from the paper cutter, all nicked and bent from his failed efforts to loosen the stairwell door
lock. The elevator doors wouldn't budge, and the windows? Also no use. Even if he could bust
out the safety glass and squeeze through the bars, he'd earn only a 60-foot drop to the rapids. The
knuckles of his right hand still throbbed from his slamming them into the wall in a moment of
He read his blog post from his first night of imprisonment again. It was all he could do,
since every URL he tried redirected him back to the company webpage.
Posted by Graham (@grahamarama):
I can only hope someone's reading this. If you are, you must believe I
am in a legitimate situation. My colleague has gone crazy and locked
me in my own office. I swear on all that is good and holy this is not a
joke. PLEASE CALL THE POLICE RIGHT NOW to the Bufort Falls
Mill, fifteen miles north of the Delaware River on the old mining roads.
There's no signs out here, but the coordinates are 41.037995°N,
75.021687°W. Please. Give them the name Ed Leeds. He's unhinged. I
don't know what will happen to me.
Other posts had come through, from time to time:
Posted by Ed (@e-star):
The shavings from the paper shredder make a warm bedding for
passing the night. My hollow is snug.
Posted by Ed (@e-star):
I'm learning there are so many unnecessaries. Soap robs the skin of its
natural protective film of oil and dirt. I am liberated from all
conventions that strip me of my essence. Hallelujah.
Graham hated the pleading tone of his responses. "Ed. I apologize. I got hotheaded. You
can have your job back, if that's what you want. Let's have a beer and talk." As the sun came up
on the second day, he stopped censoring. "This is not a joke, you effing lunatic. Taking your ass
to court at the soonest opportunity." At one point his heart leapt at the sight of responses spilling
onto the screen, before he recognized them as a backlog of automated replies:
POST DENIED BY WEBMASTER
POST DENIED BY WEBMASTER
POST DENIED BY WEBMASTER
Nothing he'd posted had gotten out. Not his call for help. Not his emails to every friend
he could think of. Nothing.
His empty stomach snarled.
As if in response, over the tumbling of the river, a set of truck brakes released.
Graham scrambled to his feet and pressed up to the glass. A shipping truck quivered to a
stop in front of the building. Graham gasped at the sight of Ed trotting down the steps in a polo
shirt and jeans. He jogged out to meet the man climbing down from the driver's seat.
"Hey!" Graham hollered. The man's baseball cap brim shielded his face. Graham beat the
heel of his hand on the glass, then rammed it with the butt of the paper cutter handle. The
security glass cracked but held, supported by its embedded wire grid. The man looked off into the
trees a moment, then turned back to Ed, who was writing in one of the office checkbooks.
Graham kept hammering at the glass. As the man made notations on a form, Ed looked up
in Graham's direction, his facial features narrowing.
"I'm up here!" Graham shouted. He cursed. Even if the guy looked up, the mill was
backlit this time of day, and the river's white noise masked all other sound.
He watched them unload a half-dozen crates, using the lift at the back of the truck.
"Humboldt Machinery"... "Steelcraft"... he read on their sides. What the hell is he buying now?,
Graham thought. He groaned as Ed tore off a check, handing over another chunk of the mill's
assets. Ed accepted the man's help loading the crates into the building with a hand truck, and
when the two of them emerged, he clapped the guy on the shoulder. The man nodded and headed
for the truck cab.
Graham yelled, smacking the glass, until the roar of his voice became lost in the pounding
of the deluge below. When he came to his senses, his throat ached, the rear lights of the truck
were gone, and dust had re-settled on the road.
The freight elevator squealed as it climbed. "What do you want from me?" Graham
shouted as it came even with his floor. To his surprise, it stopped with a k-chunk, and opened a
crack. Graham leapt to the door.
"Ed. Open up. Let's talk about it."
"You behaved poorly just now," Ed said through the slit. "I'm not going to let that slide."
Graham jammed his fingers into the gap and pulled. The doors gave, just an inch. Inside,
Ed's wiry form paced, a yellow blur swinging at his side. Graham caught a flash of wide, red-rimmed eyes before the object smashed against the doors. He yelped and fell back.
He looked down in wonder at his crushed and darkening middle fingertip. The Wiffle bat.
The psycho had injected it with concrete.
The door slid back shut.
"What was that you always said, Graham?" came the muffled voice. "Stewardship is
about earning your place on the planet. Even more true for you, the amount of carbon debt you're
"Ed," Graham croaked, cradling his bashed finger. "I'll write the damn post. I'll tell the
world you won. It's what you want, isn't it?"
But the elevator had already closed and lifted past him, like a judgment.
The sound of drilling and banging on the ground level dominated as night fell. Graham
had opened his last pack of peanuts when his computer screen flickered to life. He scrambled to
the desk and read, squinting in the screen's light. The email had been sent to their entire list of
customers and suppliers.
We at Nature's Mill have always treasured our partnerships with those
committed to putting the Earth first. In light of those shared values, I
know you'll support my decision to reexamine the Nature's Mill
mission. Losing the environmental impact contest has prompted me to
reset priorities and take the company in an exciting new direction.
Consequently, I am shutting down the sales and distribution component
of our operations, effective immediately.
Graham's signature followed.
An air-shattering crack sounded from the front corner of the roof. Graham ducked as a
spray of sparks fell past the windows. His screen flicked off, and with a whump like the building
giving a massive shrug, the power shut down.
Graham blew on his middle finger to try to quell the pain. Under the broken nail, the bone
felt fractured. He bit down on a Sharpie and wound packing tape around the joint. After Ed
severed the electricity, the elevator doors had banged open on every floor. Graham couldn't tell if
it was a safety default of the old building or something else, but he wasn't about to lose the
chance to get out. He considered the unbolted paper cutter blade. What could he use it for? He
knew exactly what, if it came down to it. Bring it. You don't have to use it. He shook his head in
aversion, but threaded the handle through his belt loop all the same.
Fighting a bout of hunger and nausea that turned the floor to liquid under his feet, he
stuffed his phone in his pocket and lurched to the shaft.
Dim light glimmered from the warehouse opening above. Of course. The bastard had a
day's worth of solar power up there. Well, let him enjoy it for the few hours he had before
Graham escaped and called the cops. Graham leaned forward, caught the elevator cable in his
hand, and swung out. His finger flared under the pressure as he let himself down hand over hand,
conscious every moment of the elevator's bulk suspended over him. He dropped the last few feet
to the bottom of the shaft and clambered into the ground-floor vestibule.
A glint of metal on the floor caught his eye. Without even approaching it, he recognized it
as the head of Ed's front door key. The stem, he knew, would be twisted off in the lock. Through
the door's four-inch window, he found the building's power line, not outlined against the starry
sky, but on the ground.
Clenching his jaw, Graham left the vestibule and felt his way between the dark lumps of
machinery to the trap door. The rope and pulley would hold his weight. He'd slide down and
swim to the bank.
Graham swore as his fingers found a shiny padlock latching the grate closed. None of the
scrap pipe nearby fit in the steel loop to give him leverage.
He sank back on his heels, disgusted with the futility of his hands. From the new vantage
point, an unfamiliar, dropcloth-covered mound in the corner caught his attention. He drew aside
the filthy shroud, finding a bank of solar batteries, joined by cables. Ed's new power source,
probably bought with the money from the sale of the truck. My truck, Graham thought.
Somewhere up in the warehouse, Ed operated his cell signal blocker. A signal blocker
requiring power. Graham looked at the batteries in front of him. He picked up a length of pipe,
weighing it in his hands. Had Ed really left himself so open? He knows how toxic they are, he
thought. How close to the water supply. He doesn't think I'll do it.
He hefted the pipe over his head. "You want to be off the grid, Ed?" he hollered towards
the elevator shaft.
Then he let it fly.
Graham's victory yell faltered when he noticed the light shining from the elevator
opening. His cell showed no reception. The nutjob still had power. He had to have a
Graham couldn't tunnel his way out through the brick walls. He would have to get to the
signal blocker himself.
He tried the first flight of steps. On the second flight, the metal creaked and began to
swing. Graham's instincts stabbed at him. After a second's hesitation, he bolted back down. One
flight from the exit door, he heard the top platform snap loose. Level after level clapped together
above him in a screeching avalanche. When it hit bottom, dust sprayed over him where he had
Graham got his heart rate under control, walked to the shattered pile of metal, and found
the bright spots in the iron where it had been cut most of the way through. He knew, then, where
Ed wanted him. He looked up at the three-story distance above him. Stay and starve, or.... Well.
Really, he had only one option.
For once he wished the river louder, to mask his grunting progress up the elevator cable.
His heart beat high and thin as he neared the top of the shaft. He leaned out to catch the lip of the
warehouse opening, wincing as his busted finger took his weight. He pulled himself onto the
floor, the concrete cold against his stomach.
He hauled himself to his feet, swaying, and stumbled into total disorientation. Vegetative
aromas. Wood smoke. A thin raw scent like spilled blood. Trickling noises sounded all around
him in the clammy air. A single battery-powered work light stood in the center of the floor. Once
Graham neared it, he made out the shapes surrounding him.
Hydroponic tanks. Floating plugs sprouting vegetables. Growth lights. Racks and racks of
dried, smoked fish. On a nearby table, some bits of grey fur and feathers being worked into a
"Sustainability," he whispered.
"I built it for us." The voice echoed from the darkness. "Totally self-contained.
Regenerating, rather than depleting."
"That's not possible. You can't avoid an impact."
"It is possible. It's what the world could be like, if people didn't lose sight of the vision."
"I've got a pretty good glimpse of it now," Graham said, struggling to concentrate on the
direction of Ed's voice.
"This is the first step of many," Ed said. "I'm not the only one who sees the way things
are going. Who sees a world addicted to profit and plastic and overconsumption. Nothing less
than a disaster will jolt us off that road. Hundreds of people on the web agree. The only choice is
to bring the crisis sooner, when there's still an Earth to salvage."
"Terrorism," Graham said.
A scoffing laugh came from somewhere on his left. "You want terror? Look around. The
country's overpopulated with apathetic idiots, squeezing out more apathetic idiots by the dozen.
The future's where the terror is!"
Graham winced, fighting off a hunger cramp. "People will change." But as he said the
words, he knew with dull certainty he didn't believe, had never really believed, their truth.
"You need help, Ed," Graham said. He took a gamble and withdrew his cell phone from
his pocket, turned it on. "Let me contact that home - Reardon."
"Help? They need my help. My conscience is finally clean. I can survive here, waiting for
society to fall apart. When the end comes, I'll get down on my knees to welcome it. Then pledge
my hands to the new world to come."
Graham swayed. He had allowed this. Failure resonated in his weakened body.
"If you don't let me leave, I will prosecute."
"I don't believe in the law."
"You'd better," Graham spat. "My name is on the mill's property deed. I worked for this
place. My parents worked for it. It's mine." His voice became a shout. "And I won't give it to
you." He loosed the paper cutter blade from his belt loop.
Ed's gleeful yell rang out, surprisingly close. "Yes! Come on!"
Graham gasped and spun. He backed away from Ed's voice, tripped on a cord. A cord
leading to a small black box with a row of antennae, sitting on a worktable. The signal blocker.
Graham ran for it, ignoring the dashing footsteps behind him. He threw the box to the
floor, shattering it, and darted among the hydroponic tanks. Awkwardly cradling the blade, he
raised his phone and sprinted for the warehouse's opposite end.
Before he pressed the redial button, a tackle flattened him. The phone and blade clattered
across the cement. He clawed at Ed's weight on top of him, the stench of their combined body
odor in his face. Ed's sweaty arms slipped out of Graham's grasp, and he tore free. By the time
Graham got to his feet, he saw the light from his cell phone's screen reflecting on glinting teeth.
An anguished cry burst from him as Ed lobbed the device through the window and into the falls.
Graham bellowed. Blood pounded in his ears. His breathing became ragged. The smell of
smoke and water and fish guts swam in his head. He scrambled on the floor, and his groping
fingers found the blade's handle.
Other man. Threat. The nerve endings trilled in his arms and legs. Run? Fight?
"Haaa. Haaa," Ed was hooting. Graham caught a glimpse of his stooped, shadowy figure
circling, heard a soft splat as saliva fell from Ed's mouth to the floor.
Graham's fingers curled tightly around the handle. He hunched, forearms protecting his
vitals. Panic shrieked at him, turning him all eyes, jaws and ears. This place. His place. HIS.
Blood coated his mouth. He'd bitten his tongue. Or had he bitten Ed? The snarl behind
his teeth turned to a whimper.
Red in tooth and claw. Was this who he was? He discovered his knuckles rested on the
floor. Oh God. With effort, he pulled himself back from that edge, back upright.
"Damn you." In a spasm of horror, he hurled the blade away from him. "I wo-won't live
this way with you," he said. "And I won't fight."
His voice sounded so frail. As his words disappeared in the yawning space, he knew with
his head and his gut what would happen. Everything becomes part of the system, he thought. He
would feed it, one way or another.
Food for worms. A sob broke from him. No, not for worms. Something higher on the
food chain. Ed would find a resource in everything.
Somewhere, a lever clanked, and a low, humming rumble began. The turbines churned to
life, vibrating through the mill's foundations. With a series of clacks, light burst from the
warehouse's overhead lamps, bouncing off every table surface with frazzled energy. The dots of
green began circling in their tanks again.
Graham blinked at the figure crouched across the floor. Naked. Taut-skinned. Wide,
grinning eyes obscured by a mane of curls.
He felt the prey impulse to back away. Resisted it. With the resurrected power of Ed's
new energy source reverberating through the soles of his feet, he unclenched his hands. Win...
loss.... Irrelevant. The cycle of the green world fed on just one thing.
"Compost," he whispered. He would contribute to whatever came next. That had to count
for something, didn't it?
As if in response to his thoughts, the raw voice answered him.
"This place has a population problem. I see your footprints, Graham. But I'll leave
nothing behind. Not even a trace."
Graham's spirit sank. The river thundered around them, and with a skittering laugh, the
figure that had been Ed advanced.