So often, the right choices are the hardest ones.
A Story About Environmental Protection
By Charlie Novak
Theo sat on the edge of the bed; shoulders slouched and head bowed. He rubbed tired eyes before replacing his glasses. His wife walked over and laid comforting fingers on his shoulder.
“It’ll be okay.”
“I’m not ready for this.”
She opened her mouth but at that moment Elsie ran into the room squealing “Daddy! Daddy!”
He looked up, eyes pained. “What is it Elsie?”
“Is it time to go yet?” Her face was covered with a huge grin and her eyes were alight as she bounced up and down with excitement.
His mouth twitched into a smile. “I don’t know. Have you packed your bag?”
“Did you remember your hat?”
“Yes, yes, yes!”
“I guess so then.” Theo looked to his wife. “Unless you can think of anything else?” A plea.
She just smiled. “Why don’t you go wait in the car while I make sure Dad hasn’t forgotten to pack his bag?”
The girl giggled, “Okay.”
They watched her go.
“I don’t want this.”
“It doesn’t matter what you want.” Joan had always been straightforward. “You need this. You need to face it. Move on.”
“You can’t let this keep eating you up. It’s killing you.”
“Maybe I should let it.”
“What about our daughter? What about me? Maybe you should think about us.”
Theo gave the report summary another brief scan, although he knew the entire thing back to front.
“There’s no way I can sign off on this project,” he told his assistant.
“They won’t like that sir.”
“The others have all signed sir, perhaps you should just—”
“I’m not signing it.”
There was a knock at the door.
Theo sighed, “Let them in.”
Someone handed a large envelope to his assistant and left.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know sir, it’s labelled as urgent.”
Theo sighed again and rubbed his face. “Well hand it over then, let’s see what they want this time.”
He tore the envelope open and pulled out a small stack of photos.
His wife walking to work. His daughter in the playground at day care. His wife and daughter in the park. His wife and daughter in the back yard. The three of them out for lunch.
There was a note, but he didn’t read it.
“Pass me a pen.”
“I said pass me a pen. I need to sign off on that damned project.”
“Are we there yet?”
“Soon.” He kept the apprehension from his voice.
“How soon is soon?”
“Look out the window,” Joan told her. “You’ll see it, just around this corner.”
Elsie gasped and pressed her face to the window.
The rocky foothills rolled before them, the dry browns and sparse shrubs were beautiful under the golden touch of the morning sunlight. Then the earth slowly flattened into a plain of cracked brown mud that stretched to the horizon. Strange, haunting shapes dotted the landscape, rupturing its uniformity.
“Wow,” said Elsie, “it goes so far.”
“Yes,” said Theo, his eyes filled with tears, “it does.”
Theo stood on the shore, staring out over the calm blue waters and enjoying the cool breeze. Sunlight danced on the surface, sparkling as far as he could see. You would never know this sea was landlocked just by looking at it.
“Are you Theodore Weber from the Environmental Protection Agency?” an unfamiliar voice interrupted.
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Good to meet you sir, I’m Fred Barkins, your new assistant.”
“Nice to meet you.” They shook hands.
“This the first time you’ve been here?”
“I could tell by your expression. Beautiful isn’t it?”
Elsie was foraging treasures in the dry mud. Every time she found one she liked she ran over to Joan to show her. Soon there was a small pile of assorted shells and stones at her feet.
“I want to go exploring,” proclaimed Elsie.
“Okay, why don’t we go for a walk then?” his wife suggested, “It’ll be an adventure.”
“Oh, what’s this?” asked Elsie, crouching over something.
Theo and his wife walked up. It was bones.
“Those are bones,” replied Joan.
“What’s a fish doing here? There isn’t any water.”
“There used to be. This used to be a sea.”
Elsie paused to absorb this information, furrowing her small face. “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” said Joan. “Why don’t you ask Dad?”
Theo stared at his wife.
“What was it?”
Theo opened his mouth, didn’t say anything, and then closed it again.
But something else had caught Elsie’s attention.
“Look at that!” she exclaimed, pointing at a dark shape, “It’s a boat.”
Theo watched in silence as his wife and daughter examined the abandoned vessel.
“Don’t you want to see too Daddy?”
“Why don’t we keep walking?”
“Daddy, where are all the people?”
“What do you mean?”
She pointed to a cluster of houses clinging to the foot of a mountain, near what would once have been the shore.
“There’s all those houses, but there aren’t any people. Where are they?”
“The people who lived there were mostly fisherman,” Joan said, “But there’s no sea anymore, so they left.”
“Oh,” said Elsie, “I guess that’s why they left their boat behind.”
“I guess so.”
“Tens of thousands have been forced to leave their homes since the crisis. Not only have they lost their jobs, but the devastation has also led to a myriad of health problems. There have been devastating outbreaks of disease and infant mortality rates are on the rise. The very climate of the area has –”
Theo hit the pause button when he heard his wife approaching.
“Why are you watching it again? You need to stop torturing yourself.”
“I have a lot to answer for.”
“No you don’t, you didn’t do this.”
“No I didn’t. But I didn’t stop it. I let them do it. That’s just as bad.”
“There was nothing you could do.”
“I didn’t even try.”
“You did what you had to. You protected me, you protected Elsie.”
“But what about them?”
“You saved us Theo, remember that.”
“There’s only two of you, there were thousands of them.”
They strolled back towards the car. Elsie chattered happily while Joan listened. Theo just watched. Elsie saw the pile of stones and shells she had collected earlier, and ran ahead to it. She bent down and searched it carefully before picking one. She turned back and ran up to him.
“Here you go Daddy,” she offered him a small, white fan-shaped shell.
“It’s a present.”
“Because I love you.”
He bent down and hugged her close. “I love you too. I’d do anything for you.”
But would I do it twice?