"One may live without bread, not without roses" —Jean Richepin
Bernard heard the knock at the door, five weighted raps made by a fist muffled in a glove. He placed both arms on either side of his armchair and pushed himself into a standing position. Pain shot through his large, arthritic frame. Bernard shambled to the front door. He took a few deep breaths to calm his nerves.
He heard the knocking again—swift and angry—as though Bernard kept the person on the other side waiting, and he was. Bernard was no fool. He knew his time was up. The question he often asked himself was when the time came was this: Did he have the balls?
He opened the door. The morning miasma of polluted smog wafted in the front room. The scent penetrated his nostrils. Bernard steeled his gag reflex. Leo stood there, respirator not quite obscuring his square-jawed scowl. Behind Leo stood masked and helmeted members of the goon squad armed with pistols and machetes.
“Bernard,” Leo said.
“Leo,” acknowledged Bernard. “What can I do for you?”
Leo handed a disk to Bernard. “We have a warrant to search the premises.”
Bernard reached into his shirt pocket. He pulled out a pair of horned-rimmed reading glasses. Leo frowned. “What the hell are those?”
“My reading glasses,” said Bernard as he placed them on his face. Bespectacled, Bernard’s eyes focused on Leo, who raised his left eyebrow. Glasses? Has he gone nuts?
"What do you need those for?”
“To see the truth and beauty of things.”
“Why don’t you get the auto-doc to fix your eyes? The new perma-lenses implants work well. They’ll never deteriorate.”
“Leo, I don’t mind getting old.” Bernard waved his hand over the disk. A stream of white text appeared. Bernard absorbed the information. When he was through, Bernard waved his hand over the disk. The text disappeared. He handed the disk back to Leo.
“Everything seems to be in order. What are you here for?”
“We’re here to make sure you’re not abusing government resources.”
“I’m an old man. Do I look like an anarchist to you?”
“What’s an anarchist? Never mind. Enough stalling. We’re going to search every inch of this place. If you’re following government standards, then you’re in the clear. If not, then I don’t need to tell you what’s going to happen, do I?”
Bernard opened the door wide. “Come in,” he said. “I’ve nothing to hide.”
Leo stepped inside. Other than a beat-up armchair and one bare bulb that flickered in the ceiling, the front room was bare. Leo turned and gestured to the rest of the squad.
“Check the rest of the rooms. If you find anything suspicious, bring it back here.” The goons disbursed.
“There’s not much to find,” Bernard joked. He spread his arms wide. “I do, however, own a lot of negative space.”
Leo scowled. He knew Bernard was hiding something. He felt it in his bones. Bernard was much too calm. Of course, Bernard had once led goon squads into other people’s homes to search for evidence of subversion and rebellion.
At the age of five, Leo moved to the city. He never knew his father. He and his mother moved into her childhood home, a small frame house on the north edge of the industrial complex just outside the city limits. Leo’s mother worked in the administration offices of the industrial complex. They’d moved during the summer. Leo’s mother couldn’t afford the city daycare. She told Leo to stay indoors, keep quiet, to sit in the front room, and watch for her to come home.
Leo had plenty to keep him busy. In the mornings, he’d watch neighborhood kids play in the street, and older folks deliver bundles of government-subsidized produce. The afternoons were difficult. It was hot; the air became thick and smelly from fumes from the industrial complex. The kids and elderly neighbors disappeared indoors.
Alone, Leo learned the art of imagination. He and his mother invented a game; instead of working, Leo’s mother was a world traveler. At 5:00 PM, six days a week, his mother would come through the door, grab Leo, give him a hug, and begin to tell him a story about where she’d visited. These stories continued through dinner and bath-time. At bedtime, Leo’s mother would read him poetry and short stories from a handful of old books by Keats, Bukowski, Stein, Constantine, and Plath. He’d fall asleep to lines of poetry. He wondered if all children were as lucky as he was.
Leo remembered the flashing lights of the goon squad vans as they pulled up in front of his mother’s house. He met Bernard, who came into Leo’s room, took him by the hand and told him he wasn’t in trouble. Leo relaxed. Bernard talked with Leo, asked him questions and listened to him. Leo felt safe with Bernard. Bernard led Leo to his bedroom window. “Son, I’m sorry. Your mother is a smart woman, but not smart enough.”
The goon squad set fire to Leo's mother’s books. Bernard kept a firm hand on Leo’s shoulder. Leo heard his mother’s loud desperate sobs. When the fire burned out, one of the goons pulled out a gun and pointed it at Leo’s mother. Leo tried to turn away from the window. Bernard held Leo in place. He heard the shot. Leo’s mother fell forward into the smoldering remains. He saw a thin line of blood run from her temple into the ashes. Leo looked up to Bernard, who wore an expression of sadness.
Bernard sighed. He turned Leo to face him, looked him straight in the eye and said, “Rules exist so we can survive.”
Leo never forgot Bernard’s parting words, which stayed with him through years of state fosterage and erased the lines of poetry his mother had impressed upon his young mind. At fifteen, Leo applied for and won a place at the goon squad academy. He devoted himself to become hardened against music, art, and literature, the three enemies of the government. Leo graduated with honors, rose through the ranks, and within three years was assigned to the top goon squad—the one led by Bernard.
For the next two years, Leo became Bernard’s right-hand man as they worked side by side to eradicate all traces of rebellion among the city population. But as Bernard approached retirement, Leo noticed something disturbing; Bernard developed the tendency to be merciful—to let things go. When a repeat offender should get a summary execution, Bernard ordered the goons to burn down that person’s home or levy a heavy fine. Leo began to seriously question Bernard’s judgment when he spotted a CD of Mozart concertos in Bernard’s locker.
That night, Leo stopped by Bernard’s house. Over drinks he brought up his concerns for Bernard’s lack of professionalism. Bernard smiled, took away Leo’s drink and went into the kitchen. A moment later, Leo heard the first sounds of a soft melody. He knew it was—the contraband CD.
Bernard came back. He handed Leo another drink. Leo put the drink on the coffee table. He grabbed Bernard and shook his arm.
“Bernard, you’re committing treason. Turn off the music. Get rid of that CD.”
Bernard smiled. “Just take a moment to listen to it, Leo. Have you ever heard anything so lovely?”
Leo glared at Bernard. He turned around, intent on finding the source of the music. He found it in the kitchen; a portable CD player. Bernard entered the kitchen just as Leo smashed the CD player on the floor.
Bernard glared at Leo. “Why?” he asked, “Why?”
“Because you could die for this! It’s treason!”
“Get out of my house. Go ahead, report me. I don’t care. Get the fuck out! Now!”
Leo left Bernard’s house in a daze. When Leo came into work the next morning, Bernard had resigned. Leo was promoted to goon squad leader. Leo became merciless. He worked and shaped the goon squad to be the most ruthless team in the city. The results were unprecedented; every rebel they executed brought Leo’s goon squad further acclaim.
Leo lost track of Bernard. Then, he received a series of complaints from Bernard’s neighbors. Bernard had been seen outdoors sans respirator. He no longer attended weekly neighborhood indoctrination meetings. Bernard’s deliveries of government-sponsored produce to his neighbor’s homes had begun to dwindle. Leo wondered if Bernard was sick, or worse yet, insane.
No, it’s something else. I’ll find out what the hell it is, Leo told himself as his men gathered back in the front room.
“Sir, we’ve found nothing. No books, art, or music. It’s clean,” said one of the goons. Leo frowned. He turned to Bernard. “I know you’re hiding something.”
“You’ve searched everywhere,” said Bernard. “Did you find anything? Go ahead, search again.”
“You’ve a basement. Isn’t that where you grow the food?” queried Leo. Bernard nodded. “Take us there.”
Bernard shrugged his shoulders. He slowly made his way to the back door. Leo and the goon squad followed him into the backyard; a packed dirt lot, the only sign of life an oak tree blackened and bent with disease. The entrance to Bernard’s basement was just outside the backyard steps. A heavy door made of perma-crete with a steel lock blocked the basement entrance. Bernard pulled a key from his pocket. Leo snatched the key from Bernard and handed it to one of his goons. The goon unlocked the door and slid it open. A set of steps descended into the basement. Leo took the lead. The goons poured into the basement. Bernard slid the basement door shut.
At the bottom of the stairs, the goons carefully fanned out among the ripe rows of tomatoes, green beans, and squash that hung heavily on vines and branches under warm sodium lights. In one corner of the basement were two large containers, one labeled AA Grade Compost, the other Federal Fertilizer. A small wheelbarrow, filled with garden tools, sat next to the containers. Leo walked up and down the rows. He noted the vegetables matched the government-approved list.
At the far end of the garden patch was a wooden door. Curious, Leo walked up to the door. He took off his glove and ran his hand along the grain. The door was made of wood, an outdated but not forbidden building material. Leo wondered how Bernard had managed to get a hold of a wooden door. Natural wood, untainted by rot or pollution, was expensive and hard to come by. Another steel lock hung around the door knob.
Leo turned to Bernard. “Where’s the key?”
Bernard came forward. “I don’t have a key for that lock. It’s a combination lock.”
“A combination lock? Why would you have one of those?”
“It’s easier for me to remember a series of numbers than it is for me to wrestle a key into a lock.”
“Excuse me, sir?”
“Yes,” replied Leo to one of the goons.
“I took a measurement of the dimensions of the garden patch. It’s smaller by at least 30 percent from government specs.”
“Thank you,” replied Leo. The goon nodded. Leo stared hard at Bernard. “Open the door. Now!”
Bernard moved past Leo. He picked up the lock. Leo saw Bernard turn the lock toward the light. He heard the tumblers click into place. The lock clicked open. Bernard carefully lifted the lock off the knob and pushed opened the door. A bright light emanated from within. Bernard disappeared inside.
Leo and the goon squad followed Bernard into the room. Leo’s eyes, though protected by perma-lenses, smarted from the sudden brightness. The light was white and blindingly bright. Leo shaded his hand over his eyes. Before Leo were rows of bushes he couldn’t identify. He saw a series of pale pinks, arterial reds, brilliant yellows, cool purples, a rainbow of full-blown blooms that sleepily nodded under the weight of their own beauty. He reached out, touched the nearest flower, a blood-red specimen that bowed right into his bare hand. The petals were smooth. He cupped the blossom in his hand. Around him, the goons inspected, stroked, and stared into the rich colors of the blossoms.
Almost by instinct, Leo pulled the bloom forward. Reluctantly, it snapped off its stem. Leo held the flower in his hand, uncertain of what to do. Around him, his men followed Leo’s example until each one of them held a bloom in their hands. Bernard grinned.
“What are these?” Leo demanded.
“Roses,” replied Bernard. “The flower of the soul. Aren’t they beautiful? You should smell them. That’s the best part.” Bernard bent over and stuck his nose into a cluster of yellow buds. He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. “Go ahead. Take a whiff. You won’t be sorry.”
Leo removed his respirator. He brought the rose close to his nose and inhaled. A seductive, heady scent filled his being. His head spun as memories came back in quick succession: the light of his mother’s laugh, the lilt in her voice as she recited those long forgotten words, a rose is a rose is a rose… the river of blood that flowed from her temple down her cheek from where she’d been shot. Now, Leo knew. He understood.
The goons, ever obedient, followed their leader’s example. Leo heard laughs, soft sighs, and exclamations. His eyes began to ache. He felt a buildup of pressure in his sinuses and behind the perma-lenses. His ears began to buzz as a bolt of pain ripped up his spine and into the back of his skull. He heard his men scream. He opened his eyes. Leo saw his men bleeding out of their noses and ears. Desperate, some of the goons tried to gouge the perma-lenses out of their eyes. He watched their skin flush blue, and then purple as each man clutched the sides of his head, and then fell down among the bushes.
The pain in Leo’s head intensified. He swung around to Bernard, who watched him with an expression of sadness.
“Wwwhaaat-t-t-t?” he stuttered. Leo fell to his knees. Bernard came over to Leo and took the rose from his hand
“The roses? You want to know about the roses?” Leo collapsed. He felt the slow, gentle hands of Bernard turn him over. Leo’s arms and legs grew heavy. His breathing grew more labored. His heart pounded.
"It’s funny what you’ll hold onto through the years of destruction. Rose seeds. One of my goons found them in between the pages of one of your mother’s books. I meant to put them into evidence, but I got distracted. You were the first child of a subversive I’d ever met. I didn’t know what to do. I followed procedure. I made myself and you watch your mother die."
“That night, I thought about killing myself. I held the pack of rose seeds in my hands until dawn. I put it away, unsure of what to do. I started to question what I was doing. I felt small. For the first time in my life, I tasted true sorrow. So, I doubled my resolve. I ignored that feeling for many years—until you were assigned to me. I couldn’t find the child in the killer who became my right hand. I’d murdered your mother. I’d destroyed you.”
"I started to let things go. It was an easy decision, except for the fact that you got wise to what I was doing. I retired. I grew my garden, just like the government required. Then, one day, I found the rose seeds. I planted the rose seeds. I wanted to see what would happen, if they would be able to grow. I wanted to create instead of destroy.”
Bernard placed the rose in Leo’s slack hand.
“Roses, Leo, are flowers of the soul. These are roses grown and fertilized with government soil and compost. A strange thing happens when you nurture life with institutional corrosion. I learned a long time ago that rules exist so we can survive. But, we can’t survive on rules alone. Rule are meant to be broken. I tried to tell you that, but you didn’t listen to me.”
In the periphery of his fading vision, Leo watched Bernard struggle to his feet. Bernard slowly walked between rows of goon corpses until he reached the door. He turned back to Leo.
“Farewell, Leo. I’m sorry it had to end this way. Rules are meant to be broken, but not the rule of nature, the rule that says a man should never interfere with the evolution of another man’s soul. I’d hoped to save your soul. It’s too late.”