TAALIA PARKED HER BICYCLE at the entrance of the co-housing apartment complex and slowly climbed the six flights of stairs to the rooftop garden.
Shyloh was seated on a low stool harvesting an overabundance of Swiss Chard from a large container. He looked up, smiled and put the last of the greens in a basket.
“I have to take this down to the communal kitchen, then perhaps you can accompany me while I go to the farmer’s market, it’s my turn to shop.”
Taalia admired Shyloh. He didn’t just espouse the policies he lived them. He was old, he was revered, she was sure he didn’t have to do his share of shopping, gardening and who knew what else in the co-housing project where he lived. And why co-housing? He was a loner, misanthropic. For him communal living was a liability not an asset.
The communal kitchen and dining area was a large room next to an open courtyard.
“Hello, Mohinder.” He gave the basket to an elderly South Asian woman.
“Thank you.” She handed him a slip of paper. “Buy only what’s on the list, not like the last time.”
“Of course.” Shyloh gathered three cloth bags, and they headed for the door.
“Pick the vegetables yourself, don’t let the vendor give you soft or bruised ones.”
“I’ll do my best,” Shyloh said without turning.
Out on the street the sun was punishing. They crossed to the other side to walk in the shade.
“Would you like to stay for dinner?”
“What’s on the menu?”
“Mohinder’s cooking so it’s subji and dahl.”
“I’ll pass,” Taalia said.
The diet of most Cascadians, indeed the majority of the people in the world who weren’t starving and would eat anything available, was now primarily vegetarian out of necessity. Raising beef, always a luxury of the developed countries, had become too expensive even for the privileged, as well as inefficient and damaging to the environment. A field of lentils was more cost effective, sustainable and provided far more protein. Free run chickens were ubiquitous though raised more for their eggs than their flesh.
Over-fishing combined with warming ocean temperatures and increased acidification had sent stocks into steep decline causing millions to starve or to be so malnourished they had no resistance to the series of pandemics that had swept the globe.
With the pressure of over-harvesting reduced, fish had adapted to the new conditions and were on the rebound.
In twenty years, the population of humans had declined about forty percent because of disease and famine. Of those who had survived half lived a precarious, subsistence life vulnerable to disease, starvation or genocide. Though the world was no longer under the threat of nuclear oblivion, it wasn’t a safer place, according to her mother’s doctrine, one Taalia implemented.
At the market, Shyloh bypassed several produce stalls. The vendor at the one he chose was elderly, dark skinned and clean shaven. As they approached the man saw Taalia first and narrowed his eyes. As a professional soldier it was look that Taalia recognized. It wasn’t fear or hostility, it was a tactical assessment, ingrained and involuntary. This old man had seen a lot of war.
When he saw Shyloh his entire demeanor changed. The men nodded to each other but neither spoke as Shyloh perused the fresh fruit and vegetables.
“Mohinder has berated me as weak and witless,” Shyloh said.
“Certainly that is not the case, though contradicting Mohinder is never wise,” said the vendor.
“She says I allow you to sell me bruised and overripe produce.”
“You offend my honour, Shyloh.” The vendor put his hand on his heart and took a step back. “And since you always pick your own, perhaps it is the fault of your failing eyesight and not my families most excellent harvest.”
“Perhaps you’re right, Hassam. We’re both getting older.” Shyloh handed him the shopping list. ”Where’s your sister, Nadya, today?”
“She and her husband are in the garden.” Hassam talked as he selected the items on the list.
“My nephew is at home studying for his exams.”
“How did he do on the essay I helped him with?”
“Excellent. He’s trying to apply what you taught him about critical thinking.” Hassam shook his head. “Though I’m afraid the boy will never be a scholar.”
“If he needs more tutoring have him come and visit me.”
“That’s kind of you.” Hassam set the bags down and presented Shyloh with a hand written receipt.
“These are your best prices?”
“Would I dare risk the wrath of Mohinder?”
Shlyloh smiled and signed for the groceries on the co-housing account.
“They’re heavy, Hassam said.
“I’ll take one.” Taalia said.
“I’m sorry, I’ve been rude,” Shyloh said. “This is my friend Taalia Wolfe. Taalia this is Hassam Khouri.”
The vendor was about to hand her the bag and paused. His eyes narrowed. “Judith’s daughter?”
“Yes.” Taalia met his eyes. “You know her?”
“You could say that.” Hassam handed her the bag.
“Let’s walk back through the park,” Shyloh said. “It’s cooler and the blackberries are ripe.”
They headed west leaving the commercial area behind. The streets of the residential neighbourhood were lined with shade trees interspersed with varieties of dwarf apple, pear and plum. Imported fruits like bananas and oranges were no longer available and civic governments had taken up planting native fruit trees on the boulevards which were public property. There was a tacit agreement you cared for the trees in front of your property though anyone could help themselves to the fruit. In Cascadia nobody went hungry–yet, but your choice of what to eat had been reduced considerably. Droughts worldwide had decimated grain crops and global warming continued to spread desertification diminishing the amount of arable land.
They walked in silence. They entered the park and kept to the path around its perimeter. The two soccer pitches and three baseball diamonds of years before were now a jumble of thriving community gardens. The verge had been seeded with blackberries and herbs and then left to grow wild.
Taalia found Shyloh’s presence comforting. She appreciated that he didn’t probe. It was like he was tuned into some bigger picture, had it all figured out or didn’t give a damn. To him it was all interesting, nothing more, nothing less
Shyloh put his bag down beside a bench beneath a horse chestnut tree and picked the ripe berries.
Taalia joined him.
“It’s been a while since we picked blackberries together,” Shyloh said.
As a child she and Shyloh would often go on adventures and, if it was summer, they always took containers to fill, the contents of which would end up as jam or coulis.
“I had a bad day at work,” Taalia said.
Shyloh stopped picking berries. “How bad?”
“I had an opportunity to take out a raiders’ arms and munitions convoy and didn’t take the shot.”
“A drone strike?”
They walked back to the bench and sat down. Taalia told him what happened.
“Nine children?” he said.
“Does that happen often? I mean, faulty intelligence?”
“At first they were all ‘no-doubters’ with the occasional non-combatant mixed in. We’re trained to tolerate collateral damage, to consider lives saved at the expense of lives taken.”
“But nine children?”
“There are a lot more non-combatants now. Judith says they’re using them as shields. She claims it’s a common practice among terrorists.”
“Well, it worked.”
Shyloh squeezed her hand. “I’m glad you didn’t take the shot.”
“My superiors may not agree with you,” Taalia said. “They’ve suspended me from active duty pending an investigation.”
“Have you spoken to Judith?”
“No. It would only make matters worse. Besides, we both know how she’d react.”
“Would you like me to?”
Shyloh fixed Taalia with his stare. It disconcerted most people, and she’d heard them say it was like his eyes were boring into your brain trying to figure out what was going on in there. One of her friends from the military academy who had taken psychology described the way he would look at people as the classic predator stare of a sociopath.
“Sociopaths are unfazed by sustained eye contact,” she explained. “Most people don’t want to appear aggressive or weird so after a few moments they look away. It’s the polite thing to do.”
You might look away but when you looked back Shyloh was still staring at you. Taalia grew up with it so it didn’t bother her, but after her colleague mentioned it she did some research and it was uncanny how many other characteristics Shyloh had that were associated with that personality.
He could be cold and analytical, almost indifferent. Taalia couldn’t remember him ever being passionate though he was driven, but his guide was logic not emotion.
In gatherings he was quiet, observing, but he could be outgoing and charming if the situation demanded it. To Taalia, and she knew him better than anyone, at least according to her mother, he appeared to be playing a part like an actor on a stage, and doing it well because no one ever accused him of being disingenuous.
Shyloh had a lot of other character traits attributed to a sociopath though she imagined they might be common among most people who had a public persona. His dislike for small talk and a reluctance to reveal anything about himself made him a master of returning the conversation back to the other person, and who’d complain about that?
“Have you noticed how he hesitates before responding?” her friend had said.
This drove many people to distraction. It was something about the silence they found unnerving. Taalia thought it might be a technique he used from his days as a journalist to get people to reveal more than they intended to. Often though, she knew it was because he didn’t consider the question worthy of an answer.
“He’s considering what to say, weighing his words,” she’d said, not wanting her friend to think Shyloh thought her annoying or stupid or both.
“Or concocting a lie.”
All this research made one thing clear, Taalia’s relationship with Shyloh was different. From the time she could remember he’d been intensely interested in everything she said, did or felt. With her he was never distant, but fully engaged. His inscrutable face, a trait he’d inherited from his Chinese father, was his brand, his trademark, but when they were together, he smiled a lot–like now.
“Is there anything you’d like me to do?” he said.
“No, unless you can explain how to justify continuing to kill hundreds of Neighbours, including women and children when all they’re doing is trying to survive.”
“By killing our citizens and stealing their property?”
“But it doesn’t make sense, Shy. What they lose when we retaliate with a drone strike far exceeds any booty they might get from the incursions. We kill scores, disrupt their supply lines, flatten their settlements, and destroy what little infrastructure they’ve got left. If they stopped the raids they’d be better off.”
“So we give them no alternative except to continue killing and looting?”
“It almost seems like that.”
“I have to get the groceries to the communal kitchen or face a public reprimand by Mohinder at tonight’s dinner.”
They walked back in silence.
* * *
SHYLOH WANTED TO REASSURE Taalia but didn’t know what to say. He felt he didn’t have a clear picture, it was like a landscape shrouded in fog. In such cases it was foolhardy to plunge ahead. Eventually the fog would dissipate, or at least, prominent landmarks would become visible, but if an enemy was concealed in the mist clarity might come too late.
“Thanks for listening, Shy.”
“Thanks for the visit and please keep me informed.” Shyloh watched Taalia mount her bike and ride away. For a moment she was nine years old again and his urge to protect her superseded reason.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish