Skeet was dead: to begin with.
That's what Garland Huntington, III was thinking as he studied the ancient, brittle, lifeless looking Mesquite and how he might explain its condition to the pack of network reporters who were supposed to be on hand tomorrow morning, Christmas Day.
Skeet was the name Garland had pinned to the old West Texas sentinel to help garner public support for his newest organization: Friends of the Brush.
“It makes it more personal,” Stacia Highsmith told the newbies. She explained rule Number One in professional protesting was that you didn't have to believe in what you were protesting, but you'd better be able to make the public believe it.
“Bottom line, if it's personal John and Jane Q. Public will donate more,” Danny Lenniger had told the recruits with a rueful laugh.
“It's not about the money,” Garland had scolded with a practiced chagrin. “It's about giving the public incentive to participate.”
“Same thing,” said Danny.
Both Stacia and Danny were veteran freelance protesters Garland had hired over the years for one cause or another. Most recently, he used them as leading rabble rousers for his Friends of the Brush campaign. They had plastered Skeet the Mesquite's likeness on handbills and billboards from New York City to San Francisco decrying the heinous horrors of root plowing, burning and other brush management tools. Never mind such management extended the life of the ecosystem, and provided feed and shelter for wildlife.
“Will Your Grandchildren Get to See This?” proclaimed the billboards. “You Can Help.”
Whether it was the mystical notions stirred up by Mesquite Trees in general, or the rugged beauty of Skeet in particular, by all counts, the Friends of the Brush campaign had been the most successful Garland ever mounted. Money was flowing in so fast that even Garland and his accomplices couldn't spend it all, which was no small miracle.
Now, here it was Christmas Eve. He had finagled and coerced every major network to do a live feed in front of old Skeet, using the tree to symbolize the plight of the bereft, less fortunate and generally disenfranchised everywhere. It was the fundraising equivalent of hitting a trifecta populated by nothing but long shots.
Here it was Christmas Eve and best as Garland could tell, Skeet had turned leaves, beans and pollen up, deader than the proverbial doornail. The branches, once so proud and seemingly invincible were bare and lifeless, each one seeming to point at Garland in accusation.
To be fair, it was all his fault. He had arranged for the media to come and see his paid picketers strut their stuff, blockading the cattle guard which offered road access to the pasture that was home to Skeet, a pasture owned by one of the most likable and unlucky ranchers in all the county, a man by the name of Willie Madden.
By the time Garland and his crew were finished with the initial attacks, they had this pasture of Willie's tied up in court and much of the public believing that Willie and others like him were carrying out an unprovoked, unopposed vendetta against all things green and thorny.
“If something isn't done immediately, old Skeet and his ilk will go the way of Nash Ramblers and grape NeHi,” pleaded Garland to scribbling news reporters and buzzing cameras. “Another part of our proud, rich heritage, despoiled by modern ideals and relegated to history books, rather than alive and real for all to enjoy.”
“You couldn't kill them off if you tried,” exclaimed puzzled ranchers absolutely unable to understand all the fuss.
Perhaps that had been Garland's problem. Rather than try to eradicate the mighty Skeet, once the injunction had been issued, Garland had ordered his staff to provide Skeet with nothing but the best of care, so that they could show the world and their paying supporters just how right the cause was. His staff dutifully fertilized and watered Skeet. My, how they watered it, at least six hours a day, seven days a week. Skeet began losing ground, that was plain to see. But by the time he gave up the ghost, none of the staffers wanted to tell Garland. And, Garland hadn't actually seen Skeet since the day he had his picture taken with the leafy victim. Worse, all of the other Mesquites in the area were apparently dieing, too. How do you explain that to the public?
What Was, What Is and Whatever
“Bobbie, Bobbie, what would you do?” wondered Garland, beseeching the blackening sky. “You'd figure out a way to use this in your favor, I know you would.”
Indeed. Robert Suemfast had been Garland's mentor. At the time of his death he was on the board (paying positions) of no fewer than 17 environmental organizations, some of which he founded; had litigation against land owners working its way through courts in 17 states, 12 countries an on one Indian Ocean island that apparently no one owned.
“Look at me, Garland. I never even graduated from high school, officially at least, and now I'm an environmental consultant. I don't even know how to mow my own grass, but I know how to make people care, that's the secret.”
Garland was still learning at Robert's knee, so to speak, when Robert lost his life in a freak chainsaw accident while trying to frame a logging company in the Northwest. Cut down in his prime, no pun intended.
Garland was paying mental homage to Robert when he heard the sudden whine of a chain saw and saw Robert's beaming face hovering Skeet's branches.
Garland rubbed his eyes, looked again. Robert was still there. Garland shook his expensively coiffed head, forced himself to look at the horizon. When he looked back at the tree, though, Robert's visage was still there.
Finally, convinced that logic was a luxury at the moment, Garland turned to flee. But, there was Robert's leering smile again. No matter where Garland turned, there was Robert, or at least something that appeared to be Robert.
“Stop!” came Robert's familiar, booming voice, gift wrapped in the kind of charisma that could make an Eskimo ponder refrigerator repair as a career choice. “You can't run from me, never could, never will.”
“B-b-b-but…You, ummm, you're uh…”
“Dead, Garland. Dead and buried, is that what you meant to say? My body is alright, but I'm still here, roaming the earth because of the way I lived my life; roaming the earth never destined for Heaven. And, if you keep on, you'll wind up just like me.”
“But I do want to wind up just like you,” Garland gushed, forgetting he was speaking to a specter. “That's all I ever wanted to wind up like. You're still the standard the rest of us measure ourselves by.”
“You know, others of us who try to follow in your footsteps, standing up for those who can't stand up for themselves…”
“Oh, fly spit! You mean professional protesters like me who brought nothing more to the world than rancor, confusion and legalized panhandling? Yes, I was good at that, unfortunately as it turns out. It's too late for me, but it's not too late for you, Garland.”
Garland covered his eyes and shook his head again. Then he got mad. “This is nuts. Out here talking to Mesquite trees in the dead of night like some loony. The Christmas Carol, that's it. I must have dozed off thinking about what Robert would do, then being Christmas Eve my mind latched on to that old fairytale. Thank goodness. I still don't know what to do about Skeet, but at least I'm not crazy. Good Lord, I could use a cappuccino.”
He was reaching into his jacket for a cigarette when a gust of wind came with such force that it drove him into Skeet's barren arms. He was nose to nose with an enraged Robert.
“Three ghosts. Three chances. You decide.”
Hey, You in the Lampshade
“Yeah, dude, you dig the scene,” came a smoky whisper. Garland whirled around. There was what appeared to be what was left of his old college roommate and comrade in activist arms, Winslow Winderhorst, VI. “We did some righteous sabotage, man. Dig the past, baby.”
In the blink of an eye, he was watching Winslow and himself dancing with glee around a mountain of newspapers at campaign headquarters on the day they helped crash the apple market with their unfounded rumors regarding Alar.
“Robert, you're a genius!” they shouted.
“There's plenty more where that came from,” laughed Robert. “We don't have to prove anything. We just have to raise the question and let the media do the rest.”
There was more, lots more. Everything from planting endangered species on strategically selected ranches, to helping concoct research supporting the positions of groups they worked for or created themselves.
Finally, Winslow led him to Kentucky where Garland had almost single-handedly brought one of the nation's leading poultry retailers to its economic knees with choreographed nation-wide protests questioning the safety of eating chicken. There was Garland dressed in a yellow chicken costume, mugging for the cameras, playing like he was so sick he couldn't walk a straight line. After the cameras stopped rolling, there was Garland sitting in his dressing room wolfing down a bucket of hot wings.
“But, that's not fair…” tried Garland. Another gust of wind and he was staring at Skeet again. “Must have been those wings I had for lunch.”
A horn honked and Garland turned to see the Senator Votwhistle's limousine approach, except the senator wasn't in it.
“Senator I thought you were in…what I mean to say…”
“Incarcerated, Garland? Yes, I was until a couple of months ago. I got out for good behavior in just enough time to get hit by a garbage truck on my way home. And, how is your new senator doing.”
Noiselessly, the limo flew them over Senator Scaremunger's pep rally back in Washington: “As you know, big industry is threatening the very institutions of this nation that we hold dear,” said the senator, sweeping one hand toward the oversized poster of Skeet. “With your help we can save our natural environment.”
Without motion it seemed, the car had them hovering over this very day when Garland had discovered Skeet's demise. He'd promptly fired the groundskeeper who administered the growing program for Skeet; he had to wait until he got back to the office to fire the horticulturist who'd prescribed it.
Then, there was Willie Madden. Just this afternoon, catching him at the entrance to his pasture, pleasing or an out of court settlement: “Please, Mr. Huntington. I still don't know what you're after, but at this rate, even if I win, my family and me will lose granddaddy's ranch what with the legal bills and all. Isn't there something we can do?”
Garland had looked Madden in the eye until the tinted glass on his car window was securely closed.
“Surely, you know Senator…”
The ride was over. Garland was sitting in front of Skeet when the ground began to shake. The ghost of Christmas Future was as unsettling as Garland had feared.
A black cloak hovering just above the floor, dull green dots glowing within the hood, sleeves without hands, a voice without sound. If someone was inside, Garland decided, he was a giant, at least 12 feet high.
Garland felt his arm being gripped as if in a vice, then he saw the ground disappear beneath him. In an instant, he and the ghost were peering in the frosty window of Willie Madden's house. Willie was sitting in front of the Christmas tree with his wife and two young children.
“That Mr. Huntington is just like Scrooge,” said Willie, not meanly. He was laughing and chasing the kids in mock anger. His wife started crying, though, and left the room.
“Ghost,” said Garland. “Will they lose this ranch? Am I at fault? Isn't there anything I can do?”
No more than another blink and the spirit ushered Garland behind a crowd of cheering protesters. Garland stood on his toes to see what was causing the commotion. In the distance, a lone man was lashed to a pine tree, beaming at the cameras, chest puffed out in defiance at the approaching bulldozer. Rather than stop, though, the cat just kept on rolling until Garland heard the screams.
“Who was that?” demanded Garland. “What a colossal idiot…oh no, surely not. Spiriiit!”
Next thing Garland knew, Stacia was gently slapping his face and urgently whispering, “Garland, Garland, they're here, the news people are here.”
Garland was puzzled for a minute, then he took Stacia by the arms. “What day is this?”
She was incredulous. “You know what day it is, it's Christmas. Garland were you up here by yourself drinking eggnog or something.”
He kissed her square on the lips, something she'd always dreamed of, until she saw him dash through the crowd kissing every other female within reach.
“Come with me!” said Garland, motioning to the reporters. “Dear old Skeet is dead, stone sold dead. And, you know who's responsible? It's me.”
By the time Willie showed up—his friend at the local paper called—Garland had spilled the beans on every environmental fraud he had committed up until 1983, only after issuing a public apology to Willie Madden and others like him, and instructing the accountant at his global office to pay all of Willie's legal fees, then pay Willie triple the amount as a gesture of goodwill.
As Willie approached the covey of reporters he heard Garland announce, “and it's all because I killed this magnificent example of God's handiwork.”
Willie wasn't sure he'd heard right. “Beg pardon, Mr. Huntington, but you didn't kill it.”
“It's not dead.”
“But…all of its leaves…it has to be…and all of the others…something I did that affected them all.”
“With all due respect,” said Willie, “The only thing affecting these here trees is winter. Those leaves come off every year.”