Jack stretched up just enough to peek down through the tinted glass of his office window at the protesters gathered outside holding hand painted placards and could only bring himself to sigh. They had moved in that morning, encroaching on all the best parking spaces in the parking lot and chanting angry slogans that Jack thought perhaps were kind of funny but would do nothing to stop what was going to happen.
The fracking would be going ahead, whether anyone objected to it or not. Works had all been approved, reams upon reams of paperwork signed and countersigned, and if some bureaucracy involving clandestine deals and exchanges of money between those further up the chain and the local authorities had happened, well. It was absolutely nothing to do with him. Jack had done his job. He had produced the environmental report that had helped win them the contract, carefully detailing all of the possible risks and hazards involved, right down to potentially affected species in the local vicinity, and models indicating the likelihood of contaminated water coming into contact with nearby residential supplies.
With another sigh, Jack looked over his mostly-completed work for the morning and pushed himself back from his desk, spinning one full circuit on his chair before coming to a stop, then doing the same the other way. He stood with an exaggerated stretch, wandering over to rattle the cafetiere and frowning at its betrayal when he found it to be empty.
With every intention of topping up from the coffee machine in the break room, Jack made his way there, the voices drifting out to him immediately changing his mind. He took a brief stop in the restroom and gave himself a quick glance over in the mirror as he washed his hands, tugging at his hair and telling himself that lighter color was definitely blond, not gray, in his usual brown.
Biting down on his lip as he debated with himself with himself, Jack decided on a local bakery with excellent coffee and even better cakes, then shrugged into his suit jacket and headed out. If he was staying late as usual to go over those complex habitat surveys for their most recent site acquisition, and had to survive the dreaded afternoon meeting, caffeine and sugar would be essentials to get him through his day.
With a carefree jog, he took the stairs down, noting with no real surprise that the chants outside grew louder and even angrier the closer he got to the exit. Giving a brief nod to the receptionist Jack stepped out into the bright, sunny morning, shielding his squinting eyes behind sunglasses from both the sun itself and the attention of those protesting. His face became a neutral mask as he passed the group buzzing like irate bees over to his right, hoping they wouldn’t pay him any attention. This wasn’t his first experience with opposition against what the company did and he’d learned early on to feign indifference, despite what he might really think.
A mop of messy black hair caught his attention, though, as it always did, whispering to him to take a look just in case. Jack’s gaze turned casually in the group’s direction as he continued walking, coming to a complete, shuddering stop and ripping his glasses off in disbelief as he watched pale blue eyes look him up and down in contempt, then spark with recognition before narrowing in quiet fury. His stomach sank and his mouth grew dry, and the only sound Jack could hear in that moment was the misplaced shriek of the crashing of waves.
On a clear day, when the sky was the brightest blue and the reflection the sea gave back just as vivid, it made Jack feel like he could stare out at the horizon forever and never know where one started and the other began. The waves roared away any sense of unrest he might be feeling, waxing and waning with soothing sounds that never ceased to keep him calm.
Jack had been visiting this beach since before he could even walk, crawling along the sand and fisting it up into his chubby palms, squealing at the crunch and squeak of it between his fingers. He remembered helping his little brother build his first sand castle and watching the water lick it away one misshapen turret at a time. He remembered a red checkered picnic blanket pinned down beneath a cooler box to stop it blowing away, and laughter as he chased a corner of it that got repeatedly caught up in the breeze. Happy memories were what Jack had when he thought of this place. Happiness and home.
Today was not a clear day. The normally creamy colored sand was painted with jet black slickness, foam churning up gray against the shoreline. As if in sympathy the sky was dull and flat, clouds outlined with dirty smudges that bled into one another. It seemed to Jack in that moment as though all the color had been drained from the world. The waves rolled in as they always did, as they always had, but on that day, could do nothing to bring stillness to Jack, as each crest spewed out further victims of the oil slick everywhere he looked.
Though surrounding him was a flurry of activity, with rescue workers rushing about clad from head to foot in once white hazmat-like suits and carrying bird after bird away to cleaning stations further up the shore, the only noise that got through to him, that broke Jack’s continual horror at what he was seeing all around him was one of heartbroken, hiccupping sobbing.
A boy knelt off to his right, gently stroking his fingers over a bird whose head, he had rested across his lap at an unnatural angle. The oil from the bird’s feathers left glossy rivulets of black running down the sides of his thighs, and he continued his gentle path along its back as though touch alone could bring it back to life. A trembling hand ran over the flat of the bill, tracing against the curved tip that suggested a hint of its natural red color beneath the poisonous black that every other inch of the bird was coated in like a terrible second skin.
Jack looked at the boy’s mass of messy hair and decided it was the exact same shade as the oil staining his fingers. He stepped closer to him, his own heart heavy despite what he’d been witnessing all morning. His footfall caught the boy’s attention, and when he looked up at Jack with a quivering lip and piercing blue eyes rimmed red with tears, Jack felt an inexplicable need to bring him comfort.
“Dylan,” Jack choked out, utter disbelief rippling through his voice as he continued to stare at him open-mouthed. Dylan glowered back at him, dropping the oversized placard he was holding down to waist height and resting his hands along the top of it in a fierce grip. He glanced up behind Jack at the office complex snorting in derision before dropping his eyes back down to Jack’s face in blatant scorn.
“You work here?” he asked, incredulous, a furious glare pinning Jack in place.
“Yeah,” Jack mumbled, and for a second he felt determined not to show any of the shame that surged through him just from being in Dylan’s presence. He managed a full three seconds of maintaining eye contact then found his gaze dropped to the tarmac beneath their feet.
“How the hell did you end up in Houston? Working here of all places?” Dylan demanded, so full of anger Jack struggled not to take a step back from it.
“So, this is what you’ve become, huh?”
“Dyl…” Jack pleaded, lost for any other words to say. What was he supposed to say? What could he, after all this time, without it sounding like a string of poor excuses?
As though reading his mind Dylan rolled his eyes, glaring back at him with ice lighting those eyes that Jack had first stared back at so long ago. “Thought you wanted to change the world, Jack? Not rip it apart from the inside out,”
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