Now, everybody blames these problems on the plant, but they don't have the energy to do anything about it. The plant had been their livelihood; it had been their best hope. Everyone knew its history, in the official version at least. People could tell you how, thirty years ago, a consortium—it had a fancy name, but it was always referred to, simply, as the Consortium—a local and international consortium of agricultural and other companies, started making various products there, but nobody remembers, now, and it seems that nobody really knew back then exactly what chemicals were manufactured, or what they were used for. Morrison's father, James, had worked at the plant, and he would insist that it was all harmless agricultural material: fertilizers and pesticides, fungicides, growth accelerants or growth retardants, complicated chains of molecules that got into the root or the stem of a plant and changed how it grew, or when it flowered, or whether it set seed. Other people said it was more sinister than that: maybe the bulk of what they processed out on the headland was innocent enough, but there were special facilities, hidden deep inside the plant, where they made, or stored, chemical weapons. After all, they would argue, it doesn't take much to change one substance into another; break a chain of molecules here, add an extra chain there, and what had been a mildly dangerous herbicide became a weapon of war; alter the temperature, or the structure, or the pressure, and stuff that you had once bought over the counter in the local hardware shop was transformed into a battlefield poison. To this day, they would claim, there are sealed buildings that nobody, not even the safety inspectors, was ever allowed to enter.

After a while, when the children started to vanish, new theories were put forward. The boys had stumbled into one of those secret facilities and been consumed by a cloud of lethal gas; or they had been taken away for tests, either by top-secret government scientists, or by aliens, who had been observing the plant for decades. Morrison has always known that this is all pointless speculation, of course, because he knows the truth about the disappearances. Or rather, he knows the truth in one case because, on a cold autumn night seven years ago, it was his bad luck to find Mark Wilkinson suspended from a tree, a few yards from the spot where he now stands. A few yards, no more, from this raggedy patch of garden flowers and colored glass where he lingers beside a phantom grave, trying to think of something to say. It isn't prayer he intends, on these visits, so much as some form of communion: he wants, not to send Mark's soul into some happy otherness, but to hold it back long enough for the boy to understand and, so, forgive.


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