Friday, February 20, 2009

3. Chaos in OC

I worked on Chapter Three obsessively this week. The next few chapters all seem to live in a gray area between interesting writing and plot-building action. The story is most yoked to its genre predecessors when I have to make characters do things that I don't, in the real world, know anything about. Read it and see what I mean. I asked my daughter to take some photos of Oregon City as it is now, and I'll try to get those uploaded soon. The land that time forgot, our OC. A great place for the apocalypse. The sun is shining though it is still cold and still winter, and I haven't had enough coffee. More editing after I caffeinate.

Chapter Three

Jayden's house was the biggest place in Oregon City. It stood three stories high on the edge of a bluff. From the top floors you could see across the river, and on a clear day, almost as far as Portland.

The bluff was shaped like a folded paper fan, with the ridges rising from the river's edge, where the courthouse and government office buildings stood. Most of these were empty, burned out or flooded. A ninety-foot solar-powered elevator carried people from the bluff to the river. Jayden's husband had it running perfectly, but like everything in this town, no one was allowed to use it because the wrong people might find out there was electricity.

Jayden met us on the front steps wearing a turquoise dress shot with silver threads. She squealed when she saw us, waving an armload of bangles. She looked plump, sleek and well maintained, life in town suiting her down to her little silver slippers. The fact that she was so much like Mom, with her clothes and jewelry, always made me feel uneasy in my own skin.

Jayden had always been Dad's favorite and they hugged a long time, with more squealing on my sister's part. When it was my turn for a hug, she gathered me up in clouds of scent.

"I hope you're looking for a husband, Madison!" Her voice rang like a bell. My cheeks flushed red hot, and I forced myself not to look at Tierney. Though I couldn't imagine why it mattered what he thought about anything.

Jayden continued, oblivious. "You've come to the right place. We're having a very special guest for dinner tonight. Won't that be fun?"

While she sent her servants to unload the cart and take Pilot to the stables, Tierney dropped his pack on the curb and pulled out a book. He handed it to me. "Remember what I said."

I took the book and slipped it under my jacket to examine later, in private. No one had ever given me a book before. "Thanks."

The last I saw of him, he was walking down the hill in the rain, heading north.

Jayden stopped shouting directions to look at Tierney. "Who was that?"

"No one," said Dad. "A migrant. Let's go in."

After coffee and brunch, we left Dad and George in the breakfast room. Jayden took me to my room and tossed an armful of dresses on the bed. "Something will fit, I'm sure. The pink silk would look wonderful with your complexion, Madison."

She fluttered out and down the hall without waiting for my answer. I shut the door, pushed the mounds of pink and blue and yellow onto the floor, and sat on the edge of the bed to look at Tierney's book. The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.

I slept through the afternoon, only waking when Jayden's two daughters came in and bounced on my bed. I slipped the book under my pillow and got up to examine my sister's dresses. My nieces squealed at each dress, demonstrating a preference for sequins, bows and flounces that had to be genetic.

"Doesn't anyone want to wear pants and have adventures anymore?" I asked them.

The girls shook their heads. "Wear the pink one, Aunt Madison!"

I chose one that made me look least idiotic and ripped a handful of fluttery stuff off the bodice in a great shred. The dress fit and didn't look half bad, a long clingy blue thing with lace sleeves. Jayden hadn't provided shoes but I couldn't wear my Danner boots with the dress, so I put on fresh socks and called it good.

"We still get our share of Dims," Jayden's husband, George, was saying as I entered the living room and took a seat on a stiff little settee in the corner. "Why just last week we took out a nest of them down by the river. How many was that, Travis?"

"I believe it was fourteen," said Travis. He sat on the sofa next to Dad, holding a tiny cordial glass in his red fist. "I put down half of them myself."

Jayden's house was full of beautiful things, carpets, crystal, painted screens and scrolled furniture, all of it taken in trade for George's work. When we were kids Jayden used to spend hours decorating the tiny rooms in her doll house. Her life wasn't so different now, the rooms were bigger, that was all.

"My brother here is too modest. You put down ten at least," said George.

"Well, you put down nine."

I cleared my throat. "I thought you said fourteen. Now it's nineteen dead people?"

Across the room Dad scowled at me. "Forgive my daughter, gentlemen."

"Ah, Madison!" Jayden's cheeks were flushed to match her rose colored puff of a dress. "Please say good evening to Mr. Pinkus. I know you've heard about my sister, Mr. Pinkus."

Pinkus? There was Dad looking uncomfortable and George and Travis, both looking starchy. Another man sat before the fireplace, mostly hidden in the wing chair. He leaned forward and I saw Pinkus's familiar, almost colorless blue eyes. He held a cane made of gnarled wood with a gold nugget mounted on top.

"Come here, young lady. Let me get a look at you." I got up and walked to him. He took my hand and held it feverishly tight. I felt spots of sweat on his skin. He was in his sixties, with a gray beard and the pink cheeks of a man who liked his hooch. "So this is the one who gave my nephew the black eye. Quite a shiner, young lady."

"I used a book, sir."

"Resourceful." He tightened his grip on my hand. "Of course we don't have much use for books where I come from. I told my nephew a dozen times to stay away from literate women. Nothing but trouble. But that boy will not be moved. Can't stand in the way of true love, can we gentlemen?" He laughed and bowed his head to Jayden. "And ladies, of course."

I escaped to my corner. The men went on to talk about looters and migrants, but I was busy rubbing my palm on the sofa cushion and didn't pay much attention. It was the same conversation men had whenever they got together. Where were the migrants coming from, what were they saying about conditions in other parts of the country? How well armed were the looters? What happened to them when they were caught?

Yet there was an undercurrent in the room, and it was more than just Pinkus's remark about true love, nauseating as that was. Jayden kept hitting her little crystal glass of spirits. Pinkus repositioned his chair to look at me, as though unwilling to let me out of his sight. George's hand had a slight tremor when he reached for the decanter. Dad watched every glance, his drink untouched.

The conversation changed. George tapped his fingers on his belly and talked about how none of the solar panels in Oregon City worked anymore. "Oregon City never gets enough sun. I keep trying, Mr. Pinkus, but I just can't make it work with all this rain. Don't know how we'll survive another winter."

I'd heard George make this statement many times over the years, the same woeful look on his face. But this room alone had steady electric lights glowing in three lamps and a chandelier. Clearly the solar was working just fine in Oregon City.

Pinkus glanced at the lights, as though he was in on the joke too. "We get enough rain, don't we? I hope you don't have to burn any of this fine furniture for heat, George. Or your wife's lovely gowns."

Jayden jumped up. "I'll see to dinner. Madison, will you help?"

Once the living room doors were closed, she rushed me past two of Pinkus's bodyguards who were stationed next to the front door. "We need to gather some herbs, guys. Won't be a minute!"

I peeled off my socks and followed her out to the front yard in my bare feet. And what I saw almost made me fall over. Six automobiles rumbled at the curb, the lead car a long white limousine. The others were chopped together monsters with guns and grenade launchers mounted to their roofs. I'd never seen so many cars in one place. Soldiers lounged against their rigs, guns at their hips.

For a moment, I couldn't catch my breath.

"Here's the mint, down here. Help me." Jayden pulled me into a crouch next to her. "Happy now? They arrived while you were napping."

"What's going on?"

"It's your bridal party. Or should I say army?" She snapped off a branch of rosemary. "You made quite an impression on Pinkus's nephew."


"Pinkus is here to get you and he's not going to trade. If you don't go, Pinkus said he'll burn us out, kill Dad and take George." Like Mom, Jayden had a vein of steel deep inside her frivolous self. I saw it now, toughening the lines of her face. She lowered her voice. "It's over, Madison. You're going with him, and you're going to marry Gant. The best thing you can do for us is to go peacefully. Don't make Dad have to protect you. Because he'll die, Madison."

"I'm not marrying Gant."

"You should have thought of that yesterday!" She stood up in a swirl of pink and waved to Pinkus's soldiers. In the house, I pulled on my socks and followed Jayden into the kitchen. As we entered one of the servants gasped and dropped a china gravy boat on the tile floor.

The atmosphere in the kitchen went silent.

"It's all right," said Jayden. "We're going to be fine."

I looked at the hand painted porcelain that had just exploded on the floor, and at the white faces of the cook and two maids. Clearly they thought the situation was a long way from fine.

George stuck his head in the kitchen. "Everything okay, hon?"

"Just fine. Nothing to worry about."

I swept up the broken glass and carried it to the dustbin on the back porch. I looked across the back yard to the stone fence at the edge of the bluff. Beyond that, the sky was golden. The rain was over. Next door, I saw a flash of glass in the office building that had been converted into the Oregon City militia's guard house. Men with guns were scooting along the bluff, positioning themselves behind the fine old houses.

Was Jayden right? Had Pinkus come for me?

All we had--valley or Oregon City--were a few bullets and some farm tools. We survived in the valley because Dad grew vegetables for Pinkus and traded on their past friendship. Oregon City survived because of the inhospitality of the geography. You couldn't assault the bluff from the river and you couldn't come over the hilltop without an army to back you up.

"So you're the young lady who blackened my nephew's eye. . . ."

I hurried back inside, heart racing.

Jayden shooed me toward the living room. "Madison, will you please announce dinner to our guests?"

And I probably would have done it. I was thinking about the frozen smile on my sister's face which looked one or two chips away from falling off, and how George was boring as all hell, but he was a husband, father and an electrician. If I lived here, I'd probably get to like him. I might even learn to tolerate Travis, as long as I didn't have to marry him. These weren't bad people.

But as I passed through the hall, I looked out the rippled glass window and saw a lone figure wobble between two buildings across the street. Her arms were outstretched in the same way Mr. Chandler's had been, all those years ago. She tipped from side to side and as though she couldn't remember how to walk and each step was an effort.

She was small and ragged, no bigger than a child. Her hair was a dirty gray toque and her mouth was open in a perpetual dry hole. She wore a torn skirt and frayed sweater, clothes of the person she'd been before the infection. I couldn't imagine how she'd stumbled through town without someone shooting her full of holes.

I moved without thinking, reaching for the door knob and flying down the porch steps before the bodyguards could react. By now the Demented woman had stepped onto the sidewalk and was headed into the street. Pinkus's guys hadn't seen her yet, but they saw me.

"It's the girl," said one, raising his rifle. "She's doing a runner."

I hurried across the street, holding up my arms. "Don't shoot!"

The Demented woman wobbled into view and the first soldier raised the alarm. "Dim! On the corner. Dim!"

She came toward me, her eyes cloudy. Did they blink? Could they? I choked back sudden fear—I'd never been this close to a Dim before. Even I could see she was completely absent inside her mad skull. Maybe Dad was right; they weren't people anymore.

"Put your guns down!" I turned to face the soldiers, placing my body between the woman and the front line of soldiers, all of whom had their weapons raised.

The stand off lasted a second, probably less. The woman pushed against me, showing more strength than I had thought her capable of. I stumbled out of her way and she continued to wobble across the street. At that moment, Dad stepped off Jayden's lawn, calling my name.

"Madison, stand down!" He walked toward me.

"Stop right there!" shouted a soldier.

Dad took three more steps and a rifle cracked. Dad froze in place. He seemed to hang in the moment, completely still. And then a seep of blood colored his teeth and bubbled through his lips.

"Dad?" I ran forward and got to him as he fell to his knees. I saw blood pulsing inside his coat next to his heart. The infected woman must have kept moving because Dad's eyes tracked her movement behind me. And he raised a handgun I didn't know he had, aiming it over my shoulder. I screamed as he fired.

The woman's head exploded, spraying a wall of blood and tissue behind her into the soldiers' faces. The first line reeled backwards, hands to their faces, sweeping the stuff out of their eyes and mouths. The line behind them peeled away as though the first bunch were already infected.

I looked at Dad but he was gone, slumped to the ground. His eyes were filled with white sky.

"Dad, you son of a bitch," I put my hands on his bloody chest as if there was some way to push the life back into him. "She wasn't going to hurt anyone."

Militia from the guard house filled the street and poured over the lawns, guns out. They prodded Pinkus's unnerved soldiers back toward their vehicles. The men who'd taken the most blood spray in their faces had dropped their weapons and were running away, half crazy or infected.

Above the chaos, I heard Jayden's screaming for George. She stood on the street, half way to Dad, but staring back toward the house. I followed her line of vision and saw George kneeling on the lawn, hands behind his head. Pinkus stood behind him, one hand cradling George's throat, the other pressing a gun to his temple.

"Attention!" shouted Pinkus. The militia stopped in their tracks and it was silent on the street. "All I want is the girl. We have no business with the rest of you."

Dad's gun lay in a pool of blood next to his hand. I palmed it and wiped it on his sleeve. While everyone else was looking at Pinkus, I lifted the gun, sighted, held my breath. I'd trained on this piece and if there was one thing Dad always believed in teaching us, even when school days were over, it was what to do with a gun.

"Now I don't want to hurt your electrician, but unless I get what I want—"

I squeezed the trigger. The blast was huge, keen as an arrow. Pinkus flopped backwards like a slaughtered hog, hand to his throat. George fell in the other direction, free.

All of us valley kids could shoot.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

2. Madison leaves home

This chapter is short. I spent most of the weekend revising Chapter Ten, which really needed it. This one needs work too, considering I could barely read my notes. I may tweak this chapter in situ, or play around with blogging tools, or add more to my disclaimer paragraph (which I'm doing now, talk about procrastination). I was visiting my best friend in Chicago (hey, C!) where the weather was very warm. The break from Oregon's endless cold explains why I got as little done as I did. But then, who knew you could go to Chicago for a vacation paradise? And who knew Oregon could stay this cold for so long? I saw about a thousand geese migrating over my house today and I saw some leaf buds too, but that does not mean it's spring. BTW, howdy to my first follower, a man with a gun who shares more than just a name with Davy Crockett.

Chapter Two

I awoke in the dark with Dad holding a lantern in my face. "Get up."

"It's not morning." I pulled the blankets over my ears.

"I'm not asking again." He walked out, banging the door. I sat up, shivering in the cold. A sliver of gray light came through a gap in the curtain, but certainly not enough to be called morning. I pulled on jeans and sweaters and went downstairs.

Dad was cleaning his shotgun at the kitchen table and Aunt Margo stood at the stove pouring hot water over coffee grounds. Coffee was one of the things we traded for aggressively. Every year, three pigs were slaughtered for coffee barter. Pinkus had connections in Mexico. Dad was talking about adding another pig to the deal because by September we were using grounds two days in a row. We were all wild about coffee in the valley.

"What's going on?" I asked, getting my cup from the cupboard. "Something happen?"

"I'm taking you to your sister's."

Margo dropped the coffee pot lid. It clanked and crashed against the stove.

I turned to Dad. "The hell you are."

He slid a shell into the gun. No reply.

"Is this about Gant? That wasn't my fault. You were there!"

Margo carried her cup to the table and sat down, folding her hands as if she were about to pray. "You run around here like a wild animal. It's not decent. No wonder men want to—"

"So you're going to marry me off like a crate of vegetables because some jerk touched me?" Not waiting for an answer, I pushed away from the table and watched them scramble to save their coffee.

"Pack your things!" Dad yelled after me.

Upstairs, I flopped on my bed. So it would be Travis. I was going to be an electrician's wife.

Chris and Riley were still sleeping when I threw my bag into the pony cart. I was sorry not to say goodbye. We were seven miles from Oregon City, but the boys only made the trip every few months. I could well be married by the time I saw them again. Cracks of sunlight slanted through the clouds and mist rose like a sigh from the cornfield.

Aunt Margo stood in the screen door and shivered. "At least it's daylight."

"I don't know why we have to leave so early," I said. "Jayden won't even be awake when we get there."

Dad dropped a sack of potatoes into the cart. "I'm not losing a whole day over you, Madison. We're leaving now and that's final."

Tierney walked over from the barn carrying a gray bundle. He nodded to Dad and tossed his things into the cart. I wanted to ask why he was coming with us, but Dad was one question away from losing his temper. I could always tell, since I was the one who usually put him over the limit.

"You be home as soon as you can, William," said Margo. She gave me a last look and slammed the screen door. With Dad and Tierney walking next to the horse and me following the cart, we left the farm and headed north to Oregon City. I didn't look back.

The first mile or so we walked through valley land. Every inch of it was under cultivation, hay, corn, vegetables, stock. As we walked by the homes of our neighbors Dad would click his tongue if there was no smoke coming out of the chimney or whistle under his breath if there was. If I hated Dad and thought he was a tyrant, I can only imagine what these people thought of him.

The track started up the hill, the cart's bicycle tires digging into the chucked road bed. We rose through a dense forest. I could still glimpse the walls and roofs of the houses that remained standing, but no one lived in them anymore and each year the trees and shrubs grew higher and closer. I could imagine walking up this hill and not knowing there had ever been houses and barns in these woods.

As we climbed out of the valley, Dad and Tierney shouldered their guns. On top of the hill, the forest yielded to what had once been housing developments, but this area was unprotected and no one lived here. Blackberry vines clambered over the walls and roofs of the places left standing, creating green hummocks with the occasional broken window revealing a dark and forgotten interior. The mounds reminded me of Sleeping Beauty's castle where all the inhabitants were under a hundred-year spell. I used to dream about sneaking up here on my own to explore.

"Did you come through Oregon City when you arrived?" Dad asked Tierney.

"I came over from the river. I turned inland at the first checkpoint."

"New Era Road. I know the place." Dad was silent for a moment. "After this blows over, I hope you'll think about coming back. You're a solid farmhand."

"Thank you." Tierney laughed in a way that didn't sound as though he found anything humorous about it. "A solid farmhand."

"I was a lawyer Before," said Dad. Tierney didn't respond.

Where streams had broken over the road surface, we guided the horse through small canyons in the red clay. Pilot was used to this terrain, but the extra care we had to give him made Dad uneasy. Tierney went ahead with his rifle and watched the bushes while Dad and I walked with Pilot.

"I thought the Demented were all dead around here," I said.

"There's always more. It's an infectious disease."

"But they aren't dangerous."

"Their blood is."

"So that's why you shoot them full of holes? To let the blood out?"

Dad tugged on Pilot's bridle, making his head jerk in surprise. "We're not discussing it."

We turned into an empty grid of streets. I remembered houses had once stood here, but the Oregon City militia had burned everything when Dims overran the area. Thousands of old bones filled the ditches.

Up ahead, Tierney walked by one forlorn skeleton that had died curled on its side in the middle of the road. Tierney checked out the bits of bone that poked through the moss-covered rags. It looked the size of a kid. Closer to Oregon City there was an effort to bury the Demented but out here, they were just left to rot.

"I think someone ought to bury these people," I said.

"They aren't people," said Dad.

"Then what are they?"

He made some kind of grunting noise that didn't sound like human language.

"Is the whole world like this?" I asked.

Tierney looked back at me. "Most places are a lot worse."

"No more talking, Madison," said Dad.

The wind turned cold and heavy clouds boiled over the sky. I smelled rain in the air. We were closer to Oregon City now, in an area that used to be part of the city but was now just more ruins. A church, a school, a shopping center. Barriers of old rusted out cars stacked three and four high blocked the roads. Dad walked Pilot over crumbling sidewalks to get around them.

When we started seeing skulls on fence posts, I knew we were close to the checkpoint. I never understood why people did it--nailing bodies to the sides of buildings or hanging them from trees. If it was supposed to warn other Dims to stay away, it showed a basic misunderstanding of Demented 101. Scarecrows didn't work on crows either. Yet all checkpoints looked like bone yards, and the ones going into Independent Canby were worst of all.

The entrance to Oregon City was marked by three pyramids of mossy skulls in front of an old store. It was just beginning to rain as we arrived, and we hustled under the awning to stay dry while Dad took out his identity papers.

"William Rodgers," said the main guy, reading Dad's card. He was bulky under his canvas coat, though I couldn't tell if he was carrying firearms or just fat. He had gristly brown hair all over his face but none on his head. They had furniture spread around the parking lot and smoke poured out of the engine block of one old car. I smelled meat cooking. Barbecue.

His friend was a tall, rangy dude who saw me and never looked away. "And who might you be?"

"Eleanor Roosevelt."

Tierney made a genuine laughing sound.

"You look like an Eleanor," said the tall dude. "Ellie."

"Madison!" yelled Dad. "Give the man your I.D."

I handed him my social security card and the tall dude mouthed the name printed on the surface, which did not say Eleanor Roosevelt. Since I was born Before, my card was official. My brothers were born After so they carried hand-written birth certificates. Oregon City was the only place that cared if you were the person your papers said you were. In a place like Independent Canby, all they wanted to know was whether you were Demented or not.

The tall dude handed back our cards. "Where you folks going?"

"George O'Malley's residence. His wife is my daughter," said Dad.

"Thought I recognized you." The first man, gristly guy, pointed toward Pilot and the cart. "What you got there?"

He and Dad walked into the rain and threw back the tarp. Tall dude leaned against the wall next to me.

"So, how old are you?"

"Ask my father, moron."

His lips peeled back from his broken teeth. "You don't want to talk to me like that."

"Whoa, whoa," said Tierney. "This one's just up from the country, hasn't learned her manners. Apologize, Madison."

"I will not."

Tierney grabbed my arm and yanked me away from the wall and out into the rain. "Go to your father."

"It's pouring!"

"Go to your father."

By then Dad was staring at me, so I shrugged and went. Tierney and the tall dude were yucking it up in no time. I hated all of them.

"That man has about fifty pounds of shooting iron on him," Tierney said when we were on the road again. His voice was barely audible over the drumming rain.

"So what."

"You aren't going to last an hour with people like this unless you keep your mouth shut."

I looked at Tierney. He was tall, thin like all migrants, with bunches of hard muscle filling out his arms and shoulders. He wore torn clothes and busted-down boots. His cracked leather jacket was zipped to his neck and slick with rain. His hair, if it was ever clean or dry, would be blond. He looked as old as Dad, but all migrants looked old because of their hard lives. He could be any age.

"Maybe I don't want to last an hour," I said. "Maybe I don't even want to last five minutes."

"If you understood anything, you'd know what a stupid thing you just said."

"Go to hell, migrant."

"Tierney," shouted Dad. "What do you know about photovoltaic cells?"

They walked on chatting about solar while the rain poured out of the sky.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

1.5 The rest of chapter one

I'm going out of town for a few days and decided to post this ahead of schedule. Chapter One has now been rewritten about three times: once for my critique group, once for an agent submission, and again for this post. I'm always amazed by the gap between what I see in my mind and what is readable on the page. Letting text rest for a few months is the only way to rewrite. I can't tell you how many clever lines I scrubbed during this last rewrite. And there are still a few left that should come out.

When the novel first appeared to me, I was so obsessed with Madison's voice that I had to play it big. I used to say amen every day for her voice. Now of course it annoys me, all her opinions and judgments. I'm hoping her voice carries through the edits, despite my need as the author to construct a narrative that I can live with. We both live here, Madison and I.

That's all I've got today! Here's the text:

Chapter One, Part Two

I washed the dishes and made the bread dough and then went up to my room to find a book.

Our house used to be full of books when Mom was alive. Dad's law books, Mom's art books, all my grandparents' books. Our library survived First Winter when everyone else we knew burned their books for heat. It wasn't until Aunt Margo moved in that Dad developed his lunatic hatred of learning. I hid as many books as I could in my closet and watched Margot spend the first few days of her honeymoon hauling the rest out to the woodpile for the migrants to burn on their cooking fires.

I continued to learn on my own even after the book purge. I taught myself French, including the talking part. Every summer I set myself to learn two Shakespeare plays. I also tried to teach my two brothers to read. Chris and Riley were born After, so they never went to school. By the time they were old enough, Dad had ruled on the subject of education and they never had a chance.

I had some success with Riley. He learned the alphabet and could write his own name, but Chris was far too wiggly to sit still that long. Neither of them displayed the least curiosity about what was inside a book. Since I was kind of foggy about math, I never gave that a try. Maybe one of them had scientific aptitude, but no one will ever know. Thanks, Dad.

Because we moved to the farm while I was still a baby, we were better prepared than most when the lights went out and diseases began to kill so many people. We were far from the city in a part of the world where we got more rain rather than less. Soon we were feeding a dozen other families. One of the first guys who turned up for work was George, an electrician who built solar panels in the old days. In a very little time he married my older sister, Jayden, and installed solar on almost every house in the valley.

Solar wasn't a lot of electricity—usually only enough to run the refrigerator for a few hours a day—but my brothers were constantly plugging in old things, appliances and electric toothbrushes to see what they did. One day they tried a deevee machine in a computer laptop and it worked. Until Dad found out, we watched deevees every day, whenever we could sneak away from work. We watched Star Wars and The Simpsons, and my brothers did good barter with other valley kids for disks. Because they didn't burn, everyone had stacks of them in their houses.

We took all kinds of things in trade for viewing time. Toys, books, food, if someone's mother happened to be a good cook. I wanted to trade for clothes, but if you were caught wearing something that wasn't yours, the adults would know immediately there was an alternative economy going on somewhere. The whole thing depended on silence.

Sometimes when we were watching deevees, my brothers asked me what it was like in the old days. Were there yellow people like Homer Simpson? Was Darth Vader real? What was it like to fly in a space ship? To my brothers there was no difference between cars, airplanes and space ships. In the seven years between when I was born and when they were born, the world had changed so much that all Before stuff looked like magic.

On less charitable days, I suspected my brothers were like dogs, color-blind and unable to recognize themselves in the mirror. Maybe I was getting like that myself.


I took my book outside to Mom's Lexus. It was parked between the trailers and the chicken shed, hidden from the strawberry field or other places Margot was likely to go. But to get there, I had to walk past three of Pinkus's men, including his nephew, Gant. They were cleaning their firearms on a picnic table, lunching on hooch and deer sausage while they worked. I said hey on my way to the car but Gant stared at me, saying nothing.

The Lexus had been parked since it ran out of fuel. The tires were gone but almost everything else was still intact, including Mom's purse which sat on the floor next to the driver's seat, full of her pictures and credit cards.

It was a nice place to sit and read. I stretched out in the back seat and propped the book on my chest. It was an encyclopedia and I was trying to read carefully, so when the door flew open and Gant leaned into the car, I was caught off guard.

"The boss's daughter, all by herself." Gant propped one heavy black boot on the floor of the Lexus. He wore a black leather vest and long shredded blue jeans. His biceps were puckered with scars.

Gant was in charge of all the soldiers that Pinkus had stationed on our farm. His father was the guy Dad got out of jail all those years ago, but like his uncle, Gant wasn't grateful for past good deeds. Staying out of jail hadn't kept Gant's father alive anyway; he'd died of blood poisoning during the first winter. Since Pinkus had no children of his own, Gant was Pinkus's heir, though it didn't mean they had any love for another. Dad didn't have to tell me to stay out of Gant's way.

I sat up, closing the encyclopedia. "Shove off, Gant."

"Mind if I sit down? Thanks." He climbed in, bringing the reek of hooch with him. He had a narrow, beaky face and close-cropped hair.

"What do you want?"

"To talk to you, Madison. That's all."

"My father won't like it. I'm not kidding, Gant."

Gant laughed and walked his fingers across the upholstery to my leg. His fingers climbed up my thigh and kept walking. "It doesn't matter if your father likes it or not. I like it."

I twisted away from him but he slid across the seat, forcing me against the door. "I'll scream. Swear to god."

"Go ahead. If you don't make me happy, Uncle Pinkus will hear about it. Do you want your dad to swing on the end of a rope? Think about it."

"Guess I'd better make you-" I swung my book at his face. "-happy."

It connected with his jaw and he snarled as he pawed it away. I reached for the door handle and he caught me by the arm, yanking me close. His lips crawled over my neck and when I looked in his eyes, I saw a black mark on his iris as though someone had taken a tiny slice out of his eye.

"That's better," he said and touched my boob.

Suddenly the door on my side flew open, and the book-reading migrant, Tierney, looked inside.

"Your dad's asking for you, girl."

For a moment, Gant's grip on my boob got tighter, then he pushed me toward Tierney. I climbed out, shaking.

"Go to your dad," said Tierney. "And don't look back."

Dad stood at the corner of the chicken shed, his face so white it was almost green.

Behind me, windshield glass shattered.


Of all of us kids, I was the one who had expectations. If the world hadn't gone to hell, I'd be in college, preferably some place far from here. Both my parents went to school, Mom in New York and Dad in California. Those were just names now, places I would be as unlikely to see as fly to the moon.

What was much more likely, in fact inevitable, was that I would get married very soon.

My sister, Jayden, had married well. I remembered a lot of back-slapping between George and Dad the night they worked out the deal for Jayden. Their marriage kept George in Oregon City where he could maintain everyone's solar, and in exchange my sister was the best-dressed woman in town. She worried all the time about George getting kidnapped by Pinkus or someone like him, but Oregon City had a militia and so far even Pinkus would rather barter for George's services than kidnap him. Thanks to George, Oregon City had electric streetlights, but of course they could never use them, or bad people would know they had them. That's new world logic for you, right there.

George had a brother, Travis. He was about thirty and acted like he was sitting on a tack whenever we were alone together. Dad talked about me marrying Travis, but I couldn't seriously consider spending the rest of my life with a man whose great passion was copper wiring.

I wondered how much longer I could hold off marriage. Sometimes I'd catch Dad looking at me as though weighing barter credits in his mind. Like I was pumpkin on the vine and he needed the field for something else.


Dad didn't come home for dinner but we had a houseful of people just the same. Aunt Margo, Aunt Gayle and Uncle Edward, their two kids, Sue-Lynn and her kids, Christine and her grandbaby, James. I was run off my feet dealing with all the children so I didn't notice until almost dark how weird the adults were acting.

They were all sitting around the dining room table when I brought four-year old Kayla in to her mom, Sue-Lynn. She was spitting mad she couldn't keep up with the big kids who were playing hide and seek. She was so tired from trying she could barely keep her eyes open.

All the adults shut up as we walked in.

"What?" I asked.

Aunt Margo looked like she'd been crying and Gayle was patting her hand.

"Your skirt, Madison," said Gayle. "It's not decent."

I 'd hitched it up to my knees to chase kids. "You'd think you all never saw legs before." I poured myself a glass of water from the pitcher on the sideboard. "What happened to that pig Gant? Dad send him back to Pinkus?"

No answer. Margo had her lips folded so tight they looked like cracked cement. Uncle Edward tapped his cane on the floor. Sue-Lynn kissed the top of Kayla's head and didn't look at me. Gayle gave me a flat, unblinking stare.

"What? Somebody die?"

"Go bring the children inside now, Madison," said Aunt Margo. "Now."

I stomped out and slammed the door. A year ago I would have said, "You can't order me around! You aren't my mother!" Not anymore. I guess that's what being eighteen has taught me—they can order me around. Mom had been dead for three years, the aunts have taken over and there's no use fighting it.

I wasn't in any hurry to get back in the house after that. The kids were still playing hide and seek, so I played It until I found them all, and by then it was full dark and Dad was home.

Twelve families lived in the valley, plus single people like Misch and Mrs. Hammett and Jorge. At any time, there were ten to twenty migrants living in the various barns, working in the fields by day and cooking dinner over campfires by night. So even though the valley was a big place, no one was ever more than a few minutes away from another person. For kids, it was great. You were never alone and almost never bored.

When there was trouble, all the families and migrants would hunker down at our farm. It didn't happen so much now that most of the Demented were dead, but every once in a while there'd be some reason we needed to pull together. Dad said we were only doing as well as we were because of geography. Directly north of us was Oregon City and south was Independent Canby, Pinkus's country. Pinkus owned the river between Oregon City and Salem, and even though that was sixty miles of territory, there was hardly anyone left alive. He controlled it with his army of men like Gant.

I wasn't sure why the families were gathering tonight. There hadn't been any infected around the valley in weeks. The migrants we had were decent enough. I couldn't think of any reason for Dad to come home with Sue-Lynn's husband, Cal, and Christine's husband, Pete, and all of them go in the dining room and close the door.

Finally, we located Riley and I shooed them toward the house, game over.

"It's better in the dark!" said Chris. "Five more minutes?"

"You don't even know what a minute is," I said. "Get in the house."

"A minute is sixty hours," said Riley. "Am I right?"

"When I'm playing hide and seek with you, it certainly feels like it."

They ran inside and I saw a slight movement out of the corner of my eye. Something shifted in the shadows next to the pump house.

"Hello?" I called. No answer. I heard gravel scraping against a boot and then silence. At the back door, I saw a big square thing lying by the doormat. My encyclopedia.