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.

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