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.