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.
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?"
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."
"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.
"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.