Sunday, March 29, 2009

6. Madison in Portland

What am I reading? It Happens Every Day by Isabel Gillies. Almost as compelling as the reviews said it w be. I knew it was a marriage meltdown book and expected a sack of confession, but have been surprised at how engaging the story really is. I find the narrator, who identifies herself as a WASP and natters on for pages about Maine, china patterns and William Morris wallpaper, so personally irritating that she's become an almost perfect anti-heroine. I am at the point, heavily foreshadowed, where the poet husband is about to dump her for the French chick. Also need to mention The Chysalids by John Wyndham-where has this guy been all my life? Next week, a Harry Turtledove novel. My first. I'm notorious for not finishing bad science fiction (don't ask me how much PKD I've read). I have hope for the Turtledove-great premise and fantastic cover.

I haven't posted any Madison for two weeks thanks to a wave of paranoia about intellectual property on a couple of writers' sites. Yes, the paranoid ones have a point. No, I'm not going to change my methods. Why? I received two more agent rejections last week. One was from TriadaUSA that arrived two hours after submission. The other was from The Writers House. Both were very polite and I have to say, their promptness places them well ahead of the curve.

Anyway a couple of "good" rejections reminds me that I can't guard my work from the world. My critique group, Yola writers, met yesterday to show their usual fine work. They kicked my ass over chapter twelve. My new marketing scheme is to glide along on their coattails.

Below is part of chapter six. It ends when they reach a check point manned by some ZZ Top-looking dudes. It needs some work from my other persona, editor me. I'll post the rest as I feel it.
Chapter Six

Tierney seemed to know, if not the layout of this exclusionary unit, at least what was likely to be found in one. He drove to a loading area in another building and backed the truck into the dock. Inside was a black cave with ceilings that rose the entire height of the building. Tierney scuffled off into the darkness while I stood in the last square of light peering after him.

"What if there are more dead in there?"

"Then don't come in."

"What if there are more crazy people?"

"Use your staple remover."

I heard dragging sounds on the cement floor and the tuneless sound of Tierney whistling. A minute later he came back with a cardboard box and dropped it.

"There are, I think, two more of these. Load this in the truck while I get them."

I peeled back the soft, dusty cardboard. Inside were cans and cans of food. Pears, beans, corn. All ten years old. "We're can't eat this stuff. It's poison."

He came back with another box. "This is how your friend managed to survive for so long."

"I don't think that's all she ate."

"I know how to check cans, Madison. We'll be okay." We loaded the boxes in the back of the truck and drew a tarp over everything. By then it was late afternoon, the light slanting from the west. I didn't want to camp anywhere near the exclusionary unit, so I was relieved when Tierney started the truck.

We drove for another hour, mostly on roads that ran close to the highway until wrecks and trees forced us back to the highway again.

"We'll be going east from here," said Tierney. First words he'd spoken since Canterbury.

"I thought we were going to Portland."

"We're in Portland."

He drove onto an overpass. Since the bridge in Oregon City, he'd avoided them. We'd seen so many collapsed and broken spans since then, roads that went nowhere. I braced my feet on the floor, expecting at any second to have the pavement drop out from under to me. To my surprise, Tierney pulled over and parked between a three-car pile up and a jack-knifed truck, at the highest point in the overpass.

I got out and walked to the railing. The wind was sharp and metal groaned all around us. I saw five deer wandering along a parking lot across the concrete canyon, nibbling on new grass that swelled out of the buckled pavement. Old buildings peeked out of vine-covered mounds.

"I could use some firewood."

"Up here?" I sighed. There was grass and a few weeds growing in the cracks of the overpass, but all the trees were down there, on the ground. I hoped he didn't want to burn bones.

Tierney was hauling stuff out of the truck. He seemed unconcerned that I would try to run off again, and about that he was correct. I kicked a piece of plastic as I walked, part of some car I couldn't identify, and wondered why I didn't try harder to get away.

I went toward the far end of the overpass, following the decline to a greater concentration of wrecked cars. As the road turned west, I realized the overpass fed into a second highway below. I leaned over the railing and looked down. Below me was another car canyon, choked and congested with wrecks, stretching into the sunset. In the fading light, everything I saw looked black and every vehicle appeared to be partially sunk in the asphalt. Their bumpers floated on the road surface and their car doors hung open like oars in still, black water. To my right, a black train had tumbled off its tracks to hang above the highway on a concrete guard rail. Beyond that, canyon walls of burnt tree snags poked through a fury of new growth. Further down the canyon, great buildings crumbled and gaped, birds flying in and out of their broken windows.

This had to be Portland, or what was left of it.

I walked back to camp empty-handed to find Tierney bent over a wisp of flame he had coaxed from a pile of twigs and dried grass. He added a chair leg.

"What happened to the city?" I asked.

"Fire-bombed." Tierney put another leg on the fire. I wondered where he'd gotten chair parts, and why the wood hadn't burned along with everything else.

"Who did it?"

"We did." He sat on an old tire and opened a tin of beans. I was hungry in spite of the fact that the food was half my age and probably chock full of poison. He nestled the tin in the fire. "It used to be a beautiful place."

"I don't know who you mean by we. I had nothing to do with that."

No response from Tierney. He opened another tin.

"So, where are we going?"

"East for a while."

"Any place specific, or are we just wandering aimlessly?"

"You ask a lot of questions."

"That's because you don't say anything." I got up and walked to the trailer of the jack-knifed truck. Inside I saw a jumble of dark shapes. As my eyes adjusted, I realized it was furniture. Okay good, one mystery solved. I climbed up on the deck, sucked in my breath and walked into the darkness far enough to grab a couple of chairs. I threw them off the back where they splintered on impact.

I gathered the pieces and carried them back to the fire.

"Thanks." Tierney added a leg and went back to stirring the first can of beans with the lone spoon we'd taken from the farm house days ago.

I sat down on the nearest tire. "What were you Before, Tierney?"

"Why do you want to know?"

"Are you kidding me? Can't I know something about you?" I felt a stray raindrop on my forehead and looked up. The clouds had come almost within touching distance. Another drop splatted on my head. "I can't eat in the rain!"

I stomped off to a car that I'd picked out earlier-no bodies or bones-and locked myself in. By the time I was hungry enough to eat poisoned canned food, the rain was coming down in buckets and Tierney had taken the cans into the truck. I spent the night huddled under coats in the back seat, hungry, listening to the rain and smelling mouse piss. I hoped I wasn't lying in a puddle of it, although I wondered if on some level it wasn't justice for my bad temper. Tierney wasn't a bad guy and he didn't ask to be saddled with the kid who shot Pinkus.

Toward dawn, the rain slacked off and I remembered I'd left my new boots in the back of the truck. They'd be soaked. I almost felt like crying.

When it was fully light, I put on my coats and got out of the car. The pavement was wet with oily rainbows. The ubiquitous (a word worth remembering) odor of burning rubber seemed to be stronger today. Probably from the city.

Tierney had built up the fire with more chair parts and sat next to it reading a book. He grunted something at me and handed me a can of pears, barely looking up from his reading. I sat on a wet tire and watched his eyes flicking across the page. The grizzle on his cheeks never seemed to grow, and he never shaved. I pondered the problem of men's facial hair. All the men of a certain age had full beards, but not this guy. Maybe it was a product of his beat life, where there were no frills, not even a decent beard.

"What is that?"

"A book." He unrolled the pages he held, holding the soft cover up for me to read. Mickey Spillane. A man in a hat held a flaming gun on a woman in a skin tight red dress. She had notably big boobs. Not likely I would have come across a big boob book like that in Dad's library, but it didn't surprise me that Tierney had one.

"I thought you read smart books."

"This is a smart book. You should try it."

"It's good you're improving your mind, Tierney. Maybe you won't have to be a migrant all your life."

"So I can be a useless know-it-all like you?"

"I'm not. . ." I paused to consider. "A know it all."

"You're a migrant too. Don't kid yourself. There's nothing else out here."

He went back to his book. After eating, I went to find a place to pee. Micturate, I reminded myself, micturate. I might be the only person for a hundred miles who knew the word so I better use it. After that, I took my new boots from the back of the truck, shucked out the laces and propped them before the fire with their tongues hanging out to dry.

When he finished reading, Tierney hauled all the stuff out of the truck. He filled the gas tank from the bottles of fuel he found yesterday, unbolted the gun from the mount and removed the ammo. He laid the gun on its side in the back of the truck, wrapped in a blue plastic tarp.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

5. What's an Exclusionary Unit?

This has been such a long week. . . lots of domestic disturbances. . . no bike riding. So here is another chapter full of my Frankenstein attempts to create action. It's funny how leaden and lumbering language gets when you are trying to talk about things happening quickly. Amid magazine rejections (oh, there were some!)I managed to get almost done with a short story. I've reworked this chapter a lot because there are some historical reveals and that made me crazy during first draft. I honestly didn't know what happened to Madison's world, but I didn't want to break stride to do world-building. I could pretend that she simply didn't know, and that worked well enough until I started asking people to read later drafts. I confess, I don't do outlines. Nothing kills desire like boredom, right? Besides, what was important to me was the tone and voice of the novel. More stuff to do: Yes, in my spare time, I need to promote this blog. But feel me on the rejections. Ouch! Who wouldn't shut the door for a few days?

Chapter Five

The next morning, I crawled out of the hay and folded my coats. I was alone in the loft. Tierney's bed had been kicked apart and his coats were gone. I hobbled to the old house, barefoot, looking for Tierney. Wherever he was, he had my damn shoes.

The wringer-washer was in a corner of the back porch, and I took a moment to turn the crank and examine the old split rollers. It was dusty but seemed to work. A thing like this was worth, oh, it might be worth two suckling pigs, or a portion of slaughtered hog. A woman might trade a half-pound of coffee for it. It certainly would earn its worth many times over in time saved. I couldn't let it sit by for someone else to find.

I carried it to the truck and loaded it carefully. After that, I went out into the weeds far from the truck to do my business. No toothbrush, no soap, no water, no paper scraps. And I was barefoot. By the time I hobbled to the truck again, I was in a sour mood and Tierney was heaving the wringer-washer off the side of the truck.

"Are you crazy? Stop that!"

"It's not coming." He stood on the truck bed next to the gun with its fat belt of ammo. A tendon bunched in his jaw like a horse that had set his teeth against a bit.

"Do you have any idea what a thing like this is worth?" I walked around the truck and found the washer. The top had come off. I bent down and looked at the two parts, touching a spot of fresh metal. "You broke it!"

"Good." Tierney jumped off the truck. "You won't be doing any laundry where you're going."

"You're an idiot, Tierney."

"Need some shoes?" He reached into the back of the truck and held up my wingtips, tied together by their laces. I reached for them but he yanked them away and tossed them on the truck's front seat.

"It was worth a ham, Tierney." I got in the truck. "Think about that. Maybe two hams."


Slow going. The pavement was buckled and frost-heaved as we made our way north. The last people who drove these roads were probably the looters who had cleaned out the house, and that was a very a long time ago. In low spots, streams ran over the road and Tierney paused to estimate the depth before bouncing through the water. He took a road that lead us down the far side of the ridge, and it meandered through a housing development. The yards and streets were crowded with wrecked furniture and fallen trees, but only two or three places had burned. Tierney drove through the neighborhood once and circled back.

"What are we doing?"

No answer. He stopped the truck next to a tangle of brush and vines that had once been someone's yard. I saw a moss-covered skull under a branch, the jaw crushed. We got out of the truck and he gave me a handful of rags.

"Stuff these in your shoes."

"How generous." I jammed the rags in the toes and put them on. They still didn't fit. I followed him around the first house and in the back door. While he rummaged through the kitchen, I searched the rest of the place, pretending I was an archaeologist who had just opened an ancient site. What happened to the family who lived here? It was hard to tell because successive groups of people had come later, making a fire in the living room and using the bathroom floor and the hallway leading to the bathroom as a toilet. The stench was blistering. The family must have owned a lot of pink toilet paper because bunches of it peeped through the excrement, still vividly pink. For once, I didn't want to go upstairs.

Tierney scored a package of pasta. We went on to the next house.

All together we searched ten houses. In some ways they were all the same, furred and peeling walls, mushrooms sprouting from the swampy carpets, utterly destroyed furniture. But Tierney found something in every house. He looked behind stoves and on top of cupboards. He removed drawers and searched inside for things that got pushed to the back. In one place he found three ramen noodle packages.

I looked for shoes and books with no luck. Books were popular for starting fires with the waves of squatters who came after. Or maybe the family themselves had burned the books in the first long winter, trying to keep warm. And shoes were gold anyway. You never saw a corpse with shoes.

In one place we found five bodies all laying on a bed, the covers pulled up to their jawbones. The mother lay on her side, facing two smaller bodies, and the dad's mummified fingers cupped a handgun. All had small holes in their skulls. They had been dead a long time, but not ten years. I looked around the room and saw an oil lamp with a rag wick and soot stains flaring up the side of the wall. The window was sealed with carpeting. This family had lived for some time in the world as it is now, but had decided not to anymore.

Tierney tucked the gun into his belt and closed the door softly. At the front door, he picked up a shard of pottery from the yard and carved a number 5 into the door wood.

"What's that for?" I asked.

"It's a sign to others there are dead in this house."

"There are dead in all the houses. You didn't mark the doors."

"These people were from our time. They were survivors."

In a way I understood. It's not that the other dead, the Demented and the people killed right after, weren't important. They were the ones who built the houses, made deevees, wrote books. May they rest in peace. But they'd gotten off easy—no First Winter for them. They hadn't spent the last ten years hoping that it would stop raining so the beans would grow. Anyway, I was sad about the family in the last house. I couldn't shake the memory of our winters, and wondered if Dad had ever thought about finishing things that way.

Tierney went to the next house, and I sat on the curb near the truck. He came out with a frying pan and an empty plastic jug. I gathered firewood while he carried the jug down the hill and into the woods. I watched him go, thinking I had the wingtips, he'd left the keys in the truck, and all the junk he'd just gathered was sitting three feet away.

I thought about it too long. He came back with a jug of mossy water and set it down next to the wood I'd gathered. "There's a lot of water in your country."

"Too much. This wood's not going to light."

He had a lighter in his pocket and with a few pieces of paper, he managed to get the smallest twigs to smoke, then flame. "I've seen places that haven't had rain in ten years. The rivers are dry and the groundwater is used up. Everything is dead."

"How do the people live?"

"They don't."

He blew on the flame and added more twigs. When he got a good fire going, he nestled the pan in the coals and heated water for soup. We ate two packages of ramen noodles and drank the salty pan water. Neither of us spoke.

We drove through the remainder of the afternoon, weaving around dead cars and fallen trees. Sometimes I had to drag branches out of the way, sometimes it was armchairs. Once it was a busted-up merry-go-round with all the animals gray and peeled lying in the road as if they'd been shot.

We came to a wide, long road, a highway. Tierney stopped before driving out on to it. It was dense with cars. If I narrowed my eyes I could almost pretend I was looking at a moving highway from a movie. With open eyes I saw piles of rags and bits of broken stuff and nothing moved but the wind.

"You want to drive on that?"

Tierney tapped the gas gauge. From where I sat it looked like we were down to a quarter of tank. "I'm tired of driving in the trees."

"And this is so much better."

"Maybe we can find some fuel."

I sighed and he put the truck in gear. Traveling with Tierney was like not going anywhere; all he did was look for more stuff. But we did travel a little faster on the highway. From time to time he ran over bones, and after the first time I felt them pop under the tires I didn't mind so much.

Late in the afternoon, the sun came out, casting weak spears of light from the clouds. The cars looked rusty and derelict in the sun. As we got closer to Portland, there were more obstacles, and Tierney had to stop and back track around them. I started seeing signs over the old green interstate signs, hand-painted in black. "Canterbury."

"What's Canterbury?"

Tierney eased around a three-car pileup. "Probably a refugee camp."

"Can we go?"


Toward dusk, Tierney pulled off the highway, turned left and drove onto an overpass. At the top, he stopped, got out and walked the length of the overpass, checking each car and truck. Same thing I'd seen him do all day in the houses. Now it was cars. I sat and watched him, wishing I had something to read.

He stopped to look at one car, opening the driver's side door and leaning inside. He walked to the passenger door and then the back doors, opening each. Finally he waved to me. It was a rusty, nasty old thing on the outside, but inside the upholstery was dry and smelled like plastic. There were no bones.

"German engineering," said Tierney.

"Whatever that means." It was almost better when Tierney didn't talk.

We bedded down for the night in the car, me in the far back curled up under my wool jacket, and Tierney in front. Before we settled in, Tierney took the wingtips, tied their laces together and looped them through his belt. I lay awake wondering how far I'd get out there, barefoot with all the broken glass and old bones. I could have gone any time, but I lay there thinking about it instead.

The next morning I had to do my personal business behind a stalled truck on the overpass. Again in my bare feet. Tierney could do it over the side, another injustice of the world. I walked back to our truck, cold and angry. Day two had begun.

"Where are we going today?"


"Same as yesterday." I climbed into the truck. "But we never seem to get there."

Tierney gave me the wingtips and I rearranged the rags inside before putting them on. Having shoes made a difference. If I had a shot at escaping today, I'd take it.

We drove down into the highway graveyard again, circling and back-tracking and pushing between cars. Occasionally I got out to shift a small object that we couldn't drive over. Sometimes we both had to get out. The closer we got to Portland, the more panic I saw in the arrangement of the derelict cars. People had been ramming each other, driving over the highway dividers and coming down on top of other traffic. A lot of bodies were in these cars.

Once I saw a small sedan with all the windows rolled up tight. A slight steaminess framed two people in the back seat, who were turned around and looking out the window. Their skin, though desiccated as old apples, was still in place. Even their dark prune eyes were open and staring. One of them had a string of pearls. Their skeletonized finger bones still rested on the back of the seat. Although the car's gas flap was open, the car hadn't been looted, not even for shoes.

Tierney honked the horn. What were two more dead bodies? I did my job and we moved on.

Tierney stopped often to look for fuel. Whenever he saw a gas flap that wasn't open, he'd thread a piece of tubing into the tank. Sometimes he would get a few drops of rusty looking fluid in his water jug which he would distill into another jar. I would sit and watch him as the day went on.

"You aren't going to find much," I told him. "And what you find won't be any good."

"Did I ask for your opinion?"

"No, but you could certainly use it."

He made some irritating sound. Good to know he hated me as much as I hated him.

In the afternoon he found one untouched gas flap in the middle of a massive accident. Other scavengers had missed it because you couldn't tell one jumble of steel from the next. Tierney threaded his tube into the tank, sucked on the other end and quickly dunked it into the jug as bright pink fluid began to flow.

Tierney waved me out of the truck. "Look for more containers, Madison. Clean ones."

I grabbed up all the water bottles I could find in the road, carried them back. The gasoline was flowing quickly. "More. Bigger."

"Only two hands!" Even when he had what he wanted he was still rude.

We were close to an on-ramp, so I wandered between the oncoming vehicles, looking inside. Almost every car had coffee cups with lids or water bottles, but I never got used to opening the cars and reaching over dead bodies. The smell after all this time was faint, organic but not altogether unpleasant. Sometimes the act of opening a car door was enough to make a skeleton disarticulate itself all over the road.

I reached for one water bottle and came away with a bony hand still attached. I screamed and threw it away, then stood for a moment catching my breath. That's when I saw buildings on the other side of the ramp, behind a parking lot circled in razor wire. I could just read the lettering on a billboard-sized sign:

"Canterbury Exclusion Unit #0493."

This was it. Although it was cobbled together from a shopping mall, it had an official look. Refugees could be inside, or some form of government. Maybe someone could help me get home.

Tierney was many car lengths back, still hunched over his tube. I started walking quickly. Once off the ramp, I broke into a shuffling run, keeping cars, trees and utility poles between me and Tierney, in case he happened to look up. There was no entrance in the front. Razor wire enclosed a parking lot and nothing moved inside but leaves and bits of paper.

Now that I was closer I saw shacks on the roof of the largest building. Too small for houses, possibly guard towers where soldiers waited all day for people to shoot at. I watched the shacks for a moment, wondering which bothered me more—Tierney catching up with me or the possibility of getting shot. After a few seconds, I hurried on.

The entrance to the place was on the far side of the complex. I was relieved to put the width of the building between myself and Tierney. The doors were steel reinforced and tightly closed. I tried the buzzer first, leaning on it a couple of times and feeling a faint vibration on the other side of the door. After a few seconds, I tried the door knob and it opened with a dry squeak.

Inside was illuminated by a green-tinged glow coming from boxes high on the walls, very faint but enough to cast light in the place. Weak solar was still working, somewhere. The second thing was the shivering scent of old, old decay, as though I'd just opened an abandoned refrigerator.

"Hello?" I called out and was immediately sorry. My voice echoed and swelled, coming back louder than before.

Something, somewhere, slid across the concrete floor.

I froze, fighting the blind impulse to run for the door. Instead I held my breath and listened. After a moment I breathed again, and went forward. I was in some kind of waiting area. Two plastic chairs stood outside a glass-framed office. Inside the office, I saw filing cabinets, a desk of papers, a soda machine that looked--amazingly--plugged in and lit up.

Beyond the office was a long wall bisected with another door, locked from this side with a complicated bolt system. The organic smell was worse close to this door. Undisturbed.

As I turned toward the office, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and heard the dragging sound again.

A person lurched into view, wild-haired, tall but without a beard. He or she—it—dragged one leg as it shambled out of the gloom, arms out stretched. It wore the remnants of a uniform with a bit of needlework over the breast pocket.

"They're all here." The voice was cracked and hazed, but still feminine. "Check the records."

"Who's here?" I asked.

The woman stopped a few feet away from me, but her smell made the rest of the trip. She reeked of death and mildew, something like a dead cow I once found floating in the creek, long dead and stewed in water. I stepped backwards, my body knowing before my brain that no one could smell like that and be sane.

"Want to see?" she asked and began to laugh.

I turned to the door I'd come in, but lost a shoe and stumbled. Like an animal, the woman was on me, reaching for my neck. I wrenched away, pushing her off balance, and ran to the office, locking the door with her on the other side. She raised fists crenellated with yellow fingernails and pounded against the glass.

The glass shivered with each blow and wouldn't hold long. I searched the room for a weapon, turning out desk drawers and going through cabinets. There was nothing but dust and old papers, and one small thing made of plastic and metal. It fit in the palm of my hand, a thing with four opposing teeth encased in a rigid plastic grip, like the mouth of a snake. When I squeezed it, the teeth came together, making a small clacking sound. I didn't know what it was supposed to do, and it wasn't much use now, but at that moment it was all I had.

The creature hurled a chair through the window, and the glass exploded into the room, sending shards flying across the desk. The woman climbed through the window, over the spears of glass still jutting from the window frame. Her thigh hooked a shard and the tip plunged into her. She kicked herself free and came on. I pushed the chair between us, she swept it aside. I grabbed an old keyboard and thwacked the side of her head. As she reeled, I caught her lower lip between the teeth of the little tool I'd found.

The creature howled from the pain and shook her head, shaking me with it. I felt blood and warm breath on my hand. Was she Demented? Or just crazy? I squeezed harder, released the tool and took another bite on the creature's cheek. She grabbed for my neck, nails tangling in my hair.

And then a gunshot rang out. The creature exhaled once and dropped to the floor, my tool still in her flesh. Tierney stood in the other side of the window, holding Dad's gun.

"Did she bite you?"

"I bit her." I bent down and retrieved my little tool, which I was now oddly fond of. "She was crazy, not Demented. You didn't have to blast her."

"Let me see that." He took my tool. "A staple remover. I will say this, you have your moments."

In the faint glow, I could read the name on her breast pocket. Denise. She wore a pair of decent-looking boots.

"My size." I removed the boots, gagging at the warm, gassy odor. Tierney reached for them but I held on, knotting the laces together. "Oh, no, you don't. These are mine. I earned them. What is this place?"

"What the sign says. An exclusionary unit. Want to see?" He went to the inner door I'd seen earlier. He shifted the bolts and pulled it wide, spilling a little of our green light into the darkness. He propped open the door with a little metal foot attached to the lower edge of the door. "Take a good look, Madison."

I got up reluctantly and walked over. The first thing I saw was metal prison bars reaching from the floor up into the darkness above. On the other side of the bars, where the light barely reached, I saw bones. I had to look for a long time to be certain of what I was seeing. I'd seen bones before but never had I seen so many. It was a sea of bones and tangled cloth, four or five feet thick and crowded against the bars. I saw hundreds of skulls, some still covered with tufts of hair, and I saw long bones and rib cages, thousands and thousands of them. At our feet, millions of tiny bones were scattered on the floor like broken beads, as though these people had died reaching through the bars.

"Demented," said Tierney. "There are thousands of units like this all over the country. Every city had them. There were so many infected that managing the disease overwhelmed the hospitals, and this was all we could do. Forty percent of the population was symptomatic in the first year. Who knows how many since? We no longer have any way of tracking it."

I pictured the Demented crushed in here, trampled underfoot, all of them finally dying as close to the door as possible. Was it any more or less humane than shooting them on sight or wrapping them in concertina wire until they cut themselves to bits?

"I don't remember much about Before," I said. "No one talks about it."

"Can you see why?" He let the door fall shut. "It's enough to dream about it every night."

Tierney went to search the office, stepping over Denise like so much trash. I went outside where it was cool and smelled of rain. June 23rd by my reckoning. Summer was still a month away. I looked at gray buildings with broken signs, loot spilled out the doors and left to blow away. In a few minutes I got my breathing under control, a few minutes after that the shaking stopped.

When he came out, Tierney handed me a can of soda. I took it and felt the tension in the metal sides. It was still cold. I couldn't remember the last time I had one. Tierney worked the ring for me and the can popped, releasing a mist of sparkles. I drank until the fizz hurt my mouth.

"It's wonderful." I passed him the can.

"The taste that beats the others cold." He took a small sip and passed it back. "Might be the last one in the world."

Monday, March 2, 2009

4. Madison On the Road

This has been a long week, and I'm late posting this chapter. I sold a short story to Spinetingler Magazine this week. The editor was incredibly nice about the story, and it reminded me how much I like to write (and sell) short stories. They can be little puzzles, satisfying to play with, pretty to hold. Anyway, I started writing a new one immediately about an alcoholic paranormal house inspector. An idea just begging to be written, right? So I drifted on Chapter Four because I knew the edits would be difficult. I wanted to change the tone, develop Madison's reaction to her father's death and explore Tierney's reasons for dragging her off on an adventure. He doesn't see her as anything but a troublesome kid at this point. Concurrently, I'm getting Chapter Eleven ready for my critique group next weekend. This is where he begins to see her as something more. I enjoyed playing Before and After with these two chapters. Maybe "enjoy" is the wrong word. I'm struggling with rewrites, and not just with the novel. I edited a short story recently and a friend said, "Oh, I finally see what you mean!" I had been dicking around with this thing for six months, and he'd read it three other times. I have to wonder if there's something blocking my blood-brain barrier that I can't make the story arc clearer in earlier drafts. The weather today is very pretty. Wasn't it supposed to rain?

Chapter Four

Jayden was screaming, a grinding keen that rose above the random gunfire and revving engines like a serenade to the end of the world. George struggled to his feet, wiped the blood off his bald skull, and made his way to her. As the soldiers swarmed Pinkus's body, I saw the two of them hurrying across the lawn to their house.

Pinkus's men had broken ranks and scattered. Several of them were stumbling down the center of the road, guns abandoned. Infected. Dad always said it happened in the blink of an eye. As I watched, one of their own men lifted a rifle and fired, paused, fired again. The Demented soldiers dropped, one by one.

I used the hem of my dress to wipe the blood off Dad's face and closed his eyes. I felt nothing about having just killed a man. My very first. I was furious at Dad. What lunatic makes shooting a Demented woman his last living act? I hated the way Dad had been hell-bent on destroying Dims, without even stopping to consider whether he was right to do it.

First Mom, now Dad. Even if he was wrong, he shouldn't have died like this, so far from home. His body needed to layed out properly. He needed to be buried. I looked around for help, but the fighting had moved down the street and I was for the moment all alone.

Dad was dead. He shouldn't be dead.

I heard an engine and I looked up to see a chopped-up truck with a gun in the back hurtling toward me. It screeched to stop three feet from Dad, and a man leaned out the driver's side window. It was Tierney.

"Fifty soldiers are headed this way right now, Madison. You need to come with me. "

"My father's dead."

"I know. I'm sorry." He winced. "There's nothing we can do for him now."

"I'm not leaving him in the middle of the street! People won't know where he is."

"He'd want—" Tierney sighed and pushed open the truck door. Already I could hear rumbling engines in the distance. "All right. Take his feet."

Tierney placed his arms under Dad's shoulders and I grasped his ankles. Together we dragged him to the nearest sidewalk, Dad's head lolling on the ground.

"Thanks. My sister's house is right over there."

"This is far enough. Come on, Madison." The engines were close, probably one street over. Tierney held open the truck door.

I looked at Dad, lying among last fall's wet leaves, his shooting hand on his chest. My eyes were warm and prickly.

Tierney reached out and grasped the back of my neck, pushing me toward the truck. "Cry later."

I climbed over to the passenger's side. The engine thrummed and throbbed like a winded horse. I couldn't remember being in a truck that was on before. Tierney pushed my blood-soaked skirts off his seat and slammed the door. "You're a mess. You better not be infected."

He did something with a lever and the truck lurched forward. Butterflies exploded in my stomach. "You're going too fast!"

"Shut up!"

I tried to see Dad one last time, but he was already out of sight. As we passed Jayden's house, smoke was pouring out the front door and flames were shooting through the roof. Pinkus's body was gone. I hoped Jayden and George got the kids out in time.

"My boots are in there," I said. "My book too."

"Gone now." Gunfire burst behind us, one shot pinging our tail gate. Tierney grabbed my hair, pressing my head to the seat. "And stay there."

He reefed furiously on the wheel and floored the gas. "Okay, is there any way out of this town?"

"Where are we?" From the floor of the truck, all I could see was the torn seat filled with little crumbs of foam rubber.

Screeching tires and more gunfire. Tierney stomped on a pedal so hard his leg was straight. I sat up in time to see a huge damn thing, a truck or something, bearing down on us.

"Yow!" Tierney tore around a car barricade, shaving paint off both sides of our truck.

"Left, left, left!" I said. "Now straight."

We dove down a hill that was so steep my butterflies got butterflies. At the bottom, he swerved toward the river and floored it. He cranked the wheel right, more screeching tires. Suddenly a bridge loomed over our heads. We bounced over small chunks of concrete that had fallen onto the road and I looked up to see white sections of sky in the gaps where the concrete chunks had once been.

I saw Tierney measure the distance up the ramp to the top of the span. The nasty big truck was on our tail again.

"No," I said. "We're not. . . We can't. . . No one uses that bridge!"

"We're dead already, aren't we?" Tierney stepped on the pedal and the truck almost lifted off the road. "Or at least you are."

Pinkus. "Good point."

At the top of the ramp, Tierney cut our speed to edge around a car barricade. We passed within inches of a totem pole of skulls. Someone's red hair bleached almost pink caressed my side view mirror. Beyond the barricade, more random cars dotted the road, but those looked like they'd stopped functioning while their occupants were trying to get somewhere. Doors and trunks stood open, looted in the years since the bad thing happened that made all the cars stop.

I heard the massive stuttering of the big truck engine as it pushed its way through the barricade. Cars teetered and fell, glancing off the truck as it continued up the ramp after us.

"Hang on," said Tierney.

Up the ramp and onto the bridge. I'd never been so far off the ground in my life. On our right side, the river was a low-bellied snake creeping into a gray landscape. On the left, I saw Oregon City cloaked in smoke and crowned by concrete spears of another bridge that had long since crumbled away.

Tierney zigged and zagged across the roadway, avoiding cars, and other stuff—televisions, furniture, piles of laundry that might be skeletons. This had to be what flying felt like. I reached for the door handle, the dashboard, anything to keep me from bouncing out of the truck.

At mid-span, Tierney stepped on the brakes and we came to a stop just before the road fell out from under us. For the next thirty feet there was nothing but a wicker basket of road and empty air, bisected by steel beams. I saw the river churning between the holes in the bridge.

Behind us, the big truck kept coming.

"We're going to fall! We have to go back."

"Right." To my horror, Tierney threw our truck into reverse, driving backward the way we'd come. Toward the bigger truck. I watched us getting too close, within shooting range. Guys standing on the truck bed raised their guns. I counted ten of them. At the last possible second, Tierney threw the truck forward, aiming for the left side of the bridge, going faster than ever. The broken road yawned in front of us and I screamed.

As we breached the hole, I saw what Tierney had seen—a slender ledge of asphalt, lacy and insubstantial but just wide enough to hold us. Cutting sparks off the side of the truck, the ledge crumbling behind us, we flew.

"I love this truck!" shouted Tierney.

We touched down on the other side and I whirled around to see the big truck braking at the edge of the hole, blue smoke boiling from its wheels. It almost stopped. Then as if a tailwind had come up, the front wheels rolled over the edge and rested for a moment in the netting of exposed steel beams, before the metal yielded like tired rope and the truck began to fall, surging and bucking. Some guys jumped clear, others didn't. The truck, sections of bridge and people tumbled in a mass toward the water.

Under us, the entire bridge shook. Tierney struggled to hold the wheel and keep us from hurtling into the railing. We sideswiped a refrigerator. Suddenly I saw tree branches in the road and Tierney eased to a stop. We were on the other side of the river.

We sat breathing hard. Tierney slowly unwrapped his fingers from the wheel. I looked back toward the river, trying to catch a glimpse of what had happened to the big truck, but trees blocked the view.

We were in a town, on a highway. It had once been only minutes from Oregon City by the bridge, but now it might as well be on the moon. Trees had been falling over the roads for years and no one had logged them out, making the highway impassable from both direction. If anyone had ever lived here, they were all gone now.

For the next hour, Tierney and I took turns hauling branches off the road. Sometimes we could drive forward a mile or so, other times peeling off one set of branches only revealed a denser nest beyond. Mostly we had no choice but to turn around and try another route.

The terrain was steep and dotted by houses that had been mounted on posts driven into the hillside. Most had collapsed, belching boards and wet carpeting down the slopes. The houses which still stood creaked and swayed in the breeze, ready to let go at any moment.

Tierney worked his way higher and higher on the ridge until he found a road that followed the crest through land that had once been farmed. Squared-off orchards and the occasional house could still be seen amongst forests of saplings.

Finally he found a place he liked, a house and barn set off the road. Both structures were still standing, though the house had a limb lying across the roof. Grass and shrubs grew three feet tall in the front yard and the driveway had a thin smoke of cottonwood fluff over it. No tracks in the fluff. Tierney pulled over, turned off the engine. We sat and watched the place for a while.

"Anyone left around here heard the truck and knows where we are," I pointed out. It was a lonely place but not sad, not like the housing development filled with old bones in Oregon City. This place looked the way our valley would have looked if we'd all died ten years ago. Empty and left to itself.

"Do you have to argue every point with me?"

"I'm trying to be helpful."

"Well, you're not."

After a few more irritating minutes when absolutely nothing moved, Tierney started the engine and guided the truck through the field and behind the barn, leaving the house's yard and driveway undisturbed. We climbed out.

"I'll check the barn. Stay here."

"The hell I'll stay here."


I gave him a look—you aren't my father. He sighed and started out, edging toward the barn door. I followed more gingerly, my feet sore from hauling branches.

Inside, the barn was dark and dusty and smelled of animals. I wandered around and looked at stuff while Tierney climbed the hay loft. There wasn't much. The feed grain was gone, the animal fodder (must have been cows) was so old and dry it looked like formed dust. I saw a wooden hay scale and a broken hoe handle. Not much else.

"Nothing," said Tierney when he came down.

"No Dims?"

Tierney gave me a look—don't push me.

We went to the house after checking a garden shed and pump house. The back porch smelled of soap and apples, and the first thing I saw was an old wringer-washer on the floor, something I'd wanted for years. It had a hand crank and didn't need electricity. With the truck, we could get it home easily.

Newspapers and broken glass covered the floor. Tierney booted the glass aside for me as he went. Looters had been here. There wasn't a house standing that hadn't been looted down to the floor boards in the last ten years. The cupboards hung open on broken hinges, the refrigerator shelves and ice cube trays were cast around the room. Tierney went through it all systematically, sifting and sorting but not finding much except a single old spoon.

I turned on the faucet and got rust. Dead mouse in the sink.

The house must have been owned by an old person. The living room furniture had the kind of scratchy upholstery that inspired women to crochet doilies. I counted twenty doilies in all. Even the looters hadn't bothered with this stuff, although I would have taken the rag rug.

Upstairs were two bedrooms. The tree branch had punctured the roof in the larger of the two rooms, creating a perilous maze of branches, dirt, rain-rotted wallboard and small scurrying animals. The looters had probably seen this room and decided the whole upstairs was a loss. The other room was undisturbed, the bed neatly made. The closet was stuffed with winter clothes, and had a funny chemical smell.

"Mothballs," said Tierney.

Together we examined the coats, sweaters and suits. Both men and women's things, all with buttons and zippers that actually worked. Tierney took some shirts and left the rest. I needed something to wear that wasn't blood-soaked (don't think about Dad) and finally settled on a man's trousers and blue shirt. I found a red reindeer sweater with shiny metal bits, the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. But a sweater like that could be seen for miles, and there was no way I could take it with me. I folded it carefully and tucked in the far back of the closet, in case I ever got back here. I set aside some wool jackets and pillows aside to take with me.

I dropped my dress on the floor and put on my new things. I used a blue sash to belt up the trousers, then tied the loose ends of the shirt around my waist. I found a pair of men's wingtip shoes in the closet and dragged them out. No one left shoes behind.

Tierney waited for me on the back porch with a bucket of water. He passed me a battered metal drinking cup.

"Found the well. Thought you might want to. . . the blood and everything."

"Thank you." I drank and then plunged my hands into the bucket. I dried myself with one of the wool coats and when I was done, he dropped four strawberries into my hand, nice big ones. I fell on them, suddenly starved. They were sweet and juicy and I ate them, stems and all. "Oh, those are good."

"Thought we'd sleep in the hay loft," he said.

"Okay. I found some pillows." My throat tightened up like a string purse. I was about to spend the night with a complete male stranger and all I could say was okay, I found some pillows?

"Tomorrow we're going to need food and water, so we'll get an early start."

"We should be back to the valley by afternoon. I don't mind fasting until then. Besides, there might be more berries around here."

"Madison." Long silence. "We're not going back to the valley."

"Oh, yes, we are." I glared at him. "We have to get back to the valley as soon as possible."

"Not happening." Perfectly calm, he took the pillows out of my arms and stepped off the porch, heading for the barn.

"You have some place else to go? Now that you have a truck and a gun?" I slipped my feet into the wingtips and clumped after him. "And where would that be, anyway?"

When I got inside, I heard Tierney walking around in the hayloft overhead. He leaned over the ledge and said, "As far away from Pinkus as possible."

"Pinkus is dead." I removed the shoes, which were hopelessly big and slippery on my feet. It was evening. The sun was down and the cold damp air of spring was rising from the ground. I hoped someone had found Dad and brought him inside. I hoped Jayden and the girls were all right.

Tierney climbed down the ladder. "You can go up now."

"Just let me go home, Tierney. Swear to god, I will be no further trouble to you."

He sighed. I couldn't see his face in the gray light, but I could imagine his squint eyed look of exasperation. "I wish I could but it's just not possible."

"You can't make me go with you. You don't own me."

He reached down and grabbed the wingtips. "Then I'll own these."

"Give them back!"

He turned around and walked toward the loft. "Come along, Madison."

"My father died today!" I yelled after him. "He was a good man. He gave you a job and you left him dead in the street!"

"Are we telling the truth tonight, Madison?" He turned, his voice harsh. "Here's the truth. Your father is the only reason I came back for you at all. There's a war going on right now because you murdered the most powerful man for two hundred miles. You think your family wants to see you now? Their only chance of surviving this mess is if they never see you again. Think about someone else for once."

My eyes stung. I made my way to the ladder and reached for the first rung. My hands grasped the wood without strength, like meat. I stood there, dumb and useless, too tired to fight anymore. He was right—the whole thing wouldn't have happened if I had done what Dad wanted from the beginning.

"Madison." I heard his leather coat creak very close to me. "That was good shooting. You saved a man's life."

"The wrong man." I swallowed, tamping the lump in my throat, and climbed the ladder to the loft. Tierney had scraped the last bunches of hay into two separate mounds. I took the one closest to the cobweb-draped window and bundled under the wool coat. Beneath my head was the faint clean linen scent of the pillow. Someone had washed this pillowcase long ago, before there was any Gant or Pinkus.

Tierney followed a few minutes later. "You all right?"

"Sure, never better." Damned if I let Tierney know how I felt. Damned if I ever forgot the hurt that filled my body as if every bone had been crushed. The migrant was right about one thing—cry later.