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?
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!"
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.
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.