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."

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