Finally, the rest of the chapter. I was caught in a vortex of web issues while my critique partners and I got Yola Writers on line. It's not finished, though my page is at least representational.
What am I reading? Something wretched and ooky. I'm ashamed to admit it. Sweetheart by Chelsea Cain. I picked it up because it's set in Portland and. . . well, the Lives of the Artists had bummed me out so badly I needed this. Isn't there more than one woman in the entire world who is worthy of consideration, Calvin? Though Sweetheart hits the thriller marks like clockwork, there is something interesting about Archie. It may help that I haven't read the first one in the series, and I can invest extra time imagining what happened during the ten days he was the captive of the serial killer. If I'm going to read a thriller, it's usually Nicci French.
Rejections. Yes, I finally got one from Strange Horizons. It was personalized and brief, but I savored the sting. This will bring my Duotrope stats down to average. Sadly.
I was afraid of posting this chapter, all right? It's the action scene. I feel it and I love it, but I know I'm not adding anything new to the world of action. Moving people around on paper is hard enough--how many times can you say "he stood up" or "she got in the car" without wanting to switch to poetry? It's text filler that readers don't really see and yet adds to the feeling of things happening in a real-life sort of way. It's important to do it right. Then imagine accelerating it in a car chase or a life and death situation where every word matters and people are dying out there. There are writers who do this incredibly well. I spent a week thinking I was not one of those writers and then I re-read this bit and found myself tearing through it without editing. It got a little tense for me.
Tierney emptied the cardboard boxes of cans and one by one slid the cans between the seat and the back wall of the truck cab. The last dozen or so he returned to a box and loaded in the back of the truck. He tucked the ammo under the driver's seat, the two hand guns in the glove box, and threw our extra clothes on top of the hidden cans.
"It won't stand up to a real search," he said. "But it might buy us a little time."
"Search by who? I haven't seen a checkpoint in days."
"People live away from the cities."
"Well, I hope they're more talkative than you."
We left the dead city behind us. The weather stayed cold and rain beaded on the windshield, only to be dispersed by windshield wipers scraping across the glass. Tierney turned on the heat and a warm, dusty breeze blew over my feet. For a while I was happy. Other than the occasional downed tree or snarl of branches and mud, there was very little garbage in the road.
At noon, Tierney slowed down as a checkpoint came into view. It was the usual (ubiquitous, Madison) collection of cars piled on top of one another. Two moss-encrusted trailers were squatting to one side, smoke curling from the top of one. When we stopped the truck I smelled sewage.
"Gross. No outhouse."
"Stay in the truck."
"I know the drill. I got it, okay?" I slumped in my seat.
A man stepped out of the trailer. He wore buckskin trousers and shoes carved out of wood. He had a beard and a shot gun.
"Got business here?" he yelled.
"Passing through." Tierney climbed out and slammed the door. He stretched his arms and rolled his neck, as though driving up to a strange checkpoint was something he did everyday. I don't know, maybe he did. But by now I knew him well enough to see the faint tension in his shoulders, the way he kept his back angled toward the truck.
The man walked through the mud toward us. Another bearded guy came out of the trailer wearing the same wooden shoes and buckskin clothing. He carried a short, blunt truncheon.
"Well, now," said the first one. "No vee-hickles been this way in. . . what would you say, Joe?"
"Three years, Moon. Three years." The second man had something wrong with his face under his beard.
"That's right. I remember an old Chevy with the power winch. Whatever happened to that guy?"
"Expect he was just passing through too." This appeared to be a matter of some amusement. The two weird beards broke up laughing and scuffed the dirt with their matching shoes.
Tierney put his hands in jeans pockets, still casual. "I have some barter for our passage through your checkpoint. What's the country like up ahead?"
Barter seemed to put them all on an even footing. The first guy leaned his shot gun against a car and started gesturing. Tierney nodded. My feet were cold and I wondered how to turn on the truck so I could have heat again. And that's when I noticed weird beard number two standing next to my door making a roll-down-your-window-please motion with his index finger.
"You speak?" he asked.
I rolled down my window part way. "What kind of question is that? Do I look mute to you?"
The man cracked a smile and his beard split around an open wound on his jaw. It was red and pulsing with crazy, cauliflower growth. Not a wound, a disease. The discharge oozed into his hair and dried in a matted icicle.
"Fiesty little thing, aint you?"
I started to roll up the window, but he jammed his truncheon between the glass and the frame. "Hey, buddy, this your woman?"
Tierney glanced back. "Yes. Not for trade."
He slowly removed the truncheon. "Got everything you need then, don't you?"
"Joe, get the cargo," said the first one. They took the extra cans and jugs of water. The lifted the tarp off the mounted gun and talked about it for a long time. --The gun was useless without ammo. --No one was making ammo like that anymore. --All the munitions depots had been emptied years ago. --This thing was one big collector's item.
But they decided to take it any. "All it's good for is scaring a body," said the guy with the wound.
"You would know," I said under my breath.
Tierney got back in the truck. "I told you not to talk to anyone."
"Oh, please. He talked first."
The beards waved us through the barricade. Tierney adjusted his rear view window and tapped the fuel gauge. "Easy does it, sugar pie."
"I know you aren't talking to me."
"Always give your ride a name." He shifted up "First rule of auto mechanics."
"That must be why none of them run anymore." I rubbed my feet together under the steady stream of heat. The road opened up on the other side of the checkpoint, clear and for the most part smooth. It curved around natural stone pillars on the right which formed a great cliff that rose in perfectly carved blocks. On the left was an enormous river, easily twice as wide as the Willamette.
"Did you see that one guy's face?" I asked.
"Cancer. We used to be able to treat it."
I didn't answer. It was easier for me to accept than it was for people who had been adults Before. I grew up knowing you didn't survive cancer and any injury could be fatal. We had to put down horses and cows all the time. There were no veterinarians. Hell, I'd only met one doctor in my entire life and I'd never eaten a pill. For Dad it had been a constant source of hope and disappointment. Who could we trade with for penicillin? A friend of a friend heard a guy had three pills for barter. Someone heard about a cache of pills in an old house—were the pills any good after ten years? On it went, endlessly grubbing after the old life. Tierney was closer to Jayden's age than Dad's, but I bet he'd trade the truck and everything in it for aspirin pills.
The landscape was beautiful but I couldn't stop thinking about the checkpoint. Something wasn't right. The weird beards had good leather clothes and wooden shoes, evidence that they were capable independents. Tanning and sewing hides were common skills where I came from. Everyone sewed, but only a few people made shoes. Being a shoemaker was like being an electrician or an iron monger—you could call yourself god and name your price. While I could see the weird beards stitching together deer hides, I just couldn't imagine them carving wooden shoes.
"Tierney, did that checkpoint seem odd to you?"
He cut a glance at me and I saw the watchful look was still very present in his face. Every nerve seemed taut. "Check the hand guns, Madison."
There were five shots left in Dad's gun and one left in the gun Tierney took off the dead family. We had no extra ammo except for the large gauge belt Tierney had taken from the mounted gun. I thought longingly of Dad's workbench in the garage where he made bullets. I'd never bothered to pay any attention.
"They need to be cleaned," I said.
Tierney nodded. "Just be ready. It's probably nothing."
We didn't have long to wait. We rounded a corner and came upon a pile of boulders blocking the road. Tierney braked and we went skidding and sliding into the rocks, coming to a stop in a cloud of dust and burning grease. He'd managed to bank the truck into the rocks sideways, crunching my door but not damaging the front of the truck. I sucked my tongue and tasted blood but was otherwise okay.
Tierney cut the engine. "Stay here."
"Because that worked so well last time."
Tierney opened the glove box and slid the smaller gun across the seat to me while he stuffed Dad's gun into his jacket. I took the gun and sighed. "You might be surprised what a good shot I am, Tierney."
"All you need is one bullet, right?"
Right. The new boots were still wet. I put on the wingtips and slipped out Tierney's side. It was quiet except for birdsong and wind in the trees. Tierney climbed the nearest boulders and tried to make his way around the blockage. I went to the cliff and looked down. A graveyard of vehicles lay below. The oldest were rusted out hulks, but the newest seemed to be wagons that were nothing but kindling, recognizable only by their long wooden yokes. No bones. How did wagons go over without taking draft animals with them? I wondered which of the wrecks below had been the old Chevy with the electric winch.
Tierney came back, frowning. "We might be able to get by if we hold very close to the edge."
"People don't seem to have much luck with that." I showed him the wrecks below. "Maybe we should go back and find another way."
Small stones trickled over the boulders. We looked up. A child of about ten stood on top of a rock, thin and straight. She wore a buckskin dress over bare legs, her feet in a pair of neat wooden clogs. Her mouth was twisted around a red cauliflower tumor like the guy at the checkpoint.
"Oh, my god," I said aloud.
Tierney touched my arm. Another one, a woman this time, same tumor. Except—
"Her teeth," I whispered. They had been pushed out of her cheek by the growth of the tumor. I couldn't imagine how she still lived.
Like a game of hide and seek after It yells Olly-Olly-Oxen-Free, they came out of the rocks, one at a time. Women and children mostly, but a few men as well. Not all of them had the tumor, but so many did. They watched us, dumb and hungry, as though under some kind enchantment.
The pressure on my arm increased. "Get in the truck."
"We have to help them," I said.
"Not enough bullets." He pulled my arm. As I stepped backwards, the spell broke and the tumor people began clattering down the rocks. Some yelled, others made a gurgling ululation that was horrible to hear.
I climbed in the driver's door. Teirney followed and slammed the door as the first of the creatures swarmed over the truck. He started Sugar Pie and she leapt forward.
"Good girl," I said.
Most of them fell away to clatter over the rocks again. I knew what they did now. The cars tried to get by the boulders and fell off the cliff. Or were pushed. It was a horrible trap.
"Seat belt and tray tables, Madison!"
He aimed the truck at a narrow piece of blue sky that hovered between the boulders and the edge of the cliff. We bounced and grinded our way over the rocks, metal screaming.
On my side I saw people pouring down the hillside toward us. Dozens of them. The children's tumors were damp red fists on their faces, nothing compared to the women's full-blown cauliflowers. The men at least had beards.
The first group hurled themselves against Sweetie Pie, gurgling and howling. We lurched to the left, and I saw the bottom of the cliff outside Tierney's window. Fiercely reefing the wheel, Tierney tried to keep us on the ledge, but a man had thrown himself on the hood of the truck, spread-eagled, and smeared his tumor against the windshield. Then another man. I heard wooden shoes clattering in the bed of the truck.
The truck ground to a stop and the lurching started again—they were pushing against us, trying to tip us over.
Tierney slid Dad's gun across the seat to me. "Not until you have to."
A woman with half her jaw consumed scraped her fingers down my window, her eyes crazy. I could send a bullet through the glass and into the roof of her mouth, but that would bring all the rest of them in through the broken window.
Tierney threw the truck into reverse and we flew backwards, the people in the truck bed went sprawling. One went over the cliff. The first guy on the hood fishtailed off but the other guy stayed on by his fingernails.
"We can't go back!" I yelled.
"Got a better idea?"
He stopped, shifted up and started forward again. The people were swarming again, the guy on the hood had a rock in his hand and had started to lift it. Tierney reefed the wheel right and Sweetie Pie flew into the boulders. I closed my eyes for impact. But apart from screeching metal and bone-jarring bouncing, Sweetie Pie took to the rocks. Tierney had found a way.
A sharp turn on the wheel sent the guy with the rock sliding off. The people in the back began to jump. My last look in the rearview mirror showed them scrambling over the rocks, still coming. We bounced free moments later. Tierney guided the truck back to the old road, which was now mostly clear.
I eased my finger off the trigger and tried to calm my breathing, but I couldn't take my eyes off the smears on the windshield.
The road lead through a village of trailers and cooking fires. Tierney kept his foot on the gas and we bulled past. I never got more than an impression of laundry hanging out to dry, a bent and rusty children's swing set, a garden, and a fenced pasture with horses and cows. A few people looked up from their work, pointing their fingers. They'd probably never seen anyone get through the trap before.
In a moment, we were beyond the village and climbing around another cliff. The road was chucked and crumbled, but Tierney kept his foot on the floor.
"What were they going to do to us?" I asked.
"Probably looking for a doctor," he said. "Medical supplies. Barter."
I wasn't sure. Lots of people had died on the edge of that cliff, I was sure of it. These people didn't trade. I wondered how the weird beards at the checkpoint had notified the rest of the village without telephones. Then I remembered their eerie vocalization. It was probably audible for quite a distance.
"We were lucky," I said.
Tierney tapped the gas gauge. "That was skill, sweetheart. Luck will be finding gas sometime in the next twenty miles."