I really hope the improvements are recognizable....
Chapter One, part one
Our farm workers came from all over, wherever the wind blew them. Refugee camps, other farms, places where everyone had died but them. They'd all had jobs Before—stockbrokers, salesmen and housewives. Once we even had an airline pilot. They came and went, blown away by the same wind after a day, a week, a month. I wasn't supposed to know their names.
Except for one. He was called Tierney and he had a book.
"Do you know how to read?" I asked during lunch one day when Dad wasn't looking. It was my job to carry drinking water to all the migrants, and as I ladled water into his bowl I tried to catch the title.
He closed the book. "Do you?"
Tierney was like any stranger who came to the valley to work for Dad. Thin and threadbare. But I liked his eyes when he looked at me. Blue.
Dad came out of the barn and stopped in his tracks when he saw me talking to Tierney. "Madison!"
I turned my back on Dad, ignoring him. "I learned how. What's the book called?"
Tierney held it up. "It's a dictionary."
"Madison, what does it take?" yelled Dad. "An engraved invitation?"
Whatever that was. Sighing, I carried the bucket to the next person. The next day, Tierney had another book, a battered old thing, curved from being carried in his back pocket. The rest of the crew played cards or napped but Tierney opened his book and turned the pages at regular intervals. His eyes tracked back and forth across the pages. Reading.
Dad saw me watching him and scowled. Tierney reading a book was bad enough. But the fact that I'd talked to him about the book was probably enough to get him fired. Dad didn't trust migrants and he hated books, even though he had once been a lawyer and you had to be able to read for that. He especially hated the idea that I might consort with a migrant.
Dad called the end of lunch and everyone headed back to the fields. He turned to me, hands on hips. "You're done here. Go help your mother."
"Mother." Dad humphed and stomped away.
"That woman is not my mother!" I yelled after him.
He hitched a step but kept walking. A year ago he might have marched back and slapped me for that, but now that I was seventeen, he had to watch himself. I was worth something now; I was marriageable.
Dad wasn't always a bad guy. It was June, a time of intense worry for all of us, but especially for him. The new plants were up but the weather was cool and rainy. Maybe too rainy. A lot of people depended on Dad for growing food and keeping our community on the good side of the local warlord, Pinkus. When Dad was a lawyer and there was still a government, he got Pinkus's brother out of jail. No one ever forgot a good turn, but Dad said there was a time limit on returned favors.
I'd noticed there was no time limit on bad turns. Dad reminded me of that every day.
My stepmother, Margo, waited for me in the kitchen as I carried the lunch things inside. Like a vulture, she cocked a beady eye at me as though she hoped I'd die so she could peck out my intestines.
"Were you talking to that migrant again?" she asked. "You know how your father feels."
"Why don't you tell me how he feels, Margo, since you know everything."
"Does someone have too much free time on her hands?" She grabbed my ear and gave it a fierce twist. The woman knew how to not leave a mark.
I grabbed her wrist and squeezed until she squeaked. "Touch me again and I'll break your arm."
She rubbed her wrist, two spots of bright color in her cheeks. "Be careful, girl, or you'll end up demented like your mother. I'll see to it personally."
She gathered her work basket and headed out the door.
As soon as she was gone, I sat down and put my hand to my ear. It was hot and ached deeply, as though all the little swirls and bones inside had been shaken loose. I wished the nasty old bitch hadn't mentioned my mother.
Mom hadn't been anything like Margo. I never got how Dad could marry that woman only weeks after Mom died. It was like, what, Mom was so pretty and smart that he couldn't wait to shack up with a mean old toad like Margo?
For instance, Mom used to post my stories and pictures on the kitchen wall when I was kid, and she always reminded me I could do anything I wanted. I loved books about Ancient Egypt and wanted to be an archaeologist. Do it, she would say. The end of the world was no barrier if it was what I really wanted.
Right before the thing happened and she died, she encouraged me to organize a dig at the old Chandler house with some of the other valley kids. The house had been vacant for ten years and no one cared what happened to it. Most of the furniture, dishes and useful stuff had been taken by other people years ago, but there was still a lot of interesting stuff like shopping receipts, medicine bottles, toys.
I assembled my crew. We worked in grids, collecting artifacts. Mom helped us set up a sifter to catch pottery shards and she gave us a notebook so we could record our finds. We dated our collection by strata. The top layer was leaves, dirt and animal droppings, and it was by far the deepest layer. The next was detritus of furniture, dishes and clothes, stuff that had gotten broken and left behind when people first cleaned out the house. Below that we got to items the Chandler family had used. My friend Andrew found a diamond earring.
We did this for almost a week before Dad found out about it. Well, there was more to it than that. Dad was tracking a demented person, a Dim, up our road. It headed for the Chandler house as if it knew exactly where it was going. Before Dad could stop it, the Dim came through the front door, naked, bloody, and mostly starved. It had been almost a year since we'd had any demented in the valley. Dims are not dangerous unless you touch their blood, so what does Dad do? Shot it through the head, right in front of us. The blood flew everywhere. Mom was helping us that day and she got most of it on her face when Dad opened fire. That's how it happened to her.
The valley council had a big meeting and decided to burn the Chandler place. All of us kids were grounded to our home farms, but I got it the worst. Dad made it very plain that I wasn't going anywhere, ever. He gave my bike to my brothers, Chris and Riley. Everyone watched me after that. I couldn't walk to the end of the driveway without some neighbor asking what I thought I was doing, did my father know where I was?
I asked Dad, after everything was over, Mom's funeral and all, why the Dim had gone directly to the Chandler house, almost as though it had purpose. It didn't fit what we knew about the infection. Dad got angry and lectured me for three hours about my responsibility to the family, especially now that Mom was gone. Code for Look What You Did to Your Mother.
But I thought about it for a long time. The demented don't eat, care for themselves, or communicate. They don't appear to think or have any memories. They don't seek shelter. They stumble around until they starve to death, or some jerk like Dad shoots them. But this one came directly to the Chandler house and walked right through the front door. He may have even turned the door knob. I thought about that a lot, actually. The way the knob shook and slowly turned.
I had two theories on the subject. One was that the guy wasn't demented; he was just an ordinary crazy human being. Plenty of crazy around here. The other theory was that some Dims have a shred of memory left in their destroyed brains. Maybe a tiny thought had guided him to this particular house, out of all the others. Could he have been Mr. Chandler, returning home?
In either case, the creature should not have been shot. I vowed not to kill any demented unless I had to, and to protect them from people like Dad. Like I should have protected Mom before he shot her too.