In the Now, we still talk about the Arc virus, how even though all sicks were q-teened in one spot, middlers and olders kept dying. They’d get the blisters, start coughing and then blood would fill their eyes. Mah and Dah went that way side by side. I was their only. Still healthy. Left in the Now as the oldest younger with 8 years alive. I held their hands, cleaned their beds. I hoped to follow them into thereafter but it didn’t work. So maybe, just maybe Mac is right. But I doubt.
Everyone calls me Jackee. We are ‘mainders in Westland, a town that used to be called Paradox in Colorado state before the sicks and wars. We used to be 423, but since the Swell-sick hit us this last time we are 386. The Swell-sick is vile and pain for 3 days. Then you die. Not as bad a killer as the Arc virus that happened in the New; that one took all our middlers and olders, leaving only teeners and youngers behind. I was one of the youngers then, a survive. Mac says some of us are just born ‘mainders in our blood and won’t ever die, but I think he is wrong. I say time is on the brink of out.
In Westland I teach teeners and youngers the Now way of farming. How to plant p-tato pods and corn, t-matos, carrots and cabbage. I learned from Mah who learned it from her Mah, called a botanic, back in the times they had real schools. Here at our ground, I also tell how to grow dill, rosemary, turnups, and chives. The secret said Mah was always to put raw meat in the holes, before seeds or roots, then add soil on top.
After sicks, it’s me who counts our members left and writes it in the book of gen-rations. If Mac isn’t doing water carry, he helps me out. Or pretends to help me out. Mostly he jokes on me, calls me scrawn or shorts because I’m two years older than him and he likes me. Sometimes when I look at him real quick, if he’s talking, he just stops for a second then carries on again. He tries to pretend it’s nothing. In the book, I also count what we plant and pick, and all our supplies.
Mac lost his Mah to the Arc virus, just like me. His Dah was already gone long before then. Mac says his Dah died before the Arc virus, in the water war of 45. My Dah said that was when there were still people in the thousands. That war started in Far West when water ran out. My Dah used to say greed slayed all those people back then, that they should never have fought over supplies. That those things made God mad. I think thirst and fear were the real reasons they died. Then the Arc virus showed up and wiped almost everybody else out. No more water fights. And not too many left who even heard of God.
So now it’s just us 386 here in Westland. Us and the Outskirters, Jory, Bartle, Gav, and Frank who ramble in from time to time with their carts to trade their junk for food or clothes or wine. The Outskirters go find old times stuff in empty houses around Northland, Eastland, Westland, and Southland. Outskirters are alone most of the time. I can’t decide if I think they have the best or worst lives. They all smile when they arrive but when I ask them about what’s out there or where they go, they make strange faces and get kind of quiet.
Bartle told me once about animals he saw. Zoo survives set free, he thought, that created whole packs and herds over the time since people started dying. He said he’s seen animals that never lived here before the viruses and wars, lions, cheetahs, elefants, gorillas, and giant coyotes. He said the first time he saw elefants on the horizon, he couldn’t stop rubbing his eyes. He thought he was dehydated. Bartle said he only ever saw elefants in old zeen pages before then. I said I wanted to see elefants too someday and gorillas. He said, “No, no you don’t. Not like they are now. Those things are angry.” Bartle is old and blinkered. He’s 24 and all his trail time makes him a jade. I still want to see them someday.
Jory is the nicest of the Outskirters. Last time he came, he said he found something just for me. A “book of mains,” he called it. His eyes looked extra shiny then. He put it in the pile of broken glass and china pieces I bought to make mosaics. No extra charge. He said some things just belong to people and he always just gives those things for free to their right owners. The book had a drawing of Bunch Grasses on the cover. Bunch Grasses under white sky. When I opened it, I knew he was right. It had notes and sketches on all sorts of plant and animal survives outside Westland, birds, squirls, toads, lizards, bugs, monkees, deer, and even one of Bartle’s elefants. It even had some dried blue-bonnet and rose petals between some pages. After I read it three times, I put it next to the book of gen-rations in case anyone else wants to see. I told Mac, next time Jory comes, I’m asking to go with him out of town. One trip. So I can continue the book of drawings and counting.
Getting Jory to say yes took a lot more effort than I thought. I told him my why first, that I wanted to make the book of mains bigger and get smarter about how to help Westland survives. I told him I could study plants and look for more seeds and roots supplies. I begged. Then I bribed. I gave him two jugs of apple wine, four bread, and a blue wool sweater made by Neiman Marcus. We have a few knitters in Westland that are pretty good, but none can knit as tight as the old Malls. Jory told me to pack light, wear most of what I wanted to bring. He said, “I don’t want your crud filling up my cart.” But he said it with a smile.
When Mac hears, his face turns red. He says he is going too. He says no way I can go alone away from home all by myself. I know Jory doesn’t want him along; that Mac will use up space he’d rather fill with finds. I think that’s why Jory charged Mac his favorite boots, right off his feet as he stood beside the cart. Poor Mac, toes poking out holes in his socks there in the silty dirt. When Jory slid the boots on his own feet, he laughed out loud, dancing from foot to foot, saying, “I declare these feet most comfortable of all!” Mac laughed along, but not as hard as Jory.
“The route will take us out to Utah. Should take two hours to get there. So you get the rest of the day to do your drawings,” Jory said. “We’ll camp at Canyonlands overnight and let the cart recharge in the morn. I’ll look for usable stuff in the old Monticello hood while you two take your notes,” Jory said with a chuckle that made Mac’s neck spot. “We leave tomorrow, dawn.” And that was that. He walked off to his cart, each step kicking up little sprays of dirt.
Jory’s cart is an old converted Arctic Cat Prowler from the 20s. He put a bench seat up front and rigged to drive on solar power from cells fit on top. When he comes to Westland in it, he looks like a big fat turtle, loaded with netted pots, clothes, glasses, shoes, pictures and books. Jory is some great land-fisher, he always catches a big haul.
“I’m gonna go tell the council our plans, I guess. So they know where to look when we don’t come back,” Mac said, “See ya in the morn.” He walks off a little slumped in his tattered socks. But not me, I run to my quarters so excited. I am going to see the world, the outside.
Getting past the old Paradox town line takes less time than you’d think. On the way, as we bump along rough road, we pass the Pyre and I remember all the sicks we brought here after they died. Like cords of wood, those bodies stacked, people I knew and loved. Then I remember Mah at the end, how she was too sick to talk. Her eyes full of blood tears. She looked wrung like a twisted rag. Her hands in mine felt like tree branches, like talons. Her last talk was three words, “Sorry Jackee, hun.” We burned her afterwards, one more beloved log, along with all the others. But she mattered most, I wanted to shout at the stack. Her and Dah. But the Pyre keeps everyone at the end, equal ashes, equal soot. I am glad when we pass the Pyre completely and it is out of sight. I don’t want these thoughts sticking around. I count Bunch Grass clumps as we shimmy along. I smell sage and lemongrass in the air that lashes our hair around into snarls.
Jory says, “We’ll get to Canyonlands in about two hours if the roads are clear enough.”
“Thanks for taking us with,” Mac says. “This will be fun.”
The road is rocky and full of grasses and shrubs poking up. Over them I can see the tops of other carts. So many of them ever stopped, rusty now, some prolly carrying old bones. These we weave around, keeping mostly right, so we don’t see a lot. So much death driving around here forever. The tall grasses around these cars seem to be swallowing them in gulps. I’m glad we got so much rain this spring. I don’t like the minders of all the lost things. I focus on a cluster of pinyon pines that are clumped ahead on the right. Dah used to cook the nuts and eat them with salt. But, “Not too many at one time,” he’d say with a grin, “or you get the pine mouth!”
One time, when we were still youngers, Mac and me ate pine nuts by the handful. We couldn’t stop laughing and checking each other for symptoms. We finally gave up, too full to keep eating anymore. Next day, Mac said, “Did you eat supper?” and I confessed the truth, “Couldn’t eat one bite. Tasted gross…like eating tin.” Mac slapped his leg and said, “Hah. Me too… looks like we got the dread pine mouth!” For days afterward when he saw me he’d make a pine mouth face at me… wide eyes, big open grin, tongue out.
When we get to Canyonlands, Jory pulls up to a section he calls Island in the Sky. It looks like a shell of a house made entirely out of red rock. The sun shines in through the open side gold against the giant slabs and arches of rock. It lights them up so they look made of amber over blood. On the way in, I count four jackrabbits, two prairie dogs, and one blurry scuttling lizard kicking up dust. When we get out of the cart, I sit to write notes and start drawing but Jory says, “We should set up camp first,” and yanks a tent out of the back of his cart with a thud. “Then I’ll go on to Monticello to hunt.”
But as we finish piecing poles together and start spreading the groundsheet out, Mac starts yelling and jumping. He scrambles, throwing the poles and crumpled tent sheet back in the cart.
“We gotta go. Now!” He points at something dark, a bounding spot moving our way, maybe a bear. Something black and big coming fast. Something charging angry towards us.
“Holy crud!” Jory says. He pulls me up and pushes me into the cart.
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!”
Mac jumps in, Jory stomps the pedal, and we take off.
“What the…” I ask, but looking back over my shoulder I see. Gorilla. Ashy black. And behind him, four more flying at us like thunder storms, screeching. It’s total confusion. In the sun spot in the Island, I see one more, not running. This one is very young. As we peel off, my last glimpse shows baby gorilla rolling over, basking in the sun.
“How…what are they surviving on?” Mac asks out loud.
“No idea,” Jory says. “No idea at all.”
I think maybe termites, lizards, or bugs… maybe grasses or pine nuts like my Dah but I can’t talk. When I close my eyes, all I see is the speed of their charge. All I feel is my heart whapping like finch wings, feet claws in my lungs. I am grateful for the cart, its wheels, its metal, and how it still carries three lives.
“Changed plan, “ says Jory, “we’ll have to camp The Needles instead. It’s the safest spot, and close.” But when we get to The Needles we see right away no, we can’t stop. Two black bear cubs are rolling and fighting between clumps of sagebrush and Juniper stumps. We all know that means their Mah is coming back soon, either with supper or to get them ready to practice-hunt. We don’t even discuss. As we pull away, I hear Mah’s voice in my head telling me how Junipers are truest survives; in droughts they cut off water to lesser limbs in order to stay alive. They let those parts die. I remember her saying she better not come back as a Juniper if she ever gets another life. That she could never pick what to save and what to sacrifice.
Jory says he’s had enough. He will bring us with him to Monticello now while he works. Then we’ll camp near the road home afterwards for the night. Mac looks at me like maybe he thinks this is all my fault.
The houses in Monticello look like the carts on the road, crumbling and disappearing into tall grasses and shrubs. It is creepy knowing the sicks must have left husks of folks behind in these old homes. I wonder if their ghosts are looking out the cracked windows at us. If they are, will they try to climb onto our cart? Jory stops four times, puts on his mask, and goes inside the ones that look most sturdy.
Mac asks, “Want me to come and help?”
But Jory says, “Nope. I don’t have another mask but when I come out, you can help me load.”
In the cart it is hard to see much through all the cheat grass. It is almost waist high in most yards. Seed bugs, dragonflies, bees, and crickets zigzag in streams and arcs above the tallest stalks. A moth the size of a bat bumps against the window making me jump. I take time to sketch its details from shock memory down into the book.
Mac says, “Jack…” but when I look he doesn’t say anything else. I think he just wants to go home. When Jory comes back dragging a full net of goods, Mac and I both get out and help fix and tie it to the back of the cart. Before we leave to find the road out, I see two raccoons crawl out of a hole in a roof. When we pull away, they stay sitting side by side. Watching us.
The sun is getting low when we get back to the road. We don’t set up tent. We just park. We all feel safest in the cart. Like a metal cocoon I think, protecting us from the outside. We watch dusk arrive. How it sucks the color out of everything we value most in daylight. We eat carrots and bread. We sip some water. Jory says, “I got some good stuff, but I don’t know if it was worth the gorilla attack and the almost bear maul.” Together we laugh. The night is getting bigger around our cart. The stars are so bright they look connected, a big barbed wire web of lightning strung above. The kree of crickets and the clicking buzz of cicadas are loud even with windows up. We don’t think we will get sleep, but somehow we all find it sooner or later at different points in the dark.
Dawn arrives with the thunder of bat wings above our cart and the distant screaming child sound we all know. Coyotes, after hunt. We drink more water, waiting for the sun to come up. We eat jelly on rolls.
I ask Jory, “How do you do this every day… aren’t you scared?”
“Yah,” he says, “I’m scared. But I’d rather see what’s here than never know.”
Mac says, “I’d rather be home. There’s safety in numbers.”
I say, “Is there, though? What about when the sicks come, where’s safety then?”
Mac huffs, “At least you’re together, not all alone out in this giant boneyard.”
“But maybe there’s answers out here,” I say, “something we can learn from.”
Mac glares and says, “There’s nothing out here for us. This is just ruins.”
“Ruins with new stuff growing,” I say because I always have to get the last word.
Nobody says much after that so I go back to adding more drawings and notes to the book of remains until the cart panels are charged.
When we pull onto the shoulder of the road to start driving home, I see prairie dog heads pop up out of a sunroof of an abandoned cart. They sniff the air, prolly trying to determine the safety of us and our noise. They decide to duck back down. Turkey vultures sit above on old street poles, preening feathers getting ready to forage whatever didn’t survive the night. One leaps to flight. I watch his shadow slide, dim warning, in front of its body over the cart tops.
The drive feels longer this time. When we finally get past the old Paradox line, I’m relieved to see the scarred land of the Pyre. It is good to be almost home. “Hi Mah, hi Dah,” I think to myself. I wish I could tell them about my trip. I think Dah would say how all those wilds out there show God is done with human pride. But then Mah would smile over his shoulder as if to say, “Nah, Jackee, you know there’s more to it than that.” At the edges of scorched ground I see small sprouts of grass. They look so green against the pitch black soil, so alive they pulse.
When we get back to town, a few of the counsel come out of the Hall to ask us about the trip, to find out what we saw. Some youngers join them, making a circle around us. When we tell them about the gorillas they look shocked. At the mention of the bears, a few youngers laugh loud. Everyone knows cubs mean get out. When we finish telling the houses and our camp-out in the cart, everyone stands for a few minutes saying “Wow,” or “Scary,” then they slowly splinter off, back towards their chores. In some, I see a new glint in their eyes. To them we are braves. We went out, faced danger, and came back survives.
“Thanks Jory,” I say, “for taking us out.”
“Yah, Jor,” says Mac, “specially for getting us home alive.”
“Sure. No prob,” Jory says, loosening the straps that hold his haul to the cart. “Wanna go again sometime?” I can see one side of his smile.
“Yes.” I say at the same time Mac says, “No.”
Mac looks at me like I’m crazy. But I think there’s no other way to find out how to thrive, not just survive. I say, “Mac, we are the Now, it’s our job to get it right this time.” And I am not sad about the sicks or the Pyre for the first in a very long while.