It is the year 2048. Karen, orphaned at 14, leaves the only home she has ever known to make her way into a devastated world that may hold no place for her... By Risa Bear, with illustrations and cover design by Katrin Orav.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

1

Book I

These Will I Bring

These will I bring to my holy mountain... Is. 56:7


A QUIET, tall, stooped, gray, unsmiling and yet not unkindly man, Father had shared all his thoughts but kept his feelings packed away where his face could not find them. He'd had a harried former life, but his schedule was his own now. He'd had time to organize his plans and act on them.

With education, he might have been an architect; certainly a master builder. He had put a lot of thought into the design of their basement fortress. The entrance was covered by a sheet of steel that could be (and generally was) chained down from inside, by means of a through-bolt in the hinged door and another, with a turnbuckle to take up slack, in the floor beneath. The outside of the door was covered with brush that was pinned and glued together to stay in place as the door was lifted or dropped, and even when it was open it could not be seen by anyone who had not penetrated the overgrown shrubbery along the foundations of the ruined house.

Three of the exterior walls of the former bungalow – it had been a very large house, one that Father could never have "owned" in that other life – had long ago burned through and collapsed, and the back wall supported a bit of roof and a wide soffit, so that the rain, even when it began to spill over the edge of the rusting gutters, could not scatter the brush on their trapdoor, nor seep into the entryway.

Below, there were four rooms arranged in a spiral, with heavy doors to pass through from one to the next. The interior walls were double thicknesses of cinder block. The first room was living room, kitchen, dining, bath, laundry, and pantry all in one – like a twentieth century bomb shelter, which perhaps it had once been.

A very large pit toilet, lined with brick, had been dug, which had never needed emptying, and which was vented between the studs of the one house wall, above.

Water poured, clean and sweet, from a hand pump over the sink, piped from a well hidden in the basement of an empty, burned out house up the weed-choked street. Five-gallon plastic buckets caught sink water and bath water, and were emptied into a laundry tub in the corner by the pit toilet, next to a bucket of lime with a trowel in it. The water drained into perforated pipe buried in what had been a lawn, two "lots" away. There had been just enough slope to make it work.

Food came mostly from cans. In her childhood Karen remembered something called MREs or meals-ready-to-eat, but they were a distant memory. Father had explained that a surprising sequence of events had made it possible for them to have a steady supply of canned food over the years.

First, there had been several bumps in the supply of fuel – oil (Karen had seen a sample) was the form of fuel that had caused most of the difficulty. This led to a series of "economic depressions" – people had lost their jobs and had walked away from their mortgages. At the same time there had been, everywhere, three or four very widespread diseases, fatal to some and debilitating to others.

Then had come, locally, an earthquake, which had shattered the electrical, water and sewer systems and caused fires which had not been put out. Hungry and sickly people had gone away by the thousands, mostly northward.

"Early on, I decided, as I was unemployed anyway, to stay put and raise my family on what could be gathered. Before everyone else had quite gotten away, before, ahh, the appearance of organized gangs – those stripped everything, then left – I made sure to be the first to pick through the food warehouses – the grocery stores were already empty. And I worked the hardware and clothing stores. It was slow, because I didn't want to meet anyone."

He would have smiled at this point in his story, if it had been his nature. There was a hint of one in his eyes, but it faded away quickly. The man lived under a shadow.

Father pushed his glasses up his nose and rubbed the balding spot on the back of his head.
"If I had had time to get to the pharmacies and sporting goods stores before they were emptied, we might have been pretty well set. As it is, we did all right. I mean, in the sense that, ahh, we ... well, we two at least ... are still here. It's amazing but there it is. I mean ... if the earthquakes had not happened when they did, I think, the canned goods might have been gone before I could get to them. And there would have been nothing left to do but run, with everyone else. With, ahh, really, nowhere to go."

Again, no mention of Mother. Karen knew, by now, that it would be useless to ask. Something, longer ago than she could remember, had happened to leave this man with one other human being to talk to than herself.

There could be no question of fire. Their warmth came from the insulating he had done, over time, with found materials, and from sweaters and knit wool hats – sometimes gloves and lap blankets as well. Not often, though. Their world was, on the whole, more hot than cold now. The basement was a help in summer, when so many things were scorching in the harsh world above.

The second room, even larger, was a workshop. Father and Karen kept regular hours there She became familiar with tools, metalwork, carpentry, rudimentary sewing, plumbing, and leatherwork. The door from there to the living room was the heaviest, flanked by a closet of the second room from which a disguised gun slit covered the outside of the door.

This room doubled as the schoolroom and gymnasium. It was here that teaching and training occupied most of their days.

The third room was Father's and was little more than a walk-through closet with a bed.

The fourth was Karen's and it was the only home she'd ever known. A futon, a dresser with a cracked mirror, a few plush toys, including Doll, her one-eared pink rabbit – not much else. Makeup and jewelry were unknown to her, except in theory. Feminine hygiene was an issue that had come early; she had been left to work it out on her own. 

Father could be counted on to provide for almost all contingencies, but there were, apparently, lines he could not cross in his mind. Gaps had appeared in his "shopping" accordingly.

The dresser and a closet held clothes, yes, but a lot of these were mostly jeans and microfiber hoodies, all the same style and either green or desert camo. Where they'd come from she had no idea; every couple of years Father would announce a "birthday" and she would move on to the next size of everything, as needed. If Karen had been deprived of a sense of style, she did not miss it. There were books and magazines at hand, but the people in them and their activities made little sense to her.

Each room's door could be (and at night was) bolted and barred from within. The few weapons Father had collected were taught and shared.

As there was no electricity, kerosene, or propane, lighting was restricted to daylight mostly, which came thinly enough through brush-covered Plexiglass window-well covers. Father knew these skylights were a weakness, but reasoned that he and Karen could not just sit in the dark. They had few candles and no batteries. There was also vodka, which could be burned in an alcohol lamp, but it was reserved for medicinal use – as a topical agent, mostly.

Ventilation had been provided for the original bomb shelter, but Father's ingenuity had not extended to resurrecting it, and they depended on cracking the door and windows from time to time to freshen the air.

In the schoolroom, Karen learned all that Father could think to teach, racking his fading memories and ransacking his small library for a smattering of history, geology, anthropology, geometry, and physics. Father had been college-trained, but then had mostly worked, he said, as a "bus driver." His weaknesses in formal mathematics and in languages became hers as well – but biology he taught her thoroughly, and geography from a topographic atlas and a relief globe. He stressed physical geography especially; he felt she should be able to forecast weather from cloud formations.

Father saw that she learned physical culture, health, sanitation, first aid and anatomy, and, though he had no military or police background, such lessons in strategy and tactics as he had learned while foraging. In some things she was drilled constantly so that they would be second nature – no, first nature. Bone deep.

Gaps could not be avoided. Karen was not certain of her age, and could not have told anyone the year. Rudimentary political science had been discussed, but civics had gone by the bye – there was no flag to pledge allegiance to.

Though she was mostly a shut-in, Karen was no stranger to map-and-compass, and to archery of a sort, within the confines of the training room. She understood firearms as a last-last resort; the noise could bring even more unwanted attention too easily.

Her few excursions, all closely supervised, had been into a wilderness in which there were coyotes and other animals, but no people, and in which the landmarks – shells of burnt-out homes, mostly – made less impression on her than did the mountain ranges and river valleys in her atlas. Dry-country trees and brush had sprouted up everywhere; each year all places began to look more and more alike.
A muffled thump came from Father's room. And another. And another. Then quiet.

Karen rose from her futon and tiptoed to the bolted and barred steel door. Placing her ear against it, she heard someone speaking – and another answered. Neither voice was Father's!

The shock froze her momentarily to the spot. Then the voices were quite near the door and she could hear them plainly. They must think the sound could not carry so well.

"Never mind that, it's steel and you can bet it's locked six ways from Sunday. See the other door? He must have been a clever old shit. Been here decades, looks like."

He must have been.

"I'll go get the sledgehammer. Them concrete blocks won't hold up long."

Time to go.

Karen knew where everything was in the dark; not that it was entirely dark. Light flickered underneath the door. A torch? Padding softly back past the futon, Karen slipped off her hoodie, put on a tee shirt and a man's wool shirt with double pockets, then squirmed back into her hoodie. Her jeans, belt and sheath, with an old Schrade skinner, well honed, she already had on, having long ago learned to sleep in them. She put on the socks that lay across her homemade boots, then the boots, double laced, and went to her dresser.

Her hands were shaking so badly – how could she do this? Remembering her training, she breathed deeply three times.

From behind her came the sound of iron against cement. Pieces of cinder block were falling into the inside of the wall.

From beside the dresser, the girl picked up her bow – a child's model, they'd never found better. Twenty pounds of draw would be sufficient, however. She strung it and pulled a handful of arrows from the quiver on the floor. She laid the arrows on the dresser. She felt for, and found, her wool cap. Gloves into hoodie pockets. The heavy little pocket holster to the right front jeans pocket. Last-last. Backpack, always ready, with food and full water bottles, down from wall peg. Over to window-well, lugging backpack in one hand, bow and a couple of arrows in the other. Six more were clipped to the backpack.

The door rattled, and with a crash the wall cracked and cement fell and skittered across the floor. Must gain time! Karen turned and nocked a broadhead as she did so. Her hands were steadier now. The hammer struck again, and its head showed briefly in the hole. As it withdrew to strike another blow, she loosed the arrow into the gap.

There was an audible gasp, and then someone began screaming. One or more others were shouting.
Remember not to stay and fight if there is any way out, Father had said. Defense, other things being equal, generally does not turn out well. Your choices are to go on the offensive or run. If you can find a way to run, run!

Karen reached up and cranked open the skylight as quickly as it would go. Cold air poured in from the night as she shoved the backpack out. Feeling her exposure to the open hole in the wall behind her – only the darkness of her room offered protection – and the risk of the night above – what if there were more of them up there? What if they had dogs? She pushed her bow out and tossed the arrow after it.

Doll, her beloved one-eared pink bunny, was sitting on the top step of Karen's step ladder. With a sweep of her arrow hand, the girl knocked her childhood onto the floor, then hauled herself out the skylight behind her gear.

Fog. And a new moon. Those would help. But the sky was already lightening, and a few sleepy birds were testing their dawn notes.

The young woman swung her pack up, shrugged into her shoulder straps and snapped her hip belt's buckle, then took up the bow and the arrow. Some instinct or bit of training made her choose to go left instead of right, past her father's window, instead of directly away, which they could guess and follow.

Yet another risk; she would be briefly illuminated. Only surprise would avail, and her relatively greater knowledge of the terrain. Had they found his revolver yet?

Someone was already climbing up to the window. She faced her silhouetted foe for only a brief moment, and loosed the arrow into the shadow. Something fell backward into the faint light, and there were curses. There! That would hold them for a bit.

Not waiting to see the effect of her shot, Karen Rutledge, age fourteen, turned and ran from what had once been Davis, California.

She could hear the little river, talking softly to itself over there somewhere. Thoughts began to bubble up. Well, nothing had come to eat her in the darkness – or had really even tried, in all this time – except maybe that one night. Hundreds of miles from here. So long ago. She felt a kinship with her father's silence about her mother. If anyone had asked Karen about him – could she speak?

She wondered. Would she ever cry?