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 15, 2014

2

Pulling together her gear, Karen eased out from the deep shadow of the old cedar and stood in the warm sunshine, looking, listening, and sniffing. She stretched.

All clear. Maybe. Keep checking.

But a chance to do some bodily functions, wash her face, and take inventory.

The inventory was worrisome. She'd managed to either hold onto or replace most of her backpack items – spare jeans and pullover, trash bags to use as rain gear, her father's compass, a treasured and tattered "space" blanket, a flint-and-steel gadget with a handle made from a deer antler (where had Father found that? or did he make it?), dryer-lint and candle-wax tinder, some other things, including, notably, her ceramic filter straw.

But food was in worse than short supply.

She'd started her journey two years ago. In the Sacramento Valley, food had been a constant concern. All grocery and convenience stores had been cleaned to the walls. Gardens were long gone, though she did discover Jerusalem artichokes, a few other volunteer vegetables, and some neglected fruit trees. 

Farming seemed to have ground to a halt in many places; equipment sat abandoned in the open, and brush and saplings had invaded the fields. Fences were down everywhere, and few farm or game animals were to be found. 

Along the freeway corridor there had once been horrors. First, there had been a traffic jam. And it had stayed jammed. Then the cars were abandoned and everyone had tried to go on, on foot and badly equipped. Remnants of high-heeled shoes lay among thistles.

People had died in droves; of what, she generally had no idea. It all seemed to have happened more than a decade ago. Some animals – coyotes? foxes? perhaps even wolves? humans? – had scattered bones far and wide. The bones had then begun to blend into the vegetation, turning green with algae.
She would always remember one pair of long bones, a radius and ulna, lying across a truck tire in the hot sun. They were held together by a golden watchband.

"Traffic" had begun to pick up again along there, though. People were passing through, in small groups, almost all of them coming from the south and heading north.

Karen had managed to avoid most of them, by choosing a parallel route in the foothills of the great river valley, first on the west, then crossing under the freeway along a creek, and working her way up past a series of abandoned reservoirs. Water was running over the tops of the dams, between tree trunks piled up every which way.

She was mostly lucky in such people as she did meet. Here in the hills they mostly weren't a blood-thirsty lot. Men, she was learning, were often a clear and present danger, so she sought out women. Some offered temporary shelter in a barn or outbuilding, and well water. But few offered to share much food.

That was fair. She had little to offer herself.

She had become adept at exploring out-of the way houses for caches of food. Often, for whatever reason, the occupants had gone away without finding a way to take it all with them, or bothering to hide it well in case they might return.

Most was useless. Everything in freezers, refrigerators, plastic bags or bottles, net bags, and cardboard boxes was a total loss. No one seemed to have stockpiled anything freeze-dried and foil-packed. The stuff in the occasional pantry full of ranks of filled Mason jars was of very uneven quality and some of it had become dangerous. Most tin cans were still reliable, however, though in many cases they had had paper labels that had fallen off and disintegrated.

One never knew what was for dinner. Sometimes beets, beets and beets. Or cat food, beets and refried beans.

She didn't complain.

In the two long winters, Karen holed up in cabins tucked into box canyons on the western slope of the mountains. She added to her skills. Grouse, which had exploded in population, and mule deer, which were making a comeback, became available. 

It had become necessary to use fire. The second winter, that column of smoke had led to a very close call, and she'd had to abandon her freehold in the middle of a snowstorm. She'd come, limping and bleeding, to a house in another valley, where a woman was willing to take her in, tend her wounds, and – most miraculous of all – share food.

The woman had been dying, slowly, and perhaps this, along with the loneliness, had spurred her generosity. Karen understood that the nursing and the feeding were not entirely gratis – in return for these, she would provide hospice nursing and then a "proper burial." Something to do with a terror of having one's body gnawed and scattered by "critters."

Once Karen was alone again, she packed as much high-calorie canned goods as she could well carry, and, thinking she might try her luck on the east side of the mountains, had gone over a pass.
It had not turned out well. People on this side had horses and dogs, and they seemed to be into hunting other people. So here she was, a little farther north, coming west again, and out of food. She'd only been able to re-cross the mountains by arriving at the right season; red and blue huckleberries were having a banner year, and small long-unfished lakes and ponds teemed with relatively easy protein.
Were it not for the hordes of mosquitoes, which bit her unmercifully as she walked along, she could have appreciated her advantages more. She could only hope they would not make her sick – she'd read that they could.

But other game, and other fruit, seemed hard to find in the high places, and it would not be good for the cold to find her here. Small maples of some kind were blushing beneath the canopy along the streams and the overgrown roads. Evenings were chillier; mists hovered over the little lakes in the mornings.
By now, she knew to heed these signs.

With her staff in one hand, and strung bow in the other, she padded back down to the sandy stretch by the little river. It probably had once had a name, but was too small to show on the highway map, torn from an old road atlas, that she had with her. She checked the sand for tracks – her own she had wiped away before retiring for the night.

Nothing but a raccoon had been by, apparently. Not that Karen would have worried much on finding bear or even cougar tracks. Cougars seemed to like tracking her – feline curiosity? But most everything seemed mostly to be on a live-and-let-live basis. Down there – wherever the stream led – things might be different.

Humans, though very seldom encountered, were always the wild card.

Karen parked her backpack under cover and checked the stream for fish and crayfish, but not much was doing, in spite of the cleanliness of the water. She doubted she could keep herself fed with caddis larvae and the tiny black water snails that were crawling about on the round underwater rocks. There was nothing for it but to head downstream with a growling tummy, and keep an eye out for late thimbleberries. She'd already drunk the last of her emergency bottle of Karo syrup two days ago.
Hoisting her pack onto a fallen log so as to shrug into the straps and buckle up, she began the trek. 

Keeping to the hillside above the riverbank, she used deer trails, walking whenever possible on logs, small rocks, or tufts of bear grass. She didn't know what the plants were called, but knew they helped make her harder to track. Not unless she heard dogs would she take to the water. Too much danger of falling, of re-injuring her leg, of getting wet and losing needed body heat. What with stopping every few hundred yards to look, listen and feel out her surroundings for any hint of malevolence, it was going to take all day to get down from here.