Part 1 of 2
Esteban and I were trying to get high by eating cactus blossoms when I spotted the dust cloud on the horizon. We were huddled together, hiding from the scorching afternoon sun in the small shadow cast by his father's water hut. "Somebody's out there," I said.
"You see something? Which bit did you eat? I've got nothing."
I jabbed him with my elbow. "It's not a hallucination. Look."
Esteban squinted at the horizon, then whistled. "It's something. How far away, do you think?"
I tried to judge through the heat shimmer but couldn't really tell. "Doesn't matter. I'm not going out there to meet it," I said, leaning back against the hut. Then I prodded the handful of blossoms on the ground next to us. "I don't think those were peyote cactuses."
"Or we're doing it wrong," Esteban said. "We could ask your mom."
I snorted. "Why don't we ask your mom?"
His eyes went wide in pretend horror and he shivered. "Because she'd tie me to the goat shed for asking."
I pressed my fingers deep into the red sand and went through my mental inventory of Mom's library. "I think we've got a book on desert flora. I could look in there."
Esteban and I were ostensibly hoping we might find enlightenment and get superpowers that would leave us invisible to sky-drones—we'd seen it on a vid serial. Twelve and fourteen, we were both too old to really believe it worked that way, but it was an excuse to try something new. There was precious little of that in the wastelands.
"Esteban! The goats!" When his mother screamed her voice cracked. She'd sounded like she spent too much time in the desert from my first memory of her.
Esteban went very still, then whispered, "Oh shit. Not again."
"You let them out of the pen?" I asked.
"Doof," I said. Then I swatted him. "Go, or she'll find me here, too."
"You snuck out?"
The door on their shanty clattered as his mom climbed down the porch. "Go!" I said.
He groaned. "You're merciless." Then he stood up and trotted around the hut, calling back to his mother.
I piled the remaining flowers in a corner, then stretched out in the shade and stared up at the sky. I'd finished all my chores hours ago and Mom wouldn't expect me back until the sun dropped lower. Hopefully Esteban would retrieve the goats and settle things with his mom in time for us to catch the next serial broadcast, or I'd have trekked four miles across the open desert for nothing. With that thought and a last glance toward the thing at the horizon, I fell asleep.
When I was five, I woke screaming from a nightmare. I'd been working with the revolutionaries, and we were being chased by splat-drones. Each of my companions, who looked an awful lot like the corn husk dolls I'd played with that afternoon, were blown to bits around me as I watched. Then, with a grinding rumble that I could still feel in my chest even after I woke up, it zoomed at me.
"They don't rumble," Mom said as she stroked my hair.
"What do they sound like?"
She ignored my question. "Where did Esteban get a vid tablet?"
Five-year-old me was so startled by this display of omniscience, the nightmare nearly faded. "His uncle gave it to him as a first-communion present. It's a secret. Don't tell his mom. She'll take it."
Mom pressed her lips to the top of my head. "Don't bring it here, and don't watch any more videos about the revolution, and I'll keep your secret. Deal?"
I nodded tearily.
"Okay. Back to sleep."
At the prospect of being left alone, the nightmare rushed back, assaulting me with images of splintered corn-husk comrades, brown and broken on the ground around me.
Mom sensed it before I said anything. "What is it?"
"How long would it take for splat-drones to get here from Westing Fork?"
"None of the drones can get here, honey," Mom said.
"Because after the revolution I packed my things, put us in a rocket, and went to Mars. We've never allowed drones on Mars."
"We're on Mars?" I asked, fairly certain even then that Mom was lying.
"Yup. That's why everything here is red sand. And why there's so little water. You remember when we were reading about Mars being a red desert."
"It's supposed to be cold," I said.
"It was," Mom said. "But while we were on our way, when Mars was still a tiny ball in the distance, I plucked it out of the sky and rolled it between my hands to warm it up for us. Just like I do for you when you get cold," she said, demonstrating as she rubbed her hands across my belly.
I was still suspicious, but Mom was sneakier than I thought and took advantage of my vulnerability to raspberry my belly until I shrieked with giggles.
I've got a million memories of things like that. Teenagers are supposed to be resentful or feel misunderstood or whatever, but I never got that. Mom always loved me, and she always did what was right for me.
Esteban was still hunting his escaped goats when it was time for me to go home, so I set off without my fix of action and adventure. The air temperature was plummeting when I reached the gate around our shanty with its "Welcome to Mars" sign hanging proudly on display.
There was a woman sitting on a rock outside the house. Pinkish smoke curled around her from a ganthme stick, a kind of cigarette favored by villains and revolutionaries in the serials. Her hair was barely long enough to pull back into a pony tail, and her bare arms and legs marked her as somebody just visiting the wastelands, without really understanding them. Sure, it's hot, but the sunlight on your exposed skin gets you way worse than the little bit of heat trapped by sleeves and pants.
I stopped when I saw her. The only people around for scads of miles were Mom, Esteban, and his parents. It was a big deal when Esteban's uncle came to visit, and his family were the only visitors we had. If I'd had an inkling that whoever I'd spotted that morning was coming here, I'd have been trekking across the desert to meet them, afternoon heat and sunlight be damned.
"You must be Pence," the woman said. She was about Mom's age, wiry and long. Her limbs almost looked stretched.
"Yeah. Who are you?" I asked.
"Melody. They're having a bit of a fight inside, so I ducked out."
"Tyson and your Ma. It's pretty civilized, though. You should go on in if you want."
I was still having trouble processing that there was a stranger, sitting there, in my front yard. And she talked about Mom and some other stranger as if this were normal. I gawked at Melody and her ganthme stick even as my feet went on into the house.
It was dark inside, all the shades still pulled tight against the afternoon sun. Mom was sitting across our table from a very tall man. He'd have looked as stretched as Melody, but his limbs were covered in sharp, lean muscle. Sitting there across from him, Mom looked small. She looked trapped. The hairs on the back of my arms stood up.
"Hi, Pence," Mom said without moving. Her eyes didn't even shift toward me.
"Is everything okay?" I asked.
"Yes. Tyson was just leaving."
"I just got here," he said.
"You've been here too long already. You shouldn't have come," Mom said.
"The fucking desert isn't going to save you. Our moment is coming, and if you hide here when we need you . . ."
"Our moment came and went. Now, my daughter's home. It's time for you to go."
I was shuffling around the edges of the room, trying to avoid their notice as I made my way to the cabinet on the adjacent wall. They were staring at each other so intensely that I suspect the house could have burned down around them and they would have let it.
"Harriet, we need you."
He reached across the table, his big hand grasping for Mom's. "I need you."
Mom pulled away from him, her chair scraping across the floor.
He started to say something, pleading with her. "Harry . . ."
They both turned to look at me when they heard me cocking the hammer on the six-shooter mom kept in the cabinet. My feet were planted, my grip was steady. I aimed for Tyson's head and tried not to feel so very absurdly twelve. "Mom said you should go."
Tyson moved slowly, his hands raised over his head as he stood up. "Like mother, like daughter."
I tracked him all the way out the door. Then I stood in the window and watched as he gestured to Melody and they both climbed into the big, boxy car they'd come across the desert in. I watched until the car was completely out of sight, then went back to the cabinet and put the revolver away as if I pulled it on house guests all the time. Just like a vid serial hero.
Mom was still sitting frozen at the table.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
"Yeah," Mom said. She seemed to shake something off, then stood up and went to the kitchen. "Ready for dinner?"
I tried not to stare at her while I nibbled at bean stew and corn-bread, but my head was racing in so many directions that her utter stillness was the only thing I could focus on. I wanted to be grown up enough to pretend nothing had happened just as hard as she seemed to be doing, but it was too big. That was the first time I'd pointed a gun at somebody. Or had somebody to point a gun at. Vid serial heroes didn't generally come as twelve-year-old girls.
"He called you Harriet," I said.
"That used to be my name."
"Harriet and Tyson were . . ." I trailed off. She still looked so small. For the first time, I realized that I was almost as tall as her.
Harriet and Tyson were the leaders of the revolution, the two who ended it by getting captured at Westing Fork. I only knew that because a few weeks ago, Esteban had gotten his hands on a blatantly pornographic video made about them. Curiosity about it had finally overridden my reluctance to disobey Mom's edict against watching videos about the revolution.
Dinner was really quiet that night. After, to give Mom some space, I pulled on a jacket and took an extra long time feeding the goats and chickens. Then I checked the water tanks and the reclamation system. After that I did a few laps around our fence, looking to the horizon for signs of anybody coming toward us.
Mom's bedroom door was closed when I finally went back in. I pressed my chilled hands against the exposed brick of our center wall, warming them. Then I closed my eyes and tried to picture it. Harriet and Tyson, my mom and that strange man, dodging splat-drones and breaking dams, rousing rabble and hacking networks to distribute their information campaigns about water reclamation and subsistence. In love with each other almost as much as they adored the revolution, working together seamlessly, marching into Westing Fork with the blush of passion and dauntless faith.
It had been such a bad movie.
I lay down on my bed, but I couldn't sleep. It wasn't that I could hear her, exactly. It was more that I didn't hear what I expected—pages turning, her weight shifting in her bed—the little noises you don't notice until they're gone.
Maybe it was leftover bravado from chasing off Tyson, but I didn't even knock. I just went into her room and right up to her. Mom was sitting with her knees pulled to her chest, her shoulders shaking as she wept into a pillow. She was smothering herself on it just to keep me from hearing. I snatched the pillow away and wrapped her into my arms.
"It's okay," I said, stroking her hair. "We're safe here. You see, a long time ago, you packed us up into a rocket and launched us off to Mars. That's why water is so scarce. And to make sure it would be warm enough, you plucked the planet from the sky and rolled it between your hands."
I held my mother while she sobbed and for the first time realized that we were hiding from more than the drones in my nightmares. Suddenly, I felt very, very alone.
I knew what I had to do, but I waited four months before doing it. Mom seemed so fragile that I wanted her to assume the trip was a whim unrelated to Tyson's visit. Also, I was scared.
"Yo, Esteban," I called when he came into sight. The red rim of the sun was just reaching above the horizon in the east. Esteban's face was still swollen with sleep as he trudged my way, lugging the feed pail for his goats.
"Pence?" he started to trot toward me. "What's up? Did something happen to your mom?"
"No, she's okay," I said. I hopped the fence to the goat pen and went to meet him. "Look, I need to borrow your vid tablet for a few days. Don't ask why. Is that cool?"
Esteban dropped the pail and folded his arms across his chest. He stared at me so long I started to blush, suddenly worried he'd turn me down. What would I do if he wouldn't loan me the tablet? I knew where he kept it hidden from his parents, but I didn't want to steal it, even temporarily. "Are you okay?" he asked.
I hadn't told him about Melody and Tyson. I wanted to—Esteban and I told each other everything—but it didn't feel like it was my thing to tell him. I chased a stranger out of the house with a gun, and now Mom always seems scared of something. I couldn't say it. Instead I stood up on my tip toes and pressed my lips to his, a dry, affectionate peck. "I'm fine."
He kept staring at me. Then, finally, he smiled. "Mama's right. The thing's turned you into a vid junkie. Help me with the goats and I'll go get it for you."
We took care of the feeding in record time. I shut the gate when Esteban forgot, again, then followed him to the water hut. The tablet was wrapped in a burlap sack and hidden in the roof eaves. He pulled it down and tossed the sack to me.
"You'll be careful, yeah?"
"Yeah," I said, taking the sack.
"Don't get so naughty the splat-drones come for you."
I acknowledged him with a two-fingered salute, then dashed off to the dune-buggy I'd ridden over in. The sack with the tablet plopped down next to the box of provisions I'd packed, and I put the sun at my back, pushing further into the desert.
Two days later I reached the ravine of a dry river bed and decided that I'd gone far enough. If the drones came for me, they wouldn't find Mom or Esteban's house. I pitched a tent against the sunlight, unloaded the boxes from the buggy, and settled down with the tablet. One anxious glance toward the sky, and then I fired it up and started researching my mother.
In the four months since Tyson's visit I'd started to write the story in my head. Harriet and Tyson, the heroes of the revolution, in it together, until Mom got pregnant. Suddenly Mom had something else to live for, so she ran off, building our little shanty in the wastelands to keep me safe from the conflicts, the rationing, and the drones. The more I thought about it, pictured the look on Tyson's face when he reached for Mom, the more I thought that had to be true. It was too perfect, too beautiful, to be anything else.
At the same time, that story left me feeling a bit guilty. The revolution fell apart when Harriet and Tyson left the picture. If Mom's pregnancy was the cause of that, then I was the cause of it. I wasn't quite so noble as to feel responsible for the revolution's failure, but I was worried that maybe I ought to be.
I spent three days in that river bed, looking up everything I could find, and straining my ears to listen for drones coming to hunt down whoever dared show so much interest in such a dangerous subject. I had all the facts within a few hours, but it took me three days to process it all.
I was only twelve and half years old. We'd just passed the fifteenth anniversary of Westing Fork.
Read Part 2.