Part 2 of 2
Continued from Part 1
Tyson's second visit came four years after the first. I was way out in the reclamation fields, flushing the system. Sand and grit covered every bit of me even as I evicted it from the tubing. I didn't look up when I heard his buggy come, assuming it was Esteban knocking off from his chores to hang out.
"Good. You can help," I said when his shadow fell over me. "Hand me that bit of piping." I reached for it and the piping came, but the hand that proffered it was bigger than Esteban's, the skin oil-black. I dropped the tubing and the piping.
"Hi, Pence," Tyson said. "God. You're all grown up, aren't you?"
"You shouldn't be here," I blurted.
He shrugged. "Didn't have anywhere else to go. Need a hand with this?"
I stammered a minute, confused. I was terrified of what would happen if he went back to the house and met Mom again, but the revolver was still in the cabinet there. I couldn't make him go. And I didn't want him to, not exactly. "I don't want Mom to know you're here. Or that you were here. You can't stay."
He smiled, the expression traveling across his face like the slow change of a season. "You really are just like . . . she was elbow-deep in a reclamation system, like you now, first time I met her."
"Best reclamation engineer in the Midwest. Probably the whole country, but she always said they had better ones out here. Guess they have to." He handed the tubing back to me and, absently, I took it. Then he handed me the piping and went to the pressure-box. "This little town, where I met her, had a creek running through it. Had been big enough to be a river, and a couple of the big-wigs wanted the reclamation systems to turn it back into one for the tourism or something. Problem was, she couldn't do it without taking the irrigation systems under spec. It was possible to have the river, so they were insisting. But Harry, she didn't care, went on building the system the way she though it ought to be done."
By that time I'd finished those connections, and moved on the next set. Without a word from me, Tyson was there, handing me what I needed. "What happened?" I asked.
"This one woman, a shrill, nasty piece of work, hired me to convince Harry to go with the flow. So I come up to her one afternoon while she's installing one of the irrigation hookups and introduce myself."
I looked at the size of him again. Out in the open, he didn't seem quite so big as he had at our little table, but it wasn't hard to imagine what kind of persuasion he'd been hired for. I prompted him. "And?"
"She pulled her revolver on me. Put the barrel right between my eyes and explained that I could help her sink the supports, or I could get the hell out of her way."
"Love at first draw?" I asked.
"No. If I fell for every woman who pulled a gun on me, I'd be one hell of a fickle man. It was the reclamation system. I'd never seen anything like it. By the end of the afternoon, Harry had me understanding it. I'd seen hope a couple times, but it always crumbled when you looked at it too hard. That system was . . . Harry didn't know how to crumble." We were on to the last set of connections by then. "God, that reminds me of the first time we ran into Melody. Did your mother ever tell you about Beloit?"
"You'll love this."
He talked the whole time we worked. He was always just where I needed him, doing just what he ought to be doing, and the whole time he was telling me stories. The word "revolution" never crossed his lips. He never talked about drones or spent any time on how or why they were in their various fixes and jams. They just were, and then they were out of them, happy and safe and ready to rush off to the next one.
I knew what he was doing. I was sixteen, not an idiot.
That didn't stop it from working.
I still didn't want to let him near Mom, but after he'd helped me all afternoon it felt rude to tell him to go away. Besides, he came up to me when he could have gone straight to her. Mom had seemed helpless and I was the one who'd pulled the gun on him last time. I felt a little bit like he deserved some credit for that.
Mom was already home when we got there. She was ladling beans into bowls when I came in, Tyson at my heels. When she saw us she froze, mid-ladle, her eyes getting big.
"Harry, I . . ."
I glanced behind me and was surprised to see that Tyson looked as startled as Mom and as uncomfortable as me.
"Fuck it all, Harry. You were right."
I could see the relief flood her, and finally released the breath I'd been holding since Tyson showed up.
She put the ladle down. "I hope you like beans. A lot."
We were out in the curing shed. Tyson could handle the deer carcasses as if they were as small as goats, and we were going to finish up early. That had been the story over and over again since Tyson arrived. Everything was faster, easier, more efficient. Mom seemed happier, too. They didn't talk much, at least not around me, but they had a tendency to smile at each other without realizing it. I hadn't noticed before that Mom never seemed happy, but she did now.
"Do I have something stuck in my teeth?" Tyson asked.
"No, sorry. I was just thinking about something," I said. I'd been staring at him and hadn't meant to. And then, because even though knew I better, I still hoped: "Are you my father?"
"Looking for a resemblance?" he asked. Then he held up his hands. "You're darker than Harry, but not this much darker."
"Yeah, I know," I said. And I had known, but I was still disappointed. I was getting fond of him.
Tyson was suddenly very absorbed in the deer carcass he was dressing. "You were fathered by the revolution. I'd have stepped in anyway, but Harry . . . your mother knew better."
"Did you know him?" Still hoping. There's a difference between knowing and knowing.
"What's your mother told you about your father?"
"Nothing," I said. "I've never asked. She's never brought it up."
Tyson was usually fairly chatty, especially if we were talking about Mom, but he was stony quiet now.
"Was he somebody bad?"
"It doesn't matter who he was, Pence. You're all your mother. Be grateful for that."
So I still knew. The official reports I looked up didn't come out and say anything, but it was easy to read between the lines and plenty of the unofficial commentary had done just that. I didn't like the story between the lines, though, and without explicit confirmation, there was just enough of an inkling that there might be some other explanation, that it bugged me. The conversation with Tyson didn't change anything.
Esteban didn't understand the problem when I told him about it. "Just ask her. You can say you just want to know for medical history stuff."
"It's not that simple. She's never talked about anything with me. There is no life pre-Mars for her."
"Then don't beat around the bush about it with Tyson. He has to know."
We were passing a ganthme stick between us. Tyson had come with a big stash of them, and slipped a pack to me when I asked about them. They left you feeling sorta calm and mellow. It wasn't much, but Esteban and I never had figured out the peyote. "This is different. He talks about everything, and he still wouldn't say anything."
"Everything?" Esteban asked.
"Constantly. It's like he needs to talk."
"Westing Fork?" He cocked his eyebrows at me, the ganthme stick hanging between his lips.
"That hasn't come up." In fact, he was still mostly talking around the revolution. Lots of stories about towns with subversive reclamation projects, nothing about elections or drones. If you didn't know who he was, you'd think he and Mom had just been a rogue engineering team touring the Midwest on a lark, not that they'd been running an underground education program, blowing up dams and starting a movement. Even now the only tell was the amount of time he and Mom spent watching the sky, listening.
"Pence, they're adults. Just ask your questions."
He offered the ganthme stick to me, but when I leaned in, instead of passing it, he cupped my face in his hand and kissed me. His lips were chapped and he tasted like bitter smoke. I waited, expecting a thrill or electricity, maybe a choir singing about the inevitability of young love between the only two teenagers for sixty miles.
"Huh," he said when we parted. "We have absolutely no chemistry."
I took the ganthme stick from him, took a drag, then blew out a long stream of smoke. "If we did, I think we'd have started kissing before now. Mom asked me about birth control three years ago."
"She thought I'd take advantage of a thirteen-year-old girl?"
I punched his arm. "She was worried I was going to jump you."
"Oh." He crinkled his nose, then shrugged. "Want to try again?"
The next kiss wasn't any better.
We went ahead and tested the whole process. Definitely no chemistry, but it passed the time.
Tyson seemed content for the first two months, but in the third month, things started to change. It was subtle, especially at first. His stories got a little darker, less fluid. He seemed to be consciously steering away from the taboo topics rather than naturally dancing past them.
"That's when the . . . well, we had to get out of town in a hurry."
"Wait," I said before he could roll on. "What do they sound like?"
We were walking back from harvesting cactus, and Tyson was suddenly absorbed with kicking the sand as we went.
"It's just, they rumble in the vids, but Mom said that's not how they actually sound."
"She talked to you about the drones?" He seemed surprised.
"Not really. That was all she said, that they don't rumble."
"They whine, if you hear them at all," he said. "It's a high-pitched, buzzing whine. But a lot of them are silent. Especially now."
Especially now? "You're still provoking drones?"
"No." He almost shuddered as he said it. "I harvest cactus. And eat beans. And dig sand out of my everywhere."
We reached the gate a minute later. "Welcome to Mars" still hung in its place of honor, unmodified since five-year-old me carved it. Tyson stopped to run his fingers over the splintering wood, tracing the lopsided letters.
"What's it like, away from here?" I asked.
"Worse than during the revolution?"
"Fewer drones," He said, almost cheerfully. Then, after a moment, "Fewer people with enough energy to provoke them. They're too busy trying to survive to worry about living better."
"Less hope, then," I said.
"'Hope's a lie you tell yourself until you have to admit you've lost.'"
"Who said that?"
I don't know what started the fight. I'd been out hunting rabbits with Esteban and was coming home empty handed. I could hear the shouting from the gate and crept up to the house, tired and hungry and deeply reluctant to interrupt them. The front door wasn't even pushed all the way closed, but it may as well have been a brick wall.
". . . never thought you'd turn into a goddamn coward," Tyson was yelling when I got into earshot.
"Coward? Fine. Coward. But you knew that when you came."
"It's been months."
"So? That doesn't change anything, Tyson. If you're ready to land there again, go ahead."
"You think I want to go back?"
"You're desperate to go back."
"It was every bit as bad for me as it was for you," Tyson said, his voice tight and strangled.
"Then you're an idiot if you think things will go differently. People don't change."
"If we give up, nothing gets better."
Mom's hiss was like hot coals. "Get out."
I dodged away from the door just in time to keep Tyson from trampling me as he stormed through it. He was out of sight while I still hesitated on the porch, torn between wanting to give Mom time to calm down and being utterly famished. Finally, I decided to grab something and take it to eat on a walk.
"You heard that?" Mom asked when I slipped in.
"A bit," I confessed.
"Don't worry about it."
"Okay," I said, and started edging toward the kitchen.
"It sounds great, when you listen to him. It's all adventure and glory and fighting the good fight. He forgets about the people who chase you off because they're afraid you're going to make things worse, or the people who are too stupid to understand that just because you have enough this year doesn't mean the water tables aren't going to drop another two inches next year."
"I know, Mom."
She took a shaky breath and looked at me. "No, honey, you don't. I've made sure of that."
I grinned at her. "We ran away to Mars."
She tried to smile back. It almost worked. "Exactly."
My stomach rumbled. "Dinner," I said, pointing toward the kitchen to excuse myself. I wolfed down food as quickly as I could, then slipped out, determined to catch Tyson before he disappeared for good.
He was leaning against the gate, smoking and watching the moon rise. He handed me a ganthme stick when I sat down next to him, and we sat in silence, pink smoke curling around us, as the night grew silver-bright.
"Westing Fork," I said when I finished my smoke. "Tell me."
Tyson tossed the butt of his finished stick away and lit up another one. "That's what broke her. Melody and the rest of us, we keep telling each other it was after, the prison, but it was that empty street."
He offered me another ganthme stick, but I pushed it away. "We'd gotten the reclamation project on the ballot. A totally legit, endorsed, above-board project that followed all the realistic guidelines Harry always went on about, none of the stupid restoration stuff that looks good until it breaks and kills everybody with a drought. Everybody in the town understood. They just had to show up and vote.
"The drones were out patrolling on high alert. You could hear the whining. It echoed off the buildings, this constant fan-wheeze waiting to kill you. Nobody knew what their automatic protocols were; the officials wouldn't release them, so everybody assumed they were in SOS mode. That's shoot on sight. And when they get you, it's the smell. It's blood, immediately, the air reeks of it. We'd just lost Geoff to one.
"Harry wasn't having it. She was all about forcing the system to work for us. This election was her baby. First we'd win there. When it worked, the other towns would see it and try, too. We'd get a cascade effect going and, ah, victory. But before we get there, I'm hiding in this crap motel room smoking like a chimney because I can still smell Geoff aerosol. Then Harry says, 'Fuck it,' and strolls right on outside.
"I thought I was going to watch her die. I'd never been that scared before. She had the revolver with her, on her hip like some cowboy, and just stood in the middle of the street with her arms crossed. The drones buzz by and I'm about wet myself, but they ignored her.
"Word goes out and people start trickling into the streets. Harry and the rest of us walk over to the library where the polling is happening. We're just about there, and there's a huge mob of people with us, when a clutch of patrol-drones descends. 'Protocol 87 engaged,' they announce."
"What is that?" I asked.
"Anti-terrorist protocol. Small groups of suspected terrorists get targeted. Not a threat to a group that big. But it was a ploy by the drone operator. They didn't have the authority for single assassination or firing on a crowd, but they knew nobody but the professional revolutionaries would recognize the protocol code.
"I remember Harry yelling at them. 'You're safe. They just confirmed it. Go on and vote.' They were in a panic, though, and didn't care what some stranger who faced drones all the time had to say. They ran home and stayed there.
"She was still in the street when the crowd thinned down enough for the drones to activate. We all were. Those fuckers didn't even have a kill order, so we were all arrested and tossed into a 'temporary holding facility' outside of town."
It was getting cold, and I rubbed the goose pimples on my arms. "And?"
"And your mom was the first they let go. She was pregnant." You were fathered by the revolution.
"They kept you for a year and a half?"
"No, they kept Harry a year and a half. A pregnant prisoner was embarrassing, but they kept it pretty quiet. Four months later when they let Melody go for the same reason, that got some attention. They started releasing the rest of the women after that. And they fired one of the guards. Allegedly, he was the one bad egg who'd been responsible. People believed that.
"They kept the rest of us for another year. Harry disappeared, Melody had a miscarriage. They found Karen in a bathtub with slit wrists. When Evan hanged himself while we were safely on the inside, allegedly free of bad eggs, people got upset. Drones got scaled back, got quieter. And people just got tired."
Tyson's hands were shaking as he smoked.
"She's wrong. I'm terrified of going back. I have nightmares that. . . I won't go back to that. But I can't sit here doing nothing, either. I know how to make things better. She showed me, and I can't unlearn that."
"I think she understands," I said.
He stubbed out the end of his ganthme stick and turned to me. "You should have been mine. Maybe then I could have quit. I could have made this better, here, for you."
I shook my head. "I didn't need a father. And I'm not exactly like Mom, either."
Mom was leaning in my doorway when I finished packing my bag. I'd packed by moonlight, and I'd tried to be quiet so I wouldn't wake her, but she was still dressed.
"You're going with him," she said.
"I have to."
"You can't change anything. If they wanted to be saved, we'd have managed it."
The weird thing is, I believed her. I'd believed that since those days in the river bed, hiding in a tent with Esteban's vid tablet. If the revolution could be won, Harry and Tyson would have won it. Any attempt to walk their path was doomed to measure victory in bits and embrace defeat. I'd known that ever since I'd seen the video from the drone cameras, since I'd watched the expression on Mom's face shift from triumph to disbelief as the crowd dissolved around her. And I'd read the news articles about the Westing Fork temporary holding facility, about the outrage, then the indifference. I knew exactly what I was up against, how hopeless it was.
So why try?
"I don't have to change the world. If I just save a few people, that's enough," I said.
"It won't be," Mom said.
I hugged her, praying this wasn't the last time. "Earthlings can't stay on Mars forever."
She hugged me back, and for a moment I was five years old again, and terrified by visions of shredded corn husks. "Keep a rocket fueled and ready."
"I will," I promised.
My mother, the woman who braved the drone-haunted streets of Westing Fork armed with nothing but passion and an old revolver, loved me. She swept us away to Mars and hid us so well I didn't even know we were running. But not even Mars was safe. Someday, it would turn back into the wastelands and Mom would just be a woman in the street, defeated by a single announcement.
I couldn't let that happen.
Tyson was standing outside his dune buggy, arms folded across his chest, when I reached him. "She's a little scary sometimes."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
He nodded toward the passenger seat of the buggy. "She left you a present while you and I were still talking."
I slipped past him and looked at the seat. There it was, shining silver under the moonlight: Mom's revolver.