Many years later, as Beat stood atop the eastern slop of the Sierras and faced a horizon of dead land and dead water, she remembered in bereaved love the last afternoon she spent with her cousins before the warmed ocean turned the Sierra Nevada Mountains into an island.
“Your jokes aren’t even funny, dude,” Beat said while stopping for a quick minute to resituate her pack between her bruised shoulders.
“Don’t call me dude, sestra,” Norm retorted.
“I ain’t your sestra, chuvak,” Beat mimicked Norm a little, trying to provoke the fights they played at, but Norm was too amused with himself to care.
“Would you two shut up,” I insisted and sat down on the edge of a once prominent guard rail. Granted I was unsteady but Beat hovered like a Mommy Dearest. I was trying not to let it piss me off but when she ran to my side as if I were feeble I wanted to strangle her with a coat hanger. Beat could tell so she pulled out her water bottle and offered it to me. Distraction.
“No, you’ll need that,” I declined.
“You need it,” Beat asserted. I yielded and took a drink. And then another.
Norm dropped his pack to the ground and looked around for signs of life I knew he was desperate to find and eager to avoid.
“Have you ever had an Eskimo seven-course dinner?” He asked, having settled that we were alone. “Well?” Beat and I refused to play. “A six pack and some whale blubber.” He laughed and continued. “What do you call 64 Cherokees in a tipi?” He paused, looking at us as though we didn’t know the punch line. “A full blood.” Norm laughed louder and kicked at some heavy plastic and driftwood onto the road’s soggy median.
“Shhh,” I said, not that I thought anyone was around to hear. I just wanted him to shut up.
“How far into a reservation can an Indian walk?”
“Somebody make it stop!” I begged the spirits of bad jokes.
“Half way, the other half is out.”
Beat couldn’t help herself and grinned. I think I half-smiled.
“How’s that eight-month old belly?” Beat asked. There was no punch line for that joke. I said something about my feet hurting. She bent down and took one of my legs in her hands, rubbing and stretching it out. I tried to breath calmly and allow her to help but I was beginning to feel like any touch was the touch of a thousand needles.
“We need to find somewhere we can stay for a few days so Kor can rest,” Beat told Norm. “Maybe even until the birth. And we need to find some decent food. No more rodents and weeds.”
“Always the Indian princess.”
“I know.” Norm found the highest place he could reach and with Beat’s Dad’s old binoculars from wwii scanned the city we had all but passed through. Just ahead of us he spotted a small airport that looked abandoned and we made a cautious but steady way to it. Somehow knowing we were about to stop made my pack feel lighter and my feet less swollen.
The airport was indeed deserted — broken windows, ransacked stores. A real mess. Norm cleared out a place for us behind the plastic redwood display and built up a wall of debris to give us some cover before taking off to scavenge.
“Don’t go too far,” Beat told him.
“Never,” Norm replied.
“We might need you.”
“Try to find some water.”
“I know Beatrice.”
Despite the smell of rot and mildew, I didn’t throw up once and actually fell asleep with my head in Beat’s lap. The last thing I remember was her gently massaging my temples. I forgot the headache I had been carrying around for days. For the first time in a long time I was aware of dreaming. And it was a glorious dream. I was a beastly but gorgeous Bear creature with long, thick white hair, golden eyes, and coal black claws that looked like daggers. I glided over snowy mountains like a cross country pro but instead of a ski lodge I was in search of snack-sized humans to eat. “Babies are the future,” I chanted in wetted anticipation. I hadn’t ever felt so blissful and hopeful.
The dream was interrupted by sharp contractions accompanied by a wash of mucous out of my groin and I screamed myself awake.
Startled, Beat banged her head against the wall as she reached for me. I had already rolled away and onto my side, curled up in a fetal position.
“Are you ok?” she asked.
“It’s begun,” I said.
From then on everything played out as if on a tiny old black-and-white tv screen. As if it happened to me so long ago it was a memory. Afterwards I realized it was death’s way of foreshadowing.
“I’m going to die like the others,” I said, surprised I had said what I was feeling.
“And when did you decide that?” Beat snapped. “You are eight months along. Nobody’s fetus survives eight months.”
“I haven’t felt it move for a long time. I think it’s already—”
“No one is dying today.”
Beat pulled the medical box from her pack and pulled close all of the blankets and water around us. I couldn’t help it — fucking hormones — I started to cry.
“I don’t want to hear any of that crap from you. You are way past the miscarriage stage. Your baby is coming and you are going to be fine. Do you hear me?”
“I shouldn’t have used the tablets.”
“You have to drink water. We need water to live. Now shut up and focus. Do your breathing exercises.”
Beat breathed with me as she gently moved me onto a blanket and propped my head up with our folded jackets. She took off my boots and pants and undies and pulled my knees up, covering my legs with a blanket.
“Remember that summer when your Dad tried to teach all of us how to dive? How we went to Poteau River near Granddad’s store and had all of us jump from the rocks to him? Remember how Norm jumped right on top of your Dad’s head and the two of them almost drowned? And when we told your Mom she almost died from laughing so hard? I think that’s the first time I heard Auntie snort when she laughed.” Beat impersonated Mom’s laugh-snort to perfection. “You know, last night I had the strangest dream,” Beat continued undeterred. “You were some sort of freakishly large white bear. I think you were trying to eat babies.”
I was getting so dizzy I couldn’t hear what Beat was talking about anymore. And then, as if it came from somewhere else, someone else, I screamed the pain shooting through my body. Screamed and grabbed at myself, trying to hold the pain down, trying to hold myself together.
“You are the strongest person I know,” Beat said as if she wasn’t paying attention to me at all. “Stronger than that asshole who got you pregnant and ran away like a punk. Stronger than your Mom and Dad who—” She stopped herself before she said it. “Killed themselves,” I whispered. I knew she hated them for doing it. I certainly did. Leaving us alone, stranded in Oakland. If Norm hadn’t come out from Poteau when he did to pick us up, we never would have gotten out of the area before it flooded. Too bad he drove that stupid ass Indian car or we would have a ride now. “You will survive this. You and your baby will survive and Norm will come back with water and food and we will all be fine.”
Beat turned away but I could see the fear on her. A fear that was old. The fear our ancestors must have had when they fought against invasion, dying from their diseases more often than from their Winchesters. I knew they knew what awaited us. What was coming for us. Plastics and toxins and poisons and smog were the new powder keg.
Thirty hours later I was still having contractions. I could only see out of one eye, having popped a blood vessel in the other one when I tried to push this dead thing out of me. As my eye swelled I started to discharge freakishly large clumps of blood and tissue out of my body. I knew I was hemorrhaging. And poor Beat, so brave and courageous, was in the middle of it.
Suddenly it stopped. It was like I was floating in the calm and quiet of a dream — like Bugs Bunny inside a flood, waters rising and still he dreamed. It was then that I settled into it. Felt the pain as a promise of release. I knew I was already dead.
I rallied one last time, managed as steady and firm a voice as I could.
“Take care of our cuz, Beth. Norman is a warrior. You’ll forget he’s younger than you are. He needs someone to look out for him. And don’t hide from people. No one can make it on their own. No one ever could.”
I thought Beat was going to fight me. She exhaled and held my hand tighter and to her chest. “I love you, Kor,” were the last words I heard. I closed my eyes and walked on, the half-dissolved fetus discharging into the silence of death.
Beat covered me and cleaned up as best she could. When Norm returned later that day, he found her sitting down the terminal in front of a looted last stop shop, shivering and half-asleep. He held her as she wept.
“Kor?” he whispered. Beat gestured to where I lay, back at the plastic redwoods display, wrapped up in all the blankets she had. Norm came to my body and prayed and sang a little. He was a good cousin.
He jerked suddenly as if someone had grabbed at him from behind and returned to Beat. “We should burn her. Then go. This place is death. We aren’t safe here.”
“What do you mean?”
“Half the city is under water and the other half smells of shit. We can’t stay here. We need to get to the mountains.”
Norm had managed to find a jug of fresh water, several cans of food, and a year’s supply of water tablets on a couple of dead bodies out near the tower. He never found anything else.
He used his knife to open one of the labelless cans. It was green zucchini. He opened another of black beans. They ate in quiet.
They built a pyre outside and cremated my body. As they stood praying and singing, it occurred to Norm that people would see the smoke and might investigate. He was about to suggest they move on when a modest quake shook them. They grabbed their supplies and ran as best they could, east towards the mountains.
In the days that followed they waited through several stronger quakes. “It’s like the land has become Jell-O,” Norm said and otherwise censored his growing concerns that the mountains would be no safer.
When they made the turn up the mountainside, they set up camp for the evening. Beat was opening a can of food when she caught Norm staring at the skies.
“What is it?”
“What birds?” Beat looked up. She had to move to see through the trees but indeed there were birds but not of any single flock. It was more like all the birds.
Norm stood and scrunched his face as if he could see better with his eyes half closed.
“Norm?” Beat stood. The wind turned and the stench almost knocked both of them out. Then, faintly, they could see the trees getting pulled down.
“We need to go. Now!” Norm screamed.
Before he could say another word, before Beat felt the sound of the not-a-quake shaking of the earth, a tsunami rolled up the mountainside as if it were a storm coming down. The first wave was the largest but several others came after and until finally the waters settled.
Beat found herself atop a pile of broken trees and garbage, her pack strapped to her bruised and scratched body. Somehow in the craziness Norm had managed to get her pack onto her? Or had she just never taken it off? Drenched but strapped on, it anchored her. As she loosened the straps so she could move, she looked down the mountain through flattened trees and shrub peppered with the debris of a hundred cities. It smelled of carcasses and pollution, a stench so strong Beat couldn’t shake the nausea that followed. She kept rubbing her nose as if it would help.
Beat managed to crawl down to what had become the ground. It was soggy and uneven and difficult to walk over. She looked for days, everywhere she could reach. She never found Norm.
As the full weight of it all settled like a lump of lead in her chest, Beat wanted to end her life. She pulled out her knife and held it to her wrist so forcefully she broke skin. The smell of blood made her sick.
“Kor.” She cried.
“I’m here. I’m right here.”
Beat managed to get herself walking and followed the highway east and up. Slowly the ground became firmer. Slowly the stench calmed in the smells of pine and dirt. As she became concerned about the others whose tracks she saw, she walked into the forest, parallel to the road for reference, but safer in the cover of the forest.
After a day of walking Beat came upon a short row of structures — hotels and stores — that the government had converted into its regional headquarters. Beat watched for a awhile from a safe distance. So many more people than they had space for were arriving. One of the stores was expanded with several tents, an area behind it was cleared for storage, shipments arrived from north and south. A refugee camp was set up and growing.
It occurred to her for a quick minute that one of the refugees might be Norm. Maybe he had made it, like her? Maybe he was looking for her, there?
But the crowds and chaos were too much to sort out. She couldn’t see herself going in and being forced to stay put. She couldn’t see herself ever finding Norm. She didn’t believe Norm had survived. She knew he hadn’t.
So she decided to go on. At the hour of dusk, when a small group of deer passed by, she followed them up the mountain.
Beat crouched inside the cave’s door, peaking out from behind a tightly woven cover. “See that, Kor,” she whispered. “He’s back. Only this time I see him. Bear will not get any of my food today.” As soon as she thought Bear had turned away, she ran to her shack and gathered an arm full of food. She pulled the flap down behind her. Facing defiantly toward the forest, she screamed, “No more trick or treaty from you, Bear. I am not in the mood to play games today.” She ran as fast as she could back to the cave.
“I know. I know,” she barked as she entered. “I need to drink plenty of water. Stop nagging. I will check the water jars in a bit. I have to get my breakfast ready… Have I said lately how tired I am of dried berries? No, I’m not complaining. I’m not ungrateful. I’ve survived when so many I know… are dead.” The word startled her. “I know you’re dead, Kor.”
She fell back and sat on her legs. Grief weighed a ton.
After arranging her food, Beat went out to retrieve water. As she picked up a jar, she remembered she was running low on tablets. She would have to go to the distribution center. “Tomorrow,” she said aloud and remembered that she had said it aloud a while ago and had forgotten. Not accidently. She was having trouble keeping track of things like days. She would have to remember now. “One more moon,” she said. “You have to remember it’s after the moon.”
She repeated “tomorrow” over and over as she ate, even made a bit of a game of it trying to remember song lyrics. “Tomorrow, tomorrow, there’s always tomorrow. You’re only a day away.” She repeated it over and over as she did her chores. “Won’t you come back tomorrow. Won’t you come back tomorrow.” And as she stood watch against Bear. “Tomorrow people, where is your past? Tomorrow people, how long will you last? Tomorrow people, where is your past? Tomorrow people, how long will you last?” And she was still saying it as she fell asleep that evening. “Don’t know past, you don’t know your future. Don’t say, don’t know past, don’t know your future. Tomorrow people…”
“That’s no moon,” Beat said in Norm’s best Obi Wan voice as she woke. “And I remembered it’s tomorrow, Norm. I told you I would.”
It took Beat longer than she planned to move everything from the shack into the cave. Apparently even after the world ends you can hoard a lot of stuff. “And why does water weigh so much? This jar must be ten pounds. How is that even possible? I wonder if plastic weighs more than water. What? Yea, no. Maybe it’s the petroleum. Didn’t they tell you that there was petroleum in the water? Or was it in the plastic? Cause of synthetics? Damn I wish I could remember. Some things I can’t remember.”
After arranging all of her food and water on one side of the cave, she began to pack what she would take with her.
“What was it Norm used to say?” She paused as if waiting for me to answer. Or perhaps Norm. “You can talk to yourself. You can even answer your own questions. It’s when you start getting third opinions that you have to see a doctor.” She laughed. She was getting as bad as Norm ever was about laughing at her own jokes.
Beat had decided to take everything she could, in case, for some unforeseen reason, she couldn’t return or her camp was raided. Her Mom’s and Auntie Mae’s matching silver broaches; her Dad’s WWII 3D camera and binoculars; her 1977 Princess Leia action figure and May The Force Be With You button; socks and underwear, a second bra, three shirts, a jacket: homemade soap and a hair brush and several hair bands; a katana, pocket knifes, and arrows; all her money. She put it all into her pack, filled it in with food and water and her remaining tablets, and placed her pack outside. She concealed the entrance to the cave, and tried to make the shack look abandoned, then brushed out her tracks with branches and leaves. The area didn’t look like anything special and wouldn’t as long as a storm didn’t roll through, she thought.
“I won’t be gone longer than I have to be,” she said and abruptly looked to her side. I swear she could see me. “Bear, get the hell out of here!” She screamed and chased Bear away, or thought she had, and then sat for a while to make sure Bear was not coming back before she turned down the mountain. “I swear, if you touch my stuff I’m going to have a beautiful white fur coat for the winter.”
Beat walked the rest of the day quietly humming Ziggy Marley and Tanya Tagaq, stopping unexpectedly every once in a while to see if anyone — human or animal — was listening.
Just before dusk she smelled and heard the ocean before she saw it. The familiarity of the waves rhythm and faint sounds of a few birds chirping was haunted by the vileness of the stench. “That must be what death tastes like — that smell,” she said as she crouched down, taking cover under fallen trees and flattened shrubs. She didn’t know why the government kept so close to the new shoreline except out of some misguided hope that the ocean would recede and things would return to normal. “How can they feel nostalgia when what they destroyed is right in front of them?”
That evening she dreamed a story Grandmother used to tell us kids. Always when we were camping and by the fire. Always to scare us before bedtime from wandering around in the dark or otherwise getting ourselves into trouble. And it always worked.
The Great Bears grew to be fifteen feet, weighing over a ton, and were expert scavengers and carnivores. Their hides were so thick that no human could make weapons to penetrate them. Even other animals avoided them for fear of a merciless death. But no nevermind to the Bears whose favorite food were human babies. They enjoyed them best when they squirmed. The people knew this and warned their children against wandering into the woods alone, especially at night. The only ones who could stop the Bears were the Great Elephants. Their gargantuan physical size and strength and long sharp tusks could easily kill the Bears. Frustrated at being continually thwarted by the Elephants, the Bears made war against them and all creatures who lived in the forest. The war raged on for some time. The only break in the fighting came when the Bears went to sleep during the winter. But at first thaw they rose out of the mountains and resumed fighting, ravenous for food and full of vengeance. Over time they killed so many of the animals and humans that the valley filled with the blood and bones of the dead. At long last the animals and humans figured out that only by working together could they defeat the Bears. Using the strongest children as bait, they lured the Bears into the valley of blood and bones. After allowing the children to escape, the Elephants blocked the Bears from pursuit by pushing huge boulders and trees into place, forming a thick wall of rock and wood. Screaming and gnawing at the wall, the Bears sank into the pool of blood and bone they had created with all their killing and drowned. As their lungs filled, their curdled cries echoed threats of revenge that were so fierce they shook the ground until a huge crack formed. The blood, bones, and Bears sunk into the hole and disappeared. Over time and with the help of the Elephants the hole filled in with dirt and rock and fallen trees. Still at first thaw every year the forest filled with Bear screams of vengeance.
The screams woke Beat. But instead of feeling ashamed or self-conscious for being afraid, she was comforted by feeling connected — to her Grandmother, through the story, to her people. And in the connection she knew there was a grander purpose to her life than she could then know. Some truth beyond herself and yet contained within her. And it made her feel strong.
Or so I thought. But she grumbled “sentimental fool” and smacked herself in the head. I didn’t understand. Did she think her dreams made her weak?
She shook them off and reached inside her pack and pulled out the button May The Force Be With You. She put the button inside her jean’s pocket and secured a knife at her left ankle. She took out her katana, inside its old leather sheath, and secured it around her shoulder. She hid her money inside her right boot and concealed a pouch of water tablets inside her pants, under her flannel shirt. The only thing she visibly carried was a water bottle and bag of food. The rest she returned to her pack and buried the pack where she had slept. She closed her eyes for a bit and took in a deep, long breath, stood, and started walking towards the center.
Beat had been on the mountain for over a year and a half. And just as the others on the mountain had told her, the others she traded with occasionally for supplies, indeed the government had fortified and expanded its headquarters. The distribution center was fenced and guarded, as was the storage area across its dirt roads. The line for water began to zigzag at the center’s front gate along a seemingly endless chain link fence with rolled barbed wire and cameras at the top.
As Beat approached the line’s end, or beginning, depending on one’s perspective, she saw two men screaming at one another.
“Yo estaba aqui primero.”
“No. Yo estaba aqui primero.”
Two soldiers nearby, ostensibly there to keep order, scarcely noticed or cared. Fine with them, Beat thought, if we kill each other. Less mouths to water.
An older, grey-haired Black woman with three young children underfoot came out of her place in line to yell at the two men. “You’re doing their work for them if you kill each other. Damn fools. Knock it off!”
To Beat’s surprise the men listened. The two got themselves into line, standing side by side. It occurred to Beat that they were brothers. Nice that they had each other to fight with.
The woman returned to her children and slowly the rest of the line fell back into place.
As Beat hesitated, a man and woman stepped in front of her to enter the line. A woman nudged her from behind to get into place. Beat complied though she immediately regretted it. The woman smelled a horrible stench of dead ocean.
“What?” the woman asked. Beat wasn’t aware she had said anything. “My name is Lucy… I’m Lucy.” The woman pulled out a tube from her jacket pocket, which she threw over her pack on the ground, and offered it to Beat. “It helps with the smell. Under your nose.” Beat shook her head no and turned forward.
Lucy took the top off the tube and used a bit of the menthol cream under her own nose. She offered it again to Beat. This time Beat accepted; Lucy really did smell awful. Beat placed a bit of cream on her upper lip, watching as Lucy stuffed her jacket into her bag. It took some effort as there really wasn’t room for it. Suddenly everything went odorless. Even tasteless. Beat found it calming. Comforting, even. Now if she could just numb her other senses. She said a quiet thank you and handed the tube back to Lucy.
“I really am sorry about the smell. The cream should help.”
“It did. Thank you.”
“What’s your name?”
Beat had to think about it for a minute. “Beat.”
“Are you sure?”
“Where are your people from?”
“Oakland. Well, Oklahoma. We’re Lenape. But a bunch of us grew up in the bay area.”
“Well, Beat from Oakland and Oklahoma, my people are Black Indians, Miwok from the Sierras and Black from Los Angeles. I just came from a job at the docks. Loaded up garbage. Ended up smelling like dead fish but at least I earned enough to get by for a while.”
“Oh,” was all Beat managed. Lucy seemed to find Beat’s awkwardness endearing.
“You got work? Paid work?” Drew, the man in front of them, turned around and asked.
“Yes,” Lucy replied. “The docks are hiring. Loading up barges with the trash gathering at the north end of the harbor. Guess they take it back out to the ocean to dump. Don’t know where else they could put it. Of course all it does is ride the tides back in.”
“I had no idea they were hiring,” Drew said, distracted, as the woman with him turned pale.
“You have to wait in line now. Get a number. They assign you by lottery. You work 3 or 4 days on, then have to wait 7 to 10 days before they’ll let you in line again. Pays real good. And they feed you. Give you plenty of fresh water. And a room with a cot.”
“What’s the catch?” Jorge, standing behind Lucy, asked.
“None that I could see. Except you come out smelling like dead fish.”
“I worked the docks for a while. It’s rough down there.” Drew said, holding the hand of the woman he was with a little tighter.
“They’ve started making people sign contracts,” Lucy explained. “They’ll pay you in money and not credits if you agree to move out east.”
“East?” Drew and Jorge said.
“Jinx!? Emilio, Jorge’s son, said.
“They’re claiming it’s better off in the plains,” Lucy replied. “Where Eastern Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas used to be. That area.”
“Yea right. It’s always better somewhere else. That’s how we ended up here.” Jorge said incredulously. “But they’re really hiring?”
“Dad,” Emilio pulled on Jorge’s arm. “I’m tired.”
“Go ahead, Emilio, and lay down. I’ll wake you when this line gets moving. If this line ever gets moving.”
“They’re never in any hurry,” Drew remarked.
“You heading back down there — to the docks — after we get through this?” Jorge asked Lucy.
“Need to get cleaned up. Some sleep. Something to eat. I’ve got a few days before I can get back in that line.”
“Well, I’m going down there. My boy needs food and water. I need to work. Get money for supplies. I want to get us out of this place. The camp is horrible.”
Where would you even go if not east, Beat asked herself. There isn’t anything left of the west.
“What was that, Beat?” Lucy asked her.
Beat shook her head that it was nothing.
The explosion was a hurried firecracker, then an odd boom. It came from behind them, on the road between the center and storage area. Beat pulled out her katana and braced for a fight. “Told you, Norm,” she thought to herself.
“Norm?” Lucy asked.
Beat looked at Lucy, embarrassed, and shook her head a nevermind. Most of those around them had drawn their weapons as well, standing taut against the noise, and it provided her with some cover of the normal. She hoped, at least, that their normal would spread out far enough to include her.
Several military vehicles screeched by as if they had been waiting.
“I feel safer already,” Lucy said, standing at ease and putting her knives away.
“I swear if they close up the line because of this,” Jorge said, “I’m going to find out who did it and slit their throats.” Drew agreed.
And then, as fast as the explosion, everything fell quiet. As if the vehicles and the soldiers they carried had always been at the end of the line, as if everyone had always been on edge.
“What was that? … That’s it?” Beat asked.
“Let’s hope so,” Drew answered.
Over the load speakers, it was announced that those in line would be served but no one else would be allowed to get in line.
“That’s it?” Beat asked again.
“Must have gotten who did it?” Lucy suggested.
“If they got who did it… Lots of security for a water line they’ve just closed up.”
“Cautious?” Lucy suggested.
“Making sure the rest of us behave,” Jorge said.
“No,” Beat said and shook her head. “No. I’m going to pass on tablets today.”
Beat slipped herself out of the line mumbling, “This isn’t right. Something isn’t right.”
“Where do you think you’re going?” A soldier approached her, holding his rifle up as a deterrent.
“I’m not feeling well. Think I’ll go back to camp and lay down. Come back tomorrow.” She walked past the soldier and the one and then two who joined him. They let her go, reluctantly, and spoke to one another in whispers.
Lucy followed Beat.
“Wait a minute. Now both of you?”
“Yea, us too,” Jorge said, Emilio in tow, and followed Lucy out. “We shared some food with each other. Made us all sick.”
“Shit,” the soldiers exclaimed and huddled to converse.
Drew and the woman with him, Vera, and three behind them all, Lucas, Trevor, and Jan, joined them on the other side of the gates. The soldiers spoke to command over their radios. Beat looked up the line and saw that the Black woman, Viola, and her three children—Oprah, Leslie, and Lawrence—were exiting as well. Up and down, many others were doing the same, generally heading back to the camp. Apparently they weren’t allowed to wander otherwise.
“That’s enough…” the soldier didn’t finish the sentence.
“Hey, wait up,” Lucy called to Beat, who had crossed the dirt road that ran between the center and storage area. Beat turned around and saw that Jorge and Emilio, Drew and Vera, Lucas, Trevor, and Jan, and Viola and her children were following. She had a bit of a panic attack.
“No one can make it on their own,” Lucy said. “No one ever could.”
“What did you say?”
They heard an explosion and then another, saw smoke, and then heard frightened screams as those remaining in line ran, scrambling to get away from an unseen threat and the very seen soldiers trying to force them all to stay put.
Beat took advantage of the confusion and jumped an unguarded gate to get into the storage area. She made her way to a structure in the middle, out of view from the road. She was already jimmying the door open when Lucy and the others ran up behind her. Beat opened the door and she and Lucy stood guard as everyone moved inside.
The warehouse had ceiling-high shelves stacked with bottles of water as far as the eye could see. Drew and Jorge shouted angry about government lies; Viola told them to calm down as she handed out bottles to her children, Emilio, and Vera and began packing others into her bag.
Lucas and Trevor announced they were going to search the nearby buildings and were out the door before anyone could stop them. Beat moved to follow but Lucy pulled her back, then pulled her aside.
“We should stick together,” she told her. “We can’t make it alone.”
Beat surprised herself and agreed, then whispered, “We should pack up what we can carry and get the hell out of here… I have a place. A cave and some supplies. We’d need more supplies… About two days walk from here. It’d be safe enough.”
“Then it’s a plan?”
“It’s a plan.”
Beat and Lucy joined Viola, Vera, and the children.
“We need tablets. Lots of them.” Lucy said.
“We should get out of here,” Viola replied. Vera nodded.
“We need to pack up as many supplies as we can find,” Lucy said. “Water tablets and food. So everyone search. Ten minutes max. Then we go.”
“Who put you in charge?” Drew asked, feeling stupid even before he finished the question.
“Do what you want. I’m — we’re — getting out of here,” Beat replied. “It’s not safe. Tablets. Food.”
Jorge and Emilio took off in one direction and Vera and Drew in another. Viola told her children to stay put and went in still another.
“Lucas and Trevor are still out there,” Jan said as she came out from the office. “I can’t leave without them.”
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Beat said, anxiously. Lucy touched her arm and whispered, “It’s okay. We’re going.” Beat exhaled.
“I can’t leave without them,” Jan said again, fearing they would leave but Lucas and Trevor stumbled back in through the front door, covered in smoke and dirt. Everyone regrouped.
“They’re telling people they are out of fresh water,” Lucas said, catching his breath.
“Fucking liars!” Trevor said.
“Why would they lie?” Jorge asked.
“What would be the point?” Drew asked.
“They’re closing up,” Lucas replied. “All of this is closing up. They’re pulling out, heading east to some new command center outside of Omaha.”
“What?” Drew asked.
“They just started hiring again,” Jorge said, looking to Lucy. “Why would they do that if they’re closing up?”
“Why does the government do anything it does?” Lucas responded.
“To stay in power,” Jan answered.
“They’ll be evacuating starting tomorrow, that’s all I know,” Trevor said.
“Tomorrow,” Beat said to herself.
“They can’t close up. People need those tablets to survive. We can’t live without water,” Drew said.
“The tablets don’t actually do anything,” Jan replied.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Drew asked.
“They’ve been giving us placebos for years now,” Trevor said.
“Not just placebos,” Lucas injected. “The tablets are filled with a bunch of valium to keep us calm while we die off.”
“Why do think we all behave like addicts?” Trevor asked, rhetorically.
“Because we’re addicts,” Jan said.
“This is ridiculous,” Jorge said. “Who says we behave like addicts?”
“You’re saying we’re all drugged?” Drew asked incredulously.
“I’m not doped up,” Jorge said. “And neither is my boy.”
“Water only tastes right if you use the tablets,” Viola said.
“They just alter the taste, they don’t filter for shit,” Jan said.
“Why would they do that?” Drew asked.
“Why do they do anything they do?” Trevor answered.
“It is how they’ve gotten us to stay in the camps,” Jan said.
“This doesn’t make any sense.” Jorge threw his hands in the air.
“You figured all of this out in one run around the compound?” Lucy asked.
“You weren’t in line for the tablets,” Beat said.
“You’re with the gang,” Viola said. “The gang that’s been terrorizing the camp.”
“We’re not terrorists,” Jan said.
“You people have been stealing and bullying and running drugs at the camp for years. What do you call yourselves? The Bears?”
“The Bears?” Beat asked.
“Black Bears. And we’re not what the government has said we are,” Trevor said.
“We aren’t terrorists. We’re not a gang,” Lucas said.
“We’ve been trying to protect the camp from the government,” Jan said.
“It’s the government running the drugs and turning us all into slaves,” Lucas said. “We need to fight back.”
“It’s okay, Beat. We’ll go. We’ll find out.” Lucy said.
“I ain’t fighting anyone,” Drew announced. “We aren’t going anywhere.”
“We’re just supposed to trust you, on your word without any proof?” Jorge asked.
“Look at what you’re standing in,” Trevor said. “They’re not out of water. They’re not out of tablets.”
“The tablets are being produced here, on sight. We came in to look for them. To talk to people. We need help if we’re going to stop them. You could help,” Jan said as soldiers busted through the front door.
Beat lunged to push Viola and the children out of the firing line. A soldier took out Trevor and Jan before anyone knew what was happening. Lucy and Beat led everyone to the back door. Lucas brought up the rear. He was able to hold the soldiers off until everyone else got out before being overtaken and killed.
Leslie and Lawrence were exhausted. They had had to hike a bit farther than expected in order to fill their jars. Beat described which plants were ripe and edible and which ones were poisonous and how to tell the difference. It was getting both easier and harder to do since so much of the forest was dying or dead.
“Berries are the easiest to test. You take a single berry and squish it in your hand. Mush it around. Then you take a small amount of it and put it on your lips. Now you have to wait. At least twenty minutes. If there’s any numbness or pain, you know not to eat it.”
“Auntie Beat,” Leslie asked, “are there more dead trees in the world or dead people?”
“I think there have always been more trees in the world than people. Why do you ask?”
“Shouldn’t we learn how not to drink water? To stop the dead?”
“You’re so stupid,” Lawrence said.
“We can’t do that,” Beat replied. “Water is life.”
“But people have ruined the water.”
“Yes. Yes they have.”
“We should go somewhere else to live.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like Mars or Jupiter or somewhere else in the sky where people haven’t been before.”
“How would we even get there, stupid?” Lawrence said.
“It’s not true that people have never lived in the sky. Some of us have stories that tell us that’s where people come from.”
“From the sky?”
“No. It’s not stupid. It’s a different story.”
“How did we get up there?”
“We lived up there first. A long time ago a woman fell through the sky, onto the back of a turtle, and helped create the earth. Maybe tonight for story time I can tell you that story.”
“Auntie Beat, my lips are getting tingly!”
“Very good, Lawrence.”
“Me too. Me too!” Cried Leslie.
“So now we know we can’t eat those two kinds of berries,” Beat said as she helped them clean off their lips and bury the rest of the berries.
“But we can eat these ones, the red ones?”
“Yes. These are good. And the black ones. They are not poisonous.”
“Would we die if we ate them?”
“Maybe. Maybe just get sick.”
“Do animals eat them?”
“That’s another way to tell if plants are edible.”
“Cause animals won’t eat them if they’re poison?”
“Auntie, know what?”
“What, Leslie… Leslie?”
Leslie froze, then Lawrence, as both stared at a large Bear walking across a clearing in the forest.
“Bear, get out of here. There’s nothing here for you.”
Beat stood in front of Leslie and Lawrence and drew her katana.
“Is that a polar bear?” Lawrence asked. “From when there was ice?”
“No, honey. That’s no polar bear. But it’s time for us to get back to the camp.”
Beat had the kids gather up their things and they made their way back to the camp. When they arrived, Lucy, Drew and Jorge were standing over the fire pit cooking up the last of the deer they had killed. Lawrence and Leslie eagerly told their Grandma Viola of their adventures, including tales of a polar bear sighting.
Beat shook her head no and oversaw the children cleaning their fruit. After saving some to eat with their dinner, they spread the rest out over trays. Beat showed them how far from the flames to set their trays to dry and not cook the fruit. When it was ready, they would fetch jars for storage.
“What did you see out there?” Viola asked.
“A sign. A sign it’s time for us to go.”
“Go where?” Viola asked quietly.
“We set aside the bones and fat you asked for,” Lucy said as she approached. “What’s wrong?”
“What did you see out there?” Viola asked again.
“We need to talk about moving east. We shouldn’t stay here.”
“Because of a bear?”
“Because if the children can see that bear, it is time for us to move on.” She tried to whisper but Drew and Jorge joined them.
“We were going to wait until the kids were asleep to say anything but we’ve about hunted this area clean,” Jorge said, cleaning off his hands.
“We should at least move to the eastern slop, if not off the mountain,” Beat said.
“All the fish Vera, Oprah, and I caught today we had to throw back,” Vera said. “They were covered in sores and tumors if not completely deformed. And they’re in water coming off the snow. We’re running out of food here.”
“The ugly fish contest.”
“It’s what we used to call fishing in Oklahoma, once the quakes started… We knew we’d need to move on as soon as the food was gone. It’s time for us to move on.”
“We’re ready,” Lucy replied.
“Where are we going to go?” Vera asked as she approached.
“Why can’t we go back to the sky? With the Sky People?” Leslie asked.
“You’re such a retard,” Lawrence answered.
“I told you to stop using that word,” Viola said sternly.
“If we could, Leslie, we probably would. But we are in the world we made and we have to stay here.” Beat said.
“Can we fix it?”
“I don’t think so.”
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
As they stepped atop the peak facing down the eastern side of the Sierras, they were taken aback by the sight below. The Sierra Nevada had become an island. The ocean and land’s waterways had flooded the valley below. There was no where to go and no way to get there.
Beat took a long, deliberate breath and made herself remember with grief and love the last afternoon she spent with Norm and Kor and reached for Lucy’s hand.