An Excerpt from POST by Brenda Cooper, now funding on Kickstarter.
The airplane hangs white in a pale blue sky above me.
It has long wings, like the periodic stray gull that finds its way to us, and a body as thin and long as a bird’s. There is almost no tail in the profile of the plane above me, although if I remember right from movies, airplane tails stick up instead of out like a bird’s tail.
I want—no, I need—to know who is in it and where they are going.
I need to know if the airplane is hope.
It spends more time crossing the piece of sky I can see than I expect. As if it is calling me.
A branch snaps.
I have let my pursuers closer to me than I planned. Two men and a woman this time. One of the two men calls out, “Hey, girl!”
I know better than to answer. I’m perched on a rocky outcropping fifty feet above them, partially hidden by the dried carcasses of dead spruces.
It’s possible they won’t see me here, but if they do, the place is a trap.
I stand up a little too fast, part of my brain still shocked stupid by the airplane. I make a little too much noise, and the gruffer voice says, “There!” to his companions and then the woman shouts, “We won’t hurt you!”
Right. You just want to feed me and ask me about the weather.
I had been too sure I’d lost them. Stupid.
I’m young and strong, and this time I don’t get cocky.
I run up a series of switchbacks, pretending to be a doe bounding away from a coyote. My skin and mouth are dry. The afternoon sun has sucked all the water from me, and I haven’t stopped to drink. The sole of my right boot is so thin that when I step hard on a stone, pain lances up from the ball of my foot through the long bones of my legs, but I keep going in spite of it. I run even though I don’t hear anyone behind me. Not anymore.
I realize I haven’t for a while; I got away.
I always get away.
Now, if I can just get home and inside without being noticed.
I’m on our side of the place in the road where we threw dirt over it all and planted trees just after Before, and bits of the old road show through. It’s not good to walk on since the eco-surface has been dissolving into black crumbs.
I crest a small hill and our wall rises up like a cracked egg, dirty white mottled with grey, the jagged glass we’ve glued to the top winking in the sun.
Between here and the wall, we’d removed all the dead wood. I stride across grey-green grass that Kelley had us plant in the moat of cleared ground around our walled garden. I don’t like to admit it, but she picked well; the spiky, low growth has been alive for two years now, and it creeps back into the forest as we clear it further away. This is partly to keep our light, and partly to keep an open space so we can see animals or people coming.
Of course, the long drought is clearing up, too. Oskar still frets that there is not enough rain and not enough cold, but the hills and forests between us and the interstate are green and dotted with yellow and white flowers.
I trip over a log, going down hard on my right knee and my hands, scraping my palms near the black soil line from the fire we set five years ago to save the garden from a wildfire.
My breath breaks the silence. I sound like a rabbit before a thin coyote kills it, scared and breathing too hard. I make myself slow down and remember what Oskar taught me. Breathe through your nose. Breathe deep in your belly, so you can feel it going out and in.
S l o w l y.
I’m getting there. A cool spring breeze blows my hair against my chin and helps me feel better.
I hate it when Kelley calls me that. My name’s Sage.
She extends her left hand. There’s dirt ground into the creases of her palm and stuck under her nails, and it smells wetter and stronger than the dry, cracked earth under my hands. A year or two ago, I would have apologized, but not now. Now I can look down on Kelley’s graying dark hair, on her ponytail tied with a strip of bark. She holds her taser in her right hand, a black oblong that she protects as if it means her life. She leaves it out as we walk back, swinging in her hand, the arc of her movement precise.
My knee bleeds, but we both ignore that.
Kelley doesn’t say anything, but I make up her feelings and words in my head anyway. The walls are safe, but only as long as we’re not noticed. If a mob finds us, we will all die. Besides, you aren’t old enough for the world yet. It’s dangerous. You might get hurt, or raped, and die all by yourself. There’s men that would take you in and make you trade your body for water and food. It only takes three days to die without water. If she was lecturing me instead of staring off, lost in her head, she’d look down at this point and see I have a small canteen clipped to my belt, one of the old ones where the metal’s all banged up. Well, maybe you’d live a week. She’d look disgusted. There’s good people out there, but they’re some that are as bad as bad can get.
The only problem with a lecture in your head is you can’t fight it. Kelley knows that, and it makes me even madder at her, but it’s not like I’m going to be able to explain to the Board why I picked a fight with someone who doesn’t say anything to me.
I hate living like everything is evil. Just this morning I talked to four women who had stopped just off the road to boil tea, and they said parts of Portland are safe. There’s food and cars and order. Cars. I’ve never seen a car move, just rusted to blackberries and filled with junk or the bones of small animals.
The shape of the airplane sticks in my head.
Whether the world is still screwed up or not, I’ll never amount to anything if I stay inside my whole life and work on little things that don’t matter with little people who will die behind a wall. The wet, verdant world we live in is a bubble, and I want the real world.
Right before we get to the wall, Kelley turns and stares at me. I expect her to be yelling angry, but what I see in her dark blue eyes is just sadness.
I’m sorry she’s sad. I don’t tell her that; I can’t show weakness.
The door in the wall is big and there’s a whiter spot on the wall above it where my dad ripped the sign off in the second year of the drought, the second year after I was born. That was still Before. Barely.
Kelley palms the door pad, and it opens wide. Inside, it smells like dirt and water and frogs, and faintly, of flowers. We pass magenta azaleas whose bloom is just starting to wilt, and in spite of myself I smile when I see three bees on one plant. Kelley and Oskar both taught me to notice little things. Little things define the big things.
I stop smiling when I see that the Board of Directors is waiting. All of them. They’re sitting in their formal place, on benches in a circle under the sign that used to be above the doors. “Oregon Botanical Gardens.” The Board has run us since Before, and they still run us now. The three original members are gray and wrinkled.
There’s four Board members. Kelley makes five adults staring at me. She says, “Sage, please sit,” and gestures to the hot seat—the one for people who are in trouble.
I’ve been here before.
The Board’s older than Kelley; they all spent most of their lives in the world I only see in movies. They all remember my dad, who’s dead now, and they all remember they’re the ones who make all the rules and I’m the girl who keeps breaking them.
I wait for them to speak first.
It takes a long time. I draw little circles in the dirt with my toes and pretend to be sorry.
Kelley clears her throat, and stares at me, her chin quivering. That’s weird. I never saw her look weak. “Sage, we’ve done everything we know how to do to keep you in here. We can’t bear to kill someone because you left tracks or got followed home. You may be only sixteen, but you’re endangering us all,” she pauses and takes a breath, “and more than us.”
She means the whole saving the plants to return them to the world someday thing.
Kelley forces the next words out. “I’ve told the security system not to open for you anymore.”
So how am I supposed to help with the chores like gathering firewood and hunting rabbits? “Ever?”
Kelley ignores my question. “If you go out again, you will not be allowed back in.”
She can’t mean it. I’m her hope for the future. She wouldn’t kick me out.
Tim and Li are the two old men of the Board. Li nods, telling me he supports Kelley. Tim looks impassive, but he would miss me. We play chess sometimes in the hour between dawn and breakfast. Sometimes I win, and he likes that.
He looks past me; his eyes don’t meet mine.
Elise and Shell are the two women on the Board. They’re both stone-faced, too, but they might mean it. They’re scarier than Tim and Li.
Kelley keeps staring at me, sad. Usually when she’s getting me in trouble she looks frustrated. “Do you understand?”
“Tell me what will happen if you leave again without permission.”
“The door won’t let me back in.”
“And we will not let you back in,” she adds.
Maybe she does mean it. Her eyes are all wet, even though she isn’t crying. Kelley isn’t done. I know because no one is moving, and they’re all watching me. Kelley says, “Just so you don’t do anything rash, you’re confined to the Japanese Garden for a week. Report to Oskar in ten minutes.”
She does mean this, except maybe the ten minutes part.
I nod at them all and walk away, keeping my head up. I hate it that they’ve made me feel small again. In my room, I sweep two changes of clothes into an old bag. I brush my hair and my teeth, and put those brushes in the bag, too. Ten minutes pass, then fifteen. I wait the minutes out, unwilling to be on time.
Oskar doesn’t even notice I’m late. I walk in the glass box and close the outer door, and wait a moment, then open the inner door. I am inside walls, some glass, and under a plastic sheet roof. The air is heavy with water, cool. Oskar is nowhere to be seen. When he finished it, the Japanese garden was billed as the most authentic on the west coast. One of the first fully contained green energy buildings in Oregon, with solar cells on all the hard roofs and in the walls, and heat made by water that’s warmed by the earth far under us. At first, the roof was to keep the garden from getting too wet, instead of too dry.
I negotiate the stepping-stone path, walking through pillows of pearlwort. The cinnamon fern that lines the right wall still has some tender, brownish fiddleheads so I pick them. Maybe it’s a form of penance.
The very first of the wisteria blooms are showing purple. Oskar is on the other side of the flowers, between me and the waterfall.
He doesn’t turn around for the space of two breaths. He’s squatting, bent over, clipping the leaves of a Japanese holly. He is a small man, his skin pallid from the damp air he lives in, long red hair caught back in a braid that falls down a freckled, white back. The top of his braid is grey. He is only wearing shorts; he likes to garden as naked as the Board will let him. Even his feet are bare. I have always suspected that at night he goes out with his flashlight and gardens more naked than that. Even though he is almost sixty years old, I think I would pull weeds beside him, with my nipples exposed to the cool night air.
He wouldn’t let me, of course. They all treat me like glass.
He stands up and turns toward me. Even though the light is starting to grey to dusk, I can see that his eyes look like Kelley’s did. “Why do you run away?”
I lean back against the big cedar column that holds up the wisteria arbor, breathing in the sweet air. “Why don’t you ever leave this garden?”
I’ve never asked him this. Instead of looking startled, he smiles and his eyes twinkle a bit, full of mischief. “Because I’m saving the world.”
He believes it, even though he’s lying to himself. He is, at best, saving a tiny part of the world that I can walk across in five minutes. Everyone here thinks small.
I hold out my hand, the one with the fiddleheads in it, and he takes them and says, “See?”
He leads me to the kitchen, which is the only interior room with hard walls instead of waxed paper or bamboo or glass. He hands me back the fiddleheads, and I wash them in a bowl full of water and then pour the water into a bin so it can go into the waterfall, where it will be scrubbed clean by the filter plants.
We have everything ready, but before we start to cook, Oskar takes me up to the top of the rock wall at the center of the stroll garden, and we look out toward the ocean. It’s too far away to see or hear, but the sun will set over it. He makes a temporary hole in the roof by pushing overlapping layers of water-capturing plastic aside, exposing the sunset. There are enough clouds to catch faint gold and orange, but most of the last rays leak up like spilled paint and fade into the blackening sky.
Maybe I can use the hole in the roof to climb all the way outside.
After the color starts to fade, Oskar speaks quietly. “I answered you. Will you answer me?”
So that’s what he’s been waiting for. I guess when you’re sixty you have a lot of patience.
“We live in a bubble.”
He laughs and pokes the plastic roof. It answers him by rippling, as if it were upside-down water.
I frown. “We do!” I wave my hand at all the roads and people we can’t see from here. “In the real world out there, people are traveling and learning and meeting each other. They’re struggling. They’re taking back the world. This time…” I haven’t really told anyone about this trip yet —I mean, no one had asked. Should I? “I walked the interstate and talked to people on it. Like always. I have my escape routes. They work.”
He cocks an eyebrow at me but doesn’t say anything.
“Eugene’s coming back. There’s thousands of people there now —they fixed the water system and they’re growing greenhouse food. I met two families who were on their way there.”
He clears his throat. “A year ago, you told me Eugene was empty.”
“That’s what I heard. But this time I heard different.” I pause. “I don’t know anything. How could I?”
“They don’t have the right plants. That’s what I’m saving for your generation. The bamboo and the bearberry, the astilbe and the peony.” He says the names of plants like a prayer, and I imagine him naming the others in his head. The wisteria and the wild fuchsia, the fiddlehead and the mountain fern…
“I know what you’re saving. You keep telling me about it.” It’s an old story, how we’re saving the genome of the native plants in case the weather ever reverts to its magical past self. “It’s good. I’m glad you’re saving it. But that’s your dream.”
He pretends not to notice my tone of voice. “What your travelers see is the Mediterranean weeds that killed the native plants in California when Father Serra brought them on his donkey. Now that it’s warm enough, dry enough, they come here and invade Oregon like they invaded California a long time ago.” His face wears a stubborn look that makes him more handsome, wiping some of the wrinkles away with anger. He closes the hole in the roof and starts down the rock face as all of the colors of the garden begin to fade, and I hear him tell me, “It is your duty to the planet to help.”
I can’t keep my secret anymore. “I saw an airplane today.”
He stares at me, and I know him well enough to know that he’s surprised even though he is always slow to show emotion. “Tell me about it.”
“It looked like a bird, but it wasn’t. The wings never moved although the plane moved, straight. It was high up. It was white.” I can’t quite tell if he believes me. “It was beautiful, Oskar.”
“Which way was it going?”
“North.” I think about it. “Portland or Seattle, I guess.”
He nods, but I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m making it up. He climbs down, but I stay and try and remember more details about the airplane until stars swim across the sky, diffused by the beads of water that gather there as the evening cools. After my eyes adjust enough to the dark, I come carefully to ground and Oskar and I share cinnamon fern fiddleheads and cattail roots and some jerky from a thin doe that jumped into our garden a few weeks ago and broke a leg.
After, I lie on my sleeping pallet, separated from Oskar by waxy paper and bamboo, and listen to the roof crinkle in the wind. If I don’t get out, I’m going to die here in Oskar’s Japanese stroll garden, walking the stone paths until there’s not enough water left for the wisteria.
I can’t bear being kept in a box as if I were a precious plant and not a real girl. I can’t bear getting old without ever having a friend. But I can’t imagine never coming home, either. Not seeing these people I’ve seen for every day of my life that I remember. Kelley and Oskar.
When I leave, I see people moving. Sometimes that’s all I do, sit and watch people come and go, counting. Once I counted over a hundred in just a morning. They’re going somewhere. They aren’t living behind a wall and sitting in one place and waiting for everything to get better.
Oskar’s breathing gets even and deep, and it’s a comfort.
But not enough. I almost drift off, start thinking of other things, and then startle awake. Over and over.
When I give up, I sit up as silently as I can, strip off my sleeping clothes, and pull on my best jeans and most comfortable flannel before I roll up everything I brought and wrap it in an old blue Pendleton blanket so I can swing it over my shoulder. I fill two canteens with water, running it slowly so that I won’t wake anyone.
I write Oskar and Kelley a note. I tell them I love them and I’m going to go save the world, and I’m sorry they won’t ever let me back in. A tear drips onto the note but I manage not to sob out loud.
I carefully open the first of the two doors I came in through, trying to keep the rusty hinges from squeaking. Kelley is standing on the other side, a thin stick of a shadow that only moves when I’m through.
Oskar comes up behind me.
He leans forward and gives me a hug and he whispers in my ear. He says, “Good luck.”
I blink at them both, stupid with surprise.
He says, “Me and Kelley both knew you’d go. It’s time. The Board told us to keep you. They’re scared that you’ll tell someone about us, and they’re scared they’ll lose you. You’re like a daughter to them.”
No. I’m not. I know that. Mostly they say bad things about me.
Oskar keeps going. “We need you more than you need us.”
Kelley thrusts a bag into my hands. It’s heavy.
I feel thick in the throat and watery. I say, “I’ll come back someday.”
He says, “If you take long enough, we’ll even let you back in.”
I go before we all cry or laugh and wake the Board up. The stars look clearer out beyond the wall, and the moat of grass muffles my footsteps.
If you enjoyed this excerpt and would like to read more, please help us get this book funded. Make a pledge or spread the word, it all helps, and there are plenty of bonuses to be had, http://tiny.cc/Novels2016.
Brenda Cooper writes science fiction and fantasy novels and short stories, and sometimes, poetry. Her most recent novel is Edge of Dark, from Pyr and her most recent story collection is Cracking the Sky from Fairwood Press. Spear of Light is forthcoming from Pyr in June of 2016 and POST will be out from espec books in late fall 2016. Brenda is a technology professional and a futurist, and publishes non-fiction on the environment and the future. Her non-fiction has appeared on Slate and Crosscut and her short fiction has appeared in Nature Magazine, among other venues.
See her website at www.brenda-cooper.com.
Brenda lives in the Pacific Northwest in a household with three people, three dogs, far more than three computers, and only one TV in it.