In a Safe Country
To return to the main Tacheiru page, click here. This is going to be a story as soon as I can start writing it. It has a long, complicated, back plot but hey that makes it fun doesn't it? Hopefully, I can explain all of it. Nothing like grinding a fourteen year old through a beaurocracy, and I'm going to grind one up like sausage.
Another Door Opens...
"When one door closes, another door opens." Aurora stands in the kitchen and utters that philosophical clap trap. I stand in the mud room. The mud room door is cracked open, so I know it is Aurora, not that I know much about her. Until last night, she was a stranger to me. She is a blonde kid several inches taller than I am and well developed on top, with feminine and pastel tastes in clothes. She has blond hair and blue eyes. She comes from Oklahoma. She sat next to me on the bus. She came with Odem and me into the convenience store to buy drinks. I needed a soda because I was stick sick. I was stick sick because the priests transported all the fourteen year olds to one of their fancy tile houses in the Shared Conceptual Space via a bubble car. I had been in survival traning. I had even left my watch and comm phone buried in my duffle. I told time and direction by the moon, sun, and stars. I read the landscape. Rip the landscape out from under me and the results were...let's just say predictable. I was glad I had eaten little in two days. I also purified my water. I showed Ondina and Amaryllis, the two grownups who run Burden of Dreams house my purification tablets, so yes, I avoided the dreaded giiardia. There is no giiardia here in the water in New Jersey. All the houses are on wells and the adults take the water to be tested twice a year.
There are three of us who were brought by the priests with bus loads of other kids being shipped all over the country to this house. Aurora is one of us. Odem is a second, and I am the third, in no particular order. Odem is from Savannah, Georgia. She was the one who made a fuss when they finally brought us to the end of the line by Seckler Center down by Lake One. Yes, the lakes up here all have numbers. There are six of them. They held the initiations down on the beach. They had candles in paper bags. They lined up all of the fourteen year olds and walked them in. We told a lady at a computer our new names which we had picked out and then we got pointed to the right adult. Of course, all of us, or most of us were in the wrong place.
Odem did not like being in the wrong place. Who does. She complained. She said that she was with Ed Branch. We had both been at Nationals in Ithaca, New York though in different programs. Aurora had also been at nationals. We were due to be initiated at Nationals on the last night and then to go our respective new mentoring houses. I was supposed to end up in Suffolk County in a town called Stoney Brook. I even talked to my prospective mentor on comm phone and saw a grainy video picture of her. Her names was Orli.
Well, there wasn't going to be any Orli for me now. That became pretty obvious when the priests met up with the outdoor education group in the woods in the mountains beyond Arnot which is southwest of Ithaca in New York's Southern Tear. The priests met us as we were walking the trail back to the base camp. We'd have a good dinner in the dining hall and sleep on mattresses in outdoor cabins. We'd even get a chance to shower and change clothes. That was not what happened.
The counselors negotiated with the priests, and the priests walked with us back to camp. There they made all the fourteen year olds, even those not on survival training get their duffles and backpacks and get in huge bubble cars that just appeared. I stared down at the ground as we rose through the night. Something must have registered beyond passive motion, because I became quite ill. By the time we reached the huge alabaster tile house, I got sick. I just crouched down and tried to lose my lunch which of course I did not have in my stomach. All I had inside me were a few green blue berries and my giiardia pill-purified water. Thirst will torment you. Hunger is your friend. I can believe that.
I squatted on the ground blinking back tears. My throat burned with stomach juice. My clothes stank. If any one from Toco Hills back in Atlanta wanted to see HaShem have his revenge on me, HaShem should have sent them a video. Actually, stick sickness after spending a lot of time in nature is kind of an expected thing. No one felt sorry for me. Everyone waited until the other stick sick kids and I had rested enough to walk into the tile house and select our tile from the thousands or millions available. The priests used the tiles to sort us on to buses and decide our new mentors.
Sorry, the priests were placing us and that was pretty clear. Now ask me how I felt about this? Well, part of me felt cheated. Most of me was disoriented. Part of me felt, it was a done deal and the faster I got through it the better. I just wasn't going to end up in Suffolk County. I was in New Jersey instead though this green, mountainous country didn't look anything like New Jersey or what I imagined New Jersey to look like. Part of me wanted a look around because I had only seen this green mountainous country at night. Part of me just wanted time to think.
It was Odem who thought fast. When it was her turn to talk to the lady at the computer. She told her that she all ready had an initiation lined up through Mentoring Services Educational Branch. There was a long conclave. Odem eventually went through the line but she told the same story to Ondina and Amarayllis who listened to her and to all three of us and then sighed.
"This happened last year too," Ondina explained. The Priests encroached on Mentoring Services with some regularity when it came to houses in rural areas. The solution was for each of us to call our local Ed Branch office and let them know we were here and get things straightened out one way or another. Ed Branch doesn't make "encouragements" at the house level, so even I could not claim to be a member of another house, or claimed by one. Odem was supposed to go to Athens, Georgia but she had never spoken to her prospective mentor. I had tried not to listen to her half of the comm call in the office next to the kitchen but the walls between the office and mud room are thin. All my clothes were dirty and I needed to wash them. The mud room made a great place to hide and sort things out.
Odem, Aurora, and I each had our own personal and private situations. Mine was unbearably complicated. First, for personal and family reasons, I wanted and needed an out of state placement. Ed Branch Mentoring Services in Atlanta had obliged. I still had an out of state placement. Second, I needed to be near a synagogue that had a relatively traditional service (I sound like my K-8 principal, but the woman talks sense sometimes or more than most adults.) service. Third, I needed to be able to continue my Hebrew lessons or my Judaics, though I can do a lot of that on my own or as free readings even in a public school. I learned that in middle school. Finally, and this goes last because if I ask for it as a make or break it breaks everything and I can't have everything broken, I have to be in a house that at least lets me avoid meat and milk together and doesn't expect me to eat pork. I knew I wouldn't miss what I did not have and I had never set foot in the house picked out for me in Stony Brook.
Odem just felt cheated and was angry. I guess she was entitled. A lot of people like being angry and watching anger. Some people even call anger drama. Odem made her share of drama on the comm phone. "It's not fair....Those priests kidnapped us....I'm listening...I'm all ears...." What Ed Branch Mentoring Services in Atlanta told Odem was that Burden of Dreams in Highland Lakes New Jersey was an Ed Branch house that also accepted placements from the priests. She had no house-level encouragement and unless she had a compelling reason to be elsewhere she might as well stay put. Odem was most unhappy. She'd stalked off to our shared, triple, bedroom after Mentoring Services told her to take a hike.
Aurora's Ed Branch Mentoring Services office (We are all Ed Branch placements which means we are serious students. Ed stands for Educational) is in Kansas City, Missouri and it covers the whole Great Plains. It was also an hour behind so she had to wait to make her call. I just hid in the mud room and listened to the washing machine and then I heard Aurora with her lovely, philosophical comment.
"What does that mean?" Amaryllis asked the blond kid from Oklahoma.
"What it says. I was supposed to go to Lawrenceville, but now I'm here. Maybe it's for a reason."
"The reason is the priests' brought you here because you have a picture of St. Francis of Assissi on your tile."
"I thought it was a picture of Jesus," Aurora protested.
"It's not, but a Catholic Saint is close enough."
"I'm Christian not Catholic."
"Catholics are Christians," I opened up the mud room door and interjected.
"Not the real kind."
I snorted. "Well do you want to talk to your Ed Branch Office or not?" Amaryllis killed the religious argument in the way adults kill any important and interesting conversation.
"No, I'll stay here," Aurora replied. I blinked. Odem would say she gave up too easy. I would say the same thing except that made it my turn.
Now, I'd have all that explaining to do. Amaryllis stepped into the mud room and handed me the comm phone. I tried to tell her my situation.
"I think there is a synagogue here. They're not Orthodox but they do have services even in the summer..." That was a start. "I'll talk to your placement specialist about a Hebrew teacher. I can't promise, but I'll try."
"And you want me to live here while you try?" I threw the ball back at Amaryllis who was playing an interesting game when you thought about it.
"Yes, is that OK?" she asked.
How was I supposed to answer that. In a way. I all ready had. I was washing my clothes. Amaryllis and Ondina were fine with my dietary requirements. I was still in the North East. If I could continue my religious education on the side of my secular studies, I guessed everything was OK. Since I never knew first best, there was no second best. It wasn't a question of doors opening, closing, or slamming. I was here. There were worse places and if there were better ones, I wasn't going to imagine them because most of the time they existed in the imagination only.
Good Faith and the Rabba
By the time my laundry was in the drier, Amaryllis and Ondina, the two adults in charge, actually my two mentors or would-be mentors, had things as under control as most adults get them. First, I had to eat, so too did Odem. One of the older girls (There were lots of those; for this mentoring house, Burden of Dreams, took two to three girls a year each and every year)had made fried eggs and bacon and given some to Aurora who thought this a fine breakfast, though her favorite breakfast was waffles with strawberries and whip cream and easy on the strawberries. She skipped the orange juice and swigged two percent milk while I had my religious conversation with Amaryllis and Odem argued with Ed Branch back in Atlanta.
I talked to Ed Branch too and they even put Kohana, my favorite Placement Specialist, on. Kohana promised to help find me a Hebrew and Judaics teacher. As for the rest, "I think your new house is acting in good faith. Will you give them a chance?" she asked. This was much better than asking if I was OK. I agreed. I need to keep in touch with Kohana. She helped me out a lot in middle school, but I'll tell you all about that some other time. Some grownups are really smart and some....Let's speak the truth. They are not only dumb, they are downright destructive. OK, that's said.
And Amaryllis and Ondina had things under control, so that meant seeing that Odem and I had breakfast or more exactly brunch. "What do you girls customarily eat?" Ondina asked. Odem who had been hounded out of our triple, shared bedroom where she'd gone to hide in pure cussedness, answered: "I like Grape Nuts or Wheat Chex with skim milk or soy milk and fresh fruit." "I think we have Wheaties, but the milk is two percent. There's a supermarket out at the Mega Mall. You can get anything you need there." Odem looked past Ondina. It was an obnoxious gesture.
I was still not hungry and too preoccupied to think about food. I was waiting, I think, to be made to eat. What I wanted, of course, no one could feed me. I wanted lentil soup or ziti with red sauce or something hot and moist made in the industrial kitchen in the Arnot dining hall, a last supper in the woods, of which the whole adventure with the priests last night deprived me. Nothing else would ever taste as good again. I knew that. "I'll eat anything that doesn't have meat and milk together, shellfish, crustaceans, or pork,&quiot; I repeated the mantra of meeting my hosts half way. People will really meet you half way if you obey dietary laws, and you have to respect that or at least recognize that if you feel that it is not enough.
"Fine, I'm going to make a pasta frittata with the left over penne so it doesn't go bad and put some zucchini and peppers in it. You girls eat that?" Ondina asked.
"What's a frittata?" asked Aurora who had stayed in the kitchen to watch the morning's social action and share the pain.
"An Italian omlette,&quiot; Ondina answered.
"You cook Italian?"
"Sometimes," Ondina answered. "I mostly use up the leftovers. If you want gourmandise, talk to Odette." Odette, I realized, must be one of the older girls.
Amaryllis gave all of us a kind of wink and nod at the mention of Odette's name. Sorry, this was an inside joke, and I only got here last night. I watched Ondina get out three very sad looking zucchinis and two or three cubanelle peppers and begin to wash and cut up the vegetables with a practiced air. Aurora asked if the cubanelles were hot peppers. Ondina said they weren't and offered Aurora a taste. Aurora shook her head and sat on a kitchen chair attempting to look bored.
"I think Odette is still asleep," Ondina continued a conversation with everyone and no one.
"She's up," Amaryllis answered. "She went for her constitutional. She's de-stressing herself."
"That kid has been de-stressing since the end of May," sighed Ondina.
"It's not Odette's fault, that this place thinks it's still the turn of the century even when it's almost a new century," sighed Amaryllis. "None of the nineteens or eighteens have jobs."
"I can't quarrel with that Marli, but it's the attitude of permanent vacation that gets to me."
"It's just a pose,&qout; Amaryllis responded. "The girl has been cooking one of the dinner options four nights a week. That's a lot of cooking, and the fourth floor bathroom actually looks reasonable. You know who's been taking care of it."
"OK, she pulls her weight, but she's managed to crawl under my skin this summer and live there."
"OK, at least your honest." Ondina began to scramble the eggs.
"May I have a cup of tea?" I asked. I was tired of hearing grownups tear down someone who was close to their own age, or at least a fellow adult as if she was a kid like me.
"The kettle's on the back burner. Tea bags are in the cupboard over the spice rack. I hope we have your brand," Ondina was trying to be obliging.
"Is this a hotel or something?" Aurora asked.
"No but you're going to be living away from home for a whole month. You may as well be comfortable," Amaryllis explained.
"Food is not love." I answered though that is not true. Food is evidence of good faith. A person has to remember that. That is why the Israelite children complained about the manna in the book of Bamidbar. Bad food is symbolic of bad faith. Being made to eat what you detest is coercion. Being able to pick what you eat and eat what you like is evidence of kindness and dignity.
I found some vanilla caramel flavored after dinner tea and a big mug. I filled the battered kettle with water and set it to heat on the big gas stove that made a blue flame with a whoosh.
"It took the Priests to get gas lines laid this far out of town," Amaryllis picked up the nowhere conversation.
Odem shrugged. She tasted the zucchini which was fine with her. "I really care about nutrition," she informed her mentors.
"There's more important things," I thought. Besides, Odem did not look like a jock. She was a skinny kid, an inch shorter than me, with very short, very tousseled mouse brown hair and tired looking brown eyes, sallow skin, and racoon rings. She wore a grey heather t-shirt with the words IDF and letters in Hebrew on it and burgundy atheltic pants with a white stripe down the side. On her feet were what looked like military boots. The shirt and pants were clean. Somewhere during her week in Ithaca, Odem had done laundry.
Odem rested one elbow on the table as Ondina heated the butter in a big frying pan. A fritatta is just minimally disturbed scrambled eggs with stuff added to them. The stuff in this case was zucchini, peppers, onion, and some Italian spice mix and a bit of salt. I watched Ondina flip the whole thing just as the screen door that led to the alcove that housed the mud room at the back of the kitchen opened and in walked a youngish woman with two brown braids. She looked like a smaller, thinner, more intense version of Amaryllis except Amaryllis had chestnut colored hair and blue eyes.
"Wow, smells good!" the woman cried out.
"It''s pasta frittata, want some?" asked Ondina.
"Yeah, I'm starved. Any news?"
"Here you see 'em," commented Ondina. "We got three fourteens."
The woman looked us over and introduced herself as Odette Burden, Founding Member of Burden of Dreams, soon to be a sophomore at University of Northern New England in Hanover New Hampshire. "Dartmouth," whispered Odem under her breath. Aurora blinked.
"My Placement Specialist went there," I told Odem and Aurora.
"Small world," Odette commented. "What's on today's program?"
"Odette," Ondina announced as she flipped the frittata, "I want you to take these fourteens to the Mega Mall late this afternoon. One has a shopping run."
&quto;We all have a shopping run. This kitchen is out of stuff."
"Fine," sighed Ondina. "I also want you taking these girls out to eat. They can sample your cooking some other night."
Odette shrugged boney shoulders and found a place at the table. "And while you're here, help these fourteens set the table," Ondina added.
"Yes Ma'am!" Odette replied. Odem did a bad job of suppressing a smile. Aurora stared at the floor. She told Odette she had all ready been fed. I learned where the plates and forks were. The frittata tasted terrific. I guessed I really was hungry. Still it made me think of sitting in a kitchen at home and drinking tea. My mom's kitchen could be a fine place sometimes.
After we ate, I changed into a skirt and panty hose. "I thought you said you were out in the woods," Odem commented as she watched me from a seat on her bed. We had three beds and a big plywood table between them in our room. We also had dressers shoved into what had been meant to be a huge closet. There was something oddly retrofitted about the townhouse. I couldn't picture the place as home. I wondered what the others felt.
"I'm not changing my clothes," Odem told Aurora and me. "It's Sunday. It's my EXPLETIVE DELETEDing day off!"
Aurora just looked uncomfortable. Our early afternoon errand was for me to walk to the parsonage near the synagogue and talk to the Rabba, as the clergy person was called. A Rabba is a common name for a female religious teacher. Some people call a rabba a female female rabbi. Given certain issues that happened when I was in middle school, which I will tell you about some time, a rabba was just fine with me. Of course that could change after I met her.
Since Odem was "brought up Jewish and even bas mitzvahed" she decided to come with me, and Aurora wasn't going to play odd girl out. She said she was curious. Odem warned her the Rabba had no horns. I almost laughed. Odem's joke was not that good. I had the map. I was supposed to be able to find my way anywhere. We came back downstairs and out the back door beyond the mud room, and we were on our own. We had about three miles to travel by foot on mostly oil and gravel roads under a forest of spindly looking trees. If I looked carefully at the trees, I could see holes in a lot of the leaves, and leaves with pieces chewed off of them as if the trees were one giant bug buffet. "That's odd," I commented showing a damaged branch to Aurora.
"This place creeps me out," complained Odem. "It's way out in the you-know-whatting boonies. Look how far apart the houses are."
"You scaird?" Aurora asked Odem.
"No, not yet," Odem replied. "It's just you know what lives out in the boonies."
"Terrorists and radicals," I singsonged.
"Do you really believe the Priests would send us where it's not safe?" asked Aurora.
"I don't know about the priests but our house is under Mentoring Services Ed Branch. I trust them."
Odem snorted. "Verify and then trust," she snorted again.
Besides having their houses separated by scrubby fourth or fifth growth woods, these oil and gravel roads here in rural New Jersey had names like Retreat, Tranquility, and Old Homestead. Tranquility eventually led to Upper Highland Lakes Drive and the beach at Lake Five. The lakes here all have numbers. Someone may have tried to name them, but no one remembers the names. There was a lifeguard on the beach and a bunch of little kids taking swimming lessons. A chain link fence surrounded the beach and a guard in grey shorts and a matching guybara shirt sat guard. He was an old man who wore a ratty straw hat. His big orange button said "Badge Inspector."
The BADGE INSPECTOR pushed back his ratty straw hat and looked us over with watery blue eyes. He looked really hard at us. Odem returned his stare. Aurora mumbled something under her breath. I just kept going and was half way down the beach parking lot before I realized my two roommates were straggling behind me. I stood still and waited for them to catch up. Aurora looked relieved. Odem looked irritated. We made a left beyond the parking lot and followed the pot holed road about a third of the way along the lake side, and then took the path up into the woods. There were empty soft drink containers, paper cups, and cigarette butts on the ground. There were other unmentionables too. Odem found them. "People here are pigs," she commented.
"People anywhere can be pigs," I responded.
At the top of the trail, the houses were closer together and many had lawns instead of just hiding in the trees like the houses on Grandview, Retreat, and Tranquility. The houses also were old and cute. Many were covered with half rounds for siding which made them look like log cabins. Others had little bits of gingerbread trim. Some even had gardens. We followed the road left and then let it turn us right again. About six blocks later, we came out by the synagogue which was a former fake log cabin painted the color of avacadoes. The parsonage was a sickly yellow and also covered in half rounds to make it look like a cabin. Odem was right.
This place was really in the boonies. I tried not to think about that. Everyone knows that Mentoring Services and the Company doesn't really have control in rural areas. People don't talk about the resistance, except that they do if you know what I mean. People talk even less about the Priests. I knew the Rabba would just talk about services and perhaps finding me a teacher. It couldn't help if she pitched in. I also knew or hoped the Rabba like me was from somewhere else because then she would be on the side of Mentoring Services or maybe on the side of the Priests, but certainly not with the radicals or terrorists. They weren't the Resistance as far as I was concerned.
I knocked on the parsonage door because it had no bell. A middle aged woman with jet black hair and white side burns answered and invited all three of us inside. She made us tea which Aurora refused. I realized I was going to hate the pitter pat of soft conversation the minute I had the steaming cup in front of me. I stammered something about wanting to go to services. I explained I could read Hebrew and was fourteen. I watched the Rabba's face brighten. She could use someone to help lead services. Well, I guessed I was going to be useful no matter what. I kind of liked the idea.
Then I asked. "Is the Resistance active here?"
Aurora gave Odem a look that she avoided.
"Yes," Rabba Weinberg told us. "But they only attack those they fear. I'm just not scarey enough. They realize I was 'brought in' to serve the 'Priest kids,' which is what they call teenagers in mentoring houses. You're just 'priest kids' by the way, so you don't have to worry. The only time 'priest kids' get attacked is if they have military training and are looking for a fight."
I knew I would have to call my Placement Specialist, but I really didn't want to tell her that I was scaird for my safety. I wasn't sure the Rabba wasn't right. I had a synagogue and the Rabba would be happy to teach me so I'd keep my Hebrew and Judaics skills strong. So far everyone appeared to be acting in good faith...well almost.
"Well that killed half a day," sighed Odem as we made our way down the trail toward Lake Five.
"You spent half the day sleeping," quipped Aurora.
"I needed the sleep."
"I wonder if we can go swimming," I wondered aloud as I thought of the beach.
"Aren't you scaird of the guard?" sing-songed Odem.
"Not really. You know, he may know stuff."
"You think he'd really tell us?" Odem asked.
"Better safe than sorry," Aurora agreed.
Clue me In
"Of course we're going swimming," Odette told me. "It's ninty stinking degrees out and it's summer. I'll show the guard your papers at the gate. Everyone knows you're new. Oh, and the locals stare at the new priest kids. That's what they call you here. It's not a big deal. They even called Pedra that."
"Who's Pedra?" I asked.
"One of the other nineteens," Odette answered. "Pedra, Quetzalli, and I are the Founding Members. Ondina and Amaryllis were the Founding Leaders. You need five to start a mentoring house."
I blinked. Aurora shook her head. "How'd you meet?" asked Odem. Thankyou Odem.
"Ondina was a student teacher in my seventh grade science class in Upper Saddle River. Yes, I'm sort of local.&quiot; Odette paused to sniff. "Pedra is really local. Amaryllis' mother lives in Barry Lakes not far from here and Amaryllis spent her placement in an Ed Branch house in Westchester County. She and Ondina went to college together. Neither of them liked where their lives were going. There's not a lot of work for fresh graduates without connections, so there we were..."
Something about the story did not make sense. "You were all in Upper Saddle River," wherever that was, I asked.
"No," sighed Odette. "Pedra was local. Her parents worked for the county after the ski areas went out of business. It was good work, but it was company work. Pedra had a rough time of it. This is not the most intellectual community and Pedra...well she's good at finding trouble."
"Any one with any intelligence finds trouble," Odem explained.
Odette shrugged in response. Aurora shook her head. "Ondina and Amaryllis each said they had a kid, but that left a fifth. That was Quetzalli who was also having an outrageously hard time of things, but not getting in trouble, which was really bad. I used to call her Toilet where the adults couldn't hear it because it disturbed them that she really was one. She didn't mind being called Toilet. She knew it was a statement of fact."
"That's gross!" protested Aurora.
"No, it's black humor," Odette replied. "Poor Zalli was very much a stuffed up toilet, crapped on, full of crap and unable to flush it away. Toilets though are pretty indestructible though. Ever try to smash one? Pedra's dad did, but that's another story. I think Zalli's dad did too, but OK. Being indestructible is not being resilient, but Quetzalli got herself to school each day after getting told not to stand next to whomever on the bus even though she needed to hold on to a seat. You can see the kind of stuff people put in her, but she just kept going, didn't really fight back, just kept going."
"Don't toilets overflow?" I inquired. I was perfectly aware of the vileness adults and kids could heep on other kids, but as far as I was concerned adults could do more damage.
"Zalli must have plunged herself out secretly." Odette did not get the hint.
"There she was in eighth grade, a little weird, very, very learned in history and literature, probably knew more than the teachers. Pedra passed her notes in broken French which the teachers found and couldn't understand. Pedra was glad they passed notes so they wouldn't get their comm phones confiscated.
"Anyway, Pedra pulled in Quetzalli and that made five and we got the house. We broke the rule about not having local kids, but no one wants a toilet full of human waste and Pedra was just trouble. They overlooked me, and the next year's kids came from out of state as they've pretty much been doing ever since. The idiots only get angry if your house recruits their children. They have a few local houses for company types, and everyone else is off the grid. You're just a priest kid to them so it's OK. You're not one of theirs. Your house pays property taxes so people like that. See how it works?"
By now what was left of the frittata was jumping around none too happily in my stomach. I wondered how I could get out of swimming.
"Where's Pedra and Quetzalli?" Odem asked.
&quiot;Pedra's coming to the beach. Zalli is watching the Y-Chromosome gang," quipped Odem.
"Burden of Dreams," Odem continued. "is not all female. The class right before yours, the fifteens, has two boys in it. The one girl, boards with one of the sixteens. That's Xannika from New York City who can be insufferable. I was not that bad at her age and even Pedra wasn't. Zalli wouldn't know how to be insufferable if she tried, but she'd get on people's nerves anyway. She's nust naturally good at it. Xannika tried to be a pain so it was good she was the only girl.
"Anyway, boys have problems. That's why there are co-ed dormitories at colleges because if men live with women, they stop acting like boys. Otherwise they trash stuff and they pee out windows and just have an urge to pick the dumbest thing in the pile. Kind of like a moth always finds a flame.
"So if our Y-chromosome twins go out, they need a chaperone. Zalli volunteered today. She's up at Seckler Center. The boys gather there to play basketball and the trouble is they have to have teams, so the locals and the priest boys play together. Well you can guess what they really do?"
"Fight," Aurora guessed correctly.
"You got it," sighed Odette. Zalli usually brings a book and sits on the sidelines so the leaders don't have to kill their time. Just he presence of an adult usually keeps the boys in line. I think Zalli understands getting beat up better than most of us. I mean she can see why Tweetie doesn't back down. Even Jules will stand up and get the crap beat out of him, so she's a real sport about protecting the boys. You know when you think about it, it must be very hard to be a boy."
"It depends how you are raised," I explained.
Odette raised her eyebrows. I suddenly did not want to talk. "There are places where boys have all kinds of privileges and are just stars for being boys and girls are expected to be real quiet."
"Well that's not around here," Odette replied and I'm glad I did not have to tell the rest of the story.
We changed into our suits and walked the mile and a half to the beach. Pedra was with us. She looked like she could have been Odem's twin, except her hair was shorter and she carried a tattered tome and a wireless computing pad under her arm. She said a good towel would keep the sand out of the computer. She wanted to do some programming while she sunned herself. Odem asked her what languages she knew and soon the two were talking about access codes and security and social engineering. Aurora dragged her feet. She complained she was tired all ready.
"You'll get strong in no time," Odette assured her. "It even helps with school."
"You mean like gym?" Aurora asked.
"Better than gym," Odette answered and I felt nostalgic for the hiking and ropes course in middle school. I knew if I fell asleep in the sun besides a burnt back, I'd have painfully nostalgic dreams. It was better to swim in the slightly yellowish lake waters out to the raft where several boys lay on the hot plastic and others dared eachother to make the biggest splash and perform can openers and flips. I sat demurely on the plastic and stared back at the shore. I did not want to spoil a good, sunny, Sunday with thoughts of my own past which was not a bad past. It could have been, but it wasn't.
"Hey idiot!" one of the boys screamed, acting like a...well a boy. "You, new kid! Get in the water, idiot. There's a horsefly on your head." Horse flies bite like deer flies. They need clean water to breed, and Highland Lakes, New Jersey was horse fly country. I remembered what I knew about horse flies and deer flies. Their Latin name was tabinidae. Unlike mosquitoes, they did not have sucking mouth parts, but like other creatures that lived on human blood they had nasty venom that acted as an irritant and anti-coagulant. The horse flies slobber this venem as they scratch and gnaw on your skin in order to get their drink. That is why deer and horse fly bites hurt like. Youch! The horsefly took a drink from my scalp and then buzzed around trying to decide if he or she wanted seconds.
"Hey stupid! Get in the water!" shouted the boy who was treading water and trying to be helfpul. I stood up slowly and jumped off the raft.
Good Food and Lashon Hara
"How far are we going to walk today?" asked a tired and exasperated Aurora.
"Ten to twelve miles, if you count travel in the mall," Pedra answered. Pedra had ditched her computer and wore a raggedy, ochre colored t-shirt. Quetzalli, the third member of the Fouding Sisterhood, wore a cornflower blue and white striped, V-neck, terry-cloth t-shirt tucked into pull on light blue beach pants with a muted print and a bow in their elastic front. The bow sat unevenly. Quetzalli's brown pony tail was also ratty. She had round shoulders and would have brought up the rear, except that Aurora looking red faced and tired did the honors.
"Your range is supposed to be about fifteen if you're healthy," I informed a none-too-happy Aurora.
"I guess I'll be sickly then," Aurora informed all of us.
"Any news?" Odette asked Quetzalli.
"You really want to know?"Zalli asked back.
"You don't want to know," Pedra informed us all. We were walking down a hilly stretch of Terrace Drive, a dirt road that formed the backway from Grandview Circle to Old Homestead which led out to Highland Lakes Rd. which was the main drag, or as much as a main drag as you have this far out in the country. At the corner of Old Homestead and Highland Lakes Road we saw two huge houses, mansions really. One just peeked out of a seriously solid looking wooden fence, painted optical white and with no hedges or trim to shelter it.
"Idiots," Pedra explained.
"Why?" I asked. "What did they do?"
"They claim to be warriors," answered Quetzalli. "Not paramilitary, fantasy warriors, except they have real weapons, not guns, but fists, feet, a few knives and sticks. You can see where this goes can't you?"
"Were they at the basketball court today?" I can be a quick study when I feel like it.
"Thankfully not, but sometimes they go looking for locals. The problem is they give us priest kids a bad name."
Pedra just shook her head. Aurora quietly gasped. Odem straggled and stared at the fence hunting for a gate, but the gate to the house of warriors was solid and closed. Odem uttered a curse under her breath.
Further down Highland Lakes Road, we passed another mansion. This one had an emerald lawn and sculpted shrubs that made it stand out like a sore thumb.
"I hate this place," sighed Pedra.
"What's the matter with it?" Aurora asked.
"It's ostentatious," Odette spoke up. "It's a priest house. They have their own clan as they call it."
"What's wrong with that?" Aurora asked again.
"You'll see..." Odette let the answer hang. We finally made it to a faded parking lot in need of a paving. In the middle of the parking lot sat a building covered in imitation redwood the color of dried blood on the first story and white vinyl siding on the second story. It had large glass windows painted white like dead fish eyes. Pasted over one window was a large, white sheet of butcher paper on which had been carefully painted a red cross.
"This is the Highland Lakes Urgent Care. It used to be a General Store when Pedra and Zalli were small." Odette explained.
"It went out of business," Pedra explain. "Everything around here goes out of business, but this was where we'd go to buy milk and eggs and such. In the summer, they used to have popsicles."
"You're making me hungry," Aurora complained.
"We'll eat soon. I'm under orders to see you get fed." Odette rocked back and forth on her feet. Up against the front of the Urgent care were weathered, wooden benches. Most of these were full with an odd assortment of humanity. there were bloated old women and scraggly old men, pastey mothers with pastey babies and toddlers, and a few overweight and unhappy looking children. Other unhappy children in dirty shirts, kicked pebbles and a few soda and beer containers around the mostly empty parking lot. In a corner of the lot, adults sat in beat up and rusted pick up trucks exuding contrails of blue smoke and hawking occasional streams of toabcco juice out of open cab windows. Several adults slouched in a conclave and several kids my own age stood in their own protective huddle. We of course formed a huddle of our own.
"What happens next?" Odem finally asked.
"This," Odette explained, "is an entry point. The bus comes every half hour. It takes any one who rides it to the mall. Usually they let any one who arrives on the bus into the mall. Sometimes the priests give them free chits. We just show our ID's and your papers since you don't have ID's yet, or the priests will give you day chits. Then it's inside and you buy what you need, as much as you need, all free."
Aurora smiled. Odem shook her head. "You're from Atlanta," Quetzalli all but bellowed at me. "Think Moquias."
"I don't go to Moqui all that often," I answered. Moquias was in the Shared Conceptual Space. It was the alternate Atlanta. It had a big restaurant called Brinjins that advertised all over the place. So what.... I had school. I didn't have much time to hang out at malls. It was nice to have decent clothes, but other than that, I had no use for malls.
I also had no use for the tram that wheeled its way into the parking lot from the back of the general store turned public clinic. It was an open tram, that looked like a railroad in an amusement park only larger. According to Odette it was well designed to hold grocery carts. We had two such carts. We sat in one of the cars closest to the tail of the train to nowhere which had wheels for the open road but no roof and a driver in a sealed cab that looked like the chopped off front end of a pickup truck. I watched several men and women spill out of their pickups. One or two embraced their wives or girlfrends who were now going to ride the train. I watched smokers throw down their cigarettes and squish them out somewhat energetically and then drag themselves to the tram. There were no seats in the tram. It was just big open boxes.
I thought of my trip to the Tile House yesterday and my ride in the bubble car. An expletive crossed through my brain, and then I drew up my knees and rested my face on them. I closed my eyes. If you don't see the transition, your brain does not get the "I've been poisoned" signal that sometimes comes when reality changes too fast. Actually stick sickness does not just effect the brain. It effects every cell because every cell knows something is wrong. Not everyone gets stick sick. One's body and mind can get used to routine stick travel, but if you spend a few days to a week living without it... I did not want to think about having to throw up again.
I felt the tram turn beneath me. It rolled smoothly. That was a plus. It rolled straight for a while. I listened to the conversation which Odette narrated: "This house," by which she meant Burden of Dreams, "grew too fast for its own good. I don't mind. I like a lot of the younger kids, but we eat together formally only once a week. Otherwise there are four dinner groups. I have the European dinner which means we eat late. In the winter it becomes Xannika's group or it will be this year."
"That's a group of one," Zalli reminded Odette.
"Maybe not...Sometimes Xanni cooks for Ondina. Anyway, we eat in groups of four or five, and that's good because some kids could live on the dullest food. They have all this lovely stuff to buy but never give it a second look. It's the same dull stuff they'd buy if they could only shop at the A & P down in Vernon." Odette snorted.
"The preceeding was a paid advertisement," Zalli finished the performance.
"Do you eat Odette's food?" Aurora found the right question.
"Yes, and I'm a weirder cook than she is," Zalli boasted.
"What about you?&quiot; Aurora queried Pedra.
"I can eat anything," Pedra sighed.
"I'm worried about nutrition," Odem reminded us.
"Ahava, are you all right?" Aurora noticed I was curled in a protective ball watching the world from the brown behind closed eyes.
"Yeah, so far," I answered. I managed to arrive at the mall without feeling nauseous. Now when I say mall, some of you may be thinking of the old kind of mall, the one your parents or grandparents remember or the large, grey and tan buildings turned half into apartments, offices, and sometimes with shops. You may have seen pictures of indoor shopping arcades and think: "That is what malls used to be," or you may go to a mall in the Shared Conceptual Space like the Brinjins Mall in Moqui or the North Moqui Mall.
A mall is a city of stores. The old time malls built two generations ago had dull outsides and sat in a sea of asphalt, because everyone drove his or her own car to them. The malls of the Shared Conceptual Space, the malls I know, and the North Jersey Mall as this one was called had only a small lot near the service entrances, and gardens instead. In the gardens was a circle of pavement with tent like pavillions all around. The tents were different colors. The colors were a code. Lights kept the tents lighted at night so you could always see their colors. The color code for Highland Lakes trams was light yellow and black checks in big squares like a checkered flag at a stock car track.
We entered the circle of tented pavillions down a road between the store buildings. There were gardens between all the buildings that stretched out in all driections. Some had skylights and windows. Many had fancy porticoes. There were flowering trees and fountains in the gardens. I even saw a live peacock, not an animation, walking his pea hen around and guarding her from shoppers. Aurora said that she heard that peacocks were mean birds. I did not say anything.
"I want to go to Jersey Merpa," Odette told all of us. "There are restaurants near Jersey Merpa or we can eat in the Lily Pad Buffet."
"The Lily Pad Buffet will put Brinjins to shame," Zalli boasted.
"Is it a long walk?" Aurora asked.
"Yes, but you need to get used to walking." Pedra showed no pity.
We walked through the gardens in the early evening with their dazzling flowers, flowering trees, artificially manipulated plants etc... If someone had built this place to impress they had failed only through overkill. Then we walked through some of the buildings. We passed stores that "sold" designer goods. We passed stores that "sold" make your own shirts and pants which I loved. We passed vendors of toys and amusements, and we passed the temples.
No sociological tour of the mall was complete without this and I knew we were going to see this. This is how Priests earned their name. They worshipped or pretended to worship just about everything. The word I learned for this in school was polytheist. The word my rabbis used and they used it for Christians too was idolatry. In reality, no one worships idols even if they make images of their favorite deities. To say someone worships a statue is ignorance, still worshipping Santa Claus or Mother Nature or one of half a dozen fertility godesses or war gods, or characters from a TV program borders on the silly. Still seeing the temples showed that the Founding Sisters wanted to do more than just stuff us with food and tempt us with merchandise. This was their way of saying we were in deep with the Priesthood and not really with Mentoring Services.
I thought about that a bit, but then Aurora distracted me. "Please," she begged. "Can we go inside...uh may we?" Aurora was no longer complaining of an empty belly or tired feet. Her blue eyes showed bedazzlement. We stood outside the Temple of San Rio. It's door was made in the shape of a giant smiling Hello Kitty head and one entered through a discrete side entrance.
"We don't go in temples to gawk and laugh," Zalli laid down the law. "Most of us have a god we take seriously."
I stared at the floor. "Polytheist!" I thought.
"I just want to go inside the Hello Kitty Temple. I promise to be real quiet and respectful," Aurora begged.
"Let's go," Pedra said.
"Please," begged Aurora.
"I said we were going, didn't I?" Pedra told Aurora. "You don't mind?" she asked the rest of us. I didn't mind. I knew my manners. I had a few classmates who worshipped the Katrina, the fierce lady of the sea. I knew one girl who worshipped Kali. She was a bit crazy, but at least the dark goddess gave her an outlet.
We walked single file into the precincts of San Rio. Aurora knew all the characters. Hello Kitty, Hello Kitty Tom Cat, Badz Maru the crow, Choco-Fan Kitty, Cardi Nalli, Little Twin Stars etc... She knew most of their stories. A priest in a Hello Kitty shirt and teal sarong and shaven head listened as Aurora acted as tour guide. When she got done with her explanations, the P riest turned to Aurora and asked. "Would you like to light a candle to your favorite Hello Kitty character?" Aurora accepted the offer and we watched as she lighted two candles, one for Hello Kitty who was her favorite and the other for the Little Twin Stars. She knelt at the altars, hands clasped and prayed silently. We left the temple as silently as we arrived.
I was glad the Priests had not bothered the rest of us. They were polite Priests. "Are you feeling better?" Zalli broke the silence.
"A lot better," Aurora answered.
We came out by the canal that was a stagnant, deep, narrow and choked with pale green lily pads floating on coffee colored water. We crossed one of the canal's many bridges and walked a good ten feet above the water on a narrow deck. The sliding doors to the food court were propped open to let in whatever breezes flowed off the canal. "It's not the Lily Pad," Odette explained, "but there are a dozen food stands here." Odette handed us our papers that included temporary ID's. Our last names were all ready Burden, even though we were technically only "trialling" our new house. Odem saw this immediately. She swore.
"We need a table," Zalli reminded us, and picked out a random table that was not exactly clean. Aurora started wiping it off. Odette pointed out the various food stands and what they sold not that they really sold anything. I did not even have to show my papers to get a falafel sandwich and a tall, frosty Coke. Odette had an olive and artichoke calzone with dipping sauce. Aurora had a fried chicken combo meal, and Pedra had an Italian sub with hot peppers while Zalli had cabbage rolls that came in a small bucket.
"You're not stick sick any more," Zalli commented as we sat down to eat.
"I didn't see out so I'm OK," I responded.
"OK, Zalli, what's going on?" Odette asked an old question. I expected an old answer.
"It's hard to tell," Quetzalli told all of us. "The local men were watching the game protecting their boys just like I was protecting ours, and when they get together, certain local men talk trash about all the stuff they plan to do. They've been talking that trash since the beginning of time, but for the first time in a long time, they noticed me."
"You are rather hard not to notice," Odette ruffled.
"Not really. People are used to me," sniffed Zalli. "Everyone forgets about middle school and high school most of the time, but this afternoon....It was different. One of the men whom I try not to think about what he did when we rode on the fifth and sixth grade bus... he says: 'Quet-zollie, you need to tell your leaders to keep the kids inside for a few days. If things really happen, the woods may not be safe this time.'"
"What is that supposed to mean?" Pedra asked.
"It means a bunch of drunken and bored fools are going to get very drunk and then pretend to attempt to take out the priests and the Barn Boss." Zalli leaned back. "Except this time they set a date for it."
"Sounds quite well oragnized," commented Odette.
"It's got to be bullshit. Do you know what the off the grid unemployment rate is?" Pedra asked. "All the Priests have to do is not let the women and children on the tram and most of the locals starve. That's why talking trash is trash."
"Pride is not a rational thing," Zalli replied. "It sucks to live on handouts."
"And after the big fight what do you do?" asked Pedra.
"Come for us," Zalli replied.
"They'll call in the Army and make an example of them," Odette quipped.
"I won't say it won't serve them right," Zalli chimed in.
"Do you think we need to buy extra food?" Pedra asked.
Zalli licked her lips. She glanced around the table. "Yes," was all she said.
We returned to Highland Lakes with two huge carts and three overflowing backpacks. The supermarket which was called the Jersey Merpa was fantastically huge with the most beautiful produce I had ever seen. This stuff attracted Odette like a magnet and she showered the three of us about questions of what we ate or were willing to eat. Yes, I could eat chard. I had tried it. It was fine. Yes, I liked jicama. Odem said she'd eat any fruit and vegetable. Zalli warned her about bitter melon. Aurora shook her head. I got to help fill a bag with plums and another with peaches and a third with nectarines. Odem wanted fresh figs and Zalli talked her into powdered milk for her Grapenuts cereal and her All Bran and a box of Wheatena into the bargain. At the exotic, custom butcher counter, Odette got veal neck, lamb neck, and beef liver. She also got liverwurst with onions for her own sandwiches. We got whitefish salad in the deli and ten kinds of peppers in a jar. Well, not maybe ten but lots of different kinds of things. The frozen stuff went into the cart with the insulated box. We bought extra frozen vegetables and cans of sardines and some dull, white, albacore tuna for Aurora, as well as several packages of frozen, fried chicken to keep her happy.
It was a long hard pull back to the tram stop. A woman who had a blotchy face and who was probably a good seven months along in a pregnancy admired the fullness of our carts. "All that stuff," she commented. Perhaps her men were not in on the plot. I realized I needed to call my Placement Specialist. Kohana Pascal, my Placement Specialist, would be anything but thrilled with the safety situation, even if it turned out to be a night of drunken brawls and nothing else.
I remembered to stare at the groceries not the road on the return trip and took my turn guiding our huge load up bumpy roads. "The Mall Priests didn't accuse you of theft?" Amaryllis asked us when we got home. Then she asked what I had eaten for dinner. She was glad to see I ate. I wondered if people felt sorry for me. That doesn't happen all too often and the kind of gentle solicitude I received actually felt good. "We're having a house meeting at 10pm," said a boy with cafe au lait skin and a very precise sounding voice. "Some idiots by Seckler Center gave Tweetie and Jewels and earful."
"It was me who got the earful," Zalli corrected the precise voiced boy who introduced himself as Dante who was eighteen and the house' first male member.
"I got a comm phone call," Amaryllis iterrupted the grocery unpacking. "An uncle of mine warned my mother that there was going to be an attack on the Company on Thursday night. Apparently this one is an open secret so Thursday at sunset, we're locked down until the police arrest the idiots. I have to presume the police all ready know."
"Yes, the Vernon bumblebees or maybe the New Jersey State Troopers. They're right close at hand," Ondina popped her head out of the office near the mud room.
"We've been through this before," Amaryllis replied. "When the moon is full or the temperatures soar or the plants in Patterson and Hackensack cut back on hours or shifts, this kind of thing happens. No one likes to just live on handouts unless they're in a clan."
"Are we a clan or a mentoring house?&qut; asked Odem.
"Both," Ondina replied. "I'll be glad when we make it to the weekend, if the threatened unrest has died down."
Bottom of the Barrel
July 19, 2083
I awoke to Odem's complaining and arguing with Aurora. The sun had just risen and my two roommates sat on their beds, still not dressed, and arguing fiercely.
"Didn't you notice?" Odem continued driving home her point. "They just took us home and now they're putting us to work pretty much all day. And Saturday night when we got here, we didn't have a party or even much of a ceremony."
"What do you call that thing on the beach with the candles?" Aurora asked. Aurora was technically right, but I had been too sick and disoriented to care, and Odem had quite frankly been too upset to notice.
"How about not enough," Odem replied. "Of course I have it coming. I won't say what I did at school, but if I need to crack software, it's a useful skill. Of course Mentoring Services wouldn't let me do anything computer related at Nationals. When you're punished, you take it, but you sound like you were a good kid. I mean you worship Hello Kitty, but that's just dumb, not the kind of thing that gets a person in trouble."
"Hello Kitty is not dumb. She's the Gentle Soul. You got a problem with that?" Aurora asked. No one noticed me. I hated being left out, but at the same time I was utterly relieved. My therapist, and yes, I have one of those or rather had -- I miss her because she was if not wise at least willing to listen -- told me to never just sit there and count your losses. Yes, we didn't have much of a ceremonial welcome, but yes we'd also had the frittata for breakfast. Yes, we were just trialling, though there was no reason this was not going to be permanent, and last but not least, the house leaders here had taken me seriously with my religious demands and letting us get in touch with our Placement Specialists or at least Ed Branch. Did good faith make up for the lack of a party? As I said before, I would have been to sick to care. My therapist said never to just count your losses. Of course everybody counts their losses, but the trick is to also count your gains. Sometimes the losses outwin the gains but not that often. If the losses outwin the gains, at least your know their true extent which is often less than you would like to believe. You may even figure out a way to fix your losses, but that is lesson two. Odem never had a therapist and Odem liked to be angry. For some people being angry and watching others get angry is fun. It's called thriving on drama.
"And what about Ahava?" Aurora mispronounced my name. Thankyou Aurora for drawing me into this fight. I realized I needed to find my toiletries and head to the bathroom which was up on the fourth floor and wash up.
"I got in terrible trouble years ago," I replied, "but it's long over."
"What'd you do?" Odem was genuinely fascinated, and so too was Aurora who now realized she was in with two "bad kids."
"My parents..." I began "only wanted to put their kids in religious homes. This kept them from being taken in the regular way. By religious I mean Or-tho-dox Jewish. Some people call this frum for short. They wanted to put their kids in frum houses and keep us from being taken. That was what parents in the community which is Toco Hills did. Well, it costs money to put your kid in a frum house, and I have a brother eleven months younger than me. Boys are more important than girls in Orthodox Judaism. I also had two younger brothers, and eventually a little sister and then another brother. The boys were worth more, and my parents needed to save for them.
"My parents paid to put my my two brothers in yeshivish houses when they were old enough to be taken, but they hid me to save money. Lots of parents hid their kids, well not lots. If you did the right favors or if they liked your kid, they gave her a scholarship. The whole thing was really messy and complicated. It was also corrupt. There I said it.
"Well we got our Barn Boss angry. She wanted her fees for placing the kids that were being hidden so she called in the cops and the cops used a stick to carve a big circular wall in one of the social halls at Beth Jacob Village, which is a huge synagogue on LaVista road. That's in Toco Hills. They marched us kids out and a lady from EdBranch was there to do our paperwork, since our Barn Boss who worked for Mentoring Services was also lazy and corrupt.
"We went down to the Dorm House on Ponce. That's Ed Branch headquarters in Atlanta. They tried to be nice to us kids. They offered us food, which I didn't eat because it wasn't kosher. They wanted me to take tests, but I told them I did not write on Shabbos. We stayed overnight and the next morning got taken and I refused to cooperate. I knew how to be a good Jew and I wasn't letting any anti-semites push me around. The nice lady in the dorm house was another matter. When I said I couldn't write: fine. She even got me orange juice on Saturday and then sent me home so I could get something to eat before testing me. And yes, I went back to let her finish the profile. I figured she really was trying to be decent and no, no one did anything bad to us kids except scare us and that was the police.
"Of course on Sunday, the rabbi and some of the leaders from the synagogue interviewed us. They wanted to rally the community around the poor kids who had been kidnapped, but we hadn't really been kidnapped. Everyone knew where we were, and we got given right back. Besides, Koahana Pascal had been kind to me. The only ones who scaird us were the police, and I wasn't scaird of a hole in the wall any more. I told the rabbis this and I got in trouble."
"You've got to be kidding!" Odem exclaimed.
"No, I'm not kidding. When you say the wrong things to certain powerful adults, you get in real, serious trouble. My school threw me out. No one would teach me Hebrew and Judaics after school because I was blackballed by the Orthodox Rabbi's Association. Ed Branch finally got me a teacher, but only after a lot of ugly, corrupt arm twisting. Meanwhile, I went to Druid Hills Magnet Academy which is a public school. It was good for me, but it disgraced my family and my mother got really upset."
"OK, so what happened to you?" Aurora asked.
"You really want to know? OK, when grownups are upset they can do awful things They're crazy and they don't know what they're doing. That's my mother. She stopped buying me clothes, even though I did not have much clothes and she had been doing that so the boys could have uniforms for their religious houses. She refused to pack me lunches or snacks for my new school. I was very hungry. The principal of D-Mag, she made me eat. I hated it at first, but I knew she was doing it to keep me from starving. She said she couldn't sit on my mother, but I was her student and if I wanted to keep going there, I had to eat. I could avoid pork and stuff like that, but I had to eat. I ate. I liked the school well enough. It was very different from Torah Academy. We had serious physical education with a ropes course and hiking. I learned I was a strong person.
"I also had a therapist. This was the principal's idea. Neither of my parents was talking to me very much. They never asked about my home work. Sometimes I'd come home late and there would have been no dinner if I didn't eat the dinner they had at school. Often there was no breakfast in the morning. No one laid a hand on me, but I would have gone crazy. I'm still half invisible at home by the way."
"Do you love your parents?" It was Aurora who asked.
"There the only parents I've got," I replied. "There are times when I don't like them very much and times when I am angry at them, though I try not to be because it's like being angry at a brick wall if you know what I mean. I wanted an out of state placement so they wouldn't be right on top of me when I was trying to get started in a new high school. Normal parents would be excited for me because I'm a good student, and they'd want to know all the stuff that is going on. My therapist says adults often empathize with teenagers in a way they don't with little kids. That's not my parents."
I was out of breatha nd out of story. I hoped no one would play "Can you top this" which sometimes happens when you tell a story like my own.
Instead, Odem offered a conclusion: "Oh you poor kid. When I think of all the dumb stuff I've done to piss my parents off, but they still look after me and worry about me and they love to talk to me. They're professors so I guess talk is part of what they do. Even when I got in trouble for hacking the filter on the computers at school, they talked to Mentoring Services and found me another school. I was lucky I didn't have an in-state ban, just a local one when it came to placements. OK, Aurora, how did you get EXPLETIVE DELETED canned?"
"I didn't," Aurora answered. "I'm sorry. There's just not much in Norman in the way of houses for a kid who wants to take foreign languages except over the computer, so I got sent to the biggest Ed Branch house around and that's Lawrenceville. My parents drove up there to tour it this spring. It has a hundred and sixty kids. It's like going away to boarding school.&qut; Aurora stopped. She wasn't in Lawrenceville wherever that was and she was in a triple room with a huge plywood table surrounded by three metal frame beds that were really twin size cots.
"Everything went haywire at Nationals. My parents were always scaird about Nationals, but the Barn Boss always said she'd see I was safe. Well, I'm not safe, and my Mom cried when I called her."
"Parents cry to make you feel guilty," I advised Aurora. "You should have seen my mom crying a river or crying whenever she looked at me those first weeks I went to public school. It took me a long time to realize my Mom was crying so she didn't have to talk to me."
"My parents aren't like that!" Aurora cried out. Odem stared at the sheets that now stank of her.
"I had my Mom speak to Ondina and Amaryllis and she said she guessed this house was as good as Lawrenceville. She was glad I was not in New York City."
"What's wrong with New York City?" I inquired.
"Well, we're from Oklahoma," Aurora stopped. "What'd you take at Nationals?" she asked Odem and also me.
"Advanced Outdoor Education and Survival," I answered. Mind, body, and spirit are of a piece and outdoor education settled my soul and enriched my mind. My body was all ready strong. That was a prerequisite to that kind of a course.
"International Relations II" Odem quipped."I had International Relations I at Stanford last winter and it was really good and I had the junior version at the first Nationals since my Specialist didn't want me spending a week messing with computers. She said I needed a change. I do a lot of world history and international relations stuff at Nationals. What'd you take?"
"Improving Your Academic Skills," Aurora answered blinking at each of us as if we were unclean.
I wanted to laugh. Improving was somewhat of a joke. The program really did exist because I actually saw it as one of the choices when I first signed up for Nationals the spring of fifth grade. I took Beginning Nature Study. I'd had ten months of school, plus half days of Summer Project. Nationals was a special time to learn something different. Why would any one take Improving when there were close to a three dozen specialty programs at the main Nationals and more at the specialized Nationals?
"Why'd you let them stick you Improving? What'd you do to get stuck there?" Odem was blunt about it.
"My Specialist and parents put me in Improving. They said it would help me with high school. High school in Lawrenceville was going to be hard. Also, some of those other courses taught things...well, not everything was suitible for middle schoolers."
Odem snorted. "You mean like psychology and such? Psychology has sex in it."
"Yeah, and my pastor didn't believe in evolution and I wasn't sure if they believed in it in Lawrenceville, but I wasn't going to Lawrenceville until this year, and I didn't know I was really going until a year ago."
Odem shook her head. I knew people who did not believe in evolution. I kept my mouth shut. Just then there was a knock on the door and a loud, male voice, boomed out: "Come on sleep EXPLETIVE DELETEDs. Get up! Get a move on! That means you!"
"Yell a little louder," Odem informed the voice. "We can't hear you." The voice was gone.
A few minutes later we were dressed and in the kitchen eating breakfast amid a crowd of kids, most of whom we did not know. The big male voice belonged to a five foot four inch, slightly built boy with a mop of dark brown hair and big, bushy eyebrows. His name was Sylvester, but everyone called him Tweetie. Jules, his partner in crime and fellow recruit that year which was last year, had blond hair to his shoulders. Tweetie and Jewels had survived ninth grade which made them high school boys. That put them one step ahead of us. "Wow, look at her cut up that peach!" Jewels exclaimed as Odem carefully removed a slightly clingy pit from a yellow peach she was slicing on to her Grapenuts. Odem snorted. I thought about what Odette had said about boys the other day. Quetzalli sat eating a pear, drinking tea, and pretending everyone in the room did not exist. Ondina and Amaryllis passed sheafs of paper between them and talked softly as if they had a busy, urgent, office meeting for which to prepare, a meeting in fancy conference room with black leather chairs and a table made of glass.
"Don't touch that milk," said a tall, red headed girl who had wonderfully straight features and old fashioned, gold, wire rim glasses. "It's really gross."
"It's nonfat dry milk made up into liquid. You got a problem with that?" asked Quetzalli.
"It's gross," red head answered.
"Then don't drink it MaryAnne." MaryAnne got down a box of Jacked Apples cereal and poured herself some. "How we doin' for regular milk?" she asked.
"Not great," replied the boy with the precise voice. His name was Dante and he was due to go to college soon. That put him one year behind Odette, Pedra, and Quetzalli, the founding sisters.
"I'd like everybody who cooks except Quetzalli and Odette to go to the mall today and really stock up!" Amaryllis announced. She had to announce it twice and very loudly to get everyone's attention.
"I'm due to play on the singles ladder," MaryAnne objected. A singles ladder had something to do with tennis.
"The resort is closed," complained Ondina.
"The assholes plan an all out attack for Thursday and we may be stranded up here," Tweetie informed all and sundry.
MaryAnne and several others uttered expletives.
"Also this is a Day of Service so if you're not on shopping duty if you want a swim get it in this morning." Ondina liked giving orders.
&quiot;What about sweeping the porches?" asked a girl with reddish brown skin and hundreds of long, silky braids.
"See the broom Artemis," Amaryllis pointed to a brook perched outside the mud room door, then seeing it was parked on its bristled turned it right side up. "Who doesn't know how to put a broom away?" Amaryllis asked.
"With all due respect," Dante replied. "You should be glad the porches got swept last night. They were disgusting. We really do need a chore list."
"The porches aren't as bad as they used to be," Quetzalli answered.
"They're still disgusting," Dante answered.
"Hopefully after todays day of service, they won't be any worse than they are now," Ondina remidned everyone.
"You really believe that?" asked Artemis, folding her arms and giving Ondina who is also African American a hard stare.
"Yes," Ondina returned the stare. "If we can break the life cycle and put enough females out of action, we will have less disgusting porches."
I wondered what Ondina, MaryAnne, Dante, and Artemis were discussing, but I also wanted some down time just to think. I was glad to go to the beach. Zalli offered to take us. "People are too fussy about the porches," she confided. "They're porches and stuff gets on them. They're not tables. You don't eat on them."
None of us cared about the porches. Our house had a screen porch off the second floor and a deck below that and a balcony on the fourth floor. There were dead leaves, dirt, and what looked like small blackish seeds on the porches. The seeds must have been something that grew on New Jersey trees, or were they seeds. "Is this what everyone is complaining about," I pointed to the little, blackish pieces of crud.
"You got it," Zalli answered. "Those are gypsy moth caterpillar turds. New Jersey and Pennsylvania are Groundzero for the gypsy moth infestation. This is a bad year for them too, but every year is a bad year. They keep co-evolving out of our ability to control them. When there are a lot of caterpillars, you can hear them eating the leaves at night."
"Ewwww grosss," sighed Aurora.
"There's worse things," shrugged Zalli. "The whole eco-system in this part of the world has been very screwed up and has been for a very long time. You'll get used to it."
We ambled down to the Lake Five beach on Upper Highland Lakes Road. The gate was locked and there was no guard on duty. Zalli removed a card from her pocket and swiped the gate. She asked if we all knew how to swim. The answer was yes. I had had serious swimming lessons in middle school in addition to the ropes course and endurance hiking. I waded out into the fridgid water and swam toward the raft. It was too cold to sunbathe, and I was all ready covered with mosquito bites. The horse flies were coming in for seconds at a depleted buffet. Besides, insects are a part of life. They are NOT gross or disgusting. Besides, I wanted to just be let alone to swim laps. I was no longer sure I wanted to tell my Placement Specialist about the rioting planned for Thursday. What could she do? I did not want to tell my parents who could do even less. I was glad Ondina and Amaryllis were taking it calmly and seriously. That was a very good sign.
"We can wash the butter knives when we get done," Ondina told us. "No, we don't need to disinfect them. We just need to wash them because they have been outdoors."
"What do we do if the other houses cheat?" asked Tweetie.
"They have the cheat table working," Amaryllis explained.
"What if they say it's broken?" Tweetie would not give up.
"We walk the EXPLETIVE DELETED out!" Xannika replied. Xannika had very dark brown skin and hair cut short and natural. Her shoulders were rounded. I walked next to her as we made our way though the back roads, and this time over Old Homestead which formed a big hill and down on to Upper Highland Lakes Road. We turned left this time instead of walking toward the beach. I could see the lake peeking out through the trees behind the houses that had once been valuable lakefront property. There was an island in the center of Lake Five too. I thought about that. Treasure Island, but somehow the description did not fit. Did the island have a name at all or just a number?
We reached Seckler Center where there was a big crowd of both adults and kids, no little kids. This was a mentoring house gathering. A priest in a pink shiney robe with a bald head held a microphone and asked all of us to be quiet. Today was a Day of Service. Our job was to destroy as many gypsy moths as possible. That meant we filled our buckets with egg masses and our plastic bags with pupae. True, not all the gypsy moths were laying eggs or estivating. There were some caterpillars, the life stage that caused all the damage, but there were plenty of egg cases and pupae to gather for destruction, and.... of course there was an "and" the house in each size category which gathered the most egg masses and pupae would win a prize.
With that we were off. Of course none of us knew where or how to find gypsy moth eggs or pupae, but Xannika and Tweetie showed us first timers. The eggs looked like globs of sand stuck together and the pupae like smooth brown turds. "These moths aren't native to the United States,&quiot; Xannika explained. &qauot;Some jerk brought then here in the 1860's hoping to use them to spin silk. Even the fish won't eat them as bait."
"That's not true," Tweetie interrupted. "The caterpillars work as bait. Just some people are allergic to them."
"Gypsy moths are nasty," answered Marianne.
"Gypsy moths are tenacious," Zalli responded. "Used to be they had one life cyle. Now they have two to thee...makes them harder to kill. There's always some eating and some making eggs."
"OK, spread out!" A priest's voice called. This was a big male voice. "Everybody can't clean eggs off of Seckler Center."
We took Lakeside Drive which encircles Lake One. We could not make it back to Grandview Circle and back in time enough to gather eggs and pupae from the town houses. Gypsy moth eggs were easy to find on trees, and even easier to find on garbage cans and house foundations. Most houses in Highland Lakes have above ground basements. This is true of the old houses that look like fake log cabins painted all sorts of colors and new houses that looked tired. Perhaps they were cheap houses.
A mother with a half naked toddler old watched as we entered her property to begin ridding it of the moth menace. She had dirty blonde hair and wore a halter that was half falling off even in the front because she had nothing to hold it up. She was haggard instead of slim and she folded her arms to protect her nonexistent breasts not that any marauding moths would lay their eggs there.
"May we search for gypsy moths on your property Ma'am?" Aurora inquired. I realized one of us hadn't left her manners at home.
"Sure," the woman said limply. We walked right past her as if she were a statue and went to work on the easy, easy white foundation where there were a dozen egg masses and about twenty puape. She had left her yard growing as just trees except for one really half dead bed of petunias. We worked tree by tree. Only Marianne was tall enough to get the high up egg clusters. I found three pupae piled together and an egg cluster as large as two hand spans. I even caught a half daead mother moth laying her eggs. Well into my bucket she went with her egg mass. From a halachic viewpoint she was a rodeh and killing both her and her young was self defense.
"Hey you, get off this property!" A boy's voice called out.
I looked up to see a band of half a dozen kids my own age, some male and some female and all wearing slightly shiney dark blue spandex shirts with long sleeves and yellow trim, and bright green leggings with matching boots. They must have been roasting, and the heat would make them mean.
"We got here first and who died and left you king?" Odem rose to their challenge.
Aurora murmured a curse word under her breath.
"I'll deal with this," announced Zalli in her adult-in-charge voice. She was after all nineteen and had been away to college without prep. She had a small piece of authority, and with that small piece of authority, Quetzalli Burden whipped out her comm phone and dialed a number. "Good morning this is Quetzalli Burden. May I please speak to Eva Cruze...Yes....We seem to have a misunderstanding about gathering gypsy moths on private property....I believe it is first come first served...No, no one has made any trouble yet. Would you like me to put your crew leader on..." Zalli handed the comm phone to a blonde woman with brown streaks in her hair and who stood a head taller than she was with very straight shoulders matched her straight nose.
"Yes...yes...." answered Blondie Cruze. "I understand. Of course...&quiot; Blondie handed back the comm phone. Zalli thanked Eva and signed off.
Blondie stood with her hands on her hips. "OK, listen up!" she called to her crew in her own voice of adult authority. "Let's show 'em we can find eggs."
Members of Blondie's crew paired off and began to attack the trees that we had picked over, only they went after them by standing on each other's shoulders. Such a display of athletics was beyond us. We finished up what we could reach and began to move on, when Blondie caught up with Zalli. "I'm sorry I've been antisocial," she began. "How's college."
"It's been over since Memorial Day," Zalli answered.
"You still in touch with your foster parents?" Blondie contineud.
The words, "foster parents," made my ears burn. They did not need to prick up.
"Yes," Zalli fended off Blondie with a monosyllable.
"That's good, I remember high school and middle school. Who thought you'd come back here after you graduated," Blondie sighed.
"Why shouldn't I have come back?" Zalli smiled. "I had a clan I helped found."
"Well to each their own I suppose," quipped Blondie who went back to supervising her crew who were showing off more than gathering eggs and pupae. We, meanwhile had work to do.
We worked until we filled our plastic sacks with pupae and our plastic buckets with egg masses. Then we walked through the back streets above Lake One down toward Lakeside Drive and then back towards Seckler Center. There were lines at both the pupae scale and the egg scale. The egg scale was attached to the cheat table. The cheat table rumbled and whirred. Because it made for an extra step in the weighing, the line for the egg scale was both longer and moved more slowly. "Let's get the pupae weighed out first," remarked Zalli. Odette and Pedra who had their own crews agreed.
We stood, all sixteen of us in a huddle that was a poor excuse for a line. The huddle moved and grumbled. "So if the assholes attack what are we supposed to do?" a male voice made idle conversation.
"Hope they send in the Army," another boy answered.
"They wouldn't send in the Army," a deep throated male voice joined the conversation. "It would be the National Guarde. More likely it would be the State Troopers or the Sheriff's Patrol."
"Can't people find something constructive to do with their time?" a female voice imitated a teacher.
I stared at the pavement and imagined myself to be stick sick. It was not a pleasant thing to imagine, but frightened, angry adults, leading frightened angry teens and misguiding them, was a sickening situation. "You OK?" Zalli inquired.
"No," I told her.
"What's the matter?"
"I don't want to talk about it." I pretended to be a stone until we reached the pupae scale. "Burden of Dreams!" Odette announced. "Townhouse One, Grandview Circle, Highland Lakes New Jersey." Saying a name makes it more important. I smiled.
One by one we poured our load of pupae into the hopper. An electronic number appeared in red lights and grew larger with each load of pupae. Then on a big board over the scale, our clan name lit up in white letters along with our combined haul of pupae measured in pounds and ounces. Highland Lakes, New Jersey like many places in the Northeast still used the English measurement system.
"Nice work!" a male voice called out. The voice was attached to a giant with curly rust colored hair. "We try," Zalli told him. Then it was on to the egg scale. The line was long, slow, and tired. Odem shuffled her feet and grunted shifting her plastic bucket from one hand to the other as if it weighed a ton. Somewhere in the line, a woman made a political speech. "Are those so-called 'freedom fighters' going to give us anything after they have killed off the company and the priests? Will they give us jobs? Will they keep this place up or will they let it go like they did when I was a girl? You have to have something left. I don't care who runs things as long as there's something left."
"My guess," ventured Pedra in response to the tired old voice "is that we're all supposed to live happily ever after off the grid."
"It doesn't work that way," the older woman answered. She was three places ahead of us in line and some of the kids in her crew looked too young to be clan members. Were they her children? "Ever tried to live off the grid?"
"My family tried it for about six months when I was ten," Pedra answered.
Zalli said nothing. Odette slipped an arm over her shoulder. "My Dad got a job with the Company because there were six of us to feed by then." Pedra shook her head. We were close to the egg scale now. "It's better having a clan," remarked Zalli, and there was no one to dispute her.
Then it was the old woman's group's turn to weigh their egg cases. They poured them out on to the cheat table which was a big, low sided box with a wire mesh floor. The floor mesh was fine enough to retain egg cases but wide enough to let sand sift through. Sand would add to the weight of the egg cases and some kids used it. A priest wearing gloves and a kind of apron over her robe spread out the egg cases on the table. Odette explained that she was looking for stones and rubbish. When she found none. She turned on the table that vibrated, shaking any dirt loose and letting it fall through the holes. Then the priest gathered up the egg cases and put them in the hopper where numbers lit up in red and blue along with the mentoring house or clan name.
The old woman worked in the Happy Clown Clan, and her crew had collected an impressive weight of egg masses. Then it was our turn at the table. "Burden of Dreams," Odette announced. "Townhouse One Grandview Circle." We had a name. We had a place. We did not cheat when we collected eggs. The priest complimented us on how clean our egg mass collection was, and then she weighed it out.
"We're in contention," Odette told us.
"You really think so?" asked Pedra.
"America's Clan is going to beat us," remarked Jewels.
"Maybe not," Pedra replied. "We split up to cover more ground, and everyone here is careful about debris in the buckets." Pedra held up her butter knife. "Good tools make good work."
It turned out that when the priests posted the standings for who had collected the mnost eggs and pupae, that America's Clan was not in the top five in either category. Burden of Dreams, our house, on the other hand had placed second for egg mass collection. Odette accepted the prize a voucher for fuel credits for the clan vehicle. That's what she said that Amaryllis and Ondina would spend it on. "Then we won't have to walk so much," Aurora mused as we walked back down Upper Highland Lakes Road.
"You wish," snarled Tweetie.
"Bio-di is rationed," Jewels explained, "and that's what everything burns up here. Sussex County is a no petroleum county for everything but farm vehicles. All the cars run on bio-di or ethanol. Bio-di is cheaper, but you have to get it through your branch, and Ed Branch doesn't give out much. They'd give out more if it was gasoleen, but we can't use that here."
"I think Amaryllis wants to take the fourteens up to Newton to get IDs' rather than get them by Lake Two," Odette further explained. "That's why we're saving fuel. Also, we get a trip to the library when we go off the mountain with a car."
"You think we're getting locked down?" this time it was Pedra who asked.
"Amaryllis thinks it," Odette answered.
"This hasn't been a good summer," Zalli mused aloud. "We didn't see any free folks at the moth derby today. Usually some of them try to compete for the prize. They're the real cheaters, them and the local clans. At least the Crusaders don't cheat."
No one answered. "I need to talk to my foster mom," Zalli went on. "She may know what is up. If something is really going to happen, it's going to be in the valley along the main roads, before people come up here looking for trouble." Again, Zalli was stuck having a conversation with herself. "Look," Zalli tried to break through the silence. "There's a lot of dumb, angry people out there who want to lash out at anything. They're poor even though they could be working and if they are working the work they do is degrading. And if the work they do is worthwhile or at least pays, it's not in the world that they grew up in or that appreciates them. They're useless and they know it so they have to go after somebody. At least a clan house does something. It's more family than family for most of us. We have something and we seem happy. That makes us targets, and it makes those who run our world targets...got that?"
I waited for someone to say something like "nice lecture," or something else sarcastic and ugly, but again no one said anything.
We turned on to Old Homestead so as not to pass the beach. Seeing a beach when you are hot and sweaty and don't have a bathing suit is depressing. We'd get something to eat and maybe have an early evening swim. Zalli said she wanted to make soup. Odette wondered if Amaryllis and Ondina had learned anything new. Marianne asked Zalli what kind of soup she was making. "Lima bean chard," Zalli answered.
"You would make that," answered Helena who had the lovely braids. "Everyone else gets fresh corn on the cob and you get..."
"I got chard," Zalli refused to catch the drift." C-H-A-R-D. We don't always get good chard, and corn on the cob every day is boring. Corn is sweet starch in a green wrapper unless you want to shuck it at the store."
"Shucking corn beats sweeping the porch," sighed Tweetie. "I bet both porches are disgusting."
"I don't take sucker bets," Odette responded.
That afternoon, Tweetie and I swept the porches and the fourth floor balcony. All the porches were covered with what looked like little blackish brown nuts, but those nuts were really gypsy moth caterpillar turds. The caterpillars who used our decks as their personal toilet bowls were the lucky ones who escaped having their eggs gathered by relocated teenagers and burned by New Jersey Co-operative Extension. They were the survivors and their crapping on us was their species' revenge. The trees with their half eaten leaves were just breakfast, lunch, and dinner.Ahava Burden
Burden of Dreams House
Highland Lakes, New Jersey 074225102
Tour in a Van
July 20, 2083
"Get your swims in early," Ondina told us at breakfast Tuesday morning. "We have a road trip this afternoon." The road trip was to Newton to get our ID's and to a store that Dante, with all his precise language, called the Fart Box. It's real name was Farm and Country and it replaced a failed Wal-Mart. Yes, Wal-Marts fail or they move on. According to Amaryllis, the failed Wal-Mart which the Fart Box replaced, took over a site belonging to a scruffy substitute for a department store and supermarket called Discuount City. The Fart Box was located in Franklin. We had a chit to shop there. Dante wanted to shop there because he wanted bio-pro, which is biologially generated.
Dante wanted bio-pro because he had finally fixed his favorite bar-b-que grill, the one which he, Artemis, and a girl called Esperenza or Hope depending on whether she was in a Spanish speaking mood or not considered worthy of their food. There was an older, less fancy grill that Marianne and Helena owned, but Dante looked down on Marianne's cooking as pedestrian and Odette and Quetzalli considered both Marianne and Dante's food "utterly dull" or "feh" Where had Quetzalli learned Yiddish, I wondered. Quetzalli and Odette always cooked indoors.
"Get all the stink gas you want," Odette told Dante, "as long as we can pick up some buttermilk at the Farm."
"You think the Farm will be open?" asked Amaryllis.
"The Farmer lives off the grid," Quetzalli answered. "He needs every customer he can get. That means us."
"Remember when we went out to the Farm during winter break?" Marianne asked.
"It was open," Quetzalli growled. "I had to go knock on the door. I even got a tour of the milk house and milking parlor."
"I remember that," remarked Xannika.
"OK, and what does everybody else want?" asked a somewhat irritated Ondina.
"I just want to look around," answered Aurora who was eating pancakes made from a mix, spongey yellow things for which there was only fake, maple flavored syrup, not even apple sauce or decent fruit preserves. I made due with frosted wheat squares and a pear and honey and nonfat milk. According to Odem, whole grain cereal, skim milk, and fruit was the healthiest breakfast in the world, and we needed to be healthy to defend ourselves.
"Are they giving prizes for nutrition?" I asked.
"No, but you took endurance hiking. You know how important it is to build yourself up," Odem explained.
"Food's food," I answered, though that was not entirely true. Quetzalli and Odette were decent cooks and liked flavorful meals with lots of fruits and vegetables. That suted me fine. Quetzalli's lima bean chard soup served over tubatini was delicious. I liked beans and macaroni and they fed us lentil soup in Arnot and soy burgers in the desert along with lots of fresh tomatoes and extra rolls, so what Odem said about nutrition and physical exertion was pretty well right, but you still had a lot of choices.
"You drink buttermilk?" Xannika asked me.
I said I would try it. Odem said she liked it. Aurora shrugged and asked what it was.
"It's the milk leftover from making butter. It's cultured so it's easier to digest," Xannika explained.
"It tastes like a cross between milk and piss," observed Helena.
I was waiting for someone to curse Helena out. She needed it. I am not a big one for swear words due to the way I was raised and having been in therapy, but someone else was free to do the honors, and I wouldn't mind watching.
Instead, everyone held their tongues. A bunch of us went down to the beach. Aurora didn't go because she hated the cold water. I thought that strange since Oklahoma is colder than Georgia. Then again, I tried to keep myself fairly toughened up physically. Besides I told myself there weren't a lot of horseflies around in the morning. This was not true, but I was all ready a moveable feast for blood eating insects. When we had summer nationals in Arnot for the main Nationals outdoor program, insect bites just happen. I'm not fond of repellant and have better things to do than swat away bugs. As a result, I had to listen to a couple of noisey boys screaming: "HORSEFLY!" and then cussing me out for not moving fast enough while I was trying to get my diving form correct on the swimming raft. I'm a crappy diver, but that doesn't stop making me work at it.
"You got bit up," complained Dante as we walked back from the beach.
"There's bugs in the wods, bug deal," I responded.
"Horsefly bites, make big, nasty, welts."
"So do deerfly bites," I told Dante. "It's because tabinidae, which are horse and deer flies, don't have sucking mouth parts. They have to scrape at you to take a bite and they slobber on you with their poisons. Then they lick your blood."
"Oh please..." groaned Dante.
"I think you just grossed him out," laughed Odem.
"I think you just said the obvious. Anyway, it's not gross. It's what tabindae do. They have to eat and so they've evolved a way to do it that's different from mosquitoes. It's classic analgous evolution."
"You like bugs," Dante came to the conclusion.
"They're the most successful life form on this planet," I responded. Actually, I find all nature fascinating.
No one said anything. We got changed. There was no time to shower, so I smelled like the lake, which is not as bad as people smell on a hot day even if it is not perfume. We took two vans since all eighteen of us were going on the trip to Newton, Franklin, and the Farm. Aurora, Odem, and I sat along with Xannika in the back of the first van. We had six, glass, quart bottles plus a woven sack of lids on the floor. Xannika watched the lids with an eagle eye. She had tested each one to make sure it fit tightly. "I spill buttermilk in the van, and they're going to kill me." Xannika explained. She did not have to say who "they" were. Marianne and Helena sat up front. Neither of them asked to drive. There wasn't enough bio-di to teach any one to drive and New Jersey had a graduated license law.
Ondina and Amaryllis had somehow learned to drive, and Ondina drove our van. Our first stop was Newton, the county seat for Sussex County, New Jersey. To reach Newton we rode down cork screw roads through mountains that Aurora found impossibly green. The mountains reminded me of the area around Arnot and Vespers outside Cortland, New York where I had once been stargazing. Vespers was abandoned farm country. There was also abandoned farm country in Georgia. "Were there ever farms here?" I asked.
"There might have been," Ondina answered. "Amaryllis and Quetzalli would know."
We passed a lake and then rounded several more hills and reached the valley floor. We passed the two abandoned ski areas that had fused into one ski area. One could still see the remains of the Alpine slide on the mountain. We even pulled into the Mountain Creek parking lot. That had been the abandoned ski area's name. Ondina wanted to show us the old buildings returning to piles of weathered wood and food for carpenter ants. Highland Lakes like Ithaca is far too cold for termites, but something else has got to eat dead trees. She showed the clear spaces that had once been ski trails that had still not yet returned to forest and pointed out what was left of the alpine slide, a cement chute where rich people from New York City paid five dollars to ride down in plastic sleds. Rusty pipes protruded from the grass or lay amid the weeds where someone had removed the best parts for scrap.
"What happened here?" Aurora asked.
"The ski area and the Alpine Slide went out of business," was Ondina's explanation. "This used to have the biggest snow making facility in the country. It gets cold enough for snow to stay, but we don't get enough snow this far south. This used to be close enough to New York City for a lot of crowds so it paid to make snow. All that changed of course.."
The history lesson was over and we piled back into the vans. We drove through the half-abandoned remains of downtown MacAffee and Franklin. We passed a bar and strip club that was still in operation with a few battered pickups parked outside. We kept going. There was not much to downtown Newton. There was a grocery store with fly stained windows and a decrepit soda machine. There was a bank with an ATM. There were some medical offices. Doctors offices are apparently the last businesses to die, because everybody gets sick. I saw the familiar local tram stop with a large orange and purple logo that said "NJ Transit" on it. "This is how you get to the outside world," Ondina explained pointing to the empty bench and forlorn pole with the overlarge sign.
"How do we get here from Highland Lakes?" asked Odem.
"Local Bus from Seckler Center," Ondina rattled back. "I take the local bus to the library regularly," Xannika continued. "Newton though is the end of the line."
Two fairly modern, flat roofted brick buildings, their brickwork painted avacado green and their smoked glass scrubbed of fly specks were our destination. A large black and white sign outside said: "Mentoring Services." Here in rural New Jersey, the Barn Boss as we called the local head of Mentoring Services had an office complex all her own. She and two assistants sat in a quiet room of well aged wood paneling with comfortable office furnishings and reasonably new carpet on the floor.
The Barn Boss was a plump woman with two silver pony tails and a wide smile. She came out to greet us personally. She asked Ondina and Amaryllis how it was going. "We got lucky," Amaryllis boomed. "Three new girls. We came here to get them ID's. We've all ready cleared things with their Placement Specialists. Ed-Branch is very efficient."
The Barn Boss said nothing. She retreated into her office and came out five silent minutes later. "Well everything is in order. I like that. I just wish things weren't so crazy."
"Magic works where it's believed," quoted Amaryllis.
"You're going to be relying on the priests for protection," the Barn Boss told all of us.
Amaryllis shrugged. The Barn Boss looked at Quetzalli. "The priests did nothing to protect this young woman if I recall."
"That was because I phoned Mentoring Services," replied Pedra.
"You didn't call Mentoring Services," Quetzalli set the story right. "I called them. You gave me moral support."
"It was the right thing to do no matter what. I'm not saying I mind dual loyalty in a clan or that the priests don't do a good job running the show way back in the mountains, but Thursday is going to be scarey."
"What are you going to do about it?" asked Amaryllis.
"Go to Philadelphia. I've got family there," the Barn Boss replied. With that she made up our ID's and Quetzalli and Xannika asked to go to the bank. They meant the ATM where they drew out cash money from their scholars' stipends. Odette also drew out some cash. "That's for the milk," Odette explained. "We're splitting it three ways. Consider it our treat."
"Some treat," snorted Marianne. "Sour milk."
"Sweet milk gives me the trots," Xannika answered.
We piled back into the van. Our next stop was the Fart Box. Even I was calling it that. The place looked sad and run down. I could see it was built on the foundation of at least one or two other stores. The lot was full of old wreacks of cars some of which burned home brew fuel which made the whole place smell like restaurant exhaust. Inside the Fart Box was a snackbar. Do you think I would eat anything at a snackbar in a store we called the Fart Box? Aurora bought a hot dog and a pretzel as did Helena and two other girls. There is no accounting for taste. Aurora, bright red hot dog still in hand, went to look at the silk flowers. We could buy anything we liked since we were using a chit for the bio-pro cilenders and you can just pile all you want on a chit. Aurora made herself a nice bouquet of pink flowers. I glanced at the pathetic collection of paperbacks and magazines. Odem bought four new pairs of cotton panties.
We got in line at the self checkout corral with what turned out to be a huge cart full of junk including three bio-pro cylinders. It was a wait to get to a checkout machine, and the line using the machines was testy. It wasn't much of a line. It was unhappy, pastey, folks who had been here forever, standing around and arguing and complaining. A fat woman ina tank top, her shoulders graced by lank, sand colored hair was making a speech for any one's amusement: "When we get done with them mentors and priests...this country will be ours again."
"And you can have the abandoned ski area," answered Amaryllis in a soft voice.
"What did you say ma'am?" asked lanky locks.
"I said the abandoned ski area would be all yours, and the job of keeping the roads paved, and the streetlights on, and the schools open. You're also going to have to find a way for people to make a living. I don't see any one outside the Company hiring."
"Well you sound like a typical Company Sheeple," lanky locks announced while several older ladies applauded her. "You know what we're going to do to the Sheeple."
"And when you're out of bullets you'll be hungry and this winter you may be able to keep warm with a fireplace, but you won't have any water because you won't have the electric to run your well."
"She's been brainwashed!" a man with a crew cut said of Amaryllis.
"And you're deluded," Amaryllis would not back down. "There's been nothing here in this county for at least a generation. Nothing but the people who've stayed behind and worked for the Company."
"We've got the land," called out a tall blonde boy.
"Do you have the fuel to farm it and do you own it and where are you going to buy seeds and how are you going to transport your crops? And what will you do for clothes? And what will you do to stay warm and keep the lights on?"
"How did your ancestors live?" snarled lanky locks.
"Miserably!" Amaryllis all but screamed. "All your leaders want to do is shed blood. They have no way to rebuild!"
"So the Company is better?" asked crew cut who took a step forward, putting himself uncomfortably close to Amaryllis.
"Yes," Amaryllis answered.
"Say it louder!" laughed the man.
"The Company and the Priests are offering you a better deal than the rabble who promise to set you free. Freedom is worthless without a full stomach. Think about it."
By now Ondina, Odette, and I had run most of our stuff through the machine. We ran the last item and I walked over with Ondina to the booth to pay with our chit. The lady running the cash out corral glanced at the chit as if Ondina had handed her something coated in posion. "This won't be no good in a few days," she explained. "And for your own safety, I'd stay up on your mountain. Maybe your Priests will protect you."
"Thanks for the advice," Ondina replied. We emerged from the Fart Box unscathed but barely. Scaird adults are not a pretty sight, and desparate ones are even worse.
"OK," a not unhappy Ondina called out. "Next stop is the Farm."
Once again we traveled through empty green space of fourth growth forest, pasture with a few cows, a few orchards, and the occasional abandoned house or store. After a time, paved roads gave way to oil and gravel and then to packed dirt which was dusty in the hot, summer sun. At the top of the hill was the Farm. It had two barns, one painted moss green, the other the color of dried blood, both with stone foundations. That was odd. There was a three story farm house painted dark green to match the first barn. It looked in good repair. There were also several outbuildings with metal roofs and a corral with two mangey looking horses and one sad looking donkey in it and several goats. Right by the road sat a rusting white box labeled MILK in blue letters. Taped to the box was a hand lettered sign that read: "Out of Order."
"I'll handle this," Xannika spoke up. I tagged along behind her and of course Odem and Aurora came with me. Odette joined us, for protection, and we walked right up to the porch of the three story farm house. The door was old wood, kept varnished and with stained glass inserts in light blue, pale gold, and lilac. It was a very, pretty door. Xannika knocked on the wood rather than rining the bell which probably didn't work anyway. An old woman with washed out, half grey, half brown hair answered. She looked us over. She told us that she had buttermilk but it would cost us "cash money."
"That's no problem," replied Odette. "How much do you want to charge for six quarts of buttermilk."
"Ninty cents each," she sniffed.
"That's cheap," Odette commented.
"Thursday's coming," the old woman answered as she led us toward one of the white buildings with dented siding and a corrigated roof. I expected the building to be warm as an oven, but instead it was cold as a refridgerator.
"Won't be any more city folks to drink buttermilk for a while after Thursday. I hope you and your house will be all OK." The old woman continued her speech. "Nothing's going to happen to us here. We have our own business, our own garden, even our own generator if the power goes down which it's going to do no doubt. Either we'll take it down or the Priests will."
Odette put an open bottle under the spigot of a large tank. Out poured the thick and creamy buttermilk. The old lady turned off the spigot and Xannika capped the bottle like a pro. Odette and Xannika filled five more bottles that way, and Odette gave the old woman a ten dollar bill. "I've got change in the house," she said.
"Keep the change please," Odette remarked. "There's still going to be cash money after Thursday." The old lady smiled. Her eyes were a washed out shade of blue, but there was something sharp in them. I thought of cat eyes for some reason. "Come with me young ladies," she said softly. "Yes, it's OK to come in the house." A sleeping black cat got up from her spot on the porch and arched her back, sticking her tail into the social groove. Odem reached out to stroke the creature and received a headbutt and a nuzzle. "Old Suzie doesn't like everybody," the old woman said. "Where are you young ones from?"
I realized the old lady was addressing Aurora, Odem, and me. We told her who we were and our home towns. "Nobody knows how this is going to come off," the old lady said, as she opened one of several refridgerators in her nearly institutional kitchen. She found a veggie drawer full of assorted tomatoes, all different colors and shapes. She filled a large paper sack with them. "These will keep a week in the fridge. Longer if you cook or can them or freeze them. I'm not sure if you'll lose power, but you can always eat them sliced in the next few days. There must be twenty of you in that house now."
"There's eighteen of us,quot; Odette explained. "And thankyou very much."
"You're welcome. You'll come back and let my hubby and me know you're all right when this is all over," the old lady said.
"Of course we will," Odette made the promise and we headed back to the vans. I got to hold the tomatoes which were cold from the fridge and which gave off a smell or earth, grass, and protective phytochemicals. Everything in nature is in a state of war, so why shouldn't humans want to kill eachcother, especially, poor, desparate humans. It all made sense in its own awful way.
"Do you think we're really in danger?" Aurora asked everyone and no one.
"We're probably on lockdown," Odette answered. "I think people know we are harmless. We'll be OK."
Family Reunion of a Sort
July 21, 2083 -- July, 22, 2083,p> We got back to the house from the beach at Lake Five and found the kitchen crowded wtih strangers. There was a red headed woman with shoulder length hair that would have made a carrot blush, except that carrots don't shine. She also had shoulders like those of a football player. She sat wtih two great, round fists on the kitchen table. The nails on those fists had a lovely French manicure with the palest pink tips and she wore a pink tunic of thick cloth over grey beach pants. With her was a thin faced woman whose reddish blond hair was streaked with grey, and whose long nose kept sniffing and sniffling. Then there were four or five young kids with runny noses. In the living room which we seldom used except for meetings, an old woman sat watching the entertainment unit. Her hair was frizzy and she kind of rocked back and forth. With her were two more older kids who were "watching grandma."
Out on the back porch, which is really a deck, the boys tried to get a fire going in the cheap grill while at the other end of the kitchen table, Maryanne supervised the stringing of chicken breast pieces on to skewers. The breasts had sat in a plastic bag of brownish sauce to marinate and give them taste. Odette glanced around. Quetzalli glanced back at her. No one made an effort to introduce all the strangers.
"I think there's room on the stove for us," Odette explained to Zalli.
"I'm glad the salad's all ready made," Zalli replied.
Just then the back door opened and two boys who had been watching over the grilling outside or the rather the argument prior to the setting up for the grilling came bursting in. They asked if any body had soda. All we had was ice tea and buttermilk. Odette and Quetzalli with whom I ate had not even bought juice. I thought of making the kids a pitcher of lemonade. We had lemon juice and sugar. "Ask Dante," Ondina stuck her head out of the office near the mud room. "He bought the soda, and he hauled it. It's his."
"I don't see any Dantes,&quoit; the older boy almost whined.
&quiot;He's on the fourth floor balcony reading," Maryanne quipped. "Take the stairs up three floors and turn right. Tell him he can read with a broom in one hands."
"At some point, the fight against gypsy moths becomes counterproductive," commented Zalli.
"EXPLETIVE DELETED you!" Maryanne replied. "Some people don't know when to shut up."
The boys looked at one another and darted across the living room. Meanwhile, the two kids who were supposed to be "watching grandma," stood in the kitchen doorway. "When are we having dinner?" one of them all-but-whined.
"When it gets cooked," Odette told them. "It doesn't cook itself, and it's early."
"Have some fruit," Zalli suggested.
She and Odette exchanged dirty looks. The child stared at the floor and then ran through the back door. His friend ran after him, making two slams of the screen door that reverberated through the back hallway, the mud room, and the office. This time Amaryllis poked her head out of the office where she was busy with Ondina. She glanced around as if nothing was the least bit weird. "How's dinner coming?" she asked.
"Not cooked yet," answered Zalli. Odette pulled the big sauce pan from the cupboard and found a corner of the stove. Just then Dante who had come downstairs to ration his soda, opened the freezer door and began to rummage. He quickly found what he needed, an industrial size bag of frozen, sweet corn. Zalli made a face.
"No one's asking you to eat this," Dante answered. "Besides, we know what your making. Hey kids, want some liver?"
"What's wrong with liver?" asked Pedra who stood in the back hall by the office door, pressed flat into the wall avoiding all the kitchen noise and work.
"It tastes disgusting for one thing," answered Maryanne.
"Only if it's overcooked," replied Odette.
"It smells disgusting too," answered Maryanne.
"What your making would have no taste if you didn't soak it in salted flavored water," Zalli responded.
Just then Ondina emerged from the office carrying a light weight white panel. Behind her trotted Amaryllis with markers and a serious experession on her face. The red haired woman who was parked in everyone's way at the kitchen table smiled. I counted three slams of the back door as several children entered in search of food, attention, entertainment, time with "grandma," or drama.
"Why not just keep the back door open," complained Artemis. "All the flies and mosquitoes are inside all ready and they want to come out."
The little kids didn't get it. Odette had to explain: "When you slam the back door, you both make a disturbance and let in the bugs, got that?"
"Excuse me!" Amaryllis bellowed. The boys fussing with the cheap grill came inside. The back door slammed six times as more kids entered. They had dirty faces, dirty clothes, tired eyes. The adventure had long worn off. The house was crowded. On the stove, oil sizzed in the sauce pan and water boiled in another sauce pan. Odette got up to dump the vegetables in. The liver, all ready cut into strips, was in a small container, and it didn't take as long to cook as some of the vegetables.
Odette checked her watch. "Do I have everyone's attention?" asked Amaryllis pretending to be a school teacher.
Odem smiled. I smiled back at her. There was no room to sit. The kitchen was packed. We'd probably eat outside tonight which meant we'd have to get the table out of the back hall where we kept it to protect it from becoming a gypsy moth caterpillar toilet bowl. "I need everyone's attention NOW," Amaryllis bellowed. "As all of you can see, it's a bit crowded here. My family feels safer up here in the townhouses on Grandview Circle than they do down by Lake Two on a main road. This," Amaryllis pointed to the red headed woman, "is my mother, Justine. This is my sister, Tia and my other sister Lucille. My grandmother, Addison, is standing in the doorway, and these are my nieces, nefews... and siblings..." Amaryllis listed a long string of names and each kid moved a bit to indicate that he or she was attached to the name. Nearly all of the kids were way too young to be initiated.
Odem shook her head. "Naturally, this means we have to make arrangements for sleeping. Those of you in triples, won't be giving up any space or your own beds. You're full up."
Odem breathed a sigh of relief. "Those of you in doubles, singles, or suites will take one more. Everyone else gets to sleep in the living room or in the fourth floor study. We have air mattresses and some of you brought sleeping bags.
"Now on to food. We have plenty to eat. You eat which ever meal you prefer tonight. Tomorrow we'll have all the cooking done before three PM in case the power goes out. Ask at breakfast what the cooks are making for dinner. You have Maryanne's group, Dante's group, and Odette and Zalli's group. The soda belongs to Dante. Ask before you take it. The fruit juice belongs to Artemis and Helena. Ask before you take it. The buttermilk belongs to Odette, Zalli, Odem and Ahava. Ask before you just take it. The big fruit bowl is also Odette, Zalli, and Ahava's. Ask before you take. I know am repeating myself, but in a house this size, we have boundary issues. The cookies in the cupboard next to the wall oven are Helena's and Maryanne's and the same with the power bars. Always ask before you eat anything. We'll be happy to share, but ask. If something is written on a dish to save it, we save it. You don't just grab it. Got that...
"There's a washing machine and drier in the mud room." Amaryllis pointed. "If there's stuff in either one, don't touch it. You can ask whose it is and ask them to take it out, but don't touch it. Otherwise, you can use the machines. There's a measuring cup for detergent. One full cup does a whole load. One half cup does a half load. If there's suds all over the laundry room floor, you get to mop it up or your mother does, got that? And we're not making you sweep the porches or wash dishes, but if you want to help, we'll say 'thankyou.' That's it and have a lovely vacation at the Burden of Dreams Hotel."
"Thankyou," replied Justine in a soft, sad voice. "Hopefully all this will be over soon."
"I think I want it to go on forever," replied Odem. "I kind of thrive on chaos, and any one who EXPLETIVE DELETED as a verb, with my computer is DEAD, got that?"
Aurora winced. "That one fell like a lead balloon," I told my roommate.
"Is this National Cliche week?" asked Odem.
"That liver smells disgusting," added Artemis. "Are you trying to gross everyone out?"
"We're not letting you have any," Odette replied.
We ate supper outside. Two little kids tried the liver. Actually they started with the liver onions. Fried onions make anything taste excellent. Fried onions and peppers make anything taste utterly fantastic. The little kids ate the onions and peppers and then were willing to try the meat cooked with them. The capreeze salad even had one or two customers.
"We'll have no food left by Sunday," complained Zalli as I helped her with the dishes. The back door was still slamming. Citronella candles and punk burned on the rear deck. In the office, Aurora (yes Aurora!) and Amaryllis argued about candles, lighting and burning them. They finally agreed that she could light her Hello Kitty candles upstairs if she put them in a baking pan of water. No one wants their house set on fire for Pagan religious rituals.
We finally got to bed around midnight and an hour or two later it became quiet enough to sleep. I thought I heard someone cry in their sleep or maybe I dreamed it.
I awoke to breakfast chaos. Ondina who was now trying to run things, had placed dish pans in the sinks for dirty bowls. This meant that several of us older kids got stuck washing dishes while Zalli set chickpeas to boil. The leftover liver was for lunch, but we needed more food, and a big bowl of marinated chickpea and blanched vegetable salad was a good idea. Artemis and several other kids went off to play tennis and handball. Tweetie and Jewels went off to look for boys with whom to shoot buckets. "I hope they don't fight with the locals again," sighed Zalli. Pedra asked if we wanted to go to Seckler Center to hang out with the boys and maybe have a swim on a different beach. I knew Pedra was going to play adult supervising rowdy boys. It was a harder job than sweeping up caterpillar turds, but it probably yielded better and more long lasting results. Odem and Aurora also came with Pedra and me. Odem wanted to talk computers, and Aurora did not like to be left out, even though the walk was over three miles each way. Aurora, I realized, would toughen up real fast.
The boys talked of fishing and basketball as we walked. Pedra asked Odem about her tablet. She had bought it used and refurbished with spare parts and upgrades when she was allowed computer access. Sometimes her parents and teachers had robbed her of her most precious posession, and sometimes they had done so with good reason.
That left Aurora and me. I did NOT want to talk about Hello Kitty. Instead we talked about Aurora's family. She was the oldest of four girls. I envied her that she had no brothers. "Yes, but they're all into silly things," Aurora explained. "Hair, clothes, not knowledge or anything deep."
"What are you into?" I asked Aurora. This was better conversation than I had expected.
"Knowledge and wisdom. Knowing what to do and doing the right thing."
I gulped. "What are your goals?" Aurora doubled back.
"It's complicated," I confessed. Then I told her. "I want to be so strong that nobody can hurt me."
Aurora laughed even though what I said was actually serious. That was why I had worked so hard on the ropes course and went endurance hiking. I also enjoyed nature study, because the biological world ruled us and the more you knew about it, well the stronger it made you feel. Foreign languages were good too, but history was just what people did, and at times people could be brilliant and at others...
"Who hurt you?" Aurora looked concerned and then she remembered what I had told everyone about my parents back in Toco Hills. "That must have been very hard," she stated the obvious.
"I'm pretty used to it. It's the only family I've got."
"What are you going to do when you go away to college?" Aurora asked.
"Try and go out of state," I replied. By out of state, I meant not in Georgia or to Athens. Athens was the home of the University of Georgia. "Where do you want to go to College?"
"I used to think University of Kansas," but I'm not so sure now. "I'm not afraid of big places, because I've been to Nationals. I tried explaining it to my parents, but they're not scholars."
It was hard to picture Aurora as a scholar, though her French was better than mine. That meant she was a solid student. She also was willing to learn about what she did not know. She had a copy of Lives of the Saints so she could learn about Francis of Assissi whom she had mistaken for Jesus. Although Aurora could play the part of a simple, country girl, she was probably a lot smarter than she looked.
I asked her how she was enjoying Lives of the Saints. She said it was very violent, and then we all froze. Parked outside Seckler Center where Upper Highland Lakes Road intersects Highland Lakes Road was a huge stake truck full of paramilitary; for that is the correct name for them. They wore scarlet spandex second skins, and carried big, fierce looking weapons. Their heads were covered in white helmets with scarlet skunk stripes down them, and mirrored visors covered their faces.
"Intimidation," said Aurora under her breath.
"You're kidding?" answered Odem.
"The British are coming! The British are coming! One by land. Two by sea!" Aurora replied. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to hug Aurora.
"I think those weapons are real," Jewels spoke up.
"I bet everyone shooting buckets has ants in their pants if their leaders let them out," commented Tweetie.
"I hope we have enough for two teams," Jewels answered.
We walked on to the grounds of Seckler Center. Adults stood in nervous clumps making grownup talk. Pedra spread out the towel she used in place of a chair and got out a book on computer security. The boys were forming up teams of four each. Eight had managed to get out. The riots of course were not until tomorrow, and since their was paramilitary from the Shared Conceptual Space, they promised to be quite a show. The only problem was that people like Amaryllis' mother and grandmother were actually afraid. Yes, there could be real blood shed. I thought of the fencing kids at the party and wanted to laugh, even though nothing about what I had seen was funny. Those troops in scarlet spandex had real weapons.
The Black Night
The basketball game at Seckler Center lasted twenty minutes. That is because more trucks of scarlet spandex troops moved in. The trucks, parked and the troops staid in them. They said nothing. They made no move, but both the boys and the adults sent to keep them from fighting, because boys like to fight, wanted to walk out to the street and stare. They stared and laughed and made nervous, unhappy talk. The intimidating effect was fading fast, partly because scarlet is not a color that ordinary Americans associate with serious military or paramilitary endeavors and partly because most of the adults and kids had never seen a stick rip a hole in a building. I was sure there was a battle stick stowed on one of those trucks.
"We need to get everybody home," I told Pedra who shifted her book from hand to hand the same way Jewels toyed with the well worn basketball. He really wanted to play while we had time, but the time was gone. I might be glad Aurora made fun of the troops in scarlet, but I did not trust them, not one bit. Pedra walked back to Seckler Center and retrieved her towel. Odem was over by the high dive on the beach. "Ahava, I dare you to go off this thing!" she called out.
"We have to go home," I told her.
"Why?" she asked.
"This whole area is going to get stuck bad and it's not healthy to be out when that happens." I hoped what I said sunk in.
"This is like the wilds of Effing Ham County. The Company only gets so far, and this is their butt end here in Nooo Jerzie." Odem climbed out of the water and got her stuff. For a girl who talked about the IDF and freedom fighters, she was now thoroughly cowed. "This is the priests' war," she told all of us when were far enough away from the spandex covered troops.
"You going to root for the priests?" Aurora asked.
"War is not an EXPLETIVE DELETEDing football game!" Odem explained to all of us.
"I don't care who wins as long as the assholes stop making everyone else' life miserable," Pedra explained.
"I hope they don't shoot at kids," Jewels spoke up.
I felt hot. I felt cheated out of my swim. I was no longer scaird. I was sick with anticipation of tonight's pyrotechnics. I was glad to reach what I wanted to be home. I took a shower on the fourth floor. Even a hot shower could not warm me through, and I was cold once I got out of the sun.
While I showered, Amaryllis came to the bathroom door. She wanted to talk to me. I wondered what I had done wrong. I needed a safe, secure place for tonight. I realized I was ready to cry. I climbed out of the shower and dried off, and wrapped a towel around me. Amaryllis used her pass key to get into the bathroom. I wanted to cuss her out, but my anger faded. I leaned against the sink.
"Tell me what you saw on those trucks," my mentor cut right to the chase.
"I didn't see it. I just know they have a stick," I replied. "I remember the police using a stick in Atlanta. If the..." I groped for the right word. "Warriors," Amaryllis filled in.
"If the warriors want to intimidate people, they'll use a stick like the police did in Atlanta," I finished.
"Atlanta is ground zero for the company," Amaryllis surmised, "But the company and the Priesthood use similar techniques."
"Pedra is scaird too. She thinks they are going to use an electro-magnetic pulse. She says to turn off all electronics, unplug appliances..." Amaryllis shook her auburn haired head. "I just want all this over with."
I had nothing to say to that. I couldn't eat lunch. I sat out on the porch and read, after Marianne made me sweep it. It was coated with gypsy moth caterpillar turds as usual. I thought I could hear the caterpillars munching in the trees. Then I got to sweep off the fourth floor balcony which was how I saw another truck of scarlet coated paramilitary (I can't bring myself to use the word warriors) parked down on Conway, a street not connected to our neighborhood except by a path through the woods. Someone was planning to come into our neighborhood the backway, or maybe the townhouses were an incitement. There was another group of townhouses down by the beach on Lake Five. Pedra said they were called the Garbage Dump Homes because there had once been a garbage dump on the land where they stood. The Highland Lakes Country Club had finally filled in the dump over a century ago, but somehow it lived on in history or perhaps infamy.
"Somebody really hates us," I thought. "And somebody is scaird. Somebody is scaird, and somebody is stupid. When somebody is scaird and stupid, they can be really dangerous." My throat felt dry and tight. I could hear the gypsy moth caterpillars munching on tree leaves. At least this was an enemy we could hear and fight. The other enemy waited until night fall.
And at eight pm on July 22, 2083, the lights went out. It was dusk, and we lit citronella and punk to keep the mosquitoes away. America's Clan and the Golden Eagles, who both played at being warriors, mounted a patrol. We took turns sitting guard on the balcony, but mostly we just talked, and those who were hungry ate. I had on a sweater over my t-shirt; for I was still cold. Still, the first gun shots took me by surprise. They were much louder than fire crackers. Odem recognized them as did Amaryllis' mother. Ondina and Amaryllis ordered everyone inside. Odem remembered to blow out all the outdoor lights. Inside, we lit candles and sat in the hall well away from the windows.
There were more gunshots. They came in multiples. "That's automatic or semi-automatic weapon fire," Odem informed us. And then there was an explosion that made our bones shake. The townhouse, which was not scaird, was just fine, but the boom resinated through the earth and our ears. "Someone got hold of a mortar," Odem replied.
"We should have hid in the basement," Amaryllis' mother told us.
"It's disgusting in the basement," answered Helena. It was disgusting in the hall. The night had become oddly still, and the cool from the outside did not penetrate into the third and fourth floor hallway. Instead, the place smelled of sweat and a kind of rankness that was probably fear.
Then my stomach turned. It turned before my ears heard the whine like a mosquito trapped on a screen insistent on getting to the fresh, human flesh on the other side. Only this mosquito was higher pitched and whiney, and one of the little kids moaned and started crying. "Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about!" said one of Amaryllis' sisters.
"Don't hit the child," Zalli pleaeded. "You'll make it worse. There's something in the air that hurts."
"It's a siren of some kind," Amaryllis tried to put it into words. I closed my eyes, to try to avoid getting sick. I was glad I had not eaten lunch.
I groped toward the bathroom. Aurora took the flashlight and went with me. I made it as far as the sink, and clung to the porcelain. I blinked back tears. I wanted to sit on the floor and howl. Instead, I splashed water on my face, and went back to my place in the hall. There was only so much water in the tank and our electric pump which connected us with our well was out of commission. Any water was precious, but I'd just had the dry heaves, and a sick person deserves something. I sat with my eyes closed, sobbing silently, and shivering. Aurora got me a blanket from my bed. "I could puke on this," I told her as I wrapped it around myself.
"You won't," she told me. "You threw everything up all ready. You're just sensitive that's all. It's not your fault."
I closed my eyes and listened to the synthetic mosquito. "Nonlethal sonic weapons," Odem explained; for the siren fascinated her.
"Makes sense," Pedra replied. "The priests don't like to kill if they don't have to. I think they want us alive."
The siren went on forever. Some people were able to sleep. Aurora slept with her head against my shoulder. Even Odem slept a bit. I heard a boy snore and an older woman. It was right before dawn when the pounding on the door woke the sleepers. I had been thinking of my family in Atlanta. I was thinking of the police raid on Beth Jacob Village. I thought about Kohana, my Placement Specialist. I imagined calling her and telling her all about this horrible night. I knew I could never explain a night like this to my parents who felt I deserved to be sickened by the siren or maybe shot by the troops in scarlet spandex.
The pounding would not go away. "What's that," asked a little kid.
"Someone's at the door," answered Pedra.
"I'll deal with it," announced Ondina who told the rest of us to stay upstairs. We sat in silence. There was just the siren again and then Ondina came back upstairs. With her were two other kids. She asked us to make room for them. The kids smelled of woods and sweat and what I realized was vomit.
"Is Dante here?" a male kid asked.
"He's down on the third floor," Amaryllis replied. "What do you want to see him for?"
"He went to my school. He graduated, but he used...well he's a fag and he went out with Leon, even took him to the prom," The male kid snorted.
"Oh pul-eeze," groaned Pedra.
"I remember it fondly," Ondina answered. "It was a great prom night." She laughed.
The boy groaned. The girl took over. "Well I'm Leon's little sister," the girl kid introduced herself, "And Charles and I knew Dante lived up here. That meant there were other kids from our school up here. The adults from out of town, ordered everyone to 'kill the warriors in the townhouses,' and they were serious, but we couldn't kill kids from our own school, so when they gave the orders we ran away and then those Priests turned the siren on and it made the grownups sick, and it made the ones who stayed close to the priest trucks, collapse. Then the priests took them and tied them up and put them on the trucks. I watched from the bushes, and then we decided it wasn't safe and we should run.
"We came here because this was where Dante lived. We figured if you have Dante, you'd take anybody. Also, if the assholes who ordered us to shoot kids, attack, they'll go for you first."
"That's comforting to know," Zalli spoke up.
"Well we still have our guns. Your mentor made us leave them downstairs, but we can get 'em."
"I hope they arrested your masters," spoke Ondina.
"I hope so too," answered Charles. "It's the adults from around here that I'm worried about."
"I don't have any sympathy for any of them at the moment, I'm afraid," Ondina replied.
I didn't have any sympathy either. Some time after the sun rose, it grew silent or quiet enough to hear the gypsy moth caterpillars munching leaves and taking craps. I was stiff from having spent the night crouched and sleepless in the hall. I made my way down to my shared bedroom and folded my blanket. We still had no electricity. Ondina announced that due to the power outage water was still rationed. Amaryllis tried the house phone but it was dead and her comm phone was also not working. Odem's tablet worked, because it was on batteries and had been off during what she supsected was the electro magnetic pulse.
"Water's rationed, but soda is free!" Dante called out.
"And it's warm as piss!" Zalli countered.
"Then don't EXPLETIVE DELETEDing drink any," Dante replied. "More for the rest of us!"
That was how Charles and Brandi stood in our kitchen drinking warm soda, from Dante's precious cache, and the little kids had soda too, and soon all the soda was gone. Aurora, Odem, and I volunteered to take the empties to the rear deck where they could wait until we had water and could rinse them out so they could go back to the store. Dante had twelve quarts of soda in assorted flavors, but by noon he had none.
I slept in the warm nest of Odem, Ahava's, and my triple bedroom and woke up in the blazing afternoon heat, thirsty, hungry, filthy, and with a pounding headache. Odem gave me the news. We had power which meant we could flush toilets, shower, and cook. Our food would not spoil, but the comm net we used to search databases, and send comm letters and talk on wikis and such was dead. The house phone worked, but our comm phones were still useless. Amaryllis' mother could not get her car to start and the same was true of Amaryllis' sisters.
Ondina helped them jump their batteries and the cars worked, which meant that before evening the refugees were gone except for Charles and Brandi.
"I think we have an all clear," Amaryllis told the two sad sack kids who refused to follow orders to shoot classmates, "So as soon as Ahava is washed and fed, she and her two roommates can take you back to your neighborhood on the local tram...if the local trams are running. If they aren't running, you stay here another night."
Charles and Brandi looked at one another. Their weapons sat in pillow cases in the living room. They were big guns with bandoliers of bullets. Odem said they were fully automatic which impressed her. Dante said they were shit. Neither Charles nor Brandi cared much for any one's cooking. They were probably used to the lowest order of mall food. Even Aurora did not eat like that.
I ate Zalli's marinated chickpea salad and drank hot tea as I stared through the fourth growth trees beyond the back porch. I imagined sitting for an hour at Seckler Center and then returning through the azure of an early, mosquito infested evening with two unhappy kids who were a year ahead of me in school. I thought of all the awkward conversations that awaited me, and then I wondered if the troops in scarlet were gone and then I wondered if there were any dead bodies on the roads and then I realized nobody really knew what was out there any more.
"The Priests won so now we're all going to have to live under them," commented Charles as he ate canned spaghetti product that Artemis heated up for him and Brandi.
"I don't care as long as there's no more fighting," Aurora answered.
"That's because you're not from around here," answered Brandi.
"Doesn't everyone want to live in peace?" Aurora asked.
"What happened to freedom?" Brandi asked.
"You always have to belong to somebody," Aurora replied, and her words met awkward silence.Ahava Burden
Burden of Dreams House
Highland Lakes, New Jersey 074225102