There isn’t so much a sunrise on these mountains; it’s more a lessening of the dark. I imagine someone turning a giant dimmer switch to brighten the valley.
Maybe I’ve been thinking too much about my mom.
Sometimes when I was little, we’d have dinner in the den. Candles on the table, real cloth napkins, cheesy VH1 music and the hanging lamp set to low—the “shandahleeeer,” as she would say, with a smile and a roll of her fingers. “We will be fancy tonight, Danae. We will be ladies.”
I like how the leaves tell the time. Right now, they are black as bat wings, but in a few hours they will begin to glow. I like when the sun gets higher and the canopy becomes so iridescent you can see veins, capillaries in the undersides. In the spring and summer, it’ll all be neon green. Now it’s reds and yellows and spiky blades of pine. Makes it almost worth the cold.
I am shivering.
For the moment there’s only the rumbling in the earth to tell me morning is coming. I can feel it coursing down the mountain, bubbling in the stream. A bird calling. The temperature rising. I can feel it.
But there’s no message for me in it. The mountain doesn’t care that we’re here. I don’t know where we’re supposed to go, no more than I knew yesterday. Or the day before that. There is no pull. No whispers. Nothing but—
—dirt. I have a handful of dirt in my glove. I let it loose, mouthing prayers, but the dirt falls straight to the ground.
Howard has come up behind me. He’s gotten good at stalking, but still I should have heard him. What good am I? My senses are dull. All of them. I’m dead weight. I shake my head.
“Then we go east.” He has the map out. He stabs a gloved finger at the folded section in his hand—neither of us can see it in this light, but we don’t have to. I know where he means.
We hear there’s a pocket open to travelers a day’s walk from here, a few miles off I-180. We’re low on supplies, and I’m lonely for conversation that isn’t Howard’s.
I miss the others.
Howard puts a hand on my shoulder, pulls me close. I hear him sniffle, his nose running from the cold. He kisses me on the forehead.
He hasn’t offered a word of reproach, in all this time. It’s been months. A year maybe. I am lost, empty. Adrift.
It’s not a big deal to Howard. The wilderness is his playground. Even without my help, we’re getting by. Actually, I think he likes being the one to say where we go, where we stop. Where we hide. In the early days, I think he was afraid of me. He used to joke about it, to the others, even just to me after they were gone. “Listen to Danae, if you want to survive.” He’d laugh, like it was funny.
He’s quieter now. Confidence does that. He’s a man who’s found his calling, even while I’m losing mine. Have lost. I don’t know.
But he knows how much it means to me. Meant. Means. He asks, every morning, and if the answer is “nothing,” he takes over. Easy. He moves off down the trail, back towards the campsite. Whistling.
“Thread,” I tell him. Now that we have crested the hill, I can see the movie theater marquee.
Howard is already checking his watch, and picking up my wrist to check mine. “Right.”
“We don’t need bread. Oh-sixteen-hundred.”
“I want bread. Or cookies. And shampoo. Do you have a list?”
He throws me a pained look. I have insulted his manhood.
“You forgot the first aid tape in Eagle Town.”
“And my tampons in Columbia.”
“Your people used strips of leather in the old days. I can get you leather.”
“My people used Tampax. Kotex. As long as there are women, they’ll have supplies. Ask.”
“Fine.” He turns his back to me and saunters off down Main Street. According to the travelers we bunked with in the Catskills, there’s a trade store in an old elementary school a few blocks west.
“Painkillers!” I shout after him. We’re down to half a bottle of Aspirin. His migraines have been bad.
“What am I, a rich man?” Howard calls over his shoulder. But he’ll try. He has a stash of batteries and a couple of bags of hand-rolled cigarettes. He’s ready for a bargain.
I check the map in my hands, once an afterthought in Howard’s glove compartment, now a bible. Under Howard’s shorthand and hieroglyphics in red ink, I look at Trachtenberg, Pennsylvania and then glance up for comparison.
The town appears structurally unaffected. Mountain pockets tend to be. There’s a rift in the road, some obvious earthquake damage, but the county library is where we were told it would be—a tall, gray, fancy-looking building visible beyond the spires of what was once a Roman Catholic church. But the names and whats of things are always unreliable.
We’ve been noticed. There’s a trio of women in puffy coats standing outside of an old diner, catty-corner to me. Judging from the smell wafting across the street it is still a place for food. My stomach growls. I peek at Howard’s retreating form, wondering what I’d have to offer up tonight in apology if I splurged on a home-cooked meal.
The women seem friendly-ish. None of that pinched, suspicious look. Just curious.
I wave. Step off the curb. As I do, one of the women ducks back into the diner. It’s dark inside; the afternoon sun is hiding behind the buildings now, but I can see little flickering lights through the window.
“What’s your business?” one of the remaining women asks. She is middle-aged. The third woman isn’t a woman at all, just a really tall girl.
“Barter,” I answer. I smile.
The girl’s face blossoms in a grin.”Where you come down from?” she asks. She has white-blonde hair done up in a messy bun and freckles sprinkled across her nose. She can’t be more than fourteen.
“We’ve been tracking along the creek.” I sniff the air. “Is that . . .?”
“French-fries. Want some?”
“You in the market for some dried sunnies?”
Freckles wrinkles her nose. “Not really. But you don’t have to trade for it. We have plenty. Don’t we, Mom?”
“Come on, Mom. It’s Veteran’s Day. We can spare.”
“It’s what now?” Mom is surprised into a laugh. “How do you even know that?”
Gabby shrugs. “It’s in my calendar.”
“Well we don’t just go giving out food to . . .” Gabby’s mother glances at me. “Travelers.”
“It’s ok,” I interject. “I’m not a veteran anyway.”
“We’re all veterans,” says a woman from the doorway. She’s wearing a turtleneck sweater and an apron, her arms crossed. Her ponytail is pure white. Gabby’s grandmother, maybe. Something around the eyes.
“You want fries?”
Uh. “Sure. I’d love some.”
Grandmother nods and turns away again. She didn’t invite me in, and the others are still standing here, so I wait with them. Inside, I can see necks craning to look at me, staring white faces, but no one has gotten up out of their seats. They’ve got manners here, or travelers aren’t so infrequent as I thought.
The old woman returns with a small bundle—a handful of french-fries wrapped in a towel. They’re fresh. I can feel the heat through the cloth and through my glove. Sweet Mother. The aroma is almost too much to bear.
“Thank you,” I manage. The women nod.
“What are you shopping for?” Gabby asks, as I unwrap the towel and put a fry in my mouth. It scalds my tongue, but I don’t care. I’m already sticking in the next one.
“Mmph,” I say, and gesture in the direction that Howard disappeared. Grease. Hot. Potato. Gods. I might melt with pleasure right here.
Gabby is smiling at me, bemused. “Stuff,” I tell her, swallowing another bite. “The usual. My man is doing the trading. I’m looking for the library.”
“Oh, the Lost and Found?” Gabby asks, her brows dancing in graceful blonde arcs.
“It’s right down there,” she tells me, pointing. “I’ll go with you, if you want.”
“Gabby,” scolds her mother.
“Well it’s . . . it’s fine,” I say. And it is. It’s nice to have people to talk to. Women, especially. Not so nice as these fries, rapidly disappearing, but nice. A novelty.
Grandmother has already vanished back into the diner. Gabby’s mom says she can go, but she has to promise to be back in an hour—she’s needed for the evening meal.
Gabby walks alongside me, watching with bright eyes as I polish off the rest of my windfall. For once I’m glad for the cold mountain breezes—maybe it will blow the telltale smell of French-fries away from me. Howard won’t approve.
I wish I had a breath mint. I have to settle for water from my flask.
“Are you spending the night?” Gabby asks, as we navigate a complex array of potholes. She’s wearing fuzzy white boots that seem audaciously impractical to me, but they’re cute. It’s been a long time since I considered fashion.
“No, just passing through.”
“But you must be camping nearby. It won’t be long ‘til sundown.”
“Where are you going next?”
“Where you been?”
“West.” I look at her. “Haven’t been out of town much, have you.”
“I’ve been trekking with my Grumper in the foothills,” she says, “but no. Not really. Who are you looking for at the El and Eff?”
I don’t answer. No one. Everyone. Gabby is too young to realize what a landslide could be kicked loose by such a question.
The library door lets out a painful squeal as we come inside. We pass through a lobby where once there would have been tables of leaflets and community boards peppered with local announcements, but the furniture and corkboards have been removed. We open the inner door, sweeping aside crisp, brown leaves.
Gabby calls out in a high, sing-song voice. “Mr. Merriweather! Company, Mr. Merriweather! We’ve got a traveler!”
Aside from the inevitable musty smell and some boarded up windows, the place is in remarkable shape. A skylight overhead has survived tremors, hail, wind. It bathes the stacks in cool sunlight. The shelves are orderly and well-stocked. If it weren’t for the lack of heat and electricity, I could imagine I’ve walked into any small town library before The Chain—before small towns across the world fell like dominoes.
There are books spread across the checkout counter. I pick one up—a calculus textbook—and smell it. I close my eyes, and I am seven years old again, curled up in the mythology aisle of the Appoquinimink Public Library.
“Coming,” calls a voice from a side hall, followed by an unmistakable flushing sound.
I turn to Gabby. “You’ve got plumbing?”
‘Uh-huh.” She grins at me, like this is her own personal accomplishment.
Footsteps, another creaking door, and a man enters the library proper. He’s spectacled, walks with a slight dowager’s hump and has thinning blonde hair—so quintessential a librarian I find myself smiling. He’s pulling a parka on over his cardigan, though, a concession for the cold. His nose and cheeks are pink—either he’s got a heat source somewhere, or he’s been nipping at something alcoholic. Maybe both. He’s smiling at me, all dimples and teeth, and I’m nearly overcome with the urge to ask if I can join him back there, but Howard will be waiting for me.
Howard’s literary interests are limited.
“Hello! Hello!” Mr. Merriweather exclaims. He juts out a hand to take mine; I pull off the glove and give it to him. His grip is strong and warm. “I don’t know how long it’s been since the last time we had a traveler. Welcome,” he adds, with a cute little bow of his head. I feel like royalty.
“She wants to register with the El and Eff,” Gabby informs him, boosting herself onto the counter.
“Of course she does.” Merriweather’s gaze is full of sympathy, camaraderie. It’s that look I’ve come to crave in these perennial trips to civilization. Howard doesn’t get it—he was a loner, before. A weekend survivalist. The Chain, for him, was a renaissance.
“Now then.” The librarian searches under his counter, then takes off his glasses and checks again. “Where did I put that paper . . .”
“I have a list.” I have it ready in the inside pocket of my coat. I pull it out and hand it to him. He withdraws the slip of paper from its protective sandwich baggie and unfolds it; solemnly, as if this were a ritual. It is.
“Danae Perez?” He reads from the top line and glances at me. I nod. He draws a pen from behind his ear and uses it to copy down my information—name, date of birth, last pre-Chain address (I list my hometown, not college. Anyone who would be looking for me would know me from home.)
When he is finished, Merriweather runs his finger down the rest of the page, the names of my missing. He hums a little. I can see the mental wheels turning, already consulting his archives.
He looks up at me. “Well let’s see, shall we?”
The librarian steps away from the counter and begins the necromancy of his work—the pulling of file drawers, the lift and thump and reverent page-turning of ledgers. I’ve seen it dozens of times now, a hundred—how many pockets have we passed through, how many libraries, schools, museums, church basements? Never a word in any of them for me, but still I keep looking. Expectation has nothing to do with it.
“What kind of name is Perez?” asks Gabby.
“What do you mean, ‘what kind’. What’s your last name?”
“Huh. Are you Mennonites?”
She shakes her head. “They’re further north. We have a trading pact, though.” She’s still looking at me, openly assessing, trying to puzzle me out.
“My dad was Puerto Rican. Don’t you have Latinos around here?”
“The influenza and everything hit us pretty bad. We don’t have much of anybody.” She ponders. “There’s a homestead out behind the Walmart by the name of Rios. The Pa was from Mexico, I think. But you don’t look like them.”
“What was your Mom?”
What was Mom?
A nurse, I answer, silently. A song-writer. A witch. A dreamer. A fan of Days of Our Lives and Stephen King and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. A tarot card reader, queen of peanut butter sandwiches. Would any of that mean anything to you?
“A little bit of everything,” is what I tell her. “Scots-Irish. French. Nanticoke.”
Gabby is quiet for almost a minute. Then: “Was Puerto Rico in Mexico?”
“Do you even read these books, Gabby?”
Merriweather chuckles from a desk nearby. He is holding up a candle and checking between a ledger and the contents of a strongbox. Drivers licenses. Knowing where those IDs came from, I look away.
“Your grandfather was half Jewish,” I say to Gabby, before I even know it’s coming. “His mother survived the . . .”
I trail off, glancing at the librarian. He doesn’t seem to have heard me.
“The First One,” Gabby whispers, eyes wide. “How did you know that?”
It happens this way sometimes, when I’m off my guard. It’s been so long, I’d almost forgotten.
“Are you . . . psychic?” she asks, sotto voce. Vigorously, I shake my head. I can tell she doesn’t believe me.
Merriweather closes the box and moves onto a massive black file cabinet. It looks like it’s survived not only The Chain but both previous world wars. It sticks, but with a grunt and a practiced choreography of pulls, Merriweather wrestles it open.
Gabby is still staring, a flush of excitement creeping over her freckled face. “I heard . . .”
“It was just a lucky guess,” I shrug, keeping my voice light, disinterested.
I check my watch. Howard will be expecting me to join him in twenty minutes. He tolerates my habit; he understands on a cerebral level why it is important, even if there’s no one he’s missed himself, no one whose whereabouts have cost him a moment’s sleep. But he doesn’t like for it to slow us down. “In and out. Don’t ask what isn’t necessary, don’t give too much away.” And he’s right. Shit. As nice as these folks seem in Trachtenberg, we can’t afford to be too friendly. I have to remember Maria and Santos, trussed up in a town hall for loitering and paganism.
Pockets are for settlers. They only look out for their own.
But, still. People wouldn’t put their resources into places like this—the Lost and Founds, the hostels, the roadside shrines—if there wasn’t a sense of something bigger still running through us. A national identity? Maybe? I don’t know. Maybe it’s just nostalgia.
Merriweather has left his glasses on the counter. I am working myself into knots with this. I’m itching to leave, to get back to Howard. Merriweather’s glasses are just sitting there in front of me, on top of a stack of books. I can’t help myself. I pick them up, turn to Gabby, and mime dropping them. I make a cracking noise.
“Oh no!” I croon. “All these books, and all the time in the world to read them! It’s not fair!”
Gabby looks at me as if I’ve grown another head.
Merriweather has returned to the circulation desk. “Don’t think I haven’t considered that,” he says. “Fortunately, my prescription is not uncommon.”
I smile, replace the spectacles, and hike my backpack higher on my shoulder. Then I notice Merriweather has something in his hands besides my list. He’s reaching across the desk, holding it out for me. A packet of folded squares of paper, about an inch thick and tied with twine. I blink, confused, ready to tell him that’s not mine, when Merriweather mentions a name. “Looks like you’re a lucky one,” he says. “Passed through a little over a year ago, left this for you. Danae Perez. Imagine that.”
I take the packet, and my list. I tuck them both inside my coat.
I have to remind myself to breathe.
Howard is waiting for me in the school parking lot. He has a smirk on his face. A good trade, then.
The sun is setting. Howard swings an arm around my shoulder and ushers me away from Trachtenberg, the apartment buildings and row homes and basketball courts choked with weeds, trees. Over the turnpike of rusting hulks, past the reservoir, a marshland. Back into the hills.
He tells me what he has gleaned from the traders: north of here is Jesus-land, from Straughberg to Hollenfield. They won’t be welcoming. But there’s a civil pocket growing in Puxtawney working to get a system of steam power going. If we skirt the foothills west, barring too-heavy snowfall, we could get there before the Solstice.
I nod, distracted. My heart is a fist in my throat. I stuff my hands in my coat to keep from touching the letters in my pocket. I don’t know how to tell him. Jesus-land, of course, is exactly where you would be heading.
He found me oatmeal cream pies. Little Debbie’s. Helluva lot past expiration, but kept airtight in some industrial freezer.
I don’t hear him when he brags about how little he got them for. I break open the box, pop the plastic, eat them with a pasted-on grin while he beams at me over the campfire. After a dinner of roast groundhog, they taste like soiled mattress.
Howard is in good spirits. He struts, banking the fire. He makes love like a warrior. He doesn’t even notice my heart’s not in it.
You’re alive. Oh, Gods, you’re alive.
Now I’m thinking of my mother again, but in a distant way, beneath a cacophony of panic and gratitude (you’re alive, you’re alive.) Like I can hear her telling me that one time, when she met you, “There’s a wanderlust in that one. You can see it in his eyes.”
I had no idea what wanderlust looked like, back then, but I believed her. My dad was not the first guy to disappear on her, and hardly the last. If there was a look that promised leaving, she would know.
I didn’t tell her much about you; not what I felt, or how far it went, and nothing about the God stuff. She would have thought it hysterical that I found me a religious man.
There was a Magic the Gathering card called Wanderlust—it dealt a point of damage for every turn, death by attrition. I took it out of the deck and kept it taped to my mirror because I never had any pictures of you.
I used to wonder what it felt like, to be touched by God, or Spirit, whatever you wanted to call it. I envied your specialness. You said He spoke to you, and I believed you.
You said I should repent my false gods, my tarot and divining, all my mother’s wanton, idolatrous influence. You said the End of Days were coming. When the blazing light of the Lord came to purge the sinners and shepherd the righteous to a new Eden, you planned to walk among His chosen.
I keep thinking about that night in the school parking lot. Not so Godly then, with your hand down the front of my jeans, though His name was surely on my lips. I ripped a tear in the shoulder seam of your jacket, gripping so hard like I could keep you from falling. I thought I was touching something special, and if you left you’d take a piece of me with you.
Isn’t it ironic, in the end, it was me who did the leaving.
Dawn bleeds over the mountain. Harold grumbles in his sleep, turns over. I am out of the tent, sitting on a rock, watching stars blink out through evergreen branches.
I have barely slept.
When Maria and Santos were taken, I blamed myself. I was the one who said “go to Lutherville” after the truck finally died. Harold used to hold me at night, wiping my tears with my braids, kissing my wet cheeks. “He was dying,” he’d say, reminding me how Santo’s eyes had turned yellow weeks before, how he’d been coughing up blood and bile. In Lutherville, we found the suitcase full of penicillin, birth control (Thank the gods, Harold had laughed. Hallelujah!) and oxy. “Boy was out of his mind, didn’t feel a thing. You gave him that, Danae. Stoned, violent and quick is better than the alternative.”
He’d meant to comfort me. He forgets that I saw the body, a sixteen-year-old suspended two stories above the ground. One of the telephone poles that held him was carved with “IDOLATER.” “CATHOLIC SPIC,” was emblazoned on the other.
Once, just once, I pointed out, “Maria wasn’t sick.” Sweet Maria, my college roommate, my best friend. She’d been a nursing student before The Chain and a healer after, tending to the lost and the broken. The first to believe in me. “Danae has the Sight,” she’d say. “Danae talks to God. Listen to Danae.”
“You told her not to go back for him.” Harold’s shrug was eloquent in the dark.
I have barely slept, but—I have been dreaming. Visions of Maria and her brother, of heaven and hell. Visions of Gabby, slinking this way down the mountainside with a backpack and stolen hiking boots. Visions, most of all, of you. You preaching from the college roof, from hospital steps, straddling telephone poles. You, far ahead on a road flanked with old letters. You calling, Let’s go. This way. Let’s go.
Who’s to say it means anything? Wide awake now, my mind is a jumble. The mountain is stirring, Harold is snoring, and you’re alive, or you were a year ago.
I touch the packet inside my coat. It’s too dark to see, but I don’t need to. I have already memorized every word, the one’s you wrote and those you didn’t.
“Don’t go looking for your Mom,” you said. She was home when the bombs dropped.
“I pray every night for a sign of you.” I know you’re out there. I can feel you.
“I hear there’s a resurgence forming among the Amish.” Finally,I am following my calling.
In my gut, I feel it stirring. The pull. The knowing. But it could just be this. It might be . . .
I bend down to brush aside pine needles, leaves from the base of the rock. I remove my glove and scratch the ground with my nails, scooping a fistful of red earth into my hands. I say a prayer, words bubbling up from a great well inside me, things I’d forgotten were ever there.
I open my fingers. For a moment, in the shadows of the shivering pines, the earth swirls in a downward spiral. Particles hover, the wind holding its breath. A sigh, a yanking in my heart. This way. Go this way. Dirt settles on the ground, arranging itself in an inarguable pattern.
When Howard emerges, the coffee and gruel are already hot. He sees I’ve made extra.
“We’re getting company.”
“What have you done, Danae?”
“I can’t stop them from coming.” I fiddle with my coffee. “The visions are back.”
“Where?” His voice cracks on the question.
Howard is quiet for a long time, struggling. In the early days, he never would have asked, but now—
I am cruel. “Because I feel it,” is all I give him. And it is true, if not the whole story.
He stands, fists clenched. Then, with a breath, Howard sits to consult the map. His shoulders drop. He plots a course.
Harold is a simple man. Maybe not a good one, but there are worse. Harold would kill for me. Has. He will go where I tell him.
So we’re going. Where travelers, outsiders like us are unwelcome. Where we have no business other than a fool’s errand . . . a dream vision. My vision.
For Howard, this has always been a march of faith. Faith in survival, faith that the earth provides. That I am Her voice, a compass to some new world order.
I don’t think he has ever figured out—for me it isn’t so much about the future. It’s just . . . a need to know if what was lost can be found again. At whatever cost.
I watch the leaves trembling over my head, read the sparkle of sunrise with all its shady promises. I remember explosions on the horizon, cities burning, smoke rising. I remember home, the rasp of your cheek under my hand.
Howard coughs, searching his sack for a cigarette. He sounds like an old man.
I think of regret, and love, and all it can drive a person to.
• • •
Copyright © 2016 Shannon Connor Winward