Aknowledgements: For my grandparents. For L. For Zan.
The draft took all the girls and boys I used to hole up with in High Point, those that survived the streets. It passed over my swaddled figure on the road with a blind eye, like Thunderbird, wings beating what I was to a thousand pieces. I forever lived in its shadow.
People come and go. Every now and then there is a rush of steam, the lowering of the boom that drives the crows from the fields. The scent of alfalfa wafts across our dingy lives, with the promise of a spring that never came.
I miss being on the road sometimes.
People on the road looked at me like I was crazy. Girls don’t just up and hit the road on their own, they said. Too many things could go wrong.
I had this heavy, military-grade backpack that wasn’t too destroyed or too ripped. It was in an abandoned fuel station. Not too many girls went in those places, either, but you could find supplies if they hadn’t been stripped.
You had to wait, and watch. People were living in some of these places, and would come and go. Sometimes whole families came and went, with scrawny little kids that smiled, and I felt rotten that they didn’t go somewhere better. I felt even more rotten thinking of all those who didn’t make it at all from the time before I was born, so it was best to quit thinking and do what you had to do.
I couldn’t figure why these people lived in nowhere places on their own, pecking around in the dirt with the chickens. But then, who was I? I left safety for something less defined. Sometimes I might stay a night in the camp cities, where the structures were pieced together with dull saw blades and sheets of aluminum, walls and fences of scrap wood and sharpened sticks, ladders and stairs and bridges made of broom handles, axe handles, rope, all kinds of objects sewed the whole camp together, and many of them had a common area where we sat around a fire. A smallish, long-haired child, shirtless and not yet girl or boy, would take a long stick to stir the coals. Then the adults would shoo the fire keeper back while the wood hissed and popped.
People are fascinated by strangers. It was easy enough to find a friendly lap to curl up in by the fire, to laugh the night away in someone’s tent, temporary comfort. But you wake up and remember that one day strangers aren’t strangers anymore. Familiarity breeds contempt, I’ve heard it told.
I liked going place to place, and maybe I would return someday, but I just couldn’t seem to be still.
These human encampments all had different rules that seemed to change daily, and had no bearing on making anyone’s life any better. There were religious sanctuaries that were very dull. Sometimes those didn’t allow outsiders to enter at all. Those that did — its occupants feasted on the driest kind of lives — keeping themselves separate and above but still paying taxes to the collectors that came through. No one knew for sure where those goods went.
“But, we give to the collectors so they will keep us safe,” a woman in one of the sanctuaries explained. She wore a long dress and head covering. A scarf covered her face to keep temptation away from the males in the sanctuary. Everything about the way she spoke and moved radiated fear.
“Safe from what?”
“Well, the raiders that will take all of our belongings and hurt us,” she said, like I was bothering her with my stupid questions. “What do you mean?”
They had books at the sanctuaries. They were all one kind of Bible, so I read that in the lonely hours. It was the most violent, incestuous, absurd mythology I had ever heard and the point, it seemed, was something about control.
The other kinds of camps, the ones that were wild and on the verge of anarchy at any given moment, were at least more real and fun. But when the collectors came, the whole place would scatter, and sometimes the whole village was wiped out. The villagers would rebuild, or go their own ways down the road.
I told myself I was just going to find Leslie and see what her new city was like. She had been sent to Cloud, pronounced Clood. Maybe it was the Factory pulling me the whole time.
Near the end of a long journey of empty space between one place and another, I caught a ride.The dirt buggy was held together with cord and pilfered ends, and shook as if it was going to spring apart any minute. We jolted down the incline toward an open plain of dry fields and hundred-year-old farm equipment, which the driver and passengers would jump out and ransack for parts. Dust spiraled up from the wheels and stuck in our teeth. I was wedged between two grown boys; two more were in the driver and passenger seat. It was time to rethink things.
They offered me a ride when I was walking alone, and I accepted out of carelessness or exhaustion. They weren’t staring, or saying anything out of the way, but I couldn’t quite pick up on what they were about. They didn’t say anything at all. It was like looking at me made them nervous, which made me nervous. I was glad when they dropped me off in the center of the nearest town.
The days had cooled off, so it wouldn’t hurt to pick up a warm scarf that would cover my head and mouth. Add a few layers of clothing. That would keep people from staring so much on the road. I found what I needed in the store there, an old funny-smelling store with green and white tile and a few supplies clinging to the shelves. The man there kept staring at me, my clothes and the knife strapped on my belt.
“Come far?” he asked.
“Not far enough, yet.”
Then I laughed, in case he thought I was insulting his depressing town. He stared.
I thought I was real tough, with my machete that I would sharpen at night until the edge cut my finger.