Washed by a Wave of Wind
M. Shayne Bell, editor
[p.1]Tana Rosen met Karl William Ungricht three times in her life, twice before the end of the world and once long after.
The first time they met, Tana worked as a criminal psychologist who spent her days judging violent men-in spite of her petite size. She had thin, fawn-like bones and wiry legs that would easily curl up under her butt for hours as she sat on the floor to watch TV.
In the mornings Tana worked as a pretrial consultant for the Utah State Attorney General’s Office, sorting men and women the way another person might sort good pea pods into one pile, culls into another: “This juvenile car thief needs drug therapy; the mother up for child abuse is probably scared straight; and the neo-Nazi in the corner is competent to stand trial for capital homicide.”
Tana worked afternoons at the Utah State Prison trying to restore men who were emotionally sick, men ravaged by addictions, men whose brains were so miswired from birth that they did not know right from wrong and were therefore morally crippled. She would advise the doctors and program administrators: “This schizophrenic child molester needs Haldone; that cowboy thief should be taught to read.”
At age 28 she had her Ph.D. At age 28 she had a job that would have bewildered Solomon.
People had become things to mend or discard, and over and over again she found herself discarding people she wanted to mend. She [p.2]would sign papers verifying that a criminal was competent to stand trial, and after consigning some miscreant to hell on earth, she would drop her pen, wring her thin hands, stare at the lines of her own signature that wandered across the paper like an ant trail.
It was a cold night in late January 1991, with Joel working late at Novell. The Gulf War played on TV. Tana didn’t watch. She was tired of green tracers flaring into the night, of pinpoint explosions, of chubby American generals flaying their opponents with clever jibes.
With the Iraqis bombed and broken in their trenches, she could think only of their children, malleable little Moslems teethed on desolation, groomed in a society that exults in revenge. She believed that any victory would be temporary, a fitful battle, a long uneasy sleep until the next generation matured.
So she worked late at the prison, drove home to Provo, then stopped to grab a hamburger at the Rocky Mountain Drive-In just off 1-15. At night this part of town was desolate. The auto shops and pawn shops closed early, dimming their lights, and the big snow-covered park across the street yawned wide. The scruffy houses to the south were the abode of poverty and Tana’s future clients.
Tana felt edgy, feared she might spot one of her past rejects out on parole.
The counter clerk turned out one bank of lights as she prepared to close the restaurant, so Tana sat by a post in a dark corner and toyed with her hamburger.
She had grown comfortable being alone. Living with her husband was about the same as being alone. Tana didn’t have any real friends.
Few cars drove by. Across the street in the shadows, a man crawled from beneath a half-demolished bandstand. A low fog had frozen into ice crystals which drifted between the barren branches of the alders in the park. In the 20s and getting colder. Too cold to sleep without a fire, Tana mused.
The cook began tearing down ice-cream dispensers, and Tana scrunched closer to the wall as a pimple-faced boy mopped the floor beside her.
A moment later she heard a pop outside. The man from the park pulled the lid off the trash can. He was in his twenties, sunken cheeks, straw-blond hair under a stocking cap, a stained army jacket. Just someone’s lost boy, nobody Tana recognized. He pawed through papers, [p.3]found half a Coke which he set on the ground, then scavenged for loose fries, chicken strips covered with mustard sauce. He wrapped the fries and strips in paper, absently shoved them in his pocket.
A car pulled into the lot, washing Tana with lights. She realized she had been staring. She nibbled at her fries. Through the double-paned glass she heard a man say quite distinctly, “Jesus.”
Tana looked up and saw a sagging belly of a man who sat behind a desk all day, white shirt and tie under his suit coat. He wrapped his arm protectively around a little girl, perhaps seven years old, as if to save her from ever having to look upon a homeless person. Clean folks. Bathed in softened water. Citizens out for a bite after an evening movie.
Mr. Belly dipped into his wallet and pulled out a $20 bill, shoved it in the derelict’s hand, and said, “Excuse me, garblegarblegarble eat?”
The derelict looked at the money as if pondering the relevancy of currency to his life, crumpled it, and just held it, staring vacantly at Mr. Belly, who finally either got tired or embarrassed and brought his daughter inside.
The derelict fished a hamburger from the trash, a big one with a couple of kid bites taken from it, then put the lid back on the can and sat on the curb to feed, shoving hamburger in his mouth in fistfuls, lubricating with Coke.
Revolted, Tana looked away, thought: Ah, a story with a happy ending.
She played with her fries, not wanting to head for her car with the derelict so near. The darkened restaurant was safe, anonymous, and she could watch through her window as if viewing the outside world through a television screen. Mr. Belly ordered. Tana spaced out, thinking about a case at the prison, about a necrophile who had killed his own grandmother and kept her in a freezer.
The next thing Tana knew, Mr. Belly was outside again, shouting, “Damn you! Do you think I want you here? Do you think I want my kid watching you eat out here like some animal?”
The derelict sat on the curb, looking up, fries hanging out his mouth, and tried to swallow.
“What in the hell do you plan to do with the money? Buy drugs?”Mr. Belly shouted. The derelict started scrabbling backwards to get away. He fumbled in his pocket, set the $20 in the snow.
But Mr. Belly’s eyes glazed over, a dangerous fixed glare, and he [p.4]kicked the derelict and started screaming incoherently, “Ahyaahahahahaaaaa!”
The derelict fell forward, a red gash on his brow. Mr. Belly had opened him up with the toe of his dress shoe. Then the whole thing became macabre: Mr. Belly kicked, and the light from the window shone in his dark eyes, and he was intense, focused. His foot lashed out and the little derelict’s gray stocking cap flew off as the boot caught him in the temple.
The derelict rolled, eyes closed, away from his attacker, but the big guy kept screaming, kicking for throat, crotch. Tana heard ribs crunch, saw a splash of blood and a flash of white as some of the little man’s teeth flew out, heard the chunk of his carcass (she was sure he would die from the beating) as his head hit cement. The restaurant help stopped cleaning, stopped breathing; the compressors for the refrigerators abruptly died as the freezers went to defrost. Even through double-pane windows Tana could hear Mr. Belly wheeze. The beating became nearly soundless-the grunts of the antagonist, the swish of his clothes as he kicked.
Every day, Tana thought, I work with criminals but never witness the maniac glee in the attacker’s face, the whimpers of the victim, blood splashing over frozen snow. She jumped from her seat, ran to the door. Mr. Belly half turned when he heard her coming, and he slipped on the ice and some of the derelict’s greasy fries. Tana was pleased to hear his shoulder crack as he collided with concrete.
Inside the restaurant Mr. Belly’s daughter issued a thin scream, a child’s version of the wail an older woman might have made. Tana ran to the derelict. Blood covered the matted straw of his hair, and he lay twisted on his side, face down in the snow. Blood poured from his mouth and eye, and the hot breath from his nose steamed as if he were exhaling tiny puffs of smoke. He stared into the ground as if he were gazing at the heart of the earth. Some splotches of his blood were impossibly red under the glare of neon, but the blood pooling by his mouth was dark and purple. In the cold air it quickly jelled like pudding with a thin skin on it. In his right hand the derelict held the hamburger, as if he’d planned to carry it if he got away. His left hand held a twisted yellow paper and the last few fries.
The cleaning boy stood at the counter phone, pressing 911. All in all Tana figured the attack had lasted less than thirty seconds. Mr. Belly grunted and shouted, “Call a doctor, I broke something! [p.5]I’m hurt!” Tana glanced back. The fat man was struggling to lift himself from the ground with one hand.
Tana whispered to the derelict, “It’s all right! You’re all right! The ambulance is coming.” The hospital was only nine blocks away. Mr. Belly’s daughter screamed in the restaurant while the female cook held her. The fat man had managed to raise to a crouch. Tana shouted, “You keep back! Keep back!” She was sure he would attack again.
“Where’s the knife?” Mr. Belly asked. “I swear to God this bum pulled a knife on me.” Tana looked into his eyes. Guilt, fear. “It has to be here somewhere.” He got up, headed back into the restaurant. Tana watched him go, relieved.
The derelict spat a mouthful of blood, spoke through wheezing breath, “My teeth. Where’s my teeth? They dropped here somewhere’s.” It was useless to hunt for them in the dark, in the snow. Tana retrieved his stocking cap, set it under his chin. Mr. Belly came back outside, and Tana saw silver flash in his hand as he stashed a kitchen knife by the garbage can. She pretended not to notice. The big guy nosed around, recovered the $20 the derelict had dropped.
It seemed to Tana that the ambulance should be coming. Joel kept an emergency blanket in the trunk of the car, a thin piece of plastic with a mylar backing. She stumbled to the car, opened the trunk. When she closed it, Mr. Belly was hunkered over the derelict in a strangler’s pose. She looked in the restaurant window: None of the employees were watching. Mr. Belly lurched away, and Tana rushed to the derelict.
Nothing had changed. The derelict lay in the same position, a pool of blood by his nose, breathing shallow. His eyes had closed, swollen white ridges growing around them, but in his right hand, instead of a hamburger, he now held a kitchen knife.
Tana looked up at Mr. Belly, and his eyes were wide, frightened. He crouched by the trash can. “You found it!” he said. “You found the knife! He had it all along! He stabbed me!” He held out his hand, showed a tiny puncture wound.
At that moment, the cashier came outside, the others behind. Tana thought, even if I toss the knife, these are witnesses. They will have seen a weapon. I’m too late, and if the police dust the knife for prints, I’ll bet they find only those of the transient.
Framed. That easy.
Tana wanted to run. She thought wildly of trying to hide the bum under a building or of dragging him home and putting him in the [p.6]bathtub. Any place seemed safer than here, but she couldn’t move him, knew he needed more than a roof over his head or warm water on his wounds, and down the street an ambulance siren blared. Tana looked up at Mr. Belly and said, “Damn you, you animalistic mother!”
Tana didn’t wait for the ambulance. She drove home, her mind racing. She knew she could tell everyone that Mr. Belly had framed the derelict, but she had no proof. A solid citizen would swear that a transient had brandished a knife. The jury would jail the derelict even if they knew him to be innocent because down in their hearts they feared he might be dangerous. But what would the charges be?
Attempted murder? Even plea bargained down to aggravated assault; he’d be hit with a first-degree felony. One-to-fifteen years. They’d lock him up with the vicious boys in the Gladiator School, the dorm for young offenders.
But Tana could fix it if she never admitted witnessing the fight. She could avoid the trial. I can run a psyche profile on the transient in the morning, she thought. No matter how strait and sane he comes out, on paper I’ll show him to be a madman. Hell, half the Mormons in the valley can’t pass the Minnesota Mental Health Inventory. As soon as they admit belief in gods and devils and revelations, they’re down the tube.
Tana had faith in her abilities. She’d practiced her presentations on videotape. She knew how her wise little mouth hardly opened when she spoke, the words barely pushing beyond her teeth, so that when she was done, her judgments hung in the air by her taut face like breath on an icy morning, and you could look into her little scythe of a smile, the cold blue unblinking eyes, and she always sounded so damned right.
She could get him committed within the week, and in a few months the state hospital would set him free. In fact he’d be better off. For three months he’d get out from under this godawful cold, have a chance for three square meals a day, a bath.
Tana thought to herself, I’ll be doing him a favor.
His name turned out to be Karl William Ungricht. She sat at the desk in her office four days after the attack, studying his paperwork. Twenty-four, a high-school dropout up on attempted murder. Like many homeless on the streets in the “kinder, gentler America” created by the current Republican administration, Ungricht was certifiably insane, a schizophrenic lost in a perpetual dream. (Not unlike the current [p.7]Republican administration, Tana mused.) Still she’d ended up with no firm plans for Ungricht. On the night of the attack it had been late; she hadn’t been thinking clearly. It would have been so much easier just to claim that she had seen Ungricht’s attacker plant the knife and stab himself, even embellish the incident.
But lying under pressure isn’t my strong point, Tana told herself, and so she had set on the equally undesirable course of embellishing his psyche profile. She had thought about talking to her husband Joel about her dilemma but knew that he wouldn’t give her any worthwhile advice, since he wouldn’t want to risk being wrong. Nor would he offer any sympathy. Over the past four days, Tana’s life had been hell, and she wanted now to give up her stupid scheme.
After a soft knock on the door, a guard ushered Ungricht into the office. He wore the fluorescent orange coveralls issued to all inmates at the Utah County Jail. He stumbled in, clumsy and out of place, then stood staring at her or through her, some place a million miles away. Ungricht’s mouth was open, showing the gap where two upper incisors and a right bicuspid had been. His face was horribly purpled, clumsily stitched in places, but his hair looked cleaner. He just stood.
“Mr. Ungricht, I’m Tana Rosen, and I’ll be doing your psychological evaluation. Are you there? Can you hear me?” she asked, not sure from his paperwork just how far gone he might be.
The derelict finally looked at her. “I hear you, just not awake this time in the morn’.” He spoke with a central Utah accent, rare in one so young, so that morn’ rhymed with barn. He smiled, then began laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Tana asked. She wondered if she should stay in the room alone with this man or if she should push the alarm under her desk so that a guard would come sit with them through the interview.
“That sign on your desk,” Ungricht said, nodding down.
It was a long, three-sided piece of wood. Each side had a different message. The one Ungricht read said, “To err is human, to forgive is not state policy.” Tana flipped the sign over so that it simply read, “Tana Rosen, Psychologist.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“No need to be sorry.” He smiled, and behind his eyes he looked all right. He was scanning the room now, eyes tracking normally.
“I’ve been reading your paperwork, Mr. Ungricht—”
“My friends call me Willy,” he blurted.
[p.8]“I’m not your friend,” Tana said.
“Humph.” For a moment he glared, eyes full of pent up anger, and Tana thought he might hit her. “You’re playing it mighty cold,” he said. “Thing is, you was there when that fellow put me down. I looked up from the ground, saw your face in the window, and I could see the hurt in your eyes. I know you care. And ever since I got here, strings has been pulled. I hardly got my head stitched up before they shoved the psyche papers in front of me. I been jailed before, and that’s not natural. You been pulling strings for me. So don’t you go telling me that you’re not my friend!”
He talked just like any jailhouse con, too aware of her motivations, a professional manipulator. He’d probably learned it while panhandling, the give in a citizen’s eye when he planned to drop a quarter into your palm. He knew her pity clouded her judgment, and he planned to take full advantage.
“Your chances for a light sentence look pretty good. Your urine specimen came up clean, no drugs, so that will go in your favor.”
“My chances might look good from your side of the table,” Willy said, “But not from mine. They found a knife in my hand! Got my fingerprints all over it! They say I dug it out of the trash and tried to stab that guy in the chest, and all this just had to happen four hours after some hobo got beat to death down on the railroad tracks.” Tana looked in Willy’s eyes, saw genuine fear. He was right. The county was rounding up transients as fast as they could. “They’re looking at me real close for that one too, Ma’am!”
“But they won’t find anything, will they?” Tana said.
“I’ve never hit anyone in my life,” Willy said, “and that’s God’s truth. I stole things once in a while when I was a kid.” Tana believed him. Willy had a low-violence profile. She doubted he would ever strike except in self-defense.
“Sit down,” Tana said. “I got your jail records from Idaho, and your records from the mental hospital in Arizona. The psyche profile looks consistent. So, tell me, how does God speak to you?”
Willy had pulled up his chair, but as soon as she asked how God spoke, it was as if he left the room. His eyes became fixed and he stared through her once again, almost as if she had thumbed a switch in his brain, turning him off.
“It’s a curse from God, that’s what it is,” Willy said distantly, as if the voice rose from deep within. “A curse from God.”
“The dreams. Them’s the curse.”
“Tell me about your dreams.”
“Every night, God sends me a dream.”
“Did he send one last night?”
Willy nodded vacantly, licked his swollen lips. “I was a woman in the dream, and I was in the mountains. Really icy cold. Mountains like the Rockies, sandy brown and barren. I remember that someone had said food had fallen from the sky, and I was starving. My ass itched, like I had the runs, and I had thin flabby teats that nursed a baby, only nothing came out. I felt like … worms was in my stomach, eating me alive, making my brain itch, and my gums ached, and I knew I was going to die soon and that my baby would die. We was high in the mountains, the air clear and icy, and in the valley on the other side of a ridge I heard the tinny sound of an engine driving up windy roads. The campfire’s warmth and light were the only things that made the night bearable.
“Someone whispered that the engine was an Iraqi patrol, and we had to douse the fire. I sat in my robes, the baby sucking my empty teat, and as they doused the fire, I refused to help. Better to die from an Iraqi bullet than cold and hunger. Someone said my name, Irena, but I was already dead.”
Willy continued staring at the desk, staring into his own dark world beyond the desk, rocking back and forth. Lost.
The dream was consistent with others recorded in Arizona. Six months earlier they’d sent him packing, having determined that he was no danger to himself or others. They surmised that Willy’s eating disorder, his “Moral opposition to eating any food that doesn’t come out of a trash can,” was caused by childhood trauma, but they didn’t know. Ten million kids across the country were badgered into eating dinner every night by being told to “think of the poor starving kids in China.” Maybe Willy Ungricht was the only one who really ever did feel guilty about the millions who starved. Perhaps that led to his compulsive desire to eat refuse.
“God, Willy, you had twenty dollars in your pocket. Couldn’t you have just bought. a hamburger?”
“No.” Willy kept rocking. His hands trembled; he breathed shallowly, like a woman in labor. Tears came to his eyes. “You don’t believe it. You think I’m crazy, but God told me to live like this. He sent his [p.10]angels in a dream, and they said, ‘You got to follow your heart, Willy, and you’ll be okay,’ and when I woke, my heart wanted me to walk out the door, leave home, and never go back, so that’s what I done.”
“When you were sixteen?”
“Something like,” Willy said.
Tana fumbled with the mess of papers on her desk. Lots of records testifying to the same thing. “Okay, Willy, I’m going to pull your strings. You’re right about the attempted murder charges. I know they’re bogus,” Tana hesitated. “The thing is, if I try to fight this now, I’d have to go in front of a jury and tell my side of the story against four other witnesses. I could say that I saw him plant the knife-but the value of my testimony has been compromised since I’ve waited so long. The charges might stick, and, Willy, you don’t need prison.
“So, if you agree, I want to stack the deck in your favor and fight these charges my way. If you agree, then I’m going to declare you incompetent to stand trial. It will be a sure ticket to the mental hospital. It’s clear that your dreams, your illness, is at the heart of this, and you weren’t in your right mind when that guy tried to kick your brains out. Still, if you want, I’ll take this thing to trial, and I will be a witness for you.”
Willy laughed a melancholy laugh. “You plan to send me down to the hospital?”
“Yeah, Willy, I do. Just for a few months-three, maybe six.”
“Will they let me eat from the garbage?”
“Maybe. They’ll try to break you of it.”
Willy sighed, picked up Tana’s name tag and flipped it back over: To err is human, to forgive is not state policy. “I expect the food there is about the same as garbage. If this goes to trial, I’d spend six months in the county jail anyway just waiting for a date. I guess, you’re doing what you can. You’re saving me.”
He sighed. “You know, most folks in the world don’t eat food any better than what I pull from the trash. I’m not doing anything wrong.”
“I know,” Tana said. She paused to study his files. “There is something I wonder about. You did poorly in school, and your psychologist in Arizona says you have an attention-deficit disorder. He’s also written something here about a poor concept of time. I just wondered, do you see your life as a story, with causes and effects?”
“No,” Willy said.
Tana sighed. “Do you see that your dreams, that your feelings of [p.11]guilt about eating, are related to what happened the other night? This disorder will destroy you.”
“Look, I don’t believe that,” Willy said. “God told me that if I follow my heart, everything will be okay.”
“So life doesn’t have causes and effects?”
“Not like what you imagine,” Willy said. “Life is just a deck of cards, flashing in front of you, all of them just appearing at random. Shit happens.”
Tana shrugged. This one needed mending, so she would send him to someone who did it full-time. She pulled a green spiral notebook from her desk, wrote her work address on the cover, put the pen in the spirals of the notebook. “Willy, I want you to write me. I want you to look at your life, from start to finish, and find a pattern. When you do, write that pattern down while it is clear before your eyes and send it to me.”
Willy looked at the pen. “I can’t take that pen into the jail. It would just get stolen by some tattoo freak.”
“I’ll put it with your clothes,” Tana said. “The guards will give it to you when they take you to the hospital,” and Tana sighed in relief, hoping she would never see Willy Ungricht again.
After six weeks in the Utah State Hospital, Willy’s evaluation restrictions were removed, but his therapist took a month to sign the recommend that allowed Willy to leave the locked facility for supervised recreational activities. They released Willy for the first time in early March, when the sun had melted the snow and the endless temperature inversions had let the cloud of polluted air begin to rise from Utah Valley.
The recreational therapist in charge, a kitten of a girl named Lisa Snow, took Willy and a dozen other patients to the dollar theater to watch “Green Card.” It was a perfect movie for schizophrenics—no decapitations, no devils inhabiting the bodies of small girls, nothing to feed the delusions of the audience. Willy sat on the last seat of the row, next to a patient who was so far gone as to be a zombie.
All through the movie, Willy ate popcorn that others spilled on the floor and wrote furiously in the notebook Tana had given him. He sketched out his life, looking for cause and effect, but nothing made any sense to him, and he finally threw the pen down in disgust.
At the end of Green Card, when the French lead and the weird New York chick realized they loved each other, Willy looked down the row [p.12]and saw Lisa crying into her hand. The male aide two seats down was no better off. Willy whispered to the zombie, “Wish me luck.”
Willy slipped from his chair, walked up the aisle, hit the exit door. He sprinted through the parking lot, leapt a fence, and ran north along the Provo River.
When the credits came on screen, Lisa counted her patients. Willy was three-quarters of a mile away. The zombie at the end of the row turned to Willy’s seat and said, “Good luck.”
In 1989 the ozone hole over the Antarctic had opened permanently, and across Australia millions of frogs began to die, species that had lived for well over a hundred million years. In 1990 scientists studying the combined influence of ozone depletion and the greenhouse effect testified to a Congressional committee that up to 70 percent of the world’s plant and animal species could be destroyed within fifty years. In 1991 the average world temperatures broke heat records for the seventh year in a row.
Frogs and salamanders began dying in the northern hemisphere, but computer simulations of ozone depletion provided President Bush with some happy news: The U.S. could continue polluting at current levels for another decade and cause only 5 percent more skin cancer deaths around the world during the following fifty years.
In the summer of 1991 an EI Nino formed in both the Atlantic and Pacific. Warm waters ruined much of the world’s fishing for the second time in a decade. In February of 1992 NASA released a preliminary report that claimed that chlorine monoxide in the upper atmosphere was found to be at such high levels that, under cold conditions in mid-winter, ozone could be lost at the rate of up to 30 percent per month. President Bush’s aides slammed the report, claiming that NASA’s chief was seeking to turn ozone depletion into a campaign issue. NASA’s chief left his post in disgrace. A week later the European Space Administration announced that northern Europe had lost up to 30 percent of its ozone in the month of January 1992.
In 1993 NASA administrators played down their reports on ozone depletion, saying only that ozone levels over North American hit “an all-time low.” In 1994 the oceans heated again at the equator, reaching 13 degrees above normal, and climatologists coined the term El Padre to describe the phenomenon. Tropical storms belted coasts from Texas to South Carolina, and all through April and May, armchair tornado [p.13]watchers were gratified on nightly TV. In Illinois one enterprising man mounted cameras to an armored truck, vowing to shoot footage inside a tornado. When the Wheaton Thresher hit, he got sucked up like all the other chaff, but the salvaged footage was spectacular.
Tana and Joel spent the Fourth of July with friends in Vegas during the summer of ’94. The day was deadly hot, 117 degrees, and to Tana the summer sky seemed to glow whiter than she remembered from childhood. They gambled at Circus Circus. Joel’s friends had kids and wanted to keep them entertained, but somehow Joel’s friends got separated and Tana ended up alone, working the dollar video poker games on the main floor, her eyes stinging from a cloud of other peoples’ smoke, winning some, losing more, her ears numbed to the ringing of bells, the chink of tokens spattering into aluminum bins.
Suddenly the lights flashed and the bells kept ringing just two screens down. Over the intercom a pit boss announced a $4,000 winner, and Tana glanced at the winner, annoyed. He was a gaunt man with wheat-straw hair, eyes as blue as her own, shabby Levis, and a Terminator 3 T-shirt. He smiled at Tana, a strange vacant smile, his upper teeth missing.
Tana’s heart pounded, for she recognized him only as a client, and she couldn’t remember what hell-hole she might have consigned him to.
“Remember me, Willy Ungricht? From up to Provo? You watched me get my face kicked in?”
“Yes,” Tana answered, relief washing like cold water through her veins. Then she remembered that he had escaped from the mental hospital. “How are you doing?”
“I’m rich, right now,” Willy grinned at the money. Only twenty-five dollars had dropped into the bin, but the pit boss was coming with the check. “Got myself married and had a baby girl. Had to leave though. Couldn’t stay in the house. Tried for a while. I wanted to write you, but I lost the address on that notebook you gave me, and I figured it wasn’t a good idea to go back to Utah. But I did what you asked, I figured my life out, put it down on paper. Do you want to see?”
It came back to her then, the food guilt, her questions. She really had meant to follow up, but Willy had gotten lost in the pile.
“I’ve decided,” Willy said. “That I ain’t human. I ain’t like you.”
Dizziness struck Tana, and she wondered if she should call the police, have Willy picked up. She recalled something about angels. “If [p.14]you aren’t human, what do you think you are?” She expected him to say “the Son of God.”
“Oh,just a transient.” Willy sounded embarrassed by the admission, but there was something odd in way it came from his lips—trans’nt—crushed as if it were a single syllable. Tana realized that like some yogi out of India who tries to make sense of the world by redefining everything around him, Willy had redefined that word to describe himself. Trans-nt. Willy. Not human.
“What’s a transient?”
“Oh, well, that takes a bit of explaining,” he said, “I’ll tell you in a minute.” Just then a Mexican in a white shirt came up and took Willy’s name, address, and social security number. Willy had the check sent to some girl in EI Paso. When he was done, he and Tana sat by their video poker screens.
“After I run off from the hospital in Utah,” Willy said, “I tried real hard to do what you asked. I tried writing in that book and making sense of my life, but none of it made sense. I headed south down to Zion’s Canyon for a while, and one night a big storm blew in. I sat in the dark and watched lightning strike this big stone mountain, all around, going boom, boom, boom, and the lightning was like the thorns in the crown that Jesus wore when he was crucified—bloody and full of light and cruel—and I realized I had seen this all before, the lightning and the crown on Jesus’s head. But it was in another life, a long time ago. Still the memory was all written in my bones. That’s when I figured I wasn’t human, but I didn’t know what I was, and it scared me. So I headed to Texas.”
“Why Texas? Did you think it would be safer?”
Willy looked at her as if she were crazy. “Course not. It was just a place. But on the way, I felt like I was on to something. I could feel something inside me, waking up or coming alive, and I started to understand things, and I wrote them in that notebook you gave me. For a while I thought I might be normal, like you folks, and that maybe I’d been a little sick in the head and I was getting better, but no.
“Anyway in Texas I went to sleep in a culvert one night, and I found this girl, a runaway. She’d left home a month before, had no food. I thought I’d teach her the ropes, and she followed me around. One thing led to another, and I accidentally knocked her up. She said she loved me, so we got married, took jobs and settled.”
[p.15]“What do you mean, settled?” Tana asked hopefully. “Were you able to hold down a job, manage your money? You know, basic life skills?”
“Yeah, we rented an apartment. We both took jobs washing beef carcasses at a meat-packing plant. The money was good, and we made out all right.” Willy pulled a cigarette from his pocket, stuck it in his mouth without lighting it. “Thing is, it didn’t last. At first it was okay, but after little Juanita was born, I had to start getting out of the house, taking long walks at night—ten, twenty miles at a time.
“I was walking through the park one day, and I’d left Teresa at the apartment watching TV with the baby, and my legs just kept saying ‘keep moving, keep moving,’ and I looked out in the park—” As Willy spoke his voice grew in intensity. “And that’s when it hit me: I saw two kids sitting in boxes, looking out, pretending they were in caves, and three other kids was also sitting there with blankets pulled over their heads, and they were looking out as if they were watching from caves, and that’s when I knew I wasn’t human!”
Spittle flew from Willy’s mouth. He had stopped blinking during the conversation, and his eyes had grown wide and strange. He clutched the rim of the video poker machine.
“How . . . how did you know you weren’t human?” Tana asked, scanning the room quickly, searching for Joel.
“Because. I. Never. Played like I was in a cave when I was a kid!” Willy answered. “I never sat in a box or wrapped a blanket over me when I was a kid! Even now, when I’m sleeping out in the weather, I never find myself a box to sleep in. The idea makes me nervous. The fear of it seems to be written right at the core of me, and when I saw those kids pretending to be in caves, that’s when it all made sense!”
Willy grabbed her hand, hunched forward. “See, when I was a kid, I didn’t have a daddy. My mom worked as a waitress at a truck stop, and when I asked mamma who daddy was, she used to say, ‘Oh, just some drifter.’ I figured he was a truck driver, but now I know he wasn’t. And that’s when I realized I was a drifter, too, that it was written in my bones, and I’m not like you.”
Suddenly, Tana understood. “You mean genetic memories?”
“Call them what you will,” Willy answered, and he released his breath.
“But there’s no such thing as genetic memories,” Tana answered.
“If there were, we would know.”
“They aren’t memories,” Willy said. “They’re feelings. They’re the [p.16]hidden drummer. I kept walking down the street, and it wasn’t just the kids who were pretending to be in caves. I saw some old woman sitting in a rocking chair, looking out the window, and I realized that her whole house was just a cave, and the window was just the mouth to the cave, and it made her comfortable to dream she was in a cave.
“And then I walked down the street and watched the trucks and cars go by, and all the people were sitting inside their little movable caves, and watching outside, and the windows were like mouths to a cave.
“Everywhere I looked, people were in caves. And when I got home and Teresa was there, sitting in the dark and watching TV, I realized that she was sitting in a cave, looking into a machine that was like looking out the mouth of a cave, and my mouth went dry and I started sweating.
“So that night while Teresa slept, I went for a walk. I went down to the railroad tracks, and I just took off my clothes and laid on my back, naked, watching a night sky so full of stars and clouds, and for the first time in my life I felt at home.
“You got to understand. I love my wife and daughter, just like any man, but I couldn’t go back and live in that cave with them. I’m a transient.”
At that moment Joel came over and stood beside Tana. He had played tennis all summer, burning his winter fat away, leaving him lean and muscular. He must have wondered why Tana was speaking to this intense, ragged, toothless man. She imagined that he thought he was saving her. “How are you doing, honey?” Joel said, rubbing his right wrist.
“Fine,” Tana answered. “Joel, I’d like you to meet a friend, Willy Ungricht.”
Willy asked, “You got something wrong with your wrist?”
“Guess I hurt it playing the slots. Carpal-tunnel syndrome, you know. Doctor says I may have to stop beating off with my right hand.”
Willy didn’t smile at the tasteless joke, and Tana glared at Joel. Their marriage was on the rocks, and here Joel was tacitly telling a grungy stranger that their sex life had become nonexistent. Is he trying to bully me into sex, she wondered, or let Willy know that I’m available? For six years now she had been judging men for the courts of Utah, yet she told herself that if the personnel department had seen the mistake she made in picking a husband, they never would have hired her.
[p.17]Willy rose uncomfortably. “Well, I got to go,” he said. “I just wanted to thank you for all you done. I owe you. You folks have a good time here in Vegas, okay?” He walked out, his thin hips not even swaying as he left through the murky gambling hall.
“Who was he?” Joel asked.
“A madman I once sent to the mental hospital,” she answered. She wondered if she should turn Willy in. She had sworn to uphold the laws of the state of Utah, and if anyone ever learned that she had failed, her boss would definitely put the screws to her.
“Is he dangerous?”
“Probably to himself,” she said. “He told me a story, a tale told by an idiot . . . ”
“Hunh,” Joel said. “Ungricht. Good solid Aryan name. His ancestors probably fed our ancestors to the ovens at Auschwitz. I don’t want you talking to people like him again. I’m going to play roulette. See you later, hon.” Joel left, shaking his wrist.
Tana tried to put the episode out of mind. She began dropping tokens in the video poker machine and an hour later came up with four of a kind, then used the doubler button and doubled her winnings twice. She was suddenly up $400 for the day, and she thought of going to tell Joel, perhaps even play with him, but the roulette wheels and crap tables made her nervous. She preferred to gamble in the anonymity offered by the darkness around the video poker terminals.
While waiting for the coins to drop, she looked up. Her eyes scanned the cloistered gambling floor. Amid the clouds of smoke, thousands of people huddled and stared into the bright worlds of their video poker and slot machines. She couldn’t help but think of Neanderthals staring from the mouths of their caves into the daylight.
In 1995 for the first time in several years, the world didn’t break a new heat record, and the U.S. and Russia began a joint test of a plan to close the ozone hole over the North Pole by seeding the stratosphere with ethane to bind to the hydrocarbons. The first test would be small, allowing them to assess environmental fallout. Everyone was full of hope. It would have been a good summer, if not for a carbonaceous asteroid dubbed 1995 BA.
The University of Hawaii’s 2.2 meter telescope atop Mauna Kea first picked up the asteroid, which, with a diameter of 214 miles, would pass within 300,000 miles of earth. Many astronomers believed the asteroid [p.18]would impact the moon, while others argued that its mass was too great and it would simply blow on past.
Quacks, new-agers, and fanatics of every ilk decided it was a sign, that the asteroid would bring the end of the earth or begin the Millennium or raise Atlantis. On August 9th millions of people watched from their rooftops.
For once the fanatics guessed right. The asteroid approached the moon slowly over a period of hours, a small bright disk about one-tenth the moon’s diameter, and actually passed close behind. Then the asteroid swung around and for eight hours it seemed to grow in size while all over the world the folks on the rooftops suddenly felt intense sympathy for the dinosaurs.
One might argue that the asteroid landed harmlessly in the Atlantic, and it was only when eight million cubic miles of debris erupted from underneath Perth, Australia, that the real damage occurred.
Microscopic diamonds rained from the sky, and the air filled with black dust. Around the world coastal cities succumbed to massive tidal waves, and dead volcanoes boiled into frenzied life.
The Missouri River Valley raised 92 feet. Fires raged across the world’s plains.
Through heat and friction free carbon from the asteroid mixed with oxygen in the atmosphere, and when added to the already dangerously elevated levels of carbon dioxide from years of pollution, the greenhouse threat became an instant calamity. A blanket of black smoke and dust absorbed the incoming sunlight, raising atmospheric temperatures even further.
Sulfuric ash from volcanoes and the meteor mixed with water in the ionosphere to form weak acids that eroded the ozone layer by 70 percent during the winter of ’95. As global temperatures soared by twenty degrees, rain forests dried and withered into kindling, which quickly caught fire, so that free oxygen became more and more scarce.
With the ozone depleted and the algae at the poles dying under the onslaught of ultraviolet rays, it soon became apparent that earth would not have much oxygen left to breathe for a long time. Some scientists speculated that with reseeding of the planet, oxygen levels might be restored to near normal within three or four years. They pointed out optimistically that most plants thrived when carbon dioxide levels were somewhat elevated. Others predicted that the oxygen would not return for at least 300 years.
[p.19]September storms frequently raged with winds in excess of 200 mph, eroding the soil, blowing away seeds and sprouts, eroding the hopes and dreams of the disaster’s survivors.
Generations later, rumors said that one of the Arab nations was first to decide to go out with a bang instead of a whimper. They may have hoped that dropping their bombs would let them grab some arable land to the north. No one blamed them.
As the nations of earth began trading nuclear blows, the world became hell, but by God the flaming sunrises and bloody sunsets were glorious.
Near dark, thirty years after the fall, Tana thought she’d finally die. The four dirty young animals who’d taken her captive had raped and beat her plenty, then made her walk ten miles through the wilderness in the Rocky Mountains near what had once been Price, Utah. When she dropped from exhaustion near a stand of stunted aspen, they ripped the last shreds of hides off her for good, tied her to a pole, and carried her to camp.
Dangling from the pole, she closed her eyes and breathed shallowly, pretending to be dead. She could fake it good, and sometime in the dim past, she recalled that it had saved her more than once. As the boys brought her into camp, she opened one eye enough to scope it out. A big fire surrounded by forty or fifty grubbers, wild folks like something that crawled out of California. They wore animal hides and had painted their faces with blue clay to keep out the YouVees, just like the boys who had caught her. They were squatting in front of ramshackle huts next to a coal mine. This place had been abandoned for years, until now. Tana closed her eyes. The boys dropped her by a campfire. Naked little savage children pranced around her.
“What you got there?” a deep-voiced man asked.
One teenager who had carried her into camp, a brute named Scott, pushed her closer to the fire for all to see. “Found a scrawny old birdy woman asleep, holed up in a cave about ten mile from here. She’s been there a long time—has a good sized garden with fresh corn, lots of old junk. We found this on her.” Tana imagined that Scott was showing her AR-17, brandishing the dear sweet old hunk of steel. She heard the rush of in-drawn breath from the crowd.
The big man moseyed close, grunted as he bent over Tana. She [p.20]could smell the soured bear fat on his body, his uncured deerskins, the scent of excrement. “You alive down there, woman?” he asked.
When Tana didn’t answer, the big man put his hand over her mouth, expertly pinched her nostrils closed. Tana held her breath for forty seconds, then shook her head as she gasped for air.
The brute who hunkered over her was enormous—broad, heavily bearded. “You alive? You answer me straight now when I talk to you!” He slapped her hard enough to make her head spin. “Damn it, don’t glare at me, woman!”
He glanced at the boys. “What you figure to do with her?”
Scott shrugged. “I don’t know, take her slave, I guess.”
The big man spat on her. “She ain’t worth the food she’d eat. You boys go on back up to her cave and clean it out. We’ll leave her behind in the morning.”
“Now hold on, Bronson!” Tana heard someone say from across the camp. The hammer of a revolver clicked, and her smelly captor raised himself up. Across the campfire stood a thin man with blue eyes that gleamed crazily in the firelight, a long wispy gray beard and hair that hadn’t been cut in twenty years. He wasn’t dressed in ragged hides like the others. Instead he wore tanned buckskins decorated with wooden beads, and he had a revolver pointed at Old Man Bronson’s head. “Now stealing everything that scrawny old bird has wouldn’t hardly be worthwhile for you, would it? But it’s as good as killing her!”
“She ain’t long for this world anyhow, as I see it,” Old Man Bronson said. “Besides, this is my camp and my business. You and me got a Traders’ Truce—no weapons to be drawn!”
Tana held her breath. Old Man Bronson wasn’t the kind of man to show her any mercy. She could hear it in his voice. But this stranger in camp, this madman with the revolver, acted more civilized. If he had entered camp under the protection of a Trader’s Truce, then he had to be mighty important—a leader from another camp. And he risked a lot just to pull a weapon. By breaking the truce the stranger could start a war.
Tana feared that the fellow would reconsider, feared he might decide Tana wasn’t worth the risk, so she yelled in a cracked voice. “I didn’t do nothing, Mister! Save me!” The madman didn’t look at her, but his eyes widened, got more and more wild.
Behind Tana, young Scott Bronson snarled and reached for the AR-17.
[p.21]The madman pulled off a shot. Scott grunted, fell backward, and started kicking in the dust.
“The Traders’ Truce is off!” the silver-haired man said. “So you just pull out your knife, sidle up to that woman real slow, and cut her loose, or I’ll do you like I done your boy!”
Old Man Bronson stood, hand poised on his Bowie knife. His muscles knotted, and he made a low growling as he bent and cut Tana’s hands free. Her wrists were pained and rope burned; she could hardly feel her fingers.
“You think this is your lucky day,” Bronson said to Tana loud enough so everyone could hear, “but you two won’t get far from this camp. I swear—I’ll wear your hides come winter.”
“I wish you wouldn’t threaten me like that,” the silver-haired stranger said, and he pulled the trigger and blew the back off Old Man Bronson’s head.
Tana rolled, grabbed her AR-17 from the ground, and everywhere the young men began diving for the huts. Two pulled guns, and twice more her benefactor fired, put them down. He only had two shots left, and he leapt through the campfire and grabbed Tana, then they dashed around a building.
Some crazy kid no more than ten years old jumped from a window brandishing a knife, and Tana fired a single shot. Bullets were so scarce, she didn’t dare shoot more. She figured she missed, but the boy jumped back a respectful distance, and then they were running through the brush, zigzagging through sage. Five shots cracked behind, and the crazy man dropped on top of Tana. Everywhere behind them gunfire began crackling, thirty or forty shots.
“Stay down!” the fellow whispered. “They won’t dare come after us, but let’s not let them see our backs.” They began crawling uphill in the night, and Tana couldn’t seem to get her old body moving fast enough. If it had been a race in the daylight, the Bronsons would have slaughtered her easily.
Once they topped the hill, they ran farther than Tana had run in years, nearly six or seven miles as far as she could tell. Her weak ankles hardly held her, and her feet got cut and bruised on the stones. The old man pulled her along until they climbed a ridge and dropped to a crumbling freeway where there was a camp.
Tana had expected the old fellow to be from a clan something like the Bronson outfit in the mountains, but nothing like this: It was a sea [p.22]of tents and wagons, horses and cattle, maybe two or three thousand people with five hundred campfires. She could see men and women dressed in real cloth tending the fires, and babies crying, and around the fires people played guitars and sang while youngsters fell in love. It seemed a vast, movable city, poised there on the old highway.
Tana stopped running, heart pounding, lungs wheezing. The stranger took off his shirt, draped it over Tana’s shoulders, and she sat cross·legged, holding her sore, bloody feet, her mouth open in wonder as she stared at the camp below. And she cried. Civilization.
“That’s my caravan,” the old fellow said between breaths. “My name’s Willy Transent.” He offered her his hand as if he shook hands with strangers every day.
“I sure— I sure didn’t want to do that. Kill those folks!” Willy wiped the sweat from his forehead, and said, “Whew!”
“That Bronson tribe is just a herd of pigs,” Tana said. “No harm in killing them.”
Willy watched Tana as she spoke, and there was infinite sadness in his eyes. “Well, they were real people once, and 1 figure maybe they could be real again.”
Tana jerked her chin at the tents below. “You their leader?” Willy nodded. “Damn fool of you to go trading up to the Bronson camp alone.”
“It was my first meet with them,” Willy said. “I wanted to earn their trust.”
“Hmmm. What do you call yourself in your camp—the King, Lord,or what?”
“I’m the mayor, elect,” Willy said, and he smiled. His upper teeth were gone. She looked hard at him. Somehow it seemed significant.
“I haven’t seen that many people in one camp,” Tana said, “since the Mormon prophet got up in Temple Square and said that Utah was now about as parched as the hottest corner of Hades, so they might as well head back to Missouri where they believed the Garden of Eden once was.”
“You were there?”
“Oh yeah, I saw them leave. Must have been two million people with bicycles and wagons, some artillery scrounged from army and air force bases, all of them heading up highway 215 toward Denver. I’ve always wondered how they fared. When they left it was like they took the law [p.23]with them. Grubbers came up out of California, looting and killing. That’s when I lost my husband.”
Willy nodded. “There’s law in my camp, too. It’s a scarce commodity, but not too scarce nowadays. Our caravan travels up and down I-15 mostly. We winter down in St. George, summer up in Idaho. When we started, it was rough. My kids grew up on lizard meat and cactus and wild turnips, but we’ve made good. We trade along the way. Everyone on the trail knows us: We get pecans out of St. George, watermelon from Green River, potatoes and sugar out of Idaho. I don’t often run into a pack of grubbers like them Bronsons anymore.”
Tana savored the words, “Sugar, pecans, watermelon? Oh please, I haven’t had any in years.”
Willy moved a little closer. “Look, if you were any other old woman, I’d offer to trade you for some fresh corn, maybe even set you up with cloth and ask you to do needlework through the winter so we could have more to trade next year. But I don’t think you had better go back to your cave. Them Bronsons are sure to hunt you. So I’ll tell you what: I can send a hundred of my boys up to your place and bring your stuff back down, if you have a mind to come with us. Them Bronsons won’t want to go to war with a camp our size.”
Tana looked over the camp spread below them with fires like stars fallen to the ground. Her feet were a bloody mess. She listened to the guitars, and part of her wanted to run down there, right now, sit next to those fires. But the camp was full of strangers, and she hadn’t seen so many people in one place in thirty years. Old Mr. Bronson had been right. She wasn’t long for this world, and she didn’t want to be a burden to folks who might not like her anyway.
“I figure I already owe you,” Tana said, “so you can have some of my fresh corn. It does get tedious in my cave when the snow flies though, and I’d be grateful if you could lend me some needles and cloth so I can do some honest work for you. Next year, save me a watermelon and a couple pounds of pecans and sugar. We’ll make a trade.”
“What if them Bronson boys come back?”
“They won’t find it easy to get near me this time.” Tana brandished her AR-17.
Willy nodded. “I respect that. Still, if you ever change your mind … “He looked her over, wiped some blood from his side. Tana suddenly noticed that he’d been shot, but it was a small wound. Willy said, “I’ll go on down and get you some bandages and moccasins, send [p.24]some boys to help you get home. We’ll give you some cloth and thread, pecans and sugar, maybe some butter and salt to go with that corn of yours. Consider it advance payment. Next year, maybe you’ll plant a bigger garden knowing that we’ll be back.”
Tana thanked him, and then Willy left. An hour later some boys came up. One of them introduced himself as Willy’s grandson, a black-haired boy that could have been a Mexican or Navajo. The boys had to carry her home.
Once she’d sent the boys away, Tana went to the back of her cave, lit a poorly made candle. It was a rare treat, but she felt she needed the light. She surveyed her belongings, looking for damage. Tana didn’t have much. Four people could haul off everything she owned. But the Bronson boys had smashed the old oxygen compressor that had carried her and Joel through the rough years at this high altitude. They’d opened all her clay pots and food bags, searching for weapons. She looked at the spilled food. Is this what they want to kill me for?
She went to the mouth of the cave and watched the valley by moonlight to guard her patch of corn and tomatoes. She doubted the Bronson boys would come raiding tonight, but she couldn’t take the chance, so she cradled her AR·17 in her lap as she ate a little raw brown sugar Willy had left. The sugar tasted stronger than she remembered, almost sickening in its sweetness.
A great-horned owl hooted in the distance, breaking the peaceful silence of the night, while locusts whirred in the Russian olive trees. Thirty-four years since the meteor hit. In the past five years, Tana had seen a world on the brink of ruin suddenly begin to thrive, grass and trees shooting up so quickly she could hardly believe it.
Finally the ozone, the world, people-seemed to be coming back. She thought about the campfires of the Mormons as they fled Salt Lake Valley for the Garden of Eden. One of their prophets, Brigham Young, had once said that when the Mormons returned to Missouri, there wouldn’t be “one yellow dog there wagging its tail to greet them.” She suspected Brigham was right, and Tana wondered if maybe the Mormons were still out there somewhere, tending their golden wheatfields. She’d often envied them. She’d lived with the Mormons for years, feeling like the only Jew in Provo, Utah. She’d never liked them particularly, never made close friends with one, but she envied how they clung together, envied them because they were not alone.
She thought about Joel, who had never been worth a damn as a [p.25]husband even after the meteor fell. She missed him though. She missed everyone desperately- the whole big, sweaty, cantankerous, rollicking world.
Willy Transent. She fondled the name in her mind, saying it over and over, so that if he came back next year, she’d remember.
Up in the hills along the ridge where the aspens grew thick, Tana heard a twig snap, followed by a cough and the sound of many walking feet. The sounds carried clear and far in these mountains, and the Bronson boys may not have realized how close they had come to her camp. Tana listened to the boys stalking her, then felt the ground beside her knee. She had five full clips for her AR-17, more than enough to handle these grubbers.
Tana sat in her cave, stared out into the starlight, and wondered about the Mormons. On tough days she imagined that there were golden wheatfields beyond the cave where children could dance and play without a care. Missouri might well be an abundant garden, lush and green, where the living was easy. Dreaming about it made her hard life more bearable. So it had to be out there, somewhere, a place with food, shelter, law, and love.
Or more likely these were all just dreams that the Mormons had died for, and even now their skulls, bleached white by the sun, littered the tall bluegrass on the plains of Kansas.
One of the Bronson boys laughed cruelly, and some of the others made shushing noises, trying to quiet him. Death, stalking the cave. Tana looked out at the skies: dawn was hours away. She could hear them grubbing Bronson boys, softly moving down the long slope of the hill, sliding through the grass on their bellies like snakes.
They’re coming, Tana realized, and she didn’t know how to stop them. Let them come then, she thought. They might kill me, but they can’t drive me out. I’ll never let them drive me out!
Tana stepped out of her cave, set the AR-17 to full automatic, and sprayed the hillside. Someone screamed in terror. In the dim starlight, a dozen shadows howled and danced away in fear. Tana hadn’t left so much as a rock on that hillside for cover. They ran full tilt in the darkness, taking long strides as they tried to reach the hilltop and the safety of the trees, and Tana just stood in the open where anyone of them could have turned and shot her. She let them escape.
She began panting and found her hands shaking. The grubbers would come back, Tana knew. Maybe they’d even kill her, but they [p.26]couldn’t drive her out of her home. She took comfort, realizing she could have shot them boys. No, no one could drive her out. She had proven that now.
Tana stayed on watch, but her eyes grew itchy, tired. Sometime during the night, she fell asleep and dreamed of a younger Willy, a madman with his teeth kicked out who told her about people who lived in caves and people who just couldn’t. His pale blue eyes were flashing like the win lights on a slot machine, and he held a three-sided piece of wood that spun magically in his hands, flashing the messages:
To err is human, to forgive is not state policy.
Tana Rosen, Psychologist.
People are more varied and fascinating than you imagine.
When Tana woke she sat for a long time and forced herself to remember. For years after the meteor she had blocked off her past life, found it hard to think about. Tana believed she didn’t need to think about the past because it had become so obsolete. But the fact was she had blocked the memories because it pained her to recall what she had lost.
Tana considered. Civilizations had collapsed before: Pizzaro struck down an Incan king and after five hundred years his people remained scattered like leaves from a fallen oak; a volcano on Crete decimated the capitol of the Minoans, and their culture never rose again; and once the Vandals sacked Rome, its empire began the long spiral into decline. Nothing new. Some civilizations collapsed in an hour, some decayed over centuries. Tana remembered watching the meteor descend—scientists claiming it was larger than the one that had wiped out the dinosaurs—remembered the stark terror that threatened to unknit her muscles, the utter helplessness. For months after people said that those who died of fear before the meteor struck were lucky-they never had to suffer through the blackened skies, spitting volcanoes, skin cancer, starvation, radiation sickness, endless battles.
We sat in our caves, Tana thought, and we didn’t die from lack of goods or thin air: We died from wars and poverty—from lack of composure—symptoms of catastrophe as much as the catastrophe itself.
So Willy Transent and his people took over. Garbage and lizard eaters, creatures who slept under stars because something in their bones [p.27]whispered it was right. People who would never suffer shock from losing homes and loved ones because something in their genetic makeup kept them from forming such bonds. For a time they would be the Lords of Earth, the keepers of civilization.
Tana stretched, went outside. A faint summer breeze began blowing through her hair, carrying the scent of dry grasses, bitter sage. Up near the top of the ridge, the green leaves of aspen fluttered in the wind. Tana let the breeze blow over her, just enjoying its texture on her face, in the dark, beneath the vast river of stars. She tried to imagine living without a roof over her head, without some comforting womb-like shelter. She extended her tongue, tasting the ease and freedom mingled with the wide-open horror of life outside the cave.
She could almost feel a presence out there. Something beckoning. Perhaps the voice of a dream.
A startled sparrow peeped on the ridge, and Tana looked up. Willy Transent was standing just inside the line of aspens with a few of his boys, holding a lantern in his right hand, a rifle in his left. His long silver hair billowed in the wind, and he was staring down at Tana. “Hey,” Willy shouted, “Tana Rosen, I remember you!” voice hesitant, uncertain. “I remember you—from before. Are you all right?” Relief swept over Tana, more refreshing than the mountain breeze.
After a lifetime lost, someone had found her. An hour before dawn, Tana wrapped her bloody feet in rags, slung her AR-17 under her shoulder, and began the trek down the mountain to Willy’s caravan.