Authors: R. J. Eliason
This novel is actually the first novel I wrote, though I’ve published several later novels already. It’s gone through more overhauls and re-writes than anything else I have written. Some of those re-writes have been deep, so deep that readers of the early versions may barely recognize the finished story. The process of editing this manuscript taught me much about the writing process, but for a long time I hesitated to put the final version out. However a small team of friends kept pressuring me to get it out, so here it is.
I dedicate this book to all the friends and family that read various versions of this novel. Thank you for continually poking and prodding me to get it published, long after my motivation gave out.
Outside, the thunder rolled on the mountainside. A cold rain beat against the heavy sod roof. Lightning flashed, illuminating an old glass window. Within, a girl stirred fitfully and rolled over in her sleep. She pulled the threadbare quilt closer around her so that only the end of her long, blond braid was showing.
In her dreams, Amy turned her face skyward. Never in waking had she seen a place so flat or a horizon so wide. Her eyes were drawn into the vast blue bowl of the heavens.
“Hey, sister,” a female voice laughed, pulling her attention back to the ground. The girl could not have been much older than Amy’s seventeen years. She had bright red hair, cut short almost like a man’s cut, but with no hint of masculinity about it. She smiled, a small mischievous smile, as she held her hand out toward Amy. Her eyes sparkled.
Again the thunder boomed, this time so close it rattled the window. Amy jerked awake. For a few breathless seconds she stared around the room, trying to see what had woken her. Lightning flashed, lighting her room for a split second.
Mittens, her sister’s gray tabby, shot off the dresser and disappeared into the hallway. Nothing else moved as the thunder rolled yet again.
Amy climbed out of bed, wrapping the quilt around herself against the frosty night air. A rough-hewn chair creaked as she settled herself down in front of the window. The thunder was almost a constant now, and the lightning leapt across the ridge over the valley. Amy was no stranger to wild mountain thunderstorms; she saw them every year about this time. But this one was incredible, even by her standards.
A flash lit the far ridge. The outline of her dad’s solar array could barely be seen. Amy was filled with a strange sense of foreboding at its sight. Something was wrong out there. That surge had struck close—too close to the array.
Amy peered into the gloom, fearful now. After what seemed a long time, another flash hit the ridge. There was the array, right where it always was. She sat back and sighed, but the sense of foreboding did not leave her. She felt a tingle go down her spine. Was it some sort of premonition?
Amy snorted. She had given up premonitions long ago. It had been a game between her and her sister. They had told each other their dreams, had spoken of what they saw in those moments between sleep and waking, and had even tried to read the crushed mint leaves at the bottom of their tea cups, just like Grandma once did years ago—or so Dad had told them. She was his mother, Elaine. Amy had never known her, had never known any of her grandparents for that matter. All she had were a few faded photographs to offer a glimpse into a world that no longer existed.
She remembered how mad her mother used to get about their games: “The devil’s work,” “blasphemy,” “evil,” “witchcraft.” Each was a declaration punctuated with an open palm. Somehow, the beatings never stopped the girls. If anything, they were part of the game, making it both a secret and a danger if caught. Besides, they got hit for so many things.
That was years ago. Peering through the gloom, Amy could just see the low mound and chimney pipe that marked Luke’s house. On the far side, out of view, was the community cemetery, where her mom had lain for the past five years. Amy had not experienced a premonition since.
She snorted again. She shuffled back toward her bed.
I am nearly a grown a woman
, she thought sourly,
too old for such nonsense
. Tomorrow would be a busy day. With the spring rain here, the whole ranch would soon be busy with planting and working out of doors. She had no business spending half the night on premonitions or dreams about unreal places.
Still, as she closed her eyes, Amy again saw the bright eyes, the upturned nose, the small mischievous grin, and the bright red hair.
The air was acrid and sharp in the small, cave-like building. A dim beam of light danced on the dull concrete.
“Damn, this one is no good either,” a voice said as the light faded away. There was a brief smell of sulfur, redundant against the smoky air of the room, as a match was lit.
The brief flash of light was followed by the glow of a lamp. The smell of stale tallow joined the cacophony of scents. “At least these always work,” a second voice replied.
The man holding the lamp had a strong, sharp face. His hair, cut in a short buzz, was gray and his face was lined and weathered. His eyes were sharp and his arm was strong and steady as he held the light out to the first man.
The first man could not have been a bigger contrast. His hair was thick and dark, falling almost to his shoulders, his beard just as thick and heavy. His nose was broad and flattened somewhat, his eyes dark. His cheeks stood out red and flushed against the darkness. The hand that reached out for the lamp was broad and thick. Everything about Marlin was heavy and broad—a bear in coveralls.
Despite his size, Marlin handled his tools with a speed and deftness that surprised those who didn’t know him. In moments, he had the control box open, peering inside, muttering to himself.
“It’s every bit as bad as I feared, Amos,” he told his companion. “As soon as I saw the rod down,” he sighed and turned back, “I knew it was going to be bad.”
“Is it fixable?” Amos asked.
“You know how important this is?”
Marlin sighed again. “Yeah, I know how important this is. Don’t change a damn thing. The charge controller, the inverter, the batteries—they’re all fried.”
“What about our backup?”
“That was our backup.”
Outside, a tall, thin woman waited for the two men. Her long, gray hair, usually worn in a tight bun, hung behind her in a ponytail. She pulled a faded shawl over her shoulders. She wore a long, woolen dress in light brown, which rustled slightly as she stamped her feet to stay warm.
Later, when the sun had been out for a while, it would be warm, but this early in the year you could still see your breath in the morning. Last night’s rain had melted the last of the winter’s snow, and the lichen stood out green and bright on the rocks above, lending a feeling of spring, though the ground was still cold and dormant.
Amos Deaton gave his wife, Theresa, a grim look as the two men exited the building.
“How bad is it?” she asked.
“Bad,” Marlin replied.
“It looks like we are without electricity from now on,” Amos said flatly.
“What about water?” Theresa asked.
“The cistern is full, especially after last night,” Marlin said. “That should hold us well into the summer, possibly all the way to fall, if we’re careful.”
“There’s a hand pump. It’s a hundred-foot well, hard to pump by hand, but not impossible. There’s water farther down that’s closer to the surface. We’d have to haul it a ways.”
“We did it before,” Amos put in.
“What about the locker?” Theresa said, a note of hysteria creeping into her voice. She nodded to the second concrete building, slightly larger than the one they had come out of. It was set even deeper into the hillside so that only the front wall stuck out. It housed a community meat locker, the only refrigeration they had.
“We empty it,” Amos replied. “It’s mostly empty anyway. Divide up the meat between the families. Everyone should can as much as possible.” He shrugged. “Then we feast on what’s left before it goes bad.
“With the canned food we have and the first greens coming out of the greenhouses, we can make it until the gardens start producing. That meat was more of a luxury anyway,” Marlin said.
“I know, I know.” Theresa sighed. “We’ll be fine this summer. What about the fall? What about next winter?”
“We can more. We dry more meats. We make do,” Amos said. “We did it once before, we can do it again.”
“I remember before,” Theresa said, her lips a tight thin line. Amos didn’t answer; he remembered too.
When the ranch had been established, they had been assured repeatedly that they could be self-sufficient. Dozens of books had been consulted; many of them were still here in their library. More importantly, locals had been consulted. Some, like Larry Gatlin, were still here. His family had lived in these mountains since the days of the pioneers. Everyone said the same thing. They had enough land, enough livestock, and enough days in their growing season to be completely self-sufficient. It was close, this high up and this far north, but they could do it.
They had done it, for several years even. But what no book had warned them, what none of the locals, after almost two generations of modern conveniences, had remembered was how hard it was. They survived the winter, but on a near-starvation diet. When the hunters brought back meat, they feasted. In a few days, however, it was back to nearly starving. The cold and the lack of fresh foods sapped their immune systems. Even a mild cold or flu could mean death. The young suffered the most. The Deaton’s had lost both their daughters to those hard years.
Then Marlin had come, the outsider with his solar array and his knowledge of electronics. They had scavenged an industrial freezer and built the meat locker. From then on, they froze choice produce, preserving far more of its nutritional value. Their men hunted the ridges and forests of the mountain, bringing back wild sheep, elk, and deer to fill the locker each fall. The ranch had thrived for over twenty years.
“Where’s Marlin?” James asked as Amy came up. He was quickly becoming the spitting image of his father, Larry. Both were thin and lanky, with curly, brown hair and thick, brown beards. He stood beside the old red Farmall tractor, looking thoughtfully at the horizon.
“He’s busy,” Amy replied, a bit shorter than she had intended. It was, after all, a reasonable enough question—if she had been in the mood to be reasonable.
“How are we going to get the tractor running now?” Mark whined from the tractor’s seat. He was broader than James, with dark hair, the straggly beginnings of a beard, and dark sunken eyes.
Hung over again, no doubt
, Amy thought in disgust. She held up her toolbox and stared pointedly at him.
“We can get it to turn over, but it won’t start up for some reason. We took the battery pack out and jumped it, but that didn’t work,” James explained.
“I wouldn’t want a girl working on my tractor,” Mark voiced loudly.
Amy glared at him, her hands tightening on the toolbox.
James just sighed. “Well, it’s a good thing it’s not
tractor then,” he said. “’Cause if we have to wait for Marlin, we’ll never get the spring plowing done.”
“Fuck the plowing,” Mark growled as he hopped off the tractor and stomped away.
Amy gruffly ordered James to take his place on the seat. As James climbed into the seat, two men appeared around the other side. The first was Larry Gatlin, an older, more weathered version of his son. With him was Jacob Clayton, a man with a hawkish face that looked as though it had been chiseled from granite. He had short, gray hair and was clean shaven. His build was thicker than Larry’s, but both had the look of men who spent most of their time in heavy, outdoor labor.