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Authors: S. G. Redling

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Flowertown

BOOK: Flowertown
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FLOWERTOWN
FLOWERTOWN

S. G. REDLING

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

Text copyright © 2012 S. G. Redling

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Thomas & Mercer

P.O. Box 400818

Las Vegas, NV 89140

ISBN-13: 9781612183022

ISBN-10: 1612183026

This book is dedicated to my parents,
Matthew and Isabel Redling, who
always believed I could do it.

CHAPTER ONE

“Water’s brown.”

“Shit.” Ellie Cauley ground her cigarette out on the hallway floor, her leg rattling her shower bucket. She had to be at work in less than half an hour. She could pull her hair back into a ponytail; the grease would just make the blonde look darker. The problem was she still stank of sex with Guy, that peculiar smell somewhere between copper and chlorine that sweated out of his skin from the protection meds. She also reeked of weed, but that was nothing new. “Shit.” It was all she could think to say as she turned back toward her room. Anything would smell better than the water when it was brown, even actual shit.

“Water’s brown.” She repeated the message to a young mother herding her children down the hall toward the showers and heard the exact same response from the harried woman. The word spread quickly up and down the hallway, and all around her doors slammed and expletives flew. She squeezed past a couple arguing in front of the toilet closets and could hear, behind one of the thin doors, the sound of
vomiting. Probably Rachel, she thought. Her roommate was hell-bent on getting to Vegas.

Inside their small room, Ellie tossed the shower bucket onto the crowded shelf over the hotplate and fished around for her hairbrush. The mirror over the sink was filthy, neither she nor Rachel being overly inclined to keep things tidy. It was just as well. She knew what she looked like as she dragged the brush through her straight, oily hair, then fastened it with a rubber band at the nape of her neck. Dropping her bathrobe onto the floor, she bent over and picked through the pile of clothes beside her bed, catching a whiff of her own scent. Flowertown, indeed, she thought. Shittiest smelling flowers I’ve ever heard of.

Flowertown was the derogatory, and therefore customary, term for the PennCo Containment Area. It used to be the west end of Dalesbrook, Iowa, in the northeast corner of Penn County, until six years ago when Feno Chemical spilled an experimental and highly dangerous pesticide along the interstate and into Furman Creek, which ran directly to the reservoir that served the area. At first the county had issued a shelter-in-place order and Ellie, along with all the other unsuspecting residents of the area, complied. It wasn’t the first time a truck had wrecked on the highway and at the time didn’t seem nearly as interesting as when the truck full of live turkeys had overturned out near Brunswick. It got a lot more interesting when the United States Army showed up and barricaded the town while men dressed in space suits poured from unmarked trucks to round up the open-mouthed Iowans like the terrified and stupid turkeys from the summer before.

Contamination and containment became the buzzwords, replaced quickly with quarantine and treatment, all
to the musical backdrop of international media and outrage as the world demanded to know who was responsible for the poisoning of seven and a half square miles of America’s heartland. There were Senate hearings and criminal investigations. Some people died and many more people suffered, but as weeks turned into months, most outside of the Penn County spill zone went back to their jobs and their newscasts and their horror at the other atrocities available on every continent, on every channel. But the people of Penn County, Iowa, now the PennCo Containment Area, stayed where they were. They pissed into cups and took fistfuls of pills and, as the insidious chemical leeched into their systems, noticed their skin put off a sickeningly sweet smell, like the smell of too many flowers in too small a room. That’s when PennCo became Flowertown, and when seven and a half square miles became a world unto itself.

Rachel left the door open when she came into the room, not bothering to notice Ellie standing naked, examining a shirt for stains. Rachel spit into the sink, resting her head against the cool metal. “Tell me again how cool Las Vegas is.”

“Not that cool.”

“Wrong answer.” Rachel pulled a jug of iced tea from the small refrigerator and began to chug. When she’d finished and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, she said, “You’re supposed to talk about the outrageous clubs and the fabulous shows and all the hot guys. And the buffets. Don’t forget the buffets where filet mignon is only a dollar and baked potatoes are the size of a dog’s head.”

Ellie decided the shirt was clean enough and pulled it over her head. “If I were you, I wouldn’t plan too much on
enjoying the buffets. You’ll be lucky to swallow toast by the time you’re done with your detox.”

Rachel flopped down on her bed, kicking away a pile of clean laundry. “It’s all your fault. You’re the one who told me about that sick bachelorette party you went to, where the cop turned out to be a stripper and you puked hurricanes all over your bridesmaid dress.”

“Yeah, well that was back in the glory days when we could still use public toilets and actually get in our cars and go wherever we wanted.”

“Fogey.” It was Rachel’s nickname for Ellie whenever the conversation turned to life before the spill. Rachel was only twenty-two, ten years younger than her roommate, and determined to survive the four-week detox regimen required to leave the containment area for a weekend. The meds brutalized the body and the mandatory enemas shattered the dignity, but for the young farm girl who had only seen Sin City on the small screen, any amount of sacrifice was worth it to meet up with her family for her sister’s wedding. “Nice bruises.”

Ellie looked down and saw the dark purple marks coming out on her thighs. They’d match nicely the brick scrapes on the small of her back. “Guy’s a romantic.”

“Yeah, where was it this time? The dumpster?”

“The back stairwell.” She pulled on a pair of jeans, not bothering with underwear. “He let me touch his gun.”

Rachel laughed as she lit up a fat joint, blowing the timing and coughing up a lungful of smoke. “I bet he did. Did he at least kiss you on the lips?”

Ellie took the joint and hit it. “Depends on what lips you’re talking about.” She bit back a cough, holding in the
smoke, as Rachel made gagging sounds. “Here, take the rest of this. I smoked up before I thought I was going to get a shower.”

“I don’t know how you go to work high, Ellie.”

“I work in the records office. Trust me. I’m not splitting the atom.”

The PennCo Records Office took up two-thirds of the second floor of what had been a tractor supply store. Out of habit, Ellie flashed her badge to the guard, who didn’t look at it, and cut through the front corridor of cubicles to get to the stairs. Human resources took up the entire first floor, each cubicle filled with the clicking of keyboards trying to keep up with the tsunami of bureaucracy the long quarantine had created. Ellie peeked over the sea of beige walls, looking for Bing, her friend in export/travel. At first she couldn’t see him, but as she turned the final corner for the steps, she saw his skinny back slumped over his desk, his fist pounding the side of his leg. He was on the phone, and whatever he was being told was clearly not what he wanted to hear. He popped up just before Ellie cleared his area and held the phone out to her. Over the din of the office, she couldn’t make out any sound but easily understood the one-fingered hand gesture Bing was making at the receiver. She laughed and waved and flipped off the caller in his honor before heading up to her office.

Bing had once told her she was lucky to work upstairs away from all the noise and telephones. The records office was hushed, but she had tried to explain that the silence he heard was the last sighing breath of despair. There was no rush in records. Once your file made it here, whatever you
had been fighting for or fighting against had been resolved. This was the evidence graveyard of Flowertown, where petitions and complaints and suggestions came to die, the red rubber-stamped “Closed” their only epitaphs. It was a job made bearable only by being very high, which worked out well for Ellie, who preferred to stay that way.

She threaded her way through file cabinets and piles of document boxes to her desk in the back of the room. She could hear Big Martha, her boss, trying not to lose her cool with a young woman up front. Ellie couldn’t think of the girl’s name. She knew she had transferred up from HR and had big ideas on how to update and streamline the records process. From the first day, Ellie had ignored her completely, but Big Martha had no choice but to try to explain to the ardent young woman that expediency was not a high priority in records—it was more a game of outwaiting and outlasting—but the girl wanted none of it. She fancied herself quite the firecracker, Ellie wagered, flopping into her crooked office chair and turning on her computer, letting her hazy thoughts play with images of firecrackers and the endless boxes of paper. She liked the image—the sight of all of this going up in flames, burning hot and smoky and acrid enough to cut through the putrid smell of flowers that she still had not gotten used to after all these years.

A short stack of envelopes sat in her inbox. The first she recognized from the much-wrinkled, worn, and marked interoffice envelope. Flowertown was probably the last place in the industrialized world to use these things. Like so many other things in the zone, Internet access was so spectacularly unreliable that most people had pretty much given up on it. Messages were sent the old-fashioned way, on paper,
which made them no harder to ignore. Her bosses expected her to attend a mandatory staff meeting that Thursday. It amazed her that anyone within the confines of Flowertown thought that anything could be mandatory anymore, anything other than meds, tests, and check-ins. What were they going to do if she didn’t attend the meeting? Fire her? Kick her out? Regardless of her state of employment, she would still receive her quarantine stipend check. It went without saying that her medical was covered, and she had been grandfathered into her living quarters. The only purpose this shadow of a job served was to put some sort of artificial shape to the hours of her day. She showed up, she moved some papers around, she went back to the shoebox she shared with Rachel. And occasionally, if Guy was MP on her floor that night, she slipped off with him for a diversion of the hip-banging kind. It was a freedom that the outside world could never understand and, like her job, was better appreciated very, very high.

The next envelope contained a badly printed flyer from VolCorp, one of the many charitable groups that had crossed the quarantine barrier in the early years to help the contaminated. The message was the usual lamenting and threatening and impassioned plea for resources and volunteers. Ellie didn’t know why these messages kept coming to her or who had put her name out there as somebody who could or did give a shit about it. The only involvement she’d ever had with VolCorp was when they were giving away lemonade to anyone who would help repaint the community center. The lemonade had tasted like iodine, and Ellie hadn’t painted a thing. She tossed the paper into the recycling bin.

The third envelope stood out from the rest. It was a real envelope, an actual U.S. Postal Service delivery, stamp and all. From the mashed-up look of it, the delivery had been rough, but that wasn’t what made her hesitate to open it. It was from her sister, Bev, in Hershey. Ellie ripped open the envelope before she had time to know she didn’t want to read it, and confetti showered to her desk. The message invited everyone to a surprise birthday party for their mother three weeks from today at a community park Ellie had never heard of. There would be a pig roast and kegs, and for those family members coming in from out of town, a block of rooms at the Best Western were being held at a special rate but they were going fast because everybody was planning on coming in for Rosalind Seaton Cauley’s big sixtieth birthday party! Bev had even inserted maps with directions to the party from every compass point, but Ellie closed the invitation without reading them. She felt pretty certain nobody had mapped out the path from Flowertown to Hershey, and even if she had thought of going, three weeks was not enough time to detox and get the paperwork to leave the site. She also felt pretty certain that Bev knew this and tried not to think of what her sister’s motivations might be for sending the festive little note. She dangled the invitation over the recycling bin, wanting to drop it, to make it disappear, but couldn’t. Instead she shoved it in a drawer and reached for the final envelope.

She didn’t recognize the fourth envelope. The writing on the front was just a series of jumbled letters and numbers. It didn’t even have her name on it, but Ellie thought even a brochure for another volunteer rally was better than
ending on her sister’s message. She unfolded the crisp white paper, seeing nothing but two lines of type:

All You Want.

Arm yourself.

Beneath the message, a cartoon clock danced on the margin. Ellie flipped the paper over, but the rest of the page was white. With a laugh, she scribbled Bing’s name on the envelope, tagging it “New Staff Meeting Agenda,” and put it in her outbox. Feeling lucky, she tried to open her Internet connection. The screen went white for a long moment and Ellie kicked back in her chair. The odds of getting online were slim to none, but what the hell? She contemplated bumming a cigarette from Big Martha while she waited, but her morning high had just reached that point where time got sort of stretchy, so she just closed her eyes and waited for the screen to come to life.

She drifted, the warmth of the office and the whispers of papers settling over her like a soft throw. She crossed her feet on an open drawer and crossed her arms over her head, once again catching her unwashed scent. This time it didn’t remind her of the broken water system or the daily irritations of quarantine. This time her thoughts wandered back to Guy, to the thick twist of muscles in his biceps, etched with a tribal tattoo, to the cut of that muscle that led down to his pelvis. God, she loved that cut. The first time she had seen him, he had been unloading crates outside of her building. His army-issued T-shirt had come loose from his fatigues, and when he reached up to grab a heavy crate from the truck, she had seen those muscles in his stomach. She hadn’t even bothered to pretend to not watch him. Guy was short and thick and dark, nothing like
her usual type, especially in army clothes. But he wore those clothes and those muscles like he had something dirty on his mind, which, she happily learned, he did. She rubbed her hands over her face, fully prepared to let her mind wander as far afield as it wanted until a voice boomed out before her.

BOOK: Flowertown
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ads

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