by Amy Briant
“I hate field trips.” That’s exactly what Kell was thinking just as the bus blew up…
Thus begins a grueling trek for three young survivors in a treacherous post-apocalyptic world—pitting the inner strength and resilience of youth against the dysfunction and destruction created by adults.
Scavenging for food, drinkable water and anything else that will help them survive the journey, the teens must constantly be on the alert for enemy drones, crazed loners, domestic terrorists, packs of feral dogs, and flesh-seeking predators. Not to mention some deadly surprises from Mother Nature.
A 2021 Rainbow Book list recommendation from the American Library Association.
Check out The Book of Kell book trailer.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"The Book of Kell is a very personal book to me—but no, I haven't fought my way through the postapocalyptic Northern California wilderness. Not yet, at least!
For me, a novel is not just one idea, but lots of ideas. When enough of them stick together, so to speak, I have my beginning. My writer’s brain is like a baleen whale cruising the depths for delicious krill. The Book of Kell’s krill included:
• a Springsteen lyric about dreams (that never made it into the book)
• working on the “long crew” at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival one summer
• a lifetime of thoughts about gender identity, sexuality, and a loner’s place in society
• and my time in the San Francisco Bay Area—from Santa Cruz (aka San Tomas) to Silicon Valley to the East Bay and beyond
This all sounds serious, but The Book of Kell is anything but—it’s a thrilling adventure tale with lots of humor and heart. Trust me, the postapocalypse is looking mighty queer!"
Betty H. - This is the best postapocalyptic novel I think I’ve ever read. The Book of Kell is exceptionally written. The story is riveting. The setting is so real that at times it can be terrifying. In fact, it is terrifying a lot of the time. The characters are so true to life that you almost expect them to pop out of the book and start talking to you. Through Kell’s eyes, you learn about and become invested in all of the main characters. You learn who they are, their good points, their flaws, and their fears. They truly become real to the reader.
This novel has the YA tag because the main characters are in their late teens, but don’t let that put you off. This book should be tagged for everyone. In my opinion, you really must read this book.
Carolyn M. - I have read a lot of postapocalyptic fiction. So much so that not much in the genre surprises me anymore. This grabbed me, held me captive, and surprised me over and over.
Stephanie C. - Literally the best book I’ve read in a while. The first 5-star in quite a bit, I believe. I couldn't put it down. Just a really, really good story with amazingly flawed characters. You root for them, laugh with them, and cry with them as well. Don’t let the young adult tag scare you away either. Honestly it’s just really good.
Jasmine G. - I love apocalyptic books with everything I've got—and this one was a real winner! I can't recommend this book enough. I am really hoping that this is the beginning of a series because I want more of this world, of these characters, of this stellar writing!
Angela K. - This book is very different from any other lesbian book I have ever read. It is a postapocalyptic book about two young women, Kell and Elinor, trying to find Kell's sister. This is a very drama-filled book and will keep you reading to the last page!
The Field Trip
I hate field trips. That’s exactly what I was thinking when the bus blew up.
I remember there was shouting. Then, a split second before the explosion, the crescendo of an intense high-pitched whine going from inaudible to ear-splitting in the blink of an eye. And then BOOM.
Hours before, they loaded the slouching, yawning, barely awake senior class—yours truly, eleven boys, eight girls—into a small bus for the ride up to the observatory. Field trips were everything that sucked about school, but worse. Crammed into a bus with my tormentors, I had nowhere to run.
It was fall. The beginning of my last year of school. I would’ve been long gone if I hadn’t promised my Gran I would graduate. My mother had homeschooled me and Gabriel, but when she died during the Bad Times, Gran eventually decided we should go to school with the other surviving kids. I hated school. The only good thing about it was all the books the Settlement had in their library—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, reference, technical manuals. Almost a thousand books and I secretly vowed to read them all. But I hated being stuck inside a classroom, hated having to study things that no longer had any use or meaning in our world—if they ever did Before. But mostly I hated the other kids, who bullied and teased me like I was created for that very purpose.
That first day of school, my sister and I walked the five miles through the redwoods at dawn. I was thirteen and Gabriel was three years older. Side by side in the principal’s office, Gabriel stood tall, doing all the talking as usual. I was silent, my eyes darting about the room, taking in the strangeness of it, a small, scruffy figure in my jeans and sweatshirt, baseball hat pulled low over my eyes.
“It’s so nice to see you again, Gabriel,” the principal told her. “Your parents were colleagues of mine in the psychology department Before. Fine people, both of them. And this must be, umm, your little brother, right? Kell, is it?” He squinted at the paper in his hand, then at me.
Gabriel looked down with the special smile she reserved just for me, her eyes questioning. She knew I was nervous about the whole school thing. I nodded once, just a quick up and down with my chin. She put her arm around my shoulders.
“Yes,” she told the principal. “This is Kell.”
The stupid field trip. The adults were usually stingy with fuel, although there was plenty left in town if you had the patience and the stomach to retrieve it. One of the grownups had been an astronomy professor at the university Before. He was just another Settler now. But he convinced the council that our young lives would be immeasurably enriched by viewing a passing comet through the one working telescope at the old observatory.
Like we gave a shit about comets. Or Before, which we barely remembered. The senior class was in kindergarten when the Bad Times began. Some people were even starting to just call them The Times, like bad stuff only happened in the past, or in a story. Like if enough years went by, only good things would remain. It had been seven years since the last attack, five since the last big quake. That’s a long time for most people.
Friday morning, we’d assembled at the school with our backpacks and sleeping bags. Mr. Giovanni was checking names off a list with a pencil bearing his bite marks. He taught English and history to all the high schoolers, plus he was the Aptitude counselor for the seniors.
“…eighteen…nineteen…now who am I missing? Oh. Yes. Kell.”
He shot me a quick, unsure half-smile as grownups so often did and made a final check in his little red notebook.
“Let’s go, campers!” he yelled enthusiastically to the completely unenthusiastic group. He would be our driver that brisk October day.
The retrofitted bus lurched and shuddered its way up to the observatory on a highway long overgrown with weeds. It was a slow drive in a low gear. The road was marred with cracks from earthquakes, potholes, fallen trees and rocks, not to mention the occasional rusted-out skeleton of a Before car. Dense forest, mostly redwoods and pines, covered the rest of the hillside. I knew. I’d been up there before with Gabriel on one of our scouting expeditions.
Hunter Cohen and one of his equally dim-witted buddies sat in front of me. As usual, no one sat next to me. God forbid. I stared out the window and hoped they would leave me alone, knowing they wouldn’t.
“What’s in the bag, faggot?” was how it started. My backpack was on the empty seat next to me. I had automatically, defensively hooked my arm through the strap when I sat down. I couldn’t afford to lose what little I had. I kept staring out the window, ignoring them, while surreptitiously tightening my hold on the pack. If it came down to a tugging match, I was going to lose. Hunter outweighed me by at least fifty pounds and his pal was even bigger.
Ignoring them wasn’t working. They were bored. And I was prey.
“Probably just his bra and panties,” sneered the pal. “Fuckin’ little fairy.”
Hunter reached over the seat and grabbed my pack. I held on with all my strength, but it was only a matter of time. His buddy giggled as he watched me struggle.
“Fuck off,” I snarled at them both.
“Fuck off,” Hunter repeated in a high-pitched, taunting voice. His buddy thought that was hysterical.
I wished them both dead with all my heart.
My ignominious and inevitable defeat was averted only by the arrival of Hunter’s sometime girlfriend, who came swaying down the aisle, trailing her fingertips over the backs of everyone’s seats for balance. Her name was Elinor Eastman, but the kids called her East. She was beautiful but unfortunately was well aware of that. Taller than I by at least three inches. Luminous, pale skin. Glossy, dark brown hair tumbling down past her shoulders, fine features, eyes an unusual shade of dark blue. Which didn’t match the greenish shiner she had going on under her left eye. Maybe her stepfather had hit her. Maybe her oaf of a boyfriend.
Who, thankfully, let go of my backpack and the twisted fistful of my hoodie he had wadded up in his other hand. He shoved his buddy off the seat to make way for East. She glanced at me as she slid onto the padded bench, giving me just the glimmer of a nod. Or maybe I imagined that. Hunter didn’t notice, being too busy running his sweaty hands all over her and leaning in for a big slurp of a kiss. Gross. I went back to staring out the window, wishing I was anywhere but there. Wishing the trip wouldn’t last much longer.
Not knowing it was going to be the longest one of my life.
The observatory was ninety percent in ruins, but the council still used it as a lookout post. It was built on top of a large hill or small mountain, according to your perspective, at the crest of a highway formerly known as 17. Gabriel had shown me one of the old metal signs with the number on it, one of the few still standing by the side of the road. Presumably the sixteen other highways had suffered the same fate.
The man assigned to the lookout post had been an administrator at the university. Not too much call for that these days, but Everyone Must Contribute was a big rule, so they sent him up the hill to look out for—what? On a clear day, you could see the Pacific sparkling in the distance and plenty of forest on the surrounding hillsides, but not much else. I knew where our Settlement was to the south and west, but you couldn’t see it from that vantage point. San Francisco was about sixty miles north. According to rumor, it was still faintly smoldering after all those years. A flattened, blackened, desolate no man’s land. That was just a rumor, though. I’d never been further than the observatory summit myself, and I’d only made it that far because Gabriel had taken me on her explorations.
In history class, Mr. Giovanni told us that a lot of people had fled inland to Nevada, Arizona and other points east when the Bad Times began, anticipating the worst. Our town had been called San Tomas. Much of it was badly damaged in the first tsunami, but the university—University of California at San Tomas, or UCST for short—was perched high on a hill, so it was spared from that catastrophe, if not from the others. Whatever San Tomas had been Before—a college town, a beach town, a tourist town—it was none of those things now. Almost everyone in the Settlement had some tie to the university. Not as students—it was December break when Before had turned into Now. All the students had been home with their families. They were all gone now, one way or the other.
The lookout dude was kind of squirrelly looking, but he lived all alone up there so I figured he was entitled to his weirdness. What could he possibly have to do all day long? There hadn’t been anyone or anything to look out for in years. I was glad that job was taken, though—I would have hated that Aptitude.
He was waiting for us at the checkpoint, a tight smile stretched over sunken cheeks. Probably hadn’t had any visitors in months. Apart from the squirreliness, he was an unremarkable older white guy, average height and weight, brown hair going gray.
Mr. G. laboriously maneuvered past one last fallen tree and then into a cleared area a few hundred yards below the summit. As the bus rumbled to a stop, the seniors surged to their feet excitedly, eager to be released after the long, bumpy ride. No one was more eager than I.
“Settle down, settle down,” Mr. Giovanni said loudly from the driver’s seat, holding up a hand to get our attention and staring us down in the rearview mirror. He cut the engine and set the brake, then stood to face us.
“All right, you know the drill. We’re just stopping here to pick up our guide, Mr. Larsen, from the observatory. We’re going to take a ten-minute break, then finish the drive to the summit. I want you all back on this bus in exactly ten minutes, you got it?”
A mixed chorus of “Yes, Mr. G.,” hoots and catcalls was his answer. I waited for the rest of them to exit, then got off with my pack on my back. The kids were spread out in the cleared area, running around and yelling at each other like a bunch of first graders. Mr. Giovanni had opened up the cargo space beneath the bus to pull out his backpack. From it, he was busy doling out little bags of trail mix which he made himself for school events. Nice man.
I eased past Lookout Dude who was poking around in the cargo space. I wondered about that for half a second, but I was more focused on getting my own gear out of there. I was supposed to hang with the group and then get back on the bus like I was told, but I was never very good at following rules. And no way I was getting back on that bus—I had decided I would walk up to the summit and meet them there. I needed the fresh air.
Lookout Dude flicked me a glance as I hauled out my sleeping bag and tent. There was sweat on his brow although the temperature was in the low fifties. Blue skies, a light breeze—a perfect fall day. He stared at the nametag on my gear.
“Dupont,” he said. “That a French name?”
He didn’t sound too happy about it. Some people blamed Europe for the Bad Times, others the Middle East. No doubt some of the folks over there (if there were any left) were busy pointing their fingers at us. As far as I could see, there was plenty of blame to go around. The triple whammy of radical climate change, domestic political dissent and international unrest had altered a lot of things.
My Gran, as usual, had her own take on the situation. “People ruin everything,” she told me more than once. “They just can’t help themselves.”
Lookout Dude was staring at me, all beady-eyed and twitchy. What was his problem anyway?
“You don’t look French,” he said argumentatively.
“I’m American,” I said and walked away. I’m a mongrel, as Gran used to so proudly proclaim. In addition to French, our family tree had Chinese, Pawnee, Welsh, Cuban and who knew what else in its branches. Out of this mixture came me: short, skinny, brown eyes, brown skin, cropped black hair that refused to obey either a comb or gravity. My sister got all the looks in the family. The charm too, Gran would have cackled. So fine, I wasn’t the pretty one—but I didn’t think I was ugly either. I was quick, but not muscular. Smart enough, but not talkative, which for some reason really bothered people. When they looked at me, they saw someone who didn’t fit in, someone who didn’t fall into one of their precious preordained categories. They saw someone they couldn’t figure out and that made them nervous. Nervous as in mean. Curious. Confused. Aggressive.
I just wanted to be left alone.
I told Mr. Giovanni I’d see them at the summit.
“Kell…” he said, disappointed but understanding. He was always trying to get me to play well with others. Which would have been great if the others didn’t insist on beating the crap out of me.
“All right,” he sighed and handed me a little cloth bag of trail mix. “Be careful out there.”
The school bus was far more dangerous to me than the forest, but there was no point in debating it. I thanked him and set off up the hill. My fellow scholars were sitting on the fallen trees and boulders that formed the perimeter of the cleared area, eating their snacks. The path leading to the observatory wound through a stand of three enormous redwoods fifty yards up the hillside and I headed that way. The ground was soft underfoot with a cushiony, slippery layer of pine needles. The cool clean air was spicy with their scent. The gentle breeze had the treetops and the brush in constant, delicate motion.
There was a great view from up there. Through a gap in the trees, you could see miles of rolling hills, all the way to a glimpse of the ocean. The Settlement was on the far side of one of those hills. I wondered who else was out there—other groups like ours? Someone like me? Yeah, right.
Beyond the three giant redwoods was a natural bowl-like depression, perhaps fifty feet in diameter, before the hillside resumed its ascent to the peak. I paused there for two quick adjustments. First, I wanted to strap my sleeping bag and tent to my pack so it was all on my back, leaving my arms free. Second, after a long bus ride, I really needed to pee. There was no one else around and the broad base of the nearest redwood was more than sufficient cover. I was thankful I didn’t have to deal with the usual hassle of peeing at school. If I went in the boys’ bathroom, I was likely to get roughed up. If I went in the girls’ bathroom, they would shriek and freak out. I normally tried to hold it until lunchtime when I could duck behind the handy ruins of some former campus building and piss in peace. I never understood why it had to be so complicated. Why they thought I couldn’t be allowed in either place. I mean, everybody’s got to pee sooner or later, right?
Having watered the first redwood, I crouched down at the foot of the second one, organizing my gear. I froze as I heard a rustle in the bushes and then a girl’s voice.
“Come on, Hunter, let’s go—we have to get back on the bus in like a minute.”
The girl—East—and Hunter Cohen appeared around the trunk of the third giant redwood. He backed her up against the tree and kissed her neck, intent on getting what he wanted. She saw me, though. Down on one knee, with my gear spread out on the ground before me. Our eyes met. I tried to tell her with a look that I’d be gone in a moment if she would just give me that chance. If she would just let me disappear.
I heard Mr. Giovanni call from below. “Let’s go, campers! All aboard!”
“Hunter…Hunter!” East said, finally pushing him off her to get his attention.
“What?” he said, aggrieved, half slipping on the pine needles. Then he saw me.
“Are you spying on us, you little queer?” he angrily demanded. He took a step toward me.
I donned my pack with my gear finally secured and started walking away, downward into the bowl-like depression. There was no point in talking to him. The only reaction he was capable of was hatred. He didn’t even know what or why he hated. He certainly didn’t know me.
“Did you hear me, faggot?” he yelled. I kept an eye on them with my peripheral vision, but kept moving. East grabbed one of his arms. He dragged her with him as he followed me. There was shouting from down the hill now too. Shouting and screaming. One voice rose above the others.
“Long live the Ship of State! Death to all traitors and cowards!”
In a split second—a bone-jarring, ground-shaking split second—a high-pitched whine like a mosquito seemed to start deep inside my brain, but then was suddenly all around us, unbearably, impossibly, painfully loud.
The bowl-like depression in which we were standing was fifty yards up the hill from the bus, behind and below the stand of three giant redwoods. Those trees saved our lives. They blocked the force of the blast and much of the shower of debris that ensued. Although we were a few steps down in the bowl, we were all knocked off our feet by the violence of the explosion. I was the first to scramble back up and ran—stupidly, in retrospect—to the tree line. I was abruptly stopped there by what I saw. I was already deaf from the explosion, but then I wished I were blind as well.
The scene was horrendous. I could hardly process what I was seeing. The bus was blown in two. Black smoke was billowing from the wreckage and flames twisted throughout. Bodies—mostly parts of bodies—as well as pieces of the bus and camping gear were everywhere, littering the formerly cleared space with flesh, blood, metal and Gore-Tex. With all the smoke, it was hard to see, let alone make sense of what I was seeing, but as far as I could tell, there were no survivors. It looked like everyone had been on or near the bus. Everyone—except me, East and Hunter. They stumbled to my side, white-faced and shocked. East looked desperately into my eyes. Her lips were moving, but I couldn’t hear anything. The total silence added another layer of eeriness to the grim display. Time stood still while we stared at things no one should see.
When my stunned brain could once again form a coherent thought, it was: this kind of stuff isn’t supposed to happen anymore. The Bad Times are over, the adults had told us. Over…
I walked slowly down the hill, careful where I was stepping. My legs felt simultaneously heavy and numb, like they belonged to someone else. I could hear something now, but it was only the sound of my own blood, pounding in my ears. In an unhurried manner, matching my measured pace, background noises began to reemerge. The wind in the trees. The awful crackling of the fire. Birds chirping. Birds—I wondered how long it would be before the crows and condors showed up, but thrust that thought away from me with a shiver. The smoke was noxious, choking me. Some of the bodies were whole, or nearly so. I checked each one. All dead. I had met Death before, seen it creep up slowly on my Gran and finally devour her. This Death-in-the-blink-of-an-eye was much different and yet the same. And no improvement.
Thirty feet from the bus was a cluster of young pine trees and scrub brush. Thrown in their midst like a rag doll was the observatory lookout guy. His eyes were open. Blood trickled from his ears and nose. There was a lot of blood on his clothes as well, presumably his. I knelt down beside him.
“A…bom…” he said.
“A bomb,” I agreed. I figured he was dying. There was nothing I could do for him, except wait with him for his imminent departure.
“Noooo…” he labored to say, then lapsed into a weak and agonized coughing fit.
I glanced back over my shoulder up the hill toward East and Hunter. They hadn’t moved.
Lookout Dude seemed to get some strength back for a moment. I tried to offer him a sip of water from my canteen, but he pushed my hand away, almost angrily, I thought.
“A…bom…” he said again. It seemed important to him to get it out, so I leaned in to hear him better. There was a rattle in his throat now.
“Abomination,” he whispered hoarsely. “You…and your kind…nothing but an abomination…”
I recoiled from him, both amazed and horror-stricken that those were the words he would choose for his last. There had to be more, I thought. But it appeared that was it. His eyes slowly closed, the rattle faded.
God, I hate field trips, I thought with all my might.
Lookout Dude had a gun in a holster on his hip. I hadn’t noticed that before. Guns were not uncommon around the Settlement, but ammunition was strictly rationed. Gran had taught Gabriel and me to shoot. After she’d died, I traded most of her weapons and livestock for items I needed more. I thought with a pang of the shotgun hung over the fireplace in our little cabin. I hadn’t thought I would need it for a school camping trip. But there were snakes and bears in these woods—mountain lions too. Maybe some two-legged predators as well. I put the gun in my pack after making sure the safety was on. Lookout Dude did not protest.
I hiked back up to where East and Hunter awaited me. She spoke, her voice low and quavering. “Is there anyone—? Are they—?”
“They’re all dead,” I said flatly. She flinched, then looked searchingly into my face as if she might find more of an explanation there.
I turned away. I needed to get out of that place. And I had already decided I wouldn’t be going back to the Settlement. There was nothing there for me. Nothing and no one. I took a step, but East stopped me.
“Where are you going?” she demanded.
“I’m out of here,” I told her and Hunter.
“You can’t just leave,” she said, outraged. “We have to…”
“Have to what?” I said.
She was silent, staring at me intensely with her dark blue eyes huge in her pale face, her hand clamped tightly on my arm. I looked down at it and then back up at her tear-streaked face. She withdrew the hand. It was trembling.
“There’s nothing we can do for them now,” I told her, as gently as I could. “And we need to get out of here, to somewhere safe.”
“But shouldn’t we…bury them or something?” More tears were welling. Even in her distress, she was beautiful. I silently berated myself for thinking that with death and chaos all around, but I couldn’t help it. I shook my head, trying to shake that thought out of my skull. It was nothing but a waste of time. It always had been.
Hunter was still standing there, staring down at the devastation in utter shock. He hadn’t said a word since the bus blew up. Which was a welcome relief.
I said bluntly to East, “There’s too many. It would take too long. We need to go—now.”
I nodded up the hill, which was more or less north. She looked confused.
“But we have to go back,” she insisted, pointing southwest toward San Tomas. “We have to go back to the Settlement, back to school…”
“I don’t know about you, but I just graduated.” My voice came out harsh and cold. I didn’t mean for it to, it just did. “Look, I’m out. I’m not going back. You do what you want.”
Hunter had slowly sunk to his knees while we argued. He was making small, wordless sounds. The smell of what was burning below was sickening.
East said fiercely, the outrage again uppermost in her voice, “You can’t leave. We have to go back. Or wait here, at least—someone will come for us. They’ll come get us when they realize what’s happened.” She grabbed me again, as if she would forcibly make me stay.
To the southwest, there was a “whoomp” kind of noise. And then another. A small, but distinctly shaped, cloud formed in the distance.
A mushroom cloud.
“Get a pack!” I screamed at East and Hunter. The latter was still on his knees, his face now in his hands, shoulders shaking.
East screamed back frantically, “It’s on the bus!”
Not your pack, ANY pack, I thought, but I didn’t want to waste time explaining it to her. We needed to get the hell out of there. The prevailing winds were offshore and San Tomas was on the coast. So with any luck, that mushroom cloud wouldn’t be blowing our way. Still, we were far too close for comfort. We needed to put some distance between us and them (whoever “they” were) and pronto.
Most of the bus and what had been on it was blown to gruesome smithereens. But a surprising amount had simply been blown clear by the force of the explosion. I darted down the hill to snag the nearest backpack. We each needed a pack with some kind of provisions to have any chance at surviving the days ahead. Mine was on my back, along with my sleeping bag and tent. I reached down for a large blue pack with an aluminum frame and froze. It was Mr. Giovanni’s pack. I could tell that because of the nametag and also because Mr. Giovanni’s hairy arm was still entangled in the straps. The rest of him was nowhere to be seen. I shut my eyes and my mind to the horror of it, focusing instead on the need to get the backpack and then get out of there. Another dirty bomb or missile or whatever might be headed our way any second for all we knew. I grabbed the backpack, which had a bright smear of fresh red blood down one side, managed to shake the arm loose without looking directly at it and ran back up the hill.
East had hauled Hunter to his feet, although he still looked dazed and traumatized and was clinging to the big redwood tree for support. Even better, she had found a couple of sleeping bags that had bounced into the bowl.
“Here,” I growled at Hunter, slamming the backpack into his chest as hard as I could. In part to snap him out of his funk. But mostly because I didn’t like him. “Put it on and let’s go.”
He fumbled with the straps, shuddering at the blood, but managed to get it on. I strode hurriedly past East, who followed me, clutching the sleeping bags. She stopped to pick up something off the ground. I started to yell at her to keep walking, then saw that what she had retrieved was a water bottle. Which was smart. Maybe there was more to her than I’d given her credit for.
I was moving fast. I wanted to get up and over the hill, putting that physical barrier and as much distance as possible between us and that mushroom cloud. The other two stumbled along behind me. There was no time to think of what had happened to the bus or the Settlement. Of who or why or how. I kept my mind blank.
As soon as I could, I got us back on the remnants of Highway 17. Speed was more important than stealth at that point, and it was easier going than through the woods. Plus, it was headed in the direction I wanted to go. North.
Before she left, my sister Gabriel told me a few things. I was fifteen then, too old to be blubbering like a baby, but I couldn’t help it. I hated that she had to leave. She wasn’t just my big sister, she was my best friend. My only friend, actually.
“But, Kell,” she told me gently. “It’s my Aptitude. I have to go. You’ll understand when it’s your turn. And that’s only three more years. Just think, you’ll probably be a Pioneer like me and you can come join us in Segundo then.”
I knew she was excited to be part of the group that was leaving the Settlement to establish a new community—Segundo, they named it. They’d had a contest to come up with the name. The math teacher, Miss Sanchez, who doubled as the Spanish teacher, submitted the winning entry. The master plan was to build a network of small, self-sustaining communities, each one hundred miles from the last. The hope was that we could reconnect with other survivors of the Bad Times, maybe even reconnect with whatever remained of the old United States of America.
Well, it was all fine and dandy for Gabriel to be excited about being a Pioneer, but that left me stuck with Gran, not to mention trapped in that hellhole of a high school for three more excruciatingly long years. At fifteen, I thought Gran would live forever. It never occurred to me that she would leave me as well. My sister must have recognized that possibility, though. Gran too. Before they left me in their different ways, they made sure I knew a lot that the other kids didn’t.
Like the location of Segundo. Or, at least, where they planned it to be. One hundred miles from the Settlement. Gabriel drew me maps in the dirt with a stick until she was sure I had it in my head.
“Highway 17 will take you over the hill,” she said, drawing a big “Y” with her stick. “The hill” was what everyone called the small mountain on which the observatory perched. In the past, it had separated San Tomas from San Jose, Silicon Valley and the rest of the greater San Francisco Bay Area.
“So first get yourself over the hill,” she continued. “When you reach the fork in the highway, that’s the bottom of San Francisco Bay. Don’t go up the left fork—that’s the peninsula that leads to San Francisco.”
We both shivered at the thought of that graveyard city.
“You want the bay to be on your left,” she told me. “Just keep going up this right fork. They say 17 eventually turns into what used to be the old Interstate 80. It runs northeast for a while, then turns straight east.”
“Why not just go straight east toward Nevada from here? Why head north at all?” I asked her.
“There’s no easy way over the mountains if you head due east, they say. Or at least there didn’t used to be. Maybe the quakes have changed that…But in the old days, they’d go north up 17 to 80 and follow it east. There’s a pass through the Sierra Nevadas there. Or at least there used to be.”
We both knew why they didn’t head south. South was where the trouble had come from in the Bad Times.
“Anyhow, Kell,” my sister concluded, tapping the stick on her dirt map for emphasis, “when you’ve traveled a hundred miles, more or less, you should find us here.” She drew an “X” in the dirt. “That’ll be Segundo.”
As maps go, it wasn’t the greatest.
* * *