by Marlene Leach
Sheriff Lydia Thompson has burned from the inside out until only ash remains. The small town she swore to protect rots from corruption and fear. A year to the day since her lover was taken as a political subversive, Lydia has let go of the future. Powerless and alone, the last thing she expects is a midnight visitor with impossible news.
Kay Majerra has escaped from the conformity and squalor of the crumbling city. Leaving behind rolling blackouts, service shutdowns and unrelenting violence against the poor and women, she wants only one thing: to return the political prisoner Leah to the world that so desperately needs her.
Lydia doesn’t believe that a girl so young can know that Leah is alive, let alone where she is being held. But hope finds small root as she and Kay set out across the ravaged country. If Leah can be saved, what next? There is no rest or peace to be found from the government that Leah so threatened. What can women so damaged and hunted do in the face of such powerfully entrenched evil?
It is well written and, of course, well edited—by the esteemed Katherine V. Forrest... The world Ms. Leach has created is extremely well drawn, vivid, and evocative.
Lydia–Year 2048, Maine
From far away, I have watched myself going through the motions. It is like looking down a tunnel, a telescope in reverse. I can see myself, but I am tiny and hollow inside, and my voice is a scratchy recording giving out answers that seem to make sense to others even if I feel no connection to them. My face never changes expression. There are no expressions to convey what I feel, all the contradictory emotions, so at some point my face just stopped working, ground to a halt and remained implacable. The rest of me…I do not know where the rest of me has gone. There is an empty space inside, and a lot of wind howls through that space. It is loudest at night and howls like a woman in pain or a woman grieving. I never knew a person could have so much empty space inside.
One year ago, tomorrow, they came and took her away.
Tomorrow is a big day. It is the day I will kill myself. I have a rifle and will do it quietly and with no fuss. I have decided to ride up to Morgan’s Point, just outside our village, and do it on the cliff. All of my affairs are in order. You may wonder when I decided this, and the truth is that I likely decided it the moment they took her away, but I never admitted it. Lying, especially to myself, is one of the few things I do well. Also, I would not do anything impulsive. Give it time, they all said. I knew it would make no difference but I listened and tried anyway with great patience. After all, I had nothing to lose and nothing but time. So I waited. Time never passed. I have lived in an endless gray moment ever since. And now I am tired and wish merely to sleep. Or better still, to know nothing at all.
The moon rose several hours ago, and I would guess the time to be about ten o’clock. Ours is not one of the industrial cities underground or in an environmentally protected dome. We live above ground, the way they did long ago, before the climate change and the great economic and industrial collapse. I have no electricity, but as sheriff I do have plenty of kerosene and firewood. My cottage is small, one room, but it is all mine, and that in and of itself is a luxury. Plus I live just outside the town which is where I like it. I have tried living in towns and with people, but somehow I always seem to end up just outside of everything, and that seems to suit my temperament. Only with her was I ever in the center. She brought me in close and breathed me deep and everything came to life, into focus. I laughed then, and I had never thought of myself as someone who laughed much, but with her it came easily and often. Perhaps I had merely always been waiting for someone to unlock that within me, and my God, how she did.
Nothing has been real since that day a year ago, and I often find myself knocking on the buildings in town as I pass by them, just to see if they are solid and real or if they will fall over like wooden stage props. I have begun to wonder if it is I who is not real.
The wind is howling furiously tonight, and it smells like snow. I have a fire in my woodstove and both lanterns lit, creating a warm cozy glow. I expect Cera, my deputy, will move in after I am gone, and she will be a fine sheriff. I have trained her well. In spite of everything, in spite of it all not seeming real, I would not neglect my responsibilities. The town needs a good sheriff, a no nonsense type of person, especially in these times, and Cera reminds me of myself at her age, serious and anxious to prove herself. I have left her a letter, nothing sentimental as I cannot abide sentimentality, but matter-of-fact and instructing her on how to handle herself as sheriff and assuring her that she will do fine.
The letter written on the dispensation of my property and everything in order, I sit at my wooden kitchen table, hand resting on the scratched rough surface, staring out the one window of the cottage. I will leave for Morgan’s Point in an hour. For now, there is nothing to do but sit and think and enjoy my last hour of being alive. I shall try and do that anyway. For some reason, I feel a sense of responsibility to this life as if I must try and do well by it even when it has not done well by me.
But all I can think of is her. And the first time we met. Where I punched her in the eye. I always wonder what she saw that first time…
“Do it again, and I’ll punch you in the eye.” My voice cold and matter-of-fact. How I looked then: tall, long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, gray eyes. A lean, spare figure. A typical campus Nazi in my MP uniform. They’d started bringing in troops and stationing them permanently on campuses after the shootings and domestic terrorism incidents spiraled out of control. Most of the students hated the presence of the troops, and they weren’t shy about showing it. The girl in front of me just laughed. She wore a white flowing dress and had her hair loose that day. She held a bottle of soap and water and a bubble-blower. She raised the blower, peeped through the hole at me, one blue eye staring into my gray, and then she puckered her lips and blew. Like a kiss. I frowned. Then I punched her in the eye as hard as I could.
“Lydia!” The voice came louder. “Lydia!” And banging outside. On my door. It sounded like fists. Someone was frantic. I blinked, wondering if I’d fallen asleep, daydreaming about her and our inauspicious first meeting.
“I’m coming!” I yelled back impatiently as the banging continued. I stretched my legs, feeling them cramp inside my gray wool slacks from not having moved for several hours, and uncomfortably pulled myself upright.
Who the hell would it be at this hour? I’m not in the habit of receiving visitors and unless there’s an emergency, people usually took their problems to Cera when I’m off-duty.
The knocking had subsided, but I could still sense the person outside and hear the wind howling. I yanked the door open.
“What?” I snapped.
A girl in a thin, green, worn raincoat and ratty jeans looked up at me from the front step. Her face was very pale and she was considerably smaller than me by about nine inches, probably no more than five feet. Her eyes were huge and brown, her face very pale, almost gray, beneath a mop of unkempt wild blond hair.
“My name is Kay,” she said, shaking in both body and voice. “And I’ve come to help you find Leah.”
Leah. No one had spoken her name in my presence since she’d been taken a year ago. My brows drew together, and I glared.
“Who are you?” I demanded.
There was no answer. Kay had fainted.
I sighed, staring down at her on my doorstep. She was a pitiful tiny bundle and even unconscious she was shivering. I bent down and scooped her up easily. She couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds, and she looked young, too. No more than twenty at most, and probably not even that. I wondered who she was and where she’d come from. And more important, what she knew about Leah.
Still, there would be time for all that later. I carried her inside, slamming the door shut behind me by hooking it with my foot, and brought Kay over to the bed. I dropped her on it and covered her in blankets. I’d seen no horse, bike or automobile outside, which meant that she must have walked or run here from somewhere, and the temperature was close to freezing.
She was still shivering even under the blankets so I went and stoked the fire a bit, then waited for her to wake up. It didn’t happen within the next ten minutes, and I’m not a patient sort. I went to the kitchen, filled a glass with water, brought it back and tossed it in her face.
She bolted upright, sputtering, then wiping at her face. “What the hell?” She brushed back wet bedraggled bangs and glared at me, fury sparking in her brown eyes.
“You passed out,” I said calmly, standing over her, holding the empty glass. I took a step back and braced myself just in case she lunged out of the bed at me. She looked as if she were considering it. She glanced around, her eyes slowly registering her surroundings and the fact that she was in bed, and some of the fury left her eyes.
I walked over and pulled my chair from near the fire over to face the bed and sat down. “Tell me about Leah.”
A dreamy look crossed the girl’s face.
Uh-oh, I thought. I was used to Leah’s students getting crushes on her. But it didn’t make it any less tedious, and this girl had clearly been bitten hard.
“I’ve studied all of her writings.”
The girl’s face was flushed and despite the paleness of her face from exhaustion and cold, she was still young enough for a slow flush to come up in her cheeks as she spoke. “She is brilliant,” Kay continued enthusiastically. “I’ve read all her biographies too. Last year, just before she was taken, I’d written to her. She’d invited me to come study with her! And then…she was gone.”
Well, that was pretty much how it had gone, and suddenly I wanted this girl out of here. My plans were set. I would be dead by sunrise, and that was the way I wanted it. No more decisions. It was so much easier that way.
“Fine,” I snapped aloud. “But as you can see, she’s not here. So have some tea, warm yourself, and then I’ll take you to town. There’s an inn you can stay at. I’ll give you the money if you don’t have any,” I added, seeing a quick shadow dart across her face that I recognized from years ago when I was also young and poor.
The girl straightened up, taking the cup of tea from my outstretched hand and gulping down a quick hot sip, grimacing as it burned.
“But I know where Leah is,” she said, staring at me in dismay.
I’d been on my way back to the kitchen area to get my own cup of tea. Now I stopped. Everything stopped for a moment as the room tilted to one side. I turned around.
“How would you know where she is?” I asked quietly. So help me God if this girl was playing with me, young or not, I would see her hang before dawn’s early light.
Her eyes were wide, and she seemed oblivious to the danger, her words spilling out, racing, bouncing over each other like a game of leapfrog in their haste to meet me. “Because I had an aunt who was taken. But she came back. And she saw Leah there.”
I sat down, back straight, hands on either knee.
“She saw her?”
“Yeah. Only for a second. They didn’t keep her with the other prisoners. But my aunt knew her because of me. All my reading of Leah’s stuff and the biographies.”
And I bet you had a big picture of her in your room, I thought sourly, but that was the least of my concerns. If this girl was telling the truth…If there was even a chance she was right, then it meant Leah might still be alive. My heart was racing, but as usual my face gave nothing away.
Instinctively I’d crossed my legs and leaned forward, my entire posture inviting intimacy. The position I took for interrogation. “Tell me,” I said, and my voice was soft, warm, inviting. “Where was your aunt?”
“On the West Coast,” Kay answered. “Beyond the badlands and the camps.”
Ah. The West Coast. A long way away. I remembered flying there as a girl, but that was before they stopped the planes because of the terrorist threats. At least they said it was terrorist threats, but I remember Leah warning that it was for domestic reasons, to control us. I thought she was crazy. Paranoid. But she wasn’t. Or if she was…it didn’t make her wrong. There were no planes now and no gas except for the very wealthy and supposedly only for states of emergency, though I have heard rumors that some of the rich still have private planes. It would not surprise me. The rich have always taken care of themselves very well, taking all they need, which I can understand, and then taking even more, which I do not understand. But no matter. They tend to their business; I tend to mine.
“Why did you come here?” I asked and my voice was harsher than I’d intended, the warm inviting façade dropping away.
“Because you know her better than anyone,” Kay answered earnestly, her eyes wide. “And…you’re a sheriff. You have guns. I thought—you would be safer traveling across the badlands.”
“True.” They’d taken all the guns away almost two decades ago. Claimed it was for the people’s own good, and some even gave them up willingly. By the time they realized they were powerless, it was too late. Not me. I’d always been a fascist as Leah claimed, and the thought brought a smile to my face. We’d been so different. But not underneath…
“Would you go with me?” she asked.
The girl was still nattering on, and I studied her. If she and I traveled together, that was a habit I’d have to break her of. I like silence.
She twisted her hands on top of the bedclothes, and I noticed she bit her nails and had stubby fingers. “Would you come with me?” she asked again. “If I went to rescue Leah?”
The whole idea was stupid. Did this girl even have a plan? Knowing the general area where Leah was did not mean we could find her. And supposing we did? She was bound to be heavily guarded and watched. How would two of us break her out?
“Of course I’ll go,” I said aloud.
I had no other plans after all. Other than dying. I had nothing left to lose. Stupid half-baked ideas were made for people like me. I saw the surprise scamper across the girl’s face, then a slow but huge smile followed.
“All right!” she crowed.
I smiled too, but from habit, not happiness. I did not believe we would find Leah. But something…something was always better than nothing.
“Go to sleep,” I ordered, standing up. “I’ll start packing.”
The girl looked at me with surprise then obediently lay back down, curled up under my blanket, and closed her eyes.
I studied my little cabin, wondering what I’d need. I’d already pared everything pretty much down to the basics of survival. If we were going to be hiking or bicycling, assuming I could get Kay a bicycle by tomorrow, we’d be camping and sleeping rough. We’d need sleeping bags, food, weapons. The problem was I had just enough supplies for one. One sleeping bag. One canteen. I’m a bastard, but even I’m not such a bastard as to throw a young girl out in the wilderness with no supplies.
“Oh bother,” I muttered aloud. There was a supply store in town. We could go tomorrow. I had enough money saved that I could at least outfit her decently. For now…may as well sleep.
I pulled off my black leather knee-high boots, then climbed into bed still dressed and yanked back half my blanket to cover me.
“Hey,” a sleepy voice protested.
I wasn’t in the mood to hear it. “My blanket,” I pointed out firmly. There were no more protests. Good. Smart girl. We slept.
I soon woke. And remembered.
Snow gathering onto a brown tree branch then slowly melting, dripping down into oblivion. That was all I saw of that winter. The view from a small hospital window, high on the wall. It hurt to move, even to breathe, and the pain pump that I pressed often and hard only gave me enough relief to make the worst recede but never leave. I don’t know why Leah came to see me. The last time I’d seen her, I’d punched her in the eye. It didn’t surprise me that she’d heard about the assault; I knew it had been in all the papers, the local ones as well as the school ones. But I never thought she’d come to see me. I recognized her, of course, but I didn’t speak. All that long winter I’d not spoken, and I wasn’t about to start now. I had left nothing to say. They said my bones were healed, and I wasn’t broken anymore, but I still felt broken. There was only a howling empty space left. She came, though, and she spoke and held my hand, and it seemed okay that I didn’t speak. Every day, without fail, she came at 3:30, after her last class, and held my hand and spoke enough for both of us. She told me about the riots in the city, and the fuel shortages that had prompted the closing of several more airports. All along, she said, she could see something winding down, and she’d written a story about a great empire built on the landscape of a giant clock, but the clock was winding down and the springs were breaking loose. She said it was the only piece of fiction she’d ever written and it felt truer than anything else she saw around her. In the meantime, she painted, and she told me about those paintings, and still I did not speak, but at 3:00, I would find myself waking each day with a feeling of anticipation, and when she left each night, I was sorry and I missed her, and I could still feel the warmth of her hand in mine.
She never asked me directly about the assault except once. “Do you want to talk about it?” I shook my head. I would never speak of it. She nodded as if understanding perfectly, and then bent down and lightly kissed the bruise on my cheek. Her lips were as soft as a promise, and I put my hand on her back, feeling her presence, the strength of it. She kissed each bruise, and I felt the tension that I’d been holding in since everything happened gradually dissipating, felt the incident itself leaving me. Oh, I remembered it all right, there was no denial here, but it was no longer something I carried with me. I’d set it down like a lumpy package by the side of the road and could move forth, free.
And after that day, we began to talk. And talk and talk. And we never stopped. Until they took her away from me.