My timing was good, and although there were some other early risers on the road, only one person commented when I turned toward the mountains. I silenced him by claiming I was on my way to visit a family member who lived nearby.
This little spur of road soon began winding into the mountains. It had been a good road once, well-thought out with switchbacks and rest areas, but time and disrepair made the going slow. As we tracked our way up toward Tres Ladrones Pass, I became anxious about what we might find.
We reached the pass at mid-day, and while it wasn’t as bad as I had feared, it was bad enough. The high, rocky peaks sent stones crashing down and the road was littered with them, all coated in a light dusting of snow and ice crystals. But as long as the rocks weren’t too big, and if none of the switchbacks had crumbled to the point where my wagon couldn’t pass, I knew I could manage. I had bought a shovel in town and I used it to scrape the rocks toward the edges of the road so we could pass.
It was hard, slow work. I sweated from the sun and exertion, but when I stopped to rest and have a little food or water, the wind whipped down through the pass, chilling my damp clothes until I thought I would freeze. The animals grew impatient at the delay as we inched our way along the road, bumping over smaller rocks, edging closer and closer to the mountain as the trail narrowed. I looked up time and again, terrified a boulder would come crashing down on us. The occasional shower of pebbles skittering down the rock face didn’t inspire confidence.
It took hours to get through, but there were no major obstructions. This was both a blessing and a cause for concern, since it meant people still used this road. If only honest people were using it, I had nothing to fear, but who can afford to be honest when survival is so often at stake?
Finally I found myself out of range of falling rocks, winding down the switchbacks overlooking the valley below.
In the valley lay Catalunia. It had once been a prosperous town, according to my family and Aunt Amalia, but something happened to their water. I’ve never been clear on what the problem was, but when I was growing up in Valle Redondo, it seemed that the members of the older generation understood the matter pretty well and worried that something similar would happen to us, even though it never did.
The end result for Catalunia was that it became a ghost town. No one who goes through the valley will so much as let a donkey graze. The water and everything that grows from it is contaminated.
I reached the outskirts of town at dusk and scanned the ramshackle buildings for something to use as a shelter for the night. The outer ring of buildings was mostly mobile homes collapsed and dusted in snow. I had seen their like before and didn’t think much of them, or the rusted hulks of old automobiles in lawns and driveways.
Then I started passing the remains of shops and strip centers. They had never been beautiful, but in ruin they were ghastly. They had too many windows and all were broken out, leaving the concrete shells full of gaping black holes, like the eye sockets in a skull. Their silence and the eerie quiet of the entire town nagged at me.
I reached the center of town and still saw no place I wanted to use for shelter. If anything, I became more troubled as I went along. Maybe it was the silence that bothered me because in other deserted towns there is always wildlife of some kind. Not here. There were no birds, feral dogs or cats, or even evidence of hardy desert rabbits and coyotes. It was as if something in the town smothered the life out of anyone or anything that came through.
I wasn’t the only one to feel it. The mule started getting balky, and at the back of the cart, Flecha tossed her head and tugged at her tether. I tried to calm her, but my words sounded too loud, like I was cursing in church. The more we traveled along the darkening road, the more I began to feel like even breathing was a violation. I looked around at the lengthening shadows and the vacant eyes of the shops and public buildings, wishing I wasn’t so alone.
I couldn’t spend the night in this town. I had to get out, back into the fields, no matter what the risk to my animals if they ate the contaminated grass. If I had to stay the night here, “it,” whatever “it” was, would choke me in my sleep if it didn’t scare me out of my wits first. I slapped the reins on the mule’s back and urged her to move a little faster.
Then I saw it—a movement among the shadows. I nearly leaped out of my skin and my heart set up such a pounding I couldn’t listen for anything that might indicate whether I had seen a man or a ghost. I reached for my pistol, then reconsidered and reached behind me for the shotgun.
The shadow was gone now. Had I imagined it? Nothing lived here, I reminded myself. No one could survive.
Then I saw it again, and this time I was sure. I raised the gun to my shoulder and tried to call out in a confident way, but no words would come out. I looked around. Was it one ghost, or were there several? Or had there even been a first? Flecha snorted, and I looked over my shoulder at her. When I turned back around, a slight figure draped in gray stood in the middle of the road. I stifled a shriek and aimed my gun, wondering if it would do any good against a ghost.
“Please, can you spare a little food?”
A hundred thoughts crashed through my mind at once and I tried to grab onto them. Female voice. Weak. Polite. And wanting food? Ghosts don’t eat. But what was she doing here? No way was she alone. This had to be a trap. There was an unaffiliated unit sheltering here.
I took a shaky breath and tried to steady the gun. “Who are you with?”
“Don’t play dumb. I don’t want no trouble, but if you want to give it to me—”
She shook her head. “There’s only a few of us left, and we never wished trouble on anyone, even when we were well. Just a little bit of food, if you have any to spare?”
I still didn’t believe her, and we went back and forth for several minutes, before finally she approached the wagon. “Stay where you are,” I told her. “Don’t think I’m afraid to shoot.”
“It would be a blessing if you did,” she said, and something in her voice made me reluctant to pull the trigger. She pushed back the blanket and revealed her face. Even in the growing darkness, I could see something was horribly wrong. “Shine your lantern on me,” she said. “Then tell me you don’t believe I’m sick.”
The solar lantern was on the seat beside me. I turned it on and did as she said, then I sucked in my breath. Her eyes were dark and fearful in sunken sockets, her flesh so wasted that she was scarcely more than a skeleton, all cheekbones, teeth and bulging wrist bones as she scrambled to pull the blanket back over her head. I caught a glimpse of dull black hair, thin and patchy, like someone had tried to yank it out in handfuls. And more horrible than anything else were the great brown blotches on her otherwise pale skin. I tried to think of something to say, but could think of nothing that wouldn’t sound callous or trite.
“We’re all this way,” she said, her voice oddly matter-of-fact. “Those of us still alive, of course.”
“What happened?” I asked, finally finding my voice.
“It’s a curse. They told us not to come here because of the curse, but we were desperate, and it looked so pretty and peaceful. . .”
I put my shotgun away. There was no curse here, except bad water. “Where do you live? I’ll take you home and share with you what I can.”
I had to help her onto the wagon seat because she was too frail to manage it on her own. She directed me down a series of increasingly smaller streets, into a residential area and a pleasant-looking house on a corner. There were a few lights in the windows, and it looked almost cheerful until I went inside and found that it was cold and squalid, inhabited by three other living skeletons. Only one of them—a lanky man who looked far older than his years- could get around at all. The other two lay on pallets in front of a wood-burning stove, staring at nothing.
I put the mule and cart in the garage and took Flecha to scrounge some firewood. Then I fed and watered the animals with what I had brought in the cart and took some food in to feed the sick family. I stirred up the fire and added wood until the stove began putting out heat with enthusiasm. I set a pot of soup to cooking, made with my own water, of course. While the food cooked, I tried to clean up the room and proof it against the cold weather. The man kept telling me I was wasting my time, but the woman who had approached me on the road said nothing and waited listlessly for the food to be ready.
I fed them as best I could, then I busied myself with bringing in more wood for the stove and tried to make sure everyone was comfortable. Finally the woman asked if I wasn’t going to eat or rest, myself.
I had forgotten. Since there was no more soup, I ate some jerky and nuts from my bag. Then I cleared a spot for my own bed, not as near to the stove as the others, but close enough to enjoy the warmth.
I’m torn about what I should do tomorrow. I hate to ride off and leave these people, even though they’re not my responsibility. I don’t know how much success I would have in getting them out of this valley. If one of them is well enough to drive the mule, maybe I can find a way. I don’t know where I would take them, though. Valle Redondo has no doctors. Macrina, maybe? It’s not very far out of my way, since it was my family’s favorite market town when I was growing up. They used to have a doctor and probably still do.
I guess in the morning, I’ll ask if that’s what these people want. I hate to take on another responsibility so soon after Ishkin, but I just can’t leave these people here, alone and unable to do the most basic things for themselves. No one deserves to die like this.
◄ Previous Entry
Next Entry ►