Judith Schiess Avila
I hoist the roller suitcase with its half-broken zipper into the open hatchback of the Subaru, forcing it among luggage and books, a too-small space. My pulse, a persistent kettledrum, pounds in both temples, while an icy stone sits heavy in my gut. I so don’t want to do this. The shocks moan in protest when I slam the door with all of my weight.
“Zola, shush.” Mom sighs, the sound more tense than angry. She is scared, too. She calls me “Zee,” like the last letter of the alphabet – never Zola – unless something is wrong.
Zola. A weird name, I know. After one of Mom’s favorite writers, a guy named Emile Zola. He believed the fate of animals to be perpetually bound with the fate of man. Right up Mom’s alley.
“We don’t want the neighbors to see us taking all this stuff,” says Mom.
We packed carefully, painfully, leaving drawers and closets filled with clothes, while rumpled, unsorted socks and underwear sit in the dryer. Dishes and precious canned foods still populate the cupboards. We even left bacon and green beans in the freezer compartment of the refrigerator. Of course, our larger, stand-alone freezer was tagged and removed months ago, in a government attempt to discourage food hoarding. Several family pictures still sit on the mantelpiece. Dad and my older brother Michael smile from the frames, rubbing shoulders with Mom, Robby and me.
Our departure is to look like a vacation, not an escape.
I sigh, yank the front passenger door open, and drop onto the seat, the cool morning air brushing over my face and arms. My brother Robby sleeps in the back, looking impossibly innocent even for a five-year-old. Yoda, our golden retriever dog, snuggles next to him. Yoda wears a red and black vest, proclaiming him as a medical assistance dog. He knows when Robby is about to have a seizure minutes before Robby does – enough time to get my brother to a safe reclining position. He never goes anywhere without Yoda. Our dog is well known here in Newbury, New Hampshire, but we’ll have to guard him on the road. Dogs have become fair game as meat.
Until a few hours ago, I thought we were going to visit Aunt Suzie. Dad’s sister Suzie lives in a rustic cabin just off the coast of Maine, on Great Diamond Island. I love it there, surrounded by trees and deer and ocean. Tranquility washes over you like a tide.
But Mom has other plans. And they are so illegal.
“Mom, this is because of the baby, isn’t it?” I ask.
She glances at me and pulls her mouth into a frown. “No, honey. Well, maybe. A little.”
I know, losing someone’s baby must be tough – especially when you’re the head of neonatology. New Hampshire is a small state, but graced with Dartmouth College and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. Mom has worked there for years. And she’s lost patients before. That’s inevitable. I just don’t get this sudden move.
“I need a change,” Mom says. She glances at me again, and this time something in her eyes scares me. “I’m desperate.”
“But, Mom – ”
“No, not desperate. I’m sorry, honey, that’s not right, or even fair. But I need to make a difference somehow. Change things.”
Change. My problem, with a go-getter mom like mine, is I always avoid change if I possibly can. Definitely a tried-and-true girl, I’m no good with “new”.
Mom goes silent, and I do, too. I know she didn’t even try to get a relocation license. Poverty and unrest in nearly every major city – with Chicago, Atlanta and LA leading the way – have Congress scared shitless. So President Bayard signed an executive order just last month forbidding any citizen to move without official permission. She assures the American people it’s a temporary measure. So far, according to the news, those licenses have been granted only to people living in overcrowded cities who want to move to the country to attempt to grow crops – a tough task on the East Coast. Our once-lush town of Newbury, New Hampshire, now receives, at most, twelve inches of rain per year.
I turn to watch our two-story house until its peeling brown paint becomes a smoky smudge among the gray trunks of evergreens and maple trees. Thin, pale dawn breaks, casting faint shadows across the road. My heart squeezes with each breath. “I don’t want to leave, Mom.”
“Me, neither. But we will be okay, baby. You’ll see.” Her gray-threaded auburn bob swings with her nod.
I run fingers through my purple and orange gamin cut and picture Mom’s auburn hair, lengthy and smooth, with no springy wisps of gray. It wasn’t that long ago. The gray took root after Dad and Michael were killed by lightning. We had been hiking in the White Mountains, and while Mom and I scouted near the campsite for signs of wildflowers, which were all but extinct with the drought, Dad and Michael decided to explore. Robby threw sticks for Yoda to chase and stayed with us at camp. It hadn’t even been raining that day, and no thunder clouds were visible over the mountains. A freak accident, the park ranger called it.
Now the ashes of my father and brother are scattered in the backyard – the backyard we are leaving behind. I stroke the small glass and silver vial hanging from a chain around my neck, glad that I saved a few ashes. Holding it up to my eyes, I read “Zola” etched in elaborate script across its face. The sturdy chain pinching the dark hairs at my nape reminds me that I once belonged to a complete family.
Mom has no vial of ashes. She told me she couldn’t bear the constant reminder. I understand, but for me they bring a sort of comfort, a constant promise that someone out there – or up there, or wherever – is watching over me.
I study my mother’s profile. A strong, prominent chin endows her fragile features with determination. On her, it looks good; on me it just looks large. And I didn’t inherit her small, straight nose. I pinch my ample, economy-size version. At least I have Mom’s full lips.
We turn south, and when we reach the southern tip of Lake Sunapee, west. I direct my eyes away from the lake, then realizing this might be the last chance I have to see it, I force my gaze back. Once brimming with achingly clear water, it has shrunk by a tenth, leaving private boat docks forlorn and marooned. And there’s an algae growing, a blue-green bloom shimmering just under the surface, that makes the water dangerous. The silence is eerie – no boats or swimmers, no water skiers on this lovely, warming August day. Many of the trees surrounding the former lakebed are still green, but when I look elsewhere, I see too much death, brown leaves or bare limbs. Every year, lately, the online Farmer’s Almanac promises more rain. Every year we are disappointed.
We pass a series of signs that command: “It is up to you. Conserve Water!”
Conserve water? This drought has been with us for years, so how do we conserve what we haven’t got? We bathe once a week, using the same water, taking turns being first. We drink sparingly – which Mom insists is bad for us. We never wash the car, and we plant gardens, then pray for rain, as we cannot water them. What more can we do? We catch what precipitation does fall in barrels, while government-subsidized EarthFuels continues to release chemicals into the atmosphere and ground water. Other oil giants and other industries appear to be trying, cutting down on both pollution and water consumption. EarthFuels is the big holdout, lobbying continuously against renewable energy projects, preferring quick profits to the long-term health of our planet. And EarthFuels is the largest corporation in the world. What can we, a family of three, do?
Another billboard screams: “Conserve!” I hate those billboards, implying that we are somehow culpable.
I tap Mom’s arm. “Will you please tell me, now, where we’re going?”
She adjusts our trajectory slightly to the right, using both hands on the steering wheel. “Soon.”
I stare at her, saying nothing. We have rounded the southern tip of Sunapee and are heading north, close to the shore now. I glance at the lake again, and wish immediately that I hadn’t. Silvery bodies float in the shallows and lay sprawled along sandy beaches that were once hidden by water – mostly trout and bass, but I can make out a few striped perch. Many dead fish are scavenged, but these must have rotted too quickly in the summer heat. I brush the smell from my face and arms, but even inside the car, every hair on my body is suffused. The slow death of my beloved lake is more real to me than the famine threatening my country.
“C’mon, Mom. Tell me.”
She sighs. “I guess it’s safe, now that we’re on our way.”
I wait, trying to blink the image of dead fish from my retinas and erase the stench from consciousness. I finally break into her long silence, “Well?”
Mom tilts the rearview camera, probably to see whether Robby is sitting up. He isn’t. In a whisper she says, “I thought … uh … New Mexico.”
“New Mexico? We’ve never even been there.”
“I was there once before you were born. Albuquerque. It was a desert then, but very beautiful.” She turns to glance at me. “The colors are amazing, Zee – clear reds and purples and tans, all baked like pottery. The mountains are huge, and they turn bright pink at sunset. One range is called the Sandia Mountains. Spanish for watermelon.” She smiles, getting that faraway look she always gets when she’s remembering something good. “Ironic, they get enough rain to grow crops there now and we don’t. Or at least they do most years. But they have clever ways of supplementing the rain with irrigation.”
I close my eyes, trying to recall anything I’ve ever learned about New Mexico. Mountains. Cactus. Tumbleweeds. Desert. No water. I will myself to be calm and ask, “Why New Mexico?”
“There’s a cell there, of Naturals.”
“Do they know we’re coming?”
Mom nods. “I had to apply. On paper, not online, for security reasons. They need a doctor – not necessarily a neonatologist, but since I’m board certified in surgery, too, I guess they decided I’d do.”
Wow! I wonder when all of this happened. Why didn’t I see something to warn me that my life was about to change so drastically?
Even as a little kid, I didn’t adapt well to shifts in the trajectory of my world. I dreaded meeting new children, and I never knew quite how to integrate them with my old friends. As I got older, I hated leaving my old, familiar class every year and moving on to new teachers, new subjects. Mom always told me it would be fun, but I could never master that thinking. A small voice always whispered that there might be challenges I wasn’t equipped to face. I’ve lived in New Hampshire all my life. I don’t want to leave. My friends are here. My school is here. My lake is here.
Eleventh grade wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t totally awful, either. I had Stacey. And Keith, who is gay, and the best friend a girl – or two girls – could ask for. The three of us ate lunch together every day, sharing our increasingly meager and repetitive bagged fare. The school had given up on trying to provide lunches midway through eleventh year, right about the same time they required that all teachers take gun safety courses and bring a gun to school. That – the gun thing – freaked Keith out. Me, I kind of ignored it the way I ignored other changes in my once safe world.
Keith. I miss him already. Stacey says my problem with guys is that none of them ever measured up to Keith.
We three walked home from the school bus together, stopping to collect colored leaves or to watch a fox dart through the drying underbrush. It was a good two mile hike for me and Keith, and more than a mile and a half for Stacey. Because fuel is wicked expensive, the bus routes had been severely truncated. Anyone within a two-mile radius of school had to walk, and many of us who rode the bus got dropped off a couple miles from home. But that was okay. It gave us time to amble, to talk.
After the school year ended, Mom told me we were going on vacation in Maine, so of course, I told Stacy and Keith that. But this is no vacation. My heart drops into my sneakers. This is permanent. Twelfth year will be my last in high school. I want to be with my friends. Will I ever see Stacy and Keith again?
I stare at my mother, hoping the anger seething through me will heat the side of her face until she can’t continue to ignore it. “I … want … to … stay … here.”
“We’re going. I need to become part of the solution, and here we’re only three more problems.”
“Three problems? What do Robby and I have to do with that dead baby?”
For a minute, Mom looks confused, “Dead baby? You think that’s why we’re leaving?” She stops talking, studies her hands on the wheel, takes a deep breath. “I’m talking about nature. What’s happening to our world. We’re at a tipping point.”
Ah, total shift of gears. “You’re wrong. We’re not part of that problem. We’re careful about everything – never wasting food or water. We keep the heat way low in winter. We always use that expensive renew fuel for the car. Heck, we never bought paper products back when all the trees were living. And now that the dead trees are being pulped to make paper, we still use each paper towel two or three times.”
Mom shakes her head. “I miss all those trees.” Her arm, elbow protruding from the open window, gestures toward the side of the road. “It makes me so sad.” Mom has always been a big nature person.
I tell myself this is no time for giving in. “I’m just trying to point out, we’re not part of the problem.”
My mother laughs without smiling. “With farming the way it is now, you’re part of the problem if you’re alive and hungry.”
I push my lips into a pout. “What makes New Mexico any better than New Hampshire?”
“The Naturals. Several thousand of them live on the Navajo Reservation.” She makes a small tck sound, like she always does when she catches herself making a mistake. “I mean the Navajo Nation.”
“A reservation? Isn’t that kind of like going to a concentration camp?”
Mom aims a shriveling glance at me before returning her eyes to the road. “Maybe it was once, but not anymore. Navajos own their own nation, so I shouldn’t have called it the reservation. With all the other problems we’ve got, our government has pretty much left them alone. And they’re born Naturals.”
“They see themselves as a part of nature’s plan, and they work within that plan, not like some entitled species that stands above it all.”
I roll my eyes. Honestly! “C’mon, Mom. That noble savage stuff is a bunch of fairy tales.”
“The noble savage stuff, as you call it, has nothing to do with this. We’re going to the reser – tck – Navajo Nation because they grow food there, and we can help.”
“You mean we’ll be farm laborers?” My alarm meter jangles. “Working in the fields and stuff?”
“If that’s what they need, then that’s what we’ll do.”
“What about school?”
“They have schools there.”
“But I’ll have no friends. And Robby will miss Nathan and Justin.”
“You’ll both make new friends.” Mom glances at me, raising her brows. “We are going to the Navajo Nation. Period. No arguments.” She bites her lower lip. “This will broaden your horizons.”
Mom is big on broad horizons. Me, not so much. Why can’t things just stay the same – my friends, my school, my house?
She jerks the wheel and pulls into a small parking lot dominated by a “We Repair Cars” sign, painted in fading red and white.
“Sam?” I ask, recognizing the green clapboard building with its “We can fix it” motto tacked crookedly over the door. “Does he know where we’re going?”
Mom shakes her head. “No, and we’re not going to tell him. I need Sam to disconnect the tracking on the car.”
My stomach clenches. Tracking is supposed to be voluntary, a way to retrieve your vehicle if it’s stolen. But I remember our sweet, shy neighbor Raymond who was arrested soon after his tracker got broken and he failed to replace it. I can’t even think about my mother being arrested. I’d have no one except little Robby. No!
“Isn’t that against the law?” I ask.
Mom fixes me with a stare. “Trackers are supposed to be voluntary,” she says.
I notice her choice of words, “supposed to be voluntary.”
“Besides, everything we’re doing is against the law. And since when do you care? Or even notice?”
Mom jabs her middle finger on the dash, viciously pushing the “off” display. The car goes silent. She retrieves two pricey cans of mandarin oranges from the console. “Wait here.”
I cross my arms over my chest and lean my head against the back of the seat. “Yes sir.”
I watch in the side mirror as she approaches the building, a can of fruit in each hand. Mom always tries to feed people. Of course that’s considered “helping others,” which is frowned upon. The theory is, we should leave everything to God’s will and the survival of the fittest. If you can’t help yourself, and God lets you die, there is more food for those who are left alive.
As I wait, I realize why Mom actually drove the car here, instead of putting it into autodrive. She didn’t want to file a route. Of course, our tracker shows every move we’ve made up to this point, for anyone with the proper permit to view that information, but without a tracker no one will know where we go next.
After five minutes, when Mom hasn’t returned yet, I open the car door and step out, walking to the building. An argument sounds from within.
“Sunny, I could lose my license!” Sam’s voice is low, like a snarl. “Then how would I make a living?”
“I’ll do it myself,” says Mom. “I’ve heard it’s not difficult. Just tell me what to do.”
“You drive away from here before you do it.”
“Yes. Yes, I promise.”
Their voices drop, so I can no longer hear. When Mom pushes through the door, she nearly knocks me over. She clutches my shoulder and pulls. “Come. We need to get away from here.” She tosses something onto the back seat – small but heavy enough to bounce once on the tight springs. Yoda stirs and hitches his back paws.
“Let’s see if we can find some news,” Mom says.
I know what “we” means, so I grab the Thin Slice computer from the console and search for the Home News Network, HNN. As usual, extreme weather dominates. Stretching from Virginia Beach to Kentucky, an EF-5 tornado with winds of over 200 mph has decimated homes and businesses. It’s the worst Virginia has ever seen, with six hundred three people found dead so far and hundreds missing. Wildfires, zero percent contained, burn across the entire state of Tennessee. More earthquakes shake Oklahoma, hundreds every day, linked to fracking disposal wells. The west coast is flooding again, with California wine country so inundated that grapes are rotting on the vine. Mudslides have shut down Route 1 in three places along the coast.
Man! The climate models were so wrong. The eastern half of the country suffers from drought while the west is drowning. Scientists say it’s the startling speed of the polar ice cap meltdowns. The Big Melt changed the size and shape of the oceans in unpredicted ways, and prevailing winds made a major detour, changing rainfall patterns everywhere. Crap!
I focus back on the news. President Bayard backs a bill that just went to the Senate but will probably have trouble being passed. It requires auto manufacturers to stop building gas-run cars within eight years and to build only cars that run on renewable energy, like the fuel cell electric cars that utilize hydrogen as a propellant.
“That hydrogen technology has been under development for ages,” says Mom. “It’s about time we used it. No pollutants. The only by-product is water.”
HNN News announces that Senator Goodell from New Mexico is leading the fight against the renewable energy car. His last seven campaigns have been financed by big oil money, and like them, he still believes that mankind’s guilty role in the Climate Change is a hoax.
“This just in,” says a sweet female voice. “Another tornado has touched down in the Research Triangle area of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Four skyscrapers in Raleigh have been reduced to rubble, including the famous P N C Plaza building. No word yet on casualties. Stay tuned to H N N for more news on this catastrophic event.”
There’s no mention of the hundreds of people, mostly poor and uneducated, dying from starvation every day. I push the “off” button on the Thin Slice. I’ve heard all the news I can stand.
We drive ten miles before pulling onto a dirt track between dead trees. When we’ve wound downhill into the woods for a quarter mile or so, and can no longer see a paved road in any direction, Mom stops the car.
She opens the back door and retrieves the device Sam gave her. Then she removes something from her pocket and slides between the driver’s seat and the dash. “Three-inch deep indentation below the dashboard,” she says. Using the flashlight on her wrist phone, she searches for the tiny tracker. “Ha!” She turns the tool Sam gave her and slips its bent neck into the depression. “One rotation to the left and pull,” she says.
I know she’s not talking to me. She always talks herself through tasks.
“Done! Now remove the top section of the magnet – there! – and replace it with the dead magnet.” She works the small object from her pocket onto the device, grunting, and says, “Okay!” Before another minute passes she has the tracker twisted back into place as though nothing has changed.
Mom slides from the car and rises to her feet. “Not bad.” Then she walks around and pulls a shovel from the hatchback. I get out and offer help, but she is in the zone. In seconds she digs a two-foot-deep hole, drops the live magnet and Sam’s tool in, and tamps dirt over them. I toss a couple of dead tree limbs on top, for camouflage. I’ll be able to tell Keith and Stacey, when I see them again, that I helped get rid of our tracker. Sweet.
When we return to the car, Yoda raises his head and thumps his tail. Robby shifts, but doesn’t wake.
“Turn your cell phone off,” she says, holding the shutdown button on her wrist phone, “and don’t turn it back on. No matter what.”