The First Lady Is Missing

I feel worse about Nathan and Judy than I do about anyone else, even my son. They weren’t the only ones responsible for this, of course, but they were always the closest agents to me. They’ll be the ones to take the blame, Judy especially. I wish I could do something about that. I was their responsibility, and I know how much trouble they’re going to be in. Judy has two young children. Nathan takes care of his elderly parents. They’re sure to lose their jobs, if they haven’t already. I worry about them all the time.

I’m aware that makes me look like a terrible mother. Uncaring. Selfish. But my son could hardly be safer than he is right now—especially now. Everyone will be on high alert.

But Nathan and Judy—I gave them the slip, and they weren’t expecting it. I’m sorry, because they’ve been kind to me. Of course, they looked the other way when the president did the things he did, but they didn’t have much choice. Ultimately, he’s their boss, and he’s a dangerous man to cross. No one knows that better than I do.

It’s weird to watch the story grow on the television programs. They keep showing my picture from Inauguration Day, talking on and on and on, guessing, speculating, sometimes pretending they know what happened. It feels strange to be the object of all that chatter. Usually it’s my husband they rattle on about, criticizing or praising or ridiculing.

I have to keep the sound off, but I watch the chyrons rolling beneath the faces of those familiar television reporters with their coifed hair and glistening lips. When I first got here, the chyrons spoke to everyone’s curiosity: Where is she? Where’s the First Lady?

There were some imaginative ones: Is the First Lady on a secret mission for the president?

And there were critical ones: The First Lady continues to shirk her duties.

I knew that would come. The people who say such things don’t know what it’s like to have to hide your bruised face, or your broken finger, or the cut on your forehead where he threw the tv remote and, for once, hit his target. I can’t go out to visit a hospital or speak to a ladies’ luncheon when my eye is so swollen I can’t put mascara on it, or when the outfit I was supposed to wear won’t fit over the bandage on my knee from where he pushed me in the bathroom.

Nathan and Judy ran interference for me with my social secretary. They knew—probably the whole detail did—but what could they do? If they went to the head of the Secret Service, he’d have to speak to the president. Knowing my husband, he would probably fire the whole detail. No one outside the White House would believe them. No one would believe me. He would lie, and he’s the president.

My husband is a very, very good liar. Maybe one of the best liars in the world. I figured that out, far too late. I don’t think the rest of the country is ever going to understand just how adept he is at convincing people of untruths. It’s a blessing, really, that he spends no time with our son. He would lie to him, too. He’d rather lie than not. It comes naturally to him. It’s his nature, repellent though it is. I wish I had understood that sooner.

But now I huddle, alone, in the elegant salon of my old friend’s anchored yacht, Sea Secret. I watch the television news with no sound and all the blinds drawn tight, so no one will walk along the dock and suspect someone is in here.

Everything is battened down on the boat. The big galley is closed down, though the refrigerator is stocked so I have food. Everything on the decks is covered with tarps, and the crew has all been let go—for the duration, Tony said. I feel bad about them losing their jobs, but I was desperate, and I had literally one friend in the world I could trust.

At least, I hope I can trust him. My husband has a talent for making people betray the ones who trust them. As I said, he may be the best liar in the world.

As the days pass, the chyrons grow more and more intense. Most other news is being buried beneath the weight of the nation’s—indeed, the world’s—curiosity. The White House staff finally noticed my absence, my bed not slept in, my bathroom not used, the books and magazines in my sitting room undisturbed. People have started to ask questions.

The chyrons scream: In a break with protocol, the First Lady is not at the president’s side for a state dinner. And The First Lady cancels all appearances. Is she ill? And, in an attempt to be jocular, Call in if you’ve seen the First Lady!

They would expect someone to recognize me if they saw me on the street, or in a car, or on a train. What they don’t understand is how a designer dress, a designer hairdo, even a designer cosmetics job, can make a woman look utterly different from the way she looks every day. I don’t look anything like that Inauguration Day image now. It’s unlikely anyone would recognize me. No makeup. Sweatshirt, jeans, sneakers. My hair cut (badly, since I did it myself) and now the gray roots are showing. I can see how I look in the stateroom mirror, a tired, too tall, too thin middle-aged woman.

And now, finally, the chyron I’ve been expecting. He will hate this one, because it means he can’t ignore the situation any more. The press secretary will get questions. The secret service will show up in the Oval. The newspapers will go crazy. My parents will call, and insist on talking to him, and go to the television people when he refuses.

It’s this one, the right one at last: The First Lady is missing.

And now that they’ve gotten there, the real questions start. Was she kidnapped? Has she been poisoned, and is being kept in a secret hospital? Or Is the First Lady dead, and no one will admit it to the public?

And, of course, How could she escape the Secret Service? How could she get out of the White House with no one knowing?

This is a good question. The White House is a fortress, despite its lovely old architecture and graceful interiors. The windows are impenetrable, the gardens are walled and guarded, every door is monitored. The Secret Service is an army, armed, dangerous, omnipresent. It’s all designed to keep the president and staff safe, to keep dangers out.
And, as it turns out, to keep the First Lady in.

###

The ‘how’ of it all was worthy of a thriller. My friend—let’s call him Tony—was a special friend of mine, of us both, really, from before the nightmare days, when a botched election landed me in a role I never wanted. I hadn’t seen him for months, but Tony was a guest at one of the endless white-tie dinners we have to host at the White House. When I saw his name on the list, I managed to persuade one of the butlers—who are very sweet, and really do everything they can to make the first lady happy—to switch the place tags, so Tony was seated beside me, on my left. On my right was an ambassador from some African country, whose language I don’t speak and who speaks very little English. I was free to chat with Tony.

At first we talked about little things, his children, my son, their schools. We drank two glasses of wine apiece, and by dessert we were sharing more personal confidences. I was careful. I checked under my plate, and under the table, and felt around the bottom of my chair to be sure there were none of the listening devices my husband loves to plant. Tony’s marriage was coming to an end, he said. Infidelity, hers, not his. I took his word for it.

My marriage was off limits for our conversation, but I did admit I hated D.C., I hated the job I had to do, and I especially hated living in the fishbowl of the White House. Tony knows my husband well, no doubt better than I do. He has known him for years. Did business with him, which means got cheated by him. Tony had no illusions about what my marriage was like.
Months went by before I saw Tony again.

He was visiting with the president in the Oval, something about trade imbalances, which Tony is an expert in and which my husband misunderstands, as he misunderstands so many things. After the meeting, Tony asked one of the staff if he could say hello to me, his friend from the old days. The staff member escorted him to my office, and the two of us—with Nathan following at a discreet distance, sunshine glinting off his oversized sunglasses—went out to walk in the Rose Garden.

It was one of the first bits of luck I’d had in a long time. Nathan’s second language is German. Tony speaks fluent French. Judy speaks French, too, but it wasn’t her shift, so Tony and I could murmur to each other in French without worrying about being understood.

He said, “I have a crazy idea. You can laugh it off if you want.”

“What is it?” Qu’est-que c’est?

“You can leave him. You should leave him.”

“Leave him? As in, walk out?”

“Yes, walk out. Now. In the middle of his term. Say goodbye.” Au revoir.

“He’d kill me.”

“Only if he could find you. And I have an idea about that.” He grinned down at me. He’s tall enough to do that, and he looked good, clear skin, a full head of dark hair, naturally white teeth. I felt almost normal, walking with him, his hand under my arm, Nathan keeping a respectful distance because we were safe, there in the garden.

I said, “How, Tony? They watch me all the time!”

“Have you been down to the tunnels?”

We rounded the corner, into a shady spot where there was a bench to sit on. With a nod to Nathan, inviting him to join us if he liked, Tony and I sat down. Nathan stood a few steps away, his sunglasses flashing as he scanned the path and the lawn.
“Tunnels?” The word is the same in French, although pronounced differently from the English word. Tony’s French is much better than mine, and I wasn’t sure I had heard right.

“Yes. Beneath the house. There are dozens of them.”

“There are?”

“There are. Sometimes you can see them on the tours.”

“They don’t let me take tours.”

Tony kept his hands in his pockets, but his shoulder deliberately brushed against mine, and it felt good. I couldn’t remember the last time someone touched me just because they wanted to. Even my son, with the cameras constantly flashing at us, won’t hold my hand, or let me put my arm around his shoulders, or stand still for a hug.

“I’ll get you a map,” Tony said, his mouth so close to my ear I felt the warmth of his breath. Tony has sweet breath, smelling like citrus, or peppermint. My husband’s is sour from all the junk he eats.

I thought the whole conversation was in jest, of course. Tony was fantasizing to make me feel better. I was sure it wasn’t possible for me to really escape. And there was my son to think about. Of course, he’s old enough now to make some decisions for himself, and he would certainly be safe . . .

I wouldn’t have given Tony’s wild suggestion another thought, except that night my husband knocked out one of my teeth and I had to be rushed—in secret—to a dentist to have it replaced. Judy went with me. I was so ashamed of the whole thing I couldn’t meet her eyes. We didn’t say a word, either on the way to the emergency dentist or on the ride back. I sensed her wish to reach out to me, possibly even touch my hand, but of course that wasn’t in her job description. The other members of the detail kept their eyes averted from my swollen face. I don’t know what Judy and Nathan told them, but none of them ever asked me a direct question, nor acknowledged my condition.

My husband is a violent man. His first wives both said so, but he said they were lying. I was younger then, more naive, and I believed him. He is a very, very good liar.

He is also a very unhappy man, a miserable man. In public, he shouts and preens and postures. In private, the frustrations of his life boil over. The constant fear of his inadequacy rises to the surface, and he lashes out. He breaks things—a vase, a glass, a chair. When I’m the closest thing, he breaks me.

Even full of pain medication, I couldn’t sleep that night. I listened to the constant traffic noises, the comings and goings inside the White House, the drone of the television in my husband’s bedroom.

I couldn’t stop thinking about what awaited me in the coming days. They wanted me to give a speech, which terrified me. They wanted me to make a television appearance, which terrified me even more. They wanted me to fly overseas with the president on Air Force One, for the optics, they said. I wouldn’t be able to get out of his sight for days on end.

My thoughts spun endlessly, and my eyes burned with sleeplessness.

In the small hours, I surrendered. In a bottom drawer I had hidden a little burner phone, a silly thing I had bought before moving here, impelled by some instinct, I suppose. I got out of bed, opened the drawer, and found the phone.
I texted one word to my old friend Tony: Oui.

###

Tony was right about the tunnels. There are so many of them! They lead to all kinds of places, meeting rooms and bunkers and bomb shelters. The entrances are disguised, and some of them are accessed through a door that looks like it opens onto a broom closet. There’s a passage in the Oval Office, where you push on a panel and a wall opens, and you can descend into the tunnel system.

I did that. I told poor Judy I was going into the Oval to speak to my husband, and she didn’t realize he had already gone to the residence. She should have known, of course, it was her job to know, but why should she doubt me? Me, who never has a word of her own to say, creeps around like a frightened kitten, cowers in corners and hides in her bedroom for hours on end. I’m sure they think of me as they might a pretty doll, one everyone likes dressing and playing with and taking pictures of, but one that gets put on a shelf at the end of the day. One that has no mind of her own, no will, no power.

So I went into the Oval, pressed the panel to open the door, closed it carefully behind me, and descended into the tunnels. I found the right one, with the help of the diagram Tony had mailed to me, tucked into a book. I walked for three hours, and emerged in a nondescript building designated for emergency evacuations. Tony was waiting for me, and drove me here, to his yacht.

That was seven days ago, and it seems we’ve been successful. No one but Tony knows where I am. When I cut off my hair, I wrapped it in a bag with rocks in it so it sank to the bottom of the Potomac. I found the jeans and sweatshirt and sneakers in one of the staterooms, along with some toiletries, which have come in handy. I watch the television because I don’t have a computer or a smartphone, and I wouldn’t dare log on to them even if I did. There are some battered paperbacks, and I read those. Mostly, I watch the silent news programs, and assess the building storm around my disappearance.

I slipped out once to go to the convenience store beside the moorage to buy juice and tea and newspapers, and no one noticed me. I felt triumphant about that. When I was safely closed into the salon again, I wondered if that was how it felt to be an ordinary woman, to go out and do something without anyone paying attention, to wander freely without having to explain, or dress for the cameras, or follow instructions.

The newspapers were cautious. The New York Times said almost nothing at first about my absence. The Washington Post let it go for three days before they reported a rumor that the First Lady was missing.

When I had been gone five days, when the chyrons on cable news began to get excited. The Post delved more deeply into the story, but of course, they don’t have anything to go on. I’m not there. I’m gone. I’m missing, and no one knows why or how or if I’m coming back.

And the president? He hasn’t said anything yet. Not a word.

He doesn’t do press conferences, of course. He hates answering questions. He likes to call in to his favorite cable television channel, but he’s careful which host to talk to, for the same reason. Even at Fox there are some actual journalists. He never does interviews unless he is promised in advance that they’ll be friendly.

But now? He’s trapped. He’s going to have to say something, try to explain my absence. He’ll try to feign worry, perhaps, though he’s lousy at anything approaching empathy for another human being. What he’s really feeling, I feel certain, is rage. Helpless fury. He’s going to be humiliated, and I’m the cause.

Am I going back? Never.

Will he kill me if he knows where I am? Absolutely. I would not be the first.

Of course, he wouldn’t do it with his own hands. But he has ways. He has people.

I make a cup of tea, and huddle on the low sofa in front of the yacht’s big screen television. With the remote in hand, I click from one channel to the next. There are other stories in the news, of course, but I seem to be the predominant one. That is, my absence is the predominant one. I doubt very much anyone beyond my parents and one or two girlfriends actually care about me. I see shots from my wedding, pictures from when my son was small, a few posed fashion photos, but there’s nothing personal. None of it is about me. It’s all about the president’s wife not being in her proper place.

It’s the chyrons that tell the story, and they grow more and more frantic.

Secret Service desperately searching for the First Lady.

President mum on whereabouts of the First Lady.

FBI, CIA, and Interpol search for the First Lady of the United States.

First Lady sightings reported from a dozen countries.

Is the First Lady being held hostage?

Exclusive: First Lady being held in secret Russian gulag.

Did aliens steal the First Lady?

I couldn’t have made my escape without Tony, of course, and I know that. Tony is a rich man, much richer in real terms than my husband is. Women like me, by which I mean women who look like me, tend to be surrounded by rich men, men who can buy who and what they want. My husband didn’t buy me, exactly, but I was inexperienced enough to be dazzled by the gilded surroundings and the sparkling accessories of his life. I wasn’t exactly in love with the man, but I was head-over-heels in love with the life I thought he was offering.

Now Tony is offering me a new life, and I want to take it. I’m not in love with him, either, but I like him very much, and I believe he likes me. That seems much more important to me now. And his wealth is essential to our plan. Wealth has always surrounded me, though it has never been my own wealth. It can be a cruel master.

So, the plan: I will wait here for another three weeks, until such an expensive boat being out of commission might command notice. Tony will hire a new crew, which I think will mean a captain, a cook, and a couple of other people, carefully selected and generously paid for their ability to be discreet. They’re not to know who I am. The story will be that the yacht is being loaned to friends in France, and off we’ll go. I won’t have to worry about a passport or that sort of thing, because no one will know I’m here until we’re in international waters. No one will know, again, that I’m here until we’re safely docked in a tiny French port.

Obviously, this is a huge violation of my pre-nup. It also violates the post-nup I signed after the dreadful results of the election, but I no longer care. Once he’s out of office, and people aren’t looking for me any longer, Tony promises to bring my son to my French hideaway. Until then, we’ll let the mystery stand.

The Washington Post tells me my parents took my son home with them. My press secretary announced it was a planned vacation for him, but I know it was simply that my husband couldn’t be bothered to deal with him. That was always my job, and it was the only job I cared about—until recently.

Fox News continues to claim that I’m on a secret mission for the president, and that he’s keeping quiet about it until it’s accomplished. MSNBC speculates that the First Lady committed suicide, but the president is too embarrassed to admit it. CNN takes the position that the First Lady has been kidnapped by some foreign agency, and that she’ll be killed if anyone talks about it.
NBC, CBS, ABC all limit themselves to counting the days since I was last seen in public.

It’s a testament to how dangerous my husband is that neither my emergency dentist or any of the emergency physicians who treated my various injuries have spoken up. I don’t blame them. They have careers and families to worry about. And though it’s shockingly lonely, being completely isolated this way, I take comfort in knowing that I took control of my own life, for better or worse. I’m not that doll on the shelf anymore. I’m a graying middle-aged mother who still has half her life ahead of her and longs to spend it in freedom.

We planned carefully, Tony and I. It was hard, because we couldn’t often even sit next to each other, much less be alone. Gifts and mail that come into the White House are closely vetted, but Tony and I share a love of reading, and he sent me books. They contained coded messages, disguised as dedications on the flyleaves: Hope to see you in February. Hoping you and your family can join us on Sea Secret soon. Here’s looking forward to that French holiday.

I sent him books back, similarly inscribed. February is perfect. We can’t wait to see Sea Secret. Thank you for the map.
I read the books he sent, too. He chose literary novels, mysteries, sometimes thrillers. My husband, who doesn’t read at all, paid no attention to any of these exchanges.

We used the burner phone selectively, and only for the final details. When I left, I had it with me in my pocket. I threw it as far out into the river as I could, the moment I got out of Tony’s car. I had another phone, of course, a better and more recent official one, but I left that in the residence. I double-checked all my old text messages on it, but there was nothing there either from or to Tony. In fact, there was little there at all. The tweets from me that people love to share are all written by staff, and they use their computers to do that.

Yet, despite all our care, I was afraid. When people trooped by on their way to another boat, or there were raucous parties on nearby yachts, I turned off the television so its light wouldn’t penetrate the blinds. I hid in my stateroom in the darkness like an injured cat going to ground. It’s a strange, distorted life, a reverse image of the one I had been living. No one sees me. No one speaks to me. I wear the same clothes every day, and I don’t style what’s left of my hair or put on makeup. I am invisible.

###

We thought, after a month had passed, that the story of the First Lady going missing would begin to die down. We were mistaken.
If the chyrons were anything to go by, the furor has only intensified. The four weeks are nearly up, but each week the story seems to get bigger. Wild stories are circulating, the president is under daily pressure to say something, and heads are rolling at the FBI and CIA and in the Secret Service. Even Congress is threatening to summon the president to speak to them about the First Lady’s whereabouts. He has tweeted that it’s none of their business, but it seems for once his tweets are having no effect.
I knew it would be bad. I didn’t know it would precipitate a national crisis.

Now, and only now, are those who treated my injuries beginning to speak out. They start by telling reporters details off the record. Then, as their numbers grow, they gain confidence. Now the dentist, two emergency physicians, and my personal aesthetician, who has had to disguise my bruises many times, have been interviewed on television. My husband has plenty of enemies, and they’re making the most of the scandal. It has become an international sensation.

Some are saying it could bring down the presidency, an outcome neither Tony nor I anticipated. I fear the whole thing has grown much too big for Tony to tolerate.

And now, as I stare at CNN in horror, I see that Tony has been called to the White House.

Everyone knows Tony’s face, of course. Ostensibly, he is being called in as the president’s old friend and confidante, to comfort a grieving husband whose wife has disappeared—or to provide cover if the husband has done something to his abused wife. But as I watch the silent pictures shown over and over on CNN and then the other cable channels, and finally on the mainstream news shows, it’s clear that Tony has some sort of Secret Service escort—or FBI or whatever, I never can keep straight which department does which.

I turn off the television, and huddle on the couch in the salon, fearing the worst. Tony and my husband know a great deal about each other. They have had many business dealings over the decades. I’m afraid Tony is as vulnerable to blackmail as my husband is, and if my husband threatens him, he may have no choice but to give me up.

It occurs to me, too, for the first time, that Tony may have done all of this to hurt my husband rather than to help me. Their history is a complicated one. My husband is capable of any dirty trick he can think of. I wonder what he may have done to Tony. I wonder if I’ll ever know.

Tomorrow is the day we’re supposed to leave. The new crew will arrive. I will shut myself in the smallest stateroom, ready to fold myself up into a cargo compartment if necessary, until we know we’re safe. At least, that was the plan. I have no way of knowing if it still is.

I don’t sleep. I shower, and then stare at myself in the mirror. I don’t even recognize my own face. I am pale, terribly thin, big-eyed and hollow-cheeked. Even my bust, once so important to my husband, looks shrunken. I look every single one of my years. He wouldn’t have me now, I think. I am no longer a trophy wife. I’m a refugee.

I lock the stateroom door, as I’m supposed to. I lie on the bed, and watch the morning light begin to rise beyond the drawn blinds. Helpless in my ignorance of what’s happening beyond my luxurious prison, I wait.

They arrive early, whoever they are. I hear someone in the galley. I hear several pairs of feet on the decks. I hear the rustle and bang and rush as the tarps are taken in and the blinds are lifted. My stateroom has no windows, only the single locked door, which I don’t dare open. I cower on the bed, clutching a pillow to my middle.

Who is out there? I don’t know. Is everything happening according to our plan? I don’t know that, either.

The engine starts with a great thrumming vibration that I feel in my bones. There are calls back and forth, laughter, orders, shouts of farewell. The yacht begins to move, a gentle motion at first, as it glides out of its moorage, then a sense of gathering speed as it gets underway.

I lie back, and close my burning eyes. The rocking of the boat soothes my nerves, and a cold acceptance quiets my mind. Either I am making my escape, or I am not. Either I will be allowed to live the rest of my life in peace, or I will not. Someone is guiding this boat to its destination, but it is not me. I have done what I can. I have earned my fate.

I sleep.

WITCHES on the radio!

My publicist sent me the link to this WAMC (public radio) program. I knew it was a review of A SECRET HISTORY and I had a bellyful of butterflies!

Happily, the butterflies soon subsided. It’s a charming review, and the clever Zazu managed to describe the feminist themes of the novel without making the whole thing sound tedious.

It’s also short and sweet–the whole thing only lasts eleven minutes–but it is bound to add to your to-be-read list! It certainly did mine.

http://wamc.org/post/book-picks-bookloft

Wicca and A SECRET HISTORY OF WITCHES

The craft the Orchiere witches practice, the one they refer to as the “old ways”, is invented, based on an ancient and inherited system, deeply rooted in a matrilineal tradition. I’ve borrowed from Wicca, the neo-pagan practice developed in the mid-twentieth century, but the Orchiere witches are not Wiccan, nor are the witches of the Glamis line, who appear in the Book of Veronica.

 

The Wheel of the Year is so lovely, though, and so evocative, that with the license granted to me as a creator of fiction, I’ve allowed my witches to use it. It also emphasizes the ancient history of their craft, and its connection with nature, which Wicca also celebrates.

 

The rites of the Orchieres also borrow from Wicca and from other neo-pagan traditions. The circle of salted water for protection is one such element, as is the use of a newly-poured candle and a consecrated altar. The herbs they use in their rites and potions and philters are based in real herbology. In fact, many so-called witches of medieval times were innocent herbalists, useful in times of illness, but all too easily blamed when their remedies were unsuccessful.

 

The witches of A SECRET HISTORY are neither the wicked hags of medieval times or the wacky suburbanites cooking up potions in their twentieth-century kitchens. They are women–grandmothers, mothers, granddaughters–with power. They are at risk because society has always feared women with power. Scripture provided an excuse to persecute them, and western culture has persisted in viewing them as dangerous, because they threaten the traditional balance of society. They endanger the fixed assignment of roles to women, and that frightens people.

 

There will be more to come! Please visit again.

RELICS

This story was published in the anthology Alternative Truths, a collection of tales written in response to the political situation America finds itself in. A portion of the proceeds from sales of the book go to the ACLU, and a number of the authors have also devoted their share of royalties to that cause. Please visit Amazon.com to buy a copy.

 

RELICS

a fable

The banging of a sledgehammer woke Livvy from the heavy sleep of early morning. She opened her dry eyes gingerly, lifting the lids a tiny bit at a time, blinking to stir up some moisture. Gray dawn showed through the thin curtain of her single window. It was too early for birdsong. Not too early for the sledgehammers.

Livvy pulled her mother’s handmade quilt over her head, and indulged in a few moments’ longing for the old days, when Butch had been alive and they lived in a real house. It wasn’t much of a house, being in the shade of the Wall, but it was far enough away so the racket of building and repairs didn’t reach them. She longed for one night of uninterrupted sleep. It seemed those were in the past, as so many comforts were.

Some of the other relics, relegated to the shacks as Livvy now was, were deaf enough to sleep through the noise. Livvy’s hearing was intact, though other parts of her weren’t, and she slept uneasily since Butch died. She kept her single door locked, but it was only plywood. It wouldn’t do a thing to stop the gangs if they came in search of food or blankets. There were guards here and there, of course, but they were meant for the Wall, not for protecting people who couldn’t work anymore.

Livvy pushed back the quilt. “Get yourself up now, Olivia Sutton,” she said aloud. Butch used to tease her about talking to herself, and her reply, that she was talking to the cat, made him laugh. She wished Butch was still here to tease her. The cat was gone, too.

She smoothed her bed, and drew back the curtain gingerly, so the threadbare fabric wouldn’t tear again. Her window faced the dirt lane separating the Wall and the dilapidated row of shacks from the houses of the village. The shacks were flimsy squares built from boards and metal pieces left over from construction of the Wall. Each was a single room with a toilet and a woodstove, built like a lean-to, attached to the massive bulk of the Wall itself. They were differentiated mostly by the colors and textures of whatever had been used to build them.

The shacks had been thrown together for Wall workers a long time ago. When the workers moved on to other sections, the Council pressed the shacks into use for people like Livvy, people who couldn’t work anymore. It pleased the Council to call them “the Residences,” but everyone else called them the shacks.

Sometimes, when the Wall shifted or settled, a shack would shatter, and tumble to pieces. If the inhabitants were lucky, they escaped with a few bruises. If they weren’t lucky, they died.

Of course, the relics were close to death anyway, so no one cared much. Livvy suspected most of the relics didn’t care much, either.

She used the toilet, changed into the shapeless dress she wore most days, and walked the five steps to the woodstove. She had a few grains of coffee left, brought to her by one of the church ladies, and a pitcher of water she had carried in yesterday. She could make one cup of coffee, probably her last. Coffee didn’t grow on this side of the Wall. Coffee needed sunlight, and the Wall cast a long, deep shadow.

Soon there would be no coffee left except for the people who lived above the shade line, people with coins to pay the smugglers. It was illegal to buy from them, of course, but when it came to the people in the big houses, the law turned a blind eye. Even if Olivia Sutton had coins, she wouldn’t dare buy from a smuggler.

Livvy heard that on the other side they had oranges, too. She loved oranges, the look of them, the weight of one in your hand, the wonderful scent that broke free as you peeled away the skin. Apples grew at the top of the hill, and she and the other relics were allowed to pick up the ones that fell to the ground, but Livvy longed for oranges. There had been a few in her girlhood, and later, in her working life, as an occasional bonus. Sometimes she craved their tart sweetness so much her belly ached in response.

She took care brewing the precious cup of coffee. When it was ready, she divided it in two. Porter, next door, had run out the day before. With both cups in her hands, she crossed the patch of dirt and gravel to his shack.

He hobbled out to meet her, leaning on a long, knobbled stick, moving as if every step caused him pain. “You look nice today, Mrs. Sutton,” he panted.

She chuckled, and handed him the half cup of coffee. “You’re an old sweet talker, Porter,” she said. “I can guess how I look.”
A rickety bench ran along the side of his shack, built from more Wall remnants. Livvy held Porter’s arm as he struggled to settle onto it. It was cold in the shade of the Wall, and Livvy’s skin prickled with goosebumps. The Wall grew higher every year, and every year its shade devoured more of the village. People complained their vegetables wouldn’t grow, and their fruit trees were dying. Still the Wall rose higher. The complainers achieved nothing but warnings from the Council.

Livvy took a sip of coffee, and closed her eyes at the rich bitterness. “I’m going to miss this,” she said.

“Kind of you to share,” he said.

She opened her eyes and smiled at him. “Don’t mention it.”

Porter seemed to be fading before her eyes. His scalp showed through the few remaining white strands on his head. His eyes were clouded with cataracts, his hands bent and twisted by arthritis. There was a time, her mother had claimed, when there were remedies for arthritis, and cataracts could be taken out. Such things had disappeared before Livvy was born.

Her life, like her mother’s, like Porter’s, like Butch’s, had been lived in the shadow of the Wall. Butch had died on it, putting a foot wrong when he was laying stones at the top, falling to an ugly death on the piled boulders at the foot. There was supposed to be a pension for his widow, but it never materialized.

Livvy had often tried to persuade Butch to find another line of work. He only shrugged. “What else can I do?” he said, every time. “They won’t have me on the Council.” He had laughed at the old joke, the way he laughed at everything. Livvy hadn’t found it funny.

Now she shivered a little, and Porter said, “Let me get my blanket for you.” He moved his stick, and tried to get to his feet.

“No, no,” she said, as he fell back on the bench with a breathless groan. “I’m perfectly fine, Porter. Let’s you and me enjoy this last bit of coffee, and then I’ll see if I can’t walk up the hill. Get some sunshine. Maybe see if there are some apples left.”

“Wish I could escort you,” he said. “These old legs won’t hardly carry me no more.”

“I’m real sorry about that, Porter.”

His shrug reminded her, painfully, of Butch’s. “Doesn’t matter now,” Porter said.

“Of course it matters!”

“Nah. Once a man can’t work, that’s pretty much it.”

“A woman, too.”

“Yeah, that’s right, Mrs. Sutton. That’s right. A woman, too.”

The hill was steep and long, a single, mostly-paved road leading up to the big houses of the Council members. The shade didn’t reach those houses. They rose proudly into the sunshine, their gardens full of flowers, their trees flourishing. Livvy had worked in one of those houses for years, cleaning and taking care of chidren, sometimes cooking. The housekeeper always called her Mrs. Sutton, and she let her take leftovers home to Butch. Sometimes she slipped packets of coffee and sugar into her apron pockets as little treats. Livvy’s favorite days were spent minding the Councilman’s chidren, taking them to the playground or reading to them.

When she couldn’t get down on her knees anymore to scrub floors, the Councilman fired her. It was better than falling from the top of the Wall to break her neck, but not much. It was the end of good things in her life. She didn’t bother asking if she could still come to read to the children. Truth was, if that Councilman met her on the street, he wouldn’t know her, and he sure wouldn’t care whether she wanted to see the little ones. The only good thing was that without a job, she could lend a hand to Porter, who had no one to see him through to his end.

Porter had never married. Livvy had never had a child who lived more than a few months. They made good neighbors.

He drained his cup, closing his eyes as she had done to savor the last drops. “That was good. Thanks.”

She took his cup in her cold fingers, and rose. “You’re welcome. You have something for breakfast?”

“Yeah. I have an egg.”

She raised her brows. “Who brought you an egg?”

“Woman from the church.”

“That was nice of her.”

“Had to listen to her sermon, though.”

Livvy chuckled, and the two cups clinked together. “Pretty bad, was it?”

“Yeah. Seems I ain’t saved, at least not the right way. That really bothers her. Still let me have the egg, though.”

“Do you want me to come over and cook it for you?”

“Naw, I can do it. You go try to get some sun.”

#

Livvy’s knees ached with the cold, but she managed, painfully, to climb the hill to the old school playground. She settled herself onto one of the children’s swings that hung, empty and abandoned, from a rusting steel frame. The sun rose high enough above the Wall that the playground was bright by midday. She put her face up into the sunshine and waited for her aching joints to thaw in its warmth.

The school had closed decades before. There weren’t many children about anymore, so the park was usually empty. She used to love pushing children on the swing, or waiting for them at the bottom of the slide. When she heard the mothers snap with impatience, she wanted to hush them, tell them how fortunate they were to have living children.

She never did it. As Butch said, better to keep your head down and mind your own business. You never knew if the Council was going to take after you. You could lose everything.

She lost everything anyway. First Butch, then her job, then her little house with its trio of tiny graves that never saw the sun.
Oh, and the cat disappeared. Thinking of the silly cat made her eyes sting.

Livvy muttered, “You gotta stop that, Olivia Sutton. Cat would be long dead by now.” She blinked, and shaded her eyes against the glitter of sunlight.

From the playground, she could see miles of the Wall. She was curious to know how much higher it had grown in her lifetime. Butch used to say it was growing three inches a year. That seemed like too much to Livvy, but Butch was usually right about such things. She also had no idea how long it actually was. There had been a boy, when she was young, who swore he’d walked along it for two solid weeks and never reached the end.

Livvy had never been out of the village. She didn’t dare leave, for fear the Council wouldn’t allow her back in.

She pushed with her feet, and the swing rocked gently, forward and back. The Wall loomed below her, many yards thick at the bottom, growing narrower and narrower until it was only a foot or so across at the top. Butch said it used to be steel from top to bottom, one flat plane, but since there was no more steel—those factories had fallen to ruin long ago—now it was an ugly mountain of rocks and dirt and who knew what-all, patched together with cement.

It was protection, the Council said. To keep the people safe. Nobody could recall for sure what they were being protected from, but there were lots of rumors. Thieves. Murderers. Rape gangs. Kidnappers.

Livvy wasn’t sure what to believe. Sometimes she imagined there were just people on the other side, people different from herself, but having their own hopes and dreams and sorrows. She didn’t expect she’d ever find out.

She swung again, her knees and ankles beginning to feel warm at last. She was hungry, and thought of going to the soup kitchen in the church basement, but she was reluctant to leave the sunshine. The church basement smelled of cheap candles and old food, and echoed with hymns and lectures. She wished she could take a bowl of soup back to her shack, and eat it in peace, but they would never allow that. They liked the relics to behave themselves, and act properly grateful.

She was trying to decide whether to go home for a cold sandwich or subject herself to the church ladies when she heard a light step behind her. Stiffly, she twisted her body so she could see who had come into the park.

A little girl was climbing the stairs to the slide. She couldn’t have been more than eight, with a thatch of fair curly hair and good leather shoes that looked as if they fit her well. One of the Councilmen’s children, for sure. Livvy looked around for her minder, but didn’t see anyone. Maybe the girl had escaped to seek a few moments in the sun, just as she had.

Livvy worked her body out of the swing seat, and limped to the foot of the slide. “I’ll catch you,” she told the child.

“Okay!” The girl put her legs over the edge of the rusty steel incline. She was wearing denim pants, and there were rough spots on the slide.

“You might tear your pants,” Livvy warned.

“I know,” the girl said, and pushed off.

Now Livvy knew for sure she was the daughter of a Councilman. No one else could risk their clothes that way. The girl bumped down the slide, its surface no longer smooth enough for real sliding. At the bottom, Livvy put out her hands, though there was really no catching involved. It was nice, though, to touch a child’s firm, warm body. She released her with a pang, remembering all the times she had caught children coming fast down the slide, shrieking with joy, flying into her waiting hands.

She folded her arms. “What’s your name?”

“Pansy.” The girl started for the stairs again.

“Where’s your mama? Or your minder?”

“Mama’s at home. She’s feeling sick.”

“Does she know you’re here?”

Pansy had reached the top of the stairs. She swung her legs over again, but didn’t push off. “No.”

“Shall I walk you home?”

Pansy pushed herself off, and slowly bumped her way to the bottom of the slide. Livvy didn’t try to catch her, or even put out her hands, though she would have liked to touch the child again, to feel youth and energy and warmth through her fingers.

Pansy said, “Did you used to go the school?”

“Yes, until it closed.”

“Why did it close?” Pansy bounced on her toes as if standing still was impossible.

“Doesn’t your mama tell you about that?”

“No.”

“Well.” Livvy turned to look at the faded school buildings, the windows boarded up, the old parking lot cracked and sprouting weeds. “Well, I guess people just lost interest in the school. They let it die.”

“I wish I could go to school.”

“Who’s teaching you to read? To do your arithmetic?”

“Mama. But she doesn’t read very well herself.”

“Oh, I’m real sorry about that, Pansy. I do love reading books.”

The little girl turned up her face, blue eyes sparking with interest. “Do you? Could you teach me?”

“I would, but I don’t have books to use.”

Pansy said, “I have books. I have three of them.”

“That’s nice. What are they called?”

“I don’t know.”

“Ah. You haven’t learned to read at all, then.”

“No.” Pansy sighed, and looked around at the dilapidated play equipment. “Kids used to play here, I think.”

“Yes, they did. I did.”

“You were lucky.”

“In some things.” Livvy looked around, surprised no one had come looking for the child. “I think I should walk you home, Pansy.”

“We could read one of my books!” The little girl bounced on her toes, and her curls shook with enthusiasm.

“If your mama says it’s okay.”

“Mama’s lying down.” Pansy seized Livvy’s hand with her small, strong one. “Come on!” As they started out of the playground, Pansy asked, “What’s your name?”

“Olivia Sutton, but you can call me Livvy.”

Pansy swung Livvy’s hand back and forth, and walked on her toes, as if regular walking didn’t burn enough energy. “Are you old, Livvy? You look really old.”

Livvy laughed, and it felt good. She hadn’t laughed in a while. “I’m pretty old. It’s what happens if you live a long time.”

“Will I be old some day?”

Livvy squeezed the little girl’s hand. “I hope so, Pansy. I do hope so.”

It wasn’t an easy climb, and she struggled to keep up with the child. She was out of breath by the time they reached Pansy’s house, a solid sort of building with two floors and multiple windows, and an iron fence around everything. There was even a garage behind it, its door up, waiting for one of the few remaining automobiles to be parked there.

Pansy led her around to a side gate, and then in through a spacious kitchen with real cupboards and a stove with four burners. It made Livvy sigh with nostalgia. There was an electric coffeepot and an assortment of cups hanging on hooks above it. There was a counter with stools beside it, and a fruit bowl that held three apples and one single, perfect orange.

The sight of the orange made Livvy’s mouth water. She averted her gaze.

Pansy dashed into another room, and came back with a little stack of three slender books. She held them out to Livvy. “Can we read now?”

Livvy cast an uneasy glance around her. “We should get permission from your mama first. She might think I—well, that I came for something else.”

“What?”

Livvy didn’t know how to explain to a child that she was at risk of being accused of theft, or abuse, or whatever offense might occur to someone. Pansy obviously didn’t notice that she and Livvy were different colors. It had been interesting to Livvy that the little girl saw she was old, but not that she was dark. Pansy wouldn’t understand the problem.

“Who are you?”

Livvy started, and whirled to see a young, very thin woman in a white bathrobe standing in the doorway to the kitchen. “Oh! Hello, ma’am,” Livvy said hastily. “I just walked your little girl back from the playground. Didn’t seem like she should be on her own that way.”

The woman put a hand to her throat, holding the lapels of her robe close. She looked frail, and Livvy wondered just how ill she was. “Pansy,” the woman said, in a thready voice. “You weren’t supposed to go out of the yard!”

“Sorry, Mama,” Pansy said, without sincerity. “This is Livvy, and she—”

“Olivia Sutton, ma’am. I used to work two houses down.”

“Oh.” The woman took an uncertain step to one side, as if she couldn’t decide whether to go back upstairs or come into the room and face the situation. “Pansy isn’t supposed to talk to strangers, but—”

“I told you, Mama!” Pansy cried. “This isn’t a stranger. This is Livvy. Livvy’s going to teach me to read.”

#

It was the nicest afternoon Livvy had enjoyed in a very long time. Pansy’s mother, called Sarah, was easily convinced that Livvy was no threat to her house or her child, and retreated to her bedroom. Pansy and Livvy made cheese sandwiches, and Livvy made Pansy carry one up to her mother before they ate. Afterward, she sat down with the little girl and read all three of her books. When she finished, she started again with the first, explaining how the letters worked. Once Pansy could read the title and the first sentence, she seized the book, and galloped up the stairs to show her mother.

Sarah came down once again, still barefoot, but dressed in a blouse and skirt. “Thank you, Olivia,” she said. “Pansy has been longing to learn to read. Let me give you some money.”

“Oh, no, ma’am, thank you, but I don’t want to be paid. I enjoyed myself.”

“Well,” Sarah said, with a vague wave of her hand. “I should give you something. Pansy gets so lonely since I’ve been sick.”

Livvy hesitated. She hadn’t come to the house for anything except to read to Pansy, but the chance was too good to pass up. She hugged herself, and blurted, “Ma’am, if you have any extra coffee . . .?” At Sarah’s surprised look, she said, “I’m down in the sh—the residences, see, and we don’t get coffee too often.”

“Oh!” Sarah said. “Oh, if you want coffee . . .” She pointed at the cupboard above the coffeepot. “Help yourself. As much as you like.” Another wave. “There’s some sugar, too, I think. Cheese. Anything you want, really. Just take it.”

Ten minutes later, Livvy was on her way down the hill, her pockets bulging with things from Sarah’s kitchen. She had a precious pound of coffee, and a half pound of good yellow cheese without a speck of mold. She had two eggs, and best of all, she had the orange from the fruit bowl. The walk took her a long time, downhill being worse than uphill for her knees, but she spent it planning the feast she would prepare for Porter in the morning.

She placed the orange in a saucer, and set it out in imitation of Sarah’s fruit bowl. She hid the coffee behind her kettle, and set the cups ready for the morning. She went to bed early, and slept well, with a tummy full of cheese sandwiches, only waking when the sledgehammers began in the early dawn.

They sounded closer today. She supposed they had discovered another tunnel. The blows rattled her walls, and made the woodstove shimmy on the plank floor.

Muttering instructions to herself, she filled the woodstove and lighted it. She boiled water for coffee, and while it was steeping she peeled the orange into sections, savoring the smell of orange peel. She steamed the eggs in the rest of the water, and when everything was ready, she went across the patch of dirt to Porter’s shack.

She had to wait while he hobbled to the door, and pulled it open. “Mornin’, Porter,” she said.

“Why, Mrs. Sutton,” he said. His voice was rough with sleep. “What brings you here?”

“A feast,” she told him.

It took a bit of persuading, but soon she had Porter in her shack, seated on her only chair, with a cup of fragrant coffee between his shaking hands. She worried he might drop the cup, but he didn’t. He drank it slowly, smiling at her between sips. She sat on her bed as they each ate an egg, then carefully shared out the orange.

At the first taste, Livvy groaned with pleasure. “I haven’t had me an orange in so long.”

“Me neither, Mrs. Sutton. It’s like this is my birthday or something.”

They smiled at each other, two old relics enjoying a good meal. And coffee.

When she had helped Porter back to his shack, Livvy looked up the hill to the playground. She didn’t see anyone there, and she was tired from her climb of the day before. She decided she would rest, though it wasn’t easy with the banging and cracking going on.

The next day, when she had drunk a precious cup of coffee and taken one to Porter, she went out for water and saw someone was in the playground again. It was too far for her to be sure, but she thought it might be Pansy. She took a shawl this time against the cold, and clambered up the steep street.

Pansy ran to meet her. She had her first book with her, the one she had started reading in, and she had an orange in her pocket.
They fell into a routine, Pansy and Livvy, with Sarah’s all-but-invisible support. When the weather was fine, Livvy and Pansy read at one of the picnic tables in the playground. When it was rainy, Livvy labored up the hill, and she and the little girl worked in the warm kitchen. Sarah found more books for her daughter, books she herself could barely read, and Pansy devoured them.

They went on that way for weeks, and it was almost like the old days. Livvy came away each time with cheese or eggs or oranges, sometimes coffee, often apples from beneath the tree in Pansy’s yard. Pansy glowed with enthusiasm. Livvy’s joints eased from being in the warm house so often. Porter flourished, too, in his modest way, with a bit of better food and a cup of coffee each morning.

Then, one afternoon, Livvy looked up from the book in Pansy’s lap and saw a tall blond man staring at the two of them. “What are you doing in my house?” he demanded.

Livvy jumped to her feet, and Pansy did, too, the book falling to the floor. They hadn’t heard the automobile come up the hill. “I’m Olivia Sutton, sir. I—I’m teaching Pansy to read.”

“I’m reading, Papa,” Pansy said in the smallest voice Livvy had heard her use.

“Your mother is teaching you to read,” he said, in a flat voice that made Livvy’s belly tighten, and Pansy shrink against her.

“Sir, Sarah—uh, Miss Sarah—she wasn’t feeling well, and—”

“She’s lazy,” he snapped. “Nobody feels well if they lie in bed all day.”

Livvy made no answer. There was no point. She bent to pick up the book, and laid it softly on the sofa where she and Pansy had been sitting.

Pansy’s papa said, “Did she hire you? Without asking me?”

Livvy had no answer for that, either. She had no way of knowing what Sarah might have spoken to her husband about. She wasn’t hired exactly. She didn’t know what to say, but she could see this was the end.

She tried not to look longingly at the three oranges in the fruit bowl. She didn’t go anywhere near the cupboard where the coffee was kept, or the electric refrigerator where there were always eggs and cheese. She said, “Pansy, I’m gonna have to go now.”

Pansy’s sweet little hand slipped into hers, and squeezed, but she didn’t say a word. Livvy wanted to kiss her, but under her papa’s glare, she didn’t dare. She murmured, “You can read those books to your mama now, Pansy. You know all the words.”

“Sarah can read them for herself,” her father snapped. He stood with his hands in his pockets, watching Livvy walk out the kitchen door as if he was afraid she was going to steal something on her way.

Empty-handed, heavy of heart, Livvy limped her way down the hill to her shack. She didn’t mind so much not bringing back an orange or a couple of eggs. She minded leaving Pansy with a father she was obviously afraid of, and a mother who hadn’t admitted to her husband that she couldn’t teach their daughter to read because she couldn’t read herself.

Porter came out as she crossed the lane. “Good day up the hill, Mrs. Sutton?”

She shook her head. “My little girl’s daddy came home. Wasn’t happy to see me.”

“He didn’t know about you.”

“Guess not.” She trudged toward her door. Her knees had begun to ache in earnest. “I didn’t bring anything this time, Porter. I’m out of coffee, out of cheese—everything. I’m sorry.”

“That don’t matter. You’ve been so generous already. I think I have the fixings for some soup. Would you like some?”

“No, thanks. I’m going to have a lie-down, I think. This is making me sad. My poor little girl.”

“You taught her a lot, I think.”

“I don’t know if it does any good.” She opened her door, and stared into the dim, dusty interior. “It’s not right, Porter. Those people up there with so much. Us down here with nothing.”

“Always things in this world aren’t right, Livvy.”

“Yes. I oughta know that by now.” She lifted her hand to him, and went into her shack.

#

Livvy went to bed without eating anything, though she still had a wedge of dried-out cheese and two slices of bread that weren’t too moldy. She had no appetite. She kept seeing Pansy’s desolate face, and her heart ached all over again. She didn’t know where she would find comfort for this loss. At least when the babies died, she had Butch to hold her, cry with her.

When she fnally fell asleep, it was the thick nightmare-ridden sleep of exhaustion. When the rumbling started, it seemed to be part of her dreams. Not until it got so loud she couldn’t ignore it did she wake fully, sitting up in bed with her quilt clutched to her bosom.

The rumbling grew to a roar. Her shack began to vibrate, then to shake. Gray dust sifted from the ceiling to powder her quilt, her floor, her hair. She scrambled from bed, her painful knees almost giving way. Stiff-legged, she struggled across to her door.
It wouldn’t open, though she shook it and banged on it. Through the dimness, she saw her side walls tilting, pulling loose from the Wall, jiggering her door so it wouldn’t budge.

Rocks began to fall, battering her roof, bouncing against the off-kilter walls. One burst through the growing crack between the shack and the Wall, and rolled across the floor, just missing her bare feet. She thrust her feet into her shoes and began to kick at the door. The noise intensified into a mind-numbing cacophony of falling rocks and cracking wood. She found herself screaming against it, as if her voice could stop the obliteration of her home.

The door finally gave way beneath her kicks. It fell outward, taking the front wall of the shack with it. The side walls, like playing cards in an old stacking game, flared outward and collapsed, shattering into a hundred bits of ancient wood and rusted metal. Livvy made her escape, dashing across the lane with her quilt around her shoulders. When she reached safety, she whirled to gape in horror at the wreck of the shacks.

Hers was flattened, as if a child’s giant foot had stamped it to pieces.

Porter’s had fallen inward.

She shrieked, horrified by the sight. His roof had crashed onto his floor, his side walls collapsed on top of that, and a mound of stones loosened from the Wall had buried the whole mess. Had buried him. People from up and down the lane came running, and frantically tried to lift rocks and planks and bits of old tin, but it was mostly to make themselves feel better, to know they had done all they could. They knew—as Livvy knew—it was too late for Porter.

She sagged to the ground, and pulled her quilt over her head to hide her weeping.

When the sun rose beyond the black bulk of the Wall, an automobile came coasting down the hill, past the playground, past the small houses. It stopped when it reached the lane, where survivors and workers now huddled in the cold, staring at the wreck of the residences. Livvy got to her feet, and turned with the others to watch the Councilman step out of his automobile and stand, hands on hips, surveying the disaster.

It was Pansy’s papa. He looked much as he had the day before, irritated and impatient.

One of the work bosses went up to him, and the two men spoke a few words. Pansy’s father gestured up and down the Wall, and pointed to the section that had collapsed.

Someone said, “At least there’ll be some repair work.”

Someone else said, “Think the Council has any idea why it fell down?”

“New tunnel came through,” someone whispered behind his hand. The whisper was repeated through the crowd.

They fell silent as the Councilman approached them. His lips were pinched. “You people will have to clear out while we get this situation resolved.”

Livvy felt numb with disbelief. Clear out? The relics? She glanced around, but it seemed no one was going to speak. It wasn’t right, and they all knew it. She clutched at her quilt, and stepped forward. “Sir?”

He eyed her without recognition. “What is it?” he snapped.

She felt vulnerable, exposed in her night clothes, but she couldn’t retreat. “Sir, we—the residents—” She couldn’t help emphasizing the word. “We have no place to go.”

“Of course you do,” he said. “Go up to the church. They’ll have cots.”

“Some of these folks can’t climb the hill to the church, sir. They’re gonna need help.”

He blew out an exasperated breath. “Lady, that’s not my problem. My job is to keep this Wall in good repair. To close up the tunnels. To keep everyone safe.”

“Didn’t keep Porter safe,” Livvy muttered, but only to herself. The Councilman was already on the way back to his automobile, his neck stiff with annoyance. In moments he was gone, his auto spinning easily up the steep street.

The repair work began immediately, with the boss shouting orders and men scurrying here and there. Some people from the church arrived to start shepherding the relics up the hill. A few, who would never be able to make the climb, sat right down in the dirt of the lane to wait for whatever would come.

Livvy could make it to the church, but she had no intention of going before they brought Porter out of the wreck. Two workers had already started pounding away at the rubble, rolling stones away when they could, breaking up others, tossing them onto a pile in the lane. Shards of Porter’s few possessions appeared, a saucepan smashed flat, a broom handle in splinters, fragments of a water pitcher. Everything went onto the mound. Most of it would go back into the Wall.

When one of the workers abruptly straightened, calling for the other man to join him, Livvy crossed the lane to see what they had found. The first one caught sight of her. “You should stop there, ma’am. You don’t want to see this.”

His kindness made her eyes sting. “You found him,” she said.

“Friend of yours?”

“Yes. His name was Porter.”

“I’m real sorry, ma’am.”

“Can you tell—” She pressed her fingers to her trembling lips. It was hard to wrench the words from her throat. “Young man, are—are you quite sure he’s dead?”

“Yeah, no doubt about it. If it helps—pretty sure it would have happened fast.”

Livvy shuddered at what it must have been like for poor Porter, the noise, the cracking and crumbling, the full weight of the pitiless Wall crushing out his life. Tears burned her cheeks, and when she put up a hand to brush them away, she remembered she was still in her nightgown, with only her quilt to cover her.

“Ma’am?”

She pulled herself together enough to meet the young man’s sympathetic gaze. He said, “Listen, you can’t stand here like that. How’s about my wife brings you some clothes? Helps you up to the church?”

She could have accepted his offer. She could have accepted the clothes, gone to the church, slept on a cot and listened to sermons.
She glared at the Wall, suddenly furious with the way it had ruled her life. The young man went on talking, but she didn’t hear him. She didn’t see anything but the behemoth of stone and steel and wood, the relics of civilization. She wanted to pound it with her fists, shout it down, smash it with her own stubborn spirit.

Then she saw it. The opening. The mouth of a tunnel gaping behind the wreckage of Porter’s shack. It was littered with scree and the flotsam that jammed the interior of the Wall. It was little more than a crawlspace, dirty and dark and narrow.

But there was light on the other side. It wasn’t much, a window glimpsed at a distance, but it shone with light. Sunshine. It called to Livvy’s heart.

She started toward the opening. The young worker seized her hand. “Lady, you can’t go in there! It’s not safe!”

“Why?” she said, not looking at him, focusing on the tunnel and its promise of light at the other end.

“It could fall in at any moment,” he said.

“I don’t care.”

“Can’t you just wait—my wife—”

She pulled her hand free, gently, and glanced into his kind face. He was as dark as she was, but young—so young. A wife. Maybe a family. His future before him. If he had a future, that is, working on the endless Wall, living in its cruel shadow.

“It’s good of you to worry about an old woman,” she told him. “But I think I’m gonna take my chances.” She started off again, picking her way over the broken bits of Porter’s life. “I really want some sunshine,” she muttered, not even pretending to talk to anyone but herself. “I’m so tired of living in the shade.”

The going was rough. Her old shoes slipped on jagged stones, and broke through rotted bits of wood. She was still in her night clothes. She hadn’t brushed her teeth or combed her hair, but she was on her way.

When she wriggled her way into the opening, the dank smell of old dirt and cold stones met her nostrils. In places she had to suck in her stomach to sidle through. The Wall groaned and cracked around her, threatening to stop her once and for all. She pressed on.

The light ahead grew brighter. Hands were picking at that little window, widening it, pulling away bits of the Wall. Her heart thudded at the thought of the people there, maybe smugglers, possibly the adversaries she had been warned about since her infancy.

“No turning back now, old woman,” she grunted as she squeezed around a chunk of ancient link fencing. “Don’t you chicken out now.”

Above her the Wall grumbled and shifted, trying to hold her in its clutches like some great dragon guarding its lair, coveting its relics, loathe to let even one escape.

A shaft of unimpeded sunlight broke into the tunnel on the far side, and with it a gust of fresh air. Heads joined the hands she had seen, silhouettes against the brilliance. Enemies? Perhaps.

But the real monster was the Wall, and though it began to shake, and rain detritus down on her head, she would not give in. She pushed forward, scraping her knees and shoulders, losing one shoe, kicking off the other to maintain her balance. She was sure she was bleeding in places, but it didn’t matter. One way or another, Olivia Sutton was going to be free.

Did she imagine it, or did the breeze from the other side smell of oranges?

Thoughts while vacuuming

Thoughts while vacuuming, one week after the election of a misogynist xenophobe to the presidency

Cleaning things is how I deal.  So, today, while I ran the machine over the carpets and wriggled the hose past a puppy who thinks everything in the house belongs to him, I wondered why I’m feeling sad.

I really am sad, that pain in the chest, burning in the stomach feeling that comes when something awful has happened. I unfollowed someone who posted a meme laughing at those of us who are grieving the result of this election. That was cathartic, in its way, but I still needed to identify the source of this sorrow.

It’s not just that I wanted a woman president, though I did. It’s not just that I think the president-elect is utterly unsuitable to lead or represent our country, though I do. It goes deeper. And while my humming machine sucked up bits of broken dog toys and stray autumn leaves from the floor, it came to me.

I’m grieving the loss of my belief that a standard of civilization in the United States would prevent this disaster. I was certain the majority of us were too well-informed, too historically aware, too good-hearted to vote in favor of misogyny and xenophobia and racism and prejudice, to say nothing of rampant vulgarity. I’m in pain because a tenet of my faith in my fellow citizens has been proven invalid.

No one laughing at young, passionate people weeping at this loss remains my friend. No one perpetuating this misogynistic culture or these racist views, can be on my list.

When I posted the picture of the 1920s suffragettes in their white dresses, one of my commenters said, “I wouldn’t grab one of them.” Is that vulgarity going to be the new norm? I won’t stand for it.  I can’t avert my gaze and pretend it’s not happening.

I wish I could vacuum up the rage and resentment and fear that drives the people who voted for that man. I wish I could come close to understanding it.  Instead, it fills me with despair.

Four years of this? Wow. I’ll have the cleanest house in the country.

Writing on the Edge

Recently, I heard a choir I’m familiar with, a lovely and accomplished group of sixty or so voices.  The director was new to me, and though the performance was nearly perfect, I was disappointed.  The former conductor—whose performances were never nearly perfect—brought something different to the music, a passion and energy that pushed the choir right to the edge every time.  When I listened to them under that director, I never knew what might happen, musically speaking.  What always happened, without fail, was that I was engaged and moved.  I felt a deep connection to the music and its message, perfection notwithstanding.

I’ve been pondering that, and thinking about how it might relate to writing.  Tastes are vastly different, of course, but for myself, perfection is not the element I seek.  I love beautiful language, but still, I’d rather read something that feels as if it’s pushing the envelope.  I like stories that teeter on the cliff, plots that might go either way.  I like unique characters, the ones who take chances, who surprise me as a reader.

This may be why I love writing villains, real bad boys (and girls), who are capable of all sorts of disturbing actions.  Heroines and heroes are hard, because they tend to be generic.  You expect them to make wise and virtuous choices, to be the sort of person we can all admire.

Villains can be much more fun.  They operate from a different context.  More than one reader has said they hated being in the mind (which is to say, the point of view) of Preston Benedict, the antagonist of my Benedict Hall series.  I loved it!  For me, his scenes were the most fun of all to write.  Antagonists are, in many ways, easy.  They’re already on the edge.

Creating protagonists who are capable of surprising readers is much more difficult.  A likable protagonist with an edge is much to be desired, and not at all simple to achieve.  I’m going to try to remember how affecting the choir was when it was less perfect and more adventurous, and apply that same effect to my fiction.

Publishing as Showbiz

 

In recent days a self-published author has been excoriated for arguing with someone who gave his novel a one-star review online.  The author doesn’t claim the book doesn’t deserve the one-star review; his argument is that it is unfair to him for the reader to have posted it because it could hurt his sales, ruin his life.  Because, come on, this writing thing is hard!

Herein lies the great deception in the many shortcuts to publication now available.  Is the goal to see your name on an Amazon page?  Or is the goal to create something worthy of being seen on an Amazon page or elsewhere?

Before it’s my turn to be excoriated for giving indie authors a hard time, let me say that I’m fully aware, as are lots of folks, that there are some good ones who are succeeding brilliantly at publishing their own work.  They have created something that appeals to readers enough that they will spend money on it.  Some have even created a solid revenue stream.  They have no doubt worked really hard at that, because writing something good is not easy.  It takes perseverance, discipline, study, ambition, and talent.

It takes talent.  Talent is something that is scattered unequally over the population.  In itself, it is no guarantee of success, but without it, success can be all but impossible to attain.  Edison said success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, but as others have pointed out since the Wizard of Menlo Park spoke, without the 1%, the 99% is wasted.

A nice singer I worked with tried out for the New York Yankees before turning to music.  He said to me once that baseball had been kinder to him than singing had, by which he meant, he learned early that he didn’t have the talent for a career in baseball.  It took longer for him to learn that he didn’t have enough talent for a big career in music.  (Of course, then we have to define success, which is fodder for another discussion entirely.)

Baseball is, in its own way, a form of showbiz, and many yearn to be professional ballplayers who end up disappointed.  Many people long to be movie stars, too.  Only a few will make it, but for some reason that doesn’t surprise so many people.  We understand the showbiz effect, that strange system that makes Tom Cruise is a huge star and someone better looking and more talented only moderately famous.  (Greg Kinnear, not that I’m naming names . . .)  That’s showbiz, and we get it.  Baseball, ballet, sculpting, newscasting—all of these have elements of showbiz.

So does writing.

What bothers me about the anecdote I started with, a writer complaining to a reviewer that it was unfair to negatively review his work, is the sense of entitlement the writer evidently possesses.  That entitlement is not justified.  Publishing is hard, as is every creative field—or perhaps I should say, every field.  There are no guarantees of fame and money, no matter how hard you’ve tried.

We all know plenty of fine writers who work day jobs because their excellent novels and short stories don’t earn them a living.  Are they failures?  I don’t think so, because they’re doing what they love.  Are they justified in whining about that?  Nope.  And they don’t do it, either.

We can’t know ahead of time whose work will catch the zeitgeist and whose won’t.  Despite what lots of books about writing try to claim, no one knows what the next bestseller will be, just as no one knows what actress will turn out to be a top draw at the box office when another one doesn’t.

I have a hard-and-fast rule that applies here.  I learned it in my first career, and it is this:  Never, never respond to the press.  Even the amateur press.  Suck it up, know that everyone gets the occasional bad review, and move on.

In the meantime, as I’ve said to many students, let this one go and go write something new.  Try to write better with each new project.  Everything we publish is a tryout, in a way.  An audition.  And when you audition, you take your chances.

The great 19th century contralto Elisabeth Schumann-Heink said, “To be a singer you must have the voice of a nightingale, the brain of an Einstein, and the hide of a rhinoceros.” It’s true for all of us who put our work out into the public eye.  We are performing artists.  It’s our job to entertain the public, and the public owes us nothing.  We have to earn it.