Last Night in Nuevos Angeles

The beach that night was noisy and drowning in the billboards’ neon glare. Makoto and his friends arrived first; Willow arrived alone.

“Where’s Padma?” I asked, catching the burger box she tossed my way.

“Stuck at work. She texted from the print shop – a big job came in and she has to stay late.”

“What kind of job?”

Willow shrugged. “She doesn’t tell me that stuff. She just said she’d get here when she could.”

We set up the tiny grill on a patch of undesirable, rocky beach, the only area where we could get more than ten feet from the nearest cluster of teenage boys taking shots of their older brothers’ moonshine. Out here, the glare from the billboards wasn’t so irritating; if you turned your back on them and looked out to sea, you could see the vibrant flashing lights illuminating the waves and the sunken glassy spires of Old LA.

“Carmen? You want a burger?” Willow held out a napkin-wrapped burger. “Makoto forgot the buns.”

“Thanks. Hey, have you heard from Padma?”

“Nope.”

“She must be really busy.” Padma was vocal about her inconveniences: the group chat we all hung out in was flooded by funny and often wildly inappropriate images whenever Padma was stuck on a crowded train, kept late by work, or irritated by the latest political news.

“I’ll send her a pic of that sunset,” Willow decided, raising her phone. “Maybe that’ll inspire her to hustle.”

The sunset was pretty spectacular – gold and fuschia clouds gleaming under the cool white and blue flashes of the billboards – but Padma’s absence was nagging at me. Something felt wrong.

Under the pretext of taking my own photo, I checked the other group chat, the secure one Padma and I were in.

The feed wouldn’t open.

I tried to stay calm. Reception got spotty out here, especially on crowded nights like this. There were plenty of harmless reasons for the chat go down.

“Oh, Olivia’s here!” Willow jogged away, leaving me gripping my phone and the rapidly cooling burger I could not stomach. I set it down on the shell of a rusted-out car.

The feed finally refreshed. A single message from Padma appeared, almost two hours old.

It was a single skull icon.

With shaking fingers, I powered down my phone and pried it apart. The casing would go unnoticed among all the other litter on this beach; the card I’d have to destroy and dispose of somewhere safer. I scooped up a couple large rocks and threw them out into the darkening waves, one at a time, so it wouldn’t look suspicious when I hurled my phone, too, so far that it almost struck one of the old skyscrapers. The nearby boys kept hollering, oblivious.

The single skull was a relief, but that relief was a well of hot shame. Two skulls would have meant our whole group was compromised; three would have meant that most of us had probably already been taken or killed, and whoever was left to see those skulls should run.

One skull meant one agent down: Padma. She’d had enough time to erase her tracks and protect the rest of us, then signed off with that single skull.

The waves around me were washed in red as a new message appeared on the billboards.

“Carmen!” Willow was pale, her hand shaking as she pointed up at the huge screens. Padma’s defiant face smirked down at us from the glowing red arrest notice.

“Terrorist? Anti-capitalist? Padma?” Willow stared, horrified, at the announcement. “I know she had her opinions, but…”

Everyone hated the skyrocketing costs and labor abuses that markets and governments permitted worldwide, but Padma did something about it: she’d run materials for activist groups after-hours at the print shop. And if “terrorism” included protesting the collapse of a state-run apartment tower by shattering a Nuevos Angeles billboard with shoddy rebar from the wreckage, Padma and I were both terrorists. She remained full of love and hope; I was amazed at her mountainous courage.

And she’d given herself up so the rest of the agents could be safe.

Willow was crying; everyone else looked stunned. They’d never know the risks Padma had taken to defend them.

It was never about keeping our network safe, I realized – it was about protecting everyone else, even the ones who’d never know it.

I picked up another rock. “She wasn’t alone.”

I took three steps closer to the billboard, brought my arm back, and let fly.

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The Hudson’s Bay Company Siege

“Esther.”

She startled awake, grasping for her rifle in the dark, but Amos’s gentle hand steadied her. She exhaled slowly. Within her alarmingly large belly, the baby shifted. Esther laid a soothing hand over her stomach, though she herself wasn’t feeling very reassured. They were still sitting on their cabin’s front porch, keeping watch from the hand-hewn chairs they’d brought from the kitchen. She could barely see her husband’s profile against the night sky. They didn’t dare light a lantern, not until they knew what they were facing, but she could see he had his rifle at the ready.

“See something?” she whispered.

“Not sure.”

She leaned forward, peering into the night beyond the planks that enclosed their porch. She had recently turned forty, and her eyesight already left much to be desired. Add in her nearly full-term pregnancy, lingering summer fever, the stress of having been dragged from their home three days earlier by Hudson’s Bay Company men, and the worry over their eight children staying with friends across the Columbia, and she could see just about whatever nightmare came to mind in the silent blackness of their farm.

She’d been surprised the cabin was still standing when they returned – in the past, the HBC would have just burned it down. After all, this wasn’t the first time she and her family had been loaded into a boat at gunpoint and sent across the river by the land-hungry British. But maybe the Company had realized that tactic wasn’t working and decided to try something more permanent.

Esther wasn’t going to let that happen. She’d come here, sick, pregnant, and exhausted, to ensure her children had a home – and family – to return to.

“Amos Short!” The shout rang out from the darkness. Esther seized her rifle. Amos crouched behind the porch wall, sighting into the darkness toward the voice.

“Amos Short, this is the Company. You are trespassing on British land. Come out of your house with your hands up.”

“Think they want me, too?” Esther grumbled.

“They know you’re not worth the hassle,” he whispered teasingly.

A gunshot shattered the relative calm and sent birds shrieking out of the trees. “That’s your only warning!” the voice shouted from the dark. Esther peered over the edge of the wall. She could see lamps and torches flaring to life in a circle thirty paces from the house. The cabin was surrounded.

“You know it’s just the two of us, right?” she hollered. “Didn’t need to send the whole barracks!” There was enough torchlight now for her to see faint shadows dancing on the wall of their cabin – and the grim fury on her husband’s face. “Unless, of course, you’ve heard how good a shot my husband is…”

“Come on out now!” the man shouted. They were close enough now that Esther could hear their footsteps. She glanced at Amos, wondering if he had a plan –

“Company, aim!”

Esther froze, wondering if she’d heard right. Surely they hadn’t come here to kill them – they were just here to arrest them, or send them back across the river, or simply hold them while they burned down the cabin and made them watch –

But before the rest of the Company men could even bring their guns to bear, Amos was back at the wall, rifle poised. He fired.

Esther sat with her back against the porch wall and listened to the chaos while Amos reloaded. The Company men were shouting and, if the shadows on their cabin were any indication, panicking – but no one returned fire.

One voice raised above the others. “He’s dead! Short shot him in the head!”

The shouting died away to whispers. Amos finished reloading, but stayed crouched behind the wall. Esther gripped her own rifle, ready to heave herself up. There were enough men milling around out there, she was sure to hit at least one of them.

But the whispering faded, and the torchlight dimmed. She peeked around the wall.

The farm was dark again. There was no sign anyone had ever been there.

She sank back down against the wall, sighing with relief. “Nice shot, dear.”

“Didn’t really want to kill him. There were so many, though –”

“It was us or them,” she said firmly. “This is our land now, and that’s how they chose to deal with us.”

“Think there’ll be more trouble?”

“Oh, certainly.” She stood slowly. “But I think it’s safe to take the rest of tonight off.”

Adrift

It was the worst August Esther could remember. Not even the final leg of their journey to Vancouver two years ago had been as terrible as this.

Although, she reflected as she massaged her absurdly huge belly, she had been approximately this pregnant then. Besides, here they had clean water, shelter, and plenty of food. True, all eight children and herself were ill, but it beat having to walk fifteen miles a day. At least Amos was well enough to journey to Oregon City for medicine.

In the other room, Samantha was coughing again. Esther levered herself out of her rocking chair and wiped the sweat from her forehead. The clay pitcher was nearly empty – she’d have to go for more water soon. Maybe Curtis was well enough for that task…

The pounding on the door set her heart racing.

“Missus Short! It’s the Company. Open up.”

She froze. They weren’t supposed to be here – the neighbors were supposed to be keeping watch –

Then she remembered how Samantha had been playing with their daughter, how she, too, had been coughing…

“Missus Short, we will break down this door if we have to!”

She set down the pitcher with a trembling hand. Fine. She was on her own.

She opened the door with as wide and supercilious a smile as she could muster. “And what brings the HBC to my home today?”

The group of men before her seemed to tilt and she dug her nails into the soft wood of the doorjamb. The blood pounded in her ears and the only thing that kept her upright was the thought of what these cretins might do to her children should she pass out.

“I think you know, ma’am.” The leader hefted his shotgun. Belatedly, Esther realized they were all armed. Good thing her illness-clouded senses hadn’t even allowed her to think of grabbing her own gun. She was a good shot, but not that good. Plus, what a mess…

“Something humorous, ma’am?”

The group tilted again and the edges of her vision darkened. In her mind, Esther frantically cycled through the names of her children until the world righted itself. “Not remotely.”

“Then if you’ll come with us, please.”

[]

“Mama?”

Esther blinked, trying to focus. They were in a boat. The boat was in the river. Drusilla was vomiting into the river. Curtis was holding a lone oar. Alfred and Aubrey were crying. So was Grant, his tiny face flushed, his eyes glassy.

She looked back. No smoke over the treeline…at least they hadn’t burned the cabin this time.

“Jerusha.” Her voice came out a low growl. “Hold Grant.”

The boat rocked as her eldest daughter took him. Esther’s head spun afresh but she gritted her teeth and held out a hand to Curtis. “Give me that oar. You lose the other one?”

“They only gave us the one.”

“All right.” She settled onto her knees and fixed her eyes on the shore. “Row with your hands, then.”

He didn’t protest, just rolled up his sleeves.

“Drusilla?”

Tears striped her feverish cheeks and her dress was ruined, but her expression was steely. “Sit up front,” Esther instructed. “Make sure we don’t hit anything.”

“Yes, Mama.”

By the time the boat scraped the pebbled shore on the Oregon side of the river, the sun was setting. Esther’s arms ached and trembled, and she could feel something dreadfully similar to contractions. Curtis’s arms were blotchy from the cold river. Even steadfast Drusilla was crying. Esther braced herself on the prow of the beached boat, willing the baby to just wait a little longer, trying to come up with a plan.

“Esther!”

The shout was so faint, she thought she’d hallucinated it. But as she slowly stood, she saw him: Amos, God bless him, running down the beach toward them.

He caught Esther and every child he could reach in a hug. “Traveling doctor saw you,” he gasped. “Are you all right?”

“I’m mad as hell, Amos,” she whispered.

“I know, darlin’.” He kissed clammy forehead. “They won’t take our land. The Griffiths offered to host us for a week or so to recuperate. After that –”

“The children can stay.” She met his eyes. “They need the rest. Me, I’m going back tomorrow.”

“Mama, the baby!” Jerusha protested.

“Baby’ll be fine. If they burn the cabin again…if they think for even a moment they’ve won…”

Amos studied her for a long while. “Damn, but I do love you, Esther. Tomorrow, then.”

Esther’s Visitor

The clatter of pottery shattering into a basin brought Esther running from the parlor.

“Aubrey, I swear, if you’ve broke another mug…”

Her anger evaporated when she realized Aubrey was staring at something out the window.

“Mama,” the girl whispered, “there’s a man out there.”

Esther squinted through the leaded glass. Standing just inside her gate was a huge man with a bushy black beard. His horse was tied up beyond the fence, and he was holding his hat in his hands.

Sure. She’d seen that trick before.

“Stay here. If there’s trouble, go get Curtis.”

And she took shotgun from over the door, tossed her graying black braid over her shoulder, and went to meet the stranger.

Continue reading

‘Til Next Time

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For me, Hood River is a fairyland. It only exists in summertime, when the sun coaxes fruit from the earth. After loading the car with September peaches, we depart, leaving the verdant orchards’ arching naves and the sunlit mountain until next season.

If We Were Having Coffee

Jamie at Perpetual Page-Turner posted recently as if she were chatting with someone, in person, face-to-face, at a coffee shop.  I’m just enough of an extrovert to be really really glad we have weekly game nights with our friends, and I know this blog has been, uh, quiet lately, so a faux chat over coffee is just what the doctor ordered.

So hello! Let’s chat.

If we were having coffee, I’d tell you that Friday will be my last day at my job! I have two reasons for moving on, one being my tendonitis.

It is not improving, and this job requires me to be typing and using a mouse all day. Even with an ergonomic keyboard and mouse, by the end of the day, my wrists are swollen and sore. Recently it got so painful that I couldn’t even pet River, and I broke down completely.  Kevin held me until I’d cried out all the frustrations of the last six months (six, that alone makes me want to cry again) of pain and uselessness and finally just said, “Put in your two weeks.”

It was a lightbulb moment.  We had always been planning that someday I would work from home and write – that would be reason #2 – it’s just that “someday” came up a little sooner than we’d planned.

But I honestly don’t think I’d ever heal if I stayed at that job, and I’d be stuck in a cycle of under-productivity and self-loathing for God knows how many more months. Now, I can use my dictation software all day, and I’ll finally be doing what I’ve always wanted to do with my life. I can devote more time to my church job. River won’t be alone all the time. I can finally finish my books!

If we were having coffee, I’d tell you I’m pumped up and optimistic after a writing conference I attended this weekend. It made me feel brave and capable and yeah, naive, because it will never be as easy as I’m imagining it to be, but no matter what, Friday is my last day.  After that, all I’ll have are whatever words come out of me.  So maybe I’m a little nervous, too.  Just a little.

I would also tell you that I have a secret, deeply-rooted terror of never healing. People keep reassuring me that tendonitis takes a while to heal, and I think “of course this can’t last forever,” followed immediately by “oh god what if it does.

But it can’t.  Right?

And someday I’ll get published.  Right?

Right.

(I’ve also been thinking about having faith vs. being in denial of your circumstances but that’s probably not coffee shop conversation.)

If we were having coffee, I’d probably admit that I’ve been devouring “Bone.” I’d read the first few issues back when they were published in Disney Adventure magazine, and now I’m discovering that the story is so much vaster and even more shamelessly fun than I’d imagined. I’m also making my way slowly through “The World Treasury of Science Fiction,” which has stories from the dawn of science fiction in the 30s and from several countries around the world. I’m also reading “Cleopatra: A Life,” which is very interesting so far, especially because it gives cultural context to the Greek/Egyptian/Roman madhouse that was her era. Her family makes the Borgias look tame. How about you, what are you reading?

If we were having coffee, I’d tell you that River is doing great. She knows a few commands now, although she still gets “sit” and “lie down” confused. She even did them when my in-laws visited! We will have had her for one year this coming Sunday and she is scared of approximately 60% fewer things! She’s met other dogs and a puppy and lots of people, stayed with my mom, gone to (and been terrified of) the beach, been dog-sat, and discovered the deliciousness of scrambled eggs.  Do you have pets? How are they doing?

Thanks for chatting! Let’s do this again sometime.

Links Lundi

Joyce Carol Oates shares her top 10 writing tips.

Via Brittneigh: a story of a woman who turned in her rapist.  So many times, the survivors are telling their stories months or years afterward, and they never reported what happened to them.  As hard as that article was to read, I’m grateful she had the strength – and the support network – to pursue justice.

Jennifer Lawrence continues to avoid being a prim and proper starlet.  (Scroll down for the “Catching Fire” trailer!)

Here’s what the perfect women’s magazine would look like.  For example, in the hypothetical celebrity section, a caption for a photo of Megan Fox: “[She] emerges from a local bar, looking for all the world like she’s had an exhaustive argument about the Israel-Palestine conflict and eventually ducked out because she was getting shouted over by some bigot who didn’t even know anything about West Bank settlements”

Remember how JK Rowling turned out to be Robert Galbraith, author of the acclaimed new thriller “The Cuckoo’s Calling?” Here’s the original cover:

 

And here’s the cover they started using after Rowling’s pseudonym was revealed:

Because women don’t read crime fiction?  Men won’t read JK Rowling in public?  Your guess is as good as mine.  Coverflip explores just how gendered book covers can be – maybe this is another one to add to the list.