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THE SECRET CITY
By CAROL EMSHWILLER
Tachyon Publications Copyright © 2007 Carol Emshwiller
All right reserved.
Chapter One LORPAS
Lost. It's what I want and wish I was again. Home is ... used to be ... wherever I was. Wherever I put down my folding cup, wrung out my cap, turned it inside out and used it for a pillow. But that was yesterday.
When I was discovered, I panicked. They woke me out of a sound sleep. I fought. First without thinking at all, and then because they could be muggers, and after that, when I saw they were policemen, I knew I might be kept in one place and have to stay with the natives for longer than I could stand. Someplace with nothing but a little square of sky. And that's exactly how it is.
They gagged me with a dirty rag. I suppose I was yelling. They tied my hands behind my back. I couldn't get a handkerchief for my bloody nose. They let me bleed all over my shirt.
I did do damage. I don't know how much but they had bloody noses, too. Maybe a few black eyes.
They washed me, shaved me including my head. I suppose they were worried about lice. I had a mustache. That's gone. I hardly know myself. They did all this with my hands tied behind my back. I calmed myself with breathing. I tried to imagine a sky instead of a ceiling.
I should be glad for the chance to rest, I haven't stopped traveling-not even for a day, but still I long to be moving. They took, not just the laces, but my shoes. I had addedtwo extra heels on one for my bad foot. Even though they're worn out, I'm lost without those particular shoes. That's not the kind of lost I like to be.
I think I'm the last, though I keep hoping there's others of us hiding out somewhere. Mountains would be the most logical place. I was headed there. Mother and Dad implanted their own beacons under our arms, but did all the parents do that and was it the same lumpy red spot for all? And how could I ask somebody, "Lift your arms and let me peer into your armpits?" Even at the beach, I seldom see under anybody's arm. I suppose that's why they put it there in the first place.
I blend in. I never do anything that they wouldn't do. I presume we all do that.
We hoped for rescue. We waited. At least Mother did. She never belonged. She was never comfortable here. Most of those of her generation waited and kept on acting as tourists until the money ran out. They thought that would be the best way to survive here until rescue. Unfortunately there was no central location. Now the old ones are all dead and most of the younger ones I knew are spread out, who knows where?
I no longer hope. Actually I never really did. I played Mother's game in front of her ... the game of wanting more than what we had here-Mother said we were rich back there-but I knew no other life. Actually no other life than poverty. I was used to it. As long as we had enough to eat, I was happy. Besides, I was born here. This is my land. I never look out at it without a thrill. Even as a child I secretly relished this world. I wondered if Id have to leave if we ever were rescued. Would Mother insist that I go back with her?
Mother said, "We may look more or less like them, but were not them and don't you ever forget it." She said, "Keep wandering, wear tourist's clothes and carry tourist things." She said, "Just keep waiting. Don't use the freeze, but don't let it die. Don't marry one of them. If you don't marry one of us, it surely will."
I waited. I didn't marry. Now I fear there are no more of us left to marry, though one can't be sure, we were spread all over. And who knows, maybe in some mountain range, some of us might have lasted disguised as campers. There's the rumor of a secret city. I was on my way to try and find it.
They called themselves tourists. Our parents just wanted to see this place for a little while. It was a class in understanding aliens. Mother was one of the guides but empathy was hard for her. She tried but she always hated the natives. "Homo sapiens sapiens," she'd say with a sneer. "Sapiens. That's what they think. They took two sapiens for themselves, for heaven's sake."
I could never see that much difference, us or them.
Had I known wed never be rescued, Id have mated with one of them in spite of Mother's warnings. She was sure I'd reveal myself in a fit of anger, but I don't think so. (Though considering what I just did, maybe I would have if woken up suddenly.) I could have had a normal native life. But could I have asked one of them to follow me, a limping bum in a baseball cap and a flowery Hawaiian shirt, with camera, field glasses? Never lost but always lost? (Though I'd have settled down if I'd married. There must be some way to get an identity and then a decent job.)
After my parents knew we were abandoned here, they went from job to job. Nobody ever got to know us nor we them. Mother didn't want us to know the natives. She didn't want us contaminated. She said we were born for better things than houses with pictures on the walls and malls and coffee shops and grocery stores-better things than little plots of land with flowers in them.... Trouble was, that's all we younger ones knew.
At first my family lived in a camper but then had to sell it. Our father got a broken-down pickup truck and a tent and we went from place to place. My parents looked at everything with the same interest they'd had in the beginning, and often laughed at the natives ways, but they always felt set apart. They didn't want to join this world. They home-schooled us so that we knew more about a distant world and its wars and landmasses than we knew of this one.
I tell the police my name is North. Norman North. At the time I was looking out the slit of a window that faces North. I don't have papers. I don't know how to get any. I don't ever say my real name. I haven't said it in so long Id have a hard time pronouncing it. My fingerprints are probably in the network, but not for any crime and not, until now, for any violence. I don't know what came over me. I may be too old for this kind of life.
"What were you doing sleeping in somebody's back yard? Don't you have anyplace to go?"
They're sorry they hit me so hard but, after all, I was hitting them.
"You scared an old lady half to death with your snoring. She thought you were a bear."
I know I look more like a bum than I used to: faded flowery shirt, tan ... used to be tan pants, used to be fancy shoes with raised heel on left foot.
"Do you have a place to live?
"I want to get up into the mountains."
"Do you have a place to go there?"
"I know people camping up there."
"Family. More of us North's."
"You don't have any camping gear. And look at your shoes. You'll need boots."
And so forth.
I ask, "Am I in for vagrancy?"
"We're going to keep you for a day or two."
When I say, "But I'm a tourist," they laugh.
They not only don't believe me, they don't trust me either. They've left the handcuffs on all this time. I don't blame them. One of the policemen who talks to me has a swollen jaw. I'm lucky he didn't try to get even as they questioned me.
Finally they take off the handcuffs and leave me be. I curl up on the bench. There's a dirty blanket. I wrap up in it anyway.
I think of our kind of music. My mother's songs in the homeworld language when she sang me to sleep. What little I knew of my language I've forgotten except for the words she made us memorize from the beginning. Our very first words. I still remember what they mean: "We are the people. We are the tourists left here in hundred eighty-nine. Take me home."
At first we tried to stay in our travel groups, but that got to be too hard when the money ran out and each had a different idea of what the proper thing to do was. That was in the early days. My sister and I were toddlers. If stuck, as we are here, with no other mate, I was supposed to mate with my sister. But she was taken as a mate long ago by one of our others. Mother thought that was best, and that I should find myself another from one of our groups.
So now I sing. Hum. Remember my dead. Wonder if my sister's still alive. I ask for paper and pencil. They say, yes, I wait, but they don't bring any. I suppose I don't deserve it anymore than I deserve better meals.
After a day or two locked up for vagrancy, I'm usually taken to the edge of town and watched as I walk away, but this time I'm kept. I suppose I'm considered dangerous. I find a place on the side of the bench to scratch off the days. I'll have to use my fingernails.
I wonder if my camera, jacket and cap, and my extra shirt are still under that bush on the edge of town or have they brought all that here? If I behave myself will I get them back when ... if, that is, they let me go?
For somebody always on the move, staying still four days is more than I can stand. I always walk as fast as my bad foot allows. Here, I walk to and fro all day. I didn't at first. I lay on the bench until I realized that wasn't doing anything for my depression. Not that depression isn't my usual state. Moving makes me feel like myself. Being a tourist has become my nature.
I yearn for the mountains, not for themselves or their beauty, though that, too, but for the high hidden valleys where you could hide a whole town. (Some say Vilcabamba was never found.) My people would pick a beautiful spot. They loved how beautiful this land was. Before they knew they were stranded here, they talked of wanting to stay forever.
I'm going to get out of jail by any way I can though can I still freeze if I never practiced? Considering none of us were ever allowed to freeze a creature of any sort, I doubt if we could anymore. Our parents always told us we should die before we revealed ourselves because that was a promise they had made before they signed on for the trip. Yet it seems to me some of the creatures here have that same talent.
But we hardly need it. Here on this world with less gravity, we're stronger. I wonder how many I fought that night? I almost won. So far I haven't needed our "save yourself" talent.
There's one of the guards more sympathetic than the others. He shared his sandwich and his coffee with me.
His name is Smith so they call him Jones and Jonesy. I like their sense of play. I call, "Jonesy."
"You think I've got nothing to do but talk to you? I got paperwork up to here."
"I could help if I had some paper."
"I don't think the chief would want me to give you any. You might kill yourself with the pencil. You rest up. You need to put on a little fat."
An odd thing to say. I'm a wide, heavy man, all my people are, but I guess I look like a too-thin wide heavy man.
"Are they ever going to let me out? You must admit the food isn't the greatest."
"You gave six men a hard time. Now how did you do that?"
"But I didn't win. I'm here aren't I?"
"Were you a boxer? You look like you lift weights."
What to say? I haven't ever been anything.
"Something like that."
"Try to hold out for another day or two. How about I bring you fried chicken?"
So I wait. I pace. Four steps one way, four steps the other. I imagine weeds-rabbitbrush in bloom, bright yellow along the edge of road. That's how it was last I walked. I mark off another day. Jonesy must have said something because the food gets better.
At night everything is lit up bright as day. Another reason to get out of here. Plus there are mice. Bold as could be. I try not to spill anything but they're here anyway. If I did have paper or a book they'd be chewing on that.
The three Fs: Flight, Fight, or Freeze. I hold one of the mice in my stare. He doesn't move. I count to twenty, then I let him go. Or maybe he held me and let me go. Or maybe we just stared at each other, one creature to another, and then decided that was enough.
I'm to go in front of a judge for assault and vagrancy and goodness knows what else. Finally, Jonesy takes me for a shower. (I've been washing in a basin for five days.) He sits at the door. I want out of here before they dress me in a red jumpsuit and take me off to a bigger, better prison. This is about the biggest jail I can stand.
I washed my flowery shirt and chinos, and I have my shoes back. The day of my trial there's only three men to help me into the van. I won't need to test the freeze. My strength is why I've never needed to try it.
I lock them in the van, drive a couple of blocks, turn off on a side street and ditch the van. I walk a few blocks and hotwire a car. Drive two blocks and pick up another. Walk again. It wont take the owners long to find them.
I'm heading for the place where they first found me. I want to see if they left any of my things there. Its on the edge of town and on the road towards the mountains. Not hard to find. It's a messy place, that's why I chose it. And next door to other messy places. The house needs paint (as the neighboring houses do) and the porch roof is about to fall down. Best of all there's a big yard full of bushes and weeds-rabbitbrush, black brush, baby tumbleweed, and the big bushy good smelling sage that I slept under. If only I didn't snore like a bear.
I go straight to the sage and check under it. My red jacket with the white stripe along the sleeves is gone and my extra shirt. My little kit with comb and razor, gone. Why didn't they give it back to me in jail? I'll look a mess without it.
I crawl out from under and stand up. I hear a sharp intake of breath. The old woman I scared ... I presume it's the same one ... is on the porch looking right at me.
I wonder that she's outside in this heat-someone as old as she looks to be should be inside keeping cool. I can see a swamp cooler on her roof but its not running.
She sits back down with a plop and then sags over as if in a faint. I should see if she's all right. I should urge her to go inside. But I don't want to scare her again. Of course my head is shaved and my little black mustache gone. Even if she had seen me hauled away she wouldn't recognize me, but I'd scare her even so. Maybe all the more with this shaved head.
I go up to the porch slowly. I can think of some excuse. I could pretend to be selling some religion or other. They're all into religion, especially out in the country, maybe especially those of her age.
I go up the porch steps. I say, "Madam?" but I know that's wrong for around here. I say, "Misses?" Then (oh yes), Ma'am. "Ma'am? Are you all right?"
She isn't. I come closer. I touch her shoulder. Gentle as my touch is, she collapses all the way down. I catch her before she hits the floor. I feel her pulse. I lean to feel her breath. She's alive.
I pick her up and carry her inside. She's small and light, even for one of them. Hunched over from osteoporosis. It's a wonder she didn't break something from her fall. Lucky it was more of a sagging down slowly.
I put her on the couch. The cushion is already lying sideways with a head shaped dent as if she had been napping there not so long ago.
I start the cooler. Then I look for the kitchen so as to find a towel to wet. I also get her a glass of water. Then it occurs to me that maybe I shouldn't wake her up just yet. I put the water beside her and the wet cloth on her head. Then I go to look around. I need men's clothes. And a razor.
The house is much nicer inside than I expected. Not clean, but nice things. And, in the kitchen, all the latest appliances. No sign of a man, though. If a man had been here that first time she'd not have been so frightened and it would have been the man who found me. Come out with a rifle, no doubt, and shot me on the spot.
Still there might have been a husband. She may have men's clothes. Sometimes they keep everything, though sometimes they get rid of everything in a hurry before they have a chance to think. Mother was like that. She got rid of all there was of Dad (not much) and then was sorry later. As was I.
The bedroom is small and cramped, the bed unmade. I suppose she doesn't have much energy for cleaning anymore. There's the picture of a man on the dresser but no men's clothes. She must be one who threw away all her husbands things right away. But when I check more carefully, I find a mans workshirt in with her things. She's probably been wearing it herself.
It's a blue farmer's shirt. I take off my flowery shirt and put on the farmer's shirt. The buttons are a little stressed across my barrel chest and the sleeves are a little short but I roll them up so it doesn't matter. It's so old it'll tear easily.
In the bathroom I find several pink ladies razors. I put a few in my pocket.
As I come back to check on the old lady, I see a man's jacket hanging by the front door. Frayed corduroy, out at the elbows. I've hardly seen a uglier one. Has she been wearing that, too?
Excerpted from THE SECRET CITY by CAROL EMSHWILLER Copyright © 2007 by Carol Emshwiller. Excerpted by permission.
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