|Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
|5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.40(d)
|14 - 18 Years
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They say that there was a big bang when the world began. When a whole lot of nothing exploded into everything. Some say that it was the one true god speaking, commanding the light and the water and the earth to all be. The end, from what I've read, doesn't seem too different. The sun will go supernova. Loud and violent. Or maybe, they say, it will be trumpets blown by angels made out of wings and eyes and wheels. Roars of beasts and leviathans. But that's all a lie. First of all, there isn't only one god. There are two sisters — Life and Death — and their Mother, who presides over everything else. And the Sisters like to gamble against each other with things like time and space and human lives. And when our world ended and their game began, it was silent and smothering as the grave.
I was six years old.
On April 14, 1935: Black Sunday, the dust rolled over the whole Oklahoma Panhandle, black and boiling, a thousand feet high, filling the sky and our eyes and our mouths and our lungs. Darkness. Suffocation. But what I remembered most was the silence, as though some divine power was watching us, holding its breath, waiting for our first moves. We had no way of knowing then that They were.
We crept out of our shelters, those of us who had found shelter, and what we saw terrified us. Our fields were gone, our farms were gone, and in their places was nothing but desert, gray dunes stretching over miles immeasurable. A still, waterless sea with only our town standing in the center. The dunes broke into ridges, canyons, cliffs we had never seen before, and among them lay the pieces of what had been. Cars lay covered; headstones were buried; cattle and horses lay dead, their lungs and stomachs filled with mud, and strange new creatures watched us from behind the dunes.
Some of us went out into it, to go to Boise City and see if they'd weathered the storm all right. But what we found was that there was no Boise City. No Dalhart, no Kenton or Felt or Texhoma. No sign even of the XIT Ranch that had spanned miles and miles in its own right. They were all simply gone, without the slightest trace that they'd ever been. And if you kept walking, even in the straightest of lines, somehow, you'd find yourself back where you started again. This world wasn't right; it wasn't natural. Now creatures like fire coyotes and carnivorous hordes of locusts roamed the desert, along with some things too terrible to even think of. And when we turned on our radios to listen for President Roosevelt's assurance that everything would be all right, we couldn't even hear static.
But it was only at sunset, when Death had her first say, that we realized how bleak our situation truly was. At first, we had thought it was a black roller, a dust storm rolling in from the north. But as we braced ourselves in the wreckage, the black dust stopped at the edge of town and went no farther. Then we saw what it was: soldiers, one hundred of them, all made entirely of black dust. Each of them stood eight feet high, and in the light of the full moon overhead, their shadows seemed to cut teeth into the sand. They had swords in their hands, swords made of jagged black stone, and our blood curdled in our veins as they called out for our leader.
The fathers of each family, farmers and cowboys alike, fell silent, looking at their empty, work-hardened hands. We looked to them, and for once, they had no answers. God had failed them. Hard work had failed them. Manhood had failed them. Then a woman stepped forward, an old, pale woman with tattooed hands.
"Bruja," I heard a lady whisper. But I couldn't keep my eyes off her.
"I'll speak for this city," she said to the Dust Soldiers. "What do you want?"
Their leader opened a mouth like a well and spoke in a voice like grinding stones.
The Goddesses Life and Death have begun a game. They have given you exactly ten years to build your city. No more, no less. During those years, you will put aside one-third of your crops for us every year. We will return at sunset on the final day to judge you. If we judge your society good and responsible, despite your difficulties, then Life has won, and your society will continue. If your society has been irresponsible, then Death has won the game. And every man, woman, and child shall be slain.
"This is a wicked game to impose upon us," the old woman said. "Haven't we suffered through enough already?"
But the Dust Soldiers did not — or could not — answer, and in the end, the old woman had no choice but to agree to the terms of the game we had been entered into.
"Who ... who are you?" a man whispered when the Dust Soldiers had gone.
"I am Mother Morevna," she said. "And if you listen to me, we'll get out of this mess just fine. But we will have to do things exactly as I say."
There was a murmuring among the crowd, then a nodding of heads. And then an acknowledgment: we had found ourselves a new leader.
That night, we gathered at the center of town and listened as Mother Morevna told us about the world we would make. Because, she said, we'd been given a chance to create a world that could be truly wonderful, truly prosperous. She said that we must band together — no matter our sex or color — or we would perish. She told us that we must build wells and irrigation systems, shelter, fields, and, most importantly, walls to keep ourselves safe from the desert creatures. We had to reinvent ourselves. And we did.
Cars proved useful once again: to be taken apart and used for scrap. And the old Case tractors ... well, they had been the cause of a lot of our problems in the first place, hadn't they? They were the first things we used for the walls. Next had come possessions. Last had come the bodies of the fallen, and between dust storms, the walls rose around us, keeping us safe.
Until I, Sal Wilkerson, brought an end to everything.CHAPTER 2
My nose was broken, it was pretty clear. It was red black and bruised, and twisted off to one side, and when I touched it, pain lit up my whole face. As I sat up on my perch on the top of the West wall, I tried to lessen the pain by counting the names carved into the walls below me. Behind each one of those names was a body, adding its height to our walls. Joanna Schutter, Gregory Farrell, Ludie Mae Fuller, Andrew Jackson LaGrange, Noemi Álvarez ...
In Cultivation class, Trixie Holland had accidentally hit me in the face with the backward stroke of her shovel, then made such a big show of being sorry that my classmates ended up consoling her. I tried, again, to breathe through my broken nose and felt a surge of anger as a big wad of blood slid down into the back of my throat. I hacked for a minute and spat it over the wall, into the desert, then wiped my nose again and wrote Trixie Holland is a bitch in blood on the mud brick beside me. Juvenile, sure, but it helped, if only just for a moment. Then I felt bad about it and wiped it away.
The walls were my sanctuary when Trixie and her girls tried to follow me after school — which was getting more and more frequent these days. They'd hide behind houses, under windmills, in storm cellars. Then there'd be a "Hey, Sal!" and the running would begin. Sometimes they caught me and harassed me, tore my things. Sometimes I lost them. It didn't help that Trixie's was the reluctant family I was supposed to be staying with this season. They say it takes a village to raise a child. But that only works if the village wants her. And after everything that had happened, Elysium, Oklahoma, did not want me.
Oh, they'd been fine with me at first. Back when I was Sal Wilkerson, the poor little girl whose mother had died. But then I saw the rain, and that changed everything. Rain. I saw it on the horizon, coming toward Elysium in sheets, in curtains. Heavy rain. Miraculous rain, coming to end this Dust Bowl and save us all. I had seen it in the sky, felt it on my skin, believed it in my bones. And being a nine-year-old, I had told everyone. I went from orphan to Child Prophet, lifted on shoulders, gathered around, and petted and celebrated. "When will the rain come, Sallie?" everyone had asked. "Soon!" I'd told them. "The rain will come and everything will be all right!"
But the rain didn't come. And as the townspeople waited, I felt the tide turn against me. From Sal Wilkerson, the Prophet, I became Sal Wilkerson, the Liar. Sal Wilkerson, the Crazy Girl. Sal Wilkerson, the Girl Who Cried Rain. And instead of families wanting to take me in every season, they had to be forced to, bribed with more rations or work exemptions.
When the sun set and everyone went into their houses, I climbed down. I took my bucket out of its place under the toolshed at the base of the wall and started on my weekly journey. My dust mask thudded against my chest and my bucket against my thighs as I slinked quietly along the wall, toward the Dowsing Well. It was too dark to manage without touching the walls, and I felt the names go by under my fingertips. Susannah Halper, Lennie Rodríguez, John Rowe, all buried in the walls, plastered in with their faces turned out to the desert beyond.
I left the wall and slipped between the legs of the tower, moving quickly through the path I had made for myself, through the narrow spaces between the bare-plank houses. No one was outside except for Mr. Jameson, so I relaxed. Even though he was head of the guard, Mother Morevna's second-in-command, he always looked the other way when he saw me go by.
Mr. Jameson had been the one to oversee the building of the walls. He'd been the leader of the group that went out into the desert and had seen how everything had changed. He'd been one of the three men who'd made it back alive. He was strong and quiet and tough as an old boot, and I liked him. He of all people could commiserate, when his wife and son were back in Texas, somewhere outside the tiny, temporary world he'd been stuck in. If they were still alive. If a world even existed beyond the desert anymore.
He knew how I hated being shifted from family to family, about the lean-to I'd built against the northern wall to sleep under when one family had been particularly bad. He'd even put in a motion to let me live with him once. And when his motion was rejected on account of him being "too high on the food chain to be compromised," he'd spent his nights revamping an old chicken house for me to live in. It wasn't the same as a house, of course, but it was surprisingly good — better than staying with Trixie, at any rate — and I was grateful to him. It had wallpaper — the same kind anyone else had, anyway: newspapers and flour sacks. It had a lock and windows and a floor made of plank wood. It had a dresser salvaged from who knew where, and even a bed made of feed sacks and feathers, and it only smelled a little like chickens anymore. It wasn't much, but it was mine. And at least there I was alone because I wanted to be, not because I had to be.
"Why did you do this for me?" I'd asked him.
"My daughter is about your age" was all he'd said. I liked that he always said "is," not "was."
Now his hooded eyes flickered to my nose. "That girl been after you again?"
I thought about it for a second, trying to decide if it was more cowardly to say yes or no, then shook my head.
"Stepped on a rake," I lied.
"You sure it wasn't a shovel?" he said, his eyes serious under his old, sweat-stained Stetson.
"No, sir," I said finally. I was a lot of things, but I wasn't a tattletale.
He squinted at me, then gave me a nod and spat tobacco into an old peach can.
"Get on outta here, then," he said. "And if you have any more problems with rakes, you let me know, all right?"
"Yes, sir," I said. "Thank you, sir." And I slipped through the alley between his house and the Andersons' and made my way toward the Square.
* * *
I heard the hammers before I saw the work lights. Already, the circle at the center of town was being set up for Mourning Night. About twenty young men were working. In the shadows of the old jail and Baptist church, they hammered and sawed. Some were hauling pieces of wood to the place where the bonfire would be, others had begun setting up the platform that Mother Morevna would stand on during the ceremony.
It was our most important holiday, a celebration of those we had lost during the year. In the evening, we would bring pictures of those who had died — and for those who hadn't ever had their pictures made, small belongings, like combs or snuffboxes or dolls. There were entirely too many toys last year.
Dust Sickness was everyone's greatest fear, the silent killer that crept through Elysium, taking whom it would. It was a lengthy, agonizing sickness you got from breathing in too much dust. Sometimes it could lay dormant for years, then rear its ugly head. It could take years to kill you, or months, or weeks, or days. Mother Morevna did what she could to protect us, covering the whole city in a spell that made dust storms roll right over us. We had faith in her and the magic that had saved us over and over. Still, we put on our dust masks just in case. And still, every year we wondered whose bodies would add to the height of our walls come next Mourning Night.
"Someone's breaking curfew," said a familiar voice. I froze.
When I turned, I saw Lucy sitting with her back against the wall, her hair in twists just visible under her vibrant headscarf. She looked at me, her face serious. She smiled as I let out the breath I'd been holding.
I tried to smile back, then held my hand to my face when my nose throbbed.
"What happened?" Lucy asked.
"Trixie has a mean aim with a shovel," I said, and because of my nose, "mean" sounded like "bean."
"Don't know why you don't punch her in the nose," she said. "I would."
I didn't doubt it. Lucy and her family had been sharecroppers at the farm next to ours, and I'd seen her give a boy a busted lip when he took one of her dolls. Even now, though Lucy was widely known as not only the most fashionable black girl in Elysium, but the most fashionable girl period, everyone knew not to mess with her. Even the boys.
We hadn't spoken much growing up, but when the rain fiasco happened, she was the only one who had believed that I wasn't crazy. Some people see things that others don't, she'd said, and shrugged. I never forgot that. Or that when Trixie and her friends had been seen sneaking over toward my chicken coop, it had been Lucy who chased her away. I didn't have many friends, but Lucy was the closest thing I'd had to one in a long time, even if it was only because of our arrangement.
"What are you doing out here anyway?" I asked her. "You know I always get the water."
"Oh, don't worry," she said. "I'm waiting for my supply girl." Despite the law that stated that women should wear no makeup in order to conserve resources, Lucy had started her own underground cosmetics empire. She made subtle eye shadows and liners, mascaras, rouges. I, myself, had some of her mascara, packaged discreetly inside a corncob pipe she'd gifted me after noticing how pale my eyelashes were.
"She's bringing me these," said Lucy. "Of course, the Dowsing Well water will come from you." She pulled a list out of her pocket and showed it to me.
Red clay (3) Beetle wings (Japanese, Potato, Red) Ink — nontoxic Crayons Beeswax
I gave it back to her, and we watched as the workers finished what was left of their job on the platform and shuffled over to the little spread-out handkerchief on which a few water rations (old Coke bottles filled with water) waited.
"Nobody suspects anything, don't worry," Lucy said, watching how nervously I was holding the bucket. "Least of all from you."
"I'm just a false prophet, after all. I couldn't be a thief too."
"Oh, brush that chip off your shoulder," Lucy said. "Besides, I don't think you can steal from an endless well."
"There are people who would argue with you on that one," I said.
"Well, crime or not, I'm glad you can do it, because without that water, I'd be sunk." Lucy squinted into the darkness and crossed slim, elegant arms. "Where is this girl? I've been out here for thirty minutes. She's supposed to be coming from the West."
"I'm headed West," I said. "You can come with me if you want."
Lucy's eyes darted toward the platform. The workers, satisfied for the night, wiped their brows and began to leave the clearing in twos and threes. Across the platform, the steeple of the Baptist church jutted up, taller than the windmills, and somehow whiter, its wind-battered cross stark against the sky. The round rose window — unbroken by the high winds — was dark like a closed eye. Mother Morevna was asleep.
"Okay," she said. "I've always wanted to see how you do it anyway."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Elysium Girls"
Copyright © 2020 Kate Pentecost.
Excerpted by permission of Disney Book Group.
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