The summer heat on the metal roof created a visible shimmer. The west-facing window in Julie’s room was hot to the touch. A bead of sweat trailed down her cheek, but still she shivered under a heavy quilt. The smell of mint and honey hung in the unmoving air.
Julie reached for her laptop. It wasn’t there. Ugh. Had it slid between the bed and the nightstand? She leaned toward the edge, and nearly toppled over from dizziness.
She laid her head back and tried to stop the room from rocking. She felt old. How old was she anyway? That seemed like something a person should know about herself.
The bed, too, felt old. It made creaking and thrumming sounds when she moved. Her body seemed to constantly migrate to the depression in the center of the mattress. Just how long had she been sitting here?
The muscles of her back and shoulders cried out for a long massage, but her skin flinched at the thought of anybody touching it. She could feel her heartbeat hammering away at every part of her body.
She desperately wanted something to occupy herself. Where was that computer? Was it downstairs? Did this house even have a downstairs? Her mind felt so muddled.
“Hello?” Julie called. “Anybody here?”
“Yes, ma’am,” came a high, crisp voice. “I’ll be right there!”
Moments later, a girl of about fifteen walked in. She was smallish, but she seemed old for her age. She had a pale complexion, and she was thin – almost gaunt – with short-cropped brown hair and blue-gray eyes. And a look of concern on her face.
“Is everything okay Grandma?” the girl asked.
Grandma? Julie hadn’t expect that. Her expression must have showed it too, because the girl almost immediately said, “It’s me, Callie. Can I get you anything? I put some hot tea on the night stand if you want it.”
“I was just looking for my laptop,” Julie said, after a short pause. “I thought it was right here.”
This time it was Callie’s turn to look momentarily flustered. “Oh… we had to send it out for repairs,” she lied. “Broken.”
The pounding inside Julie’s brain intensified. She felt lost. Shaky. Disoriented. She just wanted to look up symptoms, compare contagions, search outbreak information, read health bulletins…
She felt profoundly tired. She couldn’t even begin to unravel the thoughts tangled up in her mind. Callie was clearly sweating, yet Julie couldn’t wrap the blankets tight enough around herself.
“Oh,” she said finally, not even trying to mask her disappointment. Or her fatigue. “Well… never mind. I guess I’d better try getting some more rest then,” she said. “Thank you, Caledonia, dear.”
Caledonia? She did remember. At least a little. Baby Callie, beaming up at her. Toddler Callie, running round and round her kitchen table. Callie’s father – Parker? Mason? Declan? It was some name she never liked…
“Yell if you need anything, Grandma,” said Callie, halting the flow of memories. “I’m heading out in about an hour, but Ellis will be here before then.”
Julie gingerly rolled over onto her side, drew in a deep breath, and tried not to think about anything at all.
– – –
Callie sat in the living room, feeling guilty. Not for lying about the laptop – she had moved beyond beating herself up about arranging their lives to minimize stress and frustration.
Her grandmother’s mind was clearly starting to go. The fever was making it worse, but even healthy, she was struggling with words and thoughts. Callie figured she was probably in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Another slow-moving crisis to deal with.
No internet connection meant most of what Julie wanted to do with the computer wasn’t going to work anyway. That would lead to the same round of questions, the same confusion, the same frustration. Callie hadn’t even realized her grandmother still had a computer until early in the fever, when she’d gotten it out from some unknown storage place and started trying to use it.
Caring for somebody with dementia had always been difficult. But in many ways it was even more difficult now – ever since Everything Changed. No, the computer had to go, for everyone’s sake.
Besides, she and her crew needed it. Desperately.
Callie knew the justification was legitimate, but the thought brought forth another surge of guilt. Had she done the right thing? Of course. This was critical stuff. The answer was obvious. That didn’t make it feel any less wrong.
But then, nobody ever said being a Lore Keeper was going to be easy.
– – –
Callie removed the laptop from her backpack and set it on the workbench. A pair of practiced hands scooped it up and turned it around and over, inspecting it quickly but thoroughly. The owner of the hands, a young man in his early twenties, with dark hair and a neatly trimmed beard, looked up at her.
“You stole this from your grandmother?” he asked.
“Not now, Kasim,” said Callie. “It’s been a long day.”
“That’s Nick to you, remember?” he said. “After the latest fiasco, I’m not Kasim any more. Not any time soon at least.”
“You really think you can pass for Greek?” Callie asked, looking doubtful.
“Second generation. born and raised in Watertown, Mass.,” he said with a grin. “My dad, Nikos, was an electrician. My mother Connie was a high school history teacher.”
Callie looked at him, still skeptical. “What letter comes after epsilon in the Greek alphabet?”
“Yes really,” he said, trying to contain a look of triumph. “Now can we get back to the part where you stole this beautiful old pre-cloud laptop computer from your poor ailing granny?”
“Speaking of which, I’ve got to get back to her,” Callie said. “Sorry to drop and run, but it’ll almost be dusk by the time I get home.”
“Go,” he replied. “Take some good notes from her. She’s a gold mine.”
“While you still can,” he added, internally.
“Of course,” said Callie. “See you Thursday… Nick.”
“Don’t forget to tell Ellis to bring more paper!” he yelled as she hurried out the door.
– – –
Callie stood up on her bike to pedal harder up the hill. Whenever she traveled solo, she tried to look, act, and carry herself like a boy. She was less likely to be bothered by strangers that way. It wasn’t as easy to pull off as when she was younger, but with a wrap beneath her shirt, and her short hair under a baseball cap, she could still pass pretty well. But riding in this heat and humidity, she wondered if the extra layers were worth the risk tradeoff.
By the time she reached the halfway point, she was drenched in sweat, and her legs ached. But like the chickens her older brother Daniel had raised years ago, she had an instinctive need to be in a safe place by sundown.
She missed Daniel terribly. He was lost during combat operations in Nigeria almost five years ago. But then, so many didn’t come back near the end. The official status was “Missing in Action,” but Callie suspected there was just no money left to round them up and bring them home. Those years were some of the worst. Not just for her, but for everybody.
She felt her throat starting to constrict and her eyes get a little watery. He’d be twenty-three by now. Kasim had been in boot camp with Daniel.
She refocused her attention on the road. The trees seemed to loom on either side of her. She wasn’t fond of this part of the ride. She didn’t know the families who lived along this stretch, their dwellings tucked away among the trees. She pedaled on. Despite her efforts, her thoughts drifted back to her family.
Callie’s parents were gone too. Her mother had lost a brief battle with cancer when Callie was just seven. Her father had left town for a three-month contract job almost a year and a half ago, and they hadn’t heard from him since. Was he dead? Had he abandoned them? Would they ever see or hear from him again? Or Daniel for that matter?
Her stomach tightened. Tears spilled over her eyelids. She tried, but failed, to hold back a convulsive sob.
Suddenly, the handlebars of the bike jerked violently sideways. Callie saw ground and sky and treetop and road in a disordered blur as her mind flailed wildly to process what had happened. Images and sounds and sensations replayed in quick succession: the momentary feeling of disoriented weightlessness. Her body, sliding across gravel on the berm. The bike scraping and clattering to a stop. The acrid smell and the heat coming off the asphalt. The one wheel of the bike spinning after everything was over.
There had been a brief notion that someone had knocked her off the bike, or maybe shot her or something. But no. A simple pothole. A nasty one, but a pothole nonetheless.
Why, why, why had she not stayed focused on the road? She was furious with herself. Riding at dusk was not the time or place for self pity.
Or for anger, she realized. She looked up at the tall trees on either side, their branches almost touching in some places. A blue jay cawed from some unseen branch. The leaves high in the treetops danced a bit, and she felt the slightest waft of a breeze. She silently wished for wind. And for rain.
The breeze rustled the tall, weedy grass in the berm of the road. She briefly imagined the noise as a person, or possibly an animal, stalking her from the undergrowth. Of course she knew it was just the breeze. She figured it was probably just her frayed mind’s way of telling her to get moving.
Was the bike damaged? A punctured tire or a bent rim would be disastrous right now. Stinging pain in her hands and along her left forearm reminded her to assess her own state. Was she bleeding? Was anything broken?
She wiped her eyes and got up gingerly. Road rash on her arm. No glass, thankfully. No bleeding from her palms, but some shredded skin on the heel of her hand. A sore wrist and shoulder. Nothing seemed broken or severe. After assessing the bike, it appeared to be in a similar condition – scraped, bruised, battered, but still very functional. She took a breath and mounted the bike. The fading light and lengthening shadows were already making it harder to navigate.
She could not afford to grieve for her losses right now. Besides, she tried to reassure herself, she still had her grandmother, and her brother Ellis. Ellis was thirteen. The two of them, along with their father, had moved in with Grandma Julie several years ago. Julie had been taking care of them as well as she could, ever since he’d gone.
But now, the roles were reversing. Callie and Ellis were going to be their grandmother’s guardians. That was becoming clear. Ellis seemed unfazed by this turnaround, but Callie was scared to death. She was determined not to let Ellis know, but she wasn’t sure how they were going to manage.
Their only source of income at this point was whatever Ellis could earn selling and trading things at the Gringo Market.
For years, there had been a sort of impromptu farmer’s market beside a local tire shop, where Latino growers would congregate, socialize, buy, sell, and barter with each other. But as things went from bad to worse, more and more non-Latinos started showing up, at first to buy things – the market was stocked better than most grocery stores at that point – and later to try to sell things as well. Between limited space, culture clashes, and rising tensions in so many aspects of life, the atmosphere at the tire shop market deteriorated. Fights were becoming more frequent and more violent, and a full scale riot seemed almost inevitable. Only fast-talking diplomacy by some of the vendors kept it from turning really ugly.
Some enterprising (and desperate) minds managed to get permission from the local authorities, such as they were, to start using the old “big box” electronics store as an all-purpose market. The new Gringo Market was an instant success, and the old tire shop settled back to its cultural roots.
The new market had been a favorite haunt of Ellis ever since it had opened, and he began working there right after their dad left. It helped that Ellis was such a natural scavenger. He had a rare gift for finding discarded items and convincing people they had value. He knew where to look, what to keep, and above all, how to talk to people. And that, though Callie, was as good as gold. They had access to items through his bartering and salesmanship that many people in their situation could only dream about.
– – –
“Hey,” said Callie as she walked in the front door, breathing hard. Fatigue, but also relief, made her double over with her hands on her knees.
“What happened to you?” asked Ellis, slightly alarmed at her bloody, dirty, disheveled appearance.
“I’m fine,” she gasped. “Just took a dive into a pothole.”
“Wow, are you okay?” he asked.
“It looks worse than it is,” she said, still breathing a bit hard. “Really, I’m fine.”
“Fine too. Might need a little work, but definitely rideable,” she said as she walked into her bedroom to change.
A moment later, a shriek came from her room, followed shortly thereafter, by a fluffy, lavender projectile.
“I am going to kill you for that Ellis,” she said. But her words were lost among the peals of laughter coming from her brother.
He leaned over and retrieved the plush purple pachyderm. He pointed the stuffed elephant’s oversized head toward her and said, “Aw, come on! How can you be afwaid of dis widdle guy? Wook at his cute widdle face. Wook at his beady widdle eyes…”
She turned away with a look approaching disgust, which only made Ellis laugh harder.
Callie had always hated stuffed animals. Hated them. Even as a baby, having a teddy bear in her crib made her cry. They looked unnatural, she said. The proportions were always wrong. And the faces were always creepy.
“I’ll get you back,” she muttered from her room. “You just wait.”
“Whatever,” said Ellis, finally gaining some composure. “It was totally worth it.”
Ellis decided a change of subject might be better than letting her plot in silence. “So, how’s things down at the workshop?”
“Things is good,” she said, mimicking his improper grammar. “It’s coming along.”
“Was Kasim able to use those chip drives?” he asked, trying to sound nonchalant, but always eager for praise.
“I forgot to ask,” she said, walking back into the room. “But he told me to tell you he needs more paper.” She was dabbing at her scraped arm and hands with a damp cloth.
“Oh, and we’re supposed to call him ‘Nick’ now,” she added. “He wants to pass as the son of Greek immigrants or something. He’s got a whole back story worked out and everything.”
“Nick it is then,” Ellis said, with conviction. “I don’t blame him. Besides, it’s not like anybody but his neighbors even knows him yet, so it shouldn’t be too hard to make that happen.”
“Yeah, I s’pose so,” said Callie. She was busy spreading a thin layer of honey onto her wound, as a salve, and as an adhesive for the scrap of cloth she had chosen for a bandage.
“So how’s Grandma?” she asked.
“Not great. She was hallucinating or something earlier – babbling something about docked wages and a mustard sandwich. But she’s got the quilt off now, so maybe the fever broke? I don’t even know how these things work. Is that a good sign?”
“It’s probably not a bad sign. But she may be up and down for a while yet.”
A pause followed. Then Ellis blurted out, “What if she dies?”
He felt a little embarrassed for sounding scared, but he couldn’t help himself. “I mean, will those Wellness people make us move or something? Go into Service? I am not living in some creepy old lady’s house with a pack of tiny dogs and a weird smell. And I’ll live in the woods by myself eating grubs before I get sent to a shanty.”
“I guess we are kind of orphans,” said Callie somberly.
She paused. “They’d probably place you with the Mattlensons,” she said, stifling a smile.
Ellis heaved a fake sigh. “I’ll go start digging for grubs.”
The reference to the neighbors they both disliked had hit the mark. Callie just couldn’t have that discussion right now, because she had no answers. Ever since Grandma Julie had started getting sick, Callie had spent many of her waking hours worrying about that very problem: How could they get by with no adults? How would they keep themselves out of any number of bad situations if their last available parental figure was gone? She hoped that in time, answers would present themselves, because right now, she was at a loss.
“No,” said Callie. “If you’re a good boy, then maybe you can have a bowl of grubs at bedtime. Right now, we need to get the washing done.”
“Aw, man!” cried Ellis. But after few moments of looking sullen and rebellious, he did get up.
– – –
Julie sat up slowly in bed. She felt awful. Sweaty. Clammy. Achy. And tremendously hungry.
“Hello?” she called. “Is anybody here?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said a voice. A boy appeared in her doorway. “It’s me, Ellis,” said the boy. Callie had coached him on saying his name when he entered. He forgot to end with “grandma,” so she’d know the context of the relationship.
“Is your mom around, Ellis? Or your dad?”
“Um… no,” he said. “Not right now. Is there anything I can do for you, grandma?”
“No, that’s okay. I was just starting to feel a little hungry, but I can wait.”
“I made some potato leek soup,” said Ellis. “There’s still some left. It’s not bad.”
“You made it?” said Julie with an affectionate smile. “Well, I’ll have to try some then.”
“It probably needs to be warmed up a little – I’ll be back in a bit,” he said, and disappeared before she could tell him not to bother. Like most people stuck in bed, she hated the thought of being a bother.
Of course, Ellis didn’t want to give her the chance to turn him down, even if it did mean lighting a small fire on a hot day. Not only was he eager to share his budding culinary skills, but he also wanted an excuse to try out the new little stove he’d built out of some old metal cans.
The design was something Kasim had showed him – something Nick had showed him, Ellis corrected himself. Nick said it was called a rocket stove, though Ellis had seen something similar called a twig stove over near the shanty village.
The stove was made from one large coffee can, and three smaller soup cans. Ellis fashioned an “L” shaped chimney out of the three soup cans by using just a can opener, a pair of tin snips, and some pliers. The chimney fit down into the larger can, which had a round hole cut into the side of it, so the base of the “L” stuck out the side. He filled in the gap around the chimney with sand and mud. At the base of the “L”, where it stuck out the side, he used some leftover scraps of metal to create a little shelf or platform inside the chimney.
Ellis put some small dry sticks onto the platform, and stuck some scraps of paper in the space underneath. The gap underneath was for air to flow in and up through the chimney. The beauty of the design was that you could use it to start a fire quickly without a lot of tinder, and without wasting precious matches. And you could boil water with it in just a few minutes using only sticks. At least that’s what Kasim had told him.
The stove needed some work. He considered this one practice — a prototype. It simultaneously leaked both smoke and sand, but even this slapdash version was working better than he expected. He’d have to start collecting cans to see if he could make some to sell or trade.
After a few minutes, he headed back inside with the warm soup, wishing it was meant for himself. He grabbed a biscuit that he hoped wasn’t too stale, and headed for Grandma Julie’s room.
She wasn’t there.
“Grandma?” he called. No answer.
“Hello?” he called again, looking around.
The bathroom. He took a breath, glad she hadn’t gone for a walk or something. She seemed a bit unpredictable, and she was in no shape to be wandering the streets at this point.
She opened the bathroom door and said to Ellis, “There’s something wrong with the toilet. It’s not flushing. Do you have the super’s phone number?”
How to explain? “He’s out of town,” Ellis said at last. “But there’s a bucket of water in the tub. You can wash up and then flush with that water,” said Ellis. “Just set the bucket in the hall and I’ll fill it up in a few minutes.”
“Thank you,” said Julie when she came into the bedroom. “You’re so young to be working in a place like this. And so helpful. I bet your mom and dad are very proud of you.”
He said, “thanks,” in a barely audible voice, and looked down at the floor. He usually basked in a compliment, but for some reason, this last mention of his parents caught him off guard. A complex swirl of emotions filled his chest: grief, sadness, anger, affection, pride, regret…
Sometimes he just wanted to be a kid again. He wanted to go on vacations, play with toys, and goof off all day. He wanted to go to school and Cub Scouts and baseball practice. He wanted to complain to his mom about how bored he was, and complain to his dad about how there was nothing fun to do.
He wanted them to tell him how proud they were. He wanted them to tell him what chores he had to do, or what fun things they had planned, or what they’d be having for dinner. He even wanted them to yell at him for not cleaning up his room.
Most of all, he wanted to hear their voices again.
Would he always remember their voices?
Would he always remember what they looked like?
He wanted to keep every last detail fresh in his mind forever. What memories would fade? His mother’s infectious laugh, or that crinkle in her brow when she was on the verge of blowing her top? His dad’s bristly face, or his slight New England accent….
“This soup is really delicious,” said Julie. “Is this from the cafeteria?”
“No, it’s, uh, homemade,” said Ellis, suddenly feeling a bit shy. “I just made it this morning.”
“Well, my compliments to the chef. The texture and the flavor of the potatoes are so distinctive.”
“Yeah, my sister just pulled them out the other morning,” said Ellis. “The leeks too.”
“Sounds like you and your sister are a great team,” she said, tipping the bowl to get the last of the soup in her spoon.
“Sometimes,” said Ellis. “Other times we want to strangle each other.”
“That’s how I was with my sister growing up,” Julie said with a smile and a distant gaze. “I’ll never forget when she pulled out all my strawberry plants that I had saved my allowance for weeks to buy. She said she thought they were weeds. But she had never pulled any weeds in the garden before! I was so mad I think my face was as red as a strawberry,” she said, her smile widening.
Ellis grinned too. “One time Callie ‘accidentally’ stepped on my Lego battleship that I’d spent days constructing,” he said, “even though it was in the far corner of my bedroom. She never went in my bedroom any other time. She hated all that mess.”
“Why do they do stuff like that anyway?” asked Ellis after a pause.
“I don’t know,” said Julie. “I guess siblings have always been like that, from the dawn of time. My sister,” she said, pausing. “I… I’m blanking on her name for some reason… um… gosh… Anyway, do you know, my sister didn’t even like strawberries! I mean who doesn’t like strawberries?”
“That is weird,” said Ellis. “Callie doesn’t like Legos, which is a little strange, but strawberries?”
“I know!” exclaimed Julie. “But that’s okay, I tore off her doll’s head and threw it in the trash to get even.”
Ellis laughed at the thought of his grandma and his great aunt Amy fighting. And at his own revenge on his sister. “I spread out a bunch of Lego bricks on the floor next to Callie’s bed so she’d step on them when she woke up,” he said.
Julie laughed, which led to some raspy coughing. Recovering her breath, she said, “Thanks for the delicious soup. It was just the thing for my poor old stomach. But now, I’d better try to rest some more. I’m a little shaky sitting up this long.”
“Holler if you need anything,” said Ellis.
“Good night Amy,” said Julie.
“Err… Good night, Julie,” said Ellis uncertainly.
– – –
Callie woke with a start.
She’d been sleeping on the couch. The first thing she was aware of was her swollen and painful right wrist. The second thing was that someone was standing outside the front door.
Her heart started pounding. Break-ins while they were gone were bad enough. Her mind fumbled over what to do.
Maybe it was somebody who thought the house was vacant. Maybe it was somebody lost or confused. Maybe it was an armed home invader. A hundred scenarios flicked through her mind in an instant, and few of them were good. She thought about what could happen, what could happen to her, and the pit in her stomach grew.
Slowly but silently, she moved the few feet from the couch to the side of the door, grabbing an iron fireplace poker in her right hand. It quivered from the pain and swelling in her wrist. She’d have to brandish it left-handed.
What time was it? Dusk? She tried to re-orient herself.
The last she remembered, she had dozed off on the couch after dinner. It must be morning already. She’d been so tired she must have slept right through all of the evening tasks. Why hadn’t Ellis woken her up?
Something wasn’t right.
Who was at the door? Was it more than one person? And why were they just standing there? Should she call out? Was Ellis home? Could it be her grandmother out there?
A sudden knock made her flinch, causing her to bang the wall with the poker.
Ellis appeared abruptly from the hallway, and exchanged a glance with Callie.
“Who’s there?” he called out, in his best tough guy voice.
“Nick,” said Kasim’s disembodied voice from the other side of the door.
Callie flung it open, and said, “Man, Nick. You scared me to death. What were you doing standing there?”
“Oh wow, sorry about that,” he said. “The strap on my satchel tore loose coming up the steps. Everything was in the process of dumping out.”
“You’re lucky,” said Callie, “I was about to make a kabob out of you.”
She motioned for him to come in, and turned to her brother. “And you,” she said to Ellis. “Why did you let me sleep through chores last night? I was so confused when I woke up.”
“You were so tired, and banged up,” said Ellis. “I just took care of everything myself.”
Callie’s intense look dissolved.
“Thank you,” she said. “You didn’t have to do that.” She looked down at the floor. “But next time, at least send me to bed. Waking up on the couch made me feel… exposed.”
“Got it,” said Ellis. “So Niko, what brings you all the way out here? I thought you were a city mouse?”
“I know I don’t get out much,” said Nick, “but does Saxapahaw count as a city now?”
“Compared to here, yes,” replied Callie.
“You two are riding all the way up to Graham all the time,” said Nick. “I’d just rather stay close to places I know and people I trust.”
“Do you trust them already?” asked Callie. “And more importantly, do they trust you?”
“We trust each other enough,” Nick replied. “A long way to go yet, but I’ve been upgraded from ‘stranger’ to ‘outsider.’”
“Enough pointless jabber,” said Ellis. “I’m dying to know: Why are you here?”
Nick set his bag down on the counter. “I need help with this,” he said, pulling out Julie’s laptop.
“Ohhh, now I see why you were so worried about dumping your bag,” said Callie.
“Yeah,” said Nick. “These old hard drives don’t always appreciate gravity. Anyway, I managed to get the battery charged up, but I can’t get in. If this were an old movie, I’d have cracked the password by now, but sadly, it’s not. I have no idea what the login credentials are.”
“Oh right,” said Callie. “That would be a problem.”
She turned back to Ellis. “Do you think Grandma Julie can help us?”
“Only one way to find out,” he said. Turning to Nick, he added, “but let’s wait a while, if you can. She’s asleep right now, and if we wake her, she’ll be confused and disoriented. She’ usually at her best around mid-afternoon. Can you stick around?”
“As long as I need to,” Nick said. “I can stay overnight if you’ve got a place for me.”
“Aren’t you worried about exposure to Julie’s fever?” she asked.
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’m strong, like bull.”
“Yeah, like bull alright,” said Ellis, grinning. “You’re built like a loblolly pine. A stiff breeze could take you out.”
Nick laughed. “Yeah kid, have you ever noticed that it’s never the pines that go down in a storm? Bend but don’t break, baby.”
“How are we going to explain all this to Grandma Julie?” asked Callie. “What are we going to tell her?”
“The truth?” said Ellis. “And then hope she remembers the password.”
“Oh boy,” said Callie, rolling her eyes upward. “Let’s hope.”
– – –
Nick and Callie sat in the kitchen, discussing exactly what to say to Julie when she woke up. Ellis had just headed out back to get some things for the market, when there was a loud knock on the door.
Callie walked to the main room and peeked out the window at a convex mirror that Ellis had rigged up on the porch just an hour earlier. He’d had the mirror for weeks, but hadn’t found the time to set it up. It allowed her to see, if not who was at the door, then at least whether somebody was there. And how many somebodies.
In this case though, the distorted figure with copper-colored hair was unmistakable. It was Mrs. Mattlenson. Callie sighed, realized there was no escape, and opened the door.
“Is everything alright?” asked Mrs. Mattlenson. “I thought I saw a suspicious man creeping around here earlier.” She came toward Callie, nearly pushing her way through the door and into the house.
Really, thought Callie. She’s going to play the nosy neighbor card? “Everything’s fine, ma’am,” she replied, trying to sound polite. “It was just a friend of ours.”
“Well, you know how I worry about you two since… well… ” her voice trailed off.
If you were really worried, thought Callie, you would not have come alone.
Callie wondered if her husband had sent her over on a reconnaissance mission, or if she had come over on her own.
“Are you sure you should be letting people in your house?” she asked. “I mean, considering the whole… ” her voice trailed off again.
Ellis stepped from the hallway and gave a non-committal wave. He stayed at the far side of the room, with his hands behind his back — a spectator to the neighborly train wreck.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Mattlenson,” Callie said. “It was just Nick. He’s a friend of Daniel’s, from the Army.”
“Oh well, uh, I see…” she said.
“Could she be any more awkward?” thought Callie.
“How is Daniel?” Mrs. Mattlenson asked. A mortified look came over her face when she realized what she’d asked.
“Well, that answers that,” Callie thought.
“Haven’t heard from him lately,” said Callie. “I’m sure he’s fine.” Callie was willing to say anything at this point to bring this visit to a close.
“I brought you some clothes,” blurted the neighbor suddenly, as if struck by a revelation. She held out a bag filled with what looked to be the contents of a ten-year-old girl’s closet. “My niece outgrew them.”
“Thank you so much,” said Callie, hoping against hope that it sounded at least half sincere.
“And there’s this too,” said Mrs. Mattlenson, reaching deep into the bag and grinning for the first time since she had arrived. She pulled out a stuffed orangutan, with preposterously long limbs. She wrapped the fuzzy arms around Callie in a plush embrace. The hands secured together with Velcro behind Callie’s neck. “Isn’t it adorable?”
Callie looked down at the orange, fuzzy face staring up at her from a few inches away. She gave an involuntary shudder.
“What’s that noise?” asked Mrs. Mattlenson. Ellis had disappeared from the room. A rhythmic snorting sound was coming from down the hall.
“Nothing,” said Callie, detaching the pseudo-simian offering, and trying her best to casually hold it at arm’s length. “I think our cat just has a hairball.”
“Cats’ll bring fleas,” said Mrs. Mattlenson.
“She’s an indoor cat,” said Callie flatly.
“What do you do about the, uh, you know, the poo?” The snorting from the hallway was joined by wheezing.
“Thank you for reminding me,” said Callie, without missing a beat. “I need to go change Grandma’s bedpan.”
“Oh, well… I’d better let you go,” stammered Mrs. Mattlenson, backing into the door, her hand scrabbling for the knob.
“Thank you so much for everything! We’ll see you later!”
As soon as the door was shut, Callie turned and threw the stuffed primate toward the hallway. Ellis and Nick tumbled into the room, both doubled over and red-faced from suppressed mirth. Callie put her hand to her mouth, and made a snorking noise. The triple burst of laughter that followed was more than enough to wake Julie in the back room.
– – –
“Explain it to me again,” said Julie. “The whole thing. My mind’s not what it used to be, it seems.” She mopped her forehead and temple with a damp cloth. She didn’t entirely trust these two people in her bedroom.
Julie seemed fairly lucid, for her at least. But Callie could see that it was going to be tricky penetrating the fog in Julie’s mind.
“Things aren’t like they used to be,” said Callie, who sat on the edge of her bed. “Modern society kind of crumpled under it’s own weight.”
“And this happened when?”
“Well, I guess it kind of started before I was even born, but it really started getting bad about seven or eight years ago.”
“I have a few friends who always love to make my flesh creep, talking about collapse. You’re saying they were right? The day finally came?”
“It’s not like we woke up one day and everything was different,” said Nick. He took a seat on the wooden chair in the corner. “It just sort of happened in fits and starts. Everybody had their own personal ‘D-Day.’”
“How can I not know this?” asked Julie. She leaned forward to scratch her lower back. “Why can’t I resolve this in my mind?”
“You’ve been ill,” said Callie. She wanted to reassure her by saying something like, “it’ll come back to you.” But would it?
“And now you want me to give you my computer password?” Julie asked, still skeptical. “I don’t understand.”
“We’re with a group that is trying to make things better,” said Nick. “To rebuild. No — to build something new. We’re a subset of the larger group that, well, let’s leave that for some other time. Anyway, our goal is to collect and preserve knowledge, wisdom, and information of value. We’ve been calling ourselves the Lore Keepers.”
“Catchy,” said Julie.
“It sounded better than The Librarians,” deadpanned Nick. A smile spread across Julie’s haggard face.
“The reason we want to use your laptop is that we want to build a sort of archive, or library of whatever we can collect. We’re looking for anything that seems useful, now or in the future – from formal writing to passing comments that might contain a key piece of information.”
Julie tried to process his words. “And you want my computer so you can go online and…”
“No,” interrupted Nick. “There is no ‘online.’ At least not from our standpoint. Internet connectivity is expensive, and nearly useless for our purposes.”
“What are you talking about?” said Julie incredulously. “I use it every day! There’s all the knowledge you could ever want out there. Granted it’s a lot to sift through, and you have to be watch for inaccuracies, but….” Julie’s voice faltered as she saw Callie shake her head a little.
“It’s not like that now,” said Nick. “The money ran out, just like everywhere else. People held on as long as they could, but useful sites disappeared, one by one. Now it’s just another place where rich people can go to feel better about themselves. Escapism and status is not useful to us.”
“So what, then? You want to use my laptop to store all your information, like a database?” asked Julie, a look of concentration on her face. She rubbed her foot against the opposite ankle, trying in vain to satisfy another itch.
“No, not that either,” replied Nick. Though it is tempting, he thought. An actual hard drive could be so useful… But for how long? These components were well past their intended lifespan. He opened his mouth to go on, but Callie gave him a significant look.
Julie looked tired and lost. She longed for things to make sense.
“I’m sorry, grandma,” said Callie, pressing her hand on Julie’s shin. “I know it’s a lot to take in, especially in your condition.”
Callie regretted the phrase as soon as it was out. She withdrew her hand, cringing at how condescending she sounded. Why hadn’t she had Ellis talk to her instead?
She took a breath before starting again.
“There are two things we want to do,” she said, deciding to just stick to the basics. “First, we want to just look through your computer and see if there’s any useful information on there – documents that were downloaded, garden journal entries, news clips, even chat logs about the weather. You’ve lived here all your life, and we might find some valuable local information. I know it seems invasive to rifle through your personal records, and if you don’t want us to, we won’t. But the information could really help some people.”
Julie sat, wordlessly contemplating for a moment.
“Did you say two reasons?” she asked.
“We have a working printer. We want to connect it to the laptop, and print pamphlets,” said Nick. “We want to spread the word about what we are doing. Most of what we do is hand-written and hand-copied. But if we can print a handful of flyers and distribute them to key places, we think we can collect a lot of books, papers, articles, notes, and equipment into one place. Printed materials might give us a measure of credibility – of legitimacy.”
“From there we’ll turn to printing and distributing the most useful or valuable information, so it can be circulated. At least until the printer ink runs out. Working printers and ink are hard to come by. But we’ll do what we can with what we have.”
Callie pondered an unspoken third reason: if they ran into another money problem, Ellis could probably get a pretty penny for it at the market. A drop-dead gorgeous penny in fact.
She hoped it didn’t come to that… or at least not before they could squeeze a little bit of usefulness out of it.
“Why do you think people will go along with this?” asked Julie. “Give up their books and other materials to you, I mean.”
“Because if they give us one book, we’ll loan them two in return,” said Nick. “The more they bring, the more they’ll have access to. People are dying for want of information. Literally, in some cases.”
“We grew up thinking we lived in the Information Age,” he went on. “People came to rely on easy access to almost any information at almost any time of day or night. So they stopped worrying about remembering every little detail. It was all stored in the cloud.”
“It’s not like people forgot everything, but deep knowledge has become scattered and sparse, and hard to come by,” Nick added. “And some of the knowledge we need now is stuff we never even learned – stuff our great-great-grandparents knew by heart, but that we thought we had no use for.”
He ran the back of his fingers across his beard, along his jawline. He wondered whether this was getting through. Not sure what else to do, he kept talking.
“Experts still exist, of course,” he said. “It’s just that at one time we were all experts on everything. Now, without that electronic brain capacity available, people can’t tell an oak tree from a poplar, just to name one. It may not seem like much, but come wintertime, we’d notice a huge difference in the heat.”
“This is a bit overwhelming,” said Julie. She was slumping against her pillows now. “I can’t even remember what you said at the beginning now.”
“I know, grandma,” said Callie. “I know.”
Seeing the look on her face, and fearing they were losing her, Nick said, “Are you comfortable with giving us your password at this point, ma’am? You can supervise us, if you’d like.”
“No… no,” she said.
Nick’s heart skipped a beat. Which part was she saying no to?
Julie stared out the window. Neither Nick nor Callie were sure what to say, if anything.
“I can’t remember the password,” Julie said at last. She looked blank. “I used the same one for ages… It’s just not coming to me.”
Callie and Nick felt the hope draining from them. How could a flu-addled Alzheimer’s mind be expected to remember a password that hadn’t been used in years?
They’d been foolish to get their hopes up.
“What now?” thought Callie. An uncertain silence settled on the room.
Suddenly, Nick grabbed the laptop and powered it on. He set it on her lap. “See if your hands remember,” he said.
Julie placed her fingers on the home row of the keyboard. After a moment’s hesitation, they began to move. Mechanically, but surprisingly quickly, her hands typed what seemed to be a random series of numbers and letters. She hit the Enter key.
They all sat, expectantly. Had it worked?
Some ambiguously melodious startup music played. Callie gasped, and Nick beamed.
“Can you write it down?” Nick asked Julie. Callie quickly produced a pencil and a small scrap of paper. Julie put her fingers back on the keyboard and pantomimed typing the password again. She wrote it on the slip of paper. Callie and Nick both thanked her profusely.
“Now,” she said, “I need to rest. This has been exhausting. Don’t go stealing my credit card numbers now.” She handed the laptop to Nick. Callie stood up, grabbed her pen and paper, ready to take notes while Nick searched the computer.
“One more thing,” Julie called after them as they left the room. “In exchange for that password, there had better be some damn fine trashy romance novels on my nightstand when I wake up.”