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“It’s gonna be another hot one, Nicki,” said the waitress at the small diner, throwing a dishtowel over her shoulder. “It’s a good day to stay in the AC.”
Nichele Isham bent over her purse, took out a small silver-plated spoon, and gently stirred her coffee. She sat for a moment quietly watching the creamer turn the liquid from a dark black to a light beige.
“Heat index of 115,” said the guy that everyone called Tex. “I thought it was supposed to be cooler here in Louisville than in Dallas.”
“It used to be,” sighed Nicki, looking out the window again. She noticed that the only green patch outside was a thin circle where water was overflowing a small fountain onto someone’s lawn. The rest of the grass and shrubbery was the same color as the coffee in her cup. And it was only the first week in July. “Grass shouldn’t crunch when you walk on it,” she said with a sigh.
The waitress went back to putting pieces of lemon pie into a small cooler beside Nicki’s booth.
“Do you know why the weather’s gotten so hot nowadays?...” Nicki started.
“Yeah, Nicki, global warming. You already told us – a lot!” Everyone within hearing distance chuckled, not enough to be impolite but just enough to acknowledge the truth of the statement.
Tex however laughed out loud. “You’ll be shoveling a foot of global warming come December.” He slowed for a moment before drawing a breath. “Me and the wife are thinking of moving back to Dallas pretty soon.”
“I hate to hear that,” said Jo Ann, knowing she was losing one of her best customers.
“Better dig a well,” said Nicki and the entire group burst out laughing, even her.
Nicki’s breakfast came and she noticed a picture of an island on the back of the newspaper. It was an advertisement for Long John Silver’s fish and chips, with a seaside picture of two boys playing baseball beside a channel of water. There were ships heading out to the Pacific, passing a one-story building with ‘Fishery’ painted on the side. Adults and children stood around talking beside a wooden fence, with a mountain bike parked nearby.
She thought back to when she had lived in that region. Memories of the Great Northwest swam out of the ad: painting seaside scenes beside Bellingham Bay, afternoons at Tonys Coffeehouse in Fairhaven, weekends spent on the low islands of the San Juans, brunch beside boats in the harbor, the Ski to Sea festival, hiking around the Mount Baker glacier. Family had brought her back to Kentucky but she missed Washington State, no doubt about it.
She ate a fork-full of hash-browns dipped in ketchup, and noticed an article at the top of the page. ‘Rains ease Midwest drought; parts of West still parched’ was the headline. She sliced off a chunk of biscuits and gravy, slowly reading the first few paragraphs of the USA Today article in silence. ‘The record flooding has ended the disastrous drought in some parts of the Midwest. Meanwhile, the far West is still suffering from a lack of wintertime rain and snow, adding to drought and wildfire worries there. Worries are now shifting to the West: The water year in the Southwest was “abysmal,” said a meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A quarter of New Mexico is experiencing exceptional drought – the most severe category – up from 4.36 percent.’
Nicki looked up from her paper to see Tex paying his bill. As he got closer to the door he smiled and told her, “Hey, if I don’t see you before we take off for Dallas, it’s been nice knowing you Nicki.”
“Have a safe trip,” she said with friendly compassion. “Dig a well,” she told him in the truest way she could.
He chuckled as he left, knowing she’d never change.
The thirty-year-old woman in urban fatigues stopped the tall man walking between her cousin's café and the railroad tracks. "I'm Keeba, Darius' cousin," she told him. "He said you're headed to the west coast - and might be willing to take a passenger for a fee."
The man turned his back on her, talking as he resumed walking. "So where are you going - exactly?" He climbed onto his packhorse of a dirt-bike, pulling his gloves over his hands, finally looking into her face.
“The West Coast,” she told him – again - noticing how his jade eyes stood out against his tan skin-tone. The stubble on his face had streaks of grey in it, so she figured he was over thirty, maybe over forty. His short beard struck her as odd because no one shaved anymore: they hadn't for years now, not since the water had run out. Men either grew their beards long and cut them off with scissors or plucked out the hairs as soon as they grew in.
The bike had been outfitted with two seats (the second of which held a canvas bag) and it had a low awning over it to protect the driver from the blazing sun…which was both necessary and rather remarkable since this was Sandpoint, Idaho…in early March. The covering was also a solar power cell for running the bike. If there was one upside to a lack of rain, it was the abundance of available solar power. It sat on the west-bound rail of an abandoned railroad track that had once been used by Amtrak trains when there were still dining cars and club cars. The line had been named the ‘Empire Builder’ by the men who tamed the American Frontier and the Cascade mountains in the last half of the 1800s. Now, in 2057, the northern rail was for sun-bikes going west and the southern rail was for sun-bikes traveling east into the deserts of Iowa, Illinois and Ohio.
The man on the motorbike stated simply, “I can’t help you if you won’t be upfront with me. Last time: where are you going?” He waited only a moment before putting his helmet visor down and leaning forward, pushing a button to start his motor.
Keeba immediately put her hands on the bike’s handlebar. “Okay, okay. It’s Bellingham,” she confessed hurriedly.
“Up above Seattle then?”
“Yes. Thirty miles south of the border.”
He turned off the motor and raised his visor, looking her over intently. “I know where it’s at, I’ve been there. Homes, hills…and rain.” He looked at her as if he had spoken an obvious secret out loud. “You know it’s all sewn up there – armed guards all around the property and streams and such. People in these parts are all so frantic to get there but there’s no land left unclaimed.”
“Yes, I’ve heard. I still want to go. I have money,” Keeba insisted, pushing her straight auburn hair out of her face.
“Why?” he asked flatly. “Why go there? – money or not, when there’s no property left.” Chuck noticed the small group of three people watching the pair from a hut about 100 yards away. There was a child, a young woman, and Darius. He nodded to the man and the man waved back.
“If you’ve been there you’ll know why,” she told him. “There’s one piece of property that’s been unclaimed for forty years.”
“You’re talking about the Fortress?”
The look on her face said it all – his guess was right on the nose. “Darius told me I could trust you,” she said in more the tone of a question than a statement.
“You can,” the dark man answered, looking her square in the eyes. He turned around and began to shuffle some of his belongings, clearing the seat behind his, pushing bags further back. As she began to get on the bike he grabbed her arm and brought her face close to his: “If I do this for you, taking you there, if we get inside…”
“When we get inside…”
“I have the option to stay inside the compound. That’s my price. If we don’t get in – then I’ll take your money.”
“Agreed,” she told him.
“Okay, I'm Chuck. So how are you planning to get in?”
“I have my copy of the will,” she said.
“A piece of paper won’t help you. I’ve heard of half a dozen guys who died of some mysterious disease after putting their hands into the snake’s mouth.”
“A snake’s mouth? – maybe that’s what the will is talking about…” she stated before pulling her thoughts back.
“Yeah, the snake’s mouth. It’s a hole in the wall in the shape of a snake head. You stick your hand in and the snake bites you. If you are who you think you are, then the door will open and everything inside the compound will be yours – like Alibaba and the forty freaking thieves or something.”
“We’ll get inside,” she said again, her confidence growing by the second.
“I’d like to see that will of yours, Keeba…” Chuck said, grabbing her arm to get her full attention.
“The letters only appear at night. They're on a clear silicon slate.”
“We can be in the Coulee Reservation by nightfall – but that’s as far as I’m going without seeing the will with my own eyes.”
“We’d better get going then, instead of standing here arguing about it.”
He released her arm and she climbed up in back of him before the bike started off down the tracks.
By 5 PM the Sun was closing in on the horizon, and Chuck had pulled the awning over his bike till it was in front of him. They had only stopped twice during the day, to eat some dry rations and drink some water from the water-separators they each carried. Even in these arid conditions some water could be gleaned from the air they were passing through, especially with the volume of air they had covered in the last nine hours.
Chuck slowed the bike down, noticing how heavy Keeba’s body had become against him. “Hey, wake up,” he told her, shifting on the bike to grab her before she upset the balance.
She took a moment before fully realizing where she was. “Sorry, guess I fell asleep. I’m like everybody else – I’m used to sleeping during the day.” She climbed off the bike.
“Yeah, I know. I like traveling during the day because I’m less likely to see people going the other way on the tracks. It’s also easier to slip through towns while everyone else is sleeping.”
“Where are we?” she asked stretching while looking across the flatlands towards the mountains in the distance.
“We’re on the border of the reservation. Right on time, as the sun has just disappeared behind that mountain.”
She took out her water-separator and rolled it beside her ear. There was a welcome sloshing sound inside and she quickly downed a portion of the liquid. “Should we find some place to sleep? I don’t see a town.”
“We’ll sleep inside the reservation, on the ground. There’s a site I use a little closer to the mountains. I’m just waiting on a friend to show up and escort us in.”
“Did you tell him we were coming?”
“Oh, he knows we’re here,” Chuck told her with a knowing smile. Suddenly, from behind a sorry excuse for a school bus a stone’s throw away, came a yipping shout: five sharp, ascending whoops. “Ya-ta-hae!” Chuck answered, waving both arms in the air.
From behind the bus a large, solid, dark man appeared with dark braids on either side of a wide, smiling face. “Ya-ta-hae Washisu!” laughed the man, the two friends shaking hands firmly.
“Sal, you old drunk – what’s going on with you?” asked Chuck, getting off the bike to stand toe-to-toe with him.
“I’m the old drunk, Washisu? I’m the old drunk?” he asked laughing playfully. The Native American peered around his friend to take a look at the woman behind him. “She’s pretty,” said Sal, quietly – but not so quietly that Keeba couldn’t hear him.
“Yeah, you’ve always been one to notice the pretty girls, Sal,” Chuck laughed. He took a second look at Keeba and decided that maybe his braided friend was right. She was older than him by five years, but her curly red hair and black eyes were stunning.
“You gotta put a hook in the water to catch a fish,” the sturdy man with high cheekbones said, nodding in the woman’s direction.
The talk between the two men turned eventually to more pending matters. “We’ll need to spend the night here, with you, if that’s okay.”
“Anything for my brother, you know that. My desert is your desert.”
“It’ll be good to get off that bike,” said the woman.
“We stopped in Spokane for about an hour and then rode through Ephrata – I’ve had trouble there before. Other than that we’ve only made time for drinking some water.”
“Talking about drinking, did you bring any liquid refreshments with you,” asked Sal, knowing that his friend was usually good for a nice buzz.
Chuck opened his vest just enough to let Sal see a pocket holding a pint of whiskey.
“Did you bring anything to put in a pipe?” asked Chuck. The question was followed by the aboriginal patting a pocket on his chest. The two men laughed as they pulled the bike from the tracks and pushed it between them. Keeba followed behind them, glad to find someplace to rest until morning.
Within an hour a small fire was ablaze on the valley floor, with the shadows of the mountains standing watch over the scene. The trio ate some vegetables in a thick stew that Sal provided. After Chuck brought out his bottle of whiskey, Sal had felt obliged to pull out five buttons of peyote. “We’ve started growing them here on the reservation, you know.”
“Really?” asked the white man. He took one from his friend’s palm.
“It’s bitter, bro…” Sal told him but Chuck popped it in his mouth and began to chew on it. The expression of Chuck’s face squished up, but then eased as he got used to the taste.
The woman was thankful for a little liquid refreshment, but passed on the buttons. “This will be enough to help me sleep,” she told them. Keeba looked up at the stars above. “The heavens certainly are on fire tonight,” she told the men.
Sal began to answer her, as if beginning a teaching. “It is said there is a beetle in Africa that can roll a ball of shit in a straight line only if it can see the Milky Way. This bug uses the backbone of the galaxy to find its way to the pile of dung and then back home again. So I put this question to you: If an insect needs to see the Milky Way to find a straight path, is it any wonder that people got lost in cities when they could no longer see the stars because of the smoke?”
“You make a good point, my friend,” said Chuck.
Sal let the low sounds of the night seep in around them before he spoke again. “So what news from the outside world?”
Chuck knew he should get some rest, but a red orb amongst the stars caught his eyes. “I hear the colonies on Mars are doing well.” His eyes squinted a little and his face sneered. “At least that’s what the official people tell us. I suppose going to the coldness of Mars would be one way to escape this inferno.”
“Is the inland sea still growing?”
Chuck nodded yes. “Its northern border is almost to Tennessee, and the sea just keeps getting wider. If the icecaps keep melting, you’ll be able to catch marlin off your porch in Indiana.”
They all laughed a little, at the absurdity of the times.
“How about the tribe? Are you okay out here? ”
“As she always has, the Earth will provide for her children,” Sal answered. “But it has also been said: Mother Earth helps them who help themselves. And after helping ourselves to the dam, we’re doing much better. There isn’t a lot of water – but what there is, we are using to irrigate our crops. And we have enough power to supply the needs of the tribe.”
“It’s a raw wind that blows no man some good.”
“We have our brothers from Arizona living here with us now. The Hopi and the White Mountain Apache are showing us how to adapt to this new environment – they brought the peyote with them. We’ve started using it in our ceremonies. My children and their children will move even farther north if necessary. We already have an invitation from our Cree brothers to join them in Yellowknife on the Mackenzie River. We’ll be fine.”
“I know you will, Sal. I know you will.”
“Some of the families have started tunneling into the mountains, so that sleeping during the day is more comfortable, only coming out at night.”
They turned their eyes towards Keeba, to see what she had to add to the conversation.
“My grandmother knew this was coming. She had a kind of ritual when we kids turned 12. Grandma Isham had me stand in the middle of a room, she had an amazing house full of wood and paintings and fireplaces. She took a blanket off a nearby chair and threw it down in front of me and held my hands. She said, ‘I want you to forgive me for not being able to do more. The world you’ll be a part of is not the world I would have given you. I was just too weak to stop what was coming. One day, in your heart, I hope you’ll forgive me for what I couldn’t do.’” Keeba looked down and away as if searching for her grandmother’s face in the grayness of the night mountains. Even in the darkness the men could tell there were tears in her eyes.
Chuck reached out towards her but his tall friend pulled him back. “Tears give honor to those who have travelled before us,” Sal told him softly.
Keeba took a deep breath. “After that the nurse came in for our check-up.” She had said it without so much as a quiver, as if this was what normally happened to a twelve-year-old girl.
“Check-up?” asked Chuck.
“Yes – our check-up. When children in our family got to be 12-years-old, we had a check-up, got our vaccination, and then our parents were handed an envelope filled with money.” She looked at the men while smoothing out her shirt – as though she had grown impatient with them. “What?”
“This was a shot given inside your home by a private nurse?” asked Chuck, looking for clarification.
“Yes. Surely everyone has this done when they turn twelve.”
“I didn’t,” said Sal, shrugging.
“Me neither,” said Chuck.
“Well, all of we Isham grandkids did – and then our parents got an envelope full of money. It’s just the way things were done.” Keeba stretched and yawned, finally. “I’m going to get some rest,” she told them.
“Probably the best idea,” said Chuck. As she was lying down, he noticed a gold-chain necklace whose pendant had fallen against the ground beside her. The design was familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it.”
“What’s that symbol, Keeba – the one on your necklace?”
She picked it up sleepily, and smiled. “It was from grammy. I think it’s a lightning bolt or something.”
“I’ll stay up for a while,” said Sal, “if you want to get some sleep, C.T.”
“I feel kind of sick,” Chuck whispered.
“Respect the drug, my friend. It’s either Devil’s Root or Divine Cactus – depending upon your mood. I’m here with you, and will stay awake until you…”
The tall, weathered man began to smile and eased back onto his blanket. “No need to worry my friend. The stars are getting closer now.” Soon all three had fallen into a deep sleep.
By 9 AM the next morning Chuck and Keeba had made it to Wenatchee. The tracks followed the Skyomish River, deep into the Cascade Mountains. Often they were high up on the steepest slopes, looking down into the river-carved caverns.
Keeba pulled herself up to where she could shout into Chuck’s right ear. “My grandmother said she passed through these mountains once – through Glacier National Park.”
“Through the Cascades?” he shouted back, his voice rushing at her through the wind circling around his head.
“Yes! She said she rode the train going the other way. There were still snowcaps on the mountains. She saw grizzly bears hunting for fish in the streams. Elk watched the train as it rolled past and then simply returned to gazing.”
The geography of the landscape was still amazing within the Cascades, because the land itself hadn’t changed. “I’ve spent half of my life halfway between the valleys and the sky,” said Chuck. “You can see clouds from a distance, and then some are so low that they’re right beside you, and then they’re gone over your shoulder. They’re kind of my companions up here, on the side of these canyons. Perhaps they’re all headed to Sandpoint Idaho, Keeba – perhaps to see you!” They both laughed softly, remembering it felt good to laugh.
“By the time they get to me they’re so high up that we don’t really see them. I’ve been told that sometimes the rain will begin to fall and, before it reaches us, it evaporates back into the sky.” The woman thought for a moment. “I like clouds, Chuck. Tell me what you know about them.”
So the man began to talk about clouds – more to keep himself and his passenger awake than to really disperse information.
“There are many different kinds of clouds, Keeba. I’ve been travelling the Great Northwest for decades, riding these rails on the sides of mountains, and I’ve seen them all. There are clouds that form over a lake as water is sucked up from the earth. There are clouds like long flat feet wearing fuzzy gray socks. There are clouds that are flat with dark bottoms and fluffy gray tops. Some clouds are stacked up, different kinds one in front of the other. Sometimes clouds are like a solid light gray blanket with smaller, darker clouds below it. Other times clouds are high and white and fluffy with darker wisps below them that move past faster as they are pushed by the wind.”
Chuck stopped for a moment, noticing that the woman had put her head against his back. “Are you sleeping already?” he asked her. “I didn’t mean to put you to sleep.”
“No,” she told him, glad that he couldn’t see she was drinking in every syllable as if his talk of clouds was as thirst-quenching as the rain itself. She put her ear against his back again so she could hear the kindly words resonate inside his body.
“Clouds are the bringers of life, Keeba. That’s why I watch them as I go through these mountains.”
“Are there more kinds of clouds?”
He stopped for a minute, thinking, before starting again. “There are clouds that look like pelts, like the fur of a collie’s back – dark and jagged. There are white gray clouds with royal blue sky behind them and wisps of see-through clouds below them that look like a skeleton’s ribcage. There are clouds that blend into the blue sky, becoming robin-egg blue closer to the horizon. But the kind I like best are rain-bearing clouds – clouds that bring sounds like bombs exploding all around you as the rain beats heavy against your dusty skin. Yes – that’s the best kind of clouds – rain bearing clouds.”
So they rode deeper into the Cascades, skirting the Skyomish River, riding towards the coast and Everett and clouds full of rain.
Every now and again the man would slow the bike, throwing coins into the occasional yellow bucket by the railside. “What are those?” Keeba finally asked him.
“Those buckets? – why do you keep throwing money in them?” she shouted into his ear.
“That’s money for the men and women who keep the tracks clear. They ride the rails at night, making sure they’re holding tight and they’re clear of rocks. I’m so used to them I barely notice them anymore.” He only rode another 50 feet before straightening up in his seat. “Let’s stop for a minute. We’re almost to Skykomish. We can get something to eat there, but I want you to give me only a little of your money now – so you don’t flash around a lot of cash.” He slowed the bike, stopped it, dismounted and then helped her dismount.
Keeba reached down into her knee-high boots, pulling out a few bills while stuffing the rest back inside. “I’m starving, let’s eat.”
“Okay, but truly, stay close to me when we get there. This place started out as a mining town way back when and it’s gone back to being rowdy.” He took down a rifle from the back of the bike, putting it on a rack below his left thigh. “Okay, we’re ready now. We’ll be in Everett by nightfall with any luck –and I’ve got a place there.”
“And Bellingham tomorrow then?” she asked anxiously.
“Exactly right,” he answered while looking again at the pendant. He reached over and picked it up, turning it over in his fingertips.
“What is it, Chuck?”
“Oh, yeah – I think I know. We’ll see. Tomorrow.”
Everett Washington was a series of low buildings built on rolling hills beside a bay of Puget Sound. As they came into town from the east, Keeba began to notice people nodding towards the bike, obviously friends and acquaintances of the quiet man in front of her. When the bike was stopped, someone helped Chuck take it off the rail and offered to buy him a drink later, but he motioned towards Keeba and declined politely.
“I’m looking to hire a boat, however,” Chuck told the man. “Is R. O. around?”
“I think he’s already back at Greystone already.”
“Thanks much, M. L. See you soon.” With that Chuck began to push the bike uphill and Keeba took hold of the seat, helping as much as she could.
“What’s Greystone?” she asked when they were out of sight of Chuck’s friend.
“It’s just a place to crash for those people who are fishers and guides and boxmen. Before the government fell, before the weather turned, it was a flea market – so now the booths are where people live, for a small fee each month. I have a double booth – because I started sleeping there sometimes almost 30 years ago by now.” The bike seemed to grow heavier the closer they came to the top of the hill. The square grey brick building at the top suddenly paled beside the expanse of water that Keeba now saw. Water that went on forever. Five decades ago there would have been low islands there, but now the coastline had moved inland, and the barrier islands were small peaks sitting out of the waves with a tree or two on them.
“The ocean takes your breath away the first time you see it,” said Chuck noting her expression.
“Can you…can you drink all that?” she asked him in awe.
“No, no. There are a few larger barrier islands just right there, along the horizon – but this is all salt water. Even back in the day it was too salty to drink.” He gave her a moment to collect her thoughts. “Come on inside. We’ll get something to eat. I need to run us down a boat and all that.”
“Sure,” she told him absentmindedly. “A boat.” Suddenly she turned pale. “I can’t swim, you know.”
“Well then, just stay inside the boat,” he laughed.
Tucked securely inside Chuck’s space, towards the middle of Greystone, the pair was feasting upon some kind of meat that he had pulled from a small freezer and cooked in an even smaller thermablaster. The entire process had taken less than three minutes and the resulting meal was delicious. Keeba was too tired to ask what they were eating, knowing full well that the only animals left were prairie dogs and stray pets. Perhaps she didn’t want to know.
There was fresh water here inside, for a price, brought in from further up the coast and they both enjoyed drinking their fill. He snapped his fingers and music began to play in the background, softly.
“I’d like to see it now,” whispered Chuck.
“Your piece of information. You know the one.”
She thought briefly before reaching into a pocket on the side of her pant leg, and pulling out a piece of hard, see-through acrylic 4 by 6 inches. She handed it to him and he immediately shook it. “It’s not working,” he said. “You said it only worked at night.”
“Let’s go outside,” she whispered, wiping her fingers on a paper towel. They both got up and exited the building. Standing on the crest of the hill, looking towards the Pacific Ocean, the scene was amazing. Keeba took a deep breath before handing it to him.
He looked at it and shook it again. “Still no luck.”
“Hold it up towards the moon,” she told him and when he held it directly over the moon he noticed words waving on the clear surface.
Holding it perfectly still, he could see the letters and began to read. “When dry land turns to oceans, and rivers turn to streams, a place is prepared for you within a Baker’s mighty embrace. The only price for entry is the bite of a snake.” He smiled now, relieved. “There are only two Mount Bakers – one in the Cascades proper, and one in Bellingham.”
“Exactly. And Grammy only mentioned Bellingham.” She shrugged her shoulders as if the rest was obvious. “Is Chuck your real name?”
“I was named after the city of Charleston South Carolina – one of the first to be taken by the Atlantic. First there was the storm surge during a mega-storm, and then the rising ocean. People gave up and moved inland, my mother being among them. So she named me Charleston or Chuck.”
After looking over the waves for a while, they went back inside to find most of the hundreds of people asleep, or at least being courteous about the lights out rule. Chuck found R. O. the owner of the boat they’d be taking up the coast then came back, quietly lying down on the floor beside Keeba’s cot. Both of them slept, dreaming deeply about what they hoped the morning might bring.
Besides Keeba and Chuck, there were half-a-dozen people tucked into the small sailboat the next morning. Of course there was a mist that lasted well past dawn, and then a gray sky and showers seemed to be the order of the day. As the boat came into Bellingham Bay proper, Keeba was distraught. “Tony’s Coffeeshop should be right there, two streets up from the water, but Fairhaven isn’t there at all. And Lummi Island should be behind us – but it’s gone. Everything has changed from when my grandmother was out here.”
“Not everything, perhaps,” said Chuck while looking down at Keeba’s necklace. He lifted it from her neck gently, took it off her, turned the pendent sideways and held it up against the sky. “Look at how the symbol outlines the tops of the mountains. Generations may come and go but the Earth endures forever.”
“That’s wild! It’s a map! So what does the diamond mean?” she asked him quietly.
He hadn’t noticed it until she asked him, but now it all became obvious. “That may be where your legacy awaits, my lady. On the side of the lower peak is where the Fortress lies.”
“One way or the other, I’ll soon know my future.” She looked out over the water towards the shore. “Why is the shoreline moving like that?”
“That’s our welcoming committee: armed guards making sure people only pass through these parts.”
“How will we get up to the mountains then?” she asked.
“You forget – I’m a local boy. They know me here. But I’ll keep this necklace just in case someone needs a further incentive.”
As everyone disembarked, the roar of Whatcom Creek was almost deafening. The Lummi Indians had named this place Noisy Waters for good reason. The guards each took one of the passengers, asked them where they planned to go, and then made sure they got to their assigned destination pronto. Chuck merely waited patiently for one of the guards to approach him.
“Hi C.T.,” waved one of the armed guards, returning his gun to its holster. “What’s your business here?”
“The lady and I were headed up to the mountain. Just doing some sightseeing, Bo.”
“I haven’t seen her before,” he said, looking her over. “Where are you from?”
“She’s from Idaho,” interrupted Chuck, “but I met her in Everett. You’re welcome to come with, Bo. I just want to take her up the mountain to see the Bay from up there.” He shrugged. “Just sightseeing.” He got out the gold chain and started fiddling with it, catching the guard’s attention. Bo’s huge hands reached over and grabbed it, shoving it into a shirt pocket quickly.
“I’ll take you up to the treeline, C.T. - climb on in.” The three of them got in a vehicle and headed uphill, through houses that were crammed tightly together. People eyed them suspiciously as they hovered on their way through the compact streets. These were the lucky ones: the people who had gotten there first and were able to pay the local thugs to keep newcomers out; to make sure those who were ‘just passing through’ passed on through quickly.
After the couple was dropped off at 3800 feet, Chuck and Keeba began the long climb to where the fortress was supposed to be. From here, at the base of the higher peak, nothing of the fortress could be seen. Perhaps that was why others eventually had left it alone, to be covered with moss and vines, becoming one with the mountain itself. That and the fact that those who tried to enter via the snake’s mouth always died quickly. “It’s this way,” said Chuck, nodding to a footpath on the right, and so they began their climb in earnest.
At 4500 feet Chuck noticed a brick wall was about 40 feet in height. It seemed to hug the side of the mountain. Keeba followed him up further, hanging onto small trees and shrubs to steady her balance. “I know where I am now,” he told her, touching the brick wall occasionally through the vegetation to be sure he hadn’t gone too far. They stepped over a small stream of water that seemed to be flowing over the wall.
And then they both saw it. The snake’s head stuck out from the vegetation, its jaw widely parted, an open invitation for anyone who dared to stick in a hand. The woman passed him up, and approached the stone opening with a steady resolve, but Chuck suddenly pulled her back.
“You don’t have to do this, Keeba. Everett isn’t such a bad place and I do have a another place there – a nicer home. I’ve seen the results of the snake’s bite. Think it over before you do something we’ll both regret.”
Keeba shot past him and stuck her hand inside the mouth of the snake. “I’ve come all this way, Chuck, I’ve got to know…” and suddenly she shrieked. Pulling out her hand they could tell she had been bitten because of the blood spattered on her fingertips. They stood there, on the mountainside, waiting for something to happen – but nothing did. No magic door opened, the wall did not tumble to the ground, no welcome mat appeared.
“What now?” the woman whispered to herself. From their vantage point among the boulders, the couple could see that a storm would soon be moving in from the east. They could smell the air becoming heavy with moisture and the leaves on the plants began to turn over in the wind. They were both at a loss. Soon there would be no choice – they would have to seek shelter elsewhere.
Suddenly a three-foot-high creature with drab gray skin appeared from behind some rocks, walking towards the pair. “Do you require medical assistance?” Its huge dark eyes looked up inquisitively at Chuck. Keeba was so taken aback at this strange creature that she completely forgot about her hand. Chuck on the other hand, assumed a casual stance. “Captain Stevenson, does your companion require medical assistance?”
“Captain what?” asked the woman incredulously.
“Captain Charles Stevenson of the World Federation of Scientists at your service. Our headquarters is over the hill – at what used to be a ski resort.” Half-a-dozen more short, grey beings crowded around the tall man, all looking up at him. “These are our biologicals, manufactured to blend into the rocks and boulders up here, to protect us and keep watch.” He crossed his arms as though he’d been caught in the act.
"Well I guess that explains the stubble on your face," she reached up a touched his scratchy beard, surprising herself.
Captain Chuck grinned, placing his hand over hers to keep her palm against his face for a moment longer. "I'm usually clean-shaven, but I didn't want to be too obvious while on route."
"How did you find out about me?"
“When the committee got word from Darius about your inquiries they investigated your linage and Bingo – you checked out. So they contacted me – I was on assignment in South Dakota, and asked me to bring you out here. I’m a meteorologist. Basically, we like to know our neighbors. Which brings us back to the obvious question – why didn’t something happen?”
Thunder could be heard in the distance, coming up the other side of the mountain. “Do we have to say ‘Open Sesame’ or something?” asked Keeba, rolling her fingers into fists.
“Blood Analysis Complete,” announced a mechanical voice. “You may enter.” Suddenly a light went on in the wall, and a six foot section of the brick wall slid sideways while a metal plate of the same size slid open from bottom to top. The small group practically fell inside, with the door automatically closing in back of them.
The furnishings inside were outdated, but they were in perfect condition and would have been fashionable a half century ago. The walls were filled with paintings of water scenes: Mongkol Chakritthak’s Water Fall; copies of Monet’s Water Lilies; Jan Matson’s Water Play. One light after another came on, going back towards the farthest wall that seemed to be 300 feet away. Scattered around the floor were statues of water nymphs, and images of Neptune in bronze and marble. Along the walls were white chests which, when opened, revealed frozen containers of food.
Outside the storm was breaking over Mount Baker, with thunder echoing through the cavern-sanctuary.
“I smell water,” said Chuck, looking around.
“I do too,” answered Keeba. “But where is it?”
With two large booms outside the rainstorm hit. Eight metal plates in the ceiling shifted and retreated into the walls, revealing a skylight that took the place of a ceiling. It went as far as the eye could see. The small group followed each other through the rooms, which eventually entered into a courtyard surrounded by five other domiciles. The courtyard was comprised of thick rich dirt, enough for a garden - the implication being obvious.
“Are there fish floating in the skylight?” asked Keeba looking up.
“There’s a shallow lake around here – wait, maybe the lake is a disguise, a way to camouflage that skylight. That would make the skylight the bottom of the lake and the top of this compound.” Everyone looked up with wonder.
Going back into the entrance quarters, they watched the water accumulating on the skylight, getting deeper as the room got darker – and then the rain began to run into clear tubes along the walls, eventually pouring through them, the sound becoming almost deafening. The entire house seemed to be alive, a joyous ode to water.
“Where is the water going?” shouted Keeba.
“I think it’s going downstairs,” cried Chuck, running towards a set of marble stairs leading down. And so they ran; a woman, a man, followed closely by six little grey created beings. Down a marble spiral staircase they all ran, down, deeper into the mountain. Twelve steps into their descent the pair spied what yesterday would have been an ocean of water for someone like Keeba.
“It’s a freaking swimming pool!” screamed the six tiny creatures, running into the shallow end, beginning to splash about like children. “Last one in is a regular human!”
“Come on in Keeba! It’s fun!” shouted Chuck laughing, beginning to frolic – fully clothed – with the small grey ones.
Keeba Isham walked into the warm, pulsating pool of liquid joy – into Chuck’s outstretched arms.
Nicki Isham finished looking at the advertisement for Long John Silvers fish and chips, and turned back to the front page. She opened the first section to the second page, noticing the highlighted numbers at the top. She reached over her breakfast, reached into her purse, and took out a small square of pink-colored paper. She checked the numbers once, twice, three times before breaking into a wide smile. She knew exactly what she was going to build with the money.
micheledutcher - jessbaum wrote: I instantly identified with Nikki and loved the journey of the story with Keeba. The end totally messed with me and I'm still not sure if it's awesome or if I kind of hate you for it but that is the sign of good writing.
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