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Crossed, Page 10

Ally Condie


  He loved it here.

  When my father told stories, he blurred the line between truth and tale. “They’re all true on some level,” he’d say when my mother teased him about it.

  “But the township in the canyon is real,” I’d always ask, to make sure. “The stories you tell about that are true.”

  “Yes,” he’d say. “I’ll take you there someday. You’ll see.”

  So when it appears before us around the next bend in the canyon, I stop short in disbelief. There it is, exactly as he said, a settlement in a wider part of the gorge.

  A feeling of unreality settles over me like the light of late afternoon that spills over the canyon walls. The township looks almost exactly the way I remember my father describing his first visit:

  The sun came down and made it all golden: bridge, buildings, people, even me. I couldn’t believe the place was real, though I’d heard about it for years. Later when the farmers there taught me to write, I had that same feeling. Like the sun was always at my back.

  The winter sunlight sets an orange-gold glow on the buildings and bridge in front of us.

  “It’s here,” I say.

  “It’s real,” Vick says.

  Eli beams.

  The buildings before us cluster together, then split apart around rockfall or river. Houses. Bigger buildings. Tiny fields carved out where the canyon opens wider.

  But something is missing. The people. The stillness is absolute. Vick glances over at me. He feels it too.

  “We’re too late,” I say. “They’re gone.”

  It hasn’t been long. I can still see their tracks here and there.

  I also see signs that they prepared to leave. This wasn’t a rushed departure, but one taken with care. The twisted black apple trees have been harvested; only a few golden apples still shine on the branches. Most of the farming equipment is gone—taken apart and carried away by the farmers, I’d guess. A few rusted pieces remain.

  “Where did they go?” Eli asks.

  “I don’t know,” I say.

  Is anyone left outside of the Society?

  We pass a stand of cottonwood trees on the bank of the stream. A small wiry tree grows alone at the edge.

  “Hold on,” I tell the other two. “This won’t take long.”

  I don’t cut deep—I don’t want to kill the tree. I carve her name carefully on the trunk, thinking, as I always do, of when I held her hand in mine to teach her to write. Vick and Eli don’t say anything while I carve. They wait.

  When I finish I step back to look at the tree.

  Shallow roots. Sandy soil. The bark is gray and rough. The leaves are long gone but her name still looks beautiful to me.

  We’re all drawn to the houses. It feels so long since we’ve seen a place built by real people with the intent to stay. The houses are weathered and made of pieced-together sandstone or worn gray wood. Eli climbs the steps to one of them. Vick and I follow.

  “Ky,” Eli says, once we’re inside. “Look.”

  What I see inside makes me reconsider. Maybe there was an element of haste in their departure. Otherwise, would they have left their houses like this?

  It’s the walls that speak of hurry. Of not quite enough time. They are covered in pictures and if the farmers had had more time, they would have washed the walls clean. They say and show too much.

  In this house there is a boat painted in the sky, marooned on a pillow of white clouds. The artist signed his name in the corner of the room. Those letters claim the painting—the ideas—as his own. And although this is the place I’ve been looking for all this time, I still catch my breath.

  This township is where he learned.

  About writing.

  And painting.

  “Let’s stop here,” Eli says. “They have bunks. We could stay forever.”

  “Aren’t you forgetting something?” Vick asks him. “The people who used to live here left for a reason.”

  I nod. “We have to find a map and some food and get out. Let’s check the caves.”

  We look in all of the caves along the sides of the canyon. Some of them have painted walls, like the houses, but we don’t find a single scrap of paper.

  They taught him to write. They knew how. Where would they have left their words? They couldn’t have taken all of them. It’s almost night and the colors in the paintings shift to grays in the fading light. I look up at the walls of the cave we’re searching.

  “This one is weird,” Eli says, looking at the painting, too. “Some of it is missing.” He shines his flashlight up. The walls have been damaged by water and only the top of the painting remains—part of a woman’s head. All you can see are her eyes and forehead. “She looks like my mother,” Eli says softly.

  I turn in surprise to look at him. Because that’s the word that’s repeating over and over in my mind right now, even though my mother never came here. And I wonder if that word, mother, is as dangerous to Eli as it is to me. It might be even more dangerous than father. Because I feel no anger toward my mother. Only loss, and loss is a feeling you can’t fight your way out of as easily.

  “I know where they must have hidden the maps,” Eli says suddenly. There’s a glint of cunning in his eyes that I haven’t seen before and I wonder if I like Eli so much not because he reminds me of Bram, but because he reminds me of myself. I was about his age when I stole the red tablets from the Carrows.

  When I was new in Oria, it was strange to watch the people flood out of their houses and workplaces and air trains all at once. It made me nervous the way they moved at the same times to the same places. So I pretended the streets were dry gulches from home, and the people were the water after rain that turned the dry beds into streams. I told myself the people in their gray and blue plainclothes were nothing but another force of nature moving along.

  But it didn’t do me any good. I got lost in one of the Boroughs, of all places.

  And Xander saw me using the compass to try to find my way home. He threatened to turn in Patrick for letting me keep it unless I stole some red tablets.

  Xander must have known then that I was an Aberration. I don’t know how he could tell so quickly, and we never talked about it after. But it doesn’t matter. The lesson was a good one to learn. Do not pretend one place is like another or look for similarities. Only look for what is.

  “Where, Eli?” I ask him.

  He waits for a moment, still grinning, and I remember this, too—the moment of the reveal.

  I held out my hand to show Xander the two red tablets I’d stolen. He didn’t think I could do it. I wanted him to know that I was his equal even though I was an Aberration. Just once, I wanted someone to know that before I started a life pretending to be less than everyone around me. For a moment, I felt powerful. I felt like my father.

  “Where the water can’t reach,” Eli says now, looking at the painting of the woman who has been washed away. “The caves aren’t down here. They have to be up high.”

  “I should have known,” I say as the three of us hurry out of the cave and look up at the cliffs. My father told me about the floods. Sometimes the farmers saw the river rising and knew it would happen. Other times, during the flash floods, they had almost no warning at all. They had to build and farm on the canyon floor where there was space, but when the water rose, they took to the higher caves.

  The line of survival is thin in the Carving, my father said. You hope you’re on the right side of it.

  Now that we look for them, the signs of old floods are everywhere—marks of sediment up on the canyon walls, dead trees wedged high in crevices from the violence and speed of the flash floods. The force it would take to do these things is one that could bring even the Society to its knees.

  “I always thought it was safer to bury stuff,” Vick says.

  “Not always,” I tell him, remembering the Hill. “Sometimes it’s safer to take it as high as you can.”

  It takes us nearly an hour to find the path we want. Fr
om below it is almost impossible to see—the farmers cut it into a cliff so that it blends perfectly into the scarred canyon walls. We follow the path higher and higher until we go around the side of the cliff along a bend that wasn’t visible from below. I imagine you couldn’t see it from above either. Only if you’ve dared to climb right to the spot and look closely.

  Once we’re there we see the caves.

  They’re the perfect place to store things—high and hidden. And dry. Vick ducks into the first one.

  “Any food in there?” Eli asks as his belly grumbles. I grin. We rationed our food carefully but we’ve stumbled upon the township just in time.

  “No,” Vick says. “Ky, look at this.”

  I duck inside with him to find a cave that holds only a few bulky containers and cases. Near the door I spot marks and footprints where someone—recently—dragged some of the stockpile out of the cave and hauled it away.

  I’ve seen cases like these. “Watch out,” I tell Vick, and I pry one open carefully and look inside. Wires. Keypads. Explosives. All Society-issue, from the looks of it.

  Could the farmers have been in league with the Society? It doesn’t seem likely. But the farmers could have stolen or traded for these things on the black market. It would take years to assemble a cache that could fill a cave like this.

  What happened to the rest of it?

  Eli rustles behind me and I hold up my arm to keep him back. “It looks like what’s in our coats,” he says. “Should we take some of it with us?”

  “No,” I tell him. “Keep looking for some food. And don’t forget the map.” Eli slides out of the cave.

  Vick hesitates. “It might be useful to have,” he tells me, gesturing at the stockpile. “You could rig this stuff, right?”

  “I could try,” I say. “But I’d rather not. Better to use the space in our packs for food and papers if we find them.” What I don’t say is that the wires always lead to trouble. I think my father’s constant fascination with them helped bring about his death. He thought he could be like Sisyphus and turn the Society’s weapons back on them.

  Of course, I tried the same thing with the other decoys when I rigged their guns before we ran into the Carving. And it likely didn’t turn out any better for them than it did for my father’s village. “It’s dangerous to try to trade with this. I don’t even know if the Archivists will touch it anymore.”

  Vick shakes his head but doesn’t argue. He moves farther back into the cave and pulls at one of the rolls of thick plastic. “You know what these are?” he asks.

  “Some kind of shelter?” I ask, looking more closely. I can see ropes and thin tubes rolled up inside.

  “Boats,” Vick says. “I’ve seen some like this before on the Army base where I lived.”

  It’s the most he’s said about his past and I wait to see if he’ll say more.

  But Eli calls out to us in a voice filled with excitement. “If you want food, I’ve found it!” he shouts.

  We find him eating an apple in the second cave. “This must have been the stuff that was too heavy to carry,” he says. “It’s all kinds of apples and grain. And a lot of seeds.”

  “Maybe they stored this in case they had to come back,” Vick says. “They thought of everything.”

  I nod in agreement. Standing there looking at what they’ve left, I feel admiration for the people who lived here. And disappointment. I would have liked to meet them.

  Vick feels it too. “We’ve all thought about breaking away,” he says. “They really did it.”

  The three of us fill our packs with food from the farmers’ stores. We take apples and some kind of flat strong bread that seems like it will last for a long time. We also find a few tarred matches that the farmers must have made themselves. Maybe later there will be a place where it’s safe to have a fire. Once we’ve finished filling our packs, we find a few more in the storage cave and fill them, too.

  “Now for a map and something to trade,” I say. I take a deep breath. The cave smells like sandstone—mud and water—and apples.

  “I bet it’s here,” Eli says, his voice muffled at the back of the cave. “There’s another room.”

  Vick and I follow him around a corner and into another recess of rock. As we shine our flashlights around, we see that it is clean. Well-organized. Full of boxes. I walk across the room and lift the lid to one of them. It’s packed with books and papers.

  I try not to think This must be the spot where he learned. He could have sat right on that bench.

  “They left so much,” Eli whispers.

  “They couldn’t carry it all,” I say. “They probably took the best of it with them.”

  “Maybe they had a datapod,” Vick suggests. “They could have entered the information from the books into that.”

  “Might be,” I say. Still, I wonder how hard it was to leave all of the real copies behind. The information in this cave is priceless, especially in its original form. And, their ancestors had brought it all in originally. It must have been hard to walk out without it.

  In the center of the room stands a table made of small pieces of wood that had to have been carried through the entrance of the cave and pieced together. The whole room, like the township, has that sense of being assembled carefully. Every item seems filled with meaning. The Society didn’t drop it into your lap. You worked for it. Found it. Made it yourself.

  I shine my light across the table and onto a hollowed-out wooden bowl filled with charcoal pencils.

  I reach inside and pick one up. It leaves a small black mark on my hand. The pencils remind me of the tools I made for writing back in the Borough. I gathered pieces of wood a few at a time on the hill or when a maple tree in the Borough lost a branch. I’d tie them together and lower them into the incinerator to char the ends for writing and drawing. Once, when I needed red, I stole a few petals from one of the blood-colored petunias in a flower bed and used them to color the Officials’ hands and my hands and the sun.

  “Look,” Vick says behind me. He’s found a box with maps inside. He pulls some of them out. The warm light of the flashlight changes the papers, making them seem even older than they really are. We sift through them until we find one that I recognize as the Carving.

  “This one,” I say, spreading it out on the table. We all gather around it. “Here’s our canyon.” I point to it but my eyes are drawn to the canyon next to ours on the map. A spot there has been inked with thick black ink Xs, like a row of stitches. I wonder what they mean. I wish I could rewrite this map. It would be much easier to mark how I want the world to be, instead of trying to figure out how it really is.

  “I wish I knew how to write,” Eli says, and I’m sorry I don’t have the time to teach him. Maybe someday. Right now we have to keep moving.

  “It’s beautiful,” Eli says, touching the map gently. “It’s different from the way we paint on the screens back in the Society.”

  “I know,” I say. Whoever made the map was something of an artist. The colors and scale of the whole thing fit together perfectly.

  “Do you know how to paint?” Eli asks.

  “A little,” I say.

  “How?”

  “My mother taught herself, and then she taught me,” I say. “My father used to come here and trade with the farmers. Once, he brought a paintbrush back for her. A real one. But he couldn’t afford any paint. He always meant to get her some but he never did.”

  “Then she couldn’t paint,” Eli says, sounding disappointed.

  “No,” I say. “She could. She used water on rock.” I think back to the ancient carvings in a small crevice near our house. I wonder now if that was where she got the idea for writing on stone. But she used water and her touch was always gentle. “Her paintings always vanished in the air,” I tell Eli.

  “Then how did you know what they looked like?” Eli asks.

  “I saw them before they dried,” I say. “They were beautiful.”

  Eli and Vick fall silent
and I can tell they might not believe me. They might think I’m making this up and remembering pictures that I wish I’d seen. But I tell the truth. It was almost like her paintings lived—the way they shone and vanished and then new things appeared under her hands. The pictures were beautiful both because of the way they looked while they existed and because they could never last.

  “Anyway,” I say. “There’s a way out.” I show them how this canyon continues through to a plain on the other side from where we entered. Judging by the map, there’s more vegetation out there and also another stream, bigger than the one in this canyon. The mountains on the opposite side of the plain have a small dark house marked on them, which I take to be a settlement or safe place, since it’s the same marking the farmers used to denote their own township on the map. And past that, to the north of the mountains, is a place marked SOCIETY. One of the Border Provinces. “I think it will take two or three days to reach the plain. And another few days to cross it and get to the mountains.”

  “There’s a stream on that plain,” Vick says, his eyes brightening as he inspects the map. “Too bad we can’t use one of the farmers’ boats and go down it.”

  “We could try,” I say, “but I think the mountains are a better option. There’s a settlement there. We don’t know where that stream leads.” The mountains are on the top edge of the map; the stream runs down and disappears at the bottom of the paper.

  “You’re right,” Vick says. “But we might be able to stop and fish. Smoked fish last for a long time.”

  I slide the map toward Eli. “What do you think?” I ask him.

  “Let’s do it,” he says. He puts his finger on the dark house in the mountains. “I hope the farmers are there. I want to meet them.”

  “What else should we bring?” Vick asks, looking through some of the books.

  “We can find something in the morning,” I say. For some reason the neatly ordered and abandoned books make me feel sad. Tired. I wish Cassia were here with me. She’d turn each page and read every word. I can picture her in the dim light of the cave with her bright eyes and her smile and I close my eyes. That shadowy memory might be as close as I come to seeing her again. We have the map, but the distance we still have to cross looks almost insurmountable.