Crossed, p.14
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       Crossed, p.14

         Part #2 of Matched series by Ally Condie
Page 15


  “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. From 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. Expl
osives. 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. ”

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