Chapter Nine: Inside the Mouth of the Lion

They confiscated my laptop but, as you can tell, we’re not completely without resources over here in Veggieville.
 Great name, huh?
The blighted (they’ll shoot you on the spot if they hear you so much as whisper the word “blight,” but I’ll be damned—sorry, Dad—if I switch it up now) came up with that jovial little moniker for this particular holding pen. They call them “reeducation camps” (Dad said that’s a little nod to a war that happened a long time before I was born), but they’re really nothing more than ranches.
That’s right. Consider us cattle…
Veggieville is the gutted shell of the old stadium. Dad used to take us to Portland Timbers games here. Now, we sleep in a tent near the spot where the athletes would take the northeast corner kick.
There are probably seven or eight thousand of us being held here. Men make up the greatest number of survivors, but there are plenty of women and children as well.
I’ve actually made some friends, but I haven’t seen anyone yet from OES. No Mrs. Cranston. No Principal Webber. No Coach Bell.  
We’ve been stuck here in Veggieville for eight days. It’s been long enough to know a few things about what it means to be “reeducated.”
We understand that, despite their vague inferences to the contrary, they have no intention of converting us. We’ll no sooner be exposed to the blight than we’ll be given an all-expenses-paid trip to join the rest of the remnants in the green colonies (oh yeah, they do exist…). In fact, they have taken great pains to ensure that we won’t even sniff exposure.
How do they do it, you might ask? Good question, dear readers. General Ambrose has turned about two dozen of our ranks against us. These surrogates operate as the voice, the mind, and the fist of the blighted for as long as we’re stuck here in captivity. They carry weapons. They give orders. They dispense punishment and dole out the pitiful remunerations that serve as rewards around here. Dad has wondered a few times out loud what they were promised in order to betray us, but nobody seems to have any idea why they’ve chosen to throw in with the blighted.
Maybe they arranged to be on that last truck to the cannery.
There is a man stuck inside here with us—Dad calls him a genius, and he’s not one to blow things out of proportion—who has managed to outsmart their X-NET filters. I won’t type his name out here, but he was kind of a big deal back before the blight. He heard about my record, and he has promised me as much time as I’m apt to have to get things right.
And that’s just what I intend to do.
First thing’s first. Billy’s improving. Dad was really worried about infection in those first days after the Red Lion, but big bro seems to have turned a corner, thank goodness. He’s just as ornery as ever, which fills me with hope. But his energy…he gets tired pretty easily. Even if those traitorous goons didn’t have those automatic rifles, I’m not sure if we could make good time back up to Mt. Tabor if the situation presented itself.
And then there’s Mom. She’s reached out to us twice, both times in writing.
More about her in a little while. We never should have come here…
In reading back through all of this, I see that I’ve missed a few pretty important details. You’ll have to forgive me—I’m still a few weeks away from that magical thirteenth birthday. Age is no excuse for an incomplete record, but it’s what I’ve got, so I’m using it…
Mom survived her treatment. Camille and Marshall and Dad took turns staying with her through every minute of that first day. Dad said that her heart stopped twice, and both times Dr. Camille brought her back from the edge.
I wasn’t allowed to see her, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Dad said she had a respirator tube in her mouth, and she couldn’t speak. Still, I’m sad that I wasn’t able to say goodbye.
Mom, I love you. I know you’re out there, and I know you still love us.
Please, Mom. I know you’re reading this. I’m your daughter, your Allie bird…
Anyway, it was touch and go, as they like to say, for two days. Billy and I kept ourselves busy, just praying from time to time that Mom would make it out okay. We met a couple of great adults that were leading the efforts to restore some of the homes up in the hills. Owens’s scouts had brought back an entire truckload of building supplies, and we spent an afternoon ripping out charred two-by-fours with a couple of other kids our age.
It was happy, destructive, messy fun. I had no idea how much I might have enjoyed working in construction if things had turned out differently.
On our third night in town, we actually met up with Pete and his sisters at dinner.
“Quarantine was kind of rough,” he said. “Seventy-two hours of isolation. They separated us, and it was hard being away from each other.”
Little Annie nodded. “Lots of kids were crying in there. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever see Pete and Mary again.”
“What about your folks?” Billy asked. “Are they okay?”
Pete shrugged and looked away, and that was that. We ate with them and it was nice. Very pleasant. It was reassuring to know that there was an actual system in place, you know? Smart people were using science and medicine to give the remnants a chance to move forward.
We were working on dessert—some yummy sheet cake and ice cream for me and the girls, and coffee for Dad, Billy, and Pete—when things went haywire.
Dr. Camille had a habit of giving a nightly debriefing after the supper dishes had been cleared. Without mentioning names, he would stand and grab a microphone and run through the successes and losses in the medical district before concluding with some positive comments on the future of our (yes, I’d already come to think of it that way, and that makes me feel silly to write that here) little community.
In just those few days, I’d come to understand that there were inevitable deaths every night, but there were also many more success stories. There were now eight cohorts of blighted patients convalescing inside the RZ. The first three were consuming almost exclusively an herbivoracious diet. Dr. Camille said they were rebuilding their strength. After most of a year away from fruits and vegetables, it was a pretty bumpy road to reintroduction.
On that terrible night, Dr. Camille stood to give his speech and had just opened his mouth when gunshots echoed through the cafeteria. Had it happened outside of the RZ, I doubt our reaction would have been so slow. But even in the short time we’d been there, we’d been conditioned to…well, to relax. Just three days inside, and the sound of a gunshot had already taken on the feeling of something like a scene out of a play, or some elaborate hoax.
Only this was no play. One of the bullets winged Captain Perez. The soldier sitting next to him was shot in the face. It was terrible, and Perez snapped right into it and returned fire with his pistol. It was one of Owens’s scouts that had started the shooting, a large man with this creepy pale skin who had never said so much as a word to me or Billy, even though we had seen him every day since our arrival.
It became suddenly clear why Owens had enjoyed such success while out on his supply-gathering missions. The bastard (sorry again, Dad) had sold us out to General Ambrose, and after Perez eliminated that scout and we all began to scatter, streaming out of that building like rats out of the proverbial sinking ship, we understood in full what the blighted were capable of.
They’d come ashore somewhere north of the RZ, and they streamed into our community through every adjacent street in what used to be Chinatown. Ambushing us in the cafeteria was perfect. It was like shooting fish in a barrel, and they could take down a couple of hundred targets without much resistance.
I longed for the shotgun and Billy’s pistol. They’re still in the Uptown Apartments, if anyone reading this is crazy enough to go after them. They’re upstairs, and they work, for what it’s worth. Dad was always a stickler about cleaning and oiling that gun.
“Kids!” Dad yelled, and we followed him south, keeping our heads down. A throng of remnants was heading for the bridge, and you know the old adage about safety in numbers. Well, when we got there, they opened fire on us. Billy took that shot in the shoulder. It was enough to take him up and off of his feet, and Dad and I had to stop and cover his body while panicked remnants stepped on, over, and through us on their desperate quest to make it to the bridge.
In actuality, Billy’s wound probably saved our lives. We’d been at the front of the cavalcade. Had we not stopped to tend to my brother, we’d have been cut down by the blighted Ambrose had positioned there to flank us at the bridge.
They unleashed hell on the remnants at the front, but there were still so many of us that it didn’t take us long to breach the far end of the bridge. By the time Dad and Billy and me had snuck through, scores of both blighted and remnants lay dead in the street.
We kept our eyes straight ahead, though, and we slunk through the night until finding our brief respite in the Red Lion.
From there, it was just a matter of time. The blighted fanned out throughout Portland. They moved methodically through the husk of the hotel, turning out disheveled little pockets of people like us. We gave ourselves up when the man with the bullhorn began his spiel about Veggieville for what felt like the four hundredth time.
And there you have it. Well, I guess that’s most of it. There’s still that little bit to tell about the canneries.
The blighted are ravenous. They’re as hungry as we are. Maybe more so, as it turns out. You see, according to the X-Net there are some seriously large and prosperous colonies of remnants out there. There’s a big one in Utah, and another in Idaho. Those are the closest to us, but they’re sprouting up all over.
People are rebuilding.
They’re farming. They’re ranching. They’re thriving.
Only, the blighted are struggling. For them, food is most certainly a finite resource. My techie friend showed me a pretty interesting story just this morning here on the X-NET.
That’s a pretty garden-variety X-NET headline nowadays, only this one wasn’t about a group of unfortunate remnants biting the dust.
No siree, that little story detailed a military attachment of the Red Rising that was ambushed by another platoon. Another platoon within their own ranks!
Dad’s theory of halves might very well be playing itself out, only it’s the blighted, it seems, that are destined for extinction.
Dieback. Remember that little beauty?
Well, it’s happening.
Oh, so the canneries. The blighted have repurposed the old Del Monte factory up near Lombard. Every morning, two large trucks visit us here at Veggieville. Every morning, our number is reduced by eighty.
Less than half that many are brought in on a daily basis. You do the math. This won’t end well for us, but it’s not going to end well for them either. At least there’s that.
The X-NET is humming with images and news about what’s going on out there. As it turns out, it was folks like my fine benefactor here that actually got things back online. Anyway, you can do the research yourself, but this is one photograph that came up just this morning. I’m not saying that you should take a look at it, because it’s really gross and I had to fight to hang onto my breakfast bar after I saw it, but it might put some things in perspective for you—if perspective’s really what you need.
Speaking of perspective, I asked Dad about that last night. He and Billy and I were laying out, watching the stars emerge from the darkness. We’ve had two dry nights in a row. It’s cold as all get out, but at least we’ve been dry.
“What did Dr. Camille say to you, Dad? Right before he died.”
Dad swallowed. He took my hand. He took Billy’s. “He told me to run. He said to take you kids and run away and not to ever look back. He said,” his voice caught, “he said that Mom wouldn’t be the same to us. That we lost her. He told me to get you kids out of the city, and that things would work themselves out in time.”
Billy and me didn’t have much to say to that. I gave Dad’s hand a squeeze and he returned the favor, and we went to bed shortly after that. I think I dreamed about the cabin last night. Man, I just want to go home.
So Dr. Camille said that things will work themselves out in time.
Speaking of time, you want to hear something crazy? It’s almost Christmas. Just a few shopping days left for all of you procrastinators out there (har-de-har-har, right?)…
Time is a funny concept.
In one year’s time, the world fell apart. Just one year. So where will be next Christmas?
Will we be next Christmas?
Mom? Are your reading this?

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