The Wye Oak

Excerpt 5

Brad remembered the town of Gem in Thomas County, Kansas, situated at the precise point where US Route 383 shifted one hundred ten degrees from a north-south to an almost east-west route.  It, too, had been largely burned out, and abandoned; but some of its buildings had remained essentially intact.  Brad thought about settling there, with Andrea, once the weather returned to a more normal pattern - which he never doubted it would.

It was sunset when he reached the town.  He stopped the truck, got out, and walked toward a mound of stone, wood and tarpaper.  This was all that was left of the town he wanted to make his home some day.  He picked up a small twisted shard of blue-gray steel and put it in his shirt pocket, then returned to the truck.

"Once we began to see what had happened to everything," he told Andrea, "I knew this was what I'd find.  Still, I hoped somehow this town had been spared."

"It's special to you?" Andrea asked.

"Yes."

"Were you here with your father?"

"No," Brad replied.  "It wasn't the past but the future this town signified.  I wanted us to settle here.  It just felt so right, being here.  It just...it just made me smile, thinking about it.  I didn't want us to live out our lives under ground.  I thought, after awhile, when Kirk and Joey and everyone else got settled for good somewhere, you and I could finally be free to be by ourselves - like we were in Tennessee.  I still want that; but now I'm wondering if it'll ever happen.  Seeing this place in ruins brings all the other things I see, but don't want to see, to the surface.  You've changed so much, Andrea.  You're more like him now than me.  I know you could never love him as much as you love me - but the day may come when love won't be the only consideration, or even the most important.  I don't want my love to be a burden.  The place he'd give you would be solid, and safe - even in the midst of chaos.  This is all I have to offer you: something that may disappear tomorrow.  I live by doing, my life is transient.  He lives through his rules: his life is stable.  Even if he never walks again, he can take you places and give you things I never could.  He and I both began life as foundlings, only I've remained one.  He became his father's successor.  Andrea: I won't give you up without a fight.  I don't care that I have nothing to offer you."

"Brad, I've seen stability and position and structure all my life," Andrea replied.  "I've felt how stifling it can be, and seen how quickly it can all disappear.  I want no part of it.  I'd sooner be a nomad or a gypsy than queen of the universe.  Everything you attribute to Kirk is everything I don't want.  The nothing you say you have to offer is exactly what I do want.  Your life is transient?  If only your understood how satisfying that concept is.  I don't want to belong to any one place or time or set of rules.  I wish we could roam endlessly, just like we're doing now.  But I'm afraid it's you who'd soon tire of it.  You're more like Kirk than you realize."

The farther north they drove, the thicker the cover of ashes became.  From Gem to Kearney was a hundred and seventy miles.  Ever since they crossed the bridge at Eads and began the journey home, the thin cirrus-like patches of ash high above the plain grew heavier, denser, and seemed to gradually descend; until, by the time they reached Norton, some seventy miles northeast of Gem and just a few miles from the Nebraska border, the clouds of ash had reached to within a few hundred feet of the ground.

The town of Norton - what was left of it - sat at an elevation of 2275 feet.  A fog of ash blanketed the town in the evening, when the winds grew calm and the air cooled.  The truck Brad drove hurried through the ruins of Norton and into the valley beyond, where the fog had not yet settled.  Then it continued along US 383 to the border, where US 183 took over as guide, leading it due north through a thin but constant fog to US 6, to Minden, in Kearney County; and, from there, up Nebraska 10 to Bassway Strip, where the air grew so thick they could barely see their way to the mouth of the cave.

Joey walked from the cabin to his old lookout, his favorite spot on the mountain, where he had retreated so many times, either to stand and watch the sunset or feel the cold Sierra wind against his face, or simply to try and understand why he was so much trouble to this man whose approval meant so much to him.  It had been more than two years since he was last here.  This time, it was neither sunset nor the chill air, nor was it reverie or even remembrance that brought him to this spot.  He stood there transfixed by something he had never seen before and never expected to see as long as he lived.

Sanderson Spears had made one stop on the way home: at Hawthorne, Nevada, the place he had always kept his helicopter - and meant to leave it this time.  When he arrived, he sensed that something was different; but because the landscape was essentially the same as before, he could not quite tell what had changed.

He brought his helicopter down, as he always had, in the spot reserved for him.  Off to the side was his Jeep, where he always kept it.

"We'll fuel it up first," Spears told Joey, "just in case they run out and we can't get any more.  Wait here," he told Joey; "I'll go find -"  He paused a moment.  "- hell: I don't know his name," he realized.  "Anyway, I'll go get him."

Spears made for the big metal hangar just beyond his landing pad.  It wasn't until he got there that he realized the whole back end of it had caved in; only the facade and a few feet of roofing remained intact.  He heard a door creak, saw one of the hangar doors sliding open; the attendant appeared.

"What happened?" Spears asked him.

"Just caved in," the man replied.  "About a week ago - November First.  Heard this weird noise coming from over that way," the man pointed vaguely to the northeast.  "Then the ground shook.  Few minutes later it shook again, only harder.  That's when the roof caved in.  Whole back end of it's flat as a pancake.  No one's been here since.  Haven't seen a plane or a chopper in almost a week."

Finally, Spears realized what it was that was different: the place was abandoned.  He had never seen it without at least half a dozen aircraft.  His was the only one here.

"Where'd they all go?" he asked.

"Don't know.  Maybe they flew off across the ocean," the man speculated.

"You got fuel?" Spears asked.

"Yeah, still got some," the man replied.

"Can you fuel her up?" Spears asked.

"Yeah, I think we can squeeze one more fill out of the tank - then that might do it.  We're shutting down.  I don't recommend you leave your chopper here this time.  Better to leave your Jeep."

"My associate's here," Spears explained.  "He can take the Jeep."

The helicopter was fueled; Joey got in the Jeep and started it.  Spears bid the attendant farewell.  He started to ask him his name, then decided not to.

"A way of life is passing," the man told Spears just before the chopper ascended.  Spears gave him the "thumb's up" on that one.

He'd never flown his chopper to Monitor Pass before.  He started going over the landscape in his mind, trying to fix on a place to set down.  There was a clearing just to the southeast, wedged between US Route 395 and the Toiyabe National Forest; but it was behind the mountain, and his weather station faced west-northwest.  He wanted the chopper where he could keep an eye on it.

"I'll fly around a ways," he resolved.  "But not too far.  Hell, maybe even land her in my own front yard!  Probably end up with a parking ticket and a hefty fine!"

A swirling, swooshing sound first caught his attention.  The closer he came to Monitor Pass, the louder it grew.  It amused him to think that, whatever the sound was, he was probably the only person on earth who could have heard it through the roar of the chopper; he had learned to tune the noise of the rotating blade out, so that other sounds became audible.

It was almost sunset; the big red-yellow glare just above the horizon blinded him momentarily.  Then his eyes adjusted.

"Son of a bitch!  You just had to wait till my back was turned, didn't you!" he exclaimed in a voice full of excitement.  "You just had to do, didn't you?  Couldn't wait a few more days, could you?  But of course!  Of course!  Why didn't I see it?  'Cause I'm blind that's why!  It's Yellowstone all over again: that's what triggered it!  I went to see the earth change - and missed the change in my own backyard!  Son of a bitch!  If I hadn't been sidetracked I'd have been here to see it!  But then I'd never have seen Joey again.  But you know what?  I wouldn't exchange finding him for being here - some scientist!  Son of a bitch!"

From on high, Spears could see for miles.  The big island lay almost at the end of his field of vision; smaller islands at various points along the way.  And, closer in, the endlessly pounding surf of the Pacific, hitting against the base of the Sierras.

California had broken away from the United States.  A rift had formed at Crescent City in the north; arching diagonally eastward around the Salmon Mountains; cutting Lassen Volcanic Park in half; continuing southeastward through Plumas National Forest; due south through Tahoe National Forest and Eldorado National Forest; then veering southeastward again, as far as Toiyabe National Forest and within a few hundred yards of Monitor Pass before resuming its southward trek, through Yosemite, King's Canyon and Sequoia National Forest; jutting sharply eastward one last time, through the Mojave Desert and the Joshua Tree National Monument; finally returning westward just north of the Salton Sea; to end its course between the towns of Oceanside and Carlsbad along the Gulf of Santa Catalina, just north of San Diego.