Chapter 6 — Looking Out, part 1

12 06 2009

After the smoke-grey clouds have crowded in, and solidified into a bulbous, low-hanging mass, the lightning starts. It’s long after noon, late for a summer storm to come in, but Ash is starting to be able to tell when it’s going to be a big one, and this is going to be a big one.
“This one looks big,” Zabe mutters. It’s the first words either of them has spoken since last night, and her voice is hoarse.
Ash opens the trap door in the centre of the lookout’s floor and grabs the binoculars, his books, and the little pack of matches. He clambers down the ladder and lights the big lantern that hangs from the cellar’s ceiling. He listens to Zabe scraping around upstairs and then the first wave of thunder comes and the entire lookout shakes.

“Do you have the record book?” Zabe yells down to him.

“It’s in the box!” he calls back, swinging around to the metal box bolted into the stone wall and opening the lid. He pulls out the record book and sits at the table with it. “Come on down here!”

“Do you have a pencil?”

“Doesn’t matter, get down here!”

There’s a huge flash of light from above and the entire building shakes. Zabe storms down the ladder a second later, flushed and panting. “I can’t…” she yells and then the thunder crashes in again and Ash has to watch her mouth move in the shadowy light.

“I have a pencil,” he says calmly. “It was in the box, too.”

“Oh,” says Zabe. She shuts the trap door and then sits down in the other chair. Their knees bump together. They’re squeezed into this tiny cellar: her, him, table, two chairs, and a foot square metal box protruding from the wall. The lantern swings two feet overhead, throwing light. “Ok, I think we need to record that that fire is still burning to the east.”

“Did you figure out its position for today?” Ash asks.

“Yeah, but it looks the same as before.” Zabe unfolds the topographic map she’s been carrying all morning and shows him the position. “I think it’s running out of fuel.”

“Yeah, it’s smaller than it was yesterday,” Ash says, scanning yesterday’s records. “God, Toby has the worst handwriting I’ve ever seen. Is that a six or a q?”

“Based on context…” Zabe says and Ash grins and nods.

“What are we putting down for potential danger?”

“Well, if there’s an avalanche, then those trees are heading straight into the lake.”

“Yeah, good point,” Ash says. “I’ll write, ‘could lead to timber clogging in lake’.”

“That would be bad news,” Zabe says. She’s watching him write. “Add something about ‘potential avalanche threat’.”

“Got it,” Ash says. He writes for a minute more and then puts down the pencil. In the meantime, Zabe has opened her books and started to read. Ash opens his own books, slotting them into the spaces hers have left atop the table, and gets to work. He wishes, as he always does when he is taking notes, that he had his box

An hour later, they emerge up the trap door into a new world. The air feels new in their mouths and the floor-to ceiling windows of the lookout reveal a cloudless sky stretching as far in all directions as they can see. They are perched atop a mountain, lower than many of the mountains around but high enough that they have commanding views. Zabe takes up the binoculars and looks out to the northeast, where the storm has extinguished the wildfire that threatened the lake.

“Is there a lot of damage?” Ash asks, looking out at the grey hillside.

“I’m not sure,” Zabe replies. She passes the binoculars to him. “It didn’t go high enough up the slope to form an ideal avalanche chute, I don’t think…”

Ash squints through the viewfinder at a forest of ashen tree skeletons. It’s late in a relatively dry summer – or so the fifteen years of records taken by the school suggest – and the landscape looks parched, especially above treeline, where the alpine tundra is brown in the sun. They seem to have escaped disaster today, but at least once a week, lightning will ignite a new wildfire within a fifty mile radius of the school. The entire surrounding forest is a tinderbox and the school itself looks tiny and vulnerable even with the protective firebreaks and trenches dug around its edges.

Year Fourteen has lookout duty during the summer wildfire months. A much higher year – Nineteen, Ash thinks – regularly makes the journey up the north face of the school’s valley in the winter months to have a look around the surrounding area, but whatever they find there has never been reported in Ash’s hearing. For Ash, lookout duty – two people, one day and night a week, arriving late in the evening after a two hour hike and leaving late the next evening for a one hour descent – is the highlight of his week. He likes the solitude and the open freedom of the mountaintops.

Zabe is his lookout partner. He doesn’t mind the long silences and odd conversations too much, but he understands why everyone else in their year shied away from duty with her. Zabe in close quarters can be intense.

“What do you think?” Zabe asks from beside him. He is acutely aware that she has been watching him as he makes his scan of the area.

“No idea,” he admits. “I can see what you mean about potential for an avalanche to take the burned debris down to the lake and, worst case scenario, rip through the net and overflow the dam, but…”

“Ugh,” Zabe says. “Since you don’t seem capable of making a decision, as per usual, I’m going to look through the records for any previous wildfires in that area.” She plops down on the floor, crosses her legs, and reaches for the logbook.

Ash is two synapses firing away from saying to her, “This is why no one wants to have lookout duty with you,” but he manages to hold it in and instead broods on the best possible way to deliver the line for maximum devastation while panning around the circumference of the lookout’s view again.

Ash loves the mountains: the long vistas and the fractal, pyramid horizon, the feeling that he gets when he surmounts a particularly rough summit. He’s making a map in his free time up here in the lookout that depicts in excruciating detail as much of the surrounding panorama as he can take in from his binocular view. It is like writing the most precise love letter of all time.

To pass the time until they are relieved by the next pair this evening, he sits on the wood floor opposite Zabe, props the binoculars on a crude stone tripod, takes out the map he has labeled “NorthWestern Views”, and begins to draw.

They sit in silence as the sun bakes the wood floor and they shift around to avoid it. In a reverie of artwork, Ash broods further on what he would say to Zabe if he thought she would listen. For weeks now, ever since it happened, he’s been replaying the conversation he had with her about Mr. Wu and the music lessons over and over again.

Zabe asking him, “How are you so good at being a person?”

Him, deflecting her.

He doesn’t think that he’s particularly good at being a person, as she put it, but he guesses that from her perspective – which to him seems to veer wildly between complete oblivion and awkward self-consciousness – he must seem like a social god. It feels bad to think that, but he remembers her snapping at him earlier, so it also feels kind of good. He glances up at her and sees her biting her lip in concentration, reading whatever she’s been writing. Out of the nine people closest to him in life, she was the only one to ask what happened with Mr. Wu. And somehow that made her the only person he wanted to tell.

“I think that one is at more of a slope than this,” Zabe says. Ash jumps and drops his pencil. Zabe is suddenly looming over him, kneeling and staring down at his drawing. She points, her finger hovering a millimeter above the paper. “Right there,” she says.

“Uh, you sure?” Ash asks. He rechecks through the binoculars and yes, it’s annoying, but she is right. “Ok, good eye.”

Zabe hovers over him until he has finished correcting it. He gets uncomfortable and twists around to look up at her.

“You ok?” he asks, for want of a better thing to say.

“Oh,” Zabe says, “you know.” She shrugs and looks at her hands.

“Did you figure anything out from the records?”

“It was interesting, but ultimately pretty useless,” she says. There’s something philosophical about her voice, and the statement, that makes him like her more. “I mean, we’ll see if it breaks the dam or not in the winter, won’t we? Numbers won’t change that.”

“Yeah,” Ash agrees. “Though if something breaks the dam we are all, as I believe several people have pointed out before, completely stuffed.”

“We could go to straight solar power.”

“No way to convert it, really, is there? No way to store it but in the pumps.”

Zabe starts to say something, but is cut off when they hear a far-off sound like something beating rhythmically through the air.

“The helicopter!”

They scramble to their feet and run to the windows.

“Coming in from the west!” Zabe points.

Ash raises his binoculars and squints along that line. “Yeah, a bit south too.”

They watch together as the helicopter swings in, flying low past the lookout. The side door is open and Dr. Levi, her short hair whipping around her face, waves to them. Ash waves back as the helicopter moves down into the valley. Crosswinds buffet it until it is held in the shelter of the hills; then it falls into the wind shadow and settles down lightly in the meadow.

The rotors wind down and leave the massive landscape in silence. Ash is suddenly aware of Zabe breathing beside him. Helicopter buddies tend to be a special kind of friend within Year groups. Year Fourteen came in three bunches – five when they were seven, three when they were eight, and then Ash and Zabe, three years too late, forever to be set apart from their peers by virtue of that simple arrival. Ash isn’t sure if he resents Zabe for that or not.

“Who did they bring?” Zabe asks. “How many?”

Ash raises the binoculars again. “Um, looks like four. Three girls and a boy.” He squints and shifts his focus, because lots of people are crowding around the helicopter now and he can’t quite see. Then he catches sight of the boy, who is doubled over. Dr. Levi is crouching beside him, her hands on his hunched shoulders. “Something’s wrong with the boy.”

“Let me see,” Zabe says. She takes the binoculars. A moment later, she says, “He’s ok. He’s standing up. But he’s definitely been crying.”

Poor thing, Ash thinks, but he’s learned not to say it aloud.

*****************

A few weeks later, Dr. Levi holds Ash back after class.

“Have you met the new Year Nine?” she asks him.

He shrugs. “I’ve seen him around and introduced myself to him. Not much more than that.”

“I would really appreciate it if you talked to him,” she says. “He’s not adjusting to life at the school very well.”

Ash takes her hidden meaning – that he probably will understand better than most, because he didn’t at first either – and shrugs again. “I’ll see what I can do,” he says, “but it’s probably just going to take time.”

He walks away from her classroom with the distinct feeling that he’s about to get into trouble. Teachers don’t often ask for favors and this is a weird one to have asked for. Dr. Levi is probably the only teacher in the entire school who even dares to think that some of the students might need more than a brief adjustment period. They’re supposed to be so young when they’re taken that whatever they felt for their previous families can be swept away in the strangeness and constant closeness of this new family. Ash wonders if there’s a period in every student’s life, once he or she leaves the school, when it becomes obvious just how brainwashed they’ve been.

He tries this question out on Zabe later that day. It’s hot outside and the Year Fourteens are puttering about the meadow, theoretically checking on fish traps but really shoving each other into the river and running around yelling. Zabe is lying in the grass with her feet draped over the edge of the bank, but she sits up to laugh at him.

“What?” Ash demands. “I don’t see how brainwashing is funny!”

Zabe shrugs with the ultimate condescending languor. “Your family brainwashed you too, Ash. Everyone is brainwashed into thinking that they should belong to a certain group in society.”

“Don’t start with me,” Ash mutters. Dr. Levi has been teaching them social theories and how to manipulate an enemy mind by constructing false realities. “I mean, really, this school is doing the exact same thing to us that Dr. Levi says we should do to a prisoner of war!”

“Not really,” Zabe says. “We’re constructing our actual reality, you know.”

“Oh, shut up,” Ash says. He leaves Zabe to her intellectualizing and goes in search of the new kid.

******************************************************

Perry is his name. Ash has met him once before, on his first night at the school, when he sat hunched over his food like a terrified mouse at the table with the Year Nines. Ash had come over to introduce himself, along with everyone else in Year Fourteen, and then they’d left the Nines to it and had gone back to their own table. Ash hasn’t noticed anything about him since. He tracks Perry down after dinner and asks him if he’d like to come for a walk.

“I don’t know if I’m allowed,” Perry says.

“Oh, if you’re with me, it’s fine,” Ash replies.

They walk out into the meadow and sit by the river, in the same spot where Zabe was earlier in the day. It’s a beautiful place and remarkably lonely in the midst of the school.

Ash doesn’t know how to have the conversation that Dr. Levi wants him to have. He wishes that Holt were here, to show him how.

“So Perry,” he tries, “Dr. Levi told me that you were having a hard time adjusting to life at the school. Can I help you in any way?”

“No,” Perry says. Ash senses that he is suddenly on his guard. “You can’t help me at all.”

“Are you sure?” Ash asks. He’s not really sure what else to say.

“You can’t help me,” Perry repeats. “I want to go home to my village. I don’t want to be in the school. And you can’t fix that.”

“No,” Ash says, “I can’t.” He’s cautious. He knows that he can’t give Perry what he wants but no one else can either. This is about what Holt taught him to do: about lowering his threshold for happiness. “You’re right, I can’t fix that. But… I guess that you have to learn how to work within the realistic limits of what we can do. You have to learn how to be happy within the confines of the school, if you know what I mean.”

Perry shakes his head violently. “That’s not going to happen. I can’t be happy outside my village. I’m going to escape.”

Ash frowns. “Believe me, Perry, there’s nothing within a thousand miles of this place. Zabe – she’s a girl in my year – thinks that there’s a big desert surrounding the mountains to the south, west, and maybe east. The north would be too cold. You can’t just escape from it.”

“I don’t want to be here,” Perry says. “And I’m going to leave if I want to!” He turns to stare out at the meadow and Ash sees his chin start to quiver.

So he tries a new tactic. “Why don’t you want to be here? Maybe we can fix what’s wrong with here.”

“I don’t want to be here because my mother and my sister aren’t here. I want to be with them!”

Ash hesitates. “But aren’t they…”

“Oh,” Perry rolls his eyes, “sure, Dr. Levi says they’re dead.” His voice cracks there and he gulps a little air before he continues. “But I know they aren’t.”

Ash gives up on being sensitive. Now he’s interested. “How do you know?”

“I saw them,” Perry says. “When we were in the big flying thing. The helicopter. We came off the ground and my house was on fire and I saw them running away into the fields.”

Ash flops onto his back and stares up at the darkening sky, considering. “Will you tell me the whole story?”

“What whole story?”

“About what happened when they came for you in the helicopter.”

“Ok,” Perry says. “Are you going to believe me?”

Ash wonders this himself. Eventually he says, “I don’t have any reason not to.”

“Are you going to tell Dr. Levi what I say?”

Ash props himself up on one elbow. “Look, Perry, we’re both students here. I’ll always take your side against the teachers. I’m not going to tell her anything except that I cheered you up and you’re ready to be a functioning member of the school.”

Perry frowns. “She’ll know you’re lying.”

“Then I’ll say that I did all I could. Whatever you want me to say.”

“Ok,” Perry says, “I guess I’ll tell you. I don’t even care if you tell her, because I’m going to be gone really soon anyway.”

“I hope that’s not true,” Ash says, but he feels the obligation in it.

Perry ignores him. “So this is what happened:

“I was at the market. It’s in the center of our village. My mother has a stall there where she sells the fruit that we pick. My sister is older so she was helping Mamma out with the money and I was sitting on the stool in the back sorting out the different kinds of berries into baskets. Then there was this big loud noise. It was just like in a vid on the box, everything shook and the front of our stand fell over. Mamma grabbed me and Sis and she took us down to the river. Everybody was getting on the big canoes and was going to sail out to the big island in the middle of the lake and wait for the danger to pass like whenever the Red People come over the hills to raid our village. That’s just where we go, we’ve got big watchtowers there and when I get older I’m going to be a lookout on a watchtower and watch the hills so I can see the Red People coming.

“But when we got down to the lake, our paddles were gone, and there was no room for us in any of the other canoes. Mamma said that we had to go back for the paddles because she must have left them at the house. So we went back to our house. It’s near the hills because we are poor so it was a long walk from the lake. The whole time there were all these explosions. Somehow I got separated from Mamma and Sis so I ran back to the house. There were people sitting inside. Dr. Levi was one of them and then two men who I don’t know. They told me that my Mamma and Sis were dead and they showed me on the box!”

“Wait, what?” Ash comes out of the reverie of listening. “What did they show you? I thought you said they were alive.”

Perry nods his head emphatically. “They are alive. I know it. But they showed me on the box them getting blown up and they said that it just happened, just then, so I was really lucky to be alive.” He pauses and takes a deep breath. “I didn’t know what to say. It was really scary but it didn’t feel true. People in my village have a strong connection and like the last time that the Red People came, I knew that my Sis was in trouble because she made me feel it!”

“You can feel it?” Ash is confused. “Like… how?”

“I don’t know. You just can.” Perry shrugs. “It’s because of the sparker.”

“What’s a sparker?”

Perry pulls his hair off his neck and shows Ash a tiny scar just above his collarbone. “That’s my sparker,” he says. “It’s how I got born.”

Ash shakes his head. “I don’t get it.”

“I know,” Perry says, nodding. “You’re not from my village. You can’t get born the way I can.”

Ash smiles. “But here I am.”

Perry shakes his head. “Here you are, but you aren’t alive. It’s ok. No one else is, just us, not even the Red People and they’re our nearest neighbors. We were Chosen.” He pauses and glances at Ash. “Whatever. It doesn’t matter. I’ve got this connection and I know when they’re in trouble, just like they do for me. Except it doesn’t work this far away. So they might think I’m dead, but when I get close to them, when I get out of here, they’ll know it.”

“So Dr. Levi said that they were dead and she showed you this vid on the box to prove it,” Ash says. This conversation is starting to seriously creep him out. “Was it a high-quality vid?”

Perry shrugs. “I don’t know what that means.”

“Oh,” Ash says, “it has to do with what type of vid it is. Never mind. It doesn’t matter. So then what happened?”

“So then they said they were going to take me away and look after me. I wasn’t happy about it and I kept yelling and saying no but they took me right out of the house and put me in the big flying bird – the helicopter – and then there was another explosion and our house lit on fire! And then we took off and were flying up into the sky, straight up, not like a bird, and I looked down and saw my mother and my sister! They were running away from the house and into the field where we grow our fruit. And the whole village was on fire and the canoes were out in the lake paddling for the island. Everybody must have been really scared of the helicopter because we’ve never seen anything like that before and some of them kept stopping and staring at us. And I kept screaming for my mother and Dr. Levi kept telling me I was making it up because I was sad. And then they brought me here. I think they made me eat something that made me sleep for a really long time because I don’t remember the in-between part.”

Ash feels bleak and washed out. “And you think Dr. Levi is lying to you?” he asks.

Perry sighs and twists around to look back at the meadow. Ash follows his gaze to the lit-up windows of the dormitory.

“No one’s watching us,” he says. “We’re fine.” It seems like the right thing to say.

“I feel like I’m being watched,” Perry mutters. “You try being unhappy here.”

“I was,” Ash says. He’s startled when he admits it, because it feels so far away. “I was for the first six months I was here. I wanted to go back to where I grew up. I spent every minute I had trying to remember what I left behind. Then I got a talking to from an older student and I figured out that…” He trails off.

“You figured out what?”

Ash hesitates. He doesn’t know how to put it. Eventually, he says, “I figured out how to… well, I guess how to manage my emotions so that I wasn’t always thinking about what I lost.”

Perry is non-plussed, and Ash can tell. It’s not a good answer. “So you think you’re going to be that older student for me? Teach me how to ‘manage my emotions’ so I do what they want me to do?”

“No,” Ash starts, but he realizes that this is almost certainly what he thought he was doing. Holt on the porch, telling him to forget what was behind him. A person to aspire to be.

“Well go to hell,” Perry says. He stands up. “I shouldn’t have told you anything. I don’t want your help.” Without another word, he turns and runs across the meadow, away from Ash. Ash watches him run unevenly through the long grass until he reaches the lit-up circle of the dormitory and disappears from sight.

******************************************************

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