Chapter 6 — Looking Out, part 2

12 06 2009

The emotional impact of Perry’s story creeps up on Ash over the next few weeks until it’s so huge inside his head that he can’t see beyond it. He wants to feel for Perry, but mostly he is caught up in feeling for himself. He remembers Dr. Levi at his own kitchen table, the helicopter in the garden frightening the sheep and destroying the wintry remains of the vegetable patch. His parents were nowhere to be seen, but now he starts placing them into the image, moving them around and seeing if they fit.

One day, he and Zabe arrive at the lookout to relieve Betsy and Jemma and he sees something that makes him think that if he doesn’t say anything he’ll explode. He is bringing their cold dinner outside so they can eat and watch the sunset when they see them.

As always, to Ash, the view is breathtaking. Blue and then grey mountain peaks stretch as far as the eye can see in all directions from the lookout, fading in color as they recede in distance. It gives Ash the impression that they are cresting on a sea of stone. He has a memory from childhood of being at the top of a mountain and looking away to the distance, where the sea reflected back in a solid silver sheet like the reflection of sunlight on a platter. He doesn’t remember how he got to the top or why he was there, but he can picture this single scene perfectly: the ocean, and the towns strung along the coast, and the sails of hundreds of ships blowing majestically back and forth.

“Come look,” Zabe calls. Ash turns away from the view and rounds the stone wall of the lookout. Zabe’s hand shoots out and stops him. “Shh,” she whispers. “Don’t startle them.”

Ash peeks around the corner and sees a mountain goat and her two offspring. The young ones are covered in fur the color of cream and their horns are downy nubs. Their mother grazes on scraggly weeds while the babies frolic among the rocks. They have a way of leaping straight into the air with their legs very straight that makes them look like they are bouncing on a trampoline.

Ash feels frozen in place, terrified that if he moves he’ll scare them and the babies will clatter down the steep mountainside. But something startles them anyway, or the mother grows tired of the tiny weeds that grow at this altitude, and she trots over the side and down the slope with her babies following behind bleating.

Ash exhales slowly and sits down on the wooden steps that lead to the flat slate roof and its lightning rod. “Think they’ll be all right?” he asks Zabe. “They seem small for how late it is in the season.”

“They’re mountain goats,” Zabe replies. She sits beside him and takes her bowl. “They’ll be fine.”

“I guess,” Ash says, strangely unconvinced. “What if wolves get them?”

“Then the wolf pups will have something to eat.”

Ash rolls his eyes. “You’re philosophical today.”

“I’m philosophical every day.” She performs the standard Zabe shrug.

“Ugh,” says Ash. He holds up his spoon and lets the beans gloop off of it. “I wish we could light a fire and heat this up.”

“Yeah,” Zabe agrees.

“Yeah,” Ash says. “Uh.” He keeps staring out at the view, and the seemingly endless ranges on the horizon, and thinking about that image in his mind of the sails out at sea.

“What?” Zabe asks. “You disagree?”

“Huh? Oh, no, I’m just distracted.”

“By what?”

“What was your life like before you came to the school?”

It’s the first thing that comes into his mind, and he regrets it immediately. Zabe’s face freezes, her lips become a narrow line, and she when she speaks her voice sounds like it’s stretched thin. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Ok,” he says quickly, “sorry, I mean, I don’t want to pry. I was just curious. Because, uh, I talked to Perry and he told me a really weird story.”

“Oh.” Zabe has her head turned slightly away from him.

“And it reminded me of… lots of things. About before I came here. And that kind of thing. And I guess that I wanted to talk about it a little bit, and that when I have problems, it seems like, well, it seems like I talk about them with you.”

“That’s only because you’re stuck in this lookout alone with me for 24 hours a week.” She turns back to him and offers him a little smile. “Right?”

“No,” Ash says, though he’s not sure if he’s telling the truth or not. “You usually, not always, but usually, have something interesting to say.”

She rolls her eyes. “Charming.”

“I’m being honest.”

“I know,” she says. “Really. I’m a bitch sometimes.”

“No…”

She raises her eyebrows at him.

“Ok. Yeah, you are.”

They eat in silence for a long time. Finally Ash says, “Look, can I tell you about something that happened before I came to the school?”

“Sure,” Zabe says. She sounds carefully noncommittal.

“I don’t even know if I’m really remembering it right or not,” he starts, “but I have this really clear image of standing on top of a mountain, being very young, and looking out at this big port town and seeing the ocean and a lot of ships with big white sails going along the coast. And I think about it a lot when I’m here at the lookout. And about going to the mountains in general.”

“Well,” says Zabe, “I remember that when I first met you, you mentioned the mountains and going skiing in them.”

“Yeah,” Ash agrees, “I did mention that. I forgot that I told you.”

“So tell me about them.”

“Hm,” Ash says, “well, we went there for a few weeks every winter.”

“Who’s we?”

“My parents and I.”

“Your famous mother.”

“Right. That’s why we went. We would sail to one of the university towns and my mother would speak there for a few weeks. And then we would sail to the mountains. My mother had friends who would meet us at this university town along a big mountain lake. There were huge mountains all around us there. They were different mountains from these. Like, they looked different. They were more jagged, and there were little towns in every valley, and we travelled between them on gliders. My mother’s friends lived in a little village and we would ski all day down the mountain behind their house.”

“What was the skiing like?”

“It was fast. There were no trees to slow us down. We would hang onto these tow ropes that dragged us up the slope with gliders and then we’d go sliding back down.”

“I can’t imagine just skiing down an empty hill,” Zabe says. “Without skins or anything?”

“Exactly,” Ash replies. “It was just incredibly fast. And so, so scary.”

“Why scary?”

“Well everyone I skied with was probably ten years older than me. All of my parents’ friends’ kids were much older because my parents had a special dispensation, so I was always the really young one in the group. They looked after me, but not very well.” Ash remembers the older kids towing him behind them, consistently bringing him higher up the slope than he wanted to go. “I guess they didn’t remember what it was like to be a little kid.”

Zabe cocks her head. “What do you mean your parents had ‘a special dispensation’?”

“Oh, well…” Ash laughs. “This is funny.”

“What?”

“When I was talking to Perry, we ran into the exact same problem. He kept talking about things from home that seemed totally obvious to him but that to me didn’t make any sense. Where I’m from, we have very strict laws on reproduction. Parents over a certain age can’t have children without pleading their case and getting a special dispensation from the government.”

Zabe frowns. “Why not?”

“Well, because it would be irresponsible to wait until you were over thirty to have children if your average lifespan is forty-five, right?”

“I guess… but it seems unenforceable.”

“What do you mean?”

“How do you stop people from getting pregnant?”

Ash blinks. “Like… actually, physically getting pregnant? Like the cows do?”

“Uh, as far as I am aware, humans do it too…”

“Well I know that we’re biologically capable but…” Ash shakes his head. “Wow. Well at least where I’m from, we’ve gotten away from doing anything that barbaric. We grow our babies in hospitals and the parents come to collect them when they are the correct age.”

Zabe raises her eyebrows. “Are you sure that isn’t just a story your parents told you to avoid an awkward conversation?”

Ash isn’t sure about that, but he’s not going to let her know. “Look, anyway, everyone has to have their child before they are twenty-eight or they need special dispensation. My sister Marcella died before I was born and my parents were just over the age limit, so they applied for another child.”

“Huh,” Zabe says. “Go on.”

Ash does go on, recollecting every family trip to the mountains and the tiniest details: what color his snowsuit was, what the candy in the villages tasted like, where they stayed and what they ate and what brilliant and witty things his mother said at dinner parties.

“Ash,” Zabe says eventually. “It’s a nice story and all. Really. It sounds great. But…”

Ash sighs. “But you want me to get to my point.”

“Do you actually have a point?”

“Yeah, I actually do.” He sighs again. “You know that kid Perry?”

“The little Year Nine who we saw arrive on the helicopter? Yeah, why?”

“I had a really disturbing conversation with him the other day.”

Ash relates Perry’s story to Zabe. She sits, listening and chewing on her lip, for the entire thing. When he comes to the end, and to Perry running away from him, she shakes her head.

“That wasn’t really fair to you,” she says. “I mean, you were just trying to be nice.”

“Yeah, but I was also just doing exactly what Dr. Levi told me to do. It’s like you said about how we’re constructing this reality. I don’t want to be an advocate for it. If I thought I could go back home…” He pauses. “I mean…”

“What?” Zabe asks. “Would you really?”

“I don’t know.” Ash is having a thought and he doesn’t want to share it with her. It feels like something trying to break out of its shell.

She’s insistent. “I want to know!”

“I don’t care,” Ash snaps. “I don’t have to tell you everything.”

Zabe glares at him, stands up, and walks inside the lookout tower. Ash sits for a few minutes and tries to unpry the bits of the eggshell off his thoughts one by one. Then Zabe emerges, dragging her sleeping bag behind her.

“Where are you going?” he asks.

“I’m sleeping on the roof,” she says.

“Really? What it if rains?”

“Then I’ll get wet.”

Ash can feel the disdain radiating off of her like heat. “Um,” he says, “sorry I said that to you.”

“Yeah, well,” Zabe replies, and then she swings the sleeping bag up onto the flat roof and hoists herself up beside it. “Goodnight.”

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

“Ash,” Zabe says. “Ash, wake up.”

He opens his eyes. He’s sweaty inside the dark cavern of his sleeping bag and he feels uneasy but can’t remember why. He squeezes his head out into the freezing dawn air and remembers: because he slept on the roof. Also, because Zabe is mad at him.

She seems to have forgotten it, or at least forgiven him. She is sitting up beside him with her sleeping bag drawn up to her neck. One of her arms sticks out of the side, and she is clutching the heavy binoculars to her face one-handed.

“What?” Ash asks. He yawns and slides the bag down to rest beneath his armpits. The cold air feels great. “It’s so early, Zabe.”

“I know,” she says. “Look.” She holds out the binoculars.

He takes them from her and she immediately curls her exposed arm back inside her sleeping bag. He notices that she’s shivering. “How long have you been awake?” he asks.

“Oh,” she says, “a while now. Just watching.”

He raises the binoculars to his eyes with both hands and pans around the landscape. “What am I looking for?” he asks.

“It’s hard to spot,” she says. She stretches towards him and guides the binoculars around so that he is looking almost due north. “Focus far away. Do you see it?”

Ash starts to say no, but then he does see it: a thin dark column. It rises up into the air from within a valley so deep that he cannot see the bottom.

“Was there a lightning strike in the night?” he asks. “Maybe we shouldn’t sleep out here again.”

“I don’t think that’s natural, Ash.”

He lowers the binoculars and looks at her. She’s biting her lip and her eyes look big and strangely black in the dawn light.

“You think someone lit it, you mean?”

“It looks like it’s coming from a chimney. Or maybe a really small campfire,” she says.

“A chimney,” Ash repeats. He raises the binoculars again. “I swear that’s fifty miles away.”

They don’t talk for a few minutes. Then Zabe says, “I don’t think it’s someone from the school.”

“No,” Ash agrees.

The first rays of the sun strike the edge of the lookout and creep up their legs, warming them inside their sleeping bags.The column of smoke disappears from the ground up until just a hazy grey top remains; then the wind disperses that. Someone or something has extinguished it. Ash feels numb.

“I have no idea what to think or do about this,” he says to her.

“Mm.” Zabe chews a fingernail before she says, “I guess the question is… do we tell anyone?”

“Yeah,” Ash says. In a detached way, he’s amazed at how she is continuously a step ahead of him. “I mean, if we hadn’t decided to sleep up here, we never would have seen it.”

“Does that suggest that whoever it is knows that someone is watching during the day and just let a fire go on too long?” Zabe asks. “Do these people know that we’re here?”

Ash thinks about that for a long time. The teachers are adamant that they do not light fires until the first big snow. That’s when any chance of travel over passes essentially ends, which, given that the river is impassable due to waterfalls and current, is the only way into or out of the valley. From the school, they can travel through the tunnel to the valley of the lake, but other than that, snow means they are cut off from any potential attack. Dr. Levi makes no secret that this is why they don’t light fires. But they do have a fairly large impact on the environment and from the air the school would immediately stand out to a careful observer – but it’s almost unthinkable that someone would have a way of flying overhead. Ash wonders how many ridges and valleys away he would have to be before he couldn’t see into the valley any more.

“I don’t know if they know,” he says finally. “What do you think?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t know either. But I don’t think we should tell anyone. This might be nothing, and we’d start a panic. This is probably just a… a pilgrim, I don’t know, someone who was lost in the wilderness and came into these mountains because they were fertile and more protected than the desert plains.”

“Yeah,” Ash agrees, “It was a tiny fire. It was probably just one guy.”

They come back to the lookout for duty for weeks after that, but they never see another trace of their lone pilgrim.

The first snow comes early in September, lookout duty ends, and Ash thinks that whoever he or she was, death must have come by now. He listens to the howling wind of the blizzard outside the windows and knows that no one could survive in this harshly beautiful place alone.

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

It probably takes Ash a while to notice, but near the end of the year, he realizes that Perry is missing.

He asks around, first to a few of the older students and then to Dr. Levi, but they all shrug and say that he wasn’t doing well and so has been sent back. Everyone is careful not to specify where exactly he has been sent to, and, except for Dr. Levi, Ash gets the impression that none of them have any idea. Then he goes to the Year Nines, and ask them, and they come up with a variety of wild theories:

He was eaten by wolves.

Enemies kidnapped him during a drill, which wasn’t actually a drill.

He ran away.

He moved to another school.

He fell into the river and drowned and no one noticed.

Ash gives up on asking and decides to employ what he considers to be his greatest skill: brooding. Up until now, he’s told himself that, while Perry was not lying, he was mistaken about what he saw – but now, doubt starts to chew away at this hypothesis. What if Perry’s mother and sister were still alive? What if Dr. Levi and the other two people had deliberately burned the house, not to mention the town? There were no other enemies mentioned in Perry’s story, no one else who he didn’t recognize, and hadn’t he compared the violence to vids on the box, rather than to violence that he had experienced before?

If that’s all true, what else are the teachers lying about?

Once again, he comes to a point where he has to tell someone. On a wet, blustery, winter afternoon, when anyone in their right minds would be warm and indoors, Ash follows Zabe across the meadow and down to the icy shore of the river. When they reach the water’s edge, she turns on him.

“I know you’re following me. What the hell?”

“I have to tell you something.”

“Ok.” She stands there, waiting.

“Perry’s gone,” he says, feeling like an idiot. “Dr. Levi won’t tell me what happened to him. I think he ran away.”

“Damn,” Zabe says. “Bad time of year to do it. Well, good luck to him.”

Ash doesn’t know what he expected from her. “Doesn’t this bother you?”

“It’s what he wanted, you said so yourself.”

Ash makes a noise of frustration and looks at the ground.

“What?” Zabe asks. “What’s going on?”

Ash takes a deep breath. “I just think… I think my parents are alive. I think the teachers are lying to us. I think they completely lied about what happened to them and about why they brought us here and I bet that your parents are alive too and that if you just went back you could see them again–”

“No,” Zabe says. “I don’t know about your parents but mine are… gone, and I can’t see them again, and even if you offered it to me, I wouldn’t.” Her eyes are fierce in the moonlight. Ash takes a step away from her but she steps forward until their noses are nearly touching and says very quietly, “Why do you want to leave so much anyway?”

“Zabe,” he starts, but he already feels defeated. All the quiet buoyancy that has been lifting him up ever since the thought came to him is leaking out of his body and now he feels deflated and small. “I just want to know the truth,” he says, but he doesn’t. He wants to go home. He wants to be a child again.

“How is leaving here going to show you the truth?” she demands, but he doesn’t know. He shakes his head and she sighs and looks away from his face as if she’s disappointed in him. “Is it really important to you?” she asks.

“Yes,” he says. “It is.”

He can see her considering this. Then she says, “Let’s go straight to the source then.”

“The source of what?”

“Of truth, in this school at least.”

“Dr. Levi isn’t going to tell us a thing about my parents.”

“I’m not talking about Dr. Levi,” Zabe snaps. “Think, idiot. Even she has a boss.”

“Lady Vallance?” Ash isn’t sure what to think about that. Lady Vallance is rarely around the school. She leaves for weeks at a time and he hasn’t spoken with her since the night he first arrived. “Why would she know anything?”

“She’s the one who goes to the outside world all the time,” Zabe says. Ash is silent. “What?” Zabe asks. “Did you think she was out meditating in the forest?”

“I have no idea,” Ash snaps.

“Well, trust me. She isn’t.”

Infuriated, Ash follows Zabe as they trek back across the meadow. He’s coming up with a million remarks to throw back at her, but the moment is long past. Instead of heading for the dining room, where everyone is getting ready to have dinner, she marches them across the West Bridge and then across the wider south meadow. They cross the frozen stream on foot and then move in through the wide wooden door of the Eastern Building. The smell of sawdust rises from the carpentry workshop and Ash can hear the reassuring murmur of voices in one of the classrooms. He follows Zabe as she opens the door to the bridge that crosses over into forbidden territory and then stops at the gateway.

“I’m really not sure about this, Zabe.”

She turns back on him. “You said it was important to you.”

He spreads his hands. “I don’t want us to get into trouble.”

She rolls her eyes. Ash can feel himself getting angrier.

“Do you want to know the truth about your parents?” she asks.

“Do you honestly think I’m about to find it out?”

She hesitates. “No,” she says. “Probably not. But I think that you might put some people on notice that you want to find out, and that you have these suspicions. And who knows. Maybe you will find something out.”

“And why do you care?”

Now Zabe looks peeved. Ash is pleased. “Why do you keep asking me stuff like that?”

“Because I want to know!”

“Don’t people ever… just… I don’t know, help other people?”

“People probably do. Do you?”

Zabe glares at him. “I’m offering to help you right now.”

“I get that. But why?”

Zabe spins around and marches across the bridge, through the door, and into the hallway outside of Lady Vallance’s office. Ash jogs after her and they come to a halt together as the door swings open.

Framed in the doorway is Lady Vallance herself. Ash wonders if she knew they were coming. She probably heard the whole argument.

“You do know that this area is restricted, don’t you?” she asks them.

“Yes,” Zabe says, “but we’ve come to talk to you.”

“Unfortunately that’s not a right I can grant students without some prior warning. Now, I want you to turn around and–”

“I think that my parents are alive.”

Ash feels like he’s just dropped a grenade that has failed to go off.

Lady Vallance says to him, “Well then, I suppose that we can talk.”

“Yes,” Ash says, breathing out. “Good.”

Lady Vallance beckons him into her office. Zabe tries to follow but she puts up a hand and says, “You are not welcome here. This matter is between myself and Ash.”

Zabe starts. “But–”

“Now,” Lady Vallance says, “get out.”

It’s the last Ash sees of Zabe for months: the shrinking sliver of her as Lady Vallance slams the door.

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