There are bright orange signs everywhere telling me to reduce my speed, but they seem a little redundant. The floodlights are so damn bright it’s hard to see anything and you have to take your foot off the gas to avoid crashing into the barrel barriers or any one of the uniformed National Guardsmen and -women.
Shit, shit, shit. I grip the steering wheel. I have the AC going at full blast, so high it’s practically deafening, but my back is sticking to the faux leather seat. You’re fine, Gabe—Jim! You are Jim! You are Jim Goodkind and you have every right to be driving through here—
A soldier steps out of the little station building, lifting her hand against the glare of my headlights. I’m waved forward, but not through, like I was stupidly hoping.
She raps her knuckles against my window and I roll it down, trying to remember how to breathe. In out in out in out in outinoutinout…
“Can I ask what business you have in California?”
Say something. Say anything. There is a little girl right next to you and she needs you to act like the twenty-five-year-old you are, not the three-year-old your wimpy-ass guts are telling you to be.
“The aqueduct…” I swallow, forcing what I hope is not a demented smile onto my face. “My boss thinks someone on the California side might have tampered with it. Water levels are suspiciously low. I have to check it tonight before they come in tomorrow morning.”
I have no idea what words are coming out of my mouth. I have no idea if there’s a canal that flows from California into Arizona. I always thought it was the opposite—that California was hogging the Colorado River and leaving us with nothing—but maybe I just spent too much time with drunk, bitter Grand Canyon tour guides growing up. I’m smiling so hard, though, I’ve lost all feeling in my face.
Shit. Why didn’t I practice this? Why can’t I ever think far enough ahead?
“I have all of my paperwork—passes,” I add weakly, fumbling with the glove compartment latch.
The soldier glances down at her clipboard, then back up at my face. “I don’t have any notes about this maintenance trip.…”
I lean closer to the window and let my voice drop to a whisper so she also has to lean in to hear me. “They think the Children’s League might be involved. No one’s supposed to know I’m coming.”
Great. Now in addition to looking sketchy, I also look like a conspiracy theory whack job. Great way to inspire confidence in my sanity.
Dammit, this isn’t going to work. Why did I think this would work?
The other soldier in the booth, who planted himself in front of the TV, sticks his head out to see what’s going on. The soldier I was talking to turns around, about to explain it to him, but he cuts her off. “Heron Hydraulics is on the auto-approvals list—I’ll give you a copy tonight to study for tomorrow.” He turns back to me. “Sorry, sir. Go ahead.”
I stare back at him dumbly. The other soldier has to give me a wave to get me moving.
But no more than a hundred feet later, there’s a whole other border station set up—one Della neglected to mention. It’s not nearly as impressive as the first one, but I can see a small dark figure moving inside the tiny booth as I approach. Hanging from the metal levers blocking the path is a sign telling me to HAVE FEDERAL COALITION–ISSUED PASSES READY.
Shit. Do I have those? I turn the overhead light on again, letting the car coast forward through that small sliver of free land between the two competing governments. I can’t find anything labeled with the Federal Coalition’s name in the variety of rainbow-colored official documents. By the time the car comes up to the metal bar standing between me and the velvet black of California’s stretch of desert, I’m fighting not to start hyperventilating.
What can I tell them—how can I spin my story so I seem sympathetic to them, not Gray? Does it matter? Are they looking for me to be sympathetic toward them? Does that make me seem more suspicious?
But by the time I get there, the police officer—highway patrolman, I realize, rare breed they are—just reaches over and presses something on his desk, and the metal bar rises. He doesn’t even turn around in his seat, from which he’s watching the same program the National Guardsmen were.
I let myself speed up, waiting for him to try to stop me. To show half as much initiative to do something as the first soldier did. But he just sits there, and it’s like all the lights are on, but no one’s home. No one cares. Given how long it’s been since the Federal Coalition was formed and how little they’ve done to help anyone, it seems appropriate.
Zu’s face is flushed, but she’s beaming when I lift the bag and blanket off her. When I don’t return her smile, her dark brows draw together in a silent question, but I don’t want to tell her. I don’t want her to know that all of a sudden I’m not sure this is a safe place, either.
SAN BERNARDINO doesn’t look all that different from the part of Arizona I found Zu in. It’s not covered in a thick coat of evergreens like Flagstaff, though I’m convinced I see a few mixed in with the shapes of other kinds of trees. It’s a valley, a nice one, surrounded by black-faced mountains that seem to lean in more over us the farther I drive from the lights of the city at the heart of it.
I heard rumors that California wasn’t hit as hard as the rest of us, but driving through these streets makes me feel like I’ve stepped back ten years in time. There are none of the scabs I got used to seeing back home: no sea of silver-backed trailers, no abandoned cars, no tent cities. The gas prices are still astronomical, judging by the price boards, but none of the stations have been shuttered with signs like NO GAS HERE or TRY CAMP VERDE.
The address Zu gave me is a good twenty miles outside the city’s reach. It starts getting quieter, colder as the hours pass by. Eventually I have to roll up my windows and turn down the radio.
“Hey, Dorothy,” I say, shaking her out of sleep. “Is this the place?”
It’s pitch-black out here, but there are lights strung up along the wooden fence leading up to the large one-story home. It’s done in the typical southwestern ranch style—every detail, from the obligatory cacti in pots around the entryway to the bleach-white cattle skull that hangs on the door. I let the truck’s headlights wash over the building once before I switch them off and park the car on the dirt driveway.