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       Drought, p.1

           Pam Bachorz
 
Drought


  EGMONT

  We bring stories to life

  First published by Egmont USA, 2011

  443 Park Avenue South, Suite 806

  New York, NY 10016

  Copyright © Pam Bachorz, 2011

  All rights reserved

  www.egmontusa.com

  www.pambachorz.com

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Bachorz, Pam

  Drought / Pam Bachorz.

  p. cm.

  Summary: Ruby’s blood holds the secret to the Water that keeps her and her fellow Congregants alive and enriches Darwin West, who has enslaved them for two centuries, but when her romance with an Overseer, Ford, brings her freedom in the modern world, she faces a terrible choice.

  eISBN: 978-1-60684-185-3

  [1. Science fiction. 2. Slavery — Fiction. 3. Water—Fiction. 4. Freedom — Fiction. 5. Mothers and daughters — Fiction. 6. Immortality — Fiction. 7. Droughts — Fiction.]

  I. Title.

  PZ7.B132176Dro 2011

  [Fic]

  2010039313

  CPSIA tracking label information:

  Random House Production • 1745 Broadway • New York, NY 10019

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher and copyright owner.

  v3.1

  Dedicated to my parents, Paul and Judy,

  who read to me every single night.

  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  Chapter 40

  Chapter 41

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  Chapter 1

  I wish it would rain.

  On rainy days, we don’t have to work in the woods, gathering water until our backs ache and our fingers tremble around our spoons. The Overseers would still find a reason to prod us—maybe the kitchen needs to be scrubbed, or their dock wants fixing. But there would be no quotas, and no woods.

  If it rained, there would be water, dripping from every leaf and stem. Our cups would be full to the brim, work finished early, even. Darwin West would be so happy he’d give us dinner.

  But it hasn’t rained all summer, or most of the spring. For all of these two hundred years, none of us has seen a drought like this. We suffer more every day, each day worse than the last, all of them endured in the dry woods.

  I am very tired of the woods. I have been collecting water from them for exactly two hundred years—we all have, slaves to Darwin West and his Overseers.

  “We’ll be lucky to find five drops today, Ruby,” Mother grumbles.

  There was no breakfast this morning, not even a mouthful of oatmeal. Darwin said we hadn’t worked hard enough for it the day before. Mother will be grumbling all day.

  “Otto will provide.” My answer is an automatic one, the same answer she gives me when I worry. But she is right. It is already hot, though it’s barely past sunrise. Road dust swirls around our skirts with every step. I wonder if there’s even five drops of water waiting in all the woods.

  Nothing in our lives has been easy this summer.

  “Half our strong ones gone,” Mother says.

  “Not gone. They’re just … digging,” I remind her. “Like Darwin told them to.”

  “What good are all those holes? Now we’re not all harvesting,” she says.

  I can’t answer her. None of us know why some of the Congregants have been digging for nearly two weeks. The holes dot the edges of the woods where we harvest and line the road that connects our cabins and the cisterns. They don’t do anything but catch a foot, twist an ankle.

  Nobody asks why—asking why means a licking. Darwin gives our men dull shovels each morning and assigns the meanest Overseers to watch them. They dig until they are told to stop.

  “Maybe he seeks water,” I say.

  “A hundred shallow wells? No,” she answers.

  Soon we reach the clearing where the cisterns sit: five long tanks, raised on rusted metal legs, with spigots near the bottom of each. Our harvests always start and end here. It is on the edge of miles and miles of woods; they all belong to Darwin West—he owns every rock, stick, and person on the entire mountain.

  Mother says there are cities farther south in New York. “They must be grown enormous by now,” she’s told me. “My father said they were beyond imagination, even when I was small.”

  But I have never seen cities. My entire life has been trees, and leaves, and the tiny lake that our cabins cluster around. It is so tiny that it does not even have a name. It’s just the Lake.

  I’ve dreamed of cities—hazy half-imagined worlds that likely don’t resemble any true place. When I was small, I built them: streets and buildings made of twigs and mud, jammed with tiny pinecone people. They always had enough to eat, I liked to imagine. Nobody ever beat them.

  We join the long line of Congregants waiting to get their pewter cups and spoons.

  “On days like today, I dream of chopping this off,” Mother says. She twists her thick hair up on top of her head and easily secures it with a single pin. The knot of hair looks heavy enough to tip over her short, slight frame. But Mother is far too strong for that. She is made of boldness and sinew.

  “Will you do mine?” I ask. Our hair is the same color—like oak leaves in November—but mine curls in a thousand different directions. It squirms away every time I try to capture it.

  “Two hundred years and you still can’t tie up your hair,” Mother says, but she sounds a little pleased. She does not have to reach up to do my hair; we are the same kind of small, though I am soft where she is hard. I feel a few gentle tugs, a light scrape against my scalp, and then the relief of air on the back of my neck. The sun won’t barely touch it; our skin is browner than burned bread from all the days in the woods.

  Birds sing from the trees and swoop over our heads, darting from one tree to another. Their song and screeches follow us all day, the only witnesses to our secret existence.

  The line is moving now. Once each Congregant gets a cup and a spoon, they stand to the side, waiting for Darwin to decide on the day’s quota.

  The water can be gathered only from living leaves—scraped from ferns, or the bottom of flower petals—and it can touch only pewter. As for the people who can do that work? Only those blessed by Otto.

  Or at least that’s what Darwin—and most of the Congregation—thinks. Mother and the Congregation’s Elders know different. They protect my secret.

  All know that I am Otto’s daughter, and that makes me holy. But only the Elders and Moth
er know all of it. They know I bring my own gift to the Congregation, a gift that must stay hidden.

  Darwin is eating something that smells sweet and full of luscious fat. I can almost taste it, even though I stand twenty people away. Congregants can live a long time without food—once, they starved us for two weeks—but I think that only makes me love it more.

  Long ago, before Otto, Mother fancied Darwin, and he fancied her. What drew her affection? Was it his height and muscles? Or perhaps the ice-blue eyes that are shaded, always, by a battered leather hat with a broad brim? None would be enough to turn my head. Perhaps whatever she loved left this brute long ago.

  Still, his love for her, however twisted, hasn’t left him.

  Four other Overseers stand around the clearing, their long guns ready, eyes always watching. If one of us tries to escape, they will shoot—and if those bullets miss us, more Overseers wait in the woods.

  One last Overseer hands out cups. He is new and younger than the rest of them. Darwin has hired more Overseers this summer, as he works us harder and longer and deals out more beatings. I eye the coppery bristle on the new one’s head, so easy and cool. Perhaps Mother is right, and we should crop our hair—though it would be difficult without knives or scissors. Those are forbidden.

  The new Overseer holds out the cup, but I fumble, and it falls to the ground. I bend, quickly, to pick it up—but he is there first.

  “Sorry about that,” he says, looking right at me. I look away fast, but not before I see his lips twitch with the smallest of smiles.

  Overseers don’t apologize. Overseers don’t smile. Perhaps they haven’t told him that yet.

  We straighten up at the same time, our heads nearly colliding. His fingers brush mine when I take the cup. A burning dances down my fingers, my hand, my arm … like the curling designs inked on his skin have crept down his arms to bite me. But it doesn’t feel like pain.

  I shake my hand to get the feeling out of it. The drought has twisted my mind—all of our minds.

  I go to find one of our elders, Ellie. She is standing at the edge of the clearing, in the shade. Ellie is stooped, and her face is drained of color. Her hair is only half braided, the rest of the yellow-white strands straggling down her back. Even her blue eyes seem cloudy, faded.

  I stand next to her and squeeze her pinky finger with mine. It’s our old way of saying hello. Ellie is the closest thing to family that Mother and I have.

  “How are you feeling?” I ask.

  “I am better today,” she answers.

  She lifts her lips in a shaky smile: a lie that she is fine. Her body shows me something different. I fear she is withering. The Water doesn’t make us last forever. Already nearly a dozen Congregants have withered—their bodies giving up, piece by piece, until they finally die.

  “Only a few months until the Visitor comes,” she says.

  “The cisterns will be full,” I say. “We’ll find a way.”

  The Visitor comes just once a year, when the leaves start to turn. He dresses all in white, driving an enormous beast of a truck. He takes away all the Water we’ve suffered to harvest.

  And Darwin will do anything to make sure we’ve filled the cisterns in time.

  “Boone knocked on the last cistern before you got here,” Ellie says. “He says it’s not nearly as full as it should be.”

  Boone is another Elder, once a blacksmith, still one of our strongest men.

  He’s right about the cistern. I check it too, at night, when I make my secret visits.

  “Your quota today …,” Darwin announces in a loud voice. He takes another bite of his food, and every Congregant’s eyes trace the path of his sandwich to his lips. We wait while he chews.

  “Otto save us,” another Congregant mutters next to us.

  Yesterday’s quota was a half cup and I barely met it. The plants are guarding their water in the drought, sucking it deep into their stems and pulp.

  Darwin finally finishes chewing. His lips are shiny with grease. “Today will be one full cup.”

  Ellie lets out a soft gasp. My eyes stray to the new Overseer. He is frowning at the ground. I wonder what he must think of Darwin … and of our following his whims.

  “That’s too much.” Mother steps to the front of the group so that she’s only a foot away from Darwin. The Overseer next to him levels his gun at her, but she does not seem to notice.

  Mother is our Reverend. She leads us in worship while we wait for Otto to return. Otto, our savior, gave us his blood so that we could live longer. He passed that blood to my veins too, for he is my father.

  But almost nobody knows about his blood.

  “I could make it two cups,” Darwin muses.

  “There’s a drought, and we swelter already.” Mother holds out her long skirts.

  The Congregants wear simple, modest clothes, as if it is still 1812, the year Darwin West imprisoned us. Ellie says ladies used to change bits of their fashions all the time, and likely they still do. I wonder how different we look from modern women now.

  Mother says our boots are as modern as any, though—thick, tall, yellow, made to keep us standing for long hours in the woods. The Overseers give us those, one pair every fall, before the first snow.

  “Make it a half cup, like yesterday,” Mother orders. I marvel at her boldness, even though I have seen it for so long. She is never afraid of Darwin West.

  “One cup, full to the brim. Now go.” Darwin pulls a heavy chain out of his pocket and coils it in his palm. “Unless you want whippings instead of supper.”

  Supper will likely be oatmeal tanged by mold, or maybe some greenish bread and cheese. But we will work all day in hopes for it. If Mother speaks again, he might decide we won’t get dinner, no matter how much water we find.

  “Mother,” I say.

  She lifts her chin for a moment … and drops it. Then she turns away from Darwin.

  “You heard him.” The Overseer near Ellie and me pokes my back with his gun. I straighten my shoulders and follow Ellie into the trees, close enough to catch her if she stumbles.

  “You hole diggers, come get shovels!” Darwin shouts.

  Mother comes behind us, and for a moment, I think we will get to walk into the woods together. But Darwin stops her. “You go somewhere else, Mother Toad.”

  He doesn’t like family members working together. I make a small signal with my hand, waving her away. Go. Ellie will be fine. I will take care of her.

  Mother pauses, still staring at Ellie, then finally takes slow, heavy steps away. She pushes aside branches as she goes. They swish together as soon as she passes, and soon I can’t see her faded red dress.

  Darwin stays close to us. I wait to make sure Ellie can kneel, then I crouch by a clump of goldenrod and pull out my spoon. There is no water on the plant, but Darwin is watching, so I run my spoon along every stem, holding my cup underneath. Nothing drips into it. I move to the next plant, a berry bush. The animals have left a few morsels buried in the thickest thorns. My mouth pricks.

  I pull my eyes away fast, not wanting Darwin to notice the berries. As soon as he’s gone, I’ll return to them. Half will be for me. Half will be for Ellie.

  Ellie is on her knees, ten paces from me. Her arm shakes as she runs her spoon along some ferns. Water spills off the tip of the leaves, but it doesn’t look like it all lands in her cup.

  Darwin is watching her, his fingers opening and closing around his dread chain. Ellie nearly drops her cup and he takes a step closer.

  No. I will not let him hurt her.

  I stand and bring my foot down on the ground, hard. Sticks break under my boot.

  It works. He is watching me now.

  Pretending not to feel his eyes on me, I take a berry and toss it into my mouth. The sweetness explodes and I can’t help savoring it, even as I know pain is coming.

  The chain whips against my stomach. The blow knocks me to my knees, but I clamp my lips shut, crushing the berry against the roof of my mouth. I will
at least win this taste.

  “No stealing food,” he roars.

  If I were Mother, I would answer him with strong words. I would say it’s not his food—it belongs to the forest. But I just stare at his feet. The chain dangles over the toe of his boot, swaying a little as if it is a living thing.

  Darwin breathes in deeply, like he’s trying to take all the air before I steal that too.

  “Do it again and I’ll beat you until you bleed,” he says.

  I pick up my spoon and my cup and start working. Water plink-plops into my cup.

  I’m not afraid, at least for now. He wouldn’t hurt me badly in the middle of the day. There is still work to be done.

  Darwin saves the real beatings for sunset, after we’ve put the water in the cisterns. Sometimes he hurts us, and sometimes he doesn’t—the worst part is never knowing what will happen. Darwin might shrug if we don’t give him what he wants. Or he might lift the chain.

  When he does hurt us, we have all night to heal. That’s enough time to get us ready for the next day’s harvest, unless he breaks bones. Those take two or three days to knit back together, if we’ve had Communion each week.

  There’s enough water in my cup now that I can imagine it’s a mite heavier. I can feel Darwin’s eyes on my neck. I draw in deep breaths as I work, trying to ease away the feeling of his stare.

  Darwin leans over me and peers into my cup. “Should have made you Toads collect two cups,” he says. I brace for a slap, but he reaches past me into the bush and plucks every last berry. He crams them into his mouth. “Harvest well, Toad.”

  That is what they call us—toads. I guess that’s because we can survive their beatings and starvings, like the toads that sleep in the mud all winter here. Or maybe we are that ugly to them.

  He shuffles away, down the hill. I imagine he’ll sit in the shade with his favorite Overseers, playing cards and eating the lunch we never get.

  As soon as he’s gone, Ellie stops working. She sits on the leaves, the cup in both her hands. I check to make sure we’re alone, then hurry over to her.

  The bottom of her cup is barely wet.

  “Hard for an old woman to keep up,” she says.

  “You don’t have to apologize.” I hold my cup over hers and pour. Everything I’ve collected is hers now.

 
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