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We strike a bad deal
Chapter 27 of The Lost City of Desire, a post-apocalyptic pastoral set in a dystopian utopia
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[This is a serialized novel, chapter by chapter. You can read the previous 25 chapters here. A new chapter will be delivered every week.]
I spent the afternoon in the room with Carmen, imagining ways to get out of the camp, eating some acorn bread that one of the women had baked in a beehive oven made of clay. We spread the warm slices with wineberry jam sweetened with honey. For a prison, it wasn’t so bad. I mean, I’d only ever had bread like this a few times in my life. But it was definitely a prison. Whenever I stepped outside a woman was there to walk me, even to the tidy outhouses over near the woods. I knew I would have to get out of here pretty quick.
“I hope Joe’s ok,” Carmen said.
“He’s talked his way out of it, I'm sure,” I said. “Probably watching us from up on the ridge. I just hope he can be patient.”
No one had come to say a word to either of us. We just sat in the same limbo that Carmen had been living in for three days now. The room was dim, especially as the afternoon wore on and the sun descended into early evening. I always had the gun near, either in the back of my pants or at the bottom of my backpack. I hadn’t seen a way to use it, yet. Amazing that they hadn’t noticed it.
Then one of the guards knocked on the door, opened it a crack and said: “Dinner in five minutes. Get ready.”
A few minutes later the guard was back and we followed her out into the beautiful evening, golden light falling across the forest leaves. For a moment, I forgot everything. I was just here, a young woman with a huge, yearning heart in the warm sunlight.
“Ladies!” the guard shouted.
The solid, heavy voice brought me out of my reverie. Inside a large, open air tent a long wooden table was set to serve a dozen or so, with candles, napkins, the whole shebang. Very elegant.
“Welcome, bienvenue, willkommen,” the guard said. “Wednesday night dinner – a tradition around here.”
She directed us to our seats across from each other, just below the head of the table. In a moment, the other guests arrived, a motley crew of most favored disciples. All looked clean and pulled together, as if they’d taken great care to present themselves well at this meal. We were prisoners at a party.
Each one of them approached to shake my hand and introduce herself.
“Jolynn,” said one older woman with long grey hair pulled back in a braid and tossed forward over her shoulder to land on her chest.
“Mia,” said a younger woman with light-brown skin and bright pink shoes, yellow jeans, turquoise t-shirt and golden bandana around her deep brown hair. “Welcome.”
“Hi, I’m Francine,” said a thin red head, proffering her knuckles for a bump.
This continued until about 10 women – Bolivia, Aspen, Dove, Marcia, Violet, Ellis, Lucy, Ivy and others -- had introduced themselves. We all stood behind our chairs, waiting for the boss – I mean the prison warden – to arrive. In a moment Shonda entered the tent wearing a skin- tight blue and white striped bodysuit over her muscles, a red bandana tied at the nape of her neck. She radiated a self awareness and a touch of vulnerability that was really attractive. I wanted her to hold me. The others followed her every movement as she made her way to the head of the table, where she lit a match to the main candelabra.
“Let the Goddess guide and protect us,” she said, wafting the flame towards her, receiving the blessing. She remained staring at the candelabra, her back to all of us.
“And She shall,” everyone but Carmen and I recited in unison.
“Let us please She.”
“She will be pleased,” everyone said.
“As She wills it.”
“So She shall be,” everyone said.
La Shonda turned towards us and grew a gigantic smile. Really winning, for a cult leader.
“Let us eat,” she said.
Two women brought out the appetizer course, an array of greens with chopped berries. I waited for Shonda to take a bite before I took a bite, blindly deferring to her. It just seemed natural. I felt weird about it. The salad was good. But I was getting pissed.
“How do you see yourself fitting into our enclave,” she said to me, out of the blue.
I caught my breath, nervous.
“I consider myself a prisoner, to tell you the truth.”
“Hmmm,” Shonda said. “I see you as someone who was sent to help me.”
“You tell me,” she said.
This seemed like such BS.
“What is the one thing you desire most?” I asked. “Getting the cylinder working?”
She tightened, a hard face.
“I can fix that for you,” I said.
“Hmmm,” she murmured.
“I want to take it to the other side, and figure out a system that will let you charge it here. A solar system.”
“Why wouldn’t you just sell it back to them while you’re there?”
“Because I’m honest?” I said.
She smiled, dropped her eyes towards her plate. Then she indicated to the servers that it was time to clear the dishes for the second course. They did this quickly, and brought out plates of roasted quail and opossum.
“By air and by land,” she said. “Nothing better.
I looked at her quizzically. I had a bad feeling.
“It’s a brilliant idea,” Shonda said. And at that nearly everyone at the table smiled. I savored a bite of my quail -- I hadn’t eaten anything like this in a long time.
“Brilliant,” Shonda said. “You will leave tomorrow.”
Carmen looked at me with a radiant smile. I couldn’t believe this was working. I remember little that happened at the dinner after that. Carmen and I slept and woke early.
The next morning Shonda appeared as we were preparing to go to breakfast. “There’s just one little thing,” she said. My heart sank. “Carmen stays here until you return.”
“What? No – that doesn’t work.”
“She is insurance that you and the cylinder will return.”
“But I’ll need some help. I’ll need help getting over the wall. Getting the charger. Getting back. It’s very dangerous.”
“Believe me, I know,” she said.
“So get it done and come back and then you and Carmen can go and do whatever you want. That will be your reward.”
Carmen’s face went pale.
I felt frightened for the first time. Shonda was totally in charge of the situation. I didn’t like it at all.
“Basically, you have no choice,” she said.
And basically, I knew that was true.
“What about Joe,” I said. “Your fake Lenapes captured him.”
“Don’t you worry about that,” she said. “They took him away, and now he’s gone off on his own. He didn’t have anything we wanted at all.”
“Where is he?”
“Out there somewhere being a man, I’m sure. Don’t worry about it.”
“He’s my brother,” Carmen said.
“I’m sure he can take care of himself. My boys said he was very difficult. The other night he escaped.”
“We didn’t want him anyway.”
I left that morning. I left Carmen alone again. It was my fault she was here and I left her. My plan was to find Joe, and figure out what the hell the cylinder was, and come back. I didn’t see any way I could break her out of there. There were so many of them. Shonda seemed so efficient in her control.
“Head to the meeting point,” Carmen said. “Find my brother. I know you’ll come back.”
She stuffed a little packet of acorn bread wrapped in catalpa leaves into my backpack. Then I was gone. It was painful to walk away. The Village was full of strange women, and Shonda was the strangest. I just hoped that Carmen could hang on until I came back. I was definitely coming back. First, forward. Nothing to do but continue forward.