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Putting Up Roots: A Jupiter Novel (Starscape)
The apartment was deserted. Josh somehow knew it, the moment that he opened the door. The place also, in a way that he could not describe, felt strangely empty. "Mom?"
He did not really expect a reply. His mother was hardly ever home in the afternoon. So why did this feel different from any other day?
He walked into the living room, and knew why. The rented couch was gone. So were the sideboard, and the computer and entertainment centers. The place was practically empty of furniture.
He found the note on a solitary end table, in the tiny kitchen-dinette that formed one corner of the living room.
My dearest Josh,
This is the hardest letter I have ever had to write. By the time that you read it, I will be gone.
I have known for a long time that this was no way to raise a child, dragging you from one city to another wherever my job took me. There was always the dream, you see, that the next part would be the big breakthrough. After that, you and I would have the absolute best of everything.
Well, it is going to happen--someday. You know me, and I'll never stop trying. But that's not good enough for you. You need to put down some roots.
In the envelope you will find an air ticket to Portland and plenty of money to take you the rest of the way to Burnt Willow Farm. Uncle Ryan and Aunt Maria can provide what I cannot, a solid, safe upbringing and schooling. Maybe you wish that your mother had been the steady one, with her life under total control. Sometimes I wish it, too. But Maria told me, whenever we used to call each other, that she wished she were like me and had a son of her own.
It's been a long time since you last met them--nearly eight years, I guess, when I had that summer rep job in Seattle--and Maria and I have been badly out of touch for a while. But I know that you two will get on just fine. And Uncle Ryan, too. And you and Dawn will be really good company for each other.
Don't worry about the things that are left in the apartment. Just take whatever you want. Someone will come in and handle the rest after you have gone.
P.S. It's not forever, Josh, and I don't even think it will be for very long. I'm overdue for a change in luck. And my name in lights!
All my love, Mother
Josh felt that first pang of misery again, as the bus jolted and rumbled its way west. He had the letter sitting on his knee, but he didn't need to look at it. In the past four days he had read it a hundred times. He knew it by heart.
"Just take whatever you want...." That was so typical of his mother. It made him want to laugh and cry at the same time. The apartment had been pretty much cleaned out of everything except his clothes and the kitchen table. No wonder it had seemed echoing and empty. "...an air ticket to Portland..." Sure. The ticket had been in the envelope, exactly as promised. But when he had taken it to the airport, he found that it was no good. It was for an excursion tour that had happened over a year before.
As for "plenty of money to take you the rest of the way to Burnt Willow Farm," that might be true enough--if you first flew to Portland, and had to go only a couple of hundred kilometers east across Oregon. Starting from New York City and heading west was another matter. There had been enough money for the trip--just. You could do it, provided that you slept on buses the entire way, washed and changed clothes at rest stops, and ate the smallest and cheapest meals you could find.
Josh leaned his head on the seat back. In four days and nights he had learned a lot about sleeping sitting upright. He couldn't wait to drop into a proper bed at Burnt Willow Farm.
Another hour or two, and he would be there. He wondered if this whole trip was worthwhile. But what were the alternatives? Come out here, or take your chances on streets already crowded with school dropouts and snapheads--he had seen that at first hand, wandering the city rather than sit alone in the apartment waiting for his mother to come home. He didn't want any part of it. But even that was better than handing yourself over to the crooks and bumbling clowns in the city welfare agency. You'd be better off dead.
He had only the vaguest memories of the place he was going. An old wooden house, smelling of cooking fruit and furniture polish, complicated enough with its two staircases and double loft for a six-year-old to become lost inside. It was different in every way from the cramped apartments that he had lived in. Outside he remembered a big flat yard of hard mud, with animals and farm equipment everywhere, and beyond it the open fields.
His memories of the people were not much better. Aunt Maria was sharp enough in his mind, a little like his mother in looks, but red-faced and fat and cheerful, and always trying to feed him. He had liked her, although she had sometimes embarrassed him by picking him off his feet and swinging him around in a big hug.
None of Mother's friends would dream of doing that. They knew he didn't like to be touched, not by anyone. They were always hugging and kissing each other, but those embraces never seemed genuine. He had seen a few men kissing his mother, too, but that was in private and they did it quite differently.
He remembered Uncle Ryan as a tall, easygoing man, who said little to Josh when the others were around and a lot when they were not. At the end of the first week he took Josh off after dinner to the brightly lit basement, where the works of an old grandfather clock lay strewn on a wooden table. Josh was given the job of cleaning the gears. He did it out of sheer boredom, slowly and methodically and meticulously, making sure that every cog was free of oil and any speck of grime.
"Good job, Joshua Kerrigan," Uncle Ryan said, when Josh laid the last of the gears carefully down on a sheet of wax paper. "I'm surprised. I couldn't have done that better myself. Now where did she ever get one like you?"
It wasn't a question that Josh knew how to answer, though he knew that "she" must be Mother. Apparently no response was required, because Uncle Ryan went on at once, "Come on. You can leave those where they sit for the moment. I'm going to pull the old tractor motor and do a rebore. I think you'll enjoy watching--and maybe helping."
Josh had decided in those first few days that Uncle Ryan knew and could do everything. He had trusted him totally. Now he realized that had just been the way of a six-year-old, before he learned that people did things for their own selfish reasons. Nowadays he didn't trust anyone as much as he had trusted Uncle Ryan.
Then there was Dawn. She was Uncle Ryan and Aunt Maria's only child, and here Josh's memories were most confusing of all. She had been as tall as he was, and he guessed that she was the same age. But he couldn't, to save his life, remember any conversation between them. What he did recall, very clearly, was Dawn following him around everywhere that he went. She didn't actually look at him, she looked through him, with round, unwinking brown eyes that made him think of the cows in the neatly fenced fields around the farm.
Would she still be living there? Let's hope that if she did, she wouldn't still trail along behind him.
Josh opened his eyes and stared out of the bus window. Fenced fields. That was why his old memories of Burnt Willow seemed so artificial. He was only an hour or so away from the farm, but the countryside through which he was traveling was all wrong. If there were fields, they had to be enormous ones. He could see across rolling hills to the far horizon, and there was not one fence or field boundary in sight. It was one gigantic spread of green, with a continuous silver network of irrigation pipes above it and machines dotted here and there below them, apparently at random. Those machines were on the same giant scale, nothing like the little multipurpose tractors used on Burnt Willow Farm.
The bus had no driver. It took its overall control from a satellite navigation receiver located on the roof, while an onboard radar told the computer where other cars and trucks were and how fast they were going. But Josh felt that he had to ask somebody what was going on.
He stood up, on legs stiff with lack of use, and walked back a few seats to where another passenger was drowsing, eyes closed and mouth open, in the morning sunshine.
Josh was half expecting a scowl or a curse, as you'd get from a stranger in the city, but the man just squinted up at him.
"I'm wondering if I'm going the right way. I'm trying to get to Burnt Willow Farm. It's supposed to be between Payette and Baker."
"Mm. Never heard of it. Did you enter the farm as your destination in Boise?"
"And the system accepted it?"
"It seemed to."
"Then you're in good shape. You'll be dropped off at the nearest point on the route, guaranteed within five kilometers. To the door, if you paid extra."
"I couldn't afford to."
"Me neither." The man shrugged. "No matter. Nice day for a walk, 'less you've got a ton of luggage."
He closed his eyes again to show that the conversation was over. Josh went back to his seat.
A ton of luggage.
If he had learned one thing in his fourteen years with his mother, it was to travel light. She hauled twelve trunks of clothing around with her, costumes to audition for any part in any play--and what an endless nuisance that had been. Josh had resentfully carried them up and down a hundred flights of stairs. Sometimes it seemed that costumes were the only thing they had in their apartment, every closet stuffed with them, no space for food or furniture or toys.
He had brought with him from New York two small cases, and that was all. All he needed. All anyone needed.
The sadness and pain came again. Mother said that she loved him, said she always did what was best for him. But why hadn't she asked him what he wanted? Why didn't she let him have a say in what happened to them? He was pretty much of an adult. He didn't mind traveling, didn't mind living in crummy places. He could have traveled with her forever.
He knew the answer. She even said it now and again, when she was in one of her moods. "You're a big load on me, you know. When I ought to be thinking about my career I'm worrying about you--your education, your friends, your clothing, your meals..."
Josh laid his head again on the seat back. Maybe it would work out better this way, getting away. It sure couldn't be much worse. And it would let her concentrate on the acting break that she had talked about for as long as he could remember.
"It's not just talent, Josh, or good looks." She would run her hand through her great lush waves of blond hair, and cock her head to show off to him what she always said was her best angle. "I have those. But you need luck, too. Up to now I've not had luck."
She was right about that. Maybe his move to Burnt Willow Farm would bring her luck. It might even bring some for him. He felt his wallet, now close to empty. He could sure use a little luck--or if not that, a little money.
* * *
The farm had changed.
Josh had been dropped off the bus on a final rise, where the road turned to follow the dried-out watercourse that had been Burnt Willow Creek.
From high above it, the farm stood out against the rest of the landscape as a square-mile patch of drab brown in a sea of greenery. He didn't need to see the fences to know where the lands of Burnt Willow Farm ended. Outside, the silver pipes of an irrigation network provided a fine spray of water that left everything green and vigorous. Within the farm's boundaries, the crops grew less densely. Some patches of land in the middle of fields actually stood bare, devoid even of weeds. Josh imagined the farmlands as an old fortress, one that had withstood a long siege but was now barely surviving.
At least the farmhouse and the outbuildings seemed the same. He hadn't remembered the layout, but when he saw it again everything came back to him. The main house was three-storied, painted a uniform white but with the lumpy, asymmetrical shape of a building that has been added to for generation after generation. The farmyard in front of the house was a hollow square of hard-baked earth. On its left stood a barn with brown walls and red-painted curved roof. On the right was the machine shed, where Uncle Ryan housed the tractors, plows, harrows, seeders, threshers, and combine harvesters. Closest to Josh was the dilapidated old barn, a crumbling ruin where chickens had wandered freely. The pump, once worked by hand but on his last visit to Burnt Willow run by electricity, was in the middle of the farmyard. The dry earth and empty troughs around it suggested that it had not been used for a long time.
Josh continued down the path, noting that it had a well-used look. Someone was making frequent trips up to the brow of the hill. But apparently they did not go beyond, to the road traveled by the bus. The track became almost invisible past the hilltop. It was as though someone climbed all the way up from Burnt Willow Farm, then went right back down again without doing anything.
Close up, he could see other differences. In his mind, the big farmyard was packed with animals, cows and pigs and chickens and dogs and cats, in one glorious mix-up. All he saw now was one brown-and-black cocker spaniel, wagging its tail at his approach but too lazy or overweight to stand up and come to greet him.
He remembered that dog! In the old days it had been all over the farmhouse, on beds and sofas and under tables. It had been thin and energetic. Now it looked too fat to walk.
The whole farm seemed very quiet. As Josh approached the main building, he suddenly felt nervous. Eight years was a long time. He wasn't sure what to expect.
Worse yet, what would they be expecting? What did Uncle Ryan and Aunt Maria and Dawn remember of him? What had Mother told them, when they all discussed the idea of him coming out here to live? He had better be on his best behavior, at least until he learned what he could get away with.
He stood before the main door of the farmhouse and hesitated. There was no electronic monitor and entry system, as you would find in every apartment building that he remembered. There was not even a bell or a knocker.
Finally he raised his right fist and rapped on the wooden door panel, hesitantly at first and then harder.
The door swung open at once, as though someone had been watching his approach from behind the thick net curtains at the front window.
A girl was standing there. He knew her at once. She had grown taller and her knee-length sleeveless dress showed she was getting an adult figure, but her features hadn't changed a bit. Even if they had, he would never forget those round, brown eyes.
"Hello, Dawn. I'm Josh." And, when she stared through him without speaking, "You know. Joshua Kerrigan."
The brown eyes did not blink. She looked him up and down, from the top of his head--they were almost the same height--to his dusty shoes. Then she did the same thing all over again. He could not say that she looked at him. It was as though he was quite transparent, and she could see right through him.
Finally she turned around, still without saying a word, and went off through the left-hand door that he remembered as leading through from the hall to the dining room, with its black Franklin stove.
He did not know what to do next. Should he follow her? Stand here and wait? Or should he head through the far door, which led to the kitchen where Aunt Maria was to be found for much of every day?
He did not have to make a decision. Another woman appeared from the door that Dawn had entered. She was not Aunt Maria. She was, so far as Josh could tell, a total stranger, with pale, severe features and a glory of golden-yellow hair that put even Mother's shining locks to shame.
She came to stand in front of Josh and placed her hands on her slim hips. Her lips, bright with fresh lipstick, pursed. Like Dawn, she gave him a detailed head-to-toe inspection, though in her case she was very much looking at him.
"Well," she said at last. She was frowning. "I didn't believe Ryan, but he was right. She's dumped you on us. I suppose you'd better come on in."
Copyright © 1997 by Charles Sheffield
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