Return To The Dead Zone, Part II


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Scene Title Return to the Dead Zone, Part II
Synopsis In the company of an unexpected ally, Gillian and Jolene continue their journey across the ruins of America.
Date August 6 — August 11, 2019

A dollop of yellow paint hits the floor.

It is with the possessed will of a driven man that a brush moves over canvas. A once white stretch of fabric burning with shades of yellow, orange, and red. Each brush stroke is more desperate and feverish than the last, gliding across layers of oil paint leaving thick daubs between the strokes. The painter does not even bother to change out his brushes, he just drops one to the floor and picks up another, this one laden with globs of black. He paints a great, dark circle near the middle of the canvas, then stark and jagged lines of black to represent ruins that were once buildings.

Milky white eyes stare unseeing at the canvas, for they are not witnessing a moment in time captured in oil and brush, but a moment not yet to be, captured in potential and promise. Terrible, unthinkable promise. As Thomas Redhouse’s eyes uncloud, he steps back from his canvas, from a room filled with paintings, and grasps the still-wet frame with both hands.


There will be ashes.


Three Years Later

Sparrow’s House

Zuni Pueblo

Zuni, New Mexico

August 6th

12:45 pm Local Time

“It sounds like you’ve been through a lot,” is Sparrow Redhouse’s understatement of the year.

Seated at a long refurbished wood dining room table, she has made her home open to two road-weary travelers. Jolene sits on the long bench seat that runs one side of the table, her mother across from her in an ordinary chair. The meal set out for Gillian and her daughter is both modest and filling, sliced and fried potatoes seasoned with tumeric, sauteed asparagus, fresh sliced avocado — practically impossible to get in the Safe Zone — and a corn and bean chili in a small bowl. Bread from yesterday is left out, chunks torn off and set beside each guest’s plate with tall glasses of water.

Though she’s been eating, Jolene has been transfixed by the painting hanging above the stone hearth, of a ruined city backlit by a fiery eclipse. She briefly looks from the painting to Sparrow, then dips her head down and focuses on her meal again.

“We have some dealings with Praxis Heavy, it’s impossible not to when you’re this far out west.” Sparrow explains, “but we meet with them far from here, work through proxies, there’s other settlements if you know where to look. Some are friendly, most aren’t. I’m sorry about your daughter, I really am.”

Praxis Heavy. Oh, Gillian had hoped that she wouldn’t need to deal with them, but the further west they go, the more that sinking suspicion crept in. “Thank you,” she said with a soft rasped tone, rasped even more due to tiredness. Taking a drink, she wonders how much this little town has that even the Safe Zone didn’t— because they certainly were self-sufficient. And this place also seemed safer than the Safe Zone. Even if that safety came at the cost of isolation. Sometimes safety was worth it. “They always used to say things happened for a reason. I sometimes feel like you don’t know how much you love someone until you lose them.”

That had happened to her more times than she could count. With Jenny. With Gabriel. With Peter. The parents who had raised her. The parents she had never really known. The child she never had. Nearly with Lene. And now with Squeaks, the girl she had just started to care for and hadn’t quite known just how much.

“I’m going to get her back.” Because once she had promised that girl forever. And she had meant it.

“West of here is rough territory,” Sparrow explains, picking up a slice of papaya from her plate with her fingers, “Arizona’s scorched pretty bad. You wanna stay going southwest, no matter what your…” she motions to Gillian’s hand, “what your compass tells you.” Snatching the papaya slice with her teeth, Sparrow stands up from her chair and makes quick work of the snack as she walks over to the end of the table where she’s laid out a 2007 highway atlas.

“Hopi and Navajo territory to the north here, but they’ve got a tight perimeter. My word won’t hold a damn bit of water out that way, and with the Humanis First survivors still out in the sand they’re sometimes more prone to shoot rather than be sorry.” Sparrow traces a path along the highways south. “You’ll want to hit 260 and take it through the Tonto National Forest. You go south as far as Phoenix and you’ll run out of roads though, the desert reclaimed the entire city.”

“That sounds familiar…” Lene says with a furrow of her brows, looking back up to the painting hanging on the wall again. “Nothing,” she adds after, louder.

“Then you’ll go to 70, to 89,” Sparrow continues to trace a route with her finger, “when you hit the town of Kingman… you’ve got a choice t’make,” she says, tapping her finger on the map. “If you go west, you’ll hit the south end of California. You’ll only have two realistic routes from there… I-40 will take you west until you can connect to 395 and head up into Ridgecrest. That’s serious desert, Death Valley. Never been out that way. The alternative is trying I-93 and going up through Vegas then heading west through Yosemite National Park, but that’ll take you through some of the worst, war-torn cities. Most of California is a crypt, from what I hear.”

Sparrow shakes her head and sighs. “I wish I had better advice. West isn’t a smart direction to head these days. This is about the last hospitable stop. You won’t find anywhere else to get gasoline, either. Not unless you luck out and can siphon some that hasn’t already been taken. I don’t know many folks who’ve made it west by land. Not since the war ended.”

“Maybe she won’t be that far…” Lene opines, hopefully. Even if she’s starting to fear the worst.

Putting the water down, Gillian glances over the map that they had bought. It had not been updated for many years, and they had made a small notation as they drove along. Instead of notating at this hidden city, though, she just put a small X near it. Grabbing the pen, she x’d to the north as well, and then one over what had once been Phoenix. It must have also been abandoned in Lene’s future, from that small comment that definitely wasn’t Nothing. After quick notes in the form of arrows on the roads suggested by Sparrow, she looks toward Lene, to offer her a reassuring smile before she follows her eyes to the painting.

Then she looks back at the woman in front of her again, trying to ignore the rising worry in the pit of her own stomach. Not that she would let that stop her. The moment when she thought something might have happened to the girl had been much worse. “It’s more than we knew when we left Kansas, so thank you. There’s not a lot being released about the state of things out here.” And she probably had known more than most people. At least about some things.

Not this, though. As the woman said, not many folks had made it west by land.

“We can stock up before we leave here. I picked that jeep cause it can go offroad some, as long as the ground isn’t too terrible. We might need some extra water containers, though.” She glanced down at her arms, redding of the skin already starting in the places that weren’t dyed with ink (or the strange black handprint around one wrist). She had brought sunscreen, but that only worked so well. She imagined they were both going to have raw skin by the time they found her. She just hoped that the girl was somewhere safe.

She had thought about what to do if they needed to abandon the jeep, though, even prepared for it. Even if she hopes that’s an unnecessary measure.


She glances at Lene, for a moment wondering if she should suggest the young woman stay behind in the Reservation.

“Maybe you should— “

“ — finish my breakfast and load the Jeep?” Lene cuts Gillian off from her assertion, slowly climbing off the bench seat. “That's a good idea.”

Jolene’s sudden movement up from her seat elicits a look from Sparrow to Gillian and then over to Lene. “William— ” she says hastily to get Lene’s attention, “he's outside. He’ll help you fill up on water. Tell him tsikwâ'yä said it's ok.” Lene is silent in her understanding recognition. She isn't mad, just frustrated. Gillian knows it'll pass. She nods once, then turns and heads out of the dining room toward the front door.

Sparrow is awkwardly silent until the sound of the door opening and closing comes, then she angles a look back to Gillian. “She’ll be fine,” is her gentle reassurance. “You should both seriously consider turning around, though. There's a lot of weird things going on out here in the desert since the sky lit up. Unnatural things.”

The sudden movement gets met with a small nod. Gillian might be slightly disappointed, but this was something she also expected. Once she’d brought the woman along, there wouldn’t have been any making her turn around, or stay behind in a safer place. Her eyes follow Lene as she exits, “She’s too much like…” the woman pauses for a moment, before continuing. “Her mothers.” All of them, really.

She had nearly said me but that would have possibly led to some explaining. Sometimes the woman was too much like her father, too, but in this case she imagined Peter would have been stealing the jeep and going on without her. If he’d had the compass, at least.

Probably without, too.

When she looks back to Sparrow, she shakes her head, “I’m not turning back until I find Jac.” That was her own stubbornness. “But thank you for the warning. Any heads up on the kinds of unnatural things we might be in for? After all I’ve seen, I’m not entirely sure much would surprise me anymore.” Even the town appearing out of nothing hadn’t really surprised her. But she had been glad that Lene had had the idea because she wouldn’t have been able to make them show themselves.

Sparrow furrows her brows and looks nervously to the side, briefly glancing up to the painting on the wall above the hearth and then back to Gillian. “I'm not sure you'd believe me if I told you…”



August 8th

6:17 pm Local Time

“The way I've heard it, the things I've seen? It's like the world just… broke.”

Days in the desert have proven to be some of the quietest in Gillian's life in years. Possibly ever. Between the Zuni Pueblo and the ghost town of Kingman in western Arizona there was nothing but desert, abandoned cars in the middle of long stretches of empty road, and the overgrowth of nature untamed.

“I've seen places where objects just float in midair, like gravity just… forgot to show up. I've heard stories of places where people disappear out of thin air, and reappear days later as if no time passed. Not people like us. Ordinary people.

Camping riverside in the Coconino Forest outside of the ruins of Flagstaff, driving through the still-smoldering remains of military barricades, finding the wreckage of fighter jets crashed in the desert with their pilots skeletal remains staring out from shattered cockpits. The world stopped here when the EMP detonated over California. The clocks all stopped on that day, and the shadow cast by that moment stretches out across time to the present.

“It all started the day the auroras stopped. After the sky caught fire and then burned out. My father painted something about that day— the desert sky and an aurora— long before it happened.

The town of Kingman is swallowed by the desert. Houses are buried by dunes of shifting sands. Gas stations show prices from nearly a decade ago, storefronts advertise products for companies that no longer exist. The skeleton of this abandoned place is dressed in the capitalist fineries of an America that is long gone. Jolene stands up in the passenger seat, binoculars in hand as she scans the ruined streets littered with rusted cars.

“…and in the center of that painting was a bird.”

“It's so quiet…” Jolene says as she scans the sunset dappled horizon for signs of life.

“…a Cardinal.”

The story hadn’t really surprised Gillian. She had even said something about how she’d seen enough inanity that even the insane felt normal. She meant it. And she had known what happened the night the sky burned out, and in part how it had been connected to a man who had, for a time, gone exclusively by Cardinal. Part of her had even thought of him like that still, so she could see why someone would paint such a thing, even if she didn’t quite understand the significance of the woman’s father.

All in all, she preferred the quiet to the oddities that could have met them as they drove deeper into the desert. Disappearances, and the like. But would they have known if they were the ones who had disappeared? She’s sure that the compass on the back of her hand would have given some indication, so she didn’t worry too much about it as Jolene scanned the horizon. Gillian took this time to take a long drink off her canteen, then glance behind them to count how many containers they had left. Of both liquid requirements for the trip. They would have enough to make it back to Sparrow if they needed to turn around, at least.

She just hoped she could keep her words. She wouldn’t leave without her daughter. Both of them.

“I’m grateful for the quiet.” It could be worse. It could always be worse. “We should keep going, until we need somewhere to rest. I doubt there’s anything here that hasn’t already been picked clean.” And she honestly didn’t want to stay near semblances of shelter, even in these conditions. Their jeep wasn’t exactly inconspicuous.

Sometimes too quiet was too quiet for a reason.

“We've only got another hour of daylight left,” Jolene says quietly, lowering the binoculars. “It's just ruins in every direction. That way,” she says, pointing down a particularly desolate stretch of sand-strewn freeway, “leads west out to Ridgecrest… and that,” she points up past the ruined gas station to a divide between the mountains, “is Las Vegas and a whole lot of open road before we hit Yosemite…”

Slowly, Lene lowers herself back down into the passenger seat, threading a lock hair behind one ear and resting her hands around the binoculars in her lap. “So, Death Valley, or Las Vegas?” She asks, worry evident in her voice.

Nether sounded all that appealing.

With a tsk of her tongue against the roof of her mouth, Gillian considers the options. “I went to Vegas once, before everything.” It had been a much-needed distraction from the times, but she doubted she would find such distractions now. There could even be lions and tigers for all she knew. They had circus shows and everything, who knows what happened to all the animals.

Though honestly, she doubted that would be the case. Without stating her decision, she turns around in the vehicle and scans the water and food supplies one last time, then how much gas they had. Either trip could be death valley if they weren’t careful.

Quietly, she hoped she wouldn’t regret this rash decision.

Even if she knew it had hardly been rash and a decision she would have made again for her daughter.

“Alright. Let’s go with Death Valley.”

If she had to have a bad ending, she would rather do it somewhere aptly named.

“Famous last words, I guess…” Lene says with a crooked, nervous smile, her grip around the binoculars in her lap tightening ever so.

As the Jeep pulls back onto the road, they chose to take the one less traveled.



August 9th

9:27 pm

The desert has consumed the dot on the map once labeled Barstow. There is nothing to be found there, save for the bombed-out shells of buildings and the pale light of the gibbous moon reflecting off the shifting sand dunes. The Childs’ family’s Jeep is parked off the road, not far from where a small bonfire burns, secluded by the half-crumbling walls of what was once a gas station, now stripped of its roof.

“I think I figured out what those lights are,” Jolene says, sitting in the warm light of the fire against the chill of the desert night, atlas spread across her lap. She motions to the lights, a dim glow visible at the northeast horizon. “According to the map, that’s a place called Fort Irwin. It was all over the news last year, Wolfhound and the government destroyed what was left of Humanis First out there. That’s probably flood lights, maybe there’s still some active military out there.”

She drags the map across her lap, then points to spots further west. “Tomorrow we’re going to have to be careful. The road we’re on takes us right between Edward Air Force Base and the Mojave Air & Space Port. I’ve gotta figure those places are fucking craters. But we’re…” she looks at the map again, worried about something. She’s been worried for days now.

Yes, Gillian remembered hearing about that operation. What had been publicly released, at least. She hadn’t wanted to ask too many questions about things, though she knew people who had been involved in it. Robyn probably would have told her anything that wasn’t classified if she had asked, but she knew that it had taken place. “If we get pulled over, I have identification,” she responds quietly, glancing at the back of her hand as she feeds a little energy into that piece of ink that had made a home on her wrist. This woman would help her reunite with her daughter, she knew that.

Because Squeaks had been working hard to reunite her with her own daughter. Without finding where she had been taken, neither of them would see their daughter again.

At the thought, Gillian glanced toward Jolene once again, worrying her lower lip with her teeth. Dry lower lip, she realized. She knew she had a sunburn, but her lips had started to get chapped as well. This was a long trip. Much longer than she had hoped when they set out.

But they had gotten to spend more time together in these last few days than they had since the beginning of the war, so there was that. She hadn’t gotten to just spend time with her daughter from the future, even if she worried that she might have made an error taking them this far.

The worry on the other woman’s face did not help. “But we’re what?”

Lene makes a sound in the back of her throat. It wasn’t identification that had her concerned. “We’ve got two choices,” she says, scooting closer to Gillian to show her the map in the firelight. “We can head straight west, hit I-5 and go straight up through the valley. But Sparrow said that was some of the heaviest hit ruins. I don’t know how the roads’ll be, but… we used to hide in places like that. If— if Jac’s hiding, she might be…”

Looking away, Lene furrows her brows and looks frustrated. Swallowing down her apprehension she instead traces a finger up another road further east. “Or, we do what Sparrow said and go up 395 toward Ridgecrest and we stay outside of the valley. I mean— I guess it’s not too different than if we’d gone north through Vegas, I just— do— can you tell if we’re closer?” Lene asks, looking up to her mother with a pleading expression.

It’s clear what Lene’s worried about. It hasn’t ever been herself or her mother. It’s been Jac.

The thought of Squeaks hiding among the ruins was something that Gillian could picture. If she had escaped her captors she might have tried hiding from them in the abandoned places, she might have tried to explore. It seemed very much like something that the girl whom she adopted would do. She had lived in the ruined subway and sewer system well enough she could draw maps by memory.

Gillian had been trying not to think of the worst. She knew Jac was a survivor. She had survived long before she ever had a woman to call her mother and another to call sister. She had been surviving longer than anyone would wish upon a child.

After a moment, she sits up reaches into the glove box, for the small leather bound journal that had been kept there. She didn’t know if this would do any good, but she figured it was better to try than not. She pressed her palm against the pages, filled with dried black ink, ink so shiny that it looked new. “Can you tell us if we’re any closer? Can you feel her better?”

The piece of her that was attached to Jac, to be more clear. For a moment, Gillian’s eyes began to glow, as she pushed more of her own energy into the woman who could turn into ink, in hopes that she could give them something.


Those two repeating characters bleed onto the page. Followed by fluid text in English.


Gillian can hear Lene swallow noisily at her side. The younger woman exhales a sigh from deep in her chest, trying to alleviate the tightness there to no avail. “Where is she?” Lene asks to the dark of the night, but neither it nor the woman of ink knows that answer beyond a simple cardinal direction:


I-5 it is.


August 11th

9:09 am

Sparrow Redhouse was right, California is a tomb.

It started in Bakersfield and hasn't stopped since; fields of ruin that spread as far as the eye can see. Bakersfield was a fire-gutted ruin devoid of life and light. It was all the worst parts of the ruins of Manhattan welded into one nightmare hellscape of shattered concrete, melted steel, and blackened bones. Nature had already started to reclaim Bakersfield, much as the desert had begun swallowing up the ghost towns east of the mountains. Remnants of skyscrapers covered in vegetation, streets turning to shallow river beds and overgrown with grass.

Gillian and Lene followed the highway west of Bakersfield, taking I-5 as far as Kettleman City, but the pull on Gillian’s compass began taking a more westerly turn, and they pulled away from the ruins of the valley down route 41, meeting the north-west Highway 33 that cut straight through the pastoral expanses of California farmlands. Wreckage of passenger jets were strewn about the fields, populated by flocks of birds living in their hollow remnants.

Highway 33 proved scenic, but even the rural scenery felt empty and isolated. They hadn't seen another living person since Sparrow’s people, it felt like they'd stepped into another world, one without humanity. By the time they saw signs for San Jose on the freeway, the radio started picking up hints of something more than static. At first it was just partial words and pops among the hissing, but soon it was something unexpected.

«Off in t— »

“Hey, I think that's— ”

« —ight, while you live it up, I'm off to sleep»

“Oh my god.”

«Waging wars to shape the poet and the beat»

It's music.

«I hope it's gonna make you notice»

In the Dead Zone.

«I hope it's gonna make you notice»

Up ahead, a massive orange sign not strewn with foliage or riddled with bullets comes into view on the roadside. It looks new, and it's block print indicate a possibility that neither had considered: CALIFORNIA SAFE ZONE: 94 MILES

«Someone like me!»

They hadn’t had radio since they left the range of WRAY, so Gillian was genuinely surprised when they got more than the soft white noise of static. Signs of civilization gave her a small hope, that at least, hopefully, Squeaks wasn’t hold up in a ruin somewhere with little food or water. Maybe whoever had taken her would at least keep her fed. But when a child or SLC-Expressive there were always worse thoughts of what could be happening with them. One of her first fears was that slave trade, again. Maybe they had sold her to someone in the California Safe Zone.

“We’ll have some entertainment, looks like. Pines might not mind hearing about his other Safe Zone competition,” she offers, looking down at the radio, then glancing back at the back of the jeep. It couldn’t have been better timing, really. She wasn’t sure how much gas they had left in the back. Less than a hundred miles should be doable, though.

After a moment, she held up her wrist again to look at the compass— which pointed straight down the road, same as that sign indicated. That seemed a brighter option than before, closer.

“Let’s go find your sister.”

Brisbane Checkpoint

California Safe Zone

August 11th

11:37 am

There is hardly anything on approach to the California Safe Zone. The highway that leads north to the settlement winds through what was once cities and towns laid flat by civil war bombing raids, and later controlled demolitions as Praxia Heavy Industries began clearing the ground for the Safe Zone. A handful of damaged historic buildings remain standing, surrounded by the looming silhouettes of tall cranes and the squat frames of construction vehicles.

By the time the San Francisco hills come into view, Gillian and Lene can feel the intense Californian heat bearing down on them from the cloudless sky. Up ahead the road terminates at a twenty foot high metal fence partitioning the ruins they'd driven through from a verdant and thriving city beyond. The fence parts at the highway to reveal a four lane checkpoint manned by paramilitary forces in drab gray uniforms and clearly prepared for something given that they wear military-grade body armor.

As the Jeep rolls up on the checkpoint a vehicle comes into view from around a high concrete barricade, a vehicle moving on eight wheeled legs, bearing a massive cannon at its middle. Part arachnid, part tank. A robot.

Lene fastens a vice-like grip on the handle of the door, the other on her mother’s wrist at the stick shift. The sight of the massive ZZ-7 on patrol sends a spike of panic through her, and Lene fires a sharp look at Gillian and opens her mouth to say something, except—

Driver stop your vehicle!” One of the guards are the checkpoint calls out, one hand raised into the air and his assault rifle cradled to his chest with his other hand. It doesn't look like they were expecting guests.

The robots don’t frighten her quite as much as she thought they would have, but Gillian did tense at the sight of them. Probably more because of what they were no doubt doing to her daughter. The more things changed, the more they did not. At the order, she pulls the jeep to a stop, and gives the young woman next to her a confident smile and nod, trying to offer her some comfort, before she lifts the sunglasses covering her eyes up enough to rest on her forehead so her face isn’t hidden. She then places her hands at the topmost part of the wheel, away from anything that could be seen as threatening. But she knows better than most people that someone need not reach for something to be dangerous in this world.

“Good afternoon, officer,” she says, despite it still technically being morning. The suntan on the back of her hands and her arms might hide a little of her tension, but she definitely grips the wheel a little tightly and avoids looking at the assault rifle cradled to the man’s chest. Instead she sticks to the eyes. She knows she doesn’t look her best, but a smile can go a long way. Even with parched lips and dust across her nose and hair that could use a brushing and a shampoo pulled back in a ponytail and a handkerchief that had soaked in water more than a few times.

“Have we arrived at the Safe Zone? According to the sign, we should be close.”

The soldier who approaches looks shocked to see Gillian, let alone a passenger and a Jeep come driving out of the California wasteland. He stares for a few seconds in the direction they driven in from and in that span of time the ZZ-7 rolls across the street and down off an embankment before breaking into a multi-legged stride over tougher terrain. The guard watches the machine for a moment, then rests his hand on the side of the Jeep as he leans in to talk, squinting against the sun behind his sunglasses.

“Ma’am, this is the California Safe Zone. There's no vehicles permitted beyond the— ” the soldier realizes something when he sees the Missouri plates, looking back up to Gillian. “Wait. Do you— I'm sorry did you— ”

They apparently don't get many guests.

Dàodǐ shì zěnme huí shì?” A native Chinese-speaking woman calls out, dressed in an identical set of gear as the first soldier. He straightens and looks back at her, seemingly just as confused.

“Uh, wo— wǒ rènwéi? Uh, tāmen kāichē dàole zhèlǐ?” The American soldier calls back, butchering the Mandarin tongue but getting his point across. He's quick to remember Gillian is still there and turns back to her, looking beside the driver side door.

“Ma’am, I'm going to need to see some identification for you and your passenger,” the American soldier indicates with a gesture to Lene, without really addressing the question of the Safe Zone. He seems on-edge, as does the Chinese woman who steadily approaching but keeping her distance.

Fingers loosen and tighten again in slow succession as Gillian tries to remember all the advice that she’d been given after the war finished, how to keep from shaking when faced with situations that might cause her to wish to run away, hide, or worse, completely shut down. She didn’t understand the other language, but it gave her a moment to breathe. “Of course, officer,” she responds after a moment, raspy voice just a little tenser than it had been a moment ago as she removes her hands slowly and carefully reaches for her purse. Where thankfully she had not stashed a weapon. Just some bug spray.

But she just grabs the small wallet and pulls out her identification, New York Safe Zone, identification, and after a second, her State of New York SLC-Expressive Registration ID as well. She hands over both, making not to let her hands shake, but only because she spent the time focusing on wiggling her toes, of all things. The body was strange, at times. She will hand over Jolene’s as well, once the young woman supplies them.

“I know, we took the long way, but I’m a writer, and I had hoped to find something interesting out in the land between Kansas and here.” It wasn’t a lie. She had hoped to find Squeaks, and Squeaks could definitely be called interesting. She was certainly choosing her words, though.

It only takes a moment.

Miss Childs?” Gillian knows that tone of voice. Though she's never met the young soldier standing beside her Jeep it's clear he knows her. But in the moment lady pause between his thoughts she has to try and prepare for from where. “Ma’am,” he says, he can't be much older than Jolene, “it is an absolute honor. My older brother is alive today because of your work with the Ferrymen.” Jolene’s relief is palpable, visible too in the tension draining out of her posture.

The Chinese officer coming over snatches the identification from the young American guard’s hand and checks them over. “Gillian Childs,” she says, looking first to the guard then to Gillian. “What is your reason for coming to the California Safe Zone?” It's clear she's the younger guard’s superior.

“She's working on a new book!” Jolene, speaks up using her anxiety as a veil to feign excitement. “We’ve come a long way to see the new Safe Zone. Can we see the bridge?” The Chinese officer hands the identification back without a word and leaves the remaining tasks to the young guard.

“The bridge is closed to the public but there's a memorial garden and park with a great view.” The young guard says in his mild southern accent. “You're free time go on through Miss Childs. There’ll be somebody who gives you a visitor pass at the other side of the checkpoint.”

The ruse of coming all this way to write a book might well be true now. After all Gillian has seen on the road trip, she thinks she might just write something about it. So many people should know about the state of things, the possibility of resettlement. But she already knows she’ll leave Sparrow’s group out of anything she wrote, even though she sees much that indicates there could be resettlement groups in many places, just on this drive through. The fact that they drove the whole way from KC to here alone was something worth writing at least an article about. She bets most people didn’t think it possible.

“I am glad that we were able to help your brother and I wish we could have helped many more.” She always tried her best to think about those that they had helped and not those they could not, but she still thought of those they had failed, lost, or failed to be in the right place to help at all. There had been so many lost. “What’s your name, soldier? And your brother’s, if you don’t mind.” She might try to dedicate the article to them, for this help. Who knew what would have happened if he hadn’t recognized her.

“The Memorial Garden sounds lovely. I can’t wait to see it, and the Safe Zone here. I’m very interested in seeing what Praxis has done here.” And she really was. She wanted to find Squeaks, but nothing stopped her from doing something that might benefit even more. “Thank you so much for your help.” It is said to both the young soldier and the Chinese officer. She might have suspicions about Praxis, but a little respect cost nothing, especially in this situation.

The Chinese officer offers a wordless look to Gillian and Jolene, then to the younger officer, and quietly steps away from the Jeep with a curt nod of her head. The younger soldier, humbly, replies “My name’s James, ma’am. James Lewis. My brother Terry was a prisoner in the Philadelphia detention community, your folks liberated him in 2013.” There’s pride in the young soldier’s voice, if not a little bit of nervousness. He’s never met anyone famous before and it shows.

The names Terry and James Lewis aren’t familiar to Gillian, especially not to Jolene. But there are so many people they can both say that about. People who have had lives impacted by their choices, some knowingly, others not.

“You have yourself a safe trip, Miss Childs. You too Miss Chevalier.” Officer Lewis says to the two, giving the side of their Jeep a tap-tap with the flat of his hand before stepping back and away to allow them to pass.

It’s easy to forget how a lifetime of choices can create ripples, how far they can spread from their point of origin, and what unintended consequences those ripples can cause. As Gillian and her daughter from another time set off toward the security checkpoint and the city beyond the wall, they will have plenty of time to think about just that.

And the ripples yet to come.

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