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Chapter One:

Eric wished he could enjoy the warm August sun that penetrated deep into his old muscles, but he could hear Dodge and Rabbit talking in front of his house, and he knew the two children came to hear about the Gone Times. Almost no one else visited—they didn’t care to listen to his stories—but the children liked to talk about the old days, and their company was appreciated. Lately he’d been restive. He enjoyed sunsets less. He took longer and longer walks, always toward the foothills, sometimes getting home after nightfall. People in the village didn’t do this. Fear of wild animals kept them indoors after dark, but Eric couldn’t shake the habit and the notion that the night was safe for man. He felt the urge to travel again, to see new places one more time before illness, or just plain age, forced him to stay home.

This afternoon, though, stretched out on a hammock, with the late spring sun so pleasant, a breeze blowing cool off the mountains and a glass of pungent herb tea beside him, he’d rather drift into a doze.

“Are you sleeping, Grandfather?” Dodge, a tall, skinny ten-year-old with dark hair neatly cut into bangs above his eyebrows, pushed the creaky gate open. Rabbit, his sullen twelve-year-old friend, whose face bore heavy scars from wild dog bites suffered when he was five, followed.

“Why bother an old man?” said Eric. He pointed at the pitcher and the boys poured themselves tea. “Don’t you have productive things to do? Maybe you could pull weeds for me.”

Dodge emptied his drink with one gulp. Rabbit retreated to the shade of the grape vines and sat cross-legged on the grass. His broad shoulders and thick chest hinted at the bulk of the man he might become. “You tell him,” said Rabbit.

“What?” Eric swung his feet off the hammock and sat up. His back twinged and he grimaced. Beyond the fence that encircled his vegetable garden, the dusty road was empty all the way to the cottonwoods that lined the river. Most people napped during the heat. Later, when the sun moved closer to the mountains, horse drawn carts would pass occasionally, but generally life in Littleton was slow in August. People tended their gardens. Field workers walked past his house at dusk. Some would wave, but most ignored him. He was just a crotchety old man who not only wouldn’t let go of the Gone Times, but who also upset the town meetings with his criticisms.

“What news do you have?” Eric asked.

Dodge said, “Dad wants to see you. Don’t tell him I come out here all the time, okay? Dad says, ‘Family gatherings are bad enough. I don’t need you coming home with his garbage.’ But I think he’s stupid.”

Eric sighed. This was a common gambit of Dodge’s, to not answer questions. It was a family trait. “Your father isn’t stupid. When you’re thirty, you’ll wish you listened to him more now.”

Dodge looked longingly at the pitcher. Eric nodded and the boy filled his glass again. “You don’t have a dad to make you do chores or go to school. ‘Look for cloth today, Dodge,’ he says, or ‘Find some tools for trade.’ You’d think that he doesn’t want me to have any fun. Besides, there isn’t anything to find here anymore. All the easy pickings are gone. Not like when you were a kid. We brought something for you, though.” Dodge dug into his backpack and removed a thick book. He handed it to Eric. “I know you don’t have this one.”

Eric turned the volume over. It was an anthology called Major American Authors. He opened the cover. The pages were slightly wrinkled, as if the book had been exposed to moist air at one time, but other than that, it seemed in good shape. He read the ending lines of a quote from Nathaniel Ames’ Almanac, 1758. O ye unborn inhabitants of America! Should this page escape its destined conflagration at the year’s end, and these alphabetical letters remain legible when your eyes behold the sun after he has rolled the seasons round for two or three centuries more, you will know that in Anno Domini, 1758, we dreamed of your times.

I doubt it, Eric thought.

He frowned. “You shouldn’t be scavenging. That’s work for men who know what they’re doing.”

Dodge said, “We can get places they can’t. They’re too big. Rabbit found the case of knives last year. The glass wasn’t even broken on the front. We don’t touch anything we’re not supposed to. We’re not kids, you know.”

The case of knives had been big news the summer before. Eric used it as part of an argument to the city council. “When was the last time someone got good stuff?”

“What do you think, Rabbit?” said Dodge. Rabbit looked into his tea. His hair hung over his eyes. The scars puckered the right side of his face, and he seldom met Eric’s gaze even though he’d been coming to his house for years.

Rabbit tilted his head back and stared into the vines. Eric noticed he kept the good side of his face turned toward them. He said, “The knives, I guess. Camaro’s Mom found some canned goods last week, but they were all bad. No labels and swelled up. Doc Renke says we shouldn’t eat anything from cans anyway, swelled or not.”

Eric laughed silently at the mention of “Camaro.” Lots of children born in the last twenty years or so had been named after automobiles. There was Dodge, of course, and Rabbit, but he also knew a red-headed girl named “Blazer,” a pair of twins, “Plymouth” and “Neon,” and the miller’s son, “Mercedes.” None of these children had ever seen a working automobile. The last one Eric remembered was a Volkswagon Bug that drove by his house twenty-five years ago. That was when the Bowles Avenue bridge repair still stood. The cars were gone, but the names lived on.

“We’ve been hunting for treasure troves,” Dodge said to Eric. “There are basements with guns and knives and tools on the other side of the river, if you know where to look.”

Rabbit laughed derisively. “That’s a lot of bunk.” He pushed the hair off his forehead. “If you believe that, then you must think we’ll find good ’lectronics or a car that’ll start.”

Dodge smiled. “Who knows what’s on the other side of the river? Dad told me just yesterday that lots of stuff must still be out there. But hunting around here is a waste. Just a chore.”

“You boys been crossing?”

They looked at each other guiltily. Finally Dodge said, “We know a shallow place we can walk through. But we’re real careful and we watch out for each other all the time. You won’t say anything will you?”

Eric leaned back in his hammock. He guessed that it had been eight or nine years since he had crossed the river. A rumor that an undiscovered sporting goods warehouse existed in the ruins of downtown Denver drew him and four others, but after a week of poking though rubble and climbing down into treacherous mazes of steel, brick, rotten wood and sheetrock, they’d given up. All of the street signs were gone, many of the streets impassable, and the fifty-year-old map they were using had gotten wet early in the trip and was unreadable. A skunk bit Herbie when he reached blindly into its den, and rabies killed him by the end of the summer. All in all, it had been a useless effort. Still, he remembered when Denver was a treasure trove, when he could walk onto any car lot, break into the office to find keys, and drive away with anything he wanted.

He looked the boys over carefully. The book rested heavily in his hands. “I’ll tell you what. I won’t talk about your expeditions, and maybe next time you head out you could show me where you got this.”

Both boys shook their heads. “No way, Grandfather,” said Dodge. “Dad would whip my butt for sure.”

“I don’t want you crossing the river again by yourselves.”

Dodge bit his lip and looked down into the bottom of his glass. “Okay,” he said.

Eric closed the book. “I appreciate the gift, but it’s too dangerous for you.” He felt awkward and sad. He’d seldom chastised Dodge, and he didn’t know what to say now. The silence weighed heavily on him.

Rabbit finally said, “You’d better tell him.”

Dodge brightened. “Oh, yeah. Grandma Pao died.”

Eric turned his head away from them, his eyes stinging. Emotions ran close to the surface for him lately. Age, he figured. Deaths, births, a change of weather, and he misted up. “I guess I need to go into town then,” he said. “You boys want to come?”


The breeze that felt cool under the trees, stirred dust and baked Eric’s skin as he followed the boys into town. Unlike most people, he lived isolated, with no near neighbors. In the Gone Time, this road was named Bowles Avenue, and it would have been crowded with suburbanites driving to Southwest Plaza, a huge shopping mall west of town. Now, the path was a broad swath of cracked and weeded asphalt and dirt. As they passed mounds of brick, Eric remembered the expensive, tree-encircled homes that once lined the street. Most of the neighborhoods had been burned in the final days of the plague. He could still see the flames leaping from house to house. He’d run for his life that day. No signs of fire now, not even a burned whiff in the air.

What remained of the trees after the fire had long since been chopped down for fuel. Grasses and sage covered the area that had once been the housing developments of Bow Mar South, Columbine, Columbine Hills and Columbine Knolls.

The mile walk to the river would have taken him less than two minutes in a car in the Gone Times. He remembered driving with his parents sixty years ago, and the thought weighed him down even more.

“Come on, Grandpa,” yelled Dodge over his shoulder. “If you walk any slower, we’ll be going backwards.”

When they reached the river’s bank, they followed a well-worn trail to the Treasury. Two men sat on the porch and nodded as Eric and the boys went in.

Sunlight streamed through high windows, revealing rows and rows of boxes piled on top one another. Many contained liquor. Old Crow, Seagrams, Kentucky Bourbon, the town’s chief trading goods. But there were also cases of nails, screws and irreplaceable hardware; hammers, saws, rasps, clamps and other tools, and then boxes filled with completely useless things like TVs, food processors, computers, flashlights, video games, and stereo components. The town council stored these last items, even though almost none of them had ever seen them in operation.

A man bent over an open box, counting bottles, straightened as they came in. “Father,” said Dodge’s dad. A deeply tanned, wiry man of forty, he nodded curtly in Eric’s direction.

“Good to see you, Troy,” said Eric. “Dodge tells me that Susan Pao died.”

“You get right to it, don’t you.”

“So, it’s true.”

“This morning. Her daughter found her. Never woke up, I guess. She was eighty-two.”

“That’s the end of the sixties,” said Eric. He sat on a large box marked MICROWAVE OVEN—FRAGILE. “The Beatles were still a group and man hadn’t been to the moon yet when she was born, and now she’s gone.”

Troy said, “Uh huh,” unencouragingly.

“She used to tell me about television shows she saw. God, that woman had a memory, I’ll tell you. Knew ‘em all. Beverly Hillbillies. Did she ever tell you about the Beverly Hillbillies? I don’t remember watching that one, but the tune’s stuck in my head. Idiotic song. We’d sit in her living room and sing that, and then . . .”

“We’ve got business to attend to here, Dad.”

Eric looked down at his hands resting on his legs. They were liver spotted, and a couple of the knuckles were swollen with arthritis. He thought about Susan Pao telling him about a concert she had been to at Red Rocks Auditorium, a blues concert, and how everybody showed up early in the day with blankets and coolers filled with beer, and how they tossed frisbees and beach balls up and down the stadium seats until the music started. People smoked pot, and if you got there after 6:00, there’d be no place to sit. He’d hiked to Red Rocks thirty years ago. Most of the stage was torn up for the metal, but the auditorium itself, carved out of stone, huge and empty, looked like it was still waiting for rock and roll. He’d left a broken cassette player on the stage, electrical tape holding the head phones together. That was after he had spent three years looking for batteries, and there were none left with any juice in them. He’d never gone back.

Troy said, “Dad, the business?”


“As the oldest member of the community, and the last person who actually remembers anything of the Gone Times, you got a vote now on the council. A lot of people depend on you making good decisions. They can’t be based on wild theories or old fears. You’ve got to keep your head.”

Blood rushed into Eric’s face. He felt his cheeks flushing. “School’s not a wild theory. Our kids have got to be able to read, or we’re going straight into barbarism.”

The contempt showed on Troy’s expression. “That’s just what I mean. You get going on the school thing, or the library idea, and people won’t listen. We’ve got important community projects, and it’s hard enough to convince people to pull together on them without you distracting the committee with these pet ideas of yours. The crops have to come in, we’ve got to widen our search for tradable goods, and you just make everyone angry by hanging on to old ways.”

Eric slapped his knee. “Look at this stuff in here. I’m not the one hanging on. America used to be a great place. We built cities. We flew around the world, and now you’re scrounging through garbage dumps, hoping to find things we can’t make anymore. I tell you, if we don’t teach the kids, the next generation will be nothing more than nomads following deer herds, or subsistence farmers barely surviving from summer to summer.”

Troy shook his head. “Hogwash, Dad. We do fine. There’s no reason to think we won’t keep on this way. People are happy until you go telling them they’re doomed.” He closed the box lid with a snap. “This is the world, now, but you hang on to a past that no one knows. Your people died. Mine are alive. You’ve got nothing to say to the living.”

“What about the sicknesses in the last couple of years? And I don’t see anyone dancing for joy about their stillbirths.” Eric, breathing hard, turned from his son. “Something’s changing. Ignorance doesn’t help.”

Troy walked back and forth behind him. He started to speak several times—Eric heard his lips part. Finally he said, “I hate this. Every time we talk you make me say bad things.” Troy gripped his shoulder. “What are we going to do?”

Through the open door, Eric could see the river. Heat waves shimmered the ground and the water flowed silently through the old bridge’s broken pilings. Across the shallow expanse, jumbles of brick marked the remains of downtown Littleton. “I think I should leave for a while,” he said.

Troy wiped his sleeve across his mouth. Eric shivered. For a second, he saw in Troy his own father. Troy was now about the same age as when Eric’s father had died.

Troy said, “Don’t be childish, Dad. You’re hiking days are long past.” He laughed, suddenly jovial. Eric cringed. He heard the patronizing behind the tone. He’s humoring me, Eric thought.

Troy continued, “Besides, we need you here. As the oldest person, people are going to want your opinions on all kinds of things. We’ll probably have to move you into town to save everybody the walk.”

Eric remembered the steady stream of visitors to Susan Pao’s house. Some brought old ’lectronics, radios or TVs, as if by laying on the hands she could heal them. Some came to her when they were ill, carrying with them boxes filled with medicines, most bad with age, hoping that she would identify the Gone Time cure that would save them. Lately there’d been a lot of sickness. She presided at weddings and christenings, funerals and festivals. Every day people dropped off baked goods or fresh-caught fish, like she was some sort of icon, which, of course, she was.

He pictured himself sitting in a house, people lined up to see him, like Susan Pao, his eyes glazed with age.

He shook the image away. Whatever else happened, he couldn’t see himself as a symbol for these people, not the ignorant children of the Gone Time. One more time before he died, he needed to wander in the world.

“I’m serious, Dad. You don’t know what’s out there anymore.”

Eric almost laughed out loud. He’d seen superstitions and fears develop in the community over the years. The latest one was that bad spirits, some said “ghosts,” protected the countryside. The ruins of the city were safe, or as safe as ruins could be, haunted by nothing more than rusted metal and unstable foundations that collapsed on the unwary, and expeditions as far north as downtown Denver weren’t uncommon, but no one went past the fields to the east, south or west. When he’d proposed an exploration to Colorado Springs two years ago, Troy reminded the council of the seventy miles of country to travel and that ended the discussion.

Eric once talked to one man who claimed to have heard something at night when he’d gone after stray cattle. “I’m not saying I was scared,” he said. “But after that, I figured cows weren’t worth it and I came home.” He’d never said exactly what it was he heard.

“Maybe because we don’t know what’s out there, someone ought to go,” said Eric.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Dad. You’re old.”


At home, Eric packed. As he’d walked the dusty two miles to his house, the idea of a long trip made more sense. He’d been half joking with the boys about scavenging with them, but only half. Lately his muscles ached all the time. Not the good ache of a hard workday, but a queasy throbbing ache, like they wanted to be put to rest, and that frightened him. So he packed. Maybe a voyage would set my mind to ease, he thought. Maybe if I wandered north I could find other communities, places where they weren’t giving up on the spirit of the old America. But mostly he just wanted to walk, to feel the long pull of the road like he did when he was young, to set his eyes on a distant spot and watch it swell as he approached, to choose his direction without regard to where he was going or when the journey would end. Yes, a long walk is in order, he thought.

But the more he arranged items in the pack, the less sensible an aimless walk seemed. There was sickness in the community. He’d seen it; the Iversons on the river’s edge were all down with a wasting disease that robbed them of energy and appetite. The Sanduskys and Washingtons were nearly as bad, though they’d seemed to be making a recovery in the last week. Brent Washington had even worked a morning in the fields he’d heard. But the stillbirths—that bothered him. Too many labors ended in quiet burials.

No, a walk to indulge a whim, that would be senseless. He thought, I need to find an answer—to prove to them the value of the Gone Time learning. Ignorance is no shelter.

An old idea came back to him, the place to go. It was north, farther than anyone had gone in years, but still a reachable hike for an old man if he took care of himself, if he was careful: the library at the University of Colorado, in Boulder. If any learning still existed, if there were one place where science might provide an answer, that would be it. He would go there.

Smiling, he stuffed into the pack a collapsible fishing pole and lures, a good sheath knife, insect repellant (some things never rot, no matter how long they’re stored), a worn hard back copy of My Antonia that he’d been meaning to read, a rain poncho, a small first aid kit, binoculars, a compass, a Colorado map, and enough food to last for three days.

He walked through the house looking for anything else he felt he might need. Most of the ground floor rooms were filled with books, the largest collection he knew. He taught reading to children and adults who were interested, a group of four on Tuesday night and another group of five on Sunday afternoon. In a community of almost a thousand people, only a hundred or so were literate, and most of them were over forty.

Lit only by the small rectangles of the window wells, in the basement where canned preserves crowded the shelves, he chose a jar of strawberry jam and one of pickled watermelon rind. In the back of the room, he contemplated the boxes of irreplaceable goods he’d stockpiled over the years. He had three good artificial-fiber sleeping bags, two nylon one-man tents with fiberglass poles, and four rifles but only ammo for one of them. Sixty-year-old shells weren’t trustworthy. Some might work, but most of them wouldn’t, so the rifles were practically useless. Everyone had one they never used. He also had a small store of hardware to keep the house from falling apart. He looked into a box with one of his most valuable assets, a rare supply of hardwood axe handles that people came from miles away to trade for. Eric hadn’t worried about food for the winter for some time.

He needed a change of clothes, and he went to his bedroom where he kept the wardrobe he’d paid dearly for. When he was young, and realized new clothes might be hard to come by, most of the stores and houses had already been looted. He’d traded for the supply he had now, but, sadly, even though he protected them with mothballs and kept them dry, the fabric was not as sturdy as it had once been. He pulled apart the legs of a pair of jeans he’d never worn, and a seam ripped. Only a couple of threads popped on the second pair he tested. He put them in the pack. He hoped that before all the clothes from the Gone Times were unwearable that trade with the south would be reestablished, assuming the south was growing cotton again. There had been no news of the world from more than twenty miles away for years. Every once in a while, the younger men left on explorations, but they either came back after a few days, frightened and silent about what they’d seen, or they didn’t return at all. No wonder, Eric thought, they believe that ghosts protect the wilderness. He wondered how long it would be before the people would make maps that said in the unknown white space around their little world, “Here there be dragons.”

Eric grabbed his walking stick that doubled as a quarterstaff, a large-brimmed leather hat, and his slingshot to complete his outfit. Many of the men in the community carried bow and arrows, but he’d always been most comfortable with the sling. Of course, just like everything else people used from the Gone Times, he couldn’t replace the most valuable part, the surgical tubing rubber bands that provided the power. Once those broke, he would have only the weapon’s memory. He kept the tubing he had now in an airtight box in a cool spot in the cellar, and it hadn’t deteriorated too badly. Even at seventy-five, Eric could nail a wild dog at fifty yards. It was a skill that had saved him more than once.

He locked the front door, closed the shutters on the windows, and walked away. The afternoon sun cut long shadows through the prairie weeds and grasses that grew up through the road. Eric figured he could get a fair amount of hiking done in the cool afternoon, find a safe place to camp in a few hours, and be near enough to the mountains by noon tomorrow to start north.

He pulled the brim over his eyes. The pack straps clung agreeably to his shoulders. I might be old, he thought, but I’m a long way from dead. I’ve left home before and made out all right.

Just after the sun dropped below the mountains, Eric found a rocky outcrop with a flat top where he could spread his sleeping bag. The land darkened into deep blue shadows, though sunlight still glowed in the clouds. He guessed he had hiked eight miles or so. That would put him west of Chatfield Reservoir, which was now called “The Swamp,” but another ten miles away from the real beginnings of the foot hills.

At first, he was afraid that Troy would take his talk of leaving seriously and send someone to the house to watch him, and then, after he’d started hiking, he was convinced someone was following him. He twirled in his tracks several times at sounds he soon dismissed as nothing. Troy never believed me when he was growing up, thought Eric. No reason to think he’d change now. Within a couple of miles he began to enjoy the road. The pack settled comfortably. Water sloshed and gurgled in his canteen. The walking stick planted solidly. He breathed deeply of the afternoon air, sweet with sage and columbine.

When he came to the rock outcrop, it seemed perfect. He had resigned himself to camping in one of the many ruins along the way, always a spooky experience, when he’d spotted it poking up on the horizon like a blunt thumb. Tall enough to keep animals away, but not unclimbable, foot and handholds offered easy access to the top, and when Eric reached it he realized they must have been carved in by some other traveler who recognized the value of a safe campsite. A blackened pit and chunks of charcoaled wood confirmed his guess.

Dangling his feet while gazing east, Eric sat on the cool stone. A line of clouds on the horizon flashed sporadically with lightning, but was too far away for him to hear thunder. A breeze kept the mosquitoes away. He pressed his hands into the small of his back and arched. Muscles cramped, and he awkwardly rubbed them until they relaxed. His legs throbbed.

Seventy-five, he thought, is a lot of years. He gingerly crawled into his sleeping bag, lay on his back and watched the sky. Troy, he thought, you will see what the old learning is worth. You’ll learn that lesson you never knew.

By the time the last shades of daylight disappeared, and the stars shone like bright ice, he was asleep.

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