Illustrations by Blaine Garrett
Editor’s note: Lucas Bleyle is a freshman at Ames High School and one of the “Fort Kids” who, last summer in violation of parks policy and the city’s conservation easement agreement with the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, constructed a fort in Munn Woods to enjoy the outdoors with a community of like-minded kids before school started up again that fall. I first met Lucas at the fort, about a week before rain and creek bank erosion beat the city to its removal, to feature the Fort Kids in a story that, because of the “City vs. Citadel” headline that ran with its print version, attracted the ire of at least one city official. During a subsequent visit to his home overlooking the woods, Lucas showed me a copy of his self-published novel, The Scavengers, set in a polluted, post-apocalyptic Earth abandoned by civilization for another world and converted into a planet-wide garbage dump. The book, which was largely completed before the Munn Woods fort was built, was inspired in part by Lucas’ climate-change volunteerism and, he said, shared many of the fort’s community-building themes. The following is an excerpt from the novel’s first chapter, “Don’t Litter Entire Planets.” — Gavin Aronsen
I don’t know why people keep hoping that they’ll escape the Wasteland. Things haven’t changed in the last five hundred years, so why would they ever? But, when I look down deep inside me I find myself hoping, right along with them, that maybe, somehow, I might escape to the Clean World where every day isn’t a fight for my survival. My name is Zane and all I’ve ever known is the Wasteland.
A hideous snarl pierces the silence, a shriek so loud it seems to echo for eternity. Not again, I think, but I raise my bow anyway. The wind howls almost as much as the creature hiding in the darkness, blowing a piece of paper that whips me in the face. The wind brings the stench of rotting garbage and trash. It’s a smell I have grown used to. I slip an arrow out of my quiver, feeling the smooth wood as I raise it to the bow. My bow isn’t much, only a few pieces of metal crudely welded together with a string in between, but it’s still deadly. I hear the snarl again, closer now. It’s too dark to see, but I know what it is and, more importantly, where it is. I hear it crunching towards me on razor sharp claws. Then I spot the glint of a yellow eye only feet away. It’s a volve, the ugly wolf-like creature that roams the land, killing at will. Its mouth drips saliva and its foot-long fangs hang out of its mouth like sharpened icicles waiting to sink into my neck. I hope it is smart enough not to attack. I’m not in a killing mood. I never am.
Not visible to the naked eye is the planet where the enemy is, the people who ultimately caused this animal’s death and my miserable life.
We stare at each other, seconds pass, eyes locked in a silent standoff. Then, all of a sudden, the beast howls and sprints toward me. I have a moment before it reaches me but I don’t need it. I’ve already released the arrow and it thunks out of sight into the volve’s exposed throat. The volve stops in mid sprint and howls, blood spitting from its mouth. It stumbles a few more feet, slipping on trash. The volve lets out one last strangled whimper and collapses at my feet, its long purple tongue hanging from its mouth in the all too familiar image of death.
My brain insists that I should be celebrating my victory but my heart gets the better of me as I see the poor animal lying in a dead heap. I walk to it. The only sound now is the crunching of metal-clad boots that I wear to protect my feet from the array of razor sharp bits of metal, glass, and wooden scraps that cover the Wasteland.
The night is dark but the partial moon lights the night enough to see that the volve isn’t even an adult. It was probably cast out of the pack when fresh meat was too scarce. I bend down and lay one hand on the beast’s neck. For such a hideous animal, it sure has some soft fur.
There is no blood except the gentle trickle from its open mouth to the trash on the ground, staining it a scarlet color. My arrow had gone straight down its throat and into its heart. The injury bleeds the volve from the inside, and if the arrow hadn’t killed the animal, choking on its own blood surely would have. I grab the volve around its claws and heave it over my shoulder onto my back, its skin still warm to the touch. Its head rests on one of my shoulders and its tail hangs over the other. I carry the volve much like the shepherds of medieval times carried a lamb. I am suddenly overcome with sadness. This creature didn’t deserve to die. I don’t care if it had been trying to kill me. Volves eat meat, that’s their way of life. Even if this one was an ugly creature, how evil could it really have been? It was only trying to feed itself, following the instinct hardwired into its brain. I had caused this animal such pain, and for what? Another meal? To escape death for another day?
I look up to the sky at the stars, to the moon and somewhere much farther away. Not visible to the naked eye is the planet where the enemy is, the people who ultimately caused this animal’s death and my miserable life. I look back toward the ground, closing my eyes for a moment.
I start the walk through the fields of trash back to my home, the Nomad’s wagons. It’s less than a mile back and from here I can see the fires and the steam from the wagons. My boots crunch over cans and bottles. I kick aside boxes, climb over a dented refrigerator, dodge piles of junk. There is no sign of plant life, no sign of soil. There is no bare ground. I know that soil exists somewhere deep below my feet, below the layer of trash where it’s of no use. At one point, this place might have been a forest. I don’t even know what a forest looks like but I have heard stories about seas of green and brown and an abundance of cute little animals. That is now a thing of the past.
As the wind blows, small whirlwinds of paper form and I’m forced to shield my eyes as papers whip against me. It’s unusually windy tonight, but I don’t take much notice because I am almost back to my home. The volve swings on my back as I take each step over the uneven ground. It’s not exceptionally heavy — fifty, maybe sixty pounds. If it were an adult, I would have had to leave it and return later with help.
“Yo, Zane.” I look up to see Auburn standing atop the first wagon. I can barely hear him from here. He is but a speck. I immediately quicken my steps to reach him.
The wagon is huge, a giant metal house on tracks with steam that billows out of its many chimneys before spiraling high into the sky where it disappears into the darkness.
“Got yourself another volve, I see. Killing a whole pack this morning wasn’t enough?” It’s Auburn yelling again. His voice is low and echoes down to where I am standing.
I yell back: “It attacked me first. I was only defending myself, you know I don’t like killing.”
“Whatever you say. Now get up here!” I walk up to the wagon and start scaling the metal ladder on the side. When I pull myself up onto the first rung of the thin metal ladder, I can feel the slow movement of the wagon. Its speed is no more than one mile per hour, but it moves us steadily over the trash. Inside, I hear the steam engine humming and feel the slight vibration of the ladder as I climb. I reach the top of the moving house. Auburn lends me a hand to help me up the last couple of rungs. I take his hand and look up into his face.
His dark skin blends in with the night around us. His features are prominently African, a large slightly flattened nose, dark black hair that seems to have no respect for the laws of gravity and bright white teeth surrounded by thick brown lips. Like me, he wears a pair of jeans torn at the knees and a pair of metal-plated boots. His muscular arms are revealed by his sleeveless shirt that looks as though it’s stitched together from about a million different scraps of cloth. He takes the volve from me, “I’ll give this to the butcher. It’s a runt of a thing, but should be enough for a couple of dinners.” I’m relieved to have the dead animal out of my hands as I wipe sweaty palms on my worn jeans.
“I’ll come with you but you can carry it,” I tell him. He just grins at me and adjusts his grip on the volve. I look around. I can see everything from up here. I see all the other wagons moving along with us, twenty in all, each one different from the other. None is symmetrical and they look as though they have been fixed and added onto hundreds of times, because they have.
Some have small gardens on top while others have wind turbines and rain barrels. Imagine every piece of metal you have ever seen and then imagine it put together into a house-shaped structure and slammed onto a set of tracks. If you can do that, you have a pretty good idea of what one of these wagons looks like — the bottom half of a tank and the top half of an RV though much larger and more randomly constructed.
We make our way through the garden atop our wagon to a hinged metal panel in the roof. The gardens are one of the only places on this planet where you will see any kind of plant life. They only grow with large amounts of work and soil that comes from the city, Skumford, where there are mines to collect it from under the layers of trash. We pass through a row of herbs and another of carrots before we reach the rusty hatch.
“Not like you to be waiting atop the roof to greet me,” I mention. “What’s up?”
Auburn grabs the handle and swings the hatch open, revealing another ladder descending deeper into the wagon’s interior. It doesn’t seem the most efficient entry to climb all the way up the side only to descend back down again, but it’s necessary for security reasons — keeping out volves and the occasional unfriendly Nomad group. When it comes down to it, it’s more efficient to be alive so we keep the main door closed after dark.
“I’d finished dinner and was getting tired of Zeleng’s complaining so I thought I would get a bit of fresh air and wait for you to arrive.” Auburn’s voice echos up from his lower position on the ladder.
Carcasses lie everywhere and the skinned and cleaned volves that hang from the ceiling are already smoked, salted, and ready to store away.
The hatch clangs shut above me, sound reverberating through the narrow chute. I lock the hatch behind me with a couple of padlocks as well as the old-fashioned bar across the opening. I’m fairly sure we’re the last ones back so odds are we aren’t locking anyone out. It’s happened to me before and let’s just say Ham got an unexpected guest knocking at his window that night. Auburn is already several feet below. Although he is descending with one hand (his other holding the volve), he doesn’t seem to be having very much trouble. When we climb to the bottom, we will be in the main room where we eat dinner and spend most of our free time. Many of the other rooms in the wagon can be entered from this main room. As I climb down the last couple of rungs, the metal of my boots against the ladder alerts anyone in the main room of our arrival. There aren’t as many people in the room as I would have thought, but then again, it’s late at night and most people are in bed preparing for an early morning.
The room is a four-sided shape about twenty-five by forty feet but it looks like a rectangle drawn by a five-year-old. The walls slant slightly and don’t always follow a perfectly straight line. There is an assortment of torn chairs and scratched tables scavenged from the dumps as we travel. A couple of older people sit around these tables, talking and playing chess. They have a board that they found but the actual pieces are scraps of metal and a fair amount of plastic army men, more stuff scavenged in the unending landscape of trash, our source for everything.
Some of the other walkers, who have returned from a long day walking alongside the wagons, sit around tables or on couches in the corner. A few eat from bowls but, for the most part, everyone seems to have attended an earlier dinner. Walkers is the name given to people who walk along the wagons, surveying the trash dropped earlier that week by Clean World ships called Trash Crafts. Sitting among these walkers is Zeleng, probably the only person other than Auburn I call a friend. He wears his usual volve skin cloak, his spiky black hair falling across his face as if it is intent on covering his eyes. He spots us and walks over.
“Another volve. You know how tired of volve meat I am,” Zeleng complains. He has an amazing way of looking sad while grinning from ear to ear.
“Just think, it’s almost time to harvest the roof gardens again,” replies Auburn, wistfully. “And as a bonus, we won’t have to listen to your complaining anymore,” I say, returning Zeleng’s infectious smile.
“I know, but why couldn’t we just stop at Skumford once in awhile and trade for some fish or something?” Zeleng says. ”I’m sick of volve. You feel me?” Auburn and I are used to his complaining. He does it jokingly but sometimes I almost complain about his complaining.
As we head for the kitchen, Zeleng doesn’t question what we are doing. I push open the metal door at the far end of the main room. Let’s just say the kitchen isn’t my favorite place. Carcasses lie everywhere and the skinned and cleaned volves that hang from the ceiling are already smoked, salted, and ready to store away. The place reeks of blood and organs but I guess we are to blame for that, a pack of volves does take a while to cut up and dry. I think back to our scuffle with the volves.
It had been early in the day, so Auburn, Zeleng and I had barely been outside an hour before they attacked. There had been six of them, a large male, two females and three volves that were entering their teen years, almost old enough to split off and start a pack of their own. They’d come out of nowhere, creeping up behind us, quieter than a wisp of wind. Then, they attacked with a shriek much like the volve I killed minutes earlier had made and only my quick reflexes had saved us. I pulled my bow and shot the large male in its muscled shoulder. It had continued towards us, slower than before. With the others following the large male’s lead and slowing, it had given Auburn and Zeleng just enough time to pull their weapons and put up a fight. When the element of surprise was gone, the pack had nothing on us and we finished them off quickly. I had only killed a single volve in the morning attack. Auburn and Zeleng had dealt with the others with gusto but I still felt the twinge of sadness that is brought about every time I end a life for my own sake. Auburn and Zeleng had gone off to the wagon to get help in transporting the new meat and I’d told them that I wanted some alone time. I’d spent the rest of the day wandering the trash alone. It was a nice change to be by myself in the Wasteland. It gave me time to think without interruption until, of course, the other volve had attacked and I’d been forced to slaughter another animal.
I look to the creature in Auburn’s arms and pause for a moment, trying to locate our cook and butcher.