Editor’s note: This excerpt is from Remedium, a novel-in-progress.
Hot white light reflected off Noah’s irises. A beam of sunshine illuminated the corner where she slept in a cot. Her room was the size of a closet. She curled her body in a transparent sheet, soaking in the last comforts of sleep. Her thoughts lingered on the pills stashed underneath her cot. The bones of her arms and legs, all the way up her spine, ached for the Remedine.
“These will help a little,” she whispered to herself with a sleepy smile.
She reached under the creaking bed, searching for a metal lipstick case. Grasping it, she popped off the lid and shook two round purple pills into her palm. She chewed and swallowed them without water, savoring even the bitter taste, feeling them slide down her throat into her empty belly. With a sigh, she returned the case under the mattress. She licked the remaining powder off her fingers. Her father told her never to waste.
Her favorite piece of art, an ancient postcard, was taped to the wall. Noah always wanted to kiss the cherubic angel printed on it. His plump face rested in small, dimpled hands, as he dreamily gazed at fluffy clouds. The cherub looked happy. His expression reminded her of how the pills made her feel. What she was about to feel. Her stomach tingled. She peeled the yellowed postcard off the wall and flipped it over to read the message on the back.
“These three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” was scrawled in smudged silver graphite. She smiled at the words and pressed the postcard back onto the wall. Her mother, Natasha, had given it to her father long ago.
Noah tore the sheet off her body and did a toe-curling stretch, her spine crackling from neck to tailbone. She yawned indulgently. It was barely dawn and her skin was already gleaming with sweat. Staring pensively out of the plastic window of her bedroom, she pretended to see giant puffs of cloud in the distant sky.
* * *
The desert landscape was bright outside. She could smell its rich aroma. The world was turning gold and the rising sun glinted off dozens of metal trailers. Constructed over fifty years before, the trailers were ancient, rusted, and many looked ready to collapse. Some were aluminum, reflecting a brilliant white light. Others were refurbished; a patchwork of sheet metal placed over a rusty frame. Noah had a hard time remembering why they were called trailers in the first place.
Little gardens of succulents and herbs were planted in painted pots, lining the central walkway through the trailer park. Rusty knick-knacks, odd collections of dolls, broken furniture, and tools adorned her neighbors’ yards.
People emerged from their trailers yawning and stretching as they greeted the new day. Neighbors helped each other set up shade structures over brick patios. The aroma of desert meat cooking over roaring fires filled the air. The pink, skinless bodies of rattlesnakes and emaciated rabbits sizzled and popped as they rotated on skewers. Groups of hungry children surrounded the fire pits with wide, impatient eyes. Noah would never eat the desert meat, no matter how hungry she was. The thought of sinking her teeth into flesh saturated with poison and ingesting the broken cells of a radioactive creature was enough to make her vomit.
A few men and women carted water into the trailer park from the nearby springs of the Zion Canyon wetlands. Everyone had to take their turn filling the community filtered aqueduct. Noah enjoyed the trips to the higher elevation; the air was cooler and fresher and she got to study the opulence of shimmering pebbles lying underneath waterfalls. But for today, she was thankful she wasn’t scheduled to join them.
The silent sky was bright blue with disintegrating wisps of cloud. She could feel the sun already prickling her cheeks. It was mid-June and everyone suspected a long heat wave in the near future. Noah hoped they weren’t right. She pulled a tube of sunscreen from her back pocket, squeezed out the cool, aromatic cream, and rubbed it into her face and neck. Not even the Remedine she had taken was strong enough to protect her skin from the ultra-violet rays.
Groups of dusty-clothed children clustered behind shade structures or climbed up boulders. Noah walked quickly, avoiding everyone’s gaze, waving and smiling only when necessary. It was much too early to be friendly, not like she had any friends to begin with. A group of bearded young men gathered by the outskirts of the trailer park leered as she passed by. One of them was particularly strange looking, with a twisted back and a mushroom-shaped tumor sprouting from his face. A nauseating feeling constricted her throat. She looked down at her feet, the dusty sand gathered inside her slippers and flung into the air with each brisk step.
After enduring the hot, choking smell of the public cesspool, she approached the trailer park’s front fence. “Cactus Rose” was painted in block print on a dented piece of scrap metal that dangled over the front gate. Bullet holes had eaten away most of the letter “e.” She waved to Gino, the guard posted in a tower constructed on top of the fence. He gave her a toothless grin and a thumbs-up.
Once she exited the creaking gate of the park, she pulled the cigarette she’d found out of her cleavage and studied it for a moment. Jairus would’ve slapped her if he saw her smoking. How many times had he told her about cancer of the lungs, esophagus, or larynx?
Noah pinched the end of the cigarette and a flame burst forth. The toasted end was glowing red. As she sucked in fumes of arsenic, benzene, and beryllium, the smoke fried the delicate tissue of her throat. She coughed and retched, her eyes watering. Her head felt so light, almost as if it was expanding. This cigarette was a terrible carcinogen—she couldn’t believe they had once been legal. She let the rest of it drop to the ground. A little furl of smoke escaped as it was extinguished by sand.
It was only three miles to the train station, but her body felt slow and heavy. Red-veined cliffs towered around her. The ground became hard and cracked. Spiny cacti were clustered here and there, sprouting gauzy yellow and pink flowers. She felt alone with the buzzing of her mind.
The thought of Jairus returning today made her anxious. Noah knew she was pushing her luck—she hadn’t seen her father for a month now. He was due back at any moment, but it was worth the risk. If he only knew what she’d been up to since his last departure…
But surely she would no longer be recognized as the daughter of an outlaw. It had been eight years since Noah had been forced to change her name.
She used to be a thin little girl named Camille Gardiner. Now she was an eighteen-year-old woman named Noah—the letters glowed officially on her identity film. Her father had to hire a hacker to surgically remove the old chip in her index finger and tweak the data. He made sure no evidence of his existence could be traced from her chip. She never took any photographs of him with her pointer finger—she had no record of him as a father. It didn’t seem to matter to her either way. Noah didn’t like to think about him.
She no longer identified with the name Camille or the life she lived in Jordan so many years ago. Her paranoid father always said there were “eyes” everywhere, spotting the desert canyons and mountains. They moved a dozen times since changing their identities, always to a park or some shanty den, anywhere to hide from the “eyes.” Jairus, Noah, and Aunt Belle had settled at the Cactus Rose five months ago. Before that they were squatting in a tattered Victorian style home on acres of dried-up land. Those three long years in the Victorian alone with her aunt had buried her in a deep, pervading depression. The only relationships she had were with her father’s small collection of decrepit books from the early 2000s. The most recent copyright date she could find was 2020, a thick text about pharmaceutical drugs of Western medicine. With her eyes closed, she would transport into different worlds found in the tiny text of crumbling anthologies. Some days she would read about ancient Greek and Roman culture, imagining herself wrapped in a soft toga of fine white cloth with a wreath of olive leaves placed on her head. The accounts of bloody coliseum battles fascinated her endlessly—that a human’s life could be considered sport. After reading about the colossal skyscrapers of New York City, or the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, she found herself longing to travel to parts of the earth that didn’t exist anymore. She tried to imagine the scale of these manmade buildings that looked like long gray rectangles in the photos, and could only compare them to the canyon cliffs that towered around her. She read about the world long before she had existed—a world of endless things and stuff she could only visualize from the faded photos.
Besides the anthologies, her father kept a hardcover New Testament Bible. While the anthologies were dry and factual, the bible was rich with poetry and symbols. She loved the grainy texture of its pages and the messages of hope found on each yellowed page. Some pages had been bookmarked by her mother with dried leaves or scraps of paper. Noah tried to preserve these artifacts with painstaking care, but the leaves became dust over time.
Although Noah didn’t always understand the concept of a God, she felt that the character Jesus could teach her much more about how to deal with life than her own father. Sometimes, when the loneliness permeated her very core, she would talk to her identity film and record her desires and dreams. The bible instructed her to pray for the things she wanted, so she prayed for Love.
One day, a group of homeless men tried to rob the Victorian while Jairus was away. Paralyzed with fear, Aunt Belle and Noah hid in the cool, damp cellar with their bottles of Remedine as the house was torn apart. Eventually they heard the men’s voices get fainter and fainter. Even when they were sure the men had gone, they laid still until two hours had gone by. After this event, Jairus felt it was unsafe for two women to be so isolated. He spent weeks researching areas with the lowest radiation metrics. After the explosion of Prospect Destiny, plutonium had spread far and wide, and local micro-climates created high and low distributions. He settled on the Cactus Rose, which had extraordinary low levels of toxicity compared to the surrounding areas.
Noah had been elated to finally be reunited with people, but that excitement was short lived. She realized the Cactus Rose was a tight-knit community who peered at Noah with wary, judgmental eyes. After being alone with books for so long, she had no idea how to connect with an actual person. As always, she blamed her father.
When they moved to the Cactus Rose, Jairus only allowed Noah to roam the cliffs that bordered the park and a few of the nearby neighborhoods—the DiaCore transit was forbidden. It didn’t take long for Noah to learn that Tin City was only a short train ride away. A month prior, a neighbor had shown her how to get to the train station through the arched stones that bordered the canyon, in exchange for an old magazine cut-out of a bikini model. Belle had been locked up in a trailer partying with some drunkard. Her father’s constant warnings faded as she rocketed away on the train for the first time and met a man who pumped the blood back into her life. Sol. Solomon Rowe. God had finally answered her prayers.
Yes, Jairus would be angry if he knew. He would be furious. The number of times he told her to avoid being noticed was endless. During the few days a month she did see him, he would check her health condition and vitals, give her a fresh stash of Remedine, and interrogate her quietly about her whereabouts during the previous several weeks. He wanted her to be paranoid and cautious like him, always looking over her shoulder and fearing the worst. She wondered if he would ever stop his obsession. Sometimes she thought he had gone mad, staying all those months in an underground laboratory.
Jairus was never loud. He kept his emotions locked away, always clinical in his speech and mannerisms. Noah could never tell him anything without hearing his same dry, emotionless tone a seasoned doctor would use on a patient about a cancer diagnosis.
God, she hated him.
This time she was praying to never return to the Cactus Rose. She was done tiptoeing through her entire existence for the sake of an absent father.
Caitlin is a graduate student in creative writing at California State University, Sonoma, and a barista at the Fictional Café.