Read Cottonwood Online

Authors: R. Lee Smith

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction


BOOK: Cottonwood
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Table of Contents










































This book is dedicated to my father.

























Copyright © 2012 by Robin Smith

All rights reserved.  No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including, but not limited to, photocopying or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.

[email protected]


This book is a work of fiction.  Names, places, locales and events are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, places or events are purely coincidental.


Cover designed by Sarah-Jane Lehoux










It was almost seven o’clock on a Wednesday morning, which found Sarah Fowler sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and reading the help-wanted ads and singing under her breath in no particular key. This morning’s serenade was an actual song and a fairly new one at that, but it could have been anything, really. She hadn’t done anything as deliberate as ‘pick’ it. She didn’t even know she was doing it.

Love is easy when it’s the first time
,” Sarah droned as Kate rushed in and out again in search of a missing earring. Kate was always losing things and late for something. Like Sarah’s own monotonous singing, it was a trait which had long ago faded into the background. She noticed only that her sister had become intermittently present and so she got up to fix her a cup of coffee, black and bitter because Kate liked to torture herself that way, and to freshen her own, with plenty of powdered creamer and stale sugar because Sarah did not. “
Love shines with its own light. Love mends what life has broken
…” With Kate’s coffee mug conspicuously placed on the cheap table, the newspaper reclaimed her attention. Sarah settled back into her chair. “…
and warms you through the night
…oh well.”

There were no jobs this morning, at least none that Sarah qualified for. Her duty done (not without her daily twinge of guilt), Sarah picked up the rest of the paper and started reading it for real. Concentration rendered her relentless singing to a slow mutter, but did not kill it. “
Love brightens…every color…Love makes everything…seem new, but…love is, love is, love is
…” She paused for a sip and a closer inspection of the front page splash-photo, where firemen tromped through the smoldering ruin of some convenience store that had gone up over the weekend. “…
love is…love is…love is
…” She didn’t recognize any of them. Relieved, she moved on. “…
love is…love is

“Dangerous!” Kate bellowed from the bathroom.

Sarah looked up, blinking. “Huh?”

“Nothing. God.” Kate ran into the bedroom. “Read your paper.”

Sarah did. After a few seconds, she took another sip of sweet, creamy coffee. A few seconds after that, she began to sing under her breath. “
You only kiss me when I’m bleeding

It was a slow news day for
Brookings Bugle
, not that there was ever much excitement in this part of Oregon. Brookings was really nothing but a train station and a few cross-streets, two bars, a feed store, and six churches, conveniently located eighty miles from Portland—or anywhere else for that matter—and Sarah was not surprised to see that this morning’s top story was more concerned muttering about the president’s proposed environmental bill. Below that, the usual small-town scandals ate up space, and way down at the bottom, squeezed in under the proposed overhaul of the Brookings Sanitation Department and how it impacted the current recycling program, was the article that changed everything.

“Oh wow,” said Sarah, interrupting her droning song to stare down at the newspaper in happy surprise.

“What is it?” Kate asked, finally rushing into the kitchen to gulp down her by-now cooled coffee. When no answer was forthcoming, her big sister leaned over the table to look for herself. She shuddered once, elaborately. “God, those things are creepy.”

Sarah ignored her and hunched protectively over the dining room table, as if to spare the newspaper further insult. She read, her chin propped on the hand that didn’t hold her morning coffee, fascinated. Delighted, even.

Cottonwood Latest to Adopt Controversial Social Reform Policy
, said the tagline, but it was the picture that was the real story. A real photo, an official photo, not some grainy, illicit thing snapped off someone’s cell phone. The alien which was its subject was in full color, but tantalizingly small—just a head shot, looking back over its plated shoulder carapace and directly into the camera, those weirdly human eyes light and alive and furious above that spidery, crabbish mouth. The article itself was a casual affair, an afterthought of information. But of course, the aliens weren’t really news anymore. They’d been here almost twenty years.

There were thirteen immigration camps worldwide (with three more under construction, the article reminded her), but even the press agents at the International Bureau of Immigration acknowledged they functioned as little more than holding pens. “
Overcrowding is still our biggest problem and the safety of the residents and the surrounding community will always be our top concern
,” as some important poobah or another was quoted. “
But our goal is integration and we are excited to finally be taking the next steps towards that goal. We hope at least some of you will come with us

A little thrill went through Sarah’s spine as she read those words again. She was actually old enough to remember when the aliens arrived, although only just. She’d been four, after all. No one remembered much from four.

The article rambled on for another line or three, talking about how outdated the earliest camps were and the need for stronger containment measures and security, then got back to the interesting bits, saying that IBI’s Human Resource department was now committed to providing their residents with a liaison and support services so that their needs could be better identified and addressed. This, the article concluded, opened up a whopping half-million jobs in the United States alone, although the author ended with a not-so-subtle speculation that this was a job perhaps better suited for the military, owing to the tremendous danger presented by the residents themselves. The idea that citizens—untrained, uneducated citizens—could actually work inside Cottonwood ought to be a deeply disturbing one to this nation and its true residents.

“I’m untrained and uneducated,” Sarah said to herself in mounting excitement. She bounded from her chair. “Where’s my paz?”

“Why?” asked Kate, frowning after her.

“If the papers are all scaring people like that, maybe Cottonwood’s still hiring.”

“Oh for—It’s in the charger, but seriously, kiddo, don’t bother.”

The charger had fallen off the windowsill at some point, no doubt a victim of Fagin and his ongoing feud with the neighbor’s fluffy orange cat, who liked to sit right outside and mock indoor dogs. Sarah found her paz—actually her PAS, her personal application system, but who spelled things out anymore?—under the sagging sofa and wiped the dog hair off on her shirt. She gave it her thumbprint, brought up the Webcrawler, flipped it over into a keypad and quickly found Cottonwood on the International Bureau of Immigration’s home site.

“You’re making a huge mistake,” Kate sighed, bringing her a fresh cup of coffee. Discouragement and love, what else were big sisters for?

“Support me,” said Sarah, jiggling her foot impatiently as she waited for the site’s security program to finish talking to her paz. It was a dinosaur by the day’s standards, only the third she’d ever had. Yes, it had a flatscreen instead of the floating 3D model and yes, the stylus was wrapped in electrician’s tape for a reason, but it still did all the essential things. It was her phone, computer, GPS device, media center and entertainment, not to mention her official identification. It did all her banking, logged all her webcrawling, and represented her in every legal and social setting. To no small degree, her paz
Sarah Fowler and she was happy with it. She wasn’t a Luddite, no matter what Kate said; she just didn’t see the point of replacing something that wasn’t broken just because something else was newer.

“I’ll always support you,” Kate said, watching her in a long-suffering way. “We’re family, aren’t we? You’re all I’ve got.”

True and true. Because, eight years ago, as Sarah and Katelyn Fowler painted their small hometown a tasteful shade of pink to celebrate Big Sister’s 21
, their parents had engaged in a little celebration of their own: red wine and candlelight and faux-satin sheets for soon-to-be empty nesters. The wine got flowing. The candles somehow caught the table on fire. The satiny sheets, Sarah later heard a fireman remark, had melted to the bodies on the bed. “Looked like a cocoon,” he’d said. To this day, the smell of smoke—even the happy outdoor barbeque kind—made Sarah’s stomach tighten, made her taste those birthday coladas sticking in her throat, made her think of cocoons sitting in ash.

She and Kate stuck together a few years after that, but those were hard years. There wasn’t any money—their father had, for perhaps the first time in his entire adult life, somehow allowed the insurance payments to lapse. There were two mortgages outstanding on the charred house, and the banks had raked both surviving Fowlers over the figurative coals while the literal ones were still smoldering in the kind of courtroom battle where even winning meant losing—and the financial struggle only stressed an already emotional situation to the breaking point. Kate found a boyfriend and invited him to move in and Sarah, feeling small and frozen out, got herself a job and moved out.

Five years of tense sisterhood followed. The boyfriends never seemed to last, but then, neither did Sarah’s jobs. She tried. She worked anywhere she could, doing all the menial and low-paying scut that fell her way, but nothing stayed. Her “pretty good” apartment across town became a “low-renter” became “ghetto” became gone, and then she was back on Kate’s doorstep in tears with a twelve year-old labradoodle and six cardboard boxes holding all her material things.

And, “We’re family,” said Kate. “You’re all I have. Of course you can come home.”

Home. This one-bedroom fixer with the fold-out couch and Sarah’s stuff still in plastic tubs stacked in the corner of the living room. This leaking-roofed nightmare in a neighborhood two blocks from the train tracks on one side and two blocks from the drive-thru liquor store on the other. Home, where you could put a marble on the floor in the kitchen and watch it roll all the way across the living room into the bathroom. Where the windows wouldn’t open and the doors wouldn’t close. Home.

“Yeah,” Kate would say anytime Sarah got depressed enough to voice this litany out loud. “All of that, sure, but the radio works just fine.”

And this was a joke, because the radio was Sarah. She hummed. Constantly and in all sorts of keys, usually without being aware of it. Show tunes, pop rock, classical instrumentals and TV jingles—anything she’d ever heard somehow got itself squirreled away in her own personal ePlay file and came out whenever her attention wandered.

It wasn’t her fault. As a child, she’d developed a slight stutter and some speech therapist or another had convinced her parents that Sarah’s brain would get around its roadblock if she sang instead of talked. Sarah couldn’t remember if it worked (she seemed to think she’d grown out of it just fine after her second year of school, although the stutter still had a way of popping out when she got very tense), but even if it had, it had only replaced one annoying habit with another. She personally blamed the singing for the loss of at least two of her jobs, and possibly four. Kate said she liked it, but what did that prove? Kate was family.

BOOK: Cottonwood
3.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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