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The Deadly Desert

We rolled down the road, heading for the south end of Clan Valley. Here and there, cars were stopped in the middle of the road, and Conner swerved expertly around them. Through the tall weeds in front of a house, I caught a glimpse of a cat stalking a bird. A deer raised its head, saw the Humvee and bounded away, easily clearing a chain-link fence. Everything seemed to be in sharp focus, even though it was a perfectly normal day in the valley. I was only seeing things with fresh eyes because I might not be seeing the valley again for a while.

“Okay,” I said, “Who’s in charge of this quest?”

Conner looked confused.

“What do you mean, ‘Who’s in charge?’”

“I mean,” I explained patiently, “every quest needs a leader. Somebody who listens to input from others, then makes the final decisions. I think we should vote, so it’s official. I nominate Conner, because he’s the oldest. By a few hours, anyway.”

Conner looked at me as if I were the one who didn’t get it. “Callie, you’re in charge!”

“Me? No, no, I’m just the apprentice wizard! I nominate Tan, because he knows what we’re looking for. All in favor say ‘Aye!’”

No one said “Aye.” Tan leaned forward from the back seat. “Callie, you came up with a plan when everyone else was sitting on their butts, whining and feeling sorry for themselves. You’re our leader.”

I felt a bit of panic rising in my throat. “Look, I’m not a leader kind of person! When we were little and the girls were dressing up their dolls, I was disassembling Talking Barbie to see how she worked. When the boys were running around the school playing war games, I was in the shop teaching myself to repair trucks. So now I can talk to any machines we meet on our quest. But surprise, surprise, I’m not very good at talking to humans! I’m a bad choice for leader. I nominate Pippen, because…because she’s got the most pockets!”

Pippen, who never uses her seatbelt, and only rarely uses her seat, crawled up between the front seats, where she could look me in the eye.

“Callie you’re our leader. I know we tease you sometimes for being a bit of a geek. And a nerd. A freakish, mutant brainiac–” 

“–but we trust you because you think things through,” Tan interrupted.

 “It’s settled, Callie,” said Conner. “You’re in charge. If you point to a wall of fire and say, ‘That way!’ we’ll follow you in because we know we’ll come out the other side alive.”

So that’s how Callahan the apprentice wizard became Callahan, leader of the Great Quest, even though she never wanted the job.

Conner drove up the freeway entrance ramp. Arnold was running smoothly. Smoothly for a Humvee anyway. Apparently the military didn’t think much of soundproofing. At high speed, the engine roars, the gears whine, and the rock-gripping tires hum. And by “high speed” I mean “in excess of 60 miles per hour,” because that’s as high as the speedometer on the Humvee goes. With Conner driving, the needle was well past the 60 and into unmarked territory. The noise made talking a bit difficult. Luckily, in the clan we’re used to holding conversations at full volume.

Some cars were stopped in the middle of the freeway, but most had crashed into the guard rails at the side. I wasn’t sure if the drivers had a few seconds where they realized they were terribly sleepy and had tried to pull over, or if they had just swerved off when they’d suddenly lost consciousness. At one point there was a pile-up of cars that blocked all three lanes of the freeway. Conner found a gap in the guard rails, bumped down through the gravel between the lanes, and up onto the opposite side. 

Pippen laughed delightedly. “It drives Jon nuts when we drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road! If he were here right now…” Her voice trailed off as she remembered exactly where Jon was right now. 

“Can we talk about something other than Jon?” asked Tan.

“Sorry!” said Pippen. “Hey, look how much things have greened up after the rain! It doesn’t look like a desert to me. But Jon always says Utah is a big desert…oops, sorry!”

When we got to the south end of the valley, Conner turned east onto a highway that went up into the mountains. At the foot of the mountains were dozens of huge wind turbines, their blades frozen from lack of oil. They stood like three-armed giants, guarding the gateway out of the valley. In the fourteen years we’ve been alive, we’ve fished in the lake and hiked in the foothills and gone finding in the houses. But this was the first time we’d ever left our valley. Conner drove past the giants into a canyon, and Clan Valley disappeared behind us.

The road wound up into the narrow canyon. Pippen crawled into her seat and glanced nervously at the yellow “Caution Falling Rocks” signs that flashed by. Here and there, piles of jagged rocks littered the road. “I knew it!” she muttered. “Nature is trying to kill me!”

Even though he ought to be used to Pippen’s particular brand of crazy by now, Tan looked at her like he was trying to decide whether to use the small straightjacket on her or the extra small. “What do you mean, nature’s trying to kill you?”

“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? I almost died when I was crawling through the storm drains and there was a flash flood. I almost died when I was standing on the top of the grain silo and the wind blew me off. I almost drowned when I made the zip line over the river, and the tree branch conveniently broke. Tan, you’re the clan doctor; has anyone been almost killed as much as I have?”

Tan thought about that. “Well, Callie’s my best client for minor injuries, but nobody gets almost-killed as often as you.”

“See? Nature is trying to kill me!”

Tan sighed. “Pippen, speaking as your doctor, I can tell you that the reason you have so many near-death experiences isn’t because nature’s trying to kill you. It’s because of your medical condition.”

“I have a medical condition? What is it?”

Tan took a big breath, then yelled, “You’re completely insane!”

Tan and Pippen started arguing, so I tuned them out. Ignoring the chaos around you is a skill you learn quickly in the clan. Conner’s stomach growled loudly enough that I could hear it over the fighting and the engine noise.

“Lunchtime,” Conner declared. “Did Kell pack us any snacks?”

Pippen stopped in the middle of insulting Tan’s parents, whoever they were. “I’ll go see,” she said and burrowed into the boxes piled in the back. In a few minutes she crawled back out with four paper bags. She passed them out to each of us. My bag had “Callie” written on it in Kell’s squareish writing. Inside I found a PB&J with the crusts cut off, a can of Orange Crush, a bag of ginger snaps, and a napkin. Everyone had their favorite sandwich. Conner ate his double-decker venison-loaf sandwich with one hand while driving up the twisty canyon road, which made me nervous.

Tan crunched his popcorn sandwich. “Maybe we should have brought Kell with us.”

“No way!” said Pippen. “She snores like a moose!”

Eventually the canyon opened up again, and we passed through a small town. Tan pressed his face to the window. 

“What are you looking for?” I asked.

“People. This is the first time we’ve seen a city that wasn’t in our valley. There must be other survivors of Fixer somewhere. Maybe there are people living here.”

“If there are other people,” asked Pippen, “why haven’t we seen them before?”

“Well, we haven’t actually been looking for them, have we?” asked Tan. 

“That’s true,” I admitted. “We’ve sort of been too busy surviving ourselves.”

But as we drove through the town, it looked very deserted. There were a few crashed cars in the streets, but no signs of life. The windows all had the same film of dust on them that untouched houses back home had.

“Maybe they’re all inside,” said Tan.

“Everybody? On a beautiful day like this?” asked Conner.

“Maybe they can’t come outside,” said Tan darkly. “Maybe they survived, but Fixer caused them to mutate so they’re allergic to sunlight, and they only come out at night!”

Pippen and I stared at him.

“What?” asked Tan. “I know all about these things since I’m the world’s greatest medical expert.”

“You didn’t get that from medicine!” I protested. “You got that from those stupid after-the-end-of-the-world movies you’ve been watching! You need to face reality; there isn’t anyone in the world except for us.”

Tan sniffed. “Reality is boring. I spend as little time there as possible.”

Up ahead was a tree growing right in the middle of the road through a crack in the pavement. It was twice as tall as me, with a trunk as thick as my arm. I turned to Tan. “That tree looks like it’s been there for fourteen years. If there were people still alive here, would they have left it growing in the middle of the road?”

Tan scowled.

We left the town without seeing anyone, mutant or otherwise. Now the land flattened out. Dead gray sand stretched off to red cliffs in the distance. Nothing grew here except for sagebrush and clumps of stunted grass. I switched on the air conditioner.

“Now this part of Utah looks like a desert!” said Pippen.

Tan stopped sulking. “Hey, it’s the Deadly Desert from the land of Oz! Maybe we’ve been living in Oz all these years and to get out to the normal world, we have to cross the Deadly Desert! I wonder if we touched the sand, if we’d instantly dry up and die?”

“As mayor of the Munchkin city,” said Pippen, “I’d be happy to stop and let you try it.”

 “I don’t remember a deadly desert in The Wizard of Oz,” Conner said.

“That’s because you never read the books; you only watched the movie,” I said.

“Oh, yeah.”

An hour later, we were still driving across the Deadly Desert. Tan was asleep in the back seat, and Pippen was trying to swipe his iPod and headphones without waking him up. I turned on the GPS navigation unit mounted on the radio rack in between the front seats. The display just said “Searching for Satellites” for ten minutes, so I turned it off. Either the GPS satellites weren’t up there any more, or they’d stopped transmitting. I took all the pens out of my backpack and disassembled them into my lap, then put them back together with my eyes closed. That used up another two minutes. We’d been on trips in the clan bus before, but never further than twenty miles. If we were going to drive two thousand miles, I was going to have to find something to do to keep my brain from freezing up like the wind turbines. I got out my notebook and was delighted to discover I could write in a moving Humvee without getting sick. I could chronicle our adventures as we went! When we got back home with the shut-off, I could type the whole thing into a computer, clean it up a bit, add some pictures, then print it out like a real book. Maybe I could put a map in the front. All the really good books have a map in the front. I wrote down how Jon collapsed, and about the formation of the quest team. But soon I ran out of things to write, and we were still in the desert. This was going to be a very boring book.

“Conner,” I said, “you’re a nature guy. I mean, you spend a lot of time outdoors, admiring the beauty of nature’s creatures, before you shoot them. What if Pippen’s right? Maybe nature got really mad at the humans and decided to get rid of us. Maybe that’s what Fixer was. Is nature trying to kill us?”

Conner shrugged. “From what I’ve seen, nature pretty much tries to kill everything and everybody, all the time. I don’t take it personal. Either you die or you come out stronger.”

When the fuel gauge got a bit low, we stopped outside a small town in the desert. I got my electric fuel pump out and stuck one end of the hose in Arnold’s fuel tank, and the other end in one of the jerry cans. I plugged the pump motor into the Humvee’s electrical system and switched it on. While the fuel was transferring, Conner and Pippen and Tan walked around to loosen up their legs. 

“What’s the name of this place?” Pippen asked.

Tan checked the map. “Green River.”

Pippen looked around at the gray landscape, dead trees, and dusty gray road. “Past people crazy!”

Back in the desert, boredom was creeping in again. “Do we have anything to read?” I asked.

“Check the map box down by your feet,” suggested Pippen. “Tuck threw some books in there for us.”

I rummaged through the box and came up with a prize. “Emergency Survival Manual. Hey, this is just what we need!” But after ten minutes of reading, I slammed the book shut in disgust. “This is worthless!”

“What’s the problem?” asked Conner. 

“Everything in here is about how to survive for a few days until rescuers find you, or until you can walk to civilization. This is totally out of date. Nobody’s coming to rescue us if we get in trouble, and we certainly can’t walk home!”

“Well, Callie,” Pippen said, “you’ve got your notebook; why don’t you write us a modern survival manual?”

I love a challenge! I opened to a blank page, and began:

Modern Survival Manual


What is civilization? Civilization is a place where humans live and have reshaped nature to make themselves safe and comfortable. Most of the world used to be civilized, but now the clan is the only civilization in the world. 

What is survival? Survival is the art of staying alive when you are outside civilization. That’s most of the world now. This manual will teach you how to stay alive in a modern survival situation.

I re-read what I’d written, pleased with my work. This was sure to be a bestseller! I turned to a new page and wrote in big letters at the top:

Chapter 1: The Most Important Thing to Have in a Survival Situation

But then I discovered a little problem. “Conner, I don’t know anything about survival.”

“I can teach you!” said Conner eagerly.

I’d been trying to teach Conner about science lately. That had been sort of a disaster; he’s not very smart. But he does know a lot about nature.

“Okay,” I said, “this book says the most important thing to have in a survival situation is a cell phone. That’s useless for us. Cell phones don’t work without the cell phone towers, and the towers don’t work without electricity.”

“What about radios?” asked Conner.

“If I’d had the time, I could have set up a radio at the school that’s compatible with the radio we have in the Humvee,” I said. “But even that would only work for a few hundred miles. We don’t have any way of contacting the clan, and they have no way of knowing how we’re doing until we get back. Conner, what would you say is the number one thing to have for survival?”

Conner replied immediately. “A lighter. If you can start a fire, you can stay warm, keep off dangerous animals, and cook food. And there’s something about a fire that just makes you feel better.”

I wrote in my notebook.

Chapter 1: The Most Important Thing to Have in a Survival Situation

A lighter.

That seemed like a short chapter, but I figured I could expand it later.

Tan called out, “Look! There it is!”

Up ahead we saw a sign that said “Welcome to Colorful Colorado,” Just the sign, standing alone in the desert. We drove past the sign.

“That was it?” asked Tan. “I thought there would be more to a state border. Like barbed wire and a machine-gun tower.”

“I think the road changed from light gray to dark gray,” said Conner.

“One state crossed,” said Pippen cheerfully, “eight more to go!”

Soon the landscape got greener and small towns started popping up along the freeway. We were finally out of the Deadly Desert. But it was getting late, and the sun was getting low. “We aren’t going to make it to Florida today,” said Pippen. “Where are we going to spend the night?”

I looked around the Humvee. Definitely no room to sleep in here; it was all taken up by supplies. “We have sleeping bags. We could camp out.”

“I love camping out!” said Pippen.

“Where?” asked Conner.

“Anywhere,” I said. “Get off the freeway at the next town, and see if you can find a flat spot.” 

Conner drove through the town until we found a small city park. It had a parking lot, a few picnic tables, a bathroom, and a big grassy area. Jon had taken us camping enough that we knew how to set up a campsite. Tan stomped the tall grass down flat. Conner gathered dead branches and started a fire in the fire pit. Pippen found some folding camp chairs and a couple of old coolers we could sit on. I opened four cans of ravioli and set them in the outer edge of the fire. When the paper label has scorched enough that you can’t read it, you know the insides are warm. We pulled our seats up to the fire and sat eating our dinner in silence. 

I’d thought this was going to be a cheerful campout like the ones the clan always had, but it wasn’t. We’d always had nineteen people before. Now there was no laughter or talking, and it was quiet enough that I could hear the crickets and other animal sounds I couldn’t identify. I couldn’t see what was out in the darkness beyond the firelight, and even with three other people, I was scared, and lonelier than I’d ever been in my life.

“It’s not much of a campout, is it?” asked Pippen in a small voice.

“I know what’s missing,” said Conner, and without another word, headed for the truck. 

He came back with one of the food boxes and handed us packages of graham crackers, chocolate bars, marshmallows, and long toasting forks.

“S’mores!” said Tan.

It seemed strange to stop in the middle of a life-or-death quest and make gooey desserts but there was something comforting in going through the familiar ritual. Pippen held her marshmallow above the glowing coals, toasting it to the perfect golden brown. “Tell us a campfire story, Callie!”

My marshmallow got a bit too close and caught on fire. I quickly pulled it out and blew out the flame. It didn’t seem too badly damaged, so I put a piece of chocolate on a graham cracker, stuck my burned marshmallow on top, and held it down with another cracker while I pulled out the toasting fork. “I can’t tell stories like Jon,” I said.

“You read lots of books. Tell us a story from one of those,” Pippen insisted.

“All right,” I said. “Once upon a time, there was a beautiful little Volkswagen. She had leather seats and a six-speed manual transmission, but most importantly, she had a two-liter turbocharged diesel engine–”

“No, no!” said Pippen, laughing. “I know you read other things besides your repair manuals. What about that book of myths you were reading last week? There must have been a story in there you remember.”

I mumbled around a mouthful of s’more. “Okay, I’ll tell you the story of ‘Pandora and the Mysterious Box.’”

“Ooh, this sounds good already!” said Tan, settling back on his cooler.

“Epimetheus was the first man who lived on earth. There was no trouble or disease in the world back then. His brother Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to Epimetheus so he could cook and be warm at night. But Epimetheus was very lonely. So the gods molded the first woman out of clay and brought her to life. Each of the gods gave her a gift. Hera made her beautiful. Aphrodite made her kind. Apollo gave her a melodious voice. Finally Zeus, who was still angry about the fire thing, gave her great curiosity. Nobody gave her any sense.”

“I know someone like that,” said Tan, looking directly at Pippen.

Pippen stuck her tongue out at him.

“Zeus brought her to Epimetheus who was overjoyed to have a companion. But Zeus also brought a beautiful box which he left with Epimetheus and Pandora, and told them never to open it.”

That’s not going to turn out very well,” said Tan.

“Shut up,” I said, “or I’ll go back to the diesel engine story.”

Tan shut up.

“Epimetheus and Pandora were married, and for a while they lived together happily. But every day, while Epimetheus was working in the fields and Pandora was tending the house, she looked at the box and wondered what was in it. She gazed at the strange carvings on the sides. She ran her fingers over the simple latch on the lid. She put her ear against the box and thought she heard soft voices inside whispering, ‘Let us out. We want to play!’ One day, Pandora couldn’t stand it any longer. ‘I’ll just take a quick peek, to see what’s inside,’ she said, and she lifted the lid a tiny crack. But inside the box were monsters! Pain and Death and Disease and Trouble flew out of the box. Quickly, Pandora slammed the lid, but it was too late. The monsters had already escaped into the world. Only Hope remained inside the box. Out in the field, Epimetheus saw the monsters flying around causing mischief, and he realized that Pandora had opened the box. He ran home to confront her.

‘Now our lives will always be full of problems!’ he complained.

Pandora answered, ‘Yes, but no matter what happens, we’ll always still have Hope.’”

“That sounds like a moral,” Pippen said suspiciously.

“Actually, it sounds a lot like us,” said Tan. “Utopia Labs opened the box and let the monster, Fixer, out into the world. But Jon kept us alive, so mankind still has hope.”

I licked the last bit of melted marshmallow off my fingers. 

“Well, if we’re going to save the world, we need to get some sleep.”

I got out a bottle of water and my toothbrush. Tan hasn’t learned dentisting yet, so if one of us gets a bad cavity, Tan has to just pull the tooth. We brush very carefully. We unrolled our sleeping bags on the grass and crawled inside. The fire had died down to a glow, the moon wasn’t up, and the stars glittered in the dark like a million metal flakes in a giant pool of used motor oil.

“Hey, I can see the Big W!” Pippen said, pointing to a constellation the clan had named. 

“And there’s the Snake,” added Tan.

“And the Big Hatchet, and the Little Hatchet,” said Conner.

“And there’s the Milky Way,” I said, tracing it across the sky with my finger. “You know, Jon says you only used to be able to see a few hundred stars at night. There was so much light coming from the cities that the sky never got completely dark. Past people were born and lived and died without ever seeing the Milky Way.”

“The world sure used to be a weird place,” said Conner.

Suddenly a ball of fire burst into the sky above us. It moved across the sky slowly, leaving a glittering trail behind it. We stared at it, speechless. It must have lasted for twenty seconds before it finally broke in pieces and disappeared.

“Zow! What was that?” gasped Tan.

“I think it was a satellite!” I said.

“Why was it burning?” asked Conner.

“I can explain that,” I said eagerly. “Satellites in lower orbits get slowed down by drag from the upper layers of the atmosphere. That makes them drop even lower, until finally they burn up in the atmosphere like a meteorite. Since it was going south, you can tell it must have been in a polar orbit–”

“Aaagh! No science!” Conner complained. “My brain’s already turned off for the night!”

“It’s just orbital physics!” I said.

“Actually, I’d like to hear her tell us more about orbits,” said Pippen.

“Why?” I asked, suspicious of her sudden interest in science.

“It’s late,” Pippen said, “and your talking helps put me to sleep.”

“Talk yourself to sleep then!” I said, a bit hurt.

“That would never work,” Pippen yawned. “I’m interesting!”

I laughed. “Night, Pippen.”

“Night, Callie.”

I stared up into the sky for a long time. The stars were both familiar and scary. I reached my hand out of my sleeping bag toward them. They seemed about as unreachable as Florida. Suddenly the idea that a little girl could lead a bunch of kids across a continent seemed really, really stupid. I dropped my hand and looked around in the darkness. Next to me, Pippen was already asleep, snoring softly. 

On the other side of the fire, Tan mumbled, “Let me drive the boat, Mister Wonka!”

“Conner, are you awake?” I whispered to the dark bulk next to me.

Conner grunted.

“Are there any…you know…Pippen-eating animals out here?”

Conner said nothing, but he got out of his sleeping bag. I heard him walk to the truck and rummage around. When he came back, he put his rifle on the ground next to his sleeping bag. Then he piled some branches on the fire, and poked it up until it lit the night around us again, and crawled back into his sleeping bag. 

 Then he reached out his hand, took mine, and gave it a squeeze.

Conner would never have done this in front of the others. For one thing, he can’t afford to let people think he’s not the toughest kid in the clan. For another thing, the rest of the clan might think Conner and I are sweeties and make fun of us. We’re not sweeties, we’re best friends. Conner had squeezed my hand to let me know that he knew how I felt and that everything would be fine. With a warm feeling, I snuggled down into my bag and went to sleep.