Orange Dawn - Chapter 2

John Clark Smith
Chapter 2

We slowly moved down the mountain to a cave entrance well-concealed behind a large rock and several large branches. The cave led to a tunnel which ended near where we would meet with Paul’s friends on the western side of Harding.
The cave was only a brief journey. Most of our trip was through the dirt-lined tunnel. Despite Paul’s flashlight, it was so dark that it was necessary for us to put our hands out to feel the walls. Often my hand would touch worms and insects. Occasionally streaks of light would appear—openings to the outside—and then we would fall to blackness again.
“The natives made these tunnels,” Paul told me as we walked, hunched over. “There are many around Harding.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Glen claims they were used in their Indian wars between the Iroquois and the Erie.”
Occasionally we would feel or hear various creatures scurrying in and out of holes or on the floor of the tunnel. I assumed they were rodents, moles, or other animals. Several streams leaked into the tunnel and created their own brook. I wished I had brought along some rubber boots.
When we came to the end of the tunnel, the air still smelled as fresh as it had been on the mountain, though it seemed to be becoming increasingly difficult to breathe. My eyes were watering so badly I had to wipe them with a cloth.
“Where we headed?” I asked.
“Abe Fisher’s.”
“And who’s he?”
“Someone I trust.” He paused. “We started a journal together.”
Near the bottom of the mountain was a tributary of the Allegheny River. The same signs of toxins that I had seen near the hut were visible in the water.
“How long has the water been like this?”
“Years,” he said. “I remember when I was a kid, my parents telling me not to drink from the tributaries.”
We jumped over a narrow section of the stream and entered a swampy area filled with dead branches, tall weeds and other flora in a constant state of death and rebirth. Though uninhabitable for humans, Paul said it was a haven for deer, bear, birds and other wildlife.
After the swamp there was a small forest of very old trees whose ground was composed of layers of pine needles. Once we passed through it, we were in sight of Harding.
“Look,” he said.
In the distance I could see the backs of two National Guards standing at the end of a broad boulevard.
Despite my watery eyes and breathing problems, the pervasive tint was strangely relaxing. We were walking near an abandoned farmhouse when I asked him if I could rest, but I actually wanted to absorb the feeling. I sat on one of the rusty swings beside the house and swung back and forth, letting the marvelous orange swallow me in its radiance. He became impatient after a couple of minutes and we moved on.
“What’s the journal about?” I asked.
“An alternative view of life in a small city.”
“Sounds interesting.”
“Not to my brother, especially when we talk about recent history. Glen has thoroughly researched that history and created a chronicle of the town. Then there’s Tosh Jones, who’s lived a lot of the history. He and my grandfather didn’t get along. Abe and I edit and contribute essays. And of course, Melinda. She brings the feminist point of view. So, we’ve lots of material and some of its… well… not so kind to my family or some of the other citizens of Harding.”
In front of Abe's apartment building were two pump-grasshoppers. I petted one of them as I passed. Abe greeted us at the door. His bright red cheeks, bald forehead, and clump of red hair sitting proudly at the back of his head, created a jolly impression, despite his tired eyes.
We followed him up the stairs and sat in the kitchen. Out the window, there was a view of the orange and surrounding mountains.
In one corner sat a mongrel puppy with mournful eyes. I tried to catch his interest, but he was apparently too weak to move. I rolled a ball before his nose. He just watched it go by. Bowls of uneaten food and water were beside him.
“Hey, Peirce.” Abe sat down beside him on the floor. “C’mon, boy. Eat something.”
He petted the dog’s head and scratched his back.
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked.
"Ever since the orange, he just lays there, looking up at me.” He glared at Paul. “We might as well have sent Peirce.”
They began to argue. Apparently, Paul was supposed to go to the next town and find a place for the group. Melinda especially wanted to get her daughter Aphra out. Very few children remained.
As the men bickered on, evening came through the window—an astonishing sight. I ran from the apartment building and stood looking at the spectacle. The translucent orange seemed to magnify light from the moon and the stars, as if they were on top of me. The sky was a distant black background behind the orange glow. Especially impressive was the way it painted the water and the metal grasshoppers.
Years ago such a sight might have been viewed as a divine visitation, but that mindset was long gone in most people. Such events were usually signs of real dangers, such as the noxious swamp near the rubber factory, an ice storm in Florida, or the transformation of a once living lake into a dead pond or a desert.
I would have remained longer, but after a few minutes I had to escape back into the kitchen from a coughing fit.
The view from the window kept me spellbound.
Paul brought me a glass of cold water, fresh and odorless.
As I stared out the window and brought the glass to my lips, an alarm went off in my mind. The stream's water had also been clear. But thirst prevailed and I drank.
I ran to the sink and spat it out. “The water is rancid!”
Paul and Abe looked at each other.
"You’re imagining things," Paul said.
Abe waved Paul away. "The orange affects everyone differently.”
Paul handed me a bottle of spring water. “I suppose it’s as likely as any other reaction."
"But the air too?” I asked.
“What about it?” Paul said.
I threw up my hands. Perhaps my reactions happened because I was new. Perhaps the residents over time became immune.
Other events still puzzled me. What were the National Guard forces doing here? Why were people not leaving if they felt danger? And the orange, what exactly was it? I needed to roam about Harding and see how others responded to the orange. I fancied myself as the only one who saw the situation with an open mind, like a crusading lawyer coming to town to solve the case. It should have dawned on me that an open mind is only open to what it can understand.

[To be continued ...]

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