Orange Dawn - Chapter 3

John Clark Smith
After spending the night on Abe's couch, I woke to the screeching blare of sirens. I covered my ears with cushions and waited for the attack on my nerves to end.
Moments later I felt a hand on my shoulder. Abe and Paul were looking down on me.
"What is it?" I shouted.
"Let's go!" Paul shouted back. "We need to go down to the square."
I pointed to the clock. "It's only six-fifty."
"We have to go."
My first thought involved food. Breakfast and coffee were on my mind. Yet if the air and water were unpalatable, would the food be any different?
As I sat up on the couch, a young woman and a girl walked in the room, the pair of them holding hands. The woman wore her blond hair in a tight ponytail. She was tall and slim with striking green eyes. The girl was a smaller version, clearly the woman’s daughter. In the girl's arm was a stuffed animal, a snowshoe hare.
Paul introduced them as Melinda and her daughter Aphra.
“And why are you here?” Melinda asked, in a cold tone.
“She was lost,” Paul answered for me. “I met her at the hut.”
“And you thought it was a good idea to bring—”
“Hey, I warned her.”
Melinda looked as if an idea had suddenly occurred to her. She gestured to Paul and Abe to meet her in the corner, where they began whispering.
While they conferred, I went to the washroom, swished some available mouthwash in my mouth, and cleaned my face and hands.
Looking up from the towel, I was surprised to find Aphra had followed me.
“You’re not from Harding?” she asked.
“Nope. But I’ve traveled and camped around here a lot. My grandparents lived nearby.”
“So you like the outdoors?”
“I do,” I said, combing my hair. “I was a girl scout and my Dad was a survivalist. If he could, he would have lived in the woods.”
“I think you’re brave,” she said, hugging her stuffed hare close. “You saw the orange and wanted to come. Things are going to happen here.”
“They are?” I asked.
“You should leave. Take Peirce.”
I smiled and walked back into the kitchen. “I don’t think Peirce wants to come with me.”
“I could tell you how, if you wanted to leave.”
“You could?”
“Yep, I know all the tunnels.”
“Well, if I need your help, Aphra, I’ll let you know. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.”

In a few minutes the five of us were outside. Paul and Abe lived at the end of a boulevard. Beyond the boulevard was an unpaved gravel road on which there were a few farms before the mountains. The boulevard, once a section of a railroad track, led into town across a bridge.
The orange was as persistent as ever, and the air was still uncomfortable for me to breathe. I used a napkin to cover my nose and mouth to filter some of the effect, but I continued to have coughing fits. The sirens ended soon after we left and were replaced with a sweet bell that sounded every thirty seconds.
Paul kept up a good pace, as did the crowds of people heading downtown from different parts of the city.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “Where’re we going?”
"We’re reporting,” Paul said. “The sirens remind us. Our reporting station is in the town square.”
“Is all this necessary?” I asked.
“Ha!” Paul laughed. “If you live here, it is.”
"You see," Abe said, "when the orange came over a year ago, people were afraid to leave their houses. Absenteeism was epidemic. Businesses were struggling. People got fired or took all their sick days. It made no difference. Even the people in the government were hesitant to come to work. The town was dying. So Ben Jr.—supported, by the way, by the state and federal governments—responded by making sure citizens went to work. Of course, it also allowed Ben Jr. to complete several projects.”
“They also brought in the National Guard to make sure we behaved,” Melinda said, pointing to the Guardsmen posted at the end of the boulevard.
Streams of birch trees lined the boulevard toward town. The white bark washed over with orange created an idyllic look, as if we were entering another realm.
“At the start,” said Paul, “few citizens questioned Ben’s ambitions and the need for the Guard. He convinced them that work was the only way to improve Harding and stop the orange.
“‘We must not question!’ Ben Jr. said. ‘A special government research team has proven the orange is harmless and will eventually dissipate. Occupy yourselves. Focus on your city.’”
“The National Guard issued identity cards,” Melinda said. “The town was locked down so no one could leave. Basically it’s as if we’ve got the plague here and we’re quarantined."
“They won’t admit it, but they’re worried about the orange spreading,” Abe said.
“But what about Paul?” I asked. “He left.”
“I swiped his card and told the check-in person he was sick,” Abe answered. “They’ll allow that, as long as they know the person and it’s temporary. If he didn’t return, then they’d punish me. We hoped we’d all be gone by then.”
We passed a large plaque on a concrete pillar. I stopped to read it while the others continued. It commemorated the Härjedalen (Harding) family as the first European settlers in northwestern Pennsylvania, and one of the rare Europeans families who had contact with the Erie tribe.
I caught up with the group and asked them about the family.
Paul pointed to another marker close to the bridge. “That’s where their cabin stood.”
The uniquely carved configurations of rocks where the cabin stood were monuments to their children who died.
“I wish Glen was here,” Melinda said. “He could give you a full history.”
“I can do it,” Aphra said.
“OK, go ahead,” Melinda said.
“Well, when the Hardings came, the Erie tribe was still thriving, before their war with the Iroquois in the seventeenth century. The Hardings had a good relationship with the tribe. Several Hardings married native peoples. Others developed friendships. They were influenced by the native beliefs, especially in protecting the flora and fauna. For them injuring nature could offend the Great Spirit. Glen still wears the badge that refers to the panther, an important symbol in Erie cosmology. I do too.”
Aphra showed me the badge that hung around her neck.
“The Erie leadership, like the Iroquois, was…I forget the word.”
“Matrilineal,” Melinda said.
“…matrilineal with veto power. They advised the chief to give land to the Härjedalen family that includes much of the city of Harding. In exchange, the Härjedalens promised the tribe to protect the land and its wildlife. It’s called the Harding Promise.”
“Except,” Abe said, “the Hardings couldn’t uphold it. Governments and industry found ways to thwart them.”
“Especially the Sheffields,” Aphra muttered. “Not you, Paul.”
“No, you’re right,” Paul said. “My grandfather encouraged industry that destroyed a lot of flora and fauna. And my brother’s no different.”

As I walked toward the bridge, transfixed by the orange glow on the river, I imagined a wonderful sunset when the Härjedalens would join their native friends at the river's edge. Together they would make music and dance, the European children playing with and learning from the native children. The natives would talk of the ancient days upon the land, when the spirits were everywhere. In turn, the Härjedalens would tell the folk tales of their homeland in Sweden.
We had passed several intersections, the last one following the path of the river. Now we stood before a truss bridge, originally used by the railroad but converted to a single-lane road and pedestrian path.
A large arch claimed that I was now entering the real Harding—even though the Härjedalen family lived beyond the arch. The others waited as I stopped to read the welcome sign that hung from the arch – the date of settlement and some of the prominent settlers.
On the other side of the bridge a park lay between us and the downtown. There were benches – some of them painted and quite attractive – more pumps, and boat launches, though there were no boats in sight. Brick streets went down to the river and to the square, and there was also a path along the river. The backs of restored buildings lined the riverbank, and parts of two old mills extended out over the river.
As we passed by several National Guardsmen, the crowd spread out within the park to form a haphazard group of lines. The space was insufficient to accommodate such numbers. The grass was worn to dirt in many places from these daily pilgrimages, the benches along the streets had been removed, the wading pool for children was covered, and a fountain with a statue of a child skipping rope in the middle was dry.
Standing in the Park were two dormant oil grasshoppers. Both of them were in beautifully restored condition and plated in gold.
“Is that real gold?” I asked.
Paul nodded. “The plaques list names of rich donors to Ben Jr.’s campaign, as well as businesspeople. There are plans for many others. Ben wants the money to build a stadium and sports arena.”
We traversed the park to Main Street, already congested with a crowd walking north. As we joined the mass of human forms, no one spoke, the only sounds were countless soles smacking the road. Thankfully, the city square was a short distance from the Park. Bounded on all sides by restored buildings, it gave some breathing room. Still, no one could move far without being touched.
“Glen works there at the City Cafe,” Melinda said, “on the west side, next to the original post office, and the convenience store.”
“That’s the courthouse,” Paul said, pointing to the east side.
“Where Glen’s grandfather took the State to court to defend the Promise,” Aphra said.
“It’s the oldest building remaining in Harding,” Abe said. “Well, there’s the jail too.”
“But the most remarkable feature,” Melinda said proudly, “are the second-floor balconies See, they’re linked by bridges over the roads and sidewalks so that it’s possible to walk all the way around.”
“Quite unique,” I said.
“Who’s that statue in the middle of the square, next to the flagpole?”
“Ben Sheffield Sr.,” Paul said, “my grandfather. He’s holding up a pamphlet of his twenty-point plan.”
“Obviously a pretty important figure,” I said.
Paul frowned. “Pretty self-important.”
“Paul is being unfair,” Melinda said. “Ben Sr. was responsible for much of the economic success and development in Harding.”
“Development,” Paul scoffed. “You got that right.”
“Truth be told, most people liked the old man,” Melinda said. “He brought in a lot of jobs, restored a lot of buildings, improved the university, and made the town a tourist site – at least for Pennsylvania.”
“Are you praising him?” Abe asked. “The man was a skunk who left his stink everywhere.” He high-fived Aphra. “If Glen could hear you--”
“Glen wouldn’t deny those things,” she said. “For me it’s the way he treated his wives, the lack of women on the council and other town committees. I could go on and on.”
“Brava,” Abe said. “Spoken like a true follower of Stanton.”
“Stanton?” I asked.
“Elizabeth Cady Stanton,” Melinda said. “Local early defender of women’s rights and abolitionist.”
“Either way, Tosh and Philip Harding would’ve thrown his body in the river when he died,” Abe said. “Not make a statue of him.”
“Oh, c’mon, look at this square,” Melinda said. “Like it or not, it’s all because of Ben Sr.”
“What do you think?” Paul asked me.
I looked at the flowers and shrubs, the beautiful bandstand in the center, all those uniquely painted benches and restored buildings. “Very quaint. But like a fairy tale.”
“In which one could never imagine any evil act occurring?” Abe said.
“Then it wouldn’t be like a fairy tale,” I said.

Droves of residents continued to stream in from every direction. Stationed throughout the square were tables with large posters set up on poles—"Station A," "Station B," and so on, with people lined up in front of them. Guardsmen sat behind the tables with no pleasantries, no smiles, and no time wasted. It reminded me of a prison, with the inmates each handed a bowl and the abrupt message, “Keep movin’.”
Since Paul, Abe and Melinda worked in the same area, they were in the same line.
Despite the enormous crowds, it was oddly silent. I would’ve thought that the assembly might have provided an opportunity for community and some mingling, but it was all business. No one appeared angry, yet smiles were rare.
Only then did I begin to wonder how they would register me, the visitor. I had no card and wasn’t on the lists. I thought I might slip away and hide until the registration was finished.
“No, no,” Melinda said. “There’s nowhere to hide.”
“Just wait in line until registration is finished,” Paul said.
Abe nodded. “They’ll probably give you a special card.”
As I looked at the stern men and women behind the tables, I doubted that Abe was right. If they’re tough on the citizens, why would they treat visitors better?
“What about the wrist bands?” I asked.
“Well, yes,” Abe said, “There’s that problem, I suppose. After swiping the citizen cards, the authorities issue wrist bands – a different colour for every day of the week.”
Great, so anyone in authority could detect whether someone had missed registration at a glance. “Here’s an idea,” I said. “Why not just say I’ve come down the mountain from hiking in the woods, with no prior awareness of the situation?”
“No one’s going to believe that,” Melinda said. “You can see the orange from the mountain.”
“Then what? I can’t be honest. I can’t hide.”
Melinda thought for a moment. “If we show you how to escape, would you help us?” She leaned in close. “You’d need to take Aphra with you.”
“And Peirce,” Abe said.
I took a step back, laughing nervously.
“Sounds good to me,” Paul said.
I stared at them. “You brought me here to use me,” trying to control my anger. “But you don't know me, remember? I wandered in from nowhere. For all you know I could hate children and pets. I could be a murderer!"
Paul smirked.
Was their attitude also part of their sickness? Like the others, I was beginning to blame the orange. I turned and started to walk again toward the park. I had to reach the mountain.
In moments Melinda was beside me.
"Look,” she whispered. “No one knows what this orange is, and I don't want my only child to find out. Look at you. Your eyes water, you can’t breathe. Perhaps we’re all part of some experiment gone wrong. I’m sorry. I'm afraid for my daughter."
"I only stopped for directions. Besides, wouldn't Aphra be missed in the registration?"
A Guard blocked us. “Get back in line please.”
Seeing no other option, I followed Melinda back to the line.
"Children aren’t registered," she said.
“Neither are dogs,” Abe said, holding on to my arm. "Please. He’s the healthiest puppy I’ve ever seen!"
"Why don't you take him away then?"
"We can't leave Harding when it’s like this,” Melinda said. “But my little girl? The puppy? They don’t deserve this."
Another realization broke through the mental haze. This registration system wasn’t only to keep track of people in Harding; it was to keep people loyal.
“Can't you see we’re desperate?” Paul said. “We want our city back.”
My first instinct was to escape. But I also believed that Melinda was right: this was no place for a child. Peirce reminded me of Rusty, the stray I found in the mountains.
“We’ll make certain you’ve enough money to take care of them,” Paul said. “Just go to the hut."
"You must hurry," Melinda said urgently, grabbing my arm. She took another route this time, going behind the Guard to reach the west wall of the building where the crowds were far denser. She gestured for me to continue on that way, staying concealed along the wall, while she rushed back to the others.
Such pathetic pleadings. But we both agreed on one thing: Staying in line was unsafe. I had to get away from the square.

[To be continued ...]

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