Intro to Story
The Harlan Chronicles is a forthcoming novella series that follows the life of Harlan Drinkwater, set in a post-reservation dystopia, the first set of stories in the PRD Series. During a time when all books written are screened and digitized as federal property, printed books are a rare and expensive commodity. Will Harlan’s life as a printed book courier lead him to more danger? The following is an excerpt detailing the tightrope of choices Harlan has to make as a post-reservation descendant, while he wrestles with the weight of loss and abandonment.
“Harlan Drinkwater.” I spoke into the voice recognition monitor.
The door lock clicked and I walked through into a small room where Frank, our useless security guard, sat behind his desk.
Frank scanned my I.D. over the scanner that was built into his desk. He took my gun to verify it was my county issued weapon. I glanced up at the new security camera. The sign underneath the camera read Absolutely no talking during security clearance procedures. Even though the camera was seemingly for all of our safety, someone else was most likely watching him. Seems Frank was chatting on the landline when thieves slipped in during business hours to steal an entire collection. Seniority had to have been the only reason he still had the job.
Frank got up to insert his code tracker card into the numeric keypad on the wall located next to the door that I had to go through. He punched in his passcode numbers. I handed him my backpack for a search. Even though I made sure that the only thing in the bag was my corned-beef sandwich, a bottled water, and a book that I had found for a client, the search procedure still triggered my nerves ever since the time I had mistakenly left my lighter in my pack. Security procedure meant Frank had to make a call. A cigarette lighter was seen as a weapon, and I didn’t smoke, which made my circumstance more suspicious. I was asked to fill out a security breach report that was immediately sent to my supervisor. Protocol demanded a search of my home. A private security officer, and my supervisor, Bob Webster, came to the house that very night. My ailing aunt was not too pleased about intruders searching through her entire house.
"We have to do this, Harlan. It's just procedure. We'll be out of here in a flash," Bob said and patted me on my shoulder.
Celia was lying on the couch, wrapped up in her blanket, pretending to read. She eyed them beneath her glasses, but didn't say anything. We were both tense as we watched them pull open drawers, fumble through kitchen cabinets, the trash, and finally, with a flashlight, search the backyard.
"Hey, what's that big hole out back there you got full of rocks? Never seen anything like that?" Bob asked when he came in through the kitchen door. His eyes flickered like he had discovered gold or something.
"Those are lava rocks. I collect them from the canyons," I said.
"Oh," Bob nodded. "They look freshly scorched. Now I know there haven't been any active volcanoes here in New Mexico for hundreds of years," Bob laughs.
"No, I don't think so, Bob."
"So what do you use them for?" he asked.
Bob was my supervisor, and not the real police, so I wasn't going to tell him about our sweats. That would lead to more unwanted conversation about fire code laws.
"Gets real cold at night, and since we don't have a fireplace, I just go out back some nights to warm up."
"Oh, that's a great idea, Harlan. Saves money on heat. I don't mean anything by this, but you Native folks sure know how to use nature and all. Think you could hook me up with something like that?" Bob jabbed me with a quick elbow.
"No, I'm just kidding, Harlan. The old lady would never let me dig a hole in the middle of her backyard xeriscaping beautification project. Costing me a fortune."
Bob looked around, then nodded his head over at the officer who nodded back.
"So, looks like we're done here. We'll get a clearance report out right away and your record will be clear."
"Thanks, Bob," I said.
"No problem, Harlan. Sorry for the inconvenience, Ms. Sanchez. I hope you're feeling better."
Celia offered a weak smile and nodded.
"Harlan, you're a good kid. I came as a favor to you. Most times we usually send out five or six officers and they'll tear a person's house to shreds. Just remember to keep your lighter in your truck or something next time. "
"Yeah, I will."
Bob gave another annoying pat on my shoulder before they finally left.
I left the lighter that I used for kindling at home this time. After Frank finished searching my bag, he tipped his hat, and I walked down the hall to insert my code tracker card into the time card machine. 7:52 A.M. March 23: 2038. The sign above read We thank all of our employees for patiently submitting to the security clearance procedures. Welcome to the Coors Branch of the Albuquerque Public Library.
In 2027, my senior year of high school, all public education institutions in the country received government funding for each student to have a digital reader. "Saving the Trees" was the slogan the government used to justify this little gadget that replaced all of our textbooks that were hauled off in trucks. Shortly after digital readers hit the market, the government paid people to recycle any books in their possession. The last of bookstores went out of business and more people started stealing books from libraries. Our library was targeted before we got the budget for our antiquated security system. I had been shelving books in the Junior Fiction section one morning when about six sleaze bags carrying big guns piled in through the front doors. They all wore dark sunglasses.
“You do what we say, no one gets hurt,” the leader said. He sounded like his nose was stuffed.
Other than one of the homeless regulars that straggled in right at opening, there was only one librarian on duty, myself, a mom who had been reading to her toddler on the floor cushion, and the security guard who was already faced down on the floor with a gun in his back. Yes. That was Frank. The thief with the sinus allergies walked up to the checkout counter where the librarian stood.
“Greetings,” he said and tapped the librarian’s nametag. “Christina. I would like to enter the Special Collections please. Where’s the key?”
“We don’t open Special Collections until 1:00.”
The others with guns smirked behind their glasses.
“Well, today,” the leader looked at his watch, “Special Collections opens at 10:30. Now, give me the key.”
“I don’t have it.”
“I have it,” I said and moved slowly from the behind my book cart. One of the men charged toward me, gun pointed right at my head.
“Over here,” he said and motioned his gun. I walked quickly over to him so that he didn’t notice the Mom and toddler who were both hiding on the floor behind one of the bookshelves of picture books.
“It’s ok,” I mouthed the words to Christina as I walked past the front desk with my hands in the air. Honestly, I was a little freaked out with so many guns pointed in every direction, but I felt that looking calm might help all of us get through this alive. From what I had read about other library robberies in the papers, no one had gotten killed. Yet.
We walked through periodicals where old man Harry sat with a copy of the Albuquerque Journal spread across the table in front of him, as it was every morning.
“Hey, what the hell, this is a library for chrisssakes!” Harry yelled.
“Shut up, old man,” the leader yelled.
“You don’t tell me to shut up with your big guns and everything. I’m 80 years old and I’m not afraid of anything. You’re a weak bunch coming in here with guns scaring everyone to steal books. You bring shame to yourself.”
I stopped in front of the locked door that led to the Special Collections room wishing Harry would refrain from pointing out the obvious. I glanced back to see the leader right behind me.
“Open it,” he said.
I pulled the card that hung on the cord around my neck and swiped it through the door lock. The little green light lit up. I opened the door.
“Ok. Hands up. Sit next to him.” He followed close behind with the rifle aimed at my back. I walked slowly toward Harry, keeping an eye on the others.
“Move it, Geronimo,” he yelled. I stopped dead in my tracks and dropped my hands. All of my senses went numb, a reaction that triggered my whole body still. In that moment, my fear transformed into an impatient fury, the kind that’s centuries old.
He moved close so I could hear his stuffed nose. I felt cold steel press into the back of my neck.
“Don’t be a hero, chief. We have the guns. We always do.”
For the first time, I felt like I wanted to choke the life out of someone. Instead, I thought about my aunt Celia. I remembered the mom and her son hiding behind the bookshelf. In this moment, my anger didn’t belong to me. The rationale coded in my DNA overrode the wrath that warmed my blood. Sometimes one has to silence justice. I sat down in the chair next to Harry.
“It’s ok, Harlan,” Harry whispered.
One by one, they loaded dollies full of books, papers, maps, historical newspapers and records, even the giant globe that sat almost four feet high next to the painting of Don Francisco Cuervo y Valdés, founder of Albuquerque. That portrait was the only thing they left in the hour it took them to empty out Special Collections.
Our branch was one of two libraries left in the city. This first robbery prompted a budget to finally be pushed through for the new security system. Every citizen had to have a full background check before being issued a library card. Books had become a hot commodity, the new antique sold on a black market.
A budget for anything new normally meant something would be cut, and the first to go was the position I held for six years shelving books. Instead of letting me go, Bob offered me a full-time position delivering special ordered books. It paid a lot more money and the cost of Celia's ER visits, medications, inhalers, and constantly having to replace nebulizers, had caused us to run through the little savings Uncle Rick had left before he died. We used to order her medication wholesale off of the internet, however a friendly sun flare had fried most of the world’s satellites back in ‘35, surging the price of network access only the rich could afford. Without a way to order medicines online, this left me to wait months for shipments to come in at the local clinic. Having a promotion meant having the means to buy more medicine to stock when the next shipments did come through.
On the first day of training, I thought I’d be given a truck-driving lesson, but instead, Bob drove me to a firing range. In my haste to jump at the promotion, safety factors hadn’t occurred to me. It was a requirement that I learn how to shoot in order to get the job. I imagined it wasn’t safe to drive a truckload full of books that could be hijacked, which left me wondering how the gun I possessed would play into such a scenario. I had never held a gun, let alone fired one. The fallout from the robbery still lingered, so I used that to find some justification to fire a weapon and release the tension leftover from my manhood being stripped from me. Turns out, I had a pretty good shot and that impressed Bob enough to issue me a delivery permit after only one lesson.
"You're pretty good with that, son."
I raised the shooting goggles off of my forehead. I had to admit, I impressed myself, wishing I’d had this the day of the robbery.
"Well, we don't need any more lessons for you, Harlan. We can get you on the road right away. Normally we'd take someone through several lessons, but damn, you managed to stay in the center target area 10 shots out of 10. Where are you from again?"
"Oh." He nodded his head like that meant something. "You all do a lot of hunting up there, huh?"
"Bob, I live in Albuquerque."
"Right. Sorry. Uh, I was going to ask you Harlan, about your hair." Bob stared at me for a moment.
"You want me to cut it?" I asked, not really asking. My hair had already grown down to my shoulders in the two years since I had cut it after Uncle Rick died.
"Well, H.R. kind of mentioned it. It doesn't matter to me, but since you'll be going out and dealing with the public and all..."
"I'll pull it back, but I won't cut it."
"Ok. Well, you mind if I tell them it's for religious reasons? That way, no problem."
"Tell them what you want, Bob. I'm just not cutting it."
"Great. Well, that's settled. You mind if I ask, is there a religious reason why you keep your hair long?"
That was a question I didn't answer. Bob was a good guy, but like many white people, he went on like any person with dark skin belonged to another species that weren’t exactly human, because to him, human equated to ‘normal’ and normal equated to white. I put up with him because I had to. And I also sensed that the separateness he felt was that he was alone and we weren't.
As much as I thought I loved being inside of the library, I realized I loved being out more. I also realized I didn't know squat about how to get around Albuquerque. Up to that point, my life had been driving straight to work, home, and the occasional ER visit. The first week of deliveries, I lived by my road map. Then I decided to put it aside and allow my instincts to guide me.
I drove an unmarked delivery truck so that no one would know it was a government vehicle loaded with books. Every morning, I took inventory and loaded up my truck. My route consisted of a few pre-schools for the little kids who didn't know how to use digital readers, though I saw many three-year-olds running around with them in our neighborhood. I delivered to rich business people who had private libraries in their homes, doctors conducting research, and my biggest client drop-off was the University of New Mexico, one of the few schools that requested rare books from us. The daily travel made me feel more a part of the southwestern landscape. It turned out to be an easy job to like.
Much of my route took me to the outskirts of the city, up into the winding dirt roads of the Sandias. That's where a lot of the rich folks lived, large adobe homes tucked away behind the lush desert brush. Sometimes, I’d purposefully take care of the foothill deliveries first just so I could park and watch the bold colored hot air balloons that decorated the morning skyline. Other times, I’d find a spot to park and eat my lunch. It felt good to get out of my truck, take a long stretch and view the whole city which was flat, dry, prickly and hot. Who would have thought to build a city in the middle of the desert? It was much cooler up in the foothills. Some evenings, I relished in the rose colored glow that painted the Sandias at sunset. I'd sit staring out over the steering wheel, sensing this deep uneasiness as if I should be doing something else. Right after Uncle Rick died, I had enrolled in a few classes at the local community college just to feel like I was doing something, but Celia's asthma got worse. I quit my classes and focused on keeping a roof over our heads. I read constantly though, studying the books my mother had stored out in the shed in the backyard. There were hundreds of them. She kept everything from Lakota history, poetry, English literature, New Age, a complete library. I was eight when Uncle Rick and I made a second U-Haul trip back to our old house on the rez to get the rest of our stuff that year before our house had been bulldozed for good. That was the last time I had been to South Dakota.
My mother had also left a mix of video and audio recordings of stories the elders told to her for an archival project she had been working on for the community college. Celia had an old flat screen monitor and hard drive that I was able to use to watch footage, which kept me busy the many nights I spent alone. By this time, I had moved back into the bedroom my mother and I shared before she left. At first, I couldn’t sleep in the room, so for about a year, I slept on the couch. Her presence haunted that room. I finally pushed the separated twin beds together and moved all of her things out to the shed, only going to retrieve something when the past nudged me to visit it.
I didn't have a girlfriend, though there were times when I yearned for one. In high school, I had only two sexual experiences. I was needy and clingy and broke, three traits that kept me as close to sex as a daydream. On those nights when I knew Celia's asthma was quiet, meaning she would sleep through the night, I'd use my hand to refer to my two sexual experiences as some good memories to keep me alive or “putting out the fire” as Uncle Rick used to say.
I had made one friend on my delivery route, a professor at the university who constantly ordered books. His name was Charles Somè, professor of World History, and a fan of bowties. Professor Somè was a quirky, funny little guy who wore round professor-like glasses. He had come to the United States from Burkina Faso, and was quite surprised when I was able to point out his home country on the world map that covered the wall over his desk. I looked forward to the days when I'd see him on my route. It was the only meaningful social contact I had.
"Harlan. It is nice to see you again. Tell me you have it." He smiled, rubbing his hands together.
I held up the book.
"Yes, yes," the professor raised his eyebrows under his short crop of graying hair. "Three months that has seemed like an eternity. And I owe it all to you, my young friend. Come. Sit."
I made my way through the small pathway in his office, lined by stacks of papers and books. I sat on the usual stool across from his desk. I noticed he was wearing the burgundy bowtie I bought him for his birthday two years ago. He sat on top of his overcrowded desk.
"You know, sometimes it is hard for me to believe someone as young as yourself can be so industrious. Books are so hard to find, let alone one such as this. I have been looking for this book for years. Most your age would have nothing to do with a good book."
"My mother always said if all the power goes out, then we'll all go back to telling stories," I said.
"Or light a candle and read a good book!"
We both laughed. He held up the book again.
"This book is a treasure of traditional tales from my people. But it is only a treasure to me, for many of our elders took their stories with them when they passed to the other side. This may be all that is left of the old stories." He sat quietly and stared out of the window. I looked out too, watching students with backpacks walk by below us.
"You know,” he said, “my people, like yours, relied on the stories to keep the knowledge. Then, we were forced to find who was left and have them tell the stories so we could write it all down. And if that wasn't bad enough, now you have digital readers where just about every piece of written material is regulated by the government."
He studied the binding and caressed the book.
"You will never find this on a digital reader. I guarantee you that." He finally looks at me. "Enough of my ranting. How have you been, Harlan?"
"Doing good, you know, working." I shrugged.
"I heard about the library that was bombed in one of the northern states."
"Yes. It was in Wisconsin. A lot of people were killed."
The professor leaned forward, studying me.
"Have you given any thought to what we spoke of last time?"
"Yes. I have." I felt my face get hot. My heart sped up a bit. "I just never pictured myself going back to school."
That was a topic that made me nervous.
"I know. But you are a keen young man. You knowledge goes beyond the five senses. That can be dangerous for you during these times."
"What do you mean?"
"You are time itself, walking this earth. We both are. If you were to die today, so does time. You represent all that your people were. Your mother left the legacy of you and with you, so much of her research. You must protect that."
"How can going back to college protect me?" I chuckled, not taking him seriously.
"For one thing," he stood up and pulled out his chair and sat down, "it will get you out of your line of work that has now become very dangerous. Libraries have become a military target, and I worry about your safety. Secondly, education can keep a roof over your head, food on the table. Trust me. It is much safer for you to be attached to an institution right now then to be out in the world alone. As long as you live, so do the ways of your people. You don't want to lose that, ever."
I nodded, feeling a surge of sorrow as I thought about my mother.
"How is your Aunt?"
I combed my fingers back through my hair, pulling out the hair tie, a brief moment of comfort.
"She's not well at all. Sometimes I'm so afraid she's going to have an asthma attack when I'm not there. Some nights I don’t even sleep because she's trying so hard to breathe. When I come home, I just sit with her, you know, make sure she eats. The neighbors stop in to sit with her some days while I'm working."
"I am so sorry to hear that. I know it is hard for you."
"I'm worried more about her than me."
"What I mean to say, Harlan, is that I wish to lighten your burden. This is the material world we must survive in, so we are forced to go through the motions, working, school and all of the nonsensical things that are supposed to make meaning of what a life should be. Both you and I were fortunate enough to be born in our cultures before we were both forced to leave. This we have in common. You're a good boy and I will help you. You don't see it now, but there is much more for you to do. I think I see a teacher." He stood up and sat on the edge of his desk in front of me.
"No, that was my mom."
"I know a fellow kindred when I see one, however we shall take this one step at a time. I will help you to get a scholarship so that you can finish school. You can quit your job, spend more time at home with your Aunt. All you have to do is go to school."
It sounded way too easy, and I knew it wouldn't be.
"Professor, it's been awhile since I dropped out of community college."
"You let me worry about that."
The hot morning air blowing through the window of my truck let me know that if there was any cool air, it had left with the night. One thing I loved about driving the employee truck was that I could blast the air conditioner whenever I wanted, not having to worry about paying for it. The pick-up truck I inherited from Uncle Rick didn't have air, which made driving this truck a luxury in the desert heat. My mind went back and forth, trying to decide how much of an idiot I was for giving in to Professor Some. The thought of going back to college made me shift around in my seat trying to make sense of it. Maybe it wasn’t smart to consider quitting a job that had kept things together for me since I was 18. Almost 10 years. I liked the freedom of driving around not having to deal with too many people. I especially liked drives like today that took me away from the city out into the open desert. It was rare when I had the chance to leave Albuquerque, and now I was driving a delivery out I-25, headed towards Santa Fe, although at times, the crosswinds tossed the truck about causing me to grip the steering wheel a little bit tighter. My excitement wanted quickly as there wasn’t much to see for miles but sand and huge bundles of sage brush blowing across the road. Driving did help me to avoid the fact that my life was sitting still. It was only after work, when I stopped driving, that I was bothered by the sound of my own breath. In that stillness, at home, Aunt Celia spoke of my mother.
"I was so mad at your mom for getting pregnant with you, right when she had just started college. Val was the only one of us sisters to go to school and I just knew her having a baby would interfere with her finishing. And who would've thought that the baby I didn't want her to have is now taking care of me."
She lay on her permanent daytime spot on the sofa, under the rainbow colored star quilt my mother had made for her before I was born. I had just finished the dinner dishes, and walked into the living room, drying my hands on the dishtowel.
"I'm sure she's so proud of how good you turned out," she said.
"How can she be proud? She left.”
"Harlan. You have to stop being bitter. She gave you and all of us what she could. Everyone passes on."
"She didn't die, auntie. She left. Walked out. And she was the main one who always said back home, where will our children go if we don't have a home? She always said that. And what does she do? She just takes off and leaves her family without a word."
"Your mother had to go."
"Had to go? Why do you keep avoiding the fact that she left us?"
"She left because she felt she had nothing to give you. The worst feeling in the world is to feel like you’re dying while you’re still alive. Your mother wasn’t strong enough to stay.”
“I loved my sister, and I still do. I lie here every day barely able to breathe, but I do so I can be here for you because she couldn't or wouldn't or whatever way you see it. If it wasn't for you, I would have stopped breathing a long time ago. I want you to get on with your life, Harlan, because I'm not sure how much longer I can go on. I'm holding on for you.”
Staring out over the steering wheel, I was starting to feel that maybe I had met Professor Somè for a reason. I always thought I was holding on for Celia, but to be sick and live at the same time must have been harder than me suffocating under my own self-pity. Maybe it was time for me to get on with it, whatever it was.
Asata Radcliffe (Caddo Arkansas) is a writer and filmmaker. She writes fiction, speculative and science fiction, essays, and is a reviewer for Kirkus Reviews. Her most recent work, “Creative Sovereignty” (2016), appears in the debut issue of LADY/LIBERTY/LIT. She has forthcoming writing that will appear in the anthology Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler (The Collection) to be released by Twelfth Planet Press (June, 2017). Asata's independent film work investigates the interstitial in society, embracing a bitextual lens of storytelling. Asata received her MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Antioch University.