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Sanity is madness put to good use. George Santayana Sydney Waters stares out over the brittle, seared land three hundred feet below. How to cross four hundred miles of desert with a blind man and a dog? Before Sydney can change course, the cliff edge breaks away. Her companion tumbles down into the desert. The only way out a cave that leads deep beneath the state of Nebraska. No turning back now. Book Two of the Upheaval series, Edge of Reality takes the reader on an extraordinary and unexpected adventure in a world turned upside down.
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JUNKYARD DOG SERIES
Edge of Reality
Edge of Reality
Copyright © 2018 by Charley Marsh
All rights reserved.
Published 2018 by Timberdoodle Press.
Edge of Reality is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and places are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. For more information contact the publisher: http://timberdoodlepress.com/
All rights reserved
E-Book ISBN# 978-1-945856-04-4
Print Book ISBN# 978-1-945856-39-6
Cover Art: depositphoto.com and Kessler Photo
About the Author
“What happened to Nebraska?”
Sydney Waters stood at the edge of the steep precipice and glared at the desert plain below. It stretched as far as she could see until it faded into the distant gray horizon. She tried to hold her annoyance and frustration in check. This next leg of their journey should have been easy, but Mother Earth had thrown her a curveball.
Her original plan had been to walk straight west across South Dakota and into Wyoming, but a near run-in with a band of travelers had forced them to veer south into Nebraska. After their experience in Driftwood, Sydney intended to avoid all people, even if it meant walking extra miles.
She sighed and turned to her companion. “I don’t get it. Nebraska should be flat and green. Instead it looks like a sunken desert.”
Jordan James turned his sightless gray eyes toward Sydney and shrugged one shoulder.
“My sister believed the upheaval was the earth’s way of filling in all the voids man created. She told me that we pumped too much oil and water out of the planet and dug too many mines. I used to tease her and call her an environmental alarmist.”
A tightness crossed his face, there and gone so swiftly Sydney would have missed it if she hadn’t been standing so near. She laid a hand on Jordan’s arm and squeezed gently. She knew he still ached with the pain of his sister’s untimely death.
Torrie James had died from lack of medical care two months earlier. A simple cut from a rusted piece of farm machinery had led to septicemia, a deadly infection if left untreated as Torrie’s had been.
“The Ogallala Aquifer sits underneath several of the plains states, including most of Nebraska. If the land has sunk, I’d say Torrie’s theory was right. The aquifer was pumped dry and the land above it has dropped.”
Sydney scowled. Several months ago her goal had seemed so simple: find her friend Smokey. But there had been nothing but problems since she had left her family farm on the banks of the Mississippi River.
First Jordan had locked her in his storm cellar until she agreed to help him. She didn’t blame him for that, he had been slowly starving to death without his sister’s care. It wasn’t easy for a blind man to find food in the new world. Heck, it wasn’t easy for anyone to find enough to eat.
Unwilling to leave Jordan behind, Sydney had brought him along with her, hoping to find someone to care for him.
Then they had walked into Driftwood, South Dakota and stumbled into a nest of escaped convicts.
Now they were facing a great desert that shouldn’t exist.
“I had planned to head due west across Nebraska, but without water we won’t get far,” she said. “We’ll have to follow this ridge south until we get beyond the aquifer. Besides, this cliff is too steep to safely descend even if we wanted to cross the desert.”
She reached down and absently scratched between Dogma’s ears, the thick fur rough and wiry under Sydney’s fingers. The giant dog pressed her head against Sydney’s hip for a moment and gazed across the land below them.
Sydney wondered what she thought about their situation. She wished Dogma could speak; she was open to any suggestions at this point, and Dogma was an intelligent dog.
“Watch out, Jordan, you’re awfully close to the edge. There are cracks in the dirt—the cliff could crumble away beneath you.”
Her warning came a moment too late. Jordan yelled as the edge of the cliff broke away and he disappeared from sight.
Sydney dropped to her belly and inched forward until she could see down the cliff face. She watched Jordan roll and tumble to the bottom of the cliff and come to an abrupt stop in the pale dirt.
“Jordan? Jordan! Are you all right?” There was no answer and no sign of movement from Jordan. Dread filled her. What if he was dead? She should’ve been paying closer attention. Sometimes she forgot that her companion was a blind man.
“Crap! Come on, Dogma, we have to get down there. Jordan needs us!”
The massive dog whined, then edged her feet carefully over the cliff edge. She flattened her belly and slid over the edge and began to pick her way down the steep slope before she lost her balance and slid to the bottom on her hind quarters.
To Sydney’s relief, Dogma bounced to her feet and trotted over to where Jordan lay.
Watching Dogma’s awkward descent gave Sydney an idea. She sat on the edge of the cliff and extended her legs. Leaning back, she dug the bottom edge of her backpack into the dirt to act as a brake. The two hens, confined to twin cages made of thin woven branches, squawked as their cages swung from the top of the pack and hit the dirt.
“Don’t worry, girls. I won’t let anything happen to you. I’m going to try to do this in a more controlled and elegant manner than Jordan did. Ready?”
Sydney scooted off the edge of the cliff and began to slide downward, her legs stiff in front of her body and her arms spread wide. She dug her heels and hands into the slope as she slid down, trying to slow her speed.
The hillside was steeper than she realized and for a moment she regretted her decision to follow Jordan.
Dirt worked its way into her pant legs and boots and up her back, but at least she stayed upright. She reached out and grabbed Jordan’s staff as she slid by the spot where he dropped it. Moments later she safely reached the bottom of the slope.
Sydney scrambled to her feet and pulled off her pack. She removed Ginny and Harriet’s cages and set the hens aside, then hurried over to where Jordan lay.
His face looked pale under his tan, but she found a pulse and was relieved to see that he seemed to be breathing okay.
She knelt beside him and carefully felt for broken bones. She ran her hands over Jordan’s strong, muscled thighs, glad that he was unconscious so he could not see the way touching him flustered her.
Sydney forced her attention back to the problem at hand. As soon as she was sure no bones were broken she put her hand on Jordan’s shoulder and gently shook him.
“Jordan? Jordan! Wake up!”
Jordan groaned. His eyes fluttered open and closed again. Blood ran from a gash over one eye.
“Don’t move yet, okay? I don’t think anything is broken but you have a nasty cut on your face.” Sydney dug into Jordan’s pack and pulled out a strip of bed sheet.
“We’ll have to thank the Doc for giving us these makeshift bandages when we see her again,” she said as she wet one end of the sheet strip with a small amount of their precious water and dabbed at the wound on Jordan’s head. She added a few drops of iodine to the cloth and dabbed again.
Doc Melody had not had much iodine to spare so Spencer was very careful with their woefully tiny supply.
Jordan jerked away from her touch. “Ow, not so hard. Sadist. Where’d you learn your bedside manners anyway? Whatever happened to kiss and make it better?” he grumbled.
Sydney smiled. The head wound couldn’t be too serious if Jordan felt well enough to complain.
“Don’t be such a wuss,” she scolded. “Hold still until I get this wound cleaned up and bandaged.”
She finished wiping the blood off Jordan’s face and wrapped the makeshift bandage around his head, tying the ends off neatly the way Doc Melody had taught her.
Ten long minutes passed before Jordan felt able to sit up. He rolled his shoulders and neck experimentally. “Holy cow, that was an unexpected ride. I take it we are now in the sunken desert?”
“Yeah. I’m afraid there’s no way we can climb back up that cliff, it’s practically vertical. You’re lucky you didn’t break your neck.”
Jordan scowled. Once again he had made life much more difficult for Sydney. Being blind was a real pain in his ass. He’d like to take care of her for a change, but it was hard to be the strong one when he couldn’t see the danger.
“Tell me what you see,” he said.
Sydney shrugged, then for the thousandth time remembered Jordan couldn’t see the gesture. Most of the time he didn’t act blind and she forgot that he couldn’t see. And then things like falling off cliffs happen, she thought with a scowl.
“I can’t see much,” she said. “We’re standing at the bottom of a cliff that I guesstimate is around one hundred fifty to two hundred feet high. There’s nothing but flat land in the other three directions. No buildings, no sign of a town or a city, and no green anywhere.”
She helped Jordan to his feet, handed him his carved ironwood staff, and checked his pack. Fortunately she carried their cooking pots or Jordan would have sustained some nasty bruising when he fell. The clothes and bedding in his pack had helped absorb some of the impact as he tumbled.
When she felt satisfied that all was secure, she retied the hen’s cages to the top of her own pack and put it back on.
“We’re stuck down here now. I think we should head south. We’ll travel along the base of the cliff and maybe find a way to climb back up. Keep your fingers crossed we find water soon. We have enough for the two of us for a day or so, but Dogma will need a fresh source before then.”
Jordan swayed slightly on his feet. “I’m still a little woozy. Must be from somersaulting down the cliff. I swear I felt my brain sloshing around inside my skull a few times.”
“Can you tell which way is south?” Sydney tried to keep her concern out of her voice. She suspected Jordan had suffered a mild concussion during his fall, but she didn’t want to alarm him with her worries.
Jordan lifted his face to the sun and spun in a slow circle. “It’s after noon, so the sun is moving to the west.” He stopped with the sun on his right and pointed straight ahead. “That way is south.”
“I’m impressed.” A little of the tension eased from Sydney’s shoulders. Jordan’s fall made her painfully aware of their vulnerability to injury. Neither of them had medical experience and they carried only the most basic of supplies. They would have to be more careful. An unset broken bone, or even a simple cut, could mean infection and a slow, painful death.
“I think we should travel a little away from the bottom of the cliff to avoid any falling rocks,” she said, eyeing a few boulders that had obviously rolled down the cliff face.
Dogma took her usual place, pressed close to Jordan’s thigh, and they set off, an unusual group of travelers in the strange, alien-scape of a sunken giant aquifer.
Sydney led the way through crisp dead grasses and shriveled shrubbery. Dry cracked earth, reminding her of crackleur on old pottery, was all that remained of once green crop and hay fields. Leafless gray-trunked trees loomed over them like ghostly skeletons. The baked dirt reflected the sun’s rays and intensified the searing heat.
By the time the sun swung low to the west, they were a bedraggled and sorry looking group. Dogma’s long, pink tongue hung from her slack, panting mouth. Sydney’s shirt clung to her back, plastered there by her dried sweat. The hens had stopped their constant clucking and were unusually silent, their small beaks parted and feathers fluffed as they tried to release the punishing heat from their bodies.
Sydney stopped and scanned the land before them. They needed a safe spot to spend the night. If she were alone she would continue to travel through the cooler temperatures of darkness, but she sensed Jordan’s fatigue. His steps had become stiff and wooden, and his usually straight, broad shoulders slumped. She couldn’t push any further until they’d all rested.
She looked without much hope for a stand of green or any sign of surface water, but only shades of brown and gray colored the landscape. She pulled out her binoculars and searched for an overhang or indentation in the cliff—anything that would offer them shelter, no matter how slight.
Sydney spied a jumble of rocks at the base of the cliff and altered course for them. The rock’s shadows would provide some welcome relief from the relentless sun, and maybe even protection from any hungry beasts of prey that might be prowling the desert for a meal.
She touched the crossbow pistol hanging from her pack and patted the quiver of bolts tied to her thigh. In her concern for Jordan she had forgotten about them. It was fortunate that she hadn’t lost them during her descent.
She berated herself for being so careless. That sort of forgetfulness could cost them their lives.
The crossbow was not only her main means of hunting food, it was their only protection. Doc Melody had offered her a pistol and ammunition but they were heavy to carry, and the pistol would be useless once the ammunition ran out.
Spencer would rather rely on the weapon she knew best, plus she could always fashion new bolts for the crossbow, a great advantage over the pistol.
Fifteen minutes later they reached the pile of large, flat slabs of rock. A distinct scar two-thirds up the cliff identified the source of the fallen rocks. They had sheared off from the cliff face, perhaps during the cataclysm that caused the land’s surface to sink to its current position.
Sydney felt grateful for the rock fall regardless of when it had happened. She removed her pack with a soft groan and set the hen cages in the shade beneath a tilted gray monolith of stone. She dug a water bottle from her pack and offered it to Jordan.
Jordan drank only enough of the unpleasantly warm water to ease the dryness of his mouth and throat and handed the bottle back. They both knew they needed to conserve what little water they carried until they could find a source to replenish it. Lack of water was now their greatest foe, far more worrisome than lack of food or even wild beasts.
Sydney took a small sip and filled the cap. She offered the water to each hen, then poured a small amount into one of their cooking pots for Dogma. The dog lapped the pot dry and licked Sydney’s hand. She swore she saw gratitude in Dogma’s golden eyes and made her a silent promise to find her fresh water soon.
After a brief rest Sydney climbed to the top of a flat gray slab with her binoculars in hand. She searched for any sign of people or life in the desert landscape. There was still no a hint of green to be found and no sign of civilization. The newly formed desert stretched before her until it disappeared in a gray haze.
She spun and turned the binoculars toward the south and saw nothing but towering cliff walls fading into the distance. Same to the north. There was no way to climb out of the sunken aquifer. They were stuck in this strange desolate desert land.
Dejected by what they faced, Sydney carefully climbed down off the boulder. They had an unknown distance to go and enough water for one more day. Their situation had become desperate. They needed a miracle or they would perish.
“Jordan, I need to take care of some personal business on the other side of this rock field. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Jordan waved two fingers at her from his seat in the shade of a broad slab. His dirt-streaked face shone bright red against the white bandage. “Take Dogma with you just in case there are wild animals hanging around. I can’t believe anything besides snakes lives in this dirt furnace, but you never know.”
Sydney circled the boulder field with Dogma at her heels. Some of the rocks were significantly taller than her diminutive five foot five inches. They were steep-sided, impossible to climb. A jumbled pile of narrow, flat slabs reminded her of a barn she had once seen after it had been hit by a tornado and the barn boards rearranged into an unrecognizable mess.
She saw no sign of life, not even the small lizards that one might find living in the southern deserts.
If there was any life in the desert it was waiting for nightfall to move. They would be wise to do the same if they wanted any chance to survive.
The thought came unbidden but she knew it was the truth. They would rest until sunset and then move on, she decided.
Sydney rounded the last of the boulders and stared at the base of the steep slope. Dead ahead of her stood the dark mouth of a cave. Beside her, Dogma’s ears pricked forward and her body grew rigid.
Sydney tensed and waited but nothing happened. She curled her hand in Dogma’s thick ruff. “What do you think, girl? Should we check it out?”
Dogma wagged her long tail and gave a soft woof.
“Okay, then. Let’s go see if it’s safe. It will be cooler to rest inside a cave than under those hot rocks.” Sydney moved forward, never taking her eyes off the cave’s entrance. Three steps, stop and wait. Repeat.
Without thinking, she had slid into the Slow Walk that her friend Smokey had taught her for navigating unseen through the forest. Movement caught the hunter’s eye. Minimize movement to avoid detection. It was a lesson that all successful prey animals learned.
Sydney had learned the hard way that humans occupied both niches: predator and prey.
When she reached the outer edge of the cave’s mouth, she stopped again to listen. A faint whiff of moisture hung in the cave’s entrance. Even more exciting, she thought she heard the drip of water coming from deep inside the cave.
Beside her, Dogma leaned toward the scent of water and whined. Her nose quivered and she took a step into the cave.
Sydney knew that Dogma would be on alert if she sensed any danger. She released her hold on Dogma’s ruff. “Okay, girl, go ahead. I know you’re thirsty. I’ll follow you.”
She ducked through the cave’s mouth and immediately found herself in a large, open cavern. The cave floor felt smooth and dry and firm under her feet. The ceiling soared somewhere out of sight, lost in darkness. Goosebumps raised on her arms as she entered the cooler air.
The cave smelled of water, moist earth, minerals, and slightly stale air. The lack of bat guano surprised her until she remembered that bats require enormous quantities of insects to survive and there were few, if any, living in the desert outside the cave.
The light from the cave’s entrance grew dimmer as she followed Dogma deeper into the cave toward the sound of dripping water. She still could not see the roof of the cavern, but she sensed that it had sloped downward and now hung closer overhead.
Sydney shivered and wrapped her arms around her chest to ward off the chill. It felt delicious after the searing heat of the day.
The light from the cave’s mouth dwindled to a faint dusk. Sydney closed her eyes and then reopened them to help them adjust to the semi-dark. Just ahead, a faint reflection from the floor of the cave told her she had found the source of the dripping water.
Dogma walked into the pool and greedily lapped it up, then laid down in the shallow water with a happy-dog groan. She climbed out of the water after a few moments, shook herself vigorously and sat on the cave floor.
Sydney estimated the pool to be about thirty feet across. Was it clean enough to drink without boiling? she wondered. She hesitated, then knelt, cupped one hand, and sampled the water. It tasted of minerals, sharp and a little bitter.
She cupped both hands and took a big drink, letting the water flow between her fingers and down her neck and chest. The water felt cold and bracing, almost frigid. She sat back and waited for the pool’s surface to grow calm.
Drip. Small ripples spread across the pool. Sydney let her focus soften and broaden as she watched the pool.
Drip. This time she saw the droplet fall. The pool water was either from condensation dripping from the ceiling of the cave, or a water source flowed above the cave and some of it had forced its way through the rock.
Sydney stood and turned to leave but stopped short. A frisson of fear went through her. A trail of muddy footprints headed from the pool deeper into the cave. She tried to peer into the dark recesses of the cave, afraid she was being observed by some possibly dangerous person, but then remembered Dogma. Dogma would’ve let her know if they had company.
Relieved, she bent down and inspected the faint prints, wishing she had a flashlight to help her see. Unfortunately battery-powered equipment was a thing of the past.
There was light enough to see that the prints were made by bare feet and were all the same size. There seemed to be a steady track of them. They created a light brown path on the darker cave floor. Someone either lived in the cave, or there was another route through the cave to the pond.
Sydney straightened and mulled over her discovery. She hadn’t noticed any prints coming into the cave, or traveling from the cave mouth to the pool.
That meant that others used the cave and accessed it through another entrance. Perhaps that entrance could lead them out of the desert and back up onto higher, greener land.
Sydney hurried back toward the mouth of the cave with Dogma close behind. She needed to fetch Jordan. Traveling through a dark cave would be a cakewalk for a blind man.
“Jordan! Get up. I found a cave and water and maybe a way out of this awful place.” Sydney grabbed the hen’s cages and tied them onto her pack. She slipped into it and grabbed Jordan’s pack.
“C’mon, it’s much cooler in the cave. Take my hand.” She reached down and tried to pull Jordan to his feet.
“You found a cave in the cliff?” Jordan’s brain felt fuzzy. He was having trouble thinking clearly and it scared him. He wondered if he was suffering from sunstroke or heatstroke. After the car accident that had cost him his sight he had rarely ventured outdoors. There were too many unknowns and too many ways for a blind man to come to harm.
With the earth’s violent upheaval his life as a world renowned entertainer had come to an abrupt end. People were consumed with the fight to stay alive and there was no longer any call for a piano man, even one as talented and popular as he had been. He had holed up with his sister on their parent’s farm, until Torrie died and Sydney had come along and rescued him from certain death by starvation.
She had forced him out of the house he was born and raised in, out of his comfort zone, away from everything that felt familiar, and taken him on a horizon expanding adventure. His thoughts drifted to the first time he had kissed her at Doc Melody’s house. She tasted so sweet and…
“Piano Man! Pay attention here.” Sydney squinted at her companion. “Are you all right? Your eyes look a little glazed.” She placed the back of her hand on his face. “You’re burning up. We need to get you out of this heat pronto. Get up.”
Jordan wished she hadn’t taken her hand away from his face. It felt cool and soothing and soft and smooth. What did she want him to do? Oh yeah, gotta move…He crawled to his feet awkwardly.
Sydney grabbed his hand again and pulled him after her, juggling his pack and staff in her other hand.
He stumbled, embarrassed by his sudden clumsiness and his weakened state. A man was supposed to take care of his woman, not the other way around. And Sydney was his woman, he felt very sure of that.
She might not know it yet, but they belonged together. He would make that very clear to this Smokey guy when they found him. No matter what prior claims Smokey thought he had on Sydney, she belonged to Jordan now.
“Duck down, Jordan. A little more. That’s it. We’re entering the cave now. Feel the cooler air?” Sydney led Jordan several steps inside and then dropped his hand. She set down his belongings and her pack and grabbed the hen’s cages. Dogma pressed against Jordan’s leg.
“Hold onto Dogma, Jordan. I’m taking you to the water. We’ll get your body temp down in a few minutes. It should make you feel better.” Sydney set the hens down beside the pool and let them out of their cages. They made their way to the water and drank, then started scratching around the cave floor. She hoped they could find some bugs in the cave as she had no food left to feed them.
“Sit here, I need to check your wound.” She led Jordan to the edge of the water and put his free hand into it.
He bent down and plunged his head into the water, then drank straight from the pool. Despite the metallic flavor he thought it might be the best water he’d ever tasted.
He sat quietly while Sydney checked his wound and replaced the bandage with a dry one, enjoying the closeness of her warm body and her gentle touch. He breathed in her unique scent, trying not to be obvious about it. She smelled wonderful, like spice and sweet green plants and something he thought might be essence of female, if there was such a thing.
“I think we’d better rest here tonight, then we’ll look for the other entrance,” said Sydney. “I’ll go fetch our packs and be back in a jiffy. Don’t go away.” She squeezed his shoulder and left.
Jordan listened to the sound of her steps moving off, heard her pick up their packs, and followed the sound of her return.
He might be blind, he mused, but his awareness of the things around him had grown since he started this journey with Sydney. He had more to be grateful to her for than just his life.
He breathed in the sharp tang of minerals and water and grimaced at the smell of sour sweat emanating from his body. He would’ve known they were inside a cave even without Sydney telling him. His ears told him he was in an enclosed space. It was a large space, but confined. He could sense the walls, and somehow knew they weren’t close by.
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