- If you adapt this book (which is licensed under CC BY-SA 4), please cite it as "Oregonian Awakening (1st Edition-Web). The print version of this is what was sent as gifts on 1/4/2016.
- It would be great if somebody copy-pasted this book into CreateSpace or something similar so people could buy hardcopies. Some sort of epub would also be nice. Feel free to keep all the profits.
- If you want to get in contact, please do so by tweeting with hashtag #OregonianAwakening. (EHCC doesn't have a Twitter account but will have instead monitored the Twitter stream from the future.)
- Keep in mind that this novel is a work of fiction intended for entertainment purposes. The characters, events, and dialogs are products of the authors’
imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to
actual events involving real corporations, institutions or persons—past
or present, living or dead—is entirely coincidental.
The Oregon Legislative Assembly deserves primary credit for the greatest positive social transformation in America during the 21st Century. All states nation-wide struggled with rising unemployment, deteriorating infrastructure, evaporating federal support, skyrocketing poverty rates and devastating civil disorder. However, long before other states, Oregon’s state government put solutions into place to meet and defeat these challenges.
The earthquake and resulting tsunami on Friday 4 January 2019 created a humanitarian and fiscal nightmare. High homelessness, gutted physical infrastructure, evaporation of businesses, interruption of municipal and state services, widespread municipal bond defaults and an incipient default at the state level put Oregon near the bottom on every social and economic measure nationally.
The earthquake left the Assembly no choice but to act together as a proactive force shaping the government’s response. Most reforms focused on fomenting cooperative enterprises whereby Oregonians helped one another to recover from the disaster. Other reforms aimed to contain government expenses and to increase the taxable income of citizens.
Eliza Dewer, former mayor of Gold Beach, relocated to Eugene and was elected to the State Assembly in 2020, where she said, “The hand of government can only lift so much. Our role–our calling–is to lift the hands of others.”
The greatest state
The Oregonian Awakening was a metamorphosis: Oregonians at the individual and community level became more connected, more empowered, more skilled and more resilient. As a result, Oregon weathered the “Fiscal Trench” in 2025 far better than any other state: when war expenses forced the federal government to sharply cut Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and other non-military programs, most states’ poor and elderly had no recourse but their state governments. Oregonians, on the other hand, enjoyed a robust network of community-level organizations left over from the quake recovery, and these carried much of the sudden load. Other states defaulted on bonds, their citizens rioted, and their businesses burned. Oregon had already emerged from the waters of its own tribulation. Its people struggled as one, found their footing, and prevailed.
The video musician Crystin Brooks summarized this transformation while performing on the very shores where the tsunami laid waste to Seaside 15 years earlier... “When the land rose against us / And the water was rough / We dug deeper inside us / And discovered enough.”
About this publication
This publication gathers together messages written to the Oregon Assembly between 2019 and 2034. We, editors at the Evergreen Historical Culture Corporation (EHCC), selected messages to the Assembly as the basis for this publication because the essence of the Oregonian Awakening was its unique impact on the population—so its people’s voices are best-equipped to describe the story.
We chose messages for inclusion through a multi-stage process.
First, we licensed the novella “Hammer Rise (2nd Edition)” by Amanda Brown. Each chapter of this fictional work identified one theme in the story of Oregon’s recovery. We added editorial notes after each chapter on how the novella chapter’s theme fit within the overarching arc of Oregon’s actual history.
Second, we used the novella’s themes to search the state archives for relevant messages. These included only communications flagged for public access per the provisions of the Transparency and Lobbying Act of 2023 (TLA), including messages flagged retroactively. We selected messages that had a clear purpose and included some personal content. We contacted authors for permission to publish, until our collection adequately covered each theme.
Third, we edited the messages for length by eliminating material unrelated to the corresponding chapter’s theme. We fixed spelling errors and egregious grammatical errors, and we anonymized information that might reveal the identities of individual persons in order to help protect privacy.
Finally, we wrote a glossary at the end of this publication, to collect and explain the key developments in Oregon that embodied and reinforced Oregon’s recovery and transition to economic and cultural leadership.
You are holding the paper form of this publication, which mimics the paper-based messages still used at the time of the earthquake. The same textual content appears on the traditional web at http://www.tinyurl.com/oregonianawakening Interested readers wanting to purchase immersive performances of the content may do so via bluelink US#Oregon#CC#EHCC in the experiential web, where we welcome video feedback from readers via experiential faceback messages.
We expect that this publication will illuminate a deeper understanding of how Oregon’s Assembly transformed the state during its most challenging period—and that it “awakens” new ideas and actions in the reader.
Thank you for your interest and support.
Satoshi Abe Bob Thomas, Jennifer Straub
Editor-in-chief (0.8 PVE) Editors (0.25 PVE each)
4 Jan 2035
Disclosures: EHCC paid a royalty of 0.01 PVE for each message to the Assembly and 5.5 PVE for “Hammer Rise.” EHCC retains 35% of profits to its capital account for use in future projects, donating the remainder to the Forest Slope Society in Portland for use in preserving ecological spaces of historical significance.
Oregon snored—as did Esther, bundled between a white down comforter and a plump pillow. The smell of leftover Christmas potpourri and the rattle of rain on the window permeated her pre-dawn room.
She slumbered through the first shake. Only when her reading lamp tumbled against her head did she jerk awake, eyes wide, heart pounding, hand reaching to her red hair.
The oscillation of her bed intensified. Across the room, a heavy book fell off a shelf. Then the shelf itself thudded to the floor. The room’s single nightlight flickered out, and the floor rumbled. She grimaced, and with a muffled sigh, alarm gave way to recognition, and recognition to a knot of cold that spread from the pit of her stomach through her heart to her shoulders: earthquake.
As she pulled her feet from the blankets, a single crack hissed from the window pane, followed by a crash. Cold rain and sharp glass poured onto the blankets, and the wind pushed her out of bed. The rumble surged into a roar.
She staggered toward the door, but the door moved in the darkness. She took aim again and the wall slammed into her. She landed near the fallen shelf. She curled her knees against her belly, her back against the wall, hands pressed against her ears, eyes closed.
Thuds and crashes sounded in the darkness elsewhere in her apartment building. Distant shouts punctuated the growl of grinding rumble and rushing rain. She heard little, consciously. Five minutes passed in a mental blur as her mind churned. She would have twenty minutes, and then the ocean would arrive.
When the earth’s thunder waned, Esther opened her eyes. They had adjusted in the dark. She stood, she turned, and she ran.
Out the apartment door, back to fumble in the dark through her belongings for keys and smartphone and sneakers and raincoat and wallet, back out, down the stairs, out to the parking lot she went. The rain soaked her flannel pajama pants.
Heavyset for a twenty-five-year-old, she felt her lungs burning by the time she crossed the parking lot. She located her car in the near-darkness. The engine roared, she pulled into the apartment’s driveway, and the windows fogged up. She flicked on the heater, turned onto the avenue, and came to a stop.
Taillights already filled the two-lane avenue, three lines of vehicles tightly packed abreast. Esther waited. Sirens erupted from the towers nearby, wailing a warning. Honking competed with rain to fill the air. Urgency flooded Esther’s veins. She shuddered.
The driver ahead vainly U-turned his green pickup across a lawn, splashing mud against a white porch, and then he paused: where else to go? Immediately the driver behind Esther pulsed his horn, and she looked in the rear-view mirror, and he flapped his hand at her to move forward, and he fired off a longer pulse on the horn. Flustered, she edged forward into the green pickup’s spot, sealing its driver off on the grass. But he in turn honked and gesticulated at her and at the entire situation. Everyone behind crept forward as many inches as bumpers would allow. The honking intensified, and the seconds dragged into minutes.
“For crying out loud,” she said. She threw her car into park, opened the door and stood in the downpour.
The flush of headlights into the gray rain revealed the remains of the bridge over the creek that encircled the town of Cannon Beach to the north and most of the east. The ocean filled the west.
Where the bridge of equal parts concrete and moss had once stood, Esther now saw its exposed ribs. It had buckled its center upward and created a sizeable gap. Making matters worse, the steep northern bank of the hill west of the bridge had collapsed, blocking the creek, which had in turn piled up and formed a large pond in the bridge’s gap. Worse yet, a barren oak once solidly planted in the hill had toppled, thrusting its limbs across the water.
Despite the fact that the bridge was now obviously unusable, a few people stumbled through the mess. One dangled from a tree limb, another had hooked a hood on a tree branch and struggled to disengage it. Another woman wearing a bright yellow raincoat reached down toward a lower piece of the bridge, yelling something incoherent in the ceaseless honking and rain, desperately—Esther suddenly realized that a child had fallen or jumped to the darker, lower remains of the bridge, and the woman on the bridge was urgently trying to rescue the child.
Other drivers popped out of their cars. As they scanned the situation, most turned and looked backward and contemplated a U-turn and uniformly gave up and ran south, away from the bridge.
The convoy of frustrated drivers transformed into a charging herd. Esther leapt into the flush of dark wet bodies, giving shoves as well as she received, buffeting between the tightly packed cars. She paused to catch her breath after a few blocks, and a mother pulling a boy shoved by. The child’s legs pumped one or two strokes and then halted, leaving the mother to drag him like a limp puppet, his little rain boots scratching along the slick avenue in the heavy rain.
Ahead of Esther, they slipped between cars and came upon an older woman, who shuffled with a cane that caught against the boy’s boot as he dragged. She stumbled and landed heavily on her left arm against a wet car hood, sliding forward with a groan. Esther glimpsed a note of pain in her face as she squeezed past the old woman—and Esther found in her own chest a certain tightness and in her conscience a prick of pain for not stopping to help—but the sirens wailed, and she again broke into her best run.
Two bicyclists with bright white lights turned from a cross street onto the avenue. They picked their way among the vehicles, dodging open car doors. Soon they broke free of the traffic and whizzed forward into the rainy business district, slowing only to slip past pedestrians in the dark.
The vexed sea’s first dim wave exploded a block away to Esther’s right, launching its body into and among one-story retail buildings. Nobody had seen it coming, and screams erupted from the crowd. Esther could barely make out the wave’s white foam in the deep darkness, outside the highlights. The smell of salt invaded the rain. Everyone picked up the pace as water licked the avenue, then withdrew, leaving flecks of wood and sand littered across the asphalt. Esther, catching her breath again, watched the water leave. The next wave would rise higher.
She ran. A sharp pain pierced her lungs. The crowd thinned as Esther huffed up the avenue, which soon curved southeast after a few blocks.
Behind her, a deep whoosh rushed into the air, mixed with the sound of crushing. She looked back. She barely made out the second wave hammering into the post office a few blocks away. Farther west, the silhouettes of roofs peeked out of the water, as if floating. Few taillights remained. The sound of the tsunami siren had ceased, but a police car keened in the north.
She smiled. She was outpacing the waves, spaced five or so minutes apart. The waters withdrew.
The avenue reached an underpass, beneath the Highway 101 overpass, beyond which the avenue narrowed to a thin road that climbed a hill into a neighborhood. A crowd had congregated overhead on the overpass. Their smartphones shone like fireflies in the dark rain—illuminating their faces, their hands, even at times their feet. Esther crossed the median, climbed the cloverleaf and joined them.
They waited for the third wave. The wind picked up, cutting into Esther’s pajamas with icy rain, but she was hot from the jog. A lone boy cried, standing near the highway’s verge. A woman asked him about his parents while a few people curiously edged down to look around the bend. They sprinted back up as the waters rose again, this time reaching halfway up their little bridge. They would need higher ground.
The crowd split. Some went south along the highway. Esther, and others, anxiously hurried back to the avenue and followed it southeast, toward the neighborhood hills. A few stayed on the bridge: a bald man in a wheelchair, a red-faced gray-haired woman who leaned heavily against the chair’s handles, and a fat man clutching a squirming jumble of cats.
Esther did not look back later when shouting filtered through the rain and the trees from the overpass. She had already continued up the little road into the neighborhood, where she could only see shattered homes and rain-whipped trees.
At the road’s apex, she and a thin young woman rested alongside a man under the leaning eaves of a house whose back the quake had broken. Esther tried wiping the rain and sweat from her hair and face. She checked her smartphone. No signal. Low battery.
“Wow, it’s cold,” the man exclaimed, wearing only boxers and a t-shirt. “How long do we have to wait for the waves?” He craned his neck, trying to see between the trees down the hill.
“I don’t know,” the woman replied.
He stopped craning and looked at her. “How can you not know?” he snapped. “Don’t you live here?”
“Well, the government didn’t say how long the tsunami would last. They gave a range. Don’t you remember the drills?”
“I just moved here from Colorado, where we don’t have”—he began.
“Colorado? Where’s your coat?”—the other woman began.
—“Come on,” Esther interrupted, shaking her head at the stupidity of the argument and debating whether to simply walk away. She decided to continue, “Nobody knows how long they last. We’re lucky to have warning sirens at all.”
“All right,” the man turned to Esther, clipping his syllables sharply. “What next then?”
Esther replied, “The city has an emergency facility near here. People rent space for storing their tsunami supplies. I saw it in the news.” She didn’t add that she also knew about it because, as an aide to the state legislature, she had had a talk with the city council about expanding the facility. “It’s somewhere nearby, but I don’t know exactly where. So let’s wait a while for the waves and then go look.”
They stood in a strained silence, fingering their smartphones and attempting not to look at each other’s faces. No signal received. The other woman leaned against the house’s wall and began playing some sort of game that involved clicking on pictures of jungle creatures as they moved across the screen. The sounds of a monkey grated on Esther’s nerves. The man passed time by fiddling with the “settings” on his phone. Again, a police siren sounded somewhere to the north.
Esther sighed and edged down the hill, not looking back to see if the others followed, knowing that it might be too soon but bored with the conversational opportunities. She cautiously listened for the sound of a wave, and her body tensed in preparation for a hasty retreat. But at the base of the neighborhood, she saw sand and gravel and building shrapnel littered the overpass, and a small crowd of teenagers had gathered. They threw stones, wood and other debris as far as they could down into the waters. She made out the shape of a boat in the shrubbery, but she saw no bodies. No further waves arrived. Rivulets of water washed down the road. The aromas of soil and fir and rain had replaced the smell of salt.
A knot of middle-aged parents herded a half dozen boys and girls north along the highway toward the overpass. Most sullenly walked with heads down. One child, a teenager, fingered his phone as they walked. He tripped on the concrete lip where the road’s shoulder rose to a sidewalk on the overpass, nearly falling off the overpass onto the road below.
“Move your feet, Tim,” carped his apparent father, grabbing his son by the jacket and pulling him farther onto the road. The boy gave no reply and didn’t even look up from the phone. They walked.
Esther contemplated the snappy attitude. People weren’t usually so prickly in Cannon Beach. Perhaps it was the stress, or the pre-dawn hour, or maybe their true natures had become more evident. But she decided that it would be worth the risk of a conflict to get some information.
“Excuse me,” she called loudly enough for the families and the teenagers on the bridge to hear. “Is anybody able to get on the web or call 911?” Head shakes and shrugs and grumbles replied.
“No, why, can you?” one woman replied.
“No,” Esther answered. “I was just trying to find out where the supply shelter is located. Does anybody know?” More head shakes and shrugs and grumbles replied. The teenagers returned to throwing debris into the water.
She decided to walk north behind the families, keeping a distance to avoid provoking a conversation. A dim dawn trickled over the rain-soaked horizon.
Soon they made out a red hummer racing toward them along the highway. It pulled into an RV park a half mile to the north, kicking gravel as it pushed up a small lane into the trees. Esther and the others walked to the RV park. Only two unoccupied RVs populated the area. Esther and the families speculatively followed the gravel lane where the hummer had turned, using their phones to light the way.
They spotted the vehicle nestled amid lush green trees. A sign proclaiming “Cannon Beach Tsunami-Relief Shelter 4” adorned an open gate in a chain-link fence that enclosed a low aluminum building, its door also open. The rain pelted off the roof with a tinny clang. Voices sounded within. Someone in the crowd called out, and a tall man with a handgun and a flashlight and an angry face appeared in the door of the building.
“Clear out,” he replied, pointing his gun.
“Come on, kids,” a mother urged, turning and pushing a boy and a girl forward. Without a word, the other parents did likewise, urging their children forward like sheep. They retreated back down to the RV park.
“Whoa,” one of the girls exclaimed. “We should call the police.”
“The phones are out, stupid,” the teenager with clumsy feet sniped. The girl burrowed her face into her mother’s side.
“Be nice,” his father snapped.
“So what do we do now?” another boy asked.
His mother reached her arm around him. “We wait,” she said. “Somebody will take care of us.”
Esther settled down beside an RV’s angled awning. She considered trying to adjust it but decided it wasn’t worth the effort. The RV shielded some of the wind. She wished for pants warmer than her flannel pajamas—regretted, in fact, that in her complacency, she had not prepared for the tsunami at all.
An aftershock interrupted her rain-soaked boredom, rocking the RV. Esther tensed her legs to jump from beneath the awning if it started collapsing, but it held. Rain-pecked stillness returned. More families and singles arrived, sheltering beside both RVs.
They heard a siren again. A few people wandered out to the highway, waving their arms toward an onrushing police car, but unnecessarily. It turned off the highway without pausing and rushed up the gravel lane. In the distance, another siren sounded.
The crowd crept back up the hill along the gravel lane. The police had arrested the man with the gun, as well as another man, both hunched in the back of the police car. One officer stood with his wide shoulders blocking the gate of the storage facility’s fence, hands on his hips. Another stepped toward the crowd and said, “Everybody gather over there.” He pointed beneath the trees. “We’ll be handing out supplies.” The crowd did as told.
The distant siren grew louder and ceased just as a red extended pickup’s headlights burst from the trees, its doors emblazoned with “Cannon Beach RFPD.” Four big men and one tiny woman slid out, clad in firefighter yellow. They entered the building. Esther smiled.
The afternoon gloom found the crowd huddled beneath tarps tied from the chainlink fence to stakes in the ground, forming narrow triangles. Everybody had blankets, water and little packets of granola. A few slept. Esther was finally warm again, shielded from the north wind and rain, wearing a blanket and blue jeans and a thick coat taken from a bag labelled “Mary Faulkner.” She daydreamed herself arguing to Ms. Faulkner that it was ok for the authorities to hand out her belongings because otherwise they would go to waste. The argument in her head went well.
Other vehicles arrived, parking along the gravel lane and among the RVs. The police repeatedly left and returned and left again, responding to messages in police-speak on their radio. They advised against leaving the area because debris had filled the streets in town. Everyone obeyed.
The police had no information regarding who had lived. They reiterated the need to stay put. The people complied.
Night fell. Esther was pinned between two men under her tarp. One smelled of urine and beer. Esther preferred to direct her attention to the other, a gray man named Wes, who idly strummed a guitar clutched against his body.
“My wife gave it to me,” he commented.
“That’s sweet,” Esther replied, unsure exactly what to say.
“But it was a long ago.” His thin fingers paused on the strings. “I can’t say I recall how to play properly.” After a moment, his wedding ring glinted in the flickering illumination of the police officers’ flashlights as he lightly flicked the strings again. But Wes was alone. And when the police officer leaned over and requested in coffee breath whispers that Wes stop playing so everybody could sleep, his last notes died into the rain.
Esther’s dreams were dark, and she woke many times that night. Sometimes she perished in a collapsing building, sometimes in the waves, sometimes of cold while wandering lost in the woods. Always there were children calling for their parents, crying or complaining.
A pallid dawn found her leaning tensely against Wes’s sleeping form. Icy rain poured off the tarp in the pale January morning.
Squeezing past Wes, she found her way to the communal latrine, then collected granola and water while fiddling with her smartphone. No signal, little battery. She mentally berated herself for not remembering her phone recharger, then recalled she had no place to plug it in.
In the distance, a helicopter’s clatter grew. It appeared to hover over the RV park. Ester walked down through the frigid drenching, blanket wrapped around herself, to get a closer view.
Several olive tents had sprouted overnight, ringed by military hummers and trucks. More tents were rising. A dozen or two soldiers in khakis moved about, busily setting up tents, unloading supplies, directing civilians. She strode to a young but large National Guard officer of some sort who was barking orders in the direction of a truck crew.
“Excuse me, I work in Salem for the state government,” she began.
“Uh huh,” he replied. He stared a foot over her head, eyeing two workers who struggled to grasp a crate with cold hands. “What are you doing in Cannon Beach?” he asked her.
“I work for House Majority Leader Adams in our Caucus Office, but in the interim between sessions, I do data entry for Cannon Coast Consulting. Do you know if they are going into session? The Assembly, I mean. If they’re in session, then I need to get to Salem.”
He peered down at her. “Governor Highland is calling the shots as far as I know. We can let Mr. Adams know that you’re here. Your name is?”
“Esther Weiss. And he’s a doctor. Of ophthalmology.”
“Ok, stay close to the shelter so we can find you.” He penciled a note on a clipboard in his hand, then barked at the two workers to move faster.
She retreated to her tarp as the rain pattered. The urine-beer man had disappeared, and she slid under the tarp beside Wes. Beneath the adjacent tarp, a dark woman with long black hair urged her children to sleep. The children lay placidly as ordered for a few minutes, then shifted their arms and legs, clearly not asleep.
“It’s like 10 in the morning,” Esther murmured. “Those kids are definitely not going to sleep.”
“They were whining all night,” Wes complained, rubbing his forehead. His eyes were closed. “I guess you got some sleep.”
Esther detected a hint of jealousy and decided to change the subject. “Where’s your guitar?”
“I don’t know.” Wes opened his eyes and looked at his empty hands, then at Esther. “I guess somebody took it in the dark.” He sighed and closed his eyes again.
Wes reminded Esther of her father, when she last saw him: broken and empty. In her childhood, her father’s mind had been an unbridled herd of ideas… like the day he came home with a glass-blowing magazine, which got him thinking about a new kind of gardening: plantings in glass-blown vases. He said he was going to convert their home’s toolshed into a glass-blowing house. He got as far as moving the tools out of the shed before Esther’s mom convinced him that running a furnace in a wooden building was asking for trouble. So he decided to remove the shed’s roof and one side wall and expand the building into a greenhouse. His revised plan called for buying colorful vases, growing tropical plants, and making potted displays. Then Esther’s mom said why not buy the plants, too—“just buy vases, just buy plants, one plus one equals two?” He abandoned the project, deflated. So then they had a useless half-deconstructed shed. Her mom was always there to explain the error of her father’s ways, down to the very Christmas Day that he slumped out the door, down to the very minute that her mom stood at the front door, down to the very moment she shouted down the street to his departing bumper—reminding him and the world that he was an unredeemable loser of a husband and a man.
Esther leaned her head back, closed her eyes, tried to forget Wes, and wished for the rain to stop.
She woke later as the helicopter landed again in the park below. She wandered down again, if only for entertainment’s sake. The National Guard officer and two other men had started assigning tents. Hummers were arriving in camp, full with singles, families and half-families.
After standing in line to receive an assigned place, she found herself sitting in a tent with a mother named Maria and her two sons. Despite the waterfall of rain outside, she was warm again, resting between a blue blanket and plastic-fabric padding that passed for a mattress.
The boys argued about who should get to have the bed closest to the door. When a soldier stopped by with boxes of juice, the younger boy squeezed his to squirt the red fluid out a flexible straw onto the other boy’s blanket, and the other responded with a squeal. When sandwiches arrived, they picked through the bread for the meat and cheese, which they devoured and then threw the rest of the food, wasted, onto the mattresses.
Esther tried to busy herself with squeezing a mini-mustard packet from one hand onto her own sandwich in the other hand. Their mother also ignored them, for the most part. “We went to town this morning,” she offered. “It was a mess.”
Esther looked up. “Oh? Huh. How bad?”
“Well, the water got to the top of the buildings, maybe higher. Everything smelled fishy.”
“Did you see if the Hemlock Suites were ok?”
“No, we live in the south part of town, near the Haystack Hill Hotel. Our house was washed right off of its foundation, kind of angled in a pile on the street. We couldn’t even get the door open.” Maria waxed on with other details: some guys with guns were looting a store but didn’t seem concerned about Maria’s presence, and the hotel on the hill appeared ok but was now full of people looking for housing, and no other hotels had survived, and an enormous piece of driftwood lay near the abandoned police station.
Esther missed much of it. Her mind had been swept away in a powerful wave of memories that exploded into buildings, and her mind’s eye watched bicyclists whizzing on the dark rainy avenue. Her legs tensed, as if she were about to run alongside the bicyclists through the darkness, and she saw nothing of the tent around her. When her attention snapped back to the present, Maria had stopped talking and sat watching her sons flick small wads of sandwich bread at one another’s faces.
The contentions of Esther’s young tent-mates continued and intensified over the week to the point that even their mother couldn’t ignore them. Maria sent them out to play despite the icy north rain. She told Esther stories of her home, lamenting its loss. “How long do you think it will take to get rebuilt?” she asked Esther.
“I don’t know. Do you have a good insurance company?”
“Well,” Maria pursed her lips. “I think our home insurance was from Brothers Insurance, or something like that. Our earthquake insurance was from a different company. I’d have to check.”
Esther shook her head. “What about flood insurance? Unless your house really fell apart, they’re going to pay for a lot of it, not really just home or earthquake. Right?”
“Um.” Maria looked confused. “I guess I’ll have to check.”
Esther decided not to point out the difficulty of finding paperwork in a collapsed, flooded house whose door didn’t even work. “I guess so,” she offered, hoping to kill the conversation.
The children, dripping, poured into the tent. They exuded a rich aroma of mud and crushed grass. “Mom!” one of them screamed, a foot from Maria’s face. “There’s electricity!”
The other leaped onto her lap, splashing wetness onto her clothing. “Can we recharge your phone? Please!” They tugged at her coat as she dug through her purse to pull it out. They scampered out the tent flap. Esther excused herself and followed, hoping to avoid further discussion of Maria’s purported home.
Children and adults gathered in the downpour, crowding around a power generator clattering on the other side of the RV park. The officer boomed, “Please, please, stand back, we will set up a schedule.” He waved his clipboard helplessly in the rain as the people crowded in on him like massing zombies. Their rechargers bit into the power points of the generator’s outlets. Esther shook her head and turned away, disappointed and a little disgusted at the sight: she had forgotten her own recharger when she fled her home, and she flushed with annoyance that her own phone battery was dead.
She scanned the crowd for familiar faces. She wondered what had become of her co-workers, neither of whom had been in camp the previous nights. She saw the officer had freed himself from the crowd and walked through the wet breeze to ask, “Have you heard from Dr. Adams?”
He stared at her blankly for a moment, then scanned his clipboard. “No, stay close by,” he replied, then strode away.
She decided to take a walk in the woods nearby—it was not too far from the RV park, she reasoned. She savored solitary spaces. As a teen, she had once begged her parents to let her camp alone in the mountains north of Portland. Her father, ever the perfect push-over, had acquiesced immediately. Her mother insisted Esther had to go with a group. So she signed up for a summer-long expedition led by a mycologist from a Portland university. He encouraged her in vain to become a teacher, fungi being as boring as they were; the trip’s main result was to reinforce her love for being alone. In the past few years since she moved to Cannon Beach as an adult, her favorite recreation became packing a lunch, going to the woods, sitting on an overlook over the ocean, and playing a video game. She daydreamed about finding more time to get away, but complying with the demands of her data-entry work, plus doing periodic work as a legislative aide in Salem, demanded too much time.
The next afternoon, after asking the officer for information again and getting none, and beset with boredom, she walked into town before the first bright sunset of the week. The rain had stopped. She found her car on its side, pinned between a house and the green pickup that she had been following. Her reinforced concrete building had not collapsed, but the waves had inserted a boat prow-first into a window, and the whole building stank like rotten meat. Breathing through her mouth and as shallowly as possible, she picked her way up to her apartment. Black dust coated the walls up to an identifiable waterline near the ceiling, and her rain-soaked comforter had sprouted green-blue fuzz. Her food, laptop, phone recharger, clothing and books were ruined.
Somewhere outside her shattered window, she heard a gunshot, then another, then a car revving, then silence. Suddenly unsure of her safety, she salvaged her jewelry, then walked as quickly as possible back to camp, prizing the smell of fir and rain as she left the town.
She made it back just before the National Guard directed everybody to head for their tents for the night. She discovered that Maria and the boys had moved out, into a tent of their own. A habitually silent girl had arrived, serenely sitting with earphones cemented to her eardrums, and Esther welcomed the change. She wished again to charge her phone and text her legislator.
The dark was not gentle. One night, she dreamt she was sitting at her cream-colored cubicle at the state capitol in Salem. The legislators asked her questions and dropped pieces of paper in her inbox, but children kept coming and taking them before Esther could see what had been written. The boys and girls cried inconsolably and used the paper to wipe their noses and eyes like tissue. They cast the papers to the floor, and Esther crouched to gather the sheets, but the text muddied in the children’s tears.
The legislators swelled with anger at Esther and filled her inbox faster. The children kept taking the papers in larger and larger fistfuls, and Esther became anxious. She liked working at the capitol more than doing data entry, and she feared to lose her job with the legislature and she yelled at the children and called for their parents.
But a boy perhaps eight years old turned to her. His nose was running and his eyes were red and his hair was unkempt and his mouth said Esther was their mother now. Esther froze. She reached out to him, but she screamed silently in her mind, unsure how to raise a child—and awoke with tears in her eyes.
The days were better. At last, Esther’s turn came up on the power-outlet schedule, and she borrowed a recharger from the National Guard. She eagerly stood by the phone while it charged enough to boot up, literally shifting from one foot to the other. At last it could start up. Pacified, she repeatedly beat her high score at her favorite game, which involved clicking colored jewels. She continued her game after the phone finished charging, as she returned to her tent. She half wished for a way to text her legislator. Later, she nagged the officer for information, but he said he was waiting for a reply. She decided he was lying.
Just over a week after the quake, a hundred phones simultaneously chimed and vibrated throughout the RV park, clearly audible over the light rain. Almost in perfect unison, in tents and under tarps, hundreds of people pulled out their phones and scrolled through text messages. The girl across Esther’s tent began to cry, gripping her phone.
Esther drew in her breath, willing herself to ignore her tent mate, and turned her attention back to her own phone. Her mom, who recently moved from Portland to Seattle, had texted her over thirty times. Normally Ester only got a text every few months from her and only saw her on holidays. Unable to place a call, she texted back, “Safe, staying in national guard tent. Texting just turned on, no phone yet.” Her mom acknowledged immediately, and Esther explained her situation. Her mom’s neighborhood had suffered damage, as well, yet remained largely inhabitable. No word from her father, of course—they hadn’t spoken since her mom threw him out.
The only other text was from Mikey, her sole cousin on her father’s side, who let Esther borrow a room in Salem when the legislature was in session. He was a big man, thirty, with a shaved head and muscular body, who worked as a bouncer for a club. She replied to the text he had sent, “Hi Mikey, safe in cannon beach. How’s Salem?”
He answered a few minutes later. “Hey, Esther. Bad here. Staying in a homeless shelter.”
“Rly? What happened?” she replied.
“Big fire, probably gas line break. Lots of fires all over Salem, not enough firefighters”
“Sry bro. Sucks.”
After they texted a while, she texted her legislator. No reply.
But when she woke the next day, a text message from Dr. Benjamin Adams awaited. “Saddle up, we are in emergency session. Ask the National Guard for a flight. They will be expecting you.”
She walked over to the officer, patiently playing her game while waiting for the officer to finish ordering around a few marionettes, who unpacked supplies, stored supplies, organized packing material. They were few: the officer apparently had lost half his soldiers. Esther didn’t imagine that they had died in any sort of battle; presumably they were just reassigned. The rain stopped, and the rain started. The wind blew. The soldiers completed their task.
“Just a moment,” he said, holding his hand up to her. She nodded, not looking up. He turned and strode to another soldier replacing a flat tire. They conversed, and Esther’s game ended.
When the officer turned to shout to some civilian in the facilities tent, Esther juxtaposed herself between him and the target of his shouts. She held her phone at arm length, displaying the text message from Dr. Adams just inches from the officer’s face. He stopped yelling for a moment, looked at the phone, and then slowly but firmly brushed her arm away from his face. “I will look into it,” he said, cheeks tight. She turned and marched away without a word.
At sunset, he lifted the flap of her tent and looked in. “The helicopter will take you to Salem tomorrow afternoon. Be ready,” he said. Looking up from her game, she acknowledged, and he left.
The next day, the helicopter co-pilot—a muscular woman with a neck the size of Esther’s thigh—escorted her from the tent city. As they boarded the thundering helicopter, she gave a running commentary through a microphone in her helmet, broadcasting to a speaker in Esther’s. “We’ll head south before crossing the mountains. There’s still some freezing rain farther north. It’s been dicey all week.”
The helicopter traced the coastline, blue waves no longer ponderously strewn over the land, but lightly dancing in the sun. “There’s the supply heli for this region,” the co-pilot pointed out. A gray dragonfly in the distance resolved into a second, larger helicopter hovering over the broad blue of Tillamook Bay. The city itself was a burnt out husk… some areas still smoking. Its ashen stillness contrasted with surrounding grassy hills, dotted with tall cedar and spruce waving in the wind.
“What happened to Tillamook?” Esther shouted over the chopper’s clatter.
“No need to yell, I can hear you fine,” the co-pilot replied, tapping her helmet earpiece and smiling back at Esther, whose ears burned beneath the helmet. “We had some problems with looting.”
Esther scanned the city, trying to find the downtown area. “That’s some pretty serious looting.”
“It took a few days to get it under control. We’re a little short on personnel and heavy equipment.”
The helicopter tilted southeast and roved upward over the mountains. Greens grew lush and blended into honey browns. Esther unconsciously called to mind the drenching scent of the deep forests. Oregon’s wilderness was awake in a way its cities were not.
“The coast is cut off. Landslides and fallen bridges,” the co-pilot announced. “We’ve got a few battalions in the Willamette Valley, only one company based in Coos Bay for the entire coast. But fixed wing won’t be able to get in here with more personnel until the runways are inspected and repaired. So it’s heli for now.” Esther looked down and saw no landslides or fallen bridges. She saw only rock and forest and rivers and life, until gray mist thickened into heavy rain and darkness.
They broke into sunshine again only a few miles from Salem. The city was gutted. The helicopter moved over the remains of houses and offices, some burnt out, one or two still smoking, and others simply sagging upon themselves like deflated balloons of wood and brick. A single lonely bulldozer puffed away to remove the mess.
The helicopter slowed over a university green across the street from the capitol. “The capitol got hit pretty bad,” Esther heard. “The governor arranged to borrow a university building as a temporary capitol.”
Esther locked eyes on Oregon Pioneer, the golden statue atop the capitol, as the helicopter hovered. He had fallen, somewhat: his head was propped up on the remains of his shattered marble base, and his feet rested on what remained of the capitol’s flat roof. Lounging thus, the golden man stared into the sky, as if complacently contemplating how to spend a lazy afternoon in the sun.
Editors’ notes: Survival
The earthquake resulted from a slip along the entire length of the Juan de Fuca Plate boundary. The strongest tremors, lasting over 5 minutes, emanated beneath an undersea ridge 20 miles west of Gold Beach. The quake demolished virtually every building in Brookings, Harbor, Gold Beach, Bandon, North Bend, and Coos Bay, as well as other construction as far as two hundred miles inland, from the California border to Canada.
Between 15 and 30 minutes later, a 90-foot tsunami reached every coastal county in Oregon. Ocean-facing cities fared worst: Seaside, for example, was utterly obliterated. Surges and seiches eviscerated cities built on bays and harbors. For instance, over 3500 people in Warrenton and Astoria resided in the inundation zone, as well as over half of Waldport and Yachats. Afterward, many areas remained permanently underwater, as the ground subsided 5 to 6 feet in Brookings, Coos Bay, Astoria, and elsewhere.
The quake caused extensive damage to transportation infrastructure. Massive cracks in runways and tarmacs rendered every major airport on the coast inoperable. Thousands of bridges separated from their abutments as far east as I-5. Dike failures, bridge failures, and landslides blocked every road between the Willamette Valley and the coast, making road travel impossible for months. Repairs took years. Slope collapses and a massive flow of debris into the bar curtailed navigation on the Columbia River for weeks.
Portland’s fuel storage terminal, built on land prone to liquefaction, shifted and ruptured multiple pipelines. These spilled oil and gasoline into a channel of the Willamette River. Emergency personnel extinguished the resulting fire in only an hour, but the suspension of fuel transportation into the state led to a widespread fuel shortage.
This compounded the loss of electricity, due to the difficulty of fueling power generators. Although half of the hospitals and other emergency facilities in the coastal counties managed to survive the quake and tsunami, they ran out of fuel within days. This interfered with refrigeration of supplies, use of computerized equipment, and operation of life support systems.
Other effects included water shortages throughout the Portland metro area, where brittle iron pipes failed (some of which were over 100 years old). Cities in the valley required between days and months to restore water and sewer service, while the coastal regions required years. Fires destroyed hundreds of neighborhoods between I-5 and the coast due to ruptured gas lines (often caused by unsecured water heaters). A final effect in rural areas was the loosing of herd animals, such as cows and alpaca, some of which died afterward due to their dependence on owners for food and care. Fortunately, later disease outbreaks did not occur, except in the Tillamook area.
FEMA and the National Guard led the response. They achieved their first priority, re-establishment of telecommunications, using land and helicopter assets to deploy MERS systems, which provided local satellite-based uplinks. Likewise, they used helicopters to deliver insulin and medicines to remote regions.
Unfortunately, reaching the coast with relief proved problematic. FEMA’s regional command center was located in Bothell, Washington, and the incident support base was in Redmond, Oregon. The long distances from these bases to inundated cities (especially those on the South Coast) prevented running many helicopter sorties per day. In addition, extremely cold weather in the northern portions of the coastal mountain range posed an icing threat to helicopter traffic and prevented flights there for days.
The National Guard deployed over a dozen Blackhawk helicopters based in Salem as well as other resources, but at the governor’s orders, these generally focused their efforts on urban areas within the Willamette Valley and Portland metropolitan area. MARAD vessels, offering sea-supplied relief, needed over a month to load and deploy from their port near Point Conception, California. They enabled medical evacuation, but mass migration from the coast via land and plane did not occur until summer.
In the end, the disaster killed 1452 people and injured over 16000. Had the quake arrived during a busy weekend in the summer, the death toll could have increased tenfold. But the impacts were by no means light. The disaster did over $32 billion in direct damage and generated over $100 billion in indirect expenses (2019 dollars).
The messages to the Assembly, below, illustrate these immense costs to the state and its people.
Messages to the Assembly: Survival
Esther’s cousin, Mikey, had been sleeping when the quake hit, serenely sprawled on his couch in plaid boxers, a sweaty t-shirt, and a leather coat. The shaking threw him onto the floor, and a half-finished beer bottle spilled off his lap onto the well-stained carpet. The rude awakening swiftly brought him to his senses. He realized what the grinding rumble meant, stood and ran through the darkness toward his apartment door. He almost made it but rammed into his bookcase. A shelf snapped beneath the weight of his muscular shoulder, sending a pile of sci-fi DVDs spilling to the floor.
He leaned heavily against the bookcase’s remains and waited for the shaking to lessen. Then he flung open the door into the hallway, where emergency lights illuminated the oscillating stairs. He piled down and out to the narrow road—more of an alley than an avenue—that soon swarmed with others struggling from their apartment entryways. The cold air awakened his shaved scalp. Suddenly, the shaking resumed at full force, and he spread his feet as if bracing for a fight.
A final powerful tremor sent a “whoa” through the crowd. With a whoosh and a crash, sections of siding slid from the wooden walls of the building across the road, crushing a bumbling little man and leaving behind a sobbing old woman.
The ground slowly stopped quaking. More people poured out of Mikey’s building and the one remaining entryway of the building across the road. Innumerable sirens sounded in every direction. Dust choked the air, with the smell of torn wood, sulfur and powdered sheetrock.
After long and fiddly and fruitless attempts to send text messages, people began filtering back into the two buildings. Mikey surveyed the devastation within his apartment using his smartphone as a flashlight. He found that the rest of his bookcase had dumped its remaining load of DVDs onto his couch—but no major harm done.
He tossed the bookcase off the couch with one heave from his right arm, then looked out the window as he turned to lie down again. He saw that some of the crowd remained chattering on the asphalt. A few smoked or continued to diddle with their phones. The week had been dry, at least in Salem, but the night was crisp and windy. A few wrapped themselves in blankets. They pointed at the apartment building across the street, apparently questioning whether they should go back inside even though part of the wall had collapsed. Mikey placidly laid back and became one with the couch.
A second mighty whoosh some minutes later answered their question. Fire ripped open the building, showering the screaming crowd with shreds of wood and sheetrock.
Mikey sat up sharply and saw the fire consuming the building from a point in its base directly across from his gaping window. He equipped himself with boots and pants and smartphone and recharger and wallet, then launched his body a second time down the stairs. Piercing heat drove the crowd down the street, away from the fire as it rapidly ascended to higher floors. The flames licked outward and embers landed on nearby buildings. The sirens arrived, but too late.
And that is how Mikey found himself in need of safe shelter. This one was survivable, as far as shelters go: an elementary school gymnasium, littered with 96 folding aluminum beds spaced one foot apart, whose green fabric and polyester blue blankets had nearly the shape and comfort of ambulance stretchers. While a steady stream of rain poured over Esther’s tent on the coast that week, a steady stream of clothing, medicine, sandwiches and drinks arrived in Mikey’s shelter.
He nabbed a bed at the end of a row (after literally cutting in front of a bald little man to sit on the bed), so that he had an aisle on one side and only one near neighbor, a thirty-something named Mandy. When he saw her, his first impression was that she had the nicest body of anybody in the shelter, despite a broken arm. Her shirt’s color accentuated her ponytailed brown hair and dark skin at least as well as its neckline accentuated her feminine curves.
But as the week wore on, Mikey realized that his favorite thing about Mandy wasn’t her body but her ability to carry on a conversation. She was only a few years older than Mikey but knew far more about literature than anybody had a right to know.
Late in that first week, after he debated her about whether sci-fi movies or books were better for changing people’s way of thinking, she encouraged him, “You might enjoy investigating design fiction.”
“It’s the use of prototypes to inspire progress.” She studied Mikey’s interested but puzzled face. “Think of it in the following manner. You are a bouncer for a nightclub, correct?” He nodded. “So let us suppose that you wanted to start a new type of club, perhaps a different ambiance for a specific clientele. You would need to find investment and a management team, correct?”
“How would you convince others to support your endeavor?”
He pondered for a while. “I guess I’d bring them to the building and show them around.”
“But suppose that such a building does not yet exist. Your new club is too daring, too novel.”
“Then, I don’t know, I guess I’d draw a picture or tell a story.”
“Precisely,” she nodded. “That, in a nutshell, is the notion behind design fiction: you create a fictionalized prototype enabling your audience to visualize your notion, to understand its benefits and its requirements.”
“Like a light saber—everybody knows it’s fake, but we can all imagine it because we can see it.”
“Correct, but design fiction usually has the express purpose of provoking other people to overcome an impasse and create some aspect of the reality that the design fiction portrays.”
He nodded, but then paused and asked, “What impasse?”
“Any impasse: technological, social, political. It could be an intellectually-demanding technological challenge. It could be the self-absorbed complacency of our generation. It could be the power-obsession of the generation that controls society. In each case, to induce thoughtful, intentional change.”
“Huh,” he thought. He looked into the crowd of milling humanity splayed out on their shelter beds. “You can’t make it too far out, or nobody will lift a finger. Like, everybody wants a light saber, but who’s going to actually take the time to try and actually invent one when they get home from the movie?”
“Design fiction is still a young genre, a work in progress. It probably will have more impact once it fine-tunes the interface between fictionalized future and present reality. And, as I meant to imply, there is design fiction literature, in addition to movies.”
“Well, when a library opens again, maybe I’ll try out a book, though movies are usually my style.”
But they both had heard through the crowd that the neighborhood library partially collapsed during the quake. Mandy replied, “That might not be for some time.”
At that moment, all the phones in the shelter buzzed and vibrated. Mikey scrolled through his messages and replied to each. He also fired off a text to his little cousin…
Mikey did not receive a reply from Esther for another few days, when texting returned to the coast. That was after he had been in the shelter for just over a week, on the day that two religious groups held services in the shelter, including one led by a rabbi. Mikey and Mandy watched with moderate interest. Afterward, she recounted a story involving some sort of Jewish robot from a future where everybody was a cyborg.
“Why would anybody want to invent one of those?” Mikey asked. “Jewish cyborgs sound like a stupid idea.”
“Try not to think of it as a good idea or a bad idea. Think of it as a possible future,” she advised. “Remember, the point of the story is to provoke imagination, to stimulate thoughtful action, to drive an effort rather than a specific solution. The story is never telling you how to live or what choices to make. It simply helps you imagine a future so you can be wiser about the one that you choose to create.”
Mikey didn’t see himself choosing to become a cyborg any time soon. He had already mentally tuned Mandy out as he scrolled through his text messages and read Esther’s reply. His fingers started jabbing a response, explaining that his apartment had burned down and that he was in the shelter.
It was late the next afternoon that Esther had arrived by helicopter, hovered and looked down upon the capitol’s fallen statue, and then landed on the lawn of the borrowed university building that served as temporary capitol.
She was an aide in a Caucus Office in the House of the state legislature. The Caucus Offices of a legislature are like policy greenhouses. Ideas for laws germinate in the offices, often based on conversations with constituents. But even the best idea starts weak. It needs feeding and watering with information from more citizens and interest groups. Over time, the idea develops into an actual bill that a legislator introduces into the House or the Senate. The legislature has four Caucus Offices—one for each party in each chamber.
Esther’s official title was “Special Assistant to the Majority Leader,” but a more accurate description would have been “Finder of Fertilizer to Feed Legislative Ideas.” Every day of a legislative session, she scanned the web, constituents’ letters, data sets, email and phone, searching for information to support pending bills. Her biggest accomplishment in the short 2018 session last year was to find a one-eyed, one-armed, under-nourished veteran to testify in committee about how a pending bill would put food on his table. His gaunt eyes and his coached story quickly won the hearts of every committee member. When the bill came up for final reading and debate, she fed legislators facts and factoids about other veterans facing similar situations, and the party’s speeches on the floor blossomed with florid visions of a better future.
But as Esther left behind the helicopter and walked through the waning sun into the temporary capitol, she felt unready and out of place. The borrowed space fit the occupying government like a pantsuit on a gorilla. The aides of all four Caucus Offices were crammed into a dozen desks around the central lobby of the first floor, and an unnerving babble of discussion overflowed the room. Neither political party’s staff had any privacy from the other. The university building’s walkways offered shining glass walls, many now cracked, for whiteboarding by students and faculty (who were still on holiday break, and would likely remain away from campus for many months). Each Caucus Office had scribbled notes near their sections of the central lobby, with no means of hiding notes from the other side.
The House met in an auditorium on one end of the hall, the Senate in a conference room on the other. Blistering rhetoric gushed from their rooms, echoing off the steel and glass of the lobby, adding to the cacophony. Classrooms on the building’s second and third floors were allocated for hearings. Governor Highland had moved into an office on the third floor. Human Resources, committee services and other support groups had crammed into smaller offices and classrooms around the building.
Thankfully, Esther did not have to endure the noise for long. One of the senior aides in her office, Matt, strode over and gave her a hug. He was tall and his body surprisingly warm—Esther hadn’t realized how cold the helicopter flight had been.
“Sorry I’m underdressed,” she said as they parted and she gestured at her jeans. She actually felt more insecure about not having showered for a week, but she didn’t want to mention it.
“No problem. Everybody is informal right now.” He didn’t look it. He wore obviously pressed khakis and a collared dress shirt—the same powder blue that he habitually sported—and a deep blue tie with small compass symbols scattered about. Only nine years older than Esther, his deep voice and wide shoulders carried nearly the gravitas of a man twice his age. “Where are you staying?”
“I’m not sure. My cousin’s apartment burned down.”
“My apartment, too. I’m staying with Dr. Adams. So is Phillips.” Senator Gertrude Phillips, who hailed from Portland, was the Senate Majority Leader and a long-time ally of House Majority Leader Adams. “There’s an extra room.” He texted Dr. Adams, who replied from the Senate’s borrowed meeting room. “We’re set. Since it’s so late, let’s just call it a day. I’ll show you the way.”
He led Esther along a tree-lined street. Hammers and nailguns sounded in the distance, but most houses already had their windows boarded up or replaced. A few homes had collapsed—and debris clearly needed clearing—but none had burned. The low level of destruction puzzled Esther. From the air, the city had appeared decimated.
She was about to ask about it when a state police cruiser turned from a sidestreet and pulled up beside them, counter to their orientation, on the wrong side of the road. The driver, a worried-looking man, looked them over and said, “Good evening. Can I help you folks?”
Matt replied, “No, thank you, officer. We’re fine.”
“Have a good evening,” the officer smoothly returned, as if following a script. They walked forward and Esther glanced back. The car hadn’t moved, and the cop was watching them in his driver-side mirror. They walked silently past another few houses, and Matt let them into a house with a key. He showed her to the finished basement and left her to get settled. Esther treasured the next twenty minutes in a hot, satisfying shower. And Mrs. Adams dropped off a fresh outfit, including a warm sweater.
When Dr. Adams arrived home, his dry sagging face broke into a broad smile from one curly white sideburn to the other, and he gave Esther a hearty hug against his charcoal gray suit, which smelled of fennel-laced cologne. But creases soon returned to his forehead, and everybody reverted to professionalism over dinner.
Esther sat beside Senator Phillips, who reminded Esther of her grandma, and of her mom: steely, gray in form but not in spirit, capable of fine sharpening and always ready to press a point. Esther’s grandma had driven her grandpa to an early death. At least her mom had only gotten rid of Esther’s father, not given him a stroke. Likewise, Phillips had the uncanny ability of making senators wish they served in the House, or perhaps that they could avoid the capitol altogether and just move their offices to the roof.
At the senator’s instigation, the conversation focused on the Senate strategy for passing a bill that had cleared the House earlier in the week. She read from her smartphone a list of senators who had committed to the bill, holding her horn-rim glasses in the other hand, swishing them with varying intensity in rough proportion to the level with which each named senator supported the bill.
She soon turned to those in the party that might or might not support the bill. “And now the maybes. Murphy is almost there, but she’s been holding her hat out for something in exchange, probably subsidies for video game startups in Eugene. Beggar.” She wrinkled her nose and smoothed back her gray hair. “Then there’s McMillan. He’d ordinarily be a definite, but I heard he collaborated over the interim on a bond idea with the Minority Leader.”
As Senate Majority Leader Phillips droned on about other “possible traitors” and “quislings,” Esther whispered to Matt, asking about the bill. He leaned over and explained back, “It gives the governor one year of emergency authority, including authorization to lend the state’s credit on the Assembly’s behalf. The cities are desperate. Their credit ratings crashed because the ratings agencies don’t think they’ll recover.” Matt paused to think. “Which is probably true, if they can’t borrow money for rebuilding. Catch 22.”
The House had rammed this credit-authorization bill through committee and the floor in record time. It was ready for the Senate. The disaster allowed each chamber to conduct business with a reduced quorum, and the party of the Governor and the Majority Leaders was well-represented. Those from more distant districts were still in transit.
Over a bottle of dessert wine, everybody agreed that they probably could call in enough favors to pass the bill in the Senate without needing any amendments to appease colleagues—if they acted quickly to vote before the minority party’s representatives could arrive at the capitol.
Esther briefly considered playing her video game after dinner, but the exhaustion of the day persuaded her to slip into bed at the first opportunity.
After a week in a tent, she had every right to a good night’s sleep. But her mind cheated itself. At first she slept alone in the basement. Suddenly, she became aware that the man with a handgun and a flashlight was with her. He had driven his hummer over the landslides in the mountains and followed her to Salem. In her dream, she searched the basement to find him, but he was crafty and always managed to stay one step ahead, moving from one hiding spot to another. She knew he lurked somewhere in the night.
She woke in a sweat, heart racing. Laying in the dark, she realized that she had dreamt the danger, but upon further reflection, she became irritated that the two men had gotten to the Cannon Beach emergency supply facility after the quake before the police did, and that led to wondering about why the police officer had stopped to chat during her walk with Matt. She did not return to sleep, and she felt drained by the time she plodded back to the temporary capitol.
When Esther settled into a desk across from Matt, he handed her an ugly black laptop with rubber sides. “This can get on the web. It talks to another FEMA computer that goes to a satellite. We don’t have enough computers to go around, but you can use this one to find nuggets for Dr. Adams’s next bill, at least until somebody else needs to borrow it.”
“Nuggets” was Matt’s term for testimonials, statistics and other information they could use for winning legislative votes. They were the fertilizer that Esther fed to pending bills, making them strong. As a young but popular marketing and advertising consultant in Eugene during the interim between sessions, Matt had an uncanny sense for what qualified as a good nugget. Over her two biennia working with him, Esther had absorbed much of that sense from him.
Esther took the laptop. It felt old and heavy. “What’s the bill?”
“It’s about the kicker.” The “kicker” referred to money left over at the end of a standard two-year budget cycle. The state normally had to refund most of it to the citizens. “It turns out they can spend the kicker Constitutionally when we’re in emergency session.”
“So Dr. Adams wants options,” Esther guessed.
Matt nodded. “I’ll get in touch with every member I can to brainstorm ideas. You’re in charge of finding nuggets for the ideas. The intranet is still broken, so save them on this.” He gave her a thumb drive, and continued, “It’s also got most of the software we usually use—the FEMA computers are pretty basic.”
Finally he left her with a sheet listing preliminary ideas to investigate. The first few had to do with sending supplies or other relief to cities. Esther decided to start by building a case that the cities needed help. She discovered many websites for Oregon newspapers had not yet come back online. However, she slowly started to accumulate notes about the devastation from national news services.
The quake was a 9.0, and the tsunami crested at over 80 feet. The entire fault had ruptured, from southern Oregon all the way to Vancouver, devastating hundreds of towns and cities. Then, the tsunami had moved in. The waves scrubbed Seaside bare, and at least a thousand people died. The swelling tide also washed out the hearts of the state’s bay cities—Newport, Depot Bay, North Bend, Coos Bay, Tillamook’s outlying areas—and also Astoria and Warrenton, tucked in the north against the Columbia River. Survivors fled to the cliffs overlooking the bays. Esther took notes on which places’ victims might have the most compelling testimony for committee, if there were a way to get them to Salem.
That, however, would prove a problem. Landslides and bridge collapses had indeed cut off the highways through the Coastal Range, as the helicopter co-pilot said. Even travel in the rest of the state was limited. The quake had damaged the terminal in Portland where most of the state’s gasoline arrived from Washington. The leak led to a fire on land and water, as well as a minor fuel shortage. This quickly became a major shortage when texting started to work again: hearing the news, gasoline hoarding accelerated as people immediately drove to gas stations and filled up. They drained every gas station with electricity within hours. The governor responded by banning all non-essential travel, giving stations time to resupply as trucks gradually arrived with more fuel.
Looting and arson broke out, even from the very first night after the quake. The nightly devastation continued and expanded, despite the governor’s ban on nonessential travel.
The coastal cities’ credit ratings fell to “junk,” matching the status of the cities themselves. Pull quotes in news articles catastrophized the cities’ plight. “We’re looking at total devastation,” “Without a lifeline, Coos Bay is sunk,” and “Astoria will never be the same.” Esther noted that portraying the cities as hopeless causes would not help them. For the purpose of passing a bill, they would need to be safe investments, but only with the state’s help.
Esther’s eyes glazed over, and she remembered her neighborhood’s roads abounding with waterlogged vehicles—an expensive mess. Her thoughts turned to the shattered bridge in Cannon Beach—another expensive mess. Then her mind fully returned to the hour of the quake, and she was there again. Her eyes teared, and her fingers stopped working the keyboard. Her body tensed as she saw a solitary yellow raincoat bobbing along the bridge in the dark, a hand reaching to a child below. She knew the gloom of dark broad seas would soon sweep the small bodies from the bridge’s remains. But the tsunami siren howled through her brain. She could not save them and she turned and she abandoned them and she ran with the herd. She ran like a sheep, like a panicked beast. She ran through the salt spray to the overpass in her mind, to the hill, to the highway. Her mind pivoted to the man with the gun and the red hummer in the green woods. She fled again in her mind, and although her body remained riveted to the chair in a battered university in Salem, her very skin felt again the cold rain seeping through her pajamas as she mentally huddled against an RV’s tire. The aftershock of her mind jostled the RV, and the crippled awning swayed above her head, and she prepared to leap from beneath it in case it fell.
Matt snapped her to attention as his tall body appeared on the other side of the desk. He handed her another handwritten list of ideas from legislators. She focused back in the moment, wiped the tears from her eyes, and scanned the list. The ideas obviously were a potpourri of pet projects: subsidizing marijuana dispensaries to stimulate business and “juice” the economy, extending the greenbelt that partially encircled Portland, delaying a mandate for all cars to start carrying mileage-tracking devices (part of a new per-mile transportation tax), and increasing train service along the I-5 corridor.
But she dutifully sought nuggets to support the legislators’ ideas. She managed to get back in the zone, and she mostly stayed there despite an aftershock strong enough to send the staff dashing to the lawn. Finally, by the late afternoon, she became a blur of web sites, handwritten notes and spreadsheets. Esther settled into her element. Her fingers were fast, her mind was faster. She always had been a human search engine, able to digest large documents and identify valuable details. She reminded herself to keep a grip on her emotions, not to think too much about last week.
The dinner discussion was lively, even if the food was not. Several senators joined them for potatoes and greens. The local grocery store remained closed, but three bottles of wine and a vicious discussion dissecting Senate politics made up for the absence of red meat. The topic de jour was the bill authorizing the governor to lend credit, which had survived committee without amendment and would go to a vote in the Senate.
Phillips wagged her fork in her hand, as if conducting a musical conversation. She turned to look one of the other diners in the eye. “Excluding Murphy, we have only a margin of one vote. Travis, I want you riding McMillan hard.” Senator Travis Courtlin’s job as Senate Majority Whip was to force legislators to follow the will of the party.
Courtlin nodded. “I’ll tell McMillan the President will move him to Judiciary in a heartbeat if he so much as opens his mouth.” He smirked. The Judiciary Committee was far less influential and prestigious than the Finance and Revenue Committee, where McMillan currently held a seat.
Another senator at the table asked, “So Murphy is already lost?”
Phillips frowned. “She tried to attach a rider directing funds to the educational media industry. I told her no, and she replied that she ‘might need to make a quick trip out of town,’ meaning she would miss the vote.” She set down her fork, took a sip of wine, and resumed pontificating. “We don’t need her. A: She was clearly thinking about video game companies in her district that have nothing to do with education, which we’ve already discussed, repeatedly. B: If the governor gets a clean bill, she said that she won’t veto us when we spend the kicker.”
“Win-win,” Courtlin agreed.
“Win-win. I can drink to that,” Phillips smiled. She raised her wine. “A toast: to win-win.” The glasses tinkled.
The next morning, Esther lugged a hangover and memories of heavy dreams through piercing sunlight to the temporary capitol. But she found the lobby had become an unusable din. A contingent of senators from distant districts had arrived overnight. Representing the other party, they were hopping mad about the credit-authorization bill. Throughout the lobby, members launched impromptu debates of the pending bill, which soon spilled over into whether and how to spend the kicker in future bills. Loud voices, arguments and actual yelling competed for oxygen. Most of the aides had fled to nearby university buildings.
But Esther needed proximity to the FEMA Wi-Fi connection for nugget-finding, so she had to stay in the building. She borrowed a laptop and retreated upstairs to the second floor, where she found a quiet cubicle far from the chaos. An opening built into the space between the second and third floors showered her with light from a skylight in the roof far above. The building’s glass and brushed aluminum sparkled in the sun. She soon fixated on finding nuggets.
Later, a quorum call drew the senators in for the first reading of the credit-authorization bill, and the noise below fell further. Most staff on all three floors had left for lunch, and Esther’s area became so silent that she suddenly noticed that she could hear the governor talking on the phone above. No, not a phone, Esther realized. Although texting had become reliable, the phones were still out. Highland had a radio, possibly patched into remnants of the phone network, and she was speaking to a mayor.
In her usual husky, almost-masculine voice, the governor said, “Yes, electronic transfers are up. We can send funds now.” Esther couldn’t make out the reply. “No, tell them you don’t have to pay for those. We can get new bulldozers and trucks to Beaverton by tomorrow.” More garbled reply. “I know the old ones were vandalized. I am assured that the patrols will increase. We have plenty of state police to send.” A long murmuring pause followed. “Right. Lunch on Wednesday. Thank you, Andy.”
Silence flooded the area, and Esther resumed her task—but suddenly halted.
The mayor of Beaverton was named Wendy, not Andy. The governor had not been talking with the mayor of Beaverton. Esther sifted through her memories and the web for a few minutes and realized that “Andy” probably referred to an executive at a large Beaverton company—and one of the governor’s biggest campaign donors, if Esther remembered correctly.
She also realized that she hadn’t seen many bulldozers in the city from the helicopter, only one or maybe two shoving wood and brick around in one part of the city. Most neighborhoods had been utterly shattered by the triple threat of quake, looting and arson.
How could the governor offer bulldozers, or “increased patrols” for that matter? Esther fired off a few more web searches and confirmed that the Oregon National Guard and the Department of Corrections both managed state-owned heavy construction equipment, but a lack of land-moving equipment held up debris removal on the highways through the mountains, and also in some cities. Crime in the many locations had gotten entirely out of control—the police presence in most locations seemed far from adequate, and public safety had suffered.
So soon after the quake—just under two weeks—a city could reasonably expect a National Guard presence, search and rescue missions, deployment of state police, and delivery of medical and survival supplies. Debris removal would only just be starting in many areas, though not yet in others. That the governor even offered bulldozers and trucks was puzzling, and that she would offer them under the current shortage was surprising. How was Highland able to make such a magnanimous offer? Was it geography?
Inspired, Esther searched the web for mentions of “Oregon” and “recovery,” scanned the articles for cities, and sorted them based on their apparent progress since the quake. But their success at rescuing people, re-establishing safety and clearing rubble had no obvious relationship to geographical distribution. Even some cities on the coast were stable, while for several far inland—hit with only the quake—Esther could find no evidence of state involvement in search and rescue, nor in curtailment of looting. And three Portland suburbs struggled, yet newspapers displayed photos of progress in other suburbs, complete with National Guard earth-movers.
The morning had evaporated, and support staff streamed through the second floor down, out for lunch. Esther pivoted in her chair, laptop in her lap turned with the screen away from potentially curious eyes.
Rubbing her forehead, but remembering the mention of Andy and feeling inspired, she did a second search, this time for cities associated with “Highland” and “fundraiser.” She sorted a new list of cities according to how aggressively their mayors and big businesses supported the governor’s election. The list was not identical to her first, but the resemblance was uncanny. A piercing thought, like a shaft of sunlight, snapped through Esther’s mind: the governor was using state resources to make certain mayors look good and to protect specific donors’ business interests.
A few texts with Matt confirmed that he, too, believed earth-moving equipment and police forces were in short supply. He pointed out that the governor was not bound by the legislatively-approved budget during emergencies: she could Constitutionally spend existing funds as much as she wanted on anything she wanted.
Suddenly, Esther realized that once the credit-authorization bill passed the Senate, the governor could also start lending credit to her campaign supporters. The lawyers who helped to draft the bill in the House had suggested tight limits, but the governor was of the same party as the House leadership, who opted to trust the governor’s discretion and provided tens of billions of dollars in authorization instead. Nor did the bill specifically restrict lending to municipalities. She could issue credit to any company or individual that she wanted. The sky would be the limit.
Whenever Esther had a question about sketchy situations, she always knew whom to ask. “Mikey, got a puzzle for you” she texted.
“Cool, need some fun. Mind numbing here.”
“I think the gov is playing favs w her donors”
“What else is new?”
She replied, “No, I mean big time. Like not even sending search and rescue teams and state police except to donors’ cities. How to get her to stop?”
A moment passed and a reply vibrated in her hand, but Esther shoved the phone in her pocket as the governor suddenly strode past the cubicle in a flowing auburn dress, headed down to the first floor. “Getting some lunch?” she asked Esther, who shook her head. Highland continued past, her perfume leaving a wake of cinnamon aroma.
Esther swallowed a lump of anxiety in her throat, then slipped the phone back out. Mikey had written, “Put it on the front page. You know journalists. Do what you do.”
She acknowledged and swallowed again and fingered the laptop. Journalists might take an interest in the governor handing out cash and credit to companies. She could leak the information. But she couldn’t let her legislator know that she had leaked: he was one of the governor’s allies. And her own phone still couldn’t get on the web. If she used the FEMA laptop and got caught, she could get fired and thrown into jail... a fate worse than a National Guard tent.
She felt unready to act. Rather than reply to Mikey, she turned back to the business of gathering nuggets for the kicker bill—a bill that she now recognized was merely a diversionary tactic, a tool to keep the Assembly distracted and pliable so the credit authorization could sail through. And, she knew in her heart, that authorization would give the governor the power to destroy Oregon.
Mikey was also having a challenging day. That morning, he heard of the club’s coup de grace from Curt, a happy-go-lucky bartender from work who texted him. “It’s gone, Mikey. Cappy is shutting it down.” Cappy was the club owner.
“Fire. w all the spilled drinks, it prolly went up like a torch.”
Mikey doubted one was related to the other. “OK” was all he replied. Money would be a problem, but he had no interest in discussing it with Curt. Although he was a good guy, Curt was young and not much of a problem-solver.
Laying on his cot, Mikey turned the problem over in his mind. He had been bouncing at the club since he was 22—eight years, no new skills. Well, except for fighting. He had gotten good at that. But he had no ideas for how to get a job fighting. It would take a while to find work. He’d be unemployed.
He turned to Mandy, who was busy writing in a journal balanced on her lap. “Mandy, do you know anything about unemployment?”
“Yes, of course. Unemployment was difficult, but I got through it for a time after I managed a book store. Traffic was low, and the web”—
Mikey cut her off. —“No, I mean unemployment money. From the government.”
She nodded and closed her book. “Ordinarily, you just make a phone call, but I suppose you could complete the paperwork in person. Within a few weeks, if you are not re-employed, funds will begin to arrive in your checking account.”
Mikey smiled. “Free money.”
“Hardly!” Mandy replied. “You must search for work while collecting unemployment. Otherwise, you are breaking the law.”
“Huh. Ok, but easier said than done.”
Later that morning, after his text exchange with Esther about the governor’s funny business, he walked to the capitol. He had previously stepped out of the shelter only once, to visit a grocery store, but it remained closed. And the city had worsened since. Looters and arsonists had hit the neighborhoods hard: Blackened homes dotted the road, and every storefront was a gutted corpse, retail innards spilled onto the sidewalk. The air smelled of soot and burned plastic.
The scene suddenly changed when he neared the capitol. The building had missing windows and maybe a lopsided top, but no nearby buildings had burned. Four police cruisers sat with their lights flashing, sirens off, monitoring the area. The state had evidently put the screws on the city for backup, because two of the cruisers were city-owned. Mikey saw with his own eyes what Esther had described, the governor’s preferential treatment playing out in real-time. One officer emerged and walked over to Mikey.
“Can I help you, sir,” he stated, one hand on his gun belt.
Mikey frowned as he looked down at the little man. “I’m looking for the unemployment agency.”
“It’s on Union Street.” He pointed north. He waited for Mikey to thank him and walk away from the capitol before returning to his car.
Mikey spent an hour finding the right building. The first one he located was the wrong unemployment building, and closed, but the sign at the door gave him the phone number and address of another office, which was of minimal use because the phones were still not working. So he walked to the other building address, which also turned out not to be the right building, but at least a uniformed guard there knew the right building, which he reached with two hours to spare before closing—just enough time to stand in line and file the necessary forms. To his delight, the mealy-skinned old woman at the desk told him that once the state confirmed his eligibility, he could start collecting unemployment even without looking for a job, due to the natural disaster.
The sun set as he walked back to the shelter. A skinny teenager smoking on a street corner showed too much interest as Mikey strode by. His eyes examined Mikey, who felt his fists clench. He had broken up plenty of fights at the club and could easily beat the daylights out of a single kid if necessary. But he was unsure if the teen might have a weapon.
At that moment, an aftershock shook the street. Its growl rippled through the air, and a small office building rattled to Mikey’s right. He facetiously wondered what, if anything, could be left in it to rattle: all its windows had already broken, the door hung open, and a half-burned chair sat in the bushes.
The teen had vanished when Mikey looked back after the shaking. He hurried along, his street smarts keenly aware that the kid could be hiding somewhere, ready to attack with a knife or gun—or, worse, meeting up with allies to jump Mikey as a group. Fighter or not, Mikey had seen enough to know the best fight was the one that you never had to win. He decided that he would try to minimize his trips out of the shelter. Going outside was an unnecessary risk.
By the end of the second week, the gymnasium filled to over-capacity. Some survivors slept on thin white mattresses in the main hallway. Children romped in the side hallway adjacent to Mikey’s bed, their shrill shouts and squeals overflowing the space.
But the worst part was the stench. Volunteers handed out alcohol wipes, but it was not enough. The elementary school had no showers. And although the toilets worked, their heavy use transformed the restrooms into an excretory nightmare.
Mikey let out a healthy grunt as he sank into his bed after one trip to the toilet. Mandy calmly looked up from her hardcover, “The Essays of Orwell and Huxley.” “These people,” he expanded. She raised one eyebrow, quizzically. He continued, “They can see there’s crap in the can. We can all see there’s crap in the can. It’s plain as day. So why the hell doesn’t somebody flush it?”
She nodded understanding, voiced one word—“Complacency.” He raised his eyebrows. She elaborated, “They are satisfied with living in filth, with little aspiration for more.” She submerged herself back in her book.
Mikey gave up the unsanitary chore of shaving, and his head sprouted little patches of black fuzz. He hated it—its feel amplified the sensation of filth. By the third week, the inmates hung tarps between the school and nearby telephone poles, so they could shower whenever the sullen January skies intermittently drizzled.
As the month wore on, Esther continued seeking nuggets to feed ideas for spending the kicker. She also tracked the news and, reading between the lines, watched the governor’s preferential treatment manifest throughout the state. Stories told of intensifying shooting among gangs. The National Guard withdrew from some South Coast towns to join the fight with criminals in North Bend, where one of the governor’s long-standing political allies ran one of the state’s most profitable oyster farms. Virtually all state resources—from state police to school district funding—evaporated from most cities in the east and went to targeted areas of the Willamette Valley.
Meanwhile, in the Senate, her party waged a war to pass the credit-authorization bill. The senators’ over-crowded meeting room stank of sweat and coffee breath, so they opened their door to the lobby for air. Their indignant voices filtered out into the lobby, anger dripping from every word. Esther cherished the cubicle that she had found on the second floor—she told Matt about it but asked him not to advertise it, so that the area wouldn’t get crowded and noisy.
She imagined her counterparts in her party’s Senate Caucus Office were working overtime to support the credit-authorization bill. They needed to portray the cities as desperate. They would find the obligatory story about a child or elderly person dying of some horrible but entirely avoidable condition—homelessness, malnutrition, fatherlessness—to tug at the heart strings and maybe win over a vote or two.
But fearing the arrival of more senators, her party in the end passed the bill the old fashioned way: they bought it. A corporate bigwig friend of Phillips made a call to a weak-kneed member of the other party, expressing support for the bill. And they bought McMillan and Murphy with promises of first dibs on the kicker money. The bill passed in a heartbeat.
But her party’s success only amplified Esther’s anxiety. She found herself distracted, unable to focus even on playing her favorite video game. She never managed to sleep soundly. The slightest sound—even the barest trickle of water off the gutters onto the ground outside the basement—sparked dreams of floods. She woke and stared open-eyed at the basement ceiling. As each night wore on, her mind alternated between memories of the tent city and worries about the governor, like a wave slowly growing with each oscillation. Her fatigue slowed her research, and the trudge to work seemed heavy. She felt complicit.
“Mikey, I’m losing my mind,” she eventually texted. “I have to do something.”
“You’re losing your mind? I’m cooped in a shelter and you’re losing your mind?”
“Why not go out?”
“I do. Sometimes. But your neighborhood is the only one w cops. It’s not safe.”
“Sucks. Sry bro.”
“Look, the world is going to crap. You have info but not the guts to use it.” Her languid fingers began to type a response when Mikey continued, “SO if we all end up living in fema tents, it’s on you.”
Her mind briefly slipped into an olive tent on the wet grass of the RV park. He was right. She couldn’t not do something. She was an analytical woman. She had a bright mind and a bright future. She knew how to steer clear of conflict. But she was exhausted, so dream-tormented and sleep-deprived that she had no defenses against the demands of the moment.
Maybe she could do this quietly, without drawing much attention to herself.
Esther brought up an email website where she created a fake address called “highland-observer.” She addressed a message to several dozen journalists with whom she regularly corresponded. She wrote a one-page summary of what she had learned, including her lists of cities. She enumerated the ways that the governor’s preferential treatment may have impacted communities in the weeks since the quake. She noted that Highland had only extended a small fraction of the credit authorized by the legislature, and she noted that the rest could be provided to corporations. When she hit “send,” she shuddered and then sat still for a moment. She briefly had a mental vision of a police officer carting her off, with all her fellow aides watching. A second shudder flushed through her like an aftershock.
Boredom suffused Mikey’s life. Texting with Esther provided some relief, but only for short bursts. Even the aftershocks bored him—the shelter staff told everyone to stay in place and not to panic.
Many shelter residents sat playing games or listening to music on their phones. Their eyes glazed over. Some children did the same while others played increasingly violent games in the side hallway. They frequently hurt one another, either intentionally or accidentally as they cavorted, triggering an eruption of screams and tears. Their oily smell became strong enough to taste.
Mikey quickly grew tired of the tedious apps that he had installed on his phone. He wished he could download others. Even more so, he wished that he could rent a movie for his phone or surf the web.
He texted his family in Newport, and they regaled him with tales of crowded shelters and shattered neighborhoods. Mikey grew tired of their stories. If he wanted to see devastation, he could just walk down the street.
Mikey even tried passing time by brainstorming how to find work. He was getting unemployment, free food and free shelter, but he felt directionless. Who would give him a job? Intimidation was Mikey’s only people skill. Maybe a security company? He could imagine working for one, but it sounded more boring than unemployment—and a lot more boring than working for the club.
He lost his taste for food. His mouth was dry. He spent more time sleeping, even during the day and meal times. He wadded toilet tissue into his ears to stifle the children’s shouts. Talking with Mandy had become dull. Once, during a tale of prosecuting a shoplifter who had robbed the bookstore that she managed years ago, he simply rolled over onto his side and slipped into sleep. Mandy stared, open-mouthed, and then shut up.
Another week passed. The first thing Esther did each day after picking up a laptop was to check her fake email address, but she saw no replies. Meanwhile, she regained momentum searching for nuggets to support a stream of exceptionally random kicker ideas (a steampunk art festival to spur the economy, RV parks to house people after leaving the shelters, and a grant for new video games to “edutain” K-12 children). Public safety continued to collapse.
Finally, a journalist replied that her story might merit a note in a larger article. But, he cautioned, she would need more details to support her claims. Her stomach tightened, and she turned to her oracle. “Mikey, it’s not working. They want more detail,” she texted.
“So get it,” he answered.
“You’re the smart one. Get some data. Figure it out.”
Esther didn’t feel very smart, working on so little sleep. But she ransacked her addled mind. As she had seen from articles on the web, public safety had collapsed except in cities predominated by the governor’s allies. But on the other hand, not every travesty was necessarily Highland’s fault. Esther couldn’t claim that the governor had caused every single problem. That would be slander.
How could she know the truth? How could she know exactly which particular problems in which specific cities were the governor’s fault?
She would need more data. She didn’t necessarily need to leak that other data, perhaps. But she would need more data on what was really happening behind the scenes.
Where to get the data? The intranet was up again and accessible via the FEMA laptop, but she doubted that Governor Highland would be stupid enough to put any incriminating evidence on the intranet. But the governor also had a FEMA laptop. “Maybe she has some emails,” Esther suggested.
“So steal em.”
Esther shook her head. Stealing was probably nothing to him—he had done things and had had friends that Esther tried to know nothing about. She puffed her face in self-righteousness as she started to write back, “I’ve never stolen in my life,” but she deleted it when Ms. Faulkner’s jeans flashed into her mind. They had gone through the laundry, but she was still wearing them.
Esther was no Snowden. Hacking was not an option. Seeing no other choice, she began to watch for an opportunity to actually get her hands on the governor’s laptop. Esther continued to sit on the second floor so that she always could discern, via the opening to the third floor, whether the governor was in or out. But Governor Highland had an administrative assistant that sat nearby: Esther couldn’t easily enter or leave without detection. She bided her time.
January faded into February. Kicker bills entered committee. The other party had ideas for spending the kicker as well—tax breaks, corporate handouts, and various you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours incentive schemes—so Esther spent equal time finding nuggets to support her party and nuggets to block the other side. She sifted the web and worked the phone as service returned to the Willamette Valley and gradually to the rest of the state—or, at least, to the portions of the state that remained standing. Troutdale became the latest to burn in a paroxysm of arson. Its mayor had run against the governor in 2016.
Esther borrowed Matt’s pickup truck on the weekend to visit Mikey in the shelter. She reflexively raised a hand to her mouth and nose when she inhaled the odor of smelly beds and smellier people.
Mikey looked rough. His enormous round face sagged with worry, far too heavily for a man of only thirty.
“Hey, it’s my favorite cousin,” she said as she hugged him. His hug back was mechanical, and their conversation never really got off the ground. Within a few minutes, it was clear that he felt the need to blame somebody for his captivity and lack of direction.
“It’s like nobody is rebuilding out there. It’s not even safe to rebuild,” he said, waving his arm toward the door.
“Well, some areas are improving. We passed a bill authorizing the governor to extend credit, so things have started moving faster.” She knew she was insincere, and her eyes suddenly evaded Mikey’s even as she said it.
He knew too many liars and recognized the sign, and he was too angry to let it pass. “So you guys are just letting the governor do whatever she pleases,” he spat.
She stepped back, her face frozen. “Well,” she began.
“Well, nothing. You’re like some sort of false hero”—a term he had learned from Mandy—“with no real hero in sight.” Esther sharply drew in her breath. “Get your friggen act together.”
He turned and walked away, and Esther watched his broad back move toward the restroom. She lifted her arms, palms held upward, but her lungs refused the breath to reply.
Esther sighed and lowered her arms. She glanced at the brunette woman in the adjacent bed, who pretended to read a book that she held with her one good arm. Esther left the shelter. She did not return.
The tedious search for kicker nuggets dragged on through February and into March. At last, on the two-month anniversary of the quake, the first bill emerged from committee onto the House floor for its second reading.
Meanwhile, in the eight and a half weeks since the quake, twelve under-resourced towns and Astoria and Seaside had utterly collapsed: their downtown cores had been gutted by earth and water and fire, their local governments dissolved, their populations scattered. Troutdale and Ashland and Harbor and Tillamook and dozens of other cities and towns hung by a thread: starved of National Guard and state police protection, sapped financially by the costs of delivering relief to citizens, choked off from state funding for schools and other services. Other cities, flushed with cash and credit, brought in personnel, equipment and supplies by truck and plane. The governor had lent state credit so profligately that Oregon’s rating had slipped to junk status, and further borrowing could only come with high interest payments that the state could sorely afford.
Esther was not at all shocked by the damage Highland allowed and achieved in such a short time. When she was a child, her mom had a habit of comparing any government-made tragedy to the Holocaust—her father called it “Godwin’s law”—and had said the Nazis transported tens of thousands of Jews to concentration camps in a matter of weeks after Kristallnacht. They were the first of millions that the government eventually murdered. (Her mom’s lesson, and many like it, had motivated Esther to first intern and then work with the state legislature during and after community college.) By comparison, Highland had been sitting on her hands.
Days passed and another city’s downtown burned—Jacksonville—as Esther worked on the second floor and waited for an opportunity to get the governor’s emails.
A powerful aftershock broke the impasse. The building rocked, and glass from newly-replaced windows tinkled. Highland had already gone downstairs for a brief meeting, and her assistant bolted down the stairs. The rain-soaked lawn grew crowded as staffers poured out of the building.
As Esther sat in her shaking cubicle, her stomach leapt into her throat and her chest tightened, her mind filled with the memory of a lamp hitting her head and glass showering her bed. She thought she smelled salt and the building shuddered beneath her feet. Mikey’s words rang in her head.
Nearly staggering over the handrail, she clutched it and pulled herself up to the third floor, careening into the governor’s office. She scanned the governor’s room, saw nobody, felt the floor shift sharply beneath her feet, and braced herself against the desk. The laptop was open and logged in. Willing herself to focus, Esther brought up the email program, inserted the thumb drive that Matt had given her, and in less than a minute copied all emails since the quake. Then she escaped.
Esther reviewed the files in the dark basement that night. Most of it was useless. Many emails discussed plans for delivering legitimate aid. Others begged for the governor’s help, especially for struggling businesses. Another hot topic was how to get schools started again. Several emails discussed how private schools had already begun rebuilding while many public schools had not yet even been inspected. Squatters had become a problem, especially in the southwest corner of the state.
But she licked her lips as she reviewed many nuggets of the most exquisite quality: spreadsheets listing “high value” constituents, emails ordering direct transfers of money to said constituents’ municipalities and major corporations, maps reporting on the allocation of heavy equipment and state police and National Guard to the same, threats to the Portland and Salem mayors if they failed to “play ball” and allocate resources likewise, emails brushing off the chaos in towns run by recalcitrant mayors, and drafts of press releases that announced the lending of state credit with glowing quotes from all concerned.
She was surprised to see that her speculation was wrong on one point. Highland had manipulated allocation of personnel and physical resources in every way imaginable, and she had handed out copious quantities of cash, but she had not yet lent credit to any companies (just cities). Esther chuckled softly. Perhaps the governor had some scruples after all.
The next day, nursing a coffee in her cubicle, Esther pondered how to proceed. She knew of no laws against leaking the files. But she wasn’t sure. Besides, redacting private data would be time-consuming. When Snowden leaked his treasure trove, he sent it to journalists to look over, and they in turn decided what to share with the public. It took months for the journalists to review everything, and Esther didn’t have months. And she wasn’t impressed with the lack of responsiveness to her earlier volley of emails.
So she decided to leak knowledge, rather than the actual emails and attachments that she had stolen. That way, the journalists would have the important information right at hand, with little need to review the raw files. In fact, if she restricted herself to claims that could be supported by publicly available information, then the journalists wouldn’t even need to review the raw files. She made a list of talking points based on the data and, for each claim, she searched the web for publicly available information to support her argument.
She made slow but steady progress: knowing the facts and then working backward to support them was far easier than the reverse problem that she had faced earlier (looking at the web and trying to figure out the truth).
For instance, one particularly sensational email exchange concretely revealed why crime had gotten out of control in most neighborhoods of Salem. Not only the state police, but also the city police, had spent all their resources guarding state facilities and a few select neighborhoods, including the one where the governor lived. Emails in hand, Esther knew for a fact that this was the result of a change in the policing strategy. Given these facts from the emails, she went online to the local newspapers, which tracked police reports, and it was trivial (but slow) to plot them on a map. The sharp contrast of this distribution versus an existing map showing historical crime data made the case that the authorities had clearly altered police presence since the quake. Linking the governor’s involvement proved more difficult without leaking the emails themselves, and Esther settled for a few quotes from a newspaper story to support the argument. She reassured herself that if anybody needed further proof, she could always leak the files themselves.
Lacking publicly available data, though, she had to drop some talking points. For example, one especially confrontational email by a landowner named Herb Goldstein demanded that the governor force Salem’s property assessors to cancel the property tax on a mall. Highland had replied, “Good to hear from you. Haven’t seen you since you stopped attending our fundraising dinners. I’d be happy to look into the assessment issue if I get a moment.” Although the email smelled fishy, Esther saw no way to link it with any narrative that threaded through publicly-visible data. Besides, it was Goldstein’s fault for not having bought enough earthquake insurance to cover all his malls. She dropped the line of inquiry.
Compiling these notes took weeks, in no small part because she had to continue making progress on finding nuggets for the kicker bill under debate on the House floor. Finally, though, she bundled her talking points into an email, including attachments and links to publicly-available data, and fired it off to her list of journalists.
But nobody replied—not that day, nor the next, nor even during the following week. Esther thought their silence was a crime of another sort. She slept worse each night. She took her anger out on the laptop by day, viciously stabbing the keys as she looked for data to support other peoples’ ideas.
Exhausted nearly to the point of tears, she finally texted Mikey. She apologized for not answering his texts and asked for help.
His words flashed on the screen. “Take it to the people.” She asked for clarification, but he did not reply.
Take it to which people? The “People?” Of Oregon? No, not all of them. Most cared little for the workings of government. Some were busy just surviving like animals in shelters. Others were dealing with the fallout of the quake, whether trying to put their lives back together or working to rebuild businesses and homes. But honestly, most were probably more upset that they couldn’t get to social media or play online video games than they were about bad governance. She pondered: who actually cares?
She thought about her own favorite video game, frowning that she had become too tired and busy to play. Now that she wasn’t using it, she felt like it was a bit of a waste of money. Not a lot of course, compared for instance to what some of the governor’s donors shelled out. But not all of them had donated much. Maybe some had gotten little in return? Were their small donations a waste?
Inspired, Esther looked through the governor’s spreadsheets, as well as her own Caucus Office’s records on campaign donors and event organizers. Those people cared. Maybe for self-serving reasons, maybe haphazardly, maybe even only intermittently. But at some point, they had cared at least once about civic interests. And, cross-referencing this list against her meticulous notes from the past weeks, it was clear that not all who cared had gotten preferential treatment. Nor, she realized, had the business and civic leaders from districts held by the minority party: they had every reason to detest the governor. She didn’t have their names, but she could find some.
Midnight passed as Esther crafted a list of concerned citizens, culling from spreadsheets and hundreds of web searches. She managed to build a list of over one hundred email addresses. In the wee hours, she logged into the website where she had her fake highland-observer email address, and she prepared to forward the email she had sent to the journalists.
Esther almost hit send when she realized that she should rewrite the email, tailoring it to her new audience. It needed to be more inflammatory. Almost everyone would ignore a poorly-tailored email received in the middle of the night.
But she was spent. The human search engine had met her limit. She saved her unedited draft, signed off, grabbed the laptop de jour and her thumb drive, then walked back to the Adams residence. The cold air and the awareness of urban dangers in the night woke her senses, but a police cruiser zipped past her, and she reminded herself that she was probably in the safest neighborhood of Salem.
But she slept little. She woke from a dream and worked over the letter in her mind for hours, only slipping near dawn back to sleep for an hour before rising to the sound of breakfast. On what was perhaps the most significant day of her life to date, she dragged her belongings to the table, inadvertently poured orange juice into her coffee mug, accidentally called Mrs. Adams “Matt,” literally tripped over the leg of Senator Phillip’s chair while leaving the room, dropped the laptop which bounced off its ugly rubber sides, nearly got hit by a car while walking back to the borrowed capitol, and realized when she arrived that she had inadvertently left her smartphone at the cubicle all night.
She logged back into the website and reviewed her email draft. In her sleep-deprived state, rewriting the introduction and tidying up her claims took all morning. She hit send, logged out, laid her head on the cubicle’s table, and fell asleep.
A minor aftershock woke her an hour later. She looked around and saw a few staffers in the hallway across the second floor. One looked at her and snickered. She rubbed her face and logged back into her fake account’s website.
What she saw woke her fully. A rancher who raised organic grass-fed beef in the Willamette Valley had written back coldly but tersely: “Just tell me who I need to call.” She grinned and fired off a quick reply. Within hours, dozens of other emails poured in, and her fingers grew tired from copy-pasting a reply urging them to call their legislators and their local newspapers and anyone who would listen. The noise level from the first floor steadily grew. She soon heard shouting.
Esther sauntered down to the melee. A serenity washed over her like the purest of winter rains. Phones were ringing and legislators were shouting and aides were chasing around with smartphones and paper, spilling around her like waves of urgency. But in her fatigue, she felt disconnected, as if walking through a movie or a dream, as if it were not her who had set this tsunami of action in motion.
Moments later, Dr. Adams hustled over. “I need information on where the governor has lent credit, ASAP.” Matt and Esther nodded, and the legislator returned to an argument. As a contingent of senators of both parties launched themselves onto the stairwell, headed up to see the governor, Esther stopped to pick up a mug of hot coffee. She settled down with her laptop and made a show of searching the web for nuggets. But of course, she found none. She smiled. Everybody already was in possession of Grade-A nuggets, the best idea-fertilizer that stressful days and sleepless nights could buy.
She and Matt enjoyed dinner with the wife of Dr. Adams that evening. The man himself was nowhere to be seen. Esther’s mind lingered before sleep on the issue of whether she would be caught, but the next day, she awoke fully invigorated for the first time in a long while.
On the other hand, the lawyers in the Office of Legislative Council, on the third floor of the makeshift capitol, got no sleep. Overnight, working alongside the party and committee leaders from both chambers, they drafted a bill rescinding all the governor’s emergency powers. The legislation withdrew her authorization to lend the state’s credit, and it reinstated the 2017-2019 budget for the most part, and it allocated the kicker to the agencies for public safety, economic development and transportation.
Phillips argued for including a provision directing the heads of these agencies to distribute resources in an “equitable and just” fashion. But dawn had already blossomed on the horizon by the time that the legislators had worked through the budget adjustments, and such a provision would need to be made precise, so they agreed to return to it in a future bill.
The House by super-majority waived the requirement for three readings of the bill. It cleared committee in a single day. The governor attempted to derail the bill by giving a press conference, but now-rabid journalists kept interrupting her, not even waiting for an invitation to ask questions. (In fairness, when the Speaker of the House attempted to give a competing press conference afterward, journalists kept interrupting him, as well.) By unanimous consent, the bill came up for a vote and swiftly passed on the House floor, headed for easy passage in the Senate.
After the vote, the Speaker of the House allowed Dr. Adams to speak briefly. “I protest!” he bellowed to the rows of faces—legislators eagerly leaning forward from the creaking seats of the auditorium. The room oozed with sweaty heat from the packed bodies and their indignant passions. The Majority Leader’s gray-white beard and hair framed a clenched face.
“But not a protest against this measure! This measure is proper.” His voice dipped, and he turned left to the Speaker’s raised chair. “Mr. Speaker, my protest is against this body! Against what we are becoming. We aren’t just a legislature. We are a citizen’s assembly. What is an assembly? It is a thing comprised of parts that work together!”
He turned again to the audience. “If we can’t work together, as a unitary machine, an assembly of noble form and function...”—he paused, then dropped his timbre—“then to whom will the citizens turn?”
The Majority Leader stabbed a finger forward, rotating through the audience to punctuate his sentences as he thundered, “We have seen, with our own eyes, how the political gamesmanship of one person can put the safety of all at risk! We have to get back to putting citizens ahead of party. Stop playing favorites. Start listening and start compromising. Stop with the friendly fire.”
He paused, then resumed. “Let us think about that. For a moment, let us think about how we want to carry ourselves in the days ahead.”
He paused again for half a minute. Silence flooded the room. Bodies shifted uneasily in their seats, and many eyes closed, as if asleep. But when they opened, their fire made clear these eyes were no longer asleep. Not remotely. Their gaze met in the middle of the seated room. A few were wet.
Standing in an aisle near the back, Esther smiled. She had caused this. She had accomplished a visible, meaningful change in the world. Esther looked around the room. She had never seen so many legislators with such passion in their faces. Their anger—much directed at the governor, some at one another, and perhaps a bit at themselves—showed in their narrowed eyes and their tense breathing and their flared nostrils. She felt unsure if Dr. Adams believed what he said, or if he simply proclaimed it because politics demanded that it be admitted by somebody from the majority party. She decided that it didn’t matter: either way, a latent but deep force had awoken in this body.
“Thank you, Mr. Speaker.”
Tepid applause trickled then amplified and rolled through the room, and one cheer became many, and the rumble surged into a roar.
Satisfied that she had made a difference, Esther returned to the lobby, grabbed an unused laptop, and logged back into her highland-observer account, eager to reread the emails that constituents had sent. But a chill froze her hands on the keyboard. Some user named “anony4gov” on the same site as her fake account had written, “Nice work, young lady. We’ll have a lot to talk about.”
Her eyes darted around the room, at other aides working placidly at their desks, and then at the auditorium where legislators had begun to stream out. The chill spread from her hands and from a knot in her stomach, merging at her chest. She hugged her arms to herself and stared at the screen and quaked.
Editors’ notes: Safety
Keeping in mind that “Hammer Rise” is a fictionalized history of post-quake Oregon, it remains a matter of debate among historians whether improper political motivations caused Governor Highland to deploy the National Guard, State Police, and other state personnel preferentially to the Willamette Valley and greater Portland area. But historians agree that a differential deployment of resources did occur, with strikingly differential effects on regions of Oregon.
The coast’s primary military protection consisted of two companies of National Guard personnel based in Coos Bay. (The federal government sent no separate military support to the state, due to the ongoing war in the Middle East as well as tensions in Korea and the South China Sea.) The National Guard set up 21 “tent cities” for the devastated cities. The largest such city, on the bluffs of Coos Bay, housed some 200 civilians for three months. On the North Coast, establishing shelters proved both urgent and problematic because of the extreme weather. Shelters remained minimalist until the arrival of MARAD vessels from California. With the summer reopening of most sections of Highway 101, as well as the Newport Municipal Airport, civilians began evacuating from the coast to permanent shelter elsewhere.
In contrast, the Portland area recovered quickly. A “surge” of National Guard troops and state police worked alongside municipal police departments and other emergency personnel to quickly establish order. The National Guard, aided by thousands of volunteers, converted dozens of schools, churches and other buildings to shelters. FEMA shipped a steady stream of supplies by land to the city from the incident support base near Redmond. The greatest impediment to recovery in Portland was the shortage of building inspectors, a problem also faced elsewhere.
The southern Willamette Valley and areas south of Eugene experienced uneven recovery from the quake. In many medium-sized cities, staffing of fire departments and other emergency services had fallen during the “Great Recession” of 2009-2013 and never recovered. The remaining services proved insufficient. For example, Eugene and Corvallis lacked adequate personnel to handle many fire and medical emergency calls, and each lost a few neighborhoods (although they saved their downtown cores). Ashland, Eugene, Corvallis and Salem city police, swept up into the protection of universities and other state facilities, offered minimal protection to other areas of their respective cities. Private organizations played the leading role in setting up emergency shelters south of the Willamette Valley, due to the minimal presence of the National Guard and the absence of federal military support.
The state’s challenges manifested the best and worst of humanity.
Where citizens felt safe, they demonstrated extraordinary generosity. For example, over 5000 Portland residents used the traditional web to coordinate the “Oregon Caring is Oregon Sharing” movement, which opened up rooms in homes to family, friends and others who needed shelter. To help ensure mutual safety with so many strangers in their residences, homeowners established voluntary block watch programs, which included visiting inside one another’s houses with bodycams to verify the safety of occupants. Portlanders also started the online “Help Oregon Recover” media campaign to collect and distribute private donations from other parts of the country, to supplement state and federal funding for homeless shelters.
On the other hand, cities lacking basic public safety saw looting and arson quickly snowball into running street fights among gangs and public safety personnel. For instance, downtown Ashland collapsed in the quake, but it did not burn to the ground until weeks later after a battle between two gangs over a stolen eighteen-wheeler carrying a load of gasoline. Fortunately, travel in the Willamette Valley and in Southern Oregon remained easier than along the coast, so residents could self-evacuate to other cities as their own collapsed.
Public disorder on the coast reached near-apocalyptic proportions, and citizens had no opportunity to leave en masse until summer. For instance, although Waldport did not burn to the ground, looting crushed the economy and ensured the town would not be re-inhabited for many years. Other examples include the food riots in and around the Brookings and Harbor tent cities, the series of never-solved rape-and-kill cases in Yachats, and the epic battle between vigilantes and a gang south of Gold Beach.
Safety is the fundamental underpinning of civilization. Without it, life degrades to little more than mere survival.
Messages to the Assembly: Safety
Life in the shelter slipped over the edge one day when Mikey awoke to the smacks and shoves of an afternoon fight. He had been dreaming that he was the bouncer for a daycare, and wolves kept trying to get into the building to maul the children. When he woke, he saw a college-aged kid, dressed in a faux bomber jacket, pounding away at a half-bald, very white man two rows away. The young man had gotten on top and was preparing to place his knee on the older man’s throat. Their neighbors cringed away, one recording the scuffle on a smartphone and another bleating for help.
Mikey bounced to his feet and threw himself shoulder-first against the aggressor. They slammed into a bed, bulldozing it into the next bed and dislodging its occupant. Mikey fired his knee upward into the young man’s chest, which exhaled a sharp grunt as his head snapped backward into the bed’s aluminum legs. Mikey finished the job with the four-pound meat of his fist in a pair of upper cuts to the man’s chin. He rose to his feet, leaving his punching bag on the floor.
A shelter volunteer helped the older man to his feet. Another placed one hand on Mikey’s chest and looked down at the fallen assailant, who was laying on his side and nursing his head. The older man thanked Mikey profusely, introduced himself as Jim and invited Mikey to sit and chat. He explained that the young “thug” lived in the adjacent bed, that the thug had tried to pickpocket him, that it would have been a waste of effort anyway, that his wallet was light because Jim had spent all he had on his cigar business, and that the business was bust in any case. He would have continued spilling his life story for another hour had the shelter security team not arrived to take over the situation.
Mikey found he enjoyed talking with Jim—who actually smiled at the snarky comments that Mikey inserted into Jim’s sagas.
“My cigar shop was the biggest in town,” he said once. “We had the biggest selection, the biggest walk-in humidor, the biggest savings, the biggest”—
—“cancer rates,” Mikey injected. Jim lost his momentum, smiled, then frowned.
“Yes, probably that too.” Jim, hovering in middle-age, had learned to be teach-able. And how to teach. “Very true. It was my biggest regret.” He poked his finger at Mikey. “I don’t think clubbing was too healthy for you and all your young people, either. You think about that too, next time you choose what to do with your life.”
“Well, choices are in short supply around here: you get to choose what to eat, when to crap, and sometimes when to sleep. But I haven’t noticed any choices about what to do with life.”
“The choices are never over.” Jim crossed his arms, met Mikey eye to eye. “There’s always another bridge to cross.”
Their coalescing friendship coaxed Mikey’s optimism out of the gutter. But the shelter went into a different gutter—violently and wetly. The medical volunteers diagnosed it as norovirus, also known as “cruise ship disease.” The restrooms became uninhabitable.
The staff announced one morning they would soon close the shelter to disinfect it. They sorted the inhabitants according to whether they had any symptoms. They scheduled Mikey’s group, apparently clean of the disease, for a truck ride later in the week to a shelter in Bend.
The murmur throughout the crowd made clear that riding to a new squalor in a new gymnasium in a new city offered little appeal. Some people simply wandered out the door, vowing to find another shelter in Salem. A few texted requests for help to acquaintances that they would have preferred to live without.
But Mikey had had enough: the noise, the smell, the bodily fluids, and—worst of all—the lack of anything purposeful.
He strode into the sun. The dry winter had yielded to a very early spring. Grass pollen already shimmered in the sunlight. The neighborhood looked as though the buildings had just done a demolition derby, but Mikey saw no obvious danger.
He walked east toward I-5, looking for options. Beneath an overpass, the interstate was eerily silent. A few cars whizzed past, northbound, but he saw no 18-wheelers or other obvious commercial traffic. He thought it might be a Friday.
He chose to continue further. He came upon the mall. Salem had a few, none of them particularly monumental. This one had become even less of a monument: every window was shattered, and the parking lot was strewn with shelving and drop ceiling tiles and torn packaging. A car had accordioned into one corner of the building, and its burnt-out interior explained the scorch marks on the wall.
Curious, he walked over and poked his head into a store window. The space smelled vaguely like urine. But silence reigned. He stepped in further, strolled to the inner mall, his boots crunching on glass. Cool tile floors welcomed him. The walls and fixtures were a shambles, but the building was comfortable and calm. Warm sunshine filtered through the shattered skylights overhead.
At that moment, he decided he liked the mall better than the shelter. Yet he wasn’t sure that it was even a choice. He needed information, but his phone still couldn’t get on the web. Grudgingly, he withdrew his phone and texted Esther.
“Hey, sorry for being a prick.”
After a long moment, she replied, “Np. I had it coming. What’s up?”
Mikey smiled. “I’ve got a puzzle for you now.”
“This mall is empty. The one by the interstate. Use your crazy web skills to see if its abandoned?”
Esther had just been leaving for lunch, but she walked back to the building and retrieved a laptop. “Good of him to respect the skills,” she thought as she searched the web. She found nothing. But then she smiled again when she remembered the mall was the one that Herb Goldstein had threatened to abandon, when pressuring the governor by email.
Esther’s face wistfully scrunched as she wished for the thumb drive. She had realized its absence soon after receiving anony4gov’s email, and she had searched for it at the Adams residence, to no avail. Esther could replace the thumb drive with another from Matt, but she had not made a backup copy.
She pushed the problem to the back of her mind and focused on explaining the mall’s situation to Mikey, as best she could recall.
“So, it’s like for the taking?” he replied.
“Idk. Ppl are taking over malls and stuff, squatting. Cops mostly ignore it.”
“SO like I said, it’s for the taking?”
“Prolly. The legis is trying to make the gov spread police more evenly, but it’s hit and miss for now.”
They strategized. Esther reviewed the other shelter options that she found on the web... most were full or scheduled to close. Two in West Salem were still open and accepting new residents. Meanwhile, Mikey explored the mall, texting as he walked. He found a sporting goods store that was relatively clean, spacious and had only two front windows—possibly a safe place to sleep. He spotted one empty beer bottle in a bathroom at the other end of the mall, but nothing to suggest the presence of drugs or dealers. Mostly he found dust and glass from sheetrock and windows. Many of the building’s walls were torn open, as if someone had actually ripped out the fixtures and wires. The mall had no water or electricity.
Esther worked the web, steadily accumulating information for a survival plan. She located a Catholic school four blocks to the north, offering food and water. The school and two deplorable restrooms in nearby parks provided tolerable sanitation, at least for the short term. She scanned local newspaper’s website and noted reports of muggings, shootings and continuing vandalism east of the interstate.
“If it was the woods, you’d be set,” Esther concluded. “But is it safe?”
“I’d feel better with a crew. Probably still plenty of bored dangerous kids on the street.” Mikey paused, considering his options. “I’ll ask some people.”
He texted Jim. “Hey, how’s the shelter?”
No reply came for a long while. Eventually, Jim replied. “Good. How are you?”
“Found a sweet mall. Looking for people to live here. Interested?”
A longer pause ensued. Minutes ticked by, and the energy drained from Mikey’s body as he impatiently started a text to Esther. At last Jim replied. “Come on over and let’s have an actual conversation about this, face to face.” Mikey grimaced. But he knew what he had to do.
When Mikey arrived at the shelter, the silence surprised him. In just hours, dozens of rats had fled the sinking ship. Gone were the screaming children and nearly half of the shelter’s residents. The staff had begun stacking unused mattresses.
Jim sat on Mikey’s bed beside him to chat. When Jim learned the mall was an uninhabited wreck, he shook his head and crossed his arms. “It’s not smart, it’s not safe, it’s probably not even legal.”
Mikey’s eyes widened. “Do you want to move to another pigsty in Bend? Is that what you want?” He waved his hand around the room. “You’re so full of your choices. Is this any kind of a choice?”
“How is living in a falling down, burned out crack house of a mall any better? How is”—
—“It’s empty,” Mikey interrupted, putting his palm up, his fingers lightly touching Jim’s chest. Calmly, he continued. “There’s no drugs. Nothing left there that anybody would even want. Not hardly even any trash. We can clean it up.”
Jim lifted his chin and backed away from Mikey’s palm. “We who? And what do we do for money? And what do we do when the cops show up?”
Mandy had intently watched the exchange from her adjacent bed. “Pardon me.” The two men turned to look. “Unfortunately, I can’t help with cleaning up.” She wiggled her arm, which had graduated to a sling. “And I know nothing of the legalities. But I have some savings from the store. And it would be quite the adventure to live in a mall, like a modern Swiss Family Robinson on an urban island.” Jim rolled his eyes and sighed.
But Mikey hopped off the bed. “Awesome,” he said. “We can work out the legalities. My friend with the government can work it out.”
He turned to Jim. “C’mon. You know you want to.”
Jim sank backward into the blue blanket, his spirit graying, like a star sinking into the sea. He closed his eyes and rubbed his brow with the tip of his thumb. “Get together another four people. You, Mandy, and four others. They need to be handy and responsible. Then get together some cash, at least a couple thousand dollars. If you can do that before the truck leaves for Bend, then I’m in.”
Mikey’s enormous round face lit up, his first genuine smile in weeks. He sat in an isolated corner of the shelter where kids had been playing and stabbed his phone with his fingers, texting Curt and other bartenders and former roommates and even past lovers. Most had left Salem. Some had stayed and were rebuilding their homes. A few had had kids and couldn’t afford the danger that Mikey’s plan promised. But others were flying solo and trapped in stinking shelters, or they were tired of couchsurfing and ready for some adventure. He also texted Esther, who demurred. Yet by nightfall, Mikey had rounded up not four but seven others—besides himself, Mandy and Jim. He could vouch for them all, and they had enough cash that Jim nodded his approval.
The mall was a beehive the next day. Matt lent his truck to Esther, who took Mikey and Curt to distant stores for tools and supplies and water and food. They cleared the waste from the “sleeping room” that Mikey had identified, stocked it with extra bedding and clothing from the shelter, and hanged pocket flashlights from the drop ceiling. When they boarded all the windows, the room sparkled like a field of fireflies.
They installed a white picket fence—posts nailed to the walls or embedded in buckets of sand—beneath a skylight to decorate the entrance to the inner mall. It even had a swinging gate on a hinge.
Mandy painted it with her good arm. When she finished, Curt came over, dipped his finger in the paint, and dabbed it on the back of her right ear. Mikey noticed him do it and called Curt out, who responded by flicking a handful of paint at Mikey. So the day ended with a gun-less paintball fight, as all nine of the twenty- and thirty-somethings ran around the mall, hiding and whipping paint at one another, ignoring Jim’s wry head-shake, not worried that getting the paint out of their hair would take all the water they had, laughing and screaming with joy like the children they had become—if only for a day.
The mall denizens slept soundly, ten prone bodies in a room where nobody had ever slept before. Each had a pile of blankets from the shelter, and the night was cold but tolerable. They were too tired to wake until the first light drifted in from the inner mall.
For breakfast, they ate from bags of chips and drank soda.
“Right now, the thing I miss most from the shelter is coffee,” Jim said, drawing smiles from the rest.
“I can search around the neighborhood to check out our options, maybe some fast food,” Curt suggested.
“How about staying and helping with the repairs?” Mikey asked.
Curt, chewing a mouthful of chips, replied, “What else needs to be fixed? We’re safe. We’re cool.”
Mandy commented, “We literally have exactly one room cleared of filth. The rest of this place is a mess.”
“We need to think long-term,” Jim said. “Half of you have production skills—crafts, carpentry, computer programming, cooking—and writing, of course,” he nodded to Mandy. “So we can make money down the road. But we’ll need some space for future production.”
“You mean, set up a factory in the mall?”
“Right. Different spaces for different cottage industries.” The crowd looked at him silently, puzzled. “Look, I’m just a cigar guy. But I know how to run a business. I’ll figure out how we can take our products from here to elsewhere for sale, so we don’t get caught. You keep your heads down, don’t draw attention, and think about what products you can produce here in the mall.”
“So we need to clear some more space in the mall,” Mikey said.
“Exactly.” Jim looked around. “Curt can be my bodyguard for the day, since he wants to get out and about. We’ll get coffee from a fast food place I saw yesterday. Everybody else keep on cleaning up this mess. Later on, we’ll go out to get lunch from the Catholic school. Give us your phones if you want us to watch for a chance to recharge them.” Most handed over their phones.
“Also watch for a paintball store. I need a gun,” Mikey suggested. Everybody laughed.
They had no electricity, no heat, no water. They had to make daily trips to pick up food and electrons. They had no video games, no movies, no web. And they had no end game.
But the mall was survivable and safe. In some ways it was better than a shelter or a couch because they had each other. And it was their little piece of Oregon: together, they could make it whatever they wanted.
Esther eventually concluded that she had lost the thumb drive for good. She inferred she had left it overnight at the cubicle with her smartphone, on the night before what she now mentally referred to as “Esther’s Big Day.” The governor’s anonymous friend presumably had found it. She hoped she never had need of the data again.
Making matters worse, taunts from anony4gov began to arrive in her highland-observer account: “I’m sure the police would be very interested in knowing what you’ve been up to, young lady,” and “Not feeling so sure of yourself now, are you?” and “Ever seen the inside of a jail cell?” and “Orange would look good on you,” and “Don’t plan on seeing Cannon Beach ever again.”
Esther eventually wrote back, “Are you just trolling, or do you actually want something?” Internally, however, she felt no confidence. Every day, in the back of her mind, rising to the forefront in the depths of the night, she continually retained the awareness that somebody knew she had been the one to expose the governor. Her dreams swam with dark salty waters, and Esther woke in sweat, left to ponder her own exposure in the dark.
Although the legislature rescinded the governor’s budgetary discretion and credit-lending authority in late March, Highland continued to allocate police, National Guard, and other emergency personnel preferentially to her favored areas of the state. If anything, Highland became more open about it after the Assembly broke ranks with her, and her office issued press releases that offered logically mushy justifications embedded in vacuous PR-speak. One statement, for instance, read, “Recent legislation has reiterated the statutory authority and responsibilities of the Office of the Governor and the Executive Branch. This authority includes aiding survivors as effectively and completely as possible, as well as assisting in the rebuilding of targeted communities. Central population areas, such as the Portland metropolitan area and Coos Bay on the coast, as well as key state facilities in Salem and elsewhere, remain a central focus. Partnerships with municipalities continue to be not only important to the state, but these partnerships continue to grow and develop.”
But more than anything, it was chaos that continued to grow and develop. The southern coast of Oregon, especially, had become a dangerous land during February and March, with literal brigands hiding in the woods and hills. So had the hills around Deer Ridge, southeast of Portland, which a highly-publicized group called the “Ridgers” had taken over. A group like theirs would fell a tree to block a road, shoot out the tires of any cars passing that way, and rob the drivers and passengers. Some mowed down their victims with semi-automatic combat rifles.
Other locals—“preppers”—survived the quake through careful planning, and many had heavy assault weapons of their own. They started vigilante groups to patrol the highways, greatly outnumbering the actual police. Ordinarily, this would have called for sending in the National Guard, but the governor was winning a passive-aggressive game and withholding military support. A shootout on Highway 101 south of Gold Beach between Ridgers and preppers nudged the state legislature into taking action.
The Assembly lacked a constitutional means of impeaching the governor. So, after fiery speeches and joint resolutions denouncing her in the strongest language that they could muster, the legislators pulled together to produce veto-proof bills. The first priority was dealing with the lack of public safety.
Esther spent every hour she could to help at the mall, but her job changed. Dr. Adams directed her to work with aides from the other three Caucus Offices to find nuggets for the bipartisan agenda. She found herself shuttling papers and emails around the lobby of the borrowed university building, sharing notes with other aides with whom she had never before shared even a coffee. Her feet grew tired marching around the building to visit legislators of both parties to discuss nuggets and ideas for improving public safety and for constraining the governor’s exercise of power.
The nights dragged on. A recurring dream developed, where some child was working for the assembly as a fellow aide, and Esther was tasked with caring for the child, who turned out to be a spy for anony4gov. She usually woke in a sweat, or in tears, or in both.
The last bill of March provided a regulatory framework for local law enforcement to collaborate with “enhanced” citizen patrol groups. As the bill worked through committee, Esther arranged for distant parties to phone into the hearings. Legislators badgered the local police until they suggested how preppers and other citizen groups could help with public safety. Preppers also phoned in. Esther chuckled as one, the leader of the Jefferson State Guard Dogs, did an excellent imitation of a stubborn Rottweiler as he argued for the complete independence of his group, but even he eventually agreed to principles that would guide new regulations. The police would vet the Dogs and other citizen groups, who could then patrol according to defined rules of engagement. In addition, the bill specified rules for equitable distribution of police and military resources among counties in proportion to population and proximity to the coast. It passed with only a handful of dissenting votes from eastern districts.
Mikey wanted Esther to find a legal way for the squatters to own a share of the mall, in exchange for fixing it up, but she had no time to look into it because the next bill came along quickly. Oregon was still on the operating room table. Thousands of businesses had closed, and residents fled their homes. Property values crashed, and wealthier landowners petitioned for sharp drops in assessed valuations.
The Oregon Mayors Association held a massive conference call. Dr. Adams told Esther to join the call, and her ears blistered by its end.
At one point, the mayor of Medford yelled, “They want fire protection, police protection, clean streets, potholes repaired, and they want the library open on Sunday! Meanwhile, we’re barely able to keep up with all the looting, the shooting.”
“Oh, it gets worse,” the mayor of Coos Bay interrupted. “FEMA is demanding thirty percent cost sharing now. It’s like they upped their requirement just because of the quake.”
Another mayor began to explain that FEMA’s increase from 10% had more to do with funding other federal priorities, but Newport’s mayor shouted into his phone, “What does Coos Bay have to worry about? Highland drained Emergency Management’s budget helping you and the rest of her cronies with cost matches.”
“Hardly! We still are millions short,” came the reply. A dozen mayors started shouting, vying to defend their honor. Coos Bay struggled to be heard. “Where am I going to get ten million dollars? You tell me, where?” Others joined the verbal melee. The meeting degenerated into a shouting match, with some mayors threatening lawsuits against one another, others against the governor, even a few against businesses that had received aid.
Meanwhile, informal repair-squatter groups like Mikey’s had moved into abandoned businesses. The best-known group occupied and restored a landmark Portland restaurant, part of a chain whose iconic symbol was a cartoonish man with a hammer for a head; when the squatters hoisted a hand-stitched flag of the same image over the refurbished brick-and-stained-glass building, they earned the title of “Hammer Heads.” The media seized on the name as a label for any similar group, just as they had seized on Ridger as a name for any group of brigands.
When Esther reported on her property-assessment nuggets to Dr. Adams, she brought up the Hammer Heads. “They’re a scourge—as bad as the Ridgers,” he growled. She turned her head, puzzled by his reply. His shoulders sagged with exhaustion, but his eyes glistened with fire. “They outnumber the police, and the civilian patrols usually take the squatters’ side—after all, many squatters are on the patrols, a bunch of untrained, aimless cherries with nothing else to do with their time.”
She started to raise Mikey’s suggestion, “If the Hammer Heads fix up the buildings, shouldn’t they get a share of”—
—“We need to get the property owners to stay put. We’re thinking about a bill for a new kind of micro enterprise zone called ‘Easy EZ.’ We’re still gathering ideas. Ask Matt how you can help.” He waved her away.
Esther grimaced and briefly considered complying with his instructions, but she returned to her favored cubicle instead and flicked open her laptop. She started searching for nuggets on Hammer Heads.
Suddenly, a sense of futility washed through her body. It was all for nothing, if even her own legislator wouldn’t listen. Her mind roved back to her singular success, the one day of her life that she truly “reached out and touched someone.” She logged into the website of her fake email address, eager to reread the replies that she had received from constituents on that day of glorious exhaustion.
But Esther discovered anony4gov had replied to her query with a retort. “Do I want something? Yes. I want the rest of the emails, including those from prior to the quake. They were missing from the thumb drive.”
She resisted the urge to snap the laptop closed, and she looked around her. The quiet murmur of busy support staff trickled out of classrooms and offices, and the governor’s voice filtered down from the third floor. What could she do? She had never copied those older emails, let alone kept a backup. She shook her head, took a deep breath, closed the browser, stared at the blank screen, and pursed her lips.
At least one thing was clear. Mr. anony4gov was no ally of the governor, or else he already would have access to all the emails. That, at least, was comforting because it meant her enemy might not have any immediate motivation to expose Esther. But why would he want all the emails? And what would happen if he outed her?
Who could she trust? Anybody could have found that thumb drive. She sighed. It would be a long spring.
March dissolved in April drizzle as the mall rose from survivable and safe to actually pleasant.
Three Hammer Heads had small cars or motorcycles that had survived the wave of vandalism. But they feared to park them at the mall, even though—and, in part, because—the city police had begun patrolling the neighborhood again. The vehicles would draw attention, or at least rocks from bored kids. Fortunately, one of the adjoining buildings had had an auto repair center. So they cleared it out and installed a manual garage door, then hid their cars inside.
Esther borrowed Matt’s truck one weekend so she, Mikey and Curt could get water barrels from a farm supply store that had managed to survive near Albany. They filled the barrels from a hose at the Majority Leader’s house while he was away on an errand of his own—enjoying the adventure, his wizened old wife winked and said, “I can keep your secret!”
They put a kiddie pool in the inner mall and artfully attached plastic panels and tubes to drizzle rain down from the skylights, for use in washing. They spent half their time clearing space as Jim had instructed and the other half sitting by the pool, enjoying what sunlight managed to filter through the intermittent clouds. Sometimes they chatted on social media or (once the web returned) watched movies on a phone together, but mostly they just hung out. They rediscovered the lost art of chatting in person, and they occasionally played Frisbee in the mall. It was their own personal frat house.
When she visited on weekends, Esther found herself wishing that she didn’t have to drive back to the Adams residence afterward. Her nights in the basement were hard to endure, the dreams filled with quakes and waves and taunts from anony4gov. But living in a barely inhabitable mall would not likely aid her sleep.
When a local grocery store reopened—complete with two armed guards standing in their burliest pose at the entrance—Mikey treated everybody to drinks and snacks. The clinks of bottles and the smell of beer and the joyful laughter of nascent friendships soon filled the room as they partied beside the half-filled pool, taking turns to kick their feet in the chilly water.
The fun crashed to a halt one afternoon just before sunset when an SUV pulled up outside the mall. A thin man with a black polo shirt and blue jeans stepped out, leaving his door open. He had a smartphone and began photographing the boarded up windows of the sporting goods store. He noticed Mikey and Curt on the roof, fiddling with plastic sheeting near a skylight to adjust their water supply. He photographed them.
Then he bellowed, “Hey! Get otta here!” The two Hammer Heads looked down, looked at each other, and frowned. “This is private property! You’re trespassing! Get otta here!”
Mikey yelled back, “Yeah, ok.”
The stranger looked at his watch, then looked up again. “If you’re still here in the morning, I’m callin the cops!” He immediately hopped back into the truck and drove around the mall at a distance, stopping twice to take more photos from afar.
When the group hurriedly convened at the pool, nobody wanted to give up.
Curt, ever the impetuous one, suggested, “Let’s just move to the hills. We can get some tents and stuff.”
“What would we do for food?” Mikey asked.
“We just hunt some”—Curt began, but other voices cut him off, “And water?”—“I’m not living in a tent”—“We spent all this time setting up the mall, I’m not leaving now.”
Mikey suggested, “We could just hide somewhere in the mall for the night, and then occupy again after the security guard or whatever leaves.”
Jim stood silent, taking in the conversation. Then he said, “Nope. They’ll clear out our stuff. We’d be back to square one. And if we rebuild, they’ll clear us out again, and maybe arrest us.”
Curt glared. “So we’ll hide elsewhere, get some guns and more people, and then the cops won’t mess with us when we come back.”
Mikey replied, “Fight the cops? Guns? C’mon, use your head.”
“I could ride my motorcycle over to Madras and be back with Ridgers by morning. It would be a fair fight.”
Mandy shook her head. “Fighting a war for a mall hardly seems sensible. If we are breaking the law, then we must change the law.” The group broke into clusters of smaller arguments, and strained voices filled the space.
Mikey pulled out his phone and texted, “Hey, Esther, it’s now or never.”
He explained, “A guard came.”
“So…?” she peeved Mikey in reply.
Mikey caps-locked back, “CHANGE THE LAW PRONTO. Eviction or war tomorrow, idk which one!”
“It’s not my place tell the legis what to do”
“They need to hear. Was it your place to squeal on the governor?”
“That was different”
“How?” No answer. “That was just you saying what needed saying. Like your mom.”
“Don’t bring her into this.”
“She’s already in this cause she’s in you.” No answer, again. “You’re too afraid of becoming her. You can speak your mind without becoming a bitch.”
A long pause. “I can’t tell if ur calling her that or me either way shut up”
“Sry. Just saying there’s nothing wrong with calling people out when they need it” No answer. “Cmon. Just talk to your legis. Tell him about us!!!”
“He hates Hammer Heads. Representing you wont help the case.”
Mikey drew in his breath and punched the letters so hard his thumbs hurt. “LOOK the world is crap right now. The people have nothing. If this goes down, it’s all going down.” Before she could reply, he continued, “Don’t think ur safe cause u can hide out in a basement. ur not there for yourself--ur there to help in a time like this.”
On her end of the exchange, Esther bit her lip. She had been eating an apple, sitting in the cubicle, half-mindedly exchanging texts with Mikey, pondering again who it could be that knew she exposed the governor, wondering if and when the police would show up. Her cheeks burned red, as if Mikey had reached through the phone and slapped her. Her sinking stomach told her she wasn’t winning this argument. The apple suddenly tasted sour. She was getting too comfortable, too focused on her own problems. How could she accept safety if her friends were not?
She asked for a minute of the Majority Leader’s time in an empty classroom. His mood was as bitter as the mugful of coffee that he held in his hand—he was planning for a long night, she surmised—and his face was pinched: the Easy EZ bill was struggling in committee. Nobody had found a way to fund property tax relief, nor how to forestall the wave of reassessments and the resulting compression to local taxes.
Tremulously, Esther said, “I have an idea. For Easy EZ.”
Dr. Adams crossed his arms, coffee mug still dangling from one hand, and his eyes widened. “Go on.”
“The state shouldn’t have to subsidize tax reductions when other people can pick up the slack instead.”
“Which other people?”
“We could protect the property value, so the assessed value doesn’t need to be cut, so the cities and school districts don’t have to take a long-term hit.” Dr. Adams furrowed his brow. “What I mean is that if an owner can’t afford to totally fix up his property, but somebody else moves in and does it instead, then that other person could get a share of the property. So the real value is protected, so is the assessment, but the ownership is shared.”
He shook his head. “Moving in without permission? That’s called adverse possession, basically squatting, and it’s not legal in Oregon.”
“Only because that’s the law. You can change the law.” She smiled and relaxed, feeling that she had won a solid point.
“True, but we would need a good reason. You can’t just take people’s property away.” His eyebrows bobbed.
“The owner already basically gave it away. He emailed the governor threatening to abandon it if his taxes didn’t go down.”
Dr. Adams narrowed his eyes. “Which owner? What email?”
Esther’s stomach leapt to her throat and her face suddenly felt hot and her eyes widened as she realized that she had overplayed her hand. She only knew of the mall owner’s request for property tax relief because she had stolen the governor’s emails. That was one of the talking points she knew about from the emails but had been unable to support with publicly-available data. It never made it into her highland-observer emails. There was no way that she should know that information.
For a long moment, she tried not to lose her head. Her mind raced for a solution, some relevant nugget that she had seen on the web that she could cite as her source. Her eyes looked to the ceiling, then to the Majority Leader’s eyes, then to his feet. At last, she whispered to him, “The owner of the mall by the interstate. He emailed the governor to ask for a bailout.”
“So how would you, specifically, know about that?” came the question, syllables sharply honed like a falling guillotine’s blade.
Esther sighed. “I saw it in the governor’s emails. I’m the one who outed her.”
He drew his breath in sharply. Now it was his turn to think for a long moment. Downstairs, the lobby murmured with legislators’ discussions. Esther swallowed. She searched his face. It was tight.
At last, he sighed, uncrossed his arms, and extended his free hand to Esther’s elbow. “We are in your debt. I mean that. I—no, all of us—are immensely grateful for what you did. The Assembly is working together like it never has before, at least in my career, and what you did probably saved Oregon from many kinds of trouble.” She looked up as her stomach unclenched. “For now, let’s operate on the premise that you acted as a whistleblower, so you would be protected from reprisals.” His face softened, and Esther realized that she could untighten her shoulders—and, she could rule out Dr. Adams as anony4gov, if that wasn’t already obvious.
He continued, “But whether I owe you a hearing or not, you need to be clearer about what you’re talking about here. We can’t just let squatters start taking over everything.”
She took a breath, paused, and tried again. “The owner of the mall at the interstate is out of cash. He didn’t insure enough. So he’s rebuilding his other malls in Portland and letting the one in Salem fall apart. Hammer Heads moved in.”
He withdrew his arm. “I see. So what is your idea, precisely?”
“You could write a law that provides for an orderly transition to partial ownership with squatters. In exchange for willingly giving away part of the mall, the owner could get a one-year tax break while the property is under repair. We can come up with other incentives, too. The property value stays intact, and so does the assessment.”
“So you are basically saying the taxing districts would see a temporary property tax reduction. The state has no resources right now for a subsidy, at least in this biennium, and the state Constitution makes unfunded mandates very problematic.” He rubbed his chin.
“You could make it optional.”
“Some taxing districts won’t want it. It would still be a one-year hit that some municipalities and school districts can’t afford.”
“But some can. It’s short-term pain for long-term gain: a way to rebuild the neighborhoods. Let the poorer districts opt out. Maybe try to force companies to pay back their state loans faster, and give the funds to districts that really need it. We’ve lent a lot of money.”
He fingered his whiskers. “I assume you already have a spreadsheet.” She nodded, smiling, starting to open up her laptop. He chuckled and held a hand out, forestalling her from showing the data. “Fine, one other issue, for now at least. The new partial owners will need some sort of entity to hold equitable title. They can’t be some hodgepodge of random tenants in common.”
“So they need to form a corporation.”
“A squatter corporation.” He rumbled a second chuckle. “S-Corp is taken, you know.”
“A Hammer-Head Corporation. An H-Corp.”
The lawyers in the Office of Legislative Council lost another night of sleep. Esther explained the urgency of her friends’ plight, and they worked with Dr. Adams to translate her idea into legislation-speak. Esther plumbed the web and the intranet for nuggets. She crafted a narrative portraying squatters as saviors, property owners as willing partners in need of aid, and the Assembly as a fulcrum that would lift Oregon’s people from the depths of their financial abyss. She slept all of an hour in the early morning, her face planted on the cubicle’s desk. When she woke, she rubbed her cheeks, pushed back her hair, and wondered if every important day in her life would involve such uncomfortable sleeping arrangements.
Dr. Adams urged the committee into a pre-dawn session, where they debated the amendment. Between quaffs of coffee, Esther sent waves of messages to committee members, laden with persuasive statistics and quotes and photos to feed their rhetoric. It grew clear by sunrise that the committee would successfully report an amended bill to the House’s Chief Clerk after working out further details.
When the man in a polo shirt pulled into the parking lot a few hours later, an unshowered Esther stood on the mall sidewalk alongside Matt and Mikey. The men had a relaxed “come what may” posture, hands in pockets; Esther’s were behind her back. Matt had the lean, powerful body of a third baseman, a sharp contrast to the football lineman build of Mikey. Esther was tired and her stomach hurt from too little breakfast and too much caffeine, but the presence of the men made her feel safe.
The driver parked at the edge of shouting distance, no closer. He eyed them over and fired off a text message on his phone. Then he rolled down his window.
“Glad to see you otta there!” he hollered, gesturing at the mall. With a self-satisfied jab of his forefinger at their faces, he continued, “I want you off the parking lot, too!”
Esther lifted her arm, dangling a printout of the bill. “The law is changing!” she shouted back. “This bill is going to pass committee. It will be law within weeks.” She waved the bill and carefully failed to mention that getting the regulations in place and winning taxing districts’ buy-in could take months.
“Yeah?” the driver asked. “Who are you?”
Esther walked over to the truck and handed him the bill. “I’m an aide to the Legislative Assembly of the State of Oregon. If your boss can be patient, there could be a lot of money in it for him.”
The driver took the printout of the bill. Ostentatiously, he read aloud, “Whereas the Legislative Assembly deems the proliferation of derelict properties to present a substantial public safety hazard; and whereas the systematic reduction of assessed property value presents a threat to the funding of public education...”
He stopped reading and looked at Esther. She met him in the eye, not blinking. He decided to take her seriously, excused himself, and rolled up his window. She walked back to stand beside her friends.
He pulled out his phone and made a long call, reading sections of the bill aloud. He visibly shrugged several times. At last, he opened the window, held out a business card as Esther walked to retrieve it, and said, “We’ll be in touch.” Then he rolled away.
Editors’ notes: Community
Historically, the Assembly uncovered the governor’s preferential distribution of resources during a series of oversight hearings in the spring of 2019 (not, as depicted by “Hammer Rise,” through a leak by a member of the state personnel). This discovery sparked a renewed sense of community within the Assembly, crossing political party lines. Oregon lacks a constitutional provision for impeachment, so the Assembly instead passed joint resolutions directing the governor and her agencies to more fairly distribute resources among cities regardless of the residents’ predominant political leanings.
The Assembly’s increasing involvement in directing the disaster response forced it to grapple with thorny problems facing the population. One was homelessness, due to the loss of residences for over 100,000 citizens. Another problem was under-insurance: 83% of buildings that failed were not insured against quakes, presenting a financial challenge that impeded rebuilding. Years of tight federal budgets had gutted the funding of FEMA, which in turn demanded high cost-matches (30%) that municipalities and the state could in many cases not afford.
The Assembly’s strategy was to encourage Oregonians to invest money and sweat into helping one another recover, largely through cooperative ownership structures. The state had recognized cooperatives since passing the Oregon Cooperative Corporation Act in 1957. The effect of post-quake legislation therefore was not to authorize cooperatives for the first time but rather to structure stronger incentives driving the formation of cooperatives.
The centerpiece legislation, the Easy Enterprise Zone Act of 2019 (Easy EZ), created a framework providing temporary property tax offsets to commercial property owners. In exchange, at least ten resident-repairmen had to live in the property, each of whom had to receive at least 2.5% equity within one year. In addition to allowing the temporary tax reduction, the local municipality had to adjust zoning regulations or issue variances to authorize appropriate mixed use. Thus, the Act increased the supply of housing, decreased its cost, and provided a work-to-own mechanism for citizens to accumulate some equity.
Property owners worked out a diverse variety of contracts fitting this framework. In some cases, resident-owners worked for the principal owner in an employment relationship, while in other cases they simply lived in the commercial property and worked elsewhere. Some resided in the converted space on a short-term basis (e.g., 1 year) while their own homes underwent repairs, and they then sold their share of the properties when they moved back to their homes.
Another provision reduced regulatory impediments to municipal seizure of commercial properties delinquent on taxes. This provision presented a “stick” complementing the “carrot” of the tax reduction provision, above, because losing a quarter of a property’s equity in exchange for a year of breathing room was preferable to losing the property entirely. In addition, it provided municipalities with valuable real estate from owners that chose to abandon their properties.
In exchange, however, the law stipulated that cities could only retain or sell half of the seized properties. They had to deed the other half to cooperative associations who invested sweat equity in exchange for housing. This led to the formation of numerous Mutual Housing Associations, the most prominent of which owned tens of millions of dollars of assets in Medford, Eugene, Albany and Salem.
Legislation created incentives for other cooperative structures that proved useful for ownership of non-housing resources. For example, residents of Jacksonville pooled funds to establish the Tooler Shop, a company holding shared repair equipment, while those in Harbor established the Jefferson State Guard Dogs, which owned vehicles, weapons and surveillance equipment. Portland Construction Coop Exchange (PCCX) was the biggest cooperative formed in 2020: seeded with over $50 million of citizens’ “crowd-funding,” this non-profit acquired 9 construction and trades firms, then used their staff and equipment to repair the homes of PCCX member-owners. By the mid-2020’s, PCCX was repairing buildings owned by other cooperatives, for which it charged below-cost rates thanks to self-subsidization from profits generated by other work that PCCX did for non-cooperative businesses.
The effects of Oregonian cooperative culture are still playing out today. For example, when personal service robots became common in the early 2030’s, PCCX morphed into a holding company for automated assets that coop members share.
Messages to the Assembly: Community
“Excellent... Excellent... That will be fine... Goodbye.” Jim hung up his phone. A weeklong succession of calls had passed, and nine pairs of eyes watched him complete the last as everybody looked on within the inner mall. “We have a deal,” he announced. “We get to stay for a year!” The dim mall filled with cheers, echoing off the tile floors. Jim continued, “We have to fix the mall and fill it with renters. We get to keep a quarter of whatever we bring in. And”—
—“Hey, I’m the world’s first Jewish sharecropper!” Mikey quipped.
When the laughs died out, Jim resumed, “Actually, that’s not quite right. As soon as we hit breakeven, we get a one-quarter stake in the property. So we’re going to own part of the building, including a quarter of the profits. Also, they’ll cover much of the repair costs as soon as we incorporate. We’ll need to borrow the rest.”
“Yeah, baby! We’re in it!” Curt thrust his arms up. “In it to win it!”
Mandy pushed her hand over his mouth. “So the question on everyone’s mind,” she asked, “Is how do we get to breakeven?” They all looked toward Jim, who smiled.
Mandy and three other “wee folk”—as Mikey called them—called former renters from a list provided by the landlord. They also put up a job posting offering “no pay, free rent, possible equity” to recruit an experienced mall manager, and they arranged utilities.
The “grunt squad”—as Mandy called the stronger men—repaired half the mall that spring. They hauled tons of waste to dumpsters in the parking lot. Every night they collapsed to their mattresses with aching backs and legs. They hired a plumber by the hour and enticed an adventurous journeyman electrician into joining the H-Corp. With their help, the grunt squad built bathrooms and a kitchen, installed wiring and fixtures, rebuilt walls, installed partitions for personal privacy in the sleeping room, refinished floors, and replaced windows.
Every Hammer House raised its own distinctive flag. From the remains of a collapsed home south of the mall, Curt acquired a Cascadia flag—a Douglas fir silhouetted against three horizontal bands of blue, white and green. Mikey snarked, “not unique enough,” so the Hammer Heads embellished it with a jolly-looking phoenix that they named “Pfeiffer the Friendly Phoenix,” perhaps the first smiling phoenix in history, which they cut from yellow silk and stitched onto the flag as if it were perching or landing upon the fir. Satisfied that their flag would attract attention and admiration, they mounted it to a pole alongside the mall’s main entrance.
Jim swam in a sea of paperwork: establishing the H-Corp, finalizing the contract with the mall’s primary owner, filing for a zoning change so they could legally live in the mall, acceding to property standards imposed by Salem in exchange for variances, getting an occupancy permit for the sleeping room, and visiting the state to verify that they could keep getting unemployment under the circumstances.
Mikey and Curt were Jim’s bodyguards for his frequent trips downtown, when they were not busy grunting. The neighborhoods had improved to the extent that fresh cases of arson had ceased—Salem’s mayor and police chief had no politically acceptable option except to police the entire city, in partnership with the enhanced citizen patrol groups—but it would take time before the city became entirely safe again.
Esther and Matt were the mall’s first official renters, sharing a store for sleeping near the others’ main room. But the supply of bedding acquired from the shelter had already run out, so they bought beds from a store that had reopened in Millersburg. They had no room for other furnishings (a sharp contrast to the newly re-opened luxury hotel suite where Phillips relocated in the same week), and a thin orange curtain separated their sections of the tiny space.
After they installed the beds, Mikey treated to beer again to celebrate the arrival of their two new rent-paying clientele. Curt raised a toast, “To the BEDS!” he bellowed, and everyone cheered, clinking their bottles.
When Curt had drained his, he suddenly smashed it against the base of Esther’s bedframe. Everybody stared. “I was christening it.... you know, like breaking a bottle of champagne on a ship?” They shook their heads, laughing, and explained that it didn’t work that way.
The capitol reopened, and the staff returned to their familiar desks and computers, and to the creamy swirls of the capitol’s marble halls, and to the colorful murals of Oregon’s founding and history and greatest leaders. The gold man returned to an active stance, though the rotunda remained closed for further repair.
Esther and Matt made quick work of finding nuggets to feed a bill that loosened licensing and codes. The quake had damaged or shambled most buildings west of I-5, and finding licensed tradesmen was agonizingly slow. The bill stipulated H-Corp owners could do work in their resident-businesses, even in those bigger than one or two households, if they worked at all times one-to-one alongside licensed workers. And the bill required cities to allow Hammer Houses to retain nonconforming use status, even if they rebuilt from the ground up—“grandfathering” under old code and zoning regulations. H-Corps went from just a variety of mutual benefit corporation to a tool that property owners could use to save money and get repairs moving. But they had to act fast: the law would sunset in 2021. When the bill passed, newspaper ads began appearing as business owners tried to find live-in workers/co-owners who, under other circumstances, would have been squatters. The new law instantly created tens of thousands of live-in part-time jobs.
After its passage, representatives of both parties applauded Dr. Adams on the House floor for leading the effort. He repaid with a bow and a flourish of his arm toward the Minority Leader, who had corralled enough votes to forestall the threat of a veto. Esther, watching from the aide’s chair at his desk on the floor, mused that if the worst part of being a legislator is the exhaustion of partisan sniping, then the best part must be the chance to create something with competent people who’ve earned their share of respect.
She began a web page depicting dozens of mall and business conversions that sprouted throughout the valley and along the coast. Too many people needed housing; too many businesses had collapsed. Most conversions followed the H-Corp model that Esther had pitched to Dr. Adams and that Easy EZ codified.
Hundreds of emails, letters and phone calls poured in every day to thank the legislature for this legislation. While Matt drove with Esther back to the Hammer House each day, she popped her feet onto the dashboard and read excerpts. She wagged her finger when reading a favorite phrase, which usually commended the legislators and their staff, rather than any specific law—like “Great to see you working as a team again,” “The politicians have become statesmen... will wonders never cease,” and “100% improvement.” Matt’s favorite was “You’re home-run kings and hitting a thousand,” which he converted into a little ditty with a melody that he hummed under his breath during meetings.
Yet not all was well. Esther’s anonymous enemy wrote to her, “Get me that data. The longer you take, the worse it will go for you.” She shook her head and grimaced. She wrote back, “I don’t have it. I only had what you took.” She sighed. How to satisfy a blackmailer who wanted something that she didn’t have and couldn’t get?
Meanwhile, newspapers pummeled the government for the continuing rift between governor and legislature. The Assembly fired off multiple measures to micromanage agencies as the governor undermined implementation of laws. She continued to shortchange communities outside the Willamette Valley of financial aid and other state resources, with twisted interpretations of every statute and resolution that the legislature fired in her direction.
One day in the lobby outside the House chamber, as the staff streamed by, Phillips threatened, “I am going to personally take that fascist to court,” but Dr. Adams rejoined that a lawsuit would only feed the journalistic piranha. His eyes glimmered, and he had another idea, inspired by how Esther had previously handled the governor (which, he had smiled to her, would remain their secret): he took his case to the people.
Standing atop the steps of capitol on a windy May morning, he delivered a speech contrasting the State Assembly’s recent accomplishments with the governor’s obstructionism. He hammered home his case by quoting from letters that citizens had sent. Esther, standing in the crowd, smiled to herself: she had chosen every one of those letters for the speech-writer to consider.
Dr. Adams then closed, “Within these halls, on marble walls, it is written: ‘In the souls of its citizens are the likeness of the state... If they are unjust and tyrannical, the state will reflect their vices. But if they are lovers of righteousness, confident in their liberties, so will the government be clean in justice and bold in freedom.’ So I ask the people of Oregon: Will you complacently tolerate this tyrant? Will you ignore the elevation of politics over people? Or will you boldly unite to recall this governor, to put an end to this injustice, to put in place a leader that leads for all?”
The governor arrived at the office of Dr. Adams before he did, with fury in both their eyes. His aides spoke forever thereafter about “The Reckoning” and the ensuing shouts that pierced his door. But the two achieved a détente—state resource allocations began to resemble a reasonable distribution, and regulations began rolling out the governor’s agencies and into practice according to the Assembly’s intentions, and journalists soon lost interest in the conflict.
The newspapers settled on a new line of attack, one not so easily addressed: deteriorating government budgets. Temporary property tax abatements under Easy EZ had cratered municipal and school district budgets. They were set to run a massive deficit for the following biennium. Playing fast and loose with bonds to close the gap had become politically unpalatable—the backlash against the governor’s lending of credit had generated a new refrain repeated by citizens and legislators alike: “No new debt!”
When income tax revenue estimates came in far below pre-quake projections, the news rippled in a murmur across the capitol. The current biennium’s finances were a mess; the budget for the next was in tatters.
Dr. Adams met his staff members among their cubicles. “Incoming,” he said. Chairs swiveled and eyes turned to his face. The vigorous bipartisanship of the chamber had filled him with zeal, and his body was tensed with energy. The aging man was poised for action.
“Matt,” he said, “Look into methods for increasing lottery revenues. The general fund is going to be crippled next biennium. We need to boost our other revenue sources.” He turned. “Esther, gather members’ ideas for reducing K-12 costs. If we’re going to rebuild this state, we’re going to need to free up some funds. Education is the easiest target.”
He doled out other assignments to the other staff members—damage control instructions for the communications director and member services director. He finished, “We may be back in the capitol, but the new rules of engagement remain in force. Keep asking the other Offices, both parties, for what you need. We’re in this together.”
Matt made quick work of his task. Pursuing this latest mandate from Dr. Adams, Matt sat with Phillips after a vote on the chamber floor. She rocked back a bit on her chair, resting one palm on its arm. She exclaimed (more of a proclamation than a conversation—having just come off a debate), “Most people play the lottery because of poverty or boredom. Oregon has plenty of both. I saw a spreadsheet this morning: the lottery is selling more tickets than ever!” Matt nodded. Sales had increased threefold since the quake. “We should offer more games. If we increase the number of games, the people will play. Trust me, the people will play.” Other members told Matt essentially the same.
Esther, however, discovered that school expenditures were a mind-numbingly complex problem. While she rode with Matt back to the Hammer House one evening, she ticked off the issues. “The state mandates the length of the school year, in hours. It sets the number of credits, most of the subjects covered, lots of rules for the building and staffing.” She paused. “Districts can lay off teachers, but there are a ton of rules for who they can lay off and when. Many districts haven’t even re-opened this year because they are still rebuilding, and I’m not sure how they’ll pay for FEMA cost sharing.”
“So what’s the solution?” he asked as they arrived.
Esther pondered as they walked into their rental space. She mused, “I don’t know. I talked with like fifteen people today. None of their ideas make any sense.” She sighed, lifted the ghastly curtain that divided their shared room, and kicked off her sneakers. Matt lifted it behind her and hunkered in the opening. She flopped onto the thin gray blanket that covered her bed.
Matt asked, “What are they saying?”
“Like, Senator McMillan said we should just borrow the money on a bond for local district operations, which doesn’t make sense. We can only bond capital costs. Unless I’m missing something.”
“Besides which, issuing more debt isn’t going to win anybody reelection next year.”
“Right. And two other people, from the House, suggested we should just reduce bus service.”
Matt pursed his lips, thinking. Then he said, “A clever idea, the kids sure could use the exercise, but maybe not much savings?”
“Right. Besides, the roads are safer, but I’m not sure they’re that safe. There was a mugging outside the mall just yesterday.” Esther closed her eyes. “Too bad they can’t just let the kids stay home for a biennium, close the schools.”
“Yeah, you do that, they’re just going to sit and surf the web all day.”
“Or, worse, get bored and go out on the streets and set something on fire,” Esther quipped.
“K-12: Babysitting for the 21st Century,” Matt intoned.
Esther rolled her eyes. “It’s been that way for a long time.”
But it was no time for despondency. The next night, a Saturday, the Hammer Heads had a party because four businesses had moved into the mall: a used book store, a video games parlor, a coffee shop, and a used sporting goods store. As a bonus, six other people had moved into repaired rooms, renting by the month. Setting aside the cost of repairs, the occupied portion of the mall was near breakeven.
They had had to move their pool to a small room out of the inner mall... “maintaining a professional atmosphere,” Mandy had called it. They had decorated this room with abandoned couches from the neighborhood and run a hot water line to the pool. Soft dance music filled the space lit by Christmas lights and a growing collection of old-school lava lamps, and the mood was very chill. A bar on the side of the room, complete with a small refrigerator beneath, finished the room in perfect frat-house style.
Esther stood with Mandy, Curt and Mikey. The two women had become close, often lapping the mall to chat in the evenings. Esther found that it helped her to sleep better, quelling flashback nightmares, either because of the exercise or the socializing or both. Beer in one hand, Mandy’s other arm was linked with Curt’s, as he and Mikey bantered with Jim about starting a brewery in the mall.
Jim lounged by the pool. For the first time that the Hammer Heads knew him, he erred on the side of too many beers. He turned out to be a happy-tears kind of drunk. At one point he lifted his polyester polo shirt and, in an entirely insufficient gesture, dabbed at his dripping eyes and soaked cheeks. “I wasn’t sure I’d ever feel ‘home’ again,” he explained. “But this is home. And you all”—he set down his drink and stretched his arms forward expansively, palms up—“you all are like family.”
Mikey stepped over and patted Jim on the back. “Hey, this is like coming home for me, too. I never thought I’d own much of anything.”
Mandy stepped toward the center of the group. “Our accomplishments couldn’t have happened without the leadership that you gentlemen have shown.” She raised her drink with the arm that had been broken. “A toast—to Mikey and Jim. The men of the hour.” More nods, calls of “cheers” and clinks of bottles followed.
The détente with the governor threatened to collapse when she held a townhall where she lambasted the legislature for not passing her budget promptly. Letters poured in to Dr. Adams and others, arguing for the quick passage of her budget. Yet to every pair of eyes in the legislative branch, Highland’s budget stood no chance of passing: the funds for subsidizing municipalities’ rebuilding efforts were far too small, probably sufficient only for her favored allies. But the state’s collapsing tax base and decrepit bond rating left little flexibility for increased subsidies.
Dr. Adams grew frustrated with the budget impasse over the next week. Each morning, the Majority Leader stopped at Esther’s desk and picked up a printout summarizing opportunities to trim education expenses, or ways to tweak the formula that controlled distribution of funds. He invariably slapped the pages back down and strode away after a clipped, “Thank you.”
After a rowdy meeting of the caucus’s legislators and another with the governor, Dr. Adams introduced a biennial budget that provided recovery subsidies but slashed K-12 funding and entirely eliminated funds for higher education. His sunken shoulders at the first reading betrayed a loss of confidence: this was a fatalistic budget, sure to provoke a backlash from the minority and, likely, the electorate. With so many businesses closed and so many people out of work, school districts would have a difficult time getting the voters to approve compensating property tax increases. Teacher layoffs and vast increases in class sizes would follow.
For the first time in months, letters to the Assembly soured. Esther tried finding uplifting excerpts from letters for her ride home with Matt, but the pickings were slim. “You’re ruining our children’s future” and “Oregon is becoming a second-rate banana republic” accurately summed up the sentiments.
“Why are you reading these?” he griped on one ride.
Esther was tired: sea dreams had swept away sleep the preceding night, leaving her to ponder her hidden enemy in the dark. She grimaced. “Believe it or not, those are the nicest letters I found in the emails all day.”
“Sometimes it’s better to say nothing at all,” he quipped.
She held her tongue and snapped the laptop closed. She wanted to expound on how finding nuggets for quotes had become difficult because civic leaders didn’t want to go on record supporting the budget. Some sympathy would have been nice.
He shook his head and said nothing. They rode in tense silence.
As they exited his pickup in the garage, she noticed a slip of yellow in the front of his truck bed, tucked into the corner. She reached over and snatched it, but the light in the garage was too poor to see what it was. As they walked over to the mall, she spread it and tried to understand it: an odd shape, yellow silk. She rotated it and suddenly halted, recognizing it.
“What is Pfeiffer’s head doing in your truck bed?” she demanded, still annoyed from their conflict on the drive home.
“The phoenix’s head.” She held it toward Matt, stretching it out for him to see. “Why isn’t it on the flag?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. They looked to the mall’s entrance, where the flag staff laid, flagless. He picked it up and repeated, “I don’t know.”
“Well, it didn’t put itself in your truck.”
“Somebody must have grabbed it last night and ripped it off the flag.”
She crossed her arms. “The garage was locked. Was it an inside job?” Her lips curled, parroting a smirk that she had seen on her mom’s face many times.
“I don’t know,” he repeated a third time and turned his back on her to enter the mall. “I’ll get Curt to make a new flag.”
She stood, watching him go, thinking this is what her mom must have felt like about her father. The one man who was closest to her seemed to have come up empty.
Esther watched the door close behind him, Pfeiffer’s head dangling from her hand. Was Pfeiffer’s beheading some sort of Godfatheresque message from anony4gov? She needed a friend more than ever, with the persisting dreams and the trouble about the thumb drive. And Matt was the only friend she had had at both the mall and at the capitol.
The thought reverberated in her mind—friend at the mall and the capitol—and suddenly halted with an almost audible click: he was the only one that could conveniently have cut off their phoenix’s head and also that might easily have found the thumb drive.
Sure, somebody else could have done it. But what if anony4gov was Matt? He knew her well enough to push her buttons, almost without even thinking about it. He could have sent those taunting emails. Easily.
But why? She repeated her line of thinking, conceded it could be wrong, but found no obvious flaws except the absence of a motive. Esther shook her head, worried—the man slept no more than ten feet from her bed—and walked to the mall. She would have to ask Jim about moving into the main sleeping room.
Her subconscious had ample material for dreams that night.
Conversation the next morning was curt, and the drive home was silent until—half thinking about the phoenix and half thinking about work (and perhaps half exhaustedly not thinking at all)—Esther blurted, “I don’t know why everyone is so worked up about the K12 cuts. Seriously.”
Matt, driving, glanced at her, frowning. “What do you mean? It’s school. It’s a big part of the budget.” She read judgment in his face.
She cocked her head. “Yeah, but it’s ridiculous. We spend over ten thousand dollars on each kid every year. So you put twenty kids in a room. Does the teacher get paid two hundred k a year?”
Matt snickered, laughing at her. “Of course not. A lot of goes to capital expenditures. New buildings, et cetera.”
“No, I’m talking about operations. Have you ever looked at the numbers?” She jabbed her finger at him for effect—he wasn’t taking her seriously. He shook his head, and she thought she detected a smug smile on his lips. She paused, thinking that if he was the blackmailer, then maybe she should have Mikey beat the daylights out of him. Then she realized that she felt really tired, and she raised her eyebrows, more at herself than at anybody.
Matt didn’t reply, pulling the truck into the mall’s parking lot.
Staring out her window, she grumbled, “So you’re paying $10 per instruction hour. How many hours do they remember? What kind of kids they end up as? Vandals and looters? Video game addicts?” She paused, realizing that she hadn’t played her favorite video game since returning to Salem. Life had been too… interesting.
“Huh?” he answered. “Was that a rhetorical question?”
But Esther’s attention was distracted, as well. She had turned to look back out the windshield. “What the heck is that?”
Two motorcycles drove back and forth on the alternate sides of the mall’s loop road, in opposite directions. As they passed one another, the drivers fired super soakers at one another, hooting when they scored a hit. At the ends of the lot, they U-turned, accelerated, and repeated. Four Hammer Heads stood nearby, with water buckets and a pump by their side, a pit crew ready to refuel the jousters’ weapons. They jumped up and down, cheering each time a rider doused the other. Esther thought to herself that Mandy would not approve this lack of professionalism.
Matt pulled up, and Mikey exclaimed, “Curt’s getting the crap beaten out of him!”
“Who’s the other guy?” Matt asked.
Mikey cheered as the riders gunned by. “Vic. He used to spot me at the gym, before it closed.”
“So what’s he doing here?”
“He’s got this citizen patrol group, the Red Whips. After that mugging outside the mall last week—not to mention the thing with Pfeiffer—I hunted him down. We’re comping the Whips some space, in exchange for patrols. They’re going to start a security company.” The motorcycles rolled up, rumbling and belching puffy exhaust, and the drivers refilled their guns. Vic sported a falcon tattoo that wreathed his enormous bicep, contrasting sharply against his skin. “And Vic’s a much better shot than Curt!” Mikey bellowed, loud enough for them to hear over the revving bikes. Curt squirted his gun on Mikey, who lunged forward to try grabbing the gun before Curt rolled away.
When the jousting resumed, Matt noticed that customers from the mall stores had gathered on the sidewalk near the mall to watch. Matt suggested, “You guys should sell tickets.”
“Yeah, we should. Everybody’s probably bored enough to pay for a show,” Mikey replied, smirking.
Matt chuckled and replied, “Maybe some. If they can find time to squeeze in a show between their video games and their social media and their television and their movies and their fantasy football and”—
Esther, listening from the passenger seat, suddenly leaned between Matt and the driver’s wheel, looking out the window at Mikey. —“That’s exactly what the mall is selling!” she exclaimed, pleased with her insight.
Matt pulled her red hair out of his mouth and said, “Selling what?”
Mikey stepped closer to the truck window, and she leaned back, glaring at Matt for touching her hair, talking in a more normal voice. “Everybody is bored. The kids especially. So the stores renting space in the mall are selling entertainment—books, video games, et cetera. It’s like half the state is bored stiff.”
“And that’s why they’re buying so many lottery tickets,” Matt recalled. “So what’s your point? So selling jousting tickets is a good idea. Right?”
“Yeah, and maybe there’s other stuff we can sell, too,” Mikey replied, looking up at Esther. “I know! We could start a club!”
“Do we really want that vibe?” Matt asked, grimacing. He tapped his thumb on the steering wheel.
Mikey’s face tightened, and he looked Matt up and down his striped tie. Esther sensed an argument. “We’ll just make a list of ideas and vote on them at the pool like we always do.” Mikey sniffed, and Matt nodded. The motorcycles roared by, and the pickup rolled back to the garage.
The assembly at the pool that night was the loudest yet, but not because of fighting. Mandy announced that she and the other wee folk had landed their biggest prize yet, filling a large part of the mall’s unoccupied space with an alternative school for “at risk” children. The quake had put the alt school’s 1930’s building out of its misery. Their budget had no set-aside for capital costs, and the Assembly’s proposal of further cuts was the writing on the wall. They sold the building, borrowed some money, and planned to reestablish in a smaller space within the mall.
Most of the Hammer Heads played Monopoly on the bar and sang to nineties music. The music was loud enough to be heard throughout the inner mall. Curt was nominally dancing with Mandy, but spasms of laughter prevented her from keeping up as he alternated between the butterfly and the Carlton.
“I guess you got your club!” Matt shouted to Mikey. “We’re living it!”
Mikey smiled. “Most of us!” He looked at Esther, who sat alone near the side of the room by a sullen yellow lava lamp. “What’s eating at you, Esther!?”
She looked over, holding an empty water glass in her hand. “Legislature stuff,” she replied, barely audible over the music. He held a hand to his ear, invitingly, while his knees kept time with the music. She tried to speak, then shook her head.
He set down his drink, grabbed her by an elbow, and pulled her through the door to the inner mall. The nineties music dropped to a dull roar, and the sound of mall musak filled their ears. A few shoppers wandered among the stores in the distance. It was a quiet Tuesday night.
“Ok, what’s up?” Mikey said, holding a hand to Esther’s despondent chin.
She grimaced and brushed his hand away. She had two things—anony4gov and the budget—on her mind. She flipped a mental coin and replied, “I think I hammered out a nugget issue, that’s all.”
“A nugget? You mean you crapped your pants?”
She looked him in the eye, shook her head. “No, nuggets as in information related to legislation. Ways to sell a bill.” His eyes glazed over. “Ok, the thing is nobody is going to like my idea because it’s not a finished solution—they’re just going to attack it,” she answered. He blinked his eyes, puzzled. “So—you know,” she finished, sort of.
“Look, Esther. You’re like a sister to me, right?”
“Uh, maybe.” She looked him up and down: a muscular man who swaggered into a crowded club like a sailor through the surf, versus a woman who preferred to be alone and measured too large in the wrong dimensions… “We might have one or two genes in common.”
“Since I’m like a big brother, sometimes I have to tell you what you don’t want to hear.”
“Such as: you’ve got a lot of potential, stuff that I never will be able to do, and you’re letting it go to waste. Do you think the world needs another paper pusher?”
Her forehead crinkled. His breath was saturated with beer, and although she knew he was sincere, she wasn’t sure he was making sense.
His onslaught continued, “You spend all your time in Salem researching other peoples’ ideas. And your job in Cannon Beach is literally to type in what other people say. Then when you get ideas for yourself, you’re always scared to share them. With that noggin of yours”—he reached down and patted her hair, and she pulled away—“with that noggin, you could really make a difference.” She frowned. “Is the legislature really such a bunch of senseless jackasses that they can’t take a so-so idea and turn it into a great idea?”
She scowled. “Hardly. They’re some of the best people I know.”
He continued, “All right. So suppose sharing your idea gets you into a fight. There’s nothing wrong with a fight. If it doesn’t kill your idea, it’ll make it stronger.”
Esther contemplated her cousin’s giant biceps and wide, serious face. It was true, fighting had made him strong. He was a big guy—big enough in fact, she realized, he probably wasn’t drunk. He was making sense.
And she knew she had an idea that made sense, as much sense as any idea she had ever had. It was better than so-so, at any rate. She was going to do her best to heal Oregon, even if it meant a fight, one she couldn’t hide from this time.
“You know,” she replied, finally smiling, “you’re doofy but you actually give good advice.”
He gave her a one-harmed hug, bucking her torso forward and pulling her toward the party. “Well, thanks, but it’s just common sense. You gotta use what ya got!”
In the end, even though he didn’t get a club, Mikey did open a little business of his own. The mall was nearly full, and the Hammer House’s sleeping areas were completely occupied with fifteen owners, so the group decided everybody had to put in only a solid three hours of work six days a week—and then they were free to do as they chose with the rest of their time. The taste of ownership had gotten into Mikey’s system, and he signed a lease for a small shop near the alt school.
Then he did what he knew best: he punched people. More precisely, he taught people how to fight.
On the first day of his classes a few weeks later, Esther woke to the punches and taunts of a morning fight. She held her head in her hands. It had been another long night.
“Come on! Tuck your friggen chin!” Mikey’s voice sounded through the inner mall. She wandered over and watched. Two boys were circling in the room across the hall with fists extended, each watching for an opening, one of them periodically wiping sweat or blood from above his left eye. Mikey circled with the boys, crouching as if eager to get into the fight and to show them how it was done.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Esther asked him, when the class ended. “What if somebody gets hurt?”
“That’s the point,” he replied, smiling. “Whenever Vic finds some kids loitering around, he advertises the fight club by promising somebody definitely will get hurt, sometimes really bad. The ultimate cure for boredom! It gets them off the street, brings in some cash.” Esther stared, wide-eyed. “Ok, it’s not for every parent,” he shrugged, “but that’s why we make them sign a contract.”
Esther shook her head. Mikey inhabited a different world. But she was glad he was there, even if it meant putting up with a little bit of controlled insanity.
Esther’s work grew frenetic because the Assembly aimed to finish business by early June, to avoid having to extend beyond a standard 160-day session. “I’ll miss all this, of course, but it’s time to get back to my practice,” Dr. Adams said one day. “It’s time to get back to normal. It’s time to wrap this session up.” The legislators of both parties shared the sentiment. A caretaker committee could keep an eye on the governor and call for an emergency session if needed.
The House managed to pass the budget with one last spurt of bipartisanship that drained the last of the Majority Leader’s energy. But newspapers and television stations saturated the population with an echo-chamber of quotes condemning the bill, largely due to the public education cuts. Senators of both parties had hinted that they would vote against it, leaving no clear path to passing a budget and ending the session.
So with the permission of Dr. Adams, the Senate Majority Leader called a meeting with the staff from both of the party’s Caucus Offices. Esther eagerly took a seat.
Phillips blustered for a while about the tough spot that “Queen Highland” had left everybody in. Everyone stayed silent, waiting for the thunder to pass. She then asked the staff for thoughts on which senators were most likely to vote against the bill.
An underling from the Senate office replied, “Five or six are really against it. But the rest are just worried about re-election.”
The Senate office’s director of communications agreed, “They’re worried about the parents. We need to manage perceptions.”
Esther shifted in her seat. She had reviewed polling data that morning. Parents were indeed up in arms. Last week, a Portland newspaper published an analysis of which districts would suffer the biggest budget cuts. Their interviews of parents succeeded in eliciting inflammatory reactions. The paper even led with one such quote: “’Mortgaging our kids’ future.’” A snap poll—complete with a “not a scientifically valid sample” disclaimer, but still quite effective at reinforcing public opinion—showed two-thirds of respondents disapproved of the budget that the House had passed. Opposition was weakest along the coast, where many people still lived in tents. Municipalities everywhere west of I-5 desperately needed relief, if only the legislature could find the votes to free up funds.
Phillips pursed her lips, considering the angles, reviewing the constituent bases. “All right, let’s start with the kindergartners and work up from there.”
“K-8 is on track for a big de-coring dividend,” the male staffer from her office replied. The state had voted in a prior session years ago to phase out Common Core.
The Senate office’s director of communications continued, “So less testing, fewer drills, less wasted class time, fewer unnecessary staff. We could focus our messaging on the de-coring dividend.” Nods from the rest of the senator’s office.
“All right, then what about high school?”
The senator’s other staffer replied, “That’s more of a problem because they started de-coring years ago, after the feds passed ESSA, and there’s not much more to save on that from the remaining phase-out. Their funding will be down 20%, even after the lottery bump. So they’ll need to increase class sizes or raise property taxes.”
The communications director added, “Both are hot potatoes.”
Esther sensed her moment. “But there’s a lot of waste.”
“What waste?” Phillips asked.
Esther edged forward the wedge of her argument, “How much do you remember from high school chemistry?” Phillips stared, not sure whether or how to answer. Esther looked around the room. “How much do any of you remember from high school chemistry?”
A jumble of replies came back: “I remember there are atoms and electrons,” one suggested. “We mixed colorful stuff,” another answered. Matt said, “I don’t remember much of chemistry, but I loved business.”
Esther felt a wave of serenity, like the one that she had felt after outing the governor. The stares of her peers bore into her, but she felt nothing of the heat. She stood. Her voice was loud, and strong, and she looked around again and continued, “You sat in a classroom a hundred thirty hours and all you remember is that ‘there are atoms’ and you mixed ‘colorful stuff.’” A few staffers opened their mouths to speak, but she angled her head and frowned, forestalling their replies. “We spend billions on high school, but almost half the kids don’t meet standards, half those that graduate high school don’t go on to university or community college, nearly half those that do don’t get a degree anyway, and even the ones who graduate with any degree soon forget most of what they studied to get that degree.” None of her peers replied: she had the data, they did not.
“So what is your point?” Phillips asked in a clipped voice.
“The point is this: Almost all of high school was a waste. You only remember what you use. Most of the people rebuilding the state are using their hands; they didn’t need chemistry or calculus. Maybe the architects and engineers do, but most don’t. Neither does my friend who teaches literature. Neither did the helicopter pilot who got me to Salem, and neither did the National Guardsmen and cops who bailed us out in Cannon Beach. And I don’t need chemistry, beyond what most of you also remember, and neither do you.”
“So we do away with chemistry?” the senator asked, removing her glasses and extending her hand with them for effect. “Who will make pharmaceuticals?”
“Look, some people can learn chemistry, but other people don’t have to. Just let kids learn what interests them, plus what they need to know to grow up and get a life. Let them focus on something and get good at it.” She sat and pulled up a document on her laptop, where she had already done a detailed analysis. “See, high schoolers need twenty-four credits to graduate in Oregon. If they’re lucky, they’ll remember two thirds of it. So let them take four courses per year—just sixteen courses, half of them electives—on a four-day per week schedule.”
The Senate office’s staffers were shaking their heads. “That is a teeeeerrrrrible idea,” whined one, and “You can’t let kids opt out of math and English,” objected another, and “We want kids to go to college. What about SATs?” griped a third.
Matt leapt to Esther’s aid, “Where are you getting that from? Not everybody needs to go to college. Parents care about whether their kids get jobs. They should study business or some vocation so they can get a job right out of high school. Almost nobody uses chemistry on the job, or trigonometry or literature for that matter”—
“Hold it!” the Senator burst out, in the voice that she usually reserved for floor debate. “Hold it. Nobody’s going to opt out of the bare minimum of math, English, or science. But different parents want different things for their kids. Let’s work with this idea for a minute. Suppose we reduce the credit requirements as Esther proposes, encourage districts to switch to a four-day-per-week schedule, and most importantly give families more flexibility in spending their credits. Suppose we pitch it as a ‘charter school tailored to every child.’ The existing so-called ‘personalized learning plan’ is already polling well with parents?”
“Yes, with parents,” her office’s communications director conceded. Nods all around, some sullen. But Esther smiled, sensing that the tide of the argument had turned, like a tsunami that had reached its point of highest approach and would now sink toward its only possible conclusion.
Another staffer, a small man in the back, protested, “But the teachers are going to hate giving kids more flexibility if it also means layoffs.” Esther resisted the urge to reply.
The senator lifted her head, eyes glistening sharply. “We can reduce total credit requirements a tad more than we reduce funding. That way, average class sizes decrease. The teachers who don’t get laid off—which is to say the vast majority of them—will support that, right?” Hesitant nods. “So more flexibility, lower course requirements, 4-day weeks.”
The Majority Leader jabbed with her glasses and resumed, “And I suppose we don’t need to discuss the cuts to higher ed. College students don’t vote anyway, and most Oregonians don’t vote based on college tuition?” More nods.
She slipped her glasses back on: a decision had been reached. “Then we have a messaging plan. There’s no reason this idea should cost anybody re-election. And, in any event, we don’t have the money for much of anything else.”
As the group funneled out of the room, Phillips smiled to Esther. “You have all the data, don’t you, young lady?” she zinged.
Esther felt her face flush, and she started to look down, then thought for a moment. She raised her eyes and smiled back at the graying, older woman, grateful for the esteem.
But the senator’s smile was tight, and her eyes were as cold and as piercing as a well-honed blade, and her arms were crossed. Esther’s smile collapsed as Phillips swept out of the room.
The senator had also stayed at the Adams residence during the time that Esther had lost the thumb drive. She suddenly realized that Matt shouldn’t be her primary suspect.
Passing the amendment to modify schooling requirements took two weeks. Predictable groups led predictable obstructionism with predictable talking points—easily handled with nuggets and her party’s messaging plan. Working with the Senate Majority’s Caucus Office, Esther paraded people through hearings with moving testimony: Teachers told sorrowful tales of how class sizes had grown to the point that students could barely learn anything at all. Administrators fumed that so many districts had failed to open after the quake, and losing another year would prove disastrous to childhood education. Parents explained they knew Johnny and Susie would be the next great computer programmer or scientist, if only they could specialize at an early enough age.
The newspapers at last ate it up, and a veto-proof majority had political cover to vote for the bill. After passage in the Senate and a quick conference committee, the budget went to the governor.
Editors’ notes: Esteem
The State of Oregon incurred $28 billion in debt during the six months after the quake, divided among rescue & recovery operations, repairs to state infrastructure, and aid to municipalities. At the same time, state GDP fell 15% (comparable to the 13% drop in Kobe after the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995), and widespread layoffs trimmed state income taxes.
The combination of increased debt service with decreased revenues left the Assembly with little option but to cut expenditures. Education incurred the sharpest wounds, being one of the biggest discretionary expenditures in the budget—or, as one senator put it, “an overfed sea lion barking on the dock while Rome burns.”
In fairness, it should be noted Oregon’s education expenditures were low by national standards in 2019. Nonetheless, when the “Education Reconfiguration” movement swept the nation in 2023, other states made cost-saving reforms similar to Oregon’s, and this movement accelerated and intensified when the federal government cut state funding of all forms in 2025. Oregon, under the impetus of the quake, simply made these changes sooner. If anything, Oregon showed a path through trouble that other states followed.
These reforms began with a sharp reduction in general education requirements. Students generally began to take very few courses unrelated to their primary areas of interest. In addition, the state reduced the number of hours required per year from 990 to 800 for high schools, and from 900 to 700 for middle and elementary schools. Over 90% of school districts opted for these minima during the 2019-2021 biennium. Some returned to longer school weeks later in the 2020’s once the state had recovered, while retaining lower core credit requirements and growing their menus of available electives.
To over-simplify, high school graduates only had to learn English up to composition, mathematics up to algebra, history up to a general knowledge of American and world events, health and nutrition up to a level required for healthy living, and science up to introductory chemistry, biology and physics. Beyond these requirements, they specialized deeply in courses related to subdomains of engineering, technology, arts, sciences, agriculture, and humanities. Universities enacted comparable changes. Crucially: students studied less material, but what they studied they were expected to remember.
These changes freed up substantial infrastructure. School buildings became unoccupied for a larger number of hours per week. Savvy principals arranged to rent this space to businesses at a rate much lower than traditional office space. This led to the concept of dropspace: converting a classroom of desks into work or meeting space (such as with sound-absorbing dividers that rolled down and partitioned a classroom into work areas). Businesses thereby leveraged existing buildings for collaborative work while providing additional income for school districts.
Meanwhile, the Assembly eliminated numerous testing and reporting requirements, thereby reducing administrative costs. This sometimes required foregoing participation in federal grant programs, a difficult sell that became simpler after the elimination of most such programs in the Fiscal Trench of 2025.
The reduction of “wasted credit hours” in the general curriculum led to three great surprises.
The first was a sharp increase in the high school and university graduation rates to 96% and 86%, respectively, by 2024. The second was that, as students more easily passed through the educational system and into the workforce, their employment prospects were in no way hampered by not having taken courses that they would have forgotten anyway. Instead, their improved depth of expertise in a field of choice—and the esteem it commanded—enabled them to obtain high-paying jobs, and average household income rose to over $70,000 by 2025. Graduates rapidly paid back education loans, and by the decade’s close, 92% of Oregonians over age 30 had zero student debt.
Detractors of education reforms in the 2019-2020 biennium predicted that the fixation on cost-effectiveness and employability would spell the demise of humanities. This proved far from the truth. The third great surprise was that once Oregonians achieved the financial stability afforded by educational and professional success, they could and did invest far more deeply in culture than ever before. Between 2020 and 2030, donations to art-related non-profits rose 6-fold, the number of digital books published per year quadrupled, the number of plays doubled, and the number of Oregonians enrolled in art-related community college courses rose 14-fold.
Messages to the Assembly: Esteem
Mikey wasn’t the only one who had gotten a taste of blood as an owner. Following his model, Hammer Heads opened other classes, some in the same sweat-stank studio as Mikey’s. For instance, Mandy alternated among four courses of literature: pre-English Renaissance, Renaissance & Neo-Classical, Romantic & Victorian, and Modern & Post-modern.
Curt opened a store called “Cool Stuff with Curt”—essentially a hole in the wall where he taught woodworking with hand-tools. He discovered his new love while refurbishing the mall and realized it was more fun to craft than bartending ever was. He himself slowly became a master of creating unusual furniture. His store offered some finished items for sale, but mainly it served as a destination where parents could work alongside their children, learning what Curt called “the cool of creating.”
Jim was Curt’s oldest pupil, working whenever he could spare an hour on a small wooden ship polished to a high luster, with a lamp for a mast and the words “How dull it is to pause... not to shine in use!” carved on one side of the hull and “‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world” on the other. Mandy had suggested the quotes.
Others taught art, building repair, and computer programming. A musician held concerts every few weeks—he looked like a younger version of the old man Esther had met under a tarp in Cannon Beach, and he still remembered how to play the guitar. The alt school still was getting established, but the mall had already become a monument to industriousness, culture and learning.
A community college teacher who moonlighted a massage course summed up her side of the equation while renewing her monthly lease with Mandy: “I teach 20 people in the mall at a time, and they each pay $10 an hour. I take home half after rent and other expenses—several times what I make teaching for the college. Plus, I know my students actually want to be here. What’s not to like?”
Jim’s progress on his ship ran aground, however, as a stream of building inspectors, police, FBI, fire marshals, and other public officials began to trickle and then steadily flow through the mall that summer. Many said they had received an anonymous tip that the Hammer House was violating one regulation, law, or another: failures to get permits, failure to pay wages on overtime (there never was any), violation of fire code, hiding of illegal aliens (ditto), failure to get landscaping inspected after the completion of permitted work (double ditto), and violation of food preparation code (no restaurants had even rented yet). Jim dutifully gave the officials a tour of the facilities, opened the books, and provided full transparency. They were never fined, nobody was charged, and the officials always walked away thanking Jim for his help.
Esther had a suspicion of whom to thank for the anonymous “tips.” But she stopped bothering to log in to look for taunts from anony4gov—what was there to gain? She still thought about the situation, and she pondered for weeks whether or why Matt might have stolen the thumb drive, but the question was impenetrable. He could have done it. Yet Phillips—or anybody else in the legislature, for that matter—was a more likely suspect. Esther decided not to suspect him further, unless he gave her cause, and she began to enjoy hanging out with him again. And after two months of doing exactly nothing by day except for lounging by the pool and for taking Mikey’s fitness course, she also began to sleep better.
That September, the alt school hired Mikey to teach physical education. He also continued his course on fighting, for non-alt students, with an emphasis on fitness rather than beating each other up. He started accumulating homeschooled students, too.
One afternoon, he wandered into the pool lounge, sweating profusely. He lifted both arms and shouted, “This is ridiculous!”
“What?” Matt asked, lounging in a cheap plastic deck chair by the pool and sipping a Cool Aid. Esther sat on a stool beside him. She had been playing a game on her smartphone, but she looked up.
Mikey opened a beer from the fridge and penned a line on a whiteboard attached to the wall. The rule was one beer from the communal fridge per day. He turned to Matt. “So, a kid came into class.”
“And he’s got just one shoe. So I ask him, ‘Where’s your other shoe?’ Know what he said to me?”
Matt glanced at Esther, wondering if it was a trick question. Esther grinned. “I don’t know,” Matt ventured, “Maybe he lost it?”
“Exactly. He lost it.”
Silence reigned. Mikey slugged from his beer.
Esther prodded, “And so?”
“Well, that’s the end of the story.” Mikey wagged his head and held his hands out, beer in one, as if to say, “This is ridiculous,” and his mouth said, “I mean, who loses a shoe?”
Matt sipped his Cool Aid and glanced at Esther, then looked again at Mikey, who stood rolling his eyes at the ceiling. “So, Mikey, hypothetically speaking,” he began. Mikey looked down at Matt. “Suppose you bought the kid a new pair of shoes.”
Mikey started to open his mouth, then closed it, then opened it again and took a sip of beer. He rubbed his bald head. He swallowed. “Ok, suppose. First, why should I buy him shoes? Second, why shouldn’t he buy himself his own shoes?”
“Maybe he can’t afford shoes,” Esther replied.
“Ok, that’s an answer to question number two. But why me?”
Esther looked at Matt. He raised his eyebrows—Esther judged he was tapped out on this one. She persisted, “Apparently you care if he’s got shoes. So if you can afford them, and he can’t afford them, and you actually care enough to complain, then why not just fix the problem?”
Mikey snorted. “Odd advice coming from you.”
She winced. “Me?”
“Yeah, you. The one who didn’t want to even talk in public about a solution to a problem—she now has a solution for me.” He paused, then smiled, trying to soften the blow. “And, b-t-dub, it was a good solution. I’ve got tons of kids coming to fight club every Friday and every weekend. Not just me, but to the whole friggen mall. Kids are learning lots of stuff they never got in schools. And that wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t opened your mouth.”
“Thanks, but don’t change the subject. If you care whether the kid has shoes, then go buy him some shoes.” He stared. “Don’t look at me. I don’t know the kid.”
Mikey drew in a long breath, shook his head, and pounded his beer. “I’ll think about it,” he said, stalking out.
Matt took a long look at Esther. “What?” she said, the strained tone of her voice more defensive against Matt’s look than against anything Mikey had said.
“I don’t know. I guess I just think you’re pretty great.”
She smiled hard enough that her cheeks felt a pinch. “Thanks. I think you’re pretty great, too.” She decided that she meant it.
But Esther and Matt couldn’t laze every day. They saw their savings dwindling, and neither wanted to move back where they usually worked during the interim: there were no jobs in Cannon Beach or Eugene, respectively—and Cannon Beach wasn’t even rebuilt yet.
So as of October, they persuaded Dr. Adams to hire them as the first paid aides for the year of his reelection campaign, working toward the primary in May 2020 and the election in November. Their first task was to find a location for the campaign headquarters and, not coincidentally, they negotiated with Jim to get an at-cost deal for the last remaining vacant space in the mall. They helped Curt and the grunt squad install a few tables, lighting, and computers.
Esther built donor lists as November petered by while Matt worked with two volunteers from the 2018 staff to update the campaign’s messaging. He was in line for the lead campaign manager job because the last one fled the state after the quake. Meanwhile, other politicians declared candidacy for various offices. Highland, despite her détente with the legislature, had lost a grassroots recall election, and although the Secretary of State took over for the remainder of the current term through 2020, he was an old man with no appetite for keeping the job. Senator Phillips, safely ensconced at the midpoint of her 4-year term, was running for governor.
Dr. Adams authorized Esther to review emails exchanged by the 2018 crew, and she immersed herself in copy-pasting from emails into spreadsheets, cross-referencing with data from the web, and updating contact information. It was more data-entry-ish than nugget-ish, she decided, a far less interesting job than her usual work at the capitol. In her current well-rested state, these tasks took far less than her full concentration, and she found her mind wandering—first, to the question of whether Matt would let her help with his more interesting work—then to the fact that Dr. Adams had no real challengers in the primary so messaging was going to be relatively easy—then to the fall of the governor in the summer’s recall and dearth of serious candidates in that race—then to the question of whether Phillips would win by default.
Her mind returned to the last time she had seen the senator and wondered whether Phillips was anony4gov and, if so, why she was putting the screws on Esther for Highland’s old emails. But suddenly, as she returned from a coffee break and settled down to reviewing the Adams 2018 emails again, she thought she might have an answer: if Phillips or a member of her staff was anony4gov, then perhaps she was using the emails to cultivate donor lists, just as Esther was for Dr. Adams.
Or perhaps more. Why simply ask for donations? Esther knew there were dark secrets in those emails, details that numerous corporate and civic leaders would hate to see get out. Why not blackmail the “donors?” Give me a donation, “or else?” Esther recalled that a threat hung over her own head, and she was as sure as ever that the stream of inspectors and police to the mall were the work of her enemy. Mr. anony4gov—or perhaps Ms. anony4gov—had proven more than capable of blackmailing.
Maybe Phillips was after the data as grist for the blackmail mill.
The rains returned, pattering in the night against the windows of the main sleeping room. Mikey’s phone lightly vibrated beside him, and he murphled into his pillow. It could only be Vic: Mikey had set his phone to quiet hours for everybody else at night time. He looked at the screen, read the text—“vandals. quietly come to the old food court”—and quickly pulled on his shoes. He jogged as lightly as he could to the inner mall, up the stairs, and then along the balcony to the mall’s midpoint. He heard hissing somewhere on the first floor, farther along the inner mall. He suddenly noticed Vic, whose leather jacket and black jeans blended into the dark better than Mikey’s white skin and bright blue boxers, and suddenly realized that Vic had his black handgun.
Mikey joined Vic, nestled in a nook of a wall, and whispered, “Hey.”
“Look,” Vic whispered, pointing around the corner. Mikey leaned over and noticed two other Red Whips standing on the first floor below. He looked farther along and saw, in the space of the first floor, two big men spray painting on one of the storefronts.
“Did you phone it in?”
“Yeah, 911.” Vic wagged his phone’s screen toward Mikey. Ten minutes passed, and Vic whispered occasionally on the phone. The vandals finished their work and moved toward the Red Whips. Vic watched, saw his team was about to be discovered, and judged that the time for concealment had passed. He jumped toward the balcony railing and yelled, “Freeze!”
The vandals immediately dropped their paint cans, and one started to run away, and the other pulled out a gun, firing wildly in Vic’s direction. Mikey leaned back into the nook and lost his view, but he heard two rounds echo up from the first floor, the sound of breaking glass, shouting, more shots and glass, and silence. Vic sprinted away, in the direction of the fleeing vandal.
Mikey edged to the balcony railing and looked down. All was quiet. He hurried away from the incident, toward the main sleeping room, worried about whether any accomplices might have found their way into that area of the mall, where they might harm his friends.
He met Esther and Matt as they looked outward, heads peeking sideways into the mall, from their sleeping room. “Either stay put and keep your door closed, or come hide in the main area.” They followed behind him. Esther noticed that Mikey smelled like sweat. The gunshots had unnerved her; Mikey’s anxiety disturbed her.
The rest of the group had gathered by their white picket fence, chattering. “Everybody, get inside the sleeping room. There’s people with guns out here,” Mikey ordered. “Curt, watch the front windows. Stay out of sight.” Jim started to ask questions, and Mikey cut him off, “Just get in there. Now.” He hid himself around the edge of the first sleeping partition, watching around the corner, ready to fight for their lives against any intruder who came their way.
They hid for another half an hour before Vic showed up, four police alongside him. The vandals had both gotten away. The police took statements from Mikey and Vic and the rest of the Red Whips. Esther and Matt and the rest returned to their spaces. But nobody slept the rest of that night.
The light of the morning revealed the words that the vandals had graffitied, in bright purple letters against the front of the alt school: “We’ll be back, Esther.” She shivered. It wasn’t over. Matt hugged her, and she trembled a bit against his chest. But she didn’t shed a tear, and she felt nothing of Matt’s warmth. She barely felt anything except cold, a chill so powerful, so deep inside her, that it left her empty.
For Esther, December slipped by in a steady drip of rain and donor lists and anxiety about what the vandalism portended. But the Hammer House eventually shrugged off the vandalism, as they had learned to do with so many of the challenges they had encountered, and party night finally returned to the pool lounge on a rainy evening in January. The room, overflowing with Hammer Heads, grew hot to the point that Esther found it difficult to breathe. The door to the inner mall remained closed to keep out all the shoppers that thronged the mall. A laptop blasted tunes from the early teens, prompting Curt to exclaim, “2012 was such a good year!” as he danced barefoot in the pool, pants half rolled up, splashing water on his friends. Mandy pulled him out and implored him to stop.
Jim turned down the music and raised his bottle. “Quiet, please, quiet.”
The room continued buzzing until Mikey bellowed, “Hey!”
When silence settled, Jim proceeded. “It’s a special night, a time to celebrate, and a time for gratefulness. To celebrate, first, the one-year anniversary—tomorrow morning—of the quake. It was a disaster, the worst that Oregon has ever known, but in the end, it brought us all together. And, at least for that, we are grateful!”
A short burst of cheers and clinking bottles filled the room. He waited. “And second, I have an announcement. It looks like the mall did better than breakeven last month. And going forward, we should be cash flow positive. So”—
—“So we get our share of the mall!” Mikey finished. “Whoooo!”
The cheers this time broadcasted so loudly that two girls shopping in the inner mall peered into the pool room through the door’s small windows. Mikey noticed and raised his drink to them, then smiled. They smiled back and waved, then disappeared from the window.
“We will finalize the paperwork next week,” Jim wrapped up. “But tonight, we party!” He turned the music back up and tried imitating Curt’s “running man” dance moves (minus the wild sloshing of beer from his bottle), but his old(er) body wasn’t up to it. Eventually everybody settled on a simple conga line in a large winding circle around the room’s perimeter.
Esther and Mandy sat together on a bench in the studio that Mandy shared with Mikey, hanging out until her first literature class of the year began. The two were fiddling with Esther’s phone, playing with a customizable “virtual Menorah” app that her mom had sent.
Two police officers suddenly stood in the doorway.
“Esther Weiss?” one of them asked. Esther looked up, stunned. She nodded.
“We have a few questions for you,” the officer elaborated.
“About some emails.”
Esther’s shoulders sagged, and her energy drained. Mandy glanced at Esther’s suddenly pallid, guilty face and recognized trouble. She stood up between her friend and the officers. “She has the right to have an attorney present during any questioning,” she exclaimed.
The officers looked at each other. “We’re not arresting her,” one of them replied. “We just need to ask a few questions.”
Mandy looked back down at Esther, who still sat on the bench looking guiltier still. She set her hand on Esther’s shoulder. “You can still call an attorney.” Esther’s mind swam, and the two officers turned and talked to each other for a moment, and Mandy suggested, “Perhaps a colleague from the capitol?”
Esther’s snapped into focus. She nodded and speed-dialed her phone. Dr. Adams answered.
“Dr. Adams, it’s Esther.”
He took a moment to reply. “Esther. I hope you’re not working late.”
“It’s an emergency.” She felt her body temperature rising, from shock to shame. The officers moved toward Esther, but Mandy interdicted and her discussion with the police slowly grew heated, so Esther turned away and pressed the phone tighter and put a hand over her other ear. “The police are here. About the emails.”
Dr. Adams answered, “The emails. Ahh.” He was silent, and Esther glanced anxiously at Mandy. The officers moved toward her, around her friend.
Esther raised her free hand to them, “I’m on the phone with my legislator, the House Majority Leader. We can talk in a minute.” They paused. Mandy stared, clearly anxious, and then she suddenly bolted from the room. One officer walked after her toward the inner mall and watched her sprint away. Esther said again to the phone, “What should I do? Should I get a lawyer?”
He had apparently organized his thoughts. “First of all, about the leak, you have nothing to worry about: You are a whistleblower. Besides, the governor’s emails are subject to the Freedom of Information Act, anyway.” His cool voice soothed her. It betrayed no hint of anxiety. “Second, I assume you didn’t write or say anything defamatory?”
“No, not as far as I know,” she answered. She considered elaborating that she had meticulously supported all her claims with publicly-visible data, but the remaining police officer was watching intently. She stuck her tongue in her cheek and focused on listening.
“I’m an optometrist, not a lawyer, but it doesn’t sound like there’s much grounds for a civil action, either.”
“So do I need a lawyer?”
“Well, if you insist on an attorney, then the police will probably make it tougher on you.”
“Uh huh,” Esther replied, eyeing the policeman up and down. She heard voices in the inner mall and recognized Matt’s. “What do you recommend?”
She didn’t hear the reply because Matt and Mandy sprinted into the room, the officer close behind, and the burble of their voices drowned each other out. The nearest officer said, “Come on, Ms. Weiss. We need to get this over with,” and he reached toward her.
Esther stood and thrust the phone at Matt and said, “Dr. Adams,” and he stared and nodded, and the other officer came to Esther’s other side, and they escorted her out of the room. Mandy stood behind, yelling at them, and Matt talked on the phone, and they brought Esther through the mall out into the rain and searched her clothes and put her in the back of their car.
She marinated in her anxiety. She rode silently to the police station, endured a second search, sat in a small holding cell alone, sat in a small office room, waited a long time, greeted a thin balding man who explained he was a lawyer friend of Dr. Adams, waited with him until a tired old detective came in, answered a hundred questions, dodged another hundred, listened as her attorney parried another hundred with lawyer-speak, sat in her small holding cell alone again, and managed to sleep between nightmares and waves of anxiety.
She pondered whether she had answered well enough. She had responded to every question factually but never actually admitted to seeing the governor’s emails. It was clear that the detective suspected her of something, but even he seemed unsure of what she supposedly had done. Esther thought he asked far too many questions about her technology skills, as if he thought somebody had hacked into the governor’s computer or done something technical. Whomever had sent him after Esther apparently had not told him very much about reality, about how the emails had actually come to be copied.
Dawn peeked over the horizon as she sagged into Matt’s pickup.
“Do you want to talk?” he asked as he drove.
She took a deep breath and tried to make sense of reality, herself. She had already decided not to suspect Matt unless he gave her cause. And Matt knew her so well that he would never have suggested to the police that she had hacked Highland’s computer. She concluded there really was no chance any more that he could be the blackmailer.
Her thoughts flowed like a glacier, but she decided he was safe. And she knew, now more than ever, that she needed help.
So as they rode home, and as they sat with coffees in their shared room, she dribbled out the story: the first afternoon when she had heard the governor on the radio, the waiting for a chance to steal the emails, the aftershock, the disinterest of the journalists, the glorious day when she finally sent emails to constituents, and the terrifying threats from her hidden enemy to turn her in.
He shook his head. “Nobody is ever going to be able to prove that you took those emails.”
“You and Dr. Adams—and Mikey—know already.”
He took a sip of coffee and answered, “Keep in mind that my memory isn’t so good. I can’t even remember high school chemistry, right?” She almost smiled, but her frown managed to reassert itself. “And Dr. Adams is an old man. I’m sure he sometimes has trouble remembering things. Mikey’s head is probably too sodden with beer to remember, either.” She shook her head as he grinned in another failed attempt to elicit a smile. He chuckled and said, “Ok, suppose somebody shows up with the thumb drive full of emails. How is anybody going to show that you’re the one who put them there?”
“Maybe I got fingerprints on it or on the governor’s computer.”
“Good luck finding fingerprints after nearly a year.”
“Ok, maybe there are digital fingerprints.”
“Lots of people used the same equipment you did. We were swapping thumb drives and laptops like baseball cards.” He grinned. “Not to mention that IT probably wiped the laptops before giving them back to FEMA, for security.”
She managed a half-smile. “So as long as I don’t give myself away...”
“Right. Don’t do anything that would reveal you know the contents of the governor’s emails.” He touched the side of her head. “For once, it’s in your best interest not to know something.”
She tried to think it over and found that the coffee wasn’t working. She had hit her limit.
Matt turned out the light, and the putter of early mall traffic filtered into the room as he slipped out, and her ear tingled where he had touched her, and she slid into a warm sleep. Her last thought was relief that she had confided in him.
When she awoke in the afternoon, Esther realized that her subconscious had solved her remaining problem: how to get her hidden enemy to stop harassing her.
She found and hugged Matt in the lounge, and he went with her to Jim, who listened to a short version of Esther’s tale. He arranged a conference call later with the primary mall owner, Goldstein, who was still enjoying a pleasant emotional glow from the mall’s return to profitability. Jim used the opportunity to ask a favor: would it be acceptable for Esther to defame Goldstein… a bit?
The next day, she logged into her fake email address from the pool lounge and wrote to anony4gov in the most frantic voice she could muster. “I swear that I don’t have the older emails. Honestly. There’s only one bunch of messages that I kept out, and I think you’ll see why. But recent events that I’m sure you’re aware of have made me think things through, so I’m sending this one last bunch to you. I promise that I haven’t kept anything else back. Absolutely nothing. This is everything. So please stop with the harassment. If you keep harassing me, it’s just going to be a waste of your time, and there really is nothing left to give.”
Esther attached a collection of fake emails that she carefully crafted, written as if from a user called “mallerstein” at another fake email address, which she also spent a minute setting up. The fake emails began with “Governor, I heard from a little bird about your imbroglio in Phoenix last year,” progressed to some discussion of 4 million dollars, and finished with an invitation to meet at the mall to complete a transaction. Goldstein, it would appear, was blackmailing Highland for an unspecified sin.
Two weeks later, as the interim came to a close, she finally received a reply. “Thank you for writing. I’m disappointed to hear that you were not as thorough in data collection as I had expected. However, it is good to know that further persuasion shouldn’t be necessary the next time I need your assistance.”
Esther’s hidden enemy presumably had meant for the email to scare her again, but she smiled instead. She was going into this session prepared, and she expected good things.
The first week of February, Dr. Adams put his campaign on hold and swung into “legislature mode.” Esther and Matt returned to the party’s House Caucus Office. She welcomed the switch back to nugget-finding from the tedious work of cultivating donor lists.
Their legislators met in a hearing room, where the Speaker of the House gave a meandering speech on the party’s principles, its past and its future, and the upcoming 2020 election strategy. Esther sat in the back, taking notes on which members responded with positive or negative body language. They would all get follow-up conversations, but some would receive more attention from leadership than others.
When he finished, Majority Leader Adams briefed the party on their mission during the one-month session. He had a new target: “Complacency!” he called out from the podium. “The quiet complacency that destroys hope. In a sense, complacency has always been our chief antagonist. The quake and tsunami destroyed a million homes and businesses, and Highland’s irresponsibility sabotaged our recovery. But the state’s lack of preparation and our lack of oversight combined to turn what would have been a disaster into a nightmare.
“And complacency remains public enemy number one! Homelessness is up, employment is down. You can see it when you walk down the street: folks sitting in the park, time on their hands, nothing to do but get drunk and smoke weed. You can see complacency in the tents along the coast, and in the shelters in the cities. And you can see complacency in the eyes of our citizens.” He paused, wiping sweat from his forehead. He was in a lather.
“Some have gotten up on their feet, lifted themselves by their bootstraps, this is true. But many are still on the ground, waiting for a hand to help them stand back up.
“So we’re going to help them get back on their feet. This session, we’re going to focus on getting people off the street, off drugs, and into jobs.” Mild applause interrupted. He scanned his smartphone, which he had taken to using for outlining semi-formal speeches like this one. He set it down and waited for the applause to finish.
He transitioned from goals to tactics. “This means more affordable housing, increased counseling and rehab, and new employment opportunities. As far as housing, we are pulling together ideas this week and hope to introduce a bill next week. The coast especially needs a large increase in available housing. Folks can’t move back if there’s nowhere to live. The anti-addiction bill is a left-over from last session: the Senate passed it, and we’ll need to pass it. The Minority Leader wants some enhanced penalties for drug pushers, so we’re going to have to take a look at that. The employment bill is still up in the air, and it’s going to be a big hump to get it passed this session. If you have ideas, contact me or Meg Smith, who is going to introduce it.
“Now, one final comment: With a new governor in town, the parties may seem not to have a shared enemy. But that is a false impression. Complacency, exhibited through aimlessness and a want of communal spirit, is our shared enemy. And, more importantly, we have a shared cause, the great state of Oregon.” Intense applause interrupted. He waited, soaking in the members’ infectious enthusiasm to work with their peers. Esther noted how much energy Dr. Adams drew from the collaborative atmosphere.
“The governor tells me he’s ready to work together, as has the Minority Leader. Whoever fires the first shot is in for some bad PR, so let’s not let it be us. If we’re going to get into a fight, let’s make it over something that matters. Thank you.”
Dr. Adams directed Matt to give him some options for the housing bill. One House legislator suggested, “Incentivize municipalities to defer property taxes on new construction for a year,” and another said, “Limit zoning ordinances so that people can rent out rooms more easily, or build more dense developments,” and still another, “Lend money to help people start Hammer Houses on the coast,” and one other, “Limit the state mortgage interest deduction based on household occupancy. Why should the state subsidize construction of a huge house for only two people?” Phillips had the simplest idea: “All right, just raise the minimum wage. Presto.”
When Matt asked Esther for ideas during a ride home, she proposed, “The problem is some people hog up too much square footage.” She spread her arms expansively. “Look at the mall. We live like kings. But we each use only a tiny amount of space because we know how to share.” She crossed her arms. “So tax districts should apply a real estate surcharge if somebody wants a big house, some sort of progressive taxation—and use it to subsidize housing or services elsewhere.”
Matt himself suggested to Dr. Adams, “We should double down on H-Corps. Did you know a quarter million people have already moved into Hammer Houses, including those in California and Washington? Let’s start an ad campaign to promote the idea: affordable housing and equity, in exchange for labor and learning.”
In the end, the Assembly turned most of the ideas into law (leaving aside those that would require Constitutional amendments). The accolades began to arrive by letter and email and phone within a day of its passing. The addiction services law (paid for, in part, by surcharges on “luxury super-homes”) brought in still more fanfare, and Esther had a plethora of good reading material for the ride home.
The last week of the session entailed an exhausting search for nuggets to support a bill that loosened licensure requirements for dozens of occupations, and that gave micro-loans to startups. At the end of a particularly long day, Esther sat in the quiet Caucus Office. The only sound in the distance was Matt tapping away on his own computer and humming some song to himself.
She logged into her mallerstein address and found what she had been waiting for: two emails. One, from anony4gov, said, “I heard about Phoenix. You’d be wise not to ignore the next email you receive.” The other, only seconds later, was from Senator Phillip’s own account, inviting Herb Goldstein to contribute to her campaign.
Esther smiled elatedly from her success and laughed. Matt looked over, and she smiled at him. He grinned back. She looked back down and reread the emails.
Matt walked to her desk. He had turned off his computer for the night. “What’s up?”
“Look. She took the bait.”
Matt scanned the emails. The first was blackmail but proved nothing, despite coming in moments before the other. The second was the jackpot. It wasn’t blackmail but proved everything.
Esther grinned, unable to wait for him to finish reading before she spoke. “There’s no way Phillips could have spammed mallerstein—could even have known his email address—unless she was the one blackmailing my other account.”
“Nice. The best nuggets you’ve ever come up with.” He put his hand on her shoulder.
“Yeah, but I’ve got one more thing to do.”
She forwarded the second email to highland-observer, logged out of mallerstein, logged into highland-observer, and forwarded the email back to anony4gov, along with a message of her own. “If I need to have any more conversations with the police, I’m sure we will have a lot to talk about. mallerstein is a fake address, senator.”
Matt commented to Esther, “Politicians have a pathological need to spam for cash, don’t they?” She chuckled.
Then she carefully logged off.
One cool May morning, coffee steamed from Esther’s mug, rising between her and Dr. Adams, as they sat outside a shop in the mall. A thick flow of shoppers flushed the mall, their steady rumble of voices filling the air.
The Majority Leader’s blue eyes sparkled behind his glasses, shining with delight. He had won the primary, trouncing two hyper-partisan challengers with messaging that drew heavily on the bipartisan agenda that he had advanced in the past year. Dr. Adams had just extolled Esther with his plans for running the remainder of the campaign on a similar footing: it would probably be his easiest reelection ever.
When he paused to sip from his coffee, Esther said, “Is there any chance that I could switch to helping Matt with messaging? The donor lists are in really good shape, and we could hand them off to some of the other staff. I think”—
—“Actually,” he interrupted, straightening his body, setting down his cup. “Well, of course, we should have made that switch some time ago. Donor lists don’t even scratch the surface of your abilities. In a sense, that’s part of the bigger picture of why I asked you to meet me for coffee.” He paused, organizing his thoughts. “You know I’m seventy.” Esther nodded. “And you know that the election is taking a lot out of me this year.”
She nodded again, but she wasn’t convinced. His voice had more vibrancy, and his eyes had more glimmer, than she could remember in a long time. The erosion of partisan bitterness in the House over the past two sessions had made the job far more enjoyable.
She let it pass, and he finished, “So it’s going to be my last election. I’m going to retire after the next term, assuming we win.”
Esther’s eyes blurred, then suddenly sharpened. “So I’ll be working for somebody else,” she realized aloud.
“Not exactly. I want you to run for my seat in 2022.” She said nothing and her mouth was dry and her heart quaked and the coffee’s steam rose for a moment. Then she took a sip. “Don’t act stunned,” he said, “Surely you knew this was coming.”
Against her will, her face smiled. “Yes,” she conceded. “I’ve thought about it. I’ve got some ideas I’d like to see enacted.”
“I know you do. It’s who you are. It’s who you’ve become.”
In November, the wee folk organized “Hammer Show 2020”—a talent show to spark a buzz before the holidays. Renters, customers, residents and students displayed what they had accomplished at the mall.
Esther and Mandy sauntered through the packed show together: Mandy to gather information for promoting the mall, Esther to soak in her friend’s companionship. And she was in a good mood. The preceding week, Dr. Adams had won his seat again, and Senator Phillips had lost her play for the governorship.
The mall was thick with bodies and noise, and Esther had to watch her step, as children dashed in front and around, going from room to room to see what their friends had accomplished.
At Curt’s shop, Jim stood near his ship-lamp, now finished, and an amazing second lamp. Its light bulb, if that was the right word, was shaped like a large glowing flame—what appeared to be carved glass—affixed to a wooden base shaped like a cigar. “That’s awesome!” Esther exclaimed over the burble of the crowd’s voices as she angled in for multiple photos. “How did you make it?”
“For the light, I used a 3D printer that a friend showed me at Salem’s other Hammer House, the one downtown. It’s got an LED inside. I made the stem with Curt. Notice the chatoyance of the finish.” He leaned over and pointed to the shimmery grain. “Curt taught me how to do that.” He stood upright and spread a smile from one ear to the other, and Esther photographed him beside his creation.
The women moved on, roving the mall. A flock of easels filled one room, the result of an art competition held earlier in the year. In another store, a smiling tall man with a bowler hat emceed a series of acoustic guitar solos. One side of the alt school abounded with technology that the children and their parents had made: a facemask computer with programmable looks, a shirt with a built-in fabric clock that somehow displayed the current time of day, a mind-controlled flying drone, and more. Kids demonstrated how to assemble little robots that they controlled with their smartphones.
In his own space, Mikey had a laptop that presented a looping slideshow with photos of the mall—before reconstruction versus after—inter-mingled with photos of him and his students beating up punching bags or, rarely, one another. He stood nearby with a broad smile and polished head as he shook hands and answered questions. Nearby, students took turns giving demonstrations to their parents, showing proper stance and how to move back when absorbing a punch.
Beside them, a cashbox collected donations to purchase school supplies for needy kids: Mikey’s plan for raising money to cover kids’ shoes and other expenses. It sat on a table alongside printouts of photos showing Mikey and smiling children—including one little cherub missing a baby tooth knocked out in Mikey’s class.
In a corner of the studio, Mandy pulled Esther over to see her own great accomplishment, a hand-bound copy of a book that she had written. Its name, “Hammer Rise,” appeared in sinuous green text wrapped around the handle of a cracked framing hammer with an oversized claw. In the background, the sun rose over the silhouette of Mount Jefferson. “It tells the story of how we established the first Hammer House in Salem.” She unwound the skein of the plot for a minute. Esther politely nodded, but her mind drifted back to those early days, and to the quake, and to the dark waters. The memories had lost their emotional intensity, but they remained vivid. Her mind snapped back to the present as Mandy concluded, “So that, in essence, is what I would like you to do.”
“Sorry, my mind was wandering. What was that?”
Mandy chuckled. “I said, the book is not done. This is only a draft. I suspect you have a bit of a tale you could contribute, if you are willing.”
Esther shifted uncomfortably, then conceded, “Yeah.” She paused, then continued, “Sure, there’s some stuff I can tell you about. I don’t know if it belongs in the book. But we can talk about it.”
“That would be excellent, indeed,” Mandy replied, “But what I actually would request is that in addition to sharing material for me to write up, you take over the process of publication in exchange for the royalties. You would retain a bit for your services—or the book could become the property of the H-Corp if everybody agrees, and you could do this work for a share of the House.”
Esther paused, thinking. Mandy waited. Esther thought some more. “Ok,” she finally said, “Ok, I’ll take a look. It sounds interesting.”
Mandy smiled and handed her the draft.
Nearby, Mikey’s students finished their demonstrations, and the children and their parents spilled out into the mall. They merged into the streams of others who overflowed into every space, whose hands clutched their works of art and culture and learning. The air teemed with joyful voices and the thunder of feet. Their rumble surged into a roar.
Editors’ notes: Self-actualization
The Oregon Legislative Assembly set two social groundswells in motion after the quake.
One was to incentivize the formation of H-Corps and other cooperative entities, which substantially increased the security of the average Oregonian. By 2025, 76% of adult Oregonians owned shares of one or more cooperative, which provided them a strong social network and financial support in case of personal trouble.
The other great movement was to free citizens to focus deeply on an area of specialization, to become an expert at a relatively early age. By 2025, 52% of adult Oregonians had obtained a community college certificate or bachelor’s degree, including 90% of Oregonians between the ages of 24 and 28.
In the mid-2020’s, these two great movements came together and Oregon, unmistakably, came alive. The esteemed skills of the average Oregonian enabled innovation and productivity rarely seen before in this state. The safety net provided by the state’s numerous, intermeshed cooperatives gave people the personal security required to take chances. And the cooperative ethos that culturally saturated the state generated a mindset of collaborative work and of using one’s skills for social benefit rather than just for personal gain.
The result: a proliferation of new technologies, business concepts, art and literature unequalled in intensity since the Renaissance. It is no overstatement to say that millions of well-educated, socially-conscious citizens became personally invested in the future of their communities. This was Oregon by the late 2020’s.
Citizens increasingly urged and helped one another to obtain employable skills, to start socially-beneficial businesses, and to take care of their health. Effects included increases in the proportion of Oregonian adults who donated to environmental or other social causes, and who qualified for wellness credits on the federal health insurance system. The population grew from 4.2 million in 2020 to 4.9 million in 2030. Revenue from intellectual property rose, as did workforce participation, though the average number of hours worked per week actually fell. Homelessness and poverty rates fell to 4% and 6% in 2030, respectively, a trend that continued into the 2030’s. On most of these measures, Oregon scored near the top of the nation.
Tax receipts followed. Oregon had defaulted on no bonds by 2030, and state revenues had grown 5% (in real dollars) over the preceding decade. In contrast, a total of 9 other states had defaulted on at least one bond in the preceding decade, and tax revenue had decreased (in real dollars) in 25 states over that period.
A corresponding shift in Oregonian popular culture followed. Nearly 30% of paper books authored by Oregonians in the 2020’s dealt with urban socio-political themes. These books included documentaries tracing the surge of interest in cooperative enterprise, as well as speculative fiction outlining ideas for new kinds of co-ops. Over 100 live and holographic shows on similar topics appeared at the theaters in metropolitan Portland every year from 2024 through 2034. Oregonian artists, particularly writers and musicians in the Valley between Eugene and Portland, now dominate the world of sociology-as-art.
Conversely, art impacted the economy. An example is the culture corporation, first portrayed in the 2020 novel “Portland Happens” written by Senator Mark Ornhatch. Such a corporation holds significant amounts of intellectual property and uses it to promote a socially-focused agenda. For example, the Haystack Culture Corporation (HCC), formed in 2032, owns the technology for growing the clam-like ships that carry tourists along the ocean floor. A recurring theme among culture corporations is their investment of profits into socially-concerned environmental protection causes. By analogy to urban greenspaces, HCC has funded preservation of bluespaces safe from development. Likewise, the Evergreen Historical Culture Corporation (EHCC), founded in 2026, collects and edits Oregonian literature and invests approximately two-thirds of profits into protecting environmentally sensitive land of historical significance in the Portland area. Oregonians have founded tens of thousands of new culture corporations, enabling people to establish shared pools of intellectual property manifested in physical, digital, and biological resources, then licensed for the benefit of society.
The Oregonian Awakening was not just about individuals achieving their potential. Collectivism could not and did not leave that as the endpoint. The Awakening was about Oregon achieving its potential. And for that, we have the Assembly to thank.
Messages to the Assembly: Self-actualization
- The first is straightforward: eliminating poverty. Over a third of Americans live below the poverty line now, due to the automation of most jobs. Social unrest is rising, even here in Oregon. We note the increasing mentions of protests and riots in regional newspapers—an unwelcome development that we haven’t seen since the aftermath of the quake.
- The second is simplification of bureaucratic programs, such as unemployment, disability and Medicare/Medicaid. With 64% of Americans collecting aid of some sort at the state level, it is simpler to just give money to everybody and eliminate the bureaucratic overhead. Oregon’s levels are far lower (at 25%), but we can show the way, as we have in so much this decade.
- The third is elimination of much of the risk related to starting businesses. Now, members of housing cooperatives, at least, need not fear that they will lose the roof over their head if they quit their job to create a startup, and they have a built-in peer-support community of like-minded individuals. Not all are so lucky—especially outside Oregon! People with mortgages must cling to any work they can find and can’t afford the risk.
- Historically, the greatest objection is that the introduction of a GMI might incentivize laziness. Oregon’s transformation manifestly disproves this contention: cooperative housing arrangements are perhaps the “safest” place where somebody could laze about, job-less, and yet they are widely regarded as the epicenter of learning in Oregon. By the way they have invested themselves in growing as individuals and communities, members of cooperative enterprises have proven that they can be trusted not to become lazy.
- For any program, GMI included, opponents ask what a reasonable program size would be. If a GMI were started, would it grow infinitely? We suggest that the state begin framing policy in terms of how much money an average Oregonian needs to stay out of poverty (i.e., averaged across all the federally-established poverty line thresholds, weighted by the different household sizes in Oregon, based on census data). Call this per-person dollar amount 1 PVE (“poverty equivalent”), which appears to have been around $15000 in 2028. Realistically, the GMI should never need to exceed 1 PVE per person. Aim for some fraction of a PVE.
- How to pay for a GMI? We suggest two sources of funds. First, the state should eliminate or cut whatever entitlements our current political muster will allow. Second, it should increase the tax rate on any earnings above 2 PVE per person to whatever level politics will allow. The result should be a small GMI to start, perhaps around 0.1 PVE. So let us, for now, consider the GMI to be a small income supplement, on the same order as Alaska’s. If—as we contend—Oregonians invest this money in growing themselves and their communities, then tax revenues should increase and enable the state to allocate an increasing GMI over time.
- A few other, minor issues remain. For example, some contend that a state-level GMI would cause people to flock to Oregon, especially considering how devastated many other states have become. We doubt it. After Alaska expanded its Permanent Fund Dividend into a GMI in 2026, Juneau and the panhandle didn’t see an influx of residents (despite its climactic similarity to that of other Pacific Northwest cities, such as Boise). If needed, Oregon could establish a citizenship requirement and a lengthy residency requirement such as 20 years before people could obtain a GMI, and the GMI received by a given individual could increase as a function of how many times that person has voted here.
- Can your twenty-something offspring, supposedly a grown adult, competently set and pursue life goals?
- Is your high schooler capable of sitting through an entire class without exchanging messages or mindfeels with other children?
- Does your younger child crave media-inspired toys and aspire in some ways to someday inhabit, or conjoin with, that very media?
Glossary: Significant concepts relating to, and/or manifesting, the Oregonian Awakening
Balkanized networking (BNX): A virtual collective of individuals who together choose a czar, who in turn serves as a virtual doorkeeper that allows or prevents other people from contacting the collective’s members via social media. A member of an H-Corp in Beaverton invented BNX while in high school.
Culture corp: A for-profit collective entity that holds intellectual property to generate royalties, the majority of which it must donate or spend for the advancement of specific legislatively-authorized social causes (including protection and promotion of the environment, culture, and history of Oregon). Culture corps may retain other earnings without paying state taxes, but they must disclose any expenditures exceeding 0.01 PVE.
Easy EZ: Either a registered micro-enterprise zone consisting of one H-Corp, or the law (Easy Enterprise Zone Act of 2019) that authorized the creation of H-Corps
Experiential web: The network of bluelinked interactive videos first pioneered by students at Portland State University in 2022
Eye app (eap): A small piece of software that runs within the interactive digital contact lenses invented in Beaverton
Faceback: A technology for recording videos within the experiential web, as a means of giving feedback to the operator of a node identified by a bluelink
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): An agency of the federal government that aided in the response to, and recovery from, major natural and man-made disasters. It was eliminated in 2025 to free up funds for the war.
Hammer House (H-Corp): Collective residential ownership entity that possesses partial equity in a communal residence. This entity, an H-Corp, shares equity with the primary owner, who typically does not live in the same residence. Beginning with Easy EZ, the Assembly established numerous incentives for establishing such arrangements, including property tax relief.
H-Corp: see Hammer House
Life eye app (leap): An eap that coaches the wearer on achieving life goals, and that runs on the software platform invented in Eugene
United States Maritime Administration (MARAD): The federal agency that maintained the nation’s integrated water-based navigation network as well as the National Defense Reserve Fleet, which came to the aid of Oregon after the quake. It was absorbed by the federal Department of Defense in 2026, at which point its assets became part of the navy for use in the war.
Mindnet: The mind-to-mind, thought-to-thought network invented by a native of Portland while working as a graduate student at Stanford University
Oregon Aesthetic: A design philosophy specifying that the function of technologies should follow the form of human life. Although first conceived by a graduate student at Portland State University in the context of industrial art, the Aesthetic has been applied throughout Oregon and around the world to software, nanotechnology, bioware, art, and experiential web videos.
Poverty Equivalent (PVE): A monetary amount equal to the average income (computed over all Oregonian adults) that would be required for everyone to reach the federally-established poverty line. Beginning in 2030, most state policies and regulations dealing with citizens began to express quantities of money in units of PVEs rather than absolute numbers of dollars. This reframing of finances in more human terms helped to clarify the true magnitude of costs and benefits.
Transparency and Lobbying Act (TLA): The state law that increased the range of communications published to the Transparency Oregon website. These included any messages written to legislators that (a) were written in or after 2023, without any explicit request for privacy; (b) were ever written by a registered lobbyist or by a public employee; or (c) were identified manually or algorithmically as being essentially identical to another communication exchanged via a public medium.