All characters in this story are over 18.
Lee swung the axe over his head, hitting the split willow branch dead center and separating it clean to make two shorter logs. Replacing them with another piece of wood, he paused to wipe the sweat from his brow with his bare arm. He looked down at the pile of wood near his feet. Only twenty more and he was done.
It was a hot, humid early-spring day in Adult Camp 12 and perspiration dripped from his chin down his naked torso into the waistband of his worn jeans. He longed for something cool to drink like lemonade or even tea. He hadn't had either in a long time, but he was more fixated on the lemonade because of the remembered tartness.
Seeing as how the soybean fuel needed to run the trucks was so precious, nobody in the district did much traveling anymore, not even to barter with the neighboring communities. He recollected that making lemonade required those sour, juicy fruits with seeds and thick, yellow rinds called lemons, and the only place you could find decent ones was quite away east, closer to the regions by the sea. Come to think of it, he hadn't seen the sea either for more years than he could remember.
Life was hard, and that was a fact. The district leaders kept making promises that the central government was working diligently on a solution to finish the decontamination of the cities and bring the people back to re-inhabit them. Rebuilding would allow them to move into safe, updated dwellings with fully functional biospheres without the requirements of gen-packs for sanitation and power. Schooling would be available to all children through age twenty-four.
Once the adults had access to a precisely calibrated UNI-Indus screen and could imprint the necessary systelogics of the techno-sci trades again, they could settle back into gainful employment and everyone's standard of living would go back up to pre-disaster standards. Given the passing of a few years or so, maybe they could even begin forming a true society with all the amenities their ancestors were used to and an honest to goodness life beyond the meager existence they eked out now.
After five hundred years of living in villages and camps, most of the nation still existed at a very primitive mid-twentieth century level, and it was almost impossible to believe in what the government said. They spouted the same propaganda that Lee's parents said they heard from their parents and them from their own forebears going back generations.
Some blamed the collapse of the communications network early one; some attributed it to wide divergence in status between the haves and have-nots with no middle class, while others believed that the biggest problem was the lack of people overall. Although difficult to accurately count, the current national population was estimated to be only 0.2% of the four hundred forty million before... well, it had seemed like the end of the world. It almost was.
It was the sudden rise of a virulent and uncontrollable plague, termed the Catastrophe, which began in a large city in the Georgia District and ripped apart what was then the United States of America in the mid-23rd century. Common folklore told of some biohazard specialists who got careless with samples of the deadly virus, creating the unintentional contagion. As it spread in all directions, the victims swamped the hospitals until the medical personnel treating them also succumbed. So many fell prey to the fatal ravages that bodies couldn't be burned fast enough which further spread the airborne illness. The Catastrophe decimated the population and millions died in agony.
By then the government had collapsed into chaos. The privileged few who could afford it, including the President and many in his administration retreated behind the safety of well-stocked, private enclaves untouched by sickness. Totally isolating themselves, they left the country to be swallowed up in a hundred twenty-five years of anarchy and rebellion before it was brutally put down and the districts evolved to rule each area individually. If it weren't for the fact that the rest of the world was destabilizing at the same time, the country would've been ripe for takeover but every nation had its own plague horrors to worry about. Entire civilizations, as monumental and rich as their historic pasts once had been, were left in ruins.
After the Catastrophe and the ensuing civil wars there wasn't much left of pre-apocalyptical rural America that their forefathers would have recognized unless they went all the way back to before the Industrial Revolution. Basic services dwindled to nothing, fields returned to their natural state, forests encroached on what had once been thriving towns. The masses had scavenged anything of value to build shelters and barns, but most of it was slapdash and hurriedly cobbled together. It was the parceling of land plots into what would become their present-day villages under district leaders that finally led them back from the brink of nihilistic revolution, and slowly they had begun to rebuild and link back up. They had housing, and basic land line telephone service was to be used in emergencies only. Intermittent power and running water were available but almost everything was scarce. Many items once considered necessary were now luxuries.
The cities remained dangerous pockets of still-infectious disease, and the few brave or foolhardy souls who lived there were mostly immune or sought to benefit from it and refused to leave, turning them into warrens of crime and influence. Truthfully nobody was really secure anymore. Much like the fiefdoms Lee had read about once in a tattered bock about the old-named continent of Europe, the camps and villages were agrarian collections of people who lived together to farm and raise animals because there was supposed to be safety in numbers. His own camp was far enough away from old-named New Orleans, as the nineteen-year-old remembered enough from his rudimentary village schooling, that it wasn't as much of a threat, but he still worried for his younger sisters back in their family village farther southwest in the Bayou District.
"Lee," a sweetly feminine voice called from behind him. "Lee Boudreaux."
Lee turned to watch his older sister, Evie—Evelyn actually—make her way towards him, and he smiled. They were two of the lucky ones. They ended up in the same adult camp together which didn't happen very often and they were healthy and as happy as it was possible to be considering the circumstances. In fact, that they both had survived their trek from the family village they'd been brought up in was a near miracle since bandits preyed on the weak and innocent and many didn't.
It had nearly killed Lee when Evie turned eighteen three years ago and it was time for her to be forced from their home, leaving him so she could forge her own way. But it was the sole means of handling the aggression that came upon the teens as they approached adulthood, a consequence of toxins that had rapidly built up in the blood of young people starting in the century before the Catastrophe. Nobody could explain the violent behavior except that it might be a side effect of industrial pollution in the groundwater that had seeped into the crops in the field and the grain used to feed the livestock. Or maybe it was the overuse of live-antibody immunizations in childhood. As a result the villagers, particularly those in their adolescence needed to be protected, even from their own previously loving siblings. The idea came upon the leaders to expel the new adults within four months after their eighteenth birthday to journey outwards until they located an adult camp that would take them in.
With Lee, maybe it wasn't wholly luck. His sister had looked after him for as long as he could remember, so she came up with a plan and used her smarts to ensure he landed on his feet. First by carefully noting the dangers and landmarks as she made her own way northward to Camp 12; then by keeping tabs on every pair of adults who mated in the camp. She gave them directions to the family village she had been raised in, one that was shrinking and would welcome a new mated pair, and she covertly sent notes back to Lee with them. When it was time for his own journey a year ago he followed her directions to the letter, and upon his arrival in camp his request to stay could not be denied because they were siblings. Lee had so much to be grateful for in such a loving sister.
Lee waved back at his sister and answered her unasked question. "I'm almost done here."
Other than the two years separating them in age, Lee and Evie could have been twins. Both had very sleek, straight hair in a pecan brown shade, hers down her back and his about six inches shorter and tied back with twine. Their large eyes were a silvery gray and rimmed with thick lashes, and their faces were rather delicate with straight, narrow noses, pointed chins and smooth complexions that made them look younger than their years. Both were slim and approximately the same height—around five foot seven, but he was well-muscled through his shoulders, back and abdomen. The heavy work he performed for the camp in the orchards and fields kept him fit. If you were weak, you didn't survive.
"Good," she proclaimed, "because you need to get washed up." Her smoky eyes twinkled mischievously. "Or have you forgotten that tonight is the Fairlamor?"
Lee rolled his eyes and smiled. "Like I'd forget that. No, I'm just adding to the woodpile to work out some of my nerves."
Fairlamor, or to go by its full title, Luttepor Fairlamor, was one of big social events to hit the camps every month. Well, maybe social event wasn't quite the correct term. It was a set of fights, a competition actually. Rotated among the six adult camps in their district, participants were pitted against each other in as many rounds needed to accommodate twenty at a time. Males fought males in the odd-numbered bouts, and women sparred with other women in the even until there were declared winners. The champions of rounds one and two paired off, three with four and so on. That most of the coed camps operated in a roughly fifty-fifty split between male and female made it simple to plan.
Attendance along with the rest of the workers from your camp at the Fairlamors was mandatory even though the leaders could not force participation. However, if you chose to merely watch and later you were acting out aggressively and causing trouble in your camp, you would be first warned, then sanctioned. If you continued to refuse, you ran the risk of exile. To be exiled was the equivalent of death because none of the camps would ever welcome you again. The idea was that everyone benefitted from a little pain and the ferocious desire to assert dominance was appeased temporarily.
There were no longer any experts around to attest to why regular athletic contests with a reward worth getting hurt over seemed to stem the belligerence among the young adults in the camps. In an environment where you had to be determined and intelligent to endure, nowhere was that more true than with Luttepor Fairlamor. By channeling the violence into a controlled battle for supremacy, they not only worked it out of their systems, they obtained a chance at the Holy Grail—the possibility of leaving the rough and tumble world of the adult camps for good and moving back into a family village.
All they needed was a spouse, and for reasons nobody understood, the mating ritual quieted the blood rage. That was what the Fairlamor was all about—making the villages safe and returning sane and responsible adults to them in hopes of raising up another generation. The winning couples were feted to a honeymoon of sorts away from the overcrowded gender-specific dorms, a night of intimacy in a cozy room of their own. Even if sex wasn't the motivating factor among the hormone-crazed, the privacy probably would be.
Afterwards, they were given six months to court each other, an adequate amount of time, from the perspective of the officials, to devote to getting to know one another. If they felt they were compatible, they were mated in a civil ceremony and sent out with great fanfare to find a village to live in. This was not just a privilege, it was a duty. Due to deprivation and disease, the district populations had been sharply diminishing year by year. Divorce was unheard of, and the pressure to have children was of the utmost imperative, even in a world where life was harsh and not expected to see improvement. The adult camps could be frightening places to dwell. The Fairlamor provided perhaps the only way to reenter the mainstream of life, to put the sordid early-adult years out of mind.
For those who did not please each other, they were re-circulated into the Fairlamor system again after three months and allowed to participate in subsequent contests. Winners could petition for the right to mate another previous winner upon agreement by the community leaders. The record, at least from the gossip Lee had heard when he first arrived, was seven Fairlamor triumphs by the same man in one of the camps over on the Texas plains. At that point the society elders imposed their authority and made him select from the past winners. Either that or be exiled.
The losers... well, they went back to their daily tasks to try to win another day. The leadership had no alternatives. It was more or less the only way to keep the camps and villages going. Weaklings were cut out from the herd, or at least not allowed to mate and pass down their deficiencies. The retirement camps for these older single adults who never prevailed in a Fairlamor and were put out to pasture were even more depressing if that was possible. The contest abolished choosing a spouse based on looks, desirability or that overstressed but unnecessary emotion from the ancient storybooks called love. You fought for your right to take a mate, and the hostility bred inside each of them left no one with a personal option.
Lee had participated in ten Fairlamors since his arrival without winning a single one. He knew he was at a disadvantage because of his stature, but that just made him more determined. He used one of the rusting sets of weights that had been passed down through ages of young adults, and he ran every evening for an hour, rain or shine. He worked twice as hard in the fields as any of them. He was clear-headed and unwavering in his decisions to prove his quality, to return to the village of his birth with a mate and show them he was worth more than they gave him credit for. Even if his family scratched their heads in confusion for the choice he had been forced to make, he would not give up.
Sexually, Lee preferred men. He was still untested by any relationship, but he had known from an early age that he was, in the old-named word, gay. He was an oddity among his people which made him something to be feared and, therefore, he tried to hide the truth. Evie, his sister, had known since a stormy conversation six years before when their two oldest brothers had mocked him to tears. She did her damndest to protect Lee, trying to compensate for their parents who looked down their noses in displeasure. Father was a leader in their village, and Lee's peculiarity shamed him.
The laws must nevertheless be obeyed, especially in a family as public as that of the village leader, and there was no legal retribution possible. Abusing a healthy child, precious to the community, was punishable by death. However, his youth was never what he could call happy after his preferences were discovered except when he was with Evie. It was with very apparent gratitude that his mother and father sent him packing almost to the day of his coming of age, washing their hands of their youngest son so they could forget he existed.
As far as winning a Fairlamor went, if returning to a family village required him to close his eyes and sleep with a woman to become experienced and eventually mate, he would do it. He masturbated like all the other men in the camp did. He was well aware of the furtive unions between the sexes that were illegal apart from the Fairlamors even while camp officials looked the other way because they relieved aggression amongst the young people. But Lee was the only gay man at his compound, one who out of self-preservation didn't advertise his individuality, and that presented a multitude of problems. The way he saw it, there would never be anyone for him unless he lowered his expectations and mated with a female. He could only hope that if the opportunity came along for him to do so he would be able to physically follow through. The thought of sex with a woman did not arouse him one bit.
"The players from the other camps have begun to arrive," Evie exclaimed suggestively, twirling her shiny brown hair between her fingers. "Camps seven and eleven are already here and causing trouble, and nine and ten are on their way. Camp eight might not make it because their truck lost an engine."
Lee didn't say it but he hoped Camp 8 stayed away. That would mean fewer combatants and more of an equal opportunity for him. Camp 8, if he remembered correctly, was located in the northern hills and had an overabundance of sinewy men who were fine to look at but always overpowered him. This would be the best opportunity for Lee since his arrival, and he intended to take full advantage of it.
The night came soon enough but the inhabitants of Camp 12 were restless, made even moreso by the arrival of their district rivals. A lot of preening and verbal instigation went into the early phases of each Fairlamor contest as old antagonists flexed muscle and baited each other anew. Even with the setting of the sun in the west, it was nevertheless balmy outside, and Lee rejoiced that wearing the official Fairlamor garb of denim cut-off shorts and an old black t-shirt with the sleeves ripped out would be both comfortable and non-confining. But the humidity was still high and it wore on the nerves of everyone.
The Camp 8 truck had phoned in their apologies for their breakdown and said they were limping home so there would only be twelve competitions tonight, not the usual sixteen. Contestants were allowed to participate in one fight only and Lee walked around listening to the boastful conversations and smiling to himself. Since one was assigned to each bout by lottery, much of the pre-fight posturing was all just idle talk and wishful thinking anyways. Lee often spent the last hour before the Fairlamors trying to guess which ones he and Evie would have the best chance of winning.
The tension built as the time passed and it got closer to the start of the Fairlamor. The lists should've been posted by now informing each contestant what round he or she would have to fight in, but Lee noticed how the officials were huddled with the district leaders. The head of Camp 12, Cecil Peltiere, looked decidedly unhappy, and it made for ill portent. Sometimes the aggression was so thick by the time that the actual contest rolled around, you could taste it, and every delay increased the apprehension. It was nothing to see small fights break out among the spectators as they awaited their turn in the ring.
"What rounds are we entered in?" Evie asked once she found Lee in the crowd. Although by law they could not enter corresponding fights, being siblings and all, they often tag-teamed each other by calling in favors and put out the word to ask a friend to gang up on others who might knock one of them out of the competition early. The best Evie had ever done was the next-to-last woman in her bout, but she was eliminated by a stronger gal from Camp 10 that night. Lee had never lasted longer than mid-round, but he had put a lot of his spare time into refining muscle since the last Fairlamor.