Featured October 17, 2018 Horror
From the editor:Get ready for Halloween with this unsettling tale by Rebecca Gomez Farrell. A woman and her kids flee to a small town called Enos, hoping for stability and safety, but they soon realize something isn’t quite right with the town’s eerily pale residents. Rebecca is a twenty-time published short story author, runs an award-winning food and travel blog, and her debut novel WINGS UNSEEN is now out from Meerkat Press.
From the author: When her abusive husband's released from jail, Rockie flees to small town Enos with her two children. But the Old Western town's been hiding secrets of its own, forces that founder Jonah Weatherton set in motion a century earlier.
$450. 2 BR, 1 BA, 800 sq. ft. Available now. Enos. 555-987-0342.
Rockie halted her clicking of the refresh button, the advertisement text cutting her free from the train tracks. Her cellphone's touchscreen confounded her shaky fingers, but after three tries she pressed the right keys. Ten minutes later, grateful the landlord had asked as few questions as she had, Rockie refreshed the webpage. The text disappeared from the screen and her frantic packing resumed.
She'd never heard of Enos, but that made her feel better about it. André's release was in three days. They needed to be far, far away by then. It'd been four years since he'd slapped Rockie so hard her left eye had swollen. Four years, but the promise she'd made that night seared her mind like it'd been yesterday.
You can't let him take me, Chelsea had pleaded, tears streaming, after André's string of belligerent threats if Rockie called the police. When he'd left to nurse his ego at the nearest tavern, Rockie had pledged to her daughter that she never would. Twelve years earlier, André had shown up with infant Chelsea cradled under his arm, and Rockie had fallen in love straight away despite the sweet smell of cheap rum that laced his breath and his rant about an overdose and an ex-girlfriend he'd never told his young, new wife about.
The night Rockie made that promise to Chelsea, luck took the form of the police arresting André for his fourth drunk-driving offense. An early release for good behavior meant their luck had run out.
Jonah Weatherton hadn't wanted to leave his family's manor in Greenwich Village. But President Polk's conflict with the Mexicans had ended, so heading west to soothe his wife's malaise was finally feasible. Patricia was the Spanish ambassador's daughter, and making the Atlantic Passage had whetted her appetite for adventure. Even the beauty of the austere Grace Church that Mr. Renwick had just completed was not enough to lift her spirits, though Jonah could gaze upon its spires for hours.
He would miss laughing with his father in the evenings, a gregarious public-solicitor who spent less time defending his penniless clients than he did talking about their reprehensible clothes and making bets with his mother on which eligible bachelor would court which freshly flowered lady each spring. But Jonah would miss Patricia's smile more than anything Manhattan could offer if they didn't go. Her dramatic brow, blood-bay-colored hair worn always loose and wavy, and hips he could hold onto took Jonah's breath away. So when he saw the advertisement for a wagon train to Utah in need of a businessman to run their finances, he cleaned out his inheritance. Jonah would do anything for Patricia. Anything at all.
Two days before reaching the frontier town of Enos, leadership of the caravan passed to Jonah as the man of highest standing after that pallid bondsman from the District of Columbia collapsed from dehydration. The caravan would double the small town's population. A dozen modest settlements lined the main road and three handfuls more hid among the canyons. Jonah planned to build a mercantile across from the town square he would design. It would have to be small, of course, to be appropriate for the frontier. But with Patricia at his side, smiling broadly as she'd done every day since they’d left, it would feel as grand as the Washington Military Parade Grounds.
His friends back home would never believe it, but moving to Enos was the best decision Jonah had ever made.
The rental house had the appearance of a giant, rotting jack o' lantern before it caves in. Orange and green paint peeled from the siding, and an arched front door hung wide open. Wilted, dusky petals from browned shrubs whorled in the breeze.
The house will do. Rockie parked the old Ford station wagon at the curb. The truck in the driveway was already half empty, the movers' work ethic impressive. Or they just wanted to get back on the road to Silverton—the company's owner had been reticent to take the job at all when Rockie'd called. She had to offer them an extra $300, the remains of her savings. But it was worth it not to make the same mistakes, not to give André the chance to weasel his way back into their lives. If only she'd had enough money to file for Chelsea's adoption years ago. But she hadn't, and a court wouldn't take away a biological parent's rights, not even a convict's.
Peter, her youngest child, flung the passenger door open. "EEEEEEEeeeeee!" He surprised a mover on the walkway with a nine-year-old's whirlwind of pent-up energy.
"Peter! Watch out!"
The man slowed Peter down with a hand to the shoulder.
"Did you unpack my room? Didja?" Rockie’s child hopped from one leg to the other, and the poor mover navigated around him to the truck.
Sixteen-year-old Chelsea stretched her legs in the backseat. Drawing out a compact, she reapplied her lip gloss. One last purse and Chelsea shuffled out of the car, strutting up the walkway.
They're too old for you. Saying it out loud wasn't worth the sneer Rockie'd get in response. And if Chelsea flirting with strangers was all Rockie had to put up with for forcing the last-minute move on her children, well, Rockie would deal. Chelsea's eyes had hooded with a darkness Rockie’d hated when she'd told her about the transition, but at least her daughter understood the danger.
Rockie greeted another two movers who came out of the house. "Is everything going okay?"
"Fine," mumbled one with wiry black curls. "We'll be out of your hair in a jiffy." He kept moving boxes as he spoke. Rockie had never seen hourly employees work that fast before.
"Would you guys like some water? I'm sure I can find the glasses," she offered as the last box was taken inside.
"No, thank you." The mover stared down the block as he spoke, and Rockie followed his gaze. "We need to be going."
Some neighbors were out a few houses down, far enough away Rockie couldn't make out any features other than pale complexions. They were huddled together on another dead lawn, probably curious about the moving activity. But not curious enough to come say hello. It was for the best; the lower the profile Rockie's family kept in Enos, the better.
The mover gaped like he'd gone blind from the glare off the neighbors' skin. He opened his mouth, "I never believed—", but apparently thought better of continuing.
"All right, boys. Let's get out of here," the foreman called. He didn't make eye contact. The last of the movers hurried out the front door, saying nothing as Rockie thanked them.
"They're in a hurry," Chelsea said with sarcastic emphasis as they careened out of the driveway.
"Yeah. They forgot to give me the bill." Little blessings. Maybe it was a good omen they'd found somewhere they could start again. Be free. And with an extra grand more than Rockie'd expected.
The breeze drifted by, carrying the scent of roadkill. A quick inspection assured Rockie no animals had taken their last breaths in the yard. Another gust came, leaving only the ghost of the walkway's faded wood chips behind.
The neighbors had gone inside. Rockie shook her head and followed suit.
Mayor Jonah felt mighty proud of reaching their second spring in Enos. Oh, he still yearned for the complexity of two-cusped cathedral arches and the simplicity of his mother's societal maledictions, but life—and leadership—was rewarding. He had appointed James Rangel as sheriff, a man whose sharp talk and sharper shooting Jonah admired. The two often gathered on Jonah's porch. One evening, two draws short of finishing an exquisite Madura the traders had brought through, the Baker family rode up.
Their eldest child, Willie Jr., hopped off the squeaky carriage crammed with his siblings and parents. He choked on kicked-up dust as he spoke. "Mr. Mayor, you have to help us. Little Joanie's taken ill, and we don't know what to do."
Will Sr. cradled the youngest Baker as his wife strapped the horse's reins to the hitching post. The infant's face was flush with fever, nostrils plugged up with flakes of phlegm. She grimaced in her swaddling clothes with each tiny cough.
"Did you go see Doc?"
Will Sr. went still. "We tried, Mayor, but he was—"
"—dead." Mrs. Baker spoke plainly while grasping two children by the arm to keep them from running off. "He'd been dead at least half a day. Cold when I touched him, and smelly. Long streams of dried snot covered his mouth, just like Joannie's. This ain't no normal flu, Mayor. He couldn't have been alone for long, not the doctor."
No, he couldn't have. Jonah had visited him yesterday after receiving his request for more help tending the villagers. The man had appeared a little green, but he'd had no cough. This influenza presented as nausea for a day or two, coughing for a few more, then the fever took over. Four deaths they'd had…well, now, make that five. And for the doctor's health to fail so fast?
"Come in, come in." Jonah had forgotten his manners. "I'll send a rider to Uriah to fetch another doctor. It'll be safer than your kin going."
Mrs. Baker shooed her brood inside. As they swarmed in on Patricia in the parlor, Jonah explained the situation. She took Little Joanie straightaway into her arms.
"Jonah's always ranting on about my warm blood. Maybe it'll do her some good."
A trace of Patricia's accent lingered, making the locals' brash talk sound lyrical from her lips. She winked at him. They would have their own children soon, once he talked her into it. He conjured up an image of Patricia rocking a boy with Jonah's untamable curls and her molasses eyes. The fantasy was so real, Jonah reached out to touch his child.
Little Joannie kept her eyes closed through her next bout of coughing.
Rockie swiped her time card, ending her eighth shift at the Goshen County hospital. She shoved her scrubs into her tote bag and opened her umbrella. It had been raining—hard—since the day after they'd moved. Rockie was grateful for it, and not just because it washed away whatever had made that wretched smell. Other applicants for her position had stayed away, though the orthopedics ward was so desperate for help, she wondered if that made a difference. Specialized care was hard to find in these old prairie towns, but Enos seemed to have an especially high demand for it. Rural life was unforgiving on joints and limbs, she guessed.
Ten minutes later, she parked the station wagon at home and went to stick her key in the lock. The door cracked open at her touch, and her breath caught in her throat. What if André had…? No, we're safe. We're safe, she repeated to calm herself, though her pulse kept racing. The heavy door had merely shifted along with the house. An absent-minded fourth-grader could have forgotten to shut it tight. But an absent-minded teenager shouldn't have. And that worried Rockie more.
"In here, Mom."
Rockie's hand dropped to her stomach and she let herself breath again. She almost stopped when she saw the line of smoke streaking out of the kitchen. It dissipated fast, the evidence of an oven needing a good cleaning.
She sighed with relief as she stepped into the kitchen, her eyes falling on Peter. He leaned over a steaming cookie sheet, stringy cheese dangling from his chin. "You shouldn't be using the oven unsupervised, you know." Then she sighed again in disappointment when she registered yet another frozen pizza for dinner. Everything they'd eaten lately came from the bodega down the block. I'll find a proper farmer's market soon. The town square a few blocks from their rental might host one. She'd ask a patient tomorrow. Her coworkers wouldn't know; most of them lived in nearby Uriah.
Rockie grimaced through residual smoke as she forced the kitchen window open. Then she ruffled Peter's hair, which he hated.
"Where's your sister?"
It was nearly seven and the high school let out at three. Chelsea should be there. We're safe. He won't find us here. Maybe if Rockie thought it enough times, she'd believe it.
"I dunno." Peter blew on another bite. "She said she had to study."
"Study, huh?" Rockie didn't like that answer. Peter was a responsible kid, but he was still a kid. Chelsea knew better than to make plans that left him home alone, especially now. "You left the door open. You need to make sure you close and lock it when you come in."
"Sorry," he said around a mouthful of pizza.
The door slammed, and Chelsea sauntered in wearing a too-short skirt and a faraway smile. Her tight ponytail of dark brown hair made her equally dark eyes intensify, and the vibrant yellow of her peasant blouse popped against her skin. Rockie, freckled and always a little burnt, envied her daughter's coloring.
"Pizza?" Chelsea's voice sounded spacey as she walked to the counter. "Groovy."
Groovy? Were the 70s back in style? Rockie grabbed her own slice. "Where have you been?" The warm tomato sauce smelled divine after a day spent in the podiatry wing. The patients' feet, young and old, had been riddled with brittle skin. She'd never seen so many prescriptions for urea cream fly by.
"I was out, okay?" All signs of peace, love, and understanding fell away as Chelsea sneered. "Studying. Didn't you tell her, Petey?"
Maybe Chelsea hadn't handled the move as well as she'd thought.
"I'm out of here." Peter padded into the living room with a third slice. "Steven Universe is on."
Rockie suppressed the urge to remind him to get a plate—the only ones they'd unpacked were waiting in the dishwasher for a full load. Once he was out of earshot, she dug in her heels.
"You know you can't leave him home alone."
"Whatever." Chelsea rolled her eyes. "He's almost ten. I was home by myself all the time when I was nine."
"That's not true."
"Yeah, it is. Geez, Mom, did you, like, lose some brain cells at work today?"
Things were rough sometimes, sure, but Rockie was certain she had not let Chelsea stay home alone at that age. At eleven, maybe, but not at nine. And only as long as she knew André was out on a job. He hadn't used his fists then, but he'd always been an unpredictable drunk. If only she'd known that before getting married. She'd been so naïve, so easily swept off her feet.
"Besides, I was studying at the library. Studying. You know, a good thing to do."
Rockie didn't have the energy for this fight after three 12-hour shifts and the fear of that opened door. "Well, next time take him with you." She folded up another slice and tried parental communication again after the rush of grease, tomato, and spice subsided.
"Were you studying with a boy?" Rockie’s tone teased, hoping to goad Chelsea back into the happier mood she'd been in.
Chelsea placed her cell phone on the counter. "Ugh. I am not talking about this with you."
Bingo. "Oh, come on! You always tell me about your crushes. Remember when you thought Malcolm in the Middle was dreamy?" The phone's bright screen faded to black, but not before Rockie read the numbers of the last call dialed. 555-301-0010. A Silverton number.
"Mom!" Chelsea made the word last three syllables and finished it off with a huff.
Chelsea wouldn't call her dad. No way. Rockie fought down her anxiety. "Fine. Don't tell me. I won't tell you about the surgeon I met either."
Chelsea's eyes lit up like she'd seen a cheesecake. "What surgeon?"
"Oh, no one." Rockie finished her slice. "Just the sexiest man I've ever seen."
"Mom! You have to ask him out."
"Only if you tell me about this boy." The number had to belong to a friend of Chelsea's. Rockie hadn’t thought to have her break off all contact after the move. Should she have?
"Okay, lame-o." Chelsea's eyes sparkled as she launched into the description. "His name is Carl, and he has the best hair. He mousses it so it goes in all different directions, which is so cool, and his dimples are amazing."
I'm just on edge. André didn't know who Chelsea's friends were. But if he went to her school…
"He told me he thinks I'd be perfect for some pageant thing the town's putting on, which is the cutest pick-up line ever, right?" Sudden panic made Chelsea frown. "Or do you think he said that to make fun of the new kid? Oh my god, what if he was joking? What if it's, like, pigs being judged?"
Rockie couldn't help but laugh. "Honestly, he sounds like a keeper. Invite him over sometime."
Chelsea was extra cute when she squealed. Making it stop was heartbreaking, but Rockie knew she had to when the phone screen ignited again.
"Have you been calling your friends back home?"
She huffed. "I know not to tell them where we are, okay?"
"That's good. Really good. But you have to be careful not to let something slip. I'm not sure if—"
"You can't take them away too, Mom. It's not fair."
She knew her daughter didn't mean the words to cut that sharply, but they did. "I'm protecting you. Like I promised."
"I know." Chelsea's eyes welled up. "I'll be careful."
Rockie wanted to take Chelsea by the shoulders, to impress into her skin how impossible careful was in their circumstances. But she could only bring herself to kiss the part in her hair.
Jonah never did send that rider. The influenza spread too fast; Patricia was coughing within an hour. The rapid illness barely left breath for gasps, much less goodbyes. He watched Patricia shudder through her last one through tear-heavy lashes as he kissed her warm forehead. Her grip loosened and Jonah released her hand. It rolled to stillness against her hip. Little Joannie had been dead half a day by then, and Will Sr. and the second-eldest Baker child gave up their fights within the hour.
Air. Jonah needed fresher air. Everything went hazy. He feared that's all life ever would be, a haze of could-have-beens. One step onto his porch and he realized he wouldn't find refreshment there. Wails sounded all around as though Death had ridden in on his pale horse. The street swarmed with townspeople huddled in wagons or on blankets spread over the dusty ground. They had come overnight in groups, no doubt spreading the infection ever faster.
A realization cut through Jonah's fog of grief—he hadn't fallen ill. In a crowd that size, he couldn't be the only one.
"Listen," he cried, his voice raspy from pleading with God to spare Patricia. He banged his knuckles against the porch's support posts. "Listen!"
Hundreds of eyes red with grief or glossy with fever looked up.
"I'm riding to the next town. It's my responsibility, now that Patricia's…well, there's nothing I can do for Patricia." He'd thought his eyes spent of tears, but new ones sprang up. It was his duty to do what he could for these people. He was healthy, and they had entrusted him with their safekeeping. Jonah Weatherton might hold himself a little too high sometimes, but he would always do his duty. "I—I haven't fallen ill. If anyone else feels well, we should ride together. We must convince the people of Uriah of our great need here."
Reverend Calwood's hand shot up. "The Lord has spared me thus far."
"Me too," spoke Mrs. Baker. Jonah swung around to face her. "Will Jr. can see to his siblings, the ones he has left. I haven't been no good for them, but I can ride fast." She kissed her eldest son's scrappy brown hair. He straightened up proudly, his sister Estrid balanced on his hip.
Eleven hands rose in all, and the volunteers assembled. Jonah didn't watch the goodbyes, busying himself with securing saddles instead. He knew the sick ones wouldn't live to see their return. Patricia's image floated back to him like the fringe of a scarf tickling his skin, but he knew better than to grasp it and let her haunt him. She was dead now. He had to stop this evil from taking all of Enos.
Spinach gnocchi bobbed in the boiling water like kelp bulbs in the ocean. Rockie prayed they'd be soft and fluffy for once. It was her mother's recipe and the kids' favorite, but no matter how hard she tried, she never got it right. Gary, the hot surgeon, would arrive soon, and she was determined to have dinner ready by then. Carl was coming, too, making it practically a mother/daughter date night. The normalcy of it amazed her. Two weeks, and no sign of André.
The default cellphone tone sounded. Rockie's wooden spoon clattered to the stove. Nobody but work and her children had that number, and she'd personalized their ringtones.
"Crap." The spoon's tip caught fire, and she tossed it into the pot of water. The phone kept ringing as she fished the spoon back out again. Maybe I forgot to change it for work? She couldn't afford to lose this job. "Hello?"
"Rockie, I am very sorry, but there's an emergency surgery I'm needed for tonight."
Gary, it was Gary. "How did you get my number?"
"Oh, sorry. I wrestled it from Debbie in HR. Told her I needed it at risk of life or death. Just didn't tell her it was romantic life or death."
Rockie made a note to convince this Debbie her personal information could never, ever be released.
"This poor patient has four fingers needing reattachment. There's such little bruising for that bad a slice, fascinating really—"
Typical. Gary sounded breathless, but Rockie was used to cancellations when it came time to meet the kids.
"—and I can't make it tonight. We'll have to try again. Maybe you all can come to my place in Uriah?"
He could be telling the truth. An emergency replantation on a Friday night in Enos wasn't that far-fetched. "It's fine. See you tomorrow?"
"I'll have your vanilla latte waiting."
She took out her disappointment on the simmering marinara, giving it an extra fast stir. The kids returned from a library trip as she drained the dumplings.
"Hi, Mom," they chimed in unison. Chelsea tugged Peter away from the stovetop by the straps of his ratty green backpack.
"Perfect timing. Dinner will be ready in ten."
"I've got the place settings." Peter headed out to the dining room. Chelsea, however, rested her head on the counter and played with the salt and pepper shakers.
"You know you only fidget when you're nervous, right?" Rockie's teasing laugh elicited a blush from her lovesick daughter. "Sorry to disappoint, but Gary had to cancel."
"What?! You better reschedule with him."
"I better, huh?"
"Yes. You know I have to approve of your boyfriends." Chelsea plopped a cooling gnocchi in her mouth.
"Oh, do you?"
A knock sounded at the door.
"That's him!" Chelsea wrestled her creeping shirt down over a cute flared skirt.
Carl knocked again.
"You look great, I promise." Rockie took the pot off the heat and stirred in some parsley.
"Coming!" Chelsea yelled down the hallway. She stopped, one hand on the corner wall. "And Mom?"
"The gnocchi's fantastic."
Rockie smiled as she flipped the garlic bread.
Carl wiped his mouth. "Dinner was delicious, Mrs. Dorsey." He was shorter than she'd expected, but Rockie gave up understanding Chelsea's tastes after her emo phase. Carl was fair, too, but nothing like their neighbors or some of the townspeople Rockie had seen in the hospital. Maybe the coloring was a shared trait among the locals, a genetic condition like that family with the blue skin in Kentucky that she'd learned about in nursing school.
"Thank you, Carl. And you can call me Rockie."
He was polite. Polite was good. Chelsea shot a sneaky glance his way, and Rockie stifled her laughter. Carl hadn't returned Chelsea's furtive smiles, but any doubt as to where his interests lay faded when he spoke.
"So, um, Rockie, I've been meaning to ask, have you made up your mind about letting Chelsea participate in our heritage festival?" He took her daughter's hand and squeezed it. Chelsea gaped.
Rockie hid her amusement in a sip of water. "She told me something about that. It's a pageant?"
Carl chuckled. "Not quite. I mean, we don't build floats or anything. There's a carnival and stupid games for the kids to play—sack races, you know. But the ceremony's the important part. And Chelsea taking part would be so exciting! We haven't had new blood in—"
"—town for a while?" Rockie took another sip, thinking of her neighbors' lack of welcome. "I could tell."
Carl rolled his napkin between his fingers, obviously perplexed. "Oh! You think we've been impolite." He blushed. "I'm sorry. We don't mean to be; the Council thinks it's wise not to introduce too many new people at once, or we would have asked you and Peter to participate, too."
Rockie laughed out loud at that. "Aren't I a little old for that?"
Carl's brow arched. "Too old? Citizens are eligible for the honor until they're sixty, unless they can't physically fulfill it."
"Well, that sounds nice and inclusive." Rockie patted his hand to reassure him. "But what would Chelsea be doing?"
"She'll be a volunteer, of course. Like the ones who saved our founders with the cure."
Peter wrinkled his nose. "Gross. You had a disease?"
Carl nodded. "Yeah, Enos was almost wiped out in the 1800s, but the volunteers showed our founders how to survive it. We call that the First Service. Every few years, the founders select a new wave of volunteers at the festival, and the Service ripples out from there, as it always has."
Volunteering would look wonderful on a college application, not to mention the civic engagement. Yet it sounded high-profile, which jangled Rockie’s nerves. "Is there a lot of local press coverage at the festival, Carl?"
"Oh no." Carl shook his head fervently. "We keep to ourselves, here. I think you've noticed?" The corners of his mouth turned up in a smirk.
Rockie laughed again. "Sorry about that."
He looked relieved at having explained their tradition well enough. "I promise it'll be a huge honor for Chelsea." Carl turned toward the girl in question, his dimples reappearing. "She'll be perfect. I know it."
Chelsea blushed while casting pleading eyes Rockie's way. Clearly, Rockie had no choice in the matter. And as long as word didn't spread beyond the town…
"It sounds harmless enough."
Chelsea screamed and raced around the table to hug her neck. "Oh my god, thank you, thank you!"
Peter groaned. "She's already insufferable." Insufferable was on his vocabulary list.
Carl eased Peter’s apprehension. "It's not like that, I promise. Volunteers are never a bother."
Rockie wished she could get that in writing. Especially after Carl left and Chelsea spent the rest of the night on the phone with her friend Andrea, describing every detail at a decibel not fit for human ears. Teenagers.
Mrs. Baker led their way out of town. She didn't look back, and neither did the other riders. The only way back to Enos was forward, following the rising sun fifteen miles down the ridge to Uriah. They galloped off, handkerchiefs tied over their noses to keep out the dust from clomping hooves.
By high noon the echo of their riding had thundered so long from canyon walls, Jonah didn't realize all other sounds had dropped. Not until Mrs. Baker drew her horse to a stop so fast it reared.
"What is it?" Jonah drew up close. Mrs. Baker had spent the last day tending her dying family and only now had she lost her color. He didn't want to follow the line of her pointing finger, but he did.
A group of Indians, equal to the volunteers in number, had gathered past the next bend. Jonah couldn't make out whether they wore the Goshute's beaded belts or the Shivwits' sheepskin shoes. Noon-time shadows washed out their skin.
"Hello, friends." Jonah wasn't afraid of Indians; he planned to open a mercantile, after all. He extended his hand, and the nearest one answered the gesture with a cocked head.
The occasion called for forgoing polity, so Jonah tried again. "We've had a horrible sickness in our town. Please, we need aid. Do you have any healers—"
"We are not using the native's magicks, Mayor Weatherton." Reverend Calwood's face twisted into a sneer. "Our loved ones need the hand of the Almighty God, not the Devil." He flung one arm toward the Indians—
—who were no longer Indians at all. The volunteers gasped. A mix of Europeans stood before them, dressed in traditional garb. Jonah's family had left such raiment behind two generations ago, but many of the settlers in Enos probably had similar clothing stored in their barns.
Sheriff Rangel brandished his weapon. "Wh—who are you? What happened to the Indians?"
"Do not be afraid." A woman spoke, parting the crowd around her. "We take the form of those we encounter." She wore a lace mantilla like Patricia had at their wedding. Though nowhere near as full, her voice had the same lilt, too. It was a comfort to hear it. "The sickness has quickened?"
"H–how do you know?" Tanner Krueger, a German settler with blond hair and muscular limbs, spoke in halting English. He held a hunting knife out in front of him.
Another stranger stepped forward, wearing leather breeches with straps that crisscrossed over his tan sweater. His speech mimicked Krueger's. "Illness often falls here, der kumpel. We have learned to outlast it."
"Then you can help!" Mrs. Baker loosened her tongue but Jonah could not find his at the sight of these…these people. "What can we do to save our lost ones?"
"We don't want your saving." The reverend was off his horse, knees planted on the ground. He kissed the cross at his neck, lips beginning a prayer.
"Yes, we do." Sheriff Rangel swung his long legs down. "We'll never get to and back from Uriah in time, Rev. If these folks know any way to help my Oswald—"
Gooseflesh raged over Jonah's skin. The whole encounter was … was sacrilegious at the least, beyond the bounds of anything Jonah had seen. But so was the disease that had consumed the woman he loved faster than anything borne of nature.
The Spanish woman held Jonah's eye with a slight smile as she answered Rangel's question. "There is a way to help them. To spare them from everlasting death…if there are others like you in your town. We will teach them the way."
"Ye–yes. There are others." The volunteers hadn't been the only healthy ones left in that crowd. Just the ones willing to leave.
The reverend continued his fervent prayer, but Jonah felt a flicker of hope. He had to ask.
"And the ones we've already lost? You’ll help them, too?"
In the lounge the next morning, Gary greeted Rockie with a peck to the cheek and her latte in hand. She made no attempt at small talk, unsure if he'd had a legitimate excuse for cancelling the night before.
"Have you heard of the heritage festival in town this weekend?" she asked. If he wanted her, he'd have to work for it. And she was preoccupied, worried she'd said yes too fast to Chelsea's participation.
The flirt drained out of Gary's eyes. He glanced toward the glass windows separating them from the waiting room. "The heritage festival, huh? I've never been to it." He spun his coffee lid on the table. "That's something the locals do, really. We daytimers leave them to it." His tone of voice was nonchalant. "I don't think you should bother. Your kids are probably too old for the games, anyway."
"There's this kid at Chelsea's school who wants her to be part of the ceremony. Asked my permission."
Gary's hand slammed over hers with enough force to spill her latte. Far too fresh memories sprang up in Rockie's mind at the fleeting sting of pain. She pushed away from the table, trembling.
"Don't say yes." Gary avoided her eyes, gave his attention to the waiting room instead. "You don't want to let her do that."
Probably hopes an emergency leg break comes in to swoop him out of here. He hadn't noticed Rockie's unease, much less the mess on the table.
"Why not?" Doing the opposite of what Gary suggested sounded more appealing all the time.
The outside door to the ambulatory center swished open, and Gary's face grayed. Rockie craned her neck around but only saw a few patients in line at registration.
Gary nodded to himself then tossed his full cup in the trash. "Forget about it. I've got to go scrub in. See you at lunch?"
There were no surgeries she knew of on the schedule.
"Not today." Not ever again, she knew, watching the pink outline of where his hand had struck hers fade away.
The shock of Gary's behavior galvanized her through the swing shift. Nearly two decades with André should have given her a sixth sense about men like him, but no, Rockie could find assholes in the middle of nowhere. Stupid, how could I be so stupid? It wasn't until she'd reached for the doorknob at home that she registered the black '73 Dodge Challenger parked at the curb. She jerked her hand away as if it'd been burned, a bolt of fear locking her feet in place. A touch of her fingers sent the door creaking open.
No. Dear God, please no.
Her hyperventilating breaths knew it was too late before she made it to the kitchen. André had an arm wrapped around Chelsea's waist and wore a victorious smirk, a dog with its prey caught in its teeth.
"Welcome home, darlin'. I've missed you so much."
Rockie shuddered but held herself together. She would not despair, not with Chelsea's eyes wide and pleading and Peter shrunk against the water-stained wall. The memory of her daughter's exultant voice on the phone last night answered the question of how, but Rockie knew the real reason. He would never leave them alone. Never.
André's arm dropped, and Chelsea rushed to Rockie's side. She kissed her daughter's hair and rubbed her fingers up and down her neck to calm her. "It's okay. It's okay." She would make it okay. But for now, they needed to survive.
"I can't believe you're raising my kids in this rat's nest." André shook his head at the crooked blinds, the cracked and yellowed overhead light. He was more muscled than before, but his hairline had receded fast.
"One salary only covers so much." Rockie needed to make use of his sobriety while she could. "It's why we had to move out of Silverton. It's a lot cheaper here." Knowing what he wanted to hear was an old skill.
André bit his lower lip. Then he shrugged, accepting her lies. "I'm sorry, you know. I would have helped if I could."
"Of course we know, don't we kids?" She reached an arm out to Peter, who attached himself to her leg. "You were in prison. We understand that." She gave each of her children a reassuring shoulder squeeze. "Now, how about some welcome home ice cream for your dad?"
"It's okay to have ice cream?" Peter's look of hopeful desperation cinched her chest. He had been five when André last went away. How could he fully understand that his father coming home was a bad thing? He shouldn't have to.
She nodded. Peter untangled himself from Rockie's side to grab the bowls.
"Chelsea, you'll need to sleep in Peter's room." Rockie glanced at her eldest with a courageous visage. I'll get us out of this. "Your dad and I are getting reacquainted tonight." Some things were unavoidable.
"You bet we are." André's words dripped with anticipation. He lifted Peter up to reach the bowls, making him giggle. Rockie was perversely grateful their son didn't need to put on an act.
Chelsea disappeared inside the master bedroom. A few minutes later, she re-emerged with an armload of her things. "Peter and I will watch TV, okay?" Her voice sounded younger, yet braver, than ever. She even rubbed her father's arm before heading to the freezer. Playing possum came second nature to her, too.
André's adam's apple bobbed. "Better turn it up real loud."
Rockie wondered how she'd ever found him attractive.
"Listen to your sister, Peter." She winked at her son, smile plastered in place. "And maybe she'll let you have extra ice cream later."
Peter grinned. "I promise."
"Good, because we always keep our promises." Rockie was determined to make that true.
"If their essences have not traveled far, we can save the ones you name. One for one, no more, no less."
Each word from the Spanish spirit was a balm to Jonah's grieving heart. Maybe they weren't evil. Maybe they were angels. The Oriental who had sold him cigars in Manhattan had believed a person's soul could return to their body. Maybe he was right.
Jonah gripped his horse's reins, needing to be grounded from the dizzying effect of hope. "What do we do?"
The reverend sputtered. "You can't be serious. You are conversing with demons. The Lord smites those who make deals with devils."
"He smites us no matter what we do, Preacher." Mrs. Baker had found her voice. "My husband never cursed a day in his life, and my Joannie? She weren't old enough to do nothing that might displease the Lord. Maybe we ought to give these folks a listen." She shoved her fists into her apron pockets and nudged her head toward the strangers. "Go on, now."
The Spanish woman smiled. "We have journeyed far, looking for people who have not fallen to the sickness. None among you have felt it? No fever? No harshness of the throat?"
Spittle flew from the reverend's mouth, his voice dark and portending. "Don't you believe them, Mayor. The devil comes like a wolf in sheep's clothing."
Sheriff Rangel jutted his chin at the pastor. "It makes sense, don't it? That flu is no natural illness. So the cure ain't natural either. It's like Jesus healing the lepers."
"Don't you dare compare our Lord to those—those—"
Jonah wasn't listening anymore. What Rangel had said made sense, and he trusted Rangel's instincts, or he would never have appointed him sheriff. "Maybe they are here to do God's work, Reverend. If what they say is true, it feels like a miracle to me."
"And to me," Mrs. Baker echoed. She addressed the strangers. "I've not had so much as a tickle in my chest. Tell me what to do, and I'll do it."
Tanner Krueger's knife clinked to the ground. "Me too. Whatever it is."
The reverend leapt up. "This is lunacy! Krueger, think of your soul!"
"I am thinking of Freya's, Rev." The man's face was grim, his features set.
Others among the volunteers nodded, though some held back in fear. Jonah didn't blame them, but to give Patricia a chance to come back? He would do anything. "Apologies, Reverend, but I must also agree."
"And I." Sheriff Rangel drew himself up tall. He addressed the strangers. "Please, save my Oswald."
"Joannie and Abel and Will."
The Spanish woman tsked. “You must choose, mother. One for one. We will not linger long among the afflicted.”
Mrs. Baker, Lord bless her, thought only of her youngest. “Little Joannie, then.” Her eyes filled with tears. “She never had a chance at life at all.”
Jonah was nearly moved enough to name another Baker. But his heart didn’t allow him a choice. "And Patricia. Please. Bring Patricia back to us." Just speaking her name brought him peace.
Two mornings later, Rockie went early with Peter to ride the Tilt-A-Whirl at the festival. After half a dozen turns, she welcomed the relative calm of the town square. The noise of the carnival had died down as the ceremonial hour approached and the townspeople made their way to the square in a trickle. Clumps of dry needles covered brittle pine cones hanging from a handful of trees. The great lawn was a patchwork of mud-filled trenches, struggling green grasses, and yellowed squares that had given up the fight. A faded wicker pavilion rose up at the park's eastern edge, in front of a free-standing wall of cement—handball courts? Two banners strung across the stage declared "Heritage Festival" and "May Our Founders Live Forever."
André leaned against a tree near the stage, stripping bark from its trunk as he waited.
Peter frowned. "Doesn't that hurt the plants? Why's Dad doing that?"
Because he can. She prayed Peter wouldn't hate her when they got their chance to run, but she'd rather that than have him witness what else his father could do. André didn't know about the money she had stashed in her tampon box under the sink or the searching she'd done at work the last two days for jobs across the border. He might not even surface to report Chelsea as kidnapped for a week if they were lucky. They just had to be patient—the bar trips to Uriah were bound to happen soon enough. Enos was a dry town, and the plastic bottle of rum he'd brought was running low.
He'd insisted on joining them to watch Chelsea in the ceremony, all smiles and family togetherness and making noise about meeting the neighbors. When Chelsea protested, he asked why his daughter didn't want to be seen with him. She'd dropped it fast, and Rockie had blamed her outburst on teenage hormones.
"Mom, what's wrong?" Peter could read body language far too well. She lifted the lid on her simmering anger. Approaching André this way would undermine the peaceful exterior they'd cultivated.
"It's just the smell, honey." The moldering grasses provided a convenient excuse. Smile reaffixed, she ruffled Peter's hair. He hit her hand away with a groan.
Tap, tap, tap. A crackling sound system came to life as they reached André. Rockie gave him a perfunctory kiss. The alcohol scent rising from his skin was mild enough to be mistaken for aftershave. She sighed with relief. Buzzed, he was manageable.
A dour man in a suit tested the microphone at the pavilion. Rockie covered Peter's ears before the inevitable screeching of the amplifier signal.
"Sorry, sorry." The man wiped his head. The lawn was packed with more people than Rockie had known lived in Enos.
"I want to thank you for coming out today for our annual celebration. Dottie Jameson did an excellent job organizing the vendors for the fair, and I think she deserves a nice round of applause. Dottie, would you show yourself?"
An older woman with a creamy yellow tint to her white curls waved to the crowd.
"And now I'll introduce this festival's volunteers."
Well, he cut to the chase. The reaction to the announcement was a respectful silence, and the announcer made his way through the list of names. First came an older man named James. One by one, the other volunteers shuffled in, a progressive mix of genders and ages, as Carl had said.
Peter grabbed her elbow. "Mom, why isn't anyone cheering?"
"Because they're a bunch of zombified rednecks," André whispered. "Someone ought to teach them how to cook meth. Make it more interesting."
Rockie shushed them as Chelsea took the stage. She was breathtaking, wearing a wreath of ribbons like a May Day crown. When Rockie caught her eye, she jumped up and down as though younger than Peter. Rockie nudged him to wave at her.
"We would like to thank Carl Rivers for finding Chelsea." The announcer's monotone broke with a hint of enthusiasm. "It's been a long time since we've added diversity to our community, and I know our founders are thrilled. It's essential, if we want to thrive."
"Diversity," André scoffed. "You'd think they'd never seen a brown person before."
Rockie raised two fingers to her lips before the announcer spoke again.
"Carl, would you come take a bow?"
The young man scrambled onto the stage and hugged Chelsea tight. Whatever he whispered in her ear made her blush.
The announcer wrung his hands. "We should start. Let's begin with James, please," the older man, first in the line, exited off the stage and behind the wall, "and the rest of you can line up behind—"
There was a yell, and the sounds of a scuffle. Rockie gripped Peter's arm.
"Excuse me, but we'll take a little break while we get this sorted out."
The announcer disappeared behind the wall too. The crowd murmured, and a few people ran to the stage to greet their loved ones. No one acted worried, but something in Rockie's gut made her wave Chelsea over.
"What is it? I'm kind of busy."
"What's going on back there?"
Chelsea rolled her eyes. "It's nothing, all right? Carl said—"
André's fingers coiled around Chelsea's wrist. "Don't you talk to your mother like that."
Her eyes widened. "I—I didn't mean to, Dad. I'm sorry."
Maybe André was a little more than buzzed. That could become a bigger problem than whatever was going on backstage. "What did Carl say?"
"That sometimes the participants get overwhelmed. Like stage fright. Because honoring the founders is so important to them, or something."
André leaned back against the tree, satisfied, but Rockie was not. "What else has Carl told you about this, huh?"
Chelsea lifted her hands up. "Nothing, I swear."
A small reddish dot marked her right index finger. Rockie grabbed her hand. "What's this?"
"Just a pinprick. It got a little irritated after the school nurse ran the blood test yesterday."
Rockie's voice rose. "What do you mean, a blood test?" That crossed so many different lines, she could scarce believe it. "Do you have any idea how illegal that is?"
Downcast eyes answered that question well enough. "I know I should have checked with you, but Carl said—"
"I don't care what Carl said. What if you'd had an allergic reaction or needed—"
"The nurse said it was totally fine. Just to make sure I wasn't a carrier."
"Not a carrier? Chelsea, that doesn't make me feel any better." Rockie's grasp on her temper grew more tenuous by the second. What did these people think they could do with her daughter?
"I don't know, it kind of made sense as part of the tribute, I guess. Carl explained it—"
"Of course, he did."
"Shut the hell up, both of you." André pushed himself off the trunk. "Stop embarrassing me in front of these people." He thrust the words out through gritted teeth.
Rockie nodded hurriedly and avoided his eyes. She sensed, rather than saw, Chelsea sink in on herself.
"Here's what we're going to do. Chelsea's going to rejoin those backwater churls and be crowned whatever the hell they want her to be because we will not be the laughingstocks of this Podunk town. I'm taking the keys and going back to that craphole of a house to relax, and I expect you to tell me how impressed these idiots were with you later. Chelsea better come home wearing a vial of their happy tears."
Peter's jaw dropped. Rockie's heart tore a little more as the announcer's voice rang out.
"We're ready. Can the volunteers please return to the stage?"
André took off toward the car. He grunted, loudly, and Rockie tossed him the keys. She almost asked him to stay—what sort of people ran blood tests without parental permission? They were freakishly paranoid at the least. But André would get worse as his drunkenness set in; the station wagon's familiar backfire brought more relief than worry. Maybe he'd hit a tree on the few blocks back home.
The reverend seethed as each townsperson named their sick or deceased loved ones in turn. Then he slipped his left foot into his stirrup. "I did not ride out here to condemn more people to their doom." He swung onto his mount, launching into a gallop back the way they had come. "I will warn them. They will never let you return."
Jonah saw Sheriff Rangel draw his shotgun, could have tried to throw off his aim, but the promise of Patricia safe, well, alive stilled his hand. The reverend was blown from his horse a second before the shot resounded. The horse trampled him in its haste to get away.
The volunteers screamed and gasped. But they didn't run, not even when Rangel collapsed to the ground shaking with tears. Grief had brought them a darker kind of understanding.
"I couldn't let him…for Oswald…my little boy…"
Mrs. Baker hugged him. "You did it for all of us, son."
Murder. They'd just committed murder. That proved the reverend's fears right, didn't it? They didn't even know what was asked of them, and already someone had died.
"We should bury him," Jonah put forth.
An inhuman hiss sounded as an invisible force threw him back against the canyon wall. Jonah struggled to catch his breath, his ribs aching, as the Spanish woman's eyes narrowed to a slit.
"A clean body must not be wasted."
Chelsea blinked away the tears on her lashes and walked back to the stage, but Rockie joined the crowd flowing toward the barrier. Behind it, a trio of burly men restrained a disheveled James. Behind them stood a fenced-in pen she hadn't seen from her previous angle. Expressionless faces, bathed in the same ghastly pallor as many of her patients, pressed against its wires. Probably a dozen people of different ages were inside, reaching their hands through the gaps. A little girl banged her plush giraffe against them over and over until, well, until her hand dropped off and the giraffe fell. Thick purplish blood oozed from the stump of her arm.
Rockie recognized her daughter's gasp. She met Chelsea's eyes, begging her not to scream. The townspeople were unphased by the ghastly sight—Rockie didn't need to know anything else.
Peter yanked at her arm. "Mom, what's going on?" She ignored the question, lifting him to her shoulders. They edged toward the stage. James’s lips moved as though repeating a prayer as the men brought him closer to the cage.
"Honey," Rockie placed a hand on Chelsea's ankle as she reached her, "we need to—"
"Oh. My. God." At her daughter's terrified voice, Rockie glanced back. One of the people inside the cage, a man with a few handfuls of stringy hair on his head, had James by the arm. James tried to bolt, but the man's skeletal fingers gripped him firmly, so firmly the skin around them turned white.
It didn't stop there. The whiteness spread up James's arm, disappearing under his sleeves then creeping up his neck from under his collar. His face drained of color, a turned hourglass with no bottom well. His panicked, green eyes drew Rockie's gaze above the heads of the crowd. Then they closed. A moment later, intense blue ones blinked open. James gave a Cheshire grin, then batted his lashes.
The older man inside the pen collapsed to the ground.
The crowd broke out in applause. "Sophie! A new life for Sophie!" they chanted in scattered rounds, their attention on the body who had been James as he…she performed a series of twirls full of coquetry.
"Follow me," Rockie instructed Chelsea, keeping her voice low.
For the first time since puberty, Chelsea obeyed without a word. The three of them took measured steps away from the town square and whatever had just happened, whatever would not happen to Chelsea, not as long as Rockie had a breath in her body. They reached the sidewalk before Carl's voice called out from the stage.
"What are you doing? The mayor's wife, Senora Patricia, asked for you specifically, Chelsea. Don't you want to be of Service?" His face was the picture of perplexity, one hand scratching at his temple. Sweet Carl, who Rockie had thought would make a lovely boyfriend for her little girl. Sweet Carl, who had been about to sacrifice her little girl for the…the…whatever those people were.
They had no time to waste. Rockie put Peter back on the ground.
"Run to the house. Run."
The German stranger moved toward the reverend's body as Krueger helped Jonah back to his feet. Sweat beaded on Krueger's brow.
The stranger recoiled.
"You said you were pure!" His visage weakened, as though no more substantial than a geyser's mist. One ethereal finger pointed at the moisture.
Krueger paled. Desperation made his voice quick. "I swear it is no fever!" He coughed, clear and loud. "See? It is only worry, worry about my Freya."
Worry about what we've doomed ourselves to. "He's not lying. I would pledge my life on it."
The Spanish woman gave a close-lipped smile. "You have already done that." To the German spirit, she said, "Peace, Dagwan, the man is pure, as they all are. We would have sensed the vileness by now."
Dagwan's countenance solidified with a differential nod. "This man is hale and strong—the decay will not set in for many months. What if they prove susceptible to the illness when we return to the town? Why should we risk such health to find the named ones clean hosts? What if it takes too long to seek them out?”
“We will find them." The Spanish woman sighed. "You are so young. I forget you have only transferred once. The sickness spreads right away or not at all."
Transference? Decay? Jonah sunk back on his knees.
Dagwan nodded and took Krueger by the wrist. In seconds, the spirit dissipated, but Krueger’s mouth turned into a wry grin he had not been capable of before. Jonah’s fellow volunteers screamed, realization dawning too late. He closed his eyes and listened as they tried to run. Their pounding footsteps sounded a few yards before falling still.
Fingers latched around Jonah's wrist, and his eyes popped open. Down the path, the reverend's eternal expression of condemnation stared back. A blinding pain lashed through Jonah's head.
As he always knew they would be, his last thoughts were of Patricia. But the image called to mind was not one of olive skin aglow with health and a squirming bundle in her arms. Rather, a malicious glee tainted her doppelganger's otherworldly features. His nascent son would never have those eyes, but it was a mild comfort to think that Jonah’s body might, if the Spanish woman found a more suitable host. Then Jonah thought no more.
The first time he yelled, Carl sounded unsure, dumbfounded. But his voice grew louder and angrier at the second call. "They're running away! Chelsea, Chelsea's running!"
It took a few seconds for the townspeople to react, but when Rockie heard their footsteps echo off the downtown buildings, she ran harder, making sure her children did not fall back. Her chest blazed, each breath an agony of wheezing by the time the house came into sight. They would have to barricade themselves inside and call for help, but who to call? Gary hadn't bothered to warn her, not really. Rich bastard. No wonder the pay at Goshen was as high as its vacancies. She kicked the curb.
"Mom!" Chelsea ran past her into the house. "Get in!"
Peter's chest heaved. Sweat covered his face. "Mom, they're rounding the corner."
Carl was close, half a block away, the other flesh-and-blood townspeople on his heels. She pushed Peter inside, bolting the door behind them. Outside was a danger she had no idea how to deal with. Inside, at least, was the danger she had dealt with since barely a few years older than Chelsea.
"Floor's uneven in this dump you got." André sat on the couch, nearing a stupor if the spilled remains of rum on the coffee table were any indication. "See how bad you are without me? Can't rent a house that's built straight."
There was no time to listen to André's poison. Knocking hands resounded against the door. Focus.
"Did you open any windows? The back door?"
He slouched against the cushions.
His head lolled up just like sleepy Peter's always did. "What's going on?"
"Did you open any windows or doors?" The house's rotting wooden panels wouldn't hold them back for long, but locked frames would at least delay the mob.
He shook his head, and her panic abated the tiniest amount. But how could she get them to safety? A whole town waited outside that door, a town that wanted to trade her daughter's life for one of theirs.
Carl's calm voice carried through the wall as something metallic at the back of the house jiggled. Oh god.
"Mrs. Dorsey, you have to let Chelsea back out."
"Mrs. Dorsey?" André scoffed, glowering. "What, my name isn't good enough for you anymore?"
"Not now, André." Think.
Carl spoke again. "We need her to begin the new wave. Senora Patricia won't last in Volunteer Henry's body much longer. It's been three years."
"Tell Senora Patricia to take one of yours instead."
"But she can't, Mrs. Dorsey. Too many of us are carriers. Our genetic pool is too thin. I thought you understood?"
Rockie had thought he was such a good kid. Chelsea half-sobbed, half-screamed when the back door squeaked in its frame.
"Rockie, what's going on?" André rose, one hand on his hip, cocksure again. "Is this supposed to scare me? You've got friends pulling a stunt to keep me away?" He covered her and Chelsea with his wide-shouldered lean. "Come on, you know I'm sorry. You know I'd never hurt you again. Call them off."
It came to her then, in his eyes that revealed a trace of the vulnerability that had made her weak once. She didn't doubt he believed his lies, never had. But it wasn't his sincerity that drew her close, made her caress him like the lover he thought she was. What drew her in was the glassy mahogany brown of his irises and the luminous specks within them that rivaled his pupils for darkness. Eyes so different from her and Peter's aquamarine. Eyes so like Chelsea's.
Her lips lied. "I know, baby. I shouldn't have told them you came home." She kissed him full on the mouth, didn't think about the taste or how he shoved his tongue to the back of her mouth. "I was thinking stupid."
With her right hand, she pushed Chelsea down and out from under his arms then deepened the kiss. Her left hand fumbled to unbolt the lock, but once it did, she twisted the knob open. Spinning fast, arms around André, she shoved him outside and slammed the door closed again.
"He's her father," she pleaded through the wall. "If Chelsea's not a carrier, then neither is he. Take him instead. Please, please take him instead."
She wrenched her trembling children close for four beats of heart.
André yelled from the other side. "Get your hands off me! Rockie! What's happening?"
He repeated the mantra over and over, his voice growing distant along with the townspeople's fast-retreating steps. Maybe they needed to "serve" their founders before too many body parts fell off. Peter's breath came in gulps, Chelsea moaned, and Rockie dared to hope.
"How many founders were there, Chelsea? What did Carl tell you?"
"Eleven, I think." The muffled words against Rockie's shoulder sounded crisper than a winter's breeze. "One for each volunteer that saved them."
"—he's enough. Right now, he's enough."
Tears of relief came to Rockie's eyes, unbidden.
"Pack a bag." Carl had spoken of ripples, and she had no intention of being around to learn the recruitment process for those.
Shouldn't I feel worse? Rockie drove fast, one arm around a sleeping Peter and another on the steering wheel. Chelsea draped over her brother, had insisted on them cramming together in the front seat. Her drool trickled into his hair. Peter would complain when he found the crusted remains. Chelsea would deny it, try to pretend it was spider's eggs or goblin's breath. Or maybe she'd pass on those excuses this once. Rockie didn't care, didn't care about anything but her kids safe in the car and the town limits sign reading "Enos. Population: 1, 903" in the rearview mirror.
This story originally appeared in The Future Fire.