Autumn in the Dark Meadows

Read the first Chapter here!

~ Chapter One ~

Painter’s Cove was quiet.  Its waters were warm, though the sun was hours gone.  It was late, and I was tired.  I should have stayed home and gone to bed early, like most nights since I arrived at the Hoover Settlement.  But after another day of wind and dust, the idea of night swimming in the cove’s waters was too strong to resist.

I kicked one leg, slowly propelling myself through the water.  The temperature of the water cooled as the pool deepened beneath me.  A breeze like a towel fresh from the dryer grazed my skin.  I heard it comb through the waist-high grasses lining the shore, where I left the majority of my clothes.

The cove was one of my favorite places in this new life after escaping Los Angeles.  It was always deserted this time of night and only a fifteen-minute walk along the steep bank on the Arizona side of the Hoover Dam.  The entrance was buried in mounds of aromatic creosote, mallow and marigold bushes, keeping it delightfully secluded.

I twisted onto my back and shivered, the warm night breeze suddenly feeling cool on my wet skin.  The wind gusted heavily, creating spindles of dust along the water’s edge, and a familiar feeling of uneasiness crept over me.

I wasn’t alone.  He was here.

I closed my eyes to recapture the calm feelings, but they slipped through my fingers like seaweed, and panic grew inside me.  I felt the night around me, pressing me down into the black water.  I had to leave before it happened again.  I opened my eyes, and my heart sank.

A dark figure stood on the shore, the tall grass bowing around him in the strong breeze.  He was as still as a pillar of stone.  The only evidence of life was his bright blue eyes glowing like a hot spring, watching me.

I began to propel myself backward, careful not to turn my back to him.

“Never turn yer back to the ocean, Fòmhair,” Mamó, my Irish grandmother, said inside a memory.[1]  Her wool coat was the same color as the heaving Irish Sea before us.  “If ye do, a great, gray wave will come an’ steal ye away, never to be heard from agin.  He will take ye down into the darkness where ye canna scream.”

My back bumped against the high wall of red rock at the deepest end of the pool and, not taking my eyes from him, I reached back, finding grooves in the rock to cling to.

I blinked, and the shore was empty.  The wind moaned softly through the cove, rippling the surface of the water.  He was still here; I felt his cold, ancient eyes on me.

A pebble dropped into the water, rings yawning around it.  I tilted my head up.  The moon hung small and dull behind a figure standing at the top of the rock wall above me.  Only a moment passed before he leaped off the edge.

I sprang into motion, pushing off the rock and swimming for shore, but my arms didn’t seem to work in time with my kicking legs.  I knew I wouldn’t reach land.  I never did.

He hit the water like a missile behind me, and I focused on putting as much distance between us as I could.

Something warm closed around my ankle, and I kicked out.  I tried to scream, but water filled my mouth as he yanked me under the surface.  The moon grew dimmer the deeper he took me, until it finally disappeared and we were alone.

We reached the bottom of the cove, where my feet slid in the slick mud as I tried to gain traction to push away from him.  I struggled against his hands clamped on my wrists, but my arms tired quickly, and I knew I needed air to keep fighting.

The small vial he wore around his neck drifted around him in the darkness, tiny air bubbles escaping from the empty glass tube as water slowly filled it.  Why was he doing this?  Didn’t he understand I was drowning?  I tried to plead at him with my eyes.

He pulled me into his arms and held me against his chest.  It was just like all the other times, and it felt both comforting and horrifying, because I knew what was coming next.

Small pinpoints of light burst in tiny explosions around me.  I wanted a breath of air like nothing I’d ever wanted before, but his arms remained locked around me.  I knew I would soon try to take a breath, and water would pour into my lungs.  I knew I would choke and cough, and it wouldn’t help.  I was afraid of that feeling.  And the dimness that followed.

With the dismal amount of strength I had left, I shook myself to get his attention, and he pulled away slightly to look at me.  The desperate betrayal on my face was mirrored in his own, as if he was offended I didn’t want to be drowned.  It was because he was as foreign as one could be on Earth.  Because he wasn’t from Earth.  He didn’t understand this would kill me.

He pulled me back to him, stroking my hair as if to calm me.  Tears sprang to my eyes and melted into the water around me.  I didn’t want to die.  But people died every day.  What hope I had for heaven’s existence faded away, and I realized I would simply disappear.

My weak legs kicked involuntarily, but my heels only found soft mud.  My face crumpled, and my lips cracked open with a sob, and murky water gushed into my mouth.  I gasped and felt the burn of heavy water filling my lungs.  I coughed, only drawing in more water, and the burning spread through my chest and nose.

It was his fault.  He was guilty.  But there was nothing I could do about it.  I was dying.

“I’ll always be here, Autumn,” I heard him whisper, but his lips didn’t move.

I should have listened to Mamó, I thought, as the water grew darker around me.  I shouldn’t have turned my back to something so dangerous.  This would never have happened.

And then there was nothing.  No white light, no pretty meadow, no pearly gates.  Just empty space.  And heat.

The heat pressed on every inch of me and made my skin crawl.

Gravity shifted, and I fell.  My eyelids popped open a split second before I crashed into something terribly solid.  I lay still for a moment, staring at the ceiling of my bedroom, my sweaty legs entwined in the damp sheets still attached to the bed I’d fallen out of.

I didn’t move for a full minute, comforted by the air swishing in and out of my lungs and the orange light of the morning sun streaming in the window.  Just a dream, just a dream, just a dream, I thought to myself in time with my breathing.

Having the same dream every night since we last spoke wasn’t helping matters between Grey and me.  Things were complicated enough without pieces of the dream surfacing in my mind when I saw him in the distance or ran into him on the street.  It was enough to give me a panic attack in full daylight.  I usually fled from him to be alone.

The dream was too real to ignore.  It was as if Grey actually dragged me to the bottom of Painter’s Cove to slowly drown me every night, and it was our secret.

Because my life had changed so drastically in the past year and a half, I had to play catch-up after waking.  Key facts clicked together like puzzle pieces as my mind broke through the web of sleep.  I wasn’t in Los Angeles anymore.  I was three hundred miles away at the Hoover Settlement.  Karl and his Reconstruction Front had claimed what was left of Los Angeles after the Crimson Fever snuffed out the lives of nearly the entire world’s population.  The Front’s cruelty forced the creation of a resistance group, who hid in the dark subway tunnels underneath Hollywood.  It was with this group that I escaped Los Angeles.  That was ten weeks ago.

And it had been nine weeks since that evening with Grey on the Hoover Dam.  Nine weeks since he told me he suspected the Crimson Fever was brought here by someone in his group, The University.  They were a technologically advanced group of historians and scholars from the distant planet of Andros.  Though they appeared human, and their chemical makeup was identical to ours, there was one significant difference – they could live forever by taking doses of a vitamin they engineered called the Elemental Vitamin, or E-Vitamin for short.  The vitamin was made from a crystal The University had engineered.  Grey kept a small piece of the crystal in a vial around his neck, and once a month would break off a small bit to mix with citrus juice to make the vitamin, giving him a faint lemon scent.

I threw an arm over my eyes to block out the morning sun and sighed heavily.  It would sound so ridiculous if I didn’t know it was all true.

Grey and I hadn’t spoken since that night on the dam.  Not that he hadn’t tried.  I spotted him around town, felt his eyes watch me intently, always patiently waiting.

Until that night nine weeks ago, I’d believed he was fundamentally like me, despite his alien origins.  But when he admitted one of his people contaminated Earth with the virus that wiped out everyone I loved, I suddenly saw him as dangerous and, literally, alien.

The enormity of who he and his people were, where they were from and what they allowed to happen here, to us, consumed me.  It was so real, I could almost swallow it.  I breathed in its heaviness, and the muscles in my legs tightened again, ready to kick against the bottom of the cove.

I forced myself to stand.  Then to make my bed.  I crossed the small room to the dresser, turning on a lamp as I passed.  As the artificial light diluted the sun’s morning rays, I said my daily thanks to the founders of Hoover for having the foresight to settle near Hoover Dam.  Maintaining the hydroelectric dam kept the power flowing to most of the Southwest, and I was truly grateful for this luxury.

I pulled open a drawer, and something I faintly recognized tumbled from the dresser top, landing on the meager pile of clothes inside.  It was a picture frame.  I picked it up.  My fingertips tingled.  A five-year-old me in a fluffy yellow dress held an Easter basket and smiled at the camera.  My dad kneeled in the grass next to me, hugging me tight against his chest.

What was it doing here?  Because of our unexpected escape from Los Angeles, I hadn’t brought anything to Hoover, aside from the picture of me and my parents at the Santa Monica Pier.  I glanced up to where it should be; leaning against a stack of books, but the creased photograph was hidden by picture frames covering every inch of the dresser’s surface.

My mouth fell open as I looked at each one.  My dad kissing my mother in the kitchen of their first house.  The three of us at the beach.  At home, lined up on the couch, each with our own personal bowl of popcorn.  My best friend before The Plague, Sarah, and I dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf for Halloween.  Among the pictures sat a small jewelry box that Mamó gave me.  My hand raised to my throat, instinctively seeking the familiar curve of the Celtic knot charm I always wore on a necklace.  It had been Mamó’s as well.

My eyes filled with fresh tears as I drank in the memories.  I touched the delicately carved wood on the jewelry box lid.  These should still be safe at The Water Tower in Los Angeles, my old home.  How had they come to be here?

And then it became painfully obvious.  He had been here.

My hand fell away from my mother’s face, and panic bloomed in my chest.  Grey had been here while I slept.  Only he could have gotten to LA and back so quickly.  His people had the unique ability to go wherever they needed by merely envisioning their destination.  They called it astral projection and used it to go all over the universe.  What made him think it was okay for him to come here uninvited?  And to go into my home at The Water Tower?  I didn’t want him in either place.

I buried the pictures underneath the clothes in my dresser.  No one could see these.  They would ask where they came from, and I wouldn’t have an answer.

It was three hundred miles to Los Angeles, and it took at least a couple weeks to get there by horseback, as fuel had disappeared in these parts after the Boulder City riots in the days after The Plague.

Not only was it a long trip to Los Angeles, but it was dangerous as well.  It didn’t stop scores of people from making the trip, though the traffic only flowed one way – north to Hoover.  No one went south.

Over the past ten weeks, small groups arrived sporadically from Los Angeles asking for “Autumn and Grey.”  Just before escaping the city, I broadcasted a message from The Front’s radio station to tell the residents left in Los Angeles not to trust The Front and to come to Hoover.  The people who heard and managed to flee were grateful for the information that saved them from resorting to joining The Front.  They were also concerned about what happened to us after our transmission was interrupted by a gunshot.  The people of Hoover were always happy to regale them with the story of our traumatic arrival.

They also enjoyed pointing us out in public, their “celebrity” residents, and whispering the “fun fact” about who my mother had been.  Fun for them, awkward for me.  When I couldn’t avoid talking to them, it was the same conversation every time, “You’re welcome for telling you about Hoover and The Front.  Yes, the famous actress, Adara O’Neal, was my mother.  No, I don’t know where Grey is right now.”  At this point, the conversation grew strained on my part, and the excited newcomer usually left me alone.  I didn’t blame them for asking.  And I didn’t really mind talking to them.  It was the constant reminder that my mother was dead, and Grey was no longer in my life, that was bothersome.

I paused in burying the small jewelry box, and curiosity made me open it.  My cell phone and charger sat on top of notes Sarah and I passed between classes.  Beneath those, I found a few rings and trinkets I’d liked a lifetime ago.  I pressed the power button on the cell phone.  Nothing happened.  My appetite for memories had been whetted by the pictures Grey brought me, and I wondered if I could still access the pictures on my phone.

I plugged the phone in, and the red charge light illuminated.  I looked wistfully at it as if it were a time capsule.  I’d have to wait until tonight to look through it.  I strung the cord behind the dresser and hid the phone behind one of the dresser’s legs, just in case.  I didn’t want to have to think of a lie to tell Connie about how I got the phone when I didn’t have it when we left Los Angeles.

I stuffed my head through my t-shirt and stepped into jean overalls, noting that the grass stains on the knees were barely visible after a rigorous afternoon spent at Ash’s Laundromat.  I never minded spending a few hours there among the washers and dryers collected from the small neighborhoods surrounding the new buildings that made up the settlement of Hoover.  Ashley, the girl who ran the laundry, was a mechanic at heart and kept the machines running so the town didn’t have to resort to washboards at the shore of Lake Mead.  I congratulated myself on my burgeoning domestic frontier town skills, caught my red hair into a long ponytail and pulled a Dodger’s baseball hat low over my eyes.

I hurried down the hall, noticing the rest of the house was silent.  Connie must have already left for school, which meant I was running late.  I entered the kitchen and reached for the ever-present bag of oatmeal.  Eating the same thing nearly every day since the Crimson Fever had taken an emphasis off of food for a lot of people, myself included.  It didn’t matter what it was or how it tasted, as long as it fueled you up for the day ahead.

I pulled a bowl from the dish drainer and saw a note on the counter.

Happy 18th Birthday!!
Had to leave at dawn for the field trip.
Left a special breakfast in the oven for you. 
We’ll celebrate tonight!
Love, Connie

I stared at the note for a moment.  Was it March 30th already?  I had been so busy counting the days since we’d arrived that I hadn’t noticed the actual date.

It was my eighteenth birthday.  Eighteen.  Birthdays didn’t seem to have a place in this new world.  So much of our existence was concentrated on day-to-day survival that there wasn’t time or energy left for anything else.

A memory surfaced in my mind, and I recalled my dad promising to take me car shopping on my eighteenth birthday.  “Something practical,” he said.  My mind yearned to imagine what this day could have been like.  The echo of show rooms, the new car smell, the stack of catalogues and brochures, a burger joint for lunch and best of all… my dad.

I shook my head, escaping the trap of a memory that never happened.

Then I remembered Connie’s note mentioned something special in the oven.  I cracked open the oven door and smiled as I pulled out a short stack of pancakes.  They were made with oatmeal instead of flour so they weren’t as light and fluffy, but they were pancakes.  And they were still warm.

As much as I loved living with Ben and Rissi back in Los Angeles, living with Connie was awesome.  She couldn’t help becoming everyone’s mother, and no one complained.  Pancakes were suddenly not a thing of the past when she was around.  Calling back to her profession before The Plague, she was now a teacher at the Hoover School and constantly arranged field trips to get the kids out of the classroom.

All of the people who came to Hoover from Los Angeles eventually found a place here.  Daniel, the second in charge of our group, was a recreational pilot in his previous life and flew a plane back and forth from Whiteman Field to Hoover, ferrying us to safety when we escaped Los Angeles.  He now managed the small airfield on the outskirts of town.

This morning, Daniel flew Connie and a small group of her younger students up to Hoover’s sister settlement in Las Vegas for the day to tour an exhibit at the Egyptian Casino & Hotel, saying he needed to burn the fuel and fly the plane occasionally to keep it airworthy.  The exhibit was a walkthrough history of Pacific Northwest Native Americans, including an indoor salmon habitat that demonstrated fishing techniques used by the Nez Perce tribe.

I threw a glance at the clock.  I was really late.  Tess was going to be pissed. She was my boss at the gardens, and I liked her too much to get on her bad side.

I folded a pancake in half and unceremoniously crammed it into my mouth.  I grabbed a clean bandana from the laundry basket by the door, wound it around my right wrist and shoved my work gloves into the front chest pocket of my overalls.  I snatched one more pancake from the plate, threw a sweatshirt over my shoulder and ran out the door.

Dusty, dry air greeted me as I shrugged into my sweatshirt.  While the unfiltered sunshine was warm, the air was still cool for late March in this desert basin.  I jogged toward the neighborhood stable and looked up as I passed in the crisscross shadow of the newly built transformer that converted power directly from the dam’s substation.

I heard the transformer’s crackly buzzing from the ground as I passed underneath it and marveled again at how developed Hoover was for being built after The Plague.

In essence, the Hoover Settlement was a frontier town, built on an empty plain leading down to Lake Mead, just two miles from Hoover Dam.  The town was surrounded on three sides by pre-existing small neighborhoods backed up against craggy hills.  These neighborhoods were called Old Town and were once the suburbs of Boulder City.  This was where most of Hoover lived now.  Though Old Town was more modern with its paved streets and insulated houses, it was technically older than the wooden structures making up the newly constructed downtown Hoover.

Not long after the Crimson Fever broke out, a group of survivors scoured the area for food and supplies, hoarding everything, particularly gasoline.  They settled in Boulder City and hid their stores all over the town.  Word got out and other groups converged on Boulder City.  Fights erupted, culminating in fatal nighttime raids.  The hidden stores were discovered and, in the firefight that followed, the gasoline went up in flames, taking the town with it.

The few people who survived this second catastrophe split into two groups, agreeing there would be no more fighting between them.  One group retreated twenty-five miles to Las Vegas, where they took up residence in the Egyptian Casino & Hotel.  The other group began construction on a new town on the shores of Lake Mead – the Hoover Settlement.  A year had passed since the gas riots, and an uneasy peace continued between the groups as their communities swelled with people seeking safety and food.  I was now one of those grateful people.

My eyes were drawn to the town that lay before me.  New construction was always happening here, and the town grew larger with each office building, store, business or workshop.  The sapphire water of Lake Mead sparkled beyond it, and red mountains pressed against the lighter blue sky.  Hoover Dam was hidden behind a jagged row of hills at the southern end of the lake.  Water from the lake funneled through the hills into a reservoir before being pushed through the dam’s hydroelectric turbines and then released into Black Canyon, forming the Colorado River.

This was also how we got our water.  The dam had its own water processing plant that the residents took advantage of since Boulder City’s water tower had been destroyed.  Water was piped into most of the houses and buildings in town and was just another convenience that made me feel lucky to live here.

I entered the stable and found my butterscotch-colored Appaloosa waiting for me.  “Morning, Snicket,” I said, and she bumped her nose against the hand I held out to her.  After arriving in Hoover, I called back to the handful of horseback riding lessons I took as a kid and was surprised at how easily it all came back to me.

I tossed the saddle over her back and suddenly remembered Tess asked me to pick up an order of hand trowels at the store on my way in this morning.  Maybe she wouldn’t be angry I was late after all, because I was doing her a favor.

I was buckling the saddle into place when a mighty crash rocked the stable walls.  Both Snicket and I jumped, but I managed to grab her harness and pull her head down.  My heart hammered against my chest, and I pet her nose with a trembling hand.

“It’s just a windstorm,” I murmured.  “You should be used to them by now, girl.”

A curse drifted from the front of the stable, and the heavy main door rolled shut against the howl of wind outside.  Brody appeared in the doorway of the stall a moment later.

“You ladies all right?”  He had to raise his voice for me to hear him.

I nodded and tried to smile.  This would make the third time this week that a windstorm made working outside miserable.

Brody was the tallest, skinniest man I’d ever seen.  He looked like he was a hundred years old but moved like he was my age.  No one knew where he was from.  He just rode in from the desert one day with thirty horses and set up camp in Hoover.

Because of this, Ben thought Brody was a real life cowboy who wrangled the horses he brought with him from the wild mustang packs still roaming the American Southwest.

Shad said he heard a story that Brody escaped from High Desert, a maximum-security prison outside Las Vegas.  Everyone at the prison was dying from the Crimson Fever, and a guard realized Brody was immune and released him so he wouldn’t die of hunger locked in his cell.

I didn’t know what I believed about Brody’s past, but I liked him very much.  Once Mayor Westland learned of Brody’s extensive knowledge of horses, he put Brody in charge of the stables.  Brody seemed content with this job, though he never said much of anything.

“That one came on fast,” I said, getting back to securing the saddle into place.

He shook his head, irritated.  “Each storm seems to be more pissed off than the one before it.”  He untied the heavy, canvas curtain covering one of the stable windows and peeked outside.  “This kind of weather isn’t good for the horses.  It wears on their nerves.”

Mine too, I thought.  I finished adjusting the stirrup, then hauled myself into the saddle.

Brody handed me the reins.  “Going to the dance tonight?” he asked.

Ah hell.  I’d forgotten about the dance.  It was to celebrate the past year of good fortune and life and was a big deal, because everyone was going.

“Maybe,” I said, going over a mental list of excuses to give Connie tonight as to why I was incapable of attending.

Brody nodded understandingly and waited for me to tie my bandana around my nose and mouth before pulling open the door.  The wind poured into the stable, and a chorus of irritated whickers sounded from the horses behind me.  I nudged Snicket in the sides to get her going and raised my hand to Brody as he secured the stable door behind me.

I turned Snicket into the wind and toward town.

“I don’t want to be out in this anymore than you do,” I said to her, pulling my hat lower.

The winds so far this year had been terrible.  They crashed through town every few days with no warning, kicking up dust and sand, scouring the paint off houses and killing any plant that lost its protective blanket in the garden.  Then the wind would dissolve suddenly, the dust would settle and it would be utterly calm again.

Ben speculated that the drastic shift in weather was caused by the dramatic reduction of humans and our pollutants.  “If most of the world’s population is gone, and our cars and factories aren’t running anymore, it’s bound to have an effect on the Earth’s atmosphere,” he said.  “The disappearance of our body heat and the carbon dioxide we produce can change the environment around us.  If a butterfly flaps its wings in China, it rains in San Francisco.”

I wasn’t sold on Ben’s explanation, partly because it freaked me out to think about how close to extinction our species was.
Snicket’s hooves left the paved street of Old Town and thudded onto the packed dirt of Main Street, the main path that cut through the middle of town and led to the edge of Lake Mead, which was now barely visible in the blowing sand.

Movement caught my eye.  A few cloudy glass bottles swung from the lowest branches of a large tree.  I always saw them on my way to the gardens, and the sight of them gave me goose bumps.  It was one of our neighbor’s superstitions.  Something about whether the glass was clear or not meant good or bad weather was coming.  Though, if the bottles were always outside in the middle of these windstorms, I didn’t see how they could ever be clear.

It was an indication of how people felt about the times we now lived in.  Superstitions and biblical predictions about the end of times were made worse by the unusual storms and the fact we’d somehow all survived a global crisis.  Neither Ben’s butterfly explanation or the glass bottles swinging in the wind comforted me.

What I did take comfort in were the five lookout stations situated around Hoover’s perimeter to safeguard us against another attack like the one they suffered the previous year from Karl and The Front.  Guards stood watch at each of these towers twenty-four hours a day and triggered warning sirens if an incoming threat was detected.

As I neared the general store, I looked around at the bustling people, all leaning into the strong wind and blowing sand, trying to go about their business.   I recognized a few from the LA group I arrived with.  They seemed different now.  We all did.  Our sad, wilting clothes had been replaced by heartier, sturdier clothing made for working in the sun and wind.

I clucked to Snicket and pulled on her reins to guide her into a narrow alley between Brothers’ General Store and the Hoover Guard office, where she’d be sheltered from the wind.

Sand stung my exposed cheeks as I leapt onto the raised wooden sidewalk and ducked inside the store.  The noise of the storm outside was muffled as I headed deeper into the store past aisles of canned food, rechargeable batteries and a display of handmade quilts.
Money wasn’t used in Hoover.  All services and goods were obtained by trade and organized by the general store.  The owners, Royal and Manny, were brothers and were two of the ten original founders of Hoover.

I turned down an aisle and collided with someone in a worn navy sweater.  The bill of my hat jammed painfully into my forehead, and a faint scent of citrus sent off mental warning bells.  I took several steps back as Grey turned and gazed down at me.

I tried to stare back unflinchingly.  I knew it was ridiculous to be afraid of him, but the fear remained.  The dream invaded my thoughts, and I felt the weightlessness of the cove’s dark waters and Grey’s strong arms clasping me against him as I struggled.

He had been in my room just a few hours ago.  This wasn’t the first time he’d seen me today.  Panic flooded my stomach as a blush simultaneously warmed my cheeks.

I suddenly noticed Shad, staring between the two of us, an eyebrow raised in amusement.  Shad had recovered completely after being stabbed by one of Karl’s men while protecting our hideout in Los Angeles.  The first time I saw him, he was pale, still and wet with his own blood.  I met Connie the same night.  She’d been sick with worry over Shad, whom she’d come to love as a son after her own three sons and husband were taken by the Crimson Fever.

“Howdy, Autumn,” Shad said cheerfully.  He seemed to be enjoying the awkwardness.  “You’re all dressed up for your special day.”  He reached out and flicked the bill of my Dodgers hat, and I was suddenly aware of how dirty it must be, as I wore it every day to the gardens.  I pulled it off, which I immediately realized was another mistake.  Without the bill of the cap shielding me, I felt exposed and vulnerable under Grey’s watchful eyes.

“Nothing special about today, Shad,” I warned, turning to flee.  “Just another day.”

“Sounds like someone needs a birthday kiss,” Shad teased, wagging his eyebrows at me, and his handsome face broke into a wide grin.  His teeth shone brightly against his tan face, and his brown hair had grown shaggy and sun-kissed over the last several weeks.  It was obvious why he was so popular with the female residents of the community.

I frowned, annoyed he’d brought up the subject of kissing in front of Grey.  But Shad ignored my grimace and plucked a sequin-encrusted sombrero from a shelf and tried to put it on me.  I dodged out of the way.

“Oh come on, Miss Winters, let’s pretend we’re at Rosie’s Taco Shack!  I think I remember their birthday song,” he teased, trying again to get the sombrero on my head.  I ducked a second time and noticed the amused expression on Grey’s face.  I had to get out of here.

“Come on,” Shad said, laughing.  “Don’t be such a stiff.  Life’s too short.”

My temper flared.  I knew he was intentionally teasing me in front of Grey.  “Do you always have to be so inappropriate?” I said in my most offended voice.  I fled, face burning.

I put two aisles between us before realizing I was going in the wrong direction and swerved toward the desk in the back.  I was disappointed to see Royal, the more unpleasant of the two brothers, manning the desk.

“I need to pick up an order for Tess.”

“Right-o,” he said, twirling around on his stool to scan the crowded shelves behind him.  He plucked a box off a shelf, checked his clipboard and glanced up at me expectantly.  “Three boxes of produce?”

“Tess dropped them off – ” I began.

Royal interrupted me and yelled into a back room, “Manny!  Did you receive three boxes of produce from Tess?”  He waited, as if he already knew the answer, sharpened pencil hovering over his clipboard.  There was a short pause and then a sleepy “yeah” from the back.  Royal shook his head dramatically as he busily made a couple marks with his pencil.

I wished he would just give me the box so I could go.  I wanted to get out of there.

Royal finally slid the clipboard across the desk and handed me his pencil.  “Sign here.”  He motioned to the paper and then added, “And don’t steal my pencil.  I just sharpened it.”

I thought about telling him what to do with his pencil, but bit my lip and scrawled my name.  I handed the pencil purposefully back to him, and he looked over my signature closely, as if determining its authenticity.  It must have met with his approval, because he slid the box toward me.

“Thanks,” I said, taking the box.  I turned around and promptly crashed into Grey, who stood directly behind me.  He caught my shoulders to steady me.  I felt the warmth of his hands through my t-shirt and quickly side-stepped around him, slipping from his grasp.

“You seem to be everywhere today,” I muttered, hoping he’d catch my meaning.  I glanced sideways at Royal, who listened with interest.

“You could have gotten me in a lot of trouble this morning,” I said.  “How am I supposed to explain… something like that?”  I glared at Royal, who got the hint and disappeared.

“What if Connie had seen all those pictures?” I whispered angrily.  “How am I supposed to explain how they got here?  And I don’t want you coming into my house, or my room.”  My voice got harsher with every word as I vented my frustration.

“You didn’t like them?”

“That’s beside the point.  You’re not welcome in my house or my room without permission.”  His pained face made me pause, and the wind left my sails.  “Look, it’s fine.  I’ve got the pictures hidden away.  Just… don’t do anything like that again.”

He nodded, his face solemn.

“Happy eighteenth!” Ben exclaimed, appearing beside me.  He gave me a one-armed hug against his side, then sensed the mood and paused awkwardly, looking between Grey and me.  “Oh… um, sorry to interrupt.  Uh, Shad and I have a present for you,” he said, forging ahead.

Shad appeared behind Ben, wearing the sombrero from earlier.  “It’s outside,” he said.

“Why did you have to leave it outside?” I asked wearily.

“Well, it is kind of smelly,” Ben said.  He and Shad looked at each other, laughing.

“You’re gonna love it!” Shad exclaimed.  “We got you a big, smelly bag of shi –,”

“Happy birthday!”  Ben exclaimed, drowning out the rest of Shad’s sentence.

Confused, I looked between the two of them.  “Huh?”

“A bag of shi –” Shad began again.

“Shad!  Seriously!”  Ben interrupted.  “I knew Rissi was learning those words from somewhere… watch it.”

“Ease up, big brother.  She’s not around now.  She’s at school… teaching the other kids what she knows…”

I sighed, glancing at the clock on the wall behind the desk.  “If I’m late to work, Tess’s going to make me work late again.”

“You can’t miss the dance tonight.  Everyone’s coming… you’re coming, right?”  Ben adjusted his glasses as he stared down at me, looking concerned all of a sudden, and I was reminded of a night lit by distant wildfires last fall when Ben kissed me, and I pushed him away.  I’d been unsure of his feelings for me since then.

“No, I’m not going,” I said.  “I have to put in forty hours a week at the gardens if I want seed and tool privileges on the weekends.”

“There’s gonna be fireworks and everything.  The mayor’s had everyone keep an eye out for the past two months,” Shad said, then paused for dramatic effect.  “As I’m sure you recall, I was the one who finally found some in a garage in North Henderson.”

Ben rolled his eyes.  “When are you gonna drop it?  It’s not like you found a cure for The Plague.  And I still don’t understand how you got to North Henderson and back in a day.  That’s gotta be twenty miles one way.”

Shad wagged his eyebrows.  “Nothing faster than greased thunder.”

Lightning, Shad.  The expression is ‘greased lightning,’” Ben said, sighing heavily.

“I know, but my horse’s name is Thunder.  So you see what I mean?  See how that works?”

“But it doesn’t work,” Ben argued, and I saw we were in for a short lecture on the origin of the expression. “It doesn’t make sense-”

“Guys,” I interrupted.

“You have to come to the dance, Winters.  My fireworks are going to light up the sky like it’s the Fourth of July.”

“Connie’ll get her there,” Ben said to Shad.

“I don’t know.  Connie might have to bind and gag her,” Shad added.

“I’d like to see that,” Ben said.

“I’d pay to see that,” Shad countered and nodded, the sombrero wobbling on his head.

I sighed and glanced sideways at Grey, who leaned back against the counter and folded his arms across his chest.  His usually composed face appeared sad.

“You know, fertilizer?” I heard Ben say and refocused my attention.  “You said you’ve been wanting some for your garden at home.”

“Took us a week to collect that much.  Hope you appreciate the shi –”

“Joke’s getting old, Shad!” Ben rolled his eyes.

“I was just going to say I hoped she appreciated what we went through,” Shad said, crooking an eyebrow at me.  “Cause you know, not all fertilizer is created equal.  We scooped only the best for you, Autumn.”  He batted his eyelashes.

“Thanks guys.  It’s a weirdly useful gift,” I said.  “I really should go.”  I smiled at them, then glanced at Grey and started to the front of the store.

I only went two steps when a siren pierced the air, wailing loudly over the howl of the wind outside.  I froze, my eyes darting to the store’s dusty windows.

Footsteps thumped loudly from behind me, and Shad flew by, flicking the sombrero onto a shelf as he flung open the door and ran into swirling dust outside.  He paused just outside the door, looking toward the nearest guard tower.  The wind pressed his shirt against his torso, and he protected his eyes with cupped hands.  I saw him mouth what could only be a curse but couldn’t hear anything over the wind.  He rushed back to the doorway.

“They lit the beacon!” he shouted.  “It’s not a drill!”

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