Authors: Jill Williamson
Mason leaned against the doorframe and crossed his arms. “I met an enforcer today.”
Omar’s hand jerked, drawing a dark line across his sketch. “Oh?”
“Why would an enforcer be asking for you by name?”
Omar went back to shading in the owl’s wings. “None of your business.”
“So, when I inform Father, it will be none of his business either?” Mason asked.
Omar sighed. “I met them in Crested Butte when I was scavenging. It’s not a big deal.”
That only raised more questions. “Papa Eli might disagree.”
Omar sat back and stared at the wall. “I bet I could find a girl in the Safe Lands.”
The words brought a chill over Mason. “Don’t say that, Omar. Don’t even joke about it. You shouldn’t be talking to those people at all.”
“Have you really looked at what’s inside those walls? From the mountain with my binoculars, I can see women. Lots of them. And lots of color. I bet they have fresh paints.”
Was Omar seriously thinking about going into the Safe Lands? The place Papa Eli had almost died trying to get away from? “You know what Papa Eli says about that place. Why he left and came here. They’re immoral there. They withhold water as punishment.”
“Papa Eli is older than dirt.”
“Hey, now. Papa Eli just stuck up for you in there.”
Omar rubbed the scar on the bridge of his nose. “A lot of good it
only made Father insult me in front of the whole village. They’re probably all laughing.”
“No one’s laughing,” Mason said. “Why do you want to go to Denver City, anyway?”
“I want to see what Levi describes. To draw the ruins. It doesn’t matter though. Father hates me. Levi hates me. Jemma is marrying Levi. Mia is marrying you. Shaylinn is fat. Everyone else is my cousin or lives in Jack’s Peak.”
Omar pitched his wadded-up owl at Mason. “It’s true! I should just move to Jack’s Peak. Then everyone would be happy. Except I blew that too, because I missed meeting the girl Father found for me, and now she doesn’t want me either. Even if she did, it would be worse up there. Jack’s Peak men are all about killing animals with their bare hands. I’m no good at any of that.”
“What do you want?”
“I don’t know. To feel strong. Like I matter. Like someone cares.”
Omar looked so small sitting on the floor with Mason standing over him. A child wanting to be loved.
Omar rolled his eyes. “I can’t marry
“You really want a wife?”
Omar moved to his bed, lying on his back and staring at the drawing of a woman’s face—a face that looked suspiciously like Jemma’s. “If I don’t find a wife, Father says I’ll starve, since I’m such a bad shot. He wanted me to marry the Jack’s Peak girl so
could hunt for the both of us. Plus, he’s trying to get rid of me.”
“Ignore him. And stop feeling sorry for yourself. I’d trade you Shaylinn for Mia if I could.”
“Really?” Omar pushed himself to one elbow. “Why?”
“Because Shaylinn is kind. I’d take kind over thin or pretty any day. Haven’t you noticed? Mia is just a female version of Father.”
Omar sniffed in a long breath and rubbed his nose. “She’s prettier than Father.”
“Beauty only exists in perception.”
Omar raised his eyebrows at Mason. “You don’t think Mia is prettier than Shaylinn?”
Mason did, but he couldn’t imagine living with Mia’s cruelty. “Jemma once said, ‘It’s beauty that captures your attention, but it’s personality that captures your heart.’ She likely read it somewhere, but I think it validates my point.”
Omar heaved a sigh. “Jemma.”
“Don’t start. Jemma belongs to Levi now, and you’d be wise to take down that drawing before he sees it.”
“Just go away, Mase.”
“Fine.” Mason walked to the doorway and took one last glance at Omar, who’d closed his eyes as if he might go to sleep.
Mason left the cabin and sat on the porch, gazing out toward the square. People had left the hall and were now dancing to music being played by Elder Harvey and Uncle Ethan. A handful of older women stood in a circle around the dancers, laughing and singing.
“Do the twist, do the twirl,
every boy, grab your girl.
Twist and twirl, boy and girl,
whirl and whirl and whirl!”
Levi and Jemma were dancing on the stage. He didn’t see Mia, but she was likely still cross about her first glimpse of what it would be like to marry Mason. Her husband would never dance and would often go into hiding.
Mason prayed Omar wouldn’t do anything foolish, like run away to the Safe Lands or follow Father’s group when they left for Denver City. Papa Eli might think that Omar and Father would be forced to bond if Omar went on the trip, yet Mason didn’t think there could be anything worse than Omar and their father together for two whole weeks.
He was wrong.
he view of the valley from where Levi had spread the picnic blanket at the bottom of the eastern bluffs of Mt. Crested Butte was one of the best in the valley near Glenrock, but Levi couldn’t stop staring at Jemma. He’d gone to Denver City for only ten days, but being apart from her had felt like months.
“I don’t like leaving you,” he said.
The wind made strands of her hair dance around her face, and she brushed them aside. “I don’t like you leaving.”
“I brought you something.” He reached over his rifle and under the edge of the blanket where he’d stashed the little box, and he handed it to Jemma.
She gave him a curious smile. He leaned forward as she opened it, eager to see her reaction.
She gasped and fingered the necklace of pink pearls. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” She handed the necklace back to Levi and twisted her hair to one side.
Levi drew the strand of pearls around her neck and clasped them together, then he kissed the back of her neck and breathed her in.
She giggled and dropped her hair back into place. “Where did you find it?”
He leaned his head over her right shoulder and spoke softly in her ear. “Denver City. I found wedding rings too, but you can’t see those yet.” He settled back beside her on the blanket and offered a coy smile.
“Oh, Levi! Wedding rings too?”
“I know few people wear them these days since we all know who is married to whom and rings are hard to come by, but I thought you’d like to.”
“I’d love to.” She reached her arms around his neck and hugged him. “I can’t wait to marry you. Are you excited?”
He pulled her close. “You have no idea.”
The sun hung low in the sky. From where they sat on their picnic blanket on the lower hills of Mt. Crested Butte, the whole valley lay before them. Green and brown mountains stood guard on all sides, the Slate River glimmered in the distance, but the bell-shaped walls that traced the outline of the Safe Lands scarred the beauty of this place. A concrete and barbed-wire reminder that all was not right in the world.
Jemma leaned against Levi, head tucked under his chin. “Tell me about Denver City.”
“It’s huge, Jem. Buildings sit side by side for miles, and in the center, they’re five times as tall as the ones in the Safe Lands.” He pointed to the cluster of buildings at the top of the bell in the distance. “When you stand in the middle of Denver City, you can see nothing but towering buildings, Old vehicles, streetlamps, traffic signals … There are a few trees on each street, and patches of grass and saplings grow in cracks in the asphalt, but the ground is pretty much concrete for miles.”
those words sound so odd. And I find it impressive that those tall buildings are still standing.”
“They have deep foundations. And they’re built of steel, not wood. Someday I’ll lead my own scavenging expedition to Denver City, and I’ll stay longer. So many houses have never been scavenged. The things we could use! Toys for the children. More gifts for you.”
Jemma fingered the pink pearl necklace and beamed again.
Levi bumped his shoulder against hers. “I knew you’d like it. Found it in a store filled with jewelry. Father has enough treasure to trade for years.”
“I can’t begin to think how people made such things.”
“Gold and silver are just metals people melted down and reshaped. And Mother once told me pearls came from the oceans. They grew inside the mouths of sea creatures.”
“And people captured the creatures to steal the pearls from their lips?” Jemma bumped her shoulder back against Levi’s. “It sounds like a children’s story. Like the one with the tiny world that lived on a flower.”
Horton Hears a Who!
I love that one. Oh, Jem! We found a bookstore too. Father only let me stop a few minutes, but I was able to grab some of the books with the horses on the —” A plume of dust rose like chimney smoke on the road, and Levi straightened. “Someone’s coming.” Jemma drew in a sharp breath as Levi grabbed the rifle and looked through the scope. “An ATV.” He lowered the weapon and the tone of his voice. “Omar. And he’s driving my rig.”
Omar was supposed to be the village’s lookout all morning. He better not have left the perch empty. When Levi needed Omar, the boy couldn’t be found. But when Levi wanted to be alone, Omar was always the first to find him.
“I wondered what was taking him so long.” Jemma smiled. “Our picnic is almost over.”
Levi set down his rifle and groaned. “Why must he follow me everywhere?”
“I’m sure it’s important if he’s driving your cart.”
“Omar invents trouble.”
“He admires you. Perhaps you should encourage him in some way.”
Levi looked to Jemma. “You think I’m cruel?”
She cocked one eyebrow. “I know you don’t intend to be, but a sharp word from you sends Omar sulking like a chastened puppy.”
“I just don’t think he should look up to me the way he does.”
“Why wouldn’t he look up to you? You’re his brother. And you’re perfect.”
If she only knew.
Jemma snuggled against Levi’s side and took hold of his hand. “I feel badly about what happened with the Jack’s Peak girl. Do you think she’ll reconsider?”
“No.” And if Levi had known which girl Elsu had been trying to marry off, he never would have gone along. The whole thing had been terribly awkward.
Jemma frowned and sent Levi a pleading look, as if he could force some girl to marry Omar. “But if she can find no husband among her own people, why refuse ours?”
Levi coughed on his own breath.
Because this girl only wants me.
“I don’t know, love.” He squinted down the valley. The trail of dust from the ATV was larger now. Omar was rounding the final switchback that led up to the ridge.
“Poor Omar,” Jemma said. “He’s not
awful, you know. I considered him once.”
Levi’s gaze jerked to meet hers. “Did you? When?”
“The day my mother said, ‘You chose the best of the brothers, Jemma.’ I thought it over, and I had to agree.”
Levi chuckled. “And what about Mason? Did you consider him too?”
Jemma took Levi’s other hand so that she was holding both. “I love your brothers well enough—as brothers. But I’m worried for Mason. Mia will rule him like an evil queen. They’re a poor match, and his agreeing to marry her makes me question his sanity.”
“And how was he to refuse after Father announced it to all of Glenrock? Mason will find a way to make it work. He’s smart.”
“Book smart. Have you seen him try and talk to girls? Information about poisonous mushrooms and rashes doesn’t exactly warm a girl’s heart.”
Levi smirked at the idea of Mason showing Mia which mushrooms to avoid. “You’re full of opinions on my brothers today, Jemma of Zachary. I’m not sure how to feel about this.”
“Feel blessed to have found true love in a world with so little of it,
“As you wish.” He kissed her hand, and Jemma giggled.
Omar arrived then, stopping Levi’s ATV with its attached cart three feet from the picnic blanket and sending a cloud of dust over Levi, Jemma, and what remained of their food. He was wearing Old jeans, his blue and yellow striped shirt, and his Old policeman hat. Without the hat, he didn’t look all that different from Levi and Mason. Just younger.
Omar dismounted and walked toward their picnic blanket. “Hello, Jemma,” he said, his voice airy as usual whenever he was in her presence.
Jemma offered him a sympathetic smile. “Hello.”
Levi didn’t budge from Jemma’s side. “What are you doing here, Omar? Who’s at the lookout?”
Omar wiped a hand under his nose, which never ceased to water. “Penelope took my place. A message came in from Beshup over in Jack’s Peak. He has some ammo he thinks you’ll want to see.”
Ammo. How had Beshup come into such a trade, and why did he want to share it? Levi mumbled, “We
low on ammo. The Old stuff is more accurate than any we make ourselves.” He glanced at Jemma. “Do you mind if I go?”
“Nonsense!” She reached up and ran her finger down his forehead. “Come see me when you get back?”
“Of course.” He jumped up and helped Jemma stand. “But I don’t want you going back alone. We’ll drop you at the village, then Omar and I will go meet Beshup.”
“That’ll take too long,” Omar said, sniffling.
“And we’re closer to the cabin now,” Jemma said.
“I can take her back on the motorcycle,” Omar said. “You don’t need me there to trade with Beshup. I’ll just be in the way.”
“A ride would be nice,” Jemma said, nudging Levi’s side. He could tell by the look on her face that she wanted him to be nice to Omar.
Levi sighed. “Give us a moment, Omar.” He took Jemma’s hand
and pulled her a few steps away from his brother. “I don’t like sending you off with him. If by some chance you encounter a mountain lion or a bear, he’s not the best shot and tends to panic in a crisis.”
Jemma brushed Levi’s hair out if his eyes with her free hand. “Our village needs ammunition. I’ll be fine.”
“Still …” He threaded his fingers with hers and frowned. “I have a bad feeling.”
She squeezed his hand. “You always have a bad feeling. Don’t worry so much. I’ll see you tonight at dinner.”