Authors: Jill Williamson
He slid his hands around her waist and pulled her close. “Two more days.”
Her gaze sank into his.
“This is true love, Jemma of Zachary,” Levi said. “You think this happens every day?”
She smiled. “You’re like a fairy-tale prince. We shall live happily ever after.”
“Yes. Just like the prince. But I dress better.”
She stepped back and took in his appearance. “I don’t know. You might look nice in a doublet and tights.” Before he could respond, Jemma stretched on her tiptoes and gave him a quick kiss. If Omar hadn’t been staring, she would’ve been more generous.
Jemma quickly packed their picnic. Levi helped her fold the blanket, then roped it and the basket to the rack on the back of the motorcycle.
Levi walked to where Omar stood beside his ATV and they traded keys. “Drive
And watch out for mountain lions.”
“Don’t worry, brother. I won’t let anything happen to your precious Jem.”
Jemma climbed on the back of the motorcycle behind Omar and wrapped her arms around his waist. Levi scowled at the smile that spread across his brother’s face. Jemma gave him one last wave before Omar started the motorcycle and drove away.
Levi shook off his annoyance with his little brother and climbed onto his ATV. It was time to trade.
ason and his mother sat at the table, shucking the peas they’d picked that morning. Father sat in the living room, oiling his gun. It was early afternoon, the hottest time of the day, and a blessing to be indoors.
“It’s been a good year for peas,” Mother said. “I’d like to can at least one hundred pounds this year.”
“You should have more than enough.” Confident with his declaration, Mason hulled the next pod right into his mouth.
“Don’t eat the harvest,” Father said.
Because without that one pea pod, all of Glenrock would surely starve.
“Papa Eli!” Penelope’s voice came from outside, distant and shrill.
Mason cocked his head at the sound then made eye contact with his mother as she stood and walked toward the door.
Her eyes were wide. “Something’s wrong.”
“Papa Eli!” Penelope’s voice was nearer now.
“Sit. I’ll get it.” Father shooed Mother back and opened the door just as Penelope bounded up the steps.
Her cheeks were flushed, and the hair around her face was sweaty
and sticking to her face. “Safe Landers are coming, Uncle Justin.” She panted. “Three big trucks.”
Father walked back to the sofa and picked up his gun. “Where’s Omar? Why didn’t he bring this news?”
“He asked me to watch the perch while he got a fresh sketch pad,” Penelope said. “About a half hour ago.”
“Mason, get your gun.” Father walked back to the door.
“I’m not going to shoot any—”
“Yes, sir.” Mason pushed back his chair and walked to the gun rack.
As he reached out to grab his rifle—the one that had accidently taken Joel’s life—Father stepped in Mason’s way and grabbed his shoulder, looking him in the eye. “I need you, son. Just stand beside me and look tough. You don’t have to shoot.”
Mason’s deep breath filled his chest. He nodded and lifted the weapon down from the wall.
“Should I wake Papa Eli?” Mother asked.
“Let him sleep, Tamera. I can handle this,” Father said as he loaded his and Mason’s guns. “But round up the women and children and get them into the meeting hall just in case. If there is a threat, it might be easier to defend one location rather than the whole village. Penelope, fetch Harvey and Jordan. They should be down at the river. And if you see your dad or your uncle Ethan—any men you see—tell them to get their rifles and come to the square.”
Penelope turned and fled. Mason followed his father out of the house and toward the village square. His heart was beating so hard he could hear it throbbing between his ears. His mother closed the door behind them and followed behind Mason.
“Omar never came for paper, did he?” Father asked.
“No, sir.” Mason had no idea what his brother was up to, but it didn’t look good.
“He’d better not be in the hall playing video games. I always said that thing was a waste on our generator.”
Mason jogged to keep up with his father. A cluster of Glenrock men stood before the stage, guns in hand. There were maybe a dozen—about half the men in the village. Women and children scurried around the rest of the square, most headed to the hall.
“Where’s Sophie?” Aunt Susan ran up to Mason. “Have you seen Sophie?”
“Sophie!” Aunt Susan ran toward the outhouses.
“We got a man in the perch?” Father asked when they reached the square. “How far out are they?”
“Richard’s up there.” Uncle Colton lifted a handheld two-way radio to his mouth. “Colt to Rich Man, what’s the ETA?”
The two-way radio emitted a string of static, then Elder Richard’s voice. “Well, they’re just getting to the forest now. My guess is you’ve got maybe five to ten minutes.”
“Where’s Levi?” Uncle Ethan asked as he walked toward the group.
“Went off to have lunch with Jemma somewhere,” Father said.
“And Papa Eli?”
Father aimed his gun at the road and looked through the scope. “Taking a nap.”
“I’ll go wake him,” Uncle Colton said.
Father lowered his gun and grabbed his brother’s arm. “We can handle this without Grandpa, Colt. The worry will do him more harm. Let him sleep.”
Mason disagreed. No one was calmer in the face of conflict that Papa Eli. And no one knew more about the Safe Lands either. Should he speak up? Run and fetch Papa Eli on his own? But he simply stood there, frozen, gun trembling in his hand.
Jordan sprinted into the square just ahead of his father and Penelope. “Enforcers?”
“Looks like,” Uncle Colton said.
Jordan spun around. “Pen, go get my mother and Shay.”
“I want to fight!” Penelope said.
“No one is fighting,” Uncle Ethan said.
Mason adjusted the gun against his shoulder and hoped that was true.
“The house is right there, crowbait!” Jordan said, pointing to his family’s cabin.
Penelope scowled at Jordan. “You don’t have to call names!”
Uncle Colton raised one eyebrow, and his daughter stomped toward the Zachary home.
Harvey came to stand beside Father. “How many men you think they’ve got?”
“Can’t say,” Uncle Colton said. “Richard said three trucks.”
“Could be they’re not coming to fight,” Naomi’s father, Sam, said.
“Seeing as we haven’t seen them this close in years, we have no way of knowing. But they must want something,” Uncle Ethan said.
Jordan looked off down the road. “Whatever they want, we can handle it.”
“Two dozen against an army? How do you figure we’ll handle that?” Uncle Ethan asked.
“One less than that,” Sam said, eyeing Mason. “He ain’t going to shoot.”
Mason felt sick.
Please, God, protect us. Let there be peace.
“Let’s not jump to the worst-case scenario here,” Uncle Colton said.
“We have to prepare for the worst,” Father said. “Here’s what we’re going to do. Sam, take ten men and spread out on the east side. Ethan, you take ten west. Be my snipers. Harvey, you and Jordan get on the roofs and cover the square. Colton and Mason, stay with me. Go, go!”
As the men ran off, Shaylinn and her mother fled the Zachary home and ran toward the outhouses.
“Where you going?” Harvey called.
“Susan can’t find Sophie,” his wife said. “We’re going to help look for her daughter.”
“Well, be quick about it,” Harvey said.
Penelope came out of the house and walked straight to her father’s side. “I know how to shoot. Levi taught me.”
“I don’t care if Levi taught you to build a bomb.” Uncle Colton
pointed to the water spout where Uncle Ethan’s young boys were getting a drink. “Your job is to get those boys into the hall, now!”
Penelope stomped her way toward Jake and Joey.
Movement in the trees above turned out to be Jordan creeping down the incline of his family’s roof, gun clutched in one hand.
“There they come,” Uncle Colton said, nodding at the road.
Mason looked past his father, expecting to see Levi and Jemma returning. Instead, he saw a convoy of strange trucks entering the village.
The first truck was smaller, like an Old ambulance. The other two were as big as Old semitrucks but in one long piece. All three were yellow and silver with metal grids on the sides instead of windows and doors. Like the vehicle Mason had seen a few weeks ago, these were almost silent but for the crunch of their tires over the gravel.
The trucks drove into the roundabout, one behind the other, and the ambulance-like vehicle rolled to a stop near the meeting hall. Mason backed against the fire pit, trying to get into a position where he could see all three vehicles at once, but they were too close.
The metal grids of the ambulance vehicle slid up into the roof, and the driver and passenger climbed out. The back grid slid away as well, and enforcers trickled into the square one by one. There was no movement from the other two vehicles.
Father lifted his gun. Uncle Colton followed suit, so Mason lifted his, keeping his finger away from the trigger. His body throbbed with adrenaline and heat.
I can’t do this.
There were a dozen enforcers total. They wore navy blue uniforms, gray helmets, and boots. All were emblazoned with the golden bell crest of the Safe Lands and a small name patch. The helmets had eye shades that hid the men’s faces from view. Holsters held handguns strapped to their hips.
One man stood out from the rest, towering over the others like a monstrous bat. His eye shade had been pushed to the top of his helmet, though a pair of sunglasses and a thick beard covered most of his face. The skin that did show was pale and flaky. He had the thin plague, a
disease that, according to Papa Eli, killed a person’s immune system over time.
His name patch proclaimed his name was Otley, and despite the illness, the man appeared formidable. Gold rings looped through each eyebrow and the center of his bottom lip, and a gold spike curled out of each nostril like a section of the barbed wire that topped the Safe Lands walls. He also had a white number eight tattooed to his cheek.
“Help you boys?” Father asked.
Otley ambled around the stage. “We’re having a membership drive. Wondering if your people are ready for a life with a little more … fun.”
“Not interested,” Father said.
“Not surprised, but I’m afraid I can’t take that answer. See, we need people to join us in the Safe Lands. Need them to join now. But since I’m a nice guy, I’m going to give you a choice.” Otley reached toward his holster.
“Hey, hey, hey!” Uncle Colton said.
He and Father both aimed at Otley, which caused half of the enforcers to draw their weapons as well. All those guns made Mason’s nerves so jittery he about wet his pants.
But that would be normal,
he told himself.
A neurobiological response to a life-threatening situation.
Otley raised his hands and chuckled. “Cool off, shells! Just trying to show you that our pistols hold sleepers
killers. The guns have a switch. Blue for sleep, red for kill. Question is, which way do you want us to flick the switch?”
“Can’t imagine the dead would make good members for your commune, Safe Lander,” Father said. “We only shoot one way in Glenrock, and it ain’t for sleeping.”
“And you refuse to come take a look at our fine city?” Otley asked.
“That’s right,” Father said.
Otley sighed. “Remember what I said, men.” He turned in a circle, pointing and panning his finger over the enforcers. “One kill each. Sleep the rest of the village.”
Otley spun and fired twice. The discharge was like the pop of an electric nail gun. Father crumpled. As did Uncle Colton.
Mason screamed and raised his rifle, but gunfire rained over the enforcers from above. Jordan and Harvey! Mason hit the ground and crawled under the stage, dragging his rifle into darkness. Sharp rocks stabbed his knee caps and palms. Gunfire spat into the dirt behind him, and he crawled faster. All around him men were crying out. Glenrock rifle fire exploded against the airy pops of Safe Lands handguns.
Mason stopped once he reached the middle of the stage. His arms were shaking badly, but he pushed to a kneeling position and looked back. Sunlight lit the edge of the stage. He could see the toe of his father’s boot and the top of Uncle Colton’s head as both lay on the ground. He threw up without realizing it was coming. The first of it landed in his lap. He leaned over and heaved and heaved, his mind a blur of questions.
One kill each
, Otley had said. How had he drawn so quickly? Had he fired sleepers or killers? What did a sleeper do? Should Mason go back? Try to help? He didn’t see any movement from his father or uncle, but he had to know. He crept toward them, got close enough to look …
A girl’s scream pulled him out of his daze. He forced himself to look away from his father. Suddenly, he was crawling to the back of the stage. He had to help her. Needed to.
“Get away from me!” the girl screamed.
Mason peeked out from under the stairs. Shaylinn, running from an enforcer toward the tree line. The enforcer shot his gun. Shaylinn fell. The enforcer continued toward her. She pushed up to her hands and knees. Fell. Writhed and tried again to rise. Screamed for help.
Mason could only stare from his safe haven. Accusations assaulted his mind in time with the gunfire.
Coward. Sissy. Gutless. Weakling.
The crack of a gun brought the enforcer to his knees, then to his face, prostrate in the grass a few yards from Shaylinn. Jordan. But Mason could still help.
He pushed out from under the stage and sprinted toward her, his muscles tense, knowing he could be shot at any moment.
“Shaylinn.” He knelt beside her. “Can you move?”
She panted in a few long breaths. “I think … so.” She got to her feet.
Mason pulled her arm around his shoulders and helped her stand. “Behind the sick house,” he said.