Authors: Nora Roberts
“Protecting her. Defending The One. They'll heal, but you should wash the blood away.”
“I will. Please listen to Max. It's not safe here, not now.”
“We're ready. We were only waiting.” He turned, looking one way, then the other.
People came out of buildings, mostly children. Some very young, some teens. A woman about her age, a man, white-haired and wearing a butcher's apron. A woman who looked ancient and leaned on a cane.
Twenty-five, maybe thirty people, Lana thought, all standing in waiting silence.
Joe leaped out of the car, racing to Lupa to wag and sniff. Lupa stood a moment, stiffly dignified, then lowered his front-quarters, pranced in a playing dance.
One of the little girls broke into a giggle and clapped her hands as the dog and wolf wrestled.
“Here is the woman who holds The One inside her. The time of waiting's done, and the next time starts. We'll go with them.”
“We're gonna need more than one other car,” Eddie said. Flynn smiled.
“We've got more than one. And a trailer for the cow.”
“You've got a cow?”
“Cow means milk. I can take you to clean your hands,” he said to Lana.
“Thanks.” After a glance at Max, she fell into step beside him. “How did you know about the baby, about her?”
Flynn shot her a long, quiet look. “How did you not?”
Arlys sat in what had been the den in a two-bedroom house, painstakinglyâemphasis on
âtranscribing her notes on an ancient Underwood typewriter. Bill Anderson had hauled it over to her from a junk store titled Bygones. It was big, heavy, clunky, but with it she could produce a page or two of community news every day.
She was still a damn reporter.
She called her effort
The New Hope Bulletin
, and hoped to Christ that Chuck made good on his determination to bring back the Internet.
She shared the little white brick house, with its wide front porch and narrow backyard, with Fred. Chuck lived next door, having claimedâbig surpriseâthe basement of the redbrick house as his own, while Bill and Jonah took two of the three bedrooms.
Rachel, Katie, and the babies lived in the bigger, two-story corner house on the other side. They'd grouped together by habit and
instinct, and the location convenience of having the elementary school just across the street.
There Rachel and Jonah had set up a kind of medical centerâadministration offices were the exam roomsâa community center in the cafeteria, and a combination of day care and education in the classrooms.
They'd traveled south, and Arlys documented every stage of the journey. The winter storm just shy of the West Virginia border, where they'd taken shelter for two days in an abandoned garden center that smelled of soil and rot.
The garden center that had provided them with seeds, seedlings, fertilizer, and tools.
The first group they'd come across, hiking east, joined with them. Tara, a first-year kindergarten teacher, now seer; Mike, age twelve with a badly set broken arm; and Jess, age sixteen.
They'd made room, and eventually found an urgent-care facility where Rachel had reset Mike's arm.
From that facility, they'd gathered medical supplies, some equipment, and a truck.
They'd detoured twice, avoiding the sound of gunfire, found others hiking, driving, sheltering. Not all joined them, but most did.
Their groupâseventy-eight peopleâentered the town of Besterville, Virginia, population eight hundred and thirty-two according to the sign (on which someone had rechristened the town as Worsterville with spray paint) on the Ides of March. They found a ghost town, one where it seemed the majority of the people had simply vanished. While the doors had been locked, and the handful of shops and businesses along the main street had been shuttered, they found no signs of vandalism or looting.
And there they stopped. Even after seven weeks, Arlys wasn't sure why it had been this place at that time. They'd passed through other towns and housing developments, rural areas and urban sprawls.
But they'd stopped, and now numbered at two hundred and six. The number changed week to week, sometimes day to day, as others came in, as some moved on.
They'd renamed the town and replaced the signs at the town borders. And New Hope became home.
Though there were days she woke physically aching for the life she'd known, she remembered the fear, the horror of the tunnel, the bitter cold. And the bodies found along the way, the bodies found in houses in the place they'd claimed as theirs.
So she wrote her bulletins on the old Underwood on an antique desk with the photo of her with her family at Christmas framed and facing her.
In today's news she'd announce that Drake Manning, electrician, and Wanda Swartz, engineer, continued their work to provide electric power for the community. As her own reporter, editor-in-chief, and publisher, she debated whether or not to include the statements from their newest community members that Washington, D.C., was essentially a war zone between military authority, organized Raiders, and factions of the Uncanny.
She weighed the public's (such as it was) right to know against human panic. Then added reality. Gossip spread like butter over hot toast through the community. Better to write up the statements.
She added some local color: mentioned the progress on the community gardenâFred's babyâin the town's pretty, sprawling park; announced Story Time for kids of all ages; reminded readers to bring found books that they didn't want to the town library (formerly First Virginia Bank).
She posted announcements for volunteer sign-up listsâgardening, the food bank, the supply center, the clothing exchange, sentry duty, supply runs, animal husbandry.
Taking her two-page bulletin, Arlys walked out into the living
room. While the furnishings struck herâand likely always wouldâas Early American Tedium, all that faded with Fred's touch.
A half dozen little vases held spring flowers, stones rubbed smooth by the nearby creek filled shallow bowls, bits of colorful fabric, ribbons, buttons arranged in a frame created fanciful art. In the scrubbed-out hearth, an arrangement of candles added a welcoming touch, and light in the dark.
Gone were the ugly old drapes from the two front windows. In their place, Fred hung strings of colorful beads that caught the sunlight in rainbows.
She sought to inform, Arlys thought, Fred instinctively brightened. She wondered which one of them truly provided the best service.
She stepped onto the porch. Fred had pressured her into helping paint two old metal chairs a sweet and silly pink. On the table between them sat a white pot holding a single white geranium.
Around the doorframe Fred had painted her magick symbols.
A pair of pink flamingos guarded one side of the porch steps, a family of garden gnomes the other. Wind chimes tinkled in the spring breeze.
Arlys thought of it as Fred's Faerie House, and found herself surprisingly content there.
People walked along the street or rode bikes. She knew the faces, most of the names, could point out their community skills or flaws. She spotted Bill Anderson up and across the street, washing the display window of Bygones. He'd taken over the shop, organized it. People took what they needed, and most bartered their time, their skills in exchange.
There would come a timeâshe and what she thought of as the core group had talked about it oftenâwhen they would need a more defined structure, rules, even lawsâand laws meant punishments.
Some would have to be in chargeâand there were one or two already pushing to take control.
She walked across the street to the single-story schoolhouse. Katie sat at a table out front nursing one of the babies while another slept in a PortaBed, and the third cooed in a baby swing.
What Arlys knew about babies, she'd learned almost entirely in the previous weeks, but she knew when she looked at a trio of happy, healthy, and seriously pretty ones.
“I swear they're bigger every time I see them.”
“Good appetites, all three of them.” Katie lifted her face to the sky. “It's too pretty a day to be inside, so I set up out here.” She adjusted a paperweight on one of her sign-up sheets as the breeze fluttered. “The fresh air's good for all of us. I just saw Fred.”
It was a pretty day, Arlys thought, and took advantage of it by sitting down next to Katie. “I thought she was down at the gardens.”
“She came by for her baby fix. New
“Yeah, hot off the idiot typewriter. If Chuck ever performs his IT miracle I'll kiss him on the mouth. Hell, I'll offer the sexual favor of his choice.”
“I'm starting to miss sex.” Katie sighed. “Is that disloyal? I loved Tony so much, Iâ”
“It's not. It's human.”
“Maybe it's because I'm starting to feel settled, the last couple of weeks especially. I don't wake up every night in the dark scared. It feelsÂ â¦ settled to wake up in the same place every day, to have purpose every day. I know I don't do as much as the rest, butâ”
“That's not true. You're feeding and raising three babies.”
“I have help. Everyone helps.”
babies,” Arlys repeated. “You're running our census and the sign-ups. I realized today, I don't know everyone's name anymore. Faces, yes, but not names. You would. I've seen you charm people into signing up or heading a task, an activity. You're good with people. A natural community organizer.”
“It's hard to say no or to bitch at a nursing mother. Speaking of
charming people, we could use another sign-up for morning yoga. It's good for stress, and you have too much stress. Don't say you don't have time. We all do.”
“That woman's weird, Katie.”
“What's weird about a fifty-year-old faerie calling herself Rainbow?” Katie smiled. “Besides, she's a good instructor. I took a couple of classes myself, and can vouch she's patient and knowledgeable. Try one, okay? Just try one. If you hate it, I'll never bug you again.”
“Fine, fine. Did I say charming?
's more accurate.” But Arlys scrawled her name on the sheet. “How many faeries does that make now?”
Katie reached down into her diaper bag, pulled out a notebook. She flipped through the tabs to her list. “Eight, but that doesn't count the little ones who come and go. I saw some last nightâmiddle of the nightâwhen Duncan was restless. Just lights dancing around the backyard. And, Arlys, this morning, there are flowers blooming along the fence line that weren't there yesterday. I have to ask Fred what they are, but it'sÂ â¦ Maybe another reason I'm not scared all the time.”
With a smooth, maternal grace, she shifted the babyâDuncan, Arlys realizedâfrom breast to shoulder. “Anyway, eight faeries. At least eight comfortable enough to claim it. Four elves. I'm not sure what the difference is there. Twelve that fall into the witch/wizard/sorcerer group. And we've got twenty-eight who list some sort of ability. Like Jonah. I've got five with prophetic dreams, two shapeshiftersâverified, and you can bet that's a jolt to watch. We've got four with telekinesis, an alchemist, two seers, and so on.”
So many, Arlys realized. She hadn't been keeping up.
“Looking at the math, that's more than twenty percent of the community with magickal abilities.”
“I think there are even more. I think there are some who aren't saying, who're afraid to.” On Katie's shoulder, Duncan let out a
small, distinct burp. “We've also got a percentageâsmall, but it's thereâwho are, well, magick bigots.”
“He'd be president of the anti-magick coalition. I'm glad he's taken over working at the feedstore so he's not in town all that much.”
“Even there, he's a pain in the ass from what I hear.”
“I don't understand people like him, or the handful who hang around with him. Rachel told me that Jonah had to go out and deal with Don and Lou Mercer when they got after Bryar Gregory.”
“Got after her?” Bryar, Arlys thought, quiet, composed, and on Katie's list as a seer.
“She went out for a walk, couldn't sleep. Apparently the Mercers were sitting out on their porch, having a few beersâmaybe more thanâand spotted her. They followed her, taunting her, blocked her way, were generally obnoxious and disgusting. Jonah happened to see it, went over to stop it. It might've gotten uglyâtwo against oneâbut Aaron Quince, the elf, and I think he's sweet on Bryarâcame along. The Mercers backed off. Aaron walked Bryar back home.
“I don't understand it,” Katie went on. “A few months ago, people were literally dying in the street. Every one of us lost family, friends, neighbors. We're all we have left, but people like the Mercers, like Kurt Rove, belittle and bad-talk those of us who, well, have something that might help get all of us through. Because they're different.”
“I have a theory,” Arlys began. “Major, monumental crises bring out the best or the worst in usâsometimes both. And sometimes those major, monumental crises have no effect on certain types. Which means, no matter what the circumstances, assholes remain assholes.”
“Huh. That's a good theory.” She cuddled Duncan. “Arlys, I think Duncan and AntoniaÂ â¦ I think they're different.”
“Why do you say that?”
“They dream. All babies doâHannah dreamsâbut theyÂ â¦ It's different. I said Duncan was restless last night, but it was more like excitement. Whatever he dreamed excited him. And one night last week, I heard Hannah crying. She'd stopped by the time I got to the nursery. And Duncan was in the crib with herâawake. I usually put Antonia and Hannah in one crib together, Duncan in the other, and I had. But he was in with the girls, and he and Antonia just looked at me and smiled. Him on one side of Hannah, Antonia on the other. Like they'd soothed her back to sleep.”
“It is. They are. They look out for her. Sometimes I'll have them in the playpen together, and I'll go out for a minute. I'll come back and there'll be a toy in there I didn't put in. And just last night, when I was nursing Duncan, I started thinking about Tony. How much he'd have loved the babies, how much I missed him. And Duncan put his hand on my cheek. He stroked my cheek. When I looked down, he was looking at meâ¦”
Tears filled her eyes, and Arlys saw the baby stroke his mother's cheek. “He was looking at me just like he is now.”
Bending her head, she kissed him. “I'm all right, baby. Everything's all right. I'm blessed, Arlys, with these three beautiful babies. They're blessed. And when I think of people like Rove and the Mercers, I'm afraid. There's hate in them. You don't have to be magickal to see it, to know it. There's hate in them for anyone who's different.”
“It's fear, too. They hate what they fear and don't understand. But there are more of us, Katie, than there are of them. We'll keep looking out for each other, just like Jonah looked out for Bryar. We're building something here. I don't know what the hell it is yet, but it's ours. And we're keeping it.
“I'm going to go post this, check in with Rachel. And I think we're going to have a bonus
later. An editorial. On assholes.”