Feet tangled, Adelaide let the box go and grabbed the handrail before she took a quick trip to the bottom of the stairs. The box smashed onto a corner and tumbled into the drive.
“Shit,” she said, standing.
Jane flipped her long red hair out of the way. Once she’d secured it in a bun, she lifted the wooden box and tossed it in the back of the truck. “Addy, you’re the smoothest person I know.”
“Shut it, woman,” Addy said, grinning. “I’ll go get the next one.” Spinning to go back upstairs, she ran face first into her dad.
“Slow down, little girl. Let me help you,” he said, reaching for her arm.
“I got it, dad.”
“Hey, Mr. C., I could use a hand,” Jane said. She leaned against the truck, crossing her arms.
As her dad laughed, Addy stomped up the rest of the stairs and into the house. Leaning to get another box, a strand of her own dishwater brown hair fell in her eyes.
Blinking it out of her lashes, she lifted the box. It clanked against the handle of her machete as she shifted it onto a hip and spun towards the door.
And there was dad again, trying to take the box.
“Seriously, dad. I got it.”
He smiled, corners of his eyes turned down. “Headstrong, just like your mother, baby girl. Makes sense. You look just like her. Especially with those brownzel eyes of yours.”
The edges on her heart softened. Leave it to him to try and guilt her into staying by mentioning her dead mother. “Dad,” she said, easing the box back into her own arms, “by the time you were my age, you had two kids already.”
“Almost. I was twenty-four when you were born.”
“Whatever. Look, I get it. Believe me,” she said, frowning, “I get it. I miss her too. But dad, it’s been over ten years. And now there’s the Cure, and we’re all safe, and I think I can handle living in my own apartment.”
He sighed, glancing out the window. The light shone sideways through his eyes, turning the blue almost white. “We’re never safe. I hear that come out of your mouth again and I’ll chain you in your room till you’re thirty.”
“You know what I mean,” she said, stepping around him and out the door.
Managing to make it down the stairs without falling, she set the box in the truck.
Staring over the top of her sunglasses, Jane grinned. “We about done?”
“What’s this ‘we’ you keep asking about? You’ve carried like two boxes.”
“That’s because I don’t live here,” Jane said.
“Might as well,” dad said, coming down the stairs with a box on his right hip. Each time he stepped, the butt of his holstered gun slapped the bottom of the box.
Eyeing the box, one that had been marked ‘fragile’, Addy frowned. “That the last one?”
Without looking at the stairs in front of him, he nodded. Sure feet never missed a step.
Jane took it from him as he reached the bottom. “Thanks, Mr. C..” Standing on tip-toe, she stretched as far as she could and set it on top of the other boxes.
Reaching over her head, he gave the box an extra push. “Why don’t you just call me Jack, huh Jane? I don’t think we need to stand on ceremony anymore.”
“You got it,” she said, facing him before he leaned back. The corners of her mouth turned up. “Say hi to Michael for me.” She tugged keys from her pocket.
“I’m sure my brother would say hi back, Jane,” Addy said, holding her hand out for the keys. “Let’s get out of here before it gets dark.”
As Jack crossed his arms and stepped back, Jane handed the keys over, green eyes dancing.
“I’m going to come check out security at this new place tomorrow, Adelaide,” Jack said, frowning. “If it’s not adequate, we’ll make it that way.”
“You worry too much, dad.” Addy hopped into the driver’s seat. It took her three tries, but she found the ignition and slid the key in.
Jane jumped in next to her and smiled out the window. “We’ll be fine,” she said, bad imitation of Scottish brogue dripping from her voice.
Brow scrunched, Jack kicked a rock. “Look after each other.” Frowning at the ground, the curls on his neck bounced in the light breeze. “You’re always welcome back here, you know.”
“Of course,” Addy said, starting the truck and turning it towards their new home. Glancing at Jane from the corner of her eye, she whispered, “Dead Heads be damned, we are not moving back home again.”
Spinning to watch Jack recede into the distance, Jane pursed her lips. “You got that right, lady.”
Waving a hand in front of his face, Jack coughed in the dusty rooster tail Addy’s truck created.
And there went his youngest, off to face the world on her own.
Swallowing, swiping at his dusty, watery eyes, he spun to trudge back up the stairs. Raising her and her brother in all this hadn’t ever been easy, especially after their mother had died. He probably hadn’t done as good of a job of it as he could have.
Addy had a point, though. With the Cure, they had it a lot better than they had when she’d been born into this.
Top and bottom gates secure, he stood at the top of the stairs and swiveled a handle on the wall. Trip wires popped up along every other step, but the handle squealed as it spun.
Grimacing, he finished its rotation and retrieved the oil from its perch inside the house, above the fridge.
As he stepped away, oil can in hand, the refrigerator’s compressor kicked on.
He leapt eighteen inches from the floor if it was a day. Didn’t matter if they’d been living with electricity three days or three years, he wasn’t used to the sound. Gun halfway out of its holster, he reseated it.
“Damn jumpy ass.” Not quite a whisper, not really out loud.
Did it qualify as talking to yourself if there was no one to hear you?
Back on the landing, he oiled the handle and spun it a few times. The trip wires raised and lowered in silence.
One side of his mouth turned up. Nodding, he started back inside.
The crunch of gravel under a foot.
The hackles on his neck rose, painful pricks along his spine. The base of his skull tingled. Hand hovering over the grip of his gun, he waited for the owner of the foot to round the corner.
The feet took regular, measured steps, and Jack relaxed a millimeter. Only the living walked with a purpose.
As a portly, balding man stepped into view, Jack sighed and pulled his gun anyway.
“Whoa, hey Jackson, good evening,” the newcomer said, stopping at the bottom of the stairs and peeking through the gate.
Jack shook his head. “You can call me Mr. Cooke, Wade.”
Wade grinned, fleshy lips pulling back from his teeth. “OK, Mr. Cooke. Can I come up?”
Jack shook his head and spun, holstering his gun once again.
An audible sigh from the bottom of the stairs followed him into the house.
As the door snicked closed Jack exhaled, shoulders falling. The man might be a worm, but he was Mayor Worm. Frowning, he opened the door again.
Eyes narrowed, he spun the tripwire handle and trudged down the stairs. Dust assaulted his nose as he reached the bottom and he all but sneezed in Wade’s face as he opened the bottom gate.
Wade threw up a hand, spittle covering his palm as he did. “Whoa, hey Mr. Cooke, are you OK? Getting a cold?” His pleasant expression rippled, becoming something predatory, reptilian. His hands disappeared behind his back.
All at once Jack noticed the bulge beneath Wade’s armpit. The pommel of a knife peeking from his belt. Boots wider at the top than they ought to be.
He peered at the man, reassessing. “No, Wade. Just dust. Always happens, this time of year.”
The little man nodded, empty hands reappearing.
Jack shook his head and scratched at his salt and pepper beard. Only little more than stubble, it could use a trim. But who had time for such things? “Come on up.”
Following the mayor up the stairs and resetting the trip wires, he locked and barred the front door.
“Never too many precautions, huh Mr. Cooke?” Wade bounced on the balls of his feet, hands clasped in front of him.
Jack turned, cool blue eyes staring through him. “No.”
Wade shuffled a foot. “Do you think I could get some water or something, please?”
Jack led him into the kitchen, motioning to the table in the center of the room.
Wade took a seat, wood creaking under his considerable ass. He sighed, a smile stretching his lips as Jack filled a glass with cold water and ice.
Setting the glass in front of Wade, Jack took a seat.
Wade took a swig, clapping a hand to his forehead as he sat the glass back on the table. “Brain freeze.” He tittered.
Jack’s mouth twitched, but he wasn’t sure if it was a smile or a frown. He opted for neither and pressed his lips together. Leaning on the table, he sucked a labored breath through his nose. Exhaled. “What can I do for you, Wade?”
Wade nodded, taking another sip from his glass. “Well Jackson, um mister, Mister Cooke, I, that is the I who is mayor, was wondering if you wanted to be on the security committee.”
Chuckling, Jack leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “You’re joking.”
“Oh no, Mr. Cooke. About town matters I don’t joke.”
As Jack exhaled a laugh, Wade picked the glass up again. His fingers slipped over the condensation, sending the glass sliding towards the floor.
Jack stuck his hand out in time to stop it falling and sat it back on the table, no more than two or three droplets escaping it.
Wade pointed. “See there? That’s one of the things I, that we, want you on the committee for. You’re so quick.”
At some point, the little man had begun to sweat, upper lip beaded with dirty, salty drops of it.
Also, the longer he sat in Jack’s quiet kitchen, the more it smelled a bit like stale bacon.
Jack lifted his upper lip. If it had taken all of his considerable strength, skill, and smarts to keep his kids alive for the last twenty-five years, how had this man done it?
He cocked his head, tightening his crossed arms. “No, Wade.”
Wade sighed, knocking back the rest of the water like it was a shot of vodka. The ice cubes crunched and squeaked between his teeth.
Nails on a chalkboard.
“Jackson. Jack. We need your help. You’re a great benefit to this community and we need you to take part in its safety.” Reaching to his face, Wade chuckled at his hand and glanced at Jack with the side of his eye. “Heh. I forgot I got contacts again. It’s been so long since I had them, I keep trying to adjust glasses that aren’t there.”
Wade stood, sliding the chair back under the table with a prissiness reserved for actors. No one else could be that over-the-top with it.
Herding him to the front door, Jack flinched as the floorboards creaked.
At the door, Wade stopped. He spun, muddy brown eyes narrowed. “Listen. We’re working really hard here on rebuilding this community. The state. Hell, the planet. We need everyone’s help. You have a skill,” he said, motioning to the bar on the door. “We need your skill. It’s been a long time since we were able to have stability. But it’s here now, and you can help us maintain it.”
Jack frowned down at him, nose itching. An interesting proposal, it also sounded like the kind of old world bureaucracy he did not miss. Rather than answer, he reached past the mayor, unbarred the door, and motioned for Wade to take his leave.
Repeating the process of entry in reverse, without all the flying spit, Jack slammed the gate and locked the chain.
“The next meeting is tomorrow. It’s at city hall, noon,” Wade said.
Jack grunted, sun-warmed lock gripped in a tight fist. He glanced up, meeting Wade’s eyes.
“I’ll think about it.”
Thank you for reading! Feel free to drop a comment below.
You can read the first draft version here