It’s early morning, and the sun is streaming in through the weathered window slats. By the angle, it’s early, but it’s already hot.
You look up. A dusty ceiling fan is spinning slowly, the breeze not doing much to budge the sweat that’s already beading your brow and arms.
You look sideways. You’re not alone in bed. It’s not your bed anyway, so perhaps Vera’s not alone in her bed. You catch a glimpse of sun-kissed bronze skin and soft, wavy curls.
“I’m amazed the heat doesn’t wake you,” you say.
She rolls over, and immediately slips an arm around your shoulder, pulls you down to her, kisses you. Her mouth tastes like metal, like water that’s been in a canteen all day. Her skin is smooth and cool like a stone.
“I’m a creature of the desert. You know that,” she says. “Heat is. Chill is. I am. I bask in both in their time.” She slips out of bed. She’s naked. It’s a nice view. Toned bronze all up and down, although she’s not very tall. She picks up some clothes from the floor where you’d thrown them the night before, sorts through them, wriggles into a pair of shorts but doesn’t bother with a top. “I’m hungry. You want coffee?”
“Coffee,” you say, “would be great.”
“Okay. Then you get to make the bacon and eggs.”
You follow her into the kitchen, enjoying the curve of her back and the angles of her shoulders as she walks. There’s an apron hanging on a peg near the big chrome refrigerator. You slip the top strap over your head and tie the bottom straps around you, because you’re not wearing anything else, and bacon spits.
You start frying bacon on the enormous stove in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. Vera busies herself with the coffeemaker in an alcove across the kitchen. There’s a lot of kitchen; actually, there’s a lot of house. You don’t think you’ve seen all of it, and you’ve been here for, huh, three days now, in a haze of blazing heat, and dust, and sex, punctuated by nights gazing up at the brilliant desert stars, with the smell of wood smoke from the fire, and more sex.
You drift off, for a moment, remembering last night, how her fingers worked inside you as you laid next to her on a blanket on the broad stone deck, while she whispered the names of the constellations in your ear. Only the smell of bacon about to burn brings you back.
“Hey,” she says from across the kitchen, “be careful with that. That’s the last of it.”
You hope she’s referring to the bacon.
Later, you sit across the wide table from her, a glazed clay platter of eggs and bacon between you. You each have an oversized mug of coffee; she’s already put cream, sugar, and… yep, definitely whiskey in yours. You lock eyes with her. You’re smiling. You’re pretty thoroughly happy and it just bubbles up. But she’s not, at least not right now. She looks away.
“Listen,” she says, “I haven’t forgotten what you asked me. Why you came by. And I like you. I really do. I’d like to keep you around. But it is what it is.”
Shit. Now it’s your turn to look away, so you look at your eggs instead.
“The water’s not coming back,” you say.
“It’s not. Not your place, not anywhere else, not any time soon.”
“I was afraid of that.”
“What’s gonna happen?”
“Well. You know. Tumbleweeds. Toads. Wildflowers. Cacti. They have ways of getting through the dry times. But…” she bites her lip. “There are animals, plants, there are species that can survive here, but they don’t thrive, not really. Not in the dry. Because they’re not from here. But they can move.”
“I’m from here.” It’s true. You’ve lived in Jackrabbit Flats your whole life. You know everyone in town. You know the roads, the rock formations, the arroyos, the alkali flats.
You know… well, you’d seen her around a few times, you’d heard she knew the short and long cycles of the desert ecology like no one else, but until three days ago, when you came out to this house to ask her if the water was coming back, you suppose you only knew of Vera. Now you’ve at least touched her, skimmed the surface of what she is. You have a sense that there’s much more buried beneath.
“You are. But you’ve never been through dry like the dry that’s coming. And if you try to stay through it, you’ll dessicate. You’ll lose yourself in the heat. And I like you too much to wish that on you.”
“You’re not going anywhere.”
“I’m a creature of the desert. Believe me when I say that. If this place was nothing but sun and rock, I’d be here to sit on the rock and bask in the sun.” For a moment, you can see the scene, the house replaced by a sandstone outcropping, Vera sitting on it staring up at a blazing sun, unblinking, wind whipping through her hair.
“But you think I should go.”
“I’m not gonna chase you out.” Her smile returns, shyly. “But if I were you, I’d get your harvest in, don’t bother saving seed. Sell it all off; what’ll grow up here won’t grow where you’re going. Pack up anything that you can move. I’ll keep an eye on your place, if there’s even anyone left that needs watching, but there won’t be for long. Come back and visit me sometime and you’ll see. Ghost town isn’t right, but the skeleton of a town might be closer.”
“Where I’m going?”
“You said you had family in Emerald Valley. So do I, as a matter of fact, so I hear what it’s like; it’d be the best place for a woman with your talents, and it’s not far at all. Although my sister’s a bit…” she sighs. “Domesticated.” She says “domesticated” like someone else might say “crippled” or “simple”. “You’ll notice if you meet her.”
You had actually been thinking about it. An uncle that writes to you once a year mentioned a death in the family, an empty farmhouse, a plot of land going fallow, what a shame they didn’t have a local boy or girl to take it over. It wasn’t quite an offer, wasn’t quite a plea.
The both of you finish your breakfasts in silence.
When your empty coffee mug clunks down on the table, she stands up, walks to a cabinet on a far wall of the big kitchen. “Hey. Like I said, I’m not gonna chase you out, but I want to give you two things to remember me by. Come here.”
She turns toward you, raises something and ties it around your neck. It’s a pendant on a leather thong. You look down, between her arms, and see it nestled between your breasts, under the apron, a yellow-green droplet of meteor-forged desert glass. “A drop of water that could only fall in the deepest of the dry. Seemed appropriate. I’ve been holding onto it for a long time.”
“You said two things to remember you by.” But you’ve got an idea, because she’s already got you up against a kitchen island.
“Why don’t you take off that apron and find out?”
And for a little while longer, there is moisture in the desert.
“Got ya something,” Jake says. “Since you’re leaving and all. Leaving us all up here on the plateau, wondering how she’s doing in the big wide world.” Jake’s a big goof. His dad knew your dad. It seemed like your families were conspiring to push you together, and they didn’t need to push that hard when you were kids, but one rainy season you and Jake got close enough to realize that you just weren’t into boys, and from then, things were never quite as comfortable as they’d been. But he’s just too good-natured to take offense at that, and he’s kept watching out for you.
“Aw, geez, Jake. I’m not going that far. And I didn’t get you anything.”
“You can send me some melons once you get up and running. I hear they’re amazing, down in the valley. But here.” He hefts a canvas sack onto the worn wood counter of the general store. It clanks. “Remember that last year of school, when Miz Chalcedony retired and they didn’t know what to do with us for the last two periods?”
“Yeah. We spent every afternoon out behind your barn, at the old fence line, putting holes in things.” The fence was backstopped by a huge hill. It’d made a great spot for you and Jake to talk. And to shoot. And a few other things, until that rainy season.
He unties the sack. It’s full of empty cans and it reeks of stale beer. “So I got you a bunch of empty cans.”
“Uh. Thanks. I don’t know what to say.” You really don’t. “I’ll… put them on my wall and think of you fondly.”
“Hah, you’d better! Because I also got you this.” Jake reaches down under the counter and brings up a flat, square, olive drab box, with an emblem partially obscured by time and paint. He opens it and: “Ta-da!”
It’s a lethal-looking pistol. Black and angular, with threatening protrusions you don’t know the function of, like a mechanical insect predator. Even as it rests in the red velvet lining, you feel like it might leap at you. As a farm girl, you’ve grown up around machinery: threshers, seed presses, tractors, weather stations, irrigation derricks, and yes, Jake’s dad’s old service revolver. There’s a commonality of form and function: durable, practical, everyday, with rounded edges, smooth metal, and tough-wearing cheery paints in primary colors. They have about as much in common with this anomaly as a fat prairie dog does with a cobra.
“Holy shit. What is that thing?”
“Well…” He scratches his head. “We hit an underground cache of some sort while digging a new well on the east side of the orchard. Thought we’d found a spring, but we actually drilled into a bunch of buried water barrels, and there was a hollow space around them with some wrecked old machinery and some crates. This came out of one of the crates. Must have been down there a long time. So I brought it home and I showed it to Lydia, and she says ‘Jacob, as the town’s history teacher, I can tell you two things: it’s from the war, and it’s dangerous. And as your future wife, I can tell you one more thing: I don’t want it in the house.‘”
“Huh,” you say. “She say to give to me specifically? You know, she was cold as ice when I came by to borrow a pickaxe last month. Maybe she’s hoping that if I don’t leave fast enough for her, I’ll blow myself up.”
Jake assumes a pained expression. “It’s a shame you two never got along. But no. My mind went to the first person I knew who can really shoot, and who’s going where, well, you don’t know your neighbors.”
“Hell. I’m sure they’re gonna be friends. I wouldn’t wanna have to be unfriendly with this thing sitting at my hip.” You offer Jake a fist bump; he bumps back. “Hey, Jake. You’re all right, man. You always were.”
You’d actually come to the general store to say something for Jake’s ears only, hoping to catch Jake at work so you could avoid Lydia. The frosty, prissy, and lip-chewingly gorgeous schoolteacher is probably off terrorizing the schoolhouse and environs. Now’s as good a time as any.
“I gotta tell you something, though. It’s about the town. The water. It’s gonna get drier. Much drier. You’re gonna dig wells and you’re gonna hit nothing but dirt. You should think about gettin’ out too. While you can.”
“That right?” He stares at you, scrutinizing you for you don’t know what. “How do you figure something like that?”
“I went and asked Vera. That’s how. She knows the desert. She, uh, she showed me some things. Real things. I don’t know what you think of her, ok, but, I’m not exactly leaving for the fun. I think the town’s… ending.”
“I got family here,” Jake says, and that’s the end of it.
You shrug. “I’m gonna send you so many melons, then. I’ll miss ya, you big goof. Thanks for the thing. Hope I don’t have to use it. But I’m gonna leave the cans with you.”
You take a turn on the dirt path, and there it is, looming out of the golden-green afternoon sunlight. You were expecting a dinky little shed containing a couple of mounted snake skins and a display of regional rocks, but the Emerald Valley Nature Center is a towering mass of brick and dark wood, which looks capable of containing the whole town. There’s a tower rising from the back; you can see windows near the top. Were it not for the the Parks & Forestry sign out front, you might mistake it for the town hall, or a church. Trees are growing right up to it on both sides.
You grab one of the bronze handles on the sturdy wooden double doors and pull. It’s heavy, takes a pretty good tug before it opens wide enough for you to slip inside, but it moves smoothly and closes silently behind you.
Inside the Nature Center’s entrance is a broad rotunda with several wings leading off. Inside the rotunda is a circular desk, built out of overlapping branches and topped with thick slabs of oak; the overall effect is that of a giant bird’s nest. Inside the desk is a ranger in a deep green uniform. She’s hunched over part of the desk, updating some sort of map or chart, and doesn’t see you at first.
“Hi,” you say.
She turns around and stands up in one graceful motion. “Oh, hello. I didn’t hear you come in.” She scans you with her gaze. “Don’t think I’ve seen you in here before either. Welcome to the Nature Center. My name is Alex, and I’m the ranger on duty!”
You extend a hand. “You don’t know me, but you might know my uncle Russ. I’m Kay.”
“Oh, I know Russ. Everybody knows Russ.” She takes your hand, shakes perfunctorily, lets you go. Her skin is smooth and warm. Or maybe the warmth is you, because she’s a lot more attractive than you were expecting for a park ranger. “So you’d be taking over that small farm on the side of Dragonback Hill. It’s a mess, you know. The forest is starting to reclaim the orchard. You’ve certainly got your work cut out for you. Another year or two and it’d be completely overgrown.” She leans over the desk towards you to speak softly, although there’s nobody else in the rotunda. “If I were you, I’d almost let it. That was a beautiful patch of woods in its time.”
“I’m sure it won’t be that bad. I’m handy with a machete.” And saws, axes, picks, shovels, sledges, breaker bars, and if necessary, dynamite. “At least the land is good down here. I’m from Jackrabbit Flats; I’m sure I can grow anything anywhere, after that, but I’d rather not have to force every square foot. From what I’ve seen of Emerald Valley soil, I’d practically be making love to it, instead making war on it.”
Alex purses her lips. “Interesting analogy. Let me know if it holds up once you’ve dealt with some of our native flora. The weeds grow as fast as anything else here. Fertile soil’s never loyal.”
You shrug. “I’ll figure it out, but you seem to know a lot. You farm too?”
She shakes her head. “I’m the ranger on duty. Full time job. But part of the job is forestry surveys and part of it’s soil analysis for the farmers, so I’m only here at this desk half the time. I get to see the whole valley, all year round. It’s wonderful.”
“Sounds like it,” you say. “Hey, any recommendations for hiking trails? I’d love to see more of the valley when I’m not busting my ass up on Dragonback. You must know all of them.”
“Actually, I blazed a few of them myself. I’ll get you a map!” She hands you a big mimeographed sheet that shows the whole valley in a fair bit of detail, down to individual farmhouses. The lower right third is crosshatched out in red pen. She starts tracing a slim, tanned finger across it. “You should start with the Penn Loop, here…”
“What’s all the red ink for?”
“Off limits to hikers and hunters, and everyone but me, really. Ecological restoration in progress. We have some nasty invasives. So most of that area is charred forest from a series of controlled burns. Not all of the the invasives die in a fire, unfortunately. The rest is simply lousy with foreign seeds and spores that have a tendency to stick to clothes, and spread faster than you’d believe. So stick to the marked trails, and stay out of the red areas.”
“Wow. Intense. Penn Loop it is.”
“The Penn Loop’s beautiful,” she says, looking up from the map. “It really is, especially this time of year, when the flowers are in bloom.” You catch her meeting your eyes. Her eyes are the brilliant green of new ivy leaves.
“Can you point that out again on the map? Is it this oval path, here?” You point to something at random.
“No,” she says, “actually, that’s the…” Your finger brushes hers over the tangle of hiking trails. “… lake.” She pulls her hand back.
You blew it. Maybe. You feel warm; you’re almost certainly blushing, and you really hope it’s not too obvious. “Haha, well, I’m not much of a swimmer, I’ll stay off the underwater trails.”
“Hmm. Start with the Loop. I can recommend some more difficult, more rewarding hikes if you come back later. Anything else I can do for you?”
You can come hiking with me. But you don’t say it. But you want to see her again anyway. “Come up to the farm sometime? I could use your advice on which of the native trees to keep and which to cull. I’m up there most days.”
“I’ll be up around there taking soil samples, day after tomorrow,” she says. “I can take a look. And you take this meanwhile.” Alex takes a photocopied flyer off a stack on the desk, slides it to you. It reads KNOW YOUR FRIENDLY NATIVES, KNOW THEIR IMPOSTORS. “You’re not that far from the area we had to burn last summer. I don’t want any of that junk coming back.”
“I’ll keep an eye out, I promise. Drop in anytime! If I’m not in the south field, check at the farmhouse.”
You shove the flyer in your pack and bumble around the Nature Center for a few minutes. There are indeed snake skins and rocks on display. You look back towards the rotunda a few times, hoping to see Alex looking your way, but each time, all you can see is her long brown ponytail moving slightly as she continues whatever she was working on when you came in.
Eventually you exit the way you came in. Alex looks up briefly. “Bye.”
Although it’s still mid-afternoon, the forest outside seems much cooler than the Nature Center.
You unfold the crumpled piece of paper. KNOW YOUR FRIENDLY NATIVES, it says. Commonwealth blackberry on that side. The KNOW THEIR IMPOSTORS side. Altai blackberry. Thornberry. Razorlace. You hope you never run into the last one; its fruits look like blackberries, according to the flyer, but its vines look like implements of torture. These look like blackberry vines, but are they Commonwealth, or Altai? The flyer says that the native blackberry has alternating thorns, while the invasive has pairs, and that’s pretty much the only difference. You grab the nearest vine to get a better look, and of course, the stupid thing spears you right through your thick leather work glove.
“Owwww shiiiiiit!” That hurts. You take off the glove to get a look at the damage. Your index finger’s already smeared with blood. On top of that, you’re pretty sure what got you was an Altai blackberry bush, and that’s gonna have to come out. But for now, you press your thumb against the puncture to slow the bleeding, and head back to the farmhouse, dripping blood on the ground as you go.
To the kitchen. Towel. Disinfectant (ouch). Gauze. Tape. Glove goes back on. Now it’s time for revenge. To the shed. You scan the rack of hand tools by the door, heft a scythe in one hand to cut the brambles, a pickaxe in the other to grub out the roots. Back to the blackberry patch. Screw blackberries. You’re gonna turn this little clearing into an herb garden if you need to kill every last blackberry in Emerald Valley.
Two hours later, you’re deep in glorious battle, surrounded by piles of severed vines and unearthed roots. You think you’re winning.
TODO: picnic scene, alt 1
dripping with sweat
you hear a “hello” from behind you… “my you’re sweaty”
“on my way to my favorite spot on this side of the valley to eat lunch, you wanna come with?”
“ok sure lemme get my lunch from the kitchen icebox, oh have you seen my house, cmon in” … “i just gotta change out of this sweat-soaked plaid shirt” peels shirt off “see anything you like?”
up in a clearing next to a small cliff, lying on picnic blanket stuffed full of sandwiches, watching clouds over the valley “that one looks like a cloud” “you’re the worst” “no you’re the worst” “i’ve been here longer than you, i know this valley intimately, i say it’s a bunny” “shut up!” “make me”
you roll over, partly on top of her, and grab her by the wrists. she flushes but doesn’t protest, and she’s staring up at you, her lips parted, her eyes wide with anticipation, breathing hard… “ok.” and you kiss her.
“mmmmm. nobody’s done that in a very. long. time.” so you do it again. “that’s a shame.”
suddenly she pushes you off. “wait. did you hear that?” honestly, the only thing you can hear right now is your heart, pounding in your ears. “what?” “a rustling… there!” she points.
the bushes are fucking growling at you. oh fuck oh fuck. you reach for your belt knife, already knowing this is going to be bad. you’re never leaving the cabin without a gun again. alex scrabbles for something somewhere to your left.
something black and furry charges at you. alex is suddenly on her feet. it misses her by inches. it stops, turns around, comes at her again, leaps, and just like that, the end of alex’s walking stick comes around in a vicious arc and knocks the thing straight off the cliff.
“alex what was that thing.” “a bad sign. there’s more going on in the red zone than i tell everybody. i have to go. you’d better head home.” suddenly all business, not even an “it was nice tasting your face”.
confused, you head back to the berry patch, but your heart’s not in it any more.
TODO: picnic scene, alt 2
“I’ve got a few good spots around the valley for lunch,” she says. “One of them’s a little ways up the hill from here. Would you like to come with me? We could have a little picnic.”
You’d like nothing more. “Sure! Lemme grab something out of the icebox. Would you like to come in? I’ve got some lemonade in there somewhere. Cider, too, if you’re in the mood for something harder.” You raise your eyebrows as suggestively as you can. The cider’s local. And good. Really good. You’ve considered distilling some yourself, if you can find any apples or pears in the overgrown thicket that used to be an orchard.
“Do you know,” she says, “how long it’s been since someone offered me a drink?”
“Not a clue.”
“Too long,” she says. “Far too long.”
“That’s a damn shame,” you say, and mean it. You twitch your head in the direction of the farmhouse; the two of you start walking. “Come to think of it, I haven’t ever seen you in the tavern.”
“Not really my thing. To be honest, there are a few valley people that I’m not on the best of terms with, and one of them owns the tavern.”
“Say no more. I’m familiar with small town feuds. Sometime I’ll tell you about Lydia.” You reach the farmhouse. “Aaaaand… here we are!” You open the door wide, gesturing to the inside.
TODO: Inside farmhouse
It’s only after she’s staring through the door that you realize how little farmhouse there is to the farmhouse. There are two rooms. One of them is the bathroom. The other is everything else: kitchen with its huge and literal icebox, temperamental wood stove for both cooking and heating, row after row of shelves with utensils, dried foods, tools, clothes, and what you personally think is the nicest feature: a huge king bed. One that you have yet to buy your own bedclothes for. You stare at the floor and hope she doesn’t notice.
“I like it. Very cozy.” She’s gazing around, approving, as far as you can tell. “Didn’t figure you for a gingham girl, though.”
Crap. She noticed. “Hah, well, it kinda came with the house. And it’s comfortable enough. Heeeyyyyy, how about that cider?”
She nods. “Let’s.”
You root around in the fridge, pull out a cardboard six-pack, wrap it in a blanket so it won’t get warm too fast. Your backpack’s around here somewhere. On the bed, next to a pile of laundry. Might as well grab a fresh shirt while you’re at it. “Hey, I’m gonna change real quick, been murdering Altai blackberry all morning and it’s sweaty work. Gimme a sec?”
She nods; you escape from the sweat-soaked flannel and chuck it in the hamper. As you button up into a fresh one, you catch her eyes briefly. Gotcha. “See anything you like?”
“Your, uh, buttons are mismatched.”
What was that thing in the woods? It wasn’t a wolf or a wolverine or anything you’ve ever seen. You think it had fur… and also scales? It’s been preying on your mind. You didn’t leave your cabin that night; you didn’t sleep much either, listening for that noise.
On the second night, you ventured down to the village before sundown. Uncle Russ was there. A few ciders in, you asked him about unusual animals in the woods. He shrugged. A bear, once in a while, after blackberries. A cougar down out of the mountains. Raccoons in the trash bins. Always raccoons in the trash bins. But nothing that growls and yells at the same time. Nothing with scales.
“You probably saw a cougar, Kay. They make some strange noises. Haven’t been face to face with one in the while but you’ll hear an almost-human scream up in the mountains from time to time.”
“Not a cougar, Uncle Russ. We have a few in the Flats. I’ve seen them. Not a cougar.”
“Okay then. I don’t know what you saw. But I should probably walk you home anyway. Your dad would never let me hear the end of it if you did get eaten by some sort of bear lizard.”
You let him. It’s not that far, honestly, but the overlapping light from two torches is better than one. Plus you’ve both had a few. And then you had a few more.
“Let’s talk about something else, kiddo. How’s the old farm?”
“It’s not in great shape, to be honest. Your letter left out some of the worst parts. I’m struggling to clear enough for an herb garden. Wanted to keep the blackberry patch, but I dropped by the Nature Center and found out the patch is all invasives anyway.”
“So you must have met Alex.”
“She’s obsessive about foreign species. Says they keep getting worse. Forestry has a good chunk of the valley blocked off.”
“You’re a beekeeper, Uncle Russ. The stripey little gals care?”
“Not so I can tell. Honey’s about as good as I’ve ever seen it.”
“So you think Alex is worrying for nothing.”
“Kiddo… I couldn’t say. I’m not a ranger, all I can tell you is my bees are busy and my shed’s full of wax and honey. She seems to take her job seriously and she’s been working in the Valley for forever.”
“Really? She doesn’t seem that old. I thought she might be a little older than I am.”
“Been at the center as long as I can remember and that’s a good twenty years. Can’t recall anyone else before that. I think she might actually live there. She can’t have a place in town, I’d know. She doesn’t talk much. See her in the shop buying candles once in a while.”
“Well, anyway, we’re here.” You’re actually at the turnoff for Dragonback Farm, with the wooden sign of a fat sleeping dragon, but the farmhouse isn’t far, and Russ comes with you past the future herb garden/present blackberry morgue. “Well, hey, you’ve been busy!”
“Been trying. Lots of work to go.”
“Kay, girl, if anyone can do it, you can. I mean that.” Russ belches. “Oops. Scuse me. Mind if I use your bathroom?”
After dark at the Nature Center
The Altai blackberries are history, and you’ve been seeding or transplanting a selection of good Commonwealth herbs in the sandy, well-drained soil in the morning before it gets too hot or in the afternoon once it’s cool, putting up the few late berries as jam at night, and spending the rest of your time on the hiking trails Alex flagged, hoping you’ll run into her. So far, it hasn’t worked, although you haven’t heard any growls from the woods either.
It’s just after sundown. You haven’t seen Alex in the last few days; you’ve been looking but not finding. A few nights at the tavern hasn’t turned her up, but then you weren’t really expecting her there. She hasn’t been in the Nature Center either, at least not during posted hours. Russ said she might live there. Maybe it’s time to get a bit pushy. She knew what the black thing was. You want to know.
So here you are at the Nature Center. The woods around it are quiet; you’ve heard a few birds calling at sunset, seen a fox trotting across the path with a vole in its mouth, nothing out of the ordinary. The big double doors are closed.
There’s blood on the flagstones.
A bloody handprint on one of the old brass handles.
You try the door. It’s not locked. The Center interior is dark but you can see a faint flickering glow down one of the wings. You rush down there and pull open a door marked Office and there she is. Alex. Sitting on the floor, leaning against the side of a rather small bed. Bleeding from a large gash on one arm.
“Holy shit what happened to you? Never mind. Let me help.”
“Center’s closed,” she says, wincing.
“Where’s your first aid kit?”
“It’s… around.” It’s actually scattered all over the floor. She must have tried to patch herself up but didn’t get far with one good arm. You pick up gauze and tape and scissors. Stop the bleeding first…
Minutes later, you’re confident she’s at least not going to lose any more blood. Most of the gash wasn’t as deep as you feared, but it was ragged, and her right hand took a lot of the damage.
“Hold it like this and don’t move. I can’t see much in here. Gonna light some fresh candles.” You search the office; there are carefully labeled shelves for everything and you find them quickly. “Alex, seriously, what happened? That thing that came out of the woods came back, didn’t it?”
“Something like it.”
“You have to tell me what it was.”
“A creature out of the Red Zone.”
“Alex… what’s going on in there? You keep saying invasives. Plants. Razorlace, fireweed, senate grass. Okay. I can buy that. Not… I don’t even have a word for that! Something just ate your arm!”
She sighs, heavily. “You don’t need to know. It’s my job to keep the Valley healthy. Not yours.” It’s my job. She says it like she doesn’t have a choice.
She says nothing. Looks away. In a way that reminds you of someone.
“Fine. But you shouldn’t be alone for a while so I’m going to stay here. Or if you think you can walk, we’ll go wake up Doc Thornton, but I wouldn’t chance it just yet; you might go into shock.”
She shrugs. “Fine.”
Minutes pass in silence. The room smells of blood, smoke, and beeswax.
“Can I ask you something?”
“I’m from Jackrabbit Flats. I… um… know Vera. She kind of sent me here when the water started drying up. Said she had a sister down here. She didn’t say who. Think she assumed it’d be obvious. You don’t look much like her. But you’re like her. Aren’t you?”
Her eyes are mossy green to Vera’s nearly copper brown, but Alex looks at you like Vera did. Looking through you, seeing under your skin, down to your bones, judging everything that you are.
“I guess you could say that.”
“She said you were a little different from her too.”
“She would have. Vera likes her independence. She probably lives out in a place on the edge of the high desert.”
“You spent some time with her. I can see it on you. She ever seem particularly concerned with whether anyone lives in the Flats or not?”
“Only after I asked. She said a dry spell was coming, I should leave, come down here.”
“That’s the difference. Vera maybe gets friendly with one person every few decades. I, on the other hand, have a job to do.” She shifts, painfully, sucking in air. “And I’ve been doing it fine without help.”
“Stop moving, you’ll make it bleed more!”
“Up til now,” she admits.
“I want to help you. There has to be something else. Doc Thornton…”
“…can’t help. Not with this, I think, not any more than what you’ve already done for me.” She stares at you again. “But maybe you can. You’re wearing something around your neck.”
“My pendant?” Your hand goes to it. It’s warm again. Huh. “Desert glass. Vera gave it to me.”
“Oh, it’s a lot more than that. That’s not just some trinket. She gave you a bit of herself with it. Some of her power is woven into that glass, and into you.”
“Her power?” You’ve got approximately no idea what that means.
“And it can’t be taken. Only given.” She says your name for maybe the first time. “Kay. There’s an old tradition, very old, a bond… between a… ranger… and her… assistant. It’s more than I’d hoped for ever again. You want to help? Truly? You couldn’t know all you’d be getting into with it.”
“With you?” Your face flushes. You hope she can’t see it.
“With me. With the valley. With the Red Zone. But yes. With me.”
She needs you. You want her. You want to do something. You feel right, like this is something you’ve needed your whole life and never known it. “I accept,” you say.
“Then I do too. Take my hand.” You grasp it gingerly. “Grab it! You can’t hurt me much worse.” So you grab on tight. Her hand is cool and still sticky with blood in places. But she squeezes back.
The pendant flares. Yellow-green light shines through your shirt, bright, brighter than the candles, flares as bright as the desert sun, fades to the color of sunlight filtering through oak leaves, and then it dims, but doesn’t die.
“It’s done.” Her arm is healed.
But you think that’s not all she meant. “What just happened? Alex?” She’s passed out. Still breathing. Not bleeding. She’s going to be okay. And then there’s nothing for it but to maneuver her into her bed. You’re fairly exhausted yourself, all of a sudden, but there’s a rug, and your backpack for a pillow, and your jacket for a blanket… surely she won’t object if you stay overnight. Just in case.
You blow out the candles.
So there’s this girl. You rode the train with her from the Flats. She’s coming from far, far out, some school way up in the mountains, but she’s actually a city girl originally. Her parents sent her up to the mountains for a quality traditional education from some sort of monks, but she’s going to be a hotelier. Her name is Amanda and she’s so very looking forward to the Valley! You know all of this because the train was nearly empty and she took the seat right next to you and your pile of trunks anyway. And then talked. For hours.
This spools into your mind rapidly as she’s banging on your door in the morning. It’s like five thirty. The sun’s not even all the way up yet. Normally, you’d at least be into breakfast by this point in the day, but Alex’s injuries and the subsequent… you don’t know what… well, you haven’t been sleeping much. You really want to tell her to fuck off and come back in an hour. Two hours. Next week.
“You must be Adrianna.”
“I’m Amanda, actually? Don’t you remember? From the train?”
“Vaguely. You said something about a hotel at some point.”
“It’s nearly ready! The physical preparation, that is. I of course will be cleansing the space and making it spiritually ready and welcoming for guests. That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about. Russ said you’ve been growing some white basil. Russ said that I really ought to talk to you about getting some to smudge the place before I open it up! Russ said you were a very good person to get to know, actually!”
“Okay.” She’s wearing a trim white jacket over a ruched pale yellow sundress and there’s a yellow flower in her auburn hair, catalog-model-perfect, and she looks so eager to get started on whatever nonsense she’s here about… okay. Fine. White basil. Whatever. A sale’s a sale. “Lemme show you the herb plot and what’s in the shed. But first, give me a sec to put some clothes on.” You take some minor satisfaction in abruptly closing the door in her face. Shame you’ll have to open it again eventually.
Right then. Door closed. Nightdress off, work clothes on. You check yourself in the bit of shiny tin nailed to the back of the door: overalls and a plaid work shirt. Rustic farmer splendor. Your smile isn’t entirely forced; to be honest, you wouldn’t mind a bit of extra cash this early in the season. You brush a smudge of something off your face. Customer service attitude cranked as high as it’ll go. Door open. “Hi! Sorry to keep you waiting, but it’s a small cabin. Biscuit and jam before we start? I’ve got some really good blackberry, just put up.”
“Um, no, I try not to eat refined flour or sugar. Thanks, though.” C’mon, who doesn’t like biscuits? There goes the jam market, and you’ll have to wait til she leaves to have breakfast.
“All right then. Let me know if you change your mind.” She won’t. “Let’s move on to the herb patch so I can show you what’ll be ready in a few days…”
“Oh my,” she declares, nose deep in a patch of fragrant basils. “I smell… white, olive, lemon… flame? Russ might have undersold you. Max over at Jade Hill has a small patch of white, but he claims flame basil won’t grow in the Valley at all!” She’s got a good nose. “Obviously, white is mandatory for spiritual purposes, but I’m expecting to stock spa products as well eventually. Miss Kay, I do believe we can do business!” She continues sniffing around. “You know, I really want to do this right. I believe the initial energy brought to a space is absolutely critical to its success and the happiness of its guests. Is that torch cedar I smell?”
“Good nose,” you admit, grudgingly. “Yeah, there’s one around here somewhere. Follow me.” You pad from sandy herb-garden soil out of your hard-won cleared area, over soft pine needles, into a grove of mixed conifers.
“It’s magnificent!” She breathes in, inhaling the fragrance of the large cedar tree. “How much?”
“How much what?”
“How much for the tree?”
“Torch cedar wood is incredible stuff for keeping garments safe from moths. I’d love to line the closets of Sunset House with it. I’m sure my work crew can handle cutting it down and curing it.”
“It’s not for sale.” The idea actually sickens you. Cut down this gorgeous specimen? It’s probably been here for longer than the farm. To line closets. Closets.
She boggles at you. “Are you sure? I’m prepared to pay quite handsomely for it.”
“I’m absolutely sure my torch cypress is not for sale.” You’re not entirely sure why you’re sure, but you’re sure. “Now, let me show you a few bundles of herbs I’ve already harvested, since it sounds like you’ll want some immediately.” You practically shove the puzzled city girl in the direction of the slatted drying shed.
“Well, all right…”
A whirlwind tour of the shed later, you’ve unloaded several bundles of already dry white and lemon basil that you cut last week, as well as several huge branches of old lavender that must have been forgotten by the previous occupants, and in which the scent seems to have only intensified with age in the faded flowers.
Amanda’s puzzlement has departed with her trip through your shed. She’s jammed a tote bag full of herbs and is hugging the rest of her haul to her chest as you walk back to the cabin. “I believe we agreed on sixty for the lot? I’m a bit overloaded, but if you can hold onto these for a second…” She hands you the lavender and reaches into a purse under her jacket. “Oh, wait, now you’ve got no free hands… oh dear.”
“Good morning,” the voice comes from your porch. It’s Alex. “Oh. You’re busy.”
“Can you hold these, please?” Amanda asks but doesn’t wait for assent before unburdening herself onto a surprised Alex. She fishes out a little gingham bag and some fat coins that gleam in the morning light, counting sixty dollars worth of gold into the bag and then tying it with a strip of white ribbon. She presents it to you with a flourish.
“A pleasure doing business with you, Miss Kay! I’m sure we’ll be doing much more in the months ahead, and I hope you’ll come see me at Sunset House soon!”
She scoops the lavender back out of Alex’s arms, and only then realizes she’s been taking liberties with a stranger. “Oh, my, I am so sorry! I think I’ve seen you around, but I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of your acquaintance, Miss…”
“Alex,” she says, “just Alex is fine. And you may have. I’m the Parks & Forestry ranger on duty for the Valley. Although you don’t look like you’ve had enough sun to have run into me, except at the Nature Center.”
“I haven’t had the pleasure yet; I’ve been so busy with Sunset House… I may have seen your picture somewhere?”
Alex shrugs. “Maybe.” She doesn’t seem particularly concerned one way or the other.
“Alex, this is Amelia; she’s setting up a hotel in town.”
“Um, it’s Amanda.”
“Well, Miss Alex, I must be going now, but it was very nice to meet you, however briefly. Miss Kay! Please do come visit!” And with a swirling of her dress, she’s on her way down the path back to the main road.
Alex watches her go.
“It’s a bit early for townies… Kay. Can we talk?”
“There’s so much I want to ask you.” The words come out unbidden. “Come in? I’ve got biscuits and blackberry jam.”
“I’d like that.”
A walk in the woods
“I’ve been so alone,” she says. “For I don’t know how many years. The valley, my valley, the people of it… it’s been my job to keep them safe and healthy. To keep everything green and growing, crops and forest. Even though they don’t appreciate it, at least most of them, or even know I’m doing it. Even though I, I’ll be honest, I don’t like some of them, I don’t really know why. I looked for records, you know,” she says, interrupting herself, “the Service sent me assistants from time to time, but they always seemed to find some reason to leave. Other assignments. Personality conflicts. Various things. So it’s just been me. And, with the new invasives, the Red Zones, I just can’t. I can’t do it myself. I need to find out what’s really going on, deep in there, and I need your help.”
It’s your third week of walking the forests and fields with Alex, taking readings, taking notes, basking in the sunlight. It’s the height of summer and the valley is more verdant than your wildest dreams. You’ve shared a few more soft, tentative kisses.
You want to do more, push harder, grab her full attention, but you know you’re not going to get it, because there’s something out there that shouldn’t be, and that already has it. You don’t think she’s telling you everything, but she’s shown you plenty.
She charts the spread of the Red Zones in neat red tech pen on acetate sheets, laid over a Service survey map of the Valley and the surrounding highlands. Every week, she puts a new sheet on top of the old one. You watch her hands move carefully and precisely as she traces most of the old boundaries, pages methodically through her notes and places new lines between landmarks or grid reference points. Cross-hatches some areas. Fills in others. Then she’ll lift up the new sheet, remove the sheet under it, and pin it to a wall in her office in the Nature Center.
Once she’s done with that, she’ll go outside and lean against the big oak by the back door and stare off into space for ten minutes, easy. You don’t think that’s strictly part of Service record keeping. You went out with her, twice. She didn’t talk to you. The set of her face is like a woodcarving. You stopped going outside with her after the map ritual by the third week. You wouldn’t know what to say anyway.
She’s got fifty sheets up on that wall, and what looks like a lot more in a stack of map drawers nearby. Only a few look like they have any less red than the previous sheets; some of those have additional markings in purple or black. When she comes back inside, you ask.
“Controlled burns,” she says. “When the wind’s right. Or uncontrolled; the first one on the left was started by a lightning strike last summer on Dentra’s Point. I reseed them with pioneer species as soon as the ground’s cold enough to walk on barefoot. Some of them take better than others.”
This week’s acetate sheet had a lot of red on it. You know the grid square with Dragonback Farm in it. EV-89. The crosshatching is creeping up a dry watercourse in EV-88 right next door. Weirdly, your herb garden doesn’t seem to care. You barely have time to water, let alone weed, but you’ve already unloaded three huge baskets of various basils and sages on Amanda and the stuff just keeps growing. You haven’t seen any Altai blackberry around since you hacked the last of it out.
Alex catches you looking at EV-88. “I was going to tell you.”
“When did you survey this? You should have dropped by the farm,” you say. It comes out a bit more petulant than you intended. “Literally in my backyard.”
She looks hurt, eyes twitching to one side. “Thursday.” You’re usually in town for supplies or sales on Thursdays; that’s when the train comes. But she knows that. “That’s what used to be Pickering Creek before a landslide cut it off five years back. Without water, the way it faces, the prevailing winds… it’s basically a chimney. Clearing it with fire is going to be a nightmare. I didn’t want to worry you til I had to.”
“I’m a big girl, Alex! I can handle it!” That came out loud. But fuck it. You want to crack through her layers of evasion, make her pay attention to you. “I’m not scared of fire, for fuck’s sake, half of the Flats goes up every summer, I grew up with wildfires. I am scared that there’s something horrible going on, or worse, something horrible that I did, and you don’t trust me enough to tell me! You deputized me or whatever, and I thought you were going to explain things like maybe what tried to eat you… dammit, I really like it here! And I really like you! But I feel like I’m getting nowhere and you’re being really weird about this!”
You stare at her, demanding an answer, but her eyes are squeezed shut and a tear is crawling down her cheek. Her hands are balled up by her sides.
“You can’t understand how important this all is,” she says finally. “I can’t explain it, Kay. It just is. And I shouldn’t have let myself get distracted. It might already be too late. I think you’d better go.”
“What? Why? Really, what did I do?”
“Just go!” she snaps.
So you do. Out of her office. Down the hallway. Through the big front doors. You feel small and hot and wrong, ears burning with embarrassment, tears of your own barely held back. You make it about halfway home from the Center before you have to sit down on a rock and just breathe, in and out.
Well, fuck her, is the eventual conclusion your brain and your poor, battered heart come to. She may be the Parks & Forestry representative for the valley, and you may have kissed a few times, and there was that whole weird business with the amulet, but she’s not actually the boss of you. If the Red Zone’s creeping up on your farm anyway, her superstitions about tracking invasive seeds back with you isn’t going to make a difference; you’re going to be the one grubbing up Zone weeds no matter how they get there.
You’re a little more worried about getting mauled by whatever got Alex, that one blood-soaked night. So you won’t go at night. You’re going to poke your nose down that ravine next door in grid square EV-88 and see the real Zone for yourself. And you have that nasty-looking pistol Jake gave you, and a machete as backup. You take a notebook and a sketchbook, a few grid maps and a compass, bottles of water and two fat ham and cheese sandwiches wrapped in parchment. And you leave a note pinned to your front door that says “gone hiking down the ravine,” just in case, because you’re not an idiot.
And yet, the moment you’re over your farm’s stone back fence, on the little verge of uncultivated land between the fence and the ravine, you get a funny feeling. Alex has really gotten into your head about the Red Zone. For a moment, you wish she’d show up and yell at you. At least it’d be something.
But she doesn’t appear, and the moment passes, so you put one boot in front of the other, and step onto the path that goes over the rim and down.
to be continued…