With a grunt, I adjusted my hold on the box I was carrying and attempted to reach for the doorknob on the cottage’s front door. The glassware in the box, an amalgam of random glasses, mugs, vases, and bowls I’d collected from the massive—and dusty—storage room in the barn, shifted and clanked in warning.
“Crap,” I hissed. “Jason?” I called telepathically. Having my Ability firing on all cylinders was useful in so many ways, not the least of which was being able to request aid from pretty much anyone, anywhere, at any time. “Come get the door?” “Give me a second.” He was inside the cottage, in what was slowly transforming into our bedroom in the back corner of the small house. I could sense his mind signature there. Stationary. Not rushing toward the door to let me in.
I pressed my lips together and exhaled with a huff. Clearly, being able to request help telepathically and receiving said help were two entirely different matters.
Gritting my teeth, I raised my right leg and used my thigh to shift my increasingly precarious hold on the box once more. It certainly didn’t help that the cardboard was damp from the drizzling rain or that, thanks to the chill in the air, I could barely feel my fingers. At least the porch’s shallow eave protected me from getting rained on further. “Unless you want a mountain of broken glass on the stoop, it’d be great if you could come get the door now…”
I could sense Jason’s movement instantaneously, and seconds later, the door swung open and he plucked a box that had been just shy of way too heavy out of my arms with annoying ease. I flexed my fingers, cringing at the uncomfortable mixture of numbness and sharp, stinging pain.
“You shouldn’t have tried to carry this in the first place.” Jason gave me a reproachful look—eyebrows raised, chiseled jaw flexed, jagged scar intensifyingeverything about him—before turning and heading through the cozy living room with the box. He set it on the single free corner of the rustic farm table that separated the “kitchen” from the rest of the living area. We’d found the table in the storage room—which, in all reality, put most old attics to shame with all the treasures it contained—and had relocated it to the cottage almost a week ago, during our last “moving day.”
Days off were rare on our little communal farm, and Jason and I had been setting up the cottage to be our small family’s own comfy, compact, and moderately private home for over a month now. I was more than ready to move out of the farmhouse and settle in here with Jason and Annie and my beloved German shepherd, Jack. To have my own space…to not always be stepping on the toes of every other living person I knew…to make a home with Jason…
I sighed, and after scanning the combined living room and kitchen and beautiful river-stone hearth, after taking in the columns of boxes and piles of clutter that still needed to be moved out, arranged, or put away, I felt my shoulders slump. It looked like I wouldn’t be settling in to my little piece of domestic paradise on this rainy November day. Maybe next week…
“Red.” Jason planted himself in front of me and rested his work-roughened hands on my shoulders. “Look at me.”
Unable to resist an order from him, especially one delivered in such a low, silky rumble, I raised my gaze to his and fell in love with him just a little bit more. His sapphire eyes were filled with such warmth, such light and heat and wonder, that I couldn’t help but lose myself in them. Lose myself to him.
“What did I tell you last night?” he asked, face placid.
My cheeks flushed and my whole body heated as I remembered things whispered in the cover of darkness. Secret things. Things I was almost certain I couldn’t repeat while it was daylight or while I was staring into his eyes…or ever. “Um…” I drew my bottom lip between my teeth and lowered my eyes and blushed even more. “Well…”
Jason chuckled, his thumbs tracing the underside of my jaw. “While I think it’s pretty fucking fantastic that your mind went there automatically, I was actually talking about the promise I made about moving. Into the cottage. Today…”
“Oh!” My eyes flashed up to his, and I smiled shyly. My face and neck were still on fire.
“Unless you’re planning on spending the rest of the day digging around in that room”—his focus shifted to my hair, and he pulled a clumpy cobweb from my ponytail’s unruly curls—“we’ll have plenty of time to finish up in here.”
I assessed the chaotic space once again and puckered my lips, attempting to imagine everything arranged just so. And failed. “But—”
“The bedrooms are all that really matter, anyway.” Jason shrugged a shoulder and looked down the short hallway to both ours and Annie’s future bedrooms. “And those are done.”
Narrowing my eyes, I scrutinized Jason’s face. He hadn’t shaved today—not yesterday, either, I’d have wagered—and the slightly unkempt cowboy look made his already minimally expressive features harder to read. “What do you mean ‘they’re done’?” I tilted my head to the side. I hadn’t been in either bedroom for days, having spent all of my time working around the farm and most of the morning “shopping” in the storage room in the barn. “Annie’s room still needs furniture, especially a bed, and—”
Jason shook his head. “She doesn’t want a bed; you know that.”
I frowned. “She’s just a kid. Don’t you think she needs—”
“Yeah, she’s a kid, and about as unusual as they get.”
It was my turn to shake my head. “But still…she needs a bed, Jason. Where’s she going to sleep—er, drift?” My voice rose in pitch. “With us?”
Again, Jason chuckled. “No way in hell. At night, you belong to me and only me.”
A splash of my earlier flush returned. “So…?”
Jason smiled, just a little. “Becca’s been helping her set up her room.” Almost on cue, Annie’s pure, crystalline giggle came from her bedroom.
Capturing my hand, Jason led me into the short hallway and toward Annie’s room. Another peal of laughter came from within before he opened the door, swinging it inward with a creak.
Jason glanced at the door, then back at me, and mumbled, “I’ll have to fix that.”
My gaze was pulled away from his and into the bedroom. In the dim late morning light coming in through the room’s two small windows, the space resembled a forest clearing as much as a bedroom—a cozy forest clearing, but a forest clearing nonetheless. All four walls were covered with painted trees, some a dark, ashy brown and others fading to smoky gray in the “distance,” but each wall was vastly different, as each represented one of the four seasons. There were silhouetted animals in the shrubbery painted near the floor and birds resting on branches here and there.
“What—how?” Eyes wide, I stepped into the room and turned in a slow circle, taking in everything. A rough-hewn wooden chest and matching dresser—both looking almost as though they’d simply grown into their current shape—had been placed against one wall. In one corner, what I could only identify as a nest of pillows and blankets spilled out, filling nearly half of the room. I pointed to the furniture, then to the walls and the nest. “How’d this—I don’t understand.”
Annie giggled, finally drawing my attention to where she sat with Becca and Jack, nestled in her bed-nest-thing and lazily scratching the dog’s side. She threw herself onto her back and pointed to the ceiling.
I held my breath. I’d yet to look up. And when I did, I exhaled a long, slow, “Whoa…” The moon, larger than life and surrounded by a choir of stars, practically glowed overhead.
“Did—did Zo do this?” I couldn’t imagine how she could have; she was easily as busy as me with farm work. Everyone was.
Standing behind me, Jason wrapped his arms around my shoulders and pulled me flush against him. His body heat practically seared through my cool, damp clothing. I hadn’t realized how deeply the chill had settled in from being out in the barn all morning with only a hooded sweatshirt for warmth.
Slowly, Becca stood and brushed off the front of her jeans. After a moment, she looked at me. “It was not only Zoe,” she said in that careful way of hers, her voice as raspy as ever. “I helped her paint the room. She wished to surprise you by doing something special to make your home as perfect as possible, but she didn’t have the time to do it all herself.”
Eyebrows raised, I stared at Becca. “Zo…and you?”
She clasped her hands together in front of herself and nodded demurely. “My brother tells me I was an artist of a sort, similar to Zoe, but different in that I preferred three-dimensional art. Though I do find the act of painting quite soothing.” I frowned as she glanced around at the walls. I hadn’t realized she’d been an artist, too. “Zoe is an excellent teacher, wouldn’t you say?”
I blew out my breath, once again taking in the masterful work she and Zoe had done. “Yeah. You guys did an amazing job.” I looked at her. “It’s beautiful.” Glancing from her to Annie and back, I gave her a warm smile. “Thank you for doing this.”
Becca nodded, eyes downcast, and walked to the dresser. Placing her hand on the surface, she returned my smile. “This and the chest were Tom’s work.”
I blinked several times, then turned around in Jason’s arms. “Your dad made them? But when?”
“He—” Jason took a deep breath, and tension filled him. “His intentions were good, and he swears he only altered perception around him a few times to keep it a surprise for us.”
I felt some of Jason’s tension seep into me. After everything that had happened at the Colony, I reallyhated the idea of someone—anyone—messing with my mind. Again.
“He showed me the pieces once he was finished making them.” Jason paused for a moment. “We got into a big fu—” Catching himself, he glanced at Annie, then returned his focus to me. “A big argument. He won’t admit it, but I think it’s hard for him to just live—not changing what those around him perceive to fit his needs. He’s been doing it for so long now that it’s become second nature.” “Still…I don’t like it, Jason.” I gave him a meaningful look. “I don’t want anyone messing with my mind.”
A low grunt hummed in Jason’s throat. “I know.” He gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze. “He wasn’t fully aware of what the General did to you, but he knows now. He really just wanted to surprise us, that’s all, and he’s taking every precaution to make sure he doesn’t slip back into old habits. It won’t happen again.”
Awash with relief, I smiled. “Well, that’s something.”Forcing the smile to remain, I approached the dresser and examined the odd combination of gnarled and elegant decorations carved into its surfaces. “Well, kiddo?” I peeked back at Annie, who was still staring up at the painted moon. “What do you think of your new bedroom?”
Annie flung her arms out akimbo and sighed dramatically. “I love it so much. It’s the best bedroom ever!”
I grinned at her. “Like, ever ever?”
She nodded enthusiastically. “Ever ever.” Abruptly, she sat up and stared at me, her face serious and her blonde curls a wild tangle. “But I like yours, too.”
“You do?” Curious, I turned around to look at Jason. His face was a mask of bland innocence. “You’ve been busy.” As I considered all that had been accomplished right under my nose—without me suspecting a thing—I realized just how much time and effort I’d been putting into working around the farm. Maybe a smidge too much…
Jason stuck his hands into his jeans pockets and shrugged.
I crossed the room to him and smacked him on the arm. “I don’t like it when you keep secrets from me,” I said with mock severity.
The faintest smirk touched Jason’s lips. “But you like my surprises.”
“You can’t have it both ways, Red.”
I tried to keep my face stern, but I couldn’t hold back my eager grin. “Grams used to say that surprises always leave behind a trail of secrets; good or bad, if you look hard enough, you’ll find ’em.” My grin faded along with the fond memory, but when I once again focused on Jason’s face, it returned at full force. “Well, are you going to show me, or what?”
Jason laughed, low and soft, and turned toward the doorway. Annie was up and running before I’d taken my first step to follow. Somehow, the lithe little sprite managed to make it through the doorway before Jason. I watched him follow her out.
“You love him very much,” Becca said from right behind me.
I yelped and spun around, my hand pressed against my chest in a vain attempt to slow my suddenly racing heart. “Jesus, Becca. You startled me.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, her voice barely more than a whisper. Her eyes, however, shone with a feverish intensity. They’d changed since Carlos had started administering electrotherapy on her, as had the eyes of the other Re-gens; they were no longer that dull gray I’d come to expect of their kind, but hers a violet-gray that was somehow both eerie and entrancing. The returning vibrancy to the Re-gens’ eyes seemed to mirror their reemerging personalities and emotions, as though their eyes really were windows to their souls.
Quietly, Becca asked, “What is it like to be in love?”
Taking a step backward, I frowned. “Um…it’s great. Why?”
“You and Jason love each other very much.” She took a step toward me, her focus intent on my face. “But doesn’t it scare you?”
I shook my head, taking another step backward. Sometimes Re-gens could be funny with how they treated personal boundaries—or ignored them. “I don’t understand.”
Becca took a deep breath, and I had the impression she was struggling with how to voice her thoughts. “It makes you happy, that is obvious, but…if one of you was suddenly gone, the other would be devastated. Love like that seems like a terrible gamble, and I just wanted to know if it’s worth it.”
Unease took root in my stomach. Was Becca curious because she was interested in someone romantically, or was this something else…something more? “Is it worth what, exactly?”
She licked her lips. Her eyes were haunted, but intent on me. “The pain it causes. The potential for unimaginable loss. The possibility that one day it might be gone. There’s something…” She shook her head. “I just need to know if the good balances the bad. I need to know if love is worth the fear and the pain.” She swallowed roughly. “Even with my visions, tomorrow is never certain. I just need to know if it’s worth it.”
Unease was quickly morphing into dread…anxiety. This strange, totally out-of-the-blue behavior was exactly why I never felt completely comfortable around Becca. She was different from the other Re-gens in that she could see the future, or snippets of it, and she was different from the only other person I knew who had a similar Ability—Harper—because she didn’t possess a lifetime’s worth of practice interacting with people and delivering life-changing, potentially devastating news. It made her really hard to relate to and all but impossible to understand, at least for me.
But part of me could understand her question. We were living in pretty damn uncertain times, even for one with the Ability to see some of what was to come. Whatever she’d seen in her murky view of the future, whatever she’d felt, it seemed to me that she needed reassurance that there was something worth living for, something worth fighting for, something worth hanging onto, no matter what.
“Yeah,” I said roughly. “I think it’s worth it.” Shaking my head, I amended my answer. “It is worth it. I mean, just look at Jason and Zo’s mom—she’s torn the world apart because she loved them too much to let them go. If that’s not evidence proving that love is more valuable than almost anything else, I don’t know what is.”
Slowly, Becca’s entire demeanor changed and she was, once again, the slightly withdrawn, awkward Re-gen just trying to find her place in the world. “Thank you for that…for being so honest.” Her gaze sank to the floor. “Sometimes it’s hard to relate. Sometimes we feel so strongly, like you, but other times it seems more like a memory of a feeling. I just needed to know.”
I cleared my throat. “Sure.” I wanted to know if she was telling the whole truth. I wanted to know if her questions about love were rooted in a deeper motivation, if they stemmed from some secret vision she’d seen. I wanted to know—and I never wanted to find out. Flashing Becca a pathetic excuse for a smile, I added, “Any time.”
Annie was suddenly in the room, skipping circles around us. “Dani! Dani! Dani! Dani! Dani! Dan—”
“Alright, little one,” Becca said, expertly capturing Annie’s tiny arm and stopping her whirlwind progress around us. I was always amazed with her ability to handle my adopted wild child with such ease. “Let’s give Dani and Jason some time to explore their new bedroom.” Meeting my eyes briefly, she winked.
I gaped at her as she led Annie out of the room.Becca winked at me? Becca could wink? Moments later, I heard the sound of the front door opening and shutting.
“Red,” Jason called from the room opposite Annie’s.
Bewildered, I made my way down the short hallway, past the compact bathroom, and through the doorway into our bedroom. I felt like a zombie, as if Becca and her odder-than-usual behavior and our unsettling conversation had drained the life out of me. Until I actually saw the bedroom—Jason’s and my bedroom. My mouth fell open.
The bed appeared to be made of repurposed wood, and it was absolutely stunning. But I’d known about it, as well as the matching armoire, dresser, and simple bedside tables. What I hadn’t known about was the quilt Jason must have snuck onto the farm after a visit to Grams’s house just outside New Bodega’s walls. It was the quilt from Grams’s guest room, made up of interlocking circles of blues and purples, and though it really was a beautiful quilt, it was the fact that Grams had made it that tugged at my heartstrings.
“Oh, Jason…” I stepped into the bedroom and ran my fingertips over the quilt. Having it in the room made the space smell like Grams’s house in the subtlest ways, hinting at candle wax and at herbs used daily to make teas and tinctures.
Tears welled in my eyes, and without thinking, I turned and flung myself into Jason’s arms. My mouth sought his, my hands tugging at his clothes to bring him closer to me. And for a little while, I forgot about the knot of anxiety spooling inside me. For a little while, I let Jason remind me why love—our love—was worth it.
I hummed to myself as Jack and I strolled out to the stable to gather the horses’ evening snack. They received plenty of sustenance from grazing out in our abundant pastures, but I still enjoyed the special spike of pleasure they felt when they took a nibble of an apple or a carrot from my hand.
“I already told you, talk to Mase or Becca,” I heard Carlos say, his voice raised. “If you’ve got a problem with their system, take it up with them.” His voice was filled with frustration, or maybe with exasperation, and when I rounded the corner of the stable and caught my first glimpse of him through the open door, I wasn’t surprised by his tense, almost aggressive stance. He was facing two male Re-gens, one shorter and plumper than him, the other taller and thinner.
I recognized them both as residents of the farm just north of ours. With the Re-gens and the Tahoe folks now residing in our little valley, we’d managed to get two more farms up and running and were putting the physical structures of another two through renovations while we began to cultivate the adjacent land. Our short string of self-sufficient homesteads had come to be known as Hope Valley among our people as well as among the residents of New Bodega, and with each passing week, it seemed more and more likely that our hopes for a better, safer, and more stable future would become a reality.
I didn’t know the two Re-gens’ names, but they’d both seemed kindly enough the previous times I’d crossed paths with them. Now, not so much; now, they were demonstrating just how much the regular electrotherapy sessions had expanded their emotional ranges. The tall one was pointing his finger at Carlos’s chest, nearly poking him, and the short one had his fists clenched and held at his sides and was practically vibrating with pent-up aggression.
“Everything okay, guys?” I asked as I approached.
Jack, who’d been walking at my side, trotted forward a few paces, hackles raised and lips retracted. He considered Carlos a part of his pack, and he was more than ready to fight for the teen if and when necessary.
Carlos swatted the taller Re-gen’s hand away. “Yeah. They were just leaving.” He turned his back to the Re-gens and retreated further into the stable, no doubt heading for his sister’s stall at the end.
The Re-gens stared after him but didn’t follow.
“You should go,” I said as I passed them. When they still showed no signs of leaving, I asked Jack to gently—and none-too-gently, if the kinder approach failed—escort them away.
A slight smile touched my lips as I listened to his warning growls and the snap of his teeth clacking together as he nipped at his temporary charges. When I heard the approaching click-clack-click of dog claws on cement, I peeked over my shoulder. The Re-gens were gone, and Jack was returning to me. “Thanks, Sweet Boy.”
He wagged his tail happily and let out a single yip.
Ahead, Carlos stood before the sliding door to his sister’s stall, his forehead resting against the barred-off window, his hands gripping two of the bars tightly. I stopped a few feet away and crossed my arms over my chest. Jack, however, continued forward, sitting as close to Carlos as was physically possible without actually sitting on his feet. Inside the stall, Vanessa, Carlos’s eighteen-year-old sister and our resident Crazy, was experiencing a blessed—and rare—moment of quiet.
“So…what was that all about?” I asked.
Carlos exhaled heavily. “They were here because Jimmy, Dan, and Lawrence—” Seeing my blank stare, he clarified, “They’re Re-gen sparklers, but they’re not as good as me at electrotherapy.” I knewsparklers was his slang for people who could handle electricity like he could.
I coughed a laugh. “So humble…”
Carlos shrugged with minimal effort. “It’s true. They’re not as good at controlling the currents. And they’re weaker…and that makes the electrotherapy they give weaker. Maybe in time, after they’ve strengthened their own Abilities by electrotherapizing the shit out of each other, they’ll be way better than me, but now…?” Again, he shrugged.
“So what? You’re like name-brand electrotherapy and the others are knockoffs?” I glanced back up the empty stable aisle. “And not everybody’s getting Carlos-brand electrotherapy, are they?” I stuck out my bottom lip, just a little.
Carlos turned his head to look at me, his temple resting against one of the metal bars. “Yeah, and Mase and Becca and Camille have been really cutting down on who I work on—just them and the other sparklers, mostly. Everyone else gets one session with me per month.”
I was undeniably grateful to Mase, Camille, and Becca for their innate ability to more or less rule over the other Re-gens, as well as for their foresight where Carlos was concerned. Six months ago, when the Re-gens first arrived en masse, seeking our help to stave off their slow death by degeneration, Carlos had tried to help everyone, which had led to overexertion in less than a day and a period of burnout that had lasted for three full days. And when his Ability came back online, had Mase, Camille, and Becca not stepped up and reined in the Re-gen horde, they’d have begged and whined and pleaded and bullied Carlos into doing it all over again.
“It’s raining…it’s pourrrrring,” Vanessa sang from within her stall. “The old man is snorrrrrring.”
I eyed the shadows through the bars, uncomfortably grateful that I couldn’t see Carlos’s sister in the dimness. The intermittent rain and cloud cover was making all hours of daylight feel like dusk.
“He went to bed,” Vanessa continued, “and bumped his head and couldn’t get up in the morrrrrning.”
I shivered, and without a word, Carlos slipped his leather coat off and tucked it around my shoulders. “You know, soon it’ll be too cold for her to stay out here all the time,” Carlos said, and I didn’t need Zoe’s Ability to know that having his sister locked up because she was a danger to herself and others was killing him inside.
We’d loaded Vanessa’s space with all sorts of blankets, but without the electric heat the stable had been designed with, I knew he was right. We all did. What we didn’t know was what the hell to do with her. Could we get by with letting her stay in the house, simply keeping a guard on her day and night? It was a thought…
“It’s raining…it’s pourrrrring.” Vanessa’s voice was growing shriller with each word.
“We’ll figure something out,” I told Carlos, giving him a side hug.
“The brother thief is snorrrrring…”
I exchanged a look with Carlos. Brother thief was Vanessa’s name for me, we both knew it. We also both knew that whatever was going to come next in her revised version of the old song wouldn’t be overly pleasant.
“You should go,” Carlos said quickly.
“You’ll go to bed,” Vanessa sang. “Rosie’ll bash in your head, and you won’t ever get up again!”
I shivered, and this time it had nothing to do with the damp cold. Deep down, I hoped we never let her out of that stall again.