The bird stretched its wings, ready to flap away. Fidel's throaty baying reached a fevered pitch. Hope couldn't let the bird escape, but she didn't have any weapon. She'd grown so comfortable living with Nur and Rae that she'd forgotten to carry the Shepherds' pistol with her. She bent down, mindful of the strain of her belly, and grabbed the first thing she touched: the unfortunate Martin Laguia's skull. It separated from his neck vertebrae without resistance and in one smooth motion, Hope hurled it at the bird.
Both the bird and the skull shattered like gla.s.s. Black and white shards rained down all around Hope and Fidel, whose barking had ceased the moment the bird went away.
Hope looked all around, checking to see if she could spot any other birds. She couldn't. Fidel must not have sensed any either, for he relaxed. Hope could tell he was vigilant, for he stayed right by her side instead of wandering off to investigate things on his own. She stepped out of the grove and turned her eyes to the west.
There, on the horizon, was a dark smudge of smoke.
As fast as she could waddle, Hope hurried back up the lane toward the shop.
Hope and the Gathering Storm Gasping for breath, her belly on fire and her feet aching and swollen, Hope hurried to the tent where Nur and Rae were working. Fidel trotted along with her, tongue lolling out but his tail down out of concern. He'd circle around like a nervous, furry satellite, checking ahead and behind before returning to her side.
She burst in through the canvas flap that served as the entrance. Nur had The Way's hood up and was adjusting something while Rae stood beside him with the tools, rubbing her belly in a gentle and absent-minded way. Nur cracked his head on the hood as he jumped, surprised by Hope's sudden entrance.
"What is it? What's wrong?" cried Rae.
"They're coming. The people burning the world. They're coming this way. We have to leave!" Hope's knees wobbed and Nur helped her to sit on The Way's tailgate.
"The Flame? What did you call them?" asked Nur. Rae clutched at his arm as she tried to understand his speech.
"The Righteous Flame." Nur pressed a plastic water cup into Hope's hands and she drank from it, grateful. "I saw the dark bird, the smoke cloud. It's only a matter of time."
"You're sure?" asked Nur. He kept his voice calm but Hope could see his face was troubled.
"It's those... those men, isn't it?" Rae shivered. "I was afraid they might find us. Nur, we have to leave. It's not safe here anymore."
"They'll come through and burn everything." Hope sniffled. "If we're here, they'll kill us. Or worse."
Nur started to gather up his tools. "How far away are they?"
"I don't know. Far enough that I can only see the smoke, not smell it."
"Do you have your gun?"
"No, it's in the trailer."
Nur held his out to her, grip first. "Take mine. Go get as much food and water as you can from the storage room. I'll get your car started."
Hope shook her head. "No. You keep it. Keep Rae safe. Don't let her out of your sight. I'll be right back. If I scream for help, I expect you to come rescue me."
Hope had more than just food and water in mind. When she and Rae had first decided to stay with Nur, she had started building what she called survival kits for them all. At first it was out of fear that the Righteous Flame would come for them. Then it was out of fear that something else would happen that she couldn't fathom. At last, it was just out of a sense of completeness. As the weeks had pa.s.sed, she'd stopped working on the kits, deciding that they were all as complete as she could make them from the supplies Nur had salvaged from wrecked cars.
Now, she was glad she'd had that foresight. There were three backpacks, chock full of clean clothes, both durable and warm. The pockets were full of creature comforts like toothpaste and soap, caffeine pills and Tylenol. A thermal sleeping bag and blanket were rolled up and tied to the top of each pack. She slung one over her shoulders and carried the other two to the trailer door, then went back for the food and water. Wheeled camping coolers, rescued from the wreckage of a trailer, were filled with canned food and a can opener. Bungee cords held a second box on top of each cooler, with a small propane grill and spare bottle, cooking pan, utensils, and a few miscellaneous tools from a Boy Scouts of America van.
Hope pulled the coolers to the trailer door and discovered Nur had The Way started and parked in front of the door, rumbling exhaust booming against the trailer's aluminum wall.
Hope put her cooler in the back and the bag in the pa.s.senger side. The wind picked up in earnest, carrying with it big, fat snowflakes. Hope shivered as she retrieved the Shepherds' pistol from where she'd kept it. She checked it. It still had a single bullet within. She tucked it into the pocket of the heavy, fleece-lined leather peacoat she'd selected from Nur's large collection. It was the only one she could close over her burgeoning belly, although it made her look like a leather tent with a head.
She re-emerged from the trailer and Nur and Rae had the tow truck idling beside The Way. Nur was loading it with last-minute supplies while Rae stayed in the pa.s.senger seat. Hope went to them. She could smell more smoke on the breeze, the scent made sharper by the snow.
"They're getting closer," said Rae over the truck's engine. She reached out her hand and found Hope's lips. "I'm afraid for your baby."
"I'm worried about yours," said Hope. "You and Nur should run. Far, far away."
"We plan to." Nur joined them. "We're going south to warmer climates. Maybe we can find a good-sized boat. This group... they'll find it harder to burn the ocean. Maybe they'll starve before then." He squeezed Rae's hand and looked at Hope with his dark eyes. "You should come with us. Let your child be born in safety and sunlight."
"I'd love to, and any other time I would," said Hope. "But I found this, and I think it's a sign." She held up the token from the Graceland Casino. "I was heading to Graceland a long time ago. And someone said I needed to go back there. That it would be safe for me."
"I understand," said Nur.
"You could come with me," said Hope. She felt like dropping to her knees and begging.
"No," said Rae, who seemed to understand somehow what was being said, despite her blindness and deafness. "The bad men can't follow us both if we split up. Perhaps they'll ignore you and pursue us to the south. Then you'll be safe."
"But what about you?"
Nur smiled. "My people have been battling superior forces one way or another for thousands of years. We'll manage." He looked down. "Take Fidel with you. He's a good dog. He likes you, and he'll protect you."
Fidel, hearing his name, barked and jumped into the bed of The Way.
"See? He's already made up his mind." Nur turned to the dog. "You take good care of Hope. Oh, take this." He held out a single bullet. "I've been meaning to give this to you for awhile now and kept forgetting. This one won't fit my pistol, but it'll fit yours."
Hope hesitated. More bullets at her disposal meant more people likely to die by her own hand. Or maybe she could use it to save someone's life someday. She took the bullet and fed it into the cylinder of the Shepherds' pistol, where it fit snug. The snow was dampening Hope's hair as she threw her arms around Nur and Rae, sobbing. "I'll miss you so much. I love you both."
Nur kissed her cheeks and Rae pressed her forehead against Hope's. The three held each other for what felt like forever, but wasn't nearly long enough. When they separated at last, snowflakes clung to their hair.
"We love you too, Hope," said Rae. "We won't say goodbye, because that's forever. Farewell." She squeezed Hope's hands, and then patted her belly. "Tell your son about us, as we will tell our baby about you."
Hope nodded, too overcome with emotion to speak anymore. The stink of smoke had grown. The Righteous Flame couldn't be far.
"They'll have a hard time burning if this storm keeps up," said Nur. "Be careful. Those tires aren't as good as they should be for bad weather." He helped Rae into the tow truck, and then went around to the driver's side. He paused, looked at Hope across the hood, and said, "I hope you find your Graceland, Hope, and that it's everything you need it to be."
Hope nodded. Nur got into the truck and turned on all his lights, even the overhead flashers that sparkled gold in the blowing snow. Hope watched as the Light of Allah truck rolled up the drive toward the highway. She turned to Fidel, who was wagging his tail but had his head down against the wind. "Come on, Fidel. You ride up front with me. I don't mind a wet dog."
As the dog bounded into the front seat, Hope wondered if she ought to do something about the trailer. There were still supplies inside it that somebody could use, not to mention all the vehicles and tools that Nur had left behind. Shouldn't she destroy them somehow, to keep the Righteous Flame from getting their hands on them?
No, she decided after thinking it over. She was better than that. If it was to burn, it wouldn't be by her hand. Maybe the men with their torches would lay them down when they found a place they could stay in safety and peace. She doubted it, but it was better to give them that choice instead of forcing them to continue their inexorable march, driving the flames before them like desperate shepherds.
A few more tears fell as she looked across the place that had been her home for what felt like forever. If Nur and Rae hadn't already fled ahead of the approaching fire, Hope would have stayed and fought, even at the expense of her life. She couldn't remember ever feeling such a strong attachment to a place. Her whole life seemed to have been spent in transit, moving from school to school as a child as her mother changed jobs, and then living in a series of motels throughout the southwestern states. She'd kept moving, because she'd been afraid to ever put down roots someplace, only to discover the ground might have been poisoned. So she lived out of a suitcase, a fugitive from herself.
Once again, she had to take to the road to allay her fears. Somewhere ahead of her lay Graceland, a place of safety and comfort. She rubbed her belly. Her baby felt the touch of her hand and kicked back at it. The motion made her smile. "Soon," she whispered.
Fidel turned to look back at her from where he was fogging up the pa.s.senger window's gla.s.s by breathing on it. He whined a little and Hope knew it was time to leave.
She put The Way into gear and inched out onto the snowy drive toward the highway. Nur had done a great job repairing the car and making it roadworthy, but it leaked outside air around the places where he'd had to hammer sheet metal straight. The heater blew hot, and after only a few minutes, Hope had to stop and shrug out of the heavy jacket. One blessing about her pregnancy was that she didn't often get cold the way she used to. The work of making a baby had her internal furnace burning overtime.
She reached the highway on-ramp after what felt like hours of crawling along the snowy road. She'd never driven in snow before, and her hands were cramping from being clenched around the steering wheel. What was it they'd taught in Driver's Ed all those years ago? She couldn't remember. That seemed like it had been someone else. Someone slender, who'd rather be cutting cla.s.s to smoke behind the football bleachers.
She realized as she guided The Way down the ramp onto the highway that there wouldn't be any plowed roads. Snow blew across the highway. Hope was afraid that if it started to stick, she wouldn't be able to see the pavement anymore. The tire tracks from Nur's tow truck turned left, a path that invited Hope to follow it. That road would lead to warmer weather and, eventually, to the sea. Her friends would be there. Love, warmth, and companionship beckoned.
But instead, she turned right, towards the great unknown and, somewhere within it, Graceland.
Hope and the Blizzard It took less than half an hour for Hope to decide that n.o.body should ever drive on snow and ice. The Way started to get squirrely whenever the speedometer would go above fifteen miles per hour, so she had given up on using the accelerator and just let the engine idle pull the car forward. She kept her foot off the brake pedal as well, for the few times she touched it, the car's rear end swung wide. Snow blew across the highway and at times covered the lanes enough that she had to guess where the road's edge was. Wind-driven ice crystals rattled against the driver's side door like shrapnel.
At least her feet were warm, for the heater worked like a charm. Fidel sat beside her on the seat, his back pressed against her side and fogging up the pa.s.senger window with his breath. She wished she dared to take her white-knuckled hands off the wheel long enough to scratch his ears. She wished she had a tape to play in the old car's radio, or that there was a station transmitting somewhere. She wished for anything to break up the monotony of the blizzard.
Since she had nothing else to keep herself from freaking out, she started to talk to Fidel. Hope said, "When I was growing up, we weren't ever allowed to have a dog, because my mom was allergic to them."
Fidel turned to look at her. She risked taking one hand off the wheel long enough to pat his head. He made a contented doggie groan and flopped down onto the seat, curling around himself.
The Way drifted to one side and hit a rumble strip, as yet unburied by the snow. Hope forced herself not to yank the wheel over but instead allowed the car to work its way back onto the pavement through gentle nudges.
"Every Christmas, me and my brother would put Dog on our wish lists, and at the beginning of every summer vacation, we'd ask too, but she never relented. I don't know why it was such a big deal to us. I mean, pets aren't just a hobby, they're a responsibility."
Fidel's stump waggled a little.
Hope said, "I guess my mom knew that, and figured we'd get bored with a dog and then she'd be stuck taking care of it when it would make her sneeze and get hives and stuff. But I don't think we would have, and you know why, Fidel?"
Fidel didn't answer, but that was okay with Hope. He was a good listener, and she needed that since Undead Elvis was gone. Thinking of him reminded her of his sungla.s.ses, still perched on top of her head. She pulled them down over her eyes and discovered that despite the dimmer view, it was a little bit easier to see where she was going.
"I think that me and my brother, we still had a lot of feelings for our dad. A lot of love that we never got to spend upon him. I don't think that we have a limited supply of love, but maybe it gets doled out to people, and if that person is gone, we need to find someone or something else to use that love. Does that make sense?" She sighed. "We had love for our dad, but he wasn't around, so we could have given that love to a dog. It would have made for a very happy, well-loved dog, that's for sure."
"Not boring you, am I? This is important stuff to me. Stuff I need to work through."
The wind picked up and for a moment, Hope couldn't see at all. She was afraid to stop, because what if she couldn't get going again? And she was afraid to continue, because what if she ran off the road?
She decided to continue on, because every mile she traveled on through the storm was one mile closer to Graceland. Her baby seemed to agree, for he was rocking in her belly. Maybe the story was as soothing to him as it was to Hope.
"By the time I was nine, I'd made friends with every dog on the block. I used to sneak a box of dog biscuits into my mom's grocery cart and then hide them when we were unloading the car. I'd carry the biscuits around and pretty soon all the local dogs knew me and wouldn't growl or bark. They'd lick me through the fence slats. Sometimes I'd even get to walk them for the neighbors. My mom hated it because I always came home covered in fur and it made her sneeze when she did laundry, but I didn't care."
Her baby stopped his rocking and Hope smiled. She was certain he'd gone to sleep. Next to her, Fidel appeared to have conked out as well. Hope sighed. It was better that neither one would hear the rest of the story.
"That summer, the man at the end of the block-I forget his name. John something. He went on vacation and asked me to look after his dog. Her name was Bonnie and she was a beautiful black lab. He said he'd pay me twenty dollars to check on her twice a day for a week, feed and water her, clean up after her, walk and play with her. I'd have done it for free. For the first four days we had a ball. I walked her for an hour at a time, and we played fetch and catch in the yard. Once I even fell asleep in the back yard with her head in my lap and my brother had to come get me."
Hope shivered, as if the storm outside had found its way into the car at last.
"Then, the fifth day, when I got to the house, the gate was open. Bonnie wasn't in the yard. I freaked out. I didn't know if I'd left the gate open or if someone else had or what. I ran all up and down the street, calling for her. My brother saw me crying and asked what was wrong. When I told him, he offered to help. We must have spent the whole day looking all over the neighborhood. I was hot, tired, sweaty, and hadn't had anything to eat or drink. We didn't find Bonnie and I was crushed. What was I going to tell John when he came home?"
A tear trickled down her cheek and she wiped it away.
"We turned the corner onto our street at last and there was a truck in front of John's house and a man on the front porch, knocking. I thought maybe he'd found Bonnie and I ran to the house. 'Do you live here?' he asked. 'No,' I said. 'I'm just taking care of the dog but she got out. Have you seen her? She's black and her name is Bonnie.'"
The road grew blurry and Hope brought The Way to a gentle stop. Her chest was. .h.i.tching but she couldn't stop. She had to finish her tale.
"He got real sad then and said 'I'm sorry, but I hit your dog by accident. She ran out in the street and I couldn't stop in time.' He opened the tailgate and there she was, on a spread-out blanket. He'd covered up the worst of it but I could see where the tire had rolled right over her and burst her stomach open. Her eyes were shut and I could almost pretend she was sleeping, but I knew she wasn't. I cried and cried until I thought my heart would burst. The man had to leave, but he helped my brother wrap up Bonnie in the blanket and carry her into the back yard. I sat there and sobbed until John came back from his trip that afternoon."
Hope wiped her eyes.
"It was the first time anyone I was close to died. I still have dreams about her even now. She was a good, sweet dog. She was my friend, and I'd let her down. John wanted to give me the twenty dollars anyway but I wouldn't take it. He was sad about her too. He buried her in his garden and let me watch."
The wind started to pick up again and the wipers were spreading ice around the edges of the windshield. Hope knew it was time to go.
"Ever since that day, I never let myself get close to anyone. Everyone dies, Fidel. And if it was because of something you did, or didn't do, it's a million times worse. That day I learned that the only way to keep from hurting that much was to always keep everyone at arm's length. Never get close to anyone, and then it hurts less when they leave. Or die."
"I miss Elvis. I miss him so much, Fidel."
Fidel sat up in the seat, his ears quivering and sniffing the air. Then he barked and whined.
"What is it?"
He barked again, his stump waggling. He was looking through the side window at something. Hope leaned over as best she could despite her prodigious belly. Something dark flapped in the wind outside the car. It took her a minute to realize it was a billboard. It was the first remnant of the past she'd seen beside the road since leaving Nur's place.
Part of the billboard had torn away in the blizzard, but what remained brought an antic.i.p.atory shiver to her spine. It read -ACELAND CASINO, -MILES AHEAD. And beneath that was a picture of Elvis singing into a microphone. It wasn't her Elvis, the Undead one, but there was no mistaking the sideburns, sungla.s.ses, and pouty lips. As she watched, the gale took the rest of the billboard, tearing it to shreds that flapped away like deformed birds. The steel and wooden framework that remained looked stark and scary against the blowing snow and gray skies.
"That's it, Fidel," said Hope. "That's where we're going. Are you hungry?"
Fidel barked. He knew that word.
"Okay, good old dog."
She dug a can of Dinty Moore beef stew out of the bag resting in the pa.s.senger footwell. It would be cold, but she didn't mind it so much since The Way's heater blew strong. She cranked it open with a can opener and set it up on the dash. The can of dog food was easier to open since it had a pop top. She pried it open and set it on the seat next to her. Fidel dove nose-first into it, working out the kibbles and gravy with his long tongue.
Hope ate at a slow, measured pace, taking her time to taste every mouthful. She'd spent enough time being hungry that she would never take food for granted again. The greasy meat and rich gravy reminded her of camping trips as a child.
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