Hope and the Messenger.
The day the messenger came, Hope was working in the garden with her son's help. She would dig a careful hole in the rich loam, then place a seedling into it from the wheelbarrow. Then her son would tamp the dirt around the fresh planting and pour a cup of collected rainwater onto it to help it pack down. With careful tending, Bill's seedlings would grow into beans, tomatoes, peppers, and more.
When the New England botanist had first come to Graceland, well before Hope and Josh, he'd been carrying a treasure trove's worth of seeds with him and he put all his knowledge to good use to help feed the growing colony.
He worked in his lab, doing scientific things with plants that Hope couldn't begin to imagine. That was okay with her, because she'd found her love lay in the art of the actual gardening. Whether tending the crops for others or maintaining her own garden of flowers, every day Hope spent with her hands and feet in the dirt and mud was never one wasted. Her son had developed a similar love of growing things, and the room they shared in the Graceland mansion was full of tiny pots of things he'd planted himself.
More buildings had sprouted up around the mansion itself, many erected by Josh and his small but tireless crew. They'd spend a week preparing the materials for a small house, then could build it in only a couple days. There was no shortage of need, as new people were coming to Graceland all the time. Some were immigrants from the remains of the world, wanderers whose feet had led them to the place of fellowship and sanct.i.tude. Others only visited from nearby colonies, like those people who were rebuilding a trade center out of the ruined Casino, or the barge people, whose giant vessel made its slow track up and down the Mississippi, trading along the banks. Sometimes they brought rumors, whispers about the man with the fire truck, who was unifying the disparate tribes of scavengers in the southeast under a black banner. Someday, there would be trouble from that region.
And still others were destined to be pure natives of Graceland, thought Hope as she rubbed the growing bulge of her belly. The baby would be born in the winter, said Mel, who had found herself enjoying the role of the colony's midwife. She didn't know whether it would be a boy or girl, and that mystery suited Hope just fine. This time there was no mystery about where the baby had come from. She smiled as she thought of Josh's strong arms and callused hands and the bed they shared. He hadn't balked at all when it came to helping raise a child who wasn't his, and he was as good a father as Hope could ever have wanted for her son.
Months of hard work outdoors had tightened up Hope's body in a way that dancing in clubs had never approached. Her skin had turned bronze and her hair streaked with gold. It hadn't even bothered her when she'd noticed a couple of wrinkles and a stray white hair here and there. She didn't mind growing older, because there was the magic of watching her son grow a little every day too.
He was a serious child who focused on tasks with a fervor not often seen in toddlers. Josh had wondered more than once if the boy was a little autistic--not that it would have mattered. Hope couldn't have loved him any less. On the other hand, when he found joy in things, his laugh was infectious, spreading to almost anyone who heard it. His light baby fuzz had darkened into a mop top of rich, black hair, and his pouty toddler lips reminded Hope so much of Undead Elvis that she could only imagine what kind of heartbreaker he would be as he grew older.
One thing about Hope spending so much time outdoors was that she often got to meet travelers right away, since she was who they saw first upon their approach. She liked that, and always tried to give people the best first impression possible. It was a gregarious streak she hadn't had when she was younger.
"Mama," said her son. "A mans is coming."
"A man, sweetie. No S." Hope stood up from her squatting position and brushed the worst of the dirt from her hands. Her back was sore and she knew it would only get worse as the baby within her grew. She pulled off the floppy straw hat one of the colony women had made for her and shook out her hair as she watched the newcomer come toward her on the path through the orchard. He was a handsome young man with dark skin and tight black ringlets clinging to his scalp beneath a battered cowboy hat. His clothing was st.u.r.dy but weather-worn, and he had a leather messenger bag slung over his shoulder. Hope could see he wore a pistol on his hip, but the flap was down over it. It didn't bother her; she'd stopped going armed when her son was born. Josh had tried to argue the point with her, but she'd said too many people thought with their guns instead of their brains, and he hadn't had a good response for that. Even the suspicious, belligerent types found Hope's peaceful att.i.tude and casual demeanor to be more disarming than anything else.
"Good afternoon, and welcome to Graceland," said Hope. "Are you thirsty?"
The young man nodded, looking around in amazement at the colony.
Hope handed him a water bottle that she'd filled that morning from the well. "Keep it if you want. We have plenty more. I'm Hope."
The youngster's eyes widened. "I'm Danny," he said. "And I think I've been looking for you."
Hope smiled. "Well, here I am. What can I do for you, Danny?"
He undid the buckle on his bag and pulled out a parcel wrapped in plastic and secured with twine. "I'm supposed to deliver this to you."
"Oh really? Who's it from?" Hope took the package from him and untied the twine.
Fidel wandered over from where he had been lying in the sun. His muzzle had gotten grayer over the past few years and he moved with a stiffness he hadn't had before. He stuck his nose against the package and wagged his stump in excitement.
Inside the package, Hope found a cheap, disposable camera, and a picture. Her heart caught in her throat as she saw a smiling Nur and Rae standing on a beach. Rae was holding a beautiful baby with skin like Nur's and light brown hair. Written on the back of the photo was Nur, Rae, and Hope. Miss you!
"Mommy? Why you cry?" Her son looked up at her with tears in his own eyes. "Sad?"
"No, sweetie." Hope wiped her eyes. "I'm happy. So very happy." She smiled at Danny. "Thank you. Thank you so much. This is the best present I ever got."
Danny grinned at her, teeth shining white in his dark face. "They were hoping you'd take a few pictures with the camera and send them back with me."
"Oh, I will. Of course." Hope stopped. "Then you'll be leaving again?"
"Yes. I told them I'd deliver their message. They'll be waiting for me to return."
"How long did it take you to get here?" asked Hope.
"I don't know. A long time." Danny's voice turned somber.
Hope turned to her son. "Go get Daddy for me, sweetie."
"'Kay." He trotted off on his pudgy little legs.
"You'll stay here a day or two before you leave, won't you? Travelers are always welcome here and so is news of the new world in which we live."
"Yes, ma'am, I'd be happy to. You got some fine-lookin' apples there."
Hope checked her seed bag. She often stuck a piece of fruit in the side pocket in case she needed a snack. She found an apple and offered it to Danny. "Have it, please. We've got plenty."
"Thank you, ma'am."
"Please, call me Hope."
Danny ate the apple slowly, savoring every bite with such obvious relish that it made Hope's stomach rumble. "Tell me about Nur and Rae and their baby. Tell me about where you all live. Tell me about your journey."
"Easy, love," said Josh as he walked up, hand-in-hand with Hope's son. "Give the fellow a chance to finish eating before you grill him." He kissed Hope's cleanest cheek and then offered his hand to Danny. "I'm Josh."
"You don't need to be so formal. We're all family here in Graceland."
"You remember me telling you about my friends Nur and Rae?" Hope showed Josh the photo. "This young gentlemen brought me their picture."
Danny told them about Nur and Rae, how they'd settled far to the south on the coast, where they grew lemons and bananas and coconuts. They fished in the ocean and ranched on the land. "They call it Mecca," said Danny, reverence in his voice. "Nur said that there was another Mecca, an older one, but it belonged to the world of the past. He and Rae are teaching us about the past, but also about the future."
"It sounds lovely," said Hope. She turned to Josh. "Do you want to go visit them? I'd love to see them again in person, and to meet their daughter."
"Are you sure you should? I mean..." Josh touched her belly.
Hope laughed. "Remember how pregnant I was when you met me? I crossed half the world like that, it seemed. I'll be fine."
Josh kissed her. "I'll go tell the others and pack The Way."
"I he'p you, Daddy," said Hope's son, and he slipped his hand into Josh's.
"Cute kid," said Danny. "What's his name?"
"Elvis," said Hope.
"After that one singer guy?"
Hope shook her head, smiled, and said, "No. After my father."
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