By Berneta L. Haynes and Lornett B. Vestal
Valerie Amira Wright stood on the side of Moose Wilson Road near the Grand Teton National Park sign. She wore a look of frustration while Grayson leaned under the hood of the Jeep. She glanced at the clear blue sky, not a cloud as far as the eye could see.
“I can’t believe I missed this. I swear the carburetor was good to go,” said Grayson, shaking his head.
Mia, still seated in the passenger seat, tried to console him. “Babe, I know you think you can fix anything. But car repair isn’t your strong suit. Building stuff is your thing.”
Valerie rolled her eyes. “It’s still early in the afternoon, so we have a while before dark. Worse case, we have to camp out overnight. None of us have gotten much sleep since leaving Indiana. We’ve been taking turns driving for almost twenty-four hours. Maybe camping out somewhere and getting a solid night’s sleep isn’t a bad idea.”
“We’re sitting ducks out here, Valerie,” Grayson replied, standing up and frowning. “I thought I checked everything on this Jeep. This is all my fault.”
Mia stepped out of the car and approached Grayson. She leaned her head against his arm. “No need to be down on yourself. It might be a few hours before another car passes. Let’s plan to flag them for help.”
“We’re in the Western Wastelands. You know what Eve told us about the militias that patrol these areas. It’s not safe.”
“Look, we all know Eve Cooper is a little on the paranoid side nowadays, considering she never leaves her house.” Valerie looked around at the shallow forest on one side of the road and the distant snowcapped mountains on the other side. Closing her eyes, she retreated into her mind and scanned for thoughts, for any indication that other people were nearby. Other than the panicked thoughts of Grayson and Mia’s random musings, she heard nothing. Valerie opened her eyes and looked at them. “There’s not a soul around here besides the three of us. We just need to stay calm. I have the Glock my husband gave me, and we got your loaded shotgun in the back, Grayson.”
A bald eagle soared above, low enough for them to see the tiny specks of white in its brown wings. “Wow,” Mia murmured. “It’s so beautiful.”
Valerie nodded, momentarily distracted by the serenity of the setting.
“With plenty of bullets too,” said Grayson.
Snapped out of her reverie, Valerie turned to Grayson. “Exactly. We’ll be fine.” She retrieved a vape pen from her small purse.
Grayson went to the trunk, pulled their bags out, and deposited them on the ground. Before closing the trunk, he pulled out the shotgun, looked at it, and slung the strap over his shoulders. “Militias out here kill faders on sight, from what I’ve heard. No matter how much ammo we have, I can’t help but be a little worried.” He met Valerie’s eyes. “Not to mention we’re two black people in the middle of Wyoming with a white woman. Sorry, Mia, I don’t trust your people.”
“No offense taken,” said Mia, approaching him and picking up her bag.
“If a car or truck that passes through here looks suspicious, I’ll make everything disappear.”
Grayson stared at her. “I forgot you can do that.”
“Yeah. Controlling perceptions is part of my telepathy. I can even try to erase their memories, not that I’ve ever done that more than once.” Valerie’s thoughts drifted to her husband and children who were still in Chicago. “Back home, one of my neighbors saw me fade once and she told Kendrick, my husband. She didn’t realize he knew I was a fader, and she thought she was doing him a courtesy by bringing it to his attention. We knew she’d report it to the authorities. With General Gwendolyn Harris of the People’s Army in command of the Midwest Front and the new rule requiring mandatory reporting of ‘fader activity’…I couldn’t take any chances.”
Grayson shook his head. “Things were bad enough for faders in the Midwest before, but it all went straight to hell after Harris took over.” He draped his arms around Mia. “Glad Mia and I got out of Wisconsin while we could. Finding Eve’s hidden sanctuary in Indiana was a blessing.”
Valerie puffed on the vape pen. “Anyway, I somehow managed to wipe my neighbor’s memory before she could run and tell the authorities. I still don’t even know how I pulled that off. I never figured out how to do it again. But I can try.”
Silence passed between them as they looked at one another, and Valerie tried not to listen to their fearful thoughts. Listening to people’s most private and unspoken fears seemed invasive and disrespectful. Unless invited, she avoided it as much as possible.
Grayson cleared his throat. “All right. Enough of all this talking. Let’s figure out a plan to get out of here. We can try to start the car in a couple of hours, but even if we get it started I doubt it’ll make it to the Washington border. The carburetor needs to be cleaned or replaced. If I can get it started and we make it to the safe house in Wilson, we’ll need to switch cars or get it fixed so we can get to the Coalition West.”
“Wilson is the next town over, about fifteen minutes away by car,” said Mia, looking at Grayson. “How long would it take to walk to Wilson?”
Grayson sighed. “Shit. That’s probably half a day’s walk.”
Mia’s shoulders dropped. “Oh.”
Valerie took another puff of the vape pen and offered the pen to Mia who gladly accepted. “Let’s find somewhere in the woods to rest for now,” said Valerie. “Then we can just try to start the Jeep again a few hours before nightfall. I’m not a fan of driving out here at night. The last thing we want to hit on the road is one of those big-ass elks or moose or whatever they got out here. And if we end up having to walk, we’ll just have to wait until morning.”
“All right,” said Grayson, picking up his backpack and slinging it over his shoulders. “It’s the best plan we have for now.”
Valerie puffed the vape pen once more and turned it off. I just hope this damn Jeep can make it to Wilson. She felt as though the past months had been filled with bad luck, having to leave her family and gamble on finding refuge in the Coalition West. Although she didn’t believe in God, she cast her gaze to the sky anyway, imagined the faces of her husband and children, and thought, please give me a sign. If she could make it to the Coalition West, she could send for them.
Taking a deep breath, Valerie grabbed her backpack and followed Grayson and Mia into the woods along the side of the road.