By Berneta L. Haynes and Lornett B. Vestal
Valerie awoke when she heard Mia chatting with a man. It wasn’t Grayson’s deep baritone voice but a softer, more calming voice. As she wiped the drool from the side of her mouth, she sat up and peered through the clearing.
When she walked to the clearing to get a closer look, she saw Grayson and Mia chatting with a middle-aged white man with curly red hair. He wore a faded plaid shirt, dusty jeans, and worn-out Timberland boots. They were standing next to a Nissan Titan pick-up truck.
Still not sure whether to trust anyone out here, Valerie regarded the man with suspicion and went to gather her backpack and purse from the resting spot. She tapped her purse to make sure the gun was there.
As she stepped out the woods, a nice warm breeze hit her face and blew a few of her locs out of place. She glanced at her watch. 4:15pm. At least I got four hours of sleep. Not bad.
Mia waved to Valerie, and Grayson gestured for her to join them. With caution, Valerie headed toward them but paused when she noticed a little red-headed girl, no older than seven or eight, sitting in the backseat of the pickup. As she looked at the little girl, she thought about her five-year-old son, Malik. Valerie didn’t know why, but seeing the little girl smile at her eased her worries. Maybe this isn’t a psycho or some militia nutcase.
She reached the trio and took a closer look at the man, his face covered in freckles.
“Valerie, this is Bradford. That’s his daughter, Nattie, in the truck,” Mia said, sounding more cheerful than she had hours ago.
Bradford reached out to shake her hand. Like most men, he squeezed her hand a bit too tightly, and she winced.
“Nice to meet you, Valerie. I was telling your friends about getting your Jeep looked at. Don’t worry. I’m friendly.”
He pointed to the triangle sticker on his truck’s passenger door. Valerie remembered Eve telling them to look for triangles, that the symbol represented a fader or fader ally. Although still cautious about this stranger, relief washed over her.
“Look, you can go to Wilson. But as I was telling Grayson and Mia, the safe house there is small. They won’t be able to keep all three of you. There’s an estate for faders called Eden’s Paradise right outside of Jackson. We have a garage there where we can get that old clunker fixed in a jiffy. Well, by ‘jiffy’, I mean maybe a day or two.”
“What do you want in exchange for helping us?” asked Valerie.
She didn’t care if her tone sounded harsh. She needed to know this stranger’s motivations. Nobody offers to help without wanting something in exchange—well, except for Eve Cooper. Then again, Eve had tasked Grayson with expanding her shed during the months he and Mia stayed there, Valerie recalled. She made me cook lunch and dinner most days. Not to mention Eve made it clear that she was offering us shelter in exchange for our promise not to speak of her or the safe house to anyone. So what does this guy want from us?
Bradford held up his hands and laughed. “I know most folks think the Western Wastelands is full of crazies. I took my little girl for a sunset hike, but we finished way before sunset, and I saw your Jeep with the hood up. I thought I’d be a good Samaritan. That’s all.”
Valerie folded her arms across her chest and looked him up and down. Everything she’d learned in her forty-five years prevented her from accepting this man’s words at face value.
Mia shifted and averted her gaze, looking increasingly uncomfortable.
Grayson chimed in. “Bradford is a fader, and he stopped for us. We saw another car pass before him, but they kept driving.”
“According to Bradford, we’re lucky,” said Mia. “He said usually no one takes this road most days. There was no way we were going to get the Jeep started without help.”
Grayson nodded. “And what if it stalls out for good next time before we get to the Washington border? It’s smarter to let his people at the garage fix it.”
Valerie looked from Grayson to Bradford, who smiled.
Bradford fixed his eyes on Valerie and spoke in a gentle voice. “If it means anything to you, I’ll let my little one ride in your Jeep while you all follow me to the estate. I love that kid more than anything, so I’d never do anything to put her in danger.”
“Except leaving her with people you’ve known for what…thirty minutes?” said Valerie, dropping her arms to her sides.
“To prove to you I mean no harm,” he replied.
Shutting out everything around her, Valerie concentrated on him and listened. After a quick scan of his thoughts confirmed he was sincere, she said, “Okay.”
Bradford waved for Nattie to come introduce herself to Valerie. He smiled at Valerie and her friends. “Well, let’s head to Eden’s Paradise.”