By Berneta L. Haynes and Lornett B. Vestal
Valerie followed Bom, who escorted them around the mansion and stopped at a greenhouse. The massive greenhouse extended into an outdoor garden. A dozen people—all dressed in white robes like Bom—were on their hands and knees tending to vegetables, while others were seated on four benches scattered about the room. Valerie looked at one man, and he responded with a smile that didn’t extend to his eyes.
Disconcerted, she turned to Grayson and grabbed his arm. As she pulled him aside, she spoke in a low voice. “Grayson, do you think it’s a little odd that everyone here is wearing white and looking like a bunch of lost flower children?”
He rubbed his head and glanced at Mia, who was kneeling before a giant squash plant. “Even if I do, what’s the point? They have our Jeep, and we need it fixed if we want to make it to the Coalition West. It barely got us this far.”
“I know that. But this is a damned cult or something. It could be dangerous.”
“More dangerous than being stranded on the road in the Western Wastelands? Look, we just got here, and everyone has been nice so far. Maybe Sage is doing what Eve does but on a larger scale.” He looked around until his eyes landed on Valerie again. “Obviously, this was one of her homes before the Great Turn. I remember she bought a ranch right before her last album.”
“I think we should take the car and drive to the safe house in Wilson…we were only a few miles away from it when we stalled. It’s probably a ten-minute drive from here.” She paused and surveyed Bradford.
Holding his daughter’s hand and standing next to June, Bradford watched with full attention as Bom described to Mia the many vegetables they’d cultivated. “I sensed Bradford was being honest with us. I think he means well, but it’s clear he didn’t give us the full scope of this place.”
Grayson patted Valerie’s arm. “We stick together and at least stay the night so we can get some rest. If it makes you feel better, we can take turns standing watch for each other. You still have your Glock in your purse, don’t you?”
“I understand your reservations. If shit starts getting too weird, we’ll bounce. I saw a couple of trucks in the distance—I’m assuming it’s the garage. We’ll steal one if need be to get out of here. Anyway, we’re among faders, people like you and Mia. I don’t think we need to worry.”
Eyes wide and smiling, Mia waved for Grayson and Valerie to join them. Others in the greenhouse gathered around her. Valerie squinted to get a clearer look at what had captured Mia’s attention and saw a teenage girl with bright brown eyes and dark skin showing off her fader skills. She’d mastered fading and could do it so fast that it looked like she was flickering. Mia was watching the girl in awe.
Grayson held Valerie’s hand, gave it a reassuring squeeze, and they returned to the group. Mia hugged Grayson and kissed his cheek. She gestured toward the teenage girl. “Isn’t it a neat trick? This is Sonia.”
Sonia winked at Grayson and Valerie before disappearing in a flicker and reappearing a few feet away.
She reminded Valerie of Jesús, the fader who lived with Eve—he had found Eve’s safe house eight years ago at age thirteen after his family died. He exhibited a talent for not only fading but also teleporting, though he seemed incapable of controlling either yet. This girl was the third fader Valerie had met, besides Eve and Jesús, who could teleport.
I wish I could’ve convinced Eve to just teleport us to the Coalition West. We could’ve avoided this weird situation. She’d found out quickly that Eve never left her home due to what appeared to be a general fear of the outside world. But it still irked her that Eve wouldn’t make one exception.
“Damn,” said Mia, grinning. “The young kids get all the cool fader abilities. All I can do is stretch like Gumby.” She stretched her hand five feet across to reach Sonia’s shoulder.
“Be proud of who you are, Mia,” Bom replied. “Now, there will be more time for show and tell after dinner, which should be ready once we finish the tour. At dinner, you, Grayson, and Valerie will get to meet the woman who made all this possible.”
Valerie looked around at the white-robed people and thought about her children and husband. Chicago seemed so far away now, like another world. Trying to ignore her instincts that were screaming “Danger!” she half-smiled at Bom. Just let me make it out of this weird ass place so I can see my children and my husband again.