By Berneta L. Haynes and Lornett B. Vestal
In a large dining hall, Valerie sat at the head of a long table with Grayson and Mia. Like the rest of the extravagant mansion, everything in the dining room was white—the tablecloth with shimmering silk embroidery, the curtains, the dinnerware, and the robes of the forty or so people in the room. Bom referred to all the residents as “family members.”
Valerie observed Grayson and Mia. As she watched him rub Mia’s hand, she thought about her husband. She missed Kendrick’s touch, how he’d run his finger along her hand whenever they sat at the dinner table. What were her children doing right now? Aya was probably reading a book, while Malik might be running through the house as usual. She longed for the day she arrived in the Coalition West so that she could send for them.
She smiled when she thought about Kendrick catching Malik on top of the refrigerator when he was two years old. Malik had turned a towel into a cape, pushed chairs against the cabinet, and climbed up, intending to jump off and fly like the heroes in Kendrick’s comic books. Kendrick pulled him down and scolded him but barely could suppress his own amusement.
I should’ve brought them with me. She exhaled. Yet she hadn’t wanted her husband hunted down by the Midwest Front if he went AWOL from the army. And she didn’t want her children with her on this dangerous journey through the Western Wastelands. The kids and Kendrick are safer in Chicago. I’ll send for them when I get to Washington, and Kendrick will finish his term in the People’s Army. I just have to be patient.
As she thought about her family, she wondered if she should’ve told Kendrick the details of her recurring nightmares. How every night for months she saw him lying on a floor in a pool of his own blood, beaten and bruised, his chest heaving up and down as he gasped for air while Malik held him and wept. Every time Valerie reached out to them, she passed through them as though she was an apparition. Each time, she would cry out to them loud as she could, yet they never noticed her.
Should she have told Kendrick he might die in a cold windowless room with their son weeping over him? Should she have told him that’s why she’d left…because she needed to do whatever she could to prevent those nightmares from becoming reality? She wouldn’t let her identity as a fader become the cause of their deaths. She’d find a safe place away in the Coalition West and then send for them. These were the things she’d told herself, but she now questioned her strategy.
When Bom approached her, Valerie pulled herself away from these gloomy thoughts.
Bom cleared her throat. “Good evening, everyone. We have prepared a feast tonight to honor our new friends. Please give Valerie, Mia, and Grayson a warm welcome.”
Cheers rang out around the table, and everyone raised their glasses to toast them. Mia’s cheeks reddened and Grayson smiled.
Bom continued her speech. “Now, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to the reason we’re all here. Sage, our goddess in the living flesh.”
Valerie leaned over and whispered to Grayson, “Goddess in the living flesh? It’s getting weirder.”
Grayson nodded but kept his eyes on Bom.
Everyone cheered and stood as a tall woman with long blond hair and ocean blue eyes entered the room. Valerie recognized the woman from television and social media. Mia screamed like a crazed fan at the top of her lungs, eliciting disapproving looks from the audience. As Sage moved gracefully around the room, the people in the dining looked upon her as if she was some sort of magical being.
Sage’s piercing gaze locked onto Valerie. As Valerie looked into Sage’s eyes, she felt an intense urge to run. Why is she staring at me like that? To her relief, Sage looked away when Bom grabbed her arm and escorted her to the table.
As they stopped in front of the table, Sage gave Bom a soft kiss on the lips.
“Welcome to my home,” said Sage, her voice low and soothing. “I made this a home for faders, all those who have been cast aside by society.” She extended her hand to Valerie. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, and I thank Bradford for bringing you here.”
Valerie glanced at Bradford who now had eyes only for Sage.
“You must be Valerie,” Sage continued. “Can I call you Val?”
Valerie shook her head. I hate when people call me Val. It sounds too much like owl. I’m not a damn bird. “Valerie is fine.”
“Well, I’ll sit with you all tonight. If you don’t mind,” said Sage.
Mia blurted out, “Please sit, Sage.”
People are so silly around celebrities. This woman hasn’t had a hit since “Love You More,” which was a decade ago.
As Bom and June set the table, Sage seated herself next to Valerie. A minute later, Bom and June joined them and invited everyone to dig in. Valerie looked at the chicken breast and brown rice, and her hunger overruled her hesitation. Wasting no time, she shoveled a bite of chicken into her mouth. While eating, she kept quiet and listened to the other conversations around the table.
Sage brushed her hair back and smiled at Valerie. “You don’t drink? You haven’t touched your wine. We have some organic non-alcoholic pumpkin cider.”
Despite her inscrutable expression, Sage smiled. “You don’t talk much, huh?”
“I’m not a famous pop diva with loads of stories to tell about being rich. So, no, I guess not,” Valerie replied in a patronizing tone.
Mia choked on her wine, and Grayson let out a nervous chuckle. Meanwhile, Bom almost knocked over her glass and everyone else at the table gawked at Valerie.
But Sage smiled. “My apologies. We don’t get guests often, and I’m treating you all like fans. What would you like to talk about?”
Valerie looked from Mia and Grayson to Sage. She sipped water and rested her elbows on the table. “For starters, why do you run this cul…safe house out here in the middle of nowhere?”
“You really get straight to the point. I like that,” said Sage. “Meet me tomorrow morning in the Field of Love by the garden.”
“The field of what?”
Sage rose and smiled at Valerie. “We do our daily meditation, reflections, and yoga sessions there. I’ll show you a deeper side to me and help you understand why I created this haven for our people.”
Bom whispered something in Mia’s ear. Mia’s face lit up, and her cheeks turned beet red. She rose and followed Bom and Sage.
Valerie kicked Grayson’s ankle under the table. “You’re letting her go off with them like that? I thought we were sticking together,” she whispered.
Sage motioned for Grayson to join them.
In an instant, Grayson hopped up and hurried to them, standing at Mia’s side.
We’re not leaving after that Jeep is fixed…if these people ever fix it. Fuck. She patted her pocket and felt the burner phone there. I could call Eve. Maybe she’d be willing to teleport and get me out of here.
Inhaling, Valerie leaned back. No, after everything Eve had done to keep herself off the radar all these years, she couldn’t ask her to risk exposing herself. I have to figure this out on my own.
Valerie placed her palms flat on the table and peered at Bradford and the others who were talking among themselves. She thought about the meeting with Sage tomorrow morning. She hated to admit it, but part of her was filled with anticipation about what she might learn from Sage.
While another part of her tried to calculate how long it might take to walk to the safe house in Wilson…