Authors: Jill Williamson
“I don’t even know what that means,” Jordan yelled.
“Not surprising,” Mason said.
As he stretched the distance between him and the square, Mason heard Jordan ask Levi, “Did he just insult me?”
Mason chuckled and whistled for Grazer, wondering where the dog had gone off to. Jordan wasn’t the only man in Glenrock who disliked Mason training to be a doctor. The village doctor had always been a woman. Mason found their fears ridiculous and insulting. Some of the women went hunting, and no one treated them any differently.
He passed by Mia’s house. The house that would become his if Father got his way. Women’s clothing hung on the line in back. A flower garden ran along the side of the house, and bees buzzed softly as they drank nectar. Mason walked a little faster, entered the forest, and continued down the river path, scanning for his brother. Grazer returned to Mason’s side, head down, sniffing the ground.
Mason and Grazer traversed all of Glenrock in their search for Omar, the dog nibbling grass at each stop. They passed by the waterwheel and the generator as it purred along. They searched the garden and greenhouse, doubled back to the smokehouses where Omar sometimes sketched from the rooftops, checked the kissing trees and the outhouses, cut through the woods and the graveyard, crossed the cattle field, and finally walked out of the village.
No Omar. And no clue to his whereabouts.
Instead of returning to the village, Mason headed west through the forest toward the compound. Grazer ran ahead, abandoning Mason to the aspens and pines. It was a two-mile hike to the field that separated the compound from the forest. Birdsong and the rustle of leaves encouraged Mason to take his time under the shaded trees.
Papa Eli, the patriarch of Glenrock and Mason’s great grandfather, had forbidden the people to go near the compound that proclaimed itself the Safe Lands, telling everyone it was populated with people who would lead them astray. Despite the warnings, Mason and Omar had stood near the perimeter many times—Mason to forage plants for his mother’s medicinal stock, Omar to sketch the compound’s walls with his art tools.
Branches cracked to Mason’s right. He froze until he spotted Grazer, a brown blur winding between the trees. He hoped the dog stayed clear of the medusaheads today. Mason had spent hours picking awns from Grazer’s coat yesterday.
He thought back to what he’d been reading in the Old psychology book before Father had interrupted. According to the writer, the definition of family had been changing even in the year of 2006. The age of
marriage—as they called it, since divorce had been commonplace then—had been at an all-time high of 27.5 for men and 25.5 for women. Mason could not fathom how people could have waited so long. Didn’t they need to marry young in order to keep their society running?
He was now about ten yards from the tree line. Beyond the shadowed branches, he could see the colorful expanse of wildflowers in the field.
Marriage and procreation were vital to the people of Glenrock, and while Mason saw no logic in waiting to marry until he reached 27.5 years, reaching at least twenty would offer him so much more knowledge and life experience. Why not wait another three years for that?
Waiting was a win-win situation. In three years, one or more of the younger girls would come of age. Why couldn’t his father see the logic in —
A chorus of female screams broke the peace of the forest. Grazer sped away like a superhero from one of Omar’s prized comic books. Mason’s heart lurched. Was someone in trouble? Bear or cougar, perhaps? Mason followed the dog, praying whatever he was running toward was relatively harmless.
The moment he left the forest, the sun’s heat struck him. He slowed to a stop and squinted across the clearing, following the ripple in the waist-high grass that marked Grazer’s path. The dog was headed toward three girls who were running from … some strange vehicle. It looked like a giant beetle made of black and blue glass, and it rocked and bounced over the waves of the field like a boat. What in all the lands?
The girls ran toward Mason. They were close enough now that he recognized the threesome as his cousins Nell and Penelope and their friend Shaylinn, Jordan and Jemma’s little sister. The vehicle veered after the girls; it could have only come from the Safe Lands.
Mason sprinted, the thin flower stalks whipping his legs. Just as he reached the girls, they darted past, leaving Mason and the invader on a collision course if one of them didn’t turn aside. Mason came to a jarring stop, took one long breath, then turned back toward the trees. He looked back to study the vehicle in hopes it would give the girls time to reach the forest.
Grazer bounced around the vehicle, barking as he circled in front of Mason and back to his adversary. The vehicle continued to plow forward, producing no sound beyond a soft whirr and the crunch of tires over the ground.
The girls stood off to the side of the trail’s head, watching from behind a grove of aspen trees.
“Hurry, Mason!” Penelope yelled.
Again, Mason glanced behind him. The vehicle had stopped, and a uniformed man was climbing out the passenger side. Mason paused, but when he saw the man was wearing a gun belt, he sped up and ran into Grazer, who’d been threading around him again.
Mason lifted his knees, trying not to step on the dog. His legs tangled in the wildflowers, and he went down like a felled tree. The thick vegetation caught him like a blanket.
He took a few deep breaths, contemplating whether he should get up and run or remain in the grass. Was he hidden? His heartbeat slowed. Movement in the grasses to his left and Grazer’s growl on his
right made him tense. Mason squeezed his eyes shut, waiting, hoping, praying that the man did not see him.
“You Omar?” a voice asked from above.
Omar? Mason rolled over and looked up into the man’s face. He was wearing a navy blue uniform, like the law enforcement officers of Old. A gray helmet covered his head, only exposing the features of his face. Mason noted the man’s pale, cracked skin.
Mason held his breath, then remembered Papa Eli’s warning that the plague was a bloodborne virus, not airborne, which made him suddenly aware of a scratch on his arm.
“I’m talking to you, shell! Are you Omar?”
The man’s voice brought Mason back to his senses. His brother knew this man? He was about to say, “Yes,” that he was Omar, to see what the man would say, or even ask what “shell” was supposed to mean, but someone else spoke first.
“That’s not Omar. He’s Mason,” Shaylinn said.
Mason scrambled to his feet. Shaylinn and Penelope were standing a few yards away, clutching each other’s hands. Nell still hid behind the aspen trees. He could hear her sobbing.
“Why are you looking for Omar?” Mason asked.
“Not your interest.” The man walked back toward the vehicle.
Mason searched for something to say that might gain him more information. “He’s my brother. Can I take him a message?”
The man grabbed the top of the vehicle and pulled himself up, standing on the side. “Nice effort, shell.” He slid inside, and a black window whooshed down over the door opening, blocking any chance for further questions.
Mason stood with the girls, watching as the strange vehicle turned around and glided away. Grazer chased after it, but Mason whistled him back.
Omar had always loved sketching the compound walls, but apparently his fascination with the Safe Lands went deeper than Mason had realized. When had Omar connected with this person—or these people? What had their talks entailed? Mason found himself oddly
jealous, wondering if Omar had been inside the walls and, if so, what he might have seen.
“I thought he was going to kill you!” Penelope said.
“We wanted to come back to you sooner,” Shaylinn said, “but Nell tried to stop us.”
“Penelope hit me!” Nell yelled from the tree line.
“Mason was trying to help us!” Penelope hollered back. “I wasn’t going to let those guys shoot him.”
“Like we could have stopped a gun,” Shaylinn said.
“They’re little guns,” Penelope said. “They look like toys.”
Shaylinn folded her arms. “My papa says all guns are for killing.”
“Nobody was shooting at me,” Mason said, hoping to end the argument.
“Why did he ask for Omar?” Shaylinn asked.
“I don’t know,” Mason said. “What were you all doing out here, anyway?”
“Following Omar,” Penelope said. “He promised to draw us yesterday, then he changed his mind. When we asked again this morning and he said no, we followed him.”
“And he was speaking with Safe Lands soldiers?” Mason asked. “Do you think that man was an enforcer?”
Penelope shrugged. “We lost Omar in the woods and were trying to find him in the field when that truck came out of nowhere and chased us.”
“Why are you guys so mean to me?” Nell yelled, drawing Mason’s gaze back to the trees.
Penelope rolled her eyes. “She can be so dramatic. We’d better go before she pretends to faint.” She ran to Nell, who hugged her tightly.
Mason and Shaylinn followed. They reached the trailhead where Penelope and Nell were still locked in an embrace, Nell sobbing and gasping in hitches of air.
“Your cousins are strange sometimes,” Shaylinn said to Mason.
“Are they?” Mason looked at Shaylinn. She was tall and thick, her torso like a tree trunk. She had the same dark brown eyes as Jordan and Jemma. “Don’t all girls cry a lot?”
“Not me,” Shaylinn said. “And I’ve even got a cut on my arm from when I fell.”
An injury! Mason might be useless in an enforcer encounter, but at least he could use his medical training to help someone. “May I see?”
Shaylinn turned her back and pointed over her shoulder to her left tricep, where a piece of wood was imbedded in her skin.
“It’s not a cut. You’ve got a sliver. Hold still.”
It was a big one, so Mason pinched her arm to make the wood stand up, then used his thumbnail to scrape it free. “All done.”
“That was fast,” Shaylinn said, rubbing her arm. “Thanks.”
Once Nell calmed down, the foursome started back toward the village. The girls, all in their early teens, were rarely seen apart and were often sillier than toddlers. Penelope led their pack, brave and careless, while Shaylinn followed in silent wonder and Nell in deplorable protest. The girls all wore loose, sleeveless dresses pieced together from rabbit skins and Old print fabrics—whatever the men had scavenged from the Old dilapidated cities or the women had made in the village. Mason wore the same cattail vest he wore every day with his summer deerskin pants that were shredded below the knee. No one wore shoes in the summer unless they were riding an ATV, which meant Mason didn’t wear shoes often. The ethanol used for the scavenged ATVs took a great deal of effort to create, so riding privileges were only given to those who went out to hunt or gather supplies.
Mason’s, Penelope’s, and Nell’s fathers were Justin, Colton, and Ethan, the three brothers of tribe Elias, the ruling family in the village. Like most of Elias, the three cousins looked alike with light brown hair, blue eyes, and pale skin that burned in the sun.
Mason studied Shaylinn as they walked. She had darker features and skin like her older sister, Jemma, but she was thick where Jemma was thin, flat where Jemma curved, and frizzy where Jemma had curls. Shaylinn was not unpleasant to look upon, though his father had already said he couldn’t wait for another girl to grow up. Plus, Mason
doubted Jordan would approve of Mason marrying his kid sister. Still, the idea lingered.
Mason jogged to catch up with Shaylinn. “Slivers can sometimes become infected, you know. If your arm is bothering you, I can take another look.”
Of course it was; Mason had gotten it all. He groped for something else to say. “So, your sister and my brother … How’s it going to feel to get Jemma out of your house?”
Shaylinn folded her arms. “I don’t want things to change.”
“Oh. I guess I’m not really looking forward to it either. With Levi gone, Omar and I will receive all of my father’s attention.”
“Is it hard to live with him?”
Mason shrugged. “I’ve learned ways to avoid his temper.”
“He told me I was fat,” Shaylinn said.
Mason didn’t doubt it. “Father is rarely positive.”
think I’m fat?”
Mason considered her question. “The word
is relative. Compared to Penelope, some might consider you overweight. But if you stand beside my grandma Marian, you’d look quite thin.”
Shaylinn’s eyebrows—eyebrows that were thicker than Father’s—sank low over her eyes, giving Mason the impression that he had said the wrong thing.
Penelope suddenly ran off the trail and into the forest. Grazer took off after her.
“Be careful of the berberis thorns!” Mason yelled. “She’s going to hurt herself.”
“She doesn’t care,” Shaylinn replied.
Nell stopped in the middle of the road. When Mason and Shaylinn reached her, she stepped between them and took Shaylinn’s hand. “Penelope dared me, but I’m not racing.”
They were almost back to the village now. Mason caught sight of Mia weaving a cattail hide on the table in back of her house. She was barefoot and wore an Old flower print dress that cinched at the waist,
her body the definition of the hourglass shape. She
very pretty. Perhaps he should consider his knowledge of Mia’s personality as tentative and maintain an open mind.
Considering the circumstances, it was only fair.
hat night, Mason again got lost in his Old psychology book. This time his mother found him.
“You’re not even dressed?” she said, peeking into his room. “Everyone else is already in the meeting hall.”
Mason shut his book and stood, hoping she didn’t notice the reluctance he felt inside. “Sorry, Mother. I’ll be right there.”
He changed into what his mother considered his formal outfit—an Old black suit jacket over a woven cattail and red nylon shirt with his long deerskin pants—and left the house. He could hear the sound of chanting as he crossed the square.