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“Guarantee me at least another decade and I’ll go peacefully with you at the end of it.”
If Death still had the muscles necessary to cock his (non-existent) eyebrows Paige would have immediately known what he thought of this deal. He rubbed the nearly invisible line on his clavicle as she finished her argument. It had long since healed, but the thought of it snapping in two again aggravated nerves that really shouldn’t exist in a skeleton.
“I want to see the girl grow up. Once she no longer needs me you can have me.” Malachi had lost just as much as his sister had in their short lifetimes, but somehow the idea of Wilma growing up without any memories of her parents, grandmother, or great-grandmother seemed unfair. Paige wanted both of her descendants to remember where they came from, especially if they were going to grow up around a woman like Daphne.
“Fair enough. Do you want to pick the day, or should I?”
“Make it the first unbearably hot day of summer. No one expects the very old to survive that time of year anyway.”
“Would you like a cup of tea before you go?”
Lemon whined as Paige began heating up the water and rummaging around in all but bare cupboards for clean cups and the last of the tea. The table smelled like sour milk, but he couldn’t see who or what the oldest member of the household was talking to. She patted his head as she poured out the tea and began an animated conversation with the empty chair on the other side of the table.
The children had been left more or less to their own devices while Daphne and her sons were gone. Paige fed them their daily meal, but other than that Wilma and Malachi slept when and where they pleased and wandered as far away from the house as their legs would carry them. Her hip was bothering her more than it had even a week or two earlier, and she had trouble keeping up with even the lightest chores. Yet if she stopped to rest it was hard to do so without falling asleep or sinking so deeply into her thoughts that she lost track of what was happening around her.
It was not surprising, then, that she didn’t hear Daphne walking into a house full of air that smelled like unwashed dishes, smoke, and old sweat long after Lemon had gone to investigate what the smallest humans were doing in the other rooms of the house. For once it was too rainy outside for them to explore.
A strange smell snagged Lemon’s attention. There was a creature standing outside in the courtyard he’d never seen before. Daphne grabbed him before he could greet his newest friend, but Lemon barked a celebratory hello anyway to make sure the creature took notice his presence.
“I thought we’d have to swim our way home,” Ephraim said with a wry grin as he shook the water out of his hair and onto everyone near him. Isaac grabbed the harness and lead the mule to their shed. It was really too small for such a large beast, but he wasn’t sure if it was safe to leave the animal out in the rain and cold all night. His brother followed him to help make room, and once the source of his newest reason for excitement was out of sight Lemon curled up near his favourite human’s feet.
“I have to see if I can make this work again,” Daphne said to no one in particular after she’d washed her hands. “Sometimes there are new messages.” Paige watched Daphne carefully as the younger woman took a tablet out of her knapsack and set it on the table. She frowned but said nothing. It was a good thing Death left just after the young folks arrived back home. The light flickered a little more dimly as the strange contraption slowly turned on.
The only new message was from Tara. The epidemic had grown so serious that it was actually referenced in their local paper. A small article appeared on the fourth page warning citizens to wash their hands, avoid contact with the sick, and continue taking their vitamins. Once again Daphne stumbled over words that she’d never read before, but she wondered how terrible the situation really was in the capital if even the official spokespeople were beginning to acknowledge it.
“I saw one of those things once,” Paige said.
“When I was a girl I saw a box that acted like that thing. It had words in it that would disappear if you shook it. My Ma thought it was evil, though, dug a very big hole, and buried it.” Daphne didn’t know how to react to this revelation. She knew Paige had lived a very long time, but she had heard very little about the older woman’s childhood.
“Who gave it to you? Where did it come from?”
“I don’t know,” Paige said. “Dad was a trader so he might have brought it back on one of his missions, but until things got really bad there were always a few families that had an odd item or two. Most of them didn’t light up, but they did do things that no one could explain or were made of materials I’ve never seen anywhere else.”
“What happened to them?”
“We got rid of them in The Purge.” A virulent disease had shaken the valley many years before, killing many times more people than had died this past summer. To stop the deaths the ombudsmen had burned, buried, or shipped out everything that was suspected of harbouring evil spirits. To even mention their names risked summoning them, and very few families were willing to hold onto trinkets that no longer held any real purpose.
Once again Daphne wished she had been born in Mingus instead of being awkwardly transplanted there as a child. There was still so much she didn’t know about her adopted community.