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Daphne knew her supplies would be stretched thin by this point in the summer, but her cupboards were suspiciously bare. She had three weeks until autumn and enough food for a third of that time if everyone agreed to skip the already scant noonday meal.
It wasn’t mice. Daphne hadn’t found their telltale black, segmented droppings in her house for a year or more now, and none of the remaining food containers were in any way nibbled or gnawed upon. Lemon’s enthusiasm for chasing mice was nearly as vigorous as his urge to bound after wild rabbits on his daily walks. Before he had come to live with her Daphne had had a serious mouse problem. She was nearly as grateful for his pest deterrence as she was for his company back when she lived alone.
“I’m hungry,” said the small, thin girl standing by Daphne’s feet. Wilma’s painful shyness has slowly been easing up, although she still preferred talking to and bickering with her brother over making eye contact with anyone else in the house. Neither of Daphne’s children had ever been afraid of her when they were growing up, and her memories of her younger brother were so dim she couldn’t say what he had been like at that age.
“We have bread,” Daphne said as she continued to rummage through the cupboard. Even the black beans were gone, and Daphne had purposefully been sparing them until the end of the summer. Bread and water wasn’t the most filling meal, but it was all she had to offer until she sorted out where the rest of their food had gone.
Ephraim had disappeared again, this time taking his brother with him. Daphne made a mental note to ask him if he knew what happened to the food when they returned. It shouldn’t be taking them quite so long to round up the other members of the council.
Only two ombudsmen appeared that afternoon: Sean Reed and Gerald Perez, the latter looked a decade older than he had the last time Daphne had seen him. A few years beforehand his beard sprouted a few solitary grey hairs, but now Gerald’s chin curtain was peppered with them. His eyelids drooped and he walked as if he was carrying a pack mule’s burden. Neither one mentioned where Daphne’s sons were or when they might be expected to come home.
They exchanged greetings and gathered around Daphne’s worn kitchen table. Lemon let out a yip of joy before curling around Daphne’s feet and settling in for a long discussion. Paige was bathing the children in the backyard, and while they spoke the solemn atmosphere was occasionally punctuated by giggles and the sound of splashing water.
“Aunt Lucy is very ill,” Sean said once everyone settled in. The visitors had politely turned down Daphne’s offer to feed them, although they did accept water after their long and dusty hike. The site of her vaccination had become badly inflamed, and in an attempt to draw out the infection she had accidentally pulled something out of her body. It was the the width and length of a child’s fingernail, black, and could be bent but not broken. No one knew what it was, but soon after she discarded it Esther Penn made another visit to her farm.
Her second vaccination hadn’t healed her sore arm. If anything it seemed to make the infection grow worse. Sean’s second wife had brought her to the Reed homestead when she became too ill to look after herself. Aunt Lucy had no living family members in the Mingus Mountain area that Daphne had ever heard of, so if she didn’t survive her land would automatically be inherited by those who had taken care of her while she was alive. The land Aunt Lucy owned wasn’t particularly valuable in and of itself, but it included a small, stable creek and several caves that were rumoured to be storage facilities for rare goods that occasionally became available from faraway traders. No one knew exactly what she had squirrelled away, only that the oldest woman in the valley suddenly obtain access to desperately needed supplies like salt or nails when the right people requested them.
Daphne felt her stomach clench as Sean described how quickly his new border’s health was going downhill. No one knew why some wounds got infected, but few of her grandfather’s stories about this kind of disease ended well. If Aunt Lucy died Daphne would be the oldest member of the council. Traditionally the oldest ombudsmen would be deferred to in cases where a consensus could not be reached, and Daphne had no interest in assuming that kind of responsibility for her community.
Gerald had been hearing rumbles in the community about Ms. Penn’s vaccination project. Aunt Lucy wasn’t the only person who had a poor reaction to it, and Ella Graber’s son had even reported being held down and forced into treatment when he changed his mind at the last minute. Ella had always been fond of stretching real events into slightly more exciting or traumatic experiences with each retelling, but when the Harris family reported a similar problem Gerald knew something strange was going on.
The discussion slowly grew more serious as the children’s bath ended and Paige began washing herself. Little did she know how much Lemon loved soaking in water or how difficult it was to get him out of the tub.
The younger members of the council rushed outside at the sound of Paige’s shriek. Daphne walked to the backyard as quickly as her bum knee allowed and collapsed into giggles when she saw what had the older woman so frightened.
Paige was sitting up stark naked in the shallow tub beneath a few scraggly trees, Lemon curled up on her lap with a blissful, toothy grin. His fur had soaked up so much water and he was so adverse to being moved that Paige found it impossible to get out of the tub.
“Get him off of me!” she yelled as she grabbed her tunic and slipped it over her head. Her right shoulder had slowly grown more stiff with time and Paige couldn’t cover up as fast as her modest temperment demanded.
“Lemon, come here,” Daphne said, the corners of her mouth twitching. Lemon lifted his head, twitched his ears, and then lay down again. He’d been blisteringly hot for far too long. Even the call of his favourite human couldn’t rouse him from the slightly cool water.
Sean laughed and averted his eyes as Gerald called the dog to no avail.
“He won’t listen to you,” Daphne said. “You’ll have to either leave him there, turn the tub on its side, or wait until he gets hungry.”
“Could I lift him out?” Gerald asked.
“He’ll only leap back inside as soon as you set him on the ground.”
“He can have the water. I just want to get out,” Paige said. Her hair was greasy and her skin coated in several layers of dried sweat and desert grit, but she had no interest in bathing with an even dirtier dog.
No sooner had Paige been ushered inside to change into dry, cleaner clothes and Lemon hopped back into the tub to cool off than a stranger yelled hello in the front yard.