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“Mariposa, we need to talk.”
The room was all but empty now. Sometimes they stuck around to socialize after less contentious meetings, but several hours of bad tempers flaring in a room far too small for the number of people crowded into it left almost no one interested in making small talk.
“Henry said something as he was walking past me. Did you hear him?”
Mariposa shook her head and she reached for her baby. Daphne stretched her arms in relief. It felt good to let her muscles relax after hours of cuddling.
“I heard him say, ‘I guess I’ll have to bury the bodies myself, then.'” The younger woman froze for a second before offering up a weak smile.
“He’s always been hot-tempered. He didn’t mean it.” One of the benefits of growing up in a community as close-knit as Peoria is that you quickly learned who was truly dangerous and who simply craved a captive audience for their temper tantrums. Mariposa was certain Henry belonged in the latter category. True, he’d always kept to himself and what family he had left had long since scattered to faraway towns, but he wasn’t dangerous. Not really.
“Are you sure? He sounded like he meant it.”
“There’s no way anyone could hide something like that in Peoria. We’re not like -” Mariposa stopped. She’d been brought up to view Mingus with a tinge of fear due to their extremely punitive social customs, but she didn’t want to offend the only living grandmother of her child. “We don’t live like that,” she finished weakly.
Her community was known for many things, not all of which were necessarily positive. But murder was most definitely not one of their collective flaws. Daphne was just about to speak when her daughter-in-law opened her mouth again.
“Look, I know Henry can take some getting used to. He’s not the friendliest person you’ll ever meet in this life, Oma, but that doesn’t mean he’s actually killing people. He just likes to blow off some steam sometimes and shock people he hasn’t met yet.”
“That’s not what it sounded like to me. Can’t you have someone check on him?”
Mariposa sighed. Technically this wasn’t in her job description. All she really needed to do was cajole her neighbours into sharing their precious water sources and refrain from stealing livestock, spouses, or tools from one another.
“I’ll ask the sheriff to stop in on him the next time he’s sober.” Knowing the sheriff this might take a while, but it was better than nothing. Daphne nodded and started walking slowly to the exit. She could hear Rosamund stamping her feet in the courtyard. The burro had grown accustomed to these trips and knew that the humans should have untied her and headed home by now.
Wilma had never quite caught up from the long, hungry summer when she first joined Daphne’s family. She was unusually short for her age and had learned to read and write much later in life than her older brother. Felix was small for his age, too, but he seemed to understand numbers and letters much more easily than his baby sister.
Every curve of the brushstroke was a triumph for the girl. When traditional teaching methods failed to take root in her mind, Daphne had been forced to find other ways to explain abstract concepts to her adopted granddaughter. More than once Daphne had wished her own grandfather had still been around. She’d forgotten much of what he’d taught her about how children learn, and she would have loved to pick his brain about some of Wilma’s more unusual challenges.
Which was part of the reason why Daphne was so surprised to see the girl hunched over the strange, silent rock when she arrived home. It had stopped working so long ago that Daphne assumed Wilma had forgotten all about it. Even if she had remembered, Daphne didn’t understand how a child who learned so slowly could figure out more about the strange object than a house full of quick-witted adults.
“r u alone?” the message read on the flat portion of the rock. It shimmered for a moment before the reply appeared.
“No, I’m travelling with my platoon. Do you still live in the flat, empty area beyond The Three Sisters?” They were left behind from a time when the ones who came before could build something many times higher than the tallest man. No one knew what they were, exactly, only that there were three of them standing in a row beside one of the roads that lead to nowhere and they weren’t made from wood or stone. To be honest, Daphne didn’t live anywhere near them other than in the sense that they shared a valley.
But they were the only landmark of Mingus. To claim you didn’t live near them was to admit that you didn’t really belong.
“Wilma, what are you doing?”
The girl looked up at her with bright, shining eyes.
“I made a friend,” came her cryptic reply. “Her name is Rey and she can’t wait to meet us for dinner.”
Daphne dug into memories she had long since ignored.
“Who is Rey?”
“She said she knew you, but she thinks you still live at your old house.”
Another memory puffed past Daphne’s vision. She wondered if her old house was still shut up tight waiting for her or if it had long since smouldered into ruins. A lot of occupied houses in Mingus had been burned to the ground when their occupants refused to cooperate with the crowds who gathered outside of them. It seemed unlikely that an abandoned one would have fared any better. This was one of many reasons why they hadn’t returned yet.
“Wilma, this is important. Have you told her where we live now?”