After the Storm: Part Thirty

Photo by Keagiles.

Photo by Keagiles.

Just tuning in? Start here.

Daphne was half awake before she felt the stare boring into the back of her skull. It was a vaguely prickly feeling except that all of the pointy places had been worn down to mostly harmless nubs. Still, it was odd to wake up to the intense scrutiny of a being whose criteria for acceptance was unknown.

Unlike his reticent companion, Apple’s curiosity about the strange humans was stronger than his fear of them. After a long night of silently padding past them as he patrolled his tiny house the younger of Mariposa’s two cats had decided the intruders were worthy of further inspection.

Her companions were still sleeping. Daphne smiled at the cat and was just reaching out to stroke his soft head when she heard a brusque whisper from behind her.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you. He doesn’t like to be petted.” Mariposa stirred the embers and added some kindling to the fire.

“Thanks for the warning,” Daphne said as she gingerly stood up.  The younger woman began cracking open the shutters and heating up some water for herbal tea or steeped Nosi for those who enjoyed the energy rush from the tiny, red berries. A beam of morning light hit a small, silver object on the kitchen counter. Daphne picked it up for a closer look. It wasn’t much bigger than a fingernail clipping, but it was so shiny against the dark tabletop that Daphne couldn’t miss it.

“Oh, my vaccine fell out almost immediately,” Mariposa said. “I know I should have had it replaced, but it hurt so much having it put it that I never bothered reporting it.”

“Do you know how they work?” Daphne asked. She’d never seen one up close like this before. When she held it up a few inches away from her face she noticed a series of small indentions on the outer side of it. Suddenly one of the indentions sputtered out a pinprick of sickly green light.  Daphne dropped it in surprise and lifted her head to hear Mariposa’s answer.

“No, there wasn’t time to explain. Our epidemic was even worse than yours, they said, and they wanted to make sure it didn’t spread any further. And I was still pretty sick when they gave it to me. If you want to take it with you, be my guest. Maybe it only works on some houses.”

Daphne shrugged and slid the strange object into her pocket just as Sean and her sons grumbled awake. The smell of brewing tea and boiled Nosi was beginning to fill the apartment.

The patrols – if they still existed – happened roughly at dawn and dusk. Mariposa thought that mid-morning was the safest time to cross back over, so for the next few hours the visitors toured her small farm and discussed ways in which their communities could work together.

“What do you think about gathering together all of the ombudsmen once we have more information about the intruders?” Mariposa asked. Sean immediately agreed just as Daphne knew he would. It was ok, though. She thought it was a good idea as well.

After a light lunch Daphne climbed back onto Flapjack and the group headed to Salt River. Their host agreed to walk them to the river’s edge to ensure they’d have safe passage out of Peoria. It was a quiet, leisurely journey even if Daphne wasn’t always able to redirect Flapjack when he found the occasional mouthful of food on the way. The obstinate burrow was slowly warming up to the woman on his back, but he still wasn’t convinced that the group needed to move quite so fast as they wanted to on such a nice day.

Conversation petered off just as they reached the water, but no sooner did Mariposa open her mouth to say goodbye than Ephraim noticed a still, dark figure lying facedown in the mud on the other side of the bank. His mule stood thirty feet away calmly munching on the few leaves that were still available from last spring.

Calling out elicited no response. Daphne’s eyes weren’t as strong as they used to be, but she couldn’t see any signs of other people on the bank. Was it a trap or did a stranger need their help?”

“Stay here,” Isaac said as he took out his hunting knife. Mariposa and his brother soon followed. For a few moments time stopped as Daphne and Sean watched them approach the body, weapons ready to be thrown at a moment’s notice. Mariposa touched the stranger’s neck, shook her head, and slowly turned over the body as Ephraim and Isaac looked on.

Daphne clicked her tongue and gently encouraged Flapjack to cross the river as soon as Mariposa motioned them over.

“He’s gone,” Isaac said in a quiet voice as his brother kept a look out. Daphne climbed off the burro and walked closer to the corpse for a closer look. He was a young man. Brown hair, bearded, the remnants of a bad sunburn still dancing across his forehead. A bulge in his neck and the unnatural position in which his head rested in death gave probable cause to what killed him. Daphne had seen soldiers wear dusty brown, slightly too large outfits before, but she’d also seen similar clothing on people who moved in from other areas. He could have been from almost anywhere.

If not for an accident no one would have ever learned the stranger’s secrets.

With one awkward, adolescent step backwards Ephraim’s heel brushed against a plain, grey rock that suddenly lit up with a cacophony of bright lights and loud sounds. Sean cursed and jumped back, nearly falling into a cactus. Flapjack took this as an opportunity to run away from the terrifying noise, the mule quickly following him. They probably wouldn’t be able to run very far in such a sticky, muddy environment, but Isaac and Ephraim exchanged an irritated glance and followed them anyways. A mule was a precious commodity these days.

Daphne still felt her heart slamming against her chest when the noise suddenly ended and writing filled the face of the rock. She looked around in suspicion but still couldn’t see anyone else around them.

“I can only read and write my name,” Mariposa said. It was not for lack of trying, but as a girl she had never learned how to make the letters stop swirling around. After many aborted attempts her parents allowed her to practice other life skills instead.

“You used to be a teacher,” Sean said as he handed the stone to the oldest member of their group.

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