After the second U.S. Civil War, life is dangerous, but risking their hearts might be the biggest threat.
When charismatic newcomer Clark walks into Van’s life in post-war rural Colorado, neither can ignore the sparks between them. Van has built a fulfilling new normal with his girlfriend Hadas after his wife’s death, but Clark’s brash flirtation and dominant tendencies awaken a desire for a kind of romance Van thought he’d lost forever. Even if he’s not sure he’s ready for it.
Clark survived the war, but his family fractured and now his relationships are in ruins. All that must be his fault, or everyone wouldn’t say so. He’s relocated to start over, zero interpersonal complications welcome. His inescapable chemistry with Van, who seems to crave more than hookups, is a complication. So is Clark’s growing platonic bond with Hadas. Both want an emotional connection he can’t give them, and he’ll only disappoint them if he tries. Won’t he?
Then a violent gang of thieves targets their small town, and Van and Hadas prepare to put their lives on the line protecting their close-knit community. Having lost too much already, Clark starts to pull away, spooking Van. But when a traitor betrays them all, Clark is the only one who can save the two people who asked him to open his heart… and made him want to risk it.
A high heat polyamorous M/M romance with an M/M/F HEA.
Tropes: post-apocalyptic, small town, hurt-comfort, widower, polyamory, open relationships.
M/M love scenes only; no threesomes.
Cover Artist: Sarah Waites, Illustrated Page Book Design
“We found four unopened bottles of bourbon!”
Van lowered his binoculars and took a moment to enjoy the sight of Hadas heading his way. She’d come out of the old store next to the abandoned apartment building where the others were going through cabinets and closets, packing up anything salvageable. Her many-times-mended blue work shirt rippled in the breeze, and her red-brown curls tumbled out from under her straw cowboy hat and blew around her shoulders. That was a sign of fall. In the hot summer, she kept her hair tied up. Van saw it loose at night in their bed year-round, but it wasn’t the same as when the wind was tossing it around outside. It was pretty even now with road dust and ash in it.
He raised a hand in acknowledgement and went back to keeping an eye on their surroundings. Mostly ragged grass, skeletons of burned piñon trees, and charred piles of rubble that used to be buildings. Ruined land under the wide clear Colorado sky, the mountains soaring in the distance.
Alcohol would be a lucky find if it had stayed drinkable during several years of summer heat. That plus everything else they were packing would get them cash or trade credit in Denver for medicine, or replacement parts for the solar panels and hydroponics. Whoever took goods up there always got a little cut of the sale, enough for a night in a room that might have a few hours of electricity and running water. Access to the internet at the library too, if they had someone far away to talk to and the internet was working that day.
Hopefully the salvage would cheer up his team. It had been a long ten days of checking squares on the map for anything they could eat, use, or sell, and finding nothing. After they’d gotten a small safe fire going against last night’s chill, Van had broken out the stash of dried cherries tucked in his saddlebags and handed out equal shares. Everyone had been good about pretending the treat had helped.
The horses had shared the last apples, but horses weren’t great at pretending. Hadas’s favorite was even crankier than the rest. Some days Van thought Daffodil was too nice a name for that horse.
Van lowered the binoculars again as Hadas reached him. The freckles on her face had really come out over the summer around the scars even with everybody trying to stay covered in the sun.
“You okay?” she asked.
He nodded. They hadn’t seen anyone else in days. “What’s up?”
“It’s too much for the horses,” she said, offering her hand. He took it and she laced her fingers into his. It made him smile even with how tired they both were. “No matter how we pack them. Not that I’m complaining, because otherwise this trip would have been a waste.”
Without this trip, this stash could have sat here undiscovered until a roof collapsed and ruined everything. It was fifteen years since the Second Civil War started, twelve since it ended, and five since the last big Colorado fire. Denver had been somewhat rebuilt, but most of the unchecked squares out here were truly black and burned. Not enough regrowth, not much worth hunting. This little piece of neighborhood, however, was surrounded by a parking lot that the last fire hadn’t jumped. It was surprisingly close to home but the opposite way from all the other towns they traded with.
Van pulled Hadas close and she dropped her head onto his shoulder, a familiar feeling that always settled him. He wrapped an arm around her while he thought.
Asking for the truck meant the Council back home would know they’d found something big. Van hoped they wouldn’t give it too much importance. One truckload wasn’t magic. It wouldn’t increase the snowpack in the coming winter, change the climate to bring large game back down the mountains, or replant the acres upon acres of trees and grasses that had flat-out given up after too many fires too close together.
Getting the truck also meant sending somebody back for it. If they all went, it was almost asking for someone else to randomly stumble across this place while they were gone.
“So who’s going and who’s staying?” Hadas asked, as if she could hear his thoughts. Heck, she probably could after a year together. She’d want to go back. She missed her dog. They didn’t bring Zelpha when they’d be riding through ash because she breathed too close to the ground.
Van ran through the options. He didn’t send out teams of only two people. Too risky. “You, me, and Sudhir go.” Sudhir was the best driver, and that put two of the three most experienced people on the road with the truck. “We’ll leave Jaime here with the young ones. The upstairs apartments are defensible.”
Hadas huffed. “Sudhir’s not going to like leaving the kids here.”
True. The recent thefts in their trading circuit had everyone on edge. The whole ride home and back Sudhir would fret about the two nineteen-year-olds staying behind. If either of them went for the truck instead, he’d fret about that. He wasn’t the only one with bad memories of what had happened three years ago. It had started with the same kind of thefts.
If they left soon, could they get the truck here by nightfall? Load it by the first morning light and head for home? Van was ready to get off the road. He wanted a bath and to stretch out in bed with Hadas for a couple of hours, in that order, and to get the news from the other three towns in their trading circuit. He hadn’t been out of radio range for this long in quite a while. After four days he’d gotten this itchy feeling there was something he’d forgotten to do and he hadn’t been able to shake it.
“I’ll tell Sudhir,” Hadas offered. “You can tell Jaime not to let the kids drink any of the bourbon. And don’t waste time making out with him, we’ve got stuff to do.”
Van couldn’t help letting out a laugh. He wasn’t making out with either of them until everybody got clean. Hadas grinned playfully and hugged him tight. Used to be when she did that, she’d tuck the scarred side of her face against him, like she was taking a break from everybody seeing it. These days she just did whatever. He’d been glad to be her safe place but he was also happy she didn’t feel the need to hide anymore.
“You actually okay?” She eased back so she could see his face.
As long as he got his people safely home with a truck full of trade goods, everything was just fine. “You tell Sudhir he’s going and I’ll pack up the booze. No way it’s staying here.”
Hadas laughed and pulled away, and Van paused to enjoy watching her go. They’d worked together for a while before everything went to hell three years ago and he hadn’t given Hadas a second look in all that time. He’d had everything he wanted with Irene, partner and lover and leader, for a year and a season. Then Irene had taken her last breath in his arms, and after a long two years of hurting and healing, he and Hadas had found something good.
Best friends with benefits, Jaime called it, but Van didn’t feel like that quite got it. He didn’t know what Hadas would call it. They’d talked about how to be careful with each other early on, in bed and out, and there’d been one awkward conversation in the spring when they both wanted to share a room but nobody wanted to be the first to bring it up just to get shot down. But they’d never put a label on it. Whatever you’d call it, it wasn’t the same as what he’d had with Irene, but Van didn’t figure it had to be. Sometimes life just wasn’t ever the same.
Everything back home was as they’d left it, dry and dusty. On the north side of the road sat the little old grocery store that had given the place its name, Freshtown, its paint mostly scoured off the bricks by wind and sun. On the south side was the turnoff towards the abandoned granite quarry and a dirt trail towards the biggest farm in town.
Beyond those was their destination. The town mechanic had taken over the old garage when she moved here with a couple of vehicles and all her tools.
“I’m still not comfortable that we left them behind,” Sudhir said from his seat on the dark brown horse to Van’s left. Van respected that it was only the third time he’d brought it up during the fifteen-or-so mile ride.
Hadas was in front of them riding Daffodil, who was noticeably picking up her gait now that they were back on familiar ground. “You don’t trust Jaime to look after them?” she called back.
Sudhir pulled off his hat and scrubbed his short dark hair. He kept it neat and liked to shave almost every day, so his stubble and the extra dirt they were all wearing had to be driving him wild. “I trust Jaime. I mean, not at rock paper scissors, but about anything else.”
She chuckled. “As if anyone in town would play him at rock paper scissors anymore.”
“Yet somehow I had to be the last to know. Thanks, Hadas.” Sudhir shoved his hat back on with a grimace. “Anyway, I’ll feel better when we’ve picked up the others.”
So would everyone. Van had been itchy from being out of radio contact but leaving folks behind at the salvage site was ten times worse. His people, his responsibility. Irene had left him leadership of the town’s defense team, of the whole trading circuit’s defense network, and right now three people were out where Van wouldn’t even know if something happened to them until it was far too late.
“Do I guess right?” Sudhir asked as the garage came into view. “I’m the one sweet-talking Miss Melina into letting us take the truck?”
Van nodded and kept scanning their surroundings. He shouldn’t have to, not here in town. That’s why Irene had gotten the lookout towers built back when the defense teams were a new idea. Van could see that someone was up there. Some days he had to look around anyway, just to settle himself.
The big bay door of the garage was down like usual. As Van, Hadas, and Sudhir rode closer, though, a stranger stepped out of the side door.
What the hell? Van had his pistol out before he could think and Hadas trained her crossbow on the stranger before they got two steps off the porch. Sudhir wasn’t far behind with his rifle. Strangers didn’t wander into town more than once or twice a year. No trucks had been scheduled to come through while Van’s team was gone and nobody around here liked surprises.
The stranger was probably a man, although of course you couldn’t know for sure until somebody told you who they were. Hadas and Sudhir waited for Van’s direction, keeping the guy covered as their mounts shifted uneasily. Where was Melina? Van didn’t hear her clanking around inside.
The brown-haired, clean-shaven white stranger raised his hands slowly. The unbuttoned cuffs of his red plaid flannel shirt slid down his forearms. He was lean and wiry, maybe a few inches shorter than Van. One of his neat dark eyebrows arched up. He was smiling at Van as if he wasn’t the least bit worried, though the slight hitch in his walk said he might not have gotten away even if Van’s team had been on foot.
Van really hoped the stranger wasn’t going to make them chase him down. Or shoot him. Hopefully the fact that he hadn’t taken off running was a good sign.
Melina came around from the back of the building in her blue work coveralls with an armful of scrap wood. She startled when she saw them and some of the wood tumbled to the ground. “Don’t shoot! Everybody, don’t shoot!”
The man might be a surprise but Van trusted Melina, so he gave a low word of approval for the others to stand down. The stranger eased his hands down and pushed them into the back pockets of his tight dusty jeans instead. He kept staring right at Van. He’d been staring at Van the whole time, not at the two other people with weapons. This guy had some kinda confidence, whoever he was.
As everyone dismounted, Melina put the rest of the wood down so she could shake tension out of her hands. Her brown hair was in two braids today, but as Van looked at her and back at the stranger, he realized their hair was the exact same color.
“You practically gave me a heart attack,” she said. “Where’s everybody else, is everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine,” Sudhir reassured her.
Melina took a deep breath. “Okay. Good. Van, this is my son Clark. R-town brought their truck through early from Doberman yesterday and he rode with them. He’s going to stay. Clark, this is our defense team. Well, part of it, you remember I told you there’s six? This is Hadas Geller, she/her, and Sudhir Anand and Van, both he/him.”
Clark gave Van that half-smile again. “Thanks for taking care of my mother and the town.”
“Your mother’s the one taking care of us,” Hadas said, with a hard edge underneath from being rattled. Melina’s son was lucky she hadn’t put a bolt through his shoulder first and asked questions after. “Without her, no tractors. Anyway, Melina, we need the truck.”
Melina’s eyes narrowed. “You found something good? It better be good.”
“About fifteen miles away,” Sudhir said. “Through a burned area. The others are waiting so we want to get back quick.”
“You’re going to drive my truck through that?”
Sudhir stepped forward to give her a hug. “Miss Melina, you know I’m always nice to the truck. We’ll pack stuff out to it on the horses if we need to, I promise.” His voice shifted to a bit more coaxing. “There’s an unopened bottle of bourbon in Hadas’s saddlebag just for you, too. Hopefully it’s still good.”
If it was, she’d just sell it to keep the truck fueled, which helped the whole town, but Van figured sometimes it was nice to feel special. Melina stepped back from the hug with a happier face and beckoned Hadas inside with the saddlebags she’d already taken off her horse.
Van turned his attention back to Clark and found the man still looking at him, his rich brown eyes sparking as if he saw something he was interested in. Something or somebody.
The thought sent heat across Van’s face and gave him more than a passing vision of being on his knees. That want hadn’t happened for a long time. Wanting sex, sure, or a warm body next to his at night. That didn’t feel like this. Something about the way Clark stood, maybe? Or the way he’d rolled with the situation. He hadn’t been reckless when they’d aimed at him, hadn’t blustered or even twitched. He’d simply waited like he was curious to see what would happen next.
“So you’re our fearless leader?” Clark asked, stepping forward and offering a hand. “Clark Bayes.”
Clark’s thin nose might have been broken before, but if so somebody had set it okay. He held onto Van’s hand a little longer than he needed to, as if he’d be the one to decide when he let go. Van felt warmer in the fall air.
“Van,” he said, since Clark seemed to be waiting for something. “No last name.” A good number of war orphans didn’t have them, but everyone knew who he was, so it didn’t matter. He’d been Irene’s man, and what she’d built before she died was the reason the four close-together small towns traded easily with each other and did business with Denver. The reason people went to bed at night feeling safe. Now Van kept that peace.
Sudhir cleared his throat and offered his own hand. “Welcome to Freshtown. Sorry about the, uh, threat of violence.”
Clark laughed and put his hand in Sudhir’s, but only for a brief shake. “No worries. I get how it is.”
Hadas came back outside holding up the truck key. She looked at Clark, then back at Van with some expression Van couldn’t read.
“Melina’s packing some food,” she said, real slow, like she was thinking. “We can go trade the horses out if you want to wait here, Van? I need to get Zelpha from the farm anyway so she can ride in the truck.”
“Or I’ll wait here since I’m driving,” Sudhir countered, giving Hadas some other kind of look.
Van was too tired for all these looks to be flying around. He nodded and grabbed the reins of two of the horses, following Hadas as she led Daffodil down the shoulder of the crumbling highway.
“Hey Van!” Clark called.
Van paused and turned.
“I’ll see you around.”
It wasn’t a question, not the way Clark put it. Van felt rooted in place. Hadas took his arm and pulled him and the horses away.
They walked the mile down to the farm gate in silence. Zelpha was under Griego’s front porch, wriggling out when she heard them ride up then yipping happily when she saw Hadas. She knew better than to run at the horses so she did her little waiting dance while Van took all the reins so Hadas could go to her.
Tired as he was, Van couldn’t help but grin as Hadas dropped down to give Zelpha love. That dog was four years old now but still acted like a puppy when she was happy, all blond fur and feathered tail and licking your face everywhere. Well, Hadas’s face. Van only ever got one lick. Zelpha might sleep in Van and Hadas’s bed, but she was Hadas’s dog.
It took a while to get the three tired horses taken care of while Zelpha padded around the stable, then to go find two fresh ones grazing and saddle them. Griego, their owner, was nowhere to be seen, so he was probably out with the goats.
“Melina’s son has something about him,” Hadas said as they mounted. “And he was sure noticing you, yeah?”
Her tone was light, but in a strange way. Van didn’t know what to say back. In the last few months they’d each fucked other people a couple of times, even outside of Van’s thing with Jaime, but she never sounded like that about somebody eyeing him.
On the trek back to the garage, Zelpha kept pace with the horses at a healthy distance. Sudhir had pulled the truck out and was leaning against it alone, no Clark Bayes to be seen. Good. Van had work to do and he didn’t need anything unsettling the air between him and Hadas.
The truck’s engine started up smooth. The low-grade biodiesel was rough on it but they had to save the better stuff for the tractors. Without the potatoes and other crops they grew in the fields, all the hunting, gathering, and greenhouses wouldn’t keep everyone in town fed.
Van wondered if Clark had his mother’s gift with machines. His hand had felt calloused enough for that kind of work. Then he stopped himself thinking about Clark Bayes’s hands. Plenty of town stuff to think on instead.
Hadas had Zelpha hop up into the passenger seat, where Sudhir gave her a few head scratches before they headed out. Van took the lead, shotgun balanced across his lap. Hadas rode after the truck, crossbow ready. It didn’t take long before Freshtown was behind them. Come spring, it would be as abandoned as the buildings they salvaged from.
The other towns in their trading circuit were better off, better fixed for water especially, although they had bigger populations needing it. Freshtown was a handful of buildings alongside a highway butted up against a couple of farms and some grazing land. The quiet little place had almost died before the war as people moved to the city for jobs. Then some families had fled here when the fighting in Denver and Colorado Springs quieted down long enough for anyone to get out without being blown up.
What Van remembered from before the war, from the years he lived with his family, wasn’t much. He’d been probably eight or nine when it started, old enough that he should remember more, but it was just scraps now. When Jaime and the other Mexican American Freshtowners invited everyone to make altars in the main building for Día de los Muertos every year, Van didn’t have names or stories to tell about his people. Only Irene.
Clark looked about the age Irene would have been by now. Not too much older than Van, but enough to remember before the war. Melina hadn’t mentioned her son except briefly with some kind of old pain. Van had met Hank Bayes, Clark’s father, in Doberman a couple of times, and Hank had asked after Melina politely once. But Melina’s ex had never come to Freshtown, neither had her son, and Melina never left town. She could have ridden to Doberman on a trade trip if she’d asked. Maybe Van should have offered.
Melina also should have asked Van before letting Clark move into town. Van could count on one hand the number of times a circuit town had refused when someone wanted to stay, especially when they were coming to live with somebody they knew, but there was a process. Which made him wonder if Melina had known Clark was coming or if he’d just showed up.
If he’d just showed up, why?
If Hadas came up with the same question, she wasn’t going to be happy about it. She’d never liked unexpected events, and she sure didn’t these days. Finding out during the ambush that somebody had leaked their travel schedule had changed all of them in different ways.
Van shook off the memories of that morning and went back to watching for someone to shoot at them. That, at least, he knew what to do about.
“Mom!” Clark called. “Where the hell is a breaker bar in this mess?”
“Hang on!” she yelled from the kitchen at the back of the shop. “I’m starting dinner!”
That wasn’t good news. His mother was an excellent mechanic but judging from last night’s meal, her cooking skills hadn’t improved in the nine years since he’d seen her. Clark wiped his hands on a rag and tossed it aside. He wasn’t getting back down to the small tractor this afternoon, not unless he could fix it with a ratchet set missing three sizes, or a sledgehammer. The latter was tempting.
“Sorry,” he said when he got to the kitchen doorway. The small room had been for employees to take breaks, he figured, back when there were employees and labor laws. “Need any help?” Maybe she’d let him take over.
Sadly for his taste buds, Melina waved him off. “Just sit down and keep me company while I do this. You’ve been buzzing around since you got off the truck and I can tell it’s doing a number on your leg.”
Damn, he’d hoped he was hiding the worst of it. And keep her company? Not a request he’d anticipated after showing up out of the blue. Well, not quite out of the blue; she’d had a cot made up, so his father must have radioed about Clark’s impending arrival. At least she hadn’t offered him a hug when he got here. He didn’t know whether he’d have taken it, so probably just as well it hadn’t come up.
What the heck were they going to talk about? Not his leg, so Clark fished for a topic. Probably smart to learn more about his new home. Awkwardness aside, his mother was his first source of info. Which included its residents, right?
“So that was Van,” he said, trying to sound casual. Casually pleasant about the man who was effectively county sheriff, in charge of Freshtown’s defense team and also the head dude to whom the other three towns’ defense leads deferred. With his responsibilities it didn’t make sense for Van to live in the smallest town of the circuit, but Clark wasn’t about to complain if it snowed the man in near him for the winter. Maybe a little action would help stave off the disquiet he always felt as it got colder and the snow made the world more unforgiving.
“Sit.” His mother picked up the cutting board and slid some chopped white stuff into the pan before giving him a hard stare.
Clark sat, remembering that stare well. She thought he was up to something. He was surprised she hadn’t used the same stare yesterday when he’d gotten off the truck and almost fallen on his ass when his hip failed to cooperate. Instead she’d looked as uncomfortable as he felt.
All the more reason to find a conversation topic. “He’s one of the town leaders,” Clark clarified, trying not to sound like the lady protesting too much. “I’m just wondering about him.”
It was true. Well, it was true he was wondering lots of things about the tall stranger with the long hair, the neatly trimmed black beard, and the big rough hands. For example, he wondered what Van had been thinking about related to the topics of (a) Clark, (b) potential sexy times, and (c) the combination thereof, because the guy had clearly been having thoughts along those lines. Like he wouldn’t mind being pushed up against a wall. Hypothetically.
However, knowing more about who protected the town was a completely legitimate line of inquiry for a new resident.
“Curious is fine,” his mother said, “but messing someone around is not. He’s been through enough. Hadas too, she was on Irene’s team with him.”
Now there was a sobering topic. Irene and her people had been like responsible community-minded rock stars before they were ambushed and several of them died. Clark knew Van had been on that ill-fated trip as well, but only because everyone knew. Clark usually avoided knowing much about anyone on the defense teams. If he thought much about those whose job it was to shoot back, he ended up remembering the war, and he liked all that garbage to stay in the past as best he could manage.
Which begged the question why, after two members of the defense team under Van’s leadership had drawn weapons on him, Clark had the man on his mind.
No it didn’t. Van was too climbable, looking like he did and staring right at Clark like he had candy in his pocket and Van had a thing for sweets. He was only a bit taller than Clark, but wider and undoubtedly stronger, and damn, those eyes. Warm chocolatey brown, lighter than Clark’s, and gorgeous.
Though Hadas had certainly given Clark some kind of look when she came out with the truck key. Between Hadas and his mother, everyone seemed convinced Clark was up to no good.
Which he wasn’t. Probably. Unless up to no good meant getting laid, in which case he was definitely interested. His start-over life here could have some fun in it as long as he kept it light, couldn’t it?
“It really was just curiosity.” An innocent inquiry. Simply making conversation.
“This isn’t Denver or even Doberman, Clark,” she warned without making eye contact. “If feelings get hurt in a town this small, it can be bad news.”
Had she talked to his father about more than his impromptu relocation? Not a pleasant thought. In their last fight, his dad had thrown out a few choice words and phrases, like isolated and self-sabotaging and the war’s been over for twelve goddamn years, fucking let somebody in, Clark!
An overreaction. His now-kinda-ex, Thao, should have known Clark wasn’t somebody to expect much from. Clark shouldn’t have let it get so complicated, should have ended it sooner—especially once everything started going bad after his accident last year—but what was done couldn’t be undone. Thao’s bubbly laugh, his sharp intellect, the peace of his face when he was asleep… Clark was putting it all behind him.
Since Melina already had the stove hot Clark fetched more water from the mostly-empty rain barrel out back and set it to boil. He was going to make up for being another mouth to feed, especially next spring when supplies would have dwindled over the winter. He wasn’t as skilled with machines or solar systems as his mother was but he could handle the basics, and do light carpentry and general fix-it work, too. The town would be better off for him being here. He would make sure of it.
“You can sit back down,” she said. “I’m sorry, I was out of line. Thank you for getting the water.”
She cracked a couple of eggs into the pan, and it smelled fine. Probably.
Clark sat. “It’s okay. But seriously, my goal is to help wherever I can, not be a distraction. My party days are over anyway.” A lot of things were over. His party days. His job kicking ass on a construction crew. His ability to outrun a bear. He hoped there weren’t many bears around Freshtown.
“I’m sure you’ll be a big help,” Melina assured him. “Yet I do have to wonder, why not be a big help in Doberman?”
So much for nine years of almost total silence. Luckily, he had a decent answer ready. It was true, even if it left out the messy parts. “Doberman’s a work hard, play hard town, and I didn’t fit in anymore. Time to try something new. Also, Garrett turned up again and moved back in with us.”
She made a face. “I admit that would be challenging.”
Clark may not have seen her in almost a decade but they still had this much in common: neither of them had ever liked his dad’s cousin. Clark’s dad thought Garrett was fine, but Hank Bayes had an overly optimistic view of anybody who wasn’t his son. Thankfully Clark took after his mother in the people-sense department.
At least this time around Garrett seemed to be trying. He’d joined the Doberman defense team and Hank had said he was showing up to work shifts. Garrett had never been a bad guy per se. He didn’t steal or cheat or whatever. He was just undependable, and even if he was turning over a new leaf, it didn’t mean Clark wanted to room with the guy.
“Clark,” his mother went on, her tone telling him he wasn’t going to enjoy what was coming. She handed him a dish. “There are settled people in Doberman too. Families of all kinds. You could have moved in with that boyfriend.”
Ouch. She had talked to Hank. Silence was the better part of valor here. Anything he said was going to be used against him, and he’d gotten plenty of that in Doberman.
The food was… made of animal and plant matter. Possibly some other stuff too, judging by the taste and texture. How did anybody mess up eggs? Clark was definitely taking over cooking. He ate it anyway, because after never knowing where the next meal was coming from during the war, he knew better than to waste anything he could possibly get down.
They’d almost finished the meal before she relented. “Van’s a wonderful person. I’m not saying don’t get to know him. He lives with Hadas, and goes with Jaime Ortiz sometimes. You remember I told you his name, he’s on defense? I get the impression it’s all open. But the circuit is a heavy weight to put on anyone, so be careful.”
Clark was planning to be. He didn’t want another mess like he’d left behind in Doberman. He’d also prefer no projectile weapons aimed at him again, though that morning’s episode had barely registered as a threat. Clark had known he wasn’t going to make any sudden moves, and neither Hadas nor Sudhir had looked particularly trigger-happy. Clark even doubted Sudhir could have fired, judging from his expression while holding that rifle. “I will.”
She got up and started stacking their dishes. “So I’ve been wondering, have you ever thought of going back to Denver? How was it when you were there last spring?”
It had been surgery and a shortage of pain medication afterwards, the inside of a hospital with not enough staff, and all of his and his father’s carefully saved emergency cash gone because of one stupid accident. On his way back out, it had been street names he knew too well and neighborhoods he’d seen burning, and somehow when he got back to Doberman everything had gotten even worse. “Too many memories,” he said curtly, hoping she’d take the hint.
She didn’t. “You did the best you could, more than we should have asked. Barricades can’t keep shells out.”
That was exactly the kind of thing he didn’t think about. Anything before Doberman, really. He’d taken his standard of living for granted, never paying much attention to how many people around the world woke up every day with so much less. Now he was one of those people.
He couldn’t even rage against it. He wasn’t more worthy of air conditioning or coffee shops or digital music than everybody who’d never had it to begin with. His privilege had been an accident of birth. Then the right-wing hatred that started the war, the broken climate, all the things that had been fucked up before he was born had taken away the material manifestations of that privilege, and there wasn’t anything to do except file it under gone.
His mother was waiting for a response. He could tell from the weight of the air. But he didn’t have anything to say, and if he did, he couldn’t picture saying it to her. Not after all this time.
Eventually she gave up and went outside to wash the dishes. He cleaned the stove. The conversation hadn’t been as bad as he’d feared. He’d been expecting to hear that he should’ve made his own way in the world instead of depending on his father after his fall, and running to her now.
His mother silently brought the dishes in and handed half to him to dry. When they were stowed she handed him his hat and beckoned him out to the yard. It was classic Melina there too: all kinds of junk, scrap, anything she thought might be useful for fixing something, whether a vehicle or furniture or a building.
His dad had liked her magpie tendencies. Clark interrupted that thought. If he and Thao were the past, his parents were ancient history.
“What do you need to get done out here?” Being an asset began at home. “How can I help?”
She pulled on her gloves before moving some thick planks of scrap wood. The bugs underneath scuttled away from the air and light. Melina sank down to inspect the sheet metal behind the wood and Clark saw silver in her dark hair. He wondered when that had showed up, and what else he’d missed.
Then again, he hadn’t been the one who left with no warning.
“I think better when I’m outside and active,” she said. “Maybe you will too, and start being honest with me.”
Not this again. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She motioned for him to take the other end of the sheet metal. Clark pulled on his own gloves—he knew better than to come out here without a pair—and got his balance before helping her move it into the front yard. His hip twinged, but a four or five on the pain scale rather than a seven or eight, so nothing to complain about.
“If I’m going to help you,” she began, as they set the metal down and leaned it against the porch railing, “I have to know what’s going on. You’re not helping me or yourself by telling me fairy stories about what you ran away from.”
“Maybe I was tired of living in a former federal prison,” he snapped. Dammit. He hadn’t come here to give her attitude. He’d just wanted to be somewhere else.
Somewhere he could be enough.
Which probably meant this was the worst place he could have picked to start over. Hell, building a new life from scratch in some other town where he didn’t know anyone, broke, with winter coming, was sounding less intimidating right now.
“Oh yes,” Melina said, laughing and heading back into the yard. “A large defensible gated compound with a heating system. Sounds terrible.”
“They’re building more outside the gates every year,” he said as he followed. “It hasn’t been defensible for a while.” Not that anybody had showed up to take advantage of that so far. Luckily.
His mother turned to face him and put her hands on her hips. “Yes, that’s clearly the most important part of what I’m saying to you.”
Clark felt a flush of shame. “Sorry.” He’d always been sassy but he’d never been one to straight-out backtalk his mother.
She let out a long sigh. “Clark, here’s the thing. This town is almost done; people are leaving soon. The climate isn’t miraculously changing back so we’re always waiting for the next big fire and we’ve tapped out the best salvage. Whoever does stay, it’s going to be a few homesteads, no supply truck coming through, not much help if they run into problems.”
Clark waited to feel something about his new place ceasing to exist. All he could come up with was emptiness. Zero emotional reaction. Apparently he’d finally learned his lesson. Nothing lasts. He worked his jaw a bit waiting for what else she was about to drop on him.
“I would have told you,” Melina said, sounding more frustrated than anything else, “if you or Hank had asked if you could come.”
Well. That should have stung. Then again, if his mother had wanted him here, she would have said so at some point during the last nine years.
So. Freshtown was only a waystation. Wherever he went next, he’d have to make it work. He didn’t need much. Food and shelter. Everything else he could do without.
“Alright.” He was pleased his voice was steady. “How long before everyone leaves?”
“I’m going when Dr. Day leaves, in the spring.” Melina shook her head, resigned. “Time for me to rejoin the world, I guess, and hope they don’t make such a mess of it this time. I might head for the okay part of Kansas and get established somewhere before my hands get too much worse. Someplace big enough I could teach this kind of work after they go.”
Clark hadn’t realized her arthritis had gotten so bad, but Melina had never been one to show weakness. “I guess it’s good I’ll be here to help you pack up,” he said briskly. “What else needs doing? Give me a list.”
She eyed him with some emotion he didn’t want to dig too far into. “Clark, there’s plenty of things I wish I’d done differently in my life. But I want to help you. I can’t if you don’t open up.”
Waiting her out had worked before. Clark stared at a spot just over her shoulder, assessing the scrub oak behind the yard. He should probably cut some of it back for more of a firebreak.
Melina sighed. “I’ll get you a list.”
Clark nodded and went to fetch the hand saw.
These are as spoiler-free as possible, but to the author it’s more important that folks who need content details can get them. Despite the post-collapse setting, no animals are ever in danger, and there is no sexual assault and no threats thereof.
On-page or significant discussion:
- Violence, including thefts, beatings and shootings, followed by hospital treatment that includes an IV.
- Pursuit of violent lawbreakers with a goal of killing them, due to lack of robust criminal justice / rehabilitation system.
- Disability after injury, character struggles with self-confidence, others’ perceptions, and economic anxiety.
- Anxiety attack. Depression.
- Grief over loss of a romantic partner, sibling, adult child.
- Unexpected breakup (not between main characters).
- Marijuana use. Alcohol use.
- Sex, explicit, with D/s elements (explicit in Chapters 16, 19, 31, and 45; passing mentions in Chapter 15 and 27). MC almost goes into subspace unplanned, undisclosed to partner until afterwards (Chapter 16).
- Forced migration due to climate change.
- Death of minor secondary character.
- Loss of teeth.
In main characters’ backstories, significant discussion:
- A modern U.S. civil war sparked by right wing-violence, being a child soldier, losing parents, forced relocation, economic and food insecurity, emotional fallout of wartime experiences. Mention of bombing of Jewish synagogue. No extended flashbacks.
- Large wildfires several years in the past leading to increased vigilance about fire. No fires or threats of fire during the book.
- Bandit attack that killed multiple people and left a character with scars on hands and face and multiple characters with trauma and mental health needs, including one who was temporarily suicidal.
- Accident that required surgery and a hospital stay with limited availability of painkillers, and treatment consumed most of family’s financial resources.
- Parental divorce.