Seventeen year old Raine Czekalski balanced a stack of dirty dishes in her hands as she sidled into the house. Her nose wrinkled at the tang of tomato sauce and spices. Bits of chips and bread crumbs clung to the white stoneware plates. Gooey syrup kept the dessert plates from sliding too much. She heaved the stack onto the farmer’s table in the center of the kitchen. “Something’s up.”
Standing at the sink under the kitchen window, her best friend Cheyenne Zindell pulled her hands from the soapy water. Fear flashed in her eyes. Suds rolled down her thin arms and she swayed on her bare feet. “Have the crazies found us?”
Next to her, Raine’s third Musketeer and other best friend Colton Talbot wrapped a wiry arm around Cheyenne’s shoulders. “The guards would have fired a warning shot if they spied any strangers.”
Raine tamped down the left out feeling. Up until four months ago, she would have been included in the huddle. Now her friends had shifted into the realm of boy and girl friend, leaving room for only two. She was happy for them. Both of them, but…
The screen door squeaked. Jason DeWitt swaggered inside. His brown eyes skipped off the couple to stick on her. He winked before joining her at the table. Silverware jingled as he plopped a rolled napkin of it beside her plates. His muscled arm brushed hers. “Raine’s right.”
Her bestie’s relationship hadn’t been the only thing to change. Raine slipped her hand into Jason’s. His callouses were rough from working on the farm. Her insides tingled and tightened. “Before this last summer, it would have killed you to admit I was right, wouldn’t it?”
He shrugged. The motion smooth, betraying his gymnast training. “I wouldn’t have even thought it. As my only serious competition for high school valedictorian, I had to undermine your confidence and take you down. I’d already let you win for middle school.”
“As if.” After one last squeeze on his hand, Raine grabbed a fork from the dirty pile and began scraping uneaten food off the plates into the slops bucket to feed the goats later. “You had to study for your grades. My smarts come naturally.”
“Raine would have won.” Cheyenne dried her hands on a tea towel. “She had all easy classes her last year. Or would have had.”
Raine pursed her lips. “AP English, Algebra, and Biology aren’t easy classes.”
“For you they would have been.” Colton kissed Cheyenne’s temple then released her. “And I promised to give you my notes and old tests.”
“Ha. I knew it. You cheated to get good grades.” Jason tugged the napkin free of the utensils and snapped the cloth at her. “I win by default.”
“That’s not cheating.” Raine snatched the napkin from Jason’s grip. “That’s time management. Focusing on what I need to know.” She twisted her hands, twirling the napkin into a rope. “Besides, I wasn’t the one selling tests, answers, and essays to other kids. That’s cheating.”
She snapped the napkin at him.
Jason shifted away, avoiding the hit. “That’s free enterprise. And it saved our lives.”
Memories of the nerd court and their drive to beat her and her friends to death slammed against Raine’s skull. She caught her breath and locked her knees. Her last day of school had almost been her last day on Earth. “Yeah.”
“We survived. We’ll keep surviving.” Jason wrapped his fingers around her hand. Shifting, he pressed against her back. “We’re smart. We can do this, Miss Salutatorian.”
Raine allowed his chest to support her spine. Touch was good, so was her unsettled stomach and racing heart. Soon, stolen kisses and a little petting wouldn’t be enough. Then her aunt and uncle would have a shit fit. She pulled his arms around her stomach, and boxed up the past to deal with later. “Dude, you so wouldn’t have bested me academically. You would have been number two in the class.”
“Guess, we won’t know.” Jason rested his chin on her shoulder. His warm breath washed down her chest.
Raine shifted as her body warmed.
“We could vote who is smarter.” Cheyenne embraced them both. Placed a loud smooch on Raine’s cheek. “My bestie is the smartest. That’s two. Colton?”
Colton hugged them from the other side and kissed Cheyenne’s nose. “Sorry, dude, but Raine is smarter.”
“You both would say that.” Jason tensed in the embrace, but didn’t squirm out of it as he had the first month. “You’ve been her friend since you guys were in diapers.”
“Not quite.” Colton pulled away first, then grabbed the stack of dishes and carried them to the sink. His oversized shirt flapped around his lanky frame. “Raine didn’t come to live with her aunt and uncle until she was eight.”
Raine shivered. She’s suffered through one day in a group home after her parents had been killed in a car accident. And her world had ended. This time, she still had her family. “And I met Cheyenne first. She lived across the street from my aunt and uncle.”
Scooping up the silverware, she shook the bunch at Raine. “But we met at the library during kids’ reading time. When you corrected the librarian’s pronunciation.”
Jason’s shoulders shook. Laughter slipped past his lips. “You corrected the librarian at eight?”
Raine rolled her eyes. Why did he find that funny? For the last six years, he was always trying to correct her in class. “It wasn’t a librarian. It was a teenage volunteer, and she didn’t pronounce the words right.”
The screen door squeaked. Thirteen year old Brien Patricks trundled inside, napkins formed a cloth bouquet in his arms. Acne spotted his chubby cheeks. A shock of red hair curled atop his round head and exertion painted his cheeks red. “Did anyone hear what the adults were talking about?”
With a sigh, Jason released Raine. “Every one of them clammed up when I delivered their meatball subs or peach cobbler.”
“Same here.” Raine propped a hip against the table. How could she have been so easily distracted? Could that be the first symptom of the crazy?
“We’ve been stuck in the kitchen cleaning all evening.” Cheyenne plunged the silverware into the soapy water, then chucked a towel at Raine.
Raine caught it, shook it flat, then sauntered toward the counter. Large stainless steel pots, bowls, and pans covered the chipped linoleum counter. Cooking for fifty people created a lot of dirty dishes. Thank God, she wasn’t the only one who had clean-up duty.
Nodding, Colton peered out the window. Adults and little kids moved under the twinkling Christmas lights. “Something’s up, though. I think everyone’s out there.”
“Everyone?” Rising on tiptoes, Raine stared over Cheyenne’s shoulder. Her mouth moved as she counted. Everyone. Fear trailed an icy finger down her spine. “Who’s keeping watch?”
What if the crazies snuck inside when no one was looking? They could be murdered in their beds. Her attention darted to the entrance in the living room. All the sporting equipment was in the hall, thirty feet away. A lot could happen in thirty feet. Her lungs stained to draw air. Blackness trimmed her vision.
Jason cleared his throat.
Her attention cut to him across the room, then the knife in his hand. Right. They were hardly defenseless. Raine breathed easier.
“Maybe it’s over.” Jason placed the knife on the washing machine, then finished sorting the fabric into piles for tonight’s wash load. “Maybe your sister Rosa found a cure for the crazy.”
Raine nodded. Although technically Rosa was her cousin, they were raised as sisters. Rosa was the smarter, more annoying one. Grabbing the clean sauce pot from the counter, Raine dried the interior. “Wouldn’t they have made an announcement by now?”
“A cure for the crazy?” Cheyenne dropped the clean plate. “My parents…”
Colton caught the dish and dipped it into the rinse water. “Will be among the first to get treatment. You know Mr. Robelski promised that and Rosa did, too.”
Raine held her breath. Brent and Kelly Zindell had walked off the sanity pier on the way to the ranch. They’d nearly killed Drew and Dogooder. And Mr. Brent had gotten old man Hauf beaten to death. Raine shivered. He’d nearly gotten them all slaughtered.
And Cheyenne still dreamed she’d join her parents on the crazy side.
Granny Hauf rapped on the window pane. She urged them to come out with a liver-spotted hand. “Your folks are making an announcement.”
Raine placed her hand over her chest, making sure her heart hadn’t leapt out.
A moment later, the backyard disappeared as the old lady covered the glass with corrugated metal shutters. Two slots suitable for a rifle barrel betrayed their true purpose—protection.
“I don’t think the crazy has been cured.” Raine hung the pot on its hook then draped the damp towel on the oven handle.
The lid of the washer clanged shut. Brien paled, highlighting his freckles. “Could they be close?”
Raine started. She’d nearly forgotten the kid was there.
“Not with all the guards here tonight.” Jason nudged the thirteen year old.
They’d all faced the mobs of crazy, but Brien’s encounter had been two months ago. And he’d watched his parents die. As horrific as the car accident had been, Raine knew it hadn’t compared to the attack at the Bar Margarita ranch. Still, they’d formed a bond. Being the only five teenagers on the ranch had helped.
Raine nodded. “They would have told us to grab our weapons if there’s a chance of an attack.”
The screen door creaked. Uncle Paul huffed inside the kitchen. At barely, five-five, he was nearly as round as tall. His suspenders struggled to hold up his worn jeans. White fringed his bald head and bushy eyebrows wiggled over his blue eyes like albino caterpillars. He rubbed his pudgy hands together. “Mrs. Hauf didn’t have to interrupt your K.P. duties. I was just coming in to talk to you.”
Aunt Grace slid out from behind her husband. Stick-bug thin she smiled at them. “We have exciting news.”
“The crazy…” Cheyenne bit her lip.
“We’re safe here, dear.” Aunt Grace’s gray hair curled in delicate waves from the top of her head to her pearl earrings. A diamond wedding ring caught the light from the CFLs overhead. “That’s why we’ve decided to start school back up. And we’ll have a little graduation ceremony next spring.”
Uncle Paul beamed at them.
Raine’s stomach clenched. “School?”
Her aunt and uncle were starting up school at the end of the world. And they acted like that was a good thing. Maybe they had gone crazy. They had to be crazy. There were more important thing than Algebra, English, and biology.
“School?” Cheyenne parroted.
Colton carefully set the rinsed plate on the counter. “Do you have the books and such?”
Aunt Grace waved her slim arm. “Ellen will pick up everything when she and her boyfriend go to town tomorrow.”
Silence settled in the room like a ghostly entity.
Raine blinked. Had she heard correctly? She replayed the memory. “Ellen is going into town?”
“Yes.” Aunt Grace tutted. “You yourself remarked at how low supplies had gotten.”
Uncle Paul nodded. His triple chins wobbled. “Of course, she and her fiancé aren’t going alone. Detective Dogooder will go with them. And a handful of others will wait by the stock trailer near the trailhead.”
Jason stepped forward. “I’d like to help, sir.”
Brien cowered behind Jason, tried to slip between the washer and the fridge.
Raine stiffened. If they wanted volunteers… “Me, too.”
Uncle Paul’s lips tightened.
“I have self-defense training.” Raine clasped her hands in front of her. This was what she had waited for all summer—payback. “And Dogooder said I was the best student. I hit nine out of ten of my targets.”
“I hit ten out of ten.” Jason stood next to her. “We can cover them.”
Geez, didn’t he know when to reel in his competitive streak? Raine elbowed him in the gut.
“Oh, dear.” Aunt Grace twirled her left pearl stud.
Uncle Paul cleared his throat. He straightened.
Raine ground her teeth. Uh-oh. He was assuming his lawyer persona.
“We need you kids at the house.” Her uncle looked them each in the eye. “Everything you do helps to make things normal. You don’t want the children traumatized further by recent events, do you?”
Cheyenne studied her cuticles. Colton clenched his hands but shifted his attention to the screen door.
Her turn. Raine raised her chin. Guilt no longer had power over her.
Uncle Paul squinted at her. “This school will go a long way to help them adjust to life here. You do want to help around the ranch, don’t you?”
Jason huffed. A whisper of fabric revealed him caving under pressure.
The chicken. Raine wasn’t so easily cowed. “We help around the ranch. We take care of the dishes, help with the cooking, pull weeds from the garden and harvest the produce. We’ve picked all the peaches in the orchard, dried some of them. And we gather the eggs, milk the goats, and help with the butchering of the pigs. Plus we keep our room neat.”
Not something she’d done while living at home in Phoenix. Messy was a form of self-expression. It was not an option when she shared the living room with her friends, and had Granny Hauf’s eagle eye watching them.
“You’re not going, Raine.” Uncle Paul raised a sausage finger. “I promised your parents I’d keep you safe. I won’t break that promise because you’re sulking.”
Raine stumbled back a step. Her parents. That was the first time her uncle has used them. It sucked. Crossing her arms over her chest, she glared at him. “Fine.”
“Fine.” Uncle Paul glared back.
Aunt Grace chewed on her bottom lip. “Well, now that that’s settled. We just wanted to let you know that school should start in a couple of days.”
A couple of days. A lot could happen in a couple of days. Like a trip to town? Would her friends be up for it? Raine glanced at Jason.
His eyebrows rose.
“Raine Czekalski,” Uncle Paul growled.
Raine’s spine stiffened. If he forbade her to go…
“Come along, dear.” Aunt Grace pushed on her husband’s meaty shoulder. “Let the kids finish cleaning the kitchen.”
Uncle Paul spun on his heel and lumbered out the back door.
Jason latched the screen door, then shut the interior one. Leaning against it, he faced her. “What are you thinking, Raine?”
“It’s four miles to the trailhead.” Stooping, Colton glanced through the gun ports in the corrugated metal shutters. “Maybe six or seven miles to town from there.”
“You want us to walk there and back?” Cheyenne returned to the sink and fished out a handful of silverware. “We can’t carry much for that distance.”
Raine smiled. She had the best friends ever. Together, they’d show her aunt and uncle they weren’t kids anymore. “There’s four bicycles in the barn. Each has a basket on the handlebars and saddle bags.”
“What will we take for weapons?” Jason threw the sliding bolt. “They’ll notice if we take the equipment in the hall.”
“There’s hammers and axes in the barn.” More than enough for them to have two different weapons each. Raine rubbed her hands together. This was so much easier when everyone contributed.
Transferring her handful of forks into the rinse water, Cheyenne angled her body slightly toward them. “Your sister, Drew, and Dogooder are going for food. We can’t hit the same places they will. You know they’ll send us back.”
“Let ’em get the food.” Colton swished the silverware in the water. “The golf course has some of those smaller solar panels, we need more power and those should fit into the saddle bags.”
“We’ll bring some rope, just in case. And we’ll grab the cameras from the course.” Jason removed the towel from the oven handle. “We could watch more ground than the guards can.”
“What about a solar water heater for the roof?” Cheyenne grabbed a saucer from the stack. “I heard your aunt saying they might run out of gas before the winter is over.”
“We could probably gerry-rig one from black piping.” Jason quickly dried a cookie sheet. “Do you know if there’s a hardware store nearby?”
Yes, yes. This would be perfect. Raine would show her aunt and uncle they didn’t need anymore schooling. “There’s one by the senior center. Although the maintenance shed on the golf course might have something, too.”
“I don’t want to go.” Brien whispered and pressed further into the space between the washer and fridge.
Raine stiffened. She’d completely forgotten about him. Again. After all he’d gone through, she’d taken him under her wing. So had her friends. Plastering a smile on her face, she approached him. “I’m glad you don’t want to go Brien, because your job is the most important of all.”
The kid blinked. “It is?”
“Yep.” She quickly came up with an idea. Her aunt and uncle would punish her for it. But, it would help make her point. She, Jason, and Cheyenne were seventeen, hardly kids. And Colton was nearly nineteen. Definitely not a kid.
It was time they weren’t treated as such.
Raine held out her hand. “We’re going to have to leave early. If asked, I want you to tell my aunt and uncle, we went to Polk Spring to go skinny dipping.”
Brien flushed. Even his ears turned red. “S-skinny dipping?”
“Exactly. Then if they decide to look for us, they’ll be looking in the opposite direction.” It was perfect. Raine hugged the chubby kid.
Jason planted his face in his palm. “You’re going to get me and Colton shot.”
“Don’t worry, Uncle Paul will know I’m to blame.” Raine hoped he would. She didn’t want her friends hurt. “Besides, he’ll be so pleased once he sees what we’ve brought, he won’t care. And no one will dismiss us as kids anymore.”
“Now, if you guys will finish the dishes, I’ll move the bicycles out of the barn and hide them in the trees so we can leave at first light.” Raine wiped her hands on her pants and grabbed the slops bucket.
Colton checked the backyard through the opening. “Everyone’s still in the backyard.”
“I’ll help with the bikes.” Jason tossed his towel at Brien. “We should be back before they miss us.”
Brien shuffled forward, gnawing on his bottom lip.
“Relax.” Raine circled the table and headed toward the front door. “My uncle will probably assume I’m having a snit fit and Jason is talking me down.”
Cheyenne snorted. “She does it every time she doesn’t get her way.”
“Come on.” Dashing by her, Jason grabbed her hand. “Let’s hurry anyway.”
The screen door opened silently. Her mouth dried. Her heart hammered against her ribs. Pausing on the porch, she glanced left then right. Nothing. Hunching low, she darted forward.
Jason kept pace.
Reaching the barn, she pushed on the latch. Wood bit into her palms when she eased open the door. Chickens scuttled out of the way. A few goats glanced up. She beelined to the workbench in the back.
Jason selected a few adjustable wrenches and screwdrivers, before removing two hand axes, a pry bar, and two ball peen hammers. He winced as they clacked together in the saddlebags.
Raising the kickstand, she grabbed the handlebars of her favorite bicycle and wheeled it out of the horse stall into the corral at the back of the barn. “Come on.”
She looked left, then right. “It’s clear.”
Mounting the bike, she stomped on the pedals. The back tire dug into the mud then the bicycle shot forward. Standing, she powered on. Leaves crunched. A twig snapped.
No one called out.
They’d done it. A twisted pinon loomed around the bend. She swung her leg over and coasted closer. Dismounting, she ran from the momentum and plunged into the vegetation, ducking branches. She checked on Jason.
His teeth flashed white in the moonlight.
“There’s a clearing up ahead. We’ll park the bikes there.”
He flashed a thumbs-up.
Her heart slowed to normal. They really needed those cameras. If there’d been enough guards, someone would have stopped them by now. They were doing the right thing. The trees thinned.
White flashed in the clearing.
She stopped. Her sneakers slipping on pine needles. Had she imagined it?
“What?” Hissing under his breath, he stopped beside her.
A woman sprinted through the clearing. Twigs caught in her hair. Tears marred her clothes. Mud stained her cheek.
And the gun in her hand glinted in the moonlight.