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Kiwi Strong Sneak Preview

Kiwi Strong Sneak Preview

Book 3: New Zealand Ever After

Pre-order now – coming June 19!

 

 

 

Who we are in the present includes who we were in the past.

– Fred Rogers

 

1 -When Life Curves

Daisy

They say that the person you are is all about the person you’ve been. In my case, they’re probably right, because when my life shifted in an instant from “Going to Mount Zion to rescue my sisters” to “I’m in a submerged car,” I didn’t die.

If I’d still been in the cult, I might have thought it was God’s will and drowned. Or, of course, I might just have panicked whilst trying to escape and then drowned. But then, if I’d still been in the cult, I wouldn’t have been driving a car at all. Also, I was too stubborn to give up that easily. That was why I wasn’t still in the cult.

Obedient submission is a thing at Mount Zion. For women, that is. It isn’t a thing I have, fortunately.

There was the man, too. I could have sat back and waited for him to rescue me, I guess. Maybe he would have. You’re better off rescuing yourself, though, in my experience.

I was just south of Cromwell at the time. After midnight on a late-October Saturday, to be exact, after a full nursing shift in the Emergency Department. You could think it happened because I was tired, but I wasn’t, not really. I was used to hard work. I’d been working hard since I was six years old.

The fog had started some kilometers back, drifting over the low ground beside the Clutha River like a fluffy throw. Now, it was more like a smothering wool blanket, and I’d slowed to a crawl, my fingers tight on the steering wheel, my headlights showing me the white stripe to my left that was the only thing keeping me on the road.

Where was a handy truck when you needed one? Somebody whose reassuring red taillights you could follow?

I’d been keyed up already. Now, I had to remind myself to breathe, to shift myself into the emergency-nurse head space. I wasn’t a frightened teenager anymore. I was a competent, independent woman with my own money and my own job and my own car. I was that worst of all things, in fact—a woman in trousers. The Whore of Babylon.

Born to be bad. It was a cheering thought. I turned up the music and sang along. A strong woman belting out a song that sounded like empowerment. No, two strong women, because we were both singing. Yay.

I’d made this drive through central Otago, from coastal Dunedin to the Southern Alps, a dozen times in the past couple of years, and not one time before that, not since I’d left Mount Zion twelve years ago with my twin brother. Sixteen years old, under cover of darkness, with five dollars in the pocket of my ugly brown dress. I’d thought I’d surely come back soon, because I hadn’t believed I could really survive life Outside, where the Devil reigned. I’d also thought I’d never come back.

Neither thing had turned out to be true, which makes you wonder: how much of life do we spend pre-living things that never happen instead of living what’s in front of us?

Not a minute more than I could help, that was how much. Not anymore.

I was thinking that, dimly aware of the headlights coming up behind me but with every other bit of my attention glued to that white line, when my lights picked up a dark shape bursting out of the night and leaping across the road. My entire body jerked, my hands yanked at the steering wheel, and my foot slammed the brake pedal to the floor as whatever it was passed practically under my tires.

No impact, though. I’d missed it. I started to sigh with relief.

The sigh caught in my throat.

When your car’s hit from behind, you don’t always register yourself going forward. You notice yourself going backward afterwards. That was what I felt. My head and back slammed against the seat, and the car spun around to the left.

He hadn’t hit me straight on. He’d tried to go right, maybe. To go around me, but I’d swerved the same way myself. I knew that, because it was my job and my nature to notice things and break them down. That was how you figured out your next step.  

The car spun even as I tried to turn the wheel, and I felt the juddering, spongy movement under my right foot that was the antilock brakes engaging. Time passed, tick by tick, in dreamy nanoseconds as I spun like I was on a carousel, my headlights sweeping across a wall of thick gray. I felt the impact when the car’s wheels left the smooth tarmac and bumped over the grass, though. And I felt the change when the car began to slide backwards as if the wheels were greased.

Wet grass. Downhill. No traction.

My foot was still on the brake. Over the speakers, the song had reached a climax, and the singer was belting it out, the noise filling my head. And I was sliding. Sliding. Leveling out, and … bouncing. Against something that gave under me.

It was water.

I was in the river.

The headlights cut out, and then the radio did. Silence, but not, because I could hear the water around me. Not like rain. Nothing like rain. The darkness surrounded me, and my feet were so cold. 

They were cold because they were wet, and then my ankles were.

I was trapped in my car with the doors locked, and I was sinking.

* * *

Gray

I drove through the fog and thought about nothing but the road ahead. I didn’t need to think about the meeting. I already knew what I would say to the former teammates who were now my chief investors. I already knew how I’d be, too. Direct. Open. Clear-eyed.

Being a builder isn’t much like rugby, you could think, except that it’s exactly like rugby. You make a plan, and then you go out there, keep your head, and play what’s in front of you, because rugby games, like life, never go according to plan.

Playing rugby and winning at rugby aren’t the same thing. The difference lies in how well you adapt. When life curves, you swerve. When the tackler comes at you, you sidestep, keep your legs moving, and find a new route. Well, if you’re a midfielder, you do. If you’re a forward, you do your best to run the other fella over instead. That way doesn’t work as well in business. That was why the fellas with the low numbers on their jerseys were the silent partners in the background, and I was the nimble midfielder making it happen.

I knew how to do this. I’d been as good at that deceptively quick, silky sidestep as anybody in the game, and better than most, and I was still good at it. I also knew this road like the back of my hand, fog or no fog, because I was an Otago boy born and bred. I still wasn’t taking anything for granted. I was paying attention, because this visibility was no joke.

The only problem was the headache.

It started the way it usually did, with shimmering bands of light at the edge of my vision, and a blind spot like a starburst in my left eye. I had some tablets in the glove box, though, and as soon as I got through the worst of this fog, I’d pull off the road and take one. The pain hadn’t come yet, but it was there, lurking just beyond the black curtain, and so was the vertigo.

From working too many hours today, that was, even though I knew better. When you’ve had as many concussions as I have, you do tend to know better. Also from too much screen time and not enough to eat. All of that was fixable, though. I’d take a tablet, drive another hour, and go to bed. The meeting wasn’t until ten. I was used to pain, and I had time to get over this. Just another sidestep. Just another swerve.

That was why, though, when the red brake lights came on in the gloom, I wasn’t as fast as usual. It was the lights that weren’t actually there, the ones shimmering around the edges, that distracted me­ into not recognizing what I was seeing.

I did react, though. I was jerking the wheel hard to the right, preparing to swing around the other car, because my brain had already calculated that I couldn’t stop in time.

The problem was, the other car went the same way. The heavy ute caught it solidly on the right rear bumper even as my foot tried to press the brake pedal straight through the floor, and the car started to spin. I was moving to the verge at the sight, getting out of the way. Punching the button for my flashers, getting ready to help as soon as the other car stopped.

It didn’t stop, though. It turned a complete circle, turned some more, and slid backward straight off the road, the lights flashing from white to red to bright white again as it spun, making me throw a hand up in front of my eyes.

It was going too fast. Unstoppable.

Straight into the river.

The two round lights winked out, and it disappeared into darkness.

 

 

2 – The Body Goes

Daisy

By the time I realized I should have hit the button to open the window on my way down the bank, the time for wishing was over. The water was already past my ankles, and rising fast.

Breathe. Think. Act.

I reached behind me, found the headrest release button with my thumb, and pulled the whole thing up and out. My only hope.

The water was to my knees.

I couldn’t get out through the windshield. That could be true for the front windows as well, and I didn’t have time to find out. Although once I unfastened my seatbelt, I was hurting my chances in another way.

No help for it. Rear window.

The car was small. Fortunately, so was I. I shoved and kicked my way between the front seats into the back as the car rocked under me, knelt on the rear seat, flipped the headrest so I was holding the fabric part with two hands, reared back, and bashed at the rear window.

Nothing.

I was kneeling in water now. That was good, though. The car needed to fill more for this to work.

I could do it. I was going to do it. I forced myself to wait until the water reached my chest, then hauled back and hit the window again, harder this time.

A crack. I thought. No, definitely a crack, because water was trickling in through it. Good. Brilliant.

The water was to my throat. Soaking me. Freezing me. Trying to drown me. I hauled back again and sent the thought out. I’m coming to get you, Fruitful and Obedience. Don’t worry. I’m coming. I focused all my energy on this moment, hauled in the deepest breath I had just before the water reached my nose, and slammed the metal rods against the window like it was my last act on earth. Like it was my victory.

The glass pebbled into a thousand pieces, and I grabbed the edge of the window frame, forcing the cubes of glass to crumble, and fought the force of the water rushing in the rest of the way. Once it had equalized, I shoved myself up and out, turning, tucking, rolling until there was nothing holding me back.

The cold punched into me like an avalanche, shocking me, numbing me. I didn’t fight it, or the current, either. I was still holding my breath. My lungs were balloons, and balloons rose.

I rose.

When my head broke the surface, I gasped, hauled in a breath, coughed, shoved the hair from my face, and looked around.

Nothing but darkness. Black water. Gray fog.

The highway was somewhere, though. I needed to find it, because when I got out, I was going to need help to survive. I turned, my limbs made clumsy by cold and shock, and saw it. A barely-there brightness in the gloom, or a lessening of the dark. That would be headlights.

I swam to the light. No need to fight the current. I swam with it, angling my way toward the shore.  I was slow, and I was struggling, but I swam anyway. I’d been slow before, and I’d struggled before, and I finished every time. In first place or in last, what matters is finishing, and I was going to finish this.

Finishing is all about will, and all about pride. Even if you do it on your hands and knees.

When you do triathlons, your life is about struggling. When you’re me, period, your life is about struggling.

The body goes where the mind takes it. My mantra. I said it to myself, and I swam.

My canvas trainers felt like lead weights, and the cold was a painful thing, like burning in a fire. I put my sisters’ little-girl faces out there beyond the light and forced my arms and legs to move.

I wasn’t dying like this. Not tonight.

Swim.

Something grabbed me. It had my shirt. Pulling me.

I was caught. I was caught.

No panic.

No panic.

* * *

Gray

I was out of the ute the instant it came to a stop, grabbing the heavy torch from its mount, laying it on the seat, and yanking at my bootlaces.

You can’t go in there, my rational brain, my rugby brain, tried to tell me. You don’t even know where they are. You’ll die for nothing.

I saw them go in, and I’ll find them, my other brain, the one that answered to something higher than rugby, answered. I’ll find them, or I’ll die trying.

Oh, God. What if there were kids in there?

I was going in.

I got the boots off, grabbed the torch, left the door of the ute open for extra light, and ran. Only a few steps to the bank, and I was sweeping the light over the black, rippling water the entire way, looking for bubbles. Looking for anything.

The river was slow here, and I’d seen the car go in close to the bank. Right about … here. I’d fixed the image in my brain, and my brain knew how to read the space, even with a migraine. Spatial awareness had been my life forever.

I was going to find them, and I was going to get them out.

There were no bubbles.

It had been minutes since they’d gone in. Even if they were holding their breath … most people couldn’t hold it that long.

I knew I wouldn’t be in time. I was doing it anyway.

I’d taken the first few steps when I thought I saw something. Heard something. A shape, maybe. Something different, downstream.

Downstream, where they’d be. If they’d got out. How could they have got out?

There it was again, though. Something, in the fog. A flash, or maybe that was the migraine.

I yelled. “Oi! Here!” A sweep of the torch, and I saw it again. I couldn’t tell what it was.

I was running along the bank when I picked it out, far ahead of me in the water, barely visible in the light of the torch. Two heads. An arm, moving. A mother, pulling a kid with her? I was in the river, wading fast, feeling the cold and forgetting it, shouting all the while. “Hold on! I’m coming! Hold on!”

The heads turned toward me as my light found them. It shone straight at them for an instant before I jerked it upward so as not to blind them. Three or four more mighty, heaving steps through water to my waist, and I had them.

One of them, anyway. The other one was a dog.

A big retriever of some kind, the human’s shirt sleeve in its mouth, swimming for its life. And hers, because the person was a girl. I’d seen that in the flash of light. White face, streaming dark seaweed of hair around it. I grabbed her under the arms, told the dog, “I’ve got her. Let’s go,” and started pulling her to shore. The dog resisted a moment, then let go and swam beside us until its paws touched the muddy bottom, when it struggled up to dry land, then dropped to the ground, panting hard.

I barely noticed. I had the girl, who was small and light enough that she must be a teenager. A teenager, and she’d got herself and the dog out of a submerged car? How? The thought flashed and was gone as she stumbled onto shore beside me, all of her shaking, all of her freezing.

It would be shock, now. Hypothermia.

“Anybody else in there?” I asked, then asked it again. Urgently. She shook her head, but couldn’t get the words out. I said, “Come on,” took her hand, and headed up to the highway. When she stumbled again, I picked her up in my arms and ran toward the truck, its headlights still on, the open driver’s door spilling light onto the ground. There were two other cars there, their hazard lights flashing, and a couple men running toward me, shouting questions.

“Her car went in,” I said. “Nobody else out there.” My teeth were chattering so hard, I could barely speak.

“Bloody hell, mate,” one of the fellas said. “You were lucky to get her out.”

I wasn’t listening. I was setting the girl down on the driver’s seat, reaching into the back for the grotty old blanket I carried, then yanking her shirt up and over her head.

“Got another blanket?” I asked the fellas. “Shirt? Towel? Anything?”

“I do,” the older one said. “Dog blanket. But here.” He pulled off his jacket. “Have this.”

I was already unhooking the girl’s bra. She was slim and small-boned, but she had some muscle to her, which explained that swim. She was also shaking all the way now, but she still made a protesting noise as I pulled the bra off. She tried to grab for it, in fact. I told her, “I’ve got to get you dry. Hold this around you,” and wrapped the jacket around her, not bothering with the sleeves, then pulled off her shoes and socks and started wrestling with her jeans.

She said, through shudders of cold, “I wore the … tight ones. Act of … rebellion.”

“Yeh,” I said through gritted teeth. “I noticed.” She lay back on the seat, and between the two of us, we worked the wet denim down her legs. It was a major effort. Warmed us up, maybe, because she was still shaking, but she was also laughing.

“Oh, bugger,” she said. “Trousers are the … Devil’s work. I’m the … Whore of Babylon … after all. Already burned in the … fire. Oh, bloody hell, that was cold.”

The two blokes may have been staring at each other. It was hysteria, maybe, except that this girl seemed like about the least hysterical person I’d ever met. Possibly including the rugby players. I got the jeans off at last, put the blanket over her, and said, “Take off your undies.”

“Does that … work?” she asked, working away under the blanket with as little fuss as she’d shown about the rest of it. “With the … girls?”

It took me a second. Then I laughed. “Well, I’m usually a little smoother in how I say it.”

“You’re cold … too,” she said. “Hypo … hypothermia.”

“Yeh. No worries.” I took the other blanket—it did smell like dog—and was about to wrap it around my waist before getting my jeans off when I remembered, turned, and looked. There was the dog, lying down five or six meters behind us, panting, looking like it couldn’t crawl any farther. The girl hadn’t even asked about it, had totally ignored it, in fact. That was odd, but people did odd things under stress.

I jogged over there, feeling the stones under my stockinged feet for the first time, crouched down beside the animal, and began to rub it down with the blanket.

It was a Labrador. Dark, and thin. More than thin—skinny, the ribs right there to feel. Exhausted, too, its muzzle on its paws, its eyes closed. And shaking with cold.

“Hey, fella,” I said softly, rubbing a little harder, trying to warm it up. “How ya goin? All right there? Brave, weren’t you, swimming like that, pulling her?”

“Where did it come from?” The voice came from behind me. The girl.

“What?” I turned my head. “You should be in the ute. Keys are in the ignition. Start it. Warm it up.”

“In a … minute.” She got down beside me, looking smaller than ever in an oversized jacket and a blanket as a skirt, and put her hand on the dog’s broad head. “I thought I was … hung up somehow. In the river. It was the dog, grabbing my shirt. I couldn’t think … where it came from. But I think … There was a shape. Why I swerved.”

She was still so cold. Why was she out here? I said, “I thought it was yours. It’s skinny. No collar. Stray, I reckon. Go get warm.” I’d all but pushed her into the river. The thought of what could have happened—what should have happened—was trying to make me shake. I needed to get her safe. I needed to get both of us warm.

“No,” she said. “Not if it’s been … dumped. People can be so … horrible. I’m taking it.” She was paying no attention to my perfectly logical suggestion. I was the rescuer, or I’d tried to be, and you were meant to listen to your rescuer, right? If I was cold, she had to be so much colder.

“Fair enough,” I said. “If you’re sure.”

“Come on,” she said, standing up. “Bring it. I’m freezing. I can’t … think. I need to get warm and think. Make a plan. And something’s wrong with you. You’re moving … oddly. Something hurts.”

I’d just said that she needed to warm up. Twice. And she hadn’t even mentioned her car. That car was buggered, if they could even find it. Down the river by now, maybe. I’d swear she’d already written it off in her mind and moved on.

It had been tragedy and death, and then it hadn’t. The adrenaline rush had me jittery and a bit sick, or maybe that was the migraine, which was pounding out of my eye like somebody was hammering there. She had to be feeling that sick rush too. Why wasn’t she showing it?

Were all half-drowned, three-quarters-frozen teenage girls this cool and decisive?

And how had she got out of that car?

 

 

3 – The Next Thing

Daisy

Next thing, I told myself. Do the next thing. I got my arms into the sleeves of the jacket and shivered my way back to the ute. I needed to get warm, and I needed to get him warm. I’d focus on those things, and on what was wrong with him, and then I’d do the next thing, and the thing after that.

My mind wanted to descend into the panic I hadn’t let myself feel before. I couldn’t hold it off forever, but I couldn’t afford it now. The man had the dog, was encouraging it along, so that was good. We’d all get in the ute. We’d all get warm.

Step by step.

I pulled myself up into the driver’s seat, tossed my wet clothes and shoes into the footwell of the back seat, started the engine, found the heater, and turned everything up to full, then wrapped my arms around myself and allowed the shivering and shaking to take over. The man came after me, lifting the dog into the cramped back seat before he tossed his shirt back there and dumped his boots into the footwell, wrapped the damp blanket he’d used on the dog around his waist, and got out of his own jeans. They didn’t take as much effort as mine. He was about twice as big as me, but he didn’t wear his jeans as tight.

The other two fellas were still standing there beside the road. I buzzed the window down, though I didn’t want to, and asked them, “Did somebody ring 111?”

“Yeh,” the one who’d given me the jacket, a middle-aged man with a ruddy face like a farmer’s, answered. “On their way.” He glanced at the river, then back at me, rubbing the back of his head ruefully. “Car’ll be done for, though, if they can find it at all. I’d offer to bring out the tractor, but …”

“No worries,” I said. I was shaking hard now, but that was good. The body warming itself. I was immensely sleepy, too, from shock and stress and cold, and I was going to have to fight that. “Cheers for your help. We’re all good now. Oh. Your jacket.” I wanted to take it off and give it to him, but there was the wee problem that I was naked under it.

And that I’d let a strange man take off my clothes in front of two other men, making me much too vulnerable, but I couldn’t think about that now, either. That thought would definitely make the panic rise.

Later.

“No worries,” the fella said. “Best keep it. You need it. Got nothing else to wear, have you.” The younger man, more like a boy, because he was maybe sixteen, was shifting from foot to foot, looking at me, then looking away when he caught my eye. Maybe he was cold, or maybe he was embarrassed that he’d seen me naked. Or both.

“Give me your phone number,” I said, “and I’ll get both things back to you somehow.” Which was when I realized that I didn’t have my phone. Didn’t have the backpack of supplies I’d packed, or my tote. Didn’t have my wallet. Didn’t have anything.

There was that panic again, trying to take over.

Breathe. Think. Act.

Everything I’d brought with me was gone, my car was too old to have had replacement insurance, and I couldn’t do anything about any of it. I hadn’t died, and we were getting warm, that was the main thing. Me, the dog, and … whoever this was.

I couldn’t keep a dog in the flat. Not allowed.

Next thing.

I told my would-be rescuer, “Put his number on your phone, I guess.”

He glanced over at me and smiled. Ruefully. I was operating on a need-to-know basis just now, discarding any information that was superfluous, and still, I noticed his smile. He was part Maori, or maybe part Islander. Dark, wavy hair cut short, high cheekbones. The clean white line of a healed scar running beneath a dark brow, and another one bisecting the web of lines beside a brown eye. A nose that had been broken, and the kind of strong jaw that suggested it wouldn’t break easily.

A tough face. A nearly beautiful one, too, in that grown-up, lived-in way that’s so appealing.

I may have blanked for a couple seconds, and then he reached for the jeans he’d pulled off, fished out his phone, and said, “They say it’s good to two meters down and thirty minutes in. Reckon we’ll find out if it’s true.”

If it didn’t work anymore, was I going to have to replace that, too? My car. My wallet, my phone, my bag … and his phone as well? I set it aside with a major effort that felt more like lifting a boulder and said, “Fine. Let’s do that.”

He glanced at me, then clicked around and said, “Well, bugger me. It works.”

“Oh,” I said stupidly. “Well, that’s good. One less thing for me to … to re­— to re—” Now, for some reason, I was starting to shake with emotion.

“What?” he said. “Why would you have to replace it? I hit you. You’re not responsible for this.”

“I braked, though,” I said, pressing my elbows into my midsection, holding myself together. “For the dog.”

“Right,” he said, then told the fellas outside, who definitely needed to get back into their own cars, because the older one was shivering and stamping now, too, “Give me your number, then, mate, and both of you can head out. We’re all good here. Cheers for stopping.”

The fella looked at him, then at me, and then back at him again. He opened his mouth, and my would-be savior said with heaps of calm decision, “Just the number, and then you can bugger off. No worries.”

They did, turning for one more look back at us, and I sat there with the heat running and the seductive drowsiness filling me, fought it hard, and finally said, “Do we have to wait for the cops? I can’t afford to wait. I’ve got someplace to be.”

That was the moment it hit me. I was going for my sisters, and now, I couldn’t.

They were going to be waiting for me, anxious and scared, and I wouldn’t be there.

I gripped the steering wheel with both hands, put my forehead against it, and breathed.

“What?” the man said. “Hurting after all?”

I shook my head, but didn’t raise it. “Never mind. I’m just … there’s someplace I was meant to be. Someplace important.”

“I’ll take you,” he said. “Least I can do, isn’t it.”

“No,” I said, all of it trying to wash over me. “You don’t understand. It’s … I’m …” I took another breath and refocused. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Me?” he said. “Nothing’s wrong with me.”

“You hurt.”

“Oh. Migraine, that’s all.” In fact, one of his eyes was partially closed, and now, he groped for the glove box and took out a box of tablets, and struggled with it. I took the box from him, got the tablet out of its wrapper, and handed it to him. He swallowed it dry and said, “That’ll do.”

“Right, then.” I tried to be brisk and capable. It had never felt harder. “First thing. Do we need to wait for the cops?”

He shook his head, then put his hand to it lightly, his fingertips touching around his eye as if he were holding it in place. A man who was used to pain. “No. Nobody’s injured. Somehow. We can go. I’ll take you wherever you were going. Hop out, and we’ll switch around.”

“No,” I said, “we won’t. Not if you have a migraine. I’ll drive. Mind stopping near Wanaka?”

He stared at me for a minute. His mouth was actually open. “No,” he said. “You nearly died. You aren’t driving.”

“But I didn’t die, did I?” I fumbled for the button, moved the seat forward, and adjusted the mirror. “Fasten your seatbelt, then. We’re going to Wanaka.”

 

 

4 – The Whore of Babylon

Gray

I would have argued, but there was an ice pick in my eye.

Later, I thought, as she pulled out onto the highway. It’s less than an hour’s drive. You can close your eyes for ten minutes, give the tablet a chance to work. The white gleam of light on the road was stabbing into my head. I hated the muzziness, the vertigo, and most of all, the weakness that I couldn’t power through, but the only way it would go away was if I closed my eyes and let the medication do its business, so I did.

I should ask her name, I thought. Also, that fella back there recognized me, but she didn’t. Probably best. A lifetime as a very well-known sportsman in an underpopulated district of a tiny, rugby-mad country had taught me to notice the recognition, and to keep my distance.

That was the last thing I thought.

I woke with a start. It took me a second to realize what had happened. We’d stopped, were pulled off the road in the dark.

“What?” I asked. “Where are we?”

“Turnoff,” she said. “For where I’m going. I need to talk to you. How’s your head?”

“Head’s fine.” Good enough to be going on with, anyway. “How’re you feeling? Doing all right?”

She shook her head. Dismissively, as if that were the last thing she’d ever be thinking of. “I have to go get my sisters.”

“Oh. Fine. Though they’ll have to ride with the dog.” I unfastened my seatbelt and turned around to check. The dog was lying on the back seat, completely quiet. It was either asleep or dead. Hopefully asleep. I didn’t need to have killed a dog tonight, too.

“You don’t understand.” She had both hands on the wheel and was staring straight ahead, even though we weren’t going anywhere. “I’m meant to be meeting them at a certain time, and I’m late. I also don’t have a way to get them home. I don’t even have my EFTPOS card. I’m going to have to do some … some sneaking, too, and I’m wearing a blanket.”

“Right,” I said. “We’ll go grab some clothes first, then. I live in Dunedin, but there’s a place close by we can go.”

She glanced at me, then away. She wasn’t a teenager. I wondered how I’d ever thought she could be. Her face and body might be young, but her body language was much too assured. Her hair was messy, her face possibly a bit strained, but she was coping. She said, “You could just loan me the ute. Not get involved.”

“Yeh, nah,” I said. “I pushed you into the river and didn’t pull you out. You’re due a rescue.”

Another glance at me and away. It seemed to be her specialty. “I don’t need a rescue.”

“But you could use some help. If there’ll be sneaking.”

She was frowning. “It’s not a joke.”

“No,” I said. “I see that. Get out and come around. I’m driving now. You can explain along the way. As we’re in a hurry.”

* * *

Daisy

I didn’t have a car. I didn’t have money. I didn’t have a place to stay with the girls. I didn’t have a plan.

Oh. I could ring my brother. My mental processes were slow and no mistake. Why hadn’t that occurred to me? Dorian could use his card and get us a motel room for tonight, and hire a car for the morning, too.

I didn’t want to ring him, though, for the same reason I hadn’t told him in the first place. Because he’d have thought he had to do it instead of me, and it would hurt him.

It wasn’t going to hurt me. It was going to feel nothing but good.

I’d have to ring him anyway. No other choice.

Wait. I didn’t have my phone. I could borrow … Whosit’s phone, but I didn’t know Dorian’s number. Bugger modern life and not needing to memorize numbers.

Whosit had been driving into town. Now, he said, “Any time.”

“Any time what?”

“The explanation. If we’re going to sneak, I feel we need a plan.”

He sounded perfectly calm, as if pulling people out of freezing rivers, collecting heroic dogs, and engaging in shady acts of after-midnight derring-do were all in a day’s work. I asked, “What’s your name?”

He hesitated a noticeable couple seconds, then said, “Gray.” As if it were a fake name.

“Gray?” I asked. “What sort of name is Gray? It’s a color. Who’s named after a color? What’s your brother’s name, Blue?” That was rich, coming from me, but never mind.

He glanced at me as if he couldn’t believe I was being so rude. Since I couldn’t believe it myself, he had a fair point. “It’s a name,” he said. “Grayson. What’s yours?”

“Daisy.”

“Pleased to meet you, Daisy. What’s this espionage, then? Wait. Your sisters aren’t underage, are they? Could be awkward. I may have to rethink my participation.”

“No. Sixteen and seventeen.” Of legal age, or I wouldn’t have been able to do this.

“And we’re rescuing them why?” Still calm.

I hesitated. If he lived around here, he’d know.

No choice. I said, “Because they’re in Mount Zion.”

Another couple seconds while he digested that. It was quiet even in this busy tourist town so long after midnight, and he drove beside the lake for a bit, then turned right and headed uphill.

The ute wasn’t new. It was a bit battered, in fact, and dusty inside. Who drove a not-new black ute, had scars on his face and knuckles, and stayed up here amongst the rich-listers?

It would be a mate’s house, something like that. Not that it mattered to me. Surely I wasn’t going to judge him over money. I hadn’t gone that far down the road to materialism, had I?

I got stroppy when I was scared. Sarcastic. Or you could go all the way to “bitchy.” Blame my rebellious nature, or my sinful one. That was what they’d called it. They’d never managed to beat or shame it out of me, though, no matter how hard they’d tried. Which was good, because that rebellion was my saving grace. It had got me out and kept me going, and sarcasm was par for the course in the Emergency Department, where the humor tended toward the black side. On the other hand, it probably wasn’t any more attractive to Gray than it was to most other men.

He said, “Mount Zion. The cult. With the …” He gestured down his body. “The clothes and all.”

“Yes.”

“Did they get caught up in it, then? Seduced away from school?”

“No. They were born in it.” Another breath. “Like me.”

Another silence, then: “But you don’t live there now. Wait, though. The Whore of Babylon. The tight jeans.”

“Yes. No. I don’t live there now.” I stared straight ahead, knowing my voice was tight, my body rigid. I didn’t tell people this. Not ever. I had no choice, though, not if I was going to use his ute. And him.

He turned off the road at the top of the hill and headed up a steep drive, framed by plantings and illuminated by the sort of modern squared-off lights that you had to pay extra for, and said, “Let’s get changed and do some sneaking, then. There’s just one thing I want to know first. Besides whether the dog’s still alive.”

“What’s that?” I asked, as he pulled the ute to a stop in front of a house like a cube. It was probably expensive, like the lights. I’d noticed that the simplest houses always seemed to be the dearest. Outside, that is, in the world of the Damned. It seemed an odd preference to me, but there you were.

He didn’t turn the engine off. He left it running, which meant the heat was on, and I was glad. I was still chilled to the bone. I needed a shower, preferably one about fifteen minutes long. I wasn’t going to get it, though, so never mind. And I was tensing, waiting for the question, knowing it would be awful.

He asked, “How did you get out of the car?”

Oh. Not awful. I said, “I’m a nurse. An RN.”

“Admirable,” he said, “but not really on point. Explains why you kept asking me how I was when you were half dead yourself, though.”

I said, “I work in Emergency. When you’re an Emergency nurse, you hear all the stories. You learn every life lesson somebody else’s hard way, which means you know what to do in most emergencies, including how to get out of a submerged car. As long as you keep your head, but that’s something else you learn to do in Emergency.”

“And how do you get out of a submerged car?”

“With a special tool, if you have one. A punch tool. I didn’t have that. Next time, I will.”

“Ah,” he said. “Next time.”

“Otherwise,” I went on, “you use your headrest, because it’s got those metal spikes, and it’s the one thing you can reach back and find in the dark. Your best bet is going out the back window. Weaker glass. They make it strong in front now, some kind of plastic layer in there, so people don’t get ejected. The worst injuries happen when you get ejected. Unfortunately, that also makes it harder to get out if your car’s underwater.”

“So …”

“So you wait for the car to fill with water first, which means the pressure equalizes and isn’t pushing against the glass as you’re trying to push it out. It can be difficult to wait, of course.”

“Of course,” he said gravely. “As a person would be holding their breath and all.”

“Yes. Especially since it’s better to stay belted in, so you’re not floating and can get enough leverage to break the glass. Hard to stay belted in when your instincts are telling you to get out. That’s another reason for the punch tool. I couldn’t stay belted in, but I managed anyway.”

“How?”

“I’m strong. And I had a car like a tin can. Cheap glass, probably. Also, I didn’t want to die.”

He digested that a minute, then asked, “Where did the dog come in?”

“I don’t know, I’d have thought it was an angel when it started pulling me along, helping me, but I don’t believe in angels anymore. Or miracles, or divine intervention, or that you get what you deserve. I believe in being prepared and keeping your head and doing what you have to do, so that’s what I did. I’d have got out of the river anyway. I wasn’t going to drown after all that. The dog was a bonus. Like you.”

“Kind of you to say so.” Now, he sounded amused. “Your life philosophy’s a bit grim, possibly.”

“I don’t think so. I think it works.” I’d talked too much. Relief from stress, maybe, but I didn’t like to talk too much or get too personal. I definitely didn’t like to sound bitchy. Competent, cheerful Daisy, that was me. That was the whole reason for the name. I got out of the ute and opened the rear door, bracing myself to find that the dog was dead. It had been completely silent all this time, and it had been absolutely exhausted.

I’d be so sad if it was dead. I could be sad, though. That didn’t have to stop me from moving on.

5 – How to Be a Hero

Gray

Fortunately, the dog wasn’t dead.

When I opened the door, he raised his head. It was Labrador-broad, the eyes wise and brown. He had a dusting of gray around his brown muzzle, but when I said, “Come on, boy. Jump down,” he did it without too much stiffness.

That was when I realized that it wasn’t a he. It was a she. A chocolate Lab of the stocky English variety, without much stockiness. I fondled her ears, she leaned against my knees, and I said, “Let’s go in and get something down you, girl. Reckon you’ve earned a feed.”

When I turned around, the girl—woman—Daisy—had gathered up my wet clothes and her own and was standing there, blanket and oversized jacket and bare feet and all, looking the last thing from defeated, and not a bit like a woman who’d just escaped certain death. She looked, in fact, like a woman who was waiting for me to get on with it, so she could go do the next thing on her list.

It’s pretty bloody hard to be a hero if a woman won’t let you do it.

I’d started out from Dunedin as a determinedly single man with a work problem, and arrived in Wanaka with a woman and a dog and heaps of further complication in my very near future. And, possibly, with a chance to be that hero after all, so I grabbed my boots and led Daisy up the steps to the house, with the dog padding along beside her like a guardian. Just the three of us, calmly moving ahead, doing what we had to do.

Seriously, though? Mount Zion? The weird, secretive compound on the side of the mountain, where hundreds of people dressed like it was 1850 and thought like it, too? Where they oppressed their women, didn’t allow contact with the outside world, and bred kids by the dozen? I hadn’t realized anybody ever left that place.

And, yeh, I was all about getting those sisters out of there.

By the time I made it into the lounge, my mum was coming down the stairs, her graying dark hair in a plait, pulling her dressing gown closed around her. I said, “Mum. You didn’t have to get up,” like always, and she said, “Of course I did,” also like always.

Then she took in Daisy, the dog, and our blanket-intensive attire, and said, “What’s happened? Sit down while I make a cup of tea. Turn the fire on, Gray. You both look half frozen.” My mum was all about getting on with things herself, which was why she headed into the kitchen at one end of the big room instead of coming over to give me a cuddle and kiss.

Daisy, who hadn’t sat down, said, “Oh. It’s your mother’s house. I suddenly feel much better about all this.”

“Yeh, nah,” I said, not correcting her, “you were always safe. Stay there. I’m getting the dog something to eat.”

“I need to change,” she said. “We need to go.” She fondled the dog’s ears and glanced at my mum. Possibly calculating their size differential, which was considerable. My mum, like most Samoans, enjoyed her food, and Daisy was definitely wondering about those clothes.

I said, “How about this? I’ll show you the bathroom and sort out something for you to wear after your shower.” When she would have argued, I took the wet clothes from her and went on. “Which you’ll be taking while I’m feeding the dog and finding that mysterious item in my wardrobe that isn’t a blanket, yet fits somebody who weighs a third of what I do.”

“I don’t weigh a third of what you do,” she said. “I’m heavy for my size. But—fine. If you insist.”

* * *

Daisy

“I’m heavy for my size”? That had been my brilliant rejoinder? He knew how heavy I was. He’d carried me. And why hadn’t I been more gracious? If he’d really take me to get the girls, and then … and then what? I had no clue—anyway, if I wanted him to do anything at all, I needed to be nice to him. Why hadn’t I done that?

I was still vaguely wondering as Gray led us both upstairs to the tune of the dog’s toenails clicking on the hardwood floors, through a sleekly modern and extremely posh house, all white walls, pale wood, black-framed photos that tended toward black and white as well, and gray leather, that didn’t seem to exactly fit his mum. My judgment of things like that was obviously still impossibly bad, though, because clearly, it did fit his mum. It must. It was her house. Gray took me all the way to the end of the corridor and through double doors into an extra-large, expensively but starkly furnished bedroom I tried hard not to look at—though it was his mum’s, so why was it making me nervous?—and opened the door to a bath that was like something out of a magazine, beyond anything I’d ever seen in real life. He pushed switches and said, “Use anything you need.”

“We don’t have time,” I said, trying not to be seduced by glamour. It was all so … clean.

“We don’t have time to argue. Come on, girl,” he told the dog. “Downstairs. Food,” and shut the door.

I undressed—well, I took off my blanket and borrowed jacket—under the welcome heat of some sort of overhead infrared-type thing, then climbed into the shower. Actually, I walked in. Quite a way in, because it was long.

It had eight showerheads. Eight. I am not joking. It also had a soaking tub at the far end, with glass blocks to let in filtered light, and lush ferns on a ledge.

I’d lived in apartments smaller than this bathroom, and it was made of marble, walls and floors and all. The benchtops were as well, at least I thought it was marble. No seams. No grout.

I didn’t have time, but I turned on seven of the showerheads anyway. In my defense, I was cold. A big rainfall-type one sprayed down from overhead, and three more in a line down either side sprayed out horizontally, bathing me in sprays of warm water from my neck to my knees. It was ecstasy, and yet what I really wanted was to get into that bath. It was deep, and it had spa jets and a wide marble rim around the edge. I was going to count it as a moral victory that I didn’t succumb.

I was shuddering under the hot spray in that way you do when you’ve been chilled to the bone and now you’re not, tipping some spicy-smelling shampoo into my palm, when I realized it.

This was my first time ever showering in an ensuite bath. One that was in a bedroom, and reserved for you alone.

In Mount Zion, there’s no such thing as an ensuite bath. There’s no such thing as a family bath. There are two baths on each floor of the hostels, one for men and one for women. The women’s have a long trough sink made of gray concrete and an open shower room, plus twelve toilet stalls. The men’s substitute urinals for some of the stalls. I knew that, because scrubbing in and around the toilets and urinals of our hostel had been my daily job during the months when I’d been on Bath Rotation, starting at eight years old.

They had the younger girls do the toilets. They were smaller and could crawl around behind more easily. You could think that it was also because they were too young to argue, but girls in Mount Zion don’t argue. They know better.

The reason for so many stalls is that even though there are four private rooms per floor in the hostels, that private room with its wall of bunks, each with a drawer underneath it, is the entire living space for your family. My family’d had twelve kids in it, and we’d shared those two baths on our floor with three other families.

I didn’t want many things in life. Or, rather, I did, but not material things, not usually. I did crave a bathroom, though, that was—well, not like this, because this was over the top, but a bit like this. One with a whole stack of fluffy white towels rolled up on open shelves, a clean towel for every day if you wanted. With walls and floors lined with enormous tiles, meaning almost no grout to scrub. A toilet that only I would use, and a floor that would never, ever give off the ammonia stink of dried urine, because unlike most of male humanity, I didn’t wee on the floor. The whole place would be white, maybe with some pale gray like this, because that was nice, and it would have impossibly clean, uncluttered surfaces and a pink orchid on the windowsill.

So far, I had the orchid.

I realized that I’d drifted off when the door opened. I’d nearly fallen asleep standing here, my arms braced against the walls as the blissful heat filled me. How had I forgotten how urgent this was? I should have been done, dried, and ready to go by now.

It was steamy in here, and I couldn’t see out. I stepped out anyway, because what choice did I have? My heart, though, was pounding in ridiculous fashion, just because if he was out there, he’d see me.

He’d already seen me naked, or near enough. He’d taken my clothes off. What else was there to see, and what did it matter?

It wasn’t him. It was his mum, and she was holding a white towel that I realized was heated, once I wrapped it around myself. Just like the floor, which was making my feet feel lovely and toasty. I did my best to haul on some kind of composure and said, “Thanks. You probably don’t normally get strange women turning up and using your bath in the middle of the night.”

“Oh, I dunno, love,” she said cheerfully. “It can happen, though Gray wouldn’t thank me for telling you so. Clothes are just there. Drink your tea before you go.”

Well, that told me.

* * *

Gray

Daisy came downstairs about sixty seconds after Mum did. She hadn’t spent much time on her beauty routine, and her mug of tea still looked full. She hadn’t even dried her hair. The dog trotted forward to greet her, and she gave her a pat. As for me, I’m afraid I laughed.

She tried to scowl at me, but couldn’t keep it up, because it turned into a smile, then a laugh. “Stop it. I didn’t choose them. Also, our new dog’s a girl.”

I tried to compose my face, but it wasn’t easy. I’d found her a long-sleeved tee and a pair of track pants, because they at least had a tie inside the waistband. She’d rolled the legs up and cinched the waist as much as possible, but I could see even under the T-shirt—which reached to her upper thighs—that the waistband was sort of … bulging. She pulled on the fella’s oversized jacket again, found her soaking-wet shoes by the door and put them on without any comment at all, and asked, “Ready?”

I wanted to tell her to stay here. Her face looked strained and tired despite the laugh, and her hair was still wet. Instead, I said, “Ready,” grabbed my jacket and keys, and told Mum, who was making ham sandwiches, for some reason, at three in the morning, “I don’t know when I’ll be back.” I’d explained what had happened, but not much. I’d only had time for a couple sentences, but she’d accepted them with the equanimity she brought to most things.

“Never mind,” she said. “I’ll be here. Ring if you get into trouble.”

I gave the dog one last pat—she was standing at the door as if she was ready and waiting to go out there again, as if, tired or not, she expected to do her job, a bit like Daisy—and said, “Stay here, girl. You can guard Mum, eh.”

When we got to the ute, Daisy held out her hand for the keys and said, “I’ll drive. I know the way.”

“As you don’t have a license anymore,” I said, “I think I will.”

“Oh.” She stood stock-still a minute. “Rethinking here. There goes my hired car for the morning. D’you think you could help me with a motel room, though? Just for the one night—or maybe two, because by the time we get into it, it’ll be morning already. I’ll pay you back,” she hastened to add, when I didn’t answer straight away. “I need to get my brother up here, much as I don’t want to, but I don’t have his number. I can ring his work in the morning, though.” Her face cleared. “Yeh. That’ll do. Two nights. Cheap motel. Backpacker’s, maybe.”

I sighed. “Get in. I’ll drive. You direct. You can’t tell me that’s not your preferred mode.”

I achieved one thing, anyway. She lost some of the worry. Of course, she was narky instead, but personally, I preferred being angry to being scared, and I was guessing she did, too.

Something about her appealed to me. Either it was her guts, or I’d turned into a masochist. I preferred to think it was her guts.

She climbed into the cab, which was an effort, because she had to pull up her trousers at the waist and the legs were dragging a bit, and said, “I’m a nurse. I don’t direct. The doctor directs.”

“Why aren’t you a doctor, then?” I asked. “Never tell me it’s because you didn’t think you could do it. I’m not believing that.” She didn’t answer, and I shot a look at her. When she still didn’t answer, I said, “I’ll take the turning to Lake Hawea. I know vaguely where it is after that, but I’m not sure how you get in. Am I expecting to fight?”

“No,” she said. “I appreciate the lift, but you don’t have to do more. If there’s fighting to be done, I’ll do it.”

“Do me a favor,” I said. “No.” This time, she actually laughed. I smiled and drove on, leaving the town behind. It was warm in here, and weirdly cozy, too, the headlight beams picking their way through the darkness and nobody else around. The scent of honey and spice hung faintly in the air from her shower, and that was nice as well. Thinking of her in my shower, using my shampoo? Yeh, that was nice.

We’d had an adventure, and we’d lived to tell the tale. Now, we were off to have another one.

Off to the rescue, in fact.

 

 6

The First Step

Daisy

With every kilometer Gray drove up into the foothills, I got sicker. I’d been fine before this—well, as fine as a person could reasonably be. Now, I was forcing myself to breathe in through my nose, one-two-three-four-five, then out through my mouth, one-two-three-four-five, feeling the saliva pooling just the same, and trying to overcome my weakness.

I wished we’d brought the dog. I could have sat in the back with her, buried my hands in her fur, and not looked up. Like when I’d used to brush and plait my sisters’ hair every morning, once my own was laboriously twisted and rolled into a knot and hidden under its white cap. The three of them who’d been old enough, anyway. Prudence had been two when I’d left, with not enough hair to plait. The youngest, Dove, hadn’t been born.

I’d had to leave Mount Zion to keep myself whole, or that was how it had felt. Like the tissue had turned gangrenous, and I’d had to cut it away. But it had cut me off from so much of the good, too, because afterwards, there’d been no sisters, no cousins to share my secrets and jokes. Nobody to comfort, and nobody to hold. Nobody but Dorian, who’d lived in a world of his own, and who now had somebody else in that world.

And, still, the thing that was making my pulse race faster now? The thing that was making the adrenaline flood, and making me sick? It wasn’t the fear of what would happen next. It was the memory of what had happened before.

PTSD, somebody had suggested, but I didn’t have a disorder. I just had too many memories.

Gray asked, “All right?”

“Yes,” I said, and swallowed. “Of course.”

“Brings back memories, does it,” he said. “Taking this road.”

How had he known that? I’d been so careful to sit still, to seem calm. I said, “Not really. Not exactly. Until the past couple years, I only drove it a dozen times that I remember, to the dentist and that. Or I rode, rather. Women don’t drive.”

“How old were you when you left?” he asked.

It helped to talk. A bit. It was using the time up, anyway. “Sixteen. We were both sixteen.”

“Both?”

“My brother and I. We left together.”

“Older or younger?”

Why was he asking? To make the time go by, I guessed. We were nearly there now, I could tell, even though it was dark. The land was leveling out as we came into the valley, though behind it, the mountains would rise like bulwarks. A good defensive position, you’d think, holding the high ground. Not that anybody needed to defend it, but paranoia was part of the package.

“I’m older,” I said. “By twenty minutes. We’re twins.”

“But he’s not here tonight,” Gray said.

“No. He doesn’t know I’m doing it tonight. Turn left up here at the gate.”

He didn’t comment, just did it. My heart was bumping against my chest wall now, beating much too fast, my very own stress-induced version of atrial fibrillation. A few meters on, the asphalt ended, the tires crunching over the metal road. Too loudly, every rotation on the loose cinder sounding like a scatter of birdshot. I sensed rather than saw the white mesh of fencing to my right, and beyond it, the glow that was the yard lighting around the residential compound.

Gray glanced at me. I felt it. He said, “Could be good to tell me the plan, if I’m meant to help.”

“You don’t have to help,” I said. “Seriously. You just have to drive. Slow down to a crawl, though, would you?” We were making too much noise. Somebody was going to hear.

“Oh,” he said, perfectly calmly, “I think I have to help.” He eased up on the gas, though.

“Stop here,” I told him. “We’ll go on foot from here.” We were too close to the compound. I should’ve had him turn off the headlights. I hadn’t thought of that. My accident meant that it was too far past the witching hour, when the circadian rhythms were at their lowest and everyone’s defenses would be down, and I felt exposed. Naked. Vulnerable. “I know you have a torch,” I made myself go on, “because I saw it. I was going to ask to borrow it.”

“It’s got a red mode,” he said. “For hunting. Preserves our night vision, and doesn’t shine as far. Better, if we’re being stealthy. I assume we’re being stealthy.”

I barely heard him, because I’d just realized it. “I’ve forgotten,” I said, my heart giving a dismayed lurch. “I don’t have the stakes. They’re in the boot of my car.”

“The stakes?” He still sounded calm, somehow. “Are these weapons, or …”

“No. Plastic stakes, like you use for a tent. I could use sticks, maybe. We can find sticks somewhere. I’ll make it work. I’m not stopping now.”

“Tell me what the stakes were for,” he said, “and I’ll find something that’ll do.”

“Where?”

“In the toolbox,” he said patiently.

“You don’t have stakes in your toolbox.”

“Well, yeh. I probably do. It’s a big toolbox. Come on. We’ll have a look.” He grabbed the torch and swung out of the ute, and I followed, tripping over the rolled legs of the track pants.

Oh. It was a big toolbox. One of those that go crosswise across the entire bed of a truck. He handed me the flashlight, grabbed the edge of the truck bed, and in a move like a gymnast, heaved himself up, then swung both legs over and landed on his feet with a dull, metallic thud before taking the flashlight from me and opening the box.

I said, “It’s to stake down the electric fence so we can get across. That’s the only way I know to cross it, and we don’t just have to get across ourselves, we have to get the others across, too.” I was talking too much again. I couldn’t help it. Now that we were almost there, I was nearly dancing with the need to move, to get it done and get out of here.

“Right,” he said, then fossicked about in there, the clank of metal loud in the quiet night, while I held my breath. In the distance, a dog barked, a nearly rumbling sound from a very deep chest, and I tensed some more and tried to force my breathing to slow. Finally, though, Gray pulled out a packet, stuffed it into the back pocket of his jeans, set the lid of the toolbox down without extra noise, vaulted down the same way he’d come up, like it was no trouble at all, and said, “Good to go.”

“You happened to have tent stakes in your toolbox,” I said.

“No. I happened to have something that’ll work. For landscaping.”

“Are you a landscaper, then?” It would explain the scars on his knuckles, and the absurd level of fitness.

“No,” he said. “Do you want to have a chat about occupations, or do you want to get across that fence? Here. You hold the torch.” He’d switched it to the red setting already, but was grabbing something else out of the truck bed. Something long and heavy. “Lead the way.”

I stopped where I was. “What do you have?”

“Shovel.”

“Why?”

“You never know when you may need a shovel.”

“Right,” I said, abandoning the thought. “We need to be quiet from here, though.” I headed down the track, careful to keep my distance from the fence, stumbling over my rolled trouser legs and nearly falling.

Gray grabbed my elbow and said, keeping his voice low, “I’ll hold onto you. Just in case.”

I nodded. All my distractions were gone now, and there was so much that could go wrong.

 As long as I’m on this side of the fence, I reminded myself, they can’t touch me. The trouble was, I wasn’t going to stay on this side of the fence.

A cautious hundred meters, and then another one, my feet squelching in the wet canvas trainers, the legs of the track pants dragging along, the sleeves of the jacket falling over my hands despite my attempts to push them up. The sound of wind rustling the leaves in a stand of poplars, a faint, far-off hum of generators. A nearly full moon low on the horizon that was much too bright, but we’d had no choice. And, finally, a darker rectangle that was the outbuilding I was looking for. The most far-flung of the storage sheds on this side of the property.

Please, let them still be there. I was nearly two hours late. Let them still be there.

No talking now. I touched Gray’s arm, solid under his flannel jacket, and nodded at the fence. Then I handed the torch to him, and when he had the red light trained on the mesh, I moved closer, breathless once more.

The electric fence was made of white mesh, the sort where the electrified strands are woven through horizontally. I was very familiar with this fence.

I faced the mesh, waited until the red light steadied, took a breath, held it, and plucked two non-electrified vertical strands of white fiber delicately between finger and thumb. Using both hands at once, the way I’d learned to do as a kid, the way that would keep your fingers away from the electrified wires and wouldn’t get you shocked. The way that had earned me my harshest belting, two weeks before I’d run.

That one, I didn’t want to think about.

The blood was pumping hard into my brain, and my hands were trying to shake. The body’s arousal system in full activation mode. Blood. Hormones. Brain. Everything.

I was a low-arousal person. I’d worked at it. Tonight, I couldn’t be.

I didn’t have time for panic, so I pulled the fence down toward the ground as carefully as if I were handling nitroglycerin. I had small fingers, a flexible body, and steady nerves, and I lowered myself and took the fence along with me, slowly, steadily, until I was crouched as low as I could go and the strands were on the ground, then whispered, “Stake them down.”

Gray didn’t say anything. He just did it. The stake in his right hand, the light in the left, he crouched down on the damp grass beside me and pushed the two prongs down gently and carefully, avoiding the thin blue-and-white lines of electric cables. The U-shaped stakes were metal, and they were long. Capable of carrying a charge, which was exactly wrong, and why I always used plastic ones instead. I kept my eyes glued to that stake, and every muscle in my body tensed to breaking point.

The fence wouldn’t kill you if you touched it. It would just hurt. Heaps. I couldn’t get the girls out without crossing it, but Gray wouldn’t keep helping me if he got shocked, and the girls couldn’t. Your muscles didn’t want to do it a second time.

Well, mine would. Theirs probably wouldn’t.

The first stake was in. Gray took the second one from his back pocket and fastened it down with the same care.

A half-meter section of fence was pinned down near the ground now, twenty centimeters of it fastened flat, so you could step straight over. More of a jump, it would have to be, as the fabric stretched nearly a meter wide along the ground, but everybody could jump.

Gray had his hand cupped over the red light, blocking most of it. Now, he whispered into the silence, “Ready?”

I nodded, then realized he couldn’t see me and muttered, through a throat that had gone dry, “Ready.”

He picked up his shovel, pointed to himself, and held up a hand. Wait. I’ll go first. He jumped lithely across, and he was on Mount Zion land.

I lifted a foot, and stumbled. My trouser leg was caught under the other foot, and I was falling.

* * *

Gray

If I hadn’t been holding the shovel and the torch, I could’ve caught her. As it was, I was a split second too late.

Her entire body jerked as her hands and knees made contact with the wires, and I was grabbing her under the arms and yanking her across. My own hand brushed the mesh as I did it, and the shock jolted me hard.

Electric fences don’t kill. The amperage is too low. They just make you very sorry you’ve touched them.

I didn’t call out. That didn’t surprise me. What surprised me was that she didn’t, either.

I whispered, “All right?”

She nodded, and I set her on her feet, whereupon she dropped down and rolled up her trouser legs and jacket sleeves with hands I guessed were trembling, and I picked up my shovel and torch again.

The night was lit by the risen moon, and I’d never felt as exposed as I did walking across that stretch of lumpy paddock toward the dark shed. I could see the tension in Daisy’s shoulders, and I could see the determination, too.

I could understand why she was so tense. Why was I, though? What did I think they’d do to me?

My safety wasn’t what was worrying me, though, not really. It was not getting those girls out. And it was whatever was eating Daisy up from inside, forcing her to keep going through her fear by pure effort of will. She was past thought now, operating at that extreme edge where all you had left was mana, the courage and commitment that pushed you on when all you wanted was to turn back.

We were nearly there now. A dog barked nearby, and she froze a second, then started to run. When she stumbled over the trousers again, I grabbed her under the arms and half-carried, half-dragged her to the shed, then set her down, pressed on the latch, and tumbled inside with her. I shoved the door closed behind me, remembering at the last moment not to slam it.

It was black dark in here, but I could sense a human presence. The hair rose on the back of my neck, and I gripped the shovel tighter.

“Fruitful?” Daisy asked softly. “Obedience? It’s me.”

“Chastity?” The voice was young. Tremulous.

“Yes,” Daisy said. “It’s me. Who’s that?”

“Obedience,” the voice said. Whispered, actually.

“Shine the light,” Daisy told me. “On us.” She kept talking while I did it, keeping her voice low. “This is Gray. He’s helping us.”

I shone the light toward the source of the whisper, then, and picked up the white of an apron, a cap, a figure about as slight as Daisy’s. A white face, too, turning away from me.

“But he’s a man,” the girl said.

“It’s all right,” Daisy said. She didn’t wait any longer, but ran to the other girl and took her in her arms. “He’s helping. It’s all right.” The girl’s shoulders began to shake, but her sobs were silent, the same way Daisy had been when she’d fallen onto that fence. “Shh,” Daisy told her. “We need to be very quiet. We need to go fast. Where’s Fruitful?”

“She’s …” There was a hitch in the voice, and then the whisper. “In the Punishment Hut. She’s locked in. I couldn’t get her out. I couldn’t … And I didn’t know whether to come here or not, and then you didn’t come, and I thought they’d find me, and I wanted to go back, but you said not to go back, and …” She couldn’t go on. She was shaking too hard.

Daisy said, “Quiet.” Still in that low voice. “Is the Punishment Hut still in the same place? Next to the milking shed?”

“Yes,” the girl managed to say. “It’s the same.”

 Daisy said, “Come on.” She took the girl’s hand, then came to me and said, “Follow me. Don’t use the light.”

She opened the door.

We’d forgotten about the dog.

 

Coming June 19, 2020
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