After fifteen years, Kaylie was the first family member she’d discussed it with. Talking about it out loud was a relief. The girl wouldn’t judge her; she understood what it was like to grow up with preppers. A subtle bond flowed between her and the teen. A bond she hadn’t felt since she left home. Someone to talk to.

“Is it so bad living here, Kaylie?”

Kaylie gave her a sour look.

A tiny part of Mercy wanted to tell the girl to embrace the people around her and accept the way of life. A larger part wanted to scream at the teen and tell her to run away as fast as possible.

It wasn’t her place to tell the girl what to do.

But she sympathized. Her siblings had seen the prepping lifestyle as one of community and smart planning. She remembered how Pearl had shuddered as Mercy wondered out loud what it would be like to work and live in New York City: “I wouldn’t want to be in that city when the power and food supplies are cut off. There’ll be riots. People will attack each other. That’s crazy talk, Mercy.”

“But what if it never happens? How can we reject something on a what-if scenario?”

“It’s best to be away from the big cities when it happens. A few private acres. Room to grow and raise what you need.” Those were her parents’ words in Pearl’s mouth.

Had all the kids been brainwashed?

Or simply taught to plan ahead?

“Look into college, Kaylie. Figure out how to pay for it and go. Do what you need to do to stay prepared.” Mercy swallowed the lump in her throat. “Your father will always be waiting here for you when you come back.”

“Then why aren’t your parents waiting for you?”

TWENTY-TWO

Jane Beebe struggled to see beyond her headlights in the darkness of the insane morning hour.

“Goddamned old coot. Why in the hell do you insist on living in the middle of nowhere?”

Her brother, Anders, should have bought a condo in her building in Bend—as she’d suggested a dozen times—instead of living on five acres away from society. He’d laughed at the idea. “Where will I keep all my stuff?”

“You don’t need all that junk.”

“You don’t know that. One day you might be real thankful I kept it.”

“Oh yeah? What am I going to do with a hundred rusting cars that don’t run?”

She leaned closer to her steering wheel and blinked, staring hard at the road. Out here there were no lines on the roads, no streetlights, and the turns occurred without warning. She was determined to be careful; her eyes didn’t see as well at night as they used to. When Anders had finally agreed to visit the oncologist in Portland, she’d signed him up for the first appointment available. She glanced at the clock on her dashboard. They had five hours until his appointment time.

He better be ready.

If he’d changed his mind without telling her, she was going to hit him over the head with one of his two dozen cast-iron frying pans and drag him into the car. She’d wanted to drive to Portland yesterday and stay overnight in a hotel so they wouldn’t be in a rush and worried about making his appointment on time. Anders had refused to spend the money.

But doesn’t think twice about making me get up before the ass-crack of dawn to drive.

He’d lost his license a few years ago, refusing to pay for the renewal. “Why does a freeman have to pay for the right to drive on free roads?”

“They aren’t free,” Jane had pointed out. “Your taxes pay for them.”

“Even more reason why I have the right to drive on them.”

Multiple tickets for driving without a license had put a damper on his enthusiasm for driving as a freeman. He’d filed paperwork on top of paperwork to protest the tickets. When an exasperated judge was about to send him to jail for a few days for being such a pain in the ass, Jane had caught wind of it and paid the tickets.

Anders had argued bitterly. “They don’t have the right to ticket me for traveling about this country. They’re just making laws to collect more of our money.”

Jane had refused to engage in the everyday argument.

She slammed on her brakes and took a sharp turn into Anders’s driveway. The pine-lined road had widened the slightest bit, and she’d nearly missed the opening on the right. No signs. No indication whatsoever that her brother lived a half mile down the dirt drive.

She swore as her car bounced through a rut, slamming her shoulder into the driver’s door.

Why do I bother?

Because someone has to.

Her older sister had died, and she felt obligated to look out for Anders. Even if he was a bit cracked in the skull. Family was family.

She weaved her way down the dirt road among the sea of abandoned autos that her brother was so fond of collecting.

Maybe it’s a good thing he refused to move to my building. What would my neighbors think of him?

Shame washed over her at her thoughts, but it wasn’t the first time she’d had them. There were a few reasons she hadn’t pressed really hard on the issue, one of them being what her neighbors would think of her. She handled her guilt by checking in on her brother a few times a year. He seemed to thrive on his own.

Although one of these days he would be locked up for his unlicensed driving. All the cops in the area knew Anders, but someone was going to get fed up with his behavior.

At least he acknowledged that it wasn’t a good idea to drive to Portland on his own.

Light shone from the windows of his house. Thank goodness he’s up.

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