Each stair grew taller and taller on the way up to the Dragon Lady’s lair. The hardwood was glossy and cosy, the colours on the wall were beautiful. The entire house was gorgeous, but anxiety knotted Oakley’s stomach almost painfully, draping a lie over the cheerful décor.
Didn’t matter. She pulled her peace offering out of her pocket, tightly gripping it in a fist like a weapon.
Memee Trong wasn’t physically imposing, nor was she violent and mean. There was just something packed into those startling red-brown, almond-shaped eyes that made you listen. Do as you were told. Not question. But she was frightfully intelligent, and a combination of all these attributes meant that even if the vote hadn’t gone her way, she’d still be running things in Greenwater Gates behind the scenes somehow.
Dragon Lady was her whispered nickname because when she was angry, one could feel fire in the room. Almost like the tension and contained violence could singe your arm hair.
Oakley got to the door of her suite, took a breath and knocked.
“Come in,” was the pleasant response.
Oakley held that same inhale as she entered, eyes on the floor, stepping three strides into the room and stopping, hands clasped in front of her. She hated this submissive bull but it helped keep her under Memee’s radar somewhat.
“Oakley, you’re back.” Strictly based on words and tone it was difficult to tell if Memee found that happy or upsetting news.
Best to go straight to the defensive. “I swear, I told Rainbow I was going. She must have forgotten to relay the message but I couldn’t find you. Sasha said we had a week of good weather ahead so I hit the road and -”
Memee waved a hand, coming forward from behind her huge oak desk and leaning against the front of it. “Forget it, Oakley. I don’t give a shit.”
That made her pause, but she wasn’t relieved yet. So she waited.
“I need to talk to you because, as you know, it’s almost autumn.”
Oakley nodded. The leaves were starting to turn, the evenings were decidedly chilly. Winter was not far off. “Ummm … yeah.” Still cautious.
“Which means Hunter and his crew will be around again.” Memee’s expression never changed. Oakley wondered how the hell she knew everything about everyone.
“I suppose so,” she replied, unaffected.
“We’ll vote soon on whether or not we allow them to camp near the fence, but I think we both know which way that will go,” Memee continued, picking lint off her shirt.
Hunter’s crew were a main part of the group allowed to help fortify Greenwater Gates. Every winter they returned, hoping for, erm, hospitality and additional security. In return they always brought food. Usually a huge reefer truck full of frozen game they’d killed. There had been a few winters where Greenwater could have come close to starving without them. Hunting game was dangerous in winter; the creepers were starving and extra aggressive.
Oakley was proud of her indifferent tone. “I suppose. They feed us well, Memee.”
“Yeah, they sure … feed everyone well,” she returned slyly, her smirk almost scary. “Take the term feed however you want.”
Oakley returned the smile. It was the only thing to do.
“We had a supply run two days ago,” Memee shifted the subject. “It … didn’t go well.”
Oakley felt her skin prickle. “No?”
“Grocery store in Bakersfield. The creepers … set a trap.”
Oakley’s body jerked. “What?”
“They trapped them in the store. Tanya and California didn’t make it back.”
The room spun. “Wait – what? They lost two members?”
“The two of them broke into the back storeroom, untouched stock. Creepers were waiting behind the door. Tanya and California were first through the door and the creepers shut it behind them. They even threw a bolt at the top of the door locking the rest of the team out. By the time Sawyer and the others broke it down there wasn’t much left.”
Oakley felt her stomach heave. This wouldn’t be a genius tactical maneuver for a human, but for a creeper it was just as surprising as it she’d been told they were performing Swan Lake.
Memee’s mouth tightened into a line. “Not good, as you can imagine. I told her there was no way to anticipate coordinated group thought from creepers but for all the effect that had …” she concluded the explanation with a reluctant shrug.
“How many creepers were in there?”
“Sawyer estimated about twenty-five, thirty. They got them all after but … it’s something we have to consider in the future.”
Oh no. Here it was.
“No more lone runs. For anyone. Including you, Oakley.”
“No more,” Memee interrupted. “And furthermore, they now need you more than ever on Sawyer’s crew.”
Shit. Exactly what she’d been fearing times two. Oakley set her jaw, there was no point arguing.
With a nod, knowing the terms were accepted, Memee’s exotic eyes drifted down to Oakley’s left hand. Very slowly she started smiling. “Oakley. Is that a gift for me?”
She was tempted to lie, she honestly was. Instead she forced a smile. “Of course, Memee. I was guessing you might be running low.” She stalked forward with enough aggression to make Memee flinch, just a little. After a pause she held her hand out, palm up. Two tubes of liquid eyeliner and two tubes of mascara. They made Memee’s red-brown eyes even more severe and awe-inspiring. Memee loved it.
“Why thank you. I am sad that your luxury cruises will come to an end. But maybe on the supply runs you’ll find some more of that luck?”
Not very bloody likely.
Oakley shrugged. “Maybe.” She swung on her heel to leave and got as far as the door, but Memee wasn’t done.
“Matilda turns nineteen in two days,” she said absently.
Oakley turned around again, planting both feet and digging her nails into her palms. “I know,” she replied. Hence all the booze in her saddlebags; it was for Memee’s birthday bash.
“She’s decided she wants to try having a baby.”
Oakley frowned. “What? Really?”
Memee smiled. “Some women have this mom chromosome, Oakley. It’s not their fault.” Her tone was teasing.
Oakley rolled her eyes. “I know that. it’s just …”
“You’re thinking of Tennessee?” Memee supplied.
Oakley just nodded, not bring those images back through sheer willpower.
“It’s her right to choose to take the risk. Ty-Ty will monitor her closely should the pregnancy take. And good timing, with Hunter’s crew coming back.”
Oakley swallowed and tried to sound indifferent as she asked, “Has she decided who she’d like to offer fatherhood to?”
Memee nodded, smiling again. The bitch actually licked her lips as though she was enjoying this bit of information. And that’s when Oakley knew who it was before she even spoke the word, “Hunter.” Memee’s eyebrow shot up as she added, “Of course.”
Oakley forced another swallow. Don’t react, don’t react. “Excellent. He’s smart. Capable. Strong. A good choice.”
“Not to mention handsome,” Memee added.
“I suppose,” Oakley replied with a casual shrug.
Memee looked as though her reaction was less than she’d been hoping for. “Even I might consider two weeks of being locked in a bedroom with the likes of Hunter,” she mused, straightening and returning to her seat behind her desk.
Absolutely, most definitely do not react to that, her mind was screaming. She just smiled, allowed a dry chuckle, and forced her feet to carry her across the threshold and towards the stairs without running.
Nothing like a triple-dose of shitty news to ruin a homecoming.
As she passed the kitchen Maine yelled out “Dinner in one hour, Oakley!” To which she just waved a hand to show she’d heard.
Anger was clouding her mind. No more lone runs? Bullshit. The supply runs were dangerous. Too many people, too cumbersome of a method of transport, too much shit to carry. Those were points one and two that pissed her off. She kick-started the bike with a bit too much oomph because of it.
Point three was Matilda. Okay, not Matilda particularily, but Matilda picking Hunter as a mate.
She cringed at the very concept. This had only started happening about four years ago, once everyone felt safe and secure. The women were wanting babies. Memee decided it was fine. When the men came by, any woman who craved motherhood could put her name forward as well as her preferred donor. He had the option to refuse.
Of course, the past three times the request hadn’t been refused. As Memee had stated, this arrangement consisted of two weeks of isolated sex. It had to be certain who had fathered the child, and getting it done the first time was important. The two week span was planned around the woman’s fertile days.
The idea made Oakley cringe. First off, she was one of the few left could distinctly remember having her parents around. The feeling of family, seeing how her father had loved her mother fiercely and vice versa. Oakley truly believed both parents each had guidance to contribute to a child; a female and male role model so that the concept of male and female wasn’t scary. Any child born here, she believed, would be terrified of men. Plain and simple. And if a male child was born … she couldn’t imagine.
Secondly, miscarriages. Tennessee had miscarried at the start of her third trimester. It had killed her. That’s when they realized The Event, The Reckoning, or The Rapture didn’t come about because of some fantastic freak occurrence at the time of death after one was bitten.
It was already with every single one of them. You died, then you walked as a creeper, bitten or not.
Oakley had been the one to severe Tennessee’s head. Memee had done away with the child. It was terrible. Horrible. Awful. The memory brought bile to the back of her throat, and she had really hoped that incident had quieted all the baby aspirations.
Well, it had. For about a year.
Oakley swallowed back her reaction to Hunter being chosen. She pointed her bike towards her place, willing herself not to get pissed off at Matilda.
No one knew about Oakley and Hunter, she’d gone to great lengths to make sure of that, even though Memee seemed to have an idea. How the hell that happened Oakley couldn’t fathom a guess. The Dragon Lady had ways.
Oakley lives in an Airstream trailer – I was hoping for that one!