With a grimace, Paige Grant scanned the screen of her beat-up, secondhand tablet with a black spot in the corner of the screen. It had originally belonged to her best friend Casey’s older sister and all around bad ass of a woman, Roxie. Captain in the National Guard, decorated police officer, and amazing person to get drunk with, Roxie was not easy on her electronics. The edges of the tablet were dented, the screen a little scratched, and Roxie’s name was crudely carved into the back, but Paige wouldn’t trade it for a brand new one. Not that she could afford it. The modest inheritance she’d received from her mother’s life insurance went toward paying for school and housing. Besides, even if she had a million dollars in the bank she’d still hold onto the beat-up piece of technology.
In Paige’s mind Roxie was the kind of brave, strong woman she’d always wanted to be.
She could do anything.
It was a teenage Roxie who’d gone into Paige’s house years ago and broken her dad’s leg with a baseball bat so he couldn’t get away before the police got there after he’d beaten Paige half to death.
Roxie broke his feet as well, just to be sure he didn’t go anywhere.
A rough chill raced down her spine, the little hairs on her arms standing up as she remembered his drunken roars of pain and rage.
Memories of that night, of gasping her life out into the damp dirt and scraggly grass of her backyard, swamped her, and she remembered thinking drowning in her own blood was a terrible way to die.
She survived, but part of her soul had been damaged that night and continued to bleed.
For a moment her breathing sped, an anxiety attack nipping at her mind, but she forced herself to calm down, taking in deep breaths through her nose, holding it, then letting it out slowly.
The familiar smells of the large room she shared with her childhood friend, Dawn, in Ann Arbor soothed her. It was an odd mixture of her vanilla body lotion, Dawn’s Pink Lemonade body lotion, incense, and no matter how much they tried to get it out, the smell of cigarette smoke soaked into the walls of the room. On hot days the smell would seep out and they both hated it. Dawn because it reminded her of the smell of the bar where she worked, and Paige because she’d never been a fan of cigarettes after her mom died of cancer. She sometimes worried she’d die of some weird cancer related to the decades old smoke wafting through the layers of paint.
It wasn’t that the big house she rented with her friends in the section of the city dominated by students from the University of Michigan was crappy. For student housing it was nice, but it was worn.
But to Paige, funky aroma and all, her room smelled like safety, friendship, and home.
Calm descended over her as she went through her breathing techniques. It was actually an old Buddhist monk trick she’d read about on a website dealing with anxiety, and after some practice it worked like magic to force her body to relax. True, she had no way of knowing for sure that it was indeed some ancient technique. She’d found it on the Internet after all, but if it worked she wasn’t going to question it. Blowing out a harsh breath, she tried to refocus on her PSYC 232: Developmental Psychology homework. It was an elective class she’d taken to help with her eventual job as a teacher.
From the room next to hers, Casey yelled something that sounded like a curse word, and Paige giggled.
“Quiet,” Dawn complained from her loft bed against the far wall, “my brain is melting.”
“Sorry,” Paige whispered with a grin and a suppressed laugh that turned into a snort.
Last night her friends had gone out to party with the guys at the frat across the street. Paige went along for about ten minutes, long enough to see all the shit-faced college boys lurching about and panic. Most of the college parties in town were packed with people, and at five feet even she easily became claustrophobic in a crowd. When some guy puked on the fire hydrant out front, then laughed until he puked again, that was enough for her, and she’d taken off.
Another shiver ran down her spine, but she focused on Dawn making zombie like noises as she slowly pulled the purple gingham covers from over her head.
Dawn was a fine arts major and had a tendency to be dramatic, but Paige loved her always entertaining, if a little weird, friend.
Yawning hugely, Dawn flipped onto her back and stretched one freckle covered arm over the side of her bed, her hair fluffing around her head in a coppery cloud of frizz. “Why are you up so early? Your finals are over.”
Paige snickered. “Hey, cotton ball, do you remember brushing your hair before bed?”
With a shriek, Dawn put her hand to her halo of hair and groaned. “Nooooo! Paige, why did you let me do it!”
“I was asleep, thanks, not babysitting you. At least you didn’t try to flat iron it this time. The smell of burning hair was terrible last time you decided you wanted long, flowing locks instead of your curls. I don’t know what your obsession is with having ‘princess’ hair when you’re hammered, but you need to find a better drinking hobby.”
Laughing, Dawn shook her fist at the popcorn ceiling in mock rage. “I blame Nicole Kidman! The first time I saw her with her crazy head of long spiral curls I thought I had finally found a hair sister, someone I could share tips with on how to tame the unruly beast that is my hair. But no! She, with her bazillions of dollars, got some kind of hair straightening that mere mortals like myself could never afford. So unfair. I want princess hair, the kind that flows like silk in the wind. You never see a Disney Princess with curly red hair.”
“Uh, yeah you do. Merida in Brave.”
“That’s the new Disney. I’m talking the old school chauvinist pig Disney movies.”
Rolling her eyes, Paige gave Dawn a sarcastic nod. “Right, how silly of me.”
Personally Paige thought Dawn’s hair was gorgeous, but her friend was on a tear and there was no reaching her.
“And if I didn’t wax my pubes off, they’d be calling me fire crotch!”
Holding up her hands, she laughed. “TMI.”
“Oh, please, we go to the same waxer.”
“Yeah, but I don’t go around announcing what my current genital hair pattern is.”
“Genital hair pattern.” Dawn yawned, then grinned. “I love you, but you need to get some dick.”
“Why are you so obsessed with me having sex?”
With a snort, Dawn turned her head enough to look down on Paige sitting near the window in a beanbag chair. “Look, just do me one tiny little favor this summer. Get laid.”
“Seriously? We’re having this conversation again?” Paige’s cheeks flushed hot.
“You heard me. I want you to have a torrid affair. One for the ages that I’ll tell my grandchildren about.”
Grinning at her friend’s dramatic statement, she placed the tablet down and cocked her head to the side. “Are you telling me that someday you’ll be talking about my ‘torrid’ sex life with your grandchildren?”
Wrinkling her pixie nose, Dawn rolled over to half hang off the edge of her mattress again. “Barf. I don’t want to think about talking about sex with my grandchildren. What is wrong with you? Honestly, Paige, sometimes I’m shocked at the filth that comes out of your mouth.”
“I think I’m kind of proud that I managed to ick you out.”
“My baby.” Dawn wiped away a fake tear. “Finally growing up.”
Their laughter abruptly cut off as Kimber, one of her other roommates, slammed the door open. Tall, tanned, lean, and built like the long distance runner she was, Kimber had a sweet, dimpled face that was normally graced with a smile, but right now she looked like she was about to pass out. Her eyes were wide enough to show the white all the way around her dark hazel orbs, and she was biting her lower lip obsessively while she gripped her hands into fists.
Instantly on alert, Paige sprung from her chair. “Kimber?”
Sucking in a tight breath, Kimber babbled out, “Get packed, right now. Only the essentials and what you can carry. Important things. If you leave it behind it might not be here when you get back.”
Dawn and Paige exchanged a glance. “Honey, are you okay? Did something happen?”
Kimber shook her head. “We don’t have time. Roxie said we had to leave right now. That there’s going to be riots. She said-she said the National Guard’s been called up, she’s been called up, bad things are going to happen, and we need to get home as fast as we can.”
A sick lurch went through Paige’s belly, so hard she feared for a moment she might be sick. “Okay.”
Dawn stumbled out of her bunk, her funky green and purple pajamas askew as she rammed her feet into a pair of black leather boots. “Wait, what’s going on?”
“Get your shit,” Kimber yelled as she headed down the hall to her room at a run.
“Dawn, don’t argue, just pack.”
“Dawn Marie.” Paige used her most commanding tone of voice, the one she often employed when watching over spirited kids during her job as a nanny. “Get packed this instant. If Roxie said we need to go, we need to go. Focus. Get your documentation, laptop, and any mementos. Forget clothes unless they have sentimental value.”
Dawn blinked at Paige twice before whirling around and hauling her duffle bag out from beneath her dresser.
Fear coursed through Paige as she grabbed the few personal possessions she had, neatly packing the framed pictures of her with her friends and family among her clothes. Her mind kept skittering to the word riots. They’d had some small protests on campus but nothing major, so she couldn’t figure out why there would be rioting. Sure Ann Arbor saw more than its fair share of people complaining about one thing or another, but nothing ever got violent. It was a college town, a prestigious one at that, and as far as she knew the only things they’d ever had that would be even close to a riot were all the result of sports games won or lost.
“Paige, honey!” Dawn gave her a gentle shove. “Time to go.”
She moved instantly to the precious photo album on her shelf that held the rest of the pictures of her with her mother and grabbed it. After packing in her tablet, a couple pairs of clothes, and some of her books, she met Dawn at the door. Kimber was already on her way down the stairs with her bags, and Paige had to run to catch up. Being short meant she usually took two steps for Kimber’s every one, but now it was more like three as her friend sprinted down the creaky wood stairs.
By the time they made it downstairs a slightly hysterical Casey was talking on the phone. She said her goodbyes then stared at them. It took her friend a minute to get her bearings, but once she did Casey broke all kinds of traffic laws in her beat up old sedan getting them out of Ann Arbor and to the sleepy little rural town of Chelsea. They’d all grown up there together, and Paige had never been more grateful for being close to home than she was on that tense ride. It was normally a twenty-minute drive, but Casey’s speeding and lack of traffic had them back in their hometown before they knew it.
And thank God they made it, because by the time they got to Casey’s parents’ house the world had gone to shit in a huge way. She’d stayed with Casey, both of them cuddled up together like they used to do when they were little, and watched the news for hours, trying to figure out what had happened, why the sky was sudden filled with rainbows of light. At least, they’d watched the news when the electricity and cable were working in between blackouts. The pulses of energy that had ripped through the Earth had knocked planes out of the air, scorched the electrical infrastructure of less developed countries, and in general brought chaos on the world. All news was delivered through a network of curriers who physically ran tapes from the field to the broadcast stations and spread from there.
A tape reached a news station in Detroit, where Roxie’s National Guard Unit was, and Paige had frantically searched the screen, trying to spot her friend among the rioting people, the burning buildings, and the loud bangs of gunfire. Whoever took the video did it from a second floor window, and they watched in horror as a dozen National Guard and a few guys in police uniforms tried to hold off a mob of hundreds of enraged and scared people. Mr. Westfall had changed the channel, but the damage was done. That night when Paige fell asleep next to Casey, Mrs. Westfall insisted everyone sleep with a buddy, she did it praying for God to have mercy on her fragile little world.
Four days later Paige wiped some sweat from her forehead with the back of her arm as she smiled at the woman standing across the table from her. She was volunteering at the local Lions Lodge handing out water and packages of baby wipes to the refugees her city had taken in. Big warming servers, the kind that she’d seen at wedding buffets, had been brought in from the local high school to help feed all the people who were displaced or out of food. With the rolling blackouts, most frozen food was already spoiled and there was a boil water advisory for everything. The only places that had constant power were the hospital and some government buildings like the police department and prison. Everyone else had to deal with two hours of the power being on, then three off. The Lodge was running on a combination of a diesel generator and some portable solar batteries so they were able to feed everyone who needed a hot meal and cold drink.
Because the government had put a ban on all non-essential travel, there were a lot of strangers stuck in town, and they tended to gather at the Lodge, watching television and often trying to find information on their family, home towns, or loved ones. People were having issues connecting to the Internet and real information was hard to come by. While she’d heard rumors of just about every kind of evil thing happening in the world outside of Chelsea, in her little corner of the globe things weren’t that bad, and the stranded travelers knew fate could have landed them in a much worse place.
The government promised that in a few days they would lift the travel restrictions, but for right now people had to shelter in place. Ann Arbor had been overflowing with visitors and people who worked in the city, so the National Guard had been coming in and moving some of them out to the surrounding communities. Chelsea had gotten its share, and Paige had seen a girl earlier she recognized from school, Karen. She said Ann Arbor had become just what Roxie predicted, a crap hole full of pretentious, whiny assholes and entitled college students along with criminals who took advantage of the chaos. While Karen had holed up in her friend’s apartment with the door blocked and a gun, they’d watched the stores across the street from them get ransacked, and that was before the sun went down. Karen had shakily said she was pretty sure her friend had shot a guy who’d been dragging a screaming woman down the street past their apartment.
Paige thanked her lucky stars again that Roxie had gotten them out in time.
In true country strong fashion, the people of Chelsea had pulled together and treated the strangers in need like family. Everyone pitched in to help, and Paige went wherever she was needed. Normally she’d be hiding at Casey’s house where she was staying, fighting off anxiety attacks, but something had changed in her after the Event. Some remnants of her childhood trauma had burned away as she watched the world she thought she knew change forever. Again.
The scientists at NASA, sudden celebrities thrust into the limelight by a public desperate for answers, theorized that a series of large magnetic waves had hit the Earth, ripping through the atmosphere and taking down every airplane in the sky and causing a host of problems.
There had been riots, massive fires, looting, murders and there was even word that a political coup had happened somewhere in Africa. But she had to remind herself that there were also stories of great heroism, of people risking their own lives for others, of humanity coming together to help each other out. There was a sense of community here in her small town that had been dwindling, but was now back full force. Neighbors watched out for each other, banded together and formed watches that had deterred any further vandalism. A few stores had been hit during the terrible night after the Event, but for the most part people had stepped up and stopped the violence before it started.
Karen said she was moving there, and Casey was pretty sure her friend was serious.
“Paige.” Mrs. Westfall, Casey’s curvy and dark-haired mom, gave Paige an exasperated smile. “Can you give me a hand with this?”
Seeing Mrs. Westfall struggling with opening an industrial sized can of creamed corn, Paige moved past another volunteer who was sorting produce donated by the local farmers. The scent of the fresh corn filled the room with an earthy smell she’d always associated with life and growing things. The backyard of her childhood home had butted up to vast cornfields, and she’d spent many afternoons with her friends playing in them. Happy memories filled her, and she welcomed them, momentarily seeing the world again through a child’s eyes.
“Paige?” Mrs. Westfall smiled at her, then cocked a carefully arched brow.
“Sorry.” She flushed. “I was just thinking about how nice fresh corn smells.”
“It does smell nice, doesn’t it?” Mrs. Westfall reached out and smoothed back a stray strand of Paige’s hair. “Did I tell you yet today that I love you?”
Flushing with embarrassed pleasure, Paige focused on the can opener and muttered, “Only four times since breakfast.”
“Well, I do, and I want you to know it.” Mrs. Westfall’s lower lip trembled when Paige looked up, her tired eyes welling with tears. “I promised myself I’d never let a day go by again where I didn’t let the people around me know how important they are to me. Paige, I know I’ve told you this before, but you are my daughter in every way that matters, and I adore you.”
Now it was Paige’s turn to blink back tears, and as she was trying to wipe them away from the corner of her eye, she heard a familiar woman’s melodic but weary voice ring out.
“Jesus, Ma, I told my troops you’d hook us up with some food, but if you cry in the chow it’s gonna be too salty.”
Paige whirled around with a big smile, taking in the sight of a battered and dirty Roxie, still dressed in combat gear that had seen better days, giving everyone a tired smile.
While Mrs. Westfall and Casey were short and curvy, Roxie was tall with lean muscles and had the strong bone structure of her Norwegian father. Roxie wasn’t attractive in a beauty queen way, she had resting bitch face to the tenth degree, but she was stunning, and she had some invisible quality to her that made men take a second look. Even now, covered in what looked like soot, maybe some blood, a bright bandage on her hand, a good sized bruise on her neck along with various scrapes, and she still turned heads. Everyone in the dining and lounge area of the Lodge was looking at Roxie and her troops, not that Paige could blame them.
It wasn’t every day you saw a dozen lethal female soldiers, dirty and obviously fresh from battle, standing in a Lion’s Lodge surrounded by soccer moms and retirees.
Roxie smiled at Paige then held one of her arms open. “Come here, little sister.”
“Yes, ma’am, Captain Westfall.”
“Just get over here, smartass.”
Unable to maintain her cool, she barreled into Roxie and hugged her friend, careful not to touch any of her weapons, then grimaced. “Ugh, you smell terrible.”
Laughing, Mrs. Westfall dabbed at her face then took a step back. “You really do.”
“Yeah, well, the truck leaving Detroit headed for Ann Arbor was moving out, so it was either catch a ride or be stuck in that shit hole another day. You try going without a shower for four days and see if you feel fresh as a fuckin’ daisy.”
“Language,” Mrs. Westfall said as more people gathered around, standing a respectful distance back, but all smiling at Roxie and trying to catch her eye.
Here and there people were wiping away tears, and Roxie’s smile got uncomfortable. “Ma, do you have someplace we can eat and clean up, alone?”
“Oh.” Mrs. Westfall looked around and cleared her throat. “Of course. Right. Yes, just follow—”
“Roxanne? Captain Westfall,” an older man’s voice called out above the low hum of conversation.
Paige saw her friend flinch, but she squared her shoulders and turned to Mr. Wychek, their friend Kimber’s grandfather. He was an old Polish man in his eighties who always proudly wore his Army hats and liked to talk about military stuff with Roxie. She usually indulged him, but right now her patience was clearly thin.
“Hey, Mr. Wychek, can I talk with you later? I’m beat and need to get some food in me and my ladies.”
Mr. Wychek slowly stood at attention, drawing his bent frame straight and adding two inches to his height. Holding her friend’s gaze, he saluted her as his eyes filled with tears. “Thank you, and your fellow soldiers, for your service. I’m proud to know you and call you my friend.”
All around them more and more people said thank you until they were all clapping and cheering. The high ceiling of the Lodge rang with noise, and Paige found herself clinging to Mrs. Westfall and crying while the soldiers shuffled uncomfortably before the crowd. Their eyes were wide, weary and Paige could tell they were uneasy beneath all the attention.
Through all the cheering she heard Roxie as she ducked down to Mrs. Westfall then said, “Ma, I can’t handle this.”
Mrs. Westfall jumped into action and grabbed Roxie’s hand, dragging her away with a bright smile. “You must be starving. Thank you, everyone, but I need to feed my girls. Paige, can you show the rest of the ladies the way? Grab some baby wipes as well. You can use the big industrial sinks in back to wash up, and we have a huge pile of donated clothes you can look through. Thank you, everyone, but let’s just give them some privacy so they can eat in peace.”
Moving to the overwhelmed women, a few of whom were scrubbing away clean tear marks on their sooty faces, she quickly ushered them through the back and into the industrial kitchen area. Mrs. Westfall was already herding people out of the big space in full territorial pit bull mode. Despite being sweet as candy, when it came to her children Mrs. Westfall was no joke. In less than five minutes she was distributing clothes and baggies full of travel size toiletries donated by the local grocery store while getting everyone settled in.
Roxie stood in the corner of the room, now wearing a bright lime green T-shirt that showed the cuts and bruises marring her tanned skin. Her shoulders were drawn up tight as she stared at the bottom of the stainless steel sink, her hands gripping it hard enough that her knuckles turned white. A visible tremor went through her, and Paige was pretty sure it wasn’t just from physical exhaustion.
Despite her badass ways, Roxie had a kind heart, and she must have seen and experienced some terrible things while down in Detroit.
Paige exchanged a worried look with Mrs. Westfall, but the older woman shook her head. “Okay, looks like we have some pot roast back here, and Mrs. Oplin made her special meat pasties. You must try one. There’s also pasta and spicy taco dip, as well as some vegetable casserole in case anyone’s a vegetarian. So grab your plates, ladies, and eat up. There’s plenty, so don’t feel shy about coming back for seconds or thirds.”
Roxie rubbed her face with a paper towel before turning around, her eyes red-rimmed but her expression neutral.
Everyone moved out back to the picnic tables to eat beneath the massive elm trees, the warm summer day perfect, except for those ribbons of light in the sky caused by the Event. The scientists also said those arcing ribbons of undulating colors would disappear in time, but right now they were visible reminders of a day that still made her chest ache with sorrow. So many people had died, or vanished, and some of her friends had lost loved ones during the lawless times after the Event.
The news had covered the riots that had burned most of the east side of the city of Detroit to the ground. It had been so bad that some of the fire had jumped the Detroit river and set parts of Windsor up in flames. Morons had shot at firefighters trying to control the blaze, and Paige had been furious that someone would try and kill a person already putting their life on the line to save the city. At one point they’d watched a gunfight between the National Guard and a bunch of guys with their faces covered, shooting it out over a pharmacy. The drugs inside had become more precious than gold with the supply chain as messed up as it was, and the National Guard wasn’t going to leave the store and the lifesaving medicine inside to a mob of rioting people. She also knew that the National Guard lost over two hundred troops that night in Detroit, and there was no way Roxie wouldn’t have personally experienced the loss of a friend or co-worker.
As they were clearing the plates away and Mrs. Westfall was arranging for places for Roxie’s troops to stay, Paige went over to where Roxie was stacking mismatched plates and bumped her shoulder.
“Hey,” Roxie muttered back, not meeting her eyes. “Look, I’ve got twenty-four hours of leave to rest up, and I want to see you while I’m here, but I don’t want to talk about what went on down in Detroit, okay?”
“Okay.” Paige swallowed hard. “I’m glad you’re all right. I was really worried. We all were.”
Roxie looked up sharply, appearing older than her twenty-nine years. “How are you holding up?”
“Not bad.” She pulled herself together and gathered up the silverware while Roxie shuffled around to the other side of the table, wiping up spills. “I mean, this is crazy to the tenth degree, but…I guess when you’ve been through bad stuff, really bad stuff, you have to learn how to roll with the unexpected. How to cope with the punches life throws at you. That doesn’t mean I’m not scared out of my mind, and that I don’t have to fight back panic attacks, but there are worse things than being scared, right?”
“Roxie!” Mrs. Westfall called out from the backdoor. “Do you want some apple pie?”
“Sure, Ma,” Roxie yelled back, then sighed. “Thanks for talking with me, kiddo. Even when I don’t want to.”
Paige hugged her tight before Roxie could stop her, then released her blushing friend. “You know that night, at the hospital, when you promised me you’d be here for me if I ever needed to talk? That everything was going to be all right? Well, I’m making you the same offer to talk in confidence, but I’m hoping it doesn’t take you two years and a ton of therapy to get up the balls to do it like it did for me. So if you get in a dark place and you need someone to listen without judgment, I’m here. Understood?”
Roxie looked at her, then grinned and saluted. “Understood, ma’am.”
Throwing a half-eaten roll at her, Paige muttered, “Whatever. I’m going to tell your mom that you think Gordy Clintok is hot.”
It was a long running joke between them, each threatening to tell Mrs. Westfall—who viewed herself as being a great matchmaker—that the other was in love with a totally icky guy. For example, Gordy Clintok, who was known to be seen driving around town in his tow truck casually eating his boogers. He’d gone to school with Roxie and still had a crush on her that was never reciprocated.
“You do that and I’m going to tell her you love that Hebbles d-bag with the Cheetos orange spray tan.”
At the mention of the greasy sleaze that was Casey’s boss at the local supermarket, Paige shivered. “Ewww.”
“Bet he shaves his balls. I also bet they’re all prickly like a cactus. Imagine those slapping off your chin.”
Making a barfing noise, Paige flipped Roxie off. “Nasty.”
Unfortunately, Mrs. Westfall saw Paige and yelled out, “A true lady wouldn’t make that type of crude gesture in public, Paige. Be nice to Roxie.”
“Yeah, Paige.” Roxie smirked. “Don’t flip off the war hero. I’m a fuckin’ national treasure.”
Laughing, Paige followed her friend back into the building. Roxie’s comrades sat sipping coffee out of Styrofoam cups, and they greeted their Captain with smiles and good-natured ribbing, the military form of bonding. Feeling like an outsider, Paige quietly moved past them to the side of the building and leaned against it as she looked up at the cloudless sky. As she watched the undulating colors and listened to the faint background hum of people talking, she wrapped her arms around herself and wished she had someone to hold her and tell her everything would be all right.