From the world of the Reaper series… 

 

Homecoming

 

A sliver of wood as thin as a snowflake peeled away beneath the sharp blade and drifted down to lay atop his bare foot. The scent teased his nostrils, but he held back a sneeze as he followed the stroke around the curve of the eagle’s uplifted wing. He didn’t want to screw up this delicate part and, besides, if he let loose with a sneeze now, someone from the house might hear him and that would be no good. No good at all.

Head bowed, John tickled the roof of his mouth with the tip of his tongue. His sister Alice had always sworn by that method of fighting off sneezes and she would have known. With hay fever and a preacher father who insisted they sit in the front pew every Sunday no matter what, Alice had had a lot of practice at smothering sneezes. She was gone now with the rest of his siblings. Eight of them and he was the only survivor.

Setting the knife aside, he picked up the small chisel. Really it was only a large square-headed nail he’d found sticking up from the soil a few weeks past. He’d scrubbed the rust from it and sharpened the end and it worked remarkably well for his purposes. The feathers…well now, that was the challenge here. He cupped the eagle in one hand, thumb anchoring the neck and his pinky finger curled around a leg. Catching his tongue between his teeth, he began the fine work.

The feathers had to be etched individually to make it look real. He could appreciate symbolic art, but he had his preferences. His grandfather, who’d taught him to carve, had made creatures so real looking that as a child he’d been convinced the hand sized wolves and bears prowled about his room as soon as he drifted off to sleep.

He blinked the sweat from his eyes and swiped his sleeve across his face. He’d nearly forgotten that. He had forgotten it. It was another memory come back to him, and a precious one. He wished he could remember them all…the good ones and forget about the bad. Wheat and chaff. Gather up the wheat, throw the chaff into the fire. Some days, it seemed to work the other way around. Some days it seemed there was nothing left but chaff.

With a sigh, he looked up from his work. The sun was taking it’s time today going down, sinking behind the mountains slow and sweet, casting the thin wispy clouds in shades of orange and gold and striping his dark hands with color as it fell through the trees. It made even the gnats in the meadow glitter like gems. There was an airship in the sky, shining with reflected light and moving slow as the sunset. Heading for one of the sister cities on the western range, it looked to be flying straight into the sun.

He watched it for a time, wondering about the people on board. If it was a work ship filled with cattle for the slaughterhouses, immigrants from Appalachia looking for a work. Or maybe this one was a pleasure craft, a wealthy industrialist taking his friends out for jaunt. It was too far away for him to tell for sure so he let his imagination play with the thought. As the ship faded from view, he turned his attention back to the carving cupped in his hand. Pale wood. Dark skin. It was nearly done.

When the long twilight began to deepen into night, John stood up, rubbed at the ache in his back and then passed down to the river. His river. The water access was why he’d claimed this plot after the previous owners were killed during a Reaper attack. The old cabin was two miles north. He’d burned it to ash and year by year watched the woods reclaim the spot. Jess had once asked why they didn’t plant there or let cattle graze that land. Five years old and sharp as a tack to notice such a thing but, even then, Jess had been too young for the plain truth. He surely knew it now.

The water made the land valuable. Drought was an almost yearly concern this far south. All the smaller creeks were dry by August but the Cedar never went dry. It was why he’d been willing to take the risk of living so near the border. Why he’d talked Lily into taking the risk with him.

He folded his trousers and shirt on a rock that still held the heat of the day and set the sturdy boots they’d given to him at the fort beside them. Slipping into the cool water made his body shudder, but he grit his teeth and moved deeper into the current. When he was hip deep and past the grasses, he submerged himself fully to wash the sweat of the day from his body. He had no soap so he scooped up a fistful of sand from the bottom. He scrubbed the wooden figure of the eagle smooth with sand and then scrubbed himself in much the same way. It didn’t seem to help. He could scour himself bloody but it wouldn’t make a damned bit of difference.

When he was done, dry and dressed, he returned to the house, taking the back way through the trees preserved for firewood. The winters weren’t long this far south, but during the worst of it, the cold could freeze a man dead if he stayed out in it too long. He’d need to make a decision before winter came. Three months longer before it would come to that.

As he walked, fire flies lifted from the grass and sparked around him. The light breeze shushed through the treetops overhead, ruffling through the fields that stretched out around the house. Not fully planted, Lily hadn’t managed that on her own, but there was enough there for a fine harvest.

She’d done well. Her and Jess, without him. John couldn’t help but look around him without feeling an aching mix of sorrow and pride.

A ghost, that’s what he was, haunting the edges of his old life, forgotten and unwelcome by the living who’d kept on going without him. The knowledge didn’t keep him from creeping to the backdoor and setting his gift on the rough bench beneath the window there. Didn’t keep him from taking one quick peek inside.

A single long table filled up most of the room, the top worn to smoothness. The sturdy benches on either side were empty now and pushed beneath the table. He’d made that rocker beside the hearth with his own hands when Lily was expecting Jess. The rug was new—green and blue. He suspected Lily had made it from rags of her old clothes. Blue and green were her favorite colors. His, too, because they reminded him of her. She was dressed in a loose dress now, the color of mud. One of only two dresses that she owned, both nearly identical. The boy was sitting on the floor before the cold hearth, cleaning his gun.

Something alerted Jess to his presence, maybe a shadow or just good instincts. Jess looked up, his gaze swinging toward the window, and John ducked away. Damn. He hadn’t wanted to scare anyone.

Slipping quickly around the corner of the house, he jogged on silent feet to the woodpile. There, he paused, crouching down behind the neatly stacked wood to look back at the opening door. A wedge of light widened across the yard. The boy stood silhouetted in the doorway. Tall. Skinny but straight-backed. Jess didn’t look particularly alarmed. If he was, he’d be holding his gun, and he wouldn’t have flung open the door like that.

Once outside, Jess turned immediately to the bench and grabbed the small figure waiting there before taking several steps into the yard. He looked first one way and then the other.

John didn’t move. He knew Jess wouldn’t be able to see him, wrapped in shadows as he was. The doctors said his sharpened eyesight was a lingering effect of the parasite that had taken over his body for years, forcing him to do all manner of evil things. They’d cured him of the parasite at the fort. The doctors said he was cured now, restored to normal. Resurrected. At times like this, John doubted that, doubted that he’d ever be able to return to anything like normal.

His senses, while not as keen as they’d been while he was infected, were still sharper than natural. He wouldn’t be seen unless he wanted to be seen. And he didn’t want to be seen. Not now. Maybe not ever.

The boy’s frown eased as he looked down at the figure cradled in his hands. Then, he shook his head and ran back toward the house, his voice lifting in an excited shout that was answered by a query from the door. Lily was there. She didn’t step outside, not fully. He could see her figure outlined by the light from inside. There was a fire in the stove tonight and a lantern on the table. He’d seen that from the window.

She bent her head to examine Jess’s prize and then waved the boy inside. She waited until Jess slipped past and then she stepped fully outside into the yard, pulling the door closed behind her. Her gaze scanned first the yard and then the field beyond. Almost, he could feel the touch of it slide over him like a caress.

“John?”

It was a whisper of sound, more like a prayer than a question. She wasn’t expecting a response, and he didn’t give her one, though he was sorely tempted.

The twilight seemed to deepen as her shoulders sagged. But she didn’t retreat. Instead, she walked straight towards him, carrying something small between her hands. It was like she knew exactly where he was, but that was impossible. She couldn’t know.

He kept still, the breath locked in his lungs. His heart though…his heart tried to hammer its way out of his chest. It would be ironic if, after everything he’d been through, he dropped dead of fright in his own woodpile. Scared of his own wife.

Lily stopped by the wooden stump and set a plate of food on the rock. She didn’t know where he was. If she had known, her body wouldn’t have been positioned like that, half-facing away from him. This was as close as he’d been to her since he’d been ripped away. The urge to go to her, to touch her, was a physical ache in his bones.

“I don’t know if you can hear me, but if you can…” She trailed off and seemed to struggle with herself. “If you can hear me, I wish you would talk to me. You can’t be afraid of me, can you?” The question hung there, suspended in the air like cottonseed until the silence swallowed it up. She bowed her head. “I only wish I knew I was doing the right thing. I’ve managed the farm well enough on my own, but there’s Jess to think of. I’m stuck in a hard place, and I’m just not sure what to do. Some advice would be very welcome.” She tucked a tight curl of hair behind her ear and pressed her lips together. Her eyes narrowed slightly. Working out a problem. Any minute now…there it was—a little wrinkle formed between her brows. A worry line. It always made him want to kiss exactly that spot.

Moonlight was kind to her. It always had been. Turned her hair and eyes black and softened her features. In the moonlight you couldn’t see the lines at the corners of her eyes or the grey in her dark hair. Her hair was unruly. Even tied back as it was with a thin rag of cloth, you could tell it wanted to spring free. Such thick hair. He remembered gathering it up into a horse’s tail and measuring it against his wrist. That hadn’t changed. She was still Lily. His Lily love.

“The timing isn’t good,” she said. “I know that, but I can’t continue on this way. Cyrus won’t keep listening to no, and I’m not willing to fight him over this plot of land.”

He winced, hearing that. He’d loved the land, Lily had loved him. That’s how they’d ended here.

She sighed. “Jess wants to fight. And I would do anything to prevent that.” She paused, drew a splintering breath. “Almost anything.”

Like marry a man like Cyrus? He wanted to ask. John wouldn’t contest a divorce, but he didn’t want Lily to place herself under that man’s control. Cyrus wouldn’t be kind to her or to another man’s son. Jess was right to want to fight for what was his while he still had a chance to claim it. Every muscle in John’s body tightened, locked between the desire to move forward and the fear that kept him right where he was.

He didn’t move.

Lily muttered something under her breath and then rose smoothly to her feet. He listened to her walk back to the house. The door closed and the cicadas resumed their chorus. John scrubbed his face and then stared at his hands hanging loose between his knees. It wasn’t that he didn’t know what she was getting at. There was nothing wrong with his mind. He could think clearly which was more than some could say. It was the rest of it…all of the other ways that he was wrong that made it so impossible to reach out and claim what he wanted.

Maybe she was right to move on. Maybe it was time he did the same.

 

***

 

Cyrus was back, chasing after Lily, though John knew for a fact that he never would have considered wedding a black woman if not for the land she owned. John remembered scuffling in the dirt with a nine year old Cyrus outside the schoolhouse after he’d told Lily she’d never be more than a breeder and made her cry.

Some memories were hazy, swimming around inside his head like minnows, impossible to get a fix on. For many of his memories, he was grateful it was so. Others—like this one from his childhood—were clear as spring water.

He remembered that fight. The ache in his jaw and the taste of blood in his mouth. How the pain from his injuries had been nothing next to the shame of losing because Cyrus was bigger and meaner. He remembered how Lily had caught up to him on the road and hadn’t said a word, just took his hand and walked silently beside him all the way home.

He lowered his chin to his folded hands and watched as Cyrus approached the house. John was stretched out on the rock like a dog, letting the coolness of the stone seep into his body. Keeping watch as he always did, ready to protect his family if needed.

Cyrus, though…what to do about him? He wasn’t a Reaper, former or otherwise, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous.

Cyrus stood beside his horse, talking to Lily and keeping a respectful distance as he did so. John smiled. Lily looked annoyed by the interruption. She’d been making bread and she was particular about the timing. She made the best bread he’d ever tasted. One of many, many reasons he’d married her. A long list, that one.

There was a streak of brilliant white flour on her cheek and she wiped her hands on her apron as she spoke. John was too far away to hear the conversation. He could only tell by Lily’s posture that she was irritated.

He could tell by Cyrus’s posture that the man didn’t really want to be standing there either. Cyrus wasn’t really interested in Lily, just the land. And even that was for his father’s sake. Cyrus wasn’t a farmer. He was a banker. When a gust of wind stirred the dust in the yard, Cyrus brushed off his trousers in disgust. Lily cocked her head in a way that told John she was trying to hide a smile.

Cyrus was a Harrison and that family had always been interested in this lot because of the river. The Cedar ran along the western edge of her property, cut into bedrock there and above her miles to the north. It couldn’t be easily diverted. It flowed right through Harrison land to the south.

Cyrus’s father had likely sent his bachelor son to court Lily, the lonely widow to the north who happened to have good access to both the river and the trail leading to the nearest airship station where cattle were shipped up to Koln.

John decided that so long as Cyrus had only come to speak with Lily, he could live. If Cyrus harmed so much as a hair on her head, he would have to die. The thought disturbed him. It disturbed him more how little he cared either way. He’d never been a violent man. But if he had to kill Cyrus now, he’d do it with as little remorse as putting down a rabid dog. And that wasn’t right. Deep down inside, he knew that it wasn’t right. The doctors had killed the Reaper inside of him, but there was a strange empty place left behind.

That was the real reason why he couldn’t go home yet. He didn’t trust it. Didn’t trust himself. And he wanted more for his family than the broken man he was now.

And if Lily wanted Cyrus? John tamped down the flare of rage and helplessness that rose at the thought. If Lily wanted Cyrus, then John owed it to her to let her have what she wanted. He would leave then. Let her go on thinking he was dead. He could give her that…if it’s what she really wanted.

So distracted was he by his vigil, that he didn’t hear the boy approaching from behind until it was too late. The sound of rock grinding beneath a human foot was close, only a few feet away. The instinct to fight came to him so powerfully, it took him a moment to fight it back and by then it was too late.

“It is you,” Jess said quietly. A touch of wonder. A touch of fear in that young voice.

John closed his eyes and thought briefly about running. Then, he turned his head to look down at the boy, standing behind him at the base of the ledge. Jess was barefoot which is probably what had allowed him to sneak so close. His canvas trousers were too short, exposing his ankles. The fabric was frayed at the bottom.

“You know me?”

He didn’t mean it as a rejection, but there was a flinch at the corners of the boy’s eyes before he gathered his expression.

“I know who you are.”

Jess used to cry like a baby if he so much as stubbed his toe and cling to his mama’s skirts. John had once worried about the boy being too soft, that he wouldn’t be able to survive on the border. Lily had always brushed aside. She’d been right after all. Because look at the boy now, strong hands wrapped around his gun. Sharp eyes, dry as the old creek in August and a stubborn set to his mouth that said he wouldn’t be run off.

Pride and regret fought a brief battle within his chest as John rolled over, dropped from the ledge onto his feet and turned to face his son.

“She doesn’t want him,” Jess said, lifting his chin toward the house. “Cyrus will marry her to keep things friendly, but friendly or not, the Harrisons mean to have this land. I don’t trust them to stay nice.”

John ran a hand through his hair and said nothing. All the words jumbled in his mind and he couldn’t seem to pull them straight. Jess studied him for a long moment, and then his expression shuttered.

“We eat after sunset.” The boy started to walk away from him, paused and looked back. “Come to the door this time. Don’t make her chase you again.”

 

***

 

John watched the first star appear in the clear sky before forcing himself to step beyond the cover of the tall grass and into the open yard. It felt like peeling off a layer of skin. It hurt, physically hurt, to stand there exposed where anyone might see him. His stomach churned and his palms began to sweat. He wiped his hands dry on the pants he’d washed earlier in the day and forced himself to take another step and then another, eyes fixed on the golden square of light ahead of him.

He paused when the door opened and Lily stepped onto the porch. He couldn’t see more than the outline of her body, that her shoulders were stiff and her arms crossed. He couldn’t see the expression on her face but maybe that was for the best.

Drawing in the cool night air, he quickly closed the remaining distance before he lost his nerve, stopping only when he was standing with his shins touching the bottom stair.

“John.”

He looked up and Lily’s face crumpled. She turned away and he thought that was it. That it wasn’t going to take anything more than a single glance for her to know this wasn’t going to work. But she paused on the threshold and glanced back. “Come on in then. Dinner is already on the table.”

He blew out the breath he’d been holding and followed her up. Jess glanced up at him as he came through the door. He nodded and then reached for the bowl of mashed potatoes. It settled him. Lily fussed at the stove, stirring the gravy before pouring it into the fancy dish her mother had passed on to her when they’d wed.

Stupid to tear up at the sight of crockery. He blinked and moved forward closing the door behind him, ignoring the trapped way it made him feel.

“Is there anything I can do?” He asked in his rusty voice.

“No.” She turned around, her strained smile fading when she looked at him. She just stared for a long silent moment. Then, giving a slight shake to her head, she pointed toward the table. “Sit down and help yourself. You know we’re not formal.”

The slight emphasis on the ‘we’ made his stomach do a little flip. It would be rude not to eat this feast she’d laid out but he didn’t know if he would be able to hold it down. He took his seat and accepted the bowl that Jess passed to him with a nod of thanks. Lily sat too across from him. She flinched again when she looked at him.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t help staring, but… You look exactly the same. Ten years and you’re still a young man. Nothing’s changed for you.”

He didn’t feel young. He felt very old. But he saw what must be bothering her. Lily had aged. He’d been watching the house for weeks and had noticed the changes. There was gray in her hair, lines at the corners of her eyes and bracketing her mouth. These last several years hadn’t been easy for her and she was marked by that. It didn’t seem right. He should be the one scarred. And she was wrong—everything had changed for him. She had to know that.

He cleared his throat. “The doctors say I’ll age normally from now on.”

“Well, then…”

He waited for her to finish the thought but she never did. Just placed a small piece of the roast on her plate and nudged the platter in Jess’s direction.

Jess looked him right in the eyes. “Why have you been hiding in the woods? You didn’t want to see us.”

“I saw you,” he said. “I didn’t think you’d want to see me.”

“We thought you were dead.”

That wasn’t true. He shook his head slowly, holding his son’s gaze even though it hurt. “You knew I wasn’t dead. Knew I’d been turned.”

The boy shrugged. “Same thing.”

Jess was distracting him to give his mother time to compose herself. John saw that. Pride mixed with hurt at the realization. Lily and Jess were a team, a family. And he was on the outside.

Why had he been hiding in the woods? This. He wasn’t a part of their lives anymore. He didn’t belong here.

He toyed with his fork. “The Rangers caught me, cured me.” He looked up to see Lily frowning at her plate. “I came here right after. I needed to know you were still alive. I don’t remember the attack.”

He’d been sick that whole long walk from the forts. Worried he’d find the house long abandoned. That he’d learn Lily and Jess had died in the same attack that’d turned him into a monster. The day the house was attacked by a Reaper, Lily and Jess had been in town picking up supplies. He’d been bitten and turned. He’d had no memory of what had happened to his family after that and neither had the over-worked people at the fort.

When he’d come home after the cure, when he’d seen them alive and well—Jess in the field, Lily feeding her chickens—he’d sat down in the dirt and wept.

Lily looked up. Angry. “We deserved to know you were living too.”

He winced, opened his mouth to tell her he wasn’t sure he was still living. Wasn’t sure he wanted to be. But Jess’s frown caught his eye and John closed his mouth to stop the words. Jess already seemed older than his years. And that wasn’t something a boy should ever hear his father say.

“I’m sorry.”

Lily nodded and then viciously sawed at the roast with her knife. That made him smile. She never had liked to fight. They’d had disagreements, of course they had, but they’d usually been able to work things out. She hadn’t wanted to settle this close to the border. He’d won that one.

They ate in near silence after that. John had a million questions. So many that he didn’t know where to start. But Lily seemed so fragile sitting across from him and he didn’t want to push her. Maybe later. He rubbed at the ache in his chest. Not later.

“You should eat,” Jess said, scraping the last of his potatoes up with the side of his fork. He stood up from the table, thanked his mother and put his plate in the sink. With a brief nod toward John, he walked for the door. John wanted to follow him out. To talk to him. He could tell that Jess was angry and hurt, but he didn’t know what he could say to change that.

“You’re not hungry?”

He looked back at Lily. A frown was between her brows and that made him smile again. “I never could eat when I was nervous. Do you remember our wedding dinner?”

Her face crumpled and he wished the words back.

“I remember it,” she said. “You didn’t eat a thing. Not even the cake. Why would you be nervous?”

“You can ask? I keep waiting for the minute you’re going to run me off.”

“Is that why you didn’t come see us? You were afraid?”

He pushed the plate aside, giving up the pretense. She was done anyway. He noticed she hadn’t managed more than a bite or two either. Threading his fingers together to stop them from shaking, he set his hands on the table.

“I’m more scared than you can know, Lily. Then. Now.” He looked up. “You’re not happy to see me back and I understand that.”

His heart stopped as tears filled her eyes and she looked up at the ceiling. He was on his feet before he thought it through, just managed to stop himself from reaching for her. She wouldn’t want his hands on her.

She shoved back her chair and stood, swiping her sleeve across her eyes. “Did it not occur to you that I might be scared too?”

“I won’t hurt you, Lil.” His voice dropped to a harsh whisper. “I could never hurt you. Never. Not you or Jess.”

“I know that. It was never you that would have hurt us. It was the Reaper. I understand that. I know it’s gone. But you haven’t changed at all.” She waved her hand. “Look at you. Exactly the same as the day we married. They said…when the Rangers came through town, they said most of the Reapers they cured didn’t remember anything about what had happened to them. Like Sleeping Beauty. Preserved for years and then suddenly awake. They say most wake up asking where they are and what happened.”

His mouth went dry and he heard blood rushing in his ears. He had to swallow twice before he could talk without worrying he might lose what little food he’d managed to get down. “I remember, Lily. Some of it. I was confused after but I remember. I truly wish I didn’t.”

Something like pity flickered in her eyes but her expression hardened again. “Time didn’t stand still for me. You came back. You saw us and then you decided not to come home.”

“I don’t understand…”

“I do. I understand it,” she said. “I’m not the same nineteen year old bride you left behind.”

He stepped back, shaken when he realized her meaning. It was like the earth moved under his feet. She was scared. Not of him. Not that he might do her physical harm. She wasn’t disgusted by what he’d done either. He saw no sign of that. But she was worried.

“I didn’t leave you, Lily,” he whispered. “Not willingly. None of it was my choice.”

“You don’t know the things I’ve done to get by.”

Truly, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know, but he could bear it if she had. He wasn’t going to ask, not now.

“None of that matters.” He stepped in closer as she came to her feet, hope blooming in his chest, so sharp and bright, it hurt to breathe. “We’re both here now. Alive and well.”

She made a sound. Anger and hurt and disbelief.

“I am so angry at you. You left me. You said we’d be all right here. That we’d earn enough money down here to buy our way up. You promised.”

He stood there a long time, fists balled. Lily’s eyes were hard and bright with tears. Her mouth set in a thin line. He’d never seen that expression on her face before, and he looked down at the ground not wanting to see it again. She was right… He turned to leave.

She whispered, “Coward.”

He stopped and looked up. “This is my fault. I’ll take all the blame for that you care to heap on my head, but I am not the coward here.”

The blood drained from her face but her gaze was fierce. “You’re calling me a coward? When you’ve been lurking around the house for days too afraid to talk to me. To see your own son? We thought you were dead, a ghost come to visit at first. I took it as your blessing that it was time to move on.”

“You can take it as that still.” That’s exactly how he’d felt—a ghost. But being here, talking to her, seeing Lily up close and realizing that she wasn’t afraid of him. Well, that was causing a change in him. She was worried about the lines on her face. She was hurt that he hadn’t wanted to come home when that’s what he’d wanted more than anything in the whole world. “You can ask me to move on if you want, Lil. But that’s not what I want.”

“What do you want?”

To rewind the clock ten years and take back the time the Reaper had stolen from him. He wanted his family. He wanted to erase those hard lines around her mouth and watch Jess grow up. Wanted that wariness gone from his son’s eyes. He couldn’t have any of that but a few things, he thought, might still be within reach. “I want you happy, Lily. I’m not sure I can be the one to give you that, but I want to try. More than anything I want you and Jess happy.”

He couldn’t begin to read her expression. A flash of something like pain before it all closed down, like a cellar door clanging shut. She turned around and started to clear the table of all things. Right in the middle of an argument. He couldn’t help the wistful smile that came to his lips. She’d always done that when they quarreled, retreat but not retreat. Gathering herself while she let him stew. Her hands shook as she set the plates in the sink. She untied her stained apron and then hung it carefully from a hook he’d placed in the wall only a few days before the attack.

When she turned back around, there were tears in her eyes that she quickly blinked back. That hit him hard. She’d never been a weepy woman.

“You’re right,” he said, soft. “I was a coward not coming to you sooner, but I couldn’t manage it until now.”

It would have been a disaster…more of a disaster even than this. When he’d first been released from the forts, he could hardly speak. He’d had trouble remembering the words. Even now, his tongue felt thick in his mouth, his throat sore.

He reached out and touched her cheek. His fingertips barely grazed her skin, but he felt it like lightning passing through him. Lily felt it too. Something. She trembled, her eyes drifting closed and he turned his hand to brush the hair back from her face. She didn’t look afraid of him. She wasn’t. Coming here, he’d expected fear. Disgust. All he saw was hurt that he’d stayed gone when he had the choice to be there with them. It was so much more than he’d dared hope for.

If Lily would have him, he’d stay.

He stepped nearer and Lily leaned toward him, her hand coming up to rest on his chest. He stilled at the light pressure, wondering if she meant to push him away.

“I want to kiss you,” he said. “May I do that?”

A sad smile came to her face, but she nodded, lifting her face. He didn’t want to rush the moment. Her skin was so soft. He’d forgotten… Her eyelashes. He could see every one. And her eyes. The brown as warm and rich as her hair. The little pink scar on her chin from when she’d fallen off her horse as a girl. The delicate curve of her ear. The scent of her was familiar, and his reaction to having her so near was familiar too.

Her lips parted and her whole body seemed to rise up toward him. He bent his head and met her, brushing his lips lightly over hers and when she didn’t pull away, deepening the kiss. He urged her mouth wider, traced her bottom lip with his tongue and slipped inside. Just a touch. A taste. He meant to pull away then. But when Lily’s hands clutched at his shoulders to hold him in place and her tongue found his, all of his good intentions fell away. He groaned, tightening his arms around Lily’s waist and drawing her in closer. Her thighs pressed to his, her breasts against his chest. She would feel his erection, the hammering beat of his heart. Just like he could feel her trembling even as she devoured his mouth as if she was starving. Every bit as desperate as him.

When he finally drew back, her eyes were closed, her lips swollen and glossy. She was still shaking and so was he.

She blinked and looked at him. “You still want me, even now.”

He parted his lips to answer but was interrupted by the sound of a gunshot coming from the yard. Jess.

Lily jerked back and he tore away from her, running for the door even before the echo of the shot had faded from his ears. He ran headlong onto the porch and down the steps. He paused in the yard, looking for his son. Lily tumbled out of the house after him, calling Jess’s name.

Jess didn’t answer, but there was a sound to the left. Faint and scuffling, coming from the direction of the barn. The rest of the world had gone silent. Even the insects were still. John started toward the barn and Lily grabbed his arm.

“John! Wait.” She shoved a rifle into his hands. “You’ll need this.”

She was right. He did need the gun. The cure hadn’t made him immune to Reaper bite. He was just as vulnerable as he’d ever been. And he wasn’t a Reaper anymore. The thought of being bitten again, of turning into that thing again. To being owned and ridden by an evil creature that would force him to turn on his family made his blood run cold. But Jess was there. He was hopefully still out there, keeping quiet, hiding.

John’s heart hammered in his chest as he ran for the barn, pausing at the black mouth of the open door. He couldn’t see in the dark, but the Reaper would be able to. Would be able to smell his sweat and hear the rush of his blood. John couldn’t see more than a few feet inside the barn, rough wooden beams disappearing into a treacherous dark. The scent of new hay filled his nose and something else—foul and familiar—like meat just turned bad.

“Stay where you are Jess,” he said. “I mean to draw it out. Don’t answer me back.”

If he could answer. If the Reaper hadn’t already found him. No good thinking on that.

Louder, he said, “Come on out, you bastard.”

He heard Lily come up behind him. Light swayed as she walked. Smart. She’d always been the smart one. He didn’t want her there, but she held the lantern high illuminating a couple more feet of the barn. There was a shuffling sound to his right, and he swung the gun up in that direction. A shovel tipped and clattered to the ground. He froze, scanning the shadows, but he didn’t see it right away.

Not until the thing unfolded from its hiding spot behind in the corner and rushed straight at him. John fired the gun. There was a flash of blinding light and clap of thunder. The thing kept coming. The only way to stop a Reaper was a shot to the brain and even that was only temporary. If you wanted one dead-dead, you had to remove the head. Better yet, burn the body.

He’d hit it in the face. John saw that clearly as it came into the light. One eye was gone. Its jaw hung loose and there was blood everywhere but the Reaper was still coming at him. He fired again, and its shoulder jerked back.

The Reaper changed direction as it came through the door. Its aim was no longer to feed but to escape. Older. The fresh-turned didn’t have any kind of self-preservation. They were all hunger. This one was running, fast, away from the gun. John raised his rifle, took aim and fired. The Reaper darted right at the last minute and the shot went wide.

“Damn.”

Jess dropped from the loft, placing a hand to the ground to catch his fall before standing and fending off his mother’s hug. Seeing it was pointless, Jess accepted the fierce squeeze she gave him. When he was released, he stepped out of the barn and looked into the trees in the direction the Reaper had run off.

“Do we need to track it?” The slight quaver in his voice was the only sign that Jess was frightened by the prospect.

“It won’t come back,” John reassured him. “Let’s get back in the house.”

Jess frowned, still staring off, but then he nodded and closed the barn door before heading back toward the house. Lily picked up the lantern again and followed, leaving John to follow awkwardly behind. Before he went inside, Jess turned.

“You’re sure?”

He was sure. One thing he did understand was the way the monsters thought. “It’s alone. It’ll go after easier prey now and with winter coming on, it’ll have to move south soon anyway. We’ll send word to the neighbors come morning.”

Jess nodded and went inside the house, ready to put the night behind him. And then John was left staring at Lily, her dark eyes solemn, features still pinched with the lingering remnants of fear.

He moved to hand her the gun. She wrapped her hand lightly around the barrel but didn’t move to take it. Her gaze lifted to meet his. “The gun is yours.”

“I won’t take your rifle, Lily.”

“It belongs with you…whether you decide to go or stay.”

His mouth dried at the challenge in her eyes. Tossing that out like a gauntlet, she was. She looked fierce, determined, glorious. The strength that had allowed her to survive ten years on the border alone with a young boy evident in her expression.

“I want you to stay.” She released the barrel of the gun and turned away. He watched her walk up the stairs into the house, leaving the door open behind her. Golden light spilled over the faded wooden planks of the porch and down the steps to end at his feet.

He drew in a steadying breath and glanced back at the dark night. Endless stars above. Wind rustling the dry grass. The cicadas were singing again. He walked up the steps and followed Lily inside.