“I thought you liked her.”
“I do. But I don’t want to marry her,” Dana said. “We’ve been dating for six months and she asks me to marry her? It’s like everyone has gone crazy because they can get married now.”
Her mother laughed as she handed Dana the plate she’d just dried. “And you said this day would never come.”
“I know. Maybe that’s why the thought of getting married terrifies me,” she said as she put the plate away, waiting patiently as her mother dried the last one. “I do know, however, that Kendra is not the one.”
“Then why are you dating her?”
Dana shrugged. “I like her. We have fun together. We have mutual friends, so it’s easy.”
“But you’re not in love with her?”
“No. I’m not even in lust with her,” she said, then laughed as a blush covered her mother’s face. “Sorry.”
“Well, in fairness to her, you should probably let her know.”
“You mean, instead of running away like I did?”
“We love having you here, you know that,” her mother said. “And it gives your dad an excuse to have a barbeque and invite the family over.”
“It’s been a few years since I’ve seen them,” she said. “I’m actually looking forward to the party tomorrow.”
And she was. She’d left Seattle in such a rush—a panic, really—that she hadn’t even considered whether her parents would mind an impromptu visit. A hastily written email to her boss had gotten her a two-week vacation on a moment’s notice. She didn’t know if that was a testament to the kindness of her boss or to the fact that she wasn’t really as indispensable as she thought. She chose to think it the former rather than the latter. She’d flown into Salt Lake City and rented a car, heading east through the mountains then hitting the high desert of the Colorado Plateau, down through Arches and Moab. She drove through the Spanish Valley as she skirted the mountains to her north, driving the scenic La Sal Mountain Loop and crossing over into Colorado. The highway followed the same path as La Sal Creek through Lion Canyon and she’d felt the anxiety she’d carried with her from Seattle evaporate with each mile. Kendra—and her unexpected proposal—faded from her mind as she became mesmerized by the beautiful scenery that surrounded her.
She’d last been home at Christmas, two years ago. And while she loved the snowy scenes and white peaks that guarded the canyon and valley, there was something about the mountains in summertime that drew her like nothing else did. Well, late May, not quite summer but close enough. She would get reacquainted with some of her old stomping grounds, take a few hikes and hopefully talk her dad into some serious trout fishing over on the Delores River. Two weeks should be plenty of time to sort through the marriage proposal and come up with something better than the startled “are you out of your mind” response she’d blurted out to Kendra.
Yes, two weeks in the sparsely populated valley, where the closest town was nearly thirty miles away—tiny Paradox—should do wonders for her.
Squaw Valley hadn’t seen much change in the last sixty-some-odd years. That suited Jean Bulgur just fine. She and Hal had married when they were both barely seventeen and had settled in the valley, moving in with his mother. They’d made a good enough living with the small farm, raising pinto beans and corn most years. They kept chickens, hogs and a few cows, too, but it was hard work, she had to admit. Hard enough work that all three of their boys moved off as soon as they were of age. Hal, Jr. moved only as far as Grand Junction, yet they saw him but a handful of times each year. The other two apparently forgot where they were raised, she thought. She couldn’t remember the last time they’d come by for a visit. Peter married a gal from Los Angeles and they had three kids. Jean had only seen them twice when Peter had bothered to bring them around. His last Christmas card said that he was now a grandpa himself. Jean figured she and Hal wouldn’t ever see their great-grandchildren unless they made a trip to Los Angeles. She was fairly sure that wouldn’t happen. Johnny, the youngest, followed the rodeo circuit and they’d gone up to Cheyenne to see him one year. That must have been eight or ten years ago now. Surely Johnny had given it up. He was getting too old to be riding bulls. Shame he didn’t keep in touch more, she thought sadly.
“What’s got you lookin’ all dreamy?”
She turned from the window, not realizing she’d been staring out at nothing. She smiled at Hal and motioned to the table, which she’d already set for supper.
“Smothered some pork chops up like you like them,” she said.
“I thought I smelled them. Fresh biscuits too?”
She nodded. “Need something to soak up the gravy.” She moved to the oven and peeked inside, already knowing that the chops were ready. “You want a glass of milk?” She didn’t wait for an answer as she filled a glass. After more than fifty-five years of marriage, she knew him well.
“I was thinkin’ we could take a trip into town the next day or so,” he said.
“Paradox? You need something from the feed store?”
“No. Up to Grand Junction. Maybe we could meet up with Hal, Jr. for a meal.”
She pulled the cast iron skillet out of the oven and set it on the stove. The gravy had thickened nicely, she noted. “You talk to him?”
“No. Thought maybe we could call him up though.”
She nodded. “It would be nice to go to a real grocery store instead of that pitiful excuse for one they have in Paradox.”
She took the empty plate in front of him and went about the routine of fixing his supper, putting a heaping spoonful of mashed potatoes down first, then a pork chop and gravy. The green beans were from the freezer and the last of the ones from last year’s garden. She topped it all with two biscuits that she’d baked just that afternoon.
“Looks real good, Jean,” he said as he took the plate from her.
She stood behind him and watched him eat for a moment. Hal wasn’t much for endearments but she couldn’t recall a time when he hadn’t said those same four words at suppertime. After this many years, she wondered if he even saw the plate before he spoke the compliment. She smiled contentedly and reached for her own plate to fix. No, not much had changed in Squaw Valley over the years.
Corey sat up in bed with a jolt, her eyes wide, her heart pounding. She took a steadying breath. The dream. The damn dream again. She rubbed her face, trying to scrub away the memory, but it remained—the shooting, the screams, the fire. It wasn’t really a dream, she knew. Her team. All dead. All but her.
But that was a joke, wasn’t it? She was dead. Dead inside, at least.
She got out of bed and shuffled into the kitchen. In the dim light of morning, she could make out the remnants of last night’s dinner. The steak had looked good and for a moment, it was like old times—grilling a steak to medium rare while she watched the sun set over the mountain. Problem was, it was tasteless. Everything was tasteless lately. Well, except for the bottle of Scotch. That went down like the fine whiskey that it was. It went down almost too good. But she reasoned it was better than the sleeping pills her doctor had prescribed. She hadn’t even filled the damn prescription. She’d drink to oblivion before she’d start popping pills to help her sleep.
She took a bottle of water from her fridge then opened a cabinet and took out the container of aspirin. That had become a morning ritual, it seemed.
The doctor had told her it would take time. It had been four months. How much longer would she be in this state of… of nothingness? She felt empty…numb.
Dead. Like her team.
She blew out a weary breath. She knew she had to get past this…only she wasn’t sure how. She stood at the sink, looking out the window at the approaching day. Without thinking, she reached over and turned on the coffee pot. As it sprang to life, brewing up a strong pot that she’d set up the night before, her eyes were again drawn to the subtle pink that colored the mountain. She hadn’t taken the time to enjoy a sunrise in more years than she could recall.
Maybe this morning would be a good one to start with.
Anna Gail Filmore went about the chore of methodically restocking the shelf where the canned vegetables were kept. Their small grocery store wasn’t large but it carried the essentials, enough for most people to get by with. Of course, in the summer, when most everyone in the valley had gardens, the canned vegetables would sit undisturbed until winter.
“Hey, Mom? I couldn’t find any more tuna cans in the back,” Holly said.
Anna Gail looked over at her daughter and nodded. “Add it to the order list for Monday.”
Holly’s shoulders dropped. “I’m ready to go home. Can’t you do it?”
“Are you going out with Butch tonight?”
Holly shook her head. “No. His cousin is in from Seattle and they’re having a family party or something,” she said.
Anna Gail stopped what she was doing and turned to her daughter. “You’ve been dating for a while now. Were you not invited?”
“Oh, Mom…yeah, he asked,” she said with a shrug. “But you know, I don’t go out to their farm much.”
“He’s such a nice boy. And his family too. I don’t know what you’ve got against them.”
“He’s not a boy. He’s over thirty. And yes, his parents are very nice,” she said as she fidgeted with her watch. “I just don’t like the whole farm thing.” She waved her hands in the air. “I want to get out of here, Mom. Not marry some farmer.”
Anna Gail had known for a while now that her youngest daughter was restless living here in Paradox. But after high school, she’d shown no desire to move away and go to college like her brothers had. She’d seemed content to work at the store and when she began dating Butch Ingram, Anna Gail assumed they would one day marry. Lately, though, she could feel Holly’s impatience.
“So you want to leave Paradox finally?”
Holly nodded. “It’s time.”
“I guess we should have encouraged you after high school but you seemed so young,” she said. “The thought of you heading out on your own was frightening.”
“I know. That’s why I didn’t want to leave. But I’m twenty-four now.” She again waved her hands around her. “I can’t stay here and work in the store forever, Mom. I want to get out and do something.”
“Where are you thinking of going?”
“Over to Grand Junction,” she said. “I can get a job there, I’m sure.”
She seemed confident, at least. But Anna Gail didn’t point out that her only skills were stocking grocery store shelves. She’d never shown an interest in learning about the ordering, the inventory, the paperwork involved in running the store. She wondered what job she could possibly get.
“Maybe you should think about going to college,” she said. “It’s not too late, you know.”
“I don’t know. College is expensive.”
“We’ll help you, of course. We helped your brothers.”
“Maybe. Right now I only want—”
But a low rumble cut off her words and Anna Gail’s eyes widened as the shelves began to shake—the cans she’d neatly stacked vibrating around her. She steadied herself as the floor seemed to move under her.
“What’s going on?” Holly asked, her voice thick with fright. “Mom?”
Cans rolled to the floor and Anna Gail managed to get into the next aisle, holding her arms up to prevent the glass jars of pickles from falling. Other items crashed to the floor around her and she heard Holly scream in the background as the lights went out.
It was over in a matter of seconds and Anna Gail stared through the darkness, imagining the mess of her normally neat store. She turned, nearly tripping on a box that had fallen from the shelf.
“Holly? Are you okay?”
“Yes. What was that? An earthquake?”
“I’m not sure.”
She made her way slowly to the sound of Holly’s voice. Darkness had settled over the town of Paradox and she looked toward the large windows in the front, thankful they had not broken. Most, if not all of the shops had closed up hours ago. She took Holly’s hand and they walked toward the door even as the darkness enveloped them.
Dana laughed as her cousin was recounting a tale from their childhood. She and Butch had been quite a pair, born only two days apart and growing up no more than a mile from each other. She knew everyone had heard this story plenty of times over the years but it never got old.
“Covered in pig muck, head to toe,” he said.
“I didn’t even recognize her,” her father supplied. “If not for her ponytail, I’d have thought Butch done drug home a stray.”
“It was his fault,” she said, pointing at Butch. “It’s not like I wanted to try and catch a pig.”
“You never could turn down a dare,” he said with another laugh.
“I had Louis spray her down with a garden hose before I’d let her in the house,” her mother added. “Threw her clothes away too.”
Darkness had settled in the valley but no one seemed to be in a hurry to leave. Besides Butch and his parents, another aunt and uncle had come over as well as their closest neighbors, Irene and Paul. Her father had cooked ribs and chicken on the barbeque and her mother had made her special potato salad that Dana loved. Aunt Fredda brought two apple pies and Dana had topped her piece with ice cream. It brought back all sorts of childhood memories and she recalled many an evening with these very same people sitting around sharing a meal. Of course, there were more kids back then. Like her, most had moved away. Butch, however, still lived at home, content to work side-by-side with his father on their farm.
“This has been fun,” Butch said. “You should come home more often.”
“I know. But it’s hard to get away sometimes,” she said, which wasn’t really the case. At thirty-one years old, she had her own life, her own friends. But her parents were getting older and she knew she should see them more often than she did.
But her mother’s words were cut off as a violent rumble shook the very ground around them. Lights flickered on and off, losing the battle as they went out completely, plunging them into darkness on the back porch. Dana jumped up, afraid she would fall from the chair she was sitting in. She fell anyway as the earth seemed to shift beneath them. It stopped as suddenly as it had started and she grabbed the porch railing, unable to see anything around her. She looked up into the sky, finding no moon this evening, nothing to cut the darkness.
“What the hell was that?”
“Is everyone okay?”
“I can’t see a damn thing.”
“Didn’t last long if it was one.”
Jean noticed the light flickering before she felt the first tremor. Hal was in his recliner and she hurried over to him, cringing as their wedding china rattled in the hutch. She reached him seconds before the power went out but as the house shook around her, she fell to the floor, unable to keep her balance.
“I’m here,” she said, grabbing his hand tightly.
In the darkness, they heard a crash and she knew the coffee cup she’d been using earlier had fallen off of the counter. It was her favorite one, she thought crazily as she clung tightly to Hal’s hand.
They sat there in silence for several moments after the shaking stopped, as if fearing it would start again. Hal finally stood up and helped her to her feet.
“Let me get a flashlight,” he said. “You stay here.”
She heard him shuffling toward the closet and she turned, holding her hands out as she made her way back to the kitchen. Her shoes hit the broken coffee cup and it crunched as she walked over it.
“Jean? Batteries must be dead. I thought we changed them out a few weeks ago,” Hal called.
She pulled out the end drawer by the back door, the drawer that had become a catch-all. She felt inside it blindly, searching for the book of matches that she knew was in there.
“Where’s another flashlight?”
“In the wash room. I’ve got matches,” she said as she wrapped her fingers around them. She moved slowly back to the living room, feeling on the bookcase for the candle she kept there. The first match went out before she could light it and she noticed that her hands were trembling. The candle lit on the second try, chasing some of the darkness away.
“You think it was an earthquake?” he asked as he came closer to the light. “They keep saying we’re due a big one. Ever since they put that damn injection well in, ain’t no telling what’s happening around here.”
“It didn’t seem like it lasted long enough to be an earthquake,” she said. “Remember the one back in 2000?”
She took the candle into her laundry room and opened the cabinet, seeing the small flashlight she kept there. She turned it on but there was no light. That was odd. She’d used it just yesterday when she’d lost one of Hal’s socks behind the dryer.
“The batteries must be dead in this one too,” she said.
“Nothing ever works when you need it to,” Hal said from the doorway. “I’ve got one out in my shop. Be right back.”
“Best make sure the dog is okay. Lucky doesn’t like thunderstorms,” she reminded him. “This noise likely frazzled him.”
“I told you we need to keep extra batteries around for this very thing,” her mother said. “I can’t believe that every single flashlight we own has dead batteries.”
“I’ll get the generator going in a minute. Butch? Can you give me a hand? We’ll bring it over on the four-wheeler.”
Dana pulled out her phone, remembering the flashlight app on it. She frowned as the phone remained off. Had she forgotten to charge it? No. She’d charged it that morning. In fact, it had been plugged in all night.
“Mom? Where’s your cell phone?”
“It’s in my purse. Why?”
“Mine’s not working.”
Uncle Joe pulled his out. “I’ll call on up to the Bradford’s and see if they’ve got power,” he said.
Dana walked off the porch, thankful for clear skies, although the stars cast very little light down on them.
“Well, that’s odd. The damn thing won’t turn on.”
Okay, she thought, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out something was going on. First the flashlights, now their cell phones?
“Uncle Joe, let’s go around front and see if your car will start,” she said.
“Why wouldn’t it start?”
“Because I think we’re having some kind of an issue with our batteries,” she said. She looked through the darkness to her dad’s workshop. They should have already had the generator loaded but there was no sound of the four-wheeler’s engine.
“Maybe we should head on home,” Irene said quickly to Paul. “Make sure everything is okay. My phone is dead too.”
The four of them made their way around to the front of the house and Uncle Joe got in his car. The interior light did not come on and Dane wasn’t surprised when he turned the key and there was only a dull clicking sound.
“Let me try ours,” Paul said but he had no better luck.
“Wonder what the hell’s going on?” Uncle Joe murmured.
The generator thundered outside and they finally had lights. They’d also determined that anything that used batteries was now useless. She couldn’t even get her laptop to boot up. They plugged the TV into the power strip but they couldn’t get a signal on the satellite.
“I can’t stand not knowing what’s going on,” Dana said, hearing the panic in her voice. She held her phone up. “I’m used to being connected.”
“Calm down,” Butch said. “We’ve got power to the fridge. We’ve got lights. We’re fine. I’m sure they’ll have the electricity restored tomorrow.”
Irene and Paul had walked the half-mile to their house but the others stayed. Butch and his parents lived only a little more than a mile away but they would wait until morning to go home. Her other aunt and uncle lived over in Bedrock so they were stuck here until they had a vehicle that worked.
“I need a drink,” she murmured. “What do we have?”
Her mother laughed. “The only thing other than beer is your dad’s whiskey that he hides up on the top shelf.”
“Great. I’ll find it,” she said, going into the kitchen. “Anyone else want one?”
Butch was the only one who did and he followed her. “You okay?”
“No,” she said. “I hate not knowing what’s going on. Was it an earthquake? Something else? I can understand the power but all the batteries?”
“Yeah, that is a little weird,” he said.
She held up a Coke and he nodded. “What if the power doesn’t come back on tomorrow? How long do we wait?”
“Well, it’s not like we can drive anywhere to find out,” he said.
She added her dad’s whiskey to the glasses with ice, then topped them off with the Coke. “My old bicycle is here,” she said. “Do you have one? We could use them to get around.”
He laughed. “There’s one in the barn, sure. It doesn’t have tires though. Not sure why we keep it. I think it was Tony’s bike,” he said, referring to his younger brother.
“What about that purple one you had when we were kids?”
He looked at her skeptically. “Dana, you do know that we’re over thirty, right? I had that bike when we were seven or eight.”
She sighed. “Yes, I know we’re over thirty. God, where did the years go? It seems like yesterday I was heading off to college.” She sipped from her drink. “Do you ever regret not leaving?”
He shrugged. “Sometimes, yeah. But I’m content. It’s a relatively stress-free life here.”
“You still dating Holly Filmore from over in Paradox?”
“We still go out, yeah.”
“But marriage isn’t on the horizon?”
“No. She doesn’t want to be a farm girl,” he said.
“So why don’t you move on to someone else?”
He shrugged again. “I like her…I’m content. Besides, out here in Paradox Valley, single women don’t grow on trees. Like you, most move away.”
“Well, maybe she’ll come around.”
“Yeah, maybe she will.” But his face turned pensive. “And maybe she won’t.”
She looked past him, seeing the others in the living room huddled together. They had two lamps hooked up to the generator and they cast an almost eerie glow in the room. Her gaze drifted to the window where outside was nothing but the black expanse of darkness. She sighed and pulled her cell phone out of her pocket, hoping it worked now. It, too, remained dark.