“What did you do!”
The words came out as a yell rather than a question.
“You just doomed us all. You know we can’t live without those rations. How do you expect us to survive? People are barely hanging on as it is.”
Roxx was shuffling his stock, and counting the number of items in his inventory.
“Are you even listening?” I said.
“Calm down,” he said, not bothering to make eye contact.
"Calm down?Calm down!” I choked. “How am I supposed to be calm? A bomb just went off. Look at me!”
He raised his eyes.
I could feel myself getting lightheaded from all the standing, so I found a nearby barrel to rest on. My chest was heaving with rage and fear.
I could feel him looking at me, but I refused to meet his gaze.
“Everything is going to be okay,” he said. “I have a plan. But for right now, I need for you to trust me.”
How could I trust him?He was full of secrets. I wasn’t sure I even knew who he was anymore.
“I don’t even know you,” I said.
He looked hurt.Good. But I immediately regretted it. Roxx had been a father figure my whole life.
“I thought you were just like all of us. Working to get by, but now I’m not too sure. You lied to me.”
“I would never lie to you,” he said.
My hands were shaking on my thighs.
“What about the tunnels? What about the corn and the stockpile of food buried a hundred feet beneath the surface? What about that? Were you ever going to tell me about those? Were you ever going to tellanyoneabout it?”
He walked towards me and held up his finger over his lips.
“Lower your voice,” he said. His eyes looked around the shop to see if we were the only ones around.We were. He knelt on one knee and took my hands in his.
“Willow,” he whispered. “Look at me, sweetie.”
His eyes were more blue than usual. I could see my reflection in those blue orbs. I could see the fear on my face, the tangled knots my hair had formed into, and the stress streaming down my cheeks in dried crusty tears.
“Look at me,” he said again.I did, unable and unwilling to fight. I was too weak to stand alone.
“I promise I won’t let anything bad happen to you.” He held my hands firmly in his own. It felt good to feel his warmth.
“I probably should have told you sooner about the bunker. I’m sorry about that,” he said. “But, what’s done is done and we have to move on.”
“Did you cause the explosion?” I asked sternly.
Now that everything was out in the open.Why waste any more time?Just cut straight to the chase.
He shook his head.
“No. And I’m going to find out who did.”
He stood up and walked to the door.
“Who do you think did?” I asked.
“I’m not sure, but my guess is one of the neighboring precincts. I’ve heard rumors over the last month about an uprising forming.”
“What do you mean an uprising?”
“The people are scared, Willow. Worse than they are here. It may come as a surprise to you, but we are actually one of the better precincts around here. Many others are on the brink of starvation and collapse. The only thing holding them together are the ration runs. And sometimes the storms are so bad that those don’t even make it. The people think SIND is responsible.”
“But why blow up a ship yard?” I asked. “Where’s the value in that?”
“I don’t know if it was the shipyard or not,” he said. “The explosion did look like it came from that area, but I can’t be certain until I see for myself.”
I wobbled over to stand next to him. Looking out through the door I could see that most of the people were still congregated by the fountain and were talking frantically.
“There’s nothing out there but the shipyard,” I said. “Right?”
He pulled away from the door and disappeared into the storage closet in the back. He came out a few moments later with a large black bag and started stuffing it with supplies.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m going to find out the answers to all of your questionsand mine.”
“What do you mean? You’re not going out there, are you?”
“That’s the plan. I should be able to get there within a day or two and once I see it for myself, I’ll be able to formulate a better plan from there. But until then, we’re shooting blind.”
“But the Pavers are out there. If they catch you, they’ll think you caused the explosion. They may even kill you on the spot.” My voice cracked at that real realization.
“I’m coming with you,” I said.
He challenged me immediately.
“NO! You need to stay here.”
“Why? If another precinct is setting off bombs, and the Pavers are out there, you’ll need someone to watch your back.”
“If another precinct is responsible for this, I’ll find out. But I need you here. I need you here to be my eyes and ears until I get back.” He pulled a pistol out from under the counter and tossed a box of ammo into the sack.More secrets. I didn’t even bother to ask him where he got those.
“And besides,” he said, “you would just slow me down.”
He zipped up the bag and walked around the counter.
“And I don’t mean that in a negative way. You need to rest your ankle.”
“I’ll be fine,” I challenged, but even as I said those words I felt a throbbing emit up my leg. My heart was saying one thing but my body another. As much as I hated to admit it, he was right.
“If you really want to help me,” he began and reached for my face with both his hands, “you’ll focus on getting better. I need you fully operational if we’re going to make it through this. I need you. You’re all I have left.”
He kissed me on the forehead.
“Be my eyes and ears?” he asked.
I couldn’t say no. He was right.
I nodded my head.
“Thank you.” He threw the strap over his shoulder and peered out the open doorway leading to the Market.
“I knew I could count on you. I’ll be back in a few days. In the meantime, would you mind looking after my shop? I wouldn’t want these hoodlums to get any bright ideas in my absence.”
He managed a soft chuckle.
“I can do that,” I said. “And if someone asks...”
“Tell them I’m out scavenging,” he said. “You won’t be lying.”
He winked and walked out.
I watched his black silhouette merge with the rising dust as the storm clouds I had seen earlier made their approach. Purple lightning streaked across the sky. It didn’t look good. The storm would make Precinct 11 in an hour, two tops. I was worried about Roxx, but I knew he could take care of himself. He always had. As for me, I needed to prepare my abode before the storm hit.
I closed his shop and attached the nut bolt then shuffled my way to my shack. The initial fear of the crowd had dissipated and they slowly dispersed to their own shelters. The storm did not care about anything. It was coming whether you liked it or not. And that was that.
The orange flame of the explosion had died down and was replaced by a dense black smoke. It colored the entire sky in charcoal. With the sun making its descent, the contrast formed from the orange glow and the black tint of smoke and ash were breathtaking.
Even in the mist of chaos and destruction, there is beauty that extends beyond all understanding.
Death may be a callous and unforgiving neighbor. But it was also breathtakingly beautiful.
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