First Two Chapters | StefneMiller.com

Siege of the Remnant

Siege of the Remnant cover

Chapter One

Lincoln

Unearthly howls and shrieks invade the truck cab before Shane and I even turn the corner and drive onto Military Avenue. 

These anti-government activists have been picketing outside our military post for several months now, and I was ready for the yelling, but to witness the vitriol is gut-wrenching. It’s like I’ve eaten a meal that didn’t settle well and it’s about to revolt and force its way back up. 

For some, loathing is the norm and voicing hate, a near profession. If not a profession, an obsession. Although Dad believes someone pays a lot of these protestors for their theatrical performances. Who pays them, he’s never said, but paid or not, people are spewing outrage and it’s ugly and causing my stomach to churn. 

“There were two shootings last week.” Over in the passenger seat, Shane looks more entertained than worried. 

“People said not to leave the post. Doesn’t it feel good to rebel?” He pumps his eyebrows up and down and smirks. “We should do this more often.”

Apparently, others are just as clueless as I was about how hostile it is beyond the gate. Cars are approaching behind me.  “This stuff happened up north while I was there,” I tell him. “But they were demonstrations and marches against President Lightner, not all-out protests. Not like this.”

“They’ll get Lightner out,” he says confidently. “Sooner, not later, I hope.”

I clamp my mouth shut so I don’t jump straight into an argument. We won’t change each other’s minds, but every time we’re together, he tries.

Crazy. Unstable. That’s what Shane and other President Lightner’s dissenters say about him. It’s the only ammunition they’ve got to force him out of office. Nothing else is working, and the more they attack him, the higher his approval ratings soar, which is probably what’s caused the increase in demonstrations and made traveling so much more difficult.

Cars are lining up behind me and I’ve lost the opportunity to abort this birthday gift finding mission. We’re pinned in with no way to turn around, so I’ll have to continue driving into madness while Shane keeps repeating the anti-Lightner talking points spewed on twenty-four-hour news channels. 

We aren’t necessarily friends, Shane and I, but since I left fashion design school up east and moved back in with my parents, he was just about the only person in town my age who wasn’t a soldier. Since I don’t interact with the thousands of soldiers who stream on and off the military facility, his friendship almost felt like a necessity. Lifesaving, even. 

We’ve hung out a few times a week over the last few months going to the movies or grabbing a quick bite to eat, and every time I’m with him my anxiety flares up and I wish I’d just stayed at home. But for this errand, I need backup, and he’s a perfect choice because his appearance and obvious hatred for most of humanity will keep people at a distance. Heck, I’d even fear him if I didn’t know any better. 

He’s harmless, but nobody else needs to know that. 

“Why take this out on us?” I’m asking a rhetorical question but continuing to chatter may reduce my anxiety over the protestors outside the windows. I’m even developing the dry sweats, “It’s not like we caused this mess.”

Shane must’ve noticed my distress because he reaches over and cranks up the air conditioning while nearly a dozen dissenters press their faces against the fence separating the civilian and Armed Forces worlds. 

I mean, sure, I should’ve stayed within the safety of the gates instead of venturing off. Mom would be just as happy with a box of chocolate for her birthday and I could’ve bought that at the convenience store and not risked my safety going to the bookstore. My intentions were a bit over-zealous. 

It would hurt her if she found out I put myself at risk to get her a gift. She’d carry a lot of guilt if something happened to me while I was out here. Lugging around guilt and making sure you know she’s doing it is one of her favorite past times. She’s a true pro at it. 

Now at a full stop with the truck just past the fence line and the protestors only a few feet away, I turn around in my seat. 

Three vehicles. We’re hosed. There’s for sure no turning back now. 

I spin back around, clench the steering wheel, focus on the road and try to ignore the picketing dissidents who scream words I’d never get away with saying at home. Even though I’m twenty-years-old. 

Shane turns his attention to me, grins and raises an eyebrow. “... challenge accepted, eh?”

His guy-liner gets more attention than the smirk. It always does me in. I’ve seen nothing as sexy. Hypnotic, even. It’s the only reason I spend any time with him at all, which is completely petty, but also completely true. 

Guy-liner. Who knew it causes a girl’s insides to turn squishy and all common sense to flee her body? Combined with the fact he carries the scent of hellfire but displays moments of divinity, his essence is almost enough to make me forget we’re practically driving through the gates of hell together. If there were such a place.

The dingy white car ahead of me finally drives through the gate so I maneuver the large truck and follow behind, past troops who watch as I pass. 

A protester attracts my attention away from the soldiers. Her hand is on a stroller and two small children hold signs reading, U R Killers! The words are pointed to members of the Armed Forces like Dad and I’m happy he isn’t here to see the accusation for himself. If it hurts me, the hate-filled criticism is bound to hurt him, even if he is the toughest person I’ve ever known. I could only wish to have a minuscule amount of the bravery he does. 

I definitely should’ve just bought Mom the chocolate and stayed on post.

Sometimes, the growing divide in our nation makes me want to retreat from the world but given what I’m experiencing on what should be a simple drive to the bookstore wakes me up to the reality that my parents have almost completely removed me from life outside the gates. 

Not only are we near-strangers in so many ways, the town I fell in love with when my parents and I moved back here three years ago, has lost all of its appeal. Almost every building we pass is a bar, a liquor store, a tattoo shop, or a used car lot, and the people walking down the street are seedier than what they used to be. 

I’m out of place and foreign in my town. It’s like I’m suddenly an alien in my world. 

The bookstore is tucked between a marijuana shop on one side and a barbershop on the other. 

The store lined the bottom half of the windows with foil to keep children from seeing the questionable books and magazines while passing as they walk by to get a haircut. 

Just pulling into the parking spot and without even opening the door, the odor of marijuana hangs heavy in the air. I’ve always thought it smells like a skunk someone plowed down and flattened on the back roads of town. More incentive not to give the product a test, but something tells me Shane samples it a lot.

We jump out of the truck and rush inside before anyone sets their sights on us. Given what’s happening outside the gates, it’s not safe to be out on the streets alone, although I’m not alone. I’m with a darned-near counter-culture, anti-elitist dressed in all black clothing, with black-tipped fingernails, and the guy-liner.

That’s way friggin’ worse. I couldn’t draw more attention to myself if I tried. 

Shane opens the door and waits for me to step inside before he follows.

Gross. The store stinks. It’s a vomit-inducing cologne of moldy paper, cigarette smoke, and perspiration that even overpowers the marijuana stench seeping through the walls, so that’s saying something.

The cashier looks up from the comic book he’s reading and smiles at our arrival, but the graciousness only lasts until his eye line lowers to the charms hanging around my neck. Just the sight of them turns his gracious smile into a raging grimace. 

Shane steps my direction and leans in close. I’m just noticing there’s tobacco on his breath. “Told you to take the necklace off.”

I reach up and clasp onto the two thin intersecting lines hanging horizontally from a chain around my neck. The vertical line is slightly longer than the horizontal, but together, the lines cause an immense amount of hatred. How a harmless symbol brings such disapproval will never make sense to me.

Those of us wearing faith symbols haven’t lost all of our freedoms. Otherwise, he’d toss me out of the store. We’re supposed to be free to walk among them and do business at their establishments without facing repercussions, but they don’t make it easy. 

Dang it, I should’ve just gotten her chocolate.

The section I’m looking for is in the back of the store. It’s where all bookstores keep approved religious material. From what I remember this store just dumps them all into a bin and you have to dig through them to find the one you’re looking for. 

There are only a handful of customers here. Two are in the games and puzzles section and didn’t even turn around when we entered. Another, wearing a ball cap for a football team up north, has his nose in a book about origami. Two more are standing in the adult section a few yards away. I have to walk past them to get where I want to go, so I lower my chin and walk across the worn, white linoleum floor. The slap of my flip-flops radiates throughout the store and echoes back at me. 

“Bahh!”

I tense up and keep on walking but do it a little faster since averting my eyes didn’t help. I still drew the ire of customers. 

“Bahh!”

The man who is baying at me thinks he’s being original. As if I haven’t been the butt of the joke about being a mindless sheep that believes anything and follows any religious doctrine laid before me.

I’ve heard all the jokes and seen the portrayals in movies, on television shows and news programs. The insults are so mainstream that at some point it’ll lose its cool factor and the counter-cultural thing to do will be to become someone like me. A person who believes in something bigger than myself. 

Hearing the accusation of being a sheep or seeing them mock us used to make me sick to my stomach, but it happens so often that I’ve gotten more accustomed to it. Now, the labels and animal calls only make my throat tighten, and limbs weaken. 

If the government allows this unbridled aggression, the logical next step is violence. Which is probably why Dad didn’t want me to leave the post. I should’ve listened.

Too late.

Curious, I sneak a glance at the guy who I assume made the sheep noises. He’s standing with a buddy behind the magazine rack, and they’re scrutinizing me as I pass. One is recording me with his phone, the other holds a nude magazine in his hands. It’s so disturbing.

The hair on their head is more than stubble, so I know they aren’t members of the military. One man’s dark curls hang nearly to his shoulders. “Look at the sheep, ladies, and gentlemen,” he says to whoever he’s broadcasting to. Probably more dissenters who, like him, hate people of faith. His fingers wrap around the phone like claws. “Don’t you make eye contact with me, sheep! 

Ah, I get it. The guy’s a control freak. Another person who wants to rule over me, as if the government isn’t doing it enough. 

His hostile friend drags his eyes over me and licks his lips. My arms and back heat like fire ants have burrowed inside and scattered beneath my skin. I want to punch him right in the throat.

“Anyone recognize this sheep?” The first tormentor is bouncing up and down with glee and failing to keep his phone steady. I hope the video quality sucks.

“Share this video. Find out who this sheep is.” His face is thin, and he has a pointed chin and a nose that’s wider at the base than the tip.  Very foxlike. Or weasel-ey.

Appropriate.

Like the jokes, doxing is nothing new. Monsters like him enjoy spreading photos and videos of the faithful and put the call out to have us identified and harassed at home. I’ve heard Dad talk about people’s windows being shattered with large rocks, having vehicles trashed, or homes covered in graffiti. 

Again, not even original and so overdone. They’re overplaying their hand.

The savage who is taping me can try to inspire his followers to attack, but they won’t get to me on Ft. Outland. It’s the one place where everyone is on my side, but here in the store I’m like a caged animal, encased by the nude magazine, video, sheep calls and gawking. 

My need to escape into my private world returns like a tsunami, but like a palm tree caught in the storm, I have to hold my ground and wait out the onslaught. If I don’t sustain the barrage, they win. If they scare me away, they get the upper hand and it will strengthen their resolve to torture people like me.

I’ve got to withstand their venom-filled prejudice.

If I knew they wouldn’t react and harm me, I’d call the men cowards for hiding behind a camera, and then I’d call them dimwitted for having zero ability to think of anything intelligent to support their hateful point of view. And I’d finish by assuring them it would humiliate their mothers if they knew their grown sons were acting so childish to a young woman who’s done nothing deserving of verbal attack.

But I can’t get away with it. I don’t have the same freedoms they do. And I’m not brave enough. My mouth would go dry and I’d break out in hives. So, instead of taking a stand, I clamp my mouth shut to make sure I don’t mutter so much as a whimper. 

I’m such a coward.

Finally, I make it to the round bin of books. It’s almost more like a well full of water than a bin of books, and dozens of texts have been haplessly thrown in. They mixed texts from all denominations. They’re covered in brown paper wrapping that has a label warning: “Read with Discernment”. 

I guess you know times have changed when religious texts have to be covered, but pornography is out in the open for anyone to see. 

I pick up the first book. Someone drew a crescent moon with black marker on the brown paper. With as much respect as possible, I lay it on the floor and grab another book. A six-pointed star. 

I lay it on top of the other and continue through the books until I finally find the figure of a cross turned on its side and resting horizontally. 

With it wrapped, there’s no way to tell if it’s the latest version, which leads me to believe they’re intentionally making this difficult. But it’s the only version I see with the symbol drawn on the front. 

“Amazing how scared people can be of words.” I mutter the words loud enough for the protesters to hear and break the commitment I made to myself only a few seconds ago, but a small amount of pride wells up in my gut. For once, I spoke my mind. Even though it was hardly audible. “Especially the government.”

“Bahh! Look at the symbol around her neck.” Exactly as I was told would happen if we engage in their vilification. He intensifies his attack. “The sheep is looking for holy texts.” He said ‘holy texts’ with so much contempt that it almost took physical form and pranced around the store with utter glee. “Bahh, sheep. Bah!”

The book is thinner than I remember. It’s lighter than when I was in elementary school and used to carry a children’s copy into the local House of Benevolence on Sunday mornings. I suppose there’s less and less to be certain about, even with scripture.

Shane approaches out of nowhere, carrying a graphic novel. On the cover, a soldier in a military issue uniform, holding a rifle. A stream of smoke rises out of the barrel and the soldier has a wicked grin on his face. Shane must read stuff like that and imagine his ideal. A global army. 

 

His eyes piercing, he leans towards the men with a grimace. “What’s your issue?” 

“Ignore them, Shane.” I lean over and collect the stack of books I placed on the floor. Just as I go to put them back in the bin, I see a book at the bottom of the well. It’s almost covered in other texts, but the symbol is partly visible. Only it’s different.

The cross isn’t depicted horizontally, but diagonally. 

I place the books back on the ground, then rest my hips against the top of the bin, hold on with one hand and lean over, reaching in and causing my feet to lift off the ground. Extending my arm and fingers as far as they’ll go, I finally reach the book and grab the edge. 

It’s heavier than the version I found seconds ago. Maybe they added bonus material or discussion questions. And the symbol drawn incorrectly is a curious sight. 

I don’t know which one I should get. I place the heavier book on the lip of the bin and place the other religious texts carefully back inside, then lay my two options beside each other, comparing them. The second is more than double the thickness. It’s got to contain a lot of extra material. 

I’ll just get her both. 

I scoop up the books and head for the checkout counter under the watchful eye of the two jerks and the origami guy, who’s still mostly hidden behind his book. I can only see his eyes and the colorful book cover. The background is blue but displays a swan folded beautifully out of bright red paper. 

Mostly, I’m not interested in what’s inside books. Stories don’t speak to me. Words don’t dance off the page or come to life. Give me pictures. Give me color. Give me something different from dark, dreary words on a stark white sheet of paper. A life without color would almost be a life unworthy of living at all.

I’m struck in the back of the head. I duck and cover myself with my arms. My fingers slip through a slimy liquid.

Blood.

My windpipe is closing in, and vision is spotty. I should’ve left when my gut implored me to. I shouldn’t have come. I shouldn’t have looked at them. Or talked back. 

“Linny, what’s wrong?” Shane crouches down in front of me. His eyes are narrow, and he gawks at me with confusion. “What’s happening?”

“I- I.”

Afraid of what I’ll see but compelled to confirm my suspicion that one of them shot me and because of the noise that constantly rages in my head I didn’t hear it; I check my hand for blood. The goo is clear, with streaks of brown. I wiggle my fingers. The gunk sticks to my skin.

Not blood. I’m an overreacting idiot.

I raise my hand, sniff, and gag. “Tobacco.” I dry heave. “They spit on me.” Spit laced with tobacco. My stomach heaves, and my mouth waters at the sight of the goop. 

I lower my hand to the ground, wipe the sludge onto the floor and breathe through my mouth, so I won’t smell the result of his cowardly assault. Just as Dad trained me to do, I push emotions aside, collect myself, and stand. 

“You all right?” Shane prods.

“Overactive imagination.” I continue to the checkout stand and keep my head held high, then place the books on the counter with cash laid on top. 

The clerk practically growls. I step away as a shiver runs down my back. I could swear fangs emerge from behind his snarled lips as darkness floods over him. Anger and contempt drip from his chin like drool. 

My stomach lurches and convulses. I’ve never seen this much hatred directed at me. It’s beyond unsettling and moving right into terrifying.

The clerk lowers his glare to the money and doesn’t react. He’s practically granite. 

The longer I stand here with the goop in my hair and being ignored, the more anger builds. I know full well that people look down on us. In a matter of minutes, they called Dad a terrorist and murderer; people hurled accusations at Shane and I; a dirt-bag called me a sheep; they videotaped, gawked, and spit. If I was clueless and sheltered before, that changed with what should’ve been a simple trip to a bookstore.

Now my eyes are wide-friggin’ open. And I hate it.

Someone will alert Dad if I use my bank card and he’ll know I defied his orders and left the post. I need the hostile store clerk to finish the transaction. “Just take the cash,” I beg through gritted teeth. 

“You too, huh?” Shane throws down some money for his graphic novel, pressing the tips of his dry and cracked fingers against the bill and sliding it across the counter. “I mean, don’t you think this is a little extreme?”

The cashier crosses his arms, flares his nostrils and glances at Shane but doesn’t respond. Instead, he continues to refuse to touch my cash.

I clue into the man’s hesitation and slide the money off the books.

Once the cash is on the counter, the man picks it up by the corner and tosses it under the drawer like he’s afraid to touch the paper for fear he might catch whatever they’re so scared of. Like belief in a higher power makes me contagious and if he touches it, there will be a faith outbreak.

It’s all utter insanity and I can’t figure out how our nation got to this point. It’s pitiful, really. People despise each other without having even met. 

I somehow manage a “Thank you” and turn to leave without even waiting for change. A substance hits me on the backside of my shoulder, seeps through my shirt and sticks to my skin in a near hurl-inducing film. He’s also spit on me.

My chin trembles and tears threaten to fall. They want to see me humiliated, but I won’t give them the satisfaction.   

I want to say something vile, and oddly enough, my words wouldn’t need to hide in brown paper wrapping.      

If you make eye contact with your adversary — really look at them, they’re more likely to act out, so instead I force a “Bless you,” which is a “screw you” in its own brown wrapper.

 I shove the door open and step outside. The guy with the ball cap squeezes past me and walks down the sidewalk past the marijuana shop, then disappears around the corner as Shane protectively wraps his arm over my shoulder and leads me to the truck. “Get in,” he orders.  

I try to ignore the stench of tobacco radiating from the spit, and drifting on his breath, and I only scan the fresh scratches ripped into the side of Dad’s truck. We were in the store for less than three minutes and someone keyed the truck. The clerk probably did it while the men kept me occupied.

After I unlock the door, Shane throws me inside. “Lock the door.”

“Shane, no!” 

I’m too late. He’s heading back into the store and reaching into his pocket as he goes.

The knife. 

He has a knife that’s handmade of wood, and he carries it everywhere. I should’ve listened to my gut and never befriended him. This trip is a colossal mistake.

I lock the door and wait. It isn’t difficult to imagine what Shane’s doing inside, but I won’t go there. Instead, I hum a childhood lullaby and pick up the thicker book of the two.

All I wanted was to get Mom a gift.

Running my finger along the top edge of the book, I unseal the paper wrapping and pull it aside. The light cascading through the window shines brightly on the gold ink that traces the edges of each page. It looks like they’ve laid a beautiful ribbon around the border. None of the versions of the holy texts that we own have this golden touch. 

Mom’s going to love it.

The passenger door handle jingles. I tuck the book against my chest, squeeze my eyes tight and lean against the driver’s side door, as if not being able to see will keep ghastly things from happening.

The handle jerks again. The truck cab shakes. “Linny!”

I open one eye. Shane’s standing at the door. I lower my shaking hand to push the unlock button as his dark eyes bare into mine through the tinted truck glass.

Shane puts his hand to the window. Blood covers his long, muscular fingers, leaving a crimson smudge on the glass.

My heart stalls and finger hovers over the lock button. 

“Open the door.” He’s now ordering me around. My pulse rate soars. “Linny!”

The bookstore door opens. Panicked, I push the button, unlocking the truck door. 

Shane yanks on the handle, opens the door, and jumps in. I peel out of the parking lot fast enough that the scent of burnt rubber overwhelms the stench of tobacco and the book falls to the floorboard. 

“What did you do?” My words are jagged and tremble. 

He wipes his hand and knife blade on his black jeans and shakes his head. “It’s best if you don’t know.”

“Shane, you shouldn’t-”

“Don’t lecture me, Linny. Your ways aren’t my ways.”

My stomach flips. I want to pull over and puke out the window, but I’m driving way over the speed limit. Doing so might bring more attention to me and make our trip outside the security of Ft. Outland last even longer. It’s been an eternity.

Keep it together. Maintain composure for a few more minutes, then you can get back on post and be safe again. Just a few more minutes. 

“You should’ve taken the necklace off before we came.” His voice holds as much bitterness as his tense, curled fingers.

My heart races, and nerves are shot, but he can’t know that. It’d be downright idiotic to upset him any further. He’s far too unstable. 

Sure, he’s my friend, but he also hates people like me and might turn on me as fast as he did the clerk. 

I shake my head to both rattle away the fear and act like I’m unaffected. And words, they just start tumbling out. “If I go out without the symbol, word would travel back to my dad.” I glance at his crimson-stained hand. “He’s not a fan of his daughter breaking the law.”

“Be more like me. Don’t believe in anything and you don’t have to worry about identifying yourself.”

I turn onto the road leading to the main gate. An angry horde pulls my attention away from the grim spots on Shane’s jeans. The mob has grown in number and now line the street well beyond the entrance. Up ahead, several vehicles wait their turn to return to post. Again, we’re forced to sit in the middle of the angry crowd and wait. I can’t believe I got us into this.

Shouts intensify as an officer waves the vehicle four ahead of me through the checkpoint. I move forward a car length. Time slowly clicks off the clock. 

“We - we just left. How can there be hundreds here now?” I ask.

“Hundreds?” He sneers. “More like fifty. At most.” 

Fifty? I see many more than that. He’s messing with me, but it’s not the time for teasing. I’m a nervous wreck. 

Fingers grasp the chain-link fence and narrowed eyes flash with such contempt my chest tightens and anxiety soars. 

A protester shrieks a demented demand. “Die, pigs, die!”

“They’re coming,” another howls, as the woman beside him climbs the fence, wraps her tense fingers around the barbed wire and stretches her neck over the failing barricade. “You’re evil monsters!” A wicked grimace contorts onto her face when a police officer grabs her ankle and pulls her to Earth, ripping her hands on the wire. “Monsters!” Hanging by her bloody fingers, she kicks and flails her legs. “You’re evil monsters!”

Shane turns in his seat and watches out the windows as if he’s counting them one by one. “They must’ve brought a busload in but there’s nowhere near a hundred.”

My fingers ache, and my grip on the wheel is so snug my knuckles are white. 

The cars in front still haven’t freaking moved. This is a nightmare come to life.

One… two… three… four… five… six, I count the passage of time, waiting for the officer to wave the next car through the gate.

Other than Sundays, Ft. Outland is closed to almost anyone but personnel and their dependents, so soldiers or dependents like me being attacked just doesn’t happen. But I’m still getting more terrified with every second, especially now that two protesters are walking my way, like hunters stalking prey. Their tense, down-turned lips make my frenzied heart beat faster and harder. 

Shane and I are in danger.

A man who has got to be in his seventies throws a large flier under the windshield wiper, obstructing my view. It’s too large to see around. I turn on the wipers, but they skim the poster’s surface. 

Panic growing, I roll down the window and reach to remove it. As soon as I touch the paper, he grabs me by the wrist and with his shocking strength, yanks.  

“Sir!” The thick paper creases in my hand. I try to yank away, but don’t budge. His slender, aged fingers dig into my skin. “Please,” I beg. 

The clasp of Shane’s seat belt unbuckles. He flies across the seat, grabs the man by the wrist, and squeezes.

“Shane, stop!” He’s being careless. If the man brandishes a weapon, we could be dead in seconds. “Sir, please!” 

Another tug only brings him closer. His glaring, bloodshot eyes meet mine; his alcohol tinged breath hangs in a vapor. “The battle is starting!” He surveys the pale blue sky and cowers. “Don’t you see them? They’re coming!” Sensing the man is alone and his mind is in constant chaos, I have sympathy for him. He’s confused, and if he isn’t careful and someone hears him talking about some invisible enemy, they’ll cart him off to a medical facility and nobody will see him again.

That’s been my fear since noise crept into my head two years ago. It’s never left, and if the wrong person finds out I’ll end up in a medical facility just like the old man would.

With a twist of my wrist, I give myself a burn and just about rip my skin as I jerk out of his grasp.

Shane releases the man and backs away. I roll up the window and narrowly miss catching Shane’s fingers as it closes.

A third person plods to us. She has the long, straight hair I’ve always wanted and a complexion worthy of a moisturizer commercial. She’s stunning and about my age, but there’s fury in her eyes. If only I could talk to her to find out what’s happened in her life to make someone so young, already so angry.

But then again, we’re all angry and tormented by something. I guess it just looks different on everyone.

The sign she’s carrying reads YOU are the terrorists in bright red handwriting. Both ‘s’ in the word terrorists have a curly-q on the end. 

Maybe she’s not consumed by rage and there’s a hopeful young woman inside who isn’t so different from me. Fear makes people do things they’d never consider under normal circumstances.

There are so many people picketing from so many points of view. They’re upset about everything, and they contradict each other, which only makes the situation worse. They could turn on each other. A full riot might break out.

“Don’t trust them,” the elderly man shouts. “Don’t trust our government.”

“No crap,” Shane yells, pulling the knife out again.

My chest pounds and stomach churns. 

“Back off!” Shane warns. 

“Fear for your life!” the man answers. “Be watchful!”

“Shut up, old man!” The girl walks up and bangs on the hood of Dad’s truck. “Let her burn in the place of suffering! They’re all murderers.”

A police officer stomps toward her. His face, stern. His lips, tight. He says something to her, but I can’t pick up the words through the shouting.

Hate fills her eyes as she yells back at him. He advances, thrusts his face to her, and screams. The veins in his neck protrude, and his face turns tomato red.

“Terrorist!” I read her response as it falls from her lips but don’t hear it audibly.

With a snatch of her arm, he tries to drag her away. Her mouth moves. She’s trying to talk to me. Tell me something. But it’s like she’s muted. I can’t hear a word.

I roll the window back down. “What’s she saying?” 

My hearing returns like a stereo turned off and then increased to full blast, and the episode curdles my blood. More proof that I’m losing my hearing… or mind. 

A chorus of voices howl and shout about their hatred for our country and the military. Others shriek about an army coming. Still more beg for the destruction of our nation.

The officer tries again to haul the girl away, but she grips onto the side mirror. She could rip it off. “They’re violent!” she continues. Her eyes cut to Shane, then back to me. “They’re murderers. All murderers!”

Her shouts and Shane yelling back at the protesters entwine in a sick and twisted melody. I slam my eyes shut. I should be back on post in the safety of my bedroom, not here taking the brunt of so much anger.

“Back away from the vehicles,” a voice booms from a megaphone.

My breathing is chaotic and I’m lightheaded. This is insanity.

“You have five seconds to step away from the vehicle, or I’ll taser you.”

A blood-curdling scream erupts from the girl and curls into a “No!” 

My eyes fly open. Not going down without a fight, she wraps her arms around the side mirror. Terror clouds her eyes. They’re full and fixed on me like she’s trying to send me a message telepathically. 

Her neck tightens, mouth hangs open, and her fingers coil as she convulses, releases the mirror and falls to the ground and out of sight.

I open the door and jump out, realizing police officers in riot gear are chasing the protesters who have scattered into the forests on either side of the road. 

I squat down and take her hand as if my touch will somehow comfort her or ease her pain.

“Get back!” The officer’s words are a request, but his tone holds a threat.

“Linny, get in the truck!” Shane yells.

Her eyes bulge and fingers tense. The voltage still races through her veins but doesn’t pass through her body into mine. “Turn it off!” I implore. “She’s suffering! Turn it off!” 

The officer shoves me backward, scraping my skin against the hot asphalt. I jump back up but keep my eyes fixed on hers. She’s simultaneously mesmerizing and terrifying.

The noise in my ears intensifies. I cover them to damp down the volume.

“Get back in your vehicle,” the officer shouts.

My limbs are rigid. I can’t move.

He yanks his pistol from his waistband, raises and points the barrel at me. Any adrenaline that was coursing through me has suddenly evaporated and I turn from rigid to weak. My knees buckle.

“I said get back in your vehicle.” Spittle flies from his mouth with each word.

Shane is out of the truck with his arm around my waist, catching me before I collapse into a heap on the hot ground. He shoves me back into the truck cab and climbs over me to the passenger seat. “What are you doing? You’ll get us both killed.”

My heart races, and head throbs. “She’s hurt.”

“Good!”

The car in front of me moves through the gate. With trembling hands, I throw the truck in drive and slowly move on but through the side mirror witness the officer sending another surge of electricity into the girl’s body.

“She’s a goner,” Shane mutters.

“How can you say that?” I ask. “Where’s your compassion?”

He shrugs. Just over his shoulder, the smudge of blood is still on the window. 

A car horn blares, drawing my attention to the rearview mirror. The man behind me is waving for me to move forward. Ahead, the young soldier at the gate is motioning for me to head his way. 

As I move forward, I roll Shane’s window down to hide the blood and come to a stop beside the soldier.

He winds his finger, instructing me to roll the window down. Not ready to be part of another confrontation, I obey but hope it’ll be a routine traffic stop, and Shane and I will be on our way in a matter of seconds. Blood unnoticed.

 

The soldier’s blue eyes smile down on me. “Hey, Lincoln.” Somehow, even given what’s going on around us, there’s a playfulness to his voice. He’s not nearly as bothered by the spectacle as I am. He must have nerves of steel.

“Hey, Joel.” My nerves are most definitely not made of steel or any other metal. I’m shaking like I were standing in an ice storm barely clothed.

“Rough day out there.” Joel eyes Shane and then turns his attention back to me. “You okay?”

“I, um. I’m good.” 

“You sure? Major Crenshaw drove through a few minutes ago. He witnessed what happened at the bookstore.”

My heart stalls, and I swallow hard. A glimpse to the right reveals Shane looking straight ahead, hiding his bloody hand under his leg. 

“Yeah. Said you were peeling out of the parking lot. Wasn’t sure what happened inside but said it couldn’t be good, the way you were hauling tail out of there.”

“They spit on me, and if Major Crenshaw told you he saw me in Shiloh, that means my dad will find out. He’s going to kill me.”

Joel chuckles, one of those good-natured laughs that calms the nerves. Usually. “You should know better than thinking you can slide anything past the colonel.”

“Good thing that girl didn’t rip the mirror off. But there’s no way I can hide the new scratches.”

Joel steps back and eyes the side panel. “Someone keyed the colonel’s truck?”

I can only nod.

“I’ll report it. Rest assured that security cameras picked it up. They’ll catch them.”

Swallowing hard, I try to imagine the interior of the store. Were their security cameras inside? 

“Uh… let me talk to my dad about it. He can call it in if need be.”

His forehead creases with uncertainty. “You sure?”

I nod, trying to both calm myself and release the excess energy and anxiety flooding back into my body. “Yeah. Very.”

Joel fiddles with the side mirror, looking at it this way and that. “This looks good to me. The mirror’s one less thing you’ve got to worry about.” With a slap on the hood of the car and a wink, Joel waves me on. “Have a splendid day, Lincoln.”

“You too.”

I roll up the window and drive on. Not only does Joel know that I left Ft. Outland and someone mildly assaulted me, but Major Crenshaw witnessed my quick escape from the parking lot. 

If word gets out that there was a stabbing at the bookstore… with the vivid description of a twenty-something-year-old guy wearing all black and a redhead young woman… 

This could all come back on me and Dad’s wrath will be the least of my concerns.

Chapter Two

Drystan

Sweat gathers under the brow of my cap, and my feet swelter in my boots, but hidden behind sunglasses, I focus on the colonel. Dressed in a combat uniform, I blend in with the thousands of soldiers on post and nobody realizes he’s being followed and will lead me to my target.

His daughter, Lincoln.

I’ve studied files about her and could pick her out in a stadium full of people. A redhead, she’s five foot six inches tall, and weighs approximately one-hundred and ten pounds. She has a scar on her right temple from an injury sustained at two years of age when a raging storm threw her into a tree, but based on the current photographs I’ve seen, she tries to keep the small flaw hidden by strands of her hair, and rarely pulls her hair back into a ponytail. By partly covering her face, Lincoln could be trying to hide more than just the scar. Secrets and insecurities are top on my discovery list.

It’s one thing to know the facts, it’s another altogether to discover the psychological reasoning behind all the data I’ve consumed.

As soon as I arrived on post, others told me it goes against Colonel Gordon’s orders for any soldier to speak with Lincoln and if they come into contact with a redhead wearing the country’s flag and an intersectional-faith charm around her neck, we’re supposed to avoid her at all costs. There are serious consequences for anyone who disobeys. A healthy fear of repercussions means nobody has disobeyed the colonel’s orders, so I’ll be the first. 

I lean against the wall, acting uninterested as the colonel paces in the heat beside a compact, two-door vehicle that isn’t his. It’s his daughter’s and based on the intelligence I’ve gathered; they’re meeting here to exchange vehicles. 

She’s behind schedule, and he’s pumping gas and eyeing the street. He’s uneasy, and more nervous than he was earlier in the day. 

A captain walks past the colonel, saluting without slowing his stride. Colonel Gordon salutes back, then spins on the heels of his boots and eyes a large truck pulling into a space only a few feet away from me. 

Often a poor student in school, Lincoln failed the written portion of her driving test three times, so although she’s twenty-years-old she’s only had her driver’s license for two years. Her shoddy parking skills show it. 

I push off the wall and wait for her to climb out of the vehicle and fully reveal herself. My breathing halts with anticipation as the driver’s door opens, and Lincoln jumps out of the truck. My heart thumps, and I swallow hard. 

I’ve been waiting for this for months. 

I’m restless and eager to start the mission, but she’s not alone, which may put off our initial introduction. Not an ideal start.

The passenger side door opens. A guy about my age climbs out. His dark black hair hangs to his chin and covers half of his face. The dark brooding clothes, hair and makeup, and his exaggerated tough persona are laughable. He’s trying too hard. A total fraud who’s desperate to be powerful.  

He drags the arm of his sleeve down the passenger side window, goes over it again, smudging whatever was on the glass, then slams the door shut. “Hey,” he says, across the truck hood, grabbing Lincoln’s attention. “Be on the lookout. You know what some people say...” He checks out the sky and then winks at her. “They’re coming.” The cretin spots the colonel, and the smug grin on his face recedes. “Meet you inside,” he mutters, with a duck of his head while he shuffles toward the entrance. 

This isn’t a boyfriend, even if he wants to be. Aside from a guy she dated from a nearby performing arts college while she was away at design school, Lincoln hasn’t had a relationship that lasted more than a few months. Her father’s expectations are far too high, and he’s kept a heavy hand on her. Lincoln has followed his lead and trusted his judgment - which may make befriending her a near-impossible task.

A task I’m up for.

Colonel Gordon maintains a critical eye on the hob as he struts past him and inside the door to the convenience store. He’s obviously just as on to his absurd act as I am, which is a relief.

I’ve always tried not to hate anyone, but in less than ten seconds, this guy is testing my resolve and it looks like he’s doing the same for the colonel. Seeing his daughter with him must grate on his nerves and ruffle his sensibilities.

As soon as the colonel turns his attention back to Lincoln, I do the same. 

She’s wearing cut-off shorts, a tank top, and flip-flops. She couldn’t be more different from her friend. While he’s trying too hard to stand out, she seems to want to blend in. Disappear, even. Her long hair is hanging loose, and it doesn’t look like she’s wearing any makeup. For a want-to-be clothing designer, she’s not as made up as I thought she might be. Based on the photographs I’ve studied; this is a new development. When she was in secondary and design schools, she dressed up every day and wore heavier makeup. Maybe she was trying to play the part, and with her design school dreams on hold, she tamed her style.

Lincoln dutifully removes two paper cups and pieces of trash from the truck cab and shoots them into a nearby trash bin with the style and ease of a basketball player. She reaches back into the cab, retrieves two brown wrapped packages and pins them between her arm and ribs to hold them in place, and then roams across the parking lot with her hair hanging around her shoulders and her hands jammed into her shorts pockets.

She’s tense and not looking around the gas station. While I might be invisible to her, I can’t take my eyes off of her. Even after seeing hundreds of photographs of her in all aspects and timeframes of her life, seeing her in person has me shook. 

“I’m sorry,” she says, dipping her head and looking at the ground as she walks to her father.

“I told you it was dangerous.” His hands are on his hips and his face is stern, a look I’m sure the soldiers under his command often get. 

After moving closer, I lean against the large ice chest and pretend to look at my phone.

In apparent resignation, she shrugs. “I shouldn’t have gone. I know. I apologize.”

He places a hand on her shoulder, and his posture relaxes. “Things are too volatile.” He squeezes her shoulder and leaves his hand there, almost like he’s trying to keep her closer to him and farther from harm. Like if he holds on to her a while longer, he’ll shield her from what’s coming.

But that’s not his job. Not anymore. 

“I’m taking your mom into Shiloh for her birthday. We’ll be back tomorrow, midday. Please stay on the post.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Use your card to pay for the gas,” he adds. 

She turns and presents the back of her head to him. “I got spit on.”

My skin heats and temples throb at the news of her facing aggression and an assault.  

Her father picks through the long strands of hair, then wipes her head with the sleeve of his military uniform, like the hob did when he wiped down the window. Maybe they spit on the truck too. “See what I mean. They’re erratic. Dangerous, even.”

While her complexion is fair, his skin holds an olive undertone, and his hair is dark. As I expected, they look nothing alike, but there’s no doubt they share a connection.

She’s innocent. Too innocent to be thrown into the middle of two fighting factions. Maybe my superiors will change their minds and alter their plans.

Lincoln turns and faces him again, then holds out her open hand. There is a hesitation before he drops the car keys into her palm and an additional pause before he kisses her on the cheek.

Nothing I’ve witnessed would cause me to alter plans. This girl, the daughter Gordon, will not be spared. The mission is on. 

The Colonel walks away and climbs into the truck. His daughter heads inside, and I follow close on her heels.

In her school records, almost every instructor made note of her propensity for losing focus on her classwork and an inability to stay quiet. She’s a talker, so her near silence as she strolls down the aisle appears to be out of character and has increased my curiosity.

She runs her fingers along the products on the shelf like she’s shopping by touch instead of sight. 

Her dark friend’s eyes watch her every step of the way. “Did your dad say anything about you hanging out with me today? Like, maybe why all these guys are around you all the time, but you spend your time with me.” He’s flirting. I don’t like it. My temples pulse and teeth grind.

She scoffs and rolls her hazel eyes. “If I showed the least bit of interest in any of these guys, Dad would have my hide.”

“Crap, Linny. You’re about to be twenty-one years old. Your dad doesn’t have a say in who you date.”

“My dad’ll always have a say in who I date.” She picks up a magazine, scans the cover and puts it back in place. “And pretty much everything else, too.”

Her friend’s head falls back, and he groans. She just shot him down without realizing it. There’s no way her father would ever consent to her dating someone like him. 

When I turn back to her, she’s watching him out of the corner of her eye. A slight smile is on her lips. There’s a mischievousness about her. Maybe she realizes she rebuffed his advances, and she’s more aware than I first thought. She just let him down, blamed it on her father and shoved the counterculture immature man who is her total opposite in every way, into the friend zone–never to exit. 

Good news, and my mission is off and running. Back on track.

A display of soda at the end of the aisle brings her to a halt. She eyes the cardboard packaging as she reaches up and clasps the flag charm hanging around her neck. “Remember when everything used to be in patriotic colors.” She sighs. “Now, they’re just camouflaged in shades of green and brown.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, nobody is patriotic anymore,” he tells her. “This country sucks.”

She cuts her eyes to him and scowls but doesn’t offer a response. 

“The sooner it’s brought to its knees, the better. You want chips?” With a quick switch of topic, he holds up several snack bags for her to choose from.

“Regular kettle chips. And cheese puffs. Regular chips for the pool, and the puffs for home where I can lick my fingers with no one staring at me.”

“Ah, cheese puffs. Your drug of choice. Seeing you lick your fingers, mine.”

My neck stiffens at the smutty comment, and it doesn’t look like she appreciated it either. She spins around to put her back to him, and her eyes are so tight the corners are almost in a twist.

She isn’t buying his act. 

“Yeah well,” she throws her hair over her shoulder and turns back to him, leading with a jerk of her head. Her eyes meet mine and hold.

My adrenaline surges, heart pounds, and breathing turns shallow. I’ve made eye contact with my target and it’s a rush.

As swiftly as her eyes met mine, she moves on, but I’m struggling to regain composure. 

“You don’t have to worry about waiting, Shane. I’ve just got to grab a few more things.”

I chuckle. She’s trying to get rid of him and even though I don’t know her yet, I’m proud. And amused. But mostly proud. 

“You’re my ride, remember,” he tells her.

“Oh yeah, right.” Lincoln walks to a shelf and grabs a gift bag and a package of tissue paper. She holds the brown paper-wrapped packages up to the bag to check its size, then tucks it all back under her arm.

There’s a robotic chime overhead. She cowers and looks over her shoulder at the door. I nearly jump over the shelves of food and tug her to the ground in case hostiles have entered the premises. My current mission isn’t to protect her. It’s finding out more about her and what she knows, but it’s almost impossible to fight the urge.

A brief inspection of the entrance lessens my anxiety. It’s only a couple more soldiers. A glance at her proves that she too overreacted, and she’s relaxed again.

The threat level chart above all public exits has flashed yellow for two months. If they ever hit red, my time here at Outland will end and they’ll send me into battle, which I’ve trained for but don’t look forward to. Plus, the mission… the young woman before me, is priority. War is on the horizon, but I have to accomplish the mission before a battle makes its way to Shiloh and the nation.

She walks to the check-out counter. Again, we lock eyes, but she moves past without a word and tosses her ID and bank card on the small conveyor belt. 

As a military brat, I’m sure she doesn’t go anywhere without her ID card. It’s how the government and my superiors track her. The bank card is how her father does. 

This is it. My opportunity to make the initial contact. I take a calming breath, walk up behind her and manage to form a single word. “Hello.” 

She smiles at the cashier and doesn’t respond to my greeting. “Hey, Mindy. Pump four, please.”

“Hello,” I repeat, studying her profile and able to see her eyes widen at my persistence.

“Ten dollars,” Mindy shakes her head at Colonel Gordon’s daughter and suppresses a girlish giggle. “Is that everything?” 

From behind me, Lincoln’s friend throws his snacks on the counter and heads out the door. 

Lincoln tosses the gift bag and tissue beside the snacks. “And these.”

After a sigh, Mindy rings up the remaining items. “Sin tax on the snacks takes it to eighteen-fifty.” 

They told me to expect resistance from her, but I didn’t foresee being ignored.  It’s like she doesn’t see or hear me. 

“Hello.” 

“Wow. He’s relentless,” Lincoln mutters.

Mindy nods and tries to concentrate on swiping both cards but fails. She’s too preoccupied with the drama unfolding between my subject and me.

A glance over her shoulder. “Were you talking to me?” There’s a southern drawl to her accent. It’s almost a purr.

“I was.” I make eye contact with her. Something I’m sure no junior soldier has ever done. Her hazel eyes have gold flecks that glimmer in the light, but her obvious contempt for me clouds over them. 

My insignia and nameplate reveal to Lincoln much of what she needs to know about me. With a sneer, she focuses on my lips. “Lt. Lee?”

Second Lieutenant, actually. “Yes, ma’am. And you are?”

“Off-limits.”

“Off-limits? That’s an odd name.” 

“So it is.” She turns her attention back to Mindy, blowing me off in such a significant fashion that I’m both hurt and impressed. “Any plans tonight?” Lincoln asks her.

Mindy hands the ID and debit cards back. “We’re going to the late movie. You?”

“Early showing after I run by the HOB for a bit. I’m not in the mood for another shoot- ‘em-up film, but I guess that’s all we get around here.” She stashes her cards in her back shorts pocket and tosses her hair over her shoulder. “See you around.”

Lincoln grabs the bag of snacks and gift wrap, turns, and walks out of the automatic doors and back into the crazy heat. 

She won’t make this easy on me. Her father would be proud.

I follow behind. “And you are?” 

As I place my cloth hat back on, she turns to me and scowls. “What do you want, soldier?”

“Your name.”

She dials in on my lips again. A curious habit I’d like to further explore. “Why?” 

“In case I run into you on post. I want to greet you by your name.”

Her top lip curls into a near snarl. She’s got an attitude. An excellent sign. “Which school are you from?”

“Northern Military Academy.”

“Of course, you are.” There’s an annoyed flicker in her eyes. “NMA boys are the worst. I’d rather talk to a Private First Class; I can assure you.”

The friend of hers, dressed all in black, leans against the car, but his presence doesn’t deter me from continuing. “We’re the worst?” Nobody prepared me for her disapproval of academy graduates. I have to wing it to find out if I can find a different way to make some headway. “Did you discover that from experience or is that your father’s opinion talking?”

“Both. And it’s not an opinion; it’s the truth. Graduates walk around flashing that class ring like they run the country or something.”

“We do.”

Another roll of her eyes and a slight grunt of annoyance. She squints her right eye in the bright sun. Her smirk shines in the gas’s glare from fumes hovering above the pavement.

“I like your accent,” I say. “It’s eclectic.”

“Yeah well, I’ve moved over twelve times in twenty years. No surprise I sound like the mutt I am.”

Twelve times in twenty years is more often than most and is definitely eye-brow raising, even though it isn’t new information for me. 

With a look of exasperation, she sighs. “Look, hundreds of boys like you- “

I’m amused and energized by her resistance. “Boys?”

“Yeah, boys — just like you are piling in here. I see them all the time. You’re nothing new. And trust me, you won’t be running into me, so you need not worry about knowing my name.”

She turns away again. Less than a day into my mission and I’m already failing. I’ve got to get her to talk to me.

“Still,” I soften the approach and move closer. “Can’t you tell me? It’s only a name.”

With a pivot, she glares back at me. “My father is-”

“Colonel Lincoln Gordon, I know. You’ve got the necklace. You’re hard to miss.”

“And yet, you’re still talking to me.”

“I couldn’t resist.” It’s an accurate statement. Hopefully, she’s a fan of honesty.

“Well, you should’ve.”

Lincoln turns away again and walks two paces before I try again. “Your name?”

She spins back around. “My first name’s Lincoln. My last name’s Gordon. I’m my father’s namesake.”

With a shrug, I blow off the response she meant to intimidate me. It doesn’t. If I weren’t on a mission, her frigid expression might be enough to scare me off, but I’m not convinced she’s as angry as she’s acting. If she didn’t enjoy the attention, she wouldn’t keep giving me time. She would’ve left me high and dry, but yet… I’ve captivated her attention even if it is frosty. “What’s your middle name?”

“Why?” There’s a harsh tilt of her head and she throws her hands on her hips in an almost identical gesture of her father’s only minutes ago. The bags of items she bought inside hang from her wrist.

“I prefer not to call you by the same name as the colonel.”

“Call me by my name or call me nothing at all. Makes no difference to me. And now this conversation is over because if my dad finds out you’re talking to me, he’ll cut your prized possession right off.” She smirks and shakes her head as she adds, “And I don’t mean your class ring.” Lincoln turns and walks to the small vehicle her father drove to the gas station.  

I can’t suppress a smile. “All right, then. See you around, Lincoln.”

She tosses a single wave over her shoulder without looking back. “Don’t bet on it.”

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