Claire lingered within the Community's metal-reinforced gates, listening intently for the sound of an approaching eighteen-wheeler. No engine of any sort could be heard, and the truck was at least half an hour late already. A bad omen, after last week, when the previous truck never arrived.
She glanced at her clipboard, with its comprehensive list of the chores she was responsible for overseeing today. Pretty much the same list as the day before and the month before and the decade before.
Claire stared along the empty road again for a few minutes before accepting that a watched road never produced the desired traffic. The truck would get here when it got here, if it got here, and until then, she had work to do.
Claire made her way across the courtyard to the barn with its weathered wood doors partially obscured by the towers of unmarked white boxes ready for loading if the missing truck ever arrived.
Inside, Joy was tidying the stainless steel assembly line for mixing and packing the herbal Communi-Tea that provided the financial support for the thirty women who lived here.
"The truck's not coming," Claire said.
"It will." Joy filled a work station with the flat-folded cartons that would be opened and loaded with the next batch of Tea. Assuming they could get the current batch out to the market and generate enough income to pay their bills in the meantime. "Trust me."
It wasn't a matter of trusting Joy. The woman served as foster mother, role model, and colleague. Beyond that, Claire trusted everyone at the Community; it was the people outside their walls who made her nervous. "I just think we need to prepare for the worst."
"And do what?" Joy said.
Claire couldn't make herself voice the worst-case scenario: someone would have to leave the loving security of the Community and fix whatever was causing the disruption in their shipping routine. Maybe Joy was right, and the truck was on its way, but had run into some small matter that delayed it for a few hours. "We could bring the pallets indoors, out of the weather."
Joy rose to her imposing height. "The truck will be here soon. I'm sure of it. Meanwhile, why don't you double-check the packing slip?"
Claire flipped the pages on her clipboard to find her copy of the packing slip and then headed for the barn door.
"You were always such a good girl," Joy said. "And now you're a good worker. I can always count on you."
Claire paused halfway across the room, feeling as predictable as Pavlov's dogs. She knew checking the packing slip was a reasonable thing to do, and she couldn't think of a good reason to refuse to do it. They'd made some last-minute additions to the number of pallets last night, to make up for the previous missed shipment, and she wasn't sure if the paperwork had been updated.
Claire carried her clipboard outside to count the boxes. She'd never thought about leaving the Community, experiencing the temptations of the outside world. Other residents, given the choice of staying or leaving when they turned eighteen, had chosen to leave. But not Claire. She'd never been willing to indulge her curiosity if it meant she could never return to her home.
Still, it was looking more and more likely that someone would have to leave now. The Community's very existence was at risk if they didn't have a reliable shipping method. Without that, there was a very real possibility that all of the women here would lose their home, their family.
Claire glanced toward the gates, where the view and the silence stretched to the horizon. Someone was going to have to leave for the good of the rest of the Community.
* * * *
Half an hour away from his destination, Frank Robbins pulled the 18-wheel truck over to the side of the deserted road. Something had been feeling wrong about the ride for several miles, and he couldn't quite figure out what it was.
Climbing down from the cab, he checked the roadway for irregularities or debris, but found nothing. In fact, it looked as if no vehicle heavier than a tractor had driven this dusty stretch of asphalt in at least a month.
Frank checked the tires and found some surprising reductions in the pressure, but nothing that would justify going back to the interstate, where he could have them adjusted at a truck stop. He was late already, and he didn't find any overheating or abrasion that would have suggested there was an imminent danger.
Frank climbed back into the driver's seat and spent a moment making himself comfortable in the worn center of the upholstered seat before he maneuvered the truck back onto the dirt road.
The ride still felt off, but he decided he was becoming as paranoid as Josh Kinsey, the freight-forwarder who'd hired him for this trip at more than the going rate. Frank had been suspicious about this job from the start, but Josh was an old friend and had sworn there was nothing illegal about the job. Besides, Frank had needed the work. And the cash.
Scanning the dry, scrubby landscape, Frank wondered why he felt so uneasy. He had nothing against open spaces, unlike Josh, who distrusted everyone, but ranted even more vehemently against residents of rural areas, convinced they were all members of heavily armed militia groups. Frank hadn't seen enough houses in the last hour to provide enough people to make up a formal dinner party, let alone a militia.
A couple miles ahead, he could see the first signs of habitation in at least thirty miles. Three stucco buildings and a wooden barn, surrounded by fenced-in fields and a gated front wall. It had to be his destination: the Cloister. At least, that was what Josh had labeled it on his hand-drawn map. As best Frank could tell, it was an isolated, anachronistic outpost inhabited by a bunch of little old nuns who made herbal tea.
A few minutes later, Frank backed the truck up to the barred gates, but left the engine running while he looked for confirmation that he was in the right place. He was supposed to leave the truck, with the keys in it, take the motorcycle out of the back and drive into the town thirty miles away, relaxing there until it was time to return at 5:00 p.m. to pick up the truck.
No way was he leaving until he was sure his truck was in safe hands. Besides, he felt guilty about his late arrival, and figured he owed it to the nuns to help them load the truck instead of spending the time hanging out in town.
Frank made his way, cautious but unimpeded, to the massive, iron-reinforced wooden gates. He couldn't help wondering if he was about to be ambushed by what would turn out to be a real, live, and deadly version of one of Josh's imaginary, harmless delusions.
Frank peered through the barred windows of the gate, relieved to see nothing remotely dangerous. Just a group of women clustered in front of a barn 100 feet away, directly opposite him. They were younger than what he'd imagined the inhabitants of a cloister would be, and they were all dressed in khaki pants and similarly bland t-shirts, instead of black habits. Much more practical in the desert climate.
Their behavior, huddled together and casting wary, curious looks in his direction, suggested they didn't trust him. For all he knew, they'd never seen a man before. All the prior drivers probably had the good sense to follow the explicit instructions for abandoning the truck, instead of sticking around and trying to talk to the nuns.
He'd never been good at following instructions.
He shouted through the bars of the gate, "Hello."
All but two of the women shrieked and ran inside the barn. Hiding from him. Or getting rifles.
He ought to turn around, grab the motorcycle and get the hell out of this crazy place. But it was his fault that the truck had arrived late, and there were only a bunch of timid women here to load it. He owed them some help. "Sorry I'm late."
"Go away," said the older of the two women who'd remained in sight. She was a white-haired Amazon, but the tone of her voice was more grandmotherly than threatening.
Next to her, the other woman who hadn't run away was shorter and younger. She looked up from her clipboard and stared at him with open curiosity.
Frank decided to try once more. "I can help load the truck, if you'll open the gates."
"No." The older woman made shooing motions in his direction until the younger woman suddenly took one of her hands and said "Let me take care of this."
"That's not a good idea," the Amazon said.
"Perhaps not." The clipboard was tucked beneath her arm. "But I have to do this."
"You don't know what you're risking," the Amazon said. "Contact with outsiders is dangerous. To you and to the rest of the Community members."
"I just want to talk to him." She touched the older woman's hand. "The Community's very existence is at stake here."
The older woman hesitated, and Frank knew the younger, smaller one had won. She radiated a serene confidence that would make her invincible, no matter how many white-haired Amazons stood in her way.
"You have to do what you think is right," the Amazon said, trailing behind.
The younger woman stopped at the gates, peering at him curiously. He knew he didn't look his best, after two long days on the road, but he wasn't that bad. She was looking at him as if he were a creature in a zoo, when she was the one behind bars.
Thinking of the other, hidden women who might well have either rosaries or rifles aimed at him, Frank forced himself to remain as still as a wild animal.
After a few moments, he was rewarded with the soothing sound of the young woman's voice, as serene as her face. "If I open the gates, will you promise me something in return?"
What would she want from him? His truck, a million dollars, his very soul? He'd worked hard to get his soul back, he didn't have any savings, and he'd be destitute without his truck. Still, he had to know. "What do you want?"
"A ride in your truck."
The Amazon gasped at the simple request, but Frank was relieved that all she wanted was a ride. Giving in to such a simple request might well lead to more complicated demands, but he couldn't help himself. "Sure," he said. "Anything you want."
* * * *
Claire waited until Joy had retreated a few yards before keying in the password that operated the gate-opening mechanism. The man stayed where he was when Claire stepped outside the Community's walls for the first time. She half expected the air entering her lungs to taste wrong, the ground to feel rougher, and the sky to look less blue.
Everything was the same, though. She could handle it. Maybe start with something small and simple. Like a trip into the nearby town. "Is the motorcycle in the back of the truck?"
"Would you take me into town with you?"
The man looked past her, and Claire knew what he saw: Joy, standing far enough away to acknowledge Claire's independence, but close enough to race to her rescue if necessary.
"Your grandmother wouldn't like that."
"She's not my grandmother."
"Who is she, then?"
Claire hesitated. Her lifelong training kicked in at the hint of interrogation. Even though she'd never expected to be outside these walls, she'd long since absorbed the first rule of contact with outsiders: never discuss the Community or its residents. "She's my friend."
"How about the other women?" he said.
"Don't worry about them."
"Can't help it," he said. "I'm feeling a little exposed here. Could you at least confirm whether they're all aiming rifles at me as we speak."
Rifles? Was he crazy? Or did everyone outside the Community arm themselves? She wanted to trust him, but it wouldn't hurt to let him think the women here could defend themselves if necessary. "You're safe enough, as long as you stay outside the gates."
His gaze went to the rooftops of the barn and the main residence. "Josh didn't warn me about sharp shooting nuns."
Nuns? Claire had to stop herself from asking him where he got all his wrong information on the Community. Just as it wouldn't hurt for outsiders to think they could defend the place with force, if necessary, it wouldn't hurt for them to think the Community had a little divine intervention at the ready, along with the more physical ammunition. "Never mind them. I'm Claire."
"Frank Robbins," he said.
"Will you take me into town on the motorcycle?"
"It's not safe," he said.
"The sharp shooting nuns won't kill you for giving me a ride," Claire said.
"Perhaps not." He glanced at the rooftops again. "But they might kill me for letting you ride without a helmet, and I don't have one for you."
"I'll settle for riding in the cab, then, while you back it up to the barn."
"You're welcome to the ride," he said. "It might be cut short, though, if your sharpshooters take issue with my entering the gates."
"They won't," Claire said. "Unless I tell them to, of course."
"Of course," he said, and something in his eyes gave her the impression that he knew there were no sharp shooting nuns, but was amused enough to go along with her.
This was a bad idea. She should send him into town on his motorcycle and let Joy back the truck into the courtyard, as she usually did.
He'd taken several steps toward the truck before realizing she wasn't beside him. "Are you coming or not?"
Claire looked back at Joy, and could hear the unspoken words: Enough is enough. Come on back inside the walls, like the good girl you've always been.
Claire turned away from the gates and caught up with Frank. He tossed her clipboard onto the dashboard before he helped her into the driver's side of the cab. She scooted over to the passenger side, noticing that the driver's seat was heavily worn, while hers looked as new as the day the factory installed it. She plopped herself into it, appreciating the plush upholstery and deep cushioning. Despite its being so over-sized that her legs dangled a fraction of an inch above the floor, the seat was more comfortable than any of the wing chairs in the Community's formal parlor.
She was too excited to sit still, and turned to kneel on the seat for a better view of the entire space. In the back was a pair of built-in bunk beds, as well as assorted storage compartments and even a small refrigerator. The design looked so efficient she suspected there was almost as much usable space in the cab as in her own dormitory room.
After a few moments, she realized the man was sitting still, just watching her, instead of driving. "Is there a problem?"
"Not really," he said. "I was just waiting until you were ready. Wouldn't want you to sic the sharp shooting nuns on me."
"I'm ready." She turned around to flop down onto the seat, facing forward.
"Buckle up first," he said, patting his own seatbelt and then pointing to where hers was attached.
"We're only going a couple hundred feet," she said.
"Normally, I might agree with you," he said, "but this has been one strange trip, and I'm not taking any chances."
She pulled the end of the seatbelt toward her and clipped it into place. He reached across the space between them and tugged on it, the back of his fingers pressing against her hip. All of a sudden, it dawned on her that she was talking to a man, she was alone with him in a small space, and he was even touching her. Not in a personal way, but still, he was touching her.
She usually enjoyed the predictability of her list of daily chores, the satisfaction of ticking off the completed items. But now she could see the appeal of variety and spontaneity.
It was time to make a new list. She glanced at the man on her left. The new set of things to do would have to include him. Frank Robbins, that was his name.
Yes. She needed a whole new list, one that picked up where today's chores ended. Right after Load the pallets onto the truck, she would add, Get to know Frank Robbins better.
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