Chapter 24

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Gus tugged against the leash with the fervor of a dog half his age, as if he had caught the scent of scurrying prey. Then he abruptly stopped at one of the posts along the perimeter fence and raised his leg, prompting a chuckle from Lacy. He concluded his business, then cleaned his paws by kicking clumps of grass out behind him with his hind legs.

Lacy gazed out beyond the fence line, toward the trees, wondering exactly what route they would take once dusk set in. Eva had explained that today was the day they would depart Community. This news had caught Lacy off guard, imparting a peculiar sense of longing that she hadn't been prepared to deal with. Had she become too accustomed to life here? What if living somewhere else didn't pan out? They might be worse off.

A warm breeze tousled a few strands of her auburn hair and she tucked them behind her ear. She studied the sky for any indication of incoming clouds – and therefore rain - but saw only flawless blue. Perceiving the weather as a good omen, Lacy dismissed her concerns as mere anxiety. Eva had a plan and Lacy trusted her. Maybe it was just that their departure had seemed to come so suddenly.

Gus sniffed along the path, occasionally glancing at Lacy for approval. He halted and growled as a squirrel darted from some high grass. It was chased by another of its kin, although the pursuer looked vastly different, exhibiting a disproportionate skull with protruding teeth and a much broader tail, as if it had been crossbred with a groundhog. The dog gave one bark, then resumed sniffing his way along the fence, his wiry frame weighing heavily on Lacy's mind.

As they neared the front gate, the two stopped at a small hole in the fence, inspiring the same thought it always did. Her pulse rose and with it came a fluttering wave of apprehension. Lacy stopped Gus, leaned over and kissed him on the head. "I love you, boy." The dog wagged and licked her on the chin. She gripped his leash, her thumb poised on the clasp. Taking Gus with them this evening seemed too great a risk. Lacy thought he might be better served living in the wild. She had thought this for some time but hadn't acted on it. With their departure here, now was the time.

Gus sat, staring at Lacy with full attention, his ears in an obedient, yet curious position. The tip of his tail wagging, he gave paw and Lacy accepted it. She patted him on the head, her pulse hammering. With trembling fingers, she pressed down on the clasp to remove the leash, but then stopped. She couldn't do it.

Lacy withdrew a few morsels of food from a pocket and hand-fed Gus, who nearly inhaled them. She wiped away tears and stood upright, releasing a pent-up sigh.

"There you are."

Lacy turned to see Grant approaching, with Mitchell in tow. Idling behind them was the tractor trailer, which was used only for supply runs. Gasoline was a hot commodity, hoarded by anyone who could get their hands on it by siphoning from abandoned vehicles. Once the engine started, you didn't turn it off unless necessary; you never knew if it might start again. Therefore, Lacy knew this would be a quick conversation.

"How are things, Lacy?"

"Fine. Thank you." She pulled back on Gus's leash as the dog lunged toward Grant, seeking affection, but receiving none. The man had demonstrated on more than one occasion that he wasn't fond of animals.

"Mitchell?" said Grant, motioning toward the dog. Then he turned to Lacy. "Let Mitchell take Gus for a quick stroll so you and I can chat."

Lacy reluctantly handed the leash to Mitchell, feeling ashamed for giving it to the brute. Gus trotted off, glancing up for attention, but again he was denied.

Grant folded his arms across his chest and pursed his lips. "Lacy...have you noticed any changes in Eva's behavior lately?"

"Changes? I'm not sure how you mean."

"Any erratic actions or talk? I know she confides in you most of all."

Lacy shook her head. "Not that I've noticed. Why?"

Rubbing his chin, Grant seemed to be studying Lacy. She imagined him trying to expose subtle facial movements for what he would perceive as lying. She was of course, not going to mention anything that would betray their plans for departure. Lacy turned and looked behind her, half-expecting to find Mitchell breathing down her neck to up the tension; this felt not like a chat, but an interrogation. Gus and the brute, however, were out of earshot.

"I'm just concerned about her well-being."

"Where is she now? In there?" she pointed toward the tractor trailer.

"Yes...she's sleeping."

"You mean she was sedated."

He smiled. "Yes, she's sleeping because she was sedated. She was pretty hysterical earlier."

Lacy nodded. "I think we all were – after what happened with Alex."

Grant removed his glasses, rubbed them with a cloth, then held them up to the sky for inspection. "That's the other thing...I know she frequently visited Alex. Did she ever mention what they spoke about?"

"Not to me."

Returning the glasses to his nose, Grant stared for a few moments too long and Lacy sensed him trying to intimidate her. "Lacy, I hope you're being forthright. I'm not the bad guy some people might believe me to be. I'm concerned that Eva isn't...well."

Frowning, Lacy asked, "Why do you say that?"

Grant sighed and removed a piece of rolled up paper from an interior pocket of his suit. He unrolled it and handed it to Lacy. "This morning I caught her writing this."

Lacy accepted the paper and rotated it. Her heart plummeted when she read the words.

Tomorrow at dusk.

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