Tsara sat on her blue cushioned stool at the white kitchen counter. Still wet from her shower, her black hair dangled behind her ears to her jaw. Her large-sized, olive green tank top was snug along her sides, and failed to cover her belly button. Extra long, gray sweatpants trailed down to her soft, baby blue slippers. She had sewn fresh padding on the bottoms a while ago, and they hardly had any stains on them.
James often used the kitchen counter to tinker with small projects he had brought from the garage. As a result, the white surface was covered with permanent grease and oil stains. If Tsara had been in James’ life sooner, the counter might’ve been nicer to look at.
She had never minded the tinkering, but she at least tried to convince James to lay a towel or tarp over the counter first. Tsara had always loved watching him work, passively nodding as if she had understood the technical terms he used.
Whenever Tsara wanted to try something new for a date, or for the bedroom, she always noticed the look in his eyes. He occasionally looked at her the same way he looked at the middle of a project. Narrowed eyes, one raised eyebrow and pursed lips. When the pieces fell in place, his lips curled into a wide smirk and his eyes narrowed even more.
Over the last few mornings, she wasn’t sure what she saw on James’ face. He sat beside her in his own cushioned stool, though it was much more deflated than hers. James’ shower had revealed tiny cuts and bruises around his face and bare arms. Fresh gauze was wrapped around his right bicep. His brown hair had dried in wild spikes, and he had shaved his face down to the skin.
James never put a shirt on until he left the house, but this morning he had slipped one of his usual black tank tops on to hide the bruises. He also tended to walk around in silky shorts at home. Going further out of routine, he had put on red, white and black flannel sweat pants to hide more bruises and the splint on his left ankle.
Looks younger than me without the stubble. He’ll be miserable until he smells like grease and sweat again. Tsara would’ve smiled if she wasn’t so worried about him.
She had stayed awake since three or four in the morning. The green digits above their entryway read: 7:33. Way too tired. Tsara stared at the bowl of granola James had made for her. He had sprinkled cinnamon and sugar over it, with a cup of hot milk to the side. My favorite breakfast.
James stirred his lukewarm oatmeal around his bowl since they had sat down. His green eyes seemed blank as he stared at his food. James snapped his attention to Tsara as she cleared her throat. He looked like he was expecting horrible news.
Tsara spoke gently, and carefully, both to reassure James, and because she wanted to make sure her tired words made sense to both of them. “James, I know how much you love me. I know you didn’t mean to hurt me last night. It was just a nightmare, or something, right?”
James swallowed the lump in his throat and nodded up and down.
“I realize you did some… things… to survive out there. Things that Debbie doesn’t — didn’t even want to talk about.” Tsara forced herself to think about James now. Debbie didn’t come back, doesn’t mean I have to lose James too. “I don’t expect you to forget, or repress any of that. Take some time off if you can… if you want.”
James’ breathing was heavier than usual, and he seemed to be forcing eye contact. Tsara waited patiently as his wet eyes darted around the cracked brown walls of the house. He twisted his body back to his untouched breakfast. “I… I’m not, built… to, uh, be out there.”
Tsara nodded and reached out for his hand. James flinched at first, but held her hand with a firm grip. She whispered, “It’s okay. You’re home.” She stepped off the stool and wrapped her arms around her man. Tsara kissed the top of his head and squeezed tighter. “You’re home.”
James squeezed in return, and then pried her loose. Tearful green eyes met Tsara’s. His voice was steadier than she had ever heard before. “I’m never leaving you again.”
Tsara felt her eyes tear up. They hugged each other even tighter than before. I wish.
The couple eventually released each other to finish their breakfasts. Then they each prepared to dress more appropriately for the day. James was ready first, as he didn’t worry about matching his ensemble. He’ll just get filthy anyway. Tsara smiled at the thought and kissed him goodbye.
James swooped back in for a longer, tighter kiss. He stared up into her eyes a moment longer, “I love you.”
Butterflies flew through her stomach and she felt some warmth in her cheeks as she smiled. “I love you too.”
He exited the door, but lingered with another smile before closing it. A deep sigh left Tsara’s chest. Did he take me for granted before all this? She immediately dismissed the thought with a shake of her head and walked to her sparse closet.
Tsara swapped her sweat pants for black denim. The only pants that no one can see stains on. Looking in the mirror, she buttoned up a clean white blouse over the olive green tank top.
The blouse was long enough to cover her belt, and the shoulders were trimmed enough to cover the top of her shoulders. Satisfied that she looked presentable, she locked the steel door on her way out.
James and Tsara’s house was actually the second floor of James’ garage. Tsara walked off of the grated porch, down to the sand covered street. Long, wild grasses shot up randomly alongside adobe and stucco buildings.
The main street was lined with houses on each side, running from the base of a river to the top of a wide plateau. Tsara walked two blocks up the steady slope. She looked past the buildings to her left to the steady stream below. Golden sparkles rippled in the slow current, only a few palm trees and fishermen were there to absorb the rays up close.
Anyone sweeping sand from their porches or marching their produce uphill gave a hearty wave and smile to Tsara. She liked her neighbors, but given the day’s task, she had to force a smile in return. As the slope evened out, the street widened into a large, circular plaza of sand and sturdier buildings than below.
She kept right, circling the plaza along with the buildings. The sheriff’s office looked like any other blocky, adobe house. The major difference were crisscrossed bars in the windows and the engraved “Lawkeeper” sign bolted above the door. Tsara took a deep breath and walked inside.
Like most buildings in the plaza, reliable electricity was a given. Tsara just thought it was a shame that the council had never tried to extend the infrastructure down the slope. Focusing on the task at hand, Tsara walked over the wooden planks to the receptionist’s dented, off-white metal desk.
The inside walls had been painted white, giving the blue overhead lights a nice boost to brighten up the place. Deep cracks in the walls had also crumbled specks of paint off the wall. Almost looks more run down with the paint. She could feel the dark circles under her eyes as she forced a weak smile. “Hi Rose, is the sheriff in?”
The secretary had few wrinkles, Tsara had guessed late thirties before. Her loose, red silk blouse hid most of her cleavage, and there was a lot to hide. She smiled up from her papers and asked, “Hi Tsara, Cliff’s in a meeting right now. Anything I can help you with for now, or should I take a message?”
Behind Rose, a window wider than her desk had its wooden blinds closed tight. “Well, I was hoping to set up a bounty. Can you do that?”
Rose nodded, “I can indeed, just need Cliff to sign off on it later.” The secretary rearranged the loose stacks of papers on her desk until she had some elbow room to prop up a thin tablet and keyboard. She tapped the screen while she asked, “I bet James can’t wait to dig into that tank.”
Tsara forced another smile, “Yeah.” That’s probably the only good thing to come out of this.
Rose frowned and made eye contact, “I know you’re setting this up for Deborah. We just need to know her last known whereabouts, and your reward.”
“Um, James just said they were nine and a half kilometers northwest of here. As for a reward, I don’t have any significant change, so I’m willing to indenture myself.”
Rose grimaced and looked up from the screen. “Honey, you know there’s a lot of things people will want from a slave. Or what about James? He’s got some good coin—”
“No. She’s my sister.”
Rose frowned and shook her head, “I know Tsara, but if you let a hunter pick your terms, you’re asking for trouble.”
“I have to try.”
The sheriff’s rickety wooden door opened, just behind Rose’s right shoulder. Cliff stood just a little taller than James, putting his brown eyes level with Tsara’s chin or mouth. Thick, well-groomed blonde hair covered his face and scalp.
Cliff’s voice had a subtle rumble that seemed out of place with his narrow frame. “Tsara,” he gave a curt nod with a small, lightly wrinkled grin. Other than his voice, the man was aging well.
“Sheriff.” She returned the smile with a tilted nod of her own.
“Sorry to hear about Deborah. She didn’t help keep the peace in town, but I know for a fact she’s helped keep it safe from the outside plenty.”
Tsara felt her chin quiver, but pushed past it, “As you mention it, I was just setting up a bounty to bring her back.”
Cliff was in his mid forties or so, but he moved at the speed of a town elder. He nodded with a curious sounding “hmm,” and leaned over to look at Rose’s desk. After a moment, he looked back to Tsara, “You realize I sit in on scout debriefings right?”
Tsara didn’t try to hide her annoyed sigh, “Yes.”
“I listened to Deborah for years. I’m sure she held back when she shared those stories with you. Frankly, she always scared the shit out of me since her first report.”
Tsara tried to interject, “I know where you’re going, I’ve heard this speech a few times already. All I—”
“Tsara, if Deborah ain’t come back yet—”
Tears blurred her vision, “Shut the fuck up! I heard this shit from the other scouts and plenty of friends! No one in this whole town’s gonna risk their asses, I get it. I’m not here for your opinion. Rose is helping me post a bounty, so all I need from you is a damn signature. Is that too much to ask to give me a sliver of hope that my sister might come home?”
Rose was biting her lips, staring over her shoulder. Cliff’s jaw was set to the side, narrowing his eyes into a steady stare. Caution peppered his tone, “Tsara, maybe you should be focused on James. I heard he’s been to the bar fairly often these last few days.”
Tsara let the tears fall down her cheeks. She didn’t care if he was being sincere or not. “Fuck you.” She turned to leave.
“Hold up.” The smooth voice wasn’t Cliff or Rose’s.
Tsara rolled her eyes as she tried to wipe them dry. She turned around to one of the last people she needed to see at that moment. “Natti.”
Natti was a few years older than James, and was quickly working her way into a village council seat. The woman spent most of her days inside, and as such, was one of the few people Tsara knew that sun bathed for pleasure. Her long black hair was brushed to perfection, ending just below her breasts. Tsara was at least happier to have a larger cup size.
The power hungry politician wore a wrinkle-free yellow-brown dress that clung to her curvy hips. Polished gold loops clung to her waist in a way that accentuated her hourglass figure even better than the dress. Tsara usually felt like an oversized stick figure, and looking at this woman never helped. Especially when everyone wants her.
Tsara could smell the sarcasm before Natti started speaking. “Tsara, I just wanted to let you know that I am so sorry to hear about Debbie. But, these things are expected from time to time. If you need anything, just come see me at the mayor’s office. My shoulder is always available to cry on.”
With just as little effort of sincerity, Tsara simply replied, “Thanks.” The council hadn’t gone out of its way to punish Tsara in a while. Playing nice kept them at bay, and it kept James from sullying his reputation to help her.
Tsara turned right back around to leave. Debbie would break the bitch’s arm. She genuinely smiled for the first time in three days.