Tsara was leaning over her grease-stained kitchen counter, her short black hair still wet and slicked back from the shower. Her light brown t-shirt was tucked into her faded, olive green pants. She looked down to the man’s hands she was holding, and looked across the table into his narrowed eyes. “Dad, my gut is telling me she’s still out there.”
Tsara’s old man looked beaten down, ready to give up on life. Tsara could barely remember a time when he hadn’t. Nicolai stared at their hands with deep blue eyes, “James said he didn’t leave her behind or lose her. Debbie left on her own. Do you realize how difficult it is to find someone who wants to be found out there?”
Nicolai was as tall as Tsara, but as broad as most doors. His hair used to be as dark as his daughter’s. Now he had white streaks throughout his full scalp and beard. Deep wrinkles creased throughout his entire face. Tsara knew as well as anyone that life had never been kind to Nicolai.
Tsara kept a soft tone, “Dad… when mom left, I wasn’t strong enough to follow. We have a good lead on Debbie.”
“A week-old lead.”
“Dad.” She waited until he made eye contact, “I have to try.”
Nicolai nodded and looked back to their hands.
Tsara imagined he was having a hard time watching her leave, knowing he wouldn’t stop her. Just like mom. She rubbed her thumbs over Nicolai’s callused knuckles. “Dad, I am going in a tank.”
He didn’t smirk or smile like she had expected. Her father spoke in a whisper, “Anyone can die out there.”
Tsara felt her chin quiver. She released her father’s hands to reach farther to his elbows. “We can die here too.” She felt like she had a more positive follow-up, but Tsara couldn’t think of anything. The young woman let go and stood straight, wiping a stray tear away. “We’re leaving soon. I love you.”
“I love you more.”
Tsara forced herself to inhale as she walked past him to the door. She held it open to the pre-noon sun and gathering heat. “Stay as long as you like.”
After waiting for a response that never came, Tsara closed the door. She knelt over to tighten the straps on her boots before walking down the stairs. As she walked around to the front of the garage, she saw three buggies and a truck parked by the overhead doors.
Tsara furrowed her brows as she walked in to a dozen or so villagers in dusty clothes. James was leaning against his workbench on the far wall, a few friends leaned beside him with crossed arms or some kind of beverage. Everyone else was facing James, either standing or sitting on the other two torn-apart vehicles in the shop.
James was handed a black rifle with a scope from the crowd. He pulled the stock into his shoulder and aimed above the crowd. “Thanks Dixie, I’ll be sure to bring it back.” A friend from the bench accepted a small pouch from Dixie as James tested the bolt action.
The elderly Hank called out from his seat, “How the hell you get the fat cats to let you go outta town like this?”
James sighed as he laid the rifle on the bench, “Well, as we all know Hank, Anthill’s scouts haven’t been coming back as often as they used to. In my brief time out there last time,” James hesitated when he noticed Tsara join the crowd, “I, uh, I just think these Red Bone bastards have spilled enough of our blood. If we can find them and strike before they find us, I think we’ll have better odds in the future.”
Hank waved a dismissive hand, “Fuck the Red Boners. Why aren’t real scouts doin’ this job? We already lost three scouts to them bastards. What I’m askin’, is why are they lettin’ the town’s best mechanic put his neck out on the line again?”
Tsara glanced between Hank and James. Good question. The council didn’t care if Tsara walked out of town to find a barbarian tribe. They would ask for compensation if she wanted to take a buggy, a good gun, or any other tool that made the town stronger.
James was a keystone for the town. He had had to put his unfinished vehicles and tools on the line last time to help Deborah rescue Ryback and Reese. Now he wanted to take himself, a bulletproof tank, technology that could lead back to Anthill, and a grenade launcher.
Tsara had asked James what he had to wager for the trip. He had told her, “The garage, everything in it, and the apartment above it.” She still believed him, but she had a feeling he was holding back something.
Other than Hank, the gathered crowd was mostly made up of James’ friends and best customers. Tsara could’ve cried seeing James accepting the rifle and other equipment from the villagers. Anything offered here wouldn’t have to be wagered for. They were lending this equipment with no strings attached.
James shrugged back to Hank, “What can I say? The scouts have more concrete missions to accomplish? The council doesn’t care if we find Deb?” James’ knuckles turned white as he gripped the bench at his waist. The whole garage fell deadly silent until he spoke again, “You’ve all seen how I was when I lost her.” He pointed to Tsara, “That woman managed to give me some hope back.”
Most of the crowd turned to Tsara with thoughtful nods, mugs held high or a simple grimace. More like we were about to break up. Tsara fought the tears with a forced smile as she waved back. James is finally trying to be himself again.
James continued to receive temporary and permanent gifts. Tsara walked around the crowd to the right wall. Most of the outliers offered water, food or condolences as she made her way to the back office. She thanked them all, grateful for the support, as delayed as it was. Can’t be too hard on anyone here. I’m not the only one to lose someone important. I wonder how the families of the other scouts are doing.
Tsara quietly latched the door behind her. The voices outside were muffled, and she could hear herself think clearly. She set her recent gifts on top of her cleared off, stainless steel desk. So much support. Do we actually stand a chance? Or is this some kind of act of pitiful charity? A knock on the door interrupted her wandering thoughts. “Come on in.”
A man nearing her father’s age stuck his head in, “May I have a word?”
Tsara pulled out her chair to the man as she sat on her desk. “Have we met? You look familiar.”
The bald man with dark brown eyes smirked as he sat down. “Oh, you’ve probably seen me around Deborah a few times.” He offered a handshake, “Harris.”
Tsara narrowed her eyes with a wary smile as she shook his hand. “Ah. I believe you two started some bar brawls together.”
Harris smiled despite himself, “Sounds about right.” He tilted in his chair to retrieve a flask from his faded jeans. “You like whiskey?”
“No thanks. I’m a loyal customer of Misses Reed’s whine.”
“Let me guess… white.”
Tsara smirked a little, “You can’t guess in public?”
Harris chuckled as he pocketed the flask without a sip, “You might not be blood, but you’re definitely Deborah’s sister.”
Tsara felt her eyebrows and chin twitch.
Harris cringed slightly, “Sorry. It’s just hard to believe she’s, uh…” the middle-aged man glanced to the door and back to Tsara.
“I think I’ll take that sip.”
Harris smirked again as he tilted over for the flask once again. “I guess you’re not in the mood for an old war buddy story.”
Tsara took the flat chrome container and took a swig. Her tongue went numb as everything else started to burn. “Thanks.” She felt her left eye twitch and tear up. “You two, uh, got some history?”
Harris tried to hide a smile as he took a calm sip himself. “Well, let’s just say I’d like to offer my assistance on your scout.”
Tsara’s brows went up, “Really? Everyone else out there thinks we’re on a suicide mission.”
Harris shrugged, “I have a feeling the Red Bones aren’t the priority here. You and James think Deborah’s still out there. What better place to look?”
“Are you a detective or something?”
Tsara could see the deepest wrinkles in Harris’ face came from his widening smirk. “I’ll take that as a yes. Those inbred raiders have hardly ever been on Anthill’s radar. Now they kill two of our people, assuming that’s what James and Deborah saw. We kill a lot more of them in return and steal a tank with a tracking beacon.”
Tsara felt stunned. James only told the sheriff and scout commander about the beacon. He purposefully hid that face from everyone else to keep people from freaking out. “Are you the Scout Leader?”
He sighed, “Yes. Sorry I had to deny your request before. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how the council gets to dictate my missions.”
Tsara stared at the man, “You’re allowed to help, now?”
“I wasn’t authorized to send scouts on a route where we had already lost three of our best. I am allowed to volunteer.”
Tsara looked him up and down, “I guess I shouldn’t be so picky. Help is help.”
“Agreed.” Harris slapped his knees and pushed himself to stand, “I understand the tank is cozy for two. I’ll take my own truck and supplies. You won’t even know I’m there until we need each other.”
Tsara stood in return and smoothed out her pants, “You can ride with the other volunteers if you like.”
Harris looked slightly taken aback, “Others? How many?”
“Not sure. James said a few scouts felt guilty that he had to step up to do their job with Debbie. One of the few friends I have offered to come too.”
“Wow,” Harris crossed his arms with a look of mild surprise, “I bet the council has a lot of resources on the line here.”
“I know right? Sometimes I think they want some of the volunteers to fail.”
“So they get more real estate and toys?”
Tsara cringed, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
Harris shrugged, “You’re probably not wrong. On the flip side, when the little guy wins, the council doesn’t usually get a cut. I hear that’s how James netted the tank for this run.”
What? James never cuts the council in on anything if he can help it. That was one part of James that made him so popular with the ‘lower’ citizens of Anthill. Tsara felt Harris reading her hesitation, “Well, every bit helps.”
“Yep.” Harris stood in place for an extra moment before nodding, “Alright, I’ll let you get to it. Got a few last minute items to get ready myself.”
Tsara nodded back with a genuine smile, “Thanks Harris. When—if we find Debbie, maybe we could all go out for a drink sometime?”
He smiled back, “I promise not to start the brawl.”
Tsara grinned wider as Harris left the office.
Shit. Harris closed the door to the office and scanned the crowd. Six scouts. Only one or two that could give me trouble. Wonder if they’re all going. Glancing around at the civilians, Harris wasn’t too concerned.
One of the female scouts made eye contact and approached. Linda was about eye level with Harris’ chin, and only a few years younger. Her brown hair had started whitening just this year or so. “Harris, sir. I didn’t know you knew Tsara.”
“I didn’t. But I knew Deborah, so I’m volunteering.”
Linda’s light brown eyebrows rose, “Wow. I thought all you did was hunt leeches.”
“It’s definitely simpler. Tsara said she had a friend coming along. That you?”
“Yes sir. That trouble to the south can wait a while, right?”
“If you say so.”
Shit. Harris wasn’t looking forward to Linda getting in the way. He always thought of her as an older version of Deborah. I guess I’ll have to do this one quietly.