As the sun rose over the stream and Eaton’s truck, it illuminated the fog blanketing the water. Eaton awoke and glanced at Miki resting on the backseat. The dog’s chest rose and fell, just as it had each time Eaton had checked throughout his fitful sleep. He breathed a sigh of relief and went to open the truck door, but something in the fog stopped him.
Figures were moving on the edge of the stream. Eaton ducked as low as he could and peered over the dashboard. As he studied the figures, he noticed they were carrying something between them.
They went closer to the stream and disappeared into the fog. Eaton tensed up and was peering through the blinding white to get a better glimpse, when a vivid shape came out of the fog. Two people were paddling a canoe along the stream, absorbed in conversation with one another. The fog engulfed them and their voices died away.
Taking deep breaths, Eaton waited a few moments longer, then eased himself from the truck.
Farther along the tote road, he found a grey truck. He had heard from Sable of a boat launch in the area, but hadn’t given it much thought until that moment. The section of tote road that connected to the main road had been filled in with gravel to make access easier.
At the stream, he splashed water on his face in an attempt to wake up. When he found his thoughts wandering back to the night before, he turned to leave.
His gaze fell on a shape in the ferns. “No,” he said, hurrying forward. “No, no, no.”
Glancing anxiously about, he scooped up the crate.
“Good boy,” he managed, as Miki looked up when he slid the crate under the backseat. He wrapped a wool blanket around it to hide it from curious eyes.
His heart was pounding as he drove toward the main road. The fifty-three in black paint meant it was definitely one of his crates.
His nerves had calmed little by the time he reached his cabin. A boat launch, where anyone could have picked it up - a kid, even. His mind wandered to the little girl who had disappeared at the Grey House. He focused on the rhythm of crushing and stirring as he made another batch of the paste for Miki. His breathing had only just become even when his fridge turned on and he yelped. Miki looked over at him groggily from the couch.
“Sorry, boy,” said Eaton. “The paste is almost ready. Just relax.”
Miki closed his eyes and sunk into the couch cushions.
“Relax,” Eaton repeated quietly, more to himself than Miki.
Later that evening, Eaton was still finding it difficult to relax. Miki had made very little progress despite regular application of the paste. On top of that, the paste ingredients were depleting rapidly. Though he knew what he had to do, he put it off for another hour in hopes that Miki’s condition would somehow improve.
After an hour, Miki’s condition had not improved and certain essential paste ingredients had been used up entirely.
Eaton stowed a container in his backpack, then checked his wallet out of habit. The black card with rounded corners was still there. The size of his driver’s licence but with no photo, no name, just a line of silver symbols etched into the surface. It was seven years old but looked brand-new - simple plastic or paper hadn’t been good enough for Sable.
He nuzzled Miki’s fur and whispered: “I’ll be back soon, boy,” then slipped out of his cabin.
After walking for over an hour, Eaton arrived at his goal. Beyond the beam of his flashlight, dark and deserted, lay a garden. He stepped cautiously into the garden and kept an eye on a stand of trees in the distance. Hidden from view of the garden behind the trees sat a house, the owners of which he knew would not think favourably of his presence.
His skilled hands moved quickly over the plants and his container was soon full. Tucking it away in his backpack, he paused - voices were approaching the garden.
He slunk toward the forest and had only just reached it when a deep, commanding voice said: “C’mon, we don’t have all fucking night. If you hadn’t spilled the supply, we wouldn’t have to do this at all.”
“Leave her alone,” said a young man’s voice.
Three figures came into view, making a beeline for the Gathering Hut at the garden’s edge. From the towering figure in the centre, the booming voice spoke again.
“Don’t you start. I’ve listened to your whining long enough.” The figure shoved the young man forward. “Open the door.”
“I don’t have a key,” said the young man.
“Check the stone! Don’t you remember anything?”
Eaton knew what the young man would find - the new owners made sure to keep the Hut locked. The man in charge was apparently not aware of this. Eaton wondered if he had even noticed the house farther down the gravel lane. It was hard to miss when coming to the garden by vehicle, which was why Eaton always walked. As the man argued with the younger pair, Eaton snuck around the edge of the garden towards the path that would take him back to his cabin.
A loud crack split the air; the young man had been forced to kick open the door.
“Took ya long enough,” growled the man. He went inside and immediately roared with displeasure: “Empty!” The sound of cracking wood echoed loudly around the garden. Eaton saw a light flicker on in the direction of the house.
The pair huddled outside the Hut as the man's rage continued within. The young woman cowered beside the young man who said: “It’s alright.”
“Like hell it’s alright!” The man suddenly filled the doorway. With a lurch in his stomach, Eaton recognized him as a trade member from Canby, one he wouldn’t have thought fit to be a recruiter.
“We’ll find another Hut,” said the young man, his voice firm as he met the recruiter’s gaze.
“You think these places just appear out of thin air? There’s precious few of ‘em left, ‘specially after that other one got torched!” The recruiter kicked the doorframe. “Lousy recruits.” He stormed away.
The pair muttered quietly to one another in the man's absence.
“You two want another chance to screw up?” the recruiter asked, striding into view. He thrust pails into their hands. “I expect you remember what they looked like, before they were dumped out and ruined?” The pair nodded. “Good, now scram! And don’t come back until those are full!”
The recruits scampered away to the far side of the garden.
“Finally,” groaned the recruiter, as he leaned against the wall of the Hut. Flame came to life and he lit a cigarette, inhaling deeply.
Eaton wanted to get back to Miki. He knew how long filling those pails would take - he’d done it for Sable - and Miki didn’t have that kind of time. Hoping his plan would work, he stepped out of the forest and walked confidently toward the recruiter.
“Ho!” said the recruiter.
Eaton pulled out his wallet and passed him the black card. The man took a thoughtful drag as he studied it.
“Nice,” he said, handing it back. “You local?”
“No,” lied Eaton, “I’m just passing through. An old friend told me about this place. So, I thought I’d check it out. I wanted to craft a few on the road to restock the one’s I’ve been selling.”
“Always good to have a healthy supply,” said the recruiter, respectfully.
Eaton found the man just as two-faced as he had been in Canby, not that they had known one another. In Canby, Eaton had been a dishwasher at a trade-frequented pub, one of his three jobs. Scrubbing away behind the scenes, he’d only seen the recruiter when he had to help haul his unconscious body into a waiting trade car out back so he could be quietly driven away after a not-so-discreet drunken brawl.
Walking to the garden and kneeling in the closest row, Eaton picked some Crafting herbs.
The recruiter joined him. “So, you’re travelling?” he asked, after exhaling a cloud of smoke.
“I’ve done some myself, mostly to and from the coast, Canby runs,” he sighed. “I know you’re busy, but could you do with a couple of recruits? They turned eighteen six months ago - twins. Joined up about three months back.”
Eaton picked more herbs, moving into the next row, to buy himself time. He looked over to where the twins were filling their pails.
“I know it’s not ideal,” the recruiter continued nervously, “and maybe not even proper, for me to ask a senior member.”
“Do you doubt their training?” asked Eaton.
“I’ve done all I can to prepare them for the Grey House, but they still lack finesse. I think Leader would rather have - that he deserves - a pair with more natural talent. I’m sure even in your travels you’ve heard of the light-fingered Seller he has there and the trouble it’s caused in this area?”
“Yes,” said Eaton, bitterly, thinking of Sable's accusations. “I’ve heard.” He grew nervous. There was no Grey House. No Leader. He hastily stowed the Crafting herbs in the front pocket of his backpack and stood up. “Well, that should be the last of them,” he said, putting his bag on his shoulders and retrieving his flashlight.
The recruiter’s dark eyes widened in alarm.
“I can pay you to take them,” he said, following Eaton to the garden’s edge. Desperation filled his voice. “I’ll tell Leader they weren’t ready - that they got sent to a superior for retraining.”
Footsteps approached them and the recruiter cleared his throat. His tone was cold when he spoke to the twins.
“Done, already? I find that pretty damn hard to believe.”
The recruiter snatched the young woman’s pail from her, spilling some herbs in the process. Pulling her arms away, she tucked them hastily into her sweater. Eaton glimpsed her radiant blue eyes before she averted her gaze to the ground. She winced as the recruiter snarled: “Barely half full.”
The recruiter then examined the pail of the young man, who locked his blue eyes onto the recruiter and accepted the criticism without flinching.
When the recruiter had finished, the young man turned his piercing gaze onto Eaton.
“Who are you?” asked the young man.
There was fear in the recruiter’s eyes and voice as he said: “He’s a trade member, a superior, he deserves our respect.”
“Who are you?” the young man repeated, not sparing a glance at the recruiter.
“I’ll be taking over your training,” said Eaton, and the young man looked stunned.
The young woman recoiled as if Eaton had given her a bruise to join those he had seen on her beige skin before she had whisked her arms out of sight. Her brother’s shown vividly on his arms, the sleeves of his sweatshirt still rolled up from picking herbs. Eaton thought there might be one on his cheek, but it was hard to tell in the darkness. Their abuser, the recruiter, looked relieved.
“Go get your things,” he said, gratefully, lighting another cigarette. “You’re with him now.”
“I thought we were going to a House,” asked the young man, a hint of fear in his voice.
“Yes, well, things change,” said the recruiter, shooing them away. “Go!”
The twins hurried off.
“Thank you,” said the recruiter, as the pair disappeared.
“No trouble,” said Eaton, wondering if that would be true. He refused the money the recruiter was trying to cram into his fist. “Will you send Leader my regards? I won’t be in town long.”
“Of course! Anything,” said the recruiter.
After the twins returned, the recruiter was gone in a haze of smoke. The twins followed Eaton in the opposite direction. They had travelled down the path for not even five minutes when muffled shouts could be heard coming from the garden. He urged the twins on ahead of him and then he glanced back; red and blue flashing lights could be seen through the trees.