Eaton was grateful when his cabin came into view. He ushered the twins inside. Miki looked up sleepily from the couch and Eaton hurried over, kneeling beside him.
“What are your names?” he asked the twins, as he checked on Miki.
The twins stood just inside the door and looked silently around the long narrow room - dining room, kitchenette, and living room combined.
Eaton stood, retrieved the herbs from his backpack, and gathered up the mortar and pestle from beside the sink.
“You can sit, if you’d like,” he said, motioning to the small dining table.
The twins exchanged glances and continued to hover by the door.
They watched him as he mixed Miki’s paste, as he stoked the fire, as he sat gingerly on the couch beside Miki and massaged the paste into his short grey fur.
When he was rinsing out the paste bowl at the sink, two black cards with silver symbols were silently placed on the counter. Though not what Eaton had intended, he washed his hands and then picked them up. He recognized the newer format, an extra line of etchings beneath the first, and was relieved to see the recruiter was telling the truth - they were indeed of age.
In the warm light of the cabin, he could see the twins more clearly. They both had vivid blue eyes, as well as curly brown hair, though the young man’s hair went to his shoulders and the young woman’s went partway down her back. Each of them also had a few bruises, in various stages of healing, on their light beige skin.
“And what are your real names?” asked Eaton, as he handed the cards back.
“No other recruiter’s asked us,” said the young man, returning to defiance in his fear. “Why d’you care?”
“Because, back when this organization was started, we learned people’s names. Call me old-fashioned.”
“What’s yours, then?” asked the young man.
“Eaton.” Saying it felt strange as it had been over three years since anyone had asked.
“Zev,” said the young man.
“Kolina,” said the young woman, blushing.
“And this is Miki,” said Eaton, motioning toward the couch where Miki was sleeping. He tried to push away the memories that kept threatening to surface: the factory, Canby, the Grey House, her. “Are you hungry?” he asked.
Zev and Kolina exchanged anxious glances.
Eaton got out bread, peanut butter, jam and milk, cups, plates and silverware, and set them on the table.
The twins crept to the table and sat down.
“Eat your fill,” he said, and went to locate sheets in the armoire. They were his first guests.
When the beds in the loft were made, Eaton went to check on Miki. He had only made it halfway to the couch when there was a knock on the door.
With a glance outside, his stomach turned unpleasantly.
“You two eat as much as you want,” he said kindly to the twins, though they jumped. “I’ll just be a moment.” He hoped his voice concealed the nervousness he felt. “The bathroom’s just down the hall and, if you get tired, everything’s ready for you in the loft.”
When he could not stall any longer, he slipped outside and shut the door.
Eaton did not look at the pair of men standing in his dooryard, especially not at the tall muscular man with short grey hair who was leaning, arms folded, against his truck.
“Quite a racket you and your friends caused at that old trade garden,” said Ashton’s familiar voice, as he approached. Oriel remained at Eaton’s truck. “The owners called us to put an end to your little party.”
“I was only there for Miki, he got injured,” said Eaton, with a nervous glance toward the shadows at the forest's edge. He wondered if Oriel and Ashton had brought other Melters.
“I’m not surprised, with that explosion at the Grey House!” exclaimed Ashton.
“You know about that?” asked Eaton, meeting Ashton’s brown eyes.
There was a resigned look on Ashton's dark brown face. “Just ‘cuz that lowlife recruiter doesn’t have a clue Sable’s gone, doesn’t mean we’re oblivious,” said Ashton. “Though it’s obvious just looking at you that something happened - your face, neck, arms, say it all. How many did you Craft to get the lines? Before they turned silver and, well, rather permanent, I mean.”
“The House was an accident, self-defence,” said Eaton. He did not wish to discuss the lines. Images from the explosion, the argument, the girl fading to mist, came back and he pushed them aside.
“You sure?” asked Oriel, coming to stand beside Ashton. He met Eaton’s gaze, iridescent amber eyes alert. His face that of a former Crafter, each shimmering line on his beige skin a reminder of every product tested. “Sable didn’t strike me as the type to send Sellers he wanted to keep close by off to find new followers,” said Oriel, with a glance at the cabin. “But I guess, with your boss dead, you can do what you want.”
Eaton felt his cheeks reddening. “He threatened me and Miki. Then he had an orb, one like his father’s. It was dangerous - I told him - but he didn’t listen. I fused it with a mirror, threw it, then I ran.”
Oriel and Ashton looked at one another, then back at Eaton.
“Could I see the card?” asked Oriel.
Eaton took out his wallet, fumbled with the black card, and handed it over.
Through the cabin windows, he saw the twins leaving the table in deep conversation with one another. Ashton followed his gaze.
“They’re of age,” said Eaton, nervously. “But it wasn’t like I planned it. He was abusing them. He’s just like he was in Canby! And they were heading for the Grey House, or another House once the recruiter learned about Sable. Those twins, they deserve better.”
“Better?” said Ashton. “You narrowly avoided facing the trade’s wrath for Sable’s death, and tonight you almost got arrested. I’m starting to think you didn't deserve what Oriel did for you, giving the Grey House tin to Indigo instead of leaving it for your cronies.”
“I…you…,” stammered Eaton. “Really?”
“Yeah,” said Oriel, handing the card back to him.
“Thank you, Oriel, the tin….”
“You’re welcome,” said Oriel. “Just know she’s worried about you. And if you really want to help those kids, there are ways to do so even if you’re not in the trade.”
“I’ve tried living without it,” said Eaton, “I can’t. It’s imposs-”
“No, it isn’t,” said Ashton. “But it’s not easy. Just, whatever you do, don’t go back to Canby. I heard about that shack you rented, what you did to make a living. You can do better than that.”
Eaton held more firmly to the card in his hand, it was cold, lifeless.
“It’s your choice though,” said Ashton. “Who am I to stop you?” he sounded bitter. When Eaton met his gaze, he saw a fierceness unlike anything he remembered.
“Goodnight, Eaton,” said Oriel, and he turned to go. “Use my card wisely.”
Inky blackness swallowed the pair. Eaton knew they would tell her what happened. Fear churned within him as he went back into his cabin.
The twins' murmurings from the loft stopped when he closed the door, but started again as he tended the fire. He hoped the loft wasn’t too dusty for them, the old iron beds not too uncomfortable, the mattresses not too saggy.
Eaton went to move Miki to the bed and was pleasantly surprised to find the dog agile enough to leap from the couch and walk to the bedroom himself. When he scratched Miki’s ears and heard appreciative “ro-ro-rowls”, he could almost forget how much had changed.
The memory from the mirror bobbed to the surface of his mind as his body succumbed to sleep. He thought of Sable’s death, and how it felt no less horrible as self-defence. Then the faces of Ashton, Oriel, and Dara spun to the front of his thoughts. And, lastly, hers.
When Eaton awoke the next morning, he found powdery silver residue on his pillow. When he went to brush it off, he only made it worse. With horror, he realized the source of the powder was his skin - specifically, the lines on it. He found the same powder in Miki's fur. He cleaned it out of Miki's fur and then took a shower. Eaton hoped to come up with an idea about what to do while he showered, but nothing came to mind. As he got dressed afterwards, the pillow case sat mocking him. By the time he left the room, the bedding had been removed. Just because he didn't have a solution, that didn't mean he had to be ridiculed by an inanimate object.
In the kitchen, Kolina and Zev were at the table playing an old wooden checkers game. Eaton recognized the board as the one his father had made him for his eighth birthday - he’d forgotten he still had it.
“Is this okay?” asked Kolina, timidly, motioning to the game. “We found it in the loft.”
“Yeah, fine with me.” Eaton joined them at the table and started eating his breakfast.
“Would you like tea?” asked Kolina. “I made some.”
“Sure,” he said.
Kolina tiptoed toward the kettle.
Eaton watched the twins playing as he ate. He felt them studying him in turn, a pattern that made for a distracted checkers game. He considered the plan that had been formulating at the back of his mind since the explosion.
“Delicious tea,” he said. “Thank you.”
“No problem,” said Kolina, startled.
“So, I’ve been thinking,” he said, causing Kolina to look even more frightened and Zev to look worried. “It’s nothing bad,” he said, in response to their looks. “But I’ll need your help. I’ve decided to move.”
The twins exchanged glances.
“I don’t have much to pack, and all the furniture came with the place anyway, so I just need to put everything in the truck and tidy up.”
“Where are you going?” asked Zev.
“I figured we could all go west.”
“We can come?” asked Kolina, eyes wide.
“Yes, of course you can come,” said Eaton. He would never abandon another human being. Oriel, Dara, and Ashton had known he would have taken them along. It had been their choice to stay with Sable, just as it had been Eaton's choice to return.
As Eaton had told the twins, there was very little to pack. Three years had not been much time to acquire anything, especially with the frequent Gathering expeditions during the first two and a half years. He packed up his clothes, towels, food, toiletries, Miki’s stuff, and a few other odds and ends. He let the twins stow the checkers game with their belongings.
Miki seemed to be doing much better as he moved about the cabin. Eaton had expected at least another day of recovery. The paste had never worked so fast before. He took along the herbs and paste just in case.
Kolina spent the morning washing linens. She had been so subtle that Eaton only realized they were clean when he went to move Miki’s dog food from the small storage closet and found them in a neatly folded stack on the dryer. He thanked her, she jumped, blushed, and then held the door open for him as he took the dog food out to the truck.
Zev helped Eaton organize the truck. By the early afternoon they were finished. The trio enjoyed a quick lunch before heading off.
Eaton gave his cabin key and last rent to his landlord who, Eaton was surprised to find, was sorry to see him go.
“You've fixed up the place nicely, it’s a shame you’ve gotta leave, but,” the man eyed Eaton’s silver lines and nodded, “ya gotta go where the work is.”
When Eaton pulled into a gas station, Zev volunteered to pump before the truck had even stopped.
While Zev pumped the gas, Eaton checked on Miki. Kolina was petting him and he was leaning against her. Eaton was grateful he had not seen any more of the silver powder.
“Ro-rowl,” said Miki, when he noticed Eaton watching. Kolina jumped.
“Glad you’re feeling better, boy,” said Eaton, as Kolina’s arm darted from view. “It’s okay, you can keep petting him.”
Kolina murmured indistinctly and turned to rummage in her bag.
The moments passed awkwardly until Zev returned and told him the amount.
When it was time to go inside, Eaton hesitated. He eyed the gas station and was partway through putting up his hood when he stopped himself. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and got out of the truck.
Inside, there were two other customers and the owner. He got in line and the owner’s gaze found him immediately. He knew how the owner felt about the trade and figured he wouldn’t go unnoticed, but the attention on him seemed particularly keen. He reminded himself why he was keeping his hood down and tried to ignore the discomfort.
In a few short moments, Eaton was alone with the owner. Never once did the owner’s gaze leave him, even as he calculated his change. When Eaton turned to go, the owner cleared his throat.
“I know you were there last night,” said the owner, “at my house.”
Eaton’s hand hovered over the door handle.
“You got lucky, you know, with that pair of Melters asking to let you get away with those kids. But if you come back, you’ll go the same way as your friend. Got it?”
Eaton turned his head slightly toward the owner. “Yes,” he said.
He walked numbly across the parking lot as everything sunk in. He hadn't known the gas station owner and the garden's new owner were one and the same. He looked at the twins chatting in the back seat. Was Ashton right? Did they deserve better than him?
As Eaton drove along a deserted stretch of road with a sea of trees on either side, he glanced into the backseat. Zev dozed against the window. Kolina slept with her head on his shoulder and her left arm stretched across Miki. The dog’s breathing was even as he slept - he had recovered.
Though Eaton turned his attention back to the road, he did not forget what he had seen - confirmation of what he had only guessed at before. On the left arm that rested on Miki and had so tenderly caressed his fur, beneath the bruises left by the recruiter, was a certain arrangement of silver-brown freckles. Kolina had been trying to hide them. He hoped to prove to her she didn’t have to. Not wearing his hood had been a small gesture, but it was a start.
In a village nestled in a leafy valley, the trio found a motel to spend the night. The motel was set in a grove of maple trees and run by a spirited young couple. The couple even let Miki stay in the room, though pets technically weren’t allowed. “He’s cute and looks super well-behaved!” said one of the women, as the other handed them their key.
Eaton let the twins pick where they went for supper. Their choice had quaint tables out front, but the night was windy so the trio went indoors. The server’s gaze travelled from Eaton's silver lines to the twins' bruised faces. Eaton expected to be declined service, but then they were led to a booth near one of the windows.
Kolina and Zev anxiously studied the menu. Eaton found what he wanted relatively quickly, excited to see it on a menu farther east than he had anticipated.
“Number nineteen’s pretty good,” he said, trying to lighten the mood.
“Really?” asked Kolina.
“What’s nye…nee…the second word?” asked Zev.
“It’s a type of cabbage,” he said. “And there’s a savoury sauce, other vegetables, and chicken. That’s what the last word means - chicken.”
When the server returned, all three of them ordered the same thing.
“That was good,” said Zev, on the way back to their motel. “But what language was the menu in?”
“One of the mountain languages,” said Eaton.
“Oh,” said Zev. “Is that something you learn when you've been in the trade for a while?”
“Not anymore,” said Eaton. “But I can teach you if you'd like, it's my first language.”
Full and tired, the twins still had energy for one more game of checkers before turning in. Miki “ro-rowled” happily before entering dreamland. The sun was gone from the sky, the quartet was much farther west than when the day had begun, and they were together. They were safe.