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Authors: Mercedes Lackey,Cody Martin

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #General, #Alternative History

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BOOK: Silence - eARC
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“Wait!”

Dylan stopped, only half turning to look at her.

“Um, thanks. For helping me find my way. To here. The diner.”

“Think nothing of it.” With that, he started to walk off again, closer to the docks.

She went up the three steps to the door, which had another one of those hanging cardboard OPEN signs on it. She pushed the door open.

There was a row of small booths on the street side, and a lunch counter. There was one tired-looking man in a faded plaid shirt and dungarees at the far end of the counter nursing a cup of coffee. He didn’t even look up when the bell (another bell!) over the door jangled at her entrance. She didn’t see a waitress, so she figured it was a seat yourself kind of setup.

She couldn’t help herself; she leaned against the window, watching as Dylan walked down the street. Before he was at the end of the block, a police cruiser had rounded the corner and stopped next to him. An older police officer wearing a wide-brimmed ranger hat stepped out of the car; he looked pissed to Staci. He walked straight up to Dylan, and it looked like he was talking to the younger man angrily, pushing his finger into Dylan’s chest several times to punctuate his words. Dylan looked…calm, but not at
all
happy. He didn’t talk back to the police officer until the very end. Whatever he had said stopped the officer cold; the older man got back into his cruiser, calling something over his shoulder before slamming the door and driving away.

“What can I do for you?”

The voice startled her and she whipped her head around to see a girl about her age, or maybe a little older, in an honest-to-god waitress outfit, standing there with a pad and pencil in her hand. “Oh! Uh—” She fumbled for the menu. “Is it too late for breakfast?”

“It’s never too late for breakfast. Don’t order the sausage, it’s gross. Or the fried potatoes, they’re grease-bombs.” The girl grinned at her. Staci blindly ordered what her dad would have called “a good solid breakfast”—toast, scrambled eggs, bacon, juice. As she finished, on impulse, she was going to ask the girl about Dylan, but when she glanced out the window again, he was gone.

When the girl brought her food, the man who had been nursing that cup of coffee had left, leaving them alone in the diner. “Can you take a minute to talk?” Staci asked, a little desperately. “I just moved here—and—”

“Sure thing.” The waitress actually sat down across from her in the little booth. “Nobody cares what I do as long as there’s no one here. My name’s Beth Phillips. What’s yours?”

“Staci. Staci Kerry.” She crunched down a piece of bacon. “I just moved here. I’m staying with my mom.”

“Okay, so you’re Paula Kerry’s daughter.” The waitress—Beth—nodded knowingly.
Oh God, does everyone in town know about my mother?
But Beth’s expression was one of sympathy, rather than superiority. “I bet this place feels medieval to you.”

“I can’t find anything!” Staci almost-wailed. “Where’s the McDonald’s? The Starbucks?”

“Forget that,” Beth replied, flatly. “This town is stuck in 1950. No big chains, no franchises, nothing but stuff that was started by somebody’s granddad and is being run by the grandkid. This diner’s probably the newest thing in town.” Reflexively, Staci reached for her cell and pulled it out.

Still no bars.

“Oh, and if you want any reception, you’ll have to go to Makeout Hill.” She pointed through the window over Staci’s shoulder; Staci turned in her seat and strained her neck a little to see that Beth was pointing to a bluff high above the town that overlooked the ocean. “It’s a long walk. You’d better get a car. Or a motorcycle or at least a bike, or make friends with somebody that’s got a car.”

There hadn’t been a car parked out in front of the house when Staci had left…which probably meant her mom didn’t own one.

“Beth!”
came a muffled shout from the back of the diner.

“Finish your breakfast before it gets cold, I’ll be right back,” the girl said, and stood up. “Coming, Ray!”

In a kind of numb haze, Staci finished the food, nibbling on the last piece of toast when Beth returned, carrying a pad of paper, a separate piece of whitish paper and a red pen. “Here, this is a map of the town,” she said, spreading it out between them. It turned out to be an old placemat, printed with a map and the words
Welcome to Silence
in one corner. “Here’s the diner,” she said, marking it with a little red dot. “Here’s the pizza joint.” That got marked with a triangle. “Here’s the drive-in, they open at four.” She drew a tiny thing like a burger. “Here’s the movie theater, here’s the grocery store, this is the bookstore that doesn’t kick kids out for browsing, this is the five-and-dime and they get decent magazines in anyway.” These were marked with a movie reel, a bag, a book and a circle with the number five in it. “Everything else that matters is already printed on this, and it’s not as if anything’s changed in the forty years since they made these placemats.”

Staci stared at her in shock. “Forty years?”

Beth shrugged. “What can I say? We only just started to get to the end of the print run last year. Nothing ever changes here. Okay, look. Here’s the lumber mill, and here’s the cannery, those are where most people around here work. Here’s the school; grade school and high school right next to each other, so all anyone ever says is ‘the school.’ Here’s the Yacht Club—like you and me will ever get invited there!” She snorted. “Here’s the Hunt Club, which is mostly a bunch of old guys too cheap to go to a bar who got an old building where they can drink their own booze and smoke cigars without their wives around. This is the okay church—sometimes they do stuff for kids that doesn’t suck. This is the not-okay church—they hate gays, hate feminists, hate blacks, hate Mexicans, hate—you get the picture. This is the boathouse where the stoners hang out.” Marked with a little curl that could have been smoke. “Skaters hang at the high school parking lot. Jocks hang out here—the Municipal Gym. It’s just a gym, no classes, no pool or anything.”

Staci felt in shock, but Beth wasn’t done. “This is where your ma works.” She drew a tiny glass about a block from the pizza joint. “Anything else is in the phone book, and you should be able to figure out where it is on this map.”

“Internet?” Staci said faintly.

Beth shook her head. “Dialup,” she replied. “Fifty-two baud if you are really lucky, mostly it’s not quite 24-baud. Except maybe the rich kids, I dunno, I’m not nearly important enough for any of them to talk to me. The Goths drive to the next town and the FreeSprings Mall, and use the free wifi there. There’s no cable here, and I dunno why. I know for cell we’re in some sort of dead spot; every year or two some cell company gets all excited about a whole town where no other cell company has come in, and they put up a tower and get frustrated because it won’t work. Maybe the same goes for cable. I know when you use the phone around here, there’s always a kind of weird background hum. The UFO crazies love it. Maybe that’s why the Blackthornes have their place out of town on Gray Oak Hill; it might be out of the dead zone.”

“The Blackthornes?” Maybe she ought to try and get to know these people…if they had net…

“Yacht Club people. More like
the
Yacht Club people. Ultra-rich. Own the cannery
and
the mill.”

Well, so much for that idea. Nobody in the local silver-spoon contingent was going to have
anything
to do with the kid whose mom was the messed-up waitress for the local dive.

“Anyway, that’s Silence. School doesn’t have classes in the summer, so you’ll have to hook up with the kids that aren’t working at the drive-in or something. Try to find a crowd to hang with, otherwise you’ll die of boredom.” Beth nodded as if she had experience of just that. “There’s not a lot of jobs around here unless you want to work at the cannery or the mill or on a lobster boat. That’s what the teachers all do in the summer, and most of the kids who are trying to make some money for a car. That’s the only seasonal work. Not like tourists would ever come
here.

“So, there’s Goths, skaters, and jocks, rich kids, and that’s all?” Staci asked, feeling a little desperate.

Make that a
lot
desperate.

“Well, there’s some nerds. It’s really
hard
to be a geek in a town where the net is dialup. They mostly stick to themselves, for obvious reasons. They mostly hang out at the bookstore.” Beth put her finger on where it was on the map she had drawn. “The Blackthornes don’t own that, but it’s one of the few places they don’t. They do own the drugstore. And the movie theater. And I think the drive-in. And the bar where your ma works, and the fisherman’s bar and the lumberworker’s bar.”

“They own the whole town?” Staci said, aghast. “That’s—like,
medieval!”

“Told you.” Beth leaned over the table, dropping her voice. “They’ve been here
forever.
Sean Blackthorne is a senior at the high school. They’ve got, like
prehistoric
money, they all look like movie stars and live like movie stars too. There’s all
kinds
of stories about them, where they get their money, because the cannery and the mill can’t be taking in as much as they spend. Some people say that they’re in the mob, some people say they’re a family of super spies or something equally stupid. I think it’s simpler than that—I think they were smuggling booze in the Twenties and drugs after that. The stoners around here never seem to have any problem getting their stash, and the cops never hassle the stoners, which would make sense if the Blackthornes are the suppliers, since they pretty much own the cops.”

Beth stopped to catch her breath, her eyes wide and a small smirk creasing her lips. “The little bit of excitement this burg has is the gossip about the Blackthornes; sorry about the run-on.”

“Naw, it’s okay,” Staci replied, thinking to herself that the “mysterious” source of the Blackthorne money probably was no more mysterious than that it was all coming out of Wall Street. Having grown up mostly in New York City, and overhearing Dad’s conversations with clients, she had at least a passing knowledge of stocks and investing; it seemed like magic for other people sometimes, and that always confused her. The only “mystery” about the Blackthornes to her would be—why live in
this
backwater burg, and why Sean Blackthorne wasn’t going to a fancy prep school.

Then again, she’d glimpsed
crazy
money in New York, and maybe what kept the Blackthornes here was that here they were the local kings and could hold court in the Yacht Club, whereas in New York they’d be “just another millionaire” and couldn’t get a table at Nobu.

Or maybe they really are running drugs, and are smart enough to stay where they have the cops paid off.

“Beth!” This time the owner of the voice came out from the kitchen and stood behind the counter, wiping his hands on his apron. “I need you to get the prep work done for the morning!”

“Yessir, Ray,” Beth sighed. She stood up. “Nice to meet you, but it’s back to the salt mines for now. See you later, Staci.”

Beth vanished into the back, and since she was done with breakfast, Staci decided she might as well leave. She climbed the diner steps down to the street and stood there with Beth’s map in her hands, looking up and down the street.

It was pretty obvious that Mom didn’t have it together enough to keep groceries in the house.
If she couldn’t manage to put stuff in the fridge when she
knew
I was coming…
And at the rate she was meeting people—or rather, not—there was no way she was going to make friends with anyone who had a car.

But there was a store down the hill with a sign with a bicycle on it. And Dad had given her a debit card.

And Beth had said that if she wanted to get any cell reception at all, she was going to have to go up to Makeout Hill. Plus…groceries.

She’d been thinking she’d be able to use that card to get herself stuff in cute little boutiques, and she
hated
to think about wasting that money on something as
blah
as a bike. A bike…
ugh.
But if she didn’t…

She glanced up at Makeout Hill. It was a long way away. She thought about the yawning emptiness of the fridge. And she headed for the bike shop.

* * *

A half hour later, she was pedaling away from the grocery on a new bike with a cart, like some sort of hemp-wearing hippy or a second-wave hipster. She hated it…but at least she could get groceries once a week, then take it off and leave it at home. And at least now there would be
something
to eat in the house. It sucked that it was uphill all the way from the store, though, and she hadn’t thought about how heavy all that stuff was going to be when she was buying it.

I am gonna give Dad the guilt trip of a lifetime over this.

She was actually sweaty and panting by the time she reached the house. Mom was already gone, and all but one slice of the pizza she’d bought had been eaten.
I guess it was a good thing I did the grocery thing then…
She put the stuff away, snarfed a snack cake, and went out to the living room to start hauling the last of her things upstairs.

Chapter Three

Now that she was doing more exploring of the house, it was clear that none of the furniture was Mom’s. It was all old…nothing seemed to be newer than the 1950s and a lot was like, Victorian old. Most of that was big, heavy pieces, too big to get out the door, like huge dressers and sideboards, and big beds. None of it had been taken care of well, most of it had been painted and repainted and repainted again, and where there were chips you could see six or seven layers of paint.

The bedroom she had picked out for herself had a couple of those big, heavy dressers, a wardrobe instead of a closet, and a white-painted iron bedstead, the kind that “shabby chic” people would kill to get their hands on. But it had a set of saggy bedsprings instead of a proper set of box springs, and the mattress was flat and hard. The cover was faded to a sort of unpleasant uniform yellow-gray. She still had aches from trying to sleep on it last night.

Maybe there’s something better in the attic.
She knew better than to ask Mom to get a new mattress. It would be like asking a butterfly to do it. If she even remembered, which was doubtful, she’d just say there wasn’t enough money, and why pay for something the landlord had already supplied?

There was an actual set of stairs up to the attic, and a kind of hinged, drop-down door to it. She listened hard before opening it, thinking about mice. And rats. And bugs.…As a New Yorker she was no stranger to cockroaches, but you could usually get rid of the things by fumigating the place every so often. She rather doubted anyone had
ever
fumigated this house, and who knew what kind of scary bugs or spiders were lurking up there?

On the other hand, if you had to get up high to get any cell phone coverage, maybe the attic was high enough she might be able to get a couple of bars. That thought finally made her push the door up.

During her unpacking, she had discovered some things missing—which explained why Brenda had been so eager to “help.” All the jewelry she had inherited from her grandma was gone—three rings, a pair of diamond earrings and a diamond necklace. They were all that Staci had to remember her by. Only the cocktail ring was worth much money, but they were all
hers;
Gramma had wanted her to have them, to keep and to cherish, and Brenda had no right to any of it! A couple of her sexier dresses were gone too, including the cute beaded minidress she’d worn for New Year’s Eve. And she knew darned well she and Brenda were the same size.

So if she could get some cell reception, bringing that up ought to be enough to get Dad to cough up something like a new mattress, and should be good enough for an increase on the allowance on that debit card.

The attic was
thick
with dust. It was pretty obvious that not only had Mom never been up here, neither had anyone else for a long time. The two windows, one at either end of the peaked roof, were lightly coated with cobwebs, but there didn’t seem to be any active spiders or other bugs up here. She went to the nearer window to see if it could be opened.

After she beat the cobwebs away with what looked like a piece of old curtain, she did manage to pry it up. Gingerly, she eased herself out and perched on the window ledge, holding her phone up into the air, and got…one bar. Which was a heck of a lot better than no bars.

Dad was hopeless when it came to texts, so she opened her email app and furiously thumbed out a long, long email, beginning with the discovery that her stuff was missing. She didn’t outright accuse Brenda, but she did say “the only person that ‘helped me’ was Brenda.” Then she told him what the waitress had said about no cable, no Internet and no cell phone except on the hill—though she didn’t call it “Makeout Hill”—and told him how Mom didn’t have a car, she’d had to get groceries herself (“Just like always”), and how hard it had been to sleep on a mattress “from 1800.” She told him she needed more money on her card (“if I’m going to have to keep buying groceries”) a new mattress, and a motor scooter. Her first draft came off way too…mean. She revised it a couple of times; her dad could be sensitive, and the last thing she needed was to get him upset…only to have Brenda there to comfort him. She put in a lot more about how Gramma had specifically put that jewelry in the will for
her
to have and no one else. When she thought it sounded reasonable, she tried sending it.

It took almost fifteen tries, and her waving the cell frantically over her head, before it finally went out. She sighed, stuck her phone back in her pocket, and took a look at the neighborhood before she climbed back in. It wasn’t much better from this vantage, and she still couldn’t see any people. But maybe they were all at work.

Then she climbed back inside the attic, though she left the window open for now. It looked out over the backyard—which was a weedy wilderness—but if she found anything up here that was useful, it would probably be a better idea to pitch it out the window than to try hauling it down the stairs. Anything up here would probably be full of pounds of dust. And maybe dead bugs.

There were some locked trunks she was kind of itching to break into, just because they were locked. They certainly weren’t her mother’s, and she had to find some way to entertain herself. Maybe another day. There were some open ones that were full of chewed-on cloth that smelled like old mice. Ew. She guessed the cloth was old blankets, linens and curtains, but there was nothing there she was even remotely interested in trying to use.

Finally, in the far corner, she found a featherbed wrapped up in yellowed plastic. She only knew it was a featherbed because she’d slept on one before, when she and Dad had gone up to Vermont to ski and stayed at a little bed and breakfast place instead of one of the lodges. That trip hadn’t gone well so far as the skiing was concerned; there hadn’t been enough snow and all of the beginner slopes were closed, so they’d gone back home after one night. The featherbed had been all right, though. Had to be more comfortable than that antique mattress, anyway.

After an initial struggle, she managed to stuff it out the window; it rolled down the roof and pitched into the unmowed grass, sending up a cloud of dust. She wondered if Mom was expecting her to do the mowing, the way Mom always seemed to expect her to do most of the housework. Well, unless a fairy turned up and materialized a brand new mower,
that
was just not going to happen.

Even if a mower
did
materialize…
I’m gonna have to be pretty bored before I go mowing a lawn for fun. But in this town, that might not be such a ridiculous possibility.

She plodded down the stairs, after making sure her phone was still in her pocket. There had been something that looked like a wire tennis racquet in one corner; that would do for beating the hell out of the featherbed. She managed to get the thing draped over the fence and beat on it until her arms were sore, then dragged it back inside just as it was starting to get dark. You couldn’t say “the sun was setting,” since you couldn’t see the sun through all the overcast.

When the bed was done—and it was somewhat more comfortable than just the mattress alone had been—she realized that she was starving and more tired than she ever remembered being in her entire life. It took an act of will to go down to the kitchen and heat up a frozen dinner. There hadn’t been any brands she recognized in the store, but at least it wasn’t gross and it didn’t smell like dog food.

She had just about enough energy left to climb into bed and watch one of the DVDs she had brought before turning out the light. She didn’t even hear when her mom came in.

* * *

There was no sign of Mom in the morning, other than her purse on the kitchen table and more small bills and coins in the jar. From experience, Staci knew that the highest probability was that her mom was drunk-asleep and would sleep until at least 5 P.M., since this was Sunday and a bar wouldn’t be open. Hopefully, she was sleeping alone…the times Mom had brought guys home, they had all been creepy, and Staci had never stayed around when they were there any more than she had to. And if those guys spent more than one night,
she
always locked her bedroom door.

I hope this door has a lock.

She looked at the stuff in the fridge, but…
Hell. I am not making my own breakfast.
Especially since she wanted pancakes and they were a pain to make. She grabbed another handful of money from the jar, locked the house up behind herself, and got on her bike.

The nice waitress—Beth, that was her name—wasn’t at the diner when she got there; it was an old lady this time, who wasn’t
mean,
just tired-looking, and didn’t seem even remotely curious about anything other than getting Staci’s order. So she ate in a hurry, left an okay tip, and got back on her bike. Time to find out if the story about cell reception on Makeout Hill was a fairy tale.

It was a long, hard ride. The grade wasn’t too steep, but the road itself was gravel once you left the pavement of the main streets, and it switched back and forth a lot. If you had wings, it probably wasn’t all that big a trip, but by the road it must have been two miles, at least. She was too busy peddling up to the top—or stopping, getting off, and walking for a while when her legs got tired—to pay any attention to the view. It wasn’t until she made it to the top that she caught her breath and looked around.

There was a huge old tree at the edge of what turned out to be a pretty steep drop right down to a little bit of beach at the edge of the water. The grass was all worn away between the road and the tree, proving that people did a lot of parking up here. Then the gravel road continued on into some woods. Staci didn’t think she’d ever bother exploring that way. It wasn’t that the woods were spooky, because they weren’t. They just looked tired, and uninteresting. Pretty much the same as the town.

On the road side of the bluff, you got a good view of the entire town, which didn’t look quite as shabby from here, although it certainly didn’t look any more inviting than the woods. Staci dug the placemat-map out of her pocket and compared it to the view, and it was pretty clear the map had been drawn from this vantage. She picked out all the “landmarks” Beth had drawn for her, then, holding her breath, she pulled out her phone.

Three bars! And the phone started beeping as the texts came in.

She sat down in the roots of the tree—it wasn’t bad, not uncomfortable at all—and began answering them. There was something close to the sensation of being a little high, like she’d had a couple of puffs of grass, as she
finally
got connected back to the real world. It was so euphoric that she took her time answering each one, even though under any other circumstance, she’d have done them with a “reply all.”

She could have done just that, since she answered all of her friends pretty much the same way.
It’s
horrible
here. The town is nasty and gross, stuck in 1950 and not in a good way. There’s no cell, no net, and no cable. The only way I can get cell is to get to the top of this hill and it’s like five miles to get there. Mom is worse than ever, I don’t think I’ve seen her sober for a minute. She offered me
beer
for
breakfast!
Then she decided to throw any pretense she had at pride right out the window.
Is there any way I could move in with you?
she asked. Or at least, she asked all the girls. There wasn’t a single guy she knew that she’d be willing to shack up with, even if his parents were okay with that.

The reception was only 2G, which was like, Dark Ages, but she did manage to get Facebook to load, and she posted pretty much the same thing to her Facebook page, only without the begging to move in with someone. She didn’t want Dad to see that. Not yet, anyway.

Then, finally, she got email to load, although it was
agonizingly
slow. It was pretty much the same as the texts, only longer. This time she did a group reply, which was just a longer and more elaborate version of her text replies. Since it was her friends…she got a little bitter about Brenda’s sticky fingers. Several of them had their own problems with a parent’s “new wife” or “new husband,” so she figured she’d get some sympathy. She also got pretty bitter about Mom.
It looks like she hasn’t cleaned since she moved in, so guess who she expects to be Cinderella?

Then the return texts started to come in. All of her friends were supportive, commiserating with her and agreeing about how unfair it all was. But whenever it came to the question of if she could move in with any of them…most of them were silent. A few actually replied…maybe out of guilt. All of them had excuses for why it wouldn’t work out, and how it wasn’t possible right then. They all had plans for the summer, and their folks wouldn’t go for it…and so on.

Finally, after getting text after discouraging text, she got to an email from Dad.

And guilt practically
dripped
from it.

Honey…Brenda and I went out last night, and while I’m no fashion expert, it wasn’t hard to notice she was wearing your gram’s ring and your New Year’s dress. I waited until we got home, but after your email, I had to confront her on it. She said she’d taken them because they weren’t “age appropriate” for you. I don’t know, I suppose she could be right, but you’re right too, that doesn’t excuse stealing. I didn’t say anything about the dress, but I couldn’t let the jewelry thing pass, and I got it all back from her and locked it in the safe. And I’m going to make it up to you, because that just was rude and wrong of her, and there’s no excuse. I’m sorry your mom is so…irresponsible. I’ll be putting what I consider to be good child support on your debit card; you’ll have to manage your own finances, but you’re smart, and I know you can do that. If you get sick or hurt, you’re still on my insurance, so that’s okay. If you need anything more than that, get an email to me and I’ll take care of it. I’ve already ordered you a mattress and bedding.

Well…it wasn’t anything like the
You can come home now, we’ll work something out
that she had been hoping for. But it was better than nothing.

We’ll see about a motor scooter when you prove to me you have a valid driver’s license—not a learner’s permit, a real license.

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