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Romance Drama

Hugh's foot slipped and he dangled from the rope ladder, heart pounding in his throat as he glanced down at the ground a good ten feet below. The weight of the binoculars he was carrying caused the strap to cut into his neck as they bounced against his back, thrown around by the sudden movement. Hugh's legs scrambled to gain purchase, but with a big rolled-up poster held in one arm, the other one struggled to lift his bodyweight enough for his attempts to be succesful.

"Give me that!" came a voice from above.

Olga was looking down at him through the hatch of the tree house, with a sort of cold detachment in her clear blue eyes. Hugh tried his best to push the poster up enough for her to grab and she yanked it away from him before disappearing inside. He swallowed dry and with his now free hand managed to get back on the ladder. He took a moment to catch his breath and bring the binoculars to the front, trailing his fingertips along the painful indent the strap had left in his skin.

"What are you doing? Come on!"

He almost lost his footing again at Olga's sudden return, her hand shoved in his face. The impatience in her tone was made more menacing by a heavy, Russian-sounding accent, the vowels so closed off and the consonants so hard everything felt like an order.

Hugh let her pull him up enough for his other hand to grasp the floorboards of the tree house. As he struggled to raise himself up, Olga went back to the other side of the room where Alex had uncurled half the poster, and was placing stones in the corners to keep the map of Missouri as flat as possible.

"Glad you could make it," Alex said, throwing him an amused look while pushing his glasses up his nose.

Hugh looked around as he took the binoculars off. "Thanks for having me." It was little more than an awed whisper.

Olga rolled her eyes and he dropped his gaze, biting his lip as he fished around in his brain, but found nothing else to say. Alex laughed.

"Olga did mention you seem to have some kind of social anxiety, but don't worry!" He patted his belly. "We've got the Fat, the Russian, and now the Shy! See, you fit right in!"

"Ukranian!" Olga barked, but it had the feeling of an old, pointless argument.

Alex waved away her protest. "It doesn't have the same ring."

"My country's independence is not a pop tune, it doesn't need to 'ring'."

"You're from Mississippi, what are you talking about?"

"Kievan sounds cool, you could use that."

Both pairs of eyes turned to Hugh and he froze in place. Palms flat on his joined knees, bare feet tucked behind him and his back straight, he fidgeted in the dragging silence.

"I'm from Lutsk," was the eventual protest, and Alex snorted as if he'd expected it.

"No, you're not. Your father is. You're from Jackson." He motioned for Hugh to get closer and he obeyed, shuffling on his knees and then resuming the same position. "I like you a lot already, Hugh."

Hugh felt his face heat up. "I... thanks, I guess."

"We need someone who's not self-absorbed. Princess Romanov here is too stubborn to know what a team is, and I don't have the patience for it. We need a soul, if you're up for that."

Hugh looked up at Olga, leaning against a wall with her arms crossed, unfazed by the vague insults.

"I'll do my best."

Alex beamed and patted his shoulder. "Good. Now let's get started."

Olga approached them and sat cross-eagled at one corner of the poster, and Hugh could have sworn she did so with a muttered "finally" under her breath. She grabbed a packet from a bowl of snacks and opened it in one swift motion, laying it in her lap.

"What do you know about Mary?" Alex asked.

"Only what I heard from the news and some bits from Olga, but she wouldn't tell me more."

"He's just moved from Seattle," was the bored explanation, given around a mouthful of salted peanuts.

"I see," Alex's voice was sharp as he wiped drops of spit and food from the map. "You wanted to scare the new kid, wasn't working in words so you thought you'd get him here to see for himself."

Olga shrugged, rolling back on her tailbone so the peanut she'd just thrown would land in her mouth.

"That's not true! I said I wanted to see it, she didn't mean--"

"Alex is right," she said without looking at Hugh, picking the missed snack up from the floor and throwing it out the window. "Don't assume what people mean, just do what you want or you'll end up hurt."

"Don't advise people according to your own demons, Olga. He was being kind to you." Alex rummaged in his pocket and came up with a set of keys, fumbling with the various tools hanging among them, eventually getting hold of a laser pointer. "We've been expecting Mary for a few days now. As you probably gathered from the news, conditions were very favourable and there have been a few outbreaks already. She was born twenty minutes ago, when we texted you." The red dot moved across the map, vaguely following Interstate 44 on it's way north-east. "None of her siblings have made it up here yet, but from the way the sky looks she can't be far."

Hugh glanced at the grey fuzzyness outside. In the distance, willowy trees, sturdy under normal circumstances and decades-old, were bent under the same force that was now making the tree house creak, perched as it was among the branches of a fat oak. Hugh gulped as what had been a faint, musical whistle intensified, hissing through the gaps between the wooden boards.

"I think I see her."

Olga was at the window in a heartbeat, her long blond hair scattered and whipping around like each strand had its own life. She scanned the landscape then turned to Hugh with the rage of a scorned child written all over her face, and he froze at the sight as he was about to look through the binoculars.

"Gimme that!"

She snatched the instrument away from him and he sat still for a second, taken aback both by her violence and the sudden Southern spin in her vowels. He turned to Alex, who rolled his eyes, laying a few more stones on the map as the corners were lifting off the floor. "Do you mind?" he asked, holding up a red marker.

Hugh shook his head and Alex took the cap off in one bite, spitting it into the snack bowl. "This is where she started, and this is where she's now." He plotted a course on the map, reading details from an app on his phone, radar images constantly evolving on the small screen. "It's going to be very close, so if you want to leave--"

"Is it dangerous?"

"Technically, yes. Practically, no." Hugh's face must have been a picture of confusion because Alex chuckled. "We're not on its path, but we're not too far from it. For someone who's never been in this situation before, it can be pretty frightening." He covered Hugh's hand with his in a reassuring gesture that had the shier boy blush. "But for us, who have been doing this for a while, it's just exciting. If you feel like you can trust our experience, you're more than welcome to stay."

He stood up and went to join Olga at the window, holding out his hand to her in silence. She glanced at him and made a point of ignoring the unspoken request, but he didn't waiver. The pique with which she eventually thrust the binoculars in his palm and the huff that accompanied the gesture had Hugh smile.

He had been surprised when he had found tall and beautiful Olga wait for him at the school gate the day before. In the morning, the teacher had introduced him to the class, making a point of stressing what a nasty surprise the season seemed to have in store for him so soon after he'd moved. He had not noticed Olga at all as he had made a bee line for a vacant desk that was in the back of the room, ignoring half a dozen other ones.

When he'd seen her after school, teasing him for not knowing what the teacher had meant and mentioning this tree house where she and "Alex" could show him if he had the guts for it, he'd been intrigued. More than that, he'd been grateful. Not even a week in town, and he already seemed to have made a friend.

Only now, the Eastern European beauty that had befriended him turned out to be a Southern American fun seeker with identity issues, and what he had assumed to be her boyfriend a stats-obsessed nerd whose interest in him seemed more than friendly.

As Hugh wormed his way between them after Alex had called him over, he wondered what his place was in a world where the sky could turn into such a wild, overwhelming blanket of grey waves, rippling in the fleeting light of thin, purple tentacles whose booming rumble came delayed. A fast-spinning funnel was carrying all that power across the land, and water was hitting the tree house with so much noise Hugh wondered if it had time to melt at all in its descent.

He forced all the worries about the world, his new home and these two people he'd just met out of his mind as he took the binoculars Alex was holding out for him and passed them to Olga instead.

She took them with a slow, measured motion and a smile, which Hugh beamed right back as she proceeded to ignore his existence in favour of eagerly watching the show nature was providing. A hand made its way across his back, grasping his shoulder to steer him towards that same spectacle, and he wondered again what his place was. Resting his head on Alex's shoulder in the deafening quiet was all he could come up with, and as the three of them waited for the passage to end, everything seemed to fit.

"Welcome to the Midwest," Alex whispered, and it was enough.

September 18, 2020 16:39

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