Before, the fort had seemed full of spirits. Now, he didn’t sense any. But then again, the deadlands had been strangely quiet of spirits as well.

Something had changed. Some event had allowed the spirits to start moving on again. Maybe it was the fort. Or something else. But the energy around him was changing.

Travis greeted him warmly when he entered the office. “Hey, Rune. Good to have you back.”

“Good to be here. Nerit, like your hair. Looks good.” He shook both their hands and Nerit looked pleased with the mention of her new hairstyle.

“What do you have to tell us, Rune? Lenore made it sound urgent.”

Travis sat on the edge of his desk as Nerit took a chair.

Rune remained standing and crossed his arms over his chest. “Well, it must have been my tone. I’ve been riding most of last night and today trying to get here. I need to warn you about something big.”

“I woke up last night. Got woke up last night. Jenni was there. She told me that I needed to come warn you. Needed to get moving.”

“Yeah,” Rune answered, then exhaled as he shrugged. “I see the dead.”

“How do you know she’s dead?” Nerit tilted her head.

“Because I saw her last night in the hunters blind where I was sleeping.

She was a spirit. She’s dead. And she told me that there is a whole mess of zombies heading this way. She told me to get my own ass moving. Sure enough, I saw a mess of zombies like I’ve never seen coming out of the valley.”

Travis looked at Nerit, his expression troubled, and obviously unsure of what to say.

“If you think I’m nuts for thinking I saw Jenni, I get that. But you gotta go check it out for yourselves. I saw some helicopters out there. Send one of them.”

“We need to check it out, Travis.” Nerit stood up slowly. “We have to see if what he is saying is accurate.”

“They’re heading straight for the fort. It will take them a lot longer to get here cause they’re going over every hill, through every forest, every pasture along the way. But they’re coming.” Rune would have felt resentful if not for the fact he was used to people doubting his abilities.

He probably shouldn’t have mentioned Jenni.

“We’ll send one of the helicopters and check it out,” Travis assured him.

“I don’t doubt it. The dead don’t seem to stay dead in this world anymore.” Travis smiled ruefully. “Let’s talk to Kevin, Nerit, and get this ball rolling.”

Satisfied, Rune finally let himself relax and fell into a nearby chair. With relief, he listened to Nerit calling for the helicopter pilot and someone named Kevin. He would tell them where to look, then find a hot plate of food, and a place to sleep.

Despite the terror of the night before and the coming dangers, Rune was glad to be back at the fort. It was like coming home.

Juan wasn’t real sure he could deal with this.

It was almost too much.

His stomach was clenched in a tight little ball and his heart felt fluttery.

Slowly, he lowered the tiny pink panties with the bows on them into the dresser drawer.

Jack lay on the bed next to the trash bags full of clothes and toys Juan was unpacking. The dog was trying to edge his way toward a stuffed bear.

Jack was doing his best innocent look while being very sneaky.

“My bear,” Juan’s new son said to the dog and grabbed the teddy bear.

Jack whined and looked as pathetic as possible.

The kids were moving into the suite he had shared with Jenni and Jason.

It had been a sad little home for him and Jason and the ever-faithful Jack, but now it was filled with laughter and loud little voices. Jason sat on the bed opposite him, smiling from beneath his thick bangs, as Margie talked his head off. Holly, the middle child, was busy stuffing her toys into the shelf in the side table, talking to each one as she transferred them to their new home.

“Troy, don’t be mean to Jack,” Margie scolded her brother, then went on talking to Jason in her rapid, little-girl speak.

I’m a father, Juan thought. I have four kids. And a dog. How did this happen?

With a wry smile he folded up some tiny jeans and placed them in the drawer. Troy leaned over and pressed his forehead to Jack’s brow and was given a sloppy lick in response. Troy laughed and crawled onto the bed and promptly tackled the dog. The tussle that ensued had Juan halfannoyed, half-amused as he tried to get the clothes tucked away.

A knock on the door startled all of them and Holly screamed, “I’ll get it!”

and ran out of the room.

A minute later, Travis walked in behind the little one, looking confused.

“Uh, you have kids,” Travis said to Juan and eyed his friend thoughtfully.

“Yes, yes, I do. I took over custody from Peggy,” Juan said with a sheepish, yet proud grin.

“Daddy One,” Troy said and pointed at Juan. He was now lying on the bed cuddling his teddy bear and using Jack as a pillow.

Travis chuckled and sat down on the edge of the bed. “Well, fatherhood suits you. You beat me to the punch.”

“Yeah,” Juan said with a grin. “Weird how that happened. But it’s good. It feels right.” He looked down at the little Spider-man shirt in his hands.

“Peggy did a good job trying to take care of them, but they feel like mine.

It felt like it was time to bring them home.”

Juan relaxed a little and tucked more clothes into a second drawer. “You have that look. That something is up.”

Travis sighed and rubbed his brow. “We need you at a meeting in thirty minutes. I didn’t realize you had such a huge life change and I hate to bug you right now, but this is urgent.”

“About the stinky people?” Holly asked as she leaned against the bed and played with a battered Barbie.

“I don’t like them,” Troy said in a soft voice.

“They killed a lot of people,” Travis said softly. “But we need Daddy One to come help us make plans to get rid of them.”

Margie was frowning and Juan leaned over and kissed the top of her head. She was the little worrier. “It’s okay. I’ll come back soon. Jason, can you watch them?”

“Sure,” Jason answered with a typical teenager shrug. “I can do that...Daddy One.” He smirked a little and Juan lightly tousled his hair.

“Make sure they get down to dinner and that they don’t feed Jack too many cookies.” He sounded like a Dad. Wow.

Jack gave him a reproachful look and Juan grinned.

“Dog farts in the middle of the night are no fun, Jack,” Juan informed the dog, who whined a little in response.

Kneeling down, Juan let himself be engulfed by little arms and kissed the kids one by one. Standing, he felt his throat tighten with emotion.

Jason stood up and gave him a quick, light hug, then flopped onto the bed next to Jack. “Don’t worry about the kiddies. I got it covered, Dad.”

Juan felt tears in his eyes. He joined Travis at the doorway into the room and together they walked across the living room.

Travis grinned and opened the door to the hall. “Ornery beyond the grave, ain’t she?”

Juan laughed as he headed down the hall. “That’s our Loca.”

The sun was still blazing hot outside when Katie drew the curtains and turned down the air conditioner. She felt tired after her morning walk and decided to lay down again. At eight months pregnant, she was too big to run anymore.

Laying down on the bed in the cool darkness, Katie tried not to think of the latest news from Rune and the recon mission Travis was sending.

Her eyes easily closed and sleep fell over her immediately.

She dreamed of her mother… “…Katie, of course you love your best friend. She is your best friend. Just because you love her doesn’t mean you have to kiss her. You’re just confused…”

“But, Mom, I’m in love with her. I need you to understand,” her teenage voice answered.

Agitated, she fought the dream away, not wanting to remember her mother’s unrelenting refusal to accept her for who she was. The dream wavered then Lydia sat at the kitchen table as her mother fussed with dinner.

“…and this is simply ridiculous. Women do not marry women,” her mother was saying to Lydia.

“Sit down, Katie,” Lydia’s sweet voice said as she patted the chair next to her.

Katie moved into the dream and took the seat next to her dead wife. Her dream mother continued to cook, filling the room with fragrant, delicious aromas.