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My pens have gotten me through some times–happy, sad, moody, angry. Through the years, keeping a diary or journal, as well as writing fiction, has kept me semi-sane.

Here on Penz-O-Paula you’ll find blog posts, short stories and such by me. You’ll also find writing by others that I want to share with you.

Not everything here is sunshine and roses, but I don’t know of anyplace that is, do you?

I hope you’ll visit often, leave comments and follow me!

Water Damage

I pressed my forehead against the window

And stared at the vista below me

The Grand Canyon

It’s a miracle of erosion

The ultimate evidence of the effects of water damage

I remember thinking that Chinese water torture

Seemed a frivolous waste of time

Drip, drip, drop–what was the big deal?

But, just look at that canyon!

Miles of previously level terrain

Drip, drip, drop–it’s a big damn deal

When it’s your own forehead, I’d venture

Imagine being subjected to it so long

That it eroded your skin, muscles and skull

Until a full cup of water

Could be poured into the trench before it overflowed

Drip, drip, drop… drip, drip, drop…

It’s rather much what living with you

Has done to my heart

My poem was previously published on my vocal.media profile.

The Museum

Sometimes, amid all the rubble and refuse, we find a little treasure.

On this day, my daughter Penny and I had separated from the group and gone over to the next street. There, we found the old city museum, mostly intact. We mounted the crumbling stairs to the front entrance. The doors were standing open, hinges broken.

There was a huge foyer with a floor of cracked and broken tiles. Displays were, fortunately, not kept near the entrance, and I felt a surge of hope as we moved further inside that we would find things well-preserved.

Mosty, that hope proved futile. The place was a disaster area. I sighed and tried to hide my disappointment.

Perhaps there would be something useful…

“What’s that, Daddy?”

I looked back at Penny. She was standing in front of an arched niche. An ancient piece of pottery was neatly displayed there, miraculously unharmed in the midst of the destruction around us. There was a chunk missing from the handle, but I figured it had started out that way. You know, before The End.

“Where I grew up, we called that an olla,” I tolded her.

She peered up at me quizzically. “An oh yeah?” She looked dubious.

I felt the smirk on my face and quickly raised a hand and pretended to wipe away sweat from my upper lip. “An oy yuh,” I said, carefully enunciating. “It’s Spanish. It means a clay pot of some sort or other.”

“You speak Spanish?” Penny asked. “Like Jorge’s mom?”

“Not as well as Jorge’s mom, no.”

“Maybe I can learn it, too.”

“Why not?” I agreed.

“Am I Spanish, Daddy?”

“Part.” I answered shortly. It seemed like a ridiculous question, in light of everything.

In the camps, there is real diversity with acceptance that never happened in the world before The End. The only thing that matters now is whether or not you make a good contribution to the well-being of the group as a whole.

Penny gave me a frown that informed me that her thinking was–as usual–ahead of mine. “Well, who cares?” she said. “Who knows if there are even countries anymore.”

See what I mean?

“What countries are you talking about?” I asked, curious. The children have teachers, but I hadn’t taken much interest in whether they were learning world geography or civics.

“Oh, Mexico, Japan, places like that.” Penny dismissed the subject, adding, “If they’re around, nobody cares about anything but clean water and food and a safe place to sleep. So, whatever.”

I couldn’t argue with that, so I kept my mouth shut.

“Did I ever go to the museum before?” Penny asked, running a hand over the side of the olla.

“Not with me,” I admitted. During her early childhood, I spent most of my time deployed to one location or other. “Maybe with Mamma.”

“I don’t remember.” She reached out to remove the artifact, then pulled her hands back. “Is it good for anything?” she asked.

“Yes.”

I recalled for her my years living on the Rez. We would draw water from the mountain streams and fill ollas in the kitchens with it. Sediment would sink to the bottom, and we could dip out cups full of cool, clean water to drink. “The clay it is made of keeps the water cold and gives it a sweet taste,” I told her.

“It’s not very big,” Penny observed, giving it a critical once-over. “We’d have to fill it a dozen times a day if we kept it in the big kitchen.”

“If you want it,” I said, “you could keep it in your room for yourself and your sisters.”

“That seems selfish.”

Penny is so much older than nine. My chest swelled with pride.

“Perhaps we could take it back with us and fill it with dried flowers for the table in the main room,” I suggested. “Sometimes a little decoration is a nice touch, and everyone could enjoy it.”

Penny gave me an impulsive hug. “That’s a great idea, Daddy!”

I relished the hug–Penny is usually standoffish with me.

I carefully lifted the olla from its display niche and set it in the small wagon Penny had brought along. “What else do you think we can find in a museum?” I asked.

Penny shrugged. “Dinosaur bones? We can’t use those for anything.”

I laughed. She was right about that.

“Do you think there was somewhere to eat in here?” Penny moved further into the big, filthy space and slowly moved in a circle, surveying. “Maybe there’s food.”

I nodded. Practicle Penny.

And then she saw it–

“Daddy! A book store!”

She was off and running before I could tell her to be careful.

Oh well. We can look for food later.

Penny loves books.

The Last Vacation

Jenna was startled by the sound of her heel striking pavement. She’d been walking in sand for miles, and had been paying no attention to the changes in the terrain. She’d been softly singing an old tune from some long-gone animated Christmas show: Something about getting home by putting one foot in front of the other foot. “Soon you’ll be walking here or there or whatever the hell and what’s this from and why in God’s name won’t it get out of my head?” She had visions of something, possibly Claymation. Was it Santa Claus? Who knew?

When she lifted her head and really got a look at where she was, she gasped.

It was a train station!

Well, she though, the weird day gets even weirder…

***

She and Ken had started their day enjoying their first vacation in years. They’d woken up in a lovely hotel room, dressed and gone down to the beach with a picnic breakfast.

Strawberries in cream and fresh bagels, boiled eggs and link sausages, orange juice and coffee–all packed into a vintage basket, cozily tucked in with a checkered tablecloth, courtesy of the hotel. It was perfection.

It was short lived.

They had finished their meal and were sharing a lingering, coffee-flavored kiss when the ground beneath them suddenly heaved and bucked, violently pulling them apart and flinging them in opposite directions.

“Jenna!” Ken yelled, regaining his feet and starting to run toward her. Another shock hit the beach, and ocean water roared up and over him in a massive wave as Jenna was crawling back toward him.

“Ken! Ken!” Jenna struggled to her feet. She’d been thrown back just enough so the water didn’t reach her the first time, but the next wave took her down, and then thrust her further up the beach before receding.

When she woke up, she was surrounded by nothing but sand.

Ken was gone.

The hotel was gone. The beach was gone.

The ocean was gone.

“What the hell?” Jenna sat up, pulling her knees to her chest. She looked around. Disbelief turned her face into a reasonable facsimile of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, especially once she clasped her face in her hands. It was certainly for the best that she couldn’t see herself just then.

“Ken! Ken? KEN!!” Her screams went unheeded. Even the pesky gulls were gone.

“Am I dead?” Jenna asked aloud in spite of her solitude. “Is this hell?”

That was unreasonable; Jenna was a good person. In fact, she was a very good person. She was a person who ran back into the store if she realized she’d accidentally lifted the pen she’d signed her check with. She had even, on occasion, run in and returned pens that actually belonged to her–just in case.

She fed stray cats and sponsored hungry children in Appalachia.

Her infrequent lies amounted to, “No, your butt doesn’t look too big.”

She couldn’t be in HELL!

Less hopeful, she called again: “Ken? Ken! Where are you?”

Regaining her feet, she was hit by sudden waves of nausea. Unable to quell them, she vomited copious amounts of seawater along with her breakfast. “Ugh!”

She stood, head hanging, hands on her knees.

The sun blazed, stingingly reminding her that she was dangerously exposed to those damaging UV rays. Dressed in a tank top and shorts over her swimsuit and a pair of flimsy sandals, she wasn’t going to fare well in this great sandy expanse.

With the ocean gone and the sun directly overhead, she had no way to choose a direction. She didn’t think it wise to wait for the sun to start its western descent before moving; she needed to find shelter as soon as possible.

She looked around, desperately hoping for a sign of anything familiar. Just when she was certain there was nothing there to find, she saw the corner of the checkered tablecloth sticking up out of the sand.

She moved toward it, fearful and hopeful at the same time. Fearful that she might find Ken; hopeful that the cloth might keep her from burning up like a roasted turkey. She was afraid she would never find Ken, but she certainly didn’t want to discover him buried. She tugged and pulled until the tablecloth broke free, flinging sand everywhere. And something else—she saw it fly off to her right, glinting in the sunlight.

Absently pulling the cloth over her shoulders, she tracked the object.

There it was, half buried in sand—Ken’s pocket watch. He’d removed it from the pocket of his shorts just before he pulled her into that last kiss, saying he couldn’t get it wet when they went in for a swim. It had belonged to his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather, and was a treasured possession.

Generations of rail men; Ken’s family had followed the railroad from east to west and back again; first building, and then engineering. The reduction of passenger train services had been a thorn in his side—they traveled by train whenever possible. Ken’s route was cargo, but he longed to someday blow the whistle of a passenger train.

“End of the line,” Jenna muttered, gently lifting the watch by its chain. She shook sand from it and held it up to her ear. It was still ticking.

It told her it was just past noon. The sudden upheaval on the beach had been nearly four hours earlier.

“It’s a wonder I’m not a crispy critter,” Jenna whispered, and carefully wound the watch. She tucked it into the bra cup of her swimsuit, near her heart.

She turned in a circle, and then she did it again. Where did everything go? Where were the people? Where was the hotel? Where was the damned ocean?

“Which way do I go?” she whined.

Did it even matter? She could discern her direction when the sun started to sink, but with no ocean, would it matter if she went west or east? North or south? All she could see was sand; everywhere, sand!

Wait! On her third revolution, she noticed what looked like a hill in the far distance.

Something to aim for, at least, she decided. She started walking.

***

As she got closer, over what had certainly been several hours, she could see that it looked a child’s version of a sandcastle, more of a hill with bumps and ridges. She’d kept her eyes on it, and on the sun, determining that she was moving east; maybe more or less northeast.

It made no sense. She could not have been flung that far by an ocean wave—she should have been within sight of water long before her foot struck the pavement.

She looked around, wondering how she could have missed seeing signs that this was near. She realized that the tracks leading to the place came from underground, from a tunnel off to her left, and only the last few yards leading to the station were visible.

She must have been experiencing quite the case of tunnel vision, she thought. The station was very nearly right in front of her, only slightly to the left of where she’d focused her sights. Still, she’d been looking at that sandcastle shape through tears, an effervescent shimmer of brown and gold shades not so different from the color of the station, so she shrugged it off and decided not to be too hard on herself.    

The station looked old; wooden planks, shutters, latched doors. She shook her head when she realized she could see the back end of a train on the other side, reflecting it must have come from the southwest.

But, no. The track ended there in a roundabout, and although the train was facing north, there was no way it could have gotten there from a southern track that did not exist. Jenna whispered, “It must have backed in.”

The pavement she’d stepped onto wasn’t pavement at all; sand colored flat stones had been laid on this side, and she could see that the doors on this side had been locked with sliding bolts and padlocks.

She turned and walked along the side of the long building until she reached the end. She walked around the front and mounted a few steps to the board walkway. The wood creaked in some spots as she made her way to the first door.

She hesitated, then forced herself to turn and take a good look at the train.

It seemed impossible. This old, faded station and wood-and-iron track was no place for this train. It shouldn’t have ever gotten here—the track gauge was all wrong for an electric subway train. How in hell did it stay on the tracks?

She slid her hand into the front of her tank and fingered the pocket watch. “Oh, God, Kenny,” she breathed, “what is happening?” She leaned against the door and slid down until she was seated with her knees against her chest. She bowed her head and lightly thumped it against one knee. “I really think I’m dead…and this…is…hell.”

“I don’t believe so.”

The man’s voice startled a cry out of her, and she jumped to her feet.

She hadn’t noticed when the door was pushed open from within. She stood in a defensive posture, fists clenched and raised to waist-height, feet apart, knees bent. Her heart was doing triple duty; she could hear her pulse-beat behind her ears, which quickened her breath.

In the doorway stood a tall young man with a purple mohawk buzz-cut and an eyebrow ring that looked like a trident, a stout older man clutching a hardback book to his chest and a petite brunette with aquamarine, badly bloodshot and teary eyes and skin so pale it looked like skim milk.

The woman spoke. “No need for that.” She indicated Jenna’s raised fists. “We saw you through the glass.”

“Where’d you come from?” Mohawk demanded.

Jenna focused on him. He could have been anywhere between sixteen and twenty-five, but she’d bet he wasn’t old enough for a legal pint of beer. “I don’t even know how to answer that,” she admitted.

The older man snorted. “There’s a lot of that going around,” he said. “You might as well come in. Have some water.”

As soon as the word “water” was out of his mouth, Jenna was moving. She’d used the tablecloth like an umbrella, but knew she’d still gotten sunburned, and she was so thirsty she was near collapse.

“I’m Rebecca,” the brunette told her.

Mohawk took Jenna by the arm, steadying her as they all backed up into the station. “Justin,” he said.

“Jenna.” She cleared her throat. “My name is Jenna.”

“Bart,” the stout man added, tucking his book under one arm and placing a hand under her elbow.

The air inside was cool, and Jenna moved into it gratefully. It was dark in there, but that was probably because she’d been in bright sunlight all day.

“Jenna,” Rebecca said, “welcome to the end of the line.”

“I looked and looked, but I couldn’t find Ken.” Jenna started to cry.

The latch clicked as the door slipped shut behind them.

This is a continuation of The Last Stop on the Line. July 2020 was my last visit to this station. I’m still left wondering what’s inside.

For more great stories inspired by Writers Unite! prompts and more, visit their page here: Writers Unite!

Rain, Rain, Go Away

Another rainy morning and I was getting weary of the gloom. It’s wasn’t normal for the area, and it was messing with my mood. I live in the desert for a reason–lots of sunshine and light.

“Feels like we’re back in Seattle,” I groaned.

Ben glanced at me, then looked back at the road. The windshield wipers were having a hard time of it–they’d been so old and dry that they split and after a few swipes they just flapped and smeared across the glass. “Yeah,” he agreed. “It’s been a while since we’ve had to drive in this crap. I’d rather have snow.”

“Bite your tongue!” I cried. “Don’t give it any ideas.”

“Give what?”

“I don’t know–the weather imp?”

Ben laughed good-naturedly, but didn’t look away from the road ahead. People in the desert don’t know how to drive in the rain, especially a rain coming down in sheets like this. “The hardpan won’t be able to suck this up,” he remarked. “Another few minutes, and we’re in for some flooding.”

I leaned closer to the glass, trying to make out the landscape through the water. “Are we going to make it home?”

“No.” He made an abrupt turn off the main street and headed uphill. We hadn’t gone far past the intersection when we heard the rush of water in the street behind us. He stopped in the middle of the road, and we looked back in time to see a pickup being washed down the street. It crashed into a power pole, and the car swimming through the steam behind it crashed into its back end.

“My God, Benny!” My heart was pounding, and I felt my eyes bulging. “We were just–“

Ben put the car in gear and kept driving for higher ground. We were both aware that water could swoop down on us at any second–there was nothing to stop it. Ben was banking on the sewer system–which had obviously overflowed behind us–not filling above us until we were past it.

He made another turn. Water was overflowing sewer drains now, and the street we had just pulled off quickly became a waterfall.

“The cars down there are going to be underwater,” I sobbed.

“So is the house,” Ben added.

“Still want to argue about climate change?”

Ben looked like he might get pissed, but then his features softened and he pulled me close for a quick hug. Then he patted my head and drove carefully down the road to the next intersection.

It, too, was a waterfall. The flood water roared past, pushing its way into the roads on either side and into the yards of the homes on each corner. Ben put the car in reverse and backed up a few hundred feet to avoid getting caught in the current.

We were under a canopy of tree branches, but they weren’t enough to keep us from being pounded by the deluge. I prayed they wouldn’t break off and crash down on us. Ben must have decided the risk was real, and he backed up a little more.

Now all I had to worry about was whether the whole tree might fall. “What’ll we do?” I asked.

“Wait.” Ben shrugged. “It can’t rain forever.”

“That’s what Noah said.”

Hidden Places (Part 12)

Mary called it a fairy circle. That doesn’t make me feel very good about fairies…

Penny didn’t want me to go with her dad, but there’s just something about the chance for a new adventure that pulled me into this situation. It’s why I went along with Penny in the first place, instead of talking her out of going out of bounds.

We thought—when we found the little town—that it could be a good thing. That’s why we got Da involved instead of just going exploring on our own. Well, that reason and the fact that if we’d stayed gone any longer the first day, someone would surely have come looking for us.

When we found the letters and paperwork that mentioned oil derricks and a refinery, we were so excited. Gasoline goes bad—did you know that? There are a couple of guys in the compound who know enough about refining that they’ve kept our vehicles running, but the chance to make our own fuel was an exciting prospect.

But when we found the derricks, it wasn’t as cool as we’d expected. The valley where they’re located feels creepy. Penny says it feels haunted, and that’s as good a word as any. Everything looks well kept and it appears the wells will be functional, but none of us liked being down there. I know I felt like we were being watched, and it was a most unpleasant sensation.

Da, Vance and Dale came early with a few others and Da and I made use of the little house while the rest of them went into the valley. We had coffee and breakfast ready when they all came back—all of them looking pale and shaken up, which was no more than we’d expected.

But George and Buck, our refinery guys, seemed excited in spite of that. “We could make this into a working resource if we can find the refining station,” Buck told Da. “Personally, I think we ought to head across the valley and take that road between the foothills. I don’t think it’s up here anywhere.”

“Mort? What do you think?” Dale asked.

“I think he’s probably right,” Da replied. “Lots of trees up behind that church—I don’t see anyone putting a refinery back there.”

Vance said, “Could be the road leads into another clear valley. It’s hard to say from here.”

Dale shrugged. “We’ve only got a few people with us today. Penny’s on her way with some kids to help Mort with any salvage at the warehouse—that looks promising. It’s quite a trek across the valley.”

“You want to go up behind the church, don’t you, Gramps?” I asked. Wherever we went, I had promised Penny I’d stick with Vance.

“I think we should start with that,” Dale replied. “If we’re going across the valley, we’re going to need a couple more ATVs and extra fuel. I don’t feel prepared for it today.”

“Doesn’t it seem a little crazy to anyone but me that the refinery isn’t right there with the rigs and stuff?” I asked.

“It was probably done separately as a safety precaution,” George replied.

I shrugged. I thought Buck was right—no one was going to build a refinery anywhere beyond the little church. I didn’t think the road was wide enough to accommodate a tank truck, for one thing, and now that we’ve been up there, I know I’m right about that much, at least.

We’d been in one group until the road forked, and then we split up, Dale with one group and Vance leading ours.

We dead-ended at the fairy circle, a circular copse of misshapen trees that looked like they were guarding something in the center.

The minute I saw it, I felt my skin pucker into gooseflesh all over my body, and the hairs on the back of my neck came to attention in a way I had only ever read about in books. “My hair stood on end” is how I’ve heard it, but I never knew it could be a real thing until now.

“Mr. Vance? What do you think this place is?”

Vance looked pale, which is saying something—his skin is a darker shade of tan, because he’s a Native American. Pale, he looks a little grey. I didn’t like it; he’s a tough guy, not afraid of much.

“Dangerous,” he answered in a strange, rumbling voice. I didn’t like that, either.

We agreed it was time to leave, and that’s when Mary called it a fairy circle, and I agreed with Zach that fairies shouldn’t scare the daylights out of us.

If it was a fairy circle, I’m going to have to re-think Tinkerbelle. Penny read the original Peter Pan books to Dawn—to all of us—when we were younger. It bothered Dawn that Tinkerbelle had a wicked side, but I think now…maybe her nice side wasn’t her dominant personality feature.

Okay, I’m getting a little crazy here. I’m still freaked out, I guess.

As we were leaving, Mary suddenly wanted to stay. More than that, she wanted to go into that circle of trees. It was like something was pulling at her; it scared Vance. He made us back up instead of facing away, and when we got back to our bikes we went back the way we’d come.

Where the road forks is where we stopped, and the plan was to meet up with Dale’s group when they came back. Since I had the time, I decided to use Dawn’s art materials to make a couple of “Keep Out” signs.

I had two up when Mary suddenly announced that she was going back. I grabbed her, but she was literally dragging me in her wake when Zach took her other arm. She yanked and thrashed and cried, “No! No! We have to go back and see them!”

Vance took action—thank goodness. He’s a big man, all muscle, and he just tossed Mary over his shoulder and told us to run.

We left the bikes. I don’t care; someone else can get mine—I am not going back up there, because just before we started running, I heard a voice call out, “Come to me. Come to me.”

I’m not insane. I heard it.

I don’t know how Vance kept hold of Mary. She kicked and thrashed and screamed until we were nearly back at the church. When she stopped, it was like she didn’t even remember what had happened.

Damn.

Well, I remember. And I told Vance and Zach, too, without even thinking about whether they’d think I’d lost my mind.

I left Vance, Zach and Mary sitting in the church. I went out the front and sat on the steps just in time to see Da and Barry coming on their bikes.

Penny. She sent them. I knew it even before they told me. I was thinking of her all the time we were running down the road. And when we were within sight of the church, I thought, “Oh, God, Penny, I am so scared! Please let me see you again!”

We’re connected. She feels things. I’ve always known it; this is just proof.

Vance heard the motors and came outside with Zach and Mary.

It was clear that she’d been crying hard; her eyes were red and puffy and her cheeks were blotchy. Zach’s skin looked like milk, he was so pale. They’ve been talking about leaving the compound for a while. This might be the final straw for them. They were two of the older children captured at the base, and everything about life in the compound reminds them of all they lost and suffered at the hands of their captors.

Zach’s grim eyes met mine, and I could see a truth in them. If the group pursued this venture, he and Mary were gone.

I looked out across the town and could see Penny, Ash and Danny hurrying up the road.

Vance whispered, “She knows things. But try to compose yourself, son.” He gave my shoulder a friendly pat.

“Yes, Mr. Vance.” In spite of wanting nothing more than to run to Penny, and maybe cry in her arms, it wasn’t lost on me that Vance had called me son. That hasn’t happened for a long time. It kind of warmed my heart.

Instead of running, I fast-walked down to meet my love.

No Ferry Today (Part 2)

They’d eaten surprisingly well, Margo thought, for people who were worried. And that they were worried was not in doubt.

Barnaby Jenkins and his wife Lou Ann had come in about the time the burgers had gone from raw to medium rare. Their twin toddlers, Pam and Paul, had gone straight to Junior and demanded to be way-yifted (weight-lifted, Lou Ann translated.) Margo tried to admire the sight without blatantly staring with her jaw agape, and notice Monique doing much the same.

She started preparing some macaroni and cheese, sure the twins wouldn’t be too interested in burgers. Just as the water started to boil, Bill Wray, Elvin Irwin and Jessica Barlow showed up. Bill’s usual scowl seemed three times as deep, and he growled “Afternoon,” to the assembly in a rumbling baritone.

Monique hurried to slap a few more burgers on the grill, then lowered a big basketful of potatoes into the fryer. She glanced at Jessica, who looked like she might burst into tears at any second, and wondered what she saw in Bill. To her, he resembled a heavily bearded Neanderthal, and when he spoke that imagery wasn’t dispelled. He was, in fact, a kindly soul, but his brutal appearance made Monique nervous.

She comforted herself by looking back at Junior, who was good-naturedly lifting the twins hanging off his forearms.

“Okay, Jess?” Margo asked. She stirred macaroni into the boiling water.

“Not really. What’s going on?”

“No idea. We can’t call out.”

Jessica glanced at the snow-filled television screen and tightened her lips, huffing out breath from her nose and blinking rapidly. “I can’t reach my mom,” she said. “She wanted me to come home last night, but I decided to…to miss the last ferry.”

Bill patted her shoulder. “Sorry, babe,” he growled.

Jessica snatched at the hand on her shoulder and squeezed. “No need, darling’. I’m just—”

“Worried. Course you are.”

Elvin sat at the bar. “Any coffee made?” he asked. “No worries if not—I can drink a soda.”

Margo grinned at him. “What?” she teased. “Me, not make coffee? You want cream and sugar today, or is it a straight black day for you?”

“It’s supposed to be, but I’m taking the cream and sugar. Thanks.”

Soon enough, they’d pushed tables together and sat facing one another as they ate—with gusto. Margo had been surprised by her appetite.

They agreed that they were only a sampling of those left on the island—there were over fifty year-round residents, and it was unheard of that so many might have gone to the mainland the last evening. It wasn’t even a weekend.

Vivian and Jessica decided they’d go around checking on people. Melvin and Junior would go out on the skiff with Devin. “I want to go with you,” Margo, said. “I have to check on Maggie. Jules is out of town; I shouldn’t have stayed last night…”

“Cats are very good at looking after themselves,” Monique told her. “I’m sure she’s fine.”

Margo sighed. “I’m not. I’m not sure anyone over there is fine.”

“Please don’t go—not yet. Let the men find out what’s happening first.”

“Jesus, Moe, listen to yourself!” Margo flapped a hand impatiently. “Let the men go first? What the hell?”

“You can go if you want,” Devin said. “Just remember, my boat, my rules, so don’t even think of arguing with me about your life jacket.”

Margo scoffed. “Are you still going on about that? It was ages ago! I promise—I’ll wear the jacket.”

“Too right, you will.” He and the others headed out the door.

Margo offered to stay long enough to clean up, but Monique brushed it off. “I’ve got this,” she said. “Sorry I was clingy—I’m scared green, Margo.”

“So am I,” Margo admitted. “But I have to go. It’s not just my cat—”

“I know.” Monique sighed. “I’m sure it’s just a power outage or something.”

We have power.”

“Yes, but our power line is underwater. They have—oh, what the hell do I know?”

Margo took her friend’s hand. “That sounds perfectly reasonable to me. Maybe someone ran into a power pole and put out the lines. It happens.”

“But why would that affect the Ferry?” Monique cried.

“Uh…” Margo wracked her brain. “Diesel pumps wouldn’t work?”

Monique blinked. “Hmm. Okay, I’ll grasp at straws. Why not?”

Why not, indeed? Margo wished she believed it herself. She heard her name being shouted and impulsively hugged Monique tightly. “Devin’s already on my ass, and I haven’t even boarded the skiff,” she laughed. “I’ll be back with my crazy cat.”

“You will,” Monique agreed. “Don’t try to take off your lifejacket!”

Margo called back over her shoulder, “Ancient history! I’ve seen sharks since then.”

She headed for the dock, already anticipating getting home to check on her cat.

She was also anticipating not getting home…the flutters in her stomach were threatening the nice lunch she’d just eaten.

She forced a smile when Devin held out her lifejacket. She put it on, held her tongue while he checked to make sure she’d fastened it securely, and allowed him to help her aboard.

She tried to see across the reach, but there seemed to be a fog over the water in the distance. She couldn’t remember ever feeling so nervous.

She took a seat. Devin started the outboard motor; the roar made her jump and she worried once more that she might lose her lunch.

Junior gave her an unconvincing smile. “Well,” he said, “here we go.”

“Here we go.”

The skiff pulled away from the dock.

Hidden Places Part 11

I dreamt about the dumpster.

When we first came here, I dreamt about it a lot. There were a variety of dreams, all horrible.

In one, Mae and I burst out the front door, see the legs of the high chair sticking up over the lip of the dumpster and know that our baby sister is head down in garbage. But, before we can do anything about it, one of the evil men grabs us and drags us away.

This one dream, at least, reunites us with Momma, however briefly. But Dawn is lost.

The dream I woke from that morning is the worst of them, though.

Mae and I burst through the front door, see the legs of the high chair sticking up over the lip of the dumpster and fling ourselves inside, just as we did in real life all those years ago. We work together to raise the chair enough to get Dawn’s face out of liquefied muck before she drowns—but we keep dropping her back in! She barely gets a chance to draw a breath, and then—splat! Down she goes; over and over, until we’re sobbing with exhaustion.

It may well be that this happened in life; I don’t remember all the details, but God knows, getting her out of the chair had been an ordeal. I don’t know how we did it.  

Anyway, in the dream, by the time we get her free of the damnable buckle device, we’re sure we’ve killed her. But she draws in a shaky breath, and we hug her and tell her we love her.

At last, we ready ourselves to climb out, using the high chair as a ladder, just as we did back then. But when we look up, there he is: the man who dragged Dawn’s chair through the door and threw her into the garbage. “Well, looky what we have here,” he says, smiling. There’s an evil gleam in his eyes. He raises his gun and looks over his shoulder. “At least we won’t have to take out the trash,” he says, and someone behind him laughs. Then, just before the gun goes off, Momma starts to scream.

“Tat-tat-tat-tat—!”

I sat up in bed, gasping. I was alone. We haven’t shared a bed, or even a space, for quite awhile now, but I found myself wishing we were all still small enough to be cuddled together. I needed a hug, no doubt about it.

The shower curtain that serves as my door was pushed aside then, and Dawn crept inside and crawled into bed with me, wrapping an arm around my shoulders. “How did you—?”

“Know?” Mae finished as she, too entered and squashed her way into bed with me. “Bad dreams.”

“Not me,” Dawn declared. “But, I could feel you…”

“Well, you weren’t down therein that valley with us, thank God,” Mae said.

“I’m glad you could feel me, though,” I added, and hugged my sisters tightly. “That was bad…”

We don’t fit in one bed anymore, but we made it work until morning. We slept without further dreams.

As I drifted off, I whispered, “I don’t want Sid to go…”

***

Sid and I might be too much alike.

He won’t listen to reason; you can’t tell him anything. He’s stubborn and won’t change his mind once he’s made a decision.

(You see? I’m self-aware and understand my worst inclinations! I recognize that I am not always the best judge of…anything.)

I tried to talk him out of it, but he insisted he had to know where the road behind the church goes.

“Vance will be there,” he said.

He’s wrong when he thinks going with Dad makes me feel any better about things. He’s always assuming that, and it’s annoying as hell.

I woke up angry with my father; I always wake up angry with him after having one of the dumpster dreams. I know it wasn’t his fault; nothing that happened was his fault. But he wasn’t there when we needed him, and I can’t seem to get over that.

I get angry with myself, too, especially on days like this, when I start the morning by being cold to the man. I wish I could bring myself to explain it to him; I’m a brat—I just can’t.

Since Sid wouldn’t be talked out of it, I decided to go along with the salvage crew and investigate the other trucks and the warehouse. I’m not up to going into the valley—I don’t even want to set eyes on it from above, honestly. But I knew I could be useful in the village, and at least I’d be nearby instead of at the compound.

Ash came along, too, and so did Danny, but Mae and Dawn were “over it”, in Mae’s words. They stayed home to clear a space for anything we might return with.

I can’t deny that I felt very nervous when I watched Sid, Dad, Zach and Mary head off to the church with Gramps and a few others. I wanted to throw my arms around him and beg him to stay with me.

Weak; I can’t stand to be weak. But it’s true. I didn’t want him to go. It felt…bad. Wrong.

Ash poked me in the side as I stood watching. “Stop it,” he commanded. “You’re giving yourself the whim-whams.”

“Whatever that means,” I retorted.

“You know exactly what it means. Just stop.”

I nodded and we turned our attention to the trucks.

We already knew that one truck had cases of toothbrushes and toothpaste that had been carefully packed—we’d helped ourselves to some, and had been delighted to find that the toothpaste had survived all this time without turning into solid chunks—the heavy plastic the cases had been wrapped in had done its job.

“Don’t unwrap the boxes,” Morty commanded. We unloaded the cases and stacked them on the small utility trailer he’d hauled down behind his ATV.

We had only hauled down three trailers on this trip. There was no road from the compound to the bridge and it didn’t make sense to try to do too much at one time. Whatever we might find, it had been here for quite some time and there was no rush moving it.

“Look here,” Danny said, pointing to the lettering we could barely see through the thick plastic wrap. “Shampoo!”

Oh, glory! We’ve been making our own soap for a long time now. It is strong-smelling and not at all pleasant to wash your hair with. I could hardly wait! I felt a genuine smile stretch across my face, temporarily wiping away the dread lingering in the pit of my belly.

Morty used his tools to open the warehouse doors and he and his friend Barry went inside to make sure the place wasn’t overrun with spiders and snakes.

There were plenty of spiders, as it turned out. I’d already had enough of them in the trucks, so I was happy to stay outside, taking boxes from Ash and Danny as they unloaded them. That first truck hadn’t been full, by any stretch of the imagination, but there were several cases of toothpaste and toothbrushes, shampoo and conditioner (wow!) bar soap and laundry detergent in big boxes.

At the very back, Danny found a crate of lotion. I had a feeling those would be a wash—most of the lotions we’ve found over the years had thickened into gummy paste. But, one can hope!

Jenson and Dean had gotten into one of the other trucks. “This one is a bust,” Dean declared. “Mice. They had a field day in there.” He pointed over his shoulder, and I came around the back to look inside.

The smell was horrific, and I took several steps back. “Get out of there, Jenson,” I ordered. “You’ll end up breathing that crap in!”

Jenson, who had his back to me, turned around. He had his face covered with a double layer of bandana, but I could see the grin in his eyes. He climbed out and he and Dean pulled the door closed. “It’s too bad,” he said. “Those were pretty nice blankets back in the day.”

“They’re garbage now,” Dean added. “I feel like jumping in a river.”

I shuddered. Mice were a plague on the land, in my opinion. Just glancing into the back, I knew there had been a nice load of sheets and blankets inside, but Dean was right—they were garbage now, full of droppings and urine and probably hundreds of mice of various ages. Ugh.

Danny had joined me. He wrinkled his nose in distaste. “They always manage to get in! Pee-yoo!”

“Yeah.”

“It’s too close to the rest to set fire to it,” Ash decided.

I rolled my eyes. Not that I couldn’t see his point, but fire was one thing we didn’t mess with. Dangerous. Our camp fires are closely guarded at all times.

Mort and Barry came out to us. They, too, had masked up, but their eyes were dancing with excitement. “We’re going to need a bug bomb,” Barry chuckled. “But there’s a good haul in there, once we get it cleaned up.”

I waited expectantly. Morty said, “There are four big generators, brand-spanking-new in the crates! A dozen full propane tanks, too.”

“Oh my God,” Ash cried, dashing away and into the warehouse. He was back quickly. “Big tanks, Penny.”

“It looks like they expected to use them to fill smaller tanks for the houses here,” Barry added.

“How’d this place not blow up or something?” I asked.

Mort pulled his bandana down, and with it wrapped around his neck, he almost looked like a cowboy. The blue cap on his head, with the words “How the hell did I get this old?” embroidered on it, ruined the image. “Good insulation,” he said.

“Too bad the blankets weren’t in there,” Dean remarked.

Morty, curious, took hold of the door handle on the truck. “Don’t do it,” I said. “It’s beyond nasty.”

Mort raised his eyebrows questioningly.

“Mice,” Ash explained.

Mort jerked his hand away and backed off a few steps. Yeah, he’s a cowboy, all right. I giggled.

“You shut it,” he growled. I giggled harder. He looked horrified and disgusted, and it struck me funny because I knew I must have made the same face just moments earlier.

Suddenly, all the laughter left me in a terrific “Whooo!” of air, and I sat down hard on the pavement.

“What is it?” Morty cried. “Is it your asthma? Do you have your inhaler?”

“No, no!” I cried. “Something is wrong. I’m fine. Something is wrong, Mort. Please, go get Sid!”

“He’s with your—”

“Go get them both! Go get them all! Something’s wrong!” I was starting to cry, and damn it, I hate that.

But I could feel it—Sid and my father were in some sort of danger. I struggled with my rising gorge, but in the end I bolted to my feet and ran off to the edge of the paved parking lot and vomited.

When I was able to stand up straight, Ash and Danny were there to steady me. We turned as one and watched as Morty and Barry rode into the village and up toward the little church. “God, I hate this place,” I groaned.

“What was it?” Danny asked.

“Evil.” I shook my head. There was no way to explain the feeling I’d had. I just knew Sid and Daddy had walked into the middle of… of evil.

I was shaking. Jensen and Dean joined us, staring at me like I had two heads or something. “It’s a cursed place,” Dean said. “Feel it?”

“I’m going to the church,” I said, and started walking. For a small village, the church seemed to be an unusually long way from us

Saturday

 

Another Saturday morning dawned in the city. 

Missy’s a stickler about the days–she won’t let it go; she keeps us on track. It’s Saturday, not that anyone gives a damn.

The city isn’t much now. Everyone’s gone. We’d snuck back in after, and set ourselves up in one of the still-standing buildings. We like being high; ground level can be scary. There are animals, sometimes.

This place isn’t bad. The furniture is still good. Blankets and clothes were left behind. There’s no power, though, and no glass in the windows. It’s not a problem–yet.

Food, though…that’s a problem every day. Missy found planters and seeds, and things are growing. There will be tomatoes, onions, potatoes, lettuce and cabbages. We won’t starve; she has a green thumb!   

There’s a working water pipe down there. Harvey made a fire pit nearby, and Mom always boils the water. It’s hard to carry upstairs in buckets, but I’m getting bigger muscles.

We got into the hardware store–that’s been dead useful. I wish the grocery store had fared as well–that place is flattened. Gordon and Mike are “making a plan” to get inside.

We found rolls of heavy plastic. We’ll be able to cover windows before it gets cold. Missy says keeping track of days helps her know when the seasons will change. I don’t get how knowing it’s a Saturday will tell her winter is coming, but she’s not letting it go.

I don’t care; she can do as she pleases. She likes to watch the sunrise. I think when we cover windows, we’ll fix one so she can see outside. Little things make people happy, even now; if that’s what she needs, we should to do it.

Missy does a lot more for us than knowing it is Saturday.

No Ferry Today

The bar was supposed to open at noon—where is Duncan?

Margo hadn’t gone back to the mainland the night before. The warm summer breezes had beckoned her throughout the workday until she decided to take blanket down to the beach and sleep on the sand. Her friend Monique had joined her at the last minute; she had a house further inland on the little isle, but she, too, had been tempted by the breeze coming in off the ocean.

When the bar closed at 2:00 a.m. they’d taken iced coffees and sandwiches, their beach blankets and their phones, and giggled together over Netflix shows until they’d fallen asleep. This morning they’d awakened late, rushed to Monique’s for showers and fresh clothes and wandered down to The Beach Bar to report for lunch duty.

After exchanging puzzled looks, the women unlocked the door and threw open the windows. This was so unlike Duncan, who usually arrived a good two hours before opening to fire up the grill and do early lunch prep. The bar was generally busy from the time the “Open” sign went up.

Not today. It was nearly one before Junior Samples sauntered in. “Where the hell is everyone?” he demanded.

Margo and Monique had been busy chopping vegetables and unstacking chairs, and so hadn’t taken much notice of things outside. “Dunno,” Monique said.

“What do you mean?” Margo asked.

“Look for yourself,” Junior said. He scratched his bare chest absently, drawing Margo’s eyes to his nearly perfect pecs. “Not at me!” Junior laughed good-naturedly. “Outside.”

They all went to the windows. The beach was nearly deserted. There were a couple of island folk walking near the shoreline, looking bemusedly across the reach.

“No wonder we slept in,” Margo remarked. “The ferry never came!”

This was unheard of. They ferry always came. The trio wandered outside and down to the shoreline, where there were joined by a few other people.

Melvin Samples, Junior’s uncle, shaded his eyes and stared out across the water, where the mainland was just visible in the early afternoon light. There was a blinding glare across the water, with the sun nearly directly overhead.

“What’s going on over there?” Vivian asked. Viv was Melvin’s wife, a tiny woman who wore glasses with thick lenses. Squint as she might, she was never going to be able to see the distant shoreline–even with her spectacles, her vision was terrible.

“Nothin’, honey,” Melvin replied. “Cain’t see a bloody thing.”

Margo pulled out her phone, freshly recharged while she’d showered and dressed, and placed a call to Duncan. After a few seconds, she frowned, stared at the screen and tried again.

“What?” Monique asked.

“It’s not ringing. Nothing is happening.”

Monique was trying to pull up the news. “I think my phone’s broken.”

Junior’s phone began blasting out an old ZZ Top song. “My playlist works,” he announced. “But nothing else does.”

The group turned as a unit without speaking and hastened back to the bar. Margo turned on the television. Every channel was playing the same thing: snow.

Devin Murdoch asked, “Should I take the skiff over? Check it out?”

The group was silent until Melvin said, “Maybe we should have some lunch and mull that idea over.”

Monique slap some burgers on the grill.