I was amazed to be in this little place. Location: Middle of Nowhere. Little houses all in a row, seven on this street, the same on the next. Then a “Main Street” road, with a convenience store/gas station, and a miniature school building, and one more road, more a cul-de-sac with three slightly bigger houses.
The place was just a square. The front was warehouse and the lot surrounding it. Behind that, a cross road that passed by the three little streets and cul-de-sac. Then another crossroad in front of and empty lot, the church lot, and another empty lot. From the road, one had to climb several steps to get to the church, and I suppose once upon a time it had been cultivated with a nice lawn and bushes and flowers, but now it was crabgrass and weeds.
After exploring a bit at the warehouse, we had returned to the one house I had decided I wanted to see more of.
I saw the stack of papers on the table through the window when Sid and I made our first round through this little township, so it was really the first place I wanted to explore. But I knew those kids would want to see if there were things of use in the warehouse or the trucks, and there’s no sense arguing with teenagers. Especially when there are six of them and only one little old me.
I have to admit, it was worth it. I’m delighted to have a new toothbrush and real toothpaste. Yeah, baby!
Penny’s grandpa and his pals put a lot of thought into the camps we survivors live in, and they stockpiled a lot of things. But it doesn’t last forever. A find like this is a thrill.
I was an adult when this all went down, but a young one. Younger than Penny’s dad, Vance, much younger than Gramps. Military pronounced me 4-F because I’m a compact guy. I might have fought it — probably would have — but time ran out. And, too bad for them, because I would have been great, damn it.
Anyway, I was the old guy in this little expedition. I think the kids have always gravitated toward me because I am younger than the other adults in our camp. Plus, I’m super cool. Sid and Ash could have been taken in by one of the couples in camp, but they chose me to be Dad. I’m good with that, although I would have been about twelve when Sid was born, I guess.
The point I’m trying to make is, they look up to me, and that means I have a responsibility to make safe and sane decisions as far as they are concerned. I take that seriously.
I’m going to admit, right here and now, that when the quirky quartet came to me last evening going on about caves and culverts and a town with a warehouse, this wasn’t what I was expecting. I believed there was something to see, of course, but these are kids, and they are imaginative and prone to exaggeration.
Boy, was I wrong!
I was already making a list in my head, things I would want to bring with me next time we came. Lock picks and a new padlock for the warehouse door; a sledge or two to drag things back to camp; maybe Gramps and Vance. Maybe.
But for now, I had six kids staring at me, waiting. I sat down at the table and beckoned to Penny to sit across from me. There were only two chairs in the house, and a square table with a stack of papers sitting under an old coffee mug. Printed on the mug were the words, “Stay Calm and Drink Coffee.”
I grinned. Monica had a shirt, once upon a time, that said “Stay Calm and Kiss Morty.” I still have my own, which reads, “Stay Calm and Kiss Monica.” I have it folded and wrapped in plastic in the bottom of my steamer trunk. She had them made for us during the “Stay Calm and…” craze.
I could feel the grin sort of slide off my face, and my eyes stung. Thinking about Monica still hurts. The not knowing part of it, the unsolvable mystery of it — that’s what hurts the most. I know she got on the plane; she was coming home to me. I was there at the airport to pick her up, but the plane never arrived.
I talked to her just before the plane took off. She promised to call when the plane landed, and then put her cell on airplane mode.
I went to the airport and waited for her call, so I’d know where to meet her.
I checked the flight boards, and went to the luggage pick-up assigned to her flight.
I wasn’t the only one waiting. People began questioning airline personnel. No one could figure it out. The plane took off on time. There had been no reported issues, and there was no evidence anywhere in the country of a flight crash or emergency landing.
Flight 4826 had disappeared.
There was an investigation, of course. She was just one of many on the plane, and there were hundreds of inquiries. I reported her missing. I made dozens of calls, to police, the airlines, her parents and friends.
Then we went to rescue the kids on the base, and immediately retreated to the camp, and within days the whole world went straight to hell.
Through it all, I kept my cell charged and ready, praying for a call from her. Dozens of different scenarios played out in my mind, all of them hopeful at first. Emergency landing in a remote area. Phone got broken. No cell service. Something where Monica was alive and safe and simply inconvenienced for a while.
I went through a period of wondering if she had just decided she didn’t want to be with me, but a whole airplane full of people were missing along with her, so that was blessedly brief. She was coming home to me; I know it.
Then I just waited for any calls. Airline. Police. Hijackers. Anybody.
If anything came of the investigation, I never found out. And once the world ended…well…
Penny leaned toward me, eyebrows raised inquiringly. “Are you okay?”
The concern in her voice snapped me out of my remenicences. “Yeah,” I replied. “Just…got hit with a memory jolt.”
Penny looked at Mae, and they both nodded at me with understanding. “It happens,” Sid commented. “Sometimes it’s good. Mostly, it sucks.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. I took a deep breath. “Let’s take a look at this. See if there’s information or just old bills.” I laughed a little, unconvincingly.
I scanned the letter on the top of the stack. Interesting. I handed it to Penny, so she could read it aloud.
“To the residents of Bolt Man Camp,” Penny read, “We regret to inform you that your employer and benefactor, Marvin Bolt, has passed away.”
“This is a man camp?” Ash interrupted.
“Shh,” Sid admonished.
Penny gave them a stern look and continued. “Given present conditions in the country, Mr. Bolt’s heirs do not wish to take possession of the company, and will be offering the holdings to the highest bidder. Any bids by you, as individuals or as a group, will certainly be considered. Otherwise, please be prepared to pack up your belongings and vacate the property within the next six weeks. Sincerely, J. Wilkes-Belding, Esquire.”
“What’s ‘esquire’?” Danny asked.
“I assume it means he’s a lawyer,” Penny replied, looking askance at me.
“Yes,” I agreed. I’d been skimming the next few pages in the stacks, and handed Penny another interesting find.
Penny looked it over carefully. “It looks like a copy,” she said. “Diary, maybe?”
Penny started reading: “Bolt’s kids got a better bid than what we could offer as a group, so it looks like the man camp will be moving out soon. I sent their lawyer a letter, explaining the bid and the situation here, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference to them that they’re displacing a dozen families with children. I am leaving this note, and copies of correspondence for whoever next occupies this house. You should know what you are in for.”
“This doesn’t sound good,” I remarked, still skimming as I listened. I had found the bid proposal and the rejection of it by the Bolt heirs.
“The bid we proposed,” Penny continued, “took into consideration the road and bridge repairs that need to be done before operations can resume here. Bolt had been notified several times, and we had gotten bids from contractors who could have completed the work by now, but he ignored our recommendations.”
Sid said, “That explains the bridge, I guess.”
Penny nodded. “Whoever got the place — they’d have to pay for those repairs. It makes sense they would include that consideration in what they were willing to bid.”
Penny went on reading, and we learned that the trucks at the warehouse were still here because the drivers refused to take them back over the bridge.
Families had packed up their belongings and taken things out in small loads; the first load across the bridge had been the women and children, in small groups, on foot. According to the letter, 41 men, women and children had made Bolt Man Camp their home for the past decade. Now, each family had received a final paycheck, severance and vacation pay and a thank you note. They left, homeless and unemployed.
“Bolt’s heirs were sure some pissy people,” Mae declared. She was scowling.
We all agreed with that.
“If you’re here,” Penny finished, “you probably won’t dare to drive back out. The derricks and refining station are in good, clean condition. We have always endeavored to keep everything well maintained. The bridge and road would have been the same, had we been able to do that sort of work. I’m sorry you’ll have to be responsible for it now. We wish you luck.” Penny looked up. “It’s signed, Roger Parks, Bolt Refineries.”
Ash sighed. “Well,” he said, “obviously no one moved in here after the man camp cleared out. The bridge is worse than ever.”
“Derricks and refinery station…” Penny looked thoughtful. “We’re not done here, are we, Mort?”
“Nope.” I looked at Sid. “That dirt road just behind the church?”
Sid bit his lip, thinking. “Maybe,” he conceded. “I’m leaning more toward the one by the little store…” He frowned. “The one that curves past the big house?”
That would be the nearer side of the cul-de-sac, I thought. We crossed it in the woods behind the houses, and I hadn’t taken much notice to where it might lead. “Either way, we’re heading into the woods again,” I said.
Dawn, always the quiet one, spoke up. “We need to ride in,” she offered. “Horses would be best, but…” She trailed off, clearly distressed.
We don’t have horses. There are a few at one of the other camps, but that presented other issues, and I wasn’t willing to get into that before talking with Gramps.
“Dirt bikes,” Danny suggested.
Dawn nodded eagerly at that. “We need to be able to move more quickly. We could probably sleep in this house, if it came to that, but we don’t know how far we need to go to find whatever it is we’re looking for. We can’t be out there in the dark…”
I felt my jaw drop a little. This was a big speech from our little Dawn.
Penny agreed with her sister. “What if we couldn’t get back here before sunset?” she asked. ” Dawn’s right. We have to wait.”
No one here is scared of the dark, let’s get that straight. But no one is stupid, either. There are bears and wolves, coyotes and big cats. We don’t want to be on the dinner menu.
“We’re heading back to camp,” I said. As I’d anticipated, this decision was met with frustrated groans. “Shut it!”
Penny slapped her hands on her thighs and stood up. She handed papers back to me. “You’re right,” she conceded. “If we stay out all night, Dad will have a conniption fit. Besides,” she added, “we can do a sleep-over here later–with bedrolls.”
“Yep.” Sid grinned. “Vance will probably be a bear about it, even if Morty is along, but as long as everyone knows in advance–well, that should be fine, right Da?”
“Right.” My mind was racing; how much should we tell Gramps and Vance before we actually knew what we were talking about?
I know, I should probably have decided to tell everything we knew so far. I guess I’m not so different from the kids–I wanted to know as much as possible before sharing the secret. I was thinking, it could all come to nothing. Or, it could turn out to be wonderful.
“Are we telling?” Penny asked.
Did I ever mention I think she might be psychic?
“Not yet,” I said, making up my mind in that instant. “I’ll figure something out.”
Yeah, kids jumping up and down and clapping is pretty cool, especially when you’re the one they’re clapping for.
I gathered up all the papers and put them in my pack. After a brief considering pause, I took the coffee mug, too.
Monica would have liked it.
To be continued…
Author’s note: Morty takes over in narrating this time. Who might be next? Where are they going, and what will they find?
Your guess is as good as mine.
More of Penny and her gang’s beginnings can be found here: Starting in the Middle of The End