We never knew where we’d end up or what we’d find when we went out exploring, especially in the earliest days after the city was destroyed.
Vic and I had left the city years before. We’d worked hard, saved plenty of money, and decided that the time was right for a change. We bought some land in the mountains and built our cabin there during our vacations and weekends.
Vic had met Vance a couple of years before that. Vance was, in my estimation, a bit of a fanatic. He was career military, but he had grown distrustful of the government he worked for. He told Vic that his father-in-law, a man of some renown and with more than plenty of means, was building a compound in preparation for the end of the world.
Vic listened and nodded, and afterward, when he told me about it, we had a good laugh.
But things started getting odd in the city. We always felt watched. We worried constantly about our children; schools were no longer safe places, were they? Otherwise, why did they start each school year learning how to avoid shooters?
We built a fallout shelter near the cabin, and started loading it up with supplies: dried and canned foods, bottled water, batteries, oil lamps and oil. We had beds and bedding for us and our three children. We put in an electric stove, and behind the shelter we built a long tunnel where we stored generators and propane.
We built a concrete cellar under the cabin and stored more: food, blankets, clothing.
We were getting paranoid, we told each other. This was the day we started building a stone wall around the property we’d worked so hard for. That was soon followed up with camouflage netting, all through the trees around the cabin.
We moved to the cabin permanently, but continued to work in the city, and we drove the kids in early each day for school, until that last year.
Vic had kept in contact with Vance, and as it happened, we were ahead of the game when it came to getting out.
We knew where the big compound was located; the plan for that place was a shelter for about one hundred people. Vance said there would be room for us if we wanted to go.
Vic told him we had it covered.
They were on one side of that city. We were on the other side. We haven’t seen Vance since the end came, but we have spoken to him via HAM radio. Vance had been insistent about us having one, just in case. We keep in touch, once in a while, with his group and a few others in the area that Vance’s father-in-law had helped set up.
We went underground when the city blew; we could hear the explosions and smell the smoke, and God only knew what might have been poisoning the air.
That was awful, and it seemed to last forever, but we’ve been back in the cabin, most of the time, ever since.
The boys are nearly grown now, and it amazes me how well they have done alone on this mountain. But lately, they’ve been restless and expressing more interest in traveling to meet with others.
We’ve been to the city; everyone we have contact with has been, some many times. We’ve only got one open road to travel there, as appears to be the case with most of the others. I think that’s a good thing. We haven’t had to compete with anyone for the things we have managed to salvage there.
Believe me when I tell you, salvaging in the city is not for sissies, and the last thing anyone needs besides the hard work of it is a competitor.
On our very first salvage trip, we discovered a big ranch on the outskirts of the city that had been abandoned. They’d left everything behind, it seemed, including half a dozen horses. Those were half-starved and frightened, but we managed them, and we took them home with us. We also took the stable, board by board, and rebuilt it next to the cabin. That was quite a job, but the horses are worth it.
Vic works that old place just enough to keep the hay field going. I’ve thought about moving us there, but it is just too close to the city. Still, it has been a great place for sleep-overs when we go looking for things. We have expected to find it occupied every time we return to it, but so far, no.
This week, though, we decided to ride out west of the cabin. There used to be a couple of little villages just off the two-lane highway out there, and we’ve avoided them because we thought there might be survivors. The more time that passes, the less likely it seems; those who might have been there would also have had only one way into the city to salvage, and they would have needed to do so. We’d have run into someone by this time, I decided, and so we agreed to explore.
I was more than happy to take the horses on that jaunt. The road is narrow and twisty, and Vic can be a maniac behind the wheel. The boys were delighted to be out in the fresh air, too.
We had packed up a good picnic and bedrolls, along with loaded rifles. You never know. Things out there are hungry.
By midday, we had reached the turnoff for one of the towns. As expected, it was empty. Cars and trucks, new a decade ago, stood on rotted rubber. A few doors swung on broken hinges.
A quick inspection of houses and little stores led us to believe that the people here had taken the time to pack up and leave. There wasn’t a scrap of food to be found, or any batteries. They had left vehicles behind, but that was about it.
I suppose the place could have been scavenged by salvagers like us, but everything was too neat.
Or maybe I just want so badly to believe they escaped that I let my mind conjure up the feelings I experienced there.
“Ma, look!” Benji, our youngest, was pointing at something in the valley below the village. “I think it’s working!”
We all moved to the edge of a drop-off to look.
The object was on the far side of the valley, not in it as I had first believed.
“It can’t be working,” Scott scoffed.
I squinted at it. “I see lights,” I said.
“Nah,” Vic replied. “It’s just the sun reflecting off it, Suz.”
“I think it’s working,” Benji repeated stubbornly.
“So do I.”
“Me, too,” Cory agreed. “Sun reflections don’t blink.”
“Blink?” Vic stared and squinted, craning his neck as if that could get him significantly closer.
“Let’s ride over,” I suggested.
“It’ll be dark by the time we get there,” Vic objected.
“Good,” Benji declared. “Then we’ll really be able to see it!”
Vic sighed dramatically. “See if there’s running water. We’ll need to water the horses well before taking a trip like that!”
Cory had his binoculars now. “There’s a stream,” he said. “But Dad’s right. They need water now, too.”
Finding a tub to put it in proved more of a challenge than finding running water. The first outdoor tap we tried gushed out rust for the first few seconds and then clear water, cold as ice, poured out.
We all drank. “Must come from an aquifer,” Vic mused.
It was delicious, not matter where it came from.
We made our way into the valley and across it, eyes on the prize all the way. As the sun sank in the west, we could all clearly see blinking red lights.
“What is it?” Benji asked.
“Radio tower. Cell phone tower. Something like that,” Scott posited.
“What’s a cell phone?”
Scott and Cory chuckled a little while Vic explained. Cory wasn’t quite three when we left the city, and he was never allowed to play with my cell phone the way lots of kids did back in those days. We got terrible reception at the cabin, anyway. We had a land line there–not that it had been a working phone in a decade or so.
It was a tower of some sort, anyway. There were satellite dishes facing in different directions all the way up the surface, and yes, those blinking red lights.
“Is it sending a signal, Dad?” Cory asked. “Could that be?”
Vic shrugged. “I suppose it could be, but…”
There was a long pause before I added, “But where does the signal go?”
There could be any number of answers to that. Or no answer at all. We got as close as we could, dismounted, and unpacked the picnic to eat.
We unpacked our bedrolls and spread them out. Vic made a small fire. We lay on our backs, staring up, up at the blinking lights, and beyond them into the star-filled sky.
No one spoke for a long time. I felt like I was holding my breath, waiting for some revelation.
“That’s where the signal goes, now,” Benji announced, pointing up at the Milky Way.
“Yeah?” Scott asked.
“Yeah. Maybe they’ll answer. Someday.”
Cory sat up and wrapped his arms around his knees. He stared into the fire. Finally, he said, “Maybe they already did.”
This story was inspired by a prompt on Writers Unite! Check out their page!