For all future references, let it be known: What Morty wants, Morty gets.
Penny got pissed the other day. That’s the start of this whole thing, right there. Vance has a way of getting under her skin, that’s all. She’s been on-again, off again mad at him for years. She knows it; she tries to will it away; she can’t.
She said it herself: there’s got to be someone to blame. It’s not Vance’s fault, but he’s the handiest target. In Penny’s mind, he was the father, and he should have been there to save his family. He got to the party too late, that’s what she says. And her mother died.
Mae, now– she’s never been angry at their father, or blamed him. But, like she says, she didn’t have to deal with the same level of stress Penny did.
I call bullshit about that. She was right there, helping Penny the whole time. Penny says so, too. She doesn’t try to take credit; she always gives Mae props. But Mae doesn’t see it that way. She says Penny had things to deal with and do that Mae had no part of, because she was the oldest and she took responsibility for the younger girls.
Mae never blames her dad, but she doesn’t give him a lot of credit for saving them, either. She just loves him anyway, even if he did come late to the party.
Vance is still late to the party, I guess. He decided, the other day, that it wasn’t such a good idea for his girls to be spending so much alone time with Morty’s wards. That would be Sid and me. Dale, their grandfather, agreed with him.
Goofy old men. How did Sid put it? Oh, yeah. “That ship has sailed.”
It was all so dumb, anyway. When we go out to hunt, or to salvage, we do it. You have to be alert out there in the woods. We’re not crazy.
(Okay, sometimes we’re crazy. We’re only human.)
Anyway, Penny was pissed. She hates Vance telling her what to do. She didn’t argue–none of us did (out of respect for Dale, not Vance)– but she was hot. That’s the reason we wandered so far from our allotted hunting zone, which led us to the culvert, which led us to the bridge that led us to Bolt Man-Camp.
Of course, we had to get Morty involved.
He’s the one adult in our camp that we all trust to keep things under his hat until the right time. He’s not so old, you know, not really old enough to be a father to Sid and me; but he has been “Da” to us all these years, anyway. We kind of set our sights on him. Vance was okay, and so was Dale, at least enough so that we call him Gramps, but they weren’t the right fit.
I can’t explain it. All I can say is, we needed him, and he needed us. We’re a family.
I admit, I was really envious of Sid when Mort let him go down into the little town to explore, and I was really impressed that they snuck in there in broad daylight, and none of us could keep track of them until they wanted to be seen.
On the upside–for me, at least–Da promised he’d teach me next. I like the idea of making myself too small to be seen.
There were papers in that town, and that’s how we found out that Bolt had some sort of refinery business going on, with derricks and all. But we didn’t have time to go find them then, because there was no way Mort was going to have us traveling back to our camp in the dark.
Morty, like us, doesn’t like to reveal things until he has the whole picture. Also, he might not admit it, but he likes an adventure as much as we do, and there’s not all that much adventure to be had around here.
He took me with him to meet with Dale and Vance.
Gramps is one of the elders–that’s what Penny calls them when she talks to the little kids. The elders were a group of people who had enough foresight, intelligence and money to build this camp. They knew something bad was happening in the world and wanted to make a safe place for their families. Over the years, they bought up land, built big bunkers, stored fuel and food and cultivated sources for water and power.
Still, they were almost taken by surprise. I believe the only reason we all ended up here just in time for the world to go up in smoke is because Penny’s mom didn’t show up with the girls for a 4th of July picnic.
But that’s a whole other story.
Let’s just go with this: Dale is one of the leaders here, and Morty doesn’t just decide to go off somewhere with a bunch of kids without talking to the leaders. Vance is Mae’s dad, but he’s also a leader. Penny does and doesn’t agree that he’s qualified, depending on her mood. He is, though. (Even if he was a little slow figuring out that we didn’t ever consider his daughters our sisters or cousins. I don’t have a girl of my own, but I’m old enough now to figure that he had a big case of wishful thinking.)
“I’ve got a bee in my bonnet,” Morty said, accepting the small glass of soda Vance offered.
We still manage to find soft drinks in different places. A lot of them have gone flat, but they’re still sweet and therefore a treat.
Vance poured the rest of the can into a glass for me, and I sipped gratefully. Slow and easy, making it last. There were bubbles. It was great.
“What’s this bee?” Gramps asked.
“Summertime,” Morty said. “I’m feeling nostalgic. I want to go camping.”
“Camping?” Vance scoffed. “We basically camp every day.”
“No way,” Morty said. “I want to fish in a stream, cook over a fire and sleep under the stars.”
“That’s not very–”
“Safe? When are we ever safe, Vance? Really safe, I mean. The world could blow up tomorrow.” Morty shrugged. “I want to have a little recreation time. Explore a little. Ride the dirt bikes. Slowly and carefully, of course,” he added hastily.
“I suppose you want to take my girls with you?” Vance asked.
“Hey, separate tents!” Morty assured him. “One for the girls, one for the boys, and me–under the glorious star-filled sky! Chaperoning.”
Gramps, bless his heart, was grinning widely. I think he likes to see Vance squirm. He and Vance get along fine, but Vance did fail to save his daughter, and I sometimes think he has as much trouble as Penny with that. Even though nothing was his fault, of course.
“Ah, let ’em go, Vee,” Gramps said.
“Shouldn’t there be more than one chaperone?”
Morty glared. “Why? You think all of a sudden I can’t handle these kids?”
Vance raised his hands in mock surrender. “No, no.” He heaved a great sigh. “Matter of fact, you’re the only one they seem to mind.”
Dale drummed his fingers on the table, thoughtful. “I’m not crazy about the dirt bikes,” he said. “Wouldn’t a couple of the four-wheel ATVs be a better choice?”
Morty shook his head. “We’re heading west, I think, and the terrain might be rough. I don’t trust those damn things not to tip over.” He shrugged. “I might drive one myself,” he added. “Pull a little trailer behind with our food and gear. But these kids don’t have any experience with them.”
“I agree,” Vance said. “Even Dawn has ridden the dirt bikes–and it’s a chore to get her outside to do anything.”
Dawn is very quiet. She likes to be in the fallout shelter most of the time. We were all pretty surprised when she came along with us in the first place.
“She’s excited about this,” Morty told them. “It’s good to get her out sometimes.”
“Too bad we don’t have the ingredients for s’mores,” Gramps mused. “Hell, I’d go with you myself for that!”
“What’s s’mores?” I asked.
They all sighed and looked wistful. “Camping treat,” Gramps said. “Better than Grandma’s cookies.”
“True story,” Morty assured me.
So it was that we ended up loading a little utility trailer with two tents, sleeping bags, some dry and canned goods and water, plus cooking utensils, a couple of axes and our rifles. We helped Morty hitch it to a four wheel all terrain vehicle.
We all gathered around the table that night, chattering excitedly about the trip, keeping our voices down. Dawn had made some small, preliminary map sketches that we all admired and studied, planning as well as we could.
The next morning, Morty fired up the ATV and led the way out of camp by way of the little-used dirt road. We hadn’t gone that way on foot, of course, but he didn’t want to arouse suspicion, and we could always circle our way back and over to the culvert we’d discovered.
We six kids followed him on our dirt bikes. Sid rode a bigger bike, anticipating riding double with Morty when we went into the valley to check out the derricks and refinery. That would depend on the condition of the roads, of course. We had no idea what we were going to find.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I am always a little surprised at how fast you can get places when you ride instead of walking. Even though we weren’t racing along at what Morty calls “highway speeds”, we made excellent time. It wasn’t even lunchtime by the time we arrived at the little house we planned to spend the night in.
Along the way we’d encountered some wild turkeys, and Sid managed to net us a couple of plump hens. We built a barbeque pit with a spit in front of the house and roasted those birds to tasty perfection, after the initial chore of cleaning and plucking was done.
“There’s a reason we eat more eggs than chicken,” Mae complained. “Birds are just gross!”
So said my love, but I noticed she didn’t turn down dinner.
(She’s not wrong, though. Cleaning birds is worse than anything.)
Penny was thoughtful during the meal, and when we were finishing, she turned to Morty and asked, “Are we really setting up the tents, or should we sleep inside?”
“Inside,” Dawn replied, before Morty could even open his mouth. I wasn’t surprised. She’s always more comfortable inside. I don’t mean physically comfortable; she’s timid, and walls make her feel safer. That she was with us at all was a minor miracle.
Mae grinned. “A real house, Dawnie!” she cried. “We should do some cleaning, though, if we really are going to sleep in there. It’s dusty.”
I snorted. Dusty was an understatement. We had left some deep footprints in there.
Morty frowned. “Girls,” he said, “We didn’t come out here to take up housekeeping.” He held up a hand to stop the protests he anticipated. “Not today, at least. If we find what I hope we’ll find, then…who knows?”
Penny grinned. “Let’s clean up this mess, at least. We don’t want to come back and find a pack of wild dogs eating up the camp.”
Dawn squared her shoulders resolutely. “Well,” she declared, “if I’m drawing the maps, I guess I can’t hang out in the house while you go down there.”
“That’s my girl,” Danny grinned.
Mae shrugged. “We’d need a broom, in any case. I don’t remember seeing one anywhere…”
I laughed. “As if you’d miss this!”
“Not a chance.”
We all went to work, cleaning up the mess we’d made making lunch, pitching the tents and making a serviceable camp for the night. Morty moved the ATV close to the side of the house and we tied the tarp down tightly over our supplies.
Then we mounted our bikes. Penny rode behind Sid and Morty took her bike.
We parked at the top of the road behind the biggest house in the camp, and looked down into the tree-filled valley below. “I don’t see anything but trees,” I remarked.
This earned me a few eye rolls and a few “Duh!” remarks, but I shrugged that off. Someone has to state the obvious; might as well be me.
“Twisty road,” Sid offered, and endured his own round of eye rolls.
“We’re going in slow,” Morty stated matter-of-factly, and none of us let out a peep or allowed ourselves another roll or the eyes.
Of course we were going in slow.
To be continued…
Author’s note: This has been a long time coming, and I am sorry about that. Life and…and stuff pushed me off track.
Now it is time to get on with the story, and so we have arrived at the top of the road. What will they find going down and beyond the trees?
Where did they begin? Oh yes–right here: Starting in the Middle of the End. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07L4GM4PN