It felt weird leaving Dawn on the road above us. She’s not one to come out of the shelter much, and certainly she’s not one to be alone anywhere. But I know her—when she needs to get something on paper or canvas, it’s so compelling to her that she is somehow able to overcome her inclination to hide away.
Once we’d gone around the twists and turns a few times, I was able to look up the hill and see her; her head was bent over her large sketch pad, and she had a pencil in each hand. She was using the handlebars of the dirt bike as a make-shift easel, and that made me grin. My Dawn is a resourceful girl!
I couldn’t blame her for the compulsion to capture this scene; the valley was breathtaking. Everything was green or golden, and there were wild flowers representing all the colors of the rainbow.
The oil derricks and storage tanks marred the view, in my opinion, but they were the real reason we were here. We could now also see, at the base of the road, a squat brick building with a sloping asphalt roof surrounded by a small paved parking area.
Two semi trucks were parked close to the building. They looked kind of puny with no trailers attached, I thought. It’s not that I have a lot of experience, seeing semi trucks, you know. But the tiny town above us had a couple parked at a warehouse, and with their attacked trailers, they’d looked massive.
Morty had slowed to a crawl, so we followed suit, easing our way the last few yards before stopping just shy of the pavement.
“I’m shaking,” Mae announced.
“Me, too.” Mort turned his bike off and dismounted. We did the same.
I looked up the hill, and couldn’t see my girl, so I started walking out into the field. Penny and Sid came with me, and we walked quite a way before we were able to see her up there. We waved. Dawn waved back. She was far enough away now that I couldn’t see whether she had a pencil in her hand, but I knew she did, just the same. “It didn’t seem that high when we were coming down,” Penny remarked.
“It’s a decent road,” Sid replied.
“Yeah, it is,” Morty agreed, joining us. “Curious, isn’t it?” He waved up at Dawn, who returned the greeting.
“Why would anyone let that bridge get into such bad shape?” Penny demanded. “None of this makes any sense.”
“Almost seems like it was done by design,” Mort mused. “I don’t like it. But it hardly matters now, does it?”
“It makes me nervous,” Penny muttered, and I agreed with her. The little town had been effectively blocked off by that impassable bridge, and this field didn’t appear to be accessible by any other route.
We studied the derricks, which were immobile—maybe forever. But I could see the hope on Morty’s face, and felt my heart speed up in my chest as my hopes soared, too. “I wish,” I said, “that I could tell for sure that there’s no one else around.”
“Yeah, well, there’s going to be some serious exploration later,” Mort said. “If there’s any reason for it.”
“What do you mean?” Ashley asked. “We’re here; what other reason do you need?”
“If those derricks don’t work—”
“Oh, they’re going to work,” Penny interrupted. The determination in her voice was unmistakable. “It might not be today, but they will.” She started back toward the brick building. “I believe everything we’re going to need is inside.”
“Information is the real treasure,” Mae pronounced, and skipped a few paces to catch up with her sister.
We guys exchanged amused glances and followed the girls.
I guess you might expect Morty to be in the lead, but Penny’s really the one in charge. She got pissed at her dad and grandpa the other day and led Sid, Ash and Mae a bit out of bounds, which led to them discovering a culvert which in turn led them to the road to the tiny town above us.
I know she doesn’t mean for it to happen, but Penny has led the way to a lot of discoveries over the last few years. She’s got that “I’ll do it myself” mentality that makes her break boundaries and strike out on her own. She gets in some trouble, but usually manages to work things through.
Once we got to the building, though, she turned to Mort and looked at him expectantly. “Is it locked?” Morty asked, indicating the doorknob. Penny tried it; yes, it was locked. Morty grinned, and dug into the inside pocket of his jacket. He pulled out a small notebook and a ring of keys.
Penny smiled and rubbed her hands together. “I knew it!” she cried. “I knew you found something in the house besides all those papers.”
Sid leaned against his adopted dad, gazing at the keys. “How convenient!” he exclaimed. “They’re labeled.”
I turned and looked up. Damn it, my view of Dawn was cut off again. Stupid twisty roads, anyway! Ash nudged me with his elbow. “She’s fine,” he said. “Probably has three or four sketches done already.”
I frowned. “I don’t like it,” I said. “I’m going back out there, where I can see her.”
“You’re not going inside?” Sid asked, astonished. “She’ll kick your butt.”
“It’s fine,” Morty said. “We should have someone looking out. It makes perfect sense.” He picked through the keys, found the one marked “station 1”, and unlocked the door.
Penny frowned. “Look at this,” she said, taking the key ring from Morty. “It says ‘station one’. Did you see another building?”
We all shook our heads. We’d seen derricks; tanks; this building; other than that, grasses and grains and wild flowers.
Penny sorted through the keys, and then held one apart from the others, on display. “This says ‘station two’. So…is that another door in this building, or what?”
“Penny.” Sid’s voice betrayed his exasperation. “Why do you always ask questions no one can answer?”
Penny shrugged. “It’s my discovery process.”
“Well, knock it off.”
“Yeah,” Mae agreed. “Danny, I’ll go with you, if you want.”
“Nah,” I said. “I’ll go over there, where I can see the road and Dawn, the bikes and the building.”
“I’ll come out in a few and take over so you can get a look,” Ash offered, and I nodded my agreement.
From several yards away, I could see Dawn up on the road. She had waved again, and as far as I could tell, she was drawing. I could see our bikes, lined up on the edge of the parking lot. I could see the open door of the building; Sid had put a big rock up against it so it wouldn’t swing shut.
I guess I wasn’t the only one feeling uneasy.
Look, we hadn’t seen any indication that there were people around, but things just didn’t feel right to me. Things down here looked too…neat. Well kept.
I hated that I’d left Dawn up the hill alone. I was scared.
I was almost to my bike when Ash came out. “Danny?” he called. “You okay?”
“I’m going for Dawn,” I said. “I don’t like this.”
He studied me for a moment, and then nodded. “I’ll go get her,” he said. “You go in and take a look around.”
Ash had already mounted his bike. “It’s okay,” he said. “You should see it. Dawn will want to hear your impressions. You don’t want to get in trouble, buddy.” He started his engine and roared off up the road.
I watched until he’d gone around the first curve and into the trees. Then I started walking toward the building, fighting off the urge to just follow Ash instead. He was right; Dawn would want to hear my impression of everything. She claimed that even when everyone told her the same things I did, she could “see” through my descriptions more clearly. I don’t know what that means, really, but I did know that she’d be less than happy with me if I didn’t have an in-person report ready for her.
“She’s not going to draw a map of this, surely,” I grumbled, and then nearly jumped out of my skin when Penny stepped out the door. “Jesus!”
“Draw a map of what?” Penny asked. “The building?”
“Should she?” I asked, grateful that Penny seemed disinclined to give me any grief over being startled.
“Nah.” Penny motioned me inside, and then indicated a large map on the wall opposite the doorway. “There’s the floor plan, right there. And there—” she pointed at another map, further down the hallway and twice the size of the first—“is this valley.”
I walked over and studied the big map. I quickly became aware that overhead lights were on and brilliantly bright. I glanced at Penny. “Generator?”
“There’s a basement.”
“Wow.” I looked closely at the markings indicating another road on the far side of the valley. “I knew it,” I said, with some satisfaction. “There’s another way in and out.”
“So people are coming in here?”
“Mort doesn’t think so,” Penny said. “Everything is covered with dust. Look at the floor.”
She was right. The only obvious disturbance in the thick layer of dust on the floor were prints they’d left moments before. Still—“It feels wonky, Pen,” I said.
“Yeah, I know.” There was an audible click in her throat as she swallowed. Her voice was shaky when she continued. “I swear I feel someone watching me.”
I nodded. Penny wasn’t one to say something like that under most circumstances, and it actually made me feel a little better about my own trepidations. “What does Morty say?”
Sid appeared at the end of the hall. “Morty’s turning on the derricks,” he said. “I’m going outside to see if anything happens.”
“Cool,” Penny replied. “I’m going to walk Danny around so he can report to his boss.”
“Shut it,” I said. “So, is this the refinery?”
“No.” Penny was quiet for a moment, and I digested this information. “Morty says it must be one of the stations that provided crude oil to a refinery somewhere.”
“Maybe that’s where the road leads—?” We reached the end of the hall and turned left. This led us to a big area that I suppose could be called a break room. There were a few round tables with chairs and some vending machines. “Hey!” I cried. “Do those work?”
Mae appeared at the other end of the long room and grinned at us. “They do work,” she said. She held up a soda can. “Mort bought me a pop!”
“How?” I asked. I was examining the machines. The lights were on, exhibiting snacks and candy displays in one, soft drinks in another. The third had things like Ramen noodles, boiled eggs and sandwiches, but no one in their right mind would try anything but the noodles at this point. The packaged sandwiches were shriveled and black with old mould. I didn’t even want to think what the boiled eggs might be like.
Mae shrugged. “He still carries his old wallet. It has pictures in it, you know? He still had some money, too.”
“That’s funny,” Penny mused. “I get the pictures—I wish I had some to carry around. But the money? Weird.”
“The pop’s flat,” Mae declared. “Warm, too. But I like the sweet.”
“Ugh,” I said. I considered the snacks and candy, and decided they’d be stale and gross. “What is this place, anyway? ‘Station’ is kind of vague, Penny.”
We kept walking, and I glanced into office spaces still furnished with desks and shelves. Computers and other electronic devices were unplugged, but the lights worked when I flicked the switches up and down.
We came to another long room, much different that the break area. It was filled with gauges and screens, buttons and switches. Mort had managed to turn one of the screens on, and it displayed a view of a couple of the old derricks, which were now in motion in the field.
We heard Sid coming before he rounded the corner. “A couple of the derricks are working!” he announced.
“I know,” Morty replied calmly, and pointed at the screen. “Sorry. I didn’t know this would work.”
Sid shrugged. “No biggie.” He turned to me. “Ash is with Dawn up there.”
Morty flipped a couple of switches and the derricks stopped moving. “No sense in pumping anything until we know where it goes from there,” he said. He pushed back the chair he was seated in and stood up. “What I know about any of this you could fit on the head of a pin.” He stretched extravagantly. “Ahhhhh, shit.” He flapped his arms and slapped his thighs and rolled his head on his neck. I heard a couple of joints pop and wondered if he was older than he looked.
“Dude, you’re gonna break yourself,” Sid admonished.
Penny frowned deeply. “I don’t like any of this,” she declared fiercely. “Do we have to tell?”
Morty studied her for a long time. Sid, Mae and I moved closer to her—in solidarity, I believe. I didn’t like this place, either, in spite of the excitement we’d all felt about it earlier. “Well,” he said finally, “I think we have a lot to talk about, don’t you?” He motioned us to start moving along. “After we get out of here and back up to the village, I mean. Let’s go.”
At the outer door, Morty locked up and double-checked to make sure the door was secure. Then we all speed-walked to our bikes, mounted and started our engines. I don’t know about the others, but I had to force myself not to speed up the twisty road—I wanted out of there as quickly as possible, but there was no need to get myself killed.
When we reached Dawn and Ash, I dismounted and hugged my girl. I could feel myself shaking, and she didn’t fail to notice it. “What happened down there?” she demanded.
“Nothing,” I murmured, pressing my nose to the top of her head. (I’m a lot taller than she is.) “But it was…” I found myself at a loss for words. What was it?
“It was like walking into a haunted house,” Penny said.
Ash nodded. “There’s something…not right about that place,” he said.
“Yeah, we have a lot to talk about,” Morty agreed. “Let’s get back to the house and—”
“Go home,” Mae interjected.
“Can’t,” Sid argued. “The sun’s already getting low. We don’t want to be out after dark.”
“Damn it. You’re right.”
“Less talk,” Ash said.
“More ‘let’s get the hell outta here’,” I added.
So we headed back to the little town we’d come from earlier and a discussion of what to do next.
Well, we finally got to hear from Danny. He’s shook up. What on earth is going on in the oil field?
Stay tuned for part 9.