We hadn’t spoken much on the ride back up the hill, and kept pretty quiet once we got back to the house, too. There was a silent agreement among us that we would sleep inside, even though the tents were up and ready for us.
We were unnerved. There was something slightly reassuring about doors with locks.
We found a couple of brooms in other houses and used them to sweep out thick layers of dust, after wrapping our faces in bandanas. Regardless of the protection, we were all sneezing and red-eyed by the time the place was semi-habitable. We brought in sleeping bags and food, and locked ourselves in.
It was nearly dark.
Sid opened his backpack and pulled out a few cans of cola. “There were cases of these in the store room,” he said.
“They’re probably flat,” Mae commented. “Mine was.”
Sid shrugged. “That came out of the machine.”
Morty said, “Drinks that have been refrigerated and then get warm again sometimes get funky. Maybe the ones that weren’t cold to start with fared better.”
“Worth a shot,” I said. I was trying to find a clean spot on my bandana so I could wipe my streaming eyes. Sid watched me. He pulled an old t-shirt out of his pack and handed it over. I took it gratefully and blotted tears away. I could feel my eyes re-filling with fluid in an attempt to rid themselves of the outrageous mess of dust I’d inflicted them with.
To my left, Dawn sneezed three times in rapid succession and sighed, “I have never been so dirty in my life!”
“Oh, yes, you have,” Mae told her. “You just don’t remember.”
“Humph. I’m not sorry to forget that, then.”
Danny was at the sink. He tested the tap and announced, “Hey! It works!”
There was a quick interlude while we washed up and changed our shirts. We hadn’t thought to pack a lot for our little “camping trip”, but at least there was that. I gave my clean shirt to Sid; I had cried on his, so I thought it best if I wore it myself. He rolled his eyes at me, but didn’t argue.
Danny and Ash started building us sandwiches with the leftover turkey. Mort sighed, “Bless Marie and her bread recipe.”
“Amen,” Dawn agreed.
Finally we sat in a circle on our bedrolls. While we ate, we addressed the subject we’d all been stewing about since leaving the “Valley of the Derricks”. Yes, it had taken up residence in my mind under this name. I can be silly, sometimes.
The valley, however, was anything but.
Dawn hadn’t gone down with us. She’d stayed up on the ridge, drawing sketch after sketch of the scenery below her. She hadn’t been infected with the feelings of unease and distrust the rest of us had experienced as we briefly explored. She said, “I don’t understand why you didn’t like it. It’s so pretty.”
“From a distance, it is,” Danny agreed. “But I felt…watched.” He looked at the rest of us. “Anyone else?”
Morty held up a hand. “I know what you all mean,” he said. “I had a definite case of the whim-whams myself. But the thing that bothers me is that there’s no refinery. At least, not there.”
“Do you think it might be down the other road?” Ash asked. “The one behind the church?”
“Would that seem likely?” I asked. “I mean, the transport from place to place would be just…”
“Ridiculous,” Sid finished. “The road was fine, but I can’t imagine big tanks being hauled up, through town and then down another road.”
Danny said, “The map shows another road on the other side of the valley. It leads out between those two hills.”
“It looks like you’d have to cross the river,” I said.
“What are you suggesting?” Mae asked. “I don’t want to go back down there.”
I shook my head. “I’m not suggesting anything,” I protested. I didn’t want to go back, either. “Just making an observation, for whatever it’s worth.”
Mort inhaled dramatically and let his breath out slowly. We all watched him as he frowned deeply and pondered. It was always interesting to watch his facial expressions when he was thinking things over. His eyebrows drew down over his eyes and his lips tightened.
Jeez, he was taking so long! Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. “Are we going to tell Grandpa?” I asked. “I mean, do we have to?”
“Those oil wells work,” Sid offered. “That’s important.”
“Is it?” Dawn asked. “If we’d never found this place, no one would ever even know the difference.”
Another huge inhale by Morty, and I stifled an urge to kick his ankle—I could reach easily. He looked at me, almost as if he’d read the thought in my mind. I bit my lip and then grinned at him. Guilty. Oh well. “Tell me what you really think, Penny,” he said.
“Ohhhhh. Well, crap.” Now it was my turn to take a deep breath. “I know working oil wells could be really important,” I said. “But that valley gives me the creeps, Morty, and that’s the truth.”
“I’m still focused on the refinery. More accurately—the lack of the refinery.” Morty pushed himself back up against the wall and drew his knee up to his chest. “All the paperwork suggests that it exists and was up and running.”
“It can’t be a small thing—we couldn’t have missed it if it was in that valley.”
“We’re going to tell, aren’t we?” I sighed.
“I think we have to. Don’t you?”
I swung my body around and lay on my stomach with my chin on my fists. I could feel my own frown forming on my face and briefly hoped it made my face as interesting as Morty’s was. My eyes teared up again and I brushed them impatiently as I thought about what sort of reaction Dad and Grandpa would have if they ended up discovering this place and realized we already knew about it and hadn’t told them.
We’d been at the compound for years, and no one had discovered it. But, still…
“This is not my decision,” I protested finally. “You’re the grown up. You decide.”
“Hey, I’m just saying,” Mort laughed, “you got us into this.”
Sid laughed. “Temper, temper.”
“For real,” Mae agreed. “That’s what started everything.”
“All right, you guys.” They weren’t wrong, but that wasn’t helping anything. “Let the record show, I don’t like it.”
“Ditto,” Mae agreed.
Morty nodded. “There’s something…I don’t know. I don’t care for it, either, but I think we’re going to have to explore further and find the refinery, find out where the road behind the church leads, and maybe find out what’s on the other side of the valley and the cliffs.”
“Us?” Dawn asked. There was a panicked edge to her voice, and Danny put his arm around her.
“No,” Morty assured her—all of us. “Not us. We’re going to pack up and go home in the morning. I’m going to talk to Vance and Dale about what WE found. I’m going to try to keep you kids out of it—they don’t have to know you found it first, do they?”
“No!” I agreed. “Please, no. I think WE found it is a great idea.”
“Yeah.” Sid grinned.
“Rest assured, I will be holding it over your head for years to come,” Mort promised.
“Oh, great,” Ash groaned.
“Yeah, I’m making a chore list in my head.”
We laughed. We were relieved, though. Dawn and Danny were safe—they’d gotten dragged into it at the same time as Morty had. But Mae, Sid and Ash were with me when I went off the beaten path. Better chores for Mort than facing the music with Gramps and Dad.
“Anyway,” Mort continued, “Dale has people, you know. There’s at least one engineer I can think of with us. I’m going to show them this place, and then we’re all going to step back and let them decide what to do.”
“Hey, I’m fine here,” Mort said. “But if I never set foot in that valley again, I will be a happy guy. I don’t want anything to do with it.”
“What on earth did you see down there?” Dawn cried.
We all shook our heads. “Nothing,” Danny said. “But I felt watched, like I told you.”
“Watched.” Dawn stared at us, bewildered.
“It feels…wrong.” I shrugged. “I can’t explain it.”
“Then why would we tell? Let’s just go home and forget it.”
“Sooner or later—”
“So? Let it be later. Let it be someone else.”
We all stared at each other. Finally, Ash burst out, “Damn it! I don’t believe in ghosts!”
Dawn jumped. Thankfully, she didn’t burst into tears. She’s growing up, my baby girl.
“Shit,” Mort groaned. “I hate this.”
I folded my arms and used them as a pillow, no longer willing to look at any of them. What had I gotten everyone into?
Finally, Mort said, “Nah. That’s going to have to be the plan. I’ll tell Dale and he can figure it out. We’ll go hunting and stay out of the way. What do you say?”
“I think it’s haunted,” I said. “Even if it sounds stupid, that’s how I feel.”
“Let the grownups decide,” Sid said.
“I’m just a kid, remember,” Morty told us. He laughed, but it sounded forced and insincere–a little scared, too.
We’d let the grownups decide…
I sat up. I stood, grabbed my soda and marched out the door.
It was dark. The moon was full. Nothing here felt scary, but…
“Are we really going to let the grownups decide?” I asked.
Sid was silent.
I popped the top on my soda. There was a tiny hiss. I sipped.
It was flat.
Is the “Valley of Derricks” haunted? What will the grownups decide? Penny’s sorry she lost her cool now.