Hidden Places (Part 13) Tunnel

That damned granddaughter of mine has certainly gotten us into a predicament this time.

You know, I try to stay out of Vance’s business where the girls are concerned. Ariela adored him for a reason—he’s a good man with a stout heart and plenty of love to give. He worshiped the ground my daughter walked on, and the pain of her loss is always with him.

I wish Penny could see it when she looks in his eyes, but she…well, she doesn’t look. Mae and Dawn bask in his affection, but Penny keeps her distance—the little shit.

Her anger hurts him. And it does her absolutely no good at all. She exasperates me, but Patty won’t let me kick her ass.

It’s going to happen sooner or later. I don’t think I’ve ever held my tongue so long. I see her looking at him sometimes, her eyes blazing. Oh, the grudge that girl clings to!

I’ve also seen her look at him with a speculative expression, and sometimes with admiration. She loves him. She needs to stop blaming him.

The government that should have protected us all betrayed us and killed my daughter. I saw it coming. Vance didn’t want to believe it—he was a career military man, and believed in being patriotic. But he’d been coming around, opening his eyes and his mind, and had gotten very involved with our plans to go into hiding.

We knew it was coming—but we were all late to the game. None of us expected things to fall apart so soon, or so completely.

Well…

This is neither here nor there. I really want to comment on this mess Penny has gotten us into.

I had this whole area surveyed when we bought up land years ago, but I had no idea any of this was here. This little man camp town, the picturesque church, the warehouse—and certainly not the oilfield.

How did we miss it?

A better question might be: Why did any of us have to find it at all?

There’s a question to be posed soon, and that is whether the benefits outweigh the risks. Yes, it would be beneficial to be able to produce our own fuel, but at what cost?

That valley is…spooky.

Superstition is something I’ve come to expect from Vance. It’s not so much his heritage, although that has a little to do with it. It’s not his upbringing, either, although his father and grandfather diligently taught him about the ways of his people and other indigenous peoples from this general area as a matter of course. No, it’s something deeper—he senses things. He feels them.

So do his daughters.

Now, mind you, I have never discounted these feelings. I’m an open-minded man. But until today, I had no idea what those feelings could be like.

The best word I can come up with is “unpleasant”. A close second would be “disconcerting”.

Honestly, I don’t know how they can stand it if it’s something that happens to them often. I wanted to jump on my ATV and go right back to the compound.

Penny calls it the whim-whams. Patty—my wife—would call it the heebie-jeebies. I don’t care what you call it. It’s uncomfortable. I don’t like it.

You know what makes it worse? Mort refusing to go down there—that’s the thing! That guy has been running into situations since he was a kid, and he’s got a knack for making everything work out. He found my granddaughters, after all.

When Ariana didn’t show up with the girls for our Fourth of July barbeque, he was the first to volunteer to go to the base and check on things. He snuck in there alone. He discovered the situation and he planned the rescue.

Vance and I were pretty much along for the ride. No wonder Penny idolizes him. No wonder Sid and Ash chose him to be their “Da” instead of staying with one of the married couples who wanted to take them in.

If Mort is scared—well, I think we all need to pay attention.

But, no. Here I was tooling up the road on an old ATV, leading some kids into God-alone-knows-what. Deliberately!

I am a foolish old man.

When the road turned into a fairytale nightmare, though, I decided we’d seen enough.

I stopped in the middle of the road.

The kids with me stopped, too. Randall looked relieved, and I noticed that Natalie seemed close to tears. If I felt scared—an old guy like me—imagine how these young people must have felt!

“There’s no refinery at the end of this road,” I announced. “It’s too narrow. The oil trucks could never get through those trees.”

The trees were growing closer to the sides of the road, and the road itself appeared to be getting narrower. It was almost like it was forming a tunnel ahead of us.

The leaves rustled. The fronds in the fir trees rattled. I swear, it was like they were beckoning to us, whispering,  “Come on in.”

Entering a tunnel definitely seemed like a bad idea.

Natalie shuddered. “Are we going back?” she asked hopefully.

I stared down the road, watching as tree branches waved like arms. My skin prickled with gooseflesh. “Oh, yeah, we’re leaving.”

“Yay!”

“Yay, indeed.” As a group, we turned our rides and headed back the way we’d come.

Randall said, “Whatever’s back there, I don’t think we need it.”

Judy pulled her bike alongside mine and added, “It might lead down to the river, but if we need to get there, we can find another way, can’t we Gramps?”

“I have no doubt,” I agreed.

She was probably right, although we’d been going uphill. I could imagine that tunnel of trees opening up on the far side to a vista of the valley down below the mountainside and the river meandering through it. The road would start to descend and wind down…

I could see it. In my mind, it was an appealing vision.

In reality, it meant going through that tunnel of trees; that tunnel called to me, but the feelings it inspired were those of impending doom. That tunnel made me feel that we’d never make it through to the far side, and never see what lay beyond.

Nope. Not going that way!

When we got back to the fork in the road where we’d parted company with Vance’s group, I was alarmed to see the dirt bikes and the hand-made signs suggesting we refrain from going up that road.

“Are we going to investigate?” Darren asked. I felt my jaw drop as I turned to stare at him.

Judy reached over and slugged him in the arm. “No!”

“We most certainly are NOT going to investigate,” I growled. I took another look at Darren.

Ah! He’s the one Mae has repeatedly referred to as “The Dumb Blonde”. I have scolded her for it, of course. But—now I get it.

I shook my head, a little disgusted with myself. He’s a kid; kids are curious.

Randall pointed at the tracks in the dirt road. “They ran off on foot,” he told us. “Something…”

“Something scared them,” I finished, when his voice just trailed off. “They’ll head back to the church. So will we.”

“What about the bikes?” Darren asked.

“Think you can ride two at a time?”I asked, my voice dripping with sarcasm.

The boy looked doubtful. “Uh…”

I sighed. “We’ll come back for them, don’t worry. Let’s go.”

It didn’t take long to get back to the church. Vance was there with his group, plus Penny and Ash. Mort was there, too, and Barry. They’d all been working in the village, salvaging, but I didn’t think twice about their presence.

Sid had been with Vance on that road. Whatever had transpired, Penny felt called to come and join them at the church. Simple.

I know, to any outsiders it might not seem to be so simple. But it’s like I told you—they feel things.

And me? I am starting to get it.

I’m not crazy about that.

After the woods and those crazy roads, the church felt damn near normal, even though there’s not much left in the building. For the first time all day, my stomach settled. “What set you scrambling without your bikes?” I asked.

Vance looked reluctant to speak, but the girl who’d gone with him jumped right in. “It was me,” she said. “I think the fairy circle was trying to pull me in.”

“Fairy circle?” Oh, my God, what fresh hell was this?

Vance gave me a rather defiant glare and said, “I don’t know about fairies, but there’s a circle of trees up there that has a distinctly evil aura,” he said.

I sighed. “I know what you mean. Road we took narrows into some sort of crowded tree tunnel, and evil is as good as any word to describe how it made me feel.”

“Me, too.” Natalie agreed. “I—I think they could have reached out and grabbed us.”

“That’s just—” Ash began.

“Stupid?” Natalie shot back defensively.

Ash’s face flushed, and for a moment I was afraid he might lose his temper. “Not at all what I was going to say,” he assured her.

“I—I’m sorry.” Natalie looked crestfallen. “I still shaking.”

I slapped my hands on my thighs. “Okay, folks,” I said. “I think we’re done here.”

“What about the—?”

“What, Darren?” I snapped.

“Oil…sir.” The boy’s face let me know I’d spoken harshly. I hadn’t meant to.

Instead of apologizing, I looked at Mort. “How’d the salvaging go?”

“There’s a lot of good stuff, Dale.”

“Let’s just deal with that for now, then,” I said. “I feel like…”

“I’ve had it, too,” Vance agreed, even though I hadn’t given voice to my thought.

I looked at Penny. She had the grace to look contrite. “I didn’t mean for this to…be like this,” she told me. “I mean—”

“Hey, sometimes we find, even when we don’t seek.” Sid shrugged.

I shrugged back. “I don’t know how this was missed when I had the area surveyed. But I do know this—I don’t like it. We should get going.”

“We’ve got to go back for the bikes,” Sid protested.

“You kids get back to the warehouse,” I ordered. “The grownups will get the bikes.”

“Sir?” Darren spoke up. “Are you walking up there?”

“What?”

“Four bikes up there; four grownups. Can you ride two at a time?”

Smart ass kid might not be a dumb blonde after all.

Ash said, “I’m going, Sid. You walk the girls back to town.”

Sid started to protest, but Penny grabbed his hand.

“I just need to see a little,” Ash told his brother.

Sid joined Penny, Natalie, Judy and Mary in their walk back to the warehouse.

It didn’t take the rest of us long to join them there. Together, we finished packing up the things we’d be able to move to the compound on this trip and locked everything else into the warehouse.

I already knew the debates ahead of me.

George and Buck were already making plans for the oil.

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