Hidden Places, Part 10

The kids were unusually quiet the morning after our trip into the valley. We’d all be so unnerved when we got back to the little hamlet that we decided to forego the tents and sleep inside the little house where we’d discovered the information about the derricks and refinery business.

I hadn’t slept well, trying to remember if I’d hit the switch that would turn off the generators in the basement of Station One before leaving the control room. I knew I’d turned off the ones controlling the derricks…

I asked Sid and Penny, and even Mae. They hadn’t noticed or even realized that there was a switch at all. I had discovered it and turned it on while we were just getting started with our explorations, and I suppose I didn’t make a grand announcement or anything.

It was bugging the crap out of me. Did I turn it off?

If I didn’t, they ran all night. By the time I could get Vance and Dale back out here, they’d be out of fuel for sure.

Damn it. I didn’t want to go back down there.

In the end, I couldn’t let it go. Sid and I mounted our dirt bikes and made the ride back down into the valley while the others packed up our camping gear.

We made quick work of checking the place, turning the gennies off—I had left them on, damn my hide—and getting back to the village.

When we got there, things were ready to go. Sid was pale as a ghost, and Penny said, “So, it’s really just awful there, then? We weren’t imagining it?”

“It’s awful,” Sid agreed, and I nodded. The place was spooky as hell.

“Why are we telling Mister Vance, then?” Ashley asked. “Can’t we just…forget about it?”

“Vance knows things,” I said.

“What things?” Penny asked.

“Just…things.”

She raised an eyebrow and studied me suspiciously, but she didn’t press the matter. She would later, I knew that, but I was grateful she was going to hold her tongue for now.

“Should we do some hunting on the way home?” Danny asked.

What a nice kid. He was trying to change the subject and get us focused on something more mundane. I said, “If we see something, we won’t pass up the opportunity, but I don’t think we need to go out of our way for it today. This was supposed to be a little vacation.”

“Ha!” Ash snorted. “I feel like I need a vacation!”

“Me, too.” Mae looked exhausted. “I’m going to crawl in bed the minute we get back.”

Dawn studied each of us in turn and shook her head. “I’m glad I didn’t go down,” she said. “I slept like a baby, but you all look like crap.”

“Thanks a heap,” Penny said.

“For the record, Pa,” Sid said, “I don’t really care if you tell or not, but I don’t want to go back down there.”

“That’s cool, son. I don’t either. And I’m not going to, unless Dale…er…persuades me.” I sighed. “That’s going to take some doing, I’ll tell you that.”

***

I took the rap. I didn’t tell Dale that the kids had discovered the town before I went there with them. I didn’t tell him that we’d found anything at all before our little camping trip. I didn’t want the kids to be in trouble, but I didn’t want to be in trouble myself, either. If they knew the extent to which we’d gone to keep it secret just so we could get there first, I figured they wouldn’t trust me with the kids anymore.

Maybe they shouldn’t.

Nah. I’m good with the kids, and this was a lapse in judgment. I think Vance or Dale would have done the same thing. It’s exciting to make discoveries.

Still, this is one I wish we hadn’t made at all.

“We were excited when we read about derricks and refineries,” I told Dale. “So we rode down to have a look, to make sure it was real.”

Dale was leaning on the table, across from me, his big hands folded in front of him. If he leaned in any closer, he could probably tweak my nose. I leaned back in my chair, just in case.

Vance was to my right, sitting back with his arms folded across his chest, scowling his “I will slug you,” scowl. I refused to look straight at him, in case it set me on fire or something.

“You should have come back to get us,” Dale scolded.

“To be honest, I didn’t believe we’d find anything.”

Vance pointed to the pile of papers in front of Dale. “You read those—what made you think there was nothing to find?”

I shrugged. “Look at the dates—it’s been years! Plus, the bridge, man—when you see it, you’ll understand.”

I stood up. “Look, that’s my report, and I should help the kids unpack. We will want to go back and check out the warehouse and the trucks. I’m sure there are things we can use. But I’m not…I can’t…”

“What?” Vance asked.

“That valley, dude? I’m not going back down there. I’ll help with any salvage in the town, but you guys can figure that place out yourselves.”

“What about the other road?” Dale asked. “Don’t you want to see where it leads?”

“I am out on further exploration,” I replied firmly. “Salvage? I’m your man. I’ll recruit some people and we’ll see what we find. I’m telling you—I know there’s probably oil down there. But I don’t think we need it, not if we have to…”

“What?”

I looked at Vance. “You know about spirits and curses. See how you feel when you go down there, and tell me if you think it’s worth it, okay?”

Vance’s jaw dropped and he studied me. It didn’t take him long to decide I wasn’t pulling his leg. “What did Penny say?”

“She won’t go back. I’m not even sure I can get her to join the salvage team.”

Vance told Dale, “She’s sensitive.”

Dale nodded. “Sounds to me like you don’t have to be particularly sensitive in this case. The kids are spooked.”

Vance turned back to me. “You’ll go to the town with me?”

“Sure.”

“Dale?”

“Hey, I wouldn’t miss this for the world.” Dale shrugged. “One thing I am not is sensitive. Just ask Patty.” He stood up and went to the bookshelf, where he located a ledger. “I’m thinking we’ll ask Bruce and Angus to go down with us. They’ve got some experience in oil field technology and engineering. If there is a refinery somewhere, it could be very useful.”

I shrugged. “I’ve been on board for the horse and buggy project Gage has going on at his compound from the start.”

Dale nodded. “Your boys are getting pretty decent at blacksmithing. Although, I’ve noticed Sid prefers swords to wagon wheels.”

“Who doesn’t?” Vance laughed.

“Look, just let me know when you get a team together, and I’ll be ready with my team.” I stood up. “I’m glad to get you to town, and then you’re on your own. I’m all about the toothpaste.”

“Toothpaste?”

“Yeah, there’s a story…” I hastened to the door. “We looked around the town, you know.”

Dale frowned. “You were awfully busy yesterday, boy.”

“Yes, sir.” I opened the door. “Summer days are long…”

“Morty—”

“Let me know when you want to go!” I was out the door and heading for the underground entrance as fast as my short ol’ legs would take me. I didn’t want to answer more questions or risk sticking a foot in my mouth.

When I got back, the kids were waiting and full of questions. I held up both hands to stop them before they could bombard me. “Number one—we found everything yesterday. Everything.”

“Absolutely,” Sid said. The others nodded.

“Number two—we salvage, they explore.”

“Yes!” Penny nodded enthusiastically. “I’m okay with warehouse duty.”

“I might go down with them,” Sid said.

We stared at him. “But you said—” I started.

“I know. I don’t want to go down to the valley with them—I didn’t mean that.” Sid drummed his fingers on the tabletop. “But I want to see where the other road goes.”

“Suit yourself.”

“I wish you wouldn’t,” Penny said.

Dawn said, “Well…he could give me information for maps.”

“So could Dad.”

“Do we want him to know about the maps?” Mae asked.

“That’s why I went in the first place,” Dawn reminded her.

“I know that. But he doesn’t.”

“Let’s keep it that way,” I said. “The explanation for that is Dawn carries drawing supplies with her everywhere.”

“That’s not a lie,” Danny offered.

“Bonus.” Ash grinned. “I don’t like this, for the record. Maybe we should just confess.”

I looked at him, long and steadily. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Finally I asked him, “You want to go first?”

“Never mind.” He took a deep breath and added, “It’s not like we did anything wrong…”

I cleared my throat loudly.

“It’s not that we did anything very wrong…”

Sid grinned. “Shall we make a list?”

“I said, never mind!” Ash was still grinning, but it wasn’t very convincing.

“If it ever comes to that,” Penny interjected, “I’ll take the rap.” She shrugged. “I lost my temper. That always gets me in trouble.”

I shook my head. “Forget it. Couple of old men trying to shut the barn door after the horses escaped—that’s what led to this.”

Dawn said, “What does that—?”

“Just forget it.” Sid and Penny, Ashley and Mae wore deep blushes on their faces, and not a one of us cared to explain anything.

Damn kids.

“So, we’re going back?” Mae asked, changing the subject. “Just to check out the warehouse and trucks, nothing else?”

“Yeah.” I looked at each of them. “We’ll need a crew, if you want to get some volunteers together.”

“Can I stay home?” Dawn asked. “I’ll help unload and put away whatever you bring back, but I…”

Her voice trailed off.

“She’s had enough outdoors for now,” Danny finished. “That was hard for her, you know?”

We knew. Dawn and the outside world are not well acquainted, usually.

“I’m proud of you, kiddo,” I told her. “You can stay here and work on the maps.”

She smiled and nodded, talked out for the time being.

“I’ll go with you,” Danny said.

“Are you sure, Sid?” Penny asked. “You don’t have to go with Dad and Gramps.”

“I feel like…I guess I just want to see for myself.” Sid wore a determined look on his face, and I kind of admired him in that moment.

I said, “Better you than me, kid.”

***

I don’t know about you, but I was expecting this to be a great and happy discovery. But…

Sometimes stories don’t follow the path you start them out on! Now what?

Dead End (Hidden Things, 11.1)

Penny called it Valley of the Derricks, and so it was. There weren’t many, not like in the oilfields I’d grown up surrounded by, and the place seemed peaceful and beautiful until you got right down there in it.

Then it got creepy.

But Morty was right–there was no refinery down there, and that meant we’d have to explore the other route from the village.

That road started behind the church, and went uphill, rather than down, which didn’t seem a likely route to anywhere except the forest.

Then we came to a fork in the road. Dale took his group one way. I took Sid, Zach and Mary the other direction, and we soon found ourselves on a road that leveled off for a bit, went between two hills, and then started sloping downhill.

“Hey, this might actually lead somewhere!” Sid cried, excited.

Except, where it led was a dead-end to the road and more forest.

“What is that?” Zach asked, pointing through the trees to a strange clearing of land surrounding a circular group of trees. They were alive–leaves of green attested to that–and yet, they seemed to convey death itself. My pulse quickened. I could feel it pounding in my neck.

I dismounted my dirt bike. The others followed suit.

I moved closer, as if compelled.

As I approached the unusual grove of trees, I sensed the existence of something ancient.

It wasn’t a pleasant feeling; worse, in fact, than the feeling I’d gotten in Valley of the Derricks. I was beginning to think Mort was right–nothing in this place was going to be worth the risk of being here.

“Mr. Vance?” Sid had come up behind me, and it was all I could do not to jump out of my skin when he spoke. I know he saw me start, but he was polite enough not to mention it. “What do you think this place is?”

“Dangerous,” I replied. My voice was a low growl, not at all my normal voice. Sid didn’t mention that, either. I’d probably like this kid, if I didn’t think he and Penny were…rushing into things.

Not true. I like him fine. I just hate that my girls are growing up. Sue me.

Sid said, “Yeah. Penny says the valley feels haunted. I’m glad she’s not here, because this feels…”

I nodded. “Makes the valley feel almost safe, doesn’t it?”

“Almost.”

“Sid, why did you come with us today?” This interested me. Mort refused to come, and so did Penny and the others who had discovered the valley. They wanted nothing to do with it, or any further explorations.

Sid shrugged. “You ever hear that old saying, ‘curiosity killed the cat’, Mr. Vance?”

“A time or two, I guess.”

“I was curious. I thought…maybe it was my imagination. Maybe it would be better. But the valley was still creepy, and this place is giving me such a case of the whim-whams that if you don’t tell me we’re leaving, I might run away and leave you here.” Sid shrugged, apologetic but resolved. “Just sayin’. Sorry.”

“Nah. We’re going.”

Zach and Mary hadn’t said a word; they stood hand in hand, staring at the misshapen trees, which grew in a circular pattern that certainly had to have been cultivated. What else could have formed this growth? It wasn’t natural.

I thought of the way Dale had planted and cultivated the trees that grew in our compound, manipulated as they grew so they formed an umbrella-like shelter over the above-ground buildings because he didn’t want us to be seen from the sky. In the aftermath, this became a bit of a joke–we hadn’t seen a plane in years.

What was the purpose of cultivating this?

Mary whispered, “Fairy circle?”

We stared at her. “Well,” Zach said, finally, “if it was fairies, why does it scare the bejezus out of me? I thought fairies were nice.”

“Not necessarily,” Mary said. “We’re going, right?” Her voice trembled, and I nodded.

I noticed that we’d all armed ourselves. Sid had his crossbow loaded. Zach had a handgun. Mary held a dagger. And I was holding the sword Sid had forged for me a few years ago. “Fairies, huh?”

Mary giggled nervously. “I don’t know. I don’t know why that popped into my head. I always thought fairy circles would be flowers and berry bushes.” She took a step closer, and Zach grabbed her arm.

“No!” I cried. “No closer. Back away.”

“What?”

Dread was making my chest tighten and my stomach churn. “Don’t turn your backs on it. Go! Go!”

As quickly as we could, we backed down the hill and away from that place. I was thinking about my ancestors and curses on interlopers placed on sacred lands. That had been my impression in Valley of the Derricks, but this place felt…evil. There was nothing sacred about it, and I wanted us gone, out of sight and far away.

We got back to the road and mounted our dirt bikes. As quickly as we could safely ride, we went back the way we’d come.

When we got back to the fork in the road, I signaled to them and we pulled over to wait for Dale and his group, since this was our designated rendezvous spot.

Sid dismounted and pulled off his pack. From inside, he pulled out one of Dawn’s drawing pads.

“What are you doing?” Zach asked.

“Making a sign,” Sid explained. He worked for several minutes. To me, it looked like he was scribbling across the page, but when he held it up, I could see that he’d been filling in the lettering so it was large, dark and legible from a distance: DEAD END! DO NOT ENTER!

“Make another,” Mary commanded, and Sid went to work on it while she and Zach hung the first one on a tree by the side of the road. The second one they hung on the remains of a broken fence that stood between that and the road Dale’s group had taken.

“There ought to be a big gate and chains,” Sid said.

“Maybe we should go back,” Mary sighed, and started to walk past Sid, who grabbed her. “No! I think we should go see them…”

“Oh, shit,” Zach cried, grabbing Mary’s other arm. She was trying to pull away from the boys and go back down the road.

I snatched her up and threw her over my shoulder. I started running away from the place while she fought me. “Let’s make tracks, boys!” I called. “We can get the bikes later.”

We ran. Dale would have to figure it out and know we’d headed back to the church.

I didn’t care if we ever saw our bikes again.

We were nearly back to the town when Mary stopped fighting me and asked, “What’s going on? Why are we running? What happened?”

She stared at us. Neither Sid, Zach or I had any answers for her.

We went to the church to wait for Dale. While I was there, I offered up a prayer that his group would join us quickly, unharmed and with no stories like ours to tell.

I don’t care much for scary stories.

***

This was inspired by an older Writers Unite! prompt. It creeped me out when I saw it, but I hadn’t come up with anything for it until Penny landed everyone in a spooky valley off the grid.

Unlike Penny’s dad, Vance, I DO like a scary story. But I don’t like this grove of trees…

At The Cabin

After the holidays, Gretchen had deliberately made of herself a recluse. She had been working all year on a novel, researching and making notes, outlining and plotting, and she was ready to put it all together.

          After having taken most of December and half of January off, due to family obligations related to holiday celebrations, she explained her plan for a big writing push, and asked for some alone time. Her family was grudgingly obliging, agreeing to schedule video chats on weekends for the foreseeable future.

          For the first time in a decade, she was glad she was single.

          “Mom, please don’t do this.”

          Gretchen paused in her packing and sighed. Yes, she was single, but she still had to contend with the children.

          “Mallory, stop it,” she said. “The cabin is perfectly safe.”

          “Sure, in the summer!” Mallory wasn’t giving up without a fight, clearly.

          “Dad made sure everything was safe for winter, too.” Gretchen folded a thick sweater and tucked it into the suitcase. “I have a big generator, in case of a power outage. I have a big backup generator in case an outage outlasts the fuel in the first one. And there’s a third generator, besides. The caretaker has already made sure they are all full of gasoline. I have the fireplace in the front room and a wood-burning stove in the kitchen. I have half a dozen heavy quilts. The freezer is full. The pantry is full. The grocery store delivers.”

          “But it’s so far, mom! And the cell service is awful!”

          “There’s a land line, Mal. Just stop! I’m going.”

          “You could just write from here. We’ll leave you alone.”

          “I always write at the cabin.”

          “Not in winter!”

          “Mallory Grace, you’re driving me nuts! Go tell your brother you did your best, and leave me be! I’m a grown woman, for God’s sake. I can take care of myself.”

          Mallory, frowning deeply, flopped down in an easy chair, crossing her legs and folding her arms across her chest. “Wish you’d taken the house in the settlement and let Dad keep the cabin,” she huffed.

          Gretchen rolled her eyes. “Your father never used the cabin. He doesn’t like to fish; he doesn’t like fresh air; he doesn’t swim—”

          “I thought the cabin was his inheritance.”

          Gretchen shrugged. “He didn’t want to buy me out of my half of the house. I didn’t want the mortgage payments. He didn’t want the cabin. Since I’m the one who always used it, he offered it in place of the house options, and it’s paid for, so I took the deed with a big old smile.” She zipped the suitcase shut. “Least he could do for me, the ass. And you already know all this!”

          Gretchen started loading the Suburban, and Mallory tagged along, still griping. “It’s just so far! You can’t blame us for being worried, Mom.”

          “I don’t.” Gretchen grinned as she inspected the interior of the vehicle. Getting deliveries from UPS was an issue at the cabin, so she had stocked up on toilet paper, facial tissue and paper towels. She was certain she’d have plenty; she was only one person, after all.

          She drew her daughter into a long embrace, got into the SUV, and rolled the window down for one last goodbye. “Don’t you dare forget to water my plants!” she said.

          “I won’t, Mom.” Mallory kissed Koko, Gretchen’s black Chihuahua-and-whatever-else mixed breed, and passed her through the window. Koko jumped into the passenger seat and settled herself on her blanket, curling into a ball of unruly curls. “You take care of Mama, Koko!”

          Koko gave a noncommittal “woof”. Gretchen and Mallory giggled.

          “You call the minute you get there,” Mallory ordered.

          “Yes, ma’am.”

          “The phone is on?”

          “It’s on. Quit smothering me!”

          “Turnabout’s fair play.” Mallory leaned in the window and kissed her mother’s cheek. “I love you. Be careful.”

***

          It was cold. Gretchen wasn’t surprised, exactly, but the change between city and country in terms of temperature was always an…adjustment. She thanked her lucky stars for the caretaker; the snow had been cleared from the driveway and foot-path.

          Inside, she found the place cozily warm. The caretaker’s wife had left her a prepared dinner on a plate in the refrigerator, and Gretchen popped it into the microwave to warm up while she brought in the last of her luggage and provisions.

          Koko kept busy running back and forth, and as soon as Gretchen shut the front door, she squatted and peed on the welcome mat.

          “Damn it, Koko!” Gretchen snatched up woman’s-best -friend and headed out the door with her, admonishing the pooch the whole time. Koko, undaunted, finished her business outside.

Gretchen put the mat outdoors to be dealt with later, and shut the door again.

          They were in for the night, she hoped.

          With everything finally inside, Gretchen doffed her winter gear and called Mallory and other family members to check in. No sense in getting anyone worried on her first day away.

          After putting out food and water for Koko, she enjoyed her first meal in the cabin and went to bed early.

   ***      

Mallory hung up the phone and announced to her family, “I don’t like it.”

          Greg, her husband, rolled his eyes at her. “She’s a grown woman, Mal. She’ll be fine.”

          “You don’t know what it’s like there in the middle of winter!”

         “Neither do you.”

          “Well, I’ve heard stories about the wind and snow blowing in off that lake.” Mallory didn’t appreciate being reminded that she didn’t exactly know what she was talking about.

          “I’m sure your mother has heard the same stories and has a plan for dealing with it. She’s not foolish.”

          Mallory sat down across the table from her husband and put her face in her hands. “I know I’m being nuts about this, Greg,” she admitted. “But I have such a bad feeling in my guts about it. I can’t explain it.”

          Greg, no stranger to Mallory’s “gut feelings”, looked a bit alarmed. “What sort of bad, Mal? The ‘I’m worried because she’s old and alone’ bad, or the ‘I think she might really be in danger’ bad?”

          “I don’t know!” Mallory shook her head vigorously, as if to clear cobwebs. “I’ve never been a good judge of that in the first place, and I haven’t ever felt like this about Mom.”

          “So, call her once a day.”

          “We all promised to call on the weekends only.”

          “Well, that was a dumb thing to promise.”

          “I know, right?”

          “Talk to Grandpa and your brother. Either one of them would get away with calling whenever they want.”

          Mallory giggled. “Especially Grandpa. Okay. I will.”

***

          According to her father, there had been no snow in the city at all this week. At the cabin, there had been storms three days out of the seven she’d been here. The caretaker came by a couple of times to plow the driveway and shovel the path, so Gretchen had a clear shot to the main road if she needed to go anywhere.

          She and Koko had established a loose routine of walks outdoors, and pacing indoors. For some reason, Gretchen was nervous as a feline on catnip. She had put up a big storyboard and it was plastered with post-it notes. The outline and the timeline were intact; the plot was plotted. All she had to do was sit down and start typing. But she couldn’t sit still.

          Koko lay in front of the fireplace, chin on paws, and watched as Gretchen walked to and fro across the room. Once in a while she moaned piteously, as if expressing sympathy for her befuddled mistress.

          Gretchen sighed. “Dad’s worried about me,” she told her furry friend. She sat down, stared at the screen of her old friend, word processor. “Hell, I’m getting worried about me, too.” She stood, paced to the kitchen, then back to the front door.

           Koko’s head lifted. Her ears shot up. Was it time for a walk?

          “Yeah, okay,” Gretchen agreed. She pulled her coat on. “Let’s try not to freeze this time, okay?”

            Koko emitted a disdainful sneeze at the sight of her leash, but sat and obediently lifted her chin while Gretchen attached it to her collar. She wasn’t a particularly adventurous dog and rarely wandered, but there were critters out there that might want to make a tasty snack of the little dog, and Gretchen was taking no chances.

            At the last minute, she grabbed her cell phone and stuffed it into the inside breast pocket of her parka. “Dumb,” she told Koto as they headed out the door. “Damn thing never works out here.”

            Koko gave her a quizzical look.

            If dogs could shrug…

            Outdoors, Koko led Gretchen down the path, where she discovered a set of fresh rabbit tracks. It was a little off their usual route, but Gretchen didn’t see any harm in letting Koko have a little fun with a bunny hunt for a few minutes. They weren’t going to get lost, after all—they only had to follow their own footprints back to the path.

They zigged and zagged a bit, and the snow got deeper in spots that weren’t as sheltered from the trees. Gretchen was out of breath from breaking through the drifts. Koko, tiny thing that she was, walked on top of the surface, rarely sinking more than an inch or so. “Oh, to be skinny,” Gretchen sighed. “That’s enough, Koke. Time to go home.”

Koko tugged the leash a couple of time in mock protest, and then turned with her mistress to go back to the cabin. They had gone only a few steps back when a loud cracking noise sounded in the stillness and Gretchen found herself armpit-deep in a hole. “Auuughhh! What the hell?”

Really, it was one armpit—her right arm was free, simply because she had been holding onto Koko’s leash. Her other arm was trapped against her side. The hole was tight, and she couldn’t feel the bottom.  

Koko inched her way over to her, kissed her nose and whined. “Baby, I think you saved my life.” Gretchen carefully moved her arm, hand still gripping the leash, and pushed Koko away from her face. She wiggled her feet, just to confirm to herself that the bottom of the hole wasn’t within her reach. God only knew how deep it might be.

The lake was close by, and she was grateful that this hole wasn’t filled with water. She concluded that she was above the water level, and that was good—as far as it went. After all, she was still stuck in a hole.

Her phone was in her inside breast pocket, but it was out of reach in her present position. Left arm tightly caught between her side and the side of the hole; right arm outside; holding her in place and keeping her from falling any further. It would be easiest to grab the phone from that left side pocket with her right hand, but she was no fool. She wouldn’t risk losing the only anchor she had. Getting it with her left hand would have been a task under the best of circumstances, and now seemed impossible, but she was going to have to try.

First, she decided she’d better get her feet set somewhere, so she pushed her toes forward until she encountered the side of the hole, reflecting that it wouldn’t be quite so hard to do if she’d lose about twenty pounds. Of course, she might have slid right down the hole in spite of her arm if not for the added tummy…

“This is so stupid,” she whispered.

Koko whined. She pushed her little face against Gretchen’s cheek; her eyes were full of tears. Gretchen stroked her head. “It’s okay, girl, we’re going to get out of this mess.” She kicked forward with her right foot, tapping a shelf into the side of the hole that she could use to brace herself with. Carefully, she inched her left leg up as much as she could with a knee-bend and tapped a second shelf into place. “I’m building some steps.”

She was starting to shiver, and noted that her little dog was doing the same. She knew she had to hurry if they weren’t both going to freeze, but she also knew she was going to have to be very careful. Cautiously, she pushed with her feet, and decided she needed to dig her shelves deeper. It wouldn’t do for the soil to collapse under her weight—she could fall in deeper, even with an arm-hold outside the hole. She kicked lightly and rotated her feet. “I’m a drill, Koko,” she said, trying not to let her teeth chatter. Once that started, she didn’t think she’d be able to stop it.

The leash was looped around her wrist, and for now she intended to keep it that way. But if this went on too long, she would let go so Koko could get away.

Her feet drilled into soil slowly—the ground was frozen less solidly at this depth, but it was hard going. Every half inch or so gained, she carefully tested her weight against her foot-made “steps”. She was terrified that the dirt would break off under her feet.

There was no way to know how deep the hole was. How far would she plummet if she lost her tenuous grip?

Finally, she felt stable enough to start moving her left arm. She got her hand against her thigh and began wiggling it up to her waist. Using her thumb, she pushed the hem of her coat down so she wouldn’t end up with her hand underneath and it and trapped. Ah! Here was the zipper. She walked her fingers up her belly, between her breasts and up to her neck, keeping her elbow pressed firmly to the side of the hole so she wouldn’t slip.

As she moved, it became increasingly clear that she wasn’t going to be able to get her hand inside her jacket to pull out her phone. She also didn’t have much hope of turning it on trying to press buttons through her heavy coat. She pushed her left foot into its makeshift step and slowly straightened her leg, lifting herself just a little higher and using her right elbow to leverage herself up. Her right foot was dangling again, and she bent her knee carefully and got it up higher than the left. Then she started the step-making process again.

When both feet were well-seated once more, she walked her left hand up her neck and face, millimeters at a time. Koko sat staring into her face, in an eye to eye posture they’d never been in before. Her eyes were anxious and hopeful, and Gretchen thought her own eyes probably looked the same.

She was really frightened about thrusting her arm up out of the hole. That elbow pressing against the side was oddly reassuring. She worked to push her feet deeper into the soil, praying for stability. She pushed up on her toes, which raised her only slightly. She pushed her right arm out as far as she could and brushed snow away from the turf.

Koko, in a surprisingly helpful move, lay down across her forearm, adding a little weight. “Good girl, baby!” Koko’s tail thumped.

Gretchen dug her fingers into the grass and dirt as deeply as she could manage. She sucked in a cleansing breath and blew it out. Koko let out and encouraging yip. Gretchen thrust her left arm up and out, and threw it wide to catch herself if she started to slide down into the hole.

Her steps held. Now, arms akimbo, she hung there by both armpits. She felt sweat slide down her forehead and blinked hard. How is heaven’s name could she have worked up a sweat in this freezing weather? “You know what, Koko? Bodies are weird.”

Koko watched anxiously, still laying across her arm. Gretchen tried to pull herself up, but she wasn’t quite up to the task. “Damn it. I’m so out of shape!”

She sighed. Time to make another step, she decided. This time, she drew her knee up higher, feeling a little more confident now that she had both arms to hold herself up. She still didn’t think she could get to her phone; if she expended too much energy on the effort and managed it, and then got no reception, she was sure she would be too worn out to do anything else.

“Not worth it,” she told her little dog. She would feel the creature’s trembling. It was much too cold for them to be out this long. Koko was a short-haired breed. She needed to hurry.

Kick; twist; push. Kick; twist; push. A couple more steps and she started pushing the ground with her elbows. She was making some progress, but the higher she got her feet, the harder the frozen soil became.

She started kicking backwards with her heels, working on foot-holds front and back for more leverage. Heel; toe. Grunt; groan. Push; pull. She used her elbows to dig in and pushed with her shoulders. Inch by inch, she got her upper torso out. She cursed the arthritis in her wrists—if not for that, she could do a literal push-up. “God!” Gretchen yelled in frustration.

She was able to reach her phone, finally.

No signal. She left the useless thing on after dialing 911, and tossed it on the ground, just within reach. It could connect—anything was possible.

She pushed the loop of the leash off her wrist. “Go home, Koko,” she said. “Run, baby. Find someplace warm.”

Instead, Koko moved close to her and pressed herself against Gretchen’s neck and chest. Gretchen pushed the little dog into the front of her coat. They were both shivering violently, and the teeth-chattering she’d been dreading began.

“Shit.”

She fanned her arms over the ground like she was making a snow angel. She decided to embrace the width of her hips—they were likely saving her this very minute. She leaned back a bit and pushed with her elbows and shoulders and toes. She wiggled—carefully. She kicked her toes into the soil as hard as she was able. “One…step…at…a…time,” she gasped.

Koko licked her neck and whined.

“Yeah, me, too.”

But she was really making progress now—finally. It took a few more minutes, but she finally pushed herself up and out. She rolled away from the hole, Koko leaping out of her coat and out of the way.

She lay panting in the snow, and then pushed herself up. With her first shaky step, she crushed her phone. “Screw it.” She picked up her dog and trudged back to the cabin.

Half an hour later, Gretchen and Koko sat in front of a roaring fire, still shivering. “We never speak of this,” she told her beloved pet. “Mallory would never let us out of the house again.”

***

By noon the next day, Gretchen was packed and ready to go. Koko jumped into the Suburban with unseemly enthusiasm.

When they arrived at the house, Gretchen called Mallory and told her she was home.

“You’re back? What happened?”

“What do you mean, what happened?” Gretchen gave Koko a guilty look and shook her head.

“I know you, Mom. The book can’t be done already!”

Greg called out: “She had a bad feeling, Ma!”

“Well, that’s just silly.”

“Is it? What happened, Mom?”

“Oh. Well,” Gretchen sighed dramatically, “you were right.”

“Wait—let me get this on tape,” Mallory cried. “What did you say?”

“You were right, Mal. Cabins are for summer.”

“Eek!” Mallory giggled. “You heard that, right, Greg? You’re on speaker, Mom.”

“Whatever. It’s not like you can’t be right once in a while, Mallory.” Gretchen rolled her eyes at the dog, and hoped the story of her early return would go no further.

She knew she could be dead right now, and Koko, too. But no one else needed to know it. She was fine.

Miracles happen every day.

Now if she could just finish the damn book.

It’s a new year, and Writers Unite! is off and running with new Write The Story Prompts.

If you’re wondering how I know how to get out of a hole–that’s a moose adventure for another day. (True stories that could still get me grounded, don’t you know.)

For a good time, check out Write The Story tales here: https://writersuniteweb.wordpress.com/

Hidden Places, Part 9

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.”

“So?”

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!”

Running water!

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?”

“Yes.”

“Me.”

“Me, too.”

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.”

“I know.”

“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.”

“Terrific.”

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.”

“You’re not—”

“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.

“Okay.”

We’d let the grownups decide…

I sat up. I stood, grabbed my soda and marched out the door.

Sid followed.

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.

Waiting for the End

As dark clouds gathered over the “City of Lights,” I wondered what the next twenty-four hours would bring.

I stared as the television screen showed scenes of the earlier world-wide rioting, and thanked God that this would be the last time I’d be alone in this house. Vance was on his way back from the compound to pick me up; he’d gone straight there with his girls after the rescue raid at base housing. The vehicles had been full of the rescued captives. There’d been no sense in returning to the city first.

The image of Paris under ominous clouds wouldn’t leave my mind. Until this moment, I’d convinced myself that there were other places we could go. Apparently, I was mistaken.

The picture filled the TV screen again, and I muted the voice of the news person speaking of unrest and rumors of insurrection. My heartbeat was rapid; saliva filled my mouth. I bolted for the bathroom and violently emptied my stomach.

What has happened to my world?

After rinsing, I loaded my toothbrush and vigorously cleansed my mouth. I started to put it away, and realized what I really needed to do was pack it.

“Good grief!” I cried aloud. “I almost forgot my toothbrush!”

Returning to the front room, I studied stacks of bags and boxes. Clothing; toiletries; blankets; food. Mostly food.

My laptop bag and accessories–a dumb packing choice, most likely. But I had selected a few favorite movies on DVD that I could watch even if internet was suddenly extinct. It was also loaded with music and book files. I had no intention of giving it up.

I changed the TV to an old western. I sat on the arm of the sofa so I could watch for Vance.

Time to get outta Dodge.

Inspired by a Writers Unite! prompt, and a little glimpse into Penny’s world before The End.

Get Out Now

Unexpectedly, my laptop rebooted and displayed an ominous image and a more ominous warning.

I stared at the screen, surprisingly unconcerned that the work I’d been doing had disappeared.

If this was real…who cared if I reviewed that new coffeemaker?

My chest tightened, a sure sign of an imminent asthma attack, so I took two quick pulls on my inhaler, grabbed a notebook and started making a list.

“Damn it, woman, you don’t have time for a list!” I dropped the pen and got moving.

Within the hour, I had packed bags for myself and my 2-year-old daughter, stuffed coolers with ice and food, bagged up dry goods and dog food and loaded the van.

Once the baby and the dog were aboard and strapped in, I started the van, raised the garage door and backed out. I expected to see my neighbors doing the same, but the street was quiet–not unusual for this time on a Wednesday. Pushing the control button, I watched the garage door descend before leaving.

“Where go, Mama?” Georgia asked in her tiny voice.

“Cabin,” I replied.

“Fishy, fishy!” Georgia clapped her hands.

“Probably.”

The gas station was busy, but not crazily so. Was no one else warned?

With a full gas tank and a giant coffee, I expected to see an exodus leaving the city, but traffic was light. The baby shared cookies with Rufus, her  Golden Lab “brother”. I searched the radio for news.

We arrived at the cabin several hours later. I fed everyone. We went to sleep.

Sometime during the night, the city exploded in a giant fireball launched from God-knows-where by God-knows-whom.

No warning on radio or internet. So who’d warned me?

I thought: Roy!

But he died before Georgia was born…

Once again, Writers Unite! ignites a tale with a prompt.

Hidden Places Part 8

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.”

“I don’t—”

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?”

She nodded.

“It’s quiet.”

“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.”

“Yeah.”

“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?”

“Ghosts.”

“Oh, terrific.”

“I know.”

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.”

“Good.”

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.  

2020 Continues to Suck

My most appropriate ornament. I bought a few. Gave them as gifts. Not sorry.

And do I still HOPE? I suppose so. But…

Last time here, I expressed some hope and agreed with myself that I would do the annual “Who We Lost”, daunting as it was going to be. I completed and posted it yesterday on my other blog, MeThinks.

Today I learned that I needed to add a name to my list–which was outrageously long compared to prior years. The name has not yet been added, nor have I updated that blog post, because I haven’t seen an announcement from the family yet. But I am mentioning it here because… Damn it!

I’m not upset that I missed a name–I had no way of knowing until we were personally informed. It hasn’t made the local paper yet. I’m upset because I have known this person since childhood, and what killed him was the COVID-19 virus.

The other day I was asked if I personally knew anyone who had contracted the virus at all, suffered any level of illness or actually died from it. The person who asked me was being sarcastic–this person apparently does not believe that the virus is any more serious than the flu, and thinks the hype about social distancing, wearing a mask, etc. are all scare tactics designed to “control” her.

At the time, I was sorry to have to inform her that I did know people personally who had contracted it. Some had mild illness, some lost taste and smell sensations, some were very sick and a couple had died. She snorted derisively and said I was “part of the problem” and a “sheep”.

I DIDN’T punch her in the face. (Why would I? I certainly wouldn’t want to touch her mask-less face. She kept moving closer to me as she spoke to me, and grrr.)

This person was a stranger. She said I “looked at her funny” when I passed her at Walmart. Maybe I did. She didn’t have her mask on. She probably removed it as soon as she came through the doors. You know, where the sign saying masks should be worn in the store is posted. Maybe she was just feeling defensive after a few people asked her to put the mask she had dangling from one ear onto her face properly. I didn’t want to talk to her; she initiated it with “What are you looking at, sheep? Bah.”

Yeah. I got away as quickly as I could, went and used some hand sanitizer and finished my Christmas shopping.

People are lovely, you know it?

Anyway, now I sort of wish I HAD punched her in the face.

My friend is gone. People like her–that’s the reason.

Bitch!

So, anyhooooo…

Cheery little shit, aren’t I?

I am deeply saddened that my friend is gone. I pray for family and friends. I will cry some more.

I will update my post when it is public.

And I will beg you all–AGAIN–wash your hands. Wear a mask. Keep your distance. Wash your hands again. Stay home. Wear your f*&%ing mask.

Ta ta for now.

Happy 2021–I Hope!

(I got this image from the internet, as did quite a few other people I know. It perfectly sums up the past year, in my humble opinion.)

Well, we made it through another year. At least, some of us did.

Times past, I have done a memorial column at the end of each year, as a little tribute to the local losses. I have always found it difficult, but this year as I swept through obituaries, I found it so daunting that I decided I just could not do it.

I should probably do it. 2020, more than ever, deserves the tributes.

Sigh. Okay, I will do it. It’s going to be late, but it will be done. You’ll have to see it on my other blog, though. That’s the spot where I’ve always done it.

For me, personally, the biggest loss was my father, Paul Eugene Shablo. He lived a long and mostly healthy life. He loved deeply and steadfastly, and was loved in return. He was kind, generous and funny. He was the best father anyone could ever ask for. I’ve heard that it gets easier over time to accept a loss, but in the case, I will have to disagree. Every single day, it is hard. I still expect to see him when I come up the stairs, sitting in the kitchen with a cup of coffee and fiddling with one gadget or other. I still expect to hear his voice. I still consider his preferences when I plan a meal. Oddly enough, I haven’t been able to bring myself to make spaghetti since his accident nearly eight months ago. I know how weird that sounds. Sometime soon, I will give it a try.

Mom has had it rough this past year, more so than most. She lost her husband of sixty-three years. That final anniversary happened after the funeral, but I insist that it counts. That was quite bad enough, but then she lost a brother, too. He was a sweet and quiet man. He had a odd sense of humor that always took me off guard.

Along the way, 2020 took several friends from us, as well. You can understand me dragging my feet on the memorial tribute, I think.

What can we say about 2020?

Lost people. Check.

Lost jobs. Check.

Lost homes. Check.

Flooded basement. Check.

Hurricane Blizzard of September 7th and 8th. Check.

Let’s talk a bit about that crazy storm. Hundreds of trees were lost in Green River and Jamestown, and also in Rock Springs to a somewhat lesser extent. Power was out all over the county for days. But it was an event that pulled the community together, in the midst of the…

Oh yeah! Pandemic. Check.

We could talk about the blasted pandemic for days, weeks, months, and never finish the conversation, because it is still not finished with us. It has its own checklist:

Denial. Check.

Poor management. Check.

Misinformation. Check.

Defiance. Check.

And so many deaths that we passed the quarter-million mark before the holidays. Check.

I personally know people who have lost their jobs and face homelessness in the near future. I know people who are choosing between rent or food.

In the meantime, while the dread COVID-19 virus has swept the nation, we have still been faced with the other things that can hinder or take our lives:

Cancer. Check.

Car accidents. Check.

Flash floods. Check. Twice! Two vehicles destroyed.

That’s my family and extended family. If I included friends and acquaintances, this list of horrors would be endless.

2020. What a year.

Has it been all bad? Of course not.

We added some beautiful babies to the family this year. Thank God for new babies!

I had several publishing opportunities this year. I was oddly productive in some of my writing venues, while being completely off-balance in others. A novel that was on track for completion in the spring is still sitting here waiting for my attention. Sales were mediocre at best. No book fairs or signings were possible with all that has been going on in the world. Yet, I was able to place several stories in various markets which will earn me nearly nothing in the form of money, but will earn me a chance to get my work seen and remarked upon. Getting your name out there in this market is priceless.

We found new ways to keep in touch. I am getting more familiar with things like Zoom and Portal. I have also re-discovered the joys of sending a receiving real letters.

I got my Christmas shopping done and sent on time for the first time in years.

I am blessed with the ability to live with and care for my mother. Not everyone can do that, and it is a joy I would not miss for anything.

I do have hope for the new year, but to be honest, I have hope for every day I wake up to. After 2020, one day at a time makes more sense than ever to me.

So, let’s get after it, one day at a time, and have a better 2021.

Happy New Year.