Saturday

 

Another Saturday morning dawned in the city. 

Missy’s a stickler about the days–she won’t let it go; she keeps us on track. It’s Saturday, not that anyone gives a damn.

The city isn’t much now. Everyone’s gone. We’d snuck back in after, and set ourselves up in one of the still-standing buildings. We like being high; ground level can be scary. There are animals, sometimes.

This place isn’t bad. The furniture is still good. Blankets and clothes were left behind. There’s no power, though, and no glass in the windows. It’s not a problem–yet.

Food, though…that’s a problem every day. Missy found planters and seeds, and things are growing. There will be tomatoes, onions, potatoes, lettuce and cabbages. We won’t starve; she has a green thumb!   

There’s a working water pipe down there. Harvey made a fire pit nearby, and Mom always boils the water. It’s hard to carry upstairs in buckets, but I’m getting bigger muscles.

We got into the hardware store–that’s been dead useful. I wish the grocery store had fared as well–that place is flattened. Gordon and Mike are “making a plan” to get inside.

We found rolls of heavy plastic. We’ll be able to cover windows before it gets cold. Missy says keeping track of days helps her know when the seasons will change. I don’t get how knowing it’s a Saturday will tell her winter is coming, but she’s not letting it go.

I don’t care; she can do as she pleases. She likes to watch the sunrise. I think when we cover windows, we’ll fix one so she can see outside. Little things make people happy, even now; if that’s what she needs, we should to do it.

Missy does a lot more for us than knowing it is Saturday.

No Ferry Today

The bar was supposed to open at noon—where is Duncan?

Margo hadn’t gone back to the mainland the night before. The warm summer breezes had beckoned her throughout the workday until she decided to take blanket down to the beach and sleep on the sand. Her friend Monique had joined her at the last minute; she had a house further inland on the little isle, but she, too, had been tempted by the breeze coming in off the ocean.

When the bar closed at 2:00 a.m. they’d taken iced coffees and sandwiches, their beach blankets and their phones, and giggled together over Netflix shows until they’d fallen asleep. This morning they’d awakened late, rushed to Monique’s for showers and fresh clothes and wandered down to The Beach Bar to report for lunch duty.

After exchanging puzzled looks, the women unlocked the door and threw open the windows. This was so unlike Duncan, who usually arrived a good two hours before opening to fire up the grill and do early lunch prep. The bar was generally busy from the time the “Open” sign went up.

Not today. It was nearly one before Junior Samples sauntered in. “Where the hell is everyone?” he demanded.

Margo and Monique had been busy chopping vegetables and unstacking chairs, and so hadn’t taken much notice of things outside. “Dunno,” Monique said.

“What do you mean?” Margo asked.

“Look for yourself,” Junior said. He scratched his bare chest absently, drawing Margo’s eyes to his nearly perfect pecs. “Not at me!” Junior laughed good-naturedly. “Outside.”

They all went to the windows. The beach was nearly deserted. There were a couple of island folk walking near the shoreline, looking bemusedly across the reach.

“No wonder we slept in,” Margo remarked. “The ferry never came!”

This was unheard of. They ferry always came. The trio wandered outside and down to the shoreline, where there were joined by a few other people.

Melvin Samples, Junior’s uncle, shaded his eyes and stared out across the water, where the mainland was just visible in the early afternoon light. There was a blinding glare across the water, with the sun nearly directly overhead.

“What’s going on over there?” Vivian asked. Viv was Melvin’s wife, a tiny woman who wore glasses with thick lenses. Squint as she might, she was never going to be able to see the distant shoreline–even with her spectacles, her vision was terrible.

“Nothin’, honey,” Melvin replied. “Cain’t see a bloody thing.”

Margo pulled out her phone, freshly recharged while she’d showered and dressed, and placed a call to Duncan. After a few seconds, she frowned, stared at the screen and tried again.

“What?” Monique asked.

“It’s not ringing. Nothing is happening.”

Monique was trying to pull up the news. “I think my phone’s broken.”

Junior’s phone began blasting out an old ZZ Top song. “My playlist works,” he announced. “But nothing else does.”

The group turned as a unit without speaking and hastened back to the bar. Margo turned on the television. Every channel was playing the same thing: snow.

Devin Murdoch asked, “Should I take the skiff over? Check it out?”

The group was silent until Melvin said, “Maybe we should have some lunch and mull that idea over.”

Monique slap some burgers on the grill.

Grr…Rain!

Pete stared out the window, completely disgruntled.

He lived for Saturdays, the only day Maggie had the time to bring him to the dog park. She loved to bring him here, and he loved spending time with her, chasing his frisbee and dancing his fancy dances to make her laugh.

She didn’t laugh much these days. Since Zane had been gone, she mostly sat watching sad movies while Pete lay next to her with his head in her lap.

Pete wanted Zane to come home, but he overheard Maggie on her talk box, saying Zane was “gone forever, may he rest in peace.” Pete didn’t know what pieces Zane was resting in, but he suspected it meant Zane wasn’t coming home.

It made him sad. And Maggie was sad, except when they came to the dog park and Pete danced with his frisbee.

They’d finally arrived, both of them excited for some fresh air and exercise. But it started to rain. Not gentle sprinkles that Pete would be delighted to dance in, either–hard, cold splashing rain that would drench them both immediately if they set foot outside the car.

Maggie put down the window so Pete could look out. She sighed, her breath catching in her throat in a wavering half-sob. Pete whined. “Oh, Petey! I’m so sorry,” Maggie cried.

Pete crawled between the bucket seats and gave his Maggie a kiss on the cheek, and she hugged him. “Should we wait it out?” Maggie assessed the park; hollows in the ground had filled to overflowing with cold water, and areas without grass already looked treacherously slippery with slimy mud. Pete whined again. He didn’t mind the puddles so much, but he wasn’t fond of mud; he was oddly fastidious for a dog.

Maggie brightened, a smile lighting her face. “I know what!” she cried. “Lets go to the drive-through for a cheeseburger and an ice cream. No need to be gloomy, buddy.”

Pete cheered up immediately. Cheeseburgers and ice cream! Yes, yes, yes! His tail beat a happy rhythm against the seat.

Watching Pete eat ice cream always made Maggie laugh. It would be a good Saturday after all.

They drove off into the rain-soaked afternoon.

Next Year, Paris

When the fortieth anniversary snuck up on us ten years ago, we laughed off the fact that we hadn’t made any special plans to celebrate. It wasn’t that we’d forgotten the day; we forgot the milestone–another decade completed.

Luckily, the kids hadn’t forgotten. We had a lovely surprise party attended by friends and family. We danced and sang and ate wedding cake. It was lovely.

But that night, alone in bed, we vowed not to forget the milestone years again. We opened a savings account for our 50th Anniversary trip to the most romantic city in the world–Paris.

Enter the dread year 2020 and a global pandemic. As our anniversary and the prospect of a dream vacation grew closer, the chances of meeting our milestone began to diminish.

“Surely it will be over by that time,” Jordy mused. A new year was just over the horizon; 2021 was bound to be better.

January passed in a haze of horror and our Valentine anniversary day grew closer. It had, by now, become clear that we were not going to be able to take our trip. The airline had cancelled our reservations due to international travel restrictions and the hotel we’d booked had refunded our deposit.

“Well,” I told Jordy, “there’s always next year.”

“Next year, Paris!” Jordy tried hard to look happy and sound enthusiastic, but he was as despondent as I was. Ten years we’d been looking forward to this; ten years planning and trying to learn enough conversational French so we’d be able to order a meal, ask for the location of restrooms and tourist spots. We were sad; who wouldn’t be?

A week before the big day, our son Kim called. “We’re making dinner for you,” he announced. “We have a big basement, and we’ve got this social distance thing nailed.”

Jordy and I agreed that it would be nice to get out of the house for a change. If anyone could pull off a socially distanced dinner, it was Kim’s wife Nan. It would be family only, which was a grand total of nine people–our third child lived in England, and there was no way she and her family would be able to travel.

Our daughter Tara and her husband Lyle picked us up that Sunday evening–in a limo! “Kim’s got the baby,” Tara said. “And she’s over the moon about it.”

“We thought a little ride would be nice,” Lyle added.

Limos are the perfect “social distance” vehicle. The driver was separated from us by a plexiglass window. I don’t know if we were six feet away from Lyle and Tara, but we certainly weren’t close. I longed for hugs we didn’t feel free to give and receive, and so I tried to express my love with my eyes–the only part of my face not covered by a mask.

Lyle served us little glasses of champagne and we toasted our fifty year milestone, carefully lifting our masks to sip. The limo driver took us for a drive around town. Valentine decorations had gone up all over–I’d never known the town to go so all-out for the holiday before, which speaks to the level of desperation people have when they can’t get out much.

Still–hearts and flowers in gloomy February cheer things up a lot.

When we got to Kim and Nan’s, we walked up the driveway to go inside through the garage. Kim met us, along with our grandson, James. They were costumed like a Maître D and waiter. Jordy and I exchanged amused looks.

Kim gestured grandly. “Madame, Monsieur, follow me, please.”

The garage was decorated with photos that made it appear that we were walking along the Seine River in Paris at dusk. I gasped in delight, and heard Jordy chuckle. On the far wall was a huge photo of the Eiffel Tower. It was amazing, but I didn’t want to break out of the illusion by asking how Kim had pulled it off.

We went into the house and down the stairs. At the foot of the stairs, there was a sculpture of the Eiffel tower on an occasional table. On closer inspection, there was a placard that named it “Eyeful Tower”, and we could see that it had been constructed out of old eyeglasses. We burst out laughing.

James giggled. “Do you like it, Grandma?”

“It’s brilliant!”

“I thought we were donating those,” Jordy laughed.

“We are. I was really careful not to scratch the lenses,” James assured us.

“It’s amazing. It looks just like it!”

The basement was decorated to look like a Paris street front, featuring the Paris Beaubourg’s outdoor dining area. Tables were set up with plenty of space in between.

When we were seated, our granddaughter Janet appeared with a tray. She served us small cups of French onion soup and a plate of French fries. “French food is the best,” she informed us, winking.

You are the best,” Jordy told her.

Everyone sat at their separate tables and we ate our French appetizers. Tara brought baby Alex to us for cuddles and love after we finished our soup. I kissed his downy cheek through my mask, which I had replaced after eating.

Nan came to our table with the second course of our meal. She recited, “I’m very sorry, mon ami–I know we are in Gay Paris. But French food’s not my specialty, and so I offer–this!” She uncovered a platter of spaghetti and meatballs.

“Hey, it was good enough for Lady and the Tramp!” Kim laughed.

Janet appeared and put a plate of sliced bread and a tub of butter on the table. “We have French bread to go with it!”

You know, there’s just nothing better than hearing laughter from your family, especially in these trying times.

French music played in the background as we ate our meal and shared lively conversation and lots of laughs.

Dessert was French toast smothered in mixed fruit and whipped cream.

Later that evening, as Jordy and I sat side by side in the back of the limo enjoying another drive through town, we toasted our lovely evening. “Well,” Jordy sighed contentedly, “we’ll always have Paris!”

“I still want to go,” I informed him. “But I wouldn’t trade our family’s Paris dinner for anything!”

“Don’t worry, babe. Things will straighten out. And then–next year, Paris!”

“Next year, Paris for sure!” I agreed.

We drank our champagne, shared a most romantic kiss and enjoyed the ride home.

Once a month Writers Unite! presents us with a photo and invites us to write a story. This is my February offering, just in time for Valentine’s Day!

A Port in the Storm

At dusk, the lighthouse keeper lit the beacon.

She didn’t have an explanation for why she continued to do it. It had been nearly a year since she’d seen any sign of a ship.

Belle chattered happily to her stuffed pig, moving him by leaps and bounds around the interior of the playpen. She’d been confined to it while upstairs her entire life, and so felt no compulsion to complain or try to escape. Bonnie smiled at her child, taking a moment to enjoy her presence before finishing the adjustments to the light.

Belle was good company. Bonnie was looking forward to the day when she’d be a more active participant in conversation, but for now it was enough that she was a good listener. Bonnie liked to talk. She told stories of the days when ships were saved from certain destruction because of the beacon she’d lit nightly for the last ten years.

She talked now about her worry over the dwindling supplies in the lighthouse.

She and Belle had managed the last year because she’d always been obsessive about stocking up. Canned goods and dry goods had lined the many shelves of the pantry. The cellar had been well-stocked with potatoes, carrots and onions and dried fruits, and the freezer had been full of ground beef and chicken and stew meat as well as single-serve meals that had become staples for her after Joseph was lost at sea two years ago.

The generator had been her main source of power for a while now, and she thanked her foresight in having set aside so many barrels of gasoline. The only appliances kept running full time were the freezer and refrigerator. She allowed only short intervals for viewing television, which really consisted only of watching DVD recordings. Broadcast TV was a thing of the past.

Trips inland for grocery shopping had ended with her last foray: she’d discovered a village inhabited by corpses. Not every person was accounted for, certainly; clearly many had fled before the others had died.

With no idea what had caused their deaths, Bonnie had skirted the bodies and prayed it was not some disease. It would destroy her if Belle were to contract some lethal illness. The stores were mostly deserted, and she took food and supplies, as much as she could pack into the bed of her pickup, and drove back out to the coast, vowing not to return until someone showed up to deal with whatever had befallen the little town.

“We’re running out of things, Belle,” she said, using a cheerful tone while giving voice to her fears. “I can’t nurse you forever; but you need real milk, not that powdered stuff.”

She lifted the toddler out of the playpen and plucked up the stuffed pig. They started down the spiral staircase. Bonnie moved slowly and carefully. A fall would be the end of them.

“The lamp oil is nearly gone,” she continued.

Belle giggled.

“What will we do when we can’t light the lamp? Any port in a storm, my dad used to say. What happens when there’s no port?”

Belle shook her head and said, “No, no, no.”

Bonnie had recently taken up counting: ten cans of tomato soup left, half a dozen of chicken noodle, and only four of vegetable. But, hallelujah, almost two dozen of cream of mushroom–yum, yum! The last barrel of gasoline was more than half gone, and they hadn’t watched so much as a movie in months. The propane tank was nearly depleted as well.

Winter was upon them, and no one had delivered wood for the fireplace or coal for the stove.

No one was going to, either.

“We have to leave, baby Belle,” Bonnie sang. “We have to get somewhere else, and soon.”

“No, no, no!” Belle imitated the sing-a-song voice of her mother.

“No, no, no!” Bonnie agreed. “This is no port in the storm.”

***

The truck was packed with everything Bonnie could get into the bed. She had worked for the better half of a day using a rigged pulley system to lift and secure the old camper shell on the back to their supplies would stay covered and dry. Belle had watched from her playpen, set up in front of the lighthouse.

Bonnie had cooked all the remaining meat and put it up in canning jars to last them as long as possible. She’d spent a few days in a steam-filled kitchen, thanking the spirit of her mother for insisting she learn how to can and preserve. She remembered thinking it was a stupid waste of time, when all they had to do was run to the store.

“Mother knows best,” Bonnie sang to Belle. “Never forget it, Baby Belle. My mother was one smart cookie. Thanks, Mom!”

It was due to her mother that she owned canning jars at all. For years she’d received sets for Christmas and birthdays, along with other gifts. “I think my mom was a prophet or something,” Bonnie said. Belle giggled. “Grandma had the sight.”

Whatever the reason, Bonnie was grateful. There would be meat for a while, and if they were lucky, she’d find her father’s hunting rifle at the cabin.

“I hope no one has broken in,” Bonnie mused.

“Ma! Ma!” Belle giggled again. Bonnie’s face lit up with her smile of delight. “Oh, good baby!”

“Ma!”

Once the truck was packed with all the remaining food, Bonnie attached the small flatbed trailer and loaded the remaining gasoline, propane and the smaller generator, and tied everything down securely. Then she boxed Belle’s playpen and crib and her own bed and bedding. Last, she added the rocking chair Joseph had made for her.

Belle fell asleep in her car seat almost as soon as they started their trip, but Bonnie chattered  to her, anyway. “Pray the snows don’t come until we get to the cabin,” she said. “Pray the cabin is intact and empty. My dad left me the cabin when he died, but I haven’t been up there in years. I hope the gun is there. I hope it works.”

She stopped in town despite her fears. There was no one at the gas station; no bodies, either. She had to break a window to get inside, but was gratified to hear the roar of a generator when she switched the gas pumps on. Nearly everyone on the coast had generators; nor’easters hit and knocked out power frequently in winter.

She tossed out another prayer, this that the holding tanks would have enough gasoline for her to fill her truck’s main and auxiliary tanks and the barrel and gas cans, too.

While her big tank was filling, Bonnie grabbed all the snack foods and sodas and water she could and put them in the truck. She found bags of coffee and creamer packets and took those, too.

She left the cheese, eggs and milk. God alone knew how long those had been there, unrefrigerated.

She really would have liked to have those…

Oh, well.

Grateful for the gasoline, Bonnie began her travel in earnest and hoped for the best.

If only, she thought. If only the cabin is in good shape. If only the gun is there and usable. If only we can manage to get there without running into anyone.

If only we can make it to a port in the storm.

~~~

Even when I can’t get a short short story out of a prompt, I am always grateful to be prodded into a story idea. This was a nice fit into an ongoing theme of mine. Thanks for the prompt, Writers Unite!

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 Places, 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.