Day of N
(Starts Day +15)
Hunter called everyone together and held a quick meeting. Gage and Ramsey were put on guard duty. Their first job was to look out for the National Guard guys, but he reminded them to also to scan for anyone or anything else which could cause problems.
Angus took Zeki to get the backhoe and rummage through the hotel since it was one place Luke didn't think was really looked over. The man from the plane crash, Kurt Banks, who happened to be a parks and recreation manager from Davenport Iowa, also went with the Angus. Hunter decided he really wanted Angus to keep an eye on the man, since trust was running in short supply and if the guy tried anything, Angus was strong enough to deal with the clearly hunger weakened man.
Luke teamed up with Devin. They took the van with the primary job of going to houses where Luke thought there may be camping gear and survival equipment. They were also tasked with getting to the feed store and emptying out the rack of candy, the cooler of soda, and whatever else they could find inside.
Finally, Hunter asked Vernon to accompany him into Mr. Ward's house. It still amazed him how little damage the house had as he moved up to it. Other than some obvious damage to a couple of the solar panels on the roof, the place looked in great shape. As he moved up to the now open door, Hunter couldn't help but feel bad about breaking in. The house had been secure and the owner alive. This, above all else, made Hunter's stomach churn. However, hearing the man had taken one of the kids from Selden, possibly against his will, was justification enough. The fact the man had joined with the renegade National Guardsmen, made the decision even easier.
Hunter pushed open the door, "Anyone here?" Noticing for the first time the gold colored door-knocker had the initials R. M. W. on it.
He was greeted with silence so he quickly moved through the door and pushed himself against the wall, keeping his pistol ready. The inside was dim due to high-end thick curtains. Because of this, Hunter waited a few more seconds making sure there were no sounds, before flipping on his flashlight. Scanning the room with the beam of light, he saw nothing indicating danger. In fact, all he saw a very nice living room with a small chandelier like fixture above the wooden dining room table. Off to the side was a massive china cabinet with etched glass panels and the opposite side had a large fireplace. He could also see through an archway into a huge kitchen.
Looking to the south, he could easily see into the open living room which was dominated by a huge flat screen TV, stereo system, multiple gaming consoles, and other electronics Hunter couldn't readily identify without moving closer. Another, even larger fireplace, took up the back west wall with huge wooden bookshelves on either side. Most of the books on the mostly full shelves appeared to be old-looking books, many of which were very thick. Hunter moved up to the bookshelves and scanned the titles and shrugged. The vast majority were fiction, and those he could identify were considered classics. One shelf was even devoted to works in what Hunter thought was French. There was one section of non-fiction, on an eye level shelf to the far right; most of which dealt with national parks and travel. However, there was one small section which focused on fighting in the Middle East, in particular Iraq.
Five books, however, caught Hunter's attention. They were all in a line right at the end of the section and had similar names. The titles alone told him all five books were about scud missile hunters in Desert Storm. One of the books in particular, had a caption on the bottom saying it was the 'author's copy'. The last name of the author also caught Hunter's attention. It was written by a Tonner T. Draw. He glanced over at Vernon, "Hey, you don't happen to know what Mr. Ward's first name is, do you?"
"Yeah, I swam here a few times after Mom signed a waiver so we couldn't come back on him if I was hurt here. It's Rennot; He said his mom was French and I know he spoke French, as did his wife. As a matter of fact, I am not sure she spoke much, if any English. She offered all us tea and hot chocolate when we were here, but really only spoke to Mr. Ward and it was always in French. Once she cooked for all of us, and man, did she make a mean cordon bleu. I'd never had it before, but after I ate it, I begged my mom to make it, so she got the recipe from Mr. Ward."
Vernon pulled open a couple of curtains allowing a great deal more light to spill into the main living area before he continued, "He seemed really nice, but wanted us to call him by his first name which my parents didn't like at all. It was kind of neat, though; the way he set up the pool was cool. He put up a green house like thing around it last winter for a while, but it started leaking or something, so he shut it down until he could get it fixed. Then Luke became a butt-head, so I didn't come back to find out if it got put back up or not."
"Sounds like lots of kids were over here."
"Quite a few, but even with the junk Mom signed so I could swim, he always made me call home so he could verify it was OK, which seemed kind of weird. It's almost like me wanted me to beg to be here or something."
"Probably just wanted your mom to know where you were in case something bad happened. With the amount of money the guy has, he needed to protect it." Hunter paused as he studied the book for a few more seconds before glancing up. "What about his middle name?"
"No idea, why? What's up?"
Hunter pulled out the book and noticed it looked brand new and was still very stiff. "The author of this book… The last name is opposite of Ward and if you are right about the first name, then the first name is too. It would be nice to know if his middle name ended with T. I'd bet it does. I also bet he wrote it."
Hunter flipped through the book scanning the list of chapters and checking out a few details. "If he wrote this, he may have been in the military or something. This is about hunting missile launching sites in the Iraq desert in the 1990's." He started to put the book back on the shelf, but curiosity overrode his desire not to steal. He backed off holding the book in his hand. Still, he kept eyeing the book and the empty spot it had come from.
Vernon snickered as he saw Hunter debate with himself, "Luke was told everything left in town was his, and Mr. Ward was there since he wanted to take Luke with him, so just shove it in your backpack if you want it!"
Hunter finally relented, putting the book into his pack. He backed off still feeling guilty. With a long sigh, he once again longed to be able to talk to his pastor about all of this. Finally he glanced back at the bookshelf before he moved through the largest kitchen he had ever seen. As he did so, he ran his hand along the counter top. His hand came back without a trace of dust. "Man this place is clean. With the earthquakes, storms, and everything else, how did it stay so secure and basically air tight?"
"It's built better than anything else around here. It's probably why the guy didn't hire Luke's dad." Vernon shrugged, "The real question is why." Vernon moved down the hall and opened the first door and stepped in while letting out a light whistle.
Hunter moved to catch up, "We need to stick together just in case the place is not empty..." His voice trailed off as he glanced around a room packed with electronics and monitors. "Wow, this place looks like a space station!"
Vernon moved up and hit the power button to one of the consoles; when nothing happened he looked back at Hunter with a smirk, "I just had to try."
Hunter snickered, "If you hadn't, I would have!"
This got a chuckle out of Vernon as he pulled open a couple of the desk drawers only to find them empty other than a partial pack of a hundred DVD+R's still on a spool. "Man, I would sure like to see this room in action, or even what he was recording."
Hunter nodded as he looked at the pack of DVD's, "Well, whatever it was it looks like he took it with him." Hunter backed out of what had been designed to be a small study and jerked his head to Vernon to follow. The last three doors in the lower hallway turned out to normal enough. The biggest door lead to a very nice guest room, complete with its own kitchenette and beyond it, another opened into to an empty study with a pull-down extra bed built right into the wall. The attached bathroom and closets were all empty. The next door was heavy and hard to push open over the thick carpet underneath, but ended up being a fairly small guest bedroom with an even smaller attached bathroom with a shower only, but unlike the rest of the house, the fixtures were pretty plain. Still the room had a small entertainment center complete with gamming units, desk with a computer, and a dresser. The very small closet held a pair of smaller sized bath robes which Vernon took figuring they might be able to be used as coats for any kids who may be alive at the plane crash.
One odd thing both boys noted was the lack of a window in the room but both shrugged it off as it being a seldom-used room for visitors with a kid since it was the only room with a single sized bed.
The final door led to the master bedroom. The bedchamber was beyond impressive and just as immense. The bed was king sized with a canopy, the furniture was dark black and had carved feet and frames, and the lamps were all gold in color with elegant curves to the metal. Even the ceiling fan was gold and dark wood and matched the interior of the room to perfection. The room also boasted a walk-in closet bigger than Hunter's room with an open and empty massive gun safe in the far back. Finally the far back north side opened into a colossal bathroom and a tub complete with water jets and heating system. Vernon even noted the toilet seat was padded and would have been heated if the house had power.
Because of the size of the room, the boys split up, rummaging through the dressers, desks and nightstands. After nearly five minutes the two exchanged glances while Hunter sighed. With a bit of a dejected voice, Hunter spoke up, "Lots of books, clothing and a ton of shoes, but it looks like he took everything of importance. Most of this is nice women's clothing, too so he must have taken most of his stuff."
Vernon held up a key ring with a trio of keys on it, "Found this under one of the lion-faced bookends."
Hunter took the offered keys and frowned deeply as he examined them, "I've never seen keys like these; they are double cut with outer teeth and a groove with inner teeth."
Vernon let out a snort, "Dad's gun safe, where he keeps the antique muskets and sabers, has a key like those. He has a couple of back-ups very hidden around the house since he doesn't want to ever have to get someone to come in and try to re-key it should he loose the one he carries. But I already checked, none of these fit."
"Sure sounds expensive," Hunter commented as he compared the keys, finding all there were different from one another.
"Probably," Vernon turned his hands outward expressing his lack of knowledge about the subject, "but Dad has often said his collection is worth more than the house."
Hunter grinned, "I have no idea what an old gun goes for, but Dad has dabbled with restoring antiques, and it's a huge business. Actually, from the way I hear it, there are tons of old junk around here. Many people don't know what they have lying around."
"With all the old farmhouses, I'd believe it." Vernon shook his head while looking around before adding, "But there sure ain't nothing old in this place!"
"Not much," Hunter glanced over the bookshelf, "other than books. Some of these look real old."
"He's a teacher. I'm sure he loves books," Vernon grumbled. "I always hated reading boring stories and book reports are the worst. Mom is big on reading though, so I have to read two books a month, or one book if it is Harry Potter sized."
This caused Hunter to snicker, "I had to read the first three or four chapters of the first book twice before I was really able to understand it. Once I got the jargon down, they were pretty good."
"The movies were better…" Seeing Hunter's eyebrow's arch he cocked his head to the side, "What?"
"Movies…" Hunter muttered as he walked back out to the entertainment system. He glanced back over his shoulder to make sure Vernon had followed before he pointed at the Blu-ray player recorder and the HD DVD player recorder. "Why have both a Blu-ray and a DVD player and no movies?"
Vernon shrugged, "Why have a DVD player at all when you have a Blu-ray?"
Hunter glanced at the system with a frown, "I guess because he could. Money didn't seem to be a problem."
"Yeah, loaded is an understatement. Maybe he took all the movies with him."
"OK, where were they?" Hunter gestured to the built in entertainment cabinet. "There are no spaces for games or movies."
"Maybe he bought games online and downloaded them and used Netflix…" Vernon shook his head before he finished, "but then he wouldn't need a Blu-ray… You're right, this is weird." Vernon moved closer and looked over the cabinet before shrugging, "Maybe once we are done we should let Gage take a walkthrough. He notices more than we do."
Hunter quickly agreed as he jerked his head in the direction of the staircase going down. The two boys made their way down into a massive game room complete with a pool table, dart board, a pair of old pinball machines, a bar, and a beyond huge television with another entertainment case. This time there were games for both the Play Station and the X-box, over a hundred of them. There was also a whole case of movies, more than Hunter cared to count. "I guess they all got stored down here… wow…"
"Man, I wish he would have let us in here to play!" Vernon whistled as he checked out a couple of doors finding another bathroom and a storage room filled with all kinds of boxes, pool cues, and beer, lots and lots of beer. There was also a wine rack with a good forty or more bottles. Finally there were two small bedrooms with just a single bed, nightstand, dresser and desk. They had the look of guest rooms all but written on them.
Hunter played his flashlight over the basement in amazement. Whoever this guy was, he had more money than even Devin's parents. "Let's check to see if there is anything the people in the crash could use then let's go up and see what else we find."
"Probably a whole lot of expensive toys, just like down here." Vernon snickered and he scrounged around and found nothing really useful and finally shrugged, "If there was power there would be some stuff, but most of this is just big paperweights now."
Hunter couldn't help but smile as he moved up the steps, "Yeah, I sure hope the others are having better luck than we are."
The smile evaporated as Hunter took the turn to go up to the second floor. Sunlight was next to nonexistent in the hall, with the only light coming from a skylight that was partially covered by one of the damaged solar panels so it left the upstairs extremely dim, but the first step off the step felt weird, almost squishy. He jerked his foot back thinking he had stepped into liquid. What light there was available was not enough to see much other than the dark carpet, so he once again flipped on his flashlight. The beam revealed a nice navy blue colored carpet and light blue walls, which was totally different than the muted off-white and walls, dark wood paneling and tan colored carpet of the first floor.
With his hand, he reached out and touched the carpet before quickly withdrawing it. When it came back dry, he pushed a little harder and found his hand sank into the carpet three or four inches. "Whoa… this is really soft!"
Vernon duplicated Hunter's maneuver and noted how his hand left a print but it was slowly pushed back upward. "This is even thicker than the spare bedrooms downstairs! I had no idea they made carpet this soft!"
Hunter pointed his flashlight down the hall to his left noticing five doors including one at the far end of the hall. Looking up, he could see the skylight had a crack in it from where the solar panel had hit it, but was not leaking. "Man, the whole place is like some sort of fortress. I wonder what kind of glass he had put up there!"
Vernon nudged Hunter to focus his attention on something other than the ceiling. "Hunter, the wall… Shine your light over there!" Vernon moved up and pointed with his entire arm, so he could show Hunter where he was looking.
Hunter panned his light over to the wall next to the steps. The beam of light revealed a reddish brown smudge along the wall only a foot off the ground, which seemed to come from or go to the first door on the right hand side and led to the first post holding up the rail of the stairs. It looked like it had been washed, but was still there.
"Is that blood?"
Hunter moved over to the wall and took a closer look. He then moved slowly down the hall toward the door examining the smudge carefully, noting as he did so, the carpet and padding under it were so thick it was almost like walking on sand. "I think it's a bloody hand print… Most of it is one thicker line, but there are a few spots where it changes to two, three or four smaller lines like… well… the only thing I can think of is… fingers."
Vernon gulped, "You think it was Henry?"
Hunter took a deep breath, "I don't know Henry, but, yeah, I am pretty much wondering if this was left by him. If it was, he is hurt… or was hurt. Hard to tell for how bad it was for sure, though, since someone tried to wash it and smeared it around."
Vernon moved down the hall and glanced into the first room where the stain seemed to come from or go to. He pushed on the door, half expecting it to be locked, but it opened. Still the door was as solid as everything else in the house seemed to be and it had to be pushed pretty hard since it drug over the heavy carpet. "Bedroom," he called out over his shoulder, "all the drawers on the dresser and desk are open and empty."
Hunter pushed on the door directly across from the room Vernon had gone into, "Same here, single neatly made bed."
Vernon moved into the room and opened the only door expecting to find a closet. Instead he found a bathroom with a door on the far side. Moving through, he opened the far door only to find a duplicate bedroom. The layout of the room was a mirror to the one he had just come out of, only all the drawers were closed and a nice desktop computer was on the desk along with a large monitor.
Moving into the room he pulled open the desk drawer and found it well stocked with paper, pens, mechanical pencils, markers, and a box of crayons. The lower drawers held workbooks for math, spelling, history, and geography. One glance told them they were above his grade level so he pushed it closed and moved over to the dresser. All the drawers held girl's clothing, very neatly folded.
Shrugging, he moved back out through the bathroom, taking few seconds to look in the medicine area behind the mirror. It was empty save for a couple of tubes of hygiene related items and a couple of travel sized bottles of body wash. Liking the brand of body wash, he stuck them in his pocket.
By the time he moved out into the hall again, Hunter was out in the hall rubbing his chin and peering back into the room he had checked out. "Problem?"
"No…" Hunter responded very slowly. "Well, I mean it is real strange. There is a connecting bathroom but no closets. Both rooms were emptied out, so maybe there was a footlocker or something. I just feel like I am missing something."
"This whole place is kind of creepy, and the blood makes me think of some of the horror movies some of us watched last Halloween. Still, I don't see anything weird other than the thick outside shutters on the windows that I can't see how to open. I bet it was electric or something."
"I had the same thought." Hunter shrugged and opened the last door at the end of the hall only to find an extremely well-stocked linen closet. A bit of a smirk played across his face as he turned to Vernon, "OK, at least he has a closet up here!"
Vernon giggled extremely nervously as he jerked his head toward the far end of the hall opposite of the stairs going down. "Let's give it a once over and get out of here. I am getting the creeps and I keep glancing over at the blood smear."
Hunter nodded in complete agreement, "It could be something else, I guess, but yeah, the quicker I get out of here, the better I am going to feel. Let's each take a door then go see how Angus and the others are doing. I bet they could use some of this bedding and towels though."
Vernon nodded, "We'll grab it on the way out."
The pair moved down the hall still looking down at the floor with their flashlights. Hunter paused in front of the next unopened door, "I wonder how much padding is under this carpet and why."
"Yeah," Vernon agreed, "it is almost like walking on mud next to the swimming pond at Angus'. I bet it was real expensive."
"What isn't in this house?" Hunter snorted as he pushed open the door. This time he found a larger bedroom with a queen sized bed, an open and clearly empty closet, a nicer desk, and a larger dresser with a bunch of display shelves above it. The room was not off white like the other four bedrooms were, either. It was paneled in wood finish. A very nice computer monitor was on the desk and there was an entertainment center built into the wall opposite of the closet and far door, but the room was otherwise as empty as the rooms on the opposite end. The final door inside the room led to a bathroom, which was much nicer than the two down the hall, but like them, it connected to the room across the hall. It then opened up into a duplicate of the large bedroom they had come through to get to this one.
A quick look through everything found the desks equipped with a wireless mouse and keyboard, but no sign of a tower, which both boys found odd. Still, the rooms were basically empty except for some essential writing material in the desks. There was also a set of buttons next to the windows in the rooms to open and close the shutters but without power, the rooms remained extremely poorly lit.
Hunter eyed the entertainment center in the second room, "OK, now I think I know at least something I was missing. Those other rooms didn't have any TV's, radios, or other stuff except the computers in the back two rooms."
"Must have been spare rooms or something." Vernon stated without sounding as sure as he wished he could. "Come on, let's get out of here."
Hunter rubbed his chin as he tried to figure out what was really bothering him, but quickly agreed. Even as he moved to the end of the hall and helped Vernon clean out the closet, he knew he was missing something obvious, but whatever it was just wasn't coming to him. He gave the upstairs one last glace before heading back down and out of the massive house. As they exited, however, Hunter pulled up the key ring and frowned, then looked back at the house. "We missed a door somewhere. We didn't find the laundry room or the garage."
"Like you said, let Gage give it a once over. Whatever we missed he'll find."
Hunter nodded as he looked up at the windows on the second floor of the main house. He could see nothing other than the windows. But from out here he couldn't make out the shutters. It was really odd. However, he had other things to worry about, like seeing to the man and those from the downed aircraft. On the other hand, he couldn't leave the place wide open so he pulled the door closed and jimmied the lock again so it was at least closed and a little harder to get into then than an open door.
To this end, he gave a quick glance around to the open field beyond the house and moved to where he had left Gage on guard. Before he even got there, he saw the backhoe with the arm secured to a trailer with a chain, and the trailer with a trio of pallets of food, a bunch of clothing, and a bunch of random assorted stuff the others thought may be useful.
Hunter moved up to the backhoe and looked up at Angus, "We ready to get out of here?"
Angus nodded, "I'll drive this and take the lead; you take the van. Just make sure you watch our backs cause this isn't going anywhere quick. As it is, I am hoping the chain will hold the trailer."
Gage moved over with his rifle, "Since we are going to be going real slow, I'll stay on top of the van between the tires and keep a lookout." He then turned to Hunter, "Find anything in the teacher's house?"
"Nice house, real nice." Vernon stated still clearly awed by it.
"But if we get a chance to come back, I want you to take a look," Hunter responded. "I know we missed some stuff."
"I could go now…"
Hunter shook his head as he looked over at Mr. Banks, "We have a plane crash to get to and people to help, Sniper. I know you aren't big on believing in God, but I am, and this is the right thing to do for us, for them, and in the eyes of God."
Gage rolled his eyes, "I get needing to help them, Hunter, but don't go telling me we happened to be here because some all powerful thing put the pieces in place just so we could help…"
"I don't think I need to." Hunter managed to smile, "'Cause you just said it for me."
Kurt managed a slight grin as he watched Gage shake his head and groan. "If I live through this whole thing, I think you all have made me want to have kids."
Angus shook his head, "Mister, stick around us a bit more and you may find yourself thinking just the opposite."
This caused some snickers out of most of the others even as they piled into the van. Vernon, however, decided to jump up on the front of the backhoe with his rifle out to watch the front, while Gage tucked himself between the spare tires on the top of the van and covered the rear.
As the van pulled out, hope of finding loved ones was in short supply. Knowing their home town had been hit was weighing heavily on all of them, but they did their best to show brave faces and none of them were ready to admit most, if not all their loved ones were probably gone. However, each and every boy found his thoughts going toward the situation they found themselves in.
Luke looked out the back window with a shake of his head. His home, the place he had been born and lived all his life was now a ghost town. His lifelong neighbors and kids he had grown up with were gone. Even the few who survived were scattered and chances were good they would never cross paths again.
While Luke was absorbed in thoughts of his hometown, most of the others in the van were focused in other directions.
For Hunter, driving on the open road, even at the speed of fifteen miles per hour, was making him nervous. The thought of those riding in the van with him being hurt because of a driving mistake, made him grip on the steering wheel way too tightly. Up till now, his driving experience had been the handful of times his dad had let him take the wheel on some dirt roads in the early mornings and the times driving an ATV.
The other thing he couldn't help but think about was the line in the upstairs hallway in Mr. Ward's house. It looked like blood to him. Why had it been there, had it been the blood of the kid Luke said was entrusted to the man? Was he letting his imagination get the best of him? If it was the blood of Henry, wasn't his responsibility to try to rescue the boy? God would expect no less. Yet he was moving in the wrong direction so he could help others. He wanted to help everyone but couldn't and above all else this was what was eating at him.
He had survived unharmed and it wasn't fair to all those who hadn't. The more he thought about this, the more he realized part of him wished he hadn't survived. Yet to think this was beyond selfish. Over and over, in long conversations with his minister, Hunter had tried to grasp the idea of fairness was just not something high on God's list of things He controlled. Fairness was something humans had to strive to find on their own terms. The last long talk Hunter had on this subject played through his mind as the minister asked him a very difficult to answer question. 'Should a person who begs and does not try to work go hungry or should you take compassion and give them your hard-earned money so they can eat?' For Hunter there was no good way to answer this because his first reaction was to say no one should go hungry, but to give away earned money so someone too lazy to work could eat was not fair either.
The same kind of thing applied now. It was not fair for anyone to suffer because some jerk fired off nukes, but he needed to figure out what was most fair. In this case, he guessed going after people who had crashed was better than going after a kid who was probably being held by a bad man since the man was to blame. In the case of the crash, no one was really at fault. Besides, trying to help crash survivors would help more than one. Still it really stunk to have to choose, which only led him back to the question of fairness.
Devin was busy looking through some of the valuable things he had found and was trying to figure out what he needed to focus in on in the future since the van was pretty much as full as it could get. What was really bothering him was balancing what would or should be good trade for important things of which food was his biggest concern. Even as he tried to assign some kind of value to items he also realized it was all a giant guessing game. One place might have food and need tools, another may have plenty of guns but no ammo, and yet others may take silver coins for all sorts of things.
However, there was no guarantee of what those coins would buy. What a trio of silver dimes might buy at one place would be totally different than what those three coins would buy in another town. One thing he was rapidly realizing is, real money didn't mean a lot, and the way things were looking it would be quite a while before it would. In simple terms, the fifteen twenty-dollar bills he had in his wallet were worthless at the moment and this scared him more than all the bombs going off, all the radiation, and even all the dead people. For up till sixteen days ago, he figured money, family money, would take care of everything.
Zeki was also lost in his own world as he sat with his back against the side of the van clutching the 410 shotgun. While accepted by those in his patrol and by the people of Jennings, he was still terrified down to his very core. There were so many fears he had a hard time figuring out what they all were. A very short list dominated his mind making the others hard to put a name to.
First and foremost was the idea of more earthquakes. There was a deep part of him, an inner core, which firmly believed the ground wanted him dead. He had escaped the one in Turkey by sheer luck. Everyone he knew had said so multiple times. Now, it seemed to the youngster, the very earth now wanted to complete the job. He realized this was by no means rational, but the nightmares he thought he had gotten over had come back. The newest one was the worst. It was a mouth coming out of the ground to eat him. Sleep was broken up several times a night by this new dream, so while sleep was something he needed, it was also something he didn't want.
The second thing bothering Zeki was the fear surrounding his religion. While being Muslim had not been as much of a problem as he had originally thought, every fiber of his being now believed people who found out would blame him for all the bombs. While he had kept up with his daily prayers as best as possible since the bombs fell and his prayer rug was in his backpack, he had yet to pray in front of others, even those in his patrol.
He guessed, sooner or later, someone would pick up on his accent and poor command of English. He was petrified about this, which led him to speaking less and less when around others he didn't know. The whole time in Jennings he had spoken only a couple dozen times outside of Erma and Sheriff Will's house and never around those who didn't know he was not just another American kid. The only exception was the old guy who showed him how to use the lever-action shotgun. The old guy wanted company more than anything, so that really didn't count in Zeki's mind.
Ramsey listened to the wheels move over the mud and gravel while doing his best to control his breathing. From the times the bombs blew up, everything he knew and took for granted until now, he had been able to control his asthma. While this was great, he knew sooner or later he would have to use his inhaler. Each puff would bring the time closer where he had none left. The other problem was each tube he currently had with him also had an expiration date.
His real fear surrounded this date. At some point all of it would be expired and at the moment chances of more being made didn't look good. He glanced at the one in his pocket and counted the time between. In fourteen months and eight days the tube with him would expire. What would happen then? Would he get an attack and just die because no more medicine was being made? What about all the others who survived who needed something to stay alive like Sheriff Will? To have lived through all this only to die because no one was making needed drugs just seemed wrong.
For Gage, riding on top of the van was almost a relief. He was a loner and preferred to be alone most of the time. Maybe he was crazy or insane. "Am I nuts?" Gage asked himself as he pulled the jacket up over himself, as the van picked up speed as it moved onto a better section of the road allowing it to pick up an extra couple of miles an hour.
He figured there must be something wrong with himself, just had to be. While the kids in the scout troop were friends, and even he now admitted, begrudgingly, they were indeed friends, he still needed his alone time. Even as he scanned what was left of the road and the empty fields beyond, his thoughts turned to wondering why his dad and mom couldn't have left well enough alone and let him stay in Missouri. Even as much as he loved his father, part of him felt betrayed to have been forced to move to the middle of Kansas to live with his mom. Why didn't either of them listen to what he wanted? There was nothing about Kansas he liked. All the things he used to like to do by himself were nowhere to be found here. There were no forests to explore, no caves to poke his head into, and not a cool rock to be found for rock collecting.
Sure the kids under where he currently was had their own ways to have fun and some of them were pretty awesome, like pheasant hunting, but it was overall boring until all this happened. Now life was exciting, but it seemed very wrong to think this way. All the dead and suffering should not be exciting. Getting shot at and shooting back should not be exciting, but the problem for Gage, it was. This led him right back to the original question: 'Am I nuts?'
In front of the van, riding on the front of the backhoe, Vernon looked out over the fields and the few distant farmhouses with sadness. Coming to live here was supposed to be a new start for his family. While none of the others knew anything of consequence about his past, it haunted him. Before moving out here life had not been easy or kind. His mom, a mom he dearly loved, had a major problem, drugs.
While he didn't fully understand all of it, he knew it had started out as a real pain problem. His mom had to get a surgery, for what he didn't even know. He had been only three at the time. By the time he was five, however, his mom had become fully addicted to painkillers and had moved onto heavier drugs. Things around the house started to 'disappear'. Just before his sixth birthday, his father put his mom into a place to get her help the first time. She came back great, but it didn't last long at all. His dad had to lock up everything and even had to buy the groceries since any money he left was transitioned into any number of street bought drugs. Mom would go away for a month or two, come back really awesome, only to start sliding back again.
The final straw had been when his mom had pulled money out of his school lunch fund. His dad and mom had a huge argument the night after the school had called saying Vernon was hungry and the lunch fund his father had just put $100 into was empty. The next day his mom went to rehab again.
Not wanting his mom to be around old temptations, Vernon's dad found a new job. It had been a pay cut and money was already tight because of maxed out credit cards, but his father scraped together enough to move. Then, when his mom was clean, she moved back in. Moving to Kansas had been great for Vernon. He was no longer an outcast. Kids and parents didn't know about his mom's problem and being in a small town with no contacts prevented his mom from quickly going back to her old ways.
The other thing, Vernon knew, was his dad kept an iron fist on all the money. His mom had to account for every dime. While at first this created some arguments and even a 'friendly visit' from the local sheriff, it had worked. They were a family, a real family. He had friends, he had a home with food in the refrigerator, and his dad had all but clawed his way out of debt. Sure, the first year had not been easy. He had shoes with a couple of holes, pants that were a bit too tight or too short, usually both, and his winter coat was a bit threadbare, but here no one cared.
His dad found the money to put him into scouts and several of the parents, particularly Hunter's and Ramsey's had quickly slid in his part of the scout hut upkeep funds and had made sure his birthday and Christmas were good ones. Clothing was bought and by the time he was ten, he was just the average kid in Colby. He had a bike, he had an allowance, he earned some extra money mowing lawns and shoveling snow with Hunter, and his grades were hovering right on the cusp of being honor role. Even his mom started to admit small town life was the best thing for all of them.
Now it was gone, wiped out by a force outside of his control and he was angry. Angry wasn't even the right word for it. He was furious. Each farmhouse he saw only made him madder. All the wonderful hard working people he had come to feel part of had their lives destroyed by someone they didn't know. In Vernon's way of thinking it was as if those in power were drug dealers and the pushing of the 'button' was the ultimate act of flipping off everyone below them. He just wanted to find a way to make those who had done this hurt, to suffer. Holding his rifle, part of him wanted those stupid National Guard guys to show up so he could put a bullet into the captain. It wouldn't solve everything, not by a long shot, but it would be a darn good place to start.
Angus spent the first few minutes talking with Mr. Banks. The guy had figured out within a few minutes the boys had lied to him about having an adult with them, but didn't hold it against them. If anything he seemed to understand where they were coming from and admitted making others believe there were adults around was a good idea.
Unfortunately, the guy was a bit too chatty for Angus' liking. While it was clear the multitude of questions had been out of concern for all for their wellbeing, Angus' answers got shorter and shorter. It didn't take long for the man to realize asking about home, family, pets, or the past was not going over well, so he apologized, patted Angus on the shoulder and just let the boy drive.
This silence left Angus a bit torn, though. Part of him quickly admitted the distraction of having someone talking to him had been nice. He just wished the guy would have asked about other stuff. He didn't want to talk about home, about how he learned to drive a tractor, about family, about his room, or his house. This was especially true since he was now headed the opposite direction of home, and was certain this trip would add an extra day or two before he saw what was left of his home.
Angus also knew this was the right thing to do and his parents would not be happy with him if he didn't do exactly what he was doing. He was also certain they would be extremely proud of him. Above all else this is what really mattered so he quickly pushed off his frustration over not going in the direction he wanted to. Instead he focused in on what he saw as the larger problem, the predicament of the others relying on him more and more as a leader.
Angus didn't, in anyway shape or form, see himself as a leader. He was a doer. He was the kid who slammed into the quarterback and created havoc in the opposing offense. Angus saw himself as the brawn, not the brains, and he liked it. Others counted on him because he was strong, tough, big and could do all sorts of things. But he liked to be told what to do. It was… well… easier. He had turned down being a team captain twice. He was actually very happy he had not been elected as a patrol leader or assistant patrol leader. He had no desire to tell others what to do and certainly didn't like others turning to him or looking up to him as a decision maker.
The truth was he didn't see himself as smart, and in his mind smart people should lead. Yet more and more, he was taking over. Even the way he told Hunter, the kid who he was certain should be leading them, to follow him seemed all wrong. Hunter should have told him what to do, or even Devin. Devin was the assistant patrol leader after all. But here he was driving the backhoe, out front leading the van.
He chewed on his lip as he realized there was part of him wanting Gage to step up a bit more. Hunter should be the leader, no question, but Gage was probably the best secondary leader given the situation. Angus could live with taking orders from Gage, no question. Two and a half weeks ago, there would have been no way, but now… Yeah, Gage was a good choice for a backup leader since there was no way Devin was ready.
One thing was certain in Angus' mind. There was no way he should be seen as someone to go to, although it seemed he was quickly becoming one. Even as Angus guided the backhoe around an abandoned car, he just wanted to tell everyone in the patrol to look for someone else to lead.
Angus' train of thought was broken as Kurt glanced back at the car, "We are going in the right direction for sure, I know I checked out that Honda. There was nothing in it at all."
It took a moment for the man's words to sink in, but after a short delay, Angus nodded, "We are pretty close to the area checked out by Jennings so they may have emptied it."
"Because the sheriff there didn't want to invite bad guys to get close. He decided to check out all the places and get all the stuff within several miles to help the town, while also making it hard for people to find good stuff to steal and bring other groups of looters into the area. We also wanted to bury as many of the dead as possible to keep sickness away."
"So you all helped?"
Angus nodded, "We did, but luckily, all the dead were taken care of by the town adults. I helped dig a few roadside graves, but for the most part they used a front end loader to fill the holes back in. I don't see any crosses, though, so if the guys from Jennings did empty the car, they didn't find any bodies."
Kurt let out a long breath, "So they… you all… made graves for all the bodies you found?"
Angus nodded, "As best we could, at least some of us. Zeek, Ram, and Devin didn't go out at all to get stuff out of cars or bury bodies, but they did other things, especially Zeek and we just got Luke, so he wasn't part of it, but he helped bury lots of dead in the town we just left. I didn't look at the grave they made, but the ones we did, if there was ID on them, we scratched their names onto the crosses too, but some were so…" Angus gave a brief shudder, "nasty… the men didn't check too close. By the time we got out to some of them, they were rotting and some were partially eaten and junk. It was really, really gross."
Kurt turned a bit green and looked away, "You boys are really special…"
Angus forced a grin, "Everyone in Jennings was saying the same thing, but we just did what had to be done, nothing more."
"Nothing more, my butt!" Kurt countered. "What about this? What you are doing right now is way beyond what you have to do."
Angus eyed the man and shook his head, "Mister, I have lived out here my whole life. We help each other. Once our house got nicked by a tornado, a small one, but it still messed up our place. The next day there were twenty people out at our farm with enough equipment to stabilize the barn, get feed to the animals, and patch our roof. We lived with others for a few days and about a week later we went home to an undamaged farm. Sure Dad used the insurance money to pay back some of the folks, but most said no. Why? Because Dad has done the same for many of them."
"But you are all kids…"
Angus clenched his fist in anger as he stared out the left side of the tractor at a farmhouse that was badly weather damaged in the distance. "I think we stopped having the chance to be kids the second some fool decided to return us back to the Stone Age."