When we arrived at the outskirts of Keene, Tammy slowed the car. The leadfoot finally let up, popping the goat into neutral and coasting down the main street of the town with a minimal rumble.
“She has to be here somewhere.” Tammy leaned forward with intensity.
“Where do we even start?” Sean asked as he studied the quiet storefronts.
“Maybe we should ditch the car for the moment.” Corrine returned out incredulous stares. “You know, get to campus with a little more stealth than Gerty offers.”
I maintained eye contact a moment longer than necessary, just for effect. “I’ll pretend she didn’t just hear you insulting her,” I replied, turning to Tammy. “But I guess we should look for some place to stash the old girl so she’s not out in the open drawing eyes to her. I don’t want need to break fast and find that someone took a shine to Gertrude.”
“First off,” Tammy said with distraction as she slipped the beast down a narrow alley. “Who talks like that? ‘Took a shine to Gertrude,’” she imitated my voice. “Second, why does she have an old lady name?”
“Hey,” I said with as much hurt as I could muster. “My dad named her. The name stays in his honor. Plus, I don’t want to have to tell him that I changed the name while he was gone.”
Tammy just stared at me. I could feel the chill burning into the side of my face.
I looked out the window. “The name stays. Anyway, we need to focus on finding your sister. The name of the car doesn’t change that. Do you have any idea where she was staying?” I fiddled with the haft of the warhammer wedged between the seat and the door, the hammer that had ended Mrs. Riley’s life.
“She was in …” Tammy angled into a small parking lot behind a restaurant and cut the ignition. For a moment she sat in silence, her eyes darting back and forth as if reading the answers on the windshield. “Mom and dad dropped her off last week. I don’t remember if they said where she was actually staying. I should have gone with them, but I decided to stay home.”
Tammy pounded the steering wheel with a sudden, sharp blow from the heel of her hand. Then she turned to me. “I’m sorry,” she whispered and looked to the others. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” I was honestly confused.
“For driving us all the way out here and not even knowing where to start looking for Amy.” She stroked the steering wheel with her fingertips. “And for hitting Gerty. I know she means a lot to you.”
“Blar,” Corrine said with a fake attempt at vomiting as she kicked open her door. “Enough of this mushy crap. Gerty’s an awesome car, but we’ve got a Riley to find. Mooning just wastes all our time.”
Tammy and I exchanged a glance as Corrine slammed the door and trotted around the corner. With a laugh, Sean tousled my hair and hopped out of the car to follow our sweeper.
I remained motionless, eyes locked with Tam. Neither of us really knew what the next step would be, but I did know the campus was too big for aimless wandering.
“Do we just hunker and tackle things one dorm at a time?” I asked.
“That could take us a week.”
“We don’t have another option if we want to find your sister.”
Tammy stared at me. “I don’t know what the answer is,” she said as she took my hand. “I can’t leave my sister behind, not when I have to tell her about mom and dad.”
A thump on the trunk startled me out of the moment and I turned to see Corrine leaning down, glaring through the back window.
“Hey, meatbags,” she called out. “Open up the goody bag so we can get our stuff and get a move on. All this sitting around mushing is either going to draw stumps or make me sick … which would draw stumps anyway.”
Tammy slipped open the door and tossed Corrine the keys.
“We were just talking …” Tammy began.
“Is that where babies come from?” Corrine asked with mock innocence.
“Shut your face,” I said with a chuckle as I climbed out. “We’re just trying to figure out where we are going to start. Tam wasn’t here when her folks dropped Amy off.”
“I don’t think we’ll have too hard a time of it,” Corrine pulled a light, chainmail hauberk from the trunk and slipped it over her head. “Sean just got back from a jog to stretch his legs and seems to know what’s sideways.”
I looked around, but didn’t see Sean. After closing the door with a quiet caution not observed by the others, I joined the girls at the trunk.
As we geared up, Sean reappeared.
“I think I found us a place to start,” he said with a grin as he pulled a tough, leather helmet down over his ears and slipped into a heavy leather duster. Over top he strapped on a heavy leather belt, tucked his gladius in the back, and picked up a heavy boar spear.
Experience had taught us to carry multiple weapons with varied kill radii.
Sean slapped himself on top of the helmet and trotted off the way he had come. Geared up in our own assortment of armor and weaponry, we followed.
True to Corrine’s word, our mastermind had found our trail of breadcrumbs. At the gates to the campus hung a sign which read, WELCOME SUMMER WRITERS. Beneath it, in smaller letters, sat an arrow and words we all longed to see … DORMS.
“Man, I can’t decide if you’re just lucky or if you go out of your way to set things up so it just looks like the world always wants to fall in your favor.” I slapped Sean’s leather-clad shoulder. “Either way, I’m sticking to you.”
“Smart choice.” Sean cracked his neck and hefted his boar spear as he motioned us to stop just inside the gate. “I didn’t come this far when I checked things out. Everything seems pretty quiet, but what do I know about anything.”
Scanning the quad, we strained to find anything out of place.
The shaggy grass reminded us of the situation, but otherwise everything seemed like a campus in the hibernation of summer. Everything sat empty. Silent. Not wanting to waste any time I searched for the next breadcrumb and as soon as I found the sign on the far side of the lawn, I led the slow charge towards it.
Another arrow, another breadcrumb, another short walk and we arrived outside a modest, three-story dorm.
“What do we do if she’s not here?” I hesitated with my hand on the door.
“She’ll be here,” Tammy whispered, staring at the door. “She has to be.”
We spent the days follow the death of Tammy’s parents tiptoeing around. If I’d been in her shoes, I don’t know that I could have put either of my parents down, even if I knew it would ultimately save them from a heap of misery.
I don’t know how Tammy pulled it off.
She is amazingly strong.
We didn’t wait long for her to join us on the deck. The sun dripped towards the horizon in exactly the same way it had the night of our fateful party.
“I’m good.” She flopped onto a deck chair, stretched her legs out, and closed her eyes.
She didn’t move until the following morning. I still haven’t asked her if she slept or just listened to the rest of us prattle on through the long, dark hours.
Corrine swam. On occasion she climbed the stairs and sat with us. Sean fired the grill and we picked at the cookout food I dredged from the fridge. We talked about anything and everything, except the world around us. I wonder if that’s why so many people used to talk about hypotheticals, theoreticals, and nonsensicals. Talking about things that may or may not exist is a good way to avoid talking about life.
If all that ceased to matter the night the world changed, did it ever really matter. It’s so easy to get into debate over the existence and gender of God, the existence and validity of the welfare state, or who influenced the Grunge movement more. It’s so easy to focus on the intangibles that we miss the look of loneliness in our friend, or never cook a meal for someone who had experienced real hardship, or take the time to hug someone who has lost everything in their world.
The fall of man taught me that we like to complicate life.
We talked through the night.
As dawn neared and the grey sky slipped into a rosy pool, Tammy rolled over and looked at us. Her dry eyes seemed rested, but older, more determined, harder. She pulled her linen shawl tighter around her shoulders and set her jaw.
“We need to check on your mom,” she spoke to the twins.
They exchanged a look that said the topic had come up between them.
Casey rubbed the back of his neck and grimaced. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.” His gaze fell to the deck.
Tammy glared at Mikey. He wilted.
“Why not?” she demanded.
Casey shrugged, but refused to pull his eyes off the floor.
Reaching in his pocket, Mikey drew out his phone. He flipped through a couple screens and laid it on the table. For a moment nothing happened, then it clicked.
“Mikey, Casey, I love you,” their mom’s voice echoed in a harsh whisper. “Don’t come home.”
Simple shock registered on all our faces as the line cut out.
“Now it goes straight to voicemail,” Mikey said as he chewed his lip.
Maybe our decision to leave the twins home alone wasn’t the best call in light of their family situation, but they needed time to process and seven in the car would have been a little cramped.
As I positioned myself outside the solid metal door to the dorm, the twins weren’t on my mind.
“You ready?” I grunted.
A round of nods met me and I yanked hard on the door.
It had missed the memo and failed to budge.
Corrine doubled over laughing.
I pulled again, really putting muscle into it. “It’s locked,” I said as I turned back to my cohorts. “Any ideas?”
“I could probably pound it open with your hammer.” Sean shrugged. “But that would draw every stump on campus over this way.”
“Where has to be another door somewhere,” said Tammy.
“Quieter, I like that option.” I stepped away from the entrance and led the way around the building. We found three more doors, but they all failed to budge. Evidently, the security system of the campus still functioned enough to keep the doors shut tight.
I plopped down on the steps in front of the building and leaned back in the shade of a decorative tree. “We could start throwing rocks up at the windows and hope someone inside will come let us in.” I wiped sweat from my brow. I don’t care if the Roman armor I was strapped into was considered light, it was still wicked hot in the summer sun. I was roasting and could only imagine how hot the others were, especially Sean in his leather duster. I’m sure we would figure out just how bad it was when we got back in the car for the trip home.
“If anyone was actually in there, I’m sure they would have seen us by now.” Sean dropped next to me, only to wince in pain as Tammy kicked him in the shin hard enough to warrant a curse.
“She’s in there.” Tammy stood with her arms crossed.
“Then rocks sound like a good plan.” Sean rubbed his shin.
“Give me a second,” I said as a thought slipped into my mind.
I hopped to my feet and trotted away from my friends. As I rounded the corner alone, I wondered if I shouldn’t be bringing them along with me. It’s not like we had years of experience with the ins and outs of apocalypse, so I pushed on alone.
My mind hadn’t been playing tricks on me. Around the corner one of the rooms had an open window. I hadn’t pointed it out when we passed because it was a crank open and too narrow for any of us to easily slip through.
Fishing my arm inside, I jammed the screen aside and after a minute of awkward jimmying, I managed to crank the window open.
My armor hung up when I tried to worm my way through.
I spent another few minutes shedding the encumbrance and dropping it beside the window.
I deflated myself and managed to shimmy through the window. Crawling the last couple feet, I flopped into an empty room. When I say empty, I mean devoid of life. A suitcase vomited a mix of clean and unclean clothing across the floor and sheets lined the rumpled bed. The occupant of the room had left in a hurry.
Hopping to my feet, I reached back through the window and snagged my hammer from where I had leaned it against the wall. I still hadn’t used the warhammer, but it made me feel safer.
I peeked inside the bag.
I don’t think it was Amy’s, but I dug deeper just to be safe. In one end I found a small purse with a Connecticut driver’s license, Amber Moss. I didn’t see a body, but I knowing the room didn’t belong to Amy lifted a weight from my chest.
“What are you doing?” Tammy hissed from outside the window.
I spun the hammer in a wild arc.
A stream of half-cocked words flew from my mouth as I fought to regain my lost composure.
Tammy laughed and shook her head as she thrust her Dane axe through the window for me to hold. “You should have told me this was your master plan,” she said as she slipped through the window and hopped to the floor like a gymnast. “We should probably make sure to pair off when heading into the unknown.
“This isn’t Amy’s room.” She crossed to the door and cracked it just enough to peer into the hallway beyond.
“How do you know?”
“Those aren’t her clothes.”
“Some girl named Amber …”
“Moss?” Tammy snapped back from the door and cocked her head at me.
“Yeah, you know her?” I handed her axe back.
“I’ve met her a few times,” her voice dropped as she eased the door open and leaned out into the hallway. “She was friends with Amy.”
Sticking with the Nordic theme, Tammy pulled a smaller axe from where it hung at her belt and eased out into the hall. She held her Dane axe in front of her like a shield. On light feet we crept down the hall to open the door for Sean and Corrine. Once the four of us reconvened we made short work of sweeping the hallway for survivors. Unfortunately, every room sat empty.
Our guess, the school had been evacuated or at least the students had been rounded up in a more secure location.
Eventually we found Amy’s room. Tammy flopped on her bed. I perched on the edge of the desk and idly rifled through the loose papers scattered there. Just as Corrine and Sean began combing through the closet and drawers I noticed a folded paper pinned to the bulletin board amidst pictures and jotted notes. Casting a quick glance to the others, I plucked the note from the board and held it shielded behind my body.
Written in bold sharpie, Tammy’s name stared at me.
Part of me wanted to read the note, to make sure Tammy wouldn’t suffer any more than she already had.
“What is it?” Corrine touched my shoulder with strange tenderness.
I nodded to where Tammy lay staring at the ceiling and showed Corrine the note.
Taking the dilemma from my hands, Corrine carried the note over to Tammy with a slow reverence.
“Tams.” She held the note out. “Amy left this for you.”
We ripped north again.
Honor drove us where we didn’t want to go. Amy’s note told her sister that she and her sister had headed south, headed for home. They didn’t have a car, but hoped they could hitch a ride at some point.
They hadn’t been home when we had left.
All I could think was the three herds wandering the empty space between the cities. That didn’t even count lone stumps holed up in buildings along the way.
Tammy drove like a woman possessed. Could we drop the package and make it home before Amy and her friend arrived to find her family dead and gone? Would Amy even think to check my house? The twins would fill her in if she did.
Would Amy and Amber make it?
Tammy planned to find out.
Thus ends the second installment of this random short story line. Knowing my imagination, I’ll come back to it at some point. Who knows, perhaps it will eventually evolve into a full story. The story of youth in the face of adversity? The story of family? The story of family chosen being more important than the family we are born into?
At this point I couldn’t say. To be honest, I don’t know that I would be able to tell you even if I did turn it into something bigger. I tend to write what falls out of my imagination and I don’t question it.
I hope you all have a merry Christmas and happy holidays. Cherish the family you have. Cherish the times you have with them. Cherish every moment, because nothing in life is permanent. Don’t leave thoughts unsaid. Find ways to make new memories every day.
Sorry if that’s heavy.
Despite the weight of the words, keep soaring, keep on laughing, and keep on flying the Black.