A long walk home.

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  • #53339

    TaffyJ
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    I have a complete story to post. It’s a 41 page Word document. How do I get it on here? Copy-paste doesn’t seem to work.

    #62075

    TaffyJ
    Participant

    It was hard to stay awake. It always was in fifth hour after lunch. Miss Mary was at the front of the class reviewing their French test results. Joseph could hardly keep his eyes open, even with the chill of the air conditioning trying to make him shiver. He sighed, changed position in his desk and rubbed his eyes to hopefully feel a little more alert. Chelsea was looking at him again. He acted like he didn’t notice. She did that a lot, especially on the school bus. She was a weird girl so he didn’t want to respond.
    Miss Mary swiped to the next page on the projector, but it went dark. She tapped the touch screen interface, but that didn’t help. The overhead lights had gone out, too. The kids in class hooted and laughed, glad to be relieved of the boring test review.
    “Power’s out,” Andre said from the desk in front of Joseph.
    “Thanks, Captain Obvious. I wonder why? It’s not even raining,” Trish said.
    That was odd. The power only failed during thunderstorms. Joseph slipped his cell phone from his hoodie pocket where Miss Mary couldn’t see him do it. It was dead. Not just without signal or battery power, but dead like a paperweight. The screen wouldn’t come on even when he held the reset buttons.
    A shock of excitement and dread spiked Joseph’s adrenaline, but he tried to calm himself. It couldn’t be what he was thinking. That was crazy. The only way to set himself at ease was to double-check.
    He turned to look at Chelsea. She smiled at him, then looked confused when he wiggled his phone at her behind Andre’s back.
    Get your phone, he mouthed to her.
    She continued to look confused, but she hid behind Thomas who sat in front of her and carefully, slowly slipped her phone from her backpack while Miss Mary wasn’t looking. She kept it low on her desk and turned it on. Or, she tried to. It was dark, like his.
    Joseph’s stomach clenched into a real knot he couldn’t ignore. It was possible Chelsea’s phone was dead too, but not likely. The tenth-grade classroom was getting a little loud without anything to do. He got up from his desk and calmly walked to the teacher’s desk at the front of the class. She looked up at him, distracted from shuffling through worksheets to pass out as busy work until the power came back on.
    Joe was aware that he was sort of a teacher’s pet. He was always respectful and never caused any trouble, so she was likely to listen to him.
    “Miss Mary, the parking lot is right outside the window. Your car is there, the red one, right?” he asked.
    She looked at him like he wasn’t making sense.
    “Could you get your keys from your purse and push the lock button on your car, to see if the horn will honk?” he asked.
    “Why would I do that? Joseph, take these and pass them around please,” she said instead, and handed him the stack of worksheets.
    He took the papers, put on his most earnest boy scout face and tried again.
    “Miss Mary, this might be more than a power outage. My phone is dead, and so is Chelsea’s. Would you please try your car just to make me feel better? So I won’t worry?” he asked.
    She made an impatient face at him, but she turned to get her purse and dig for her keys. Instead of doing it herself, she handed the jangly, girly snarl of keys to him. Joseph went to the window, looked for Miss Mary’s red car in the faculty parking lot, and pressed the lock button on her key fob. He could see the tail lights. Nothing happened. To be certain, he pressed the panic button. Nothing.
    His stomach clenched a little bit tighter.
    “Hey, y’all get your phones and turn them on. See if they’re dead,” he said loud and firm, over the growing noise of the class.
    Miss Mary had come to stand beside him at the window. She took her car keys and tried it herself. The teens went quiet, noticing that the teacher wasn’t even concerned about Joe’s request for everyone to get out their phones. Normally, Miss Mary was really strict about phones. If you got caught using one, it was confiscated for a month. The teacher turned to the class and nodded. The chill was fading from the room already, the early summer heat seeping in through the windows.
    A growing murmur rose among them as the students discovered that no one’s phone would work.
    Miss Mary looked to Joseph, since he seemed to have all the ideas.
    “I don’t want to panic anybody, but I think we’ve been hit with an electromagnetic pulse. The power grid might be down, and if it is EMP, it won’t be up again for a very long time,” he said quietly so the other students wouldn’t hear.
    “What do we do?” she asked.
    “You should go see Mister Boe in engineering and tell him to check for EMP. He’ll know what it means. I’ll pass out the worksheets,” he said.
    The teacher nodded and left the room. While he passed out worksheets to everyone, Joseph’s mind was already racing ahead, planning. He had to get to his brother, who was upstairs in Senior Psychology with Mister Ardoin. Mom had said the school would try to keep them if anything like this ever happened. They had to coordinate, slip away and get to the road. It would be thirty miles home on foot with an overnight stop under the bridge.
    Other students asked him what was going on, since he seemed to be the ringleader here. He mumbled and shrugged while he thought. The worksheet sat on his desk, ignored. He turned to Chelsea. It felt crappy to make use of her crush on him, but he needed every tool he had at the moment.
    “They’ll probably assemble us in the gym. Don’t talk about it, but get all the girls who ride our bus and sit together. I’ll get the guys. Watch me. When I give you a signal, go to the bathroom, but then we all need to meet outside, by the flagpole. We need to start walking,” he told her quietly so no one else would hear.
    “Are you shitting me? Why would we walk home? That’s too far,” Chelsea said.
    “Keep quiet. If I’m right, and they assemble us in the gym, watch for my signal. It’ll be the only way we get home. Quiet. Don’t tell anyone, especially not teachers. They won’t let us go if they know. If anyone doesn’t want to go to the bathroom with you, leave them behind,” he warned her.
    She looked at him like he was insane, but she nodded. He could see the pulse beating at her throat and her eyes were wider than usual. She believed him.
    Joe’s heart kicked into higher gear too when someone came to the door of the classroom. Mrs. Julie, the school director, poked her head in and told them to assemble in the gym.
    Chelsea looked at him, eyes fully wide with the whites showing all around.
    “Grab your backpack,” Joe prompted her.
    He unzipped his and slid all his books out onto the floor. When Chelsea saw him do it, she did the same. They shouldered their empty packs and joined the throng of high school students in the hallway. It was crowded and dark. Even the emergency lights hadn’t come on. That was one more proof that they’d been hit by an electromagnetic pulse. The wiring was fried. It was two o’clock in the afternoon so there was plenty of light when they got to the school lobby where there were a lot of windows.
    The sound of all the seniors coming down the stairs at once was like muffled thunder. Joe touched Chelsea’s shoulder and she moved with him to the edge of the crowd. If he could catch his brother aside before they got to the gym, things would be easier. Joe spotted Simon on the stairs. His brother was looking for him and almost immediately sighted him where he stood in the lobby.
    He could tell from the determined, calm look on Simon’s face that he already knew what was going on and what they needed to do. Simon worked his way through the crowd toward him. Chelsea stuck to Joe’s side as they went out the lobby doors and headed across the grassy quad toward the gym.
    “Chelsea will gather the girls from our bus route. You get the guys?” Joe asked his older brother.
    “What about my little sister? I can’t leave her,” Chelsea said.
    Simon and Joe looked to each other. They thought of all the little kids who rode their bus. Several of them had siblings in high school.
    Simon glanced at his old wind-up watch.
    “You can meet us-” Simon began.
    “At the flagpole. Anyone who wants to go with us meets at the flagpole at two-thirty, or they get left behind. No exceptions,” Joe finished their thoughts.
    Simon nodded.
    Chelsea looked scared, but she nodded.
    The entire high school student body crowded into the gymnasium. It was loud and Mrs. Julie tried to call them to order without the usual sound system. No one listened until Mister Boe shouted.
    “Quiet! Listen up. We’ve been told the power won’t be back on for a while. My basketball teams, form up, get out the balls. We’ll be contacting parents to come get everyone. Until then, you can play ball or break into groups and do homework. Keep the noise down. Go on,” he said.
    Everyone respected Mister Boe. He was a tough, but fun teacher. The kids split up, forming their usual social groups. Joe nodded to Chelsea, then he and Simon moved among the guys as casually as they could, letting everyone who rode their bus in on the plan.
    The girls went to the bathroom all in a herd, but that was nothing unusual. Simon and Joe led the guys out to the bathroom. They loaded their empty backpacks with bottled water from the cooler behind the concession bar. Everybody was nervous. They didn’t fully understand what an EMP was, except for a few of the guys. The ones who understood were respected geeks. They agreed with the plan, so the rest of the guys went along with it. Two boys ran off to get younger siblings from the elementary school building.
    At two-thirty sharp, there were thirteen students at the flag pole, roughly half girls, half guys. Simon counted five little ones, maybe two from the junior high classes. He visually assessed their shoes and guessed at their stamina. Things didn’t look good, but they had to try.
    “Come on, you have to keep up,” Simon told them.
    He jogged away from the flagpole. Joe was right beside him, Chelsea behind. Marcus took his little sister onto his back and Kristy did the same for her little brother. They ran for the gap under the iron fence, at the bottom of the ditch.
    “Are we really doing this?” Tyler asked.
    “If you want to get home, we have to. Cars won’t run. Quiet. Hurry. Soon as they notice we’re missing they’ll look for us, but they won’t be able to catch us,” Joe said.
    One by one, they squeezed under the gap in the fence. The girls and some of the guys made faces at having to go belly-down on the dirt, but that would be the least of their worries. Tyler encouraged his little sister, Sadie, to crawl under the scary fence though the five year old looked like she really didn’t want to do it. The last of the kids stood up and slapped at the dirt on their clothes. They were already sweating and some were out of breath, and they had a long way to go.
    Simon signaled to Joe and the younger brother ran ahead to the road to check for traffic. Tyler put Sadie on his back, Marcus took up Kenisha, and Piper crouched and made cups of her hands for little Nathan to climb up. Paul’s pale skin already looked flushed and blotchy from the heat. Joe signaled back to them that the road was clear as far as he could see, with no cars moving and no dangers ahead.
    “Paul, you have to take off your hoodie and tie it around your waist,” Simon told the fourth-grader.
    As expected, the annoying know-it-all kid ignored him. His sister, Naomi, talked quietly to him and tugged at his hot over shirt, but he shrugged away from her stubbornly. Joe frowned at the trouble Paul was already causing while they were still in sight of the school. Simon shrugged and they all came up from the grassy roadside and onto the pavement.
    Marcus was large and steady. He carried his sister like she weighed nothing. Tyler was slim and everyone knew he had asthma attacks sometimes. Simon noted the bump of his inhaler in his pants pocket. Piper was what you could call an indoor girl. She wasn’t fat, but she wasn’t fit, either. Her shoes weren’t good for a long walk, but she was a kind-hearted girl and she bore Nathan’s slight weight on her back without complaint.
    “We have to make miles away from the school. It’s at least three miles to get out of town and we have to do that without the police or anybody stopping us,” Simon said mostly to Marcus, Chelsea, and Tyler.
    Kristy was an empathetic girl, a High School Junior, and she’d fallen back to try to convince Paul to walk faster when his sister Naomi gave up. There was a brightly whitewashed cemetery to the right of the road and a wild stand of tangled trees to their left, shielding them from sight of the school grounds. Joe ranged ahead and set a brisk pace. Simon knew his brother had already calculated in his head how many miles they had to go and in what amount of time.
    “I know the cars and buses won’t work, but shouldn’t we wait at the school? They’ll get the power back on soon, right?” Chelsea asked.
    “It might be months or years before the power grid is back up. Town is not the place to be. Everything’s going to be fine for about a day or so, but when word gets around that there won’t be any more deliveries to the grocery stores and the water towers start running dry, we need to be away from town. We have a better chance of staying safe, getting clean water, and finding food if we’re on the other side of the river,” Simon told them quietly.
    He didn’t know if the little ones could understand what that meant, so he kept his tone calm just in case.
    “It’s gonna be the apopalips, like the zombies and everything,” Kenisha said from over Marcus’ shoulder.
    “Hush, now,” Marcus said to her.
    Simon was impressed that the eight year old girl had any idea what he was talking about, even if the zombie part wasn’t true.
    “You’re so full of shit,” Chelsea said.
    “Go back to the school,” Simon told her.
    He pointed back the way they’d come. He didn’t stop walking, but Chelsea did. Marcus and Tyler stepped around her and kept moving.
    Chelsea thought Joseph was cute. He had curly dirty-blonde hair, blue eyes and a sense of humor. She’d never cared much for the older brother. Simon was too quiet, too intense for her liking. He had serious brown eyes, he was tall and slim, and his buzzed-short dark hair looked like he already imagined himself in the Marine Corps, which is what she’d heard he wanted to do with his life. She didn’t understand guys like him. Who could actively hate fun and want to work all the time like that? She gave him her best bitch face while she considered her options. Her little sister Piper passed her up, carrying Nathan.
    “I’m going home,” Piper said to her.
    Chelsea heaved a sigh and started walking along the edge of the road again. She pulled off her school hoodie and tied its arms at her waist. It was only May but it was three in the afternoon and muggy warm. Chelsea ignored Simon’s back as he hiked ahead of her. Joseph seemed to have lots of energy. He jogged ahead, then back to tell things to his brother, Marcus, and Tyler. She shrugged the straps of her heavy backpack higher onto her shoulders and tried hard to be disgusted with the situation. She desperately wanted to be disgusted and angry with the situation. She wanted to ridicule Simon, who seemed to be in charge of this idiot’s march. She had to, because if she allowed herself to believe that what they said was true, then the world was over.
    Naomi, Kristy, and Paul caught up with her. Paul was chubby, sweating, and his breath was huffing. Chelsea knew she was a little heavy too, but she liked to walk and work with her horses. Paul looked like he didn’t do much except gaming. Kristy’s ten year old brother, Devin walked along between the forward group of older kids and the slower ones in the back like they were strolling in the mall. He didn’t look bothered by anything. Maybe he didn’t understand what was going on.
    “This is such bullshit,” Chelsea complained to Kristy.
    “It’s not. Don’t complain. This is only the beginning,” the older girl said.
    Paul’s labored huffing was annoying but they seemed to decide to ignore it.
    “What do you know about it? The power can’t be out for like, forever,” Chelsea said.
    “The overland transmission lines are messed up. You know, the big towers beside the bridge? There are parts of the power grid that are only made in China. We’re in the middle of nowhere Louisiana. If they ever order new parts to fix what’s messed up, they’ll fix places like New York and Houston and Los Angeles first. Then all the middle sized cities like Orlando and Kansas City will get help. It could be years, or maybe even never, before they get around to fixing little towns like Marksville and Pineville. We’ll probably never see a light on at our houses again. No more air conditioning, no more internet. No refrigerator,” Kristy told her.
    “No more games?” Paul asked.
    Kristy shook her head.
    “You’re lying. Naomi, tell her she’s lying!” Paul exclaimed.
    Naomi shrugged.
    It all became real to Chelsea when their group of students from the charter school sighted a car on the road ahead. There was a lady in nurse’s scrubs standing outside the car, crying and clutching her phone.
    Joseph was already talking to her.
    Chelsea couldn’t hear, but the woman adamantly denied whatever Joe said and made a rude gesture at him. Joe looked back at the group of students, then kept walking. Simon led them alongside the dead car parked in the middle of the road lane. The slightly overweight young woman looked at them with wide eyes.
    “Ma’am,” Simon said to her in passing, and he kept walking.
    “You’re not gonna stop?” Chelsea called.
    “Seventeen miles until we stop for the night, Chelsea. Turn back now while we’re only a mile from the school,” Simon told her.
    Marcus turned his head to look at her, then he ignored her and the nurse lady too. Kenisha continued to stare at her, avidly curious to see if she was going to give up. There was something in the little girl’s wise brown face that made Chelsea feel stubborn. She kept walking. The nurse hurried to get something from her car. She slung her large purse over her shoulder and joined the students on their walk.
    Chelsea wanted to greet the woman, but it made her queasy to look at the lady’s face. She was panicked, full of anxiety already and nothing much had even happened yet. Chelsea ignored her and kept on.
    Joseph jogged back to talk to them as they got closer to town. He glanced at the nurse who had joined them, then ignored her too.
    “We have to cut across behind the nursing home. If we go through the Walmart intersection we’ll pass in front of the sheriff’s office and the prison. We can’t let them see us. They’ll try to stop us and make us go back to the school,” Joe said.
    He waved them off the road in between a house and a long line of trees. This close to town, there should be traffic noise, the sounds of cars and trucks, maybe a horn or a siren. There was nothing. It was eerie. They heard some voices up by the highway ahead, men shouting about something. Chelsea felt her eyes get wide from fear again. She didn’t like walking in the grass with her school shoes, but everyone hurried to follow Joe, Simon and Marcus along behind the nursing home, away from the main highway where all the stranded people and stalled cars were.
    Simon looked back at them and touched a finger to his lips for silence. She hated him a little bit less. Maybe his kind of serious was a good thing right now. Joe looked more like his brother, with no hints of his usual humor. Everyone walked faster, even huffing-puffing Paul.
    There was a privacy fence and a tangle of trees behind the nursing home. They stopped for a moment at the edge of the pasture that ran behind this part of town. Without being told to, everyone gathered around the older kids.
    Simon looked everyone over. He listened to Tyler’s breathing. He gave his backpack with the water bottles to Kristy and took little Sadie onto his back. Tyler was starting to wheeze. He needed less load to carry. Piper slid Nathan down to the ground and held his hand instead. Chelsea swatted at a biting fly and made sure she wasn’t standing near an ant pile. She breathed a little heavier, but not as bad as Paul.
    “We have to get through the dense part of town fast. People are starting to freak. You hear that?” Simon asked them.
    They could hear the sounds of men arguing. A woman yelled somewhere. The big air conditioning units that were usually so noisy at the nursing home were silent. They could hear an old person calling for help. Chelsea bit her lip and tried not to cry. It was getting real to her. This was really happening.
    “We have to cut down through the gully so the deputies won’t see us, so nobody will stop us. When we come up the other side, we have to at least jog. Past the gas station and the grocery store, it’s residential. People should be calmer there, but we still need to hurry. Don’t stop for anything. Not for anything. Understand?” Joe asked them.
    “It’s hot,” Paul complained.
    “Then take off your hoodie. Do it now because we’ll leave you behind if you stop to do it later,” Simon said.
    “You’re not leaving him behind,” Naomi insisted.
    “We’ll leave you behind too. Keep up,” Simon said.
    “You’re not gonna leave my sister! We should have stayed at the school!” Paul griped.
    “Keep up or go back now,” Simon told them coldly.
    He encouraged Tyler to have his asthma inhaler in hand and they started moving again.
    “The nurse is gone,” Kristy pointed out.
    Joe looked around at their little group in the dappled shade of the trees and he shrugged. He considered his responsibility to be the people from his school. Anybody else was trouble.
    It was frightening to come out from behind the nursing home. The small town’s major intersection was jammed with vehicles, some crashed, some off the road at odd angles. People milled around and looked lost, cried, or argued with each other. The kids were quick to slip down the steep grassy embankment of the drainage gully. Chelsea forgot to be upset about scuffing her shoes because she thought she heard gunshots somewhere toward the prison. She and Piper helped Devin and Nathan jump across the stream of water at the bottom of the grassy green gully.
    Joe and Simon were low on their belly at the top edge of the other side, looking at what they’d have to pass through. It made Chelsea want to throw up, seeing what people had become already, and it was only an hour and a half after the power outage. Grown people were fighting in the gas station parking lot over something. Little kids were crying in the backseat of a hot car. A man on a bicycle snatched a purse from a woman who stood bewildered in the middle of it all, and he peddled like mad away from the intersection. The woman yelled after him, but looked hopeless.
    Simon and Joe were known to be the go-to guys when a teacher needed a helping hand at school. They were cross-country runners. Fast. They could probably catch the guy on the bike and get the lady’s purse back. They didn’t. It was creepy how they ignored the woman’s distress, how they ignored everyone’s distress.
    “Fast,” Simon whispered to the group of crouched, gathered kids.
    “Ready?” Joe prompted them. He looked tensed to spring.
    “Don’t leave us,” Paul whined.
    “Then you’d better hurry. Now,” Simon told them.
    The older brother stood, Marcus and Tyler with him. They moved off at not quite a jog, certainly faster than a walk. Joe lingered back until Paul lumbered up onto the pavement and joined them. He didn’t wait. They followed the person ahead of them through the throng of vehicles, people, chaos and distress. Paul could be heard whimpering, but Chelsea heard his shoes slapping along. She held Nathan’s hand on one side, and Devin’s on the other and she and Piper hurried. Little Sadie cried to have someone other than her brother carrying her, but Tyler took a quick hit from his inhaler and soldiered on.
    They wove through the people and the cars. There were more popping sounds from the direction of the prison. Chelsea felt tears on her face and pretended it could be anything other than gunfire. People were dying, crying, fighting. Little Devin tripped, and she and Piper dragged the kid to his feet and kept moving.
    Joe looked back from the middle of the pack, did a quick count, then looked ahead again. Chelsea was barely aware of Kenisha smiling and laughing while she bounced along on her brother’s back. They ran past the gas station and the driveway to the grocery store. She heard glass break from that way, but they kept on. Men tumbled, fighting, into the road, and the kids dodged and flowed around them. Paul cried out, but Naomi yelled at him and he kept going. A man tried to grab at Kristy, but Tyler punched at his face. They broke into a run.
    It felt like Devin was flying and Nathan was dragging, but they didn’t dare stop. The mayhem was mostly behind them. There was another cemetery ahead, the old church in town, then the residential section. It was quiet ahead, noisy and scary behind. Simon didn’t have to yell at them to make them hurry. They all wanted away from the madness.
    Chelsea didn’t like cemeteries, but dead people weren’t any trouble compared to the live ones. They slowed their run to a jog and little Nathan was able to get on his feet, rather than being dragged. Joe stopped still beside the road not far from the mossy old grave stones and watched everyone pass. He fell in beside a gasping Paul.
    “That was boss, Paul. Boss! You fought through, for real,” Joe told him enthusiastically.
    Chelsea bit her lip. Nobody liked Paul, even his sister Naomi complained about him. It touched her heart that Joseph fell back to encourage the struggling boy. Paul cursed at him, too out of breath to say anything else. Joe patted Paul’s shoulder, then jogged ahead again. He turned to look aside and see how Chelsea and Piper were doing with the little ones. Chelsea gave him a wobbly smile and he smiled back, then moved on. He didn’t even look tired, just a little sweaty.
    Piper made obnoxious kissy-noises to tease her. Chelsea would have slapped at her sister, but Devin needed her hand. Why did she feel like smiling? Like laughing? It was insane to be giddy at a time like this. The world was going to shit and nothing made sense. Nathan wiggled his sweaty, sticky hand free of hers and ran ahead. She wiggled her fingers, not realizing how hard she’d been gripping the kid. Little Nathan went to hold Tyler’s hand instead.
    Their group of thirteen slowed to a walk so everyone could catch their breath. The shady, lower-class neighborhood felt safer but still tense. People were out on their porches. They watched the kids walk by. There were cars stopped in the street, confused people around, but they weren’t acting crazy like they had near the prison and the Walmart and the gas station. Not yet. Maybe they still thought it was just a power outage.
    “Where y’all goin?” a woman called at them from her house.
    “That way,” Simon said briskly, telling her essentially nothing since it was already clear which direction they were walking.
    Everybody in their group except Marcus and Kenisha were a different color than the neighborhood residents, but Marcus was too brainy to want to talk the way these people would expect him to. Kenisha stared boldly at people as they passed and the hassling calls from the residents got a little louder. Simon picked up their pace to a jog again. Paul complained, but then shut up when men started laughing at the ‘little fat boy running away.’ Marcus pulled Kristy closer to his side and they all hurried along.
    There was a little community gas station that sold bait and fishing licenses for the nearby lake. It marked the transition of the neighborhood from dense residential to the beginning of a more rural sprawl.
    “Can we stop and get something?” Marcus asked.
    People were coming out of the convenience store with sodas and chips. They were in a hurry. Mister Trosclair, the owner, seemed to be letting them all go without paying, maybe since the power was out. The old man had the store’s metal-barred doors propped open for any breeze and people went in and out as they pleased. The owner said a kind word to them and was barely noticed. Simon waved to the man. He waved back. It seemed a weird thing to do, to let people take his entire inventory, but everything was weird right now.
    “We should keep moving,” Simon said.
    “I’m hungry,” Paul whined.
    “Then go on and shop. We’re not waiting for you,” Simon told him.
    Paul changed direction toward Mister Trosclair’s store, but Naomi fussed at him and pulled at his arm. The younger boy shrugged away from his sister and walked toward the store. Naomi yelled at him to keep up with the group. Simon looked away and kept walking. Tyler, Joe, and Marcus turned away from Paul and let him do as he liked.
    Chelsea was torn. They couldn’t leave Paul behind, if only for Naomi’s sake. Kristy walked with Marcus and Tyler and had no sympathy for Paul. Piper murmured at her to ignore Paul and keep walking, so she did. It felt evil to leave him behind, but she meant to do it. Nobody else was stopping. Naomi cried out at them and begged, but the group moved on. Chelsea felt a sense of horror. Paul was a helpless brat and he was going to get his sister killed and raped. Chelsea had an obligation to keep Piper safe. She kept walking.
    It was a huge sense of relief when a few minutes later, Paul decided to rejoin their group. He was cursing and griping, but he hurried to catch up. Chelsea put out her hand for Naomi and the girl took it gratefully. She seemed to turn her back on her brother. Paul shuffled along behind them.
    They were among modest homes and mowed lawns. Grassy ditches sloped down from the road on either side. Already, it was beginning to seem normal to walk around the stopped cars. Some were abandoned. Some still had people.
    “Where are you going?” a man wondered at them as he sat in the open side of his van and tried to make his cell phone work.
    “Home, Sir. Gotta walk home. You should too,” Joe told him in passing.
    “I’m gonna call a ride,” the man mumbled.
    Simon said nothing. They walked on. If somebody was delusional, it wasn’t their business to stir them up and cause a scene. Joe had given the man good advice, but the man wasn’t prepared to take it.
    “That’s cold,” Marcus muttered and shook his head.
    “He’s a fool. Everybody needs to get themself home,” Kenisha denied.
    Marcus let loose his grip on his little sister and the spry girl slid down him and onto her feet. She immediately went to Simon and tugged at Sadie. The five year old had stopped crying for Tyler. She looked sleepy.
    Simon looked to Marcus. Kenisha was only eight, but she wanted to carry the little one.
    “She’s strong, she can take a turn for a while,” Marcus confirmed.
    Tyler nodded.
    Simon passed Sadie down to Kenisha. Sadie was two-thirds the size of the determined eight year old, but Kenisha took her up like a doll and marched on. Tyler took another draw from his inhaler.
    The T in the road ahead joined the long, long highway home. There was a strong iron fence with beef-bison cross cattle in the pasture, and a Coca-Cola delivery truck was stalled dead in the country highway. The roll-up doors were already open. The Coca-Cola driver was nowhere to be seen. Half the product inside the delivery truck was already gone and some people from the rural neighborhood were helping themselves to the rest.
    “Hey, do you mind?” Joe asked, and he gestured to the group of travelling students.
    “Nah, here. Y’all from the charter school?” a guy asked and handed them a plastic rack of twenty-ounce sodas.
    It was clear from the embroidered logo on their school shirts where they’d come from.
    “Yeah, thanks,” Joe said, and they turned right at the T to start the long, hopefully boring part of their trek home.
    “Y’all been a long ways already. Where you headed with all them little ones?” the man asked.
    “Just ahead, my aunt’s house. Don’t worry about us, we’re almost there,” Simon told him.
    Marcus looked sharply to Simon, but nobody said anything. Chelsea hurried them along from behind and didn’t particularly care whether Paul kept up or not anymore. All of them knew they had much farther to go than ‘just ahead’, but the guy asking about their little siblings looked creepy. Nobody minded the lie Simon told.
    Normally, they’d never walk on the highway like this at four o’clock in the afternoon. The speed limit was fifty-five, but people usually drove seventy through here. There was deep, crowded forest on their right, and cattle pasture on their left. The sun was bright and it was the hottest part of the day. They came this way on the bus every day and considered themselves barely out of town at this point. There was a great distance to travel, yet.
    Chelsea let go of Devin and so did Piper. It was nice to walk beneath the shade of an overhanging tree and spread their group out some on the empty road. Soon, they were sweating in the sun again. The next shade tree was a long distance away, up ahead. There was a car stopped near it. She was beginning to dread coming abreast of stopped cars. Joe passed out the cokes and Paul took two of them. Nobody begrudged him twice the allotment. Maybe the unfairness would make him happy and shut up his complaining for a while.
    “Why does everybody ask us where we’re going?” Tyler wondered.
    They could hear the wind in the trees and a cow mooed in the pasture. It was calming to hear the plants and animals going on about their day as if the humans weren’t having a crisis.
    “Nobody else knows what to do. They see us, and we look like we have a plan,” Marcus said.
    “We do have a plan,” Joe said.
    “Right. Everybody’s losing their mind, but not us. It makes us stand out. They want some sense of purpose, they want to know what to do. So they want to figure out how we know what to do. I’m sure they didn’t think it all out like that, but that’s what’s going on,” Marcus said.
    He pulled his black hoodie off over his head, finally, and slung it over his shoulder. His shirt underneath was all sweaty, but that hadn’t mattered until now, when they finally had a moment to relax a little. Chelsea turned her head to look and make sure there was no traffic coming either way because it felt so weird to walk on the deserted highway.
    “Why do we have a plan? What makes us different?” Tyler persisted in wondering.
    Simon shook his head at Joe slightly, but Joe rolled his eyes at his brother and spoke.
    “My parents. Mom follows some stuff on the internet. She learned some things. We knew something like this might happen, so we’ve talked about it before. I didn’t think it would ever happen, but…” Joe waved his hands around and shrugged.
    “Like, your parents knew this exact thing might happen?” Chelsea asked.
    Piper lifted her foot high in her shoe and wiggled it, then slapped it down and kept walking.
    “Not exactly this. It could have been anything. This is just one thing we thought of,” Simon finally agreed to talk about it.
    There was no use keeping quiet about it anymore, now that Joe had talked.
    “Do you think this was China? Russia?” Tyler asked.
    He waved at the sky to indicate the electromagnetic pulse that had killed the power.
    “Could have been a coronal mass ejection from the surface of the sun, but I don’t think so. I monitor that. It could have happened, but the sun is in a quiet cycle right now, not due to be that kind of active til next year sometime. Probably Russia,” Marcus said.
    “Not Russia. China,” Simon said.
    “What does it matter? The grid is down. No more coke. No more poptarts,” Kristy said as they walked, then “Where are we going to get feed for the chickens and goats?”
    “The Boones have corn in the field right now. They would have sold it in July, but the combines and trucks won’t run now. If we go help them harvest, I’m sure we can get some,” Joe said.
    “They have over five hundred acres of corn! We can’t do that by hand,” Kristy exclaimed.
    “Hey, you asked. I’m just thinking out loud,” Joe said.
    “If we get hungry enough, we’ll do it by hand,” Simon agreed.
    They enjoyed the sugary energy boost from their hot cokes in silence for a while, except for the sound of their shoes. Kenisha handed Sadie off to Tyler. His breathing was easier, so he was able to carry his sister now. Nathan let go of Tyler and instead tried to take Kenisha’s hand, but the girl made a horrible face at him and pulled her hand away. Nathan was tired and seeking comfort, but Kenisha was well rested and still thought boys were weird, except for her brother.
    Simon smiled a little at the incident. Chelsea decided he didn’t look so much like an asshole when he smiled.
    They approached a car stopped on the highway. It was partly off the road and abandoned. They walked around. Piper tossed her empty coke bottle aside into the grass.
    “Don’t. You might need it,” Joe told her.
    He went off the road and retrieved the bottle for her.
    “I don’t want it,” Piper said.
    Joe stopped trying to hand the empty plastic to her and instead reached back to loosen the top of his backpack. He pushed the empty down inside and cinched the pack closed again.
    “How can you do that without even looking?” she asked.
    Joe shook his head and smiled. Simon heaved a sigh.
    “You don’t want to hear about it. I know Kristy doesn’t want to hear about it,” Simon said in a bored tone.
    “Rghhh! Don’t start talking about boy scouts again! Piper, they can never go to any of the school dances, they don’t go to ballgames. They’re always with the boy scouts camping and hiking! Marley Pickering wanted to go to prom with Simon and she made herself ask him, and he said No! You hurt her feelings,” Kristy told Simon.
    “We had to go to Cabela’s that weekend. We needed to get outfitted for Philmont and that was the day our family could go to Baton Rouge. Can’t go to prom when I need to get geared up for Philmont,” Simon explained as if it was perfectly reasonable.
    Marcus squinted at him.
    “Are you gay?” he wondered.
    Simon squared his jaw and trudged on in silence. Joe laughed.
    “We’re not gay. It’s Philmont! We have to get ready!” Joe smiled.
    “What the hell is Philmont that you’d toss out Marley Pickering for it?” Tyler asked.
    “Philmont is the scout ranch in New Mexico. A hundred and forty thousand acres in the Sangre de Christo Mountains, with bears, trails, cook fires and banjos. Seventy-five miles in your boots with half your body weight in your pack,” Joe said with a big grin.
    “Sounds like torture,” Marcus grumbled.
    “Nah. It’s paradise. Hike all day, get at the top of the mountain, you can see forever,” Simon mused fondly.
    “Y’all are crazy,” Chelsea said.
    Simon and Joe smiled, then frowned.
    “We’ll never see it again,” Joe said mournfully.
    “Boo-hoo, maybe I won’t have to hear about it anymore,” Kristy said.
    “I guess I talked about it a little too much in calculus. Sorry,” Joe told her.
    “Seventy-five miles on a hike. So eighteen miles to walk home is nothing for you guys?” Tyler asked.
    “You can’t do seventy-five miles in one day. Philmont takes over a week. This walk home isn’t nothing, but it’s not a problem. We’ve been training. Oh, and its thirty miles home. We’re stopping at the bridge tonight. Twelve more miles home for us tomorrow,” Joe said.
    “We’re sleeping outside?” Paul yelled.
    “We’ll be under the bridge. If it rains, we’ll be fine,” Simon shrugged like it was nothing.
    “Outside, in the dark?” Piper wondered fearfully.
    “Nothing’s gonna bother us. There’s not even bears here. What, are you afraid of raccoons?” Joe asked.
    “She doesn’t like the dark,” Chelsea explained.
    They were coming up on another vehicle, but this one wasn’t abandoned. Everyone forgot to worry about sleeping in the dark for a little while. There was an older pickup truck in the lane. There were people inside. It looked like old people, a man with a straw hat and a poofy-haired lady.
    Simon made to keep walking, but Joe slowed and went toward the open window of the truck. Simon sighed and stopped. It didn’t look to be any danger, but it was probably going to be sad.
    “Young fella, do you have a phone? My truck broke down and her phone won’t work,” the sweating old man said when he was done being startled at noticing Joseph.
    “Oh, there’s a bunch of them. What are school children doing out on the road in a gang? Harold, roll up the window!” the old lady said when she turned to see all of them and Marcus stood beside Joe.
    Chelsea scowled and Kristy stepped closer and put her arm through Marcus’s arm. Simon looked disappointed, but he too stepped closer to Marcus and spoke to the old couple. Marcus looked long-suffering and resigned.
    “We’re walking home, Ma’am, from the charter school in Marksville. It’s not just your phone. Your truck didn’t break down, Sir. It’s the Russians. They detonated a bomb way up in the sky and the power grid is destroyed. Nothing will work anymore. Everybody has to walk home,” Simon explained.
    “The damn Russians? Are you sure? Well, when’s it coming back on?” the old man asked.
    “It’s not. We gotta walk,” Simon assured them.
    “I can’t walk all the way back to Bunkie, Harold!” the old lady said.
    “I know that, Ella. We’ll figure something out,” the man insisted.
    “Young fella, what kind of Russian bomb was it? Is there fallout?” Harold asked while his wife dithered and patted at her sweaty skin.
    “No fallout, Sir. Just an electromagnetic pulse to knock out the power grid. Joe, let’s get an inventory,” Simon said to his brother.
    Joe nodded and waved Chelsea over. They set down their three school packs and Chelsea helped him count through the water bottles they had. There were forty-three bottles among their packs, plus the empty coke bottles they carried.
    “Forty-three,” Joe told Simon.
    Simon flashed four fingers at him. Joe pulled out the bottles and gave them to Marcus. Marcus handed the water through the window to the old man.
    “That’s decent of you,” Harold nodded.
    “That’s our water,” Paul said.
    “Shhhh,” Chelsea shushed him.
    “I don’t know what to tell you, Sir. Maybe you could walk over there, to that house back in the trees,” Simon said.
    “You don’t worry about us, son. We may be old, but we ain’t dead yet. If y’all are going home, you’d better git,” Harold said.
    “Take care,” Joe told them.
    The kids picked up their packs and moved on.
    “Thank you for the water,” the old woman called out.
    Nobody waved or said a cheerful goodbye. Those old folks probably weren’t going to make it, and they’d been unkind to Marcus.
    Everyone shuffled along for a while, resigned to walking in the baking sun. Paul grumbled and whined from the back of the group.
    “They were mean to you,” Kristy said.
    “That’s just old people. Let it go,” Marcus said.
    “Old mean people,” Kenisha said.
    “Let it go. The black folks were mean to Paul. There’s every kind of mean people. The white ones don’t own the idea of meanness,” Marcus told his sister like he’d said it many times before.
    Kristy smiled at Marcus a little. Since he wasn’t carrying Kenisha, he took the heavy water pack from Kristy and adjusted its straps for his larger shoulders.
    “My feet hurt,” Piper said.
    Simon turned around to look for a moment.
    “I was afraid they would. Your shoes aren’t right for this,” he said.
    “So what do I do about it to make them stop hurting?” Piper asked.
    “Maybe you can go back in time and put on better shoes this morning. Or if you did that, you should play sick and stay home from school to save yourself the walk. Or hey, you could save us all and go back to find out who hit us with the EMP and tell them not to do it,” Simon said dryly.
    It was so much his normal tone of voice that it took everyone a moment to realize Simon was being sarcastic and that he wasn’t alright with how the day was going.
    “All you had to do was tell her there’s nothing you can do for her feet, asshole,” Chelsea said.
    Simon turned away and shook his head in frustration. He broke into a jog, then stretched into a run. He left them behind and didn’t look like he would stop. Everyone looked to Joe.
    “He’s just blowing it off. Don’t worry about it. Y’all aren’t nearly as annoying as his patrol. He’ll get over it soon,” Joe said.
    “His patrol?” Marcus wondered.
    “He’s senior patrol leader of our scout troop’s officers. They can be… a challenge,” Joe explained.
    “Do we have to talk about scouting again?” Kristy complained.
    “I’m hungry,” Paul complained.
    “Sadie! Why are you all wet? Did you just pee on me?” Tyler exclaimed.
    The little girl started crying.
    Chelsea watched as Joe’s face turned almost as stormy as his brother’s.
    “Water break. Thirty minutes. Get off the road and into that shade,” Joe pointed to the dense forest beside the road, “Everybody drink half a bottle of water.”
    Then, he turned and ran off down the road toward his brother. In the far distance through the heat shimmer rising from the asphalt highway, everyone could see that Simon had finally stopped running. He was pacing back and forth in the shade of the tree they all wanted to get to. Joe ran with the weight of the water on his back, looking like he was glad to leave them all behind.
    “What did we do?” Piper asked.
    Tyler was trying to comfort his sister. He stripped off his school uniform shirt which was saturated with pee. His white undershirt was tinted yellow from the ribs down. He left that on. He paced around and luffed his shirt away from his body to try to dry it. Sadie blubbered in the crook of his arm, tired and cranky. Her gold hair was darkened to brown and plastered with sweat. Her fair skin was getting rosy from the sun.
    “We didn’t do anything. It’s just a shitty day,” Chelsea said.
    She went with everyone off the roadside and toward the forest. They all knew to watch for snakes and trip holes. The forest was fenced off with barbed wire, but there was a thin band of shade they could rest in. Chelsea looked for ants and chose a place to sit when she was sure there weren’t any.
    “Come on, Paul. Let’s get out of the sun and drink some water,” Marcus called to the boy.
    He still stood on the roadside in the sun and looked off to the distance.
    “What if they leave us?” Paul wondered.
    “I don’t think they will,” Marcus tried to assure him.
    “They could,” Tyler pointed out.
    “They won’t. They’re boy scouts,” Kristy said.
    She laughed with tired sarcasm that wasn’t at all like her usual kind self.
    Marcus set the pack down and handed a water bottle out to each person.
    Paul decided to join them. He was burning in the sun just as bad as Sadie. The kid looked manic, like if he had a gun he might use it on somebody. Marcus was glad all he had was a blunt, squishy water bottle.
    “If you drink that all now, you won’t have it for-” Tyler tried to warn him.
    Paul showed him his middle finger and kept drinking until he emptied his water bottle. He moved like he was going to get another one from the backpack, but Marcus stepped into his way. Paul turned away and started kicking and yelling at the barbed wire fence. Naomi tried to ignore him while everyone sat in the shade. Chelsea laid down in the grass and the leaves. Piper slipped her shoes off and peeled her thin pink socks from her feet.
    “He’s not right,” Kenisha said while she drank her water and watched Paul pitch a fit.
    Marcus tugged her deeper into the shade and sat her on his knee.
    “Mom left us, then dad died. We live with our uncle. He’s not nice,” Naomi said.
    It was a brief explanation, but it said a lot.
    “I’m sorry,” Kristy told her.
    Naomi shrugged.
    “Why can we only drink a half bottle?” Piper wondered.
    She made pained faces at the blister bubbles which were swelling around her heels and near her pinky toes. She poked a finger at the puffy, fluid filled skin.
    “Because they said so. They know all that scout stuff. They must know why,” Marcus said.
    “You’re such a follower,” Kristy told him lazily.
    She and Chelsea were both laid out in the shade, careless of any dirt or detritus or spiders in their hair. Kenisha went to join them and Marcus laid back to cushion his head on the backpack with the water. Tyler glanced to where Paul was winding down, but he didn’t sit. He laid Sadie next to Kenisha, but he stayed standing, ready. Marcus knew why. Kenisha had a point. Paul wasn’t right in the head to begin with, and a day like today was making him crazy. He would stay on watch with Tyler so the girls could rest. Nathan and Devin were quiet and off to themselves. The two little boys didn’t seem bothered by much. They found sticks to play with and made movie sound effect noises.
    Marcus almost fell asleep from the heat and the blessed sensation of lying still, but Tyler nudged him with his toe. He craned his head to look. Paul was stabbing his finger at the barbs on the fence. Naomi wasn’t watching him because she was tired. Tyler and Marcus looked at each other and they both decided not to say anything. They knew Paul on a good day would tell them to go stuff themselves if they tried to stop him.
    “I didn’t want this many people,” Simon said.
    Joe leaned in the shade against the huge oak and slowly sipped his water. Simon held his bottle unopened while he paced.
    “Their parents will be glad to see them,” Joe pointed out.
    Simon stripped off his black school shirt, then his white undershirt. He wiped his sweaty face with the school shirt. His Saint Benedict medal and its chain jingled faintly, then fell to his chest.
    “We’re not halfway, not even for today. Piper’s feet are messed up already. Sadie is getting a sunburn, and I hope I don’t have to throw Paul off the bridge,” Simon grumbled.
    Joe took off his shirts as well. He tucked the black knit polo shirt into the back of his khaki school pants and laid the white t-shirt over his shoulder. Both boys were tanned from doing chores outside, but Joe was oddly darker in tone, despite Simon having darker hair.
    “We can drape this over Sadie,” Joe indicated his undershirt.
    “I’ll section mine to make a second layer for Piper’s feet,” Simon nodded.
    He felt better, now that they were making plans to manage their problems.
    “I’ll help you throw Paul off the bridge?” Joe smiled.
    Simon gave the barest hint of a smile, then shook his head.
    “It’s not his fault. Something happened to make Paul that way. It’s not our place to judge him. Leave that to his family,” Simon decided.
    “Yeah, but he’s losing it. Every time he doesn’t get his way, it’s like demons are scratching inside him or something. Whether it’s his fault or not, we can’t let him hurt anybody,” Joe said.
    “I know. You think we should put Devin and Nathan on point? They’re little, but their pace is good. They’re not too fast for Paul and Tyler. I think we’re going a little over two miles an hour. That should get us to the bridge before midnight,” Simon said.
    Joe nodded.
    “I wish I had the conch shell. I can’t whistle worth a crap,” he said.
    Neither of them wanted to lie down or take their shoes off. They knew their feet would be swelling. It would make putting the shoes back on that much worse. Simon looked at his watch.
    “Too soon to get them moving anyway. Eight more minutes,” he said.
    The brothers used at least a few minutes to enjoy the silence of not hearing Paul’s whining.
    “Most of the people in town are going to die,” Joe lamented.
    “They shouldn’t die. It’s just electricity. Humans evolved without it,” Simon disagreed.
    They left unsaid the mayhem and barely restrained violence they’d left behind in town. The crying women and children were bad, and the fighting men were their own kind of distress. There were two other schools in town that they had avoided. Their charter school was exclusive to the local students who could make good grades despite its challenging curricula. The public high school and primary schools in town were much larger than the charter school. Lots of children from their side of the river would be trapped away from home. There was nothing they could do about it.
    “What do you think the chances are of the prisoners coming out our way?” Simon pondered.
    “Who knows? It was impossible to tell who was doing the shooting and I wasn’t going to slow down to ask. It doesn’t really matter. Dad’ll be organizing the men in the neighborhood into a watch. If they come our way, we’ll stop them,” Joe assured.
    “You think mom’ll meet us at the corner like she planned?” Simon asked.
    Joe smiled and nodded.
    Simon turned his face back toward their classmates they’d left behind. He whistled sharp and loud; a steady, even tone. He usually whistled for the dog. It felt wrong to whistle for people. Still, there was no point in going back the way they’d come.
    “We’re doing okay. We’ll have clean water and we’ll be safe away from town. Tomorrow night, we’ll be in our beds. Night after that, we’ll take our turn at watch. No more Xbox, but we’ll find something else to do,” Joe said.
    “What, like whittling? I was going to join the Corps. I wanted that,” Simon lamented.
    Joe shrugged. Almost nothing was in their power. Their only job to worry about for now was getting home. They rested their eyes and stood still for a while until they heard the sounds of their classmates approaching.
    “When are we going to eat?” Paul asked.
    “Tomorrow when you get home,” Joe told him.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    It was dusk when they approached the section of highway that passed in front of the auto salvage yard. Every day when the school bus passed that spot, three big dogs would run out to bark at the bus. The dogs ran and barked at every car that passed on the remote rural highway.
    “What’re we going to do about the dogs?” Tyler asked.
    He held a sleeping Sadie and looked worried.
    Marcus looked around in the evening gloom at the roadside ditches under the trees.
    “Yeah. Rocks. Sticks. Anything. We need to stay together and have as much stuff as we can get to throw at them or hit them,” Joe agreed while Marcus already had two broken chunks of asphalt.
    Kenisha followed his lead, and everyone gathered sturdy sticks, not the light rotten ones. The edge of the highway was crumbled in places, so they made pockets of the bottoms of their school shirts to hold fist-sized asphalt chunks.
    Paul insisted that he wasn’t going to pass by the dogs. He cried and complained, but everyone ignored him, so he picked up a few chunks to throw and he found a fallen oak limb.
    “That one’s too rotten, Paul. It’ll break if you hit a dog with it,” Simon tried to tell him.
    Paul threw it at Simon. He was a lousy throw and he hit Tyler instead. He narrowly missed hitting Sadie with it. Marcus strode over and grabbed Paul by the front of his shirt and shook him. Hard. Paul stumbled off his balance, then ran at Marcus. Kenisha stood aside and laughed, her shirt lumpy with ammunition against the dogs. Paul cursed and swung his fists at Marcus, which was ridiculous.
    The much larger boy shoved him away every time Paul got close enough to touch him. Simon snatched Paul’s collar, kicked his feet out from under him, and pushed him to the ground. Joe knelt on his back and grabbed his flailing hands.
    Simon knelt to talk to Paul. He had to wait until Paul stopped huffing, cursing and struggling. The black road had to be hot on his face, but Paul was too mad to care.
    “You almost hurt the baby. I don’t want to bother with you, but I’m not gonna let you hurt people. Act right until you get home or I’ll tie you up and leave you behind,” Simon promised.
    Paul laughed.
    “No you won’t. You don’t have any rope to tie me up,” he sneered.
    “He doesn’t need rope,” Joe said ominously.
    Paul didn’t know what that meant. No one knew what that meant, but it worked.
    Paul stopped trying to wiggle out from under Joe’s weight. He whined a little and looked to his older sister. Naomi had her back turned, refusing to come to his defense. Paul wilted and gave up.
    Simon and Joe left him and went back to their stick and projectile gathering. Tyler looked to the brothers and thanked them. His ear stung from getting hit with a thrown stick, but he was grateful that Sadie slept on, undisturbed.
    “I can’t put her down. Maybe I could swing a stick,” he said.
    “Stay in the middle. Keep Kenisha and Nate and Devin close to you. The rest of us will deal with the dogs,” Joe said.
    Nobody had to warn them to be quiet. Dark was falling fast and they dreaded passing the salvage yard in the dark, unable to see the dogs. They hurried, even Paul.
    As the rusty junked cars came into sight, everyone was tense, clutching sticks or asphalt projectiles already in hand. A deep whuff barked out before they came abreast of the salvage yard, and then the dogs were on them.
    Tyler yelled angrily at the dogs from the middle of the group of kids and tried not to trip over the little ones or drop Sadie. Joe threw all his stones in quick order, then took the stout stick Tyler handed to him. There was barking, running, yelling, and the thumping sounds of the large mutt dogs being hit by the sticks and projectiles.
    They were almost past the salvage yard when a sharp whistle pierced the air.
    “Hep! Hep! Yaw! Git over here!” called a man from the house in the middle of the salvage yard. He hurried down off the porch, a shotgun in his hands. He fired a thundering shot into the air.
    The dogs reluctantly broke off their attack and loped back to their master.
    “Sorry ‘bout that. Y’all alright? I didn’t think anybody’d be on foot,” the man called.
    “Everybody’s gonna be on foot, Mister Davis. You might wanna keep your dogs close to the house,” Simon called back.
    “Yup. Looks like it,” Mister Davis hollered.
    “Hey, you got any old diesel engines?” Joe called to the man.
    “Sure do, but I know what they’re worth. Don’t come round here for em unless you got whiskey and buckshot to trade, and a lot of it,” the man said.
    “Okay, Mister. Thanks! We might come in a year or so. Gotta get some corn, first,” Joe answered.
    “You do that,” Mister Davis said.
    Simon looked exasperated at Joe trying to set up a trade deal to benefit their older brother at a time like this. They didn’t know how to make whiskey, but their father did. Dad just needed some corn, and they already knew where to get that.
    “Is everybody alright? Anybody get bit?” Simon asked.
    Kristy held out her hand.
    In the fast failing light, Simon held it close to his eyes and looked at the reddened skin on her hand.
    “Didn’t break any skin. You’re lucky,” he said.
    “It bit me hard. It hurts. Must have been an old dog with no teeth,” Kristy grumbled.
    They didn’t have time to slow down. Adrenaline rushed in their blood and Simon meant to make good use of it.
    “Come on, let’s get away from here,” he said quietly.
    “I can’t see,” Paul complained.
    “Full moon last night. In just a few minutes, the moon will be up. We’ll have plenty of light before the sky is full dark,” Marcus said.
    Quiet sobs surprised them because they weren’t coming from Paul. Chelsea looked to Piper. Her sister was scared of the dark, and she didn’t like dogs. Still, she walked on while she cried.
    Simon had been nice enough to wrap her blistered feet each with a torn half of his undershirt. Her feet hurt a little less, but they still burned with each step. The crickets and the frogs and chittering animals in the trees made more noise than in the daytime and it sounded scary to her.
    Chelsea put an arm around her sister and walked with her a ways like that until Piper sniffled, wiped her nose, and shrugged her off.
    “We should have stayed at the school,” she whispered.
    “I don’t know. What are they going to eat at the school? What are they going to drink? Where will they sleep? Tomorrow we’ll be home in our room. We can drink all the water we want from the swimming pool, sleep in our own bed, and we helped mom and grandma can all that stuff from the garden last summer. All we have to do is plant more, and we’ll be fine. Daddy likes his fishing and the pond is stocked. We only need to get home. The kids at the school are stuck with nothing except the crazy people in town. I think this is better,” Chelsea said.
    She swatted at the mosquitoes that were coming out to bite them. It was dark and creepy on the road. Over the sounds of the bugs and the frogs and the nocturnal animals around them in the woods, they could hear their schoolmate’s feet shuffling on the pavement. The sky was almost fully dark, but she found that her eyes were adjusting and she could see Marcus and Simon moving as dark silhouettes ahead of her. Kenisha tugged at Marcus, and her brother took her up onto his back again. The little girl laid her head on his shoulder and rested.
    They walked on for an hour, past more wild forest, and past a sprawling estate of pecan trees and grass lawn. Light could be seen glowing faintly from a square house window. Somebody had a lantern inside.
    “They should cover their windows,” Joe muttered.
    “You think somebody’s going to break in and take their candles just because they see some light?” Marcus wondered.
    He slapped at mosquitoes. They were all slapping. The blood-sucking pests weren’t going away, and they had no insect repellent. Everyone paused to put on their long sleeve hoodies to protect more skin from the bites. Paul whined angrily in the dark behind them.
    “Put on your hoodie, Paul, and they won’t bite as much,” Naomi told him.
    “I left mine by the road. It was hot. Give me yours,” Paul insisted.
    There was the sound of a struggle in the dark, then a slap. Simon rushed back to deal with Paul if he’d hit his sister, but it was Naomi wiggling her stinging hand and Paul who was crying.
    Simon nodded approval to Naomi, and they all walked on into the night. They had long miles to make between the cotton fields before they got to the river and the bridge.
    Eventually, Paul went quiet and Piper started softly sobbing instead.
    “It’s her feet,” Joe said to his brother.
    “I know,” Simon agreed.
    He stopped walking until Piper was caught up to him.
    “Get on,” Simon told the suffering girl.
    “I’m too big,” she denied.
    Her voice was pained and broken from having to carry on with bleeding feet.
    “He’s strong. Go on,” Marcus told her.
    Piper was too miserable to argue any more.
    It felt weird to climb onto a big boy’s back like she was a little kid, but Simon was stronger than he looked. He took her weight onto his hips, looped his arms under her legs, and leaned their weight forward. He walked on, obviously burdened but capable.
    Her feet throbbed, but the pain was a low constant ache instead of a sharp burning stab with each step.
    “Thank you,” she whispered.
    Marcus was right. They came out from among the trees, and there was young cotton planted in vast fields on either side of the highway. The moon rose behind them and seemed bright and silvery compared to the deep darkness among the trees. Piper could see the white of Tyler’s shirt and of the shirt that was draped over a sleeping Sadie. Simon blew a harsh breath of air aside at his cheek, and Piper swiped away the mosquito that was biting him there.
    “Thanks,” he said.
    Marcus passed Kenisha to Joe so he could walk unencumbered for a while.
    “How much longer tonight?” Chelsea wondered.
    “About eight miles. Four hours. We’ll take another water break later,” Joe said.
    Time seemed dreary and endless while they walked the highway among the cotton. The mosquitoes slacked off as full night came on, but they never completely went away. They passed an abandoned pickup truck on the road and kept walking. It felt like far longer than two hours before they stopped for water. Marcus and Simon switched off carrying foot-sore Piper. Just the few moments they set her down in the transfer were enough to make her cry out from the pain.
    “Put her feet up,” Simon told Chelsea when they stopped for a half hour.
    Piper laid flat on her back on the warm pavement and propped her feet up on her sister’s shoulders. Kristy carefully poured water into her mouth so she could drink while lying down. Funny, how it didn’t seem dark at all with the big round moon glowing bright above them.
    Paul had slipped into a moody funk. He drank another water bottle, but didn’t try to get an extra one from the bags Marcus guarded. Nate and Devin were passed out asleep on the road beside Piper. The little boys hadn’t complained at all, but they were exhausted. Everyone was. Even Simon looked tired. He and Joe were laid out on the road too, all of them looking like accident victims sprawled in the middle of the highway.
    Every so often, Simon lifted his arm to look at his watch. He had to tilt it just so to see the glint of the light on the face of his watch.
    “Let’s move on,” he grumbled.
    He sounded sleepy, but he sat up. Joe stood, then put down a hand to help his brother up. He also helped Chelsea to her feet. Sadie was awake now, so Tyler carried Nathan.
    “Sleep here,” Paul insisted from where he laid on the pavement.
    “Go ahead. We’re going to the bridge, then moving on from there in the morning. You know the way home from here,” Simon told him.
    They all shuffled off tiredly. Marcus took Piper up and she tried not to cry at how bad it hurt to stand on her feet for a moment.
    Kenisha started making weird noises. Chelsea, then Joe, then everyone looked to the little girl walking in the middle of the group. She made a dumb “buuuuuuuu” sound and held her arms out in front of her. Marcus laughed despite his load, and he made the sound too.
    “Braaaaaains,” Kenisha moaned, and they all laughed, except for Paul.
    They were indeed shuffling along like exhausted, mindless zombies.
    “Brains?” Simon asked dumbly, in a hopeful tone.
    He turned, stiff-armed and clumsy and bumbled into Joe. The brothers struggled and pushed at each other, and Simon moaned in a convincing mournful zombie tone while he pushed his brother off the road.
    Joe laughed and shoved him away while they stumbled at the edge of the cotton. It was surprising to see Simon acting silly, as he was almost always serious at school.
    It felt like the humor gave them a second wind and their steps were a little more lively for a while. Every time they slowed down to a tired shuffle, Kenisha or Simon or Joe would start acting like zombies and bumping into people. Once, they all ended up acting like zombies until they stopped in a gridlocked laughing fit in the middle of the road, everyone shuffling and moaning uselessly.
    Paul hung back, but he drank a little water when they did. Their laughter died down and they put their water bottles away.
    “Just a little ways more. Through the trees to the levee, then up the bridge. When we get to the other side, we go around and stop for the night underneath,” Joe assured them.
    Marcus passed Piper off to Simon again. Joe took up Sadie, who was too tired and cranky to walk anymore. Kristy held Devin and Chelsea took a turn carrying Nate so Tyler could catch his breath. He was starting to wheeze constantly even though they were walking slowly. He took a breath on his inhaler.
    The moon was almost directly overhead when they walked between the last of the deep forest and pecan plantation on the East side of the river. Dense black shadow was to either side of them, but the road was relatively bright. They were almost too tired to care about the dark, as long as they could see the ground in front of their feet to take the next step.
    An abrupt, loud rustling sounded in the dark off of the left side of the road. Creatures squealed and chattered in agitation. Piper shrieked. Simon set her down. Marcus grabbed Kenisha’s hand. Tyler hurried to take Sadie from Joe.
    “Shit! What’s that?” Chelsea whispered.
    “Animals getting dinner. Keep walking,” Joe said.
    He and Simon and Marcus walked by the group’s left side and looked into the dark as they could. Everyone hurried toward the bright white concrete slope of the bridge ahead. The older guys followed behind. Paul hustled to catch up with the group. Piper hissed each breath in agony while her blisters split and bled against the socks which stuck to her wounds. For a little while, not getting eaten by whatever was hunting in the woods was more important than her hurting feet.
    Marcus had let go of Kenisha so she could group with the bigger girls, but she stubbornly stayed by her brother and the older boys as they started up the bridge. When the black asphalt switched to moon-bright concrete under their feet, everyone seemed to sigh with relief. The bridge was safer. There was no shadowed forest beside them to hide hungry things which might charge out at them.
    “Joe, you’ve got point,” Simon said.
    Joe moved ahead to walk past the rest of the group and scout ahead.
    “Some of us might never cross the river again,” Marcus speculated.
    Simon shrugged. He and Marcus had to watch their back trail while they went up the bridge. If anything at all was out there wanting to follow them, either animal or person, they were plainly visible for miles.
    “Car. Empty,” Joe called back to them.
    They all passed the abandoned car on the upslope of the bridge. Simon didn’t like the looks of it. The doors were open and stuff was strewn everywhere. Someone had ransacked it. At least there weren’t any people, but whoever had done it likely wasn’t far away.
    He and Marcus looked all around from the top of the bridge. It was strange to not see the sky glowing to the East and the West from the towns in the distance. The huge power transmission lines didn’t have lights blinking on top of them to warn the airplanes, and the cell phone tower to the South was dark too.
    Simon looked up at the swath of the Milky Way across the sky and so did Marcus.
    “People were in planes when it happened. A lot of people died today,” he said.
    “Some are in ships at sea. I guess they’ll die too, if the engines are down and they don’t find land soon,” Simon pondered.
    “I’m glad we’re close to home, but we can pray for everybody else,” Marcus said.
    “Yeah,” Simon agreed.
    “Wait. If it was China that did this, then maybe it’s only America that got hit. Most everybody else might be going on like normal. Allied countries might help us,” Marcus speculated.
    “Maybe,” Simon said.
    Again, he wished he could join the Marines. There was going to be action from this. Probably war. Then, he thought of a ground invasion. Nah. The electricity might be out, but firearms would still work just fine. It would be stupid to invade. He hoped.
    They made it down the West side of the bridge. As the concrete gave way to asphalt again, Joe hopped over the guardrail and disappeared down the grassy slope toward the space under the bridge. Simon rushed ahead to go with him. He didn’t want his brother investigating a dark shelter by himself. The concrete infrastructure radiated heat beside them where it had been baking in the sun all day. Long grass swished against their school pants, making it impossible to approach the shelter silently.
    Simon caught up to Joe just as Joe leaned to peek under the sharp wedge shape where the underside of the bridge left the embankment. To Simon’s surprise, his brother spoke to someone.
    “It’s okay, we’re just school kids on our way home. Can we stay safe here with you tonight?” Joe said.
    “Only children?” asked a woman’s voice.
    She sounded hesitant. Scared.
    “Yes, ma’am. Thirteen of us. The little ones really need a place to lie down,” Simon said quietly and respectfully.
    He and Joe moved to stand where the woman in the dark under the bridge could see them. It was hard to see her, other than as a huddled shape. Marcus was already leading their group down the grassy slope to join them.
    “I guess so,” the woman reluctantly agreed.
    “Do you have any food?” she asked.
    “No, but we can give you a bottle of water,” Marcus said as he and the other kids came around.
    “Okay,” the woman said.
    When they all came into the deep moon shade under the bridge, Joe took out a bottle of water and handed it to the woman. As his eyes adjusted, he could see that the woman had two small children sleeping beside her on the concrete. Joe took out two more water bottles and gave her those also. Simon would likely disapprove if he knew, but they would be home tomorrow and could get more. There was no knowing how far from home the woman and her children were.
    In a normal social situation, they would have chatted with the woman, but she seemed to want to keep to herself. They respected that. The bridge was large and wide, so there was plenty of room to move away from the lady and make camp under the other side.
    The girls disappeared for a while off into the grass, then the boys took their turn to pee before everyone settled down for the rest of the night. Simon looked at his watch while he stood in the moonlight. It was twenty past midnight. He was tired. It would be smart to keep watch. Paul was beyond exhausted, not likely to cause any trouble. He was lying down near Naomi.
    Paul wasn’t the only potential problem. Other people could be around who might want to take advantage of the situation, as with the ransacked car up on the bridge. Simon walked over to where Joe was sitting quietly near Tyler.
    “I’ll take first watch. I’ll stay up as long as I can, then it’s your turn,” he said to his brother.
    Mosquitoes whined around them, but most everybody was too beat to slap at them. Down the long concrete slope under the bridge, past the grass, was the river. It glinted dully in the moonlight and rushed by, unbothered by anyone’s problems.
    The kids who had complained about the dark and about sleeping under the bridge were already asleep, despite the discomfort of their dusty concrete bed. Piper had her feet on top of Chelsea. The older girls were laid out in sort of a box shape, with the smaller children in the middle. Tyler and Marcus were already asleep.
    “What are you gonna do if anything happens?” Joe wondered, “We don’t have a gun. Not even a knife.”
    “I don’t think anything is going to happen tonight. Nobody’s desperate yet. People still have running water and probably haven’t run out of their prescription pills yet. Get some sleep,” Simon told him.
    Joe lay on the rough concrete and pulled his hoodie low against the mosquitoes. Everyone looked awkward, sprawled and trying to sleep on a slope. Simon stood and watched, bleary and foot sore. He didn’t have blisters like Piper, but he was tired.
    Twice, he caught himself nodding off standing up. Eventually, he walked down the concrete slope onto the grass. The underside of the bridge was like a high cathedral ceiling overhead. He leaned against a huge concrete pylon and crossed his arms. His stomach gurgled and complained hungrily at him. His mouth was dry, but he wanted to save the rest of his water for the day ahead.
    His companions shifted about in discomfort some, and he thought he heard the woman or her children crying, but it was peaceful other than that. A catfish splashed at the surface of the river. That was a normal sound, almost soothing. It reminded him of long, lazy hours fishing.
    At four in the morning, he was having trouble keeping his eyes open, no matter what he tried. He roused Joe to take his place. Concrete made an alright bed, if you were tired enough.
    The morning dawned muggy and just as mosquito-filled as the previous evening. Paul was already complaining about food and none of them wanted to hear it. Naomi shut him up by whispering something the rest of them couldn’t hear. Kenisha, Marcus and Kristy were down by the water when Simon opened his eyes.
    There were alligators, but they all knew that and took their chances anyway. The river was nice for a swim on a hot day. There wasn’t time for swimming today if they wanted to get home anytime soon. The girls took a turn off somewhere in the grass like the night before, then the guys did. Chelsea muttered about a lack of toilet paper. Piper was already crying silently and walking tender on her feet. Marcus took her up on his back and they all trudged up the embankment toward the road. The woman and her children were gone and it didn’t matter to where.
    Sadie was grumpy and she wanted her mom. She clung to Tyler like a baby monkey and blinked sleepy eyes at the bright morning. Kristy laid Joe’s undershirt over her against the sun, and the little girl pushed it away. Kristy tried again, and Sadie let it stay. Tyler’s clothes reeked of stale pee but nobody commented on it.
    Nate and Devin were full of energy. They wanted to know what was for breakfast.
    “Ask your mom when you see her. Let’s hurry so we can get home before noon,” Joe said.
    Paul knew the way home and seemed emboldened by the morning. He started out strong and rushed ahead of the group down the levee slope and toward the forest on their side of the river. Just two miles ahead on the highway was the turnoff for Simon and Joe, Paul and Naomi’s place. Chelsea and Piper lived right at the corner. Simon was thankful Piper was almost home and could soon put her feet up.
    He and Joe had ten more miles to go. They all were glad to let Paul and his attitude travel ahead. Kenisha was happy even though she and Marcus, Tyler, Sadie, and Nate still had a ways to go. Everyone took off their hoodies in the morning heat. The mosquitoes wouldn’t bother them much if they moved fast.
    Joe kept smiling at Simon and clapping his hands, then rubbing them together in eagerness. Simon knew what he was happy about but he didn’t want to mention it to the others in case it didn’t happen. He took some time to advise Piper.
    “Does your mom keep any epsom salt at your house?” he asked her while she traveled on Marcus’s back.
    “I don’t know,” Piper said.
    “It’s really important to take care of your feet when you get home. Look, I can see the tree in your yard from here. After you get your shoes off, you’ll have to soak your socks and feet in water to get your socks unstuck from your blisters. Use some epsom salt in the water if you have any, then get the blisters really cleaned out. Put your feet up and keep them dry until they heal,” Simon said.
    Piper nodded.
    Despite her pain, she looked cheerful. Chelsea smiled too, to see their big oak tree ahead. Their house was under that tree. Everyone was light hearted to have made it through the night and to be almost home.
    Before they made it to Chelsea and Piper’s house they saw a man coming on a horse, leading another horse behind him. Kristy cried out and started running. Devin ran behind her, almost as fast. The man on the horse looked startled, then he smiled and nudged the horse into a trot. Joe grinned big to see the first of their group make contact with family. From a distance too far to hear clearly, they watched Kristy joyfully hug what appeared to be her father while she spoke to him. Devin reached up and the man snatched him into his arms for a hug. Kristy gestured back at the other students while she explained things to her dad.
    Kristy lifted Devin up into the saddle of the spare horse, then she put a foot to the stirrup and swung onto her seat behind her little brother. Both horses trotted over to the students.
    “Who’s Simon? Where’s the brother?” the man asked soon as they were close.
    “Here, Sir. This is my brother, Joseph,” Simon told him.
    The man got down off his horse and shook Simon’s hand. He was all smiles. He shook Joe’s hand, then he pulled Marcus into a hug.
    “Your mama is going to be happy to see you! Good morning, little lady!” the man said to Kenisha.
    “Hello, Mister Rutherford,” Kenisha sang out, like it was something she said often.
    Dan Rutherford introduced himself to Simon and Joe and looked happy to see the children. He shook Tyler’s hand too, as if he’d seen him but didn’t really know him. It was the neighborly thing to do.
    “I can’t believe you walked here all the way from the school. How on earth did you know to do that?” the man asked.
    Simon shrugged.
    “It was just a walk, Sir. We already knew this kind of thing could happen, so we had it planned out, just in case,” Simon told him.
    “Is that so? I’m grateful to see my kids. Are the rest of the in-town students coming too? Maybe later today? I’ve got neighbors worried about them,” Kristy’s dad asked.
    “I don’t know, Sir. We had to sneak away or the faculty wouldn’t have let us go. It’s rough in town and only going to get worse. I think they’re waiting for parents to go get their kids. I don’t know what they’ll do when the water and food runs out, if it hasn’t already. I’d tell your neighbors to hurry,” Simon advised.
    “I best hurry home, then. Marcus, why do you have a girl on your back?” he asked.
    “My feet are all blisters and it hurts,” Piper said quietly, like she was embarrassed.
    She patted Marcus’ shoulder and hugged him from behind. Then she slid down onto her sore feet. Simon had her on his back before she could take more than a step. Kristy’s father got off his horse, then he reached and put Kenisha up behind the saddle.
    “Marc, get on up. You walked all day yesterday. Y’all hurry home and tell the neighborhood they better think of a quick way to go get their kids,” Dan said.
    “But daddy!-“ Kristy said.
    “Mister, I can’t-“ Marcus protested.
    “Don’t you back-talk me, son. Y’all did a hero’s work. Now git on home. I can walk. Send Jimmy back with a fresh horse if you feel like it,” Dan told the kids.
    Marcus nodded, then mounted up. Kenisha grabbed him around the middle and she waved at everyone they were leaving behind.
    “Thank you,” Marcus said while he looked to Simon, then to Joe.
    Simon didn’t want and didn’t know what to do with thanks, so he just nodded.
    “You’re welcome. You can come around to our place any time. We’re at the bottom of the highway, up the gravel road by the parish line, last house on the right,” Joe told him.
    Marcus smiled at them, then he and Kristy turned the horses and started home at a brisk trot. Kenisha laughed at the bouncing and waved at them once more.
    “I thought I was gonna have to fight my way through town. You saved my kids,” Mister Rutherford said quietly.
    Simon walked on, so Joe and everyone else did too. Naomi looked uninterested in hurrying after her brother. They could see ahead that Paul had already turned the corner to go down their highway toward home.
    “I don’t think I saved anyone, just got them home sooner,” Simon muttered.
    “Shut up!” Chelsea said with a smile.
    She shoved at Simon to try to make him break out of his so very serious tone. He smiled a little. She never would have teased him until she’d seen him fooling around playing zombie in the moonlight. He wasn’t all stuffy all the time, but he was when he needed to be.
    Mister Rutherford was in a hurry to get home, so he walked faster and left them behind. Simon couldn’t go very fast with Piper on his back. He went as fast as he could because he was eager, but he had to be careful.
    “Ma!” Joe shouted as they came in sight of Chelsea and Piper’s house. The boy ran ahead and hugged one of the women sitting on the front porch steps.
    Chelsea ran ahead too. Piper made a happy sound. Simon stepped off the highway, down the grassy ditch, then up the other side. He followed Joe and Chelsea to the porch. Tyler, Sadie, Nate and Naomi came too. Simon smiled at his mother, but he continued on into the house. He didn’t set Piper down until she was at the couch in her living room. The girl sat. Simon didn’t know what to do about the fact that she was crying, but she looked happy too. He slipped her shoes off and told her to lay out and put her feet up.
    Simon went outside to the porch. His ma and Chelsea’s ma were handing out food. Joe already had his mouth stuffed full of biscuit. Simon accepted a paper plate with a biscuit, two boiled eggs, and three pieces of bacon.
    His mom hugged him at his side but she didn’t get in the way of him eating. Tyler, Naomi and the two little ones sat in the grass and ate like they were starving.
    “Ma, thank you,” Joe mumbled through his mouth full.
    “I knew you’d be coming in hungry, so of course I’m here,” she said.
    Tears heated Simon’s eyes. He didn’t let them fall. He was embarrassed. It felt good that they’d had a plan and it had worked. They weren’t home yet, but they would be in a few hours. And they had food. All felt right with the world, at least for the moment.
    “Whew. You smell. You bathe soon as we’re home, then you sleep. There’s work to be done, but I guess we can let you sleep first,” his mother teased.
    “Bridget, tell me again, what are we supposed to do about the…” Chelsea’s mother asked.
    Joe and Simon weren’t listening. Food was everything. Simon got out the last of their water bottles. He passed them around. Sadie was really thirsty. Tyler took her in the house to potty, then he, Sadie, and Nathan started the rest of their walk home along the same highway they’d been travelling.
    They didn’t talk much. They’d see each other again, for sure. Joe and Tyler were good friends. They’d probably be hunting or fishing together soon, or harvesting the Boone’s cornfield. It was about three miles to Tyler’s house. He would be home in a little over an hour.
    Bridget said her goodbyes to Kimberly, and then she, Naomi, Joseph and Simon left for the walk home. Bridget had brought a bicycle for the eight mile trip.
    “Naomi, do you want to ride?” she offered the girl.
    “No, ma’am. I’ll walk. You should ride. Thank you for breakfast. Did you see my brother go by?” she asked.
    “Yes, but he didn’t slow down for anything. I called to him, but he didn’t listen,” Bridget said.
    “You ride, Ma. We’ve already been walking. We can walk some more. I’ve got food in my belly now. I can go all day!” Joe said cheerfully.
    It was nice to have Piper off his back, so Simon felt light on his feet.
    It was three miles to Naomi and Paul’s house. They didn’t hurry because Naomi didn’t seem eager to get home. Joe and Simon moved ahead because their mother gave them the eyes like she wanted to talk to Naomi without them underfoot. The middle aged woman got off her bicycle and walked beside Naomi until they got to the girl’s home. Joe and Simon each got a hug from her before she parted ways with them.
    “I’m sorry I was rough with your brother,” Simon said.
    “It’s okay,” Naomi forgave him.
    She hugged Joe again, then their mom. Then she sighed and walked onto her driveway. There was a crashing sound inside the house, and some yelling. Naomi didn’t walk any faster.
    “Should we go help?” Joe wondered.
    “It’s their business. Let’s get home,” Bridget said to her sons.
    She knew what they could do. She got on her bicycle and started peddling faster than they’d been walking. Simon and Joe easily jogged beside her. They made good time on the remaining five miles home. They’d jog some, then walk some, then drink a few sips of water from the bottle their mother had.
    It was a beautiful day, and a very quiet one. When they walked and they weren’t breathing hard they could hear that there was no noise from the natural gas pump station that usually hummed beside the highway. No cars were around to bother them, so they had the road to themselves. Old Miss Brown was weeding in her daylily bed like nothing at all was the matter. Simon and Joe took a break against the gate posts while their mother went to talk to the woman. The lady had them refill their water bottle and come take a drink at her well pump. They’d thought the old fashioned thing was just a lawn ornament like some people had, but it was fully operational. The water was blessedly cold. Joe splashed some on his face and so did Simon.
    After the short break, they jogged the remaining two miles home while their mother rode. It was the end of the world as they knew it, but it felt alright. The people who usually spent time outside in their yards or gardens were out doing so, and they waved as they went by. The people who were always in their houses were inside today, too. That was going to be a problem, but it wasn’t today’s problem. Homesteads were few and far between. Most everybody had several acres, and the lumber company owned the rest.
    Bridget turned off the paved highway and onto their gravel road. It felt better than ever to be going home. Home felt safe. They knew all the neighbors, at least by sight, and most of them much better than that. Their ma coasted down around the curve in the shady part of the lane and smiled at them. She was glad to have them home, though she hadn’t said it yet, and they were very glad to be home.
    A little further on, Mister Mitch was out at his shed. The boys were not at all surprised to see their older brother, Ben, up to his elbows in grease working on a tractor’s engine. Joe shouted and waved. Ben turned and waved back. The young man smiled at them, but he went right back to work on the engine. Mister Mitch took off his hat briefly and waved at them as they passed by.
    They said hello to the Cliven family, who was out working on their garden. They home schooled their kids, so they’d not needed to worry about how their daughter and son would get home yesterday. The mom was there, but not the dad. Simon worried if he was out to work somewhere, having to make his way home on foot like they had. He would go around later today and offer his help, after he’d gotten some rest.
    At the end of their wonderfully familiar driveway was their father. He leaned on the steel pipe fence talking to Mister Dunn, their neighbor. Simon and Joe ran to greet their dad. Tim tolerated a hug from the sweaty boys and he smiled at them proudly, but he shooed them toward the house beyond the end of the long driveway.
    “Clean up and get some sleep. We’ve got work to do tomorrow,” he told them.
    “Don’t you tell me those boys ran all the way home from that charter school,” Mister Dunn said.
    “No. They stayed overnight under the bridge. That was the plan, anyway. Did they say anything about the trip, love?” Tim asked his wife as she came to a stop beside them and put down the kickstand on her bike.
    “I didn’t want to ask a hundred questions yet. They’re tired. Let’s let them rest first. All I know is they brought a group of children with them. They ate what I brought like a pack of starving dogs,” she said.
    “I bet. So there’s a lot of kids from this side of the river, still over there at the public schools? You didn’t see anybody else walking home?” Tim asked.
    Bridget shook her head.
    Old Mister Dunn made a face and tilted his head.
    “They’d better get home fast, while the gettin’s good,” he commented.
    Mister Dunn was browned from the sun, his skin was like leather, and nobody knew what color his hair was because he never took his hat off. He looked older than rocks, but he still worked his horses every day and shoveled out their stalls.
    “We all got work to do, so I’ll let y’all get home,” he said.
    Bridget walked her bike beside her husband as they ambled along the grassy driveway. Everything was quiet except for the wind across the pasture and their roosters.
    “Is Ben going to be able to fix that tractor engine?” she asked.
    “Looks like it. He and Mitch want to go get the rest of the kids from town. I think they plan to use Mitch’s big cattle trailer,” Tim said.
    “Any trouble on your way?” he asked.
    “No. I think everybody who would cause trouble slept in this morning, like we hoped they would. The rest of us were out working. I need to plant more beans and squash and see if I can get that hen to set,” Bridget said.
    “That can wait a bit. The boys will be sleeping. I think we should celebrate. Have a glass of wine with me?” Tim asked.
    Bridget smiled.
    “You know I will. What are we celebrating, exactly?” she wondered.
    “Out with the old, in with the new. This no-electricity situation could be a very good thing,” he said, “I don’t have to go to work anymore.”
    “Good for some of us,” she agreed, but there was worry in her eyes.
    “I know it’ll be bad for some, but whoever’s meant to make it will make it. We’ll grow everything we can and help to the best of our ability. Til then, let’s go have a glass of wine and be thankful our boys are home safe,” Tim said.
    “You could have done more than barked at them about working and shooed them off to the house. I think they went above and beyond. The plan was to get themselves home. They brought a bunch of others with them,” she said.
    He hugged her to his side briefly, then let her walk apart from him. It was getting sweaty-hot already. A dip in the pool would feel nice. They should enjoy it while the water was still clean and clear.
    “Soft times are over with. I’m proud of them and they’ll hear about it, but things have to change. I may not be driving in to work, but there’s a pile of work for all of us out here at home,” Tim said.
    “I think we can handle it,” Bridget said.
    They went home, let their kids sleep, and enjoyed a glass of homemade wine and a float in the pool. This evening would be soon enough to get the beans planted. In the distance across acres of pasture they heard the tractor try to start.
    “Sounds better than it did,” Tim commented lazily.
    “Ben will get it fixed. You know he will,” Bridget agreed.
    The world was different than it had been less than a day ago, but that was alright. God willing, they’d get by and live to see grandchildren someday. Family and friends were what life was all about, anyway. With food on the table and love in the heart, everything else would sort itself out with the application of a little goodwill and healthy effort.

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