I didn’t want Mr. Houchins or his group to know what I was doing. They’d never come down to the house as far as I knew. My place and theirs was about five miles apart as the crow flies but roads made it a little longer. Five miles was no big deal on my bike but by foot … well, I just figured they didn’t want to waste the time. Besides they had been busy working the two farms that were adjacent to theirs and not really interested in my place for which I was glad.
Just to be on the safe side I took the long way around to get to town. I detoured a couple of times when I saw things like cars and furniture piled in the road with people walking around them. After reading all those books in Dad’s library I could have kicked myself for not thinking of it the possibility before leaving home. First thought was, “Road block.” Next thought was, “How stupid can you possibly be Lydie?”
The only “weapons” that I carried was a Swiss Army Knife Boy Scout knife that had belonged to Will, a Leatherman multi-tool in case my bike fritzed on me, and a Ka-bar boot knife that Dad had always insisted I wear when I was walking around by myself. If they had ever caught me with it at school I would have been toast but it was so small that it literally fit into the top of the work boots I wore most of the time as my shoe of choice. Take that back, my primary weapon was my brain but apparently I hadn’t been keeping it as keen edged as I thought I had.
I was scared for a moment then reminded myself that those books were just fictional stories with fictional characters. I kept telling myself that no one could be like that in real life. However, I did get a lot more careful as I pedaled my way to Matt’s house.
When I reached Matt’s house I got my first inkling that my plan wasn’t going to work quite the way I had imagined it would. I knew right away something was wrong. Matt’s mom was one of the house proud people that spent good money and a lot of money to keep her yard looking like Gone With the Wind come to life. For those that don’t know it was a politically incorrect movie that became the stereotype for what the Old South was supposed to look like. But what stood in front of me as I got off my bike barely resembled what I remember the house and yard looking like. Matter of fact the entire neighborhood looked … well it looked trashed.
I was just staring at the house and brushing away tears when I heard a surprised exclamation of, “Lydie?!”
I jerked around and after a moment of shock I nearly screamed, “Marty!”
I dropped my bike and ran forward and then nearly bounced off a human wall. It took me a second to register but it was a guy that had been nicknamed watch by the whole school. He encouraged it because his real name was Marion.
“Ow! Sas geez! That was my foot you know!”
Marty jumped in front of Sas and I was starting to get really weird vibes. I tried not to attribute it to the uber strange way my friend and the others with her were dressed but to be honest it did have a lot to do with it.
“Oh … my … gosh! Sas is that a real gun?! And a freaking sledge hammer?!!” Looking around I saw all of them were just as strangely armed but seemed to also be dressed for the Nashville Comic Con and Horror Fest. “What is going on you guys? Geez Marty … your dad is going to flake if he sees you in that get up … you’re about to have a wardrobe malfunction,” I told her trying not to stare.
Marty looked at Sas and quietly told him, “Go get what Matt wants. I’m … uh … gonna have a little talk with Lydie.”
After Sas and the others reluctantly walked off, pairing up to go into various houses, I tried to hug Marty but it was like trying to hug a mannequin. She turned to me and said quickly, “Lydie you need to exercise some verbal control skills.”
“Excuse me?” I choked.
She gave me an irritated look. “Don’t go 404 on me.”
I shook my head and asked, “Since when do you talk like this off line?”
She noticed Sas was watching us and grabbed my arm and dragged me over to the curb and sat us down. “Listen. I’m trying to help you here. Things have changed. You need to get a handle on your mouth real quick or there is going to be trouble.”
Instead of responding to her statement directly I asked, “Where’s Matt?”
“That’s who you’ll be taken to. Sas has probably already radioed Central.”
Snorting I said, “Central? Tell me you mean Central Consolidated and not some dork gamer haven. If …”
She hissed, “Will you just shut up and listen for once?!”
I looked at her closely and there was nothing but seriousness on her face. I finally admitted that something weird was going on and I needed to find out what it was. “OK. So tell me how things have changed.”
Marty shrugged and then told me, “I don’t know if I can explain it all the way. It’s all felt so completely bogus, like being sucked into an alternate reality. I keep waiting to see Dr. Who … or remember that old show we used to Netflix called Sliders?” I remembered the show and it is basically about these people that keep getting sucked into alternate realities. It was decent the first two seasons and then went completely lame. Before I could respond she added, “Before you ask, let me tell you that Matt didn’t say anything to you because he has been trying to keep things safe for all of us.”
“Matt?” I asked half incredulous, half intrigued. “And how does keeping me out of the loop keep you all safe? You make it sound like … like I don’t know, some kind of 007 thing.”
She shrugged and with a little irritation in her voice said, “Maybe it isn’t that I can’t explain it but that I’m not sure you’ll understand. Matt has been like … like this … I don’t know … he totally saved us you know?”
I swallowed a laugh. Matt and I had been together for a long time both as friends and as more than friends but even I had a hard time seeing him as some kind of super hero like she seemed to be painting him. “Matt?!”
“Yeah,” she snapped. “And don’t be disrespectful Lydie. It’s totally not cool.”
I was beginning to feel like I had stepped into a weird mirrored fun house that distorted the reflection of everything I had once thought I knew. I just sat there looking and trying to think quickly on how to play this game everyone seemed to be playing. In the end it was Marty’s sudden coolness that drove to me act more cautiously and a good thing too.
Sas came out of Matt’s house and asked, “There a problem Marty?”
Wearily she said, “No. Just go do what Matt told you to.”
“It’s getting done,” he growled. Sas, the former teddy bear all the girls had treated like a big brother seemed to have grown some sharp teeth. “What I want to know is how come Lydie here shows up all of a sudden.” Turning to me he demanded, “Where have you been? What rock did you crawl out from under?”
I wasn’t easily intimidated but apparently he’d forgotten that particular fact. “Stuff it!” I told him. I turned to Marty and asked, “What’s really going on? I mean I got the feeling from Matt he wasn’t telling me everything but this is over and above, you know? I just thought it was so I wouldn’t be scared and stuff since I was all by myself and he wasn’t able to come get me but apparently I was completely wrong. My bad … wishful thinking will get me every time.”
Sas snarled, “You ain’t talked to Matt lately. I would know.” He pushed me off the curb with his cave man uggs further irritating me.
“Hey!” I yelled brushing myself off and getting up from the road. “Don’t call me a liar!”
Marty for her part pushed Sas back and yelled, “What? You think Matt tells you everything? Back off before he takes you off line.”
Sas backed away but not before I saw some serious resentment thrown my way and some hurt feelings thrown Marty’s way. I was growing more confused and yeah, scared too. Nothing was turning out how I had imagined it would. “Marty?” I asked more quietly, a lot of my bravado gone. “Seriously, what is going on? Where is Matt? Where is everyone else for that matter? And why is everyone dressed and acting so … so bizarre?”
“I keep telling you Lydie, this isn’t strange. This is New Normal … to me … to us … you are the one that looks and is acting strange… from like a million years ago.” Looking away she sighed sadly and then revealed, “As for everyone else? Mostly we don’t know. Just gone I suppose.”
Getting further weirded out by what she had just told me I asked, “What do you mean you suppose they’re just gone?”
Folding her arms and making her in even greater danger of having a wardrobe malfunction she said, “I mean over the summer a lot of people died. There was a terrorist attack or something like that. Poison was found in the town’s water tower. You know how it works … water from the reservoir is pumped to the tower and gravity feeds the water from the tower into the town where it gets pumped to people’s houses.” She shrugged like she was trying to pretend it didn’t hurt and continued, “The government guys came in afterwards and rounded up everyone in the town that was left alive … like there was barely half of us you know? And we all had to go house by house and put all the dead bodies in these dump trucks. When that was done we were told to get on buses because we had to help unload the bodies and identify them before they went to the incinerator. Only see, two of the buses broke down … one in town and one right outside of town … and most of us on those buses were like around our age. They figured we would be ok to stay by ourselves until the adults and little kids that went with them came back to town.”
“And?” I asked when she stopped talking and didn’t say anything else.
“And what? They didn’t … come back that is. It was like they had just vanished and no matter how much we listen on the radio we never hear anything about any of them or anything.” She shook her head and unfolded her arms. “We waited a week and things started getting really bad as the electric went off and stuff like that. I just went home thinking … only …”
Suddenly understanding I said, “Oh no … your … your parents?”
She nodded. “Matt’s in the same boat. His family never came back either. Most of us don’t have anyone. Parents and older siblings either got drafted early on or are among the missing. Younger kids … they were on a bus too and just … I mean … who knows? Right? Anyway, that’s when Matt started getting us organized. He’s been like a … like a … “ She got a really dreamy look on her face for a moment before catching me looking at her blankly. She shook her head and continued. “He had us all move into the school because it was easier running one big building than trying to run a bunch of smaller ones all spread out. Once we all looked around to see what we had to work with Matt divided us up into work groups and assigned goals. When people saw what we were accomplishing they wanted to be a part of it, part of the rebuilding process. Now we have to be real careful because we have reached maximum sustainable population.”
Where was she getting this stuff I wondered. I asked, “Maximum sustainable population?”
“I know Lydie. I’m sorry.”
I was confused because some of the stuff she was saying wasn’t adding up and wanted to ask her what she was sorry about but got distracted … and with good reason. Sas ran up to Mary and told her, “The chariots are here.”
I almost laughed again. “They’re golf carts.”
Sas and a few of the others close by gave me a disgruntled look. “Do you see anyone playing golf Loser? These babies were Matt’s idea. Central’s Chariots … we have the only operating vehicles for hundreds of miles.”
I knew that was just plain wrong but wasn’t going to enlighten the Thor wannabe. “Call ‘em whatever you want but they’re still just golf carts. Cool solar powered golf carts, but still just golf carts all the same. What did you do? Hijack them from the country club?” Then I saw someone dressed like a Mr. X upend my bike and start to take the wheels off I yelled, “Hey!”
Marty elbowed me and said, “Shut up. If Matt says you can have it back you’ll get it back.”
“What do you mean if Matt says …” That’s when Sas must have clocked me from behind and I blacked out.