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Dinner, deployment, cave songs, closing in.
I turned off the highway and headed south, passing through miles of dusty fields. Hardy scrub brush had slowly begun to encroach on the old farms and pastures. If left to go another generation, they would likely fill the land from one horizon to the other.
Approaching Stansy's family farm was at once an exciting and harrowing experience. There was the farmhouse, just as she had depicted in the painting that had hung next to the table for over a month, there the apple, pear and plum trees in the orchard in the distance. But the fields were filled with brown, cracked mud rather than grain. The barn was just down the road from the house, a two-story structure with a hay loft. The paint was cracked and peeling, and a chain and padlock hung from the big double doors. I pulled around to the side, away from the road, as Stansy had instructed.
When I opened the door, Wendy leaped to the ground immediately and ran to the front of the barn to take in the view. Ingrid paused at the edge, looking down warily, but then leaped to the ground and chased after her. "I can't believe we're actually here," Wendy called, running back. "Stansy, you got it perfect."
Nissi and I helped Nonna get down. Stansy and Tilly carried Stan again, but with Nock's help this time. Wendy and Nonna went just ahead of them, leaving me to walk behind with Nissi. The shadow of what had happened last night with Tilly hung over me, tainting what should otherwise be a moment of peaceful intimacy. Nissi either didn't notice my discomfort, or chose to ignore it. She took my hand in hers and we walked together in silence.
"The doors are all locked," Wendy said from the front porch. "Is there a key hidden?"
Stansy sighed and grimaced. "I don't know of one. Looks like we'll have to break in. Here, I'll do it." She picked up a rock big enough to fill her palm and walked over to the front door. She gave one the door's multicolored glass panels a sharp rap near the bottom edge, cracking it, then struck it a few more times to clear the glass enough to reach a hand through and unlock it. "Let's put him in the guest bedroom," she said. "Wendy, can you go make sure the bed is all ready? Go past the kitchen and turn right. It's near the stairs."
Wendy ran on ahead while the other three carried Stan inside. "It's dusty as hell in here," Wendy called. "Give me a sec."
The dust that had apparently settled on the bed's comforter now hung in the air as the others carried Stan into the room and laid him carefully down. "Huh," Stansy said. "Guess Uncle Bill hasn't been out here in a while, or he forgot to clean."
I flipped on the light switch, but nothing happened. "Try the main breaker," Stansy said. "It's in the laundry room at the back of the house."
I found the breakers and flipped the main one to on, and was rewarded with the faint sounds of appliances powering up. I wondered about that, as I checked to make sure that all of the breakers were on. What would Stansy's uncle do when he noticed that we were running up the utility bill?
I whirled at the voice at my back. "Jesus, Nock. You almost gave me a coronary."
He shrugged. "Come out back. We need to talk."
"I really should go check on Stan."
"Stan's fine," Nock said. "Come on outside." There was a door at the end of the laundry room that opened onto a back patio. I unlocked it and we stepped outside. There was an old swinging chair there, the metal rusty and the seat stained with mildew. Nock gave the seat a disgusted look and gestured towards the distant trees. "Let's take a walk."
The cracked ground crunched beneath our feet as we walked. When the house was a good forty yards behind us, Nock spoke. "Last night, after we went through the checkpoint, you pulled off the highway and stopped. I heard everything that happened, Norm. Now, under other circumstances, I would mind my own business, but not when we're on the run and depending on you for our lives. What's going on between you and Tilly?"
"I don't know," I said truthfully.