Harry gripped the steering wheel in both hands and sat forward in his seat. “Are you sure this is a good idea, Alice?”
“They’re kids, Harry. What harm could they do?”
“We don’t know where they’re taking us, or who they’re taking us to.”
Alice twisted in her seat to check on Maisey who was fussing, most likely picking up on the tension in the car. She gave the baby’s foot a tickle, which brought out a brief smile. “They seem nice.” She kept her voice light and bouncy. “And they said they could help.”
“That group down in Montana seemed nice enough at first.”
Alice made faces at Maisey who squirmed in her car seat. “Well that’s true, but we left, didn’t we? yes we did. And these new people might be different.”
“Alice, would you be serious for a minute!”
Up ahead, the truck they were following stopped in front of a gate through a chain link fence.
“I am,” Alice said, “but you’re freaking out Maisey. And we don’t want that, do we? No we don’t. We want happy Maisey.” She tickled Maisey’s toes again and the baby giggled.
Harry heaved a sigh.
Cat, in her grubby dungarees and blond pigtails, hopped down from the truck. She waved enthusiastically at Harry and Alice, with a big grin on her face, and then ran round to the front of the truck.
“Guess we must be here.”
Alice re-settled in her seat, facing forwards. “Worst case scenario we just leave, best case… well we could use somewhere safe to stay for the winter.”
“Stay? We just need that fuel pump then we’re gone. We’ll find somewhere safe on our own.”
“Let’s just keep an open mind.”
The truck started moving again and Harry inched the car forward. The flurry of snow that started at the gas station was already petering out, but a dusting of white covered the verges along the road. As they passed over the threshold, they looked up at the sign which arched over the gate. The original faded paint proclaimed “Welcome to camp—” and over whatever the name used to be, a board with fresh bright yellow paint proclaimed “GenX”.
The truck drove towards a large brick built lodge with a wide front but then turned right towards a courtyard. Several single story outbuilding surrounded the yard. Some were were open fronted storage areas, sheltered from the worst weather by a roof, while others had doors and shutters. Harry stayed with the truck and parked alongside it when it pulled to a halt.
“Oh gosh,” Alice said.
From around the yard curious children appeared; there had to be at least twenty of them. They crowded towards the truck but kept a wary distance from the car. Cat and Farley got down from the truck and Alice could see them talking to the other kids and pointing at the car. Alice reached for her door handle.
“Wait, stay in the car,” Harry said.
“Oh don’t be silly, they’re kids.”
She climbed out of the car and the small crowd fell silent.
A boy with a grubby face, who couldn’t be much older than ten or eleven, pushed through to the front. “Who are you?”
“My name’s Alice.”
Harry stepped out of the car but kept the door open like a shield in front of him. “Careful, Alice.”
At that moment, maybe because of the sudden cold air, or maybe sensing the fact that both her parents were no longer in the car, Maisey broke into a full wailing cry. A ripple of whispers passed through the group and Alice heard the name Holly several times. The pregnant girl Cat had mentioned, back at the gas station.
“I’m gonna go get Vicki,” Cat said, before dashing off.
A couple of girls on the edge of the group crept closer as Alice opened the rear door of the car. “Is that your baby?”
“Yes, her name’s Maisey. Do you want to see?” Alice lifted Maisey from her car seat and crouched to show her to the girls. Maisey’s eyes widened as she took in the new faces, and her cries fell silent.
“She’s so little.”
“That’s true. She’s not even a year old yet.”
The rest of the kids had crowded round now, the ones at the front crouching and those behind peering over shoulders to get a look. They watched, entranced, as Alice wiggled a finger into Maisey’s tiny hand and the baby grasped.
Harry moved up behind Alice, a defensive shadow. She felt his hand on her shoulder, tense.
Several of the kids at the back of the group turned, and then more. Alice stood up and Harry slipped a protective arm around her waist. Across the yard, Cat returned with several others.
An adult woman held the hand of a gaunt teenage girl with blond tips to her mousy brown hair. The girl wore a baggy sweatshirt, but where she held her hand to her stomach the roundness of her belly was obvious. Alice hadn’t appreciated how young she would be.
The kids parted to let the woman through. “I’m Vicki,” she said. “Welcome to our little camp.”
“I’m Alice and this is my husband, Harry. Farley kindly offered to help us make a pump for fuel.”
The pregnant girl looked at Maisey with wary interest.
“Are you Holly?” Alice asked softly. Holly looked up and nodded. Her pale skin exaggerated the dark circles under her eyes.
“Cat, why don’t you and Farley organise some help to unload the truck?” Vicki suggested.
Cat nodded. “Alright you lot, we’ve got stuff to shift into the fuel store.”
Alice expected the other kids to ignore her; Cat couldn’t be much older than twelve, but most jumped to it with only a longing glance over their shoulders. A stern look from Vicki sent the stragglers after them.
One older girl, tall, with short dark blond hair and glasses, stayed behind and put her arm around Holly’s shoulders.
“I hope you’ll forgive the crowd, they’re just curious.” Vicki said, “Most of us haven’t seen anyone from outside the camp for a long time.”
Holly suddenly winced and put her hand on her stomach.
Alice looked over her shoulder at Harry and then wordlessly handed Maisey to him.
“Do you have pains?”
Holly shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt, it just surprises me sometimes when it moves.”
“How far along are you?”
“I’m not sure. I think about seven months, maybe closer to seven and a half.”
“Holly’s pregnancy came as a bit of a surprise to all of us,” Vicki said. “Bethanne and I have been reading up, trying to educate ourselves,” she glanced at the girl standing with Holly. “But it’s a poor substitute for experience. Would you mind talking with Holly, perhaps you can ease some of her fears?”
Vicki turned to Holly. “The classroom’s free. Why don’t you and Alice get some privacy for a bit?”
“Okay.” Holly smiled weakly. “It’s this way.” She nodded towards the main building.
Alice took Maisey back from Harry.
“Harry, please, she needs my help. Why don’t you find out some more about the camp while I’m busy?” She backed away from him and then turned to follow Holly and Bethanne to the lodge.
Harry watched his wife leave with the two girls.
“Cat told me a little of what happened a the gas station,” Vicki said, calmly.
Harry shifted his feet, nervously. “I’m sorry about that.”
Vicki nodded. “It’s tough out there, no doubt. But please understand I won’t tolerate threats to my kids.”
Harry swallowed hard and then nodded. “Understood.”
Vicki’s expression softened and she began walking towards where the kids were unloading the fuel. One of the open fronted storage sheds held neat rows of jerry cans and heaps of chopped firewood. Butane gas canisters lined the back wall. The camp certainly seemed well stocked.
“We had a hard winter last year,” Vickie explained. “So this year we started preparing early, putting supplies aside. We shouldn’t have to worry about fuel, but food is another matter.”
“We have nearly eighty mouths to feed here. They go through a lot of food, and we’ve more or less depleted the area of everything we could salvage.”
“Things are similar down south,” Harry said.
The kids unloading the van paused at the mention of the outside world. Harry could feel them watching him.
“How are things out there? How far have you come?” Vicki asked.
“We came up from Colorado. At first we were heading for this refugee camp in Wyoming, but it turned that was just a rumour. Then we headed north trying to get ahead of it. A lot of the early reports said cold climates kill the bug, but whether that’s true?” He shrugged.
“You’ve come quite some way north!”
“We hit some trouble, of a kind, in Montana. We wanted to put some distance… and, well, we’d heard there might be some kind of help north of the border.”
“Do you have a destination in mind now?”
“Not really. Keep going north till it gets too cold and stop somewhere safe. Maybe if there’s any truth to that cold climate theory, and we keep away from people, we’ll be safe for good.”
“It’s still out there then?”
“I guess so. But, what people we’ve seen in the last couple of years, none of them were sick.”
“Maybe it’s died out then?”
“Maybe. But, you know, really I haven’t seen many people at all. I mean, it’s empty out there. Six months since we crossed paths with that group south of the border and we haven’t seen anyone since.”
“Farley and Cat encountered a group south of Prince George not long ago. Perhaps more people are moving north, like you?”
“Could be. I wouldn’t count on any kind of rescue though, that’s all I’m saying.”
“No. We had little hope left in that regard anyway, which is why we’re pushing to become self sufficient. It’s slow going, though. We don’t have the knowledge so it’s a matter of trial and error and reading any books we can find.”
“Seems like you’re doing better than most.”
Vicki smiled. “Maybe I’m being too hard on myself.” She gestured towards a path leading away through the back of the yard. “Let me show you some of what we’ve built here.”
Alice took a seat on one of the couches at the back of the room called the classroom. She settled Maisey in the space between her body and the back of the couch.
The long room was bright but slightly chilly, with big windows down one side. Bookshelves lined the wall opposite the windows, and at the far end stood a TV and DVD player on a wheeled stand. A large blackboard took up the end wall and in one corder desk peeked out from under stacks of newspapers and books.
Holly stood in front of Alice, twisting her sleeves in her hands. She glanced furtively at the baby.
“Would you like to hold her?” Alice asked.
“Of course.” Alice scooped Maisey up. “Make a cradle with your arms.”
Holly sat and put her thin arms out stiffly.
“You won’t hurt her, don’t worry.” Alice said as she carefully settled Maisey.
Holly gazed down at the baby and tears welled up. She sniffed and adjusted her hold on the baby to free up a hand to wipe her eyes.
Alice put a hand on her arm. “Are you okay?”
“I’m sorry. I’m fine.”
Alice watched her for a moment. She seemed so young; just a kid. “Holly, the man who did this to you, did he hurt you?”
Holly’s eyes widened in shock and she shook her head. “Oh no, Josh is… We didn’t mean to, it just kind of happened, just once. But, he takes care of me. Vickie says we can have our own lodge once the baby comes.”
Alice smiled. “That’s good.” Alice paused and waited to see if the girl would open up a bit more.
Holly offered the baby a finger to grab. “Did you have Maisey on your own?”
“More or less. Harry was there, but we did it all by ourselves. I remembered what it felt like from before… I just tried to listen to my body.”
“It’s going to hurt, isn’t it?”
“Yes. But it’s okay, it doesn’t last forever. It’s… just something you have to get through.”
Harry followed Vicki along the cracking asphalt path towards what they called “North Field”. The kids from the yard trailed behind. Most of the light snow had melted now, but little reminders lingered in sheltered dips.
On the left, a perfectly level, rectangular field had been divided into small plots. Some were empty, their crops having already been harvested, but others held bushy cabbages and swelling pumpkins. It seemed they’d made a good start on establishing a farm.
The North Field wasn’t a field at all yet. Until recently it had clearly been a wooded area but now small gangs of teens worked at removing the trees. The buzz of a chain saw hummed from the far side and a quad bike crossed back and forth hauling logs with the aid of teams of kids pulling ropes. The logs were stacked along the length of the path where smaller kids worked double ended saws to cut the logs into sections.
A girl pushing a wheel barrow full of fat chunks of wood hurried past.
“We need more farming space,” Vickie said. “But there’s no open ground for several miles. Ideally we want to stay within the perimeter fence, to keep animals out, and so we chose to clear our own field.”
“You could have saved yourself some time and burned it,” Harry said.
“That’s true. But this way we harvest the firewood too. We’ve got all autumn and winter to clear it. Time and hands we have in abundance.”
“What about livestock?”
Vickie shook her head. “It’s not something we’ve considered yet.”
“Well there’s plenty of feral cows and sheep wandering around out there, just waiting for someone to claim them.”
“Somehow I imagined farm animals would have died out, unprotected. Perhaps I should give it some more serious thought.”
Harry glanced around seeing the space around in new ways. “You’d be surprised! I mean, I’m not much of an outdoors type really, but, some of my family were ranchers. You could build some more fencing, let them roam under the tree, no need to…” He trailed off. Vicki’s inscrutable smile was making him uncomfortable. “Can we go back now? I’d like to check on my wife.”
Maisey sat on the floor playing with a cushion. She stuffed an already soggy corner into her mouth and sucked.
“So you still have morning sickness now?” Alice asked Holly.
“Almost every morning. And I throw up after I’ve eaten sometimes.”
Alice nodded. “And, if you’re not keeping food down you’re not getting the nutrients you need. You know, that could be all there is to it.”
“Do you think so?”
“There’s some things we can try. Do you take vitamin supplements?”
“Sometimes. But with the food shortage, Vickie wanted all the kids to take them and we started running low.”
“Well from now on you need your own private supply. If your body starts to think it’s starving you could miscarry and this far along that could be dangerous.” Holly paled and Alice put a hand on her arm. “That’s not going to happen, do you hear me? We’re going to get you healthy.”
“We? Does that mean you’ll stay?”
“I’d like to. This place is amazing. Impossible, even. And everyone is… I just know we’d be safe here. Me, Harry, and Maisey most of all. I just feel it.”
“You would, totally! You could stay and help with the farming and stuff, and maybe drive some of the supply missions. And, my baby can grow up with Maisey and they can be best friends.”
Alice looked down at her daughter who was trying to pull the cushion apart with her chubby baby fists. Suddenly the camp had become something bigger. It wasn’t just a safe place for them for the winter, or even longer, it could be a community, a family, where Maisey could grow up and there would be people to take care of her if anything ever happened to her or Harry.
“There’s blood sometimes, is that bad?”
Alice snapped out of her thoughts. “Not necessarily. It’s not good, but it doesn’t always mean anything bad will happen. Is there pain too.”
“Not much. I get cramps sometimes.”
“And you said there hasn’t been much meat to eat recently?”
“No, not until Josh and Vickie killed the bear.”
Alice decided to skip over that for another time. “It might be as simple as an iron deficiency. It’d explain most of your symptoms. If we can get some iron tablets for you, and maybe some pills to settle your stomach, I reckon you’ll feel better in no time. I know what to look for if we can find a drug store that hasn’t been completely ransacked.”
The door creaked open and Bethanne peeked in. “It’s nearly time for dinner, if you guys want to come.”
The smell of tomatoes and herbs wafted out and set Harry’s mouth watering as he entered the main hall. Inside, some of the smallest kids hurried about setting up trestle tables and benches. By the serving hatch he spotted his wife, stood with the pregnant girl. Alice waved. There was a soft glow in her cheeks and Maisey squirmed happily in her arms.
As Vickie let the door close behind them, and the warmth inside the humid hall soaked in, he suddenly realised he was warm, for maybe the first time in months.
“Would you care to join us for dinner?” Vickie asked.
“That would be very kind, thank you.”
They walked over and joined Alice. In the kitchen beyond the hatch a half dozen older kids worked at counters and stoves while a couple of younger ones stood on a box by the sink next to a mountain of washing up.
A tall, broad kid with long dark hair, who Harry would have called a man if it wasn’t for the youthfulness of his features, set a stainless steel tray of pasta into a hot water bath. “Grubs up,” he shouted. “Grab it while it’s hot.”
“Thank you, Potts,” Vicki said. She passed a plate from a pile to Harry and another to Alice. “Guests first, of course. It’s quite the novelty for us to have visitors.”
Alice handed Maisey to Holly and then loaded up a plate with tomato sauce coated pasta and a heap of green beans. She took a chunk of bread from a bowl at the end. “This looks amazing.”
Harry had to agree as he scooped some onto his own plate.
Once they were all seated around a table, and Harry and Alice were tucking into the best hot meal they’d had in months, Vickie dropped the question Harry had been expecting all day.
“So, now that you’ve had a little look round, met a few of the kids you can see this is no refugee camp. There’s no authority dishing out help here, just a bunch of kids and me, making things up as we go along. We can’t promise you anything, except that we’re all in it together. If you’d like to be part of that, well, you’d be welcome to stay.”
Harry glanced warily at Alice. He’d already begun to see ways he could contribute as he’d toured the camp, but he didn’t want Alice to think he’d reversed his opinion so easily.
His wife nodded softly, a pleading look in her eyes.
“We’ll need to give it some thought,” Harry said.
Alice frowned at him and hugged Maisey a little tighter.
“It’s not that.” Harry rubbed his eyes. “You’ve made us feel very welcome, and your camp is very impressive, but I’d rather talk to my wife in private and consider it before we jump into anything.” He glanced at Alice and her expression softened.
“Yes, we’d like to talk it over,” she said.
“I’d be worried if you didn’t,” Vicki said. “You’re welcome to stay the night, of course. I’ll have a room made up.”
By the time the meal was finished and a gang of kids on washing up duty were hard at work in the kitchen, it was dark outside. The rest of the camp gathered in the hall to relax. Some played games or read books, some went to watch a movie in the classroom. Most, however, found some excuse to get close to the table where Alice and Harry sat with Vickie.
They found themselves answering countless questions about their experiences in the wide world. After about an hour and a half, Vicki checked her watch and then stood to announce that it was thirty minutes until the generators would be switched off to conserve fuel. A collective moan went up around the room.
Vicki offered Alice and Harry accommodation in the Councillor’s block, which turned out to be a large, long house sited between the main hall and the gate they’d driven through just that afternoon.
The house had two stories; the ground floor mostly taken up with a large communal room. Upstairs, several large bedrooms divided the house, each crowded with beds for six to eight people. Vicki showed Alice and Harry to a room where two twin beds had been pushed together and a fire crackled in the hearth.
Alice settled Maisey in her travel cot between the bed and the fireplace.
“You could almost forget everything that’s happened in a place like this,” Alice said softly.
“You want to stay, don’t you?” Harry stood by the window, peering out through the curtains. The moon lit his face with a cooler shade than the candles in the room, it made his features harder.
“I think it could be good for Maisey, to have other children and people around. And Holly… that poor girl, I’d feel awful leaving her.”
“It doesn’t strike you as… too good to be true?”
“No, not really.”
“ I think they’re struggling here. We’re just not used to hot food and clean beds. But it’s not much really.”
Harry let the curtain fall and turned to her. “Not much?”
“I mean they’re getting by, but it’s not perfect and they’ve not tried to hide that, have they? You heard what Vicki said about them running out of food, about that boy getting attacked by the bear.”
“What if they’re hiding something? We’ve barely been here a day, we don’t know…”
Alice sat down on the end of the bed, facing the glow of the fire. She ran her hand over the soft knitted blanket. “They could have said that about us, but they invited us in, fed us, let us stay.”
Harry sat next to her. “I know, but I’m the one who’s supposed to be suspicious. I’m supposed to pick holes.”
Maisey wriggled in her sleep, puffed out a little sigh and stuck her thumb in her mouth.
Harry twisted to face Alice. “You’re right, we should stay. For now at least.”
Alice grinned and hugged him. She let her head rest on his shoulder as they both watched their daughter. Full, contented and warm. Safe.