Author's note. Rebecca, Charles and all the rest. Thank you very much. This chapter is dedicated to you and everyone else who has stuck with the story and the rest of my meanderings. More is coming shortly, but I didn't want to leave you hanging for long.
Even in the faded light of the evening, made dimmer by the rain, they could see the wide swath of destruction. The epicenter was a deep black scar which ran two houses deep on either side and ran several streets perpendicular across the neighborhood. The surrounding houses in either direction were completely or partially burned five houses across.
Brad's house was a ground zero.
Brad stood in front of the pile of long burned wreckage and said nothing but instead clenched his fists and shook his head before falling to his knees. Everyone stood silent for a few moments shocked at the devastation before going to his side.
"no.. we came to the wrong house.. this is someone else's house.. no.. mom.. dad..?" he moaned.
Candace and Catelyn hugged Brad and rocked him slowly as he began to cry quietly at first before breaking down entirely.
"Man, what hit this place?" said Antonio.
"It looks like a bomb. Maybe it was a gas leak or something?" said Patty quietly.
"Brad? Is that you?" came a man's voice from behind them.
Patty and Antonio both turned at the same time, but Patty was the only one who pointed a gun at the approaching stranger.
"Careful, lady. I don't want any trouble, but think I know that kid. Brad?" said the man who was in his late forties, wearing dark athletic clothing, carrying a pistol gripped shotgun and had an unlit headlamp on top of his head.
Brad turned and looked at the man for a moment before a look of recognition went across his face.
"Mr. Monroe, right. Yeah, hey, it's you. Where are my parents? I have to find them!" Brad said.
"Easy, son. Yes, it's me, but I don't know where your parents are or even if they were home when this happened. It's been a couple of weeks and a lot has happened around here." Monroe replied.
"What happened?" asked Patty.
"Plane crash. Who are the rest of you people?" said Monroe looking over the group.
"Catelyn and Candace were on the trip with Brad and go to his school. I'm Patty Lopez, I sort of found the three of them in East Texas. Antonio is our tour guide to your fair city.Now you know who we are, but who are you and how do you know Brad?" said Patty.
"Name's Monroe and I live two streets over. Used to be the president of the homeowners association but there's no neighborhood or homeowners left anymore so I guess that title means nothing. I know Brad's parents, or at least I did before all this." he said waving his left hand behind him.
"A plane did this?" asked Antonio, "Get real."
"Yeah, a G5 I heard, taking off from Addison. Must have had a full tank when the Blowup happened and it cratered down here after losing power. Burned up most of the neighborhood, at least on this street and two others. Burned for days afterward." he replied.
"You saw it? So what happened to Brad's parents?" implored Patty.
"Never said I saw it. I was in downtown Dallas when the power went out. By the time I got home, it was nearly dark, I had to walk all day just to get back. Another fellow told me about the crash, but I never found out who lived or died, except for those who we knew about, you know, because their bodies were laying out on the street. We didn't find Brad's parents, but they might have been inside the house, I don't know." said Monroe.
"Do you have a place we can talk?" asked Patty. "I'd rather not stand around in the rain, especially at night."
"Not coming to my house. Nothing personal, but I don't know you or trust you. For all I know, you might be looking for a place permanent like." the man said.
"Okay, fine. How about we go over to that house? It looks like it is still in one piece." said Patty pointing at a dark house further down the street.
"Sure, but not for long. I don't like being out any more than you do." said Monroe.
They walked down the street, but not after having to convince Brad that poking through the ruins of his parent's home at night would not be useful or wise at the present. He reluctantly went along with them with the promise they would return at first light.
The front door to the home was open and that left the foyer wet from all the recent rain. The hallway carpet was damp and moldering while the house had the smell of burned wood and insullation even though it had not been damaged by the fire. There was obviously nobody living in the structure and the rooms had already been thoroughly looted.
They sat down in the dark living room and after tightly closing the curtains, they lit two of Patty's emergency candles along with Antonio's LED lantern.
"So you say most of the neighborhood is no longer here. Did they all go somewhere else? Maybe there is an emergency shelter or something where Brad's parents might have gone?" asked Patty.
"Shelter? You're kidding right? The day after the Blowup it was every man for himself around here. Most of the houses were burned up in this neighborhood and those that weren't didn't have it any better. No running water, food in the grocery store all gone in a few hours, no lights or gas. Anyone who lived took off on their own and never came back. Only a few of us stayed, mainly because we had no where else to go. I'm the last one I think." said Monroe.
"But there wasn't any sort of shelters or Red Cross aid. In fact, things got worse when those people showed up at the airport, the FEMA clowns. For the first few days, we could leave the neighborhood, on foot or by bike, and check out the area. Got lucky too, at least I did. Found a some stuff I needed and managed to get it back home. But when FEMA got here, all bets were off. If they saw you anywhere on the street near the airport, they'd just gun you down. Saw it happen, too. They really didn't want you looking for food or stuff they might have wanted. So now we just wait." he added.
"But why are you still here, Monroe?" asked Patty.
"Safest place to be, right under their noses. No looters come around here now and the FEMA people aren't coming to a burned neighborhood. As long as I have food and can stay out of sight, I'm in better shape than most people." he replied.
"Well, we have to figure out what to do but there's nothing we can do until it gets light. Brad, I hate to tell you this, but we'll need to check what's left of your parent's home in the morning and see if we can find any.. find out where they might have gone." said Patty.
"Sure, I guess. I don't think they're dead." said Brad looking at his hands in his lap.
"You people do what you want. But if you stay here, try not and draw any attention to this place. Last thing I need is you bringing a bunch of FEMA goons coming over here and blowing my cover. Brad, I'm sorry about your folks. They were good people." said Monroe standing and walking to the door.
"Oh yeah and another thing. Don't try and follow me home or come over for anything later. It's every man for himself and I don't have anything to share."
"Thanks, Monroe, we'll remember that." said Patty with a steely gaze.
"This place stinks." said Candace after Monroe left. "I'd rather sleep outside than in here."
"Me too," said Antonio. "Smells like a cat died in the attic. Let's go down the street and find somewhere else to sleep. I saw a Hallmark store that looked good."
"A Hallmark store?" asked Catelyn.
"Girl, what'd you been learning the last few weeks? Ain't nobody looting a Hallmark store and they got candles that smell good. Probably even some food in there too if you know where to look." replied Antonio.
"I would have never thought of that, Antonio. You're a pretty bright kid, you know." said Patty.
"'Bout time you realized. C'mon Bradley. I'll help you look through your folk's house in the morning." said Antonio.
Brad looked up surprised at Antonio and then stood up stiffly from the couch.
"Thanks, man, I appreciate that." he said.
They took down their lights and made their way out of the stuffy mauseleum of a house. Antonio was right as there was a Hallmark store a few blocks away in a strip shopping center and as expected, was largely untouched. Inside, Patty imagined well intentioned women carefully inspecting christening announcements while sipping a Starbuck's latte until the children were released from school. She wondered what those same people were doing now.
True, they had to bed down on the floor in the back, but Antonio was correct in that the abandonded retail store smelled better than the house there were recently inside of. He also correctly surmised and found some food to augment their depleting stores. "Dinner" included chocolates, honey roasted peanuts and peppermint candy left over from Christmas.
After a fitful night and turns taking watch, Brad tapped Patty on the shoulder and asked if they could leave for his house. Patty looked into the front of the store and saw the sun had still not risen, but understood the boy's urgency. She suggested that the two of them go look first and let the others get some well needed rest.
Outside, they went hurriedly back to Brad's neighborhood while Patty kept a sharp eye out that they were not being followed. At the house, the task was larger than they thought the night before as they could see the level of damage to the house.
The roof was completely burned and had collapsed onto the supporting structure. Only one wall was standing and nearly all the contents of the two story house had fallen into the center and burned completely. Brad went around to where the garage was in the back and called Patty over.
"Patty, look, mom's car wasn't here!" he said excitely.
There was the burned hulk of a sedan of some type underneath the charred remains of the garage, but there was clearly a second spot empty alongside.
"Mom hated driving and if dad was home, he would have driven if she wanted to go somewhere. The Burnout happened Friday morning and dad worked from home on Fridays so I bet they went somewhere that morning. I wasn't supposed to be back until noon or so. Maybe they went out for breakfast or shopping." Brad said.
"You'd know better than I would Brad. I assume your mom had a newer model car and it was probably as dead as everyone else's was. But do you think they came back here and saw the damage to their house and left?" Patty asked.
"I would have. I mean, I would have come home first, wouldn't you? And yes, mom's car was new so they had to have walked. And if so, they probably got here and their house was already gone. Where would they have gone?" said Brad walking around the other side of the house.
"Patty! I found it!" yelled Brad.
Patty went after the boy and found him pointing at the base of the only wall still standing. Patty had no idea what Brad was talking about until she saw what appeared to be a something written in permanent black marker on the one of the bricks.
Go to Aunt Peggys
Love Mom and Dad
Along with the date and year they wrote it.
"The day after the Burnout," said Patty. "Brad, they survived! That's great news!" and she gave the young man a big hug.
"Where does Aunt Peggy live? It must be nearby." asked Patty.
"I told you where she lives the first day we met! In Celeste! She has horses, remember? And she lives on a big piece of land. Of course they went there. Let's get the others and start walking there now!" Brad exclaimed.
"Um, Brad? Celeste is about sixty miles north of here. We still have to find the girls' family." said Patty.
"I know, but we can come back. I am sure Catelyn and Candace will understand. And when we get to my aunt's we can ride horses back. It'll be great!" said Brad.
"Sure, Brad. Let's go talk this over with the others, okay?" said Patty quietly.
"No! I gotta get to my parents! This isn't fair, why can't we just get started for Celeste and come back? Anyway, you guys all agreed it sucks around here. We'll probably just get shot if stay much longer." said Brad.
They were standing in the Hallmark store and Brad was wildly waving his good arm around as he lost his temper. The others did not want to go to Celeste until they had checked on the girls' family as expected. Antonio also had no interest in walking all the way to "Hayseedville" as he called it.
"Brad," said Patty quietly. "We've come this far and are only a few miles from Candace and Catelyn's home. Let's go check and we will decide what to do after that, okay? It's not too much to ask and besides, your parents are probably alright."
"I'll just go by myself. I don't need you guys anyway. Go on and do what you want, I'm going to Celeste." said Brad.
"Brad! Wait.." said Catelyn.
"No, Catelyn, let him do what he wants. If he stays he'll resent all of us. And if he goes, he'll be fine." said Patty calmly.
"Good," said Brad and he started pulling his backpack together. "Patty, I need my rifle back."
"Huh? Your rifle? I'm sorry Brad, you leave the group and you take what you brought. Nothing more." replied Patty.
"That's not fair. You're just trying to psyche me out or something. Well, it's not going to work. I earned my place and my share of the stuff." he said and then he walked over to pick up the M4 Candace had been carrying.
Patty intercepted and grabbed him briefly by his injured shoulder causing Brad to yelp.
"Why'd you gotta go and do that." he said with his face contorted in pain.
"Because you are acting like an idiot. You want to go running off to Celeste? Fine, but you're not leaving us holding the bag. When you got shot, we didn't run off and leave you and we haven't any other time there was a problem, did we? But look what you are doing to the girls and me. Taking off without a care in the world and on top of that, you want to take stuff that doesn't belong to you." said Patty.
"It's not fair..." Brad stated to say.
"Nothing's fair! Not this, not having to deal with bad guys at every turn, not having to stand around in Addison instead of getting home to my daughter! Enough already!" shouted Patty.
"Fine. Try and guilt me out some more Patty. Me and everyone else." said Brad.
"Oh Patty, we're all so helpless without you. Oh thank you for shooting everyone who looks at you the wrong way. Why don't we call you Queen Patty and you can tell everyone what to for the rest of their life?" said Brad, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
Patty raised her hand to strike the young man causing his eyes to open wide and Catelyn to let out a small surprised sound. Instead, Patty lowered her arm and abruptly grabbed her pack off the floor. Slinging the M4 over her shoulder, she went to the front door of the Hallmark store.
"Screw you." she said and walked outside.