“Not much,” said Tom. When he turned to gesture behind him, the wood floor squalled. “Refrigerator, as far as I can tell. The record player. There’s a television in the kitchen, so there’s probably a satellite dish on the roof. Doesn’t matter, though; it wouldn’t work now anyway. There’s a woodstove in the kitchen—one of those really old cast-iron jobs with an oven—and a hand pump for water. No toilets or showers. There must be an outhouse.”
“No shower?” Ellie asked, clearly dismayed.
“Just a wood tub in the kitchen next to the stove and a big old sponge. Cheer up, kiddo. The Amish do it. Betcha those folks up near Oren are doing that right now.”
“Well, I’m not Amish and we’re not in Oren,” Ellie grumbled.
“What about heat?” Alex said. “Heaters draw a lot of power.”
“Yeah, that’s a good thought. No fireplaces in the bedrooms, but there are outlets. So there must be portable heaters somewhere. No washer or dryer, for that matter.”
“You mean, they did their clothes by hand?” Ellie said. “By hand?”
“Must’ve.” Tom scratched his head. “This is all kind of weird. I mean, this station is pretty barebones.”
“Not even a radio? Like, you know, to call for help?” When Tom shook his head, Alex wanted to point out that this was some pisspoor excuse for a ranger station, but only said, “So why keep the generator on if you’re leaving?”
“Maybe they wanted to find their way back,” Ellie said. “It’s really dark.”
“They’d know the way, honey,” Tom said.
“So maybe they left the lights on to make sure people like us knew how to find them, so we’d come inside.”
Tom and Alex shared startled glances. “Jesus, I never thought of that,” Tom said.
Alex had visions of a sudden flash and then the boom of an explosion. Relax, this isn’t Afghanistan. “You cleared it, right? There’s nothing here? Nothing outside?”
“As far as I can tell.”
“What about the garage?”
“I only looked for a second. There are a bunch of tools, maybe a snowmobile or two, but I definitely saw a Jeep and … come to think of it …”
Tom gave her a queer look. “There’s a pretty old truck in there.”
“Wait a second. Didn’t you say that older trucks and cars might work?” When Tom nodded, she said, “So why didn’t they take it?”
“Maybe it’s out of gas,” said Ellie.
“No, there’s an inground pump by the garage.”
“So? Maybe they couldn’t fill the tank.”
“Or it might not be as old as I think. I only saw it for a moment.” Tom debated another half second, then said, “Look, if it was a trap, whatever was supposed to happen would’ve by now. Most booby traps are set with trip wires, and we already know that a cell phone signal wouldn’t work here anyway. Now I opened every door and every closet, the pantry. On the other hand …”
Tom inclined his head at the open windows. “You want to light up a target, that’s the way to do it. Only my guess is they’d have shot us by now.”
Alex didn’t think that was such a comfort. “There’s no one out there.”
“That we saw.”
“Maybe they’re only gone for now,” Ellie said. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor, with Mina at her side.
“Mina would’ve known,” Alex said. And maybe me, too.
Ellie shrugged. “Maybe they check back to see if someone’s taken the bait.”
“She’s got a point,” Tom said. He ran a hand through his hair. “For all we know, turning off the generator is some kind of signal.”
“Maybe the generator will blow up if you turn it off,” Ellie suggested.
“Can you check for that?” Alex asked Tom.
Tom nodded. “But I’m wondering if maybe we should stay at all.”
“You mean, go back? Outside?” Ellie said. The bright, brassy light had washed her skin yellow and the dirt smudging her cheeks, neck, and ears pewter gray. Her blonde hair was lusterless and clotted with trail rubbish, and her Hello Kitty parka was nearly black. Alex thought she probably looked just as bad, and suddenly, the idea of a long hot soak made her nearly faint with anticipation. “I don’t want to go back into the woods,” Ellie said.
“We wouldn’t have to go far. We could even stay on the lookout towe—” Tom’s eyes widened. “Oh, shit.”
This time, Alex insisted on taking the Winchester: “It’s not like the dog can climb up with you, and the Winchester has a scope.” “Yeah, but by the time you see the muzzle flash, I’m dead.” But Tom didn’t have any better ideas, and in the end, he found that the tower was little more than a platform with a roof, and deserted.
They all agreed then. They were psyching themselves out. The only precaution they took was to cut the generator, which Tom did as Alex, Ellie, and the dog waited at a safe distance. There was no ka-boom, and after doing so long without electricity, getting rid of the racket and that brassy artificial light was a relief.
As tired as they were, they were all too keyed up to sleep and so set about putting the station to rights. Alex scrounged up lanterns, and Tom brought in armfuls of wood from one of two piles laid out neatly beneath a lean-to at the back of the station and got a fire going in the woodstove. Flopping alongside, the dog promptly dozed off. After Alex pumped water into several large pots, she set those on the woodstove to heat, and then she and Ellie gathered up dirty dishes to add to those already piled in the sink. While Ellie explored the bedrooms, Alex took a quick inventory of the refrigerator and pantry. There was fruit in the refrigerator—oranges and apples—as well as eggs, a carton of milk, butter, a variety of vegetables, and a bonus: two packages of ground beef, still fresh, and a string of sausages. Steaks and a roast, and two cartons of ice cream—chocolate and rocky road—in the freezer. The pantry was as well stocked as the woodpile, stuffed to overflowing with canned goods; boxes of dried fruit, powdered milk, and instant eggs; packets of beef jerky; bags of sugar and flour and baking soda, as well as tins of baking powder; cartons of oatmeal, grits, and barley; dried beans; two sacks of potatoes; onions and garlic; and, of course, MREs. There was so much food—and so much variety—Alex got a little giddy.
She was perched on a step stool, riffling through a shelf packed with candles and matches, when Ellie came to the door. “I found a whole bunch of clothes and soap and shampoo and tow—” The girl’s eyes widened as her flashlight swept over the pantry’s shelves. “Wow. We could live here forever.”
“Maybe not that long,” Alex said. “But it sure looks like they were set for the winter.”
“Hey, hey!” Ellie swooped on something on a bottom shelf. She came up with a bag of chocolate chips. “Can we make cookies?”
The girl’s face shone with so much excitement that Alex laughed. “Sure, but not tonight, okay? Let’s get cleaned up and then we’ll scare up something to eat. Tomorrow we can see about cookies. Show me what you found.”
“Ooo, ooo, I almost forgot,” Ellie said as they left the kitchen and the still-sleeping Mina. In the common room, they passed by Tom, who was scooping the clog of ash from the fireplace. “I found the basement.”
Tom paused, shovel in one hand, broom in the other. “What basement? Where? I didn’t find a basement.”
“In the bedroom,” Ellie said, all but adding duh. She tugged on Alex’s hand. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
“Okay, that’s a weird place for a cellar,” said Tom. They were in the smaller of the two bedrooms, clustered around a small rug doubled over on itself to reveal a hinged cellar door cut out of the floor. Ellie had dragged the door open by pulling on a metal ring set flush to the wood. “And you found it how?”
“I heard it,” Ellie said. “When I walked on it, the wood squeaked, and then when I pulled back the rug, there it was.”
“I can’t believe I missed this,” Tom said.
“Maybe I have better ears,” Ellie said.
“You’re heavier,” Alex said to Tom. “Everything squeaks. Honestly, you’d almost have to know it was there.” She aimed her flashlight into the dark maw. The light rippled over a set of narrow wooden stairs and brick walls. At the very bottom, she saw that the floor was poured concrete. This close, she could feel cold air feathering up from underground, and then she smelled it: wet rock, moist earth, and—
She sucked in a sudden breath.
“What?” Tom asked.
The stink was almost nonexistent but absolutely unmistakable.
Probably nobody down there now, though; it’s too faint. Still, she didn’t
like it. “I’m not sure we should go down there.”
Tom’s forehead creased in a frown. “Why not?”
“I’ve been down already,” Ellie said.
Tom rounded on the girl. “You went down without—”
“Guys, it’s just a great big room with a couple boxes and a big metal, you know, box.” At Tom’s look of consternation, Ellie sighed. “I just looked. I didn’t touch anything. Come on, I’ll show you.”
“Ellie!” Tom and Alex said in unison as Ellie backed down the stairs. “Wait, Ellie,” Tom said. “Let me get—”
“And you said I’m stubborn,” Alex said.
“No, I said you were difficult.” Tom turned on his heel and started for the hall. “Go down with her. I’m getting the shotgun. Don’t touch anything.”
“I’m not stupid,” Alex muttered, but he was already gone.
And the smell was still there.
Ellie was waiting at the base of the stairs. “See?” she said as Alex backed down. “It’s empty except for the boxes.”
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