The mood on the trip back home was marred by the thick cloud of smoke that hung in the air but when they were finally within sight of the ranch, they all breathed a collective sigh of relief that it was still standing.
Kyle was disappointed by the lack of Reeses Pieces in the returning groups stash, but perked up when Peter handed him a new, blue windbreaker. “Try that on.”
Kyle did, squeeling in delight when he pulled a Slim Jim out of the pocket. He tore the package open and bit into it, running off to find his mother to show her his new jacket.
Amy smiled as she helped Peter bring in the last of their haul, dumping the clothes in the middle of the living room and separating the other spoils into neat piles, one for toiletries, one for medicine, and one for food.
Jud walked in from rubbing down the horses and handed his binoculars to Peter. “I want you to take
these, I think they may do you more good then they’d do me.”
“You sure?” Peter took them hesitantly.
Jud nodded before walking off to find Aubrey. “Honey!”
Zach walked in to the room, passing his father. “Hey dad, good to see you made it back safe.”
“Thanks, it was pretty uneventful, it’s pretty desolate out there still.”
“Did you see the smoke?” Zach asked.
“Yeah, at first we thought it was this place.” Amy said.
“Nah, I haven’t managed to burn it down yet!” Zach smiled, looking over his shoulder at his father, who just laughed before calling for his wife again.
“What is it dear?” Aubrey came out of the master bedroom, a pair of knitting needles in her hands.
“I just wanted to let you know we were home.” He reached into his pocket and withdrew a thin gold chain. “I brought you this!” He handed the heart-shaped locket to his wife.
“Oh it’s beautiful!” She held the necklace out at arms length. “But we have no where to get dressed up and go Jud.”
Jud sighed. “I know, but I saw it and it reminded me of you… I just thought…”
“It’s lovely, thank you.” Clasping the locket tightly in her right hand, she kissed him on the cheek. “So, are you guys still planning on leaving in the morning?” She asked, looking into the room.
Peter glanced around the room, Zach nodded, as did Amy. “Yeah, I think so, is there anything you guys need before we get out of here?”
“No, I think we’re good. We should have have something special for dinner. Last home made meal you guys will have for a while.” Jud responded before looking at his wife.
“Sounds good.” Peter said.
Zach looked at his mother before adding “You sure we can’t convince you to come along?”
“No, we’re settled here.” Aubrey said. “I’m glad you offered a big meal dear, I already have one cooking!”
Zach, Peter, and Amy busied themselves sorting the clothes into piles for everyone to try on while they waited for the meal. Dinne, a large, tough turkey filled with home made dressing and accompanied by canned cranberry sauce, was followed by an impromptu fashion show as everyone tried on their new clothes. The group spent the night laughing and enjoying each others company. Finally, Julie excused herself, lifting Kyle’s sleeping body onto her shoulder. Sarah followed suit soon after, with Aubrey and Jud turning in a few minutes later.
“I’m worried about this war.” Brian said, drinking the last of the wine that Jud had said he had been saving for a special occasion.
“Why. ‘It’s coming!’” Zach forced a hoarse laugh.
“That’s what I’m worried about.”
“There’ll be plenty of time for worry on the road, you guys should get some sleep. I am.” Peter told his friends as he stood, downing the last sip of his own wine.
“He’s right you know,” Amy said after Peter had left. “If it really is coming, we can’t stop that. We just need to be prepared.” She cast a glance towards Zach, who nodded. “I’m out too. Don’t stay up too late guys.”
Zach stared into the fireplace for a few minutes, silently, before declaring that he too was going to bed. Left alone, Brian grabbed Chris’ old guitar and began to pluck at it absently. It was not until he put it down and walked off to his own bed that he realized that he had been playing “The end of the world as we know it.”
Once he lay down, sleep came quickly to Brian. When he was shaken awake in the morning by Zach, he caught glimpses of his fleeting dreams, a half fallen building, leaning against another tall building. He remembered running, but could not discern from what.
“Come on, we’re almost ready.” Zach said. Brian got himself dressed in a pair of his new jeans, pulling on a sweater and his winter coat before joining everyone else, who were sitting around a fire on the porch.
“Here,” Aubrey handed him a cup of coffee.
“We’re taking some of this with us, right?” He asked after taking a sip.
“We’ve got a five pound bag. Hopefully we’ll find a Starbucks or something that hasn’t been touched.” Peter said. “Get some oatmeal, I want to be on the move soon.”
Brian dipped himself a bowl of oatmeal and ate it slowly, trying to remember more of his dream but failing.
Once everyone was done eating, Peter rose and offered his hand to Jud. “This is your last chance.” He offered.
“Thank you, but we’re staying.’ Jud said, taking the offered hand before pulling Peter closer to him.
“You take care of my son now, you hear me?”
“Yes sir, thank you for all you’ve given us. I hope we’ll make it back here in time to enjoy some of your harvest.” Peter said, nodding, before hugging Aubrey. “Thank you.”
Brian was next, shaking Jud’s hand and nodding awkwardly towards Aubrey.
Kyle ran up and embraced both of Aubrey leg’s, almost knocking her over had it not been for her husband’s support. She tousled the boy’s hair and told him that she’d miss him before kissing his forehead. Jud knelt down and gave the boy a hug of his own. “Tell your dad hi for me.” The old man smiled as he stood and hugged Julie. “You look after him.”
“I will.” Julie kissed Jud’s cheek.
Sarah followed Julie, then Amy, each hugging the older couple and wishing them well. As Amy turned back to the rest of the group, she caught Zach trying to hide a handkerchief as he wiped a tear out of the corner of his eyes.
“Come on, lets give them a minute or two,” Amy said, taking Peter by the elbow and directing him to where the carts waited.
“Dad,” Zach said. “Thank you, I wish you’d reconsider.”
Jud made to reply but Zach stopped him. “I know. I even get it. I’ve just, I’ve just enjoyed our time together. I know I was not the best kid growing up…”
“I’m proud of the way you turned out, Zach. Now don’t keep your friends waiting.”
Zach clasped his fathers hand and then hugged him tight before turning to face his mother. “Mom,” Zach paused and dabbed at his face again.
Aubrey picked up her son’s hat and put the bowler atop his head, straightening it with both hands before leaning in and kissing his cheek. “Take care Zach. I love you.”
Turning, Zach walked down the steps to where his companions waited. Joining them as they began to push and pull their belongs westward.
They had only gotten a few steps when Jud called to him. “Zach, I expect your ass to be here to help me with the harvest, do you hear me?”
“Yes dad,” he smiled as he pulled the hat down farther onto his head, running his index finger and thumb along it’s rim.