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“Welcome back, everyone! Sorry we had to leave you all on a bit of a cliffhanger there. The Void is up and running again.”
“Just doin’ some fine-tuning here, Yuki. Literally seconds away from letting everyone in.”
“Fantastic! Just one more thing, ladies and gentlemen, if you wouldn’t mind coming over here one moment. We’ve got some hand sanitizer and some masks. As a precautionary measure.”
“Please don’t argue. No shirt. No shoes. No mask. No service.”
“Do those signs actually exist at gas stations anymore?”
“No…I see them in old movies all the time. Those things were real?”
“Oh my god, kid. So many more things about the world that I still need to teach you.
“We’re picking up right where we left off last week: Nicole and her kids have found a place to stay and we’re gonna go more in depth. So prepare yourselves!”
[START OF RECORDING]
Subject: Margaret Fletcher
“Ah, there you all are! Welcome, welcome! Come on in and get yourselves out of the dark!” I called out to them. The lamplight kept me from seeing them clearly, but they were soon under the orange glow and I was herding the lot into the trailer, closing the door behind us.
“Ooh, Lordie!” I said, putting my hand to my chest. “They all look just like you…” My attention from one child to the next. “I’d have said quadruplets…but they’re all different ages, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” Nicole stated and pointed to each of the girls as she spoke their name. “This here’s Jaden, she’s fourteen; Zelda, seven–”
“Zelda? Such a pretty name. Not too common nowadays.”
“We got it from a video game…we thought so as well.” Nicole continued on, “Annabelle, ten; and finally, here’s Riley–” she brought the last one forward from hiding slightly behind her siblings, “she’s twelve.” All the girls gave a small waves and smiled shyly.
I smiled back. “Hello, my name is Margaret, but y’all can call me Maggie. Welcome to your new home–for the night at least. We’ll see how you like it, ‘kay?”
The girls nodded.
“I’ll give the dime tour. It’s not much, but it should do nicely for you.” I waved my arm to the front of the place. “Your kitchen and dining area. All of the appliances are here if you need them, dishwasher included. That little nook to the left of the refrigerator has a weather radio. There are a handful of pots and pans and silverware if you need any.”
Nicole nodded this time. “Thank you, yes. We don’t have any on us.”
My goodness that was strange, I thought. Usually there were boxes stuffing the cars or a U-Haul trailer at least–but no.
“Now if you follow me,” I led them all through the living room. I pointed to the TV set on the far side of the room before ducking down the hallway, “No cable, but antenna reception is crystal clear. Single file now, hall’s not too wide.” I stopped at the first door on the left. “Mom, this will be your room, plenty of closet space. The room at the end of the hall is bigger–more suitable for the youngins.”
We took a couple more steps, two more, narrower, doors between the rooms: the furnace and the linen closet. Now, the girls absolutely lost their minds when I showed them the bathroom. A shower and a bath!? What kind of madness was that? And two sinks! I’m sure if there’d been a second toilet they’d be in heaven.
“This will help when it comes to school days,” Nicole said, relieved. “Not as much lining up to get washed or to do their teeth and hair. The extra breathing room would be nice.”
“Would be?” I questioned.
Nicole looked at me with…I think it was fear or hopelessness–maybe both. “We’ve still gotta work out the details, right?”
“Right.” I offered a warm smile, hopefully imparting that all was not lost. I led them into the bathroom and pointed out the washer and dryer tucked away on the left-hand side of the room, between the shower and toilet. On the opposite side of the room, between the tub and the far sink, was the second door leading to the bedroom. “Girls, if you go through there, that also goes into yours.”
All four wandered through and us adults followed them. Each of them spread out and looked around the empty space. Like they were using their imagination or something of what the place would look like once they got settled in.
We couldn’t see a darned thing out the window on the rear wall, but I assured them that there was a propane tank out there.
“We got it set up that they come around every three months on the first Tuesday, part of your rental fees go into scheduling them, but you gotta pay for the gas.”
“Alright. Fair enough.”
I asked if they needed a hand getting their belongings out of the trunk. She declined.
“We’ve got snacks and sleeping bags. It’ll be a quick run to the trunk.”
That’s…that’s when I was so grateful I answered the phone…why I was thankful for even giving them a chance to come over that night.
(Are you okay to continue? We can take a break if you need to.)
No, it’s alright. I can keep going.
(Here, some tissues.)
Thank you. Sorry, I just got as sad thinking back about that moment.
(How do you mean?)
A mother, her four little girls, on the road all day with nowhere to go. Not even so much as a bag of clothes between them. She never brought up the father (not that night or any other). It was that moment I truly realized how desperate they were to get out of whatever situation they were in.
(The girls too?)
The girl? No…No. Sorry, I misspoke. She–Nicole–was desperate. I don’t think any of the kiddos were aware. None of them seemed to be stressed out or depressed, not even the oldest one. They were as happy as clams to be where they were. To me, Nicole seemed to be the only one with weight on her shoulders.
I figured that was a good thing. Whoever they were running from, she’d protected the little ones way before they moved out here.
(Did she ever happen to mention where she came from? Talk about anything from before they moved?)
No sir, she didn’t talk in detail about before the move and I didn’t push it none. Her oldest is about to be fifteen. Now if she did run away from a man after that amount of time or more…well, I know I’d be eager to stay well away from those memories, too.
Now, I did say that she didn’t go out of her way to tell detailed stories of her time before. But small things did come out, only in passing. Such as where she’s from. She never did outright say it…I think she’s from North Carolina.
(How do you figure that?)
It wasn’t too long into their being here, tail end of July. It wasn’t the hottest day of the summer, but it was a scorcher right out of the gate. We hit ninety degrees right around eight o’clock. I remember cuz Nicole came over.
“Good morning, bit hot out today.”
“You ain’t seen August or September yet,” I laughed.
“Ugh, please don’t tell me it gets worse.”
“Oh yeah. Come on in, tea should be nice and cold by now.”
Nicole followed me in and I poured us a couple glasses and we took a seat at the dinner table.
“I actually came over about the smell. What the hell is that?”
“Had a feelin’ that’s why you’d be over this early in the mornin. Noticed it myself picking up the paper.” I pointed my thumb over my shoulder. “Fertilizer plant thataway, bout a mile. Most days it smells like normal farmland–”
“Yeah, I got that since day one.”
“–days like today, and if the wind’s right, ooh, we get it pretty bad. Don’t worry yourself none, you’ll get used to it.”
“I hope to god not!”
Both of us had a good laugh at that one.
“Man, I thought nothing would beat the chicken farms.”
“Mhmm. I was probably four or five, we lived right by chicken farms. Even more scattered around town. One a good day it smelled awful. I didn’t think anything could beat it.”
“Now you know.”
“Mmm. Rows and rows of ‘em. We’d at least get outta town and go to the beach; get away from the smell and heat and cool off in the water. Got any lakes or creeks out of the smelling zone?”
“Fit for swimming? No. Not unless you want that brain-eating gunk or water moccasins swimming around your hoo-hah. We got a ‘Y’ a few towns over.”
She sighed. “Unless it’s free, no-go for now.”
“Still on the job hunt?”
“Yup. Couple interviews at least. Fingers crossed.”
“Need me to watch the kiddos?”
“Yes, please. First one is Monday, 10:00AM. I got some errands to run right after. Paperwork for the girls and school–birth certificates, immunization records, all that good stuff. The other interview is Wednesday, 11:30, but I’ll be right home after.”
“It’s fine, Dearie. I don’t mind. Nothing for an old goat like me to do but stay in the cool on hot days like these.”
“Thanks, Maggie. You’re a lifesaver.”
(Wait…you put together North Carolina from chickens and a beach?)
She dropped more hints than that. North Carolina is known for chicken and turkey farms.
(How do you know that?)
Old goats like me accrue trivial knowledge over the years.
Country Living magazine. Beautiful pictures. You should check it out. They’ve done quite a few “betcha didn’t know about this” articles for a number of states.
(Okay. Nothing definitive, but it’s the best we’ve got to go on. Mrs, Fletcher, thank you so much for your time this morning.)
Do you think you’ll find them?
(I hope so. We’re doing our very best. This information may very well lead us to them. If we need further information, we’ll be in contact. And if there’s anything else you can think of, you’ve got our number.)
Thank you so much. I will.
(And again, Mrs. Fletcher, please remember the NDA you signed today. Formality, of course. But there is the very real possibility that she got spooked and made a run for it again. If that is the case, we cannot risk…unintended parties overhearing the matter and finding their way to her and the kids.)
So you really don’t think they were taken?
(No forced entry. Nothing in disarray. They don’t even look like they left in a hurry or were pushed into leaving. The most probable theory at this point is that they ran. So, for right now at least, I urge you to not openly speak on the matter. For their sake.)
[END OF RECORDING]
[START OF RECORDING]
Subject: Nicole Weathers (Alias)
(Clones? You used the word clones when describing the girls?)
It was a joke, for fuck’s sake. She mentioned they all looked exactly like me–which they fuckin’ do, by the way. Dolly wasn’t that goddamn long ago.
(Still too close. Anything that happens to her or anyone else, that’s on your head.)
Like hell it is. Don’t try to to pass the buck on to me; you assholes are far from from innocent.
(That why you left?)
You know damn well.
(So you’ll refuse to cooperate?)
You catch on quick.
(That’s fine. We can continue forward. A minor setback, nothing more.)
(Leadership might be put off by any delays, so we’d have to offer some sort of incentive to participate. Sure, we’ll terminate you if you fail to proceed, but we’ll exterminate one of the girls–you’d be gone anyway, so what’s it matter to you, right?)
Fuckin’ SON OF A BITCH!
(Calm down. You know there’s nothing you can do here. Go ahead, tranq her. We’ll let you stew on that for awhile.)
[END OF RECORDING]
“Oh, what the hell now!?”
“She’s still unstable!”
“What the fuck? These readings are worse than last time!”
“I dunno, I dunno! Literally everything was fine until a few seconds ago. Like, all green. Nothing out of place. The screens are looking like ugly Christmas sweaters now.”
“Can’t be helped.
“Next time, guys. We’ll get this thing fired up again. Sorry about all the delays. But we’ll keep this bitch up and running as long as we can until we can get through this.”