There were no incidents on the ride down, just an endless parade of white pickups filling I-85 as the three riders pedaled along the shoulder of the freeway. Tim played the tourist and took several snapshots with his digital camera. Charles set a much more sedate pace than Tim was used to, which gave him plenty of time to stop for an occasional photo then catch up. After crossing the Perimeter, they shifted to surface streets; the pickups were on parade here too.
After a few hours of riding, Charles led them into the Virginia Highlands district and to the block where his group had gathered. Everyone poured out to greet them, with comments like “Hey Sondra, what did you stick your head in this time? Your hair turned red and you grew a beard!” “Hey Max, how was suburbia? Same as always, I bet! Hahahaha!” “Any trouble?” “What’s going on?”
“Is everyone out here?” Charles called. “Bring everyone out, I want to do this once if possible.” Everyone milled in the street, welcoming Tim and peppering all three with questions. Runners brought the last few people outside.
“Okay, everyone is here, except for Sondra,” Charles said. “She’s fine — better, even. I’ll explain that in a moment.
“My ex-wife and daughter, and a few other people, are living in a subdivision called Laurel Hills, out in Gwinnett. They have invited us to join them — there are plenty of houses available, and they’re making sure they’re livable as we speak. I strongly suggest that all of us accept the invitation, for several reasons. But the biggest reason of all is that their subdivision is fenced in, and there are no pickups inside.”
As Charles expected, this news created a stir. The hubbub died down only when a white pickup glided down the street and waited for everyone to shuffle to the sidewalk. The pickup rolled on by, oblivious to the glares.
“Nothing like that to deal with out there. Sure, they’re everywhere in suburbia, just like here, but not inside the subdivision. Sondra’s arm got less numb away from the pickups, so you can imagine she decided to stay regardless of what everyone else here agrees to do. She also seems to have found a boyfriend, which may also have something to do with it.” That drew a few laughs. “You won’t be surprised when you see him — they’re like two matched bookends — but he’s been very resourceful and helpful.
“Second, today is the first day of fall. We’ll be getting into colder weather before long, and we don’t exactly have abundant supplies of firewood for keeping our houses warm — but most of us don’t have fireplaces anyway. There’s enough townhouses for all of us there, and plenty of detached homes, but we’ll want to huddle together when winter comes. Each townhouse has a fireplace, and we’re going to look for fireplace inserts to improve them.
“Finally, it’s been relatively peaceful so far. Tim here has been the only one of them to run into any trouble; he shot a drunk who broke out the window in his bicycle shop, and that was Saturday night. The fences make the subdivision a little more defensible, and as I said they’ve already gotten rid of the trucks. It probably won’t stay peaceful there, but we’ll be in a better position to defend ourselves when trouble comes again. I’d like all of you to think about this today and tonight, and we’ll gather tomorrow morning to vote on it.”
“I’m ready to go now!” yelled Johnny Latimer. Most of the others sounded agreeable.
“Sure, but we just got in and I’d like to rest,” Charles said. “Now Tim might think this was a short jaunt — he’s hardcore — but I’d rather wait until tomorrow morning.”
“Early!” Johnny said, then waved and walked away.
“Actually,” Tim said, “I want to make two side trips while I’m here. I need to check out that bike shop — it’s going to take time to make sure everyone has decent gear and repair parts for the ride out — and I’d be more comfortable spending all day tomorrow on that, and anyone who wants to come with us can head out on Friday.”
“I understand,” Charles said. “What’s the other side trip?”
“Rebecca’s apartment is just a couple miles from here. I want to go by and see if she’s there. If not, maybe I’ll find out what happened to her.”
“Odds are she drove off.”
“Yeah. But I don’t know that.”
“Fine. But remember, nobody goes anywhere alone here. Depending where you’re headed, you might have two people going along. Got it?”
“Yeah, I remember. How soon can we get going?”
“You mean like right now?”
“Yeah. Twenty miles isn’t a long trip for me, and you guys weren’t exactly setting a hot pace.”
Charles sighed. “I’ll find someone who wants to go with you. It might take an hour or so. Give yourself a quick break… I really doubt an hour or two is going to make a difference.”
“Whatever. Where am I staying while I’m here? I might as well drop off my pack.”
“I have a spare bedroom. You can leave it there.” Charles gave directions. “Help yourself to whatever’s in the kitchen if you need a snack. I sure need one.”
“If you’ll go find my riding buddy, I’ll grab you something while I’m at it — how’s that?”
“Fair enough. I have some granola bars in the cupboard above the sink.”