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“Good to be out and about again!” Stefan laughed.
“You’ve been out,” said Palmer, drafting behind him.
“Yeah, but not for a real trip!”
“I’m kind of surprised Elly didn’t give me a lot more grief about making this run,” Cleve told Tina. “She likes to keep me close, like I’m gonna disappear if her back’s turned.”
“You’re probably the best thing that ever happened to her, Cleve,” Tina replied. “She doesn’t want to lose that, I’m sure. She’s had a hard life.” Elly, a former nursing student, had become homeless after assaulting a doctor who had sexually harassed her.
Behind Cleve, Delphinia pedaled along, her cloak and long blonde hair waving, her Braves cap dangling on the handlebars. She hummed quietly, and an occasional note reached Max behind her. Tim brought up the rear, pulling the other trailer and marveling at how well things had started. Behind them, the white pickups bunched up, biding their time, passing when it was clear. After a couple of miles, they—and the trucks—had to dodge the occasional limb or tree in the road, leftovers from January’s ice storm that they hadn’t started clearing. They took a brief break at Peachtree Industrial, waiting for a chance to cross, but everyone was comfortable with the pace.
Just past the halfway point, a little north of Highway 20, a huge tree blocked both lanes. They had to portage the bikes and trailers over it. The upside was that they had the road to themselves for nearly a mile afterward.
As they passed a church, Tim called over the handheld radio: “Cody, stop!”
Cody braked and thumbed the mike. “What’s up?”
“Delphinia swerved off at that church. She’s taking down the letters on their sign.”
“Do we need to turn around?”
“Not for now. Just pull everyone off. If she’s gonna be a while, I’ll let you know.”
Cody make a rude noise and stopped, waving down the others.
In the church parking lot, Tim and Max watched her work. The sign in question read, on both sides:
Tim tried to remember Delphinia looking angry about anything before this, and couldn’t, but now she looked furious. Even her hair seemed to billow and toss as she snatched letters off the sign, in alphabetical order, stacking them in her hand. She muttered as she stormed to the other side and took down those letters.
With the sign clear, she closed her eyes and laid her head and free hand against it for a moment, then stomped up the steps and tried the front door. Finding it open, she stepped inside then returned after a few seconds. Her emotional storm had passed; she looked cheerful as ever as she remounted her bicycle. “I am finished here,” she said, “please forgive the delay.” She pedaled away, Max close behind. Tim radioed Cody, pushed hard to catch up, and they resumed the ride.
• • •
The group stopped again when they reached Buford Dam Road, taking a short water and snack break in the parking lot of an empty restaurant. “About a mile to go,” said Tim, looking at the map.
“There’s people around,” said Cody, stepping out the door of the restaurant. “They cleaned the kitchen out totally. I think they even took some of the pots.” He rejoined the others.
“How’s the leg doing, Stef?” Palmer asked his partner.
“Pretty good, actually,” Stefan smiled and flexed it. “A little stiff, but I need to finish getting it built back up. Good thing we set an easy pace, though. Can’t wait to get back in shape!”
“You’ll get there.” Palmer gave Stefan a brief hug, a rare public display of affection.
“We ready?” asked Cody, jumping on his bike. “Let’s roll.”
“A kind word turns away wrath,” Delphinia told him, gazing at him with those deep blue eyes before mounting her ride, her own wrath forgotten. Cody shrugged, waited for a break in the truck traffic, and led them out. After a mile, the road reached the lake and Cody stopped again to look at the water. Nobody objected.
“Looks okay,” said Tim, looking out over the lake. Judging from the erosion above the water, the lake looked two feet short of full. “Maybe there’s some automated systems still working.” The water itself lapped at the shore, blue-green and sparkling in the mid-morning sunshine. “Let’s go find out,” he said. “We’ll have a look at the control room, maybe, then we can set up camp at one of the parks and do a little fishing.”
“Sounds like a plan,” said Cleve. “Where’s the park?”
“There’s several. Three or four up the road, two more on either side of the river below the dam.”
“Let’s try the first park, then.”
“Yeah, my thoughts exactly.”
The first park was promising—there was a management office, but it was empty. They found nothing else at the first and second parks, on the right side of the road, but then Cody saw a sign that said POWERHOUSE, on the left. He pointed to the sign and made the turn, banking into the entrance. “Shit!” he yelled. He locked his brakes and swerved; the bike and trailer skidded to a halt. “Barricade!” Palmer and Stefan split and went around either side of Cody, braking hard. The others, alerted to trouble, slowed and stopped without incident. They bunched together around the barricade.
“Everyone okay?” Cody asked. “Sorry. I shoulda been paying attention better.”
“Me, too,” said Cleve, looking past Cody. “Everybody, off the bikes. No sudden moves.”
Cody turned to look. Not far from the barricade, partly obscured by dappled shade, stood a man in camo. Cody thought and Cleve knew, he carried an automatic weapon.