I talked to my Paw today. He was in an old General Electric refrigerator at the bottom of the abandoned quarry. It was just about perfect – the refrigerator. Not too banged up. Good quality rolled steel and aluminum door and frame. It was exactly what I needed to contain the signal. I’m lucky to have found it, especially this long after the Great Reset.
The quarry is just a couple miles up the road. The forest has grown around it, the quarry, and the service trail is mostly gone, cover'd in weeds and mulberry trees and the like. You gotta' know it’s there or you’ll go right past it. Usually, I ride up there on the bike I built from spare parts and patched-up tires and whatnot. But sometimes I walk. It gives me time to think. I like seein' the birds and the deer too. But you gotta' be careful. There are thieves on the road. Worse'n thieves too. Grandmaw trusts me, though. I know how to avoid 'em, the bad men, and what to do if they start chasin'. Anyway, I'm too quick for 'em, and I know these hills and hollers better than anyone, where the crevices and rock outcroppings are, where I can hide.
There's all kinds of useful stuff strewn about the bottom of that there quarry and in the shallows, especially if you’ve got an eye for it: monitors with shattered screens, mobile phones with the batteries and silver long since salvaged, the left-behinds and bric-a-brac from a time when things worked, when there was electricity, when people could talk to one another on machines and send each other pictures of their children or funny videos of cats and that sorta thing.
Paw always called 'imself a tinkerer. Before the Great Reset, he would lock 'imself in his workshop in the basement with his soldering iron and his saws and adhesives and electromagnets. He liked to take things apart, figure out how they worked. “There’s meanin' in bein' able to put a thing back together,” he used to say. There weren’t many like 'im, even back then. Mostly people just threw things away when they was broke, but he could fix just about anythin'. He loved his tools. Solid things that clunked and clanged when he put 'em down on the work counter. Once, when I got up the nerve to knock on the locked door of his workshop, he let me come in and sit on an out-of-the-way stool while he fiddled with his latest project, so long as I didn’t interrupt, which I knew better 'an to do anyway, even if he hadn’t said a word.
Findin' the refrigerator was a small miracle. Lucky for me, it was tucked away behind a big ol' sandstone boulder, hidden from the rim of the quarry fifty feet above. Otherwise, it would'a been taken apart for scrap ages ago. After that, all I needed was some odds and ends. The shards of mirror I found in the woods down by the creek. They wasn’t perfect, but they would do the trick once I’d wiped the caked-on muck from 'em and polished 'em a bit with the back of my sleeve. A rusty colander and a cracked LED bulb was just what I needed to disperse the light and get a proper image. The battery I borrowed from my Grandmaw. I rigged it up with a few bits of conductive wire so I could charge it with a hand crank. It was a lot of work, but it was doable.
Usually, we use it for the lamp in the bedroom - the battery. She has a few books – real ones with paper pages and stories about pirate kingdoms and heroic space explorers on distant moons. That sorta thing. We read together at night with the heavy curtains drawn so as not to attract attention. There's no tellin' what people might do for a workin' light. When I borrowed it, the battery, I didn’t tell her what I needed it for, and she didn’t ask. She trusts me.
I was so little the last time I saw 'im, my Paw. Too young to know what was happenin', but I could tell it was serious when the lights went out and the computers stopped workin'. For a few days, the world got real quiet, like nobody knew what to do or say, like everyone was just holdin' his breath and hopin'. We lit candles and Paw told us that they’d have it figured out soon enough and then things would get back to normal. I remember how sure he was of that. They didn’t, though – know how to fix it. The encryption was impossible, they said. It shifted and changed and became more complex even as they tried to figure out the code.
There were rumors: the Chinese were workin' on it. They were near a breakthrough. There was a team of mathematicians and physicists in Boston workin’ day and night. Some teenage genius in England or Israel or Brazil had made an important discovery. The best the world had to offer. Surely, they would figure it out. In the meantime, all we had to do was sit tight and bide our time.
I assembled it right there at the bottom of the quarry. It wasn’t perfect. The holes in the colander were too big. The bulb was too dim. The coat hangers I’d straightened out and linked one to another, peelin' the plastic coatin' and twistin' the bare metal, formin' an antenna that didn’t conduct quite the way I’d hoped. But it would do the job well enough. I flicked the switch on the battery and stood back. The thing hummed and jittered a little bit. And then there it was, the flickerin' holographic image, a woman in a clean blue shirt with a nametag, pressin' a receiver tight to her ear, strainin' to hear my faint voice echoin' a billion miles through space.
“This is Haven Europa. How may I direct your inquiry?”
Soon after the internet went down, the riotin' started. Mostly, people was angry and hungry and scared. People's livelihoods and savings were gone. Vanished. Poof. The power plants ground to a halt, crops rotted in fields and storage rooms. That was the beginnin' of The Longin', when people just gave up, decided life wasn't worth livin', some just lyin' down on the ground and closin' their eyes and driftin' away. There was awful stories of packs of what used to be pet dogs comin' across some poor soul, too weak or apathetic or resigned to fend 'em off.
Paw did the best he knew how. He got us out here, out to the cabin by the quarry. He collected dried food to get us through the winter. Learned to trap rabbits. We had some luck growin' potatoes and onions. He fixed the roof and got the well pump goin'. He knew how to fix things. He was one of the few. He was proud of that.
It takes about four minutes for a signal to travel to Haven Europa. I told the operator that I was lookin' for my Paw and gave her his name and birth date. And then I waited. Four minutes there, four minutes back, the electrical pulse windin' its way past Mars and Jupiter, through fields crowded with asteroids and space dust, the charge on the corroded car battery quickly drainin' the whole time.
Finally, the holograph flickered back to life. “Please hold while I connect you,” she said. And then there was more static. I angled the antenna to try to get a better picture. The water in the quarry was crystal clear and there was fish – striped bass and perch – swimmin' idly in the creepin' shadows. Maybe I could catch one, I thought, bring it home, cook it with Grandmaw over an open fire. It wouldn’t be too hard. I was good at that sorta thing.
I tapped my foot anxiously.
They recruited Paw, the men from the government did, to help them build a new world. Start over. They tracked 'im down late at night, banged on the front door of our little cabin. It was a long time ago and the memories have morphed, changed shape, become like the space between wakin' and a dream. It was late at night and I was in bed half asleep when they came, but I remember their muffled voices through the walls.
“We heard you’re a man who knows how to fix broken things,” one of ‘em said. Even now I can imagine the smile on my Paw's face, how he nodded his head as the man spoke. “Your country needs you.” A second voice, this one deeper and with the tone of someone not used to askin' permission.
Then they stopped talkin' and the door to my little room creaked open. I had my back turned, but through just-cracked eyes I could see the soft glow of the candles castin' their orange warmth against the wall next to my bed. He walked towards me and I closed my eyes and pretended I was asleep. He kissed me on the cheek and whispered into my ear. “I have to go now,” he said. “But I’ll be back as soon as I can. I’m goin' to fix this whole mess we’re in.” Then the door creaked shut and the room was dark again. I wish I'd said goodbye.
I raced back to the cabin, through the overgrown weeds and mulberry trees, down the hidden service road with its scarred and broken concrete, my bare feet splashin' in puddles and brambles scratchin' at my shins and ankles. Grandmaw was at the stove when I came through the door. She was fixin' a rabbit for dinner, guttin' it and settin' aside the fur for a hat or mittens. I put my hands on my knees and tried to catch my breath. “I did it,” I finally got out. “It worked. The holograph machine I told you about. It worked just like I said it would!”
She turned towards me and smiled a sympathetic smile.
“That so?” she asked.
“I talked to Paw! All the way from Haven Europa. He's been tryin' to find us, to to talk to us. But he couldn't. Not until I built the holograph! He said he’s fixin' things. He’s buildin' a new place for us to live. And when he’s done he’s gonna come back and get us, just like he promised.”
Grandmaw didn’t speak. She turned back to the stove. I couldn’t see her face.
“Didn’t you hear me? I said I talked with 'im! I told 'im how I built the holograph from old parts I’d found lyin' around. Mostly they was from the quarry, but some of it I found in the woods.”
Grandmaw wiped her hands on the piece of fabric she was usin' as an apron. It was smeared red from the rabbit's blood. Her hands was calloused and strong. Uncut potatoes from the garden lay next to the cuttin' board. When she looked up I could see that she was cryin'. Before she could say anythin', I started to shout.
“It’s a lie. About The Longing! Don’t you dare say it again! He would never've done that. He wasn’t like that. He’s there. On Haven Europa. I saw’m. Right there in the refrigerator in the quarry!”
"Oh, Annabelle." She wiped her eye with the back of her hand. "Haven Europa from the stories we read? The one where the astronauts build a new world on the moon of Jupiter?"
"It's a real place!" I shouted, but even as I did, I know she was right.
“I miss’m too. I wish he was here more than anythin' else in this world. But look at what we’ve done, you and me. We got a roof over our heads and meat on our plates. We did that ourselves. We’re rebuildin'. We’re fixin' it, just like he would've wanted us to.
Hot tears streamed down my face. I went to her. She bent at the waist until she was lookin' at me straight in the eye.
“You’re a tinkerer,” she said, “just like he was. I’m proud of you.”
Then she kissed me on the cheek.