Mack Jefferson, my best--and only--friend, reads to me from his Braille edition of The Outsiders. I’m spread out on the floor of my bedroom with my dog, Bubbles, running my hand through her soft belly fur and wondering if we have any pudding cups in the pantry. Also wondering if Mack will notice if I slip out for a few minutes. Probably. I’ve tried in the past.
“Elle, are you even listening?” he asks.
“Of course. Always. I love this book.”
“Lies. All lies.” Mack uses a ridiculous accent like he’s a vampire from Transylvania, when actually he’s a black, blind twelve-year-old kid from North Carolina.
“Just keep reading.” I pull Bubbles into my lap.
“Dude, I finished the chapter.”
“Oh, good.” That means our language arts homework is done. Mack’s a good student. I’m a student. “Do you want to--”
A loud knock interrupts me. Bubbles jumps up, barks once, and then hides under my bed.
“Go away! No one is here!” I’m expecting one of my brothers.
But the door opens, and it’s Grandpa Joe in his camouflage pants, an army-green T-shirt, and a matching cap. His cheeks are red and his eyes flash with excitement.
“Hey, what’re you doing here?” I ask. Even though he lives only ten minutes away, he rarely just stops by.
“Private Eleanor Dross, it’s time. We have to bug out. Now!” He smiles but quickly covers his grin with his hand.
“What?” I say, as if I don’t know what he’s talking about. But I totally do. Grandpa Joe is here for one of his drills. He spends his days getting ready for catastrophes. And whenever he can, he drags me and my brothers along for practice.
“We can’t,” I tell him. “I have a friend over.” I motion to Mack in case Grandpa Joe missed him.
“We’ll take Private Mack with us. But we gotta roll now. Giddyup!”
“What’s happening?” Mack rocks in his seat.
“Get moving, soldiers. I’ll explain in the truck.” He claps his hands three times.
“Grandpa Joe, stop. You’re scaring Mack.”
“I’m not scared,” Mack says, smiling.
Bubbles wriggles out from under the bed and jumps back into my lap. She must sense that this is not an emergency.
I look at the time on my phone. “It’s almost six. Dad’s going to be home any minute.” And he has no patience for these drills.
“Your daddy is gone,” Grandpa Joe says, and for a second I feel sick, as if he just told me Dad was gone gone.
“Stuck in Columbus on business. Called to ask if I could look after y’all tonight.”
I understand now. Grandpa Joe has decided to seize the moment.
“I don’t have time for a drill,” I whine. “I have homework to do.” And Netflix to watch.
“Who says this is a drill?” Grandpa Joe puts his fists on his hips and puffs out his chest. “Grab your bug-out bag. Be in the truck in two minutes. I’ll round up the boys.” He backs out of my room.
“Cool,” Mack says as he stands and unfolds his cane. “Drill or not, I’ve always wanted to bug out.” Mack’s one of those people who like everything. If he were an emoji, he’d be the smiley face. Me, I’d be the eye-roll emoji.
Some grandfathers bowl, play golf, or build model airplanes. At least in movies. Mine is a prepper--someone who spends their time and money preparing for the apocalypse.
“Trust me. This is just a stupid drill.” Then I get an idea. “And you’re my ticket out. Tell him you can’t go with us. Tell him to take you home, and I’ll escape with you. Please.”
“No, Elle. I want to do this. I’ve heard you complain about these drills forever. I want to experience the torture.”
“Thanks for nothing.” I pull myself to my feet and set Bubbles on my bed. “You’re the only one who understands me, girl.”
My bug-out bag--or BOB--is packed. Mostly. Grandpa Joe gave me all the supplies years ago. I dig it out from the bottom of my closet, under clothes and stuffed animals that I can’t seem to throw away. The bag flips over. Everything spills out.
“Shoot!” I grab handfuls of whatever and shove them into the bag.
“One minute, Team Dross!” Grandpa Joe hollers.
My brothers crash through the hallway like a herd of acrobatic elephants. They’re in elementary school and still think this is fun.
I yank on sneakers. I wore sandals once for a bug-out drill, and the lecture lasted longer than the exercise.
“Darn. I can’t find my flak jacket.” It’s army green and has about a thousand pockets. Instead, I slip on a purple cotton hoodie and pull my blond hair into a ponytail. This isn’t going to end well.
“What do I need?” Mack asks. He wears the same thing every day: jeans, sneakers, either a black or gray T-shirt, and dark glasses.
“Nothing. You’re fine.” There’s no chance Mack will disappoint Grandpa Joe. Me, on the other hand--it’s pretty much guaranteed.
The lights go dark for a few seconds and then come back on. I assume Grandpa Joe has hit the main power breaker to the house. He’s done it before.
Mack grabs his own backpack. It’s filled with normal stuff like schoolwork, his iPad, and a lunch bag.
“Come on, Mack.” I lead him to the stairs and place his hand on the railing. Mack knows my house well. He ought to; we’ve been friends since kindergarten.
Bubbles tries to follow us out the garage door. I have to stop her from escaping. She’s small (only fifteen pounds) and sweet, and she’d be totally useless in an emergency situation. Real or imaginary.
Copyright © 2019 by Stacy McAnulty. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.