Panic No More, Chapter 5 “Dedication”

Dedication

At a young age, Nick Baker had learned things about the Universe that
made him seem insignificant. He knew the Earth traveled around the Sun
for a period of time called a year. Also, the Moon traveled around the
Sun in about a month, causing varying amounts of nighttime illumination
and tides, and, by extension, moonlit strolls on the beach. Nick knew
the Sun, or Sol, sat in the spiral arm of a grouping of stars called the
Milky Way galaxy that, somehow, caused candy bars. He knew all of these
phenomena were governed by the force of gravity, mass, and inertia of a
magnitude that could only be called astronomical. None of these facts
were as immutable as the reality of a Baker Sunday Dinner.

Nick really wanted to go home and nurse his pounding head, instead, he
was escorting the stranger, soon to be his bride, to Baker House. He
glanced across the cab of the H2 at Penelope. She looked like fashion
models did after the photographer was done photoshopping them to
perfection. Nick found it kind of horrifying, especially the way her
long blonde hair stayed perfectly still, like calm waters before a
hurricane. However, she was fidgeting ever so slightly, picking at her
lavish dress as if she was uncomfortable, and this seemed to make her a
little more human.

“Is your dress bothering you?” Nick asked, wondering if this was too
intrusive a question for polite company.

“Oh, no. I’m just not used to wearing clothes like this. I feel so
over-dressed and frumpy.”

He looked back just in time to see the nearest stoplight had turned
yellow. Immediately, a group of college students stepped into the
crosswalk, forcing Nick to stand on the brakes to avoid jellifying them
with the three ton Hummer. Oblivious to their narrow escape from the
laws of inertia, the students proceeded unharmed across the street. This
kind of chicken-game was a University of Iowa tradition, and Nick had to
admit, he had been guilty of it when he had gone to school.

“Are you attending the groundbreaking ceremony this afternoon?” He asked
as they sat at the light, hoping for some kind of conversational segue.

“That’s what they tell me.” She said no more.

When Nick parked the Hummer outside his ancestral home, his nerves were
frazzled from the dual stress of unobservant pedestrians and impending
nuptials. His voice shook as he said, “Welcome to Baker House.”

Penelope gave the house an evaluating look. “How quaint.”

Nick didn’t know how he felt about the opulent old house being called
“quaint.” He actually felt obligated to defend his ancestral home.
“We’ve always liked it. It’s really more than the family has needed. We
don’t even use the third floor anymore, and the attic…”

“Oh, it’s quite lovely,” she said in a way that somehow communicated,
“I’m sure it will make a lovely funeral home someday.”

In keeping with his upbringing, Nick tried to stay positive and polite,
“Well, shall we go inside then?”

“Look, Nick, I’m sure you’re a nice guy, but I’m only here because my
grandfather wants on the Board of Directors of Baker Dental. So you
don’t have to be nice to me or anything.”

“Well, as long as we’re here, we might as well make the best of things.
I think you’ll enjoy Sunday dinner. My mother’s housekeeper is a pretty
good cook.”

“I’m sure she is,” Penelope said. Nick wished she could at least try
to keep the sarcasm out of her voice.

Opening his door and sliding to the ground, Nick walked around the
vehicle to open Penelope’s door. She rotated in her seat, which pulled
her dress up above her knees. Nick tried to look away, but he had to
offer her his hand to help her step down to the curb. As she slid from
her perch, the dress pulled up further, revealing impractical underwear
under her practical dress. He told himself it would be sleazy to look,
but he looked anyway. Somehow the illusion that he was sneaking some
forbidden peek was more titillating than the intentionally revealing
outfit she had worn the previous evening.

Nick was a little disappointed in himself for his attraction. Penelope
was beautiful on the outside, but he didn’t even know if they had
anything in common. He knew she was devoted to keeping her inheritance,
but he didn’t consider that a virtue.

Still, there was no reason to be impolite. Nick offered her his arm to
escort her inside.

Penelope looked at his arm like he had tried to hand her a dead eel.
“I’m sure I can manage by myself.”

Nick sighed and let his shoulders slump. “Okay, whatever.” He closed his
eyes for a few seconds to relieve the burning and let out a groan.

“Just how hungover are you right now?” Penelope asked.

Nick shook his head. “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”

“Nonsense. I was with you last night. You drank half a bottle of ouzo,
and that was on top of whatever you’d taken earlier.”

“Yeah.” Nick felt his face redden. “I was really out of it. I’m sorry.”

“Oh, no. Don’t apologize. You’re a lot of fun when you’re wasted.” She
reached into her purse. “Take these. They’re some experimental
painkillers Stafford Pharmaceutical is working on. They’re great for
hangovers.”

Nick took the pills, but didn’t put them in his mouth. “Are these even
legal?” he asked. The last time someone has given him unidentifiable
pills, things had not gotten better.

Penelope shrugged. “You’ll live. Aren’t you going to take them?”

“When I get some water.”

Penelope rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry, they’re coated.”

“Oh, okay.” Nick still wished he had some water, but he didn’t want to
look weak in front of his assigned fiancé.

“Why are you making that face?” she asked.

“Just trying to work up some saliva.”

“Take the pills, Nick. They taste like candy.”

He popped the pills in his mouth and swallowed. They tasted like old gym
socks and burned. “Ug, that was like eating athlete’s foot.”

Penelope looked rather amused. “Do you just believe anything anyone
tells you?”

“No, but I didn’t expect my fiancé would try to poison me.”

Penelope gave him a look like she was sizing him up and considering
possibilities. “Good to know.” She turned and started up the sidewalk.

Uncle Earl met them at the door. He had dressed for dinner, which meant
he’d probably cut his morning golf short and only shot nine holes. He
must have wanted to impress Penelope. “Welcome to our home, Miss
Stafford Jennings. I’m Nick’s uncle, Earl, so you can call me Uncle
Earl. I’ve been speaking with your grandfather so often these days, I
feel like I know you already. How’s everything going?” He held out his
hand.

“I’m doing quite well… Uncle Earl,” Penelope said, taking his hand and
allowing him to lead her inside, “and you simply must call me Penelope.
I believe my grandfather is quite fond of you as well. Sometimes, I
think maybe the two of you should be the ones getting married.” She
paused for a moment, and then snatched her hand away from Uncle Earl,
presumably to raise it to her mouth and let out a little giggle.

Uncle Earl let out a huge guffaw. “My, you’re a witty girl.”

Penelope smiled. “That’s what they tell me.”

“You should have been out on the links this morning, Nick. I’m going to
go finish the back nine when dinner’s over. Do you want to come along?”

Nick shook he head. “No. I’ll be escorting Penelope to the
groundbreaking.”

Uncle Earl shook his head. “You know, you don’t have to do everything
your mo— There you are, Esther.”

Nick turned to see his mother walking into the foyer.

“Welcome, Penelope,” she said. “Please join us in the main dining room.
Dinner is served.”

Larry and Carrey were already seated at the large mahogany table inset
with the Baker coat of arms, a horror show of dental tools and
appliances. Carrey was holding his table knife as if judging its ability
to kill. David was also seated at the table in a booster chair, to the
right of his mother. He wore a doggy dinner jacket.

They took their assigned seats, Uncle Earl assuming the head of the
table. As the guest of honor, Penelope sat to the right of the lady of
the house, or in this case the dog of the lady of the house, and Nick
was seated next to Penelope. Gladys had used the eight-piece table
setting rather than the thirteen piece, which meant Penelope was already
being considered family and, thankfully, dinner would be served in only
three courses.

When enough pleasantries had been made and soup had been served, Nick’s
mother cleared her throat. “Everyone,” she announced, “and by everyone,
I really mean Larry and Carrey because everyone else already knows, may
I introduce Penelope Stafford Jennings. She and Nick are to be married.”

Up until now, Nick had hoped he could somehow talk his way out of the
wedding. This announcement around the ancestral table, however, cemented
the family’s position. He now had two choices. He could go against his
mother and heritage or marry a sexy billion-heiress. Still, maybe if he
protested immediately, he could somehow reverse this decision.

“Actually, Mother, I really think we should talk about that—”

“What is there to talk about?” she asked.

“Well… No offense to you, Penelope. You’re a lovely girl, but I don’t
even know you. This isn’t the nineteenth century. People get a say in
who they’re going to marry.”

His mother shook her head in disappointment. “Oh, Nicholas, things were
going so well. This marriage is so important to the family. Why do you
have to spoil things for everyone?”

“Nonsense!” Uncle Earl boomed. “It’s natural for the boy to want to know
his future bride. I think we’re all curious about this young lady.” He
turned to Penelope. “So, Penelope, why don’t you tell us what you think
of the Midwest?”

“Well, it’s the first time I’ve been here. It kind of reminds me of
Eastern Europe.” At the mention of Eastern Europe, Nick saw Larry and
Carrey perk up.

Uncle Earl, who no doubt equated any comparison between the “commie”
part of the world and the fertile, blessed plot of Iowa with an act of
treason, raised an eyebrow. “Why do you say that?”

“Everyone eats so much meat,” she said.

“In orphanage in Romania,” Carrey said, knocking his accent up three
notches, “we only had gruel, and whatever we could dig from garbage. I
do not remember meat. Do you remember meat, Brother?”

Larry shook his head and turned his accent up to eleven. “No, no
remember meat. To live in such bountiful place is true blessing.”

Penelope actually looked horribly embarrassed. She hadn’t exactly gone
pale, but her tan had slipped a couple shades. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t
realize. I mean…”

Penelope was saved by Gladys the housekeeper, who chose that moment to
roll in a cart loaded with food, the cart being a concession to Gladys’
age and the reluctance of Nick’s mother to hire more help. Nick noted it
held both a platter of ham along with a platter of roast beef, perhaps
vindicating Penelope’s accusations of meaty excess.

Carrey smiled. “What a beautiful meal. We are blessed to receive such a
bounty, eh, Penelope?”

“Speaking of blessings,” said Uncle Earl, snatching the conversation
away from Carrey, “Esther, would you do the honors?”

Nick’s mother bowed her head. “Oh, heavenly Father, thank you for the
food you have brought to this table at the lowest prices available
anywhere. Let it sustain us as we go forth and make more heavenly
purchases in your name.

“Also, bless Nick and Penelope, whose marriage will not only unite two
beautiful, young people, but also unite the families controlling two of
America’s leading dental manufacturing and supply companies. Amen.”

As Gladys carried the platter of beef to Nick’s mother, Carrey turned
and used his dinner fork to harpoon a large chunk of greasy, dripping
meat. He slammed it down on Penelope’s plate. “Here. Eat. Is good.”

No doubt used to impeccable displays of table manners, even the
quick-witted Penelope seemed caught off guard. “Um… I don’t really—”

“Eat,” Carrey said insistently.

Nick might not want to marry Penelope, but neither did he want to see
her accosted at the dinner table. “Please, Carrey,” he said. “Leave
Penelope alone. She doesn’t want your meat.”

“Maybe so, Cousin.” Carrey again stabbed the hunk of meat and moved it
to his own plate. “But question is, does she want yours?” He smiled
mischievously.

“Now, Carrey,” Penelope said. “There’s no reason to be like that. Nick
and I have just met each other. We have to get to know each other.”

Uncle Earl crossed his arms. “I don’t know why. The deal is done. The
contracts are written. All we need to seal the deal is the wedding.”

Carrey pointed at Nick. “And what about you? Do you like this spoiled
rich girl? She has skinny hips, not good for breeding.”

“Carrey!” Nick’s mother yelled. “Please, we are at the dinner table.”
From the tone in her voice, Nick was glad she wasn’t carrying a gun.

Larry, sitting quietly the entire time, decided to add his two cents.
“Can we eat now? Meat is getting cold.”

A brief cease-fire was called so Gladys could serve the meal. Once they
had started eating again, Penelope threw out what might be considered an
olive branch, “Carrey, I get the impression you don’t like me.”

Carrey nodded, and when he stopped chewing, he said, “I think spoiled
girl like you doesn’t deserve Cousin Nick. He is good man.” Nick was a
little surprised and flattered by this pronouncement.

“Now, Carrey,” Nick’s mother said, “there’s no reason to be rude.
Penelope is Nick’s fiancé.”

Penelope raised a skinny hand to quiet the table. “Please, Esther. I’m
not a child. I can speak for myself.” She turned to Carrey. “You call me
a spoiled, rich girl, but Nick drove me here in an H2. I’m pretty sure
he didn’t do back-breaking labor and save up for it.”

Carrey nodded. “Is true. Car is mine.”

“And did you work hard to own such an expensive vehicle?”

“No, I win contest.”

“Contest?”

“Yes. Reality show. They put ten people in a house. Whoever can convince
others to leave gets one million dollars.” His voice turned cold. “I can
be quite convincing if I have to be.”

“That must have been quite difficult. Why haven’t I ever heard of this
show?”

Carrey shrugged. “I was a bit too convincing. Everyone else left in
first week. Not enough footage for a series. Producers were quite
upset.”

“Oh,” Penelope said softly.

At that moment, David, who had been quite well-behaved today, only
licking himself occasionally while waiting for his food, jumped up on
the table, grabbed what was left of the roast, and ran away.

“David!” Nick’s mother said. “Bad doggy!”

All in all, Nick reflected later, as he ate his pie and watched Penelope
pretend to eat hers, this was the best family dinner in a long time.


Tall trees lined either side of the highway, trees Nick now knew
belonged to his family, part of the same land parcel which included the
Baker Administrative Complex nearly a mile down the road. Many cars were
already parked on the gravel shoulder on the way to the proposed church
site, making the lane seem narrower and forcing him to concentrate hard
to navigate the large Hummer. Amongst the cars, he even saw vans bearing
the insignias of local news crews.

He found a parking space reasonably close to the groundbreaking. He
stopped in the road a few yards behind the space. “Do you want to get
out here?” he asked Penelope. “So you don’t have to step onto the gravel
shoulder in your heels.”

“That’s most thoughtful of you, Nick,” Penelope said. She sounded
pleasantly surprised, and she gave him a genuine-looking smile.

Nick smiled back and got out of the Hummer, so he could walk around to
her side and help her out of the big vehicle. Again, her dress slid up
and gave him a good view of her underwear.

Penelope raised an eyebrow. “Like what you see, Baker?”

“What?”

“Did you just run round here to get a look up my dress, like a
junior-high-school boy?”

Nick shook his head. “No. I just thought you might need some help. I
hate this giant thing.” He waved his hand, indicating the Hummer.

“Trying to convince me you’re a real gentleman, huh? It’s not going to
work after last night.”

Nick flushed. “Hey, I was just trying to help you—”

The car waiting behind them on the highway honked.

Penelope stepped carefully onto the shoulder. “Looks like you need to
move the car, Galahad.”

Nick pulled the huge car into the spot. He had slightly underestimated
the size of the vehicle, metal screeched and branches snapped as he
wedged it into place against the trees. When he got out of the Hummer,
he offered his arm to Penelope, and to his surprise, she took it without
a single sarcastic remark.

They walked a couple hundred yards to a large clearing which had been
mowed in preparation of the groundbreaking. A large audience was already
gathering on the close cut grass, and past them, Nick could see a podium
already inhabited by Reverend Collins, Nick’s mother, and the church’s
outdoor sound system.

A couple hundred yards behind the cleared area, through some trees, Nick
could see the edge of the Coralville Reservoir, over which their church
would loom. His mother and Reverend Collins couldn’t have chosen a more
beautiful place to put the church. It was a shame how many old trees
they would have to cut down to accommodate the big, ugly building.

As they stepped onto the grass, Penelope gripped his arm a little
tighter. “Thanks for the escort, Nick, but you may want to take cover.”

She nodded over to the podium where the gaggle of local news people had
stopped setting up and started quickly making their way toward Nick and
Penelope were standing. Nick sidestepped away and ducked behind a row of
spectators. From this vantage point, he watched as the media descended
on his fiancé, snapping pictures and enthusiastically tossing out
unimportant questions.

“Miss Stafford Jennings, why are you attending the groundbreaking
today?”

“Esther Baker asked me to attend. She’s an old family friend.”

“What are your views on the controversy surrounding the Church of Great
Savings?”

Penelope blinked. “And who are they?”

“We’re here for their groundbreaking today?”

“Oh! That’s what all this is about. You know someone probably told me,
but I’m such a fluffhead.” In front of the cameras, she was like a
completely different woman. How much more of her public persona was just
an act?

“Will you be staying here long?” another reporter called out.

“In this field you mean? I don’t know. Will there be drinks? I’m liable
to stay for quite a while if there are drinks. And then who knows what
will happen.”

“Are you here for business or pleasure?”

“Pleasure, of course.” Penelope waggled her fingers at the reporters.
“Aren’t you all supposed to be covering a groundbreaking? I don’t want
you to get distracted.”

The star-struck reporters laughed along with the on-looking audience
members. Still, one of the reporters pressed on. “So you refuse to
comment on your business in Iowa?”

Penelope gave them a confused look. “I’m in Iowa? I must have partied
too hard last night.”

Nick had just met Penelope this morning, or rather last night, but he
had quickly pegged her as quick-witted. He watched on in amazement as
she continued to answer questions as if she didn’t have a brain in her
head.

Eventually, the members of the press seemed to be getting tired of
Penelope’s vacuous answers. She read their moods perfectly, and said,
“So, are you all ready to go meet my friend Esther? I believe the podium
is this way.” They walked after her as if in a trance, hypnotized by her
lack of depth.

Nick felt a little dazed himself—both by the voracity the press had
displayed at seeing Penelope as well as by her methods of avoiding their
scrutiny. If they were married, would he be attacked by the media
everywhere he went? Would he have to act like an empty-headed idiot just
to get rid of them?

Someone tapped on his left shoulder. He looked left and closely examined
the Asian teenager standing there. She seemed uninterested in him.
Behind him, someone said, “Nick.”

Nick spun around and found JenJen standing behind him. She poked the end
of his nose. “Boop.”

“JenJen!” Nick said with perhaps a bit too much enthusiasm. Then,
realizing she had done it again, he said in a more discouraging tone,
“Would you stop booping me on the nose?”

JenJen gave him a look like she was seriously considering it. “No. I
don’t think I will.”

Nick sighed. This latest trend of JenJen booping him on the nose was
probably the last nail in the coffin of her ever seeing him as a man.

She nodded to the podium. “Shouldn’t you be up there with the rest of
the Bakers? And is that Penelope Stafford Jennings?”

“Yes, but I’m trying to avoid them. I’m trying to avoid Penelope as
well.”

She raised an eyebrow. “I knew your family was loaded, but I didn’t know
you travelled in those circles. On a first name basis with her as well?”

“Well, you know, old friends from back when the family was more
affluent… Can we talk about something else?”

“Sheep?”

“Pass.”

“Actually, I was hoping you’d give me the scoop on what happened with
the home invasion.”

“Um, nothing much. I think it was some sort of weird prank.” He wasn’t
going to discuss demons. She probably already thought of him as a
religious nut. He tried to come up with an innocuous conversation topic.
“What brings you to the new home of religious savings?”

“Well, I live just down the road, you know, and I figured you’d be here,
so I decided to check it out.”

“That’s cool. Not all tech people are so open-minded about religion.”

“Well, I have bad habits too. I play video games. I spend too much money
on lipstick.”

Nick opened and closed his mouth a couple of times. He hadn’t expected
JenJen to refer to his religion as a bad habit. He didn’t quite know
what to say.

She punched him in the arm. It made her boobs bounce, and he momentarily
forgot what he was thinking about. “I’m just winding you up. You should
see the look on your face.”

Nick blushed. “I’m sorry. I’m having a bad day. I actually…” he lowered
his voice. “I went out drinking last night.”

JenJen patted his arm. “Poor baby. Is that how you hurt your forehead?
Did you get falling-down drunk?”

“No, well yes, but that is not how I hurt my head.” He decided to change
the subject. “Where’s Steve today, on the road?”

Before she could answer him, the amplified voice of Reverend Collins cut
through the crowd. “Good afternoon, everyone! Thank you all for coming
here to wish us well on our new endeavor. I know that, with your
support, The Church of Great Savings will be here for a long, long
time.”

Sensing the opportunity to be in the public eye, all the politicians had
filtered themselves to the front of the gathering, and they were now
lined up behind the podium with Nick’s mother. Some of the local
politicians were pushed all the way over into the tall grass.

Nick’s mother took over the microphone. “Before we start the
groundbreaking, I have an extra-special announcement to make. Penelope,
come on up here.” Penelope joined her, and the reporters stopped looking
bored for a moment.

His mother gazed through the crowd. “And where did Nick go? Get up here,
Nicholas Baker.”

“Hide me,” Nick whispered, ducking behind her. Of course, he knew that
some of his fellow parishioners could identify him from where he was
standing. He would just have to hope none of them would betray his
position.

“Hmmm,” JenJen said. “Hiding you from the press. I think you’ll owe me
big time for this.”

“I’ll buy you lunch tomorrow.”

“It’s a deal.”

Nick took a deep breath and lost himself momentarily in how spectacular
her hair smelled. When he returned his attention to the podium, all the
dignitaries were standing in their places; the Bakers, the politicians,
the owners of the construction company, and Reverend Collins.

Nick’s mother shook her head. “Oh well, we’ll just have to save the
other announcement for later. Let’s get the other Baker boys up here.
Larry. Carrey.” She waved at her nephews, who were standing off in the
tall grass smoking cigarettes.

Larry and Carrey shrugged, and dropped their cigarettes into the dry
grass, which started to smolder. They stomped around the area for a
second before joining the politicians at the podium.

Collins went into his usual spiel about the importance of saving souls
and the practicality of saving money while doing it. Senator Dorsky
spoke of the importance of continuing the tax exemption for religious
organizations. Finally, the US attorney, rumored to be running for
congress, assured the audience that churches were all that stood between
the American family and anarchy.

JenJen yawned. “God, this is boring. Are all groundbreakings like this?”

“Yes,” Nick said. “I’ve only been to a couple, but they’re pretty much
like this. At least I don’t have to stand up front and pretend to look
interested.”

When the US Attorney had finished, Collins took the microphone from him.
“I think we’re ready for the shovels.” As two men in suits supplied the
group with chrome-plated shovels, the reverend added, “I’d like to thank
our contractors, the Raynor brothers of Raynor Brothers’ Construction,
for being here today.”

There was a momentary delay as the Raynor Brothers taught the assembled
dignitaries how to put their foot on the ceremonial shovels and use
their body weight to press them into the ground. In Penelope’s case,
they needed to pre-loosen the area, as she wasn’t heavy enough to break
through the sod.

Collins held the microphone in one hand and his shovel in the other.
“Now, the moment you’ve been waiting for. I want Esther Baker, our
building committee chairwoman, to do the honors.”

Nick’s mother shakily raised her not-quite-practical shoe to the top of
the shovel blade and stepped down with all her weight. The blade sunk in
about half way, and she pried up a small chunk of sod. The local
reporters surrounded her and took pictures. Then the other assembled
dignitaries all took a shot at digging, but only Penelope and Reverend
Collins got as much attention as Nick’s mother.

“Oh boy,” Nick whispered to JenJen. “My mother’s picture in the paper
again.”

She shook her head. “At least it keeps her off the streets. You’d be
amazed at how many older socialites are turning to crack these days.”

“You’re just making that up.”

“As if. What do you think killed Lady Bird Johnson?”

Nick was ninety percent sure she was joking. “Okay, point taken.”

He peeked over her shoulder to get a better view of the action. It
looked like they were trying to establish the social pecking order so
everyone would know where to stand.

“Could you stand next to me a like a normal person? They’re not looking
for you anymore, they’re too preoccupied with their shovels.”

Nick stepped up beside her. “Okay, but if I get dragged up there, you’re
buying me lunch.”

“I’ll take full responsibility. What’s PSJ doing here anyway?”

“What?” Nick asked. “Is a PSJ a sandwich? Like PB&J?”

“No. PSJ—Penelope Stafford Jennings.”

Nick shook his head. “Oh, well, her grandfather knew my grandfather.
It’s really a long story. I don’t want to talk about it.”

A smattering of applause went up as the politicians, the Raynor
Brothers, Reverend Collins, Nick’s cousins, and Penelope removed their
ceremonial clods of earth.

JenJen shrugged. “So that’s it? I never would have guessed that so many
people would come to something this dull.”

Nick raised an eyebrow. “You actually thought something was going to
happen? You poor misguided…” He stopped, his mouth halfway open. His
mother seemed to be doing some kind of spirited dance. He gaped as
Reverend Collins joined in.

“What the hell are they doing?” was all Nick had time to say before
every newly-dug hole started disgorging a black and yellow cloud of
hornets.

The hornets seemed especially attracted to Nick’s mother and Penelope,
who’d been standing beside her. In two seconds, they were enveloped.
They waved their arms wildly, screaming and swatting. When this didn’t
work, Nick’s mother grabbed Penelope’s hand, turned, and fled, towing
Penelope behind. She ran toward the woods, where a tiny man with a red
beard waved at her. Penelope trailed behind her, perhaps lacking the
leverage to break free from Nick’s mother’s grasp.

“No!” Nick tried to run toward the podium, but JenJen grabbed his arm,
holding him back. He pulled against her. “Let go! That’s my mother.”

He looked back, but his mother was now nowhere to be seen. Only the
politicians, builders, and Nick’s cousins remained. Almost everyone had
adopted the same strategy for dealing with the hornets, running around
and waving their arms.

Only Larry and Carrey were keeping cool. As hornets landed on the two
brothers, they were vigorously smacking each other with the flats of the
light chrome shovels. Every blow would take out a dozen or more. Despite
the wholesale carnage they were inflicting, their efforts were
inadequate against the ever-growing number of insects.

Larry took a particularly wild swing, missing his brother and hitting
the US Attorney in the temple, knocking him out cold.

Then, the ever-growing number of hornets turned on the crowd. They came
not a few at a time, but in a mighty wave, like they had coordinated
their attack.

The crowd, previously stunned into inaction, saw the threat headed
toward them and went crazy. Some ran in circles. And some, perhaps out
of confusion or terror, ran toward the hornets. However, most of the
spectators ran for their cars, carrying Nick away from where his mother
had disappeared.

JenJen yelled, “Forget your mother, Nick. We have to save ourselves.”
She tugged on his arm and gave him a dead serious look. “Come with me if
you want to live.”

Nick and JenJen joined those running away, but before he took two steps,
he was clipped by eighty-five-year-old Agnes Milford, usually seen
running the church kitchen with an iron fist, currently fleeing for her
life.

Momentarily dazed, Nick got turned around and ran in the wrong
direction. He didn’t last long against the weight of the crowd. Someone
elbowed him, knocking him backward, and he fell to the ground. Before he
knew what was happening someone had stepped on his hand. Another person
stepped on his stomach, knocking the wind out of him.

Somewhere, deep in Nick’s mind, he imagined a copy of the Cedar Rapids
Courier
with the headline, “Baker Trampled at Groundbreaking.”

A small hand closed around his wrist and pulled him to his feet. It was
JenJen. She pulled him through the crowd. “I thought I’d lost you for a
minute, Nick.” He allowed her to lead him, while wondering if he should
somehow thank her for saving his life.

Holding each other for stability, they pushed sideways through the
crowd. They reached the edge of the clearing and Nick pulled JenJen into
the woods, away from the crush of people. After a few faltering steps,
he found an animal trail and followed it, pulling JenJen behind him.

He saw a momentary flash of red obnoxiousness through the trees. It was
the H2. A plan started to form in his mind. “This way,” he said, pulling
JenJen toward it. Nick hit the door unlock as they arrived at the
behemoth vehicle.

“Is this yours?” JenJen asked.

“Get in!” he yelled at her.

Nick climbed into the driver’s seat. There were already people running
down the middle of the road, fleeing the hornets, so he put the H2 in
low gear. He carefully pulled off the shoulder and drove toward the
clearing, dodging people running down the middle of the road.
Fortunately, most of the people who had made it to the road had the
sense not to throw themselves under the H2.

When he pulled the H2 up to the clearing, many people were still running
around the mowed field. He steered well clear of them when possible. He
also avoided those that lay on the ground, not moving.

The podium wasn’t even visible through the black and yellow cloud of
hornets, so Nick just drove in the general direction, pushing the H2
into the wall of insects. The mass of hornets threw themselves against
the side of the H2 making the sound of a hailstorm.

“My God,” JenJen said. “Is this the apocalypse?”

“I don’t think so,” Nick said. “I think there’s supposed to be locusts,
not hornets. But still, this sucks.”

Finally, they reached the remaining politicians, covered in hornets and
writhing in pain. Nick parked the car and threw open the door. He wanted
to follow his mother, but he had to help his cousins. “Larry! Carrey!”
he yelled. “This way!”

The first person who arrived at the H2 was Commissioner Donaldson. This
put Nick in a momentary quandary, because he knew he wasn’t going to be
able to help everyone. As big as the H2 was, they couldn’t load a dozen
politicians, relatives, and builders before hundreds of hornets flew
through the door.

Nick didn’t have to worry about the ethics of his situation for long.
There was a loud ringing sound, and Donaldson’s eyes went wide as
Carrey’s shovel hit him over the head. Donaldson went down. Larry ran to
the vehicle, huffing and puffing, with over three hundred pounds of
Reverend Collins thrown over his shoulder.

A moment after the back door was closed, JenJen slapped Nick across the
face. Then she slapped him again. “Hornets,” she said, matter-of-factly.
And Nick noticed that Larry, Carrey, and Reverend Collins were all
engaged in similar slapping of themselves and each other.

When the last of the stowaway hornets had been killed, Nick put the H2
back into gear and drove over to the edge of the woods, the last place
they had seen his mother. He started to take off his seatbelt, but
Carrey put his big hand on Nick’s shoulder.

“You have done a good job, Cousin. Your work is done. It is time to go.”

Nick shook his head. “We need to find my mother.” A moment later, he
added, “And Penelope.”

“No cousin. We need to go to the hospital. Reverend does not look well.”

JenJen turned to look at Reverend Collins. “It’s true, Nick. We have to
go. He’s barely breathing. There’s no way we can find her now. She’s in
the woods, and we can’t search with the hornets still out there.”

“I can go,” Nick offered. “You take him to the hospital.”

“Nick,” gasped Reverend Collins, “your mother is a strong woman… perhaps
the strongest woman I’ve ever known… If anyone can survive that… it’s
Esther Baker.”

“No!” Nick shouted. “I have to go.”

He threw open the door and started to run for the woods. He felt the
armored bodies of wasps bouncing off his body, his face, his arms. He
clamped his eyes shut and kept walking. He thought he was walking in a
straight line, but the constant activity of the hornets was
disorienting.

“Ow!” he yelled as the first stinger pierced his skin, and he
immediately had to spit two hornets from his mouth. He clawed at his
ear, where one seemed to be taking up permanent residence. Then
something hit him on the head.

He fell to the ground.