Morty motioned us off the road when we reached the spot where it curved sharply to the right and then started dropping into the valley below. We moved into the trees while making our way down closer to the warehouse we had seen the day before.
“Did you go in there?” Morty demanded.
“What?” Penny hissed. “And have to listen to you rant about how reckless we are?”
I swallowed the chuckle that threatened to break free from my throat. Penny was right; you haven’t suffered in this life until you have to sit through one of Mort’s “lectures”. He makes theatrical performances of them; finger waving, palm slaps on table tops, mournful shaking of his shaggy head. It’s excruciating.
“I don’t rant,” Morty protested. This elicited giggles and guffaws, but we were quiet about it. Morty looked offended. “Well, I don’t,” he grumbled.
“We went straight home to tell you,” Mae said. “Penny said we had to.”
“To be fair,” Penny added, “I knew Sid wouldn’t have let me.”
“Too right,” I agreed.
Penny got us into this, as she often does. When we came across that giant hole in the hill, she was sure it was some sort of run-off culvert, and figured out how to trace its path, leading us out to a worn out old bridge and then the road we’d followed.
She can’t stand not giving in to her curiosity. Sometimes that scares me.
Ash hunkered down and took off his backpack. “We already told you we didn’t go in.” His voice was petulant; he doesn’t like answering the same questions twice.
Mae sat down next to him, removing her pack as well. Dawn and Danny followed suit. None of us expected to be going in just yet, but Penny and I remained standing, anyway.
Morty dropped his own pack. He pulled his pistol from its holster and gave it a quick assessment. Loaded. Safety off. He re-holstered it, then pulled his crossbow from its holster on his back and loaded that.
“Do you think there’s anyone down there, Da?” I asked.
Morty shrugged. “Best to be prepared.”
I nodded. So did the others.
“Can I–?” Penny began.
“Nope.” Morty cut her off abruptly, and she sighed out her exasperation. He handed her a pair of Zeiss binoculars–the great ones. “See if you can keep track of me,” he challenged her.
Penny took them eagerly, grinning. “Cool beans!”
Morty slapped me on the shoulder. “Come on, kid,” he said. “Learn stuff.”
I felt my jaw drop even as I saw Penny’s do the same. “Really?” I asked. I glanced at Penny again; she looked pissed, her cheeks flushed red.
“You’re the old guy. Next time, Penny,” he added amiably, and she snorted derisively. “You got to walk on the bridge and poke around in the dragon’s lair,” he reminded her, and she pursed her lips, but nodded her agreement.
I was sure I’d get an earful later, though. She likes to go first, my girl.
Morty and I headed over the slope far to the right of our companions, and started making our way down at an angle. We started out slumped over, and then dropped to hands and knees, after carefully shouldering our loaded bows. When we reached the bottom of the hill, we were actually to the right and slightly behind the warehouse building, surrounded by tall grass. I peered through blades of various green and yellow hues.
Without raising his hand or his head, Morty indicated that I should look uphill and see if I could locate our group. They had hidden themselves well, but I could see Penny through some camouflaging brush. She was training the binoculars over the terrain, and it was obvious that she had no idea where we were.
We grinned at each other.
I lifted my left hip ever-so-slightly and swept away the stone that was digging into me there.
The tires on the trucks had almost completely rotted away; they were basically standing on rusting rims. We scooted our way to get a better look at the back ends of the big rigs. “Good,” Morty whispered. “The doors are shut tight. Anything inside should be okay, unless the roofs have rotted, too.”
The building’s doors were also closed; large padlocks hung in the frames. They were clearly locked, but from this distance it wasn’t clear how old they might be.
“Are we going to check it out?” I asked.
“Nope.” Morty cast a questioning eye at me. “Know why?”
“We have to make sure the town is empty,” I replied. “Otherwise, someone might catch us.”
The warehouse–from this vantage point, that was clearly what it was–stood in the center of a concrete-padded lot, which was surrounded by gravel before giving way to the high growth of grasses and weeds we were in. There was no way to just walk up to it without being seen. It wasn’t a particularly big lot, but even that much exposure was an uncomfortable thought without knowing we were alone.
We slithered on. I say “slithered” with complete sincerity. Morty can crawl on his belly like nobody’s business. Me, on the other hand–
“Hold up!” I rolled over on my back, pulled down the hem of my bunched up shirt and tucked it securely into my pants. Then I tightened my belt for good measure.
Morty, shirt untucked and not even ruffled, gave an amused chuckle. “Don’t have to drag yourself, son,” he said. “Knees and elbows.”
Downhill a bit from the warehouse, now, we inched our way toward a small house. There was no fence enclosing the postage-stamp-sized backyard, and the grass had grown up to embarrassing lengths. Surely no one lived there, but–
“Keep an eye out for dogs,” Morty cautioned.
“What?” I hadn’t been too concerned before he said that, but I was concerned now; my eyes darted frantically from side to side, searching for some brute that would barrel down on me and eat my face.
We made it to the side of the house without incident. I scooched my way into a seated position, back against the wall, and used my little telescope to search for Penny. She was really well hidden, but I finally spotted her. She wasn’t looking in our direction at all. I grinned. “Penny’s going nuts,” I told Morty.
He was inching his way up the side of the house until he could look in through the window. He chuckled. “You kids are way out of your bubble,” he remarked. “Care to explain that?”
No, I did not care to explain that. I was suddenly uncomfortable, even though I knew the question would come sooner or later. I just expected him to ask when we were all together.
Dawn and Danny were innocent; they came with us today, but I suspect that’s because Dawn really wanted to get a look at things she might–no, she would–be asked to draw maps of. Danny goes where she goes.
It had been Ashton and Mae and Penny and I who had gone out of bounds, first enough to find the culvert, then even more to find this town or village or whatever it was. We knew we were out of bounds, but we were all feeling pissy because Penny’s dad and granddad had suddenly made a rule about not going off in pairs to hunt.
Morty was looking down at me expectantly.
“Anything inside?” I asked hopefully, trying to distract him into changing the subject.
“Bare as a newborn’s bum,” Morty replied. “So?”
“You know,” I groused, “if the pairs had been me and Ash, or Penny and Mae, they’d never make such a stupid–”
Morty started to laugh. “Slow to the game, are they?”
We both knew who.
“So, this all started as a ‘We’ll show them’ moment?” Morty tried not to laugh again, and snorted through his nose, which sent me to the ground, giggling into the crook of my arm, and trying to be quiet. “Sh! Sh!”
We made short work of the search after that, trying hard not to look at each other in case it set off another spate of guffaws.
The houses and buildings were empty. A few had furnishings, but most had been cleared out. The little school might be a treasure trove, though. I saw desks in the rooms I looked into.
The last building we went to was the church. “Let’s see if we can get in the back,” Morty suggested. “Once we know it’s all clear, we’ll go out the front and wave at Penny. She hasn’t found us once. It must be making her crazy.” He chuckled.
The back door wasn’t even locked. We went inside the compact building, and found ourselves in a small room that the final pastor must have used as an office. There was a desk, bare; bookshelves, also bare; an old machine with Xerox boldly emblazoned across the front. Morty grinned at this. “I wonder if it works,” he mused. He pulled open the door on the front, and his smile broadened. “Paper!”
“It’s a copier, right?” When he nodded, I added, “There was one in the library in the city, but it wasn’t any good.”
“I don’t know that there’s any use for it–”
“Are you kidding me? Dawn’s maps, school lessons. If we can get power to it…” I stopped, frowning. “We can’t even get it out of here, can we?”
“Things for future consideration,” Morty remarked.
As we walked through the tiny church, it was clear that anything else of value had been taken away–there were no books in the pews, no adornments on the altar. If there had been any statues or a crucifix, someone had taken those things away. It gave me an eerie feeling, walking through an empty space that should be full of people on their feet and singing to their god. “Uh, ” I whispered, “I feel like we need to get outta here.”
“I wonder if it was deconsecrated before they left,” Morty mused, completely ignoring my plea.
“What does that mean?”
“Churches are sacred ground. Blessed. Consecrated.”
I could feel my eyebrows raise with every word, and I nodded like I got it, but I didn’t.
Morty shook his head at me in a mocking way, and I resisted a sudden urge to knock his cap off his head. “Okay, when a church is built, the priest or pastor or whoever blesses the building and ground, making it sacred, safe from evil.”
“Oh, really?” I know I sounded derisive, but–come on! The whole town was empty. Practically the whole world was empty, come to that. Blessings? What a crock.
Morty rolled his eyes. “Anyway, when churches are closed, sometimes the place is deconsecrated.”
“So it’ll be just another place.”
“What’s the point?” I demanded. “Even if it is still blessed, will that protect us somehow? And if it’s not, will evil jump in and get us?”
Morty sighed deeply. “Guess I didn’t do a very good job with your religious upbringing.”
I tightened my lips, exasperated. “Look,” I said. “Don’t take it too hard. If I ever did believe, I stopped the day Gran didn’t come back from the commissary.”
Morty decided to drop it–he might still harbor some faith in some unknown king in the sky, but he raised us from the time we went into the shelter, and he knows what we went through before he found us. We have faith in Morty, and in each other, not in an invisible being who ignored our plight when we needed help most. “Let’s go wave at Penny and the gang,” he said. “It’ll bug the crap outta them that they couldn’t keep track of us.”
“Think she’ll admit it?”
“Nah.” Morty gave me a strange look then–maybe still influenced by being in a church. “You really need to re-think all the sex nonsense,” he said. He held up a hand to stop my protestations. “Don’t even. I’m not so old, myself. I get it. But, there are always consequences, son.”
“We want to get married,” I retorted, rather defensively. “We feel like we already are, but… well…” I kept my chin up. I would not be made to feel ashamed.
Morty studied me for several seconds before saying, “Another thing for future consideration.”
Better than nothing.
I felt a great weight drop from my shoulders when we pushed the front doors open and stepped out on the landing. Standing on the second step, we waved up at the hill, and watched as our companions rose up out of the grass and bushes. I was looking through my scope, and could see the astonishment on their faces.
To be continued….
Author’s note: This time we get to hear from Sid, as he and Morty leave Penny waiting…and waiting. That’s got to be hard for her.
If you haven’t already, meet Penny and her sisters here, where it all began in the middle:
Starting in the Middle of The End