I can’t tell you how frustrating it was, trying to keep track of Morty and Sid when they left us to check out the little town we’d found.
I’m no fool; I knew Morty could elude me. But I was hoping Sid would give them away. He’s never had to be as stealthy as this before; I was counting on him popping his head up once in awhile so I could catch sight of them.
Morty’s Zeiss binoculars are the absolute best I have ever used, but they didn’t help me a bit. Once they’d gotten out of my sight in the bushes and grass, I never saw them again until they were ready for me to do so.
Mae, Ash, Dawn and Danny all had their turns trying to catch them out, too, but it wasn’t long before we gave it up as a lost cause and just took turns checking the place out.
The warehouse building was nearest to us, and I was awfully curious about it. There were two big doors that I could see, and I suspected there might be doors at the back as well. It looked big enough to park several trucks the size of semis inside, and I hoped there would be something of value to us still inside.
I wasn’t going to hold my breath, though. The little town looked deserted to me. The houses reminded me of the base housing we lived in when we were little, although I didn’t see duplexes. I saw single-family houses, most of them on the small side. They had little yards, some with fencing, some without. Ash had estimated two dozen yesterday, but I didn’t count that many.
For me, the sign of an occupied home is curtains in the windows. I didn’t see any curtains; no blinds or shades, either. The yards were overgrown with grass and weeds. “I’ll be surprised if anyone is still down there,” I commented.
There was a little church on the far side, up on a hillside backed with trees. I couldn’t tell if there was parking anywhere up there, but I saw a small lot just off a road down below. Just to the left of that lot, there was a small school building. I was amazed to see that the windows facing me appeared to be intact. That made me uneasy; were intact windows good, or bad? I squinted hard through the lenses of the binoculars, hoping for some glimpse of what was inside, but the sun was glinting off the glass and it was impossible to see.
On the other side of the church, there was what appeared to be a combination gas station/convenience store. A sign, ruined by Mother Nature, read “H t hin P st. Gas, Fo d, Dr n s”. It hung slightly askew. The windows there appeared to be whole, as well. They were also either filthy or had been soaped or otherwise covered; great binoculars or not, I couldn’t see inside.
Frustrated, I handed the binoculars to Mae. “What do you think that sign says?” I asked her, pointing down to the gas station.
Mae rolled her eyes and Dawn giggled. Some years back, Daddy had returned to camp with a board game called Wheel of Fortune, where you had to complete a phrase filling in the blank letters. I was wild about it, and made my sisters play with me all the time.
This wasn’t quite the same–I knew that some of the missing letters were already present in the words–but I figured Mae could make short work of the puzzle. She looked, and then let everyone else have a look, too.
“Do we have to buy letters?” Dawn asked, blinking up at me with doe-eyed innocence that let me know she was pulling my leg.
“Nah. Let me have it.”
“I think it’s ‘hitching post’,” she said.
“Well, ‘gas’, obviously,” Ash pronounced smugly, and pretended to pat himself on the back.
“And ‘food’,” Danny added.
“And ‘drinks’,” Mae finished.
“A plus,” I said. “You make me proud.”
Danny was searching, searching. “They’re good,” he said. “I can’t even see a weed wiggle, and there’s no breeze or anything.”
“No wonder he’s such a good bow-hunter,” Dawn added.
She meant Sid. I hadn’t thought of it, but she was right–he could sneak up on a deer so close he almost didn’t need to shoot–he could just stab, if he cared to.
They were gone a long time. Finally, I caught sight of them, coming out the front doors of the little church! They waved. We waved back. Sid made a come-along gesture and we went to the road and walked on into town.
“How did they get all the way over there without us seeing them?” Mae grumbled, and I shrugged. “I need to hang out with Morty more often.”
“Me, too,” Ash agreed.
I figured I’d just stick with Sid. He obviously knew what he was doing.
We met at the warehouse. I thought they were further away, but the town actually isn’t that big. Although, I have to admit the warehouse was a lot bigger than I thought it would be.
Size and distance relativity is one of the things that fascinate me sometimes. Like, when we go into the old city, you know some of the buildings are really tall, even when you see them from a great distance. But that height doesn’t really register until you’re in the street, looking up, up and trying to see the tops.
I didn’t feel little looking down at the warehouse, but I felt small now.
Morty held up his hand to stop me even before I could start talking. “I know you’re all chomping at the bit to go inside,” he said. “But I didn’t come as prepared as I thought. Right now, I need you, Danny.” He pointed at the tallest member of our group.
“Me?” Danny looked surprised, but I wasn’t. By now I had wandered over to the side of the building, and there were high windows all down the length of it. Too high for Morty or even Sid, but Danny was nearly six feet tall already and still had plenty of years ahead before he was full-grown.
Even so, he had to stand on his toes to look inside. He gave a low whistle. “What?” the rest of us demanded, simultaneously.
“There are a lot of boxes in there,” he told us. “Most are wrapped in heavy plastic, too.”
“Whoa.” Morty looked thoughtful. “Is the place full?”
“Nah.” Danny shook his head. “Not even close; it’s really big, Mort. But there’s still a lot of stuff.”
I was dying to know what was in there, but I knew Morty well enough to know that he wasn’t going to break the locks when he had tools at home to open the doors without doing any damage.
Sid, in the meantime, was checking out the trucks. “Look, Mort,” he called. “They’re not locked!” He pushed up on the bottom of the retractable door, and it slid up about three feet before groaning in protest. “Ugh. Rusty!”
Ashton and I were trying to peer into the dark cave of the trailer, and a few spiders scattered out, sending me back-peddling until I tripped and fell on my butt. Amiably, Ash offered me a hand up, and I thank him, both of us working hard not to laugh at my skittishness.
Sid missed the whole thing, luckily for me. He was working to push the door a little further up. Ash called to Mae for a flashlight, and the rest of the gang came around the building to join us. Morty was clearly deep in thought; he hadn’t responded to Sid’s first call, and he had that mulling look on his face.
Mae shone the light into the trailer. Toward the back, there were a few boxes, wrapped in heavy plastic and strapped together with thick cords. Through the plastic, it was impossible to read anything printed on the boxes.
I turned to Morty. He grinned at my pleading face, and said, “Yeah. This you can check out.”
He hadn’t finished talking before I made it to the boxes. I used my trusty Swiss Army knife to cut the cord and remove the plastic, taking care to preserve the materials as much as possible. Waste not, want not. So many things can be reused.
“Oh. Oh my God!” I gasped. Could it be? Oh, please, I thought. I opened the box–toothpaste! And the way it had been stored, it was likely not hard as a rock, the way most tubes we’ve found in abandoned stores.
Sid jumped up and opened a smaller box, his eyes dancing with hope. Toothbrushes! Good ones, by the look.
We were young, really just kids, and it was hard not to jump up and down and dance a little. So we did. Morty joined us. (He’s not that old, either.)
We emptied the two boxes, stuffing the treasures in our backpacks. Two dozen of each–we felt rich!
“Let’s not break open anything else just now,” Morty advised. We shut things up as tight as we could and joined him on the parking lot floor.
The sun was westering now, and we all knew we’d have to head back soon. “Come on,” Morty said. “There’s a house I think we need to get into now, before we say anything to anyone about this place.”
I looked at Sid, but his face offered me no clue, so I had no choice but to follow along and wonder.
Remember what I said about size and distance? I guess it’s not always true, because the houses were as small as I’d thought they’d be. This part of the town still remined me of base housing, too. Little houses in a row, all the same, at least on this short road. Four houses on one side, three on the other, and a lot with the remains of playground equipment that looked ancient.
Morty led us to the house next to that lot, and I looked sadly at an old merry-go-round that was leaning so badly that one side was partially buried in the sand. An old metal slide had fallen over, and the swing set had one length of chain dangling, a black strip of leather still attached and dragging on the ground.
I felt tears prickle the backs of my eyes and blinked rapidly to keep them from escaping and betraying the profound misery the sight brought to my heart.
We played in a place like that once, in another world. Mamma pushed us on swings while we cried out to her, “Higher! Higher!” We laughed and sang in the sun.
God, those memories hurt.
Mamma, so long gone, seemed very close to me now. I started slightly when Mae took my hand, and when I turned to her, she met my eyes with tears in her own. We nodded at each other, tightened our lips and followed the others up to the door of the house.
Morty deliberated on whether to kick the door in or try to jimmy the lock. “I don’t want to leave anything open,” he mused.
Ash reach past him and tried the door knob. It was unlocked.
Morty snorted, embarrassed.
We went inside.
There was nothing in the front room at all. “Why this house?” I asked, as we followed Morty through a doorway and into the kitchen.
There, someone had left a small, square table and two ladder-backed chairs. On the table, a stack of paper had been left with a coffee cup sitting in the middle of it.
“Saw this through the window,” Morty explained. “I’m hoping it…says something.”
“Information,” I whispered.
Morty turned to look me in the eye and nodded. “Information.”
Of all things in this new world, information was the hardest to find.
To be continued…
Author’s note: Penny and her gang may make a discovery soon. Once there were people here. Where did they go?
If you want to know where Penny and her sisters and companions started out, you can find out here: