Z is for Zombie

by Geron Kees

Chapter 3

The big GMC had a tendency to bounce in the rutted lane leading towards the main road, and Richie smiled as Jeremy guided the truck carefully along at a decent pace. They were in no hurry, definitely. Better to see everything clearly before you got to it, these days.

Richie sat in the middle, between Jeremy and Mike. The latter boy had his Thompson tilted upwards against his shoulder, the butt of the stock resting on the seat between his legs, the muzzle pointed at the roof of the truck. One hand on the forward grip steadied the weapon as his eyes scanned the road ahead and to both sides, ever alert. Mike didn't miss much. He took his duties as guardsman with a deadly seriousness far beyond his years.

The view outside the shielded windows was calm; a beautiful, sunny spring morning. The steel latticework that Jack had welded over the windows offered a minimum of interference with vision while offering greatly heightened security to those within the cab. Richie frowned, recalling the dream of the previous night, and the constant reminders everywhere he looked of Jack's contributions to the group's survival. It had been a little over a year since they had lost the man, at the tail end of a winter, and yet his presence among them remained in all the things he had done for them.

Whether the explosion in the hardware store in Mitersville was an accident or intentional, they would never know for certain. But Richie remembered, all too well, that last anguished look Jack had given him as he had worried over the safety of the boys. For all three of them to be lost would have been catastrophic to the safety of the group. The trade of his own life to ensure that Richie and Jeremy survived may have seemed like a good deal to the man. Jack had been like that, Richie knew.

He sighed. Real heroes are made, it seemed, on the spur of the moment.

"Quiet night," Mike said, perhaps because the silence within the cab had grown too long. Richie knew what he meant: no zombie attacks in the middle of the night, which may or may not have been an indicator that Jack had been right when he said that zombies probably did not move after sunset. No one had mentioned Richie's bad dream, nor their brief period of wakefulness in the night. They had all been to that dark dream place at one time or another, and it was bad form to mention those moments, unless the person having the dream wanted to discuss it.

Richie didn't. He and Jeremy both had been over that terrible day in Mitersville all too many times, both in discussions with the others, and in their dreams. As Jeremy had said, it was done and gone.

"Kind of weird, this thing showing up now," Jeremy said, as he drew the truck to a stop at the main road. Despite the fact that there had been no traffic in two years, he looked both ways before pulling out and turning left towards Hanford.

"How do you mean?" Richie asked, glad just to be talking.

Jeremy looked over at him briefly. "I mean, it's been a long time since the Changes. Why...why now?"

Richie shrugged. "Probably just chance. I mean, even a few of these things would clean out every living thing in a city in two year's time. There weren't many people left alive, Jack said. Probably, these things ate everything they could find, and had to start moving outwards to find food. That one just wound up here."

Jeremy grunted. "I guess."

"I want to see what fifty, forty-five caliber slugs, will do to one," Mike said, matter-of-factly.

Richie nudged the younger boy with his elbow. "I told you this wasn't a zombie hunt. We see something, I don't want you going after it."

Mike looked surprised. "I ain't doin' that. But if one comes at us, I intend to shoot the crap out of it, until there's nothing left but pieces." He shifted slightly, and patted the Thompson. "I'm tired of being scared."

Richie just grunted, and nodded. He had to agree with that statement. They didn't even know what had brought about the Changes. Why did most people turn into blue crystalline stone, while a handful of others - and mostly kids - were unaffected? And why did another small number turn into monsters? There seemed to be no answers.

But the idea that the zombies might win was unacceptable. If they killed off every person, who would start the world going again?

And they did have to restart the world.

Richie smiled at that. That meant babies, someday. Mom was too old for that, surely. And Tina was still too young. Marnie and Sherry could surely become pregnant now, if they wanted babies - but they didn't, not yet, anyway. They needed to be kids first, before they could be parents. Babies were still some years away.

Who the fathers would be was a different story. Richie and Jeremy were gay. They loved each other, and planned to stay together, forever. Mike and Bennie were both old enough to shoot, and Richie and Jeremy had heard them, along with Will, more than one night after lights out, giggling and carrying on as they masturbated together in their 'room'. Will could not be a father just yet, but that time would not be far off.

Everyone was aware of pretty much everything about everybody. The group had long ago gotten over any shyness they may have had with each other. They lived together in close quarters, and shyness was simply not a practical option. The relationship that Richie and Jeremy had together had been a source of interest to all the other kids, and all of them had been caught at one time or another in the past sneaking a peek while the older boys made love. Richie and Jeremy just ran them off, told them to mind their own business, and then smiled at the questions they received later.

Most of the group had not been old enough when the Changes had occurred to have absorbed all the social taboos against sharing such conversations, and their closeness in ages lent to a very unabashed attitude towards discussing things together. Mom was so out of it when it came to social interaction that no one worried about her overhearing anything. No matter what the subject, the woman simply rocked in her chair and stared off at something only she could see, with just the occasional smile to indicate that she had paid attention to anything being said around her.

Jack had made certain that everyone had had a short, neat course in sex education. Everyone knew where babies came from, and what brought them into being. There would be no accidents here. Everyone understood that babies would have to wait for the proper time.

Richie had decided that he could father children without a problem. He loved Marnie and Sherry both enough to do that with them. But he could not be a husband to either girl, and that really wasn't fair to either of them. The details of all of this would need to be worked out, someday, when the world had settled into something a little more friendly towards babies.

For now, they all just did the best that they could.

The truck was easier to handle on the pavement, the ride smooth and comfortable. Richie watched the road ahead, occasionally flicking his gaze upwards into the blue, unclouded sky. It was a pretty day, and visibility was excellent.

"We need to look at everything while we're here," he said, his eyes moving to the side and wandering over the fields of tall grass. "Make sure there's been no prowlers about."

The first time they had visited each place in the town of Hanford, they had pretty much had to break inside. The Changes had occurred at night, when businesses were closed and locked. Jack had done the burglaries carefully, keeping damage to a minimum, and they had repaired everything afterwards. They'd plundered the hardware store for supplies to secure the other important businesses, the town grocery especially. Windows were covered on the inside with steel grating, doors reinforced and extra locks added.

All the perishable foodstuffs at the grocer - the ones they could not use themselves before spoilage set in - were disposed of. The electric power had failed the first week after the Changes, during a frightful thunderstorm, and simply never returned. They wanted no rotting contaminants about the place, and everything that wouldn't keep was loaded into the truck and taken to the town landfill. The store's own supply of mice traps and bug hotels were set out around the shelving, and replenished with each visit. They still lost some things to the critters, but the canned items were immune to attack, and the traps kept most of the boxed and bagged items from being assaulted. Product producers were very good on their own in protecting their merchandise, and vacuum sealed items remained impervious to all but the craftiest of mice.

Hanford was a small place, population eight-hundred and forty-two. Or, that's what it once had been. Nowadays it was population zero, save for the occasional coyote that ambled through. The Handi-Mart was the only grocer in town, and therefore had had to see to the needs of the entire population. By sheer luck, the suppliers had been in only a day or two before the Changes, and the store's shelves and stockroom were full. What once would have kept eight hundred souls well-fed for a couple of weeks now would feed nine for a very long time.

Richie fingered the big keyring in his pocket as the truck drew to a halt at checkpoint one. This was the same ring that Jack had tossed to him that fateful day in Mitersville, carrying the key to the armored back room of King's Hardware in that town, which had survived the blast that had taken Jack from them. At some point they would need to go back to that town and remove the rest of the ammunition stored there, and perhaps find old man King's house and see what kind of goodies he had stashed away. But...that was for later. Richie and Jeremy had been unable to return, the memories of that day too heartbreaking to relive.

Richie had later added his copies of the keys to the locked businesses in Hanford to the ring. Jack had found a key machine at the hardware store there, and, after a short learning process they had all laughed over, made nine duplicates of every key to the new locks they'd installed, which were color-coded for which store they went to. Each of them had a set, on the theory that someday it might make the difference between living and dying.

Checkpoint one was the last rise in the road before they entered the town of Hanford itself. It afforded a good view of the valley, and from there they could check out the place through their binoculars for any signs that there had been others there in their absence...or even that they might be there now.

"Don't see anything unusual," Jeremy said, tracking his binoculars slowly about the distant cluster of buildings, and the side streets about the town. Richie joined him, lifting his own binoculars to his eyes. Only Mike would not look, keeping his eyes on the landscape about them, scanning slowly through the windows, and checking the truck's mirrors for movement behind them.

"Darn grate on the windshield makes it hard to see," Richie complained, turning the focus knob to get the image clear.

"I could get out on the running board and look," Jeremy offered.

Richie leaned forward a bit and looked off into the field on Jeremy's side of the road. The tall grasses were maybe fifty feet away - too close to risk getting out here. "No. Let's just look from here, and then move up to checkpoint two."

They scanned the town for five minutes, but could see nothing changed from their last visit, nothing added, and no movement whatsoever.

Finally, Richie nodded. "Okay. Move on up."

Jeremy nodded, laid his binoculars back against his chest, and put the truck into gear. They eased forward, and Richie resumed looking through his binoculars as the truck rolled slowly ahead. Jeremy let the speed build slowly, and then capped it at thirty miles per hour. The motion of the field of vision through the binoculars made Richie faintly seasick, but he kept his eyes wandering among the buildings, looking for sources of trouble.

Still nothing.

Checkpoint two was at the head of the 'dip' where the road proceeded down into the little valley holding the town. They stopped again at the top of the long, gentle grade, and eyeballed the place carefully through the binoculars for another five minutes.

"It looks okay," Jeremy finally said, a slight note of impatience creeping into his voice. "We should get this done and get back to the others."

Richie nodded. "Go on. Do a drive through first, though, before we stop at the store."

Jeremy nodded, and started the truck forward again. Mike tilted the Thompson down and held the gun at the ready. Richie leaned over and pulled the other Thompson off the floor, and drew back the bolt that chambered the first round. Now, all that stood between the gun's silence and a fair amount of mayhem was a quick flick of the safety and a yank back on the trigger.

He grinned to himself. If they fired either of the Thompsons while still inside the cab of the truck, they would be deaf for life, if they survived the experience!

The truck reached the bottom of the grade and they turned into Chatterton Street. This road was a long circle, that pretty much looped around the center of town, and along which most of Hanford's fine old residences stood. Jeremy kept their pace slow, and Richie leaned forward and watched the houses on the left go by while Mike watched the ones on the right. Jeremy kept his eyes forward, occasionally letting them slide to the truck's side mirrors to keep an eye on anything happening behind them.

This was always a painful portion of the trip. The houses had weathered the past two years with little change, but the yards around them had grown wild, and the place looked terribly abandoned. Richie had known a lot of the kids that had lived in some of these houses. He'd gone to school with them, grown up with them. To realize that they were all gone now hurt.

He'd had a crush on Matt Jillian in sixth grade, at the dawn of his awareness that boys were somehow becoming special. Matt had been dark haired, blue-eyed, with a ready smile and a great sense of humor. They'd sat together on Matt's front porch more than once, just talking about cool things and sharing life. In that way he had learned that Matt liked Laurie Pickering, which had dashed any nascent hopes he'd had that he and Matt might become more than friends. In a way that had worked out, because very soon after that, in seventh grade, Richie had met Jeremy, and that had simply been that.

But as they passed Matt's house, the thought of the boy's petrified body, lying forever in his bed until it rotted away beneath him, almost brought tears to his eyes.

They finally reached the halfway point, where Chatterton Street re-met the main road through the center of town. Again Jeremy stopped the truck, and looked both ways before crossing.

The second half of the circle was more of the same, with fine old houses built in the nineteen-teens and twenties, some with their white paint looking especially drab now, sitting in the shade of large white elms and boxelder maples, their yards just a Tarzan-call away from pure jungle. By the time the GMC returned to the main road, Richie was ready to go home. This visit with the once-was was almost unbearable, a ghost town full of memories of school class pictures past.

Jeremy's expression also looked pained, as this time he turned right and followed the main road into the business district of the town. "I wanna get this done and get outta here."

Richie nodded, understanding completely, but said nothing as they slowly passed the courthouse, the Hanford Township Sheriff's Department, the To the Last Hair barber shop, and the Prairie Schooner Cafe. They stopped at the gas station first, pulling up by the caps over the big tanks buried beneath the concrete lot about the place. Jeremy killed the engine, and they sat there in silence for five minutes, watching. Jack had taught them that most people - and zombies - reacted to change within a short period of time. A truck driving up would usually bring someone to investigate if they were about, and zombies simply went to the source of any sound or motion, right off the bat.

But nothing happened. They got out of the truck, and Jeremy retrieved the cyclic pump and hoses from behind the seat of the truck. Mike climbed the ladder Jack had welded to the side of the truck's cargo box, and stood atop the white cube, the Thompson at the ready. From there he had a good view of everything, in every direction.

"See anything?" Richie called up to him, as Jeremy pulled up the little iron cover over one buried tank and popped the releases on the fill cap.

"No. The place looks dead." Mike tossed a grin at him, and Richie sighed and shook his head. That boy had a morbid sense of humor, if ever he'd heard one.

Jack had told them more than a year before that the tank below was likely an eight- or ten-thousand gallon unit, and had showed them how to take the long measuring stick stored inside the station's bays and coat its end with the goo that detected water, and then to dip the tank and check the results. The measuring stick recorded the amount of gasoline left below in inches, and there had been thirty five inches at that time. Jack had said then that they would have gas available for a long time to come, providing the tank did not leak, or take on too much water in the rains. So they could expect to run the truck for years to come. They had sticked this tank last time they were in, and it still had thirty-five inches of middle-grade gasoline in it, more or less.

The goo on the end that detected water turned red in the presence of that liquid. Every tank sweated a little during temperature changes, and that was normal. Gasoline floated atop water, and it was expected for the goo to turn red for a half-inch or so at the end of the stick. That had remained constant all this time. Jack had said to stick the tank every other time they got gas, and that they need not worry so long as the water remained confined to a half-inch or so at the very bottom. The last thing they wanted was to load up the truck's tanks with bad gasoline, which might strand them somewhere, and which would require a lengthy clean up to rectify.

Jeremy got the fill cap off the tank, and took the long feed hose and dropped it down inside. It had a pickup and floats at the end, and would sit atop the gas so as to only draw from just beneath the surface. He stood the cyclic pump up on end, kicked out the tripod legs, and attached the hose to the inlet. Then he grabbed up the shorter hose, attached it to the outlet side, and handed it to Richie. "I'll pump while you watch, okay?"

Richie nodded, and went to the big drum tank beneath the cab's running board. There was a tank on each side, but they always ran off the one on the passenger side, to avoid complications with things on the driver's side while in town and exposed. Every now and then they would switch up, and run the gas out of the second tank, just so that they could refill it with fresh. But this time, no.

Richie unscrewed the cap and let it hang by its chain. He placed the end of the hose inside, and turned to look at the other boy. "Ready when you are."

Jeremy grunted, and began turning the crank handle at the side of the pump. It was self-priming, and in a moment gasoline began to squirt from the end of the hose. Richie bent to watch more closely, so that he could call a halt when the tank was full. It only took a moment to see that they would not need much - maybe ten gallons. They didn't put a lot of mileage on the truck - there was really nowhere to go but town - and while it was something of a gas-guzzler, the truck mostly sat in the barn and waited for the occasional use.

After several minutes, Richie raised a hand. "Slow it down, and be prepared to stop."

Another moment more, and he called a halt. Jeremy nodded, turned the valve that would allow the remaining gasoline in the line before the pump to fall back to the tank, and disconnected the feed hose and withdrew it from the ground tank. Then he raised the pump by its upright support, and the last dribbles in the output line ran into the truck's tank.

"That's it, Richie."

Richie pulled the hose back, shook out that last few drops, and then spun the cap back onto the tank fill. Then he helped Jeremy coil the hoses and return the pump to its place behind the seat. They recapped the ground tank, checked that the clasps were seated properly, and put the little manhole cover back into place. The whole process had taken seven minutes.

"Come on down," Richie called to Mike. "We're ready to roll."

They got back into the truck, and went on down Main Street, and quickly reached the Handi-Mart. The store resembled a fortress, the steel gratings inside the big front windows looking more appropriate to an inner city ghetto than to a little grocery store in a one-horse midwestern town. Jeremy turned the truck into the little parking lot, and slowly drove all the way around the building. The fence behind it, which separated the back of the store from the back of the theater, was intact and untouched. All the doors were closed, all the windows still contained glass. There were no vehicles to be seen, and nothing appeared to be moved from the positions they'd been in during their last visit. As well as memory served, anyway.

"Okay," Richie said, nodding. "Back up to the center bay."

Jeremy returned the nod, brought the truck into a slow turn, and then backed up, watching the mirrors. There was the smallest of jolts as they connected with the dock bumper; and then silence as Jeremy turned off the engine.

They sat there for five more minutes, just watching, and then slowly got out and stood by the truck, watching and listening for a couple more. The town was silent, save for the faint, odd noises the light breeze made as it found places it could sing through in passing. Finally, they locked the cab of the truck and walked up the concrete steps to the dock, and opened the rear doors of the truck's box.

Richie went to the back door of the store, set into the bricks between the two big steel truck doors, which were both down and locked, and went about opening the three deadbolts that secured it. Then he stepped back, pulled the Thompson off his shoulder, and he and Mike took positions to either side of Jeremy as the boy turned the knob and pushed the door inwards. Jeremy opened the door a few inches, then thrust it open and leaped backwards between the others, who pointed the muzzles of the Thompsons into the darkness beyond.

But nothing happened. No one appeared, living or maybe-dead, to accost them. They stood and listened for a minute, but the silence was unbroken.

"Stay here, Mike. Anything moves, shoot first and ask questions later."

The younger boy nodded, for the first time showing some of the nervousness he was now feeling. It was one thing to talk about facing up to zombies, and another thing entirely to maybe be doing just that at any moment. But he took a breath, let it out, and placed his back to the brickwork alongside the doorway, the Thompson at the ready. But then he grinned. "Hurry back."

Richie laughed, and squeezed the boy's shoulder; and then he and Jeremy stepped into the back room of the store. The headsets were right where they'd left them on the table inside the door, a final indicator that the place was likely undisturbed. Each boy grabbed one and placed the elastic band around his forehead, and turned on the bright LED spot on the front. Twin beams of white light lanced out into the gloom of the receiving bay, and a quick look about proved that they were alone.

The hand trucks were right where they had left them, and the two boys set about collecting cases of canned goods. They checked dates on the cases as they loaded them, taking the oldest first. They were past the 'sell by' dates on many of the things like canned potatoes, corn, beets, and green beans. But Jack had said they could probably eat those things safely for some years after those dates were passed, because canned food was shelf-stable, and the dates on them only an indicator by the cannery of how long the peak product quality could be guaranteed to last. Richie looked around at the much-dwindled rows of cases; they would finish the potatoes, corn, green beans, and beets long before they went bad. Their own garden at the camp, which was expanding nicely, would have to supply their vegetables to them after that.

Other foods had longer shelf lives. Most beans in cans - kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, and the like - could be expected to last more than ten years. There were a lot of varieties of beans to be had, and the stacks of cases here could be expected to last another couple of years. Other items in stock, like flour, salt, sugar, raw honey, and powdered milk, had indefinite lifespans. There were more than enough foodstuffs left in the market to supplement what they took from the land, for some years to come.

They loaded a variety of things into the truck, a little of this, and a little of that. Canned fruits were in short supply compared to the vegetables, but they took a case each of apples, peaches, and pears. They would definitely use up these items before they spoiled, as after that, fruit would be confined to the apples and pears they could pick, wild, from the few trees of that sort on the properties around town.

Mike watched everything, the muzzle of the Thompson pointed skyward, but ready to be dropped into firing position at a moment's notice, as Richie and Jeremy moved back and forth with the hand trucks. The younger boy had relaxed only slightly, his eyes moving constantly, and Richie smiled at him as he went by. Nothing was going to sneak up on that boy, that was certain.

They loaded eighteen cases and stopped. Jack had warned them about being too greedy on each trip. It was best to balance need with the aging of the products, so that they would be expended at about the same time as they would spoil if not used. The camp's garden, Mike's traps, and the hunting that Richie and Jeremy did had already reached levels that would sustain the group without the occasional visits to the market. But to allow these last products of civilization to go to waste would be unconscionable.

They could now withstand a siege of some length. Combined with the ten cases of canned goods they had brought back just the other day, they would now have more food stashed at the camp than they really had room for. But the safety factor would allow everyone to breathe easier, and that was what mattered.

Richie and Jeremy parked the hand trucks in exactly the same spot as always, the red one on the left, the green one on the right. If they were moved between trips, the act would be noticed. Then they went back outside by Mike.

"Anything special you want?" Richie asked him.

The boy grinned. "Some peanuts, if there's any left."

"I'm pretty sure there were some left after last time. But they might be spoiled now."

Mike shrugged. "The nose knows."

Richie laughed, and he and Jeremy went back into the store. They crossed the big receiving and storage bay to the swinging doors that led into the front of the store. They were steel, and had no way to be secured normally; but Jack had welded on a large steel bar on a pivot, that could swing down to settle into a notch in the bricks on either side, securing the doors from being opened from the other side. Each door had a glass window in it, and the boys each took one and surveyed the front of the store through them.

The great windows at the front let in plenty of light, and it was plain even through the steel grates they had welded over them that none of the glass was broken. The two grated front doors were plainly visible up the center aisle, and were also intact.

Jeremy swung the bar up, and they pushed carefully through the doors, Richie leading with the Thompson. On the other side they held the doors and closed them again quietly, and then stood and listened. Not a single sound was to be heard. Even the faint sounds of the wind they'd heard outside were absent.

Talk about quiet.

That was one of the hallmarks of the New World. Silence. Richie had never paid attention to the sounds the human race made as it went about its daily life. They had been background effects to each day, mostly unnoticed, seldom intrusive. You didn't even realize they were there, most times. Until they were gone.

The boys looked at each other, and Jeremy finally shook his head. "Have to be a quiet mouse to sneak around this place. I think we're alone."

Richie agreed. But they stayed together. Jeremy grabbed the shopping cart parked just inside the doors, and they walked slowly up and down the aisles, adding things as they went. Tea and instant coffee, in vacuum sealed packages. Cans of tuna, salmon, and mackerel. They had finished the cases of these fishes, but the shelves in the main store still had a fair supply.

Peanut butter was good at least until the oil separated out, and the containers they had been getting were still good. There had been some grape jelly in cans, but they had finished them, and the preserves left in glass bottles were no longer edible. Had Jack still been around he would have ordered them removed to the landfill; but as long as the bottles did not burst or leak, they remained stacked in their cases in a corner of the back room.

They stopped and selected several cans of peanuts. They were long past the date, but like many modern ready foods, the packaging kept them fresh a lot longer than anyone had expected. Richie pulled the flip-top on one can, and was rewarded with the hiss of inrushing air. He held the can up, sniffed the contents, and then smiled. "Smells okay to me." Rotten peanuts smelled like paint, or something chemical. These smelled, quite wonderfully, like peanuts.

"Let's have some," Jeremy said, grinning and extending a cupped hand. Richie poured in a helping of nuts and watched as his boyfriend tossed them into his mouth, briefly closed his eyes, and sighed. "Mmm! Man, what a blast from the past!"

Richie leaned closer and lowered his voice, even though there was no one to hear them. "I love you with a mouthful of nuts."

Jeremy grinned, and his eyes twinkled, and he extended a hand and poked Richie with a finger. "Stop distracting me. I'd look pretty stupid, standing here with a big hard on when the zombies attacked."

Richie laughed, snuggled up to him a moment and kissed him, and then they moved on down the aisles.

Amazing, the things you don't notice that a grocer carries, until you really stop and look. They had long ago cleaned out the light bulbs; but they still needed things like scouring powder for the poop dump and bath; kitchen cleaners for the stove; dish detergent for the plates, silverware and pans; steel wool; laundry detergent; socks and tee-shirts; writing paper; clear tape...the things of life that go unnoticed most days, but which are vital to maintaining one's sanity in the world. The crash of civilization had not ended the need for paper clips and napkins.

They also stopped at the sewing center and grabbed some yarn for Mom; a half-dozen each of spools of black and white thread; and some sewing needles for general use. They all could sew, and needed to be able to help keep up with clothing repairs. Periodically, they replenished their stocks of clothing from the Jeans 'N Things down the street; but Jack had warned them that the supply of clothing there would not last forever, and to try to maintain the things they had until they were no longer serviceable before replacing them.

When the cart was full they returned to the rear stock room and loaded their loot into boxes. Then they ported the stuff to the truck and placed the boxes inside with the other things. After that, they closed up the truck's rear doors and locked them.

As they went back inside the store, Richie paused by Mike at the rear door. "Open your mouth."

The boy did as he was asked, and Richie poured in a mouthful of the peanuts. Mike made appreciative noises as he chewed, and rolled his eyes. "Mmph...thanks."

Richie grinned, and held up the can. "We got a dozen, all that was left. You can have this one when we get back in the truck. Wouldn't want you to be distracted from watching things."

Mike made a face and stuck out a peanut-laden tongue, but nodded. "Hurry up, then."

Richie and Jeremy took the shopping cart back to where they had gotten it just inside the store proper, closed the double doors and pulled down the bar, and then looked around a last time. Then they turned off their headlight flashes, placed them on the table inside the door, and went outside. Richie pulled the door closed, and carefully relocked all three of the deadbolts. As a final precaution, he jiggled the door's knob, and sighed in satisfaction at the solidity he felt.

"Hardware store next," he said, as they returned to the truck.

They unlocked the vehicle's door and climbed inside, locked the doors again, and rolled down the side windows, so that only the steel grates stood between them and the day beyond. They sat in silence for five minutes, listening, but no unusual sounds came to their ears. A bird sang somewhere on the roof above them, and the sound was very comforting. Only the creatures of the air seemed oblivious to the things taking place on the ground.

Finally, Jeremy started the truck and pulled it slowly away from the dock. He circled the building and stopped where the parking lot met the street. They looked each way, examining everything.

Richie's eyes settled on the Sheriff's station, and once again he was reminded of the steel lockers in the back of the building. Jack's original plan had been to cut them open, because no keys were to be found for them, and Jack was sure that the cops, at least, had a fair arsenal in store. But that had been before they had found the trove of weapons at the nearby farm, and after that, Jack had decided that what they had was about as good as they were likely to find anywhere short of a genuine military arsenal. So he had put off the cutting job, and it still had not been accomplished at the time of his death.

Richie and Jeremy both had become fair hands with the torch, and one day they would have to tackle the armaments lockers in the Sheriff's station to see what was there.

The hardware store was a short distance in the other direction, and they repeated the drive around the building, inspecting it carefully. It, too, looked untouched since their last visit. Jeremy drove around to the rear and pulled the truck up by the back dock, and backed around until they were in a loading position. Then they sat for five minutes, listening, before they got out.

The routine was old now, and they went through the store quickly, picking up the things they might need. These items went into the back of the truck, and they finalized the visit by running ropes to the stays on the walls and lashing everything into place. The boys closed the truck's rear doors, locked them, and then locked up the hardware store.

"That was quick. We're getting good at that." Jeremy grinned. "I never was a serious shopper. Have to admit that just grabbing stuff is more fun."

Richie rolled his eyes and pretended disappointment. "You mean I'm in love with a shoplifter?"

Mike laughed at that, and shook his head. "You two are so corny."

They went back to the truck, and stood outside of it for five minutes, listening.

"Okay," Richie said, at the end of the time, pulling the keys from his pocket and turning towards the truck's cab. "Let's get this show on the--."

Mike suddenly raised a hand. "Shh!"

All three of them froze, listening. Richie and Jeremy briefly looked at each other, and then let their eyes slowly circle the parking lot.

Richie was just about to say he didn't hear anything, when he did.

From far off, the sounds carried on the wind, came the faint pop-pop-pop of gunfire.

He turned his head to follow the sound, and then froze again.

It was coming from the direction of the camp.

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