“Can I come this time?”Charlotte asked, loudly popping her gum.
Gale glared at his little sister. “No way. You’re still too young.” He slid the red wagon from its hiding place at the back of the playhouse, under the clunky wooden desk their mother had salvaged from some auction or other.
“I’m not too young. Sassy goes with her brother all the time. Besides, you’re only three years older than me.”
“Practically four years,” he said as he pried loose one of the floorboards. Inside, nestled in a cocoon of hay, lay the stash of coal black shotguns and boxes of shotgun shells. He gently picked each one up, checked to make sure they weren’t loaded, set them inside the wagon, and then added several boxes of bullets. “And Sassy knows how to use one of these. You’re still too sporadic.”
She popped another bubble and crossed her arms over her chest. “Am not. I can hit three out of five.”
Gale shook his head. “Not good enough. You have to be 100%. Miss once and it could mean death.” He tossed the blanket over the pile of munitions and held out his hand to her.
Charlotte spat her gum onto the floor and pulled the slender, hand-rolled cigarette from behind her doll’s ear before stacking it, and a couple of other random toys, on top of the blanket.
Gale grimaced as she put the paper to her lips and lit it.
“You’re too young to be smoking, too,” he growled as he pulled the wagon towards the door.
She just glared at him defiantly and took another puff. “If you were around more often to train me, maybe I could shoot five for five.”
He couldn’t stop her smoking, but he could still keep her off the munitions run. “Charlotte, you know I have a job to do. There’s nobody else left to do it.”
Her scowl slipped ever so slightly, her lower lip quivering. He turned his back on her so he wouldn’t see.
“You have a job to do, too. Hold down the fort, ok?”
“I miss Mom and Dad,” she whispered as he went out the playhouse door.
As he made his way across the barren landscape, trying hard to act naturally as he crossed the spaces he knew were watched, he thought about the origin of the “playhouses.”
The world had gone to hell. A sub-species of humans had evolved from a sudden, overwhelming increase of genetic modification. These “super humans” razed the world, stamping out the original humans as much as they could, leaving only small, helpless communities isolated from each other. All that was left were the very young, and the very old.
Except for the fighter bases, which were hidden in various community buildings, and were abandoned once an attack was launched from one.
The playhouses were munitions cellars – heavily armed and fortified weapons caches – also disguised as places where children played. Runners took munitions from the playhouses and stocked the rebels for each attack, camouflaging the shipments in any way they could. Gale always used a wagon that looked as if it was filled with toys. He would have to give the job to Charlotte before too long; he was getting too old to fool the Zombies.
Their parents had been runners before. Of course the irony now was that children were the ones running the weapons, and, for the most part, leading the ambushes.
He let out a breath when he arrived at the old library building where the next raid was mounting, and made his delivery. The man (boy, really) who took his shipment frowned when he arrived.
“Watch out on your way back, mate. There’s been news of a zombie attack near here. They know we’re preparing another ambush, and they know our base is somewhere nearby. Be safe. Stay true.”
He muttered back the true human parting words, and started back for his playhouse. He tried to act as casually as he could, but his brisk walk broke into a trot, the empty wagon bouncing loudly behind him without its load.
He knew immediately that something wasn’t right. There was a smell. A very particular smell. The playhouse door, which Charlotte would have bolted behind him, was hanging from its hinges.
When he got closer, he found the first body. The grotesquely mutated human body, that would have been more dead than alive even before the killing blow. There was nothing left of the head, which was the only way to stop them. It was a perfect shot. Clean. Just the one shot took it down.
The second and third bodies were the same.
It was the fourth and fifth, one still flopping around the playhouse – which he quickly dispatched – and the other with multiple holes in the torso before the head shot, that had been too much.
Her tiny body, only seven years old, was barely recognizable, harvested for any usable organ and appendage.
He’d left her behind to keep her from harm, thinking that she’d be safe in the playhouse. But he’d known her odds. Three out of five. She had been consistent, at least.
He went to the loose floorboard, pried it up, and removed one rifle and one box of shells. He carefully loaded it, and placed it in the wagon.
He only needed the one this time.
He pulled the wagon out the door, leaving his sister’s toys behind.