“Halt! Thou shalt not worship false Corn Pops!” Codie barked causing Blake to recoil in the open doorway of their fortress. In Blake’s hand was a one serving cereal box emptied long ago. “Give that to me.”
“It’s close enough,” Blake muttered as he slumped down in the corner next to the shrine.
“Close enough? Close enough?!” Codie’s voice raised above even her normally squeaky soprano as she crumpled the box and threw it out the door, “I think you’ve forgotten our mission.”
“‘Fill the shrine.’ ‘Fill the shrine.’ I didn’t forget.” Blake sank back deeper in to the cardboard wall as he contemplated the palms of his hands.
Codie crossed her slender arms and turned toward the shrine. “We can’t just allow any impostor to be placed along side the chosen brand.” This edict was delivered with the punctuated gravitas she reserved for correcting Blake’s generally poor performance. Codie studied the small pyramid of golden boxes that they had been collecting over the last few months since she had had her “glorious vision”. “Look, I know that they aren’t easy to come by but this is our given quest and the vision must be fulfilled.”
“It’s a stupid quest.”
“You’re a stupid quest!”
“Shut up, Codie.”
Some years back Codie and Blake’s family had moved to an abandoned property near the school yard where the two had eventually built their fortress. Their father had chosen the spacious blue one story Craftsman style house because of its location next to a small municipal water drainage system that they used as source of relatively fresh water. They’d had their pick of the lot since most of the surviving members of the community had packed up everything and headed west where it was rumored that some semblance of government had remained intact and was mounting a relief effort.
Generally Codie and Blake weren’t allowed to leave the house without the supervision of their older brother Aaron. Still Codie, who made it a point to take every opportunity to stretch the limit of their parent’s patience, felt it was her solemn duty to scout out around their property and quickly found the jungle gym where her and Blake’s private hide-out now sat. Most days when their chores were finished and their parents gave the final ok, the two siblings made their way over the back fence, down and up the slippery algae covered concrete sides of the water drainage duct, across a weed infested expanse that had once been a soccer field and up the chain metal cargo net in to the refuge of their fortress.
The school building next to the fortress sat empty, its grey stucco facade cracked and faded. Their mother had been a teacher there before the event but the two siblings had never set foot inside one of its classrooms. The jungle gym itself was made in the general shape of a pirate ship which Codie had decided was an acceptable aesthetic after she asked her mother what pirates were. Most of the superstructure consisted of a hard brown plastic that had been molded to look like wooden beams and at the center of the upper most level, attached to a thick metal support, was a passably authentic looking ship’s wheel.
The cardboard they had fashioned to the outer walls was covered in crayon written proclamations stating the various natural laws and moral rules that Codie had decided should govern the activities of masses. No crying after sundown. Only girls are allowed to use toilet paper. Unfortunately for Blake, Codie’s authoritarian regime currently ruled over a population of one and it didn’t seem likely they’d be gaining any new converts in the near future.
“Do you know what today is, Blake?” Codie whispered as she peeked wide eyed around the ship’s wheel. Blake was preoccupied with re-stacking the Corn Pops boxes into a cube, following Codie’s order to do so having realized that a pyramid was, in fact, a blasphemous geometric configuration. Annoyed that she was being ignored, Codie crept up behind Blake and put her mouth directly next to his ear and screeched, “It’s adventure day!”
Blake shrieked and stumbled forward scattering the carefully stacked boxes across the floor. As he attempted to regain his balance he accidentally crushed one of the bright yellow boxes under his foot and in that instant time seemed to no longer exist. They both froze. Blake began to visibly shake as a wave of crippling fear broke over him. He slowly turned his head, knowing full well he was to be greeted by daggers of righteous anger seething from his sister’s eyes as she stared at the result of his clumsiness.
“You...” Codie’s voice trailed off as her lower lip started to quiver. “You jerk-head!” was all she could blurt out before collapsing in to disorganized lump of tears and snot. Still unable to form any kind of coherent response, Blake stood motionless and tried to formulate his next move, shifting his gaze from his offending foot to the sobbing mess that had moments before been his sister. The door looked promising and thought he could probably outrun her if he got a head start but he didn’t get the opportunity to make up his mind.
Just as quickly has they had started, Codie’s tear ducts halted their production and she jumped up as she wiped the last escapee from her cheek. “It’s settled then,” she said matter-of-factly as she straightened her once white X-Men t-shirt. “We’re going to The Store.”
“Codie wait!” Blake leaned over the edge of the railing of the fortress, looking down at his sister as she marched away from him across the crumbling black top. Codie showed no intention of slowing her pace and Blake knew any further attempt to change her mind at this point would be futile, so he jumped down in to the sand below and ran to catch up. “You know we aren’t allowed past the school. Why don’t you ever listen to Mom and Dad?”
Cody didn’t think a question so ridiculous even merited a response but she decided to give one anyway if it would keep her brother quiet.
“Look, it’s simple. Today is the day after Study Day with Mom which means that it’s Adventure Day. And what do we do on Adventure Day?”
“Get in trouble.”
“No... well yes, but more importantly we have a duty to explore. Don’t you wonder were everyone went? Don’t you wonder why the sky is all brown and ugly? In the pictures Mom has of before, it looks blue.” Codie kicked a dirt clod and it disintegrated in to a fine grey dust. “It wasn’t always like this, you know.”
“Yeah, I guess. But why are we going back to The Store? We’ve never found anything good there before... and it smells like pee.” Blake frowned as he remembered the last time Codie had convinced him to sneak off to the old shopping center on the edge of town. Their brother Aaron had told them stories of how he and his friends used to hang out there after school when things were still normal and Codie had become obsessed with the idea of scouring the area for lost treasures.
“Blake,” Codie sighed under the immense weight of her brother’s ignorance, “the whole point of adventuring is that you don’t know what’s going to happen. If we knew for sure what would happen, it would be called a ‘chore’. And how do we feel about chores?”
“ ‘We hate them.’ ”
“Exactly, we hate them. And the only way to keep from doing chores is to stay away from the house as long as possible without having Mom worry about where we are. Besides if anything happens, I have this.”
Codie reached in to the pocket of her jeans and produced a small folding pocket knife. She pulled the rusty blade from the handle, made a few short jabs at the an imagined foe, and smiled. “Pretty neat, huh?”
Blake studied the knife and thought about how his sister had become physically and emotionally incapacitated over a squished cereal box. “That’s not going to help much if we run in to the dogs.”
As far as they knew, no one still lived on the street they took to the shopping center. Most of the families had moved to places in the foothills north of town where there was more land to grow food and keep their animals. That didn’t mean there weren’t dangers still lurking behind the boarded up windows and broken doors of the houses they passed. In the past, the two had encountered packs of dogs turned wild, having been abandoned by their owners. The shepherds, collies and other large dogs may as well have been wolves for how they acted toward people, and it was always best to avoid going near them.
More dangerous still were the strange men and women that would sometimes wander in to town. They would come on foot or horseback, their faces tight with hunger, in search of supplies, asking if anyone had any news, but no one ever did. Codie and Blake were not allowed to talk to these people on their own but they’d been there when their father or Aaron had coldly informed the strangers that there was nothing here for them and they would have to be on their way.
The sun was at the peak of the dingy brown sky by the time the two reached the empty parking lot of the shopping center. Codie looked at the apathetic orange disc above them and wiped a bit of sweat from her forehead. In the
still afternoon air, the leaves of elm that the two siblings stood under hung sickly from their branches. Codie turned to her brother and pressed her finger to her lips, making a gesture toward her eye and then to the lot that stretched out before them.
Blake, pleased with himself for having remembered what the signal meant, briefly forgot his worries and began scanning every detail of the scene ahead. The broken plate glass windows, overturned shopping carts, and the crooked letters of forgotten store names stared back with indifference, silent as a stranger’s memory.
“I think it’s safe,” he whispered though he knew that was probably a lie and the two siblings crept out from the shade of the old elm tree like they were stalking a weary animal. The steel frame of the entrance to The Store was scraped and bent. It had been so long since the glass had been kicked out that most of the remaining shards had been scattered. Codie looked through the opening to the cavernous interior beyond, lit only by a few sky lights high in the ceiling above. Satisfied that the coast was clear she stepped through the small square space and disappeared in to the murky blackness.
A sudden spike of fear shot through Blake’s spine and for an instant he considered running, though he knew Codie would never forgive him if he did. He tried to convince himself that Codie would be fine without him and that it would be better for both of them if he got back to the house to tell Aaron or his father what Codie had made them do. But in the end his shame overcame his fear and he stepped through the door and in to the dark.
Too afraid to call out, Blake tried to listen for signs of his sister. His footsteps made a soft tapping sound on the tile floor as he walked down the aisles, emptied of their contents. As he reached a row of cases with glass doors he stopped in hopes that his sister’s footsteps would be near by. He was about to give up and call Codie’s name when something caught his eye from underneath the shelves beside him. Getting down on all fours he reached in to the grimy, hidden space and felt the hard corner of a thin cardboard box. His pulse quickened as he pulled the box out and held it up to the dim light. Smiling up at him from the slick blue box cartoon tiger wearing a red scarf. Blake’s disappointment that he hadn’t been able to uncover one of Codie’s “chosen” boxes was overcome by his curiosity. In their explorations they’d found a number different artifacts of the old world but he’d never seen this one before. He wiped the dust away from the label. Frosted Flakes.
The spell of the blue box was broken by a piercing scream that echoed through the aisles around Blake. “Codie!” he shouted as he dropped the box and stumbled deeper in to the gloom. As he reached end of the aisle he tripped, landing hard on the side of his face, the palms of his hands stinging as they smacked the cold, dirty tile. Barely holding back tears, Blake looked up to see the outstretched foot of a man, illuminated by a small camping lantern. The dim yellow glow cast long, menacing shadows over a grim, weathered face and hand that tightly covered the mouth of Blake’s sister as she struggled in vain to free herself.
“Oh, look at this,” hissed the man through a mouth full of broken, rotting teeth, “another friend has come to join us.”
The man sneered as he started to inch toward Blake slowly, careful not to lose his grip on his captive. Dumb with terror, Blake tried to slide himself away from the danger, unable to pick his body off the floor. The man stood up to his full height and towering over Blake, reached his free hand out to grab the boy’s leg. As he took hold of Blake’s ankle, the man let out a sharp angry cry.
“You little bitch!” he screamed as he lurched backward trying to free his finger from the painful, bloody snare of Codie’s teeth. Writhing in agony the man tossed Codie like a rag doll in to the metal shelves on the wall beside him. Her body fell to the floor motionless and the man descended on her with almost inhuman speed.
Blake tried to make sense of what was happening. He felt like he was trapped underwater, his limbs sluggish and stupid. Trying to clear his head he closed his eyes and put his hands down to steady himself. As his fingers reached the floor beneath him, a familiar form took shape under his palm. He looked down in to his hand and saw, in the fading light of the lantern, Codie’s knife.
Blake unfolded the blade from its handle as if he’d done it one hundred times before and got to his feet. Looking over, Blake saw the man hitting Codie, his fists like hammers crashing in to her face again and again. As Blake walked forward, the sounds of each impact grew softer as the world around him fell away from his mind. In the remaining tunnel of his vision, Blake saw the figure of the man frozen as he plunged the knife’s rusted blade in to the man’s neck. What happened next did so in silence.
The sun was setting over the rolling purple hills when Codie awoke. She grimaced at the rattling noise that was crashing through her throbbing head. Opening her eyes she realized that the noise was coming from the shopping cart she was lying in. Tilting her head up she looked at the upside down image of her brother pushing the cart down the center of a wide, empty street. Looking back down she saw, on her chest, a shiny blue cardboard box with a smiling orange tiger on it. She lifted the box and with her un-swollen eye, she examined the label. After a minute she set the box back down and whispered, “impostor.”