Chapter 9

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"Alex?"

"Alex?"

A shove on the shoulder prompted Alex and he opened his eyes. Realizing that he must've fallen asleep, he jumped to his feet and took aim at the empty space before him.

"What! What is it!"

"Nuthin'," said Henry.

"We just wanted to make sure you were okay," added Annabelle.

Henry nodded. "Yeah, so we woke you up."

"Where are we?" questioned Alex.

"You said it's a shed," said Henry. "There's a bunch of tools and stuff."

"A garage," corrected Annabelle.

Alex stood and studied the shadowy corners of the garage. Hanging from the wall were a shovel, pitchfork and two rakes, one steel, one leaf. There was a pair of pruning shears lying atop a few bags of top soil. A gold car was the lone vehicle, although the structure had enough space for two.

"Did I search it?" asked Alex. "I can't remember."

Annabelle nodded. "Yep."

"You sure?" questioned Alex.

"We all did," replied Henry.

Alex's attention was drawn to the car, half-covered by a gray tarp. It was familiar, he had seen it before. He moved to the driver's side door and stooped, wiping away the dust from the window. Inside he found what he expected to – an orange, tree-shaped air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror. This was Mo's car. He walked to the open garage door and stared at Mo's house.

Mo...

Who was Mo?

Someone from Alex's past. He had been at this house before, but he couldn't place a face with the name.

Sunset was close. They needed to get going. He turned to the twins. "Backpacks. We're leaving."

*********

Coasting into the parking lot, Alex brought the bike to a halt and walked it to the side of the building, behind a fenced-off area where the dumpsters were kept. Womack's grocery store was but a shell of its former self. The W and O had long ago fallen from the façade and cracks in the pavement had given way to wild grass and weeds. Old rusted bits of metal littered the ground.

Alex climbed atop the chain-link enclosure and surveyed the area.

"Careful, Alex," warned Annabelle, with great concern.

Henry patted her on the shoulder and then stepped toward the fence. "Don't worry, if he falls, I'll catch him."

"I'm fine, guys. Just looking around," Alex assured them.

When he was confident they were alone, he led the twins from the fence to a cluster of pine trees and searched again. Then they crossed the small parking lot.

The children followed closely behind Alex as they rounded the front corner of the store. The automatic doors didn't work, so Alex forced them open, which to his dismay created more noise than he would've preferred. Shafts of gold light streamed through a few windows whose boards had fallen loose. It was dim, but not enough to require a flashlight. Except for being somewhat dusty, the place was surprisingly well-kept; it almost seemed plausible that it was still in use.

Annabelle held Henry's hand with her right, while her left clung to the belt loop in Alex's jeans. Their older brother strafed along the front of the store, just past the two check-out lanes in order to have a clear view down each of the five aisles. Once he was sure each of these was clear, he and the twins moved to the rear of the store. Here, they encountered duel glass enclosures that Alex guessed had once stored deli meats on one side, and a butcher's section on the other.

The three passed through an old-fashioned waist-high swinging door that separated the deli from the rest of the store. Unfortunately, the door produced a creak that seemed amplified in the otherwise absolute silence. Alex paused, believing he had heard shuffling. The sudden halt spooked the children and Annabelle tightened her grip on the belt loop.

Alex swung the rifle in a circle, rescanning the aisles he had already confirmed as clear. But of course, he had left the front door open as a possible exit in the event they had to flee. This also left no obstacle for anyone – or anything - that wished to follow them into the store.

After a minute had passed without any sound other than their own breathing, Alex continued the search, passing through the swinging door and into a back-storage area, partitioned from the deli by a heavy, plastic curtain. Here it was necessary to switch on the flashlight, which was fastened to the underside of the rifle's barrel by several strips of duct tape. Shadows of cardboard boxes and crates were slapped against the wall and Alex flinched at their wavering forms. Annabelle released a whimper and wrapped her arm around Alex's leg.

The big brother swept left and right with the beam, then stepped farther into the storage room. It was empty.

"It's okay. We're alone."

After leading the twins back to the main area of the store, he dropped to one knee and brought Henry and Annabelle closer. "Okay, you remember what to do: I'll keep watch while you two look underneath the shelves for any cans of food that might've rolled under. Okay?"

Alex stood up, rifle at the ready while the twins conducted their search. The first aisle produced no results, but on the second, Henry burst upright holding a can of corn and cried, "I found sumthin!"

"You'll have to pay for that, you know."

Alex turned on his heels and jabbed the rifle toward the store's front entrance and came face to face with a man. He almost pulled the trigger. "Stay where you are!" The man slowly raised both hands in the air. "Guys, get over here!"

Annabelle darted to Alex's side, but Henry stood frozen by fear. The can fell from his hand and rolled forward, bumping to a stop against the checkout lane. His mouth agape, the boy's eyes were wide and filled with dread.

Alex stepped forward and pulled Henry back several feet. The man bent down and grabbed the can and held it at arm's length. Alex locked eyes with him, his heart thundering. The man's eyes were deeply set, with dark circles beneath. His skin appeared rough and leathery. He had a wiry gray beard with what looked like blades of browned grass jutting out here and there. The more Alex stared, the more he was sure the blades weren't just stuck in the beard, but a part of it.

"It's alright," said the man, setting the canned corn on the check-out counter. "You can take it. This is my store."

Alex hesitated, then grabbed the can and quickly backed away. "Can you spare it?"

The man nodded.

"I can't pay you for it, but I can trade something."

"Alright," said the man. "I'm Ernie." He held out his hand, then retracted it. "Don't worry, I wouldn't shake yours, either. Can't tell what people are carrying these days." Ernie walked behind the counter and reached low for something.

"Easy!" warned Alex. "If you come up with a weapon, I'm shooting!"

Ernie shook his head. "No weapon. Just a camera." He placed a polaroid on the counter. "You may take the corn in return for a picture."

"A picture?" asked Alex. The twins glanced at Alex, then at the man, then back at Alex.


"That's it," said Ernie.


*********

Ernie had taken the photo and while Alex and the twins left the store, they saw him taping it to the front window so that it faced toward the interior. Alex buckled Henry and Annabelle in the side car and started the bike. In the late afternoon sun, Ernie waved goodbye. 


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