Glass crunches under my black and white sneakers. I look down and see the worn label of “Sippy’s Cola” bandaging the glass shards of a crushed soda bottle. I turn to face him. The light of the midday sun highlights his curly red hair, which is extra bushy in the dry January air. He’s pointing to something ahead of us.
I follow his hand, now pointing towards one of the dozen buildings that line the main road into Cyprus, Kansas, a town with a single gas station, home to nothing but ghosts and the occasional mutant, like most towns these days. Behind one of these buildings is the key to my my freedom, to Syd’s freedom, a working food truck where we can cook quality meals, unlike the gruel served in the Silo kitchens, or the poison from Paddy’s. Poison that killed three of my friends.
“Is that the place?” he says.
“You tell me. You have the map,” I say.
“You said a bowling alley, right? That has to be the place. About time too, my feet are killing me.”
“Just look at the map.”
Syd sets down the bright red 5 gallon gas container and reaches for the back of his jeans. A small rectangular indentation, white and worn, protrudes from the blue denim pocket where he keeps his Zippo lighter. He produces a worn and folded map and unfolds it. His finger traces the roads we walked from the Silo, to our current location, and then to the bowling alley, our destination. A ten mile journey, all on foot by highway across the vast Kansas plains.
“Lucky Strike Bowling Alley. Fourth building on the left between 3rd street and Jackson,” he says.
He looks up at the cluster of retail stores a quarter mile up the street. One of the small brick buildings is a bakery. My heart lights up and I can almost smell puff pastries filled with fruit and hear the crunch of freshly baked bread. I’ll make both one day.
I narrow my vision and study the bowling alley for any signs of movement. We can’t get too close. Mutants prefer to congregate in population centers, because buildings make great nesting locations. I hope we don’t run into trouble, because things will get ugly, fast. We left in a hurry and only brought what we could fit in our backpacks. That, and enough fuel to get us somewhere safe.
I make out the shape of six bowling pins mashed together to form a sign that stands forty feet tall on the far side of the building, peeking between the canopies of two dead oak trees. The letters faded long ago, but I know we’ve arrived. The food truck is here somewhere. The first step in our plan.
“That’s the place. The truck is parked in an alley on the back side of the building,” I say. “There’s a grocery store right behind it. Looted, likely.”
“You ever wonder if Paddy knows we took his map?” he says.
“He’ll find out soon enough. Speaking of, we need to look for weapons. We’re not getting ripped apart on our first day out here.”
“What about our chef knives?”
“It’s bad luck to taint a blade with mutant blood. Besides, we need those for cooking. Especially if we have to run back to the safety of the Silo.”
“But we’re going to make it on our own, right?”
“We’ll try. We might go back for trading or selling meals, but that’s it. Now look around for something to swing, there has to be something.”
“A shotgun would be nice.”
“We’ll get you one. First we have to get this truck. Everything else comes after.”
“You’re a good friend, Fanny.”
Syd’s face grows into a wide grin. He tucks away the map, reaches up, and brushes my head, over the 4 inch scar he gave me one year ago when a knife slipped out of his hands on the line. We’ve been friends ever since.
I slap his hand away and grab his shoulder.
“Okay, mushy. Time to get serious,” I say.
His smile fades.
I grab onto his left arm and drag him along, keeping him close as we venture onwards.
We pass dozens of resting cars. Most have busted windows and popped trunks. All of them have flat tires.
We approach the front of the Lucky Strike Bowling Alley, but stop before entering the front parking lot. There’s a dozen cars scattered about, some tipped over. The front of a lifted red Ford truck is t-boned into an older model yellow Cadillac sedan parked closest to the road. A mass of green leaves and vines creep through the cracked asphalt parking lot and up the sides of both vehicles.
The bowling alley is a single story brick building with a dull yellow overhang. The interior is pitch black through the entrance, a pair of glass double doors in the front. There’s a black sign with bold red letters stuck to the other side of the front doors that reads “Open.”
“Clear so far. Let’s check the alley.”
We round the corner, between the bowling alley and a hardware store to our left. We reach the alley, but it’s barricaded with a thick metal chain link fence secured with sheet metal on the other side, obscuring our vision. Thick barbed wire protects the top.
Syd walks up and kicks the fence. It rattles.
“What now?” he says.
“Hop up on my shoulders. See what’s on the other side,” I say.
“You’re not that strong,” he says.
“Stronger than you, twerp. Now hop on.”
I position myself in front of the fence, squat down, and secure my feet. Syd hops on my shoulders. He’s not much thicker than a skeleton, but I’m caught off by the momentum of the added weight from his pack. I struggle to keep from toppling forward as he secures his legs on my shoulders. I clench the tops of his knees and slowly rise. I wobble for a moment before finding my balance.
“Hey, careful down there,” he says.
“I got it. What do you see?” I say.
He turns to face the alley.
“Shit, there it is. Paddy had it right.”
My heart jumps. “What’s it look like? Do you see a way inside?” I say.
“There it is. It’s actually there, I can’t believe it. Looks like the tires are flat. The other side is blocked like this one, but the back door to the bowling alley is open.”
This truck is the first step in opening our mobile restaurant. We need this truck if we want to have any chance of competing with that slime ball, Paddy, and his goon squad of masked cooks. He’s secured a monopoly on the mobile food business over the last five years, but it’s time for a change. He has no respect for food. We’ll run him out of business. Soon he’ll have served his last mutant meat burger. But first we’re going to secure this truck. Then we’ll fill it with equipment, and eventually fresh ingredients. Paddy, that clown, doesn’t stand a chance against what we’re going to serve. Food made with love and fresh ingredients.
“Hey wait. I see something,” says Syd. “Something’s moving around in there. Wait, there it goes!”
There’s a crash followed by a scurrying of feet and some sliding.
“Little sucker went into the bowling alley.”
“What was it?”
“It was black and white but I didn’t get a good look with you wobbling around.”
I bend down and Syd hops off.
“Well, hopefully it’s nothing,” I say. “We can’t risk getting cut up so we’re going inside. Let’s see if we can find that back door.”
“I don’t like it.”
I wander over to the front of the hardware store on the other side of us, a dozen feet away, and search the ground. Among the broken glass from the windows, and dead weeds, I find a hammer. It’s completely rusted with a black rubber grip. I yank it out, walk over, and hand it to Syd.
He snatches it from my hand.
“It’s no shotgun, but I’ll make it work,” he says. “What about you?”
“I’ll find something.”
We walk around and stand in front of the two glass doors leading into the bowling alley. Light trickles inside, and I can make out a red and white checkered floor, covered in dead leaves. I can’t see anything beyond that. I try to listen for movement, but there’s nothing. I hear something rustling, but look behind me and see it’s a pile of leaves shifting in the wind.
I grasp the metal handle and push. It slides a couple of inches and grinds to a halt. I force it the rest of the way open.
I step inside.
As we pin the doors open with some stones, feet scurry through leaves just ahead of us. I look over and see Syd clinching his hammer.
I might have to sully my knife after all.