We found the church three days after we lost Dick, buried in a copse of trees three miles south of the city. Looked like nobody had been there for weeks, but in this world, best not to take chances. I went in first, keeping Jamie behind me.
“Remember, you see someone, you run,” I said, keeping a firm hand on the pistol I’d picked up two weeks ago scavenging in LA. It’d been a lucky find—fully loaded, well kept. It was maybe half-full now.
She nodded, her chin steady, eyes bright. “You got it Mom. But you’d better be right behind me.”
I would’ve laughed at that three days ago. Now I just nodded back, and slowly opened the door. It creaked, squealing on rusted hinges. Still, the wood felt strong.
We’d been right. The place was deserted. Fifteen rows of pews, a plain altar, a few statues of Saints I couldn’t remember the name of. The only sign that anything bad had happened here was the broken crucifix—Jesus had been torn off the cross and chopped apart, lying decapitated at the foot of the dais. Still, judging by the thick layer of dust, it had been some time ago. We walked in.
“I think this is it. We can hole up here for a couple days, maybe longer. Not many windows, several exits, plenty of wood, a good roof, isolated—I like it.”
Jamie nodded absently, walking up the aisle to the altar. She stopped at Jesus, then kicked him out of the way before climbing up on top of the altar and laying down on it. “What about food?”
I took my backpack off and opened it, counting out the items even though I’d already memorized how many we had. “Seven cans of baked beans, two oranges, one jar of peanut butter, beef jerky, a Snickers bar, and five bottles of Aquafina.”
“A week’s worth, if we push it,” Jamie said, rolling off the altar and crouching underneath it.
“Yeah. And then we’ll be out, so we’ll have to be gone before then,” I said, walking slowly towards her. “We can’t stay here.”
Jamie sat back heavily, bumping against the floor. “No, Mom, I know that, it’s just—did you hear that?”
I stopped. “What?” I took the safety off the pistol. Jamie’s thirteen year old ears were sharper than mine at thirty-three, and they’d already saved us several times before. Last time I’d forgotten to listen to her was three days ago.
She waved her hand at me frantically. “No, no, no, nothing bad. Just listen.” She lifted herself up a bit and fell back on the floor again, thudding against the floorboards.
I frowned. “Jamie… what…?”
She sighed, and then rapped her hand against the ground. “Don’t you hear it? The ringing?”
I listened harder as she did it again. “So there’s some space between the floor and the ground. Big deal.”
She sighed again. “Can we just check it out? C’mon, Mom, help me find out what’s underneath this!”
I was the one to sigh this time. “Fine, whatever.” I walked up, and crouched underneath the altar, looking for where the cracks were between the boards. Come to think of it, the floorboards did seem pretty loose around here…aha. I motioned for Jamie to move out of the way, then jammed my hand in between two of the floor’s sections, leveraging up a piece of wood one yard square.
“Holy.” That was Jamie behind me, peering over my shoulder as I moved the piece of wood out of the way. “Who put this here?”
I shook my head in disbelief. “I have no idea.” There was a steel ladder beneath us, stretching down into blackness. There was a light switch at the top—I switched it on.
“Holy shit.” That was me, unfortunately. Jamie giggled a bit, her lips curled in a grin. There was a room thirty feet below us, warehouse size. Half of it was filled with cans of who knows what and thirty-packs of bottled water. A few slabs of dried out meat hung from the ceiling. “Jackpot.” There was even a generator in the corner—explained the light—and what looked like a little portable stove and gallons of kerosene. Barrels of the stuff.
“C’mon Mom let’s get down there!” Jamie squealed in excitement, trying to push past me. I held her tightly.
“Hold up. We don’t know if that ladder will support either of us. Let me go down first, then you can follow.” I switched the safety back on my gun, handed it to her. “Keep an eye out.”
I slowly descended, feeling for loose bars. Solid. I reached the floor—hard concrete, and then motioned for Jamie to come down. She scampered monkey-like down the bars, reaching the bottom in ten seconds flat, whooping in excitement.
“Mom… this is it. We’ve found it.” Her face was so bright, so full of excitement. “This can be our sanctuary.”
I looked around warily. “Maybe. It’s a little too perfect.”
Her face fell. “You’re right. Someone else should have found it before us.”
“If we can find it, others certainly can,” I said, motioning for the pistol back. She gave it grudgingly. “We’re not gonna be here when that happens.”
“How long then?” she asked, her grey eyes filled with hope.
I looked back at her, wanting to say a month, a year. But I couldn’t. “Two weeks. No more.”
She nodded, her mouth set. “I get it. Let me get our stuff.” She started up the ladder again.
I caught her. “No… stay here. I’ll get our stuff. You take it easy.”
She smiled. “Can I have some of the food they’ve got?”
I nodded, smiling back for the first time in three days. “Yeah. Make us a feast.”
She laughed in excitement, running towards the piles of food. I climbed up the ladder and got our belongings. We were going to be here a while, and I was fine with that. That night, we had our first real meal in three weeks—a full can of beans to ourselves, and the delicacy of a can of Pepsi that we shared. That night, I slept steadily, and for the first time since we’d lost Dick, I didn’t wake up afraid.
* * *
About a week later, they came. I’d been sitting in the first pew, staring at the broken Jesus, just thinking about… I don’t know what I was thinking about. Probably nothing. It didn’t matter anyway, not after Jamie ran up and said—no, whispered—“Mom, I saw something.”
My head snapped up. I reached for my gun—maybe seven bullets left in it. “What?” I asked, keeping my voice low as I quietly got up and moved towards the altar.
“A man—maybe two,” she said, gesturing towards a window at the far end of the church. “I think one had a gun.”
I crouched down, keeping my head low, motioning for Jamie to do the same, and took the safety off. “You think or you know?”
Jamie stared hard at me, took a deep breath, and said, “I know.”
I stared back. Shit. I weighed the pistol in my hand again—was it six or seven shots? “Get down below the altar. Quietly.” Then I moved towards the window, keeping one eye on Jamie as she scampered towards our hiding place, another on the outside. Twilight’s a terrible time for surveillance—too many shadows, too little light.
Jamie lifted up the wood, then scurried down the ladder, her head disappearing after a moment. I breathed a little easier after that, then turned my full attention to the woods.
It was too dark out there. And quiet. Like the whole world was waiting to scream but holding its voice back for the perfect moment. And then that moment came.
Three men came out of the woods in front of the church. Two had pistols, another what looked like an AK-47. They were about a hundred yards away when I spotted them, moving slowly in. I steadied my hand from inside the church, figuring I could pop off a shot or two before they even noticed—take down the machine-gunner and finish off another one before the other had even moved. Then I’d pick him off as he ran away. I breathed in slowly, let it out, breathed in again, put my hand on the trigger, and—a flicker.
Something had moved in the corner of my right eye. I turned my head—two men coming down from the other side—two AK-47s. Another flicker—three on my left, two with pistols, one with some kind of machete. We were surrounded.
I swore silently to myself. No way out. I edged towards the altar, keeping low, making sure I was out of their line of sight. The three in front were only about fifty yards away—the two on the right and the three on the left maybe forty. I made it to the altar—thirty yards left. Down the first three rungs—twenty yards. Were they moving faster? Took the wood, put it over the covering—ten yards I think. Climbed down as softly as I could, Jamie staring at me with wide eyes. Then I heard them—creaks up above. They were in the church.
“How’d it go?” A hoarse, low voice. It sounded sick.
“Not bad. Got thirty tins of sardines from an abandoned home three days west of here, shot a deer, snared a couple rabbits. Some very generous tourists lent us their supply of oil, another pistol, and a working machete. Said they wouldn’t be needing them anymore,” said another low voice, this one rather oily, slick with charm. A chorus of rough laughter rang out at his last remark.
“We did good too,” said a higher voice, nervous. “Ten cans of beans, big—big cans, potatoes, home-grown, and some more beef jerky out of some warehouse. They were really generous too.” Nobody laughed that time.
The hoarse voice spoke again. “Beans? Potatoes? Beef Jerky?”
“Well, you see Jack, there weren’t a whole lot of others around,” the nervous one said. “We—we did our best!”
“Yes, Tom, you did your best,” said Jack, his voice tearing at the air. “Too bad it wasn’t good enough. The others can have your share.”
Tom cried out. “What? But—I—what’ll I do about—this isn’t—you can’t just treat a man like this, throw me out, after what I’ve—“
“Don’t worry Tom, we’re not throwing you out,” said Jack. A single shot rang out, followed by a groan. “Shouldn’t waste good food.” Tom didn’t say anything after that, but I felt something thud heavily against the floor. A few seconds later I saw something drip down onto a stack of tins.
“Take that worthless lump of meat out and butcher it,” said Jack. “Then bring it down below. Our supplies could use some replenishing.”
I froze. They knew. My eyes found the meat hanging above us, and I suddenly felt sick. We’d only been eating out of cans so far, but that was just because I wasn’t sure Jamie would’ve liked trying to eat smoked meat. Now I knew she wouldn’t have.
More creaks as the men dragged the body out of the room, followed by the floorboards bending above us as someone approached the altar. I pointed the gun up at the ceiling, right where the ladder touched the boards. Someone moved the piece of wood away from the top, and then poked his head in.
He kind of looked like Dick, in a rougher sort of way. Hadn’t shaved in weeks by my guess. Brown eyes. I watched as he looked down at us, his face widening in surprise, starting to open his mouth to cry for help. I pulled the trigger.
The bullet hit him in the chest, knocking him back a little. I saw his eyes widen, saw his body fall into the hole, heard the crack as his head hit the pavement. After was noise and confusion.
Running across the boards—thud, thud, thud. Another man, making sure to stay out of my line of sight, sprayed bullets into our hole. I covered Jamie with my body, squeezing off two shots into the boards. One must’ve hit its mark—the bullets stopped and the man toppled, vibrating the whole church when he fell.
Two more ran up the aisle, these ones spraying wildly into the floor. I don’t know how Jamie didn’t get hit, but I felt one rip into my leg, tearing through tendons and bone before denting the can right in front of me. Four shots left—I fired twice again. Somehow they connected—two more falls. But there were three left. And one was laughing.
It was the hoarse voice again—the one they called Jack. His laugh was as rasping as his voice, a wheezing cackle that seemed to fill the church with fevered madness.
“How many bullets do you have left?” he called. “One? Two? Not enough. And once you’re out, well, we still need to replenish our meat supply.” Then he laughed again. I couldn’t hear the others moving, didn’t know where they were. Apparently they’d figured out where I was though—at least, that’s what the bullet through my right shoulder said.
Two bullets left. Jamie looked at me—her eyes wide, filling with tears as she saw the blood well out of me. I felt another shell hit me in my left thigh. The blood that poured out of that one said some very bad things about my future. I looked at the kerosene—gallons of it, just waiting to be set ablaze. Then I looked at Jamie again. She was so young.
The man had kept laughing up the aisle. He crouched at the foot of the altar—his face handsome, clean-shaven. Probably fifty by now I’d guess from his graying hair and established crow’s feet. His eyes widened with glee as he saw me with Jamie. They were hungry eyes. Two shots left.
I lifted my pistol. Jamie looked at me and closed her eyes. So young. I stared up at the man again, saw him grinning with anticipation, saw him lick his lips, heard him tell me “I like them raw.” Then back at Jamie—her eyes were closed, she breathed slowly. She seemed… peaceful. I whispered to her as I pointed the gun at her temple: “I’ll be with you soon.”
I took the shot. Saw the man’s grin vanish, felt the blood spatter against my shirt. She was still so peaceful.
One shot left. I aimed, punctured the biggest barrel of kerosene I could see, and let the flames wash over me. I saw the man stagger back in terror, but the old wood caught fire fast. I felt my sanctuary crumble down, the floorboards crashing into the warehouse, embers falling on food and concrete alike.
I thought of Dick waiting for me, ten days ago, his face so open, sincere. He’d told me we were gonna find someplace safe, for Jamie and me, to just settle down and live like normal people again. I’d believed him. I felt Jamie beside me, already cold despite the warmth of the fire. She’d believed it too. As the church burned and my eyes closed, I died dreaming of peace.