The vehicle scrapyard located behind the garage on the road heading east out of New Flagstaff hid the sight, but not the sound,
of the four orphans of the apocalypse as they drove the rusting and burnt-out cars in imaginary chases.
Roaring engines, squealing brakes and the loud staccato of machine guns were, at least in the minds of the little gang generally known as the Reading Group,
being accurately reproduced to accompany their shared images of pursued and pursuers.
Currently, the one being pursued was Finny, and she was doing an excellent job of dodging the streams of bullets coming from the lovingly imagined wing-mounted machine guns on the rusted,
wheel-less relic being driven by Onetooth.
The gang's cars, like all the others piled high in precarious-looking stacks,
were waiting their turn to be converted into shards of steel by the enormous shredding machine which lurked in the far corner of the scrapyard; like a monster, resting after its last meal.
The fact that the four cars the kids were using, didn't face in the same direction, or even sat on the same level as each other, didn't detract from the chase at all.
As long as each eight or nine-year-old could hear the four-part running narrative, that was all that was needed.
The wildly vivid imaginations of a childhood that contained very few actual toys did the rest.
This latest chase concluded when Finny, who was getting thirsty from all the sound effects,
declared her car was spinning out of control and crashing it into one of the trees of the haunted forest she was being chased through.
A break was declared and Finny and the three boys, Casper, Onetooth and Worms, left their mounts and climbed onto the highest, most precariously balanced car in the scrap yard.
This was where Finny had stashed their meagre rations of broken biscuits, Union Candy, and bottled water to be mostly safe from the rats that infested the site.
Enough food, she hoped, to last them all until four ock-lockers, when tea and some sort of snack would be available back at the orphanage.
Scrapyards are wonderful places for kids to play in. A world of grown-up stuff you are generally not allowed to touch.
The combined smells of rust and oil and hot, sun-baked metal merge into an intoxicatingly inviting aroma the likes of which they won't know again until...
well, let's just say they are a lot older. Then there is the danger. Not the screaming panic-stricken fear of something trying to kill you, no.
This danger is the nerve-tingling exciting fear of being somewhere you know you are not supposed to be.
Of being somewhere that might just cause you serious injury if you misjudge a leap or brush against something sharp and jagged hidden in the thick tufts of tired grass.
And finally, besides the wonderful smells and the fear-tinged excitement, a scrapyard is a realm fenced off from the outside, it is an enclosed,
secret world of wonders where a kid can escape unkind reality and... just be.
Finny and co.
were 'just being' midway through another bakingly hot afternoon,
carefully sitting (with so much hot metal around you had to do it carefully) on the rusty brown bare steel of the shell of an old car.
Here, they sipped water and watched Union Candy slowly melt into hot, rust-flecked goo between their legs. Finny passed the hanky full of broken biscuits to Worms.
Worms didn't even look at, what was now little more than large crumbs, and shook his head.
Finny made a frowny, thoughtful kind of face. Kids seldom refused food. Orphans never did. Worms was both of these so Finny, as leader, was concerned. She tried again, with the water bottle.
Worms shook his head again. Finny had thought her friend had looked a bit glum all day.
Worms was ordinarily quiet, so she hadn't picked up on it quite as quickly as she would have done if it had been one of the others.
But now, as she looked closer, Finny could see that there was definitely something wrong.
Worms wasn't like the others. He was 'in' the gang, but not always part of it. Worms was more than happy with his own company, or just he and Onetooth would disappear together for the whole day.
Just as often, Finny and Casper and Onetooth would choose to play in the dump or explore the streets or do whatever; but Worms would decide not to go with them and would wander off,
hands in pockets to do something on his own. Today, though, he had tagged along with them to the scrappy.
But now, Finny was realising, the four-way narrative of the car chases had mostly been just three-way. Worms hadn't really been getting into the spirit of the thing.
Finny took a swig from the bottle, ignoring the bits of biscuit that already swilled around in the water. She used this action to look more closely at Worms.
The eight-year-old's normally sallow complexion was even yellower than usual, and there was a sheen of sweat along his top lip. As she looked, Worms shivered.
It was thirty degrees, bare skin burned if it touched the metal roof of the car they were sitting on... but Worms was shivering.
Finny was nine.
But she'd seen enough sick kids, both in The Borough when she had been little and at the orphanage,
to know that Worms had more than just something a spoonful of whatever it was that the nurse kept in the big brown bottle could fix.
Real sickness amongst the hardy orphans was actually quite rare.
But, once or twice, she and everyone else in the dorm had pretended to be asleep while, around one of the beds,
the urgent whispers of the grown-ups eventually led to silence and an ominously rolled-up mattress in the morning.
Just then, Worms doubled over, both arms wrapped around his middle, and groaned. Finny felt her mouth go dry and a cold flush of panic tingle down from her scalp.
Nevertheless, she had to do something. Keeping the fear out of her voice, she turned to Casper and Onetooth.
"Hey, guys? I don't think Worms is feeling very well."
The two boys looked up from their game of seeing who's spit sizzled away to nothing first. They looked first at Finny, then to Worms and finally back to their leader.
Finny forced a smile and, nodding as she spoke, said;
"I think we better go back an' take him to the nurse."
Behind the smile, Casper saw in Finny's eyes that her words weren't a suggestion. Onetooth, however, hadn't picked up on this.
He leaned across and treated Worms to a hard stare and a poke on the arm.
"Nah. He's just feeling sick 'coz of the sun. He dun't play out as much as we do." Onetooth sat back and took the bottle out of Finny's hand. "Give him some water.
" He held the bottle out to his friend. Worms tried to sit up but almost immediately crouched over his arms again and let out another long groan. Onetooth looked at Finny.
Finny put a hand on Onetooth's knee.
"We gotta get him back, okay?"
Getting Worms down off the high pile of rusty cars had been hard work.
He seemed barely able to move, and he kept groaning and twice Finny had had to get angry at either Casper or Onetooth because both boys were scared that Worms was going to upchuck on them.
Finally, though, Worms was down off the pile and was now curled up in a ball at their feet.
The increased shivering and the growing lack of response from their friend were also starting to drive home to the three of them that Worms was probably the veriest sick they knew.
Finny also realised that they weren't just going to be able to walk all the way back to the orphanage. She doubted Worms even had the strength to get out of the scrapyard under his own steam.