Taking Into Account
Jeremy pinched a coin between his fingers and then slipped it into his pocket. He had spotted a girl in the woods picking berries. He saw her from the second floor bedroom, the one with the busted-out windows. She had a light blue jacket on that kept snagging on the grey branches around her. It looked too small.
Jeremy bolted down the stairs, feet and heart pounding, grabbing the bannister at the landing to reverse his direction and slingshot down the hallway to the back door. He had to meet her before she vanished into the pale brush. Children were skittish.
Jeremy crushed piles of dead leaves under his boots in a noisy mess. She had fluffy earmuffs on to protect her from the bitter wind and he had to take advantage. He closed in on her from the direction she came from—deeper in the woods—to block her escape path. As he approached, breaking branches along the way, she turned and looked up at him. They kept eye contact for a few seconds. She had blue eyes and brown hair and looked closer to puberty than the now so fragile childhood. She tried hard to hold back her fear. Jeremy knew from this distance she wouldn’t make it far if she ran.
“You can’t eat those berries, you know,” he told her.
“I know. I just like collecting them.” She had a squeaky voice.
“I like your earmuffs.”
“Thank you.” She deposited the red berries into her coat pocket and took off the muffs. “Aren’t you cold?”
Jeremy zipped up his jacket to cover the stained undershirt beneath. “No. Nope. It’s nights that I get cold. Daytime I feel fine. So, do you have a name?”
She glanced down and clutched the berry-pocket.
“Then I’ll call you berry-picker.”
“My name’s Lacey.” She smiled.
“That’s a cute name.”
“Are you lost? Need help?”
“No. But I can’t say where I live. She says it’s dangerous out here.”
“Oh yeah it’s dangerous. Especially if you’re alone, like me. Have to scavenge everything.”
Lacey hugged her coat tight. “We have to scavenge too.”
“Hold it! Don’t move! I need to see your hands!”
Jeremy slowly raised his hands. He caught sight of a woman to his left aiming a rifle at him from a distance she probably couldn’t hit him at. Lacey also raised her hands and tilted her head to see the woman better.
The woman trotted up the woods and Jeremy turned to face her. She heaved in her breathing and coughed often. She had run here and sucked in all that dry air.
“Move away from her,” she ordered from the gun’s sights. “Lacey come here. Quickly.”
Jeremy noticed plastic mold lines running down the barrel of the rifle. It looked very light in the way it moved, her skinny arms had no trouble holding it steady.
He said his name was Jeremy. It was hard to believe him. He looked like a complete bum. A wiry thick beard and a coat stained to a brownish-grey. But everyone looked like a bum, even she did. Bridget hadn’t bathed with soap in almost a week. Even Lacey radiated waves of body odor.
Snapping twigs and rustling leaves through the skeletal woods they trekked back to what Bridget called home now. She rested her rifle over her shoulder. Jeremy seemed to have bought into it. Good thing she found black spray paint to cover up the orange tip on the end of the barrel. She had Lacey pat him down for weapons and he had one knife. She let Lacey keep it.
Or maybe she really was too untrustworthy. Jeremy fought hard to come home with them, pleading with her not to leave him in the woods alone. He promised food, lots of food, and asked for a sign of trust to follow him into the house where he had shelves full of canned soup. They could fill up their backpacks with them and work together for resources. Bridget agreed to follow him into the house, first telling Lacey to stay outside and run home if anything went wrong. But it turned out Jeremy told the truth. He had only more knives for weapons in the house, said guns were a liability if he encountered a group. They crammed their backpacks with soup, beans, corn and peaches and headed out. Bridget made Jeremy walk ahead of her and Lacey, giving directions from behind on where to go. His bulging backpack and straps clawed into his shoulders at every crunching step.
“So where is your home?” he asked.
“These questions are not helping your case.”
“I feel like a blind man out here, not knowing what I’m headed for.”
“Yes, and I caught you approaching a little girl while she was alone.”
“She’s not a little girl. Nowadays you grow up fast. She should be able to deal with things herself.” Jeremy glanced back and then scanned the sloping woods. A few houses were in sight. There was very little wildlife left, no birds to lighten the mood with their chirping. They had been hunted to near extinction.
“Why did you send the girl out here alone then?”
Because she didn’t. Lacey snuck off when she took a break from hauling water.
“I let her play in the woods sometimes, this time she roamed too far. I started to feel something was wrong. She’s my little sister. There’s no such thing as being over-protective these days.”
Jeremy nodded. “Where’s the rest of your family? There’s still a lot of family units out here.”
“We got separated early on. I can only hope that they are still alive. And you?”
Jeremy took a few paces before answering. Bridget could only see his back, couldn’t read him.
“Yeah, I’m in the same boat as you.”
In less than a few minutes they reached home. A collection of upscale houses spread on a wooded slope, all branching from the same private drive. The concrete road forded a creek and snaked up to another street. During the green seasons the houses would be well-hidden in the foliage but now they popped out like medieval castles long forgotten.
“This is it, huh?”
“I got lucky when I found this,” Bridget said. Her hands trembled and the rifle shook. She had passed a point of no return by showing him their home. Lacey hovered close to her and bit her bottom lip in a smile.
They walked on the drive over the creek, the houses growing larger. One house had a chunk missing, a stray artillery shell, maybe. Another had burned to ashes. Saplings and honeysuckle had shot up from its mangled foundation. They now clung to their remaining leaves, as did the vegetation in the yards. Cars in driveways rusted on their rims. Bridget planned a garden for the spring. If Jeremy proved reliable, she could use the help.
“Do you get many visitors, looters?”
“No, we’re in a gap. The creek is the main water source around here but no one goes searching near it, too afraid of running into somebody else. Everybody makes water runs at night, when we’re locked up inside. Then we’re free out here during the day.”
“Sweet. How long you been here?”
“Awhile. Just Lacey and me. Trying to survive. Looking for something better.”
“Yeah I help,” Lacey said.
Jeremy looked down at her. “I bet you do most of the work.”
Lacey shook her head, eyes squeezed shut.
“This close to winter the sun comes down fast,” Jeremy said, eyeing the dull circle sinking behind the trees. “Which house do you sleep in?”
“That one.” Bridget pointed to one further up the slope. “But you’ll be sleeping in this close one. There’s water stocked in the basement and some blankets too. If you try to enter our house, or I don’t find you inside your house tomorrow morning, I will consider you a threat, you got that?”
“Why can’t he stay with us?” Lacey asked.
“I’ll explain it to you when we get inside and get everything locked up, OK?”
“Alright, another test, can’t be too careful,” Jeremy said. “So we’ll talk things over tomorrow?”
Bridget tucked Lacey into bed. Their bed was a mattress in the attic. Bridget pulled up the stairs leading to the attic and crawled over by the window, flattening the bedsheet hanging over it to block out the fading light. Sliding into bed next to Lacey, keeping her head low under the rafters, Bridget kissed her on the forehead. Lacey grimaced, let out an “eww” and rolled away from Bridget. Bridget placed her air rifle under the covers next to her and rested her hand on Lacey’s tousled hair.
Bridget eased the basement door open, rifle at the ready. Down there candlelight twisted on the walls. “Lacey. Are you down here?” She had seen enough TV shows to feel sick at what might have happened to her. Little girls were the most vulnerable when things fell apart.
“She’s right here she’s fine.”
Bridget rushed down the stairs, almost tripping and knocking the rifle out of her arms; if this was a trap she’d fight to her last breath.
Around a column and there was Lacey, fully clothed and standing on the unfinished basement floor. Jeremy put his hands up from his sleeping bag.
“Lacey what happened?”
“I’m sorry I left the attic when you were asleep.” She stared at her ragged shoes.
“I heard knocking on a window so I let her in,” Jeremy said. “Thought if I escorted her back you’d take me as a threat, so I stayed in here. She came here and wanted to ask why guys are so hairy. She said you wouldn’t go into it.”
Bridget looked at Lacey. “Is Jeremy telling the truth?”
Lacey nodded. “Will Jeremy get to stay?”
“Go upstairs and wait for me. We have some grown-up talking to do.”
Lacey ran up, shoes clonking on the steps, and they heard the basement door shut behind her.
“Why do I always find you with Lacey? If you ever touch her—” Bridget didn’t need to finish the sentence. She still had her gun aimed.
“Here’s a sign of trust—Lacey’s sister. I knew that gun was a toy when you threatened me with it in the woods. I played along to see what you could do. And now you threaten me again, after spending a night with me nearby and a morning without Lacey who you’ve lost track of twice already, and I’ve done nothing. I still have my arms up. I have knives and a hatchet, if I wanted to hurt Lacey you would’ve already failed. Most people know how to spot a fake gun now. It’s a bad tactic.”
Bridget let the gun down, hanging by her side. The cold basement air chilled her neck. She wished she still had long hair.
“Dammit. Sorry. All I’ve done is lie to you, and you’ve told the truth.”
“Yeah, we’ve all got paranoia. What’s your name?”
“Bridget. She’s not my sister. I found her playing at a swing-set not long ago. Completely alone.”
“You know why I talked to Lacey in the woods?” Jeremy asked. He shifted in his sleeping bag. “I haven’t talked to anybody else in three weeks. I’ve been roaming this neighborhood for months, alone. Nobody wants to talk to each other. Groups terrified of other groups. Loners like me are avoided cause they’re seen as dangerous. We’re all too afraid. So it was weird, sleeping in these nice big houses I have all to myself. Whole lot of emptiness. Least you got Lacey.”
Bridget sat down. She hadn’t eaten since before hauling water yesterday. All of that food Jeremy gave her and she forgot to eat it. Couldn’t even realize what the food meant. That was his stock for winter, could’ve kept it all to himself. Now it was theirs.
Jeremy weaseled out of the sleeping bag. He was in his twenties, probably younger than her. “If the groups around here could team up, pool their resources, we could have something. Settle in one place, farm, protect each other. You know, start new and fresh instead of scrounging like parasites off the old. I don’t know how to do it but I’d like to. Have you run into anybody recently?”
“No. I see them sometimes and they might see me but we stay apart. I’ve got Lacey and that’s enough. I don’t want interactions. You just forced my hand yesterday.”
“Never let her wear earmuffs. There’s another tip. She couldn’t hear me coming up to her.”
“I tell her not to but she won’t listen.”
“How old is she? She looks almost like a teenager.”
“Twelve, I think. There’s something wrong with her. She does seem to act young for her age.”
“Yeah. She sounded like a little kid.”
“All of this change, maybe she had to see some rough things, made her regress. Trauma can do that to kids.” Bridget really didn’t know. She thought it was a phase of shock, acting so childlike, or a ploy to get adults to protect her. But it hadn’t worn off. Lacey seemed resistant to snapping back to a more mature young woman. She was on the cusp of puberty in a world ripped apart at the seams.
Jeremy stood up and yawned. He had slept fully dressed, including socks. His backpack slouched against the sleeping bag.
“We have food for the winter and can find more. Hunker down and teach Lacey some things. When spring comes we try to unite with another group. So, you’ll let me stay here then?”
“Yeah, yes, definitely. Thank you so much.”
Water dripped somewhere nearby. The foundation was already starting to go. Bridget would have to find another place to store clean water.
“I’m starving. Are you hungry?” Jeremy pulled a knife from his pocket and something small and metallic chimed on the floor.
“You still carry change?”
Jeremy dug in his pocket and pulled out more coins, holding them out for her to see. “They’re old coins. I was rummaging through a house and found a big coin collection in one of the closets. Spent a whole afternoon looking through them. It’s fascinating. They’re all worthless I know, but somebody put in all of that time to find and cherish them and they just got abandoned. Here, want to keep one? That one’s 1920.”
Bridget plucked it from his hand and knelt down by a candle to see it.
“It was called the Mercury dime. People thought the woman on the front looked like the Roman god Mercury. It’s really the goddess Liberty. I bet that will be forgotten, you know, completely forgotten in a generation.”
“In a few years kids will ask what coins were for.”
Winter encroached and set on quickly. They hauled and stored water from the creek. Even when snow fell and the temperatures dipped the creek never fully froze. They ate canned food and sometimes lit small fires to cook meals. Jeremy got to sleep in the attic next to the fold-up stairs on his own mattress. More than once he caught Lacey trying to sneak out at night. They berated her and worked hard on teaching her to speak and act like an adult.
Jeremy looted more houses. The houses creaked and cracked frequently. His runs reminded him of the time he spent alone, curled up in a dusty bed or looking through pictures of people who will never come back to live there. The cold froze windows and ice crept down the walls. They gathered seeds. The dormant branches sagged under the weight of the snow. Lacey liked to break them. Bridget collected books and board games. They taught each other knitting, knot-tying, and card tricks. They talked for hours. Lacey would read herself to sleep and Bridget would take the book from her soft hands and set it on the attic floor. Jeremy re-discovered the coin collection and brought more coins back.
“Lacey’s gone.” Bridget jogged over to him from the house.
“Lacey’s gone. I checked the house.”
“Yeah but she’s been gone for a few hours and she still can’t stay out there, Jeremy. Help me search for her.”
Jeremy picked up the air rifle off the creek bank and circled the houses with Bridget. Lacey had done some exploring on her own with the warmer weather but she always came back soon enough. Bridget still fretted over it.
After checking the immediate area they walked up the wooded hill toward another side street. Bridget outpaced him to the crest and then stopped. Jeremy caught up and saw a group in the middle of the street, Lacey in the middle. They faced Bridget and him almost in a line. A middle-aged woman had her hands over Lacey’s shoulders. The group included a few other children. Some of the adults held guns, but these lacked mold lines and the metal parts were rusting. They didn’t act defensive; they looked too weary. Jeremy thought he recognized them from his wandering days. He kept his rifle low.
“Sorry. She-she likes to run away,” Bridget said. “We’ve been with her for a while.”
“I know her,” the woman said, “from before. I knew her parents.” She rubbed Lacey’s shoulders and Lacey looked up at her. “She told us about you. We believe we can help her. Help her find her parents. We offer better protection and come across more people.”
“Are you, are you saying you want to keep her? You want to take her away from us?” Bridget asked.
“Lacey would like to stay with us.”
“No, she knows us. We’re close. You might have more people but we lasted the winter just fine. Lacey, come back to us.”
“Her last name is Teffer. Her parents are Jacob and Holly. She’s an only child,” the woman said.
“Maybe they should take her,” Jeremy said.
Bridget kept her voice low. “How could you? We don’t know them. There’s no reason to trust them.”
“Remember you brought me in, that worked out alright.”
“But I was having trouble taking care of her. I needed help then.”
“We are still having trouble with her. She keeps running away. We can’t watch her and survive.” Jeremy turned to the woman. “What if we all join together? Combine resources?”
The woman shook her head. “Our group is big enough. We can’t take any more adults.”
Bridget began to tear up.
Jeremy pressed on, “Do you see they have other children with them? And they’re right; they move around, they have a much better chance of finding her parents than we do.”
Bridget sobbed. “But,” was all she managed to say when she knew Lacey would no longer be hers.