“She’s getting pretty good at waiting.” Chris adjusted the fraying grip on his baseball bat as we approached the gas station.
“The sounds scare her.” My shotgun was loaded; the ammo belt was starting to feel light, but this minimart looked promising. “I think she’s beginning to figure out why we make her wait, you know?”
“Had to happen eventually.”
“But we’re not teaching her to shoot yet.” We crouched behind a bullet-pocked concrete barrier across the street and squinted at the minimart.
“Jane, she’s got to learn sometime. It’ll be safer in the long run if –“
“Think they have binoculars in there?” I interrupted.
Chris sighed. “A new set would be nice, yeah.”
I looked over my shoulder. The top of Lena’s lime-green hood was barely visible over the bramble we’d instructed her to hide in. Guns may have taken on a new necessity that I’d had to reconcile with my gun-averse upbringing, but I wasn’t ready for our six-year-old to learn to handle one.
We darted across the weed-choked parking lot. The gas pumps had been emptied, later smashed; most of the shop windows were shattered. I went first, shotgun ready, with Chris at my back. Our footsteps crunched over broken glass. We checked between the ransacked shelves, in the bathroom, the storeroom and the musty office: the place was deserted.
I returned to the entrance and whistled, our signal to let Lena know it was safe. She popped out of the bramble and ran, the fluorescent green parka bouncing like a laser pointer against the gray afternoon. She leapt into my arms, giggling, and I spun her around.
“Gold star for hiding, baby girl.”
I let her slip to the ground – she was too heavy to carry these days. “What do you want to find in here?”
“Umm…” She tapped her chin, an adult gesture of thoughtfulness she liked to mimic. Finally she looked up at me, brown eyes sparkling. “Peanut butter!”
“Peanut butter?” I teased. “Boring! I want to find a pony…or a unicorn.”
“Or a dragon!” She freed her hand from mine and flung her arms out like wings, growling.
“Hold hands, please,” I reminded her. I could hear Chris in the storeroom sorting through boxes. I collected what little I could find out front: a few protein bars past their expiration date but still sealed, boxes of raisins, two cans of beans that had rolled under the shelves.
“Careful,” Chris said as we entered the storeroom. The beam from his headlamp danced over us. “Chopped liver in the northeast corner.”
The storeroom was almost pitch black aside from our headlamps, and I was relieved I didn’t have to see what Chris had found. ‘Chopped liver’ was our code phrase for something unpleasant, usually human remains, that we didn’t want Lena to see. Luckily, the box Chris was searching through had her distracted. I looked over his shoulder and saw a tangle of wires, batteries, remotes, and other electronic parts that had been obsolete even before the collapse. Looters had overlooked it, but I could see what Chris was after: hidden underneath was some fairly sophisticated survival gear.
Lena’s chubby fingers gripped the edge of the box as she strained to peer inside. Her eyes widened. “Are those from the 80s?”
Ever since we came across a Pac-Man machine in the back of a laundromat, Lena had been obsessed with the decade of her parents’ birth. Any technology she didn’t recognize from before – chunky flip phones, shop-vacs, PCs – must have originated in the 1980s, the furthest back in time she could imagine.
“No, sweetie,” Chris chuckled, “this is new stuff. Look: flashlights, a solar charger…”
He didn’t point out the taser, but handed it silently to me to pocket. We also took a fresh pack of batteries and an unused first aid kit. Chris had already found some canned chicken and, amazingly, peanut butter. We packed it all into our still uncomfortably light satchels.
My heart pounded – I thought she’d found the body. But Lena was crouched over a soggy cardboard box.
“Toys!” She held one up: a superhero figure still in its packaging. Relieved, I knelt next to her and helped her rummage through.
“Lena, look!” I held one up. “A dragon!”
She gasped, delighted. I pried it out of its packaging and swooped it into her hands, like playing airplane with her baby food. Holding it aloft, she ran out of the store, roaring into the daylight.