Monument 14 Sky on Fire(4)
Author:Emmy Laybourne
    CHAPTER THREE

    DEAN




    DAY 12

    I fumbled toward the hatch, feet catching on the dents from the long-ago hailstorm.

    Had Astrid shut me out? No. It couldn’t be that.

    My heart was in my mouth and my face sweaty and cold.

    Was someone up there with me? NO.

    My foot tapped against the door frame. I felt down with my fingers.

    The hatch was open.

    The lights had just gone out below.

    And then I realized how stupid we had been.

    * * *

    For most of the two weeks we’d been in the Greenway, we had had almost all the lights off to conserve power.

    My little brother, Alex, the tech genius, had figured out how to work the complicated control panel for the store’s solar power system. He isolated the lighting just to the Kitchen and the Train (our makeshift bedroom in the back corner of the store).

    But for the last—I don’t know—two or three hours the lights had been on at full power.

    And we had hooked up about thirty air purifiers to the system all at once.

    We were out of juice. Pure and simple.

    I sealed the hatch behind me and made my way down the stairs in pitch blackness.

    I edged toward the door, skirting the area with the blood and the bodies. I did not want to tumble onto Robbie’s dead body.

    * * *

    They were calling for me.

    Astrid and Caroline and Henry, sounding frantic and scared.

    “I’m here! I’m okay!” I called.

    “Where are you?” Astrid yelled.

    “I’ll come to you,” I shouted back. “Where are you?”

    “We’re in the Train!”

    * * *

    I was used to getting around the store in the dark, but this was different. Before there was always a glow coming from the Kitchen and the Train area. Now the whole store was pitch black.

    I went first to the Automotive aisle. I knew there were some flashlights on the floor, because that was where we had been tending to Mr. Appleton and Brayden before.

    I found a headlamp and two flashlights and clicked them on.

    As I got closer to the Train, Henry called out: “We can see you!”

    “We see your lights bouncing,” Caroline added.

    “We blew the system, didn’t we?” Astrid called.

    I could tell from the quality of her voice that she had her mask off.

    “It’s safe?” I asked her, pointing to my own.

    “I don’t know about up front. But back here, it’s okay.”

    I handed her a flashlight and took my mask off. Removing my glasses for a moment, I rubbed the bridge of my nose.

    “Oh, Dean,” Astrid said. “Your face.”

    Maybe she’d forgotten that I had the two black eyes. Maybe she’d also forgotten that it was her boyfriend (ex-boyfriend, I hoped), Jake, who’d given them to me.

    Truth is, I deserved those black eyes, though that didn’t make me feel charitable toward Jake. He was handsome and popular and charming, and when the going got tough, he had started doing drugs from the Pharmacy.

    Then he wandered away when we sent him outside to find out if the hospital was up and running. Astrid deserved better.

    “The power is out because we drained the solar power reserve,” I said.

    The twins gasped and I rushed to reassure them, “It’s okay, it’s okay. We’ve got lots of batteries and flashlights and there are even some lanterns. We’ll be fine.”

    “How will we cook?” asked Henry.

    “There’s a pretty big camping section,” I answered. “Ever cooked over a camp stove? It’s really fun.”

    Suddenly there was a groan.

    Astrid turned and the light caught on the form of Chloe, sitting up and pulling off her mask.

    She looked around and rubbed her eyes.

    “You guys,” she said menacingly, “why am I not in Denver?”

    * * *

    Chloe on a good day was a handful, and this was not a good day for Chloe.

    She was livid.

    “I am supposed to be in Denver right now, snuggling up to my nana and you tell me you kept me off the bus ON PURPOSE?”

    She was really throwing a fantastic tantrum and I was sort of sad that the lights were out. I would have liked to see her red, screaming little face.

    “I should be on a jet plane getting evaculated to Alaska, not trapped here with a bunch of Greenway losers!”

    I bet the veins in her neck were standing out, like she was some three-foot-tall drill sergeant.

    But, alas, I could only get a glimpse of her every once in a while, when she walked into one of the twins’ flashlight beams.

    Caroline and Henry did not think it was funny and they were both crying, trying to get Chloe to stop shouting.

    “Chloe, please! It’s better here. It’s safer and it’s not scary,” Henry pleaded.

    “We came back, it was so scary out there!” Caroline said. “We’ll be rescued soon. You’ll see.”

    Astrid had retreated awhile ago. She went to get more flashlights and some battery-powered lanterns. Maybe some candles, too.

    I just sat on the futon couch and let Chloe rant. I figured eventually she’d either lose steam or her voice.

    But then Luna started acting funny.

    She jumped up, ears perked.

    Her legs twitched and she gave one short bark, looking off in the direction of the front of the store, then looked up at me.

    “Shhh!” I said to Chloe.

    “And to think I even ever liked you, Dean!” she was yelling.

    “Chloe, shut up!” I shouted. “Look at Luna!”

    And then Luna took off like a shot.

    I hollered to Astrid as we followed Luna.

    * * *

    Luna raced toward the Kitchen.

    “Who’s there?” I shouted as I approached.

    I tried to sound firm, but my voice broke.

    She kept running into the Kitchen and barking at something behind the main counter, then running back to me.

    “Who’s there?”

    There wasn’t any sound. Not any human sound.

    Suddenly Luna stood stock-still, one front leg pulled up into her body and her nose aimed under the stove.

    “What’s wrong with Luna?” Chloe screamed.

    What was she doing? I didn’t know.

    “She’s pointing,” Astrid said, coming at us from the direction of the Food aisles. “Luna’s just pointing. There’s some kind of animal under there.”

    She was pointing! You think about a hunting dog pointing, like a golden retriever or a Lab. Not a fluffy little puffball like our Luna.

    I shined my flashlight under the stove and, sure enough, I saw two small red eyes shining back at me.

    “It’s a rat,” I said.

    “Ew!” the kids screamed.

    “Can I see it?” Chloe asked.

    “Stay back,” I commanded. “Just stay back.”

    “I’ll go get a trap,” Astrid said. “Or two … or twenty.”

    “Yeah” I said. “Good thinking.”

    “Don’t kill it!” Chloe protested. “We should catch it and keep it for a pet.”

    “No,” I said. “That’s a horrible idea.”

    “No, it’s not, Dean,” she spat. “I’m going to catch him and then we can tame him and have him as a pet!” she bragged to Caroline and Henry.

    “But we already have a pet. We have Luna,” Caroline objected.

    “You can never have too many pets, dingball!”

    “Chloe, you stay away from that rat. Astrid’s bringing back a trap.”

    But the little twerp went over to the counter and picked up a cardboard box full of straws and dumped them on the ground.

    “Come on, I’ll get it out with that broom, and, Henry, you scoop it up with this box!”

    “Chloe! Get away from there!”

    She just wasn’t paying any attention to me at all! I went over and grabbed her arm. I didn’t want to blow my top, but really, I’d had enough of her.

    “You don’t get to tell me what to do, you traitor,” Chloe yelled.

    She broke out of my grip and slammed against the stove.

    The rat came out, like a streak, and ran right toward Caroline. Luna barked like crazy and attacked it.

    Caroline screamed and took a step back, but the rat and Luna got all tangled up with Caroline’s legs, and somehow, that godforsaken rat bit Caroline.

    Then, finally, Luna got that rat between her jaws and shook the life out of it.

    Chloe and Henry and Caroline were all screaming. I grabbed Caroline and lifted her into my arms. She was clutching her leg.

    Luna dropped the rat at my feet and sat down.

    “Bad dog! Bad dog,” Chloe screamed at Luna. “We were supposed to catch it, not kill it.”

    Luna cowered away from Chloe.

    “Shut up, Chloe,” I hollered. “That stupid rat bit Caroline! If you’d just have left it alone, none of this would have happened.”

    Chloe started a different type of wailing now—a you-hurt-my-feelings kind of cry.

    Luna began to lick her wounds.

    “It’s not my fault!” Chloe sobbed.

    But it was. It totally was.

    “What happened?” Astrid yelled, rushing back with the now-useless traps.

    * * *

    Astrid shined the way for me as I carried Caroline back to the Train.

    There were first-aid supplies right in the living room.

    The wound was small. Two sets of puncture marks. It was more of a nip than a bite, really.

    I cleaned it with Bactine and applied some antibacterial ointment and a big neon-orange Band-Aid.

    Caroline’s freckled face was pale and tear streaked.

    She and her brother were so dreamy, most of the time.

    Sometimes I had the feeling that they didn’t really know where they were, even, or understand how serious the situation was.

    They were five years old.

    Five.

    “I hate rats,” she said to me quietly.

    “Everyone does. They’re horrible.”

    “I’m glad it’s dead,” she choked out.

    Her face was twisted up.

    “I don’t care if God will be angry at me. I’m glad it’s dead.”

    I hugged her to me.

    “God’s not mad at you, Caroline,” I told her.

    But I had the thought that if you were a person who believed in God, and you lived in Monument, Colorado, in the fall of ’24 you really had to wonder.

    * * *

    We tried to clean Luna’s wounds but she scooted between the back of the futon couch and the wall of the Train.

    Astrid had gathered a shopping cart full of lights that ran on batteries.

    To Henry’s and Caroline’s delight, and Chloe’s, once she stopped pouting, there were some battery-powered Christmas tree lights.

    Astrid let them string them up all over the walls of the Living Room.

    I was rooting through the cart, trying to find batteries for the lanterns when I felt Astrid’s hand on my shoulder.

    “Hey,” she said.

    “Hey,” I answered. I’m cool like that.

    “Can I talk to you?”

    “Sure,” I said.

    She nodded me toward the Train.

    I went in, bringing a lantern. I hadn’t been in the Train in … how long? More than twenty-four hours, to be sure.

    It was easy to remember that these had been the dressing rooms of the Greenway, before they became our sleeping quarters. They still looked pretty commercial, no matter how homey Josie had tried to make them when she redecorated.

    On the doors to the rooms were written the names of the kids who’d slept there.

    “Max, Batiste, and Ulysses” read the door to my right in Josie’s handwriting.

    That made me feel sad and scared. I missed Josie. I missed all of them.

    Astrid followed my gaze.

    “Do you think they could be there yet?” Astrid asked me.

    “Maybe. I sure as hell hope so.”

    “Yeah, me, too,” Astrid said. She was looking down at her feet. She was still wearing the knit hat I’d given her after she’d had me cut her hair.

    I smiled, remembering that moment—probably the only nice thing she and I had ever shared.

    Suddenly Astrid looked up and the glow from the lantern lit up her face.

    A gleam of gold glinted off her nose ring. The nose ring made her look cool, but also a little fierce, too.

    I must have been staring at her, wondering what she would look like without it.

    “I’m not going to sleep with you,” she said.

    And I nearly swallowed my heart.

    “Wh-what?” I stammered.

    “I just want you to know. I figured you might think that because you stayed, I would, like, sleep with you. And I’m not going to.”

    Then she turned and walked out of the Train.

    * * *

    I just stood there like an idiot, with my mouth on the floor, for at least ten minutes.

    Then I got angry.

    * * *

    I caught up with her in the Kitchen. She was starting to go through the shelves, pulling out food we didn’t need to heat up to be able to eat.

    “Astrid, I never expected you to sleep with me! I never said anything about that. I would never think or expect something like that!”

    “Fine,” she said. “Good. Then we’re straight.”

    “I stayed because you were right. It was too dangerous for the other kids, to have us with them. And I stayed because you told me you’re pregnant. And staying was the decent thing to do.”

    “And I’m grateful,” she said, overarticulating her words, like she thought I was an idiot. “But I’m not going to sleep with you just because I’m grateful.”

    “I can’t believe you’re saying this,” I stammered. “Do you think I’m some kind of animal?”

    “I just wanted to get the facts straight,” she said, turning her back on me.

    “Well, they’re straight.”

    “Good,” she said, returning to her sorting. “I’m glad to hear that.”

    I was furious. She was acting so cold and so …

    I don’t know. I turned and walked away.

    Had I been nursing a dream we’d get together and fall in love, and one day, one day far in the future, maybe we’d have sex?

    Yes. Dur. Of course I had. That’s what you do when you have a horrible crush on someone.

    Now it felt like she was calling it out. Just saying it right in the open. It wasn’t kind and it wasn’t fair.

    I stormed away into the dark, messy aisles of our stupid, commercial refuge.

    I needed a project.

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