You’re little, they said. You can sneak in.
I don’t want to, I said. I was scared.
The Rats didn’t care, though. If you want a place to stay, you’ll have to scout.
I didn’t want to do that, either. But I said I’d take care of Josie, and I was running out of options. Stay with her, I said to Martin, and slipped through the hole in the fence.
The yard was overgrown with something brown and brittle. Stalks crackled under my feet; the eaves of the house dripped with withered vegetation. You could barely even see the building from the fenceline, the way it was set back from the street, dead trees and shrubs blocking the view. But the windows were intact and the door closed: a clear sign, they’d said, that the place hadn’t been looted yet. I wondered why.
Might be canned goods inside, Martin had said, licking his lips. Might be meds.
That’s what passed for currency now, since the end of all things.
I kept to the edges at first, scuttling from bush to bush, fetching up against a pile of firewood. Every time a twig snapped, I froze and held my breath. It’s taking too long, I thought. They’ll leave without me, and I don’t know where the safe house is tonight.
I saw no signs that anyone still lived there. Spiderwebs veiled every window and even shrouded the back door.
I didn’t particularly want to break a window—I was afraid of what the noise might attract. I didn’t need to bring the Hunters down on all of us. A perfunctory peek under the doormat yielded unexpected results. Who kept a key under the mat anymore? The serendipity made me even more nervous.
But the silence made me bold; the silence, and the certainty that if I didn’t hurry, they’d leave me here alone. Anything would be better than alone, even the Rats, even Martin with his wandering hands. Besides, I’d promised Josie. The door opened with a soft scrape. I darted inside—and froze again, this time in something like shock.
I was in a kitchen. A perfect, untouched—if dusty—kitchen. The cabinet doors and drawers were all still closed, their contents seemingly undisturbed. A rack of clean dishes stood by the sink, and a wooden block still held a half-dozen knives. A striped towel hung over the oven door handle.
They’d been right; this place hadn’t been looted yet.
I knew better than to open the fridge. The grid had been down for months; anything left inside would be rotten. But I ransacked the pantry, filling my backpack with cans and boxes of dry goods. The flour was riddled with black specks, but we could sift the bugs out later.
It had been so long since I’d been in a house. In a home, with curtains on the windows and clean carpets on the floor. In the bathroom, there was scented soap. I took a bar. It smelled like lavender, like summer, like the Before Times.
There were embroidered duvets on the beds, and tasseled pillows just for decoration.
We could live here, I thought wildly. Me and Josie and Martin. We could be safe. Safer than out there, anyway, in our narrow alley with hollowed-out couch cushions for blankets.
Only, once I came out with my spoils, the Rats would descend on the place with their dirty shoes and their crowbars and their desperation. They’d strip the place of everything useful; hollow it out like a gourd. And after them, if we stayed too long, the Hunters would come with their weapons. We’d be trapped if we stayed in a place like this, killed, or worse. Already I could feel the walls closing in.
A dish by the front door held a keyring, a lighter, a double-handful of coins: copper pennies, tarnished nickels and quarters, even a gold Sacajawea dollar or two. Loose change from someone’s pockets, or a child’s savings. I took the lighter, slipped it into my pocket.
I didn’t bother to lock the door behind me. A lock wouldn’t stop the Rats when they came back, anyway, nor the Hunters on their heels. At least the food would be enough to buy us a few nights of a roof over our heads, and maybe, just maybe, they’d let us stick around. I was little; I could scout.
A different sort of trap, but one I could live with, for now.