The big talk is set for after the rounds. Two groups are headed back to the condos to see if there’s still gold in that mine, while a third heads out in the opposite direction to see what else in town looks viable.
When it comes time to pick the babysitter, Deputy Winston glances at me. “You up for it?”
“Sure. I haven’t done it in a while,” I say. We both know my selection has more to do with the night before than an equitable babysitting rotation. To be fair, I didn’t sleep much, and he knows that, too.
Josh is on one of the condo squads, with Adrian and the Deputy. He kisses my cheek before he leaves, but it feels less like affection than affectation. “Okay?” he asks, his voice low.
I glance at him, and then over his shoulder. Deputy Winston is talking with Adrian, Mark, and Conner about the run. Adrian looks back at us twice, though, and I know everyone in our basement is aware of the tension. It won’t be long before the rest of them catch on.
So I try to smile, to release Josh from his worries before he goes. “Okay. Stay safe.”
“I’ll find us something,” he says, and kisses my mouth this time. “We’ll be okay, Amy.”
A couple of the kids make exaggerated disgusted noises when they see this and Josh rolls his eyes. As I take a seat on top of a picnic table, the groups head out. As I watch them leave, Melanie climbs up on the table beside me.
“Are you still sad?” she asks.
“A little.” I don’t see the point in trying to hide something that everybody can already see, but I don’t want to upset her unnecessarily either. “But I’ll be okay. Your picture was really nice.”
Melanie nods and watches the other kids play. Eventually she says, “Frosting.”
“I miss frosting, too,” she says. “Mrs. Armstrong’s cupcakes always had lots of frosting and my mom put it on my nose once.”
I don’t think she’s ever said this much to me. I know she’s never mentioned her mother. I don’t want to make things worse, but I’m not sure I’m equipped for this right now. “I miss those cupcakes,” I say. “And her double chocolate chunk cookies.”
“Maybe they’ll find cookies this time,” Melanie says. “Or something else really good.”
“I wouldn’t say no to a box of Kraft.”
The time drags. As the sun climbs, we retreat into the shade. Even there, I’m too hot. The little I ate at breakfast is sitting like a lump in my stomach. I try to take long, even breaths to count out each inhalation and exhalation. There’s water, but if I do more than wet my mouth with it, I’m afraid it’ll come back up. It might do that anyway.
One of the boys tugs on my sleeve. “I have to potty.”
I nod and push myself up. We don’t go far, just far enough around the corner of the building so that he gets some privacy, but I can keep an eye on the playground as long as I stand far enough out. The simple act of moving, though, upsets my stomach, and I know I’m not going to keep it down this time. There’s a hedge that separates the property from the next strip mall, and I kneel, lightheaded, feeling the acid rise up my esophagus to the back of my throat.
“I’m done! I’m going on the slide,” the boy says, and I wave at him behind my back to show that I’ve heard him.
When I finish, I spit to get the taste out of my mouth and then wipe it on my sleeve. As I stand, I notice something in the strip mall parking lot I didn’t before, and my stomach bottoms out again. There are still one or two cars parked there, some debris from the riots, and broken glass from where one of the windows was smashed in. It used to be a RadioShack, with new cell phones and data plans boasted in the front displays. The only thing in the window now is a dead body – in camouflage.
I turn, breathing quickly, and make my way back to the kids. They’re still playing, some of them with jacks in the shade, oblivious. Melanie is propped against the wall, starting to doze. I sit next to her and try to drink more water, but I’m shaking. She shifts so that she can rest her head on my thigh, her thumb in her mouth. I wipe the tears from my eyes and stare straight ahead.
When the others return, their bags relatively full – I should be thrilled. Josh is talking excitedly with Mark, all smiles, and even the Deputy looks heartened by the day’s findings. Josh sets his bag down, breaks away from the guys, and pulls me into a hug. “I found more pills,” he whispers. “These we’re gonna keep, okay? It might work.”
I almost start crying again. Josh looks at me and sighs. “Amy, come on. Get it together. You want everybody—”
I walk away from him before he can finish and find Deputy Winston. He takes one look at me and sobers, and when I pull him to the side, towards the hedge, he asks, “What’s wrong?”
I don’t want to point. “RadioShack. In the window.”
Deputy Winston looks, and then says, “Shit.”
The kids are rounded up and taken home. It’s earlier than usual, and there’s some protesting, but most are tired from being out in the sun all day. Deputy Winston breaks the news to the rest of the group, and many of them go to take a look. The soldier is twisted, like all of the returned bodies are: his neck is three quarters of the way around, his limbs splayed at unnatural angles, and one of his feet is pointing the wrong way. There’s never any blood, but that’s hardly a blessing. The scariest part about it is that no one recognizes him.
To be concluded in Part Six…