Did I mention that this is going to be a long day, story-wise?
After a brief pause, everyone slipped behind clothes racks or shelves. “What was that?” Cody hissed.
“We’re gonna find out,” Cleve said. “Petro. Lucado. Let’s go.”
“What?” Cody yelped, grabbing Sondra’s arm as she stepped forward. “Sondra…”
“I’ll be fine, Cody,” Sondra said, kicking her shoes off. “I’ve been in a gunfight before. You trust me?”
He let go, reluctantly. “Yeah. But be careful, okay? I don’t want to lose you.”
“You won’t. Careful is how I survive.” She joined Tim and Cleve at the edge of the mall entrance, still walking a little funny. Cody picked up her shoes, tied the laces together, and draped them around his neck.
“Tim!” Sara whispered across a couple clothes racks. “Keep your head down, okay?” He grinned and nodded.
Cleve whispered to the others, and pointed down the mall at pillars and open store entrances where they could take cover. When Cleve was sure they understood, he turned to the others. “If you hear shots, everyone come a-runnin’,” he said. “Make lots of noise, yell, stomp, so it sounds like the Army’s rollin’ in, okay?” They all nodded. “Let’s go.”
The three of them darted down the mall, one by one. The other two covered as the third dashed to the next cover. The others watched them go; another clatter from farther down got the bravest squinting and peering for any sign.
“What’s down that way?” someone whispered.
“Just the rest of the mall,” Cody said. “Food court’s almost all the way on the other side. I’ll bet that’s where they’re going.”
Cleve, Sondra, and Tim disappeared into the gloom well before reaching the halfway mark. Skylights gave a little light here and there, but the mall looked dim and sinister. They continued down the mall, the last in line hustling (Sondra on tiptoe) past the others to the next available cover. Cleve pointed the way. Tim was about to dart out when the clattering noise came again; he froze and waited for Cleve to nod and point. It took them nearly ten minutes to reach the food court.
A crunching sound echoed from the food court. Cleve waved the others to him, then peered around the corner. He saw movement, and jumped out, gun in front of him. “Freeze! Police!”
Cleve’s yell and an answering shriek echoed down to Sears.
“Shit! Sondra!” Cody yelled, and jumped forward; Charles caught him just in time. “Let me go!” he snarled, trying to pull free.
“You’re not armed, idiot!” Max hissed, grabbing Cody’s free arm. “Besides, that wasn’t Sondra!”
Cody yanked once more, then stopped struggling and stared at Max. “You sure?”
Max nodded. “I’ve known her since March. I know what she sounds like.” He paused. “Someone’s coming. Probably Tim. Let’s see what happened.”
They stayed under cover until they could see Tim jogging their way. “Everything’s okay,” he said. “We need some help, though. Everybody come on. But Cleve said you don’t have to be noisy.” Tim wasn’t winded in the least; he turned around and jogged off before anyone could ask him what happened.
“Stay in groups of at least two or three,” Charles told the others. “Cody, why don’t you stay with Max and me?”
“Yeah, whatever. As long as you don’t slow me down.” Cody looked at the floor, hair covering his eyes.
“Fine. Let’s move.” They hustled down the mall, spreading out as the faster left the slower behind. Charles, Max, and Cody were one of the first to arrive at the food court, and stood confused for a moment. There were too many people…
“It’s safe,” Cleve said. “They say there’s nobody else in the mall.” The “they” were five children, all maybe age ten. Sondra sat with them, comforting them as best as she could while Cleve and Tim looked on. Cleve held Sondra’s pistol; the kids all looked scared, hungry, and a little sickly.
The others started murmuring: “Look at that.” “Why haven’t we seen any other kids?” “What did they eat?” “How did they not drive off with their parents?” “Have they been here all this time?” Cody edged toward Sondra and the kids; she whispered to the kids then nodded to him. He and Kelly walked over and sat down with them; a chubby red-haired girl wrapped herself around Cody and cried as he gave her an awkward hug. Sondra smirked and rolled her eyes.
“They need food and water,” Sondra told the others, putting her shoes on. “A little at a time, though. I guess they’ve been scavenging. Like us.”
“Quite a feat, if they lived for… what, close to two weeks?” Max said. “Then again, we did it. Why couldn’t they?”
Jennifer Lane collected an armload of water bottles and energy bars from the others and brought them over. She sank to her knees and handed water bottles to each child. “Drink it slow,” she told them, “or you might throw up. Just a little sip at a time, okay?” The kids nodded and opened their drinks as best as they could; Kelly and Cody had to help two of them. “Good. Now why don’t you tell us what happened.” Jennifer opened energy bars and passed them around.
The kids all talked over each other, and argued about some points, but they managed to tell the story between sips of water and nibbles at energy bars: School was closed Friday, so our moms took us to the theater to see Fish Story. It was the 1 o’clock show. They were supposed to come for us at 3 when the movie was over, but they never did. And the theater people were gone when we came out too. Some of the other kids went outside to see if they could find anybody, but the white trucks… they were everywhere. A couple of the moms who were at the movie took their kids and some of the others. They told us to come too, but we ran back inside when they got in the trucks. We ate popcorn and candy, and we slept in the theater. Nobody was there the next day, so we took the quarters out of the cash registers and played video games upstairs until the power went out. When there was no more candy, we came here. It was Ben’s idea. We don’t guess our parents are coming for us, are they?
“I guess we have to take them with us,” Kelly said. “We sure can’t leave ’em here. But how?”
“My bike store’s just up the street,” Tim said. “I have some seats and Kidd Haulers there — that’s like a cargo trailer, but set up to carry a child. These guys are probably a bit larger than the rated capacity, but they’ll hold up from here to home. They made tandems — to carry two kids — but I didn’t have any in stock.”
“Do you guys want to come home with us?” Sondra asked the kids.