Little Ben led Tim, Kelly, Jennifer, and the other kids to his house: a grey Cape Cod with brick trim. He tried the front door, and found it unlocked. “Come on in, guys,” he said. “Or Miss Kelly, maybe you should come in first, just in case my folks are home.”
Kelly shrugged and followed him in. Ben’s call went unanswered, leaving him a bit more disappointed than even he expected. “I should have known they wouldn’t be here,” he told Kelly. “They would have come for me at the theater.” She gestured to the others; they filed in.
The house smelled musty. “I hope Cheddar was outside,” Ben said.
“Who’s Cheddar?” Kelly asked.
“Our cat. He was yellow, like cheddar cheese. That’s how he got his name.”
“I’ll look for him,” Kelly said. “You take the others to get your stuff.” She checked the kitchen, found an unshredded bag of cat food and a mostly-unused litter box, then checked the bathroom and found it empty.
“Bring some big garbage bags!” Jennifer called. “They’re in the kitchen!”
“Good timing, I just left there!” Kelly called back and went to get the bags.
Most of Ben’s clothes were already piled on his bed by the time Kelly arrived. “I think Cheddar was outside,” she told Ben. “I didn’t seem him anywhere, and the cat food bag wasn’t torn up.”
“Good.” Ben turned back to his clothes. “I guess I better get my winter stuff too,” he said. “It’s in the closet by the laundry room, I think. Mom made me help her put away all that stuff in April.”
“Will it fit you?” Ashley asked him. “A lot of my stuff from last year didn’t fit me in the spring. I got to shop for new summer clothes.”
“Ben, does your family have any camping gear?” Tim asked. “Sleeping bags, lanterns, anything like that?”
“It would all be in the camper, and that’s at the self-store place.”
“Hm… do you know how to get there?”
“Not really.” Ben studied a bookshelf and pulled down several books. “It’s off Peachtree Industrial.”
“Ben, do you know where your parents put their mail?” Jennifer asked.
“Mom’s office, probably,” he said. “Why?”
“Maybe there will be a bill and it’ll tell us where the self-storage place is. We’ll need warm gear for the winter.”
“Oh. I thought that’s what you were getting at the mall.”
“We got what they had,” Tim said, “but it wasn’t enough for everyone. We expect we’ll find even more people, so we need to gather everything we can find, even if we don’t end up using it right away.”
“Yeah.” He looked at a knapsack on the floor next to his desk, hesitated. “We don’t have to get my school books, do we?”
Kelly and Jennifer laughed. “Just because the world ended doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have an education!” The kids groaned.
“Well, who’s gonna teach us?” Sheldon said, as Ben hefted the pack.
“All of us,” Tim said. “I don’t think it will be school like before, sitting in class all day.”
“So why bring the books?”
“We might be able to use them,” Jennifer said. “That goes for all of you. Well, let’s get your stuff loaded up. You sure you have everything you want? It might be a while before we come back for anything else.”
“Sure,” Ben said, and everyone hoisted bags or boxes.
As they stepped outside, a scrawny yellow cat slipped out of the bushes and meowed, looking wary of all the strange people. “It’s Cheddar!” Ben said. “Oh man, he’s skinny! C’mon, kitty, let’s get you a snack.” He dropped his bags and ducked back in the house, the cat at his heels.
“Let’s put this stuff on the trailer,” Tim said after a moment. “I sure hope they have a pet carrier in the house somewhere.”
“I’ll go ask Ben,” Kelly said, dropping her bag of Ben’s clothes on the trailer.
Ben was sitting on the floor in the kitchen, stroking the cat as he ate. “I hope we can take him with us,” Ben said as the cat purred around a mouthful of cat food. “I never really liked him that much before, but he’s…” He waved his hand around.
“All that’s left,” Kelly said, leaving of your family unsaid. “Do you know if he had a carrier here?”
“Sure, it’s in the closet by the back door. Good idea.”
Kelly walked to the back of the house and looked out the back door window before opening the closet door. “Ben!” she called, pulling out the carrier and a box of Ben’s winter clothes on top of it. “Did your neighbors have a garden?”
“Yeah. I used to sneak over and pick up rotten tomatoes to throw at the tree. Did you find the carrier?”
“Uh-huh. Are there any grocery bags in the kitchen?”
“Sure, Mom always put ’em in the bottom drawer by the sink. Why?”
“Nobody’s had fresh vegetables in over a week! We’re gonna go pick!” Kelly returned with the carrier and the box, and found the drawer with the bags. “Will he give you any problem about going in the carrier?”
“Nah, I’ll put his dish in there. He’ll follow it right in.”
Kelly ran out the front door, waving the grocery bags. “I can’t believe we almost missed it!” she yelled. “There’s a garden next door!”
Ben followed the chatter out the back door, carrier in hand. The older three were happily tramping down the wet rows: “How can you tell if green beans are ready?” “Is this corn any good?” “Yeah, get the green tomatoes too if they’re big enough. They’ll ripen.” “Hey Jennifer, no fair eating the cherry tomatoes!” The other kids followed behind, picking or tying full bags and carrying them to the edge of the garden.
Ashley handed Ben a handful of bags. “I’m allergic to cats,” she said, “but he can stay in the shade. Let’s go help.” Ben sighed and followed her into the garden.