Crash III: There's No Place Like Home (9 page)

Michael threw his arms up and stopped. “What’s wrong with you? You’ve been bitchy since you woke up. Have you got your period or something?”

At first, Lola just stared at him, her fists clenched as she ground her jaw. Then her brow softened, and her eyes widened slightly. A twitch of her mouth and she snorted before she started to laugh.

“What’s so fucking funny?”

When Lola ruffled his shaggy hair, it took everything he had not to swing for her.
 

“Come on, Nearly Eleven; let’s walk. Maybe I’ll explain a thing or two to you about how to talk to women.”

Michael stared at her back as she walked away, shook his head, and then followed after her.
 

***

All that was left of the supermarket’s logo was the letter
T
. The other letters seemed to have completely vanished. It seemed odd that anyone would steal them.

As they walked across the front of the supermarket, they had to step through the once metal frame that had been the automatic door at the main entrance. At one point, it would have been glazed but not anymore. Shards of glass jutted from the frame as jagged points, but most of it littered the ground in a million shiny pieces. It crunched beneath Michael’s and Lola’s feet, popping in the still night. At least they would hear someone if they tried to come after them.

There had been little conversation between the two since leaving the library. No education in the ways of women like Lola had threatened. Not that Michael wanted to be schooled by the grouchy girl. Other than the sounds beneath their feet, the pair walked in silence and both studied the shadows in the building on their right.

It was hard to see, but all of the shelves looked empty. To be sure, Michael would have to get closer. He didn’t need to be sure. As he squinted into the darkness through unblinking eyes, Michael’s heart beat in his throat. Danger stirred in there.

Like Michael, Lola stared into the empty building. “My mum, sister, and I headed to the local church when society collapsed,” she said. “Mum didn’t think she could protect us on her own. We were nearly raped on our way there, so I’m guessing she was right.”

Shuddering, Michael focused on Lola as much as he could while shutting out the nagging memories of the warehouse at the back of his mind. The screams. The cries. The beatings. When Lola spoke again, it broke through his spiraling mood. “That was in the early days, just as everything collapsed. When the power went out, everyone knew the world had gone to shit. Everything boiled over quickly and descended into chaos. Before long the streets were coated in blood. It was almost like we were waiting for it to happen. Like all everyone wanted was an excuse to tear one another apart.”

The image of the blood pooling beneath his dad’s head returned to Michael. “I was hiding inside my house with my family. It was where we were caught in the end, but I’m glad we stayed there for as long as we did. I don’t think we would have lasted two minutes on the streets.”

Lola sighed. “I think it was the looting that saved us in those early days. We didn’t try to take anything, so that made us less of a threat. There were too many people in direct competition for all of the available food. As we walked past people killing each other, Mum told us not to look, but I did. You have to, right? I wish I’d grabbed some of the food though. What I’d do for a bag of crisps right now.”

Holding his rumbling stomach, Michael groaned. “Aw, don’t talk about food. I’ve been trying to ignore how hungry I am for days.”

Michael frowned hard when he put his full weight on his leg. Although not as sharp, a deep ache ran through the joint. It felt like it could give way beneath him at any moment. He stared into the supermarket again. Hopefully he wouldn’t need to run any time soon.

***

The conversation had died since the supermarket, so Michael said, “Why don’t you wait until you get to the edge of the city with me before you decide whether you’re going to stay or not?”

“Persistent little shit, aren’t you? I don’t want to leave the city; you already know that.”

Despite trying his best to mask it, Michael couldn’t keep the desperate whine from his voice. “Will you just think
about it, please?” He couldn’t survive without her.

Lola scowled at him but soon relaxed. “Fine; if it’ll shut you up, I’ll think about going with you and tell you when we’re at the edge of the city.”

When Michael smiled, Lola cut a sharp hand through the air. “But drop it now, yeah? And remember, I’m not making any promises at all.”

He’d already pushed his luck, so Michael didn’t say anything else. Instead, he looked across at the park next to the supermarket. There were swings, slides, and even a huge pirate ship. The absence of children made the recreational area look haunted.
 

“I know you feel like you’ve bailed me out several times, Lola, and you have, but I’m not completely useless. I’ve saved you a few times. It was me who got us off the bridge eventually.”

“Whilst fucking your ankle up and expecting me to carry you for miles. Sure, you made the decision of where to go, but you fucked up, and I had to deal with the consequences.”

“Well, what about back in the library? If it wasn’t for me, those boys would have seen us, broken in, and taken us.”

“Taken us where? Why would they want us? It’s not like they have a prison to keep us in. Maybe the boys were friendly.”

Michael shook his head. “Who in this city’s friendly?”

“I am.”

Michael laughed, and Lola threw him a stern glare. “Shh, you need to keep your voice down. Anyway, maybe you
have been a help to me. If nothing else, you’ve given me some harebrained ideas that made me laugh.”

Instead of biting at her goading, Michael held eye contact with the girl. “See, where else would you get this level of entertainment if we part ways when we get to the edge of the city?”

The first creases of a smile spread away from the edges of Lola’s mouth as she stared straight ahead and continued her brisk pace.

Secret Stash

The cold wind stung Michael’s eyes as they walked the streets on high alert just in case. It had been a few hours since they’d left the library, and as yet, there had been no danger—
long may it stay that way
. Maybe everyone was too concerned with the raging inferno that dominated the skyline. The library had gone up so well, it sat like a sun on the horizon.

The ache in Michael’s ankle had grown progressively worse. A cold layer of sweat stood out on his brow and he winced every time he put pressure on it. But he didn’t say anything to Lola.

A heavy drop of cold rain landed on his head and Michael looked up at the sky. He flinched when a drop landed in his eye.

Before he could say anything, he saw Lola hold her hand out, palm up as if to catch the drops. “It’s
too fucking cold to be wet as well. It won’t be long until morning. We should find somewhere to stay for the day.”

Thank god.
“Cool, if you think that’s the right thing to do.”

Lola looked up at the sky and then back at Michael again. “Do you think we should keep going?”

Michael shook his head. Maybe
he’d acted too cool
.
“No, I think we should stop too. Like you said, we don’t want to get wet as well as cold.”

When Lola stopped, Michael followed her line of sight. She was looking at a small shop. It had a steel shutter pulled down in front of it, but the metal had been bent away at the bottom. It left a gap big enough for a person to crawl through.

Michael led the way over to it with Lola following behind. He peered in. When he pulled back, Lola was so close he bumped into her, stumbled, and bit back a yelp as pain ran through his ankle.
 

“Well?” she said.

He crouched down and looked in again. “I dunno; it’s dark in there.”

Looking both left and right, Lola paused for a moment as if he would get her point.
 

When Michael didn’t respond, she said, “It’s dark everywhere.”

Michael looked at the fire on the horizon, and Lola rolled her eyes.
 

“My point is,” Michael said, “I can’t see if it’s safe in there or not.”

A strong gust of wind rocked him where he crouched, and deep splinters of pain shot up from his ankle. The rain fell harder.

Lola wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. “Let’s go in and look. It seems to be empty.”

Unease sat in Michael’s gut like a rock, but he didn’t say anything. After another quick look around, he crawled into the space with Lola following behind.

Once they were inside, Michael watched Lola remove her lighter. Creating a strobe effect, it took several sparks before the flame took.

The room was empty.
 

Lola let her lighter die. “I think we’ll be all right. It doesn’t look like anyone’s been here for months.”

More than happy to let Lola go first, Michael followed her to the back wall and the door leading to the storeroom. The gap in the shutters let enough light in for them to see. When they stepped into the storeroom however, it was pitch black.

Flinching with every flash of Lola’s lighter, the bright sparks stinging his already sore eyes, Michael pieced the room together. Again, the flame took and filled the room with flickering shadows.

“I’m starting to realize,” Michael said, “that once you’ve seen one storeroom, you’ve seen them all.”
 

Like in the other storerooms, a desk sat in the corner. Paperwork spilled from it onto the floor; a to-do list that no longer needed to be done. Other than that, the place was empty. The forced entry must have been from a time when there was something worth taking from the shop. That time had well and truly passed.

The chair squeaked when Lola sat down on it and pulled herself toward the desk. She let her lighter turn off and the room was cast into darkness again. Michael listened to Lola pull the desk drawers open, each one screeching. She then closed them, one crack after another.
 

“Bingo.”

“What?” Michael said. “What is it?”

When her lighter flashed on again, Lola had a cigarette in her mouth. The end of it lifted when she smiled and pressed it to the flame. The flickering light made her tired face look demonic—not that Michael told her. She said she would teach him a few things about women, but he was learning without her guidance. First thing, don’t tell them they look like shit. Ever! Even Tilly got cross with him about that one. The end of the cigarette glowed, and Lola groaned. “Oh. My. God.”

“You had me excited, Lola. I thought you’d found something decent.”

The cherry on the end of Lola’s cigarette glowed again. With every puff, the reek of smoke got stronger, reminding Michael that the charred taste from the library was still sitting at the back of his throat.
 

“This is decent,” Lola finally said. “There must be at least two hundred cigarettes in here.”

“But you can’t eat or drink cigarettes,” Michael said as he walked closer to her.

When he clattered into a small metal bin, the loud crash rattled his nerves. As it rolled over the hard floor, Michael panted and held his chest. His heart beat against the palm of his hand.
 

When it stopped, Lola said, “Fucking hell, Nearly Eleven, you trying to give us away or something?”

Michael reached out, found the edge of the desk, and stopped walking. “Is there anything else in there?”

The glow of the cigarette leaned over the desk and he listened to Lola opening more drawers.
 

When he heard a rustling, Michael drew a sharp intake of breath. “What’s that?”

More rustling was followed by Lola jabbing him in the stomach with the object. He took it off her and waited for her to spark her lighter. “A Snickers?” He laughed. “Wow. Amazing.”

In a flash, he tore the packet open and took a huge bite of the chewy chocolate bar. The sweet and salty taste filled his mouth. After several chews, he swallowed it down.
 

Just before his next bite, he paused. “Lola?”

Although she was still smoking, the cigarette glowing and the smell of exhaled smoke filling the room, he could hear her mouth slapping too
.
 

Just the thought of it nearly put Michael off his Snickers. Michael had never had a cigarette in his life, but he wasn’t sure if he did, he would be able to eat while doing it.
 

She finally replied. “Yeah?”

“What if this is someone’s stash? Why would anyone leave cigarettes and chocolate in here?”

Another puff of her cigarette and Lola replied with her mouth still full. “Maybe they went out one day and never came back? There’s no one here, and it doesn’t look like there has been for months. I think we just got lucky.”

“What if we didn’t? What if they’re on their way back right now?”

After a pause and several more puffs on her cigarette, Lola sighed. “I suppose you’re right. How about we take what we can from here and then find somewhere else to stay? What do you say?”

Michael nodded.

“Did you hear me, Nearly Eleven?”

“Sorry, I nodded.”

“It’s dark.”

“Yeah, I realize my mistake now.” No matter how hard he tried, he always felt like a kid around her. "Sounds good. Let’s take this shit and go.”

When Lola stood up, Michael heard the chair roll across the floor away from her.

“I wonder if there are any bags in here,” she said. Lighting her lighter, Lola swept it around the room. “It seriously doesn’t look like anyone’s been here for months, you know? I think we’ll be all right.”

Shaking his head, Michael said, “I still think we should take what we want and go.”

Lola left her lighter on while she stuffed her pockets with cigarettes and chocolate. “Fine, whatever you want. I just think—”

A loud crack
stopped her dead.

As one, Michael and Lola turned in the direction of the sound.

Lola lifted her light.

Standing shoulder to shoulder, blocking their exit, were two huge men in thick coats. They looked like nightclub bouncers but angrier.

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