I went to go check on the kids and found them arguing. “What?! I can’t leave you curtain climbers alone for a few minutes without it turning into the Hatfields and McCoys?”
Tiff and Paulie knew I was being sarcastic even if they didn’t exactly get the reference. Paulie answered, “The littles found a bunch of box drinks and some granola bars when they started pulling open drawers looking for something to draw with. Tiff and I told them they’d have to wait until you said it was OK to have them. They were getting tired of waiting and wanted one of us to go get you.”
I rounded on the younger kids and gave them the eye, not to scare them but to remind them of the rules with a little bit of grouchy force. “And I suppose you all just forgot that when I put you someplace you don’t go wandering off by yourself?”
Bobby complained, “But we’re hungry.”
“So am I but you don’t eat something until it has been checked out and you don’t go wandering off. And you don’t argue with Paul and Tiffany. Period. Unless you want me to lock us all back up in the car ‘cause I can’t trust you.”
That was met with a round of loud, “No!”
“Then follow the rules. They keep us safe and together. Paulie have you looked at the food?”
“It looks OK. None of it is open or mouse chewed. The date on it is next year. The juice boxes are this year but not until like later this year I think.”
“You think?” I asked.
“Some of the numbers are all mushed up.”
I know it seemed weird and a little harsh for me to be asking him the questions when it would have been faster for me to just go and look myself but Dad taught me that way – he said it encouraged critical thinking skills and it gave me experience I wouldn’t get if he and Mom did everything for me. I was trying to follow his example since I considered it about as good as it gets; besides it hadn’t hurt me any to be raised that way. Plus all those child care and development classes I took since I was twelve basically said the same thing. I still double checked behind him because ten is like ten and I didn’t want any of us to wind up with the pukes or runs because Paulie made an accidental mistake.
He’d told me right so I told him, “Good deal Lucille; everything you said was key-rect.”
Tiff giggled because she thought it was funny that I’d say that to Paulie who was a boy. Paulie just rolled his eyes but gave a pleased little smile at the praise. I felt bad for asking so much of him and Tiff but there was no way we were going to make it if I didn’t get at least a little help.
We’d been surviving on things like granola bars for a while so I knew the drill; as soon as they finished eating the kids would get jacked up, then cranky, and then crash and burn. I got out of the way and let it happen by moving the bedding we had to the bathroom which smelled very antiseptic after my thorough scrub down. There was sort of sofa thing in the security office that I took the four cushions off of: three seat cushions and one long back cushion all of which were covered in this vinyl slash fake leather crud that was meant to be easily cleaned but in reality looked three-quarters gross even though it had to be as new as the building was.
Looking at Tiff who had volunteered to help me to get away from Mimi – who was actually her biological sister – who was getting foul I asked, “Think we can make it work so that everyone gets something besides a tiled floor to sleep on?”
She looked like she was asleep on her feet just like the rest of the kids. “I hope so. I’m tired.”
I nodded feeling the same but keeping it to myself since I had to be the grown up. “OK, let’s see. Baby will be ok in that rock-a-roo thing I brought in from the trunk. You can take one of the smaller cushions. Paulie and Bobby can sleep together on the long cushion. We’ll put Lonnie on a small cushion and then Mimi and Corey are small enough that they can share the last cushion.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll grab a chair or something from some place. I can’t go to sleep yet anyway; I need to look around and see if there is more than those drink boxes and granola bars and after that I have some thinking to do.” She was too tired to even be curious.
After I got everyone settled they pretty much started to doze off. It wasn’t even dark outside yet even though it was overcast on top of everything else but they were all exhausted because of the bad diet of camp food like Luna Bars and canned junk I’d been forced to feed them the last few weeks.
“Paulie?” said getting his attention.
“Yeah?” he answered leaning against the wall like he intended to stay up with me.
I shook my head. “Just get some rest. I’m gonna be a while. You know what I gotta do.”
“Yeah,” he said again trying not to think about it. “But …”
“No buts. I’m gonna drop the door all the way so don’t spazz if you hear me coming back in or hear me breaking into the vending machines. I’m like dying for a Coke or Mountain Dew even if it is warm as the car’s dashboard.”
He said OK but I knew he’d fight going to sleep for a while yet. He wanted to help so bad, had been forced to “man up” way before he was ripe for it, but at least every once in a while I could give him a little extra down time. I was hoping it was going to be one of those times that night.
My first stop was the welcome desk to check the map to see about how far we were from Little Rock and what would be the easiest way to detour around the city. We’d already come a long, long way but there was still a long way to go. I wasn’t sure if the Clunker was going to make it where I needed to get to; I’d already almost lost a finger trying to change the belt on the stupid thing and that only happened because it pooped out right in front of one of those auto stores and the guy there was willing to trade a couple of the pieces of jewelry I’d been collecting from the DBs as we went in exchange for the belt … but his asking price for some help was too high.
Then there was the issue of fuel. I had four gas cans in the trunk that I kept filled as often as I could scrounge something to fill them with but sometimes I emptied all four and was sucking fumes out of the tank too before we found the next supply. We’d gotten real lucky thus far and never actually run out of gas but I’d learned the hard way that luck was just an illusion that tended to evaporate at the worst possible moments.
I put thinking to the side until later so that I could focus on combing through the connected buildings and then it would be time enough to do the really gross stuff.