"I'm cold..." Tekla whined. She was shivering in her damp clothes despite the warmth of the sun. Sparrow noticed the others were looking cold too, although they were too busy taking in their surroundings to care.
"We should keep moving." She said, "and look for wood to make a fire with. It'll get colder when the sun goes down."
Sparrow led the way through the clinic grounds, Rat trotting at her heels. Zed was at the back, and let Bee know if there was anything she might trip over. The trees planted throughout the grounds were young, and didn't have any old fallen branches that would be good for burning, but Sparrow picked up a few spindly twigs and rolls of bark that the wind had blown down, "Birch," she said. "Good for starting a fire."
She was making her way to the Depot where everyone used to get their supplies from. The supplies were transported on wooden pallets that were stacked in the yard for pick-up. There would be plenty of wood for burning there.
They trudged through the abandoned city streets, the blank eyes of the windows watching them. Most places were safely shut up, ready for their owners to return, but in some cases a window was left open, or an unlocked door banged in the breeze, the noise echoing along the street.
Sparrow stopped. Rat bumped into her and her knees buckled and she sat down on the ground suddenly, looking up as if wondering how she got there.
"What is it?" Zed asked.
"Why have we stopped?" Bee complained. She didn't like being outside and wanted to get wherever they were going quickly.
"Stay here." Sparrow ordered. "I'm going to check this out."
She darted up the steps of the nearest building and slipped in through the open door. Inside it was dark, and cool away from the sunshine of the street. Office desks filled the room, mostly tidy but a few with bundles of paper left lying. Sparrow picked up a few sheets from the nearest desk and shoved them in her satchel. Birch bark was good for lighting fires but paper was better. She grabbed a cardboard folder too, for good measure. In the small kitchen at the back of the building there was a tiny refrigerator. She opened it and stepped back, wrinkling her nose. The sour smell of off-milk filled the room. The cupboards had nothing apart from some stale biscuits and tea leaves. She left the tea but took the biscuits, cramming one in her mouth as she wandered back out through the office.
The others were sitting on the ground when she came out. "Find anythin'?" Tekla asked. By way of reply, Sparrow chucked her a biscuit, and handed the rest out to the others. By now, their damp clothes were starting to dry in the warm breeze that picked the dust up from the road and blew it around their feet.
"Let's get going again." Sparrow said, heading off along the road, "We're almost there..." The Depot was by the transport hub at the checkpoint between the industrial sector and the city centre. Sparrow used to go there with mum or dad to get things like her satchel for the new school term, or when her shoes got too small for her. Warden Smith was in charge of the Depot for Sector 3. He was nice - used to let her punch in the numbers for their allocation history, but since she got older she let Tekla do that instead. On sunny days like this one, he would sit outside the warehouse on an old folding chair that he'd brought from home and wait for people to come along.
They turned into the yard and Sparrow almost expected to see Warden sitting there waiting for them, but the door to his little hut was closed and his chair was sitting there empty. As she had thought, there were piles of wooden pallets stacked neatly against the wall. Towards the back there was an untidy pile of broken ones. Sparrow pointed to the pile, "We need to be able to carry that wood with us. Any one see any rope?"
"Why can't we just stay here?" Bee asked.
Sparrow sighed. "Because there's nowhere to sleep, silly."
Zed and the younger kids looked around the yard. At first sight there was nothing that would help them, but a closer inspection revealed that the hut door was not locked, only jammed. Zed wriggled the handle and Dee gave a few kicks for good measure. Tekla and Rat joined in. Sparrow left Bee sitting on Warden's chair and sauntered over. "What's wrong?"
Zed shooed the younger ones away, "That's ENOUGH. You're not helping now. There..."
The door opened, squeaking at the hinges. Inside there was an old checked shirt hanging on a peg, a rough wooden table with a tin mug, and a sheaf of papers pinned to the wall with a rusty nail. Sparrow took the shirt and gave it a shake. She handed it to Zed. On second thoughts she took the mug too and passed this to Tekla. Under the table was a small cart with a long metal handle folded back on itself. She ordered everyone else out of the hut so she could roll the cart free. On exiting the hut, she noticed that Zed was wearing the shirt. "It's a bit big." she said to him, "It'd fit Bee better."
"I helped find it though."
She nodded, "Fair enough."
They filled the cart with the broken bits of wood until it was almost too heavy to move. But if Sparrow pulled and the others pushed then they could manage at a crawl. "What do we need all this for, again?" Zed asked.
"We're going to have a bonfire." Sparrow's eyes lit up as she explained. "A big one. Bigger than they let us build at camp."
"What's a bonfire?"
"Fire burny. Mustn't touch." Tekla said, waving the tin mug in Zed's face.
Later, Zed agreed that fire was indeed not to be touched. Sparrow had scrunched up the paper and the birch bark, and made a thin framework of the twigs over that. She took out a tool that made sparks when she scraped the two bits together. The sparks fell on the paper and it flared up, flames licking around the twigs.
"How does that work?" Zed asked.
Sparrow hesitated. She liked being able to show-off how much more she knew, but didn't want to give up the secret of fire so easily. "Oh, it's very difficult to do." She said airily, feeding the fire with torn up bits of the cardboard file. The flames got bigger and she placed a few of the smaller bits of wood around the edges. The others watched as she knelt down and blew on the fire at just the right place so that it didn't blow out, but instead got stronger, needing more wood. While Sparrow was busy doing this, Zed took a bit of wood from the pile and went to add it to the steadily growing flames. Unfortunately, he did this at the same time as Sparrow was blowing on the embers. He dropped the wood and drew his hand back quickly, crying out.
Sparrow looked up angrily, "I'm the only one that's allowed to touch the fire just now! All of you will only get hurt if you try."
Zed nodded and retreated to where the others sat. "That wasn't very clever, Smartboy." Bee remarked. She could feel the heat from the fire now, and hear the crack and snap as the flames ate through the wood hungrily. Dee huddled next to her, a blanket draped over his shoulders. Tekla was next, watching her sister tend to the fire. Rat sat alone, half fascinated, half fearful, creeping ever forward until Sparrow told her to "Get back, Em." Amazingly, Rat obeyed.
The space Sparrow had chosen for the bonfire was underneath one of the walkways that crossed over parts of the city centre. The supports for the bridge had little child-sized nooks built into them, and here Sparrow and Tekla had stored blankets and food collected from around the city. Even though they had found some houses that were unlocked, Sparrow didn't like sleeping in other people's empty houses, feeling that the former residents were watching her. She much preferred to be outside, pretending this was all just one long camping trip, like they had done last summer with the school.
"Can I put some more wood on, Sparrow!" Dee pleaded, sticking his toes closer to the fire. His feet, like all of them apart from Sparrow and Tekla, were dirty and grazed from walking around the city barefoot. Sparrow shook her head. "No, I'm in charge. I'm the only one who can put wood on the fire."
"Who made you in charge?" Bee challenged. Although Sparrow was confident, she sounded like she was younger than Bee.
Sparrow put her hands on her hips. "I know how to make the fire, and none of you know where you are going, so of course I'm in charge."
"Where are we going?" asked Zed.
"Me and Tekla are going to find our dad," Sparrow said, adding another armful of wood to the fire, so that the flames leapt higher than ever. "You lot are just coming along because you won't survive without me."
There was silence as they all thought about this. Bee was thinking that as the eldest she should be in charge, but she admitted to herself that she would have no idea about where to go. Zed was quite happy that Sparrow should be in charge, although he liked to think that he'd have been able to figure things out eventually. Dee also, accepted that Sparrow was the leader. Tekla knew that Sparrow was in charge; that's what older sisters were for. Rat was hungry. She was always hungry. She crept closer to Tekla's plump little arm and gave it a gentle bite.
Tekla howled and snatched her arm away. "She bit me!"
Sparrow stopped in the process of adding more wood to the fire. "Em, NO. Bad Em."
Zed inspected Tekla's arm. "It looks alright."
Rat was confused. She'd wanted food and tried to let them know she was hungry, but all she got was noise and angry voices. She pointed to Sparrow's bag where the biscuits were but no one was looking at her any more. They were all gazing at the fire, which was blazing up so high that the flames almost touched the underside of the walkway. Sparrow grinned. "Now that's what I call a bonfire." Even Rat forgot being hungry for a moment as she felt the heat and watched the flames.
The fire soon died down though and the dark crept around them. There was no more wood left so Sparrow handed out blankets and they each crawled into one of the little nooks under the bridge and tried to sleep. Rat munched on a biscuit, and fell asleep surrounded by crumbs.