Friday, 22 January 2021

[Glory Brats 19] A problem

Sparrow sighed. Looking after the others was exhausting. They weren't so bad though, she thought. At first she'd thought that she'd have to do everything for them, but they learnt pretty quickly and could keep up better than at the beginning. Even Dee was a sturdy wee thing, despite being so pale. She looked over at him, trying to keep his eyes open, despite his head drooping, his white hair flopping forward. She felt a surge of affection for him that previously she'd only felt for Tekla. Grabbing her blanket, she sank down next to him, and nudged him gently.

"You still awake, soldier?"

"Uh...uh huh..." Dee raised his head and yawned widely, "I'm...awake."

As they sat in the flickering light of the fire, Dee fell back to sleep, his head resting on Sparrow's shoulder. She waited for daylight to come in through the doorway, watching as the wood in the fire crumbled into glowing embers and finally dead ashes. The sleeping bodies and noises of the others were some comfort against the darkness, despite her own breathing seeming the loudest sound in the room. At long last, the grey light of day filtered through, and the others started to stir.

Sparrow poked her head out the door. It wasn't actually raining, but everything was wet and dripping, and the sky looked cloudy. "I'm going to go grab some more stuff to burn before it starts raining again."

She trotted off towards the large building and ducked under the metal door. Pools of rainwater collected in holes and cracks in the floor where the roof was gone, but there were dry areas around the edges. She scooted around the debris, collecting splintered bits of partition walls and parts of broken furniture. She wished she'd brought the cart to carry everything. When she'd got as much as she could carry, she headed back, remembering to rip some posters from the wall to help re-start the fire.

She found the others clustered around Zed. "He can't get up!" Tekla said, coming over to pull Sparrow closer.

"Can't or won't?" Sparrow muttered, but her tone changed when she saw Zed's flushed face. "We're staying here for the day. I'll get the fire going so we can all have a hot drink."

She started the fire in the ashes of the previous one, and told Dee to get the powdered milk packet from the bags. The hot malty drink had been a staple of school camp suppers, drunk around the evening campfire before the whistle blew for bedtime. Sparrow mixed it up and poured it into one of the few enamel cups. She got Zed propped up against the wall, and pressed the cup into his hand. He shivered, "Sparrow? I don't feel so good..."

"Drink your milk." She ordered, and grabbed one of the blankets from Rat, who was curled up in the corner in a nest of her own making. Rat clutched at the blanket but wasn't fast enough to stop Sparrow taking it and roughly throwing it around Zed's shoulders. He held out the empty cup, "Thanks. Can I go back to sleep now?" He yawned and his eyes closed.

Sparrow let him sleep and chased the others away. "Go on, go find some more stuff to burn or something. Just don't go too far. And don't get hurt!"

Dee and Tekla took the cart with them, followed by Rat and Bee at a slower pace. Bee was still finding her way over the stony ground, and Rat was jumping in every puddle. Jem stood at the doorway and watched them as they made their way to the other buildings in the complex. Sparrow came and stood next to her. "Do you think Zed will be ok?" she asked.

"Should be..." Jem mulled. "He seems strong enough. You youngsters can throw off most things easy." 

But Zed didn't improve throughout the day. By nightfall he was coughing too much to want to eat anything (Rat ate his share) and through the next night his uneven breathing kept Sparrow awake even when she wasn't on watch. That morning, the sun broke through the clouds, and Sparrow knew that they should move on while the weather was good. 

It was Jem who came up with the solution. "I'm heading to the Shambles to stay with my niece over the winter. You could travel with me and the boy could get some help there."

"What's the Shambles?"

"It's built around one of the old cities, not your fancy new ones, but where people stayed before. It's big and dirty and looks half falling to bits but it's a roof over your head when the weather is bad. I can only stand being around that many people for so long, though, so I mostly hoof it around the wastelands for as long as I can."

"But how will we get Zed there?" Sparrow pointed out, "He can't walk far without stopping to cough..."

"Put him in the cart when he's tired. We can fit the other stuff around him."

"Other stuff?"

Jem, it turned out, had a stash of scavenged stuff that she planned to trade with when she got to the Shambles. "We should try and pick up some more on the way to sweeten my niece for when I turn up with you lot."

"What sort of stuff should we look for?" Dee asked, peering into the bottom of the cart and pulling out a   metal pan with a broken handle.

"Anything metal mostly, but some plastic is good too. Anything with wires. Mainly though, I collect the books. Not many people do, so there's plenty of them out there. I know a guy that buys up most of what I bring him, and sometimes I'll sell one or two elsewhere."

"Books?" Sparrow looked up from packing the bags. "What kind of books?"

"Oh, anything will do...gardening, cooking, history, some stories..."

"There are story books?"

"Sure thing!" Jem dipped a hand into the cart and rummaged around. She pulled out a slim paperback and tossed it over.

"Stories for Eight Year Olds," Sparrow read out. "But I'm nine!"

"Oh well, what a shame, I guess you can't read it then, best hand it back over..." 

But Sparrow held onto the book with both hands. "My dad used to tell me stories. I never knew there were books just for stories."

"Keep that one if you like," Jem said, "The story books ain't worth much to the old man anyway."

Sparrow placed it carefully in her pack. "How far is it to the Shambles?"

Jem pushed her hair out of her eyes, "'Bout a day? Maybe more if we're walking slow."

"Better get going then, hadn't we..." Sparrow shrugged her shoulders into her coat and slung her bag on her back. Zed struggled to his feet and reached for his pack. Sparrow got there first. "Uh uh...I'll take that. You just focus on walking."

They set off with the sun shining down, Rat running ahead, arms spread wide, and Tekla trotting beside Sparrow. Jem pulled the cart while Bee pushed from behind. Zed had Bee's staff to lean on, and Dee walked beside him, looking up every so often into the older boy's face to see if he was struggling with a cough.

It wasn't long before Zed and Dee began to drop behind the others. Sparrow kept turning round to check on them, and she halted the group when she saw Zed hunched over, clinging to the staff. 

Jem and Bee brought the cart up and Sparrow and Dee helped Zed clamber in over the side.

"I want to ride in the cart too!" Tekla said, "When's it my turn?"

"Not just now, Tekla!" Sparrow snapped.

"Why don't you help me pull the cart?" Jem suggested, but this didn't appeal to Tekla and she sat down in the dirt. 

"I  wanna ride..." she started to wail, until Sparrow pulled her to her feet and shook her.

"Zed is ill! That's why he's in the cart. Now be quiet and keep walking."

This shocked Tekla into silence, and they continued on following Jem's directions. This part of the road was overgrown, as if not many people came this way. Grass grew out of the cracks and moss spread along the edges. Eventually they came to a large black-rimmed sign that said 'Welcome to Colston'. Someone had painted a large red X over the sign. 

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