We don’t go out after dark.
None of us do, no matter what kind of errand we’re on. That’s the rule. Matchbox made it in the beginning before most of the younglings had arrived. No one goes out after dark, and no one goes out alone. We all know it, and we all follow it. No exceptions.
Only it’s dark now, dusk gliding through the trees, and Matchbox isn’t back yet.
I stand at the top of the porch steps and lean against the railing, watching the road. She left an hour after dawn, when the air was still damp from the night’s rain and the sky still bruised with clouds. She had business, she told me. I asked what kind, but Matchbox is the sort to have secrets and to keep them. She doesn’t like any of us digging around beneath her cot or asking questions that run too deep. She brought us together in the beginning, when the lights in the city went out and the water stopped running. The sky turned black with smoke after the first day, and most of the city burned within the first week.
People went crazy, Matchbox told me. She said the ones that stayed in the city were stupid, and most of them were probably dead now. The city wasn’t safe for anyone decent, and she kept us as far away from it as she could, although she’d found most of us in its streets, or locked in abandoned apartment houses.
Not me, though. She found me behind a dumpster. I’d had sense enough to hide after the first riots started, and I don’t think she would have found me at all if she hadn’t been trying to hide herself.
We were the first. The rest came after, rescued from overturned school buses or dragged out of the sewers. The smaller ones, they answer to me, but I’ve always answered to Matchbox. She’s the boss, the one that always has a plan. I let her make the decisions.
Only now, she’s the one missing. And I’ve had our one rule drilled into my head so often that I don’t dare disobey it.
We don’t go out after dark, and we don’t go out alone.
The sky is red above the city, and I can smell the ash on the wind. The house we’ve been living in is white, with bushes in the front yard and a picket fence. The kitchen is empty and the lights don’t work, but it’s better than sleeping in a drainage pipe. Some of us even have beds. The rest sleep on the floor, tucked into sleeping bags and blankets that we’ve collected over the last few months. Matchbox was the one to find the house. She’d been looking after a few of the youngest got sick from sleeping outside. I couldn’t believe the house wasn’t burned yet. The door had been kicked in and all the windows were broken, but the roof was sound. Matchbox was prouder than a pigeon when she found it, and she’s fought to keep us from moving on, insisting that this may be the last place we’ll be safe.
I tried to remind her of that this morning, but she only kissed my forehead and promised she’d be back by noon. She made me swear not to come looking, and stupidly, I did.
But the trees leading to the road are black, the first stars are peeking through the clouds, and the red light over the city looks like a crack has been torn straight through to hell. So I’ll give her ten minutes. Ten more minutes before I break our first and most important rule, and go looking for her.