Cait’s visit to the mall had been largely successful. She had a number of small bits of food, had eaten a couple cans of noodles in various soups. Michelle had insisted that the red ones were in a sauce, but then was unable to explain the difference between a soup and a sauce to Caitlin’s satisfaction so all the kids had learned it as being soup. At least when it was in the cans. Cait had had sauces before, that was when you prepared a food and then ladled a viscous liquid over it. A soup was when it was in the liquid fully, like in the cans with the noodles and red soup. All that was before Michelle had disappeared though.
It also served as a learning experience. She had spent some time tracking the footprints in the dust that tracked throughout the building. There was evidence of Susan and her people; Cait could track them from where she had run into them before. They were scavengers like her; dressed in old clothes that were mostly filthy and had been grabbed from abandoned buildings, living mostly off of what they could trap or find. They weren’t like the valley-folk that Cait had run into almost six months earlier. Those were a different story.
There was a separate set of footprints that Cait managed to track; big footprints. Cait guessed it was probably a man, and a big one that that. The boots were the right size for an adult male, and if you wore boots that were too big for you your gait changed to compensate. Cait had figured that one out on her own a long time ago and it had already proven to be successful at helping ensure she survived. She had no idea who those had come from. That was concerning. From following the tracks for a time, she couldn’t find any evidence that the owner of this extra set of footprints had ever met up with Susan or any of her people. That was concerning. As she gathered packaged food, some random tools, and additional clothing during the day, an ominous cloud of concern hovered over her. Was the source of the midnight light and the man haunting her from across the street the same source as these footprints? Time would have to give her the answer for this, for now she had nothing to go on.
Her backpack was filled, mostly with food to help her survive for the near future. She knew how to hunt, sort of, but knew not to depend on it for food. Despite all of the skills she had been endowed with, there were limits to what she could do. Hunting in the ruins of the city was always a tricky proposition; while rats and raccoons could be common, they weren’t necessarily. It took some time for life to begin returning to the cities, and other than the wendigo and the people who couldn’t abandon the cities there was often nothing there. Sure, rodents and the like chipped away at the edge of the city, slowly working their way in, but it wasn’t quick enough to support people.
Cait remembered, while hauling her spoils for the day up the stairs, the stories she had heard once upon a time while being a child. The adults, thinking on it now one of them must have been her parent, told stories to make travelling easier. They never talked about. They never discussed who her mother must have been. Was it Michelle, the one who disappeared into the night for a smoke and never returned? She didn’t know.
They would tell stories as Cait and the other children would move with them from place to place. It was the weird effect of the memories of being a child that Cait couldn’t remember a time that they didn’t do this, but she could remember moving from one home to another. They would tell stories about how people didn’t used to be like this, and this was because they had become too comfortable with how things were. Things had been too easy, and everyone had assumed that someone else would take care of problems, at least that’s what Cait had been told. It sounded good when she was little, but as she grew up, her opinion on the matter changed. She realized that the explanation was just a little too simple. She wasn’t sure what else that there had to be to it, but there was definitely more to it than what the explanation was. It was like that for a lot of things, she had found. Adults had made a number of representations to her that didn’t seem to make sense as she grew older.
Michelle had disappeared one night. Cait remembered because Michelle had come into her room to borrow cigarettes, while at the same time berating Cait for smoking so young. She had heard for a long time that this was why she was so short. It ended up helping her in the long run; her small size made it easy for her to hide, squeeze into small places, it had a million uses. Michelle liked to pretend that she didn’t smoke, that she was too good for it, but there she was, borrowing a cigarette.
Cait had directed her to the stash in exchange for promises that Michelle would help her track down some practical bras, her development had just started to be a problem, in that it was starting to interfere with climbing, running, and a number of other things. In retrospect, it was very helpful that Michelle had told her that what she needed was a sports bra before heading out, or there would have been a lot of embarrassing trial and error. Cait couldn’t talk to the other women like she could talk to Michelle.
Michelle had walked out of Cait’s room that night with a half-full package of cigarettes and a lighter. Cait never saw her again. The following morning all of the adults were upset, angry, and lashing out. Mark especially tended to lash out when he was angry. He always apologized for it later, and besides, it had taught Cait to be good at dodging thrown objects. Usually, it was good for holding over Mark’s head later to convince him to go out of his way for Cait’s favorite cigarettes or something.
On her way out of the mall she saw it; a jacket. It was black and shiny, like the one that Michelle used to wear. With zippers and an aggressive cut. It was on one of the plastic people that showed off clothing. Caitlin shuffled over to it, kicking up some dust, to check whether it was actually leather. Michelle had taught her how to tell the difference between “the real deal” and “the fake shit,” though Caitlin didn’t really understand what the fake shit was. She knew how to catch it though.
Coming up to the jacket she felt some sort of flopping sensation in her stomach. She shouldered off her backpack, hearing it slomph onto the floor. She reached out timidly to touch the jacket, fearing that it wouldn’t be “the real deal” and she’d have to leave it behind for reasons that Michelle never fully explained to her. As she felt it with her hands and examined it closely to look for the pores that would give it away. It was real. Hands shaking slightly, she pulled the jacket off its perch in a series of jerks. The arms came off of the fake person and clattered loudly to the floor. She froze, the jacket in both of her arms as she looked around the empty mall. She could only hear her own quickened breath.
Seemingly alone, she shrugged her way into the jacket. It seemed like it fit, clinging to her body closely and feeling comfortable. That wasn’t enough though. She walked over to the mirror and took a look at it. It was like Michelle’s jacket, and not like Michelle’s jacket. Some of the details were different, and in a way it felt distinctly hers. Michelle had told her once that for each and every person out there, there was a specific jacket that was just for them. You couldn’t find it until you had stopped growing, though, and that’s why Caitlin hadn’t found it before now. She pulled her cigarettes out of her backpack and slipped it right into the internal pocket in her jacket. It was perfect.
Keeping the jacket on, she shrugged her way back into the frame of her backpack. It was time to head back to her place and set up her gardening plots and food sources, water gathering and other things she had planned. She realized that even for the things she didn’t know how to do, there were so many books in the mall that included things. She never understood the allure of carrying around and reading books that didn’t have useful information in them, especially when it was easier to carry around stories in your head. Michelle and Mark and everyone else had so many stories in them. She never had any need to grab other stories.
It was hot, wearing the jacket as she carried her belongings back to her new, hopefully temporary, home. For the first time in a long time, she felt like she wasn’t alone. The jacket was with her, and now she really understood how important something like the right jacket could be.