Odile didn’t trust this whole set-up.
She’d been outvoted, and Callis and Candace had made very good points. They were hungry, they were dirty, and a couple of them had been sick for weeks. They weren’t in great shape. But it was their shape, the shape they’d picked and built and fought for, tooth and claw and knife and gun. There was nobody to tell them what to do, nobody to take out their anger on them. They might not be safe, but they were, well, safer.
But there was an adult with a van, which set off every alarm Odile had, and he wanted to take them somewhere, which set off even more alarms. She stayed near the back, with the little ones who didn’t trust him, either, and the older ones who were as cautious as she was. There was food, but she wanted to wait, to make sure it wasn’t drugged. There were blankets. Blankets could be a trap. There was a smiling adult, not even as tall as Callis, who looked over every one of the children as if he wanted to collect them all.
“Odie?” A toddler, Jenny, tugged on her sleeve. “Odie, hungry.”
Odile swallowed. Nobody was falling asleep; nobody was falling ill. She scooped Jenny up into her arms, noting that she didn’t weigh enough. Had she been this skinny last time Odile picked her up?
She carried Jenny over to the van. The thermoses were full of warm soup, and the man was dishing it out as if he had no fear for his own hunger.
“Just a little for this little one, please.” Odile made herself smile at the man. She didn’t use names. Most of them didn’t. That’s how strangers got you.
“Of course.” He didn’t question her, didn’t press food on her. He filled a small mug with soup and handed it to Odlie, along with a plastic spoon. “Careful, it’s hot.”
“You heard him, sweetie. Little sips, blow on it first.” She talked Jenny through eating the soup, an eye on the stranger the whole time. She didn’t want to trust him. She didn’t want to trust any of this. But she didn’t want to lose her people, either.
She caught his eye; he hadn’t missed her staring at him. “We can leave whenever we want?”
He hesitated, considering his answer. Odile found that interesting. “There will be a chance every day for you to leave when you want. This place, it’s a secure place, so you’d have to be walked out, but I give you my word, if you want to leave, you’ll be walked out within forty-eight hours.”
Odile’s ears popped. She wrinkled her nose at the sudden change in pressure and looked at the man. He seemed sincere. He seemed careful about his sincerity.
“You’re trying to make sure you don’t, uh, you don’t overpromise, aren’t you?”
“Trust is built slowly.” He looked as if he knew that from experience. “I don’t expect you kids to believe me right away. But if I lie to you, you won’t ever believe me again.”
“Smart man.” Odile sipped a little of the soup in Jenny’s bowl, just one spoonful. “Good cook.”
He smiled, like he recognized the challenge there. “A friend of mine made the food. She’s a very good cook, and I’ll pass along the compliment if you don’t come with us. She’ll be pleased to hear it.”
Odile found herself relaxing. She forced herself to stay strong, stay tense. “Good food, too.” She poked at it. “Fresh vegetables. Some sort of meat in the stock.” She gave Jenny back the bowl and got her settled, all while keeping an eye on the man.
He didn’t seem to mind all the scrutiny. “We have a farm, and a garden. We’re way off the beaten path.”
“And you came looking for us.”
There was a pause. The man was considering his answer very carefully. “I came looking for Callis. He is a, uh, well, we have a school, and it survived the, ah.” His voice twisted and turned bitter for a moment. “The ‘Collapse,’ I guess we’re calling it. The school survived mostly intact, and we have all our records. Callis was on our rolls since the day he was born, and so I, well, came looking for him.”
“You spend a lot of time combing the ruins for legacy students?” She’d heard the term in a movie. He looked impressed… and then he looked tired.
“I’ve spent all summer plucking students from the ruins. And… finding the ones that didn’t make it.” His whole body seemed to sag. “It’s not a fun job, but sometimes I get to save someone.”
“And that’s what this is? Saving us?” She was prickly again, looking for the trap.
He didn’t get defensive. That was interesting. “You’re starving, and many of you are ill. Your hide-out is safe as long as you don’t run into anyone as strong as, say, a grown man. What I can give you — what my place and my friends can give you — is a safe place free of predators, food, and a way to start a garden, clothing, and medical care. Callis bargained for an education, including a practical education, for all of you. I can teach you how to fight, or my son; he works well with women warriors. When Callis is done with school, you can stay, or we can help him and you find a new place, a safe place.”
Odile looked at his face, and at the way his shoulders were held, and at his hands. “You’re serious, aren’t you? Just because this school wants Callis, you’re going to give us all a place to live? I mean, nobody does that. Not without wanting something in return.”
He was still again. “You’re children,” he protested, then shook her head, like he knew that was bullshit. “Okay. Here.” He sat down on the back edge of the van, so he was on eye level with her. “When you’re grown and educated, healthy and fed… I’m going to ask you to help me help other people. Other kids, other people who need help. Lots of ways you can do that — be a doctor, be a soldier, be an arbitrator, someone who helps people figure out disputes. And you’ve got a while to figure that out.”
“Grown-ups don’t do this,” Odlie protested. “They don’t. They just, put you in poxes, put you in, you know, where they want you, what they want you.”
The man frowned at her. “Maybe,” he said carefully, “the world changed enough that some grown-ups do. You figure out what you want to do, all of you, and then you can figure out how you can help me. “
Odile took a breath. “You don’t sound like a grown-up.”
He snorted. “Wouldn’t be the first time I’d heard that. We have a deal?”
“You’re gonna make sure we’re safe fed and educated, all of us, until we’re, what, adults?”
“Call it twenty, as near as we can estimate, for the ones that don’t know.
“–and then help us set up again out, somewhere, in the world?”
“And, in turn, you want us to help other… uh. other kids?”
“Other runaways,other refugees, other people who need it.”
She’d never said runaway. None of them did. Say that word and the grown-ups knew you didn’t have anyone. But even as she took a step back, he leaned forward, his voice soft.
“I know runaways. I’ve helped them before. Now, I don’t know if your parents survived this ‘Collapse.’ But if you don’t want to go looking for them, I’m not going to, either.”
She hadn’t seen her parents since something like a year before the world ended. Odile swallowed against something stuck in her throat and nodded. “You–” She coughed, clearing her throat. “You have a deal. I can help other kids, no problem.”
“And I can make sure you’re all fed and sheltered.” He stood and stretched, smirking a little bit at himself. “No problem.”
She still didn’t trust this whole set-up, but Odlie was willing to try.
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