Skylar's bedroom is huge and full of useless things: cds, a stereo, her ipod, the digital television she'd just talked her dad into buying for her, dvd player, her desktop, the laptop her mother bought her for school but which Skylar really only used to chat. There are other things, like her old dolls, lined up on the shelves over her bed and her stuffed animals, displayed on the window seat, left over from when she was young, kept because they were cute. Perhaps slightly less useless now since they can all still be played with.
Her bed is huge, queen-sized and canopied. Her father had bought it for her over his wife's objections. She had been thinking about boys, he had been thinking about his little princess, neither one of them had been thinking about warmth. But three days after the generator finally runs out, Skylar appreciates that canopy more than anything else her parents have given her.
She's learned a lot, these last few days. All the same basic kind of thing - how to not freeze to death - but she feels oddly proud as she puts that knowledge to work. She dresses in layers, adds blankets to the bed, because Dale has told her that no matter how nice her quilt is, three of them will be even better. In the mornings, she never opens the curtains unless she can feel the warmth of the sun on her face and hands. If she can, she opens them and lets the sun in to work its magic. On overcast days, she leaves them closed.
The canopy curtains are light and gauzy, but Dale helps her pull them down and put up drapes instead. It's not as pretty as her princessy pale curtains had been, but it keeps the warmth in so much better and, as Dale points out, it's probably more authentic this way anyway.
But it's only December, and the real heart of winter is still coming.
She's at Gracie's, manning the store alone, because Dale has disappeared before she even woke up again, something he's been doing a lot lately. Mrs. Folsom is negotiating for some dried beans and the last box of tampons when Lucy Miller and her mother come in. Mrs. Folsom wraps up negotiates fast, taking the beans, but leaving the tampons. She smiled and waves to the Millers but doesn't stop to chat. People have been doing that a lot lately, hiding what they buy, being secretive about what they have to trade. Skylar thought they were all just being weird until Dale mentioned that people were starting to go hungry and that the mayor was worried about stealing and violence.
Skylar figures things don't get much more violent than twenty-three nuclear bombs, but she doesn't want to get robbed either.
"Skylar," Lucy's mom says in a low voice. She has one eye on her daughter who is skipping up and down the aisles, looking at the nearly-empty shelves but not touching anything. "Do you have any toys?"
"Toys?" Skylar echoes, a little blankly, because she's used to secret conversations about toilet paper and dried meat.
"Dolls, stuffed animals?" Lucy's mother says. "I'd settle for a board game or a deck of cards, even. My husband and I can trade for it," she adds, because everyone tends to assume Skylar really has what they want and is just playing dumb as a negotiating ploy. "We've been putting a little aside here and there."
"Sorry," Skylar says. "We don't have anything like that. Just the food and supplies."
Her face falls. "Oh. Well, thank you anyway, Skylar. We'll have to find some other way to make Christmas special this year."
"Sorry," Skylar says again.
"How is Dale doing?" she asks as Lucy skips over to join them.
"He's fine," Skylar says. She waves at Lucy as the little girl stands up on her tiptoes to peer over the counter. "Kind of quiet, lately."
Lucy's mom shakes her head. "I think he's too young to be going on rounds, but my husband says we can't afford to treat teenagers like kids anymore. We all need to grow up faster." She smiles at Skylar, maybe a little sadly. "You seem to have done all right. I'm sure Dale will be fine as well."
She has no idea what Mrs. Miller meant by rounds, or why she was worried about Dale, particularly. She is tempted to ask, but when she gets back to the house, Dale is asleep on the couch, buried under a million blankets. He'd started a fire, too and that takes all other thought out of Skylar's head. She grabs a can of soup from the kitchen cupboards and cooks it over the fire. The smell wakes Dale and they share the blanket and the soup until the fire starts to die down. He never says anything, aside from a quiet 'thanks'.
When she finally, reluctantly, leaves the relative warmth of the living room for her bedroom, she's too tired to think straight. But she can remember Lucy Miller skipping through the store, and Mrs. Miller telling her that children need to grow up faster now, and she can't sleep for hours, thinking about all the useless things surrounding her.
"I need a favor," she says.
Jake Green kind of frowns at her - the same look his father has, sometimes. Like he isn't quite sure what to do with her, isn't quite sure whether he likes her. He's never been rude, like some of the people in Jericho who accuse her and Dale of taking advantage, and Dale says Jake's the best guy in town, although Dale's definition of best lately has been geared toward survival. Skylar doesn't doubt that Jake Green is the guy most likely to get them out of this. She just doubts that he thinks she's a nice person and it kind of bothers her.
But whatever that little frown might have meant - and maybe he was just busy, or had a fight with someone, or heard some bad news - he slows down so she can keep pace without jogging. "Hi, Skylar," he says. "What's wrong? Problem at Gracie's?"
"No," she says. "I need information. A list, actually."
"A list?" he repeats. He's dressed for the cold in a heavy winter coat and gloves, but no hat. His cheeks are red from the cold and the wind, but he doesn't seem to mind. Skylar feels a little self-conscious in her fur-lined parka, aware of the moisturizer she used to keep her skin from getting too weathered.
"Yes," she says firmly. "I have an idea and I need your help."
He looks a little skeptical until she tells him her plan. "I can probably get that for you," he says thoughtfully. "I'll ask someone in the mayor's office - if nothing else, the schools might know. I'll give the list to Dale on rounds. Sound good?"
She almost asks what these rounds are, and why she's never heard of them, but admitting ignorance is a sign of weakness and she can't afford to look weak - especially not in front of Jericho's go-to guy. So she nods and is about to walk away when he says, "Was Dale all right yesterday?"
"Quiet," she says, remembering the evening spent silently.
"It was a rough day," Jake says, and he sounds kind of rough himself. "Two suicides, one of them an entire family - the Millers. It looks like their mom shot them all and then her husband and herself. And old Mr. Portnoy froze to death."
Rounds, Skylar realizes. The morning patrol that went out at sunrise to see who had died the night before.
Growing up was overrated, Skylar thinks as she slips away to let Jake get back to whatever he was doing. Right then she'd give anything to have people go back to treating her like a little girl.
And then she thinks, Oh, Lucy.
Christmas morning was bitter cold.
Her face hurt and her fingers ached and she really couldn't feel her toes anymore. She'd been up all night and ached to her bones and she still had more to do.
A horse would have been nice, she thought wistfully. Especially since she was going to have to skip the farms outside town.
She's making her last delivery on that street when she hears horses.
She clutches her sack a little more tightly and ducks off the street, remembering what Dale had said about people stealing. But when she peeks around the corner of the house all she sees is Jake Green and Robert Hawkins on horseback.
Their morning rounds, she realizes. But it's too early. She glances at the sky but there's no hint of pink to signal dawn. It can't be more than two or three in the morning.
Jake offers her a casual salute. "Need a ride?"
"I'm okay," she tells him, curling and uncurling her toes inside her shoes.
"It's a long walk out to the farms," Jake says. "You sure you don't want a ride?"
"I-" she says. "How did you-"and Robert Hawkins holds up the stuffed bear she'd left on his doorstep. A piece of string is tied around its neck with a paper tag that reads, "To Sammy, From Santa".
"Oh," she says.
"Jake tells me you're planning to deliver to the whole town in one night," Mr. Hawkins says.
"That's the plan," she admits. She feels silly, all of a sudden, playing at Santa.
Jake holds out his hand. "Come on. You look like you're freezing."
"I have to finish," she says stubbornly. "There are still a lot of kids on the list you gave me. And I don't want to - I don't want to find out tomorrow that they all died like Lucy Miller. Not without trying to help."
"Your store keeps this town alive," Mr. Hawkins says.
"There's more than living," she tries to explain. "It takes more than dried beans and gasoline to keep this town going."
"We know," Jake tells her. He hasn't pulled his hand back, just patiently waiting for her to take it. "That's why we're going to help you."
Dale is coated in a fine layer of snow when he comes home from his shift at the store that night. He looks better than he has in days and he's humming under his breath. "Hey,"
he says. "Merry Christmas!"
She smiles at him from the couch, where she's curled up with a book her father had been reading when he left. "Merry Christmas. Dinner's on the coffee table."
The plate is covered in tinfoil. He lifts a corner and practically drools. "What-"
"Venison and roasted potatoes with carrots," she says. "Mrs. Green brought two plates over. Apparently when her sons were our age all they ate was frozen waffles and soup. So she thought she'd make sure we had a real Christmas dinner."
"I love that woman," Dale says earnestly. "I'll get forks."
They eat and then Dale grabs one of the blankets and claims the other end of the couch and starts to doze off. Skylar nudges him with her foot. "Aren't you cold out here?"
Dale nods without opening his eyes. "Yeah. But it's warmer than sleeping in the store."
"My room is warmer," Skylar says.
Dale opens his eyes.
"We'll both be warmer there," she says, and holds out her hand.