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The Dawn Patrol

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The Dawn Patrol

It was getting colder, even though the sun was up, and Dale hunched his shoulders against the cold as he waited for Jake.

It was early yet, just barely six and saying that the sun was up might have been a mild exaggeration. Dale was tired and despite the layers of clothes he was wearing, the cold was working its way into his bones, but he just wrapped his arms around his knees and waited. He was early, but he couldn't sleep anyway.

The front door of the Green house opened quickly and closed just as quickly, Jake slipping out into the cold with the almost furtive movements of someone trying not to let anymore of the heat out than he absolutely has to. Everyone was moving like that these days, and it made Dale think of kids sneaking out before their parents could catch them.

He stood a little more slowly than he would have liked; he was feeling oddly unwilling to show weakness here, not in front of this man, not today; and nodded a hello. "Hey. Jake."

"Dale." Jake jogged down the front stairs and hesitated at the sidewalk. "You're way early. I thought I was going to meet you at the trailer park." Jake was rubbing his hands together and as Dale watched he rolled his shoulders and made the conscious decision to stop huddling against the wind. It was the only real way to stop feeling the cold in weather like this. Like jumping into a cold lake instead of wading in. Just get in and get it over with.

"I got up early to check on the store," Dale explained. "Figured I'd just wait."

"You should have come in. Mom would have made you some coffee or something." Jake offered Dale the strange little half smile he wore more and more often lately, the one that said he was kind of amused despite himself. "Well. I wouldn't say it was really coffee anymore. Everyone's running low on beans, even Bailey's. I think Eric's going into withdrawl."

"Gonna get worse," Dale said. "Cause just between you and me, but Gracie's is out of toilet paper."

The look on Jake's face was almost funny. "Paper towels."

"Gone."

"Tissues?"

"It's cold season, Jake."

Jake pursed his lips. "Baby wipes."

"Child care products are only for sale to people with actual children," Dale reminded him. "Mayor Green's orders. Well, Mayor Anderson's now, I guess."

Jake groaned. "This is going to be an unpleasant winter, Dale."

Dale shrugged. "Nuclear annihilation would have been worse."

"If we were annihilated we wouldn't need coffee or toilet paper." Jake rubbed his hands together one last time, then jammed them in his coat pocket. "Ready?"

Dale's been sitting on the curb outside the Green house since five in the morning trying to figure that out himself. "Sure."

The streets are mostly empty at this hour. Hardly anyone in town has any reason to be up before the sun and even out on the farms people are probably still huddled under blankets, waiting a few more minutes, a couple more hours, hoping the sun will warm things up a bit before they crawl out to face what the day is going to throw at them next. Skyler was getting into the habit of sleeping until noon. If this is as warm as it gets, she had told him, there's really no reason for me to freeze. It's not like I have anywhere to be, after all. No school, no homework and no parents. If Dale didn't have Gracie's, he'd probably stay in bed all day, too.

Everything looked washed out to him these days. He couldn't tell if it was just winter – gray skies, dead trees and grass, withered flowerbeds and vegetable gardens – or if there was something wrong with him and he was seeing everything in some kind of grayscale brought on by a delayed nervous breakdown. Even Skyler was starting to look dull – her hair wasn't as shiny, her eyes were a little duller every day. Even her clothes weren't as bright and colorful as they used to be, but that might be because laundry detergent was pretty much non-existent and washing clothes with bar soap made everything heavy and pale.

He watched Jake out of the corner of his eye. Jake looked normal to him. Jake didn't look like he was walking around waiting for someone to tell him it was all right to give up now. And if the bombs had taken anything he cared about – and they had to have, he'd been on his way to Denver when the bombs went off, hadn't he? – then he wasn't letting it show.

Dale wanted to know how to do that.

"You didn't have to come, you know," Jake said finally.

Dale shrugged.

They weren't the only ones out that early. Mr. Hawkins and the deputies and Jake's brother were out there too, walking down streets a lot like this one, bundled up against the cold. Outside town, Stanley Richmond and one of his neighbors would be making rounds on horseback, stopping at every house to make sure the people who lived there were okay.

The thermometer hanging outside Skyler's kitchen window had read five below when Dale finally made himself stop checking the night before. It had probably gotten colder. And outside town the farmers and ranchers are probably okay. A lot of them have woodstoves and all of them have fireplaces. Stanley probably wouldn't find too many problems unless there was a suicide – which there was, more and more often.

Dale didn't know which he was more afraid of: finding some poor old man or woman all alone, dead of the cold, or finding someone who'd shot themselves so they wouldn't have to wait to die.

Bullets are rare, Dale's mind said with a grim kind of practicality he was just starting to learn he was capable of. If they're killing themselves, they'll probably use pills. Or a knife.

He didn't want to find anyone like that.

But he was young. He was healthy. He wasn't as strong as Jake, who could smile about toilet paper while checking to see how many of his neighbors had died in the night, but he wasn't weak.

He was strong enough.

"I know," he said as they climbed the steps to Mrs. Harvard's front porch. "But someone needs to check on them. And this is my town, too."