“It’s unnatural,” Linny said. She had changed into old sweats; I noticed the lack of color. Everywhere. Linny once loved color. Red and purple and orange, splashes of it on black. Bright and cheerful. Those sweats had once been bright. Now they blended with the grays bleeding over everything.

I didn’t agree with her but I was tired. I wasn’t looking for a fight, not tonight.

The lantern flickered on the night table. “And you’re just encouraging it.”

“I don’t know what you mean.” When was the last time we’d had sex?

“Yes you do. You love that she hangs on you all the time, and wants to go everywhere with you. That she calls you… that.”

What was wrong with it? With being the little girl’s hero? Her savior? I was, wasn’t I? I’d saved her from dying alone out there. For that matter I’d saved Linny. And Sarah, Evan, James and Eli. I was the hero in this tiny universe. My expression and body language sent her a clear, so what?

“You’re getting an ego trip off it.” She pulled the blanket over her legs. She had lovely legs. I wanted to feel them wrapped around me.

“How long has she been here now?” I asked.

She looked at me like she was trying to determine why I’d ask such a thing.

“Three weeks? A month?” I pressed.

“Yeah. Maybe.”

“Have you suffered? The children, have they suffered?”

“If you’re asking if you’re providing, then yes. Yes, but you’re staying out longer and bringing back less for ours.”

“That’s got nothing to do with Hope.”

She didn’t believe me. I didn’t blame her; I didn’t believe me, either.

“Linny, what was living out there is slowly dying. There are no endless reserves. I’m having to go farther to find less. That’s got nothing to do with her.”

“You should take Evan.”

“He’s too young.”

“Then take Sarah!”

I said nothing. I couldn’t describe the feeling of dread that rooted in my gut at those words.

“You used to take her and Ellen.” Her voice was quieter.

“And you want me to take your other daughter now? Expose her to that danger? I don’t understand you.”

“What danger? You said everything is dying. There’s nothing out there. All you can find to eat are rats.”

I was surprised she knew.

“Of course I know. I go out when you’re not here.”

“I told you to keep inside!”

“You don’t bring in enough, Jim. I have to help.”

“So you just leave them here?”

She studied her hands.

“Alone? Linny…”

“Don’t start. Sarah’s plenty capable.”

Goddamn it.

“Ellen wasn’t your fault.”

Ellen was entirely my fault. Our little golden girl. I turned my back on Linny, signaling the end of the conversation.


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