Chapter I

A boy of six, thinner than he should have been, asked me for the thousandth time, "Where'd everybody go?"

Trying for patience I answered, "Bobby, please don't ask me that again; or at least give it a rest for a while. I told you several times already, I don't know."

A girl of nine whose voice was thick with apprehension asked, "Do you think we'll find food soon?"

Still trying for patience around the huge knot of a headache behind my eyes I had gotten while staring into the sun for too long I answered, "If we don't we have some in the trunk Tiff. Don't be such a worrywart; that's my job." We had been driving due east since before daybreak and the morning sun had been a laser beam into my tired, bloodshot eyes.

I heard Paul sniff the air and then point out the obvious by saying, "Dovie, the baby made another stink in his diaper."

"Oh glory," I mumbled silently to myself. Aloud I told everyone, "Alright, looks like we don't have a choice, but oh well, we need to stop and give the Clunker a rest anyway and give everyone a potty break. I saw a sign that said there was a rest area coming up and it is supposed to have vending machines and security. If there aren't any people there and the bathrooms have roll down security shutters, and aren't too gross, we might just sleep in there instead of the car tonight. How does that sound to everyone?"

A chorus of cheers assaulted my ears and I finally understood why Mom would smile and answer why she worked with the preschool and elementary aged kids at church even though my brothers and I were long out of that age: "Because they're easily pleased by the simplest of things."

As I pulled off the deserted interstate and down the long entrance ramp I saw that there were cars in the parking lot; not necessarily a bad thing but potentially not a good thing either. I slowed down even further to ease through and then came to a full stop without turning off the engine in case we needed to make a quick getaway. When some crows startled away from a pile of something up on the side walk I gave a small sigh of relief and then shook my head. Not that long ago seeing a decaying DB – a dead body – would not have been reason to sigh in relief; but in this case it was. It meant that more than likely no one was around, at least no live 'uns to peck at us the way that crow had been pecking at the DB.

"Paul you know the drill, switch places with me. I'm going to get out and check to see if anyone is around. If you hear anything you take off and just keep going. I'll do what I can to catch up … if possible."

Paul knew the drill all right but at ten – even a ten that was tall enough to reach the pedals on the Clunker and make it go – it wasn't a sure thing that he'd have the discipline necessary to do what I asked. He tried to start his usual twenty questions. "What happens if …"

"We've already talked about all the what-ifs Paulie," I reminded him.

Paul turned white – like he had all the times before – but crawled from the front passenger seat into the driver's seat after nodding while I climbed out of the driver's side window … the door wouldn't open as the Clunker had been getting souped up to be a stock car when I liberated it from Arturo's Auto Salvage. And – like all the times before – the Glock .357 felt huge in my hands as I went to make sure the coast was clear while at the same time feeling totally inadequate to protect us all. I took the Glock off of a dead security officer at some other rest stop way in the heck behind us the first few days on the road and have already had to use it more than once. The thing kicks like a mule and is louder than said kick landing on an empty metal shed; no, I didn't want to be forced to use it and draw unnecessary attention but I would if I had to.

We were in luck, in less than ten minutes I was back to the car. "Paulie, pull in the handicap space. Not like we are going to get a ticket for it. You'll need to keep the kids in the security office until I can clear the girls' bathroom out."

"Again?! Why can't we use the men's bathroom this time?"

"Because there are only two DBs in the girls' bathroom and about six or seven in the guys' bathroom and I'm not scrapping up anymore DBs than I have to that's why."

Paulie and Tiff got Bobby, Lonnie, and Corey out and moving and I grabbed Baby, Mimi, the diaper bags, carry-on, and the bag of toys. "Tiff, grab the quilt please."

"Got it already."

I sighed, "Thanks. Dat gum it's like going on safari every time we get everyone out of the car."

Paulie and Tiff looked at each other and rolled their eyes because I said that almost every single time I had to get the whole kit and caboodle of them out at the same time. The Clunker felt more and more like a clown car with each passing day; it was only supposed to seat five but we had eight in there including three car seats. Definitely not fun.

The rest area was one of the newer, fancy ones with a welcome station in it. That usually also meant a few extra amenities and upgraded goodies in the snack area and I meant to find out if this one had anything left but not until after I cleaned the bathroom. Luckily there were plenty of cleaning supplies in the janitorial supply closet and one of those hand pumps near the doggie doo run so that we didn't have to breathe straight bleach all night.

I knew the kids were letting off some steam by running around but they weren't being loud about it so I let them go. Tiff and Paulie knew when to stop them before they got too loud but it totally sucked that I was asking a 10 and 9 year old to do that job for me. Heck, it sucked to be 16 and playing mother to 7 orphans one of whom was an infant that was maybe three weeks old that Mimi had found in a trash can at a gas station bathroom. She thought it was a doll until it shivered and tried to cry. Crap, that was a nightmare I never want to repeat. We spent like two days there waiting for the baby to die. The kids were all crying and praying that God wouldn't take the baby too and … just crap you know? And now the baby is like their mascot or something; only like Mom used to complain, my brothers and I would play with our pets but it was she who had to feed and clean up after them. And I'm worried I can't take care of something so little so that it will live.

I never did find any kind of trail or body or nothing on who the mother could have been. Mother … yeah, right … biologically maybe but no other way. Poor little baby boy even had the umbilical cord and all the other junk still attached. I didn't know what the frick I was doing but that baby's guardian angel must have been guiding my hands because somehow or other the baby lived; but, I don't know if he'll have any issues or not. He's small – hasn't even hit ten pounds yet – and doesn't make a whole lotta noise. On the one hand I'm grateful; on the other it likely means nothing good. Infants were never my thing and I haven't found a book yet to tell me what a baby is supposed to be like its first few weeks. At least he is pooping now because he wasn't doing much of that – or peeing – in those first two days. Didn't have a bottle at the time because Corey had just started to use a sippy cup at the center so I had to feed him a drop at a time off the end of my little finger. I finally scalded out an eye drop bottle I found in a box of kids' cold medicine in the gas station's merchandise area and dropped the formula in that way and finally he started using his diapers for more than modesty. Then came the Jiffy Mart that had real bottles and nappies small enough they didn't come up to the poor thing's ears.

As bad as things are we could be a whole lot worse off. Hard to imagine but definitely true. Especially considering what got us here in the first place.