The kid was alright. He just had not seen it coming, finding a kid at a time like this, but when he saw the look of terror in her eyes, he knew he couldn't leave her in the midst of that carnage. Funny, he mused, lighting a cigarette and being careful to blow the smoke away from her, at first he had thought she was a boy with her hair chopped so short. Looked like she did it herself with pruning shears or something.
He wasn't good at judging the age of people, much less kids. She could be nine or fourteen. When she finally talked, she said she couldn't remember. He told her he couldn't remember his own age either, so not to worry. That's when she first visibly relaxed. At least she looked almost peaceful now, asleep against the window of his truck, clutching a bag of cookies, half-eaten. He was glad he had raided the grocery store and on a whim, took a bag of pink and white frosted animal cookies. With sprinkles. After drinking a box of Parmalat milk and eating the cookies, she drifted off.
The guys would have thought his current situation a cosmic joke. First, the pink and white cookies, then the kid; they would rib him for weeks about all of it. Especially his new discipline of limiting himself to ten cigarettes per day. He found he enjoyed smoking more that way and he felt in control of something. He finished the cigarette. The kid moaned a little in her slumber. One hand on the wheel, he reached behind him and grabbed a flannel shirt. He slowed the truck down and put the cigarette out, covered the kid with the shirt, thinking about the guys-- he had no idea where they were or if they were even still alive, but the Surgeon General would probably approve that he had cut way back on his smoking.
He had never been one to venture too far from home after he had returned from the war, so he knew the safe places in town, even had keys to several. The summer after high school ended, he had worked night crew stocking shelves at the local grocery store which is how he knew about every kind of cookie in Aisle 8. One of the Jamaican guys loved those cookies, especially after his smoke break. That was before he smoked cigarettes and the Jamaican guy was smoking something much stronger. He said one of his relatives sent it to him from the island along with a rum-soaked raisin cake his mother baked. It was a boring job so the way that guy even ate the pink and white animal cookies was entertaining, biting off the heads, talking to them, making the cookies talk back. Night crew chaos and order. Most people had no idea that beneath the store was an even larger world of extra food on shelves and room-sized refrigerators. He should get something with protein in it, for the kid.
The girl's eyes opened and she peered out at him from the edge of the blue and green plaid shirt, "what's your name?" He almost told her what the guys had dubbed him, but didn't. "You can call me Mr. Laughter." As soon as it slipped out, he knew that was the wrong choice. Kids can spot a lie from an adult while it's still in the adult's head. She was testing him. And a lying adult was not what this kid needed. Shit. The girl sat up, indignant, and called him a liar. Gutsy. He had to get himself out of this, the right way. "Okay, you can drop the Mister." Her eyes flashed with some anger (better than the terror, he thought), and she just glared at him, then deliberately dropped the cookie bag. "Sorry," he pleaded, "my friends called me Laughter but with an S in front of it."
A few seconds passed, and he felt like this was either a ravine or a precipice, potentially good, potentially bad. She asked in a small, kid-like voice, "Your friends called you Slaughter? Like in killing?" He was impressed; she must be closer to fourteen and smart. That word was probably not on too many spelling lists for 3rd or 4th graders. He didn't want to ask her about school or family, figured she might tell him in time if she ever trusted him. Or she might not. He stopped driving. "Look," he explained in earnest, "I don't usually lie. It's not worth it. Didn't want to scare you. It's a dumb nickname from before....all of this"....and he spread his arms wide.
What he didn't expect was how quickly she ended up next to him, holding onto the half-eaten bag of pink and white cookies again, waiting for his arms to fold like wings around her, holding her safe. Feelings long dulled by too much of everything, bubbled up from that ravine like an upside down waterfall, and he knew without a doubt he would protect her at all costs. Softly, he sang an anthem.