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Chapter 2 (cont.)
Penny was always a little bit afraid of that red flag. It could be rations from the Interior, but it could also be a bomb. And even though it probably wasn’t a bomb, she still figured she must be a target, living in one of the only houses left. And after all, rations wouldn’t fit in the mailbox.
The whole reason she was still living there was simply that no one had arrived to tear it down yet—and with an increasing amount of doubt, she still hoped no one ever would. But no one had tried to so much as break in for three years, now. So maybe there was no one left out there to care.
Which led Penny to her next problem—she couldn’t even trust herself to separate fear from fantasy anymore. Was she really such a ghost of her former self that she was standing here in the dark, dreaming up a murderer just so she wouldn’t have to feel alone?
She flipped the porch light on and by the sliver of light that reached inside the foyer, she donned a hockey mask, goalie pads and an oven mitt on her right hand—her standard getting-the-mail ensemble, designed to hurt her slightly-less-maybe in the case of an explosion.
She poked her head out the door and waited, one last stand to entice some lurking threat out of the dark while she was still basically protected. Nothing. With her un-mitted hand, she picked up the axe by the door and walked outside.
There is a kind of quiet you can only pretend to understand until you are standing on a wide, empty plain that was just a few years ago filled with thousands of people. Penny closed her eyes and let the solitude soak in—there were years she would have killed for this kind of quiet. Then she folded her free arm across her stomach to steel herself from the wind and made her way out to the mailbox.
Standing behind it, she used the tip of the axe to push it open. It took more heft than she was anticipating—they made axe-wielding look so easy on TV—but the mailbox fell open without any drama. She took the final step to the mouth of it and shoved her mitted hand in, patting it down first to ascertain the general feel the package. She heard the crinkle of thin plastic, and felt something not quite solid beneath it.
Pulling it out now with a complete lack of caution, she readily confirmed that it was, in fact, a loaf of bread.
It could be poisoned, a voice whispered into her ear from the wrong side of her ear. She had been living alone for too long, she thought, and had started to wonder if multiple personality disorder ever developed merely from solitude. Drink it in, she reminded herself, and took another, deliberate breath of the night air. You get what you want once you don’t want it anymore.
In addition to the crispness of the air, she smelled warm, fresh bread.
This was fresh bread! Poison be damned, she smiled victoriously and sailed back inside, buoyant for a moment and altogether uncareful. Once inside, however, her caution resumed. It had become an automatic response over the years to the cloistered interior of her sad, ancestral home. A place of both safety and anxiety. She closed the door behind her, locked it, and set down the axe.
She pressed the loaf of bread against her cheek. It was still slightly warm and thereby the closest she had come to real human interaction in weeks. Her heart sank in loneliness.
She turned back, as if she still might still catch a glimpse of the stranger who had delivered this to her. Who would have brought her bread? Lew would have just brought it making the rounds and charged her for it. The world still wasn’t so desperate that a loaf of bread in the dark of night was now some sort of romantic gesture…was it? Or had it been Jimmy’s rations delivery, after all?
That thought made her stop in her tracks. It actually really, really pissed her off.
One measly loaf of bread?
She estimated the location of refrigerator in the dark and slammed her fist into it. Some days, making her own hand throb in pain was the closest she felt to being alive. She felt for the match drawer in the dark—once crammed with matchboxes on some past, blessed day of plenty, there were now only three left. She opened one, and broke the first match she tried to ignite. She allowed herself two per day, which had so far amounted to just one night of total darkness in ten years.
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