READ THIS FIRST – 9

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There’s still places where the ground is sick from the war. If you stop at one of those, Rohini will snarl at the door before it’s even opened. That’s how you know about the sickness. There’s a big yellow suit in a cupboard in the bathroom which lets you go out safely. It’s worth it because there’s usually something to save from those places. No one else scavenges there. Always make sure there’s no holes in the suit before you go out, otherwise you’ll get sick too. When you come back, shower in it really thoroughly, take it off and scrub it, and then shower again. There’s a big safe on Class 0 to put scavenged things from those places – only open it when you’re wearing the suit. They have to be kept locked up because they’ll make you sick, but Mum said that after years and years the sickness will fade. The safe number is 29139.

The briefcase was in there for a time, after Dad opened it.

We went back. Not deliberately, it just happened that one turn of the handle took us to the shepherd’s hut by the Dead Sea again. Mum said it was a sign. She told Sanna and me to stay inside, no matter what. She promised she’d be back in a couple of hours. Then she took the briefcase and left.

It got dark and she still hadn’t come back. Sanna started to cry, saying she’d abandoned us, but I knew that wasn’t true. She’d gone to barter because she loved us. We loved her, so we went after.

Yellow Hat’s settlement was half an hour’s walk, up a valley that must have had a river in it once. We came to fields first, full of crops that stood tall and weren’t covered in snow. Shapes were moving through them, slow and silent. I put my hand over Sanna’s mouth and we crouched at the edge, watching. It took me quite a long time to realise that they were people. I opened my mouth to ask who farms at night, but then I remembered Dad saying they were dead, and I shut it again. We snuck around the edge and crept to where the buildings were. One of them – the biggest – had lamps still burning and the door open. The smell of hot food came from a window. It smelled just like Mum’s Anything Curry. Sanna sniffed, then stood up and looked through the window. She gave a little cry and called out to Mum. I grabbed her by the wrist but there were already shadows moving towards the door.

Mum came out into the street. She looked at us and her face didn’t change. I knew then what Dad had meant about the people here going away into their heads. Sanna cried and tried to go to her, but I held her still. Then Yellow Hat appeared in the door. He was holding the briefcase in one hand and a steaming bowl of Anything Curry in the other. He smiled at Sanna, and his teeth were too white.

I didn’t let her stop running until we were back. I think she hated me for leaving Mum there. But there wasn’t anything to bring home.

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