Clare stepped into the store, and when the floor creaked under her, she almost turned back. But then she caught sight of a section devoted to camping. She had left her flashlight at the cabin, so the first thing she picked up was a long heavy flashlight that took large batteries, which she found hanging in containers by the checkout. Then she walked through the store, bewildered by the number of things she was going to have to come back for—things that surely wouldn’t fit in her little wagon: a tent, a backpack, dozens of packets of freeze-dried food, blankets and sweaters and warm clothes.
Just in case, she located the back door to the store. It was to the side of the changing room, and in the light of her flashlight she read the sign next to it: ‘Emergency Exit—Alarm Will Sound.’
Clare thought not.
She put down the flashlight so she could use both hands, and soon she had the back door ajar.
In the clothing section, hurrying now, she pulled on a pair of jeans to see if they fit, listening to her surroundings all the time.
She had dropped a size. No surprise there.
From the corner of her eye, in the crepuscular light, she saw movement. She turned towards the front door and gripped her flashlight like a club.
She heard the sound of clothes whispering against each other, hangers clattering together. It was a casual, almost domestic sound, as if a shopper were sorting through the sale rack.
Clare’s instinct was to stay low. She dared not call attention to herself by running for the back door. She began, as quietly as she could, to inch towards the front—only for her foot to slip on a blouse that was lying on the floor. She tried to catch herself as she went down by grabbing onto one of the clothes racks. The hangers above her jangled together merrily.
From her prone position Clare saw movement to her left. She scrambled to her feet. There was no more time to think—a figure with a pale blot of a face loomed up beside her. She swung the flashlight up over her head and brought it down as hard as she could.
The ‘ow’ made her hesitate. Maybe she just wasn’t all that eager to kill. There would be time to ponder the moment, the moment that was to determine the course of her entire life.
Instead of striking again, she lowered the flashlight and turned it on, thinking she could at least momentarily blind her adversary.
“Go away,” she whispered. “Whatever you are—go away.”
But she found she was facing a boy, a boy younger than she. He carried no marks of Pest. His face was deathly pale, his hair and eyebrows dark. He was squinting. Clare slowly lowered the flashlight.
“I’m just a kid,” he said. And although he was still squinting, still partially blinded by the light, she thought she saw recognition dawn on his face.
“You’re Clare Bodine,” he said.
She nodded, incredulous; a moment later his name came to her.
“You’re Jem Clearey,” she said. “Ninth grade.”
“You’re the cheerleader,” he said. There was disbelief in his voice. “You do those back flips.”
“Chess club, right?”
They looked at each other. Then, in the gathering gloom of the store, as the shadows outside grew longer, and the wind stirred up dust on the empty streets, fifteen-year-old Clare Bodine, the cheerleader, reached out and pulled thirteen-year-old Jem Clearey, member of the chess club, into her arms.
“I THOUGHT YOU were going to kill me,” Clare said once they had disentangled themselves.
“Um. Me?” said Jem. “I don’t have enough status to talk to you, much less kill you.”
“Oh,” said Clare. “That.”
Clare pulled Michael’s Varsity jacket closer around her.
“That,” said Jem.
“I don’t think any of that matters anymore.” Clare remembered now that Jem’s name had been in the newspaper when he had won the local chess tournament, and that he had gone on to some sort of national tournament.