The next morning, I woke up to the sun coming in the far window. Ava was still asleep next to me, having shifted over to her back. I was vaguely disappointed she wasn’t still holding me, but at least we’d fallen asleep like that. Better to have a fleeting moment awake than the whole night unconscious. My stomach was feeling slight hunger pains, but nothing so bad I needed to eat immediately. Instead, I decided to lie in bed for longer: just enjoy the company, the peace and the warmth.
The first order of business for the day was to get all the stuff we’d stolen to the drop off point. Once we did that, the final confirmation of the contacts’ trustworthiness would happen; whether they paid us. I’d ideally have a letter in the mail waiting for me when I got home from school on Monday, with a big stack of cash in it. And I’d forgot to get some of the advance payment, taken out of the bank and sent in the mail by doing some fancy sheet-on-the-roof maneuvers. It didn’t seem worth it now. Whatever we got this time would be enough, even splitting it four ways.
These thoughts were accompanied by a few nervous aches through my abdomen. It was strange, since I hadn’t been very nervous before we’d robbed the house. I guessed the guilt and fear, was only setting in afterwards for me; the opposite situation of my friends. Normally I could rationalize, as in using rational reasoning, not BS, the apprehension or anxiety away. So I tried that.
The major seemed like it would be the computer that we’d taken. I’d never had a painting or Wii or kitchen knife set that I’d miss much if it got taken, but a computer was more important. So why shouldn’t it be too much of a problem that I’d tried to take and broken theirs?
Well, first of all, Mrs. Gissard was a jerk. She at least acted like the conservative blowhard the school wanted her to be during class, which I hated. She also wasn’t nice to students in general, singling them out, and not stopping kids when they were picking on others. Those were issues. But what we did wouldn’t change her behavior, and revenge was pointless, so that couldn’t be an excuse. There was also the fact that I shouldn’t care about her. Caring for others only leads to trouble; you never get anything out of it. I wasn’t an extraordinarily selfish person until I’d decided that I had to be that way. It was the only way to keep my morals consistent. So that was a big point in favor of taking things from her.
I waited a few minutes, but that didn’t help the stomach ache either. I felt that I should have a more surefire way of measuring how well my reasoning aligned with my moral compass, but thinking just got too convoluted and confused after a while. It was easier to come up with propositions in my head, hold them tight, and wait for a gut response. Both literally and figuratively.
If I couldn’t justify it because she was a jerk, and not because selfishism is the best and most superior way, then I was stuck. This was shitty. I’d robbed a house, because I thought it was going to be fun, and we were going to get money. Which it was, and we were. But that didn’t help me justify why I should get the happiness from those things instead of Mrs. Gissard and her husband getting it from the stuff we stole.
I thought more about her, and how she would react the next time she wanted to get on the computer. Well she was a teacher so she had a laptop. I had no idea what her husband did or whether it required a computer. So that would most likely be fine. Then the Wii. Old people normally didn’t like video games, especially silly ones like that, that much. So they’d be fine. I also tried to imagine if we’d instead robbed someone I didn’t know. A faceless man with no personality. He I wouldn’t feel as bad for. Simple recognition. The facial expressions, and how well I could imagine them, played a part too. So if I used a combination of mitigating the harm done, and cutting off empathy by anonymity…
It worked! The relief came in a rush. I didn’t want to have to realign my moral code. I just needed the right excuses for remaining selfish. And we could continue robbing houses, which was the best part. Now I just had to get Jacoby and Ava on board long-term, for more than just ‘one more mission,’ and figure out why the hell Claire was screwed up.
I almost jumped out of bed in excitement, but the daunting list of tasks for the day made me want to sink back into dreamland. But we’d also be dropping off the things we stole which would be a step of progress, if not thrilling, and might involve meeting a member of this mysterious organization. And we still had no idea why they were doing anything they did.
I started peeling the covers back, only on my side of the bed, so I could get up. There wasn’t any reason to delay the day any longer; it couldn’t be too bad. Before I’d managed to get my feet free from their toasty confinement, Ava moaned and threw an arm over me. I almost lay back down, like someone caught in the act, before I remembered I was just getting out of bed. No reason to feel guilty. I removed her arm from where it was draped over me, taking care not to wake her up more. For all I knew, she’d done that to keep me in bed, but that was probably wishful thinking. More likely it was a random movement.
Once out of the bed, the first thing on the agenda was normal morning maintenance. I brushed my teeth and used the bathroom, and changed back into my pants. The shorts were fine for wearing around the house, but we’d be going outside soon enough that it wasn’t worth delaying changing.
I peeked into Jacoby’s room on the way to the staircase. No one there. They must be up already. A glance at my watch told me it was 9:40. Not too late to be waking up on a Sunday morning. A pleasant cake-like smell filled the air as I started descending, the stairs cold under my bare feet. Socks would have been nice, but I’d forgotten to pack a pair and didn’t want to be wearing dirty ones without shoes on.
Jacoby and Claire were sitting at the kitchen table when I got there. His mom was making pancakes at the stove, and was the first to notice me.
“Good morning, Elie. How are you?” she asked, a pleasant smile smoothing out some of the more recent wrinkles etched on her face.
“I’m fine,” I replied. “How are you?”
“Oh, good. I’m just cooking, pancakes every Sunday. How many do you want?”
I made my way over to the kitchen table before saying, “I’ll have three, thanks.”
I was more partial to waffles personally, but most anything was good for breakfast. As long as it didn’t have too much fruit. While we were waiting, I turned toward Jacoby, who was staring down at the newspaper in front of him. Normally he’d be on his phone or something, but with no internet or data service, there was no point. At least the paper had some news. He was focused on the sports section, but I was fine with reading pieces of articles over his shoulder. I didn’t want to piss him off by asking for a piece or section of the newspaper.
After a few minutes, he looked at me, seated to his right around the circular table.
“Please don’t do that,” he said, frowning. “I hate it when people read over my shoulder. You can have the normal news if you want, but don’t look over my shoulder.”
Well that backfired. Must be normal before-breakfast grumpiness, unless he was still mad or something about last night. I thought Ava had pacified him, so it was probably the first one. No matter.
The partial newspaper he handed me was the Chicago Tribune, and of course its front page was plastered with Stockton. Stockton was the most important city in America at the moment, with the quarantine. The only information everyone on the outside had was photographs and videos of the town, and that just made people hungry for speculation. Most of it was completely off base, ridiculously outlandish, and much too pessimistic.
I pointed an article out to Claire, one hypothesizing an anarchy-like scenario. I hadn’t spoken a word to her yet, but a nod of acknowledgement, a glance up from her book, was enough to let me know she wasn’t upset with me as well. We read the article simultaneously.
I still had a few paragraphs to go when she finished, but she’d took the paper out of my hands and put it down on the table, then looked at me expectantly. I guessed she wanted a reaction to it. Well I could that to her.
I started, “I don’t know why they think we’d fall to pieces after the quarantine was put in place. We’re doing just fine like this. It’s stupid of them, I mean can’t they see were fine from their helicopters?”
She looked at me skeptically. “What they’re saying probably isn’t based on what they’re probably seeing, but it makes sense otherwise. You said you felt trapped when you first found out about the quarantine. You were all riled up at school, and even more unpleasant to be around. You’re just saying different stuff now because of the article. You always think people with authority are wrong.”
She adopted a self-satisfied gaze. I needed to think of a response to get rid of that smugness.
Maybe I was thinking differently about the quarantine because of the article, because I wanted it to be wrong. I’d woken up the first morning of the quarantine, thinking it was the height of ludicrousness to send us to school and everyone to work. After a few days though, especially with the huge distraction of the letters, I wasn’t as preoccupied with raging against it at every opportunity. Because of the distraction I was probably adapting faster than most, but they’d get used to it if it went on much longer. Which would absolutely suck, but was still a possibility. The quarantine should end when they find a cure or inhibitor for the virus. I couldn’t stand to be stuck here much longer, but being stuck here didn’t affect my day to day life. The lack of internet and phones was the bigger problem for me, and most likely everyone else as well. Tons of jobs couldn’t be done without it, but those weren’t the jobs of the people who’d start riots or anything the article was talking about.
So I said to Claire, “My opinion has changed a little. The situation is still—“ I glanced at Jacoby’s mom, who didn’t seem to be paying attention, “shitty as anything, but that’s more the lack of internet and phones. Not being able to get out of here feels entrapping, but it’s not like I leave every day or anything. I still can go to the store and get food. Sure, some people are trapped outside or inside like Ava’s dad, but it’s not that big of a deal. I mean I feel bad for her, but it doesn’t affect too many people. So it’s not too bad here, and the people writing the newspaper articles should be able to see that.”
She just gave a small ‘humph’ in response, and went back to the book she’d been reading. I didn’t feel satisfied with my ‘victory’. It takes the fun out of it when the other person just leaves the argument, without even a token surrender.
The pancakes were ready soon. I lightly buttered mine, then drowned them in syrup. The sweetness mixed with the salty in perfect proportions. The newspaper, which I continued to read while eating, didn’t contain anything else interesting.
Ava came downstairs after we were all finished. She was still in her pajama pants, hair a mess. At least she’d brushed her teeth.
When she got to the table, she stretched, yawned, and said, “I’m tired. How’d you guys sleep?”
We all answered positively. She soon broke into a conversation with Claire, before noticing we all were done, and getting up to get some food.
After breakfast was completely done with, and we’d cleaned our dishes, we made our way back upstairs. Ava seemed to be heading straight for our room, but before we split up I asked them if they wanted to come drop off everything with me. Jacoby wanted he should stay with his parents, but Claire and Ava were coming. I thought Jacoby really was still upset about it all, and wanted to distance himself some. I didn’t see how actually delivering the stolen goods was any worse than just having them, but if it made him more likely to come with us next time, it didn’t matter. I could have done it on my own if need be; most everything fit into one backpack.
When everyone was ready to go, we gathered the bags in the hallway, wary that the grownups were downstairs. I didn’t remember what the letter said about keeping some stuff we found, but it didn’t seem likely the people would be very okay with it. Well, hopefully they’d have no way to know. The stuff that Ava got from the kitchen actually seemed like it would be useful, the knives and pepper spray. Not that we’d be any fights soon, hopefully, but it never hurt to be cautious.
We dumped everything out, so we could organize packs we were going to keep, and ones we were going to give to them. I suggested we put the things we wanted in bags with our clothes, sort of as a disguise. Whoever was there to get the stuff, unless we were just dropping it off, probably would feel awkward searching through backpacks full of teen girls’ clothes. We’d dumped out the clothes in our rooms before going on the mission, so the bags were empty to start.
I took two knives, wrapped carefully in some newspaper from downstairs, then bundled in clothes and placed vertically in my bag. Claire and Ava each took another, and Ava also grabbed the pepper spray. We then filled up a fourth bag with the painting, phone and Wii. It seemed like a pitifully small amount when I felt it. The bag was very light compared to the others. Hopefully, if there was a person there, they wouldn’t be able to tell it wasn’t very much.
We left after packing. I was holding the fourth bag in my hand. The stuff in it probably wasn’t worth more than 500 dollars, which was disappointing. I was resigned to getting a pretty small amount in payment, but it better not affect whether we got future missions. Sure, we’d screwed this one up a bit, but we would do better next time.
The warehouse was maybe a twenty minute walk from Jacoby’s house, and I was shivering by the time we got there. The fall air and a crisp breeze lowered the temperature below what was comfortable in a t-shirt.
The building was mostly brick, with an old sign in the front. A few of the windows were broken, but for the most part it looked to be in good shape. I started moving towards a metal door, human sized, but Claire grabbed my arm.
“Are you sure we should go in there?” she questioned.
It was a far cry from her attitude the night before. I still had no idea what was up with her.
“Oh course we should,” I replied. “This is what the letter said to do.”
“But what if it only said that so we’d go in there and then they’d kidnap us or something,” she pressed.
“And how likely is that? Contrive this whole scheme, with the burglary or everything, just for this. It seems way too complicated for such a simple goal.”
Before she could respond, Ava grabbed her arm, and dragged her forward. Claire let out startled yelp, and I followed them to the door.
The metal knob was cold under my hand, but turned easily. We looked in, not able to see much. There weren’t any lights on, and barely any light streamed through the grimy windows. None of us crossed the threshold. After a few seconds, my eyes adjusted more, and I could make out a barren cement floor, with boxes stacked in one corner. I slowly looked from left to right; I could miss something in the dimness. There were square support columns, again brick, spaced evenly throughout the room.
As I turned to the far right, a face peered back at me from the shadows.
I flinched back, bumping against Claire and Ava, who were lurking slightly behind me. I quietly pointed out the figure.
“Is that the guy we give stuff to?” Claire whispered. “I thought this place was going to be empty.”
“I guess,” I whispered back.
Not wanting to betray my fear, I asked, trying to project my voice, “Are we supposed to give this stuff to you?”
“And what might you have, dearies?”
The voice came from the left. I whirled around, and came face to face with a man who I presumed to be our contact.