"Matt, what do you want Santa to bring you?" Matt ignored Vanessa's question and fed more twisted strips of paper into the stove he'd made from a couple of number ten cans they'd found in one of the stores. His thirteenth birthday had come and gone, right here in a strip mall surrounded by walking dead people who wanted to eat him. He didn't have any illusions left. Unless they were very, very, lucky they'd all be dead before another month went by.
They only had enough food left for three or four weeks, and once they were down to only the food they could carry, they'd have to make a break for it. He was pretty sure they could get away from the stores, and even little Ryan could outrun the monsters, but they didn't have anywhere to go. That was why he hadn't told the others yet, he had to have a plan first, some hope to offer them before he said anything.
Valerie already knew. She had to know, because she'd helped him inventory everything only a few days ago. She was twelve. He remembered her birthday in the evacuation center outside of St. Louis. His mom and dad were both still alive then, and so was the girls' mom.
His little brother Mark had died in the back of an army truck on the way there. He'd changed into one of those things before they got to Bloomington, and they'd had to throw him out the back, without even a chance to bury him. The girls' story was a lot the same. Their dad had never come home from work, but he'd sent a text message saying he'd been bitten, that was before anyone had realized what being bitten meant.
Valerie's birthday party had been one of the few bright moments in the center. Somehow his mom and hers had gotten together and managed to arrange a little cake, and they'd sung to her and played a few games. Singing happy birthday was the first time Ryan had said anything since they'd picked him up on the way through what was left of Springfield. Bobby had come in later, with one of the last groups to arrive. Like Ryan he didn't have a family anymore, but unlike him, he was willing to talk about them.
Matt shut the door of the stove, and took the lid off the pot. Most of the snow had melted, so he added enough to nearly fill the aluminum camp pot and put the lid back on. A small hand grabbed his shoulder and shook him. "Matt ... What are you going to ask Santa for?"
He turned around, still crouching, letting the warmth from the stove warm his back. They'd covered one of the aisles over with plastic duct taped to the top shelves to make a sort of tent. The middle shelves made part of the barricade up at the front of the dollar store. The bottom shelves and the sides were covered with more plastic for insulation. The stove and candles kept it warmer than the rest of the store, and lots warmer than the subzero temperatures outside, but he was still cold despite the layers of clothes he wore. He looked at the eight year old kneeling beside him. She held a notepad in one sock covered hand and a pen in the other. "What are you talking about Nessa?"
"I'm writing a Letter to Santa so he knows what we want for Christmas." She held up the pad of paper for him to look at, turning it around with difficulty. Socks made clumsy mittens. They'd found plenty of socks here in the store, but no gloves. The dead had started walking in the spring, so the only warm clothes they'd found were as pile of sweatshirts that had been on clearance. The one Vanessa wore came down past her knees. "See, I told him where we are and I'm gonna write down what we want here."
She really thought Santa would still come. "Nessa, don't you know that..." He broke off when Valerie waved franticly at him. She saw she had his attention, then shook her head and mimed writing with one hand. She waited until he nodded to her, before picking up the book she had been reading by the light of the two candles on the shelf behind her and burrowing further under the blankets they'd made out of t-shits. Looking back at the eight year old, he started again. "Nessa, if you write a letter, how is he going to get it?"
She smiled proudly. "I got it all figured out. We still have balloons in the party store, right? We can put the letter in a plastic bag and tie it to the balloons. The wind blows it to Santa and then he'll know where we are." She looked at him hopefully. "That will work right? I know no-one came when we sent the other balloons, but this will be for Santa, He'll have to come." When Matt hesitated, she went on. "I mean he's just gotta, nobody else will, and we aren't asking to be taken away, just something for Christmas. He has to come doesn't he? We've been good all year, he has to ... he just..." Tears formed in her eyes and when she blinked, they ran down her cheeks.
Matt reached out and brushed them away. "Okay, we'll send it." He turned back around so she wouldn't see the tears in his own eyes, and fed the fire some more to cover himself until he could speak. "How about if you start with Ryan, go youngest to oldest. By the time you have everything written down, I'll have breakfast ready."
"Okay." She sniffed once more then went over to the two younger boys.
Matt stirred in some more snow, then stood up and pulled a plastic bag of rice off the top shelf. Weighing it in his hand, he stared at it a long time before reaching farther back and pulling a tiny box of raisins from a white shopping bag, then a nearly empty bag of sugar. If they were going to leave, they'd need to be able to run. Christmas was less than two weeks away. If they planned just right, they could eat up everything in two weeks instead of three or four. It would be nice not to be so hungry all the time, and they could build up some strength for when they needed it. He kept the sugar and raisins out of sight while he worked. They would be a nice surprise for the others.