Tink browsed the shelves in front of her, squinting through the shadows at the faded labels on the tins. It was important to pick the right ones. You wanted ring-pull cans ideally, otherwise opening the damn things would be another thing to deal with. Then you had to choose the right ones. You don’t want to sit down on a cold night with your fire blazing and your pot full of water only to discover you’ve got a tin of canned peaches or something. She was relatively sure she wasn’t in the aisle where the dessert cans were kept. But you also didn’t want to just have a can of peas or string beans in that situation. And by now everything that was left was faded and jumbled up, so you had to be careful.
But you also had to be quick.
She plucked a few cans of what she was pretty sure was baked beans with sausages from the shelf and dropped them into her bag. It was a big old canvas tent bag, so she could fit a lot in it. The cans hit the ones she’s already taken with muted thunks. She glanced around nervously. The store was empty – she’d checked – but the wind was getting up outside, howling in the hollow roof and whistling through the broken windows. It was starting to play tricks on her hearing. She kept thinking she could hear movement in the opposite aisle. Stealthy rustling, shuffling footsteps. The longer she stayed here, the less certain she was that it wasn’t someone stalking her through the shelves, ready to shiv her and take her bag. The longer she stayed here, the more likely it was that it would be. So she grabbed one last tin of whatever-it-was, stuffed it into her bag, swung it onto her shoulder, and darted for the exit.
She was less than ten feet away from the doors when the first rusty cry stopped her in her tracks.
It sounded like a baby. A human baby. Tink whimpered softly, frozen in place. She’d been here too long. She had to go.
But if it was a baby?
It wasn’t, she told herself. It was a creaky shelf or a hungry animal, or it was one of the things that stalked the night. Speaking of which, it was getting late – it was already getting dark outside, thanks to the coming storm – and if she wasn’t gone before full dark arrived, she’d be in really big trouble. She had to ignore it and go.
But what if it was a baby?
As if to answer her, the cry came again, a little louder this time. It really, really sounded like a baby.
Well then, she thought, it was probably with its parents, who by some miracle hadn’t eaten it yet, but would probably be quite happy to eat her. She’d heard the stories about the ferals in the wastes who didn’t bother to scavenge any more, choosing to hunt instead. If it was a choice. She’d heard stories about that too – of how the things in the darkness could drive you mad, make you see things that weren't there, or make you think your companions were monsters. If they caught you, and if they didn't just eat you.
She had to go!
A third cry came, this one choked off by a tearful gurgle.
Ah, hell. She couldn't just leave it here. She just couldn't.
Tink grimaced and turned around, trying to locate the sound. She thought it was coming from the very far aisle. She’d have to pass by all the other aisles to get there. She crouched low at the end of the first row of shelves, peering round into the first aisle.
All clear. Run!
Staying low, she crouch-ran across the gap to the next set of shelves. Same again. Peek, clear, run. Peek, clear, run. Each time she looked into an aisle she expected to see some hunched figure, waiting for her. Each time, she didn’t. Until she was at the last set of shelves, about to peer into the last gloomy aisle.
A low, sorrowful burbling reached her ears – the language of a child too young to talk. Tink brushed her matted hair behind her ear, ignoring the clink of the charms she’d tied into it, listening intently for any other sound. Any indication that this baby wasn’t alone.
It sure sounded alone. And lonely.
Holding her breath, she peered around the shelves into the final aisle.
It was a baby, alright, and it was alone, lying on its back in the centre of the aisle. It was also naked, and squeaky clean. In this dirty, run-down place, it shone like a beacon. Tink stared at it in disbelief. She even raised her grubby fists and rubbed her eyes before looking again. Nope, still there. And now it was looking at her. It smiled and raised its chubby hands to her.
Tink took a step back, shaking her head. This was wrong … really, really wrong. In response the baby's plump face crumpled, and it began to cry. Loudly. Reflexively, Tink ducked down, glancing about her wildly. If somebody heard … if something heard …
“Shit!” she cursed under her breath, and darted down the aisle, scooping up the baby without stopping, and squeaking to a stop, back against the shelves, at the far end. Surprised, the baby stopped crying for a moment, then began to wriggle and squeal in her grasp. She adjusted her hold, cradling it in the crook of her arm, and hissed, “Ssssssh!”
Thank God, the baby did sssssh.
Tink stayed very still and considered her options. The wind was howling outside and it was already really dark; she could hear the first pitter-pats of rain on the windows and the metal roof. The storm had arrived, and it was going to be a big one. She could have braved it for a bit on her own, but not with a baby. The only other option was to stay here. She seemed to have the place to herself for now, but it might not stay that way. Anyone or anything could come in seeking shelter. And here she was, a short, skinny teenager with a bag full of food and a plump, healthy looking baby. Easy target. If she stayed, she'd have to find a hidey-hole. Or she could just leave it here – stick it in a basket with a blanket and some milk or something. She didn't even have to do that much. It wasn't her baby, after all.
She looked down at the baby to see it staring up at her with wide, trusting eyes. They were a deep blue. Like the evening sky. Like deep waters. Like she imagined the sea would be. She'd never seen it herself, but one day she would. England was an island. If she walked far enough, she'd eventually find the sea. And then she would build herself a shack out of driftwood and catch fish to eat and swim naked in the cool water and sleep in a bed of soft sand, listening to the sound of the waves.
She blinked and looked down at the baby. It – he, she saw now it was a boy - smiled at her and said softly, “Goorblah bloo.”
Tink smiled back. Okay. Hidey hole it was. She spotted a set of double doors not too far away, presumably leading into the back storage area. With another glance around to check they were still alone, she crept over and listened at the doors. Silence from beyond. She gave one of them an experimental push, and it swung open almost soundlessly, revealing only blackness beyond. She looked down at the baby and put a finger to her lips. He lifted his fist, as if to imitate her, giving himself a gentle punch on his nose. Tink bit back a giggle and put her shoulder to the door, pushing it open just enough to slip inside.
It was very dark back here, with no windows to let in light, and the sound of the storm was more muffled. Tink stood still while she waited for her eyes to adjust, then looked around. She saw more aisles of shelves, these ones much higher and narrower, some of them toppled and leaning on each other. Far off in one corner was some kind of machine she couldn't identify. And not too far away to her left, a pallet stacked high with plastic sacks filled with something. They'd barely been disturbed, so she guessed they weren't filled with food. Switching the baby's weight to her other arm, she crept forward to investigate. The sacks had pictures of some bright red fruit on them, but when she pushed her finger through the corner of one, all she found inside was dirt.
Bags of dirt. People used to buy dirt? Shaking her head in disbelief, Tink dropped her bag to the floor, then laid the baby down next to it. “Stay here,” she whispered. “I'll be right back.”
The baby gave an almost comical shiver as his back touched the concrete floor. Tink hesitated, sighed, and stripped off her shirt, wadding it up and sliding it underneath the baby. Now she was the one shivering in her threadbare vest top. There might not be any windows back here, but the wind was getting in somewhere, and it was bitterly cold.
She turned back to the pallet of sacks. It was stacked just a little taller than her. Running her hands along the exposed edges, she found suitable hand and foot holds and hauled herself up onto the top. Just as she'd hoped, it hadn't been left completely flush to the wall behind it. Getting to her feet, she grabbed one of the sacks and lifted it up. Individually, they weren't too heavy. She got to work, pulling the sacks out from the middle of the pile and throwing them down into the gap, hollowing out the centre to create a snug little hiding place. From outside, she hoped, it shouldn't be visible at all.
When she was satisfied with the size of the hole, Tink climbed back down to the baby, who was looking up at her in silent fascination. She grabbed her bag and threw it up into the hole, wincing a little at the metallic thunk the cans inside made when it landed, then scooped up the baby – and her shirt – and looked at the pallet again. She wasn't sure she could climb it one-handed. She could probably lift the baby onto the top – but what if he fell? The stupid thing wasn't even big enough to sit up on his own. But she didn't have any better ideas. She lifted the baby up in both hands, above her head, and laid him on top of the sacks, pushing him as far back as she could. Then she threw the shirt up before her, found her hand holds, and pulled herself up as quickly as she could.
Don't roll, she thought at the baby. Don't roll – no, don't, don't!
But he did – inwards, at least, but the hole she'd made was still a long drop for a tiny baby. She saw him vanish as she cleared the top of the pallet, and flinched at the dull thud that followed.
Looking down into the hole, she saw the baby lying on his back, his eyes wide and shocked. He gave a small whimper. Then he saw her, and smiled. She dropped down next to him and scooped him up. “Are you okay?” she whispered, running her hands over his little body in the gloom, trying to feel for broken bones.
Remarkably, he seemed fine. Tink let out a sigh of relief. She'd thought babies were supposed to be more fragile than that. She guessed he was just lucky. Maybe he'd bring her some luck too. She wrapped him in her shirt and propped him up in one corner, then pulled over her bag and emptied out its contents. She stacked the cans up in one corner, then shook out the old wadded-up blankets she kept in the bottom. Laying one out across the bottom of the hole, she wrapped the other around herself and leaned back against the sacks behind her, and regarded her new friend. He looked back at her solemnly.
So ...” she said in an almost whisper. “What am I supposed to do with you?”
“Bbbbb,” the baby replied.
Tink reached out and pulled the baby across to her, sitting him on her lap and wrapping her arms around him. “Yeah, it's cold,” she agreed. “Can't light a fire in here though. Hope you like cold beans.”
The baby looked up at her and smiled. Tink found herself smiling back. “What's your name?” she wondered aloud. “My name's Tink. Well, it's not my real name, but that what everyone calls me. Because of the sound the stuff in my hair makes.” She shook her head back and forth, causing her locks to fly, the charms and beads in them making small 'tinktinktink' sounds. “See?”
Laughing softly, the baby reached up his chubby hands to grab at her hair, but he couldn't quite reach. Tink brushed it back and selected one lock. “See this one? That's a nut from some machine I found all busted up. This one here, that's an old key. This one's a spring I found, probably from an old chair or something. This one I don't even know what it is. I put them in my hair because they say you should always have some iron on you, to keep away the things that live in the dark. I don't know if they're all iron, but I know some of them are.”
The baby lowered his hands, listening to her with a solemn expression on his tiny face. Tink looked into his blue eyes and felt herself relax. “My mum used to tie things into her hair like this, before she died. When you have enough hair, you can put things in yours, too.” She lifted her hand to stifle a yawn. “Ooh, I'm tired. Are you tired?”
The baby blinked twice, then gave a wide, toothless yawn.
“Okay. Hang on.” She fumbled about in her bag and pulled out a cracked wing mirror she had pulled off an old motorbike. Holding it up at the end of its pole, she lifted it like a periscope and angled it about. Slowly she scanned the room beyond their hiding place, searching the reflection for any sign of movement. Everything seemed to be still, just as she'd left it. Nothing out there stirred except the constant background howl of the storm outside and the gentle patter of rain on the building's metal roof. It was sort of soothing. Lowering the mirror, she tossed it aside thoughtlessly. Suddenly she was very, very tired.
“Storm's putting me to sleep,” she muttered, laying the baby down on his back and curling up around him. She tugged the blanket around her so that she could cover him too. “S'okay. We'll wait it out here and when it's safe I'll take you back to the den and see if anyone knows who left you here.”
The baby gurgled happily, kicked his legs once or twice, and gave another wide yawn. “Blooooo,” he said.
Tink found herself staring into those big blue eyes again, and wondered at the intensity of them. She'd never seen eyes in such a shade of blue. Looking at them made her feel like she was deep underwater, swimming in a warm ocean. She could feel the tide pulling at her, urging her in deeper, rocking her to and fro. She felt weightless, graceful, free. And she didn't seem to need to breathe. Moonlight glittered on the surface of the water far above her. It was beautiful.
She wasn't aware of when her eyes slipped closed and she fell into a deep sleep. Nor was she aware of when the baby rolled onto his front, got up on all fours and crawled closer to her, hands reaching for her. She was completely unaware of the angry hissing sound he made when his tiny fingers brushed against the iron key in her hair and came away blistered. And she certainly had no idea of the horror that was reflected in the discarded wing mirror as it latched itself to her throat with its long, pincer-like fangs and began to feed.