Right out of the blue, something will happen that takes me back to the past, and what some of us still think of as the good old days. I didn’t even notice what was in Jenny’s hand when she burst in like a little tornado. All I saw was her face and her clothes — not just dirty, but with that nasty, splotchy black that said she’d been playing in a burned out building. Her eyes glowing with excitement couldn’t compete with my anger, and it was all I could do not to slap her.
It doesn’t matter how many times we say it, the kids will go adventuring in buildings that having been decaying for the last forty years — burned out shells that are half collapsed. More than one youngster has been killed that way. A lot more have been hurt, some of them pretty badly because they keep hoping to find something valuable, some bit of detritus from the old days. Most any of it would be a treasure to them, and like all kids from all times, they never believe they could be in any real danger.
I was so angry I couldn’t speak, and so relieved that she’d come home alive and unhurt that I was paralyzed. Punishing her wouldn’t make her understand that she was all I had left. She hardly remembered Billy, taken down by the cough that didn’t even have a name. We didn’t know how to treat it either, or prevent anyone from getting it. I thought it probably came from the fungus that grew on everything, no matter how many times I’d clean it away. Martin had been killed, by accident, in a gang war that he wasn’t even part of. Jenny was the last and if anything happened to her. I wouldn’t have any reason to keep living.
I took a deep breath when I saw the look in her eyes. It was just beginning to get through to her that she might be in serious trouble. But there was hope there, too, and still a bit of the excitement that had brought her flying into the room. And her hand was out.
“What do you have there, little chick?” It was so hard to say it in a normal voice, that wasn’t a harsh reminder that she’d forgotten every warning, even forgotten that she’d lost friends to adventuring. That’s what they called it. Adventuring. Grubbing through ruined buildings and the mountains of trash that we’d left behind.
“It’s paper, Momma. Look! It has numbers on it. And pictures. There’s a picture of a man on one side. Do you know who he is? Is he from the old times?”
I took it from her, carefully. I hadn’t seen many of these, even when we still used money, when it was still worth something. It was stained and one corner was burned away. It was limp and fragile, and it contained a thousand memories of things that no longer existed.
“It’s money, a hundred-dollar bill, from the old times. That man is Benjamin Franklin. He was from even older times, long before I was born.”
“Can I keep it? To show my friends? Maybe I can trade it for something better.”
That just about killed me. I didn’t know whether I wanted to laugh or cry. A hundred dollars wasn’t worth anything except for its novelty and what it might be traded for. And whatever she traded it for would be just as pathetic, just as worn out, and probably just as useless.
“Terry has a doll he found. It only has one eye, but he said he’d trade for it. Please, Momma?”
I was tempted to keep the bitter reminder of what used to be. Put it somewhere safe. But where was safe? And what was the point of hanging on to something that had no value anymore?
“Yes, you can keep it,” I finally said. How could I spoil her happiness? “Go see if Terry still has the doll. And from now on, stay out of those buildings!” I shouted after her, as she skipped out the door. If she even heard me, it would go in one ear and out the other. Kids hardly bother to listen to us anymore. But when did they ever?