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The Dragon

Date: Year 14, day 10.

Location: Boat harbor on the west bank of the Mississippi.

Things I need to worry about today: No food. No weapons. No battery. No way home.

I opened my eyes to see a face with tangled orange hair a foot away from mine.

Pippen looked back over her shoulder. “She’s awake! Can I ask her now? 

I heard Conner sigh. “Go ahead.”

Pippen turned back to me and asked urgently, “What’s the plan, Callie?”

“Yeah,” added Tan behind her, “how are we getting home?”

I swung my feet out of the lower bunk bed and blinked in the morning light. Yeesh. We were stranded a thousand miles from civilization, and they expected me to have a plan. I couldn’t just wave my magic screwdriver and fix everything! I opened my mouth to explain how hopeless the situation was when I had a thought. Just a tiny spark of an idea, really. But I picked the idea up gently, and blew on it, and it didn’t flicker out. It glowed brighter as I realized this could work!

“We’re going to ride a dragon home,” I said.

“A dragon?” asked Tan. “Would you like to explain that?”

“Nope,” I said. “I don’t want to spoil the plan by telling you what it is.” Okay, that was only partly true. Mostly I didn’t want to explain the plan because the details were still sorting themselves out in my head. And I still had some doubts about this plan. I’d never talked to a dragon before. “First,” I said, “we need to go shopping.”

We gathered up what little equipment we still had and left the houseboat, walking up the dusty road toward the small town we’d passed on our fourth day when we’d been looking for a bridge to cross the Mississippi River. Conner was barefoot, but that didn’t slow him down any.

“I’m hungry,” Pippen complained.

“Nothing left for breakfast,” I said. “But unless I’m remembering wrong, there’s a Walmart just up ahead.”

I wasn’t, and there was. Conner had lost his crowbar, but the Walmart store didn’t have a door, just an open entryway. Skylights in the ceiling lit the inside of the store. A few birds fluttered up to the rafters as we entered. 

Tan sniffed the air. “Smells like a grocery store,” he said.

It did. When the separate smells of spoiled food, mold, and animal poop mix together, they become a new smell: grocery store. The layout of the store was also familiar; it was the same as the Walmarts back home.

“Right,” I said. “Grab some carts. Conner and Tan, you guys go to sporting goods and get equipment. Pippen and I will get food. We’ll meet at the checkout counters when we’re done.”

“There may be dangerous animals in here,” said Conner. “Why are we splitting up?”

I looked at our ragged group. Pippen’s clothes were in shreds. Conner had no boots. The gash on Tan’s forehead was no longer bleeding, and he’d put his shirt back on, but it was covered with dried blood. We all looked like we’d been in a blender. 

“We’re splitting up because we all need new clothes. Pippen and I will hit the clothing section first. Boys can go second.”

Tan snorted. “We’ve seen you naked before.”

“Not since we were eight,” said Pippen. “And we’ve become totally hot since then. We wouldn’t want you to be blinded by our beauty.”

Conner blushed. He’s cute that way. “Okay,” he said reluctantly, “but be careful.”

“Yes, mother,” said Pippen, pulling out a throwing star. “This isn’t my first grocery store.”

As the boys headed off with their carts, I shouted after them, “Oh, on your way, pick up D batteries!”

“How many do you need?” Tan called back.

“All of them!” I yelled. “I need all of them!”

Modern Survival Manual

Chapter 4: Grocery Stores


If you need survival gear, the best place to go finding is a grocery store. Large stores like Walmart are a great source of survival items like tents, bottles of water, food, weapons, and duct tape. The problem is that you won’t be the only one in the store looking for the necessities of survival. Even a store with doors that lock will not keep out mice and rats. Once mice and rats get into a store, animals that prey on them will too. A few things to watch out for:

Rattlesnakes often nest behind packages on shelves. Poke around with a broom first. You’ll find brooms in the cleaning aisle.

Wild dogs may attack you if they are in a pack. They can’t climb very well, so you can escape by getting on top of a shelf.

Deer seem to like the cereal aisle. Deer won’t try to eat you, but they are dangerous because if they get cornered, they go crazy and run right over you.

Larger predators like cougars and bears may enter stores looking for deer. Watch the behavior of smaller animals to see if they are acting nervous. 

Spoiled food can kill you just as dead as a bear. Repeated cycles of freezing and thawing during winter can break the seals on canned food. Avoid any cans that are rusty or dented or bulging. Food lasts longer if it’s dry or salty or has added sugar. This means nature’s perfect food is Doritos! 

Pippen and I headed straight to the clothing section. There were a couple of cats sleeping on top of the stacks of clothing. They had shorter fur than the cats back home, but other than that they looked like regular cats. When they saw us, they ran off a short distance, then ignored us and licked their fur as if they’d only moved because the light was better over there. The cats didn’t seem nervous, so there probably weren’t any big predators in the store. I had to dig down through the piles of Levis to get a pair that wasn’t covered with cat hair. Pippen detoured through the little girls’ clothing section then met me at the dressing rooms.

She carried an armload into the booth next to me.

“Take your time,” I called over the wall. “The boys won’t be here for a while.”

“How do you know?”

“I just sent Conner and Tan through sporting goods.”

“So?” Pippen asked.

“So sporting goods has knives.”


I left my dirt-caked clothes on the floor of the changing room, keeping only my backpack and my magic screwdriver pin. It felt good to be back in a clean white t-shirt and jeans. 

Pippen stepped out of her booth. “What do you think?” she asked. She was wearing black boots, bright yellow pants, a black and yellow striped shirt, and a yellow hat.

I snorted. “You look like a giant bee!” It was the first laugh I’d had in days, and it felt good.

“I’m going to beat Nature at her own game,” Pippen said. “Any animals that look at me will realize I must be dangerous if I’m colored like this! They’ll probably eat you instead.”

Pippen transferred equipment from her old clothes to her new ones. Then we headed over toward the food section of the store.

The grocery section was a mess, with scraps of chewed paper, plastic, and animal droppings all over the floor. We didn’t see any past people. They had probably been dragged away by dogs, but we did see abandoned carts everywhere and occasionally scraps of clothing.

In the beverage aisle, we loaded several cases of bottled water into our carts. I opened a can of Orange Crush for me, and tossed Pippen a Cherry Coke. Rule 24 says we can’t touch the beer, and Tan says to stay away from the diet drinks, because some of the fake sweeteners break down after a while.

The snack aisle had been picked over pretty well by deer, but we found some nuts in glass jars. The canned foods aisle was mostly untouched. We tossed cans of vegetables, soup, ravioli, and chili into the cart. 

“Hey, look,” Pippen said. “Canned chicken!”

Past people used to eat chicken a lot, but Jon says that by year three, the dogs had caught and eaten all the chickens. Pippen tossed me the can and got a can opener off a display. “What do you suppose chicken tastes like?”

We usually avoid cans of meat, since there’s a risk of botulism poisoning if the can has gotten damaged, but this can looked intact. This far south, it probably hadn’t ever been frozen. Besides, I was a bit curious, and more than a bit hungry. I opened the can, grabbed a chunk with my fingers, and popped it in my mouth.

“Well?” Pippen asked.

“Hmm,” I said, chewing thoughtfully, “I’d say chicken tastes like rabbit.”

The glass freezer doors in the frozen food section were still closed, and some of the boxes of food inside looked intact, but I’d learned the hard way never to open those doors. Sometimes in nightmares I can still smell that stench. 

The produce section was empty except for some dried-out brown leaves in the bins. But I noticed that directly under a broken skylight, some tiny green leaves were sprouting from a pile of animal droppings. Maybe some day there would be fresh produce here again!

We zigzagged through the rest of the store, picking up things we needed. I went through my mental list. Paper towels, check. Flashlight, Windex, and poster board, check. Duct tape, check. Along the way, I grabbed every package of D batteries I could find, and tossed half of them in Pippen’s cart.

“My cart’s getting heavy!” Pippen complained. 

“Tools! I need tools!” I cried, leading the way to hardware.

Pippen groaned and followed me.

I got a large toolbox and stocked it with an assortment of tools. I also got a flashlight, voltage meter, extension cords, and all the jumper cables in the automotive section.

We didn’t run into the boys until we got back to the checkout counters. Conner was wearing new hiking boots and a black t-shirt with a skull on it. He had a large leather belt across his chest, and duct taped to it was every model of knife that Walmart sold. And Conner had a new crowbar. Stanley, the sword of legend and destiny, had been reforged.

Tan was sitting on the checkout counter, eating canned peaches. He had a new set of green scrubs. He also had a clean bandage on his forehead and a new medical bag around his waist. I could see they’d found the pharmacy. Most of Conner’s cart was full of batteries. Tan’s cart had a big stack of blankets. “They were on sale,” he explained.

“Now what?” Pippen asked.

“Get the carts and follow me,” I said. 

We went down the row of checkout stands, getting every package of D batteries in the displays. Then I led the team out the door.

“There’s a dragon around here?” Tan asked.

“Yes, three blocks that way,” I said.

We pushed our carts through the parking lot. The tools and batteries were heavy; my cart must have weighed several hundred pounds. 

“Aaagh!” said Pippen. “I think I got the only cart in the whole store with a wobbly wheel!”

Sweating in the morning sun, we pushed our carts along the street. Three blocks later, we finally arrived at the railroad crossing where Pippen had made fun of the past people stopped by the train.

Tan looked around. “So where’s the dragon?”

“Right there,” I said, pointing.

The barricade at the train crossing was down, and there was a pile of cars and trucks behind it. They were stopped at funny angles and most were pushed into the car in front. I could picture what had happened. Everyone had been idling, waiting for the train to move on. When Fixer struck, their feet had slipped off the brakes, and the cars had rolled forward. The cars at the front had actually pushed past the arm of the barricade and run into the second car of the train. There was a good selection of diesel trucks in the pile, but I wasn’t pointing at them. I was pointing to the big red, white, and blue locomotive at the front of the train. The one that was facing in the direction of home.

Pippen stared. “Zow, Callie! When you plan, you plan big!”

We pushed our shopping carts right up to the locomotive. It wasn’t sleek and streamlined. It was blocky and blunt and made of thick welded plates of steel, like the past engineers didn’t care about what it looked like or how much it weighed, only about power. I gulped. I hadn’t been prepared for how massive this thing was up close! It was as long as a mobile home and nearly two stories tall. I took a step back. Maybe I couldn’t do this. Yeah, maybe you can’t, said the voice in my head. You’ve been lucky so far, but this time it’s going to catch up with you. This time you’re going to fail. I took another step back. I’d just been fooling myself. I couldn’t really talk to machines! Maybe it was time to let someone else lead. I tried to step back again, but I bumped into Conner. He put a hand on my shoulder. “It’s just a machine, Callie. This is what you do.”

“Right,” said Pippen. “It’s just a machine. A really big machine! A gigantic, huge, enormous–”

Conner knuckled her on the head to shut her up.

I swallowed my doubts and walked up to the locomotive. Streaks of rust stained her paint. I ran my fingers along her side, feeling the seams in the metal plates. I leaned my cheek against the steel and closed my eyes. “Hello, baby,” I whispered. “I’ve come to rescue you!”

Everything else in the world faded away. Nothing existed except for me and the machine. “You were built to roar along the rails,” I purred, “not sit here forgotten, while your wheels rust to the tracks! You should be out there climbing up the hills and charging down into the valleys, with the wind whipping the exhaust over your back! You and I can do it baby, but you've got to talk to me!" I opened my eyes, and saw that my hand was resting on a metal door labeled: “Battery Access.” Maybe I could do this after all!

The latches on the battery access panel were rusty, but Conner twisted them open with his crowbar. Inside were several big batteries hooked together.

“Can you get it started?” Tan asked.

“Not with these batteries,” I said. “They’re long dead. That’s why we brought our own.”

“We’re going to start a train with flashlight batteries?” Pippen asked in disbelief.

“Yup,” I said. “A battery is a battery.”

I got out one piece of poster board and rolled it into a tube and duct taped it. While I tore open battery packages, I explained. “Flashlight batteries keep their charge a lot better than car batteries. These may have lost a bit, but if we stack them together, we can get enough power.” I slid batteries into the tube until they filled the entire length. Then I cut apart an extension cord, and duct-taped the bare wires to the ends of the battery tube, wrapping the tape around several times to keep the connection tight. I measured the voltage with the electrical meter. “Twelve volts! Perfect! We’ve just turned a bunch of little batteries into one big one.”

“Yeah, but will that give us enough…amps or whatever?” Tan asked.

“Not yet,” I said. “Tan, I need you to make me more tubes just like this one. Then I’ll hook them up in series to give us more voltage, and in parallel to give us more amperage. Keep going until you run out of batteries. I just hope we found enough.”

 “What do I do?” asked Pippen eagerly.

I handed her the bottle of Windex and the paper towel. “Go clean the bird poop off the windows. Conner, come with me.”

Pippen scowled. “I could have stayed home and scrubbed poop!” she grumbled, but she went.


Part way up the locomotive, there was a narrow catwalk with a railing that ran all the way from the back up to the cab at the front. We climbed up the steps to the catwalk and tried the door to the cab. It was unlocked. The inside was bigger than most truck cabs with plenty of room to stand up. There were two seats up front facing the windshield and a third seat near the left side window. One of the seat cushions had cracked a bit, but the windows were closed so everything was still clean inside. Pippen was already outside the cab, working at cleaning the years of accumulated grulk off the windows. There were two past people curled up on the floor. Conner dragged them toward the door.

“Be gentle,” I said. “They were engineers…of a sort.”

The right front seat looked like where the driver sat, since it had a dashboard with controls in front of it. I’d been expecting some sort of computer screen and a joystick, but this locomotive looked like antique technology, all metal levers and valves. The only thing that looked modern was the radio. In between the front seats, a narrow stairway led down into the nose of the locomotive. Along the back wall was an intimidating array of circuit breakers and gauges. Usually within a few minutes of looking at a new machine, it would start to talk to me, and things would snap into place in my head. But I’d never seen anything like this before. No steering wheel, no gearshift, no brake pedal. I was starting to get worried.

“What are you looking for?” asked Conner.

“First of all, some way to start the engine.”

“I don’t see a key or anything,” said Conner.

“Maybe the starter is in the back somewhere,” I said. “Let’s go have a look.”

We went back out the door and walked along the catwalk. There were a number of access doors in the side of the locomotive. Conner opened one and I leaned inside and turned on my flashlight. I could see the entire inside of the dragon. The first thing that caught my eye was a big engine. No, not just big, it was gigantic! With the exception of the cab at the front, this entire locomotive was the engine! I recognized cylinder heads, but the pistons inside must be the size of buckets! The fuel injector pump was an old familiar friend. There were no spark plugs, which meant this engine ran on diesel. The crankshaft of the engine hooked directly to something that had to be a giant alternator… A tingle went down my spine. I had seen something like this, on more mornings than I wanted to remember.

“Hey, this is just like the troll!” I told Conner excitedly. “It’s huge, but it’s still just a generator! The engine generates electricity and then there must be electric motors underneath that run the wheels. There’s no need for a transmission. It’s brilliant!”

“So can you bring it back to life?” Conner asked.

“That’s the big question. The starter controls are right here, and there are sight glasses that show the fluid levels. Oil and coolant look full. That’s good news. Now to see if we have bad news.”

“What kind of bad news?” Conner asked.

I climbed down to the ground. “We might not have enough fuel. If this locomotive was running when Fixer struck, it might have kept running until it ate up all the fuel.”

We walked to the giant black fuel tank slung between the front and back wheels. The label on the tank read “5000 Gallons.” I found a sight glass, and to my surprise, the tank was nearly full.

“Do we have enough to get home?” Conner asked.

“Well, we still have to go through Missouri, Kansas and Colorado to get back home,” I said. Arnold gets” —a wave of pain rose inside me, but I shoved it back down— “got about twelve miles to the gallon. If we assume this dragon gets only a tenth of that, then five thousand gallons gives us enough fuel to go…let’s see…1.2 multiplied by 5000…um, a quarter of the way around the world!”

“That ought to do it,” Conner said. 

Pippen finished the windows and went to help Tan make battery tubes. Conner started loading our supplies into the cab. I got my new toolbox and went to check out the rest of the train. 

There were no passenger cars, just boxcars. I figured we could travel faster with just the locomotive. The coupling between the locomotive and the first car looked almost like a pair of hands, locked in a metal handshake. There was also a hose connected between the locomotive and the first car. I followed the hose to a pipe, which led to a large cylinder near the car’s wheel. Ah, this was an air brake system! From the locomotive, you could control the brakes on the whole train. Pretty spiff! I disconnected the hose and found the valve on the locomotive that let me shut off the brake line. 

There was a long lever on the locomotive that looked like it would release the coupling. I tried to move it, but it wouldn’t budge. After several whacks with a hammer, the lever lifted up. There was a similar lever on the boxcar side of the coupling. I lifted that one, and the metal knuckles popped open slightly. The dragon was unchained!

Tan and Pippen had finished all the battery tubes, taped extension cords to them, and stacked them on the ground next to the locomotive. I wired them together, and then used the jumper cables to hook them into the battery compartment. A bit of sparking told me I had a good connection. Tan and Conner and Pippen stayed on the ground next to the tubes of batteries while I climbed up to the engine compartment alone. There was a large rotary switch with positions marked “Off,” “Run,” and “Start,” but it was already in the “Run” position. There was a button next to it labeled “Reset,” so I pushed it. I heard some relays click and an electric motor whined; maybe a fuel pump or oil pump. If this engine had glow plugs, I hoped they were glowing now. This was the key moment. Could the dragon’s heart beat again? 

I closed my eyes. With one hand I pushed the lever that fed fuel to the injectors and with the other hand, I turned the rotary switch to “Start.” An agonized screech filled the cab as the ancient starter motor came to life. Even with my eyes closed, I could see what was going on in the engine. I heard the starter slam the pinion gear into the flywheel, and slowly the huge engine started to rotate. I winced. This was the painful part for the engine. There was going to be metal-to-metal contact until oil could coat the cylinders. The first piston came up on the compression stroke and for one heart-stopping moment, I thought the starter motor was going to stall. Then the piston reached the top, and came back down with a "Chuff!" as the compressed air escaped out the exhaust. Slowly the engine began to turn faster, the "Chuff, chuff, chuff!" sounds coming closer together. I smelled raw diesel fuel and I opened my eyes. White smoke was billowing out of the top of the locomotive and pouring down over the side. White smoke meant the engine wasn’t firing yet. Through the choking cloud of diesel, Conner’s voice penetrated. “Callie! The batteries are getting hot!”

I ignored him and held the switch in the “Start” position. If I stopped now, I might never get the engine to turn over again. Finally one of the cylinders fired with a loud “Whack!” The big engine turned over faster and faster. More and more pistons fired, then the engine caught and ran on its own. White smoke turned to black, and I released the starter switch. The engine ran roughly at first, with coughing fits that rattled the entire locomotive, but soon it smoothed out to a roar. I let the injector lever drop back to the idle position, and the engine rumbled contentedly.

Suddenly I was aware that Pippen and Tan were jumping up and down on the ground, whooping loud enough to be heard over the racket. “It’s alive! Alive!” shouted Tan.

Conner yelled urgently, “Callie, the batteries!”

I glanced down and saw that the poster board battery tubes had caught on fire. “Just unhook the jumper cables!” I yelled. “From here on, we won’t turn the engine off!”

Conner yanked the cables out of the battery compartment and kicked dirt on the fire. I closed the engine compartment door, and ran back to the cab. The others scrambled up the ladder to join me. I sat down in the engineer’s seat. Everything felt perfectly natural. My left hand reached out automatically and grasped a red-handled lever. This was clearly the most important control, so it would be the throttle. It had several notched positions. The one it was currently on was labeled “idle.” I found another lever marked with “forward,” “neutral,” and “reverse” and moved it to the “forward” position.

“Are you ready, baby?” I asked.

I moved the throttle lever to the first notch. The engine growled out a higher note, and with a crunching sound, the locomotive pulled loose from the cars and rolled forward. This giant beast of steel, copper, and oil was moving again! Conner slapped me on the back, Tan had a huge grin on his face, and Pippen danced around the cab. I slid the side window open, stuck my head out, and whooped at the top of my lungs. The dragon felt the same way I did, so I found the horn lever and she howled too.

As soon as everyone had settled down, I gathered them around my chair to show them what I’d figured out so far. “This lever is the throttle. Right now we’re on ‘one.’” From high up in the cab, we had a great view of the tracks ahead. The rails were rusty, and occasionally bushy weeds grew up through the gravel railroad bed, but our dragon rumbled over them with no notice. I moved the throttle up a notch. “This is two.” The engine revved up a bit, and I felt a little kick as the locomotive picked up speed. The dragon rocked side-to-side gently as we rolled along uneven track.

“Can I blow the horn?” asked Tan, reaching for the lever.

I smacked his hand and moved the throttle up another notch. “This is three.” We were moving very fast now. “The lever goes all the way to eight, but since we aren’t pulling a train, I don’t think we’ll ever have to go over four.”

“We need to stop,” commented Conner.

“True,” I admitted, “but I haven’t figured that out yet. There are three different levers here marked ‘Brake,’ and I’m not sure which one to use. This one says ‘Train Brake,’ this other one says ‘Dynamic Brake,’ and this one–”

“No,” Conner said, more urgently, “we need to STOP!”

I looked up and saw we were racing toward a railroad crossing. Right in the middle of the tracks was a truck.

Desperately I threw the lever marked “Train Brake.” 

Nothing happened.