Getting to Quail Heights had been easy in the old days, but neither girl had gas for their families’ cars any more, having used it all driving the city for food and medicine in the early days of the Telo. There were no more gasoline deliveries to the gas stations, and they would have done little good anyway, since the pumps needed electricity. Some of the more powerful gangs siphoned fuel from abandoned vehicles and drove the streets looking for food, liquor, and trouble, but most kids went on foot or bicycle. Cassie and Leila preferred to walk, since it was easier to carry weapons and trade goods that way.
Among the many hazards of Callaway Road were the packs of stray dogs and semi-feral children hiding in abandoned shops, watching passersby with suspicious eyes. In the burnt-over remains of a strip center, Cassie and Leila saw a gang of younger children poking in the rubble as if some useful treasure might be found in the ruins. A wild-haired boy with a pistol on his hip glared at the girls, daring them to warn him of danger. Leila tightened her grip on her baseball bat and Cassie eased a hand toward her canister of bear repellant. After sizing them up and deciding they weren’t worth harassing, the boy returned to overseeing his gang.
“That must’ve been what we smelled a few nights ago,” Leila said after they were out of earshot.
Cassie nodded, remembering that night of smoky air. “I guess it’s a good thing the weather is getting warmer. At the rate these kids are going, they’ll burn the entire city trying to cook and stay warm at night.”
“I bet a lot of it’s on purpose. They burn things because they’re mad.”
“Maybe they did at first,” Cassie said. “But it’s probably all accidental any more. Those kids back there looked too skinny and hungry to be destroying things just because.” She frowned slightly. “They burn stuff down because they don’t know how to build and watch a fire properly.”
“You could teach them. Put up a sign on Callaway. ‘Use Fire Safely, Ask Me How. Price: One Can of Food.’”
“I don’t know if I want to teach anything to these wild brats.”
“How else are we going to barter for better supplies? Once we’re out of liquor and cigarettes, that’s it for trade goods, unless we want to offer ourselves like those girls we saw in the Wal-Mart parking lot at Christmas.”
“Don’t remind me.”
They had reached the first ring of houses now, but most had burnt months ago. The girls fell silent, walking the empty streets and fighting the creeping sense that ghosts sheltered in the still and watchful remnants of what had once been a typical subdivision. Here they had gone to birthday parties as children, slumber parties at twelve and thirteen, and here they had met friends for high school football games, dances and pep rallies. They were used to the changes in their own neighborhood, but seeing Quail Heights for the first time since the Telo left them unsettled.
The first intact house had been ransacked, as had the second. “This was a dumb idea,” Leila said, shivering even though the afternoon wasn’t cold.
At the third house they found a bag of dried beans, overlooked where it had fallen on the pantry floor and been covered by some paper grocery sacks. “It’ll take all night to soak these,” Cassie said. “But at least we’ll eat tomorrow.”
Leila picked up a silver bracelet, dropped and stepped on in some earlier forager’s departure. She held it up to the light, then placed it on her wrist and fiddled with the clasp. “If we go back now and start soaking them, we may be able to eat tonight.”
“Let’s finish the block,” Cassie said. “And then we’ll go back, whether we find anything else or not.”
Two houses later, they did find something, but not what they were expecting.