Cassie dressed in the dim glow of her flashlight and splashed some water on her face. She had waited up for Leila, only to fall asleep, awakening when she stumbled in a few hours later. They had both been too sleepy to talk and from the way Leila collapsed on the bed without bothering to undress, there would’ve been little point in trying, anyway. Now as Cassie prepared to meet Doc downstairs, she played her light across Leila’s face and found her still asleep, oblivious. She decided against trying to wake her and went to the ballroom that served as a clinic.
The room was separated by three partitions that pulled out from the wall. Doors along the back wall led to a corridor that allowed Doc and his nurses to access each of the rooms as needed.
The biggest room was for triage and short stays. Sofas and chairs had been dragged in for friends of the patients, and there were mattresses on the floor for the sick.
The next room was for treatment, with a small bed for examinations and a table covered with thick pads and a sheet in case Doc needed to attempt minor surgery—a thought that made Cassie shudder. There were books in this room, a fully charged laptop computer with a stack of medical CDs nearby, a cabinet for medicine and bandages, and a propane camp stove and pot for sterilizing instruments. Two precious high-powered lights were available, although the operating table was placed near the windows to get maximum sunlight so that artificial light would only be needed for emergency surgery, should such be required after dark.
The last room was a ward full of mattresses arranged in rows. Cassie had heard that persons with even minor ailments preferred to stay at the hospital if there was a bed available. No one had time to sit with a sick person, and with no television, internet, cell phones or radio, it was boring to spend all day in one’s room alone. At least in the hospital there were things going on and other people to talk to.
This morning Cassie found the ward empty except for a little girl sleeping off a case of food poisoning. While she dozed, Doc and Cassie took stock of their materials, found the relevant instructions in their latest herb book, and went to work. They started by boiling jars and lids, then went on to set up a primitive distilling process using dried rose hips and the strongest liquor Mundo could give them—Bacardi 151. “It’s not really the right thing,” Cassie said, “So I hope it works.”
“As long as we’re not using anything dangerous like isopropyl or ethyl, it should be okay,” Doc reminded her. “And Mundo has the foragers on the lookout for Everclear.”
“Good luck to them. There’s probably some kid out there dead or brain damaged off the last of it.”
Doc agreed and asked her opinion on the best way to handle the pine distillate and willow bark. Since she wasn’t sure, they consulted the book.
Time passed quickly. The sun came up and Doc had to treat a sore throat and a sprained ankle. His overnight nurse was replaced by a thin, serious twelve year-old named Rochelle. She pored over the herb book with interest, then took over the more repetitive tasks of sterilizing jars and breaking up willow bark while Cassie distilled the herbs.
It was nearly noon by the time they finished and Cassie was surprised to realize she had missed breakfast and was in danger of getting no lunch, either. She hurried to the lounge and helped herself to a scoop of noodles from one of the chafing dishes on the buffet table. To her surprise, there were cookies for dessert, which Eleven guarded like precious jewels.
“Limit is two,” he said, writing her name on a clipboard as she took her share.
“I missed breakfast. Can I have extra?”
Frowning, Eleven flipped to an earlier page on his clipboard. “Wasteful to not show up when they’ve gone to the trouble to make food available.”
She didn’t answer.
“You can have an extra half-scoop of noodles. But no extra cookies.”
She took her extra noodles and scanned the room for a place to sit. In a dim corner by a boarded-up window, Leila was staring at her plate, sleepy and sullen, while Paul expounded on something of obvious importance to him from the other side of the table.
“Where’ve you been?” Leila asked as Cassie slid onto the banquette beside her. “No one woke me up and I missed my morning chores.”
“I had to meet Doc. I thought about waking you up but you looked so peaceful.”
Leila mumbled something and Paul leaned across the table. “I said I’d help you get caught up. Sweeping won’t take any time at all.”
“It’s the garbage duty I’m not looking forward to.” She looked at Cassie. “Did you know the first two floors of the garage across the street are almost completely full of trash and bodies? That’s why it smells the way it does.”
“That doesn’t sound very sanitary. It’s going to get worse in summer.”
“We’re thinking of setting it on fire,” Paul said. “We just need a little spare gasoline and a day where the wind won’t blow the smoke this way. That’s what David says, at any rate.”
Cassie noticed a hint of disapproval in Paul’s eyes as he said David’s name, but Leila perked up and sat a little straighter. “Where is he? Have they already gone foraging?”
“Joint forage with some Thespians,” he said. “There’s a rumor that the girls from St. Catherine’s Prep found a warehouse full of stuff. We’re hoping to add them to our alliance.”
All Leila said was, “Oh,” but Cassie could tell from her tone and the way her eyes narrowed that she was less than thrilled to hear David was spending the morning with the girls from the Catholic prep school. Cassie was surprised to feel a pang of jealousy too, thinking of Galahad around all those rich girls with their perfect hair and clothes. She quickly came back to reason, though. The girls from St. Catherine’s were probably as dirty and smelly as anyone else, and might not want to parley. Why should they, if they had food?
“I’m leading a gardening group on the deck by the pool after lunch,” Cassie said, trying to change the subject. “If you finish your chores early, drop by. We’re mostly planting lettuce, but if there’s enough soil and containers, we’re going to start some tomato plants, too.”
“I’ll think about it.” Leila pushed her plate away and stood up. Paul started to do the same, but she shook her head. “I don’t need any help. Thanks.”
Paul followed her with his eyes as she walked away. “She seems kind of down about something.”
“I don’t think she slept well.” Cassie decided not to mention how late she came in and what her suspicions were about the reason for it.
“She’s a pretty girl. And she’s funny when she’s not in one of these moods.”
Cassie nodded in agreement, her mind flashing back to neighborhood parties on summer evenings with their fathers barbequing while their mothers set out bowls of beans and potato salad. She remembered how she and Leila splashed in her family’s swimming pool, diving to the bottom to see how long they could stay before the air in their lungs pulled them back to the surface.
“I guess the Telo messed us all up,” Paul went on. “I keep telling myself that God has a reason for everything, but Jay, I mean Galahad, says God has nothing to do with it.” He fixed her with a piercing look. “Do you believe that? That God would let such a thing happen for no reason at all?”
“I have no idea.” Cassie drew back from the intensity in his eyes and reached for a cookie. It was stale, but she scarcely noticed.
“Nothing can happen without God’s knowledge, so he must have had something to do with it. Either he caused it or he allowed Satan to make it happen. We were an evil, materialistic society, which is probably why.”
“Seems like if he wanted to punish humans for the sins of society, he’d take the kids to heaven and leave the grownups to suffer, don’t you think?”
“No, he left us behind so we’d have a chance to redeem ourselves.”
Cassie shifted in her seat. “Well, this is an interesting conversation, but I need to set up some things for the gardening group.” She stood and picked up her plate so she could take it to the dishwashing crew. “If you or your cousin feel like planting lettuce this afternoon, be sure to stop by.”
Glad for the excuse to get away, she went to the third floor patio to get ready for the afternoon gardening session. They had salvaged some colorful earthen pots full of weeds and dead begonias. The pots would need to be placed in sunny spots on the deck and Cassie had to make sure there were enough tools on hand for the entire crew. They were short on actual gardening implements, but there were plenty of serving utensils from the hotel’s banquet facilities which would serve well enough for digging and scooping. As a final preparation, Cassie checked that the rain barrels were full and that there were water pitchers to use in place of watering cans. When she finally set the seed packets out and stepped back to admire her tidy garden setup, she felt a surge of satisfaction.
The gardening detail straggled onto the pool deck and they spent several pleasant hours in the sunshine, digging out the dead plants from the pots, loosening the soil, planting seeds to the correct depth and smoothing and watering the soil over them. It was quiet, relaxing work and for the first time in months, Cassie had a sense of genuine pleasure. There was something primal and nurturing about digging in the dirt and watering the seeds. In her mind she could already see pale green leaves reaching for the sun.
She was dragging a pot to a sunny corner when the swing of the patio door drew her attention. Galahad stood framed in the doorway, and she wiped her muddy hands on her pants. Foolishly, she couldn’t think what to do next and watched him step out onto the wooden deck, carrying a burlap sack. He deposited it at her feet with a grin so charming that it left her speechless.
“I found you some potatoes.”
She opened the bag and was overwhelmed by a musty odor and the sight of hundreds of tiny potatoes, bristling with eyes.
“We can plant these, right? Isn’t that what you do once they’re sprouting?”
“Yes,” she said, finding her voice and hating herself for being so tongue-tied in his presence. “We need deep soil for these, though.”
“I was thinking we could bring up some dirt and fill in the pool. It’s not like we use it for swimming, and it’ll probably be safer that way. If any kids fall in, they won’t get hurt.”
Cassie looked at the empty pool and tried to envision it a garden. It wasn’t very deep, but it was adequate for their purposes. It had drains, which would be good when the rains came, and if they could get enough soil, it might make a terrific garden. “That would be a lot of dirt to haul up the stairs.”
“Mundo will assign a team,” Galahad said. “We just need to tell him our plan and he’ll make it happen.”
“Then that’s what we’ll do,” Cassie said, envisioning the swimming pool green with the unfurling leaves of potato plants. She thought, too, of the hash browns, baked potatoes, boiled potatoes, and bowls of roasted potatoes they would be able to produce. Anyone could cook a potato, and they stored well. “We’ll get a lot of food out of this. Thanks.”
Galahad shrugged. “Just doing my job. The girls at St. Catherine’s are smart about a lot of things, but didn’t have a clue what to do with sprouting potatoes. They thought they had gone bad and were going to toss them. I pretended to agree they were useless, so they cost us nothing.”
Since there was no more gardening to be done that day, they found a place to store the potatoes and went to find Mundo. “So how’d that venture with St. Catherine’s go?” Cassie asked. “Was the warehouse any good?”
“Not as good as we hoped. A lot of stuff had gone bad—really bad, not just sprouting like the potatoes. But the girls are interested in joining our alliance, so something came out of it, at least. They’ve lost a few kids to the Obits and want to put a stop to it.”
“Does anyone know who these Obits are or what they look like?”
“They wear black uniforms and have vans and transport trucks. But other than that, no one knows much. We don’t even know if they have a real name. Kids started calling them Obits because every time they show up, it’s bad news. They work fast, don’t talk to anyone, and are only interested in young children. Some of the St. Catherine’s girls think they might be cannibals, since they never steal food.”
“Do you really think kids would eat each other?”
“A lot of weird things are happening out there. Anything is possible.”
By now they were at one of the spiral staircases and started heading down, dodging a few children playing ball on the steps.
“Don’t tell me there’s no school again,” Galahad said. “You want to grow up to be a bunch of illiterates?”
A sullen girl with snot caked under her nose glared up at him. “We ain’t going to grow up, so who cares?”
“Yeah,” a boy agreed, bouncing a ball and catching it. “And even if we do, we’ll just die.”
“Everyone dies,” Galahad told them. “It’s no reason not to plan for the future.”
The children gave him disbelieving looks and returned to their game.
Once they were out of earshot, Galahad said, “I’m seeing a lot of this attitude in the city. It’s a bad sign when little kids live like they expect to die tomorrow.”
“You can’t blame them,” Cassie said.
Cassie gave him a look.
“Yeah, I know.” He ducked his head. “I shouldn’t judge, since I was as bad as any of them in the first couple months. I figured what the hell, who cares any more? But we’ve got to move on. We’ve got to at least try.”
“That’s easy for us to say.” They were now in the lobby, heading toward Conference Suite A. “We’re grownups.”
“I guess we are, aren’t we?” He knocked on the conference room door. “Who’d have thought?”
EXCERPT FROM CASSIE'S JOURNAL:
We planted lettuce and tomatoes today and Galahad found us a sack of seed potatoes. Mundo is organizing a bucket brigade to bring up soil to fill in the pool, and I convinced Sandra to let her kitchen staff bring their knives out to the deck later this week to cut up the potatoes for planting.
It’s a good feeling to plant things in the ground, and not just because I know it means food later on. There’s something about the sun and dirt that I like. It feels like hope, like we have confidence in the future.
I think all of us felt the same way because we gardeners sat together at dinner and the sadness, anger, and vicious gossip of the other kids didn’t affect us. While children whined and kids my age flirted, argued, and flaunted their weird new jewelry made from bits of plastic signs, we discussed our potato garden and felt optimistic for the first time in I don’t know how long.
After dinner, Galahad said I seemed happy. We hung out for a little while near the stairs and he asked if I wanted more plants. Oh, hell yes, I do! And then I want—
Enough. I’ll be grateful for what I have and not wear myself out wishing for more.