Dirt collection for the potato garden began after breakfast and Cassie immediately saw that even if all went well, it would be a long process. The nearest source of dirt was a park several blocks away and it would have to be brought on foot because the shuttle couldn’t be spared.
“Potatoes in a couple months will be damn useless if we’re dead because we didn’t look for something we can eat today,” David told her.
“We’ll bring back as much dirt as we have room for,” Galahad added. “And if we find some extra gasoline, maybe we can do a separate run.”
“If you can get some soil from a nursery, that would be best,” Cassie said.
David rolled his eyes. “We’ve got no time to be going to anyplace that isn’t likely to have food or batteries.”
“But what about fertilizer?”
“Use shit. There’s plenty of it around here.”
When Leila came to the driveway to see the shuttle off, Cassie raised her eyebrows. “Your boyfriend has a crude sense of humor.”
“He’s not my boyfriend.”
“You’ve been out late with him two nights in a row.”
“That doesn’t make him my boyfriend.” Leila jerked her chin in the direction of a utility cart loaded with empty buckets and laundry sacks. “Can we go? I want to get out of here before Paul finds me and starts pestering me about Jesus.”
“He likes you,” Cassie said as they wheeled the cart into the street. “And he’s probably a better long-term bet than a guy like David. Galahad says—”
“What guy wouldn’t put in a good word for his cousin?” Leila maneuvered their cart around a fallen traffic light. “Besides, you’re one to talk. You’ve been spending time with Galahad.”
Cassie felt her cheeks grow warm. “There’s nothing between us. And it’s not like we disappear for half the night. Anyone can see we’re only talking.”
Both girls held their breath as they passed the reeking garage where they and other groups had been dumping their trash, but once they were past, Leila scanned the streets with a purposeful air. Suspecting she was interested in more than the litter, pigeons, and occasional kids walking around, Cassie asked what she was looking for. “We’re not in much danger. Things have been quiet lately and we’ve got no trade goods.”
Leila frowned at the darkened shop windows. “They say the girl who makes that plastic jewelry has her shop around here. I thought maybe we could take a look.”
“Why? You’ve got plenty of real jewelry.”
“But gold and diamonds are common as dirt since everyone looted the jewelry stores. This girl May makes things that are different. Every piece is unique.”
“But why would you want to wear part of a McDonald’s sign or traffic light?”
Leila sighed in annoyance. “It’s the fashion, okay?”
“We’ve got more important things to worry about than fashion.”
“Lighten up, will you? You used to be fun.”
“And you used to give a damn about things that mattered.”
Both girls lapsed into sullen silence, not even bothering to whisper to each other when they passed a bakery that had been taken over by the Pharms and turned into a drug kiosk. They nodded politely at the painted children out front chanting what the store had to offer, turning away when one boy screeched after them, “You’ll be back! You’ll get lockjaw or rabies and you’ll be back!”
“See?” Leila said once they were out of earshot. “If you don’t have a protector out here, you’ll die. So it’s either find someone with influence or say screw it and have a good time until we all die anyway.”
“That’s not the right attitude,” Cassie said, remembering Galahad’s words of the night before. “We have a civilization to think of. This is about something bigger than our own survival.”
“Listen to you—you’re becoming an idealist.” Leila was about to say more but suddenly tugged the cart hard to the right. “There it is! Let’s go check it out.”
Cassie squinted at the shop ahead, its bare canopy frame hung with colorful streamers and chains of broken glass that clattered in the breeze. A sign said, “May’s Creations.” “We haven’t got time. How about we come back once we’ve got the potatoes planted?”
“It’ll be weeks before we get enough dirt to plant potatoes and this will only take a minute.”
Curious in spite of herself, Cassie consented. It had been a long time since she had been inside a store that was not only open for business but dedicated to selling things of no practical value. Since their cart contained nothing of interest to thieves, they left it under the awning frame and approached the door, where a cardboard sign warned in strictest terms that the shop was under guard and troublemakers would be dealt with. Wondering what kind of guards the place had, Cassie opened the door and looked inside.
The shop was small and dim, partially lit by sunlight from the grimy windows and illuminated in the dark corners by solar-charged lanterns and glowing glass bowls, each a different color. It was these bowls that made Leila draw in her breath in delight and she nudged Cassie out of the way and took a few tentative steps inside.
Cassie saw no guards or even a shopkeeper. She looked around in confusion, distracted by the lights, the streamers, the chains of colorful plastic beads and the chimes and mobiles made from old street signs and shattered mirrors. She was beginning to wonder if it was an elaborate trap of some kind when a slim Asian girl emerged from a back room. She was dressed in practical jeans and a sweater, but her long hair was tied up in fanciful loops and braids, accented with scraps of colored cellophane. Her face was painted in elaborate designs that included a butterfly on one pale cheek.
“Feel free to look around and ask questions,” she said. “I make everything here myself.”
While Leila examined necklaces and earrings, Cassie peered at a globe that glowed faintly blue. It was too dim to make a reading light, but in her mind she saw the dark halls and stairwells of the hotel and tried to imagine what they might look like illuminated with globes glowing red, blue and yellow. “What makes it light up?” she asked.
“Chemicals,” May said.
“How long do they last? And what do they cost?”
“Depends on the color. Some last up to twelve hours, some only four or five. They’re priced at one food can per four hours.” At the look of disappointment on Cassie’s face, May added, “Satisfaction guaranteed. I make them on demand and I’ll replace anything that doesn’t work as promised.”
“It’s not that. I was just thinking what great nightlights they’d make, but they’re not much use to us if they have to be replaced every night. Are these like chemical light sticks, then? Any chance you can tell us how to make them?”
Before May could answer, Leila interrupted, holding up an amber plastic pendant. “How much for this?”
May took a closer look. “The acid-etchings cost two cans of food. Or four batteries.”
“No chance you’d take a diamond?” Leila held out a ring-studded hand.
May shook her head. “I’ve got diamonds. If you could find me some more chemicals though, so I wouldn’t be so dependent on the Pharms, that would be nice.”
Cassie had been examining an acid-etched piece of glass but now she stood up straight. “You have dealings with the Pharms?”
“A girl’s got to finance her creative ventures somehow. You don’t think I’m surviving off selling traffic light necklaces, do you? They give me chemicals and protection; I make some of their simpler compounds, like menthol and extracted iodine.”
“So can we buy medicine from you directly?”
“No way. Me and the Pharms have an agreement. You’re welcome to buy anything you see on my shelves, but that’s it. Nothing else I do is for sale.”
“I understand,” Cassie said. She turned to Leila, who was leaning into a mirror to examine the way a pair of glass-chip earrings glittered in her ears. “Come on. We need to get to the park.”
“But I like these.”
“So buy them, if you’ve got something she wants. Otherwise, let’s go. They’re waiting for us.”
With a frown of disappointment, Leila laid the earrings on the velvet scarf where she had found them. “I’ll find some trade goods,” she told May. “And I’ll come back.”