Cassie and Julilla elected to take the most direct route back to the hotel. By now Julilla had shed her necklaces and seemed more like herself without the cumbersome clicking burden around her throat. “Well, this sure isn’t how I planned to spend my morning,” she said.
“Me, either,” Cassie said, thinking of her devastated garden. “I was going to work on my potatoes.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Someone stole them.”
“Probably the little ones. No upbringing at all. They’re more convinced they’re going to die than we are.”
“If they keep eating our seed stock, I’m sure they will. I just wonder how they managed to not get sick.”
“They’re getting to be like stray dogs. They can eat anything. We’re the ones still wishing we had Big Macs and pizza.”
“Or a nice salmon filet.”
Julilla looked at her askance. “Something tells me we grew up in different neighborhoods.”
“I guess it’s all the same now, isn’t it?”
“Sucks that this is what it took.”
Cassie agreed. “Isn’t it funny though, that we formed new tribes of our own? Makes you think it’s just human nature.”
“Could be,” Julilla said. “I’ve seen some pretty crazy shit since the Telo, but it’s really just the same shit as before, repackaged. You can change a lot of things, but you can’t change the fact humans are pretty fucked up.”
They walked in comfortable silence past some children singing and doing tricks for food donations, past a group of tweens lolling on the curb passing a bottle of vodka back and forth, and past an enterprising young man and his two painted girlfriends selling questionable meat on sticks and even more iffy plastic-wrapped lumps that the girls claimed was caramel. When they came upon a heap of burning trash, however, they paused. The toxic-smelling smoke billowed into the street for most of the next block and children streamed out of the area, coughing.
“Damn,” Julilla said. “I’d been hoping we wouldn’t have to take another detour.”
“We could see if there’s anything around to make masks with,” Cassie offered.
“Too dangerous. God only knows what they’re burning. Smells like plastic, and it could contain asbestos and mercury too, for all we know.” Julilla gave a jerk of her chin. “We’ll go around. Keep your pepper spray out and your eyes open.”
The next block was crowded with other young people who had the same idea, so even though a few toughs lined the sidewalk and suspicious faces peered from broken windows, no one who kept to the center of the street and minded their own business was accosted. Cassie and Julilla returned to their main route with relief, assuming the worst was over. Cassie was about to remark on how much simpler it had been compared to their walk to May’s when a horde of shrieking youngsters poured out of a side street and surrounded them.
“Give it up, bitches. What you got?”
A pair of grimy hands reached for Cassie’s bag. “Hand it over!”
Cassie hit him in the face with a stream of pepper spray and the boy dropped to the ground screaming and clawing his eyes.
“What’d you do to him, cunt?” Another boy launched himself at her, only this time the wind was wrong and she didn’t dare press the nozzle of her repellant. Julilla kicked and slapped at the hands grabbing for her clothes, drew her gun and fired into the air, but it did little to deter the assault. Both girls fought for clear angles of attack before one little girl with broken teeth and evil in her eyes threw herself into Julilla’s line of fire. The report of the gun and sudden gush of blood halted the attack long enough for Cassie to douse pepper spray on every child in reach. With shrieks and curses echoing in their ears, both girls took off running.
They wove around trash, feces, and broken glass, dodging peaceful street musicians and dirty beggar children. They ran in a panic, attuned only to the path ahead and the sound of footsteps behind them faltering, then dying away, only to be replaced by an engine and the crunch of tires over broken plastic. What now? Pharms? Obits? Some other low-lifes who had managed to acquire a little gasoline and were hunting young women for sport? Their lungs burning with the effort, they picked up their pace, nearly tripping in their effort to get away.
They heard a shout from the vehicle behind them. Someone called their names and they slowed just enough to glance over their shoulders, hardly daring to believe their luck. It was the hotel shuttle and Galahad and David were leaning out of the windows, yelling.
The girls stopped, dizzy with relief and fatigue. The van slowed to a halt and they stumbled up the steps and collapsed onto the ripped vinyl seats. The van started again with a jerk and Cassie reached for something to hold onto, a sudden cloud of spots before her eyes. Galahad reached a hand to steady her, but his voice was less than kind. “What the hell were you doing?”
* * *
Julilla recovered first and told the foragers of their adventures while Cassie lay back and closed her eyes. When Julilla started telling about the mysterious girl in black who had thrown the knife, David interrupted.
“It wasn’t Thing Two, was it?”
“Thing One and Thing Two,” Galahad explained. “We’ve heard about them, but only seen them once. They dress in black and no one knows if they’re friends, siblings, lovers, or what.”
“We didn’t see them, either,” Julilla said. “We were too busy holding those bastards off. May described them to us.”
Cassie opened her eyes and sat up. David and Galahad had their heads together, but after a moment, Galahad glanced at her and their eyes met. Confused and embarrassed at the anger in his face, she looked away.
“What’s weird,” David said, “Is that they’re not known for being altruistic. They’re not with a group and they take what they can get wherever they can get it. I don’t know why they’d help a couple strangers out of a tight spot.”
“You’re sure May didn’t know them?” Galahad asked, looking at Julilla now.
“She acted like she didn’t.”
“You’ll need to give a report when we get back,” David said.
Julilla sat up taller. “Don’t tell me how to do my job.”
They drove the rest of the way in silence and when they got to the hotel, Cassie slipped away to her room, too exhausted and mentally sick to go to the kitchen and beg Sandra for something to eat. She needed to clear her head, to forget the dirty hands grabbing for her in the street, the smell of toxic smoke, and the anger in Galahad’s eyes.
But instead of sleeping, she twisted the covers and shoved her pillow this way and that, unable to get comfortable. Every time she closed her eyes, the events of the day rushed back, followed by older memories of those first fearful weeks of the Telo, when gangs like the Kevorkians roamed the city, killing adults out of mercy, then in anger and impotent frustration. She remembered too, the stench of funeral pyres and bodies tossed into pits with no one left to cover them.
She was relieved when she heard the children racing the hallways announcing dinner. She wasn’t sure if she would be able to eat, but anything was better than being alone with her memories. And where was Leila? She usually came back to their room to fix herself up for meals.
Cassie didn’t see Leila or David at dinner. She avoided Galahad and sat instead with Doc, who kept her distracted with innocuous chatter about bandaging techniques, methods for dealing with a possible chicken pox outbreak, and whether or not Nisha was suffering from pre-eclampsia.
“What worries me,” Doc said, “Is that the books say there’s nothing we can do about it if she is. There’s no cure except to have the baby, and she might go into seizures when she does.”
“Well, if there’s nothing we can do about it….” Cassie hated to sound callous, but she wasn’t up for discussing babies right now. She also couldn’t stomach the meal of foul-smelling soup. That and the sense that Galahad was staring at her was almost too much. She had been better off in her room. Would this meal never be over?
But after supper and announcements, she couldn’t get away because Doc wanted her opinion on an herbal tincture, then Alex cornered her in the hallway to get her version of what happened on the trip to May’s. After that, Paul followed her to the garden, where she had hoped to find a little peace among her roses. He wanted to know if she had seen Leila and whether she thought God was punishing May for being worldly when she could be focusing her creative energies on bringing people closer to Jesus in these troubled times.
By this point, Cassie wouldn’t have cared if May was in league with the devil himself. She had to get away from all these people or she would go mad. Even though going back to her room meant she would toss and turn like she had that afternoon, at least she would be alone.
As luck would have it, Galahad was waiting in the hallway.
“Please,” Cassie said. “Whatever you have to say, can it wait until tomorrow? I’ve already heard enough for one day.”
“You’re going to have to hear it from me, too,” he said, matching her stride. “What you did today was totally unnecessary. You’re not trained as a guard and Julilla was already assigned to go with May. I don’t know why you thought you had to be a hero.”
“I wasn’t trying to be a hero. I’ve been to May’s lots of times and it was never dangerous before.”
“You also knew there had been trouble twice this week. You put yourself at risk.”
“So what? Everything we do is dangerous since the Telo.” They were at her door now, and she leaned against it, too tired to stop the words of hurt and anger that had been welling up inside for so long. “Eating is dangerous. Getting a cut, walking down a flight of stairs…hell, just waking up in the morning is dangerous. It doesn’t matter what we do because it all comes to nothing, just like the potato garden. It’s pointless.”
Galahad took a step closer, blocking her escape. “Nothing’s pointless. I know you don’t really want to give up. Not over a bad day.” Softly he added, “Maybe you’re right and a lot of things don’t matter. But you matter.”
He was so close he was almost touching her. She felt the heat of his body and smelled the salt of his skin and it awakened a primal instinct to press her body against his. She felt him lean toward her and held her breath, hoping he would kiss her, but to her disappointment, he only opened the door.
“Get some rest. And please don’t go anywhere for a few days. Things are crazy out there right now and…just look out for yourself, okay?”
She was wondering what to say when he bent over her again and this time brushed his lips against hers. With a whispered good night, he started down the hall. Cassie stared after him, still feeling his kiss on her lips. When he went into the stairwell instead of his own room, she ran after him. But when she heard his footsteps going up, not down, she paused in confusion. There was nothing upstairs but guest rooms. What was he going up there for?
Oddly, this new mystery was more disheartening than all the others. It was too much for one day. She wasn’t ready to deal with yet another secret. Blinking back inexplicable tears, Cassie went to her room, hoping she would be able to sleep and that she would have no dreams.
EXCERPT FROM CASSIE'S JOURNAL
I don’t know what’s going on, but it seems like a lot is happening below the surface of things. Some of the signs are probably nothing, like the missing potatoes. But May’s attackers and the mystery about the Pharms and Obits has everyone freaked out. How the knife-throwing girl in black fits into it is another mystery.
On top of it all, Galahad is acting weird, sneaking around the upper floors. And I haven’t seen Leila all day.
I wish my parents were here. Or anyone who could tell me it’s all okay and that there’s something I can do to make my life make sense. But it seems like even the smallest things I do come to nothing. I have no idea how a grownup would handle this, but it seems like they had answers for things, even though they weren’t always good ones. I don’t have any answers at all, and it sucks.