Flash Fiction Extra: The Principle of the Thing

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This flash fiction extra is from the period before the action in Steal Tomorrow. Thanks for reading.

Cassie slipped from under the blankets and went to the window. She and Leila had hung quilts over the curtain rods the night before, hoping to keep some of the chill at bay, but she wasn’t sure it had done much good. She pulled a corner of the quilt aside and squinted at the pale winter light.

“Wake up,” she said, without moving from the window.

Leila burrowed deeper under the covers. “You go. I’ll stay here where it’s warm.”

“We have to go together. Safety in numbers.”

“Can’t we eat MREs today? Do we always have to go out foraging?”

Cassie folded the window covering back so she would have enough light to dress. Dressing was a relative term. Without gas or electrical service since the die-off, every place was cold. Getting dressed to go out meant layering more clothes on top of what one already had on. She picked up a sweater lying across the back of a chair and pulled it on over the one she was wearing. “We agreed to the rules together, remember? Forage every day we can and save our food for the days we can’t.”

Grumbling, Leila got out of bed and reached for her coat. “Sometimes I think the dead people have it easy.”

“Don’t talk like that.” Cassie pulled on a jacket and fleece cap. “We have to keep trying.”

“What for? We’re infected. We’ll be dead in a year or two and in the meantime we go around eating bad food, trying not to get raped or beat up by a gang, and being cold and dirty in the meantime.”

“Maybe you’re dirty, but I’m not.”

“Rub it in, why don’t you?” Leila went to the dresser and fumbled among the clutter for her gloves. “Like hell I’m going to get wet when it’s freezing out.”

“I offered you the no-rinse camp soap.”

“It stinks.”

“It’s lavender. And it smells better than you.”

Leila reached for her hat. “What’s got into you today?”

“I’m sorry.” Cassie rubbed her face. “I didn’t sleep too good. And I’m hungry.”

“I told you we should eat the MREs.” When Cassie didn’t answer, Leila shoved her hands in her pockets. “I’m ready.”

Cassie grabbed her pepper spray, a few packs of cigarettes for trade, and a ring of keys, ignoring Leila’s sneer as she locked the door on their way out.

“If someone wants in, they’ll just break a window.”

“I know,” Cassie said, dropping the keys in her pocket. “But at least if someone wants to rob us, they’ll have to work for it.”

Leila shrugged and the girls headed down the sidewalk.

“Any ideas for where to forage today?” Cassie asked.

“I thought you had a plan.”

“The townhouses on Wilson Street?”

“They burned down.”

“Not all of them.” When Cassie didn’t get a reply, she said, “Okay, how about Wal-Mart? I know it burned, but those kids in Justin’s gang said it was becoming an open-air market.”

“Like I’d trust anything Justin and his friends would say.”

Cassie looked at her askance. Justin Tibbs had played football for their high school varsity team and had been nice to Leila their junior year, leading her to think he really liked her. “Just because he only wanted to copy off you in calculus doesn’t mean he’s dishonest about everything.”

“Whatever.” Leila scowled and looked away. “Wal-Mart is as good as any other place. Let’s go.”

Getting to the nearest Wal-Mart required leaving the neighborhood and following Ingall Road to the freeway. Ingall had a small strip center with a grocery store, a drug store, a dry cleaner’s, and hair cutting salon. This was where their mothers had shopped when they had no need to drive to the larger, better-stocked stores a few miles away. The girls had been here a few times since the pandemic and had no expectation that anything was different now. Nevertheless, they looked at the ransacked shops, broken windows, and graffiti with dismay.

“Hard to believe—” Cassie began, then cut herself off. Comparing the present to the past only made things worse.

When they got to the freeway feeder road, a dog leaped from behind an abandoned car, snarling. There had been a time not very long ago when the girls would’ve been terrified, but Cassie had her pepper spray ready and got the dog full in the nose. As he limped away, whining, Leila muttered, “This shit with the dogs is getting old.”

“I hear some kids are eating them.”

“That’s disgusting. But I guess if they only eat the dangerous ones….”

“A service to humanity,” Cassie said.

Leila laughed in a mirthless, half-hysterical way. She had done this a lot at the start of the pandemic, but not as often lately, as the winter cold and constant hunger sapped her energy for seeing irony in their situation.

“We’re not far now,” Cassie pointed out needlessly. “Let’s hurry. I bet they’ll have fires so we can warm up.”

When they came within sight of the Wal-Mart, they saw groups of kids of all ages huddled in groups in the parking lot. Some had built small fires of scrap, some had set up tables and were trying to trade merchandise. Cassie and Leila moved cautiously among the sale items but were unimpressed. They already had gloves and winter scarves and had plenty of toilet paper from foraging in their neighborhood. The only kids selling food weren’t interested in Cassie’s money and wanted more packs of cigarettes than she had with her.

“We were better off staying home,” Leila said.

Cassie was about to reply when she noticed a group of girls huddled around a fire at the edge of the parking lot. They were dressed in short skirts and high heels and their faces were heavily made up. One girl in particular caught her eye. “That isn’t Emily, is it?”

Leila squinted at the pretty former drill team captain touching up her lipstick in the afternoon sunlight. “I think it is.”

They wandered over, startling Emily, who blushed underneath her makeup and returned their greeting warily. As they made idle chatter about the weather and where the best food supplies were to be found, Cassie couldn’t escape the feeling that Emily wanted them to go away. After a few minutes, she saw why.

Three teenage boys with greasy hair and guns sauntered over and looked the girls up and down. Finally the one who appeared to be their leader asked, “How much?”

Cassie and Emily exchanged a look.

“You should go,” Emily whispered as one of the other girls started negotiating.

“You can’t do this. There’s other ways.”

Emily shook her head. “It’s easier than scavenging, and I bet I eat better than you.”

Leila had been listening to the negotiations and gave a small shrug. “We sure don’t ever get to eat Oreos.”

“Oh, come on.” Cassie tried to grab Emily’s hand. “You don’t want to sell yourself for a package of cookies, do you?”

Emily jerked away. “It’s easy work. I’ll be dead soon anyway, so who cares?”

“We care.” Cassie looked at Leila for confirmation. “Come with us. We found some rice yesterday.”

“No way.” Emily darted a glance at one of the boys. “These guys have Hershey bars, or haven’t you been paying attention?” She flashed a boy a smile. As he walked over, she muttered to Cassie out of the corner of her mouth, “Go away. Now.”

Cassie and Leila did as they were told and started back toward their neighborhood. They walked in silence for a long time before finally Cassie said, “You were right. We should’ve stayed home and eaten the MREs. That was depressing.”

“I can kind of see her point, though,” Leila said. “We work awfully hard and don’t have much to show for it.”

“At least we haven’t compromised.”

“Maybe not, but does it matter?” Leila waved a hand at the trash and burned-out cars littering the deserted street. “Look at this place. We have no future, so why give a damn about the present?”

“I don’t know,” Cassie said, after appearing to think about it. “Sometimes doing right doesn’t make any sense, but you have to do it anyway.”

“So it’s the principle of the thing.”

Cassie took a deep breath and tipped her head back so she could see the startling blue of the clear winter sky instead of the muck of the streets. “Something like that. We may be living like animals, but at least we'll die like humans.”


Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Yowch. That's a rough one.

Alice Audrey said...

I remember the reference to this scene in the book.