The children who had gone to the florist shop didn’t do well. Most of the roses had been in glass coolers, and had rotted in their rancid water when the electricity went out. There were a few bouquets that had been on display and the children brought these back dry and nearly perfect. Cassie examined them critically. There were enough to dose the people who were already showing signs of scurvy, but they would need a lot more.

After a lunch of watery soup, Cassie was allowed to use the kitchen, where she showed Doc how to make rose hip tea while Sandra, the head cook, hovered over the operation, jealous of the intrusion on her turf. When Cassie informed her that the rose petals were edible, Sandra gave her a skeptical look but took the dried petals and put them in a plastic container for safekeeping.

The foraging team returned in the afternoon without much food, but with several cases of toilet paper which made them heroes to the children who were suffering from diarrhea. Cassie watched for Galahad to have a free moment, then told him about the roses. “Doc went to dose your cousin, but we’ll need a better source. What we have will last about a week, and that’s only if we treat the people who are already sick. There’s not enough to keep everyone else healthy.”

Galahad suggested a meeting, and after the van was unloaded, he and David gathered a small group in the lobby. Aided by a phone book and the foragers’ good memories, they came up with a list of florists’ shops to search. “But it’ll probably be the same at all of them,” Galahad pointed out. “Everyone kept flowers in those big coolers.”

“What about the rose gardens at the zoo?” a girl asked.

“And the rich people’s houses in Washington Oaks,” someone else suggested. “They used to have a rose tour every year, remember?”

“Too many gangs around there,” David said. “But Mundo might approve a trip to the zoo.”

A few of the younger children clapped and nudged each other in excitement, whispering about giraffes and elephants. Galahad frowned and pulled David aside. After a brief discussion, David came back to the group. “We don’t know about the zoo trip, kids,” he said. “Mundo will decide. It might be too dangerous.”

Something about the exchange struck Cassie as odd. She tried to meet Galahad’s eyes, but he shook his head and walked away. As soon as she could make an excuse, she left the rose discussion and hunted him down. “What was that about? You’re not planning to go there and get all the roses for yourself, are you?”

“I would never put my family’s needs ahead of the group,” he said. “Paul is a Regent in good standing and will get what’s fair. The hard part is to keep him from giving things away. That’s how he got sick in the first place.”

“So how come you’re discouraging the zoo trip?”

“I’m not. Not for us, at least. Just for the little ones.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “Most of those animals died, you know.”

Now Cassie understood. The children would be expecting monkeys and elephants, balloons and popcorn. With everything else they had endured, they didn’t need to see the rotting carcasses of their favorite zoo animals, too.

“Supposedly there’s a Zoo Tribe that lives there,” Galahad went on. “They use the animals for food when they die, or kill them outright if they don’t die fast enough. They use the hides as a uniform. Or so I’ve heard. None of us has actually seen a member of the Zoo Tribe, but if they exist, it might be upsetting to the little ones.”

Cassie was about to comment when they came around a corner and found Leila, nearly bursting out of a low-cut sweater, lounging on a sofa. She was talking to an Indian teen who was doing something with a motor. Grease was smeared on the carpet, the sofa and on the boy’s hands, arms and clothes. Galahad walked over. “Is that what I think it is?”

The young man looked up and pushed a stray lock of hair off his face, leaving a streak of grease on his forehead. “If you think it’s an alternator, it is.”
“What are you doing with it?” Cassie said. “And why in here?”

Leila looked at her, annoyed, but tried to make a proper introduction. “Cassie, this is Sid. He went to Van Buren High and was planning to go to Rensselaer and study engineering.”

Sid gave a curt nod. “You’ll excuse me if I don’t shake your hand.”

Cassie took a closer look at what he was doing. “I was signed up for an auto mechanics class at the community college when the Telo—”

“You?” Sid’s look of amazement stopped just short of a sneer. “A girl doesn’t need to fix her own car. Some guy will always do it for her.”

“I like mechanical things. And I was planning on a career as a conservationist. What was I supposed to do if my car broke down in a swamp three hundred miles from nowhere? Call Triple-A?”

“It’s kind of a moot point now,” Galahad said.

“Right.” Leila flashed him a smile before returning her gaze to Cassie. “Sid isn’t fixing a car, anyway. He thinks he can convert these alternators into miniature windmills so we’ll have electricity.”

“Only on windy days,” Sid cautioned. “But yeah, that’s the goal here.”

Galahad and Cassie watched in curiosity, asking questions until Sid became exasperated. “How about you let me get one working and then we can talk about what it will do and how to make more.”

Cassie took a few steps back, mumbling an apology, but Galahad said, “If you want privacy, you shouldn’t work in a public area.”

“And where else am I going to get enough light?” Sid waved a hand at the floor-to-ceiling windows. “Outside is cold and windy, and any room with a door will be too dark. Once we’ve got a few of these generators going, there will be plenty of light. But until then….”

“We’ll leave you alone, then,” Galahad said. “I was just on my way to make sure the supplies got stored properly.”

He started walking toward the supply room and Cassie tagged after him, unsure what to do next.

“Think I can help with the cooking?” she asked. “I know a lot about camp cooking. Foil, rocks, box cookers, dutch ovens…things like that.”

“You’ll need to talk to Sandra.” Galahad opened a door and let her go ahead. The hall was dark but there was a flashlight on a shelf and he turned it on. “She’s in charge of the food. Me and David just forage.”

“She got a little weird when I was in there making tea.”

“Mundo lets her choose her own crew, but Sandra is reasonable. And she can always use people who can make food that tastes decent and won’t poison us.”

By now they were at the storage room, which was guarded by a muscular former wrestler who introduced himself as Eleven. “Go relax,” Galahad told Cassie. “There’s nothing you can help with here. Dinner is at six. It’s a little more formal than the other meals and the planning meeting will be after, so you can mention your assignment preferences then.”

Cassie did as he suggested and went to her room. She hadn’t been there long when Leila came in and threw herself on her bed.

“How was your day?” Cassie asked.

“Boring. They had me clean things and then I had to help the kids with their lessons. When the grownups died I thought I was done with explaining fractions to fools.”

“Could be worse. The rose-gatherers mostly found rotting flowers and I had to deal with a weird library cult.”

“Sounds better than cleaning rat and roach droppings from the kitchen. We’ll have to be careful about what they feed us here.”

“It’s mostly stuff out of cans,” Cassie reassured her. “As long as the pots are clean….”

“They had me make sure of that.” She flopped onto her stomach and clutched the pillow to her chest. “This place sucks.”

“You seem to have met a nice guy. I know you weren’t hanging around Sid because you’re interested in mechanics all of a sudden. Or are you?”

“Oh, hell no.” She sat up. “But I’m not stupid. I need to make friends. I’m getting off this provisional status bullshit.”

“But if this place sucks…” Cassie said.

“Everyplace sucks since the grownups died. I had no idea….”


Leila looked like she wanted to say more, but lay back down instead and closed her eyes.



Yiehtk said...

After reading this part I began to wonder what Elephant tasted like...

Alice Audrey said...

I'm wondering what Leila didn't say.