AUTHOR'S NOTE: This flash fiction piece about Cassie and Leila is not part of the novel, and there are no spoilers. This is also a Three Word Wednesday post. Please to go the Three Word Wednesday for more fun!
"Every time we deviate from our plan, something goes wrong."
Cassie ignored Leila and shone her flashlight in an arc.
"Don't do that. It smells like there's something dead in here, and I don't want to see it."
"Then don't look. What if there's danger?"
"Anything dangerous would've gotten us by now." Leila looked around the musty living room and shivered. "If we're going to do this, let's hurry up. This place makes me nervous."
Cassie stepped into the room and the carpet squished under her feet. "A pipe must've broken somewhere. It's saturated."
"No wonder this place stinks."
They crossed the silent living room, and in the hallway, stepped over a pile of plaster where part of the ceiling had fallen in.
"Here's that broken pipe," Cassie said, but Leila didn't answer. They continued to the kitchen, where the water had mostly evaporated after turning the floor wax an odd yellowish white. All the cabinet doors were open, revealing dishes, coffee cups and tea towels, but no food.
"I told you someone's been through this neighborhood already."
"Hush," Cassie said. "That was at the beginning. A lot of stuff got overlooked then, back when everyone thought things would get better."
Leila began methodically poring through the cabinets, looking behind and under things, but without enthusiasm. Meanwhile, Cassie gave the pantry a cursory look, and moved on to the laundry room. Here, at the back of a cabinet containing detergent and stain remover, she found something. Her call brought Leila running.
"Cans of food? You're kidding me."
Cassie pulled them out one by one and began stacking them.
"Wait a minute." Leila picked one up. "Where are the labels?"
"Who cares? Food is food."
"Yeah, but how are we supposed to identify what's inside, or whether it's safe to eat?"
Cassie stood and wiped her dusty hands on her pants. "We're starving anyway, so does it really matter?"
"I guess not." Leila examined the can in her hands and smiled. "I'm so hungry, even lima beans would probably taste good."
"Imagine what our mothers would say if they could hear us right now." Cassie's gaze met Leila's and both their smiles faded. They had a rule, and Cassie had just broken it. They weren't supposed to talk about the dead.
Cassie blushed and turned away. "I saw some bags in the pantry. I'll go get a few so we can carry these home."
In the kitchen, Cassie started toward the pantry, then stopped and went to the window instead. She moved a few desiccated houseplants aside and gazed out on the back yard, wondering who had lived here and if they were nice. When they died, had they been given proper burial, or were they among the anonymous dead in the pits?
She hugged herself and tried to imagine what this place had been like before the pandemic, when the water in the pool was clear and the yard wasn't clotted with weeds and fallen leaves. She imagined the smell of barbeque from the grill and the shouts of children on the swing set.
Where were the children? The pandemic wouldn't have killed them, but on their own, they might not have survived. Perhaps they had simply gone away, seeking the protection of a larger group and unable to bear the memories of home. Or maybe—
"Hey, are you getting those bags, or what?"
Cassie sighed and turned away from the window. As always, nostalgia did no good; it only kept her from the things that needed doing. The identities of those who had lived here and what happened to them didn't matter. There was only now.
"Yeah," she said. "I'm getting them."