Ichamus crumpled the note, threw it to the ground, and stomped on it three times. He punched the ragged nail-hole on his shiny red front door. Harpminster Abbott was angry, and had probably left a the house messy as punishment. Would it be awful in there—a disaster? Ichamus smoothed his greasy forelock with a sweaty palm.
“Fine,” he muttered to himself. “I’ll go inside. How bad can it be?”
The front door banged into an obstruction. Ichamus kicked until there was an opening wide enough to squeeze inside, and entered his own house like a burglar. The stench of sewage filled his nostrils, and he gagged. A collapsed bookshelf blocked the hallway, the scattered books water-damaged and trampled. Pictures had been yanked from the walls, their frames bent and broken. The living room was full of broken furniture and stacks of debris, and the stairway to the second floor was demolished. Every stair had been smashed, and the banister was broken. Fabric littered the floor, long ribbons that turned out to be his designer suits, jackets, and white button-down shirts.
Ichamus swallowed hard, and clambered with difficulty over the wreckage. It had been two days since he’d had a proper meal, but the kitchen had also been ransacked. The table was upside down, its legs broken, the underside strewn with ruined appliances and smashed crockery. His chrome toaster was dented, his cheese grater was mangled, and his glass oven dishes had been shattered. There was something green and sticky smeared on the walls. Ichamus saw at a glance that his cupboards were bare; doors hung from their hinges, exposing stained, bare shelves.
Dozens of fat, black houseflies buzzed near the ceiling. Ichamus teetered on rubble, extending his spindly arms for balance. He shifted an upside-down chair, and kneeled before the Lazy Susan cupboard. Reaching an arm blindly into the corner nook, he fumbled with desperate fingers until he clutched something solid. His face, which until that moment had been a mask of anger and disgust, relaxed into a wobbly half-smile.
Food was scarce and precious. Ichamus kept an emergency food cache in a shoebox wrapped in layers of silver duct tape. He scrabbled in the cupboard, extracted the box, and used his teeth to rip the tape. A string of drool descended from a corner of his mouth. Grunting, he opened the box, and moaned when he saw the contents: nuts, granola, dried apricots, raisins, a package of pemmican, and sugar candies. It was enough calories for days, if he was careful. Squatting in the corner, he ate like a starving ferret, filling his cheeks and chewing ferociously. His eyes flicked to the filthy windows, and he pricked up his ears, scared of being interrupted. He ate about a quarter of the box’s contents, wrapped the remainder in a plastic bag, and stuffed the shoebox back in its hiding place. Ichamus closed his eyes, and waited for his body to process the nutrition before leaving his home via the back entrance, a sliding porch door.
The back deck was littered with dirty spoons, bottle caps, and dented cans. In the yard, a tall post jutted from a wooden platform, the terminus of a zipline that used to convey passengers across the ravine. The zipline cable had been cut; one frayed, severed end hung limply from the post, caked with dry mud. Harpminster Abbott had wrecked everything! Ichamus marched off his property in disgust, out onto Wailsmouth Street, which was deserted. Houses stood stark and empty, windows smashed and doors hanging open, as if the last person had left in a frenzied rush. The street was in disrepair, pocked with potholes and strewn with garbage, a tattered leather footstool, a doll with a shock of brown hair, a white plastic chair. Lawns were weedy, patchy and ill-used. A rat with matted fur and a long, pink tail streaked between two houses, and darted behind Violet Smacker’s place.
Ichamus Nickel and Violet Smacker weren’t exactly friends. They both longed for old-world luxuries, like hair dryers and Caribbean vacations. After the earthquakes, Ichamus had stubbornly continued to drive his pickup truck until a jagged piece of concrete had torn the oil pan off the chassis, and Violet had hoarded packages of Light Honey Blonde hair dye, and given herself a pedicure every week. But Violet secretly bartered for fresh fruit and vegetables, and in Ichamus’ opinion giving up on packaged food was the same as giving up on the old days. And Ichamus would never give up on the old days.
Harpminster Abbott had used Violet Smacker’s house for his military launchpad before the Christmas Day attack on Vancouver. He would likely have gone there to regroup, Ichamus thought, before heading anywhere else, so Violet had probably seen him. From the outside, Violet’s house looked as bad as his; her grass was dead, and there was a heap of plastic flowers on her front step, their colours sun-faded to a uniform yellow-brown. Ichamus sidestepped the mess, climbed the stairs, and raised a hand to knock, but the door swung open before his knuckles hit the peeling white paint.
“Get inside,” Violet hissed.
In the dark front hallway, Ichamus retched—Violet’s house smelled exactly like his. The door slammed shut, revealing a hideous creature. A featureless oval head was suspended on a skinny neck, tendons straining like taut ropes. Frizzy yellow hair stuck out four inches on one side, and lay flat on the other. The thing wore a spotty, soiled garment that might once have been a fluffy pink housecoat. Pale, twiggy legs descended to puffy grey slippers and dirty lavender carpeting.
“I’m not dressed,” said Violet, “and I don’t have my face on.”
Ichamus stepped back from the creature in alarm. Violet looked very different without her usual flashy clothes and heaps of cosmetics. Her voice was different too, flat and monotone instead of the perky, lilting soprano he remembered.
“My—my house,” Ichamus managed to say. “He wrecked my house.”
“YOUR house? Wait until you see my house! Harpy was furious—absolutely furious. His eyes were like lasers, and he was covered in blood. He broke things just by looking at them. I wake up every day afraid that he’ll come back. Get away from the door, Icky, before anyone sees you!”
“There’s nobody around,” said Ichamus.
Violet grabbed his arm and yanked him into her living room, which used to look like a powder puff. Now all the pink furniture was smeared with—was that shoe polish? The sofa and armchair resembled rosy zebras. A dozen shimmering pictures of rainbow unicorns were gone, replaced with black handprints. A purple knick-knack shelf lay on its side, lined with smashed china figurines.
“My house is worse than this,” said Ichamus.
“Oh I see—your house is worse! I cleaned for weeks. Mine was awful!” Violet shrieked. Tears inflated the pouchy skin under her bloodshot eyes.
Ichamus screwed up his nose in disgust. “What’s that smell?”
“Well, what do you think it is? The sewers are backed up! There’s no running water, and no electricity. Nothing works, and there’s garbage everywhere!”
“What about food—do you have anything to eat?”
Violet’s eyes narrowed. “I have nothing to share, Ichamus. Not a crumb. I used to share, but people took advantage. Everyone is so selfish.”
“But you must have something,” Ichamus said. He had just eaten, but the snack had only whetted his appetite, and his stomach growled a complaint.
Violet shook her head.
“Okay. I know where there’s a big garden,” Ichamus said, licking his lips. “It’s a day’s hike from here. We could sneak in at night, take as much as we want, and they wouldn’t even notice.”
“So it’s true,” Violet said in a horrified whisper. “You’ve been with Sarah Spellings and her friends! Were you their prisoner?”
“I was their slave.” Ichamus said. “I had to cook and clean for a hundred people every day. I got no holidays, and no breaks.”
“Oh, so you were cooking! At least you weren’t starving! I bet you had a comfortable place to sleep, too,” Violet sneered. “Your clothes are a mess, but you look fat and healthy. You should have stayed with the tree people, Ichamus. It was stupid to leave free food.”
“You’re not listening,” Ichamus whined. “It wasn’t free! All day long it was Ichamus, peel the potatoes. Ichamus, wash the pots. Ichamus, make salad for seventy. You would have left, too.”
“Salad?” Violet screeched. “Potatoes? Icky, you have no idea how bad things have been! Community gardens were keeping us healthy. Now the packaged food is all used up, and there’s nothing fresh growing around here anymore. Let’s go! I’ll be Sarah’s slave, peel her potatoes and make her salad, as long as I get to eat.”
“I’m not going back to live at Sassamatta Grove. I have to go to somewhere called Billy’s Bay. Harpminster left me a map. He threatened to kill me if I don’t go.”
Violet glanced around furtively, as if Harpminster Abbott might be crouched behind the ruined furniture. “I’m supposed to go there, too, but I don’t know where it is. And anyway I hate being around him. He’s like a cold wind. We should go to Vancouver! I heard they have gardens, electricity, and fresh water in Vancouver.”
“You heard wrong—Vancouver is a bust, just like here,” Ichamus lied. There was plenty of food and fresh water in Vancouver, but it was full of people who wanted a new way of life, and Ichamus wanted his truck, and his house, and his frozen potato patties. “We should go to Billy’s Bay,” he wheedled. “Harpminster will take care of us, just like before.”
“It’s too far,” said Violet. “How would we even get there?”
“I have my truck,” said Ichamus, trying to sound as careless and brave as Mackelman. “Away from the coast, roads aren’t so bad. We can find fuel—I know a good way to find gas and oil.”
“Rock slides have blocked the mountain passes. It’s impossible to go inland.”
“Think about it Violet. Why would Harpminster tell us to go to Billy’s Bay if getting there was impossible? How did he get there? Clearly it’s possible!”
“It’s no use. We’re stuck on this disgusting street, with nothing to eat. And I hate it—I hate it. I hate it!” Violet burst into tears. Cracked lips pulled back over stained teeth, and purple eye sockets bulged.
Ichamus turned away from Violet’s misery. He glanced through a doorway, into the kitchen, and spotted something red through the greasy back window. Ignoring Violet’s sobs, he dodged clutter, and rushed through the kitchen to peer outside. And there it was, on a garden shed in the yard behind Violet’s: a freshly painted crimson triangle, topped by a shining eye!
“Violet!“ Ichamus shouted. “How long has that red sign been there?”
Violet padded into the kitchen, drying her tears on a housecoat sleeve. “It was painted a couple of nights ago while I was asleep. It’s ugly, but it doesn’t matter, because people wreck everything now, and I’m used it,” Violet reported tragically. She hiccupped, a wet little sob in her throat.
Ichamus forced the sliding back door open, ran down the wobbly deck stairs, and hurried across the weedy, neglected yard. Violet followed him in her slippers. There was a fence separating the two yards, a row of planks nailed to posts.
“It’s broken over by the spruce tree,” said Violet.
Ichamus ducked under low branches, needles poking his forehead. Two boards had been pried from the fence and lay moldering beside the tree trunk. He crawled through the gap into the next yard, and scurried to the aluminum shed, on which the rig eye had been spray-painted four times. A cheap combination lock hung, bent and useless, from the door latch. Had the gas supply been raided already? Ichamus wrenched the flimsy door open.
Twenty red plastic gas jugs stood shoulder to shoulder around the base of the shed, like little soldiers, their yellow spouts like tiny guns. Ichamus lifted the closest jug—full! He sniffed the spout, and smiled blissfully as the pungent chemical stink of gas seared his nostrils. Ignoring Violet’s urgent whispers, what’s in there—what do you see, he opened a cardboard box, and found an entire case of motor oil! On shelves he scored two jugs of antifreeze, a crate of tools, three car batteries, a set of jumper cables, and a wind-up flashlight. The shed was an automotive treasure trove! Ichamus thought about the cookie tin he had buried in his backyard by his yellow rose bush. It held two thousand dollars in the old currency, and his truck keys.
“Slickers marked this shed,” Ichamus said urgently. “Violet, we don’t have much time. Parleyment will be here soon to claim this stuff. But if we hurry, I could get my truck running, and we could go to Billy’s Bay. He’ll reward us for making the trip. Let’s go—let’s leave today!”