In the cone of orange light thrown by his flashlight into this hidey-hole, the jars sparkled like a hoard of rare gems: small, beveled glass jars of strawberry jelly, deep orange marmalade, blueberry jelly; larger pint and glittering quart mason jars packed full of pickled carrots, asparagus spears, mushrooms, potatoes, and other vegetables, as well as fruits.

“Whoa,” Lucian said, and Aidan added, “Oh, f**k me.”

“Jesus Christ.” Jarvis said it like a prayer. Crowding in, he reached past Greg and withdrew a quart of tightly packed fruit swimming in clear syrup. In the light, the peaches looked like golden half-moons. “They’ve got all this food. They’ve got food.”

Gooseberries, Greg read on another jar, the word done in delicate, precise letters, along with a date. He’d never tasted gooseberries, but they sounded deliriously good. His stomach was moaning, and there was so much saliva pooling under his tongue, he was afraid he’d start drooling. Apricots. Cherries. To distract himself, he counted jars. “Thirty-six. Not huge, but . . .”

“Hell with huge.” Jarvis had folded that quart of peaches to his chest the way Reverend Yeager sometimes clutched his Bible during a sermon. “I should’ve thought of this. I’ve known Verna since we were kids, going on sixty years now. Her mom canned like crazy all summer and fall. We searched here six weeks ago. Bare as a bone, and I thought how strange that was. Not like Verna at all, but it’d been months since everything went to hell and I thought, okay, they ate it all.” Jarvis’s face suddenly darkened. “And they’ve still been taking rations.”

“Assholes,” Aidan said.

“Yeah, that isn’t right; it’s not, you know, fair,” Lucian put in.

“But I don’t get it.” Pru was examining a jar of bright purple eggs pickled in beet juice. Greg bet if anyone had suggested eating something like that to Pru five months ago, he’d have told you to get real. “Why does that old lady look like she’s starving?” Pru asked.

“Maybe this is their emergency stash,” Lucian suggested.

“Or they’ve been eating only a little bit here and there.” Aidan hefted a jar of pickled brussels sprouts. “Man, I used to hate this shit, but now? No problem. We got to tear up the rest of the house. We oughta tear up all the houses, X ’em off.”

“Wait, wait, not so fast.” Greg was getting dizzy. The urge to crack the seal of that jar of cherries was nearly overwhelming. “This is cool, but we came for the cat.” What am I saying?

“Screw the cat.” Lucian fished out a mason jar swimming with ruby-red plums. “Man, we could—”

“Don’t even think about it.” Greg replaced the cherries, although letting go took effort. “Come on, hand them over.”

“Hold on.” Lucian cocked his elbow, holding his jar out of reach, leaving Greg with air. “Don’t we get a say?”

“No.” Greg’s stomach fluttered. From the knot of frustration on Pru’s face, he wasn’t sure this wouldn’t end up being four against one. Maybe even five, if you counted doddering old Henry. “Listen, I understand, but we can’t. It’s not fair to everyone else.”

“Fuck fair.” In the gloom, Aidan’s tats looked like bugs that had chewed their way out of his cheeks. “Dude, I’m hungry. We keep quiet, no one has to know.”

“Old woman’ll know,” Lucian rumbled.

“We can do something about that,” Aidan said.

“No,” Greg repeated. “The only thing we’re doing is turning this stuff in.”

“What if I don’t?” Aidan said. “You can’t make me.”

The words were so like a five-year-old’s, Greg had to bite his cheek. Just get one of them to hand over a jar. “We can’t go there. Come on, guys.” He held out his hands to Pru, who, he thought, would relent first. “Hand it over.”

After what seemed a very long second, Pru pushed the jar into Greg’s hands. “Here,” Pru said. “Take the damn thing before I accidentally break it on purpose.”

Slotting the jar back, Greg tilted his head toward Aidan and Lucian. “You, too. You know the rules. We share food. That’s the way it has to be.”

Aidan’s head swiveled to Lucian, whose shark eyes ticked to Pru and then back, weighing the options. A moment later, Lucian shrugged and silently passed over his jar.

“Fuck.” Aidan tossed his brussels sprouts in an underhand pitch that Greg fumbled and nearly dropped. “Asshole. Hope you f**king choke.”

“Jarvis?” Heart banging, Greg looked up at the old man. “Come on.”

“It’s a jar of peaches.” Jarvis’s tongue flickered over his lips. “No one has to know.”

“I’m with you, brother,” Aidan put in.

“I’m seventy-fucking-five years old,” Jarvis said, and then his face knotted. “Council cares more about you. Spared eat better. You’ll get it all.”

“Hey, f**k that, Jarvis,” Lucian said. “I’m scraping empty.”

“Yeah,” Pru chimed in. “We Spared are doing so great.”

“All I’m asking for is a lousy jar of peaches, for God’s sake,” Jarvis said.

“Jarvis.” Greg swallowed around the stone in his throat. “We’re all hungry. But you know the rules.”

“Rules.” Jarvis’s eyes narrowed. “Real easy for you when the rules break your way. Guess that’s what comes with being the Council’s private pets.”

“Whoa, who you calling a pet?” Aidan said. “We gave up our food, too, you know.”

“Yeah, but why?” Jarvis rifled a glare at Greg. “Because the Council gives you the authority? Here we’ve supported them for years. We gave up on our grandkids. We let them get rounded up and shot without ever being given the chance to get better, come back to us—and now we’re supposed to starve, too, to save you? Kids that aren’t our blood, not our family? Hell with that.”

“Okay, wait.” Pru put his hands up, palms out. “Let’s all just cool off, okay?”

“What if I don’t want to cool off ?” Jarvis’s eyes hadn’t left Greg. “What if I’m done taking orders from the Council? From punks?”

“Hey.” Lucian’s forehead furrowed so deeply the scabs on the dome of his skull bunched. “Watch the punk shit.”

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror