He skinned the raccoon carefully, making sure to lose as little meat as possible, while keeping an eye out for infected spots. If he found one, even a single one, he would toss the carcass and check his other traps. It was better to play safe than take unnecessary risks. If the other traps were empty, he would eat the infected meat. But only if he had no other options.
The animal was healthy, however, and so he tied it to a spit and put it over the fire. As he turned, he offered up an obligatory prayer that he had something to eat. He wasn't religious, not in the way the men of the Gospel were, but he knew when to be grateful, and what for. He didn't have much. He had a name that he'd acquired somewhere along the way: Kristofferson. He figured it was a family name; how he'd come to know it, and how a few others had known it, was one of many mysteries. He also had his youth, though he didn't know his exact age. Sixteen? Seventeen? His face was lined, and his hair was gnarled and gray, and even the stubble that was beginning to come to his cheeks was the color of ashen snow, but he still knew he was young.
He had a knife, too, with a broad eight-inch blade. He kept it sheathed in his boot, or attached to a belt whenever he had a belt. The shine on the blade had faded with time, and it looked dull, but he kept it as sharp as new. It didn't take much. A good stone, some rough hide. He could find that most places. Rocks and hides were abundant. Food, water, and people were the rare commodities, sought after by the collectors, the needy, and the insane.
As the meat cooked, he listened to the night. It was still hot, which meant the coyotes would be sluggish and fearful. On the cooler nights, he found a high place to sleep, or a cavern whose entrance he could block. Tonight he would be safe sleeping on the ground, though he would hang all of his goods in the nearest tree. He'd still have to contend with snakes and spiders, but they only attacked when angered. It was the predators, the ones large enough to consider taking a man, that he had to worry about.
The smell of the raccoon caused his stomach to grumble. He hadn't eaten yet that day, which was one of his shorter stretches without food. He would eat until the grumbling stopped, then cut up the rest of the meat, dry it, and save it for later. He could barter with it for clothing if need be, or eat it when he could find nothing else. Everything had multiple uses in different situations. It was the key to survival.
Perhaps it was the smell of the meat that diluted his other senses. He should have heard the girl coming. He'd trained his ears to detect the sound and weight of people. He could tell that this girl was about his age, and not carrying a gun. He heard no other footsteps; she could be a scout, perhaps, though more likely she was a solitary wanderer like himself. From her forced breathing, she'd come a long way. That was all he could tell; she was downwind so he couldn't smell her, and behind him, in the shadows, so he couldn't see her.
He let her get within a few feet before saying, "What do you want?"
She stopped and gasped. The reaction seemed genuine, which meant she hadn't been out there long. If she were experienced, she would know how much noise she was making.
He turned slowly, his right hand dropping to his boot. He could barely make out her figure; she'd stopped at the furthest periphery of the firelight. She was slender, and dressed in clothes that were probably stained brown.
"Come closer," he said, keeping his voice neutral, neither threatening nor inviting, but with a definite note of caution beneath his words.
She walked a few feet closer. When he could see her fully, he said, "Stop there."
Yes, about his age, except she looked it. Soft features, weathered by sun and dirt but still youthful. Tangled brown hair, limply framing her face. He couldn't make out the color of her eyes, but he could sense their depth. Her mouth was pulled in a worried frown; her tattered clothes hung loose across her frame. She wasn't barefoot, but another few miles and she would be.
He watched her for a few seconds. She grew restless under his gaze. She quivered, and he sensed a multitude of reasons for it. He said, "What do you want?"
"I..." She licked her dry lips. "I saw your fire, mister, and…"
"You approached a fire alone? At night? Without keeping quiet?" He lifted his right hand carefully, showing her the knife. "I could have hurt you."
She squealed, a dry, raspy sound. He put the knife back and shook his head.
"I could have been anyone," he said. "You haven't been out here long, have you?"
He nodded. "Okay. Move slowly. Sit to my left, a few feet away."
She did as he instructed. There weren't any rocks to sit on, but she didn't hesitate at sitting on the bare earth. Simply checked it for wildlife. So she'd had some experience.
The raccoon entranced her, and even from where he sat, he heard her stomach churn. He said, "How long since you ate?"
"I..." She shook her head. "Days, I think."
She turned her gaze on him. He held her eyes for a moment. Blue. Bluer than anything he remembered ever having seen. He found himself unable to look into them for long, and instead watched the meat cook.
"I thought you were old," she said, leaning closer. "But you aren't, are you? You're young."
"How old are you?"
She seemed to have a response, but then her mouth closed and she looked away. He felt her eyes leave him. Immediately, he wanted them back.
Where had she come from? That was the important question. He had thought he was miles from the nearest occupied settlement. There were still small towns dotted about, random former habitations that had withstood the bombs and fire. But old timers, those from a couple generations back, had left these establishments and formed new ones. Something about putting the past and bad memories behind them and starting a new future. Kristofferson often wondered, when he had nothing else to do, if this future was better than their past, then how bad had their past been?
If this girl hadn't come far—more than a few miles—then he could be in trouble. If she had seen his fire, then maybe others had, too. Yes, she looked like she had traveled a ways—but that didn't mean all at once. She had a fearful, furtive way about her that made him think of slaves he had seen. If she had escaped from one of the gangs, then trouble was all but certain.
"Where did you come from?" he asked.
His voice shook her, and she jumped a little. When she realized his question, she smiled in relief and said, "A long ways away."
Instead of shrugging it off, she thought a moment and said, "Three days? Maybe three and a half."
He nodded. A good enough answer. He doubted she was lying.
"How about you?"
The question caught him off-guard, and he glanced at her. She was watching him with interest, as though the answer mattered to her. Was she concerned about her safety? He thought of reassuring her...and then realized that she simply wanted to know. Curiosity. He had almost forgotten what it was like.
"I don't know," he said, which was the simplest answer. It was also, in a way, true.
"Where were you before this, then?"
She laughed. He hadn't heard a girl's laugh in ages. "Think harder...Wait. What's your name?"
Still confused by her laughter, he didn't answer.
"My name is Shandy," she said. "It was my mother's name, and her mother's name, and maybe even her mother's before that. It goes way back, before the explosions."
He told her his name. She frowned when he said it and asked, "I mean your first name."
"Oh. I only have the one."
"So nobody calls you anything but Kristofferson?"
"Not many people call me that."
She turned her head right, then left, slowly and dramatically. He thought of the mimes he had seen in the last village, the joke-tellers. He uttered an obligatory laugh.
"I guess there's no one around here to call you anything," she said. "So, before you were here, Kristofferson, where there is no one, where were you? I mean, with other people."
"There's a settlement a few miles north of here."
She sighed. "You're stubborn. I mean where you belonged. You know, a place where you stayed a while. The place you were born, maybe."
"I don't remember."
"I was born back east," she said. Something in her voice suggested she hadn't come west of her own free will.
"I've been there," he said.
"You've been a lot of places, haven't you?"
Before she could continue, he stood and took the spit off the fire. She winced when he drew his knife, but relaxed when he started peeling off chunks of flesh, laying them on a strip of hide that he'd put down to keep the dirt away. Her stomach grumbled again, and his echoed it.
"You can have some," he said, because he sensed she wouldn't ask. Too much propriety still.
"Thank you," she said, and took a strip of meat before it had cooled. She gasped, and the meat fell to the earth. Kristofferson thought of the wasted food and inwardly cursed, but the girl picked it up again and blew the dirt away.
"Five second rule," she said. "That's what my mother always told me."
He nodded and waited for the meat to cool. Then he bit into it, shredding it with his teeth. It was tough and flavorless, but it was food.
"Eat slowly," he told her, as she reached for another strip. "You aren't as hungry as you think you are."
"I think it's the other way around," she said, but she didn't bite into the second piece immediately. She watched him eat, and copied his movements. At first, he didn't like being watched. But then he did. It was nice, having someone's eyes on him. It was nice having a girl's eyes on him. He tried to think of the last time that had happened, and realized he couldn't remember. The last girl he'd been with hadn't even been a girl, but a woman. And that had been many towns and even more miles ago.
A coyote howled in the distance. It was joined by others—four, maybe five. Hard to tell with the echoes. The girl jumped, and Kristofferson couldn't help but smile a little at that. She noticed and said, "What?"
"They're far away."
"That doesn't mean they won't come here."
"No reason for them to."
"So you're a coyote now? You think like a coyote?"
"Sometimes." He nodded.
She looked as though she were considering how serious he might be. Then she said, "Something tells me, if anyone would know how to do that, it would be you."
She gave him the same smile back. "Are you?"
Not knowing what to say, he resumed eating. The meat went down hard, but it went down. He pulled out a flask of water and offered some to the girl. She protested at first, but not for long. Thirst was the harshest educator and the greatest equalizer.
"There's a lot of water around here," he said, to make her feel better. "You just have to know where to look."
"I saw a creek a ways back," she said.
"Did you drink from it?"
"A little is okay. But most of the surface water is still contaminated. It won't kill you, but if you drink too much you could get sick."
Even in the darkness, he could see her face go pale. He added, "But you should be okay. The water you need to drink is underground. There's a lot of it, you just have to know how to find it."
"I'm not sure I could."
"I can show you tomorrow," he said, then stopped.
She smiled. To cover his embarrassment, he turned away and began tying up the remaining strips of meat. Then he went to the nearest tree and secured the bundle in the branches, several feet off the ground. When he returned to the fire, he heaved the remnants of the raccoon out into the darkness. The carcass thudded softly somewhere far beyond the reach of the firelight.
He sat back down and took another drink of water. The girl was turned towards the fire again, but he still felt her gaze on him. He watched her surreptitiously as well. Beneath the dirt and the ragged clothing was a certain kind of beauty. Nothing like he'd heard in stories—that kind of beauty didn't exist anymore. But this girl, this Shandy, was certainly as beautiful as any woman Kristofferson had come across. More so than most. To find her out here, away from any of the large settlements, was unusual. It had been a while since Kristofferson had used the word "luck," and he didn't use it now. But he almost did.
"How did you come to be out here?" he asked. The abruptness of his question took him by surprise, and he turned towards her, instinctively ready to apologize. But she had already turned to him, and the expression on her face told him she'd been expecting this.
She didn't answer immediately. Instead, she studied him. Fire danced off her pupils, and for a moment the blue turned yellow, then orange. Kristofferson thought of stories he'd heard when he was younger, about the fire devils that had come with the bombs. Demonic creatures that wrought havoc across civilization, borne of the flames and destruction, chaos given life. Old men and small children still believed the beasts to be alive, roaming the vast stretches of nowhere.
"I was born back east," she said. She hesitated, then continued. "My settlement was raided by one of the gangs. They took my mother, my sister, and me. My mother died soon after. She was sick. She was sick before they got there, and then she died a few days after they took us. They let my sister and me bury her. Marilyn was so beautiful. You can't believe how beautiful she was. No one could, not even the people who took her. Everyone fell in love with her. Everyone else was so ugly, and she was just…" She shook her head. "You had to see her, I guess."
"Did she look like you?"
The girl blushed, but Kristofferson didn't think she was embarrassed. "Some say she did, I guess. I don't think so."
I think she did, Kristofferson thought, but instead of saying it he just nodded.
The girl cleared her throat. "I guess that's why they took her. I mean, her specifically. The rest of us they took because...well...you know. I was only thirteen then, so they treated me nice, even after they started abusing the others. Marilyn was fifteen, but they treated her better than all the rest. They needed her in good condition. Poorly treated women bring in poor prices, they always said."
This must have been one of the rich eastern gangs, Kristofferson figured. Further west, the gangs became less picky. By the time a traveler reached the western coast, where the land gave way to the boiling sea, a woman was a woman no matter what shape she was in.
"For a year they took us around the east coast," the girl said. "They sold off a lot of the girls. Not Marilyn, though. They just rented Marilyn out. They kept me, too, because they knew if they got rid of me then Marilyn would be no good for them. They didn't rent me out, either." Here, her blush was definitely one of embarrassment, and she looked at Kristofferson to make sure he understood. He nodded that he did.
After a pause, she said, "I don't know why they decided to come west. I think it might have been another gang; there was talk of violence and shooting, but we were kept away from it. But whatever it was must've been bad, because the gang didn't want to leave. They became grumpy. They started saying bad things to Marilyn. They started talking of selling her. She wasn't as beautiful anymore. I mean, nothing had really changed—no one hit her, no one abused her. But you could just...it was as though she were dying. I thought she might've gotten sick, like our mother, but now I know what it really was. I…" She shook her head. "Can I have some water?"
He handed her the canteen and she drank. She gave it back with a soft "thanks."
"How long were you with them?" he asked. "All together?"
She whispered, "Two years." Then her back straightened. "They kept me three months after Marilyn was killed. I don't know why they didn't just kill me, too."
She nodded. "They never sold her. She was still more beautiful than the other girls, but they stopped being so picky about who they rented her out to. Eventually, someone did punch her and the gang got pissed off, but they didn't do anything about it. The next guy must've seen the bruise, so he punched her, too. The guy after that killed her. With a knife. He was drunk."
Kristofferson thought of apologizing. Apologies meant little, though, and he wanted to say something with meaning. The girl looked at him, like she was expecting it, so he said, "It's worse out here. The people are wilder."
She looked away. "They stopped caring about me. They got pissed off when Marilyn was killed, and I thought they would take it out on me, but they didn't. So, after three months, I was able to escape. And they didn't chase me."
"They would have caught me by now. I'm not that good at running away."
"I think you're doing fine."
She smiled. "I stumbled upon you in the middle of the night not knowing who you are, remember?"
He glanced at the stars. "It's not the middle of the night yet."
"And you turned out to be a good person."
He wanted to look at her, but he couldn't. Instead, he studied the stars. He heard her move closer to him, closing the distance. But she stopped before she got too close. That was probably for the best.
"Thank you," she said.
"For not killing me."
Unsure of what to say, or unable to say it, he just nodded.
"Can you read them?" she asked.
"I don't think there's anything to read anymore."
"I thought there were stories about them. Old stories."
"Do you know any?"
"You can tell me sometime," she said.
He looked at her finally. Her eyes were blue again, and he wanted to keep looking into them, to not blink and not let his gaze turn from her, because he hadn't had anything beautiful to look at in a very long time.
She yawned, and when she did he looked away. When he tried to look again, she was watching the fire. He stared at her profile. She let him.
"It's safe to sleep here," he said, giving up. "It's too hot for the coyotes, and nothing else will bother us."
She smiled at him but kept her eyes downcast. "I could use a good night's sleep. I haven't slept well in a very long time."
She was out as soon as she lay down. He took a moment to marvel at it; he himself always lay awake for roughly ten minutes, getting used to how the world changed without him moving around in it. Only then would he let himself slip into dreamless sleep, from which he could be awakened by various disturbances: gunfire, voices, human footsteps, a coyote or wildcat howling too close.
Tonight, though, it took him longer. He remained upright, staring at her profile, feeling guilty for doing so but unable to stop. She was curled protectively on her side, her hands up near her face. He thought about what dreams she was having, or if she was too exhausted for them. Did she dream of her sister? Were they pleasant dreams, memories of times before the gang took her? Or was she reliving everything that had happened to her since?
Kristofferson himself dreamed that night. Something about fire, dancing on the horizon, whispering his name. When he awoke the next morning, he could not remember the rest.
The first thing he noticed was the soft caress of dawn on his cheek. The second was the smell of smoke wafting from the extinguished fire. The third, when he opened his eyes, was that he was alone.
He sat up quickly. The spot where she had lain was bare; it was as though her body had never disturbed the earth. There were no footprints leading away, and none approaching. He grabbed his canteen; it was mostly empty. He doubted he had drunk that much water on his own.
He spent fifteen minutes searching around the campsite. That was fifteen minutes he should have used to move on. He made a habit of leaving camp as quickly as he could; it was the best way to stay undetected.
He found no sign of her. The only thing that remained was his memory of her eyes, glowing in the firelight, shifting from blistering yellow to the brilliant blue that calmed his racing pulse. He sat down a moment to collect himself, embarrassed and angry at how he felt, yet wishing she were still here, or that at least he had proof that she had been there at all. When he finally resolved that it would take him more than a few minutes to forget her, he stood up and glared at the sun as it broke the horizon. Then he grabbed the rest of his things and headed west.
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