Out of the Badlands: Part 3
He saw me on the second day, and I was being careful. It wasn’t even the fire that gave me away, but a stupid small tallus slide down a hillside put him on alert. I might have been an animal rather than a human, but he was alert enough to care. Having given myself away, I stood up and let myself be seen.
He stood at a distance, hands cupped to shade his eyes against the glare. To my surprise, he neither waved nor called, but having satisfied himself that I was neither food nor predator, he simply turned and walked away, leaving me to decide what to do. Re-shouldering my pack, I made my way down the slope, careless of the noise it made, since it didn’t matter anymore. I trailed him the little distance to his camp.
I stood at the edge of the camp, feeling unaccountably timid. Hadn’t I gone seeking other people? Now I’d found one, and I was afraid to trespass.
He crouched, aboriginal style, next to a smokeless fire. Several lizards, skinned and spitted, sputtered over the flames. He looked over his shoulder at me and grunted.
Taking it for permission, I approached, setting down my pack.
“Hungry?” He asked.
“I have water root pulp. If you’ll let me cook it in the coals, I’ll share.”
He made a face. “Bitter. But go ahead. Carbs aren’t as easy to come by as they used to be.”
I turned back to my pack and crouched to pull out the scarred, blackened aluminum pot in which I’d carried the pulp from the last root. Turning back, I said, “If you have salt, it helps.”
He assessed me. His eyes were brown and shadowed. I guessed his age to be mid-forties. “A little,” he conceded. “Cook it first, and we’ll season to taste.” He said ‘we’. Well, that was friendly.
I poured a little of the liquid in my canteen into the pot and stirred coals out of the fire to make a place, nestling it into them. I stirred it with a spoon I’d carved from a bit of driftwood and closed the lid. “Twenty minutes for well-done. If you like it rare, maybe fifteen.”
He huffed a laugh of sorts. “What’s your name?”
“Faustus,” he said.
I blinked and stared at him. “Really?”
“My mother said she made a deal with the devil. She divorced him before I was born, though, so I never met the guy. It might not even have been true. I got the name, though.”
“Do you want to know my last name?”
“I don’t see how it matters. For all I know, you’re the only Tanya left in the world. You’re certainly the only one I know. It’s a good bet I’m the only Faustus, anyway.” He took one of the lizards off the fire and poked the flesh gingerly with his fingertip. I noticed his nails were kept pared short. I looked at my own, which were chipped along the edges. I resolved to find a stone and file them down as soon as I could. He sniffed the lizard and then began to gingerly bite the meager flesh from its ribs with his front teeth.
I shrugged. “I don’t suppose surnames matter at all, now.”
He chewed contemplatively. “Let me ask you a question, since you’re the only woman I’ve seen since the Day.” He paused and amended, “The only living, sane woman. I’ve seen plenty of the other kinds, at least at first. Not so much now.”
I squinted at him across the fire, already calculating how best to flip coals at him, whether I could afford to lose my cookpot, and whether doing either of those things would give me enough of a head start to be worth the bother. I didn’t say anything, but I didn’t move, either.
“What do you think of the idea of rebuilding the human race?”
Of course. It would be about that, wouldn’t it? I said, “Why bother? Look what we’ve done with everything we had?”
“But then why bother to keep surviving now? What is your life worth, or mine? If we’re such a blight on the landscape—if we’re not worth saving, why not just kill yourself? It’ll save you the bother of starving when the rains fail, or frying in the heat, or being eaten by wild dogs. Not to mention bug bites.”
I shrugged. “Life is worth living. You only get one, and I came close enough to dying at the hands of assorted mobs before I took to the back country.”
“If life is worth living for you, it’s worth living for somebody else. But—” he paused a long moment to have another bite of meat, and chew it, and swallow, “As the lady said, I don’t know nothin’ bout birthin’ no babies. So at this point, I don’t think making one is a very good idea.”
“Fair enough. I don’t really want to take the risk. Maybe someday. If my circumstances improve a lot.”
He grunted and tossed the lizard bones into the fire. He pulled the other tiny morsel off the fire and offered it to me. “Meat? It’s only fair, if I’m going to have some of that root.”
“Don’t mind if I do.” In truth, there wasn’t an ounce of meat on the whole creature, but I wasn’t going to turn it down. After a moment, I said, “Do you know where to get anything larger? Maybe not a Roo, but how about sheep?”
“I see Roos from time to time, but I can’t get close enough, and I’m poor with a throwing stick. As for the sheep—poor things. Have you seen any of them? It’s a wonder they can walk.”
“Nobody shears them. The wool just keeps growing and growing. Gauging from some of the carcasses I’ve seen, the animals may have been staggering under a hundred pounds of wool. The wild dogs get those. Anyway, I don’t have a way to preserve the meat. Not enough salt, and nothing to smoke it with.”
“What about the sun?” I jerked my eyes upward to the blazing. “Can’t you cut the meat thin and make jerky out of it?”
“Food poisoning is no respecter of persons,” he said philosophically. “Once smitten, twice shy, and all that.”
I laughed ruefully and, lifting the lid from the pot, checked the root pulp for doneness. “It’ll do,” I said. “Give me your dish.”
He handed me a bowl, plastic like my own. It made sense. Glass was too easy to break. “So, if you haven’t been eating lizards or sheep, what have you been eating for protein?”
“Grubs, mostly. I could write a book: ‘How to eat fried grubs’. I glopped hot mush into his bowl.
“You’ll sell a million copies.”
“Sure, when the population gets that high again. Tuck in. This stuff doesn’t taste any better once it gets cold.”
He tucked in. The way he ate, he made it look good.