Out of the Badlands: Part 4
They used to say, two can live as cheaply as one, but that’s only when you’re talking about rent, a mortgage, or a lease. Two people still need twice as much food and water, and it was harder than I realized to have to share. It had been one thing, on the days my foraging failed me, to go to bed hungry, unable to sleep and hoping the next day would be better. Then, it had been my problem and nobody else’s. But now I was with Faustus, and we had a pact: split everything fairly, feast or famine. Some days, he did better than I, and we ate lizard, snake, and the occasional feral cat. Some days I did better, and we had stewed roots, roasted grubs, and other such delicacies. And then there were the days when neither of us did well, and it was hard to hand over half the grubs I’d spent ages finding, when the whole lot of them wouldn’t make a meal for one. I suppose it was worse for him, though. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on him, and not in a good way. He needed to eat more. We both did.
“How do you manage not to eat all the lizards? You need an awful lot of them to make a meal.”
“It’s no secret: you just keep moving. What I’d do for a mule—or a camel—to pack all my stuff.”
“Funny, all I ever wanted was some wheels. Like maybe a shopping trolley, the kind little old grandmas used to pull behind them, on two big wheels to bump over the rough ground.”
“Hm. Only if the tires are solid rubber, and even then the heat would destroy them.”
“Speaking of which. I need new boots. The soles are nearly gone on these. I’m surprised they’ve lasted this long.”
Faustus inspected his own boots. As he turned the soles toward me, I could see that they, too, needed resoling. Since there was no one left who could do that, it would mean a trip to a town, and some luck: if there were no suitable replacements in the local stores, or in the closets of the long-abandoned houses, then we’d have to travel to the next town. Out here, that’s a very long trip. He said, “It’ll take us about a week to get there from here. We’ll travel just the same as always, except with that as a goal. The closer we get, the more careful we have to be. We’re not the only ones around.”
I grimaced. “Right.” My stomach rumbled. “Would it be so bad—if we ran across one, I mean—to kill a sheep or something, and have a great big meal?”
“Oh, no. I don’t have a problem killing sheep. I just don’t like wasting meat, but if we go into town, maybe we can score some salt and make some jerky. Not that mutton makes good jerky, but these days it doesn’t pay to be too picky.”
So that was the plan. It seemed strange how quickly we fell into an easy alliance, but he was a comfortable individual, considerate and accommodating. Maybe he knew I’d just walk away if he was too much of a jerk. At night, I rolled up in my blanket as I’d always done. He rolled up in his. I know you’re wondering about the celibacy thing, but the truth is, he left me alone. I assumed I wasn’t his type, but I didn’t want to bring it up because even mentioning it—after the awkward talk at our first meeting—seemed like it might be misconstrued as interest. So, we didn’t talk about it, much less anything more. We were allies, helpmates, companions, and as the days went by, friends. That was all.
On the fourth day of the walk to the town, I began wondering how he knew how to find the town, since he had neither a compass nor a map, and we were crossing trackless waste. Out here, there aren’t a lot of roads, although if you do find one and follow it, you’re bound to end up somewhere eventually. They didn’t build them for nothing, after all. We didn’t cross any roads, though. He walked unerringly, just as though we had some kind of landmark to go by. I was out of my usual territory. I finally decided to ask. “So, Faustus—“
He paused, wiping sweat from his bearded face with a rag, “Hm?”
“How do you know where we’re going so well? Have you been to this town a lot of times?”
“It’s where I’m from,” he said, vaguely. “I waltzed my Matilda all over this area from the time I was young.” He reached for his canteen. It sloshed quietly. I knew there wasn’t much left in it; there wasn’t much left in mine, either. He drank, finishing it off. “There’ll be water there.”
“How much longer?”
“A day, maybe. We’ve made good time. I don’t suppose you can find us another root or two? There’s a streambed along here somewhere, but it’s hit and miss whether you can dig deeply enough to hit water, most of the year.”
“I’ll try.” I was successful, in the end. It was enough to slake our thirst and to cook with—he’d successfully killed a rabbit, and I wanted to try something besides rotisserabbit for dinner. It was okay, and at least what little fat the creature had wasn’t lost into the fire. We rolled up in our blankets to sleep with the stars twinkling overhead. I tried to remember what it had been like, back when ambient light from the city had made most of those heavenly lights invisible. It seemed another lifetime.