Chapter One: Show Your Teeth
"Need a ride?"
The question is accompanied by a wide grin. The man's teeth are yellowed and chipped, with gaps between showing where others have been knocked out. His attempt at a smile looks more like an animal baring its teeth; there's something starkly predatory about him. That's the first reason I shouldn't say yes.
The second reason would be that I'm small, alone, and unarmed. None of those traits are going to help much in a place like this.
And there we have the third reason. By "a place like this," I mean a torn-up, full-of-potholes road running through the middle of nowhere. This poor excuse for a road is the only thing marking the landscape for miles; in every other direction, there's nothing but vast expanses of vacant desert. Nuclear war can do that to a place, I guess. But the point is, there's no one around to hear me if I start screaming. And even if someone did hear, chances are they wouldn't care. In times like these, you've got to look out for yourself. When survival is a struggle, there isn't a lot of time left for playing the role of the Good Samaritan.
The fourth reason is the assault rifle strapped across his back.
The fifth reason is the dubious sack of something-or-other sitting in the back seat of his puke-colored jeep, which is giving off a pretty unpleasant odor.
The sixth reason is... ah, hell. Need I go on?
I scratch my nose, sniff, and then spit on the ground to my left, tactics I frequently employ to buy myself time to think. The jeep's engine rumbles quietly as I consider my answer, the only sound in the dry, stagnant air.
It's pretty obvious that getting in this jeep would be a terrible idea. I've heard more than enough horror stories about what happens to people who get picked up by strangers out in the wastelands. In times like these, people with any morals are few and far between. A helpless little girl like me could provide a hell of a lot of entertainment for someone with a sick enough mind. So naturally, my answer is-
"Sure, why not?"
Because when it comes down to it, I've been walking for days. My ratty old shoes are full of holes. The sand burns my feet during the day, and I step on all sorts of unpleasant things in the darkness of night. The sun practically lights my skin on fire, and when it sets I feel as though I'm about to freeze solid. I ran out of food days ago and the flask attached to my hip is nearly out of water. Lord knows how far away the next source of water is; I haven't seen anything but wastelands for days.
This jeep and its driver are smelly, and questionable, and very possibly dangerous, but they're also my only ticket out of here.
The stranger shows his teeth again. His eyes are hidden behind a pair of goggles, probably to ward off the wind and the sand it brings.
"Hop in then, kid."
I clamber into the back seat next to the reeking mystery bag, nearly tumbling onto it but managing to catch myself just in time. I squeeze myself into the tight space between the bag and the door, and the jeep starts moving. Sayonara, middle of nowhere. Even if I end up dead and dismembered in a ditch, it'd be better than wandering aimlessly through this hellhole of a desert.
We pick up speed quickly, and I hastily pull down on my beanie to stop it from flying off. A few strands of mousy hair are poking out from underneath it, and I try to push them up again, but it's really no use. I settle for holding the beanie with one hand and resting the other on the side of the jeep. The reek of the bag next to me is getting stronger and stronger, making my eyes water, but I try to ignore it.
There's a woman sitting in the passenger seat up front; I hadn't noticed her before. She was still and silent the whole time they waited for me next to the road, but now she turns around. The first thing I notice is her hair. It's very long, nearly waist-length, and oddly straight and sleek. I really don't understand how someone could have hair so perfect looking in conditions like these, or how and why her hair is colored electric blue.
She has dark, almond-shaped eyes revealing an Asian heritage, and her lips are colored with vibrant red lipstick. She's pretty, in a strange kind of way. Right now I think those red lips are mouthing something at me, but I can't make out any words with the wind whipping around me. The dull roar of rushing air overwhelms her voice.
I squint my eyes, tilt my head a little to the side, and give her a vacant stare to indicate my inability to hear. She rolls her eyes and turns around, apparently offended.
She doesn't try to talk to me again, and neither does the feral man who's driving. Apparently neither of them care to ask where I intend to go. I'm just along for the ride, no input on our destination, and that's fine by me.
If I had any common sense at all I'd probably want to stay on edge, but since I don't, I decide to take a nap instead. What can I say? It's been a long couple of days.
I wake up with my face pressed against the lumpy garbage bags - and my God do they reek. The scent is invading my nostrils, pillaging my throat, and raping the shit out of my poor brain. I gag and recoil, pressing against the side of the car and frantically wiping myself off. I don't know what the hell is in there, but I sure don't want it anywhere on or near my face.
Once I determine I'm safe from any obscene-smelling foreign substances, I realize the jeep is no longer moving. The man and young woman who were in the jeep before are standing a few yards away, having a quiet but apparently deeply involved conversation. Neither of them is paying any attention to me.
I adjust my beanie and climb out of the car, stretching out my bony limbs one at a time. My back cracks and both of the strangers' heads jerk towards me, immediately radiating hostility.
"Err," I say. The man has a grip on his gun, and the woman has both fists raised. I slowly raise my hands up, palms facing them, and offer an innocent smile. "My bad, guys, my bad."
They relax almost instantly when they notice it's just me, and the man displays that grin of his again.
"So you're awake, kid," he says. "We were about to wake you up, but you looked pretty happy in there. You were drooling a little on the, ah, goods."
I self-consciously wipe my mouth and feel my cheeks grow hot. He laughs, a genuine and hearty sound rather than the harsh cackle I would expect out of him.
"We found a little town," he says, jerking his thumb behind him. "Decided it was as good a place as any to stop."
"Oh, yeah, great," I say sincerely. "That works just fine. Thanks for the ride, mister."
He laughs again, this time for no good reason I can decipher.
"Right, kid," he says. "Mind helping us carry this into town?"
I glance nervously at the reeking bags in the back of the jeep. He did give me a ride, so...
"Good!" He grins again. "Don't drop it or anything, we're selling this shit."
I nod and wipe my sweating palms on my jeans. Right, don't drop anything. I can handle this… probably.
The blue-haired Asian mute has been looking at me intently the whole time, and it's starting to make me a little uncomfortable. She has this weird blankness about her. Not a hint of emotion ever crosses her face, and she has this incredibly unnerving stare. It's like looking into the eyes of a corpse. I try to ignore her, but looking at the guy with the savage grin isn't much better. At least the girl combs her hair – the man's is in long brown dreadlocks, and obviously hasn't been washed or otherwise groomed in an awfully long time.
The two of them move over to the jeep and wordlessly start unloading the bags. They pack my arms full first, and I scrunch my nose and try my best not to inhale too deeply. Once we all have as much as we can carry, we head towards the town.
Or, at least, towards the pathetic collection of shambling buildings that passes for a town nowadays. It's built over the ruins of an old city, like most of them are. People have patched up the brick shells of rooms with blankets and branches and scrap metal and whatever else they can find to make shelter. People are clustered around in little huddles, and a few of them are starting to gather around fire pits, since the sun is setting and the temperature is dropping rapidly. I've only ever seen pictures of what the great cities of old looked like, but it's enough to make me appreciate the sadness of what they've become.
A few eyes turn towards us as we enter, but they don't seem too surprised to see us. Apparently this place is used to strangers, which probably means this is a popular crossroads for travelers. Most of the little towns like these can go months without seeing a new face; the population around here isn't exactly thriving.
The man stops and dumps the bags he's carrying on the ground, and the woman and I follow suit. They create wet thumps and small clouds of dust as they hit. I gratefully suck in a stench-free breath while the other two survey the area.
"Where are they?" the woman murmurs. Her voice is so quiet I can barely catch it, and as flat and emotionless as her face.
"Not here," the man answers, "which probably doesn't mean anything good."
Before the conversation can continue, a stranger approaches us. He's a tall, wiry, dark-skinned man with a commanding presence. He stops in front of us, but stays silent, waiting for us to speak first.
Dreadlocks shoves his hands into his pockets, assumes a relaxed posture, and grins.
"Name's Wolf," he greets. "We've got some goods here. You got anything worth trading for? Gasoline, maybe?"
The man doesn't say anything for several long seconds. He looks at us, scrutinizes the bags, and then looks at us again.
"Welcome to our town," he says, his voice a low and pleasant rumble. "We might have some gasoline. Depends what you're trading. What is this?" He nudges a bag with one shoe.
Again, here comes that cruel display of teeth.
"Meat," Wolf answers bluntly, over-emphasizing the word.
The other man's eyebrows shoot up.
"Meat? Huh, been a while since I've seen that," he says. "What's it from?"
"A couple o' wild hogs."
"Hogs," the man repeats. He looks at the bags thoughtfully. "That's a lot of meat for a couple of hogs."
"Fat ones," Wolf says dryly, clearly not in the mood to entertain questions. "Look, you gonna trade or not?"
The man pauses.
"Well, we'll have to look over our inventory," he answers, speaking slowly; he seems to be carefully weighing each word. "A caravan stopped by last night and we haven't taken stock yet. But why don't you stay a while? You'll have a safe haven for a night, at least, and we can talk more about trading in the morning."
"Sounds good to me," Wolf says. He turns and jerks his head towards the woman. "Dolly, sleep with the jeep."
"We aren't thieves," the man says.
"'Course not," Wolf agrees enthusiastically, and then nods at Dolly again. "Jeep." She obediently walks off, and he turns to me. "Mind helping me with these bags again?"
Something tells me I should leave right now, pretend I never had anything to do with a strange couple of travelers called Wolf and Dolly. Something tells me a man with a smile like his can only bring trouble. Maybe that something is what normal people call common sense.
But like I've said, I don't have a whole lot of that.