*This is inspired by James Mascia’s writing prompt book Other Worlds
The sun glinted off the cracked lens on the top of a knitted basket. She went to pick it up, the seller grabbed her wrist harshly. “What do you got to trade for that, kid? No touchy til I see it.” The man’s voice sounded hoarse and threatening, his grip on her wrist tightened slightly.
“You expect me to buy without a closer look? What kinda fool do you take me for?”
“Not everything that glitters is gold, miss. Let’s see it.”
She sighs. She pulls out her pockets, counts the little coin she has, and other odds and ends that she has found on her travels. A spool of yellow thread, a needle, a couple plastic things, including a plastic soldier with a menacing expression and a helmet.
“You got nothing. Just as I thought.” The man spits at her feet, an ugly wad of brownish gunk.
“Let me go, then. You got me, I just wanted a look see, no harm. Honest.”
“Hmm. No harm indeed.” She saw his eyes cloud over briefly, mulling something over or in reverie perhaps. “Well?” She said giving her arm a jerk. He finally lets go, she rubs her sore wrist giving him a dirty look.
“How old are ya girl?”
“To remember what? Clean air, clean water? A time before the return of the great diseases? The ones we thought we had licked. Boy, were we wrong. They are sneaky things, super bugs. They find a way to beat the vaccines, boom, all our technology and fancy dew-dads, they don’t do us no good. All for nothing.”
“So we are done here?” Her green eyes flashed defiance. She was young, how young hard to say. Mal-nourishment had a way of making someone tinier than they ought to be. Plus, looking younger than one was could be an advantage. She was used to being underestimated and had to grow up fast in this cold world.
“You got any kin left? Where are you from?”
“Why do you care, mister?”
“I had a daughter once, and a wife, and even a brother. Brother died in the war with China. Daughter and wife, well, TB got em. So, here we are. Alone, selling what we find on the road. I got an old cart and a mule. and I just venture looking for treasure and to trade stories with other survivors. Hoping to find some information. You see, I had another daughter, that was taken away, years ago, when we were all confined, in the TB ward, she was taken from me. All I have left of that one is this.” He holds up between his thumb and forefinger a tiny blue button.
“How old was she? When you last saw her?”
“She was about three, almost three years old. She would be somewhere around 13 I reckon, now.”
“Well, she ain’t me, Mister. I am older than that. Besides, I know where my family is. They are all under the dirt someplace or other. Some died here, others over there. I have been traveling for a ways now. And, I lost a lot along the way. Been alone a couple years. But, now I am out of anything to trade, except of course my labor. I can trade that well enough, if someone needs something fixed, or a rabbit caught. I have gotten good at rabbit and rat catching.”
“Are you offering your services? Whatcha want the glasses for?”
“Makes it easier to make a fire, I broke my last lens.”
“You aren’t near sighted then. Can you see that sign over yonder?”
She squints in the direction the man points. It is a hand painted sign an old woman is holding. “Looks like, maybe, I’m not sure. Have you seen…so and so, or something.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Here. A gesture of good will. I will accept your services, by the way, because, my last traveling companion took ill and died. I think I may be a carrier of the TB. But, then, if you have lasted this long, you may be as well. Besides, I can see no fear in your eyes. You are ready to die, aren’t you?” The man’s eyes glint in the sunshine, a smile crosses his face as though being ready to die is a novel concept.
“Been fighting to live for so long. Maybe I have had it all wrong this whole time. Maybe accepting the final destination. Maybe that is the point. Maybe there is some wisdom you can teach me yet.”
She catches the glasses, shoving them on her face, still squinting.”You talk a lot of nonsense, stranger. If you got some food, I would appreciate another good will gesture. Been a while since I caught a rat. And well, I could use the strength to catch another.”
The man motions behind his cart where he has a little fire going and a cast iron pot boiling some kind of vegetable soup. He grabs a hunk of bread breaks it in half, handing her one piece, offering her a metal bowl and spoon. A small rickety table with a couple of beat up travel chairs with a faded green fabric material sat nearby. “Normally I charge for a seat at my table, but considering you are going to be my companion here, I will offer you a seat for free.”
“How kind of you.” She eats the bread with one hand, sloppily dishing out the soup with the other hurriedly. She sits down with a thud, and proceeds to devour the bowl.
“Don’t rush. You gotta make it last. Savor it. Otherwise you will get a tummy ache.”
The girl glares at him. “Don’t tell me how to eat. I know how to eat.”
The man smiles sadly. “Of course. You know everything. This is your world. This is what you know. All of this, its your castle, your home.”
“I am going to stop talking to you. You are crazy.” The man chuckles. “Perhaps. I very well may be crazy. I am caught between worlds. Remembering what was, and existing here. I feel like I was in heaven, but now I am in purgatory, waiting, to finally go to hell.” His eyes go all distant and the girl refocuses on the soup.
She didn’t care what was actually in it at this point, she just had to eat something to stop the growling gnawing inside of her. The constant need to satiate her hunger was the driving force behind her day to day life. It was the reason to keep going, the reason she found to keep going in order to not think or remember the faces of the others.
The others that hadn’t kept going, the ones that fell before the sickness or the bombs or both. She had to survive for those that couldn’t. Someday, she could tell their stories to others, if there was a day where one could tell stories again and live to see a brighter day. Where one could safely sit and dream and not worry about hunger, and death, and destruction. It was her turn to go distant.
She could hear the man’s snores, as he fell asleep in his chair. She could hear foot steps and animals rustling in the grass. This was life now. Tiny moments among tiny moments, not knowing when the end might come, only that it would one day.