The linoleum was ruined.
Harriet stepped over the puddle of blood, dark and still not quite dry, and tugged at the kitchen knife stuck in the bandit's back. It was reluctant to come out, and when it did, the blade was dark with the blood and filth of him. Another ruined thing, thought Harriet, with a pang of regret. And they'd never had very much in the first place.
But that'd been the problem, hadn't it? They'd always just squeaked by, her and Mother, and this season the garden had started to run fallow. They'd barely been able to feed themselves and bribe the bandits off, and then the food had run out... and then this one had arrived, armed and not willing to accept their bargains. She'd grabbed the knife just a breath too late. He'd already been swinging that tire iron...
Harriet shut her eyes tightly, trying to stop the tears before they came again. She couldn't afford to lose any more water today, not with the morning's tears and the sweat from the desert. Her muscles ached, from the carrying and the walking and the digging, and yet the low, dull ache of old hunger was still stronger somehow.
She couldn't stay. With Mother dead and the garden going, she wouldn't be able to hold this little house any longer; all Harriet could hope for was that there were rooms to rent in town, or that she could find someone trustworthy willing to help her hold down a homestead. But all that meant a trip into town, and that meant getting her energy back, and that meant food she didn't have.
Why had she thought about how hungry she was? Now it was stronger, more pain than ache, so bad it made her want to retch. Harriet braced herself against the counter, looking down at the floor -- and the bandit, sprawled on the floor like a half-slaughtered dog, already nearly bled out.
No. She couldn't really be thinking it, could she? She'd be just like the mutants if she did, and didn't you get diseases that way? But... he was already dead, and he'd killed Mother. He wasn't a person, really, was he? He was a killer, a monster, like the mutants and the dogs. And he was already dead. And she was so hungry.
Harriet took the knife from the counter and stepped forward, trying to steady her shaking hand. It had been a while since she'd cleaned a carcass, and she wanted to do it right.
By the time the fresh meat gave out, Harriet had smoked enough jerky to last the trip into town, and she'd packed the things that were worth taking: the yearbooks, Mother's jewelry, Grandmother's violin snug in its case, and what was left of the good silverware. Once the bike-wagon was packed, her boxes padded out with linens and old sweaters, she carefully eased the kitchen knives into place around her socks and sleeves -- places they wouldn't catch her as she moved, but places she'd be able to draw them from if she needed to. Who knew what you'd meet on the road?
It was a hard day's ride into town, but by the time Harriet reached Main Street, she found herself whistling despite herself. In the twilight, the intact windows glimmered, and a few storefronts even managed to keep their electric signs glowing: BARTER HERE over the barred door of the Hall, a DRIFTER SHELTER whose aging brick had been reinforced with scrapwood, and at last, at the end of the street, the SODA FOUNTAIN sign glowing like a beacon. How many years had it been since they'd last come to town on a bartering trip, since she'd last sipped a cold drink from a tall, shining glass? It felt like decades, and maybe it had been. You lost track of time out on the homestead.
At the Barter Hall, the headman sold Harriet storage for a day's jerky ration, and soon she was smoothing her hair out as she made her way down the street to the Soda Fountain. It was just as she'd remembered it; maybe the glass was dirtier now, and the letters on the door more faded, but inside was the same warm glow of tile and old Naugahyde she remembered from her childhood. Against the far wall, the jukebox hummed, the sound of aging mechanical parts offering a harmony to the crooning voice of the King asking her to love him tender. Harriet crossed the room in a few slow, near-hypnotized strides, and it wasn't until she touched the cool plastic paneling of the jukebox that she could really accept that it was all real.
It was a verse later that the voice came from behind her -- a male voice, not the King's, but pleasant enough. "Miss? Are you all right?"
Harriet glanced back, catching a glimpse of a smile, and turned to face the boy behind her. He looked like something out of Mother's old magazines: tall and slim, hair slicked back and shining, and wearing a letterman sweater that had weathered the years well. His skin had the smooth gleam of regular baths and meals, and when his eyes met hers, there was a vibrant light there she hadn't seen in the longest time.
"Y-yes -- I'm fine," Harriet stammered out. "I'm just surprised, that's all. I'm in from the wastelands, and..." Why did she say that? That wasn't the sort of thing you told a stranger. Why was it this boy didn't feel like one?
"Goodness," he said, and slowly his smile dropped into what looked like real concern. "You must have had a very long day. Let me buy you a soda? It'll only be a minute, and I've got that booth over by the window; go on ahead?" Too tired to read him for anything but what he said, Harriet nodded and made her way into the booth, grateful for the Naugahyde and what padding was left underneath it. Silently, she watched the boy move to the counter and place the order: all grace, good health, and a confidence that seemed almost unreal. He looked like the boys in her grandmother's yearbooks, those smiling boys in a world of grass and plenty, and he moved like she imagined they must have. How had someone like that gotten here?
The boy came back with one soda, dark and fizzing, and two straws. "I hope you don't mind sharing?" he said, face innocent. "I'm still new in town myself, and I don't have the money for two. Promise I don't have the rot." He grinned at that, and Harriet found herself laughing.
"I trust you!" How had she said that? When was the last time she'd trusted anyone besides Mother?
"I'm glad," the boy said, plunking the straws into the soda. "I'm Ward, by the way. What's your name?"
"Harriet," she replied, before she gave in and began to drink. The soda was so sweet it tasted thick, full of flavors she couldn't quite name. Harriet couldn't even find words for how good it was, and yet -- and yet, she realized, it was Ward's eyes that held her attention.
The glass went too quickly, and when Ward stood, Harriet was quick to follow. He'd have a room upstairs, of course -- a boy like him wouldn't be squatting at the Shelter -- and from the way he walked, slowly but purposefully, he didn't need words to make it clear he wanted her to share it. A good girl wouldn't, but she wasn't perfect, was she? And Ward was perfect enough for the both of them.
"It hasn't been long, has it? Since you started hunting."
"Mm?" Harriet opened her eyes, lifting her head from Ward's chest and trying to focus. In the darkness of the room and the warmth of the bed, she'd nearly lost the fight against her exhaustion, and now nothing he was saying made any sense. Hunting? What?
"Since you found real meat," Ward continued. "It looks like it hasn't been long, but I can see it in your eyes that you have."
"Real meat?" Wait, did he mean...? God, had he seen it on her, seen the last traces of the guilt? "No, no! It's not like that. I -- we -- there was a bandit, and I..."
"Harriet, darling, don't be ashamed?" Gently, Ward leaned down to kiss her forehead. "However it happened, you've figured out the secret. Don't listen to whatever they say about mutants or gonks or any of it. My folks raised me on drifter meat, and here I am."
Harriet met his eyes again, lip nearly quavering in fear, but all she saw there was honesty. Could he be telling the truth? If he'd grown up that way, and he'd ended up as beautiful as he was, maybe he was right about there being no danger in it. Why would he lie, anyway? To trap her? If he'd wanted her dead, he could have done it ten times over by now, and no road-gonk could be as flawless as he was.
"We could hunt together," continued Ward. "I've heard of a place that's going open; it's near one of the main roads, and there's only a couple of squatters there now. If you'll help me take it, it can be ours."
"Truly, Ward? Truly?"
It all sounded so good. Words like "ours," "together," "truly," and the thought of a home of her own -- of their own. A garden. Clean linoleum. Maybe a family, one day, if the hunting was good. It was everything Harriet had ever wanted, everything she'd ever felt it was silly to even imagine. "Then I'll go," she said. "We'll go. How far away is it?"
"A while up the road. We'll need to leave early to get there by nightfall, but it shouldn't be a hard ride." Ward smiled again, a smile that nearly lit up the little room. "Let's get some sleep and be fresh for it, dear."
"Of course," said Harriet, closing her eyes and letting visions of lawns dance in her head before sleep claimed her.
The house was a fixer-upper, certainly, but there wasn't much wrong with it that elbow grease couldn't solve, thought Harriet as she crossed the threshold. A bit of scrubbing on the foyer and something to hang on the walls, and it could easily be home. It already nearly was.
"In here, honey!" called Ward from down the hallway. Leaving her thoughts of decoration behind, Harriet followed his voice to the kitchen, where he'd already laid out the meat. There were two carcasses this time, both old and stringy, but they'd probably still cook up well enough with some time to boil and marinade. The larder was still half-stocked, too -- enough for them to eat for weeks, at least until the garden started growing again.
"Decent little plot out back for you," said Ward, reading her mind once again. "Think they've got some seed potatoes in and some carrots, and there's space enough to put up a swingset, maybe a putt-putt hole. What do you think?"
"It's swell, honey," says Harriet, and even 'swell' doesn't quite capture how she feels. Was it really only a few days ago that she was hiking across the desert to bury her mother? Only a week ago that she was worried how they'd get through the dry season? Now the world was made of possibilities: swingsets and treehouses, dinner parties and wall-to-wall carpeting, a brand new picket fence and a shiny car. She'd wear her pearls every day; Ward would have a hat and a black leather briefcase. They'd be rich. They'd be happy. They'd never be hungry again.
"Absolutely swell," she continued. "But you've got to be hungry, darling. Why don't you go put your feet up? I'll have dinner ready in just a jiff; how would you like a nice stew?"
"I'd love one. Take your time, hon, and let the meat get nice and tender?"
Oh, yes, Harriet thought. This would be a good life.