They walked down the road, so far to the side that the boy was almost in the dead, dirty grass beside the pavement, before the man tapped his shoulder and nodded to the horizon. He stepped all the way off, into the brush, and plants crunched under his feet as he went. The boy watched him go, watched him take six steps into the tangled growth, and then followed.
They spent a long time going through the underbrush. The path hadn't been cleared at all; it was thick with crowded growth, all of it dead from last year or just trying to make its way for the first time now, and the boy didn't think anyone had been this way before. The plants were low and pale, but none of them had been crushed underfoot until this moment, until right now.
They went in circles for a while, the boy thought. He just followed the man, putting his feet in the man's footprints as well as he could, and didn't look around. If he needed to run later, he could. It wouldn't matter where he was going, so long as he got away, and he could do that well enough, he thought.
He saw tents, first: three tents, circled around a fire giving off weak smoke that rose to blend into the gray sky.
He remembered having a tent of their own, a long time ago, just the two of them. It had been small, just theirs, and it was almost impossible to put it down over a bit of ground that wasn't covered in tiny rocks, the kind that bit into your shoulders when you were trying to go to sleep, but it had been just theirs. It had zipped up, and the rest of the world went away.
There were people here, two women and a man standing outside these new tents. They all held something. The man and one of the women each had a thick, sharp stick, and the other woman had a gun. The boy stared at it in her hands, which were relaxed around its handle but not loose, and then looked up at her face. She was watching him without smiling, but without frowning either.
The man walked straight up to the fire and held his hands out in front of it, so the boy followed. Heat licked at his palms, warm like he hadn't felt in a long time, and he smiled. They had more wood stacked to the side, an untidy pile of thin branches, and he could see even more beyond that, tied with thin strips of fabric into bundles.
"It's the boy I was telling you about," the man said. The other people nodded after a while, and after a while, the other man came and sat down across the fire from them. One of the women joined them as well, and the one with the gun ducked inside a tent. The boy watched the flames jump and flicker.
"You see anyone else while you were out?" the other woman asked.
The man shook his head. The boy didn't look away from the fire, but he could see him do it out of the corner of his eyes. These people had shopping carts as well. The boy could see them, three of them, resting on their sides on the far end of the clearing, across from him on the other side of the fire. Two were empty, but one was stacked full of stuff the boy recognized – tarps, tools, buckets.
"We should head out tomorrow anyway," she said, "if this weather holds."
"It'll hold. Clouds look good."
"I hope so. We've been here too long, waiting for him."
The boy stared at the fire, at the branches turning orange and then black and then grey at its center.
The other woman pushed back the flap of one of the tents and came back out. "You wanna come on in, figure out where you're gonna sleep?" He looked up at her after a moment, and she nodded. "Yeah, you. Come on, you can meet everyone while you're at it."
He glanced around the fire. The man who'd come to get him crooked his mouth a little and nodded, and so the boy stood and followed her into the tent. It smelled bad inside, like too many farts, but the woman smiled at him. When she let the door fall closed, it was warm. She stepped backwards, ducking down so she wouldn't brush her head against the top of the tent, and sat down on a pile of something – fabric, maybe something that used to be an animal, he didn't know. He couldn't tell. There were other piles, thick pieces of fabric folded over and over into themselves, stacked up against the walls of the tent. The boy watched as one wall moved, pressed in towards them and then out away again, in time with the wind howling and then calming again.
There were kids on each side of her. A little girl with big eyes in a dirty face held one arm, and a boy sat on her other side, watching the boy and grinning. He smiled back, sort of, and then looked down.
"This is Amelia," the woman said, "and Luis. They're both really happy you've come to live with us."
The boy smiled and nodded without looking away from the ground. The fabric covered almost the entire floor of the tent, and when he poked it with one finger, he found it thick and squishy. It was nice to sit on, soft and warm, and he wriggled a little.
"I'm Christine," she said. The boy glanced up at her and she smiled, nodded. He looked at the kids again, and they were both relaxed against her, sitting with their hands in their lap and their backs slightly slumped, just enough to be comfortable. "What's your name?"
He glanced at the kids again. The girl just stared at him but the boy nodded, and then he opened his mouth and told them.