The girl smells like the laundry soap of my childhood, but I haven’t smelled anything close to fresh-breeze or lilac-mist in years. I splash canteen water on her face. She sputters, choking as she inhales. I step back and crouch down across the cooking fire.
Laundry searches the dark trees, her pony tail whipping back and forth. I tuck my own long, tangled hair behind my ears, so dirty it doesn’t even smell like smoke.
She spots me across the fire. Her eyes widen.
“Please, just let me go.” She struggles against the rope I used to tie her to the tree. “You can have my pack, you can have everything just—”
My knots will hold. How my face must look to her: sunken eyes and filthy cheeks. We’re nearly the same age. Could’ve been twins had our paths took similar directions. I scratch behind my ears, itchy with fleas.
“I’m not going to kill you. If I wanted to, I would have just done it. You wouldn’t listen.” The blood on her forehead, from where I hit her with a rock, is drying. “I want to know where you came from.”
Each time I ask a question, she resets: struggling against the ropes, giving up, and moaning. I open one of the three unlabeled cans I found in her bag and place my pan over the fire, heat it to sanitize, and pour in beans. As the food warms, I dig through her bag. Socks, t-shirt, underwear, a rain jacket—it’s not even torn—and a plastic bag of fresh vegetables. I crack the seal of the bag and eat each vegetable one by one, savoring the orange crunch and red juice. Who is she? Wandering around in the middle of the woods with a couple day’s rations, smelling like flowers and soap.
She came from somewhere nearby. When I found her, she had a kitchen knife clutched in her hand, not something you see often out on the road. She tried to use it on me when I came up behind her.
“I’m useless.” Laundry breaks the crackling silence and sags against her ropes. I look up to show her I’m listening. The beans simmer. I’ve been out here long enough to know not to speak first.
“Just kill me already—all right. Or eat me, or whatever you do. I’m useless.”
I wait until the smoke moves, so I don’t cough as I speak. “Where do you live?”
She spits, unpracticed, on the ground. Spittle clings to her chin. “Like I’m going to tell you. Like they’d let you in. Or what do you think you’re going to do? Rob the houses?”
“Houses?” I only see other travelers in tents these days. Houses only worked when goods could make their way to people.
Her face reddens in the fire light. With the slobber on her chin, she looks like a rabid dog wearing a pretty bow. Sweater still bright purple. Not faded.
“Here.” I grab the pot and walk toward her. “Eat something.”
“Oh, I get to eat my beans. How generous.”
I pour half the beans into a cup and hold them forward, just within her reach. Her arms are free as she sits against the tree, but her chest strains against the ropes as she stretches. She sucks up beans. Scarfs them down like she needs more meat on her full chest and hips. I keep the carrots and tomatoes.
“So, what’s your name?” I ask.
She drinks the food like water. I chuckle and she stops. Laundry lowers the cup and narrows her eyes at the beans.
“You’re fine. I’m just asking questions.”
She weighs the consequences. The beans win. Once the girl has licked the last of the juice from the tin cup, she drops it on the ground, and I pick it up. I wipe it out with fallen leaves and then char the surface over the fire. The last of the sugar syrup turns to ash.
“That’s fine, don’t talk,” I say, “I’ll tell you a bit about myself first. Then you can return the favour.”
I rub my sticky fingers on my overcoat and clear my throat. It’s not that I can’t speak out loud around a fire; it’s that I never have an audience. I pull my utility knife out of my pocket. She seizes. Silent tears bead on her cheeks as I unfold the attachments.
“The last time I stood in my childhood bedroom, I was twelve. Mom said it was time to pack, we’re heading south. Anything worth trading or selling was already traded or sold. I threw some clothes and gummed-up nail polish in my school pack—this pink plastic thing with a glitter-green cat on it. The straps ripped off that pack two days later.”
I pat my bag on the ground beside me.
“Now, you see this bag. Traded it off a guy in North Texas. Lasted two years now, still going. And this here—” I spin my knife in my fingers. “This is Charlie—named after my granddad. You ever tried to use every tool on a utility knife? Well, I’ve done it. Isn’t it pretty, with all the tools folded out?”
Laundry twitches as the fanned attachments glint in the light of the fire. Wide open, the blades look like the spread fingers of a versatile hand.
“What are you going to do with that?” Laundry asks.
I walk to her side of the fire, just out of reach.
She gulps down quick gasps. Her chest lurches.
“You don’t like Charlie, do you?”
She covers her mouth and nose with her hands, trying to still her breath.
I fold every attachment back in, knife last.
Laundry shudders with each click.
“Poor Charlie.” I slide one finger along his steel case. Cool and clean. I tuck Charlie into my left breast pocket. “I bet that means you’re not gonna like Twenty-seven.”
From my left breast pocket, I pull out my Colt-45 pistol.
Jaclyn Adomeit lives and writes in Calgary, Canada. In her spare time, she dances to old records in the kitchen, befriends stray cats, and attempts to rival her grandmother’s cooking skills.
Her fiction has previously appeared in magazines and anthologies including Armchair/Shotgun and After the Happily Ever After. She is currently at work on her first novel.