She stepped out of the dry brush into the open and stared, taking in the view. It reminded her of the old faded postcards her father kept, covered with some sort of plasticly film– laminated, she remembered. He kept books filled with them, piles in drawers, some tacked on the walls– an ancient way of sending messages to people, apparently. A piece of thick paper with a picture of a landscape, some other landmark or tourist attraction. A way of saying to the receiver, “Wish you were here!”
People never really did that anymore. Or at least, not before. But this view… this was right out of one of those postcards. A seemingly untouched landscape of reds and oranges. Free and untouched by the past or even the present. She was sure no place like this even existed, and yet here it was, as if stepping right through that piece of paper.
The ground was hard and dusty, bright red hued orange dirt broken up by sandstone rock formations jutting up from the ground. As if some stone giant living within the earth were angry one day, jutting his broom upwards in anger at the noise of those above, forcing the rock to push upwards out of the ground.
Off in the distance she could see a massive wall of the stuff, seemingly blocking her way in all directions.
Clear skies and a too hot sun. Out west, they said. What could be out here but the opportunity to die of dehydration or sun stroke?
She sighed heavily and pulled the handkerchief from her back pocket to wipe the sweat from her forehead. A simple gesture, but one that deliberately gave her a moment to think. To take stock in a calm manner. To figure out what the hell she was going to do next.
She didn’t have enough water to go but a day longer, and the food had all but run out except a can of white beans. The terrain was harsh and the likelihood of coming upon a place with resources didn’t look too good. But to go back now?
As she knelt in the dusty sand, hand to her forehead, she heard a whistle to the northeast. An honest to God whistle, from the throat of a human being, clear and loud. Instinctually she dived back into the brush, breath held, and inched herself into position on her stomach, her elbows digging into the solid ground to peer out into the openness.
Nothing. The sweat dripped from her forehead down her cheeks, into her eyes and mouth, but she dared not make a sound as she intently watched and listened.
The moon stood nearly full in the black sky, small and distant, casting little light on the world below it. Their soft breathing and the crackling of the fire were joined now and again with a rustling that sounded all too close from the dry shrubs and bushes around them, surely a small rodent or lizard.
“Where are you headed?” she asked, in an attempt to break the tension.
He sat only a few feet from her, his face lit by the flames of the fire, hard features and a glare in his eyes. Since she’d found him– or he, found her– he’d said little. He seemed a quiet man with something unspoken beneath the surfaces of his dark skin. Maybe anger, or maybe a touch of sadness. She couldn’t tell.
“Not much of anywhere,” he responded, “been heading that way”– indicating northwest with his head– “for a time. Not much water around these parts.”
“I noticed,” she said, her throat suddenly parch. “They say in the west, though–”.
“I know what they say,” he interrupted.
Her body tensed at the finality of his tone, and she decided not to push it. She instead stared into the fire, considering the situation at hand. Sometimes it seemed almost unreal that here she was, wandering a world once overflowing with people, alone. That days, weeks, and months could be spent without seeing another soul, whereas her whole life prior had been spent wishing for some semblance of quiet in the constant noise and chaos of her world.
This was it, she supposed. This was the life she had yearned for and wanted, but it wasn’t as she’d dreamed it. It wasn’t just that it was difficult, or that it was dirty, or that there were some days she wasn’t sure she’d live at all to see the next. But instead it was lonely, and while a quiet and nomadic life had at once seemed desirable it’d lost its charm. She wanted home and family and people and she didn’t know where that was anymore.
The movement of his hands caught her attention, breaking her out of her thoughts. He’d gently pulled up the cuff of his pants to reveal the sheath of a knife and obscured it in the palm of his hand. Her eyes darted to his face, and he was staring at her, eyes hard and cold.
Her heart leaped in her chest. She looked into those eyes for a frozen moment, working through the odds of her reaching her knife first, whether the position she was in would allow enough defense, or whether she should run. Just as she made her decision and threw her body to the left, diving hard into the ground with a roll to snatch her pack where her knife was, he moved with a speed that surprised her and was on his feet.
He dug his boots into the ground and catapulted himself in a leap– not towards her at all, but towards where she was sitting just breaths before, and she heard an animal-like shout as his knife found it’s home. In confused panic she stood, her knife free and in hand, staring at him with his knife plunged deep into the stomach of another man who was bent over, almost hugging him. He made a quick movement, turning the blade and then promptly pushing the other’s body away from him to the ground.
She stood still in her stance, knife still in hand, her breaths coming quickly. He lost no time– he went to his pack and pulled out a piece of cloth, wiped the blade of his knife off and sheathed it. He began moving about to gather his things, all the while not looking towards her. She began moving again as he was stamping the fire out, throwing the sandy dirt joined with bits of rock onto it, packing up her own things.
“I’m sorry, I–”
“We need to go now.”