Glitch stared down into the knapsack, his eyes growing wider and wider as the diminutive, dark-haired woman continued to fill it with food. Her name was... he struggled with his tangled thoughts and dredged up a name: Charlotte. Cora. Something like that, anyhow. She noticed his expression and smiled up at him - a sunny, radiant smile that he could easily have fallen in love with, and for a moment it warmed her face and eclipsed the gauntness, the shadowed eyes and the lines that had traced it over in stealthy spiderwebs, collecting at eyes and lips, and in the hollows of her cheeks.
"Now use the bread up soon, mind. It won't keep more than a day or two. And one of those apples is a mite bruised, but it's still good. Eat it first, or it'll turn the rest..." Glitch nodded, his eyebrows still seeking higher ground as she turned away and rummaged once again in the provisions cupboard, and he repeated her instructions under his breath, trying to embed them in the slippery surface of his recollection for later examination. Bread won't keep. Don't let the apples turn. He bit his lip, aware that the knowledge was capricious, his mental shorthand rewriting itself in indecipherable hieroglyphics at a whim, then a sense of relief pushed worry aside as he watched the elfin woman reach past a packet of dried beef and instead scoop up a handful of hazelnuts, tipping them into a paper bag in a rattling russet stream.
He'd lodged at other places like this, sometimes sleeping in barns and haylofts, sometimes laying his zippered head down in the ailing cornfields where he had been working. How many places? How long since he'd been thrown from the bull-nosed grey van by a grinning Longcoat, terrified and elated and instantly lonely, as freedom presented itself in the form of cricket-clicking grasslands and the dwindling of an engine. More than one disappointing harvest. More than one year. If there was more, he didn't know it, and the grim-faced farmers and the pinched, mistrustful women all merged, inevitably, into a blurred and indistinguishable gestalt that said the same thing, time and again. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later, with regret or hostility, with a handful of coins or a fistful of stones, but always, eventually, the same.
"You can't stay."
Not that it always came to that; the line of alien metal adorning his scalp was often enough to prompt a meaningful thumb, hiked back in the direction of the road, while the other hand reached for a shotgun, the latter gesture equally meaningful and making the former somewhat redundant. Once... more than once? he'd been moved on by a Tin Man, his face... their faces? stiff and changeless as the dully gleaming badges they wore, while the eyes that looked out from behind them burned with anger, loss and shame.
The diffuse cloud of his thoughts drifted, coasting easily sideways, and by chance returned him to where he had started. It had been at one of the earliest stops on his aimless wanderings that he had discovered that he either did not, or could not, eat meat - he'd taken a bite of the stew placed before him, the savoury scent of game greeting his awakened senses with a delight that suggested long acquaintance, and only vaguely-recalled propriety had prevented him from spitting it back into the bowl in revolted dismay. It was one thing he hadn't forgotten, since then, and he had always felt a pang of guilt at trying to explain to those generous-hearted enough to help him that he couldn't share their meal. There was still meat - fruit and grain had been hit hard by the unidentifiable blight, but the birds and beasts that inhabited the O.Z. had not yet shown signs of suffering the way the land itself had; more than one farmstead where he'd stopped to plead a few days' work had entrusted him with the task of driving off the hungry crows. It wasn't a demanding job, but all it took was for a single bird to settle nearby and Glitch would find himself considering the dynamics of flight, of ways of filling steel spars with honeycombed cells of air and metal, and while he dreamed the fearless birds feasted around him.
It wouldn't be so bad, he reflected sadly, if he could make sense of the things he'd been thinking at the time.
Clara was speaking to him, he realised, and he caught enough of the sentence to grasp that she'd been asking him where he'd go now. He smiled, shrugged, mystified by the sudden gleam in her eyes.
"I don't know, yet. West, I guess. Or South..." Someone had told him to go South, hadn't they? South. And he looked down, startled, at his right forearm where, briefly, something had warmed him like an unseen touch.
"Will you be able to find your way?" she pressed, concern suffusing her voice, and although he was suddenly uncertain whether this kindly woman had employed him recently or was simply one of the few people he'd met on his travels who had taken pity on him, he felt a desire to reassure her, and he gave her a bright grin.
"Ohhh sure. My uncle Oswin always used to say I had a compass in my head..." And that wasn't a lie, exactly. Uncle Oswin... or Osmond... an 'Os' of some sort, had certainly said just that thing to him, long before Longcoats and half-remembered dreams of dripping darkness. Glitch had just omitted to add ...and it always points due 'interesting'. He reached out tentatively to touch her hand and wondered why she was crying. Some folk are just tender-hearted, he thought, wonderingly, and tried again. "It's okay, really. I know I can't stay. And you've... you've been good to me," he hazarded, reaching up to trace the line of his zipper ruefully. "More than I deserve, I guess."
He saw the revulsion in her eyes, and so was doubly startled when she pushed aside the knapsack that he was still holding and embraced him tightly, with a muffled "...poor boy... What happened to you?" But as he was opening his mouth to frame an answer, not entirely sure what it was she was asking, the kitchen door swung inward and a tall, rawboned man stepped, stooping, inside. Glitch disengaged himself quickly from the hug and turned quickly, disoriented.
"Oh, hi! I'm Glitch... and you must be Mister..." he paused, hoping that either his own memory or the newcomer would help him out. The man stared at him for a moment, then shoved his wire-framed spectacles up onto his brow so that he could rub his eyes wearily.
"Ira. We already met. Connie was setting you up with some provisions before you go on your way. And I see she already did that, so I guess you'll be making a move now?" It wasn't really a question, Glitch understood, and he glanced down to see that yes, the knapsack was still in his hand and nodded.
Ira - Ira and Constance, I remember now! - hadn't let the door swing shut behind him, and Glitch took that to mean he was meant to go through. Outside the air was warm, the suns so close together that their discs almost seemed to touch, and he shut his eyes, absently observing that the afterimage that faded, green, then violet, looked like the sign for infinity. A repeating loop. For ever and ever...
"...nothing against you. But the Longcoats pass this way all the time, and..."
He turned, seeing the couple standing in the doorway, and hefted the knapsack onto his shoulder gratefully. "I understand. And this is... are you sure you can spare so much? Really, you didn't have to-" A look passed between the man and his wife, Constance defiant, Ira vaguely resigned.
"We're sure. That way takes you West," Ira pointed down the dust-dulled road with its occasional scatter of yellow stone "but if you cut across the pasture in about a mile you'll hit a foot track that'll keep you away from the old road. You'll get to the Anders' farm if you keep heading that way the rest of today. I heard they need a hand with a well they're digging."
Glitch thanked him. And then again, just to make sure, and he set off along the road with a sudden feeling of optimism. The sky was clear, the road straight, and he had a bag full of apples. And the apples won't keep, and the bread has to be turned. Proud that he'd remembered, he began to whistle as he sauntered away from the weathered wooden house.
On the porch, Constance turned to her husband, sorrowful. "It's like he was meeting you for the first time."
He patted her shoulder, his own expression unreadable. "Hon... you saw him. It's like he's meeting everyone for the first time." She glared up at him, tiny hands fisted on her hips.
"If you were a real man, you'd go after him. Make sure he's okay." The tears had started to steal down her face again, and she made no attempt to hold them back.
"If I was a real man, you wouldn't have needed to be so friendly with Oscar. But that can't be helped, and no more can this," Ira retorted mildly. He turned away and vanished back into the house without looking back. But Constance stayed on the porch, her arms wrapped around herself, and watched her son until he was out of sight.