No Happy Endings
Everyone calls me Hazard.
It isn't my name, but people have been calling me that for so long it might as well be. When I first met her and she asked me what my name was, I told it was Hazard, but now I wish I hadn't. I never told her what my real name was, but I suppose it doesn't matter much.
Sitting holed up with her, being as quiet as we can, it gives me time to think on this kind of stuff. Out in the wasteland there's just no time for idle thoughts like these. She uses some fancy words when she talks about it, like 'arid' and 'desolate', but the best word I have for it is 'warzone', full of stuff that'll kill you and eat you, and not always in that order. You have to pay attention out there, look for colors that aren't brown or gray, look for movement that isn't from the heat rising off the rocks. If you don't, you end up dead, and that's just the way it is. They say the war happened two hundred some-odd years ago, but I guess it's still going on.
I guess war never changes.
She shivers from the cold. Her heavy coat's fallen off a bit so I drape the big thing back over her as gently as I can. I don't want her making any noise, not right now. When she's sleeping like this, up against my side, she looks different. When she's awake, she's a little rougher around the edges, has a few more scars than she used to. But asleep, she looks how she did when I first met her.
That day… I can still remember it like it was yesterday. She was wearing this bright blue jumpsuit and was all alone in the wasteland, scared out of her mind, firing bullets at any little thing that moved like she didn't give two shits if she ran out. Like she could just go get more from somewhere. 'Where?' I asked her, 'Where you gonna go get more bullets? You think they'll just be sitting on a shelf somewhere? Or like they'll fall outta the sky? Dontcha get it? Each bullet you got is one more thing that ain't gonna get you.' She's been better about picking her shots since then. Besides, the only thing that comes down from the sky is acid rain. I told her she doesn't want any part of that.
She told me what happened to her: that she was just a few days out of one of those vaults set up to protect people while the war raged on above them, their little group sealed up safe and sound with plenty of food and water. I told her what I know, what I've been told: about the Great War and the bombs, the radiation, the mutations. A couple centuries later and folk are just now beginning to scrape together enough sanity not to kill each other over the stuff she never worried about, and she stared at me like she wasn't buying it. I guess seeing is believing though.
I didn't understand at the time, I thought she was the craziest thing I'd ever seen, and I'd been around the wasteland more than a few times. She was so dumb about how to stay alive in the wasteland, but she was so smart about almost everything else. Not just the stuff I've never bothered with like the 'computers' she talks about, but useful things like medicine how to fix things. Time went on and when she didn't change, it started to dawn on me that maybe it wasn't her that was soft or oblivious, maybe it was us that were too hard, too distant. I must have taken it for granted, but she didn't have that wariness the rest of us do, that distrust of everyone. She still doesn't. Maybe it's because she grew up in that vault that she treats people… I don't know, like they were people. It doesn't even occur to her not to. I try not to be jealous of her, but it isn't always easy.
The noises outside are getting louder, closer, and I shift a bit to peek out the window. It's dark up here but I know it doesn't make a difference to those things, they can see in the dark just fine. Ghouls, they're called. Radiation changed a lot of the stuff from how it was to how it is now, people included. Ghouls used to be regular folk, I think. They look more or less like regular folk, if you took all the skin off them. Most of them are tough and most of them are angry and all of them don't feel any kind of pain, and those are the ones that are still in their right minds. Most of them aren't.
I met some nice ghouls before, but these aren't like them. These are skinnier, like there's less of them on their bones just like there's less of them in their heads. Ferals, she calls them. Her words, not mine. I just figure they're out there and hungry, so we'd better stay up here and quiet. I'm not a huge fan of the place she picked to hide, some old trainyard building, half blasted to hell but still standing. We snuck up to the second floor and jammed up the doorway before the sun went down.
I've been teaching her as best I can about the wasteland, where to go, what to eat, where to hide. How to survive. She's a good learner, a better learner than I am a teacher, so that's something. You do your traveling in the morning, the sun will drive the nastier night hunters back home but it'll still be cool enough to keep the cold blooded ones sluggish. Raiders don't start their runs until midday, so by then you make sure you're up on the crags or down between the boulders to keep out of sight. By noon you start looking for where you're going to hole up to ride out the night, and the process starts all over again. We were going to head through the subway tunnel nearby the trainyard when we decided to hole up inside instead. Good thing too, since all these Ferals started creeping out of it once it got a little darker.
There's a couple traincars out there, tipped over and empty, rusting away. Piles of old metal tracks too heavy for people to scavenge, a couple burned out wrecks of old cars, a few ramshackle wooden sheds too. I sighed and my breath fogged up the broken pane. Shit. One of the ghouls out there perked up, looking up at my window. Not my ideal spot for a fight, too much cover for them, not enough cover for us. There's maybe a dozen of them skulking around, snarling at each other over a couple rats they caught, plus the one looking up towards me. Too many of them. My hands feel clammy in my gloves and I'm trying to weigh our odds, but a scuffle's broken out over a rat and a rubbery chunk of it lands near my ghoul. Distracted, it drops down to gobble it up and I ease back away from the window.
Ugh, raw rat. Cooked, it isn't bad, but raw? That's just disgusting.
She's still curled up under her coat next to me and doesn't move as I settle back down. It's a weird feeling, having someone trust me like that. Her pack is a good three feet away and I know all her stuff is in it. She's still a little dumb, but I can see the nine-mil she's got tucked up by her head, right next to her hand, so maybe she's not as dumb as she used to be. My own stuff is in my lap, I couldn't be comfortable otherwise.
I wrap my arms around my stuff and sigh again. I hate these old buildings, but I've never told her so. To stay quiet you have to keep to the load bearing beams, or at least the cross beams. Otherwise any little shift will creak these old boards at best, or send you falling through the floor at worst. The biggest problem with these buildings is that, since you had the idea of taking shelter in one of them, odds are that someone else did too. Maybe they're friendly, more likely they're not. More likely they're raiders.
I should know, I used to be one.
I don't like talking about it. I don't even like thinking about it. It's easy to say I did what I had to survive back then, lived the only life I knew, but just because living like an animal made it easy to survive, that doesn't mean it was any kind of life. I've learned a couple things from her in our time together and one of them is that she doesn't do things the easy way either. She does them the right way. It's frustrating and difficult and will probably kill us both, but it doesn't sit wrong with me like being a raider did. I'm starting to understand her a bit more. Starting to feel like a person a bit more.
I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of, and I still have troubling sleeping, but I thought I put it behind me when I struck out on my own. Nowadays I suppose I'm thankful, in a sick kind of way. There's nothing but predators in the wasteland, raiders included, so it helps to know how they think, how they move.
How they kill.
It's a cold fact of life out here, so I've been teaching her that too. When I met her I didn't think she had it in her, but when it comes down to it she's not too squeamish about pulling the trigger when her life is on the line. Or mine. Good thing too since we've managed to piss off more than a few folks. We had a bad run in with a bunch of slavers not too long ago, seems like the guys in charge don't take too kindly to the idea of us setting their slaves running around free. As for the guys they had on guard… well, I made sure they wouldn't be running around at all.
She said 'If you're not pissing somebody off, you're not doing your job right.' Then again, she's got a different idea on what 'right' is. It was a strange thing back then, helping some folks that weren't in a position to help themselves instead of taking what I could, or just leaving them to their fate. I'm not normally one to stick my neck out unless I was sure it was going to be worth it, caps or water or supplies. Not her. She did it because that's just who she is, because she can't stand to see people penned up and treated like animals. Spitting in the eye of someone who'll do that to another person is worth it to her, I guess. Doesn't seem too smart in the long run though. Afterwards she said we did something good for those people we set free, and that she was happy we did it.
If it made her happy, that's worth it to me.
The ghouls outside are meandering off, moving further out into the night, and I risk removing my gloves to hold my hands out to the warmer I've built. I don't know how the damn thing works even though she's told me about current and resistance and 'holmes' and stuff, even tried showing me something out of one her books she carries around. Didn't make sense at the time, what those jaggedly lines were or why she'd carry them in the first place. She said she'd teach me what they meant but I know that I have no mind for it. I can tell it's important to her though, so I suffer through.
As for 'how it works,' she's always been interested in the 'how' part while I'm just satisfied if 'it works.' All I really know is that if you take one of those heavy batteries, hook it up to one of those square blue boxes, turn the dial to the right about a quarter way and hook up the other side to one of those spiral things you can scrounge off the top of an oven, it heats up nice without making any light. This little thing has saved our asses a couple times now that winter's starting to blow in. She was like a kid finding a toy out in the rubble when I showed it to her, had this huge grin on her face pointed right at me.
Man, she has the most beautiful teeth; white and straight and perfect. I didn't think they were real when I saw them first, and they make me kind of embarrassed when I see them now. I'm not too pretty to look at and I tend to smile back at her with my lips closed. Then again, she makes me smile. Never did much of that when I was a raider.
I wait another hour or so, then give her a shake to wake her up. It's time to head down into the tunnel. It's a gamble either way, going down there at night and hope the ghouls are all out hunting, or going in there during the day and hope they're all asleep. We settled on night, the less of them the better. The plan is to get into the ruins of Dee-See to meet up with some folks that have the same idea as her about how the wasteland should be, instead of how it is. I heard it used to be the capitol of this whole place, but nowadays it's just a bunch of burned out, fallen over buildings. It's important to her though, so I suffer through.
We grab up our packs and check our gear. She keeps her nine-mil clean, which is hard to do with all the sand and dirt and wind, but she checks it anyway. I make a big deal about her bullets since I don't carry a gun, just a few things I cobbled together out of desperation-fueled creativity. I'm still alive, so they work pretty good I suppose. She says it's 'delightfully anachronistic', whatever that means. She gets all wistful when she says it, so it can't be too bad.
We're just stepping out the door when a flicker of motion across the trainyard catches my eye. Too quiet to be a ghoul, they'll run at you screaming and slobbering, and I'm thinking it must be those slavers coming back for us. We haven't done as good of a job covering our tracks as we could, but vengeance is a pretty poor motivator in times like these, the risk isn't worth it: you can't eat, drink or trade momentary self-satisfaction.
A chill goes through me when I realize that you can trade slaves just fine, though.
She's seen it too and has dropped back to the shadows beyond the doorframe, quiet as can be. We've done this more than a few times and she knows the routine. She hides and covers me with her gun, I walk out into the open to draw attention. In a world full of predators it's useful to have some way to protect yourself, so some wear armor if they're aiming to get in a fight, some sneak around to avoid a fight. I tend to do a little of both, but wearing armor makes it hard to sneak around, so I found a good compromise. I carry a shield.
I made it out of an old faded road sign, yellow and diamond shaped. It blends in with the dirt and rocks well enough that I like to keep it on hand, literally, but after I was done working on it, it weighs a ton. Still, small price to pay for staying alive. I draw it up across my chest and walk out into the starlit trainyard, scanning for movement and listening hard. She says it's funny that I make a big deal about her bullets, being that I don't carry a gun. I tell her that she's the smart one, and the smart thing to do is to pick your targets off at a distance. I also tell her that things out here move fast and like to get up all close and personal anyway, so I figured I'd just let them. I can handle myself up close and personal.
Over my shoulder is the worn wooden grip of an old flintlock pistol I found a while ago. When I reach back for it, it slips from its holster with barely a whisper and it feels comfortable in my hand. This is grim business and it's good to know I got things I can trust, her and this weapon. I said I don't carry a gun, and that's true; this old pistol won't fire a shot, but it doesn't have to. It's sturdy and solid and when I was done welding a lawnmower blade to it, it made a great handle.
Three of them come on out, close together and chuckling to themselves like idiots. Something's off though, and they're looking at me all wrong. The pieces start falling into place when I see that none of them are carrying any slave collars and all of them are carrying guns or knives. Slavers don't usually carry guns, they stick mostly to whips, chains, or clubs. Something that stings or smarts without doing too much damage to the 'merchandise'.
Guns, knives, long bladed cutters like mine, these are weapons used by raiders. Then I see the white hatch mark on their junkyard armor and I realize these guys are from my old crew. They're focused on me, so I don't think they know she's getting them lined up yet. They say it's taken a while to catch up, and that it's nothing personal, just that the boss can't afford to let his people get the notion that walking out is acceptable behavior. I can understand that, still…
Damn. This is my fault.
He says they're going to take me back and make an example out of me, to keep everyone in line, I suppose. Then he says something really stupid. He says they'll keep the girl though, and just take her back. I tell them that's a mistake, but he's made me mad and I'm not certain I use the most civil language.
The one guy with the knife takes a run at me, coming in fast while the other two hang back and level little pistols at me. I turn to keep my shield up between me and them and watch the guy with the knife. There's plenty of starlight to see by, and the moon is high, so I can see it when he tries to fake left and lunge. You don't go by a guy's arms in a knife fight, you go by his hips, they'll tell you which way he's going to swing from. He thinks he's got the drop on me, but my cutter is longer than his. I can bat it away if I want, but I don't.
Carrying a big long blade like this, you have to fight the tendency to swing it like a club. Instead, you got to use it like the big long blade that it is. If you just hack at something then the blade will bite deep and get lodged there, stuck fast while your target gets to take free shots back at you. Instead, you have to carve at it, run the blade along a line and let the edge do the work for you. Like, say, slipping the blade around this guy's outstretched arm and letting his momentum flay the flesh right from his bones. I didn't have to do anything except hold the cutter in place, and now the guy's screaming his guts out on the ground, clutching what's left of his arm.
Two bullets plink off my shield as I step around the guy on the ground. The tip of my cutter finds the guy's throat as I go, and his screaming snuffs out, down to a wet gurgle. I hunker down to cover more of my body with my shield and that's her cue. Out from the dark of the trainyard building comes quick trio of crack-crack-crack and one of them's hit, spun around and grabbing at his leg. The other one had the brilliant idea to try to slip around me, getting past the edge of my shield for a better angle.
Instead of swiveling around to stay covered, I just point my shield-holding fist at Mister Smart Guy and straighten my arm. It hits the lever action set at my elbow, which cranks the release on the crossbow contraption I worked into the inside of my shield. It's only good for one shot, horribly inaccurate, and a pain in the ass to reload, but it can occasionally come in extremely handy. This is not one of those times, I decide, as I watch the bolt go wide.
Smart Guy is off guard though, stumbling back and not sure what other tricks I have left. I use it to close distance on him, keeping my eye on his gun. Gun fights are different than knife fights, more unpredictable. Knife fights are all about intentional, deliberate attempts to kill someone. Accidents happen all the time in gun fights. My best option here is to make this fast while I still have the advantage. I lead with my shield and swing hard, connecting with his gun hand just as he's bringing it back around towards me. The report of gunfire echoes in my ears but I've knocked the gun wide and the bullet kicks up dirt nearby.
I'm already bringing my cutter down from overhead, my shield way out back behind me, but Smart Guy's got a tire iron in his other hand and takes a clumsy swat at my attack. It's gutsy and it pays off for him, now my cutter's knocked aside and I got no choice but to bring my shield back around as he's getting his gun hand under control. Stalemate favors the guy with the gun, it was a good tactic, I'll give him that.
Just not good enough.
Cutter still out wide, I plant my feet and twist as hard I can. It's all in the hips. My shield whistles back around, turned edge-on, and I catch him at the neck just as he's trying to line up a shot at me. It probably would have hurt like a bitch even if I hadn't filed the edges of the road sign down as sharp as I could. The idea was that one blade was good, but two blades are better. I let the sign's knife edge do its work. The effect is pretty messy, but it doesn't bother me too much. I've seen plenty worse.
There's a girly little shriek behind me and I'm already moving back towards her. She's been caught off guard by the guy with the bullet through his leg, tripped up as she came out of the building. I guess he managed to get to limping, looking for his shooter or just looking to get away from me. She's still a little skittish in a tussle which is fine with me. No need for her to be up in the mix of things. Besides, thinking is her strong suit, she can leave the grunt work to me.
I'm moving fast but not fast enough to keep her from getting snatched by the ankle and put on her ass. She's a feisty one and struck her heel at his bleeding leg, which toppled him over with a howl. She keeps a cool head and works to get her feet back under her, but isn't quick enough to keep from getting grabbed around her legs. She put a fist in his face to get him off her, but the angle was all wrong and it had no power to it. Her luck's good though, she still has her gun but he's lost his, and she's working to get the barrel lined up right. That's when I catch the click of a spring and the flash of grubby silver. He's got one of those switchblade knives.
I'm coming up behind him and maybe he figured his other man took me out, or maybe he's on something, or maybe he just doesn't care, but he's got a mind to stick her and not much mind for anything else. He's got her by the wrist, keeping the gun away and I get there just as he's raising his knife up.
So I lop his hand off to teach him a lesson. He starts screaming, so I walk around and kick him off of her to drive the lesson home. A boot to the chest will knock your air out and shut you up good, that's a useful tool out here. Screams mean a fight, a fight means someone lost, and if someone lost, scavengers will come by to see what's left. So, screams are bad. He's looking up at me, pain and fear naked on his face.
Maybe there's something wrong with me, like I'm some kind of monster myself, that I enjoy that. Aiming to kill me is one thing, I've done plenty to deserve it, but I'm not about to tolerate anything happening to her. She's done nothing but good in this world. I'm not having that stop any time soon.
She's still on the ground, breathing hard and not looking at either of us, but suggests we send him back with a message to leave us alone. I tell her, keeping my eyes straight on Limpy, that it wouldn't be any use. The shape he's in, he wouldn't make it back and even if he did, they wouldn't listen. They'd get where we are and where we're headed out of him, them send more raiders after us. How I went about leaving my crew, and what I did just now, the bosses can't be seen as weak to everyone else. No, they won't stop with her kind of message.
So I fix to send one of my own.
Little heaters and crossbow mounted, sharp edged shields aren't the only things I know how to build. The second time she saw it, she called it being resourceful. The first time she saw it, she said what everybody says. I raised my cutter up high over my head, blade pointed up to the heavens, and pulled the trigger on the flintlock pistol.
What you have to understand is two things. First, the best way out of a fight is to not get in one in the first place. A wasteland filled with nothing but predators also means it's a wasteland filled with nothing but cowards. She calls it being 'pragmatic' but nothing is going to go after you if there's a chance it'll get hurt or killed in the process, and getting hurt more than likely means getting killed out here. So you do what you can to use that to your advantage, make yourself look about as dangerous as possible.
The second thing is that the blade wasn't the only piece of lawnmower I used when I made my cutter. I attached the little bubble plunger thing called the primer right beneath where my thumb wrapped, and it's hooked up to a small metal flask I fixed as a handguard. It's a pretty simple concept really. Pushing the primer draws gasoline from the flask up a little tube and spits it down the length of the blade. Pulling the trigger on the pistol sparks the flint, which lights the gasoline on fire.
The cutter lights up like a torch, blazing in the night. 'Oh shit' he says. Everyone says the same thing the first time they see it.
She's got her ears plugged up and her eyes screwed shut. Good thing, I try to make it fast but I also try to make it clear. Most raiders like me can't read words like she can, but when they find him, they'll be able to read what I did to this poor bastard just fine. I finish my message and let my cutter go out. Gasoline isn't exactly common.
I reach down to take her hand and everything gets real quiet all of the sudden. There's a big splash of red across her. My face goes cold real quick and I'm looking all around to see where she got cut or shot. She's staring up at me, eyes wide, and it takes me a long second to figure out the silence was my own ears ringing. There's something dark all over the inside of my shield, my shirt is starting to stick to me and my chest feels tight, like I'm holding my breath. I turned to look and there's another guy behind me. Thirty yards behind me. And he's ejecting a spent shell from a rifle.
Damn. There were four of them, not three.
She's not hurt after all. It sounds odd, but relief is the only thought in my head as I manage to stumble my way into the firing line between her and him, holding out my heavy shield. It's a good thing it's lashed to my arm, since my hands feel funny and I dropped my cutter. I know I should go back and get it but it's too damn far away. Besides, I know if I keep walking towards the guy with the rifle, I can block more of the line. I can still keep her safe. So that's what I do.
I'm walking the hundred miles it takes to get to him when a couple popping noises echo around me. I see the guy jerk, tapped twice in chest. Thirty yard range, friendly in the way, and she does two shots and two hits. That's my girl.
And just like that, the whole thing is over. The ground is starting to tilt under me, like I'm fall-down drunk with all of the fall-down and none of the drunk. Staying on my feet is getting hard so I don't turn to face her. That'd be harder than just standing still, for all kinds of reasons.
Never heard her sound like that before, all soft and breathy, like it can't really be happening. I kind of wish it wasn't myself. I could get used to hearing her talk like that, using my real name though. My legs give out and I end up on my ass, propped up against a rock. This'll work.
She's shouting. Shhhh… No shouting in the wastes. I can see her, she's close all of the sudden, and there's starlight glittering in tracks down her face. Her mouth is moving, filled with those perfect teeth, but she's not making many sensible words. I can make out 'doctor' and 'med-kit', but the way she's staring at my chest says none of that would matter.
This doesn't feel like how I thought it would.
She takes her bandana off and moves to press it to my chest but I push it away. She knows to put it back on, cover up that bright yellow hair she has. It glows like a halo in the sunlight, but I told her it made her too easy to see out in the wastes, made her a target. It made me sad when she listened to me though, but I never told her. I never told her a lot of things. Better save what air I have to tell her something important.
She's still staring at my chest and not paying attention like she needs to, so I pull my shield arm up over my chest. I feel exhausted, like I could just fall asleep here, but at least now she can't see. I hope I look like I'm just sitting against a rock, as normal as can be, it would be better that way.
I want to tell her all the things I never did get to, but I've got no words, let alone air to speak them. I've got no mind for big thoughts like hers, but I've always figured there's three kinds of people in the world. There's the no name folks, who go about their no name lives and die no name deaths. Then there's the other kind of folks, her kind, the kind that change things, that live for something.
The third kind, my kind, we're in the middle, the no name folks who get caught up with people like her, dragged into this and that. We see things happen, we get a little taste of a life that's bigger than us, we help them make changes in the world.
But we still die no name deaths.
She's saying she's sorry, and that I can't leave her alone. But I know her and she'll be fine, she just doesn't know it herself. She knows me though, and she settles herself on my lap and wraps my other arm around herself. She knew I wouldn't be comfortable any other way. There's a hundred things I should have told her, things like what she made think or how she made me feel, but nothing about me is going to help her now. I guess I'm still looking after her, because she needs to know how it's going to be from here on out. Better make this little bit of air worth it.
"Yer… all… 'lone, now, darlin'…"
And just like that, it's all over.
She buried me overlooking the sunset, and set my old, battered shield up as a gravestone. She said it was fitting and all, clearing away some of the dirt from it. She told me she made one for herself and showed it off, one of those red ones that's got more sides than it needs. She tells me the word on it is 'STOP'. She says it's fitting too. She told me she wants this all to end, all this senseless fighting and killing. She says there's a better way, a right way, but she's always had a different idea of what 'right' is.
I hope she manages it, wandering the wastes alone. I hope she can make it all stop.