Jake approached the fire warily. Food wasn’t regular, nor always healthy, and he seemed more bone than meat. He’d been drawn to the fire by the light and the smell of something cooking, and sat carefully, hands in view, across from the person heating a can of Dinty Moore stew over the fire.
“Hungry?” the other man asked. Like Jake, he was painfully gaunt. There were patches of gray in his rough beard.
“Powerful,” Jake answered.
“Aught to trade?”
“A little weed.”
“You mean ditchweed,” the other man answered, with a grimace of disgust.
“No, good stuff,” Jake answered. “Purple haze.”
The man’s eyebrows went up.
“No shit? Lots better company than I had last night.” He gestured to the empty stretch of fallen log beside him.
Jake rose and walked around the fire to sit beside the older man.
Wariness on the road was habitual, but of necessity had resolved into a kind of courtesy. Robbery was rare — people on the road these days had little to nothing, and it wasn’t worth taking a scratch or a bite over nothing. Food was shared regardless, which blunted the main reason for theft. But trade was expected, if the other person had anything to trade. Jake had been robbed only once when he’d just started walking the road, three years ago, and the fellow had sat him down afterward and taught him the rules. So it wasn’t even a proper robbery, more an object lesson.
Jake slowly pulled his pouch of purple haze from his pocket, and offered it to the older man, who raised it to his nose and sniffed. A softer expression crossed the man’s face.
“That’s good,” he said, and handed the bag back. “Dessert, then.”
The older man nodded, once. “Robert.”
When the stew started to bubble, Robert set it on a rock to cool, and they both watched stars appear in the cerulean evening sky. When the can was cool enough to hold, Robert took a spoon from his pocket and took the first bite, then handed the can to Jake. Jake had his own spoon ready, and took a bite, then handed back the can. They passed it back and forth until the can was empty and scraped clean.
Jake took the pouch back out of his pocket, and put a generous pinch into the tiny pipe Robert had pulled from a different pocket on his vest, then placed a pinch in his own pipe. Jake heated a twig to a coal in the fire, and lit his pipe: the sweet stench of burning marijuana filled the air. He inhaled deeply, and passed the coal to Robert, who lit his own pinch and drew until the glow in the pipe flickered out. He held his breath for nearly thirty seconds before he slowly exhaled.
Monosyllables melted into easy conversation. Life histories had been polished by the road into smooth, elegant gems as terse as an old-world resume.
Robert, once married with two children, software designer and good at his job. Laid off, turned to drink, wife left him and took the kids. Stayed in shelters for two years, then got restless and hit the open road. Wouldn’t think of going back.
Jake, teen-age slacker and video gamer, mother died in a fracking quake that destroyed his house and almost got him. Hitched to the Pacific coast and then found himself on the road. Sometimes missed his mother, and desperately wanted to finish the last video game he’d played, the Dragonlords of Sym.
“You played Dragonlords?” Robert asked, one eyebrow raised.
“Almost finished it,” Jake replied.
“I worked on that game,” Robert said. “Just a bit, at the beginning, before they laid me off. Looked good.”
“It was awesome. Best AI on the market, and you could actually talk to the characters in the game.”
“You almost finished it? I thought it wasn’t supposed to end?”
“Yeah, that’s what they said. But someone on-line said you could force an ending if you backed all of the Dragonlords into a corner at once. Kinda like a checkmate in chess. I was that close.”
“Tell me about your favorite battle.” Robert’s gaze was far-away.
“That would be the Arena of Fate,” Jake said, his voice taking on timbre and excitement. “They stripped me of all my weapons, except my fleschette rifle, and all twelve Dragonlords were there….”
Jake’s voice rose and fell, and Robert listened with rapt attention. When Jake finally fell silent, Robert slowly brought his hands together in deliberate applause.
“You are the best entertainment I’ve had in a month of Sundays,” Robert said. “It’s just a damn video game, but you tell it with such passion. I’m in your debt, Jake. Thank you.”
They fell silent after that, individually contemplating the night sky and the vagaries of fate. Then Robert wished Jake a good night and curled up on the ground close to the fire. Jake watched the coals for a few more minutes, then curled up and fell asleep.