I tried to forgive them, for my sanity’s sake, but the longer I sat there the more I wanted revenge. Imagining walking back to town through the piss-soaked streets, the mud so thick it formed an unwieldy suction around every step, my jaw stiffened. They must have snatched the boots while I slept–it was probably Petyr’s idea, I never trusted those murky eyes of his–and taken them to sell at the stalls with all the rest of the hawkers.
Worse than the muddy streets, though, was the money I would have to scrape together for another pair of shoes. Hopefully they’d have combat or hunting boots in decent shape. I didn’t want to settle for tennis shoes, or worse, the calcios that peddlers cobbled together from leather thongs. Those would slip off my feet after only ten minutes on the Westward Road.
As I downed the last of my watery tea, I rubbed the lump under my shirt, tucked safely against my chest, and considered the room we had all shared the past few days while we restocked our supplies. The room’s grimy window feebly filtered the only source of light. Ancient layers of paint peeled up around the ceiling and baseboards, the same gray-brown of everything else in this godforsaken land. There had been six of us in here until I awoke this morning, alone and without my boots.
There was nothing for it. I needed shoes. Inhaling deeply, I removed a brick from the exposed wall and pulled out the satchel with the phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On”–whatever that meant–peeling off the front, pulling out a few coins and pocketing them.
Grandpa once told me that it happened so gradually, you didn’t notice the world crumbling around you.
The thought flitted in, unbidden.
Walking through the town of–what was this, Oak Ridge? Maryville?–made me question the truth of his words. Buildings the color and texture of cheese surrounded me, roofs repaired with rusty corrugated tin and walls replaced with ragged cotton sheets. Grimy children played in the street with a dented can, probably stolen from their mother’s kitchen. One child, no more than two, was stark naked despite the chill, bubbling laughter in imitation of his elders. It seemed that there was no way the world had ever been anything but this. There was nothing to do but keep moving west. Movement generated its own resources.
Mud squelched between my toes, and I tried not to think about what had created it as the streets narrowed around me. Vendors sat in the mud with their wares spread out on rags before them. Some even had tables for peddling their clove-laced cigarettes and used CDs, biting potato liquor and homemade ash soap. My eyes caught a pair of worn boots on a mat several yards down, and I sped up, pulling out my coins.
I never even felt the blow, the one that hit the base of my skull. I don’t know how long I lay in the mud, either. But when I awoke, my shirt was gone, my coins were gone, and so was the map—the one I always carried strapped to my chest.
As I opened a crusty eye and looked up, the world swam with blue stars. I remembered the satchel behind the forgotten brick. I also remembered the gun in there. Maybe I could find them without the map.