Go East, Young Man

The stranger came to Oasis on a grey day, after the acid rain had stopped. Mel whistled sharply and he stopped, pulling his hands out of his pockets to show that they were empty. His stance was relaxed, movements telegraphing the controlled grace of someone comfortable in his own body. The mutt trotting at his side came to a halt as well, tongue flopping out of its mouth as it glanced up at its master. He wore a brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes, and a loose woven shirt that could have hidden any number of weapons.

“What’s your name?” Mel called, hefting the rifle in her arms. The stranger didn’t have to know that the hammer was crooked, which meant the it only fired about one in three.

“Harper.” His voice was lighter than Mel had expected, making her drop her estimate of the boy’s age. There were plenty of orphans who made a living by scavenging abandoned building and selling whatever they found to the different gangs across the ruined city. It was unusual for them to work alone, but not unheard of. “This here’s Fish.” The dog lifted its nose as though scenting its own name.

“What’s your business?” Mel asked.

Harper’s hand dropped to the dog’s broad head. “Just passing through, on my way up north.”

There was something about the stranger that itched at the back of Mel’s mind, but she couldn’t think of a reason to turn him away. The Waterkeeper was always looking for information on the other gangs, and would be displeased to learn that she’d turned someone away without explanation. She opened the hatch in the floor of the tower, dropping onto the shaky balcony that ran along the inside of the church wall, and hurried down to the barricaded wooden doors.

Harper looked amused by the time Mel finally wrenched one massive door open, sweating and out of breath from maneuvering the heavy planks out of the notches in front of the door.

“Don’t get all hot and bothered on my account,” he said, one hand curled in the loose skin of Fish’s neck.

She gripped the rifle stock and resisted the urge to shatter his kneecap. “Might want to be careful what you say to the person holding the gun.”

He grinned without a shred of apology.