One day we met a woman. She wore mostly mismatched baggy clothes that were clearly too big for her. She had long, curly, orange hair bursting out of her mask, which looked much cleaner than mine.
Her voice came out in a rasp, like she hadn’t spoken or a while. Even through her rasp, I could hear an American accent. “Salutations traveler.”
Before I could figure out what “Salutations” meant, Boy walked in front of me and showed her all of his yellow teeth in a snarl. I tried touching his back, but when I did he bristled. He was telling me to leave this to him.
The woman gave a small laugh. “I see your friend favors fighting.”
Boy insisted that he only defended, he never attacked. The woman didn’t understand him though. Not many people did.
“I can help you both,” she said, “I live in shelter with clean air. If you two want, you can come with me.”
The only words I heard were “clean air.”
Boy was very mad at me. He thought the woman was bad, I thought she was good. When I told Boy I trusted him to protect me, he agreed to go. Boy was very proud.
Boy, as usual, walked behind us. Having my companion watch my back was good, but I could tell that the woman did not feel the same way. She looked back many times, stealing small glances at Boy, and I could tell that Boy was angry with her lack of trust.
We had been walking for some time before I spoke on the subject. “Boy is a protector, he is very good. He thinks you’re worrying for nothing.”
Her features softened when she faced me. “I know, please don’t be bothered by me. I’m not just going to waltz forward without watching what’s behind me. I’m just not used to having a ‘protector,’ that’s all.”
I turned back and smiled at Boy, but his face didn’t change very much. He had large orange eyes that glowed in the night. He rarely blinked, even with all the dust in the air.
After a few more moments of silence, the woman spoke again, “I’m Max by the way, I figure we should know each other’s names.”
“Max?” I said, “Okay.”
Max cleared her throat, “What’s, um, your name?”
“I don’t know.”
She looked at me. “No name, huh? How old are you?”
She furrowed her brow. “Well, that’s not going to do. I need to call you something if you’re going to be staying with me. Pick a name you like, I’ll call you that.”
I shrugged again. Not because I thought a name would be bad, I just couldn’t think of one.
“Hm, figures the first person I’d run into wouldn’t be much for talking. I swear, I’ve been waiting for someone as nice as you to chat with, but you don’t have much to say.”
“You’re not very good at it,” I said.
“How do you figure?”
“You say a lot of words, I mean, you really know a lot of them. But you don’t really mean a lot.”
“Is that so?” asked Max.
“Yes.” I paused. “If you want, I can teach you what Boy taught me, about talking.”
“Boy taught you how to talk?” she asked.
“Yes. Boy is very good at talking.”
Max nervously glanced back at Boy, but his orange eyes were already locked on her.
We were silent for another moment. This time I talked first. “Is Max a girl’s name?”
“It’s a name,” she said carefully. “It’s short for Maxine, but Max could be a guy’s name too, I suppose.”
I kicked a loose piece of rubble and watched it roll four or five feet. “That is good.”
She raised her eyebrow, “Hm, tell me what you think about this: we call you Claire?”
“Claire?” I echoed. “What kind of name is Claire?”
“A good one.”
I smiled, “Okay.”
Before we reached Max’s shelter, Boy told me that he didn’t like the name Claire. I told him I thought it was good. He thought it was bad. I asked Boy if he knew a name I would like better. He didn’t, and that was that. I loved Boy, but sometimes it felt lonely with him. I didn’t realize that until Max didn’t pay much attention to our argument. I think she knew that me and Boy needed to talk it out.
I could tell that Boy was unhappy with recent events. He did not like Max, and he did not like “Claire.” Boy loved me though, so he never left my side, even when he didn’t like me.
I thought the shelter would be more complicated, but it was very simple. A small metal hatch opened to a ladder which led down a manhole about ten meters before reaching a small metal door with mechanisms lining it from top to bottom.
Max and I went down first since Boy always liked being last. He had a hard time getting down the ladder, especially since he had to close the hatch and do the entire descent in pitch black, but he didn’t want any help. Max turned on a small light attached to her shoulder to make the trip easier for Boy. Once he’d made it down, Max opened the door to the shelter and we all walked in. I could tell it was much brighter in the room, but it was impossible to take in the details through my cracked, dirt stained lenses. When she had closed the door behind her, Max told me to take off my mask. I looked to Boy for reassurance. His orange eyes were slits, and they were focused on Max.
I took a deep breath and unclasped the clamp on the back of my head. Everything became clear to me, but it wasn’t anything special. The first thing I noticed was my breathing, which had been filtered through a mask that barely worked for as long as I could remember, even when I slept. I thought I would like it more than I did. It was definitely good, but the anticipation had somewhat spoiled the experience for me. I found myself thinking Boy may have been right about not coming. When I looked at Max, she had already dropped her mask on the floor.
I guess I had been building up what she looked like in my head, but I couldn’t help but feel a little let down. She had thin, tired eyes and light freckles dotting her face. Her nose was hooked unnaturally, but I didn’t ask.
The shelter was small. I might have been disappointed. There were only three rooms to sleep in. Me and Boy slept in the same room, Max slept in her own room, and the final room had someone else that Max had picked up outside. She told us that the man she brought in was too hurt and sick to speak to us and his door remained locked. Despite this, I could hear the man moaning in the night through our thin walls.
There was also a room with a kitchen with lots of tools and machines I had never seen before. Me and Boy had to fill buckets with water and bring them to the bathroom to bathe, but it was still very exciting for us. We drank until our bellies were full, then bathed in clean water. I never realized how long my hair was because of the mask, so washing it all in the water was a challenge, but Boy helped me.
Max made us food, and it made me wish I hadn’t filled up on water. Even with full bellies, me and Boy managed to finish our plates in seconds. Boy did not want to stay, but I liked it there, so he did.
Cole Noone is a college senior currently studying creative writing at Western Washington University. He is a writer of poetry and fiction, and general lover of all things bizzare. Cole recommends the Monument Crisis Center in Concord, California.