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Morrison shifted back and forth on his feet, wrinkled eyes taking in the Center’s ration line. He sighed and queued up, far from even the door to the building. The dry summer heat kept him as parched as the rest of them, all withered and scarred from the plague. But, once this damned line eased up, he’d have water for a day or two. Then he’d have to wait all over again, but ‘Odd Job’ Morrison took things one day at a time. He didn’t have the luxury of being able to choose his work, his home, or his health, and planning ahead wasn’t in the cards. A blistering wind blew across his puckered skin and Morrison winced as the stench of the other unwashed labourers rolled over him.
“Thirsty, mister?” A high, nasal voice queried from behind him. Turning, he noticed nothing until he looked down at the young girl who spoke. She appeared about 12 or 13 with unkempt black hair, reddened eyes, and hydroplague scars crisscrossing her visible skin.
He grunted in affirmation and took a step forward in time with the line. Morrison would usually be receptive to some conversation, especially while waiting, but his mood these last few days was sour at best. First time in years he’d gotten close to a relationship… well, it didn’t matter, anyway.
“If we’re to be waitin’ around, you could at least introduce yourself,” she said, hopping back and forth to a silent rhythm, “I’m Marlene.”
“Morrison,” he extended his hand, but Marlene just looked at it. Retracting his arm and sighing, he asked, “What are you doin’ here by yourself, Marlene? Where’re your parents?”
“Never had any,” she responded, “Where’s your family?”
Morrison grimaced as they moved up in the queue. “Gone,” he said, shaking his head. He looked around at the other workers as if expecting to see someone he knew before turning back to Marlene and smiling thinly. “Have you ever been outside Columbus?”
“Nope! Furthest I’ve been is that boat-yard. Marvin gets worried if I go too far away, but you can’t find treasure without a little searching.”
The wind shifted, pushing Morrison's dark scruff of hair back and Marlene's into her eyes. She struggled with it for a moment before emerging triumphant and wild to Morrison's quiet laughter.
"What are you laughing at?" she barked, indignant, "Don't make me get my Prod!"
"If you had one of them sticks, I'd drink a gallon of river water," Morrison said, smirking.
Marlene huffed, affronted, "'Course I do, I am a collector."
"Sure, kid," Morrison turned around and took a few steps forward, closing the gap between him and the line.
"It's true! I've got lots of treasures. There's a music box, some rare books, a fancy knife, and even a pair of stilts," she danced around, excited.
"Music box, huh? I'd love to see one of those," Morrison said, somewhat jokingly. His eyes took on a mischievous glint as he proposed a trade, "How 'bout I give you a quarter of my day's water ration for your music box, if you even got one." The ladies'll love it, he thought to himself.
“No way,” Marlene scoffed, “I could get at least a full day’s worth, easy.”
“Fine, full ration, I’m not hagglin’ with a little girl,” Morrison wiped the heavy beads of sweat off his forehead.
“Damn right,” she smiled, clearly proud of herself.
“We need to get the blasted rations first, though. This line’s killin’ me.” Morrison reached the propped-open door, the scent of old, tired oak radiating from the frame. He ran his fingers over the wood, his expression far away as he recalled the texture of his uncle’s gnarled, handcrafted cane. He broke away from it sharply, causing Marlene to jump.
“What’s eatin’ you?” she asked. He looked away, clearly distraught. “C’mon, you can tell me.”
Morrison grunted, back to his monosyllabic responses.
“I’ll take a half ration, if it helps,” Marlene offered, “Nobody wants to buy an old music box anyway.”
Morrison shrugged, his weary expression garnering her unlikely concern. Finally, the last person in front of them left, ration in hand. He already had the top off, taking large gulps of fresh, clean water. A volunteer neutrally presented them with small jugs and gestured at them to leave.
Just like that, Morrison thought to himself, How anti-climactic. Ah well, least I’ve got my water. He took a swig and started for the door.
“The music box doesn’t even work, you know,” Marlene told him with worry, “but…”
“Let’s go take a look at it,” he said, “they don’t call me ‘Odd Job’ for nothing.”