My cheeks flush. My heart hammers in my chest as she sits down on my lap. Every word that might come up to comment gets stuck in my dry throat. Her soft fingers dig into my sandy hair. She asks how I wash it that it smells so sweet and feels so soft. I stutter through telling her about the shampoo I make myself with citrus fruits. She smells of mint and honey from the tea cart.
Melanie is the goddess of my wildest dreams. How is this happening? Pink-brown lips curve in a teasing smile. She knows how uncomfortable I am. I can feel the heat of my face and see the red reflected in her brown eyes.
My hands are glued to my side. I want to have them all over her, but she hasn’t said she wants it. Excitement builds the way it does with any post-pubescent boy. I shift to try to hide it. I will myself to be calm. I see her canine teeth glint as the gives me a look of victory.
“Kiss me then,” she says. Her fingers are in my hair, her hand is gliding down my back.
Back to reality. Melanie has never looked at me. There are thirty people in our caravan and still she’s never spared me a glance. I’m eighteen, late to the hormone party. She’s had boys who would crush me with a hand behind their back.
I push my cart. It’s going to be a long day. Blisters on my fingers beg me for a rest. We’re too far out from the next settlement to stop. Butterflies mock my sweaty brow, cavorting over the flowers at the roadside.
Grass and wildflowers dance as far as the eye can see. A breeze lovingly cools my burning bones. In the haze of the far horizon to the west, I see the skeleton of an ancient tower. Relics of the old world scatter the land.
When there’s blood on the handle of the cart, I switch to pulling. Tying myself to the harness at the front, I walk on.
Turning a curve in the road ahead of me, I see Melanie. White flowers dangle from her curly hair. The tan coloured clothes we all wear look better on her than the rest of us. Her beloved horse, Samwise, pulls her cart. All of us have parted from our parents for this journey.
Birds that could sit in my closed hand twitter from my cart. A jolt as my wheels hit a rock sends them off. Fluttering over the caravan, they fly away.
I need new boots when we next find a cobbler. Rips in the weave are scratching my ankles. Those scratches will be blisters in an hour. I need distraction from discomfort.
My device beckons. I pull the cart to the side of the road and reach for the block of lacquered steel and glass. Wrapped in my softest rags, in a pouch I was given by my mother before she passed, it always fills me with wonder.
Technology drove the old world to collapse. Most people panicked. Useful people got to work saving the world. Natural order, long ignored, reasserted itself with deadly force.
There were nine billion people in the world at one point apparently. Most of them were starving. Deserts were eating up the land. Crops failed. Plagues spread like wildfire. Wildfire ate up the world with a vengeance. Best guesses say there are a quarter of a billion people now.
“I can’t get no, dun dun dun, satis-faction, dun dun dun.” The Rolling Stones always cheer me up. Some of their violent references make as much sense as the old world.
Bobbing my head to the music, I try to catch up with the other carts. Having my own horse would be wonderful. They poo a lot though.
I catch up beyond a small rise that can only aspire to be a hill. All the carts are parked in the road. My whole tribe is picking brambles. Fingers covered in red juice slip between the thorns of the raspberry bush. I can’t move the cart, so I shrug and join them.
Sharp intakes of breath signal every pricked finger. My cuts groan every time the sweet juice seep into them, but I suffer it all with a smile. We all have red grins after a while. Picking further into the spikey cornucopia, I see another of natures gifts. Wild strawberries are only the size of the end of my finger but they’re perfect.
Some of the carts start to move away while I gorge myself. I’ve eaten so much I’m close to feeling sick.
“What have you found?” Even with my back to her I know it’s Melanie and I’m dumbstruck.
“Wild strawberries.” I turn and look down as soon as my eyes catch the red stains down her face.
“Nice.” She holds her arms up to keep her cinnamon-coloured arms above the vicious thorns. “Any left?”
“Yeah.” Does she know my cheeks are on fire?
Melanie wraps some raspberry tendrils together to keep them out of the way and starts picking next to me. I can smell the scent of Samwise mixed with the wood of the hunting bows she sells.
“It’s nice to talk to you, Cairn.” Melanie knows my name? She smiles for a moment. It’s not how I imagined it. She didn’t linger so I could savour the sight. Not that I’ll forget it. “These are even better than brambles. Samwise will love some.”
Only our carts are left waiting for us. I walk by her side without talking. She feeds the horse the fruit. He snorts appreciatively. “We should get going,” she says. “We don’t want to be left behind.”
The sun sets behind wooden huts and a huge concrete holdover from the old world. We crowd around two fires, keeping close for warmth. We don’t burn more than we have to now.
I sell my wares the next day. Musk and perfumes. Simple shampoos, but those cost more.
“Do you think my husband will like this?” A local woman asks me.
“I’m sure he will,” I tell her. I give her a salesman’s smile. Her face sinks. I see worries shampoo won’t solve. “Are you alright?” She’s the age my mother would be. The sun has blessed her face with freckles and a tan. Her hands have burns from cooking.
“Things between me and my husband aren’t so well.” She avoids eye contact the way I was with Melanie. “We love each other, or we did, but things aren’t the same anymore.”
I get a lot of this, people coming to tell me their relationship woes. Melanie probably doesn’t get that selling bows and arrows.
“What’s changed?” I ask. I place a hand on her shoulder, hoping she wont mind.
“It’s been so many years. The fires of passion have burnt low. We started taking other lovers. At first it was secret. Now we both know but don’t talk about it. I’m worried that our marriage is over. I don’t want to leave him, but we haven’t-” She stopped abruptly and flushed worse than bramble stains. “We haven’t been together in the marriage bed in a long time. I don’t think either of us want to. I can’t imagine life without him. What should I do?” Sobbing bursts from her. She shakes and I have to hug her.
“You talk as if it’s over. It sounds as if your love has changed. Evolution is a necessary element of survival. If he wants to be with you as much as you clearly want to be with him, then I’m sure your marriage will survive. You probably need to talk about seeing other people though. If you’re both doing it, then I suppose there’s no blame between you. If you can accept what you have, perhaps the worry you carry now will be lifted from your shoulders.” As I hear myself talking it sounds like nonsense.
She nods. “That makes a lot of sense.” Dehydrated lips crack into a smile of relief. “My goodness you’re a wise young man. How much for the orange and lemon shampoo?”
“Two meals,” I say in the voice of a salesman ready to haggle.
“Make it three, if you’re staying that long. Come to my pot and I’ll fetch you some broth. My man’s the baker, he can give you some of our bread.” I follow her swaying hips to a fire with a cauldron bubbling over it. A long iron ladle fetches me a bowlful of sweet-smelling carrot and pheasant broth. Three cornered leak floats on the top.
“A roll for the young man,” says the wife in her brown dress.
“Aye,” says the husband. He’s the kind that would have played a hero in the old films I watch on my device. Broad jaw, big muscles, and warm blue eyes.
“We need to talk,” she says to him. She reaches out her burnt hand. He hesitates for a moment before they walk away from the fire.
“I heard you with her,” says the voice that stops my heart. “Wise indeed, Cairn.” Melanie rubs her hands and holds them out to the warmth of the orange flames. “What else do you know?” She gives me a sly grin.
“Not much,” I say. “I could tell she still loves him. It sounded as though he felt the same. Love is different for everyone. They both changed. Their idea of love didn’t keep up with it.”
“Wow.” She gave a lip curled expression of sarcasm. “You made excellent advice sound like a soup recipe.” She stretched. By the light of the fire, her black hair has twists of gold. “Beautiful moon tonight.”
“Should be full soon.” Stars glitter in the sky. Some are winking.
I feel a hand on mine.
“I want to go back and pick some more brambles. Do you want to come with me?”
“Yes.” There wasn’t a heartbeat between the last syllable of her question and my blurted answer. I flush and look at my wretched boots.
Her hand curls around mine. “Let’s go then.”
“I don’t like the fighting, but the scenery in Lord of the Rings was beautiful. The journey was the best bit of that movie.” She sighs, my hand trembling in hers. “Sam was always sweet with Frodo. Always looking after him. Samwise does the same for me. He carries my cart, and I can always talk to him.” I meet her gaze with worship in my eyes. “Boys don’t seem to like me talking.”
“I like Lord of the Rings,” I say. “I always like to watch the food the hobbits eat. The Shire looks wonderful.”
“Doesn’t it?” We stop dead in the road. Everything is blue or black beneath the moon. “Where were they?”
“A little further I think.” I feel the warmth of her hand contrast with the cold wind of the night. I wonder if I’m holding too tight or if I should hold tighter.
“Is that them?” She lets go of me and wades into the thicket. I hear her gasp at the sting of thorns.
“Is it?” I ask. I push aside the brambles to follow her.
“Wild strawberries,” she says. I hear the wet sounds of her masticating.
Her hand finds my shoulder and glides down my arm. A tiny berry presses into my palm. The sweet taste is gone too quickly. I realise she’s watching me. Her silhouette is still, the whites of her eyes are deep blue in the darkness.
“Are you ever going to kiss me, Cairn?”
“Eh,” I say, because I’m eloquent. “Um.” Charm has never known a practitioner like me.
Her hands are on my shoulders, moving up to my neck.
“If you want something done properly,” she says. I hear a sigh.
She pulls me close to her. I smell berries on her breath. Her lips press to mine. One hand holds my neck. The other slides down my back.
The moment stretches to infinity.
Is it good?
Is she enjoying it?
Am I doing this right?
How long have we been standing here?
She pulls away. “Are you alright? I was nervous.” I can hear timidity in her voice I’ve never heard before.
“It was great,” I blurt.
“Where does it rank among other kisses you’ve had?”
“Number one, since it’s the only kiss I’ve ever had.”
“That was my first kiss, Melanie.” Bless the night for hiding my blushing cheeks. Dear moon, don’t shed light on the tears gathering in my eyes.
“Then you need another to compare it to.” She kisses me again.
My whole body relaxes so quickly that we’re both lucky I don’t fall over. It can’t be that bad if she wanted another. Melanie takes my hand and places it on her hip. Scared I’ll offender her if I hold her body, I keep the palm stiff and straight. She presses the fingers to the curve of her hip and takes my other hand to her neck.
I try to hold her as she held me. Our lips press and release. I see moonlight on her teeth. She smiles then pulls me in again.
Lust takes hold of me as I embrace her. My hand slips past her back and pulls her tighter to me. I’ve heard happy wives make the moan she’s making when their husbands kiss them. I press my body to hers and stop thinking.
“Easy, Cairn. Not so fast. We’ve got all night.”
We kiss, hands flowing over each other.
We kiss until we’re shivering from the cold.
“Come on, we’d better head back to the fire.” Melanie takes my hand.
We walk, side by side. A hollow longing that has burdened me for years feels whole.
An orange beacon of warmth welcomes us back.
She sits by my side with her head on my shoulder.
I feel complete.