The Real Thing

Margo wasn’t surprised to see the visitor hunched on a stool at the card table, breathing deeply, his large hands curled around a chipped mug of coffee. She hadn’t asked his name, and he hadn’t asked hers. She wanted to think he had kind eyes, but actions, not eyes, were what counted these days. Besides, the vote had been taken: the visitor had to move on.

“This is great,” he said, raising his mug. “I haven’t had real coffee in ages.”

“It’s not real.” Margo realized she was scratching her head – she was embarrassed, and pleased. It felt good to have someone compliment something she’d made. They were all so used to flavorless rations that compliments were rendered artificial, so no one bothered to make them.

“It’s just the powdered substitute,” she explained. “They used to give it to the soldiers, to keep them awake longer.”

“Wouldn’t that cause psychosis?”

“Oh, it did. But I don’t drink that much.”

He chuckled and one corner of his mouth lifted. Margo tried to ignore the way her heart fluttered. Nice to know it was still possible, she decided, though it could have picked a better time.

“I drink it, too, when I can find it,” he said. “Guess it tastes better because I didn’t have to make it.”

“Like breakfast in bed.”

“Like breakfast.” He laughed, and Margo did, too, watching the way his smile cut like a sunbreak through his black beard, how his breath made the rising steam dance.

She poured her own mug and sat across from him. The rain had let up; aside from the acidic puddles and maybe a couple mudsnakes, he’d be safe to move on, wherever he was headed. She didn’t ask that, either.

She wished he could stay one more night, now that she was more certain of him. The hidden cameras could capture his smile, his expressions, his words, but not him, the way he radiated help and ease and comfort. If they had – if the others had seen what Margo saw – they’d never have voted him out.

For a moment, she entertained a vision of herself unlocking the door to the basement, throwing open the hatch, and having him meet everyone. They’d like him. It wouldn’t be like last time, when Elle thought that woman seemed sweet and matronly, and then she tried to steal their solar panels. She hadn’t gotten far.

“Well,” he said, and reality asserted itself. “Guess I should get out of your hair.”

“Yeah, I need to…” The usual excuses wouldn’t come to mind. She kept hoping Cooper or Elle would burst through the locked door, announcing he’d been cleared, that he’d been voted in after all. “I should check the roof for rain damage.”

“Need a hand?”

“No, I…I’ve got it. Thank you, though.”

He hesitated only slightly before smiling amenably. In the front hall narrowed by stacks of crates, he pulled on his patched jacket and shouldered his road-stained pack. A blue enamel mug hung from one of the straps. It gave Margo an idea.

She ran back to the kitchen and returned with a tiny tube – a film canister, an antique even before the bombs fell – and held it out to him.

“What’s this?”

“You’ll have to make it yourself next time.”

He popped the lid and breathed deeply. “Sure smells like the real thing.”

“I wish it was.”

“You’d still have given me some?”

“I would.”

He tucked the coffee into the breast pocket of his shirt. She watched his eyes: sea-green and surprising, the contrast even more breathtaking in shadow. He stretched out a hand to shake hers.

“Thanks,” he said, that smile peeking through.

She took his hand and pulled him into an embrace. The pack strap dug into her cheek, but she didn’t care: his back was warm under her hands, and she could feel his, broad and comforting, around her shoulders.

Margo pulled away and opened the door.

#

Cooper was waiting at the bottom of the ladder, shotgun over his shoulder.

“He’s gone?”

“Yep.”

“Never tried anything?”

“Nope. Just needed a dry place to sleep.”

“Wasn’t scoping the joint?”

“No, Cooper.”

“Just checking.” They went down the tunnel, Cooper’s flashlight beam leading the way. “Too bad. He seemed nice.”

“Yeah.” She pictured him down the road, alone, popping the lid off the canister to breathe in the smell and maybe think of her. “I think he was.”

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13 thoughts on “The Real Thing

  1. Ooooh what is going on? I sense something creepy happening behind the scenes here. Do I want to know more? Yes! Did it distract me from the story? Not really, but I still want to know! Ha.

    I loved your characters and setting in this piece – will you be developing it or is it standalone piece?

    Thanks for sharing.

    • It will probably be standalone – I keep thinking I’ll expand on these pieces, but I never get around to it, haha. I was envisioning a hidden post apocalyptic bunker with a very strict admittance system, and a house that served as the “audition” space, to borrow Melony’s reality tv comparison.

  2. As always, top-notch story-telling, Laura! You always are so great at world-building in so tight a space. I love the dystopian feel, the almost “reality tv” nature of being voted off, and the dialogue between the characters. I want more too!

  3. The storytelling was spare and clean. It paced very well. I don’t typically love dystopian stories, but this was different from what I expect when I read them. It didn’t feel dark or depressing, just mysterious. Who is this man? Where did he come from and where is he going? What on earth is happening here? It fired my imagination for sure.

  4. My favorite detail was his offering to help her even after he’d been voted out. Your story doesn’t fill in all the details, but I worried for his safety out on the road and I worried for the narrator’s as well.

    • When you read it, was your interpretation that he knew he was being voted on? Maybe I left out too much detail – as far as he knew, he’d just stopped at this house for the night. Margo acts as a sort of security guard/interviewer. I’ll have to read it with the perspective that he knew the full situation and see how it’s different.

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