Salt. Holy shit. For one chob, we’d got a small bag of salt that would last us weeks. One pinch was enough to season a plate of food. You can keep your crack cocaine and your black tar heroin. That night’s rabbit stew blew our minds.
After we ate it became clear the other groups had moved on. Levelled up. Cleared the final boss. Found a way to Stage 2. Who knows? They were gone and we were still here.
We threw some extra logs on the fire just for the hell of it and considered our next move.
“From tomorrow,” I said, “we’re really going to have to start grinding those rabbits.”
“Ugh!” said Flossie. “Why?”
“No,” I said. “What I means is, we have to kill a lot more and as quickly as possible. It’s going to be a grind, like how a boring job is a grind, but it’s the best way for us to make money without too many risks. Once we can afford better equipment, we can think about hunting more rewarding beasts.”
They all nodded knowingly. Two days in and they were all veterans. Sadly, rabbits were not going to prepare us for the things waiting out there. Apparently, that was my job.
“We’re definitely getting better, but we’re still too slow and too hesitant. We need to be merciless with those rabbits, and with anything else we might run into. So far we’ve been lucky. We haven’t encountered any monsters, but that can change any minute. We need to be prepared.”
Nods all round again. I guess it was better than them arguing with me about the rights of monsters to live a peaceful life, eating who they please.
“We’re still weak and our gear is… unreliable. Getting good with weapons doesn’t happen overnight. It takes months, years even. What we need is better teamwork. The way we got all those rabbits in the end wasn’t with our super ninja skills, it was teamwork, right?”
The nods were more enthusiastic. They were onboard with my message of mutual cooperation and positivity. You’re probably thinking, how wonderful. Finally they’re coming together and with the power of friendship these guys have a chance of making it. But then, sometimes what you think is happening, isn’t what’s actually happening.
“We have to trust each other. Rely on each other. We can’t get depressed and all self-doubty because we’re afraid others might not like us. There are no others here. It’s just us, and none of us is perfect. Far from it. Which is why I think we should all just admit our fears, our weaknesses. If everybody knows what you’re worried they might find out, what have you got to lose? Nothing, right?”
They looked less sure with their nods this time. Their heads bobbed ambiguously, like maybe they were agreeing, maybe they got caught by a breeze.
“I’ll start. I tend to push people away. You might have noticed. I like to reject them before they reject me, because that’s what usually happens, and it doesn’t feel good. So I do it first and I’m much happier that way. Or at least less unhappy. Of course, if someone really wants to be friends with me, they’ll resist when I push them away. No one ever has. So that’s me.”
I looked expectantly at them, letting my gaze pass from one to the next. Nothing. No one spoke or looked like they were going to. I kept going.
“Even you lot, I fully expect you to eventually to go off on your own once you feel a bit more confident. Which is fine, I’ll just go back to being on my own. I’m used to it.”
Still nothing. I wondered how far I’d have to go to get these guys to open up.
Then Claire said, “I have a boyfriend back home.” Everyone stared at her, but she was focused on the fire. “He’s not very nice to me. In fact, he’s a bastard. Tells me I’m ugly, that no one else would have me, makes fun of me in front of his friends.” Her voice started to break up a little. “Sometimes I get upset with him, scream at him, tell him to fuck off. But I always take him back.”
“Why?” I asked her.
She looked at me across the fire. “Because he’s right. And I’d rather be with someone than no one.”
Nobody said anything for a while.
I scratched my chin, the stubble reminding me I hadn’t shaved, or brushed my teeth, or combed my hair in an age. “Claire, I don’t know what will happen to us, but I think I can guarantee that none of us will abandon you because of the way you look.” There were murmurs of agreement from around the fire. “Your personality, maybe, but not your loo—”
I ducked as a stick came hurtling at me.
“Fuck you,” said Claire, but there was laughter in her voice.
“Oh, ah, erm,” began Flossie. “People think of me as happy because ahm always smiling and that. But the truth is people get me to do things for them, and never do anything for me in return.” She laughed. “It’s kind of depressing really. Even my own family. I guess I’m a bit of a doormat.” She laughed again. It was a hollow, joyless laugh. “The nicer I am, the more I do for them, the worse it gets.” She smiled a sad-eyed smile. “I don’t know what else I can do to make them like me.”
Claire put her arm around her and whispered something in Flossie’s ear which brought a slightly more genuine smile to her lips. I turned to Dudley. He immediately looked up at the sky. I was about to move on when he spoke.
“I’ve always been something of a disappointment to my parents. They sent me to the finest schools, bought me everything I could possibly want or need. And yet, I’ve never been able to live up to their expectations. I just don’t have it in me. I try, I really do, but my mind wanders, I lose track and before I know it, I’ve failed again. I hope I don’t let you down too.”
Word of encouragement flew around the fire.
“I’m black,” said Maurice. As revelations go, this one didn’t come as a big shocker. “But I don’t like hip-hop and I consider R&B music to be the work of paedophiles.”
Flossie raised her hand. Nobody had mentioned a Q and A segment, but Maurice gave her a nod.
“Ah like R. Kelly,” she said. “He’s good.”
“There’s no point,” said Maurice. “You’re too old for him.”
“What about the Remix of Ignition?” said Claire. “I like that tune.”
“Hot and fresh out the kitchen,” threw in Dudley in his incredibly plummy voice.
Maurice looked over at me, somewhat baffled. I shrugged.
“My point,” continued Maurice, “is that other black people have never accepted me. They think I’m trying to be something I’m not. Whereas actually they’re the ones trying to force me to pretend. And of course, white people aren’t keen to have someone on their turf either, so I’m something of an outsider. I mean my parents have tried to reach out to me, but they don’t know how to relate to me. Last Christmas my mother got me… “ He started to choke up. “She got me a Maroon 5 CD.” Pain flashed behind his eyes. “She meant well. She meant well.”
“What kind of music do you like?” I asked him, genuinely curious.
“Oh, Rage Against The Machine, Nine Inch Nails, any quality rock really.”
What the fuck?
“Maurice, before you got transported here, when you were back on Earth, what year was it?”
He pushed his glasses back up his face. “2016. Why?”
“Nothing. Just surprised you listen to those bands.”
“Timeless music is timeless,” he said.
Each to his own, I guess. In any case, I had a better idea of who I was dealing with now. Of course, what I said about myself was utter horseshit. I didn’t reject people because I thought they’d reject me. I could care less. Oh, you’re thinking, poor guy’s in denial. Can’t admit the truth. Maybe, but if I am in denial, then I have no idea if it is true (that’s why it’s called denial) so either way, it isn’t something I waste time getting worked up about. The only reason I’d said it was to get the ball rolling. Now I knew their insecurities and weaknesses, it would be much easier to manipulate and control them.
Not that I intended to use the knowledge in a malicious way, but if I didn’t get them into some kind of decent fighting force we’d all be dead by the weekend, assuming the concept of weekends existed here. And if it didn’t, I’m sure Maurice would attempt to invent it.